We caught up with Jean-Philippe and Jean-Guillaume aka the Bret Brothers, owners of Domaine de la Soufrandière and their eponymous negociant in the Mâconnais. It was a week when France was much in the news due to destructive frosts in Chablis, but also as far south as the Rhone. So our first question was how were their vineyards, had the frosts hit them in Mâconnais?
J-P “Yes, it’s difficult to say how much at the moment, between 20-80% damage over the last two nights: the first was minus four degrees with high winds, the next was minus six with no wind. The first night the damage was on the slopes, the second night the damage was at the bottom of the slopes. Fighting frost is difficult, some people use candles, some people use big fans to move the cold air from the bottom of the slopes, the results aren’t great for either. Candles can work when the temperature isn’t too low, but it was so low. The vines we pruned late resisted more than those we pruned at the beginning of the winter.
“For La Soufrandière we counted about 40% of lost buds, we still have 60% so we’re quite lucky, some neighbours have lost more.
“Maybe this is something we need to think about for the future. Everybody knows it’s better to prune late, but because of global warming we often get bud break in March, so we have to find a compromise between pruning late but not too late. We used to say the best time was March, but with climate change we often have 25 degrees. The buds can be quite big and fragile, so when you strip the old canes you can destroy the buds”.
J-G added: “The best time now is between St Vincent’s Day (22 January) to mid-March”.
An education in organics
J-G “We grew up near Paris [their grandparents didn’t work their vineyards] but spent our holidays in the Macon area fishing, picking mushrooms, and we developed a strong connection with nature in the area. But it was a long project to start making wine. We studied in Burgundy and worked in different parts of France and also in California”. JG worked at Newton in Napa and JP at Ridge Lytton Springs.
J-P “We were lucky to intern with some vignerons who are now really famous, at the time they were staring Demeter Biodynamic methods. We still have a connection with Dominique Lafon, I was an intern with him in Mersault from 1998-99. He had been experimenting with organics and biodynamics since 1995, it wasn’t so common then. 25 years ago most people used herbicides, and most people machine harvested in the Mâconnais. We wanted to stop this to get life into the soil.
“If you kill everything in the soil, you don’t have terroir anymore! You’ll have Chardonnay that grows on something mineral, but no connection between that mineral and the plant.
“Organic life is the link between them – worms, bacteria, fungus and insects – if you kill the grass the insects won’t have any food, they’ll die as well. So our priority was to work with a system that preserved life in the soil. We’ve been working with organics and biodynamics since the beginning, and were certified organic in 2006”.
At wine school they were told organic farming didn’t work, wasn’t efficient. J-P: The organic way works, but it needs more humans in the vines, less machines and chemicals.
“We spend more than 80% of our time in the vines”.
J-G “Our first vintage was 2000. We had two family properties around Vinzelles, 4ha from our father’s family and 1.5ha from our mother’s family. This wasn’t enough for both of us to work on so in 2001 we set up the negoce (Bret Brothers), we only buy organic grapes, that we harvest ourselves from 8-9ha in Mâconnais and Beaujolais”.
Winemaking and the question of sulphites
They make multiple cuvees across both projects, but the winemaking is consistent: handpicking, natural yeasts, a low quantity of sulphites (for biodynamic cuvees up to 19mg/l for others up to 50mg/l).
J-P “We’ve put something in the head of people, of vignerons, that to protect your wine you need to add sulphites, but this is like medicine”. They have the same philosophy for their farming. “We have grass among the vines, we don’t fight against the grass we work with it. [In the winery] we work with oxygen, we don’t fight against it. In California where I worked people were afraid of oxygen: the presses were under nitrogen; hoses (spurged with) nitrogen; the tank with argon.
“If the juice never sees oxygen, all the potential molecules which are sensitive to oxygen are still in the wine. This is like a bomb! And to avoid an explosion you add sulphites.
“We don’t add any sulphites during pressing, maybe 10mg under the presses, this means the juice oxidises and becomes brown. We leave it to settle for 12 hours after pressing (débourbage in French) and the oxidised molecules settle at the bottom of the tank. All that could be oxidised has oxidised during this operation”.
Since 2014 they have experimented with using lower levels of sulphites, when they open these bottles they have found the evolution to be good. And they find their wines are generally stable if opened for 2-3 days. J-G says that you need to have a good balance in the vineyard, a good balance on pH vs. maturity means they can work with low levels of sulphites.
A team approach
J-P – “Today we have 10 people working full time at La Soufrandière and Bret Brothers, farming 12 hectares and 9ha through the negoce, that means one person for 1.5 hectares. Our neighbours who farm in a ‘conventional way’ have one person for 10 hectares. We spend time bud rubbing, looking after the canopy to avoid rot. Thanks to that care you can use a very small quantity of sulphites”.
The whole team is involved in the biodynamic process. “For us biodynamics is the quality of the wine, respect for the environment, but also the human dimension. People dream of having big machines like robots to reduce costs, but where is the place of the human?
“I don’t dream of an agriculture of only machines for tomorrow”.
At the end of the Zoom JP took us out to the Les Quarts vineyard, which is next to their house and winery, and showed us the view over the Bresse Plain towards the Jura. En route we met, and waved to, several members of the vineyard and office team, as well as Cheyen the vineyard dog. This is clearly a project built on people and passion, and that really shows through in their exciting vibrant range of wines.
Read more about the wines from Domaine de la Soufrandière.
Read more about the wines from Bret Brothers