Jean-Christophe Comor on Natural Rosé Vinification

Jean-Christophe Comor

In early July I decided on the spur of the moment to join the Native Companion for an evening in the Provençal seaside town of Hyères, where she’d gone for work. The sojourn presented a fine occasion to follow up on my recent chat with Var natural winemaker Jean-Christophe Comor, who I’d run into at the Côteaux Varois AOC 25th Anniversary party back in late May. His 15-hectare domaine in La Roquebrussanne is just a 45 minute drive north from Hyères.

I’ve bought Comor’s wines for several restaurant wine lists in Paris over the years, having initially made his acquaintance at various tasting salons. As a vigneron, he cuts a peculiar figure: owl-eyed, eloquent, slightly hunched, he’s a former souverainiste politician and law professor who renounced politics in 2002 to make natural wine in the Côteaux Varois.

Today his idiosyncratic range of wines – 11 cuvées in all – includes highlights like the lightly-macerated, foudre-aged carignan blanc “Analepse” and a suavely powerful Bandol bearing the silly pun “L’Amourvèdre.” But I have a special fascination with Comor’s two natural rosés, simply because the category itself has grown so scarce in the present era of ultramodern colour-corrected Provençal Stepford-Wife rosé. In the cellar of his beautiful newly-constructed cuverie – built from local stone along the same foundations as an ancient sheepfold – we discussed what it means to produce natural rosé in Provence today.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

NDP: Tell us about your Bandol Rosé, “La Chance.” 

JCC: This is grenache-cinsault-mourvèdre. I vinify in [the cellars of Château] Pibarnon, because in Bandol you have to vinify within the appellation. I don’t have a cellar there yet. It’s from a parcel called “La Chance,” which is above Domaine Ott [Château Romassan], when you go up to Le Castellet. It’s a rosé that does the malolactic. It isn’t yeasted. It’s got 2g of added sulfur. It’s plate-filtered. 

I do rosés in a way that is a little particular. I’m one of the only ones, we can say, in Provence who really doesn’t yeast. I say really because there are some who don’t yeast one tank but yeast all the rest, which serves no purpose. 

How do you make a natural rosé? 

In rosés, you have to take a lot of care with the débourbage. If you débourbe too much, you lose the fermentable material, so there needs to be a big coherence from the start. 

From the moment we harvest, we’re not going to débourbe violently, we’re not going to stabilize violently, we’re not going to fine at the moment of débourbage, like most do in the more technological methods. Which is understandable because they’re going to yeast instead, so they clean the milieu to create another one. Globally the idea of the oenologue is to pull at the grapes as soon as it’s in the harvest case, to try to eliminate it. Because everything that’s alive is quite anguishing to the oenologist. I understand! The alive is the unknown. 

We harvest during the day, in the morning. I cannot harvest at night. The people who say they harvest at night by hand, it’s foolishness. I tried. It doesn’t work. People cut their hands, etc. So it’s day. It’s hot. I don’t need to macerate, I figure. Already it’s too hot. I press with the stems. To have a more delicate press. It works like a filter.

Then I débourbe. We put it in a tank and I descend to 14° or 13°. I try to settle everything dirty, the earth and all. But I’m not obsessive about it because I don’t want to kill the yeasts. When you make a wine with fining agents and yeast, you have to débourbe very violently. And clarify violently, so you truly ruin the wine. There’s nothing left but sugar and water. That’s not my idea at all.

The problem is that it becomes complicated. When it doesn’t rain, like last year, there’s not a lot of assimilable nitrogen. The yeasts work less quickly. You have to pray. And my fermentation isn’t at 15° like most do. I leave it between 18° and 22°. I’m not afraid. You can’t be afraid with rosé.

Why the decision to filter? 

I’m obliged to, if you like. The wines does 90 days of fermentation. It’s very, very long. The malolactic is done before the [alcoholic fermentation]. Honestly, it’s very complicated. For me, to make natural rosé, it’s truly the hardest thing to do. That’s why no one does it. It’s not by chance. It’s infernal. 

And I work with the awareness that we have certain market imperatives. For rosé, there’s still a market that makes it need to leave for the USA or Canada in January. It must be ready. We can’t permit ourselves to have wines that referment in May, etc. 

The only concession that I make is the filtration. Because it’s a young wine, it hasn’t deposed well. Sometimes I bottle magnums without filtration for myself, just to see. It’s interesting. But sometimes we have reduction that comes the year after. Because there are still yeasts remaining.

Your other rosé, the Côteaux Varois en Provence “L’Apostrophe” – it’s made the same way? 

In life, [winemakers] will tell you everything and the opposite to explain why they can’t do something. People will say, “Well, you know, for the rosé, I’m not in organic.” Or, “I overproduce for the rosé,” or “I don’t.”

Very honestly, to not get twisted in the head, it’s better to do everything the same way. I apply a principle, and I do it everywhere. I harvest by hand everywhere. I don’t do things by half. Everything is in organics. Everything is hoed. That way I don’t wear myself out with making distinctions.

What’s wrong with the market of Provençal rosé today?

They’re making a beverage, you know. It’s dangerous in the end. The rosé has become, for the winemakers of Provence, a technique. This technique starts to take precedence over the vigneron, over the terroir. Since rosé has become a technique, they’re going to make rosé anywhere in the world and it’ll be the same. Grenache, cinsault, the same technique. We don’t realise it yet.

We should let the winemakers try to develop rosés of terroir . I see that even in Bandol there are some winemakers who start to pose questions. [Château] Pibarnon now makes a rosé de garde that is released in September. [Château] Pradeaux, the same. That’s rather a good sign, because people are saying to themselves, “We make a good living, but is it interesting? And eventually will we lose it?”

Domaine Les Terres Promises
83136 La Roquebrussanne
Tel: 09 64 45 12 72

RELATED LINKS

An excellent 2009 summary of Jean-Christophe Comor’s former political career and his transition into winemaking in Le Monde.

Bertrand Celce’s characteristically detailed account of two 2012 visits to Jean-Christophe Comor at Wine Terroirs.

An account of a brief 2013 visit to Jean-Christophe Comor by Jean-Hughes Bretin at On Boit Quoi Ce Soir.