Essoyes, Aube (Champagne)
You might have an image of Champagne like a monocultural landscape of hills covered with vineyards and nothing else, but this corner of the Aube is so different. With the woods and the narrow valley you would probably have betted on another wine region if having to decide blind, but this is Champagne. We must remember that the Aube was historically the underdog of Champagne, and in the early 20th century the Maisons de Champagne of the Marne came here to buy grapes, especially between 1907 and 1911 when the harvests were calamitous because of the phylloxera and bad weather. The Aube was just good enough to sell its cheap grapes to the Marne so that the respectable Maisons could turn these otherwise-vulgar grapes into prestigious and expensive
Champagne wine, the Aube being the back door where you could source fruit in case of emergency. In those dire years where there was a shortage of grapes, the Aube where the fruit harvest was less affected than the Marne's, helped keep the demand for the prestigious bubbly satisfied, but it was itself not allowed to make Champagne wine according to the Appellation of that time, only the Marne could. the Marne growers were unhappy of this switching to the Aube grapes and this sparked what is known as the Champagne revolts : in short, to calm down the anger of the Marne growers the authorities decided in 1911 to allow only Marne grapes (and a few from certain villages of the Aisne) in Champagne wines, to which the Aube growers responded with demonstrations (picture-postcard). Faced with sometimes-destructive riots, the government after sending the Army in, then chose to sit on the fence and gave Aube the status of "secondary Champagne zone". While this history relativizes the real value of an Appellation, it rewarded at last the Aube for it's humble growing service that had not been recognized before that. The Aube was formally integrated (without restriction) in the Champagne region in 1927.
You can have a look at the distant Aube region on this interactive map of Champagne : mouse down to the southern tip of the Aube département and then zoom in, you'll see that Essoyes is as close to Burgundy as Les Riceys, another hidden gem of Champagne.
Leppert-Leroy, named from husband and wife Bénédicte Ruppert and Emmanuel Leroy is a small winery making less than 5 hectares in vineyard surface. It is located a mere 7 kilometers from the village of Grancey-sur-Ource which is already in the Burgundy region (Côte d'Or). The domaine's vineyards have been farmed organic since the start and are now biodynamic, and for a couple of years it has been making its Champagne wines without any added SO2 from A to Z (from the pressed juice to the bottling).
A few weeks ago while on a weekend in the Loire I fell upon a nice Languedoc wine. I didn't know about this winery and chose the bottle who knows why, first because it was fairly priced (I saw later that I paid less than the regular price) and something in the labelling
(in addition to the appellation which I use to think has lots of hidden gems) made me take it. As I was planning to do some cox tail on the wood cookstove I thought that if not satisfying I might use the wine to cook the tail (I always cook oxtail in wine for long hours). My fear was that it might be too extracted and tannic and in these circumstances I reserve the wine for cooking meat. I have in this regard in the Loire several bottles of wine made in Spain by François Chidaine (Tempranillo & Monastrell) which I find too extracted and overloaded with SO2 and I keep the bottles for the cooking as they're still good wine with good tannins and the SO2 vanishes anyway when cooked, In Paris I ended up putting aside the milk bottles I filled with Domaine Rimbert's Cousin Oscar because there was too much SO2 in there too (We just cooked another oxtail with it a few days ago, so delicious).
The Ermitage cuvée Tour de Pierre was a delicious wine, gentle and fruity, and it perspired a feeling of truth and respectful vinification. The labelling is very discreet and humble, they don't even brag aboit the domaine's vineyard being farmed in biodynamics, but the wine speaks by itself, you confusely feel something different is going on, there. It's made from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre and the yields are 35 ho/ha. Depends where you buy it but a bottle of this cuvée costs about 10 euros.
I was happy to find out later when back in Paris that this wine had been rated best value in an article by Eric Asimov featuring a selection of wines from the Languedoc (it's imported by Kermit Lynch).
I realized recently that slowly along the years I began to really appreciate what certain people consider acidic wines. When I say acidic, I don't mean the wines that have been corrected with acid additions (see on this page all the acid types supplied by a single additive company) but rather the wines with a natural acidity that they owe solely to the grape, the
vintage and hard work in the vineyard (biodynamics is also known to yield higher acidity in the juice). I'm speaking of natural acidity and in the matter
I realize that I've been fortuitely also deluged with lots of beautiful non-wine products recently, either vegetables or fruits, that are also naturally very acidic, and which I samely began to more appreciate than I used to.
Can taste change dramaticly over a few years and affect both the types of wines we choose and the food ? I think it can, all it takes is a routine for more spartan foods that aren't fueled by the sugar-salt testosterone, then, wine is also a good entry to the world of the beautiful acidity, you walk in there because you like the style of intoxication you get with certain wines and you end up in a second phase opening yourself to the sophisticated pleasure of acidity.
Here is a quick and non-exhaustive review of acidic products that came our way this year and which I'm not sure I'd have been so fond of a few years ago.
Here are the vibrant acidic cherries which you can find here and there in France, mostly in old orchards that were planted years ago when people sort of knew by instinct (they also loved sugar though) what was good. This year was particularly prolific for these griottes and I stocked them to bring back as much as I could in Paris, where B. would cook them lightly so that we could them weeks along.
These cherry trees are the fruit-tree equivalents of our favorite "minor" varietals that the wine-appellation administration has made everything to uproot. Like Menu-Pineau or Pineaud'Aunis these sour-cherry trees are survivors from an era when farmers and country people knew instictively what was good, and I'm not sure that back then you would have easily convinced them to uproot these archaic cherry varities for an international & standard cherry variety (to name a cherry equivalent of Sauvignon and Chardonnay). This type of cherry is known also under the name of Prunus Cerasus and it is said to have of course more acidity but also greater nutritional benefits and greater medicinal effects.
Torano Nuovo, Abruzzo (Italy)
Emidio Pepe is a quite rare example of a man who developped his vineyard management and winemaking philosophy alone, beginning in 1964 with one single hectare near the nice village of Torano Nuovo. The estate which has now a surface of 15 hectares is considered on the the best of the region. Emidio Pepe's father and grandfather had been winegrowers there but like elsewhere in Europe they would sell their production to the négoce and not bottle wine themselves.
When Emidio Pepe started his own wine business in 1964 he understood quickly back then that
quality paired with a very traditionnal approach both in the vineyard and the cellar. Doing so, he fought against
the tide and seduction of modernity that was the only respected norm at the time and was pushing winegrowers to repeated investments in machinery and other fancy cellar equipment. He also disregarded wood and kept vinifying in neutral cement vats, ignoring another trend that was hard to resist : the push for oak, which many Italian wineries followed to accomodate the export demand in the United States even when there was no root for this type of vinification in their respective regions. Emidio Pepe, who was derided by the trade in these early years, ended up winning big, because quality always pays at the end no matter what the opportunists may think, and today as the winery is celebrating its 50th anniversary, you can feel the accomplishment reached through hard work and uncompromising work ethic.
The Pepe family as a whole takes part to this success story, including Chiara (Emidio's granddaughter) who is the best Ambassador of the winery. Emidio's daughter Sofia (pic on right) is now in charge of the winemaking and her sister Daniela also works in the winery, administration side. The third sister Stefania opened her own winery in the vicinity and she spoke also during this special weekend. I visited the winery as a guest for the 50th anniversary of the winery and can testify that this is really a family thing with all the energy and fun that Italians are famous for.
Beaujolais Nouveau in Montparnasse (map)
Quincave is a gem of a caviste/wine bar lost on the very conventional 14th arrondissement, It's like it had been put there to remind us that there has been a time (well, quite some time ago...) when Montparnasse was an easygoing place where artists could let themselmves go and enjoy a laidback life style.
The place which has been set up in 2003 is managed by one of the main characters
of the natural-wine scene in Paris, Frederic Conne (say Fred). You can stumble on him
in many of the tasting events that dot the city at this time
of the year, but the first time I really had the time to enjoy this colorful character was during the solidarity harvest shortly after the passing away of Christian Chaussard, the initiator of natural winemaking in the Loire region. Dozens of fellow winemakers and wine dealers including a Japanese importer had gathered at the winery to give a hand and help Christian's wife Nathalie harvest the Pineau d'Aunis.
Planning your Beaujolais-Nouveau evening in Paris is something tricky. Of course you'll have the opportunity to drink BoJo Nouveau almost everywhere in any bar but if you're in Paris there's a good chance you'll go to the best, I mean, to places pouring uncorrected, unfiltered Beaujolais. You'll pay possibly a bit more but there's a better chance you enjoy the wine and the festive mood in these venues is several notches up from the regular bar down the block.
We can almost say that a few years ago Beaujolais Nouveau was a fading event in Paris, the reason lying I think in good part in the fact that the wine had become a mass-produced beverage with an appeal inversely proportional to its enological engineering. To say how the situation was serious, even the foreign markets were beginning to be tired of these wines. When the first such yearly Beaujolais-Nouveau event was organized nationally in 1970, the wines were still made naturally, the bulk of additives only began to flood the wine regions and revolutionize the vinification process during the 1980s', before that and particularly in poor regions like the Beaujolais the vignerons were working the old way, especially that much of their wine was consumed locally. Along the years from the 1980s' the enologists brought their science and ended up chiselling wines that were supposed to be nice and well-behaved but in fact these wines had lost all authenticity and even the clueless public began to shun the wines. Retrospectively, it's pretty true to say that the uncorrected, lab-yeast-free Beaujolais Nouveau (what we call usually natural wines) rescued this vinous celebration : people were experiencing again the basic joy of drinking with these wines and all it took was for these vintners to just go back working the old way in the vineyard and not try to polish their wines.
Paris, 2nd arrondissement
Le Rubis is located (map) near the metro station Sentier in the center of Paris, in a side street from a pedestrian street you might be familiar with, rue Montorgeuil, a lively street going up from Les Halles to Sentier. There's a namesake bar
Le Rubis, an older version located
(map) rue du Marché Saint-Honoré 17 minutes by foot from here. While I've been several times (never wrote a story though) to this other one which I like for it's ageless patina, I'll prefer certainly the more recent version for its uncompromised and endless wine list.
Paris is a town where natural wine is making such a killing that we now seldom notice when a new venue opens serving these exciting wines, the question being more today how can there still be new bars opening who still neglect their wine list and buy the uninteresting wines made available to them by the specialized companies (initially created a century ago by people from Auvergne, oddly) catering for the restaurants and bars.
Marie Carmarans is not alone behind this wine bar & restaurant but she's the one we can't miss because of her last name, and although she is the real creator of this place we can't overlook her past experiences summarized in her last name : she is the former wife of Nicolas Carmarans, a man who before heading to his ancestral region of Aveyron to revive small vineyard parcels on narrow terraces and make wine there, had revived a wine bar that was to become one of the most sought-after in Paris : the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie near the Panthéon.
But as said above, she is not alone and you will have more reasons to come here, like the fact that her companion is no less that Michel Tolmer (pictured on left) who is the artist behind the 7-drawing strip cartoons centered on a small group of natural-wine amateurs (link to Mimi, Fifi & Glouglou, the book gathering all these hilarious stories).
This was in the news these days, France won back the first place in terms of wine production for 2014 (source) with 46,1
million hectoliters (10 %more than the previous year), in front of Italy and Spain, the United States being 4th. The news coverage focuses only on the volume-side of the coin of course and I'm sure that the wine authorities in France are very happy by this turnaround as they applaud volume especially for easily-marketable international varietal wines. Expect a big overoverload of mid- to cheap quality wines in dire need of buyers, leading to renewed subsidies tu uproot (the good parcels of course). And this burst could yet be temporary because weather hazards played a part in 2014, notably in Italy where the harvest was down 15 % but also in the United States where otherwise the production had been growing steadily during the previous years. While we're into figures, French exports reached 7,8 billion euros, or more than Italy's and Spain's combined.
We of course know that the wines behind these statistics are very diverse and not reducible to simple economic data. Real wines, while growing in volume, are still a minority and the motive of most wineries remains volume and commercial efficiency.
Let's try to focus on more serious (and joyous) matters and just hope that all our artisan vignerons who make individually very small volumes of delightful wine will become all together a big river so that more national and foreign buyers awaken to the fact that wine can be more than an appellation name on a label...
Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
Olivier Bellanger graduated in 2000 from the agriculture school of Blois with a BEPA diploma, he had also begun working at Philippe Tessier and his stay there would last 5 years, then he worked with Jean-François Merieau for a harvest, then he made two harvests at François Priou, a lesser-known vigneron who works well too. In 2008 he got an opportunity to set up his winery here (he is a native from the region, from Monthou-sur-Cher near thésée 4 kilometers away) after he found in the classifieds ads that a block of 6 hectares of vineyards were available above Thésée. There was no cellar or facility with these vineyards, as the owner was just a retiring grower who had been selling the grapes to the coopérative. On the other hand this was convenient for him because the price was thus lower without the buildings and because his intent at the beginning was to sell grapes in order to generate cash, his long-term plan being to begin making wine little by little on the side. He found the cellar near Thésée in 2012, it was owned by a vigneron who didn't use it for some time. This is a cellar only, he doesn't do the pressing here, for that he relies on a friend's place who lets him use a room in his own facility 500 meters from here.
I heard about Olivier Bellanger because he is part of Les Vins du Coin (a group of artisan winemakers of the area), he himself knew this group since he worked with Philippe Tessier and he had followed their evolution and he began selling grapes to people like Hervé Villemade and Brendan Tracey, farming his vines along a like-minded philosophy. He still sells today the grapes of about 2 or 3 hectares.
When he took over the 6-hectare domaine in 2008 it was conventionally farmed and he converted it right away, like, he set up officially his business november 1st and the conversion started november 12th (when the certification body listed the surface as being in conversion).
Dettori is a mid-size winery located near the north-western coast of Sardinia (which is itself just south of Corsica). The emblematic varietal of Sardegna is Cannonau, a red grape which is also known as Grenache in France or Garnacha in Spain, and which forms large clusters of grapes tightly knit to each other. The climate of this Mediterranean island is hot in summer but the sea is never far away, bringing a cooler air especially
when the Maestrale blows across the area (this north-western wind is known in Provence as Mistral). The domaine sits at a dominant altitude, it has a direct view
on the gulf of Porto Torres and the sea shore is only 7 km away by road (much less as the crow flies).
It would be unjust to focus only on Cannonau, Sardinia also offers nice expressions of Vermentino, Carignano as well as several local varietals like Monica. Some of the varietals were imported a few centuries ago when Sardinia was ruled by Spain.
The viticulture on the island has been around for ages (it probably began with the prehistoric Nuragic civilization) and every expanding civilization, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans invaded Sardinia, each probably bringing the winemaking experience of their respective homeland. On the other hand, wine is said not to have played a big role in the Sardinian culture and you learn on Hugh Johnson/Jancis Robinson's World Atlas of Wine that the plantations were largely subsidized in the 20th century, encouraging the production of high-alcohol wines that were used on the continent for blendings with other wines. You learn further that when the subsidies fell in the 1980s' the vineyard surface plummeted by three quarters. Sardinia wine followed a different path compared to continental Italy, with somehow a loose connection with the fabric of the local culture, but there has been a comeback lately. Among the remaining cantinas (domaines) on the island today, there are a few good ones, the best making a handful of wineries in total.
Dettori is a cantina with a history of several generations, today its vineyards are farmed organic and along biodynamics, and the wines are made totally naturally, unfiltered and unfined, and often without added sulfites.
Yvon Métras has roots (several-generations deep) in the Beaujolais wine farms and he began to vinify his first wines in the family domaine in 1988 but in the early years he was mostly selling his grapes to the coopérative. Influenced by Marcel Lapierre, Yvon Métras changed his winemaking/growing practices and joined the vibrant group of natural winemakers who were only 4 at the time. Unaware to the wine world,
the History was on its way... Jules Chauvet had delivered them (before dying in 1989) the research and
knowledge that he had accumulated over the years. This man who was at the same time a scientist, a demanding taster and a winemaker (and a négociant), finetuned his technique that permitted to make wines without the modern corrections, without the lab yeast, the chaptalization, the filtration, and foremost without added sulfites, somehow returning to the wines that were made centuries ago, but with a more scientific precision and understanding of all the winemaking processes, when in the past the empirical approach transmitted by the elders brought random results of uneven quality.
The wines of Yvon Métras are not always easy to get, especially abroad where the demand is bigger than the alloted volumes of the importers, you must remember that his vineyard surface is particularly modest, it's 5 or 6 hectares.
When I reached the facility of Yvon Métras, which is not easy to locate for an outsider, there was a cluster of cars and vans parked outside, obviously the pickers were having their lunch there (it was around 1:30pm). I parked the motorbike, shooting first this picture of a car with socks and shoes drying under the generous sun of this mid-september afternoon (there had been rain the previous day and I guess the grass was pretty soaked), and Yvon Métras who had heard beyond the lunch noise this lone vehicule stopping by walked out of the building to see what was going on.