Day 19.1: Pithon-Paille
Jesse Becker is a master sommelier and co-owner of périphériquewine.
“Welcome to Chinon,” the young vigneron announced as we sped past the Centrale nucléaire de Chinon towards Bourgueil. We all simultaneously glanced back in the Citroën’s rear-view mirror to watch the steam rise from the plant’s massive cooling towers. He then added, “it’s so ugly,” and returned to our conversation about grape growers, natural wine, and meddling financiers. Chinon’s industrial suburbs and congested autoroute seemed a strange backdrop for discussing non-interventionist winemaking, but the 24-year-old Joseph Paillé continued to express his determination to find grapes and establish a new Domaine for himself and his family. We pulled up to the home of a grower in Bourgueil who grows organic Cabernet Franc on the plateau in the preferred argile-calcaire soils of that appellation. As we approached the grower’s home, Joseph paused and reiterated our purpose, “we are vignerons, but now we are négociants too.”
Joseph Paillé is the stepson of Jo and Isabelle Pithon and is the second half of a new négociant-éleveur known as Pithon-Paillé. Jo and Isabelle began as vignerons, establishing Domaine Pithon in 1978 with just three and a half hectares in Anjou. Jo, whom Charles Sydney calls “the Loire’s gentle giant,” is indeed a big man with a big heart and a pair of badass mutton chops. His wines were recognized early on for their unique and individual expression of Anjou terroir. I once met a chain-smoking American importer who dismissed Jo’s wines as “oxidative.” I’ve only been seriously paying attention to wine since 2001, so I have less experience than that chain-smoking wine importer, but it’s never occurred to me to call Jo’s wines oxidative, at least not in any negative sense.
What Jo’s wines are is vinous: grapes are pressed manually, vinified in wood using ambient yeasts, and aged on the fine lees for about 10 months. All Pithon wines, now Pithon-Paillé, are aged in barrels, “not new, because we don’t want the taste of new barrels,” said Joseph. It’s to allow the wines to breathe, that is, to become vinous. The wines can be very ripe, broad, and textural, and maybe for some, they’re too much, even too real. Jo once said to me, “in the Pithon style, I am the best.” Who would want to argue?
Jo was aiming for more freshness near the end of his tenure as winemaker for Domaine Jo Pithon. That makes it sound as though Jo might have been fired from his own Domaine, and in a sense, he was. Jo and Isabelle built up their holdings to include parcels in the crus of Savennières and Quarts de Chaume. While the accolades continued to pour in (he was Le Revue du Vin’s sweet winemaker of the year in 1994), so did the debt, and the Pithons sought backing from a wealthy businessman in Angers. The arrangement fell through, and in the process the Pithons lost their Domaine. This would be a very sad way to end the story if it weren’t for three important details: Les Treilles, Wendy, and Joseph.
Les Treilles was the only vineyard the Pithons owned outright, and Jo and Isabelle managed to hang on to it in the transition. It’s a seven-hectare, extremely rocky, south-facing site with a 70% incline in some sections. Joseph admitted to me that he’s rolled the tractor more than once, and most of the work must be done by hand. Les Treilles became overgrown with trees and brush after World Wars I and II. Jo explained that during this time, “much of the Anjou turned to mass-produced and commercial styles.” But Les Treilles, it seems, was just too difficult to work, too difficult to commercialize.
Jo’s vision for Les Treilles was to create a new “serious” version of Anjou Blanc. Jo and Joseph cleared Les Treilles with the help of a horse, removed the overgrowth, built new terraces, and planted the vines by hand. Today, the vineyard is certified agriculture biologique. It’s from this site that the Pithon-Paillé will produce a new “classic” style for the Anjou appellation.
As the era of Domaine Pithon drew to a close, Joseph Paillé’s was just beginning. Joseph and I first met in 2004 in Burgundy while he was a stagière with négociant Nicolas Potel. This was just prior to his stage with a winery in Virginia where Joseph met Wendy Wilson, a South African who was also learning the wine trade. The next time I saw Joseph in 2008, just after Jo’s split from the banker in Angers, we stayed with the Pithon family at Château Fresnaye, a drafty “castle on loan from a friend” in St Aubin-de-Luigné. The castle had been for sale (and I believe it still is if you’re looking for one), and was sitting empty. When the Pithon’s lost their winery, a friend offered use of the castle. It just happened to be equipped with an underground dungeon that was easily repurposed as a wine cellar. It’s the perfect place for storing real and natural wine.
A few days into our stay, Wendy arrived from Newcastle to assist in the vines at Les Treilles and help crush the grapes that Joseph bought from the grower in Bourgueil. When I phoned the winery for an update yesterday, it was Wendy who fielded the call and told me of their recent purchase of 1.2 hectares in Bonnes-Blanches, a lieu-dit in Layon directly facing Les Treilles. Wendy reminded me that the parcels in Bourgueil were from the excellent lieux-dits of Les Graviers and Le Coteau, and that there were new wines on their way from Chinon and Saumur-Champigny. There will also be Savennières and Quarts-de-Chaumes under the Pithon-Paillé label, but my favorite wine will always be Les Treilles. Wendy’s last name is now Paillé, and they’ve moved out of the drafty castle into a new cellar in St Aubin-de-Luigné. I’m glad to hear about the new cellar, but someone really ought to buy that castle.
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Up next: An old school master