“Working our vineyards on foot as we do is not easy. The slopes are steep… We climb the equivalent of Mont Blanc every single week,” Marie explains, shrugging simply, as she holds a cup of coffee in one hand, her other arm wrapped affectionately around her little girl, Lili, her blonde head nestled into her mother’s shoulder.
Florian emerges from his afternoon nap, hair tousled. He’s been up since 4am, as he is every single day of the growing season leading up to harvest. He smiles and yawns, stretches, reaches out for Lili. They both look like human gazelles, so honed, slim and muscular. Then again — we’d all look like that if we climbed almost 5,000 metres every single week, wouldn’t we?
Meet Marie & Florian
Marie and Florian met one summer by chance. Florian was working for Jacques Maillet, the previous owner of their estate, and Marie was working for Gilles Berlioz, one of the most renowned growers of the Savoie. Marie was giving Jacques Maillet an extra hand during harvest one year, met “Flo,” as she affectionately calls him, and the rest was history.
Jacques Maillet contracted cancer in the early 1990s, which was attributed to the various chemicals he had been handling at the estate where he worked at the time. He fought back from the disease and was given a second shot at life, and as such was determined to find a way to work that did not involve chemicals. This led him to discover biodynamics, and thus his estate was managed “Autrement” (French for “a different way”). This remains the name of two of the Curtets’ cuvées, as a nod to the history of the estate and to the shared notion of working in this way.
In 2016, it was time for Jacques to retire, and so the duo decided to pour their life savings into the estate to take it over as their own.
Nestled in the Alpine commune of Chautagne, in between forests and fields of grazing cattle, lies the six hectares of Domaine Curtet on two separate parcels. The vineyards sit just above the Rhone river, which has a warming effect, helping them to achieve the ideal ripeness in their grapes.
Marie and Florian work without chemicals, biodynamically, according to traditional preparations, as well as harvesting the diverse plants that grow locally to create teas. They spray these on the vines, with the belief that these local native plants provide natural support to the immune system of the vineyard. It is windy here, which helps them to work naturally. The wind works like nature’s own hair dryer, minimising disease pressure.
The vineyard is nestled against a forest. This is of great importance to them as they believe that the life and energy that dwells within the forest can aid the vineyard in defending itself against disease.
“There are so many parts to the forest. A vineyard is a monoculture, but by using machinery as little as possible, and so disturbing the soil as little as possible, this is our way of trying, and I emphasise trying, to work towards the balance of the forest where all life exists, where balance exists inherently.”
“We can hope to bring a little bit of this balance back to the vineyard. All the problems of sickness that we see in the vineyard are a problem of monoculture, but when we have a vineyard situated by the forest, we can limit the propagation of these diseases. That’s what’s interesting – what the balance of the forest can bring to us.”
The couple work on two plots; Le Cellier des Pauvres (“The Cellar of the Poor”); An ancient plot with a tiny ramshackled centuries-old cellar, and Les Vignes du Seigneur. Here, the Curtets have the old and the new; both 100+-year-old Mondeuse vines, as well as a baby plantation of Savagnin and the rare Savoyard varieties Gringet, Molette and Mondeuse Blanche.
They also have Gamay, Pinot Noir, Jacquere and Altesse. There is believed to be only three hectares remaining of Mondeuse Blanche in the entire world, so by planting it they are not only introducing genetic diversity to their vineyard, but they are also working to safeguard these crucial vine genetics. It’s not dissimilar to keeping rare breeds of cattle, or working to reintroduce endangered animals to the wild.
The soils are a particular soil type fairly unique to this area, called molasse, or “grès.” It is a form of clay/calcareous sandstone, that the duo believes brings a certain freshness and lift to the wine.
The relentless hard work in the vineyard pays off; such healthy grapes means the Curtets can produce wine of the highest quality with no additives. According to the vintage, sometimes they might decide to add a tiny lick of sulphur for stability at bottling, sometimes not.
“It’s the details of your work that make the wine. It’s a summary of all the details of your hand work throughout the season, all that work that may seem insignificant at the time… in the end this gives you the perfect bunch of grapes, and these whole bunches we put into the barrels – with the stems and all the rest, and this makes our wine.”
They are experimenting with new vessels, and their cellar is now lined with concrete hexagonal tanks and round concrete eggs. These provide the wines with ideal neutral homes; no flavour imparted; while still allowing the wine to breathe. All of the wines spend up to a year ageing, and are bottled right before the next harvest to make room in the cellar for the juice of the new vintage.
It is a project that has been reborn; one that is in its newfound youth. Marie & Florian could have continued working as employees at other domaines, with less stress and perhaps more financial stability, but this is a duo who wants to create something meaningful of their own. Marie's eyes glimmer as she says,
"When we stood in front of the vineyard, knowing it was now ours, we felt free. We can make our own decisions, our own choices. It's a restricted freedom, sure, as we work so much, but nevertheless we're free to decide how we want to make our wine — to work more one day and less the other — to decide who we want to sell to, and who we don't want to sell to. We're free."
They work tirelessly and almost without pause to translate their patches of the Savoie into bottle. When you stand on their hillside and breathe the fresh air of the mountains, of the forest, of the river, into your lungs; this is something you somehow detect in their wines. The old vines and rare varieties act almost like history books; letting us peek into the past of this region. This amplifies the emotion we find within these bottles, and not only excites us but leaves us full of hope for the young baby vines that are growing alongside their daughter Lili; the next generation.
Here's to freedom — for us, and for them.