Behind the hype and glamour of Champagne there are a few annoying things when you look closer at this thriving wine region.
Here is my translation of one of the related sentences :
The Champagne winegrowers are also the only ones (with the ones of the Charentes region - a region in Western France) to make systematic sprayings of mineral nitrogen. Nearly 80 % of the vineyard surface in Champagne gets nitrogen every year, the goal being higher yields. And when you get higher yields you get vines that are more fragile and subject to disease.
So it becomes clear that greed, higher yields, are directly connected with the heavy-handed chemical sprayings witnessed on this victimized Champagne vineyard...
Unlike most of the other wine regions (and along Bordeaux), Champagne is largely resisting the move toward a vineyard farming preserving the life of the soil, mainly because business keeps getting better and because most growers are paid by the weight and not by the organic quality of their grapes.
Georges Laval is a deep-rooted family Champagne house, with documented vineyard-growing activity by the family as far as 1694. This is a small domaine with only 2,5 hectares, and it is organicly farmed since 1971 (it's even in byodynamy for a while), and given the record in this
regard elsewhere in Champagne (and the difficult weather conditions), that is quite exceptional. Before that time, the family was selling the grapes to the négoce.
The village of
Cumières (picture on the right) is only 5 kilometers west of Epernay (on the right wing of the pale-rose patch on this map -- Vallée de la Marne), and it sits right down the slope with the Abbaye d'Hauvillers at the top of the hill surrounded with woods. This abbey which was founded in 650 A.D. had been a pilgrimage destination and it got a now-famous host, Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk who played a central role in the way Champagne wines became sparkling wines. When you drive from Epernay, as you approach the bridge over the Marne (picture on the left), you have a good view on the patches of parcels along the chalky slopes with the woods at the top, the abbey being in the middle of the woods (out of the frame, further on the right).
Vincent Laval has followed his father's steps and he keeps doing an artisan work on the tiny vineyard surface, working mostly in a way. His wines are unchaptalized (chaptalization is widespread over here) and are vinified in casks. The annual production here is about 10 000 bottles a year (next year itshould make 15 000 bottles), not even a drop compared to the yearly output in Champagne : 323 million bottles in 2012. The yields on Vincent's vineyards are also much lower than the norm in Champagne which is 92 hectoliters/hectare.
It is now a fact that the Japanese are among the most demanding wine amateurs in the world, but this was still a surprise for me to discover that several of these Paris-based Japanese wine people had set up a free wine magazine in Paris, I mean a real magazine,
not a leaflet with a few adresses but a real glossy magazine that could even compete in regard to the pertinence of its content with many subscription
magazines of the continent if it was written in French or English. The magazine, which is published by the Centre du Vin
Franco-Japonais (C.V.F.J.) is financed by advertising, both with small ads from wine restaurants in Japan or larger-size ads from Japanese businesses.
The magazine is named 33.Vin,
and this spring issue is the 2nd issue, it comes after a trial issue printed this winter (read it here - Pdf file) where you can see a profile of all the knowledgeable writers (a dozen - pic on right) who take part, two of them being acquaintances to B. and me, Akiyo Hori and Bunpei Someya who now works as a sommelier at le Kigawa in Paris and who is knows lots of details about the terroirs and their relation to wine. The trial (winter) issue contained a long interview of Anselme Selosse and his son. The first (spring) issue contains 36 pages, and unlike many commercial wine magazines you don't have to scramble across the pages looking if there's any content hidden behind the ads.
What impressed us both too is that the magazine adresses both the knowlegeable amateur and the novice visitor who is eager to learn, be it through sommelier notes or Q & A about a type of wine (in this issue, it was Champagne).
Vermont, near Villié-Morgon (Beaujolais)
This story took place in the 3rd week of may and Beaujolais was quite damp and cold. We visited a couple of vineyards with Georges Descombes, and the vines looked indeed a bit late for this time of the year, and instead of a vivid green some leaves were bordering something more yellow than green, as if crying for more
sun and light.
Let's remember that Georges Descombes in his early years used
to work for a bottling company in the region (his own father was also a vigneron), and of course, when you oversee a bottling machine, you taste the wine you're bottling, that an unwritten priviledge of the job, and when in 1982-1983 he tasted the wines of a then-unknown vigneron named Marcel Lapierre, he knew that these would be the wines he'd try to make later. Lapierre's wines which were titally uncorrected, unsulfited and unfiltered had a quality that stood largely above what he'd routinely taste in the vatrooms.
Back to the weather in this spring of 2013 : Georges Descombes says (as of mid-may + when we visited the winery) that it was not very nice, lots of rain, quite late even if the season is only beginning and things can improve. They didn't have frost damage this time, contrary to last year. They has a bit of hailstorm on may 1st but the vineyard not having much foliage yet it was OK.
We stopped at a young Gamay vineyard planted in 2004. The vines are trained in goblet like usual, and low, near the ground level, but lightly above the height found in the old-time vineyards so that the plows can do their work without endangering the vines.
If I'm right, this picture was shot on the Morgon area, on a terroir named Bois des Lys.
Villié Morgon (Beaujolais)
Don't be put off by the appearance of quietness emanating from this table scene, this wine moment was NOT quiet...
I don't know if this is the rule, but I've experienced already quite intense moments around a table tasting wines during a visit at Agnès & Jean Foillard. For this particular one, I was with a foreign wine person
in the trade and the tour could have consisted into the routine
tasting of the last wines, something we actually did too and which by itself was largely worth the journey, but other elements always add up, you don't know how, and the normally predictable visit turns out to be something you remember long time after.
So, let's begin with the beginning (the scene above came after a while) : we show up in the morning, between 9 and 10, after having reached the Beaujolais the previous day, and Jean greets us, leaving us a few minutes alone with Agnès to begin the tasting of a few wines while he's driving somewhere for a short thing to do. We have just time to spot the great logo (in spite of its small size) on the left rear of his delivery van. Discreet enough so that he'll not be stormed by a crowd of unbridled wine amateurs, but still a signature for those in the know... If you spot this grape-thirsty character in a traffic jam near Paris, you may have Jean Foillard at the wheel...
The morning begins quietly, we walk into, and sit in the large room on the right with a brick oven on the side and Agnès brings the bottles and opens them.
Mareuil sur Cher (Loire)
Just a short story to give miscellaneous news, first about a new winemaker popping up on the Loire scene, here is the first wine of Laurent Saillard, who has been working with Noella Morantin for a few years now. Laurent, who left France long time ago to work
in the restaurant scene in New York came back in France to make a new life learning how to make the beautiful wines he had been drinking and pouring in his New-York restaurant.
After learning the hardest part, which is tending the vineyard, pruning and taking care of the soil, he is now getting his hands on the winemaking part.
The wine is a carbonic maceration of Gamay which he interrupted at some point. The grapes come from a parcel which Noella previously rented to Catherine Roussel (Clos Roche Blanche) and that Laurent took over for himself (as I guess Noella is pretty busy with the new vineyards that she purchased from Junko Arai).
The wine is labelled as table wine (vin de France) and the name of the cuvée is La Pause (sorry, in lowercase : la pause), which hints that it's a refreshing wine that you drink for example during a break at work or after working hard outside. The words printed around the cork give a further lead in the mood of the wine : "A l'ombre d'un platane, le vent dans les branches, l'odeur du soleil, le chant des tourterelles..." (Under the shade of a plane tree, the wind in the trees, the smell of the sun, the song of doves). This fits well with the wine, fresh and chewy, joyous and onctuous in the mouth.
Laurent made 1000 bottles of this wine and after a visit in New York in february he virtually sold it out ther and you should find it someday at Ten Bells, Thirst Wine Merchant. Vinegar Hill and Reynard, as you see he sold everything [edit : most] in Brooklyn, which seems to be indeed a hot area of New York on the wine issue.
Laurent will have more wine to sell in a few months (it could be at the end of the year or even next year) as he has also a cuvée of Sauvignon going through its élevage. This Sauvignon also comes from a CRB parcel he took over the rent of from Noella.
Didier Barrouillet uncorking a bottle in the cellar
Mareuil sur Cher (Touraine, Loire)
I guess that vistors dropping without warning to taste a few wines are the curse of the hard-working vigneron, especially when the last vintage we're supposed to taste has brought much smaller volumes like in this oart of the Loire. But that's what we did so blatantly and
unashamedly the other day. All right, we're not just like any visitors and it had been a while since we spent
some time in the cellar, so this was an excuse good enough for us cellar rats to get treated with holy drops...
The troublesome weather in 2012 didn't necessarily turn out to be a problem for the end wines, as a tasting through the region made us learn. The volumes were low but the grapes were healthy and with a good potential.
The familiar sign was there on the right hand when you took the narrow road leading to the house up there on the hill, but there was something unusual on the left, the mailbox didn't fit my radar perception, it was brightly colored and a closer watch showed a nice painting of stylized bottles on one side, and another one featuring a glass of red on top. I learnt later that this was the artwork of Claire, Catherine's multi-talented daughter (pictured here by Jim Budd). Where's the wine, you would ask ? It's on the side, on top, particularly for the latter under the shape of a glass of wine and the words "Mieux vaut boire du rouge que broyer du noir", which means somthing like "better to drink red wine than to be black mooded" (see pic at the bottom).
There are places you're always happy to go back to, and this wine-centered venue in the middle of the Loire valley is certainly one of them. We spent a night in Le Café de la Promenade in Bourgueil on our way to the Cher valley and we enjoyed one more time
great food and enjoyable wines. It may be fool to
tell so prominently about the place and people in the know will hate me because we all may find it fully booked the next time we plan to go there, but along l'Ami Chenin near Saumur, this is a place not to miss if you're travelling through the region and I found it necessary to write more about it.
Imagine a nice building looking like an old inn, surrounded by a few trees and a laid back garden where you feel relieved by all this consumerist pressure emanating from the amenities and outlook of conventional hotels or even chambres d'hôte (bed & breakfast). The Café de la Promenade has a few rooms in the back and you feel more like being in your own country house than in a hotel (Ihope they invite me for a week for these words....).
The other particularity of the venue is that it is also a caviste, a wine bar (the wines being picked among the large, well-thought selection of the cellar) and a restaurant. You don't need being afraid of random breath checks on the roads in the evenings, you just stick there...
Domaine de la Pépière (Muscadet, Loire)
Welcome to the western-most region of the Loire, the Muscadet, where the only variety listed in the appellation area is the Melon de Bourgogne, a variety originating from Burgundy but now found mostly in the Muscadet.
The white wine has been considered for years as a
minor light wine fit to go with sea food, but a few vignerons have made a difference in a region plagued by mass production, first by keeping working on their soils, then by selecting particular terroirs of the Muscadet. Marc Ollivier of La Pépière is one of them.
After the difficult vintage of 2012 with yields much lower than usual because of the bad season that year, the growers are looking forward for what 2013 has in store for them. Until now all we can say is that the vegetation growth is late in much of France because of a relatively cold spring with covered skies. The vineyard needs also higher temeratures and more sunshine to grow leaves, and because there has been more rain than needed, it has on the other hand encouraged the weeds and also delayed the plowing to get rid of these weeds, because the ground was too soft and muddy to allow the use of tractors. Any long-enough lull between the rainy days is thus exploited to do these important tasks of cutting the weeds' roots, and I witnessed this routine spring operation at Marc Ollivier's La Pépière in the Muscadet.
Tout est bon, dans le cochon - or everything is good in the pig, even the unlikeliest part...
Here is a dish which I just rediscovered after having bought some during a weekend in the Loire : the jellied pork feet, a cheap delicacy proving indeed that every thing is tasty in a pig, even these feet that spend so much time foraging in mud and trash...
It reminds me the cox tail which is also so good in spite of having had a life stuck between flies and smelly droppings... Life is indeed mysterious when you think twice about it.