The rebuilt bastide (farm) in the center of the domaine
Tourves, Var (Provence)
It is important to remember that Provence is foremost a country of rosé wines, and this is not the region we think first when looking for a good red wine, except for Bandol of course, and even Bandol where you’d have found 70 % of reds years ago now make a majority of rosé. This is a broad-brush picture and you certainly will find good reds after spending some time, but figures speak by themselves : in Provence, 90 % of
the wine is rosé, and often early-drinking rosé,
this is a big share indeed and we can’t but think to the potential to make great reds in this region, like a few producers showed us, I think for example to Jean-Christophe Comor who could make his delicious reds from unsuspected vineyards in the back country of the Var département.
We come at it today as I heard about a fairly recent domaine in the same region which was set up precisely with a focus on quality reds.
I first heard about the Bergerie d’Aquino a couple years ago from a friend who lives in the area and told me about a small domaine making long-élevage red cuvées that were selling by the way at prices well above the norm of the region. We had tried at the time to visit the domaine but it was located along a remote road between Saint Maximin and Mazaugues and we never found the gate, having probably taken the wrong stretch of the road. This year B. And I had the opportunity to taste the wines of this small domaine while visiting the Maison des Vins des Coteaux Varois in La Celle, a place where you can taste for free dozens of wines of the region (and buy bottles too). Both the rosé and the red were gorgeous, if indeed priced accordingly. So we decided to try again visit the domaine, and this time I found the phone number of the domaine and left a message to tell about our visit. The Bergerie d’Aquino happens to have recently changed hands and I was called back by the new owner Eric Bompard who was about to leave for Paris and had a visit organized for us with the domaine’s enologist Emmanuel Gaujal, a man with a long experience in the region's wine development.
At a short distance from Orléans along the Loire there is a discreet wine region which few people know, it's not Cheverny or Anjou, but the Orléanais. A century ago or more it was certainly providing lots of wine for Paris as with the straight road to Paris through the Beauce they didn't even need here to use barges on rivers and canals. The existence of the wines of Orléans is documented as far as in the 5th century with an apogy during the 12th and 13th century when they were poured at the court of the King (source). The total
surface of the vineyards of the Orléanais is
said to have been 30 000 hectares in the 17th century. With the mass production needed for Paris in the 19th century, the quality of the wine went down compared to a few centuries before, and at about that time, with the railroads making Languedoc wines easy to ship to Paris, the production and surface of the Orléans region dwindled, pushing the wines of the Orléanais into oblivion. But there's still a great potential to make excellent wine here, and even though the region today has only 200 hectares, you can find a couple of good producers here to prove that. Reynald Héaulé is one of them.
Reynald Héaulé started from scratch after studying accounting, a field which he didn't feel he'd really consider doing a career in, he worked at several wineries, first in Burgundy then here in the region, particularly at Claude Courtois where he still works part time.
His own domaine makes 2 hectares but with a quite high plantation density, like 12 500 vines per hectare; he grows 15 different varieties on this small surface and 2 years from now you'll find 20 varieties, 10 reds and 10 whites. This doesn't fit really what we call complantation (where vines are planted together randomly) because here he planted whole rows of a given variety (he planted his whole vineyard himself by the way). To tell a few varieties, he planted Pineau d'Aunis, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Gascon, some hybrids, Romorantin, Pinot Gris Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling (Chenin next year, he just gave the wood to a nursery) etc...
From what I know there's no other natural-sparkling fair around, which makes the event unique. The festive and healthy bubbly has gained popularity these last years although it usually can't brag any prestigious appellation, and certainly not the one of Champagne anyway (these vintners would make a weird face if you compare their sparkling with Champagne...), and natural sparkling is probably closer from the Blanquette de Limoux, which is actually the oldest French sparkling chronologically, much older than Champagne.
This was the 2nd year of Bulles au Centre, and the Pet'nat fair was taking place like last year in the charming city
of Montrichard, a mid-size town sitting along the Cher river,
between Saint-Aignan and Tours.
The tasting took place mid-july in the middle of the small town, in a string of connected cellars, some of them with ancient vaulted ceilings making you feel like in a church. More than 50 vignerons were taking part, presenting in person their natural sparkling(s) along at least another still wine. Entry was free of charge, you only had to pay 5 € for the specially-issued glass, which you could keep afterwards. Pours were generous, you could pause outside and have some food, and with the good vibes of the assembly this was a great event (not to miss for next year).
Developped informally among the natural-wine vintners (read this page
by Jacqueline Friedrich), Pet'nat wines, or natural sparklings are "natural" in different ways, first, unlike Champagne and similar bubblies, natural sparklings didn't get any added sugar to produce the second fermentation in the bottle (the one behind the bubbles), the fermenting wine is just bottled in crown-capped bottles before all the original sugar is eaten, and of course without lab yeast. Plus, natural sparkling doesn't get any other corrective additive, and it gets either no sulfites at all or very small doses of it. And to begin with, the grapes used for this type of wine are organicly farmed, like for other natural wines. And lastly, there's no dosage in natural sparkling, meaning no sugary addition to replace the disgorged lees, the bottle being just completed with some of the same wine. And more because we're dealing here with small-volume cuvées than to make the beverage even more natural, the disgorgement is almost always made by hand, which makes this type of wine even more artisanal. From what I know, some of these wines aren't even disgorged and they might get cloudy when you open them, adding to the magic. Don't expect flashy bottles with shiny wrappings, foil and muselet (wire cage), the bottles are often sealed with simple crown caps, but the public who buys this wine usually cares more for what's inside the bottle.
Forced by Chester to resume her usual life, Ketty gets courage by pouring herself whisky...
Light summer photo [novel] story...
I found this Western photo-novel some time ago in a street flea market, it was published in 1968 by Star Ciné Aventures, at a time when the genre was very popular in Europe (long before the VCR changed the game), I think the scenes were shot in Italy because from what I know the country was an active producer of such novels. What took my attention in this one was the whisky-loving female character, who (after getting a few whisky shots) is not shy of aiming and shooting at the bad guy when threatened....
These romans-photo like we call them in French were pretty cheap (both by cost and in terms of reputation) and they seem to have a price today (but I paid one euro or less if I remember, for my copy).
Lets's see a few dramatic scenes of this story...
The Domaine Bobinet was founded a dozen years ago by Sébastien Bobinet, a native from Saumur with a long lineage of growers behind his grandfather. He took over in 2002 the small vineyard surface of his grandparents (1,78 hectare) plus the old deep cellar cave under
the hill. Most of the vineyard was red grapes,
with 40 ares of white. He kept working with this small vineyard surface until 2010, after which he bought grapes to make wine from other varieties and he also rented more vineyards on fermage, reaching 4 hectares in total that year. Emeline Calvez joined the domaine in 2011 and they took more rented parcels in 2012, reaching today a surface of 6,5 hectares.
Almost since the start (after a year or so), thanks to his meeting some of the first innovative artisan winemakers of the region, Sébastien followed a non-interventionist philosophy, using wild yeast, farming organic, adding little or no sulfites and none of the usual additives and tricks used by wineries nowadays. The first time I may have met him was in 2006 at a street tasting inParis organized by American importer Jenny Lefcourt around several of her vignerons (see this story, 4th picture from top). I remember that evening as being very festive and friendly, Olivier Cousin had his share too and Sébastien Bobinet was not outdone in the vinous performance. When Sébastien had had a training in his youth, so to say, by just helping his grandfather and grandmother in the vineyard and in the cellar. His grandfather didn't sell his grapes to the coop or the négoce, he used to vinify his grapes himself and sell the wine directly. Sébastien Bobinet also got a formal training later, but the person who helped him the most when he started his own domaine was Olivier Cousin whom he met in 2003 through Sylvie Augereau, a wine journalist who was a decisive actor in the nascent natural-wine movement.
How much French fine wines were costing not so long ago
Here is a photo (or scan-) story following a good pick on a street flea market in Paris. This is a 1951 catalog of Nicolas' fine wine list with the respective prices and vintages. you may know Nicolas for it's ubiquitous franchised shops around Paris and elsewhere but the old Maison used to have also a high-end cellar for the demanding amateurs and it issued every year a small book listing the wines they were releasing after the appropriate cellaring time. Each year, the book would display a different illustration theme which was not necessarily
linked to the wine world (people were more balanced at the time and less monomaniac). In 1951
the theme was "La Vierge Folle de Strasbourg (the foolish virgin)", a specific theme found in the religious sculptures of the Middle Ages. We may think the iconography choice for this catalog was a bit amateurish and unadequate for such high-end wines but after second thoughts I like that : Again, unlike our modern times this era seemed less obsessed by wine-geek posturing, it seems to me people then just wanted to enjoy good wine when they could afford to, they didn't need an expert jargon to convey their impressions and as you will see along these pages, they even hadn't to be that rich to buy these bottles. In 1951 France was slowly recovering from the war and the wine market was still largely domestic, keeping prices pretty low compared to nowadays.
This catalog allows us indeed to see how affordable even great wines were at the time : In order to have a better picture, you'll find a chart on this page listing the value in contemporary Euros (as of 2014) for the French Franc in each year of the 20th century, and in 1951 a Franc was worth 0,02397 € of 2014. This means that a Chateau Haut Brion 1945, at 600 Fr was worth a bit more than today's 14 €. Or a Romanée Conti 1924 (27 years old in 1951) at 1500 Fr was costing 36 €. To countercheck this travel in time I tried to know the typical monthly salary in 1951, I had several answers, one found on this page (#230) saying that the minimum wage for a worker was 87 Fr/hour which would make (quick math check) about 15 200 Fr/month or 365 €. Another indirect source on the issue was found on this other page where it is said that the average monthly salary was 21 000 Francs in 1951 (or 500 €). There's a gap between the sources but it seems overall that it leaves some room for a few of these good bottles for an average person...
Just a few conversions from 1951 Francs into Euros :
300 Fr -- 7,2 €
500 Fr -- 12 €
1000 Fr -- 24 €
Now you can salivate retrospectively, thinking how easy it was for our elders to get these wines... Had they just made a one-time spending worth a month's wage on these wines and stored them in a good cellar, you'd be rich today...
Pic on right : Nectar, Nicolas' iconic deliveryman, holding 32 bottles by the necks. His character was created in 1921 for the retailer's posters and was known all over France.
Montlouis-Husseau, east of Tours (Loire)
François Chidaine is the vigneron in Montlouis who did a lot along several decades to get the Montlouis appellation out of oblivion. He now farms 40 hectares split between Montlouis (majority), Vouvray (the sister region of Montlouis)
and Touraine. The domaine has been farmed on biodynamics
for 17 years now, it's among the large organic/biodynamic domaines. Organic farming requires much labor and François Chidaine says that his permanent staff (not counting the administrative part from what I understand) is 13 and it goes up temporarily depending of the season to 16 or 18, plus of course the short-time spike when the pickers come for the harvest.
Montlouis is Chenin country, the 370-hectare appellation area covers 3 villages : Montlouis/Husseau, Saint Martin le Beau and Lussault on the south bank of the Loire east of Tours. This appellation is white-only and Chenin (also named Pineau de la Loire here) will show up as a dry wine, a sweet wine or a sparkling.
There are close to 60 vignerons in the region of Montlouis, among them artisan vignerons like Bertrand Jousset, la Grange Tiphaine, Frantz Saumon, without forgetting another outstanding vintner, Jacky Blot (la Taille aux Loups, and he has a domaine in Bourgueil too). There's a coop here too, the Cave des Producteurs de Montlouis which was created in 1961 and gets its grapes from 12 growers.
Husseau, the village where François Chidaine is based, is located 5 km east of Montlouis (which has the size of a small town with a population of 11 000) and both dominate the Loire (see satellite view). At the end of WWII here in Husseau there were more than 410 growers (multi-crop farmers) and today there are maybe 6 growers.
Walking along the vineyards of mainstream, commercial estates
I had the idea to make this visual story when driving through the Bordeaux region a couple months ago : I didn't take pictures there alas outside of my visits, but the roads were lined with vineyards showing the different shades and modes of herbicide sprayings,
it was visually very interesting. You had them all, there was the old school ones (nothing survives,
the ground looks like it's the moon), the progressive ones (sustainable we'd say) with neat, unsprayed grass (lawn) on every other row like you would almost picnic on the grass and think you'll remain healthy, and there was yet another spraying mode I'll call it the stealth mode : it's harder to detect at first glance because the parcel looks like it's plowed et all, but when you pause and look closely you can see that there's been herbicide under the rows even though the whole surface seems to have been plowed, nice try, this may fool many average visitor and possibly knowledgeable ones...
Appearance trumps fact, it's known and human, and we often fall in the trap; a blond woman can pass for Angela Davis using suntan cream and curly hairdo and people buy it for years, same for some growers who, knowing that the vineyard side of the wine is now visited, use tricks like spraying herbicide and cover their tracks with a nice plowing afterwards (or the other way around, like the cropped image on the left seems to imply for this particular parcel). I was fooled myself one day while walking among parcels with a vigneron, I pointed to what looked like a nicely-worked parcel thinking it was his, but it wasn't : he showed me the thing from close, and you could see clearly from the clods that hadn't been overturned that this nice-looking plot had been heavily sprayed. I hadn't the reflex alas this day to shoot an incriminating picture but I'll add it when I come accross such an occurence again.
We all know that Japan was the first buyer of natural wine historically, and this was at a pivotal time when there were just a few domaines making totally uncorrected wines from organic vineyards in the 1990s', the French wine public being slow to respond even though a couple of specialized wine bars were
beginning to show up on the radar in Paris. See on this
subject this story by Patricia Wells in 1992 on Bernard Pontonnier's la Courtille, a bistrot where the first natural wines (weren't called like that then) were on offer, among them Marcel Lapierre, domaine Gramenon and Corinne Couturier (who was a star before Marcel Richaud in the new wines of the Rhone).
To stress out the role played by Japan, Thierry Puzelat for example could make it in the early years of his domaine because Japan would basically buy virtually ALL of his wines, and most of the other early natural-wine producers probably owe Japan the same for having kept them afloat when the rest of the market was slow to build. It speaks volume about how much Japan and the first Japanese importers played a decisive role to allow these new wine farms function until the French niche market of demanding wine lovers sets its sights (and palate) on these new wines.
The Japanese man who was the first to scout, select and export natural wines from France to Japan was certainly Mr Yoshio Ito, a discreet man whom you can often see at worthy wine events where artisan vintners take part, he not only tastes the wines and looks for new names but he makes lots of pictures and takes notes for his extensive website where the Japanese public can find a trove of informations about artisan and natural wine. He is really often on the road, more than once I stumbled on him while I was visting a domaine, and meeting him in Paris for this story was tricky because we had to juggle with schedules as he was on his way to Tokyo and then would be somewhere in a French wine region visiting winegrowers.
This interview took place at Yuzu, a fine Japanese restaurant in the 7th arrondissement and we were to have many great wines that evening. Here on the right Mr Ito is toasting with chef Nao Takemoto a Chablis 1er Cru Pacalet Vau Ligneau 2010. splendid.
Bd Haussmann, Paris
The Caves Augé, the respectable caviste and almost institution for its wine portfolio, has staged an unusual tasting event last saturday, with the theme "Boire Bon n'est pas un Luxe",
meaning "drinking good wine is not a luxury".
In short, all the wines presented there that day were artisan wines made without correction and that cost less than 10 € retail at the shop. All the wines were sold with a rebate, even those who were anyway under the 10-€ bar ayear around at the shop, and this promotion is to last until the end of june [I should be paid to write that...]. This type of tasting is useful because it reminds the man in the street that good wine can be had without spending a fortune, and if you go to these wineries directly to stock and fill your cellar you'll certainely spend even less. And even in Paris if you go to other cavistes in Paris specialized on artisan and natural wines (like Le Verre Volé, la Cave des Papilles, le Vin en Tête, Paris Terroirs, Crus et Découvertes or Au Nouveau Nez to cite a few, you'll samely find several good picks under 10 € [I feel obliged to add this line so that you don't see that I'm working undercover for Caves Augé...].
The tasting took place like usual at Augé on the sidewalk in front of the shop in a quiet part of the Bd Haussmann, it was free and going from 11 am to 6 pm. the weather was perfect, sunny and not to hot and like always at Caves Augé, the vintners were there in person to pour the wine and answer to the questions, something that for a change I consider like a priceless luxury and which is not that general at mainstream tastingss.