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. Read more

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I Have Strong Opinions About Sauvignon Blanc

People often ask me: “How do you think of a story?”

Much of the time, I pitch stories based on wines or winemakers that have amazed me, or places I’ve visited where I see an interesting trend happening. But in the case of my most recent piece, a sort-of manifesto about Sauvignon Blanc (and why we might want to call it, simply, “Sauvignon,” and never “Sahv Blanc,” although I do think “Savvy B” is a nickname with a certain charm), the idea came to me the morning after a really fun pop-up at La Buvette, one of my favorite Paris natural wine bars in the 11th arrondissement. I woke up thinking about the snacks served at that event, and the wine we drank alongside them, and just started writing. In a nutshell, the piece explains why I don’t want to drink Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like canned green peas, or like a jalapeño made love to a watery green apple. I want flesh and citrus in my Sauvignon! Find out why I feel so strongly about Sauvignon in my latest for Sprudge Wine here, and I’d love to hear what you think. 

Cheers to all of you from London, after a few days of enjoying the city’s fantastic eating and natural wine culture, and prior to that, a brief stay in Edinburgh, where I attended Wild Wine Fair and had lunch at Timberyard restaurant. More on both of those to come, soon!

Alexandre Bain And The Fight For Pouilly-Fumé: A vigneron literally stands his ground


alexandre-bainAlexandre Bain makes controversial wines. Often, people think his wines are “orange,” meaning that their amber-brown hue is derived from the Sauvignon Blanc grape juice staying in contact with their skins—but in fact, the hue is from botrytized grapes, and an oxidative winemaking process, both of which are extremely uncommon for the region of Pouilly-Fumé, where Bain makes wine. Since launching his own label in 2007, Bain now makes about 50,000 bottles per year from 11 hectares that he rents.

In 2015, the French entity INAO, who is tasked with regulating appellations all around the country, effectively kicked Bain out of the Pouilly-Fumé AOC. This interview, conducted in the New York office of his importer, Zev Rovine, outlines Bain’s approach to winemaking, and why he is fighting back against the INAO.

What’s the history of winemaking in your family?

My grandparents were farmers; they had cows and goats, and grew wheat. But nobody in my family was vigneron. I was interested in wine, so I studied at the viticultural school of Beaune, and then worked for Domaine Henri Poulet in Menetou-Salon; Flowers in Sonoma; also in Ventoux in the South of France. I also worked for Louis Latour, a big chemical producer [laughs], but it was interesting for me because it was my first job and I learned there how to prune and work with the tractor.

Somewhere along the way, you became interested in natural wine.

I became aware of organics through my mother, because all the time she cared for us with homeopathic medicine, and we ate organic food. When I was at school in Beaune, I also learned there about organics. I had jobs on the weekends, doing pruning, and I always tried to do it at organic estates just to get to know the philosophy. After that, I met [natural winemaker] Sebastian Riffault [in Sancerre] and told him I would start my own winery soon, and said I wanted to work with horses, rather than plowing with tractors. It’s very different working with a plow versus horses. I went to train with Olivier Cousin [who also works with horses] and I met other people like Benoit Courault, Jerome Saurigny, Réne Mosse—and I decided to work organically or biodynamically. To me, biodynamics help regenerate the soil faster. To make natural wine, you must work organic. Biodynamic for me is the best—especially when there is no life before you start.

Tell me about getting expelled from the Pouilly-Fumé appellation.

Puilly-Fumé, it’s a kind of brand. If you are at the limit of the border, or if you harvest by hand but ripened fruit [as opposed to underripe,] green Sauvignon Blanc, [you can be expelled]. When you have a little botrytis you have jammy fruits; to me this is more interesting to drink, more drinkable—in French, we say it is appetànt. It means if you smell it, you want to drink it. To make this kind of wine, you must make it with yellow fruit, pink fruit—not green fruit. But you cannot harvest this quality of fruit with a machine. Why? Because the machine moves the row. All of our vines are on still wires. If the machine moves, if the berries are ripened, whole berries will fall on the ground. So most people, when they use the machine, they harvest grapes still green. When they use this kind of berry, and sulfur is used in the fields and during fermentation, and they use yeasts, sugar, enzyme, tartaric acid, to me they make technological wine, and it’s a kind of brand. Everybody uses the same brand of harvest machine and sugar and yeast—so at the end, it’s a kind of brand. To me, if you do not use all of this, you make wine, terroir wine.

The official panel tasted your wine and told you it didn’t fit into Pouilly-Fumé?

They said, you mustn’t sell this wine, it’s not a Pouilly-Fumé because it’s oxidative.

What did you first feel or think when you got that phone call?

Fighting! I like all of my wines; they are not perfect but I work hard and try to do my best, and it’s a risk. The problem is, to me, I make a Pouilly-Fumé because I make a Sauvignon Blanc within the boundaries. I do not use fertilizer or yeast, I do not use sugar, I do not use yeast from Copenhagen. So, I make a Pouilly-Fumé. For French people, for vignerons, appellations mean something. Of course, it’s 2016, and we know that sometimes vin de france is better than appellation—but I care, so I’m fighting.

Where are you in the fight?

At this moment, I am fighting with the INAO. I’m waiting now for the trial to take place.

A Very Special, Soul-Lifting Week In France

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Olivier Cousin in his cellar in Martigné-Briand, Angers

Something that’s kept me going through this extremely disheartening and terrifying political situation we’ve found ourselves in, over the past few months, has been the knowledge that I had an upcoming trip to France. France, of course, has its own challenges and is now also in the midst of a corruption-inflected election cycle—but exploring the wine regions is a direct affirmation of the power of culture to persist, even in these times.

While the world seems to be crumbling under its own weight, small-production winemakers are managing to find better and better ways to work with terroir and deliver the most beautiful, purest juice. It’s inspiring to see people do something very well, with all the care they can muster, simply because it brings joy to them and others.

I started the trip in Champagne, and while my time there was short, it was also very productive—thanks to my friend the Champagne expert Peter Liem, who arranged some very special visits with growers. My appreciation of terroir-driven Champagne has grown enormously over the last six months, and I’m eager to learn more and more. Next, I took at 7:30am train out of Champagne to meet the Jenny & François crew in the Loire Valley, where a series of large wine fairs—La Dive Bouteille, famously held in the dramatic underground caves of Saumur; the biodynamic-focused Renaissance that Nicolas Joly organizes; Thierry Puzelat’s Les Penitentes; and Les Anonymes, which we didn’t make it to—took place over the course of three days. We visited a few producers around Angers—the legendary Olivier Cousin; and young Etienne Courtois—plus Renaud Guettier in the Coteaux du Loir further up north.

Some people in the industry have been attending these wine fairs for many years, and they complain about how big and difficult to navigate they’ve become, but for me as a first-timer, the whole experience was completely magical. It was especially satisfying to see that the 2016 Loire Valley wines, after an extremely difficult growing season resulting in drastically low yields, are wonderful—very nice concentration, flavor and acidity—despite being scarce.

After the tastings, I spent a few days in Paris, dropping too much money in restaurants seeing friends who live there, and stumbling around the beautiful pharmacies, shops, and cafés on the Rue de Martyrs.

I feel very privileged to be able to do all this, given that certain populations of the world are arbitrarily having their mobility restricted. In recent months, I’ve found myself wishing that I wrote about something besides wine and food and cocktails, so that I could feel like my words could form part of the resistance. But on this recent trip in France, I remembered that joy and pleasure are also vital parts of human existence; and I reflected on how the fight for terroir—to keep land healthy and chemical-free, and to discover the possibilities of soil and viticulture—is also a political act. A small one, yes—but small, in a world where lust and greed have gotten completely out of control, is exceptionally beautiful.

At the moment, I’m fighting off jet-lag with the help of some very good French melatonin, and sorting through material and thinking about stories to pitch and blog posts to write based on this trip. More to come soon.

Loire Valley Trip Report

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.

Domaine Vacheron

J-L Vacheron_Clos_RSigner

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.

Hervé Villemade

Hervé Villemade_RSigner

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.

Thierry Puzelat

Thierry Puzelat_Rsigner

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.

Noella Morantin

Noella Moratin_Rsigner

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

Fred Niger_Rsigner

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!