Among the least consequential effects of the coronavirus presently upturning the world economy is that fresh reports in wine writing will become somewhat scarce. Few of us writing about wine are free to travel. This is perhaps not a bad thing, in the short term, for it forces us to spend more time considering the wines and winemakers we know, instead of rushing around to taste the never-ending onslaught of new vintages.*
One particularly mysterious wine that has stuck in my mind these past few years is the 2015 Vin de France “Roc Cab” by Anjou vigneron Sébastien Dervieux, also known as Babass. A blackberry-toned cabernet franc, at once aerial and forceful, it stands out from previous vintages as starkly as it does from those that have succeeded it. From 2011 – 2014 the wines were difficult, broody, often marked by intense volatility. Later vintages have tended brighter, cleaner, with a piquant, Huck Finn simplicity reminiscent of a good Brouilly. I used to order it often at La Cave du Paul Bert, taking care to verify the vintage each time. (Occasionally they’d open a 2014 by accident.)
Over lunch at his house in Beaulieu-sur-Layon last April, Babass explained that the wine derives from a 1ha parcel of old vines, planted around 1956 on the same well-sited plateau off the route de Rochefort. “What’s super is that it was already a vine selection that wasn’t too foolish at the time,” he said. “There’s less esca than in the young vines. And then, above all, the terrain was prepared by horse at that time.”
Even before I could mention my own admiration for the 2015 vintage, Babass’ companion Agnès Mallet (a longtime natural wine connoisseur who ran an early natural wine bistrot in Nantes) said it to him herself: “In 2015, you made the best cabernet I’ve ever drank.”
In 2015, said Babass, he switched to shorter macerations of 12-15 days, where formerly he’d conducted macerations of three to four weeks. (The wine, like all Babass’ wines, has never seen sulfite addition or filtration.) It’s vinified and aged in fiberglass tank.
“It’s never de-vatted according to the [sugar] density,” he said. “It’s always the tasting. I try to taste regularly. And I never de-vat when there’s a take-up of tannins. If there is, I wait until it softens.”
2015, of course, was an exceptionally hot, sunny vintage, which can yield positive results in cool regions like Anjou. But all the vintages since 2015 have been hot and sunny, too. I was only to the learn the true – and truly mysterious – reason for the success of the 2015 “Roc Cab” later that evening, as we tasted in Babass’ ramshackle old cellar (he has since moved to a larger premises in Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay) along with neighboring vignerons Kenji and Mai Hodgson and Richard Leroy. Someone mentioned the 2015 vintage again.
“I’ll never manage to do that again, unless it presents itself,” Babass began, somewhat cryptically.
It turns out that in 2015 there had occurred in Babass’ cabernet franc parcel a peculiar phenomenon, one impossible to replicate. Here’s how he explained it:
The day before, you say you’ll harvest tomorrow. The grapes are red. And the next day, they’re pink. In the night, they were attacked by botrytis. It happened in 2015. There was no actual botrytis yet, but the skin became translucent.
If I’d let it hang one more day, there would have been mycelium. That’s why there’s something incredible in 2015. This thing happened… It happened once before in 2003, with [the chenin parcel] “Navine.” Across the whole “Navine,” the grapes were pink. There wasn’t any rot. But the skin was pink. It’s a crazy thing. When I had the same thing on the cabernet in 2015, I said, “Oh, let’s go! Let’s go!”
Who could study something like that? It happens in one night. I think the site plays a role. It’s not frost-prone up there, that’s one thing that’s often said. But also this thing can happen up there.
You can having other things in other places that are great. But I’ve never seen a whole parcel elsewhere do something like that. And there I’ve seen it happen twice, once on white grapes and once on red.
I went on to do a few days of harvest work with Babass and Agnès last September. But I was only there for the chenin and the gamay. I didn’t witness any mystical pre-botrytis phenomena, sadly.
Another postscript to this anecdote: upon taking on the role of wine director at chef Bruno Verjus‘ Table Restaurant this past February, I was overjoyed to discover, amid the gigantic inventory of natural wine at the restaurant, a cache of bottles of 2015 “Roc Cab.” Naturally I wondered whether the magic had endured. I had the occasion to open a bottle following a surprise rapprochement with former Saturne chef Sven Chartier, who dined at the restaurant one evening. (We were able to move past my not-so-great history with his former partner.) Chartier stumped me by requesting I choose a second bottle. What do you choose for the chef of a restaurant once known for its unparalleled selection of cult natural wine? The obvious classics (Overnoy, Prieuré Roch, etc.) were out of the question. And I hadn’t been at Table long enough to place any orders of my own for less well-known things.
When someone gives me carte blanche to choose a bottle, I usually try to present a wine that has some personal significance. (It gives me and the client something pleasant to say, on the off chance the client doesn’t actually like the wine.) So I went with the 2015 “Roc Cab.” The wine had grown leaner and more crystalline with age, yet had lost none of its sappiness, its levitational quality, its keen berry fruit. It’s still transcendent, the result of a unique concatenation of circumstances, like the once-in-a-career chorus of The The’s 1983 hit “This Is The Day.” To my relief, Chartier agreed.
* Ashamed as I am to say it, this global crisis has been kind of a blessing for me. It’s left me no option but to knuckle down and write the natural wine book I’ve been researching full-time for the past year. (Not to mention the preceding decade of part-time research.) For now the book is scheduled to be released in the US in 2021 by Artisan Books. But who knows what the world will be like by then.
Les Vignes de Babass
Bert Celce’s 2016 visit chez Babass at Wine Terroirs.
Marissa A. Ross is also a big fan of the “Roc Cab.” In Bon Appetit, she compares to the wine to “Doris Day serenading with a big band.”