Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ampelidae: Growing Ambition in Marigny-Brizay

I first met Frédéric Brochet, majority owner of and winemaker at Ampelidae, sometime in late-2002 or mid-2003. He was on a quick business oriented tour of the Mid-Atlantic States and his schedule allowed for little more than time to exchange pleasantries and for me to ask him a question or two about his winemaking and viticultural practices. My main question – something to the effect of whether he farmed organically or biodynamically – must have stuck in his head, as when I visited his property in February of 2004 he not only recognized me right away (always a nice thing) but quickly brought up the topic of our original discussion….

A view of the estate from the main driveway, February 2004.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, though, so let’s back up a bit. Ampelidae is a modestly scaled winery located in Marigny-Brizay, a commune of the Vienne Department located thirty-odd kilometers NNE of Poitiers in the southwestern sector of the greater Loire Valley. It sits in the crossroads between the Massif Central and the Massif Breton, in an area with ancient viticultural history but without a well-known modern viticultural presence to back it up, reflected in the fact that the area’s wines are not recognized with AOC status. The region includes about 800 hectares of vines, three-fourths of which are Co-Op operated. Independent, forward-thinking producers are in the distinct minority.

Frédéric (pictured at right) was born on the property in 1972 and his father, Christian Brochet, first gave him the opportunity to make his own wine in 1990. Perhaps not surprisingly, Frédéric went on to study oenology at university. After a working a stage in Australia in 1992, he returned to pursue a PhD in oenology at the University of Bordeaux, focusing on the cognitive aspects of wine tasting. He immediately made an impression there, conducting a series of rather mischievous tastings targeted at proving just how subjective wine tasting can be.

The estate itself is relatively young, established by Frédéric in 1995 and since expanded around the heart of the property that was originally owned by his father. As with so many other vignerons of the current generation, Frédéric is the first to estate bottle wines from his family’s farm, which includes about 35 hectares of vineyards. Those vineyards – situated on or near battleground sites from 5th, 8th and 14th Century conflicts – span a wide swath across a gently sloping hillside, providing all vines with southern exposure. Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are planted on the chalky soils near the base of the slope; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir take root in the clay, sandstone and flint base of the mid-slope; and Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon can be found in the acid, sandy soils at the top of the slope.

The Brochets purchase vine stock from reputable estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux and also propagate vines via their own massal selection. Farming is organic; certification has not been sought. In the vineyards, the soil is turned annually between every row, allowing natural mulch and moisture to aerate the topsoil, keeping it loose and healthy. During the growing season, grass, mâche, wild asparagus and other plant life are allowed to grow amongst the vines, helping to prevent erosion and also attracting an array of insects that are competitive to malignant vine pests, thus eliminating any need for insecticides.

Another view of the property, in a warmer time of year.

In addition to farming his own land, Monsieur Brochet also buys in fruit – mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay – from a number of locally contracted growers with whom he has the ability to guide and dictate farming practices. Wines are made on two basic levels. The so-called “Premium” line is branded as “Marigny-Neuf,” a name meant to capture the essence of the winery’s locale in Marigny-Brizay along with Brochet’s drive to breathe new life into the area’s old and largely forgotten viticultural traditions. These are varietal, négociant bottlings, combining estate-grown and purchased fruit; all vinification is done in steel, with an eye toward a direct expression of local varietal character. The estate bottled Ampelidae wines, what Frédéric considers his “Super Premium” collection, are all barrel aged, richer in extract and more modern in their flavor and textural profiles. At the time of our visit, all the wines fell within the appellation of VDQS Haut-Poitou, a designation which Brochet has recently dropped in favor of Vin de Pays de Val de Loire.

Getting back to where we started, remembering my old question regarding organics and biodynamics, Frédéric made it clear that he prefers technology to what he referred to as “the new age.” His position is reflected not only by the adoption of such modern tools as computer modeling – used to predict the risks of mildew relative to the area’s rainfall – but also by his sense of ambition. He clearly wants his wines to be taken seriously and works accordingly in his cellars, striving to craft wines that may eventually fetch prices far above and beyond the current standards of his neighborhood.

While visiting one of the several small wine making and barrel aging facilities scattered around his property, he extracted barrel samples of a wine that encapsulates that ambition. It was a Pinot Noir he called “L’Étoile” from the 2003 vintage, a wine I believe he’s still yet to market. His goal: to produce what he called a “thick-style” Pinot Noir that might sell to the high-end restaurant market for upwards of 100 Euros per bottle. Based on what we tasted, I couldn’t see it. But we could certainly see the hope in his eyes.

At the time of our visit, the estate seemed to be at a crossroads not unlike the one represented by their location halfway between the pacific culture of the Loire and the mercantile nature of Bordeaux, not far to the south. The best wines were the simplest wines, the “Marigny-Neuf” line, pure, fresh, clean, eminently drinkable and very affordable. The identity of the more serious wines was still punctuated by a question mark. That question is one I think will be answered only with time, as M. Brochet’s sense of purpose falls back into step with his connection to his land. I’ve had very little exposure to the “Ampelidae” line since the time of our visit, but the promise that continues to show via the Marigny-Neuf wines suggests that Ampelidae remains a winery worth watching.


If you’re hankering for more detail, here are the tasting notes from our visit.
  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Gamay
    Smoky, peppery, ripe red berry fruit. Slightly aggressive but bottled only three weeks earlier. In need of a little time to settle down.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Pinot Noir
    Bottled only two-weeks earlier but already more centered than the Gamay. Crisp, bright griotte fruit, with delicate tannins and a sweetly herbal nose.

  • 2002 Marigny-Neuf Cabernet
    A blend of 80% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Meaty and peppery, with plenty of bell pepper going on. Round mouthfeel contrasted by toothy tannins.

  • 2001 Ampelidae “Le K”
    Opposite to the above, this was a blend of 20% Cabernet Franc and 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in barrel. Rich. Aiming at opulence without arriving at sur-maturity. Dark black cherry fruit and a slightly bitter finish.

  • 2002 Ampelidae “P.N. 1328”
    The signature wine of the estate, this is a Pinot Noir named for the address of the old family house. Spicy black fruit and mature aromatic characteristics.

  • 2001 Ampelidae “Le G”
    Barrel aged Gamay. Reductive and aggressively animal on the nose, like sulfured manure.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Rosé
    70% Gamay, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Pinot Noir and 4% Groillot. Very nice wine, with clean fruit and decent backing acidity.

  • 2002 Ampelidae “Le X”
    Unusual wine. Varietal Pinot Noir, barrel aged and finished with 38 grams of residual sugar (RS). Like drinking light strawberry preserves.

  • 2002 Marigny-Neuf Chardonnay
    Smoky, apple-y fruit, with a hint of melon and red berries. Crisp and easy drinking.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Sauvignon Blanc
    Riper and rounder than the 2002 (which I was selling at the time). Clean citrus fruit, with a bit of grass and flintiness on the nose. Good mouthfeel.

  • 2003 Ampelidae “Blanc d’Hiver”
    Sauvignon Blanc aged in old oak casks, made for the first time in 2003. Creamy and sweet-fruited, with peach and melon nuances. Finished at 13% alcohol with 13 grams RS.

  • 2002 Ampelidae “Le C”
    Barrel aged Chardonnay, with lots of smoky oak on the nose. The wood was better integrated on the palate. Flowers on the nose and rich texture in the mouth, finishing ever so slightly off-dry.

  • 2001 Ampelidae “Le S”
    This is the barrel aged Sauvignon Blanc. Quite nice on the palate, showing some oak (which was more neutral on the nose). Well balanced.

We also had the opportunity, if just barely, to sit down with a few of Frédéric’s wines over a very fine lunch at Le Pavillon Bleu in Bonneuil Matours.

  • “Armance B” Brut NV
    This is a Vin Mousseux de Qualité, made in the traditional method and named after Frédéric’s grandmother, whose maiden name was Armance. Based primarily on Folle Blanche, rounded out with small proportions of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, it spends 14-15 months on the lees before disgorgement. Best when young. Fresh, creamy and lively.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Gamay “Rouge d’Automne”
    One-third of the fruit for this cuvée sees carbonic maceration; the other two-thirds goes through traditional vinification. Softer and juicier than the “regular” Gamay. Maybe the most enjoyable wine of the day, and pretty tasty with the chef’s “Terrine de Pot au Feu en Ravigote.”

  • 2001 Ampelidae “P.N 1328”
    This improved in the presence of “Filets de Porc Rôti” but was nonetheless marred by alcoholic heat and an oak influence that punched over the wine’s fruit.

(First photograph courtesy of Eric Tuverson. All other images courtesy of Ampelidae.com.)

3 comments:

Jim Budd said...

David: Thanks for these interesting and detailed notes. I haven't tasted the full range but have drunk Ampelidae “Le S” on a couple of occasions – well-made but I wasn't really convinced that it was special. Time for another look.

bill l said...

nice write up dave.

also the source of some damn good walnut oil that we used on thanksgiving.

David McDuff said...

You're welcome, Jim. It sounds like your impressions are very much in line with mine, though I do think there's potential. Let me know what you find when you look again.

Thanks, Bill. Yep, their walnut oil is fantastic -- absolutely delicious stuff. The walnuts come from old growth trees on the estate, supplemented by more from some nearby farms. Frédéric makes the vintage-dated oil himself at the local co-op.

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