Ahead of his visit to London next week, for the next in our series of grower interviews we sat down with fifth-generation Loire Valley vigneron François Blanchard. A man of infectious energy, creativity and generosity, François’s interests run much deeper than wine and it was a pleasure to get to know him a little better and find out about the rich history of his family’s work in Lémeré.
François’s wines are available on Tutto a Casa
Hello François. Can you start by telling us what it was like growing up in Lémeré?
There were just a few of us children, mostly of the same age in the village. At school we were a class of twelve, ranging from kindergarten to the end of primary school.
I was often alone outside school hours, but like everyone else, I had to use my energy. To have fun, I found creativity in the world of my friends, the trees, there were many treehouses to build.
I have a lot of memories of the scents, especially in spring, the colours of the trees in bloom, sunflowers, the sunrises or sunsets were also magnificent and that has not changed. There was no shortage of sounds either, birds were everywhere.
The world of the cellar was a special atmosphere and I found it intriguing to see everyone in such a good mood. The adults introduced me to the culture of wine and would let me smell and taste with them, but immediately there was something that repelled me. I realised much later that it was the sulphites.
I also made music, playing the piano or the synth and I listened to whatever records I could find.
Pink Floyd had already made an impression on me.
The Château du Perron has been in your family for many generations. Tell us a bit about the history of the property. How long has your family been growing grapes and making wine here?
The story began when phylloxera arrived in France around 1863.
The vineyards of France were being destroyed by this insect and my great, great grandparents, who were also farmers, decided to take evening classes to learn techniques to graft grape varieties onto resistant rootstock.
Having created a nursery, they started to plant vines and to make wine. At that time land was less valuable than today, and having plenty of work due to the poor health of the vines elsewhere in France, they were able to develop the Perron property in Lémeré.
You have to imagine that at that time the countryside was full of people and very much alive, this was before mechanisation and industrialisation changed the landscape, resulting in the rural exodus we know today.
My grandfather experimented with nearly two hundred different varieties of grapes, both noble and hybrid varieties, to explore the terroir and its influence on each. This is something that must be revisited in the face of the changes in climate we are currently experiencing.
For the past twenty years I have been the fifth generation of winegrowers to express myself in this place and I consider myself a guardian. However, it is important to note that I have not adopted a ready-made framework but rather have built my work through an ethic that is specific to me and which is based on three fundamentals; the living, freedom, and creativity.
Would it be right to say that music, rather than wine, was your first love? Can you tell us a bit more about the impact of music on your life?
Since childhood, sounds and the harmonies they give off when they are in symbiosis have always given me strong sensations. It is an emotion that is difficult to describe, but one which has always attracted me.
As a teenager, carried away by the rock of Led Zeppelin, fusion such as Rage Against the Machine and experimental music such as David Bowie, King Crimson and Pink Floyd, I had the chance to express myself through a music group with some high school friends.
This experience led me to study at a jazz school, where we multiplied musical formations of all styles. We had meetings where improvisation had no limits, nor necessarily a framework. This included time and only sunrises had the power to bring me back to the reality of the clock.
The effect of music, when we opened the right door, that of freedom, is the possibility of approaching another world, perhaps more internal with no shortage of emotions, sensations and escape.
To sum up, yes, music before wine, then ‘natural’ wine and music. These two worlds have one thing in common, they take us on a journey through our senses.
The harvest chez Blanchard is legendary and you attract people from diverse backgrounds and cultures for one big party. Can you describe what makes this time so special for you?
The harvest is the culmination of a year’s work and when the grapes arrive, that is happiness. It gives the impression of having succeeded in being in harmony with nature and above all the possibility of ‘playing with the material’, of expressing oneself, of being creative.
A cook or a pastry chef, for example, can make recipes every day, make mistakes and start again, but with the vine, it’s only once a year!
The margin of error is therefore limited for a winemaker, the slightest wrong choice can be fatal and the learning curve is therefore long. Fortunately, among ‘natural’ winegrowers, we meet to share our experiences, which saves time and enriches and completes our knowledge.
The harvest is also the moment that marks the end of the summer to make way for another season, autumn, when nature goes into hibernation. In the past, it was traditional to celebrate the harvest and naturally, for me, the harvest could not be anything but festive!
All the friends I have met over the years are invited to this celebration and it makes for an interesting melting pot with chefs, bakers, artists of all kinds, be it musicians, comedians, painters, or photographers from all over the world making up the festival. It is a place where friends meet and weave links through ‘doing’ and I like that!
As much as possible, we try to do things the old-fashioned way, whether that is using wicker mats to destem the grapes, an old vertical manual wooden press or stomping the grapes with our feet. It gives a warmer feeling than using noisy electric machines.
Can you describe the vineyards and the farm, including the soil, climate, grape varieties and other plants and animals that live on the land?
I started directly in organic farming with the Grand Cléré vineyard, which features Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon planted over clay and flint.
From the start, I thought that diversity of the fauna and flora was important to obtain a balance.
So I left some trees and hedges such as spruce, oak and plum and let the grass grow.
Now there are birds’ nests in the vines and lots of plants such as wild strawberries, St. John’s wort, clover, alfalfa and so on. There is ivy on the stakes, so the ladybugs are happy there.
Then to reduce the maintenance work, animals arrived on the estate: draft horses, sheep, which are more efficient than a mower, chickens and geese.
I planted Cabernet Franc eight years ago in ‘Le Parc’. Here the soil is clay and limestone with aeolian sand and it’s an easy soil to work. I love it because I feel like I’m making bread!
Even though a tractor is always a great help, animal traction provides a different relationship to work. You are no longer alone, there are two of you! It’s another dimension, the time is different and the quality of the work is different too, it’s gentler on the soil, which I am sure the worms appreciate!
The climate is temperate with an oceanic influence, mildew loves it, indeed, it is rare not to see it each year.
Could you tell us about your work in the vines?
The vine is for me a space of meditation. In fact, I like the plants and the sounds and atmosphere that accompany them as they allow me to clear my mind. I try to observe a lot and I adapt, because each moment, each vine, each plant and each place is different.
The vines are my main workspace, I like to be alone here.
How about in the cellar?
The cellar is a creative space. I always tell myself that these natural transformations are completely crazy.
Grape juice that becomes wine, to finally make the spirits travel. It’s incredible, isn’t it?
In fact, I would tend to say that simplicity is one of the keys to staying as close as possible to the truth of the juice. It is not easy for the human mind to come to this conclusion!
The cellar is also a space where cleaning must be impeccable and I prefer to do this with steam.
When we visited the estate, we tasted many versions of your Sauvignon Blanc that had been vinified or aged in different ways, or in different containers. It showed that you really appreciate experimentation in the cellar, which is not always the case for winemakers who come from a family that has been making wine for a long time. Why is such creativity important to you?
First of all, monotony bores me and as I explained before, the possibilities to experiment are only once a year, so when the opportunity arises, I do not deprive myself!
I have to try as many configurations as possible. To make the wine in barrel, in vat, topping up, not topping up, long macerations, short macerations, or whatever it might be. It is the only chance to understand the living wine under different conditions, and also, you shouldn’t forget to have fun!
Could you tell us how you started making beer?
Initially, I treated the vines only with plants, making decoctions, fermented extracts and herbal teas with nettles, comfrey or burdock. Then in 2007 the mildew invited itself and it ate all my grapes in 2008. That year, I had a ‘no harvest’ party…
Being of a positive nature, I immediately said to myself: I have containers, and monoculture is a paradox of agriculture, so why not make beer? I thought that with climate change, diversity is an inevitable answer and so straight away, I did a quick training course at the French brewery museum.
Then, I started making six litre brews and built a system that could make five hundred litre brews.
As with wine, I saw no other solution than to go natural, and it took me many years to find the beer that met my expectations.
Natural beer hides a lot of mystery, from my point of view it’s more complex than wine, there are more parameters and I consider myself still learning.
Your passions go far beyond wine. As we said, you play music, but you also practise martial arts, you make bread and also beer. What is it that makes you so curious?
The senses we have were much sharper in prehistoric times, they allowed us to survive. The current world has impoverished us in this regard, because for ease, the visual sense is the one that human beings use the most, to the detriment of others.
Studies have shown that humans only use 12 or 13% of their brain capacity. To explore our mind and better understand ourselves, I think that reclaiming all our senses is a path to take.
An interesting exercise to do is to sit in front of the ocean and at the same time try to smell the iodine, feel the wind, taste the salt that is carried in the air, see the sea and hear the waves. It is not easy, you really need to concentrate.
I find this in [the Japanese martial art] Aikido, which gives an understanding of oneself and of what surrounds us. Concentration, meditation, as well as the discovery of the limits of our body are elements that participate in an inner search, a form of spirituality.
For the rest, the natural transformations really fascinate me. Making bread, beer or wine and working in the garden allow me to move towards a maximum of autonomy, that is, to have freedom.