“When you fall in love with a terroir, you want the story to come through in the wines. If you want to let the terroir speak, then you can’t add anything to the wine… you just can’t.”
When you fall in love with a terroir, you have to let it shine. For Charlotte and Thomas of Terre de l'Elu, that meant no additions, no commercial yeasts — a little hand every now and then, sure, but no more.
It hasn’t been an easy ride in the last couple of years. The Estate was once called Clos d’Élu, but they had to drop their "Clos" and rename it "Terre" when they made the difficult decision to leave their appellation (meaning their wines are now marked Vin de France on the label, instead of with their regional village). Although they might not want to, sometimes rules are made to be broken; even more so when it comes to the tricky waters of wine politics.
“We decided to keep hold of our freedom, and to follow our customers instead of the regional board.”
It wasn't an easy choice by any means, but it has allowed Charlotte and Thomas to be released from their shackles. They're exactly where they always wanted to be:
“I’m always hoping to feel an emotion. I often compare it with the feeling of looking at my children, when you just think ‘wow.’ The wine should make you feel the same – and not because it's the best, or perfect. We like some imperfections, they give the wine its charm.”
Meet Charlotte & Thomas
Charlotte and Thomas had first dreamt of growing vines in Chile. A dream which, had it not been for the asynchronous relationship between the winemaker seasons in France and the weather in Chile, might have become a reality. But dreams of Chile soon became dreams of California, and it was there, in Sonoma Valley, that newlyweds Charlotte and Thomas started their journey.
“It was the second year of learning for Thomas, and the first for me. At the time, Thomas still worked in consulting and I in communications. We were part of a wine tasting club; we loved tasting wines, especially Chenin, and we were very interested in the Loire Valley area because there were a lot of exciting projects with new winemakers happening there.”
Their home country called them back, and they began to dwell on setting up their own domaine;
“You can find some awesome beautiful terroirs in the Loire region. We weren’t very rich, but it was still possible to buy a winery there. When you don’t have any money, it’s impossible to buy vines in Champagne or Burgundy. But we didn’t really want to go there anyway.”
Besides wanting to start something which truly felt their own, both Charlotte and Thomas hail from Brittany and after five years in Champagne and three in Provence, it was time to bed their roots closer to home.
Thomas, having previously studied agricultural engineering, had already spent over ten years working as a wine consultant across various regions in France. In Provence, Charlotte laughs, he was “a consultant for rich people buying beautiful houses surrounded by vines.’ Charlotte, on the other hand, had always been interested in wine — “drinking it, mostly” — but by trade was a communications specialist. They say the grass is always greener, but it really did seem to be this time – in Avignon, ‘green Provence’, no less.
“It was Thomas who originally wanted to make wine, and we both wanted to make gastronomic wine. Wine that you can drink with food; that you can share with people during a meal; wine that can help you to share thoughts…"
Wines, Charlotte tells us, should be able to tell you a story. Or help you to tell a story. Either way, they are a vehicle to carry, evoke and share emotions.
“That’s why we are where we are now; it’s because of a love for wine, both when you drink it alone and when you eat good food with it.”
Terre de l’Élu is nestled between Angers and Saumur, in a small town named Saint-Aubin de Luigne. Their vines, totalling 20 hectares, are spread across six parcels. Growing on the outskirts of the city on the south-facing bank of the Layon river, the vineyards are situated between Chaume and Ardenay. It’s a magical place which even the most seasoned traveller would struggle to tire of.
They are fortunate to have some very old vines; some of which are celebrating their 80th birthdays. They're also fortunate to have some old vine examples of varieties such as Pineau d'Aunis, which are sadly a rarity these days, as many of the older vines were removed in the 70s and 80s and replaced by clonal Cabernet Franc (which was easier to sell and higher yielding). As such, their Pineau d'Aunis is a real gem, and they're fiercely proud:
“Luckily we still had a small parcel, which is why we decided to make the single-varietal cuvée 'Esperance' [meaning Hope] in 2010. We chose this name because it was a difficult time for us… it was the beginning and we didn't know if we would be strong enough to power on through.”
It was a mega success, and today the wine has become one of the natural wine world's staples. The following year, they planted more Pineau d’Aunis vines from massal cuttings, and they have even shared the vine material with a nursery, Lilian Bérillon in the south of France, to perpetuate the vegetative material and make it available for other young farmers.
Since the beginning, they have worked organically.
“When we bought this winery in 2008, it was not organically farmed and we decided to very quickly convert the entire winery. It wasn’t an option for us to start using chemical treatments; for ourselves and for the planet. It was a feeling; an instinct.”
Thomas had already learnt organics in previous roles;
“Thomas had been advising Champagne producers to go in the organic direction. There were very few working that way then, in comparison to Provence, where there were more organic growers as it’s much easier there due to the climate.”
These days they work with organics as the baseline, taking inspiration from biodynamic notions. Thomas’ experience set them up in good stead, and Charlotte was further inspired by biodynamics, saying,
“We practiced it for three years; I wanted to give it a go, as I don't have a background in agriculture and I found it very poetic. It requires a lot of intuition to work this way, and I thought it was a beautiful way of growing.”
However, they soon discovered that a large part of biodynamic agriculture is rooted in spirituality, and that was less their cup of tea:
"We’ve done a lot of research to learn more about the foundations of biodynamics (because it’s a philosophy), and what we learned is that it’s a much more spiritual way of growing than necessarily agricultural. We didn’t want to go into a spiritual direction, so we decided to stop the 501, but we still use a lot of different plants."
Plant and herb extracts are an integral part of their viticultural process; infusions, decoctions, manure, essential oils; and always have been, even before they began trialling biodynamics.
The goal is to promote biodiversity and to help the vines. It’s like a test, Charlotte notes, one which aims to create a new kind of agriculture.
“We’re doing this with l’Institut Français de la Vigne in Anjou. Each second year they start new tests, and they asked us if we’d like to be a part of this one.”
The idea of permaculture is a the heart of Terre de l’Elu (after all, ‘terre’ translates to ‘earth’).
“We have lots of trees, and we would love to plant more. We want to pull out some old vines to give space for some old varieties. Fruit trees: peaches, cherries… there are many kinds of fruit trees that you could find easily in the past, but not anymore. We’re interested to see how agroforestry can help the vines. We want to take our time. It's important not to rush, so that you can better understand what works on your soil."
If it was the Chenin which brought Charlotte and Thomas here, then it was certainly the Cabernet Franc which made them stay. Of the six parcels, half are planted with Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc (the most common varieties in Anjou) with smaller plots of Gamay, Grolleau Noir and Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pineau d’Aunis. For the most part, the red varieties are whole bunch fermented.
"Thomas made the decision to not ask other winemakers for help; to instead make wine on the basis of his own instinct and intuition. For the reds, it was his intuition to ferment them with whole bunches."
Macerations are long and slow, and the wines age in either tank, barrel or amphorae.
“Each idea we have is from a practical point of view — it’s never a philosophical thing. We always make wine with a vision of the wine that we want to drink.”
Making wine is above all an emotional process for them; they are living, breathing wines that are far more than simply the liquid in the glass. Charlotte smiles as she says,
"When I drink our wines, I’m always hoping for an emotion. I often compare our wines to our children; when you look at your child, sometimes you just think ‘wow, awesome’... and the wine should make you feel the same. Not because they’re the best or perfect; we like some imperfections. Imperfections can give the wine charm. They must make you feel something."
They have become renowned for their work with amphorae. In 2012, after a particularly rainy harvest, Charlotte and Thomas had to forego their Magellan cuvée. It was impossible to make it that year. With one of their old parcels, they decided to make a single vineyard Chenin in lieu of Magellan. But due to the concentration of the fruit (coming from such old vines), Thomas wanted to make sure the wine didn't become heavy.
“He decided to try using an amphora, having tried some wines aged in amphorae at a wine fair – especially from Italian winemakers. In 2010, we had bought four amphorae. For the first test, however, the wines stayed in the amphorae for only four months, because they were not thick enough so we lost a lot of wine through evaporation through the clay.”
The following year, they ordered new amphorae, but this time with slightly longer and thicker sides – in order to hopefully retain more of the liquid. It worked, and for their old vine Chenin the next year, the amphorae brought about a certain freshness that they might not have been able to obtain from oak.
These days, the Ephata cuvée ferments for one year in small sandstone amphorae (just 150L) that come from the south of France. Then, it ages for one more year in clay. For Esperance, their Pineau d’Aunis, the amphorae are larger, with thicker walls. They are constantly learning and experimenting with different materials and formats.
At the start of their journey, they labelled their wines according to appellation (Anjou, etc), but in recent years they had difficulties with the regulatory board that decides whether a wine is allowed regional designation on the label or not. One of their wines, Roc'h Avel, was rejected. Just like if your child gets a bad grade at school, that hurt — and in this case they hadn't failed the test, they'd just done it differently. Charlotte says,
"The board tastes the wines every year and then discusses whether it tastes how a vin d'Anjou etc should taste, and in this case, they decided it didn't. We didn't want to wait for the wine police anymore. It's too much of a risk; when they tell you that you can't name a wine with its appellation, you have to change all those labels. That's a big cost for a small producer, and we just didn't want to run that risk. So, we decided to keep hold of our freedom instead."
And despite what the board might say, their wines are gaining even more of a reputation.
"All the people who buy our wines know wine; sommeliers, wine merchants... They accept the wines. So, if they buy our wines and like them, we think they must have their reasons. We trust them. That’s why we say we prefer to follow our customers rather than the board."
What's more, with climate change, who knows where they'll be in ten years time? Charlotte muses that Grenache and Carignan aren't off the cards, but that they're definitely not allowed within appellation winemaking.
Terre de l’Élu has gone from strength to strength since Charlotte and Thomas took over in 2008. Could it be that Terre de l'Elu's decision to throw in the 'appellation towel' and to replace it with Vin de France pastures has only fuelled their independent spirit?