Interview with Brendan Stater-West

May 17, 2021
Brézé & Bizay His Way
Brendan Stater-West at Romain Guiberteau's winery

Photo and interview by Ted Vance
Spring 2021

How did an Oregon native like you end up in France?

I moved to France in 2007 after I finished up my studies in Oregon. I double majored in French. I wanted to leave the US for a period of time, looking for adventure, and Europe offered so much of what I wanted. And I met a French woman whom I was married to until a few years ago.

How did you find your way to Romain Guiberteau?

I lived in Paris for several years and finally moved to Saumur in 2012 to work as Romain’s apprentice. Before that I was working in retail sales in Paris with Joshua Adler, who moved on to start Paris Wine Company. He and I were selling Romain’s wines in the store next to the Louvre. Romain’s wines were some of my favorites in the shop.

Once I started tasting through more Saumur wines, I quickly became fixated on the region as a whole: the vibrancy, the electricity. These were the wines that really spoke to me—almost on a spiritual level; but that’s another subject…

How have you seen Romain grow over the years?

Maybe the most obvious thing is that he’s mellowed out—I guess that’s the most honest answer. He’s also become more in tune with his different vineyard sites. He has the same intensity as his wines and these days they’ve found a greater balance and harmony. I can’t explain why, but perhaps it’s the same for his personal life. He’s been more in tune with his surroundings, like the vineyards and the perspectives of others. He’s truly an altruistic person. He loves giving things. That may even drive his wines: he wants to give people the best he can give in his wines.

How much of a part has Romain played in your company’s development?

He’s helped me a lot, especially with the market for my wines and his wisdom on what to do. I feel especially lucky in that I’m able to benefit from both his mistakes and his successes.

What other wine regions or vignerons have influence on your wine style?

Of course, I love Burgundy. I love Pinot Noir. I think specific varieties on certain terroirs are just transcendent. I think probably Fred Mugnier’s are the first ones that pop into my mind. They are benchmark wines for me because they have this extremely fine touch, an ethereal side—maybe even a heavenly side to them. This is the kind of wine that I want to achieve. There’s something in his wines I find both rooted in its minerality and structure and also lifted, high up, where a polarity exists between the elements. This is what I want to try to achieve with my wines.

As far as other favorite regions, Muscadet is one of the top for me in the Loire. Jura white and red inspire me too. I’m also totally digging wines from Languedoc. Riesling. Gruner Veltiliner. I’m not so knowledgeable about Spain or Italy, but the Albariño wines Manuel Moldes brought for us on your trip together to Saumur were a real surprise in how good they were.

Farming principals?

Yves Herody method. Yves wanted to help farmers get back fertility in the soils while at the same time rebuild the soil structure, which are two things that don’t come together for a lot of people. The idea is that we need to introduce fresh organic fertilizer into the vineyards every year: cow manure, cover crops like fava bean, rye, clover, mustard, etc—things that capture nitrogen and put it into the soil. The plants are later tilled into the soil during the winter along with the composted manure. What it’s doing is replenishing the soil microbes and organic matter so that the different soil horizons interact better together. It’s a close relative to biodynamic methods of soil preparation. I’ve been doing this since 2018.

Romain’s wines have commonly shown more reductive elements compared to wines from other growers on Brézé. What do you attribute this to?

I think that residual SO2 in the vineyards is not the ultimate cause. But after pressing we keep a lot of the heavy lees, which is really rich in nitrogen that the yeast needs. Already this makes for more reductive elements. We don’t give the whites any air during fermentation to resolve some of these characteristics. If you compared Romain’s white wines with Arnaud Lambert’s, one of the biggest differences is that Romain works with more lees.

How has the climate changed since you began with Romain in 2012?

The climate has been whacky ever since I’ve been here. This year (2021) seems to be a later year. Things are changing. It’s noticeable. It’s erratic and harder to predict. These days the forecasts are becoming less correct with patterns. It’s tricky because we can’t plan perfectly, but we collect a lot of information from many different sources to make our decisions.

What adjustments have happened strictly by the influence of climate change?

We used to deleaf more but have stopped that almost entirely because the summers are like 100 degrees now. In 2019, for example, we had a severe drought and everything shriveled up. We’re also considering more grass in the vineyards, to let it go until its past its growth cycle, then roll over it with a type of pincher that creates a kind of mulch that keeps the soils cooler and more humid. Picking dates are certainly earlier. Acidity and pH are changing too, but in the wrong directions.

How is your style of wine different from Romain’s on Cabernet Franc?

The vinifications are similar to Romain’s, but I’m shortening my time on the skins. My Saumur red is only four days on skins while Romain does six or seven. I don’t work with press juice, but only free-run juice. Romain works with selective-press juice. The wine is aged in stainless steel, but I’m moving toward cement next year to work against the reduction.

My first addition of 20ppm of sulfites is made when the grapes first come in. The second is about 10ppm after malolactic. Neither Romain or I are interested in having brettanomyces around so we calculate to have the right amount of free sulfur to keep that out of the mix.

I would say that I have a lighter, more ethereal style but with the same ripeness as Romain’s, and there’s definitely less tannin on my reds. My new cru red, La Ripaille, is seven to eight days on skins and in barrel for a year. There’s about 20% new oak and the rest is a spice rack of older barrels.

And Chenin Blanc?

My Saumur appellation wine is aged on its fine lees for six months, then it’s filtered and bottled. Les Chapaudaises is twelve months in barrel, followed by a few months in tank. The Brézé bottling was originally like Chapaudaises, but because the grapes come from old vines I think I should’ve aged it longer—maybe two years, instead of one year in wood, plus six months in tank. For the foreseeable future Brézé will be in élevage for two years before bottling. All the whites are filtered because they all have malic acid, and malolactic fermentations are rare, if they ever take place.

Regarding the vinification, I use less lees than Romain and have a tighter racking after the pressing. I love reduction in wines but I feel like it’s not necessarily the style I want. I think it can take away from the purity of Chenin Blanc and its ability to transmit its terroirs. I respect and understand that, but I feel that it puts too much of the person’s influence into the wine. The Brézé bottling has 30% new oak, but with a light toast. Les Chapaudaises has 20% new oak, and the others have no new oak.

What is your idea of the perfect soil composition for Chenin and Cab?

Limestone. Romain’s grandfather had the basic principle of a topsoil of one meter or deeper and you plant Cab Franc, because the roots need bigger systems. It doesn’t like to suffer and it also needs a lot of nutrients. By contrast, too much topsoil with Chenin makes the vine too vigorous and it will vegetatively grow too much with a consequence of less energy spent on the grapes.

Is there a perfect soil composition for the type of wines you like?

I love the mix of clay, loam and limestone together. The clay gives a certain structure and the loam gives a certain sweetness (without residual sugar) and the limestone gives it the grip, like sucking on a rock.

I think the best expression of Cab happens on sandy clay soils over limestone. Sand gives the light powdery texture; the clay gives the structure more depth. Limestone gives textural finesse and influences the fineness of the tannins on the finish. I find that limestone as a whole draws the finish on a wine to something longer and more complete.

Can you explain each of your vineyard sites?

All of my vineyards on Brézé face south/southwest. Les Chapaudaises, which is in the commune of Bizay, faces north/northeast and is only a couple of kilometers away from Brézé.

Les Chapaudaises is next to Romain’s Clos de Guichaux vineyard. It’s planted on about 40-50cm of clayey loam with a lot of sand on tuffeau limestone bedrock. The wine is more “vertical” with more of a straight-razor-edge profile by comparison to the Brézé wine. The vines were planted sixteen years ago and have been organically farmed since 2010.

The Brézé comes from old vines on clayey loam on limestone bedrock. It has a sort of thicker structure and gives the wine a more austere character with a more “horizontal” profile. The vines are seventy years old and began organic conversion a few years ago.

The Saumur rouge comes from five-year-old vines on the Brézé hill. Its topsoil is sandy loam over limestone, a combination that gives a lighter texture and touch on the tannins. The plot is a little over half a hectare in size on the site known as “La Ripaille.” This wine is different from the others in that I intended to make a quaffable, easy-drinking and fruit-forward wine. My vision of Cabernet Franc has been evolving for several years. What I once saw as a rustic, terrestrial grape variety, I now see as having the potential of making something brighter, more fruit-forward, and much more fun to drink when it’s young.

La Ripaille has seventy-year-old vines on sandy loam, or clayey loam—depending on the section—but all over limestone.

What are people planting when they have the opportunity to replant?

People are planting more Chenin now instead of Cab. The global market demand and need for Chenin has grown a lot, and there is already a lot of Cab grown inside of the Saumur-Champigny appellation. Brézé is outside of the appellation and still has a lot of Chenin Blanc grown on the hill. People focused on red much more in the past, but this is flipping.

Can you talk a little bit about the vine material planted in the region? I’ve talked a lot with Arnaud Lambert and he’s shed a lot of light on the fact that much of the younger vines are planted to productive varieties rather than quality focused ones.
What are your thoughts about this?

We don’t talk enough about vine materials, but I think this is an important and necessary subject. A lot of people talk a lot about minerality but without talking much about the rootstock and vine material. Why is this important? People think that old vines simply produce more mineral wines or wines with more depth. I don’t think that’s the case because you could have the SO4 rootstock that gives big, juicy grapes, but not concentrated flavors and textures. Then you could have a limestone resistant selection massale rootstock called Riparia Gloire, which gives tiny, concentrated clusters where even the young vines are giving amazingly pure expressions with great distinction of the terroir and vintage. I don’t think people are talking enough about the importance of it from a genetic vantage point for the right rootstocks either. The rootstock is a filter between the soil and the grape.

What is your perception of how the wines taste when grown on contrasting soils, like clay, sand, rock?

I think that a lot of it depends on how the winemaker makes the wines. I like to think the lighter the soil, the lighter the wine is on the palate. The rockier or denser the soil is, the same can be said for the wine.

I feel the world has an idea of malolactic fermentation as being very specific in its influence on Chardonnay, but my feeling is that it’s not quite the same with other white varieties. How does it influence the taste on Chenin?

ML is hard for us to attain because of the low pH levels. Bacteria just don’t like that environment. At Romain’s cellar we’ve only had it twice by accident. However, in my opinion it rounds out the palate and you lose edge—it dulls the razor. There’s a roundness and sweetness with ML in Chenin. I feel that the intense acidity [without a malolactic fermentation] melds together over time. When Chenin is young, the acidity stretches it like a rubber band, but over time the tension eases.

When you use the word minerality, what does that mean to you? How is it perceived? Aromas? Mouthfeel? A combination?

This is a can of worms. It’s a huge debate. I think there is a misconception of minerality. Is it even something we can define? I don’t think we will find exacting definitions of this. I try to avoid using minerality as a descriptor, but it’s hard to find other words. But I think when it comes to Chenin from Brézé, I see it as a sort of flinty, reductive smokiness. I think in the mouthfeel there’s a depth that draws the wine out. It seems to give a certain verticality to the wine. It also lingers on the front part of the palate, and it opens up my appetite. I think this is why they are fun to pair with many different types of food. There’s a saltiness to the wine and I think this makes it work exceptionally well with food because many people like salty food. We all know that salt enhances taste and I think minerality does the same.

Last one. What is your feeling about reduction and/or acidity as an interplay within the concept of “minerality”?

For me, reduction does enhance the perception of minerality, but it also can confuse the palate and aromas. Sometimes that is intentional by the winemaker, but sometimes it’s not. I think it’s all a question of balance. I feel I’ve grown a lot and am still growing in my understanding of minerality.

Sometimes when I taste Olivier Lamy’s Saint-Aubin wines, (a benchmark white wine producer for me) there’s a richness to the body, some flesh, a backbone, a hold or grip in the wine like: Wow! It can give me goosebumps. One question I struggle with as a winemaker is, “What’s the fine balance of minerality? Can it be too intense and dominate the wine?”

When I made my 2015s, my first vintage, they were like lemon juice. But when I open a bottle now that acidity is finally integrated into the wine. So I ask myself the question of whether I am making a wine for now, or do I want to make something that will open up later in its life and integrate that intense acidity and find harmony? What’s the right balance between all those elements that will get it right for the wines I’m making?