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The Brionnais region of South Bourgogne may not be a household name yet, but this off-the-beaten-path appellation is about to garner a cult following among wine professionals and enthusiasts. This picturesque area is home to one pioneering winery that is raising the bar for sustainable, organic wine production and stirring up excitement among industry experts and connoisseurs alike: Roche des Bancs.
Image: Harvest at Roche des Bancs
Once upon a time, the rolling hills of Brionnais were covered in vineyards. The first vineyard sites date all the way back to the Romans and things really took off with the establishment of religious communities. By 1880, the vineyards were thriving with nearly 4000 hectares of grapes. But, like any good fairy tale, there were obstacles. First came phylloxera in 1886, then the First World War and the severe decrease in the workforce, and finally, the Second World War, which dealt the final blow to the vineyards.
Many sites were left abandoned. Imagine a ghost town of forgotten vines and grape varieties. The farmers of the region turned their attention to raising Charolais cattle instead.
Image: Thierry Hellin co-owner of Roche des Banc
But, like all good fairy tales, this story has a happy ending. A wine-loving couple of rebels, Thierry Hellin and his wife Sophie Barcella, undeterred by the region's history, are leading the charge to bring back the grapevines and revive Brionnais's wine-making traditions. And in the process, they are reviving the region's wine heritage and helping Brionnais region advance in organic viticulture.
The estate, Roche des Bancs, is a beacon of hope for the Brionnais region. This family-owned domain has been farming organically since 2011 and was originally founded by Jean-Claude Berthillot in 1990.
In 2020, Thierry Hellin and his wife Sophie Barcella took over the ownership of the Roche des Bancs estate, bringing with them a shared passion for not just sustainable farming practices and cultivating the land but also building a community around the wines they produce. The couple's vision is about crafting exceptional wines that bring people together while fostering a sense of community.
Their estate spans 8 hectares of total vineyards (plus 2 hectares planted last year and many more to come…) located in the towns of Mailly, Iguerande, Fleury-la-Montagne, Saint-Julien-de-Jonzy, and Oyé. Here they grow various grape varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Gris, Auxerrois, Gamay, and Pinot Noir, each grape variety carefully selected to thrive in the microclimate.
One of the key factors that set Roche des Bancs apart from other vineyards is its unique terroir. The ground is composed of clay-limestone marls of the Toarcian, which are extremely rich in fossils. This special soil composition gives the wines a distinct minerality and complexity that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. The altitude of the vineyards, between 320 and 380 meters, also plays a crucial role in the winemaking process. The higher altitude results in a rather late harvest and maturation, allowing the grapes to develop a complex array of flavors and aromas.
Another important aspect of Roche des Bancs is its commitment to biodiversity. The absence of monoculture on the estate helps to preserve the natural biodiversity of the area, this is of the utmost importance today as international organizations like the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) emphasize the need for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The COP15 meeting brought together governments from around the world last month to discuss the urgent need to protect our planet's biodiversity and the importance of sustainable land use practices like those practiced at Roche des Bancs.
Brionnais, a French wine region in South Bourgogne
The organic farming practices adopted by Roche des Bancs plays an important role in preserving the natural biodiversity of the area and supporting the conservation of various endangered species. By eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they are protecting the local wildlife and promoting the growth of healthy soil. This, in turn, helps the vines to better withstand disease and pests, leading to a higher overall yield and better quality grapes while also preserving the ecosystem.
Furthermore, the commitment to biodiversity that's demonstrated by the winery is not only environmentally responsible but also brings unique characteristics to the wines they produce, as the vines that grow in a diverse and healthy ecosystem tend to produce grapes that have a more complex aroma and flavor profiles.
The wines produced by the Roche des Bancs estate are truly special, they are rich and layered with a distinct terroir that is unique to the Brionnais region. These wines have received international recognition for their originality and complexity, with many critics hailing them as some of the best in the region. This is evident by the special tasting hosted by La Revue du Vin de France last year, where they praised the wines as outstanding, praising their depth and uniqueness, making them some of the best wines in the region.
It's clear that this estate is not only making a difference in the Brionnais region, but it's also leading the way for a new era of sustainable and high-quality wine production. Its organic farming practices and commitment to preserving the land and its natural resources, as well as its vision of cultivating a community around the wines they produce, are an inspiration to all those involved in the wine industry. The future of the Brionnais region looks bright, thanks to the vision and passion of this one wine estate.
The article was written by: Emily Lester