This is the second part of the interview I conducted with Michel Gassier in March 2014. In it Michel discusses his family’s history, the changes in his approach to farming and winemaking including organic farming, harvesting earlier, fermenting with whole clusters, indigenous yeasts and reducing sulfur usage. It is fairly long and dense but it perfectly captures the inquisitive and restless personality of Michel and helps explain why he and his wife Tina now head the preeminent estate in the Costières de Nîmes.
What is your background and your family’s connection to the region?
I’m a mutt. I was born in Algeria when it was part of France. My family had immigrated to Algeria at the very beginning. My ancestors first arrived in Algeria in 1836 and the other half of my family came from Mallorca. My great-grand father started farming and was very successful. In 1940, when France was defeated by Germany he thought that this would be the end of the colony. So he came back to France and acquired a couple of pieces of property. When the Allies landed and we won the war his prophecy did not occur. He died in 1957 before the independence of Algeria but in 1962 when Algeria became independent we got kicked out and lost everything we owned but at least we had some land in the south of France to fall back on.
Was this land vineyard, or mixed agricultural?
Mixed agriculture. Like a lot of places in the Rhône Valley at that time it had both orchards and vineyards.
At that time did you sell your grapes to a local cooperative or did you make your own wine?
My dad used to sell wine in bulk to the big “negociants”.
What is your background?
I was raised in Costières de Nîmes and graduated from agricultural engineering school, moved to the States as a replacement for my military service, and fell in love with the US, fell in love with my wife and spent ten years here doing various jobs in sales and marketing. When I reached my early 30s, my dad was in his 60s and said, “What am I going to do with the property? Are you interested in it or should I start thinking about selling it?” I was 33 and I asked my wife, “How would you like to make wine in the South of France?” We had two kids and a third one on the way and she was gracious and open-minded enough to say, “Let’s give it a shot.”
What is the difference between Château des Nages and Vignobles Michel Gassier?
Château des Nages belongs to my family and I currently share ownership with my brother. Our family business is still basically about fruit and wine so my brother runs the fruit side of the business and I run the wine part of the business. When we started making wine and looking for quality, I began to understand where the most favorable spots were in the Costières de Nîmes.
The first is slope. One of the negatives about our climate is we can get heavy downpours right around harvest and those are usually very short-lived but violent. So, if you have vineyards on hillsides most of that water runs off. If you have a flat terrain everything soaks in and then you’re in trouble.
Second thing is north-facing, because everything ripens where we are, even Mourvèdre, so the longer you can push back harvest, the better. I’ve realized that where we are, late years are always the best years, you get better balance, fresher fruit, more acidity. So if you can push back ripeness it’s a positive factor.
Last but not least is lime, calcium in your soil. One of the things that southern or warmer climates usually lack is acidity and high-calcium soils tend to produce wines with higher acid.
So once we understood that, Tina and I scouted for vineyards that have these characteristics and we started our acquisitions. We wanted to have our own project with our own style and a clear difference with Château des Nages. We like to say that, “Chateau de Nages is one terroir and four generations while Michel Gassier is four terroirs and one generation.” On a map you can see the various vineyard sites but we only have one winery. So we wondered if we should develop an estate name but we thought that an estate is a coherence of terroirs like one contiguous space. Some of our vineyards are twenty miles apart, with different soils and different exposures. We didn’t feel that it was one coherent space, so we chose to use the “vigneron” name just like they do in northern Rhône, Burgundy or Loire rather than an estate name. People frequently ask if Michel Gassier, is named that because we do “negoce” or purchase grapes? No, everything comes from our vineyards so it’s similar to what they do in the Northern Rhône or Burgundy.
What has changed since you arrived home to run the estate either in your understanding or appreciation for the land?
It’s a very good question… I learn every day… Let me tell you about the defining dates, for me, in my life as a winemaker.
1993: Returning from the US, I started learning the practical aspects of winemaking. While technically trained, I had never run a winery before. I followed very closely the direction of our consulting oenologist. We also started bottling our own wines at this point.
1999: Started running the vineyards when my dad retired and began to understand the interaction of vineyard work with winemaking. As our vineyard management became more and more qualitative, the winemaking techniques were used were less and less adequate.
2006: First vintage with Philippe Cambie. As I started developing an appreciation for wine, developing an understanding of its culture, and tasting other people’s wines, I liked my wines less and less. Philippe’s first question to me was, “What are the wines you want to make?” I had never asked myself that question, it never occurred to me that I could have that type of choice. So Philippe was instrumental in that paradigm change, that I can choose the kind of wine I want to make which I had not realized before.
2007: We start converting a part of our vineyards to organic farming.
2008: Tina joins the project full time and we launch the Michel Gassier project. Together we piece all aspects of what we wanted to achieve. We intensify visits to different wine regions and exchanges with winemakers to help with the thought process. Hospices du Rhone in Paso Robles was instrumental in making us understand that we needed to experiment more and take more risks. Through trials and errors we came up with technical options that now define the identity of Vignobles Michel Gassier.
What is that identity?
Whites for instance. We started experimenting with earlier and earlier harvest. Until about 4-5 years ago I was deciding to pick my whites just like my reds. You go to the vineyard, you taste the berries, and you want them to be very flavorful, and you want them to be sweet and the skins to be soft but that’s too late. You’re way too late. Basically where I pick my whites now is I taste my berries, and as soon as the herbaceousness is gone, I pick. It’s a big leap of faith, a varietal like Roussanne, the grapes don’t taste like much at that point, I mean there is no flavor. Instead of being that brown sugar color, they are still very green and you feel like you’re making a mistake but you realize that’s how you make elegant Roussanne. The negative about early harvest is that the wines tend not to have the same weight and after all when people choose white Rhône they want wines with flesh but I realized that there are so many things that you can do at the winery to get there, one of which is skin contact, the other is aging on the sediments before racking, another one is using barrels. I use a lot of old barrels for whites. Barrel fermentation gives you texture, if it’s new it also gives you oakiness, but if it’s old it just gives you texture, and then aging on lees and batonnage. So I feel with earlier harvest, you have that spring, you have that tension, you have the acidity, you might lack the flesh but you can get it. So that was something we played with and I think we’re really convinced and we found our call and our signature on the whites probably earlier than on the reds.
And the Reds?
I knew I couldn’t use the same technique because you need phenolic ripeness even though I will be experimenting with harvesting earlier this year. I was always afraid until a trip to Paso Robles, in the Central Coast, where they are crazy experimenters. Tina and I had the opportunity to taste the same lots of grapes with 10% whole cluster, 20%, 30%, 60%. It was an interesting year because that was in the spring, and then that summer we spent a week in Burgundy, also tasting wines and we found that a few guys, including Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron for instance, were doing whole cluster Pinot and we loved how layered it was and the depth that it would bring. Sharing the experience later that summer with André Brunel, he said, “You know what? We’ve always done it that way because instead of putting a drain in your vat you put wholes cluster and it works as a drain. So I think I’ve gone full circle. 2011 was the first vintage where we started experimenting with whole cluster fermentations with Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault. We play with the percentage, depending how we see the grapes, how they taste. If the year is super-ripe we use a little more, or if the year is cooler then we use a little less. I’m discovering that in some years the stem inclusion has a huge impact, others where it doesn’t. In 2011 it had a tremendous impact but in 2012 it was hardly noticeable, 2013 is a little more noticeable so I’m still honing that tool basically.
What are the qualities in the wines that you’ve noticed by incorporating whole clusters?
Because we’ve changed so many things it’s hard to say which did what. I find that the wines have more minerality although you can hear all sorts of theories of what minerality is all about. Philippe Cambie would say that lower pH wines have a greater propensity to show minerality than high pH wines and I would tend to agree. We found that since fully converting to organic farming in 2008 our pH has steadily dropped, and I think organic farming is strongly responsible for that. The wines have also acquired an almost saline quality, that makes your mouth salivate. I find that overall the wines are more balanced. What I call lighter on their feet, in a sense, the beauty of Burgundy and while we’re not in Burgundy, we can have wines of incredible aromatic power with a body that is super light. And I like that. I’m a big fan of Rayas versus the thicker style. I find that my wines have gained elegance in that lighter style.
Can you describe the work you do in the cellar?
We use wood, concrete and stainless steel at the winery. This year we’re investing in a lot of smaller concrete vats for red fermentation because I want to better isolate each vineyard to better understand the terroir so we are playing with smaller vessels.
I think the modern definition of enology is damage control. I believe that science has eliminated bad wines but it hasn’t necessarily made the good wines better. I now have the confidence to question everything and everything I’ve learned is like a tool in the toolbox. I need to be a free-thinking individual in front of a situation and open up my toolbox and pull out the tool that is required, and not just do something because it has always been done that way. I’ll give you an example. One of the things that 90% of enologists are going to tell you is after malo, add sulfur to your reds. Why? Sulfur has two purposes. One is antiseptic the other is it acts as an oxygen trap. Basically the reason you use SO2 after malo is antiseptic, you pretty much do not need microorganisms anymore, the yeasts have done their job, and the bacteria have done their job so you want to clean up so there are no problems. When you learn about structure evolution you learn that oxygen uptake is really important early on in the life of a wine, if you want your tannin structure to start evolving and rounding off it’s better that it starts happening early on in the life of the wine. That’s why people usually rack wine into barrels right after fermentation. So, I’m on a plane flying to the US and I’m reading a book by Clark Smith and he is talking about the evolution of structure in wine… At the time all of our high-end reds are in barrels, and they’re going through malo and the instructions for my guys in the cellar is as soon as malo is done use sulfur. But then I think why am I going to add sulfur which is going to act as an oxygen trap? I pour my wine into barrels early so the tannic structure can be helped by absorbing the oxygen that is coming through the wood and now I’m going to add SO2 so that every atom that is going to come through will be blocked? At the same time there is cold weather in the Costieres so the bacterial risk is close to nothing. So I’m on the plane and I’m texting, “just don’t do anything!” So here is an example of where I feel that we’re too preconditioned and I’m an agricultural engineer by training so I have a scientific background but I feel that I started to make good wines when I let go.
What is your approach with sulfur now?
First point is, I hate dogma. You need to use your judgment. I feel that when we moved to organic farming, that sulfur reduction would be the natural next step so we’re in the process of lowering and lowering our use. This year we will experiment with a wine that will be both low in alcohol and without sulfur added just to play with it. I don’t know whether I’ll bottle it, if it’s botched it might just go down the drain but I want to push that envelope. Again I think we’re using sulfur way too systematically. Also I read about an experiment that also opened my eyes about sulfur and Brettanomyces. The experiment took the same wine split into two batches: one which was pasteurized the other was not and then they inoculated both wines with brett. The result after a few weeks is that the wine that had gone through pasteurization, the brett impact was huge, it was like 10 times the impact versus the one that had not been pasteurized. Basically the explanation is, the one that was not pasteurized still had a lot of microorganisms that were basically competition to the brett. And knowing that brett is present in most cellars, they definitely contribute to the complexity and the sense of place in many wines. So if you say that and you’re all about uniqueness of place and terroir then you have to try to lower your sulfur use.
So what do you have planned for the future?
I’m happy with the style we’re grown into both in the white and reds. What I want to do now is perfect this style. I don’t want to go in a million directions. Every detail needs to be better executed. I’m just going to continue on that track.
For the Michel Gassier project, Tina and I are always keeping an open mind, travelling to meet winemakers, discovering wine regions and as we‘re reflecting about what we learned and new ideas invariably pop up. Tina is creative but has a keen strategic and pragmatic approach so she is very good at narrowing down those ideas that make sense and this keeps me focused.
From a pure technical stand point, I’m currently experimenting with natural nitrogen fertilization through seeding legumes between the rows. These plants have nodules on the roots that capture the nitrogen from the atmosphere. When the legume dies the nitrogen becomes available for the vines. What I’m trying to do is have a sustained ecosystem so I do not have to use any kind of fertilizer.
Speaking of adding things do you have a preference for or against natural yeasts?
I’ll separate between red and white because with reds you have more play. I always compare reds to cooking and whites to baking. With reds, pretty much anything below 15% alcohol I’ll use natural yeasts. Anything that is 15% or above I feel you have more to lose than to gain by using natural yeasts. With whites I’ve played with it, I’ve used natural yeasts, and used cultured yeasts. I feel that when I first tried it I wasn’t ready. I feel that I will have to be very close to no sulfur for the natural yeasts to really work with my whites. I think that when I did the experiment I was still using too much sulfur so the natural yeasts didn’t take very well so it went through oxidation and the results were not really there. Now with all the changes we’ve made at the winery, we have more refrigeration, a new press that works in the absence of oxygen which allows me to reduce the amount of SO2 so now I think I have all the tools that I can make it work.