Nicolas Vauthier with Juliette (who is from Quebec)
There are small wine regions in northern Burgundy which are still largely under the radar compared to their famous brethren beginning with Chablis almost next door, places like Irancy, Epineuil or Tonnerre. This region was also producing lots of wine a couple centuries ago, before the Phylloxera destroyed much of the viticulture at the turn of the 19th-20th century and especially before the building of railways in the
early 20th century that could bring overnight massive tank-car loads of wine straight from the Languedoc.
After falling almost into oblivion they begin to be back on the map, thanks especially to handful of talented winemakers, among them Nicolas Vauthier who is based in Avallon. Nicolas doesn't have vineyards of his own actually, he works with selected growers from parcels located in different terroirs around Avallon, making what we call usually négoce wines. I've had often a very good time with his wines, they're alive, vivid and also easy to drink with this lovely acidity backbone and this gustative certitude that'you're umistakenly in front of true, no-trick wines.
Born in Troyes in 1970, Nicolas Vauthier was also one of the founders of an iconic wine bar of this city, Aux Crieurs de Vin certainly a rarity at that time in the French provinces, this was, take a seat, in 1998, for sure the earliest natural-wine bar outside Paris, and a precursor even for the Paris ones, just think that Le Verre Volé popped up later than that... 10 years later i, 2008 he launched his négoce winery, buying grapes from selected parcels to growers on this northern-Burgundy region.
Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
I was enjoying a nice weekend along the Cher river when I stumbled upon an old 2CV Citroën fourgonnette that looked familiar to me in the main street of Saint Aignan on market day, it was haphazardly parked on the side and I waited a couple of minutes for his owner to come back. I'm used to see many winemakers/vignerons in the region when I attend
the marketplace in Saint-Aignan on saturday mornings, Catherine Roussel (Clos Roche Blanche), Noella Morantin, Paul Gillet (Les Maisons Brûlées - pictured there recently on the right), Christophe Foucher (la Lunotte), more rarely Moses Gadouche (les Capriades),
but I didn't remember seeing Bruno Allion although his village of Thésée is just a few kilometers away on the other side of the Cher river.
There he was, back from a short shopping stop in the cobblestone street, we exchanged news, he told me that the deal with the potential buyer of his domaine didn't work and he's quietly looking for a vigneron who wants to take it over. I was on the relax mood this particular weekend, I didn't plan to visit anyone but still asked if he knew about some young vigneron beginning his first harvest, and he told me about Damien Menut, who also lives in Thésée and just launched his young domaine. Bruno was about to help him pick his small parcel of Cabernet the same afternoon...
Damien Menut is working in the wine trade since 2010, he shared his time betyween Paris where he worked in a wine shop (L'Ambassade de Bourgogne), and Mercurey, Burgundy where he worked for a large Burgundy estate, Domaine Faiveley. He learnt the trade part on the job while in Mercurey and part in the wine school in Amboise (Lycée Viticole d'Amboise), he went there the very first year they had a curriculum centered on organing farming, these were courses designed for adults, for people already working in the trade or desiring to set up their own domaine. His time there was divided in two parts, the courses at the school and the training at a given domaine and he did his own at Bruno Allion's wine farm in thésée.
Yerevan has had a few more wine venues lately, a hint that wine is getting a growing interest among the middle class in the city. Of course, wine is certainly still a luxury product in Armenia for average people but this is slowly changing. In Vino is one of these new venues and you don't feel any snobbish attitude in this place, it is close to what Parisians call a cave à manger,
a rather ugly wording but which depicts well the fact
that you can either buy bottles to go or eat-and-drink there in a casual way. The bar is a no-fuss wine spot where of course you're likely to stumble on foreigners, be it expats or visitors but you'll see many young Armenians there too, and there's an interesting choice of wines, all the Armenian ones of course but also many foreign.
In Vino is certainly a good spot to gauge the temperature of the wine scene, the quality of the wine is improving in the country and the number of the established wineries is at a turning point, with new wineries popping up thanks to Armenians from the diaspora coming back to invest in their homeland or local entrepreneurs deciding to join the fray. What helps is that In Vino located in a very lively area, this part of the Martiros Saryan Street is bustling in the evening with people, inside restaurants and on the terraces. You better reserve on friday or saturday evenings and in the worst case you may find another wine venue in the vicinity until your table is ready.
Areni, Vayots-Dzor province
When I got noticed that I was invited for a press trip to Armenia a couple months ago, the fact that we were supposed to take part to the yearly wine fest of Areni in the mountainous wine province of Vayots-Dzor certainly played a part in my gladful acceptance for the trip. I knew Areni for having visited
its 6100-year-old winemaking facility in a cave nearby, and
I had also visted a couple winemakers then, both Haigaz a street seller who was making a noteworthy wine in his basement, and a small established winery in the village. The wine Fest was missing in this colorful review of the deep-rooted wine life of the area, and that was the opportunity to see how this vinous event was going.
The village of Areni (pictured on left) is located about 110 km south-east of Yerevan, in a dry and scenic mountainous area. You first drive much of the road on a flatland plateau (verything is at least 1000 meters high in Armenia) with a direct view on Mount Ararat on the right, you pass also close to the Azerbaidjan border and then begin to drive uphill before reaching high valleys with dry, rocky mountains all around and raging streams that bring life in these remote communities. A lot of cars seemed to be doing the same thing when we drove there, commuting from Yerevan to Areni on that sunny october day, but there was never a traffic jam as far as I remember and we enjoyed the long way up in the mountains looking at the faraway peaks or the deep and bare gorges beneath us.
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.