‘The Wild Bush Man’: Meeting the Roussillon’s secret star of a winemaker
On our second to last day in the Roussillon in southwest France, my best gal pal Whitney and I headed to the town of Estagel to meet Olivier Varichon, winemaker at Domaine Vinci. I knew nothing about his wines and neither, it seemed, did his fellow winemakers in the region. But I’d been told by Vinci’s UK distributor Guillaume at Aubert & Mascoli that I had no choice–I MUST visit this winery if didn’t visit any other the whole trip. No pressure or anything. And thank goodness Guillaume insisted so vehemently because, if pressed to choose my favourite wines of the whole trip–wines I’d be forced to drink every day for the rest of my life kind of thing–I think Vinci would be it.
Photo by Whitney Adams
We were received in the smallest winery/cellar I’d ever seen (really more a tiny garage) by a smiling, jolly Olivier. While Olivier talked us through his winemaking philosophies, we tasted some barrel samples, including his first ever rosé which was bursting with grapefruits and already had the makings of a great wine.
We learned that Olivier, who comes from a winemaking family in Savoy, studied oenology in Burgundy, and eventually spent many years as the managing director of a wine shop in London where he met his wife, Emmanuelle Vinci, who co-owns the winery with him and has a doctorate in biology. After touring the wine regions of the world, Olivier and Emmanuelle decided to set up a winery in the up-and-coming Roussillon, famed for its unique and varying terroirs and native old vines.
Of all the winemakers I’ve met, Olivier had the gift of the gab. I mean this in the most positive sense. He had a way of communicating (and in his second language nonetheless!) the often very complicated process of winemaking in a way even this sometime ditz could understand. Perhaps this is because he is highly educated in all things vinous and worked on the consumer side of the industry before becoming a winemaker, and therefore is accustomed to explaining such a complicated subject.
Photo by Whitney Adams
We tasted two of his ‘Coyade’ white vintages (blends of Macabeu, Grenache Blanc, and the rare Carignan Blanc). Besides their intoxicating aromas of white flowers and almonds and their creamy, oily texture, Whitney and I were amazed at how clean and finished the wines were. Natural wines have a reputation for being a bit unpredictable–often cloudy and reductive, smelling like a barn yard when first opened, and completely unpredictable. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like all of those things, but from a commercial point of view, it’s far easier to sell and drink more a more finished, predictable wine. And that’s not to say Vinci’s wines were boring. Far from it. With their incredible potential to age, their finesse, and perfect balance, they were complex, layered, and delicious.
After tasting his whites, Olivier took us in his van to visit a few of his vineyards, nestled deep in the Agly Valley. To get to them, we drove past rows of perfectly manicured vines planted in barren earth. Olivier told us his neighbours–the owners of those vineyards–think of him as a crazy bush man, letting his vines grow wild surrounded by weeds and other vegetation. One of his neighbours who wanted to get rid of his vineyard even ripped up 100+ year old Carignan vines before he would sell them to Olivier. What a tragedy.
On the way to see the beehives. The presence of bees adds to the diversity of the ecosystem.
It’s true, Olivier’s vineyards were like none I’d ever seen. On tiny plots of land in a natural bowl between the hills and forest, the vines are individually pruned and everything is done manually (and many of the grapes are subsequently crushed by foot). Olivier is completely organic in the vineyards (no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, weed killers, etc), and in the winery he adds nothing but a minuscule amount of sulphites from a spray bottle! In fact he was told his sulphite levels were so low he didn’t need to legally add ‘contains sulphites’ on the bottle! Anyone who insists high levels of sulphites are necessary to make a clean, stable, long lasting wine will be proven wrong by trying Vinci’s beautifully crafted wines.
Later that day Olivier took us to lunch at one of his local hot spots. As we ate and sipped his outstanding reds (my favourite being his ‘Rafalot’, made from 12o [!!] year old Carignan–inky in colour, complex, silky, delicious), the restaurant owner kept nipping to our table to top up his own glass with Olivier’s wines. Olivier admitted rather bashfully that the owner had begged him for years to stock some of Vinci’s wines for the restaurant. They make such small amounts of wine, Olivier and Emmanuelle have to decide where it goes and where it doesn’t. Finally, the owner persuaded Olivier to hand over a small amount, although throughout the lunch he continually begged him for more. It seems that Olivier has the magic touch, and has produced wines so good he’s got people begging him to sell them just a bit more. And after tasting Domaine Vinci’s range of wines that day, I could completely understand why.
I wish all producers would approach winemaking with the same respect for the land, passion, and intelligence that Olivier does. Unfortunately, if they all produced such small amounts of wine, no one would ever be able to get their hands the stuff (or afford it for that matter)! And there lies one of the wine industry’s greatest Catch 22s…sigh.
To get your hands on a bottle of wine from Domaine Vinci, contact Guillaume at Aubert & Mascoli.