Marc Pesnot, Domaine de la Sénéchalière
Refining the Muscadet
- Due to its rich geological past, Marc’s vineyards, although very close to each other, lie on a variety of schist-based soils – there are 4 different versions of it – as well as other types of rock.
- Melon, being a rather neutral variety, is great at translating the soil into wine, so Marc showcases this diversity of expression by vinifying the different blocks separately, resulting in different terroir-based versions of his Miss Terre cuvée.
- Marc insists on a very slow and gentle pressing in order to release the aromatic compounds “hidden” under the Melon’s skins. By pressing gently but lengthily, around 18 hours, the wines gain in complexity and depth.
- The grapes are picked by hand at two different times to get both freshness and deeper mineral notes.
- The labels feature drawings by a Corsican-Belgian illustrator who used to work for Hergé (the publishing house of the famous Tintin comics) – he once made a whole board of drawings for Marc, who then picked one for each cuvée.
“All the blue-looking parts are leptynite; the glittering ones are mica-schist. Next to the greenhouses, we have amphibolite, a slightly heavier soil with green rocks, where we’ve planted some young vines,” Marc Pesnot explains, pointing in different directions as we walk through the vines surrounding his old family winery located in the fertile countryside, which is only a 20-minute drive from central Nantes. It’s a sunny day in early March, perfect for finishing the pruning, as Marc’s team is doing in the block just over the road, burning the cuttings in a rusty DIY cart – a smart, old-school 2-in-1 solution that protects the freshly pruned vines with the smoke of the old cut wood, all while getting rid of it.
Save for this occasional smoky note, the air is hinting at the coming spring and is pleasantly, invigoratingly saline, reminding visitors of the nearby ocean as well as the mineral crunchiness of the best wines of this area, a club to which Domaine de la Sénéchalière definitely belongs. As the wind grows stronger, we follow Marc inside for a welcomed opportunity not only to dive into the delicious lunch prepared by his Japanese associate Ryusuke, but mainly the intriguing story of his quest for terroir notes, depth and unique refinement in the humble Muscadet.
Where does all this terroir diversity come from?
In a distant geological past, this area used to be a high mountain range, with summits up to 26,000 feet. All the tectonic activity that followed left its marks, meaning that I can now count around 8 different terroirs, from different types of schist to granite, quartz or gneiss… And I hope to progressively showcase all of them, as Melon de Bourgogne, our main grape, is perfect for that.
Why is Melon so well-adapted to this winemaking approach?
This grape is very responsive to the rock it grows on, especially as the vines get older and their roots deeper – its own aromas are rather neutral, but that’s why it can easily “pick” the influence of its soil and elevate it, especially with aging. But you can see it already when the wines are young, as we’re tasting through them – some are more flowery, some crunchy, some, like the mica-schist, are extremely energetic and mineral thanks to the poor rocky soil. I think this precision of taste mirrors what’s been going on in the restaurant world, too. The flavors of food they serve are becoming more and more nuanced, and I want my wine to reflect that, as it definitely has the potential for the same purity and precision. That’s probably why my wines work so well in Northern Europe or Japan, they go well with their “ingredients-first” ethos and all that high-quality fish.
I suppose you can attribute this purity and depth of experience to the fact that your vines are rather old – some of the plots you showed us earlier were truly respectable, gnarly yet vigorous plants despite their nearly 100 years of age.
Yes, definitely – that’s why I only make Miss Terre, our top-shelf, with the older Melon plantings, to have this sort of subtlety yet intensity; the younger vines go into our Coeur de Raisin or Boheme. And it’s the same for our old plot of Folle Blanche that you saw, there are many vines missing, but I’d hate to uproot that tiny vineyard. The ones that survived are so strong and give beautiful, small, and concentrated grapes, with this incredible mineral tension and laser-sharp acidity.
Also, we generally pick at two different times, with about a two-week interval – Muscadet always has pronounced acidity, even in the warm years, but I don’t want just acidity, I seek some extra peps, mineral presence too. And of course, there’s selection – the pickers would come to me asking whether to put this or that grape in the basket or leave it on the ground, to which I simply replied “Would you eat it?” If the answer is no, why would you put it in the wine?
Flavor is definitely a matter of yields, especially in this fertile area, known in the mainstream for its massive production…
Absolutely. We get around 40 hectoliters/ha for our Melons, which is still only about half of what the AOC rules authorize. And that little block of Folle vieilles vignes can sometimes give as little as 8 hectolitres from a hectare, one tank, that’s like nothing…. It’s ironic, as Folle was traditionally considered the less noble grape, mainly because it has been driven to insanely high yields and planted in lower areas – imagine that it can do 200 hectolitres/hectare if the grower pushes the limit. But my ancestors have always respected both Melon and Folle, so I know how beautiful these wines can be, especially if you work the way we do.
We’re organic, of course. I don’t care so much about the label, although we’re certified; it’s just that I realized that I can’t make wine this flavorsome, this nuanced without first having healthy, naturally strong vines. We work a lot with plant preparations that strengthen the vineyards’ natural immunity – horsetail, nettles, etc. I don’t use the term biodynamic because, to me, biodynamics still allows for a lot of sulfur and copper in the vineyard, a thing I try to limit as much as possible. We’ve already eschewed sulfur and now we’re moving away from copper, which we’ve managed to cut in half in terms of the amount used, even in years that were really challenging because of the mildew.
Is this to avoid residues in the soil?
I mainly do it for the microbial population on the grapes. See, the treatment not only kills the bad guys like mildew, but also the good ones, meaning the yeast and other populations that we need. The less copper and sulfur we use in the vineyard, the more yeast we keep on the skins. More yeast means more flavors, and therefore more complexity, exactly what we want, as we of course only work with spontaneous fermentation.
And you also work with very long pressings, another method you found to naturally enhance the taste…
Yes, that’s a crucial step. Melon doesn’t have the same aromatic compounds like, say, thiol that makes Sauvignon so instantly fragrant. But there are interesting flavonoids under the Melon’s skin, and by pressing gently but lengthily, we get to release these and gain complexity. Our winemaking is a constant evolution – I realized this thanks to Nuitage, a cuvée I once made as an experiment, where the Melon underwent an overnight carbonic maceration. The result was superb, a game-changer. To do this for the whole production would be overwhelming for us, but I realized that we can get there by extending the pressing times, thus basically treating the grapes to a gentle maceration while they are in the press. So now, instead of the classic 3-hour press at 1200–1500 millibars, we do 18 hours at 140 millibars. It’s like a super-gentle massage which gives them more richness, more substance, and deeper terroir notes.
You weren’t always this low-intervention and complexity-obsessed though, right?
Not at all–I started in 1979 when I bought the domaine from my father, and I used to make uninteresting, bland wines with added commercial yeast. In the late 1990s, I encountered the vins naturels, and it was as if I woke up in another country. It was then that I fully realized that for nearly 20 years, despite getting all the accolades, gold medals, etc., I didn’t like the wines I was making. I was especially moved by the wines of the late Philippe Laurent of Domaine Gramenon [a trailblazing natural wine estate in the Cotes du Rhone area] – his viognier had such out-of-this-world apricot notes that I almost quit Muscadet to make wines in the South like him. To which Philippe said, “Listen, I understand what you mean, I was in the exact same place, but then someone wiser told me ‘try to make good wines where you already are, for starters, that might give you something interesting”. And so I did. I realized it all starts with a naturally strong vineyard, as I told you, and I stopped using herbicides. This was a sea change right away, in terms of the complexity and concentration of the wines. I never looked back.
And what do you see, looking forward?
Working on the details, gently experimenting, chiseling the nuances. I’d also like to age the wines longer, both in the cellar and in the bottle. My feeling is that many wines get drunk too young, which is a shame. Melon ages wonderfully, and it gets these elegant, rich, almost opulent notes and golden hues. A Miss Terre drunk 10 years after its harvest is the best, really. As we say, pleasure comes with the years. But so does the cost [laughs].
So no moving into the Rhone Valley? No viogniers, no reds?
I used to grow some red grapes, but I sold all these vineyards. It’s much simpler like this – there are already a lot of red wines elsewhere, but this is the home of Muscadet, and it’s much better to simply focus on fine-tuning what we do.
Chapeau Melon — Back to the top
Age of Vines: 50 Years
Pruning Method: Guyot
Varieties: 100% Melon de Bourgogne (The variety used to make all Muscadet wines)
Vinification Method: Grapes are harvested by hand at their maximum ripeness and destemmed. The fruit undergoes a slow manual pressing and the wine rests on lees in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks before it is bottled without any sulfites. Chapeau Melon is an early bottling, where Marc allows the wine to retain its natural sparkle. This is a pure and natural expression of old vines Burgundy Melon, and the Schist terroir they thrive in.
Tasting Note: Pale straw in the glass with tiny bubbles. The nose carries loads of blooming white flowers, pear flesh, green apple skins and pounded stones. The palate is buoyant with a slight frizzante and redolent with creamy white fruit flavors boosted by succulent minerality and a dash of vibrant acidity.
Pairing: Works beautifully with shellfish, grilled chicken, hearty garden salads or simply by itself.
La Bohême — Back to the top
Varieties: 100% Melon de Bourgogne (the variety used to make all Muscadet wines)
Vineyard: a blend of different schist terroirs that Marc owns. Average age of the vines is 50 years. Certified organic.
Vinification Method: Grapes are harvested by hand and destemmed. To release the complex aromatic flavonoids from under the skin, the fruit undergoes a slow manual pressing (for about 18 hours). The wine spontaneously ferments and rests on lees in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for at least nine months. Bottled unfined, with a bit of sulfur and a light filtration through terre diatomé.
Tasting Note: Cloudy straw in the glass with pretty notes of white flowers, pear, green apple and pounded stones. The palate is broad and creamy with elegant white fruit flavors boosted by succulent minerality, and a creamy dash of vibrant acidity. A beautiful expression of Muscadet, showing unique refinement and purity.
Pairing: Works beautifully with shellfish, grilled chicken & fish, hearty garden salads or simply by itself.
La Folle Blanche— Back to the top
The Folle Blanche grape that is typically used to make Cognac, has very thin skin and problems reaching optimum ripeness. The AOC authorizes 78 hl/ha and 300kg/ha of sugar added, so most producers don’t wait for this optimum natural ripeness and take the easy (although resulting in bland flavor) way. Marc Pesnot, on the contrary, harvests his grapes when they are ripe, helped by lowering the yields – sometimes as low as 8hl/ha – and caring for the vines organically.
Vineyard: 90+ years old vines on schist, farmed organically by Marc and his team.
Varieties: Folle Blanche (also known as Gros Plant)
Making of: the grapes are hand-harvested, destemmed, gently pressed and then fermented spontaneously in fiberglass tanks. They rest there for about the year, without racking or batonnage. Bottled unfined, with a bit of sulfur and a light filtration through terre diatomé.
Tasting Notes: Pretty aromas of preserved lemons. Works beautifully with shellfish, grilled chicken, fish, hearty garden salads or simply by itself.
Miss Terre Micaschiste— Back to the top
Miss Terre is Marc’s top-range wine, made from his oldest vines of Melon. The vineyards grow on a whole array of terroirs (8 different kinds of soils); he previously blended them all together into one cuvée, but decided to showcase their nuances by vinifying and bottling each of the different soils separately, since 2019. “This has always been a gastronomical wine. As the food in good restaurants has become lighter, finer, more filigree, I felt that my wine should reflect that and offer a similar amount of details and nuance,” Marc explains.
The name of this cuvée is a play on words, as Miss Terre (“Miss Earth”) is pronounced exactly the same way as mystère, the French word for mystery.
Varieties: Melon de Bourgogne
Vineyard: 50-80 years old vines on mica-schist, farmed organically by Marc and his team.
Making of: Grapes are harvested by hand at their maximum ripeness and destemmed. The fruit undergoes a very slow and gentle pressing, and the wine rests on the lees in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for 12 months. Bottled unfined, with a bit of sulfur and a light filtration through terre diatomé.
Personality: bright and electric – it has the typical drinkability of Melon, but also an extra depth of the old vines. Great ageing potential – as the winemaker says, a 10yo Miss Terre is perfect!
Nuitage— Back to the top
Varieties: Melon de Bourgogne
Age of Vines: 30-40 years old
Vinification Notes: Grapes are harvested by hand at their maximum ripeness. The grapes spend 18 hours as whole bunches under carbonic gas, which imparts a subtle amount of skin contact to the wine. The fruit undergoes a slow manual pressing and the wine rests on lees in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for at least nine months.
Coeur de Raisin— Back to the top
Grapes: Melon de Bourgogne, sometimes completed by Sémillon
Vineyard: Melon: young vines on schist (under 10yo), estate-owned and farmed organically by Marc and his team; the Sémillon comes from a biodynamic vineyard in Lestignac.
Making of: Grapes are harvested and sorted by hand. The fruit undergoes a slow manual pressing (12-18 hours) in order to extract the maximum aromas from the skins. The wine then ferments spontaneously, without any additions. In November, after 2 months of rest in tanks, the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered, with a small addition of sulfur.
Personality: a « primeur » style of wine, showcasing Melon’s fresh fruity side, thanks to the short aging. A beautiful thirst-quencher!