If there’s one word to describe the work of this talented young winemaker, it’s humility. He might be creating some of the most terroir-expressive wines to come out of the Loire, but when visiting him and speaking to him, the first thing you notice is an air of contemplation, and a certain gentleness.
It’s only when you try his wines that you realise this down-to-earth guy is creating something that is truly extraordinary. Yet, he doesn’t need a château or anything fancy to do so: all he needs is a garage, basic equipment, manpower and ideas; the latter of which he has in bucketloads.
Pierre grew up as the son of wine farmers, but not winemakers. In the area, as with much of France, cooperatives dominated in the 70s and 80s, and his parents are two of the many people who still tend vines and sell the fruit to them. The cooperatives are then the ones to make the wine. However, the thought of winemaking intrigued Pierre, so he decided to pursue winemaking school. Next, he travelled further afield to learn — doing vintages in Canada, New Zealand and Hungary. However, it wasn’t until he worked in Bordeaux, at the iconic First Growth Château Latour, that he came into contact with biodynamics. He says,
“At Château Latour, they had started doing biodynamic trials when I was there in 2009. I experienced working with the preparations, and it was really interesting. I’ve always found botany fascinating, so the notion of working with plants intrigued me.”
360 of Le Clos des Mailles
When he returned to his parents’ vineyards, in Anjou, he also met several likeminded winemakers who were practicing biodynamics. This community spirit and sharing of knowledge encouraged him, and he decided to work biodynamically from the get-go. His parents entrusted him with a parcel of 100-year-old vines called ““Le Quart des Noëls,” withdrawing their contract for the cooperative for that vineyard, and so in 2013, after years of studying and working abroad, Pierre finally set out to try his own hand at winemaking and farming.
Pierre explains that in this part of the Loire, the geology is very complex:
“The soil types vary from parcel to parcel — the composition changes very quickly. We also have very little topsoil here, so you reach the bedrock quickly. That means the vines’ roots plunge into pure rock. That greatly changes the expression of Chenin Blanc in particular, which as a variety is very sensitive to soil type.”
In ‘Le Quart des Noëls’ parcel you find schist and sandstone as well as quartz. In Clos des Mailles, there’s black schist, featuring blue veins of ‘phthanites’ — dense, compact metamorphic rock composed chiefly of cryptocrystalline quartz. In La Varenne de Chanzé, there is black schist, as well as some volcanic elements, similar to that of basalt. In addition to Chenin Blanc, his vineyards are also planted to Cabernet Franc, as well as the odd occasional smattering of Grolleau in its Noir and Blanc forms (the latter of which is now very rare). These old vine treasures are little pieces of vinous history.
It’s not just the soil types and vines that are varied; the vineyards of Pierre Ménard are teeming with life; from bugs, to insects, to plants and flowers. Pierre nods to a particularly well-camouflaged lizard as we wander through the Clos des Mailles vineyard, and without needing to say anything, we have a mutual understanding that this is what biodynamic viticulture is all about. This little four-legged scaly friend reminds us that the vineyard isn’t solely home to vines, nor is it planted just for our benefit as human beings.
Pierre forages for some of the plants for his preparations from the vineyards and the surrounding land, such as horsetail (which works as an antifungal) and yarrow (which is said to enliven the soil), as well as oak bark from the trees. Oak bark, in particular, has proved very interesting for Pierre, who uses it when there is severe downy mildew pressure (without treatment, downy mildew has the potential to destroy a crop). Traditionally, within the realm of organic farming, it has only been treated effectively with copper. This is problematic, as copper is a heavy metal, which in large quantities can be toxic to life and remain in the soil. However, by working with a combination of horsetail and oak bark, Pierre has been able to significantly diminish his copper treatments. A big win! He explains,
“Oak bark is very tannic, which effectively dries out the mildew. But it’s so tannic that it can actually also stress the vines, so you need to be very careful. We leave it in water for a long time to extract, before adding it to the sprays, and so far, it’s worked really well when we’ve had emergency mildew situations.”
As he converted all of his vineyards to biodynamics, he doesn’t have a ‘regular’ organic vineyard to compare results with, but he’s very encouraged by the progress he sees in the vineyards, saying,
“There’s a good balance in the vineyards, and in 2021 despite conditions that favoured fungal diseases, we had very little downy or powdery mildew.”
We ask him why the plant treatments may seem to have some kind of lasting effect: why do the vines seem to be suffering less? He muses,
“It’s very interesting. When you treat the vines with the traditional organic treatments — sulphur and copper — they wash off with rain. But with the plant treatments, there seems to be something different… a reaction. For example, horsetail has a high quantity of silica, which is a bit aggressive to plants. That means the vine responds — it stimulates a defense mechanism in the vine. So, that means if something like mildew does attack the vine, the vine is ready, and I’ve noticed that the vines seem to be less sensitive to diseases as a result.”
It’s fascinating, and it underlines why observation and experimentation is such a crucial part of biodynamics. Only through trial and error — and patience — can you find these natural answers.
This is the homeland of Chenin Blanc, and in Pierre’s hands, the variety sings. He says,
“Chenin is a bit like Chardonnay, in the sense that it’s less aromatic. That means it leaves lots of room for the expression of terroir. I think that Chenin Blanc has this transparency when it comes to showing the place from which it comes. You really find a signature, which is so interesting. It also means there’s no limit when you’re searching for differing expressions.”
Because of this unique sense of transparency, Pierre keeps the winemaking as simple as possible, and makes all of the wines in the same way. That means he can ensure his own personal fingerprint doesn’t speak louder than the stamp of the soil. He uses barrels, tanks and amphorae for each cuvée, explaining,
“The goal is to not have a certain signature for one wine — I don’t want to make an ‘amphora’ wine, or a ‘barrel’ wine. So for each cuvée, I vinify in each type of vessel. That helps me to find the balance of each parcel, without giving the wine a specific style. I guess you could say that my style is no style.”
He is content with the balance between each vessel, saying,
“Barrels, even if they’re old, open the wine a lot. They give the wine a certain richness and power. Barrels accentuate the power of Chenin Blanc, whereas sandstone amphorae seem to keep the purity, and show a more crystalline side to the wine — something more linear. Meanwhile, stainless steel gives something a little more rigid and closed. So, I try to find a balance of all of those expressions.”
Aside from these decisions, the winemaking is kept very simple: no fining, filtering, and very low sulfites, allowing the fruit — and the soil — to speak for itself. The focus is on dry wines, and when the vintage is right, he also makes Coteaux-du-Layon sweet wines with botrytis-affected grapes. But his preference is making wines that are dry, as he feels these are the bare skin-and-bones expressions of Chenin Blanc, that allow the best insight into the soils.
There truly is some kind of mystical combination between the varieties and the sites, aided by Pierre’s winemaking, which creates his spellbinding wines. Then, it is the wines that inspire Pierre to give them their names.
To highlight the differences in terroir expression, the main wines are labelled according to their vineyard names. For the others, Pierre chooses names that are linked to his personal passion, astronomy. Laika is an homage to the Soviet space dog; the first animal to orbit the Earth. The vineyard from which it comes features old vines of Sauvignon Blanc, planted in the late 1950s — the same time that Laika was sent up to space. He says,
“This was one of the first parcels planted to Sauvignon Blanc in the area. Winemakers wanted to bring other varieties to the region — Sauvignon to add more fruitiness, and Chardonnay to add more richness. Well… that didn’t really stick, and there are almost none of these vineyards remaining — apart from this little Sauvignon vineyard. Previously, the grapes had gone to the cooperative and into blends. It had never been vinified alone, so I had no idea what sort of wine it would create. It was a bit like sending Laika into space. But thankfully, this version has a much happier ending.”
Pierre finds the wine made from the parcel, named Clos de La Roche, equally as interesting as the story behind it, explaining,
“Often, you’ll find Sauvignon Blanc planted on richer soils, to heighten its aromatic expression. But here, on the schist, that sort of mutes the aromatic expression, and instead you find more characteristics of the soil than you do of the Sauvignon.”
He also makes a rosé, named Rosetta, which is Pierre’s cuvée dedicated to experimentation. If the other cuvées are like classical piano, this is his electric violin. He says,
“Every vintage is different, it’s very experimental. The idea behind this wine was always freedom. Rosetta made the most detailed study of a comet ever attempted. Exploring comets is a bit like exploring the origins of life, and this wine is made akin to how some of the first wines ever drunk were made, so I thought it would be fun to highlight the origins of wine, and of life.”
It’s a blend of Cabernet Franc, with little bits of Grolleau, Grolleau Blanc and Chenin Blanc — just how wines of ancient times would also have been blends of varieties. Additionally, in 2019, due to the frost, Pierre had a lot of fruit that came from the ‘second crop.’ This is a pain to harvest, as the bunches of grapes were found few and far between, but nevertheless he considered it worth it — it was important to Pierre to not waste anything that nature gave him in that vintage.
Destemming Cabernet Franc
We ask him what his thoughts are for the future; is there another vinous solar expedition he wishes to explore? He says,
“Everything I’m looking for will be found in the vineyards. I’m still learning how to treat them and get them ready for each year. Everything that impacts the quality of the wines happens amongst the vines. Then, of course, there’s the picking date too: the most important moment. When you work in the way I do, without too much intervention or assistance, every year… well, it’s like a sport. There’s no recipe, I can only try to find the answers in my vineyards. That’s my only ambition.”
It’s a noble ambition, and a modest one. It’s due to his ability to listen to his vines, think, learn and persevere that Pierre’s cuvées move us. Just like the best sports coach, Pierre is right there behind his vines and his wines, supporting and guiding them, but ultimately they do all of the talking for themselves.