Weekly Apéro Hour: Luxuriating in Sangiovese and Rachel Cusk’s World of Dialogue

Sometimes, I make a list in my head of the living people whom I’d give anything to have dinner with. Novelist Rachel Cusk is at the top of that list. She is a writer who has reinvented the genre of the novel, by giving it new form, seemingly without effort.

Reading Cusk’s critically acclaimed trilogy, of which I’m now on the last segment, feels simultaneously like you have become witness to an act of genius, and like there’s nothing simpler, more comforting, more enjoyable, than this simple book in your hands. This tension between ingenuity of form and bare bones writing is what I love about Cusk’s work. 

The plot of each of these books revolves around a narrator who is doing not much more than living her life, as a writer — it’s very hard to write a book about writing that isn’t super annoying, but she has mastered this — while having conversations with people who are deeply entrenched in the throes of emotional maelstroms. To quote critic Dwight Garner, these dialogues “branch out like broccoli florets.”

Kudos is the latest in Cusk’s series, and I treated myself to it after finally launching the Kickstarter for my book Nomad — which is off to a good start! Please check it out if you haven’t yet. If you know me, whether from following me on social media or IRL, you’re surely aware that I’ve long wanted to write a book. Ultimately, I have plans to write something more complex than Nomad, which is more like a long essay than a full book, but I see this attempt as a crucial step in breaking through the obstacles I feel are between me and that future book.

If you are thinking about going out to grab Kudos, you definitely can jump right into it, although it will probably make you want to go back and start the trilogy from scratch. I highly recommend it — the whole series is a meditation on the contemporary world and how it makes us feel at an individual level, with close examinations of relationships, both romantic and familial, and deep studies of femininity and masculinity and artistic creativity.

I also treated myself this week to a very special wine, a beautiful red from Pacina, an organic estate in Tuscany that consists of grapevines, olive trees, grain and vegetable farming, and a monastery dating back to 900 A.D. Having spent the week bottling Sangiovese (including my own, for my forthcoming label, Persephone Wines), I was ready to sit back and drink a fine example.

You’ll note that this is a wine from 2013. In the world of natural wines, it’s not very common to be able to enjoy a wine that has undergone extensive ageing like this. Many natural wines are made in a “fresher” style, meant to be light and low in alcohol, and there’s also the unfortunate truth that quite a few natural winemakers who would prefer to age their wines for longer simply can’t afford to do so, as anything held in stock represents potential immediate cash income.

Pacina makes this wine, comprised of nearly all Sangiovese, with a bit of the local blending grape Canaiolo/Cilliegiolo mixed in (two local red varieties traditionally used for blending with Sangio), with extreme care and respect for Tuscan tradition. The grapes are first macerated for six weeks in concrete, and then fermentation continues also in concrete for six months. Then there’s ageing in old oak barrels of different sizes, followed by one year of resting and integrating in bottle. No sulfites (or anything else) were added.

The result is an extraordinarily elegant wine that delivers the satisfaction of experiencing a vintage several years later. Although the wine is somewhat high in alcohol (14% — normal for a wine of the sunny Tuscan hills), this is only one component of its profile, as the ageing helps the alcohol to integrate with the other flavors. On the very aromatic nose, I found ripe cherry and pickled plums. The palate had a totally smooth texture, featuring musky sandalwood and charred rhubarb. The wine was such a treat to drink, and despite its complexity and meditative aspects went down very quickly — it wasn’t weighted down in any way. A serious red wine doesn’t have to be overly tannic and massively heavy on the palate, if the maker is artful enough. Surely, the Pacina wines are aided by the fact that Giovanna, who along with her husband Stefano run the estate and the winemaking cellar, is the third generation to do so — the knowledge must have been passed down to her from previous members of her family, and so she can rely on the older ways to some extent.

Have a great start to your week, everyone! Thanks for reading this edition of #apérohourweekly and feel free to subscribe to the blog via the homepage if you want to receive this in your inbox each week. Around mid-August I’ll be headed to Europe, to visit vineyards in Slovenia and Spain, and check out the wine scene in Berlin and London, and I’ll be continuing to write as a I travel — it would be great to have you along with me. (Of course, I also blog as I go on my persona Instagram, so hop over there if you don’t already follow.)

cheers! xxRachel

 

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Wherever You Go, There Amphora Is–Even In Bordeaux

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.

carte_cotes_de_bordeaux__029241400_1847_01122015The 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 tasting us on his amphora wines
Guilhaume Martin tasting us on his amphora wines

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.

Maria Thun's lunar calendar guidebook
Maria Thun’s lunar calendar guidebook

“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!