“For ages I would say, 'I’m not interested in him.’ And then, of course, in 2010 I sent winemaker & friend Abe Schoener a text saying: ‘I’m going on a date with Marcel..."
This is a love story, but not your "boy meets girl in vineyard and falls in love" kinda fairytale. Rather, Carrie Anne Sumner—originally a sommelier from the US—had been working on a wine project in the Roussillon for a few years, and had crossed paths with Marcel many times. It was only one night where they both let their hair down and unexpectedly got a bit drunk at a local bar that the prospect of a date was put out there.
A decade later, they've had a child; but their child isn't their only offspring. Together, they have made some of the most exciting fine natural wines of the Roussillon.
Meet Marcel Bühler & Carrie Sumner
“You have no idea how much of an integral part Abe Schoener has played in my life…”, Carrie laughs, as she drives hairpin-after-hairpin turn. We're out in the sticks, in the rugged Roussillon.
Rewind to 2008. Carrie had travelled from Oregon to Maury (in the Roussillon), to work with friend and American winemaker Abe Schoener, who was embarking on a project here. After a pitstop in Priorat, she was introduced to some local winemakers. “You know, if you do stay and do harvest here, you’re going to marry the hot Swiss guy”, joked Abe.
Reader: he wasn’t joking.
As a child, Marcel had wanted to be a gardener. ‘He’s kind of a maths genius…’, Carrie adds.
“Being from Zurich, he went into banking. He was doing really well but he hated it – he didn’t even leave his desk for lunch because he was too depressed to come back to work. So at the age of 30, he left everything – he quit his job, he and his girlfriend broke up, and he took himself on a sabbatical.”
He spent a short time in Paris, putting himself through culinary school. But that wasn’t his calling (spoiler) and so he travelled to Barcelona and took a sabbatical there. One day, he found himself in Priorat with a friend, and he fell in love with the vineyards.
“He sort of just decided: okay, I’m going to grow vines.”
So, he put himself through Enology school at Guisenheim and sought out some vines in Priorat—but they were expensive. One evening, he was at a tiny restaurant in Gratallops, Priorat (Note: Abe and Carrie had also had lunch there previously—you see a pattern forming here, right?) and the waiter suggested that they should check out the Roussillon for vines—similar soils, similar vines and similar varieties.
Fast forward to 2006. Marcel had bought Domaine des Enfants, and in 2007, bottled his first vintage.
“Where the name Domaine des Enfants comes in, is the return of the inner child, or finding your inner child. If you look at the names of the cuvées, they all go by this theme.”
“Sometimes, in fact, he kind of regrets making it such a personal story… you’ll see when someone asks this question, he kind of brushes the question off. He’ll say something like because I’m a big child…”
We can relate to both, and we admire that he chose to wear his heart on his sleeve (*label). Carrie smiles, saying,
“And of course, once I came into the picture it became much easier because I can tell the story for him. It’s definitely not his favourite thing to be on a platform anyway, and I chat at 100 miles per hour.”
The domaine is known for its collection of several very old plots of vineyards. They might be difficult to farm, but they represent amazing genetic diversity. To safeguard this diversity and transform it into wine is the goal of Carrie and Marcel. Spread across 28 hectares, the parcels are all 'dry-farmed' (meaning without irrigation). The majority of the parcels are ploughed by their two horses – Nina and Bambou – as some are impossible to mechanise, and the soil work done by horse is the most gentle way and ensures no compaction.
The prominent variety at the domaine is Grenache, followed by Carignan and Syrah. The final 10% consists of a mix of Llandoner Pelut, Mourvèdre, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Carignan Blanc and Carignan Gris.
From the very beginning, the premise of Domaine des Enfants was to preserve the heritage and landscape of the region—meaning to preserve old vines, but also help the terroir to thrive. The Roussillon’s soil is one of the most varied in the world, in part a result of the Languedoc-Roussillon Symphony – a collision of tectonic plates and flooding of the formerly dry Mediterranean basin, which has in turn created a wildly diverse array of terroirs.
Half of the vines in Maury are rooted in meagre schist soil, and the other half – located in Cassage, Caramany and Rasiguères and on the Terra Rossa soils of Latour de France – can be found in granite and gneiss soils. It’s this rich and diverse mix of soil types which allow the varieties to show different sides of themselves.
360 Vineyard Trip
When Carrie mentions that Marcel might regret naming the domaine so personally, the image of a once deeply significant tattoo springs to mind. As we grow and evolve, we might come to question our decisions (inked, label or otherwise) these notes-to-self still come to represent who we were (or how we saw the world) at any given moment in time. It makes us who we are.
“If you look at the names of the cuvées, they all go by this theme of starting again. ‘Tabula Rasa’ represents starting again; ;L’Enfant Perdu,' is finding your lost inner child; 'Suis L’Étoile,' means to follow the star or your dreams and then you have 'La Larme de L’Âme' – that’s more for him.”
But we love the names and the bright, joyful colours on the bottle. The bold, tertiary colours on the label of Le Jouet makes us feel joyful and child-like. But back to what’s on the inside; Carrie continues,
“We do not perform winemaking. We try to intervene very little and give the wines time to find harmony and balance.”
Think of it as something akin to that of a hands-off parenting approach.
Each wine is a manifestation of a slightly different oxidation level in the cellar. For Le Jouet, the wine undergoes carbonic maceration, making it juicy and light. Tabula Rasa is a blend of their white and 'grey' varieties: Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc, the rare Carignan Blanc & Gris, and Macabeu. These vines are found scattered in old red vineyards, Carries explains. Both Abe and Marcel had a similar experience with these mixed parcels when scouting for vineyards in the Roussillon:
“If you move here in winter and buy a Grenache vineyard, you of course think you’re buying a red vineyard. But come harvest time, you realise it’s predominantly white. Then people are surprised that they’re some of the best wines coming out of the region!”
It’s a blessing in disguise. Sometimes the best things in life are the least expected.
'L’Enfant Perdu' is an ever-changing wine; the blend evolves yearly depending on which vines are chosen for their top wine (Suis L’Étoile). Typically, it contains one-third Grenache, one-third Carignan and one-third Syrah, with two-thirds of the grapes from their younger vineyards. Half of the wine is aged in barrels, and the other half in concrete tanks.
Their top cuvée, Suis L’Étoile (Under the Stars—a fitting name), is a blend of Grenache and Carignan from old vines, plus a sprinkle of Syrah. It is aged for 18 months in French barrels of varying sizes.
But the cellar is not just home to these blends; in recent years it has also become home to Carrie's own wines. For Domaine des Enfants, she has always contributed to Marcel's vision, and helped him to drive it forward, but through her own wines, she's able to explore her own unique thoughts. She reflects,
"Domaine des Enfants means a lot to me. Not only has it been the place forgiving of all my trials and errors, but the creation of the Domaine is very sentimental to me just as it is to Marcel. Marcel showed a lot of courage putting his deeply personal story behind a brand that is put out to the scrutiny of the market, which can be brutal. I admire this courage, and it has inspired me to be more personal with my label as well."
Wine is so personal, so why not let the label express the person behind the wine. It's also a story of hard work. Marcel has given his life to this domaine, and started from nothing. Most of what I know about making wine came from learning with Marcel at Domaine des Enfants. Through everything he has taught me, not only have I discovered the wine that I want to make myself, but I have also developed the skills in order to follow that dream. At the end of the day, wine is all about freedom of expression. It gives you the opportunity to go and create something that's entirely your own."
Her own project, Chroma Soma, was born partly thanks to Carrie's friend, Jeff Harding, Wine Director of New York's Waverly Inn, who mentioned that they could do a project together. She says,
"It just so happened that he was dreaming of a lighter Carignan at the same time that I had become obsessed with Thomas Teibert's Carignan and Abe Schoener's Cinsault. Without Jeff's support in the New York market, I don't know that this could have happened when it did. I would have needed more time."
It was the friendly push that she needed.
The result? An exploration into varietal wines through single soil types; Carignan and Grenache on schist and granite. She named it Chroma Soma; a name that has more than one meaning. It was firstly inspired by a series of paintings by Carrie's friend, Jeffrey Simms, who had been working on a series inspired by DNA. Carrie explains,
"The wines I wanted to make would be based on a purity of fruit. There are no stems used in the vinification process, a very gentle skin extraction, and no use of wood. I thought DNA would be a charming name, and that Jeff could design the label (if he wanted to do so). "
But she couldn't really make a connection to DNA. Deciding to read more about it, she also naturally found herself researching chromosomes. Suddenly, something clicked:
"Chromosomes were actually a better metaphor for my project, as I only do single varieties; kind of like how chromosomes make up an organism, and varieties make up a blend... When I went to the definition of chromosome, there it was. In ancient Greek, Chroma= color and Soma= body. In the vinification process, it's all about controlling the body with gentle extractions. And in that process—whether it is the temperature of fermentation or ripeness of the fruit—the color that comes out is this brilliant red. The wine named itself."
It has been quite the journey for Carrie, as she has chosen to do something polar opposite to the wines of Domaine des Enfants. She reflects,
"I would say my biggest learning curve has been picking decisions. My wines are completely different from the domaine wines, and my picking times are one of the biggest differentiators. In learning about the different soils, discovering my preference of picking times for the different soils, and different varieties on different soils has been interesting. As it's a soil study, I am also purchasing fruit from all around the valley, and the difference in altitude needs to be taken into consideration as well. These differences are the point of the whole project. However, it is very stressful and frustrating. Once the fruit is picked, it's picked. Then you have to decide what to do with it. And of course every year brings a different challenge."
What's next? Once she bottles her 2019 vintage, and can travel again when Corona restrictions ease, she will head to New York to taste the first three vintages side by side; to compare different varieties coming from different soils and altitudes. Then, it's a dream of hers to make a white Lladoner pelut; perhaps an inspiration from Abe Schoener's white Cinsault, we sense. This would become her first white wine.
As we taste from Chroma Soma to Domaine des Enfants, it's clear as day that the wines have their own very personal characteristics. The Chroma Soma cuvées are somehow leaner, more chiselled, whereas the Domaine des Enfants wines are a little warmer, a little more open. Carrie nods in agreement, saying
"One thing I have learnt is just how personal wine is. I taste my wines differently to the wines of Domaine des Enfants, even though I am vinifying those wines as well. I somehow connect to my wines differently; my palate is more finely calibrated to tasting them. Marcel feels the same way about Domaine des Enfants. So without trying to sound cheesy, it's a perfect example of "He said, She said".
And it's the perfect example of why we love wine; the liquid that can embody a person.