Meet the Winemaker: François Tissot, Les 7 Pierres, Ardèche

Bonjour François, where do you come from? 

I am from Nancy, in Lorraine in the north east of France not far from the borders of Luxembourg and Germany.  Although wedged between Alsace and Champagne, Lorraine is not known for being a land of wine. What gave me the taste of wine were the pretty bottles of Burgundy that my father had in his cellar, which developed my palate as I grew up.  

Despite my taste for wine, it was almost by chance that I studied oenology. This was one of the specialities I could do in the agronomy school I attended in Toulouse.

It was the one I chose, at the beginning more out of curiosity and because I thought, “you’re French, it would be nice if you knew a bit more about wine”. And then along the way, I got into the game and realized with my internships that making wine is simply a profession that I love !!! A bit like Obelix fell into the magic potion pot, I fell into the wine, but unlike Obelix, I never came out of it….

What do you enjoy in life?

I have the great privilege of having had 5 children and what I love most of all is spending time with them. Despite all the difficulties that go with it, confinement is a great excuse for it. And in the same way that I love to share my passion for wine, when asked, I love to teach my children too. Luckily, it’s not all we do… Their favorite activity at the moment, is to do “fights” with me on the trampoline in the garden !!!

What I like most about wine is the conviviality and the pleasure of sharing and drinking a good bottle. And in my daily life, all excuses are good to “drink a canon” with friends or people passing by. It creates a bond, and makes everyday life easier, what more could you ask for?????

If I didn’t live in the vineyards, I would live in the mountains which is my other passion, I was even a ski instructor for 3 years! It’s really an environment in which I feel really good and very close to nature (sometimes even closer than in my vineyards) because it often shows us how fragile we are.  Whether in winter or in summer, the mountain also gratifies us with sumptuous and varied landscapes, from a rosy sunset over a snowy valley to the herd of cows grazing peacefully to produce the milk that will then be transformed into a delicious Reblochon cheese !!!

I don’t have much time to read, but I have recently literally devoured James Redfield’s novel “The Prophecy of the Andes” in which he talks about a universal spirituality that is not the prerogative of any religion.

What don’t you enjoy?

I don’t like monotonous days, i.e. a day where I’m going to spend 8 hours doing the same thing. Fortunately our job is varied and it is rarely the case….What I don’t like to see or hear is disrespect and hypocrisy. 

FRANÇOIS, THE WINES OF LES 7 PIERRES, HIS WORK

What is a vintage that you loved to vinify?

I loved vinifying the 2004 vintage. I was at Chateauneuf du Pape, it was a late, and a cold vintage. I was Cellar Master in a very windy cellar and I didn’t need to use any system to cool the tanks. The wines that came out of it were of a rare elegance and finesse for Chateauneuf. I understood that year the great red wines of CNDP are not vinified at temperatures of 30°C (as often advised) but rather at 25°C.

What do you like to eat or drink?

I’m a big fan of Asian food, unfortunately it’s not as easy to match with red wines as with French food… but with whites we manage 😉  I have a small mono-maniac tendency, meaning I drink mostly wine. I have trouble with bubbles, and strong alcohol. That said, in the middle of summer in the burning Ardéchois sun, a beer is often welcome. It’s good timing, in Ardèche we have a profusion of small brewers !!!! As for water, only to brush my teeth….:))))))

When did you decide to create your own domain?

I’ve always had it in the back of my mind from the moment I decided to go into wine. I started looking in 2008 when I was running Chateau Paradis in Provence. Plan A was to find something nearby and keep my job. As Provence was out of my financial reach, I enlarged the search area and it was in the Ardèche that I found the property of my dreams: a beautiful, historic stone farmhouse set in the middle of 5 Ha of vines (at the time abandoned). 

Why organic viticulture?  Does the climate make organic viticulture easy to implement?

Organic viticulture should be the name given to traditional agriculture, meaning the traditional way before the second world war, because we have finally come to realize that chemistry is a weapon of mass destruction for the life of the soil. This is where I believe the real interest of ORGANIC agriculture lies, in BIODIVERSITY and not only in the respect of the AB specifications. From this point of view, even if it means throwing a paving stone in the pond, I prefer the HVE label, which takes much more account of this notion.

We have a very meridional climate in southern Ardèche, therefore very hot and relatively windy. And in fact, apart from the Black Rot which can sometimes be virulent, it’s quite easy to work organically in this area.  On the contrary, the climate changes do not help us particularly in this objective. For several years now, we have been observing an increase in the frequency of meteorological phenomena such as frost, hail or drought…. 

THE VINES OF LES SEPT PIERRES

Why aren’t all your wines organic certified ?

The founding idea of Les Sept Pierres is to bring together under one name the seven great different appellations that exist in the Ardeche (Saint Joseph, Condrieu, Cornas, Saint Joseph, Saint Peray, Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du vivarais and of course the coteaux de l’Ardèche). If organic or HVE are part of the constant preoccupations, the first of them remains the supply of grapes or wines in each of its appellations.

All my partners, without exception, work in an environmental approach, at least HVE, but they do not necessarily claim it, because the slopes, especially in the north of the department, make the work particularly difficult and each intervention in the vineyard mobilizes considerable energy. Organic farming is present in all decisions, but it is not necessarily easy to claim it. I am confident that within 3 to 7 years the majority of my wines, if not all of them, will be certified AB or HVE. 

Why did you choose to plant the following grapes?

Syrah: I have always thought that Syrah and Pinot Noir were among the rare grape varieties that could stand on their own to produce wines with character, freshness, finesse and elegance. Syrah remains the common thread of the red grape varieties from the north to the south of the Ardèche (even if in the South, it is rather gamay and merlot that dominate).

Pinot noir: It was the great Burgundies in my father’s cellar that gave me the taste of wine. It was just evident to me that I would plant pinot noir the day I had my own vineyard. It so happens that in the Southern Ardèche, the alchemy of the very poor sandy soils of the Mas Heritage compensate for the difference in sunshine that can be compared to Burgundy. The first wines made from these Pinot grapes are very promising with a real typicity and a lot of finesse.

Grenache: I’m not a fan of Grenache-dominant wines. It’s often a bit oxidative and a bit heavy because a Grenache berry ripe before 14.5 % alc simply doesn’t exist…. on the other hand in blending, I find Grenache almost fundamental, especially for wines to be drunk young, as it brings fruit and roundness (because it’s rich in glycerol) which often very effectively counterbalances the impetuosity of a young Syrah…

Sauvignon: I simply love Sauvignon, it alone combines freshness and aromatic intensity, minerality, tension and elegance !!! what more could you ask for??????

Viognier:If Syrah is for the reds, Viognier is the emblematic grape variety of Ardèche for the whites. There is of course the Condrieu whose reputation is well established, but not only. Viognier thrives wonderfully on the different types of rocky soils of the Ardèche, and there are a few bottles (including of course Les Sept Pierres…;)) with just incredible price/pleasure ratios !!!

Chardonnay: I use Chardonnay in white in the same spirit as Grenache in red, because it is a very sure bet. Obviously, one does not find in Southern Ardèche all the powerful aromas of the great Burgundies. Nevertheless, it is in a way, the backbone of my wines around which I build them, and the hint of roundness that I look for in my whites.

Riesling: A little eccentricity linked to my own personal history. I planted this vine as a tribute to my maternal grandmother who meant so much to me. She was of Alsatian origin and I learned in the last years of her life that she had a vineyard in her youth. In a way, I took over the torch and I confess to being proud of her for the magnificent person that she was.

THE WINES OF FRANÇOIS TISSOT : TODAY & TOMORROW

What is your oak program?

I have compared the wood treatment to our own spine: we know it is there, that it exists, otherwise we would not be able to stand upright, and yet we do not see it. In wine, it is the same, we know that wood structures the wine, but we must not feel it, neither by its vanilla aromas, nor by its more or less rough tannins.

That doesn’t mean that I never use new wood, but it’s quite rare. In the end, it is the wines that decide for themselves when they are born…. It’s in the Cornas that I use it most regularly, sometimes a hint in the whites, almost never in my other vintages. Only the rosé doesn’t see the barrel at all and there are very few barrels ever used in the Côtes du Vivarais and the Côtes du Rhône. All the others are almost 100% matured in older barrels but respecting at all costs the spirit of the wine. 

On your estate, which grape varieties are early? late? do they ripen easily? is this an advantage with the current global warming?

The harvest often starts at the end of August with Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot, then there is a pause of 10 to 20 days until the reds are ready to be picked, and we finish in the group with Riesling and Viognier. Only the Grenache is sometimes a little capricious and takes a long time to ripen, which can be an advantage in vinification to keep freshness and drinkability.
As explained above, the strength of my terroir is its poverty linked to the predominance of sand from the sandstones. Global warming is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage until now because almost no matter what happens, this terroir produces balanced grapes.

What do you like about the Ardèche region?  What makes this region so unique?

What makes the Ardèche so different from the other French departments is above all, the fact that it is the only region that has neither motorway nor railway station. In the 21st century, it’s still quite incredible… Beyond this anecdote, it is also very revealing of the nature of the Ardèche territory that is still so wild and varied in its landscapes with mountains, cliffs, plateaus but also plains. Contrary to other departments, the Ardèche has managed to preserve its authenticity and one does not see the seaside resorts flourishing there. 

Nevertheless, the Ardèche is very touristic but very good-natured with many family campsites that do not disfigure the landscape. And it takes much more than a week’s stay to visit all the wonders of the department between the Ardèche gorges (and the famous Pont d’Arc), all the picturesque villages (many of which are listed as some of the most beautiful villages in France) or the famous reconstitution of the Chauvet Cave (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which still houses the oldest rock paintings in the world…

Enough about tourism, let’s get back to wine !!! It is also very interesting to note the two distinct climatologies that exist between the North and the South of the Ardèche. In the south, the climate is very southern with temperatures that have nothing to envy to those of the heart of Provence, and in the north more continental with cooler temperatures that perfectly correspond to the needs of the Syrah, which makes it its preferred terroir.

I often hear people say: “Oh really?  France also makes wine in Ardèche?”  Of course!! And even great wines!!!!! Simply, they come from appellations (Cornas, Saint Joseph and Condrieu) whose prestige goes far beyond the fame of the Ardèche.  I also regularly hear “Oh really?  Ardèche is part of the Côtes du Rhône…?” First of all, it must be clearly understood that Côtes du Rhône is not a wine region as we could talk about Burgundy but an appellation (in the same way as Gevrey Chambertin or Aloxe Corton) which is part of the great family of Rhône Valley wines. And so yes, the Ardèche is indeed part of the Rhône Valley, and we couldn’t do better since its entire eastern border from north to south is delimited by the … Rhône !

On the other hand, and this is a fact, what is much less known is the Coteaux de l’Ardèche appellation which suffers a little from the great notoriety of the appellations further North. It is the whole purpose of Les Sept Pierres, to transform this weakness into a strength, to rely on the strength of Cornas, Saint Joseph Condrieu and other Saint Péray, to make the Coteaux de l’Ardèche known and show that one does not necessarily need to ruin oneself to enjoy a beautiful bottle. We are right in what I like to call the “Vins de Copains”.  

Differences/Specifics of (terroir & vinification):
Coteaux d’Ardèche – Rouge, Blanc, Rosé

It is 6800 Ha 4 main soil types

  • garrigue terroir
  • marl and marl-sandstone erosion soils
  • Deep, stony soils of infinite variety
  • The hills with red sandy-clay, and stony, non-calcareous soils, on very old Jurassic sandstone. 

It is on this last type that the wines of Les Sept Pierres and Mas Heritage are mainly produced. The sandstone soils being very poor, have an enormous advantage of producing wines with relatively low degrees of alcohol (13% alc) and decent acidity despite the sunshine and the high temperatures of the region. 

Besides Coteaux de l’Ardèche, you also work with 6 other famous Ardèche appellations.  What makes each of them so unique?

Cotes du Rhone: 1200 Ha, alluvial soils and pebbles rolled by the Rhone. Perfect mix between the aromatic typicity of the Côtes du Rhône and the freshness of the Syrah.

Côtes du Vivrais: 290 Ha, hillsides on limestone land with thin soils rich in stones and marly limestone. The wines of this appellation find their balance in the subtle combination of stony and marly limestone. 

St Peray: Terroir of 98 Ha remarkable for its geodiversity: chalky clay, siliceous with loess and alluvial deposits giving dry white wines with low acidity and great aromatic complexity.

Condrieu: A 200 Ha terroir made up of a granitic mother rock dotted with clayey fissures allowing the vines to take root and remain in full health.

Cornas: Soil of 150 ha resulting from decomposed granites giving rise to sandy clay and limestone soils. The resulting wines are racy and powerful.

St. Joseph: Terroir of 1330 Ha (of which 13% is white) with many soil variations. The northern zone from which the wines of Les Sept Pierres are made is mainly composed of granite and soft gneiss giving wines of extreme finesse and subtlety.

What do you like in a wine: that it keeps, that it’s good right away…?

Above all, I love wine because it allows us to share moments of pleasure and conviviality.  And as we have summer vacation rentals on the Estate, there are a lot of people who come by…. I’m also a little impatient, and it’s a euphemism…

For these reasons, I try as much as possible to make wines ready to drink right away. However, I like to believe that the magic of wine will work and that some of my bottles will age well and for a long time…. 

Other Projects?  Boutique?

We have our boutique where we sell our wines and artisanal-made chocolates!

I met a Luxembourger less than a year ago, we shared a mutual passion for wine right away. He has become a true friend and we have joint projects to plant vines. We just need to agree on the grape varieties… He wants syrah and I want pinot… But when two wine lovers discuss together, they always end up agreeing !!! ;))) 

What are the regional pairings (meals) for your wines? 
The Ardèche quail with the IGP Ardèche rouge. Roasted Pork and boar are very regional.

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