"If you create a vineyard just to imitate what your neighbour’s looks like, and if you’re working with an organic or natural vision, then it doesn’t really make sense."
Charles and Guillaume Soulier are the renegades of wine. That’s not to say they don’t respect the art of making and farming wine, but rather they’re anarchists in terms of the traditional way of doing so. They’ve not just thrown the handbook out of the window, but they’ve also burnt and composted it.
Like so many others in the region, their father worked according to the cooperative model, which wasn’t financially sustainable. Not wanting to farm with chemicals nor make industrial wines, they decided to try something different.
That ‘something different’ is an ever-evolving process of understanding their ecosystem and working in tandem with it, as opposed to against it. Today, they work according to the principles of permaculture, and the resulting wines are their outlet of creativity.
Making Wine in 2020
Meet Charles & Guillaume
We arrive chez Les Freres Soulier right as harvest has commenced, with a tent on our backs and a pair of pruning shears in hand. Together with a dozen others, we’re camping in the middle of their farm. It might be rudimentary but there’s a stereo, a couple of bunkbeds for those that didn’t have tents, a kitchen, a bathroom and (occasional) running water. Their horse, goats and sheep roam just a few metres away, and the vineyards are a short walk away.
Their winery (which has a century-old wine press they restored themselves), tanks, is a stone’s throw away in town, and the brothers live in apartments above the cellar. What else do you need?
The Souliers’ great-grandparents had been winemakers, after which their grandfather was also a winemaker, but eventually stopped his business to focus on cherry farming instead. Their father then picked up the winemaking reins once more, in the spirit of what was popular in the 80s – chemical farming across 30 hectares and technological winemaking. However, in a market where prices were consistently being driven down, it sadly became unsustainable and he had to declare bankruptcy in 2014.
The brothers – in their early 20s at the time – had decided they wanted to go down the growing and winemaking route nonetheless, and had been inspired by the growing organic movement. When studying for his winemaking degree in 2012 and 2013, Charles did winemaking internships with the iconic Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc, and Thibault-Liger Belair in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. While bot are renowned for their organic principles, neither make what could be termed as ‘natural wines;’ indeed they hadn’t even discovered that such a thing existed. Charles says,
“I’ve always been sensitive to the idea of organic farming – from the books, philosophy and music I read and listened to. So, I sought out internships at wineries that worked organically. It wasn’t until we’d already begun our own project in 2015, that a friend called Jimmy Tassan Toffola [who now has an import company in the UK called Kiffe My Wines] came to see me and brought some natural wines with him. He showed them to me, and honestly – I was like what is this?! I thought they were crap. But that’s because I wasn’t used to that kind of wine – I had a preconceived notion of what wine should be in my head.”
They had agreed in 2014 to take four hectares of their father’s vines and began to convert them to organics, so for the first year when the grapes had still been produced via chemical agriculture they sold the fruit to the local coop. For the first couple of years, they worked biodynamically, however soon it became clear to them that they didn’t consider every aspect of biodynamics crucial. Charles says,
“I was fascinated by biodynamics at the beginning, but now it doesn’t interest me as much – at least not the part everyone talks about, meaning the teas, the cow horns, all that stuff… But animals – they are fundamental to biodynamics, but people don’t speak about that as much. We might not have a certification, or cow horns or silica, but we do have animals, and they’re at the heart of what we do. I think they are worth 1000 cow horns.”
From the very beginning, they decided that they would look after animals, too. They have a horse, ten goats and ten sheep. Next year, they’d like to get a couple of donkeys, and they’re thinking about cows one day, but it’s step by step; “we need to be able to feed them too!”
Initially, they had worked the soils with their plough horse, but then one day, Charles stumbled upon the book by the Japanese farmer, Fukuoka. It introduced him to permaculture and would change how he viewed farming entirely.
“I think I have a temperament which means I don’t want to do what everyone else does. I’m very curious, and have always been interested in alternative philosophies. The book ‘One Straw Revolution’ made me reflect. I began to see it as more than farming but also a philosophy of life. We decided to stop working the soils, and accept the notion of doing less. We accepted that we would work differently to how we had been taught and to what everyone else does.”
It meant they would put down the plough and eventually stop working the soils altogether. While yields saw a crash in 2019, 2020 was more abundant and has reignited their hope for the future. An abundance of natural plants have returned to the vineyards. They experimented with sowing cover crops in the past, but it’s problematic, and with the vast diversity that has commenced its return, it seems less necessary. Charles explains,
“The problem with sowing seeds is that you have to sow on soil that’s been ploughed, if you don’t want to lose too many seeds (and hence money), and we don’t want to work the soils. You can use a special tool [that’s more gentle], but it costs 10K euros – and that’s without the cost of the seeds. Then, two years later your cover crop might have disappeared, having been replaced by the native plants. Nature takes back her place. So, it’s like with everything – if you have to sow seeds because it’s what people say works, but it costs a fortune… just stop, you know!?”
While they no longer plough, they do still put down compost and woodchips, to increase organic matter, and the woodchips to hopefully quash competitive weeds somewhat for the young vines.
“One of their old vineyards, which is closest to the compost pile, has been receiving 5-10 tons per hectare of organic matter every year for five years now. If you pick up a handful of soil, it’s just amazing. It’s full of organic matter – and life. It really feels and smells like the soil of the forest – because at the end of the day that’s what the soil of the forest is composed of.”
The student becomes the master, right? Well, perhaps in a different way. As with many things in life, Charles and Guillaume made their first wine according to what they had been taught in school and from experience. While it was naturally fermented, it was made in the spirit of what they already knew – namely what they had learnt in Burgundy and in the Languedoc; destemmed, with a cool pre-maceration period, long maceration and a good degree of extraction. However, a wine made inthat manner needed quite a bit of time but they had to sell it straightaway, Charles shrugs and says,
“Maybe it wasn’t the best plan, but hey – it was pretty classic and I found it interesting at the time. It’s what I knew, and it was the kind of wine I was used to drinking.”
After the brothers’ encounter with the natural wines that his friend Jimmy had brought him, though they didn’t like them at first, their curiosity had been piqued. It led them to discover the wines from the iconic natural producer, l’Anglore, and they loved them. Next, bit by bit, they began falling in love with other natural wines, too. Charles says,
“Tasting the wines from l’Anglore is a beautiful memory for me. I was so impressed, and began to think about doing something like that – something different.”
They had begun to attune their palates to other tastes and ideas, and began trialling lots of different techniques in the cellar and ignored the rulebook they had been following previously. They also reflected on the fact that Pinot is more delicate in its structure than their Rhone varieties, so their winemaking should reflect that. Having been inspired by l’Anglore, they wanted to do a real Tavel style rose, so they did a short maceration on Grenache. They liked it. So, they reduced their maceration time significantly (indeed bypassing it completely) - so much so that by 2020 they actually ended up using the direct-press method for one third of their wines, calling them blancs de noirs. They also began harvesting earlier for fresher, low alcohol styles.
“We’re trained to recognise wine faults and to think that they’re bad, but when you look at something like alcohol, it’s the same. If you have a wine that’s too alcoholic, that’s also not good – it’s out of balance, and that’s a fault. We have to retrain our way of thinking.”
But they’re still not quite content. When they tasted one of the wines from Mythopia in Switzerland, which are made from long macerations and sometimes several years’ of ageing, their minds were blown.
“Hans-Peter [of Mythopia] says that a vineyard doesn’t have to look like what we think a vineyard should look like. If you create a vineyard just to imitate what your neighbour’s looks like, and if you’re working with an organic or natural vision, then it doesn’t really make sense. It’s the same with wine – the wines I like the least these days are the wines that don’t surprise me. For me, the most amazing compliment is if someone says shit, I’ve never tasted anything like this before, it’s surprising, or even ‘it’s bizarre.’ It should also surprise people who have tasted many natural wines. Who knows if that’s the right way to go about it, but that’s just how we feel.”
So, they have decided to give longer maceration periods another try, but this time doubled with long ageing periods.
“This year we’ll try to do some longer macerations again – this time for six months on the skins. With long ageing periods there are many possibilities… I’m always looking for other ideas and I think it could be really interesting.”
He smiles as he adds,
“I know that I’ve already mentioned him, but those wines by Mythopia – just wow. They’re wines that open your mind to something new. There’ll be something else after Mythopia that makes me feel that way, too - I’m sure…”
We’re sure there will be too. The old saying of curiosity killed the cat does not apply here. It’s wines like those of Les Freres that keeps igniting the LITTLEWINE flame, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.