In the wine world, it would be easy to set up a winery and create a carbon copy of what’s deemed traditional or ‘the norm’ in a region; especially in a region as well established as that of Muscadet, in the western Loire.
That, however, was not to be the path for Fred and Claire Niger of Domaine de l’Ecu. Instead, this is a domaine that has become home to 40 cuvées, 120 amphorae, and most notably of all, an extraordinary diversity of thought. Domaine de L’Ecu isn’t just about making wine. It’s about enjoying the intricacies of the natural world and working to embrace and to sense these intricacies in the most explorative and sensitive mindset.
When we interviewed Fred, he asked us what we thought of Stonehenge. We are fascinated by Stonehenge — in fact we have the latest copy of the National Geographic on our desk, featuring Stonehenge — and we knew at that moment this wouldn’t be a regular interview about winemaking.
LITTLEWINE spoke to Fred for this interview in July 2022.
Not every winemaker asks you what you think of the vibratory quality of McDonald’s food. Fred Niger does. That gives you an insight into how much this man contemplates every aspect of life. Above all, he is a deep and sensitive thinker.
For Fred, organics has always been the most important starting point. Then, he learnt about biodynamics in-depth while working at Domaine de l’Ecu with the domaine’s founder, Guy Bossard. Guy had been farming the domaine organically for 50 years, and biodynamically for 30. Eventually, Fred took over the domaine when Guy retired, and now also works with the realms of homeopathy, cosmoculture, tellurism, menhirs, the golden ratio, lithotherapy, and more.
Once upon a time, however, Fred worked far away from the land; instead, behind computers and immersed in legal documents. A Breton by birth, he grew up in Nantes, with no family connection to wine. He studied law at university, and then worked in IT, eventually setting up his own company. He caught the wine bug through drinking interesting bottles and joining various tasting groups. He remembers,
“I really enjoyed tasting wine, and I had a cellar of some 7000 bottles! At one stage, I realised that I was spending much more time tasting wine than I was doing anything else. So, in 2007, I decided to sell my company. I had been working in web hosting and data, and the atmosphere was getting me down. So, I went back to school for two years — this time to learn about winemaking — and did internships with Guy Bossard.”
Despite not having worked in agriculture before, Fred had an innate affinity to organic farming. He says,
“In my cellar I only had wines that were farmed organically at a minimum. That’s not to say that wines made conventionally aren’t good. That’s not what I’m trying to say, but when you see how some of those vines are treated, I do think people might not drink those wines anymore. For me, it’s just inadmissible. So yes, it was out of the question that I would do anything other than high-quality organic farming — out of conviction.”
“At home, we don’t eat processed food, for example. I take time to cook; I love that. But I do have four kids and I can’t say that twice a year they won’t go and eat McDonald’s. But if you want to know the taste of sh*^... then you must taste the sh*^!”
We laugh in unison. We all know what it’s like to be a teenager. He continues seriously,
“We try to educate in terms of respect. Both respect in terms of people, and in terms of products. Working here is all about respect — I believe that’s the word of the domaine. With 30 hectares, we have 15 people working with us. Everyone is well paid. That’s a question of respect. Sometimes people say, well the wines are a bit expensive... but why? Because everyone is well paid. That’s why. There are many of us, and we want to respect the people who work with us.”
We discuss the problems with hyper-consumerism and the effect it has had on the wine world. One of Fred’s neighbouring winemakers has a domaine that stretches across 50 hectares, yet only two people work there.
It is a different world, and it is also a different experience. Drinking a wine of Domaine de l’Ecu feels nourishing, energising. It is the antithesis of going to McDonald’s.
Fred explains that the soil types found in Muscadet predominantly come from ancient volcanos. There is very little topsoil, with bedrock often appearing just a few dozen centimetres down. He explains that he has many friends in other parts of France, namely in the south, who have been able to reduce the amount they work their soils. However, the ability to do so depends on climate and soil type. Here, in the Muscadet, he says it isn’t possible:
“We haven’t changed much in terms of how we work the soil. I’d love to stop working the soil — it costs a lot of money in terms of tractors, diesel, people — but we can’t. Where we are, we must. If we leave the grass, we’d lose almost 10 hectolitres per hectare because of the competition. There is very little for the vine to consume.”
When it comes to disease pressure, the risk from powdery and downy mildew here is significant, as it is a wet maritime climate. They work with sulphur and copper as their base treatments. Fred says,
“Copper and sulphur are the basis of organic treatments. It’s like make-up... they are the foundation. Then, the rest helps to boost. Some friends, for example in the south, have less mildew pressure. But here, 30km from the ocean — well, all that rain you have in the UK comes to us after!”
While they could simply stick to the copper and sulphur applications, Fred believes in working not only with the classic biodynamic preparations, such as 500 (cow manure), 501 (silica), horsetail and valerian teas, but also with mother tinctures (these aren’t typically part of biodynamics, but rather fall within homeopathy). All of this is done in order to ensure the vines and the soils are at optimum health. By doing so, the goal is to work preventatively, to ensure that the vines are at less risk of falling sick. Plants such as summer savory, thyme, and orange essential oil all help him to prevent mildew from taking hold.
“Summer savory is a little plant that is harvested by hand in the mountains. It’s a bit expensive, but it really helps the vines. It’s not about curing, it’s about working to prevent, or to help a plant to recover. You can’t cure something. Once mildew is there, there’s not much you can do. Lavender essential oil also helps with regards to grapevine moths. It also just smells lovely!”
We smile – great for the vines and a treat for our senses. Fred explains that to apply the tinctures, they must be mixed with milk and black soap, to ensure that the oils mix properly. The doses are miniscule — just 10ml per hectare. While he says there isn’t a way for them to avoid using copper and sulphur entirely, they are able to keep their doses as low as possible by working in this manner. He adds,
“It’s also important to know that with copper, 95% of it is assimilated by the plant, so there’s not really residue in the soil. So many people query us about the copper, and yes there might be a tiny bit, but, like they say, you can’t be more Catholic than the Pope!”
He does the best he can, with the tools he has available to him. Additionally, he explains that working collectively with other winemakers means they can have a greater impact with regards to environmental efforts. He explains,
“Once more, it’s about the question of respect – what you choose to do with your life. We are a part of the group Renaissance des Appellations [a group which organises consumer wine tastings]. Last year, we planted around 1500 hectares of trees. From the tastings, the group earns quite a bit of money, as we do it all ourselves – we don’t use an agency or anything like that. But we don’t keep the money that we make for ourselves. We plant trees, we finance solar panels in Madagascar, we finance schools... biodynamics is about sharing. If it’s just for an effing stamp for your bottle, well, what’s the point!?”
For Domaine de l’Ecu, farming in this manner is a way of life, never a means to an end.
When Fred first took over Domaine de l’Ecu, Guy had been producing three Muscadet cuvées and one sparkling cuvée. Now, Fred creates 40 different cuvées. Suffice to say, things have changed in the cellar.
The domaine has become particularly renowned for its work with amphorae. It all began when he became friends with a winemaker, Philippe Viret of Domaine Viret in the Rhône.
“Philippe is a very close friend of mine. He’s worked with amphorae for 25 years, and he initiated me into that world. At first, I had one, then I had two... then three, four, five, 20, 30, 50... and now 120! These days, it’s become trendy to work with amphorae, but at the time, people laughed.”
We ask what it was that attracted him to the vessel. He says,
“I really don’t like oaky wines. I believe that if you have a good wine, you don’t need to use new oak. Stainless steel tanks, on the other hand, also aren’t possible for me. They are a prison in every sense of the word. The wines don’t stay alive inside them. So, what does that leave us with? Cement — which I also use — and then of course amphorae.”
He tells us about the world of amphorae. It is a complex one; not only are there many different shapes and sizes, and ways of forming the amphora; but the material and the temperature at which they are fired is crucial to the style of wine the amphora will produce.
“Some amphorae are only made from clay, whereas others have a coating on the inside – either resin or beeswax. The latter tends to be the technique of Georgia and Portugal. The amphorae I have are mainly from Italy. They are fired between 1020 and 1600 degrees, which are quite low temperatures. The higher the temperature, the more the pores of the amphorae close, so that means less oxygen. At 1300 degrees, it’s called ‘grès’ — sandstone. When it’s 1050 degrees, it’s ‘argile’ — clay. Every potter uses their own type of material of course, but generally that’s what makes the difference.”
In particular, he works with potteries based in Florence and Tuscany – “Italy has a long history of pottery; they know what they are doing!” — as well as some that are made in France. He tells us that the amphorae which are more closed (the ones that are fired at higher temperatures) give you a more reductive environment for ageing, whereas those which are more open give you a more oxidative environment.
“Then, every type of amphora has a different type of vortex, which means the lees circulate differently. Sometimes they move in a shape like an 8, some move in a shape like a 0, some move in both ways. I choose to work with many different types and potteries. That means when you put the same juice in five different amphorae, in one and a half years you’ll have five different wines. But that’s just my truth, not the truth. Everyone has their own approach.”
He explains that every amphora reacts in its own unique way:
“Every amphora is different; just like a child they all react completely in their own way. Even if it’s from the same pottery, there are always differences. If you put the same juice in the amphorae at the same time, they won’t have the same taste. When someone tells you, I make wine in amphora, it doesn’t actually tell you anything. It’s like if someone said, I like blonds, or I like cars. It’s like comparing a Skoda with a Ferrari. It’s not the car itself – they’ll both drive – but there’s one that’s nicer than the other. Just because you’re using an amphora doesn’t mean the wine will be good — there are also people who make bad wines in amphora!”
When it comes to winemaking, it is an ever-evolving process of understanding how the varieties he works with can express themselves across the different terroirs. He creates white wines from direct press, macerated white wines (from just a few days on the skins to many months on the skins), and red wines. The winemaking process itself is kept simple, in the sense that Fred uses no additions, only sometimes a small amount of sulfites. When it comes to sulfites, Fred is not dogmatic. He would rather create a delicious wine with a small amount of sulfites added, than risk bottling a wine with problems. He explains,
“We work without sulfites, or with a very small amount. I’m not against sulfites — dogmatism doesn’t serve anybody. There are people who have treated me like a terrorist because I’ve got 2g total of sulphites in a wine! [NB: this is a very low amount] All the wines are aged without sulfites. Then, before bottling, we take a glass of wine, and see how it develops throughout the day. If it becomes oxidised or if something isn’t working out, then we’ll add some sulfites. If it doesn’t change, then we’ll bottle without sulfites. So, a good half of the wines made at the domaine are made without sulfites, and the other half with very low amounts. But I’d much rather do that than risk having a mousey wine! Some people love that, but not me.”
He is humble, recognising that every winemaker will make mistakes from time to time:
“When you’re working without a belt and without braces, well... sometimes your trousers will fall down! You accept that, but you must work in the most precise way possible, to do your best to avoid any problems.”
He also explains that his wines are meant to be treated with care. As they are made in a natural manner, they do require careful storage. However, he also understands that some of his wines may be intended for by the glass lists at restaurants, and hence for these wines he’ll often choose to add a small amount of sulfites, so that they can be kept open in the fridge for a few days.
Most of the wines he creates are bottled under the Vin de France designation, often because they are either made with techniques such as skin maceration, or with varieties that aren’t permitted within the Muscadet AOC. However, he has traditionally always made three Muscadet cuvées, like his predecessor Guy, but this year (2022), the appellation tasting panel rejected them. Fred says,
“Every year, they [the appellation tasting panel] take the bottles, taste them, and say, that’s no good. After they tell us, we say we’d like to be in the appellation, so they taste them again. And usually, they pass. But this year, no. But no big deal. We’ll sell them anyway – they’re the same wines, they’ll just be under vin de France. I’m not the first nor the last this will happen to. It happens to so many winemakers. When you aren’t part of the ‘norm’, well voilà. ‘You’re fired!’ Well, fine.”
“I make 40 cuvées, almost only vin de France wines, so it’s not going to change my life. People buy them because they are Domaine de l’Ecu, not because they are bottled as Muscadet.”
There are no conventional ideas here — appellation or no appellation. Rather, his approach is the opposite. Fred has studied far and wide, often outside of the realm of winemaking altogether. He is fascinated by the notion of telluric currents: natural electrical phenomena in the Earth and water. He says,
“We work organically, biodynamically, but also with cosmoculture — intention and vibration. There are two of us in France who do this. Us and Philippe Viret, who I mentioned earlier. You know Stonehenge? Do you think it’s just a random bunch of stones in a circle?”
We shake our heads profusely; we don’t think Stonehenge happened by accident at all. Fred nods and continues,
“On earth, there’s something known as telluric currents — the Hartmann and Curry lines — lines which cross each other all over, like a big grid. Many important buildings and special places that vibrate are places on important crossings of these lines. Notre Dame, the Sagrada Família, the Giant Pyramid of Giza. The Viking temples... They are all aligned. Then, on the other side, there’s Easter Island, Tegucigalpa, the big Inca temples, the Khmer temps, and in the middle Sainte-Sophie in Turkey. And again, they’re all aligned. And they are all built with the golden ratio at the base of it all — that is the basis of sacred geometry.”
He explains further,
“All temples, mosques, churches, monasteries... they were based on the golden ratio; the number 1,618. This is called the Fibonacci numbers. That’s how the Italian Renaissance buildings were built and the Eiffel Tower, for example. It’s not by accident.”
“We don’t want to make the best wines in the world. Our goal is to create wines that have a superior vibratory quality to that of yours. These vibratory rates can be measured. Your body vibrates between 7000 and 8000 Bovis Units [BU for short]. Everything you put in your mouth — whether solid or liquid — has a different vibration rate. A Big Mac, for example, vibrates at 3000. Then, you’re not well. You’re hot, then cold, your stomach hurts and you aren’t digesting well. How do I know? Because I measured it with a pendulum. The problem comes when people are eating this every day. That leaves the body open to all kinds of sicknesses. It’s the same with other processed foods. So, our goal is to raise the vibratory quality of our wines. All of our wines vibrate between 15,000 and 80,000 BU. Then what happens? You smile. Your body thanks you. You might like the wines, or you might not like them, but in terms of vibration rates, the wines are largely above average. And any person who is sensitive to this, they feel it. We experience people who can sense this from many different countries. It’s not a question of having an open mind, but rather one of sensitivity. There are some people who don’t sense it, but that doesn’t matter.”
“You vibrate, I vibrate, that plant behind you — he points to my houseplant growing down the side of the wall — that vibrates. Everything vibrates. Some people you meet, they want to hug you. And others say... No, no... security control... this is my space! You go into some areas where you feel good, and others where you don’t. I am explaining in simple terms what some people might not even have contemplated — the notion of vibration everywhere in the world. We talk about synchronicity...”
We sit nodding, both in thought. Fred quotes Paul Eluard: “Il n'y a pas de hasard, il n'y a que des rendez-vous.” — there are no coincidences, only encounters.
In this consumerist world, where often people are too busy to even pause, these thoughts give us a breath of fresh air. It is a conversation that opens doors; one which raises more questions than it gives answers. We realise we’ve been on the phone for almost an hour, yet it feels like just a few minutes. Fred concludes,
“So... We work according to intention, cosmoculture, tellurism, menhirs, the golden ratio, lithotherapy — you know about stones? In the middle of our cellar, we have a large crystal, we have granite... crystal vibrates at 200,000 BU. Wow! I also heal people with magnetic therapy. I spend a lot of my time doing that. I think it’s my duty to heal. So, I’m doing that. We’ll see in the next life! We make wine, but we don’t just make wine. Everyone who works with us is educated; everyone does an internship with a friend. I have many friends who are healers or mediums. They go into the forests to understand that all of the trees are connected; they speak with the trees. You can sense the sap moving in the tree. Everyone who works here is a beautiful person. They aren’t my wines; they’re our wines. We are able to make our wines because of them. So many winemakers have big egos. I have many flaws, but I don’t have a big ego.”
We are left thinking for a long time. Countless philosophers and writers have warned us of the dangers the ego poses. It is often the human ego that holds us back. Some people may question Fred’s methods or even dismiss them (often scientists call these fields pseudoscience), but ultimately, there is no way for us to know the truth. And perhaps, as mere mortals, we aren’t supposed to know. Rather, this is about ensuring the ego takes a back seat, and our senses take a front seat. And if a bottle of wine may encourage us to pursue these deep discussions, we’re all in.