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“I’ve only worked with organic winemakers; but it’s more than that. There are lots of organic viticulturists who add all sorts of things to the wine, but aside from a tiny amount of sulphites, I’ve never added anything.”

Sylvain Dittière — La Porte Saint Jean

Arriving at Sylvain’s cellar mid-harvest is like arriving at an intense study group, but with wine bottles instead of books. Fellow winemakers and interns are visiting him, wine from several different vintages is being poured free-flow, and at least three conversations are occurring at any given moment in time. 

You get a strong sense of passing the baton; the baton in question being winemaking know-how, learnt from many years of working with winemakers throughout France and carrying out experiments. As we sit down to chat with him, we have two young woman winemakers on either side who are getting the opportunity to learn, just like he once did. 

Meet Sylvain 

Sylvain, a Loire native, comes from a family of rose growers who work with an astonishing 1,100 different varieties. Hence, he grew up with the notion of agriculture, and decided to give wine a go in 1999, carrying out an internship with the organic (and since biodynamic also) Château Yvonne in Saumur Champigny. 

“That was that. I found the notion of vine to wine fascinating.”

He went on to cut his teeth at several visionary organic and biodynamic domaines in wine; he did several internships working with the iconic Clos Rougeard domaine, where he met his partner Pauline Foucault. He also went on to work with Thierry Germain, while doing his BTS wine degree, and later Domaine Gauby in the Roussillon and Marc Tempé in Alsace. 

“I’ve only worked with organic winemakers; but it’s more than that. There are lots of organic viticulturists who add all sorts of things to the wine, but aside from a tiny amount of sulphites, I’ve never added anything.” 

That is… apart from rose petals. Sylvain’s vin de pétanque as he calls it, ie. his fun, easy drinking cuvée that you can drink while playing pétanque (could our mental image be any more French right now?) is a pét-nat named Six Roses. It undergoes a short maceration period with rose petals, as a nod to his family. It’s refreshing, moreish and just as fun as the games it's intended for. 

It’s a wine that embodies Sylvain’s persona: you can make serious fine wine while having fun, too. 

Six Roses

Sylvain & his son in 'Les Pouches'

The Vineyards 

Sylvain began farming his own vineyards in 2010, with three hectares. He was fortunate to kick off his own farming and winemaking with two brilliant vintages in 2010 and 2011, followed by trickier years in 2012 and 2013. 

Since then, he has amassed a total of eight and a half hectares, bit by bit, from which he makes three reds from Cabernet Franc; a blend simply named La Porte Saint Jean, and two single vineyard wines ‘Les Pouches’ (on sandy limestone), and ‘Les Cormiers,’ (clay-limestone with silex). He also farms Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc from sites named ‘Le Saut Mignon,’ ‘La Perlée’ (sandy clay-silt on limestone) and ‘Les Pouches’ (sandy limestone).

Each vineyard’s soils become home to different microbial populations. Sylvain feels this is what gives the wines their distinct characteristics:

“Natural yeasts give the wines their taste. If you add yeast, then the wines end up tasting the same. It’s the diversity of the yeast and bacteria population that gives the wine its character.”

Destemmed Cabernet Franc

The Wines 

Since beginning with two cuvées in his first vintage, he now makes three whites and three reds, as well as the bubbles. Through Sylvain’s many years of learning about farming and winemaking, he came to the conclusion that in order to make low intervention wine that was also clean, he needed one crucial ingredient: time. He explains, 

“To avoid using additions – and to be able to say this is wine just made from grapes – I do very long élevage. I never filter the wines, and the long ageing means we’re able to ensure the wines’ microbiological stability. Then, just before bottling, I add a small amount of sulphites (always less than 30mg), just to ensure the wine is well protected for travelling. That’s a choice I make because I like the wines to be reliable year on year.” 

To figure out how much SO2 he needs to add, he does blending trials in bottles and leaves them outside for 48 hours:

“Some vintages, the wine goes the full 48 hours without oxidising at all. Others, it’s oxidised after four hours. That depends on many different things; the concentration of the grapes that year, the pH, the acidity…” 

He explains that the long ageing process (minimum 18 months, often two years or more) means that when he bottles the wine with some SO2, it will have free SO2 remaining in the wine to ensure it’s protected from spoilage. That’s important to him; he might make what many define as natural wine, but he always wants the wine to be as pure as possible. 

It might seem simple; organic fruit and long ageing = great wine, but there’s a certain factor that plays a role in the magic of Sylvain’s cuvées: his cellar. It is an ancient underground troglodyte cave (these are old caves that used to be home to the Loire’s less wealthy inhabitants). Deep underground, it maintains a cool temperature year-round of 12-14 degrees. This means the fermentations are also very slow, and unwanted bacteria are nearly always kept at bay, as they aren’t given the chance to flourish with warmer temperatures. Everything is aged in 225/228L barrels, apart from the Sauvignon, which is usually in 500L barrels to preserve the varietal freshness. 

It's also home to an entire world of living and breathing microflora, which contributes to the atmosphere of fermentation.

His sparkling wine, Six Roses, initially began as a sparkling wine macerated with six different varieties of rose. The idea came to him while working in Alsace: 

“I realised that roses are similar to the profile of a wine; there’s a sense of sweetness, but also bitterness and acid.  So, there was something to play with. The petals macerate in the fermenting wine for 48 hours, no more. It can very quickly dominate the wine and I’m not a fan of that, either. There needs to be balance.”

These days, he tinkers around with other varieties of roses to see what they bring to the wine. He explains,

“This year [2020] we worked with just one variety, called Sweet Love. Roses are so interesting to work with, and they're so different. For example, some might be very perfumed, but if you put the petal in your mouth then there’s no taste. Others might not smell of much, but if you taste them, they’re very aromatic.”

His red wines are produced from destemmed fruit, and ferment naturally in concrete tanks (without rose petals). Sylvain experimented with some whole cluster, but wasn’t satisfied, explaining, 

“Cabernet Franc is complicated for whole bunch fermentation, as the phenolic maturity is never equal between the stem and the berries. So, you’d have berries that are like jam at 15% or even 16% when your stems are ripe. So, whole bunch isn’t my thing as I’m not looking for that bitter element, and I want to make wines that are closer to 12.5% than 15%, and the wine should never be dry in the mouth.” 

The berries go through a very rigorous sorting process: before being destemmed and after. Sylvain feels that has brought more precision to the wines: 

“It might be very meticulous and time consuming, but it makes a huge difference to the quality of the juice.”

While he’s meticulous in the run-up to the fermentation, after the juice has begun its magical grape-to-wine process, there are no particular rules. As we taste one of his reds from 2013, we’re shocked to discover that it spent seven years in barrel; being bottled only nine months ago in January 2020. Sylvain explains that it was a tricky vintage, and the resulting wine was equally tricky: it had a significant amount of volatile acidity, so he decided to leave it alone. Now, it’s delicious; fresh and seeming far younger than its years. He nods, 

“It’s definitely helped. We were very careful to leave it alone and not to rack it, or the volatile would have shot up. Why was it like that? Rain, a lack of nitrogen, who knows? I’ve done my BTS, but I’m not an enologist…” 

He winks. He might not be an enologist, but when it comes to making wines as compelling as these, it’s half science, half instinct; and Sylvain has a particular instinct for wine.

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