"The wine should make you want to drink another glass. It's a simple thing to say, but important."
Is it just us, or does the name De Moor evoke some kind of romantic mythical Wuthering Heights vibe? And we know it’s not about the labels, but the labels of these bottles - drawn by Olivier himself - with their trees, stars and moons, further heighten this mythical realm.
When you meet Alice & Olivier, no - they are not woodland pixies, and there's no Heathcliff in sight. They are down-to-earth, grounded people who live from their land. In today’s wine world, they have been elevated to cult status, but this all began from a simple desire to work somewhat differently to their neighbours; ie. without chemicals. Slowly but surely, wine drinkers and fellow winemakers came to realise that their wines evoked something different to the straightjacket, tightrope wines that Chablis had become famous for. Instead, these were wines with a little more wiggle, a little more emotion. There was something else to be found in those bottles, and without knowing it themselves, they kickstarted what would become a Burgundian low intervention revolution.
Meet Alice & Olivier
It’s the day after the last day of harvest, and Alice and Olivier still welcome us through the door. That’s the equivalent of agreeing to see someone you’ve never met the day after you’ve handed your coursework in, but you still have to study for your exams. That’s the kind of people they are: even though they’re knee-deep in debourbage (the process of moving wine from one tank to another to settle out some of the heavy remaining grape particles known as the gross lees - (due to their size, not that they’re actually gross)), they still guide us from tank to tank, generously pouring us a taste of every single cuvée of their 2019 wines.
They’ve become so well-known that all their wines sell out on release and are highly allocated across dozens of countries. But it wasn’t always this way, and things most definitely weren’t always easy for them. We get the feeling that this is why they are such generous people: they're all about sharing information and supporting others.
Alice touches on this when she refers to a friend she met in wine school, Jean-Yves Bizot. He has since gone on to become one of the most reputed growers in Burgundy's heralded Vosne-Romanée, but once upon a time he was somewhat ridiculed for his more natural methods. It was the same for Alice and Olivier.
“Olivier had grown up seeing wine made by some of the elderly winemakers in Chablis. They didn’t add anything to their wine, and the wines were good. And with Jean-Yves Bizot, well I guess you could say we advanced in parallel. We exchanged a lot of ideas and practices, and we helped each other a lot. We kept each other going and stopped one another from allowing our neighbours to influence us. When we felt the morale was getting low, we’d call one another, or would go to visit to become re-energised. And we did - we’d go back home with newfound energy.”
Alice, initially from the Jura, met Olivier after both had finished their studies - at the same school, but in different years. They may have just missed one another then, but as fate would have it they met again, while working at the same domaine in the early 90s as winemakers. Olivier, a couple of years older, grew up in Chablis, but didn’t have any family vines to inherit. However, when his uncle passed away, there was some unplanted land in the family. Back then, Alice explains that it was easy to gain the right to plant vines. So, Olivier planted three hectares in the Chablis appellation at just 23 years old.
In their early twenties and newly in love, Alice and Olivier decided after a few years of working for somebody else that they should have a crack at it themselves. After all, they had their three hectares of young vines in Chablis which were now producing fruit. In addition, they managed to find some vineyards to rent—old vine Aligoté and Sauvignon Blanc in Saint-Bris, and they also rented some vineyards and began planting Chardonnay and Aligoté in Chitry. The first vintage was born in 1995.
Although particularly famed for their expressive naturally-made Chablis cuvées, Alice and Olivier have also been champions for the lesser-sung neighbouring appellations and varieties such as their Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris in Saint-Bris, and their Aligoté (one vineyard of which was planted in 1902!) They’ve become known as one of the heroes of the latter, which historically has often been neglected and left in the shadow of Chardonnay. At De Moor, however, they’ve never seen any variety as superior to the other. Alice says,
“We’ve always treated Aligoté in the same way that we treat our Chardonnay. We weren’t purposefully trying to highlight Aligoté, but rather it simply made sense for us to treat all of our vineyards in the same way, and to approach the wines with the same thinking.”
Over the years, they came to the realisation that organic farming was the only way forward for them. As such, they converted all of their vineyards, and as they have picked up more plots along the way (for example the premiers crus Mont de Milieu and Veu de Vey), they have converted those too. It is as much the farming as it is the famed limestone of the region that gives the magic touch to their wines.
It wasn’t an overnight decision to go organic, and they were very much alone in doing so. Today, only 5% of winemakers are certified organic in the region, and it was far less back then. Alice and Olivier had experienced continual anxiety regarding the chemicals they were using, and what their effects would be on both the vines and themselves. When reading various reports that were published about the dangers of chemicals in agriculture, their fears were cemented and they decided to make the change bit by bit. They stopped herbicides in 1999, and had decided to certify by 2005. Alice says,
“It was a personal journey above all else. When you work with herbicides, it really feels and looks like a desert. You can sense there’s no life there. When we stopped using them and saw plants start to reappear amongst the vines, we already felt much better. We felt the life again. Copper and sulphur aren’t neutral of course, but you feel a lot more safe using them, that’s for sure.”
As a whole, the region is slow to change. Alice explains that there was a bit of a pause in organic trials by other growers in 2016, due to the immense frost and subsequent harvest loss. This made others a lot more risk averse. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel:
“I think it’s changing again. People are making an effort, young people are coming into the picture and asking questions, even if it’s just to stop herbicides, which is already a big step. But there are still many people using a lot of chemicals and not paying attention, doing things like spraying insecticides when it’s not necessary. It can be pretty brutal. Some of our neighbours understand, but with others it can be tough. We’ve had to show our teeth a bit in the past to get them to stop spraying right by our vines.”
Organics is the baseline here, but they go above and beyond the sole notion of ditching chemicals. Since the beginning, they have planted trees at the vicinities of their vineyards, and are now contemplating interplanting their vineyards with trees. Olivier explains,
“It’s getting hotter and hotter, and we don’t necessarily have the tools to slow down the maturation of the grapes. This year is the first year that we harvested in August. There are two main interests with agroforestry: trees provide shade, of course. But, like with weeds, there is also a transmission that occurs via the mycorrhizal network. Perhaps it’s not 'dialogue' as we know it, but exchanges take place amongst plants this way. In a forest, it’s incredible. You might think there’d be a massive competition between all the plants, but there isn’t. If there’s a little tree amongst the big trees, it will find a way to grow - or it will be helped along by the other trees in some way. As humans, somehow we haven’t been able to understand or grasp this notion.”
At the beginning, ironically, there was a lot of unlearning of education to do. Alice says,
“At the start, we had just come out of school. We had learnt the technical way - so we had to unlearn, and we were a bit afraid. You worry that things won’t go the way you want them to. But after a few years, we stopped adding commercial yeast, we stopped fining and we stopped chaptilising [adding sugar]. It happened quite quickly.”
Next, they also began to age their wines for longer. When starting out, for financial and logistical reasons they had to bottle their wines before the next vintage, but with a few years under their belt they were able to extend their ageing periods to 16-18 months for some cuvées. Alice credits the longer time on lees for the stability of their wines and for their precision. This newfound stability also permitted them to reduce SO2 additions, and now they only add very small doses before bottling. Every decision is made with rationale. Alice says,
“We have taken risks of course, but it’s always been about being careful. You don’t want to waste all of your hard work! Still now, if - for example - there’s a touch of residual sugar, we will filter. We’d rather do that than risk the wine refermenting in the bottle.”
At the beginning, everything was aged in old Burgundy barrels, but now, various foudres from Austrian makers have joined the stable, as well as clay and sandstone amphorae. It's an ever-evolving playground for a winemaker's mind.
We ask whether they think the decision to go organic has affected the taste of the wines. Alice muses,
“It’s difficult to say because there are so many factors; we also changed our press and modified some things in the winery. It’s hard to say what caused it, but the wines have definitely changed. They are purer and more precise.”
Like many other growers in the region, their production has also taken a battering from hail and frost, especially in recent vintages. Due to climate change, the weather in Chablis is becoming more and more erratic. In the worst affected years, such as 2016 and 2017, it can mean very little wine produced (a few barrels only). This made them decide to launch a négociant project back in 2009, for which they buy organic grapes from friends to make ends meet and to avoid that their barrels sit a year drying out without any wine in them. This wine is labelled as Vendangeur Masqué, meaning "The Masked Harvester" (which takes on a whole new meaning in 2020). Their reason for naming it this, however, had nothing to do with covid (although Alice jokes that perhaps they were able to see into the future). Rather, they thought it was fun to imagine sneaking into the grands crus of Chablis to harvest some of their grapes, incognito. The recent cuvée, 2018, is from a neighbour in Chablis. In 2017, however, it was a weird and wonderful blend of Clairette, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Aligoté, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Gris from various regions. The most astonishing thing? It didn’t taste dissimilar to their usual Chablis. How? Alice laughs, saying,
“We have many ideas how that happens… Even if we clean the barrels, they are still soaked in wine and the natural yeast population will still be there. Those yeasts have a great influence.”
Then, another contributing factor is probably as simple as they come, yet not to be underestimated: a hunt for deliciousness.
“When we blend our wines, we always look to make a wine that we like, and a wine that we want to drink. I think you sense that in the wines.”
It is the art of blending that cannot be underestimated: but not blending to make the most impressive or the biggest wine. Rather, blending to make something thirstquenching and tasty. In 2019, for example, they are currently making a Riesling x Sauvignon Blanc blend, as they thought the Riesling wasn’t as expressive as it could be. The act of blending both of them together has heightened their individual expression and made for a more exciting, yummy wine. In addition, they have decided to blend their vineyards Clardy and Coteau de Rosette together, as they found that the two complimented one another aromatically. Alice explains,
“We taste the wines, think about what they will become, and think about what will go well with what. Then we take samples and try blending, and voilà.”
We ask how they decide which wines might require a blending partner, or suit another wine, to which Alice smiles and says,
“We always look for a certain density and acidity, but above all a balance of aromas. It should be harmonious - not all over the place. It must be an ensemble that gives pleasure straightaway. The wine should make you want to drink another glass. I guess everyone can say that about their wines - they’re quite simple things - but they’re important things. It’s what we’ve always said and always done.”
In a sea of Chablis that can be lean, mean and over-sulphured - and difficult to drink - the De Moor wines are a breath of fresh air.
A glass? More like pass us the bottle, please.