Aruch-Nor, Amanos Rd, Aragatsotn region (Armenia)
ArmAs Estate is a brand new winery built in a formerly dry and arid land by Armenian-Americans who came from California (Glendale as you can guess) to participate in the rebirth of the wine business in this country. They're betting on the renaissance of Armenian wine and have been investing
in both land surface and tools, building a facility from scratch in this corner of
the Aragatsotn province in the west of Armenia. The winery had its start in 2007 when the founder Armenak Aslanian decided to invest there, planting dozens of hectares of vineyards in a large ranch-size empty land with a majestic view on the mountains. The property with its vineyards it totally walled in order to keep predators out (I forgot to take picture at close range but this wall was pretty impressive by its length following the relief up and down the slopes).
The total planted surface (with vineyards) is something like 110 hectares if I'm right, and they also reserved more surface for a few orchards in the lot, some of which are already planted in the midst of the parcels and the hills. Like in a ranch-size property in the United States you need a car to tour the vineyards, driving up and down the hilly terrain.
The road to the winery was like usual very scenic, with this almost bare land dotted wih villages here and there, some cattle and these beautiful mountains in the far. Our guide that day was no less than Victoria Aslanian, the young CEO of the company and daughter of the founder, who spent her youth between California and Armenia. She communicatively felt enthusiastic about the prospects of winemaking in this country
Voskevaz, Aragatsotn region
Voskevaz is foremost the name of a village in this wine region north west of Yerevan, the mame means something like "golden bunch" [of grapes] which hints at the deep roots of viticulture in the area. The Aragatsotn region has a minimum altitude of 950 meters, making it an ideal
wine region with hot sunny days and cooler nights.
The namesake winery was created in 1932 in the heart of the Soviet decades (incidently on the very year Stalin began his genocidal
solution against Ukranian farmers). During the Soviet years the winery which was known under the name "Voskevaz wine cellar" (Воскевазский винный завод) was specialized in fortified wines and was a leading producer in the small republic for consumption in the Soviet Union. The wine kombinat was then privatized in 2004 and purchased by an Armenian investor, David Hovhannisyan, who renamed it Voskevaz and took a more qualitative approach regarding the range of wines made there. The winery had (and still has in some regards) this cooperative style that you find in large Russian wineries that have been started under the era of the Soviet Union. This is possibly the oldest established winery in modern Armenia and from what I tasted a very interesting one, especially for its reds.
Don't be put off by the outward appearance of the winery, its mix of remaining Soviet-kolkhoz architecture with an odd amusement-park fancy decoration, there are several historic layers in the buildings, and I understand that the winery has also been trying to attract and entertain Armenian visitors and families in order to develop a nascent wine tourism. That's why there's this offbeat, exotic feel, something like a Knott's Berry Farm lost in the middle of Armenia. Winemaking is certainly not bound to apparences and I think we have here one of the most valuable and innovative wineries of the country.
Sasunik, Aragatsotn region (Armenia)
Just one kilometer or two from the Van Ardi winery you can find along the same side road a very large and modern winery, "Armenia Wine Factory", its name hints at the huge size of the operation, this is a coopérative-size company relying on purchased grapes all over the region
and possibly beyond. This large kombinat is part of the "Armenia Wine Company", the largest wine
producer in Armenia which makes the bulk of the wine exports of this country. the winery which is family owned (it was founded by the Vardanyan and Mkrtchyan families), is fairly recent and started to operate in 2008, its red-brick compound can be seen from very far in the open landscape (picture on right).
Armenia Wine exports most of its bottles to Russia with also a few other side markets and it takes part to wine fairs like ProWein. It produces not only still wine but also sparkling wine and several spirits including Brandy for which Armenia is famous beyond its borders. Its facility is spotless and brand new, with the latest state-of-the-art imported tools and vats, it has also a few wings and buildings devoted to wine-centered events and wine tourism. The view on the valley and the mount Ararat is particularly stunning from there.
The vineyard surface directly operated by the winery makes about 50 hectares, with regional grape varieties and also European ones like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, to this they add large volumes of purchased grapes across the country. The yearly sales projected for 2014 were 2,5 million bottles and 3000 tons of grapes were bought to growers.
Varuzhan Mouradian with daughter Nane (pictured at Areni wine festival)
Sasounik, Aragatsotn region
Armenia, a small former soviet republic with today a 3-million population, has been going through a rapid change in its winemaking culture during the last couple of years, and Van Ardi winery is one of the vibrant example of this rebirth. This is a small-size family winery which works primarily from its estate vineyards, this is already
a change in a country where wineries still routinely buy their grapes to contracted growers, with
the known related problems where growers are paid by the weight.
Varuzhan Mouradian is an Armenia native who settled in California (in Glendale of course, the L.A. magnet for Armenians) at the age of 24 and improved his lot after becoming a CPA accountant there, before deciding to return to his homeland and invest in wine, believing there was a future in reviving the famed wine culture of Armenia. He organized the return progressively, bringing his wife and children for vacations so they could learn to love the life there. He got some training in the United States including at UC Davis. He bought some empty bare land in the Aragatsotn region north-west of Yerevan, had vines planted and made test barrels of wines just to see. Many people in Armenia were surprised that he'd leave the comfort of his California life and move here in a country that is still largely poor and destitute, but for him this was a challenge he believed into. The wines he had seen in Los Angeles (basically the only place in America you find Armenian wines because of the important Armenian population there) weren't up to what they should be and he thought this had to change. His move and boldness, which are not isolated, may well change rapidly the reputation and reach of Armenian wines.
Beaulieu-sur-Layon, Anjou (Loire)
This is quite an incredible story about two sisters, Anne, Françoise who are living in an old farm on the outskirts of Beaulieu-sur-Layon south of angers. The two sisters with their brother Joseph made natural wine without any sulfites as early as 1954, at a time when there was no such counter-culture around like today to resist the conventional unanimism. At that time there were no wine bars or restaurants to support vignerons who would dare to make such wines, there wasn't even no narrative
like we have today and we do have been having a supporting discourse for a long time about organic farming, sustainability and the likes.
But none of that then, the mood was on the contrary prety hostile to thos eschewing industrial/chemical shortcuts, I guess that after WW2 people including the farmers just wanted to have it easy after so many years of hard, ungrateful work, and when the chemical-industrial revolution came to the farmers (largely pushed and sponsored by State Agricultural Research bodies like INRA) and the winemakers, they just couldn't resist, and anyone appearing to stick to the ancient ways was looked upon as a dangerous retrograde.
When you listen to Anne and Françoise you understand that (with their late brother) they've been through lots of obstacles and wickedness from the part of their peers, and we all owe them a lot because somehow unknowingly they have been the pioneers of a huge movement, the movement which is rediscovering the real wine, the wine that has been made for centuries without adding sulfites. This was just a bit too early maybe, that's why they really had a hard time and even to this day they live in dire conditions with apparently no help from the authorities in spite of their visionary approach to viticulture and winemaking. THe few who have tasted these wines, like Rouge Tomate's sommelière Pascaline Lepeltier [a Chenin Haquet 1959, scroll at mid-page] were touched by the grace, because we don't have usualy such distance and hindsight with natural wines, most of them dating at best from the 1990s'.
Saint-Aubin-de-Luigné, Anjou (Loire)
First vintage of the Domaine de la Petite Soeur Adrien de Mello learnt to make wine very far from Anjou, he started making wine in Quebec in 2003, a domaine located on an island near Quebec city, the Domaine de L'Ile Ronde, a very nice place although the viticulture/winemaking was conventional. He didn't know anything about wine when he first walked in the domaine, he worked there until 2006, on both
the farming and the cellar side. Then he came back to France in 2006 and enrolled in the wine school in Beaune, Burgundy.
thanks to the wine school he spent two months as a trainee in a domaine in South Africa where he learnt all the things you must never do, this was a 1300-hectare mega-domaine in the Stellenbosch area, he was trained to re-acidify the wines, add lab yeast, then add ammonia in the juice (to kickstart the fermentation because the grapes are so hot that the yeast don't start to work...), they'd add sulfur on the incoming grapes, add liquid tannin on the reds from the very beginning and other awful stuff. All the vineyards there were on drip irrigation, and the thing is, the terroir, the soil was excellent, there was a potential to do terrific things in particular with chenin, but this was wasted by the commercial viticulture & cellar practices.
He then went to the U.S. at the First Colony Winery in Virginia, this was also very conventional, the 3,5-hectare domaine was followed by a French enologist then, who was telling him to use enological charcoal on the whites, not really the thing he liked, and also, Virginia is very humid and Adrien would have liked to vinify the Chardonnay at 11,5 %, they were healthy at that stage, but just to wait more for 13,5 % he lost much of the grapes because of rot. This was enough for him, he quit and went back to Quebec in 2007 where he was appointed as winemaker at the Domaine de L'Ile Ronde. He stayed there until 2010, they started to farm on biodynamics and on this same year (2007) he began to vinify his first natural wines there, with a cuvée named Globule.
Pouillé sur Cher, Touraine (Loire)
For us town people who come to the Loire mostly on weekends, there's a bit of jealousy when we watch fellow Parisians make the big step and leave the big city for good and settle in a peaceful village to make plenty of other things including tending a garden around the year, keeping hens and so much more.
In this story it that was even less common, Emily Dilling is a Californian native who has been living in Paris for 10 years, immersing herself in the food/organic/natural-wine culture there and enjoying it all the while writing her blog Paris Paysanne which you could translate more or less like Paris' Peasant, or maybe Paris Cowgirl, I don't know... Her blog is full of culinary experiences, recipes and the likes, and same for her book My Paris Market Cookbook, with also firsthand illustration pictures.
The story would be nice enough at that stage but the fairy tale goes on : Emily decides to live the experience of a harvest and comes to the Loire to do it at Noella Morantin's domaine, she had met her at the Dive Bouteille and was eager to see the production/picking side of her wines. While there, she met her sweetheart Ben who had been doing the picking at Noella every year and the two of them eventually decided to move to Pouilly and start a new life there.
Now that was an abstract of her French history, but more is to come as she is on her way to brew craft beer here in the Loire. She's been doing it repeatedly for a few months, buying ingredients and tools in California where she visits her family regularly, in Belgium and also in La Cave à Bulles in Paris. Even though it's only here in the Loire that she began making craft beer, back in the U.S. she was a beer lover and she has a deep culture to back her new passion, which helps her build her expertise.
Beaulieu sur layon, Anjou (Loire)
Sébastien Dervieux, better known in the vinous circles under his surname Babass is a key player in the artisan-wine milieu, and you may know that Anjou is certainly with the Beaujolais one of the most vibrant wine regions on the scale of natural, non-interventionist winemaking. He is making wine on a small surface in Beaulieu-sur-Layon just south of Angers, near where the Layon river flows into the mighty Loire. Sébastien Dervieux was running a few years ago the domaine Les Griottes with associate Pat Desplats, they were among the first rebels in Anjou to eschew SO2 during the whole vinification. They parted in 2010, each of them downsizing to about 3 hectares, changing their agricultural status to one named cotisant solidairewhere you're spared the brunt of taxes and administrative hassles if you agree to remain
under a set surface and yearly turnover. He farms now 2,85 hectares, 30 ares of which were planted last year and are not yet in production. He can't purchase grapes with his status and also doing it would put him above a turnover limit and could nullify his new status. Anyway that a correct surface to make a living and manage the vineyard work almost by yourself.
Sébastien__ let's call him Babass__ has also been organizing for a few years Les Vins Anonymes with Jean-Christophe Garnier, one of the most interesting winefair in what the French call the Angers Off, which is a collection of natural-wine fairs happening at the same time than the historic Salon des Vins d'Angers (seems that they're now virtually more sought-after by pros than the original fair...). Les Vins Anonymes is a gathering of similarly-minded artisan vignerons making wine without sulfites and working naturally all along, included in the vineyard. You can see the participating vignerons here, a nice party to enjoy the whole day for a fee of 5 € (and you can keep yoour glass).
The Maison Leclerc-Briant has roots going as far as 1872 when Lucien Leclerc founded his business in the village of Cumières, even if it became formally a Champagne House in the mid 20th century when Louis-Bertrand Leclerc moved the company to Epernay and changed its status.
The Maison was to become then a pioneer in the field of organic viticulture and even biodynamic farming under his guidance, something almost inexistent then
in Champagne and which was looked upon in disdain. His son Pascal Leclerc-Briant took the relay, getting the organic and biodynamic certification in the late 1990s' for most of the estate
vineyards (a total surface of 30 hectares in 2010), the mere existence and perpetuation of the Maison Leclerc-Briant proving that you could farm organicly a respectable surface in Champagne, a region which is known as certainly the French wine region which is the most polluted with vineyard chemicals.
The unexpected death of Pascal Lecler-Briant in 2010 challenged the achievements of this small Maison de Champagne with as a consequence its partition and dismemberment a couple years later. What Pascal and his father had built patiently over the years, especially with the purchase of grouped parcels which made it easier to farm on biodynamics without interference of nearby chemical overflowings, was cut into pieces and sold, the facility being sold separately. 15 hectares went to the Maison Bruno Paillard and 15 hectares to Roederer. At this point it was almost hopeless, especially for those who like to see a commonsense organic viticulture take hold in Champagne, where short-sighted greed prevents any serious rethinking of disastrous practices.
Unexpectely, business angels turned this nightmare around, under the shape of American investor Mark Nunnelly and his wife Denise Dupré who decided in 2012 to purchase the facility with its sole remaining parcel of La Croisette and engage in the long task of buying back available parcels in order to revive the Maison Leclerc-Briant. Mark Nunelly, who until 2014 has been the managing director at Boston-based (and Mitt-Romney-founded) private-equity firm Bain Capital Partners LLC, wasn't interested in short-time returns on this venture, he and his wife are said to be truly in love with the wine culture behind Leclerc-Briant as well as in the French lifestyle, and they were ready to do whatever it took to restore the Maison to its former glory and even beyond, which seems already well on its way.
Uninterventionist wine means you don't do anything and just wait, and Andrea Calek isn't shy of saying he is lazy, that's why the wines are good. The good thing with him is that you won't have the expected narrative, there's always something off what has become the beaten path of natural-wine discourse. He doesn't care what people think and just do things as they come, with resulting wines being splendid year after year.
The guy is elusive to square systemization, and we know that even in the rebel nature movement we
tend to substitute an old (conventional) formatting by a new (natural) formatting, especially in the narrative. None of that with Andrea, don't expect the usual answers or you'll feel off balance.
Andrea Calek [or Ondra] landed in the wine trade by accident, asked about the start of this story he says that he was on his way to Brazil and met a French woman in Nice, so he stayed in France with her, then both of them travelled to the Czech Republic, then back to France in the Haute Provence near the French Alps, this was in 1990, the iron curtain had just vanished. Asked how and why he went to start doing something in wine, he says with a grin that's because he thought it might be better to be paid to maintain his addiction to alcohol... In the Haute Provence he worked in the agriculture tending olive trees as well as at Domaine de La Blaque, then at Chateau Rousset. He later helped Dominique Hauvette in Saint-Remy-de-Provence convert her domaine to biodynamics, something which put him on the map in the artisan-wine scene. he had got his training here and there, with his Bac Pro at the Agriculture School of Carpentras and a viticulture-enology training at Isara Lyon, and he had also helped Nicolas Joly who needed a translation in Czech of his book (Nicolas Joly also travelled to the Czech Republic for conferences). Of course he had begun to meet artisan vignerons and came to know the work of Marcel Richaud, Marcel Lapierre and Guy Breton. In 2007 thanks to Geral Oustric he finds a few hectares of vineyard in the Ardèche (Rhone) and that was it...