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Domaine des Ardoisières

Domaine des Ardoisières is much more than your regular winery; it is a project of cultural and viticultural preservation. Founded by Michel Grisard, iconic Savoyard winemaker and biodynamic pioneer (who was also the man behind the winery Prieuré St Christoph (now retired)), it is has now fully been transferred to the hands of the talented Brice Omont.

Brice first came to the Savoie in 2003, somewhat serendipitously, and met Michel the day before he was due to return home to northern France. With very little experience (or none, as Brice humbly puts it) it was a welcome surprise for Brice to learn that this was in fact — in Michel’s eyes — an advantage. Michel said to him,

“With this kind of farming, you have to forget everything you knew, and start from zero.”

And that was that: Michel invited Brice to join him on the Ardoisières journey, and he’s never looked back.

The Story

Brice tells us,

“This is a story of abandoned vineyards, but also of the Savoie. If you go back 100 years, there were around 20,000 hectares of vines here. Today, there’s somewhere between 2000 and 2500…”

He continues,

“There used to be vines in many areas; all over really. Savoie was always famous for its polyculture approach; you’d have farmers raising livestock and farming grains, as well as grapevines.”

He says that many of these vineyard plots were tended for personal consumption; many families in the Savoie made their own wine.

“Back then, there was always a bottle of wine on the table. They were lower alcohol wines, and some people would also drink wine with the addition of some water. Wine was simply a part of normal life. That isn’t the case anymore; at least not in the same way.”

From the 60s, several inhabitants began to move away from the traditional polyculture models and either focused on one crop, or left agriculture altogether — instead taking jobs in nearby towns and cities. This meant that many of these little plots of vineyards, which are often only around 0.2 hectares, were abandoned and fell into disarray.

It was with this realisation that the fate of Savoyard vineyards was looking dire that Michel Grisard decided to do something about it. In the town of Cevins, he discovered beautiful old (many of which derelict) terraced vineyards, planted on treacherous slopes on very interesting schist soils. They were not easy (or impossible) to mechanise, but Michel wasn’t looking for something easy; he was focused on preservation and quality.

He spoke to the mayor of the local council about his vision to give these hillsides a renaissance. The mayor was immediately on board with the idea and offered some land for Michel to rent. Then, Michel also spoke to local families, many of whom owned very small plots of vines.

“There used to be 30 hectares of vines here; historically there were far more than what we have today. When Michel and the mayor announced the project to revive the vineyards, everybody was motivated by the notion. People here are very attached to the idea of wine; their grandparents tended these very slopes.”

Quickly, the project began to gain momentum:

“People would either sell their vineyards to the local council, who would then lease it to Michel, or they wanted to keep their parcels. But it is extremely fragmented here; 450 parcels of vines amongst 250 owners… so, to simplify, we created a groupement foncier viticole [a way of grouping viticultural land amongst several owners].”

This helped to create a structure that was more easily organisable, and it also meant that if a landowner wished to leave the agreement and sell their parcel, then the organisation had rights of first purchase. Bit by bit, the vineyard holdings grew to six hectares; old vineyards were taken on and restored to health, and they also began replanting.

Michel Grisard also had a separate winery, named Prieuré St Christophe, now taken on by Frederic Giachino following Michel’s retirement (his last vintage was in 2014). Having farmed and made wine for several years at Prieuré St Christophe, Michel already had a vision in place for Domaine des Ardoisières.

He had come across biodynamics in the late 80s, and converted his own domaine in 1994. Brice says,

“Since the start, Michel was on the biodynamic path. Before I came along, another guy had been working at the domaine, but he was sceptical about organics and biodynamics. I think that’s why he didn’t stay. Me, on the other hand, that was what intrigued me... I knew very little about Savoie wine, and I really lacked experience. Michel asked me what I knew, and I said… I’ll be honest, I still have a lot to learn… I feel like I know nothing.”

Michel encouraged him and said that was nothing to worry about. He explained that when he had begun his own biodynamic journey — with renowned biodynamic specialist, Francois Boucher — he had said (the aforementioned quote) to him, “With this kind of farming, you have to forget everything you knew, and start from zero.” The fact, however, that Brice had a desire to work within organics and biodynamics, meant that he was open-minded to this realm. This was what led Michel decide to offer Brice the position. Brice remembers,

“I just knew that I wanted to work in that direction. Everything I had read — and every bottle of wine I had drunk — had given me the conviction that this was the way to best express the notion of terroir.”

He muses,

“For example, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti [perhaps the most famous winery in the world] works biodynamically. They don’t do that to put something on the label, but rather through an understanding that this way of working is the best way to take care of their vineyards. Anyone can make Pinot Noir, but to make a beautiful terroir wine, this is the way to do it. That’s the basis of everything; of all reasoning. That was evident for me.”

Brice was raised in agriculture, and his parents worked conventionally. He too wanted to work in agriculture, but quickly realised that he didn’t want to work with chemicals. He hadn’t yet, however, decided that wine was the future. He remembers,

“What interested me was the transformation of products – the idea of making cheese from milk, or beer from grains, or wine from grapes. I began drinking wine with my brother, and quickly realised maybe that was what I wanted to do. But I’d never pruned a vine, nor made a wine.”

He worked at a big négociant in Champagne, and chuckles when he says, “it definitely made me realise that I didn’t want to do that.” Knowing that he wished to pursue another angle of the wine world, he began to explore the organic community in wine. He says,

“I was thinking… Should I do more studies? Can I become a winemaker like that? I met a few winemakers and they said… well, when you start at organics, you start at zero anyway. So I went to SW France and the Jurançon, and then to the Loire. It was a magical place, and I thought it might be easier to find a project there. But at the same time, a childhood friend of mine was in the Savoie. He asked me what I was up to, and I explained that I was looking for land as I wanted to become a winemaker. He said, why don’t you come to the Savoie? There are vineyards here!

“I said… Well, that’s wines for fondue and raclette… not exactly what I want to do. But I went anyway, as he was a good friend. I was there for a week, and on my last day I went to meet Michel Grisard, as my friend had told me he was the guy in the area working in organics.  I had an amazing time with Michel, and by the end of it, he told me about the project and asked me whether I was interested. And voilà… it was one of those chance encounters! So, I’m an autodidact; I learnt everything from Michel; he was my professor.”

Like his mentor, Brice is also a very humble guy. When we speak about the resurgence of the region, and the amazing organics and biodynamics movement happening there, he says,

“It’s a beautiful story, that’s for sure. People call us and tell us stories about the world of wine. Restaurants and sommeliers realise that things are changing in the Savoie, and that’s a lovely feeling. They become our ambassadors.”

The Vineyards

It’s this community spirit that underlines the work at Domaine des Ardoisières — local families coming together, sharing philosophies with people from afar… and also working with other specialists — namely in biodynamics.

Brice explains that originally they had made their own preparations, but with so many parcels spread out all over the place, they didn’t exactly have time on their side. They met a guy who specialises in creating biodynamic preps and decided to work with him.

“This way, we’re also able to learn what winemakers in other regions are doing. For example, in the south, there are experiments with garlic against powdery mildew — people are realising that working with sulphur in hotter vintages is becoming problematic — hence looking for alternatives. That’s a real plus; we’re able to learn about these things. What’s sad is that biodynamics has become a bit commercial, and people assume that a wine will be good just because it’s biodynamic. That’s not a guarantee at all. For me, it’s the basis, but then we refine things every year. Every year is different, things change, there is no simple recipe that you can apply. You can’t just follow things by numbers. Rather, I’m convinced that we advance because we see it’s good for the vine. We can measure it by the results that we see; both in the vines and in the wine. Then, it’s a matter of continuing.”

At the foundation of their ethos lies biodiversity. Brice says,

“We must be gentle, never violent. That means not working the soil too much. There’s an important organisation of sorts — underground in the soils — which we must respect. When we discuss terroir, we must also discuss biodiversity. We already have a good balance here, but we must always listen and observe, and be ready to act. Be sure of nothing, take nothing for granted, and be open to new ideas.”

They apply compost every year, and leave the vineyards grassed over with a spontaneous cover crop.

“I like to leave the spontaneous plants here. These plants are linked to our climate, and to our environment. Every plant grows for a reason, and you always see the balance in growth. These plants participate in our terroir. I’m not sure about planting cover crops that aren’t native to this area, just for a specific reason, like bringing nitrogen to the soil. It might be useful to the vine, but the plant isn’t from here…”

Understandably, Brice is hesitant to disturb the natural ecosystem; at the core of his approach lies preservation. He emphasises that they are fortune to be able to work with old vines, and hence old selections of the indigenous Savoyard varieties. Michel Grisard had even gone as far as to create an ampelographic conservation vineyard.

“There had been a movement in the Savoie to plant clones for higher/more regular production. Most of the wines were destined to ski resorts, so that was the objective. Our objective, however, is save the vine material of the Savoie; to save our old varieties and represent their diversity. That way, if one day our children or grandchildren want to plant Persan, they can. That’s hugely important.  I really think we must preserve as much as we can, in every region.”

The Wines

When we ask about the philosophy of winemaking at the domaine, and whether it’s changed over time, Brice says,

“I read the writings of Jules Chauvet [a famous biochemist, and one of the godfathers of organic farming and natural wine] often. He always wanted to grow the most beautiful grapes possible by taking care of the vines — to then create a great wine. That’s the objective. It’s also logical; it’s like if you’re cooking… If you want to make a delicious fish dish, you buy a beautiful fish at the market. Sure, you need to cook it, but the quality is the basis – the raw ingredient. The more you focus on that, the simpler it becomes, and the further away you move from modern vinification.”

He explains,

“I realised that oenology was born for reassurance. If you had less qualitative grapes, then you could buy all sorts of products. If your juice didn’t ferment, oenologists can say, “don’t worry! We have a solution!” But the juice should be able to ferment naturally.”

Brice’s main ingredient is a simple one: time.

“I hope to one day make more and more sans soufre cuvées (wines without any added sulfites), but I don’t feel quite ready to do that for every cuvée. The approach is the same for every wine; do a high-quality press, and then leave it; give it time. It’s about accompanying the wine. Both growing vines and making wine takes a long time. And results come with this time, so it’s all about patience.”

He continues,

“After bottling, if you can leave the wine for another year, that also helps. I’ve realised that through longer periods of ageing, a wine can protect itself. It’s also about transport; if a neighbour buys wines from me, I don’t worry. But if it’s travelling far, then it’s not simple, and we must think about that. I don’t want to make ‘deviant’ wines. Everything you’ve worked to achieve can be lost so quickly, and you can end up going backwards. Natural wines without sulfites can be totally magic when they work, but you also need to be careful, because there is risk. But that magical aspect… it does make me want to continue trying.”

It’s a never-ending journey; constant learning and tweaking and adapting to every vintage. Brice chuckles as he says,

“At the end of his life, Chauvet said that people told him he knew everything. But on the contrary, he said, no, you need another life! To really begin to put everything into practice, you need a second life. One year, you might understand everything, but another year might be totally different. But there’s also magic in that. Every year is different, you’ll come across things you didn’t anticipate, you’ll be afraid… you might make mistakes. In our way of working, there’ll always be risks. Sure, we could add yeasts and make a ‘correct’ wine, but if you take more risks and intervene less, then you have the potential to achieve something amazing; something you’ve never experienced before."

The wines of Domaine des Ardoisières represent a brave leap; this is about preserving history while carving a greener future for the region, and for the families that call this beautiful part of the world home. And as for Brice, we have a feeling that the Savoie is as grateful to him as he is to the region for giving him this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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