14 May, 2022
Last year, in June, I attended my first wine fair. It took place in Clisson, a small town in the Muscadet, near Nantes. Thomas and I were to stay with Yoann Gillot, one of the organizers – Thomas had gone to wine school in Amboise with him from 2016 to 2017. When we arrived we met Emmanuel Roblin, who was sitting at a garden table in front of the house with Yoann and his father. Emmanuel, introduced to me as »Manu«, had also been a classmate of Thomas’s (and Yoann’s). Manu had brought a bottle from the Domaine de l’Ecu. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I had just read about this domaine in the English wine magazine Noble Rot that I had subscribed to! I showed the brilliant publication to Manu. It turned out that he worked at the domaine, actually, and together with the winegrower, -maker and owner, Fred Niger, was responsible for the wines – exclusively aged in amphorae! (About the usage of amphorae in winemaking I had first read in Alice Feiring‘s fascinating book »For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture« which I had taken with me on my first trip to Thomas’s in September 2020).
More or less exactly one year later, on 10 May, 2022, I’m going back to the Muscadet – to visit Manu. Thomas recently told me about Manu’s new project on the phone. Manu’s new domaine, which he founded together with Claire and Fred Niger, the owners of Domaine de l’Ecu, 50/50, is called Ab Initio – at Ab Initio Manu is solely responsible for the wines. »Martin, you have to try Manu’s wines. He was just visiting me, his Gamay is incredible.« Two weeks later I received an email. »Hi Martin, following my visit to Thomas two weeks ago, I’d like to discuss with you the possibility of a future partnership between you and our company AB INITIO. I really enjoyed meeting you in Clisson. Best regards, Emmanuel Roblin.« I immediately called Ab Initio, spoke first to Manu and then to Claire. We made an appointment for 10 May.
After a three-hour drive, I park in front of the domaine at 11.15 a.m., fifteen minutes later than planned. I get out, walk to the entrance and stop when someone behind me calls »Martin!« It’s Manu. We hug. He leads me through the impressive, tidy work, storage, labeling and shipping halls of Domaine de l’Ecu, Ab Initio’s landlord, so to speak, and takes me to the first floor, where the managing directors Claire and Fred Niger sit. I say hello to Fred, the winemaker I met for the first time at the aforementioned fair in Clisson. He immediately apologizes: He still has to do finish something in his office and then needs to go to a radio station, an interview is pending. I think about how upset he had gotten at that fair in Clisson about a winemaker who offered really terrible wines to try. Fred was angry, the whole morning, especially his palate, had been ruined for him. He regrets that, apart from a few peculiar words like ›Schützengraben‹ (trenches), he no longer speaks German, although he learned it at school for eight years. I feel the same way with my French, although I’m often quite surprised at what comes to light – (only) when I’m here in France. Claire later introduces herself. She, among other things, takes care of the sales and logistics of the domaines. Claire comes from an old family of winemakers from Saint-Émilion, one of the main Bordeaux red wine regions. We chat about the work in the vineyard, which she misses now that she mainly does administrative tasks. But maybe, she hopes, this will change in the future, she really would like to be closer again, to the wine, on the creative side, and would rather bother less with customs formalities. Sometimes she longs for the good old documents that you could fill out by hand and then get stamped by the officials – the internet has complicated a lot, there are more forms rather than fewer! But, what can you do: Formalities, taxes and papers are also part of the business, and if you don’t take care of them properly, you won’t be able to work as a winemaker for long. Many people who dream of becoming a winemaker cannot imagine what has to happen before the wine is bottled, not to mention what else has to happen to the bottle before it is sold in a shop or on the internet, before it is actually consumed. She asks me how long I’ve actually been in business and I tell my story, which I’ve told a lot lately: It all started with »Substance« by Julien Pineau, in May 2020. Then: The first harvest at Thomas’s. Then: Selling his first vintage. Later: Returning to the Loire in June 2021, more clients, my second harvest, pressing my first wine and so on and so forth. I also mention my work as a music supervisor. Claire has a very good idea: I should definitely celebrate my hundredth film, for which I will probably be working in the next year! Meanwhile, Manu is preparing the tasting: We will taste all six cuvées at the bar in the entrance area of the winery, four of them spent their time in amphorae (in this case the bottles wear a wax cap), two of them in underground concrete or inox vats.
What was the first wine you tasted, from Domaine de l’Ecu?
»Carpe Diem«, in 2015, a Melon de Bourgogne, raised in amphorae. When I tried it something happened to me, something went through me, from the heavens straight through me into the earth below me. It was a vision of a wine that I had never seen before. I knew wine but in that moment I understood something. It was an organic experience.
How did you come across this wine?
I tasted the wine at a fair in Nantes, in Chantenay, to be precise. In October 2015. I had a friend who was a caviste who had taken me with him. Fred Niger, the owner and winemaker of Domaine de l’Ecu, presented the wines himself. The fair had just started and soon my life would change… I tasted the wine, met the person behind it at the same time, very much liked that person, his personality, his aura, the harmony with his wine – it was a unique moment I had never before experienced. I had just quit my old job, on the 30th of September, and didn’t have the faintest idea about what to do next.
Where did you work?
After my philosophy studies? I was store manager, for Natuzzi, an Italian high-end furniture company. It was founded by the leather maker Pasquale Natuzzi, a self-made man, someone who I’ve also found to be quite inspiring. With him I had the same kind of meeting, an epiphany…
Back to Fred!
A few days after my first meeting with Fred my wine merchant friend asked whether I wanted to accompany him to Montpellier, to Millesime Bio. There I met Fred again and tasted his wines a second time. And then I met him a third time, at another event in Chantenay, which confirmed to me that my first experience in the world of wine should be with Fred. I asked him whether I could start an internship at Domaine de l’Ecu. He said yes. Fred has been very important for me and always been present – from the internship, to my first harvest in 2016, to my degree at the wine school in Amboise until Ab Initio.
Did you have any experience in regards to wine before?
None. So… I picked grapes at the harvest, for the Domaine de l’Ecu, went to the wine school in Amboise, which Thomas and Marie Rocher went to as well, worked at other domaines and then ended up here again! I knew Fred was the one for me, to help me realize what it was that I wanted to make.
And now you have a company with him and his wife, Claire. Ab Initio!
There was a moment when I thought about buying my own vineyard. It proved to be too difficult. The whole time Fred acted as an advisor. As always our working relationship is founded on respect, trust and friendship. For the founding of Ab Initio Claire was very important. She was the catalyst, the one person with the intuition who knew both Fred and me very well. Fred and me were fooling around, dreaming up ideas on how to work together, on a new wine project. Thanks to Claire a new partnership was born and we called it Ab Initio. So let’s begin! This is »Presto«, 2020. 60% Melon de Bourgogne, 24% Folle Blanche and a little bit of Chardonnay, 16%.
Where did the grapes come from?
From here and from Domaine de la Providence in Vallet, who are based just around the corner.
There’s only a little, little bit of sulphur in it, I added just a little before bottling, in June of last year, less than 30mg/l. The aim is to not use any sulphur at all. We left a little bit of it in a glass and it kept well for several days. Do you like it?
Very much so! It’s fresh.
And slightly bitter.
Like a green apple!
It’s quite citric – that’s the Folles Blanche.
It has a long finish!
It spent one year in underground concrete and inox vats – the concrete vats are coated with ceramic from the inside. The usage is typical for the Muscadet. I like its profile, it’s particular.
Why ›underground‹? Because of the reduced exposure to light?
Well, yes, but more importantly: the steady, cool temperature! I’m satisfied with the wine as it’s so typical for Muscadet but with an added layer because of the Folles Blanche.
The label corresponds well with the wine!
Fred found the image, it’s from an old French journal, »Le Petit Journal«.
Looking at the price of this wine it will end up in the shops for around 15€, depending on the country, of course. That’s not a lot for this kind of quality.
So that’s good for you then if you want to sell it, haha!
And good for you as well!
We have a range of prices that correspond with the number of bottles produced, you will see… Of »Presto« we made 6130 bottles in total, each bottle carries its own number on the back-label.
It’s become saline now, maritime!
The salinity is a marker. It reminds me of Thomas’s »Le Rayon Blanc«. Precision is very important for me. On to the next one! »Logos«, 2020. 100% Chardonnay. We only bottled it a month ago so you have to imagine how it will taste in a few months. It feels a bit reserved at the moment but this will change. When I use an amphora I can always tell exactly how the wine will behave after its bottling. It spent 18 months in an amphorae, and we produced 1200 bottles of it so it’s more expensive than »Presto«. You are the first person from the outside to taste this.
This is a Chardonnay? I’m surprised. I find it very unusual. Fantastic. So light and, again, very fresh! Lean! Elegant! I don’t think I’ve ever had a Chardonnay that tasted like this. Congratulations!
Thank you. And it will become even better… The bitterness that I can taste is difficult to achieve when working with Chardonnay grapes.
Luckily, we can’t find the taste of brioche!
The amphora is an ideal container for this type of wine. Next one! »Phillia«, raised in amphorae for twelve months. 100% Folle Blanche, 1740 bottles.
I studied philosophy. So first I tried to learn Greek which was so difficult. I devoted a full year to it, day in, day out, and forgot about studying philosophy so at one point I had to stop learning that language as it proved to be too difficult for me.
The painting on the front is intriguing. It looks great.
All labels, except for »Presto« and »Illico«, were painted by my friend Caroline Gosselin. The basis is a photo I took near Clisson where I live. I sent it to Caroline and when she sent me back the painting, at night, In was deeply moved. That place is where I was born a second time, you could say. The location of this particular vineyard, belonging to Domaine de la Providence, is quite special. It’s relatively small, 13ha only, the vines are 65 years old. It’s surround by a few acres of Gamay – the Gamay we use for »Kairos« which we will taste later and which features the same painting but in different colours. It’s isolated, hilly, bordered by trees, hedges and a stream, a haven of peace, on granite and schist subsoil. The energy I’m feeling when I’m there is incredible.
I smell nutmeg, la muscade! And pepper, too. And Christmas spices, like cloves, clou de girofle, no?
Interesting. In my official tasting notes it says: »Very marine, iodized nose with notes of white flowers, jasmine and nectarine when aired.«
I’ve maybe had five, not more than ten different Folles Blanches in my life but never one like »Philia«. It really does remind me of Christmas which is weird, this being a white wine, haha!
Christmas… Well, it’s your picture, your reference point, your association! I like that! When I worked in these vines, on these parcel, I saw this wine. I saw it like it is now, two years later after I had that vision. It was like that vision I saw in Fred’s »Carpe Diem«. Our aim, with Ab Initio, is to make wine that Domaine de l’Ecu doesn’t have. »Philia« is not for everyone, my mum, for example, doesn’t like it.
On the palate it’s, like the previous wines, lively, saline and quite citric. Only 10% of alcohol, so very easy to drink as well. Are you in these vines all year?
I used to prune these vines but now Anaïs and Remy take care of it. They used to work as sommeliers in Paris, decided to change jobs, and I suggested to them to go the wine school in Amboise, the one Thomas, Marie and I went to. They did it and now work at Domaine de la Providence. I pick the grapes myself though, with a team, and then take care of the pressing and vinification. It’s not really négoce what we’re doing, not just buying the grapes. I know who takes care of the vines, I take care of the biodynamic preparations and also distribute them in this vineyard. Would you like to rinse your glass? We’re switching to red wine now.
Yep! So, what are we going to taste now?
Ah! Earlier on Claire said to me that this was your »first baby, the beginning of the adventure, a very special wine«.
It is. It’s a Gamay from 2019, from the same location I made »Philia« from. 720 bottles only! It spent 16 months in amphorae.
I like getting carried away so please forgive me when I say that this is the most amazing Gamay I’ve ever tasted. Let me quote from your tasting notes that you just gave me: »Sustained dress. The attack is frank, energetic and rich with notes of red fruits, dominated by wild strawberries, incense and subtle notes of paprika. The palate, between lightness and opulence, is carried by a fine acidity with marked notes of very ripe red fruits, gooseberry and a long finish on sweet orange and blueberry.« I couldn’t have said it better! I mean, I could never say it better. Mindblowing. There’s a whole story being told in those 30 or 60 seconds that it takes from smelling the wine, sipping and then swallowing it. The word kaïros sounds familiar but I don’t know what it means. Is it Greek?
It is. It’s a very important term for me. It stands for the image, the picture, that I bring with me, every day. It’s about the right and proper moment.
That reminds me of Zen, of the art of archery, finding the right moment to let go of the arrow.
Yes! By the way: I just remembered that we have only 300 bottles left, actually! But the 2021 vintage is in amphorae, right beneath us. The 2020 vintage, however, I sent straight to the distillery.
The 2020 vintage I sent straight to the distillery so that they could make Gin, alcohol, basically, or a disinfectant for the hands out of it. It wasn’t to my satisfaction, and I really don’t want to sell anything with which I’m not happy. It’s just impossible for me. The 2021 vintage will be excellent, that’s the good news! Back to what we’re having in the glass now: Me and a friend picked the grapes over the course of two days, put them in my car, drove them here and de-stemmed, all by hand. The grapes macerated for six or seven days and were then put in amphorae. Fred thought at first that it was a bit too complex, too difficult somehow.
I can see what he means. I find it very calming. It has a calming effect on me, I feel as one with the world.
That’s also what ›kaïros‹ means to me.
There is so much happening, so much to take in. Again, a very elegant, wine. Velvety.
It’s an open wine, it’s not in charge, not excluding you. The painting on the label is based on the same photo I took at the plot described when I talked about »Philia«. It’s just such a special place for me.
Are you from here?
I was born in St. Nazaire, not too far away from here, actually. I also lived in Brittany, near the ocean.
This wine could easily spent a few years in one’s cellar, couldn’t it?
Absolutely! »Up to ten years« is the official recommendation.
On to the second last cuvée…
… which spent 12 months in amphorae: »Kedron«, from 2020. 95% Grenache, 5% Syrah, 3370 bottles produced. The grapes come from the Domaine Terre Forte, near Avignon, in the south of France, int the Rhône valley, appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The plot is called »Le Mas de Reynaud«, clay-limestone subsoil with blue marls.
The nose! The nose alone is very satisfactory. Should I even drink it? C’est magnifique! Fresh and alive. The bitterness is astonishing.
It’s not easy to achieve this kind of profile with Grenache.
May I quote from your official tasting notes, again? »Dark and dense colour, garnet reflections. Flattering and explosive nose on notes of stewed black fruits, wild blackberry, blackcurrant and cherry, subtle notes of peony and violet when aired. Greedy mouth«, that’s good, »powerful fleshy and yet fluid with dense tannins in the mid-palate; fine acidity that pulls the wine towards a long finish on licorice stick, spices, cherry stones, blackberry and blue flowers.« It’s all true, that’s all that I can add. Gorgeous! May I ask what those five percent of Syrah are all about? Don’t tell me you can taste them.
I can’t. It has to do with the amount of grapes we needed to make this wine. There weren’t enough Grenache grapes so the domaine gave us Syrah – not uncommon! This can also easily rest for up to ten years in your cellar. When you drink it now it’s best poured into a carafe – you can drink it over the course of a full week. It’ll be different each day. Thomas and me had it three weeks ago at his place – he liked it a lot.
I can see why. »Illico« is the last wine to taste.
It’s the same wine but the aging took place in stainless steel vats, inox, for eight months. We made 1970 bottles from it.
The flavours feel more integrated!
It’s a different expression of Grenache! It’s a wine to share with friends. I love its freshness and the singular expression. I wanted to show what different containers can do to a wine.