Amphora Wine · Biodynamics · France

Wherever You Go, There Amphora Is–Even In Bordeaux

A lot of people ask me: “Rachel, how the hell do you manage to travel so much for wine journalism?” I sort of cringe at this, because I’m aware that it may look as if I’m constantly on vacation, enjoying fancy meals and sipping wine in a beautiful vineyards. The trips are occasionally luxurious, but most of the time they involve a tough working schedule: interviewing, tasting, and shooting photos from 9am to 7pm, basically non-stop (the meals are working meals).

Being freelance rather than tied down to a full-time job means I can accept wine press trips and use them as an opportunity to learn about winemaking and regional histories. I reject the term “junket” for these kinds of trips–they are windows into a culture, curated but no less real. And I can use the flight to another country to do my own exploring, as I did recently in the Loire Valley. It would be impossible to afford this all on my own, since I live off writing–not the most lucrative vocation, alas. (Some wine writers have an entirely separate career and journalism is their hobby, but not me.)

I get a lot of trip offers, and they are generally of two sorts:

(1) our winery / spirits brand would like to fly you out to our property and treat you exceptionally well, but you have to confirm a story assignment before we can do this;

(2) our appellation / region is hosting a group of journalists to tour a wide range of properties, and you may join us.

If you know me at all, it should go without saying that the second one is a much more compelling choice for me. I’m in the business of telling stories, not promoting brands. (When publicists e-mail me suggesting that their Champagne brand would be a wonderful choice for a Vogue feature, I write back that it would make for a great advertisement, and they should contact the Condé Nast ad sales department.)

When I accept a press trip invite, I only do so if I am sure that it will, at least to some extent, match my interests. I’ve begun suggesting producers, rather than just letting the organizer make the itinerary. I don’t promise a story unless I can do so in a flexible way, determining the exact angle later, but in almost every case it’s very easy to find something to write about during an appellation or region tour, because so much change is happening in the wine industry, all the time, and it’s simply a matter of having one’s finger on the pulse to find the narrative.

I wanted to share all that because I’ve been traveling so much, and perhaps some of you have wondered about it. It’s a brave new world in media, as well as in wine, and I personally always strive to be transparent and ethical in my work. I have a few more trips coming up, but for the moment I’m holding off on accepting more because I want to actually focus on writing. I have many stories to tell!

Such as: last month’s visit to the Côtes de Bordeaux, a recently (2009) re-branded appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank.

I have never been a huge lover of Bordeaux, for several reasons: it’s generally too expensive for me; the old-school culture of the Grand Cru chateaux isn’t where I feel most at home; the heaviness of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot aged in new oak doesn’t entice my palate. That said, I thought it would be good to visit the region and learn something firsthand.

carte_cotes_de_bordeaux__029241400_1847_01122015The Côtes de Bordeaux encompasses four distinct, historic terroirs, all on the Right Bank: Blaye, Castillon, Francs, and Cadillac. They make mostly red wine, generally featuring Merlot, with Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc playing a supporting role. Winemaking has a long, long history here going back to Roman times, and there are many impressive chateaux with beautiful vineyards. In some cases, these vineyards might be just a stone’s throw away from the Grand Crus, as with Francs, which borders on St-Emilion.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece for Food Republic about Bordeaux’s new marketing strategy, which attempts to reach Millennials by emphasizing the family-owned properties in the region, and those working biodynamically or organically. Bordeaux has definitely lost out on the “cool factor,” while the Loire Valley and the Jura have come up. Palates, too, have changed–and I’m exemplary of this–as today’s drinkers shy away from oak and intense tannin, looking instead for the rich texture of an unfiltered Beaujolais, or the brightness of a Loire Valley Romorantin. And then there’s the price tag, of course. Baby boomers have cash to invest in their wine cellars. Millennials do not–and therefore, want to drink younger wines.

I wasn’t able to glean much information from producers in the Côtes de Bordeaux about whether they have lost any ground in the U.S. market since the financial crash, or in more recent years. I asked, and they shirked–perhaps thinking it would be bad PR. The numbers probably exist out there, if I wanted to look.

But beyond commercial questions, the Côtes de Bordeaux is home to quite a few organic and biodynamic producers, and this is what interests me most–because it’s not the region where you’d expect to find this. We visited a small biodynamic family estate called Chateau Roland la Garde, in Blaye, where a father and son have begun experimenting with amphora aging.

Amphora winemaking is traced back to the Romans, and also to Georgia, where terra cotta clay vessels called quevri are buried underground, where grapes ferment and become wine. Alice Feiring has a new book out on the subject, and I’ve never been to Georgia and neither have I adequately studied the history of amphora, so I’ll refer you to her expertise at the moment. Winemakers in France, Portugal, and the U.S. who are working with amphora have told me they love it because of its neutrality, in terms of imparting flavor on the wine. The purity of the fruit can shine through, perhaps more than with barrels, thanks to the unique porosity of the terra cotta.

Guilhaume Martin tasting us on his amphora wines
Guilhaume Martin tasting us on his amphora wines

Guilhaume Martin, the 8th generation winemaker at his family estate, Chateau Roland la Garde, which is farmed biodynamically since 2008 and organically before that, was eager to show us the amphorae in his cellar. They heard about amphora winemaking through the biodynamic community in Bordeaux, and tried it out for the first time in 2015. Since they already worked in a non-interventionist way, not adding yeasts or enzymes, or artificially stopping malolactic fermentation, they of course applied this philosophy to the amphorae wines. The wines were fermented in vats and went through malo before racking into the amphorae for aging. “The aim is to see the difference between this wine and barrels,” he told us as he siphoned Malbec from one of the terra cotta amphorae.

The vessels themselves came from a ceramicist near Narbonne, in the Languedoc, and they are unlined (sometimes beeswax lining is applied on the inside). Guilhaume and his father Bruno Martin are currently aging Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Maria Thun's lunar calendar guidebook
Maria Thun’s lunar calendar guidebook

“When people taste the wines, they can’t place it as Bordeaux,” said Guilhaume, “but my father and I feel that you have to experiment, each year.” For this family, working biodynamically means listening to the vintage, and experimenting in a natural way. “It’s just following the wine, tasting it every day. In biodynamics, you earn that each year will give you different things. Sometimes good things, sometimes bad things. But you have to do what you can with it.” There is a small group of biodynamic producers in Bordeaux, Guilhaume told us–really just a handful–and they actually collaborate to produce their preparations (herbal tinctures sprayed on the plants to prevent sickness and mildew).

The wines tasted absolutely fantastic. The purity of the fruit was undeniable, and to me there was certainly a sunny, southern French character to the juice, but as well there was a beautiful through-line of acidity that uplifted the wines. I loved the Malbec, which had a nose full of blueberries, and an earthy texture with excellent freshness and tingly tannins. To me, it was proof that Malbec is not the inferior grape as many industry professionals have come to see it, thanks to some overly oaked styles. The Cabernet Sauvignon was also spectacular: the nose was peppery, with crushed roses, and on the palate the wine was bright, racy, with fine tannins and great freshness–it reminded me of a Cru Beaujolais. The Merlot was, to me, the least interesting, perhaps because it had had slightly less time in the vessels.

Recently, Guilhaume told us, the family had discovered pieces of a 5000-year old clay amphora on the property, which they interpret as an affirmation of their experiment. Surely, there is a lot of romanticism in amphora winemaking, and perhaps our view of the past is a bit rose-colored. We like to imagine a time before this intense commercialization, when wine was a household or community good, and each block shared an acre of vines and a few primitive fermenting and aging vessels. Wine was local and natural, untouched by global preferences and marketing trends. When I see winemakers experimenting with amphora, I sense a nostalgia for this pre-modern culture, and I completely respect the drive to recreate it in the now, to showcase the potential of older materials and styles. Bordeaux has a lot of wine that’s made in a very New World style, and it’s brave of the La Garde estate to be an outlier. Hopefully we’ll see their amphora wines in the U.S. soon!

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