CHECK THE AGNANUM PROFILE OVER HERE!
There's an old Italian expression that goes: "Vedi Napoli e poi muori", or "See Naples and Die". I can't really explain why, but any city where traffic is this fucking insane at any random street corner will always have a special place in my heart.
It's worth watching until the end. So many close calls... So few helmets...
Best. Outfit. Ever.
But Napoli isn't just panic-inducing traffic, insane all-night street parties, incredible architecture, delicious pizza and fashionable children. If you head to the Western edge of the city, you find yourself in Campi Flegrei, a unique area on the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea shaped by large volcanic craters.
While still within the city limits, much of the area feels desolate and forgotten. However, if you follow the twisty, unkempt roads to Agnano, there is plenty of beauty to experience at Raffaele Moccia's 4 hectare estate, Agnanum.
All of Raffaele's vines are located on a single, steep hillside overlooking the mainland in all its postindustrial glory.
Here is Agnano's lovely hippodrome:
Fortunately, once you turn away from the urban panoramic, you are treated to an absolutely stunning vineyard site.
The soils here are sand and volcanic ash, with the vines planted on terraces that make mechanization impossible. Terraces have been the traditional way of planting in this area for centuries, but in an all too familiar tale, most growers are abandoning them because it's too much work. Speaking of too much work, Rafaelle has to be very careful with his soils.
"If you don't till, the rain goes right through (the soil) and messes everything up."
To avoid this, he lets grass grow wild to absorb water that would otherwise overfeed the vines. The grass also helps create a layer of moisture that helps cool down the vines.
"I didn't come up with this system. It is very old!"
Rafaelle's land is considered a historical vineyard: the youngest vines are 60 years old and the oldest are "at least" 200. Because his soils are so sandy, everything is planted in franc de pied.
"We're drinking the wines the Romans were drinking. Well, with the help of a more modern cellar!"
2.8 hectares of the native Falanghina are planted for white and 1.2 hectares of Piedirosso for red. The vines are some of the most strangely shaped I've ever witnessed.
Rafaelle described the training system as pergola, yet it doesn't resemble what one usually associates with the term.
At one point, a distinct whiff of sulfur overtook the group. That's because there are nearby sulfur eruptions all the time.
See that smoke in the middle? Sulfur cloud.
As we continued our walk through the vines, Rafaelle explained that there are 4 layers to his soil: sandy volcanic, humus, fine sand from basalt and finally basalt subsoils. It is very compact, and in such the roots of the vines feed from all 4 layers.
"Though the younger vines only reach the first 3."
By "younger", I'm pretty sure he meant the 60 year old vines.
Another particularity of these soils is that they auto-restrict yields, which was surprising since the vines are so huge.
Look, it's an old lady working her land alone in the horizon!
I spotted hoses in the vines, and asked Rafaelle about them.
"These are not for irrigation, but rather to have water handy when doing treatments. It's much easier to start from the top of the vines and having pitstops on the way down than having to go all the way back down each time."
At the very top of the hill, some young vines have been planted in massale and franc de pied. They are 15. To help them grow and develop, Rafaelle has planted fava beans in the rows and fertilizes the land with rabbit shit.
I found rabbit shit to be an oddly specific animal for this task, but it turns out that Rafaelle has a side-buisness of raising rabbits, so that makes sense. Speaking of which:
Our tasting/lunch took place in this medieval dungeon type space that was a stark contrast to the beautiful vines.
Rafaelle's son, who is currently in culinary school, made us a banging lunch from this amazing wood fire oven.
Of course, we had to eat some rabbit!
We also tasted some wine. In the cellar, slow native yeast fermentations take place in stainless steel tanks. Malolactic has never occurred since Rafaelle took over the winemaking.
For the white wine, 10mg of sulfur is added at the beginning of fermentation and nothing after. A light filtration also takes place. The red is unfiltered and un-fined.
Rafaelle's great, great grandfather used to sell the wine in vrac to to restaurants in Naples. He would load barrels up in a horse wagon and bring them to town.
"The wine became so popular that my father had to start a lottery system. The wine would go to the winners."
Rafaelle is the first generation to bottle the wine with the 2002 vintage. 4 wines are produced: a Campi Flegrei Bianco that is 100% Falanghina, a IGT white that's 50% Falanghina and 50% grapes I've never heard of. He also makes two reds from Piedirosso: Per e Palumm and Vigne del Volpe, a selection from the oldest vines. They are all delicious.
After leaving, we got a little lost on the way to our next appointment and, after pulling over, met a really ugly dog with a heart of gold.
We nicknamed him Teeth. I wanted to keep him forever.
"When you truly love wine, you can immediately tell the difference in the way people work in the vineyards and cellar. You can taste convictions, from the choices made in the vines to those in the cellar."
A fascinating interview with Paul Gillet, the new proprietor of Les Maisons Brûlées. Find out how Paul and his wife Corinne went from opening a retail shop in Mulhouse to throwing pop up dinners in Buenos Aires. Read about their plans to start a viticultural estate in Argentina and eventually settling in France. Learn from Paul's wise words and choice philosophical musings!
Read the interview here!
READ PART 8!
This final post is dedicated to Joe Dressner and Joe Dougherty. Your spirits live in the Clos forever.
I can't remember what time I woke up, but it was early. As if by divine intervention, it just so happened that the last harvest day of Clos Roche Blanche's last vintage landed on my last day in France. Sometimes, when you know you are going to be part of something significant before it's actually happened, the self-awareness leads to expectations of emotions running high from the get-go. But to my surprise, everyone remained cool and collected throughout the work day. Later on would be another story...
Just like with the Côt, Catherine and I were the last ones to arrive to the vines. Once again, Catherine immediately got into boss-mode and started leading us into the vines. Friends and family came to help, including Laurent Saillard:
Béatrice Augé and Balou:
and Catherine's daughter Claire:
The morning went by smoothly, with everyone working at a brisk, professional pace. Except me. I was super slow.
The Côt was nothing to scoff at and the Romorantins at Tue-Boeuf were gorgeous, but this Cabernet Franc gave' em a run for their money.
While we harvested, Didier vigilantly observed every bunch being dumped into the wagon to inspect quality and get rid of dirty extras such as leaves or branches.
Around noon, the wagon was full so Catherine sent the harvesting team home for lunch while we got ready to load what had been been picked into a vat. Before we could do this, 6 of us had to MANUALLY LIFT an old car that was in the way of the vat (we thought we could push it but the front breaks were stuck, resulting in an improvised Worlds Strongest Man event). Then Catherine had to do some serious tractor maneuvering to get the wagon in position.
Unlike with the Côt, here we did not manually de-stem a portion of the grapes on a moving tray table. Instead, we loaded the grapes into an égrapeuse, a mechanical device that de-stemms the grapes. But first, we had to drain the juice from the grapes crushed at the bottom of the wagon:
Once the grapes were ready to come out, we got to work!
You can't tell from the video, but you actually need 5 people involved at all times for this entire process: the first is Didier pushing grapes out from the top of the wagon. The wagon is equipped with this mechanism to make things go smoother:
The whole time, Claire was making sure the grapes fell correctly into the égrapeuse. You also need a person clearing the bins of discarded stems and two people getting their hands dirty at the bottom and pushing grapes through to make sure the machine doesn't get clogged. The last job is quite strange, since your hand is emerged in juice that is much colder than you'd imagine, effectively making your hand feel like an icicle.
Once this was done, we sat down for a long, beautiful lunch prepared by Catherine's mother Solange.
There was still some work to do, so got right back to it around 2:00pm.
And then, in a little over an hour's work, it was over. I was trailing in the back, but it was confirmed by Laurent's:
"That's it for Clos Roche Blanche's 2014!"
There were of course grapes to load into the vat, but not nearly as much as the morning's harvest. When we got back down to the house, Catherine was paying her pickers one by one. Some hung out, others left as soon as they got their check. There was some wine open, but I was desperately craving beer so Laurent, Claire and I went on a mission to grab a bunch.
Sipping beers, the late afternoon conversation was jovial. As it began getting darker, those still hanging agreed it was time to eat something. Along with the leftovers from lunch, Catherine cooked a huge bowl of pasta. Though every meal at Clos Roche Blanche is always complemented with wine from the estate, Didier chose to serve us, in honor of it being my favorite wine EVER, his very last bottle of L'Arpent Rouge 2010.
As the night went on, things predictably got emotional, especially as I had to tell many of the people I'd spent the last two weeks with goodbye. I also individually thanked Didier and Catherine for letting me be a part of this experience, one that for so many reasons will remain a hallmark in my life.
It got a little weepy...
Being there for the end of something that truly mattered is certainly bittersweet. Clos Roche Blanche is a magical place, and Catherine and Didier are magical people; whether they realize it or not, they have touched and inspired countless lives through their work. But as I stood outside at the end of the night, alone and watching the stars in the crystal clear sky, I didn't feel sad. If anything, I was excited to see what the future holds: for the Clos Roche Blanche vines, for Catherine, for Didier, for Laurent and Julien.
And shit, even for me.
READ PART 7!
The décuvage, or "devatting", is the critical moment when you press the red grapes that have been macerating on their skins, stems and seeds to extract their juice. To do so, you have to manually take them out of the vat where they have been macerating.
That juice you see dripping from the vat is called the jus de goutte; this comes from the grapes at the bottom of the vat crushed by the weight of the bunches on top of them. The jus de goutte has usually finished its alcoholic fermentation by the time of the décuvae, but the berries that haven't completely burst still have a ways to go.
The jus de goutte drips down into the press, which is directly below the vats.
From there, the first step involves shoveling out the grapes from the vat into the press.
You eventually get to a point when you can't reach any more grapes from the outside and must physically enter the vat to keep pushing them out.
A few days after we devatted the Gamay, I would go into the vat of Côt to repeat this operation. IT IS SO HOT IN THERE! As Eben Lillie once described it:
"It's like being in a NYC subway with broken air conditioning In August!"
Not only that, but because of all the trapped CO2, you get all light-headed. It's kind of fun but also a little freaky, since fainting is never a good look.
Anyway, once the grapes are in the press, it's time for the juice to flow!
As you can see, the vats and press are outside (a unique particularity at Clos Roche Blanche), and the wine is racked by gravity into the underground cellar.
A few hours later, it was time to clean the press. The first step of this required removing the marc (or pomace), aka the solid remains of grapes after pressing for juice. Didier tractored this bin over so we could throw it in there.
By observing the marc, you can see that the grapes are evenly flattened but the stems aren't.
"This is great because it means the marc isn't imparting its flavor into the wine. 15 years ago, equipment was much less efficient. You would always see flattened stems."
As far as the press itself, the way it works is as follows: a bladder full of air pushes in a vertical line. Grapes are pressed and go through this grid, which does not let solids through.
The marc is aged for 3 years, then used as a natural compost for the vines.
After the marc had been cleared, it was time to vigorously hose everything down.
"Being a vigneron is 90% manual labor and 10% internal reflection. On the other hand vinifying is 10% reflection and 90% cleaning stuff. It's not as noble as everyone thinks!"
For every liter of wine produced, you need 1.5 liters of water to clean up the equipment.
"It used to be 2. We have better technology now."