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Brittany’s new wave of wines

Published:  10 March, 2023

Barnaby Eales uncovers some exceptional contemporary wines in an unexpected corner of France.

Just south of the port of St Malo, I walk into a farm building discreetly located in the rural village of Plerguer. Home to several concrete eggs, used Taransaud barrels and ‘inox’ steel tanks, I am in the winery of Édouard Cazals (pictured), a bright, adventurous winemaker in his early thirties, who is poised to release his first Breton wines in May – these are the first commercial wines of Brittany to be made in decades.

Having cut his teeth at coveted Grands Crus producers, including Tertre Roteboeuf, Cazals turned north in 2018, away from Bordeaux’s ‘vine monoculture’, to find a new freedom in the spacious, rocky, and culturally distinctive peninsula of Brittany, a popular tourist destination.

The EU’s liberalisation of vine planting rights, adopted in 2016, along with a changing climate, has allowed vineyards to flourish further north in France. At least, 200 hectares of commercial vineyards in Brittany should be operational over the next five years. Vine plantings and investments in Normandy and Les Hauts de France are at an earlier stage but are nonetheless increasing.

As professional pioneers in contemporary Brittany, Cazals and his wife, Pauline, first planted vines in the newly created Les Longues Vignes vineyard in 2019, on the nearby banks of the Rance, a stunning estuary better known for its cider production. The vines are in conversion to organic certification.

Cazals’s efforts reveal how wine of exceptional quality can be made in Brittany, a surprising feat, considering that his 2022 wines are his first Breton vintage.

Glaz blanc, Glaz rouge

His first wines are called Glaz, the name of a blue-green-grey colour in Breton, a Brythonic Celtic language, cousin to Cornish and Welsh.

Glaz blanc 2022, a still Chardonnay, has been fermented in used French oak barrels (malolactic fermentation) giving the well-integrated wine a slightly buttery note and texture, with citrus and white flowers.

Glaz rouge 2022, a blend of Grolleau (95%) and Pinot Noir, has a fleshy texture and notes of cherries, raspberries, and white pepper.

Fermentation in concrete eggs and ageing in barrel has provided this rustic grape with structure and finesse. These wines will be sold at €22 (£19.2) per bottle RRP when released in May this year.

These are exuberant, naturally balanced wines, showing freshness, floral intensity, purity, finesse, and ripeness; there is no manipulation of acidity or sugar levels, no chaptalisation, no green, unripe fruit.

“We had good weather in 2022, and I do not do much in terms of intervention, it’s more about being very precise each step of the way, from the vineyard to production,” Cazals says.

Cazals grows organic fruit and uses wild yeasts and low levels of sulphur. These are clean, accessible wines; ‘droit et nette’ as the French say.

“In terms of my style, I’ve wanted to strike a balance between modernity and tradition,” Cazals says. He has done just that.

Three further wines will be released in October: the concentrated Ar Hir Gwini 2022 Chardonnay (€49); the lengthy and intense Doris et Marion 2022 (60% Grolleau, 40% Pinot Noir, €49); and a traditional method sparkling Chardonnay, Sabali 2022.

By 2025, Cazals expects to be making 25,000 bottles of Breton wines.

The quality of his wines becomes even more apparent when I taste Cazals’s negoce wines, a separate range of wines made from Chenin and Cabernet Franc Anjou grapes he has bought from another grower.

“With the Chenin from Anjou, fermentation dragged on for four months due to high sugar levels and not the best quality fruit.” In contrast, Cazals says he had no issues at all with his first Breton wines.

While local growers are turning to viticulture, Brittany, a key agricultural region in Europe, is also fast attracting French producers from more established wine regions.

Further south in Brittany, in Sarzeau, Guillaume Hagnier, a former Champagne producer, together with his wife Marie Devigne, have this year made their first Chardonnay and traditional method sparkling wine.

Surrounded by the wild beauty of the Breton coastline, we are standing on the granite, gneiss and schist soils of the ancient Massif Armorican, which stretches right across Breizh, the Breton name of Brittany.

“We did not know what to expect, as this terroir is unknown to us,” Hagnier points out, emphatically satisfied with his first vintage.

As well as purity of fruit, Hagnier’s first organic Breton wines have flavours of cooked pear, a hint of quince and anise, suggesting that a unique profile of Chardonnay and other grapes can now be made in Brittany.

Historic wine growing areas of Brittany, including the Val de Rance by St Malo and the Presqu’ile of Rhuys, near the natural harbour of the Gulf of Morbihan, further south, are enjoying a renaissance.

That said, the tragic partition of Brittany of 1941, which France contentiously upholds today, means that this region and historic nation, has been cut off from the Pays Nantais, its biggest vineyard area, and Nantes, its former capital.

Removed from Brittany, the Pays Nantais, the home of Muscadet, is now found in the Loire Atlantique department in the administrative region of the Pays de La Loire.

Europe’s New Testing Ground for Disease Resistant Varieties

If the first Breton wines from the 2022 vintage have provided an auspicious start to renewed viticulture, organic growers are faced with decisions over which grapes to grow in a relatively cool, maritime climate, with certain locations of Brittany known for substantial rainfall. Chenin, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are popular grape varieties.

To ensure organic viticulture each year, maverick Breton oenologist Aurélien Berthou last year decided to plant the early ripening disease resistant grapes Soreli, Muscaris, Sauvignac and Fleurtai.

The vines for dry white and sparkling wine production are found on a beautiful 3-hectare site leading down to the Auray River, near the historic port of St Goustan, where Berthou teaches viticulture at the Lycée Kerplouz.

Unlike their counterparts in Normandy, the 27 members of the professional Association des Vignerons Bretons (AVB), created in November 2021, have formally agreed to not use synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers on vineyards.

Organic certification is not obligatory, but all members have vowed to farm organically.

Less inclined to experiment with grape varieties, Loic Fourure, the AVB President, opted in 2021 to plant 6 hectares of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Chenin, Pineau d'Aunis and Savagnin at his newly created Domaine de La Vigne et De L'Abeille in Theix Noyalo. It is found on wide slopes leading to the Atlantic Sea of the Gulf of Morbihan, a unique marine environment home to at least 40 islands.