What happens when the world of an academic (a translator of ancient Ethiopian manuscripts, no less) turned draft horse trainer collides with the trainee of one of the most incredible natural winemakers we’ve ever seen? Well, that’s Charlotte & Aurélien Houillon’s story, and their wines are as magical as you’d expect. They settled in the Faucon, Vaucluse, far away from where they met (Switzerland) because they fell in love with a property: one with its own ecosystem and old vines. There, they combine their biodynamic know-how with Jura natural winemaking techniques to create unparalleled wines of the southern Rhône.
This little pocket of the Vaucluse is very rural; so much so that they barely have a neighbour; just some neighbouring vineyards above the hill to one side. This makes it the perfect environment for biodynamic agriculture; and the duo is moving in that direction, having first converted the domaine to organics. The vineyards represent four hectares; of which three hectares is Grenache, 1.3 hectares is Syrah and 0.15 hectares is Cinsault. They are dedicated to preserving their old vines (many are over 50 years old, and some are much older). When some vines die, they replant via massal selection (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) and to do this, they work with the iconic vine nursery, Lilian Bérillon. They are also working with Lilian to plant indigenous varieties: 0.3 hectares of Bourboulenc (for white wine) and 0.5 hectares of Cinsault, a red variety that they’re particularly fond of.
Charlotte has a mare, Victoire, and a donkey, Castor. Victoire is a Poitevin (trait mulassier poitevin), which is an endangered breed; in 2011 there were just over 300 breeding horses. Castor is a Poitou donkey (baudet du Poitou) - by 1977, a survey found only 44 donkeys. Conservation efforts began, and by 2005 there were 450 Poitou donkeys.
Charlotte was inspired by Les Colibris - the notion that each and every one of us can do something to combat the environmental crisis. She compares her love for working with endangered species to working with massal selection vines. Both this and working with rare breeds is extremely important for diversity and cultural history. Charlotte also emphasised what can go wrong if we don’t work to preserve diversity, highlighting the Cavendish banana crisis (essentially bananas as we know them are endangered by a strain of the Panama disease). Us human beings have a duty to preserve and nurture what nature gives us, not replace it or even erase it, and Domaine Houillon is a shining example of what can be done on a small scale.
Having worked with the iconic Pierre Overnoy in the Jura for several years (Aurélien is the brother of Emmanuel and Adeline Houillon, who carry on Pierre’s legacy at his estate since his retirement), Aurélien knows a thing or two about natural winemaking. All the grapes are destemmed by hand, which means they can very carefully sort the berries to ensure only the healthiest fruit is used in winemaking. As they say,
“Anything we wouldn't eat, we don’t use in the wine, either.”
The berries then go into stainless steel vats, which are closed with a floating lid, meaning all of the carbon dioxide is trapped, resulting in a semi-carbonic fermentation. As such, the maceration is incredibly gentle, resulting in silky-soft low tannin wines. The berries remain in these tanks for extended periods of around ten to twelve weeks, after which the berries are pressed and the wine ages in old barrels in their cool cellars. They avoid pumps and any machinery, instead working by gravity to ensure the molecular chains within the wines remain intact, something that they stress is crucial for creating ageworthy wines. The wines are always bottled without any additions or manipulation — no fining, no filtration and no sulfites — ever. For their first vintage, they created blends, and they have now moved to experimenting with varietal cuvées, in order to best understand their vines, varieties and wines.