“There are truly differences in taste among the ageing containers... there are phases when it tastes good in barrel, then others when it tastes better in foudre or in amphora. It’s super interesting.”
At the Limits of Normalcy in Cheverny: The Wines of Hervé Villemade
By Aaron Ayscough
We often forget how close the Cheverny appellation is to the French capital: just a 90-minute drive. Many of its winemakers seem marked by a curious blend of rural isolation and urban sophistication. Celettes-based winemaker Hervé Villemade is no exception. His spacious cellar - where he hosts memorable open-door events every December - is festooned with blown-up black-and-white portraits of himself, his harvesters, and his family, taken by photographer friends from Paris. Standing outside, recognizable from Villemade’s wine labels, is a giant figurative statue thrusting its chest skyward, an impulse buy from a sculptor friend. Yet Villemade himself displays little artistic or poetic bent. He’s as normcore as they come, all sweatshirt, overgrown iron-flecked crewcut, and grin.
I first met him in 2017 when he dropped by during a tasting I’d arranged with his neighbour, Christian Venier. If the latter hadn’t introduced me, I don’t think I could have picked Villemade up out of a line-up, despite having drunk countless bottles of his wines over the years. I knew of his significance only due to his wines’ ubiquity in the Paris natural wine scene, where year after year his precise négoçiant wines represent astounding value for money.
Villemade began making wine in 1995, with 8.5 hectares inherited from his father, a mixed agricultural farmer. By chance, Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue Boeuf - who would become one of the Loire’s pioneers in natural winemaking - had returned from his own travels in wine apprenticeship six months earlier.
“I didn’t know him then. I knew his parents well, and [his brother] Jean-Marie [Puzelat] a bit. But not Thierry, since he wasn’t in the area before,” recalls Villemade, when we visit him in Celettes in November 2019. He adds simply, “We got along well.”
Villemade credits Thierry with introducing him to the work of the pathbreaking natural winemakers of the era: Marcel Lapierre and the gang from the Beaujolais, Mark Angeli, Domaine Gramenon. Moved by these wines, he produced his own first sulphite-free cuvée in 1997, before expanding the low-sulphite approach to all his wines, and converting to organic viticulture in 1999, the same year his sister Isabelle joined him at the estate.
Today Villemade farms 22 hectares of vines, spread among the communes of Celettes, Chitenay, and Fougères-sur-Bièvre, planted to the bounteous local grape mix: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Menu Pineau, Romorantin, Côt (a French synonym for Malbec), Pinot Noir, Gamay and Chenin Blanc. Soils here divide roughly between sandy-flint and clayey-flint. Vines are spaced relatively wide at two metres, and even wider for the older vines that comprise the historical heart of the estate.
“Before, my parents planted a bit wider, because it was polyculture, and they had just one tractor that had to fit in both the grains and the vines,” he says.
His chief concern, as he’s expanded over the years, has been minimizing frost risk. It was frost losses that impelled him, in 2002, to partner with sommelier-turned-winemaker Olivier Lemasson to found Les Vins Contés, a négoçiant business that Lemasson continued after the pair parted ways in 2006. Villemade founded his own négoçiant company in 2008, which he continues to this day. Not all purchases have organic certification, although he emphasises that all grapes are farmed organically.
“How much we purchase depends on the year,” he explains. “We had many difficult years since we began, so we regularly bought grapes. We created cuvées and partnerships with winegrowers. So now it’s difficult to say to them, ‘Oh this year we won’t take the grapes.’”
As we tour the vines it’s impossible not to remark the large - and expensive - frost fan towering amid his Gamay and Romorantin. Unique to the Cour-Cheverny appellation, the Romorantin grape is known for its unflagging minerality.
The vineyards he acquired in Fougères-sur-Bièvre in 2009 were taken on precisely because it's a zone that rarely frosts. But they came with a downside.
“It was just very wide-spaced vines with 50% missing,” he says. “So I kept the one hectare that was planted basically correctly, and uprooted the rest,” he says.
By late 2019, he has just about finished replanting it all to Sauvignon, Menu Pineau, and a small amount of Pinot Noir.
While Villemade’s basic bottlings of Sauvignon and Cheverny Rouge are known as craftsmanlike, unshowy references for their grape varieties, his cellar work in recent years has seen a marked increase in experimentation, as he acquires a panoply of new aging containers, ranging from 400L and 500L barrels to foudres to amphorae in sandstone and clay, along with two buried Georgian qvevri.
“When the wines settle a bit, there are truly differences in taste among the ageing containers, as much in white as in red. There are phases when it tastes good in barrel, then others when it tastes better in foudre or in amphora. It’s super interesting.”
Like his neighbour Thierry Puzelat, Villemade was inspired to produce more lightly skin-macerated whites in 2019 by the difficult fermentations that afflicted much of France the previous year, when many winemakers had difficulty coaxing their direct-press white wines to dryness. Increasing time on the skins for white grapes, so the thinking goes, increases exposure to native yeasts on the skins, thereby aiding successful fermentation. Villemade's 2019 Sauvignon-Chardonnay blend “La Bodice,” for example, is composed of half direct-press juice and half juice that macerated, destemmed, for forty-eight hours. It worked as he anticipated.
“The macerated part is almost dry, and the part that didn’t macerate at all is at 1010 or 1005 in sugar density [still sweet],” he says. “We have good results, but still a slowdown at the end of fermentation with the macerated part. Maybe we need to go further in maceration time."
The jewel of Villemade’s production remains his Cour-Cheverny “Les Acaçias,” from 55-year old Romorantin vines on sandy-flint soil. The 2018 “Les Acaçias” is still in barrel when we visit; it will spend a full two years ageing.
“The wood suits it well, because oxidation doesn't bother Romorantin,”
The wine possesses an unusual potency, with persistent notes of salted almond and delicate white honey. Unfortunately, it amounts to just three 400L barrels in 2018, a result of a vicious attack of mildew. He’s looking forward to 2020, when a new plantation of Romorantin will start showing fruit.
“I don’t want to change what we do habitually. I like to go gently,” he says. “But I’m going to try macerating Romorantin next year, because I’ll have a bit more volume.”
It’s surely a phenomenon to keep an eye on - as a vigneron known for his quiet consistency and dependable varietal-wine value enters his baroque period.
Aaron Ayscough is a wine writer based in Paris. His writing has appeared in publications including The Financial Times, Wine Business International, and Fantastic Man, as well as on his own blog, Not Drinking Poison In Paris. When he's not writing about wine, he is serving it, as wine director of the Michelin-starred restaurant Table in Paris. His current wine obsession is Renaud Boyer's 2017 Saint Romain blanc.