Friday, February 08, 2013

On the Road Again...

Rows and rows and rows of wine...

Once more the wheel turns and I find myself in France for a few weeks for the wine trade shows.  First up: Millesime Bio, in Montpellier, in the South of France.  Yeah, there are worse places to be in late January, let’s be honest. 

This show is dedicated to Organic and Biodynamic wines, with a few Natural wines thrown in for good (and mostly stinky) measure.  There are small winemakers (like my Azay-le-Rideau producer, Pascal Pibaleau), and huge corporate coops showing their wares for 3 days.  Thousands of professional alcoholics wine buyers come from all over the world to sniff, swirl and spit.  It’s a grand old time, with the few good restaurants and wine bars in Montpellier packed to the gills with wine pros.

This year, there were more “Off” shows than ever before (6 at last count), with many showcasing only Natural wines or smaller, independent producers.  What’s an “Off” you ask?  No, it has nothing to do with insect repellent.  “Offs” are smaller side shows, usually taking place in old monasteries, castles or ruins, where folks who can’t (or won’t) pay the main show’s fees can pour their wares.  They are great venues for meeting new, up and coming winemakers and meet some old favorites who are now eschewing the big show.  They’re also much more informal, meaning there’s less spitting, more sloshing, and way more singing and dancing between the tables.

Most of these Offs were focusing on Natural wines, which is the new “it” thing in the world of wine geekery.  Made with minimal intervention, these wines can be startlingly alive when they’re good.  But when they’re not, well, you better like drinking, say, rotten meat.  And, since these wines have no added SO2, they are inherently unstable, so shipping has to be handled as gently as possible.  If I sound cynical about them, it’s because I’ve tasted a LOT of them, and too many use the term “natural” as an excuse to make a flawed wine.

That said, I do appreciate the spirit of innovation and invention which drives these winemakers, who are passionate about the land, the environment and their terroirs.  And while I did taste some complete shitshows, I found some interesting things, both at the main show and at the Offs.

Pascal stands at attention at his table

As I mentioned previously (were you paying attention?), I also managed to meet up with Pascal Pibaleau, my Azay-le-Rideau producer, and retaste his great wines.  In fact, I may bring in a new one, a Gamay that was outstanding and should retail in the $19-20 range.  That stuff was so good I had to stop myself from drinking it all.  His sparkling Rose, made from Cab Franc and Grolleau, was delicious, and as much as I wanted to stay there and just drink his wines, I needed to go meet some folks.

What’s a wine trade show like?  Well, lots and lots of tables, bottles and glasses, with folks trying to get your attention, and many dying to meet US importers.  Despite the Euro’s strength (grrrrrr….), the US is still their main export target.  China is an important market, but mainly for high-volume, low-cost crap (having tasted what goes out there, I can use the technical term “crap” with a fair amount of confidence).  The smell of wine is almost overwhelming when you arrive, but you get used to it and get on with your work.

Lunchtime is served in a huge hall, but unlike trade shows in the US (I went to a few in a previous life), the food here is, well, really relatively damn good.  There’s some great salad, stinky cheeses, and well-made main courses.  Of course, this is all in the context of a trade show: feeding several thousand hungry and sometimes slightly inebriated wine buyers can’t be easy, so making sure you don’t start a riot with bad food is pretty impressive.

Herve and Sylvie Sauvaire looking a tad shell-shocked

I was lucky to also meet up with another of my producers, HervĂ© Sauvaire and his lovely wife, Sylvie.  While they do practice Organic viticulture, their domaine is not certified, so they were there to see some friends (and me!).  Frankly, for all intents and purposes, they are Organic, as they don’t use any chemicals or weird shit on their land.  They have one of the oldest wineries in the South (it was a dowry in the early 1600s), so they’ve had some time to figure things out and make sure they maintain the health of their terroirs.

All in all, it was a good show, I found a few interesting things (if they work out, we might be branching out, stay tuned…) and met some great folks.  To me, the highlight was seeing Pascal and HervĂ©, because as important as the wines are, at the end of the day it’s all about the people.

Millesime Bio done with, I headed south on the put-put train to the Minervois, there to visit last year’s discovery, Domaine Terres Georges, in Castelnau d’Aude.  Their wines are starting to get some serious traction in the US, so this was a visit I was really looking forward to.

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