How much French fine wines were costing not so long ago
Here is a photo (or scan-) story following a good pick on a street flea market in Paris. This is a 1951 catalog of Nicolas' fine wine list with the respective prices and vintages. you may know Nicolas for it's ubiquitous franchised shops around Paris and elsewhere but the old Maison used to have also a high-end cellar for the demanding amateurs and it issued every year a small book listing the wines they were releasing after the appropriate cellaring time. Each year, the book would display a different illustration theme which was not necessarily
linked to the wine world (people were more balanced at the time and less monomaniac). In 1951
the theme was "La Vierge Folle de Strasbourg (the foolish virgin)", a specific theme found in the religious sculptures of the Middle Ages. We may think the iconography choice for this catalog was a bit amateurish and unadequate for such high-end wines but after second thoughts I like that : Again, unlike our modern times this era seemed less obsessed by wine-geek posturing, it seems to me people then just wanted to enjoy good wine when they could afford to, they didn't need an expert jargon to convey their impressions and as you will see along these pages, they even hadn't to be that rich to buy these bottles. In 1951 France was slowly recovering from the war and the wine market was still largely domestic, keeping prices pretty low compared to nowadays.
This catalog allows us indeed to see how affordable even great wines were at the time : In order to have a better picture, you'll find a chart on this page listing the value in contemporary Euros (as of 2014) for the French Franc in each year of the 20th century, and in 1951 a Franc was worth 0,02397 € of 2014. This means that a Chateau Haut Brion 1945, at 600 Fr was worth a bit more than today's 14 €. Or a Romanée Conti 1924 (27 years old in 1951) at 1500 Fr was costing 36 €. To countercheck this travel in time I tried to know the typical monthly salary in 1951, I had several answers, one found on this page (#230) saying that the minimum wage for a worker was 87 Fr/hour which would make (quick math check) about 15 200 Fr/month or 365 €. Another indirect source on the issue was found on this other page where it is said that the average monthly salary was 21 000 Francs in 1951 (or 500 €). There's a gap between the sources but it seems overall that it leaves some room for a few of these good bottles for an average person...
Just a few conversions from 1951 Francs into Euros :
300 Fr -- 7,2 €
500 Fr -- 12 €
1000 Fr -- 24 €
Now you can salivate retrospectively, thinking how easy it was for our elders to get these wines... Had they just made a one-time spending worth a month's wage on these wines and stored them in a good cellar, you'd be rich today...
Pic on right : Nectar, Nicolas' iconic deliveryman, holding 32 bottles by the necks. His character was created in 1921 for the retailer's posters and was known all over France.
Montlouis-Husseau, east of Tours (Loire)
François Chidaine is the vigneron in Montlouis who did a lot along several decades to get the Montlouis appellation out of oblivion. He now farms 40 hectares split between Montlouis (majority), Vouvray (the sister region of Montlouis)
and Touraine. The domaine has been farmed on biodynamics
for 17 years now, it's among the large organic/biodynamic domaines. Organic farming requires much labor and François Chidaine says that his permanent staff (not counting the administrative part from what I understand) is 13 and it goes up temporarily depending of the season to 16 or 18, plus of course the short-time spike when the pickers come for the harvest.
Montlouis is Chenin country, the 370-hectare appellation area covers 3 villages : Montlouis/Husseau, Saint Martin le Beau and Lussault on the south bank of the Loire east of Tours. This appellation is white-only and Chenin (also named Pineau de la Loire here) will show up as a dry wine, a sweet wine or a sparkling.
There are close to 60 vignerons in the region of Montlouis, among them artisan vignerons like Bertrand Jousset, la Grange Tiphaine, Frantz Saumon, without forgetting another outstanding vintner, Jacky Blot (la Taille aux Loups, and he has a domaine in Bourgueil too). There's a coop here too, the Cave des Producteurs de Montlouis which was created in 1961 and gets its grapes from 12 growers.
Husseau, the village where François Chidaine is based, is located 5 km east of Montlouis (which has the size of a small town with a population of 11 000) and both dominate the Loire (see satellite view). At the end of WWII here in Husseau there were more than 410 growers (multi-crop farmers) and today there are maybe 6 growers.
Walking along the vineyards of mainstream, commercial estates
I had the idea to make this visual story when driving through the Bordeaux region a couple months ago : I didn't take pictures there alas outside of my visits, but the roads were lined with vineyards showing the different shades and modes of herbicide sprayings,
it was visually very interesting. You had them all, there was the old school ones (nothing survives,
the ground looks like it's the moon), the progressive ones (sustainable we'd say) with neat, unsprayed grass (lawn) on every other row like you would almost picnic on the grass and think you'll remain healthy, and there was yet another spraying mode I'll call it the stealth mode : it's harder to detect at first glance because the parcel looks like it's plowed et all, but when you pause and look closely you can see that there's been herbicide under the rows even though the whole surface seems to have been plowed, nice try, this may fool many average visitor and possibly knowledgeable ones...
Appearance trumps fact, it's known and human, and we often fall in the trap; a blond woman can pass for Angela Davis using suntan cream and curly hairdo and people buy it for years, same for some growers who, knowing that the vineyard side of the wine is now visited, use tricks like spraying herbicide and cover their tracks with a nice plowing afterwards (or the other way around, like the cropped image on the left seems to imply for this particular parcel). I was fooled myself one day while walking among parcels with a vigneron, I pointed to what looked like a nicely-worked parcel thinking it was his, but it wasn't : he showed me the thing from close, and you could see clearly from the clods that hadn't been overturned that this nice-looking plot had been heavily sprayed. I hadn't the reflex alas this day to shoot an incriminating picture but I'll add it when I come accross such an occurence again.
We all know that Japan was the first buyer of natural wine historically, and this was at a pivotal time when there were just a few domaines making totally uncorrected wines from organic vineyards in the 1990s', the French wine public being slow to respond even though a couple of specialized wine bars were
beginning to show up on the radar in Paris. See on this
subject this story by Patricia Wells in 1992 on Bernard Pontonnier's la Courtille, a bistrot where the first natural wines (weren't called like that then) were on offer, among them Marcel Lapierre, domaine Gramenon and Corinne Couturier (who was a star before Marcel Richaud in the new wines of the Rhone).
To stress out the role played by Japan, Thierry Puzelat for example could make it in the early years of his domaine because Japan would basically buy virtually ALL of his wines, and most of the other early natural-wine producers probably owe Japan the same for having kept them afloat when the rest of the market was slow to build. It speaks volume about how much Japan and the first Japanese importers played a decisive role to allow these new wine farms function until the French niche market of demanding wine lovers sets its sights (and palate) on these new wines.
The Japanese man who was the first to scout, select and export natural wines from France to Japan was certainly Mr Yoshio Ito, a discreet man whom you can often see at worthy wine events where artisan vintners take part, he not only tastes the wines and looks for new names but he makes lots of pictures and takes notes for his extensive website where the Japanese public can find a trove of informations about artisan and natural wine. He is really often on the road, more than once I stumbled on him while I was visting a domaine, and meeting him in Paris for this story was tricky because we had to juggle with schedules as he was on his way to Tokyo and then would be somewhere in a French wine region visiting winegrowers.
This interview took place at Yuzu, a fine Japanese restaurant in the 7th arrondissement and we were to have many great wines that evening. Here on the right Mr Ito is toasting with chef Nao Takemoto a Chablis 1er Cru Pacalet Vau Ligneau 2010. splendid.
Bd Haussmann, Paris
The Caves Augé, the respectable caviste and almost institution for its wine portfolio, has staged an unusual tasting event last saturday, with the theme "Boire Bon n'est pas un Luxe",
meaning "drinking good wine is not a luxury".
In short, all the wines presented there that day were artisan wines made without correction and that cost less than 10 € retail at the shop. All the wines were sold with a rebate, even those who were anyway under the 10-€ bar ayear around at the shop, and this promotion is to last until the end of june [I should be paid to write that...]. This type of tasting is useful because it reminds the man in the street that good wine can be had without spending a fortune, and if you go to these wineries directly to stock and fill your cellar you'll certainely spend even less. And even in Paris if you go to other cavistes in Paris specialized on artisan and natural wines (like Le Verre Volé, la Cave des Papilles, le Vin en Tête, Paris Terroirs, Crus et Découvertes or Au Nouveau Nez to cite a few, you'll samely find several good picks under 10 € [I feel obliged to add this line so that you don't see that I'm working undercover for Caves Augé...].
The tasting took place like usual at Augé on the sidewalk in front of the shop in a quiet part of the Bd Haussmann, it was free and going from 11 am to 6 pm. the weather was perfect, sunny and not to hot and like always at Caves Augé, the vintners were there in person to pour the wine and answer to the questions, something that for a change I consider like a priceless luxury and which is not that general at mainstream tastingss.
La Bellevilloise, Paris 20th arrondissement
I managed to go to the Salon Rue89 in early may, this is now an established natural wine fair in Paris (this was the 3rd year) where you can also buy these totally-uncorrected wines directly from the vignerons at the domaine's price, a real bargain. For 10 € on sunday (it was free on monday for professionals) you'd get a glass emblazoned with the proud logo and access to 70 natural-wine domaines (see list at bottom) and their wines (often generous pours) on the two floors of the Bellevilloise. I didn't have too much time because I had something scheduled in the afternoon but it was enough to
make nice discoveries.
Here is for example a new
name on the map of Muscadet, although all their wines are labelled a Vin de France (table wine) if I'm correct : Complémen'Terre, a domaine managed by Marion Pescheux and Emmanuel Landron, who is the son of Jo Landron, a rather good reference in the Muscadet and both worked in different domaines and travelled abroad like in New Zealand and Chile. They are located 25 km south of Nantes, they started their domaine a year ago and already work on 8 hectares of vineyard and making 9 cuvées for their first vintage....
What was a bit difficult was to find a building for the facility because the real estate pressure is high in the vicinity of Nantes. Marion & Emmanuel are passionated by winemaking and travelled a bit around wine so they wanted to experiment with so many cuvées, including 2 sparklings with Melon and one with Gamay.
__ La Croix Moriceau 2014, Muscadet, vines on clay/orthogneiss and amphibolite underneath. It was not difficult to find parcels because they're both from the area. They work differently than Jo Landron, they look for their style, but they still depend on him for the machines and tractors.
The wine is vinified Muscadet style on interred vats. On this wine very low yields because they lost much fruit to the grape worm, otherwise the yields are about 35 to 40 ho/ha. They made here 50 hectoliters on a 2,5-hectare parcel of Melon de Bourgogne. Light wine, a bit watery to me. Costs 10 € at domaine.
Could be anywhere in France (and elsewhere)
Some pictures speak by themselves indeed, I could almost post this one without further comment, but I'll indulge in a couple of ones.
I shot this picture a few weeks ago while walking with a vigneron along one of his parcels (I leave you guess which one was his own on the picture, given the type of domaines I visit). He didn't point to this visual difference with this other parcel (which was obviously worked differently), he was entirely focused on explaining his work and challenges in the last vintage. But for me this contrasted landscape in the far popped up as being richly informative, I saw this as an ideal photographic illustration of what is going on behind the scene in the wine world.
I strongly recommend to visit the wine regions in april or may, before the foliage of the vines has come out in force. I'll not be more specific on the issue but you'll see what many wineries would prefer to remain in the dark. Be it in Bordeaux, the Beaujolais, Chablis or the Loire, you could even check the parcels you like first and then try to find the winegrowers behind them, it'll spare you laborious research and other vain random tastings. I have a few similar interesting pictures (see at mid-scroll) showing how the Beaujolais vineyards can look when the business-minded winegrowers take shortcuts in their parcels.
Oh, and I have another guess for you : you'll find such contrasted vicinity typically across France and very often one of the parcels gets its AOC label right away while the other may face hurdles (to say the least) at the agreement commission, guess which ?!?...;-)
Cravant-les-Coteaux (Chinon, Loire)
Domaine Bernard Baudry is today symbolic of quality and hard work for the Chinon wines. Chinon, apart from its beautiful Chateau (pic on right) and for being the home of the legendary bon-vivant [and wine lover] François Rabelais, has been known for its Cabernet Franc wines, but the
region has often
been associated with cab franc that was excessively herbaceous and harsh, the characteritics of the variety if the grapes are not properly ripe when picked, if yields are excessive and the élevage too short. Things have changed over the years and in great part because some growers didn't follow the mainstream ways of their time.
The domaine Bernard Baudry (to repeat what I wrote in an earlier story) is a living proof that you can manage a fairly good-size winery with almost 30 hectares of vineyards and still have an organic management and a vinification without the efficient enological tricks and additives that most wineries use in order to have a squarely-secure production in time, and without taking any risk.
When Bernard Baudry started his winery in 1975 it was with a mere 2,5 hectares and he was kind of looked upon by the established wineries of the region, viewed as an "original" (if not a fool) because from the start he worked his soils ans didn't use extensively the chemicals and the fertlizers. This was a time when there were few competitors apart Italy and Spain, and the French were drinking more wine that today.
Didier pouring a bottle from long before Clos Roche Blanche (pinot gris 1953)
Mareuil, Touraine (Loire)
You may know this by now, but Clos Roche Blanche will close its doors this year, as Didier Barrouillet and Catherine Roussel are retiring to enjoy a well-deserved free time. They had been thinking about the issue for several years and they decided that 2014 would be their last vintage. They're still managing the vineyard this year but the fruit that will be picked next
september will not be theirs, as
Julien Pineau and Laurent Saillard are buying up the whole vineyard of the domaine, to of course continue making wine from it with a similar winemaking philosophy and organic farming. You can see here a story featuring Julien and Laurent together, although it's about lacto-fermentation instead of vinification, for a change. Julien Pineau was a couple years ago working at the Terres Promises in Provence (Excellent artisan domaine in the backcountry of the Var département).
So, wine will keep being made from these now-familiar parcels but you know, Clos Roche Blanche is Clos Roche Blanche and the familiar labels will not show up next year, so it makes you something even if we'll still see Catherine and Didier on the premises where they'll still live. I'm sure they'll have occasionally a wine lover not yet aware of the change who will drop at the house to buy a couple of cases...
I happened to visit the domain a couple of weeks ago, there was almost a festive atmosphere, like, something is happening with a new, totally open perspective around the corner, without the urge to be around the vineyard every day.
The rumor has been around for a while in the wine spheres of course and wine lovers abroad in particular were dismayed that their favorite and long-time artisan wine wouldn't be around any more, or at least that some wine would be made from the same vineyard but not by the same people.
Les Montils, Touraine (Loire)
Each time I visit the Puzelats south of the Loire river near Blois I feel like being so well received in spite of their busy schedule : here are people who are taking care of countless parcels (and organic farming needs lot of work), managing an import business to help other artisan producers from abroad distribute their wines in Europe, setting up special tasting events open to other
winegrowers and so many more things including
taking care of their family, and still keep some room for annoying outsiders like us.
Thierry was busy cleaning or fixing something in the open if I remember although this was a saturday, the weather was bright and sunny and we walked into the new warehouse which offers more stable and cool temperatures and with more room to turn around. Inside the chai and storage building there the usual pallets and wooden open-top fermenters and we saw also big-size bottles that were obviously a little bigger than "regular" magnums : these were 6-liter (see the different types of volume) Mathusalems, Asked about the wine here Thierry says thay had some Gravotte, some Petit Blanc, some Frileuse and a few other cuvées. This is a special order from Japan by a young whoman who did the harvest here 15 years ago and who opened a wine bar/restaurant in Fukuoka (Kyushu) named Coquines (you can find her Facebook page here). She had heard this French word often here while picking the grapes and she took the name for her wine bar.
I understand the Japanese have parties where such a large bottle can be had, just imagine, 6 liters, I already feel I'm daring when I buy a magnum.... This is a lot of work for the Puzelats because you don't have a bottling line for these mathusalems, you have to wax them properly, plus the empty bottle costs already 35 €.
In case you wonder if the village of Les Montils has a special atmosphere that could have brought us these inspired winegrowers, just look at the street names there, I begin to understand now...