News from the mountains
Wendy Wilson has been winemaker at Le Soula since 2015. She was born and raised in South Africa before moving to Virginia USA when she was 28. There she worked with Michael Shaps but, though she loved the state, she found the clay soils and humid terroir challenging to work organically.
In 2005, she met the organic wines of France. It was a real game changer: And, needing to know more, she co-created Pithon Paillé on The Loire. After six years, she felt she understood how little intervention was actually required in the winemaking process.
So, in 2014 she and her son Anatole moved to the beautiful region of Roussillon and it was there she first tasted Le Soula Blanc 2011: At last she felt an emotion with wine. The following year, Le Soula’s winemaker, Gerald Standley, left for Bordeaux and in 2016 Wendy took over the reins at Le Soula.
Being a Farmer
Though we practice biodynamics, we remain farmers. We are forever threatened with factors outside our reach such as climate change. The frosts after bud break, usually from mid to end May, have become a real threat. We are now obliged to prune twice: The first time we leave the longer stem alone but, once we feel the threat is over, we go back and prune it to its desired length. This might save the fruit for the year, but in the long term it effects the lifespan of the vines. We are pushing them to their limits in a harsh, dry, windy environment with poor soil. But we are constantly checking out the moon’s phases as to choose the best times to prune – or to work in the cellar.
TERROIR: “The terroir at Le Soula is different from elsewhere in the Roussillon. We are on a white rocky soil, which consists of gneiss (decomposed granite), quartz, feldspath and mica and though we are surrounded by mountains and hills, we are on the very top of the plateau of the Fenouilledes. Our altitude (up to 650m) on granite is to our advantage allowing us to make a lower alcohol wine.
BIODYNAMIC: Our farming has been under biodynamic principles since 2008 but we were officially certified by Demeter in 2013. The biodynamic treatments appear to have made yields more stable and the vines seem stronger and in better balance. This is important to the plants and to the flavours they produce. We spray horn manure at dusk and spread horn silica at dawn. Nettles are fermented in water for 2-5 days and they bring an exciting vitality to the soil and to the vine. We also make bouillons of horsetail and meadowsweet plants. We are continuing to use the plants that we find around us and applying them to our vineyards. In our harsh environment, biodynamic viticulture makes perfect sense.
TEMPERATURE: The white rock reflects the sun and our temperatures range between 3-6° cooler than the valley. The cycle of the vine is shorter as we harvest later and the vines have less time to rest in the dormant stage; but in the end we manage to produce lighter alcohol wines with more minerality and acidity. We are surrounded by the ‘maquis’, a dense low forest with trees like green oak that can usually withstand the drought.
WIND: The altitude also means we have lots of wind, which is a positive. The Tramontane (meaning ‘between mountains’) blows often, especially in winter. Pruning in these conditions is extreme. We have amazing sunny days, but the icy cold winds find any exposure and sneaks in behind your neck and sleeves and, sooner than you realise, you have bone chill! But more wind means less disease. Our main problems are mildew and odium which can wipe out a harvest as we saw in 2020; but having this wind blowing on the plateau helps mitigate the pressure of these diseases. Less disease means less spraying with our biodynamically permitted sprays – copper and sulphur. However drying winds mean less yield.
POLLINATORS: Bombus Bombus the bumble bee and all his little buddies are most welcome in Le Soula’s vineyards. Biodiversity is the key and we entice birds and bees by sowing flowers and planting hedges. Every time I plant a vineyard, I add a row of hedging. The birds love them, and we hope that they consume the negative insects that do damage in our vineyards. We have also installed honeybees in hives around the vineyards, so we are very careful using the insecticides that are obligatory in our region to counter the grapevine disease Flavescence Dorée. And more recently we have created bird nests in the vineyards as well. Our biodynamic viticulture has led to significantly increased presence of living organisms in our soil, which renders it friable and aerated.
SOIL: The way we work our soils is important. We have found that leaving grass in between the rows is actually to our advantage and allows for all types of insects and micro-organisms to survive in a very hot and dry region. In summer we then mow the grass, which decomposes and helps with a bit of Nitrogen. This is super important as our soils are very poor and we have about 20-50cm of topsoil before we hit mother rock. We aerate the soils every 5 or so years.
WATER STORAGE/ SOLAR: We are collecting rainwater from our rooftops and we have the capacity to store 40 000l of water. We run our office on solar energy from panels which are on the roof of our tractor palace.
WILD BOAR AND DEER: Our yields are extremely low as we have both poor soil and wild boar! Ours is a very dry region and the wild boar are mad for our grapes: So when the boars see these juicy berries on the vines, no height or electricity can come between them and a good drink, which is disastrous for our yields. We have fenced up as much as we can in the hope of preventing damage from these pigs. A 1.5 m fence with high tension and 40 cm folded to the exterior is a good deterrent for the boar, but not for the deer, which enjoy the young vine shoots in spring.
GRAPES: The varieties planted here are a mix of the traditional grapes from the region like Grenache, Carignan (planted in 1919) and Macabeu (some planted in 1900) – but also we have Sauvignon Blanc! I love growing these small acidic grapes on an acidic soil. There is a fusion that happens and the result is an amazingly bright minerality, not the green herbaceous notes that are usually associated with Sauvignon blanc. I put this grape in some new Stockinger oak and the result is amazing!
VINTAGE RELEASE DATES: At Le Soula, we release the wines when they are ready to be consumed. This means that we release the wines when we decide that they are becoming ready to drink: So we released the 2016 white before the 2015 white. We have a similar approach to our reds.
Le Soula Blanc 2017 and Le Soula Rouge 2015 are available via Tanners and Uncorked @ £35 a bottle.