Interview with Domaine Fontavin

Hi Agathe, thank you for accepting to answer our questions. First, could you please introduce the Domaine Fontavin?
We are based in the south of the Rhone Valley. We are three ladies who are working in the domaine; Helène Chouvet, owner and winemaker; Pauline, our ex intern who oversees the sales and myself, have been working for the domain for 17 years as the Cellar Masters. Hélène is the 7th generation viticulturist in her family. We cover the appellations Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cotes du Rhone and Vin de France and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.


Mrs Hélène Chouvet Coton

Does the wine taste different when it’s made by ladies?
Female winemakers may have a different understanding. I’m not saying they are better but maybe their sensitivity leads to making wines with greater care. We are looking to make fine wines with all the possible care. However, we don’t want to make a specific feminine wine.

What are the characteristics of the Domain Fontavin?
Domaine Fontavin is a 40 ha vineyard with a family story. Helène’s father owned vines under the AOC Châteauneuf du Pape and her mother had vines in Gigondas whose appellation was created only in 1971, (they used to make some Cotes du Rhone before). Over time, it has expanded. We have been organic for 11 years, we can see some wild flowers again which had disappeared over time. Over the years, we have managed organic agriculture very well.

Could you please introduce your types of wine that we are distributing in the UK?

These 2 wines can be drunk very young:

  • Les Vignes de Jo Le ptit dernier de Fontavin, which is a Vin de Pays (2017 is a great vintage). Easy to drink, attractive, light. The Canadian people call this “vin de soif”. It’s not a beautiful expression, but it’s a good resume of the wine.
  • Les Vignes de mon Père 2017: It has a great balance of freshness with richness.

These wines can be kept for 10 years or more:

  • Vacqueyras « Il était une Fois » 2017. This is a wine with superb tannins and great length.
  • Gigondas « Combe Sauvages » 2017 is an elegant, very fine wine.
  • Châteauneuf du Pape, Cuvée Trilogie 2015. This is a great vintage. Châteauneuf du Pape cuvée Trilogie 2015 a year with many sunlight hours. This is a great wine, round, full bodied with a great length in mouth. This is a wine that we can drink now or lay down for the future.
  • Châteauneuf du Pape Rouge David et Goliath 2016. We are making this wine only when we have a great vintage. Very complex wine, powerful, cherry aromas, toasted notes. This is a wine for lovers of fine wine.
  • Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. It is a delicious sweet wine to drink fresh. You can keep this in the cellar for up to 10 years. Notes of beeswax, orange bark and banana. This wine is not only to be drunk for dessert.            

Would you expect a wine full of freshness to be found only in a cold year?
Not at all. We can have a very hot year and get a wine with great freshness. The freshness is due much more to the grapes, the resistance of the skin and the conditions of the vineyard.

Have you been concerned about the mildew in 2018, as in Provence?
Yes, specifically on the plain, where we lost 45% of our production in 2018. We will provide only 10,000 bottles of our Vin de France, Le Ptit Dernier de Fontavin and only 20,000 bottles about our Cotes du Rhone.       

In Provence, this is the contrary. AOC are more concerned by the mildew?
The soils are different, our soils are very rich in clay.

With global warming, we’re making stronger and more alcoholic wines. Do you think we’ll be able to make Cotes du Rhone Villages at 15%?    

We already make Gigondas or Châteauneuf du Pape at this level of alcohol, but on the smaller names I don’t know. We risk losing our balance. They don’t have the same structure. The appellations Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape are very rough wines, rich in flavonoids and polyphenols*.   
(*polyphenols (PP) are substances produced by the secondary metabolism of plants. They act as a support of the main organoleptic properties of wines. Anthocyanins and tannins are the most abundant polyphenols in grapes).

There is a big debate currently about the organic product. It’s better to drink a good conventional wine than a bad organic wine.  However, is it true that you can use some pesticides and coppers in your vines? Some of the vineyards refuse to be organic because they are scared to lose all their production if the weather is bad.
There is truth and there is falsehood. The first years of organic production are very difficult and actually, there is a risk of losing production. The reason is because the vines need some immune defence and it can take some time. But over time, the less we treat the vineyard, the more the it defends itself. Yields are of course lower, but we find ourselves having better quality. You cannot use chemicals or synthetic products, but the “Bouillie bordelaise” is authorised.

What is Bouillie Bordelaise?
It is a mixture of sulphur and copper powder diluted in water that is put on the leaves to remove the parasites. The product did not come into contact with the vine, just on the leaves so when it rains, the product is washed off and therefore falls on the soil. To prevent it from contaminating, a limit per hectare must be respected. The biological aspect requires a lot of work, mastery and reflection.

Have you ever thought to make some biodynamic wine*?
This is very demanding. It takes a lot of work! But we will think about it.     
*
Biodynamic wines are wines made employing biodynamic methods both to grow the fruit and during the post-harvest processing. Biodynamic wine production uses organic farming methods (e.g. employing compost as fertilizer and avoiding most pesticides) while also employing soil supplements prepared according to specialist formulas, following a planting calendar that depends upon astronomical configurations, and treating the earth as “a living and receptive organism”.

As an importer, we see an increase in the prices of our winegrowers’ bottles. This is in addition to the 3% increase in Duty and the drop in the exchange rate?        

The cost of the cork has increased considerably. This is a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. (There have been major fires in Portugal and many Liege oak have burned). The price of the bottle also went up. They have developed a lighter and more ecological bottle, less expensive but this one is not resistant enough. We didn’t get any good feedback.

Have you ever thought about the screw cap?
Not at all. We don’t imagine doing it.

In terms of packaging, have you recently changed your labels?
Yes, we wanted to make more figurative labels for each of our wines. Every wine has an history, their “raison d’être”, different origin and different terroir. We had very positive feedback, especially at the wine show in Paris.

More and more of you are getting into the crémant business. How do you explain that a sparkling wine can quickly lose its bubbles when it opens?      
Well, it depends how it was made. If it’s made using the Champagne method or if it was by addition of carbon dioxide. But I read some negative reviews about crémant in China. The bottles had been shaken in the transport by boat, when crémant is too agitated, all the gases can escape once the bottle is opened.

Each year you present your wines in competitions. Do you give importance to medals or wine reviews?
Medals don’t matter for direct sale, or in the cellar. We have a loyal customer base that recognizes our quality. On the other hand, in markets and in organic shops, medals are important. We got a very good rating from Decanter on our Gigondas. Excellent value for money.

On a personal level, what is your best memory of the estate?
Once I woke up at 3 o’clock to make the mutage of the Muscat at 3.30 am. At the time we did not have the technique to manage the fermentation of the Muscat during the day.        

What do you think about natural wine or wine without sulphite?
I had the opportunity to drink 3 natural wines, and 2/3 disappointed me. These are wines that for me have lost their noble notes. As for wines without sulphites, there are a lot of negative reviews – they are fashionable. The same goes for vegan wines, I don’t think these wines are long term.           

What are the ambitions of Domaine Fontavin?      
We are constantly innovating, we made a crémant for the first time – we always have projects in mind. We hope to have a good harvest to innovate. We will try to make longer vats on our Châteauneuf du Pape. We also decided to warm our tanks, and in the end, we were happy with the results – it gave us well-mastered bottles.           

Do you do wine tourism?
      

Yes, we receive groups when we can.

Agathe, thank you very much for your time and all your answers to our questions. It was very interesting.         
It was a pleasure. Please feel free to come back to me if you have any further questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Does the wine taste different when it’s made by ladies?
Female winemakers may have a different understanding. I’m not saying they are better but maybe their sensitivity leads to making wines with greater care, which we’re not necessarily looking to do.     

What are the characteristics of the Domain Fontavin?
Domaine Fontavin is a 40ha vineyard with a family story. Helène’s father owned vines under the name Chateauneuf du Pape and her mother had vines in Gigondas whose appellation was created only in 1971, (they used to make some Cotes du Rhone before). Over time, it has expanded. We have been organic for 11 years, we can see some wild flowers again which had disappeared over time. Over the years, we have managed organic agriculture very well.

Could you please introduce your types of wine that we are distributing in the UK?

These 2 wines can be drunk very young:

  • Le Petit Dernier de Jo, which is a Vin de Pays (2017 is a great vintage). It has a great balance of freshness with richness.
  • Les Vignes de mon Père 2017. Easy to drink, attractive, light. The Canadian people call this “vin de soif”. It’s not a beautiful expression, but it’s a good resume of the wine.

These wines can be kept for 10 years or more:

  • Vacqueras « Il était une Fois » 2017. This is a wine with superb tannins and great length.
  • Gigondas « Combe Sauvages » 2017 is an elegant, very fine wine.
  • Châteauneuf du Pape, Cuvée Trilogie 2015. This is a great vintage. Chateauneuf du Pape cuvée Trilogie 2015 a year with many sunlight hours. This is a great wine, round, full bodied with a great length in mouth. This is a wine that we can drink now or lay down for the future.
  • Châteauneuf du Pape Rouge David et Goliath 2016. We are making this wine only when we have a great vintage. Very complex wine, powerful, cherry aromas, toasted notes. This is a wine for lovers of fine wine.
  • Muscat de Beaume de Venise. It is a delicious sweet wine to drink fresh. You can keep this in the cellar for up to 10 years. Notes of beeswax, orange bark and banana. This wine is not only to be drunk for dessert.
              

 

Would you expect a wine full of freshness to be found only in a cold year?
Not at all. We can have a very hot year and get a wine with great freshness. The freshness is due much more to the grapes, the resistance of the skin and the conditions of the vineyard.

Have you been concerned about the mildew in 2008, as in Provence?
Yes, specifically on the plain, where we lost 45% of our production In 2018. We will provide only 10,000 bottles of our IGP Le Petit Dernier de Fontavin and only 20,000 bottles about our Cotes du Rhone.          

In Provence, this is the contrary. AOC are more concerned by the mildew?
The soils are different, our soils are very rich in clay.

With global warming, we’re making stronger and more alcoholic wines. Do you think we’ll be able to make Cotes du Rhone Villages at 15%?    

We already make Gigondas or Chateauneuf du Pape at this level of alcohol, but on the smaller names I don’t know. We risk losing our balance. They don’t have the same structure. The appellations Gigondas and Chateauneuf du Pape are very rough wines, rich in flavonoids and polyphenols*.   
(*polyphenols (PP) are substances produced by the secondary metabolism of plants. They act as a support of the main organoleptic properties of wines. Anthocyanins and tannins are the most abundant polyphenols in grapes).

There is a big debate currently about the organic product. It’s better to drink a good conventional wine than a bad organic wine.  However, is it true that you can use some pesticides and coppers in your vines? Some of the vineyards refuse to be organic because they are scared to lose all their production if the weather is bad.
There is truth and there is falsehood. The first years of organic production are very difficult and actually, there is a risk of losing production. The reason is because the vines need some immune defence and it can take some time. But over time, the less we treat the vineyard, the more the it defends itself. Yields are of course lower, but we find ourselves having better quality. You cannot use chemicals or synthetic products, but the “Bouillie bordelaise” is authorised.

What is Bouillie Bordelaise?
It is a mixture of sulphur and copper powder diluted in water that is put on the leaves to remove the parasites.  It doesn’t go into the soil of the vineyard, just on the leaves so when it rains, the product is washed off and therefore falls on the soil. To prevent it from contaminating, a limit per hectare must be respected. The biological aspect requires a lot of work, mastery, reflection and time to meet tough specifications to obtain this certificate.     

Have you ever thought to make some biodynamic wine*?
This is very demanding. It takes a lot of work! But we will think about it.     
*
Biodynamic wines are wines made employing biodynamic methods both to grow the fruit and during the post-harvest processing. Biodynamic wine production uses organic farming methods (e.g. employing compost as fertilizer and avoiding most pesticides) while also employing soil supplements prepared according to specialist formulas, following a planting calendar that depends upon astronomical configurations, and treating the earth as “a living and receptive organism”.

As an importer, we see an increase in the prices of our winegrowers’ bottles. This is in addition to the 3% increase in Duty and the drop in the exchange rate?        

The cost of the cork has increased considerably. This is a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. (There have been major fires in Portugal and many Liege oak have burned). The price of the bottle also went up. They have developed a lighter and more ecological bottle, less expensive but this one is not resistant enough. We didn’t get any good feedback.

Have you ever thought about the screw cap?
Not at all. We don’t imagine doing it.

In terms of packaging, have you recently changed your labels?
Yes, we wanted to make more figurative labels for each of our wines. Every wine has an history, their raison d’être, different origin and different terroir. We had very positive feedback, especially at the wine show in Paris.

More and more of you are getting into the crémant business. How do you explain that a sparkling wine can quickly lose its bubbles when it opens?      
Well, it depends how it was made. If it’s made using the Champagne method or if it was by addition of carbon dioxide. But I read some negative reviews about crémant in China. The bottles had been shaken in the transport by boat, when crémant is too agitated, all the gases can escape once the bottle is opened.

Each year you present your wines in competitions. Do you give importance to medals or wine reviews?
Medals don’t matter for direct sale, or in the cellar. We have a loyal customer base that recognizes our quality. On the other hand, in markets and in organic shops, medals are important. We got a very good rating from Decanter on our Gigondas. Excellent value for money.

On a personal level, what is your best memory of the estate?
Once I woke up at 3 o’clock to make the mutage of the Muscat at 3.30 am. At the time we did not have the technique to manage the fermentation of the Muscat during the day.        

What do you think about natural wine or wine without sulphite?
I had the opportunity to drink 3 natural wines, and 2/3 disappointed me. These are wines that for me have lost their noble notes. As for wines without sulphites, there are a lot of negative reviews – they are fashionable. The same goes for vegan wines, I don’t think these wines are long term.           

What are the ambitions of Domaine Fontavin?      
We are constantly innovating, we made a crémant for the first time – we always have projects in mind. We always hope to have good harvest to innovate. We will try to make longer vats on our Châteauneuf du Pape. On the other hand, we got the cellar warmed up a little bit (our oenologist wasn’t very happy with us) but in the end, it gives us well-mastered bottles.

Do you do wine tourism?
      

Yes, we receive groups when we can.

Agathe, thank you very much for your time and all your answers to our questions. It was very interesting.         
It was a pleasure. Please feel free to come back to me if you have any further questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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