- Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Loire, France
Thank you to importer Louis/Dressner and Jules Dressner for this profile of Pépière:
(Click here for Louis/Dressner's Pépière notes and photos from visits and interviews)
It feels strange re-writing profiles like Pépière’s. Almost like erasing the past, a past I was only tangentially part of! Joe and Denyse first visited Marc Ollivier in 1989. They likely began selling his 1988 in NYC shortly thereafter. Kevin McKenna, an equal partner at LDM since 1995, was their first customer for it when he was the buyer at Astor! It was our first Loire wine! I was three years old!
But the Pépière profile really needed an overhaul, so here we go. For starters, 2019 was Marc's last vintage. He's officially retired. And while his house is just minutes from the cellar, he and Geneviève plan to spend the majority or their time in Brittany enjoying the finer things in life (namely seafood). It's hard not to imagine Marc, who is REMARKABLY photogenic, as the face of the estate anymore. He is so engrained in our history, a true peer and friend; erasing his name and face from Pépière will be impossible for many of us. At the end of the day, Pépière is his creation and his presence will always be felt. And if you need your Marc fix, you can always read his interview from 2012.
Today the estate is in very capable hands with residing proprietors Rémi Branger and Gwénaëlle Croix. Rémi is a local that Marc has known since he was a kid. When his father retired in 2005, Marc purchased his land and Rémi started as an employee in 2006. Having long realized his daughters were not interested in inheriting the estate, Marc had him come on board as a partner in 2011. Gwen, on the other hand, joined in a less straightforward fashion.
After a decade working in the industrial sector, she moved to China with her family for her husband’s work. Gwen discovered wine there and it quickly became a fascination. Upon returning to France, she decided to switch careers and studied viticulture and oenology at Montreuil Bellay. Her first visit to Pépière was a pruning formation in early 2011. She instantly hit it off with Marc and Rémi (which to be fair is quite easy) and after finishing school, worked at the estate a year before becoming a partner in 2014.
Marc will be the first to admit that adding new people and perspectives helped push Pépière forward. He largely credits Rémi as the impetus of finally converting to organic viticulture, Gwen for biodynamics. Things in the cellar have evolved as well, with more judicious applications of S02 and a fearlessness to push sur-lies élevages to new heights of three, four and even five years. Rémi and Gwen's enthusiasm and ambition have also expanded on Marc's legacy of single vineyard cuvées with their expansion of the cru bottlings for Clisson, Château-Thebaud, Monnières-Saint-Fiacre and Gorges. But let’s rewind a bit.
When Marc started Pépière with seven hectares, the terroir was unified and it made sense to produce only one wine. But as the estate grew and the terroirs diversified, he began doing "what has always been done in the rest of France": he was already vinifying each parcel separately, so it was intuitive to start bottling single vineyard cuvées: Clos des Briords in 1988, Cormermais in 1992... While this may seem totally normal to the average French oenophile, the Muscadet works a bit differently.
Despite having some of the most varied terroirs and micro-climates in all of France, it remains a region of scale and bulk dominated by large négociant operations. One could optimistically opine that Muscadet's strength lies in blending all of its terroir into a more complex whole, but the blunt and far less charming truth is that most vignerons get paid (poorly) for grapes by the kilo irrespective of where they are grown because négociants don't care. Even for independent estates, it is quite common to only produce a single cuvée despite the obvious variations of soil and micro-climates within their plots.
Because the appellation is vast, grows only one grape and produces largely for immediate consumption, prices remain artificially low and do not encourage risk taking or breaking the mold. Despite being some of the cheapest viticultural land in all of France and home to living legends like Jo Landron, Michel Brégeon, Guy Bossard, Marc Pesnot, Luneau-Papin and of course Pépière itself, the environment remains poorly suited for small, ambitious vignerons. A young kid could easily, for example, start a four hectare estate in Anjou and find an immediate audience. In the Muscadet they'd need at least double the surface, would still have to charge much more than the average local bottle and would find themselves fighting an uphill battle in a reticent, price driven market. It's a shame and also why you don't see a tremendous amount of new talent emerging like in other cheap areas such the aforementioned Anjou, Touraine, Roussillon, Mâconnais or the Beaujolais.
So what does all this have to do with Pépière? Well, for the few estates who have dedicated themselves to show the true potentials of Muscadet's terroirs (essentially the names mentioned in the above paragraph along with a few others), it's been a boon of opportunity. Over the last decade, there has been a push by the appellation to create cru designations in hopes of bolstering Muscadet's reputation. Pépière was way ahead of the curve here, with half of the estate's 42 hectares falling within the crus of Clisson, Monnières-Saint Fiacre, Château-Thébaud and Gorges. At the time this was simply Marc, Rémi and Gwen picking the most interesting vineyards. And to give perspective, the average independent Muscadet estate only has holdings of 15 to 20% within the crus.
While 50% of the estate’s vineyards fall within the cru limits, cru wines only represent an average of 15% of Pépière's annual production. In some vintages they will produce less or no cru wines at all if the quality is not there. Aging on the lees are always longer than the mandated 17 months, lasting a minimum of two years. But Marc, Rémi and Gwen have not been afraid to push it to 36 or even 48 months in some cases. All grapes within the crus not deemed up to snuff (again, around 85%) go into the the entry level La Pépie cuvée.
What follows is a break down of all the cuvées and their respective terroirs:
The La Pépie cuvée is a blend of estate fruit from all of Pépière's terroirs, 50% of which fall within the Muscadet Sèvre & Maine appellation and 50% within the crus. Since 2016, the cuvée is is supplemented with purchased fruit from neighboring parcels with similar characteristics. This decision was not made lightly and results from a series of unsustainably low crops.
Clos des Briords is located on the hillsides of the river Maine, a tributary of the Loire. The site totals 4.40 hectares and the vines were planted between 1950 and 1989, with the vast majority of the vines between 50 and 70 years old. The soils are "granite de Thebaud" but do not fall within the Château-Thebaud cru designation (more on that terroir later). Only a small part of the oldest vines produce the Clos des Briords bottling.
Gras Moutons is a lieu-dit made up of two parcels totaling 1.8 hectares in the cru of Monnières-Saint Fiacre. The soils consist of sand, limestone and gneiss. The constant winds in the area make for grapes that have to be harvested later than the rest. While released young, this wine always benefits from a few years in bottle.
Clisson was originally called "Granite de Clisson" after the unique bedrock in the vineyard. Marc changed the name to Clisson to agree with the INAO cru communal classification. Pépière owns 5.5 hectares within the cru but only a part makes it to the actual Clisson bottling (the rest goes into La Pépie). It's a patchwork of vines of various ages planted on a unique mix of gravel, clay and sand on a subsoil of granite. The oldest vines were planted in 1929 and on average the vines are 60 years old.
The estate rents vines in the Gorges cru that used to belong to regarded grower Michel Brégeon. The plot is 1.67 hectares and was planted in the late 1960/early 1970's. Because it is so far from the estate, their colleague Fred Laillé works the vines organically, Pépière works his Clisson vines and they exchange hand-harvested fruit. Gorges is the only area in the Muscadet featuring basalt soils. The wines have a unique structure compared to the others of the region.
Monnieres-St-Fiacre, planted in sandy limestone on gneiss, is the first officially designated cru in Muscadet. Prior to this being a cru, Pépière would occasionally produce this wine as Cuvée Eden and/or it would go into Gras Moutons. Pépière owns 3.35 hectares within the cru. The vines were planted in 1948, 1984 and 1991.
For Château-Thebaud, Pépière owns 14 hectares within the cru but only the best grapes go into the Château-Thebaud bottling, with the vast majority goes towards the production of La Pépie. They work a plethora of plots of all ages and sizes, many as small as 20 ares. The vines were planted between 1952 and 1997 with most vines planted between the late 1960's and early 1980’s. The “granite de Château-Thebaud" here is fissured and permeable by the vine roots which have access to water during dry spells and absorb micro-nutrients along the way. Thébaud always needs longer aging on the lees than any of the other cru wines, for example 42 months in 2012.
In addition, a little over three hectares of Carbernet Franc, Côt and Merlot are cultivated, planted by Marc so he could have some to red to drink. As there is no red wine in the Muscadet appellation, these are classified as Vin de Pays.
Wow, the recap is done! Because I didn't feel like deleting it, here is Joe's original profile from who knows how long ago:
When Marc Ollivier is on, these are the top wines of the AOC - wines that are not only delicious young, but that can also age 10, 20 or 30 years.
Ollivier’s Muscadet-sur-Lie is the authentic item — it has lees contact until the time of bottling, generally in late May. This extended contact gives it the crispness that makes Muscadet so refreshing, and the classic wine match for seafood. It is the traditional way to make Muscadet, but has become the exception as growers and shippers rush to bottle “technically correct” wines by early January.
In this rush to bottle, Muscadet producers use special “starter” yeasts (which often also add flavors and aromas) to accelerate fermentation and enzymes or other techniques to finish the wine early. Sterile filtration is in rampant use.
Ollivier takes his time. He hand harvests (also a rarity in the region), uses natural yeasts, waits for the wine to finish and bottles with a very light filtration. The vineyards are in old vines (40 years and older) with a particularly good exposition on a plateau overlooking the river Sèvre. All the vineyards are from original stock: Ollivier is the only grower in the Muscadet who does not have a single clonal selection in his vineyards.
Ollivier also produces a very-old-vine cuvée of Muscadet from a single-plot vineyard in schist, the Clos des Briords. These are among the oldest vines in his estate (they were planted in 1930) and they enjoy a particularly good exposition. Also, when most of his estate’s vines are planted on poor, shallow soil with hard granite very close to the surface, the Clos des Briords has a much deeper top soil of clay and silica over a brittle granite subsoil: this ensures excellent drainage in wet years, and better moisture retention in dry summers. Ripening is slower, and the longer hang-time before harvest allows for optimal maturity to be reached.
The vinification techniques are traditional for the area: no skin maceration but direct pressing within 2 hours of picking, racking of the must after 12 hours to remove the solid matter, and controlled temperatures, not to exceed 71.6 degrees F, for the fermentation. The aging of the wine, on its lees in stainless steel vats, lasts until bottling, about eight months later.
Because of the soil and greater concentration achieved with old vines, the Clos des Briords is a more powerful wine that most Muscadets. It is very mineral and quite austere in its youth, rather than fruity and light. Over a few months, or even years, if one can wait for it, it develops much complexity in aromatics and structure.
His latest cuvée, called Eden, comes from a vineyard he acquired from his neighbor. The soil is gneiss. The wine is lively with lovely floral notes.