Alsace is known to have outstandingly-beautiful villages where its age-old winemaking tradition is found at every step in its architecture, some of these villages like Ribeauvillé have gone a little over the top in terms of tourist attraction, but Mittelbergheim managed to remain quite authentic and relatively off the mass-tourism
track, so be sure to go there, you'll understand that winemaking and viticulture is not
some recent addition, it's embedded in the local culture (the villages of Champagne in comparison lack this feel of joyful rooting in vinous history) and if you try to project yourself mentally in the late 19th century when these villages were at their peak demographically you can't but understand that this was really a dream country over here, with a quality of life that could compete with several legendary regions of Italy.
I had the opportunity to meet Jean Pierre and taste his wine lengthly during the Wein Salon Natürel in Cologne (the German natural-wine fair by large) last year, I really loved his wines (including his then-sold-out Pinot Noir L'Age de Pierre, another of these terrific Alsace reds) and the guy impressed me also by his calm openness as he explained his work with simplicity but also with detail.
The domaines makes about 12 hectares, it has been a family winery for 7 generations (since the 17th century for sure), his elders were growing other crops as well including tobacco and it lasted until his parents Pierre and Doris who decided in 1970 to devote all their time to the viticulture and winemaking. Today Jean-Pierre, who made his first vinifications in the domaine in 1987, works with his wife Sophie, his sister Anne-Lise and her husband. If you're looking for real Alsace wines that were not rushed to the market, have gone through the élevage time they ask, this is the domaine to go.
The family winery sits in the middle of the village just a short distance from the church (you can see the family street house lefthand on the picture on right), and when you stroll this main street (aptly named rue Principale) like I did before my visit you can see that more wineries are operating all along the street, these vintners kept working in these old farms, living near their facility.
As seen on the left, Mittelbergheim sits at the foot of the Vosges, near the village of Barr (I think it's the other church you see on the right) and with a 13th-century medieval fort hovering atop a hill in the far (you can see it on the pic on left, in the upper right), this is the Chateau du Haut Andlau (currently being renovated). Lots of history on these slopes, and you really feel it at every step, it's been pretty well preserved throughout the centuries.
I was invited earlier this year to a small Beaujolais tasting at the restaurant Elmer in Paris near République in the 3rd arrondissement (Profile in English here). I love small tastings because there's a better chance that I can taste most of the wines, the tasting was organized by the wine-wise communication agency Clair de Lune.
The tasting was efficient, Simon Horwitz who is the chef at Elmer had prepared a nice line of things to eat while we were tasting, everything was fine. I could find a time slot before going to work later in the afternoon, so here we go.
These region-centered tastings are often a mixed bag, this is the Beaujolais AOC being represented here and you'll find different styles of wines of course but that's fine, I usually trust the organizers for having a few good things in the selection.
__ Domaine Claire & Fabien Chasselay, La Carrière, Chénas 2014. This was so good. The color is not well rendered here on the picture, it was a beautiful delicate, milky and turbid type of red, this color was by itself very promising. Nose : refinedly appealing. Mouth and swallowed : exquisitely delicious, don't miss this wine ! It's fruity, it's delicately flowery too, a real pleasure to drink. For 12 € retail price, an excellent deal. Fabien Chasselay is following the steps of his parents and elders (family has roots in the Beaujolais since the 15th century) and the domaine is farmed organically since 2008. Farming organic is one thing, but when the wine is this good and true, that's what I really love.
Read Aaron's visit story at the Chasselays (published recently), makes me want to taste his other cuvées, including his primeurs which curiously are sometimes filtered.
Burgundy is not an easy place to become a vigneron and begin making wine when you consider the issue of buying parcels, newcomers usually settle in the Loire or in the Beaujolais, in the Languedoc too where viticultural real estate can be very cheap, but Oronce de Beler, the founder of La Maison Romane, didn’t shy of starting his operation right here in Burgundy,
the trick being that he buys grapes, not land. That's what we call négoce, this is not a
nice name but when you choose carefully the growers with the right vineyard management and parcels you can end up making nice wines without the hurdle of owning the land and the bank mortgages, Philippe Pacalet is a good example in Burgundy for a winemaker with no land. Oronce de beler named his négoce la Maison Romane as this is the local name of the very old house in Vosne-Romanée where he rents his cellar and living quarters (pictured on left).
I discovered a few of his wines at the Ominivore event which took place in Paris a couple months ago (story here, scroll down to 10th picture), a few winemakers were taking part and I franky loved his wines. I was going to later that Oronce was involved into several projects including the raising of quality dark-skin pigs and that he had the creator of Equivinum, this niche manufacturer of draft-horse plows and other tools favored by growers working organic and biodynamic. We are often surprised to learn that many of our favorite natural wines are made by outsiders, people with no family connection to the world of wine or agriculture, and Oronce is one good example, proving that if you have the right energy and feeling, you can be working in Paris for years and change course to design and weld plows, vinify beatiful wines and raise real pigs, oh, and I forgot all the process of making artisan ham, saucissons and other natural pork products….
The Ferme de la Chappe sits on the top of a hill just west of the city of Tonnerre, you reach it after going up a side road winding through woods along a small valley with a few parcels of vines. The wine region of Tonnerre is located near Auxerre in northern Burgundy, it is certainly lesser known than its prestigious neighbor Chablis (16 km by road) or the Beaune area at a much bigger distance further south but has similarly long roots in the vinous history of the region, with the abbeys of Quincy & Saint Michel managing through their industrious monks the settlements
of farm and wineries as well as selecting the best planting slopes. The Cistercian Abbaye Notre Dame de Quincy(another casulaty of the French revolution, only a few buildings remain) which was located near Tanlay in the same area as Tonnerre allowed the start of viticulture and winemaking as early as the 12th century and was managing farms all over this region as well as mills and cellars (celliers à vin) in Epineuil, Auxerre and Chablis. Since then especially after the phyloxera the vineyards of Tanlay disappeared with no return, but there has been a revival beginning in the early 1970s' with the vineyards of Epineuil and in the mid-1980s' with the ones of Tonnerre, the latter thanks a large part to the father of Vincent who iniated the rebirth of the Tonnerrois.
The Ferme de la Chappe is a multi-crop farm, Vincent's father was growing also wheat when he lobbied a few other farmers in the Tonnerre area to replant vines some 30 years ago. Today, he and his wife keep running the wheat farm but his son Vincent took gradually over the 2,5 hectares of vineyards in 2003. He turned the vineyards to organic farming although his father was already working on a pretty traditional way, and he extended his vinification capacity by purchasing organic grapes in the area.
Les Montils (Loire)
The weekend was gorgeously sunny and not too warm, the early mornings being as well very mild, not cold at all, something which would have been welcome for all these vignerons for the last few weeks, when a devastating frost took place in several wine regions of France including the Loire.
B. and I spent a few days in the Loire to enjoy at least this fair weather and nice temperature, I was supposed to visit a vigneron but didn't hear from him so I thought visiting
the Puzelat/Bonhomme open doors might be a good alternative, there's nothing better than these small gatherings of natural-wine
vintners to boost your morale even higher, I was to check it again.
Mainstream wineries also do open doors now and then (usually once a year) but they usually don't open their premises to competitors and in this regard there's definitely something different going on with the artisan, natural-wine movement, it's all about sharing. During two consecutive days, these vignerons would pour wine for the visitors, sell cases and see each other at the same time, beginning with the happy lunches and dinners on the long table in the courtyard.
The tasting event was free of charge and open to everybody, thanks to which you had both a crowd of longtime amateurs of natural wine (some of them professionals) and locals or people who spend their weekends in their country house. As stated on the leaflet on the right, the event was organized by three vintners : the Puzelat brothers, Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme and Hervé Villemade, and the other vintners were Catherine & Pierre Breton, Pascal Potaire (Les Capriades), Philippe Chevarin, Jean-François Nick (les Foulards Rouges), Agnès & Jean Foillard, Potron Minet, Agnés & René Mosse, Frantz Saumon, Nicolas (alias Kikro) Vauthier, and Yoyo.
There's certainly no shortage of trendy wine bars and chic venues in Bordeaux, but these places aren't really exciting except maybe for people easily impressed by big brands,
luxury and prestige. Here
is the absolute opposite, a complete anachronism in today's sleek Bordeaux where the downtown area seems to have been remodeled to look hip and spotless like a project drawing in a glossy real-estate magazine.
Like often in major French towns you have to leave the very heart of the town to find areas not yet euthanized by urban planners forcing their dreams of grandeur with their stash of taxpayers' money. We're here in Talence, it's still Bordeaux with its low-rise échoppes that have usually a sunny garden in the back. Talence is the university hub of Bordeaux with also a lot of engineer schools and technical institutes. In the place of Talence centuries ago there were thick forests mixed with agricultural land, and rich Bordeaux merchants would come here to hunt wild boars, that's why the black silhouette on Talence's coat of arms.
I found this wine venue through the friend at whose place I was staying, this was a good surprise, a real place with a soul where local people would stop for a glass and for the conversation of its irreplaceable owner, Georgette, a rebel and at the same time a guardian of tradition, who is basically open every day except sunday (I've read that she used to be open even on sundays in the past) and where you can sip a glass of Bordeaux for just 1 €...
Jacques Broustet is a reference when you deal with naturally-made, sulfites-free Bordeaux, oddly my real first recollection of drinking his iconic cuvée Autrement was when I visited the French importer François Dumas in Tokyo, he had ordered this bottle while we were sitting at Shonzui, the natural-wine
bar in Roppongi, François had hidden the label with keeping the
bottle in a bag. I think that was a good way to taste
the wine with neutrality, without the bias that might distort your tasting experience when you know beforehand that you're going to have a Bordeaux (I'm not like that, but many people are obviously, scoffing at the prospect of drinking Bordeaux). The wine was delicious, just terrific, and from that time I knew that i had to visit this guy who was doing such a great job in a perfectly natural way.
Chateau Lamery is a small domaine by its planted surface (4,3 hectares), with the harmonious mansion complete with the walled vegetable garden sitting in a large block of vineyard. The village of Saint-Pierre-d'Aurillac sits on the eastern side of the Garonne south of Bordeaux, the river being very scenic in this area, especially near the villages of Cadillac and Langoiran with its metal bridge named "Pont Eiffel" because it was built along Gustave Eiffel's principles. Wine tourism in Bordeaux focuses on the prestigious Chateaux but there's more to see in my mind in these little-known towns and landscapes thick with real history.
Jacques Broustet's grandparents bought this property in 1935 (they were at the time living in the village) and his father (who is 93, still drives and does tons of things in the vegetable garden) went to the viticulture school in his time and worked on the vineyard in the early 1950s', but it was not enough to make a living and he took a job in Bordeaux, Jacques' grandfather keeping tending the vineyards from then. Jacques grandfather retired in 1985 and took care of the domaine until 1998, it was full-blown conventional farming and he was selling the wine to the négoce, there was a tank truck driving here every year and taking all the wine away. When Jacques took the reins in 1998 there wasn't even a hand corker in the buildings, he was to be the first to make and sell directly the wine in bottles.
Valérie Godelu in the midst of her 3-hectare block
Tauriac, Côtes de Bourg (Bordeaux)
The word Petiote, in French, is an affectionate adjective for a baby girl, meaning something like "the small" and Valérie Godelu named her new domaine Les trois Petiotes because the gestation and birth of her domaine really coincided with the coming of her three daughters, which means that you can have a project as consuming as tending a
vineyard and making wine and still raise a large family...
Valérie Godelu was working in the banking sector in her former life, she had studied in a business school in Lille, working then in different French regions and settling
in Paris around 1999 with her husband who had a similar job in a bank. In Paris they were beginning to get bored of their respective jobs and they decided to go back studying something in a different field (all the while keeping their day job) and because they both loved wine (since she had joined a tasting club while in Lille) they decided to further their knowledge in wine. In the course of their exploration they had begun to discover little by little wines that were different from the ones they'd taste at the beginning of their hobby and each time these particular wines which they loved were made by people that had common work ethics, which challenged them into learning more, something they did when they visited these artisan vintners.
They were very serious in their quest for knowledge and enrolled in correspondance course at the Viticulture School in Beaune (Burgundy), following BPREA program all the while working their day jobs in Paris. At the time it was the only viticulture schol to offer such a distance learning for adults, she says, and she realized that many people like themselves followed this training in Beaune. Typicall they'd receive the courses by mail and from time to time they'd take a leave from their day job to follow training in wineries and pass exams at the school in Beaune. You can rush the program over one year but you're allowed to take your time and they did it in their spare time over the course of 4 years.
Preignac, Sauternes (Bordeaux)
We're here in one of the most iconic Appellation of Bordeaux, the Sauternes, less than an hour drive south of Bordeaux on the left bank of the Garonne (map).
The Domaine Rousset-Peyraguey is unique in many views (notice we have a Domaine here,
and not Château...) this estate has deep roots in the area, with Alain Dejean's ancestors owning land in the area
for 7 generations.
The total surface of the AOC is 2000 hectares with 160 producers, 1100 hectares being Premiers Crus 750 of which owned by 6 financial institutions or companies like LVMH (Louis Vuitton). With about 14 hectares the Domaine stands firmly on the map, especially that it is not only farmed organically and along biodynamics but almost as important, its wines aren't getting additives and technology input in the cellar, not even SO2, the lack of which being deemed an insurmountable obstacle for mainstream wineries dealing with these sweet wines, including the most prestigious here, Château d'Yquem which stands about 5 hundreds meters from the family winery (on the picture on the right you can see the Château building on the upper right).
Given the often-humid climate, conventional wineries rely heavily on harmful chemicals which incidently find their way into the wine as measurable residues, and the region made the headlines for having a rocketing cancer rate especially among its children (5 times the national norm), which should add another drop to the awareness push regarding these profit-oriented practices in the vineyard. But this story isn't about health issues, it's foremost about great wines made along age-old agricultural practices and eschewing the lesser-known shortcuts that wineries use in the cellar to produce square, formatted wines with the mutually-agreed color (which we'll learn is in now way natural).
Baslieux-sous-Châtillon, Marne valley (Champagne)
Franck Pascal's father was one of the growers of the village when he set up a small coopérative to help the local growers have more weight in negociating the price of their work to the négoce. This village is very close from Chatillon sur Marne, it's part of the Marne basin.
Franck started to work on the domaine in 1994 from the 3,5-hectare surface of his parents in Baslieux-sous-Châtillon, south-west of Reims and west of Epernay and Ay. We're here north of the Marne river where Franck and Isabelle are now managing a 7,5-hectare domaine. At the start Franck began to implement organic farming, around 1997-1998, to which he added
biodynamy in 2002 and at last in 2005 what we may call energy-fields management, each step having
brought a clear result for them on the wines. From 2014 to 2015 they jumped from 4 hectares to 7 hectares and they're 7 people working on the domaine including himself and his wife.
Franck spent his Army time in military engineering and he says that's where he learnt about the interaction of chemical agents and living bodies, while being trained on the effects of chemical warfare. When he came back and began to invest himself in the farm, he followed a viticulture training and there he clearly saw similarities in the way the vines and soil get overwhelmed by chemicals that change everything durably for the worse.
This visit which I owe to Marise who discovered this domaine a few weeks ago was utterly interesting in the sense that Franck knows tons of things about the interactions of everything in the soils and the vines and with his engineering training and methodology he applied this science of life to successfully pull his vineyards away from the death kiss of the conventional farming. It's heartening to see people like him and his wife Isabelle because they're the proof that if the mainstream growers were willing to, they too could veer from a destructive viticulture management and make in the process Champagne wines that stand out, but this would be at the cost of short-term profits (and yields), which is something few producers in Champagne are willing to do alas.