A Visit with Séverine Bourrier of Château de l'Ou

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We recently had the rare treat of having Château de l’Ou’s winemaker/owner Séverine Bourrier here in LA for a whole week. She poured for the staff last Wednesday and for customers on Saturday, then joined us for a staff get together. It was a great chance to really get to know her and her wines. It was likewise a chance for our customers to try her wines and get the full story behind each one–vintage, winemaking, you name it. Séverine was so open and friendly that it was easy to spend time with her and learn from her.

Her wines, too, can be described as open and friendly, though there’s clearly a complexity underlying them. Grown in the dry, sunny, windy climate of Roussillon, her wines are deep and concentrated but show a bright freshness that is truly appealing. She credits her long, cold macerations and her use of a technique called vinification integral (closed-barrel fermentation) for this sense of lift, which is present even in her deepest Syrah-based blends. Syrah, in fact, is her favorite grape–”a sexy grape.” she says. “It’s different in different soil.” Other grapes that they grow on their two estates are Grenache (Noir, Gris, and Blanc), Carignane, Muscat, and Chardonnay.

She’s been in this region at the base of the Pyrenees since 1998. She and her husband Philippe met at a wine fair, and he had just bought a winery in Roussillon. She joined him there and they developed everything from scratch. They removed the cellar and vineyard and spent 10 years establishing it to their own specifications. They were the first producer in the region to get organic certification.

In 2008 her mother died and she invested her inheritance in a high-altitude, schist-soil vineyard in the Agly Valley. It was a place that her mother greatly liked, and the terroir was like magic, producing elegant, earthy Syrah with an easy balance. Their first vintage of “Secret des Schist” was released in 2010, and Séverine considers each bottling an homage to her mother.

A turning point for the winery was in 2012 when wine critic Jeb Dunnuck came to visit. His subsequent article proved to be a great opportunity for them internationally. “It changed everything,” Séverine said. “People didn’t know about Roussillon before. It changed our life.”

Roussillon is a relatively small community of winemakers, but there’s a new generation making different wines–more qualitative than quantitative. And in the last 10 years there’s been an explosion of organic production. It’s paradise for organic farming because it is dry and there’s a strong wind called the Tramontane that keeps pests and rot and mold at bay. Still, climate change becomes more of a concern every year. Séverine says the last eight were particularly intense. There has been more of everything: more rain, more sun, more wind. It was 47 degrees Celcius in Perpignan while she was here in LA–that’s 117 Fahrenheit. They are worried, but they are looking toward the future. Séverine thinks that different, more drought-resistant grapes might be the solution. Recently they’ve planted the grape Marselan, a cross between Cabernet and Grenache that needs little water, and it’s looking very promising. “All of France is trying to find a solution. Different grapes will be the future, but France is slow to change. We need to be open minded,” she says.

She is deeply invested in Roussillon, though was born in Bordeaux and lived in Africa until she was 15. As a teenager trying to figure out her future, wine was far from her mind. She didn’t even like the stuff. After various internships, she met a professor from a local wine school. He saw some spark in her that led him to believe she’d be a good match for winemaking. It changed her life. “My father said, how can you do it, you don’t like wine?!” But it was a revelation. She was the only woman at the school. In France in general, people were not accustomed to female winemakers, so she had to blaze the trail on her own. She’s now at the center of a women’s wine initiative in Roussillon called Vinifilles. It’s a supportive community where female winemakers work together to find solutions. Severine says, “We don’t feel the need to protect our secrets, but work to help each other. It goes faster to work together.”

Needless to say she has grown to like wine. Love it, in fact. And with her talent and passion, she’s breathing life into Roussillon wines. Where they could be overripe and overwrought, hers are fresh and full of energy. It was a pleasure to drink them and a pleasure to meet the force behind them. They are well worth checking out!

- Kate Soto

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