Ferme de la Sansonnière
16th December, 2005
Monty Waldin visits La Ferme de la Sansonnière, one of France’s, if not the world’s, most complex Biodynamic vineyards
Usually, when wine writers wax lyrical they use the word ‘complex’ only to describe the myriad flavours emanating from the glass of wine under their often bulbous, red noses. But in La Ferme de la Sansonnière’s case, the word complex describes a top-notch wine estate – one that has been picked apart by its enormously creative owners, Marc Angeli and his wife Christine over the last 15 years. They have re-constructed it to become a mixed farm and vineyard that perfectly represents Biodynamism’s environmental and qualitative ideals.
In 1990, the Angelis bought the then conventionally farmed La Sansonnière. Marc had studied stonemasonry but always had an ambition to make wine (sweet white wine in particular), and Sansonnière provided the perfect opportunity, located as it is in Anjou, the Loire sub-region famed for medium-sweet to sweet white wines from the Chenin Blanc grape.
That same year saw their first harvest, and already the Angelis were clear that they were going to do things differently. According to Marc: ‘We were one of only five growers in the Loire not to add sugar to our wine.’ This is a legally endorsed practice (called chaptalisation) which boosts wine alcohol and sweetness levels. Chaptalisation is allowed in most French wine regions because industrially farmed vines overdosed on chemical fertilisers cannot fully ripen their grapes before the leaves start falling in autumn, meaning a little help in the form of sugar is needed in the winery. Growers must buy sugar through legally approved wholesalers, but even then they never seem to have enough. As Marc says ‘try and buy a bag of sugar from the supermarket during harvest time and you won’t be able to.’
At Sansonnière, however, the Angelis eschewed the industrial winemaking route by immediately adopting Biodynamics (the estate is Demeter certified). For example, they have a small herd of cows to produce manure for compost, which then provides slow-release food for the soil in which the vines grow, in contrast to the quick-release chemical fertilisers that are designed to feed vines direct.
The vine leaves in the Sansonnière vineyard radiate a deep, sea-green colour, showing that they are rich in vital nutrients like iron, magnesium and boron, in contrast to the more yellowy, excessively nitrogen-rich vines of their neighbours. It’s no surprise then that the Sansonnière vines are strong enough to ripen their grapes without the need for sugar in the winery. ‘Our vines ripen days, sometimes weeks earlier than they used to as the effect of Biodynamics takes hold and the vines find their balance,’ says Marc.
Another key tool has been the Biodynamic Horn Silica spray. This is made from ground quartz (silica) buried in a cow horn during the summer months, during which time the quartz fills with solar energy (or so the precepts of Biodynmaics claim). The quartz is then dug up, diluted and stirred intensively in water for one hour, before being sprayed over the vine leaves at sunrise in spring and autumn.
‘It seems incredible to think that using Biodynamic Horn Silica at doses of just five grammes per hectare can have such a beneficial effect,’ says Angeli, ‘but it does. It encourages the vines to grow towards the light which makes ripening the grapes so much easier, and it discourages shade-loving vine fungal diseases, too. I spend four times less money annually on organic anti-rot and anti-mildew treatments like sulphur dust and Bordeaux Mixture than I would do under a conventional, industrial system.’
There are yet more differences, such as in the way the vines are pruned. The Angelis prune their vines as bushes, rather than the hedges, which means no supporting wires are needed – very unusual this far north. As Marc explains: ‘First, the vines should be strong enough to support themselves without wires, and second, bush training means the vines grow lower which makes it easier for the vine sap to rise and circulate than for higher trained vines grown with wires and support posts.’ A vine without free-flowing sap is like a human with a blood clot, and will soon succumb to illness and disease.
The Sansonnière vineyard covers nearly eight hectares (20 acres). In true stonemason fashion, Marc has chipped away at the vines he and Christine took over, removing those on excessively vigorous hybrid root stocks. These hybrids give the vine scant hope of ripening its grapes before equinox rains. Replacing them with vines on slowing growing non-hybridised rootstocks ensures both riper grapes, steadier growing, and ultimately longer-lived vines.
One of the major aims of Biodynamics is to make the farm as self-sufficient as possible, and four hectares of the Angelis 12-hectare estate has been given over to non-wine crops (unlike most French vineyards, which are vine monocultures). Old, unproductive apple trees were grubbed up and replanted for apple juice and cider. Sunflowers were sown for their oil, wheat for flour, and other cereals sown to feed the domain’s animals.
These include both the aforementioned cows which, as well as producing manure for compost also provide meat and milk (for cheese), plus two horses that are used for ploughing the vines. There are also bee hives for honey, a small vegetable garden, and a flock of chickens for the family table.
In the winery, Marc’s obsession with making sweet white wines has calmed. Now the majority of his white wines are bottled dry under the Anjou Blanc denomination and the respective single vineyard names they have, like La Lune (after the crescent-shaped plot the vines come from), Les Fouchardes, Coteau du Houet and Les Vieilles Vignes des Blanderies (the old vine bottling).
Loire whites tend to have a very acidic backbone, partly due to the northerly latitude but also because the local Chenin Blanc grape can be very acid; but the Sansonnière white wines have invitingly softer centres than one would expect. This is because Marc allows a secondary fermentation (the ‘malolactic’) of the wine acid while the wine is in barrel. This allows harsh, appley tasting (or malic) acid to be transformed by natural bacteria into softer, more buttery lactic (or milk) acid.
Later picked, sweet wines under the Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon appellation contrôlées (AC) are made in depressingly small quantities, but magnify the Chenin Blanc grape’s intrinsic thickness. The Angelis' other wines consist of a luscious dry pink wine sold as a vin de table based on Grolleau Gris grapes planted in the mid-1960s and made by leaving the dark grape skins on the clear juice for just one night.
The Angelis bottle their wines with minimal doses of the almost universally used wine preservative sulphur dioxide. This should reduce the hangover effect should you over-imbibe, but it means the wines are more fragile under ageing; so to be guaranteed perfect storage it pays to make an appointment to taste and buy the wines direct.
Ferme de la Sansonnière
49380 Thouarcé (Maine et Loire), France
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 41 54 08 08
Cellar Door Sales: from the estate by prior appointment only
Stockist for all wines:
Prices quoted include VAT
Anjou Blanc AC ‘La Lune’
Price £15.50 per bottle (0.75 litres) or £33 magnum (1.5 litres)
Dry white made from Chenin Blanc showing a brilliant golden colour, moreishly ripe apricot scents and appealing thick, soft textured but tangy crab apple flavours to taste.
Anjou Rouge AC ‘Les Gelinettes Jeunes Vignes’
Price £15.50 per bottle
Dry red wine made from youngish Cabernet vines (hence ‘jeunes vignes’) planted since the late 1990s on low yielding rootstocks for small, marble-sized grapes which produce little juice but thick skins for extra-intense flavours.
Bonnezeaux AC ‘Coteau de Houet’
£39 per bottle
Late-picked sweet white made from fantastically concentrated, over-ripe Chenin Blanc grapes from a sloping (‘coteaux’) site that retains its freshness and purity because the vines, and the grapes they produce, are so well-balanced thanks to deep roots – encouraged by slow-release, estate-made compost as a soil conditioner.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005
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