Many of us are familiar with the wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Rhone Valley, but there are many sub-regions, which have their own Appellation d’origine Contrôlée (AOC) that produce quality wines at reasonable prices. Many of the wineries are family-run as well, with the vineyards and wineries being passed down through families. I would like to present to you Monsieur Michel Gassier of Domaine Gassier in the AOC Costières de Nîmes, which is located in the southern section of the Rhone Valley. I had a very interesting interview with Michael Gassier where we talked about their AOC’s terroir, his wines, his vision for the winery, and thoughts about global climate change and its effects on the region.
My Interview with Michel Gassier of Domaine Gassier
Karl: Tell me about your AOC Costières de Nîmes’ terroir and what makes it special in the Rhone Valley?
Michel: I would like to develop two points. First, why are we part of the Rhone Valley, second, what is unique about us in the Rhone Valley? For the first point, the Rhone valley terroir is actually a Rhone deposit from about 1–2 million years ago, deposit ranges from up north to Crozes-Hermitage all the way down to Chateau Neuf du Pape, Lirac, Tavel, and foothills of the Ventoux on the east and the Costieres and the marshes of the Camargue on the southwest.
We are a Rhone-created terroir and that is why we belong to the Rhone Valley. Additionally, we made that choice. The varietals that we grow are Rhone varietals so it made sense to belong to that family. What makes us unique is our micro-climate. It is easy to think that you are the furthest south in the Rhone so you should be the warmest, but in reality, we are closest to large bodies of water, the Mediterranean and the Camargue marshes. If you draw the parallel with California, it is not how far south you are that determines if it is a hot region you are, it is how close you are to the Pacific Ocean that determines that. I am sure if you traveled through California, the land against the ocean does not have any vines as it is too cold. In California, it is an extreme situation in the sense that the pacific is a really cold body of water. The Mediterranean is a much warmer body of water so we get a toned-down effect, but the logic is the same. In the summer when the day heats up and heats up the rocks and the land becomes super hot, the warm air rises and the air that sits on the water is cooler and humid and it creates a draft that pulls water-cooled air in from the sea. And we always have our afternoon cool sea breezes. That effect goes about 30km inland that covers the Costieres, but not as far north as Chateau Neuf du Pape. What does it mean for our wines? Usually, it is a little fresher and crisper because of those breezes. The fruit is fresher, the acidity is better retained, and makes a great spot for whites in the southern Rhone, but also the reds are very fresh.
I see you are using massal selection to bring forward the hardiest vines and growing bush vines. Is this common in the Costieres de Nimes?
No, I think we are not that many doing this. Costieres is not new to winemaking. We are one of the oldest vineyard regions in France. When the Romans invaded France about 100 years before Christ, the region was already producing wine. The locals learned it from trading with the Greeks. There are remnants of wineries. When they carbon-dated seeds they realized the wine was being made around 600BC. That is one of the first spots making wine in France. We are a very old wine-producing region. The wines were very reputable back then. Documents show the wines were exported to Rome. when the popes were in Avignon in the 1200s, wines from Nimes were consumed by the popes so we had a good reputation. When phylloxera hit and vineyards were replaced, the region did not continue with the quality approach. We planted more productive varietals and the image deteriorated. I personally believe in the high potential of the quality of this terroir and I decided to on my best plots go all way with massal selection and bush vine all hand-harvested and no till. It is because I believe the potential is enormous.
Are you trying any old technology like using amphora?
We use a lot of concrete because of its thermal inertia. We do have wood vessels for fermentation and aging. I have plenty of friends that used amphoras to mixed results. It hasn’t appealed to me as a truly defining change in our approach.
I think concrete is good.
We love concrete. Especially now they are using thermal control, like floor heating in a house. They embed the tubes in the concrete so you have a vessel that is constant in temperature. I make a parallel between cooking and winemaking. I said concrete is a crockpot and stainless steel is like a pan. It is a different tool that allows you to approach the grapes in a different way. It is usually very subtle and very long, vs stainless steel where it is good for shorter fermentation and maceration.
How is the climate for the Costieres de Nimes? I read that there is typically 28.7 in of rain and that it falls in late summer / early autumn. 300 days of sunshine per year. Have things changed over the past 10-20 years with global warming?
Absolutely. What has changed is the rainfall has decreased over 20 years, more importantly, the periods with no rains are getting longer. It is frequent that we can get no rain for 3-4 months. In the past, we would get a summer storm that would be a nice respite for the vines. The other thing we hadn’t seen is spring frost. This year we had a little spring frost. Our family has managed the property since 1941. since 1941 we have never seen a significant spring frost. This year we have about 25% of the crop loss due to frost damage. It is not so much that the temperature is cooler it is that bud break is occurring earlier and earlier, so that in early April we can get night frost, except 20 years ago, bud break had not happened in early April so no damage. But now sometimes bud break occurs in the end of Feb and so the entire month of March and April there is frost risk and you are exposed.
Have you been able to do dry farming before and now you have to use drip irrigation?
Dry farming was very easy. The soil has a lot of clay deep down, so if you get a good rainfall during the winter, it is enough to replenish the soil and dry farm. If the soils are extremely rocky with little clay underneath that is when it can become problematic. A little water add ons during the growing season can be a benefit. Especially in the quality of the tannins. If the vines are too water-stressed, you get dry, harsh tannins reflecting the suffering that the vine went through ripening the grapes.
You mentioned that the harvest may be down 25% due to spring frost. Has this year’s harvest started?
We will start next week with early ripeners. It is not an early year this year, but some plots because of frost damage the load is so light. A light load ripens earlier than a heavier load. We will start picking light next week. We will seriously harvest starting Aug 30.
I am tasting your Lou Coucardié Red blend 2012 with 49% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, and 16% Syrah. Does your blend change much each year? Having Mourvedre as the largest percentage is not that common as far as I know for a blend.
It is not common. I can only think of two other producers in Costieres that do a Cuvee with a majority of Mourvedre. Just a bit of history before phylloxera on the southern slope of the Costieres closest to the water and marshes, Mourvedre was widely planted. There is a town called Saint-Gilles, it was called Plomb de Saint-Gilles because it was so widely planted there. When the vineyards were uprooted, they did not replant Mourvedre. With the global warming that we talked about, with the fact that our vineyards are up against the Mediterranean we believe that we have very favourable conditions for Mourvedre so I’ve personally replanted Mourvedre, I love what it gives and well-positioned for the warming of the planet as it is late-ripening and needs lots of heat days. So it is no overripe in current conditions. It is usually a blending agent in the Rhone, like Petit Verdot in Bordeaux, with a few exceptions such as Beaucastel in Chateau Neuf du Pape which uses a lot of Mourvedre. It is only that Cuvee in our lineup that is predominantly Mourvedre.
Are there any particular vintages for AOC Costieres de Nimes that you think are exceptional and what makes them exceptional?
I think we are blessed with conditions over 10-15 years, that hasn’t been a super challenging vintage. Then it depends on what you like. I personally like the 2013 vintage which was really not one that is highly rated in the Rhone, as it was a cool year, very late harvest. We did not harvest any reds till Oct. It was an unusually late year. The wines were extremely austere when young, high acid, closed in, but now after 7 years are gorgeous and show the potential of the appellation. 2010 is till now a gorgeous vintage. 2016 is a reference vintage. 2019 will be as well. I can’t think of a recent vintage that doesn’t have appeal. You can have easier softer vintages, higher acid, more tannic, instant enjoyment, or some wines where you need to age for a while.
I have your 2012 Lou Coucardié to taste.
2012 was a softer vintage which for a predominantly Mourvedre wine is nice as you need a bit of age. We use whole clusters in our fermentation because I like the freshness it brings. This wine is powerful but light on its feet.
I did pick up on the freshness. I noted the flavours are very complex. I did get some earthiness, red fruits melded with spiciness. Touches of plums and raisin, violet, and oak. The tannins were fine, not too strong. That was my first taste. I will taste it again in 24 hours.
I think that is smart because this is definitely a wine where you will have a different experience 24 hours later. The only thing you have to be careful is serving the temperature of the wine. If we leave it in a house and get too warm the wines in the Rhone are best served at cellar, not room temp. 15-17 degrees Celsius. A lot of consumers don’t realize that. They get a Chateau Neuf du Pape at 15.5% alc and serve it at 24 degrees and they say the wine was too hot and unbalanced. Yes at that temperature, any wine with that much alcohol will taste unbalanced.
Do you have a favourite red and white grape to work with and why do you like them so much?
I am partial to Grenache. It is an incredible varietal. I call it a universal varietal. In the sense that a great Grenache will appeal to a sophisticated palate because it will be so refined, complex, and elegant, but it will be easy to access so it will please someone who is not very sophisticated. They may miss a bunch of things but they will still have a good time. A great Syrah of Mourvedre, you need to be more into wine to appreciate it. If you are a beginner, there is too much complexity. If you like wine, you will like the complexity and the fact that with every sip you will discover something different, but if you are entry-level taster, it might just throw you off. So Grenache is both in red and white has incredible versatility. There is a lot of talk of adding varietals in the AOC of the Rhone. I think we have gorgeous varietals. I think we have Mourvedre and Carignan that are very late ripening and well suited for how much warmer the climate is becoming. Syrah is might become more challenging as it has a shorter cycle. But we have GSM, we have Carignan. In whites, we have Clairette which I love as a varietal it is also late ripening. We have Bourboulenc which has a good level of acidity and late harvest as well in late September. Most whites you harvest in the Rhone are at the end of August and early September. I think we are well geared, and it is great to have a variety, as each varietal is not successful at every vintage so you hedge your bets by having many different varietals. With blending, it gives you a lot more options.
I read that you spent time living in the USA and married an American lady. I assume that you tried many American wines, became familiar with their style and methods. Did any of it affect you in your winery in France?
Yes. I actually spent a lot of time in the USA. I’ve tasted lots of wines and visited a lot of wineries. What I love about the New World is how there are no rules and history therefore they are in constant experimentation. In France, Burgundy is Burgundy because of the monks that for hundreds of years have done trial and error and documented and narrowed it down by saying red is Pinot and white is Chardonnay for this environment. In the New World, viticulture is very recent. California is probably the oldest with 120-year-old vines, but I don’t think there is much knowledge of what does well. It is starting too. So the winemakers are really experimenting and that has been an inspiration for me, but going beyond experimenting with a lot of different things. There have been some beautiful wines. France doesn’t have the exclusivity of great wines. There are many great wines from around the world that you can learn from a lot of different places.
I do find that in California a Napa Cab is very expensive. I can buy a nice bottle from France at a better price.
I did a webinar a while back and people asked how you can make wines that good at such a good price? The answer is most of us are family farms. The land is passed down generations so we did not have to borrow money to buy the land, so we have little financial costs so when you pay $20 for a bottle of wine it is $20 of wine. When you buy land in Napa or Burgundy, etc. 1 ha in Costieres is 15,000 euros in Champagne is 1.5 million euros. Let’s say you have to borrow that 1.5 million and you pay that mortgage every year, you divide that mortgage by the number of bottles that a ha produces, you will get an astronomical number. That is way beyond the cost for us producing. We are family-owned and have inexpensive land. Also because we are family-owned, we do not have a director of sales/marketing/HR/etc. We do not have that overhead. So when you buy from a region like ours, you are paying for the work that went into that juice. That is why our Quality Price ratio is so high.
I read that 25% of the vineyards in the AOC are organic. Any plans for you going biodynamic? Do you follow how other wineries are progressing with their organic or biodynamic vineyards?
We are moving toward Regenerative Farming. Organic was step one. We had several options at our disposal. We chose Regenerative Farming over biodynamic because Regenerative Farming it is not a recipe. It is an approach that you as a farmer tailor to your climate land and crop. It includes a very heightened responsibility to the environment and the quality of land and air, which are not parts of biodynamic. I believe that agriculture has been part of the problem in the evolution of our climate and believe it can be part of the solution. This is what RF addresses by going to much more mixed agriculture, by including animals by keeping a cover crop at all times instead of plowing. It is a lot of things not covered by biodynamic that integrate everything we learned in the past 100 years since Steiners wrote his treaty, and I think it would be a pity to not use what we learned over the last 100 years to develop a much more responsible and eco-friendly agriculture. There are plenty of things in biodynamic that are interesting that we will integrate but there are some that we think there is a better way.
When did you start with Regenerative Farming?
We started a few years ago. We were able to acquire a block of land that had a large wooded area and a creek. We had it analyzed and the woods have a great eco-diversity of animals birds and insects. We were able to acquire the land around. We developed a project where we mix fruit trees, vineyards, and vineyards. We are placing trees within the vineyards in order to be rest stops for animals to migrate from the wooded area to the crops. We put in lots of birds nests and bat nests, and a zone for snakes, and frogs to reproduce. We believe we have a perfect environment to develop that kind of agriculture. That is experimental, but 35 ha is quite large. You need a minimum of scale. If we are successful this is something that will expand to the rest of our farm.
Have you seen any major changes in your vineyard with vine health or the aromas and flavours of your wines/grapes?
It is still a bit early. We have very rocky soil and putting in a permanent cover crop has been challenging. It is going to be trial and error. It is going to take us around 10years before are comfortable and know what works. Our daughter has decided to join us. She quit her job in California. She will be the project leader. She worked in California ranches that practiced Regenerative Farming and coming with that knowledge.
Any other things you would like my readers to know?
A few points. The fact that our philosophy of winemaking is as non-intrusive as possible. All our wines do not see any sulfites at crush. We use native yeasts for most of our wines. We have very min amounts of sulfites at bottling. We do not do totally natural wines because 85% of our production is exported. The wines go through so many temp/pressure/humidity changes that we believe the wines need some help to resist those changes. If you test the S02 levels of our wines that they are minimal but they are way under normal and organic wines. We use almost no enological products. We use native yeasts, controlling temp, racking. A wine like Lou Coucardié hasn’t been filtered as well. We feel by working this way we enhance the sense of place of the wines we produce. We aim at making a wine with a personality sense of place. I believe wine is a great way to travel without leaving your house. The wines should reflect the place, climate, and philosophy of the people that made them. That is what we do.
Thank you for making this time available.