Budaörs, just outside Budapest (Hungary) Hungary has a long wine history and like other major wine countries like France, Italy or Spain it used to have lots of local grape varieties that were alas whipped off in the recent history. The hard version of socialism in eastern Europe cut the ancestral ties with the wine culture, and in France we can credit the appellation system for the dwindling share of local varietis in the overall production. B. and I have been given the chance to taste wine with József Szentesi who, to make it short, is the Robert Plageoles of Hungary [the Domaine Plageoles can be credited for having reintroduced near-extinct varieties in what is France's oldest wine region : Gaillac]. Like Plageoles he worked alone against all odds, doing some research and replantings, mostly ignored and dismissed by the wine authorithies until his work and his resulting wines winned applause and recognition. We didn't see his vineyards this time (they're located between Budapest & lake Balaton), and you may know that it's awfully cold these days in Hungary, so tasting a few wines around a table with a wood stove in our back seemed a better option.
Bálint Losonci who tipped me about this tasting and got us invited, told me briefly about Jozsef's former lives before he became a grower and a winemaker : he became one of the first private entrepreneurs in the early 1980s' when the Hungarian communist regime softened the economic rules, he imported snooker tables from the West to sell them to the elite circles of the Soviet Union further east, then he set up a workshop here in Hungary to produce these snooker tables and equipment, making high-quality tables bound for the Soviet/Russian market. He and his associates (who remained the same along these different ventures and who are friends) were the first here to open a fully-equipped fitness center in the 1990s' that was a completely new thing in this part of Europe. Years later after his father passed away, he kind of had a vision of how beautiful it would be to sit under a tree with friends and drink a glass of wine which he'd have produced himself from A to Z. He reinvested his family cellar/house in Budaörs and bought some land in Sukoró along the Velence lake around 1997, later buying more viticulture-fit land in Nadap. He started this thing totally as a hobby, this was literally a garage wine as these were made in the car-repair workshop used by his brother.His first bottlings were in 2004 if I'm right, following several years of trials.
This tasting took place at Jozsef's cellar just outside Budapest. Like Paris, the Budapest region was a little more than a century ago a major wine region. Budaörs for example has hills with relatively-steep slopes that were perfectly fit for viticulture, and this allowed an easy delivery the Budapest's needs. Jozsef's house/cellar is the only remaining cellar [Pince in Hungarian] in activity today in this small town on the edge of Budapest. I managed to take a picture of the slopes behind the houses (pic on right), just imagine that in 1900 it was not built over and the slopes were covered with vineyards. And if you ask the people who now live there, most of them certainly ignore the vinous past of their community. In the 19th century these was 400 hectares of vineyards in Budaörs, and oddly in the 1960s' there were still 300 hectares fragmented in tiny parcels owned by family owners (it was allowed under the socialism to take care of small agricultural surfaces for the family needs). It's the building surge, the economic development and the suburban sprawl that really terminated the wine culture here.
Here we go again for the treasures I found on the flea markets, brocantes and vide-greniers (sidewalk attic sales). Foraging in the old pictures showing people enjoying wine or drinks decades ago is a healthy remindero f what's important in this world, moments immortalized by analog still photography on beautiful if anonymous prints. Reading through these pictures is certainly as efficient as a history course to get a direct intuitive knowledge of the way people behaved and felt in the 20th century. You now know how it works, when I find a hand-written date and/or location on the back of the picture I add it as a caption (in italic when word-for-word reproducing the text), otherwise I'll put an estimated year for the scene. Some of these pictures show German soldiers around WW1 and WW2, it's not clear how they landed on these fleamarkets, they were possibly seized on some prisonners or dead soldiers around 1945 I guess. Peace or war, there was always some bottle conveniently at reach for enjoying a drink together, that'll be the lesson, sit down in your armchair and enjoy this travel in time with on your side also a good glass of wine...
Paris, 11th arrondissement
This major wine tasting event took place recently at the Atelier Basfroi in the 11th arrondissement, this was the first of its kind with about 70 artisan vignaioli (vignerons) presenting their wines to the French public (see all the participating domaines & vintners on left). Vini di Vigniaioli has been a yearly event in Italy for
years with some 150 winemakers gathering near Parma in Fornovo, but this was the first time the tasting
moved to Paris as well. The Paris event was initiated by Christine Marzani, her daughter Aniouchka Marzani and Claudia Galterio, helped by Florence Andrieu's Balpop communication agency (she's been doing a great job for the Cave des Papilles). Kudos for this first try in Paris, the attendancy was young and vibrant, lots of nice women too, Italian of course, but also French...
You can see on the left all the Italian artisan vintners who took part, and this Vini di Vignaioli event, which lasted two full days, was more than just about tasting, there were discussion, workshops about biodynamy or skin maceration, the first day (sunday) being for all public and the following monday for pros. The general public would pay 10 € for getting in which isn't much considering all the great wines you'd taste, and 5 € for the pros.
To make this event even more lasting and salivating, there were a few extensions in some of the best venues for natural wines in Paris (see document on right), places like Le Lapin Blanc, Septime or Coinstot Vino.
You can read on the main page of the event the chart and ethics of Vini di Vignaioli, I'll sum it up by : the winegrower will say what he does and will do what he says [no tricks] and work for the purpose of making a wine that reflects the nature. No chemicals in the vineyard, harvest by hand only, vinification with indigenous yeast, no use of brutal manipulation of the grapes (reverse osmosis, flash pasteurization or thermo-vinification for example), no additives except some minimal SO2, for the reds no more than 60mg/liter and for the whites no more than 70 mg/liter. No need to say that a lot of vintners here had so2 levels that were way below these ceilings.
I've got some backlog of "news" to publish, with summer views like this one which date back from already a few months, but who would frown at having a reminder of Provence's sun to start going through the long winter
This picture was shot at Jean-Christophe Comor's Les Terres Promises in La Roquebrussanne, this building on the right which looks like it has been there for ages has
actually been rebuilt from existing ruins. To achieve that, Jean-Christophe worked with a gem of a local manson nicknamed Dieu as he can do miracles and wonders in his Art (the guy is Portuguese from what I remember). The old oak tree on the other hand has always been there and certainly witnessed the former life of the farm building, it is sais to be close to 500 years old, and considering its size and diameter I'm ready to believe that (just try to visualize all the local life it saw under its branches...).
We visited the domaine last august and I bought a few bottles after tasting several of Jean-Christophe's great wines. Comor remains for me the reference in the field of true wines and Provence really needs more vintners like him, I hope that more Domaines of the region forgo the easy money made with high-yield, uninteresting wines and try their hand at something of this kind...
Couffy, Touraine (Loire)
It's always a pleasure to meet Christophe Foucher, and we regularly see each other, albeit briefly, on the saturday market in the beautiful town of Saint Aignan when I/we spend a weekend there. Going to the market is a welcome ritual, the small town is very alive on that day, you buy some charcuterie in one of the trucks, some vegetables
elsewhere and also goat cheese, grab the local free
newspaper Le Petit Solognot and head to a bar for a coffee or a glass of Sauvignon while reading the local stuff. Last time B. and I were queuing for vegetables and at our favorite greengrocer when I realized that Christophe was two heads behind us, so we left our spot briefly to ask him about dropping at his place and taste a couple of wines, something i wanted to do again for a long time.
Speaking of the people in this same queue, there were also a bunch of young folks right in front of us and they happened to be (we learnt that minutes later) visiting friends of Ben and Emily, who live in Pouillé sur Cher, 9 kilometers from there. We stumbled upon again the whole party, this time reunited with Ben & Emily after we sat at a local wine bar named Aux Cépages, we sat inside and when we looked through the window, here they were... Le monde est petit... Whatever, this market is hot with wine people, Catherine Roussel from now-closed Clos Roche Blanche and also Noëlla Morantin are regulars.
Beyond his quiet, humble demeanor Christophe foucher is foremost a skilled winemaker and grower, working for a handful of hectares (must still be 5 I guess) between Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher and Selles-sur-Cher in eastern Touraine. His wines ae made the most quietly and naturally possible, without any additives and without added sulfites. We didn't go to the parcels this time but I did it a couple years ago in his Menu Pineau and it was obvious he loved working around his vines even by himself.
Lye, Touraine (Loire)
The other day (last weekend of october) I visted André Fouassier to see what he was doing at this time of the year, he had just finished to press a load of whole-clustered gamay and was about to devat some Côt and press it right away. The Côt, also whole-clustered grapes had been through a 15-day maceration in a vat. The weekend was dry and sunny, and they working on this beautiful saturday afternoon.
The wine farm of André Fouassier sits a few kilometers away from the village of Lye, just south of the Cher river and sharing the appellations of Touraine and Valençay. The farm is located among a string of houses we call a hamlet in France, clustered
houses that were almost like the start of a village but never had shops or sevices. This is a real farm,
complete with some farm animals and vegetable gardens, the farm buildings having this typical longère architectural style found in the region : long, single story with the living quarters on one side and continuing with the stables for animals (originally cows) and the vegetable storage. His domaine is mid-size with 25 hectares, it's not considered organic but the vineyard management is very reasonable (I wished all conventional growers could work like him) and the wines are vinified on indigenous yeast.
Nicolas Vauthier with Juliette (who is from Quebec)
There are small wine regions in northern Burgundy which are still largely under the radar compared to their famous brethren beginning with Chablis almost next door, places like Irancy, Epineuil or Tonnerre. This region was also producing lots of wine a couple centuries ago, before the Phylloxera destroyed much of the viticulture at the turn of the 19th-20th century and especially before the building of railways in the
early 20th century that could bring overnight massive tank-car loads of wine straight from the Languedoc.
After falling almost into oblivion they begin to be back on the map, thanks especially to handful of talented winemakers, among them Nicolas Vauthier who is based in Avallon. Nicolas doesn't have vineyards of his own actually, he works with selected growers from parcels located in different terroirs around Avallon, making what we call usually négoce wines. I've had often a very good time with his wines, they're alive, vivid and also easy to drink with this lovely acidity backbone and this gustative certitude that'you're umistakenly in front of true, no-trick wines.
Born in Troyes in 1970, Nicolas Vauthier was also one of the founders of an iconic wine bar of this city, Aux Crieurs de Vin certainly a rarity at that time in the French provinces, this was, take a seat, in 1998, for sure the earliest natural-wine bar outside Paris, and a precursor even for the Paris ones, just think that Le Verre Volé popped up later than that... 10 years later i, 2008 he launched his négoce winery, buying grapes from selected parcels to growers on this northern-Burgundy region.
Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
I was enjoying a nice weekend along the Cher river when I stumbled upon an old 2CV Citroën fourgonnette that looked familiar to me in the main street of Saint Aignan on market day, it was haphazardly parked on the side and I waited a couple of minutes for his owner to come back. I'm used to see many winemakers/vignerons in the region when I attend
the marketplace in Saint-Aignan on saturday mornings, Catherine Roussel (Clos Roche Blanche), Noella Morantin, Paul Gillet (Les Maisons Brûlées - pictured there recently on the right), Christophe Foucher (la Lunotte), more rarely Moses Gadouche (les Capriades),
but I didn't remember seeing Bruno Allion although his village of Thésée is just a few kilometers away on the other side of the Cher river.
There he was, back from a short shopping stop in the cobblestone street, we exchanged news, he told me that the deal with the potential buyer of his domaine didn't work and he's quietly looking for a vigneron who wants to take it over. I was on the relax mood this particular weekend, I didn't plan to visit anyone but still asked if he knew about some young vigneron beginning his first harvest, and he told me about Damien Menut, who also lives in Thésée and just launched his young domaine. Bruno was about to help him pick his small parcel of Cabernet the same afternoon...
Damien Menut is working in the wine trade since 2010, he shared his time betyween Paris where he worked in a wine shop (L'Ambassade de Bourgogne), and Mercurey, Burgundy where he worked for a large Burgundy estate, Domaine Faiveley. He learnt the trade part on the job while in Mercurey and part in the wine school in Amboise (Lycée Viticole d'Amboise), he went there the very first year they had a curriculum centered on organing farming, these were courses designed for adults, for people already working in the trade or desiring to set up their own domaine. His time there was divided in two parts, the courses at the school and the training at a given domaine and he did his own at Bruno Allion's wine farm in thésée.
Yerevan has had a few more wine venues lately, a hint that wine is getting a growing interest among the middle class in the city. Of course, wine is certainly still a luxury product in Armenia for average people but this is slowly changing. In Vino is one of these new venues and you don't feel any snobbish attitude in this place, it is close to what Parisians call a cave à manger,
a rather ugly wording but which depicts well the fact
that you can either buy bottles to go or eat-and-drink there in a casual way. The bar is a no-fuss wine spot where of course you're likely to stumble on foreigners, be it expats or visitors but you'll see many young Armenians there too, and there's an interesting choice of wines, all the Armenian ones of course but also many foreign.
In Vino is certainly a good spot to gauge the temperature of the wine scene, the quality of the wine is improving in the country and the number of the established wineries is at a turning point, with new wineries popping up thanks to Armenians from the diaspora coming back to invest in their homeland or local entrepreneurs deciding to join the fray. What helps is that In Vino located in a very lively area, this part of the Martiros Saryan Street is bustling in the evening with people, inside restaurants and on the terraces. You better reserve on friday or saturday evenings and in the worst case you may find another wine venue in the vicinity until your table is ready.
Areni, Vayots-Dzor province
When I got noticed that I was invited for a press trip to Armenia a couple months ago, the fact that we were supposed to take part to the yearly wine fest of Areni in the mountainous wine province of Vayots-Dzor certainly played a part in my gladful acceptance for the trip. I knew Areni for having visited
its 6100-year-old winemaking facility in a cave nearby, and
I had also visted a couple winemakers then, both Haigaz a street seller who was making a noteworthy wine in his basement, and a small established winery in the village. The wine Fest was missing in this colorful review of the deep-rooted wine life of the area, and that was the opportunity to see how this vinous event was going.
The village of Areni (pictured on left) is located about 110 km south-east of Yerevan, in a dry and scenic mountainous area. You first drive much of the road on a flatland plateau (verything is at least 1000 meters high in Armenia) with a direct view on Mount Ararat on the right, you pass also close to the Azerbaidjan border and then begin to drive uphill before reaching high valleys with dry, rocky mountains all around and raging streams that bring life in these remote communities. A lot of cars seemed to be doing the same thing when we drove there, commuting from Yerevan to Areni on that sunny october day, but there was never a traffic jam as far as I remember and we enjoyed the long way up in the mountains looking at the faraway peaks or the deep and bare gorges beneath us.