Sébastien’s family have traced their roots back to 1570 where the family was established in the Dordogne. They tended their own vines since at least the 1780s but records from before the revolution have been lost. Sébastien’s great grandfather (b. 1896) had vines, and his great great grandfather was a cooper. His maternal grandfather was also a cooper, and today his cousin has his own cooperage in the Landes – Tonnellerie Bartholomo.
Sébastien grew up tending vines with his father, learning the craft of winemaking as a boy. He says that his father taught him almost everything, and that becoming a winemaker just happened naturally. Formal viticulture and vinification studies gave him the technical background which completed this, but “dans l’absolu” he learned most from his father.
STUDIES AND EARLY CAREER
He did his viticulture and oenological studies in Bordeaux. He would have liked to continue the family domaine but they had only 11 ha in AOC Bergerac to split between Sébastien and his 5 younger sisters. To make it viable Sébastien needed to buy the vines of his sisters and unfortunately the necessary financial support was not forthcoming from the bank. Sébastien’s father sat on the opposite political fence to that of the bank manager.
Sébastien therefore had to pursue his wine career by working for other people. His first post was Chef de Culture at Ch. Meyney (AOC Bordeaux), followed by the role of General Manager at Chateau Minvielle in Entre Deux Mers. In 2003 he moved to the Languedoc taking charge of the Domaine d’Oustric by Carcassonne. This is where he started his relationship with the Carignan grape variety and developed his love of the Languedoc region.
STARTS AT SPENCER
Sébastien met Christopher Spencer first in the summer of 2011. Christopher needed to find a winemaker capable of taking charge and developing the domaine. He recognised Sébastien’s talent instantly and Sébastien took on full responsibility at the end of October 2011.
The common vision was to restore the domaine – both in the vineyards and in the chai. The viticulture needed to be upgraded and the vines restored into good shape. Christopher had bought an old 19thC winery in the village of Ferrals-les-Corbières, but it had lain unused for decades and needed total renovation. Together, they set about creating a winery and domaine fit to deliver the final objective –to be one of the leading domaines of the Corbières, by quality and by reputation.
The other part of the vision which is fundamental to Sébastien’s thinking is an approach which is in total harmony with the environment, and his language is peppered with expressions like “respect de la nature”.
In the vineyards he uses minimal intervention, often using half the number of treatments as his neighbours, for example. He has totally stopped using pesticides and herbicides and this winter he is evaluating the next step.
Sébastien has observed the tendency to pursue organic certification more for marketing reasons than for a real desire to produce a natural product and protect the environment. “Bio, c’est un business” he notes. His approach now involves a thorough evaluation of the methods and he is currently considering either certification with TERRA VITIS (the leading organisation for sustainable viticulture in France) or a full conversion to biodynamic viticulture, which he feels is the ultimate goal. This will require some further investment in equipment (for example the centrifuge and additional equipment for viticulture), as well as working according to the lunar calendar.
In the chai, Sébastien vinifies completely naturally with indigenous yeasts and no added enzymes. The new stainless steel tanks (which arrived no less than 1 day before the harvest in 2014!) have enabled total control of the temperatures before, during, and after vinification. This will improve the definition and fruit character of the wines. We are seeing this already with the excellent P’tit Spencer 2014 which is just about to be released.
Currently we have four large newly-renovated stone vaulted vinification vats at the back of the chai, two of which are used for blending/storage and the other two for the Carignan fermentations; and twelve brand new stainless steel tanks with full temperature control. These will be complemented in the future by 4 large wooden fermentation vats. Finally, an underground barrel store for maturing the wines will be dug out of the earth at the back of the chai.
Sébastien’s aim is that the Spencer wines fully and naturally express their terroir, with, at their soul, the Carignan grape variety. In general, he is happy about the range, and since joining in 2011 he has worked tirelessly to improve the quality and definition of each cuvée. Future improvements will be fine-tuning the character and blend of each wine (now much easier with the well-equipped chai), and further work in the vineyards.
The great cooperative movement of the Languedoc reached the Corbières from 1945-1950, but prior to this time there had been a dominance of private domaines.
Now there is once again a movement, driven by ambition, by quality, or even by a fierce Occitan pride, to come out of the cooperative structure and make one’s own wine.
Even so, Sébastien estimates that less than 10% of the Corbières production comes from private domaines, and therefore the Corbières is very much dominated by cooperatives and large-scale producers. Even names like Voute Gasparets and Ollieux Romanis who pioneered the drive for quality in the region a few years ago are now large producers, with more than 70 hectares each.
THE SPENCER LA PUJADE VINEYARDS
The 30ha of vineyards are situated 2 km above Ferrals-les-Corbières in a protected valley called La Pujade. This is in the Aude region – the windiest Département of France. There are many names for the winds but the most common is the Tramontane from the west-northwest, which blows strongly for much of the year and keeps the vines dry and healthy.
La Pujade means “the slopes” in Occitan. The valley is at an altitude of 300m and is surrounded by pinewood and garrigue. Bad weather often passes over the top of the valley, particularly the dreaded “embruns”, the humid warm wind from the Mediterranean, bringing perfect conditions for oïdium. The Carignan grape variety is particularly sensitive to the “embruns”, so the valley’s protection gives the perfect growing conditions for the domaine’s Carignan.
The terroir of the domaine takes its character from the unusually high amount of Aeolian sand found in the soils. This brings good drainage, and on the gustative side, it brings to the character of the wines a lightness of touch, an elegance, a fine fruit character. Sébastien describes the wines as “aériens”.
Finally, the different aspects and slopes of the parcels imprint their qualities with each variety: Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache, giving a large range of possible expressions from the grapes.
Sébastien is always mindful of nature. There is a family of “hirondelles” (swallows) which nest in the chai each year, and he checks carefully that the window, through which they get in and out to feed their young, is left open for them. Because he uses no pesticides there is a healthy population of insects, especially cicadas and ladybirds. There are also hares, partridges and wild boars. Sébastien has three sons, and in springtime he enjoys going with his family to pick the wild asparagus growing by the old Mas.
What inspires him and drives him on is “la reconnaissance des gens, des clients”. Back in the village, Sébastien maintains friendly relations with his neighbours and offers a warm welcome to all. The chai of Chateau Spencer la Pujade has become the ‘go-to’ place to buy wine, with regular visitors and recommendations from all the local chambres d’hôtes and gîtes.
Sébastien was the first winemaker in the Aude region to make a 100% Carignan wine in 2003. He likes the variety because it is “malleable”: it can be dense and structured, or fruity, or light, and it can take barrel ageing. He has a clear affinity with the Carignan, a natural understanding of how it works, and he feels that it is similar to the Pinot Noir in Burgundy – capable of a wide range of different expressions according to desire of the vigneron, adapting for his aims the four axes of winemaking: the terroir, the viticulture, the vinification, and the maturation.
In the past, the Carignan variety was planted in the Languedoc because of its productivity. You could yield 150-180 hl/ha from it, at between 8-10 degrees alcohol. The resulting wine would be blended with stronger wines from Algeria and sold onto the French market for basic table wine. It is no wonder that the reputation of the Carignan variety suffered with the association of such low-grade beverages, and in the more recent quest for better quality Carignan has been the target (and victim) of the EU uprooting programs.
Today winemakers understand that to make a quality wine from Carignan you need to be working with yields of less than 60hl/ha. At Spencer we harvest 20-25 hl/ha from the oldest vine parcels, but even on the younger vines (for the P’tit Spencer) we are yielding only 30-35 hl/ha.
“Il ne faut pas renier ses origines!” (you must not turn your back on your origins) is a very strong ethic in Sébastien’s world-view. Sébastien believes that Carignan is THE variety of the Languedoc, and he is on a mission to demonstrate the qualities of this variety to the world. In the past he made a 100% Carignan wine from carefully selected parcels, destemmed by hand, and fermented and aged in barrel. He intends to do this again at Spencer once he decides that the time is right.