24 March, 2022
After lunch I take Thomas’s car to Faverolles-en-Berry to visit Sylvain Leest. How useful these roundabouts are! The journey takes one hour. In places, the area reminds me of the Uckermark or the Holsteinische Schweiz. Thomas and I have come here a few times, e.g. to visit Marie Rocher or Julien Pineau. We came across Sylvain’s wines in the »Cave du Théâtre« in Tours. On the shelf we saw his »Blanc de Pierre«, an Orbois Blanc, a grape variety which is also called Menu Pineau. We picked it up because the label looked so funny! To be more precise: We were fascinated. Someone had repurposed the label on the back (contre-etiquette) to use it for the front label (etiquette). And? Hadn’t put anything on the back! So you pick up the bottle, immediately turning it to check out the front but then there’s… nothing. Intention or coincidence? We shall find out soon. I e-mailed Sylvain who replied two days later, mixing English with French, German and Spanish. I was sure: This is a person I would get along with. So he invited me to visit him – there would be no time for a trip to his organically-farmed vineyard, he wrote, as he was preparing for the soutirage on Friday. (The soutirage is the racking of wine – transferring it, ideally by gravity, from one container into the other, from a fibreglass vat into a wooden barrel, for example, in order to separate it from the yeast, to aerate or to clear it.) But we could taste the 2020 vintage straight from the tanks and casks and also the bottles that were available to buy. On the etiquette for the »Blanc de Pierre« Thomas and me had read that Sylvain kept his bottled wines in the cellar for a full year and would only then release it to the public. »Wow!«, Thomas said. »He’s serious!«
I park and am greeted by Sylvain with a decent hug. A friend of his, working in the garden in front of the house, speaks to me in German – until recently he lived and farmed in the countryside near Wolfsburg for five years. Sylvain’s stepmother and son are introduced to me straight away, too, later I get to know Sylvain’s wife and daughter. Due to my legendary bad sense of direction, I can hardly describe exactly how Sylvain’s house and cellar are laid out. What I can say: The main working area is open and only covered by a corrugated iron roof. This is where barrels are cleaned, this is where the Vaslin press stands (the same model like Thomas’s). »It’s pretty cold and drafty in winter. But little by little I’ll fix everything up nicely!« We go into the cellar, which was hammered into the stone hundreds of years ago. The houses and castles of the Loire were built with that stone. »The light hasn’t arrived yet«, so Sylvain’s headlamp gives us light. (No vigneron without a headlamp!) The 2020 vintage is, to begin with, incredible. Over the course of my 150-minute visit, Leest keeps talking about how happy he was in 2020 – harvesting the wine, pressing it. He knew what had to be done, »two years earlier, on the other hand, in 2018, everything just happened by accident«. He’s beaming. And I’m happy for him. I can feel the joy in Sylvain’s explanations and stories. His wines are, as it will turn out, very precisely worked, sunny, distinctive, simply brilliant. All. Without exception.
We taste: a Sauvignon Blanc, an Orbois Blanc (first from the fibreglass tank, then from the barrel – for the bottling later Sylvain will mix both together) and a Rosé (also first from the tank and then from the Barrel – the assemblage consists of Pineau d’Aunis, Gamay Teinturier, Cabernet Franc, Grolleau and Cabernet Sauvignon). My notes say: »The best Rosé I’ve ever had. Incredibly rich nose and perfume, strong colour, like a red – tannins, tannins, tannins!« We then try a Rosé from 2019. However, Sylvain is not quite satisfied with it yet – well, then the wine will be given a little more time! Onwards! The next cuvée! (In France, people say cuvée when talking about a certain wine with a certain given name. This does not mean an assemblage, i.e. the mixture of two or more grape varieties. In Germany, on the other hand, the word cuvée is used, incorrectly, when referring to an assemblage.) So, the next cuvée consists of an assemblage of Gamay and Pinot Noir. Sylvain tells me how he made it but I don’t take any notes as I hang on his every word. Later, I take a closer look at his website, where he gives an explanation of the technique of the pigeage which he learned in Burgundy, in Gevrey-Chambertin, a legendary appellation. And like Thomas, he attended the wine school in Amboise – 2012/2013. And like for Thomas, Anne-Cécile Jadaud was one of his teachers back then! »The natural wine world at the Loire is so small!« Back to the assemblage: It is in a stainless steel tank. And Sylvain is not satisfied, »I will forget about the stainless steel in the future – fibreglass and wood, that’s the best combination for me«, so the wine will soon be freed from the Inox and put back into the good old fibreglass vat. By the way, all the time we happily spit the wine out onto the floor, no matter where we are standing. I’m pretty good at it now, it doesn’t feel weird anymore. You have to spit, otherwise you can’t taste several different wines in a row, let alone drive a car. Onwards! »Grapille«: Côt, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Shall I reveal that Sylvain bathed in the tank because he was so in love with the wine after it had been harvested and pressed? Onwards! Gamay and Gamay Teinturier – from the tank, then from the cask. Onwards! Grolleau and Gamay. Onwards! Pinot Noir. Sylvain mentions the age of his vines: the Pinot Noir was planted in 1992, the other vines are older. They were put in the soil from the 1920s onwards, most of them are from the years 1950 to 1980. I ask Sylvain why he has so many different grape varieties (cépages), 12 in total, in his vineyard? »That’s how they planted them back in the days. That’s the old style!« And that was it – with the barrels. Sylvain will bottle the 2020 vintage on 9 May. Would I like to come and witness it? »But I warn you, you will get asked to help. But it’s fun. There will be a lot of people!»
Now to the bottles! First white, then red. »Blanc de Pierre«, 2018, the Orbois Blanc I had already had, still great. »Feuilles Blanches«, 2018 as well as 2016 and 17 (!), a Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of Sauvignon Rose. The red ones: »Feuilles Rouges» (an assemblage of Gamay Beaujolais, Gamay Fréau, Gamay de Bouze and Gamay Chaudenay – I didn’t know that there were that many varieties of Gamay!), »Grapille« (see above) and »Feuilles de Rose« (an assemblage of Pineau d’Aunis, Grolleau and Gamay Fréau), all from 2018. Still without a label: a Pinot Noir and a Gamay assemblage (2018). And at the end there is juice. Grape juice, taken from the very first pressing of the grapes. »Pur Jus«, a grape juice, 100% Gamay Teinturier. Delicious!
Quoting and translating from Sylvain’s website, adding only some explanations in brackets where I saw them fit, here’s a quick digression on the way Sylvain makes his white and red wines, starting with the whites: »The harvested grapes will wait a few hours before going to the press, to concentrate their juices and aromas. The pressing is done gently, two to three times, then the juices are left to settle, for about a day, before reaching the cellar where the alcoholic fermentation will take place at its own pace.« On the reds: »The harvested grapes are put in vats, with some destemmed. Everything is then crushed in vats, to obtain a liquid/solid mixture that we seek to maintain throughout the alcoholic fermentation, the transformation of sugar into alcohol. After several days of treading the vats, we will use a special (technique called pigeage, the verb being piger, and) a tool, the pigeou, to break the cap (the solid matter that floats at the top of tank), alternating with the technique of reassembly (remontage) where we draw the juice from the bottom and let it come out at the top. The objective of these interventions is to maintain a homogeneous mixture that resembles a large grape soup. During this time, the tannins/anthocyanins-complex will be extracted, which will give the wine its body and colour, giving it its ability to last over time. Depending on whether the wine is intended to be drunk fairly quickly or meant for medium or long aging, we use the pigeage more or less often or reassemble. Once the alcoholic fermentation is almost at the end, the wines are taken out of their vat by separating the juice from the marc. The marc is then put in the press to obtain the press juice; these two juices will then be blended to wait for the malolactic fermentation. Another racking to separate the lees, a little more patience and the wine is finished. We now wait a few more months to bottle it and then, in the cellar, we will wait a few more months before offering them to you.«
We talk about Sylvain’s previous life. He’s a year younger than me so has also already spent a few years on this planet. He was a social worker, to cut a long story short. I’m only cutting it short here as I’m planning to interview him via the phone soon. The visit ends, finally, in the mailroom. I buy all the bottles that Sylvain has on offer for Thomas, »I want them all«, he said before I left. I myself receive a box with sample bottles, after all I’m Sylvain’s agent from now on, hooray! For Clement, who’s at the moment helping Thomas pruning (and whom I know since my first visit in 2020) I take two red ones as a present.
How to pronounce Sylvain’s last name? »Lest«! And what is the story behind that label for the »Blanc de Pierre«? »Laziness. I already had all the info I needed on the back so…«.
On the way back, the speedometer in Thomas’s car jumps to 300,000. It’s gorgeous weather, the sun is starting to set, and I let my left arm hang out of the open window.