Pouillé sur Cher, Touraine (Loire)
It'd been quite a while I hadn't visited Noëlla Morantin and I called her to see what she was doing these days, the area, like much of France that weekend was basking in the sun, nature was bursting with energy and fruit trees were blossoming. She had finished pruning and was tying the canes, and easier but also essential part of the vineyard work, so I decided to drop there and pay a visit. Noëlla has somehow restructured her domaine since Clos Roche Blanche stopped its activity and sold the rest of its vineyard surface to Laurent Saillard & Julien Pineau. She downsized from 11,5 hectares (in 2015, half of it being fermage or rented land) to 6 hectares, reaching a surface that is more manageable, considering the manpower needed for an artisan organic farming. Still, this makes a good surface and she has a full-time worker to help her.
Le Desnoyez is another great venue centered on natural wine and artisan food which opened just a few months ago in september 2016. Paris isn't as you know facing a shortage of bistrots & wine bars centered on natural wines but here in that place there's a feel of authenticity which makes you feel at home, have good time with
artisan food and natural wine without paying extra for the hype or a fashionable spot. The Desnoyez [not exactly a wine bar actually because you have to order a plate to eat with] is
a tiny venue which can sit maybe 14 people plus a few others sitting at the counter. On certain days there may be a table outside but the Hidalgo's [the mayor] people don't like it and there's a risk of punitive fine.
The name of the venue comes from a cabaretier named Gilles Desnoyez [now universally misspelled as Denoyez] who opened a bistrot here in Belleville in 1790, along with cabarets and joyful guinguettes (see the local Belleville history here). Belleville (means "nice town" in French) was then a distant village away from Paris, with a village atmosphere and at the same time a guinguette culture which most people would be at pain to imagine today, there were certainly vegetable gardens and farm animals, a real village, plus all the happy drinking and singing or dancing.
Marc Soyard - Dijon can be guessed in the haze in the background
This is about a hidden part of the Burgundy wine regions. Here in the 18th & 19th century these slopes overlooking the town of Dijon were covered with vineyards that produced the wines needed for the large urban population, and some of these wines were more than an everyday drink and were even sought after for some of them by wine-wise drinkers. The story of this small wine region later unfolded in similar ways
than in many other now-defunct wine regions : the vine-plague that was phylloxera came at about the same time than the building of south-north railroad tracks that
allowed the cheap northbound transportation of Languedoc wines, the final blow being the 1,3 million of young Frenchmen who never came back from WW1, triggering a labor shortage that helped push many northern wine regions into oblivion. But let's rewind back to the year 1571, Dijon was literally surrounded by vineyards as documents from these years testify : the City of Dijon has well-preserved manuscripts from the 14th & 15th century that prove how important the vineyards and winemaking was at the time of the Dukes of Burgundy, with 30 % of the population working in the vineyards and winemaking facilities as well as cellars well inside the city center. There remains today just a few dozens hectares of vineyards in the immediate vicinity of Dijon, compared to more than 1000 hectares in the early 19th century. But hopefully this free fall in the vineyard surface is about to be reversed.
Marc Soyard is the young man who is bringing this Coteaux de Dijon wine region back to life in his Domaine de la Cras. He isn't from a vigneron or winemaking family, his first contact with the trade was at the age of 15 when he worked for a week in a Domaine in Beaune, it was a classical or conventional estate but he liked the short experience, it was in the winter time and he'd learn to prune the vines with the other workers. Following this first contact he looked upon having the proper schooling cursus to become a vigneron, enlisting in 2003 in the Lycée viticole de Beaune and after that getting a BTS degree at the Viticulture-Enology School of Avignon in the south of France.
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 conveniently 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.