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!

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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.

 

 

Vasco Croft Recreates Traditional Portuguese Winemaking—And Channels The Cosmos—At His Biodynamic Estate Aphros

Aphros_Vasco and Amphorae_RSigner
Aphros winemaker Vasco Croft with his amphorae

A sense of the past, of the old Old World, is evidenced by the granite stone blocks, infiltrated with dark green moss, surrounding what was once known only as Quinta Casal do Paço, and which is now, thanks to a biodynamic conversion (and a mid-life crisis) also the estate where Aphros wine is produced.

Vasco Croft, a silver-haired man with piercing gray-blue eyes in his early 50s, greets us with the story of his estate. We are on a media tour of Vinho Verde, a wine region in northern Portugal’s Douro Valley known for spritzy, cheap white wines produced in cooperatives; Aphros will prove to be the extreme outlier in a region obsessed with modernization, mass exportation, and profit.

During summer vacations while growing up in Lisbon, Vasco visited his family’s quinta (estate) in the far north, in the region of Arcos de Valdevez, which had been in their possession since the early 17th century; he always loved these visits. He describes to us a bucolic scene of villagers who went barefoot and used bullcarts to work the land. “The vine was integrated into life, here was not monoculture,” Vasco says, illuminating how grape growing in Portugal was part of other kinds of agriculture, rather than being a commercial enterprise as it has recently become.

Village Pergola_Rsigner
Traditional village agriculture / viticulture in a village near the Minho River

All over the Vinho Verde region, one sees grapevines hung in the old Pergola style, draped high above where the cool breeze protects them from moisture and mold, arranged in a square around a family or neighborhood garden. It’s beautiful, and also very practical on a small scale. Before the recent focus on exportation, winemaking in Portugal was, and still is to an extent, a household or community operation, and drinking wine was a commonality in everyday life. Vasco’s family quinta was once a central place for converting the villagers’ grapes into wine, but by the time Vasco was visiting, as a child in the 1960s, its winery and vineyards had largely been abandoned.

As an adult, Vasco became an architect, but his attention was diverted when he began studying “anthroposophy,” a central tenet of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic philosophy. Vasco’s entry to biodynamics came through Steiner’s teachings about education (I don’t think this is uncommon; I heard a similar story from the couple who run biodynamic estate Castello di Tassarollo in Piedmont, whom I visited last fall), and he began studying to become a Waldorf teacher. Meanwhile, Vasco developed an interest in wine—but only drinking it. When he decided to give up his career in architecture—and his marriage and children—he knew nothing about making wine, but nevertheless set out to restore the quinta to its former glory, and resurrect a more traditional, integral way of life. In fact, Vasco’s concept hearkens much, much further back than his family’s 17th century roots in the village; his winery is named “Aphros” after the foam from which Aphrodite was born, and whispers of Greek and Roman histories emerge in various aspects of Vasco’s winemaking. The first Aphros vintage was in either 2004 or ’05, and the estate now produces around 70,000 bottles annually.

“It’s coming back to simplicity—do less, but more meaningful actions,” explains Vasco, who speaks slowly and deliberately, his eyes at once intense and soft. “We’ve been in this trend of reductive methods, avoiding oxygen at all cost. The wines before were made oxidative, with less technology and more focus on soil work, but you can use this natural technology of oils and extracts.” Vasco laments what was lost in the rush to upgrade everything for commercial purposes: “Peasant knowledge, centuries of wisdom, was forgotten, and replaced with modern methods.”

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To get his estate up and running in biodynamic fashion, Vasco sought help. He first asked Anselmo Mendes, a renowned regional winemaker who has a very interesting, eponymous experimental label (the wines aren’t much exported, so you’ll have to look for them in Portugal) for help; Mendes gave him “a plan” for getting the 5 acres he had at the time of Loureiro (a floral, high acid white grape) and Vinhão (a sour, low-alcohol red grape that’s strangely seductive) into shape, and advised him to install a new winery with stainless steel tanks. Vasco also hired a vineyard manager from the village, and a French biodynamic consultant named Daniel Noel, whose successor still helps out with Aphros, to teach him about all the treatments as prescribed by Steiner’s method. Read more