“The balance definitely comes from working organically. Even if it’s not something you can taste straightaway, it’s the balance in the primary materials – in the grapes – that we work towards."
When a bottle of Breton appears on the table in natural wine circles, everyone leans back and smiles; these are some of the most comforting and enjoyable wines out there. Their emblematic cuvée, La Dilettante, achieves many of the aspects we all dream about in a bottle of wine: namely drinkability (or scrap that, glugability) and fun.
The importance of fun in a bottle of wine cannot be underestimated: both the drinking of it, but also in the making of it. When we arrive at the Bretons’ cellar, it’s smiles all around. Likewise in the vineyard; picking might be quite a brutal task, but here it’s one that’s carried out with music blasting on the speakers and jokes being cracked. When we photograph Catherine and Pierre, Pierre grabs a bunch of grapes and stuffs them in Catherine’s face and they giggle, still youngsters in love.
Meet the Bretons
Catherine and Pierre had once crossed paths at a wine fair in the Loire, but it wasn’t until another occasion – when Catherine got lost and ended up in the wrong wine bar (hasn’t that happened to us all?) – that she would meet Pierre again. It was a fateful wrong turn that would not only be the start of a beautiful romance, but also the coming together of Bourgueil and Vouvray. These days, while they’re still in the vineyards and cellar every day, it’s become a family affair; they are joined by their son Paul, and their daughter France and her partner Baptiste.
During harvest, they also welcome wine students, sommeliers and wine lovers from far and wide with open arms. This is an open-door policy with a simple mission – spreading the love of biodynamic viticulture and natural winemaking in the Loire.
Like so many, when Pierre took over his grandparents’ vines, they had been conventionally farmed and the fruit had been sold to the coop. However, in 1985, through meeting other likeminded winemakers, Pierre and Catherine decided to switch to organics and left the coop. In 1989, they added six hectares of the Chinon appellation to their stable, and by 1990, they had switched all of their farming one step further; to biodynamics.
The 14 hectares of Breton vineyards are split between Bourgueil (from Pierre’s side) and Vouvray (from Catherine’s side). Vouvray is home to their Chenin Blancs, and Bourgueil is home to their Cabernet Francs, as well as a bit of the lesser-known but equally loveable Grolleau.
The soil types of Bourgueil are very varied; Baptiste explains,
“We have two types of terroir in Bourgueil. The part on the flat plains is sand and gravel, but as soon as you go up into the hillsides a bit you have more limestone, and sometimes some silex. They’re very different terroirs that produce very different wines. The vineyards on clay-limestone are always the last to be harvested; we look for maturity in those parcels as they’re wines that age for longer. There’s something about the tannins that come from limestone; they need more time and those wines merit ageing. There is a finer exchange that takes place between the structure of those wines and the large foudres they’re aged in.”
The Breton wines are known for their balance. This might be expected from their fine wines from single parcels, but the cuvées that come from the plains – in a sense their little wines -are undeniably reliable, year on year. They’re always fresh and have a fruit-acid balance that’s on point. We ask whether this is results from the fact the vineyards have been farmed organically – and biodynamically – for so long. Baptiste nods, saying,
“The balance definitely comes from working organically. Those who don’t work organically have less natural balance. Even if it’s not something you can taste straightaway, it’s the balance in the primary materials – in the grapes – that we work towards and look for.”
It also comes down to key harvesting date decisions. For several years now, they have had very hot summers resulting in drought, which means less water in the berries themselves (and smaller berries). This means lower yields, and it also brings about the risk of higher alcohol. As such, for those wines on the plains that typically suffer more from heat stress, harvest dates have become earlier and earlier.
“We are afraid of higher alcohol levels in the hotter years. Heat and then rain can result in unbalanced wine, but we have higher acid, so generally we’re okay. We’ve just become more and more sensitive to picking dates.”
Since the beginnings, the Bretons have always been open to different ways of doing things; respecting tradition, but not being afraid of stepping outside of the box. La red cuvée of La Dilettante, French for the Dabbler – alluding to their experimental nature, was spearheaded by Catherine in 2002.
They had been inspired by wines from other regions, namely Beaujolais, that were made according to the carbonic maceration technique; resulting in a lighter style of wine with silky tannins. Baptiste explains,
“The wines of Bourgueil had never been known for that style. People told Catherine, no, no – we can’t do that. The stems weren’t necessarily very ripe back then. But Catherine wanted to try, and it worked.”
So every year, they make their Dilettante cuvée with around one week to ten days’ maceration time in large oak foudres. Next year, they will begin to do some trials of 100% ‘true’ carbonic (whereby they will seal the tanks), but it’s all a matter of space in the cuverie (and time). They’ve also begun doing some small experiments of very short macerations (between two – four days) to see where they can find a balance in hot vintages to produce fresher wines. One of these examples, a two-day maceration of Grolleau, currently in a concrete egg, will become a pét-nat, bottled with the aim of keeping a touch of sugar to retain the freshness in the wine.
While La Dilettante and their Grolleau are whole bunch macerated (stems & all) to produce fruity, lighter styles, everything else is destemmed.
Their Avis de Vent Fort, meaning strong winds are forecasted), is a play on words. Pierre is a keen sailer, and once went to head out on a boat with friends. But, they drank too much before they ever set sail, so they just stayed in the boat with a bunch of bottles. It's supposed to suggest that if the weather is bad, just stay at the shore and drink wine! The wine itself also embodies this light hearted spirit; in a similar manner to how Catherine was inspired by Beaujolais wines, Pierre was inspired by friends of his making true ‘clairet’ in Bordeaux; a deep rosé or very light red wine, depending on which way you look at it. As a result, this wine came along; a four-day gentle maceration of Cabernet Franc, producing a super-light delicious juice bomb. Baptiste says,
“Again, it’s not at all a technique of the region. It’s something you just don’t see, but Pierre has friends in Bordeaux, chatted with people, and he thought why not! Now with global warming meaning we might have alcohol pushing 14% or even 15%, it’s good to try to make fresher wines that are more digestible. People are looking for those kinds of wines, and that’s the kind of wine we like to drink too, and we do drink a lot of it ourselves!”
Pierre began experimenting with no-sulphites-added in 1994 with the flagship cuvée Nuit d'Ivresse (which is still made every year, always without sulphites added), and since they have always kept to a minimum. No sulphites are added during the fermentations, and only a small amount at bottling (the reds contain less than 20mg/L and the whites less than 50mg/L).
Creating wine with little sulphites takes skill. Baptiste explains,
“Once the wine has finished fermenting, we quickly put it into barrel and make sure it doesn’t see any light. Then, it stays 18 months in barrels. When we bottle it, we ensure to give it oxygen beforehand to avoid too much reduction. Once in bottle, when you serve it, we always recommend opening the wines one hour before. All of our wines can do with being opened for a while; Cabernet Franc is a variety that’s naturally reductive so they benefit from some air!”
Although the wines from the gravel and sandy parcels tend to be ready to drink sooner, even these wines benefit from a year or so in bottle, to best portray their character.
Although in the 90s, most of the vineyards in the area were planted to clones, the Breton family has begun working with old vine selections in Perrières to produce their own massal selections, to represent older genetic material. They were also intrigued to see what would happen if they planted some vines on their own roots (20 years ago!) and they now have a cuvée produced from their 0.16-hectare plot.
It’s a family whose work ethic is built on hard work, but also fun and experimentation; and that’s what shines through in these wines so clearly. They’re wines that never fail to bring a smile, just like the smiles that are ever-present on their own faces.