The First Barrels

Never did I think, even when I first got into wine writing, first stepped into an expansive vineyard with a notebook and pen and wondered how the plants I saw, budding in late spring, would eventually translate to the lovely drink in my glass–even in moments as beautiful as those, never did I think, I’ll make wine one day.

When people asked me if I would ever make wine, I sometimes said, maybe. But I never believed it. How could I, a writer living essentially from one meager freelance writing check to another, possibly dream to make wine? Friends I knew who had made wine had worked three, five, eight vintages around the world. I’ve worked harvest for two weeks in France, and done some picking here-and-there in Burgundy and Napa Valley.

But when the opportunity came up to make wine during a visit to Australia, I couldn’t say no. And here I am, near the end of vintage (Aussies say “vintage,” versus harvest, and my English is quickly becoming Aussie-fied, you know, mate?) in the Basket Range of South Australia, with several barrels of wine tucked away in a shed, and one sparkling wine already in bottle. We just opened up one the other day, and when the bubbles rose up in foam, I was kind of in shock. I made the wine, but the wine made itself sparkling. Isn’t that incredible? I know, I know–it’s all fairly straightforward, fermentation and carbon dioxide. But I was terrible at chemistry and physics and all that in high school and university. And yet, I can still make them work to my favor.

Before too much time passes, I want to get some thoughts down about wine making. It’s funny, when you visit wine makers as a journalist, you ask certain questions that you think might help you communicate something, to future readers, about the wine: When did you start picking? Did you de-stem? Tank or barrel? But it’s impossible to really understand the reasons behind the answers to these questions, I think, unless you’ve made wine.

IMG_2316.jpg

Making my own wines was an experience in individualism, and it was also a meditation on work itself. You see, nearly all of what we did, we did as a vintage team–up at dawn to get to the vineyards, all day picking, then processing the grapes. In the vineyard, we worked alongside a picking crew mostly from Laos and Thailand. You couldn’t believe the incredible food they brought–every day, different dishes–for “smoko,” the Aussie word for the mid-day break. Spicy food may not be the ideal thing to eat during a day of hard physical work, but none of us regret a single bite!

Aussie smoko 2018.jpg

But then, when it came to making my own wines, it was all up to me. I could work at my own pace. Each of my red wines were macerated in open-top, wooden fermenters that I climbed into and jumped on once each day for about two or three days; then, I did punchdowns (“plunging” in Aus) by hand, morning and night, to keep the cap wet. That was the first choice: whole cluster, non-carbonic fermentation. I liked this approach because I could always see and taste the grapes and evaluate whether they were ready to press.

IMG_0898.jpg

Next decision: when to press? With the Gamay, I wanted a light and pretty lunch wine, so five days of maceration was plenty. Cabernet Franc was about the same. Right away, I saw how different it was to press Cab Franc than Gamay. The juicy Gamay berries had been a breeze, oozing juice nonstop, whereas Cab Franc’s thicker skins were tougher to crack.

The press was also a choice. I opted not to use the fancy, pneumatic press, and rather chose to use an old-fashioned, small basket press that a friend of ours bought new from Italy–because with the basket press, I didn’t require any forklift, no electricity was used, and I could literally do everything all by myself (OK, I did need help getting the free run juice out of the barrels, sometimes–we don’t have pumps at the Lucy Margaux winery, instead using gravity and our lungs to transfer wine via hoses, which is super super hard, the most difficult part of winemaking for me).

IMG_0286

I loved the basket press because it was, by nature, a slow process. With each press, I loaded the grapes in bucket by bucket or shovel by shovel, after siphoning the free run into a barrel. This gave me time to think. With the Cabernet Franc and the Sangiovese, it occurred to me that the juice already tasted quite stemmy, from the whole-cluster fermentation. So, I took a pause to hand-destem about 50 percent of the fruit. Why not? There was no rush–the point was to make something delicious that honored the beautiful, organic fruit the local growers had spent much time caring for.

And I found the basket press empowering because, now, when I say that I made these wines, it really means that I made them. Nothing was added or taken away, and nothing will be. There’s no need; nothing has the scent of volatile acidity, and the barrels were cleaned well with hot water before being filled.

I don’t claim to be one of the greats just because I’ve made wine one time, thanks to the space provided me by someone very generous. But it was a beautiful experience doing it truly on my own terms, and I’m excited to see how the barrels look in a few months, how they’ll become in bottle, and how they’ll taste when they hopefully make their way around Australia and perhaps the world–who knows! I made the wine to share and be drunk. My hope is they will bring pleasure and transmit the energy of this amazing vintage in Australia–a hot, fast, intense, but also, really peaceful one overall, and a season of abundance, of more grapes than anybody expected, tons of people around from all over the world, and plenty of good wine and food on our communal table.

figs and pink wine

Also, editing Terre Issue 2 while doing all of this has been both impossible and amazing. There were days when I’d be up at 5am to go pick, and then find myself editing three articles in the afternoon before going into the winery to help process grapes or clean up. Obviously, I would have preferred to be getting more sleep! But at the same time, there were moments when I’d be reading someone’s work and it struck me as really powerful, more than any other time I’d read or written about wine, because I was literally elbow-deep in the stuff right then. 

For example, in California vigneronne Martha Stoumen‘s interview in Issue 2, she talks about joy and patience in winemaking. She tells Miguel de Leon, “I am a firm believer that you can experience more joy in what you’re consuming when the person making it was joyful in the act of making it. The first time I made wine, I was like a little kid; I got to feel things and feel textures. When I work outside, I’m noticing how the sun hits things, how the smells hit me.”

This quote. How much it speaks to me. I am so happy to have her interview in the coming issue (out next month!). I’ve only met Martha once and tasted a few of her wines and I can say that she is definitely singular and has a message worth hearing.

And then there’s the memoir about harvest at Arianna Occhipinti‘s, by Ashley Ragovin. After ten years of admiring Arianna’s wines, having first been transfixed by them while working as a somm in a fancy Italian restaurant, Ashley finally went to Sicily for harvest in Vittoria. The experience was far beyond what she’d anticipated, and confirmed that wine heroes, or just heroes in general, are a real thing worth having. The connections we imagine between winemakers and ourselves aren’t false.

So much more is in Issue 2. I hope you’ll pre-order a copy soon (or subscribe) — this issue is off to the printer by the end of this week! And one day, in the not-too-distant future, you may even be reading Issue 3 while sipping on a glass of wine made by yours truly.

IMG_1045

 

Advertisements

From Snowy Paris, Visions of Terre 2 And New Writing On Phylloxera

Greetings from freezing cold Paris! It has dumped snow here, which is very pretty, but I am chilled to the bone after a week of tasting in damp cellars in the Jura and the Auvergne, making my way toward La Dive and the other vin nature salons in the Loire. Expect an update from me soon on the highlights from those events!

LesAnonymes_RachelSigner_ET.jpg
Tasting with François Saint-Lo at Les Anonymes in Angers

Meantime, I’m starting to edit Terre Issue 2, which will come out in May. It’s going to be really, really good; we’re building on our global support and bringing in new writers, artists, and photographers. Tomorrow, I head to Copenhagen to report on one of the world’s most exciting and experimental distilleries, for Issue 2. Announcements are coming soon about pre-ordering the issue and subscribing for the year, and don’t miss out, because we sold out last time and surely will again, even though we plan to double our production. (You can sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know about all this.)

Mac Forbes boots chlorine 1_Rsigner
How to prevent the spreading of phylloxera

I also want to share a story I’ve really enjoyed working on, an updated explainer about the phylloxera pest, with recent reporting from Australia and elsewhere. Everyone who loves wine should understand the history of phylloxera, because it’s affected grapevines and wine production everywhere, and it’s also a really fascinating story of plant genetics that continues to impact winegrowing today. Link is here

Lastly: I’ve done something pretty unusual, and created a sort of “tip jar,” a link on Paypal where, at any point, you’re welcome to send me a bit of cash. When I left New York and started working on Terre, I had a tentative book deal and potential gig writing a magazine column. They both fell through, and then Terre became so time-consuming, that before I knew it I was living on credit cards and sleeping on friends’ couches to save money. Writing about wine isn’t lucrative but I do it because I love meeting growers and understanding the political-cultural histories of wine regions. I was inspired by this excellent piece on the New Worlder site to be more vocal and honest about how unglamorous this job can be. Here is the link to my “tip jar.” Even a five-dollar donation means a lot to me. Thank you!

Off to jump on a call with my Terre colleagues, to discuss artwork for the issue and launch events in May. Thanks for being with us on this journey!

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.

Tschida I.JPG

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A bientôt! RS