The Key To Good Wine Writing Is Grapeskin-Blackened Hands

“Buckets! Secateurs! Allons-y!” It was 8:10am and there was a strong chill in the air, although the sun was beginning to glow behind a layer of fog that hung above  us, indicating that we’d be shedding layers even before lunch. At this familiar call-to-arms from Agnès, the matriarch of the family employing us in their vineyards, we diligently grabbed plastic buckets and garden shears, and with few words found ourselves in pairs, approaching a row of vines with one person on each side.

As I crouched in the dirt, the pain in my lower back pronounced itself, effectively asking: “Another day, really?” And as I’d been doing, every day for the last week, I shifted my weight to my knees, which creaked and groaned, but at least didn’t feel like a knife was being driven into them as I reached for a grape cluster.

Grape picking is incredibly hard work, the kind of physical labor that people supposedly go to college to avoid doing. But there is also so much romance in the vines, as I discovered during a two-week stage at Domaine Mosse, in the Anjou regoin of the Loire Valley. Living with the family, amongst the vines, and going out each day with the workers to collect grapes, or spending time in the cellar, was an immersion experience that every wine writer, I believe, should go through. By the end, my hands were blackened from grape skins and dirt; my body was exhausted and sore; but my soul was alight with the feeling of working in nature, and experiencing each vineyard’s uniqueness from within, through its fruits.

I chose to work at Domaine Mosse for several reasons. For one, I’ve been enjoying these wines for years; their Savennières cuvee, “Arena,” in particular has wowed me in certain vintages. I also considered the kinds of wines made at Domaine Mosse; there are a few different white and red wines, so I’d have the chance to see both in production, as well as a pétillant-naturel called Moussamoussettes, and rosé.

There’s a lot to say about these two weeks, and I won’t be able to say it all here. Perhaps most important was understanding how complex the harvest time is; the Mosse family has 14 parcels (17 hectares, total; they also do some négociant winemaking), and I watched and helped as they tasted the grapes in each vineyard to gauge ripeness and decide when to pick, all the time monitoring the weather for signs of rain or the much-dreaded hailstorm. It did hail, by the way, one afternoon while I was there–but fortunately, the grapes were OK.

Domaine Mosse began in 1999, when René and Agnès Mosse purchased an old winery that did not have an inheritor (more of their backstory, which has been told many times before, is laid out here). Over the years, they have planted some vineyards, while they also work with older parcels that they converted to organic. Every vineyard they work with is organically farmed, though not necessarily certified, and even the food in their home is strictly organic. They experimented once with biodynamics, but no longer, having found it too time-consuming to make all the preparations.

The Mosse family works together to run the winery and home in a way that really illustrates what it means to be a “family-run” winery. René is a bon vivant, par excellence. He will instruct you how to slice cheese (if it comes from a wheel, don’t just hack off the end; you need to slice all the way through to the rind to get the full flavor spectrum). He will not tolerate a meal without wine, ideally both white and red. He grinds spices with a mortar and pestle when he cooks, which he does as much as twice per day during harvest: once for a large, communal lunch for the workers, and again for the family, at night.

harvest lunch Mosse.jpg

Due to two broken vertebrae a few years ago, René no longer makes the wine, although he certainly stays involved in the process; his sons Joseph (28) and Sylvestre (26) are now fully in charge since 2014. And if you see the winery, this makes sense; tanks are positioned all over the place on various levels, and nobody over 35 would want to work in the space because it would just kill your joints with all that jumping around.

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Joseph and Sylvestre have a lot of good life experience under their belts; Joseph (shown in the photo above on the ground) took a sommelier course in the Rhone Valley and worked for superstar Yvon Métras in Beaujolais, and also has worked several vintages at Bruno Duchêne’s in the Roussillon. Sylvestre (in the vat of Grolleau, bucket in hand) has worked for Testalonga in South Africa, and also as a server at Chateaubriand in Paris. They have fun in the winery, blasting hip-hop as they load the press. Although they continue the winemaking tradition of the family, little by little they are trying out new approaches, like sulfite-free cuvées, or a rosé of macerated Grolleau Gris. They have the technique down, so now it’s time to experiment.

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Agnès was in the vines with us every day, managing the picking. She knows the terroirs really well. Her sense of humor was a necessary palliative on days when I really wanted to quit and lay down in the grass; Agnès would always find someone to jab at in a friendly way, or give us something to laugh about. She also brought the daily casse-croûte (a simple field workers’ snack of bread, cheese, coffee, beer), provided care when people snipped their fingers with the secateurs, and gave back massages to her weary sons after a long day in the cellar.

Picking Chenin Blanc was an experience of rude awakening for me. I love drinking Chenin Blanc, but it is incredibly arduous to pick. The grapes can go from ripe to rotten very quickly. Many parcels were full of rotten clusters, which burst and splattered juice all over us as we picked (not pleasant!).

Chenin with lots of rot Bonnes Blanches

When we found rot, we dropped the vinegary ones but kept most because rot can actually add complexity to the wine, as long as the juice inside is still good. Clusters were often snuggled together under many leaves, and we had to forage for them and pry them apart from each other, thorns prickling our forearms. It was fascinating to compare one parcel of Chenin to another: each vine plant was unique and every vineyard told a different story of place and farming practices. We picked other grapes, too: Grolleau, a native variety that used to be much more popular in the area, Grolleau Gris, Cabernet Franc, Côt (Malbec); I left before they got to the Cabernet Sauvignon they use in their “Anjou rouge” blend.

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One Chenin vineyard we picked was sort-of wild, as if it hadn’t been trellised in years (or perhaps “abandoned” would be the right word). For this one, we didn’t double up on each row, because you could literally lift up the vines branches from either side to get to the grape clusters. It was a really calming vineyard to work in. The grapes from that vineyard went into a wine made by Stephan Przezdziecki (he wisely goes by Stephan PZ), who has long worked at Domaine Mosse and just makes this one cuvée called “Un Bout de Chemin” under his own label. We drank it at lunch–really good. FiFi imports it into the U.S.

dew covered cluster Bonnes Blanches

It’s important to note that it’s only in recent decades that Chenin Blanc became known as dry, mineral, and terroir-expressive; for many years, people chaptalized Chenin Blanc to make sickly sweet wines that lacked character and did little to display terroir, until a new wave of winemakers set up in the late 1990s, including René, as well as Richard Leroy and Mark Angeli and several others around Anjou. They decided to work in a less interventionist way in the cellar, organic in the vineyards, and generally letting the Chenin express its Chenin-ness instead of covering it up with sugar. At Mosse, the level of sulfites was lowered over the years, echoing a general trend in the region, and now Joseph and Sylvestre hardly add any or sometimes zero, depending on how the juice tastes as it ferments and how racking goes.

We managed to visit two neighboring winemakers whom I’ve long admired: Jean-Christophe Garnier and Richard Leroy. Very different approaches to wine! The Mosse family had a bit of a stash of both of these producers’ wines at home, so we were prepared for our visits. (The Mosse family has a vast and extremely good collection of French natural wine, although I fear it’s significantly diminished after my two-week stay, during which we blind-tasted every. single. night…)

One night at dinner, we tasted the 2009 “Bezigon” from Garnier, a Chenin Blanc from old vines grown on schist soil, which was light on its feet with fresh apricot and lemon notes; and a 2009 “Les Rouliers” from Richard Leroy, which I found accomplished, structured, with ripe fruit that asserted itself alongside spicy food, and strong and beautiful acidity on the finish. The latter wine became an interesting point of discussion in Leroy’s cellar, a few days after we drank it at the Mosse’s home at dinner. In general, by the way, all the 2009 Loire Chenin Blancs I’ve tried are really, really singing right now–find them and drink them!

Jean-Christophe Garnier II

Jean-Christophe Garnier, pictured above, lives down the street from Domaine Mosse, and has been making wine for about fifteen years. As you can see, he uses an old-fashioned basket press (for all his wines). Things are very artisanal here, clearly. Jean-Christophe is kind of a serious, soft-spoken guy, although I’d bet he opens up after a few glasses.

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We tasted juice from the tanks, and it was all very delicious, especially the “La Roche” old-vines (60 yrs-old) parcel that goes into the “La Roche Bezigon” wine. I like the reds he makes a lot: there’s a Gamay-Pineau d’Aunis blend that’s just a perfect, refreshing lunch wine (serve chilled!), and he’s making a pétillant-rosé from these two grapes that I bet will be super delicious, so keep an eye out for that.

You’re probably wondering whether the growing season in Anjou was marked by the frost that devastated vineyards in many parts of France, notably Chablis, parts of Champagne, and the Touraine region of the Loire Valley. In Anjou, there was frost, but it wasn’t so terrible; I don’t think anybody lost all of their crop, as happened in some of these other areas. Some vines in the Mosse parcels where frost hit only had a few clusters, to give you an idea.

To visit Richard Leroy, René drove us–myself and another stagier, a server at a natural wine bar in Copenhagen–to the nearby village of Rablay-Sur-Layon. Richard makes very small amounts of wine from 3 hectares (I counted about 40 barrels in the winery). His two cuvées are “Les Rouliers” and “Les Noels de Montbenault”; tasting them side-by-side is a worthwhile (and delicious) study of soils, and demonstrates Chenin’s ability to be just as “transparent” as Chardonnay, in terms of expressing terroir. “Les Rouliers” comes from a parcel of 25-year-old vines on gray schist (with a barrel or two of Savennières blended in), whereas “Montbenault” is 55-year-old vines on rhyolite (volcanic soil). They are made the same way: diligent sorting in the vineyard to take out any rotten clusters, followed by pressing, fermentation in barrels, and the important last step is six months of aging in tank. Richard feels that the final six months in tank is critical; he didn’t allow the full time in 2009, because of market pressure, and he says the wine “suffered” (although I enjoyed the bottle we drank at Domaine Mosse very much).

Richard Leroy wines horizontal

This blog post is getting quite long, so rather than go over everything we tasted in Richard’s cellar, I will just say that it’s a true treat to experience his wines; I would offer that “Les Rouliers” generally is characterized by an arc of creamy peaches on the nose, followed by the signature mineral backbone of dry Chenin, and a long finish. “Montbenault,” meanwhile, has stewed, salty peach notes that lend extra texture and roundness to the wine. We did try the 2009 “Montbenault,” to compare with the ’09 “Rouliers” we’d had at dinner; it was really incredibly good, with a slightly spiced nose, a cooked white peach vibe on the palate, and an intense mineral finish.

Mosse BB InitialAre you thirsty for Chenin yet? Go drink some! If you can find a bottle of the Domaine Mosse “Initial B.B.,” from one of their most prized plots in the Bonnes Blanches, typically harvested with very good maturity or even some botrytis, you’ll enjoy its complexity and the wine can be cellared for many years. Also, the aforementioned Savennières wine, “Arena,” is quite electric. Be on the lookout for their new 2016 “parcellaire” wine, where they combined their top three old vines Chenin parcels (Marie Bernard; Rouchefer; Bonnes Blanches). And “Moussamossettes,” their rosé pét-nat made of Pineau d’Aunis and Grolleau, is pretty much the most perfect wine you could imagine for aperitif. I learned during my stay that it’s actually aged for several months in barrel to develop roundness and complexity.

I’m grateful for my experience with the Mosse family. It’s given me fresh energy to keep learning and writing about wine. And it was honestly so beautiful to pick in the early morning fog, and to be up close with the vines; I only wish I had a way to do it without killing my back and knees! But maybe that’s part of wine’s ultimate contradiction: it’s a luxury good, but it comes to us through regular, hard labor, and ultimately it’s the simple fact of healthy soil that guarantees its quality, as well as the loving touch of the people coaxing it into existence.

 

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