Sebastien David- The One Who Looks at Stars & Planets to Show Him How to Grow
Thank you Meghan Ivey for this post from Loire!
When we arrived at Sebastien David in St. Nicholas de Bourgueil the weather could not have been more beautiful. Spring had been a challenge for many all over France, and the Loire was no exception, with as much as 60-100 percent loss of certain parcels among producers in the area. Rain, hail, frost, you name it…they got it. Water was the issue. There was enough of it to cause problems with frost, but not enough of it to spray properly with copper. It would slide right off the grapes, and into the soil.
We arrived first at le Cave of Sebastien David, a fifteenth generation winemaker whose estate dates back to 1634, totaling 15 hectares of 35 to 100 year old Cabernet Franc. He farms organically, focusing heavily on bio-dynamics. He hasn’t added any sulfur to the vineyards or at bottling since 2007. Everything is picked meticulously by hand. For his flagship wine, Herluberlu he opts not to destem. “Picking the grapes is the most important part of the process for us,” he said, “and when you leave the stems on, they act as a natural preservative and antioxidant for the fermenting juice, creating an environment rich with microbial nutrients, after that, the rest is up to nature.”
And thus we marched, steadily yet slowly into the depths of the cave. It was to damp and humid to support any electricity in there, so our iPhones became a great resource at the time. Seeing all of the mold on the surrounding walls, I was beginning to understand how his wines could live so long in bottle on their journey to the states, without preservatives. We were surrounded by millions of microscopic particles of life. So much life that you could feel it, if you stood still long enough to tap into it. And Sebastien is the kind of guy who is “tuned in” to the feeling, admitting that intuition is a huge part of his practices. He also uses the cycle of the moon as his frame of reference for how “ready” and “open” his wines feel to him. And in fact, Herluberlu means, “one who looks at the stars and planets to show him how to grow” On a full moon, he says “the wines taste closed” almost hollow. On a newish moon, “the fruit becomes pronounced and expressive, they begin to open up.”
For Herluberlu he uses terra-cotta amphora and does a 25-day carbonic maceration. He uses some light pressing, when needed, but very little. The shape of his amphora are very critical to this process. The sediment, or lees, is at 0.3 degrees celsius at the middle of the vessel. From the center it spreads to the sides creating a natural cyclical movement. Then there’s this sort of harmonious partnership of two levels working together, because there is more surface area at the bottom, the lees have to work harder. The duo of wills creates a unique profile to the wine, which in essence is wracking itself. Nature on its own indeed. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
But this wasn’t always the case. In 1977, Seb’s father was approached by a chemical company, similar to Monsanto. They urged him to start using pesticides to produce more yields with less work. It seemed like the smart thing to do at the time. However, after a couple of decades, the vineyards began getting sick. They noticed they needed to add more and more stuff to the wine to initiate fermentation. He gave the analogy of an athlete on steroids. “They need more and more drugs to keep going strong”. He says it’s hardest on the wine at bottling. “The more pesticides a winemaker uses in the vineyard, the more sulfites they need to add to the wine at bottling. It becomes less resistant to oxidation at the end”. So in 1999 he started to go back to basics, back to experimentation, and a lot of trial and error. Somewhere out of this Herluberlu was born. His favorite word to explain this re-birth, was flexibility. What I interpret flexibility to mean for him is this. If you can be adaptive and open to the process, while staying centered in that inner voice of truth for you- then you’re really at the command of your own destiny. Nature can swing him anyway it wants to, because he will always know where home is.