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A beautiful harvest at Ampelidae

A beautiful harvest at Ampelidae

Frédéric Brochet's dedication and flair have revitalised the ancient reputation of the Haut-Poitou as a fine wine producing region, and he is producing excellent organic wine from his estate in Marigny-Brizay...


Look into the distance from the southfacing slopes of the vineyard and you can see the historic town of Poitiers. which gave its name to one of the most seminal battles in Western European history when the Franks defeated a Moorish army from Spain in 732AD. Just a little in front of it you can make out the gleaming modernity of the high-tech Futuroscope theme park. All in all, it's an appropriate setting for an organic winemaker who combines the latest wine making and marketing techniques with trying to restore the reputation of a wine region to its medieval heyday.

The man is question is Frédéric Brochet who, through his company Ampelidae. has been making wine at Manoir de Lavauguyot in Marigny-Brizay for more than a decade. In purely administrative terms this is the north of the Vienne department. but in wine-making terminology we're in the Haut-Poitou, the northern boundaries of the Poitou-Charentes region. Nowadays this area has a modest reputation in viticulture, but it was not always so.

The slopes around the manoir are blessed with a variety of poor soils that are paradoxically ideal for vine growing and which, many hundreds of years ago, produced some of the better-known wines in France. “People here in the 11th century made a lot of wine. The golden age was probably the early Middle Ages when the climate was a little hotter than now, during what they call the Little Optimum. We had the chance to produce great wines at that time because it was warmer." says Frédéric.


The local wine trade fell into long-term decline, however, partly because the climate cooled again, and partly because the region itself lost political influence and was ravaged by wars. By the 18th century the Haut-Poitou wines had lost their fine name. Frédéric Brochet believes that there is also a more human reason why the wines fell out of favour over the centuries ... The local people. my ancestors, did not believe in it enough or they made the wrong choices so they didn't maintain the reputation of the wine," he says. Frédéric, however, is determined to do something about that, and insists the area can produce wines that match or surpass those of the Loire. "We have great soils here. We are slightly drier and also hotter as we are south of the Loire. It's just a question of the location, the investment- and the human factor."

In Frédéric's case the human factor burns brightly. Though his angular frame and glasses give him an academic air, he has winemaking running through his veins. Born in Poitiers in 1972 - "a bad year for wine" - he spent many of his childhood weekends at a cottage just down the road that belonged to his grandmother. Attached to the little house was half a hectare of vines, the last surviving remnant of the seven-hectare vineyard once owned by his great grandfather. It was on this small parcel of family heritage that the young Frédéric first cultivated his passion for viticulture. "I remember making my first wine bottle label in 1983. It was with a stencil," he recalls. "I remember making the wine all by myself in 1990," he continues. "Wine was part of our family roots." His father Christian, a scientist, also clung to dreams of one day retiring to spend more time with the family vines. "And I grew up with that dream." admits Frédéric.


First, however, he had to complete his education. A bright pupil, he studied geology and biology before taking a Masters in microbiology and plant physiology - a useful background for someone seeking to understand the complex molecular combinations that help turn mere grape juice into one of the most highly-prized and sophisticated drinks on the planet. But the final stage in Frédéric's wine education came not in France, nor in a laboratory; but thousands of miles way in Australia. It was there in 1993 that the French student attended a university at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales as part of his Masters, studying chemical processes in wine. "This was a time when many French people looked down their noses at Australian wine," he says. "For them, Australia was a land of kangaroos where they made undrinkable wine." Frédéric Brochet quickly understood differently, but what struck him was not just the quality of Australian wine, but the attitude of those who made it. And in particular the people he met from Penfolds, once a small family concern that had gone on to become one of the best-known wine producers in the world.

"What I learned in Australia was to believe in the wine you produce and to believe that you can achieve very good wines anywhere if you have the will,'' says Frédéric. "It's the Australian way and it opened my eyes. After a couple of months I returned from Australia and told my father that I really wanted to build something because I believed in our wines,' says Frédéric. "I joked that I wanted to become the French Penfolds."


Certain now that winemaking was his Future, Frédéric set up his company Ampelidae - ampelos is Greek for vine - in 1995, even before he owned any vines or grapes with which to produce a single bottle. In the following year came his family's big break a chance to buy the old Manoir de Lavauguyot at Marigny-Brizay, right next to his family's tiny plot. 'We jumped at it, even though it was very hard because we were short of cash," recalls Frédéric. They were even able to incorporate the family's existing half hectare into the new estate. "We take very good care of that half hectare, because of its history," he says with a smile.

Since 1996 Frédéric, his family, business partners and staff have been devoted to expanding the business and producing top quality organic wine. In addition to the estate's own 17 hectares of vineyards they cultivate 30 hectares of vines belonging to his father and neighbours and also buy in grapes from 60 to 70 hectares owned by other producers. The amount they produce depends on the year; but in 2006 they produced nearly 30,000 cases -just under 360,000 bottles.

One of the many skills in producing great wine is selecting the right grapes to go with the soil types. In the case of the Manoir de Lavauguyot they have three soils. The land at the bottom of the hill is rich in limestone, similar to what one might find in the Saint Emilion area of the Bordeaux wine region, making it suitable for Cabernet grapes and some Sauvignon varieties. Further up, the soil has heavy clay content. "This is more of a Burgundy type soil, making it good for Pinot noir and Chardonnay varieties," says Frédéric. At the top the soil is flinty and Sandy, similar to that found in the Pouilly-Fumé producing areas of the Loire, and where Sauvignon Blanc grapes are grown. The varieties of soils and grapes ensure that Ampelidae produces a full range of wines, from sparkling to reds, from white to rose. Unlike some other producers, Frédéric Brochet does not blend his grape varieties, except for the rose. "I always think that each grape variety should have the chance to express its own particular taste,” he says.


Viticulture has its own rhythm. Pruning takes place in winter when the vines are dormant, growth starts in spring and the harvest begins in September. Once picked, the grapes are pressed and the liquid gathered, while any remaining bits of stalk or material are removed in a decanting process known as 'racking'. The 'racked' juice is then fermented, in concrete, steel or sometimes wood, until the fermentation process is complete -this normally takes about a month.

Usually the wine is then aged, though an exception is the very young wine that is drunk in October, immediately after fermentation. This is 'Blanc d'Hiver' or winter white. "It's somewhere between grape juice and wine," says Frédéric. Most of the wine, though, is aged in containers; this is the process that produces the depth and richness of flavour of the wine. Some of the best-quality reds may be aged for as long as two years in barrels. The techniques of making wine are practically identical whether or not the producer is organic. There are 'recommendations' from organic accreditation organisations about the use of additives during the process. Though these are not obligarory, Frédéric Brochet and his team try to adhere to them, or even go further. "Our philosophy at Ampelidae is to be additive free so we keep them to a minimum." he says.

In the vineyards it's a different story and the various accrediting organisations place stringent demands on producers. Ampelidae itself is accredited by ECOCERT, who, like all such bodies, insist that no synthetic chemicals can be used to control weeds or pests. Instead, the growers use the copper-based ‘bouillie bordelaise' to control downy mildew on the vines, sulphur for powdery mildew and various micro-organisms and insects that pray on pests. "We have to look after the soil,” says Frédéric Brochet. This is time consuming as weeds are dug up mechanically or by hand. But working the soil is good for the environment, and allows wildlife to flourish.

It's certainly true that Ampelidae's vines, while undeniably well-tended, do not have that pristine weed-free look seen in many vineyards. Frédéric Brochet says there’s a good reason for this. Though France's vineyards account for just 4 percent of the country's cultivated land, they absorb 25 percent of its pesticides and herbicides. "These are very bad for the environment - they cause a lot of pollution in the water," says Frédéric, who is dismissive about the industry's love affair with chemicals. "These people say, 'Look at our wines - they come from the soil, our soils produce everything.' But just look at what they are doing to this soil! They are killing it -nothing lives there."

At least Frédéric Brochet is consoled by the idea that his company's organic approach is appreciated around the world. The winemaker exports to 12 different countries including the United States, the UK, Holland, Belgium, Canada, Denmark and Japan. ''Around 40 percent of our market is overseas," he says. In France the wine is available through specialist wine sellers - cavistes - in restaurants or from direct sales at the vineyard, which now accounts for 10 percent of all sales. Curiously, Frédéric Brochet is not interested in seeing his wine sold in supermarkets in his own country, but makes an exception when it comes to the UK, where Waitrose is his biggest outlet. "It's like nothing we have in France," he enthuses. "I feel very proud to sell to Waitrose. I'd feel very sad about selling in a French supermarket.''

Frédéric Brochet's wines

The company produces wine under three main labels: Ampelidae- the top of the range wines - Marigny-Neuf and Brochet. There is also a sparkling wine under the label Armance B, and a young wine called Blanc D'Hiver.

In the Ampelidae range the top wine is PN 1328, a subtle red made from Pinot noir grapes. A bottle of the 2002/3 vintage costs 70€ direct from the company. Among the Marigny-Neuf offerings, the 2009 Chardonnay sells for 19€. The Armance B sparkling wine is on the market for 7€. 

(from 2012 price list)


Local stockists

Ampelidae, Manoir de Lavauguyot, 86380 Marigny-Brizay, +33 (0)5 49 881818, 

Open 9am to 7pm every day except Sundays

Le Relais du Lyon d'Or, 4 rue d'Enfer, 86260 Angles sur l'Anglin, +33 (0)5 49 48 32 53

Cave Jean-Marie Pain, 26 Place de Provence, Les Couronneries, 86000 Poitiers, +33 (0)5 49 47 51 78

Online stockists


WORDS: Michael Streeter

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Ampelidae and Shutterstock

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes 2008 © All Rights Reserved