Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Macon and the Tour de France

I visited the Macon region the other day, an area lying between the fruity softness of Beaujolais and the majestic soul-stirring beauty of Burgundy. This is a land of low-lying hills that surprise the traveler with sudden steep curves and angles. Spitting is de rigueur around here, lest one end up upside down amidst the vines.

A Chateau plays peek-a-boo in the vines

Still, there is a certain loveliness to the area, with quaint towns surrounded by rows and rows of vines crawling up the sides of the hills. However, one doesn’t get the same sense of history that Burgundy offers. There are no old monasteries hugging the sides of steep hills, no thousand year-old walls delineating different parcels of land, only the standard Gothic church which dominates most of the French landscape.

I was here in search of a nice, inexpensive, simple white wine, something I could offer cheaply, something that would be an easy sell. What I found surprised me: oceans of whites were indeed being made, but they lacked the character, the qualities, the je ne sais quoi I was seeking. And they weren’t cheap! How did this happen? Was it lack of skills? A prototypical French unwillingness to fight the market forces to create something unique? Or was it just plain laziness?

I knew the Macon was a warmer region than Burgundy, where the highest quality of Chardonnay is reached, but still, this was almost like California light. And it’s only an hour south of Beaune! With warmer conditions, one tends to get more tropical fruits from the Chardonnay grape (think sweet banana and pineapple instead of green apple and lemony hazelnuts), and this can be seen in extreme, almost absurd examples from California and Australia. Where was the minerality? Where was the acidity? Where was the balance? How did these fat wines waddle their way into this world? Was there a nefarious conspiracy of CA Chardonnay winemakers trying to turn the lovely white that I was looking for into a caricature of itself?

Despairing, I followed the twist and turns of the narrow roads, praying that the next stop would deliver me unto a good winemaker. But I hadn’t counted on two things: 1) most of the wineries that I did like were already taken by other importers, which was frustrating to say the least; and 2) the Tour de France. The Tour was wending its way through the region like a long Chinese New Year dragon, bouncing around from village to village and over hills and through dales. This, of course, meant that most of the adult population (ie the people I was here to meet) was either watching it live and thus not able to pour, or were in villages whose roads were closed by the Tour.

Gritting my teeth, I cancelled a few meetings and headed to my next appointments.

As in most businesses, it’s all about who you know, but probably nowhere is this more evident than in the wine industry. Especially in the hinterlands of Europe, where the Internet is still a new phenomenon or where getting a cell phone is still an amazing experience (how blazĂ© have we in the urbanized West become?). So my find in the Macon, Didier Tripoz, was due to this principle. A friendly wine shop-owner in Beaune (Mon Millesime, for you Burgheads) had told me about a delicious white being made by someone in a small town called Charnay. I looked on the map, and finally found the dot that was Charnay. As it turned out, he was on the outskirts of the picturesque town, clinging to the side of a steep hill overlooking the region.

Didier Tripoz makes some good wines, some interesting wines, and some so-so wines (mainly the reds, though truth be told I’m not a fan of Maconnais reds). His lowest-priced white was a lovely expression of the terroir, a ripe yet balanced Chardonnay that wasn’t smothered in oak and wasn’t sweet. But what really impressed me was his attitude, which was much more open than some of the old-timers I’d met. He was willing to try new things, even, sacrĂ© bleue, screw caps! And he was still capable of getting genuinely excited about it, not just doing it for the sake of the market, but just for the good old-fashioned Hell of it.

This attitude is very, very hard to come by in rural Europe, and even more so in France. For a nation that’s dying to change, they are just terrified of that very change. So to find someone making a good wine, at a decent price, and willing to remain open to new ideas, well, let’s just say that this particular tasting had a happy ending.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the Macon. I had expected more diversity and more interesting wines, but very few really stuck out as having that “hook” I was looking for. The fact that I only found one, out of all the wines I tasted, says a lot I think. It probably says a whole lot about me, but that’s a different story for a different time. Perhaps I’ve become too picky, but I do know one thing: I can’t represent it if I don’t like it.

Here's the full gallery of pictures (click on the photo, no need to register):

Pictures of the Maconnais region

Next, off to the Loire Valley.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Jura: land of Comte cheese and wildly wonderfully weird, wacky wines

So I found myself in the Jura the other day, one of the more obscure, unknown, and, dare I say it, under-appreciated winegrowing regions of the world. Indeed, even in its own country, the wines of the Jura are unknown, ignored or at best relegated to curiosities. But these wines are quite complex and delicious, and shrugging them off would leave one's life devoid of a singularly unique experience (and, I might add, pleasure).

Only an hour away from Beaune, centered on the city (town, really) of Arbois, this area is composed of rolling hills covered in leafy vines that seem to undulate as the eye wanders over the landscape. It's quite beautiful in an almost poetic, visually sing-song way.

Looking out over the rolling hills

Some of the grapes planted here are unlike anything else in France, or the world for that matter. They grow five varieties here: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as in Burgundy, then three other unique types only found here, Trousseau and Plousard for reds, and Savagnin for white (this makes the famous Vin Jaune). The region's wines have been known for their quality since the time of Pliny, yet somehow they rarely get much mention these days in any wine publications (though Eric Asimov does a great job of trying to get folks to pay attention to them, both on his blog The Pour and in various articles in the New York Times). Yet they remain under the radar for most wine lovers.

More Rolling Hills

Different terroirs accomodate different grapes, and geologic upheaval has given the area many different strata for growers to choose from. As in Burgundy, over the millenia, people discovered that some soils were better suited to a specific type of grape than others.

An example of terroir

The wines made here have a unique taste quality that can not really be compared to anything else. The reds, even when young, are somewhat like older Pinot Noir or older Nebbiolo, with a light, almost rose color, hints of tea and red flowers and fruits buttressed by a lovely smokiness in some cases, and bracing acidity. The Chardonnays have a nuttiness that's completely different from CA fruit bombs, the minerally steeliness of Chablis or the honeyed complexity of Cote d'Or Chards. And the Vin Jaune, well that's just a beast in and of itself. To make it, the Savagnin is held in casks for a minimum of 6 1/2 years, and are never topped off. What does this mean? Well, as the wine evaporates slowly (a normal process, this loss is called La Part des Anges, or the Angel's Share), a yeast settles onto the surface and forms an airtight film, known here as La Voile (the Veil). The interesting part about this is that while it's pretty airtight, reducing the oxydation of the wine, this veil does allow water molecules to escape, concentrating the alcohol content. So, what does this mean?

The Town of Arbois' main clock tower

Well, this means that what you end up with is a deeply yellowed wine that tastes almost like a super dry Sherry, but saying this in front of a winemaker will most likely get you tossed out onto your ass. I might add he'll then send his dogs after you. And, to be sure you get the point, he'll grab his rifle (many people in the area are avid hunters). So, dear reader, be sure to observe, sniff and taste in silence. Jura winemakers bristle at this comparison because Sherry is fortified wine, while theirs was made naturally, by the combined action of La Voile and time. In addition, it has a bracing acidity that makes your mouth pucker in surprise. This is not your average white wine, for certain. That said, the wine does have a very Sherried aspect to it, no matter what the winemakers want to think. Such a quaintly French way to look at the world.

So this was my first time in the region, I had come to learn about the wines and the people making them. I visited a few cellars, realizing quite rapidly that as usual there was a lot of bad wine being made (I still can't fathom why, with all the advances in winemaking, one would be so lazy as to make bad wine, but that's just me). I had researched the wines of the area while still in New York (ie I drank them with friends in Central Park) and found them to be to my liking. And, if you know me at all, you know that if my interest is piqued by something, well, then nothing short of Armaggedon will stand in the way of my finding out more about it. And so I found myself tasting various Chards, Trousseaus and Plousards (also spelled Poulsard), as well of course as everyone's Vin Jaune. They're all very proud of that wine, which is really what the Jura is known for, but frankly few wineries have both the means and patience to make it correctly. So after several hours of biting my tongue to make it forget what it just tasted, only two wineries really stood out: Domaine Rolet and Lucien Aviet.

Both could not be more different. Rolet is a large firm, owning 60 hectares (148.26 acres), with a large facility with stainless steel vats and modern equipment. Still, it had a nice family feel and attitude to it. Lucien Aviet, on the other hand, is a tiny winery, owning only 6.5 hectares (16.06 acres). All of Mr. Aviet's work is done in a converted barn, in old wooden casks in which the wines are fermented (very little if any wood notes are passed on to the wine due to the age of the casks). Yet both managed to make lovely wines, with personalities of their own, reflecting where they're from and who made them.

My tip of the hat would go to Mr. Aviet, however. His wines had an extra "oomph", a je ne sais quoi that made me want to keep revisiting them. The highlight of my visit there was when he showed me the cask where his 2005 Savagnin was still fermenting. The wine was still sweet from the grape sugars, with a bracing acidity and lovely freshness, and almost none of that nuttiness one associates with Savagnin. There was even the taste of the yeast! All of his Vin Jaunes were amazingly complex, just lovely and for me a surprising discovery.

Needless to say, I'm going to do everything possible to bring him into the US.

Yum, 24-month Comte cheese

Before heading up to see Mr. Aviet and after my visit chez Rolet, I stopped at a local cheesemonger to pick up the region's signature cheese, Comte. Fresh and lively when young, aged Comte takes on a nuttiness that's just fantastic when paired with Vin Jaune. As it ages, it gains minerally grains of deposits from the dehydration process, adding a slightly salty tang to its nuttiness.

24-month old Comte is difficult to come by anywhere, so I took advantage of my situation and grabbed a huge chunk. Guaranteed, it will be gone within a few days, I tend to munch on this stuff the way others reach for potato chips.

Here's the full gallery of pictures (click on the photo, no need to register):

Jura pics

Tomorrow, the Maconnais.



Wednesday, July 11, 2007

First Day Visiting My Wineries

WARNING: Shamelessly embarassing plugs for my wines below.

"My wineries." How cool is that? I giggled several times thinking about that on my way to the Rhone to visit the two domaines who've accepted me as their representative in the US. And then, when we were traipsing through the stone-filled rows, I couldn't stop a huge smile from just crossing my face. These are "my" guys! I've been dreaming of this for so long!

In any case, all immature musings aside, Monday was my first full day of visiting wineries that I'm representing in the US as well as visiting some potential others. Well, let's just say they're going to stay "potential" (and nameless). Yuck. I did say somewhere that I had to taste a lot swill before finding some gems, right? But stopping by to see "my" guys was absolutely necessary, the wine business is a relationship affair and I knew they'd appreciate the effort I made to come down to see them (though 3 hours each way is nothing for me, I've done more for women... but that's another story...). I have to say, they weren't just impressed with the effort, but with the time it took to get there. Hopefully they don't know anyone in the Gendarmerie Nationale...

So I found myself in the Rhone Valley, a long narrow strip of wine-growing land that stretches almost from the Mediterranean at Marseille all the way up to just south of the city of Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France (and frankly most of the world). More Michelin-starred chefs have started in Lyon than anywhere that I know of.

So what's the Rhone like? Well, for starters, it's hot during most of the growing season. Real hot, I mean so hot that in summer that you just can't be outside or you'll feel your brain baking. This summer happens to be cooler than most, but that's the beauty of vintages: each one's different in its own way and leaves that imprint on the wines of that year. The Rhone is also full of small to medium-sized pebbles left over from the last Ice Age, carpeting the area and absorbing all that sunlight. During the day, some of them are event too hot to the touch! But at night, that's when they work their magic: radiating all that heat back to the vines, allowing them to maintain a cradle of warmth through the cool night air. And, lastly, let's not forget the work of the region's wind, the Mistral. A devilish blowtorch of air that howls down the valley for over 300 days a year virtually non-stop, not even to catch its breath. It has been known to drive men mad. Yet this same wind dries the grapes when it's humid or rainy, cleaning them and keeping them safe from mildew, oidium and most other plant diseases.

So, leaving cold and grey Beaune (the summer of 2007 is the summer that wasn't), I drove straight south for 3 hours, averaging probably around 150kph (yes, you read that right, I make that little hamster in the engine work for his food). My first stop was at Chateau Haut-Musiel, which isn't really a fancy-schmancy chateau at all but a renovated building on the side of the road next to an antiques shop. Jean-Marie Popelin makes some fantastic, small-production stuff here, wines that are redolent of their terroir (where they're from) and the grape varieties used. Before doing anything, we tasted a variety of his 2005s and they were absolutely fantastic, making me happy that I'd chosen to add him to my portfolio. Heck, even the 2006 rose wasn't bad. And I'm not a fan of rose!

Jean-Marie is young and energetic, and always ready to try something new to improve the quality of his wines. He isn't byodynamic, which can be limiting as well as inefficient, but instead uses a lutte raisonee (knowledgeable agriculture) approach, taking the best of all the different approaches to grape-growing. The results speak for themselves. His soils are dynamic and full of life, especially in the soils between the stones (see pic).

His philosophy is to ensure that the ground is taken care of, so that all his vintages can show well. So we hopped into his rugged, old little quasi-minivan (Euro style, not the US soccer-Mom thing) and began beating our way over rounded stones and thick scruffy cover. The poor vehicle nearly tipped over a few times as he took some steep turns, but, surprisingly, despite the bouncy ride, managed to hold its own. Who knew?

As it turned out we were driving a spiral around the town of Domazan, near the famous Pont de Gard (the huge Roman viaduc that's still standing). We stopped at various vines, checking their progress in this most miserable summer of 2007. Most were chugging along, some starting the veraison process whereby they turn from light green to purple. The rows were planted parallel to the Mistral, the wind from the North that blows constantly for over 300 days straight. As we stood on top of the plateau, the wind kept up its pressure, a howling, whipping presence that just never stopped, seeming to mock us little mortals. It doesn't surprise me that some people go nuts. It never stops once it starts blowing!

I stopped at a few nondescript other wineries before coming to my other find, a gem called Montfaucon. I had met Rodolphe de Pins and his wife Mari back in February and all of us had been absolutely amazed at the quality, elegance and balance of his wines. When I'd asked to taste older vintages, he didn't bat an eye and opened a 2003, possibly one of the hardest vintages aside 2002 (very rainy) in a while. The wine was lovely, balanced and well-made, shocking everyone present. Most 2003s are burnt and over-extracted due to the high heat and dry weather of that year. Not chez Montfaucon.

Once again, we hopped into the European equivalent of a mini-van and started bouncing over stones and galets, huge rounded pebbles left over from the last Ice Age. Rodolphe took me to some of his favorite plots, and we got out and he began explaining his philosophy of grape-growing to me (funny how that seems to happen a lot with all the winemakers I know - do I just look like a skeptic?).

Rodolphe is passionate about maintaining the land, like Jean-Marie, and keeping it as healthy and as ecologically varied as possible. He knows that's the best way to ensure quality vintages one after another. And while he's not byodynamic, he's an engineer and learns from observations, rarely relying on blind faith (as some byodynamic precepts want you to do). I have to say, in these days of industrial plonk like Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail, it was refreshing to see someone who's that passionate about the quality of his vines and wines. Picking ONLY by hand , he ensures that his wines will be up to his standards of quality (which are high, so God knows how drunk he was the day he accepted me as his rep...).

We then hung out in his garden where his kids fed me cherry tomatoes (I am a tomato addict and can't find a good one in the US, despite my friend Drew's attempts to distract me with crappy Jersey tomatoes). These cherry tomatoes were so ripe I can still taste them a day later... Wow.

A lovely couple, Rodolphe and his wife sent me on my 3-hour way with a case of wines, some tomatoes and a bottle of water.

Oh, here are the full galleries of pictures:

Tomorrow, the Jura, in the far East of France.