"It’s not bad being outside… working with living things and the seasons.. at the end of the day that’s just a really wonderful thing, isn’t it?”
In the late 60s, Jean David’s father gave him some vineyard plots to experiment with. They were the least productive (and thus considered the least interesting). What his father hadn’t realised was that the wine produced from them was in fact more interesting; quantity does not mean quality in the wine world.
From a gut feeling, he decided to work organically from the get-go – a rarity at a time when many growers believed that chemical agriculture was the way forward.
Friendships were forged with winemaker friends from further afield, such as Jean-Pierre Frick, who shared the same values. Organic wine fairs were born, and slowly but surely, the world began to take note.
When Jean retired, he passed the baton to his son-in-law, Jean-Luc, — but it was more than just the winemaking baton that was passed. Jean-Luc, who had worked in IT beforehand, found himself working outside for the first time. There was no going back to his desk.
The Vineyards & River Ouvèze
Meet Jean-Luc Auffret
When we’re tasting with Jean-Luc, we’re curious about the chair on the label. We point to it, and he smiles, saying,
“Ah, yes. The chair. If you had to get rid of everything you owned, and could only keep one object, what would it be? For us, it’s chairs. When you’re a winemaker and you take a break, which doesn’t happen often, you sit down with fellow winemakers and have a drink.”
That’s the kind of guy Jean-Luc is; contemplative, but practical. He has learnt his craft from Jean David, but he’s also bringing his own touch. A lot of thinking is done on those chairs.
These days, Jean-Luc manages all of the vineyards. But before Jean David had retired, it was actually another aspect of nature that first drew Jean-Luc to working outside. A close friend of Jean-Luc’s — Sylvère Petit — is a filmmaker and wildlife enthusiast. He launched a docuseries about animals, filmed from their point of view.
“He wanted us to be on the same levels as animals — not a human being telling us about them, as per all the other nature documentaries.”
One of these was about bees, so he learnt the ins-and-outs of beekeeping and kept bees with his father. Jean-Luc himself became interested too, and before he knew it, he had received some bee hives for a Christmas present.
“Before that, I knew nothing about bees. But I decided to learn as much as I could — buying books and speaking to beekeepers. I was still working in IT at the time, and when I was going to see the bees, I thought — hey, it’s not bad being outside… working with living things and the seasons... at the end of the day that’s just a really wonderful thing, isn’t it?”
He takes us to the hives, and looks at them with great pride.
It’s clear to us he’s just as proud of his bees as he is his wine.
The 17 hectares lie on either side of the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Séguret appellation and the Côtes-du-Rhône appellation. As they are on the plains, there’s a higher proportion of clay with greater water holding capacity, meaning their vines suffer less from drought. They are fortunate to have some very old vines amongst them; some of which are verging on 100 years old. Jean-Luc grins as he says,
“Old vines are a treasure, they’re magic. If you want them, you can’t just get them. If the generation before you hadn’t planted them, they wouldn’t be there. So really, they’re not just a treasure — rather, they’re a heritage.”
It’s for this reason that they also put in a lot of effort when it comes to replanting, working with the renowned nurseryman Lilian Bérillon to plant massal selection vines, instead of clones, when replacing dead vines. Jean-Luc is also very selective about which varieties he replants, saying,
“I ask myself a lot of questions when I plant vines — we must be responsible and think about the climate. That’s why I’m planting Bourboulenc for example; it’s the last to be harvested, and it always keeps its acidity. It doesn’t put time pressure on you, and that’s a good thing!”
While this area of the Rhône is heralded for its red wines, the domaine has built a reputation for its whites, despite only making a small amount.
“It’s not like we’re in Alsace or Burgundy, where the white wines are so famous, but we’re getting there… more and more people come asking for white wine.”
So much so, that they’re selling out of their white wine before they’re able to make more. A good problem to have; and a good reason to plant more Bourboulenc.
The vineyards have been certified organic since 1987, but had been worked without chemicals ever since Jean originally took over the vines. Jean-Luc explains,
“Jean [David] had watched his father use chemical products that made holes in his shoes. It didn’t feel right to him; he wanted to go back to the way in which his grandfather had worked. He also met an organic fruit grower from the region, who encouraged him. For them it was about taste — not technology.”
They use a gentle tool for ploughing, which puts the soil back in the position it was before. It’s very time consuming, taking all of April and May, but it’s important for Jean-Luc to be as gentle as possible with their soil.
There are many varieties of trees bordering at the vineyards, and when we ask whether they planted them, Jean-Luc laughs and says,
“No. The birds did.”
The white wines are pressed directly, after which they are cold settled overnight, and then fermented naturally and aged in stainless steel to preserve freshness.
The red wines are generally fermented with all whole bunches, then aged in concrete, which they feel suits them better than steel, as the wine is allowed to breathe more.
For the red wines, sulphites are kept to the minimum and only added when necessary. For the whites, they add some sulphites early — when the fruit comes in — to try to dissuade malolactic fermentation from occurring. That said, Jean-Luc isn’t certain they’ll continue to do so, saying,
“This year, the Roussanne went through malolactic fermentation anyway, and it’s tasting great. So maybe we’ll use less now. We’ll see.”
They use a maximum of 60mg/L of sulphites (for organic certification the max. permitted is 150mg/L, and for Demeter it’s 70mg/L, so they’re still pretty low). He says,
“My philosophy when it comes to sulphites… Well, if there’s a problem, I don’t stop myself from using them. But I use as little as I can. I hate it. The smell is horrible when you’re using it, and you feel it in your throat, it’s just gross. So, I use as little as possible. But I also hate it when a wine has deviances, like mouse taint, that could have been avoided by using some sulphites. That’s a shame. Your pruning, your ploughing, your actions in the cellar… all that work to then end up with a wine that tastes like saucisson?! That’s rubbish!”
Jean-Luc still makes the emblematic Rhône blends that Jean David became famous for. This is the art of blending; Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Counoise, Cinsault and Mourvèdre all contribute their unique characteristics;
“Grenache is the main component; a high-alcohol variety with little colour, which is balanced out by Counoise, which brings the alcohol down and soothes the richness of the Grenache.”
He has also begun to experiment with varietal wines. Tapatara is 100% Counoise, and Tipitiri is 100% Cinsault. Although they’re less well-known, they’re two underdog varieties that Jean-Luc is particularly fond of, and the wines produced from them are spectacular.
The photograph on the Tipitiri label isn’t just a pretty picture of a bird. It was a jay that had followed Jean-Luc all year round, to the point that he decided to get his friend to come to photograph it (he took three memory cards’ worth!), to dedicate the wine to not just the bird but the entire ecosystem of the vineyard.
As we’re visiting, it’s around two weeks before harvest is due to start. Jean-Luc is clearly excited — like a kid in a candy shop. Harvest never gets old, and he’s excited for the new harvest team to arrive. He says,
“We employ mainly wine students for harvest, who come to learn. It’s so important to be friendly and welcoming — to have a good team. You must treat people well — from cutting the grass beforehand, to make sure harvest is pleasant, to ensuring that we don’t work when it’s too hot. No negativity, just good energy!”
It’s a sentence that summarises the entire feeling of the Jean David vineyards; this is a happy home — for people, fauna and flora.