Fabrice Domercq, Ormiale: Winemaking Is Too Serious to Be Left in the Hands of Experts


Designer, artist, sculptor, poet, winemaker, dreamer, thought-provoking wine sage… Fabrice Domercq, the creative force behind Ormiale wines, truly is one of a kind. Since starting their niche, experimental and now cultish winery in Saint Emilion (of all places) with his friend and fellow designer Jasper Morisson back in 2007, they have been doing things their own way, which is even more fascinating given the reality of that area.

He's also someone I immensely enjoy talking to – Fabrice exudes a certain calm and humility while being super curious and interested. And, as is often the case, I feel similar about his wines, small batches of limit-pushing low-intervention cuvées like Secmillon, Borto, Lies or, of course, their flagship Ormiale red. (Ormiale's total production is around 5,000 bottles a year, with some cuvées only produced in the scant amount of several dame-jeannes, so better be quick if you want to taste them.)

Fabrice approaches wine with irreverence, as both a deep subject that can be talked about at length and in almost divine terms while also acknowledging that in the end, it is just a drink that should please our throats and bodies. This entertaining ambiguity and out-of-the-box thinking have shown throughout our conversation (that was edited for length and clarity), so I'm really glad that Fabrice agreed to share some of their bold choices, naivety and singularity with us.

Words by Milan Nestarec & Lucie Kohoutová / Images courtesy of Ormiale

I'm really interested in the part of your life that you spent in Milan and Italy, where you devoted yourself to sculpture and visual arts. What is your fondest memory of that period?

I was born in Paris, France in 1965 and at the age of 19 I moved to Milan, Italy to study design. Luckily, I made friends with some sweet local people very soon after my arrival. Back in the 1980s, before the internet days, moving away from home was still very “exotic” if you were capable of seeing and feeling. I was very “exotic” to my new friends, and so were they and their families to me.

In a very short time, I have learnt Italian and I was making a big effort to make sure I was speaking with the correct accent or using a lot of slang words where the accent is even more exaggerated, more theatrical. Or the local dialect, still much in use back then. Paying attention to their language is a form of showing respect to the locals, too. Through being able to speak nearly as a native, many doors were opening to me. Doors to friends' families, their intimity and their stories, their manners, their cooking, their home, their heart.

To make it short, I very often say to myself that moving to Italy, where I’ve stayed for more than 15 years, has “saved my life”. It gave me friendship, family, aesthetics, a variety of things and local culture, cooking, eating, drinking and the idea of love. I was born in France but the roots I invented for myself are somewhere in Italy and… in Greece. But that is another chapter.

Do you miss this part of your life?

No, I don’t, because I got the best out of it and it is deeply in my heart, under my skin. More than that, it “made” me. So somehow I’m still there and young, so to speak, while having an exciting and intense life today.

How did you meet the British designer Jasper Morrison, your partner in Ormiale?

Jasper and I became friends in Milan, like 35 years ago. So it is a kind of lifetime friendship, the ones that count I think. Our mutual friend James Irvine, who passed away much too young, introduced us to each other. Our sparkling wine is named James in his loving memory.

Jasper, at a certain point back in the early 1990s, was the very first one to pay attention to my “production”, when I quit the design world and started to work with my hands, on my own, in a remote place by the Lake Como where I’d moved. He is the very first one to have “qualified” my activities as an artistic activity and encouraged me to “come out of the woods” and show my stuff.

Very soon, it became a pretty successful period for me, I had shows here and there, Fondation Cartier in Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, shows in NY and LA. But after a couple of years or so, I started feeling trapped in the contemporary art scene which is like any other scene actually… extremely boring, annoying and disturbing, even if I was pretty singular as I didn’t want any gallerist to represent me and I was working in my kitchen or on a table outside instead of having a studio, things like that.

You and Jasper founded Ormiale together – the best projects are created between friends. What were the beginnings like, who helped you the most?

It so happened that my mum decided to buy a house somewhere in the countryside with her last money. It could have been in Italy, Spain, France, wherever, but she had a friend who was living in the Bordeaux countryside at that time and called her that a house was for sale there, in a nice remote location with some nice views etc… Just a small catch, the house was an old estate/winery and so there was a small vineyard to buy jointly with the building.

My mum loved the house once she visited it and she asked me to come and see it to give her my opinion as I’m her only son. To make it short, the house as well as the vineyard were very nice so I scratched my head and said to myself, Why don't I try to make some wine?

A few minutes later, I was calling Jasper asking him What do you say, shall we make wine together? It was 2007 and he was crazy enough to answer Yes. We were crazy enough to start without knowing much more about wine than how to hold a glass and empty it by raising it and bringing it to your mouth.

What does dreaming and a certain naivety mean to you? Is it important to enter new projects with this attitude?

A few years before we started Ormiale, I met my wife Caroline. Just like Jasper, she was crazy enough to encourage me in that new crazy adventure. Without her support, patience and love, nothing would ever have been possible. We were all complete dreamers, indeed naive, to use your words. But we all are very responsible and have some kind of rural bon sens. A drop of sweat is a drop of wine… and the king is the product. We are also very good with the bla bla but who cares? What counts is what is in the bottle.

"You had to be a total idiot to start making wine in Bordeaux back in 2007 with the aim to learn, create and propose low-intervention juice."

We were naive dreamers because had we known what an undertaking the winemaking and the market actually represented, we would never have started. Today I can say that fortunately we were “idiots”. Because you had to be a total idiot to start making wine in Bordeaux back in 2007 with the aim to learn, create and propose low-intervention juice, at a time when everybody from the low-intervention “community” was running away – and still pretty much is even nowadays – as soon as they saw the words Bordeaux or merlot or cabernet sauvignon on a bottle. Let alone all three of them together!

Indeed, I have to admit to having a period of avoiding merlot myself. Nevertheless, Ormiale survived.

What saved our asses is that we were some very singular idiots. And to be singular is to have an identity. That singularity was born very early in our short history, from our strong choices: starting very small AND staying small. Admitting that Ormiale as a structure HAS to be self-sufficient and allow for a decent living for one or two people.

Deciding in 2009 to do ONLY manual de-stemming on all the red grapes, using our laborious method. Understanding that Ormiale is and has to be “experimental”. Deciding in the 2015 vintage that we only want beautiful grapes, even if that meant buying them from other growers, obviously all organic or biodynamic. In 2021, we moved the estate to an old underground limestone quarry, looking for a place that's undisturbed, naturally dark and with stable low temperatures for fermentations and ageing. Etc…

When we first met here at my winery, you had a certain air of peace around you, which I also felt in your wines. I think there is humility and greatness at the same time.

I’m nearly 60 so that is why I may be radiating a certain peace… 'cause I had to walk slowly from your parking lot to your estate or among your vats and barrels! In all seriousness, we both feel that what we are doing is just very normal and simple. But apparently, it is not only that. I only worry about what I can embrace with my arms when I open them and not much more actually. Maybe I’m always questioning the living, the making and I look for surprises and to meet the limits so I can push them, or at least try to.

What has wine taught you the most?

That I better be patient and trusting when in the unknown. And that is the most important: don’t judge a juice. Start by being admirative already from the fact that a juice exists. It’s already a miracle.

"Don't filter your wine, filter your customers", you told Jancis Robinson when profiled by her for the Financial Times. I totally agree with that. How important to you is meeting the “right" people? And who are they?

There are very few people like that and that is normal. Sad but normal. How many real friends or lovers do we have in a lifetime? Very few. I guess it is important to be open-minded and sharp enough so that at any given moment, you can “grab” something from a person, or a thing, or a situation. And be also this generous yourself when it is your turn to provide. What counts is your capacity for seeing, because the magic is everywhere - by the way so is the tragic, too. Anyone and anything, whenever, can be crucial. But don’t be a voyeur or too much of a seeker as the magic is shy.

I think you have brought a breath of fresh air to Bordeaux. The region is experiencing a certain crisis now. Why does everyone resort to Jura and Loire when Bordeaux offers so many opportunities today? Are there new names emerging, is the situation improving in this regard?

Dear Milan, that is a serious question and I’m not an expert to take the risk to answer it. I’m not at all representative of what is or will be Bordeaux as a wine region. And I don’t have any advice to give as I don’t want to assume any of the consequences that might come out of it. Information is easy to get by so anyone can make up their own mind with their own capacity of “seeing through” (or not).

The only thing I can tell you is that I have nearly zero people in the area to discuss winemaking with. Maybe I don’t understand what they might have to tell me because I don’t have the knowledge, maybe I’m too extravagant or too exotic.

You already mentioned the manual destemming you do on all your red grapes. It's a great way to achieve subtlety in wine. I can imagine all the hard work and I applaud you for going through it. Now this might sound like a weird question, but do you think that the whole situation happening around it, i.e. that a bunch of your friends are sitting together, busily pushing grapes through a contraption, sharing stories and jokes and having a good time, is transcribed into the wine's DNA?

Don’t be shy to ask me such questions, I’m 100% sure that this manual destemming habit of ours has a strong footprint (even if it is done by hand, haha) on the juices we are producing. Apart from being an extremely strict sorting – which is important for me not in terms of winemaking generally, but because of the grape varieties that we have, it brings softness and smooth tannins to the juices early in their life. And the fact that every single berry is touched by a hand allows for a greater spreading of the indigenous yeasts.

This is also a very strong moment - for several days there are nearly 20 people together spending all day long close to each other around the destemming tables in our big, shaded courtyard, with no mechanical noises, just the sound of voices and laughs… or complaints, as it is still hard work.

In my opinion, wine should give a certain energy to the drinker. Liveliness, tension and good drinkability are important. Is there anything else that gets forgotten in today's fast-paced consumer world?

I agree with you. Liveliness, tension, and drinkability are sensations we need. I can add vivacity, young spirit, which doesn’t necessarily mean a recent vintage, and irreverence too. We need shocks more than the well-made.

"We need shocks more than the well-made."

You told me that wine for you represented mainly a liquid that should be good for our body. This is undoubtedly true, however, do you think of wine as a kind of art? You once said that doing good industrial design is not doing any design at all. Is it stupid to think about wine as an art, should we just take it as a miracle that happens around us and we can be a part of it?

I have to correct you here, I never said that “good industrial design is not doing any design at all”. I’ve said that I quit design back in the 1990s because at that time, the only way for me to do good design was not to do design anymore. Maybe I was too lazy. Maybe I was too bad. Maybe I was both, most certainly, but the historical moment back then was critical. Marketing was taking control over company decisions in terms of which goods to produce, how and for who. Little by little, good functional design – where form follows function – became more or less obsolete. Objects became vehicles for expressions, storytellers, gifts, status symbols…

And yes, it's been a few years now that I’m surprising myself to talk about liquid or juice more than talking about wine. And only a few months ago I started to understand why… maybe. Wine as a word sounds a bit dusty to me. And too restrictive in describing the liquid stuff I wish to produce or I’m already producing. Most probably, wine is too “cultural” for me, too frozen in time. In my opinion, far too many lectures have been given in its name.

Far too many authoritarian behaviours have closed doors, reduced intuitions to silence, shut down different paths. And, in a very provocative way, I consider winemaking too serious to be left in the hands of experts. Winemaking is so serious that it should be left in the hands of crazy people or poets, which are the same people, no?

I don’t care about good wines. I don’t care about well-made wines. I care only for crazy miraculous juices that most probably I’m not capable of producing yet… And a liquid follows a wonderful path: it goes through your body and ends up like piss. That is the way I see a liquid. Anyone who produces wine should remember this path.

To go back to your question, I don’t ask myself if winemaking is a kind of Art. This is not my problem. It is definitely not Art in the sense in which most people think about “Art”.

My classic final question: what is the future of wine?

The future of wine, I don’t know. But I can feel some evolution of my relationship with winemaking, connected to the recent obscure times we are living in. And for the very first time, the consciousness that wine is a drug is growing in my mind. I can’t get that idea out of my head now. Am I a drug dealer? Most probably. What am I gonna do with that feeling? I don’t know but I need to take some action in “liquid making”. I need an avant-garde. Once again.

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