Alex (on right) with Ewen of Saturne restaurant at Le Baratin
French natural wines have been imported for quite a while to countries like Japan and the United States as well as to the Scandinavian countries and other European countries, but little is known about the growing appetite of the German market for these wines, even though this country as a whole is still
lagging compared to, say, Belgium which comparatively to its size is an avid guzzler of these wines.
Alex Zülch is among the few pioneers who is helping them make a dent into the largely-conventional wine market there. He started to import these wines a few years ago and his portfolio at Vins Vivants is now quite well developed with indeed lots of living wines.
Alex studied enology at the Geisenheim wine school (in Rheingau) and he wasn't initially focused on importing these wines. During this scholarship he spent time training in interesting estates in Germany, in Austria, France. In Germany for example among other wineries he spent time in Rheingau at Georg Breuer, in Austria he went to Prieler in Neusiedlersee and also at Simon Bize for a harvest and vinification season. Travellin further he worked also in South Africa in a large winery where he made the experience of the industrial side of the trade, this was a family estate but with 120 or 150 hectares and a conventional, formatted vinification with lab yeast and everything. The other wineries he had his training in were not this style, from the start he went mostly to authentic producers having basically an artisan ethic in their work.
Pouillé-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
I visited Didier Barrouillet recently in his home outside Pouillé to have his opinion about juice & wine analysis. We know Didier retired from his busy life as a winemaker and vineyard manager at Clos Roche Blanche but he keeps conducting analysis tests on juice and wines for other winemakers in the area, mainly as a hobby, and I wanted to have his say about this crucial part of the winemaking : keeping a good knowledge on the condition of one's juice or wine. Knowing where one's juice or wine is standing along the vinification process may be strategic, and many winemakers just taste the juice to keep an eye on the situation.
Didier lives in a simple and beautiful single-story farm overlooking the Cher valley, at a close distance from the vineyards he used to tend, further on the plateau, and there's a direct view on a grassy parcel from his windows.
Didier has been doing lab analysis for 30 years, listing data for his juices and wines; he later worked on the side for other winemakers to help pay for the tool used to check the volatile, but mostly he did tests for Clos Roche Blanche. Doing the tests yourself saves a lot of money, you can easily spend 3000 or 4000 € a year for testing your juices, and Didier had the scientific background (mathematics and chemical engineering) that helped him do this work by himself.
Didier received me in the beautiful and well-preserved 17th century farm, the living room with the fireplace makes you feel comfortable at once. That's were he works too, there's the computer and also the microscope for the bacteria counting.
On elementary-school programs & wine culture
I recently found another old school textbook in a flea market where wine and winemaking were casually highlighted as part of the ordinary landscape, which led me to do some research, and I found out that until 1956 children in the elementary schools had some [diluted] wine served at the school cafeteria with their lunch, while older students in highschool kept having the option to have a glass of wine for decades, which was kind of news for me.
Now, this said, remember that the table wine of that time, which was bottled in the now-iconic one-liter (and returnable) bouteilles étoilées (named so because of the stars around the bottle neck), this table wine had usually a mere 9 % or 10 % alcohol content and when diluted it was probably far from what we call wine today. Plus, we should keep in mind that for centuries, most of the water being unsafe or unreliable, everyone including children and parents would drink diluted wine or cider instead of water, and the country didn't fare that bad for centuries as a result...
Thank you to Jean-Nicolas for allowing me to use the picture above for this story. Read his humoristic and informative 1st-of-april post on the issue.
Pouillé-sur-Cher, Touraine (Loire)
Winter is the healthy season when growers reconnect with their vineyards months after the harvest, the time when they patiently stop at each vine to make a pruning choice that will determine in a large part the next wine; winter work is not easy in the vineyard, it's bitterly cold in the parcels, maybe not nominally but with the humidity it feels painly so,
but you'll hardly find an artisan grower who doesn't like this stage of the grower's life and they really mean it, I remember interviewing Fanny Sabre years ago in Burgundy (and Burgundy is really stone freezing cold in winter) and she genuinely told me how much she loved these moments in the light of winter, pruning alone in her parcels.
Whatever, that's the season I chose to go see Laurent Saillard, and he was expectedly busy pruning with Maïlys and a trainee (picture on left), this was in the large block of vineyards in the middle of the woods that belonged formerly to Clos Roche Blanche. And everyone around in the area was busy in their respective parcels, there was Ben Nerot whom I didn't see but he let me know later that he had spotted me with my blue Ami 8 as I was cruising along the muddy grass road on the plateau (these vintage, light Citroëns are the best all-terrain vehicules...), and there was further away along a small paved road the team of the Maisons Brulées (pictured here), namely Paul & Corinne Gillet and Aliénore (the young woman on the right), plus their lovely black dog.
The French wine landscape keeps improving year after year thanks to the many young growers and winemakers setting up shop with the aim to work organicly in the vineyard and without correcting tricks in the cellar. This is a win-win situation for everybody,
the wine bars and cavistes (both domestic & foreign) need more
producers of real wine, the neglected vineyard parcels [always under the threat of being grubbed out with EU subsidies] get a new life, derelict farms are taken care of and also the hard working new grower will get for himself a thriving job bringing hope and other indirect jobs to many of these otherwise struggling rural areas. Sylvain Leest is a perfect example of this in-depth change which does what public campaigns (be it from government or mainstream-wine communication lobbies) never could : Give new impetus to the wine regions with higher-quality artisan production. It's all up to you, by the way, and what kind of wine you drink and buy : you have a good time and help reshape our rural landscape for the best...
Sylvain Leest became a grower here in Touraine around 2013, you may not know his wines as he's just beginning to vinify a couple of batches this year, but if you drink the natural-sparkling wines from Les Capriades you may well have had a bubbly made from one of his parcels, as he sells his grapes to Pascal & Moses.
Sylvain Leest's first experience with the wine trade was when he did a harvest season in a family domaine Gevrey Chambertin (Burgundy) in 2005, he did also some vineyard work there afterwards, thinking he'd just stay a couple of months but this experience lasted 3 years, getting him trained with pruning and other vineyard work as well as with some vinification. After that, he came over here near Loches where he had friends, most weren't into wine but the parents of one of them were vignerons and he tipped him about visiting Michel and Béatrice Augé at les Maisons Brûlées (a domaine now managed by Paul & Corinne Gillet). He ended up working 3 winter seasons with them, doing the pruning with them, inching toward a more natural approach in the trade. Then he worked at the chateau de Pont in Genillé, a 12-hectare domaine, almost the last sizeable domaine of the Lochois region (they sell their grapes to the coop), then he worked for Régis Mandard in the Cher valley. He also met Catherine & Didier of then Clos Roche Blanche, befriending them and working regularly for them. He wasn't really looking hard for a vineyard but he was eying out opportunities and at one point in march 2013 as he was having a training with the Confédération Paysanne (a militant small-farmers group) on how to set up shop, he was called over by Régis Mandard who asked him to come with him and visit the vineyards of a retiring grower and multi-crop farmer (Jacques Nerault).
If you spend time in Budapest there's a nice wine bar to feel the pulse of the wine scene of the region, this is the Drop Shop wine bar. This venue, which is convently located at 27 Balassi Bálint utca near Margit híd [bridge], tramway lines 4 & 6 (Jászai Mari tér stop), is at the same time a wine shop and a wine bar with a large portfolio including French wines. But you certainly
won't come here to drink some Dagueneau,
Domaine Dujac or Zind-Humbrecht although they stock these wines, but rather for their equally-brilliant selection of artisan wines from central Europe including Hungary and Austria.
Drop Shop is certainly the place to visit for wines-by-the-glass (they have 50 of them !); you'll find many wine bars in Budapest today but like elsewhere including Paris this fashionable concept includes venues where you pay more for the hype than for what's in the glass. Speaking of "what's in the wine", Drop Shop has a very interesting page on its website (I wish all wine bars in the world could educate their customers this way) where wine amateurs are introduced (in English & in Hungarian) with a short list of the odd additives that most commercial wineries add discreetly during the making of their wines.
This wine bar is open monday thru sunday [yes, everyday, we're in Budapest, not in Paris !] from 11am to midnight (and I guess later if. If you read Hungarian (otherwise use Google Translate) there's an Interview of Adam Hebenstreit, the owner of Drop Shop on Gault & Millau Hungary, he speaks about the recent developments and trends in the wine trade, and asked about what come ahead, he says biodynamic viticulture and natural winemaking spreads, even if this is not bragged about on the labels. And Hungarians begin to discover their own little-known wine regions like Bükk, Tolna and Kőszeg.
I owe this visit to Bálint and his wife, they were living in Budapest before starting their domaine in the Matra hills, and they know very well the wine scene here.
Budaörs, just outside Budapest (Hungary) Hungary has a long wine history and like other major wine countries like France, Italy or Spain it used to have lots of local grape varieties that were alas whipped off in the recent history. The hard version of socialism in eastern Europe cut the ancestral ties with the wine culture, and in France we can credit the appellation system for the dwindling share of local varietis in the overall production. B. and I have been given the chance to taste wine with József Szentesi who, to make it short, is the Robert Plageoles of Hungary [the Domaine Plageoles can be credited for having reintroduced near-extinct varieties in what is France's oldest wine region : Gaillac]. Like Plageoles he worked alone against all odds, doing some research and replantings, mostly ignored and dismissed by the wine authorithies until his work and his resulting wines winned applause and recognition. We didn't see his vineyards this time (they're located between Budapest & lake Balaton), and you may know that it's awfully cold these days in Hungary, so tasting a few wines around a table with a wood stove in our back seemed a better option.
Bálint Losonci who tipped me about this tasting and got us invited, told me briefly about Jozsef's former lives before he became a grower and a winemaker : he became one of the first private entrepreneurs in the early 1980s' when the Hungarian communist regime softened the economic rules, he imported snooker tables from the West to sell them to the elite circles of the Soviet Union further east, then he set up a workshop here in Hungary to produce these snooker tables and equipment, making high-quality tables bound for the Soviet/Russian market. He and his associates (who remained the same along these different ventures and who are friends) were the first here to open a fully-equipped fitness center in the 1990s' that was a completely new thing in this part of Europe. Years later after his father passed away, he kind of had a vision of how beautiful it would be to sit under a tree with friends and drink a glass of wine which he'd have produced himself from A to Z. He reinvested his family cellar/house in Budaörs and bought some land in Sukoró along the Velence lake around 1997, later buying more viticulture-fit land in Nadap. He started this thing totally as a hobby, this was literally a garage wine as these were made in the car-repair workshop used by his brother.His first bottlings were in 2004 if I'm right, following several years of trials.
This tasting took place at Jozsef's cellar just outside Budapest. Like Paris, the Budapest region was a little more than a century ago a major wine region. Budaörs for example has hills with relatively-steep slopes that were perfectly fit for viticulture, and this allowed an easy delivery the Budapest's needs. Jozsef's house/cellar is the only remaining cellar [Pince in Hungarian] in activity today in this small town on the edge of Budapest. I managed to take a picture of the slopes behind the houses (pic on right), just imagine that in 1900 it was not built over and the slopes were covered with vineyards. And if you ask the people who now live there, most of them certainly ignore the vinous past of their community. In the 19th century these was 400 hectares of vineyards in Budaörs, and oddly in the 1960s' there were still 300 hectares fragmented in tiny parcels owned by family owners (it was allowed under the socialism to take care of small agricultural surfaces for the family needs). It's the building surge, the economic development and the suburban sprawl that really terminated the wine culture here.
Here we go again for the treasures I found on the flea markets, brocantes and vide-greniers (sidewalk attic sales). Foraging in the old pictures showing people enjoying wine or drinks decades ago is a healthy remindero f what's important in this world, moments immortalized by analog still photography on beautiful if anonymous prints. Reading through these pictures is certainly as efficient as a history course to get a direct intuitive knowledge of the way people behaved and felt in the 20th century. You now know how it works, when I find a hand-written date and/or location on the back of the picture I add it as a caption (in italic when word-for-word reproducing the text), otherwise I'll put an estimated year for the scene. Some of these pictures show German soldiers around WW1 and WW2, it's not clear how they landed on these fleamarkets, they were possibly seized on some prisonners or dead soldiers around 1945 I guess. Peace or war, there was always some bottle conveniently at reach for enjoying a drink together, that'll be the lesson, sit down in your armchair and enjoy this travel in time with on your side also a good glass of wine...
Paris, 11th arrondissement
This major wine tasting event took place recently at the Atelier Basfroi in the 11th arrondissement, this was the first of its kind with about 70 artisan vignaioli (vignerons) presenting their wines to the French public (see all the participating domaines & vintners on left). Vini di Vigniaioli has been a yearly event in Italy for
years with some 150 winemakers gathering near Parma in Fornovo, but this was the first time the tasting
moved to Paris as well. The Paris event was initiated by Christine Marzani, her daughter Aniouchka Marzani and Claudia Galterio, helped by Florence Andrieu's Balpop communication agency (she's been doing a great job for the Cave des Papilles). Kudos for this first try in Paris, the attendancy was young and vibrant, lots of nice women too, Italian of course, but also French...
You can see on the left all the Italian artisan vintners who took part, and this Vini di Vignaioli event, which lasted two full days, was more than just about tasting, there were discussion, workshops about biodynamy or skin maceration, the first day (sunday) being for all public and the following monday for pros. The general public would pay 10 € for getting in which isn't much considering all the great wines you'd taste, and 5 € for the pros.
To make this event even more lasting and salivating, there were a few extensions in some of the best venues for natural wines in Paris (see document on right), places like Le Lapin Blanc, Septime or Coinstot Vino.
You can read on the main page of the event the chart and ethics of Vini di Vignaioli, I'll sum it up by : the winegrower will say what he does and will do what he says [no tricks] and work for the purpose of making a wine that reflects the nature. No chemicals in the vineyard, harvest by hand only, vinification with indigenous yeast, no use of brutal manipulation of the grapes (reverse osmosis, flash pasteurization or thermo-vinification for example), no additives except some minimal SO2, for the reds no more than 60mg/liter and for the whites no more than 70 mg/liter. No need to say that a lot of vintners here had so2 levels that were way below these ceilings.
I've got some backlog of "news" to publish, with summer views like this one which date back from already a few months, but who would frown at having a reminder of Provence's sun to start going through the long winter
This picture was shot at Jean-Christophe Comor's Les Terres Promises in La Roquebrussanne, this building on the right which looks like it has been there for ages has
actually been rebuilt from existing ruins. To achieve that, Jean-Christophe worked with a gem of a local manson nicknamed Dieu as he can do miracles and wonders in his Art (the guy is Portuguese from what I remember). The old oak tree on the other hand has always been there and certainly witnessed the former life of the farm building, it is sais to be close to 500 years old, and considering its size and diameter I'm ready to believe that (just try to visualize all the local life it saw under its branches...).
We visited the domaine last august and I bought a few bottles after tasting several of Jean-Christophe's great wines. Comor remains for me the reference in the field of true wines and Provence really needs more vintners like him, I hope that more Domaines of the region forgo the easy money made with high-yield, uninteresting wines and try their hand at something of this kind...