If you are what you eat, I can tell you, Gilles is grapes. I mean, have you ever met a winemaker that rolls some grape leaves to smoke them? Or that steeps vine leaves to drink as tea? Right. Me neither.
I’ve heard that here in the region of Lavaux, people refer to him as ‘the poet’ and that his wines are as famous for their uniqueness as for the few rhymes he writes on their labels. Now knowing him, I would dub Gilles ‘the dreamer’ as well, for he has that smile, that tone and that peaceful face of those who know everything is going to be alright in the end. If you need your weekly kick of good vibes I suggest, you too, come sit down with Gilles for a talk, but if you can’t, a glass of his wines will do the trick, I promise.
Hors-Série 2016 was the wine that got me hooked, and it didn’t take long for my friend Pascal to organize a visit with Gilles! Finally, I’d get to know more about the mysterious poet… In fact, a week or so later, I am looking at the Lavaux terraced vineyards, the French Alps and the Lake Léman. Although on that day the sky is rather unusually grey, I’m always speechless while looking at that landscape.
“Would you care for a glass of tea?” is what takes me out of my reverie, as Gilles walks toward us, onto the magnificent terrace, overlooking the lake. Tea? Not quite what I had in mind this morning when Pascal picked me up at the train station, but sure, I’ll have a glass. With this very comforting energy that he carries, anything he suggests can only be for the better, so I’ll follow his lead.
Without really waiting for an answer, Gilles pours three large glasses of lukewarm tea, takes a seat and starts rolling himself a smoke. As I look at his careful craft, I can’t help but notice he’s got the winemaker hands; rough, marked and shaped by years of working his land. But the gestures remain so delicate, so precise, giving Gilles’ gentleness away.
As I grab my glass and give the infusion a first sniff, Gilles explains how 6,000 years ago, well before wines were even made, people would infuse dried vine buds and flowers and drank it as a tea. I take a first sip and notice how sweet, round yet tanic the drink is. No added sugar just the natural sweetness of the vine expressed in a whole new way. As Gilles sits back and takes a puff of his vine-ciggie he observes “Vines are always sweet and gentle, aren’t they…?” Not sure where all this is leading us but I do like the tone that’s given. I could tell already, Gilles is deeply connected to his vineyard indeed.
A vineyard that’s been around as such for more than 800 years, a testimony of the region’s long winemaking history. It’s been 30 years since Gilles came back to Chenaux, in the heart of the Lavaux, to work in the family estate once run by his father Jean-Daniel. Gilles being a pioneer in biodynamic viticulture, the estate has been certified over 15 years. A commitment, rather than a label, showing transparency and proving how serious a winemaker is about his believes. “It does bind you with what you feel is the right way”, you know, talk the walk, walk the talk. As much of a dreamer Gilles is, I like how convincing he can be and how he seems to have it all thought through somehow.
“It’s funny how some people tell you ‘biodynamic’ means roughly 90% farmer’s common sense… right, well when I see some of the decisions our farmers take for their country here in Switzerland you see where their ‘common sense’ is getting us...”
Now that’s a fun approach to have. As Gilles continues to explain, what truly defines biodynamic viticulture are rules and principles that bring in a frame, a hierarchy in the vineyard. Like when you raise your kids, sure, you’ve got to love them and be nice, care for them and all, but you also need to teach them the rules. “Teach them to say Bonjour first, and to then talk…”, those rules are the fundamentals on which you can then build up. And right then, with Gilles explaining how he treats his vines I come to make a parallel with how parents would raise their kids. I mean, what can seem like a strict education, all those “Say hi”, “Say please”... well it’s actually just a way to guarantee the best fundamentals for us to grow up as better adults, and that we will know how to fit and adapt to any situation. Equally, you can’t just possibly let the vines go on their own for the sake of low-intervention and then expect them to grow properly and provide you with their best fruits.
As Gilles puts it, biodynamic practices can be seen as a connection with the moon and stars, a balance between what happens here on the earth and there in the sky; the actions taken are the link that binds it all together. That’s what it’s all about, as a winemaker, you’re standing in your field trying to help bind that link, only so that the terroir can express itself better.
Pascal and I share a glance. The moon, the stars, that “link”... not your usual winemaker’s speech for sure. But honestly I’m glad we’re not just hearing about pressing cycles, vats sizes and temperature control for once! And as I begin to wonder of how his universe connects with his vineyards, he goes on.
“Terroir, what’s that? It’s so much more than the soil. Terroir are all those aromas around, the smells, the noises, the flavors, the colors... All that is terroir."
That surely is a much more complete approach than anything I've heard before. Terroir *is* much more than just the earth in which the vine grows and I love how Gilles includes the smells and noises, too. All those elements in the wine go far beyond the soil itself. Hence the role of biodynamic preparations, is to actually help sort of transmit all those information into the grape. They're the ones working the magic, not the soil.
Those ‘preparations’ Gilles is referring too are those known as the ‘500’ and ‘501’, two of the most common biodynamic treatments out there, and the ones he uses the most. Those are the fundamental tools of biodynamics and can be derived from mineral, vegetal or animal material.
The ‘500’ refers to cow horn manure; some sort of fermented matter obtained by filing a cow’s horn with… well, cow dung. The horns are then buried during the colder months, usually from November through to February when all of the earth energy is trapped in the ground. They’re left fermenting underground and the resulting ‘mud’ is then used to increase the soil’s renewal and fertility.
As for the ‘501’, it’s obtained by burying finely grounded quartz crystals in a cow’s horn again but this time around during the warmer months from March until September. The resulting powder is then sprayed on the vineyard in the early mornings, enhancing the plant’s photosynthesis and protecting the vine against some fungus attacks while reinforcing its root system at the same time.
In life, as much as in his vineyard, for Gilles the most beautiful thing of all is the freedom of speech. That right to speak, to say what you think and feel, is what he believes in, and what he tries to achieve with his work. And so, he just goes on with his spiel and sharing his winemaking philosophy, explaining how every single action taken should only serve that purpose, “let the vineyard express itself and tell us what he’s got to say, that’s it.” I had never really thought about that this way. I’ve heard winemakers telling me how they’re just merely messengers, how the wine is truly done in the vineyard and such, but never in such a clever way. Right then I can’t wait anymore to hear what his vines actually have to say.
Just then, Gilles jumps out of his chair and looks at us with the most comforting grin, “Ok, now that we’re ready, we’ll taste a few whites and one fantastic red wine!”. And so he goes, smiling and confident, off to pick some bottles in the cellar as we’re preparing ourselves to be told some more stories, but by the wines this time around.
First things first, Premier de Gorgée, 100% Chasselas, the ubiquitous local grape that you’ll find from on the shores of the Léman up until in the Swiss Alps. Here Gilles aims at making a simple wine that truly expresses the grape’s spirit. On the palate, the wine is rich, lean, with notes of sour apple, lemon tea, so crisp and with a nice mineral acidity. It feels like you’ve just had a spoon of that Italian lemon ice cream your grandma would make, and just like that ice cream, all you can think of is the next spoon, or well, sip you’re craving for, to get that kick of freshness and aromas hit you once again.
That first Chasselas is a very gentle wine, not overstating anything, yet full of energy and one that will tell you everything if you dare paying attention. A nice, friendly young blond lady with freckles I could sit with for a longer chat...
Gilles has rolled himself another ciggie, the slight breeze is bringing the smokes towards me and it feels as if I can smell the vines. That expression, those aromas and flavors Gilles has been referring to. It’s all in there, in the vine, and all it wants is shout it out to us.
As I hold the bottle and take a closer look at the label, Gilles starts telling me what lies behind it. The text on the labels tells the wine’s story, with each new cuvée he tastes the wine and sees what it has to say, what comes to mind with the tasting. “All my labels have the same base, so if I want to come up with a new cuvée I don’t have to say ‘Fuck, I need new labels’, you see? And honestly they’re very recognisable, to me they’re as good as Marlboro, people remember them!” True, they do stand out, and I love Gilles’ simplistic approach, but let’s not fool anyone here, his labels are far from being simple and as I’m reading those few words on each of them, not only do I feel I do read what I just tasted but I also can’t help but thinking of what Pascal told me this morning, ‘the poet’...
On to Vin en Vérité, another 100% Chasselas but this one has been vinified in new barrels and yes, it’s got that vanilla nose, but not a vulgar one at all. Never before had he worked with new oak but he just felt like giving it a try. Chasselas and oak work very well together when done right and just like Hans-Peter, Gilles seemed to have mastered that craft. True thing, those notes brings you straight to Burgundy and by that, I mean you could easily mistake this wine for some Chassagne-Montrachet. The wood is beautifully integrated and you can feel that grape surely had something great to share and wasn’t going to let Mr. Oak steal the show here! It’s got this same crisp, those same fresh lemon notes as the first Chasselas, but with a more flinty caracter. The palate is marked by the slight tannins of some long infused lemon tea that you’ve left to cool down on the kitchen table. It’s a subtle wine, elegant, very civilized yet standing on its own two feet and open. “This wine, really, it’s pure pleasure, my blue-eyed boy from the last vintage…”. And just as he speaks, I have to look at the lake, at the Alps, and focus on Gilles’ laughter to be brought back here, all the way from Burgundy.
After these two ‘encounters’, I’m thinking how I’ve rarely had such white wines here in the Lavaux. A region where when it comes to Chasselas it’s all about bitterness, blandness and lack of interest, a region that’s not necessarily paying tribute to what can be achieved with the grape. But hey, maybe it’s just that no one cares to listen to the vines and to what they’ve actually got to say. Truth be told, I’ve also rarely met someone similar to Gilles before, someone that’s so passionate, so nicely philosophical, so touching and comforting. Naturally, his wines are just like him, or is it that he is like his wines? Whichever it is, 30 years of common life surely have put the two on the same tracks.
“You’ve got to work in the vineyard, that’s where it all really happens. The wine, at the end of the day, it’s just some memory of that place it comes from…”
Time to try some Muscat now. Gilles wants to show us what he means when he says the grape has to express itself and all that terroir talk is not what matters! The first sip, the wine takes us into a all new dimension indeed, it’s all marzipan and roasted almonds, the lees bring some cool haziness and vibrant color, the varietal notes on the nose aren’t aggressive at all. Once again the wine is crisp, energetic, poetic. “That. That’s life.” Well if that’s life here in the vineyard, overlooking the lake and the Alps, with these rich, comforting aromas, expect me to come move in, in a minute!
As we’re about to finish our glasses and quietly admiring the wine’s blurry, pale yellow color, Gilles remembers his time here as a young winemaker. Those nights spent drinking wine lees and watching the thunders during the storms with winemakers Jacques Petterat or Frédéric Fauquez, the masters who have taught him everything he knows. They both had their identity, their style and they were both fighting for their own thoughts and authenticity; for that simple idea of willing to do things well. That is what defines us as human beings; taking bits from all that’s around us, thousands of little things, from the people and our environment. One more puff and Gilles concludes “all those memories, all those signals, that’s what makes us, what defines us. Wine is no different.”
While discussing the role of sulfur in winemaking, a force you have to understand, master, and use carefully, Gilles opens the famous 2017 Hors-Série, that 'fantastic red wine'. The blend changes every year, and I’m expecting something different than that 2016 that got me hooked on his wines. On the first sip though, I am back to the same emotions I’ve had the last time. Maybe Gilles has seen my smile, maybe he just cares to explain anyway, “The point is ‘same emotions, different grapes’, different ingredients year on year, no recipe.” This year for instance Gilles has added some Nielluciu, a Corsican grape that he describes as very glou-glou, lively and chuggable. Right, music to my ears, let me chug that down. Indeed the wine delivers the exact same emotions, the fruit is banging, the energy great, the fresh dark berries aromas express themselves so purely it’s almost touching, and the herbal spiciness brings in an extra layer of complexity that sounds like the Corsican grape wanted to shout its mediterranean origins out loud. Now that’s some big gentleman I want to hang out all night, playing cards, throwing jokes, and overlooking the thunderstorms.
The smell of food brings me back to reality, Gilles’ guests have arrived, it’s time for us to move. I can’t believe two hours have passed so quickly.
We’ve smiled and laughed, we’ve talked and listened, we’ve shared impressions and memories. Gilles, through all those wines really has brought us together. Which is what wine is all about, a carrier of sharing, friendship, love and happiness. And I don’t know, maybe they’ve helped us define ourselves a little better too, understanding how we too are deeply rooted to where we come from.
Time to say goodbye, a warm hug replaces the first firm handshake and Gilles gives us the sweetest smile “Voilà! That’s what I had to say, just this. Time for lunch now, that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Eating and drinking, I cook like my mum and I do wine like my father…” Yes, that is what it’s all about really, and you can definitely say Gilles has gone full circle with life in the most beautiful way.
As we get going, I’m left with those thoughts echoing in my mind. What is “making” wine if not just listening to the grape and letting it express itself, helping it express itself, without ego, without unnecessary intervention, just letting things be and seeing what happens? What if it really is that simple in the end?
The breeze has pushed the clouds away, the sky is now bright blue and the sun is shining strong on the lake and the vineyard, I honestly could just move in here and spend my days discussing with the wines and the vineyard. But we have to go, and as we leave the estate, we’re left there, looking at the Léman, listening to the birds around us, feeling the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces in such a peaceful way. We can see how nature does it all so right, so well; why intervene? Why interfere?
Domaine Gilles Wannaz
La Tour de Chenaux, 1091 Chenaux, Switzerland
Thank you Pascal - Vins Vivants - for putting that amazing day together!