More often than not when it comes to locating an interesting wine, it’s better to think small, as in small grape yields, small-sized wineries, small production levels, and a small range of wines. Of course everything’s relative. What’s small to you might be big to me (my experience is principally on wine regions in southwestern and southern France, where, apart from wine cooperatives and the 1,000-plus-hectare, Côtes de Gascogne Tariquet vineyard, most estates are small-holdings).
But, by and large, I’ve found, the “sweet spot” for a vineyard producing high-quality wine is somewhere between 5 and 15 hectares (around 12 and 37 acres) of vines. Much less, and it’s economically unsustainable; much more, and it’s difficult to cultivate the vines without using industrial techniques and chemical products that can negatively impact wine quality.
Last year I attended a wine salon in the scenic Gascon village of Simorre, an hour-and-a-half west of Toulouse. In the article that I published last June, I wrote about two wine producers that stood out among those in attendance. The first was Mas del Périé, a vineyard in Cahors owned by a young, bearded winemaker named Fabien Jouves. The second, the Domaine Le Bouscas in the Gers, is run by a man named Floréal Romero, who is a descendent of the family of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.
I made a mental note to visit both. Given my literary interests, I chose to first contact Romero. He and his wife Claudine, whom I had tasted wine with at the Simorre wine-tasting since her husband arrived late, warmly welcomed me in the kitchen of their Gascon home. The soft-spoken Romero told me that, before making wine, he had worked as an IT engineer in Paris. His wife had sold real estate in an agency located on Paris’s most famous boulevard, the Champs-Élysées (with a wry smile, she said that she had traded one “champ” for another; a play-on-words, as “champ,” in French, means “field”).
Before ending up in the Gers, they worked for several years on a vineyard in the Fronton wine region just north of Toulouse. This experience, along with both of them having earned BTS (technical-school-level) degrees in wine-making, allowed them to purchase their vineyard in 2000. The previous owner of the Domaine Le Bouscas had taken the property’s grapes, farmed using chemicals, to the local cooperative. The Romeros stopped using chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers and built a small cellar for fermenting the wine themselves.
The de Cervantes connection, Romero explained, comes from one of his ancestors having married the Spanish author’s sister (de Cervantes didn’t have any children, he explained). His great-great-grandfather (maybe there’s even another “great” in there, as in French it’s “arrière” for “great,” as in “arrière-grand-père” for “great-grandfather,” and I lost track of the number of times he said “arrière”) had a large property in Andalusia, near Seville, complete with horses and bulls. He lost it in a card game, Romero told me, and, thinking that he had been cheated, he killed the winner of the card game in a duel with swords.
This real-life Zorro then left for Brazil, where he regained his wealth by creating another agricultural empire. Unfortunately, he was struck and killed by lightning while taking cover under a tree during a storm. Only half in jest, I told Romero that, considering his bloodline and his colorful ancestors, he might consider writing a novel if the wine-making didn’t work out.
He and his wife do all of work in the vineyard themselves: working the soil, treating and pruning the vines, and harvesting the grapes (with a small machine harvester). Their wines are all made, other than one Colombard and Ugni blanc white-wine blend, from a single variety of grapes. Their low-intervention winemaking allows you to taste the typicity, the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced, and the clay-limestone Gascon terroir.
As you can read in the blog entry from the Simorre tasting, I found their white wines refreshingly different from the majority of Côtes de Gascogne whites, with many producers attempting to emulate Tariquet’s success in the U.S. with overwhelmingly floral and citrus aromas, and excess sugar compensating for high-yield wines that lack body.
The rumor in oenological circles is that the sale of yeasts that produce wines with high-ester fermentation aromas (passion fruit, grapefruit, gooseberry, lychee and box hedge) has exploded in recent years in the Côtes de Gascogne. I do wine-tastings each year in southwestern France for the Guide Hachette, the bible of French wine regions, and when you smell many of this region’s white wines you sometimes feel like you’ve fallen into Carmen Miranda’s fruit headdress.
Fortunately, not all of the wines from here are exotic-fruit bombs, and the Domaine Le Bouscas, among several other Côtes de Gascogne producers, has shown that keeping down the grape yields and using honest wine-making can produce complex, interesting wines.
My comment to Romero about a fall-back career as an author was more on target than I imagined. Our talk turned from wine to the financial precarity of their vineyard. The Romeros appear to have been tripped up by a number of errors, some of their own making, the others of external forces. Error number one, which they mentioned to me more than once, is having underpriced their wines. Their wines sell, at the vineyard, from €6 to €18 a bottle, with the majority costing approximately €8 a bottle. The vineyard is around 8ha in size, With an average per-hectare yield of 40hl, the 8ha vineyard can potentially produce 32,000 liters of wine (4,000L x 8= 32,000L), which is around 42,500 75-cl bottles of wine.
Selling 42,500 bottles at an average price of €8 would bring in over €300k, a tidy profit for a two-person vineyard. I firmly believe that their wines are worth anywhere from 25 to 50% more than the prices that they’re charging (check back to the article that I wrote in June 2014, and look at the prices being charged by Fabien Jouves at Mas del Périé in Cahors; his wines retail for between €14.50 and €49, with an average somewhere around €18-20 a bottle).
This is somewhat comparing apples to oranges, but Cahors and Côtes de Gascogne are two lesser-known wine regions in France, and, arguably, there is not an enormous amount of difference in wine quality here. The big difference is marketing acumen. Like many French winemakers outside of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, the Romeros are better winemakers than marketers. Fabien Jouves is good at both, and I’m reasonably confident that, unlike Floréal and Claudine Romero—who don’t know if 2015 will be there last grape harvest, Jouves is going to be making wine for years to come.
There’s a litany of other reasons for their precarious financial position, including a hailstorm-destroyed crop; selling, because of the need for immediate funds, wine in bulk (this is why the €300k revenue figure is only hypothetical) ; not marketing effectively their wines for export markets; an apparently uncooperative banker who refuses to extend them the credit needed to bridge the time between bottling the wine and getting paid (60-90 days later) by resellers, distributors and wine shops; and lacking the online buzz needed to sell a wine that is atypical of the region. They have not invested in a website, and an internet search turns up few results for Domaine Le Bouscas.
I tasted the 2014 wine, which is still in cellar tanks as they bottle their wine 18 to 20 months after the fermentation has ended. The lengthy aging period (more than twice as long as most producers; another financial drain) is due to their use of natural yeasts, their allowing the wines to go through a second, malolactic fermentation where tart-tasting malic acid is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid, and not using temperature-controlled tanks.
The wines that I tasted are good. Whether or not they’ll ever be bottled is uncertain. I certainly hope so, as they’re of a rare quality–particularly at such a low price.
As I was leaving, Floréal Romero told me that the old vigneron who sold them the property had shared a bit of Gascon wisdom with him. “He told me,” Romero recounted, “that a vigneron needed to have a harvest in the cellar, a harvest in the field, and a harvest in the bank.
“I have one in the cellar and one in the field,” he said, “but we’re lacking one in the bank. The treasury is empty.”
When I asked them why they didn’t raise the prices of their wine, they said that they felt wine should be accessible to everyone, and that it shouldn’t be priced as a luxury item. I cannot help but think that this concept of a just price–a noble, yet somewhat illusionary goal, is one worthy of the windmill-tilting character created by Romero’s ancestor from La Mancha.