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Q + A with Domaine Derain & Sextant, Bourgogne

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Q + A with Domaine Derain & Sextant, Bourgogne

Domaine Derain, Sextant, Julien Altaber & Carole Schwab are synonymous with quality, care and above all, fun! It's always a pleasure to drink their wines, visit them, work with them and of course party with them! A bunch of misfits based in Saint-Aubin, Burgundy. Other producers may consider them punks, rebels, anarchists and/or all of the above. We consider them friends who farm with intention and make delicious wine. If you visit, they will always have time for you... that is after you help out in the vineyard or in the cave with a few last minute jobs. 

Most domaines have a transient workforce, those who come and go for a season and continue on their way. I only mention this because one thing that sticks out (apart from their wine) at Sextant is their team. The same smiling faces have greeted us year in year out for quite some time now and that means something... happy crew, happy cru? It is clear Julien and Carole's team are dedicated and treated with respect, why would they go anywhere else? Especially in a region that can be particularly 'stuffy'. Everyone there works like they own the place, they care, they love what they do and that all comes through in the wines. 

Since we can't head back to visit anytime soon, we sat down with Julien & Carole via email and hounded them for more information. How did they became winemakers? How did they end up working with Dominique Derain? And how did they end up taking over one of the most famous organic estates Burgundy? WTF does Sextant really mean? Read below to find out more!

(Original interview was conducted in French, some translation errors may have occurred). 

Everyday Wine: Where are you both from and how did you end up here in Saint-Aubin, Burgundy?

Julien: I was born in the Auvergne, but grew up in Maconnais. When I was a young teenager, all I wanted to do was go back to the Auvergne where my uncle was farming cattle. In Maconnais, the agricultural high school was more orientated to Viticulture and Oenology, so that's what I studied thinking one day I could head back and work with my uncle anyway. During my studies, I did an internship at a farm with both cattle and vines. It was my first harvest, and I loved the atmosphere during vintage.

I quickly realised after my first encounter with wine that I preferred it over milk! 

I continued my studies in Maconnais and Beaujolais and in 2000, at the age of 21, I went to Beaune for a 2 year internship at a large négociant. During that time, I met David Didon (another producer in Burgundy) who had, unlike me, spent his entire winemaking journey in organics and biodynamics. So I decided to redo my training on a small organic farm. I went around all the small farms in Beaune looking for a place to do an internship in organic farming. I arrived by chance at Domaine Dominique Derain, having no idea who he was and what natural wine was. I work with him for a year, and after my internship decided to stay because I found an authentic agricultural atmosphere that aligned with my own ideals. 

Little by little, I discovered another universe, another philosophy of work and wine. 

Carole: I was born in Lorraine and studied Business. At the age of 20, I went to Scotland for University and to learn English. When I returned to France, I went to Beaune with my boyfriend at the time, who was studying with Julien. This is where I met Julien, who was already working under Dominique and Catherine Derain. He organised a tasting for me, and I got to know Julien, Dominique and Catherine and understand the wines. Since my English wasn't too bad, they asked me to do some publications for them to develop their sales for export.

At that time, they only had one importer from Japan. I only worked 2 hours a week for Derain! I was also working for larger wineries, and learning more about wine administration and exports. I had no previous knowledge of Viticulture and Oenology, so I went to study wine trade in Beaune. 

Catherine preferred working in the vineyard rather than the office, so asked me to spend more time at the Domaine managing the administration side. What I liked about working for Dominique and Catherine was the diversity of the job ordering, accounting, management and even helping in the cave and doing tastings. When Catherine and Dominique separated, I joined the domaine full time.

EW: After both ending up at Domaine Derain, how did Sextant come into existence?

Julien: We created Sextant in 2007, because another local winemaker Jean-Jacques Morel (legend) was selling his magnificent little grapes and we couldn't bear to see them go to a big négocient. Sextant allowed me to make my first wines at a time when I had a cynical image of the négocient business. There wasn't many small, organic grape growers selling fruit back then like there is today. 

So, the idea was therefore make wine in the same spirit as the Domaine Derain wines (organic, natural wines), hence the Sextant name: "to stay the course and not lose your way". The purchase of organic grapes that changes every year took us to vintages of 'Vin de France' and generic appellations rather looking at specific crus. 

EW: So that's what Sextant means! When and how did the opportunity come about to take over Domaine Derain?

Carole: In 2016 there were devastating Spring frosts, and the situation became very complicated for Dominique. He decided to slow down, and we decided to take over his plots and continue the adventure of Domain Derain and Sextant side by side.  

So we've kept both labels: Derain and Sextant, but now all the decisions in the vineyard, cellar and over management of the estate are now undertaken by Julien and myself. We have 8.5ha mainly in the communes of Saint-Aubin and Puligny-Montrachet, but also Corpeau, Mercurey, Pommard, Maranges, Monthélie and Gevrey-Chambertin. All our vines are farmed organically and biodynamically. 

EW: What is the main difference between Derain and Sextant?

Carole: All the wines that are under Domaine Derain come from vineyards we farm ourselves organically. We do not purchase grapes for Derain wines. 90% of Sextant Wines (except Maranges, Maranges 1er Cru les Clos Roussots and Saint-Aubin 1er Cru) are négoce - we buy the fruit from other organic vineyards. Fanny and Damien Gressard are our main suppliers, along with Vincent Talmot and Maxime Troncy.

Our own vines are planted at 10,000 vines/ha, we allow the vineyards to grow grass and cover crops without tillage except during Spring. The vines need a lot of work and presence from March - July. In the cellar we are more on the observation side of things, we go off of our instincts and "au laisser faire" with confidence in the wines themselves. 

All of our wines are treated the same way, regardless whether they are Derain or Sextant in terms of winemaking. There is never an exact science. The wines Dominique was making 20 years ago are not the same ones he was making towards the end. So, in that same way, I hope not to make the same wines today that we will be making in 20 years time... or we will all be bored!

EW: Why Vin Nature?

Carole: We make natural wine because we farm organically, we don't put unnecessary additions into the vineyard, so why would we during the vinification of our wines? We do work with sulphur when necessary. 

We make natural wine simply because that's what we love to make and what we love to drink!

EW: What's the next project for you both?

Carole: When we took over the domaine, we learnt a lot and took important commitments together. The project brought us closer together and after 15 years of friendship, lovers are born. Our next project is to make our home, our little nest in Saint-Aubin. 

EW: Aww. We look forward to visiting your little nest as soon as possible. Thank you for your time and for all the incredible photos!