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Tasting melon, soil and clouds

Wines from France’s Domaine Laroque D’Antan are made soulful by the microbiologist family that runs it

Most fruit flavours in wine are due to natural fermentation.
Most fruit flavours in wine are due to natural fermentation. (Istockphoto)

Nephele is a cloud nymph in Greek mythology, and a spectacular French white wine is named after her. Néphèle by Domaine Laroque D’Antan is so soft on the palate that it reminded me of daulat ki chaat, the airy Delhi dessert, usually available in winter.

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I tried the wine at the spirits trade event ProWine in Mumbai in November. It’s a rare wine produced by a family of soil scientists: Lydia and Claude Bourguignon and their son Emmanuel. While Claude and Lydia work on the soil, their son makes the wines. The Néphèle, vintage 2021, had rich notes of melon on the nose, and when I looked surprised at how gentle it tasted, Claude explained, “It’s due to the limestone.”

Soils rich in this mineral imbue wines with a fine quality—or to put it poetically, make soulful vinos. The Bourguignon’s vineyard Domaine Laroque D’Antan is located in Cahors in south-west France. The microbiologists selected this limestone-rich land about 20 years ago to produce small-batch wines by working with soil, microbes and natural yeast.

In a YouTube podcast, Wines Of The Future by Vinexposium, Emmanuel discusses changes in wine-making after the turn of the millennium. He says, viticulturists have started to recognise the “living dimension” or the biological aspect (fungi, microbes and yeast) essential for preserving soil in the last two decades. It is this unseen—and often too technical perspective—that gets lost in popular wine talk about terroir, taste and aroma.

Claude pulled out his phone and showed a video of their wines fermenting, with bubbles rising to the surface—much like a living-breathing sourdough culture. They use natural yeast, which breaks down the grapes for the bouquet of fruity aromas and amicable sweet notes, so evident in Néphèle. The wine has six grapes—Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon gris, Verdanel and Mauzac (vert, rose and blanc)—fermented together from start to finish. It is not to be confused with blended bottles which combine wines made with different grapes at various stages of maturation.

Apart from Néphèle, they had also brought a red blend, Nigrine, with Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and grapes unique to France such as Prunelard, Cot à Pied Rouge and Négrette. Similar to the white, its vintage is 2021, and it was an immensely enjoyable, medium-bodied drink with ripe fruit notes and silky smooth finish.

“We use different grapes, because each variety brings complexity,” he said of the wines available only in Europe, the UK and the US, and which are priced around $65 (about 5,000) a bottle.

Climate change is irrevocably transforming the world of wines by disrupting soil biodiversity. As temperatures rise, cold-weather grape vines—especially those in regions like Bordeaux in France—struggle to survive. The role of scientists, therefore, has become imperative. Microbiologists have the knowledge to fortify soil without excessive use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Those curious to know more could tune into the informative episode, The Microbial Face Of Terroir, in the podcast Wine Blast. After all, these tiny organisms create mighty wines.

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