Corentin Houillon: Don't Go in the Vineyard if Your Mind Is Elsewhere
Congenial talk with the young prodigy from Savoie who radiates energy to people and vines alike – and his wines are just as #goodvibesonly.
I first met Corentin Houillon in London, at last year's The New Old World, a lovely tasting/gathering organised by our UK importer Newcomer Wines. He was constantly smiling and full of energy and I thought I had to taste these wines. I knew the labels from social media as they popped out at me from everywhere; it was a pleasure to see that the wines were just like Corentin, laughing and full of energy.
Talking with him about his long winemaking experience (who else can say that they were stomping Pierre Overnoy's grapes at the tender age of 1 year), philosophy, his work ethic and dedication to regenerative agriculture, I'm not surprised the wines are so... bright. Corentin, a thirty-something Savoyard with a keen eye for detail knows damn well what he's doing, while still leaving plenty of space for feeling – and feeling good.
Words by Milan Nestarec / Images courtesy of Corentin Houillon and Matthieu Cellard
For me, wine is a mirror of its grower. How do you think that energy is transferred to wine? Or are we just conserving the energy that nature gives us? Why do some wines give and others take, just like people?
I guess it's in my nature to keep smiling because it gives everyone a lot of energy even when they are in a bad mood. Also, I'm always very happy to show the result of a year's work and to share it with people who are very interested in it.
I really think that we can communicate with this world in different ways: we use words with people, and intentions with animals. To me, with plants, it's the exact same thing. I'm convinced they are receptive to everything we feel. Most important of all, they make me feel better every day. I do borrow some energy from my vineyards and fields in the same way they get energy from the work we do with them.
I know that if I'm not feeling good then my wines won't either. I do happen to tell myself "I have to feel good and focus on myself to be in a good mood, otherwise the wines I'll make will feel it and it's not gonna be good for us all!" I really want to take care of them with the most kindness I can because they are just like children who need a guide. I think that anything done without intention will transfer either none or a bad feeling to the final wine, so I just prefer to make everything very consciously while using all the knowledge and experience I've gathered.
Can you tell me a little about your childhood, your family, and stomping grapes at Pierre Overnoy?
My parents are hard workers, my dad has a restaurant and was working as a chef during my childhood. We are a very close family, so I grew up with my grandmother and her other children who are not so much older than me (there's only 7 and 15 years of difference between me and my uncles Aurélien Houillon and Emmanuel Houillon, respectively). So when my uncles were learning about vineyard work and winemaking with Pierre Overnoy, I got the same school. I spent every school holiday with my grandmother, going to Pierre's vineyards to work.
Sometimes it wasn't easy for a child to be in the vineyards, especially when you've got full comfort at home and then you go to a very simple place like Pierre's. It was a place where the whole family was sleeping, working, living together, and helping Pierre with the vineyards. I've learned so many things there without knowing that I'd be doing this job in the future. I guess all this sharing led me to it.
Fate! How old were you when you started helping there?
I wasn't even 1 year old when I first stepped in the basket press at Pierre's place. We were really involved in everything, from removing the vines out of the wire to tucking the branches in, picking the grapes, and even pressing the grapes or labelling... even all the bottling was done by hand.
Later on, as my uncle Emmanuel took over, I was older and I really enjoyed working with him, he taught me how to drive tractors, and how to know everything useful in life as plumbing, electricity, or repairing machines... When Adeline and Aurelien joined him, it allowed me to see different points of view. I realised that the same task can be made differently by different people, but still bring the same extraordinary result.
Sounds like with all this wine around, you'd also start drinking very young, haha.
Indeed, I was learning also the taste of wine, with my first hungover at 5 years old during a harvest nap in a car. Parents, never leave your child alone in the car sleeping cause if you've got some wine there, the kid is gonna drink it all!
My family also always brought me along to all the big winemaker parties they had, like at Marcel Lapierre's. Of course, when you're a kid, you're not considered completely equal by others even if you are very interested in the same subjects. In this sense, it can be hard for self-confidence to grow up among big names and charismatic people. But everyone in the family is still very humble and makes room for others so that helped my self-esteem in the end.
Like you, I studied viticulture. Personally, I had a skeptical view of it for a long time, I thought they taught me something completely different from what I actually wanted to do. Now 10 years after getting my degree, I am more forgiving and have to say that it has taught me a lot of important theories. What do you think about current education in viticulture?
I studied viticulture as the rebel in the classroom. The guy who was always saying that we can do differently, natural way... Teachers didn't really care about it and classmates were mocking me a bit. But I always knew where the truth was.
I had to be at school to discover that things could be done differently with a lot of chemicals, with a lot of interventions or machinery. I didn't know a thing about it, I was naive in thinking that everyone was making wine as my family did because I didn't know anything else before. Even killing weeds with herbicides was totally strange to me. At school, if you wanted to know something about biodynamics, for example, you had to bring people to school to talk about it, because the teachers simply wouldn't.
Today all the courses in France are the same and did not evolve a lot. But some places as the school in Montmorot in Jura are trying to make things better. The main course is the same as everywhere else but they do make a lot of lectures and practice by people from outside, to give the students a better understanding of organic farming, biodynamics, or natural winemaking.
It's been three years now that I've been getting interns from this school and I think that I would have enjoyed a wine school like that much more. So my apprentices are very lucky to be in this small school. However, there are still some difficulties during the exams, because most of the examinators are pretty closed when it comes to organic, biodynamic, or agroecology.
You worked at famous estates, such as Domaine Tissot in the Jura or Derain in Burgundy. What was the most important thing you got from the experience?
Domaine Derain was my first winemaking experience outside my family. I was very scared at the beginning but Dominique is a very nice guy. I love his humor, he'd always make you realise that you did something wrong by joking. But, on the other hand, he can be dead-serious. A true gentleman who's shared a lot with me, still a great friend and a mentor to me. He is the one who taught me how to make natural Pinot Noir. The most important thing was that we are only human and if things would go another way than you wanted, they would, but you can still see the positive side of it, never a negative one.
With Stephan, it was a bit different story because it was ten times the size of Derain's estate! Their harvest is really hard work, there was always pressure because you had to finish the work to be able to move to the next day's tasks. If someone didn't do his or her part, the whole team would be lagging behind. We were always involved in tasting the barrels and tanks in the process and Stephan was always listening to our advice or thoughts. I think he is one of the best managers, his mind races everywhere at the same time but he knows exactly where he is going. I guess that was the most important thing he taught me, being one is also being a team, and that people matter.
You also worked in large commercial wineries – what did that experience give you? I'm asking because personally, I try to take something good and learn something from everyone, even when their work is very different from my own ways. Was this your case too?
This experience gave me an open mind. Everything exists and maybe we exist because others do! I've done a freaking lot of additions, that's for sure. Pallets of acid into tanks, 5 hectoliters of yeast or bentonite at once, copper in tanks during vinifications, even a miracle product made out of grapes, tannins and sulfur... I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do but it gave me so much experience and efficiency in my everyday work. I also have made a lot of things I wouldn't even know existed, like centrifugation or a tank that would take three days to fill! [Laughs.] And I finally grew some muscles, haha.
You also went to Switzerland and worked at Domaine de la Ville – what was that like?
Life brought me and my daughter's mother to the border of Switzerland. I tried to get a job there because the pay was much better than in France. At first, I was sorting packages in the post office, and after a few applications, I finally found a job in the vineyards. It was an estate owned by a city council that wanted to be cost-effective and they made the choice to go organic for it. I was only 24 and found myself in charge of their 15 hectares of vineyards and the conversion to organic farming.
I also told them that I needed to make some wine, so they let me take some grapes from the vineyards I was farming to make a wine with my name on it. And guess what, I made wine, bottled it, and told them "I don't know how to make wine in a different way, so this is natural wine without added sulfur and now we 're going to sell it here in Switzerland." The thing is, the Swiss are very open to organic in the vineyards but very resistant to natural wines, ahaha. But I kept making more and more of it, from 1,500 bottles in the first year to 7,000 in the fourth, and I enjoyed myself exploring things that were new to the country, such as orange wine or a pet-nat made with Chasselas grapes.
However, in Switzerland, it's hard to sustain oneself working in agriculture. Also, it was a lot of work – I did 50 hours per week minimum – for something that was not my own. This and a few disagreements made me look for my own estate.
How did you find the place where you farm now – what enchanted you there? What is the history of your domaine?
I visited almost 12 different places in different regions in France back then. The place I chose, called "Domaine de Veronnet", was very stunning to me. I felt good here right away, and it had a lot of potential. I wasn't looking at the steep slopes first but at the place as a whole organism. The place is all the vineyards around the cellar, surrounded by forest and creeks. It's located between Gros Foug and Grand Colombier, two rather high mountains separated by the Rhône valley, on a Jurassic mountain topped with molasse deposits from the glacier.
Previously the estate was farmed conventionally, but it had grass cover all over and used only organic manure. It has been in the Bosson family for 3 generations, and the cellar is very old, from 1640. They cultivated Mondeuse and Gamay with a bit of Pinot Noir and, from the white grapes, Altesse and Jacquère. The previous owner is really nice and made my installation super smooth, he is still helping me with a lot of things today, particularly harvest. When it comes to tasting, he is always telling me that my wines taste like his father's and grandfather's used to, which to me is one of the best compliments ever.
Tell me more about your terroir and this "molasse" soil you mentioned, I'm really intrigued by how it is to farm and what kind of wines it produces.
My vineyards are located in the Rhône Valley close to the Alps but on a Jurassic mountain. A long time ago, in the Jurassic period, a mountain came up, making this limestone cliff at the top of the hill. Then the Alpine glacier covered everything during the last glaciation and compacted all the soil at the bottom of the mountain, a soil that was sandy as we are very close to Lake Bourget. The deposits of the lake compacted by the glacier made a unique type of rock called "molasse". It's composed of sandstone, sand, quartz, the whole lot tied with limestone.
So we have this molasse layer on the surface almost everywhere in my vineyard, ranging in thickness from 30cm up to 5 meters in a few places. Sometimes it is also mixed up with a lot of stones called "morraine" coming from the glacier. In all cases, clay doesn't exceed 5 %. Having little clay and a lot of sand in the steep slopes without a very deep soil means you need to make adaptions in farming – we keep the grass cover everywhere and are not tilling the soil, and neither do our neighbors. We manage to have a lot of leaves which gives the vineyards more energy to resist weeds.
The wines on this soil are very salty, and always have a lot of acidity, or at least the sensation thereof. They could be very smoky, and for the reds you get spices with sometimes a lot of animal notes, especially in the Gamay where it joins the grape's natural tendency to develop such flavours.
How would you describe your philosophy, is it pure biodynamics or is there more to it? What is most important to you when growing and living together with plants?
My philosophy is very simple:
First, Agronomy, because you need to do what is right at the right time according to the weather forecast, and what needs to be done or not.
Second, Time. You need to have the time to do things properly and not rush anything. Time does include the forecast.
Third, Will. There is no need to explain it, you can choose to be in the vineyard or not. But if your mind is elsewhere, then stay home.
Finally, the Lunar Calendar. Some personal experience taught me that it is always better to do good things under good astronomic influences but this only comes once the previous points are fulfilled.
I was a lot into biodynamics, but I realised that it is something very personal, a thing of energy and feelings. Not a recipe. So I use biodynamic preparations, especially 500 and 508, but I also use regenerative agriculture.
I found that regenerative agriculture is better agronomy-wise. To me, biodynamics is just a small ingredient in this kind of agriculture, agriculture where you create soil, where you create biodiversity instead of "trying to do things better". I do prefer to see the results I get rather than patting myself on the back for making pure biodynamic style.
So I build a better environment for me, the plants, the trees, the vines, the insects, and the wild animals. This way everyone is happy and lives together. Of course, I get some problems doing that but it only takes a few fixes each year to reach a good balance.
Speaking about animals, do you have any?
I don't, just my girlfriend has a dog. I think it takes a lot of time to take care of animals and I'm scared I'd be too busy and couldn't do it properly. But I dream of having a kangaroo someday, eating grass in my vineyards... but grass only!
How important are freedom and independence to you?
Choisir c'est renoncer... To choose is to renounce. By renouncing, freedom does go away. But I do prefer to think that freedom means feeling free to choose. What a loop!
For instance, there are rules for the AOPs [appellation d'origine protegée] and we are the ones to choose to be in it or not. Sometimes they have some stupid regulations that come from a long time ago. Freedom is to be free to open your mouth, to be elected in the AOP, and to change all these things to keep them up to date with what's happening now. That's what I'm doing, I'm fighting to get new laws in vineyard farming that allow grass – a lot of grass, like 2 meters high, haha, trees, and other things working in a similar way in the vineyard. At least I have tried and I already succeeded in a few issues. To me, freedom is what you make out of it. Independence is more about me facing my choices and their consequences.
What is your "style" when it comes to wine? Do you think that you input some "style" into the wine, maybe even unconsciously?
I don't try to have a "style" in winemaking. I simply trust my convictions and try to give my best every year, in order to get the best out of the vineyards every year. I'm only making wine like everybody does and I try to make it good to drink. Making it natural is my way but I only want it to be at least good and drinkable for people and me.
So maybe unconsciously, I do put some "style" into wine and I like to. Imagine a world where every wine tastes the same – I'd call that Hell!
We used to say that Terroir is 3 things: Climate, soil, and people. So the personal style is part of the terroir, I like to have a balance in it, like that you can feel the place where the wine has grown, the year, and the person who made it.
Are you influenced by any other fields? For example, what do you like to read and what kind of music do you listen to?
I really enjoy mangas and science-fiction books, but it needs to be something with some morale at the end. I also love to play punk or heavy metal in the cellar, it helps me at work. Although I think wines are receptive to the atmosphere, so sometimes I try to cool the music down.
Where is most of your energy currently going? What are you up to now?
Right now, I moved out of a house I was renting to start some renovations in my cellar, to build my home above it. I'm also trying to build accommodation for pickers or workers who need it when they come to the estate. I'm giving some pruning classes with the "Architecte du Vivant" company, based on plant physiology.
I have one more story with you, also from London, I don't know if you remember it. We sat in the room and chatted before the tasting started. There was a local gardener who took care of the indoor plants, watering them. No one noticed that guy except you. As I later found out, he had a pair of Japanese-made pruning scissors attached to his waist. You approached him and spent a good 10 minutes talking about these scissors that you also use. Please can you also tell me something about them, what are their qualities? Btw I think this story represents your sense and passion for detail very well.
Well, we always try to get the newest thing, to follow the progress of technology. Until recently, I'd always prune with electric scissors. When I met Marceau Bourdarias, the founder of the Architecte du Vivant company I mentioned earlier, he gave me his Japanese scissors to try. I was very surprised by how easy to use and smooth they were, without any technology. So I bought one pair 3 years ago. It was a real pleasure to prune with them because they are very sharp, soft, and accurate. So I bought 2 others in different models and I found out that they were all different, made for different hands. Finally, I found one made for my body, and today I'm pruning all of my 5 hectares only with them, and I don't have any more pain in my hands.
They are made out of 2 pieces of very hard carbon steel, sharpened very very well. This material means that they keep sharp for a week at least, but it also makes them fragile, they can break very easily if you cut a wire for example.
What do you think is the future of wine? I'm talking about good wine in general, no need to label it as natural or conventional.
I think wine is something very tied to tradition. As long as we keep our traditions alive, wine will remain very important to us. It is a moment of sharing, of reflection, of happiness. Unfortunately, society is changing and wine is not as important as it was before.
I hope that the future will bring only good and healthy wines, but above all, ecological grape production. We are facing global warming and the only solution we've found so far is to irrigate. To me, this is a nonsense. The wine production is way too dependent, on water, chemicals, tractors... This needs to change otherwise people will figure it out and stop drinking wine.
What wine do you like to drink, who are your favorites? Name some names!
I like to drink only "pur jus" wines, without any additives. They make me feel good, they have good energy and surprise me while tasting them. I don't care so much about the grape variety or region of origin, as long as the wine gives me emotion.
We all like to feel at home, so I really enjoy wines that remind me a bit of all the different homes I had so far. My favorites are of course the whole family, with whom we also taste a lot of wines – Adeline & Renaud Bruyère Houillon, Aurélien & Charlotte, Manu & Anne, Eric et Lydia Fimbel-Houillon.
And of course my girlfriend's wine from Ardèche, Pauline Maziou, especially her Gamay!
I like a lot of wines, Jérôme Saurigny, Rémi Sedès, Rémi Poujol, Agnès & Babass, la Bohème by Bouju, Anthony Tortul... I can not make a list otherwise it would take too much time! From winemakers geographically closer to you, I really enjoy "Birdscape" by Christian Tschida. And I do remember that bottle you brought to London with the electrical sign as a label which was a great sparkling wine!
And my last obligatory question. Do you think wine is art? Or more of a craft?
I do not consider myself an artist but I think when we make natural wine it is a kind of art. Each wine happens only once in a lifetime, they change every vintage. It also gives you a lot of emotions while drinking it which is the sense of art, after all!