Several years ago, when researching the relation between the composition of various vineyard soils and terroir expression, I happened upon the concept of biochar. Simply put, biochar is charcoal put to a biological use, in connection with my discovery, as a soil amendment. The use of it has a long history, research strongly supports, dating back to pre-Columbian Amazonians. All of us are by now familiar with the irreversible loss of vast tracts of the Brazilian Rain Forest due not only to the irresponsible and often illegal harvesting of hardwoods but also to the agricultural needs of 1000’s of subsistence farmers. The trouble is that the biodiversity of life of the rain forest is nurtured in the canopy while the soils are poor. A few crop harvests from a plot is all you get before the soil’s nutrients are exhausted. The pre-Columbians knew this and so hit upon biochar as a solution: the so-called Terra Preta soils they left behind more than a 1000 years ago.
And while doing additional research into biochar, I came upon Hans-Peter Schmidt, the first winegrower in Europe, if not the world, to have begun experimentation with biochar in his Domaine Mythopia vineyards located in the Valais region of Switzerland. You may read here of my initial encounter with the gentleman back in 2009 coupled with thorough explanation of biochar and terra preta.
As fortune would have it, I was to attend this year’s Digital Wine Communication Conference (DWCC) in Montreux, Switzerland where Hans-Peter had been tapped as a possible guest speaker, a perfect fit, in my view. Though his role had been greatly diminished by the time the DWCC began (an opportunity squandered), I was nevertheless able to meet with him and arrange a visit to Mythopia, his ethereal domaine. As he writes of his work:
The Legend of Mythopia
Facing the highest summits of the Alps, the steep slopes of the Mythopia vineyard have become a paradise, home to fragrant flowers, fruit trees, rare birds and more than 60 species of butterflies. It’s a vineyard exuding biodiversity where the ecosystem is sustained by a symbiotic network of uncountable species. The vineyard is no longer a hostile monoculture with naked soil but a beautiful natural system designed to produce grapes expressing the subtleties of its terroir. The soil is activated by accompanying plants and the air is full of the music of bumblebees and the perfume of wild blossoms.
In 2009 the Mythopia vineyard assumed the role of the research centre for the Ithaka Foundation and its Institute for Carbon Intelligence. Bridging the gap between theory and practice, methods and strategies have been developed for an ecological and economically sustainable viniculture. In addition the vineyard plays a major role in researching agricultural methods having a positive influence on the climate and biodiversity.
The grapes we harvest in Mythopia prosper without the interference of oenological products. Our wines are made from grapes and air, nothing more.
After a robust hike up Mythopia’s vineyard slopes, the equal to his website’s lyricism, we sat down for a conversation at a favorite spot, one where Hans-Peter often hosts tastings. I was quite happy to learn that my posts from early in 2009 had actually brought visitors to Mythopia. Indeed, I was also pleased to learn that no less a winegrower than Randall Grahm had taken an early interest in biochar and had actually purchased a few tons from Hans-Peter who duly shipped them to California. Our talk improved from there…
Ken Payton So where exactly are we?
Hans-Peter Schmidt We are somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Alpine Mountains. Geologically it is a very interesting place because just to the south is the African Plate, and we are, of course, on the European Plate. The result is severe folding here which in practical terms means we have a terroir here which can change from 10 meters to 10 meters. Here we have a river between, one the one side of which we have calcareous rock and on the other, schist. And it [Mythopia's vineyards] makes it a difficult place to do science because the variation is so immense. On the other hand it is a great place to make observations and to try things and to discover.
KP How did you find this place and what has made you stay?
H-P S My wife and I found it quite by accident. When we first came here it was all naked soil. Intensive production – 900 hectoliters per hectare -, heavy herbicide and pesticide use put the question to us: Can a vineyard be an ecosystem and have a high biodiversity? Could a vineyard ecosystem be compared to a natural reserve in a certain way? After all, why should the place where we produce our food – that which gives us life – why should that be in a toxic environment and not in a natural environment we would otherwise like to preserve? At this point in our reflection, we started to plant trees between the vines and we seeded a high-biodiversity green cover, with legumes for fertilizing and a lot of herbal species; we placed around many piles of stones and bee hives… in fact we put up everything we could think of to make it more diverse, more inviting to plant and animal species. We were hoping to attract life from our surroundings, an area still rather intact here. We have the highest vineyard in the region and we are near forest and pasture. Even after only one year we discovered many new species entering the area. And we haven’t stopped for the last 8 years! Every year we find new species, mostly butterflies because you can so easily see them with the naked eye; but also new birds and mammals. And when we’ve done microscopic images we saw a higher biodiversity in the microbial life of our soils but also on the leaves and of yeast populations on the grapes.
This brought us to the aspect of quality. What effect will this high biodiversity (which is an aim in itself) also have on wine quality? In the end that might convince others to do what we have done here. So the final objectives here were to make high quality wines and maybe to discover in what sense these wines are different. We had to, therefore, make them natural wines in a certain way, which means we only keep for the wines what we bring from the vineyard. We will not add anything. Others may do that and it may improve their wine in their sense, but for us it was important to see what impact does biodiversity have on the wine: on quality itself on the fermentation and stability of the wine.
From the beginning we made what is now called ‘natural’ wine, with no technical interference, no filtration, no additives, mostly gravitation, using the stems in maceration, doing long macerations, passing by the press… these are the choices we’ve made. Mythopia is essentially an ecosystem research project that has to translate into wine quality somehow in the end. But here we want to learn elements that we can transfer to other vineyards. That does not mean we will transfer all we do here to somewhere else; but we hope to learn certain elements that we can propose to other winegrowers so as to help them improve both wine quality and the ecosystem overall.
KP So you use nothing in the vineyard?
H-P S Well, when the pressure of mildew becomes too high we have to use some organic sulphur and copper. This year, for example, we used 250 grams of copper. Even in organic farming you are permitted to use 3 to 6 kilograms of copper depending on the year, so 250 grams is rather low. Sure, we would like to live without but we will not go so far as to risk losing our yield. We have to see the plant health to the end of the season with a fairly decent yield. And we go into the late season for we have vineyards going up to 870 meters. We need the cold Autumn nights with warm to hot mid-days which really makes the aromatic pump in the wines and it improves the yeast diversity on the stems and on the skins while still keeping the acidity in the wine.
KP On our walk up here you mentioned in passing that the region was hit by Drosophila suzukii. My ears perked up because I was the first to report, back in the summer of 2009, on the pest’s appearance, specifically in berry farms in the Watsonville, California area. At that time it was not known whether the fruit fly could puncture the skins of grapes. Well, months later we had confirmation from Oregon from winegrowers that, indeed, the fruit fly could damage grapes. So tell me of your observations of Drosophila suzikii’s behavior here and how, despite the absence of natural predators, the fly might be beaten back or at least contained.
H-P S Yes, we observed this year that the Drosophila suzukii came here, in this region, for the first time massively. Last year was minor in comparison. We observed that they pierced the grape and laid their eggs inside. At this moment the grape skin was open. But other insects followed. We observed a lot of spiders, also wasps, bees, and wild bees, and others. They all profited from the ruptured grape skin by consuming the sugar, and some insect or spider seems to have fed on the Drosophila eggs. It could also be that as the grape was emptied of sugar that the Drosophila could no longer hatch. So in this region we experienced great loss due to Drosophila. Yet it is also logical, from an ecosystem point of view, that in an area of great biodiversity no single insect can become a massive problem. I think we can do additional research in this field, make a project out of it.
As we drove at sunset down the steep mountain road back to the train station in Sion, windows open to the crisp air, the aroma of freshly harvested Lemon Verbena wafting through the cabin, my brain was buzzing with ideas provoked by my hours with Hans-Peter. He is a fine educator, and being around him cannot help but sharpen the senses. Rocks tormented by plate tectonics, savory herbs mingling with conspicuous California poppies, the ever-present hovering of insects, tall stands of grasses rustled by birds, everywhere I looked there were signs not only of hard work but also of the wonderment this grand science experiment has brought into being. I have always believed in the lyrical beauty of select sciences, certainly of Geology and Biology. I mean, the very idea that rocks can fold, that mountains can be turned upside down or eroded away altogether; or that a pest like the Drosophila suzukii can potentially be defeated by beneficial, though equally selfish insects and spiders, are expressive stanzas the earth writes. And Hans-Peter’s Mythopia is a poetic achievement.
Admin, Ken Payton
UPDATE I had asked Hans-Peter to expand his thoughts on wine growing, agriculture and the competition for diminishing resources in an increasingly hungry world. This is how he replied:
Hans-Peter Schmidt We harvest in the gardens of Mythopia something like 25 hL wine per ha providing thus a sufficient annual quantity of bottles for six to seven decent wine drinkers. Such luxury the world couldn’t afford for all, not even for all those that religiously are allowed to enjoy wine here and now. Conventional wine growers can at least care for the supply of 30 drinkers per hectare. But even that would not be enough to let most enjoy adults a daily bottle. The agriculturally used surface of the globe is only 5 Billion hectares. This corresponds to only 0,7 hectares per person to produce all grain, vegetables, fruits, cotton, wine, some petrol, bio-plastics etc. Half of these surfaces used for agriculture are very intensively exploited with high amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and monoculture – dead zones, toxic for the water, for the air and the biodiversity. We can still defend the idea that vineyards should be gardens in high biodiversity, that cows should live on extensive pastures, that vegetables and fruits grow in permaculture and that eating wild grain is most healthy; however, in such a beautiful world we are at least nine times too many bipeds on earth.
To feed the world and not to destroy the ecosystems, we only have one choice: Produce the daily food in highly intensive closed systems like skyscrapers or in old mines under the earth, highly automized, with artificial light, optimal temperature, an optimal fertilization regime and pathogen control. Recycling all the water, all fertilizers, exchanging CO2 from industrial plants for oxygen to improve the air in urban areas, recycling the human manure to soil substrates and thus closing the nutrient cycles to avoid burdening the agronomic ecosystems. The productivity of those optimal closed agronomic systems would be up to 10 times higher than intensive field agriculture under the open sky in a changing climate. As sun energy is sufficiently available and will be cheaper and cheaper, the cost for light, pumps, filtration, and temperature control will be highly competitive to the actual agronomic system that externalize all ecosystem costs. Outside the landscapes could be reforested to clean and purify the ground and surface waters, to recycle atmospheric carbon dioxide into the soil with organic matter, and to ultimately improve the climate. Vineyards could become natural resorts with high biodiversity; gardeners could grow supplementary natural fruits and legumes as the economics would not be measured in yield but in leisure time and quality.
Day 3 of Vinisud 2014 has come and gone. But what a day it was. Knowing that by 5 o’clock, the shortened hours of the final day, all visitors – the journalist, buyers, importers, sommeliers, trade representatives – will be heading for the door gives many producers a chance to catch their collective breath. By mid-day a sense of merriment begins to replace the vigilant commercial attitude. Tasting formalities, though still evident, are greatly relaxed as winemakers and their representatives begin to shift to thinking about their families, the vineyard that need tending, their tomorrows. The tight and measured grip on immediate commercial concerns lessens to reveal the tough callouses of the hands of real farmers and winegrowers, the men and women whose steady and loving labors have coaxed from the earth wines they hope we have enjoyed.
I very much like the atmosphere of the last day of trade fairs generally, but Vinisud – this is my second visit – is different owing to the sheer scale of its ambition. The veil between customers and producers is very thin. You are very often looking into the eyes of the grower who has spent hard-earned cash to attend. He or she is doing their very best to maintain appearances, the bright confidence that their wines will be tasted and then purchased. It all comes down to this. No matter how many times you are asked to repeat your story, to explain your winery, your terroir, your recent upgrades and volume capacities, a winegrower must try to make a visitor to their booth feel that they are the very first person who has stepped out from a river of passersby. The commercial vulnerability experienced must truly be extreme, I think. There before us, as visitors, are not just wines but a livelihood. So they must be as tough-minded as are their hands for surely many visitors will suddenly disappear without saying a word.
Of course the larger corporate producer enjoys greater insulation. Their brand is already secure in the marketplace. Customers around the world know their products. They will do well for nothing succeeds like success. But for the smaller producer struggling to stay afloat in a sea of wines, to differentiate themselves with an artful label, a witty slogan, or by the sheer force of their personality, I have the utmost admiration. Here before you, the bottles lined up, are college educations or musical instruction for their children, a new piece of farming equipment, a better bottling line. That neighboring plot of land a winegrower needs for expansion ? That too hangs in the balance.
As for me, I have a number of stories yet to write about the specific content developed as my part at Vinisud 2014, stories about climate change, biodiversity, expanding the consumer palate, how to encourage folks to experiment with wines and flavors far and wide; but those stories are for another day. The occasion of this writing is to simply shake the hands, as it were, of the brave winegrowers I have met these past three days and to offer my best wishes for continued commercial success.
Ken Payton, Admin
As storm clouds closed in and a light rain fell this morning upon the Parc des Expositions, it hardly mattered for the 1000s of participants of Vinisud 2014. Safely inside the many expansive halls, for seven hours the world was to be found here. Having wandered lost on Monday, many starring blankly at a map printed for those only with keen eyesight, by this morning,Tuesday, the paths and byways to each and every Mediterranean producer and their country had been collectively understood. We now knew where we were going, and so it was that foot traffic flowed smoothly and orderly.
The South West, Provence, the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc and its sparkling companion, Roussillion; Tunisia, Crete, the Lebanon, Corsica, Spain, Italy, and countries coyly labeled as ‘other’ in Hall B4, (yes, there were more), now had the full attention of the teeming professionals all on their game.
Mystery locations still remained, however, such as a conference hall for which no current map given us showed the way. Indeed, my first responsibility today was to participate on a panel discussion hosted by Wine Mosaic, a group dedicated to the preservation of Mediterranean grape and wine diversity. The panel was to tackle the question “Why and how to preserve original Mediterranean varieties?” Not so easy, we reluctantly agreed. (Much more to come on this subject in a later post.) Meanwhile the august Andrew Jefford led a bright tasting of both experts and initiates through the intricacies of one of the Languedoc’s most celebrated regions, Saint Chinian in another hall. Elsewhere presentations concerning the nuances of Châteaneuf du Pape and the Côtes du Rhône, Orange wines, the application of smart phone and touchpad technologies to marketing, dozens of specialized tastings, all events, great and small, hummed along like high tension wires in the rain. For the spirit and energy of international marketing ingenuity on display more than overwhelmed the weather outside.
Ears glued to phones, bodies pressed close to share a latest release, noses deep in Riedel, Spiegelau, or plain glass, the day marched on. Pessimism is global; optimism is local. And today, the second of Vinisud 2014, we were optimists.
Ken Payton, Admin
Vinisud 2014, the world’s largest Mediterranean wine fair, got off to a roaring start this Monday. Traffic jams began well before the doors opened at 9 a.m. Stuck along a narrow street among a doubled ribbon of idling cars and trucks, I myself, Vinisud’s American Ambassador, was let off one of a series of buses packed with journalists, buyers, importers, you name it, to walk the remaining distance to the entrance. The acres-large parking lots of the Parc des Expositions outside of Montpellier, rapidly filled with the vehicles of winery representatives, winegrowers now off-loading their wines, merchants with their bulging attaché cases, sommeliers, importers, wine writers cradling computers, visiting dignitaries in well-pressed suits. From more than a two dozen countries they came, all making their way to the entrances.
As the day developed, the variety of languages I heard was astounding. Even in relatively quiet corners the soft tones of Mandarin could be heard. Yes, the Chinese are here too. Indeed, when out of kindness I held open yet another door onto to another expansive Exhibition Hall, it was an American voice which would give me pause. “I know that language”, I would think to myself so jarring was this brief moment of linguistic familiarity. Truly does this Vinisud event share the acoustics of the lunchroom at the United Nations. And I like it.
Badged up, ready to rock and roll, I hit the ground running.
By sheer numbers of participants alone, I’d have to say the international wine industry, certainly the sizable Mediterranean slice of it, is thriving and healthy. And this is for one reason: Value. Indeed, value is on the lips of everyone. And as those who have shopped wine stores or visited wineries in the south of France certainly know, it is the Languedoc in particular, which mother lode, that offers the finest price/quality ratio currently available anywhere. The diversity of wine styles, flavors, terroirs has no real rival, in my opinion. Perhaps only Spain approaches the QPR of wines commonly found here. So it is entirely fitting that Vinisud 2014 be held in this region’s capital. And the obstacle to greater international appreciation of the Languedoc boils down, in my view, to branding and therefore to greater international consumer recognition. For the average American wine drinker, for example, while they may recognize the names Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, they almost certainly will draw a bland with Saint Chinian, Pic Saint Loup, or Faugères.
Of course, Vinisud is about all Mediterranean wine-producing countries, including Crete, Sicily, Lebanon, Tunisia, Greece, Italy and others; and I plan to visit all of their representatives at their tables tomorrow. No doubt each country will make commercial advances; but for the sheer depth of French producers here, the Languedoc/Roussillon in particular, it is hard to resist celebrating, as I do now, the richness and competitive value of their wines on offer.
For a partial listing of events and activities here at Vinisud 2014, take a look at this.
Ken Payton, Admin
Professor Alain Carbonneau is likely an unfamiliar name to much of the wine world. But like researchers and educators everywhere, he is among the most important figures in his field. A viticulturist with a specialty in canopy management, he pioneered the widely used Lyre vine training system. With over 400 publications to his credit, he has expanded not only the science of Viticulture but of Vine Physiology and Adaptation, Vineyard Climatology, Sustainability, and he has deepened our practical understanding of terroir. And though he may have recently retired from INRA and Montpellier SupAgro, he is busier than ever, as you will read. More, I know many will find his remarks on the pending move of the treasured vine holdings at Domaine de Vassal to Pech Rouge especially interesting.
My apologies for the length of the interview, but when introducing so important a figure in the science (and the poetry) of the vine, it is right and proper to give due deference, to let him have his say. And so we begin…
Ken Payton So how are you, Professor ?
Alain Carbonneau Very well. I am a busy retired man with a lot to do ! I am still in charge of GiESCO (Groupe International d’Experts en Systemes viticoles pour la CoOpération) and I am in charge of our historical review, Le Progrès Agricole et Viticole.
Looking over your CV, I noticed you felt strongly enough to mention your lasting interest in Literature and Philosophy, Culture and Poetry. Can you tell me a bit about this ?
AC I love to write. Sometimes I use the classical Alexandrine poetic form. When I was a student I liked that form very much. And last Saturday I presented two or three poems, one was a dedicated to encouraging students to go on in their studies and another was on a grape variety, Syrah.
So Viticulture was a way of summing it all up, the poetry, philosophy, science…
AC Yes. The vine was the entrance, the door to imagination.
That would seem so with the naming of the Lyre system of vine training you pioneered. And the importance of an aesthetics of vineyard architecture.
AC We realized vineyard architecture was very important; first to control the real micro-climate of the leaves and berries and also, indirectly, to assist root development. About 30 years ago we were surprised to find the vine responds to that. We now consider that the training system, or vine architecture in general, is part of the terroir. It is not an artificial element. It is actually something like a filter of different natural elements: Light, temperature, water, wind and so on. Even the wine can be determined by this architecture. Not just the soil and the climate, but the training system also makes a difference.
Traditionally the Goblet was dominant in this region…
AC Yes. Actually the Lyre system is a very open and high goblet. If you compare the Lyre to the traditional goblet of Chateauneuf du Pape, for instance, the Lyre is more linear, more uniform in its architecture, but the general shape is similar. And in my opinion it is the best for quality, at least for temperate climates.
What is Ecophysiology ?
AC The idea is to control the response of the vine with respect to growth regulation, fertility, and above all the maturation of the berry and the different components of maturation. All those elements, what I call Ecophysiology, respond to the vine architecture. [See chapter two of the linked article]
About rootstock selection, have you done research in that area ?
AC Yes. The key point for controlling the type and quality of the wine is to find the optimal water limitation. So you play on different keys: the rootstock, soil management, the variety to some extent, and the architecture. Those elements interact with the general climate and the general water balance. At the moment there is no scientific model explaining the art, but with experience we can find some good solutions. So, yes, I work a little bit on rootstocks, but principally in terms of water regulation.
About that, there is limited use of vineyard irrigation in France. Do you believe that climate change will require a rethinking of the regulations governing organic grape growing, for example ?
AC Yes. After all, water is a natural product ! Twenty years ago irrigation was taboo because the region was trying to increase quality recognition. Most of the growers were afraid that irrigation would destroy that image. And in fact, due to the certainty of climate change, because summers are increasingly dry – for at least 20 years here – the key to maintaining a regular yield is to control the water uptake. Of course we have to control water stress. If the stress is too much then we lose the proper expression of the vine. We can produce concentrated wines rich in alcohol or with some smoky taste or cooked fruit, but in general we are not looking for that. We prefer to produce wines with better balance, with some floral and fresh fruit character, mixed with spices.
And to achieve that we have to control water. So if the water stress is too much then we have to add water. This is the same for nitrogen deficiency. Everybody agrees that nitrogen deficiency does not enhance quality. Therefore irrigation is sometimes necessary. Then there is the question of competition for water. But that is a matter of vineyard and territory management. We encourage growers to capture water when it rains and to create networks of small dams and ponds. We can also use waste [gray] water from the winery and cellar. Wineries use a lot of water. So combining these sorts of water sources we can avoid competition with other users of water such as cities.
And by using the Lyre architecture we increase the exposed leaf area and the transpiration demand. Initially we thought the Lyre was not suitable here because it can increase the severity of the water deficit. In fact the opposite is true. In contrast to VSP and other canopies, the Lyre maintains better water comfort for the plant. There was less stress. How can this be, we wondered. It turns out the answer is that we have to deal with the vine in all seasons, not just during the driest week in winter. In spring the Lyre intercepts much more light, produces more sugar and encourages the roots to grow and strengthen, to grow deeper and explore a larger water reservoir in the soil. The root growth stops between fruit set and veraison, and that corresponds to the beginning of the driest period. Now, the Lyre may then exaggerate the demand in transpiration, but because of better root development, it is able to withstand this period of water stress.
Because you want to encourage roots to grow deep, do you mean to discourage drip irrigation, for example ?
AC No no no. This is a legend. That is only true if irrigation is the only source of water for the vine. Additional irrigation doesn’t modify the root morphology or the root distribution in the soil. To be sure there are a few more surface roots under the grapes, but not too much. And this also depends on the texture of the soil. If the drainage is good then right after irrigation the water sinks quickly to the roots. So in this case you can combine deep rooting with additional irrigation. We’ve studied this in our vineyard on campus. It has a very coarse sand with stones. We use only drip irrigation; perhaps 70% of the vines’ water requirements are satisfied this way. And the root systems are deep. So I agree that we have to avoid the surface watering of a vineyard where the root system is too close to the surface, but if we handle irrigation properly, this is not a problem.
There are at a minimum two schools of thought in the organic community: one holds that biodiversity – flowers, grasses, herbs – competes with the vine for water; then there is another persuasion which encourages inter-row biodiversity precisely because it denies water to surface roots and thus forces the roots down deeper to find water…
AC Yes. The ideal, I think, is to combine controlled irrigation and grass cover. Flowers are also encouraged.
How do ‘terroir sciences’ differ from ecophysiology ?
AC Ecophysiology is a pure discipline, a holistic science. The aim is to explain how the whole plant functions. You restrict water, you increase temperatures, for example, and then you check the plant’s response at all levels: the leaves, the fruit, the roots. The final objective is to build a model which can explain this functioning of the whole plant.
I regret that in France at least, that few young scientists are working in this field. Sadly, the priority is Molecular Biology, so everybody is going into that field. It is quite easy to publish, I understand that, but I believe it is time to give a better balance between these two scientific disciplines.
Even old school hybridization, despite its historical successes, is under-utilized…
AC Yes. And terroir science is a very integrated approach, something like sustainable viticulture. So the aim is to build a new vineyard combining new varieties, new techniques for soil management, new canopy management, and to find the optimal interaction among all of these elements. So it is a science of interactions. Ecophysiology is part of that.
There are all kinds of restrictions and requirements on grape varieties within the AOP system. In a world of climate change it would seem the system must adapt.
AC Yes. To be honest, I am afraid for the future of the AOP system because it is too rigid. I think the best solution could be to tolerate inside each AOP 1% of the surface area to be free for experimentation with new varieties, new rootstocks, new training systems, irrigation, and so on. And let the experimentation go on for 10 to 15 years after which we may learn valuable lessons and thereby encourage change. Due to climate change and due to social changes, it will be absolutely necessary to utilize other varieties in the mid-term. We therefore need changes within the AOP system.
What has always puzzled me is that farmers are the ones doing the practical labor, the experimenting, everyday. Yet even as they are learning, this new agricultural knowledge is not necessarily persuading the AOP to change.
AC I agree. The representation of growers in the official AOP is important. Many people elected to the AOP assemblies are among the most famous growers so they do not really want to change all that much. They are far too conservative. But in terms of regulation and law, it is possible for any AOP to change because the decisions are coming from the growers themselves. It is a question of democratic majorities. But I am a little bit afraid because even though we are certain of climate change, too few things are changing in the vineyard.
There is the enormous grape variety resource of Domaine de Vassal, for example. They are certainly ready and able to assist with any new initiatives and experiments.
AC Yes. There is a real problem here. Domaine de Vassal’s collection is huge. But if you want to determine the adaptation potential for different varieties, in fact that collection is not well-situated. It is a very good site to preserve genetic diversity, to note the growth cycles of a given variety or something like that. But to estimate adaptation to climate change, we have to change its location. I hope this collection can eventually be re-installed in a more suitable place.
So you are hoping for the relocation of Domaine de Vassal ?
AC Yes. Personally I think it is really necessary.
Even if grafting is required.
AC Yes, of course. Grafting is absolutely necessary if you want to determine the normal behavior of a variety. We have to separate the matter of varieties preserved in sandy soils from their real world application in other soil types. We need to experiment with their potential under normal conditions, which means grafting.
Where do you think would be a good location for the Vassal collection ?
ACI think INRA has an ideal site in Pech Rouge. There is plenty of space to install that collection. Especially if we want to select the very best varieties for tomorrow, and even if those varieties are very old. We may yet be surprised ! One example: I was in Lebanon a few years ago. I observed that Zinfandel was more susceptible to high temperatures than Marselan. It was really evident. We have those varieties at Vassal, but without proper real-world conditions no one could know that. So we must work with unknown or rare varieties with high oenological potential in the real world. And I am sure in the coming years we can select some old or rare varieties to diversify the range of wines available and to as well respond to climate change.
It is surprising that with the 1000s of varieties available in the world that we seem to see the same narrow range of choices in the marketplace.
AC Indeed, we have now found a new hybrid which is fully resistant to Downey and powdery mildew – no pesticide needed – but we still have to determine if the resistance is sustainable and stable over time. Now in terms of research, depending on soil type, we try to build a new viticulture using those varieties in no need of pesticides, combined with new architectures and soil management techniques including grass cover and drip irrigation.
So you believe science can ultimately overcome traditional barriers to innovation ?
AC Yes. I have worked in viticulture for 40 years and this is the first time, in France at least, that I have noticed a strong demand from growers to be able to plant new hybrids and to experiment.
What are the greatest risks with a move from Domaine de Vassal to a new location ?
AC Time and money. In our vineyard on the campus we have over 300 Vitis vinefera varieties. And they were transferred from Vassal. So we do have experience in the transfer of at least a part of the collection. Sometimes there are some mistakes. And sometime we fail. But it is a matter of time and means. And with a relocation, here is an great opportunity to check on the sanitary health of each plant. Indeed, at Vassal a full 50% of the plants are not fully ’safe’. I do hope INRA will provide enough funding to make this operation a success. It will take a minimum of 10 years, I believe. Ten hectares are waiting at Pech Rouge.
So relocation will require grafting. Does grafting change the character of finished wines ? Does it alter the vinifera variety in any way ?
AC Grafting on a resistant rootstock may change a vine’s general vigor, its fertility and and milieu; for sure you will change something in terms of maturity. But with respect to changing the flavor profile of the wine itself, I don’t think so. The problem is not that of the grafted vine; the problem is the non-grafted vine because it is not representative of a normal adaptation in a vineyard. Even if there is no phylloxera. Take Riesling, for example, which on its own rootstock is not fertile, it does not develop very well. But if you graft it on to a rootstock then it has good fertility and so on. So if you want to extrapolate the results from the collection to the practice, then you must be as close as possible to the practical conditions. For us the collection is not only the preservation of genes, it is also a tool for studying adaptation to a particular terroir.
Are you a little disappointed than you have now retired ? there seems to be so much going on !
AC Yes! This is the reason I am still working. In fact, we have begun experimental plantings in our vineyard in Pech Rouge to discover more about sustainable models for viticulture. These vines are only two years old, so I will be involved for some years.
Do you have your own personal vineyard ?
AC Yes, but it is very, very small. It is just for the weekends. I am very pleased to practice viticulture because it is important for a teacher to appreciate directly what are the problems in the field. Now, for example, I can say that due to climate change we can control the vineyard by using only four or five pesticide applications per year. Because I am doing just that !
Returning to Vassal for a moment, how long has this question of relocating been in the air ?
AC Thirty years. I was personally convinced 10 years ago that it was necessary to relocate, and for many reasons. But this operation is so huge that people prefer to ignore it. I think that the INRA in Paris was dreaming that some new in-vitro techniques would replace a field collection. But realistically, we are not preserving genes; we are preserving plants. It is not the same. Now everybody agrees on that. And I do hope that we can give to this exceptional collection the safe and secure environment it needs and deserves, and for a very long time. This is not the case at Vassal. Apart from problems with the owners, the land rental, competition with tourism, the main problem is one of salt water intrusion into the underground aquifer, which is an invisible effect of climate change. That is the basic problem with Vassal: salinity.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of resistance to the move. A petition was recently circulated…
AC Personally, I think it is a mistake. But I understand my colleagues: they are afraid of losing this tool. This is the reaction. But in fact, this petition is counter-productive. This is my opinion. It is a question of sufficient technicians and money. It would have been better to have begun this 10 years ago. We had money then. But in the current economy, I hope we can do it. We must be optimistic! The positive effect of the petition is to give some consciousness to the hierarchy that this is really important to many, many people.
We began this conversation by touching on your poetry. Do you plan to publish ?
AC Well, after last Saturday’s poems I read to students and our new director, they were very pleased with them. So now I am quite obliged to publish! Perhaps I will write a poem on ampelography . It could be a good way to interest people to change varieties, to explore diversity… because, like poetry, wine is part of culture. Yes, it could be important for human health, but above all it is part of culture. I have some really good open-minded Muslim friends in Turkey. They are now producing very good wines. And I help them. I have just written an article on an old variety, Papazkarasi, and they are very enthusiastic about this grape. Wine culture can improve the relations between men. This is the most exciting part of our work.
Thank you, Professor Carbonneau.
AC You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance.
Upon my arrival at Domaine de Vassal, the 27 hectares of vineyards and research station located on the sands of the seaside town of Marseillan, France, I was politely asked to refrain from asking questions about the spirited controversy surrounding the highly probable relocation of its treasure trove of vines to Pech Rouge. The reason was simple. Too many rumors and incomplete, distorted reportage had already entered the public sphere as truth. Besides, as our guide Blaise Genna, the Director of the research station, gently explained, the important decisions will ultimately be made in Paris, from within the Ministry of Agriculture. All else is speculation, however earnest. Fortunately, I had not come to harvest inside information or to research an exposé; instead, my purpose was to understand Domaine de Vassal’s mission, methods and practices put in place by its supervising authority, the National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRA). More, for Blaise Genna, working at Domaine de Vassal since 2009 is the realization of a childhood dream. So for me here was the perfect opportunity to learn what it is Domaine de Vassal actually does.
First a bit of history, a brief summation of Domain de Vassal’s formation gleaned from diverse sources. Phylloxera was introduced to Europe in 1863. A tiny aphid was secreted under protective cover in the wood and roots of botanical samples of American vines brought into England from the Eastern United States. The consequent devastation of English vineyards was soon followed by those of France. Some estimates put a total loss of vineyards in France as high as 90%. Those lost to this single malady were exclusively Vitis Vinifera vines. At the time there was no understanding of the mechanism, agency, or source of the infection. However, it was noted that plantings of American vines were largely immune. Hence, as wine made from dying Vitis vinifera varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc, – disappeared, there were broadly speaking two responses: The founding in 1876 of the first Vitis vinifera collection – essentially a rescue mission – under the auspices of the School of Agriculture in Montpellier; and secondly, the rapid propagation of hybrids, the crossing of what was left of European grape varieties with American vines. And these hybrids were wildly successful, for these new vines, planted in 1000s of hectares across France, offered both a general immunity to Phylloxera and an abundant grape crop. So while research went apace to find a solution to an epidemic threatening V. vinifera with extinction, countless small growers rushed to plant hybrids and to make wine from them.
After years of research at Montpellier’s School of Agriculture and elsewhere, the tiny sap-sucking culprit was discovered, its complex life cycle understood, and a solution found. Unlike inhospitable non-Vitis vinefera native American varieties, the aphid lived a comfortable life in the roots and wood of V. vinifera as they destroyed them. The solution was to graft V. vinefera scions onto one species or another of American rootstock. By this historical path was the core, approximately 10%, of Domaine de Vassal’s current collection created; for in 1949, now under INRA’s jurisdiction, all of the vines were transferred from the Montpellier site to the sandy soils of Marseillan. Why sand ? Because the aphid responsible for Phylloxera cannot live in sand, neither can another aggressive disease vector, the nematode.
Parenthetically, now that the V. vinifera-based wine industry was on its way to recovery, in 1935 the French Government banned the sale of hybrid grape wines (with a few exceptions, Baco Blanc, for example, used in the production of Armagnac). The reasons are too complex to explain here, but among them involved tax collection, over-production and the discovery of trace amounts of methanol in the wines of some hybrids. Banned vines included Clinton, Jacquez, Isabella, Lenoir, Noah and Herbemont. History lesson done, we now turn to the current state of affairs.
Domaine de Vassal’s official title is Domaine de Vassal Experimental Unit, Grapevine Genetic Resource Center. It is the world’s most expansive and deepest collection of grape genetic resources, with 1000s of Vitis vinifera varieties and clones, 200 V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris (wild grape varieties such as V. ambrosia, V. riparia, and V. aestivalis), 480 rootstocks, 1100 intersp. hybrids, gathered from 50 countries. According to INRA’s charter, Domaine de Vassal’s mission is threefold:
1) The conservation and management of the genetic resources of the Vitis vinifera grapevine, including clones, but also hybrids, rootstocks and table grapes
2) The study and characterization (or extrapolation) of the genetic resources of these grapes
3) The valorization of grapevine genetic resources
Conservation and Management
Domaine de Vassal accepts grapevines from virtually any source. Both domestic and international contributions are welcomed. From winegrowers and research centers to the gardener with a curious vine snaking up a wall, no contribution is refused. Of course, quarantine protocols must be followed. Currently they average some 79 new arrivals per year. But that figure obscures an important fact: since the elaboration of the grapevine genome in 2007, Domaine de Vassal has experienced a doubling of annual contributions to its collection. Indeed, occasionally they are surprised at a received vine, Mr. Genna explained, that turns out to be an old forgotten variety not yet in their data base. Once a vine has been accepted, has passed through quarantine, if it turns out to be a duplicate it will be discarded or given to another institution. If a question remains as to its identity, it will be planted and observed over a series of years to see how it expresses itself.
In addition to the exchange of grapevine resources and information with an extensive domestic and international network of universities, research institutions and winegrowers, Domaine de Vassal also plays an active role in acquisitions. When they are alerted to the existence of an ancient vineyard (85 to 100 plus years old) by local partners, properly trained staff will travel and search the vineyard for the rare survivor. Thankfully, years ago growers were not so rigorous in their choice of plantings. Mixtures would and did occur. Hence, treasures remain to be found in these old vineyards. Sadly, owing to their age and the grubbing up of them for plantings of more popular varieties, scientists estimate that these reservoirs of grapevine diversity will likely disappear in 10 to 15 years. So the heat is on to find them before simple economics consign the remaining rare and unusual varieties to extinction.
Apart from Vassal’s vineyards themselves, they have greenhouses dedicated to nursing diseased vines to health, to growing replacement vines, the propagation of experimental commercial varieties, and on-site cryopreservation of pips and pollen under Nitrogen. (Mr. Genna said that preserving buds is not yet working as well as desired.)
The Characterization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
This is the primary directive of the three technicians at Vassal, Thierry Lacombe, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, and P. This. In this capacity, a full description and identification of each and every vine is required. I was told one hundred and fifty criteria are used. And every criteria is studied 5 times (for confirmation). Berry size, for example, varies from year to year, so five measurements are made from which is extracted the average. All records keeping is done by hand. Indeed, each variety has its own folder wherein leaf samples are saved (when possible), and grape bunches, flowers, leaves and individual berries are photographically recorded. (The photo example is from 1966.) The contents of the folder are very fragile and only one copy exists, hence the dossiers are in the process of being digitalized for broader sharing. About half of the archive has now been so preserved. Importantly, all files are openly available to the public, to winemakers, researchers, universities, students and journalists. And yes, they have fire alarms and fire-resistant doors.
Drilling even deeper, beyond the scope of traditional Ampelography, genetic relationships among and between grapevines are explored and mapped, of course with the assistance of networked institutions. Genetic research also extends into locating disease resistance markers. Equally important is Domaine de Vassal’s micro-vinification program. Agriculturally promising varieties, those showing climate change flexibility, disease resistance, drought tolerance, lower alcohol levels, or possessing potentially desirable flavor profiles, are harvested each Autumn and small quantities of wine are made from them. Hundreds of such micro-vinifications are done each year. It must be remembered, Mr. Genna explains, that the INRA, through its many stations, Domaine de Vassal prominent among them, exists at the service of the wine industry writ large, which is to say, the maintenance of its wealth of diversity and health of this commercial sector.
An interesting aside during our discussion was the question of just who gets to decide which grape varieties are grown in France ? Theoretically, anybody can put in a request to grow any variety, say for example, one discovered in Australia. Though I suspect the process is far more burdensome in a country famous for its bureaucracy, the short answer is that you would make a formal request to the Ministry of Agriculture which would, in turn ask the INRA to grow parcels of that variety in several regions to determine whether it is safe and feasible. Such experimental plantations must follow official protocols which includes not selling any wine made of the grape. After 4 or 5 years of official observation, if everything checks out, then you’re allowed to commercialize the vine and sell wines made of it. For those interested in which grape varieties are permitted to be grown in France, check out the official book Catalogue des Varietes et Clones de Vigne Cultives en France or visit this extremely valuable resource from INRA partner Pl@nt Grape.
The Valorization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
A recent story I wrote about Domaine Henry perfectly illustrates this last aspect of INRA’s mission at by Domaine de Vassal. In that story winemaker François Henry recounts that the necessary historical grapevines for his project could not be found in any nursery, so they turned to Domaine de Vassal. Years of patient research, development, and propagation paid off with the successful planting of a vineyard, largely because of Domaine de Vassal’s openly available resources. Indeed, according to Vassal’s figures, approximately 530 varieties are given out each year to researchers, students, amateurs, associations, teaching bodies, and yes, winegrowers such as Mr. Henry. Roughly 3/4 of the requests come from French petitioners and the balance to international destinations, to the Americas, South Africa, China, Europe etc.
Are you a winemaker tired of growing run-of-the-mill Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon ? Perhaps you are in search of commercial distinction and want an unusual, forgotten, or rare variety, but find local nurseries lacking. Then Domaine de Vassal is the place to turn. More, apart from its formal holdings, the INRA has created 30 new grape varieties at Domaine de Vassal over its 65 years of existence. And others are in development. These include 15 white and black table grapes varieties (three without seeds) and 10 new wine grape varieties: Chasan, Clarin and Aranel for white; Caladoc, Marselan, Chenanson, Portan, Ganson, Gramon, Monerac, and Ségalin for red. All but for Clarin may be found in the magisterial Wine Grapes by J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz.
But the process is laborious. Take Marselan, for example. An homage to the commune of Marseillan, this Cabernet and Grenache cross was initially bred in 1961 as an initiative to improve the reputation and image of wines from the Languedoc. But it was not commercially available until 1991, 30 years later ! In November of 2007, Marselan was at last accepted into the catalogue of official grapes for making Pay d’Oc wines. Then in 2011 it was permitted to be a variety in the Côtes du Rhone AOP.
In the Vineyards
After departing the conference room, we visited the on-site winery where the micro-vinications take place, the complementary wine library, and we saw abundant donated canes stored in the refrigeration unit; and after a brief tour of the greenhouse ‘hospital’ where they struggle to bring diseased vines back to health, we went for a leisurely walk in the vineyards, void of vegetation for it is winter.
Mr. Genna explained that most of the vines are not planted to produce wines but to preserve examples of them. Only 0.5 per cent of the vines are grafted. The bulk of the collection is not grafted because they didn’t have to; they are grown on sand. But if one day they had to grow a vine, or a farmer wanted to grow a certain vine, on soils other than sand, then they would have to graft. Mr Genna insisted grafting would change nothing, not the morphology, flavor, or vigor. This was a distinct echo of the unspoken controversy surrounding the likely move of the vineyards to INRA’s Experimental Unit at Pech Rouge where, with due deference to predicted rising sea levels, the vines would not be planted in sands near the Mediterranean but on higher ground, here in limestone soils.
Mr. Genna added that if the collection does move, contrary to what has been reported, nothing will be lost, not a single vine grape variety, clone, hybrid, or rootstock. INRA protocols require that before a given vine can be grubbed up at Domaine de Vassal, the successful planting of that same vine will have to be confirmed at the new site. A project of this magnitude would take, he believes, at least 10 years.
“We know what we are doing”, Mr. Genna insists. And by ‘we’ he does not mean only the 10 people currently on staff at Domaine de Vassal. He also means the extensive community of dedicated people discussed above: the institutional networks of researchers, viticulturists, geneticists, agriculturists, winegrowers, professional and amateur ampelographers, nurserymen and women, and university students. All of these partners, both international and domestic, will keep alive and thriving the cultural and natural treasure that are the vineyards of Domaine de Vassal.
And I believe him.
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her invaluable assistance.
François Henry has a playful, inquisitive mind, industrious and driven. Couple this with a passion for Biology, Geology and History, often seen as rather dry sciences, and you have a foundation for creative cultural expression. During my recent visit to Domaine Henry in the small town of Saint Georges d’Orques outside of Montpellier, France, François revealed particularly vivid moments from his youth that have informed his intellectual development.
As a child of 7 he recalls a task given to him by his father, Jean; he was to descend to the family cellar beneath the house and fetch wine for the evening’s dinner. In near-darkness, down the steps he would go. Standing before a locked wooden door, the child reached up for a key hanging high. Through the door he passed, and through spider webs brushing across his face, reminding him that he was not alone. He then came to a second door beyond which sat barrels of wine. The boy then would fill a bottle. Asked why he did not take a candle or flashlight, François explained it was because he wanted to prove that he was a “brave little man”.
Flash forward a few years to the work he would do on holidays for pocket money. Though he had no interest in wine then – indeed, it was only the occasional Sunday meal, he recalled, when he would ask and be given small watered-down glass – François enjoyed working the family vineyards, first picking up pruning debris, then, when older, raking around the vines. Driving the family tractor would come later. The telling detail in this is the satisfaction he felt at earning his pocket money.
Another instructive story he told concerned what was hidden in the very ground beneath his feet. His father and grandfather told the story that while grubbing up a vineyard years earlier near Tressan, that they uncovered mysterious bones and skulls, all of which were subsequently reinterred. Just where was not revealed until François one day asked his father to show him the very field. Soon after, François could be found on Thursdays, then a weekly school holiday, out in this field with shovel and rake poking around in the dirt. And then one day it happened. Eureka! The young man, too, found bones and skulls. Though an anthropologist invited to examine the remains would determine them to be of limited historical importance, it was added that François had likely stumbled upon a Visigoth graveyard from the 4th Century. Among other fragments, he had found a figure buried face down, therefore likely a criminal according to the rituals of the time, and a crypt of a child. All the remains were promptly reburied but for a shard of painted pottery François kept for himself.
Though François Henry told many other stories during our extended visit, it is through these three pivotal memories from youth that I believe we can see a solid outline of the man and the winegrower he has now become. Indeed, wine growing would come later for him when, after a year’s college study of mixed success, his father invited him back home to realize a dream: to bottle their own family wine. And in 1977 they did, besting neighbor Chateau de L’Engarran by a year, a small family victory François still takes pride in having achieved.
But a formal wine-making education still eluded François, now in his 20’s. This was made extremely clear when his father, Jean, asked that he take a break from working the vineyard and to instead market their wines in Paris. He successfully sold to a few social clubs, but during tasting events found himself quizzed by the far more knowledgable Parisians as to the making of the wine, the grapes, on the technical aspects of vinification, questions he could not always answer. So began a period of focused self-education. Over time he visited numerous wineries both in his spare time and when driving the 10 hours to Paris and the 10 hours back. Alsace, the Loire, Burgundy, these regions and others he toured extensively, meeting with winemakers, who were then, in the late 1970’s, less celerities than salt-of-the-earth farmers. This he supplemented with reading, cover to cover (”A to Z”, as he put it) as many wine books as he could find, the first of which was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, published in 1967.
And so it was, step by step, that François Henry would eventually combine his industriousness, marketing skills, his creativity and intellectual acumen, into the founding, along with his energetic wife, Laurence, of their own Domaine Henry in Saint Georges d’Orques. This was in 1992. The town and location of the winery and vineyards were chosen not only with terroir in mind, but also because he discovered during historical research very significant praise of the high quality of the wines of Saint George d’Orques described in a 1787 travel and touring notebook kept by then-US Ambassador (and budding wine enthusiast) Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, 20 years later, in 1807, Jefferson, now President of the United States, again specifically mentions by name the quality of Saint Georges d’Orques wines and requested the relaxation of import taxes on them. (It is important to point out one detail. Wine was a less favored drink than hard liquor in those days, since so little of it commonly available was of particular quality or note. So part of Jefferson’s over-arching plan was to introduce finer wines to the American public as a way to combat the excessive abuse of higher alcohol drink. See T. Pinney, A History of Wine In America vol. 1)
The question for François then became what to do with this Jeffersonian heritage? The third President and principle author of the Declaration of Independence had visited many places and drank widely, after all. And Saint Georges d’Orques wines had maintained considerable fame since the Middle Ages to Jefferson’s time. Yet merely trading upon a place name would be of little consequence, a footnote, which is what it had largely become until François Henry hit upon what is in my view, a brilliant idea: What if you were to return to Jefferson’s era, to the time of his visit in southern France, by crafting a wine in the historical style of the period, and with the grapes then in common use? In other words, he asked whether it was possible to recreate a version of a Saint Georges d’Orques wine that Thomas Jefferson himself might have tasted. After extensive research in the historical archive, François and Laurence made another remarkable discovery, the names of the grape varieties which are said to have been widely grown for hundreds of years but have now almost entirely disappeared from the region, certainly as economically viable varieties: Aspirin noir and gris, noire and grise Oeillade, noir and gris Terret, Ribeyrenc and Morrastel.
Now, according to the magisterial text Wine Grapes, Ribeyrenc (spelled Rivairenc in the literature) is said to be “[a]ncient, once widespread, nearly extinct southern French vine. Better known as Aspiran Noir.” Oeillade Noire in the literature is described as “[d]isappearing, dark-skinned, southern French variety more popular as a table grape.” As for the tangle of names, the regional synonyms, and exhaustive DNA analysis, we can do little but trot out the old cliché, “More work needs to be done”. But as a practical matter, for Domaine Henry to realize the ambition of recreating a Jefferson-era wine, how could they possibly proceed, how to find the historically correct varieties? Enter the Institut national de la recherché agronomique (INRA) and their extensive holdings of Mediterranean grape varieties at Domain de Vassal. So from 1993 to 1998, François and Laurent painstakingly worked with the technicians at that facility, and in 1998 they successfully planted a mixed vineyard of these varieties.
The result is a blended wine called Le Mailhol (pronounced May-yol, from the ancient Oc language meaning ‘youthful or young vine’.) Buy it if you can. Domaine Henry is to be celebrated for not only resurrecting disappearing varieties – a matter close to my heart – but also for paying attention and respecting the winemaking history of the Languedoc. By no means is Le Mailhol an overly significant percentage of Domaine Henry’s income. The wine is not made every year. And the balance of Domaine Henry’s bottlings are made predominately of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, international varieties all. Still they have taken a financial risk to realize this grand historical experiment. My hat is off to them.
As to how the wine tastes, I was generously given a bottle of the 2009 vintage. I will supplement this post with tasting notes when I open the bottle on a very special occasion.
Thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance in the writing of this post.
From Frank Gehry’s futuristic design of Marqués de Riscal’s headquarters in Elciego, Zaha Hadid’s tasting pavilion at Bodegas López de Heredia in Haro, to Santiago Calatrava’s controversial rolling waves of Bodegas Ysios‘ winery outside of Laguardia and Aspiazu’s glass palace, Bodegas Baigorri, in Samaniego, and so many more extraordinary structures thru-out La Rioja, it is easy to overlook a regional treasure, a tradition dating back nearly as far as the vine’s first planting; and by ‘overlook’, I am being quite literal. For beneath the many towns and villages in Rioja, are hundreds of connected wine caves carved, chiseled, and hammered out of bare rock. Ollauri, Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, Rodezno, Elciego, Lapuebla, Samaniego, Laguardia, Cenicero and Ábalos, and the city of Logroño are a few places where these may be seen. But it was the subterranean honeycombed maze of a winery in the village of San Asencio I visited that left me breathless: Bodegas Lecea.
But before I go any further, here’s a brief history lesson courtesy of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s gloss on La Rioja,
The property being proposed for inclusion in the World Heritage list corresponds to a geographical and cultural unit within the Spanish Wine Protected Designation of Origin Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja (D.O.Ca. Rioja). Rioja is one of the world’s great wines, a position it has achieved not only thanks to its unarguable quality but also because of its exceptionally long historical and cultural background. The property covers 603 square kilometers and the buffer zone 554 square kilometers. The proposed area corresponds to the northwestern part of the Wine Region and extends along both sides of the River Ebro, affecting the two sub-areas of the D.O.: Rioja and Rioja Alavesa. This is the most representative part of the Wine Region and the one that has developed without interruption since the early Middle Ages, with signs that this process might date back to Roman times. It features an exceptional cultural landscape, the result of human efforts to adapt to their environment and the development of a culture strongly associated with the world of wine which goes back to 2,000 years.
And among the most impressive performances of these (under-stated) “human efforts to adapt to their environment” are the wine caves themselves. Again from the UNESCO document:
The most traditional system of wineries was the cellars excavated underground in a variety of different models. Excavation methods were used according to different circumstances, leading to different types of cellars: those that were excavated horizontally; cases where it was necessary to dig deep so the calado (the name given to the excavated space within the winery used for storage) would be at a sufficiently low level, and others where the cellars were located underneath the buildings.
We have no precise information as to when these cellars started to be built. There have been documentary references to the cellars since the 10th century [....]
However, the original purpose of the caves, their inspiration, was not the storage and fermentation of wine. Indeed, according to one knowledgeable source,
“These subterranean caves were dug most likely for defensive use, during the period of constant battles between the feuding kingdoms of Navarra and Castilla. Centuries later they came into use as places where wine could be produced and stored. In olden times the cellars were inter-connecting so that during sieges the villagers could go underground, survive for months and plot their counter attacks.”
New to the region, my knowledge of the caves marginal, this last October I was to learn that the first sign of the existence of the caves were the many chimneys, what are called tuferas, jutting in loose formation from a raised surface on the ground, often framed by well-placed stones. These were a cellar’s (calado) ventilation system, essentially for highly toxic carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of wine fermentation. Indeed, as in California, cellar workers perish here too after only a brief exposure, a minute or two of unguarded inhalation of the gas. But also there arose from them the sweet aroma of recently harvested grapes now a few days into fermentation. The village of San Asencio was redolent with the heavy perfume of a successful vintage.
Along with a colleague, we parked and approached the Lecea winery unannounced. Regrettably, Luis Alberto Lecea, the principle winemaker and recently minted D.O. Ca. President, Luis Alberto Lecea, was not present. (I had recently met him at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Logroño.) But his son, Jorge, was. As was Luis Alberto’s father, Rufino. And the two of them generously gave of their time to take us deep into La Rioja’s history, their history.
Winemakers for the local collective for 5 generations, Rufino Blanco Lecea decided in the 1980’s to begin bottling and marketing Bodegas Lecea wines under their own label. In the 90’s, his son, Luis Alberto, was to follow in his footsteps; and now Luis Alberto’s son, Jorge, our buoyant guide, all of 25 years old, is taking on ever-greater responsibilities since beginning work here one year ago. An economics student, he is poised to one day helm the family business. Jorge’s English is quite good, and so after a perfunctory walk through the surface winery, passed the modern tanks, bright machinery and modest tasting area, we descended deep into the caves directly beneath, caves excavated 300 years before.
Fermentation was well-enough along, though the ventilation fans, evacuating CO2 to the surface, continued to hum. Jorge was to tell us that in the first days of fermentation, the caves are not a place anyone dares go. Just as easily as a flame is extinguished, so may a man’s life. Though the day was cool, after a decent of maybe fifteen narrow steps illuminated by soft orange tungsten light, the temperature began to drop, clearly highlighting why in this hot region subterranean wine storage is a fine, economical idea. At a turn in the staircase, to our right was a long, dimly-lit passage crowded with a few wine barrels and massive ochre-tinted cement tanks built in situ. And to the left, down another 15 steps, we entered an excavated room – our first stop – a room arranged to illustrate to visitors the broad themes of this former way of life in Rioja.
Jorge showed us a perfectly preserved pig skin used in the old days to transport wine to markets, bars, to the local collective, or to more established and moneyed wineries for bottling and hence wider distribution. Also in the room was a vintage oak barrel, here originally American oak, but occasionally Chestnut may be found. Nowadays, with modernization, French oak dominates. A tiled floor was a surprise, but traditionalist Luis Alberto has long championed the restoration of San Asenio’s wine caves, 350 by one authority, many of which have fallen to ruin and decay.
We were soon joined for the balance of our tour by Jorge’s visionary grandfather, Rufino. For a man of his many years, climbing and descending flights of stairs posed no problem for him!
From this room we walked down a long corridor, passed a walled-up alcove with stairs that once was a passage to another series of caves, one meter beyond, now in private hands. And beyond those caves yet still more caves could have been navigated in former times. We stopped at one concrete tank after another, each with a capacity for around 6,000 liters, for tastes of Bodegas Lecea’s crianza and two reserva wines, one with and one without oak influence, all Tempranillo. After a specified length of time in these tanks, they are then bottled for market.
And with a friendly chinking of our glasses, we were led back above ground to witness another aspect of the traditional wine-making process for which I personally have great affection: the lago (nearly identical to the Portuguese lagar). For Bodegas Lecea was preparing for a celebration the next week (November 2&3), the Fiesta del Pisado de la Uva during which friends, family, clients, townspeople, and wine tourists from around the world lucky enough to stumble in on these days, are invited to climb inside and crush the (Tempranillo) grapes underfoot. Not all of the more than 1000 people likely to attend may be so rewarded, but many are. Although only a small percentage of their production is done this way, Jorge revealed that Bodegas Lecea is the only winery left in all of Rioja who still practices this tradition even on so small a scale, a practice, Jorge told us, which ended over 20 years ago. Now it is all machines.
Ever vigilant, again the recurring theme of the clear and present danger of CO2 levels in the subterranean caves – and even in the lago – was brought home; Rufino and Jorge demonstrated this by striking a lighter and lowering it ever-closer to the fermenting grapes. Inches above the surface, the flame went out. The concentration of CO2 is a very real threat to working within these structures. And I can well imagine within living memory, a history of loss exists side-by-side with what is otherwise a wonderfully colorful tradition.
Suitably chastened, thrilled, and enlightened, my colleague and I took leave of Jorge, Rufino, and Bodegas Lecea. Should you ever have a chance to visit, do not hesitate. Whether the architectural palaces dedicated to Rioja’s wonderful wines will endure is a question we need not ask of the this subterranean world of caves. From the 10th century until now, 500 years of which were the caves were used as wine cellars, they remain with us. And the wider wine world is far better for it.
Great thanks to Jorge and Rufino Lecea for giving generously of their time.
Please friend them up on Facebook: Bodegas Lecea
Ken Payton, Admin
For further reading on Luis Alberto Lecea, please see this.
ViniSud is the world’s leading international trade fair tasked with the promotion of Mediterranean wines. On February 24, 25, and 26, 2014, hundreds of winery owners and their representatives from Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, to name only a few nations, will gather and mingle with thousands of buyers, importers, distributors, even sommeliers, at the Parc des Expositions just outside the beautiful city of Montpellier, France. Indeed, as was stated on the ViniSud website of 2012’s event, their 10th anniversary:
“Professionals have attended in great numbers over the 3 days and the initial feedback is exceptionally positive from producers, who are announcing that they have signed deals and done business. The visitor flows were well distributed in all the halls thanks to the exhibition having two entrances open this year, at the North and South reception areas. All those who participated are of the opinion that VINISUD 2012 has been a great success.”
At ViniSud 2012 it is said there were nearly 1,700 exhibitors and over 32,000 visitors over the three days. And I was fortunate to have attended as a US wine blogger Ambassador, part of what ViniSud called a Digital Seachange, an initiative centered on the increasing importance and utility of social media.
Then in the winter of 2013 ViniSud launched ViniSud Asia in Shanghai, their first trade fair aimed at the growing wine and spirits market in that region. From a press release at the time,
“VINISUD will be the 1st International trade show of Wines and Spirit to settle down in Shanghai, strengthened by its concept of conviviality, and its Mediterranean lifestyle, carrier and attractive concept, the wine professionals approve by a large majority in more than 90 % specialized shows with 100 % of wine offer, in mainland China.”
Successfully pulling off these events requires a team of organizing specialists, of course; but you also need an individual of unique skill and ambition, of energy and marketing savvy, at the helm. And ViniSud’s Board of Directors unanimously chose, in 2012, Fabrice Rieu as their President. I caught up with this very busy gentleman who generously granted this interview.
Ken Payton As ViniSud’s new president, how was your experience at ViniSud Asia in February 2013? Do you feel progress was made in opening up Asian markets?
Fabrice Rieu The experience of ViniSud Asia in 2013 confirmed our view that the Chinese market offers formidable potential both in terms of quality and of visitor numbers. Unlike previous experiences of trade fairs where some buyers displayed a lack of professionalism, this exhibition demonstrated to the Chinese buyers – a huge diversity of wines, the fact that Mediterranean wines are offered in all price segments and finally that the Mediterranean probably offers the finest selection of wines in terms of value for money and enjoyment. New markets have been identified, including types of wines frequently unknown in Asia such as rosés and naturally sweet wines.
How will the presentation of ViniSud 2014 in Montpellier, France differ from the Shanghai event? I am thinking of the differences between European and Asian business models and consumer tastes and concerns.
FR Even though the fairs have a similar profile as this is the most impressive gathering of Mediterranean wine producers, the approach is totally different and yet perfectly complementary. The launch in Shanghai is targeted at forging closer links with a new market; producers are making the effort to travel in numbers, leaving their vineyards far behind in order to go and meet buyers. In Montpellier, it is the buyers who travel en masse, often very long distances. Bringing them to the heart of the Mediterranean vineyards adds a wine tourism dimension and gives them a better understanding of these wines’ particular characteristics.
What proved to be among the most important selling points for Mediterranean wines and spirits in Shanghai? Was it quality and price point? The dependability of Mediterranean producers? Or the encounter by Asian consumers with wine regions and flavors perhaps less well known to them?
FR Several factors weigh in favor of the Mediterranean wines: the distinctive climate and vineyards dating back a long way result in the production of wines that are ultra-smooth, with no hard edges, ideally suited to the palates of novice wine consumers. And as a large proportion of these wines offer highly attractive value for money/enjoyment, they are certain to make major inroads in terms of sales on the Asian market.
Does the Asian buyer consider sustainably grown grapes and organic wines, proud features of Mediterranean wines, to be important distinctions when choosing a wine?
FR It seems to me that the priority for Asia buyers is to select wines that are to their taste and whose price seems reasonable to them. These are the criteria that matter most to them, and Mediterranean wines are ideally placed in this respect.
Turning to Europe, for ViniSud 2012 what was then called the Digital Sea Change was a central theme. The importance of the internet, of social media, not only for wine and spirits sales but also for consumer education, was well recognized. For ViniSud 2014 this February, what programs or initiatives do you intend to launch to build on the success of this theme?
FR Supported by the specialist wine agency, Sowine, the 2014 exhibition plans to continue its focus on developing digital communications: a dedicated hub for bloggers comparing the viewpoints of influential bloggers, coordination strategies of the various communities on social media networks, web TV and a dedicated communications area at the exhibition – to turn it into an international scale digital sounding board.
“Blogger ambassadors” from every corner of the world will also be attending, symbolic of the event’s international dimension; and this year once again, Sowine will lead a series of workshops and talks on the convergence of web and wine.
With this strategy proving successful in 2012 and 2013 at ViniSud Asia, the focus in 2014 will be on even greater ambition and innovation! The newly revamped bloggers’ hub now clearly reflects its ambitions.
Having been an American Ambassador to ViniSud 2012, a role I particularly enjoyed, what I learned continues to inform my writing. Will there be an international Ambassador program again this year?
FR Because of ViniSud’s international character and progressive opening up to export markets, in particular North America and Asia, it is vital to have an Ambassador. Their name will be revealed in the near future…
Do you believe wine and spirits bloggers have a fundamental role to play in promotion and consumer education?
?FR Bloggers today have an essential role to play as they wield immense power of suggestion. They are capable of conveying their impressions through the written word, whereas they are clearly not in a position to enable consumers to sample wines over the internet. And yet, there is a huge need to understand the wine sector.
What do you see as the most important advantages brought to the wine industry and the consumer in the Digital Age?
FR Speed in terms of disseminating information, the ability to reach out to consumers in the world’s most distant locations and establish links between all those with an interest in the wine world.
In your understanding, how does Asia differ from Europe and America in its use of the internet for wine and spirits sales?
FR In Asia, there is an even greater need for explanation as to the origins of wines, how they are produced, their specific taste characteristics and factors that may explain their price, background, awards received and so on… the basic difference lies in the fact that Europeans and Americans have unquestionably a more extensive knowledge base for wines, not least because they have been producing it for much longer. Asian people require infinitely more information and need a basis for comparison.
Lastly, how are the exhibitor figures for ViniSud 2014 shaping up? Do you anticipate increased international participation over ViniSud 2012?
FR Exhibitors have registered faster than for previous events, probably because they consider that in today’s world this is both an event and a business opportunity not to be missed.
Thank you very much for your time.
FR You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Catherine Bourguignon for her assistance.
Part owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino Amantite is a man of few words. Working with the invaluable assistance of David Cook, president and founder of Cook Vineyard Management (CVM), I was able to make contact with the gentleman. After a wordy request to visit to which he responded “OK”, we began swapping ever briefer emails over a series of weeks in September/October. To my repeated question, “When will Pagani Ranch be harvested ?” He replied, “Not sure…” Then one day the finest email arrived, “We are picking for Ridge this Thursday at 7:00 a.m.”
A bit of background. This summer I was touring Sonoma County, the birthplace of the California wine industry. While driving Hwy 12, on a stretch named the Valley of the Moon – said to be the Native American translation of the word ‘Sonoma’ – an extraordinary vineyard appeared. Thankfully the roadsides are wide just there for in a heartbeat I was parked off the highway. For the next half-hour, and as the sun set, I walked the vineyard boundary in speechless wonder. Head-trained vines as thick as a football player’s thighs dotted the landscape from the highway to a bank of distant trees in shadow. Heavy bunches of jet-black grapes, through which no sunlight could pass, hung in canopies of green, red and fiery orange leaves. At the base of many vines, wooden stakes had long ago been absorbed into the massive, twisting trunks they were once meant to support. More, pathways through the vines just here were crowded. No tractor could ever pass. All hand-harvested, clearly, this magnificent vineyard was of a different order; living history of a very rare kind. I had to learn more. And I did.
I was at Pagani Ranch, in the area anyway, well before 7 a.m., before dawn. The stars shone on a fertile expanse; and the headlights of many a harvester vehicle raked the vines and hillsides and cast eerie shadows as they snaked up dirt roads, blinking out over a ridge or soon veiled within stands of Cypress, Cedar and Myrtle. The dust thrown up by 4-wheel drives, late-model Camrys and primer-gray Civics rose into the still air. I had not been told where to go, how to get to Pagani Ranch. I had not thought to ask Dino. Let’s just say I learned a lot that morning of agricultural by-ways too incidental even for Google Maps to plot. But I did at last find the staging area of David Cook’s harvesting crew, which, it must to be said, was among the finest I’d ever witnessed.
Right off I met Dino Amantite, a substantial, no-nonsense man. He is all about the work, and no detail, however small, escapes his attention. My job was to document the harvest crew, the extraordinary vines and, with any luck, interview both the principle owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino, and his very active mother, Norma, the ranch’s matriarch. Mostly I was to keep the hell out of the way. I had been given no assurances, no guarantee, apart from access to the vineyard itself. “Let’s see how things go”, David Cook would caution early on. And with David Gates of Ridge also present, a man I have long admired, this was good advice for I was obviously in the big-leagues now.
What follows is an irregular story, more of a series of interview impressions, if I may put it that way, from four of the principle figures I encountered that day. For crucial background, please see this fine background gloss on the history of Pagani Ranch published in the Press Democrat a couple of years ago.
NORMA PAGANI AMANTITE
Norma Pagani Amantite stands straight as a post in the midst of a very active harvest crew. Seeming never to miss a single picker’s motion among her beloved vines, vigilantly assessing the quality of the bunches tumbling into the bins, her dignified bearing nevertheless had a calming effect, a talent she would have put to good use had she been granted her wish to become a police officer when young, if only it had been permitted of women back in the day. Buoyant, humorous, she was also a surprising source of lyrical moments. She graciously took a few moments to speak with me ‘on the record’.
Ken Payton What are we harvesting today?
Norma Pagani Amantite It is a mixture of six different reds in the same block. That’s how they planted them in the olden days. And they all ripen at different times. Folks have already come out and checked the sugar. I don’t do that anymore. That’s one less job for me.
How would you describe your job now ?
Norma Well, Dino is in charge. I just like to be out here. I can’t stand to be in the house. I like this big yard ! No neighbors.
How many acres is your ‘big yard’ ?
Norma One hundred and eighty-seven point seven, the whole ranch.
And railroad tracks used to divide the property. Now there is just this road. When did that happen ?
Norma When they put in the highway people quit using the train to travel. Then when the war came they came and got the steel off the tracks and used them for the war. And they gave the old railroad ties to Grandpa and Uncle Louie. They made fences out of them. The railroad used to go to Santa Rosa, down to Sonoma, to the Bay Area, all over the place. Northern Pacific ran it. I was told Grandpa had a fit when they came in to do it; but it was eminent domain. He didn’t want his ranch divided by tracks, but he couldn’t stop them.
So now instead of going on the highway to go to the upper ranch, I go on the old tracks. I have my own private highway ! That was my boys’ idea.
So what grapes do we have here ? We have Zinfandel, we have Tokay and Alicante Bouschet…
Norma (laughs) You pronounce it different than I do ! I guess that’s the correct, fancy way to say it. Uncle Louie used to just call it Alcantee. So there’s Alcantee, Grand Noir, Lenoir, Carignan, Zinfandel, and Petti Sear [how she pronounced it].
Petti Sear ? I don’t believe I know that one…
Norma (laughs) That’s how Uncle Louie pronounced it. The correct way is Petite Sirah. He only went to grammar school, you know. So there are six reds, maybe seven. Can’t recall the last. In those days they planted a field blend. And they would all ripen at different times.
What do you do when a vine dies ? I saw one back there that was looking a little tired…
Norma You would too if you were born in 1880 ! But when one dies we try to stick with Zinfandel. I was told that, even after all these years, we still have the biggest holdings of Alicante Bouschet in the county. The wineries buy them for color, to add color to the Zinfandel. They don’t make a pure wine out of Alicante Bouschet. It’s too powerful. And the Lenoir is real tough, like small rocks. They’ll stand for anything Mother Nature throws at them. Those Lenoirs can handle it. They’re loose and they’re real tough. You don’t get the crop off of the old vine, the big crop; but you get the flavor. You cannot plant an old vine; I mean the young vines will not have the deeper flavors of the old.
You’re a pretty fierce guardian of this ranch.
Norma I try. There are nine owners now. After my aunt died, my sister and I disclaimed (sic) our shares to our sons. But my big sister didn’t. She kept what she had coming for herself. Grandpa had seven kids. My dad had three girls. I turn around and have three boys! And my sister has two boys. The Man upstairs is in charge. And of the grandsons, only Richard is interested in viticulture. The rest are not interested. That’s normal. One in three is not bad.
She paused to watch the harvest continue, the grapes piling up in the bins, and then looked long and slow across the property.
Norma Listen. Do you hear that ? When the vines are in leaf, you can’t hear the highway.
Can you tell me a little of what Ridge is looking for here at Pagani Ranch ? And also about Lenoir, a delicious grape I’ve been snacking on.
David Gates We’ve been buying fruit from Pagani since 1991. We really like it. It’s one of the latest Zins we get in each year. It usually comes in after our Dry Creek or Alexander Valley fruit. It has racy acidity; and of all of the vineyards we source our Zinfandels from, this vineyard probably has the highest percentage of old vines. Even the replants here, some are 40-50 years old. So they too qualify as historic vines themselves.
The family has been involved intimately in this ranch for many, many years, several generations now, which is always nice to see. What that does for me and for Ridge is tell me this is good ground for grapes. These vines have survived two world wars, Prohibition, the ‘white Zin’ craze, the white wine craze, the grape recession even, and they are still going strong. Why ? Because they make great wine.
Which wines does Ridge make of these grapes ?
David We make a Pagani Ranch, and it is predominately Zinfandel, but is does have a bit of Alicante and a mix of other grapes. That’s one thing you see here: the pre-Prohibition plantings in California. There are still a few remnant vineyards left throughout the state. A lot of them are in the North Coast, in Napa and Sonoma Counties. They typically are mixed plantings, they are mixed up. Here at Pagani, Zinfandel is predominant, but there is also Alicante Bouschet, there is some Mataro or Mourvedre, there is a little bit of Petite Sirah, and a grape called Cinsault or Black Malvoisie, then there is Lenoir.
And it is a direct producer. The vine was bred in the south of France directly in response to the phylloxera threat that was happening in the 1870s and 80s in France. It came to California in the 1870s, and by the 1880s it had wiped out a lot of the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, where California’s fledgling fine wine industry was located at the time.
People back then were replanting to what they called ‘direct producers’. This was before it was common to use root stocks to combat phylloxera. Now, this grape Lenoir could resist phylloxera but it also made good wine. To this day there is probably maybe less than 1% Lenoir vines scattered in this block. It’s got these tiny, little berries with really intense juice; and the juice is red. It is a teinturier variety. But it’s also got good acidity. It doesn’t make that interesting a wine on its own, but a little bit mixed in adds a raciness to the Zinfandel and to the other varieties that are here. It’s a neat grape.
Thank you for assisting me in the visit to Pagani on this harvest day. Ridge is here. Can you tell us what it is you do ?
David Cook I am a vineyard manager. I own the vineyard management company that manages Pagani Ranch. So we do all the pruning, all the canopy management, up through harvest. I’ve been in this business since 1995.
What does Pagani Ranch offer ?
David Its old vine Zinfandel, which is a hot commodity around here. And these are especially healthy vines. There is a way you manage those. And that is one of our kinds of expertise. We know what these vines need. A lot of these vines are dry-farmed. You’ll see that we just put it some irrigation in the last couple of years. We’ve decided to do this because the water table is down.
What’s happened to the water table ?
David We think it’s a season change.
Speaking of seasonal changes, have you noticed any changes here in the climate over the years ?
David It seems like we have rain happening later on. We used to get the early rains, in late September. But we haven’t gotten those for the last 4 or 5 years. But the experts say that is more of a seasonal change, that is has done that throughout history. And the last two years have been great growing years.
Is this the oldest vineyard you manage ? And there are special requirements ?
David Yes. And there are special requirements. These vines are more vulnerable in certain ways. You just need to know when to fertilize, and be attentive to the little things you do. We leave a low crop on. That’s probably the secret to old vines. We don’t push them. It’s kind of like an older person: you just don’t have them running marathons. They used to carry three and a half tons per acre; now were down to about two to two and a half. But the quality went up. And we now get paid more for the fruit because of this increase in quality. It’s much easier on the vines. That’s why they are surviving: we’re not over-cropping them. That’s just good management.
THE FOURTH VOICE
There was suddenly a pause in the harvest. It seems the tractor meant to haul the heavy bins to the winery was not working. Bad starter. Dino was called away to assist in its repair, promising, before he left, to be interviewed another day. And I will make it happen. But as to the fourth voice, that would be the collective shouts, murmurs, the laughter and jokes, the voices of the harvesting crew itself. One fellow in particular stood out, Jorge, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, who told me of his family’s coming to California many years ago. His aged father has long since retired and returned to Mexico where he began his own ranch. And Jorge thinks that in a few years he himself may return to help.
Great thanks to Dino Amantite and David Cook for their generosity.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos are copyrighted by the author.
When reading wine histories, especially those extending back to America’s pioneer days, it is best not to believe in a golden age, of innocent foundations. The simpler the mythology, the greater is the deception. Here in the US we suffer from a certain degree of wine history envy. Though our viticultural past is significant and intellectually nourishing, we do not enjoy the deep, storied history of a Burgundy or a Turkey. We are relative new-comers, still struggling with the existence of terroir, the carving out of meaningful AVAs, fretting over distinctive commercial expressions of wines in an already competitive and well-defined wine world. So the temptation is to copy notions and tropes not truly ours, just as America’s founding fathers copied Roman and Greek architectural detail, rhetoric and imagery. On our supermarket shelves, for every Red Truck and Charles Shaw we can see Clos this, Château that, domestic bottlings, all.
On the other hand, despite its ancient sacred uses, its role, as some scholars have argued, in the very origins of agriculture, wine is most often treated in our age, both here and abroad, as an engine of light celebration, a commodity, a product. Distanced from substantial histories by the very means used to promote its consumption, the wine consumer is reduced to indifference.
So we are left with two contrary, consummately American impulses: To generate a history we are simultaneously urged to consider irrelevant. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford observed; and his assembly line, structured according to the principles of Taylorism, divorced workers from the very understanding of their own bodies. Yet this same Henry Ford was justly proud of building a car every working man and his family could thereby afford, and with which they could now enjoy new forms of leisure, conviviality and togetherness.
Family. The commodification of wine may render the customer uninterested in formal histories, but there is one form of history in which we all participate and take an interest: That of our families and the families of our friends. And it is the communal experience at the table, of sharing food and wine, which unites and strengthens our bonds, with both the present and with antiquity.
So it was with great pleasure when I opened the book, Mendocino Roots and Ridges; here was no simple gloss, no mere advertorial exercise, but a work of substance and visual beauty, with vintner family histories front and center. Written by long-time Mendocino County resident and veteran food and wine writer Heidi Cusick Dickerson, and graced by Tom Liden’s fine photography, Mendocino Roots and Ridges tells the many family stories of this often over-looked wine region. Barra, Parducci, Fetzer, Brutocao, Giuseppe are just a few of the dozens of dignified vintners Ms. Dickerson introduces us to. Farmers and dreamers, this is a book which gives us real insight into the struggles and eventual triumph of folks who arrived in this country with nothing but the clothes on their back. And they achieved the American Dream working the dirt.
Living histories themselves, some of the families included in this volume can draw a straight line back to the 1850’s, when Mendocino County was rough wilderness, a true frontier. Still is, in many ways, with 70% of its mountainous terrain heavily forested, as we learn from Glenn McCourty’s excellent introductory essay, Dirt, Climate, Geography. But these tropes of wilderness and the American Dream give me significant pause. Ms. Dickerson writes in her fluid Introduction:
“This place we call Mendocino has nurtured inhabitants with its benevolent climate, great soil and wild edibles from land and sea. The original population of Pomo Indians (sic) feasted on mussels, abalone, crab, salmon and rockfish. They hunted game and gathered berries, greens, mushrooms and acorns. More than ten tribes live in Mendocino County and tribal celebrations still center around food, including tributes to the acorn, surf fish and abalone.”
Yes, this wilderness was indeed occupied by Native American populations. From Wikipedia, Mendocino County,
“In the 19th century, despite the establishment of the Mendocino Indian Reservation and Nome Cult Farm in 1856, the county witnessed many of the most serious atrocities in the extermination of the Californian Native American tribes who originally lived in the area, like the Yuki, the Pomo, the Cahto, and the Wintun. The systematic occupation of their lands, the reduction of many of their members into slavery and the raids against their settlements led to the Mendocino War in 1859, where hundreds of Indians were killed. Establishment of the Round Valley Indian Reservation in March 30, 1870, did not prevent the segregation that continued well into the 20th century.”
So let us be clear, not everyone was welcomed at the table. And for the Native American, as it was everywhere in the United States, there was no American Dream. Indeed, the Mendocino War of 1859 referenced above was a thinly veiled extermination campaign, the final act of the European colonizer.
Apart from this omission, and it is significant for a historical text, Mendocino Roots and Ridges is among the finest wine books of its kind, with well over half of the county’s wineries profiled in detail. The county’s role as undisputed leader in environmental initiatives in the US is strongly documented. Highly recommended.
Great thanks to the fine folks at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits, California for providing me with my review copy. I have been informed that all proceeds of the sale of the book will go to support the museum’s Wine History Project of Mendocino County.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos copy-written by Ken Payton
The largest organic wine trade fair in the world, Millésime Bio (MB), is gearing up for its 21st annual show in January, 2014. First launched in 1993 by a handful of visionary organic winemakers from the Languedoc/Roussillon region of southern France, the number of participating wineries has steadily swelled to nearly 700 by 2013, more than double that of 2008. Though originally a French affair, the annual event now boasts an international selection of wine producers from a 2012 high of 13 countries, including Egypt, South Africa, Chile, Germany, a surging Portugal, and the United States. In 2013 more than 3,000 visitors – importers, brokers and wine professionals in the main – passed through the maze of exhibitor tables in the Montpellier Exhibition Center just outside the city.
And it makes perfect sense for Montpellier, the capital of the Languedoc/Roussillon region, to host Millésime Bio. Blessed with a temperate climate, the region has the greatest acreage (and in conversion) of organic vines in all of France. Figures for 2011 put the total at nearly 50,000 acres (19,907 hectares) farmed by 1200 winegrowers. In France, though organic wine production has experienced steady if not stellar growth – from just under 30,000 ha (roughly 75,000 acres) in 2008 to over 60,000 ha (roughly 150,000 acres) in 2011 – that still represents only about 6.5% of all French vineyards. There is ample room to grow. Indeed, as highlighted in the press kit for MB 2013:
“Available data for 2010 indicates a total area of 218,000 ha of organic vineyards in the world, that is, 2.9% of the world’s vineyards. In Europe, organic vineyards represent 4.4% of the total vineyards and the cumulative area of the three major producers of organic grapes (Spain, France, Italy) represents 74% of the global organic vineyard area.
Countries with the highest ratios of organic vines are Austria, Italy, France, Spain, and finally Germany. This demonstrates that the development of organic viticulture is primarily the result of a will and not only a question of favourable climate conditions, as we hear too often.”
And it is not just wines that are on display at the Millésime Bio events. Special agricultural exhibits present and promote the Languedoc/Roussillon region but also the international organic movement as a whole. Apart from the now obvious environmental and health benefits of organic agriculture, from olive oils and fruits to bread and vegetables, we now know that big markets are at stake. For example, in 2010 the United States, the world’s largest consumer nation of organic food products, the organic sector was worth an estimated 26 billion dollars. [op. cit. Press Kit] Yet despite the tremendous success of the concept and practice of ‘organic’ here in the US, of the three MB events I’ve been fortunate enough to attend, only one American winery returns year after year: California’s own Frey Vineyards out of Mendocino. From their website:
“There is no great secret to making wine without sulfites, it has been done for 8,000 years. The methods are essentially the same as all other winemaking, minus the use of sulfites, an industrial synthetic additive. We take this approach because we know that quality fruit and careful attention during fermentation and aging are the only ingredients needed to make great organic wine. We never use yeast nutrients or genetically engineered yeast. Grapes grown in healthy, vital soils contain all the nutrition yeast will need to complete a clean and healthy fermentation.”
So the question arises: Why is it that only one American winery attends the world’s largest organic wine trade fair ? It is not as though the United States is short on wineries working vineyards under an organic regime. California alone has dozens (caveat: I have limited confidence in the linked list). There is Paul Dolan, Parducci, Barra, Bonterra, select bottlings from Sterling, DeLoach, Cline; many more. The list is long and distinguished. Then there is Oregon, Washington, Texas, New York… well, you get the idea. Very often what is organic is also biodynamic and occasionally what is called ‘natural’, which is to say that a wine labeled ‘Organic’ may fit additional (agri)cultural and market-boosting categories. If it is a question of the costs associated with participation in a trade show, I would ask that an American winery consider this: Every January at the Montpellier Exhibition Center, 1000s of wine professionals – buyers, distributors, importers, sommeliers, and the international wine press – pass through the doors of Millésime Bio. And the one American winery name they come away with year after year is Frey Vineyards.
At the very least, I would encourage representatives from prominent American AVAs with organic wineries within their borders to simply come visit the 2014 edition of Millésime Bio this January 27th, 28th, and 29th. Come meet, network and exchange ideas with your international colleagues. You’ve nothing to lose but your anonymity.
Admin, Ken Payton
Just 8 months ago the European Wine Bloggers Conference was welcomed with open arms by the Wines of Turkey and many of Turkey’s wine producers. Anchored in the beautiful sea-side city of Izmir, the conference was seen by the Turkish wine industry as a huge step forward into the digital age; the flood of participants from around the world, wine experts and educators, scholars and bloggers, virtually all internet savvy and eager to learn, would soon be broadcasting their culinary and cultural experiences to audiences around the world. Turkish wines especially, long deserving of greater international recognition, would receive a boost to their fortunes and find a proper place on our dinner tables.
This was the simple vision, the moment to be seized. Let the celebration of this country’s ancient wine traditions, grape diversity and the strength and energy of her food and wine culture commence.
And the Wines of Turkey, the key booster of this important sector of the Turkish economy, would also prosper.
“Based in Turkey, Wines of Turkey (WOT) is an umbrella organisation representing the Turkish wine sector. It is a strategic partnership between Turkey’s seven leading wineries, Doluca, Kavaklidere, Kayra, Kocabag, Pamukkale, Sevilen and Vinkara in an effort to develop the wine market, the wine culture in Turkey and to increase exports by making Wines of Turkey a generic brand associated with quality wine. However, what makes the Wines of Turkey unique is that wineries from across Turkey unite as a team when an important project falls on our lap.
For the 2012 EWBC, we will have more than 25 wineries join forces in order to highlight the diversity and quality of Turkish wines. Having attended the 2011 EWBC in Franciacorta Italy, Director of WOT, Taner Ogutoglu, is the force behind this united front, working diligently to ensure that EWBC participants not only experience a diversity of Turkish wines, but an authentic culinary and cultural experience. “
But what patient hands build, the stroke of a pen may cause to crumble. On June 10th, Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, signed into law a restrictive anti-alcohol bill which not only threatens to undermine the country’s emerging wine industry but to further add to the growing international suspicion of deepening anti-democratic, Islamist influence within the government of this proudly secular nation.
Coming on the heels of nation-wide civil unrest in reaction to what protesters see as governmental interference in Turkey’s social and democratic way of life, this new law restricting the sales, consumption, and advertising of alcohol can only but add fuel to the fires of social unrest.
The law’s provisions include:
— Forbidding the retail sale of alcohol between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m.
— Forbidding advertising campaigns, including sponsorships and festivals
— Forbidding the public promotion of alcohol brands and logos except within the producer’s facility.
— Requiring warning labels on all bottles stating the dangers of alcohol, similar to those found on packs of cigarettes
— Censorship of images of alcohol use on TV programs and in movies
And perhaps the most astonishing (and sinister) element of the new law, from Hurriyet Daily News, the last phrase of which is most worrying:
“Those who want to get licenses to sell alcohol from the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK) will be conditioned to get the license to open up a business from the municipality and then a tourism document from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Before granting a license the municipalities will get the opinion of the authorized law enforcement forces.” (emphasis added)
It does not take an expert in the sociology of governmental security services to understand that requiring the approval from law enforcement will likely become the principle political tool used to arrest the granting of new licenses. Indeed, another aspect of the new law is that “facilities are required to be located outside the perimeter of 100 meters of educational and religious centers.” (op. cit) Why 100 meters, god only knows. More, one wonders how rigorous will be the definition of ‘educational and religious centers’. How many students, how many penitents would be required to establish a ‘center’ ? “Get out your tape measure, officer.”
International response to the new restrictions on alcohol have been swift. Philip Blenkinsop of Reuters writes:
“The curbs on alcohol by the Islamist government have added to anger in Turkey, reflected in a current wave of protests in the country, against what people see as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s pursuit of an “Islamist” agenda that goes against the country’s secular constitution. [....]
A senior manager at a foreign alcoholic beverage company in Turkey, who requested anonymity, said the ban on advertising was the harshest measure as it limited the opportunity to market new products, necessary for expansion.”
And with respect to the violent police response to the protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, we have this from Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
“The duty of all of us, European Union Members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices. These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening.
Best practices include close attention to the needs and expectations of society, including that of groups that don’t feel represented by the Parliamentary majority. Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”
As of this writing, the CBC is reporting that Istanbul clashes extend into night.
“Riot police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets clashed into the early hours of Wednesday with defiant demonstrators occupying Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and its adjacent park, in the country’s most severe anti-government protests in decades.
The crisis has left Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looking vulnerable for the first time in his decade in government, and has threatened to tarnish the international image of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with a strongly secular tradition, a burgeoning economy and close ties with the United States.”
Turkey’s international image has already been tarnished, in my view. The only question is how far down this destructive path Prime Minister Erdogan is willing go.
For further reading please see:
Jefford on Monday: More Than Alcohol
Drinks companies, tourism industry criticize Turkey’s plan to curb alcohol sales
Is Turkey banning alcohol?
The EU must take action on Turkey
Admin, Ken Payton
Primarily a wine writer concerned with related scientific and cultural matters, I have tried on this blog to expand the conversation beyond the trivial ‘what did you drink last night’ sort. So during my many vineyard visits over the years, I have often taken note of the strengths and weaknesses of a winery’s environmental program. Whether a so-called ‘natural’, organic or industrial producer, their approach to viticulture has always been for me the single most important dimension of the art and practice of winegrowing. If we think for a moment about the contested concept of terroir, what is it, insofar as it may be found, but an expression of viticulture ? (This is one of the many reasons ‘natural’ wine holds no charm for me, for rarely are vineyards ever spoken of in any detail by its acolytes. The same is true of industrial producers, of course.) But does the hand of a winegrower also play a part in terroir ? Yes and no. Depends who you ask. Although the reflections to follow are not explicitly concerned with this question, I nevertheless believe it could benefit from a broader meditation on biodiversity.
The concept of ‘biodiversity’ has a rigorously complex and technical meaning. Made up of many interactive strands and levels, of species and ecosystem, the sum total of life forms in a biome, even the molecular, for the layperson – myself included – thinking biodiversity can appear best left to the specialist. The rest of us, we tend to shrug, “Let the scientists tease out the nuances and details; just tell us how dire is our situation.” Indeed, like so many urgent problems now facing us, from climate change to global food production, we often seem passive observers of not only the agricultural sciences, but of the implacable unspooling of Earth’s natural regulative systems at the hands of powerful industries.
Yet we have hands, too. And mouths. As first world consumers, we collectively bear much of the responsibility for the over-exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, from our gluttonous appetite for fish and petroleum products, to water diversion schemes and hardwood patio furniture. Hardly passive at all, we are a fundamental cause of our multiple environmental predicaments, especially our populations concentrated in cities historically conceived and built as fortifications against the natural world. And of biodiversity ? Witness the homeowner policing his sidewalk and driveway with a spray bottle of Round-Up.
Except perhaps for the more recent emergence of the subject of climate change, all of the above could have been written 30-40 years ago. Here in the United States we’ve long ago swapped the bucolic mythology of the cowboy, his prairie fire and lowing cattle, for the steely reality of the meat packing plant and its oil-fired furnaces; and we have moved far beyond the near-adolescent lyricism of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to the more modest prose poem Natural History of Vacant Lots (a beautiful book, in my view). Indeed, over the decades conservation and environmentalist motifs have become common, shared knowledge; yet even though as urbanites we’ve been primed to recognize the over-exploitation of natural resources, we’ve nevertheless willingly made compromises, among which is the acceptance of on-going environmental degradation in exchange for food and energy security, what we call ‘our way of life’. The city, supreme expression of our domination of the natural world, consumes all. As in Aesop’s fable The Sick Lion, the tracks lead only into the lion’s den.
But recent grassroots developments and (slower) regional governmental initiatives have begun to alter the terms of the compromises we’ve made for a life in the city. Perhaps the most important of these, along with expanded transit systems and more decentralized local economies, has been the greening of our cities. This means far more than planting flowers and trees in a park or drought-resistant shrubs along our freeways. There is a new movement afoot that wishes to create environmental solutions for cities from the populations themselves. Take for example Detroit’s Garden Resource Program which currently supports over 1,400 gardens and farms within the Detroit area.
“Since it’s inception in 2006, ‘GROWN IN DETROIT’ has become a household name for those seeking to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the city. ‘Grown in Detroit’ produce is grown by families & youth in community gardens and urban farms throughout Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. The Grown in Detroit cooperative supports these growers by providing a space to sell at Detroit-based farmers’ markets and restaurants as well as by assisting growers with production, harvest, and post-harvest handling education and resources.”
Other examples would include The Victory Garden Foundation and Transition United States.
“The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.”
I am aware of an increasing number of similar initiatives springing up across America, the UK and Europe, the over-arching idea of which is to provide citizens with the knowledge to become active participants in the practical shaping their own food and energy futures. So it was with great pleasure that during a recent visit to Montpellier, France, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, that I came upon a most remarkable event, Fête de la Biodiversité. With numerous open spaces and over 150 gardens, Montpellier has the distinction of having been named the French and European Capital of Biodiversity 2011 by Natureparif and “European Capital of Biodiversity” mention awarded by the European Commission through the Life + Program.
LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the EU, as well as in some candidate, acceding and neighbouring countries. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 3708 projects, contributing approximately €2.8 billion to the protection of the environment.
The Fête de la Biodiversité brought together numerous organizations, both grassroots and governmental, all stationed along the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle under a brilliant blue sky. For my purposes, the most interesting was Humanité & Biodiversité; for this organization has hit upon the missing dimension in virtually all discussions of biodiversity with which I am familiar: Humanity. The definition in their words from their website:
What is biodiversity ?
- The genetic diversity, each individual is unique. We are all human, but we are all different ! The same goes for foxes: all foxes and all different …
- The diversity of species is the procession of animals and plants but also fungi, bacteria …
- The diversity of ecosystems, these sets consist of different species in their environments and relationships that exist within them. Tropical forests, temperate forests, Mediterranean scrublands, savannas, polar tundra, deserts, marine, wetlands … but also a Breton grove, cultivated grasslands or urban parks.
The great innovative charm of this approach, not to mention its political and cultural relevance in our era of patentable genes, is that we may now be understood to participate in the natural world in a new way, as an irreplaceable source of unique differences. We mingle in grand the narrative the world’s Book of Life, for biodiversity lives in us.
Admin, Ken Payton
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Every spring I am pleased to find in my mailbox the Wines Of Portugal invitation to their annual tasting in San Francisco. I do not travel to many such events, but Portugal has long had a strong purchase on my imagination, not to mention my palate. It may be Californian wines for my compatriots, but for me, the lean, bright, very fresh and age-worthy Portuguese wines, especially the reds, have long been a kind of benchmark against which I think wine. After all, though figures vary, well over 200 (other sources tally it well over 300) grape varieties grace the mainland and the Azores. Not all varieties of indigenous grapes are vinified by the larger producers into single variety wines or even blends, far from it. Indeed, a far greater diversity of grapes and wines may be found in villages throughout the countryside where hundreds of small producers respond to local tastes, cuisine and agricultural traditions. This is another way of saying that many grape varieties are unmarketable owing not only to a matter of scale, that their production levels too low, but also that their flavors are thought by commercial development interests to be too out of step with consumer tastes.
This is the great paradox of the Wines of Portugal events, both here and abroad. Why boast of a patrimony of hundreds of varieties when so few may be tasted (under 50 at the SF event by my casual count) ? And most of those varieties were in blends, a practice at which the Portuguese understandably excel. But I will save this complex topic for another time.
The venue, a central room in the august Bently Reserve, was very well attended, wall to wall, with new folks coming in all the time. The producers, distributors and importers had their hands full patiently explaining the character of the many unheard-of grapes, just where Alentejo, Bairrada or Vinho Verde were located. Large maps were well-placed to assist the geographically challenged. By my count, some 40 wine companies and winery representatives were present, with fewer winemaker than in past years. But for so exhausting a touring schedule, all the official participants, true professionals, remained focused and friendly as only the Portuguese can be.
Of the whites, Alvarinho and Arinto dominated with luscious examples of Loureiro and Fernão Pires also to be found.
Of the reds, yes, the dependable and rich Touriga Nacional was present, but curiously under-represented considering all the buzz surrounding this grape just a few years ago. And Baga was spotlighted, among my favorite Portuguese varieties – yet among the least celebrated internationally owning to both its harsh youthful character and its aging potential. In short, one does not buy a 2011 for drinking at dinner that night. The same could be said for Ramisco, also alert and standing tall, though as rare on the tasting table as it is in Portugal. The often over-cropped Espadeiro, too, was present, though largely lost in blends. I found an interesting single variety rose. I’ve enjoyed single variety Espadeiros when in the Vinho Verde region, especially when it is made in a rustic style, the acid brutal. It is a hard grape to love, but with the right local cuisine, I find it bracing with its ‘in-your-face’ freshness.
All in all, the tasting was a real eye-opener, even for me. I was very pleased to witness yet again the diligence and persistence of the Wines of Portugal. We all know of the tremendous financial difficulties now sweeping across the globe, so that a trade organization can still find the resources to organize and finance such an elegant event is nothing more than astonishing. I wish them well.
Please visit the refreshed Wines of Portugal website. It contains a wealth of information. Obrigado, Portugal!
Admin, Ken Payton