The wines of Sébastien Riffault have become almost synonymous with the natural wine and new-wave fine dining scene of Copenhagen, London, New York, etc… but they aren’t new-wave wines per se. Rather, they are wines that nod to the previous century of the soils and cellar in which they’re made, in Sancerre.
When we speak to Sébastien about how he makes his wines, he says with a chuckle,
“To understand what we are doing today, it’s important to know that we work with ripe grapes, featuring different portions of botrytis. It might seem crazy or funky, but sorry to break the news… the style of our wines isn’t really something special. The wines just show you how Sauvignon Blanc from our area can taste when it is ripe. They taste how any producer in Sancerre might have made wine a century ago.”
By a century ago, he means before technological winemaking came onto the scene, and before additives in wine became the norm. For Sébastien’s wines, he has one sole ingredient: time.
Sébastien’s great-grandfather was a winemaker, and the tradition has been passed down through the family. Like most winemakers in Sancerre during the 70s and 80s, Sébastien’s father also adopted a specific style of farming and winemaking, which involved additives and chemical farming. Likewise, Sébastien also studied these methods at wine school —technological winemaking still forms the basis of most wine courses — but he wasn’t convinced. Having decided that he wanted to explore other wine styles and regions, in 2013 he took a job at one of the branches of Majestic (a wine retailer) in London. He remembers,
“That experience really opened my eyes — not so much in terms of organic wines, but it opened my eyes to all of the things you can do with wine. In France, almost all wine sold is French, so my eyes had been completely closed to everything else happening in the world. You guys in the UK have the chance to see production methods throughout the world — I was introduced to wine from Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, New Zealand, California… and port, sherry, whisky and beer!”
It was also in London that Sébastien met his wife, Jurate, who is from Lithuania. Later, she would inspire the names of their cuvées. Sébastien smiles: “it’s different to tradition and prestige.” Different is good.
Shortly after his experience with Majestic, Sébastien decided to work in another wine shop in Paris, named Lavinia.
“It was the biggest wine shop in Europe, with over 7000 wines. I had the chance to taste a lot of wine, meet a lot of winemakers, and that was where my eyes were opened in terms of natural wine.”
He had the chance to taste the likes of wines by Prieuré-Roch and Philippe Pacalet, remembering,
“I realised that you could make something so intense and tasty with just grape juice. I decided that that was what I wanted to do.”
Already before his visit abroad, Sébastien had been intrigued by organics, having converted one small parcel in 2000. In 2004, he returned and made his first wine, and bit by bit he began converting the other vineyards. By 2007, his father had “handed over the keys to the truck,” and Sébastien had converted all 12 hectares to organic and biodynamic farming.
By working biodynamically, Sébastien notes that not only is there more diversity in the vineyards, but in the cellar, too. He says,
“As we work biodynamically, we have a very good yeast population, so we don’t need to add yeasts, or feed our yeasts. Everything is already there — from nature — so the winemaking is very simple. The wine just ferments.”
With regards to farming, the main current worry is climate change, and the extreme temperatures they have been seeing in Sancerre during the summer.
“We must adapt to the vintage and remain open. In 2020 for example, we left the vines’ apexes to grow, to give the vines more shade, a little like the training systems of southern France. That helped.”
11 hectares are planted to Sauvignon Blanc, and one hectare to Pinot Noir. The vines are rooted in varied types of soil, from Portlandian chalk to Kimmeridgian clay-limestone. Some vines were planted by his father, in the 1970s, and some were planted by his grandfather just after the second world war. Bit by bit, Sébastien began to separate his plots according to soil type and vine age, to form his cuvées.
Skeveldra was his first wine, from a single one-hectare parcel of 50-year-old Sauvignon vines on silex soil. Then, Auksinis was born in 2006 — from the oldest vines (50+-year-old) on chalky soils, and the Akméniné, from the younger vines on clay-limestone. In 2010, he decided to separate one parcel which sits on Kimmeridgian soils, to form the Sauletas cuvée. Year after year he continues to slowly but surely create other cuvées, either from soil type or winemaking, such as the Auksinis maceration wine, which features seven days’ skin contact, and a further one-year maceration of Auksinis in 2018.
The smaller parcels with older vines are lovingly tended by plough, with Ophélie their mare, but there is no ‘one set rule’ when it comes to how they farm. He explains,
“Our farming goes beyond organic or biodynamic certification. We plough if we need to, but we don’t if we don’t need to. You must find a balance, and every year is different.”
More winemakers in the area are converting to organics, although it has been a slow process (three winemakers have converted in his village over the past three years). With regards to winemaking, however, his colleagues remain hesitant to explore other avenues in the cellar. As we harvest together, he points out at the horizon, saying,
“It’s mid-September now, and we’re just starting. The others, well, they began on the 27th August…”
Sébastien explains that almost all Sancerre wines these days are made in a certain style, almost according to recipe. He says,
“95% of the wine made in Sancerre is conventional in style. It is picked early, technically made, in order to be bottled and drunk very early. Everything is made very quickly, using lab-cultured yeasts for fast fermentation, then pre-filtered, then fined and refiltered… plus a lot of things are added to stabilise the wines, like tartaric acid and ascorbic acid. Those things make the wine clear, so you don’t have a risk of refermentation.”
Sébastien argues that this method of making wine dulls the potential of the fruit, and hence dulls the potential of terroir expression. Allowing his wines to ferment naturally is of utmost importance. He explains,
“Yeasts are unique to the year, and they are everywhere. I am not persuaded that terroir is just about the age of the vines, soil and exposition.”
In addition, as the location of his vineyards is conducive to botrytis (a form of ‘good’ mould which gives the wines a certain rich, rye bread sort of flavour), he fully believes in including these grapes, as was the case previously in the region. He believes this gives the wines an extra layer of complexity. It also gives a more gourmand style; creating wines that are, in his eyes, simply more delicious.
“I initially came to natural wine from the taste that it gives to you. I wanted to create a taste like that. To do that, we need to harvest when the grapes are ripe, so that’s what I did. The purpose of our work as winemakers is like a chef’s work — it’s to bring pleasure to people. Drinking wine should give you an emotion. You like it, or you don’t, but it should make you feel something.”
However, although the notion is simple, the process wasn’t easy. Sébastien’s first wine, in 2004, didn’t exactly turn out how he’d hoped. He says,
“I made my first pure natural wine with no additives in 2004. But it wasn’t a big success at the beginning. It did the malolactic fermentation in the bottle, and it turned oily. Luckily, I had support from customers in Paris and Japan, who said, for sure this wine is not perfect, but we’re willing to put money on you and see what you can do.”
This oily phenomenon which Sébastien describes is known in French as ‘maladie de la graisse,’ or ropiness in English. It is caused by certain bacteria which form long carbohydrate chains, making the wine thick, gloopy or viscous, almost like olive oil. It only affects the texture of the wine, not the taste of it, and it can be resolved by vigorous bâtonnage or ageing in barrels or tanks. However, once it’s in the bottle — or if it appears in bottle — it’s hard to resolve. Sébastien explains that his first wine was bottled too soon, meaning it hadn’t had time to stabilise naturally:
“It has taken me more than ten years to reach the point where I am now — all my wines undergo a 36-month process before they are bottled. That’s a big investment in terms of capital, but it’s the reason we have very stable wines now — they are reliable year after year, without many problems. The point of time is super important to make stable natural wines. Sure, we could filter them or add sulfites, but we don’t want to do that. We want to keep the integrity and the true taste of the wines.”
With regards to the ropiness, he is no longer concerned about it, as in this case, time heals all wounds. His 36-month process is long enough for the process of ropiness to run its course and to disappear. He says,
“With the maladie de la graisse, it biodegrades naturally over time. It emits carbon dioxide, so we know that something is happening in the wine. So, it’s actually not really a ‘maladie’ (sickness), rather it’s a passage.”
Now that he is content with his ageing process, and his wines’ stability, he is experimenting to see what else he can explore within the realms of Sauvignon Blanc. This includes his longer skin maceration projects, as well as working with even later harvests.
If he gives the wines time, there seems to be no boundaries.
“It’s a simple process, but it is time that does the work. If you give the wines time, then you don’t need to fine, filter, or add anything.”
Ultimately, it’s a question of patience. But in a fast-paced world that has become where hyperconsumerism has sadly become the norm, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Sébastien compares the process of winemaking to breadmaking, saying,
“Every day I make sourdough for my family. At the start it was hard, but when you have experience and knowledge, it becomes easier. Then, it’s hard to go back. If you go back to industrial white bread, you think: what is this s*&t? How can you name it bread? It’s difficult for your stomach to digest it. Sourdough is for me the real bread. That’s how humans have always made it. It was only last century that people began to use selected yeasts to make bread faster, because of questions revolving around time and money.”
He dwells, continuing,
“The difference with wine is that we don’t need wine to stay alive, whereas we need food. Ultimately, wine contains poison — alcohol — so if you don’t get pleasure from drinking wine, then there really is no point in drinking wine. We should only drink wines that truly give us pleasure.”
Some literal food — and wine — for thought. Drinking a Riffault wine makes you dwell on questions such as these. They are wines that also require time; wines that you should spend time with to get to know. Ultimately, they are wines that are all about pleasure; wines that give you a little window into what’s truly possible with grapes from Sancerre. And for that, we’re grateful to Sébastien.