Thierry de Marne hails from Champagne where he owned the De Marne-Frison winery. He eventually decided to move to the South of France because: “For one thing: I wanted a warm place to work comfortably. No more rain and no more frost for a change.” Before Thierry took over, the Domaine de Ventajou (named after a nearby abandoned hamlet) had been passed down from generation to generation for as long as anyone can remember and all the grapes were sold to the local coop. In 2003, the original proprietor passed away and his kids decided not to continue. So, in quick succession, followed a couple of owners who focused their attention primarily on the Bed & Breakfast side of the business.
Thierry finally purchased it in 2013 and converted to organic farming. He now owns 3Ha of old vine Carignan on top of the hill and 3 Ha (divided in numerous plots) of Syrah and Grenache near the village of Felines-Minervois. Organic conversion was easy since the vineyard has always been cultivated traditionally, without herbicide. Thierry does not use any anti-odium treatments, only Sulphur. All the treatments are done manually with the help of a 40 lbs. back pack sprayer! He does this once a week at least on the Carignan.
As for the cellar, Domaine de Ventajou must be one of the world’s smallest wineries. Tanks fit in to the millimeter and Thierry had to saw a couple of beams to fit the main tanks (he only has 300 Hl of total storage space in 6 tanks.) He must work with fiber glass because no one could bring up heavy concrete ones up the twisting dirt road that leads to Ventajou. The Cellar was built on the flank of the mountain so temperature always remains around 68 degrees and volumes are so tiny that there’s no need for temperature control systems.
Everything is picked in small 44 lbs boxes by a crack team of workers: Thierry and Sandrine of course, but also local retirees who have worked vineyards their entire lives and who are thrilled to help the young couple. This means there’s zero need for sorting at the winery since only clean fruit is picked. Above all, what Thierry wants is: “Fruit, clean, fresh fruit”. For this reason, all the reds undergo Carbonic maceration (and it’s convenient given the very limited amount of space).
He Presses 3 or 4 weeks after picking and bottles early September before the next vintage. So2 starts in December with 20 mg and that is also adjusted at bottling (total sulfites never goes about 40). Fermentation is always spontaneous with no ‘pied de cuvée’. He does an erafflage in the tanks with 200 gallons to be safer (to make sure fermentation starts) but short of adding sulfites and re-yeasting the must, there will always be a risk. Alcoholic fermentation is never an issue but very often, Malolactics wil happen at the same time. There is no filtering nor fining, just a couple of rackings in winter and that’s really it.
As per Thierry, Adapting from Champagne was fairly easy since “there is not much to do with fermenting the reds in this part of France since we’re going to bring in ripe grapes no matter what. You just have to be patient. But in a vintage like 2015 you can easily get too excited and go too far. But coming from Champagne, having ripe fruit was a really nice change. The only issue is that very ripe fruit is difficult to control, especially when you are working only with indigenous yeasts.”
The vineyards lower in the Valley are Cru Minervois La Livinière and the ones near the winery fall within the AOC Minervois (anything above 1,000 feet cannot be La Livinière). But that doesn’t really matter since Thierry bottles everything as Vin de France (with spontaneous fermentation, it’s not as if his wines are ever going to pass the AOC tasting panel anyway). He does not blend “You should use blending only to climb higher, not to hide defects. But very often in the region, it’s used for that purpose” So, he bottles only mono varietals and single vineyards. “If I feel I can improve a wine by blending, then I will. That’s also what I did in Champagne.”
The terroir is mostly clay at the bottom the hill, but contains a lot of schist higher up where the Carignan vines are located. The Syrah are 15 years on average, the Grenache 25 and the Carignan 60. The yields are a ludicrous 15 Hl/Ha on average with some vineyards yielding as little as 10Hl… There are no neighbors so no chance of drift.
About choosing Ventajou of all places (and it’s hard to overstate the remoteness of the winery): “I looked on the Internet and I saw the picture of this terrace, and yes the pool, and it certainly peaked my interest. I was looking in Limoux and thought about making bubbly again but I did not find anything suitable. I also looked around Perpignan but this… this is an incredible site, and I can work it completely alone.” On that note, Thierry has zero plans to expand as he is an adept of negative growth “The less money you have, the less you spend. It’s the opposite of Champagne where you invest a lot but must spend a lot. I have no machines, no employees, just the SO2 to pay for. I have a cutter, a sprayer and that’s pretty much it. I even bottle and label myself. All that I must pay for are bottles, labels, corks and the analysis of the wines in winter. Once the real estate is paid for, you have no cost and you live differently… I just don’t want it to grow beyond the current size. You know, when I left Champagne I knew I wanted to live differently.”
Thierry’s path to organic farming was especially interesting: “I was certified organic in Champagne, but I haven’t taken that step yet here. But in any case, when you make wines with minimal sulfites, you must have raisins that are fairly bullet proof and you can’t do that with conventional fruit. When I came out of school, my very first job was as a salesman for a chemical company. I did it for 3 years and that, more than anything else, convinced me that the conventional route doesn’t work”. And when asked about Agriculture Raisonée: “Organic viticulture is the logical end game of “agriculture raisonée”. Because the more you “reason”, the more you find that chemicals are indeed dangerous… so the less you want to use them. For instance, in Champagne, there is very little odium, yet vineyards are treated for it everything 15 days although it’s not even necessary! Same thing here. Yes, I have a few plants with mildew but I still don’t feel that should treat.” When asked if there should be a certification for natural wines: “There’s purposely no definition for natural wines for the reason that large companies want a definition so they can capitalize on it. The only real definition of natural wines is the taste… That can’t be duplicated. Zero defect does not exist in Natural wine.”