This trip so far has been nothing short of a whirlwind. Each days begin at 7 am and end at 1am. Meeting such devoted winemakers… farmers or better yet artisans, really… is very humbling. It’s easy to imagine their lives are full of ease and whimsical evenings of kicking back an aged bottle they made with their own hands, looking among their vines and reflecting on their fortune. But this is not the truth. Albeit happy and overly gracious with their time, not one was coming outside from having their coffee to greet us. Pierre Gauthier was busy in the fields and came to see us on tractor. Francois Chidaine was power-washing his cellar floor. Though present, Jonathan Didier Pabiot was so busy with work, his wife needed to take over the tour. You could visibly see dirt beneath the kind hands of Gerard Boulay who clearly hadn’t been long from his soil. There is no glamour to the gig. Just incredibly hard work. One winemaker, Antoine Foucault of Domaine du Collier, explained that a chef has many chances to correct a dish–tweak it as best they can from one to the next until it is perfect. For grapes, a grower/maker gets maybe 45 vintages in a lifetime, from which there is some control, but never even close to complete. A grower must surrender his or herself to the crop. Year in and year out. I recall Pabiot’s wife looked with trepidation at the flowering vines scattering their plot in Pouilly Fume, commenting, “So it starts… the worry and anxiety again for four months, at least.”
And as I sample the wines from their cellars, spitting them out and dumping my glass in anticipation of the next glorious selection, a little lump of guilt can’t help but form.
I can, however, do them a little justice by relaying a few stories from my travels in the past week…
It is hard to believe it has been a week since I landed in France, and already I am on my journey back, loaded with more notes that I can possibly process. To relay each moment is hardly an option at this point! I have oodles of work waiting for my when I return. Still, to not have any entry on such an amazing trip is hardly my style. I will attempt to focus this entry on the wineries visited and the next on some bits, bites and sips around the Loire, Burgundy and Paris for the next time you plan to visit!
I am incredibly fortunate to do what I do. I represent a very small, hand curated portfolio of some of the most dedicated, focused farmers in Europe (though mainly France) called Old World Wine, based in Colorado. The decisions that are often seen as exceptional (not to mention risky and very high maintenance) are simply seen as a way of life and necessary to make honest, terroir driven wines in the eyes of most of these producers–decisions like using wild native yeasts found on the grapes and in the cellars to promote fermentation, using only organic substances in the field and the winery, little to no fining or filtering, but mostly a philosophy that the best wines are made in the vineyard with very little human interference, rather a controlled yet ample space for natural development. With these decisions often comes lower yields, an aspect that so many think give these wines better quality. While this might be a factor, what was reinforced this week was that it is never one decision or component that makes an outstanding wine. Rather, it is the unrelenting devotion these growers have to understanding their land, its individual parcels and what works to help foster those identities most. The best winemakers had no formula. In fact, they treated their vines very differently with respect to its exact location (the microclimates, aspect and drainage in certain spots) as well as the particularities of the clones, vine age and disease pressure throughout their vineyards. The best winemakers weren’t dogmatic or afraid of changing how they did things, or their families had been doing things, for decades… maybe even centuries. Here were the visits, and a brief glimpse into their insights, lessons and philosophies…
Day 1: Anjou & Saumur
The first day was an adventure. My colleagues missed their connection, so I was to meet them in Chinon the next day. In my rather long station wagon of a rental, I quickly realized that my Tetris skills were just barely good enough to squeeze through the steep little neighborhoods above I conveniently got lost in on my way to town. Looking at the scratch marks on the old chalky walls, I folded in the mirrors, held my breath and crossed my fingers, praying no one was about to whip uphill around the corner.
I spent the first evening kicking stones around the village of Chinon, scoping it out, having a nice meal with some 2004 Joguet Varenne du Grand Clos Chinon and generally preparing for a full but fascinating week ahead. We rented an apartment (gite) in the center of town. It was an ideal location to begin the journey. Here were some of my most memorable visits…
Thibaud Boudignon (Anjou)
On paper, Anjou always seemed so close to Chinon. A couple hours later, I was there. The Thibaud Boudignon was waiting with a smile on his face to greet us. He was kind, soft spoken and thoughtful. When he began to describe his wine, though, there was a bolt of electricity that emanated from him. His mother left him a small bit of money when she died. She didn’t want him to spend it on cars or silly things… she wanted him to build a life with it. And so he did. He has assumed a winery that once was an enology school in the 17th century. In and around the area, he has selected parcels of what he feels are the finest lots of land for the best wines of the region.
He farms 4 ha in Anjou (including Savenierres), from which a little more than half is viable at the moment, while other young vines are trying to find their way in this world to make fruit. He called it his ‘garden’ and chuckled a bit at his humble size. He does Chenin Blanc (75%) and Cabernet Franc (25%). The Anjou hasn’t always had a reputation for ageworthy wines competitive with such places as Chinon, Vouvray and Bourgueil. Having recently enjoyed his basic white from the 2000 vintage and finding it wonderfully complex and long-lived, I wanted to know his secret that set him apart from so many in this area. Among biodynamic principles, he believes so many elements contribute to a high quality wine: site selection, the rootstock and its graft, the clones, vine spacing, density/yield, pruning for vine balance and choice of oak (he loves Stockinger for its tight retention of minerality in the wines and would to integrate more in time). Mainly, though, the key for him in Anjou? Drainage! He has spent so much installing a drainage system so that water will not stagnate. This was incredibly expensive but crucial to him.
The wines are so chiseled and serious. Neutral barrel fermentation, a brief nap on the lees (5-6 months) and a chilly existence to avoid the effects of a creamy malolactic fermentation, these wines have so much nerve… so much energy. He is such a talented young guy. I can’t wait to watch this star rise, placing Anjou on such a heightened level of discussion among the critics.
Domaine du Collier (Saumur)
Growing up in ancient cellar and playing in the dirt amongst his father and uncle of the famed Clos Rougeard, it’s no wonder Antoine Foucault makes some of the finest wines I have experienced from this region. A carefree type with wild eyes, Antoine seemed at once laid back and yet the most meticulous guy I have ever met. He has a very ‘the wine makes itself’ kind of attitude, plopping it in a barrel to fend for itself in his cold, dark cellars with little interference from him or anything else outside its natural inclination once in barrel. He was so meticulous, that as opposed to every other winemaker we met with who encouraged us to pour our sample tastes back into the barrel (yields have been so low, every drop is precious!), he insisted we would be changing its environment to do so and insisted we dump it in a bucket as waste.
He too does about 75% white and 25% red (Chenin and Cab Franc). Similarly, he ferments in neutral barrel, is a fan of Stockinger, blocks malo and fosters the use of native yeasts. He likes a very long cool ferment followed by a long, fruitful rest for about 2 years in the chilly cellars. This is how wines develop their longevity, complexity and resilience to a life long battle with oxygen once bottled. The result, much like Boudignon, was rather luminous– a tension on the palate that came from a true understanding of one’s produce that can only be discovered with time, patience and a desire to make exceptional wine.
Domaine Saint Just (Saumur)
This is a really wonderful estate that has changed its tune in recent years. The winemaker has very openly discussed the evolution that is taking place. He is departing from old ways and really seeking purer, organic wines that express the vineyard versus what he can do in the winery. A better understanding of viticulture as well as how to manage acidity and tannin in the winery have given his wines so much more structure, food application and identity. We tasted from past vintages and the direction he is heading is tremendously positive. I encourage anyone to go visit with him and check it out. He is certain to rise on many radars in no time.
Day 2: Bourgueil, Chinon, Vouvray & Montlouis Sur Loire
Domaine du Bel Air (Gauthier)
Pierre Gauthier was exactly how you want to picture a winemaker. He seemed to maybe forget our appointment and was deep into plowing when we arrived. Everyone was plowing, grateful for the stretch of sun and prepping the base of these vines for the rain to come– giving them air and ridding it of the grass so that they won’t steal the moisture from the vines. You could quickly tell our producers from most other. Where others had soils that looked dead and sad, our organic farmers looked healthy and fertile (even if I know better that these were some pretty nutrient poor soils we were dealing with– a vine’s happy place).
He hopped off his tractor and welcomed us. He had big, friendly eyes that nearly glimmered with a youthful excitement and a distinctive fluffy mustache. I liked his priorities, as he immediately insisted he introduce us to his vineyards. Thankfully we had a fluent French speaker with us, for we got to learn all about the history of this estate. Their famous lieux dits “Clos Nouveau” was literally the last wall to be built in times of nobility–around 1650 A.D. As such, it was the ‘new wall’. Most came down after the revolution and certainly by the 20th century. But this special plot was still in tact, surrounded by an ancient wall and locked with a custom made, iron gate. The vines were very old and low yielding.
I asked how long he has been practicing organic. Fifteen years he responded… ‘there is no other way…” I asked if he ever found maintaining organic principles difficult in more challenging vintages. I liked his explanation that those are sometimes the best, as it really forces one to get out in the vineyards and out the problem. That there needs to be connection with the grapes to find solutions. Spraying chemicals is a very slippery slope… a band aid. Organic is not just a certification and list of rules to follow. It is a commitment to really understanding how to work with the earth.
I want to spend so much time discussing each, but I just won’t be able to submit this in the next few days (therefore ever!) if I do. Grosbois needs mentioning, though, even if we couldn’t meet with the winemaker. Still, his assistant was there and is incredibly talented. She was raised in Bordeaux, interned and worked in cellars all over the world, made wine in Burgundy, committed to coming to the Loire to work with Francois Chidaine and finally found herself at Grosbois. They too are very much in transition though really coming out on the other end, as their current image and reputation is solidifying. They too are all natural and focus on Cabernet Franc, though they are beginning to play with a few other concepts as well. They integrate biodynamic principles of polyculture, fostering bee activity and growing other kinds of produce and grains.
Francois Chidaine (Montlouis sur Loire/Vouvray)
I was always intimidated to meet Francois. I imagined him very serious and reserved. Though it was evident once I met him that he was possibly both, he was also incredibly generous and kind. The moment he sensed you were on a level of passion akin to his, he started opening up his magic cloak to let you inside. If you haven’t tried these wines, they are absolutely stunning. Speaking to his meticulous nature, we had the rare opportunity to taste grapes from the same vineyards harvested just a day in some cases apart and fermented separately. To say harvest time really can’t fluctuate over a day or two is incorrect. For some, maybe. But when you have such a hands off style in the winery, every decision made in that field matters. He uses these subtle yet stated differences of expression to blend into his memorable and long-lived cuvees. He does some in an off-dry style, but it is hauntingly angular dry whites from Montlouis that tend to win my heart. We were so fortunate to taste several backvintages dating back to 1996 from a variety of parcels. Knowing these are rarely more than $35 on the shelf, you better believe I will be stocking up…
Day 3: Manetou-Salon, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume
Rather than delve into each, I can say that this was one of the more memorable days we experienced. The visits were bookended by very young, ambitious guys who are shaping the way we think about wines from these regions: Paul Henri Pelle in Manetou-Salon and Jonathan Didier Pabiot in Pouilly Fume. Between the two, is a legendary man who has been following the beat of his own drum as well as many from his family line before that were doing things natural before it was hip: Gerard Boulay.
Our first visit, Paul-Henri Pelle of Domaine Pelle in Manetou-Salon (not far from Sancerre) was not as dogmatic as some that I have talked to when it comes to natural winemaking. He didn’t claim to be organic. He was pragmatic. While he tried to be organic 99% of the time, it wasn’t worth it to him to put that kind of pressure on himself if he needed to pull for a chemical once in a while. He was very keen on using a symphony of clones, rather than just one as so many do. He used old clones in his vineyard to duplicate and graft. This diversity made his wines more interesting in his opinion. He shared back vintages of both his Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. Just 5 years, and you begin to see the tremendous values this winery has to offer. Some of his wines gathering dust even reach back to the 80’s…
Gerard Boulay continues to do such breathtaking work. We saw his tiny cellar, which nearly made me weep seeing for my own eyes how little is available for us all to fight over. He generously opened several back vintages as well to showcase the unmatchable longevity from such sites as Mont Damnes and Clos du Beaujeu. In fact, the 2000 Clos du Beaujeu, which had been open an entire week, was alive with acidity, depth and concentration, showcasing aromas of white truffle, geranium and the ever so savory rind of parmesan. My mouth waters just thinking of it!
Pabiot’s small domaine was also a real treat. Though he has only been at it a handful of years, his craft and talent cannot be missed. More than anything else, it was here that I began to understand just how important yeasts are in winemaking. He and his wife are more focused on this than anything– to avoid reduction, spoilage and any other number of things that can go wrong when you disregard the importance of healthy yeast. Daily these folks dig in the barrel and taste their lees– the yeast deposit at the bottom of the tank. Here is where they find the whole story of the wine to come. They likened it to soup stock. If it is off, the whole dish won’t work. He like so many we met have carried out a new philosophy of winemaking, departing from their parents to pursue a more natural method as well as more low-yielding. The results have been nothing short of riveting.
Days 4-5: Burgundy
Wow. As I write this, I realize just how much we accomplished in a few short days! I can scarcely keep on top of relaying it all to you folks. Burgundy, as it has proven so many times, really comes to epitomize magic to me. These wines are such a case for terroir, it is difficult not to buy into some notion or definition that it not only exists but arguably places Burgundy at the top for this idea that a place–its climate (micro), aspect, soils and even to some extent the cultivation and care of this specific location imbues a kind of fingerprint on a wine. One can merely stick their nose in the glass and understand a Clos de la Roche from Clos du Tart.
We were able to meet with some of the top producers all the area, from Bouzerou in Meursault and Maltroye in Chassagne-Montrachet as well as Rapet in the village of Savigny les Beaune (famous for his Corton… cases of which so many locals were filtering in to purchase during our visit). We even spent a day in the south meeting with a couple outstanding new players: Franz Chagnoleau in the Macon as well as Paul-Henri Thillardon in Chenas (Beaujolais). We had to see an old favorite as well, the staggeringly talented Jean Marc Burgaud in Morgon with the legendary Cote du Py in the backdrop. These areas are fast growing in quality and little more affordable for young winemakers to get their start in Burgundy. There is more room to grow and be part of something revolutionary, much as Thillardon explained about Chenas, a tiny crew of 150 growers over only 250 ha. You can be a vital part of its growth and progression… the future of an appellation.
More to come on the particulars of Burgundy, alas, the computer battery is threatening to steal my thunder and make me cry uncle. First and foremost, though, stay tuned for the next entry on bits, bites, sips and sleeps!