PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: DARD & RIBO IN MERCUROL
Before reading the vist recap, go to the Elodie Balme profile and read all the new info we've provided for you, including an interview.
Ok, now we can start the show.
Elodie Balme is a go-getter. She's one of those personalities that just exudes positive energy, and in this day and age it's impressive to see someone so young and enthusiastic about anything, let alone agriculture! It's also very refreshing that she isn't afraid to admit that she is still very new at this, and that everyday is a learning experience.
We arrived around dinner time, where we ate some delicious cheese and tomato tart thing and drank Plageoles Mauzac. Well, everyone except Elodie, who is four months pregnant! While eating, we started talking about Elodie's work dynamic with her father Bernard, a recurrent theme that would come up throughout the visit (more on that later).
The next morning, it was time to taste the 2011's and check out the cellar. Almost everything is vinified and aged in concrete.
There's also some fiberglass tanks to blend the wines.
Elodie also has a few barrels, mostly for experiments. The 2011's where showing well: the Côtes du Rhône and Roaix had just been bottled, and we tasted tank samples of the Rasteau, which should have been bottled by now. Elodie really goes for elegance and finesse in the wines, which are fresh and fruity, but with enough weigh to add structure. One new thing was a Vin De France made from Merlot, Grenache and Carignan on sandy soils. Elodie's dad basically planted the atypical Merlot in front of their house so that no one would build a house in front of theirs:
"He thought it might be something original for me..."
After tasting, we went to visit Oratoire St-Martin. In the evening, we returned to go check out the vines. The first parcel we visited is a clos called Le Plateau.
This parcel was the one Bernard started with. Elodie's grandfather actually deforested the entire 4 hectares to plant vines! Being there, it was crazy to think this parcel of 80 year old vines could ever have been anything else. For these vines they put a treillissage in the middle because the infamous Mistral wind causes them to break. Most of the grapes go into the Roaix cuvée.
As we left Le Plateau, Elodie pointed out saffre, the compacted sands that constitute the majority of her sub-soils, as well as some of her top soils.
Saffre retains water, so the soil remains cooler than if it was just sand. It's quite compact, but breaks into the exact sand kind of sand you find at the beach.
Next up, we visited Les Champs Libres, a 5 hectare clos of 55 year old vines and Samuel, a parcel of 80% Grenache and 20% Carignan with vines over 80 years old.
These are two of the many parcels Elodie works organically, and goes mostly in the Côtes du Rhône, with a little bit in the Roaix. Every year, more and more parcels are being converted, but Elodie is partners with her father, and they work the 28 hectares of vines together. And while the two get along well, share all responsibilities in the vines and are indispensable to each other, viticulture has been a serious point of contention.
Many things have changed since Elodie settled in 2006, and this hasn't always been easy for father/daughter team. Making and selling wine independently was never a problem for Bernard, since he has absolutely no desire to partake in cellar work. If anything, he's proud that his daughter is pulling it off, and has no qualms with spontaneous fermentations and minimal cellar intervention (he says it makes the wines taste good). But when it comes to viticulture, the two see things differently: Elodie's time with Marcel Richaud deeply influenced her approach to viticulture, but this approach is contradictory to what Bernard has been doing since his early teens (he's in his early 50's now).
And while there have been significant changes made in the viticultural practices (no pesticides/herbicides on the vines Elodie makes wine with, organic fertilizers, contact copper and sulfur treatments on all 28h), Bernard is still not totally convinced on working organically, especially if the estate is 28 hectares. Though he has always been "soft" with his chemical use compared to a lot of his heavier handed neighbors, he still refuses to take them out of the picture completely. Still, switching to contact copper and sulfur treatments is a big decision, and Elodie sees this as a huge step forward for the estate. It also makes her feel like her father understands and respects what she is doing.
"Things really have changed. Even in "his" vines, he's reduced the chemical products considerably. For example now he only does 1 pesticide treatment a year, as late as possible to last through the summer."
One thing the two definitely agree on: a lot their soils are suffering from over-exploitation. The plan for currently empty parcels and those they will soon rip out is simple: back to the jachère technique. After ripping out the vines, you plant cereals one year, then something else, then something else… By doing this for 7, 8 years, the soil gets to rest and purify itself.
"People used to plant with the goal of having vines for 60-70 years minimum. Now, as soon as they start getting less productive (usually around the 30 year mark), you rip them right out and replant. Things back then were less about quantities and productivity."
That night, we had dinner with Elodie and her boyfriend Jérome at this great place in Rasteau. Marcel Richaud came up.
"I have him to thank for everything. He really encouraged me to start my own estate, introduced me to all his customers, got me press..."
Clearly Marcel really likes Elodie since he decided to be her mentor. But there's actually a cool story behind it! When he was just getting started, Marcel was 19, the same age Elodie was when she was placed to work for him part-time. His father had also sold his grapes to the cooperative his whole life, and in his day it made you a good living; when Marcel decided he wanted to be independent, everyone told him he was crazy. He was shunned from his family (Marcel elaborates on the whole story in his interview), and since no one wanted to help him, he actually produced his first vintage in a cellar with no roof! Incredibly discouraged, his first vintage was almost his last.
On the verge of giving up, a chance encounter with a monsieur Charavin (a famous vigneron from the area), would change everything. Seeing this 20 year old kid try to be a vigneron really clicked with him, and he told Marcel he could use a part of his cellar to make wine and show him how to properly vinify until he was more settled. This man who took him under his wing, who taught him everything he knew and gave Marcel the chance to suceed, this M. Charavin was none other than...Elodie's grandfather! Remembering what he'd done for him, he felt he had to do the same for Elodie. That's what I call some full circle shit right there!
Next up, our visit with Frédérique Alary of Oratoire St. Martin! Recap + interview!
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: FRANCK PEILLOT IN MONTAGNIEU
After a packed three days of visits, it was the 14th of July so no one would have us. So we decided to celebrate France's independence with HUGE STEAKS!
We had a few neighboring families from the village to help us out, but it was still a bit overboard. As a good samaritan, I ate an entire one (almost).
The next morning, it was time to pack and kick off our two week road trip through the South, starting with Dard & Ribo in the commune of Mercurol. We were really early, so we decided to visit the neighboring towns of Tournon and Tain-L'Hermitage.
The two towns are separated by the Rhône river, but you can walk across the bridge pictured above in five minutes. The river also separates two departments: Tournon is in Ardèche (where Jean-René Dard was born) and Tain-L'Hermitage is in the Drôme (where François Ribo is from). As you can see, Tain-L'Hermitage has a great view on some of the steepiest, best placed Hermitage vines. The main drags are very touristy, but getting lost in the little side streets was a lot of fun. We also saw this very strange Kebab place:
"Hygiene, Quality, Service". MMMMMMMM, appetizing!
The Ardèche is also a huge player in French apricot production, and this time of the year is the peak of the season:
After killing some time, we set off to the small village of Blanche-Laine, where Dard & Ribo have their cellar.
In the 8 or so years we've worked with these guys, no one has ever met François Ribo; René-Jean takes care of everything on our side of things, and apparently François does the same for certain customers. So, you guessed it, René-Jean was our host. I would describe him as a lovable grump: he grumbled about us visiting on a Sunday ("and the day after the 14!"), but then spent 5 hours carefully showing us the vines and tasting through the 2011's. He likes to complain a lot, but it's always with a hint of amusement; he also has a great sense of humor and would be a shoe-in as a New Yorker. He's actually never been to the U.S, and says the only reason he would come is to have a "real American burger".
The first vineyard we visited was a parcel of Hermitage.
Roussanne, Marsanne and Syrah are co-planted together here. And while the Marsanne and Roussane are a bit hard to distinguish from one another, René-Jean grabbed some leaves to show how to easily spot the vines of red (left) and white (right).
Besides size, the white vines' leaves are more undulated, and their "butts cross"...
Their Crozes-Hermitage vines are at the very edge of the appellation. They are 20 years old, and were planted by René-Jean and François; when they took over in 1984, the preexisting vines were nearly 100 and unproductive. They ripped them out but were still able to get some selection massalles out of them, which is what was replanted. This particular parcel is one of many (but not all) that François works with a cable pulley and horse. The soils are deep, granitic sand.
The way they acquired this parcel is a cool story. Both the guys were participating in a traditional night of singing and dancing, with the party constantly moving from farm to farm. At around 2 AM, they found themselves drinking at an old farmer's house. In passing, he mentioned his imminent retirement and how he was hoping to sell his vines. Hungover, they woke up early the next morning to sign a contract with him. No one could understand why the guy was so adamant about selling his vines to two young nobodies who were just getting started, but he must of seen something special.
We also spotted some vines René-Jean is picking out his massalles for replanting:
Even in the Northern Rhône, there has been a lot of rain this year and therefore a lot of illness. This has forced them to do more treatments than usual. At the time of our visit, they'd done 5, but most in the region were well above 15. They were also hit with hail three times, which did some damage.
Our next stop was at les Karrières.
This parcel has the particularity of being on kaolinite soils. This is the same clay that is used to make porcelain, and just a few minutes from the vines, kaolinite is mined for just that.
We also checked out a parcel in Crozes-Hermitage called les Bâties.
Over the course of the visit, René-Jean kept bringing up his constant struggles with Inter-Rhône, an organisation designed to promote every aspect of wine in the region from A to Z. They claim to exist in order to maintain a certain quality in the vineyards and in the cellar, but according to what René-Jean told us, it seems like little more than a legal, administrative imposition of laws and regulations attempting to uniform an entire (rather large) region. The latest incident: Dard & Ribo recently got a 17 euro fine for letting too much grass grow...
"You need to let it grow when it rains this much. If you work the soils, you spread more illness."
But this is only a minor offense. Recently, the Dard & Ribo wines were tasted by an Inter-Rhône pannel who told them their wines were deviant and atypical, and now they're busting their chops about the winemaking, trying to send a guy over there to see what they're up to. This from the same institution that allows chaptalisation, acidification, and just passed the use of wood chips!
Unrelated but just as ridiculous, the cave cooperative of Tain just converted to organics, so they called Francois to tell him "watch what you're putting in the vines" so it wouldn't overlap into theirs. I guess they didn't know Dard & Ribo have been working organically since the 80's...
"But they never called us to tell us: hey we're using chemicals. Watch out!"
The same cave later got mad because the A.O.C forbade them from spraying the organic treatments via helicopter.
Crozes-Hermitage factoid: did you know that 70% of Crozes-Hermitage's vineyards are on flat land? In fact, up until fairly recently it was used as a bistro wine served at the counter. Traditional Crozes red was always light and pleasant, but in an effort to build up the region's reputation, many vignerons began making fuller bodied, more extracted and heavily oaked bottlings.
"Crozes was never meant to be a serious wine. It's supposed to be easy to drink."
In the cellar, we got to taste all the 2011's.
As many of you know, Dard & Ribo are amongst the pioneers of sans-souffre winemaking in France, and the reds have been this way since the 80's. For the whites, René-Jean explained that up until a few years ago, they'd always used to add a little bit of sulfur at press. But over the last decade, they have developed a technique where they rack the juice after press WITHOUT doing a débourbage. As the wine ferments, the gross lees are physically pushed out through the top of the barrels. This means they have to constantly clean up the overflow until fermentation is over, but this way, no sulfur! Once the fermentation is done, they then rack the wine.
We also got to taste Rouge Divers, a Crozes-Hermitage nouveau!
This bottling, which they've been doing since 2005, consistently infuriates their neighbors and probably Inter-Rhône if they knew about it. Why?
1. It's a primeur, so it is released in January. Not very serious Crozes!
2. It's in a transparent Bordeaux bottle, which is not typical of Crozes! And look at that color!
3. There is a big stamp that translates to "Drink Now" on the label. That's just not serious Crozes!
That was the visit. I wanted to do an interview, but René-Jean's lady-friend showed up and things just progressed into drinking some 2010's and hanging out. There was so much I wanted to ask, but I'm sure there'll be another opportunity. As we were about to leave, I stepped out for a second to check on Zaggy. Just then, a very tall, curly haired man with glasses was parking his tractor. Having no idea who it was, I politely said hello and went back in. It turns out it was François Ribo! By the time we'd figured out it was him (after all these years, Denyse wanted to meet him), it was too late: he'd gotten back on the tractor to work some vines! The mystery continues...
Next up, our visit with young up and comer Elodie Balme in Rasteau! Recap + interview!
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: DOMAINE RENARDAT-FÂCHE IN MÉRIGNAT
If you've hung out with Franck Peillot past midnight, you know him as a party animal. If you read the Wine Advocate, you might know him as the guy who made David Schildknecht say : "I don't know any other grower as successful as he in revealing the noblesse d'Altesse." I know him simply as Franck, one of the nicest, funniest guys we work with. I present to you, KING FRANCK:
As you can see, it was a bit of a gloomy day when we visited, and like many other parts of Northern France, the weather has been shitty all year.
"Since March, we haven't had a single week of nice weather. It keeps raining and raining..."
Over our short walk to some nearby vines, Franck gave us a quick geography/history lesson. The village of Montagnieu (literally moutain-y) is located on the last bit of the Jura mountains.
It's quite serene and beautiful, surrounded by miles of uninterrupted nature. Except for the nuclear power plant built in the 70's.
It's never been used, and Franck thinks this might be the year they actually demolish it.
The Bugey finds itself in the middle of two distinct but neighboring regions, and Franck jokingly sums up the wines in simple mathematical terms: Jura soil + Savoie grapes = Bugey wine. This of course, is not true: Franck works principally with the Bugey's two indigenous varietals, Altesse and Mondeuse, which are grown on heavy clay and gravely limestone soils.
Even though polyculture was always the Bugey's dominant agricultural model through the 50's, the region still had a strong focus on viticulutre: the area used to be covered in over 20 000 hectares! Franck's father was the first Peillot to focus entirely on viticulture, only growing Altesse.
"He only made one wine, a 10,5%, dry, bubbly."
In 1981, Franck had started working with his father, taking over in 85. In his early days, he decided to get experimental and make a méthode champenoise Altesse. It didn't work, so he decided to plant Chardonnay. Over the years, Franck was able to acquire parcels of Mondeuse, an indigenous red grape, that produces its own cuvée and that he also blends into his sparkling Montagnieu. He also has a little bit of Pinot Noir, which is surprisingly glou-glou (I've opened four bottles of 2011 this summer...)
Frank's vines are among some of the steepest we'd see on the entire trip.
The vines we visited were on heavy clay.
The chalk rocks you see are only on the surface, and are very close to what is used for commercial chalk. Franck proved it by breaking off a piece and writing my name on the road.
After our walk, we hopped into the Franck-mobile where he drove us to a few smaller parcels. Before heading back for dinner, Franck wanted to show us where he goes to escape from it all.
Though by no means religious, Franck still finds his peace here by the stream.
The 11's were tasting really good, and included a new, late-harvest Altesse. It was by no means sweet, and showed the subtlety and complexity to distinguish itself from the "normal" Altesse. We then ate a great dinner while tasting many back vintages of the whites, which were showing well. Eventually, it was time to hit the road, so we got back into the car at 1 AM and drove an hour and half back the the Mâconnais in a crazy rain storm.
Next up is the first recap of our two week trip through the South, and we're setting it off with Jean René Dard of the legendary Northern Rhone pioneers, Dard & Ribo!
P.S: The dog's name is Virgil.
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: OLD STUFF FROM THE CELLAR (PART 3)
Elie Renardat-Fâche is huge! If he was American, people would ask him if he plays in the NBA all the time. Fortunately, he lives in the tiny mountain village of Mérignat, population 100! Located in the heart of the Bugey, this relatively obscure region of France is known for its sparkling Cerdon. Universally referred to as "breakfast wine" by happy go lucky (and borderline alcholic?) fans of the style, Cerdon is the result of a méthode ancestrale fermentation, and is always light in alcohol, high in sugar and giving in fruit. But great Cerdon also packs the heavy minerality and acidity to really uplift the bottle.
Domaine Renardat-Fâche is widely considered to be one of, if not the best Cerdon currently produced, and the way we started working with them is a cool story: at a birthday dinner for my grandfather at the original Daniel (now Café Boulud), Daniel himself came out to wish Sam a happy birthday and to complement him on his son's accomplishments (my grandpa was very proud that day). This was around the time Daniel was prepping his second restaurant, and for the opening, he told Joe he wanted the Cerdon that legendary chef Alain Chapel was serving in Mionnay.
Joe and Denyse didn't want to call Alain Chapel's restaurant just to ask what their Cerdon was. So Joe, as a pioneer of the world wide web, found a link to an Australian restaurant in the Bugey called Le Boomerang (France's first and only Australian restaurant, which sadly closed a few years ago) and asked owner Rose-Marie Perkins if she had any leads. She told him that she worked with someone else, but that Chapel's Cerdon was from none other than, you guessed it, Alain Renardat-Fâche! Joe got in touch with him, and the rest is history.
SIDE NOTE: We actually ate at Le Boomerang once, and had ostrich steaks. I remember it being really good.
Our visit started in the Renardat-Fâche tasting room, which brought back vivid memories from my childhood.
At the time, my sister and I were obsessed with Cerdon because, well, it's SO DELICIOUS! We'd drink as much of it as our parents would allow (which was probably way above the average of NONE), at any chance we could get. Anyway, while scoping the room out and remembering my youth, I spotted this oddity:
Turns out they've been making a Chardonnay for years, but it's always been in tiny supply. It also turns out that 2006 was the last year they made it, so I guess that's that.
2012 factoids: Budding was very good but unfortunately, it's looking like a low yielding year for the Poulsard. The Gamay suffered from a lot of mirandage, a term that does not exist in the English language but means tiny berries as a result of difficult flowering. No hail, a bit of frost... And if you didn't know, after a six year conversion the estate is finally certified organic as of the 2011 vintage! Also, for the first time EVER, Elie is offering up MAGNUMS! He feels that you can actually age these a bit, which is rarely the case with 750's. Made to order, so contact us if you're interested.
Our next stop was to the cellar, where Alain and Elie broke down the incredibly technical nature of making Cerdon: everything starts at harvest, where they intentionally don't pick at optimum ripeness (10-11% potential). The grapes are destemmed, then fermented in temperature controlled, stainless steel tanks. After press, they add 40-50mg of sulfur and let the wine go through a slow, 3 week cold maceration. Elie has experimented not using sulfur this early on, but the length of maceration has always led to oxidation...
A spontaneous, semi carbonic fermentation occurs, which they stop at around 6% alcohol. After that, they lower the temperature of the tank between 0 and 20 degrees celsius. This helps block the fermentation without sulfur, a major innovation in methode ancestrale winemaking (Elie brings up not-so-found memories of his grandfather's extremely sulfury Cerdon in his interview). Alain and a few of the guys he went to school with were the first to use this technique in France.
At this point the yeasts are dormant, so they gently filter the wine before rebottling and letting it referment in bottle. In Champagne, a wine can be disgorged because it is dry, but since there is so much sugar left in a bottle of Cerdon, they always keep the storage cellar at 5 degrees; otherwise, the yeasts would become over-active, resulting in deviant wines and exploding bottles. Also unlike Champagne, bottles are stored standing up rather than on their side.
If they were laid down, the bubbles would become bigger, stronger and more violent and that would not be a good thing. Out of curiosity, I asked if it wouldn't be simpler for them to just have all of the wine in one big vat instead of bottle by bottle. Alain responded "of course", but that they don't do it for two reasons. The first is that historically, a French sparkling wine had to ferment in bottle. But more importantly, all the fruit aromatics of the Gamay would be lost.
They then empty each bottle by C02 and gently filter out the deposits left from the re-fermentation. This is done 8000 bottles at a time, with everything poured into a blending vat. The content in the vats represents a blend from 5 or 6 separately vinified parcels, bringing balance and elegance to the final wine. In the end, they make sure the final fermentation is never over 7,5% alcohol, because even at 8% you'd lose a lot of fruit. The blended wine is then rebottled and corked. Did you know that Champagne corks look like this before they are bottled:
Seeing what Alain and Elie are doing in the cellar makes it easy to understand why their wines qualitatively stand out of the pack. Few go to such lengths to produce this style of wine in the region; though it technically can't be labelled as Cerdon, the majority of regional sparkling, sweet, low alcohol wine is being produced with hefty doses of sulfur to halt fermentations and using the chermat method to add carbonation. These practices are is large part responsable for why the region has developed a bad reputation in France.
After our oenology lesson, we set off to our first vineyard site!
We began by visiting this 3 hectare parcel, which happen to be the first vines Alain bought when he was only 14 years old! It is steep!
Because they don't use herbicides, these inclines make soil-work decisions very important
"We're only 5 years into working organically, and it's still a learning process. We're the only ones to plow here, and maybe this year we should have done less…"
The vines are spread over 25 zones of the village, and range from 250 to 500 meters in altitude. Combined, the parcels face every type of exposition possible. Everything is hand harvested.
A big part of why Alain and Elie's Cerdon is so unique is that they are among a tiny percentage of vignerons who blend Poulsard into their Gamay. Other than the Jura, you won't find Poulsard anywhere else. Still, it only represents a tiny part of Bugey's vines: only 8 hectares are planted, and the Renardat own 3. Though it was traditionally planted in the region, Poulsard is fragile and low yielding so people ripped it out to favor the more productive Gamay.
We continued the visit with Elie wanting to show us an "experiment" they'd started in the Spring. It involves a trial with biodynamics on 10% of the estate: 4 parcels have been split 50/50 between organic and biodynamic viticulture to observe any differences.
Only a few months into the comparison, the major thing Elie has noticed is that on the biodynamic vines, the leaves seem to naturally spread out more and curve themselves inward to better absorb the sun.
Why? That's beyond them. Alain, who has always been a man of science, has been pleasantly surprised by the whole experience:
"I don't understand it, but I see the results and it makes me want to pursue things further."
Elie then pointed out:
"Human beings have lost the inherent instinct of being in sync with nature. An animal knows when a storm coming, where to find the food he needs... For some it's never left, but it's something most of have progressively lost. But I believe it's slowly coming back."
We finished the tour of the vines, then got to taste a bunch of pre-blended Cerdon before eating lunch. I was very excited, because Elie had promised me that we would taste the dry, still Gamay they make for personal consumption. I'd actually been thinking about it for over a year now (when he'd mentioned it in his interview). It did not disappoint: 11% alcohol, light and fruity but it still has a cool expression of terroir that differed from the Beaujolais. It was quite easy knocking back an entire magnum; Elie is actually considering bottling and selling small quantities of it in the future, and I certainly hope he does!
After lunch, Maya snapped some pics of the Renardat-Fâche's dogs Rapunzel and Guinevere:
Who's next on deck? Big man Franck Peillot, that's who! Stay tuned.
1998 Domaine de Roally Mâcon-Monbellet:
These wines age incredibly well. Slight hint of pleasant oxydation, a bit of residual sugar (which is normal), ever present acidity and nice finish. This and Marc Grozellier's goat cheeses from Blanot are the best pairing in the universe.
2003 Franck Peillot Montagnieu Altesse:
Hot year, so very round and rich. Didn't find it flabby at all. This was a hit with our dinner guests, and didn't last very long.
Domaine des Terres Dorées "Cuvée Premiere":
Another half-joke that turned out to be a pleasant surprise. This cuvée is released the January after the harvest as a follow up to Nouveau, and is obviously meant to be immediately consumed, not cellared for 12 years. At first, it felt a little beat, but over the course of the night it opened up, with really vibrant fruit taking over. Against all odds, the bottle was finished.
2005 Georges Descombes Brouilly "Vielles Vignes":
Georges Descombes ages his old vine cuvées six month in oak, and they usually hit the market a whole year after everyone else has put their Beaujolais out. The result is an age worthy bottle with structure, elegance and fruit produced from his extremely steep old vines in Brouilly. His very-little-to-no sulfur winemaking gave the wine a subtle little funk on the finish, but it was consumed so quickly it never had time to (maybe) get worst.
2003 François Pinon Vouvray "Première Trie":
Another 2003, France's biggest heat wave in a long time. It must of been a great year for François Pinon to produce dessert wines, as this special cuvée consisted of the first pass of overripe and botrytised Chenin. There was still enough acidity in the wine to serve with cheese, but it really proved to hold its weight with dessert.
And if you missed it:
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: CATHERINE AND CLAUDE MARÉCHAL IN BLIGNY-LES-BEANE
OLD STUFF FROM THE CELLAR (PART 2)
Next up, our visit with the Renardat-Fâche family!
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: SYLVIE ESMONIN IN GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN
Burgundy is suffering in 2012: they've been hit with winter and spring frost, hail, and the constant rain since May has made mildew and oidium problems a huge issue. For Catherine and Claude Maréchal, it was an especially bad year to begin a 100% conversion to organic agriculture; the experience has left them demoralized and defeated, leaving them to question if they will give it another shot next year. What really stuck with me from our visit was a sobering reality, one where organics aren't always in one's best interest, where priorities change as a vintage progresses and choices have to be made. Though today's post will be decisively serious in tone and less cheerful/humorous than the last 13, my goal is obviously NOT to prematurely badmouth a region's vintage before the grapes have even been harvested or to critique the Maréchal, who for years have used no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides in their vineyards and who craft delicate, elegant wines with minimal intervention.
Quite the contrary: their decision to attempt organics was whole hearted, but after struggling in a losing battle against mildew, they finally caved in to systemic products to save their crop. I am not a vigneron, nor did I experience this extremely challenging vintage every day head on; in such I don't know what I would have done in their place, but after seeing the state of the vines, I can certainly understand their choice.
After a quick coffee and chat, we set off to visit some vines. It was a dark, overcast day, the sky shifting from partially sunny to menacing clouds that threatened to unleash rainy fury on us.
This is what an average day has looked like this summer in Burgundy. Our first stop was the Chorey vines, where Claude showed us some of the problems they were facing.
Before even getting into the mildew stuff, 9 of their 13 hectares were hit with hail. The damage is done:
Showing us the bunches, Claude told us that a classic, good harvest was 8 good bunches a vines. He has about an 8th of that this year. This does not mean, and I can't overstate this enough, that the grapes that ARE there will be of poor quality; in fact I'm sure they will be of excellent quality because they are being taken care of by a great vigneron. There will, however, be very little of them to harvest.
In the photo below, you can see the spots of mildew on the leaves.
In the early stages, you can spot little stains on the top of the leaf. On the bottom, little grey-ish spores form, which if left unkempt spread throughout the leaf, eventually killing it. At the time of our visit, the mildew Claude was showing us was the 18th recontamination this year! 18th!!! Some quotes about dealing with such a frustrating situation:
"We were spraying one treatment a week, every week for months! When you spray that much, can you call that organic?"
"It felt like going to war with a bow and arrow."
"There comes a time when mildew is so bad -50 spots on a single leaf-, that you have to use products if you want to save the vines."
To prove his point, Claude showed us some vines that belong to a neighbor who chose to stick it out organically this year. It wasn't pretty:
"I don't understand. They did all the pruning work, and now it will have been for nothing."
In that statement, Claude was bringing up a simple but important point: to keep making wine, you need to make money. He estimates needing to earn 600 000 euros a year just to stay in business. And when you're at the mercy of nature like in 2012, having no wine to sell could easily be the beginning of the end for your estate...
Though they got hit pretty bad by hail, the highlight of the visit in the vines were the beautiful Pommard parcels.
Even amongst all the bad news, it was really soothing to be at the top of this cotteau, simply enjoying the view. I decided to help out by de-rooting some pesky plants competing with the vines.
After the vineyard visit, it was time to hit the cellar to taste the 2011's.
No bad news here: all the wines were tasting splendid. Highlights: Chorey and Auxey-Duresses for white, Savigny and Volnay for reds.
After tasting, we sat down to do our interview with Claude and Catherine while drinking an insanely good 2010 Savigny-les-Beaunes.
Speaking of the interview, why don't you go over the the Maréchal profile and read it. Find out about Claude overcoming his flatlander roots to become a vigneron, how Jean Thévenet and Henri Jayer inspired him to make better wine, how the two dealt with 2012 and much more. Seriously, go read it or their pet cat Fluffy will be mad at you!
Next up, our lovely (and very technical) visit with Alain, Elie and Christelle Renardat-Fâche. BOOM!
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: DAMIEN COQUELET AND GEORGES DESCOMBES IN MORGON
It's always a pleasant surprise when you imagine someone a certain way and they prove you completely wrong. Maybe it's that I'd only drank her wines a handful of times and that they strike me as "very serious" Burgundies (they are, and that's a good thing), but I always imagined Sylvie Esmonin to be, well, somewhat elusive and very serious. I'm talking stern, never laughs at anything serious. But she turned out to be warm, friendly, funny, passionate and insightful. While I'd envisioned her greeting us in a fancy-schmantzy pantsuit, she showed directly from the vines up in her "work outfit", consisting of boat-shoe loafers, purple soccer shorts, a t-shirt and a shiny, puffy silver-jacket that reminded of late 90's/early 2000's rap fashion. This description probably has you imagining Hillary Clinton dressed like Puff Daddy, but Sylvie actually looks like this.
Sylvie's most notorious vines are just outside of her house; she is one of only five to grow grapes on the lieu-dit Clos Saint-Jacques.
Here's a bonus pic of me petting Sylvie's dog Réglisse.
Sylvie was, as aforementioned, a little late because she was coming directly from her vines, which are keeping her very busy this year. Undoubtedly due to the extra attention she is giving them in this challenging vintage, her 8 hectares are not suffering from any significant illness problems. Though it will be another very low yielding vintage, quality should be high.
"It's been yet another very rainy summer, the 7th in the last 11 years. It rained 18 days in June! This is a fairly recent phenomenon in the region, one that people still haven't and need to adapt to."
For Sylvie, the current effects of global warming worry her less than recent and significant shifts in climate, namely warmer, drier winters and rainier summers. In her father's days, if there wasn't some kind of catastrophic weather incident, every vintage tended to be more or less "by the books": seasonal temperature and snow/rain/sun conditions of course varied from year to year, but the vigneron was rarely thrown major curveballs. But Sylvie says that over the last decade, her job as a vignerrone, which in her mind boils down to taking the best care of your vines as to produce the highest quality grapes (and thus the highest quality wine), has become an unpredictable, constant form of adaptation.
To illustrate her point, she described her experience of the 2011 vintage. That year, it was a very hot and dry spring, resulting in extremely precocious budding and flowering. But after that, nothing grew, and the vines began stagnating due to the ongoing dryness. This led many vignerons to suffer from what Sylvie has coined "2003 syndrome": that year, there had been no rain and heavy sun from March to October. In the summer, it is traditional to do an effeuillage to separate the grapes from each other and air them out as to not spread illness. By routinely doing this in 2003, many vignerons completely burned their grapes in the process. So for 2011, the dryness made them panic, and imagining a 2003 repeat, everyone chose not to do an effeuillage. And lo and behold, it rained all of July and August! Of course, illness spread violently. Even worst, September was absurdly hot, and people found themselves having flash fermentations (california style), which according to Sylvie, "Pinot does not like". All of Sylvie's neighbors thought she was crazy for instinctively doing an effeuillage in 2011, but it would have been a disaster otherwise.
After our chat, we stepped into Sylvie's beautiful, classicly Burgundian cellar. It's spread out over a smaller room:
And a larger one:
All the wines are fermented and aged in barrel, which are marked with what they contain.
We got to taste all the 2011's from barrel, which will be bottled right after easter 2013. The cellar is naturally cool, but not temperature controlled; in such, a very slow fermentation takes place, so Sylvie always waits two winters before bottling. We also tasted some 2010's in bottle. The wines always strike me as very drinkable young, but are invariably marked by oak, which I imagine would fade around the 10 year mark. Don't get me wrong: the oak is noticeable but never overbearing, always feeling like a fully incorporated, integral part of the wine.
After the tasting, Denyse asked how Sylvie's father Michel was doing. At 75, he still rides the tractor everyday to work the soils and take care of the vineyards.
"He's bored to tears retired at the house. He doesn't know what do to with himself besides work."
Sylvie envies him; back in his day, a vigneron's job kept him in the vineyard and the cellar, which is where she wishes she could spend the majority of her time. But times have changed, and now she feels constantly bogged down by administrative and commercial duties.
"Sometimes I feel like I spend more time in the office than in the vines."
Sylvie wishes she could hire somebody to take care of these duties, but in the reality of working a small, 8 hectare estate like hers, the administrative and commercial side of things have become an extension of an independent vigneron's duties. The real problem, however, is that the administrative laws in France for estates producing wine are the same for everyone, regardless of size. What may seem trivial to a large instillation who can hire someone to take care of paperwork becomes a time consuming endeavor that keeps the small, independent vigneron out of the vines where they belong.
We also talked about the current state of Burgundy, which Sylvie has a hard time being optimistic about.
"Burgundy is becoming like Bordeaux... I've seen two of my colleagues (not my competitors!) in the village go out of business in 2012. They were both about my size; one was purchased by a rich Chinese couple, the other by wealthy Canadians... No one else can afford the land, and less people can afford the wine."
Sylvie feels that Burgundy has lost touch with its peasantry roots, resulting in inflated egos and a loss of camaraderie that still existed a generation ago.
"The code of honor between vignerons here is gone. In my father's days, if a neighbor accidentally broke one of your pillars with his tractor, he would call to tell you, then fix it. Now a guy doesn't call, and even though you see the fresh tractor marks going into his rows, he tells you it's not him."
Sylvie's pessimism was tough to accept but based in reality, and I could tell her frustrations stemmed from a true passion and care for a sense of place; she knows that she will be able to continue working on a small, traditional scale in her lifetime, but worries her daughter might be thrown insurmountable economic and administrative hurdles if she chooses to continue in the same path. In the end, all Sylvie wants to do is make the best wines possible from her terroir, and nothing else. While she's succeeding at just that, no one's making it any easier for her.
Our next visit brings us to Catherine and Claude Maréchal in Beaune! Visit recap and interview on their way!
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: JULIE BALAGNY IN FLEURIE
In the little hamlet of Vermont, if you follow this very narrow pathway, you will find yourself in George Descombes' front yard.
Right as we were pulling in, none other than Damien Coquelet was hopping off his tractor to take a quick break before getting right back on to spread a treatment on his vines. After greeting us, he went to go grab Georges in the house, and we were ready to start the visit. The first question was the obvious one: how's 2012 going? It's been a challenging vintage around their parts: they've suffered from hail and frost since early May, but the big fight has been with mildew. With the same sunny/rainy day alternance that the Desvignes are experiencing, they are averaging one sulfur treatment a week against mildew, which is way above average for them. While they remain confident that it won't affect quality, it's looking like another small harvest.
Unfortunately, Damien had to go get some tractor parts replaced and then hit the vines, so we barely got to see him. Fortunetly, we were in good hands with Georges, who gave us a thorough tour of most of his vineyard sites. We hopped into his 4x4, and drove through the Morgon vines by the house before doing the same in Régnié.
The bulk of our time spent in vineyards was in Brouilly, where Georges owns a good amount of land. Our first stop in the Cru was a very old vineyard, the first piece of land Georges inherited from his grandmother. The vines are close to a 100, and a lot of them are missing; they actually just got a complaint from the INAO about it "not being dense enough". On top of that, the yields are tiny, so they are seriously considering tearing them out.
After visiting the flatter vineyards, it was time to put the 4x4 to use to check out the first ultra steep Brouilly site.
But that was nothing compared to where Georges was taking us next:
At 500m in altitude, George has a a quasi monopole of this hill.
It is STEEP!
Here's what it looks like from the bottom:
From the top, it's a beautiful view:
Also at the top, this mini parcel is one of the steepest in Beaujolais.
When Noella Morantin came to visit him last year, she said that she could never work these vines because they gave her vertigo! Georges uses a tractor to spray treatments on parts of the hill, but large portions of it, for example the bit from the above photo, cannot be worked mechanically. In fact, when Georges acquired them in 1993, he didn't own a 4x4 yet, so he'd walk to the top with bags of sulfur to do the treatments!
"That only lasted a year though! It made buying a truck a major priority!"
For soil work, they have a system similar to Julie Balagny's which I explained in the last post.
As we drove back to the house, Georges filled us in on some imminent changes, as he is planning to downsize his 18 hectares. He's getting rid of 1,5 h of Beaujolais villages because the conditions are too "harsh to work organically" (he didn't elaborate), but also giving about 3 h of his Morgon vines to his 20 year old son Kevin, who will work alongside his father for a few years before becoming completely independent like Damien.
We got back to the house, where we got to taste through Damien and Georges' 2011's.
They have a really cool tasting room full of old school Beaujolais memorabilia.
Notice the saussicons hanging from the rafters.
The 2011's, some of which are already bottled, others that were tank samples (Damien's V.V cuvées), are unsurprisingly showing great. To reiterate what I'm been saying in the last four visit recaps, 2011 Beaujolais is da bomb. We got to rediscover Damien's "Fou du Beaujo", something we'd tasted for the first time at the Dive Bouteille in January:
If you ever wondered what kind of incredibly professional notes we take while on these trips, you can spot Maya "Mayhem" Pedersen's apt observation: "awesome label" to the left of the bottle. In my professional opinion, it's hard to disagree.
While tasting, a few interesting conversations ensued. The first was about "organic wine" which officially exists now. Up until now, wine could only be made from organically grown grapes, but new European laws have passed stating that the wine itself can be organic, meaning there were no chemical additives added. However, since preselected yeasts and enzymes are not chemicals, they are fair game. Also, up to 150 g of sulfur can be legally added in bottle; Georges typically uses less than a gram at bottling, if any... Even thermo-vinification , an increasingly popular technique in the Beaujolais, is allowed.
I wasn't familiar with thermo-vinification, so Georges explained: it involves heating the grapes whole-cluster up to 158 degrees, cooling them down, then pressing the juice. So instead of doing the traditional semi-carbonic maceration, which takes 40 days on average, you can get similar results for color in 48 hours. It is beneficial in that it saves a ton of time and space, but it also gives the wine a displeasing, cooked taste. One thing's for sure: it's doesn't involve chemicals!
These permissive laws for winemaking strike Georges as rather strange, since the same associations are very strict about viticulture. In fact, he had to leave us halfway throughout the tasting because he had an appointment with an Ecocert official; we later found out that she made him visit EVERY SINGLE vineyard site and thoroughly investigated the cellars for any chemical products. This leads him to believe that "organic wine" is little more than a misleading title to boost sales. And while I won't deny that it's a positive thing for the consumer to know that no chemicals were used in the winemaking, it's clear that many qualitative factors were not considered when drafting these laws.
We ended the tasting with Georges' son Kevin pouring for us. He's a nice kid, and he's looking forward to his first harvest with the family this September. It was fun tasting the Descombes V.V wines from barrel with him, since he had no idea which was which.
"I think this one's Morgon. Or maybe Brouilly..."
I'm not sure which was which either, but they were all good.
Next up, our visit with the legendary Sylvie Esmonin in Gevrey-Chambertin!
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: OLD STUFF FROM THE CELLAR (PART 2)
Julie Balagny lives in the Hauts De Poncié, a hamlet on the very top of Fleurie. Her house sits on the top of a hill. She has no neighbors, as the house is completely surrounded by vines (that are not hers).
After Julie greeted us, we got to meet her pet rabbit Wiggles.
We were parched, so Julie offered to cool us down with this delicious rasberry nectar from Patrick Front.
It was a good time to talk about how 2012 was going. Julie was spared from hail, but has been getting an average of 30-40mm of rain per week. She suffered a little frost damage, but nothing serious. As far as 2011, it was a great vintage quantity wise, but she suffered a few setbacks. Basically, she wanted to help two local new guys out, so she let them vinify their harvests in the cellar that she rents. Unfortunately, their inexperience led to some poor decisions, creating microbiological issues in the tanks. Barely dodging a bullet, Julie was able to salvage her wine with some quick re-racking, and this improvised move forced her to consolidate some of the juices, thus affecting her usual lineup of cuvées. 2011 will birth a new, perhaps one-off bottling called Carioca. It should be bottled in late August/early September. The Simone wine will be aged even longer.
After sipping on nectar and talking shop, it was time to hop into the 4x4 and check out the vines. Over the six kilometer drive to get there, Julie pointed out some vines that are part of new fad sweeping the Beaujolais: ripping out one in six rows to make more room for a large tractor to spread (chemical) treatments over the remaining five. Because of its horrible reputation, Beaujolais is really struggling; the only people investing on a large scale are bigger companies who are quickly buying up large portions of land. In the process, they are furthering the mechanization of the local viticultural landscape. We also passed by an abandoned parcel where the owners had killed all the vines with Roundup.
"It's obviously completely illegal, but it's a lot cheaper than ripping them out."
After getting out of the village and maneuvering through some isolated paths through the woods, you find yourself in Julie's completely isolated clos of 3,2 hectares at 510 meters in altitude.
Julie is about to add fences around the vines to keep wild animals out. She is also working on setting up a field for her cows and sheep to graze. This is part of a long term plan to create biodiversity around her vineyards via polyculture. As she explained in her interview:
"The property also included 2 h of prairies and 3 h of woods; in the spirit of working biodynamically, I knew this was a perfect place to start a polyculture. The vines support the woods, the woods supply the livestock, the livestock supplies the soil: everything works together, everything is coherent."
There is no treillisage; everything has remained in traditional goblet training. The youngest vines are 30:
The oldest are 90:
Though all the vines are in one place, there are three distinct soil types. Here's some granite and quartz:
And here's some granite mixed with basalt:
The old vines in these soils are what end up in the Simone cuvée.
The vines are on a coteau that progressively increases in steepness, making any mechanical work impossible. By the time you get to the top, you're almost at a 60% incline:
To work the soils, Julie has devised a system with this winch.
She attaches it to this truck:
A mechanism then pulls it up as it plows through the soil. She then walks it all the way down through the next row, where she starts all over again.
Before tasting in the cellar, Julie wanted us visit her sheep that will eventually live next to the vines.
After visiting the vines, we checked out the cellar, just a few kilometers away. Here we got to check out Julie's old school wood press.
That barrel on it is just there to save space. We got to taste the Carioca: it was fruity, fresh and easy, but the extra aging provided some structure. Red fruit finish and nice acidity. The Jean Barat and Simone (from barrel) were also well on their way; they were both structured but fresh. Julie might have had a tough time with vinification setbacks, but the wines are GOOD. In the end, she is thankful for the experience.
I learned a valuable lesson, which is that you need to be patient with wine, to let it make itself.
Next up, MORE BEAUJOLAIS MADNESS with Damien Coquelet and Georges Descombes!
2001 Oratoire St-Martin "Cuvée Prestige":
Not as exciting as the 2001 white from Richaud, but still very alive. After being opened up for a few hours, the fruit was way more present on the nose and palate.
1998 Franck Peillot Montagnieu Mondeuse:
This bottle was completely dead. No fruit, no minerality, no alcohol, nothing. When I brought this up with Franck, he pointed out that while the whites can age quite gracefully, his reds are to be drank young. It might (or might not) be interesting to note that this was the last vintage Franck used preselected commercial yeasts to ferment his wines.
1999 François Pinon "Cuvée Tradition":
Old Chenin Blanc rocks! Bone dry, but a ton of round, aromatic fruit. Nice acidity and minerality.
Julien Fremont "L'Augeron":
This bottle has been standing on a desk in the house, NOT the cellar, for at least 12 years. Maya "Mayhem" Perdersen proposed we taste it as a joke because of this whole little experiment, so we threw it in the fridge and popped it open. It was surprisingly fruity, and not that oxidized, with the purity of the apple still present. However, it had this cheesy funk thing that made it hard to drink more than a glass of it. Interesting to try, but this didn't get finished.
1994 Clos Roche Blanche Sauvignon Blanc:
There was a ton of shit floating in the bottle, and we were worried it was well past its prime. Couldn't have been more off: bright, alive, mineral, fresh. A stunning wine that was an absolute pleasure to drink. Notice my giving a thumbs up through the glass!
Next up, Julie Balagny visit recap! And in case you missed it the first time:
PREVIOUS SUMMER LOG: CLOS DE LA ROILETTE IN FLEURIE
OLD STUFF FROM THE CELLAR (PART 1)