Report From France: L'Ostal Levant
Favorite wines from a visit to France last month
Louis and Charlotte Pérot left behind their literary careers in Paris to restore an abandoned farm in the South West of France. Illustration by Jonathan Kemp
In early February I was very fortunate to get the chance to attend some of the looser natural wine gatherings that were taking place in France's Loire Valley (and also fortunate to not get covid). It was a much-needed chance to reconnect with a the wine scene after too many months of being disconnected from winemakers, vineyards, and cellars. The last such trip I had made was in early 2019; it felt like a decade ago.
I spent January socially-isolated and worn-down, like many, so it was quite a thrill to suddenly find myself in a chilly cellar made from the ruins of an old aristocratic estate, in a remote forest somewhere east of Nantes, tasting wine with a bunch of strangers, all speaking French, which I'm only just learning in earnest. It was humbling to feel out of place again; to feel like a beginner; to feel like I didn't know the wines that everyone was talking about.
One of the producers that was getting a buzz was l'Ostal Levant. In 2015, Charlotte and Louis Pérot left behind literary careers in Paris to rebuild a dilapidated farm in the South West of France with fruit trees, forests, sheep, goats, chickens, and old vines. 30 miles from Cahors, the ancestral home of Côt (aka Malbec), they are making some of the most exciting wines I've tasted from that area. These really stood out when I tasted them in the Loire — but in a 45-degree cellar after tasting wine all day, my palate is often unreliable. When I tried them last week back on Vanderbilt Ave, they were as great as I remembered, and the buzz they had in the Loire seemed entirely justified. Like any small producer who's star is on the rise, of course, they are in small supply and being fought over, so first-come, first-serve.
As much as I love glou-glou, sometimes I want something a bit more toothsome. With temperatures rising everywhere, alcohol and fruit levels climb, and wines need support from tannins. But this is a balancing act that requires careful picking, inclusion of fully ripe stems, artful control of maceration times, and many other small but important decisions. Too much tannin and the wines are astringent and angry, covering up the more delicate freshness of the fruit. Too little and you can be left with a sappy mess that is overbearing with food.
Louis and Charlotte are not doing anything flashy with their old-fashioned low-tech winemaking, but they are nevertheless nailing the balance of fruit and texture in a thrilling way. The wines have layers and complexity but never feel overwrought. They retain a wide-eyed vivacious energy that seems to capture the beautiful fruit they are picking. Yet they have a very satisfying textural component that elevates the wines into something more captivating and three-dimensional.
Pulling this off with Côt and Merlot is even more impressive to me. Maybe it's a Goldilocks thing for me and those grapes, but I feel like I'm never finding the right balance. Too tannic, too hot, too much baker's chocolate (Merlot); or too little in the way of bright top notes, freshness, and acidity. Charlotte and Louis are clearly forthright winemakers who know what they want. They are strictly committed to natural winemaking and farming but they are not letting their wines devolve into feral creatures, even without the use of sulfur.
It's a huge privilege to be able to travel and scout out new wines, and it really keeps me on my toes, chasing down new leads, trying to imagine what our customers are going to respond to. Especially now, when many people haven't been able to travel, I want to give everyone a little glimpse into what's getting talked about in France's natural wine scene, and for many that is l'Ostal Levant.