Ξ January 10th, 2014 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |
François Henry has a playful, inquisitive mind, industrious and driven. Couple this with a passion for Biology, Geology and History, often seen as rather dry sciences, and you have a foundation for creative cultural expression. During my recent visit to Domaine Henry in the small town of Saint Georges d’Orques outside of Montpellier, France, François revealed particularly vivid moments from his youth that have informed his intellectual development.
As a child of 7 he recalls a task given to him by his father, Jean; he was to descend to the family cellar beneath the house and fetch wine for the evening’s dinner. In near-darkness, down the steps he would go. Standing before a locked wooden door, the child reached up for a key hanging high. Through the door he passed, and through spider webs brushing across his face, reminding him that he was not alone. He then came to a second door beyond which sat barrels of wine. The boy then would fill a bottle. Asked why he did not take a candle or flashlight, François explained it was because he wanted to prove that he was a “brave little man”.
Flash forward a few years to the work he would do on holidays for pocket money. Though he had no interest in wine then – indeed, it was only the occasional Sunday meal, he recalled, when he would ask and be given small watered-down glass – François enjoyed working the family vineyards, first picking up pruning debris, then, when older, raking around the vines. Driving the family tractor would come later. The telling detail in this is the satisfaction he felt at earning his pocket money.
Another instructive story he told concerned what was hidden in the very ground beneath his feet. His father and grandfather told the story that while grubbing up a vineyard years earlier near Tressan, that they uncovered mysterious bones and skulls, all of which were subsequently reinterred. Just where was not revealed until François one day asked his father to show him the very field. Soon after, François could be found on Thursdays, then a weekly school holiday, out in this field with shovel and rake poking around in the dirt. And then one day it happened. Eureka! The young man, too, found bones and skulls. Though an anthropologist invited to examine the remains would determine them to be of limited historical importance, it was added that François had likely stumbled upon a Visigoth graveyard from the 4th Century. Among other fragments, he had found a figure buried face down, therefore likely a criminal according to the rituals of the time, and a crypt of a child. All the remains were promptly reburied but for a shard of painted pottery François kept for himself.
Though François Henry told many other stories during our extended visit, it is through these three pivotal memories from youth that I believe we can see a solid outline of the man and the winegrower he has now become. Indeed, wine growing would come later for him when, after a year’s college study of mixed success, his father invited him back home to realize a dream: to bottle their own family wine. And in 1977 they did, besting neighbor Chateau de L’Engarran by a year, a small family victory François still takes pride in having achieved.
But a formal wine-making education still eluded François, now in his 20’s. This was made extremely clear when his father, Jean, asked that he take a break from working the vineyard and to instead market their wines in Paris. He successfully sold to a few social clubs, but during tasting events found himself quizzed by the far more knowledgable Parisians as to the making of the wine, the grapes, on the technical aspects of vinification, questions he could not always answer. So began a period of focused self-education. Over time he visited numerous wineries both in his spare time and when driving the 10 hours to Paris and the 10 hours back. Alsace, the Loire, Burgundy, these regions and others he toured extensively, meeting with winemakers, who were then, in the late 1970’s, less celerities than salt-of-the-earth farmers. This he supplemented with reading, cover to cover (”A to Z”, as he put it) as many wine books as he could find, the first of which was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, published in 1967.
And so it was, step by step, that François Henry would eventually combine his industriousness, marketing skills, his creativity and intellectual acumen, into the founding, along with his energetic wife, Laurence, of their own Domaine Henry in Saint Georges d’Orques. This was in 1992. The town and location of the winery and vineyards were chosen not only with terroir in mind, but also because he discovered during historical research very significant praise of the high quality of the wines of Saint George d’Orques described in a 1787 travel and touring notebook kept by then-US Ambassador (and budding wine enthusiast) Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, 20 years later, in 1807, Jefferson, now President of the United States, again specifically mentions by name the quality of Saint Georges d’Orques wines and requested the relaxation of import taxes on them. (It is important to point out one detail. Wine was a less favored drink than hard liquor in those days, since so little of it commonly available was of particular quality or note. So part of Jefferson’s over-arching plan was to introduce finer wines to the American public as a way to combat the excessive abuse of higher alcohol drink. See T. Pinney, A History of Wine In America vol. 1)
The question for François then became what to do with this Jeffersonian heritage? The third President and principle author of the Declaration of Independence had visited many places and drank widely, after all. And Saint Georges d’Orques wines had maintained considerable fame since the Middle Ages to Jefferson’s time. Yet merely trading upon a place name would be of little consequence, a footnote, which is what it had largely become until François Henry hit upon what is in my view, a brilliant idea: What if you were to return to Jefferson’s era, to the time of his visit in southern France, by crafting a wine in the historical style of the period, and with the grapes then in common use? In other words, he asked whether it was possible to recreate a version of a Saint Georges d’Orques wine that Thomas Jefferson himself might have tasted. After extensive research in the historical archive, François and Laurence made another remarkable discovery, the names of the grape varieties which are said to have been widely grown for hundreds of years but have now almost entirely disappeared from the region, certainly as economically viable varieties: Aspirin noir and gris, noire and grise Oeillade, noir and gris Terret, Ribeyrenc and Morrastel.
Now, according to the magisterial text Wine Grapes, Ribeyrenc (spelled Rivairenc in the literature) is said to be “[a]ncient, once widespread, nearly extinct southern French vine. Better known as Aspiran Noir.” Oeillade Noire in the literature is described as “[d]isappearing, dark-skinned, southern French variety more popular as a table grape.” As for the tangle of names, the regional synonyms, and exhaustive DNA analysis, we can do little but trot out the old cliché, “More work needs to be done”. But as a practical matter, for Domaine Henry to realize the ambition of recreating a Jefferson-era wine, how could they possibly proceed, how to find the historically correct varieties? Enter the Institut national de la recherché agronomique (INRA) and their extensive holdings of Mediterranean grape varieties at Domain de Vassal. So from 1993 to 1998, François and Laurent painstakingly worked with the technicians at that facility, and in 1998 they successfully planted a mixed vineyard of these varieties.
The result is a blended wine called Le Mailhol (pronounced May-yol, from the ancient Oc language meaning ‘youthful or young vine’.) Buy it if you can. Domaine Henry is to be celebrated for not only resurrecting disappearing varieties – a matter close to my heart – but also for paying attention and respecting the winemaking history of the Languedoc. By no means is Le Mailhol an overly significant percentage of Domaine Henry’s income. The wine is not made every year. And the balance of Domaine Henry’s bottlings are made predominately of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, international varieties all. Still they have taken a financial risk to realize this grand historical experiment. My hat is off to them.
As to how the wine tastes, I was generously given a bottle of the 2009 vintage. I will supplement this post with tasting notes when I open the bottle on a very special occasion.
Thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance in the writing of this post.