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Domaine Jeandaugé

When driving through the rolling hills of Gascony, it’s somewhat like stepping back in time to another century. Old stone houses are surrounded by vineyards, crops, cows and woods on all sides. This is a rare part of France where the landscape is still one of polyculture.

However, while it may look idyllic, it has historically also been a very poor area of France. Here, Domaine Jeandaugé, home to 28 hectares of vines tended by Sébastien Fezas, has been in the Fezas family since the 1800s. Sébastien’s father made bulk wine to sell to négociants, earning just 60 cents per litre.

These days, Sébastien Fezas is doing the opposite. Dedicated to biodynamic and regenerative farming, and bravely going against the grain to create his no-addition cuvées, he is showing another dimension of what is possible with the soil, vines and fruit of Domaine Jeandaugé. He may only be at the beginning of his journey, but the results are already spectacular.

LITTLEWINE travelled to visit him in June 2022 to find out more.

When it was time for Sébastien to take over Domaine Jeandaugé in 2012, he had been inspired by the organic movement, and decided to begin converting the family vineyards. As his father had been restricted by the price of the wines he was selling, Sébastien explains that the vines had never been badly chemically treated (as the chemicals themselves were expensive), so the transition was not too difficult.

However, when the 2018 vintage arrived, it brought chaos. Sébastien says,

“2018 was disastrous for mildew, and financially it was a huge problem. I began asking myself, why are my vines so sensitive? Other people in the area said it’s because I had grass in between the vines, but I didn’t listen to them.”

Worried and unsure how to avoid a financially ruinous vintage in the future, he decided to ask for help.

“I asked Dominique Andiran — a local biodynamic winemaker who makes fabulous oxidative wines, and who is a very kind person — for advice. Through that I discovered biodynamics, and I decided to take a course. I found that way of looking at things very interesting — it changed everything for me in terms of how I work in the vineyards, as well as on a personal level. I realised I needed to be spending more time in the vineyards — to be present more. I began buying the plant preparations and began making my own stinging nettle ferments. Now, I no longer work the soils. I do a cover crop from a mix of plant seeds that I buy from a local organic grower, but do so via direct seeding, so that I don’t touch the structure of the soil. Hence, all of the rows are covered by the grasses of the cover crop, which gives more biomass to the soil, as well as the indigenous plants we have here. I try to be as gentle as possible, so only roll the cover crop.”

He muses,

“2018 was so hard, but it just made me even more passionate in the end. It also enabled me to meet other winemakers, and to share methods and ideas.”

For the moment, he works occasionally with discs or blades very gently under the vines, to manage competition, but is considering going fully no-till and is trialling it. He works according to gentle pruning, always thinking of the sap flow, and is also training local people whom he hires to work in this manner.

He sometimes leaves the apex to grow, experimenting with tressage (wrapping the ends of the vines together) but acknowledges that this is time-consuming and not always possible depending on the vintage, so sometimes does need to cut them back.

“When I do need to cut the vines, I only do so after the summer solstice. That’s when the vine changes its annual cycle and becomes less vigorous. If you cut before then, the vine will simply grow a lot more.”

'Tressage' - the act of wrapping vines onto one another

Sébastien's dynamiser - a copper vessel for his biodynamic plant preparations

Through taking courses, he began to meet winemakers from other regions. Intrigued by his varieties and vineyard work, Sébastien formed relationships with like-minded low intervention and organic/biodynamic domaines across France, selling his fruit to them — from the Jurançon to the Loire. They formed a collective of sorts, and the winemakers helped him to buy a conveyer belt. As they hand harvest the grapes, this enables the whole bunches of grapes to be moved into the press without being crushed, ensuring a clean juice with little oxygenation. Then, once pressed, the juice makes its way to the various domaines for them to make their wines from. He says,

“It’s great to have made connections like these. Here in the Gers, I’m a bit alone in terms of how I work, so this means I have friends to discuss things together with – we have a network and can share our learnings.”

It is the perfect solution for Sébastien, who wishes to grow his own label slowly and organically. 28 hectares is a lot — it might seem like a blessing to inherit so many vines — but it also comes with its own challenges; especially when farming in a biodynamic and regenerative mindset. He explains,

“I am still reflecting about the size of the property and thinking about diminishing it as it’s simply too much work. I’d also like to do more in terms of vitiforesterie (agroforestry with regards to vineyards). For the moment, I’ve been planting hedges around the borders, but eventually I think it could be a good idea to take out four rows of vines per every 20 rows, for example, to introduce hedges and trees within the vineyard, too. Tearing vines out is always a delicate matter; it hurts the heart; but it’s important to try to restructure the countryside, and to bring biodiversity back.”

He continues,

“I could make so much wine from these vineyards, but that isn’t the goal. I want to make interesting small cuvées and stick to making small volumes. I also want to continue working with other winemakers; they are great people and I find it very rewarding. There must be something human also in the professional side of things. The same goes for distributors — I don’t work with anyone who has a conventional mindset. In the Gers, that’s difficult, as there’s a lot of education that needs to be done. In the Loire, for example, it’s different, as there’s a big dynamic group of winemakers. That creates a certain curiosity for consumers. But here, many people don’t understand the costs involved, and so they’re surprised. Many are also used to more oaky wines, so it takes a bit of time...”

Ultimately, Sébastien would be content to have around 15 hectares of vines, but he’s still figuring it out. This is by no means an overnight feat, and he wants to ensure he makes the correct decisions both for his business and for his personal life.

“The goal is to find a personal balance. More time for me; more time to work better in the vines that I have.”

Sébastien has also installed Warré beehives — not to make honey — but simply for biodiversity. A friend also brings his sheep to graze through the vineyards during the winter. They act as nature’s lawn mowers and fertilise the soil at the same time. Additionally, Sébastien has been working with https://symbiosphere.fr/ since hearing a broadcast with them on the France Culture radio.  They have installed 20 bird and bat boxes throughout his vineyards to further promote local biodiversity and the team comes to inspect them and monitor which species are present.

The Wines

Sébastien’s first vintage, in 2017, began with 4000 bottles of rosé and 500 bottles of an oxidative Chardonnay. The Chardonnay sold quickly, but he only finished selling his rosé last year. He humbly recognises that it takes time to build a reputation and market.

Now that he has distribution, however, he has slowly begun to increase production, and has introduced additional cuvées.

When entering Sébastien’s cellar, the stark contrast between the past, the present and the future is seen simply by the size of the family’s historical concrete tanks (the smallest of which is 180 hectolitres!) On the other side of these, you find Sébastien’s much smaller concrete vessels, old oak barrels and amphorae. It is like chalk and cheese — from bulk wine to artisan and experimental wine. As Sébastien jokes, ‘it’s a bit complicated to make small vinifications in that big tank!”

In these smaller vessels you find Sébastien’s wines ageing. His Partie Fine white wine is a blend of Colombard (around 80%) and Ugni Blanc. Directly pressed, he then experiments with ageing some parts in concrete, some in amphora (bought from an artisan potter in Spain) and some in barrel.

“I would also like to make Colombard on its own, but Ugni Blanc brings a nice freshness and tension to the blend, which helps in warmer vintages especially.”

Since 2020, he has felt confident enough to make all of his wines without any added sulfites. He is also experimenting with more skin contact vinifications for Colombard and Gros Manseng, including a delicious seven-month macerated Colombard, which will be released as a collaboration wine with Lise & Bertrand Jousset from the Loire.

He also makes a rosé (2021 was the first year he made another one, given how long it took him to sell the 2017!) from Tannat, with a splash of Syrah, a variety which Sébastien planted himself in 2012. The majority of the Syrah, however, is reserved for his incredible red wine, ‘Franche Lippée,’ which is a whole bunch semi-carbonic fermentation that reminds us of Dard & Ribo. He destems a very small portion of grapes to put at the bottom of the tank, after which the whole bunches crush these grapes to produce juice, which in turn creates a natural CO2-rich environment for a carbonic-style fermentation. The grapes then macerate for around 15 days, after which the wine is aged in concrete and a small portion in old barrels.

Inspired by his initial white wine experiment, he continues to make an oxidative style of Chardonnay, which is aged in barrels on the lees for 1.5 years, without being topped up. It reminds us of an oxidative Jura style; nutty and saline.

“It’s the kind of wine that you can leave open in the fridge for over a week! It’s so stable. Everything that has oxidised in that wine has already oxidised, so it holds together very well.”

He is also figuring out how best to vinify Tannat, currently working infusion-style to create a new cuvée named Pistache.

“I have such a beautiful parcel of Tannat, and the grapes are super. I believe the variety has such potential, so I want to highlight it and really learn how to best vinify it.”

He is also experimenting more and more with sparkling wine, both with the pét-nat method and by freezing juice to restart fermentation in the bottle. He has been greatly inspired by Château Laffite in the Jurançon (to whom he also sells grapes), and this year (2022) will experiment further with his Chardonnay grapes.

“I tasted a Gros Manseng from Château Laffite that had been aged for 15 months sur latte. It tasted like Champagne! That really gave me the desire to continue to try making sparkling wine. It’s a lot of work, sure, but the effort is all worth it when you produce wines like that.”

If we had to condense the Domaine Jeandaugé wines to one word, it would be mesmerising. They are simply magnetic; so pure, vibrant and energetic. They are youthful, yet simultaneously serious. We ask whether Sébastien thinks his conversion to biodynamics has played a role in this vibrancy. He says,

“It’s hard to say, as there are so many different parameters. I’ve also stopped working the soils, which means the soil structure is very different. I’ve introduced the cover crops to bring more biomass… so it’s hard to tell. But really, I think it’s about intention. You must believe in what you do.”

We nod, sitting quietly and thinking about the wines. This notion of intention is important; these wines are quietly confident, mirroring their maker. It might seem silly to imply that a wine can be happy, but when you taste the Domaine Jaundaugé wines, they truly do feel joyful, and this joy is transferred directly to the drinker — to us. And for that, we raise a glass to Sébastien — thank you for bringing light into the world in the form of your wines.  

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