“We had long hair, beards, we didn’t use sulphites, we worked the soils instead of using herbicides. We weren’t like the others. I guess we were considered hippies. And we weren’t the sons of winemakers.”
René-Jean Dard and François Ribo are the Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson of the wine world. Since the 80s, they’ve been fighting for a more sustainably farmed Northern Rhône, while also fighting off the villains trying to steal their vineyards (yes, really).
It’s been one very long uphill battle to get where they are today: selling all of their wine preallocated to some of the most renowned restaurants in the world. As we stand and chat with René-Jean, the phone rings twice from trade customers interested in buying their wines. He politely lets them down—there’s none for sale. This happens every day.
So how did these two quiet guys in overalls with ponytails become two of the most iconic natural winemakers in the world?
Visit 'Les Bâties' by drone
Meet René-Jean & François
We arrive in a haze of dust at the unassuming cellar of Dard & Ribo; the kind of dust that refuses to settle because the ground is so dry. It’s one of those heatwave August days where the radio has sounded like a broken record all morning with its “attention, c’est la canicule” announcements. Our dashboard is flashing well above 40°C.
We wave at a man we recognise from photos: René-Jean. He beckons to us to step inside the cellar where immediately we both reach for our T-shirts to wipe our sweaty brows.
“I’m glad you emailed to remind me you were coming, else I’d have completely forgotten. It’s been a really hard week,” he says gruffly.
It’s hard to know how to describe René-Jean. He’s not shy, far from it—but perhaps a little suspicious, a little unforthcoming. He tells us that they’ve accepted close to zero journalists here in the past 20 years.
“Journalists often think that it’s down to them that we sell our wines. But it’s not. We do the work. We’re the ones that are here and in the vineyards every day.”
We nod in agreement, and explain that we don’t agree with scoring, but rather putting the winemaker in the forefront. It’s about them, not us. He smiles at us and his demeanour does a 180, and we begin our casual interview.
René-Jean and François met in the late 70s; René-Jean used to go kayaking with François’ brother. René-Jean had already made a bit of wine growing up with his father, who had one hectare of vines, and François had an interest in winemaking, so the two bonded over some good bottles and discussions in the cellar. René-Jean remembers,
“Straight away we got on well. We’d drink together and discuss our thoughts. We had the same ideas. Bit by bit, we then began working together. Our first vintage together was in 1983, but we began properly in 1984.”
They soon realised they wanted to work in a different way to all the other growers in the region. At the time, the fashion was big, structured, oaky wines, and chemical agriculture was booming.
“We had long hair, beards, we didn’t use sulphites, we worked the soils instead of using herbicides. We weren’t like the others. I guess we were considered hippies. What’s more—we weren’t the sons of winemakers. And that was complicated for the others.”
Having realised they didn’t want to work with herbicides, they decided they’d like to work their soils by plough instead. They met an elderly farmer from whom they rented a horse, and they became close friends with him. He helped them to find more plots of land, and bit by bit they began renting vineyards from other land owners. Sounds idyllic, right? Well… not exactly. As it turned out, other winemakers of the region were hostile, to say the least. René-Jean says,
“That farmer always defended us and our way of working. Many other winemakers would gossip behind our backs; they’d be nasty to us. But he’d always say, it’s not true, these are young men who work hard. He’s one of the people that helped us the most. then, we’ve also just been lucky,” he smiles. “We found a Hermitage parcel at 1am at a party in Ardèche.”
They’ve had to constantly watch their back.
“We had many people try to pinch our vineyards. Other winemakers would visit the owners of the vineyards and say we were bad farmers, to try to persuade them to lease the plots to them instead. Fortunately, the owners were on our side, and they’d call us to say, ‘guess who came to see us today?’—So, we knew who to look out for.”
In the Northern Rhône, it’s Syrah territory of course, but the duo have also become famous for their white wines from the arguably under-appreciated Roussanne and Marsanne. They have many plots of the three varieties, some planted to both, such as Les Bâties. Their oldest vines are found on one of their Hermitage plots; some of which are 120-130 years old. The others vary from baby vines to 80-year-old vines, and they replace any dying vines with their own massal selection. For a while, they did their own top grafting in the vineyards, but René-Jean explains that it is too much work to do now. He is, after all, just completing his 46th vintage, so they work with a nursery who propagates their own material.
We spy a sample of white grape juice on the table. It’s only mid-August, so the fact that juice sampling is well underway is a tell-tale sign that harvest is a’knockin.’ We ask.
“Yes. This year was turning out to be perfect, everything was going so well, but then this heatwave began a week ago, so we’ll likely start picking next week. We’re looking at high alcohols again. It’s just not normal, this weather.”
The winemakers of France have been suffering from terrible drought for the past few years, and this year is no exception. He explains that in the space of just 20 years, harvest dates have been bumped forward by more than a month.
Although this brings many complications (sunburnt grapes becoming a real problem), there is hope to be found via organic farming. He explains,
“The climate really began to change in 2000. In the first heatwave year - 2003 - the vines and clusters were really burnt. We only made 40% of our usual amount. But, when you don’t work with herbicides, then the vine will search the water deep down. We had more heatwaves in 05, 06, and 07, but the vines were less stressed; they adapt. It gives us some hope, but when we see a year with weather like this , well, I really don’t know what to think anymore… we’re now maybe starting to harvest at the end of August. When I was a kid, we harvested at the start of October. One month is enormous, and it changes everything. The nights are hotter, the grapes become hot during harvest very quickly, and we can only harvest until midday. It’s awful, really. It’s not good for the wine, it’s not good for us.”
Since the mid-80s, they’ve been working without herbicides.
“It’s not the notion of having an organic certification or a logo for the label that interests us, but rather the notion of working cleanly. That’s why we’ve never certified. If we did, I’m sure we’d be certified tomorrow.”
It’s not an easy region for organics; the steep slopes make mechanisation impossible for some vineyards. René-Jean says,
“It took us a while to find solutions. The horse was the first part of that. Now, that’s fashionable—many people are starting to work with horses again, but back then we were the only ones.” He chuckles. “At least, definitely the only young ones!”
Every vineyard is different, and over the years they have begun working the soils less and less, to retain more water, to the extent where some parcels are now never worked; the grass is simply cut down, working towards no-till. As we’re discussing the practicalities, François pops his head in to say hello. Generally speaking, he is more in charge of the work in the vineyards, whereas René-Jean does more of the winemaking. We ask him about their treatments in the vineyard:
“The goal is to diminish the doses of copper and sulphur as much as possible via introducing plant-based preparations. We use stinging nettle in our compost, then we also use some burdock, comfrey and horsetail.”
While they're constantly looking for ways to make their domaine as sustainable as possible, and believe in the power of plant-based treatments, they haven’t explored biodynamics. René-Jean is sceptical, saying,
“I think you need to really believe in biodynamics, or it won’t work. A good friend of mine, Michèle of Gramenon, says it works. But she really believes in it. I find it a bit difficult. When it comes to 20g of something for a whole hectare, you must really believe in it, right? But it works for her, so why not?”
Depending on the vintage, there are between seven and 16 cuvées of Dard & Ribo produced; from the blends to the single vineyards, some of which (like the iconic Opateyres) come from such small parcels that only one barrel on average is made. Each year, they do a mass blind tasting to decide which wines should be bottled as single vineyard, and which should go into a blend.
The wines have been labelled with their now-iconic black labels and silver/gold marker-pen single vineyard differentiators. René-Jean half laughs, half sighs when we ask about it.
“We’ve always done it like that, it’s a pain in the backside really, it takes ages. Now, I get the pens from Japan. Back in the day you could get good marker pens here in France, but these days you just can’t anymore. Japanese stationery is a much higher quality.”
360: The Cellar
360: The Bottle Room
The wines are all made in the same way: a 10-15 day maceration period for the red wines, with whole bunches (unless there’s been sunburn, in which case they use a destemmer to sort the bunches that have been affected). The fermentation takes place in large wood casks—they avoid using stainless steel unless they’ve had a bumper vintage and need more space: “wood gives calmer fermentations; the temperature is more regular. Stainless steel on the other hand sees big temperature fluctuation—one minute the ferment is hot, then it’s cold. We don’t like that so much.” Instead, the steel is used for blending and racking prior to bottling.
The maceration process here is very gentle; just once a day they break the cap and homogenise the juice.
“We’re not looking to make very muscular or tannic wines. We want to make Syrah that you can drink, and Syrah that expresses its terroir. We won’t tell you all these silly things like ‘you have to wait ten years to drink it.’”
After the fermentation has finished, the reds go into 500L barrels known as demi-muids. Meanwhile, the whites are whole bunch pressed and ferment in demi-muids or 228L barrels.
“Since the start, we’ve asked ourselves so many questions. Back at the beginning, those questions were more about what happened in the cellar than in the vineyards, I guess because I had been making wines without sulphites with my father.”
Having grown up learning how to make wines without sulphites, it was a strange notion to suddenly start adding loads. But having learnt the modern way at school, René-Jean gave it a go in the late 70s. However, he quickly realised that the resulting wine was not what he was looking for. At the same time, he is not dogmatic:
“We don’t like to speak about our wines being “without sulphites,” etc. Our goal isn’t to make wine without sulphites, it’s to make good wine. If the wine is going a bit wild, we don’t stop ourselves from adding some sulphites in order to make the best wine possible. Sulphites can be a tool, but you need to know how to use them. These days, I taste a lot of wines made without sulphites that aren’t good. I feel like you should learn how to make wine with sulphites, and then you can try without.”
He explains that it’s become more difficult:
“With the hot weather we’re having, it’s complicated. Before, red wine basically made itself, it was so easy. But these days, you need to watch the wines closely. The nights are warm, the alcohol levels are high, you have sunburnt grapes, there’s no nitrogen left, the juice is unbalanced. The whites can be a catastrophe; in 2018 we had so many wines that stopped fermenting.”
The Dard & Ribo wines have always been heralded for their freshness and fruit vibrancy—even in hot vintages. In recent years, others have followed suit to pursue more of a fresh style, and it’s now more common than it once was to find a St-Joseph or a Crozes-Hermitage in the same vein. However, when it comes to Hermitage, it’s a different ball game.
“Hermitage is tricky for us… So many other winemakers make super-structured, dense expressions of Hermitage, with all the fluff. On the other hand , we end up with something more drinkable. People don’t always understand that… Some say, ‘it’s too light, Hermitage shouldn’t be made like that, you shouldn’t be able to drink it for five years.’ It can be tiring to debate… and let’s just say, it’s been a while since I’ve spoken with other winemakers.”
Ultimately, it’s the simplicity they are striving for; the drinkability must be found in each and every cuvée, and by making the wines in the same manner, they can ensure that it’s the vineyard that does the talking, not them:
“We’re very attentive to our terroirs. It’s the terroir that shows its personality in the wine. Of course, the vintage will have a say too, but you find the same characteristics from the vineyard every year.”
He brings us sample after sample of the many mystical cuvées. They all have that Dard & Ribo hallmark of saltiness and mouth-watering minerality, but there is so much nuance to be found in each glass. They are wines of subtlety and exploration. Crucially, even in baking hot weather, they’re always reliably easy-to-drink. We comment on this. René-Jean nods, saying,
“Our wines were often criticised back in the beginning, at dinners and so on. But we’d notice that our bottles were always the first to be empty. At the end of the day, wine is a kind of food; it’s something simple to be enjoyed. If you can’t drink more than one glass, then what’s the point?”
We discuss how as human beings, we have a tendency to complicate things for ourselves. He emphasises the importance of simplicity once more:
“For me, wine isn’t art; it’s an oeuvre of Nature. We’re artisans and we do the best we can, but it’s nature that gives us the quality you find in the wine. A painting is a creation—it relies more on the individual—whereas we rely more on Nature. Perhaps chefs are more artistic than us, as they have more to work with. We just have grapes. Sure, you can introduce other things to your wine, but then you'd no longer be respecting the terroir.”
That’s the magic of Dad & Ribo. These are beautifully simple wines. Too often, winemakers focus on “making” the wine, when really, the best wines are those that don’t show the making. This is why René-Jean still finds the fame of their wines a strange notion to come to grips with. He says,
“I say to my wife, it’s very weird. We started from nothing, we were just two young kids. And now, people come and take photos of us and write about us in books. It still feels very weird, I must admit. I find it difficult to understand.”
When he’s not making wine, he’s travelling (his favourite destination being Japan, followed closely by Scotland for drinking whisky) or learning about beer (Cantillon is his other passion; he makes a collaboration Cantillon which ferments with the Dard & Ribo must). He muses,
“It’s funny for me to speak so much about wine. I talk a lot, don’t get me wrong, but rarely about wine. I speak about wine very little.”
Finally, we touch on the wine world’s biggest problem: its carbon footprint. For Dard & Ribo, it’s a case of doing their best when it comes to farming, but they’re not about to stop exporting their wines (we’re relieved). It comes down to the notion of sharing beauty: