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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Terroir Is Boring, And Other Gems From Austrian Winemaker Christian Tschida

In a hypercommercialized world where even natural wine, once culty, is now fetishized to death on social media (guilty!), people like Austrian winemaker Christian Tschida are refreshing. Christian doesn’t take in harvest interns; doesn’t use Instagram; doesn’t put cute cartoons on (most of) his labels; with few exceptions doesn’t particularly like to attend natural wine fairs; and somehow is maybe the only producer in the “Brutal” collective who is allowed to put his name on the front label. He’s somehow both gruff and nice at the same time, giving the impression that, while he’s actually a very considerate person, he’s not out to impress anyone with politeness.

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This past summer, a small group of us who are fans of Christian’s wines, and wanted to better understand them, visited Christian at his home in Austria’s Burgenland region. I was accompanied by Valentina and Misiska of the natural wine salon Humbuk Bratislava, and Ed, aka the Winestache. It was a gorgeous, warm day. We didn’t go into the cellar or vineyards, just hung out in the backyard, with the stark white walls of the house lending an oddly Mediterranean atmosphere, and drank wine and talked.

“I want to make wines the way I want to drink, but also wines that age, and that I can think about,” is how Christian speaks of his winemaking. He wants to achieve a lot with his wines; they should be drinkable, but also age-worthy and meditative. Christian’s father was a third-generation winemaker in Burgenland, and founded an association that promoted organic wine growing. Ten years ago, Christian started making wines under his own label, working to assert a unique style. He has always done skin contact with the whites, he told us, and since 2010 he has bottled his “experimental” wines separately. Echoing what many winemakers working with skin contact whites have told me, Christian explained that maceration can be tricky and has to be closely watched in terms of picking at the right time and leaving skins on for just long enough, especially since Christian uses no sulfites.

The estate is around 10 hectares, all organic, and vines are trellised in a “double planting” system, with two rows of vines alongside each other, which Christian says improves the acidity and lets the roots go deeper. (Christian’s UK importer, Newcomer Wines, has some helpful information about his work in the vineyards.) Christian picks grapes for acidity, especially the Muscats, of which he has a few different kinds (“You have to avoid the stupid Muscat taste, you know what I mean?”).  Read more

Some Sneak Peeks (Or Peaks?) Of Terre Magazine Issue 1

Here’s how tired I am: I nearly wrote “sneak peaks.”

I’m exhausted! It’s the middle of harvest here in the Loire Valley, where I am working for the wonderful Mosse family in Anjou. (More on that soon.) While traveling all summer, I’ve managed to put together an entire magazine. There are some really complex, in-depth features in Terre Magazine Issue 1, which is now for sale on our website. Here’s a few of just the tiniest glimpses at what’s between the covers:

  • Deirdre Heekin of Vermont’s La Garagista delivers profound thoughts about hybrid grapes, with her signature prose style
  • One of Italy’s most prominent natural wine consultants, who is also making his own first vintage, is profiled
  • A first-person “day in the life” of one of the U.S.’s most exciting natural wine bars
  • The “beyond Pinot Noir” movement in Oregon
  • Cheesemaking and why terroir is a marketing scheme
  • How one Long Island winery made its first pét-nat

That’s only part of what’s in Issue 1. And you should see the artwork. We’ve collaborated with super talented painters, photographers, and illustrators around the world, and our designer is currently putting the finishing touches on the layout, all of which has happened via my talented artistic co-founders, Erika DaSilva and Katie June Burton.

If you haven’t already purchased your copy of Terre, grab it on our site. Copies are limited, and no content will be posted online. Potential stockists, if you have questions, please reach out to us at terremag@gmail.com. We’re planning some launch parties in NYC and Oregon for November–stay tuned! Follow us on Instagram or Facebook, or sign up for our newsletter

Can’t wait to share Terre Magazine with you all, so so soon . . .

And now, back to bottling some Chenin Blanc. (It’s a rainy day, so it’s cellar work time here . . .)

Nobody Drank Much Water At H20…

I hope that my latest feature on Sprudge Wine will serve as something of a lighthearted mood-lifter (tu te calmes and carry on, is perhaps what Thierry Puzelat might say…?). It’s a write-up of the raucous and extremely well-curated two-day natural wine fair H20 Vegetal, held last month in Catalunya, Spain. You can read it here

xRachel

In Ten Years, We May All Be Drinking “Ruby Cab” From Texas: Here’s Why

Whether you prefer the “doom and gloom” approach to writing about climate change, or perhaps yearn for more of a “think critically and talk solutions” framework, there is no denying (unless you’re our sorry excuse for a fake president) that it’s happening. With regard to agriculture especially, there will be drastic and far-reaching consequences of rising temperatures, and the world is going to have to respond.

I’m a big believer in bottom-up change, and I think it’s interesting to glimpse what’s happening in the winemaking world, to see how people are anticipating the effects of global warming. That’s one of the reasons I honed in on a young woman named Krista Scruggs for my latest piece on Vice MUNCHIES. She is working with hybrid grapes in off-the-beaten-path viticultural regions like Vermont and Texas, despite having started out her career with Constellation Brands in Central California. Part of Krista’s mission, which she has adopted while apprenticing for the passionate and studious Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista, is to prove that hybrid grapes are not “second class citizens” to vitis vinifera. As we continue to observe the effects of climate change, it’s worth asking whether her quest may become more and more relevant.

But the other reason I wanted to write about Krista is that she doesn’t fit the mold of your typical winemaker. The wine industry is not only overwhelmingly male, as has often been pointed out; it’s also mainly made up of white, heteronormative people. Let’s hope that increased diversity in this industry, as more people like Krista come into the fold, will lead to deeper and more progressive conversations about issues like sustainability, climate change, and supporting innovation from the ground up (literally).

Read my feature about Krista Scruggs and her quest to prove the worth of hybrid grapes on Vice MUNCHIES, here. In ten years, we may all be drinking Ruby Cab from Texas instead of Napa Valley Cabernet–and in the best case scenario, that won’t be just because of climate change; it will be due to the delicious, exciting wines coming from young winemakers like Krista. Happy Friday!

It’s All Greek To Me, But Only Some Of It Is Worth Drinking

What’s old is new, and what’s new is old, right?

Nowhere does that seem more true than within the culture of natural wine. After all the money spent on science and technology in the late 20th century, with the goal of creating a commercial wine industry, and thousands and thousands of wineries installing temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks for a quick and consistent fermentation, people all over the world are now putting their grapes into clay amphorae, fermenting them without sulfites, and letting wine be just about as wild as it was back in the days of Dionysus. 

Crazy, right? Next thing you know, people will actually be talking to each other in cafés instead of perusing Instagram on their phones. Er, probably not . . .

In Greece, a country with 4000 years of documented viticultural history, modern winemaking dominates, and is strongly influenced by Bordeaux-style oenology. But there are a few people making really interesting, low-intervention or natural wines, and elevating the country’s fascinating indigenous grapes. My article about the producers leading the way for natural wines in Greece is up on Sprudge Wine, read here

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I had the pleasure of tasting many of these wines during a recent visit to the country. What’s important to mention here, too, is that the wines really shine especially with Greek food, which is rich in flavor and features lots of fresh Mediterranean vegetables, like eggplant and tomato, as well as plenty of meat, feta cheese, and dolmas. So, ideally, that would be the way to enjoy the wines; however, I did recently have a fantastic 2013 Xinomavro from a producer named Oenos at a restaurant here in Paris (cute place called Tannat, in the 11ème), and it was perfect with duck. (Although Xinomavro with moussaka, that’s just, like, boom.)

moussaka!!! so good!

If you live in New York, I really recommend the restaurant Molyvos, where I first tasted many of these wines a couple years back with the very knowledgable wine director, Kamal Kouiri; the food is really delicious and classic.

Thanks for reading!

 

Committing To A Long-Term Relationship With Burgundy

a berry of Gamay Teinturier in the Mâconnais

I hail from a place where just about everything is, in the grand scheme of things, fairly new. The houses are, maybe, 75 years-old. The schools were built in the ’60s. Supermarkets did not replace small artisanal bakeries and butchers, because there hardly ever were any. Growing up in the typical American suburbs, one’s sense of the past is vague, illustrated in high school history books but hardly livable or comprehendible in any way. Heritage is whispered about during visits from grandparents, who generally would rather forget the past, its global wars and times of bare-cupboard scarcity.

What, then, gives me, a child of the American suburbs, any right to delve into the profound mysteries of Burgundy? Can a Millennial do justice to a region whose history stretches back over a Millennium?

I am writing from Paris, after spending a week traveling around the Côtes d’Or, visiting producers including some whose wines I’ve deeply admired for many years. I am humbled by the experience. It was my second visit to Burgundy; the first was in 2014 when I somehow got myself into cellars of the likes of Frédéric Mugnier, knowing very little about what I was experiencing. Now, I have a much stronger grasp of wine tasting and wine writing, and my French is finally good enough to do an entire visit in that language in cases where the vignerons don’t know much English. But still, I feel that I am really only seeing the tip of the iceberg, in Burgundy, just beginning to understand the diversity of grape varieties there–meaning, the various clones and older varieties of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Gamay–and the nuances of vinifying Pinot Noir in particular.

talented vigneronne Fanny Sabre, age 32, who worked for Philippe Pacalet for several years

What helps, though, is that there is a forceful, somewhat younger generation in Burgundy–people like Julien Guillot, and Fanny Sabre, who have learned from their parents and mentors, and who believe deeply in the terroir they work with, and have their own, strongheaded ideas about how to best represent them.

Along with Guillot and Sabre, I have a lot to think about after stimulating visits last week with Sylvain Pataille, Jean-Yves Bizot, Antoine Jobard, Pierre de Benoist of Domaine de Villaine in Bouzeron, Dominique Derain, Pierre Fenals of Maison en Belles Lies, and JJ Morel.

Sylvain Pataille in the Clemengeots vineyard, Marsannay

Burgundy is not only an old and storied winemaking region, it is constantly changing, and quite significantly in the second half of the Twentieth century. New issues arise all the time–some related to climate (frost and hail, mainly, as well as the Suzuki flies of 2014), and others related to winemaking techniques, such as the much-discussed premox problem. Every year, there seems to be less and less wine made in Burgundy; meanwhile, the region’s top talent is churning out better and better wines, but at higher prices. I’m privileged, as a wine writer, to have access to some of these domaines for tastings, but I can’t really afford to drink most Burgundies on my own dime, unless we are talking about young Village-level or Bourgogne appellation wines, which I’m always happy to drink.

I guess the answer to my above rhetorical question is: I don’t really have any right, per se, to cover Burgundy as a journalist–except for the fact that I find the region fascinating, and I really do love the wines when they are made with care in a non-interventionist way. And I have a lot of respect for the vignerons working in this fashion, despite the market pressures.

Anyway, over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be working on some stories based on this tour, and I’ll try to do justice to such a complex and fascinating region. But the fact is, I need to commit to Burgundy, if I want to truly understand it. This isn’t a region you pass through and say, “well, that was fun,” and never revisit. It requires a lot of study and attention, over time. I can say for sure, after this trip, that I’m captivated enough by the wines and the terroir to gladly lend myself to the task.

Jean-Yvez Bizot overlooking his Gâchés vineyard, in Vosne-Romanee

By the way, I have a new story out, focused on the main New World sister winemaking region to Burgundy–yep, Oregon! I covered a recent tasting of Gamay wines from all around Oregon for the August issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine. Read the article here.

I definitely encourage you to seek out Oregon Gamay; many of the producers are treating the grape with the same attention that you’d find in Cru Beaujolais wines, so these are wines of finesse meant for aging. A few that I really liked are in the following slideshow; reach out directly to the wineries via their websites for availability and pricing.

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A bientôt! RS