Wines Of Portugal Comes To San Francisco

Ξ May 14th, 2013 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time |

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

 

Wine And Communal Gatherings, Notes on Consumerism pt 2

Ξ May 4th, 2013 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine & Politics, Wine History |

“Note to Readers about the Hedonist’s Gazette
 
“The abbreviated, spontaneous, and visceral tasting notes and numerical ratings in this section should not be confused with professional, structured tasting notes from specific peer group tastings or cellar tastings. The Hedonist’s Gazette notes emerge from casual get-togethers, with the food and company every bit as important as the wines. I do not consider these tasting comments as accurate or as pure in a professional sense, but they are part of a wine’s overall record. In short, focus, so critical in a professional tasting without food or other distractions, is clearly on a different level in such ‘fun gatherings.’
–Robert Parker, Jr.
 
Visceral: Relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect. Perhaps Mr. Parker’s choice of the word is excessive, but his meaning is clear. On the one hand is the critic’s professional reflection upon a wine which will result in accurate and pure tasting notes the consumer, on the other hand, can then use to stage a scene, whether a dinner or some other communal event. As Maguelonne Toussant-Samat writes in her magisterial History of Food,
 
“Finally, Alexander Dumas has said perhaps all that needs to be said about wine and food in a couple of brief sentences: ‘Wine is the intellectual part of a meal. Meats are merely the material part.’ Choose food to go with the wine, not wine to go with the food. The food is only the foil.”
 
According to these lights, food can only complement or prove a distraction to the purely intellectual appreciation and critical understanding of wine. Though Ms. Toussant-Samat, channeling Dumas, does not say it, perhaps she would agree with Mr. Parker as to the distractions of ‘the company’ at ‘fun gatherings’. But what are we to make of cuisines which do not draw such a distinction? Turkey and Portugal immediately come to mind as two countries which have historically established as inseparable social food and wine cuisines, the recto and verso of the same cultural cloth.
 
Indeed, over the millennia there were great stretches of time when wine quality was quite poor, spiritually unexalting unless only inebriation was sought, the wherewithal to heightened conviviality or as an entrée to the bacchanalian orgies of Greek and Roman legend. Of the latter, it is difficult to imagine upon waking the morning after such a ‘fun gathering’ that one could at all be bothered to remember the wine. Or even be capable. More, one need only think of the ‘discovery’ of the wine cellar. Turning again to Ms. Toussant-Samat on wine and the social instability of the 15th Century:
 
“The necessity of hiding provisions from marauders produced that happy accident whereby barrels were locked away in underground rooms, and wine at last found its ideal home: the cellar. This was a revolutionary discovery, and from now on wine would never be the same again. Being stored in attics had done it no good at all.”
 
So surely ‘happy accidents’, the technical improvement of winemaking and basic winery hygiene over the centuries has led to the golden age of high quality wine now upon us. It is only relatively recently that we could utter professional, intellectual and wine in the same sentence.
 
It is also true that the age of the rockstar chef has dawned. Everything, from molecular gastronomy to international fusion cuisines, is now available to metropolitans around the globe. Food, it can be persuasively argued, is now overflowing with intellectual content of its own. Food channels clamor for viewers; dozens of new recipe books come and go yearly on bookstore shelves. Whether organic, raw, vegetarian, industrial or processed, food too, together with the control of its production, and climate change, has become a deep philosophical and commercial tangle, and perhaps the single most urgent political and social issue now facing us. But wine? Not so much.
 
Nevertheless the intellectual dimension of wine is undeniable. I recently reread Matt Kramer’s excellent essay The Notion of Terroir, found in an otherwise fairly arid collection titled Wine & Philosophy. In the essay Mr. Kramer sings beautifully of Burgundy and its associated ‘mentality of terroir‘ beginning with this preamble:
 
“Although derived from soil or land (terre), terroir is not just an investigation of soil and subsoil. It is everything that contributes to the distinction of a vineyard plot. As such, it also embraces ‘micro-climate’: precipitation, air and water drainage, elevation, sunlight and temperature.
But terroir holds yet another dimension: It sanctions what cannot be measured, yet still located and savored. Terroir prospects for differences. In this it is at odds with science, which demands proof by replication rather than in shining uniqueness.”

 
Despite weakening his argument with a trite slap at ’science’ (every moon, planet and galaxy shines with uniqueness, as any astronomer will tell you; just as any geologist will say of mountain ranges, islands, and volcanos, not to mention a doctor of his patients), Mr. Kramer’s grasp of terroir is generally satisfying. Yet one question comes to mind: Could one taste terroir in the grapes themselves from a celebrated vineyard? Or is that dimension reserved for fermented and finished wine alone? Clearly all fruits and vegetables are of the soil, they too partake of all the elements which combine into a specific micro-climate, but one rarely hears of an apple’s terroir, though that is beginning to change. Indeed, the Benedictine and Cistercian monks Mr. Kramer so rightly celebrates for deepening viticultural knowledge and for their patient discovery of specific vineyard terroirs – thereby setting an example for generations to come – they also grew grains, legumes, and greens etc. side by side with vines. The monasteries were, after all, not only the locus of spiritual nourishment but often the commercial centers of regional communities. So what is the difference between a vineyard and any other fruit orchard? The most obvious answer is that the former is given very special attention post-harvest, from fermentation, aging, to bottling, whereas a cabbage is merely immediately eaten as food. As Victor Hugo said, “God only made water, but man made wine”.
 
So, assuming such special post-harvest care, why is winemaking excluded from the definition of terroir?
 
“[A]ny reasonably experienced wine drinker knows upon tasting a great and mature Burgundy [...] that something is present that cannot be accounted for by winemaking technique. Infused in the wine is a goût de terroir, a taste of the soil. It cannot be traced to the grape, if only because other wines made the same way from the same grape lack this certain something. If only by a process of elimination that source must be ascribed to terroir.”
 
Ironically, the very criticism Mr. Kramer makes of ’science’, that it demand proof by replication, is also true of his understanding – and that of the Burgundians themselves – of terroir. We know, he insists, the difference between Corton-Charlemagne or Chablis ‘Vaudesir’ or Volnay ‘Caillerets’, three of many examples he provides, precisely because their respective terroirs reproduce a vineyard plot’s signature, their ‘goût de terroir’, year after year, decade after decade. Indeed, what were the Benedictines and Cistercians doing if not identifying and then preserving a certain kind of reproducibility in the wines made from selected vineyards?
 
Riven with creative tensions and subtle non-sequitors though it may be, Mr. Kramer’s essay marks significant philosophical progress over Mr. Parker’s Hedonist’s Gazette inasmuch as the former blends both the visceral and professional. For Mr. Kramer terroir is a shared, historical discovery viscerally elaborated over time, a “voice” of the earth already heard by many and, with patience, virtually audible to all. Issuing from within specific wine cultures, the goût de terroir may be experienced by any one of us, and is not at all subject to the exclusive review by a solitary critical palate. Generations of winegrowers, from the Benedictines and Cistercians to today’s finer Burgundian winemakers, and the 1000s of anonymous souls in between, all may be said to mingle and socialize within a bottle of La Tâche, a Richebourg, a Grands-Echezeaux, a Romanée-Conti. The ‘distracting company’ is already present in the glass waiting to be heard.
 
It is important to recall why religious orders were concerned with the cultivation of the vine to begin with. It was because of the most important of communal gathering of Western Civilization, The Last Supper. Though the Bible recounts little of the supper served, we have all heard bread and wine graced the table. Food and wine and friends, well, there was one outlier… In Stefan Gates’ playful book Gastronaut, in the course of a mediation on The Last Supper – the first communion – he tells us of a friend of his, a Father Evan Jones.
 
“He describes giving communion as an act of love, ‘a meal with friends,’ a natural high giving him a ‘heightened awareness of who and what we are,’ the awakening of a consciousness of the Creator,’ and a sensation of ‘feeding on the living God.’”
 
But what about communion wine? How does it taste?
 
“Father Evan said that in its unspiritual state, communion wine tastes like Madeira. [....] During communion, however, the concept of taste is overridden by an intense spiritual focus. He added that he once took a bottle of communion wine to a party, and it was the last bottle to be drunk.”
 
Surely this is a paradox, for how do we square the elusive and driven search by the Benedictines and Cistercians for terroir with the (apparent) insipidity of communion wines now served? Part of the answer, I believe, is that our sensual experience of the natural world, for both the secular and religiously-minded, has been jettisoned as irrelevant, made abstract by threadbare rituals, work-a-day demands and commercial noise. We are detached, hooked instead to the metropolis where, after all, sustenance is brought in from somewhere ‘outside’.
 
To bridge this distance, perhaps a first step is to grasp terroir as the voice of creation itself, a voice which tells us we belong here. It falls to us to pay attention. And yes, that is asking a lot.
 
For my first effort in this series, please see Of Church Bells and Diversity.
 
Admin, Ken Payton

 

Of Church Bells And Diversity, Notes On Consumerism Pt. 1

Ξ April 4th, 2013 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, PORTUGAL |

A couple of years ago, while directing a wine documentary on Pico Island in the Azores, I came upon a well-attended religious event, Espirito Santo, in the main square of a small village not far from Madelena. A heavy church bell was pealing in the gray of an early morning. Just out of sight up narrow, winding streets, I heard the echo of what turned out to be a gathering of colorfully dressed musicians tuning and warming their many and varied instruments while awaiting instruction on the proper ordering of their procession. From out of this cacophony a familiar face came into focus, my friend Vasco, a fine guitarist in a local band. A question had occurred to me while on the mainland of Portugal weeks earlier. It’s common enough to hear church bells ringing in Europe, but I had come to hear what I believed was the same basic note, sometimes an octave or two apart, repeatedly sounding, including the very bell in the square below us. And so I asked Vasco about this. Sure enough, so predictable was the note, an ‘A’, that his band would often tune their instruments to it no matter where in Portugal they might play.
 
This would be unremarkable perhaps but for one important detail: the manufacture of church bells, extending centuries back, has always been and remains an inexact practical science. A bell may sound the ‘A’ of the chromatic scale, but it is not necessarily a mathematically perfect ‘A’; pitch and fundamental frequency vary, not only because of differing production practices from one bell foundry to another, but also due to the bell’s age, use, and the daily and seasonal changes to which it is subject. Further, vibrating within a bell’s commanding note, practiced ears can hear a bewildering array of sub-tones, flats and sharps, a resonating signature as precise as a fingerprint. From this I drew one key lesson: When Vasco and his band tune their guitars to a specific bell, the acoustics are found only there, in that one village and nowhere else. Just as with family cuisines, neighborhood design, and social intrigue, could it be that there is difference in the acoustic atmosphere of a village as well? I think so. More, what I’ve suggested of the subtleties of bell variation et al. may also apply, again with reference to Portugal, to regional grape varieties, flavors and terroir.
 
Now, if cultural experience was the same, wherever one travelled, then travelling would be dull and predictable. Indeed, travel is about – or should be about – sharpened sensitivity and active immersion in difference, of tastes, architecture, dress, even the demeanor of taxi drivers and hotel housekeepers. Similar to Vasco’s band, one attunes their senses to local variations and atmosphere. Indeed, adventure begins with the willingness to surrender to difference.
 
But what happens when we return home, when our active immersion in difference ends and daily routine resumes? To be sure, this is a first world matter, and subject to ethnicity and socio-economic standing, but I believe that for all of us, our recently-lived differences begin to fade, overwhelmed by habit, work, the familiar and predictable. Distance is reasserted. Ambiguity creeps into memory. And for the American, we again become the more passive consumer championed by our culture. Tabouli and tangine, paella and calisson are replaced by cheeseburgers, surf and turf, and the major restaurant chain, Olive Garden; Espadeiro, Loureiro, and Kalecik Karasi, by readily available Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, and Pinot Grigio; a soundscape of church bells by Spotify in the Volvo.
 
Yet it can happen that upon returning one finds domestic life strange in ways large and small, their rituals and familiar rhythms now somehow arbitrary, badly in need of a shake-up and a rethink. Take wine and cuisine, for example. Returning for a moment to Portugal (though the same may be said of Turkey), her wine-drinking culture generally holds that wine without food is unthinkable, that both are enhanced, joined together in holy matrimony. Portugal’s wines are often made with food pairing in mind, and show bright fruit, acidity, and unusual flavors; they are therefore frequently misunderstood by those who insist wine is best judged as a solitary beverage necessarily divorced from any and all culinary regimes. But remember, Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, not The Last Wine Bar.
 
More, the styles of wine and food the traveler perhaps experienced may have opened them up to the exotic flavors of unpronounceable grape varieties and obscure spices that even if found in the neighborhood Safeway can only be purchased in tiny packages. This is the very best part of exploring the world, I believe, the healthy disequilibrium and curiosity it can set loose.
 
Having done a fair amount of travel myself, over the next several posts I am going to explore topics including grape and flavor diversity, culinary habits, and why these things should matter.
 
Ken Payton

 

The ‘Buzz’ Around Les Terroiristes du Languedoc

Ξ January 22nd, 2013 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine News |

The media buzz surrounding our upcoming documentary, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, has been growing steadily for some weeks now. And we are very grateful for the attention and interest. Below I offer a sampling of the coverage we’ve received up until this writing. As I wrote in my previous post, the film will enjoy its premiere in Montpellier, France on the 27th of January, just days away! The Diagonal Cinema will kindly host our effort.
 
First up is a piece from The Herault Times.
 
And this from mon-Viti
 
And this from the Languedoc-Roussillon Film Commission, a very helpful organization we first approached when the film was but a dream and a few scratches on paper.
 
Jim Budd, a friend (and an excellent writer) offered this on his equally excellent site, Jim’s Loire.
 
The Terre de Vins offered this.
 
Decanter gave us this mention.
 
And this from the regional magazine, BBB Midi.
 
French News Online posted this.
 
And this from Portugal, Vinhos e Mais Vinhos.
 
Here is a nice piece from a friend and wine guru for Candid Wines in Chicago.
 
Here is a summation of recent wine films from WineTourismFrance, including a generous mention of our film.
 
For fast-breaking news, please see our Facebook page, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc.
 
This list is by no means complete. Over the coming days I will continue to update. Great thanks to all involved in the promotion and celebration of the Languedoc and our modest effort here to make this superb region better understood.
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

Les Terroiristes Du Languedoc, The Movie

Ξ January 8th, 2013 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Winemakers, Wineries |

At long last, the premiere of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc is coming into sharp focus. After more than a year of struggle, setback, joy and triumph, on January 27th in the Diagonal Cinema located in the historical section of the city of Montpellier, France, the lights will go down. The fruits of our labor will unspool upon the silver screen to the world – or at least 250 of its citizens. And I could not be happier.
 
Located in the south of France, the Languedoc has long been in the shadow of far better-known and celebrated international wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reasons for this include the Languedoc’s history as France’s largest bulk wine producer, hence its oft-cited description as a ‘wine lake’. But such a cliché blunts professional and consumer curiosity and interest. For the truth is that over the last few decades quiet changes have been taking place, and a far more dynamic reality has emerged. Now perhaps the most environmentally progressive wine-growing region in the world, the Languedoc is ready to take its place on the international stage. The first feature-length documentary of its kind, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc explores the viticultural and winemaking choices of 12 diverse and creative winemakers spread across the region. What approach do they take to their respective terroirs, their vineyards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable? What are the financial risks and benefits associated with farming with each of these methods? More practically, how do the featured winemakers navigate the shoals between family and profession? And do they wish their children to follow in their footsteps?
 
I don’t know how many winemakers I spoke with and interviewed in my previous directorial effort, Mother Vine, who did not know what was to become of their legacy. They had worked very hard to put their children through school, to clothe them and all the rest mothers and fathers do, only to see their progeny leave for the larger cities of Portugal. But of the Languedoc? The answers given by the winemakers are quite different, varied and, I believe, hopeful. And for those winemakers without children, they too must somehow find a way to preserve their partnerships and marriages through unpredictable growing seasons and fickle market trends.
 
The first section of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed in September during the harvest, when the reality of a year’s work was coming into sharp focus. Ultimately, the documentary is about the practical dimension of labor, of winegrowers making day-to-day decisions bearing directly upon their families’ futures. It matters less to me who triumphs among the many excellent wine regions in the world than it is to put a human face on this underestimated, rapidly-changing region, the Languedoc.
 
The film features (listed here in no particular order):
 
John & Nicole Bojanowski (Le Clos du Gravillas, St Jean de Minervois)
John & Liz Bowen (Domaine Sainte Croix, à Fraïssé-Corbières)
Emmanuel Pageot & Karen Turner (Domaine Turner Pageot, à Gabian)
Virgile Joly (Domaine Virgile Joly, à Saint Saturnin)
Cyril Bourgne (Domaine La Madura, à Saint Chinian)
Brigitte Chevalier (Domaine de Cébène, à Faugères)
André Leenhardt (Château de Cazeneuve, à Lauret)
François & Louis Adrién Delhon (Domaine Bassac, à Puissalicon)
Eric & Vianney Fabre (Château d’Anglès, à St Pierre la Mer)
Frédéric & Marie Chauffray (La Réserve d’O, à Arboras)
Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine Lacroix-Vanel, à Caux)
Thierry Rodriquez (Prieuré de St Sever/Mas Gabinèle, à Causse et Veyran)
 
For more information see our Les Terroiristes du Languedoc Facebook page.
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

Harvest and Beyond

Ξ October 19th, 2012 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
 
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
 
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
 
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
 
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
 
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
 
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
 
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

Oenovideo Film Festival Honors Mother Vine

Ξ June 10th, 2012 | → 3 Comments | ∇ International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Technology, Wine History, Wine News |

It is not often a first feature-length documentary film made by a novice director meets with critical acclaim; but such success is much easier to grasp when the finest colleagues are chosen before a single frame is shot. So it was with Mother Vine, my loving exploration of the winemaking history, generational succession, and the challenges of modernity in Portugal’s astonishingly diverse world of grapes, terroirs, and wine-making traditions.
 
Mother Vine was initially born from numerous conversations with celebrated microbiologist, winemaker and cultural conservationist, Virgilio Loureiro of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon (now retired), to which I added a young though accomplished cameraman and editor, Nuno Sá Sequeira, and a very capable producer, Liliana Mascate. The right team was in place.
 
Shot over the course of a year on a budget of promises and good will (modest funding arrived after principal photography had concluded), the documentary therefore faced numerous financial challenges and set-backs which threatened its very completion. People have to be paid, after all.
 
But there are far worse things in this world than falling into debt for a country and cause in which you deeply believe. Such is my love of Portugal and of the winegrowers whose resistance to (vita)cultural evisceration I was honored to document. The stakes are very high. The loss of grape biodiversity and the increasing marginalization of family farming tragically receives a helping hand by dogged international naïveté and indifference, both governmental and from within a wide segment of the wine profession itself, an attitude which holds, by default, that no more than 10 grape varieties need exist in the entire world. Indeed, without – perhaps equally naive – push-back, an insistence on diversity and difference, Portugal might yet come to suffer in the not-too-distant future a homogenized viticulture, sacrificing an august patrimony on the altar of Cabernet, Chardonnay and mass production. To be sure, commercial realities are what they are; but let us consider that a ‘commercial reality’ may itself very often be a fantasy, a mythology created by an army of small gods: of marketers, advertisers, and wine influencers. These are among the many themes my documentary, Mother Vine, seeks to open up to informed, enlightened conversation.
 

 So it was with great joy that our rag-tag crew received news from the 19th Annual Oenovideo International Film Festival On Wines and Vines that Mother Vine had won recognition in two categories. From the festival’s site:
 
Deux Mentions Spéciales ont été décernées
 

Mention spéciale « Patrimoine » pour le long métrage tourné au Portugal « Mother Vine » du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
 
 
 
 

Prix Paysages et environnement décerné par Bayer CropScience à « Mother Vine » long métrage portugais du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
 
 
 
Beyond being among the 12 distinguished writers and filmmakers so honored, there is to take place an official Films Documentaires, Fictions & Photographies sur la Vigne et le Vin award ceremony on Friday, September 28th, 2012 at the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris, France. I most certainly will be in attendance. I would not miss the occasion for the world.
 
LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON
 
The timing of the award ceremony could not be better. My next documentary film project (yet to be titled) has taken me to the French wine growing region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Just weeks ago, in May, I completed the first half of the shoot. This documentary will chronicle a year’s work of twelve dynamic and creative wineries, each in its own way seeking to re-imagine and redefine what is an accelerating movement throughout the region: an insistance on very high quality wines coupled with environmentally responsible viticulture. Languedoc-Roussillon is emerging as among the most progressive grape growing areas in the world. This is cause enough for a feature-length documentary; but add to the mix the compelling biographies of the very diverse group of winemakers I have selected and you have in place the fundamentals of one hell of a film.
 
The spring shoot complete, the promise of bud break explored, next up is the harvest season in September. I will return to Languedoc in the first weeks of that month to discover the commercial and viticultural fates of these twelve apostles of the vine. From their vineyards to the Palais du Luxembourg, such humbling joy may a life sometimes experience.
 
For further reading about this new documentary, please see my Languedoc-Roussillon, The Genesis of A Film
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

The End Of Sulphur In Wine? PCT On The Horizon

Ξ April 26th, 2012 | → 14 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News |

Just when it seemed the debate over the use of sulfites in wine couldn’t get any more acrimonious, along comes a promising new technology which threatens to bring peace.
 
Though dried fruits typically contain 10 times the sulphur dioxide (SO2) found in wine and SO2 levels in fruit juices frequently equal or exceed it, our most holy fermented grape juice remains a special case. After all, no one spends $10,000 on a bottle of fruit juice unless it is fermented. Now, whether conventional, sustainable, organic, biodynamic, or ‘natural’, winemaking employs sulfites on a sliding scale, driven in large measure by health concerns, both of the body (at high levels sulphur can have deleterious health effects) and of the planet (sulphur is a petrochemical product). Or perhaps I should say by the perceived dual health concerns. As often as an expression of an earnest environmentalism, bad faith, opportunistic and commercial, informs the choice, the position a winery, a critic or consumer may take on the use of sulfites and SO2. Why bad faith? Well, let’s just say that neither a natural wine booster traveling 5000 miles through the ionized upper-troposphere to a tasting, or an industrial winemaker re-wiring his pesticide sprayer to run on solar-charged batteries are models of consistency.
 
But were I writing a website dedicated not to the wine industry but to that of dried fruits and juices, not to mention dehydrated potatoes, vegetables or even pancake syrups, I should likely have a post or two dedicated to this nearly omnipresent preservative. And I would just as likely be discussing this new technology.
 
It is called Pressure Change Technology (PCT) and was, as near as I can determine, first presented in the pages of a scientific journal, Chemical Engineering & Technology from 2007 (subscription only). Titled The Effect of a New Pressure Change Technology (PCT) on Microorganisms: An Innovate (sic) Concept for Food Safety, the abstract reads,
 
“A new pressure change technology (PCT) for a non-thermal inactivation of microorganisms in liquid food and pharmaceuticals is described. This technology was applied to food-relevant microorganisms and was capable of reducing the organisms up to 7.5?log. The influence of process parameters (type of gas, pressure, and temperature) was investigated with the help of physiological changes of microorganisms. The results of this pressure change technology are shown and discussed.”
 
Just thank the lord I am not discussing that paper. A more layman-friendly press release from the Internet Journal of Viticulture and Enology caught my eye last week.
 
“Pressure Change Technology (PCT) is a low cost process with minimum energy use that has potential with further development and validation to be of significant commercial benefit to wine producers by providing them an alternative to the use of sulphur dioxide in the winemaking process.”
 
The company referenced in the full press release is PreserveWine. From their site,
 
“PCT is a novel non-thermal technique that involves charging a liquid product with pressure and an inert gas [N and Ar - Admin] and then rapidly releasing the pressure. The sudden pressure release causes microbial cell walls to rupture, inactivating microorganisms. This has been demonstrated on a small pilot scale batch process; in the current project PreserveWine the PCT process will scientifically validated. A further objective is the development and scale-up into a continuous in-line pre-industrial demonstrator to test the PCT with wine and other liquid foods.”
 
The objectives to be achieved are the following,
 
- Repeated validation of the process to reduce microbial loading in wine by at least log10 5 and protect wine from chemical and biological oxidation.
– Enhanced organoleptic quality (aroma and taste) of wine when compared to ’sulphited wine’ wines when assed by a trained taste panel.
– Pilot scale demonstration of our PCT system capable of being integrated into a commercial winemaking process line, at flexible design for optional application at various processing stages, with a throughput of 120 L/h
– Full HACCP and GMP compliance
– Provide data to scale up to industrial capacity of 1.2 m3/h at energy costs of 40% to comparable thermal processes, ensuring a potential market share of 1% of the wine holdings in Europe.”

 
Two wineries have been the site of preliminary research: Château Guiraud, a well known French producer of fine sweet wines located in Sauternes, a short distance from Bordeaux; and Tenute Del Vallarino, a producer of still and sparkling wines in the Piedmont region of Italy. As is well known, SO2 acts in wine as both an anti-microbial – ‘bound’ sulphur – and a color preservative – ‘free’ sulphur – for white wines. ‘Bound’ sulphur inhibits bacterial growth, while ‘free’ sulphur reacts with oxygen to prevent oxidation. One can easily understand Château Guiraud’s concern, inasmuch as sweet wines contain very high amounts of sulphur. Tenute Del Vallarino produces white wines.
 
The project was begun in December, 2010 and results will be published on November 30th of this year, 2012.
 
Many questions remain unanswered, of course. Though PCT is scaleable and is said to both low in cost and energy use, whether this new technology will be embraced by wine purists, or endorsed by Demeter and from within the organic wine movement, remains to be seen. Personally, I wish PreserveWine great success.
 
Ken Payton, Admin
 
For further reading:
 
See the very detailed PDF. It includes photos and diagrams of the process. Allergens In Wine: What Lies Ahead?
 
New EU rules for ‘Organic Wine’ agreed
 
Do EU organic rules for wine leave glass half empty?
 
Sulphites in wine

 

Virgile Joly, The Steady Hand Of A Winemaker

Ξ April 21st, 2012 | → 2 Comments | ∇ Herbicides, International Terroirs, Interviews, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Young Winemakers |

Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
——————-
 
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
 
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
 
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
 
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
 
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
 
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
 
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
 
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
 
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
 
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
 
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
 
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
 
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
 
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
 
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
 
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
 
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
 
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
 
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
 
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
 
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
 
ROOTS
 
What is the rainfall here?
 
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
 
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
 
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
 
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
 
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
 
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
 
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
 
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
 
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
 
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
 
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
 
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
 
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
 
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
 
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
 
FINAL NOTE
 
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
 
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
 
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
 
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
 
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]
 
Ken Payton

 

Languedoc-Roussillon, The Genesis Of A Film

Ξ March 29th, 2012 | → 7 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine History, Winemakers |

Sometimes you choose; sometimes you are chosen. Last December, while in Montpellier, France to attend a showing of my Portuguese documentary, Mother Vine, at the Fest’afilm Festival, I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet one of France’s leading oenologists, Jean Natoli and geologist, Philippe Combes, his associate. Both gentlemen had graciously attended the showing and then were to further extend to me an invitation to dinner.
 
We spoke of many things that evening, of the financial obstacles to making a documentary, of film’s rôle in entertaining and illuminating the public, and of how to know whether a filmmaker has made a difference. Mention was made of a tasting at Au Petit Grain the next day of a what would prove a fascinating line of wines Mr. Natoli was shepherding, known collectively as Stratagème, and part of négociant/vingneron Thierry Rodriguez’ portfolio, Le Prieuré Saint Sever. (Indeed, along with Jean Natoli, Philippe Combes, and graphic designer, Olivier Proust, Thierry Rodriquez rounds out Stratagème’s creative team. Left to right in the photo) The distinguishing feature of the Strategème collection is its unique concentration on the concept of vineyard terroir and of mineral characteristics. One of eleven soil types informs each of its eleven bottlings: sandstone, sand, schist, pebbles, limestone, puddingstone, marl, clay, granite, basalt and tufa.
 
Among the most fascinating and frankly brilliant aspects of the Stratagème project is the depth of understanding and intellectual sophistication it brings to Languedoc-Roussillon as a wine-producing region, a region relatively neglected, certainly when compared to its far more celebrated neighbors, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône. This neglect is a consequence of a complex history. Harshly (if justly) stigmatized years ago as a ‘wine lake’, Languedoc-Roussillon has long been in need of her own dedicated poets for the very reasons high-lighted by the Stratagème project. From renegotiated AOC boundaries – often proceeding at a glacial pace – to a new generation of winegrowers committed to terroir and quality; from increasing appreciation of the promise of geological diversity, to a sharp focus on organic and sustainable wine production, the region has in recent years been undergoing a dramatic, if quiet, transformation which I felt was concisely expressed by Stratagème’s line-up of wines. To put it another way, my re-education about Languedoc-Roussillon was only just beginning. I’ll explain.
 
In the early days of my wine education, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon had played a significant rôle. Over a number of years I drank through virtually all of the region’s wines commonly available in the United States. Paul Strang’s Languedoc Roussillon, The Wines and Winemakers, first published in 2002, was my constant companion. I studied it from cover to cover. But restless and curious, eventually I was to leave the region behind in favor of a wider vinous experience. So it was that for quite some time that, like many of my American colleagues, I had felt sufficiently knowledgeable, that time and treasure enough had been given to Languedoc-Roussillon. All of that changed in the blink of an eye at the Au Petit Grain tasting. In the aftermath of my encounter with Jean Natoli and the Stratagème team, a small seed had been planted, an idea began to grow.
 
I have tended my garden well. Three months have passed during which I have done extensive research. I am now days away from yet another journey to Montpellier and the Languedoc-Roussillon, the 4th in as many months, this time to raise funds for another feature-length documentary film. Following upon my Portuguese documentary, a two year project which completely transformed my understanding of Portugal, turning night into day, eviscerating received opinion, I have now found a subject equally deserving of renewed international appreciation and recognition: the elaboration of high quality wines, the revelations given by terroir, and a progressive environmentalism which, taken together, are increasingly what we now must understand as the new reality of Languedoc-Roussillon.
 
My new project will document the 2012 seasonal experiences of 12 carefully chosen winemakers working divers soils and under both cooperative and challenging climatic conditions. The first shoot will be in May, the second, September/October, the harvest. The specific producers and vineyards I have chosen are in a variety of terroirs, areas and appellations including: St. Jean de Minervois, Corbières, Pézenas, Coteaux du Languedoc – St. Saturnin, Puissalicon, St. Chinian, Faugères, Pic St. Loup, and La Clape.
 
Of quite varied background and training, and nuanced viticultural philosophies – organic, biodynamic, sustainable – each of the winemakers I have selected share a common drive and determination to make the very best wines as they are able, with minimal intervention, and with the utmost respect for the land they have come to love. Yes, love. For make no mistake, love animates and informs the work. But just how that love is expressed can only be revealed over time, the very journey my documentary will take. Updates to come…
 
Ken Payton

 

Sante Arcangeli’s John Benedetti, Santa Cruz Mtns. AVA

Ξ March 22nd, 2012 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

If you’ve ever driven the Highway 1 between San Francisco to Santa Cruz, chances are quite good that you turned off to visit the small farming town of Pescadero. Once there, certainly for every bicyclist, you’ve visited the local landmark Arcangeli Grocery. Remember the freshly baked bread? I’ve been there dozens of times over the years. Also known as Norm’s Market, here’s why. From their website:
 
“After World War II, Norm’s mother, Louise, and her brother, Alfred Arcangeli (both pictured Below), changed the company name to Arcangeli Grocery. In 1957, Norm Benedetti took over the family business and it became known as “Norm’s Market.” Norm initiated an extensive renovation program in 1979 that filled the store with wonderful specialty goods and a full California wine stock. The 24 varieties of hot French bread later won acclaim in Northern California’s Home and Garden magazine.
 
Only a fragment quoted here, it is as fine a family story as you will find along the northern coast of California, and the story only keeps getting better. Meet John Benedetti, winemaker, brewer, and web designer, in that order. Though new to winemaking, as you will read, he has to my mind already made a significant mark on the vinous landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains, AVA. Let’s back up a bit.
 
Last October I was with family and friends searching for the finest Halloween pumpkins grown on farms proximate to my home in Santa Cruz. The family tradition is to stop in at the Arcangeli Grocery for a speciality bread to share for our picnic to follow. On this occasion, I was to leave for Italy days later and had been asked by a European friend to bring an interesting wine from California. I had already chosen an ‘02 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, 10, a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars, and I had been searching for a white of distinction. In the Arcangeli Grocery I found two Arcangeli Chardonnays. I bought them both. Of very small production, good, I’d imagined the wines to be harmless and, with any luck, charming. Well, after tasting them both, I am more than happy to report that I have stumbled onto two of the finest Chardonnays I have had in recent years. Absolutely wonderful wines.
 
Flash forward to last Sunday, the day before Spring. A tasting of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines was hosted at a downtown Santa Cruz cultural treasure, a wine bar called Vinocruz, proprietor, Steve Principe (right). The winemaker, John Benedetti (left) was to be in attendance. No brainer, I went for an interview of Mr. Benedetti. Enjoy.
 
Ken Payton, Admin Would you care to introduce yourself?
 
John Benedetti My name is John Benedetti and I am the winemaker, fermentation facilitator at Santa Arcangeli Family Wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. I am responsible for and focus on two vineyards, one is Bald Mountain which is in the Ben Lomond sub-appellation. That is a vineyard that has been farmed by the Beauregard family for many, many years; there is a really unique terroir there – sandstone at about 900 to 1100 feet elevation. It makes beautiful Chardonnay.
 
And the other, Split Rail, out of Corralitos…
 
JB Split Rail is an old David Bruce vineyard which was planted in the mid-80s by Greg Stokes. It is up at 1700 feet elevation in Corraltios, straight up off of Eureka Canyon Road. From one point in the vineyard you can actually see both the Boardwalk and Pacific Grove. You can see the whole Monterey Peninsula from there. It’s neat. It’s limestone soils, similar to the Côtes de Nuits in France. It’s planted to a David Bruce clone, Pinot Noir, which was originally brought over by Martin Ray in the ’50s and planted throughout this appellation.
 
David Bruce propagated it; his vineyard manager, Greg Stokes, spread it around to a whole bunch of his vineyards. It was a really popular clone planted all over the place in the AVA in the ’80s. Since then people have grafted a lot of it over to 667, 777, Pommard, the stuff that really produces a lot. The DB clone up at Split Rail really doesn’t produce a lot – we got 1/2 ton and acre last year – but it is amazing. (laughs) It is really, really French! You can taste it. It is grown in the same soil as DRC. We think it’s probably the same clone that Martin Ray brought over. It is structured, it is elegant, soft; it is not a big, bloated California Pinot, no matter what you do to it! I really enjoy working with it.
 
The lower half of that vineyard is planted to the old Champagne clone, UCD 32. They also have some 115 at the bottom [of the vineyard].
 
What is your background in winemaking?
 
RB It is a hobby gone haywire. (laughs) I’ve been brewing beer for 20-something years, and my family is obviously in the bakery business, in Pescadero, so fermenting things is second nature. I started making home wine about 12 years ago, just tinkering with it alongside my home-brewing. Then in 2008 I met up with an old friend of mine, Brandon Brassfield, who has a winery called Heart of the Mountain here in Santa Cruz. Really neat people. Brandon and I were talking about how much I loved Pinot – I’m kind of a wine geek – I told him I’d love to give it a shot sometime at making a couple of barrels at his place and he said, well, you know, lean into it and do it! So Brandon ushered me through it.
 
I had been talking to him quite a bit about experimenting with native yeast fermentation. He was approaching it from a much more conservative perspective at the time. But I’m really in to native yeast Pinots; I love the old style. I don’t like to intervene very much. Brandon figured it would be a good way for him to test the waters in his winery with native fermentations by letting me tinker there. So in ‘08 we made just one barrel called ‘The Wild One’ with grapes from their vineyard using entirely native yeasts, and it turned out great, really fantastic. In ‘09 we did it again. At that point I said to myself, “I like this.” And I think I am pretty good at it. I decided at that point to go ahead an get licensed, and now I work a Beauregard Vineyards in Bonny Doon. Ryan Beauregard is a good friend of mine, an old friend, he supports me. i learn from him; we ping things off of one another. It is a really fun environment to work in.
 
So you’ve had no formal university training?
 
JB At some point I told my friends, Brandon and Ryan, that I was going to take some courses at UC Davis. They kind of laughed and said ‘You’ve been making wine for a few years now; why would you bother?’ I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I just believe in experimenting and in experience. I am still learning, and I really don’t want to stop learning. I have all the texts from Davis and I read them all. I have the reference books I need in order to study up on any question I may have; but generally what I’ve found is that if you start with the best vineyard, then your job as a winemaker is just to stay out of the way of it.
 
So, Davis is great, I think, if you need to learn how to fix problems, but if you work with good vineyards, you will not have problems – and if you do, I am not afraid to dump a batch of wine. I am not going to ‘fix’ something. This is not my day job. I am doing this for fun. If something is not working the way I want it to, then I am gong to walk away from it.
 
Would you consider your work organic?
 
JB Not organic. Split Rail vineyard is sustainably farmed, as are the Beauregaurd vineyards. In fact, I think they are going CCOF this year; they may have already. Split Rail is not an organic vineyard. While I don’t put much of anything in my wine, including yeast most of the time, I do use SO2, though I’ve not done the homework to see whether that is organic or not.
 
Pesticides can be ruinous on wild fermentations…
 
JB Yes, and they don’t spray anything late in the season at either of those vineyards that I know of. I know for certain they don’t at Split Rail. I have had no problems with native fermentations from either vineyard.
 
The wines all finish dry, never a stuck fermentation?
 
JB No.
 
Where exactly is your winery located?
 
JB I work out of Beauregard’s facility. I work with the two vineyards mentioned and I am starting to put feelers out to some other places. But I just love those two vineyards, so I don’t see a need for others. Right now I do not have a tasting room. I don’t have a winery facility of my own. I started building one in Capitola but ran into some trouble. I was also putting in a brewery there. The government didn’t quite know what to do with that one. (laughs) They shot us down on a technicality. Something to do with owning both but being different business entities, so after 12 months of telling me it was fine, the ABC said I couldn’t do it. We pulled the plug on both.
 
What kinds of beers do you experiment with?
 
JB Belgian style stuff and IPAs. I tend to build beers that will stand up to being thrown into my old wine barrels. (laughs) At the brewery we were experimenting with Belgian triples that we would do primary and secondary fermentations and aging in Chardonnay barrels. My IPAs, I’ll through them into my Pinot Noir barrels and dry hop them in those barrels. That is harkening back to tradition. IPA was a British ale – they are very different now then they were then – which was shipped to India. As a preservative they put hops in the wooden casks they shipped it in. So traditionally, IPAs had wood. I doubt they used fine French oak like I do, but they did have an oaky or woody character to them. I’ve tried to pay homage to that tradition.
 
Do you worry about cross contamination of one kind of yeast from beer making into your wines?
 
JB Yes. Some of the Belgian beers my partner was experimenting with have brettanomyces in them, which you don’t want in your wine. He puts brett in the beers. Now, I am not afraid of brett in a wine. In fact, my dad reared me on old Burgundies and Bordeaux, and you get bretty bottles occasionally. To me, in the right balance, it adds a neat character. I think it is probably the enemy of terroir because it has its own individual character, but nevertheless, if it produces an interesting product that tastes good and is different and is a nice wine, then I am not afraid of brett. I try to avoid it, but if some got in there but the wine was balanced and I felt people would appreciate, I would let it go. I would lean into it and I would own it.
 
When you finished your first wine, were you shocked at what you had done? How did you feel about your first efforts?
 
JB I was thrilled. The experimental stuff we did at Heart of the Mountain turned out better than I ever imagined it would. Then with the first commercial release, which is today, the Pinots are far better than what I was hoping for. I was thrilled at how they turned out, especially the Split Rail. I’ve put on a designation on special batches, “Selezione Susie”. It is named after an old friend of mine who passed away just before my first vintage came out.
 
The Split Rail Pinot is a special wine, I think it is a really French wine, in its origins. It smells vibrant. I know that sounds cheesy; but it has a really intense aroma to it that jumps out. You can pick it blind in a line-up with 20 wines, no problem. That’s what I want to do. Some people love it, some people hate it, but it is unique.
 
I’ve looked over the Santa Arcangeli Family Wines website. How are you doing on inventory?
 
JB The Chardonnay is pretty much sold out. I have a few cases left for direct to consumer sales. The Pinot Noir, I should have inventory for another 3 months. I’m moving it pretty fast. Remember, it is a super tiny production. I produced 250 cases in 2010. I have about 50 cases left.
 
Well, you’re clearly a rising star in my estimation. I love your work. As I earlier mentioned, I took a couple bottles to Italy and Southern France for talented friends to try. People love them.
 
JB It is awesome to hear they were well received back where I would like to see them received.
 
I will often take special bottles of California wine with me. I recently took a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars. I like my European colleagues to have a sense of the excellent work going on here in California.
 
JB We’re working at it out here! Santa Cruz Mountains is the best, least known AVA in the world. (laughs) Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is not afraid of structure, of acidity. It is not afraid to make age-able wines. Paul Draper is my hero. I love Ridge wines. I always have. I love his philosophy and his approach to winemaking. I don’t think people in the world realize that most of their wines are actually from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Paul Draper put us on the map out here. People still don’t give the AVA its due.
 
By the way, what is your day job?
 
JB I have a web design firm called Illuminada Design. I’ve been doing that for 12 years. I’m trying to segue into winemaking full time. Seriously, it is my favorite thing in the world to do. I love it. You’ve got to get your name out there. Once people try your wines, it works. It is hard to get noticed out there.
 
I’ll do what I can…
 
JB Thanks, Ken.
 
—————————————————————————
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

VINISUD’s Digital Seachange, A Talk With Ahmad Monhem

Ξ February 13th, 2012 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine News |

From February 20th to the 22nd of February, the Parc Des Expositions, outside of Montpellier, is transformed by a grand celebration, VINISUD, The International Exhibition of Mediterranean Wines and Spirits. A bi-annual event, this is how it describes itself:
 
“VINISUD is the showcase for the world’s leading wine region, the Mediterranean, which on its own accounts for more than 50% of world output.
Each event brings together the majority of Mediterranean wine producers and professional buyers from every continent, thereby helping to open the Mediterranean up to new markets for wine.
In 2010, 33,000 visitors and 1,650 exhibitors attended VINISUD:
 
French producers from Languedoc, Roussillon, Provence, the Rhone Valley, South-West, Corsica,
Producers from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria etc.”

 
Now in its tenth iteration, VINISUD, 2012 anticipates this February’s Leap Year with a leap of its own, a leap into the Digital Age. In the interview below with VINISUD’s Director General is Ahmad Monhem – surely one of the most energetic and tireless of people – you will read of what is meant by the phrase, Digital Seachange.
On a personal note, I have been very fortunate to have been selected as one of eight of VINISUD’s ambassadors. My beat is the US. On to the interview.
 
Ken Payton/Admin It must be an enormous challenge to put on VINISUD. Now in its tenth edition, and with an excess of 33,000 visitors and more than 1,650 exhibitors, can you tell me about the history of the organization?
 
Ahmad Monhem Since the beginning of the 10th edition’s organization in November 2010, it has been both an enormous challenge and a great pleasure for me and my team. Our goal is to make of this next edition an exceptional and successful event for our exhibitors and visitors. We are trying every day to improve the experience for those who have given us their loyalty; I mean the quality and the conviviality of the exhibition, but also the professional and personalized service offered by our team.
 
How did you come to the leadership of VINISUD?
 
AM Since 1995, I have managed around ten different exhibitions in several industries. In 2007, my CEO gave me the challenge to organize the Vinisud 2008’s edition. I instantly accepted the mission. From that moment forward, I have worked to defend and develop the fame and the role of this exhibition throughout the world. And my goal remains the same; satisfy the customers (exhibitors and visitors).
 
What have been among the greatest changes and challenges you have witnessed in Mediterranean winemaking and viticulture since you assumed leadership of VINISUD for the last three editions? You might consider marketing, the rise of organic farming and sustainability issues, and climate change, as examples.
 
AM For me, the most important change deeply affecting the Mediterranean vineyard has been in communication and marketing. In 2008 – my first edition as the exhibition director – Mediterranean wines have finally started to lose the image of bad quality that had been the reputation of the region for years. Of course, the first main change came from winemakers themselves who decided to bet on quality instead of quantity. However, it is thanks to marketing that the world has discovered the real potential of Mediterranean terroirs. That is how in 2008, we could measured the new attractiveness of Mediterranean wines by welcoming a large part of international visitors.
 
Today, Mediterranean wines benefit from a very good image in a large number of mature markets. But the new challenge will be to seduce the emergent markets – China, Korea, India, Brazil… The seduction of these new consumers will require time because knowledge about Mediterranean wines is very low in these countries. It is going to take a lot of work to explain Mediterranean terroirs, for example, the specifics of its diversity. In these markets the main challenge of Mediterranean producers is to bravely face the fierce competition from the New World. But at the same time, in their owns vineyards, winemakers have had to adapt to another important trend: a greater respect for the environment. For many years, “terroir” was one of the key factors to make a good but “typical” wine – revealing the distinct characteristics of each diverse region. So it in that spirit that viticultural practices changed as well toward a greater respect for the many soils. As a result, we have witnessed a rapid rise in organic farming. Today, another concern has entered into the thinking of producers: sustainable development. Incidentally, I can tell you that this subject will be discussed a lot during Vinisud 2012.
 
An exciting new direction has been announced to this year’s program. It has been referred to as a digital seachange. Can you explain what this concept means?
 
AM As in every industry, an exhibition must evolve and adapt. We have seen for some years now the importance of the internet in the world. The wine industry has integrated step by step this evolution. Today with the birth of the « web 2.0 », a new communication appears. Now, 2.0 could be frightening. I admit that it took me time to weigh the pros and cons, and to determine the advantages of such a communication tool. Nevertheless, we initiated this « digital seachange » 6 months ago by creating the Vinisud’s page on Twitter and Facebook. Then quite fast, we felt the need to create our own platform: it was the birth of the Vinisud blog.
 
We have spoken about a « seachange » because web 2.0 has had deep consequences for the communication between companies and consumers. We understand the change, that in a short period we’ve moved from a formatted communication managed by strict rules, to a dialog in which each person can freely express themselves and openly share with each other. That is a quite huge SEACHANGE!
 
Although a general description has already been published on the VINISUD website, can you tell me what you hope will take place at Pavillon 2.0?
 
AM In that space we hope to see the gathering of winemakers, buyers, bloggers and journalists around this new trend: the web 2.0. The goal is to implement exchanges and debates between all the actors of the wine industry. Numerous bloggers will share their experience and give advice to winemakers. But as well will wine producers themselves speak about their own experience with the web 2.0. The idea is to offer for the 3 day event, a convivial space where the virtual world will become real.
 
In your view, what is VINISUD’s global strategy, how important has digital communication become for implementing VINISUD’s global strategy?
 
AM When I chose to develop a digital communication strategy at Vinisud, I had two ideas in mind.
The first one, obviously, was to increase the recognition of the exhibition internationally, especially in foreign markets. As organizers, it is our responsibility to ensure that international buyers have all the necessary information about the fair. They are assailed by requests, of course, so it is difficult to find the good way to capture their attention. E-mails were preferred some years ago to other communication means; but today it has became far too impersonal and moreover, quite useless due to the shear number of e-mails professionals receive each day. We needed a less formal way to speak to our producers and visitors: web 2.0 appeared to be the best way.
 
But Vinisud is a bi-annual exhibition, a showcase of the Mediterranean vineyard as a whole. Since 2007, one of the main challenges for me and my team was to keep and reinforce the link between two editions. It was difficult in a top-down communication context to keep contact with exhibitors and visitors coming from all around the world. The idea was to find a means to bring together Mediterranean wines lovers from moment to moment. The web 2.0 offered us the solution. Thanks to social networks and our blog, we would ultimately like to create a community speaking about Mediterranean wine culture; a kind of “virtual” Vinisud during the 727 days when the “real one” has finished!
 
How was it decided to include the international wine blogging community for VINISUD 2012? How can wine bloggers, including ‘ambassador’ bloggers, one of which I happen to be, be of assistance?
 
AM With the web 2.0 we came back to an ancestral means of communication: the word of mouth, the spoken word. Bloggers are, for me, proof of the huge power of such a means of communication. In fact, the majority of them are not professionals; they are just passionate by a subject, in our case, wine. Today people trust bloggers. Wine is a question of passion, and so we have decided that bloggers could very well be the best to speak about Mediterranean wines. Offering a complete information platform about Mediterranean wines – the first iterations of the Vinisud blog – had been such a huge amount of work for us. So, we have now decided to bring together diverse information sources. Today, the Vinisud blog aggregates articles coming from bloggers around the world, speaking many different languages, and more importantly, offering different and contrasting points of view.
 
Beyond that, we felt the need to more deeply involve select bloggers in order to build around them Vinisud’s community. That is why we elected 8 bloggers, opinion leaders in the major wine markets, to be Vinisud ambassadors. We hope to develop with them a close relationship around a shared goal: to develop the wine culture all around the world.
 
What would be your advice to wineries with respect to digital communication? How important is social media to a winery? How can social media be best used by a winery.
 
AM First of all, be curious. They must take time to discover what web 2.0 is all about and how it can help them to communicate. My second piece of advice would be to be prudent. Communicate through social networks means involvement with consumers; so it is very important to be prepared to launch such communication. Keeping up a dialog with customers takes time. Then, I recommend to them that they be honest. Because of web 2.0 people are eager for closer contact with producers; but equally want total transparency.
 
Finally, I would like to tell them that before beginning digital communication they must to ask for advice from “digital people” themselves, and share their thoughts and questions with them. We hope that the Pavillon 2.0 will facilitate these exchanges.
 
What can international visitors expect to learn at VINISUD 2012?
 
AM Discover and taste new wines, explore non-famous appellations and rare grape varieties. Meet recognized wine producers, and become acquainted with the new generation. Once more, this edition is going to welcome young winemakers who are ready to break the rules and to offer a new vision of Mediterranean wines.
During the three days of VINISUD, international visitors will be able to travel all over the world’s biggest vineyard in a single, unique location.
 
Finally, they will be able to optimize their visit thanks to the numerous free-tasting areas which allow an easy and quick wine selection. The best example is the Palais Méditerranéen where more than 2100 wines are waiting the visitors.
 
And just as it happens at VINISUD every two years, I know that this year our exhibitors will be full of surprises!
 
Thank you very much for your time, Ahmad. I look forward to seeing you at VINISUD.
 
AM Thank you.
 
Ken Payton/Admin

 

Clos Romain, The Quiet Work Of Time

Ξ January 4th, 2012 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

A few kilometers from Cabrières, south of Clermont l’Hérault in the Languedoc, rises the massive limestone Pic de Vessou, the 480 meter summit of which once served as an ancient Roman outpost. Unsettled December weather brought fast moving clouds, curtains of rain on the horizon, long-lived rainbows, and sudden clearings to a cobalt blue sky through which the late afternoon sun now shone brilliant on the mountain. This ancient sentinel is a short distance from Clos Romain, a 380 hectare property of roughly sculpted hills, battered rocks and rolling valleys dotted with fig trees and an aromatic scrublands of wild thyme and rosemary. My car idled on the ribbon of pavement winding up to the family home as I stood roadside, mesmerized at the extreme, untamed beauty of it all.
 
Not far from where I stood was a reconstructed capitelle, a mortar-free stone hut where farmers in previous centuries would have stored tools and sought shelter from a storm. As I neared my accommodations further up the road, a starkly contrasting battery of solar panels abruptly brought me back to the present. Almost. For what is a solar panel array but a latter day temple to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the eternal flame of the hearth fire? This is how it is at Clos Romain: it is a time portal on past ages, of domesticated landscapes carved from an ancient wilderness.
 
Clos Romain’s is a love affair with history. Its very name says so. But it also is a love affair with the natural world. So it is with the wines they make. Though they use oak barrels and stainless steel tanks for some of their wines, the archaeological wealth of former Roman settlements found throughout the property has so impressed the imagination of co-owner and winemaker Celine Beauquel that she has decided to greatly increase Clos Romain’s production of clay jar wines, a tribute to the ancient Roman amphora.
 
There are currently 6 hectares dedicated to olive trees and 9 dedicated to the vine. Shale, limestone, and dolomite dominate. At 350 meters high, and with just that specific combination of soils and correspondingly low grape yields, I was sure that both Clos Romain’s olive oil and wines were deeply marked by the terroir. Of the three wines I’ve tasted, the finesse was playful, bright; in each the focus, precise. But such a rewarding result is far from effortless. Not here. This is no pastoral existence. As I wandered outside of Clos Romain’s éco-gîtes (rentable cottages) on the property’s high plateau, I looked out over a grand vista facing the Mediterranean; and I knew that here not only are great variations in temperature frequent, brought by the dry Mistral, but that another wind heavy with moisture off the sea, the Marin must always threaten. Rainfall retention in the soils is limited and wild boar are common vineyard and olive grove intruders.
 
The agriculture at Clos Romain is therefore very demanding, especially since only organic methods and practices are tolerated; and because only two people, Celine Beauquel and husband Romain Cabanes, daily work the rough land. This is equally true of the work in the winery down the plateau, just off the D15. Now into their 4th vintage, these apprentice winemakers have refined their steep learning experience to a greater use of clay jars. Ms. Beauquel has long wanted to mine clay from Clos Romain’s own soils, but that has proven too expensive. So they buy jars from a potter in Cahors, France who sources the clay from a local quarry in the South West of France. Indeed, there is a winery in Cahors who uses the same potter and the jars he fabricates, Clos d’un Jour.
 
Why clay jars? Just as Clos Romain celebrates and promotes exclusively organic practices, so in the winery do they pursue a minimalist, non-interventionist approach. Amphorae, after all, are made of the very earth we walk upon, and the vessels do bridge the gulf between the ancient and modern world, wedding both aesthetics and a simpler, green technology. But with creative experimentation, even when with an apparently simpler tech, comes risk and uncertainty. For technological developments answer questions put to the world.
 
Of clay jars, curing them for their first year of use requires an attentive month-long water soak to close the jar’s pores, but even when wine is subsequently added as much as 4 liters is lost every week to the angels. Of even greater concern are characteristics of clay jars less well known to modern experience: What is the minimal required thickness of a jar wall? How does the rate of oxygen transport change over time? How do jars behave in a humid environment? Over time can they become brittle? Can they be colonized by spoilage microbes as easily as can barrels? How best to clean them and does repeated cleaning effect transpiration? If not lined, how does the clay’s electrical potential react with the chemical soup that is a wine? Maybe a simpler technology is not so simple! Recent events at Clos Romain highlight this issue.
 
There have been difficult times for many winemakers recently because of abundant rainfall over the past months. For Clos Romain not only has water entered the winery, but as a result the humidity has spiked inside and there has emerged an as yet unidentified fungus now harboring in and on the external surface of some of their clay jars. Out of a fear of the presence of a hostile microbe, wine from some jars had to be placed in stainless steel tanks. Fortunately there has occurred no spoilage in the wine itself, none that can now be tasted, which, Ms. Beauquel suggests, may testify to the robust quality of jar wines themselves. Samples of the fungus have been sent to a lab for analysis, but out of an abundance of caution, and well before results come back, the cellar will be disinfected. Further, it was discovered that there is substantial variation to the wall thickness of the 4 jars colonized and those not. The potter from Cahors has been alerted and has assumed full responsibility and promises to ship replacements.
 
But of the wines themselves? One in particular jumped out at me. It is called Parenthèse, 70% Syrah and 30% Viognier, and Ms. Beauquel will age it in a jar. From one of the affected jars, Parenthèse had to be moved to stainless steel until the fungus riddle is solved. But what a glorious effort it now is! So lively and bright. The wine positively dances. If this is the promise of jar wines, then put paid to the method! Ms. Beauquel joyously explained that it came from an amazing parcel of Syrah vines but with a tiny yield, only 8 hectoliters per hectare. Parenthetically, very low sulphur levels are used. She’s signed up to a program called Nature et Progrès. Only 9 mg per liter is permitted under their regimen.
 
The visit and tasting was very satisfying, if a bit brief. In addition to Ms. Beauquel’s winemaking responsibilities, she is also a mother. And on the day I visited her child was running a fever. There seems to be no rest for this very active family. I have a great deal of work ahead of me in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. I am very grateful to have encountered right out of the starting gate, with my visit to Clos Romain, so much of what I am seeking to discover in the viticultural world here: a strong dedication to organic principles, creative experimentation, the bold questioning of prevailing fashion, and a willingness to say “we can do better“.
 
Please follow Clos Romain’s exploits and adventures on Celine Beauquel’s excellent winery blog.
 
Ken Payton, Admin

 

The Rise Of Grapevine Trunk Disease

Ξ December 21st, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Herbicides, Wine News |

Greybeard writes…
 
Vine Diseases are not my specialist subject, in fact before last week I knew practically nothing about them, but for some reason a casual reading of a blog post from Jim Budd set me off on a major tangential internet sortie.
 
Jim’s post was entitled “Bourgueil and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil: the fight against eutypiose, BDA and esca”, and it was Bourgueil that hooked me, since I spent 10 wonderful days in that quaint Loire town in 2006 on a family holiday (which explains my fondness for Cabernet Franc). The fact that most of the piece was a transcript of a French article almost dissuaded me from continuing (I am nowhere near fluent in the language) except for an intriguing picture of a dying vine and Jim’s reference to “Fatal Wood Diseases”. I therefore clicked on the link to Vitisphere.com.
 
The post begins describing the disturbing development of ESCA, BDA (Black Dead Arm) and Eutypiose since the ban on the use of the controlling chemical Sodium Arsenite a decade ago. The accompanying picture shows a necrosis (canker) caused by Eutypiose.
The local viticultural body, FAV37 (la Fédération des Associations Viticoles d’Indre-et-Loire et de la Sarthe) completed a study in 2010 showing that in Indre-et-Loire alone damage from these diseases came to €12-14 million ($16-18 million) and are increasing their activities to dispose of the dead and diseased wood to try and prevent the spread of the disease.
 
The piece finishes stating that 30-40,000 vines were collected by a Chinon based wood company to recycle as barbeque fuel, but that this was only a small part of all the vines that actually died this year – a sobering thought.
 
So that was the story, but all it did was raise more questions than it answered; what exactly are the three diseases mentioned?; what causes them?; how prevalent are they?; Apart from a brief mention of sodium arsenite what else is being done to combat the disease other than making barbecue fuel?
The more sites I visited in trying to answer these starting questions, the more secondary questions (plus some ambiguity & contradiction) appeared, which sent me into yet more searches which eventually spat me out after 2 days with a glimmer of understanding and enough words to put together this piece – even though I may never get firsthand exposure to the topic.
 
The Diseases:
Eutypiose (Eutypiosis) is the French term for Eutypa dieback, first identified in the 1970s and since confirmed worldwide (Californian losses to the disease are estimated in excess of $260 million a year). The disease is caused by infection with the fungus Eutypa lata which results in stunted development and internal V-shaped necroses and external cankers. Leaves may show chlorosis, deformations and tattered edges.
In the 1970s the disease Dead Arm, made famous to consumers by the d’Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz, was identified as really being two diseases, with the combined symptoms of Eutypa dieback caused by Eutypa lata and those of Excoriosis (Phomopsis Cane & Leaf Spot) caused by the different fungi Phomopsis viticola.
 
Black Dead Arm (BDA) is caused by yet another fungi, or to be accurate several species of the Botryosphaeriaceae, first described in 1974 in Tokaji, Hungary – giving the diseases alternative name of Botryosphaeria (Bot) canker. Over 12 species have been isolated from diseased vines globally and, while early research believed they were opportunistic pathogens that only caused symptoms in stressed vines, the current data suggests that certain strains are strong primary pathogens.
Symptoms include V-shaped necroses similar to those caused by Eutypa lata, brown necrosis along the length of the affected tissues. Confusingly, occasional stunted growth, leaf discolouration and damage adds to the similarity with Eutypa dieback, meaning the two diseases are often difficult to accurately diagnose.
In France the disease was also known as d’apoplexie lente (slow apoplexy) prior to its classification as BDA in the Medoc in 1999.
 
Esca (La Yesca in Spain) is another complex disease with variable symptom expression. Although first classified in Italy in 1900 it seems to have been around much longer with similar symptoms described in medieval works such as the influential Arabic agricultural tome Kitab al-Felahah by Ibn al-Awam, a 12th Century Moor from Seville, and earlier Latin and Greek texts. The name is Latin for food or bait (used by several Italian restaurants around the world including New York) and may be a reference to the fruiting bodies of the fungi responsible resembling bait lures as they sprout from the wood. A Wine Spectator article from 2008 reported that 5% of the vineyard surface area in France was affected by Esca, although later reports suggest that by 2010 this was as much as 10%.
The fungal pathogens are Phaeomoniella chlamydospora and various species of Phaeoacremonium which cause chronic symptoms of stunted growth, shoot tip dieback and internal wood decay of the trunk and larger branches. Leaf necrosis results in a “tiger stripe” pattern while berries show dark spots or “measles”, leading to the disease’s alternative name of Black Measles.
 
Primary symptoms predispose the vines to wood (white) rot caused by higher fungi such as Fomitiporia punctata, Fomitiporia mediterranea and Stereum hirsutum.
 
Esca affected vines may show chronic symptoms one year and the next appear perfectly normal, but the disease will reappear, each time causing an overall decline.
Eventually an acute form of the disease called vine apoplexy occurs, typically in mid-summer when rainfall is followed by hot, dry weather, where rapid withering of apparently healthy leaves and the death of vine organs, including grape clusters, happens in only a few days – the vine usually dies in the same year.
 
The main feature in common with all these diseases is that they affect vines at least eight years old or that may have been subjected to stress. It is clear from reading the reports and research papers that there isn’t always a clear diagnosis because of the similarities in symptoms; V-shaped necroses; longitudinal brown streaking in the stems; leaf chlorosis and patchy discolouration; stunted shoot growth; external cankers. In the absence of one exclusive diagnostic indicator much of the disease reported in the vineyards is probably a combination of two or all of the above.
 
It is also worth mentioning Petri Syndrome, named for Italian Lionello Petri who first published the symptoms in 1912. Also known as Young Vine Decline (Young Esca) the primary infectors of Ecsa, Phaeomoniella chlamydospora, Phaeoacremonium inflatipes and Phaeoacremonium aleophilum come together to cause disease in younger vines of 2 or 3 years. The disease stunts growth and leads to tissue decay with leaf chlorosis and necrosis. Internally, black spots or streaks are seen in the xylem tissues and the sap of infected plants can turn dark brown or black, giving the alternate disease name Black Goo.
Although common around the world this disease has been heavily researched in California since the late 1990s due to the high economic impact and the realization that infected nursery stock was the main source of diseased vines – vines pulled up for whatever reason were being replanted with plants already inoculated with the causes of the disease.
 
It would be easy to continue veering off into new areas by including other diseases such as Syrah Decline, Phomopsis or Black Foot, however the causes and mechanisms of these diseases are different or, in the case of Syrah Decline, still not fully understood, so we’ll put them to one side, at least until the end.
 
The Causes:
The key pathogens described above are all species of Ascomycetes (sac) fungi which produce spores in sacs (asci) which develop until the pressure within the asci shoots the spores out. Direct spore dispersal is up to 30cm but they travel further due to rain splash and wind – Eutypa ascospores are known to be able to travel as far as 30 miles (50km).
The exceptions are the Basidiomycete (higher) fungi such as Fomitiporia punctata, Fomitiporia mediterranea and Stereum hirsutum involved in Ecsa white rot, arguably a secondary symptom of the chronic form of the disease.
 
With BDA, Ecsa and Eutypa dieback fungal spores colonise the vine through open wood vessels, the result of pruning, frost, mechanical or graft wounds – although an Australian study shows that soil-borne infection should not be ignored. The spores develop, invading the xylem vessels where fungal growth results in the interruption of sap-flow which may induce a host defense reaction, resulting in further blockage. Wood necrosis and rot impairs the flow of nutrients leading to vine decline and slow death, while fungal phytotoxins weaken the vine causing associated symptoms.
 
Petri disease is more likely due to nursery vines infected by the fungi prior to planting, as opposed to infection through wounds, but the effects are similar.
 
Disease Management:
There is no reliable means of eradicating a pathogenic fungus once it becomes established within a vine, so removal of diseased wood or the entire plant is necessary (remedial surgery with disposal or burning of the wood debris). The best control is to protect vines from infection in the first place, but this can be challenging since the fungi are common in nature and considering the number of wounds made on each grapevine in a year with the extended period of wound susceptibility (which, for E. lata, is up to 7 weeks from pruning and greatest in early winter).
By timing any pruning as late as possible in the winter/early spring (Feb/Mar in the Northern Hemisphere) sap is flowing more freely which helps with wound healing. Spore release from infected vines is closely correlated with rainfall so new pruning should be avoided until at least 36 hours afterwards. Prof. Doug Gruber of UC Davis has championed a double-pruning technique where initial mechanically pruning leaves long spurs in early winter followed by hand-pruning to short spurs in late winter.
Application of fungicidal wound protectants in spray, paint or paste form should prevent fungal access through pruning wounds. Although spray-on liquid formulations are easily washed off with rainfall they are more feasible in large vineyards since application of paint or paste is labour intensive and only economically viable for high-value vineyards. However, which chemicals to use is the subject of intense research and contentious debate.
 
A 2009 study showed that Topsin M, aka thiophanate-methyl, was the best overall product across the Ascomycetes – yet a mixture of active ingredients is more likely to handle the spectrum of different fungi found in the vineyard.
 
Different cocktails reported include;
MBC fungicide (Benomyl, Carbendazim, Topsin M) & chlorobutinol
Biopaste (boric acid), Garrison® (cyproconazole and iodocarb) and Topsin M
Carbendazim & prochloraz (-manganese)
ATCS® acrylic paint (alone or mixed with Bavistin® or boric acid)
 
The biggest likely problem is that many of these fungicidal chemicals are likely to be removed from the market due to environmental and human health concerns, as happened with Sodium Arsenite (the only product that kept all main disease symptoms in check). This carcinogen was banned in Europe in 1991 (with extensions for Spain, France and Portugal until 2003), a fact that French viticulturalists claim is the direct cause of the relentless increase in Grapevine Trunk Disease over the last decade and has some calling for its re-introduction.
 
In reality biological & ecological control methods may be the only long term options available to growers, something which is starting to become understood.
Biological control agents include the fungi Trichoderma and Fusarium lateritium and the bacteria Bacillus subtilis, which have been shown to control infection by E. lata in trials, although results were variable. Researchers are also looking at garlic extracts and lactoferrin as wound protectants.
Biological control agents available today are based on Trichoderma species: BioTricho®, Eco-77® (both based on single strains of Trichoderma harzianum) & Vinevax®™ which is based on a mixture of five strains of T. harzianum and T. atroviride. Another agent, Trichodex® (Trichoderma harzianum T39) is also used as a treatment to prevent Botrytis cinerea (grey rot).
 
Some strains of Trichoderma work better than others, and are more effective on some varieties, such as Chenin Blanc, compared to others, such as Cabernet Sauvignon & Sauvignon Blanc. This may be why the French report poor results with Trichoderma as both these grapes seem more susceptible to Esca, BDA and Eutypa dieback (with Merlot and Semillon less so) and may be why Esca is especially prolific in southwest France and the Loire.
 
For Petri Syndrome then treatment to account for possible nursery stock infection is advised. Hot Water Treatment (HWT) at 50°C (122°F) for 30 minutes & then cooling to 2-3°C (36-37°F) for rootstock and scion wood is effective in controlling Phaeomoniella. This is similar to the method oif controlling Black foot Disease.
 
Also I came across tales of more organic remedies that are worth recounting. The first was from a Loire grower who uses companion plants (wild leek, Allium ampeloprasum) to “re-mycorhize the under-soil” which he believes has been sterilised by over use of the weed killer Roundup. In the Wine Terroirs article “Experimental cure of Esca in the Loire” the grower, Didier Barrouillet, claims he has seen vines recovering from esca.
In the same vein the 7th International Workshop on Grapevine Trunk Diseases, held in Chile last year, reported some success using soil bio-fumigation with mustard (Brassica juncea). Although used here for Black Foot Disease research the idea of bio-fumigation, using companion crops or “green manure” from Brassica species looks to be bearing fruit (!).
 
Discussion:
Those last two topics brings home the message to me that viticulture at its simplest level is only agriculture, and growing anything in the soil requires a healthy respect for that soil and the complex eco-system it harbours – something that the ever increasing use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides can only disrupt.
 
The pathogens and symptoms of Grapevine Trunk Diseases mirror this, it would be wrong to fixate on a single cause or cure when they are a complex interaction of numerous fungi acting on genetically distinct sets of vines. A vine can, and probably does, become infected by multiple pathogens many times and while susceptibility to the effects of BDA, Ecsa and Eutypa dieback varies between grape varieties there is no sub-species of Vitis vinifera that is immune.
 
I should also reiterate that during my time reading and re-reading the different papers and presentations I encountered repeated ambiguity & contradiction both on disease naming, symptoms and causes. I endeavoured to filter through the pages to ensure as much consistency as possible, but I have no doubt that the current view of these diseases is still incomplete with more interactions awaiting to be discovered. Syrah Decline is a case in point – but I’m not going to go down that tangent just yet!
 
Slainte!
 
Greybeard
 
Additional reading:
Grapevine Trunk Diseases in California and Control Strategies (UCD Presentation)
 
Emerging diseases of vine in the central part of Spain, Vicente González and María Luisa Tello, of the Madrid Institute for research and Rural Development, agriculture and food (Imidra)
 
Abstracts from the International Workshop on Grapevine Trunk Diseases (next in Valencia, Spain, 18-21 June 2012)
 

 

Greybeard’s Corner Winter’s Hold 2011

Ξ December 11th, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Greybeard's Corner |

The year is winding its way towards the Christmas and in the northern reaches of England winter’s icy touches are already starting to be felt, but as Europe and America’s wine now sits in tank and barrel there’s still plenty of news and views to look at in the wine world.
 
Towards the end of November a controlled burn of bush in Western Australia’s Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park suddenly became uncontrolled and advanced on the Margaret River area. The enquiry into the fires has just begun in Australia and, while there was understandable concern in the initial reporting on how this may affect vineyards and wineries in the region, in the end the damage was contained mainly within the National Park and only a few hectares of vineyard were “scorched or singed” as detailed in the recent Margaret River Wine Industry Association media release.
 
Also at the end of November Tim Atkin penned a thought-provoking piece on his website entitled “Who pays wine critics?”. Although a good article in its own right he briefly mentioned the controversy surrounding Jay Miller’s $15,000 lecture fee during a Spanish tour, broken by Jim Budd on his blog in August. That story resurfaced and then exploded a few days later into what is now being called by some as Murciagate, by others as Campogate (after Pancho Campo, the Spanish MW with his own history of controversy, who many view as being more deserving of the criticism) when it was announced that Miller was leaving the Wine Advocate. It has since become clear that the retirement had been planned for many months but the badly judged timing of the announcement has just re-fuelled the controversy – go to Jim’s Loire to see a whole series of posts on this ongoing saga. It should also be pointed out that Miller’s palate was not always appreciated and that his departure has been regarded as a positive step by some.
As for the Wine Advocate, on the back of Robert Parker’s frank review of his reputation at Wine Future Hong Kong from early November, Neil Martin replaces Miller’s Spanish and South American tasting roles, while David Schildknecht covers Washington and Oregon, bringing an end to a hectic year at the office for Robert Parker which began with Antonio Galloni taking over California duties from man himself.
 
Elsewhere in the world and South Africa producers are looking to ensure the future quality of Cap Classique Sparkling wines by formalising a new quality charter with lees ageing guidelines and introduction of “Superieur” for top examples- funny how they like the French terminology! Meanwhile Swiss researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne have dissected what every wine lover does without thinking – swirling the wine in the glass to release the aromas – with their detailed investigations of orbital agitation and wave dynamics. It seems that this type of fluid shaking is critical in large scale cell culture bioreactors so the research isn’t as daft as it first sounded!
 
Over here in the UK and the newly resurrected Oddbins (albeit trimmed down with less National coverage than before) is courting media attention with innovative consumer events and marketing. The Drinks Business reported on the revamp to their wines. I, like many, wish this new Oddbins well although a lot of UK consumers still associate the it with the business that closed earlier in the year, even though the name and most of the remaining stores were completely bought out by Raj Chatha’s European Food Brokers (EFB) Group who have no links to the previous disgraced administration (run by Simon Baile). It would also appear that Baile’s own venture, ex-Cellars, is not doing so well either, with Jim Budd’s recent posting showing a close-down of at least two of the stores it bought on Oddbins deathbed.
 
On a lighter note it seems that twice as many UK consumers are happy with wines under screwcap compared to 8 years ago, according to a Wine Intelligence press release which goes on to confirm that natural cork is still the preferred closure. The report summary doesn’t mention the figures for that abomination that is the plastic cork.
 
As for myself, recent weeks have been relatively kind. Two local retailers have held comprehensive supplier tastings; first Carruthers and Kent with their 1st Annual Wine Fair and then Morpeth store Bin21 with a Remembrance Day event which, when combined, gave me over 120 tasting notes to work through. I also feel like I’ve been stalking Marta Mateus of MartaVine as we’ve now met up at both of those tastings plus the Durham Food Festival, Living North Christmas Fair and Hexham Christmas Fair! With the Festive Season upon us it’s never a bad idea to know a Portuguese Wine merchant and her Lágrima white Port from Quinta do Portal will definitely be appreciated over the holiday period.
As for the NEWTS then the last two meetings have been very heavy on the reds beginning with Grenache blends, where France went up against Australia in a closely matched and very enjoyable evening which saw the extracted yet elegant & complex John Duval 2007 Plexus come out as overall favourite and the meaty yet subtle Domaine De la Janasse 2004 Terres d’Argile Cotes du Rhone Villages taking best QPR at £12.95. The next tasting was a Bordeaux blends theme, with wines sourced from Majestic, which saw three French wines (including two Pauillacs) up against a selection of Old and New World. France fared less well here, with Spain and South Africa showing more character at the price points, and Australia’s Petaluma taking the group vote with the spicy, rich and smooth 2007 Coonawarra Red.
 
The first Christmas event of 2011 was also a NEWTS affair with the usual BYO dinner at the Newcastle College Chef’s Academy restaurant, where some delicious food was matched by equally delicious wines from the Society members. At our table a crisp Frédéric Mochel 2008 Cuvée Henriette Alsace Riesling was alongside a rich, oaky Catena Alta 2008 Chardonnay from Mendoza; the young and fruity Domaine de la Janasse 2005 Terres d’Argile Cotes du Rhone Villages contrasted to the aged, chocolate tannins of the Barossa Valley Estate 1996 E&E Black Pepper Shiraz; and the smooth, raisined Terre di Zagara 2004 Passito di Pantelleria offset the sharply acidic but immensely sweet Magnotta 2006 Vidal Canadian Ice Wine.
Of the 5 or 6 such Chef’s Academy evenings we’ve had with NEWTS this was the by far the best by for the quality of the food and the wine, not to mention some intelligent conversation along the way.
 
At home and with the last 15 wines I’ve bought recently my shadowing of Marta Mateus shows, with 4 from Portugal – a still white and red plus White & Tawny Ports. Another 4 bottles hail from France; a Provence Roussane, a Mâcon-Villages and a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc for the whites; a Crozes-Hermitage for the reds. The remaining 7 are scattered around the world – Spain, Italy, Austria, Australia and New Zealand – including an intriguing Piave Raboso from the Veneto, a Wagram Grüner Veltliner and a Kiwi Gewürztraminer.
 
This compares to the 16 wines which were opened in the equivalent time period, predominantly from France (6) and Italy (5) with the remaining 5 from the USA, Canada, Chile and Australia, yet only 4 stood out from the crowd; 2 French whites and 2 reds, one each from California and Australia.
The first white was the Domaine de Palejay 2008 Le Sablet Roussanne, a creamy wine with aspects of sweet melon, a full, rich texture and a honeyed finish. The second was the Couly-Dutheil Blanc de Franc, Cabernet Franc but made in a white style. This curiosity had a slight hint of peach colour in the glass and was richly flavoured with floral and grapefruit notes, a touch of honey for good measure.
For red the Ravenswood Lodi 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel punched well above its £8 price tag with a meaty nose with concentrated plum fruit and oak, fine grain tannins and warming finish. I originally bought this more than 2 years ago but deliberately kept hold of it as I’d previously had the ’03 of the same wine with 5-6 years bottle age and it was delicious. With the ’06 has proving to be same I think it’s time to but the ’09 for drinking sometime around 2015!
The last red was another with some age on it, Tim Adams 2004 The Fergus Grenache which I’ve been sitting on for nearly 5 years. This was smooth with a little liquorice and cherry fruit, gentle acidity and tannins – a joy to drink and a beautiful example of patience amply rewarded.
 
With more whites bought and more reds opened there was a slight shift in the overall colour of my cellar, which now has 28% white, 53% red and the remaining 19% a selection of Rosé, Sparkling, Sweet and Fortified. Of course whites get the fastest turnover, typically within 6 months of purchase while it is extremely rare for me to open a red so soon after I’ve got it home.
 
That’s another Greybeard’s Corner review over, much like the year. Like a lot of you I’m about to enter into this food and wine fest that is Christmas, so I’ll hopefully see you on the other side in 2012.
 
Slainte!
 
Greybeard

 

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