An afternoon with natural wine legend Sébastien Riffault

An afternoon with natural wine legend Sébastien Riffault

In July 2021 I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of attending a masterclass hosted by Sébastien Riffault. Now, almost six months later, is the moment to write down the insights and lessons offered.

nb. this was written before accusations were made to Sébastien Riffault for sexual misconduct. We have since decided to take Sébastien's wines off the shelves but have left this blog post here for its historical significance in wine making techniques. We are actively following as this story develops.

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On July 12th 2021 I was invited to join a Masterclass, organised by restaurant Choux in Amsterdam and their importing company Zuiver Wijnen.

In about three hours we tasted all of the unique Sancerre wines that Séb creates: Les Quarterons, Akmèniné, Auskisis, Skeveldra, Auksinis Macération, the red Raudonas and a 2010 Akmeniné.

This is a small write up of all the lovely and attentive insights that Séb shared on this afternoon.

Lessons by Sébastien Riffault -12–07–2021

Sébastien Riffault is an eight generation winemaker in the village of Sancerre, along the banks of France’s longest river, the Loire. Sancerre is an easy to remember area, not only because it’s one of the world’s best known wine regions, also because under the appellation you are only allowed to grow two well known grape varieties: Sauvignon Blanc for white and Pinot Noir for red.

In this Sébastien is no exception. He has taken over the family estate in 2002 from his father Etienne and has since then built out the estate until its current size of 12 hectares (29 acres). The fact that Sébastien always has one eye to the past was clear when he shared that it’s not that obvious that the company is what it is today. Until the 1980’s the domain was still producing 50% cereal and only 50% grapes. He shares that being a full-time vigneron is a relatively new profession, except maybe for in Bordeaux and Champagne. For the Riffault domaine; “in the past we surely could not harvest every year, it was too dangerous to be dependent on grapes”.

Climate change has changed that for Sancerre, with more reliable warm seasons there will always be huge differences between vintages, but ripening isn’t the main worry anymore.

Still, the wines of Sébastien are uniquely reminiscent of earlier times. Completely different than any other vigneron in the area (often harvesting early to retain the fresh, grassy aromas), he likes making wines in the way his grandfather did: long hanging time on the vines, late harvesting and even allowing botrytis, or noble rot, to appear on the grapes. Reminiscent of those times, because in the past these weren’t choices, but logical results of having to leave the grapes hanging as long as possible to achieve (optimal) ripeness. Nowadays that isn’t necessary anymore, but by Sébastien’s decision to do so, he is preserving this different flavor profile from the past.

Side note: this nod to the past is also the said reason that Sébastien is still allowed to label his wine within the appellation of Sancerre, even though his wines are completely different than all of the others there. Luckily, the board of the appellation recognizes that even though they are different, they still reflect a true Sancerre.

Soon after taking over the estate, Sébastien chose to switch to organic viticulture after seeing the destruction coming from his father’s generation of farmers and wanting to create deeper expression of terroir. Something he sees as a return to the times of his grandfather and the generations before. He was, however, off to a scary start: “Switching to organics took us years and in the beginning the wines just became heavier and fattier, which we didn’t like. Only after a few years did they become light and did we get the mineral salts into our wine”.

This mineral salt is something Sébastien attributes to a healthy soil, where microbiology is actually capable of extracting these from the soil, only if its underground population is strong enough and not killed by herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.Specifying that “the structure and umami in our wines comes from the deep roots and old vines that can extract this ‘mineral salt’”.

Healthy vineyards and a watchful eye are the winemaker’s most important attributes to making quality wine because “balance stays throughout the process, only balance in the beginning creates balance in the end”. Afterwards, he has switched the vineyards to biodynamics and horse plowing since 2004.

With that, the conversation slowly switches from the land to the cellar, while tasting through the wines. Because there is a wide audience of restaurant staff, sommeliers and importers a lot of questions are asked as well. Tasting through his 2019 Les Quarterons, the obvious mono-focus question is asked that every natural winemaker has to endure: “what about sulfites?” Luckily, this isn’t a subject Sébastien shys away from. Les Quarterons is his only wine that sees an addition of sulfites at bottling. It’s a direct press from his earliest harvested Sauvignon Blanc (which is still harvested a lot later than any of his neighbors).

He considers it not purely natural because of its sulfur addition. Asked why he does it and why it is necessary in this wine and not the others he answers: “Ah the wine doesn’t need it, it’s because the customers need it. Not a lot of people are aware of it, but a lot of them are addicted to sulfites and what it does to wine”.

“a wine with sulfites is a picture, while pure wine is a movie.”

“It’s not my purest wine and therefor I hope to more and more switch my entry level wine from Les Quarterons to Akmèniné.” Akmèniné is priced at almost the same price point, consists of slightly more botrytized grapes and sees no sulfur addition. Les Quarterons is however, Riffaults most famous wine. It’s named different from the other cuvées as an homage to his father, who already created a Les Quarterons Sancerre with this exact label. The names of the other wines are in Lithuanian, after his Lithuanian wife Jurate, and all point to different soil types or characteristics in the wines.

 

Les Quarterons typically sees, depending on the vintage, about 5% of botrytis infected grapes. Meanwhile Akmèniné does about 25% and Skeveldra, Auksinis and Saulétas around 50%. For him the noble rot adds the flavors of “honey, beeswax and spices”. While tasting his Auskinis, we wholeheartedly agree.

About the winemaking, he says he tries to create the least amount of stress as possible throughout the process, especially at bottling. “Stress is the highest during bottling, much like humans when they are being born”.

Then questions start raining; why are your wines always so stabile, even without sulfur? How do you protect the wines in winemaking? What creates stability? Sébastien answers that this is a result from understanding that what happens in the cellar, follows in the bottle and that you can’t control what happens in the bottle if you haven’t finished what is happening in the cellar, or in his words:

“No more biodegradation should be possible in bottle, no sugars or malics. Then give it time, then the wine is stable”. Only in that case no addition of sulfur is needed. Which is important, Sébastien emphasizes, because “a wine with sulfites is a picture, while pure wine is a movie”.

How it is possible to create such stabile wines with no intervention later comes up, when Sébastien is asked about the alcohol percentages of his wine. How is it possible that he harvests so much later than others, yet his wines are always labeled with a mere 13%? “Well, there is a little bit more, haha”. When pressed, he reluctantly admits most of his wine clock in at around 15–17° alcohol. Labeling it lower saves him a lot of due taxes. Ha, that explains something.

At the same time though, another question arises: how come your spontaneous fermentations always finish, leaving you with beautiful strong fermentations and never with unfinished, semi-sweet late harvest Sauvignon Blanc? His answer: a Pied de Cuve.

Pied de cuve roughly translates to foot of tank. Pied de Cuve is the winemaking equivalent of a sourdough starter. It is used by winemakers wanting to use wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment their wines.

The process aims to build a population of viable (alive yeast) and vital (strong) in the wild yeast culture in a small volume of wine. This helps the winemaker to complete a clean fermentation (low volatility and reduction, without spoilage yeast or bacteria) that successfully consumes all of the sugars leaving a dry wine. Via winedecoded.com.au

He creates a number of starters a few days earlier, picks out the healthiest, adds this to the first tank, a bit of the first tank goes into the second, etc. This works well for him and ever since he is using this method he has almost never experienced stuck fermentations, which is remarkable considering the high alcohol percentages he wants his fermentations to finish in.While slowly tasting through all of his cuvées we get to know the practice behind the theory: ethereal, beautiful and completely pure wines with a sense of depth and umami that is remarkable, making this a wine loved by so many.

One last remark that stuck was when I asked him about the strong elderflower smell in his Saulétas wine and whether this could come from nearby elderflower bushes. Indeed, Saulétas comes from the end of a vineyard block, bordering hedgerows filled with elderflower. Just another sign that there is an infinite amount to be learned about terroir, or a sense of place.

Markus Praat, founder at ASOP Wines