Experimental By Design

Mounir Saouma’s unconventional winemaking yields outstanding wines from Châteauneuf and beyond
by James Molesworth

There are different ways to create a domaine. Most startups take a linear approach, learning from their neighbors, refining and evolving their style over time. Mounir Saouma went about it another way—exploring wild tangents and basically doing things that people told him not to do.

« I have people stopping when they see my [winery] and coming to tell me I’m crazy, » says Saouma. « They say ‘You can’t do it that way.’ And I say, ‘Why not?’ »

Lebanon-born Saouma, 47, has earned a name for his Lucien Le Moine line of Burgundies, a micro-négociant operation where the cellar typically has 75 different wines in just one- or two-barrel lots. Saouma has taken the same micro approach with his Rhône operation, which he started in 2009 with a purchase of a few acres in the Pignan lieu-dit. After another purchase recently, Saouma now has 15 acres in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and 22 acres of Côtes du Rhône-Villages around his Rotem & Mounir Saouma winery in Massif d’Uchaux.

« I love Burgundy of course, but I’ve been drinking Châteauneuf all along as well, » says Saouma. « I love the similarities of Pinot and Grenache. Both make silky, elegant, minerally wines, and there is the parallel of each having Noir, Blanc and Gris versions as well. »

Saouma takes a do-it-yourself mentality into his vineyards. He’s bought parcels that have been neglected but are situated in good terroirs. He rejuvenates them, replacing dead vines, increasing density and getting the plots back into balance.

« It’s like adopting a baby, » he says. « Bloodlines are important, sure. But really what you do and how you raise the child, from three weeks old to a teenager, is more important. »

Saouma vinified his 2009s in the Famille Perrin facility, and he counts the Perrins, as well as Henri Bonneau, Laurent Charvin and Ogier’s Jean-Pierre Durand, among his friends in Châteauneuf. He laughs when he adds that they’ve just as often scratched their heads as encouraged him in his dramatically different approaches to winemaking.

Saouma employs extremely long élevages, sometimes up to 60 months, during which time the wines stay on their lees, unracked and unsulphured. As he prefers particularly cold cellars, his alcoholic and malolactic fermentations can stretch on for well over a year, with the blanket of CO2 that these long, slow fermentations produce acting as protection in lieu of sulphur. (He does, however, add sulphur before bottling.) Although it’s true the wines are left untouched for long periods, I still find the approach very interventionist—choosing not to do certain things is as much a part of the process as choosing to do them. Nonetheless, Saouma feels he is a minor part of the process.

« I’m not doing the malo on the ’13, » he says. « The malo is just happening. It’s not me and I don’t have an explanation for it. But I do know that the wine has to learn to deal with oxygen. If you sulphur early, it’s like sheltering a shy child. They will never blossom. »

Reds are fermented with partially whole clusters: Saouma sets his destemmer to destem large berries, partially destem midsize berries and leave the stems on smaller berries. From there, the grapes receive a long cold soak, sometimes for more than a week.

« This extracts firm but fine tannins, as the extraction is not being done by heat or alcohol, » says Saouma. After the cold soak, the temperature control in the cement vats is turned off, and the ferments start naturally from there, albeit slowly. There is no remontage (pumping over) or pigéage (punching down). The wines are then pressed off in a small, vertical basket press, with both free-run and press wine used, at very light pressure.

There’s a little bit of everything in this cellar, including some clay amphorae that Saouma is trying out, along with five vintages of free-run-only juice, from Pignan, all in barrel and all still untouched. The 2009, to be called Le Petit Livre, was set to be bottled in September after its 60-month élevage.

But what looks to be like a scattershot, mad-professor approach, is actually lucid, well-planned, serious winemaking. It’s not tinkering for tinkering’s sake, but a desire to find out what wine can do. Saouma’s wines are not for the uninitiated, but they are beautiful, flowing, sublime, mineral- and fruit-laden expressions of both place and vigneron.

Recent Releases From Rotem & Mounir Saouma

  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape Arioso 2010 96
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape Arioso 2009 94
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape Omnia 2011 94
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape Omnia 2010 94
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape Omnia 2009 92
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Magis 2011 96
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Magis 2010 94
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Magis 2009 94