amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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Alsace

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View from Sigolsheim Nécropole over Grand Cru vineyards

When I first started to develop my passion for wine it was the books of English writer Oz Clarke which guided my tastes and my visits to the wine regions of France. I recall an evocative piece he wrote about sitting in the Nécropole, the military cemetery, of Sigolsheim in the Haut-Rhin department of Alsace. The view from this hill over the vineyards showed him how the Grand Cru sites corresponded to their position on the slopes. I visited the cemetery (of men who died in the Colmar pocket battle in World War 2) again last week and Clarke’s words came clearly to mind.

During my 5 days in Alsace I was to taste wines from all over the region, from its vineyards on the plains and the Grand Cru sites. For some years I was unconvinced by the true premium of those sites but my recent experience suggested to me that vignerons are now truly extracting the best from these vineyards and that there is a real jump in quality. I am sure that is not true of all of them but certainly the wines I tasted supported Clarke’s opinion back in the 1990s.

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Two favourite grapes from Alsace, Riesling and Pinot Noir, both by Trimbach

One other main development from previous experiences in Alsace was how much drier the wines are being made. There was always a sweetness to many wines but producers seem to have realised that consumers were confused by the different levels of dry, medium and sweetness in bottles which appeared to be of similar wine. It was noticeable that some wine lists even listed some wines such as Gewurztraminer as ‘sucré’ (sweeter). I found this a welcome consistency.

Finally the other main development for me was the improvement in wines from Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. The Blancs were often simply neutral, lacking real character and flavour. I tasted a number last week which showed real white fruit flavours and a floral, attractive aroma. Similarly the green, thin Pinot Noirs I remember from a few years back are generally now replaced by red fruit, more body and very pleasurable drinking.

The region is arguably the most attractive in France and I do love it. Towns and villages full of colourful, beamed houses, storks nests and often overlooked by castles. The vineyards can be precipitous, alarming slopes falling down to the villages. Machines would find it impossible to operate on some of them, these slopes need careful manual attention.

And yet..

Despite the many positives of Alsace wines it was disappointing to see so much use of herbicides, chemical sprays etc. I saw 3 spraying machines in use and every one operated by a vigneron dressed in plastic suits and masks to (rightly) protect them, these were clearly powerful chemicals being used.

Fortunately I was able to visit some of those who work in more environmentally friendly ways and I shall describe those visits next time.


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Decanter’s first natural wine tasting

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A sign of acceptance in the mainstream wine world? Decanter magazine held its first tasting of natural wines recently. Simon Woolf, Andrew Jefford and Sarah Jane Evans were charged with the tasting and I think that is a very fair minded trio of experienced tasters.

The first issue they faced was how to classify a selection of natural wines and Simon explained on his very good blog themorningclaret.com how they adopted the rules of RAW, the natural wine fairs organised by Isabelle Legeron. That means organic/biodynamic production (preferably certified), hand harvesting, no modern techniques such as reverse osmosis, no fining or filtration and no cultured yeasts. Of course the issue of sulphites was central to discussion, as it so often is, and RAW’s rules allow up to 70mg/l so this tasting allowed the same. When I attended and reported on RAW this spring I made it clear that I view this as too high but that was the rule laid down here.

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122 wines were tasted mainly based on bottles provided by UK retailers. Interestingly, and inevitably, the three tasters produced very different results. Being a Decanter tasting they were required to give marks (which I increasingly dislike) but the comments and selections are well worth reading. The results and top ten wines for each of the tasters is available on Simon’s blog here along with a link for a pdf of the Decanter article. The full list of wines tasted is here.

I have obviously been drinking too much wine as I know the vast majority of these 122 bottles. Their top wine turned out to be La Stoppa’s Ageno 2011 and I have praised this domaine before as well as that wine, so no argument from me. My own views would differ from all three but that is the nature of tasting (and why marks make little sense to me). Kreydenweiss, COS, Occhipinti, Haywire, Meinklang, Muster, Sainte-Croix and Testalonga are all firm favourites of mine so, in fact, I would agree with many of the selections.

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I highlight this event because I think it is a landmark in that a very conservative magazine (I didn’t renew my subscription many years ago because of its very traditional bias) has brought natural wine on board. I believe natural wine should be willing to accept constructive criticism from such fair minded critics and so this is an important step in the right direction.

Also worth noting is the sheer spread of producers from all corners of the globe, natural wine is not going away it is growing in popularity with consumers and producers. Note too that some big producers are making  versions of natural wine, a trend mentioned on these pages before. Whilst I personally may not regard them too sympathetically at least it is a sign that the philosophy behind natural wine is winning support.

So, well done Decanter, and Simon Woolf in particular, for promoting this tasting.

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Wonderful wines which definitely pass muster with me

 


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What’s in a bottle?

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Two bottles of wine from Spain. Both enjoyable to drink without setting the world alight. So what makes them worth a blog post?

The answer lies in the empty bottles. The Albet i Noya was a typical bottle, nothing unusual. Until I opened the other, a wine recommended from Lidl’s Easter range. The bottle was so heavy, so unusually heavy, that I decided to weigh it. 747g was the result, compared to 427g for the other bottle which is about average for others I weighed. (This involved huge sacrifice in drinking wines, I do hope you appreciate that. As well as slightly obsessive behaviour!).

In other words, 2 bottles of the Albarino weigh roughly the same as 3 more regular bottles. In terms of shipping and the environment that must come at a cost. The more serious point I am making is that whilst we campaign for environmental awareness in terms of vineyard practice we should also be aware of the environmental cost of the finished product. In this case there was no good reason for a heavy bottle, it was not sparkling wine under pressure which would require thicker glass. No doubt thousands of these bottles were transported around, using up extra fuel and creating more emissions.

I liked the wine but I would not buy another bottle because I think I am paying for unnecessary packaging. Unnecessary damage too for my pocket and the earth. There is simply too much cost involved, time to take a stand.

 

 


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Sorry Pasteur, you were wrong

Version française 

Two years ago I wrote an article whose title was a quote by my historical hero Louis Pasteur, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” Well my recent visit to the Languedoc gave me cause to doubt that Pasteur was wrong, in at least half of his statement.

A friend (Chris) drew my attention to a website showing the quality of water in every commune throughout France. The results for the area of the Hérault centred around Puimisson, Puissalicon, Espondeilhan and Thézan-lès-Béziers showed that they along with other communes in the area have poor quality drinking water.

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So why is that? Simply put it is agricultural pollutants and in this area what that means is pollutants from vineyards. In particular it means pesticides getting into the drinking water.

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The area is full of vineyards, mostly managed under a régime of chemical intervention. Weedkillers, herbicides, fertilisers are all used to ensure maximum yields as vignerons are paid by the quantity of grapes they produce, though they do have to respect the maximum yields permitted by, for example, AOP regulations. Unfortunately when it rains, and it often rains very hard in the Hérault, the chemicals are often washed from the vineyards onto the surrounding roads and into the drains and sewers.

I was talking to an Italian vigneron in January and he was telling me that, as an organic producer, he was shocked at the last vendanges. His lovely grapes were growing on vines which had already begun to shed their leaves or were changing colour as the energy of the plant had been channelled into the fruit rather than the leaves. He felt somewhat embarrassed as his neighbours’ vines were pristine, bright green and laden with grapes. That was the result of the chemicals and nitrates sprayed on to those vines, whereas his were treated only with organic tisanes.

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That is the same experience which I have observed in the area around Mas Coutelou. Jeff’s vineyards are surrounded in the main by conventionally tended vines. I remember him telling me as we stood in Rec D’Oulette (the Carignan vineyard) to look around at the bright green sea of vines with his own vines looking rather tired in comparison.

Well, the chemicals which make the greenery and heavy crops are polluting the water. The drinking water of the very place where the vignerons and their families live. When Pasteur spoke about wine being healthy and hygienic he was speaking at a time when most drinking water was polluted, even untreated. He was right, wine was healthier and cleaner than the water. And now, ironically, it is wine production which is making the water of ‘very bad quality’. Nevermind the 100+ additives which are legally allowed into wine, the wine is also a pollutant. That is why I challenge Pasteur’s claim.

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I am amazed that this report created so little reaction, surely the very water which nourishes the vines and slakes the thirst of wine producers should be be safe to drink? At what cost are we producing wine unless producers take more seriously the effects of their farming methods. And you wonder why I prefer to drink mainly organic and natural wines?


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Coutelou crew

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l-r Me, Vincent, (Icare in front), Julien, Carole (with Maya) and Fabrice

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One of the greatest pleasures of being involved at Mas Coutelou is the friendships which are formed with people from all around France and the rest of the world. There is a core group of local people who work most of the time with Jeff at Puimisson, notably Michel and Julien. However, many others come along from week to week to spend time with Jeff because they love his wines and, of course, Jeff himself.

My recent visit was typical. Carole who has worked for many years on the domaine was there to prune the vines alongside Julien. Vincent, a former teaching colleague of Jeff’s was also there, learning the job of vigneron and winemaker as he has planted his own vines in his native Béarn. Fabrice arrived, who harvested Cabernet Sauvignon in Segrairals one day with me in 2015 was back to help plan an event later in the year. Céline (who helped to pick the Grenaches I am making) and her husband Brice were around for a few days too. And Jérom arrived.

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Jérom(e) is a fascinating guy, a skilled metalworker who has made racks for the large format bottles in Jeff’s own cellar (what he calls ‘the library’) and was here to add finishing  touches to the new rooms in the cellar, the office and tasting room. He explained to me how he loves working with iron as it comes from the earth and, like a vigneron, he is working with natural things. I look forward to seeing his finished work when I go back, it will certainly add a touch of class.

Julien and Vincent also shared their own wines, Puimisson is a training ground for future star producers. Julien showed a white and red, I was really taken with his Chateau Des Gueux white last year (Julien’s first vintage) from Terret and Clairette grapes. The 2016s promise to be even better. Vincent had taken the juice from the grapillons of his new vines and though high in acid there was plenty of Manseng character already present.

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James

Whilst there I also heard from James who worked the vendanges last year. He is back in Australia and a proud new father but also about to produce his first wines. As I said Puimisson is a crucible of winemaking talent.

I am very fortunate as yet another incomer from outside the area to have made such great friends who share a passion for wine and, especially, the wines of Mas Coutelou. There is a truth in the belief that wines reflect their producer and the open, warm friendships surrounding Jeff are a parallel of his wines.

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Jeff surrounded by friends


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Fair Play

En francais

The numerous salons at this time of year bring into play various tactics when attending. Faced with dozens, even hundreds, of producers at the wine fairs where do you start? I look though the list in advance and highlight some I must visit, but things never work out so smoothly in situ.

Take Le Vin De Mes Amis an event featuring dozens of very good producers with organic, biodynamic and natural backgrounds from France but also Italy and Spain. Here is the website with the list of producers. Now, there are dozens of great winemakers listed there and I have only a few hours to get around. So, strategy time.

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Get there early

  1. Random chance – just go where the fancy takes me on the day, often because there is nobody else at the stand / table of that particular person. Some of my best discoveries have been like that, Corvezzo at Vinisud last year, Casa Pardet at La Remise. Sure enough the day before this event I tasted Chateau Meylet from Saint Ėmilion at Les Affranchis purely because he was next to a producer I had been tasting at and happened to have nobody there, and I really liked the wines even though Bordeaux, especially Merlot based Bordeaux, would never have been my usual choice.
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Chateau Meylet

2. By region. Faced with so many wines how can I get a really fair comparison of the quality of the wines when I am comparing a tough Cahors with a light Loire Gamay? One method is to try to select a region and try wines from different producers so that house styles emerge, eg Alsace wines taste different from Bott Geyl, Albert Mann and Hausherr. The problem here is that most salons have winemakers scattered all over the room(s) and it becomes difficult to track them all. The Real Wine Fair in London was a notable and welcome exception where regions were grouped together, I found that useful.

3. By style of wine. When I first attended wine fairs I used to try to taste whites in the morning, reds in the afternoon. Reds do become more difficult as tannins begin to coat the mouth. These days I find that that mixing things up and tasting a range from one producer at a time, through the different styles, helps to keep me fresher.

4. By selection. As I said I look through the list of producers and pick out ones that interest me most. That might be because I have tried them before and really like them and I want to taste the new vintage. It may be a name I have had recommended to me and wish to try for myself. The problem here is moving from one stand to another and finding that everybody wants to try Barral, Foillard and other big names, time is lost and patience required. Often these producers are so pressed that they simply pour and move on to the next person without any real opportunity to describe the wine and its provenance, something which is part of the pleasure of a salon.20170130_134143

In the end my strategy is … not to be too bound by a strategy. Go early, try to get in first to the producers you really want to meet and then play things by ear as you see gaps, empty stands. By all means work your way through the list you made but accept that it may not be possible to taste all of the wines and that there will be another day.

Etiquette at the fair (based on real incidents in Montpellier)

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The best behaved attendee, Icare

  1. Please don’t wear heavy perfume or aftershave and then stand next to me at a wine tasting, your smell is much less interesting to me than the aromas of the wines I am tasting.
  2. Just because you are a representative for a big buyer does not mean that you should barge though and demand to be served and never mind the poor sucker (ie me) who is waiting his/her turn
  3. If you are spitting into the provided vessel please bear in mind that as I stand behind it I would rather not have your saliva / wine sample splashing all over me
  4. Please, don’t have a conversation with someone else about your night out last evening whilst standing at the front of the stand and there’s a queue of people behind waiting to taste the wines. As a mild mannered Englishman I will smile and say “Je vous en prie” when you finally move over but inside I am fuming at you.
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Pleasure of talking with Thomas from La Ferme Saint Martin

5. Wearing light coloured clothes and then spitting red wine is a mistake, I often make it.

6. Getting into your car to drive when you have been drinking the wines, not spitting them, is just wrong.

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I have seen this range before somewhere

Salons are great, they are fun, educational, social. But they can be frustrating, even stressful. I need a glass to chill out before La Dive Bouteille this weekend.

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Is that… water?


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Natural Wine -where to find out more

The growth of interest in natural wine continues unabated and I am often asked where people can find out more about them. Hopefully the answer is partly within the pages of this blog but there are other sources which I would recommend.

Books

My favourite book on matural wines is called, not unreasonably, “Natural Wine” written by Isabelle Legeron. Isabelle is a long term natural wine supporter and organises RAW which runs wine fairs in London (March 12/13 this year) and elsewhere including New York. Her book explains vineyard and cellar practices as well as tackling misconceptions about natural wines. It is a very well written and illustrated book and would be my advice to anyone wanting to learn about the subject.

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Two other books worth buying:

Per and Brit Karlsson’s “Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking” and Jamie Goode’s “Authentic Wine”. Both look at the technical side of winemaking and how natural wines have to adapt to overcome the lack of a safety net. I am a big fan of Jamie Goode’s writing. His book “Wine Science” is possibly the most used book I own and his website (link below) is also well worth following as he writes well about all wines, including natural wines.

There is also the writing of Alice Feiring, perhaps natural wine’s most famous advocate in the USA.

Websites

There are dozens of websites on natural wine, I could recommend many but these are a handful I read regularly (apologies for overlooking some).

My top website recommendation would be vinsnaturels.fr which includes valuable detail on producers, salons and retailers with lots of detail about vineyard, cellar and bottle. And Cédric has now produced an English version (small declaration of interest in that I helped with the translation).

Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak is updated most days with articles and wine reviews across many styles of wine. Jamie is open minded and fair and includes regular pieces about natural wine.

Wine terroirs includes visits to many French natural winemakers and has thorough details on the winemaking and different cuvées of each producer. It is often where I turn for detail first.

I include my friend David Crossley’s website without any apology. David has tasted wine around the world and has great insight into quality wine. From Austria to the Jura David was often there long before others and his website includes terrific tasting notes and guides to the regions.

In French the blogs of Vincent Pousson and David Farge are must follows.

Video

The film “Natural Resistance” looks at the Italian natural wine scene and promotes the producers’ ethical and philosophical approaches to winemaking. Jonathan Nossiter portrays natural wine as a form of resistance. It’s worth watching though a little over stated at times.

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This, my own, blog tries to explain natural wines, how they are made and the philosophy behind them. I hope that by searching the blog posts you will find plenty of information. Just this week Jancis Robinson’s site included an extraordinary attack on natural wine by Caroline Gilby MW, repeating many inaccurate clichés on the subject. I do hope that the recommendations above will help to counter the prejudice of so many involved in the wine business who seem threatened by the new wave of wine.