Jura – still so much to be discovered

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I was in the Jura region last month on a quick getaway with my boyfriend and the dog. It was not my first time in the region, but it was my first stay long enough to develop a decent understanding of the land, its people and their wine.

The Jura is in a small pocket of land, between Burgundy and Switzerland. At first, it seems remote and cut-off, but when you realise, whilst standing on a rocky hill planted with chardonnay, that you are looking over towards the hills of Macon and Dijon, it all fits into place.

For everything that Burgundy has, Jura has it too but in a more primitive stage.

Idyllic villages, check.

Rolling hills, check.

Strong culinary identity, check.

From Bistrot de la Tournelle, Arbois

However, whereas Burgundy has the A6 motorway (the main axe linking Paris to the south of France), Jura has the far inferior A39. Burgundy has several major cities (Lyon, Dijon, Beaune, Macon) whilst Jura has, errr, Lons-le-Saulnier.

Whilst of course Burgundy is quaint, picturesque and far from lacking in delicious wines, I often feel that I’m just one small individual, following in the footsteps of many others. Jura, however, retains a wild, undiscovered air. Even though wine folk have been claiming ‘Jura is the next big thing’ for five or ten years, it doesn’t feel like it.

Rue des Sans Culottes, Château-Chalon

Its people, traditionally, were subsistance farmers. They had small farm-holdings, with vegetables, vineyards and fields for grazing cows… for the all-important Comté cheese.

In many cases, ask a winemaker to talk to you about the previous generation of his/her family, and you will hear of this polyculture which – until very recently – was everywhere.

It’s a beautiful region; it alternates between vast open pastoral land and dense forest, with jagged waterfalls dotted throughout. All of which are in different shades of green because Jura has a relatively high level of rainfall.*

(*All over France and Italy, 2017 has been worryingly dry. Jura is no exception.)

Cascade des Tufs, Baume-les-Messieurs

There are two principal grape varieties for white wines: chardonnay and savignan (n.b. there are different versions of savignan: green, yellow and pink.) For red wines, there are three: pinot noir, poulsard and trousseau.

n.b. White wines can either be sous voile (oxydised, maintaining a veil of yeast, in a method similar to that of sherry) or ouillé (meaning topped-up.)

Their most prestigious wine is, without a doubt, the vin jaune – an oxydised Savignan, aged in a barrel, sous voile, for at least 6 years and 3 months.

You also find:

  • crémant du Jura – traditional method sparkling wines, often made from chardonnay grapes.
  • vin de paille – a sweet wine for which the grapes are left on straw for the sugars to become more concentrated.
  • Macvin du Jura – a mixture of sweet grape juice and distilled marc / grappa. An acquired taste.

More coming soon…


Further Reading: Wink Lorch is by far and away the most knowledgeable source of information – Jura Wine

Harvest 2016: preparing the Pied de Cuve

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“Would you mind popping over, watering the flowers and making sure there’s food for the cat?” is what most people ask their neighbour before they go away. Amongst hipster foodie circles, I’m aware that it’s not unheard of for it not to be a cat that needs feeding, but actually a batch of sourdough or kefir.

However, living on a winery in the run-up to harvest, I’ve been given another type of yeast to keep alive.

Yesterday Filippo picked a few bunches from the vineyard that we’re going to be harvesting from in earnest next week. These grapes were then crushed (by foot) and put in a bucket with a bit of water. Over the next few days, while he’s away, I have to keep stirring to aerate this (very attractive) mixture.

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Just like sourdough, it will start to ferment and eventually become our natural yeast starter next week. The technical term for this is the pied de cuve – literally “foot of the tank.” And yes, I agree that it sounds far better in French.

The advantage of using a pied de cuve starter is that it allows you to have some confidence in your indigenous yeasts. To know that your yeast is active and already fermenting vigorously gives you a kind of peace of mind that you normally only get with selected strains. It (apparently!) can be quite risky to let fermentation to start directly from your pressed grape juice – especially here where the fermentation takes place in stainless steel in a relatively recent cellar.

Back In The Vineyards (And Harvesting!) With: Filippo Filippi (Soave)

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Castelcerino is a tiny village situated on the top of the highest point in the Soave hills. It also happens to be where Filippo Filippi lives.

There are two ways to get to Castelcerino. First is to go through the picturesque town of Soave, skirting the mediaeval castle but then tackling a series of perilous hair-pin bends in the climb up to the village. Alternatively, you take the low road a couple of kilometres further through the valley and then turn right, straight up the hill at a gradient which apparently averages +36%!

The first time I came to the Filippi estate was during Vinitaly for a dinner and my GPS took me and my colleague, Marco, up the hair-pin bends. The rental car struggled to get any grit and grind and I’m sure I uttered more than just a few swear words. A couple of months later, I came back with my veteran Renault Clio which subsequently gained the nickname “Super Clio” for its nippy performance up those bends. It was only after a few days that I realised that there was another far less cumbersome route.

I returned in the middle of September 2015 to get my hands dirty. Harvest started here a couple of weeks ago with the Chardonnay (for Susinaro), the Trebbiano di Soave (for Turbiana) and the Merlot. The Garganega, however, is being particularly problematic. It’s been very, very hot here this year. What rainfall there was, was too little and too late. Subsequently the sugar content is high but the grapes haven’t yet reached full maturity. A hail storm in mid-June didn’t help matters either and some vines are still showing signs of damage.

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Healthy but not quite ready… Garganega turns a wonderful salmon pink colour when it is fully ripe.

While we wait for the Garganega, there’s still work to be done in the cellar. There is a rogue steel tank of Trebbiano which needs a remontage morning, noon and night. The Chardonnay is fermenting nicely… but looks like it will get to 13% ABV this year which is higher than normal (but not unusual, given how hot this year has been.)

Then there is the Merlot. In previous years, Filippo has made the Merlot into a rosato, under the name Roaron. All change this year as it will become a fully fledged red. It is currently sitting in what can most accurately be described as an over-sized bucket, in which we do a remontage and pigeage (with a large wooden stick) twice a day. “Country style,” Filippo says in English. “Hand-made in Italy,” we joke should be written on the label.

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There are just four of us, doing everything from picking to pressing. Even though the Garganega grapes for the dry wines (Castelcerino, Vigne della Bra and Monteseroni) are still not going to be ready for at least another week, there is still harvesting to be done for the Recioto wine.

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After each expedition to the vineyards, we stack the boxes in the cellar and leave the grapes to dry out. Meanwhile, we go back to that old routine: pump over the whites, punch down the Merlot, pizza. This was our regime – day in and day out.

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You mean you don’t also have a bath tub in your wine cellar….?

On my final morning, I went back to check on the wines. The temperature of the troublesome Trebbiano has fortunately gone down to a more reasonable figure. The Merlot has finished its fermentation and we rack it into a steel tank. It has taken on a beautiful dark garnet colour.

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It is so unbelievably peaceful here. As I sit in my make-shift office, with a truly stupdendous view over the adjacent Valipollicella hills and with Verona in the distance, I cast my mind back to the last few days.

It was already pretty clear to me, but I’ve become much more convinced in the benefits of organic agriculture. (I haven’t read or experienced enough to have a completely reasoned opinion of if biodynamics are indeed even better, although I’m inclined to believe that they are.)

Just while I’ve been writing this post, I’ve spotted six different types of butterfly and had an UFO-insect fly straight into my chest and then spend a couple of moments, sitting on my keyboard, clearly concussed.

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Even just a short walk through the vineyards will reveal a mosaic of wildflowers and herbs (especially mint, oregano and rosemary) as well as all the native grasses and even wild hops. I’m also astounded by how much wildlife there is in these woods; I’ve spotted deer, grouse and a snake and seen traces of wild boar. Turns out that wild boar like to munch on any low-hanging grapes… but don’t let the term ‘low-hanging’ fool you. They are easily capable of eating bunches which for me are at waist-height… and I’m five foot nine!

Of all the wineries that I have visited in Italy, the one that sums up true paradise is Tenute Dettori, with its restaurant overlooking the sea. A close second is possibly Andrea Occhipinti’s view over Lake Viterbo in Lazio. (Clearly I have a thing for water!) This, however, is nature.

As I wrote in the first blog post, half of the land here is untouched woodland. Filippo is first and foremost an agrarian and this is very much in evidence. The Turbiana vineyard on the top of the hill, for example, is comprised of two fields, each surrounded by trees and completely isolated. The wind in the trees is echoed by the buzzing of insects in the grass.

The soil is rich too; changing from basalt to clay to seabed within metres. There are grottos with natural spring water. This is the complete anethetis of industrial, modern winemaking and I love it.

As I am packing my bags, I remember a conversation with my colleague Marco in the car on the way up to Filippi the first time. He was explaining to me that Castelcerino was so isolated, perched up there on the hill, that Filippo rarely leaves. Marco’s words resonate with me at that moment. Castelcerino had become my haven too. I don’t want to leave.

Visiting Filippi (May 2015)

Making Recioto di Soave at Filippi (May 2016)

Filippi on Facebook

In The Vineyards With: Eric Texier (Rhone)

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It’s not strictly accurate to say that I met Eric Texier in the vineyards in the Rhone. It was actually in his cellar, just outside the little village of Charnay, in Beaujolais.

“I don’t like the people in the Rhone Valley,” is how our conversation started, once the initial pleasantries were over.

“I live in this village with my wife. My life is here. The vines just happen to be in the Rhone.”

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Brézème is the terroir most associated with Eric Texier. Just south of Valence and on the eastern side of the Rhône, it is composed of mainly clay and limestone soils, and planted with young vines aging between just 3 and 10 years (which Eric planted himself) and others around 80 years old (which he clearly didn’t!)

At this particular moment, mid-July, 2015 is looking like a scorcher of a year in France. “The press is picking up on this already,” he sighs. “Big is beautiful” he quotes in English. He doesn’t sound too optimistic.

“1998 was my first ever vintage and 2003 was my best hot-vintage, in terms of success in the cellar,” he explains. “I didn’t have any experience making wine with these conditions so I was very cautious. In 2005, I thought I knew how to do everything. I was too cocky and the wines are overly extracted.” (According to his taste, that is!)

I spent several hours in total down in the cellar with Eric. By the time I left, I had really started to appreciate how Eric works; how and why. A scientist by training, his previous career has clearly had a profound impact on his current methodology. It is not enough to say that he works in full respect of nature. Yet Eric doesn’t do biodynamic treatments anymore because he considers them methods which were current 100 years ago. We talk about this further and I get the sense that he finds Steiner’s philsophy rather limiting and that, if he had the chance, he’d like to take it further.

Similarly, in the vineyards, he works with no chemicals or pesticides. It is, again, not strictly speaking biodynamic for the above reasons, but it is in total respect of his natural environment. Eric tells me that he had biodynamic certification about ten years ago… but as we all know having a piece of paper is not the be all and end all. Ultimately, a good wine is made first and foremost in the vineyard. If your vineyard is not healthy, your wines stand no chance.

He has just a handful of hectares, divided between 4 main terroirs, but his secondary calling is as a négociant – meaning that he buys grapes from other producers in the area. For example, the grapes for his most prestigious wines are bought from a friend in Cote-Rôtie and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

As a result, Eric is able to make around 25 different wines – but often very small quantities of each. In contrast, he works with an enormous range of different grape varieties: rousanne, marsanne, clairette, bourboulenc, cinsault, grenache and syrah.

In terms of his work in the cellar, the everyday wines are aged in cement vats (more precisely, it was the tinaja format – which I also saw in use recently at Foradori.) When asked why he made this decision, he explains that he finds cement very easy to work with. It allows air to pass through, it doesn’t impose its characteristics upon the nascent wine as oak does and it is also relatively cheap.

Eric never does a carbonic maceration. He visibly shudders at the thought. Upon arrival at the winery after harvest, the grapes are sorted by hand. Most wines (especially for the reds) are made in whole-clusters in a historical vertical press. His philosophy can be best described as minimal invention: sometimes there’s a skin-contact maceration, sometimes not. No yeasts are ever added. The more prestigious wines will see some time in a barrel (228 litres) or oak vat (450 litres.) The great majority of his wines are not filtered nor fined and some have absolutely no sulphur added, even at bottling (and in this case, they have a silver capsule.)

I loved the wines. I found them lively, vibrant and full of personality. There is a wine to suit each occasion: from the Chat Fou rosé which is fun and a little frivolous to the Brézème Syrah which was a wonderful discovery and then to the stylish Cote-Rôtie which was just out of this world.

Interestingly enough, it’s Eric’s son who does most of the work in the vineyards nowadays and he will apparently start to make his own wine too, as of this year. Watch this space!

www.eric-texier.com/

In The Vineyards With: Andrea Occhipinto (Lazio)

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I swear Andrea Occhipinti must think I am completely and utterly mentally retarded! At best, he would be convinced that my knowledge of the Italian language is restricted to “wow, ma che bello!”

I do have other words in my vocabulary, but they all completely failed me at the sight of the outstanding beauty of Andrea’s vineyards.

He has just three and a half hectares, predominantly planted with Aleatico, perched at 450m over the Lake Viterbo, near Gradoli, in Lazio.

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Originally from Rome, Andrea moved to Viterbo (80 km or 50 miles away) for his studies. It was then that he fell in love with this area and with wine-making. It’s not hard to see why. This particular plot of land is an old volcanic region and boasts a special microclimate that is perfect for growing grapes. Andrea’s first vintage was 2004 and right now, he’s making roughly fifteen thousand bottles per year.

Andrea’s oldest vines are a tender 25 years old, but the majority are much younger, having been planted when he started in 2004. I found it interesting to notice that Andrea also has a nursery space dedicated to cultivating clones which will eventually replace dead vines.

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Wine-making here is a very simple affair. The natural fermentation (i.e. with indigenous yeasts) takes place mainly in cement. Ageing can take place in cement vats, stainless steel tanks or terracotta eggs.*

*These terracotta eggs also go by the name of tinaja and I saw a ton of them also at Foradori.

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Cement vats in Andrea’s cellar

It was very hot on the day that I visited (during the “Road Trip of Summer 2015“) and so when Andrea suggest that we crack open a bottle of his Rosa 2014, I wasn’t going to say no! It is a 100% Aleatico, made after one day skin contact maceration (for colour) then by blending two different juices, one aged in cement and the other in steel tanks. It was perfect on this occasion – so easy to drink, juicy red fruit notes but wonderfully rounded in the mouth with nice acidity and length.

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We tasted a few other wines. The common theme for all of them was their very fruity character (fresh fruit: plums, berries) with wonderful tight acidity. Clearly no wood presence in any of the wines. Delicious summer wines.

I have fond memories of his Rosso Arcaico wine, aged in tinaja, which was more persistent but this is partially due to the fact that the wine is a 50-50 blend of Aleatico and Grechetto Rosso.

Keep an eye out for these wines. Andrea is a young winemaker with a huge potential.

http://www.occhipintiagricola.it/

Knowing Your Yeast: a follow-up.

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Did you read the blog post I wrote last year called “The Importance of Knowing Your Yeast“? In short, I said that I didn’t know of any studies identifying and analysing naturally occuring ambient yeasts in winemaking.

I’m happy to say that I stand corrected!

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The Benanti Winery, on Mount Etna in Sicily, embarked upon an ambitious five-year study with Istituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino in Palermo in 2005. The full methodology and results are going to be published later this year. This is just a sneak-peak.

Before I launch into the detail, I should be explain what a palmento is. Essentially, it is the building containing an open-air stone tub into which the crushed grape juice runs for the alcoholic fermentation. It is very similar to Cantillon’s “chapel” and the fermentation pits in authentic mezcal production. Ventilation is vitally important in the palmento because not only is there indigenous yeast on the grape skins but there are also many ambient yeasts in the air.

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For this study, the researchers took 4 palmenti where commercial yeasts have never been used. They then identified over 400 different strains of yeasts that were naturally present in these places. Of these, there were 13 strains that were considered interesting for alcoholic fermentation.

The conclusion is that Benanti have taken 4 of these strains and patented them for their own exclusive use. It’s a selected indigenous yeast, if you like.

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That, admittedly, is rather a contradiction in terms. I’m sure there will be some people who would argue why even bother selecting a naturally-found ambient yeast.

It should be understood that nowadays, the palmento cannot be used for making Etna DOC wines…. and that’s a whole other kettle of fish… Winemaking now takes place at controlled temperatures in stainless steel rather than in those traditional palmenti. The Benanti winery has also grown to a size and gained such a reputation that consistency is very important for them.

It seems to me that this study is effectively their manifestation of a desire to create a link between tradition and modernity. Of wanting to dock their caps to history albeit in a contemporary context and to find a way to use nature in conventional winemaking.

The full report will be published later this year.

The Importance of Knowing Your Yeast

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The first type of yeast that I was introduced to was bakers’ yeast, aka saccharomyces cerevisiae.

I would drag my teenage self out of bed every Thursday morning at 6am to head down to the bakehouse and knead 200 2lb loaves. I also used to volunteer on Wednesday evenings to prepare a big vat of yeast and warm water. By morning, the yeast was ready to go. I loved that funky smell and the way it had miraculously frothed up.

Yeast is also one of the buzzwords of natural wine. The debate between ambient vs cultured yeasts is one of the key sticky points between the two camps.

Yet very rarely do we find out exactly which yeasts are being used. For the layman who is curious about natural fermentation, the answer “it’s precipitated by yeasts which are found naturally on the skins and in the air” seems to suffice. The thing is, have we ever actually stopped to ask exactly what is doing the work?

Most natural wine producers are so small they don’t have the means to do extensive lab-testing. If the yeasts do their job and the alcoholic fermentation happens correctly, the winemaker seems content enough.

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Open-air Fermentation Tanks

Mezcal, the agave-based spirit that is too often thought of as tequila’s little brother, is “naturally” fermented in large oak vats, in the open air, before distillation. For the basis of this comparison, I’m only refering to small-scale, traditional mezcal where the addition of any kind of “fermentation accelerator” is not permitted.

Despite the elevated temperatures in Mexico, it takes approximately four to ten days for the fermentation in Oaxaca. Very definitely comparable with natural wine-making.

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Hipocrates, the President of the CRM (previously known as COMERCAM) gave a fascinating masterclass at the La Perla bar in Paris in April 2014. Four months on and I’m still thinking about it. He shared some pioneering research that he had conducted on the presence of yeasts at the different stages of fermentation in different palenque.

mezcalHe identified sixteen different strains of naturally-occuring, airborne yeasts. The diagram above shows the extent of the presence of these yeasts in different producers within the Yautepec region at three different moments during the fermentation. Take the Palenque ZA for example (top left), at the beginning they have equal amounts of 1, 2, 4 and 11. Half way through, there’s just 2, 3 and 4. Right at the end, there’s a lot of 2. Conversely, Palenque VB (bottom middle) only has two strains (1 and 5) which both appear late in the process and in equal measure.

Why does this matter? Well, we know that the yeasts play a key part in defining the flavour profile of the final liquid. If we know which yeasts are present, we have a scientific explanation for why certain mezcals taste alike and why others don’t.

I do not know of any similar studies for winemaking.* The most recent study I’ve seen in a similar field coming out of Europe was from INRA in Montpellier (here) confirming that wasps are a vector for the natural spread of yeast within a vineyard. But, seriously, did we not know that already?!

I suppose the crux of the matter is to ask why natural winemakers are happy to maintain a veil of mystery? I would be prepared to argue that natural wine has long been defining itself by what it is not. A rather reactionary, anti-establishment approach, if you like. I am certainly not advocating any kind of manipulation in winemaking but wouldn’t it be nice, just sometimes, to know what nature is doing instead?

 


Gracias to Hipocrates and the CRM and a shout out to a mezcal fan so notorious that he just goes by the name Pancho. 🙂

For further reading, I recommend this article on “yeast communities in a natural tequila fermentation” by Marc-André Lachance at the Herradura distillery… but if you want to get any further than the abstract, it’ll set you back 40€.

* I acknowledge that we test barrels for the presence of “bad yeasts” such as bretts before resell, but this is for a commercial interest rather than furthering our knowledge of natural winemaking.