Zélige-Caravent is the brainchild of Luc and Marie Michel. For years, Luc dreamed of quitting his regional government job to reclaim his grandfather's 3 hectares of vines, but his lack of experience made it seem like little more than fantasy. And then, one fateful day in 1999, Luc decided it was time to stop making excuses and make his dream come true.
Upon his return to Corconne (his grandparents' village), Luc was quickly joined by his wife Marie. With next to no experience, the two followed viticultural formations and began tending the family vineyard. From the beginning, they started working the land organically, with a later shift to biodynamics. But with no cellar or winemaking knowledge, their only option was to sell the grapes to the cave cooperative. After five years of this, Luc and Marie felt confident enough in their work to start bottling independently, and Zélige-Caravent was born.
The estate has grown considerably in that short period of time, with the Michels now owning and renting approximately 12 hectares of vines spread amongst 23 parcels. For reds: Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and the indigenous Alicante Bouschet (which has been banned from AOC use, forcing any bottling with this grape to be labelled Vin de France) are grown, as well as an indigenous white grape, Chasan. The soils are locally known as gravette, and consist of deep, layered rock and red sand.
Grapes are either destemmed or whole-cluster, depending on each varietal, each vintage. All fermentations are with native yeasts, and the only addition is a bit of sulfur (always under 30mg) at bottling. No wood is ever used for aging, only concrete. The blends of each cuvée change every vintage, as do the labels (all of which are painted by Marie). In 2011:
Jardin des Simples is all Cinsault.
Ellipse is 40% Cinsault, 40% Carignan, 20% Grenache.
Manouches is 80% Alicante Bouschet, 20% Cinsault. This is the only sans soufre cuvée in 2011.
Velvet is 95% Syrah, 5% Cinsault.
Fleuve d'Amour is 40% Mourvèdre, 40% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 2% Petit Verdot.
This interview with Luc and Marie Michel took place in their backyard in July, 2012.
Tell us how Zélige-Caravent came to be.
Luc: We decided to become vignerons as a way to change careers. 3 of my grandfather's hectares were still in the family, and I was convinced we could start an estate with them. I instinctively felt there was real potential here, a real terroir to express, so I moved back to Corconne in 1999.
In the first phase of this transition, I spent 5 years selling my grapes to the cave cooperative while teaching myself how to work the land: I had never worked in agriculture, let alone in viticulture or oenology. So it was out of the question for us to try making wine from the get-go. I should also point out that we had absolutely no equipment or cellar at the time. Nothing. So this first phase was really one of discovery.
I was alone at that point, and from the very beginning I started converting the vines to organic and later biodynamic viticulture. Even though the grapes were going to the cave and being used indiscriminately, the idea was that one day I'd be making my own wines with them. In 2005, I couldn't stand letting my grapes go anymore, so I made my first vintage. I wasn't getting the satisfaction I needed!
Marie: I arrived a bit later, looking to find a way out of a system that wasn't working for me anymore. My job as an event planner made me unhappy, and working in the vines had a medicinal effect on me. By returning to something closer to the earth, something simpler, I was able to find a less artificial and much more rewarding path.
How much has the estate grown over the years?
L: We're never really sure. Every time we're asked the question, we realize we have no idea! But I'd guess we're between 13 and 14 hectares. We own more than half of this land (including the original 3 hectares I started with) and the vines we currently rent will most probably end up being ours in the future. All in all, there are 23 little parcels in 10 different areas (some are right next to each other).
What grapes do you work with?
L: All the grapes of the Languedoc: Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache (only 1 hectare), Syrah, Mourvèdre and Alicante Bouschet for red, Chasan and Roussanne for white.
Did you study viticulture/oenology at any point, or learn everything hands on?
L: I spent a year following an agricultural formation. It was a very generalized program that examined everything from accounting to viticulture. The most interesting thing I got out of it was meeting the other people in my class: we were 10 to 15, and each of us were pursuing individual goals. It was fun sharing this experience with them. Still, you learn more in 1 month working the vines than in an entire year at school.
M: Though a bit later, I also followed the same program so I could fully integrate myself in the day to day work.
What made you want to become vignerons?
L: For many years, working the vines was a dream of mine. I'd contemplate it often, but never believed it could actually happen; I was coming up with all the best excuses NOT to do it! Or maybe I'd go to the village over the weekend, and forget all about it at work on Monday. So the desire to do this was bubbling unconsciously for quite some time. And just like Marie, I needed to bring some sense back to my life. My career working for the department of L'Hérault wasn't providing it for me anymore: it was a very social job that permitted me to meet a lot of great people, but in the end I felt like I'd gone as far as I could with it.
How did you discover organic and biodynamic agriculture?
M: Neither of us come from backgrounds that emphasized the importance of organic agriculture. Being from an urban environment, we were never really conscious of what we were or weren't eating and drinking.
L: When I first arrived to the village, I asked my neighbors for advice on how to work the land. The first thing they did was give me bags of chemicals, and this immediately rubbed me the wrong way. I'd obviously heard about organics, but was more drawn to this type of agriculture because it permitted me to work like my ancestors. It pleases me to think I work the same way as my grandfather. And with biodynamics, it came mostly from a lot of reading, conferences, etc... I was intrigued by the idea behind it, so I pursued it further.
What about the winemaking?
L: We both took a two week course that was ok, but we didn't learn much.
M: From what we were already interested in, we weren't getting any answers. When I spoke of biodynamics, it was almost taboo.
L: We had met and spoken to some vignerons about it, but we really launched ourselves head first into the winemaking without really knowing what we were doing.
Big question here. What does Zélige-Caravent mean?
M: We didn't want to use parcel or region specific names for the estate, so Luc came up with it.
L: Since we started from nothing, we didn't want to have a regional name like Domaine de la Vieille Mule (Domaine of the Old Mule), Les Trois Tours (the Three Towers), etc... Zélige-Caravent is an association of two ideas: a zéllige is a Mediterranean mosaic made from little, polished bits of clay. They are sculpted to take on shapes or geometric patterns, and this reminded us of the gravette soils we work with (which consist of clay and rock). We took out one of the l's in zéllige to differentiate ourselves a bit.
As far as "Caravent": before the Romans and Phoenicians brought them closer to the water, vines were originally of Persian origin. They came from far, so I thought of the silk roads or spice roads... It gave the name a little oriental flavor.
M: That's a really over-intellectualized explanation! He came up with it in 10 minutes!
L: It's true. Marie gave me an ultimatum and told me that I needed to make up my mind and stick with one name for the estate. She said: "Come up with it by tomorrow!"
M: We are very different in the way we function. I need to plan ahead, and Luc is very last minute type of guy.
L: For a while, it was looking like we were going to call it Domaine du Désert. But that day Marie gave me the ultimatum, so I came up with Zélige-Caravent and she liked it.
The labels are always changing, and most of them are painted by Marie. Can you tell us about these?
M: The original idea was to have very simple and elegant labels. But over the years, we've let ourselves have more fun with it. We've always been interested in small details: the bottle, the cardboard it comes in, the labels, the color of the foil... Everything is a choice, unless it was done by accident!
L: There are no boundaries between our work with wine and our other interests. Marie has always been a painter, and continues to paint. It's more of an overlap -an extension of her work in the vines- than a premeditated plan. Having an opportunity to bring her art to the bottle...
Is the art influenced by each year's cuvées?
M: Absolutely. We make the wine, then find the name that corresponds to the idea of what we've produced. After that, we find an image that corresponds to it. Even the color of the cardboard changes every year. It drives the printers crazy, because we are very demanding in what we want and they don't understand why we are so meticulous about everything. But it matters to us: it's not the be-all-end-all, but it's integral to the final result.
In an earlier conversation, you mentioned issues with your AOC. Can you elaborate on that?
L: Like a ton of vignerons in other regions of France, we find ourselves limited by the AOC system. I don't doubt the original intent of the AOC was to highlight and reward quality, but the typicity of a wine is not measured by an exact percentage of this or that grape. You measure it by the soil, the climate and the grapes, and in my opinion you should be allowed to present the wine you want to make to the public. If the work is serious and well executed, then it should be accorded the AOC. But everything has already been said about wines getting denied the AOC. It's always when someone tries something a little different that it gets shut down.
M: I think that from the moment your are honest in your agricultural practices and vinfying local grapes, that should suffice. Personally, I am not engaged in any type of fight to change the AOC's ways. I'm interested in creating wine.
L: As far as my opinion of Pic St. Loup, the massive and systematic use of Syrah is absolute nonsense. Everyone has engaged themselves in planting as much Syrah as possible, and of course ripping all the local grapes out to do so. To us this is an huge error that people will seriously regret in the future. The same goes for the abandonment of gobelet training in order to replant rows of vines that can be worked mechanically.
M: It's obvious that doing everything by hand makes our cost of production much higher. But it also makes the whole process more human. The people that come back every year have become good friends.
L: The real worry isn't our estate. The worry is that we are being included amongst other vignerons whose priorities are the opposite of ours. With the gobelets gone, our viticultural heritage is disappearing. And there are some days when I'm in the vines looking around, and think to myself "We really are the only people out here." You don't see any bodies: it's all machines. That's what scares me.
How do you feel about the term "natural wine"?
L: I think that in July 2012, this is the most indicative term we have collectively been able to come up with. For many this term is a sham, because like cheese, wine elaborates itself "naturally".
M: But most people think that all wine is made naturally, and this simply isn't the case.
L: That's why it's important to point out that these wines are made differently. Even a small estate can make industrial wine. The problem is that things still aren't clear, and everyone is confusing everything. Just the other day some guy told me that organic wine is wine without sulfites. Everyone who's into this type of wine knows of organic wines that have A LOT of sulfites added to them. In the AVN (Association des Vins Naturels), some participants actively claim that only a sulfur free wine is a natural one.
In the end, the AVN agreed that the wine should have less than 30mg of added sulfites, and we fall into that category. What really matters is pushing things forward and working well. If everyone keeps fighting and disagreeing with each other, we create minorities within a minority. The work of a vigneron is so hard that people need to do what they can with what they have; I won't hold anyone accountable for that.
What do you like to drink?
M: Loris' Prosecco!!!
L: I like wines that are eclectic. The only thing I expect of a wine is that I can feel its energy. You should be getting waves of energy from each sip. You need to feel something! Often I'll taste a wine that is technically flawless, but I feel nothing. It doesn't transmit anything: no emotion, nothing at all. One time, I held this bowl from Bhutan. You would hit it and hear this vibrating BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING sound. It feels like it never stopped: this is what I want from a wine.
M: And Loris' Prosecco!
This visit to Zélige-Caravent took place in July, 2012.
Words and photos by Jules Dressner.
It's always great when you spend time with someone you barely know and end up getting along like old acquaintances. This was certainly the case during our two day visit with Luc and Marie Michel in Corconne. In the last year and half, we've crossed paths several times at Renaissance des Appellations and Vini di Vignaoli, and obviously spent enough time with them to work out bringing the wines to the United States, but this was our first time visiting the estate and I'm happy to say it was a great visit.
We arrived just around lunch time, and kicked things off by eating at this great, hidden gem of a restaurant called Sous le Chêne. After following an unassuming, unmarked path on the side of the road, you end up in an outdoor space with just a few tables, a makeshift kitchen and swimming pool. Everything is sourced locally/organically and they have good wines, but the most interesting thing about this place is their use of wild, seasonal plants and flowers in most of their dishes. Check out this link to see the summer offerings. Flowers taste good!
After lunch, it was time to check out what Luc has dubbed "the world's tiniest cellar". Before stepping in, I spotted an imminent shipment for PDX wine out in Portland!
The cellar is indeed tiny and in the middle of the village. Out front, there's a blue tree.
Inside, most of the concrete tanks were adorned with Marie's chalk art.
She explained that drawing on the tanks keeps her busy since: "doing a soutirage is long and boring". Before reaching said tanks, some of the grapes are put in this large container to macerate.
As you can see from this picture (that I didn't take), each bucket needs to be manually loaded up there (via ladder). The grapes are either whole cluster or not, and this depends on the state of each varietal, each vintage. Macerations typically last 4 weeks, and only light remontages are performed during this period. A wooden press is then used.
All in all, the Michel's work 12 hectares spread over 24 parcels. The biggest is only 1 hectare! Interestingly, the reason vines are so widely planted here is a bit of an accident. Up until the 50's, all vines were planted on extremely fertile ground, because the poor soils were reserved for olive trees. Then there was the great frost of 1956, which killed ALL the trees. This came as a huge surprise to the locals, since olive trees are notoriously resistant and live a very long time. And because replanting olives exclusively was too much of a long term plan, vines were replanted in the poor soils instead. And lo and behold, people started realizing these were good terroirs for wine!
Speaking of terroir, the soils here are locally called Gravette, which consist of deeply layered rocks in red sand.
Walking over to the vines, Luc pointed out a plot that he'd originally wanted to buy. Instead, the owner decided to rip them out and replant.
"I can't believe they ripped it out before harvesting."
It definitely seemed like a waste; Luc is guessing that Syrah will be replanted in rows here, an unfortunate trend he talks about in detail in his interview. A big reason Luc feels that goblets need to stay is that "Each goblet creates its own microclimate by covering and protecting the grapes".
Because there are so many parcels, I forgot which is which, but here are some pretty pictures.
They don't really do rognage, except for some very light touch ups on some goblets where you couldn't walk through otherwise. Vines tend to go quite high in their land.
Walking through La Sene, a parcel of Carignan and Cinsault, Luc mentioned the changes he'd noticed here over the years:
"This site proves that converted vineyards can benefit from biodynamics. Carignan is really sensitive to odium. When I bought them, the vines were sick: grapes were just falling to the ground. I have three separate Carignan parcels, purchased from 3 separate owners who were all having illness problems with them. Now, all 3 are in great shape."
The next day, we continued our tour of the vines.
On the way there, this guy gave me the stink-eye.
Later on, I found this rock with a leaf that had fossilized in it.
That night, we had a picnic dinner facing a parcel Luc and Marie relunctantly had to rip out.
Here, you can spot the old school method of local planting: one row of olive trees, 3 rows of vines.
"I think the olives trees contribute to the vines and vice versa. They weren't producing anything, and for years we kept saying we needed to rip them out. But when we did, it broke our hearts. We'll definitely be replanting in the future."
We ate simply but well, drank some good stuff and got devoured by mosquitoes. It was a fun night.