Read our exclusive interview with Delphine Glangetas, the chief winemaker of French co-operative Les Vignobles Foncalieu, about her wine philosophy, working with 1200 different producers across Southern France, Foncalieu's new Icon Range and their exciting plans for the future...
Foncalieu is a French co-operative – can you explain a little about how that works? When did it first start?
Foncalieu is a Union of Cooperatives since 1967. Originally, it was only three wineries from the region; now it assembles 10 wineries. The wine-makers are members of the Union and is at the ‘Conseil d’Admistration’ – Board of Directors. The President – Michel Bataille – is at the head of the Cooperative but each member is fully involved in all decisions made. They have the decision-making power.
Can you explain about how you started there and who you work with in the winemaking team?
I was hired by Foncalieu three years ago (in June 2010) – Before that, I was working as a consultant and Foncalieu was one of my main clients. Therefore, I’ve known the company and the technical team very well since 2007.
Can you explain a bit about the different wines you make at Foncalieu, what grapes do you use? How many growers you work with? Across how many appellations? How many bottles you produce each year?
Because we are a Union of cooperatives, we are lucky to work on different terroirs throughout the mediterranean area – 5000 hectares and 1200 producers cover different Southern appellations (Minervois, Corbières, St Chinian, Coteaux Languedoc, Languedoc, Vin de Pays d’oc, Vin De Pays). Our production is 350000hls and we sell 20 million bottles a year.
With such a large operation how do you manage the workload and maintain the quality?
The quality of our wines is our main motivation and top priority. Everybody has a dedicated task and role to play. I am – to a certain extent – the ‘chef d’orchestre’ /conductor. Our organisation is a well-oiled machine and works very well. Of course we don’t rest on our laurels…we keep on working hard to make this ‘machine’ even more efficient.
Foncalieu previously won the award for French co-operative of the year – was that a proud moment? How did you do it?
It was indeed a great moment for the company. I was particurlarly proud as these awards acknowledged years and years of work – ‘ahead work’ – that is to say our commitment, our obsession with quality, and the involvement of all the technicians of the group. We are extremely precise in our work and our production. Our wines were born in the vineyards – this is where it all begins.
I work very closely with Gabriel Ruetsch, our agronomist engineer, who plays a key role within our organisation. We have one motto : ‘never leave anything to chance’. We work with a thouroughly detailed wine-making process plan that we use as a road map to guide us throughout the year. This plan heads up the commercial needs and the vineyards production. Thanks to this detailed plan, each plot of vineyard has a precise technical itinerary and a commercial commercial outcome. We work hard on the profiles of our products and on the needs of our clients. We have to adapt our production to match the consumers expectations. This award acknowleged all of these efforts. Yes, it was a very emotional moment.
What did that recognition mean to the winery and has it changed the image of the wines around the world?
What has it changed? Pride, recongnition, enhancement of the company and the products. We have especially communicated around this award with our existing clients and the trade press throught our London-based PR company Clementine Communications and during our marketing events such as exhibitions, fairs etc.
Do you think wine co-operatives are important part of the French wine industry?
Cooperation has always been an important part of the French wine industry. It is pereceived and apprehended differently depending on the regions. In Alsace, where many cooperatives are established, it is synonymus with quality and reliability. In southern France, cooperatives represent more than 75% of the overall production. For years, it was not very well perceived – it was linked to big volume production and second-rate quality. How things have changed! Our associates have invested in their vineyards to produce high-quality grapes and wines. Their commitment and will to change has been stronger than anything else
What is the wine philosophy behind the Foncalieu brand? And how does your own winemaking philosophy fit into that?
The Foncalieu philosophy? If I had to sum up in a word it would be pleasure! Modern wines, terroirs wines, wines with strong character or simpler wines such as rose wines in summer – what really matters is that our clients take pleasure in drinking our wines. As far as my vision of oenology is concerned, it’s the same – pleasure – I take pleasure in producing wine, in experimenting, in assembling, in creating…and in working with such a generous and talented team
Can you explain about how you go about working in the vineyards? Do you have different approaches for different appellations?
I visit some of the parcels with Gabriel Ruetsch for the specific programmes such as the les Châteaux / Domaines, les Icônes etc. The agronomy team goes up and down the vineyards and withdraws the grapes. At the end of the day, we catch up with Gabriel and taste the juices to organise the input (‘l’apport’) depending on the quality and the type of profile we want to achieve
Does your technique or approach change depending on whether you’re making the entry level wines or the high-end single vineyard wines?
Of course the ‘journey’ of our top-end wines is not the same as the level-entry ones. But as I said previously, quality is our ‘leitmotiv’ so all our wines receive the same dedicated care and attention.
Do you have special vinifIcation plans for each grape variety?
There is indeed a very specific itinerary for each grape variety. Everything is extremely well detailed when we draw up the wine-making process plan. I talk with the oenologists of the group to maximise the vinification workshops, to choose the right yeast, the right production process – in order to obtain precisely the wine profile we want. It’s a very enriching job.
Do you use technology to improve the winemaking process? If so, how?
We indeed use different technologies to improve the winemaking process. Gabriel Ruetsch our agronomist handles all the plots irrigated by the Disp’eau software.
And to characterise the maturity of the grapes, we’ve been working with Dyostem for the last six years. In our cellars, we also use different techniques such as ‘conductimétrie’ for the control of the pressure for example or ‘chromamétrie’ to follow the colours of our rosé wines
Do you use any biodynamic or organic winemaking processes?
No, we haven’t made any recent progress on the topic for the moment. But our organic wines are turned to wine with traditional methods that respect all criteria at 100%
Can you explain the Foncalieu Icon Range for people who may not have heard of it?
Some years ago, our President Michel Bataille had this idea to launch a new range of wines that will reflect the best of the best of what Languedoc has to offer. A couple of members accepted at once to take part in this amazing adventure, not only technical but also humane. Therefore, for many years, Gabriel Ruetsch ensures that the plots give the best that they can offer. In 2008, we invested in a small ‘workshop’ in order to produce tailor-made grapes and wines. Since then, thousands of bottles come out of these workshops every year – they represent our pride to be part of this cooperative and they also demonstrate the know-how of the technical team. (3 appellations, Minervois, Corbières, St Chinian et un Vin de Pays des Coteaux d’Enserune)
Which grapes do you use, where are they from?
For the Icônes AOP, the main grape variety is Syrah. It is the high-quality/fine grape variety from the South – This grape can have a fruity and fresh character with notes of blackcurrant (Minervois) or a stronger character, more peppery and spicy (Corbières). From the technician’s point of view, it’s a real pleasure to work with the Syrah variety because it has so many different facets! It’s so versatile. Other grape varieties are included in the Icône program. The Grenache, obviously and since 2012, the Mourvèdre on the Corbières terroirs. Its character is very interesting and we capitalise on its potential. For the l’Icône Ctx d’Ensérune, we have more grape varieties involved: Syrah of course but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan and Malbec. From the diversity, we produce an elegant wine.
How important do you think it is to emphasise high-end single vineyard wines?
For us, it is very important to change the image of the cooperation process. This type of high-end program demonstrates our wine-making and oenological know-how. It also proves that we are able to produce fine wines. Yes, we are a good industrial company but we can also provide prestige wines
Can you explain a bit about how these wines taste? How long you age them? Their ageing potential in a cellar? What foods they could be matched to?
Each wine has its own personality:
Our Minervois – Le Lien – Powerful and fruity , with aromas of black fruits blended with sweet spices
La Lumiere – Corbières – complety the opposite! Austere and wild – spicy wine that needs time to open and express itself. It has a strong personality and a great potential.
Le St Chinian – Apogée – like its vineyard, it smells like garrigue. It’s like a mediteranean journey with perfumes of lavender, rosemary and red berries. It’s a complex and rich wine.
And finally, our Illustres – Coteaux d’Enserune – It’s a rich and complex wine that plays with the complemetarity of the grape varieties. It is fruity thanks to the Cabernet and the Marselan, but also spicy and peppery thanks to the Syrah – and also floral with delicate notes of violet from the Malbec.
Could you also comment on their price points and value to consumers compared to other wines of the same varieties?
We produce wines – from level-entry to Super-premium / Prestige. Our price range – from £5.99 to £30. We develop our wide range of products – due to the different varities obtained while elaborating our blends.
Also what is the production count for each of these wines?
Production varies from one wine to another. For example, we have started our Corbières La Lumière with 2400 bottles only. Today, we are producing 5600 bottles – 2011 vintage.
L’Apogée St Chinian produces approximately 8500 bottles and the Minervois now produces 2400 bottles. Sometimes, it’s the price you have to pay to achieve excellence. As far as our Illustres are concerned, it’s the biggest part of the production with 20 000 bottles a year
Which are your biggest or most important export markets for the Foncalieu range?
UK, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, USA and Japan
Have you seen much demand from China? Or would you like to be more present in the Chinese market?
Yes, more and more. That’s why we opened a representative bureau in Shangai in 2010 to respond to the demands of this very specific market. Chinese consumers are fond of red wines – from the entry-level to very prestigious wines. It’s a market with a very strong potential (nearly one million bottles expected by end 2013) and the first quadrimester looks very positive.
You built a new winery specifically for the new icon range is that right? The Atelier des Grands Vins? Can you explain why this was important and what difference it has had to the winemaking process?
Our cellars are built to receive big quantities of grapes and wines. Our material, our vats didn’t comply with small volumes needs. That’s why we created a workshop, especially fitted to these needs with specific material (sorting table, small vats, pump) and dedicated staff to comply with the level of demand. Each year, we keep on improving this workshop.
As far as the wine-making process is concerned, thanks to the help of our consultant Claude Gros, we have refined our work methods.
The harvest is done manually or with a machine (dedicated machine for the Icone program). Grapes are separated when they arrive in the cellars and the vats are ‘bled’ (bleeding technique) depending on the potential of the plot and the results we are trying to achieve.
The vinification is traditional with a long fermentation of skins. This method allows a very gentle extraction.
The wine is then placed in vats for an ageing period of 12 months. We spent a lot of time selecting the right supplier and the right wood – but it was definitely worthwhile. All our wines are well accompanied by the barrels.
Foncalieu has reduced its production over the last few years, was this to focus more on quality? Are you happy with the quality levels at the moment?
Our vineyard evolves each year – and as a cooperative, we have to deal with the fact that some of our members are getting old and some of them had to leave. From a mathematic point of view, we have lost some surface and hectares of vines have been rested over the last couple of years. But on the bright side, it allowed us to focus on our wines and to make quality our top priority.
We are always trying to make things better – per definition, a technician is never 100% satisfied with what is being produced. Some of my wines are successfully completed, but in general, I always think I can do better with the tools and the means that I’ve been given.
What are you currently working on or focusing on at the moment? A new range of wines? Different blends?
I’m working on different things with the Oenology team.
Among the new topics, we have original grape varieties that go to production such as Sauvignon Gris, Picpoul Noir or even Albarino. My job is to find out which aromatic profile would be the most interesting and which oenologic profile we should use to obtain it.
The Viogner grape variety has been elected ‘topic of the year’. Probably because it is among the wines wich I’m not 100% satisfied about. We can still progress on this. It’s a complex grape variety – but so interesting to work with !
Among the very motivating topics, we also have wines without sulphite that demand an oustansting technical knowledge and know-how. For several years, we have been working on some Chardonnay wines without sulphite. The 2012 batch was good quality. This year, we will even be producing a Syrah without sulphite. Each year we are making steady progress!
Foncalieu is said to be a ‘modern co-operative’ in that it clearly states the name on the bottles and makes both entry level and high end wines under the same brand from a multitude of different growers, would you consider yourselves to be ‘modern’ and working on a ‘model co-operative’ in France?
You’re absolutely right. Foncalieu is indeed a modern and dynamic cooperative. Our project, our strategy, our positioning, the quality of our associates – all of this is modern and reflects our brand’s DNA. Foncalieu is a cooperative and we’re proud of this – what matters to us is our wine-makers, our terroirs, the richness of our diversity.
Lastly, what is your future aim for yourself and the winery?
My ambitions are of two natures: technical and humane ambitions. Of course, the development of the cooperative is a top-priority. The equipment, the materials, the tools, development of new techniques – all of this motivates us as a team. However, the humane dimension of our project is crucial. The development and the success of the cooperative relies on the men and women who make Foncalieu possible. I believe in the talent and hard-working ethic of our wine-makers and associates. That’s for them that I fight everyday. They make it worthwhile.
To find out more visit: www.foncalieu.com/
Written by Georgina Hindle