“When cultivating anything – vines, flowers, plants – you have to respect nature and the environment. It was a natural step for us since it’s how we raise our kids; we imagined applying the same principles to our vines."
L’Epicurieux—named after the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who taught that the object of life is balanced pleasure derived from tranquillity and harmony—feels like a name which found its way to Sébastien and Charlotte Congretel, rather than the other way round. Living holistically – both in and out of the vines – is something that they strive for, Sébastien tells us. If there’s a way of doing it which involves less intervention and without chemicals, you can be sure they’ll try it. Think of their life in Beaujolais as a micro-biodynamic ecosystem – it’s not just the plants that they tend to with care, their day-to-day life plays an important part in the overall biosphere too.
Their approach to winemaking is simple: respect the Earth, respect the vines, and respect the methods of their ancestors – but with certain gumption to make those who have come before them question the foundations of their beliefs. It’s not about being a Zélébrité here–never has been, never will be–but funnily enough, it’s this modesty and lack of a want for cult status which makes Sébastien & Charlotte’s wines so effortlessly cool. Is that what they mean by 'je ne sais quoi'?
Meet Charlotte & Sébastien Congretel
Sébastien grew up in Jurançon in South West France, surrounded by vineyards but far removed from the world of wine. In fact, his father, an expat working across the globe, moved around often for work;
“I really grew up between Africa (the Congo and Cameroon) and Indonesia.”
Meaning that, from the very start, Sébastien’s outlook on life stretched far beyond the rolling landscape of French vineyards.
Fast forward to 2010, and Sébastien is working as an oil-rigger. Charlotte, a Beaujolais native, is finishing up her studies in Oenology in Paris.
“Somewhere along the way,” Sébastien tells us, “I met some friends who had family homes in Beaujolais.”
In 2010, he travelled to Paris to hang out with them for the weekend. These friends, he explains, had a wider group of friends -- winemakers, predominantly.
“I got to know them through Charlotte’s younger brother…” he laughs.
Yes, OK, fiiiiine. We can’t deny that we love a romantic wine meet-cute.
“I actually crossed paths with Charlotte a few times. We ended up meeting a lot during that year. I would go out with friends, and she would also be with friends from Beaujolais. We would sneak off for dinner and then we’d say we would meet them after.”
“But when they actually came back to meet us…” Charlotte, now sitting beside Sébastien, smiles.
“Pretty quickly we said to each other that we both felt the same way; we felt good hanging out and being together. We married in December of 2010, and we had our first son in May 2011. It was quick!” They both laugh.
In 2014, Charlotte and Sébastien made their first wine at her father’s vineyard. Sébastien, at the time, carried on working his full-time job as a rigger and so Charlotte’s father worked with her to finish off the vintage.
“I properly started in 2016 when I finally quit my job. We had purchased our first parcel of Morgon and Menier, two hectares, and it was with this that we started in 2016. We picked in 2017 and we bottled in 2019.”
L’Epicurieux was born from a desire to work in symbiosis with the Earth. Working slowly to build the domaine, piece-by-piece, plot-by-plot, the family winery is an extension of the Congretel family itself. As Sébastian says; the principles behind the business are a reflection of the way in which they live their lives—the rules, or expectations—are much the same: tend to nature as if it were your child.
The domain sits across 4.5 hectares in Régnié in the rolling hills of Beaujolais, nestled in diorite and pink granite soils.
It’s an exciting year , as we speak to Charlotte and Sébastien—the first in which they have begun to introduce biodynamic preparations to their farming. It’s a little too early to say how it’s going, Sébastien tells us, but the excitement is palpable, like parents with a newborn child.
“It’s very much the beginning of our journey with biodynamics—I think we will really see results in three or four years.”
It’s a long road to transition, but one which has been on the horizon for L’Epicurieux since they first started farming. Taking baby steps, it was always going to be organic first, Sébastien tells us, and then biodynamics. Despite having implemented many of the principles from the very start, it was a process that they wanted to get right.
“It was in 2015 when we had recovered another parcel of Morgon that I said; ‘we have to adapt to organic farming.”
It was a strong feeling, Sebastien tells us:
“I always knew deep down that when cultivating anything – vines, flowers -- you have to respect nature, the environment. So for me, it was evident that at the very minimum we would work organically. It’s a natural step for us since it’s very much how we raise our children – we avoid conventional medicines; only using it if it’s unavoidable. We imagined applying the same principle to our vines.”
"I wasn’t very academic as a kid—I learnt by doing. So I really needed to play around to work it out. These days, we continue today to share our learnings on the subject of organics; we try to continually evolve as we’re aware that the way we’re working now is a rather basic method of farming organically. We’re trying to push it further; we’re researching and testing cover crops, and we're thinking about introducing trees amongst the vines."
But, as with anything, growth takes time. It’s an ongoing process, even with organics which they have been practising for over six years.
"We've bought between two and three acres of wild wasteland, which used to have vines, but has now been derelict for ten years. In the winter we will start to plant here – I’d like to plant some trees. For the parcels that we farm right now, there’s already quite a lot of vegetation everywhere with trees surrounding them, protecting them.”
“This is something I’d also really like to do with our Régnié parcel. We actually bought that parcel with Antoine and Julien Sunier [two other organic stars of the region] and so we've been creating a huge almost ‘island’ with trees protecting it from the outside.”
In Beaujolais, there are vineyards everywhere; it’s a monoculture. If you want to work with biodynamics but your vines are adjacent to a winemakers’ parcel where chemical treatments are used, then this can make the process extra tricky.
“We feel it’s important to find vineyards that are secluded; protected from the left, from the right, from every direction… This means the vines will be safer in a sense. It creates an environment in which biodiversity can thrive, because you’re further away from monoculture.”
And just to add one more string to their bow (for now), Charlotte and Sébastien are also buying organic grapes from young growers in their region, in order to provide opportunities for those who don’t yet have a network. Whilst, at the same time, spreading their knowledge and encouraging them to be more eco-conscious in their approach.
“With biodynamics, I believe that it’s important to tread the grapes. The contact allows you to really give something to the wine. It’s about energy.”
It goes without saying that this has always been a belief chez Sébastien and Charlotte, but it’s with this harvest, 2020, that they’ve been able to fully lean into the energy and magic of biodynamics.
“In fact, this is something that I’ve spoken about with David Chapel and Michelle Smith (of Domaine Chapel, who are masters in this since they’ve been doing it for so long). They both say: ‘with biodynamics there is no ‘perfect moment’ for anything’; ‘you have to feel it, and pay attention…’”
Their style of winemaking is about intuition and connection; giving to the plants the same vivacity that you hope to receive back.
“Mostly, it’s good for both your soul and your vines. The attention and the energy that you give is always carried through into the vines… and wines.”
They produce cuvées from the Beaujolais regional appellation, and from the Morgon and Régnié Crus. And in 2019, they bought some biodynamically farmed grapes from a friend in the Brouilly Cru.
Working with biodynamics, there’s a lunar clock to be followed — first pruning attentively, and then letting the vines do their thing. There are four days during the month during which the work has to be done. But when it comes to the cellar, the work is more focused.
“There is a heavier focus on racking and bottling. Bottling should be done on flower days, racking on fruit days, and then there's also atmospheric pressure to take into account. There are days when there’s more – I find it comes down to a combination of small details.”
But also intuition. It’s a combination of working with the lunar cycle and a gut-feeling.
Aside from this, Sébastien has his formula nailed to a T. Working only with closed-tank carbonic maceration, they don’t touch the juice nor are there any pump-overs or punching down. Whole bunches are used, harvested and sorted by hand. “Everything is done by hand!” he emphasises.
“Every day - morning and night - I check what’s happening in the tank with my thermometer. If all is well, then I leave it.”
After a fairly short maceration period of 10-12 days, they try the wine to see if – at that moment in time – it’s the very best it could be.
“It’s as simple as that. We add the grapes, a touch of sulphites, and then we close the lid.”
Sébastien and Charlotte are firm believers in letting the terroir shine through – “that’s the point of making wine!” Sébastien adds.
For each terroir, they vinify the wine in the same manner. It’s not the way that all winemakers do it, Sébastien explains, but it’s their way – allowing each soil to find its presence in the bottle without external influence.
“I believe that the yeast populations differ according to each terroir – their capacity, and the way they present themselves in the wine. Every year we take a look; if there’s a bad case of phylloxera, for example, I believe that's not necessarily to do with climate. Rather, I think that the vegetation — what grows amongst the vines — that's what has an impact.”
“We really feel the structure of the terroir in our wines. The diorite gives a certain roundness to the wine, with a certain acidity which is very common for that kind of terroir. And when we taste, we also taste the weather of the year."
Many winemakers will agree that terroir presents itself in the structure of wine – unlike aromatics, which appear on the nose, the terroir gives the wine its form.
“You see the freshness of the fruit planted within a certain terroir, like citrus, but it will always be modified by the expression of the climate for that particular vintage. The structure of the Morgon in 2019, for example, is very floral and mineral."
With wines which have historically been at risk, Sébastien has chosen previously to add a small amount of SO2. But the past few years have been something of an experiment – adding less (or none), with less intervention overall.
“In the first years, 2017 and 2018, we added 2mg of SO2 per hectolitre, but this year we've added 0mg. None of the wines are fined or filtered. For two of our cuvées, I de-gas a little because the CO2 is too present. It’s the only thing I permit myself to do with my wines at the moment."
When it comes to ageing each cuvée, Sébastien and Charlotte’s curious spirit sees them trying a little of everything – from oak barrel, to foudre, to an entirely spherical Italian amphorae.
“I’ll definitely try, in a few years maybe, to make a cuvée which is made entirely in amphorae.”
There's no end to the experiments just yet:
“I want to try some skin-contact maceration with some white grapes that I bought recently. I’d also like to try a pét-nat that's half Chardonnay, half Gamay. And Chardonnay as a white wine.”
It's an endless journey of discovery, that's for sure.
“We try to keep ourselves busy. Trying new things and discovering along the way — that’s what amuses us the most.”
With their first official certified biodynamic harvest coming this year, we wait with bated breath wondering what the future holds for L’Épicurieux. Good things—we’re sure of it. When you treat the Earth with such respect, she gives back with abundance.