In Thouarcé, in the Anjou appellation of the Loire, nestled between a forest, fields of wheat, grasses, vegetables and land home to five cows and two horses, you’ll find the Chenin Blanc and Grolleau (gris, blanc and noir) vineyards of Ferme de la Sansonnière, tended by Mark Angeli and his son Martial Angeli.
Their winemaking mission pays respect to the very notion of une ferme: a farm. This isn’t just about the wine, it’s also about promoting biodiversity and pursuing a path that leads in the opposite direction to monoculture. Through eschewing chemicals and working with nature, never against it, they have become known for their deep, emotive wines; wines that are faithful to the beautiful raw fruit and living soils from which they come.
LITTLEWINE travelled to Ferme de la Sansonnière during harvest 2020 and interviewed Mark for this piece.
Originally a stonemason, it was when one of Mark’s clients paid him in wine in the late 80s that the flame was lit for great things to come. He caught the wine bug, and one year later decided to ditch the making of cellars to the making of wine instead. He did his first harvest with La Tour Blanche in Sauternes, and down the rabbit hole he went: his future as a winemaker was set in stone.
“I looked all over France to figure out where I should settle. In Bordeaux it was very expensive of course, and already back then the climate in the south was very hot — even more so now. We were fortunate to find a balance here in the Loire.”
Since the beginning, he has worked without chemicals in the vineyards, reflecting,
“For me, it is impossible to do anything other than organics.”
He explains that the previous owner, who had sold his grapes to the local cooperative, had only used herbicides for a brief stint of ten years, having worked with a plough and horse for twenty years before that.
“Apart from Guy Bossard in Muscadet and the Foucault family in Saumur, almost everybody in the region tried chemicals for farming at some stage, and many of them stuck with the chemicals. There weren’t many who continued to work with a plough, so I was lucky to find land that had seen herbicides for only ten years.”
During the first winter at his newly purchased farm, he attended a talk on biodynamics. He began trials in his own vineyards in 1990, and by 1993, bit by bit he had converted all his parcels, eventually certifying with the Demeter association in 1994.
Discovering this way of farming led Mark to the notion of seeing the farm as an organism. This means that instead of analysing single aspects of a farm, the farm should rather be seen as one living, breathing entity, which should be preserved and nurtured. This includes incorporating animals, so Mark decided to learn more — in 1994, he bought his first horse, followed by his first cow in 1996. He says,
“I did an internship with Olivier Cousin [fellow winemaker, horse lover and ploughing specialist] to get the basics, bit it took at least five years more to really understand. Working with animals is all about learning by doing.”
For him, this way of thinking about farming has broadened his horizons:
“We will try anything here — as long as it doesn’t involve chemicals, of course! And with our animals… well, once you start it’s hard to stop!” he laughs. “You become very attached. We now have five cows and two horses, which is about the maximum we have space for here. We also produce hay for the animals, wheat to make bread, different kinds of oils, and a young local market gardener rents some land for vegetable cultivation — what he achieves is really extraordinary.”
It’s not always been an easy ride, however:
“We also keep bees, but it’s not easy. When they installed a mobile telephone mast in the village, the bees started to die. We’ve started again, but it’s really difficult. You must take all environmental factors into account, and you must learn to listen — it’s about listening, not controlling.”
Mark tells us that the vineyards of the Loire are very divided: between the farmers who have chosen to work organically, and those who maintain the chemical methods. The key problem in conventional viticulture (i.e. non-organic), he explains, is the use of synthetic fertilisers:
“There is a big gap between the wines made from chemically treated vineyards — many of which have now been treated like that for fifty years — and those made from organic and biodynamic vineyards. Firstly, the ones cultivated with chemicals die more quickly, whereas with biodynamics, every year the vines seem more resistant, the soil more alive, and the wines better. The wines from the chemically treated vineyards no longer tell you anything in the glass. When people who make wines from those vineyards have the opportunity to taste biodynamic wines, they comment, it’s impossible to have aromas like that in wine! You must have added apricot syrup. They’ve become disconnected from reality.”
We ask him why he thinks this is, to which he says,
“It’s all about understanding the basics of cultivation. Synthetic fertilizers are a type of salt. When you put those on the soil, it dissolves in the water in the soil. Then, when the vine takes up the water, it also takes up the salts. It’s like human beings; when we eat very salty food, we want to drink more. Similarly, the vines take up more and more water to try to dissolve these salts. That makes the grapes swell, and that diminishes the taste of the grapes, resulting in the grapes having no taste. And eventually, the vines need those chemicals to avoid getting sick. People don’t understand that those synthetic fertilizers are the start of the catastrophe — for the vines, and for the wines. Instead, people should look to compost and manure.”
The vineyards are located next to 1.5 hectares of forest. Mark explains that by working with gobelet vines (like in Beaujolais, small bush vines), they can make sure their vineyards are well aerated, meaning they don’t suffer from various types of rot. In addition, Mark, Martial and Bruno have planted trees around the border of their vineyards to act as a windbreak. Mark adds,
“Since we planted the trees five years ago, we’ve noticed that there are more birds, and we don’t have budworms — a type of caterpillar which attacks the grapes. The only disease pressure we really have is downy mildew, which we have to look out for around every three years out of four.”
We ask whether he thinks that the trees will aid additionally in strengthening the vines’ ‘immune systems’, given that the mycelium web under the ground will develop in complexity, to which he says,
“Let’s see, hopefully we’ll be able to tell you more in ten years’ time! It is a long-term project. There’s an old proverb that says you should plant trees that produce seeded fruit with trees that produce stone fruit. So in Provence, for example, you always find apricot trees and nut trees amongst vines. So, in addition to our apple trees [the Angelis also make fruit juice], we’ve also planted Mirabelle plum trees, peach trees, etc. But we must wait a long time before we see how the vines and trees respond to one another. For now, well — aesthetically it’s beautiful, and we also feel great when we’re working there. It has a very special ambiance.”
In addition, Mark emphasises that the other key factor affecting vine health — and simultaneously wine quality — is that of yields. He says,
“We prune our vineyards to aim for a yield of 30hl/ha, which we achieve, apart from in the recent years where we have been badly affected by frost. That is the amount of grapes that a vine can reliably ripen in any year, in any vintage, even in the very rainy years like 2007. It is the principal factor for the quality of wine.”
It is one of the reasons that the Ferme de la Sansonnière wines are sold as vin de France wines, instead of under AOC Anjou. But why? Mark explains,
“It’s important to note that we aren’t at all against the idea of AOCs — in fact, we think the notion of the appellation system is magnificent. But with regards to yields… before phylloxera, the normal yields for vineyards was 30hl/ha — across all of France. But since the 50s, winemakers asked INAO (the national institute of origin and quality) to increase this to 35, then to 40, and now you’re allowed to produce 60hl/ha of wine under AOC laws for Anjou. The quality from wines made from a vineyard of 30hl/ha versus 60hl/ha is not at all the same. Plus, if you produce very high yields, you have to correct the wines in the cellar because the grapes weren’t at all ripe…”
It is this logical approach combined with a deep sensitivity for nature that governs their way of thinking. Thanks to their meticulous work in the vineyards, their implementation of biodynamics, their training system and their restrained approach to yields, they can use a very small amount of copper and sulphur (the organic substances used to treat against disease). The use of copper is on average 1 – 1.5kg/ha, well below the limit of 4kg.
They have also planted some vines as franc de pied (ungrafted); an ongoing project; which Mark says is the way to find the true potential of the vines. In addition, they are also focusing on saving the diversity of their old vines. One of their parcels dates back to 1949, and they have reproduced this parcel via cuttings in a baby vineyard. Mark says,
“Usually, when people plant a massal selection, they do this from maybe only ten vines or so. But we took cuttings from every vine, apart from the few that were sick, so we have an incredible diversity. It’s very interesting, and you really see the difference.”
For the Angeli team, no stone is left unturned, and we have the feeling that the next time we return, there’ll be yet another experiment happening amongst these vines.
“The Loire is truly a countryside region — it’s very remote here. When we first arrived, the general quality of wine was very bad. Almost nobody was focusing on quality, it was astonishing, actually.”
Dedicated to pursuing his own vision of fine wine, he soon realised that the way he wanted to make wine didn’t fit in with what the AOC required:
“Together with some winemaker friends, we were forging a new path. But our wines were different to the other wines, so they were refused by the AOC. For rosé, for example, one criterion was that they should be the same colour every year, but of course you can’t do that! And our whites were deemed to be ‘atypical.’ But we preferred our wines, and our clients preferred our wines. When you try to present wines several times to the tasting panels to get AOC status, and they keep getting refused, well… eventually it was just much easier to go straight to vin de France. We stopped applying for the rosé in 2002, the red in 2006, and the rest in 2007.”
Despite the frustrations with the current set-up of the appellation system, Mark is very enthusiastic about the future of the area and has acted as a mentor for countless young winemakers arriving, helping them to find land, and with farming and cellar queries. He says,
“In the Côtes-du-Rhone, it costs €40-50,000 per hectare of vines, whereas here it is €20,000 at most. That means that many young people are setting up here, which is great for renovating the region as a whole. Of course, often these new domaines are small, but there are so many of them. That gives great visibility — for importers and journalists — as it shows the quality of the region. It’s very dynamic, and we have winemakers from so many nationalities! Of course, from all over France, but also England, Japan, Poland… it’s amazing.”
“I’m very optimistic for wines from the Loire, and also for French wine in general. We organise a tasting in Angers every year, and we taste wines from all over, from young people, and we see the evolution. Appellations are being reborn with amazing quality wine; places like Montlouis, Galliac, Marcillac, Jurançon, etc. Just a short while ago there was almost nothing interesting coming out of those areas, and now there is! It is very emotional — marvellous — to see that happen.”
The domaine has also become known for its work with sulfites. Mark began experimenting with lowering sulfite levels, as well as making wine without sulfites at all, in the 1990s. He says,
“I learnt a lot. Sometimes, we’d make wine without sulfites and they would be oxidised. Other times, we’d have no issues at all. Our goal isn’t to make wine without sulfites, but rather to make great wines. So, if the wine doesn’t need sulfites, we don’t add them… which is easier with the red and crémant. For the whites, which are shipped all over the world, we almost always add some sulfites, as if they are transported in containers without great temperature control, we could risk that they would arrive oxidised, and we don’t want that.”
In 2003, a winemaker friend told him that the sulfites used in wine are a by-product created from the petrochemical industry. He was shocked and began looking for an alternative. He came across somebody who had taken natural volcanic sulphur from Mount Etna in Sicily and refined it. Inspired, he began to source natural sulphur from a mine in Poland; one of the only sulphur mines remaining, as the petrochemical trade has almost made the industry redundant. The sulphur is then refined in Italy, after which it comes to France. He uses this sulphur in the vineyards also, and a local friend has created a machine which burns the sulphur to create SO2 (sulfites, which is the version used in winemaking).
“We are very content, as with these sulfites we’re able to lower our doses by around 40%. Instead of 80-90mg/L, we now use around 40/50mg/L. The only thing we wonder is whether young volcanic sulphur would be even more efficient than the sulphur from the mines.”
When asked why he thinks this form of sulphur is more effective, he explains that it is an emerging area of research which suggests there could be a difference in molecular structure of natural sulphur versus sulphur produced as a by-product of the petrochemical industry. Time will tell!
In the cellar, the wines are pressed with a beautiful Coquard press (the large version of an old-school screw press used traditionally in Champagne), which gives a very high quality juice. The wines then age in older oak barrels. In 2013, Martial — Mark’s son — also began experimenting with amphorae. At first, they did some experiments with Georgian qvevri, but they weren’t content as the beeswax lining also imparted flavour to the wines. They have since purchased sandstone amphorae, which they find give a more chiselled and pure structure to their wines.
Ultimately, their winemaking is very simple: the one goal is to preserve the inherent nature of their beautiful grapes. Mark dwells,
“Many winemakers will give a speech about purity, but for us, it’s really about something more basic. We see our work as being a sort of catalyst. It wasn’t us that chose to put these varieties here, but they are our treasures. There’s no variety that will do better than Chenin in this region, that’s for sure. It is our great variety, and whoever decided to plant it, well — they’ve given us a stunner! We try to be interpreters of their work, which means leaving our vines in a beautiful state — taking care of them. After that, the most important decision we make is the day of harvest. Then, we press the juice well, we have good vessels, but the toughest decision is choosing that date. You must really pay attention to be able to harvest the grapes when they’re at their healthiest. That is the great work of a winemaker. I’ve never really understood when people compare winemakers to artists. When we’re at a wine fair and look around, those people aren’t artists, rather they’re amazing artisans. It’s not about creating a piece of work on a canvas or an opera, ours is the work of a farmer — having our feet on the ground.”
Honest words for transparent wines. These sentiments summarise exactly why these unicorn-adorned bottlings are so breath-taking, for they represent something that humankind cannot replicate — the intricacies and complexity of Mother Nature herself.