[I must give an infinite amount of thanks to Phillip Ehrlich for kindly providing his notes to me for this next batch of recaps. They would not be possible without him!]
Sorry for the lack of updates. The whole team was super slammed with the 2015 REAL WINE ATTACK tour, where 20 of the finest vignerons in the game SMASHED through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Reno, New Orleans and NYC in 8 days. As with last year, I believe the trip can summed up with one very telling picture:
Olivier Collin is a meticulous man in the cellar. Everything starts with this incredible manual press:
Yes, that is in fact a divine light shining on to me.
This is one of the first presses in the village of Congy. It was built in the 1950's, and the whole village used to use it. During harvest, it is hand operated by 4 people for 12 days, 18 hours a day.
"It's a lot more work, but for me it is fundamental: you extract more matter, tannins, anti-oxidants and it permits the wines to age longer. It may be hard to taste when the wine is young, but they become sublime later on."
Using a manual press forces Olivier to harvest at a higher maturity than if he used a pneumatic one, because otherwise the wine would take on bitter characteristics. The Chardonnay is pressed separately from the Pinot Noir, and all in all 4000 kg of grapes produce about 2050 liters of jus de presse (first juice) and 500l of jus de taille (2nd juice). Notice the numbers on each of these underground tanks?
Olivier meticulously keeps first and second juices from each pressing separately: the first press goes into the cuves 2-5, and he manually deviates the jus de tailles into cuve 1.
After press, Olivier pumps the juices into the débourbage vats pictured below.
The juices are left overnight and sometimes a bit longer to let the juice settle. Olivier likes the juice to be very clear and free of bourbes ("gross lees") because you never know what can be in there.
According to Olivier, many independent growers in Champagne choose to discard their jus de taille and sell them to négociants. This is why many "Champagnes de taille" are usually what ends up in supermarkets. In the case of the Ulysse Collin wines, Olivier feels that the jus de presse gives the wine its backbone and structure -permitting it to age longer- and the jus de taille makes the wine a little stronger, richer and adds gourmandise. Because the second juices are more murky and fragile, Olivier keeps them separated from the first juice at least 1 year before blending.
The entirety of the Ulysse Collin production is fermented and aged in barrel.
Olivier is not a fan of new oak, but new barrels are out of necessity syphoned in every year to replace the old ones. Another major development in the cellar is Olivier's recent investment in foudres, which have been used since the 2011 vintage.
If you're not familiar with the Ulysse Collin wines, sites are not blended and each cuvée is parcel specific. Today, Olivier produces four wines from four sites: Les Maillons, Les Pierrières, Les Roises and Les Enfers. And while vintage and reserve wine is important to the final product, this is not what Oliver is seeking to accomplish with his Champagnes.
"When you work this way (vinifying specific parcels), the goal is not to express the vintage or the percentage of reserve wine. I want you to taste the parcel, to taste its DNA."
Nothing is set in stone, but about 20 to 40% of each year's juices go into his reserve wines.
NON-SEQUITUR FACTOID: The limestone suboils in Congy feature the same type of rare black flint you spot at François Pinon's in Vouvray!
From the cellar, Oliver manually disgorged some 2014's for us to taste.
Before tasting, we took a quick stroll to go visit Les Roises and Les Enfers.
Les Roises and Les Enfers are neighboring parcels, with the former exposed full South and the latter exposed East. The soils for both parcels are clay topsoils and limestone subsoils, though les Roises has a almost twice as much clay.
Walking through Les Enfers, Olivier grabbed this plant from the soil:
It is called Le Mouron des Oiseaux, which might just be the frenchest thing I've ever heard.
"When you see this plant, you know your soils are doing well. It's a bio-indicator that proves there is healthy microbiology in the soil."
As we've discussed before, Olivier isn't 100% convinced with organic viticulture, at least not in Champagne. He tried working les Roises organically in 2012 and lost 80% of his crop.
"I admit 2012 was the wrong year to launch myself into working organically. But I really believe that is is extremely difficult working 100% organically in Champagne's conditions. As an aside, one thing I notice about organic Champagne is they tend to taste more bitter to me. I believe this is because the use of copper increases the thickness of the skins, and I feel it is evident in the wine. I still believe that the most important thing anyone can do in the vineyard is work the soils."
For protection, Olivier mostly sprays the vines with silica. However, if he sees a sickness taking place, he will intervene with Pecadeux, a non-systemic product that is legally allowed in German organics but not in France.
"I don't believe in treating my vineyards with with systemic products. But I also don't believe in letting my vines suffer greatly from illness. I treat them like I would treat myself: if I'm really not feeling well, I will take antibiotics to get better."
Of course, we then tasted the 2014's, which were obviously very young but already showing great promise. We were also treated to the one-time-only Le Magnum, a relic from 2006 vintage.
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. Geologically, Campi Flegrei is marked by many large volcanic craters. Combine this with the sea's constant winds and you have a fascinating terroir.
While still within the city limits, much of the area feels desolate and forgotten. However, if you follow the twisty, unkempt roads to the crater of 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.
Due to his underbite, 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.