“Wine professionals say that you have to add stuff to wine. But the moral of the story is that if you work well in the vineyard, you don’t have to."
Tucked away in Meursault lies a humble cellar of a quiet, thoughtful man named Renaud. Renaud does things a little differently.
This is one of the most prestigious Burgundian villages; the wines of which reach some of the highest prices in the world. The norm here is to create wines of a certain style; a style which often utilises significant additions of sulphur to give them a straightjacket, precise feel.
Renaud, however, didn’t want to follow this recipe. His first vintage was in 2005, but after meeting Alsatian natural wine guru Patrick Meyer, he decided to start making wines without sulphur. He has never looked back.
We're standing with Renaud into a cellar that’s so cramped and low-ceilinged that we have cobwebs in our hair. We have our nose in the glass of his intoxicating Pinot Noir when he says,
“When I first had those natural wines made by Meyer, I was just so fascinated with that way of thinking. I made friends with some people making wines like that, so I decided to give it a go, too. My first sans soufre wine in 2006 was a catastrophe. It smelt more like vinegar than vinegar itself!”
We laugh together. That’s the thing about Renaud; he’s refreshingly honest and down-to-earth. His journey hasn’t been about making perfect wine or about getting points or press coverage. Rather, it’s been an exploration of creating wine in the most hands-off way possible.
“You know, at the end of the day, I just like to share my wines with people who share the same philosophies. It’s that simple.”
Renaud rents his vineyards from his cousin’s family. Before he took them over, they belonged to his uncle Thierry Guyot, who was one of the pioneers of organic and biodynamic farming in the region together with Dominique Derain. As such, he has the fortune of tending vines that haven’t seen chemicals since 1986. He manages them organically, saying,
“When your vineyard is already organic and has been for so long, you don’t necessarily need to work biodynamically. I do think about it, but it's expensive and I can’t really afford to hire more people at the moment.”
Working biodynamically can be costly and time consuming, hence it would require more manpower than Renaud can handle on his own. In addition, he is of a numerical mindset. He explains,
“Before I made wine, I was a mechanical engineer. And biodynamics... well, it’s not exactly technical. Plus, there are biodynamic wines out there that aren’t so good, too.”
As with most Burgundian winemakers, his parcels are scattered around. His parcel, Bourgogne ‘Les Riaux’ is Pinot Noir planted on the famed limestone soils at the foot of the slopes of Puligny-Montrachet. So, although it bears the simple designate of bourgogne, this isn’t your average entry-level wine; it sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest terroirs of the region.
His Beaune ‘Les Prevolles’ and his Saint Romain vines are both also older; 50-year-olds. Les Prevolles sits on more marl, with a little more clay, which he believes brings more spice to the wine:
“That parcel always creates a spicy wine; every year it has this scent of cloves. I always say this wine is the perfect introduction to natural wine. It’s so friendly, whereas Saint-Romain is more vertical, and is always floral.”
He also has Chardonnay in 'Les Riaux,' as well as in Saint-Romain and in the parcel of villages Puligny-Montrachet named 'Les Reuchaux,' which is situated just a stone's throw from the hallowed ground of the premiers crus.
“Wine professionals say that you have to add stuff to wine. But the moral of the story is that if you work well in the vineyard, you don’t have to.”
In order to be able to work without sulphur in the winery, Renaud explains that you also need time. Pierre Overnoy, legendary winemaker from the Jura, once told him that the time spent ageing in the tank or barrel must be matched by time ageing in the bottle. Then, it’s just a question of learning and experience.
“In 2007 I added sulphur, because I was scared of making vinegar again. But then, in 2008, I gave it another shot without, and it was pretty good this time.”
Since then, he’s managed to largely avoid problems with acetic acid bacteria (which can turn wine into vinegar) but another bacteria threw a spanner in the works for the first time in 2017, causing what has become known as mouse taint, because in the worst instances it can produce a wine that has an aftertaste of hamster cage or mouse droppings. He explains,
“We don’t know where it’s come from, but it seems to be a new phenomenon - ten years ago none of us saw it. Patrick Meyer thinks that it might be due to pollution…”
So, the only wine he’s ever had that suffered from the dreaded mouse was banished to a tank, where it stayed. To see if he could help to solve the problem, he added fresh healthy lees from the next vintage of his Puligny-Montrachet cuvée, to restart some form of fermentation. Astonishingly, this - combined with further ageing - meant that the problem disappeared completely. We know this for sure, because we’ve visited twice and experienced the wine for ourselves. Nobody knows how or why this can occur, but as Renaud reminds us, that’s part of the mystery of the microbiology of wine.
Fermentations for the red wines are always carried out with whole bunches, and are done infusion-style, meaning that he avoids pumpovers and punchdowns to extract the wine as little as possible. Instead, he simply moves the wine a little by hand, to ensure that the cap (the top layer of stems and berries that forms on the wine) stays wet, which he finds helps him to avoid bacterial problems. The maceration time usually lasts around three weeks, apart from in warmer vintages where he does shorter stints, as he says the skins of the grapes can sometimes be a bit burnt. By leaving the grapes in contact with the liquid for less time helps to avoid any of these flavours translating to the final wine.
His white wines are made simply; aged on the lees or in vats for long periods of time without battonage.
The ageing period varies hugely from year to year and from cuvée to cuvée. He does this by taste, but also by experience and by noting how the wines react once they are bottled. As we taste with him, we notice many open bottles of wine standing around with varying degrees of liquid inside. He reads our minds:
“It’s very important to open wine and leave it - to see how long it can stay as it is, before oxidising.”
This helps him to understand what has been successful in a specific wine’s making. Unfortunately, the regional tasting bodies don’t always approve of a style that’s considered outside of the norm. As such, his wines won’t always bear the names of their villages; for example his Puligny-Montrachet cuvée was instead labelled as PM in 2017. For natural winemakers across France, this is a headache. Thankfully, he got the appellation back in 2018; a triumph for both him and for like-minded winemakers. He says,
“The wines are their own selves...Sometimes I bottle after eight to ten months. Other times I might wait more than two years. There is no one way of making them.”
They are indeed; and they are very much alive. These are subtle wines, but ones with great personalities. They demonstrate that wines do not have to be big to have character. They are shy wines that nod to you with a little smile, just like Renaud himself.