Hidden behind the terrific sunglasses, one of the best vignerons of the Loire. Picture : PL.

Benoît Courault, simply one of my favorite vignerons

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When asked the question - “which bottles would you take to a desert island?” - you can be sure I would pick a Chenin from Benoît Courault. His wines are among some of my absolute favorites.  Whether it be the old-vines and single-vineyard bottlings or the springtime cuvées, it is a true pleasure to open one of his wines. In the spirit of full transparency, Ben is one of the first winemakers I visited at the start of my career, and over the years he has become a very dear friend.  You could say we “grew up together” in our careers. I was introduced to Ben by my mentor and sommelier teacher, Patrick Rigourd in 2005.  Ben went to the same sommelier school I attended in Angers a couple years prior to me, only to quickly realize he prefered to make wine rather than serve it.  I will always remember the night when Patrick drove me to a troglodyte cave (underground limestone habitation) in a village located on the fault between Anjou Noir and Anjou Blanc to taste Ben’s very first vintage.  That Chenin was already singing, and Ben’s talent was immediately apparent.  Since that first meeting, I have set out to taste Ben’s wine as frequently throughout the year as possible.  I watched him enlarge his domaine from scratch with no money, producing highly compelling wines while not compromising his vision.  After 15 years of inspiring friendship, I am convinced Benoît makes some of the best wines in the Loire if not in France! He is showing that natural wines made with superb grapes can reach an exceptional level of quality. With this special offer, I will present his “Grands Vins de France,"  two exceptionnal Chenins and one Grolleau from 2018.  Aged longer and bottled when he deemed them ready, these bottles are meant to be enjoyed today, but could easily be cellared for at least a decade. 

Norway, Ben's horse, on top of the Coteau des Mailles.
In the background, the village of Rablay-sur-Layon. Picture : PL.

 

The history. Benoît is from Anjou, but grew up surrounded not by vines but by horses!  His father was a horse breeder and trader (Maine-Anjou and Normandy are very famous for their stables). Ben grew up working in the stables but knew at a very early age that he wanted to work in wine.  After working in restaurants in Angers as a sommelier, he decided his call was to make wine, not pour it.  He wanted to feel a connection to the land. To learn the craft, he moved to Beaune studying part time at the oenological school and part time in a conventional estate doing some négoce in Chambolle-Musigny.  It wasn’t long before he began to recognize the issues of chemical farming and vinification. After discovering the wines of Dominique Derain and Yvon Metras he “saw the light” so to speak - these were the wines he wanted to make! To learn more, he move down south at Domaine de l’Anglore in Tavel in the Southern Rhône, and spent the next three years working alongside Eric Pfifferling , one of the very important vignerons of the natural wine movement who practiced the polar opposite farming techniques to the wine Benoît had experienced in Burgundy. He learned a lot there, from the complexities of working in harmony with nature to the humility, meticulousness and patience needed to make wines without any additives. He also got the “gobelet” bug, falling in love with this pruning technique.  A strong friendship began (Eric’s sons later on went to work with Benoît.)  In 2005, he returned to Anjou. While working at Domaine des Sablonnettes with organic pioneer Joël Ménard, he found an old farm and 7 hectares of vines in Valet, just outside of Faye d’Anjou. The house was dilapidated and the vineyards were exhausted from years of conventional farming, but the terroir was superb and the potential undeniable. Ben and his partner Emmanuelle (Manu) moved in, parking their airstream trailer in the middle of the vineyard (they lived almost 10 years in this trailer, before Ben could start to build his house just next to it for his family with his two boys, Alphonse and Lucien.)

The new planting of Pineau d'Aunis last summer.
Echalas, no trimming, and a great fort for Alphonse, Benoît's son. Picture : BC

 

The farming philosophy. Ben is the real incarnation of “paysan-vigneron”, and his vineyard is as close to a farm-garden as it can be. Right away he converted all the land to organic, restructuring it little by little. Ben is quite pragmatic and eschews dogma, including that about agro-ecology like biodynamic, so even though he is certified with Nature et Progrès, for him the “less worse label," he does not lead with this, preferring to write on his label “Cultivé dans le respect du vivant." He believes in biodiversity: chickens, goats, sheep, and rabbits live between the vines, the fruit trees, and the vegetable garden. Almost right away he began working with his Breton horse “Norway” in the fields.  He now has two horses to help him to plow or transport boxes of grapes during harvest.  He uses herbs, tisanes, and compost to rebuild the topsoil, and experiments with green cover crop (a topic in which he is a study participant for a large research program with local universities).  As he had to replant a lot of vines, he decided to work only with massale selections and other specific nurseries.  Today, he prefers to do everything himself as he was too disappointed by the quality of what was supposed to be “top selection."  He plants his selected rootstocks, selects cuttings from superb vines farmed by trusted friends and does the field-grafting.  In an experimental move for his region he planted (in addition to Chenin, Grolleau and Cabernet Franc) small amounts of Pineau d’Aunis and Pinot Noir.  Because of awareness of the beauty and virtue of gobelet, and after seeing some great results at Mark Angeli (Domaine de la Sansonnière is 10 min drive from Ben), he reshaped most of the vines to be  head-pruned. A crazy amount of work that took years! Now all the vineyards except the ones by the house are either in gobelet, or for some young vines in échalas, a technique he borrowed from the Northern Rhône. As you can imagine these kinds of ideas, work and perfectionism require a lot of time and commitment, especially when you are by yourself!  The team is small consisting of Manu for the back office work and Hugo who is finishing his BTS  (wine diploma) for the vineyard and cellar work.  He also has the assistance of a few eager students willing to intern - one of them was Philippe Delmée, a favorite of Chambers Street Wines.  But otherwise, Ben is always in the vineyard.  Hopefully soon he will be able to hire two employees full time with him.

 

Faye d'Anjou, in the heart of Coteaux-du-Layon. Mao : Benoît France.

 

Geology and microclimates. All the vines are located in Faye d’Anjou in the heart of the Anjou Noir and Coteaux du Layon, a couple of miles northwest of  Bonnezeaux, on the right bank of the river.  On that side, it is a real hill (coteau), quickly rising up to 100 meters elevation. Most of the vineyards are located on the highest part of the slope, yet historically the whole coteau was covered with vines. After World War II, most of them were abandoned for lack of labor and cost of production. The geology of Anjou Noir is quite complex, yet around Faye d’Anjou it is pretty consistent.  You will find some altered Ordovicien schistes locally called “schistes gréseux de Saint Georges” with veins of phtanites (a silica-rich sedimentary rock) and quartz. You have barely any top soil. This is a spectacular terroir.  A little bit further north on the top of the plateau the terroir becomes richer, with more clay and sand, thus less interesting for deep, complex wines but good for easy-to-drink, simpler bottlings (Ben uses them for his pet nat or rosé). The area is historically famous for noble rot wines , and for a good reason: the terroir retains heat, and in the fall, with the cold water of the Layon, the microclimate creates fog perfect for the development of the botrytis cinerea. In the afternoon the western winds blowing from the Atlantic Ocean (roughly a hundred miles away) and funneled by the Loire dry out the fungus on these perfectly southwestern exposed slopes. It is indeed noble rot heaven. But for those who want to make still dry chenin without additives, this is an issue: the fungus not only metabolizes chemical compounds in the berry, oxidizing certain aromatics, but it also secretes some botryticine, an antibiotic that will slow down the yeasts’ activity during fermentation (to the risk of spoilage, high VA, etc. etc.). Making still dry Chenin is also something new for the region (I developed this point in this article). It is a work in progress to understand how to vinify these powerful grapes. Schistes provokes hydric stress which tends to give the grapes thicker skin, more tannins, and higher potential alcohol. But Ben is definitely showing it is possible to produce layered, very complex wines in both red and white from this terroir!

Chenin in the Prieuré. Picture : PL

 

The vineyards & the cellar. Today the domain covers 6.5 ha.  5.5 ha in production over multiple plots, and 1 ha planted 2 years ago. Most of the vineyards are around the house and in the Clos des Mailles, and its extension Le Prieuré where he makes Gilbourg (1.30 ha), Le Petit Chemin (0.70 ha), Les Rouliers (1.30 ha), La Coulée (0.5 ha), and Les Tabeneaux (1 ha). Ben also has some vineyards on the plateau for his Eglantine, as well as near the Layon, neighboring the plot of his dear friend Richard Leroy (where Richard makes his Rouliers) and in Le Plessis on the way to the famous site Mont Benault (Les Guinechiens, 0.62 ha). In total, Ben has 50% of Chenin, 30% of Cabernet, 15% of Grolleau and 5% of young Pineau d’Aunis (and a couple of experiments). Some of his oldest vines are to be found in Les Guinechiens, Clos des Mailles and Prieuré, but for him old does not always mean good - everything depends on the vegetal material. So he keeps on improving the selection by replanting little by little. All the vineyards are within 10 min by tractor, a little longer by horse but it is very important for Ben to be close. Working with his horses really allows him to preserve the soils, but also to go into rows that are not perfectly straight without breaking them. They are also way less noisy and don’t require gasoline like a tractor. 

 

Whole-clusters! Harvesrt 2017. Picture : PL.

 

Year after year, Ben has been improving his cellar, originally a small house, investing carefully. The set up is pretty minimal - an outdoor courtyard for pressing (Ben has some wooden vertical presses and rents a horizontal pneumatic for the Chenin), and inside a couple of Vaslin tanks for fermentation and some second-hand 228 and 500 liter-barrels for aging. For 3 years he invested in two Grenier foudres. He is able to continue to fine tune every year. The cellar is always spotless despite its rustic look. Most of the time you will have music playing.  Ben is a talented guitarist and a music lover. 

The tiny cellar, with the Grenier foudre. Picture: PL

 

Ben’s goal is to avoid as much as possible the use of additives: he usually uses 10 or 20 ppm of sulfur if needed at racking, but if needed he will add a little bit during fermentation if there is a risk of irrevocable spoilage. Ben really thrives to produce highly drinkable and precise wines with a sense of place and doesn't want his wines to be dirty. The whites are pressed directly, then lightly settled before being fermented in foudre or barrels with spontaneous yeasts. Malo is done. The length of aging will depend on the cuvées. For the reds, the whole-clusters start to ferment in a semi-carbonic way, some light pigeages may happen later. Maceration usually lasts 10 to 15 days. Press and free-run may or not be blended. The spring cuvées are then aged for 6 months, while the cuvée de garde are bottled around harvest. Bottlings used to be partially done by hand and still happens this way for small lots, but for most of the cuvées he works with Christian Brault, the local expert who works with all the low-intervention producers. 

2018. No frost in 2018 (now a recurring issue in the region) but a lot of mildew very early on. The fruit set was very, very generous, but the fungus cleaned it up: more than 30% was already lost by June. The summer was hot, with some heat waves even burning some grapes. Overall, you really had to be in the vineyard, as the farming was very challenging. Harvest was on the early side due to the drought, grapes were ripe with a relatively high pH (low acidity). Fermentations were long and tricky, because of the little amount of nitrogen in the must (yeasts need nitrogen to ferment quickly). Ben had to intervene more than usual to make sure the volatile acid stayed under control but at the end, the wines are really overcoming the challenges of the vintage, and 2018 is a really strong line up. 

 

Hand-bottling at Benoît with up-and-coming talents: Tessa Laroche, Martial & Mark Angeli, Bruno Ciofi. Picture: PL

With his eternal teenager look it is easy to call Benoît a rising star. But today, he is without a doubt one of the most accomplished vignerons of Anjou Noir, alongside Richard Leroy, Stéphane Bernaudeau, Mark Angeli/Bruno Ciofi or Tessa Laroche. The remarkable work he puts in his vineyards is paying off more and more every single year. Always in search, questioning himself, tasting wines from all over the world when he can, he is a model of paysan-artisan-vigneron, always ready to mentor and help. He deserves to be recognized as one of the greats, and the proof is in the wines! Pascaline Lepeltier. 

If you want to have a feel of the domaine, I found this little video made by Julien Souchet of the 2017 harvest (click here).

PS - Benoît's 2019 Petit Chemin, Églantine and Pétillant will arrive later this summer. Stay tuned!

Courault, Benoît 2018 Anjou Gilbourg (Chenin Blanc)

Gilbourg is one of two “grands vins” made by Benoît Courault, who I consider one of the masters of Chenin on schistes. Made from a blend of different plots on the Coteau des Mailles in Faye d’Anjou, the heart is the vineyard of Le Prieuré de Gastines. This is a superb terroir on the top of the hill, less than 2 miles away from Bonnezeaux. Benoit started to farm that vineyard in 2009, and it took him almost 5 years of work to recreate topsoils and have a decent yield. But he knew the wine from that terroir could be exceptional: these shallow lighter silts with veins of phtanites (a silica-rich sedimentary rock) over altered schistes are fantastic for deep, powerful yet refined Chenin. The grapes are hand-harvested, pressed whole in a vertical pneumatic, settled overnight. Fermentation starts in tanks then finishes in Grenier foudre. As they lasted longer than usual (the summer drought decreased the amount of nitrogen available for the yeast to function quickly) so Benoit had to monitor very carefully. The wine was bottled by Christian Brault in October 2019.  With its pale gold color, you know you are going to enjoy a deep wine. On the nose, you pick up a lot of quince, white peach, kumquat, candle wax with a hint of fenugreek, pepper and Bourbon vanilla. The nose is quite fascinating and evolves a lot with air without losing its complexity. On the palate, you understand you are dealing with a great terroir: with its tense, nervy acidity, the structure is dense, powerful but not heavy at all, the ripeness counterpointed by some discreet tannins, saltiness and an elegant salivating bitterness. There is a lot going on already, but you can cellar this wine with no problem for at least a decade - the wine will gain even more complexity. The flavors are fresher than on the nose, with a lot of tamarin, pink grapefruit, gardenia and white pepper. The finish is really long, and typical of the schist with earl-grey notes. A terrific wine! Serve it in a large glass, not too cold, and decant if possible (especially if you open it in a couple of years). It would be perfect with a Turbot on the bone with a beurre blanc, a fried heirloom breed chicken or some bay scallops served with chestnut and celery. 100% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier. 

  • white
  • 7 in stock
  • $40.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Courault, Benoît 2018 Anjou Gilbourg (Magnum)

Gilbourg is one of two “grands vins” made by Benoît Courault, who I consider one of the masters of Chenin on schistes. Made from a blend of different plots on the Coteau des Mailles in Faye d’Anjou, the heart is the vineyard of Le Prieuré de Gastines. This is a superb terroir on the top of the hill, less than 2 miles away from Bonnezeaux. Benoit started to farm that vineyard in 2009, and it took him almost 5 years of work to recreate topsoils and have a decent yield. But he knew the wine from that terroir could be exceptional: these shallow lighter silts with veins of phtanites (a silica-rich sedimentary rock) over altered schistes are fantastic for deep, powerful yet refined Chenin. The grapes are hand-harvested, pressed whole in a vertical pneumatic, settled overnight. Fermentation starts in tanks then finishes in Grenier foudre. As they lasted longer than usual (the summer drought decreased the amount of nitrogen available for the yeast to function quickly) so Benoit had to monitor very carefully. The wine was bottled by Christian Brault in October 2019.  With its pale gold color, you know you are going to enjoy a deep wine. On the nose, you pick up a lot of quince, white peach, kumquat, candle wax with a hint of fenugreek, pepper and Bourbon vanilla. The nose is quite fascinating and evolves a lot with air without losing its complexity. On the palate, you understand you are dealing with a great terroir: with its tense, nervy acidity, the structure is dense, powerful but not heavy at all, the ripeness counterpointed by some discreet tannins, saltiness and an elegant salivating bitterness. There is a lot going on already, but you can cellar this wine with no problem for at least a decade - the wine will gain even more complexity. The flavors are fresher than on the nose, with a lot of tamarin, pink grapefruit, gardenia and white pepper. The finish is really long, and typical of the schist with earl-grey notes. A terrific wine! Serve it in a large glass, not too cold, and decant if possible (especially if you open it in a couple of years). It would be perfect with a Turbot on the bone with a beurre blanc, a fried heirloom breed chicken or some bay scallops served with chestnut and celery. 100% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier.

  • white
  • 12 in stock
  • $84.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Courault, Benoît 2018 Vin de France La Coulée (Grolleau)

We love Grolleau! This underrated grape unique to the Loire Valley does not have the recognition it deserves, as it was for a long time used for off-dry rosé made from clones selected for their yield. But with high quality vines, great terroir and care, Grolleau can make really good wines! Imagine a mix between a Gamay from Saint-Amour, a Pineau d’Aunis from the Coteaux du Loir and a Pinot from Sancerre: this is what the best Grolleau can taste like, which means Benoît Courault’s "La Coulée." Made from 40+ year-old vines growing on the Coteau des Mailles in Faye d’Anjou, the silty clay soil over altered schists give a remarkable structure to the wine. In this vintage because of the heat, Ben added a little bit of Pineau d’Aunis and a touch of Chenin. The grapes are hand-harvested, co-vinified whole-cluster in semi-carbonic maceration with some pigeage at the end of the 12 days maceration. Press and free-run are blended, then the wine is aged in used Burgundy barrels. It was bottled unfined, unfiltered by Christian Brault in October 2019, with just a little sulfur added at racking. Give the wine a quick decant to reveal a hedonistic nose of wild rose, pink peppercorn, fennel, forest floor. Blind, you would have a hard time guessing this wine: the attack has the delicacy of Pinot from the Southern Côte-de-Beaune, the mid-palate and the flesh of a cru Beaujolais, and the finish the spiciness of Pineau d’Aunis. It may be simple on the first sip, but the more you taste it, the longer and more complex it shows with notes of rosemary, iris, black pepper and humus. This is a very serious wine, and indeed one of the very best Grolleaux. Benoit, usually very humble, is quite happy about it, which means a lot! Serve it today decanted or in a Burgundy glass, or keep it 10 years. It can handle a little chill. Pair it with a smoked trout served with a Basque stew, or some charcuterie like fennel soppressata or pata negra. 80% Grolleau, 15% Pineau d’Aunis, 5% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier.

  • red
  • 2 in stock
  • $40.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Courault, Benoît 2018 Vin de France La Coulée (Grolleau) 1.5 L

We love Grolleau! This underrated grape unique to the Loire Valley does not have the recognition it deserved, as it was for a long time used for off-dry rosé made from clones selected for their yield. But with high quality vines, great terroir and care, Grolleau can make really good wines! Imagine a mix between a Gamay from Saint-Amour, a Pineau d’Aunis from the Coteaux du Loir and a Pinot from Sancerre: this is what the best Grolleau can taste like, which means Benoît Courault’s La Coulée. Made from 40+ year old vines growing on the Coteau des Mailles in Faye d’Anjou, the silty clay soil over altered schists give a remarkable structure to the wine. In this vintage because of the heat, Ben added a little bit of Pineau d’Aunis and a touch of Chenin. The grapes are hand-harvested, co-vinified whole-cluster in semi-carbonic maceration with some pigeage at the end of the 12 days maceration. Press and free-run are blended, then the wine is aged in used Burgundy barrels. It is bottled unfined unfiltered by Christian Brault in October 2019, with just a little sulfur added at racking. Give the wine a quick decant to reveal a hedonistic nose of wild rose, pink peppercorn, fennel, forest floor. Blind, you would have a hard time guessing this wine : the attack has the delicacy of Pinot from the Southern Côte-de-Beaune, the mid-palate the flesh of a cru Beaujolais, and the finish the spiciness of Pineau d’Aunis. It may be simple on the first sip, but the more you taste it, the longer and more complex it shows with notes of rosemary, iris, black pepper and humus. This is a very serious wine, and indeed one of the very best Grolleaux. Benoit, usually very humble, is quite happy about it, which means a lot! Serve it today decanted or in a Burgundy glass, or keep it 10 years. It can handle a little chill. Pair it with a smoked trout served with a Basque stew, or some charcuterie like fennel soppressata or pata negra. 80% Grolleau, 15% Pineau d’Aunis, 5% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier.

  • red
  • 5 in stock
  • $84.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Courault, Benoît 2018 Vin de France Les Guinechiens 1.5 L

Les Guinechiens is one of two “grands vins” made by Benoît Courault, who I consider one of the masters of Chenin on schistes. It is a 0.62 ha single vineyard located in Le Plessis, a little hamlet between Faye d’Anjou and Montbenault. The vines are at least 40 years old. The terroir is quite different from Gilbourg’s : there is more clay and more diversity of schists (green, red, blue). The wine is always more austere and strict, with less mid palate flesh but with a comparable length. The grapes are hand-harvested, pressed whole in a vertical pneumatic, settled overnight. Fermentation starts in tanks then finishes in Grenier foudre. As they lasted longer than usual (the summer drought decreased the amount of nitrogen available for the yeast to function quickly) so Benoit had to monitor very carefully. The wine was bottled by Christian Brault in October 2019.  The nose is more subtle and discreet than Gilbourg, showing discreet notes of acacia, apple blossom, lemon verbena, hay and smoked salt. On the palate the wine is admirably delicate yet asserting its origin with its spine of ripe acidity, its phenolic bitterness and its saltiness coming from the schist. With air, it takes even more volume without losing its touch. Some lemon zest, rhubarb and honeydew appear, as well as a lot of iodine notes. The finish is remarkably long. Still a baby, this bottle would benefit from some cellaring, and for sure would be admirable in 10 years or so. If you serve it today use a large glass, not too cold, decant if possible.  A Maine-lobster roll with melted butter would be amazing with this wine, but you could pair it also with a black cod, sea urchin bouillon and seaweed or a summer pea risotto with fig oil. 100% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier. 

  • white
  • 3 in stock
  • $99.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Courault, Benoît 2018 Vin de France Les Guinechiens

Les Guinechiens is one of two “grands vins” made by Benoît Courault, who I consider one of the masters of Chenin on schistes. It is a 0.62 ha single vineyard located in Le Plessis, a little hamlet between Faye d’Anjou and Montbenault. The vines are at least 40 years old. The terroir is quite different from Gilbourg’s: there is more clay and more diversity of schists (green, red, blue). The wine is always more austere and strict, with less mid palate flesh but with a comparable length. The grapes are hand-harvested, pressed whole in a vertical pneumatic, settled overnight. Fermentation starts in tanks then finishes in Grenier foudre. As they lasted longer than usual (the summer drought decreased the amount of nitrogen available for the yeast to function quickly)  Benoit had to monitor very carefully. The wine was bottled by Christian Brault in October 2019.  The nose is more subtle and discreet than Gilbourg, showing discreet notes of acacia, apple blossom, lemon verbena, hay and smoked salt. On the palate the wine is admirably delicate yet asserting its origin with its spine of ripe acidity, its phenolic bitterness and its saltiness coming from the schist. With air, it takes even more volume without losing its touch. Some lemon zest, rhubarb and honeydew appear, as well as a lot of iodine notes. The finish is remarkably long. Still a baby, this bottle would benefit from some cellaring, and for sure would be admirable in 10 years or so. If you serve it today use a large glass, not too cold, decant if possible. A Maine-lobster roll with melted butter would be amazing with this wine, but you could pair it also with a black cod, sea urchin bouillon and seaweed or a summer pea risotto with fig oil. 100% Chenin. Pascaline Lepeltier. 

  • Out of Stock
  • white
  • 0 in stock
  • $49.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur