In my dreams wines have colours and scents and tastes – forget the complicated business of aromas and flavours – and I suspect after watching this I’ll start hearing wines as well. This is beautiful! (Thank you Robert MacIntosh for sharing it)
Search Results for: aroma
Where is this place?
Personally, and I blush to say it, a year ago I was sure only that Sardinia was an island, part of Italy, somewhere near Sicily. Obviously, I have never sailed in the Mediterranean. When I was invited on an educational trip to learn about Cannonau wines, I dashed to Google Maps. I then had to look up Tyrrhenian Sea, which I vaguely recalled from ancient history courses. If you’re as well-travelled but geographically weak as me, this next bit is for you.
Pertinent facts: Sardinia is south of the French island of Corsica and northwest of Sicily. It is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, a tad smaller than Sicily. You can fly to the capital city in the south, Cagliari, as I did on Vueling from Barcelona or from several points in Italy. I flew back to Geneva on Alitalia via Rome, which gave me a beautiful flight over the Alps. You can also fly to Olbia and Alghero in the north, but in both cases, summer is the high season for tourists, and there are fewer flights from mid-October, when the (slightly) rainy season sets in, to May. Swiss, Easyjet and Airberlin fly to the island, with competitive pricing, from Switzerland.
Tourists also arrive by ferry from Italy and France in summer, and droves of tourists come in to Cagliari on cruise ships; the Queen Victoria sailed out of the port past my hotel room as I woke up my first morning, a majestic pre-dawn sally forth towards the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Landing in the south: Cagliari
I didn’t have time to do more than pass through the city, but was pleased to see the beautiful architecture in the old centre, as Cagliari was bombed heavily in the second world war. An air-raid shelter, 180 metres long, that is one of the city’s tourist attractions, Don Bosco was actually built in the 1700s outside the city by Piedmontese, for military purposes. The city has created a walking trail along monuments and historical sites, one of six historical trails, and there are others centred around culture, shopping, etc. Next time I will stay for 2-3 days.
A guide who traveled with me for part of my trip lives in Cagliari and he confirmed what I had heard – anyone who lives there spends as much time as possible on the beautiful white sands of Poetto Beach, and when he is away he longs to get back there, the centre of Cagliari life.
The port cities north and south are where you’ll find seafood and excellent fresh fish. Be sure to sample Sardinia’s famous white wines, produced in several areas around the country. Vermentino is the best-known and easy to find; for those who haven’t tried it for years, you should know that the quality has improved markedly. Look for the two DOCs, Vermentino de Sardegna and Vermentino di Gallura from the north of the island, with the second generally considered more interesting – pale straw colour with a nose of mature fruit and Mediterranean plants, especially aromatic herbs (map of wine regions). In mouth it tends to be soft yet dry with a slightly mineral finish. It’s the perfect wine with seafood and Sardinian fregula pasta.
I also liked Nuragus, from Cagliari and Oristano, which is sharper, very fresh with a nose of citrus, green apple and sometimes white fruits or white flowers.
Highlights from the highlands and Cannonau
I was in Sardinia to study Cannonau, known as Grenache in France and Garnacha in Spain, whose grapes are grown throughout much of the country. Vines at lower altitude and closer to the sea offer lighter, fruitier red wines from this grape, generally drunk young, which I found pleasant if not generally on a par with the deeper, richer purple-red ones from inland areas. The latter are made in or near the ancient highlands that for me are the real beauty of Sardinia. The wine and the land here offer a very good example of terroir: land and wine, hand and glove.
See Travels in Sardinia: Cannonau, a wine to love (to be published 23 March).
Rugged, wild, natural – these are all terms that are used routinely to describe these mountains, and they fit. But the interior landscape is much more – a mix of these granite mountains that rise to 1,400 metres, with scrubland that resembles the garrigue of France’s Provence, here called màcchia mediterranea, small farms and hillsides of semi-wild pasture for cows, sheep and goats. Expect to eat cheese, pork and beef in quantity, all very flavourful, and part of the Mediterranean and wine diet that people here like to say is the key to longevity: Sardinia, like parts of the Greek islands, has a disproportionately high number of people well over the age of 100.
One of my most treasured moments during this trip came while we visited what is possibly the island’s highest vineyard. There is no winery here, just a small house used by workers at times during the season when the vines require heavy labour: our van had trouble getting up the steep gravel road and we spooked a wild goat out of the scrub. This is no place for machines to work the vineyards.
The views in all directions were spectacular but a chilly late October rain crept up on us and we soon scurried back to the lower lands. The moistness in the air magnified an appealing blend of wild herbs and underbrush which I later found in some of the Cannonau wines.
They may not absorb this directly from the soil or air, as popular wine lore has it, but drinking a wine that so clearly recalls its terroir is a wonderful pleasure.
Trails and masks
Mountain roads bend and twist along the contours of small ranges that are best understood from an airplane, where you realize that the sea is never far away. I was visiting just two weeks before knee surgery, so was limited in the amount of climbing I could do, but the island is filled with mountain bike and hiking trails, and I’ll be back once I have two functioning knees again, to explore more of Sardinia’s hills. And while I enjoyed the occasional late October drizzle I would come a bit earlier next time.
I followed one of the footpaths near the Grotta Su Marmuri in Ulassai (fellow travellers clambered up and down multiple sets of rocky stairs to see the impressive stallactites and stallagmites here). Within minutes I found the wild versions of seven of my favourite herbs as well as wild persimmon trees. Its fruit, I was told by locals, is used for making marmalade.
When I stepped into the low, scented forest to test the fruit I again startled two goats, this time domesticated, who dashed uphill bleating in fear. The forest is green but very dry underfoot; there are few rivers and only about 200 mm of rain a year falls here, a paltry amount that leaves riverbeds dry and pastureland looking parched.
A curious side trip was an hour-long visit to the Museum of Mediterranean Masks in Mamoiada, a wine village high in the hills, surrounded by rough gray peaks. As dusk fell and the mountains seemed to draw closer I watched the museum’s very good short film on mask traditions, featuring the town’s own “Mamuthones” and “Issohadores”, part of the tradition of Carnival here. The costumes and explanation were startling enough, but I kept thinking it must be extraordinary to visit in winter, with howling winds, bells echoing the march of heavy feet, snow blowing through cracks in doors. This might be the 21st century, but it would be easy to forget that.
And then this February, a friend was a judge at the international Grenache wine competition, which took place in February in Sardinia as Carnival was getting underway, and she suddenly found herself in the midst of masked creatures in Mamoiada:
Highlights: hotels and food
Sardinia, the tourist destination (starting point for planning what to do, where to go: Sardegna Turismo), has no shortage of hotels and B&B options, and a good range of prices, although many are open only from March to October. Two of the hotels where I stayed are worth a mention; I’m not always a big fan of hotels but I would rush back to either of these quite different places. Note that my colleagues were not all as lucky with their rooms – it is definitely worth paying the extra to get one of the better views or rooms.
The first was Su Gologone, in the highlands near Oliona, 25 km from the sea, so day trips to the beach are an option. You have to look for the entrance, so discreetly folded into the màcchia is this hotel that began life as a restaurant near a well-known mountain spring, which gradually added a hotel and Sardinian fine crafts and art centre. It’s all the more surprising then, to realize that here are scores of rooms and suites, a multitude of nooks and crannies: a classy and contemporary cactus garden that leads to the breadbaking corner, one of the finest gardens of herbs I have ever seen (watched over by scarecrows in designer fabrics) that will delight anyone who grows these. The red and blue breakfast patio and a pink holy water font corner that is simply funky.
The venture was started in 1967 by Peppeddu Palimodde, who convinced his wife they should open a restaurant featuring local foods. His wife Pasqua and their daughter Giovanna continue to run it; Giovanna is responsible for the extraordinary décor and al fresco areas.
My room was one of the suites: a gate that led down a lavendar and scented yellow rose path to my bedroom, a sitting room, 2 bathrooms, hammock outside and outdoor jacuzzi. Very comfortable and I loved the decor that comes from Su Gologone’s workshops. Food at the hotel, which is known for its local fare, was excellent, from a buffet lunch to a more intimate breakfast.
The hotel offers several art courses, some practical and others theory and history. The art shop doesn’t carry typical tourist souvenirs, but serves as an outlet for artwork from the island that blends the traditions and history of Sardinia with contemporary approaches to art.
Happily, next to the shop, which is open in the evening, is the cozy , outdoor Tablao bar. It was in this outdoor space, just as night fell, with candles flickering near the sparkling wine and firelight from braziers, that I had a musical experience which sent shivers up my spine. A weirdly haunting noise came out of nowhere, almost like animals – an hour before I’d been listening to nearby cows and sheep. It turned out to be four men, the haunting and eerie Sardinian polyphonic singing that has been done here for centuries. They had been invited to entertain my group and gave us an acapella Sardo poetic song about wine and love. Polyphonic singing here, like jazz, relies on improvisation, with four voices that sometimes sound like instruments. While tourist versions of this musical tradition are often not so impromptu, be sure to say yes if someone gives you a chance to hear this music, which is on the Unesco intangible cultural heritage of humanity list.
A second hotel I loved was La Bitta by the seaside in Arbatax. My double room had a jacuzzi on the balcony that overlooked the infinity pool, which spilled over into the sea – and the kitchen prepares beautiful food, perfectly matched to the wines we tasted. A colleague had a less charming room, so do ask for a sea view. On my next visit I will build in time for a glass of the local white wine while watching the sun set over the bay, from my jacuzzi!
One more don’t-miss attraction: lunch at one of the farmstays, or agriturismo farmhouses that offer meals and B&B. My visit to the farmhouse restaurant in Camisadu was far more than a place for a spot of lunch. We had a banquet, with several of the wine producers in the area, but we also had a chance to see how traditional foods are produced or cooked. Beef slow-roasted over an open spit, served with endless sheets of carasau, the Sardinian crisp bread, garden peppers and Cannonau aged wines was enough to make me want to stay on and volunteer for farm work!
Tradition is a hot word in wine marketing right now, one that reassures consumers – and yet few of us who are on the buying end of the sales chain question what it means, I think.
If you have been making wine the same way for 50 years, does that make your wine traditional? 100 years? Or what if you’ve made changes to the way your grandfather did it – can you call yours a traditional wine?
I led a discussion of “tradition” Wednesday evening during a tasting session of four Swiss wines that helped us reflect on various understandings of the word. Here are some notes from the evening:
The four wines I selected for the wine club at L’école hotelière Les Roches in Bluche, Valais represent just four aspects of tradition in winemaking: traditional use of yeasts, a relatively recent but now-established tradition of blending reds in Valais, traditional grapes, wines made by generations of the same family in Lavaux. This is hardly a definitive look at traditions in the wine world, but if we’re trying to learn to question marketing-speak, these are a good starting point.
French vs English sense of tradition
Earlier this week I had two Swiss wine producers remind me, separately, that the sense of the word “tradition” is not quite the same in French as in English.
The word in English implies unchanged, or little changed. The Oxford Dictionary refers to “a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another” and other dictionaries provide similar definitions. Larousse, defining the word in French, appears to say something similar: “Manière d’agir ou de penser transmise depuis des générations à l’intérieur d’un groupe”. A way of doing something or of thinking that has been shared for generations – the difference is subtle but important in the world of wine because it begs the question of how much change is acceptable or desirable if you want to make wines that represent traditions.
The wines we tasted
The wines we tasted, in order (1 white, 2 reds, 1 white):
“R3” Räuschling 2016, AOC Zurich: 3 Zurich area wineries (joint project)
(Along with a small sip of Dôle de Sierre 2015 from Maurice Zufferey, to compare)
Cornalin 2014, AOC Valais: Maurice Zufferey, Sierre, Valais
“Haut de Pierre” Dézaley AOC Grand Cru 2015: Blaise Duboux, Epesses, Vaud
Are old yeasts better?
“R3”, a Räuschling wine from the greater Zurich area, is special for a number of reasons. German-speaking Switzerland, with Zurich as the hub, produced more wine than the French-speaking areas until the 1870s.
Today, with pressure from urban populations and industry, the area devoted to vineyards has shrunk significantly and all of German-speaking Switzerland produces less than either cantons Valais or Vaud.
Räuschling was probably over-produced at one point, with too many mediocre wines made from the grape, and the wine that was synonymous with Zurich fell out of favour.
It is a crisp white with citrus notes and good acidity, perfect with fish and wonderful when made well.
Three well-respected wineries in the area decided in 2008 to make a Räuschling that would represent the best of this grape, which was long thought (wrongly, notes scientist José Vouillamoz in the reference book Wine Grapes) to be related to Riesling or the very old Swiss-German grape Completer. “R3” combines grapes from different terroirs in the region, all of notably good quality.
“R3” is also one of the first grapes made with a yeast known as W1895, which has an extraordinary, Swiss history. Yeast, through the process of fermentation, makes wine possible: when oxygen is not present yeast converts, or transforms, wine grapes’ sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. People obviously knew about using yeast for centuries – to make bread, to make wine and beer – but it was in the period from 1850-1880 that scientists began to realize that yeast is a living microbe and to understand how it works. I won’t get into the scientific history of yeast here, but enormous strides have been made in developing strains of yeast that have helped the wine industry improve quality and solve technical problems.
In 2008 Zurich wine producer Stickel Schwarzenbach and Jürg Gafner, a scientist at the Research Institute in Wädenswil, sat down with a small group to do a vertical tasting of some very, very old wines, part of a group of 80 bottles that were still good, from 1895-1917, found by an old Meilen winemaker when he cleared out his cellar. Hermann Schwarzenbach, Stickel’s father, had recorked the old wines shortly after they were found. The group doing a final tasting, in 2008, wanted to see if any of the yeasts in these wines were still alive. The answer: yes, six strains from three vintages were indeed alive. One from the oldest bottle, an 1895 Räuschling, has been commercialized successfully because of particular qualities it offers (an example: helping wines with “stuck fermentation”). Today it’s referred to as the Sleeping Beauty Yeast.
“In modern winemaking, fermentations are driven largely by single-strain inoculations; pure cultures of selected strains of S. cerevisiae are added to grape must as soon as possible after crushing. This ensures greater control of vinification, leads to more predictable outcomes and decreases the risk of spoilage by other microorganisms. There are many—probably hundreds of—different yeast strains available, and the winemaker’s choice can substantially effect the quality of the wine” – From a technical article on the history of yeast in winemaking published by the US National Library of Medicine.
Despite all the progress made with new strains of yeast, aided by new technology and DNA studies, it was still possible to find something of great interest today in a very old bottle of wine, from a time when yeasts used were mainly those found in a winemaker’s cellar. The wineries involved in creating “R3” use this 1895 yeast to show it is capable even today of helping make a high-quality Räuschling wine. Is this wine identical to the 1895 bottle they drank, when it was young? Undoubtedly not, for yeast is only one factor in making a wine what it is, but it could well be a close kin to the 1895 vintage in its youth.
Natural wines today use indigenous yeasts, those found naturally in the fermentation cellar, and proponents of using only these yeasts will argue these wines are better, and that their use is “traditional”, but in fact it is only technical progress made in this century that has allowed them to make reliably good wines using these wild yeasts.
For more on the tasting session where the live 1895 yeast was found, and its implications: Memoire des vins suisses (French, German).
Valais Dôle, a reflection of pragmatism
The Dôle produced today by Marie-Thérèse Chappaz is a fine example of a wine that has maintained its popularity despite changing shape and style for more than a century. It has always been a pragmatic wine, designed to give growers a bit more flexibility and consumers an affordable and decent table wine.
A grape variety called Dôle, from the Jura region, arrived in Valais in 1850, and was blended, from the outset, with Gamay grapes. The name gradually came to mean Pinot Noir, then a blend of that grape with Gamay, and then as people started to call Pinot Noir wines after the grape Dôle came to mean a blend of it – often with more Gamay than Pinot. But the name and what grapes were behind it varied from place to place. Marie-Thérèse tells me that in Fully, where she produces her wine, more Gamay was always used than in Sierre, where more Pinot Noir is planted.
For comparison, we tasted hers and a bit of Sierre Dôle from Maurice Zufferey, which indeed has more Pinot: the Fully wine was fruitier and darker, the Sierre one more austere, with the upright lightness of good Pinot, although Maurice’s does have 5% Gamaret as well as 85% Pinot Noir and 10% Gamay.
Traditionally, the blend made a light and popular wine, and it was one of the earliest efforts to produce a blended wine that was similar throughout the region. Producers could vary it from year to year depending on their harvests. But the rush in the 1950s to grow more and more grapes, with help from the new chemical fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides, led to a glut and lower quality wines.
By the end of that decade the canton put in place regulations that required higher sugar levels for Dôle wines; lesser quality grapes went into a wine called Goron. Dôle became an AOC from Valais with 85% Pinot Noir and Gamay the dominant but not necessarily sole other wine in the blend.
Dôle remains very popular in the canton despite its shifting nature over the past 167 years, a Valais economic and cultural tradition that has left room for flexibility from one area to another, one vintage to another.
Cornavin and traditional grapes
Native grapes, many of them produced in relatively limited quantities are the pride of canton Valais today, as they are, increasingly, in other places. The Wine Mosaic non-profit organization in France, for example, is fighting to preserve older, indigenous grape varieties, noting that only 30 major grapes produce 70% of the world’s wine.
The project is based around two fundamental ideas:
Production: highlight original varieties. Develop practical measures to ensure their preservation, and increase the production of quality wines made from these varieties
Consumption: raise the awareness and consumption of wines made from original grape varieties.
and strives to “help [producers] find the necessary tools and assistance to make, sell and promote wines made from endangered, indigenous and historic or traditional grape varieties.”
Cornalin is one of the star grapes in the Valais lineup of native grapes, which includes Humagne Rouge, another red, and the very special white grapes, Petite Arvine and Amigne. Cornavin has been mentioned in historical documents since the middle of the 14th century, yet it came close to extinction – hard to believe when you taste the beautiful wine that can be made from it.
Maurice’s uncle was an ardent fan of Cornalin who insisted that the grape be saved despite its reputation for being difficult to grow: inconsistent harvests (one year good, the next small), sensitive to weather conditions and in need of good sun exposition. Maurice in his turn and a small group of growers have fought to preserve the grape by refining cultivation methods so it is commercially viable.
While we found some of the cloves and black cherries one expects in this traditional wine, the 2014 was perhaps less aromatic than some of the Cornalins I’ve had from Maurice and other good producers (Mercier Vins in Sierre, André Fontannaz at Cave de la Madeleine in Vétroz, and Domaine Cornulus in Savièse are among my favourites). Not surprising: these are terroir wines that reflect each vintage’s strengths and weaknesses.
15 generations, each its own wines
Lavaux at first appears to be a place where change comes slowly if ever – but appearances can deceive. Blaise Duboux represents the 15th generation in Epesses. His family has tended the same vines since the 15th century, with Chasselas as a main grape. Blaise is known in Switzerland but also abroad for his Chasselas, with a line of different terroir wines.
I asked him about the burden of knowing it is up to you to carry on doing what your family has always done.
“It hurts when I have to take out old vines,” he mused. “Knowing they were planted by someone who was there before me …” and what those ancestors were trying to do, when it was their turn to be the vineyards’ caretaker.
But he’s quick to point out that while each generation carries the weight of family history, it’s also a matter of individuals doing a job. “To keep the traditions you want, that are important, you have to adapt, have to adjust.”
Case in point: his father was the first generation to learn winemaking at a post-secondary school, not simply from his own father. He came into the vines in the 1960s, a time when growers were trying to boost harvests with all the new chemical treatments that had just appeared, long before anyone realized there was a down side to this.
Blaise, 50 years on, is headed in another direction with his vines and has been actively pushing for Lavaux to become organic. “It’s taken us decades to get rid of the effects [of the treatments, in the soil]. So while Lavaux and Unesco celebrate the Lake Geneva hillside’s millennia of winemaking and wines with a long history like Blaise’s famous Dézaley Chasselas, growing methods and winemaking techniques have moved with the times.
Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, back in canton Valais, worries over those terms, “adjust” and “adapt”, saying that we must be very careful to give credit to older methods and the common sense and experience behind them – that adapting to new needs shouldn’t necessarily give us the right to change old traditions. The types of buildings or fermentation vats used in the past might not always look as splendid as some contemporary structures, but there was often a logic behind them that had an impact on, for example, the way fermentation occurred, or the behaviour of wine yeasts.
Maybe it’s easier to understand, she says, if we look at cheese. She points to traditional cheeses such as Roquefort in France or Switzerland’s Etivaz, the first produced in caves, the second made from milk that comes from cows whose only food is Alpine pastures.
Both have very strict AOP (designation of origin) regulations; from the Swiss AOP office (my italics):
Designation of origin (Art. 2)
As designation of origin (PDO) the name of a region or a place can be registered which serves to designate an agricultural product or a processed agricultural product which:
comes from the corresponding area or the corresponding place;
which owes its quality or its characteristics mainly or exclusively to the geographic conditions with the inherent natural and human influence;
which was produced, processed and prepared in a determined geographical area.
For Marie-Thérèse, without stringent AOP rules it would be too easy to keep only part of the traditions that have created special agricultural products – a Roquefort “that would be like plastic!”, not made in caves. An Etivaz from milk that isn’t from summer pastures, that would lose its magical hints of fruits and hazelnuts. The same is true for wine.
Traditions need to be carefully safeguarded, she argues. First, of course, we need to know and understand them. So the next time someone tells you his wine is “traditional”, try to find out why and how.
Organic wine, the new mistress of the French heartland – beautifully seductive and the hottest girl in town or country. Everybody wants to have her, and to listen to the marketing spiels, everybody’s got her. Whew, what a dame!
But French mistresses have a reputation for artifice. I’ve been keen to see for myself to what extent organic wine is really organic, or how much of it is just a makeover that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. I’m tired of hearing, at too many tastings, wine producers from France (and Italy) say “my wine is organic; it just isn’t certified”, as if it’s irrelevant. Certification means you’re following a process, allowing others to check on it and verify you’re following agreed standards.
France’s certification body is Bioagricert, which notes that from the end of 2014 to the end of 2015 the number of vineyard hectares certified or under conversion increased by 8.7%. But the total is still only some 58,000 hectares of a total of 792,000 hectares of French vineyard.
Heading south for a Rhône harvest
September is when the French heartland is at its enchanting best for a food and wine lover, so last September I headed south from Geneva to photograph the 2016 grape harvest near Orange, in the Chateauneuf-du-pape wine region. My mission was to photograph the harvest of some 150-year-old vines, grown organically. I was allowing space in the back of my little yellow Fiat 500 for the wines I planned to buy there.
A friend suggested that as long as I was making the trek, I should head a few kilometres west, to explore wines from the nearby Gard region. Less renowned, less expensive, and in the kind of countryside we all hope still exists in France, outside novels. And I could ask about organic wines.
I suddenly realized that the Gard is Côtes du Rhone Villages country, and I have a soft spot for these wines. When I moved to Paris many years ago, I quickly graduated from drinking semi-plonk to table reds to wines from these 18 southern Rhone river villages – at which stage I thought I had gone to heaven.
Organic is now a buzz word in French wine circles, after years of being pooh-poohed as quirky, something aging hippies might make. Wineries began to realize some consumers wanted wines that were cleaner, as in chemical-free wherever possible. At the same time wine producers began to hear too much about the impact of chemical treatments on their own health.
Much of what is being touted as organic today may not qualify for certification, but serious steps are being taken towards sustainability and healthier approaches to making wine. The wineries want this changeover acknowledged. Some are more honest about what they are doing than others, and I was interested to see where a conversation about this might take us.
Idyllic French wine life
Looking back at my photos now, in winter, with one major knee operation and weeks of exhaustion behind me, a wonderful image of energy in the countryside combined with a sense of timelessness returns: the idyllic (for consumers) French wine life is alive and well. My photos show a golden late afternoon light drifting across fields of grain, vineyards and the stones at Domaine de Gressac (see my article about being a guest on this beautiful estate).
Tractors bearing grapes arriving at a cooperative, where the debate remains hot, to go organic or not.
Lunch in yet another village off the main roads, with one beautiful course followed by another, each paired with a good regional wine and guests who linger in this popular spot that I would never find without local help.
Sisters bending over new labels, two young and dynamic women, who are passionate about organic wines, gradually shouldering the work of the family vineyard.
Attitudes about organic range from the almost missionary zeal of the winemaker at Gressac, to variations on pragmatic and philosophical approaches at Domaine Reynaud (production viticole raisonnée Terra Vitis) and Domaine Clavel (also Terra Vitis), to the admirable – and tough – effort by the Laudun and Chusclan Cooperative to ease, steadily, scores of growers into a more organic future.
Natural wines as a mission
Let’s start at the missionary end of the scale, which means organic but also natural wines, most simply described as organic or biodynamic wines that use different cellaring techniques, notably natural yeasts (more on natural wines).
Gressac came as a surprise to me after Chateauneuf-du-pape, the subject of another article tomorrow. Chateauneuf is relatively flat, densely planted with vines and, like parts of Bordeaux and Burgundy, every intersection points you to a dozen wineries. Wine is what they do.
Cross the broad Vaucluse and Gard rivers into the Gard region, at the northern end of Languedoc-Roussillon, drive 20 minutes and you’re in a land of rolling hills and fields bordered by ancient forests that stretch far into the distance. The countryside is dotted with what the French like to call “villages authentiques“.
Grass owners Laurence and Reto Michelet left Geneva in 2010 with the idea of breeding horses here, and they considered pulling up the old vines here, but instead decided to add winemaking to their venture. The vineyard had for decades been an integral part of the 115-hectare (of a piece) farm operated by a previous owner, Lucien Bondurand, who converted the crops and 12-hectare vineyard to organic in 1970.
I shared a bottle of Bondurand’s 1985 wine – surprisingly still fruity and elegant – with the estate’s winemaker, David Teyssier. This very good organic red rightly serves as his inspiration for the chateau’s lineup of seven wines from nine grape varieties.
He insists that there is no reason why a good natural wine shouldn’t age well, and the 1985 makes a convincing argument. Teyssier has firm ideas about making wine, which don’t include tolerance for non-organic wines. If you’re growing grapes and making organic wine, then you should move straight on to natural ones, period.
The grapes had been harvested, and workers were busy doing post-harvest scrubbing around the cellar. Beyond romance, each of these bits of farming contributes just a portion to overall income, says Laurence Michelet. The wine sells well despite a slightly higher price tag than most area wines, at about €8-17 cellar price, but the production of 2,000 bottles barely covers its own cost, she insists.
The rosé is beautiful to look at and pleasant at the end of a hot day, but it’s the red wines that are interesting. The entry level wine, Lou Gressac 2015 is 100% Syrah, 14% alcohol, a wine you definitely want to pair with food. At €7.90 it is competing with a lot of other regional wine and you’ll buy it mainly because it is a natural wine: as with all the wines here, very little SO2 (sulphur dioxide, used as a preservative in wines and for cleaning barrels), no outside yeasts. “Fou de Grenache” 2014 is fruity, red fruits with a slightly peppery nose, a very fun light wine. “Terre des bois” 2013 is very much in the tradition of fruity southern French wines, made with Grenache and Mourvedre grapes.
They all share a trait common to many natural wines: these can change quickly once the bottle is open. This makes for some interesting wines, but don’t expect the first sip to taste like the last. Some people like the shift towards an animal smell that occurs with some of these wines; I’m not a big fan. “Lou Gressac” was fruity at first, developed an animal nose as we drank, then with swirling, or more frankly agitating the bottle (thank you, David Teyssier, for showing me that trick), the fruitiness resurfaced. Côte du Rhône wines are known for a tendency to have these brett (see Wine Folly’s explanation and a more in-depth, technical article from Wine Anorak) noses, the source of which is a type of yeast.
The two top-end wines were the ones I enjoyed, “Madone” 2013, named for an old statue you come across if you hike up the hillside, and “Rouge Sauvage” 2012, which sports the wild mane of a galloping horse on the label. The first is a Grenache/Syrah blend with good tannins and a smooth black cherry finish spiced by a touch of black pepper. The second, the Gressac wine I rate as tops, is a blend of Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre. It all comes together in this wine, with leather and pepper notes from the Syrah, the red fruit of the Grenache and the tanins and blackberries Mourvèdre can add. A deeply fruity silkiness dominates, in the end, and while a hint of animal is there, it is integrated and the wine is balanced. €16.90 cellar price.
You can find their wines here; the list includes addresses in Switzerland.
A cooperative, shifting gears
The Laudun-Chusclan Vignerons Cooperative in Chusclan (5 minutes by car from Bagnols-sur-Cèze) produces organic wines that are part of a large collection of wines at very competitive prices.
The last of the Syrah harvest was being brought in by local vignerons the day I visited, and the rich smell of fully ripe grapes hung in the air. Tractors pulled up, grapes were weighed, and the workers inside scurryied to keep up with deliveries, ongoing fermentation in the large tanks, cleaning and more.
For size alone, the Chusclan winery is a contrast to Gressac, but so, too, is the approach to winemaking. The growers who are members manage 3,000 hectares of vines, making this one of the largest groupings of vineyards on the right bank of the Rhone. Some 250 families are involved in the joint venture that brought together growers from Chusclan and Laudun in 1998. The average age of the members is 41; 42% are women and 58% men.
Perpignan is just two hours away; it was near there that, in April 2016, yet another in a series of southern French incidents occurred, where angry French growers dumped cheap Spanish wine from tanker trucks. This part of the Gard is not a hotbed of protest, but pressure on wine profits in an increasingly competitive national and international market can make growers wary. David Bernescut, marketing and sales director, says that a cooperative like his has to take the long view and accept that change won’t happen overnight, given so many families of varying situations and attitudes.
Slow and steady
“We’re working to help our growers move towards organic, which is the future,” says David, “and while some are ready to make that move right now, others are not. Margins are tight. They’re worried about making enough money to stay afloat – it takes time to make the transition to organic and initially, production levels dip. It’s a time of transition for several families who are looking for solutions as the change of generations occurs.” The cooperative sees education and encouragement to find healthier approaches to growing grapes and making wine as a key task. “But it will take time,” he notes.
Meanwhile, talking with staff in the cooperative’s shop, I hear great enthusiasm for some of the award-winning organic wines, and I can see why. The sharply acidic whites that are a tradition in the region, perfect served with fish, are well made. “Laudun Côtes du Rhône Terra Vitae” white and red are both very good, both organic, with the red Laudun Côtes du Rhône Villages version even better (70% Grenache Noir, 30% Syrah). One of my favourites was the non-organic “Camp Romain” of mainly Grenache Blanc and Clairette Blanche, with some Viognier/Roussanne. Mineral, with a nose of grapefruit and acacia flowers, a long finish.
Independent, with organic as part of a larger view
I had time to visit just two other wineries in the region, both independent, both embracing the Terra Vitis approach to sustainability. A fairly recent expansion of the original Terra Vitis mandate to provide traceability, transparency and quality means the label now takes into account the overall health of vineyard and cellar staff and consumers, plus the health of the soil and plants in vineyards as well as the areas surrounding these nearby bodies of water.
Claire Clavel is the winemaker at Domaine Clavel in St Gervais, one of the 16 Villages. Her father Denis still helps out, notably in the 80 hectares of vineyard, where the family grows eight grape varieties that go into half a million bottles of wine. The day I visited it was Claire’s enormous energy that was in evidence, with her sister pausing long enough from administrative duties to say hello.
Claire’s enthusiasm for biodynamic winemaking gives its name to the winery’s two top of the line gastronomy wines, Claire de Lune, a white and a red. The red, of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Carignan and 10% Cinsault, was my favourite of the eight wines here – its elegant and long licorice finish is quite special and makes it an unusual and good match for spicy meats. I also very much liked the pale salmon-pink rosé, with notes of peaches and white flowers.
Surprise! A French Arvine!
I’ll be honest, my real reason for visiting Domaine Reynaud in charming St Siffret is that Luc Reynaud grows Arvine, the grape so dear to Switzerland’s Valais growers, who are rather proprietary about it. I’ve never seen an Arvine outside Switzerland.
It wasn’t my favourite here, but Luc points out that the vines are young and it takes a lot of work and testing to find the right path to making a good wine from a new grape. Arvine, with its good acidity and slightly salty finish, makes sense here, probably as one of the minor grapes in white blends.
Reynaud’s more traditional Duché d’Uzès wines, especially the “Pomyron”, were worth the trip, though.
For years Luc delivered his grapes to a local cooperative, but he dreamed of building his own winery, and in 2000 he produced his first vintage. I found the lineup a bit uneven, with “Cuvée Rubis” 2014, for example, a bit rough around the edges, but the 2013 was more complex, with more fruit – and I reminded myself that these are indeed terroir wines, making the best of the weather of each vintage.
My clear favourite was the IGP Pont du Gard 2013 “Templiers”, Grenache/Syrah/Merlot, a wine that is a good match for red meat and cheese, staples of the cuisine in this gastronomically rich region.
Luc’s willingness to try new methods and new grapes – he was one of the first Terra Vitis growers in the region – is the kind of example that bodes well for the future of sustainable wine production in Gard. The question of certified organic or not has begun to fade for me, given the serious approach to healthier environments (and people) shown by wineries like Clavel and Reynaud, which happily also make good wine.
My sampling was too small to decide whether or not French wineries claiming to be organic are straight with us, but I liked much of what I saw and the wines I tasted were honest wines made with care. I bought a few more than planned.
By the end of my trip I was beginning to worry that my Fiat 500 was too small.
There was just time for one last essential stop: when in the south of France, you must be sure to take time to eat well. In this instance, it was the little Table de Marine in St Michel d’Euzét, bustling at noon, where I left it up to the chef to decide what I should eat, and what wine would fit the food, a wise decision.
This article was revised and minor corrections made 22 February.
I spent an afternoon this week at Taste of Italy, an event in Geneva that brought in two dozen premium food suppliers from Italy, a kind of matchmaking fair for wholesalers, retailers and the restaurant business.
My idea was to learn more about Italian regional products in order to better understand Italian wines.
Wine and food don’t simply go together; where you have good terroir wines you always have local foods that fit, and vice versa. France is one very good example of this, but I am inching over to the side of the Italians who say good food and wine from Italy can’t be beat.
Good food can teach us much about wine because we’re obliged to pay close attention to our senses to understand why some pairings work and others don’t, what the nose and mouth of a given wine really are like. My list of combinations to try is growing longer and longer. A pleasant challenge lies ahead.
From Monday’s notebook:
Of pigs and lard and sausage
Lard: time to re-discover the beauty and goodness of this food item
My mother used lard for basting when I was a child in Iowa, which at that point had more hogs than people (perhaps still does). She continued to insist on its value in the kitchen even when lard became a nasty word in a more weight-conscious world.
Pigs raised in fine cuisine regions are another matter. And black pigs, like the Iberian pig in Spain and the Nebrodi black pig of Sicily, provide the ultimate in flavour in sausages and dried meats. They are closer to wild pigs than their larger white cousins and they take longer to put on weight. Kin to these delicacies are those made in northern Italy from the black pig of Parma. I sampled some beautiful meat from Salumificio Pedrazzoli and Isaf Salumi.
But my favourite was melt-in-mouth lard from Marchisio Salumificio south of Torino, presented here as a delicacy made with a lacing of lightly salted herbs (sage, rosemary, parsley), no chemicals or preservatives. Served slivered as an aperitif with other finely sliced dried meats or wrapped around a filet before cooking. A lively discussion about what wine would do it justice and vice versa took us from reds (maybe) to a late harvest wine. I came home with lard; I’ll let you know once I try it with different wines.
Cheeses of Italy
I could taste only a handful, but my favourites were: Fontina from the Haut Val D’Ayas just over the border in Val d’Aosta, and a spicy Pecorino from the Casera di Martinelli in Almè, near Bergamo, although the whole lineup of wine/spirits cheeses by Gigi, from Da Gigi, northwest of Bergamo, was impressive.
Naples savory snacks
Breadsticks seem simple enough until you have some that leave the competition way behind. Malafronte Ciro in Gragnano, near Naples, makes fantastic breadsticks from various grains – I loved the spelt ones – with several flavourings. After nibbling on a few samples I mentioned that they would be perfect with a glass of wine and out came an information sheet about Gragnano wine, a famous sparkling red from the region.
Panettone’s date with dates
I love panettone with dried fruits, but the sourdough one that I sampled, made with Egyptian figs, should be a Hollywood star. What class! Fraccaro, northwest of Venice, likes to point out that its panettone is Slow Food certified.
The slippery surface of olive oils
I had a tour of a wonderful olive oil producer’s place in Montecucco in southern Tuscany last month, where we discussed which regions in Italy produce the best oils. Getting an unbiased opinion from an Italian on this subject is well-nigh impossible, so this week I heard from a southerner that Puglia clearly has the best, and from a producer at the fair in Geneva that their oils, from the small family operation in Sabina near Rome, are the best. The ones I tasted were fruity and aromatic and certainly very good.
The only solution is to keep tasting and comparing.
Coffee, caffeine, to sugar or not
Great news for anyone who isn’t a coffee expert but loves the stuff (me): espresso has less caffeine than larger coffees, a caffè americano, for example, where the coffee is not so much diluted as it spends more time in contact with the water – similar to steeping your tea longer. This was the explanation I was given by the man from Artisanal Italian Food in Geneva, who insisted I try 2 espressos: one with and the other without sugar. Both were excellent, the result, he explained of their approach to blending, where they always test both versions to get the blend exactly right. I am convinced – both were very drinkable.
Salty or sweet, jam is a treat
I almost missed this stand, because jam isn’t what comes to mind when I think of wine, but what a mistake that would have been. Mes Confitures, south of Mantua, makes extraordinary jams, 2 lines of salty or sweet, as they describe them. The salty ones can be served with meat or fish, but they are primarily designed to be served as part of an aperitif plate with cheeses and cold cuts. A tiny spoonful of these magical, unusual blends opens sensory doors that made me long to try them with various wines. Three of my favourites were very different, a beetroot and coffee jam, one from beetroot with capers and anchovies, and another from candied mandarins.