Ladies of Chenin

French is the only language I know of where the word for ‘winemaker’ has a feminine form: vigneronne. On a recent visit to the Loire valley, I was so thrilled to see the prominence of female winemakers in several wineries – especially in the Savennières appellation. These women don’t just work in the cellar – they run the show, which is wonderful to see in a profession that is conventionally so strongly associated with men. Closel2

There was, first of all, Domaine du Closel, in the charming village of Savennières. If you fancy visiting a winery not just for the juice but also for the setting, this one is a must. The domaine is located within the walls of the Chateau des Vaults, with incredibly beautiful grounds. Upon arrival, visitors are handed a map of the premises and before going anywhere near the wines, you are given the opportunity to wander about in the gardens (park, more like), and up a little footpath to the top of the hill, where the vineyards are. To breathe in the ambience, the history, the terroir. Very romantic, and done in very good taste. Not only is the chateau magnificent in its looks, it also produces lovely wines. To our disappointment, the lady of the house and head winemaker, Evelyne de Pontbriand, was away at a wine fair, but her very knowledgeable daughter Isaure talked us through the wines and the story of how the winemaking has been passed down from one generation of women to the next. As it turned out, Evelyne’s right-hand person in the cellar is also a woman, Pauline Lair, who has recently started working for Closel, having been converted to environmentally caring viticulture at a winery in New Zealand.

Isaure herself doesn’t get involved today, even though she has a WSET diploma, but she is very much at home in the wine world and was happy to pour for us one delightful Chenin Blanc after another. Chenin is the predominant grape variety of this region, and the Savennières appellation is for Chenin only, though some people do make other wines, including some reds from Cabernet Franc. Closel was the first stop on our visit and I was yet to discover how multifaceted and versatile Chenin Blanc is.

Recommended wines (certified organic and biodynamic):

La Jalousie 2016 – light and youthful, full of fresh fruit; made from grapes harvested fairly early and aged for nine months.

Les Caillardières 2016 – a denser, creamier Chenin; harvested later, matured for longer

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Tessa la Roche is the owner and boss at Domaine aux Moines, on the outskirts of Savennières. She took the business over from her mother, Monique. With her open face and nonchalant pony tail, Tessa is a feisty woman and quite a character – someone who knows what she’s doing, and she does it more or less alone.

TessaLike Closel, Domaine aux Moines is also organic, and they are converting now to biodynamic production. The grapes are predominantly Chenin, and the wines are all dry, fermented in stainless steel, although there’s some that’s made in old barrels. Botrytis (noble rot, a fungal infection that makes the grapes shrivel and can produce fantastic wines; think Tokaj or Sauternes) is avoided but a little bit of oxidation is encouraged at the time of pressing. Sulphites are not added, and the fermentation is carried out by indigenous yeasts. Here we tasted straight out of the tanks and barrels – the wines were still work in progress (2018 and 2019) and have not been bottled yet. They did taste very young and on the move, so to speak, but the apple flavours and slight bitterness of Chenin, together with that fantastic bite of acidity, created very enjoyable wines. Tessa also showed us a red she had made, which she described as ‘animal’. It did show animal, leathery, earthy characteristics – these made it chewy and intriguing.

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La Coulée de Serrant is Nicolas Joly’s famed winery, which put the concept of biodynamic viticulture on the map for many wine drinkers. We are welcomed by his lovely daughter Virginie, whose little girl, the next winemaking generation, is also kicking about as we talk and taste. Considering what a legend (should I say superstar?) Joly is, the winery looks very ordinary, though again the estate is stunning, and if you decide to visit you must spend some time walking around in the gardens, which in this part of the world are not separate from the vineyards. The estate is all in one: it is where they live, grow the grapes, and make the wines. This seems to be the standard model for the typically very small Loire wineries, and one that makes them very attractive to me. The house of the Joly family is huge and majestic but has a rustic, aged feel, nothing pompous or overwhelming but lots of history. A house for living in, not for showing off. The reception area is more like someone’s grandfather’s kitchen than a renowned winemaker’s tasting room.

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It was Virginie’s grandmother who first decided to make wine; then her son Nicolas took over, and now his daughter is playing a leading role. As we taste, Virginie shares with us her concern about the electromagnetic waves created by all the modern devices we use today. She believes these may well have a negative impact on the land and grape growth – as well as ourselves. Though admittedly there’s no scientific evidence for this, it’s an interesting idea, and a reflection of how much Virginie, and all the others I meet, care about the land. As if it were a beloved family member. With the physical proximity of the vineyards to the winery and the family home, this is not at all surprising.

IMG_6929Virginie’s father Nicolas decided to turn to biodynamic farming when he noticed that the pesticides and chemicals he was using in the vineyard were eliminating the flora and fauna of the area. His natural methods include using a horse for working the soil, and other unusual ideas. He started a revolution in winemaking, especially in France, and has written a number of books on biodynamic grape-growing.

The wines are fermented and matured in large-ish, old oak barrels (400-500 l), and the fermentation takes a long time – often several months. Unlike Tessa, Virginie likes to harvest with a bit of botrytis, which she says contributes to the typicity of their wines. The wines of La Coulée de Serrant all have some quirky, vegetal, spicy characteristics on top of the familiar apple compote notes of Chenin. Some have a touch of oxidation and can be deep gold in colour. All are dry.

It was quite exceptional to have seen three women-run wineries within the first few days of my visit. Strong and knowledgeable, with both feet on the ground, these women are putting their heart in the work they do. Matter-of-factly, without pretence, without fanfare. Care for the land and the environment is a given – it is how they do things, not a marketing strategy. Likeable, approachable personalities and good, honest winemaking. Chapeau!

 

The Loire Attitude

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Small and special seem to be the key words in the Loire wineries I visited on a recent trip. The winemakers are without exception matter-of-fact, hard-working people, not ideologues – even those romantics who have taken this path as a lifestyle choice at a later stage in their lives. The visitor is given facts, not fancy stories, family legends, and the like. And facts often include those that you wouldn’t expect winemakers to talk about: failures, difficulties, imperfections. They talk about these so casually as if they had no image to build or preserve. I find this modesty, even humility, fascinating. I admire their down-to-earth professionalism, the passion and commitment – not to an ideology but to making good wine while respecting the land and the traditions. The wineries I visited are all organic, and several are biodynamic. The owners believe in low intervention and in allowing the wines to reflect terroir, vintage, and grape variety as best they can. So all the values that are shared by today’s natural wine movement are there, but somehow it’s all done in a so much more palatable way. In a truly natural way. Being organic is a means, not an end. No agenda, no drums to beat. They get on with the work, and produce, on their small plots of land, small quantities of expensive but exquisite wines. From nervy brut sparkling méthode traditionelle to luscious sweet temptresses. The grapes, of course, Chenin.

PeterI was struck by the way the vineyards form an organic part of the living space of the winemakers. In the Loire this seems to be the norm, at least among small producers. When American-born Peter Hahn (Le Clos de la Meslerie) walks us out of his house and across the courtyard, the cellar is just to the right, and in front of us are the vines. So compact, so simple, so organic – in both senses of the word. When we sit down to taste, it’s in his own family kitchen. I love the fact that the winemaker and his story are not products for sale, and I am not treated as a customer. Rather, he lets me step into his world and become part of his life. The interconnectedness of soil, fruit, climate, and people feels very real here. Peter is a delightful person – so relaxed and friendly, as if the fact that we called him barely an hour earlier to arrange a meeting were the most natural thing in the world. He moved to a small estate near Vouvray and took up winemaking in a decision to change career and lifestyle. A genuine man with genuine, pure wines, all of which are Chenin Blanc, Vouvray appellation. IMG_6954

He produces about 10,000 bottles on 4 hectares of land, all surrounding the house. And his young daughter helps with the pruning! He has been exploring non-interventionist winemaking, and a traditional approach, such as horse-work, indigenous yeasts, and no lab analysis. The latter leads to the production of very different wines each year, Peter explains. ‘We don’t analyse; it’s more just looking at what’s happening outside and making decisions on that basis.’ This leads to lots of what he calls inconsistency in his wines – or shall we say diversity?

 

Recommended:

Le Clos de la Meslerie 2017: dry, bitter, and saline, with bouncy acidity, lime and green apple notes

Le Clos de la Meslerie 2016: a drier, sunnier year and a later harvest, which resulted in creamier, more buttery wines, higher sugar content

 

Eric Morgat

Eric Morgat (Domaine Eric Morgat) built his own winery in Savennières, a pleasing mix of modern and traditional. His wines are greatly influenced by the schist soil and the oceanic climate, which still predominates here, whereas further east the climate changes quite rapidly to continental. He talks about the difficulty of finding grape bunches with homogenous maturity. In 2018, he tells us, the grapes matured early, which meant early harvest, but even so he feels they were a bit too ripe, which shows in the wine.

Eric’s wines reflect his accuracy and attention to aesthetic detail. They are certified organic but he doesn’t put this on his labels. ‘I am not interested in making organic wines. I am interested in making the greatest wine possible.’

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Recommended:

Fidès 2014: intense and complex – creamy/buttery and vegetal, great acidity, fairly high alcohol, long floral-fruity finish

 

 

Vincent Carème’s family winery (Tania & Vincent Carème, Vouvray) is literally in the cellar. And the cellar is in the rocks, carved out like many structures around here – this is called Troglodyte.IMG_6978

Organic farming, indigenous yeasts, 400 l barrels form part of the methodology. And so do the children, who come every year to make their own wine under the supervision of Vincent. Never too early to start!

The winery produces about 80,000 bottles per year, which puts them somewhere in the middle in terms of size in the region.

Recommended:

L’Ancestrale 2016, petillant naturel: this sparkling wine is made from grapes coming from older vines, which results in more concentration, a beautiful, harmonious wine

Première Trie 2015: deep gold sweet wine with 80g residual sugar, from a very hot year. Oxidized, savoury, nutty aromas on nose; palate has an almost cheesy character, mature, oxidative notes, and very intense nutty finish

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Other recommended tasting from the region

Domaine Huet Vouvray

Le Haut Lieu 2016: difficult year with spring frost that left few grapes, but those had higher concentration. The result is a complex, intense, very attractive wine

Clos de Bourg 2009: amazing intensity and concentration, charm, balance, lovely flavours, and extremely long finish

François Chidaine, Brut nature 2017: one of my favourite sparklers on this tour, restrained and balanced

Ocean Beach brews

Kilowatt brewery, Ocean Beach, San Diego

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In the hip neighbourhood of Ocean Beach, where all the streets run down to the sea and are lined with lime and lemon trees, Kilowatt is one of several local breweries. To be precise, the bar in Ocean Beach is their tap room; the actual brewery is in nearby Kearny Mesa.

IMG_7092As I walk in, I am welcomed by loud metal music and a very friendly guy behind the bar, Mikey. Kilowatt may be a small-batch brewery, but their selection of beers is hugely impressive, including their alcohol levels! I’ve recently been a rather big fan of pale ales, India or American style. One thing I’ve noticed on my trip to California is that their pale ales tend to be a lot stronger than those back home in Europe. 7% and up is standard, and you get double and triple IPAs that go up to a whopping 11-12% ABV!

Kilowatt is a family undertaking: it was only five years ago that a brother and sister from Cleveland, Ohio and their spouses decided to make beer. What started out as a tiny garage project quickly grew into a successful business. Today they have two tasting rooms besides the brewery in Kearny Mesa. Mikey, my expert guide as I select from a long list of beers, had started out as the guy by the entrance checking people’s IDs. Now he’s behind the bar, and loves the social aspect of it. He has been converted from vodka-soda mixers to beer, but when I ask him if he’d like to make his own some day, he says he prefers life behind the bar. ‘Brewers tend to be a bit antisocial, whereas I love the interaction with people’, he says.

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I taste a flight of four that I hope will be representative of what this brewery, a Google favourite, does. The beers generally have several hops, up to five varieties. All these are listed on the ‘menu’ above the bar for the discerning drinker.

I start with a Cucumber Sour. Sours I’ve never come across before, and as Mikey explains, they’re essentially spoiled beer. When back in the olden days the monks were rolling all those barrels, and everything took a loooong time, things sometimes went pear-shaped and the beer got spoiled. The new trend is to consider these sour beers as a quirky alternative and not as waste to be poured down the drain. Their alcohol level tends to be low and they are often flavoured, and the Kilowatt sours, Mikey tells me, are much more user-friendly than some really extreme ones produced by other breweries.

My cucumber sour has very low alcohol, just over 3%, a distinctly cucumber nose and flavour, and a bit of salinity. I say cucumber but I’m actually wondering whether it’s more melon – have you ever noticed how similar the two taste? Delightful toasty grainy finish. This sour is definitely sour, as if someone had poured in the juice of a couple of lemons, without the citrusy flavours. But not at all bad, and because of the low alcohol it feels very refreshing!

IMG_7097The Kilowatt Pale is an APA of 5.4% alcohol. It’s got a classic style with tropical fruit and pretty intense hops. Very enjoyable, but not terribly unique, I’d say.

Then on to a hazy gold beer, Mikey’s favourite, the Hazezoose Hazy IPA. Alcohol 6.69%, unfiltered. Tastes bready, malty, is less intense on fruit and has a long, hoppy finish. Does it also have a vague flavour of wet kitchen cloth lurking in the background…?

My fourth is the 250 KWH IPA, with fairly high alcohol at 7.4%. Malty nose, palate feels creamier, heavier, richer than the others. More malt too, and less fruit, though tropical notes still come through both on nose and on palate. The warmer the beer gets, the more pronounced the coffee-malt character is. Spicy, hoppy finish.

Then as a bonus I am offered their Mexican Lager – and it’s lovely. Flavoursome blend of malt and corn. The malt brings toasty grainy flavours, the corn sweetness. Delicious!

And then a second bonus, for the road: the OB Bubble Dubbel, with Belgian yeast (OB = Ocean Beach). Well, the name is no coincidence: Bubble Dubbel starts out with a distinct flavour of bubble gum. That’s overtaken, however (and fortunately), by Belgian beer characteristics, that sweet luscious richness. Pretty dark for a Belgian beer, this one has a dark amber colour, coffee on the nose, and a long finish, where again the bubble gum appears, mixed with rich roasted flavours. Alcohol 8.4%.

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Blue Danube

A London tasting of Blaufränkisch wines from central Europe

Blaufränkisch in Austria, Lemberger in Germany, kékfrankos in Hungary, frankovka in Slovakia and Croatia… the grape variety that has so many different names and which can be produced in so many different styles is still little known in the UK. Its many faces include youthful and sometimes brutally acidic wines at one end of the spectrum, and velvety, mature, full-bodied meditative ones at the other. Luckily for the curious, the organizers of this walk-around tasting, Wines of Hungary, had also included two masterclasses in the programme, plus a fascinating open-table tasting of rosés made from the grape variety.

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The fact that Blaufränkisch is well known in Austria, Slovakia, or Hungary will not surprise anyone. But in this tasting I also came across a wine that was produced in southern Spain! The Malaga-based winemaker of German origin, Friedrich Schatz, has produced a biodynamic Lemberger (as Blaufränkisch is typically called in Germany) which, thanks to the Mediterranean influence, displays friendly, tamed acidity and ripe fruit. Some exhibitors came from Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and even Australia. Most of them have no representative in the UK as yet, and the main rationale for the tasting was to draw the attention of the market to these wines.

Since Blaufränkisch is the main component of the bikavér wines produced in Eger and Szekszárd in Hungary, what could have been more appropriate than a masterclass comparing different styles of Bikavér? We tasted six wines, of which I particularly liked the Bodri Bikavér Faluhely Selection (2016) from Szekszárd, the Superior Bikavér (2017) of Ferenc Tóth from Eger, and another Eger wine, the Nagy-Eged-Hegy Grand Superior of St Andrea.

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Bikavér, or ‘bull’s blood’, is not unknown in the UK market. Its somewhat dodgy history goes back a few decades, when British off-licences were inundated with the cheap, poorly made plonk following a boom of industrial-scale wine production in communist Hungary. Its bad reputation must be overwritten and a new one established, the representatives of both Bikavér regions stated. An important step in this process is avoiding the use of the name ‘bull’s blood’ on the British market, this term carrying such negative connotations for the more mature generations.

csm_blaufraenkisch_02_3a5a50546aBlaufränkisch is a late-ripening variety, has enormous acidity, and is prone to overproduction. All these explain why great care and attention are needed both in the vineyard and in the winery if one is to produce a high-quality wine. The powerful colour and tannins of the grape are some positive features, which also contribute to the ageing potential of the wines. At the Danube tasting there were several wines where I felt that the acidity has not been harmoniously integrated into the overall personality of the wines; the unruly, sometimes overwhelming acidity can easily oppress all other characteristics. At other times it was the overuse of oak that created an imbalance. All in all, my impression was that it is not easy to produce an outstanding wine from Blaufränkisch grapes. At the same time I was delighted to see the large number of well-made wines. When I asked Elizabeth Gabay MW, an expert of central European wines, about this somewhat uneven playing field, she explained that in past decades Blaufränkisch was commonly used as a workhorse variety, producing lots of rustic, unsophisticated, overly acidic wines. It is this past inheritance that needs to be superseded by contemporary winemakers – and many seem to have succeeded in this.

Egri_Bikavér_Superior_2015All the wines I tasted on the stand of the Bodri winery of Szekszárd, for example, had a lot of structure and concentration. One reason for this, as I found out, was that they always leave a few bunches to ripen right until the end of the harvest. These then arrive at the winery with very high sugar levels and lend body and density to the wine. Another common feature of these wines is a spicy flavour reminiscent of cloves and Christmas cakes, which, apparently, is due to the spicy character of the Hungarian oak barrels used at the winery.

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I was equally impressed by the Garam wines of Frigyes Bott. These beautiful wines from 2018, as young as they may have been, already showed a lot of harmony and softness, in contrast to the sometimes rough tannins found elsewhere.

As a late-ripening, high-acidity grape, Blaufränkisch is an ideal candidate for the production of rosé wines. Elizabeth Gabay had put together an exciting flight of around twenty rosés, mainly from Hungary. Rosé has had a bit of a bad PR, though this may be changing today – nevertheless I believe that to produce a good rosé wine is one of the loveliest challenges for a winemaker. Creating a balance of ripe but very fresh fruit, lightness, and lively acidity is an art in itself. Blaufränkisch is particularly suited for this because even upon reaching full phenolic ripeness, the grape still contains an abundance of acidity. Fizzi Miska and Soproni Rosé by the Vincellér winery, Just Enjoy by Frigyes Bott, and Tagyon-hegy Rosé by the Martinus winery all have different personalities, but each of them is spot on.

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It is difficult to tell how successful Blaufränkisch wines will be in the UK. While many of the wines at the Blue of the Danube tasting were very competitively priced, these tended to be the less convincing examples. Those that were really interesting and well made may, I fear, prove too expensive for the British market – too expensive, that is, for consumers who will have never heard of either the wine regions or the grape variety in question. As a niche wine for discerning drinkers, though, Blaufränkisch could certainly hold an attraction.

 

Wild Wines

RAW wine fair, New York, October 2019

About two thousand years ago, there was an interesting place called Qumran in the Judaean Desert. In this tiny settlement just off the Dead Sea lived a Jewish sect whose identity remains unknown, but thanks to the writings they had left behind, we have some idea about their beliefs. One of these was that they were the sons of light, at war with the sons of darkness. They represented truth, having recognized the correct path, and everyone else was deluded, if not downright evil.

Walking around this year’s RAW wine fair in New York, I was reminded of the Qumran community. RAW is an independent fair celebrating low-intervention (natural, organic, biodynamic etc.) wines; we may perhaps even call it a movement today. The central message of RAW fairs, to bring ‘authentic’ wine to the consumer, seems to me a strong value judgement: what we offer is wine – everything else is a fake, unnatural, or, even worse, toxic. We know where the truth lies and whoever is not with us is misguided. According to the picture presented by RAW (go to their website for more details), there are two kinds of winemaker: the large, industrial undertakings that fabricate artificial, heavily manipulated drinks which reflect neither the character of the land nor that of the grape variety. Opposed to them are the small, independent, ethically minded winemakers who, unlike the big corporations, care about nature, tradition and origin. While this depiction may not in itself be untrue, it fails to present the full picture. The people left out of this division are precisely those who I think work hardest: all the serious and devoted winemakers who are equally lovers of land and fruit but are at the same time committed to excellence and aesthetics.

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What I have found at RAW fairs is that many of the ‘natural’ winemakers are far more interested in ideology than in making excellent wine. They are there to demonstrate and propagate a world-view: no need for intervention, let mother nature create the wine she fancies, and look how excellent it is! Well, often it isn’t. Far from it, in fact. Many of the natural wines I have tasted are unclean, unintegrated, messy and imprecise. This doesn’t seem to matter much, though, because the faithful seem very happy with the hazy liquid in their glass, the symbol of their conviction. Advocates of natural wine often use the term ‘alive’ to describe these drinks, suggesting that all other wine is dead – has, perhaps, been murdered. This view too is questionable. What makes a wine alive is not the fact that it’s packed with microorganisms, and dynamism is not the same as unfinished fermentation.

RAW seems to be popular and has been expanding. It started in London a few years ago; today Berlin and several North American cities have been added to the list of venues. My hunch is that many people are attracted to the community feel these events create. RAW, like other contemporary alternative movements, offers a platform where opponents of industrial production and mass consumption can find themselves a like-minded crowd to hang out with. The vibe of counter-culture surrounding RAW’s events is quite exhilarating actually, and I agree with the way the organizers, producers, and participants make a stand against consumer culture and mass-produced anything. The revolution started by Isabelle Legeron is without doubt drawing attention to important issues. At the same time, I am troubled by the cult-like, sectarian undercurrents of RAW. The fact that natural wine is small-scale, grassroots, and radical doesn’t necessarily make it good. To me, winemaking is about one thing: creating the best possible wine. The excellent Loire winemaker Eric Morgat told me, ‘I have an organic certification but I don’t put it on my label – because I do wine, not “organic”.’ Morgat wants people to buy his wines for their excellence, not for the ideology.

Exhibitors at the New York event came from all over the world, but the vast majority were from the Old World regions, mainly Italy and France. It was among the French winemakers that I found the most consistency and quality. I was impressed by their professionalism and the high level of craftsmanship. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines of Domaine Landron (Loire), for example, showed high precision and individual character. The reds of the Vacqueyras producer Clos de Caveau (Rhône) were intense, complex, and packed with fruit. Another Loire winery whose Chenin Blancs and Cabernet Francs I enjoyed was Clos de Quarterons.

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For any serious winemaking, effort is required. From the moment the vines are planted, the winemaker is constantly making decisions that will influence natural processes. Intervention is a must: without it, the grape juice would turn into vinegar not wine. As many examples at the New York RAW fair proved, very good wines can be made using sustainable methods (hooray hooray!), but an intrepid spirit in itself is not enough. What I would like to see is for RAW to move in the direction of culture rather than cult, where tradition and quality, not radical views, take centre place.