I talk with Nicolas about another Nicolas - M. Joly from la Coulée de Serrant. Several years ago the infamous Loire winemaker said to me, "Keith, I don't understand this word winemaker - what does it mean?" Nicolals Seillan almost explodes, "I agree. We are vignerons. Winemaker? - you put yourself in a silo. You have to have the vision. Vignerons are a very broad consideration."
We return to the changes made by the Seillans in the cellar of Lassègue. Nicolas explains. "we can totally control each of our 31 tanks individually. We did a renovation of our barrel cellar in 2012. As we speak we are finishing the construction of a second cellar. We are going to vinify, age and bottle our second label, Les Cadrans de Lassègue, in a separate location, about 800 metres away.
I ask Nicolas about the 'globalisation' of wine styles, that has perhaps taken place in Saint-Émilion, and how does he think that producers should be working to express their terroirs. "You have a very good point. Until the recent years nobody was saying it but today there is, I believe, the consideration, as we say, to put back the Château in the middle of the village." Responding to whether the impact of climate change is negating 'terroir wines', Nicolas responds, "it depends if you are risk adverse, or not. You have to accept pressure, and you have to accept consequences from nature. I'm talking about variances in yields in particular, and during the recent years sometimes, maybe because some estates have a more financial rather than long term approach, there is pressure. They can be owned by investment banks; that is not to say what they do is wrong. I think it's important to really respect our origins. We make a Saint-Émilion. Saint-Émilion is about elegance; it is about the expression of the Cabernet Franc, and we have ways to respect these objectives by avoiding heavy extraction and making too muscular wines. That being said, we do have the expression of the sun, and some power that Lassègue expresses along with the elegance, balance and finesse. We do have up to 10% sometimes 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon. We are extremely meticulous to make sure we retain the elegance; we want to make wine to be enjoyed, and not one that sometimes are almost undrinkable."
The estate has taken numerous measures to improve sustainability, in addition to the abandoning of herbicides, and is obtaining HVE Level 3. This is the highest level of certification, and the vineyard must have high biodiversity and a low level of inputs. Nicolas explains, "I consider that HVE 3 brings more to the community at large.......since the beginning with have had Zones de Non Traitement (ZNT) of 5 metres. Even if we didn't have the certification in the early years we were acting with very similar considerations." I ask Nicolas how the estate is adapting to climate change. He says that when replanting has been undertaken, more Cabernet Franc has been used. " Cabernet Franc has shown us so far some excellent results in the challenging conditions, with the heat and the drought compared to Merlot. There's some very interesting results in terms of alcohol management. We decided to focus on the Cabernet Franc for several reasons: number one is the fact that Lassègue is equipped to receive the Cabernet Franc, and secondly because of what we observe with the coming global warning. Six to seven years ago we took those decisions already to re-orient the plantation with Cabernet Franc for that specific reason. So I don't know what the other appellations might do but maybe some may reconsider some lost or forgotten varieties." He says that Lassègue is fortunate in being largely on pure clay, which retains 40% water, and releases it progressively.
We discuss the increase in alcohol levels in recent years, and in response to my comment that I like to drink wine rather than just sip a highly alcoholic concoction, Nicolas: remarks, "what is a good bottle of wine? - it's an empty bottle". He states that they use a selection of cultivated yeasts. I have been researching the use of non-Saccharomyces yeasts, to limit alcohol production to perhaps 13 or 13.5%, and Nicolas notes, "like Bordeaux used to be. Your are a classic connoisseur of Bordeaux. Bordeaux, when you go over 14%, you have to ask questions to yourself. Of course at some point something is changing - Bordeaux used to be 12.5%."
I have always found Lassègue to be a deftly extracted wine, so I ask about the techniques used. "There is no protocol. We adjust to each vintage. We do some cold soaks: these bring a lot because you can capture the colour relatively rapidly, you protect your grapes in the tank. When I say cold soaks we can go down to six degrees. Cold soaks may be 3 or 4 days - this depends upon the colour - sometimes 1 or 2 days depending upon the varietal. In terms of pump-overs, we try to be gentle, sometimes just to keep the cap wet. We don't do pigeage, which can be quite violent sometimes. Two pump-overs per day is a maximum per tank. We are very careful with extraction. There is no formula. You have to face the reality of each vintage. You cannot make Château Petrus 1982 every year. You cannot turn a donkey into a racehorse. However, I love donkeys - they are beautiful. Take the 2007 vintage: Keith, you know Bordeaux - 2007 was shot before it was released. Later people came back to this vintage: it is a beautiful, elegant wine. You measure the performance and capacity of an estate in the difficult vintages. If you look at the frost that has affected Bordeaux in recent vintages, and if you look at the areas that were not affected by the frost, then you rediscover the old map of Bordeaux. Bordeaux used to be less than 60,000 hectares. Jess, Barbara and my parents were very proud to have a presence in Bordeaux but they picked what they believed was a jewel. Lassègue used to be, for 260 years in the same family. It was this estate, not another one - it is one of the ancient estates of Saint-Émilion, not by accident: elevated, facing south south-west, on the Côte, with a collection of more than 15 different types of soils. When I say it is traditional I go back to Julius Cesar, when surveying the blocks of land: here I will put the pigs, here the cows, here the cereals and right there I will put a little block of vines. He was considering the micro-crus - we did not invent anything, my father and I. The poor little legionnaires who were retiring with one arm less - they were considering the micro-crus."