Sometimes, your gut instinct tells you that you must pursue a certain path in life, but how often are we brave enough to actually take the plunge?
Saskia van der Horst is one of the people that did - without any money behind her. Initially from Paris, her dream was to work in photography, which eventually took her to London. There, her brother was a chef, and so she was inducted into the hospitality world. This is where she fell in love with wine. After having visited her parents in the south of France (with her newfound mindset), there was something about the vast landscape and old vines of the Roussillon that kept tugging at her heartstrings. It was enough to eventually persuade her to jump on a plane and fly back to France, to study winemaking in Beaune and to set up her own domaine, assisted by a French agricultural grant.
“I left school quite early, I was a bit of a rebel. My dream was to become a photographer, so I worked in photo labs in Paris, and then moved to London to do the same when I was 20.”
However, opportunities within analog photography were few and far between. When Saskia’s brother, who worked with Gordon Ramsay as a chef, offered her a job, she jumped at the chance to make some money. She began going to tastings, meeting other sommeliers and going down the WSET route, eventually becoming a sommelier.
“I fell in love with wine. When I went back to France to visit my parents living down in Perpignan, I started to get the idea in my head that I could make my own wine.”
She had been visiting the winemakers whose wines she was selling, and the old vines and landscape of the Roussillon spoke to her, and continued speaking to her - even when she was back in London. So, in 2010, she jumped on a plane to Beaune to take her winemaking degree, and never looked back.
While studying, she carried out internships with Jean-Claude Rateau in Beaune, one of the first biodynamic producers in Burgundy, having converted in 1979. She also worked with Domaine des Terres Promises in Provence, and went on an exchange program with her wine school to a big winery in South Africa. While she learnt natural methods at Rateau and Terres Promises, the protocol at the winery in South Africa was somewhat different. She recalls,
“That experience was all chemical. It definitely taught me which methods I don’t want to use for my wines, and that’s important. In London, the wines that had ignited my passion were wines made naturally with biodynamic farming, but it’s important to experience the other side, for your ideas to become even more concrete in your mind.”
She also began searching for a cellar and some vineyards in the south. Thanks to a young farmers’ grant outlined in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and paid by the government, she was able to set up her domaine.
“It outlines that you must have 4.5 hectares to receive the grant, so that’s what I have, spread across eight parcels. I needed that help. I had no money. Really - nothing. I didn’t even have a car! I just had my dream of making wine and had to figure out a way for that to happen.”
Saskia’s tale is a success story of how governments can actively boost the future world of farming to attract young farmers. She arrived in the Roussillon in 2012 and began farming that year, after which her first vintage was 2013. She laughs, celebrating, saying,
“... and I’m still here! It’s been seven years, and it’s still such a young project. There are many things still to do: the project continues…”
All of her parcels bar one are home to very old vines; this is what makes the Roussillon shine; it's a haven of old vine material and well-preserved and ancient genetics. They are planted to a mix of Carignan, Grenache blanc, Grenache gris, Grenache blanc, Macabeu and Syrah. They had all been treated chemically before Saskia took them on, so it’s been a long struggle to revive their health. Due to their age, they were already low-yielding, so the conversion process brought them even lower for a while.
“This year, I am taking out a block of very old Syrah vines which are now just struggling too much. I have many ideas for that parcel - I want to plant a field blend of varieties, but also with trees. Monoculture is a fairly recent phenomenon on the scale of things. I am very interested in agroforestry; vines and trees living together in the future could be a good thing for the future.”
By interplanting with trees, she hopes to not only provide a more biodiverse landscape for her vines, but also to give her more financial stability. She explains,
“Not only is it fascinating to see how vines and trees might live together, but it will also help to improve balance - not just in nature, but economically. I can do this with permaculture and agroforestry.”
By planting peach, apricot and cherry trees, she will also be able to sell fruit, which in years where the climate creates difficulties for wine would provide a financial beacon of light.
“There are lots of possibilities - also with cover crops like mustard and grains - for animals and for humans. You can plant crops and trees that don’t need a lot of water and that don’t compete too much with the vines.”
By planting cover crops she ensures that the soil is never left bare, and that it can retain more water in a region that often suffers from drought. This year, 2020, is the first year since she has been here that there’s been significant rainfall. This, however, has brought problems of its own: mildew. She thinks there will be significant losses.
“There has been a lot of rain and little wind - that means humidity, which means mildew. That dries up the berries, and already I can see I’ll barely make any wine from some parcels. So it’s a lot of work for very little, but that’s all part of the game...”
She seems very upbeat despite the circumstances. We can almost hear her shrug on the other side of the line as we speak on the phone. She says,
“I don’t make large production wines - usually around 10,000 bottles per year, but I have balance. It’s not about making loads of wine, there needs to be room for everyone. Down here, we see a lot of the giant wineries in disastrous economic situations - they’ve made too much wine and they've farmed in a monoculture, plus too intensely with chemicals.”
She always replants any dying vines via massal selection to ensure that she has as much genetic diversity as possible. She likes the idea of replanting to totally mixed field blends of Cinsault, Carignan, Carignan gris & blanc (both very rare) and Grenache. She explains,
“From the point of view of vine sicknesses - and for acidity - I really like field blends. Plus, I just really like the idea of mixing everything together, it’s a cool concept!”
She also works with a variety called Lledoner Pelut - an old mutation of Grenache, which has fuzzy white hairs on the backs of the leaves. While it’s very similar to Grenache, it has some differences.
“I think it’s a version of Grenache that’s managed to adapt itself to the climate here. As a plant, it’s very similar to Grenache, but it’s less sensitive to the wind - which is important, as we can get winds of 80kmph +. It’s more robust. With regards to the wine, it’s hard to tell, but I think it’s a little more rustic and less overtly fruity.”
Last year, she also began a new journey of biodynamics with a group of likeminded farmers who all work together. She has always done handwork (she doesn’t even have a tractor) but now it’s time for her to take the plunge to see what the entire philosophy might bring to her vines, and indeed - the wines. She says,
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it’s a bit of a sport de luxe [it can be expensive.] It’s too soon to say if I can see results or not, but I already have the impression that it brings about a different way of being with the vines. You’re with them at times where you might not usually be - at sunrise or sunset. Lots of people come and tell me the wines are already great and that they’ll reach another level with biodynamics, but I don’t know... we’ll see! Is it folklore? I don’t know… but you need to believe it, and then I think it can bring good things to the vegetation, and to us.”
Since the beginning, Saskia has worked in a very natural, hands-off manner, using a basket press and ageing in either fibreglass or old oak barrels. The wines aren’t fined or filtered, and the only additive which is allowed in the cellar is a touch of sulphur. She says,
“Since the start I’ve used very small amounts of sulphur. I started with nothing and I don’t have another source of income, so if I lose 2000 bottles because I’ve been playing around without sulphur, it’s no joke. Economically it becomes very complicated.”
She has experimented with adding the sulphur at different moments. She found adding right before bottling was tricky as it took the wine too far away from its initial state in the vat, and it took a long time for the wine in the bottle to return to its original self. Instead, she now likes to add a touch of sulphur as the grapes come into the cellar. By doing so, she can eliminate any rogue yeasts such as brettanomyces at the very beginning. Then, she might or might not add a touch more after malolactic fermentation, but once the wine is finished, the amount is so miniscule as it is “eaten up” during the winemaking process (it binds with other molecules), therefore it’s entirely undetectable. This is the key point for her, and it means she is able to bottle the wines without any further additions, and therefore the wine is ready to drink and emulates the wine she had been tasting herself from barrel.
“Too often, people place too much emphasis on sulphites and not the other additives that some people might use. I’ve been to wineries that use no sulphur but add all sorts of other stuff. The conversation becomes very tricky and it creates confusion for the consumer. If we speak too much about sulphur, we might forget to speak about the wine itself.”
She pauses and thinks, before adding,
“Of course we want our wines to be without additives or chemicals, but we also want wine. I’m not against a small amount of sulphur. I don’t want to drink a wine that has to be consumed within five minutes before it falls apart!”
She has become particularly well-known for her cuvée, Ocarina. It is a luminous, dark pinky bronze rosé. Just across to the east of Saskia's domaine lies Provence, essentially a sea of glimmering pale pink wines, the majority of which have been manipulated to be that colour. This isn’t up Saskia’s street. She says,
“I declassify my wines into the vin de France category, so I have no rules... they can’t come after me because of the colour of my wine. I don’t want to make the petale de rose rosés. I want to make a rosé that can age.”
The colour of Ocarina changes every year. It is from a vineyard planted to Grenache, Carignan and Syrah, so depending on which variety succeeds the most in any given year, this affects the colour - for example, Syrah tends to produce much darker wine. Then, if it’s been a hot vintage, this also means more colour.
“I don’t have any choice what colour the wine ends up being! Every year I play around a little bit. I have fun with the wines and at the same time, I’m looking for myself in them. I’m trying to find something that I like and that makes me happy, and if others like them too, then even better…”
The one thing that doesn’t change is the terroir, and she believes this can be found in the wine again and again, year after year.
Recently, to save money, she sold her old cellar and began to build a new one from scratch. This too might affect her wines, as there’ll be an entirely new microbiological world for the wines to be raised in. This excites her.
“It will be interesting to see if that changes the taste, as there’ll be different yeasts. Every year brings its own surprises, and this will just be another one!”
This is a young woman who has already achieved her dream: to make wine. Every step taken next will just bring more of her dynamism and energy to the wines, and for someone who is already making one of the most soul-searching rosé wines the natural wine world has seen, this brings about an exciting light on the horizon.