Terroir - the all encompassing word that specifies the region, climate, microclimat, soil, aspect, topography, etc., etc., etc. I have to admit, I cringe sometimes when I hear the word slipped into a sentence for someone to show off that they know “something” about wine, like the word “umami” in the food world. But in reality it counts, it counts a whole lot when you're talking about wine, and even more so when you’re talking about natural wine.
Sébastien Riffault seems to understand and exploit this concept for the better on his small 12 hectare estate in Sancerre. Several cuvées come from just a single hectare of land, displaying that parcel’s specific characteristics, different from the plot just a stone's throw away.
In the vineyard Sébastien farms biodynamically, allowing certain flowers, grasses, and plants to grow along with the vines, encouraging the right insects to aid in the biodiversity of his land. Any plowing is done by horse, and the droppings increase the nitrogen and other elements in the soil - no chemicals nor artificial fertilizers are used. All of this adds to, and amplifies, his terroir, something chemically sprayed vines, and homogenized vineyards can’t display to this degree. His atypical methods don’t stop there - harvests are done much later than is normal, with some grapes even affected by botrytis. All of the wines ferment with native yeast in large oak barrels, with the exception of “Les Quarterons,” which is in stainless steel tank, all undergo malolactic fermentation, and all age on the lees, some for several years. No fining, filtration, nor SO2, again with the exception of “Les Quarterons,” is added, and bottling is done by gravity.
The wines themselves are expressive, extremely unique and individualized, and arguably un-Sancerre-like, except for their marked acidity, something typical of the appellation.
The 2016 Sancerre “Akmeniné” is golden in the glass. The nose emits preserved lemons, bruised apple, honey, beeswax, and seasalt, and on the palate, that zap of bright acidity catches you first, followed by nutty, almost sherry-like notes. It’s medium weight on the palate, and the wine ends with a savory, yellow miso-eque finish. Classic - hardly, intriguing - very much so. And as if these wines weren’t delicious and interesting enough on their own, they excel with food pairings. Cheeses explode off the plate when matched with a wine like this, and composed dishes, like blackened cod with a chilled whitebean salad and toasted hazelnuts, mirror the savory and nutty nuances of the wine equally as well.
Although Sébastien Riffault’s wines aren’t typical to the rest of the wines being made in the appellation, they do show a unique, focused, and uncompromising style, and yes, they exhibit plenty of “terroir.” (Cringe)