France has always been a nation of revolutionaries, whether they are political ones like Robespierre and Danton, scientists such as Marie Curie, or philosophers like Descartes or Jean Paul Sartre. So I suppose I should not be surprised to find a genuine wine revolutionary living next door to my new home in Gascony, who is breaking just about every rule in the staid world of French wine – with spectacular results.
Sylvain Destrieux and his partner Christophe Rebillou are two classic sons of the vine here in the unfashionable outer reaches of Bordeaux. Their fathers were wine makers, and their grandfathers, in a line stretching back centuries. If they had followed tradition they would be supplying the local co-operative with their grapes to make the kind of vin ordinaire you find in Asda for £3.99 a bottle. But after two degrees in viticulture and an impassioned conversation in a car on the way to a ploughing competition they realised they wanted more.
For a start they wanted to make their own wine, not grow grapes for someone else. They wanted to experiment with new blends and new grape types. Most of all they wanted to go organic, which is hard for any farmer, but really tough when you are growing something as temperamental as grapes.
Leaving the co-operative was not easy – you can only imagine the fuss that breaking a century-old agreement would cause in the sleepy village of Ruch. For Sylvain the legal unpleasantries continue; the co-operative is trying to enforce a verbal agreement it says it had with his great-grandfather. Sylvain’s brother has decided to stay with them for an easy life. At least Christophe’s father is more understanding – he says it’s a move he should have made years ago.
More importantly the duo have started to make wine. Their first offering, Château Grenet 2015 is really rather special. It contains 10 per cent Malbec – a grape so often sneered at in these parts, but one that gives it a dense, dark fruit coupled with a silky smoothness, and also means it’s perfect for drinking now (indeed, as I write this) rather than waiting for five years. At under £9 a bottle Grenet is also outstanding value, particularly when you take into account it’s organic, which means enormous care must be taken nurturing the grapes against all sorts of pests and infestations.
Like true revolutionaries they did not stop there. As a silent protest against the low prices and low quality of so much vin de table from Bordeaux, they have refused to bottle their wine in traditional Bordeaux shaped bottles, instead choosing slope-sided Burgundy ones. A detail, you may think. But in this part of the world it’s tantamount to storming the Bastille. Sylvain and Christophe entered the wine for the main Concours de Vin in Paris, where they walked off with a gold medal.
They are now hard at work consolidating their success. They have ploughed their savings into a spanking new winery, with top class concrete vats for the red wines and new stainless steel ones for the planned whites. This year production will rise from 120,000 bottles to a courageous 500,000.
A new label will be born: Tartas, the name of our house and the hamlet surrounded by Sylvains wines, and they will make a Merlot and a classic Entre-Deux- Mers Sauvignon/Semillon white. Their organic credentials are certified by the clouds of butterflies that come floating into my garden.
Next comes the tricky business of selling the wine. Vive la revolution.