Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Domaine Ricard: Growing in the Touraine

Vincent Ricard farms seventeen hectares of vineyards in the Touraine, located outside the village of Thésée la Romaine, near the banks of the river Cher and not far from Chenonceau, in the heart of central Loire Valley château country.

Vincent Ricard, circa 2005 (photo: B. Celce)

When first I met Vincent in February of 2004, he was a young man of 27 years, just beginning to get his feet wet yet already taking a strong stance in the Touraine wine scene. Actually, given his relative youth, his experience was fairly extensive. He returned to his family's property in 1998 after a two-year internship with Philippe Alliet in Chinon and a short stage with François Chidaine in Montlouis. It took him only a year from that point, with help from his father, to declare and incorporate Domaine Ricard. Like so many other young vignerons before him, Vincent was the first in his family to make the move to winemaking following many generations of family farming. Prior to 1999, the fruit grown by his family had always been sold to the local cooperative. It’s only in the last dozen years, he told us, that a small handful of producers in the Touraine, mostly young guns like Vincent, have moved to estate bottling and export market sales.

The large, hodgepodge Touraine AOC is still dominated by négociant houses and production of commercial vin ordinaire. That dominance has created a market – supported by self-fulfilling INAO guidelines – that expects very simple, fruity, quaffable and eminently uninteresting wines. Ricard, in contrast, aims for structure on the palate, the possibility of bottle aging and the development of secondary characteristics. His philosophy does not stem from his time in oenology school where he tells us, “Average methods are taught.” Rather, he’s taken influences from the people he’s worked with like Alliet and Chidaine and placed himself along with them, as he sees it, among the avant-garde. He’s not shy about considering his wines atypical to the region or about occasionally butting heads with the INAO. Along with a few of his peers, he is pushing for the establishment of a new appellation for his immediate area. If granted, this new AOC – Chenonceau – would allow for reds based on Malbec (Côt), Cabernet Franc and Gamay as well as whites from Sauvignon Blanc.

The entrance to Ricard's winery (photo: B. Celce)

In spite of all his ambition and a flair for the modern with his labeling, when it comes down to nuts and bolts, Vincent is essentially a farmer. He’s interested in making wines that speak of their place. He’s not looking to expand his property or production, only to increase quality. With that in mind, his ideal would actually be to shrink his estate to a more focused and compact twelve or thirteen hectares.

For the time being, he makes do with all seventeen. At only 20 meters above sea level and gently rolling at best, his property is essentially flatland wine growing country. Here, although exposure still plays a role, it’s not the hillside which is most important as much as are the simple raw materials of soil and vine. Ricard’s terroir consists primarily of sand and silex-based topsoil above clay and chalk based subsoil. His vines average 60 years of age, with some parcels as old as 80. Cultivating primarily Sauvignon Blanc, Vincent also grows Côt (Malbec), Gamay and small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the latter a trickle-over influence, perhaps, from nearby Cheverny. Overall production is approximately 75% white and 25% red, with nearly 75% of the wine sold on the export market.

Vincent Ricard in the vineyard (February 2004).

Vincent believes strongly in the merits of natural farming. Exposed to biodynamic principles through his work with Chidaine and well versed in organic techniques, he picks and chooses the farming practices which make the most sense for his vines and his wines. Herbicides are never used. He allows grass to grow between every row, though he may eventually cut back to every other row to reduce the nitrogen richness the grasses impart to the soil. Vines are cut and trained later in the spring than typical to delay bud break, to protect the young shoots and buds from frost damage, and to forestall Sauvignon’s precocious ripening tendencies.

Even taking those precautions is not always enough to avoid loss in as northerly a situation as the Loire. In 2003, the season just preceding our visit, frost occurred on April 27, very late into the season, causing the loss of about 30% of all buds and, hence, a tremendous reduction in yields for the year. We’d heard a very similar tale of frost damage and reduced yields just the day before when visiting François Chidaine in Montlouis. 2003 would also turn out to be a shorter than usual growing season. Following a summer and early autumn of high heat and little rainfall, harvest began at Domaine Ricard on August 28 – nearly three weeks ahead of the typical schedule.

In the cellar:

As is common in the Loire, Ricard’s winery is built directly into a hillside on the property. It’s little more than a purpose-excavated garage cum cave, shaped like a small airplane hangar and suited perfectly, given its natural temperature control, to the utilitarian rows of cement vats and small-to-medium sized barrels. Despite the simple subterranean surroundings, the cleanliness of the space was immediately apparent. That cleanliness – a good sign at any winery – is particularly important here, as Ricard entirely eschews the use of sulfur within his crush, fermentation and aging regimens. Developing wines are casked tightly to prevent oxidation or spoilage. A light filtration, if necessary, and very low dose of sulfur are applied only at bottling time. Malolactic fermentation is not encouraged and rarely occurs for the whites, though it's not forcibly prevented.

Evolution can be seen in Ricard's cave between 2004 (photo at left: E. Tuverson)
and 2005 (at right: B. Celce)

Touraine Sauvignon “Pierre à Feu” 2002 (from bottle)
Varietal Sauvignon Blanc, from a plot of flint and silex rich soil, farmed to average yields of 40-45 hl/ha. The vineyard is visibly strewn with egg to fist sized pieces of pinkish white flint, a geology that continues into the subsoil. Rubbing two of the stones together gives a faintly smoky, gunflint aroma. Temperature controlled fermentation and aging in cement vat. Following a damp summer, warm temperatures in September and into October allowed for late ripening and resulted in a later than typical harvest. Light bodied, with bright acidity, lemony fruit and good persistence. The flintiness of the vineyard site shows through in the wine’s bracing minerality.

Touraine “Les Trois Chênes” 2002 (from bottle)
Also varietal Sauvignon, though not indicated on the wine’s label. The name of this bottling comes from a stand of three old oak trees that once grew on the site. 40-60 year-old vines give naturally yields of 30 hl/ha. The vines are on native rootstock, as the phylloxera louse does not take well to the extremely sandy soil of the vineyard. The richness of the fruit from this site lends itself to barrel fermentation, with battonage performed twice weekly during fermentation and continuing post-fermentation depending on the clarity of the wine. Time in barrel varies depending upon vintage conditions. A distinct undercurrent of minerality is provided courtesy of the presence of silex in the sandy top-soil as well as by the calcaire sub-soil in the vineyard. Citrus elements are supplemented by riper, pear-toned fruit and rounder mouthfeel. Ricard prefers a relatively warm serving temperature – 15 to 16 degrees Celsius – as cold will mask the richness and texture of this cuvée. Let’s just say that serving conditions in his cave on a brisk February morning were far below that ideal.

Touraine “?” 2002 (from bottle)
Here, the young Ricard’s willingness to bend rules, design modern labels (a large question mark cut-out adorns the bottle) and push the envelope of “Touraine typicity” came into more obvious relief. Primarily Sauvignon, this cuvée comes from vineyards farmed to yields of less than 20 hl/ha. What else is in the wine? “?” Maturity is pushed to the max. Fruit harvested at 14.7% potential was finished to 14% with 6 grams of residual sugar. Fermentation is done in new barriques with 20% malolactic. Oak, sweetness and fruit forward characteristics are held in check by acidity and physiological concentration, with an intense core of stony minerality again showing through.

Touraine “Cuvée Armand” 2002 (from bottle)
This is a small production bottling from a second tri from the “Les Trois Chênes” vineyards. It is named after Vincent’s great-grandfather, who sold some of the family’s wines in Paris from 1880-1900. It’s also Vincent’s statement/experiment as to Sauvignon’s potential to create a full range of wines from sec to richly demi-sec in style, just as with Chenin in Vouvray and Montlouis. He feels that, “Sauvignon is being made generic and terroir-less all over the Loire.” This is one of his efforts – interpret it as you might – to fight against that trend. Harvested at 16% potential, the 2002 was finished intentionally demi-sec to 13% alcohol with 35 grams of residual sugar. Loads of ripe, exotic fruit, with minerality still managing to find a foothold.

Touraine Sauvignon “Pierre à Feu” 2003 (assembled from barrel)
Very smoky and mineral on the nose, with lower acidity and richer texture compared to the 2002. Overripe grapefruit, along with a hint of cantaloupe, on the palate. To be bottled in about a month.

Touraine “Les Trois Chênes” 2003 (assembled from barrel)
Very fat and creamy, with low acidity but a concentration of physiological matter that keeps the wine from flabbiness. Showing peachy and smoky fruit but not yet integrated.

Touraine “?” 2003 (from barrel)
Oak is more obvious, at least at this early stage, than in the 2002. Also showing some heat and over-the-top fruit. Still fermenting, the wine as tasted was at 14% and 8 grams RS.

Touraine “Cuvée Armand” 2003 (from barrel)
Ripe and honeyed, with flavors of pear nectar and candied licorice. 2003 was a natural year, given low yields and high heat, in which to produce demi-sec wines; this was 13.5% with 40 grams RS when tasted.

Vincent pulls a sample from cement vat. If you inspect the photos above, you'll see that the vats were relocated to a new portion of the cellar following our visit to make room for more barrels. (photo: B. Celce)

Before shifting our palates to red wines, Ricard primed us with a bit of viticultural background. As recently as 40 years ago, Côt – the local name for Malbec – was virtually the only red variety grown in this part of the Touraine. However, much of it has since been replanted due to Côt’s tendency toward extreme variability from vintage to vintage. Vincent believes in Côt for his terroir – it’s less of a risk now due to very careful rootstock selection – but also cultivates Cabernet Franc and a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon to allow flexibility in blending and making a wine that best represents the characteristics of any given growing season. He is against the practice of specific clonal selection in the vineyard, preferring natural selection as he wishes to avoid the risk of homogeneity.

Touraine “Le Vilain P’tit Rouge” 2002 (from bottle)
When Vincent first produced this Touraine rouge, the INAO inspectors, upon tasting a sample, denied him the Touraine AOC, proclaiming the wine atypical because of its structure and concentration. He was forced to label it as Vin de Pays, which, at least in theory, lowers the sale price and increases the difficulty of marketing the wine. After Ricard sold out his entire production, the INAO inspectors granted AOC status in the following vintage. The name, which can be translated in many different ways, i.e., “The Nasty Little Red,” is meant as a thumb of the nose to the authorities.

In 2002, “Le Vilain” was a field blend of equal parts Côt and Cabernet Franc. Previously the selected varieties had been fermented separately and assembled prior to bottling. With the 2002 vintage, he moved to co-fermentation (in cement tank) to allow the varieties to marry their attributes at an earlier stage. The resulting wine had substantial grip, medium acidity, bell pepper and smoky aromas, and wild black cherry and cassis fruit.

“Le Vilain P’tit Rouge” 2003 (from barrel)
Again a co-fermented field blend, in 2003 the blend for “Le Vilain” shifted to roughly equal thirds of Côt, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasting from barrel, the wine still on its lees, our sample was naturally reductive yet showed rich, juicy fruit, very dark color, creamy textures with a firmly tannic backbone, and lower acidity relative to the 2002. Hints of bay leaf and bell pepper showed on the finish. Vincent, as of February, planned to leave the wine in barrel until June or July. Due to its concentrated nature, he suspected the wine might again be denied AOC status when the inspectors arrived to sample. Though I’m not certain, it very well may have been denied AOC; the 2003 never appeared on the US market.

Touraine “L’Effrontée” 2002 (from bottle)
Our final taste would take us back to Sauvignon, a very atypical Sauvignon. “L’Effrontée” – literally “the challenge” or “the confrontation” – is a late harvest, 100% botrytis affected, varietal Sauvignon Blanc from a site near the river purposely selected for the possibility of making a botrytized wine. Only four or five other producers in the Touraine produce a Sauvignon in this style, which is more typically reserved for the Chenin-based wines of the region. Logically, Ricard went to his friend François Chidaine for help and advice on making the wine. The fruit is harvested in a single tri with 30 people picking to bring in yields of less than ten hectoliters per hectare. In 2002, fruit was harvested on November 7-8. The finished wine was beautifully clean, with grapefruit, lavender, honey and minerality lingering on a very long finish. Its 110 grams of RS were kept afloat by edgy, chalky acidity.

The wines of Domaine Ricard might easily be viewed as modernist. In a good sense, they are. Vincent pushes the envelope of style and fights against the average. Yet he does so through the application of natural farming techniques, not through heavily interventionist manipulation in the winery. His wines may not be for everyone; he’s not shy of subtle sweetness in some of his Sauvignons or of intense textures and aromas in his reds. Yet the minerality that shines through in even the richest whites and the varietal and local typicity in his reds speak to his belief in the terroir of his little slice of the Touraine. This is a Domaine and a young wine grower worth watching.

Addendum: Much to my chagrin today, though perhaps to the benefit of my note taking capabilities in 2004, I went without a camera through the duration of this trip. One of my traveling companions has provided photos from some of the other stops but shots from a few of our visits, including this one, are conspicuously short in supply. I am indebted, therefore, to Bert Celce, author of the fantastic blog Wine Terroirs, who agreed to share some photos from his 2005 visit at Domaine Ricard. Thanks Bert! Label images were borrowed from Domaine Ricard’s website.


Sonadora said...

Thanks for the lesson on the area and this producer. These wines sound fabulous. I'm trying to learn more about French wine this year, since I focus so much on California, I am stalking other bloggers who know much more than I can ever hope to know about France!
PS-I love the idea behind "Le Vilain P’tit Rouge"!

David McDuff said...

Stalk on, Megan! I'm glad to have been of service. I like the "so there!" nature of the "Le Vilain" story as well. It's been interesting to watch the wine change since my visit. The 2005 vintage was almost all Malbec (90%) rounded out with just a touch of Cabernet Franc. Much more supple than the '02 and '03 versions included in the article, but still showing the acidity and aromas of a cool climate wine (aka, it won't fool anyone into thinking it's Argentine Malbec).

Brooklynguy said...

i saw some of these wines selling at Astor in NYC lst week, at really nice prices too. i had no idea what they were, and two things turned me off: 1) cute labels including little devils, or roosters, or rabbits, or whatever...turn off; and 2) selling in the "staff picks" sale area - smacks of overstock no one is buying it mark down. seems like i was wrong, and a taste is in order.

great post, thanks for the info.

David McDuff said...

If I didn't know the wines, I'd normally be turned off by the labels as well. A devil on "Le Vilain," a wicked little cherub on the newer Sauvignon "Le Petiot," and cartoonish trees on "Trois Chenes," would all scream steer clear. Labels like these tend to make me think "gimmicky" which in turn makes me expect the wine in the bottle to have less to say of its own. Knowing Ricard, he's just applying his youthful sense of humor, putting a tongue in his cheek and intentionally defying expectations set by "tradition."

It is entirely possible that Astor is having trouble moving the wines. In this case, the resulting price point may simply work in your favor. I can't promise you'll like them but they're absolutely worth trying.

RougeAndBlanc said...

David, thanks for introducing this producer to us, I like wines such as the Le Vilain Rouge that the varietial combination changes from year to year. However, I wonder why on 10% Cab Franc in 05. 90% Cot parctically turns this vintage into a Malbec

David McDuff said...

I'm not sure I can answer your question other than to surmise that the 90/10 blend is what Vincent thought appropriate as an expression of the vintage or relative to the quality and quantity of his raw materials for the year.

A varietal Malbec, if he is indeed headed in that direction, would not be without precedent in the area. The "Cuvee Cot" from Clos Roche Blanche, another solid Touraine producer, is well worth seeking out if you're interested in exploring further.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin