Renown doesn’t shower down unbidden upon winemakers in the Côte Roannaise, a 200ha swathe of vineyards in the neglected hinterlands between the Beaujolais and the Auvergnat industrial center of Clermont-Ferrand. For Christophe and Géraldine Pialoux of Domaine du Picatier, who began making wine in 2007, the challenge was exaggerated by a pulverizing succession of rough vintages, which saw them sell off their bed-and-breakfast to get by.
Trouble began in 2011, with a dry vintage comparable to 2003, and continued with heavy hail in 2012. “Then in 2014 we frosted. In 2016, we frosted. 2017 was just catastrophic – big frost, even snow,” cites Géraldine, as we pace through the grassed-over vines surrounding their house in late July.
Yet the estate’s rocky years, I’ll soon realise, saw their wines transform from modest, affordable glass-pours to some of the most delicate, radically pure and affecting wines of the region, comparable, stylistically, to those of Romain des Grottes or Catherine Dumora and Manu Duveau. I’ll confess I didn’t see it coming. It had been a few years since I paid attention.
“We didn’t have much wine, so we went less to Paris these last few years,” Géraldine explains, as we enter a low-ceilinged space abutting their driveway, the couple’s storage room, which doubles as a tasting area.
There was a time around the turn of the last decade – when I was acclimatising to Paris, learning French, and first discovering the natural wine circuit – that I encountered the Pialoux and their wines fairly often. Christophe and Géraldine, earnest and diminutive, were invariably the most welcoming and unaffected of the vignerons at a given wine-tasting. They were perceptibly just happy to be there. Their wines, at the time, were never the grandest nor the most exciting bottles; rather they were sturdy, honest, and exceedingly well-priced.
Tasting their recent wines, I notice something has drastically changed.
“Until 2011, I worked with just a 2-gram sulfitage at the bottling,” explains Christophe Pialoux. “In 2012, since we had almost no wine, I added nothing. And 2013, it was the same, so we did the same…”
Christophe never returned to sulfite use in vinification. Five years ago he ceased using sulfur in the vines as well, and is experimenting with ways to eliminate copper treatment. This increasingly pure approach in the vines and the cellar now shines forth in the wines.
Most memorable on that day is a barrel sample of 2018 pinot noir, slightly Jurassien in profile, with a splendid vibrancy and intensity. The Pialoux’s 2018 “Auver Nat Noir” was destemmed and macerated for 1.5 months, with a delestage and pigeage. The Pialoux’s winery formerly served a domaine of 30ha, and is smartly laid out in such a way that the couple are able to avoid almost all pumping. In many their wines one senses the serenity that comes with carefully un-manipulated juice.
The pinot noir was harvested “when the grapes look like blueberries,” Christophe says – later than the gamay – and he attributes its comparatively easy fermentation to what he calls a greater yeast maturity. The couple’s 2018 gamay, conversely, harvested slightly earlier, before a late-season rainfall, had difficulty fermenting, and many tanks had not yet finished sugars.
“We discussed with quite a few winemakers, and in every dry year, we’ve all had big difficulties, whether it’s in the north or south,” Christophe says.
Where wines had trouble fermenting – as in the 2018 gamay, and a 2018 viognier from grapes purchased from a neighbour – a certain mousiness is detectable that day. Christophe is unperturbed, aware that his wines simply require time. In his experience, mousiness – or the perceptibility of mousiness – is something that comes and goes in wines. (I’ve found the same.)
“Making natural wine isn’t in the logic of the present day. Because in the logic of the present day, you take in the grapes, you bottle, you sell,” says Christophe. “With us, we bottle, and we wait. That’s what we do. When we esteem that we can sell our wine, we sell it.”
From bottle that day, the happiest wine was “Picatier Un Jour, Picatier Toujours,” a one-off blend of gamay, chardonnay, and pinot, born of the couple’s catastrophic 2017 vintage. “It’s a frost vintage, throughout France,” Christophe recounts. “We had almost no grapes. We harvested with three people, for eight hectares.”
The resultant co-fermented, majority gamay wine is crystalline, slender, brick-red, recalling Julien Guillot‘s similarly co-varietal “Cuvée 910,” but with a sprightly lift all its own. What we open downstairs, we finish at their kitchen table, over a meal of eggs from their chickens, potatoes they grew, roast pork from a neighbor’s farm.
Despite the occasional fermentation troubles, the Pialoux are pleased with 2018. They did yields of 15 hectolitres per hectare, a derisory intake by most winemakers’ standards, but a bounty after the succession of dastardly vintages the couple had endured. Their vines, rebounding after years of punishment, promise more for 2019.
Since 2011, the Pialoux practice a form of permaculture, in this case eschewing plowing and mowing for laying-down the grass, to trap humidity and promote an accumulation of organic matter. The estate comprises gamay, chardonnay, and pinot noir – 6ha, 1ha, and 1ha, respectively – on a span of thin-soiled, sandy granite slopes beside a creek northwest of the town of Roanne. The vines, ranging from 30 – 60 years of age, and are planted very wide (2m), a vestige of the region’s industrial winemaking history. “They were planted so the first harvesting machines could pass in the rows,” Géraldine explains. “We even had one here, it came with the domaine, but we got rid of it.”
The couple met during training as landscapers. Christophe later found work at Maison Drouhin, which took them to Burgundy for a decade. Repulsed by the chemical work being done at Drouhin, the Pialoux found mentors and kindred spirits in Burgundian natural winemakers Dominique Derain and his then-deputy, future-successor Julien Altaber. For Christophe, whose father was a mixed-agricultural milk farmer with some vines near Brioudes, in southern Auvergne, it was a rediscovery of natural wine.
“My father had all sorts of grapes,” Christophe recounts, refilling our glasses at the kitchen table. “He had hybrids – Clinton, Baco, etc. He made wine for the farm, to nourish himself. And he put nothing in it.”
Domaine du Picatier
Christophe & Géraldine Pialoux
A brief piece I wrote about the Pialoux after encountering the couple at the “Vive Les Vins Libres” tasting at Quedubon in 2011. My writing has changed somewhat since then.
A very early profile of the Pialoux by Richard Kelly. They hadn’t even managed to sell the harvesting machine that came with the domaine yet !
An agricultural “Kickstarter”-like call for donations, which the Pialoux released after the 2017 vintage. It contains a nice detailed description of the domaine’s working methods, authored by the couple themselves.