An article published recently in the UK-based Guardian newspaper written by Felicity Carter, an Australian specialist wine writer, calls out the promotion of what are called “clean wines” following a publicity blitz surrounding a new project by Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz and a business buddy. The pair claim to have been astonished by discovering how many additives and processing aids are regularly used to make wine and have thus set out to save wine drinkers from all this poison by bringing “transparency to the wine industry”. Felicity Carter does a nice job exploring some of the many paradoxes of the wine business.
“Clean wine” seems to follow in the footsteps of clean food, clean eating, clean homes (thank you so much Marie Kondo) and quite possibly clean minds (you need an app to meditate these days). But the selling of “clean wine” is seen by some as a marketing scam. In the case of Avaline, we’re invited to make the connection between Cameron Diaz’s remarkably clean face and the wine. The marketing plays to widespread ignorance about how wine is actually made and Ms Carter points out that terms like “minimal intervention” and even “natural wine” can play to and fool the same audience. Like most things in life, it’s more complicated under the bonnet!
The ideal is additive and chemical-free and it can be achieved. But the fact is wine doesn’t make itself. Grapes will grow on their own without any intervention but in order to make great wine from grapes you need to intervene an awful lot in the vineyard. Outside of the post harvest period when the vine rests and you’re busy making wine, the work in the vineyard is relentless. You prune and train very carefully in the winter and spring, you tie up the growing shoots in the spring and early summer, you treat the vines multiple times during the Spring and early Summer to protect them from disease (and from pests if you’re so minded to use pesticides, which shouldn’t be necessary if you have a balanced environment but that takes intervention, too), you till the soil, you cut the grass around each vine trunk or between the rows (sometimes with a horse). There’s much more than this. Finally you harvest the crop very, very carefully to ensure against any damage to the grapes during the course of picking. Or you don’t do any of this except harvest if you’re lucky for there is a school that practises do-nothing farming – although it famously cost one well-known producer in Cornas his entire crop one year and consequently his business.
Fermenting grape juice will naturally turn to vinegar (vinaigre in French, or vin aigre, bitter wine) if not managed and controlled very carefully. Additives and intervention have permitted winemakers all over the world to make a product that’s stable enough to travel the world to market. It is possible to make wine without additives, you’ll just need to work even harder at good hygiene in the cellar, using tons of water to clean, in order to avoid any unwanted bacterial interference. If you want to make the most interesting wines, you’ll need to allow nature to go to work by allowing wild yeasts to carry out the fermentation, with consequent risk of various bacterial collateral as any natural wine drinker will know, unfortunately, of acetic acid bacteria attacking the wine, or volatile, or brett bacteria, or what’s known as mouse. Most winemakers use SO2 to help manage the risks, a very few have learned to carry out the process without use of SO2. There are indeed many additives that wouldn’t be necessary if the grapes were grown healthily in the first place, such as basics like sugar and acid that are regularly used. There are around 80 authorised additives (incuding in organic wine). In addition to additives, there are all sorts of interventions, such as de-stemming, or racking, or blocking malolactic fermentation, or filtration, interventions which can be brutual and quite change the natural character of the wine or virtually imperceptible.
If “clean wine” means anything, perhaps it really means sterile, meaning very carefully controlled mass-market homogeneity, where everything tastes the same, and we end up back where we started when we wanted to get away from it all. As we see it, it’s all good to bring to attention how wine is really made and tastes.
Up until 2014, the lovely wines of Jean-Philippe Padié from Calce in the Roussillon were designated Appellation Cotes du Roussillon in 2014. From 2015, Padié’s wines all became designated Vin de France. Naturally, a friend asked why so.
It’s a good question. And indeed, my friend could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Padié’s wines had suffered some dip in quality resulting in their demotion in the classification system.
Yet, nothing could be further from the reality. Padié’s wines had evolved so far in quality – defined by us as transparency, purity and softness of all the elements that make wine, the fruit character, the alcohol, acids, tannins, the weight and mouthfeel – as to taste quite different from mainstream Roussillon. Thus they began to regularly fail the test to be accepted for Appellation status.
In order to “earn” the Appellation status, the test basically comprises a taste test, which is as much to promote as to protect the Appellation. And it necessarily serves as many masters as possible, in particular the most important (or biggest) producers, the Cooperative and largest estates. The taste test thus tends to adopt a lowest common denominator approach in which wines have to taste “typical” according to what most producers are making these days, which isn’t terribly different from 20 years ago.
For the average producer (most of them) the Appellation is what sells the wine whether it’s Saumur-Champigny or Beaujolais-Villages or Vacqueyras or Corbières.
But for the producer who aspires to make the most interesting, most qualitative wine, what sells is not his Appellation but his craft. In other words the discerning buyer looks at who makes the wine rather than the Appellation.
Today’s artisanal producers have pushed quality far ahead in the last ten years, particularly with the rise and rise of natural wine (not saying that natural wine itself is necessarily always the most qualitative but that the movement itself has galvanised artisan production). Many wines have evolved far beyond the mass market homogeneity of the “average” Appellation wine.
Vin de France used to be known as Vin de Table, a kind of lowest of the low, a designation for what could be anything from anywhere that didn’t make Vin de Pays or Appellation Controlée. And it usually was lowest of the low, without any indication where it came from, what it was made from, who made it, or even when (year of production or vintage wasn’t even permitted on the bottle), although the why was obvious, to make something cheap for mass market sales supermarkets, no explanation offered or required.
But as artisan producer’s wines started to taste different from the mainstream and were denied Appellation status they started to systematically apply the Vin de France status to their wines instead, knowing (or hoping) that their clients would understand. It’s frustrating for wine buyers looking to check boxes with lists based on Appellations but some of the best lists are regional and divided into Appellation, IGP (Indication Geography Protected, formerly Vin de Pays) or Vin de France (VDF).
There also happens to be less paperwork, and thus it’s cheaper, to apply for VDF status.
Today in my own database I put the region in brackets after VDF, thus VDF (Roussillon) or VDF (Rhône). This helps me and my clients understand where the wine comes from. In Spain this is even more necessary since the vast majority of wines we work with are designated Vino de España – although since many of our wines come from independent-minded regions like Catalonia and Galicia we don’t even find the words Vino de España on the label, just Vino!
Once upon a time, the Appellation system, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, was originally designed to simply designate and guarantee the provenance of wine, which came with a basic set of rules about permitted varieties, farming and winemaking methods. Little by little the rules developed to control the blend, permitted new “famous” grapes and denied obscure but indigenous grapes, and to control the method of farming and the method of winemaking. The goal was never to control the taste – after all, once upon a time, these grapes, farmed thus, and made in the traditional way, would taste a certain way, with some producers, as ever, doing a better job than others within all the parameters and others merely journeymanning. But today’s Appellation rules, particularly outside the most well-defined region in the world, Burgundy, has come to serve the taste of the mass market.
Whether in Bandol, or Corbières, or Côtes du Rhône artisan producers of superb wines of terroir are forbidden by Appellation laws from making wines from 100% the grape that defines the region, be it Mourvèdre in Bandol, or Grenache Noir in the Côtes du Rhône. Thus the wines of Philippe Badea, rich, classic Southern Rhône wines are designated Vin de France rather than Côtes du Rhône simply because they’re all 100% Grenache Noir!
We highly recommend Vin de France or just Vino (from Spain)!
アペラシオンとVin de France
“VIn de France “ラベルのワインはその品質がアペラシオンワインに比べて安くて劣るものなのか？
2015年、我々が日本に紹介をしているルーションのJean-Philippe PadiéのワインがそれまでのアペラシオンCotes du RoussillonからVin de France に変更になりました。
Vin de Franceは以前のVin de Tableに変わるものです。いわゆる階級下でテーブルワインであり産地、生産場所、品種、ヴィンテージなど基本的に何も明記をする必要はありません。(フランス産であれば）元々は明らかに一般市場のスーパーマーケット向けの安価なものがターゲットでした。
この理由からPadieが15年からこのVin de Franceに変更したことは質が落ちたように思われる一般の方もいらっしゃったはずです。
アルティザン生産者のワインがメインストリームのものとは異なりPadieのようにアペラシオンに拒否をされるなどし、（または元々アペラシオンに興味もない人もいますが）彼らは順次Vin de Franceに移行をし始めました。そしてそれを新たな市場は見逃しませんでした。もはやナチュラルワインの世界ではVin de France の表記で自由な表現をしてワインを作る方が当たり前のようになっています。 昨今は地方を超えてブレンドをしたり白ぶどう、黒ぶどうのブレンドや醸造方法など多岐に渡ります。
Vin de Franceを名乗る他の主な理由としてはアペラシオンに定められた品種以外の品種を使用している、アペラシオン域外の産地のものをブレンドしている、アペラシオンルールに沿った醸造方法以外の方法で作っている、などが挙げられます。
ただし、注意しなければならないのはVin de Franceだからとは言え、産地や品種の個性も見失っているワインが残念ながら存在することです。
It’s pretty easy to get a handle on the famous and ubiquitous grapes of the wine world. But these days some of the real treasure lies in the less well known grapes which offer both delicious surprises and great value.
In my old Oxford Companion of Wine from the 1990’s, edited by Jancis Robinson, Carignan was described as “the bane of the European wine industry … which has its work cut out to eradicate it… high in everything – acid, tannins, colour, bitterness – but charm and finesse”. Oh dear! What judgment.
Happily, today Carignan and Mourvèdre play central roles in many great wines from the south of France, while Cinsault plays an interesting supporting role.
Carignan’s former reputation is probably more about the poor practices of farmers than about the grape. Yes, it’s sensitive to powdery mildew. Which means it requires a lot of treatment if grown industrially and/or planted in the wrong place. Treatment would be mainly chemical to protect high yields. And when subsequently machine-harvested from chemically treated vineyards with a residual of mildew the grapes probably were pretty bad and would then be subject to carbonic maceration as well as all sorts of manipulation to try to mask the defects in the raw material.
Plant Carignan in the right place, farm it for health, with a reasonable yield of around 40 hl/ha, and it will produce a variety of delicious and often exciting wines, solo or as part of a blend.
On its own it can be full of wild black berry fruits, fig, savoury spice, meaty and earthy, a naturally cool acidity and fine, gently bitter tannins, all the elements of drinkability and which can come together in an elegant, very digestible way.
It’s found mainly the Languedoc-Roussillon as well as in the Southern Rhône. In the Costières de Nîmes, for example, it does much better to retain fruit freshness and ripen with lower degrees in the heat than does Grenache Noir. See the lovely wines from Clos des Boutes a biodynamically farmed Domaine on the plateau of Bellegarde.
Prior to the creation of the Vacqueyras Appellation in 1990 Carignan was defended strongly by our neighbours Domaine la Garrigue for inclusion. A few percent help to balance and bring complexity to the riches, sometimes excesses, of Grenache Noir and Syrah – although, sadly, few producers still grow it.
Mourvèdre is at home, in all senses, in Bandol and found all around the Mediterranean. It’s a more solid, dense, structured variety than the supple, fluid, more high-toned Carignan, more red fruit, wild Provençal herb, more leather and roast meat. So solid, it’s rarely used on its own in France. In Spain it’s known as Monastrell and somehow thrives inland from Valencia in the Jumilla region at high altitude to produce positively jammy but just fresh wines.
Cinsault grows in the same places as Carignan and Mourvèdre. It plays a role of adding freshness to blends. Aromatically similar to Grenache Noir, with red fruits, garrigue, floral notes, it ripens with less alcohol and softer tannins. It’s perfect for Rosé, and can add to the digestibility of Grenache Noir wines.
Being based in the south of France we feel fortunate in coming across wonderful examples of these grapes and blends. Here’s a recent selection.
Les Clos Perdus uses all three varieties in typically judicious and delicious moves. The Prioundo Cuvée adds 25% Cinsault to Grenache Noir both from the garrigue scented hills of the Corbieres. The Cinsault adds perfume, finesse and freshness. It’s a beautiful wine.
Les Clos Perdus Le Rosé is in effect pure Mourvèdre and one of our favourite Rosés. Complex and gastronomic yet very drinkable, it brims with aroma: strawberry fruit, toasted wild herbs, green and black olives; and posseses a vibrant vegetal citrussy acidity with fine tannins.
Les Clos Perdus Cuvée is a blend of Carignan and Grenache Noir which is terrific value, with tons of energy and spicy, confit red fruit.
In the Languedoc, Jeff Coutelou, one of the saviours of his particular region near Beziers from the march of chemical and industrial-organic mono-viticulture makes a lovely pure Cinsault Rosé, 5SO, without sulfites, that’s pure digestibility and lemon-infused strawberry fruit.
At Matassa in Calce, Tom Lubbe blends old Carignan and Mourvèdre to make a great wine called Ace of Spades, which expresses licorice, cumin, stinging nettle, black cherry and cassis (I got carried away with the fruit description), both juicy and tannic. Quite brilliant. Tom makes other wines from old Carignan.
Up in the hills in the Roussillon, Cyril Fhal of Clos du Rouge Gorge makes a pure old vine Carignan, of which there are never enough bottles to go round (and they’re expensive). He obtains incredible finesse from the grape.
In the hills of the Minervois, Romain Pion is a young grower who’s making pure Carignan wines quite different from those of the aforementioned. Romain’s wines are more pure fruit, with a vivid, floral freshness, seamless tannins, very fluid and digestible. In particular his L’Habit ne fait pas la Moine – the habit doesn’t make the monk (or don’t believe what they tell you about the grape).
We also discovered Romain’s friend and neighbour Benjamin Baudet making a couple of thousand bottles each of very fine, pure Carignan Cuvées, oaked and unoaked. Both super-fresh displaying black fruits and spice with great balance. Benjamin, a nature lover, makes his living as a mountain guide but loves to grow grapes to pursue his simultaneous calling as winemaker.
Back in Calce, Jean-Philippe Padié makes his elegant Petit Taureau from a blend of Carignan and Syrah with a bit of Mourvèdre sometimes. This is one of the most unusual Cuvées from the Roussillon given its poise, lightness, freshness and purity of fruit. You are forgiven for thinking you’re drinking Beaujolais or Bourgogne.
Jean-Philippe also makes a pure Carignan called Le Pacha that’s aged part in anfora, part in old oak, from vines planted between 1900 and 1920, that’s stunning, very pure, very fresh, intensely aromatic and silky.
In Bandol, Agnes Henry at Tour du Bon bases her glorious Bandol Rosé on Cinsault for juiciness and floral aromas, while filling it out with Mourvèdre and Grenache Noir. It’s one of most complex Rosés we know and versatile with so many different dishes you could dine with it daily in the summertime.
At the same time, her classic, beautiful Bandol rouge is based on Mourvèdre, softened by Grenache Noir. And she makes a pure very old vine Mourvèdre, En-Sol, in anfora which tastes nothing like Bandol, or really anything you know, but is really one of the finest wines we’ve come across from the Mediterranean region; aromas of black and red cherry, cacao, sweet and savoury spice, it’s silky and fresh, refreshing and then comes a pronounced tannic finish. We’re not surprised that Can Roca Restaurant just shipped 300 bottles in May for their summer season.
Finally, a wine we picked up at the excellent Ballon 2 Rouge (translate: a glass o’ red) wine shop in St Remy de Provence; a rare bottle of Mas Jullien Rosé 2019. A blend of all three, Cinsault, Carignan and Mourvèdre, and is everything to give Rosé a good name, with plenty of juicy red berry fruit, snatches of wild herb, spice, citrus fruit, nothing too loud, plenty of ripe, digestible acidity and some gentle tannins. It was delicious and we drank it both as aperitif and a second night with a green chicken curry which wasn’t too much for the wine to cope with. It comes from the Terraces of Larzac north of Montpellier.
As you know we visited Galicia recently. In the Rias Baixas, we went to visit Alberto Nanclares, one of only a handful of producers farming organically in this region. His Albariño’s possessed a stunning clarity, and gentle sea-salty pure fruit, that was far from the shrill acidity and sweet fruit of the big names. Alberto, a former economist, explained his own conversion to organic farming around 10 years ago; he was concerned about spraying chemicals on his door-step so he simply stopped. His workload increased considerably but he found that the resulting wines offered more depth of flavour and complexity as well as more ripeness of acidity.
We learned that like elsewhere in Galicia there had been a hugely successful wine export industry several centuries ago. Following war, phyllorexa and much emigration from what became an isolated and very poor region, winemaking was reliant on hybrids and the maladapted Palomino grape during the twentieth century. Then Spain entered the EU and funds arrived for the re-generation of the region, including the re-planting of Albariño. This is an almost rare instance where an indigenous grape has been blessed and re-planted to great effect. The wines are atypical of Spanish wine being white and high in acidity and full of fruit. They became a smash in Madrid and on the export market, albeit, s usual, the market was dominated by big brands working industrially.
From the Rias Baixas we drove inland to visit producers in the D.O.’s of Monterrei, Ribeiro, and Valdeorras. Ribeiro has the oldest fine wine tradition in Galicia. For, before the Spanish-English War of the sixteenth century, its red wine was one of the most highly prized imported wines to England, with prices higher than those of Bordeaux. We were fortunate to taste the extraordinary wines of Bernardo Estevez, who possesses 28 native varieties planted on 70 tiny plots or terraces on just three hectares, all farmed organically. His work is truly a deep labour of love for the land. He almost forgot to show us the wines, he was so rapt to show us plot after plot of his vines. Unfortunately Bernardo only produces around 6 to 12,000 bottles of wine depending on the year. We also tasted the excellent first wines of Bernardo’s friend and colleague, Antonio Míguez Amil.
Further inland is the winegrower whose wines are starting to wow foreign markets, Nacho Gonzalez of La Perdida. Nacho cites Bernardo as his teacher. Nacho produces incredibly fine and exciting wines from Godello, Dona Branca (called Doña Blanca in the rest of Spain), Palomino (which here inland and with Nacho’s care is lovely), Garnacha Tintorera (known as Alicante Bouschet in France, and much maligned there because it’s “difficult”), Sumoll, and Mencía, mostly in blends.
The D.O. Monterrei lies in a pocket of southern Galicia surrounded on three sides by Portugal. There we met the producer Xico de Mandín another student and friend of Nacho Gonzalez and Bernardo Estevez. He showed us very fine, pure, complex, delicious wines from blends of Dona Branca and Verdelho with a touch of Treixadura in white and in red from Tinto Amarello, Mencía, Bastardo, Sarodeo, Sousán and Samarrica.
They were just what we wanted to drink with the abundant seafood of the region and the wines that we’ve brought back to France with us taste every bit as thrilling here.
Few of these producers travel beyond their region, hesitate to show their treasures to the wider world for fear we will not be interested. We’re very interested. We see a bright future for native grape varieties farmed sustainably and vinified naturally.
The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.
– Albert Einstein
We thought of this wisdom when we toured Galicia recently. There we tasted wines made from two dozen grape varieties and recalled the infamous rant by Robert Parker a few years ago and detailed below.
Galicia is a region which lies in the north-west of Spain on the Atlantic Coast. In Vigo, the most populous city, in the Rias Baixas sub-region, we drank lots of wine made from the local Albariño grape, then, over a few days, we drank wines made from the following grapes, Dona Branca, Palomino, Garnacha Tintorera, Mencia, Caiño, Treixadura, Godello, Lado, Sousón, Ferran, and many others! We visited, among other producers, one Bernardo Estevez in the Ribeiro region who farms 28 varieties.
One of the most joyous aspects of the natural wine world is the discovery of native, or indigenous grape varieties, such as Poulsard and Savagnin from the Jura, Pineau d’Aunis or Menu Pineau from the Loire, Macabeu from the Roussillon and Catalonia, and those above-mentioned from Galicia. There are hundreds of others.
However, there was a moment at the start of the twenty-first century when it seemed nothing could stop the reduction of the wine world towards a handful of French grapes become known as “international varieties”. They were everywhere and, like Starbucks, seemed to offer the same experience wherever you went outside their native areas (still a few great wines from Cab’s Sav. and Franc and Merlot in Bordeaux and, from Pinot Noir in Bourgogne, or from Syrah in the Northern Rhône and Grenache in the Southern Rhône). The French wine authorities decreed that growers in many parts of southern France must plant Syrah to “improve” their wines and even in the southern Rhône a Côtes du Rhône cannot be 100% Grenache. Chardonnay and Merlot were planted all over the Languedoc. And Spain. And Italy. And Australia, New Zealand, California, Chile, etc.
As the natural wine movement gained traction, not least in response to this homogenisation of wine styles, wines from indigenous grapes were frequently belittled. Robert Parker wrote that such wines were from “godforsaken grapes that in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest …”.
Such grapes are of great interest to the people who farm them. And they’re of great interest to those who live in regions where wines are made from local grapes. For they are a celebration of local and regional culture. They usually make a fantastic marriage with the local food. For those visiting such regions, tourists, adventurers, and the curious who get to taste the wines when exported, such grapes open up new worlds.
For those really interested in wine, the best way to to learn about it is with an atlas, a reference book of grape varieties, some basic tasting skills, an open mind and some curiosity for the cultural context of the wine.
Indigenous grapes are usually those best adapted to the given terroir, the soil and climate. They will have been tried and tested over hundreds of years prior to the arrival of international varieties and modern farming methods. Chardonnay or Merlot or Syrah might well grow just about anywhere. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. For the results are often excess fruit and alcohol, considered a good thing only by those looking for quantity not quality – or excess fruit and alcohol.
The key to the success of wines made from indigenous grapes is the intention and competence of the winemaker. To grow the grapes sustainably, caring for the soils, and making the wine as naturally as possible, eschewing chemicals, additives and processes that will manipulate and mask nature. Cooperatives and large Brands are rarely going to treat the grapes with the respect necessary to reveal the quality inherent because of the production methods they use.
This year we’ve talked a lot about Beaujolais. Gamay is the sole, native grape of this region. Every time we drink good Beaujolais, and there are many, we marvel at the combination of finesse, fruit purity, balance and pleasure. Gamay may be the ultimate indigenous variety but all indigenous grapes tell a great story.
For the last couple of months we’ve seen the harvest all over southern France and some of Spain.
This Newsletter captures a day during harvest at Les Clos Perdus. Please enjoy – it’s a bit of a longer one, the day, too.
2018 has been a year of wildly varying weather conditions, challenges and viewpoints on the results. Across France, the heavens opened for the first time in three years to bring an end to the dry years 2015 to 2017 during the spring and early summer. A heatwave followed soon after. In some regions, notably here in the Southern Rhône, rot was a terrible problem, mainly mildew, and many producers just didn’t have enough hours in the day and night to deal with it. The night air is stiller than that in the day, so some producers would also set out at 2am to treat for a few hours night after night in between the rains.
Just the very logistics of the harvest caused issues for normally the harvest moves from south to north. Harvesters follow, especially those from Spain who can look forward to two and a half month’s work from mid-August. This year, bizarrely, the harvest started in Alsace at the same time as in the Roussillon. Champagne, Burgundy and Beaujolais were not far behind, thus creating difficulties to get harvest labour especially for big estates who need more than a handful of locals.
We caught up with the harvest on Sunday September 9 at Les Clos Perdus in the Languedoc-Roussillon where one of our favourite vignerons Paul Old makes a range of wines well above pay grade. We knew we’d get an education from Paul because as many of you will know he’s a native English speaker, who blends art, science and craft, with his background as a contemporary classical dancer, graduate in wine science from an Australian University, and now on his 15th harvest.
Paul starting harvesting on Friday August 31, after nearly two weeks of prep, cleaning the winery, organising equipment, preparing tools. He forecasts he’ll harvest on and off until around September 25. For his 15 hectares are spread over a wide geographical area with some vineyards up to an hour from the cellar, and he wants to pick the fruit exactly when it’s ripe, not according to the availability of the harvesters. So he’s fortunate his harvesters are also a group of Spanish friends from near Valencia who are mountaineers. They’re led by Jordi who works half the year with Paul in the vines. They’re all happy to enjoy days off whenever Paul doesn’t need them so they can climb in the nearby Pyrenees. Paul pays them when they work. This is their fourth harvest with Paul, which brings another blessing; they work quickly and understand how to select fruit in the vineyard, the importance of which becomes apparent as we reach the vineyard and talk about this year’s crazy weather. And while the fruit-picking will finish around September 25, focussed and intense work will continue in the winery for several weeks after, meaning the longest harvest Paul has experienced.
After a normal winter, cold, some rain, the months April to August saw an unusual amount of rain, as well as a heatwave. You may have seen pictures of the Seine river in Paris nearly overflowing bridges and parts of Northern France were flooded.
There were heavy rainfalls in the South, too – though less so in the wine regions in the middle of France, Champagne, the Loire, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Alsace, Northern Rhône. The rain caused serious problems with rot throughout the South of France from the Southern Rhône to the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. There are two main types of rot, downy mildew (known simply as mildew) and powdery mildew (known as oidium). If you practise organic or biodynamic farming, you can treat with sulphur (in powder form) against oidium and with copper sulphate (called Bouillie Bordelaise, a liquid) against mildew. But this year the rain fell almost every week from early April to late June so there often wasn’t time to treat both before and after. Moreover when it rains you can’t always get into the vineyard after because the soil is too wet to move on.
Below is the monthly rainfall recorded in Narbonne (with 2017 in brackets). The truth is more complicated because Paul’s vineyards are scattered up to an hour from his base in Peyriac, 20 minutes south-east of Narbonne and closer to the sea. But it gives an idea.
January 23mm (69)
February 44mm (107)
March 151mm (81)
April 117mm (13)
May 93mm (19)
June 10mm (27)
July 41mm (14)
August 13mm (21)
Today we’re picking two parcels, both an hour away beyond Estagel in the Catalan hills of the Roussillon. Here Paul sources fruit for several wines, L’Année Rouge and Blanc as well as the top of the range L’Extrême Rouge and Blanc.
Up at 05h15 in the dark, there’s time for coffee but not to eat and we rely on last night’s big dinner for fuel. At 06h15, we join Paul outside his winery to leave in a convoy, Paul in front in his old, reliable orange Volkswagen van equipped with 4 wheel drive that gets it up and down hillside tracks. In a van behind, the Spanish vendangeurs.
The first parcel is one hectare of Macabeu planted in 1950 near Montner just beyond Calce on a south-facing hillside of mica schist, which presents minerality and salinity in the wine. The conditions are overcast and around 22ºC, perfect for picking, though not very uplifting for the soul. We pick for an hour and a half. I manage to fill about 3 cases. We have to be vigilant with each bunch picked to make sure there’s no rot. And if there is, we carefully pick it out or just drop the bunch completely if there are not many healthy berries left. 10 of us pick a total of 35 cases. We sit down for 10 minutes to drink a coffee with a croissant before moving on. However, we leave the 35 cases here because the next vineyard is up such a steep dirt track that the 4WD can only cope without an additional load. Bit scary.
Back to Estagel and out towards Maury and just past Mas Amiel in the Mas de Fredes, we leave our car at the foot of the hillside to hop in the VW to go up the slope while the Spanish mountaineers almost run up. Here we’re going to pick a half hectare of Grenache Noir planted around 1900 to 1910 on a very steep south-facing slope on crumbly schist or shale. Despite the age of the vines, this fruit will go into Paul’s inexpensive L’Année Rouge because being south-facing it gets too much sun and heat to develop finesse and complex aromas while retaining freshness. Albeit, Paul has vines on the north side of the slope from which, a couple of weeks later, he’ll harvest fruit for his majestic L’Extrême Cuvées. We spend a couple of hours to pick this parcel for a total of 65 cases. It’s harder work here since much of the fruit is so low-hanging as to be almost on the floor, and much hidden within the inner foliage of the vine. We load up the cases into the van and hop in for a hairy descent for the path seems almost vertical at points, deeply rutted and drops away sharp on the passenger side.
We all head back to the cellar, with Paul collecting the 35 cases from Montner first. We de-van the lot and take a break.
Later we process the two lots in the cellar with a finer level of detail than we’d anticipated.
We tip the Macabeu box by box into the de-stemmer, a horizontal machine that drops the fruit into a crate below while spitting out stems at the far end into another crate. We pick through the crates of de-stemmed and crushed fruit by hand to remove as many bits of stem as possible to ensure the cleanest conditions possible for the ferment. Then we load each crate into the small vertical press. We arrange a mat tailored to the dimensions of the press between layers of fruit and carefully pack around the sides with stems as well as alternate clumps of stems at 12 o’clock, then 3, then 6, then 9 on each layer. It’s a very manual process with obsessive attention to detail. The aim is to allow the press to work very slowly, cleanly and completely without berries getting stuck in the sides of the press or clumping together, as well as to gently oxidise the juice as well as obtain some phenolic matter from the stems that will lend structure and complexity to the wine. Paul tastes the juice every few minutes at the outset to assess its purity, sweetness, length of finish and changes the pressure of the press accordingly. There’s no template whatsoever, every process is adjusted to the condition of the fruit in hand. The juice is moved by very gentle pump into an old barrel that contains Carignan Blanc juice picked 4 days ago and that has just started to ferment. Paul had been thinking to make a pure Carignan Blanc but he ends up putting in the Macabeu we just picked because there’s no other small container into which he can put it – and that’s the pragmatic side of harvest; sometimes it’s just about logistics. So now we have a nice blend – which may yet go into the L’Annee blend depending on how it turns out, or it may turn out to be another micro-cuvee. Harvest is a moving target…
It takes about an hour to process the 35 boxes of Macabeu.
At around 13h30 we take a lunch break and smash down a bottle of Beaujolais Villages 2017 from Domaine Chapel, pure class and pleasure from this excellent new producer, son of legendary chef, Alain Chapel, who produced his first vintage 2016 at Lapierre.
Later, and after the traditional siesta, we process the Grenache Noir. We do this the same way. Through the de-stemmer/crusher, then hand pick out bits of stem. Then it gets interesting. The fruit is added to a stainless steel vat of Syrah picked 4 days earlier from the Frezas vineyard in the Corbières hills, planted in 1985 on soils of clay limestone with some schist and blue marne. It’s just started to ferment and the temperature is rising so the addition of Grenache will temporarily cool the must, stopping the fermentation, and introduce a new yeast population. Fermentation will spontaneously re-start later, and probably a more complex wine result. Pretty cool. And that’s just the entry level wine L’Annee. Paul will treat almost every tank and barrel with such attention and sense of play.
We clean up the winery, take out stems to dump temporarily in the nearest of Paul’s vineyards. And prepare for another early start.