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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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 Brief Response To A Heinously Unprofessional Piece Of Wine Writing

 

Recently, the wine writer Stuart Pigott (his bio says “wine journalist,” but I see no evidence of such, in that a journalist provides actual balanced evidence from named sources to support a story) penned a series called “The Rise Of The Hipster Somm” (ugh, yes, I know—people do still use the word “hipster”) for Grape Collective, a blog about wine.

While I don’t wish to waste too much of my time on responding to Pigott, having just returned from a week of visiting natural winemakers in the Loire Valley, and given that I do have experience visiting conventional winemakers as well, I’d like to address some of the opinions he presents here.

I’m going to focus on the third installment of his series, in which Pigott shares a story he heard from a winemaker who wishes to remain anonymous, in which the winemaker “fools” a bunch of “hipster somms.” This happens first when the winemaker tells them he made a “wild ferment” wine and is amazed at how “their eyes lit up” because they naively see the wine as “wildly authentic” now. Later, this winemaker tells them that he added the hairs of Thomas Pastuszak, the wine director at The Nomad, into the fermented juice. (Also, Pigott calls Thomas a “hipster somm” on his personal blog . . . has he ever met Thomas? Possibly the least hipster-ish guy I can think of! When have I seen Thomas not clean-shaven, wearing an immaculate, dapper suit?) And supposedly the group believes him, and even “went ape shit.”

Let’s put aside the possibility that this winemaker must be an incredible asshole in person and is almost certainly bitter because none or very few of these young sommeliers want to carry his wines in their restaurants. The fact that the group appeared interested in his wild ferment wine indicates one very obvious thing to me, which is that his wines probably taste like industrial yeast more than they taste like actual grapes. So if people did get excited at the prospect of wild yeast, I imagine they were hoping in vain that they would get a glimpse of something resembling terroir, rather than whatever manipulated crap this guy is peddling.

Which brings me to another extremely fascinating point. Pigott, clearly, is not a believer in natural wines. He calls biodynamic farming close to “black magic,” which leads me to think that he has absolutely no understanding of the benefits of using local plants to treat vineyards; has he ever visited a biodynamic producer or an esteemed professor of biodynamics, of which there are many (yes, including in Riesling land, Stu!) and asked them questions about this? I assume not.

But more importantly, Pigott does not believe in terroir. He writes, skeptically, that hipster somms are duped by wines that supposedly “[have] ‘terroir’ character (a special taste supposedly derived from where it grew)”. I personally cannot imagine someone who calls himself a wine writer being quite so ignorant. Can Pigott really not taste the difference between a Chambolle-Musigny and a Vosne-Romanée? Has he ever tried different cuvees of the same grape, from distinct soils, made by the same winemaker, and observed the unique aspects of each wine? When Pigott was writing his book on Riesling, did he never, ever notice that German winemakers talk expertly about the different terroirs of the Mosel, Rheingau, and Rhinehessen? What, exactly, does he do with his time besides seethe in sulfur-filled wine cellars with curmudgeonly winemakers about “the youth” and their errant ways; does he ever do actual research?

For Pigott to imply that sommeliers are undertrained and lazy (which supposedly is why they like natural wines, since obviously there’s nothing to study or understand if a wine is made without manipulation) is one kind of assault. But to say that natural winemakers themselves are lazy is not only an attack on hardworking, serious farmers and artisans—it is also completely ignorant. Again, I wonder if Pigott has ever ventured into the cellar of a winemaker who doesn’t use chemicals and modern techniques (temperature control, multiple filtrations) in the vineyards or cellars. My recent experience in the Loire Valley helped me understand just how much time, studiousness, energy, and consideration goes into making the wine that we refer to as “natural wine”—at least, in the hands of experienced artisans. I cannot speak for everybody who purports to make natural wine, but people like Jean-Laurent Vacheron, Thierry Puzelat, Hervé Villemade, Noella Morantin, Joseph Mosse, Quentin Bourse, Vincent Caillé, Frederic Niger, and many others whom I visited could never, ever be accused of not taking great care and implementing thoughtful strategy toward their wines. Each vintage is treated uniquely, and decisions are made in order to let the grapes best express themselves. It is very difficult to farm organically in a cool, moist climate like the Loire. Some of the organic growers I saw had done 5 or 7 treatments (a concoction of herbs and plants like nettle and willow) to the vines to prevent mildew.

And in the cellars, where all fermentations happen without the addition of yeasts and generally without any sulfur at all, each of these winemaker takes an extremely precise approach to élevage and assemblage. Thierry Puzelat, for example, has a wine called P’tit Blanc, which is made from his organically farmed, estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc. He ferments in in tank, then filters using naturally occurring diatomaceous earth, and then adds a tiny bit of sulfur before bottling. Puzelat stressed to me that he believe it is necessary to add some sulfites when you filter, because the wine has been disturbed. His goal is to have a wine that is “clean aromatically,” not reduced. It took him 15 years to learn the technique of racking, he explained to me—meaning, to understand intuitively how moving wine around affects it, and how he can help protect the wine without being too interventionist. “In fact,” he said, “in the glass you shouldn’t feel that it’s work. If you feel that, it’s intervention.”

On his personal blog, Pigott writes in defense of his “hipster somm” series, “Ever since I was in my late teens I was convinced that the best story is a true story, and that it’s the people who make a story compelling.” Honestly, I don’t think even my high school English teacher would have let me get away with that sort of crap. The kind of writing Pigott has shared on Grape Collective belongs in his personal diary, where he keeps all his mean thoughts about people he doesn’t like or who don’t want to be his friend, and I question the motivation of any site that would publish it.

Pigott also writes, in his defense: “However, what I am proposing is that more somms be more humble and empathize more with the customers they serve.” Well, what I’m proposing is that wine writers, rather than rant about something they don’t fully understand—remember, critics hated impressionism and cubism, too, when they first emerged—and instead try assuming an attitude of sincere curiosity. Hipsters are often accused of lacking sincerity, and I think it’s actually Pigott who is guilty of this. If you sincerely want to know about something, you’ll study it carefully rather than lashing out at it with a set of uninformed anecdotes.

 

 

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!