“We, the organic producers, haven’t invented anything”
A few kilometers from Saint-Emilion’s prestigious crus classés, Nicolas Despagne produces clean-tasting wines that are powerful when young but show a remarkable development with age, perhaps because this winegrower takes nothing for granted for more than five minutes at a time. He doesn’t see organic and biodynamic certification as ends in themselves and never stops thinking about the what, how and why of his processes. Another asset of Maison Blanche is its generous fruit, which is due to the low levels of added sulfur and makes it a fine accompaniment to a vast array of flavors in the kitchen. last but not least, a reasonable price tag – the vineyard is in the “satellite” appellation of Montagne – completes the portrait of this charming, well-made Bordeaux.
Château Maison Blanche and its vineyard lie on the plateau and neighboring slopes, with calcareous clay soils containing traces of iron. Grown over 32 unbroken hectares, these are old vines, half of them planted between 1943 and 1964. When Nicolas took over from his parents in 2009, merlot was dominant (55%) but cabernet franc was also a significant presence. less rich in sugars and more acidic than merlot, the cabernet franc has become an asset in the context of climate change, “given that our 2016 has an ABV of 15.3%,” he says. So in 2011 he began taking out the merlot and replacing it with cabernet, which now makes up 55% of the total, although because they are so young it will be a few years yet before this inversion is reflected in the composition of the Grand Vin, in which the two are currently evenly balanced. Nicolas sums up the beliefs that guide him in his work: “Some processes stress the vines in a way that is bad for the wine, so also bad for the person drinking it. We say the same of meat that’s too tough when the animal was stressed before being slaughtered. Why don’t I use fertilizer? Because it programs the vine to produce more bunches and then they have to be picked green to reduce the numbers! Same for early leaf removal,” he goes on. “Because the leaves provide protection against sun, wind and rain. I prefer to work on the way the vines are cut and folded so I can spread the harvest over a longer period.”
The Maison Blanche vineyard has been certified biodynamic (Demeter) since 2013 and obtained its organic label with the 2009 vintage. Both are the fruits of a process launched in 2001 with a trial over three hectares conducted by Nicolas with permission from his father, Gérard Despagne. The soils and vines are worked without synthetic chemicals to produce wines that show less than 5 mg/l of pesticide residue in analysis. “But the real key to our future is mixed cultivation”. This approach, also adopted by fellow winegrowers such as Thomas Duroux (château Palmer, Margaux), has seen Nicolas planting fruit trees in his vineyard, to which birds, insects and now hares, wild boar and deer have gradually returned. He has also adopted sheep and a couple of oxen. crucially, the life of the estate never stops. It’s now home to four households: Nicolas and his wife, the vineyard manager, his deputy and the gardener. “In practice we’ve brought back everything that my father got rid of in order to plant more vines, in line with the production-driven approach of the 1970s and 80s. Organic producers like us didn’t invent anything, we’ve just gone back to working the way our grandparents did.” Nicolas’s grandfather on his mother’s side was a libourne wine-dealer by the name of louis Rapin who, in 1938, bought this big, 19th-century house of white stone and its vineyard, which he first replanted and then. The link with the Despagne family, who had been Saint-Emilion winegrowers since 1812, came in the following generation, when Rapin’s daughter Françoise married Gérard. Nicolas was born in 1961, the eldest of three Nicolas, and came into the family vineyard in 1995.
Now we find him in his (concrete) vat room where fermentation takes place in the most natural way possible. Here too, questions led to changes: “The size of the vat was key: if there’s not enough wine, extraction doesn’t work properly; if there’s too much, you get a temperature explosion. After several tests that identified the right compromise as around 80-85 hectoliters, I had the vats reduced in size.” And where the addition of sulfur is concerned, it’s very limited, leading to a total sulfur content of around 40 mg per liter in his wines. And that’s enough, according to Nicolas, as long as the grapes have been picked ripe, but not over ripe, and the equipment is kept scrupulously clean. He says, “If you really think about it, you soon realize that it’s not sulfur that makes it possible to keep wines but the preserving alcohol, carbon dioxide, sediment, antioxidant tannins and, crucially, the antibacterial acidity. And to preserve that it’s always the same – you must start harvesting as soon as the grapes reach maturity, even if it gives you wines that are a bit firm at first.” He goes on, “But nothing is set in stone, a high pH can sometimes lead to wonderful surprises, as it did in 2014, with a more full-bodied wine than our usual vintages.”
So after all these questions, trials, and u-turns, what is Maison Blanche like in the glass? Well, it’s a wine of remarkable integrity, with the particular sap that you often find in old, not very productive vines. The balance Nicolas long sought is certainly there. As it ages, the aromatic palette becomes more complex and the tannins velvety. Bottled without finings or filtration, the estate’s wines are best decanted into the carafe an hour before drinking, or at the point of ordering in a restaurant, in order to air them and, where necessary, to clear any carbon dioxide and deposits. Unlike the Grand Vin, which comes solely from the estate’s historic terroirs, the second wine, Les Piliers de Maison Blanche also includes the younger cabernets francs (40% of the blend). Their fine energy and spicy freshness, combined with the silkiness of the old merlots, form a magical trio when accompanying sautéed veal and a panful of fried chanterelles. We should add that, since 2013, selection of this second wine has increased with the declassification of some lots of cabernet franc to produce limited quantities of a sparkling Vin de France by the name of Amélie Constant. The production process is overseen by Corinne Lateyron, Nicolas’s wife, who is an enologist and bubbles specialist. Without any addition of liqueur during disgorgement, this Brut Nature Rosé has a very dry profile, a perfect match for fig tart!
As we thought, this fine if sober range will not be enough for Nicolas. “I find wine so interesting and I still have so many ideas… I’ll be thinking about it to the end of my days”. Always seeking out new expressions, he is currently considering aging in twice-filled barrels as potentially more appropriate than once-filled wood – an experiment his friend Jean-Michel comme at château Pontet-canet in Pauillac is currently engaged in. Nicolas is also testing aging in amphorae and demi-muids and is considering whole bunch fermentation. clearly the Bordeaux region of the late 20th century, clinging to its certainties, is now nothing but a dim and distant memory.