"When you don’t ask too much of your vines, they are balanced. If you push a vine too much, it will hurt itself and become more fragile.”
Stéphanie Debout and Vincent Bertin (hence Deboutbertin) met at university while studying engineering. They moved to Paris, but quickly became disillusioned with city life and pined for the countryside. One of their friend’s parents, Jean-Philippe Fichet, is a winemaker in Burgundy, and on a trip to visit him they became entranced by his passion for the craft of winemaking.
That was that. They decided to go and do a vintage with a winemaker in the Loire in 2011 to test the waters, and in Stéphanie’s words, it was love at first sight. They had fallen for the vigneron life. By 2012, they had handed in their resignation notices, bought a house and a vineyard, and signed up for winemaking school.
For them, the most important thing is the overall health of their vineyards. This has brought them to agroforestry, and they now interplant their vineyards with trees. In doing so, they break the monocultural mould of the vineyard, instead creating an area in which other species of plants can thrive.
Meet Stéphanie & Vincent
“I think moving to Paris made us realise that we didn’t really want to continue the city life. It wasn’t for us. Meeting that Burgundian winemaker made us think - hey, maybe, we can do this?”
It was a love for the outdoors, a desire to work organically and the search for affordable land that brought them to the Loire. Having discovered that there was a hub of welcoming natural winemakers and farmers in Anjou, it seemed the logical choice. Stéphanie says,
“It all happened so quickly - in the space of a year - but when you fall head over heels for something, you have to go for it.”
They found a plot of old-vine Chenin Blanc and Pineau d’Aunis, and enrolled in a winemaking, viticulture and wine business degree specifically designed for adults wishing to leave previous careers to work in agriculture. Next, they found their Grolleau parcel and another Chenin Blanc parcel. They had all previously been treated conventionally with chemicals, so for the first two years they left their vineyards completely untouched.
“We left them completely on their own, to let life return on its own accord. It was so interesting to watch the vines develop - the first year they had so much rot because they were without the chemicals. But the year after, and the year after that, they were much healthier. It was amazing to see the difference before your eyes. When fauna and flora return to the vineyard, it can better protect itself.”
She explains that a lot of the rot is caused by moths laying eggs and the larvae and moths pricking action is what causes the rot. When there is more life in the vineyard, the moths and larvae will be eaten, thus the rot is less likely to happen.
During those first two years they continued to learn with other winemakers. Vincent went to work with Olivier Cousin, and it was here that he began to understand the importance of working with horses. Stéphanie, meanwhile, had been learning how to work with a tractor in the vineyard, but was less enthused; she also preferred the notion of working with animals. There was just one problem; neither of them had worked with horses before. So, they signed up for a training course, and before they knew it, a Percheron horse named Anatole had joined the family. They are relieved they decided to do their training before starting a family.
“We absolutely love our horse - he is amazing. But he is an animal, and he takes a lot of time and energy. Once in a while, in the morning, he doesn’t want to work. That’s okay - it’s exactly like with children, you must be patient. We have two kids now, so we know it’s the same thing. But Anatole - he is our first baby.”
A couple of years ago, when Stéphanie was pregnant and so couldn’t work with Anatole, they restored her grandfather’s tractor from the 50s. It works fine and they’re grateful for it, but nothing compares to horsework. She says,
“When you work with a horse, you just feel something different in the quality of the soil. I don’t know what it is - it’s more gentle of course, but it also brings a balance and an energy.”
It is this balance that they strive for. While they believe in biodynamics, they’re currently more focused on working with aspects of agroforestry. Stéphanie explains,
“Now, we have very few disease problems in comparison to those first years. When you don’t use chemicals and you don’t ask too much of your vines, they are balanced. If you push a vine too much, it will hurt itself and become more fragile.”
It’s a little like sports; if you push yourself too hard and too fast all the time, you will hurt yourself. By working with fruit trees and bushes, they also hope to bring more life to the vineyard to create an overall balance - not necessarily for wine quality but for the general place to be healthy.
“We’re focused on finding a balance, and we can bring this by planting fruit trees and bushes - not just on the outskirts of the vineyard but also in the vineyard itself. I like biodynamics and believe in it and find it logical - but when it comes to certification… well… you can have someone with ten hectares, with vines but no bushes or trees who gets certified because they do their 500 and 501 preps. That seems like a paradox to me.”
This year, they have planted a new vineyard of massal selection Chenin Blanc and Pineau d’Aunis. Every eight rows of vines, they have left ten metres for one row of trees.
“We do this because it’s so important to avoid having a monoculture. It’s also a thing of beauty; we’re sensitive people. When you arrive in a place that has trees, bushes and life amongst the vines, it makes you want to pause, to look and to feel.”
Vincent has a passion for trees and is involved with the Association, Croqueurs de Pommes, an association that believes in safeguarding the genetic diversity of fruit trees. One member described how he had a sick fruit tree. He planted another fruit tree next to it, and the sick tree recovered. When he moved it away, the tree became sick again. It is this association and symbiotic nature of plants that fascinates them both. While they don’t know yet whether the combination of fruit trees amongst vines will benefit the health of the vines, it will be a fascinating journey to follow.
Stéphanie has an affinity for their Grolleau parcel. It has a particular talent:
“It’s amazing. Last year we lost 100% to frost, but the Grolleau recovered so quickly that we had a normal harvest after all. Also, it almost never gets sick even though it’s 60 years old. It might get a touch of mildew, but never anything serious.”
They also have Pineau d’Aunis—an ancient variety from the region that is unfortunately often overlooked, but which is enjoying a resurgence with artisan winemakers who love the exciting peppery aromatics. Unfortunately, you cannot make an Anjou AOC labelled red wine from the variety, so it must be declassified as vin de France. It’s these politics that made them decide to work with the vin de France designation for all their wines.
“Pineau d’Aunis is an amazing variety if you don’t ask too much from it, but if you demand it to produce a lot, then it will have one amazing harvest followed by a mediocre harvest. But we don’t, so we don’t have that problem. The harvest is always beautiful and the fruit is so healthy. The parcel is never sick - it’s one of our easiest to work with.”
When learning about wine, it was the wines made without sulphur that really opened their eyes - particularly those made by Thierry Germain and Sebastien Riffault. They met Sebastien at La Dive wine fair; a wine fair that happens in the Loire every January and which focuses on natural wines. Stéphanie remembers,
“We did a blind tasting of two wines: one had no sulphur and one had just 2g. The one without sulphur was just extraordinary—it was something else entirely. That gave us a sudden realisation that we needed to make wines without sulphur. So, we’ve never used it. I wouldn’t even know how to add it!”
Making wines this way demands time; she explains that if the fruit is healthy, they don’t need to worry. Some bacterial issues might arise during fermentation or ageing, but they’ll go away again if the wines are aged for long enough. This was difficult for them to do at first due to cash flow reasons, but now they are able to hold back any problematic wines until they are clean once more.
“It was reassuring when we tasted with friends and they’d tell us don’t worry, it’s fine - they just need a bit more time in the bottle.”
All wines ferment naturally. The whites are whole cluster pressed slowly, and aged on the lees in old wooden barrels for over a year, until they are deemed ready. The reds are also whole cluster fermented and macerated gently, before ageing in old barrels.
Their Grolleau in particular has set a new bar for the variety. Stéphanie says,
“I like to harvest Grolleau quite ripe. Others tend to make it in a vin de soif style, but ours has a little more structure—it’s a food wine. It’s great fun, because people get confused and think it’s Cabernet Franc.”
Everything is done as simply as possible, which also means they never destem.
“We always work with whole bunches - we like the stems and really think it brings something to the wine. Plus, we’re minimalists - this way we don’t need a machine!”
This is a young couple who demonstrate vinous minimalism in the best way possible. These are pure wines of soul that have nothing added, nothing taken away. They speak of healthy vineyards, healthy people and a love for nature. People often debate what natural wine is; well, it doesn’t get more natural than this.