Grape(s): 100% Cabernet Franc
Localization: Anjou, Loire Valley, France
Tasting Notes: Ripe plum, juicy cherry, red apple core and chalk tones dominate the nose. Crushed strawberries mixed with invigoratingly fresh Bing cherry and red apple flavors explode on the palate.
Food pairing: Works with herb-encrusted roast chicken, pan-seared duck breast, artisan pork, duck or rabbit paté, cured meats and young or aged mild cheeses on rustic bread.
The Domain: Olivier Cousin has 12 hectares of vines in and around the village of Martigné-Briand, which is nestled in the fertile and generous Anjou part of Loire Valley. Since 2012, Olivier has passed most of these plots (planted with Gamay, Grolleau, Chenin Blanc, and Pineau d’Aunis) to his son Baptiste. Baptiste turns them into his own intriguing natural wines under the La Batossay label (that we also import), while Olivier focused only on the Cabernet Franc, his all-time favorite grape to vinify. (He was planning to plant some new Chenin and Grolleau plantations though, the last time we visited – à suivre!)
Olivier is one of the natural wine trailblazers not only in his region but for the whole natural wine movement. A true OG and farmer above all, he’s been plowing his vineyards only with his horses for a very long time (“before it was cool”, one could say). His wines have been made without any additives including sulfites since the 1980s, a decision that led to several remarkable fights with the French wine classification system back in the day.
Visiting Olivier in his big family house in the heart of Martigné-Briand is always a treat for both body and mind, providing you not only with living, enticing wines from Olivier’s cellar, but also with a lot of food for thought. Take it from our colleague Nick who spent a mind-changing week with Olivier a couple of years ago: “At first glance, Olivier Cousin can give a gruff impression. His grizzled grey beard, muddy rubber boots, and subdued demeanor suggest a man who seems to rise right out of the earth, plants and vines he cultivates. After a week of staying with Olivier and his family, and talking with him, what I discovered instead was a caring man, deeply connected to the people in his life–a very centered presence in a world often filled with commercialism and dollar signs. In many ways, the experience of staying with Olivier represents a return to the old ways of the world, as does drinking his wine. It would be difficult after this trip to readjust to the outside world.
Olivier considers his vineyard to be a garden, and he cultivates it with the care one would cultivate a small and very treasured patch of tomatoes. Like all good biodynamic farmers, he does not believe in monoculture. We experienced this bounty first-hand in the food we ate every day. Lettuce from the garden every night for dinner, blood sausage he made himself, and chickens killed and roasted the same day. Olivier believes biodiversity is essential to healthy soil and therefore healthy plants and vines, and to a healthy planet.
You may have heard about the horses Olivier uses to cultivate the soil. Olivier doesn’t use horses to plow because it makes better wine (although it does). He uses them because he simply likes working with animals. “I am just not interested in working with heavy machinery, it is much more pleasant to work with an animal. It’s not a question of expense either, there’s no difference in cost.” One must spend more time using the horses, but Olivier does so gladly because the connection with animals is important to him. He also spends his time helping other winemakers learn how to work with horses, and has spawned a whole crop of disciples who prefer to work as he does, including his son Baptiste who have gradually took the family domaine over, since 2012.
So why are horses better than tractors? There is a debate raging right now amongst biodynamic and organic winemakers on whether plowing is a good thing. Olivier falls into the camp that believes plowing is an essential part of good winemaking. For him, worms and their castings must be able to do their work on the land. When you don’t use herbicides and pesticides, the soil is full of nutrients on which the worms can feed, but he thinks you really need to churn up the earth between the vines to give them space to burrow.
Many use tractors to plow and that is effective, but Olivier believes that the tractor crushes the ground, and plowing should be doing the opposite: ie, to avoid compacting the soil. When a horse cantors through the vines, the hooves only touch down here and there, leaving most of the ground untouched. In addition, horses make natural fertilizer. When you watch videos of the horses at work, you can see that the machine in use is minimally intrusive. It leaves most of the grass intact while simply cutting like a knife through the ground.
What’s awesome is that Olivier cultivates winemakers and vintage crew the same way he cultivates his vines. His domaine is like a revolving door through which natural winemakers and those interested in working the land continually cycle in and out. Not a day went by a new winemaker or intern didn’t pop in, always with a gift of wine, or once a batch of freshly made chevre cheese. They would sit and eat with all of us, chatting and drinking with Olivier long into the night. People seem to come from far and wide in France to learn from Olivier, intrigued by his connection to the land and animals, hoping perhaps to capture some of the magic bottled in his wine. Olivier gives his time freely and with pleasure, because he enjoys getting to know new people.
After speaking with Olivier for the better part of a week, I began to realize there’s something different about him. For Olivier, the entire year is a rehearsal for the concert that the harvest would become. “And the main purpose of this concert is not to make wine, that’s just a by-product; the real thing we are practicing for is to make the experience the most pleasant possible, for everyone involved, to bring together a team that enjoys working the land.”
When you take a step back and look at the whole of Olivier Cousin’s life, you see something quite remarkable. Here is a man who spends most of his time doing something with which he feels an intense connection. Whether it’s working with his animals; tending to the earth, plants and vines; or meeting and enjoying the company of winemakers, interested interns, wine buyers and customers; he seems to be focused on things he enjoys doing. His natural pleasure of life radiates so much that people come from far and wide just to experience it first-hand. He doesn’t have to work to sell his wine, it sells itself once you taste it. Isn’t this something we all aspire to?”