Rablay sur Layon (Anjou, Loire)
Richard Leroy is running a small winery in the Anjou region, his work is almost entirely focused on the vineyard management and the soil management and the result are dry chenins that are very pure and that reflect the shists and rhyolits underneath. After years of trying make his best with the intricacies of the appellation system he
just quit and he now bottles his wines as
table wine (Vin de France) like more and more demanding vintners in Anjou.
Like many of his peers who set up a small winery with an artisan approach, Richard Leroy wasn't raised in the wine trade when he came here in 1996, he comes from the Vosges region of which he still has a slight accent. His wife is also from there and it happens that she was the one who back in the 1980s' made him discover the world of fine wines. his future wife at the time enrolled in the wine school of Macon/Davayé in Burgundy while he was still studying law and economy in Nancy university. He was at the time more involved by football actually, one of the reasons he went to the university, and when he visited her during her winery trainings in Burgundy, he bagan to appreciate this world of vignerons, the relation with the land and so on.
Another step was a long training she (as well as he) had in the Etablissements Nicolas around 1982-83 for a planned summer job managing a branch of the wine-shop chain. The chain had at the time a huge cellar and devoted resources and time to train properly its future managers through tastings of fine wines. These older and rare wines (he remembers wines like Latour 1961 or Carbonnieux 1928) were also sold on the demand to the customers at Christmas time. This was during these Nicolas tastings that Richard learnt a lot and educated his taste for fine wine, he read many books all the while because he didn't know anything about these wines before landing there and he had a virgin mind in that regard, discovering wines like Cheval Blanc 1978 or Chateau Branaire without any preconceptions, after which he would read avidly from writers like Alexis Lichine, putting knowledge in place near the beautiful olfactory impressions he had got while tasting the wines.
Looking for smoother pours in Paris summers
Forget the cork, the crown cap and other sophisticated closures not really suited for swift home use : let's reintroduce the milk bottle, a good way to bottle your thirst wine intended for early drinking and no-fuss wine experience. You don't need a cork
screw anymore, the larger size (one liter versus 75 centiliters) makes it convenient for a party
or a picnic, the bottles are shorter, more stable and easily reusable, there's hardly an hesitation when you look closer.
The only thing is your guests might think this vulgar bottle contains a uninteresting wine (no label, bottled in a sort of jug) but consider this judgement on the container like those negative views on sediments in a bottle (sediments used to be associated with faulty wine in the conventional school) : if your guests know your wine tastes and experience, they'll go beyond the first apprehension and open themselves to the wine, brushing aside the odd container.
The other advantages of this format are many : You bottle the wine with a single quarter turn and it's air-tight, you dont' need a funnel to fill the bottles, you don't have to plan ahead to organize a bottling session in your kitchen with all sort of tools and precautions. And still if you leave on the side one of these bottle for a few months (not drinking the wine right away) it is very likely that your wine will be fine after a few weeks, possibly months__and maybe years although I'll not risk this type of bottling on a high-value wine, given I'd find a high-value wine in bulk in the first place (ever asked in a "top winery" if they had wine in bulk ?). So, we're dealing with thirst wine here, but quality thirst wine : wine made without enological corrections, a rarity nowadays, as rare as real milk, you got to source your milk directly in a dairy farm (with precisely these same bottles) in order to get milk that has not been robbed of its natural fat.
We were having a glass of Cousin Oscar with a friend along the canal Saint-Martin in Paris when we met a friendly couple passing by, Jérôme Sélèque and his friend Louise who were on their way for a drink too in the area, Jérôme happens to be in the Champagne trade (Champagne Sélèque) through his family domaine working on a 7,5-hectare surface split on 7 villages.
Milkman, keep those bottles quiet ! (The Pied Pipers)
Faverolles-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
Mikaël Bouges is a winegrower with 4 generations behind him in the winegrowing trade along the Cher river in the Loire. He founded his own winery in 2005 after working with his father's Domaine de la Puannerie since 1999. When his father decided to retire in 2005 Mikaël had the choice between buying back his father's 16-hectare domaine or set up a separate, smaller estate for a slower beginning. His father was selling
both to the négoce and to private customers, but the larger surface would have pushed Mickaël to hire, which he did not want to, at least in the early years, so he opted for a separate domaine,
managing 5,5 hectares, some being rents. Over the years he grew up and he now farms 8 hectares, adding parcels with a different terroir or expression.
I understand that it is was not that difficult to find available vineyards in this area until 2005, either to rent or to buy, but he wanted to be selective in his choice. In 2005 the growers were offered generous grubbing-up subsidies (prime d'arrachage in French) by the French administration and as usual elsewhere in France, these are often the good parcels (small, old and located in uneasy corners) that were uprooted, which means that from 2005 it was tricky for him to find interesting parcels to farm.
It seems to me that the government and agriculture bureaucracy (Agrimer) never learn and that the taxpayer's money supposed to raise the wine prices by reducing the vineyard surface leads a counterproductive result, as quality parcels are being erased first, instead of the high-yield/flat-land/conventional vineyards. The scheme is not effective at all for raising the price of bulk wine, but no one complains as growers are being offered pocket money by the EU or the French state.
The terroirs under these uprooted vineyards are still there today with their minerals and soil characters but you need to replant from scratch when you could have had old vines on it without this big-government interference. MiCkaël Bouges replants little by little, 20 ares every year, so that he can spread the replanting over several years.
For the facility, he found this group of cellars in the limestone with a long history of winemaking, even if only the small house along the street was used when he bought the whole thing. This house was built around 1950 and it was kind of a miniature farm with a chicken coop, rabbit hutch and pig pen, there was enen a small side building for a horse. He put down most of these structures to have a suitable room outside the cellar. He had a concrete slab poured in front of the cellars and a large roof erected over it so that he had a secure chai for the pressing and the early fermentations.
Champeix, Auvergne (Loire - pink patch on bottom-right of the map)
I had heard for a while and on a few occasions that a young Japanese woman was making wine in the remote slopes of Auvergne on a very small surface, it's been whispered to me here and there, beginning with wine people met in Japan, and I couldn't resist tempting a visit and meet this winemaker. The weather was great when I visited and the terraced vineyard offered their nice side under the sun, I guess winter is more
austere if very beautiful in its own way,
but not an easy season on a motorbike. Here is another hard-working artisan winegrower who does her part to revive the age-old wine culture in this region (remind that Auvergne was the 3rd French wine region in terms of volume in the 19th century).
I met Mito in Champeix where she has her small cellar (she lives in Montaigut 3 km away) and if I was wondering before this day why she had come such a long way from Japan to settle in the region of Auvergne, I had aleady a better understanding when in the place : the region has these well-preserved villages and landscapes and she just felt like in a new home here. Plus of course, Auvergne has quite a few motivated artisan winemakers working the most traditional way and often without any sulfites, and there's a buzzing rebel scene among the remaining vineyards.
Let's start with the beginning : Mito first came to Paris in 2003 to learn French, and while there she came across many wine fairs as Paris is overwhelmed with wine salons (fairs) and dégustations (tastings), most of them almost free. That's how she began to make her wine education because when in Japan she didn't like wine much because of the headache when she had some. Later she'd understand that the excess of sulfites was why these headaches and she began to know better how wine was made. Once as she was beginning to be curious about the winemaking, she asked (this was 2004) to a vintner she had met about doing a training at his place, he was from Bergerac, but once there for her training during the harvest this was a shocking awakening : the winegrower was adding all kinds of additives during the winemaking process, she couldn't believe it and she wondered if this was what wine was about.
Saint Sandoux, Auvergne
The Vignoble de l'Arbre Blanc is another of these small-size wineries that make the otherwise-little-known Auvergne shine on the map as a wine region. Frédéric Gounan works on a small surface (less than 2 hectares) of vineyards in a region that was a century or two
ago a major wine producer (many bars in Paris were opened by Auvergne people who
dealed the wines of their
Let's rewind back to the time, you can you read on the Wikipedia page about the Côtes D'Auvergne that in the 19th century, the département of Puy-de-Dôme was the 3rd in France for its wine production : 1 600 000 liters from 50 000 hectares (only Languedoc's départements of Aude and Hérault made more). Much of it I guess was hauled to the Paris region on barges using the canal de Briare. The vineyard surface in the area is now down to 1000 hectares, half being farmed by commercial wineries and the rest by private owners for family consumption.
A visitor driving through the side roads of Auvergne can't but marvel at the beauty of its villages. Avoid Clermont-Ferrand which is an ugly oversized metropolis with endless suburbs, shopping malls and lots of commuters in their cars clogging the freeways. This urban center owes in part its dynamism to Michelin which has its headquarters and facilities here. But take any village at an adequate cushion of distance from town and you will be rewarded by the beauty of these remote valleys and their villages. Apart from clusters of new homes built outside of certain villages, they're pretty well preserved. Remember that this region in the 19th century and before was known as being very poor and hard working, the Auvergnats hadn't an easy life a century or two ago, but watch this architecture and imagine the 1,6 million liters of wine produced back then, man, they sure had some good life...
Tokesek : Bálint Losonci, Tamás Szecskő and Gábor Karner
Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi (Matra, Hungary)
Tőkések is the name of a micro group of artisan-minded winemakers based in the region of Matra, Hungary, precisely in the villages of Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi. You already know Bálint Losonci, here is a profile of the two other guys of the group, Karner Gábor and Szecskő Tamás. They all stand out in a region where conventional wineries manage chemicals-sprayed vineyards, growing big volumes of grapes that need heavy correction
in the cellar. At Tokesek, the philosophy is to take care of the beautiful terroirs
they have on these Matra volcanic slopes, eschewing chemicals including herbicides or fertilizers and keeping the yields low, doing for that lots of hand work to tend the parcels. In the cellar, apart from SO2 they rely entirely on natural winemaking, letting the wine follow its course by itself with its indigenous yeast. The whole enterprise is courageous, as they're alone in this region to follow these demanding guidelines, unlike in Tokaji where a strong group of motivated artisan winemakers have put the spotlight on the region. The Matra region has suffered from years of communist mismanagement of the agriculture and additional years of conventional winemaking centered on high yields, the understanding of what makes a good, terroir-driven wine is still not fully grasped by the trade actors for whom easy profits count more than quality.
Another feature at Tokesek is that they exchange a lot between themselves, sharing their experience in the vineyard management and in the winemaking. But the central object of their work is the vineyard, their motto being that everything is done there and the wine then proceeds by itself.
The picture above was shot from the top of a hill where a deep soviet underground command center had been built in the 50s or 60s, keeping watch on the region and waiting to be used in case of major east-west conflict. The hill was off limits to locals for years and it is now privately owned and topped by antennas for telephone companies. From there you have a beautiful vista on the Matra range, its remaining vineyards and on the villages of Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi.
Gyöngyöspata, Matra foothills (Hungary)
When you think to Hungarian wines, the region of the Matra mountains north of Budapest is not the first wine region you think about, but until not so long ago it was an active wine-producing region with deep roots in the villages, every family tending a vineyard and making its own wine. The village of Gyöngyöspata east of the mid-size town of Gyöngyös (picture on left) saw along the recent history its wine culture dwindle until a small group of
young winemakers led by Bálint Losonci invested themselves in this volcanic hills with a philosophy of reflecting the terroir and add no additives during the vinification.
Initially, Bálint Losonci
wasn't at all in the wine trade, he was living in Budapest and was considering without real passion to study and work in the usually prized field of law or informatics as these were options of choice at the fall of the communist regime. So from 18 to 22 he studied foreign trade at college but he wasn't really happy about the cursus. Already when he was in primary school, while other boys said they wanted to be astronauts or firemen he was the only one around to say peasant. When he reached the last year of his foreign-trade school in Budapest, he had to spend 6 month training in a business of some sort with some relation with foreign trade. He just saw at that time in 2001 an interview of István Szepsy who was not yet then the famous winemaker he would soon become, and Balint was really deeply impressed by what Szepsy said, by the realities evoqued by his words on terroir and vineyard work. After this, he found a book by Alkonyi Laszlo where many Hungarian estates were profiled and he saw in this book that while major, famous wineries didn't get very good rates there, István Szepsy who was still unknown then got 5 stars. Alkonyi Laszlo was then also running a wine magazine named Borbarát (Friends of Wine) and Balint asked if he could spend training time there. He tasted plenty of wines there and learnt a lot, including about what's behind a given wine : the vineyard work, the yields, the vinification details, all of which not being then questions to ask in the conventional wineries and tasting events. He ended up working full-time for this magazine, and it lasted 5 years, after which he quit because he was setting up his own winery.
The timing of this trip to Budapest wasn't planned for this event but I guess that either I have a good luck or some angel has been quietly planning my path without my knowledge...
This twice-a-year event features almost exclusively Hungarian craft beers, a growing phenomenon in this country too, it seems, even though Hungary is not particularly known for its beers (compared, say, to the Czech republic). Almost 100 beers from 38 Hungarian breweries were waiting to be sampled there, and the public attended in large numbers. when
about this Főzdefeszt Craft Beer Festival upon my arrival it was obvious I couldn't but go, especially that this was a typical summer weather in Budapest : hot with clear skies. Unlike in France, the weather is very stable in continental Europe, the forecast for example was giving the same comforting certitude of hot sunny days in the region for the following week.
The temperatures were even a bit too hot for enjoying a beer in the sun (the real temperatures were something like 38°C-40°C), and I decided to go there at the end of the afternoon, using the direct tram line 49 from Deak ter. The event was set on a closed street along the Danube in front of the historic building of the Technical University, also very close to the Hotel Gellert.
This was the first time this beer event took place along the Danube, it was taking place previously on the Pest side far from the river but the success of the festival made it necessary to find a larger setting. The festival debuted in may 2011 and the public reacted so positively that it was bi-annual from the start. The event also jumpstarted new artisan breweries and other copycat beer events. The artisan-beer revolution of Hungary started then.
Joyous group in an ordinary bar (estimated year 1958)
Here is another chapter of the series with anonymous wine scenes in France, I started this thing as a one-of-its-kind and with pictures keeping popping up at me in the brocantes and street flea markets here and there, I keep stocking new pictures (which may occasionally feature other, undetermined beverages), so here we go for another voyage back in time to capture the elusive moments of liquid respite in what was certainly a busy life.
These scenes carry a life of their own and allow us to melt into the simple togetherness of that time. Back then these pictures were often low key, people didn't think much about it, they weren't narcissic, frantically-shot selfies but just a souvenir of an ordinary good time (I suspect they had many such good times then though). The other positive aspect of these pictures is to scale down the grandiloquent way we write and speak about wine. Just sit together, open a bottle and have fun, the rest is little more than noise...
I found all these pictures except the last 4 in street flea markets in France, they're glimpses into the families and friends of someone who probably passed away without any surviving close relatives. The 4 pictures at the bottom come from a book with about 100 pictures shot by the great French photographer Robert Doisneau : The book of photos titled La Vie de Famille shows as its name suggests the family life, they were shot in working-class neigborhoods in Paris and nearby between 1950 and 1960.
As usual, when a date and location was written on the back of the picture, I write it down, otherwise I just put the estimated year of the scene (could be off the mark more than once).
I bought recently a bunch of old bottles of wines, using the popular classifieds website Le Bon Coin, where you can find anything in France, from your car to your house. You first choose the region where you're staying and then you type the item you look for, there's no fee for the
seller and you can pay on the spot when you go in person check the thing. Whatever, I found out that the prices weren't always very high and I tried my chance on a couple of old vintages that we just had the pleasure to drink with B. and a few friends gathered at her atelier in
the Paris suburb. This was a total surprise and a total success.
First, I bought 3 bottles including a Jasnières 1969, a Muscadet 1989 (old vines, hand-picked, Famille Luneau - undrinkable, awfully corked) and an Alsace Riesling 1997 (Dopff & Irion - ok, nice pleasant drink, lots of SO2 maybe), the Jasnières was my target, in spite of the fact that there seemed to miss a bit of wine in the bottle. The woman wanted 30 € for the whole and ended making me an offer for 20 €. Done deal.
The other bottle I stumbled on was a Brouilly 1969 by a négoce named La Croisade du Bon Vin, located in La Chapelle de Guinchay, a village where the family of Jules Chauvet happened to own several vineyards back then (scroll down on this story for details). I hadn't read the fine print when I decided to buy the bottle, I just considered that back then Beaujolais was pretty clean in terms of vineyard management and winemaking work, and that I coult take the risk, especially that only maybe a centimeter of wine has evaporated through the cork in this bottle.
I'm not knowledgeable in terms of old vintages although I think that it is captivating to experience bottles that travelled this long way to our table. There's a very experienced person in France on the matter, François Audouze, he writes and posts pictures on his blog about his picks and experience drinking old vintages, enjoying the rare bottles in special dinners. One of the good places to find bargains is the auctions in Paris, you get batches of old bottles which can be very affordable if they're not from a reknown domaine.
I wasn't into the investment thing, this was just for the fun and excitement, and the reward was there, beyond the dusty glass of these two bottles, a great, double experience with the vintage 1969...