Champeix, Auvergne (Loire - pink patch on bottom-right of the map)
I had heard for a while and on a few occasions that a young Japanese woman was making wine in the remote slopes of Auvergne on a very small surface, it's been whispered to me here and there, beginning with wine people met in Japan, and I couldn't resist tempting a visit and meet this winemaker. The weather was great when I visited and the terraced vineyard offered their nice side under the sun, I guess winter is more
austere if very beautiful in its own way,
but not an easy season on a motorbike. Here is another hard-working artisan winegrower who does her part to revive the age-old wine culture in this region (remind that Auvergne was the 3rd French wine region in terms of volume in the 19th century).
I met Mito in Champeix where she has her small cellar (she lives in Montaigut 3 km away) and if I was wondering before this day why she had come such a long way from Japan to settle in the region of Auvergne, I had aleady a better understanding when in the place : the region has these well-preserved villages and landscapes and she just felt like in a new home here. Plus of course, Auvergne has quite a few motivated artisan winemakers working the most traditional way and often without any sulfites, and there's a buzzing rebel scene among the remaining vineyards.
Let's start with the beginning : Mito first came to Paris in 2003 to learn French, and while there she came across many wine fairs as Paris is overwhelmed with wine salons (fairs) and dégustations (tastings), most of them almost free. That's how she began to make her wine education because when in Japan she didn't like wine much because of the headache when she had some. Later she'd understand that the excess of sulfites was why these headaches and she began to know better how wine was made. Once as she was beginning to be curious about the winemaking, she asked (this was 2004) to a vintner she had met about doing a training at his place, he was from Bergerac, but once there for her training during the harvest this was a shocking awakening : the winegrower was adding all kinds of additives during the winemaking process, she couldn't believe it and she wondered if this was what wine was about.
Saint Sandoux, Auvergne
The Vignoble de l'Arbre Blanc is another of these small-size wineries that make the otherwise-little-known Auvergne shine on the map as a wine region. Frédéric Gounan works on a small surface (less than 2 hectares) of vineyards in a region that was a century or two
ago a major wine producer (many bars in Paris were opened by Auvergne people who
dealed the wines of their
Let's rewind back to the time, you can you read on the Wikipedia page about the Côtes D'Auvergne that in the 19th century, the département of Puy-de-Dôme was the 3rd in France for its wine production : 1 600 000 liters from 50 000 hectares (only Languedoc's départements of Aude and Hérault made more). Much of it I guess was hauled to the Paris region on barges using the canal de Briare. The vineyard surface in the area is now down to 1000 hectares, half being farmed by commercial wineries and the rest by private owners for family consumption.
A visitor driving through the side roads of Auvergne can't but marvel at the beauty of its villages. Avoid Clermont-Ferrand which is an ugly oversized metropolis with endless suburbs, shopping malls and lots of commuters in their cars clogging the freeways. This urban center owes in part its dynamism to Michelin which has its headquarters and facilities here. But take any village at an adequate cushion of distance from town and you will be rewarded by the beauty of these remote valleys and their villages. Apart from clusters of new homes built outside of certain villages, they're pretty well preserved. Remember that this region in the 19th century and before was known as being very poor and hard working, the Auvergnats hadn't an easy life a century or two ago, but watch this architecture and imagine the 1,6 million liters of wine produced back then, man, they sure had some good life...
Tokesek : Bálint Losonci, Tamás Szecskő and Gábor Karner
Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi (Matra, Hungary)
Tőkések is the name of a micro group of artisan-minded winemakers based in the region of Matra, Hungary, precisely in the villages of Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi. You already know Bálint Losonci, here is a profile of the two other guys of the group, Karner Gábor and Szecskő Tamás. They all stand out in a region where conventional wineries manage chemicals-sprayed vineyards, growing big volumes of grapes that need heavy correction
in the cellar. At Tokesek, the philosophy is to take care of the beautiful terroirs
they have on these Matra volcanic slopes, eschewing chemicals including herbicides or fertilizers and keeping the yields low, doing for that lots of hand work to tend the parcels. In the cellar, apart from SO2 they rely entirely on natural winemaking, letting the wine follow its course by itself with its indigenous yeast. The whole enterprise is courageous, as they're alone in this region to follow these demanding guidelines, unlike in Tokaji where a strong group of motivated artisan winemakers have put the spotlight on the region. The Matra region has suffered from years of communist mismanagement of the agriculture and additional years of conventional winemaking centered on high yields, the understanding of what makes a good, terroir-driven wine is still not fully grasped by the trade actors for whom easy profits count more than quality.
Another feature at Tokesek is that they exchange a lot between themselves, sharing their experience in the vineyard management and in the winemaking. But the central object of their work is the vineyard, their motto being that everything is done there and the wine then proceeds by itself.
The picture above was shot from the top of a hill where a deep soviet underground command center had been built in the 50s or 60s, keeping watch on the region and waiting to be used in case of major east-west conflict. The hill was off limits to locals for years and it is now privately owned and topped by antennas for telephone companies. From there you have a beautiful vista on the Matra range, its remaining vineyards and on the villages of Gyöngyöspata and Szücsi.
Gyöngyöspata, Matra foothills (Hungary)
When you think to Hungarian wines, the region of the Matra mountains north of Budapest is not the first wine region you think about, but until not so long ago it was an active wine-producing region with deep roots in the villages, every family tending a vineyard and making its own wine. The village of Gyöngyöspata east of the mid-size town of Gyöngyös (picture on left) saw along the recent history its wine culture dwindle until a small group of
young winemakers led by Bálint Losonci invested themselves in this volcanic hills with a philosophy of reflecting the terroir and add no additives during the vinification.
Initially, Bálint Losonci
wasn't at all in the wine trade, he was living in Budapest and was considering without real passion to study and work in the usually prized field of law or informatics as these were options of choice at the fall of the communist regime. So from 18 to 22 he studied foreign trade at college but he wasn't really happy about the cursus. Already when he was in primary school, while other boys said they wanted to be astronauts or firemen he was the only one around to say peasant. When he reached the last year of his foreign-trade school in Budapest, he had to spend 6 month training in a business of some sort with some relation with foreign trade. He just saw at that time in 2001 an interview of István Szepsy who was not yet then the famous winemaker he would soon become, and Balint was really deeply impressed by what Szepsy said, by the realities evoqued by his words on terroir and vineyard work. After this, he found a book by Alkonyi Laszlo where many Hungarian estates were profiled and he saw in this book that while major, famous wineries didn't get very good rates there, István Szepsy who was still unknown then got 5 stars. Alkonyi Laszlo was then also running a wine magazine named Borbarát (Friends of Wine) and Balint asked if he could spend training time there. He tasted plenty of wines there and learnt a lot, including about what's behind a given wine : the vineyard work, the yields, the vinification details, all of which not being then questions to ask in the conventional wineries and tasting events. He ended up working full-time for this magazine, and it lasted 5 years, after which he quit because he was setting up his own winery.
The timing of this trip to Budapest wasn't planned for this event but I guess that either I have a good luck or some angel has been quietly planning my path without my knowledge...
This twice-a-year event features almost exclusively Hungarian craft beers, a growing phenomenon in this country too, it seems, even though Hungary is not particularly known for its beers (compared, say, to the Czech republic). Almost 100 beers from 38 Hungarian breweries were waiting to be sampled there, and the public attended in large numbers. when
about this Főzdefeszt Craft Beer Festival upon my arrival it was obvious I couldn't but go, especially that this was a typical summer weather in Budapest : hot with clear skies. Unlike in France, the weather is very stable in continental Europe, the forecast for example was giving the same comforting certitude of hot sunny days in the region for the following week.
The temperatures were even a bit too hot for enjoying a beer in the sun (the real temperatures were something like 38°C-40°C), and I decided to go there at the end of the afternoon, using the direct tram line 49 from Deak ter. The event was set on a closed street along the Danube in front of the historic building of the Technical University, also very close to the Hotel Gellert.
This was the first time this beer event took place along the Danube, it was taking place previously on the Pest side far from the river but the success of the festival made it necessary to find a larger setting. The festival debuted in may 2011 and the public reacted so positively that it was bi-annual from the start. The event also jumpstarted new artisan breweries and other copycat beer events. The artisan-beer revolution of Hungary started then.
Joyous group in an ordinary bar (estimated year 1958)
Here is another chapter of the series with anonymous wine scenes in France, I started this thing as a one-of-its-kind and with pictures keeping popping up at me in the brocantes and street flea markets here and there, I keep stocking new pictures (which may occasionally feature other, undetermined beverages), so here we go for another voyage back in time to capture the elusive moments of liquid respite in what was certainly a busy life.
These scenes carry a life of their own and allow us to melt into the simple togetherness of that time. Back then these pictures were often low key, people didn't think much about it, they weren't narcissic, frantically-shot selfies but just a souvenir of an ordinary good time (I suspect they had many such good times then though). The other positive aspect of these pictures is to scale down the grandiloquent way we write and speak about wine. Just sit together, open a bottle and have fun, the rest is little more than noise...
I found all these pictures except the last 4 in street flea markets in France, they're glimpses into the families and friends of someone who probably passed away without any surviving close relatives. The 4 pictures at the bottom come from a book with about 100 pictures shot by the great French photographer Robert Doisneau : The book of photos titled La Vie de Famille shows as its name suggests the family life, they were shot in working-class neigborhoods in Paris and nearby between 1950 and 1960.
As usual, when a date and location was written on the back of the picture, I write it down, otherwise I just put the estimated year of the scene (could be off the mark more than once).
I bought recently a bunch of old bottles of wines, using the popular classifieds website Le Bon Coin, where you can find anything in France, from your car to your house. You first choose the region where you're staying and then you type the item you look for, there's no fee for the
seller and you can pay on the spot when you go in person check the thing. Whatever, I found out that the prices weren't always very high and I tried my chance on a couple of old vintages that we just had the pleasure to drink with B. and a few friends gathered at her atelier in
the Paris suburb. This was a total surprise and a total success.
First, I bought 3 bottles including a Jasnières 1969, a Muscadet 1989 (old vines, hand-picked, Famille Luneau - undrinkable, awfully corked) and an Alsace Riesling 1997 (Dopff & Irion - ok, nice pleasant drink, lots of SO2 maybe), the Jasnières was my target, in spite of the fact that there seemed to miss a bit of wine in the bottle. The woman wanted 30 € for the whole and ended making me an offer for 20 €. Done deal.
The other bottle I stumbled on was a Brouilly 1969 by a négoce named La Croisade du Bon Vin, located in La Chapelle de Guinchay, a village where the family of Jules Chauvet happened to own several vineyards back then (scroll down on this story for details). I hadn't read the fine print when I decided to buy the bottle, I just considered that back then Beaujolais was pretty clean in terms of vineyard management and winemaking work, and that I coult take the risk, especially that only maybe a centimeter of wine has evaporated through the cork in this bottle.
I'm not knowledgeable in terms of old vintages although I think that it is captivating to experience bottles that travelled this long way to our table. There's a very experienced person in France on the matter, François Audouze, he writes and posts pictures on his blog about his picks and experience drinking old vintages, enjoying the rare bottles in special dinners. One of the good places to find bargains is the auctions in Paris, you get batches of old bottles which can be very affordable if they're not from a reknown domaine.
I wasn't into the investment thing, this was just for the fun and excitement, and the reward was there, beyond the dusty glass of these two bottles, a great, double experience with the vintage 1969...
La Bellevilloise, Paris 20th arrondissement
This is a story about a young tasting event (the first edition was last year) which is already attended by large crowds. You may notice in these few pictures that the average age of the visitors here is also much younger than for many similar artisan-wine tastings in Paris, hinting that uncorrected wine is beginning to widen its follower base and may reconnect the youth with the enjoyment of wine (we've been told for years that young people were forsaking wine in favor of beer and mixed spirits).
The artisan of this successful tasting event is Antonin Iommi-Amunategui (pictured on right), a young journalist who runs a wine blog at Rue89 named No Wine is Innocent. Rue89 is an information website
created in 2002 by former journalists of Libération
(a major left-wing newspaper in France). Rue89 retains some of the journalistic style of Liberation, with maybe more with a tabloid approach in addition to its political stance and the usual play on words in article titles, the latter being a trademark fixture of Libération.
Antonin's blog displays the same corrosive and politically-oriented style in his blog, the world of wine today having all the ingredients for heated discussions and opinions. He gives natural wine a good coverage, adding a fun and provocative edge that brought him a big readership in just maybe 2 or 3 years. After his blog took off, Antonin proposed to Pierre Haski (founder of Rue89) to try set up a tasting event with the participative style found at the news website, that is, with some debates to pepper it (this time for example they had a debate between Emmanuel Giboulot and Jonathan Nossiter). When the project took shape, the contacted winemakers were OK for the adventure, especially that thanks to the partnership between Rue89 and La Bellevilloise (the group managing this cultural/events building), the fee for the participating winegrowers was largely lower than the one asked elsewhere in Paris. The vignerons could also sell their wine to the visitors, so they could have an instant return on their investment and make ties with the young public at the same time. The motto for the tasting event was Sous les Pavés la Vigne (under the cobblestones, the vineyard), mirroring the 1968 slogan painted on the walls during the riots and cobblestone barricades of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, Sous les pavés, la PLage (under the cobblestones, the beach).
On the first such event last year, Rue89 helped bring the visitors in, using the news website, but this year the salon also got coverage on Le Monde and Telerama, which helped increase its popularity.
The salon invited for free in 2014 Edouard Fortin who lost much of his wine as the result of an arson at his chai.
Pouillé, Touraine (Loire)
The well-known domaine des Maisons Brûlées which is located on the southern bank of the Cher river near Saint-Aignan has changed hands, Michel & Béatrice Augé having sold the wine farm to retire nearby. Michel Augé has been doing a great job for years in his
wine farm, gathering around him growers who wanted to learn the biodynamic way and organizing special sessions in the farm where all would make the preparations together. The domaine is almost contiguous to Clos Roche Blanche and Noella Morantin on the slope overlooking the Cher river. The lieu-dit
name (maisons brûlées means burnt houses) comes from a group of houses that was destroyed by a fire long time ago in the vicinity.
Paul Gillet worked a year or two with Michel Augé to know the domaine and the vineyards, and he now lives in the wine farm along with his wife Corinne and their 3 children. Michel Augé's 12-year-old Praline (the white horse on the right) is still enjoying the farm for now, and by the way this mare had a foal with Olivier Cousin's horse Romeo last year, it was born in june 2013 and it now lives since last april at Olivier Cousin's wine farm in Anjou. Praline is now recovering from her post-foaling effort and nursing. Michel used her mostly to collect the boxes of grapes at harvest, but this farm has always had a wide range of farm animals, making it a real living farm in the sense meant by Rudolf-Steiner. These animals stand along a lightly-sloped vineyard next to the wine farm, it is a very peaceful setting.
Paul and Corinne Gillet were originally cavistes in Alsace (Mulhouse), then they lived abroad a few years, managing a restaurant in Argentina between 2007 and 2011, where they looked for a winery, but this was not so easy to start something there, so they came back in France. Paul followed a wine school in France, then he was a trainee at Bruno Schueller whom he already knew at the time he had a wine shop (he used to sell his wines). Paul & Corinne search for a wine farm led them to this corner of Touraine, where the environment and living conditions were fitting with what they were looking for.
Paris 11th arrondissement
This was recently the 30th anniversary of a discreet but influential wine magazine named Le Rouge et le Blanc, and to mark the occasion on a festive note, the people behind this insightful wine magazine had decided to organize a tasting with precisely 30 vignerons (here is the list of winegrowers). This took place
again in the nice setting of La Cartonnerie in the middle of the 11th arrondissement in
Paris. La Cartonnerie is a venue that suits so well to artisan wine that I've been visiting the place many times.
When I got word of this event I thought that I couldn't miss this one-of-its-kind event, especially that I could count on the wise choice of the R&B writers for the participating vintners, all artisan winegrowers selected for their patient work.
Le Rouge & Le Blanc stands clearly apart among the French wine monthly publications (first, it's actually published every 3 months). Compared to the mainstream and glossy wine magazines like La Revue des Vins de France, Gault & Millau and Terre de Vins, le Rouge & Le Blanc is foremost completely independant in the sense that it hasn't any of these ads financed by the deep-pocketed wine industry. The magazine was created in 1983 and it is managed to this day by the writers and the founders who write and report on the wines and winemakers they love, without being hampered by any commercial pressure or lobbying. The magazine which uses minimalist black & white photography for its illustrations is solely financed by the subscriptions of its readers. The writers keep a day job on the side and the magazine is really a project focused on uncompromising reporting and not really for profit.
François Morel, pictured on left (wearing glasses) with Maxime Magnon is the editor in chief of the publication, you may see him in the worthy tasting events in Paris, he also wrote several books including a book titled Vallée de la Loire with many profiles of winemakers working there (and with a few pictures of mine).
François Morel is also the one who organised this one-time tasting event, gathering these winemakers and setting up the logistics for all the details and the catering for the winemakers.
I had an invitation for this event but otherwise the entry fee was 5 € only, a good deal when you consider the wines you could taste there. I think we're very lucky in Paris in this regard, we hardly pay anything to taste interesting wines.