Blois, Loire valley Wine bars & restaurants entirely focused of natural wines have almost become mainstream in Paris today, and even conventional and established venues can’t eschew having a selection of these wines if they pretend to have a demanding food menu made with real, old-fashioned-grown vegetables and meat. But you may know that the phenomenon isn't restricted to the French capital
(where it all started in the 1990s') and is spreading to regional capitals and cities (even, more and more, in villages), most regional towns having now at least a bistrot,
a restaurant or a wine bar centered on these authentic wines, and that’s encouraging because it’s a new way to discover your own local products, I’ve met so many artisan vignerons who told me that their wines were snubbed by local restaurants although they found a vibrant customer base in Paris and abroad as far as Japan and the United States, it’s quite a shame actually, you may have expercienced this yourself : you sit in a restaurant where you feel a pretention to be classy and above the flock, and all their wines are conventional, mainstream crap (but of course with the right, established appellations on the labels), you wonder, maybe they source their food the same way, that’s unsettling, let’s go somewhere else, or : no, after all, I’ll take a draft beer....
Les 400 Coups is one of these new vinous venues popping up in the French provinces and bring fresh air in the diluted wine-bar format. It opened a year ago, july 9 2015 thanks to the will and backing of several vignerons of the area. There wasn't really until then a venue in Blois serving 100 % of artisan/natural wines and this was the first. The wine bar/bistrot (you also can eat) isn't flashing its nature colors on the street sign, it's a wine bar and people can come here to enjoy the' wines and learn more in the way, they didn't want to make it right away a club where only people-in-the-know would venture, you don't need to know all the intricacies of the natural-wine scene to enjoy these wines...
Ouchamps, Sologne (Loire)
I met Kevin Henry a few years ago at at Olivier Lemasson (les Vins Contés), a bustling domaine in the Loire doing sulfur-free wines, a winery which is a perfect example of the easy-going and friendly ways of these natural-wine domaines. Kevin began to work in the vineyard and wine world almost by accident : as I reported already back then, he was travelling across the region almost
10 years ago, hitchiking along a road in nearby Contres
(a village in the middle of Sologne) when Olivier Lemasson gave him a ride. He was kind of adrift with no clear plan on what he wanted to do, then, having just dropped out his previous job. They chatted during the short ride and before being dropped further along the road, Olivier told him that if he needed a job in the coming weeks he could come at the domaine at the time of the harvest; Kevin didn’t really pay attention immediately but he remembered the offer and came back in time to take part to the vendanges. That was a good pick, and he was to remain for good...
I don’t know of any other profession or work culture when you can get a kickstart and initiation so easily, especially in France where access to work and careers is so difficult and protected, with an obsession from the part of the employers on cursus, diplomas and job references. But if there’s a common trend to be found in all these natural wine & artisan domaines (beyond the organic farming and non-interventionist winemaking), it’s precisely this openness to beginners and newcomers, this natural enthusiasm to share. On the opposite, I witnessed firsthand how conventional vignerons behave and that was so different : a couple of time I visited conventional wineries with young people who were eager to learn and start something in wine, they were looking for a small parcel to rent or buy (with the intention to work for an established winery on the side as a day job), and the people on the other side weren’t helping at all, they were almost suspicious that someone from outside with no family roots in the vineyard world could be interested in tending a vine and making wine. And when you told them that the project was to farm organic, that was the last straw, you just felt that you had just blown up your chances to get tipped on any available parcels, even the ones dismissed by the trade because their yield is too low.
Pic on right : Ouchamps is a village étoilé [starry village], says the road sign : this small (pop. 800), charming village has taken steps to fight light pollution, which means they shut out street lights early at night so that everyone can enjoy a real night situation. Too many villages try to copy towns and suburbs, keeping lights on all night. There’s nothing like a real dark night to enjoy the serene peace of the countryside and watch the stars...
Montlouis, Loire valley
Welcome to Chenin country. Montlouis is a small town overlooking the Loire river atop a hill, on high enough ground so as to be safe from the regular overflowing of the river, which could be severe a few centuries ago, before dams and dikes more or less secured this untamed and wild river. The wine region is known for its Chenin, although there's also some red varieties around here, which is then labelled as Touraine wine.
Julien Prevel is not originally from a viticulture or winemaking lineage, he was intially in Angers then left for Rouen, Normandy for a degree in history & geography [makes you get a job in the teaching sector usually] and he came instead here near Tours in 2010 to grow vegetables, something which didn't work out for administrative reasons and he ended up at the employment services finding a job with a training on how to prune the vines, this was in early 2011 at Frantz Saumon near Montlouis and that was it, he was to continue on this path...
All the while working for the Domaine Frantz Saumon he got the opportunity in 2012 to tend a small, 20-are vineyard surface which was until then worked by Stéphane Cossais, a narural-wine vigneron who passed out unexpectedly in 2009. He had frost and disease issues on this plot for 2 consecutive years but that's how he trained his hands on both the vineyard work and the winemaking (it was uprooted in 2014). His real start with winemaking was with a 60-are parcel of gamay which he got in 2013, he still has this plot, it was planted along several years, between 1970 and the 1990s'. Then he got a sizeable surface of Chenin, making for a total vineyard surface of 2,5 hectares today (all is fermage aka rentals), to which he'll add another 2 or 3 hectares this winter. The vineyard management is organic, the sprays are done by a group of fellow growers, a CUMA who owns the tractors and tools.
Tállya, Tokaj (Hungary)
You may not familiar with the name of Tallya but this village at a short distance from Tokaj has even deeper roots in the wine history of the region, and its climats or terroirs were considered the best several centuries ago by the wine-wise elite of this time.
László or rather László Alkonyi like we say outside Hungary (Hungarians like the Japanese put the family name first) was in his former life a writer, and at the beginning he was writing about financial issues and stock exchange in Budapest and in the mid 1990s' he foresaw that Hungary, his country was heading toward big problems,
social and economic after the fall of communism. People were quite desperate, companies were closing or were sold and dismantled and people were not prepared for this different world, they had little hope. He had the luck to have had a good job and he decided then to create a wine magazine because in his mind the wine business with all its ramifications could save many families and jobs. He undesrtood that the country needed more and more independant people who can lead their own lives, and family wineries plus all sort of wine-related businesses could do the job. Something had to be done so that people could have hope, have dreams and have children and make plans, and he viewed a wine magazine like a way to help all these things come true.
When László Alkonyi decided to start a wine magazine and write about wine in the mid 1990s' there was no independent wine magazine in Hungary and his goal was to start the first, with the possibility to say the truth and not only polished myths to enhance established wineries. With his previous work in the financial sector he was independant enough himself to start this venture without the sponsoring of powerful wine companies or wineries, he knew he had the means to remain free. Borbarát started being published in 1996, immediately covering local artisan winemakers who were then under the radar. He took some advertising in the magazine but mostly from banks and car makers. There happened now and then that big wineries post advertisements too, but for example once in the same issue there was an article with a comparative tasting in which the wine of this particular winery scored the worse, it made waves of course, the winery owners weren't very happy but the magazine proved it was serious in its independance stance.
Tokaj, Tokaj wine region (Hungary)
The Tokaj region may be felt like an established wine region from abroad due to its documented tradition in the past centuries but oddly it's also a very dynamic region in terms of young artisan winemakers, it'l like if Burgundy met Touraine or Anjou, and there may be several reasons behind this, one of them being possibly the socialist interlude during which the parcels on the slopes, the equivalent of the Burgundy climats were abandoned under the post-war communist rule in favor of massive plantings on the flatland for productivist efficiency : Since
freedom of enterprise came back around 1989, daring vignerons had all these slopes (then covered by bushes and woods) to reconquer with great potential for making quality
wine again. You can see on the pic on left that the slopes and terraces are being restored but woods still occupy large swaths of the prized terroirs.
Tokaj as a small town retains something of his old glory, it is architecturally beautiful, especially compared to the villages in the flatland (some of them still have this communist-rule touch in the landscaping and destitution feel.
Judit Bodó like her husband József who started their Tokaj pince (domaine) in 2005 is originally from Csallóköz, Slovakia just north of the border from Hungary, she's Hungarian speaking as her home region like many satellite regions around Hungary was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire prior to 1920.
She first landed in this region in 2000 when she came along her employers from South Tyrol who were in the process of starting a winery here. She had initially gone to South Tyrol to better her language skills in German and get some work (as babysitter first) and ended up picking fruit and working in a winery. Having trained in winemaking and vineyard management with her new employers in South Tyrol she could help them with her cultural and language skills through the administrative hurdles of establishing a domaine in Hungary and book keeping. 5 years later in 2005 with their first child coming, Judit and József decided to launch their own winery, Bott Pince, and they bought their first hectare in the Tokaj region. She was to become a rising star on the Tokaj wine scene.
I found recently this great document showing in detail how Champagne was made in the early 20th century. This issue of Le Monde et la Science subscription magazine (it was to be an Encyclopedia at the end when you collected all the issues) seems to have been one of these short-lived
publications profiting from the new opportunities of mobile
photography, as cameras were getting easier to transport and set up even if tripods were still used routinely. I initially thought this magazine to have been published around 1930 [there's no publishing dates on the 4 issues I bought] but as I've done a short research it seems that it dates back probably from around 1910. This issue caught my eye among the couple dozens issues I saw on this village flea market as it showed something few people know today : that trellising and wires were unknown then, as Nicolas Renard told me incidently during my recent visit, it has no historical roots in the viticulture, it was invented for the convenience of mechanisation, for tractors in short, and like in the rest of France vines in Champagne were until then grown on échalas or posts.
Another aspect of this report is to restrospectively highlight how natural the viticulture in Champagne was at that time, all these people on these pictures would have been dumbfounded to learn what would be done in the vineyard later in the late 20th century/early 21st century, like this casual walk in randomly-chosen parcels shows. For us today, it's a good reminder that Champagne knew a more authentic viticulture not so long ago (100 years is not that far away). Many of the technical words are also different from what is used today, it seems to me, in this sense it's also an information mine.
If the picture settings look great in general it's almas not very sharp and the contrast is sometimes poorly managed by the printers, I hopê all these silver plates have been saved somewhere and could be used again for a big-size quality printing.
Here on this first page of the 17-page story you can see this incredible vineyard landscape in Champagne around 1900-1910 : a forest of wooded posts which (another unexpected thing) would be taken out after the harvest, steamed (pic lower right) in order to kill all the pests or their larvae and stored until april. The lower-right picture shows what they call the provignage (what we call marcottage to day I think) : replacing the missing vines by lying the next vine so that it takes root in its place.
What a compelling invitation to buy their wine....
A year ago I started a serie about the visual impact of herbicide sprays when you visit the wine regions at the right season. My first herbicide story last year already listed quite a few shocking images illustrating what the conventional growers do to their soils and wineries in order to get "clean"
parcels, but I was to find even better gems (so to say) this year, just see by yourself. As promised here is the initial story, completed on the top with a dozen more pics, as a booster vaccination about the herbicide devastation.
As said a year ago the best season to see this hidden part of the vineyard management is march to may, that's when the yellowish/redish devastation can be appreciated at its best. Few wine tourists venture in the back roads of the wine regions at this time of the year but still I'm sure the AOC big shots and other conventional-viticulture people are annoyed that if demanding visitors ventured in their area in the wrong months, they might get alarmed by what they see.
From Bordeaux to Touraine there's no shortage of herbicide use even if many appellation area encourage cosmetic changes like having alternating stripes of unsprayed rows to offer the illusion of a healthier vineyard and soil, as if the herbicide fell vertically in the soil ignoring its right and its left....
There are still overall many old-school conventional vignerons who can't get rid of their heavy-handed doses when they spray, like this grower in Touraine located just north of the Cher river between Noyers and Selles-sur-Cher (pic above). How is it possible that they still sell to locals (and they do !) when you drive by and see such a devastation along with their invitation to come buy their wines ! And this is a visual proof that these domaines can dump all the herbicides they want on their parcels, they get their AOC approval anyway...
I don't know it it's in the plans or if it's even feasible but I'm sure many growers would be happy to use chemicals that keep the grass green even when its dead, which would be a solution to ward off the potential public relation problems related with viewing the color changes. Some others have found the way around, and with a keen eye you can see through their trick (there's one or two examples below in the added pics for 2016) : the trick is they first "burn" the weeds with herbicide and then later make a 2nd pass to plow the crime scene so that when you look at the parcel casually you approvingly laud the soil work. The problem is it's pretty hastly done and you see here and there all over the place tufts of yellowish grass surfacing among the overturned soil. Sad.
The guy on the left who sprays who-knows-what with his hazmat suit with his boss looking from a safe distance on the side (this was not herbicide, they use tractors for that) was spotted near Vosne-Romanée but it must be said that overall, Burgundy is doing a pretty good job to protect its soils compared to other regions, herbicide use seems to be sketchy there, you really feel that there's a deeper understanding of realities.
Amboise, Loire valley Nicolas Renard is one of these top vintners who one day vanished and went off the map in spite of their having a cult following for their wines. B. and I visited Nicolas years ago at the time in 2005 he was the vinificateur and cellar master for Marie-Annick Lemaire at Lemaire Fournier, a domaine that closed its doors since, alas. The domaine which was purchased by Marie Annick Fournier after she won big at the national lottery and
invested by passion in this domaine, was turned organic and had its wines vinified naturally thanks to Nicolas. Annick Fournier stopped her activity a few years later,
from what I heard she suffered from the incomprehension and nastiness of her peers in the region, she was an outsider, a woman and she was into organic farming and natural wine, which easily made you the black sheep in any wine region then (and still even today we could say). Anyway, Nicolas Renard then shined among informed wine people for his aptitude at yielding terrific chenin wines, and many people wondered when he'd resurface and where. Here he is.
After Lemaire-Fournier Nicolas says that he stopped and took some distance, not that he was tired of making wine but because he was tired of the vignerons and their incomprehension. He then joined a friend of his, Thierry Allemand and worked with him 2 years, in 2006 and 2007, doing some pruning and fixing a walk plow among other things. Meanwhile he also rented a half-hectare parcel in Saint-Peray nearby, this was for a year only, because of the zoning changes it was to become construction land [a plague for good terroirs in many places in France]. He made 700 bottles and the wine never formally reached the market. In 2008 he tried to buy back the small surface of Elise Brignot in the Loire (Montlouis), which was on sale for economic reasons (Elise wanted no other than him to take over the organic parcels) but alas the SAFER [the French agricultural administration overlooking the sale of farm land) preempted his purchase, because 4 other [conventional] vignerons asked it to in order not to see him make wine there [natural-wine is seen as a threat by many, a competition that devaluates the mainstream wines]. This was for him another blow and he went to work with Matthieu Barret in Cornas from 2009 to 2011, after which in 2011 he took some parcels in Ardèche, renting a few parcels. The deal there was discontinued because alas the owner didn't want to invest in the much-needed improvements in the vineyard, so he came back to the Touraine in the Loire, this was in 2013 and he made just one barrel of wine that year. 2014 was really when he settled here for good, buying this facility/cellar and making his first vintage from a 3-hectare surface.
Alsace is known to have outstandingly-beautiful villages where its age-old winemaking tradition is found at every step in its architecture, some of these villages like Ribeauvillé have gone a little over the top in terms of tourist attraction, but Mittelbergheim managed to remain quite authentic and relatively off the mass-tourism
track, so be sure to go there, you'll understand that winemaking and viticulture is not
some recent addition, it's embedded in the local culture (the villages of Champagne in comparison lack this feel of joyful rooting in vinous history) and if you try to project yourself mentally in the late 19th century when these villages were at their peak demographically you can't but understand that this was really a dream country over here, with a quality of life that could compete with several legendary regions of Italy.
I had the opportunity to meet Jean Pierre and taste his wine lengthly during the Wein Salon Natürel in Cologne (the German natural-wine fair by large) last year, I really loved his wines (including his then-sold-out Pinot Noir L'Age de Pierre, another of these terrific Alsace reds) and the guy impressed me also by his calm openness as he explained his work with simplicity but also with detail.
The domaines makes about 12 hectares, it has been a family winery for 7 generations (since the 17th century for sure), his elders were growing other crops as well including tobacco and it lasted until his parents Pierre and Doris who decided in 1970 to devote all their time to the viticulture and winemaking. Today Jean-Pierre, who made his first vinifications in the domaine in 1987, works with his wife Sophie, his sister Anne-Lise and her husband. If you're looking for real Alsace wines that were not rushed to the market, have gone through the élevage time they ask, this is the domaine to go.
The family winery sits in the middle of the village just a short distance from the church (you can see the family street house lefthand on the picture on right), and when you stroll this main street (aptly named rue Principale) like I did before my visit you can see that more wineries are operating all along the street, these vintners kept working in these old farms, living near their facility.
As seen on the left, Mittelbergheim sits at the foot of the Vosges, near the village of Barr (I think it's the other church you see on the right) and with a 13th-century medieval fort hovering atop a hill in the far (you can see it on the pic on left, in the upper right), this is the Chateau du Haut Andlau (currently being renovated). Lots of history on these slopes, and you really feel it at every step, it's been pretty well preserved throughout the centuries.
I was invited earlier this year to a small Beaujolais tasting at the restaurant Elmer in Paris near République in the 3rd arrondissement (Profile in English here). I love small tastings because there's a better chance that I can taste most of the wines, the tasting was organized by the wine-wise communication agency Clair de Lune.
The tasting was efficient, Simon Horwitz who is the chef at Elmer had prepared a nice line of things to eat while we were tasting, everything was fine. I could find a time slot before going to work later in the afternoon, so here we go.
These region-centered tastings are often a mixed bag, this is the Beaujolais AOC being represented here and you'll find different styles of wines of course but that's fine, I usually trust the organizers for having a few good things in the selection.
__ Domaine Claire & Fabien Chasselay, La Carrière, Chénas 2014. This was so good. The color is not well rendered here on the picture, it was a beautiful delicate, milky and turbid type of red, this color was by itself very promising. Nose : refinedly appealing. Mouth and swallowed : exquisitely delicious, don't miss this wine ! It's fruity, it's delicately flowery too, a real pleasure to drink. For 12 € retail price, an excellent deal. Fabien Chasselay is following the steps of his parents and elders (family has roots in the Beaujolais since the 15th century) and the domaine is farmed organically since 2008. Farming organic is one thing, but when the wine is this good and true, that's what I really love.
Read Aaron's visit story at the Chasselays (published recently), makes me want to taste his other cuvées, including his primeurs which curiously are sometimes filtered.