Quentin Bourse of Le Sot de L’Ange is the first winemaker I’ve encountered to preface his personal history with the statement “I am an autodidact.” He did a variety of things before he made wine, but he didn’t go into detail about what they were. Suffice it to say, he fell in love with wine and that was that. Quentin makes wine in Azay-le-Rideau, and I’ve come to think of him as the mayor of this town, close to Chinon, in the central Loire Valley. He’s not really the major, obviously, but he heads the group of ten-ish vignerons in Azay who are looking to put this appellation on the map (the group also includes the fabulous Marie Thibault). Quentin makes wine in the facility of Pascal Pibaleau, an old school producer of sparkling wine. I don’t recall how the two met, but Pascal is a calm and quiet counterpart to Quentin’s insatiable energy and constant steam of commentary.
Guilhaume must have known that Quentin was capable of great things. Talking to Quentin, I got the impression that he and Guilhaume had been pals for a long time, but when I asked Guilhaume he denied a friendship de longue date with Quentin. They met at Frantz Saumon’s place; they liked each other; Guilhaume told Quentin to get in touch when he had something to sell, and Quentin did. I’ve heard other stories like this, where the importer has a kind of sixth sense when it comes to winemaking prodigies. And maybe it’s a stretch to frame Quentin as a prodigy, but he’s had the best two first vintages I think I’ve ever tasted, and they weren’t easy vintages either. There’s something about the guy, and there’s something about the wines.
A quick word about the name of this Domaine: Le Sot de L’Ange. It translates to something like “The Idiot of the Angel,” which refers to Quentin’s decision to leave his previous life to begin the life of a vigneron in a tiny, unknown appellation. He frames himself as “the big idiot,” but hey, I’m sure he’s no more idiotic than I was when I dropped out of grad school to join the wine business. We relate to people who chuck it all in to pursue lives of passion and fulfillment in spite of risk and hard work.
I don’t have a note with the exact size of Quentin’s Domaine, but I know it’s growing little by little. When I visited him in October, he had nine parcels — all in Azay-le-Rideau; now he has slightly more. He’s certified by both Ecocert and Demeter. His vineyards are beautiful, and they are at times punctuated by forest, as well as other crops; there’s real biodiversity in Azay, something that can’t be said about many places in France where wine grape cultivation is a monoculture. We found a decaying butternut squash nourishing one of Quentin’s vineyards. The soil is clay, limestone, white silex, with chalk bedrock in some places. Azay is the home of Grolleau, and this grape finds great expression in Azay.
During his various internships, including one with Huet, Quentin developed quite particular ideas about how to do things in the vines and cellar. I was surprised both times I visited him by how particular his methods are during the following stages of the process: 1) Deciding when to pick. To decide when to pick, you can crush some grapes and splash the juice across a little sugar reader to tell you if they’re technically ripe, and/or you can go around tasting them to see if they’re delicious, which is what Quentin does. (I’m sure he does both, actually, but he was very insistent during my October visit that we taste grapes for maturity. 2) Picking. Quentin’s harvesting team goes through each parcel two and three times to select for ripeness. 2) Pressing. Standard press time is two or three hours; you turn on the machine; it presses the grapes. Quentin presses for five hours or more, and he hangs out at the press like a DJ manipulating the dials that control pressure and timing. It’s unusual, but when I drink Quentin’s Chenin Blanc, I wonder if he might be on to something … 4) Grapes Entiers. This means “whole cluster,” a way to make red wine that includes stems in the process. Quentin puts Gamay and Grolleau in the same inert tank, the Gamay on the top, the Grolleau on the bottom. This mediates the greenness of the Grolleau stems. He puts carbonic gas in the tank, and does not use sulfur. The list goes on.
Talking to Quentin, I soon realized that he is absolutely obsessed with quality, cuts no corners, thinks about everything, probably in some cases to a detrimental extent, and is very much his own man in the way he works, not influenced by fads or what others tell him. If he doesn’t use sulfur it’s because he doesn’t like the reduction it brings to Grolleau, not because he’s trying to make natural wine. Quentin is also of a playful disposition, and his space if full of accoutrements: stickers, tee-shirts, hats with his brand on them, a skateboard with his brand on it, embossed tech sheets for every wine, a sun screen for the window of his car with his brand on it. He told us that all this connerie (bullshit) helps him get bank loans and that’s part of why he does it. The bank takes him more seriously (even though his importer might take him less seriously) when he presents a boxed set with wine paraphernalia as well as his signature wooden-framed sunglasses? Sure. Why not?
This is only tangentially related, but I had an epiphany on this last trip to France regarding how winemakers express themselves, namely that I should not judge. We can easily find ourselves thinking that winemakers should be a certain type: rustic with dirt under the nails, humble but confident, country folks even at their most refined. My former boss at Chambers Street harbors a prejudice against wineries with flash websites; he thinks winemakers should be in the vines, not working on their damn websites. In Champagne, we visited a winemaker, who shall remain nameless for the moment, who poses entirely covered in gold body paint for photos. And guess what? His wines are good! Farmed well, fabricated well, biodynamically certified. Who are we to think that a man who wears hair gel and occasionally has himself painted gold can’t make good wine? This is just to say that behind Quentin’s self expression, the label word play and the branded bottle stoppers, there lies an extremely talented vigneron.
I was not exactly en forme when we arrived at Quentin’s winery a few weeks ago having stayed up late the night before with Dominique Belluard, Jean Philippe Padié, and some other folks. The jet lag plus the previous evening’s wine made for a queasy combination, and in the car I sent Quentin a couple of messages explaining that we’d be a few minutes late, while rubbing my temples and trying to get my brain working. “No worries. I’m going to get you guys some super oysters,” he replied. Quentin, a huge scar over one of his eyes, acquired in a tractor accident, was like an immediate tonic. We tasted some wine: grolleau rosé, exquisite Chenin Blancs aging in barrel and amphora, the Grolleau and Gamay that will go into his 2014 “Sot Rouge,” and more. The first wine we tasted, which we also drank and hour later with a lunch of incredibly fresh, salty oysters, brown bread, and beurre bordier, was a Pet Nat called “Red is Dead” made from the Chaulnay grape, an old indigenous variety that is red on the outside and red on the inside. Gingerly sipping the wine, slurping the salty oysters, spreading beurre bordier with a pocket knife, I felt like Bertie when he first meets Jeeves. Suddenly the world righted itself, the blue sky and crisp air, the snack that put all Brooklyn brunches to shame, and the precise, bracing, enlivening wine.
A week or so later I was in Arbois talking to my friend Pierre. He said “I noticed on Facebook that you drank a wine called “Red is Dead.” Do you understand the joke?” I did not. Pierre went on to explain. “Red is Dead” is a movie within a movie, a fictional horror film about — I think — communist zombies — that lives within in actual early ’90s French comedy called “La Cité de la Peur.” Of course! A film within a film, red juice within a red grape! Even though when “Red is Dead” arrives in the states in a few weeks, it’ll have a different label, I’ll still think of it this way … as a wine that epitomizes Quentin Bourse, his skills, his playfulness, his sense of humor.