It’s three weeks into the new year and the weather is already historic—the coldest January in 30 years—and on this day it’s even colder with bone-numbing winds. Fortunately the family car is equipped with new snow tires, 4-wheel drive and GPS. All three are necessary with La Bise Noire in full fury and snow drifts obliterating most of the essential road markings. After several wrong turns, missed directional signs and four attempted drive-bys, I stumble upon an unmarked building at the end of an unplowed lane. In a rear driveway almost hidden from view is a MINI with the welcoming logo, La Maison du Moulin—my destination for the day.
I was drawn to this rather isolated spot by a bottle I drank the week before—a simple gamay called Violette des Près. It was a delicious wine that expressed the wild side of the variety and was stamped with the tangy imprint I ascribe to native yeast fermentation. It made me curious—just about the best thing I can say about a wine. Curious enough to inspire a meeting with the man now facing me. I’m glad to have met him.
Yannick Passas is the youthful majordomo of this impressive biodynamic enterprise. He oversees the vineyards, which are scattered throughout La Côte, and he makes the wine. Just as important, he is the philosophical compass for the difficult choices biodynamic agriculture and non-interventionist winemaking require. He is modest but self-assured with some unconventional thinking about oak-ageing and long fermentations. When I told him of the inspiration for my visit he grinned, and with real humility said: “Oh yeah, nothing much. That’s my cash flow wine. It’s meant for early drinking.” Other than the early release of Violette des Près not much around here is rushed.
Upstairs on the receiving dock where we lingered Yannick gave me a clue of what was to come: “The winery works using gravity. Everything arrives here for sorting,” pointing to a small concrete pad, “then it is sent below for processing.” He motions for me to proceed indoors. I am more than happy to oblige. That’s when two small dogs take an almost unnatural interest in me. Winery dogs are among the funniest of the species.
Once downstairs in the cuverie, sans dogs, he explains: “The white grapes are either crushed immediately or left whole to ferment on their skins in one of these,” pointing to the enamel-lined, steel cuves. He dislikes stainless steel. “The reds macerate for however long it takes for fermentation to begin.” Between 10% and 20% of the red bunches remain whole and all fermentations are spontaneous on native yeasts. There is almost no pumping. The dozen or so uprights, some still fermenting after more than a year, stand like grim soldiers unaware of the recent truce. That’s when it hits me—chasselas from 2015 is still slowly bubbling in there. In fact, nothing, except for the two chasselas Pépite de Nacre and Fleur de Pêche, is ready for bottling.
Welcome to the life of a natural winemaker. “I just let them do what they want,” says Yannick. “I never want to alter the full expression of any parcel.” And parcels he has: seven different expressions of chasselas alone. “You can’t hurry them. They must finish what they start.”
At Maison du Moulin there are three distinct lines (gamme in French) at three different price points: The Alpha ID line which emphasizes pure fruit expression is the most accessible; the Origine line which emphasizes regional character and the Terroir line which expresses the characteristics of a single parcel or climat. Since the Alpha ID line is made off-site and from purchased fruit I will not highlight it here except to say that it is very good quality for money.
The Origine line is mostly cuve fermented and raised without any oak influence. It reflects the characteristics of the named variety and its village imprint. These bottlings may include some blending of parcels but for the most part are from a single village.
The Terroir line is the heart and soul of the domaine and the source of Yannick’s considerable pride. He definitely runs against the current grain that stipulates new oak is to be shunned—especially for chasselas. He is unafraid to explore and adamant that his parcels possess the necessary stuffing to both absorb oak and retain their individuality. It is a minority view but it is hard to argue with the sheer volume and amplitude of his chasselas cuvées. Still, time will tell.
The vineyards of La Maison du Moulin take full advantage of the complexity of local geology. The thrusting Alps, in meeting the resistance of the older Jura range, produced the somewhat rumpled south-facing slopes of the Lac Léman Basin. As a result of shifting plates sub-surface layers of rock were exposed. Subsequent glacial activity did the rest. The continual advance and retreat of the estimated 800 meter thick ice flow scrubbed the earth of its softest surface layers. What was left behind after each surge was a complex collection of rock and debris that characterize the area’s geology today. Add to that the silt from the flow of the Rhône River and other debris left behind by the receding lake and you’ve got a complex surface area available for viticulture.
One important note: the combination of limestone sub-soils and biodynamic methodologies tend to accentuate the acidity in chasselas an otherwise acid-deficient variety. Many vignerons will locate their chasselas vines in deeper soils because it is such a forgiving variety but when planted on poorer soils the reward is more structural elements. The risk with this philosophy is over-stressing the vines which encourage unwanted bitter flavors. Yannick takes advantage of his collection of limestone inflected parcels beautifully and is rewarded with razor-sharp chasselas throughout.
What follows is a list of the terroirs found on a label of Maison du Moulin wine. Each one is a micro-cuvée of less than two or three barriques.
Coinsins: Located north of Nyon and Gland and above the Autoroute. It includes gently sloping vineyards nearer the lake and steeper vineyards away from the lake. Soils are morainic deposits of sand, gravel and galet-like stones. Includes some older vines, including 60-year-old pinot noir at La Colombière. Other varieties included here are chardonnay and gamay.
Buchillon and St. Prex: Ancient beachfront left behind by the receding lake with very sandy and pebbly soils. Buchillon is sandier while St. Prex is more pebbly. Buchillon includes the parcel Vaux Bernard which is a source for gamay and viognier. St. Prex is the source for a new cabernet franc cuvée.
Etoy: Vineyards associated with the historic Château d’Etoy. Soils are deep with clay and limestone producing fuller-bodied wine. Both chasselas and pinot noir are sourced from here.
Lussy-sur-Morges: Similar to Etoy with clay and limestone. Slightly heavier and perfect for chasselas. The Fleur de Péche cuvée is based on fruit from this site.
Lavigny: Includes the parcel Les Brachères which is steeply exposed to the south-east. It is mostly clay-based with limestone and in a smaller section dedicated to pinot gris is mixed with silt. The notably steely Pépite de Nacre cuvée is based on chasselas from these holdings but from lower down the slope.
Sainte-Livres: Includes the parcels of Les Cocottes, Prairial and Es Côtes. The latter two are clay and limestone soils at an elevation of 500 meters. The chasselas from here is steely and high in acid. It absorbs oak well and is highly textured. Pinot noir from Prairial is fine, aromatic and structured. Les Cocottes is new to the portfolio but an established vineyard that is tucked into the woods and isolated from everything else. It is somewhat unique in its soil profile: poudingue (conglomerate rock) à la Dézaley and sandstone à la Vully. The chasselas from here is fierce.
All wines were tasted with Yannick Passas in the cellars of Maison du Moulin. All were either from cuve or barrique as noted. Nothing was bottled so definitive descriptions of finished wines is impossible. These are my general impressions but overall I was highly impressed and confident that most of these will provide interesting drinking over the next several years.
Chasselas, “Fleur de Pêche” 2015, Lussy-sur-Morges, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Origine—tasted from cuve) Straw gold in color. Lovely peach and green herb aroma. Palate is crisp, fresh and slightly linear with lemon and frangipane flavors. Freshness and crispness belies its malolactic conversion. Ready for bottling. Very nice.
Chasselas, “Pépite de Nacre” 2015, Lavigny, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Origine—tasted from cuve) Straw gold in color. Tight mineral nose with citrus, green herbs and a slight volatile lift. Palate is fat and textured with citrus flavors and a touch of malolactic creaminess. Another three months in cuve. Very nice.
Chasselas, “Château d’Etoy” 2015, Etoy, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from cuve) Straw gold in color. Assertive oaky nose of butterscotch, coconut and toast. Palate is slightly oily and unintegrated. Lemon oil and butter are the predominant flavors. Slightly bitter. This was a sample from cuve where it is resting after almost a year in barrique. Impressive but judgment reserved.
Chasselas, “Les Brachères” 2015, Lavigny, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—recently transferred from barrique; tasted from cuve) Straw gold in color. Nice herbal nose with licorice (réglisse) and mint. Slight lifting from volatility but blows off. Palate is rich and fat with butterscotch and toasted grain. Very sexy and plush. No lack of acid with a tannic presence. This will be a long ager. Excellent.
Chasselas, “Es Côtes” 2015, St. Livres, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Straw colored. Very backwards with lemon oil notes. Very tightly wound with both tannin and acidity. Very textured but still a blank canvas as far as flavors although there is some lemon confit at the core. Bright, shiny and very rich. Not ready with maybe six months of further oak ageing. Lots of potential.
Chasselas, “Les Cocottes” 2015, St. Livres, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Straw colored. Sharp, penetrating lemon nose with a nutty edge. Palate is somewhat astringent with unintegrated oak, citrus and butterscotch. Bracingly acidic with a tannic bite. Fat and oily textured. Very rich. By the time this is bottled it will have spent 24 months in barrique. A monster chasselas with a very special potential.
Chardonnay, “Coinsins” 2015, Coinsins, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—recently transferred from barrique; tasted from cuve) Straw/gold in color. Sweet pear and toast nose with hints of butterscotch. Medium-bodied and textured with buttered pear flavors. Slightly astringent and sour finish that will probably resolve once the oak is integrated. Very good potential.
Pinot Gris, “Les Brachères” 2015, Lavigny, La Côte, Vaud: Gamme Terroir—tasted from cuve) Straw color. Canned pear and musky fruit aromas. Slightly syrupy texture with honey and mealy pear flavors. Somewhere between Alsace and Alto Adige in style. Nice weight but finishes slightly bitter. Good.
Pinot Noir, “La Colombière” 2015, Coinsins, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Dark ruby almost garnet in color. Dark berry and green walnut aroma. Deep, chewy and tannic. Nice mix of black and red fruit with green and dried herbs. This is a ruggedly built pinot noir especially coming from La Côte which are sometimes soft, muted and muddied. Very fresh and undeveloped. Needs some time but very promising in a Fixin kind of way.
Pinot Noir, “Château d’Etoy” 2015, Etoy, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Dark ruby in color. Dark cherry and green herb aroma. Wood is dominant right now. Very austere and backwards palate. Linear cherry fruit with an overlay of wood. Still very primary with no sense of malolactic conversion. Judgment reserved.
Pinot Noir, “Prairial” 2015, St. Livres, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Pale ruby in color. Lovely cherry preserve and rose petal aroma. Complex. Finely but convincingly structured. Lovely extract, delicious cherry fruit with a firmly tannic, focused finish. This could end up being very fine. Lovely Burgundian presence. Clearly the best of the pinot noirs.
Gamay, “Les Vaux Bernard” 2015, Buchillon, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Ruby in color and slightly hazy. Awesome red berry aroma. So fresh and crunchy. Saturated and lively red berry fruit on the palate with crisp acids and mild tannins. Luscious in a way the best Beaujolais crus are. Compact and lip-smacking finish. Will spend an additional year in barrique. Very good.
Syrah, “La Colombière” 2015, Coinsins, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Ruby/garnet in color. Lovely feral, deeply earthy nose. Blackberry preserves too. Palate is silky with blueberry fruit and cured meat salinity. A bit soft and slightly unstructured. Low acid and seemingly elevated pH. Wait and see.
Merlot, “Coinsins” 2015, Coinsins, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Ruby/garnet in color. Nice roasted mulberry nose. Warm. Very ripe and fat palate with broad roasted flavors that manage to retain a degree of freshness. Finishes a tad green (herbs and leaves) but clean and confident. Good.
Cabernet Franc 2015, St. Prex, La Côte, Vaud: (Gamme Terroir—tasted from barrique) Garnet in color. Typical flower pot aroma of Loire cabernet franc. Dark fruit, leafy and herbal aromas abound. Palate is a bit saturated with savory fruit and a fresh herbaceousness. Perhaps a bit too extracted for me with assertive tannins to finish. Wait and see.