Andrew Jefford meets the Burgundy and Châteauneuf specialist Mounir Saouma...
“I was born in 1967. That’s what it says on the paper. But in reality I was born in 1867. They just put me in the Frigidaire and took me out again 100 years later.” The time traveller is Mounir Saouma: one of the most original thinkers working in French fine wine today.
He’s obsessed with a return to past ways of working with wine – though he has nothing to do with the ‘natural wine’ movement, and indeed derides “the ayatollahs, the fanatics of everything” who produce zero sulphur wines “which stink of the shit of a horse. I’m sorry, it’s natural, but I cannot drink it.” He doesn’t have much time, either, for the “biodynamic blah blah blah. Is it yummy? Are you enjoying? Are you finishing the bottle? Will you drink it the day after or not? Will you feel tired or not? Will you feel like a butterfly the next day?”
These are his desiderata, and his means of achieving them is by ensuring “that all the things that nature gave us are still in the wine. The proteins, the vitamins, the yeasts, the bacteria, the skins: everything that nature gave us is still inside the wines. They are digested. They help your system digest other things. The wines are full, not empty.”
I’ll tell you how he achieves this fullness in a moment; first, though, a little background. He and his wife Rotem established a Burgundy business (Lucien Le Moine) in the late 1990s – buying newly fermented wines from growers, raising them, then finally bottling them and selling them. If you think this is a straightforward matter, just wait.
In 2006 or so, the couple, who work unaided, decided they wanted to own land. Not in Burgundy, where it is dissuasively difficult to buy and where they would be competing with their growers and friends, but in Châteauneuf. Why there? I’ll tell you that shortly, too. “Impossible,” said friends, “to buy good land in Châteauneuf.” Cue more original thinking (yes, it’s coming). Now they have 8.4 ha in Châteauneuf, and more in Côtes du Rhône-Villages. Winemaking rather than raising and finishing has given Mounir and Rotem even more opportunity to burrow back in time.
Let’s return to the concept of ‘full’ wines. “When I arrived in Burgundy, I tried to guess how people made wine in the past. I have no knowledge; I have no pretension. I’m patient. I like to observe.” In particular, he noted the super-cleanness of modern juices, pneumatically pressed followed by settling and racking; he noticed the great attention paid to reductive handling … and he noticed the premox problems the region had with white wines.
It could not have been so in the past, he reasoned. Juices must have been more turbid, and given more exposure to air; wines must have remained with their lees during ageing, and been bottled later. So, at no small risk, the couple set off in this direction. Radically: if one of their growers produces six casks of a top Premier Cru, they will buy two – but ask for the lees of all six. The wine then remains on this profusion of lees for up to 36 months without racking.
“In my sixteen years at Lucien Le Moine, I have racked less than ten barrels, and rejected maybe four or five. And we have bottled more than 1,500 wines. We now raise 84 Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines every year with the totality of lees, with all the purity of nature. We start ageing with around eight litres of lees per barrel. By the end, only three are left. The other five are in your glass.” That, he says, is where the fullness comes from.
In the Rhône, he makes his own wines, and these methods have consequently gone much further. For white wines (and he’s enthusiastic about white Châteauneuf), he wants hard pressing (using a 1970s Vaslin) and hyper-oxidation of the juice. “Let’s go back to the roots. People used continuous presses, then sent the wine to the vat, and then they went off and did other things. So that’s what I do. With a continuous press, you put in two tonnes of grapes and you end up with a cake which is like concrete. Everthing else is in the juice, which is thick and viscous.” And brown – because of exposure to the air. It then ferments slowly and gently on the lees. In spring 2011, Saouma remembers, other growers were bottling their 2010 whites. His 2009 white was still doing its malolactic.
He tells me a story about that wine. “At harvest time in 2016, two other winemakers rung me up and said they wanted to come to see me. I said ‘Fine – come round.’ ‘We’re interested in white wines,’ they said. ‘We did a blind tasting – three bottles of white Châteauneuf, yours and ours. One bottle tasted fresh, but the other two seemed tired and old.’ Both growers assumed the fresh wine was their own – but it was the Saouma wine. They asked him to explain.
“I can’t,” Saouma said, “but please turn around and look away. I will then show you something and you will tell me the answer.” He gave them three glasses of wine. One was so brown he claims it looked like Guinness; another was pale, and the third one paler still. The brown one was his just-pressed 2016 juice, and the other two cask samples of the 2015 and 2014 white – hard pressed and juice-oxidised, then fermented and aged on lees.
For me, he takes a sample of the white 2017 from the barrel. Using a pipette, he then blows through it so violently that it bubbles and froths. He then sucks it up into the pipette and dumps it down into the glass with more frothing and seething. Finally, he lets it be. It settles. At the end of the process, it is paler than it was to start with, and has an attractive scent of blossom: an astonishing demonstration.
Reds, of course, are a different matter. “I found myself putting the grapes in a tank, no sulphur, no punching down, cold maceration, fourteen days, then fermentation for three weeks, no pumping over, then to barrel for three or four years; one has been five years in barrel, and never racked.” Eventually the journey back into the past led him to amphorae – unwaxed, of course. “I grew up in a village in the mountains of Lebanon where we took an amphora made in the village to a spring to get the water. That was the tool. No wax. So I just put the clusters inside. When it’s full, we close it. We leave it for a year, untouched. When we open it, we pray. And it works: extreme purity.” He is also experimenting with fermenting single-vineyard wines in vessels containing washed galets roulés taken from the vineyard from which the fruit has come; and he shows me different samples of his Omnia wine being aged in new foudres, in 500-litre casks and in concrete eggs. The experiments never stop.
But why Châteauneuf? “I compare Grenache Noir to Pinot Noir. They are both complicated varieties with white juice, and they can both make superfine wines which express the vineyard. Syrah tastes like Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc tastes like Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier tastes like Viognier, but Pinot Noir and Grenache taste like neutral fruit, like grapes. So do Chardonnay and Grenache Blanc. These neutral, empty varieties are the ambassadors of terroir. Because they are neutral, because they don’t have their own personality, they pump everything around them. If you want to send a message to someone, you don’t send a talker. You send a neutral person who will just say what you want him to say.”
The couple managed to acquire their nine parcels of land by working with the local SAFER (a government-backed sales intermediary in local land transactions) and then deliberately standing at the very end of the queue, behind the locals, taking only the parcels which no one else wanted. To their delight, this often included parcels of land in high-quality areas which were in a pitiful state, or which came with an obligation to buy poor quality land, buildings or superannuated machinery.
The very first parcel they acquired, thus, was in Pignan – but it contained one-third of dead vines, had suffered chronic erosion and draining problems and came with stocks of low-quality bulk wine. “Nobody wanted it because it was in a bad state but come on! It was Place Vendôme, the day after a Sunday market. OK, it’s dirty everywhere but it’s still Place Vendôme.” The couple replaced the eroded land, redrained the whole vineyard and replanted it. “Now we have two super hectares of Pignan, which is the king of Châteauneuf, the best terroir for finesse, facing north. When you are exposed north in Châteauneuf you are the luckiest person in the world because the Mistral will be crossing your vineyard more than 100 days a year, making you super maturity but keeping you a lot of vivacity, a lot of freshness.”
They also now have land in high-sited La Pointu; in the astonishing limestone-soiled Esqueirons “where you walk on pieces of yoghurt”; at Pierre Redon; in the galets roulés of La Bigote, and indeed in all of the five villages with land in the appellation. “Châteauneuf du Pape is the biggest mosaic in French wine,” says Saouma.
The aim behind his Omnia wine is to convey the mosaic itself (five villages, nine soil types and thirteen varieties), whereas the amphora single-site wines are sold unblended (as a collection), and the Arioso is made from the old-vine material in Pignan alone. Le Petit Livre de A.M.Bach (Bach’s St John Passion was playing in the cellar when I called) is a free-run-only version of Arioso bottled exclusively in magnums; the white wine is called Magis.
Best value of all, though, may be the Inopia, which comes from the ‘Clos Saouma’ vineyards sited in the Côtes du Rhône-Villages zone of Vieux Bouigard near Orange, surrounding the winery. The couple have nine hectares planted in this less expensive land – yet its soil potential is outstanding (clay over deep beds of river-rolled pebbles), and the wines – one third white, two thirds red – are made according to the same lees-nourished, unhurried principles.