Mark and I recently had the chance to dine with Guy Sarton du Jonchay (Guy), his wife Monika, and a handful of others in Paris. It was a crisp February evening overlooking the River Seine; a perfect backdrop to discover the wines of Maison Vidal-Fleury.
Together Guy and Monika manage Maison Vidal-Fleury; with Guy heading up viticulture and winemaking, and Monika focused more on management. They were both very passionate and open about their efforts and real joy to talk with.
Perhaps Guy’s Argentinian and traditional French roots are why Vidal-Fleury agreements with Rhone Valley growers – some twenty plus years- continue on a friendship basis with a handshake. No contracts. Not one. Just people committed to their art. The art of growing grapes and making great wine.
A Maison in Côte Rôtie
Vidal-Fleury dates back to 1781 in the prestigious Côte-Rôtie Northern Rhone appellation. It’s one of oldest continuously operating wineries in the Rhône Valley, and can even brag about a visit from Thomas Jefferson.
And the story goes… Gustave Vidal married the Fleury family daughter during the 1890’s. They expanded their Rhone Valley holdings throughout the Rhone Valley in the 1920’s. The Vidals were close friends with another Rhone family, the Guigals, and Vidal eventually hired Etienne Guigal as his vineyard and cellar master. Following years of friendship, and after the passing of the last surviving Vidal-Fleury family member, the E. Guigal company purchased Vidal-Fleury (1984). Today after extensive renovations and modernizations completed in 2006, Maison Vidal-Fleury is a true state of the art winery in the northern Rhone valley.
Organic Conversation: Grapes, Lees, and Time
Our evening started with very purposeful conversation; so much so, the waiter had to come back three times before we were ready to order.
We dove right into the question of organic agriculture; a hot topic these days owing to growing consumer concern about where their food comes from, how it’s processed, and what’s in the end product. And these concerns are very much spilling into the world of wine.
Guy sees a difference between how the old and new worlds focus on the use of chemical treatments in the vineyard and winery. In the old world, there’s a more process-focused approach to managing product use, whereas in the new world it’s a more results-based approach, concerned with managing residual product in the finished wine. Guy prefers the latter approach.
His approach is about making wine with grapes and time. He doesn’t use enzymes, filtration agents, or other such products in the cellar, instead relying on the natural protection against spoilage coming from extended contact with lees and the effect of time for settling and stabilizing the wine. In his experience, if you produce wine this way you don’t need product to make the wine, just juice from the grapes, lees, and time. They only use small amounts of sulfur in the winery.
In the vineyard, however, it’s sometimes necessary to use product, but only in a way that does not leave a residual in the finished wine. For example in Côte Rôtie, they do everything by hand on steep terraces and sometimes need to use a product to keep the operation viable. And if there is a serious disease problem, the grapes need to be protected. It’s one’s livelihood; but needs to be done with the safest possible products, in absolute minimal amounts.
And finally, he’s not committed to organic, or other types of labeling. He feels it is unnecessarily confining. He does not use any animal products in making his wines, but prefers to not label them as “vegan.” It’s very difficult to manage such a definition, which may also be different for different certifying organizations, or markets. Instead, he hopes to build confidence with the customer by communicating he just uses the grapes, lees, time, and a small amount of sulfur.
Doing It Because You Love It
Guy makes wine because he loves the art of making wine. He focuses on ripe and fruit forward wines with balance and expression of terrior. Making “terroir wine” is very important to him. He wants to share the signature of the area in each wine produced. And he is also about results; and to get results you need processes that are validated by analysis. Achieving the best possible expression of the grapes using analysis as a tool. And then it’s necessary to run a business, sell the wine, and be a commercial success. To love making wine, make good wine, and make money doing it. It’s about passion, science, and business.
Viognier – Côtes du Rhone Blanc vs. Condrieu
In Europe, the main signature of a wine is the origin, not the winemaker. And in France this signature is terroir. When you understand location differences of where your grapes grow, it’s easy to choose the style of wine you want to make.
Viognier is the grape responsible for the Northern Rhone Condrieu AOC wine. It’s used in Côtes du Rhone Blanc regional wines, and also allowed in various Rhone Valley red AOC wines. But because of terroir, it tastes different depending on location and wine.
The cooler northern areas of the Rhone produce Viognier with higher acidity. And with higher acidity these wines go through malolactic fermentation. That is the tradition and gives the wine a rounder, softer feel. But tradition doesn’t prevent them from considering changes. Nonetheless, there is a characteristic of Viognier from Condrieu that’s not possible elsewhere.
The traditional style of making Condrieu with ML is not the international standard. It is, however, paramount for Vidal-Fleury Condrieu. ML allows for long aging on lees in wood. Guy ages his at least one year on lees after fermentation. This is what develops complexity and intensity of flavors.
Heading south, Guy produces a Côtes du Rhone Blanc in a more modern style that does not go through ML. Clarifying the must beforehand and lower temperatures during fermentation, keep a freshness and fruitiness in the wine.
Guy’s objective isn’t to “plair a tous le monde” (please the world). He makes two different Viognier wines so people have a choice. By understanding growing conditions and the grapes themselves, you understand what needs to be done for the desired style of wine.
Maison Vidal-Fleury Côtes du Rhone Blanc 2018
Viognier 88%, Grenache Blanc 12% | 3,100 cases produced (37,200 bottles)
- Vinification: 30% skin contact; 70% direct press into temperature controlled stainless tanks (12°C); clarification of the must by racking; fermentation in temperature controlled (18°C) stainless tanks with selected yeast; no malolactic fermentation.
- Aging: 6-month on lees with bâtonnage; clarification by settling and one filtration; unfined.
- Tasting: Clean, medium intensity fresh apricot, melon, and acacia; medium-bodied round, citrus brightness with slight lactic notes in the mouth. A refreshing apero wine.
Maison Vidal-Fleury Condrieu 2017
100% Vigonier | 250 cases produced (3,000 bottles)
- Vinification: direct press 70%; cooling of the must to 12°C; light clarification of the must by racking; fermentation in stainless steel tanks (50%) and barrels (50%) with indigenous yeast and controlled temperature (18°C / 64°F); 100% malolactic fermentation.
- Aging: 12-months on lees with bâtonnage; natural clarification by settling and one filtration; unfined.
- Tasting: A medium intensity yellow hue; delicate and elegant medium aromas of mango, pineapple, acacia, white grapefruit, and vanilla bean; medium acidity and body with mouth filling unctuousness graduating to apricot, citronella, and brioche; a gorgeous long finish. A dangerously delicious wine.
Chestnuts happen to be one of the classic pairings with Condrieu. I intend to include Vidal-Fleury on my next Thanksgiving and holiday tables!
At this point we moved to the Estate’s red wines while ravenous discussion continued. I’ll preset them in my next article. Stay tuned!
Maison Vidal-Fleury wines are found in the US through Frederick Wildman.