I am desperately in love with the city of Paris. If I could do really anything in my life, I would move there to write a novel, and I don’t care at all if that sounds like a cliché. To substantiate it a bit, I do think that France right now is a really interesting place, but the reasons for that aren’t exactly positive: the country as a whole is in a difficult moment, with extremely heightened racial tensions and the constant threat of terrorism on the heels of severe attacks. I have wanted to live in Paris ever since I was 20, and while the romance of the city may have been part of that desire and still is, along with its incredible culinary scene, the complicated nature of that country appeals to the writer in me. And maybe I’m just a nostalgic sap, like everybody else who read A Movable Feast after high school and dreamt of being a poor writer in Paris, ideally minus the poor part.
Well, I’m not sure how I got onto such a serious note, because the point of this blog post was to share my latest Vogue.com article, on the vibrant nighttime scene at Paris’ little neo-bistros. These restaurants are helmed by young and talented chefs and sommeliers, and they have incredible atmosphere. Each time I go to Paris, I manage to try one or two new places, and I fall more and more in love with the city’s dining culture.
Read the article here. And thank you for putting up with my eternal bohemian disposition (it drove my mother crazy for eighteen years). But it persists: the other day, I pulled out the novel I finished in 2014 while I was waiting tables at Reynard–the job that led me to fall in love with wine–and I found myself wondering when I would be ready for my second attempt. And what the setting would be, for me to write it.
A swooping, curving tangle of wood, elegant and calming yet also just a bit architecturally chaotic–this was my impression of the new winery at Domaine Binner, a biodynamic estate in Alsace. The first harvest in the finished winery took place in 2012; Christian Binner had it built in an effort to create a harmonious, integrated energy that’s in line with Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy. Its graceful curves lend it a sense of movement or time passing, and the pale wood provides a subtle, forestal aspect to the winery. Christian opted to use local wood and stone after visiting other biodynamic wineries and noticing that they were made of concrete, held together with chemical glue, which Christian felt was contradictory to the philosophy, plus smelled bad. With the new winery, Christian feels that his wines are more stable and have less issues with VA (volatile acidity, a wine flaw). Prior to construction, Christian hired someone to measure the “vibrations” of the space before construction began, and was told that it reportedly had the energetic quality of a monastery. In other words, good vibes.
The winery stands a short drive from the city of Colmar, in southern Alsace. I was in Alsace on a press trip and put in a specific request to visit the Binner domaine, having tasted and liked the wines here and there, and knowing that it was biodynamic, natural, and in a portfolio that I admire very much (Jenny & Francois).
Christian comes from many generations of agriculturalists in Alsace; in the 1970s his family focused on grape growing and winemaking. The Binner estate has several Grand Cru holdings (Alsace’s 51 Grand Cru sites are located on steep slopes, with very diverse soils), including the well-known Schlossberg hill, the nearby Wineck Schlossberg site, and Kaefferkopf. I can’t claim to be an expert on Alsace terroir, but generally speaking, the Grand Cru sites produce wines with much more complexity and ageability, as you might expect.
As with many of the winemakers who interest me, Christian is something of an outlier in his region. He makes nearly all of his wines completely without sulfur. To this point, we tasted the exact same wine, vinified with a bit of sulfur in one bottling, and sulfur-free in another, side by side. (Christian aims to make wine without any sulfur, but occasionally adds it when the juice requires stabilization.) It was Christian’s 2014 entry-level Riesling, “Les Salon des Bains.” The low-sulfur version (10mg was added) had a golden color, a smoky nose, and stewed apricots and ripe fruits on the palate. The low-sulfur version also underwent a light filtration (I didn’t get details on what, exactly, was the method), whereas the sulfur-free wine did not (most of Christian’s wines are unfiltered). Christian likes to harvest grapes on the later side, and as a result I found the stewed stonefruit note present in all his white wines. The sulfur-free version of the same wine was, to me, livelier, with more acidity on the palate, and a touch of spritz. Both wines were very good, although if I had my choice I would drink the sulfur-free version.
As a winemaker, Christian likes to appreciate the unique qualities of each vintage; he enjoys being “spontaneous and experimental,” which perhaps makes it difficult to understand his wines, as they must vary from year to year. “I don’t want to make a brand, that’s bullshit for me. The vibration, you lose it when you want to be too much controlled,” Christian told me emphatically. Clearly, energetics are important to him.
Most of Christian’s wines are made in an oxidative style, with long élevage in barriques. The wines profess a lot of complexity, great acidity particularly with the Pinot Noirs, and exceptional personality. I feel that each time you drink a bottle of Christian Binner’s wine, you’re in for a philosophical experience. These are somewhat challenging wines, in my opinion. They demand a bit of attention, quite possibly a decanter, and a willingness to see where they lead you. Every wine I tasted was quite good, although my palate tends to prefer a touch of oxidization.
My favorites were the ’08 Auxerrois (purposely released late), a 100 percent varietal wine (highly unusual for this grape in Alsace) that displayed preserved peaches, a hint of nutmeg, and a rich, sexy, mineral quality on the palate, with a burst of acidity. As well, I loved the SI ROSE, a wine that Christian says was inspired by Sev Perru, the talented and knowledgeable wine director at The Ten Bells in Manhattan. It’s a stunning orange wine, made of 2/3 Gewurtztraminer (such an underappreciated grape) and 1/3 Pinot Gris. The structure and freshness were overwhelmingly impressive, and the nose was a beautiful mélange of rose petals and tangerines. As well, I found the 2013 Wineck Schlossberg Grand Cru wine to be quite good; it comes from a valley near the famed Schlossberg hill, spends 18 months in barrel without any topping-off or sulfur additions, and is a pleasant shock of acidity, with an overall austere and mineral quality, and that dose of stewed apricots I saw in all of Christian’s whites.
Something Christian said really resonated with me: he speculated that natural wines have become popular in cities like New York of late because we have a strong desire to connect with nature. I really do feel that, in the concrete jungle of the city, in a digitally mediated world, a bottle of wine can help us feel a bit less distant from the trees and the stars surrounding the world’s best vineyards, and certainly wine makes us feel more human. I wonder if it could be true of the Binner wines that many of them would best be enjoyed in France, where they don’t have to travel as far—I really don’t know. But I’d definitely be willing to test this theory out—so let me know if any of you would like to share a bottle of Binner sometime! And if you’re ever in Alsace, I do recommend visiting Christian, as he’s very hospitable and generous with his time, and speaks great English. In other woods, good vibes.
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.
The 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, 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.
“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!
When I first heard that an urban winery had opened in Paris, I was like mmmmm I dunno about that. But I dutifully checked it out–and was quite surprised at what I found. I wrote about it for Food Republic, and if you’re in Paris I definitely recommend checking it out. Read my story here.
If you have never experienced a “serious” rosé–made with just as much care and consideration as any red wine, and with aging potential–then please check out my guide to some very interesting pink wines on Vine Pair, and seek out of these delicious bottles. Read here! In a similar vein, I wrote about age-worthy rosé for the August issue of Wine & Spirits, so keep an eye out for that on newsstands soon. Cheers!
I’m writing from Paris, after a week in the Loire Valley and before that, a week in Alsace (which informed last week’s Vine Pair column on Riesling, Gewurtraminer, and Pinot Gris from Alsace; read here).
I’m still coming down from the sleep-deprived, adrenaline-fueled high of visiting producers across the Loire Valley whose wines I first tasted when I was a server at Reynard, then sold when I worked in retail, and then wrote about in various articles. I felt that it was time to see their terroir and their cellars, get to know them in situ, and understand the geography of the Loire Valley. It was a week of long drives guided by GPS, muddy walks in rain-soaked vineyards, discussions of weather patterns, tasting and tasting and tasting, and some very special meals. I’m grateful to the vignerons who took time from their busy schedules (after rain, the vines need a lot of attention) to show me their vineyards and cellars.
The 2016 vintage is difficult, as anyone who is following France’s wine regions will likely know. The Loire Valley did not get hail this spring, but it did have frost on the vines a few months ago, and then it rained this month for two weeks straight. Flowering is just happening now, which is late, and many producers have lost between 50-70 percent of their potential grape production. 2015 was a very warm vintage with a high yield, and 2014 was a “classic” vintage with a balanced, warm growing season.
Here, going to mention just a few highlights; more in-depth coverage will come in the months to follow.
Jean-Laurent Vacheron and his cousin are the 4th generation of vignerons at this certified biodynamically farmed Sancerre domaine, which today comprises just under 50 hectares. In the early 20th century, the domaine produced both wine and goat’s cheese, and had a restaurant as well, but they specialized in wine in the 60s, and planted vines in the fields where the goats had grazed. The move to organic began here in ’93, and to biodynamic in ’97. The Vacheron approach is very much focused on micro-terroir, or soil types; there is a special cuvee devoted to each unique parcel of land. The very worldly and professionally experienced Jean-Laurent took me out in his truck and showed me the fault line where the compacted, flinty Silex soil begins; this type of limestone from the Eocene era constitutes about 20 percent of all Sancerre vineyard land and lends a flinty taste to the Sauvignon. Jean-Laurent showed me the shed where he makes his biodynamic preparations, and we also stopped by a special, tiny parcel called Le Clos des Ramparts, which has some ungrafted (franc de pied) Sauvignon. A special bonus was tasting through a vertical of the “Belle Dame” Silex soil Pinot Noir going back to ’06; it was amazing to see the vintage variation.
Upon arriving to Hervé’s domaine in Cheverny, I found his 92-year-old father working in the garden. Later I asked Hervé whether his father ever took a day off, predicting correctly that the answer would be “no.” The second thing noticed was that the walls of the winery are covered with beautiful, large-format photos of Hervé’s harvest workers (taken by a friend of his). It looks like a very, very fun place to do harvest. Most of the Sauvignon and Romorantin vineyards that form part of 22 hectares total are right near the winery, and we put on boots to tromp through their sand and silex soils. Hervé explained that there is only about 60 hectares left of Romorantin in France, which almost made me cry because I love it so, so much; fortunately he has planted some through a massale selection of vines. As the story goes with nearly all grapes that are nearing extinction, people ripped up much of the Romorantin in the 50s and 60s to plan grapes that produce more and are easier to grow, like Sauvignon. Hervé, along with Thierry Puzelat and Domaine Tessier, is experimenting with making wine in quevri, as well as a concrete egg, although generally he ferments in tanks or large neutral foudres, and then assembles the wine before further elevage. This was a fantastic tasting that revealed the age-worthiness of many of Hervé’s cuvees and the overall craftsmanship of his very precise winemaking. If you see his “Les Ardilles,” a blend of mostly Pinot Noir and some Gamay that displays notes of crushed strawberry, lemongrass, and rose, do not hesitate to buy and drink it. His Cheverny Rouge (Pinot/Gamay) is so wonderful and light, with soft tannins. Perhaps the stunner for me was his “Les Acacias” cuvee, made from a 1962 planting of Romorantin: it is dark golden, with intense aromas of stonefruits and lemon, and a rich texture. The kind of wine you should cellar until you meet someone you desperately want to seduce.
I showed up at Thierry Puzelat’s domaine in Montils a few days after he’d celebrated his 50th birthday party with friends from all over the world, and he was in good spirits. Clos de Tue-Boeuf is the family property that Therry inherited, which dates back to the 13th century. The site is located about 2 km from the Loire River, on a gentle slope with southern exposure, and clay-silex soil, and holds many old vines parcels, including a 1976 plot of Pinot Noir that Thierry remembers hand-watering with his parents as a kid. Thierry was not always a natural winemaker. For his training, he worked for a first-growth Bordeaux estate, Clos Fourtet in Saint-Emilion, and then spent four years working for Sopexa (a French wine marketing enterprise) in Montreal. Someone told him about Marcel Lapierre, and in 1991 he went to visit the domaine and met other natural vignerons in the Beaujolais region and eventually, throughout France. He worked at Chateau Saint-Anne in Bandol, which is where he began making sulfur-free wines. In 1995, Thierry began converted Tue-Boeuf to organic. With the exception of an entry-level line of juice, Thierry’s wines are basically all single-parcel bottlings focused on terroir, which means they are often blends because the vineyards are co-planted. The 2015 Pinot Noir bottling from the “Les Gravottes” vineyard was one of my favorites from tasting: it is fermented in barriques, after foot crushing and a 10-day semi-carbonic maceration, and the result is light and fresh, high acid juice with notes of crushed cranberries and raspberries.
Spent an afternoon in the company of this strong-willed vigneron, who trained with Philippe Pacalet and Domaine Mosse, and worked for four years for Junko Arai, before setting out on her own in the late Aughts. Some of the vineyards she now works with are ones that she cultivated during her tenure for Arai; others were inherited from the vignerons of Clos Roche Blanche. I’ve drunk Noella’s wines on many occasions and always found them to have a special suppleness, roundness, as well as a lithe acidity. Perhaps this is due to the extremely long fermentations her wines undergo (one of her 2015s was still fermenting when we tried it in the cellar) as well as the long elevage in used barriques. Noella farms 6 hectares in the town of Pouillé; she used to have more but actually downsized because she emphatically wants to stay very small so as to work closely with the vines. I’m incredibly fond of the “Chez Charles” Sauvignon. Depending on the vintage, it may show some of those classic pyrazine notes Sauvignon is often known for, but what I love most is the perfect balance of acidity, freshness, and structure in this wine. I would cellar one of these babies if I had a proper cellar.
Domaine de l’Ecu
Mad scientist at work here! Fred Niger, who became an autodidact vigneron after a previous career as a lawyer, is working with several different kids of amphorae, which he plays with to reveal different aspects of the juice. He has the three main soil types of Muscadet in his biodynamically farmed 25 hectares (of which 16 are Melon de Bourgogne): gneiss, orthogenesis, and granite. Tasting through these three wines, it’s quite interesting to see how the different soil compositions affect the final juice. We also sampled the same wine, a Cabernet Franc that goes into a cuvee called “Mephisto,” from several different amphorae, and one barrique, to observe how it develops differently; the final wine is a blend of all these vinifications. Fred’s Melon de Bourgogne wines are great, but his amphorae wines are the stars here. I fell in love with the “Mephisto” and will be bringing back a bottle that someone very lucky will get to drink with me this fall.
Whew, OK, that’s all I can do for now, plus why am I sitting inside writing when I’m in Paris? A bientôt!
For Brooklyn Magazine, I wrote about one of my favorite white wines, Muscadet, with the help of awesome head bartender Will Elliott, of Maison Premiere and the newly-opened Sauvage. Check out my story on Muscadet here. And then go out and drink some delicious Muscadet!
I’m headed to France now, and will be there until the end of the month. Alsace, Loire Valley, Paris! Will try to update when I can! A bientôt!