A couple of years ago, while directing a wine documentary on Pico Island in the Azores, I came upon a well-attended religious event, Espirito Santo, in the main square of a small village not far from Madelena. A heavy church bell was pealing in the gray of an early morning. Just out of sight up narrow, winding streets, I heard the echo of what turned out to be a gathering of colorfully dressed musicians tuning and warming their many and varied instruments while awaiting instruction on the proper ordering of their procession. From out of this cacophony a familiar face came into focus, my friend Vasco, a fine guitarist in a local band. A question had occurred to me while on the mainland of Portugal weeks earlier. It’s common enough to hear church bells ringing in Europe, but I had come to hear what I believed was the same basic note, sometimes an octave or two apart, repeatedly sounding, including the very bell in the square below us. And so I asked Vasco about this. Sure enough, so predictable was the note, an ‘A’, that his band would often tune their instruments to it no matter where in Portugal they might play.
This would be unremarkable perhaps but for one important detail: the manufacture of church bells, extending centuries back, has always been and remains an inexact practical science. A bell may sound the ‘A’ of the chromatic scale, but it is not necessarily a mathematically perfect ‘A’; pitch and fundamental frequency vary, not only because of differing production practices from one bell foundry to another, but also due to the bell’s age, use, and the daily and seasonal changes to which it is subject. Further, vibrating within a bell’s commanding note, practiced ears can hear a bewildering array of sub-tones, flats and sharps, a resonating signature as precise as a fingerprint. From this I drew one key lesson: When Vasco and his band tune their guitars to a specific bell, the acoustics are found only there, in that one village and nowhere else. Just as with family cuisines, neighborhood design, and social intrigue, could it be that there is difference in the acoustic atmosphere of a village as well? I think so. More, what I’ve suggested of the subtleties of bell variation et al. may also apply, again with reference to Portugal, to regional grape varieties, flavors and terroir.
Now, if cultural experience was the same, wherever one travelled, then travelling would be dull and predictable. Indeed, travel is about – or should be about – sharpened sensitivity and active immersion in difference, of tastes, architecture, dress, even the demeanor of taxi drivers and hotel housekeepers. Similar to Vasco’s band, one attunes their senses to local variations and atmosphere. Indeed, adventure begins with the willingness to surrender to difference.
But what happens when we return home, when our active immersion in difference ends and daily routine resumes? To be sure, this is a first world matter, and subject to ethnicity and socio-economic standing, but I believe that for all of us, our recently-lived differences begin to fade, overwhelmed by habit, work, the familiar and predictable. Distance is reasserted. Ambiguity creeps into memory. And for the American, we again become the more passive consumer championed by our culture. Tabouli and tangine, paella and calisson are replaced by cheeseburgers, surf and turf, and the major restaurant chain, Olive Garden; Espadeiro, Loureiro, and Kalecik Karasi, by readily available Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, and Pinot Grigio; a soundscape of church bells by Spotify in the Volvo.
Yet it can happen that upon returning one finds domestic life strange in ways large and small, their rituals and familiar rhythms now somehow arbitrary, badly in need of a shake-up and a rethink. Take wine and cuisine, for example. Returning for a moment to Portugal (though the same may be said of Turkey), her wine-drinking culture generally holds that wine without food is unthinkable, that both are enhanced, joined together in holy matrimony. Portugal’s wines are often made with food pairing in mind, and show bright fruit, acidity, and unusual flavors; they are therefore frequently misunderstood by those who insist wine is best judged as a solitary beverage necessarily divorced from any and all culinary regimes. But remember, Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, not The Last Wine Bar.
More, the styles of wine and food the traveler perhaps experienced may have opened them up to the exotic flavors of unpronounceable grape varieties and obscure spices that even if found in the neighborhood Safeway can only be purchased in tiny packages. This is the very best part of exploring the world, I believe, the healthy disequilibrium and curiosity it can set loose.
Having done a fair amount of travel myself, over the next several posts I am going to explore topics including grape and flavor diversity, culinary habits, and why these things should matter.
The media buzz surrounding our upcoming documentary, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, has been growing steadily for some weeks now. And we are very grateful for the attention and interest. Below I offer a sampling of the coverage we’ve received up until this writing. As I wrote in my previous post, the film will enjoy its premiere in Montpellier, France on the 27th of January, just days away! The Diagonal Cinema will kindly host our effort.
First up is a piece from The Herault Times.
And this from mon-Viti
And this from the Languedoc-Roussillon Film Commission, a very helpful organization we first approached when the film was but a dream and a few scratches on paper.
Jim Budd, a friend (and an excellent writer) offered this on his equally excellent site, Jim’s Loire.
The Terre de Vins offered this.
Decanter gave us this mention.
And this from the regional magazine, BBB Midi.
French News Online posted this.
And this from Portugal, Vinhos e Mais Vinhos.
Here is a nice piece from a friend and wine guru for Candid Wines in Chicago.
Here is a summation of recent wine films from WineTourismFrance, including a generous mention of our film.
For fast-breaking news, please see our Facebook page, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc.
This list is by no means complete. Over the coming days I will continue to update. Great thanks to all involved in the promotion and celebration of the Languedoc and our modest effort here to make this superb region better understood.
Ken Payton, Admin
At long last, the premiere of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc is coming into sharp focus. After more than a year of struggle, setback, joy and triumph, on January 27th in the Diagonal Cinema located in the historical section of the city of Montpellier, France, the lights will go down. The fruits of our labor will unspool upon the silver screen to the world – or at least 250 of its citizens. And I could not be happier.
Located in the south of France, the Languedoc has long been in the shadow of far better-known and celebrated international wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reasons for this include the Languedoc’s history as France’s largest bulk wine producer, hence its oft-cited description as a ‘wine lake’. But such a cliché blunts professional and consumer curiosity and interest. For the truth is that over the last few decades quiet changes have been taking place, and a far more dynamic reality has emerged. Now perhaps the most environmentally progressive wine-growing region in the world, the Languedoc is ready to take its place on the international stage. The first feature-length documentary of its kind, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc explores the viticultural and winemaking choices of 12 diverse and creative winemakers spread across the region. What approach do they take to their respective terroirs, their vineyards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable? What are the financial risks and benefits associated with farming with each of these methods? More practically, how do the featured winemakers navigate the shoals between family and profession? And do they wish their children to follow in their footsteps?
I don’t know how many winemakers I spoke with and interviewed in my previous directorial effort, Mother Vine, who did not know what was to become of their legacy. They had worked very hard to put their children through school, to clothe them and all the rest mothers and fathers do, only to see their progeny leave for the larger cities of Portugal. But of the Languedoc? The answers given by the winemakers are quite different, varied and, I believe, hopeful. And for those winemakers without children, they too must somehow find a way to preserve their partnerships and marriages through unpredictable growing seasons and fickle market trends.
The first section of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed in September during the harvest, when the reality of a year’s work was coming into sharp focus. Ultimately, the documentary is about the practical dimension of labor, of winegrowers making day-to-day decisions bearing directly upon their families’ futures. It matters less to me who triumphs among the many excellent wine regions in the world than it is to put a human face on this underestimated, rapidly-changing region, the Languedoc.
The film features (listed here in no particular order):
John & Nicole Bojanowski (Le Clos du Gravillas, St Jean de Minervois)
John & Liz Bowen (Domaine Sainte Croix, à Fraïssé-Corbières)
Emmanuel Pageot & Karen Turner (Domaine Turner Pageot, à Gabian)
Virgile Joly (Domaine Virgile Joly, à Saint Saturnin)
Cyril Bourgne (Domaine La Madura, à Saint Chinian)
Brigitte Chevalier (Domaine de Cébène, à Faugères)
André Leenhardt (Château de Cazeneuve, à Lauret)
François & Louis Adrién Delhon (Domaine Bassac, à Puissalicon)
Eric & Vianney Fabre (Château d’Anglès, à St Pierre la Mer)
Frédéric & Marie Chauffray (La Réserve d’O, à Arboras)
Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine Lacroix-Vanel, à Caux)
Thierry Rodriquez (Prieuré de St Sever/Mas Gabinèle, à Causse et Veyran)
For more information see our Les Terroiristes du Languedoc Facebook page.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
Ken Payton, Admin
It is not often a first feature-length documentary film made by a novice director meets with critical acclaim; but such success is much easier to grasp when the finest colleagues are chosen before a single frame is shot. So it was with Mother Vine, my loving exploration of the winemaking history, generational succession, and the challenges of modernity in Portugal’s astonishingly diverse world of grapes, terroirs, and wine-making traditions.
Mother Vine was initially born from numerous conversations with celebrated microbiologist, winemaker and cultural conservationist, Virgilio Loureiro of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon (now retired), to which I added a young though accomplished cameraman and editor, Nuno Sá Sequeira, and a very capable producer, Liliana Mascate. The right team was in place.
Shot over the course of a year on a budget of promises and good will (modest funding arrived after principal photography had concluded), the documentary therefore faced numerous financial challenges and set-backs which threatened its very completion. People have to be paid, after all.
But there are far worse things in this world than falling into debt for a country and cause in which you deeply believe. Such is my love of Portugal and of the winegrowers whose resistance to (vita)cultural evisceration I was honored to document. The stakes are very high. The loss of grape biodiversity and the increasing marginalization of family farming tragically receives a helping hand by dogged international naïveté and indifference, both governmental and from within a wide segment of the wine profession itself, an attitude which holds, by default, that no more than 10 grape varieties need exist in the entire world. Indeed, without – perhaps equally naive – push-back, an insistence on diversity and difference, Portugal might yet come to suffer in the not-too-distant future a homogenized viticulture, sacrificing an august patrimony on the altar of Cabernet, Chardonnay and mass production. To be sure, commercial realities are what they are; but let us consider that a ‘commercial reality’ may itself very often be a fantasy, a mythology created by an army of small gods: of marketers, advertisers, and wine influencers. These are among the many themes my documentary, Mother Vine, seeks to open up to informed, enlightened conversation.
So it was with great joy that our rag-tag crew received news from the 19th Annual Oenovideo International Film Festival On Wines and Vines that Mother Vine had won recognition in two categories. From the festival’s site:
Deux Mentions Spéciales ont été décernées
— Mention spéciale « Patrimoine » pour le long métrage tourné au Portugal « Mother Vine » du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
— Prix Paysages et environnement décerné par Bayer CropScience à « Mother Vine » long métrage portugais du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
Beyond being among the 12 distinguished writers and filmmakers so honored, there is to take place an official Films Documentaires, Fictions & Photographies sur la Vigne et le Vin award ceremony on Friday, September 28th, 2012 at the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris, France. I most certainly will be in attendance. I would not miss the occasion for the world.
The timing of the award ceremony could not be better. My next documentary film project (yet to be titled) has taken me to the French wine growing region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Just weeks ago, in May, I completed the first half of the shoot. This documentary will chronicle a year’s work of twelve dynamic and creative wineries, each in its own way seeking to re-imagine and redefine what is an accelerating movement throughout the region: an insistance on very high quality wines coupled with environmentally responsible viticulture. Languedoc-Roussillon is emerging as among the most progressive grape growing areas in the world. This is cause enough for a feature-length documentary; but add to the mix the compelling biographies of the very diverse group of winemakers I have selected and you have in place the fundamentals of one hell of a film.
The spring shoot complete, the promise of bud break explored, next up is the harvest season in September. I will return to Languedoc in the first weeks of that month to discover the commercial and viticultural fates of these twelve apostles of the vine. From their vineyards to the Palais du Luxembourg, such humbling joy may a life sometimes experience.
For further reading about this new documentary, please see my Languedoc-Roussillon, The Genesis of A Film
Ken Payton, Admin
Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
What is the rainfall here?
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]
Sometimes you choose; sometimes you are chosen. Last December, while in Montpellier, France to attend a showing of my Portuguese documentary, Mother Vine, at the Fest’afilm Festival, I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet one of France’s leading oenologists, Jean Natoli and geologist, Philippe Combes, his associate. Both gentlemen had graciously attended the showing and then were to further extend to me an invitation to dinner.
We spoke of many things that evening, of the financial obstacles to making a documentary, of film’s rôle in entertaining and illuminating the public, and of how to know whether a filmmaker has made a difference. Mention was made of a tasting at Au Petit Grain the next day of a what would prove a fascinating line of wines Mr. Natoli was shepherding, known collectively as Stratagème, and part of négociant/vingneron Thierry Rodriguez’ portfolio, Le Prieuré Saint Sever. (Indeed, along with Jean Natoli, Philippe Combes, and graphic designer, Olivier Proust, Thierry Rodriquez rounds out Stratagème’s creative team. Left to right in the photo) The distinguishing feature of the Strategème collection is its unique concentration on the concept of vineyard terroir and of mineral characteristics. One of eleven soil types informs each of its eleven bottlings: sandstone, sand, schist, pebbles, limestone, puddingstone, marl, clay, granite, basalt and tufa.
Among the most fascinating and frankly brilliant aspects of the Stratagème project is the depth of understanding and intellectual sophistication it brings to Languedoc-Roussillon as a wine-producing region, a region relatively neglected, certainly when compared to its far more celebrated neighbors, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône. This neglect is a consequence of a complex history. Harshly (if justly) stigmatized years ago as a ‘wine lake’, Languedoc-Roussillon has long been in need of her own dedicated poets for the very reasons high-lighted by the Stratagème project. From renegotiated AOC boundaries – often proceeding at a glacial pace – to a new generation of winegrowers committed to terroir and quality; from increasing appreciation of the promise of geological diversity, to a sharp focus on organic and sustainable wine production, the region has in recent years been undergoing a dramatic, if quiet, transformation which I felt was concisely expressed by Stratagème’s line-up of wines. To put it another way, my re-education about Languedoc-Roussillon was only just beginning. I’ll explain.
In the early days of my wine education, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon had played a significant rôle. Over a number of years I drank through virtually all of the region’s wines commonly available in the United States. Paul Strang’s Languedoc Roussillon, The Wines and Winemakers, first published in 2002, was my constant companion. I studied it from cover to cover. But restless and curious, eventually I was to leave the region behind in favor of a wider vinous experience. So it was that for quite some time that, like many of my American colleagues, I had felt sufficiently knowledgeable, that time and treasure enough had been given to Languedoc-Roussillon. All of that changed in the blink of an eye at the Au Petit Grain tasting. In the aftermath of my encounter with Jean Natoli and the Stratagème team, a small seed had been planted, an idea began to grow.
I have tended my garden well. Three months have passed during which I have done extensive research. I am now days away from yet another journey to Montpellier and the Languedoc-Roussillon, the 4th in as many months, this time to raise funds for another feature-length documentary film. Following upon my Portuguese documentary, a two year project which completely transformed my understanding of Portugal, turning night into day, eviscerating received opinion, I have now found a subject equally deserving of renewed international appreciation and recognition: the elaboration of high quality wines, the revelations given by terroir, and a progressive environmentalism which, taken together, are increasingly what we now must understand as the new reality of Languedoc-Roussillon.
My new project will document the 2012 seasonal experiences of 12 carefully chosen winemakers working divers soils and under both cooperative and challenging climatic conditions. The first shoot will be in May, the second, September/October, the harvest. The specific producers and vineyards I have chosen are in a variety of terroirs, areas and appellations including: St. Jean de Minervois, Corbières, Pézenas, Coteaux du Languedoc – St. Saturnin, Puissalicon, St. Chinian, Faugères, Pic St. Loup, and La Clape.
Of quite varied background and training, and nuanced viticultural philosophies – organic, biodynamic, sustainable – each of the winemakers I have selected share a common drive and determination to make the very best wines as they are able, with minimal intervention, and with the utmost respect for the land they have come to love. Yes, love. For make no mistake, love animates and informs the work. But just how that love is expressed can only be revealed over time, the very journey my documentary will take. Updates to come…
From February 20th to the 22nd of February, the Parc Des Expositions, outside of Montpellier, is transformed by a grand celebration, VINISUD, The International Exhibition of Mediterranean Wines and Spirits. A bi-annual event, this is how it describes itself:
“VINISUD is the showcase for the world’s leading wine region, the Mediterranean, which on its own accounts for more than 50% of world output.
Each event brings together the majority of Mediterranean wine producers and professional buyers from every continent, thereby helping to open the Mediterranean up to new markets for wine.
In 2010, 33,000 visitors and 1,650 exhibitors attended VINISUD:
French producers from Languedoc, Roussillon, Provence, the Rhone Valley, South-West, Corsica,
Producers from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria etc.”
Now in its tenth iteration, VINISUD, 2012 anticipates this February’s Leap Year with a leap of its own, a leap into the Digital Age. In the interview below with VINISUD’s Director General is Ahmad Monhem – surely one of the most energetic and tireless of people – you will read of what is meant by the phrase, Digital Seachange.
On a personal note, I have been very fortunate to have been selected as one of eight of VINISUD’s ambassadors. My beat is the US. On to the interview.
Ken Payton/Admin It must be an enormous challenge to put on VINISUD. Now in its tenth edition, and with an excess of 33,000 visitors and more than 1,650 exhibitors, can you tell me about the history of the organization?
Ahmad Monhem Since the beginning of the 10th edition’s organization in November 2010, it has been both an enormous challenge and a great pleasure for me and my team. Our goal is to make of this next edition an exceptional and successful event for our exhibitors and visitors. We are trying every day to improve the experience for those who have given us their loyalty; I mean the quality and the conviviality of the exhibition, but also the professional and personalized service offered by our team.
How did you come to the leadership of VINISUD?
AM Since 1995, I have managed around ten different exhibitions in several industries. In 2007, my CEO gave me the challenge to organize the Vinisud 2008’s edition. I instantly accepted the mission. From that moment forward, I have worked to defend and develop the fame and the role of this exhibition throughout the world. And my goal remains the same; satisfy the customers (exhibitors and visitors).
What have been among the greatest changes and challenges you have witnessed in Mediterranean winemaking and viticulture since you assumed leadership of VINISUD for the last three editions? You might consider marketing, the rise of organic farming and sustainability issues, and climate change, as examples.
AM For me, the most important change deeply affecting the Mediterranean vineyard has been in communication and marketing. In 2008 – my first edition as the exhibition director – Mediterranean wines have finally started to lose the image of bad quality that had been the reputation of the region for years. Of course, the first main change came from winemakers themselves who decided to bet on quality instead of quantity. However, it is thanks to marketing that the world has discovered the real potential of Mediterranean terroirs. That is how in 2008, we could measured the new attractiveness of Mediterranean wines by welcoming a large part of international visitors.
Today, Mediterranean wines benefit from a very good image in a large number of mature markets. But the new challenge will be to seduce the emergent markets – China, Korea, India, Brazil… The seduction of these new consumers will require time because knowledge about Mediterranean wines is very low in these countries. It is going to take a lot of work to explain Mediterranean terroirs, for example, the specifics of its diversity. In these markets the main challenge of Mediterranean producers is to bravely face the fierce competition from the New World. But at the same time, in their owns vineyards, winemakers have had to adapt to another important trend: a greater respect for the environment. For many years, “terroir” was one of the key factors to make a good but “typical” wine – revealing the distinct characteristics of each diverse region. So it in that spirit that viticultural practices changed as well toward a greater respect for the many soils. As a result, we have witnessed a rapid rise in organic farming. Today, another concern has entered into the thinking of producers: sustainable development. Incidentally, I can tell you that this subject will be discussed a lot during Vinisud 2012.
An exciting new direction has been announced to this year’s program. It has been referred to as a digital seachange. Can you explain what this concept means?
AM As in every industry, an exhibition must evolve and adapt. We have seen for some years now the importance of the internet in the world. The wine industry has integrated step by step this evolution. Today with the birth of the « web 2.0 », a new communication appears. Now, 2.0 could be frightening. I admit that it took me time to weigh the pros and cons, and to determine the advantages of such a communication tool. Nevertheless, we initiated this « digital seachange » 6 months ago by creating the Vinisud’s page on Twitter and Facebook. Then quite fast, we felt the need to create our own platform: it was the birth of the Vinisud blog.
We have spoken about a « seachange » because web 2.0 has had deep consequences for the communication between companies and consumers. We understand the change, that in a short period we’ve moved from a formatted communication managed by strict rules, to a dialog in which each person can freely express themselves and openly share with each other. That is a quite huge SEACHANGE!
Although a general description has already been published on the VINISUD website, can you tell me what you hope will take place at Pavillon 2.0?
AM In that space we hope to see the gathering of winemakers, buyers, bloggers and journalists around this new trend: the web 2.0. The goal is to implement exchanges and debates between all the actors of the wine industry. Numerous bloggers will share their experience and give advice to winemakers. But as well will wine producers themselves speak about their own experience with the web 2.0. The idea is to offer for the 3 day event, a convivial space where the virtual world will become real.
In your view, what is VINISUD’s global strategy, how important has digital communication become for implementing VINISUD’s global strategy?
AM When I chose to develop a digital communication strategy at Vinisud, I had two ideas in mind.
The first one, obviously, was to increase the recognition of the exhibition internationally, especially in foreign markets. As organizers, it is our responsibility to ensure that international buyers have all the necessary information about the fair. They are assailed by requests, of course, so it is difficult to find the good way to capture their attention. E-mails were preferred some years ago to other communication means; but today it has became far too impersonal and moreover, quite useless due to the shear number of e-mails professionals receive each day. We needed a less formal way to speak to our producers and visitors: web 2.0 appeared to be the best way.
But Vinisud is a bi-annual exhibition, a showcase of the Mediterranean vineyard as a whole. Since 2007, one of the main challenges for me and my team was to keep and reinforce the link between two editions. It was difficult in a top-down communication context to keep contact with exhibitors and visitors coming from all around the world. The idea was to find a means to bring together Mediterranean wines lovers from moment to moment. The web 2.0 offered us the solution. Thanks to social networks and our blog, we would ultimately like to create a community speaking about Mediterranean wine culture; a kind of “virtual” Vinisud during the 727 days when the “real one” has finished!
How was it decided to include the international wine blogging community for VINISUD 2012? How can wine bloggers, including ‘ambassador’ bloggers, one of which I happen to be, be of assistance?
AM With the web 2.0 we came back to an ancestral means of communication: the word of mouth, the spoken word. Bloggers are, for me, proof of the huge power of such a means of communication. In fact, the majority of them are not professionals; they are just passionate by a subject, in our case, wine. Today people trust bloggers. Wine is a question of passion, and so we have decided that bloggers could very well be the best to speak about Mediterranean wines. Offering a complete information platform about Mediterranean wines – the first iterations of the Vinisud blog – had been such a huge amount of work for us. So, we have now decided to bring together diverse information sources. Today, the Vinisud blog aggregates articles coming from bloggers around the world, speaking many different languages, and more importantly, offering different and contrasting points of view.
Beyond that, we felt the need to more deeply involve select bloggers in order to build around them Vinisud’s community. That is why we elected 8 bloggers, opinion leaders in the major wine markets, to be Vinisud ambassadors. We hope to develop with them a close relationship around a shared goal: to develop the wine culture all around the world.
What would be your advice to wineries with respect to digital communication? How important is social media to a winery? How can social media be best used by a winery.
AM First of all, be curious. They must take time to discover what web 2.0 is all about and how it can help them to communicate. My second piece of advice would be to be prudent. Communicate through social networks means involvement with consumers; so it is very important to be prepared to launch such communication. Keeping up a dialog with customers takes time. Then, I recommend to them that they be honest. Because of web 2.0 people are eager for closer contact with producers; but equally want total transparency.
Finally, I would like to tell them that before beginning digital communication they must to ask for advice from “digital people” themselves, and share their thoughts and questions with them. We hope that the Pavillon 2.0 will facilitate these exchanges.
What can international visitors expect to learn at VINISUD 2012?
AM Discover and taste new wines, explore non-famous appellations and rare grape varieties. Meet recognized wine producers, and become acquainted with the new generation. Once more, this edition is going to welcome young winemakers who are ready to break the rules and to offer a new vision of Mediterranean wines.
During the three days of VINISUD, international visitors will be able to travel all over the world’s biggest vineyard in a single, unique location.
Finally, they will be able to optimize their visit thanks to the numerous free-tasting areas which allow an easy and quick wine selection. The best example is the Palais Méditerranéen where more than 2100 wines are waiting the visitors.
And just as it happens at VINISUD every two years, I know that this year our exhibitors will be full of surprises!
Thank you very much for your time, Ahmad. I look forward to seeing you at VINISUD.
AM Thank you.
A few kilometers from Cabrières, south of Clermont l’Hérault in the Languedoc, rises the massive limestone Pic de Vessou, the 480 meter summit of which once served as an ancient Roman outpost. Unsettled December weather brought fast moving clouds, curtains of rain on the horizon, long-lived rainbows, and sudden clearings to a cobalt blue sky through which the late afternoon sun now shone brilliant on the mountain. This ancient sentinel is a short distance from Clos Romain, a 380 hectare property of roughly sculpted hills, battered rocks and rolling valleys dotted with fig trees and an aromatic scrublands of wild thyme and rosemary. My car idled on the ribbon of pavement winding up to the family home as I stood roadside, mesmerized at the extreme, untamed beauty of it all.
Not far from where I stood was a reconstructed capitelle, a mortar-free stone hut where farmers in previous centuries would have stored tools and sought shelter from a storm. As I neared my accommodations further up the road, a starkly contrasting battery of solar panels abruptly brought me back to the present. Almost. For what is a solar panel array but a latter day temple to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the eternal flame of the hearth fire? This is how it is at Clos Romain: it is a time portal on past ages, of domesticated landscapes carved from an ancient wilderness.
Clos Romain’s is a love affair with history. Its very name says so. But it also is a love affair with the natural world. So it is with the wines they make. Though they use oak barrels and stainless steel tanks for some of their wines, the archaeological wealth of former Roman settlements found throughout the property has so impressed the imagination of co-owner and winemaker Celine Beauquel that she has decided to greatly increase Clos Romain’s production of clay jar wines, a tribute to the ancient Roman amphora.
There are currently 6 hectares dedicated to olive trees and 9 dedicated to the vine. Shale, limestone, and dolomite dominate. At 350 meters high, and with just that specific combination of soils and correspondingly low grape yields, I was sure that both Clos Romain’s olive oil and wines were deeply marked by the terroir. Of the three wines I’ve tasted, the finesse was playful, bright; in each the focus, precise. But such a rewarding result is far from effortless. Not here. This is no pastoral existence. As I wandered outside of Clos Romain’s éco-gîtes (rentable cottages) on the property’s high plateau, I looked out over a grand vista facing the Mediterranean; and I knew that here not only are great variations in temperature frequent, brought by the dry Mistral, but that another wind heavy with moisture off the sea, the Marin must always threaten. Rainfall retention in the soils is limited and wild boar are common vineyard and olive grove intruders.
The agriculture at Clos Romain is therefore very demanding, especially since only organic methods and practices are tolerated; and because only two people, Celine Beauquel and husband Romain Cabanes, daily work the rough land. This is equally true of the work in the winery down the plateau, just off the D15. Now into their 4th vintage, these apprentice winemakers have refined their steep learning experience to a greater use of clay jars. Ms. Beauquel has long wanted to mine clay from Clos Romain’s own soils, but that has proven too expensive. So they buy jars from a potter in Cahors, France who sources the clay from a local quarry in the South West of France. Indeed, there is a winery in Cahors who uses the same potter and the jars he fabricates, Clos d’un Jour.
Why clay jars? Just as Clos Romain celebrates and promotes exclusively organic practices, so in the winery do they pursue a minimalist, non-interventionist approach. Amphorae, after all, are made of the very earth we walk upon, and the vessels do bridge the gulf between the ancient and modern world, wedding both aesthetics and a simpler, green technology. But with creative experimentation, even when with an apparently simpler tech, comes risk and uncertainty. For technological developments answer questions put to the world.
Of clay jars, curing them for their first year of use requires an attentive month-long water soak to close the jar’s pores, but even when wine is subsequently added as much as 4 liters is lost every week to the angels. Of even greater concern are characteristics of clay jars less well known to modern experience: What is the minimal required thickness of a jar wall? How does the rate of oxygen transport change over time? How do jars behave in a humid environment? Over time can they become brittle? Can they be colonized by spoilage microbes as easily as can barrels? How best to clean them and does repeated cleaning effect transpiration? If not lined, how does the clay’s electrical potential react with the chemical soup that is a wine? Maybe a simpler technology is not so simple! Recent events at Clos Romain highlight this issue.
There have been difficult times for many winemakers recently because of abundant rainfall over the past months. For Clos Romain not only has water entered the winery, but as a result the humidity has spiked inside and there has emerged an as yet unidentified fungus now harboring in and on the external surface of some of their clay jars. Out of a fear of the presence of a hostile microbe, wine from some jars had to be placed in stainless steel tanks. Fortunately there has occurred no spoilage in the wine itself, none that can now be tasted, which, Ms. Beauquel suggests, may testify to the robust quality of jar wines themselves. Samples of the fungus have been sent to a lab for analysis, but out of an abundance of caution, and well before results come back, the cellar will be disinfected. Further, it was discovered that there is substantial variation to the wall thickness of the 4 jars colonized and those not. The potter from Cahors has been alerted and has assumed full responsibility and promises to ship replacements.
But of the wines themselves? One in particular jumped out at me. It is called Parenthèse, 70% Syrah and 30% Viognier, and Ms. Beauquel will age it in a jar. From one of the affected jars, Parenthèse had to be moved to stainless steel until the fungus riddle is solved. But what a glorious effort it now is! So lively and bright. The wine positively dances. If this is the promise of jar wines, then put paid to the method! Ms. Beauquel joyously explained that it came from an amazing parcel of Syrah vines but with a tiny yield, only 8 hectoliters per hectare. Parenthetically, very low sulphur levels are used. She’s signed up to a program called Nature et Progrès. Only 9 mg per liter is permitted under their regimen.
The visit and tasting was very satisfying, if a bit brief. In addition to Ms. Beauquel’s winemaking responsibilities, she is also a mother. And on the day I visited her child was running a fever. There seems to be no rest for this very active family. I have a great deal of work ahead of me in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. I am very grateful to have encountered right out of the starting gate, with my visit to Clos Romain, so much of what I am seeking to discover in the viticultural world here: a strong dedication to organic principles, creative experimentation, the bold questioning of prevailing fashion, and a willingness to say “we can do better“.
Please follow Clos Romain’s exploits and adventures on Celine Beauquel’s excellent winery blog.
Ken Payton, Admin