“If you worry too much, you end up intervening too much.”
Olivier Cohen is a young man on a regenerative agricultural mission. He wasn’t born into wine; there were no family vineyards to inherit here. He grew up in Nice, and his initial plan was to become a lawyer. When attending business school, he started hanging out at the nearby wine shop and bar, La Part Des Anges. He would soon discover that this was a pretty iconic bar for the natural wine scene, and before he knew it, he’d shot down the rabbit hole and was working there, too. Wine - 1, Law - 0. There was no turning back.
It wasn’t enough for Olivier to sell and pour wine; he was itching to get into the cellar. Through meeting winemakers who’d come to the bar, he had the opportunity to do vintages with some of France’s most iconic winemakers. Eventually, it was time to settle and do his own thing; and the Languedoc was calling.
After we visit one of Olivier’s vineyards, he takes us to the local organic pig farm to pick up dinner, where we sit drinking (organic) beer and chatting with the farmers. Olivier talks at a rapid pace about his plans and ideas for the future - his new sheep, chickens, maybe cows - and we recognise instantly that the agricultural world is lucky to have him. In a region that was struggling economically for decades (and still is), much of the younger generation shunned the notion of working in agriculture, choosing to move to the nearby cities instead to take up office jobs.
This is a guy who is deeply passionate about farming. He might have entered the wine world through the wine bar scene, but on the other side it’s actually the soil, not the cellar, that demands his attention. Having learnt the ropes with growers such as Jean and Pierre Gonon in St. Joseph, Thierry Allemand in Cornas, Antoine Arena in Corsica and Valette in the Maçonnais, the notion of organic farming had been instilled in him from the beginning. He simply can’t imagine another way of working;
“The way that you farm, and the care you show for your vines defines your wine. Why would you work in a way that’s different to what you believe in?”
Olivier’s vineyards are scattered across a few parcels in the Hérault sector of the Languedoc, totalling seven hectares. He took over some that are planted to Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and he has planted three hectares of Cinsault, Carignan, Carignan Blanc and Aramon. He is particularly excited about these. The varieties have too often been considered ‘lesser’ varieties, namely due to their naturally high yields, which meant that winemakers could push their vineyards to overproduce and hence make somewhat bland wine from them. In the right hands, however, and with organic farming practices, Olivier is hopeful that these naturally high yielding varieties will find a middle ground on their own.
Yield: a numerical word, measured in hectolitres per hectare, that can summarises in one syllable what can make or break a winemaker. When Olivier decided to attempt to leave his vineyards grassed-through - ie, he didn’t plough for a season - his yields plummeted to a level that would be unsustainable should it happen every year.
It was disheartening, but this is what led him to the notion of planting the lesser-known indigenous varieties of the region. He muses,
“If they can produce 80 hectolitres per litre when farmed conventionally, maybe they can produce 40 according to our methods. High-yielding varieties have been seen as vulgar in the past, but that’s the wrong way of looking at things.”
He has also planted some American vine species in order to establish strong root systems, onto which he will graft old-vine Carignan from some friends. He has also begun to sow a selection of cover crops, such as various beans and peas, to fix nitrogen into the soil. He also works with the idea of mulching in the vineyards, to avoid too much competitive growth from other plants. The crops die down and become organic matter, while serving as a protective cover, preventing precious water reserves from evaporating. During the regular droughts that the region experiences, this is crucial. It’s a constant learning curve:
“Having a cover crop is great because we keep water in the soil. But, weed competition is the biggest problem. It’s like the vines have had the fridge all to themselves before: it was an open bar. Now, suddenly, they have to share that with loads of other species, and they’re not used to that.”
He has also started working with a very gentle tool that simply opens the soil gently and puts it back where it was before. This means some of the weeds will die off, but the soil will remain relatively undisturbed. After many trials and many errors, he is beginning to feel more comfortable in his understanding of his vineyard soils and climate. He says,
“You need to constantly think about which techniques are available and appropriate for you. It’s a very exciting experience. If I can create a vineyard environment that isn’t just organic but also regenerative, that will make me very happy. That’s the goal.”
He knows there is a long road ahead, but he’s not in a rush.
“You can’t accelerate time, and you can’t accelerate regenerative farming. Having come from a non-viticultural background, that is the key thing I have learnt.”
Olivier also works with various grower friends to purchase fruit, both locally and in Limoux for his Chenin Blanc. This is something he feels passionately about—the grower/winemaker relationship, and he emphasises that too often the idea of negoce fruit is frowned upon unfairly.
“If you can work with other growers, buying the same parcel every year, it gives reassurance to both the winemaker and the farmer.”
Olivier’s wines quickly gained a reputation on the natural wine scene for their bright, zesty flavours and downright deliciousness. He works without sulphur unless the wine shows that it needs some - in order to test this, he leaves the wine open in a bottle for a few days. He is adamant that the dialogue on sulphur shouldn’t necessarily be a focus point, saying,
“You can make techno wine without sulphur - wine that has been sterilised, pasteurised, and which has a bunch of other additives. People focus on the phrase “sans soufre” too much - there is so much else to take into consideration.”
His wines have always been fermented and aged in fibreglass. It is cheap (so great for a young winemaker) and neutral, and helps him to avoid oxygen. In 2019, he made a barrel for a friend’s child - as a birth year wine for them to have when they grow up. He’s pleased with the outcome, but remains humble - saying, “To work with barrels is a real savoie-faire.”
As we taste in his cellar, the first word that springs to mind is practicality. It’s very minimal, with lots of space to manoeuvre and with a great, easy-to-clean floor. Nothing fancy here, but why would you spend your money on something fancy, when you could spend it on a new pump?
It’s indeed the new pump that Olivier is grinning about. He explains that it functions completely without oxygen, which means the wine will be transported very gently. He says,
“I look to make wines that are fruity and easy to drink. To do that, it’s all about trying to find the smoothest way possible to get the wine into the bottle. You want to avoid any kind of shock for the wine.”
Although generally the maceration period is short for his red wines, there is no particular rule nor recipe; rather he makes decisions by tasting the fruit and fermenting juice.
“It all depends on the phenolics and the texture. Then, I decide which portions I want to save for next year. It is really the structure and the length of the wine that shows me the quality.”
He is one of a small handful of artisan growers who blends wines across vintages. His latest Spesiale cuvée is ⅔ 2018, and ⅓ 2019. The notion of producing multi vintages like this allows him to always have a reliable quantity of the wine - even in tricky years - and it also adds a layer of complexity. Furthermore, if he ever has a problematic cuvée - for example a wine that has a little too much volatile acidity, giving it a funky kick, it can be smoothed out by another. By doing this, the wine that might have been a bit too extreme on its own, actually ends up contributing something bright and beneficial to the overall blend. It’s a little like being a chef or a parfumier.
He is becoming a young master of blending. One year, he had a Chenin Blanc with a touch of residual sugar remaining. Instead of filtering the wine, he made a trial blend with Syrah and Grenache, to make a light red/rosé hodgepodge wine. He thought it was pretty tasty, and wine drinkers all around the world thought so, too. In doing so, he has unwittingly created a name for himself for darker rosé blends that wine fans go mad for - this is creative rosé with soul.
It’s this open mindedness and willingness to experiment that creates some of the most creative-meets-reliable wines we’ve tasted. Instead of being afraid that something may go wrong, he tries to approach each wine with a positive attitude. Go with the flow, don’t stick to a recipe.
“If you worry too much, you end up intervening too much.”
It sounds like a motto not just for wine, but for life.