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A Vintage Wine Family

A Vintage Wine Family

Under the careful stewardship of four generations of the Denis family Domaine du Petit Clocher has not only grown in size but also become an award-winning winery. Mike Davis paid a visit…

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When, almost a century ago, Jules-Emile Denis founded Domaine du Petit Clocher he probably hoped that he was creating a legacy for the future – if so, he would be extremely satisfied at what is going on at the domaine today. In the careful hands of four generations of his family the domaine, in the AOC of Anjou, has grown sixteen times larger and has garnered a reputation for being a highly regarded and forward-thinking but still fiercely traditional example of a family viticultural business. It may not boast a grand château and the cave is fairly unprepossessing, but its walls bear witness to the reputation of the domaine’s wines - framed copies of glowing reviews in respected wine guides are displayed proudly, as are medals awarded at local and national wine fairs. This year at the prestigious Concours général de Paris Domaine du Petit Clocher took no less than five awards including the two coveted gold medals for its 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and Anjou Blanc. 

Today Maurice Denis, Jules-Emile’s son, is the doyen of the family business. Born in 1926, four years after the domaine was founded, he still works daily in the vines at the age of 85. However life at Domaine du Petit Clocher today is very different from when he started there in 1940. ‘It was the war then,’ he recalls. ‘France was occupied and my brother was in Austria, a prisoner of war, for five years. I worked with my father. We only had five hectares of vines. and we did everything by hand – the planting, pruning and harvesting. We had two horses which were stabled in what is now the heart of the cave. It was 1959 before we got our first tractor.’

In 1951 Maurice married Mimi. She brought land with her, increasing the size of the domaine to 18 hectares. But this meant more work. ‘Mimi and I worked together, in the vines and in the cave,’ Maurice explains. ‘The days were long and hard, doing about one hectare per day. It’s much quicker and easier now. We planted the new land with grafted vines and replaced the old vines’, he continues. ‘That was necessary because of phylloxera, a blight which destroyed the Anjou vineyards around the turn of the century. We grew Chenin Blanc, Grolleau and Cabernet France for white, rosé and red wines. Most of the wine we made was sold in bulk to négociants [wine merchants] and to people in the surrounding villages. We bottled very little. The wines were not very different in those days – maybe a little stronger - but their method of production was. We didn’t have temperature
controlled cuves [vats] so we made the wine at night when it was cooler.’

The harvest began in October and all the grapes were picked by hand, one picker per hectare of vines. ‘The itinerant pickers came from all over France,’ says Mimi. ‘They were students and the like and they all had to be housed and fed. Our house was always full during the vendange. We worked in the vineyards by day and the cave by night. It was hard but it was our life.’

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Maurice officially retired in 1988 but he’s still at work more than 20 years later. When asked when he will stop, he replies: ‘I am a vigneron. My life has been in the vineyards. I know nothing else and want nothing else. Whilst I have strength and health, I will go on.’ He and Mimi had four children and in 1975 their two sons Jean-Noël and Antoine, then in their twenties, followed their father into the family business. At the time the domaine was 36 hectares, less than half the size it is today. Jean-Noël picks up the story. ‘From the start my brother and I divided our responsibilities. Antoine was the oenologist and worked mainly in the cave. I was out amongst the vines, as well as taking care of the commercial side of the business.’ Antoine adds: ‘We made changes and brought the business forward. Rosé had been the principle wine here but we developed the red – Anjou and Anjou Villages – and introduced the Chardonnay grape to make Crémant de Loire, a sparkling white wine.

‘We also brought in outside expertise and made significant investments in equipment. We’ve had an evolution in our vinification process – we now use stainless steel cuves, maceration tanks, temperature control and a hydraulic press, and everything has been done with the aim of making a better wine.’ Improving quality has brought great rewards to Domaine du Petit Clocher. In 1975, 95 percent of its wine was sold to wine merchants. Today the figure is 25 percent. Most of the domaine’s wine is now sold to restaurants, wine merchants and direct to the public. ‘We realised that finding new markets for our wine was as important as improving its quality,’ says Jean-Noël. ‘The latter helped the former. ’

Antoine saw his first son, Stéphane, join the family business in 2003. ‘Like me he came in with new ideas,’ says Antoine. ‘One of his first projects was the acquisition of new land suitable for the Sauvignon Blanc grape. This has really taken off. It suits the modern palate and sells tremendously well.’

In 2006, as the second of his two sons, Julien, joined the family business, Antoine decided to retire. Jean-Noël, however, continues at the head of the family business, having been joined by his son, Vincent, in 2009. Will Jean-Noël, now aged in his fifties, be like his father? ‘No I don’t think so,’ he replies. ‘I don’t see myself at work in the vines when I’m in my eighties. Things are very different now.’

Today the youthful driving forces behind Domaine du Petit Clocher are the fourth generation of the Denis family – the two brothers, Stéphane and Julien, and their cousin, Vincent, and each has carved out a different role. Stéphane is the viticulteur out amongst the vines; Julien is the oenologist, most often found in the cave figuring out ways to improve the wine, and Vincent has adopted his father’s role, taking responsibility for the commercial and marketing aspects of the business. 

But like any small family concern, each is willing and able to do whatever is required – particularly during the vendange. ‘That is the busiest time of our year and we still use itinerant pickers,’ says Vincent. ‘Last year six or seven of them were British. However it’s very different from the past. Nowadays we don’t have to feed and accommodate them but the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) rules require their careful briefing and supervision. For the family, the day starts at 6.00 am and can go on until 11.30 pm. It’s long and hard - rather like in my grandfather’s day.’

With an average age of fewer than 30 years, Stéphane, Julien and Vincent are part of the new generation of French viticulteurs who successfully blend innovation with tradition. Their mission is to produce wines of a style to suit today’s customer tastes. Fresh, crisp whites such as their Sauvignon Blanc, lighter, fruity reds such as their Anjou Rouge, refreshing, full bodied rosés such as their Cabernet d’Anjou. Sparkling whites such as their Crémant de Loire. An early project, started when Stéphane joined the family business, was the introduction of varietal (made from a single grape variety) Sauvignon Blanc wine. ‘It was a bold move because it’s not an AOC wine,’ he says. ‘It’s a vin de pays but that hasn’t put off buyers. It’s highly rated and much in demand. I’ve increased the size of the Sauvignon Blanc vineyard from one to 3.5 hectares and I intend to plant more.’

However all three agreed that their favourite wine is the Anjou Rouge, whose production represents the largest proportion of their vineyards and the domaine’s historical roots. ‘The fruitiness of the Cabernet Franc grape makes it a perfect wine for everyday drinking,’ said Vincent. But the jewel in the crown of the Denis family is their premium sweet AOC Coteaux du Layon. The domaine’s wine, called Cuvée les Perrières, is a revelation to the uninitiated. In the best years, the early morning mists in the Layon valley results in the Chenin Blanc grapes being ‘afflicted’ by botrytis rot. But this is a desirable affliction. It shrivels the grapes, concentrating their sugar. These grapes centrating their sugar. These grapes are individually selected and picked by hand. The wine is aged in oak barrels and not bottled until the following year. The result is a wine which is sweet and powerful in its youth, growing drier and more complex as it ages.

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Like their fathers and grandfather before them, the three young men have only ever wanted to be vignerons. ‘There’s no difficulty working with my brother and cousin,’ said Stéphane. ‘We are all passionate about Domaine du Petit Clocher, its vines and its wines. We respect tradition but we’re constantly evolving to produce ever better wines. Alongside the mechanisation to speed up the work in the vineyards, traceability and sustainable growing and production methods are important to us. We work with, not against, nature and the seasons.’

Julien concurs: ‘There’s ongoing investment in new plant and techniques in the cave, to produce wines to suit our customers’ tastes.’ ‘But we’re also looking for new markets,’ Vincent continues, ‘as well as working hard to nurture the existing ones. We have developed our market in France and looked beyond that, but foreign markets are difficult to penetrate. I’m currently looking at Germany. Maybe the UK in the future?’ Before leaving, the inevitable question arises. Why four generations of exclusively male viticulteurs? Why have no female members of the Denis family become involved in the business? After a pause, Julien responds. ‘Our father’s two sisters became nurses’, he says. Vincent adds, ‘as did my sister. But my grandmother, Mimi, worked in the vines and the cave for many years and my mother, Martine, has spent more than 30 years welcoming clients, new and old, to the cave.’ So are wives the only women to work in the Denis family business? ‘Perhaps the fifth generation of Denis viticulteurs will be female,’ says Stéphane with a wry smile. ‘Although not straightaway. I’ve two daughters, but they’re only four and one at present. So ask again in twenty years’ time!’  


Domaine du Petit Clocher, 49560 Cléré sur Layon; www.domainepetitclocher.free.fr

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes in 2011  © All rights reserved