“We like French wine, so that was a start: we wanted to stay in France. Then, when we visited Banyuls, we liked the vineyards and the town here, but also the quality of life."
The wines (or rather *wine) created by Rié and Hirofumi Shoji has quickly captured the hearts of wine lovers around the world. Since its first vintage, 2017, it has become highly allocated, making its way onto dozens of cult wine bar & restaurant lists around the world.
It’s made as simply as possible, with no additives, but the wine itself is far from simple. How does that happen? How can simplicity be so captivating?
Well, when you see the parcel, named Pedres Blanques, it speaks for itself. This is a spellbinding place that has found itself in the hands of two deeply passionate people, and the combination of their energies produces something unparalleled.
It’s as if this piece of land and this couple were made for one another.
Meet Rié & Hirofumi
Rié and Hirofumi grew up in Japan, both separately deciding to pursue careers in wine. It was only several years later—in Beaune, Burgundy—where they’d meet.
For Hirofumi, it was his first encounter with a Burgundy wine, aged 18, that sealed the deal. He remembers,
“That first Burgundy wine shocked me. It was a great moment and it sparked an interest. Then, bit by bit, you find yourself exploring more.”
He worked at a French restaurant, but learning about wine just by tasting the wines on the list wasn’t going to cut it. He was searching for more:
“I wanted to come to France. I felt I needed to work in vineyards, and to make wine with a winemaker, in order to learn more.”
So in 2010, he made the journey to France to do an internship with Frederic Cossard of Domaine de Chassorney. That was that; he was smitten. Deciding that he’d pursue winemaking as a career, he applied to study winemaking in Beaune.
Meanwhile, Rié wasn’t working in wine, but had begun to fall down the amateur wine rabbit hole. She remembers,
“I was an amateur in wine, but I loved it, and like with anything you love, you want to learn more.”
Having studied French at university, she wanted to move to France to immerse herself in the culture. So, she took the plunge and left her job to move to Bordeaux, to work with Château La Tour Figeac in Saint-Emilion. She worked across many elements of the business, but it was the work in the vineyards that really caught her attention. She decided the life of a vigneronne could be the one for her, so also decided to pursue winemaking studies in Beaune, Burgundy. It was there that the two met, and the fate of Pedres Blanques was sealed.
Before setting out on their own, they both continued to learn from other winemakers as much as they could while studying. Hirofumi continued working with Cossard for five years, and Rié carried out internships with iconic Côte de Nuits domaines Domaine Hudelot-Baillet and Jacques Frederic Mugnier, Saint-Aubin biodynamic pioneer Dominique Derain—who Rié notes as a very kind man—as well as a harvest at La Vigne du Perron in the Savoie. She also went back to Japan for a year, to work in a Japanese winery named Suntory, but her heart remained in France. When she returned, they began looking for a vineyard; a place to call home. Hirofumi says,
"We like French wine, so that was a start: we knew wanted to stay in France. At first, we were looking all over. Then we thought about Banyuls; we both like the wines from here, so we decided to come down one weekend. We instantly loved the vineyards and the town here, but also the quality of life. Plus - being by the sea is nice!"
"It’s also a dry region. We knew we wanted to work organically, with as few treatments as possible. So we figured it would be better to work in Banyuls, where that would be possible. That was really important for us. We love Burgundy, but it’s cold, and it’s damp. It’s hard work to farm organically in that climate."
They were fortunate to find a vineyard high up in the hills, at 300m elevation, planted on schist and granite soils. Its name, Pedres Blanques, is the Catalan for 'white rocks;' the big boulders in the middle of the plot. While it might be on the contender list for one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world, these old terraced parcels are tricky to work, as they’re near-impossible to mechanise. The previous owner had been working conventionally, so they decided to let all the grasses grow, to repair the soil. So far, they’ve just been using a pioche tool by hand to remove excess weeds, but Rié notes the weeds are growing back with a vengeance, so they might consider ploughing next year.
The advantage of their location and climate is the dry air and the wind (although that said, the wind is so powerful that in extreme circumstances it can actually snap branches).
This means that in a normal year, they only need to spray sulphur two or three times. As they do this by hand, that’s a blessing. 2020, however, posed big problems; a late spout of rare humidity meant that mildew pressure was immense, something that almost never affects the region. They had to spray six times, and for the first time felt the need to introduce copper. However, fingers crossed, that should be an extreme exception.
All their vines are on one plot; two-thirds of which is almost 60 years old, and one-third of which is almost 30 years old. Aside from a few stray Carignan vines, it is all Grenache, but they’ve also begun to graft some vines across to white varieties: the rare Carignan Blanc, Muscat, Macabeu and Grenache Gris. They are both Jura white wine fanatics, so although the varieties and climate is vastly different down here, they're excited to see what might be possible with their own white fruit some day.
They first arrived in the region in 2016, deciding to knock on some doors to see if they could do some winery and vineyard work with local winemakers. They were able to learn and work alongside the legends of the area: Alain Castex and Bruno Duchêne.
They were offered a cellar at the co-winemaking space in the centre of Banyuls, Les 9 Caves; the perfect launch pad for their little project. Feeling content with their newfound knowledge and excited to get started, their first vintage was born in 2017.
Then, it was a question of how to make the wine. Hirofumi says,
“We wanted to do the most simple form of winemaking: so we chose to work with whole bunches, with no sulphites, and no pigeage or remontage.”
The southern section of the vineyard is picked first, followed by the north-facing section. Altogether, harvest takes around ten days, and the wines from each section are blended together at a later stage.
While the maceration period is fairly long (one month), the very gentle infusion-style of winemaking means the wine itself has a silky-soft tannic structure. The key benefit of their winery is the temperature: it’s very cool and they have a ‘chambre froid’ to ensure the grapes are chilled down. This prevents any bacteria from going haywire; crucial for making wine without additives.
Once the maceration period is over and the wine is declared ready, they press the grapes in a simple basket press, and transfer the juice from the stainless steel fermentation tanks to large format old oak barrels. They like this larger size, as Hirofumi explains,
“We’re not looking to get an oak taste from the barrels. When you have larger barrels, you get even less of that oaky taste, and they’re great for ageing. We love them. One day, we’d love to get a big foudre.”
For financial and practical reasons, their first two vintages (2017 and 2018) were bottled in springtime, but in 2019, they were able to hang onto the wine in barrel for a year. Next, they plan on extending this period even further.
And as for the burning question: will they remain making just the one cuvée? We know the white microcuvée will appear in a few years, but how about a rosé? They smile and look at each other.
“In our first year, we did try to make a rosé, but, well... it didn’t work out. We weren’t happy with it, so it got sent to the distillery. But who knows… Maybe we’ll try again.”
They shrug. That’s the beautiful thing about this couple; they exude a certain calmness and patience. They know that nature (and wine) cannot be rushed, and that makes us even more sure that what comes next from Pedres Blanques will be equally captivating.