Sylvain Boutée was born close to the border with Belgium in northern France where there are no vines at all. But his parents sold wine and his grand-parents had been dairy farmers. So from an early age, he had a vision around farming and wine.
He studied oenology and viticulture, and finished his studies in Morey-St-Denis, then in St Emilion. After, he worked for five years in the vines and cellar of a large Costières de Nîmes producer. In 2002, he risked his financial life to buy 10 hectares of Costières de Nîmes near Bellegarde, between Arles and Nîmes. The estate was largely planted to old Carignan that was due to be ripped up.
At this time, the Appellation was not at a high point. It had only been created in 1986, 4,000 hectares on a terrace of galets roulés for the most part. No one was sure if it was Côtes du Rhône or Languedoc-Roussillon. With its combination of heat, sunshine, wind and water, it had served to produce easy alcohol for many years, and to obtain as much alcohol as possible, Grenache Noir had been the most widely re-planted variety. INAO dictated the addition of new varieties like Syrah. The fashion was for fruit bombs which the terroir supplied. Yet it was Carignan that’s more adapted to supplying freshness and finesse in the wines. Due to over-cropping and issues with oïdium it had become much maligned. Yet there’s an ancient history here. Amphora produced in Beaucaire near to Clos des Boutes have been found in Italy, the Popes drank wines produced by the nearby Abbey of St Gilles. And an interesting weather phenomenon; sea breezes come up from the Camargue just to the south to meet rising heat from the galets to provoke cool nights, thus aiding in the retention of acids in the grapes.
Initially, Sylvain was mocked for his purchase of old Carignan. But he developed his vision. The former owner had hardly touched the vines with treatments and Sylvain immediately converted to bio, later adopting biodynamic practices, in addition. Initially, he says, he didn’t want to dress up like a cosmonaut to carry out chemical treatments. But then he witnessed firsthand the benefits, the return of all sorts of insect and birdlife as well as health of the soils and the greater transparency of the wines.
Sylvain says he likes Carignan because it faithfully reveals time and place, so he uses it as the backbone of his wines, which he later “adorns” with Syrah or Grenache Noir. At the same time, he compares Carignan to Pinot Noir, in the sense that neither like mediocrity. He has recently added more Carignan Blanc and produces a very fine version of this rare grape.
His estate is basically one large holding which makes it easier to farm organically. He has sheep and chickens roaming freely. In the cellar, he does the minimum securely but has moved to de-stemming more of the harvest in order to avoid what he perceived as “stemminess” in the wines and simply to gain place in his tanks. He adds nothing to the ferment except sometimes a minimal dose of sulfites after the malo and again before bottling. He’s very clear in his vision about making a clean and classic style of wine as naturally as possible.
We met Sylvain for the first time at Millesime Bio in 2011 Millesime Bio when the juicy, cool purity of the Carignan called out for our attention. Sylvain sells 80% of his production in France since export markets don’t seem to be hugely appreciative of the Appellation.