Benoît Courault, simply one of my favorite vignerons - An Article by Pascaline Lepeltier

7/2/20 -

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.

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 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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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