Tokaj, Tokaj wine region (Hungary)
The Tokaj region may be felt like an established wine region from abroad due to its documented tradition in the past centuries but oddly it's also a very dynamic region in terms of young artisan winemakers, it'l like if Burgundy met Touraine or Anjou, and there may be several reasons behind this, one of them being possibly the socialist interlude during which the parcels on the slopes, the equivalent of the Burgundy climats were abandoned under the post-war communist rule in favor of massive plantings on the flatland for productivist efficiency : Since
freedom of enterprise came back around 1989, daring vignerons had all these slopes (then covered by bushes and woods) to reconquer with great potential for making quality
wine again. You can see on the pic on left that the slopes and terraces are being restored but woods still occupy large swaths of the prized terroirs.
Tokaj as a small town retains something of his old glory, it is architecturally beautiful, especially compared to the villages in the flatland (some of them still have this communist-rule touch in the landscaping and destitution feel.
Judit Bodó like her husband József who started their Tokaj pince (domaine) in 2005 is originally from Csallóköz, Slovakia just north of the border from Hungary, she's Hungarian speaking as her home region like many satellite regions around Hungary was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire prior to 1920.
She first landed in this region in 2000 when she came along her employers from South Tyrol who were in the process of starting a winery here. She had initially gone to South Tyrol to better her language skills in German and get some work (as babysitter first) and ended up picking fruit and working in a winery. Having trained in winemaking and vineyard management with her new employers in South Tyrol she could help them with her cultural and language skills through the administrative hurdles of establishing a domaine in Hungary and book keeping. 5 years later in 2005 with their first child coming, Judit and József decided to launch their own winery, Bott Pince, and they bought their first hectare in the Tokaj region. She was to become a rising star on the Tokaj wine scene.
I found recently this great document showing in detail how Champagne was made in the early 20th century. This issue of Le Monde et la Science subscription magazine (it was to be an Encyclopedia at the end when you collected all the issues) seems to have been one of these short-lived
publications profiting from the new opportunities of mobile
photography, as cameras were getting easier to transport and set up even if tripods were still used routinely. I initially thought this magazine to have been published around 1930 [there's no publishing dates on the 4 issues I bought] but as I've done a short research it seems that it dates back probably from around 1910. This issue caught my eye among the couple dozens issues I saw on this village flea market as it showed something few people know today : that trellising and wires were unknown then, as Nicolas Renard told me incidently during my recent visit, it has no historical roots in the viticulture, it was invented for the convenience of mechanisation, for tractors in short, and like in the rest of France vines in Champagne were until then grown on échalas or posts.
Another aspect of this report is to restrospectively highlight how natural the viticulture in Champagne was at that time, all these people on these pictures would have been dumbfounded to learn what would be done in the vineyard later in the late 20th century/early 21st century, like this casual walk in randomly-chosen parcels shows. For us today, it's a good reminder that Champagne knew a more authentic viticulture not so long ago (100 years is not that far away). Many of the technical words are also different from what is used today, it seems to me, in this sense it's also an information mine.
If the picture settings look great in general it's almas not very sharp and the contrast is sometimes poorly managed by the printers, I hopê all these silver plates have been saved somewhere and could be used again for a big-size quality printing.
Here on this first page of the 17-page story you can see this incredible vineyard landscape in Champagne around 1900-1910 : a forest of wooded posts which (another unexpected thing) would be taken out after the harvest, steamed (pic lower right) in order to kill all the pests or their larvae and stored until april. The lower-right picture shows what they call the provignage (what we call marcottage to day I think) : replacing the missing vines by lying the next vine so that it takes root in its place.
What a compelling invitation to buy their wine....
A year ago I started a serie about the visual impact of herbicide sprays when you visit the wine regions at the right season. My first herbicide story last year already listed quite a few shocking images illustrating what the conventional growers do to their soils and wineries in order to get "clean"
parcels, but I was to find even better gems (so to say) this year, just see by yourself. As promised here is the initial story, completed on the top with a dozen more pics, as a booster vaccination about the herbicide devastation.
As said a year ago the best season to see this hidden part of the vineyard management is march to may, that's when the yellowish/redish devastation can be appreciated at its best. Few wine tourists venture in the back roads of the wine regions at this time of the year but still I'm sure the AOC big shots and other conventional-viticulture people are annoyed that if demanding visitors ventured in their area in the wrong months, they might get alarmed by what they see.
From Bordeaux to Touraine there's no shortage of herbicide use even if many appellation area encourage cosmetic changes like having alternating stripes of unsprayed rows to offer the illusion of a healthier vineyard and soil, as if the herbicide fell vertically in the soil ignoring its right and its left....
There are still overall many old-school conventional vignerons who can't get rid of their heavy-handed doses when they spray, like this grower in Touraine located just north of the Cher river between Noyers and Selles-sur-Cher (pic above). How is it possible that they still sell to locals (and they do !) when you drive by and see such a devastation along with their invitation to come buy their wines ! And this is a visual proof that these domaines can dump all the herbicides they want on their parcels, they get their AOC approval anyway...
I don't know it it's in the plans or if it's even feasible but I'm sure many growers would be happy to use chemicals that keep the grass green even when its dead, which would be a solution to ward off the potential public relation problems related with viewing the color changes. Some others have found the way around, and with a keen eye you can see through their trick (there's one or two examples below in the added pics for 2016) : the trick is they first "burn" the weeds with herbicide and then later make a 2nd pass to plow the crime scene so that when you look at the parcel casually you approvingly laud the soil work. The problem is it's pretty hastly done and you see here and there all over the place tufts of yellowish grass surfacing among the overturned soil. Sad.
The guy on the left who sprays who-knows-what with his hazmat suit with his boss looking from a safe distance on the side (this was not herbicide, they use tractors for that) was spotted near Vosne-Romanée but it must be said that overall, Burgundy is doing a pretty good job to protect its soils compared to other regions, herbicide use seems to be sketchy there, you really feel that there's a deeper understanding of realities.
Amboise, Loire valley Nicolas Renard is one of these top vintners who one day vanished and went off the map in spite of their having a cult following for their wines. B. and I visited Nicolas years ago at the time in 2005 he was the vinificateur and cellar master for Marie-Annick Lemaire at Lemaire Fournier, a domaine that closed its doors since, alas. The domaine which was purchased by Marie Annick Fournier after she won big at the national lottery and
invested by passion in this domaine, was turned organic and had its wines vinified naturally thanks to Nicolas. Annick Fournier stopped her activity a few years later,
from what I heard she suffered from the incomprehension and nastiness of her peers in the region, she was an outsider, a woman and she was into organic farming and natural wine, which easily made you the black sheep in any wine region then (and still even today we could say). Anyway, Nicolas Renard then shined among informed wine people for his aptitude at yielding terrific chenin wines, and many people wondered when he'd resurface and where. Here he is.
After Lemaire-Fournier Nicolas says that he stopped and took some distance, not that he was tired of making wine but because he was tired of the vignerons and their incomprehension. He then joined a friend of his, Thierry Allemand and worked with him 2 years, in 2006 and 2007, doing some pruning and fixing a walk plow among other things. Meanwhile he also rented a half-hectare parcel in Saint-Peray nearby, this was for a year only, because of the zoning changes it was to become construction land [a plague for good terroirs in many places in France]. He made 700 bottles and the wine never formally reached the market. In 2008 he tried to buy back the small surface of Elise Brignot in the Loire (Montlouis), which was on sale for economic reasons (Elise wanted no other than him to take over the organic parcels) but alas the SAFER [the French agricultural administration overlooking the sale of farm land) preempted his purchase, because 4 other [conventional] vignerons asked it to in order not to see him make wine there [natural-wine is seen as a threat by many, a competition that devaluates the mainstream wines]. This was for him another blow and he went to work with Matthieu Barret in Cornas from 2009 to 2011, after which in 2011 he took some parcels in Ardèche, renting a few parcels. The deal there was discontinued because alas the owner didn't want to invest in the much-needed improvements in the vineyard, so he came back to the Touraine in the Loire, this was in 2013 and he made just one barrel of wine that year. 2014 was really when he settled here for good, buying this facility/cellar and making his first vintage from a 3-hectare surface.
Alsace is known to have outstandingly-beautiful villages where its age-old winemaking tradition is found at every step in its architecture, some of these villages like Ribeauvillé have gone a little over the top in terms of tourist attraction, but Mittelbergheim managed to remain quite authentic and relatively off the mass-tourism
track, so be sure to go there, you'll understand that winemaking and viticulture is not
some recent addition, it's embedded in the local culture (the villages of Champagne in comparison lack this feel of joyful rooting in vinous history) and if you try to project yourself mentally in the late 19th century when these villages were at their peak demographically you can't but understand that this was really a dream country over here, with a quality of life that could compete with several legendary regions of Italy.
I had the opportunity to meet Jean Pierre and taste his wine lengthly during the Wein Salon Natürel in Cologne (the German natural-wine fair by large) last year, I really loved his wines (including his then-sold-out Pinot Noir L'Age de Pierre, another of these terrific Alsace reds) and the guy impressed me also by his calm openness as he explained his work with simplicity but also with detail.
The domaines makes about 12 hectares, it has been a family winery for 7 generations (since the 17th century for sure), his elders were growing other crops as well including tobacco and it lasted until his parents Pierre and Doris who decided in 1970 to devote all their time to the viticulture and winemaking. Today Jean-Pierre, who made his first vinifications in the domaine in 1987, works with his wife Sophie, his sister Anne-Lise and her husband. If you're looking for real Alsace wines that were not rushed to the market, have gone through the élevage time they ask, this is the domaine to go.
The family winery sits in the middle of the village just a short distance from the church (you can see the family street house lefthand on the picture on right), and when you stroll this main street (aptly named rue Principale) like I did before my visit you can see that more wineries are operating all along the street, these vintners kept working in these old farms, living near their facility.
As seen on the left, Mittelbergheim sits at the foot of the Vosges, near the village of Barr (I think it's the other church you see on the right) and with a 13th-century medieval fort hovering atop a hill in the far (you can see it on the pic on left, in the upper right), this is the Chateau du Haut Andlau (currently being renovated). Lots of history on these slopes, and you really feel it at every step, it's been pretty well preserved throughout the centuries.
I was invited earlier this year to a small Beaujolais tasting at the restaurant Elmer in Paris near République in the 3rd arrondissement (Profile in English here). I love small tastings because there's a better chance that I can taste most of the wines, the tasting was organized by the wine-wise communication agency Clair de Lune.
The tasting was efficient, Simon Horwitz who is the chef at Elmer had prepared a nice line of things to eat while we were tasting, everything was fine. I could find a time slot before going to work later in the afternoon, so here we go.
These region-centered tastings are often a mixed bag, this is the Beaujolais AOC being represented here and you'll find different styles of wines of course but that's fine, I usually trust the organizers for having a few good things in the selection.
__ Domaine Claire & Fabien Chasselay, La Carrière, Chénas 2014. This was so good. The color is not well rendered here on the picture, it was a beautiful delicate, milky and turbid type of red, this color was by itself very promising. Nose : refinedly appealing. Mouth and swallowed : exquisitely delicious, don't miss this wine ! It's fruity, it's delicately flowery too, a real pleasure to drink. For 12 € retail price, an excellent deal. Fabien Chasselay is following the steps of his parents and elders (family has roots in the Beaujolais since the 15th century) and the domaine is farmed organically since 2008. Farming organic is one thing, but when the wine is this good and true, that's what I really love.
Read Aaron's visit story at the Chasselays (published recently), makes me want to taste his other cuvées, including his primeurs which curiously are sometimes filtered.
Burgundy is not an easy place to become a vigneron and begin making wine when you consider the issue of buying parcels, newcomers usually settle in the Loire or in the Beaujolais, in the Languedoc too where viticultural real estate can be very cheap, but Oronce de Beler, the founder of La Maison Romane, didn’t shy of starting his operation right here in Burgundy,
the trick being that he buys grapes, not land. That's what we call négoce, this is not a
nice name but when you choose carefully the growers with the right vineyard management and parcels you can end up making nice wines without the hurdle of owning the land and the bank mortgages, Philippe Pacalet is a good example in Burgundy for a winemaker with no land. Oronce de beler named his négoce la Maison Romane as this is the local name of the very old house in Vosne-Romanée where he rents his cellar and living quarters (pictured on left).
I discovered a few of his wines at the Ominivore event which took place in Paris a couple months ago (story here, scroll down to 10th picture), a few winemakers were taking part and I franky loved his wines. I was going to later that Oronce was involved into several projects including the raising of quality dark-skin pigs and that he had the creator of Equivinum, this niche manufacturer of draft-horse plows and other tools favored by growers working organic and biodynamic. We are often surprised to learn that many of our favorite natural wines are made by outsiders, people with no family connection to the world of wine or agriculture, and Oronce is one good example, proving that if you have the right energy and feeling, you can be working in Paris for years and change course to design and weld plows, vinify beatiful wines and raise real pigs, oh, and I forgot all the process of making artisan ham, saucissons and other natural pork products….
The Ferme de la Chappe sits on the top of a hill just west of the city of Tonnerre, you reach it after going up a side road winding through woods along a small valley with a few parcels of vines. The wine region of Tonnerre is located near Auxerre in northern Burgundy, it is certainly lesser known than its prestigious neighbor Chablis (16 km by road) or the Beaune area at a much bigger distance further south but has similarly long roots in the vinous history of the region, with the abbeys of Quincy & Saint Michel managing through their industrious monks the settlements
of farm and wineries as well as selecting the best planting slopes. The Cistercian Abbaye Notre Dame de Quincy(another casulaty of the French revolution, only a few buildings remain) which was located near Tanlay in the same area as Tonnerre allowed the start of viticulture and winemaking as early as the 12th century and was managing farms all over this region as well as mills and cellars (celliers à vin) in Epineuil, Auxerre and Chablis. Since then especially after the phyloxera the vineyards of Tanlay disappeared with no return, but there has been a revival beginning in the early 1970s' with the vineyards of Epineuil and in the mid-1980s' with the ones of Tonnerre, the latter thanks a large part to the father of Vincent who iniated the rebirth of the Tonnerrois.
The Ferme de la Chappe is a multi-crop farm, Vincent's father was growing also wheat when he lobbied a few other farmers in the Tonnerre area to replant vines some 30 years ago. Today, he and his wife keep running the wheat farm but his son Vincent took gradually over the 2,5 hectares of vineyards in 2003. He turned the vineyards to organic farming although his father was already working on a pretty traditional way, and he extended his vinification capacity by purchasing organic grapes in the area.
Les Montils (Loire)
The weekend was gorgeously sunny and not too warm, the early mornings being as well very mild, not cold at all, something which would have been welcome for all these vignerons for the last few weeks, when a devastating frost took place in several wine regions of France including the Loire.
B. and I spent a few days in the Loire to enjoy at least this fair weather and nice temperature, I was supposed to visit a vigneron but didn't hear from him so I thought visiting
the Puzelat/Bonhomme open doors might be a good alternative, there's nothing better than these small gatherings of natural-wine
vintners to boost your morale even higher, I was to check it again.
Mainstream wineries also do open doors now and then (usually once a year) but they usually don't open their premises to competitors and in this regard there's definitely something different going on with the artisan, natural-wine movement, it's all about sharing. During two consecutive days, these vignerons would pour wine for the visitors, sell cases and see each other at the same time, beginning with the happy lunches and dinners on the long table in the courtyard.
The tasting event was free of charge and open to everybody, thanks to which you had both a crowd of longtime amateurs of natural wine (some of them professionals) and locals or people who spend their weekends in their country house. As stated on the leaflet on the right, the event was organized by three vintners : the Puzelat brothers, Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme and Hervé Villemade, and the other vintners were Catherine & Pierre Breton, Pascal Potaire (Les Capriades), Philippe Chevarin, Jean-François Nick (les Foulards Rouges), Agnès & Jean Foillard, Potron Minet, Agnés & René Mosse, Frantz Saumon, Nicolas (alias Kikro) Vauthier, and Yoyo.
There's certainly no shortage of trendy wine bars and chic venues in Bordeaux, but these places aren't really exciting except maybe for people easily impressed by big brands,
luxury and prestige. Here
is the absolute opposite, a complete anachronism in today's sleek Bordeaux where the downtown area seems to have been remodeled to look hip and spotless like a project drawing in a glossy real-estate magazine.
Like often in major French towns you have to leave the very heart of the town to find areas not yet euthanized by urban planners forcing their dreams of grandeur with their stash of taxpayers' money. We're here in Talence, it's still Bordeaux with its low-rise échoppes that have usually a sunny garden in the back. Talence is the university hub of Bordeaux with also a lot of engineer schools and technical institutes. In the place of Talence centuries ago there were thick forests mixed with agricultural land, and rich Bordeaux merchants would come here to hunt wild boars, that's why the black silhouette on Talence's coat of arms.
I found this wine venue through the friend at whose place I was staying, this was a good surprise, a real place with a soul where local people would stop for a glass and for the conversation of its irreplaceable owner, Georgette, a rebel and at the same time a guardian of tradition, who is basically open every day except sunday (I've read that she used to be open even on sundays in the past) and where you can sip a glass of Bordeaux for just 1 €...