The words ‘picturesque’ and ‘scenic’ are used a lot when it comes to rural French villages and vineyard landscapes, but Saint Pierre d'Albigny — where talented young winemaker Matthieu Goury is based — takes the prize for being one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever had the fortune of visiting. It’s a tiny hamlet which looks as though it belongs in a fairytale, and the wines Matthieu is making there fill us with equal wonder.
He may only be at the beginning of his path, having completed his first vintage in just 2016, but his wines have already achieved fine wine status. These striking cuvées, almost Burgundian or Jura-like in style, are helping to further bring the joys of the Savoie wine region and its indigenous varieties to an international audience.
Matthieu is the kind of guy who always has a smile on his face. Humble and instantly welcoming, he makes you feel right at home in his cellar. This cellar, which dates back to 1703, is also humble — this is the kind of old-school cellar in which you need to duck your head every two minutes to avoid ending up covered in cobwebs.
Matthieu grew up here, the son of winegrowers, and much of his family lives in the same village. This is true French rural life, much as it might have looked like a couple of centuries ago. Life has changed here, however; as we walk together, we comment on the structure of the traditional buildings, which appear almost like ski chalets. Matthieu tells us they were built that way to be able to support the weight of the snow that falls in the winter (he tells us that temperatures reached -35 in 1952!); but with global warming, this is rarely a severe threat now.
While it may not snow as heavily as it did last century, the Savoie region remains more traditional than many other wine regions, as it is still largely polycultural. Unlike many other wine regions which have fallen prey to monoculture, here you find much more than just vineyards. On the other side of Matthieu’s house, you walk directly into a sunflower field which borders a vineyard, and just a stone’s throw away cattle graze freely (a lot of delicious cheese is made in the Savoie, too). Growing up, understandably, Matthieu loved this beautiful country lifestyle, and at first was tempted to work with animals. But, in the end, it was wine that captured his attention.
He went to wine school, studying in Beaujolais, Lyon and Tours, and did internships down the road with Chapoutier and Jaboulet in the Northern Rhône. There, he learnt how to work on very steep slopes and train vines on échelas, both of which would come in very handy on his home turf (Matthieu even tends a vineyard named La Mort — “The Death” — as it is so steep). Next, he ventured much further afield: to hone his craft in Canada, at Hidden Bench in Ontario, and at Jasper Hill in Heathcote, Australia. It was at these wineries that he learnt more about organic farming. He was smitten, and his future vision became clear — organics would be the way forward.
Although Matthieu has some family vineyards, they were being rented out to other growers, as there hadn’t (yet) been a young budding vigneron in the family. The lease wasn’t due to end until 2023, so Matthieu looked around for local growers who might have some vineyards to rent. He managed to gather an incredible 40-odd(!) plots, covering a total of 11 hectares.
The soils are composed predominantly of various types of marl (varying degrees of clay and limestone), and the vineyards are planted to the classic varieties of the Savoie: the indigenous Mondeuse, Altesse and Jacquère, as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay. He also has some of the super-rare Mondeuse Blanche (only around five hectares remain of this variety in the world, so this is a true gem). When he tells us this, we’re visibly excited, and Matthieu echoes our sentiments:
“Yes. Mondeuse Blanche is indeed a dinosaur. It tastes like nothing you know — exactly like tasting something from prehistoric times!”
Since the start, Matthieu has worked organically. He leaves the soil untouched where possible, leaving grass growing in the vineyards to encourage healthy insect and microbial life — both above and below ground — only mowing when necessary. In 2019, he also began experimenting with biodynamics — using the compost preparation 500 and creating various teas and extracts from local plants, namely horsetail and stinging nettles. He forages for them himself, which is important to him:
“I like to work with our own plants for our sprays — that is the natural way, and there’s something more special about it when you harvest plants that are cut from the same soil as the vines. Plus, the mountain soils here are less rich, producing plants of a higher quality, which are more resistant.”
In addition, his wife is a herbalist, specialising in health and cosmetics. Together, they plan on working with plants that are less traditionally linked to biodynamics, but which regardless might turn out to have positive effects amongst the vines. For example, for human beings, Calendula is used to soothe eczema, and Valerian is used to treat symptoms of stress and insomnia. As such, they are curious to see whether plants such as these might help to treat vines that have suffered stress and damage during hailstorms, for example. Meanwhile, oregano has traditionally been used for its antibacterial effects on human beings, so why not vines, too? Time will tell — it is inspiring work and the kind of thinking that we need for a modern approach to natural viticulture.
Winemaking here is very old-school, in the best possible way. In fact, when you walk into this cellar, it feels like the technological heyday of winemaking never occurred — nearly everything is made from wood, and most processes are done by hand. Instead of using a pump for his ‘pumpovers,’ for example (this is the process of moving liquid from the bottom of the tank to the top, to homogenise a ferment), he simply uses a watering can.
The wines are pressed in the most beautiful large ancient basket press we’ve seen, resulting in a very slow press cycle. This means that the juice see a lot of oxygen early on, and so is saturated almost immediately. Matthieu tells us this is how his grandfather worked, and that it’s particularly crucial for the white wines so that they do not oxidise later, giving wines that are more stable in the long run. This has now become a common technique in Burgundy to combat the phenomenon of ‘premox’ (when fine white wines oxidise too soon) and has been nicknamed ‘browning the juice.’ It might sound bizarre, but Matthieu explains that the juice only stays brown for a period of ten days or so, after which it becomes a glimmering white wine.
After the press, the juice is moved into foudres (for the Jacquère) or barrels (for the Altesse and Chardonnay) straightaway. Then, they are left untouched on the fine lees. Both the use of wood and the ‘leave it be’ approach is very important for his way of making wine. He emphasises,
“I like to work with wood, as it reawakens the acidity in the wine. Then, you must never touch the white wines. If you do, you break that acidity.”
He tells us that the two indigenous white grapes of the Savoie — Jacquère and Altesse — are remarkably different to one another; both in the vineyard and in the cellar:
“Jacquère vines rarely get sick, they really suit the climate here. But Altesse is quite fragile — in the past it was used only for marriages and baptisms. Its name means ‘height,’ and I suppose you could say it’s a bit of a Queen!”
He also explains that unlike Jacquère, which is typically very bright in terms of acid profile, Altesse can very quickly become too rich, so he always makes sure to harvest it on the early side. Simply put,
“I like bitterness and acidity in my white wines.”
We nod in agreement, sharing notes on some producers we both enjoy. He tells us that he tastes far and wide to further expand his own taste, and to inspire his work:
“My winemaking is greatly influenced by what I drink during apéro time. I’ll try a wine, and then think… I’d like to make that!”
For the reds, he first looks for drinkability and elegance. Therefore, he is very gentle with the wines during the maceration period, preferring an infusion approach to ensure the tannins are very delicately structured. He prefers his red wines lighter in style, and hence welcomes cooler years:
“I like cool vintages, like 2001 — everybody said it was a bad year, but when you taste the wines now, they’re just beautiful.”
For the Mondeuse, he destems, as it can tend to be quite rustic — “you must listen to Mondeuse!” whereas for the Pinot Noir and Gamay he uses a percentage of whole bunches, usually around 50%, depending on the vintage. His Pinot Noir has a particularly special story; the parcel was planted in 1962, with a massal selection from none other than Jean-Claude Rateau — an iconic biodynamic Burgundy producer. Massal selection is the process whereby a vineyard is planted via propagating the plant material of several mother plants, as opposed to a single clone, thereby preserving genetic heritage. Matthieu is fortunate to work with many very old vineyards — some above 100 years old — so he has swathes of this precious material to safeguard. He also has a close friend with a vine nursery nearby, hence he is able to propagate his own massal selections when it comes to replanting.
Bringing the essence of these one-of-a-kind vineyards into the bottle in a sensitive and transparent manner is his goal, and when you taste one of his wines, the complexity is unparalleled. It takes a special person with bucketloads of care and diligent work in the vineyards to create wines like these (taking massal selection cuttings on your own is a long process, and no mean feat), and we’re endlessly grateful to him for giving us a glimpse into this magical place.
As the French say, Chapeau, Matthieu!