Monday, 15 January 2018

Harvest 2017: François Blanchard | Le Grand Cléré

The first time we spoke with François Blanchard was when he invited us to make a grand fête which sounded like a great idea except driving there 45 minutes south somewhere wasn’t such a great idea because we didn’t know where ‘there’ was except there was a château and also because we were drunk because this was Dive or at least afterwards so we didn’t go.

We met again in October. When we finally arrived at Chateau du Perron in Lémere in the Touraine in the Loire it was dark and I say ‘finally’ because we were driving from Amsterdam and the drive — all parts but especially the last part — always takes longer than you think it will and even longer when it’s me driving which it was so like I said, when we finally arrived it was dark and it was also very late. François came out of the chai howling and whooping and got us glasses and poured us wine and it was cold and good. It was a skin-contacted Sauvignon from 2012 and there was also paté and homemade pizza and it was 01:00 which I know because I went to the car to get a sweater.

François had been drinking with a friend who looks like Hemingway whose name is Gerard Blanchard but they are not related — François and Gerard I mean. Gerard is an accordion player and he played for us and said I looked like an American actress by which I am sure he means an American actress in the old days when there was a certain American actress look which I don’t have. Later he showed us a book that made no sense because it was in French and because he had illustrated it on acid and later still François played on the guitar and started howling and everyone joined in and started banging things. I say howling and not singing but it was more like throat singing which I guess is still singing and we were still banging things. It was about 04:00 and by then we were drinking a Cabernet Franc from 1995.

The next day we woke up sneezing and still dressed shoes socks and all. Our bed was clean but the room was dusty and there were sheets over the things in the corner and our bed was a mattress on the floor and we were very very thirsty. François lives in 3/4 of a château with his family and, I quote myself, the other 1/4 is full of rooms full of mattresses, dodgy to no electricity and bidets in unlikely places. This is the 1/4 we woke up in and it was sunny. Later we went on a tour.

François took over the family’s château in 1999 he said and channelled his energy of which I can attest he has huge amounts into wakening the vines. His grandfather and I think but am not sure his father made wine to be sold in bulk to négociants and in the chai which is very large and you can see the big vats they used for storage. After this, or perhaps after his father, the vines were ignored and are now revived and strong. François started making wine in 2003 and always according to organic principles and with much care and attention paid to bugs and other critters and fruit trees grown everywhere in-between. He works with horses and Olivier Cousin helped him with these. 

Soon it was time to make the fête but first it was time to prepare. I should explain before I tell you that we picked raspberries and tomatoes and made a big pot of sauce for everyone who arrived that night to eat at long tables by the fire with bread and pasta that François was, but really still is, a jazz player but that when it was his profession he played jazz in Tours. For him, and like I wrote for The Morning Claret, the harvest is all about good energy and making the fête and the more musical you are, the more valuable you are, I think, to the whole operation. ‘Making a fête’ by the way translates to making a party and is how they say it in French.

The harvest began on Saturday at 11:00 which was the next day. We were told it would be sunny, that it was always sunny for the harvest even though it was grey at the time we were told this but indeed it became very brightly sunny and I was hot in my turtleneck when it was even though it was also windy. We were there to pick the Sauvignon situated a little ways down the rolling, wheat-lined road on a hillside on the highest plateau in the area which like I already said is Touraine at an altitude of approximately 110 metres. His vineyard is called Le Grand Cléré and is about 3 hectares with the total divided between Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. They would pick the Cabernet next week and there would be another fête we were told with some Japanese, two Belgians and an Italian from Rome. All of them, we were told, were musical.

The picking was very relaxed and everyone which is to say neighbours and old people and young people and very young people which supposedly have better energy and a lady with curly hair who comes every year from Brittany and a café philosopher who did more philosophising and smoking than picking came to help but mostly, I think, for lunch. Harvest lunch is always the best lunch and François’ wife made the best fromage du tête I have ever had and this coming from a vegetarian who is not a vegetarian when she knows the animal or is in France which is among the worst sorts of vegetarian she knows. There were three tables laden low with lentils and hardboiled eggs and cheese and bread and boudin noir and paté and rillet and herring and apples and countless more things but these are the things I ate. We sat on our buckets and drank small glasses of beer and a little wine and then it was time for coffee and then to pick more grapes.

We finished at 7 and the next day it rained and we made the wine and the café philosopher smoked. First we de-stemmed the grapes by pushing them around and around and around a big basket that worked like a sieve in which the stems and stalks get stuck and out of which the skins and juice and ladybugs fall. Underneath was a plastic bin. Next we would check the bin for ladybugs and snails and breakaway stems and then it was time to crush this with our feet. This is a lot of fun and very satisfying and everyone wants to do it but is also tiring and cold work and it makes you thirsty and appreciative. We stood stomping in our buckets gushing and crushing while another group continued de-stemming and others just were talking. You crush until what you are crushing is juice and then someone adds more grapes and you crush some more all the while upping and downing and drinking cold little glasses and no longer noticing everything is sticky and smells like grape and thinking how great a thing is wine. There is, I think, something to be said about energy. And reggae.

(p.s. Today I received an invitation to the next fête. See you there, François!)

September 2017

François Blanchard (Le Grand Clére)

Lémere, Touraine, Loire


Friday, 12 January 2018

'Vino Naranja' 2017, Cacique Maravilla

The Bichi wines blew my mind but then I didn’t know Mexico made wine so when I say ‘The Bichi wines blew my mind’ it must be understood in the context of I had no context except preconception and that this was obviously wrong because they were so good.

I wondered if I was totally wrong about Chile too. Maybe grapes grown in full sun in perfect conditions could make wine that didn’t hit you with the force of a cannonball from far space. Though I wasn’t sure. I was also a little afraid: 365 days of sun shining on vines that didn’t have to work a day in their 158 year-lives had vested the bottle I was about to open with 13% alcohol. 

And it was Moscatel. 

Apart from a crazy amount of sediment, I didn’t think it had much going for it. 

*** Spoiler alert ***


I was wrong

(and wrong about the vines not having to work, too)

But I'm exaggerating. I wasn't born yesterday: of course I didn’t buy a wine for its sediment. Mostly I went on colour (a lychee new moon! Peachy opal! Satin ballet slippers! Bobby Brown blush! Sun-charged smokey lemon quartz!) ... and because it was a 2017 and it was the first days of 2018 and I wanted to write that AND because a friend suggested Manuel Moraga and the guy in Henry's suggested the 2017 'Vino Naranja'. He’d never tried it he said, but he thought it was 'big'. 

Like I said, I was scared.

Like said, I was opening it:

It was pineapple juice.

It was Incan soda.

Elderflower marrow.

Agave pith from the Atacama desert.

It was a cactus juice spring bubbling out from the mythical city of El Dorado sipped from a rough-cut quartz cup. Its sediment swirled like shaman water. Like a storm on a Honeydew melon moon with the texture of an electro-pulse jellyfish. It smelled like Tepache soaked amaretto cookies. Tiny bubbles tears streamed down the sides of the glass like pebbles washing up and down the shore.

Blind, it could have been a Nestarec. Or a cousin to Ramaz Nikoladze's Tsitska.

But it wasn’t ‘big’. 

Not in any way ‘big’ except for GINORMOUS on juice and joy and its association to moon beams.

So like I said, I was wrong.

What do we know about Manuel Moraga? Well the man has an emoji moustache. He's a  seventh generation descendant of a not-so-bad conquistador who came to Chile looking for gold in 1777 and who the local Mapuche people called 'Cacique Maravilla' (wonderful leader) — but in a we respect you for respecting us-way, and not a whatever you say boss-way. 

He works his family's 15ha of vines in Yumbel in the Bío Bío Valley (at roundabout the same latitude as southern Spain) the same way his ancestors did, without chemicals or additives or irrigation. He started bottling his wines in 2010 before which he sold it in bulk to the commercial wineries that my dady buys from have made small scale vineyards untenable. He tends pre-phylloxera País (what the Mexicans call Misión), Moscatel de Alejandría, Torrontés and Corinto as well as more recently planted Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Soil is volcanic. Climate is Mediterranean. Rainfall relatively high for Chile.... 

...Is anyone there?

Tasting notes

Colour of a melon-coloured moonstone or nude chiffon. Smells like fresh-pressed pineapple juice and opens into pear nectar. Tastes like elderflower infused cactus juice and wild pink grapefruit. The alcohol content is masked by juice. 

Open for a while, though and it becomes thicker. More syrupy. The pineapple juice now from concentrate. It develops a pithiness, some saltiness. Maybe a soapiness. Next day it lost its fruit to sours. Drink within the hour while it's juicy — not like you wouldn't.


"Vino Naranja" 2017
Manuel Moraga, Cacique Maravilla
Moscatel de Alejandría
Bío Bío Valley, Chille

2 months skin contact

From: Henry's, New York


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Wines without borders | Čotar

Turns out the certificate in Branko Čotar's (Vina Čotar) tasting room doesn't actually say ‘Wines Without Borders’* like I thought I did when I wrote this but "\w/". It’s all about the border here. Drizzled like a maple syrup squiggle, it zigs and zags, weaves and wiggles back and forth from Italy to Slovenia, cutting cows into two without obvious rhyme or reason but for my own: triggering multiple violations of the standard car rental ‘Promise not to drive to another country’ clause. 

And it's always been about the border. Or at least since Ancient Rome, fought over between republics and empires, fascists and communists. Even now that it's been downgraded to a political technicality it remains well-remembered: memorials for the many wars' dead are everywhere, and an aggressive Facist-built mausoleum dominates Olsavia, the final resting place of 57.000 soldiers. It also lives on through stories. Visitors to the region will be slow to forget its winemakers’ accounts of having two addresses (Movia), or needing to pass through check-points and fill in forms to get to the other side of your vineyard (Gravner). 

But it’s also about the rock. The rock is inescapable here, here — now — being the Slovenian side of the Karst Plateau, Carso in Italian, Kras in Slovene, and in all languages a sparsely vegetated, wind-licked, fossil-filled, cave-riddled plateau of solid but porous limestone situated between the Vipava Valley and the Gulf of Trieste without, according to Branko Čotar, much topsoil. 

‘The Terre Rosso is very, very thin here. Mostly rock. Difficult for vines to grow. We brought in extra by truck. Broke up the limestone so they could take hold and covered it with topsoil. Many iron’. (And many, many truckloads to get it there, too: 1500 truckloads to be precise.)

Branko met us in his driveway in Gorjansko, Komen on 6 October 2016 holding a goldfish bag of mozzarella. It was windy, cold and sunny and he was not smiling. I checked the clock to see if we were late. We were usually late. We weren’t late. His son, Vasja, up all night pressing grapes, slept while Branko showed us around, ending any statement he evidently thought followed the natural order with ‘This is this’.

The Čotars’ cellar is sunk three dungeon-gloom floors down beneath the house, blasted out of the rock with the effect, Branko says, that the grapes ‘come from the limestone and stay in the limestone, going from grape to wine to bottle,’ descending deeper into the ground as they age. And where whites will rest on the deepest floor for 2-3 years and reds up to 5 before release, we had to move quick. The new harvest was in full-ferment and the damp air was full of CO2. A hodgepodge of jars and demijohns glowed in the gloom besides huge Slovenian oak barrels. Sausages dangled overhead. At the bottom he showed us the nook where the family keeps its stash of wines gifted from other makers, organised A-Z by country. The shelves were totally full, only the one labeled ‘to drink’ had any room on it. It smelled like rock and mushrooms.

Branko started making wines — one white, one red — in 1974 to supply the family’s cantina but eventually turning all his attention to winemaking. Now the restaurant is reservation only (on weekends — reserve!) and he and Vasja work the 7,5 densely planted hectares (7300 vines / hectare pruned to make 1 bottle per vine) across different parcels dotted around the village ‘like our ancestors did;’ according to organic principles, hand harvesting, long skin macerations, no industrial yeasts, enzymes or alterations. ‘We were behind the Iron Curtain: nothing modern happened here’. Including bottling. Branko tells us he only started bottling in 1980 before which, ‘No one bothered. Everyone drank from the barrel.’

One of these bottles still stands on Branko’s desk. Day trippers, like us, from Friuli; ears still full of the winemaker-as-pioneer narrative we were told there — how in 1996 Josko Gravner ‘unlocked’ the true flavour of the remaining 5% of his post-hail Ribolla Gialla harvest with extended skin contact; how Stanko Radikon realised already in 1995 that his Ribolla would benefit from longer skin contact — will appreciate that its contents is darkly orange. Turns out skin macerated whites are traditional both sides of the border. Only on one did the tradition have to be reinstated.

This is this. 

(This is also where Branko allowed himself a smile.)


This is an intense landscape that makes for intensely bright, mineral-loaded wines that age with elegance and drink well with severely salted charcuterie a la mamma Čotar. Here’s what we tried:

Vitovska 2014: Lush aromatics of ripe green melon spooned with summer field honey. Tastes of sun shining on burnished copper and bruised Fuji apples.

Malvasia 2014: 4-5 days skin contact. A sea breeze of candied orange peel and pear blossom aromatics. Tastes of fresh sweat minerality with exotic fruit and crunched thyme.

Malvasia 2002: 1 week skin contact, 4 years in barrel. Sunset hues and origami skin contact structure. Tastes like biting a nut-dusted caramelised apple that bites back.

Vitovska 2000: Crispy pears washed in glacial water and hung out to dry in a herbal sun on a beeline of acidity.

Črna 2010: a savoury, sparkly (Méthode Traditionelle) Teran / Refošk (the local word for Refosco). 5 years in barrel, 1 year with must, 16 months in bottle. No dosage, no filtration. A bloody Lambrusco held by an iron fist in a velvet glove. A fossil-filled forest floor. Iron blackberry sparklers. Wind slicked leather. Mountain. :)  

Teran 2012: Smells like a Madagascar vanilla pod broken over forest fruit. Tastes of wild strawberries grown in dark, rusty earth watered with blood. Whistling acidity

Merlot 2006: 6 years in barrel. Smells like old black leather and crushed brambles. Tastes like red fruit cashmere, soft and rounded, hung heavy over a mineral skeleton.  

Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: Treacle and saddle leather. Green coffee beans and grass clippings and gardening gloves.

Terre Rosso 2006: 50% Teran, 30% Merlot, 20% Cab. S. Green leather (is where I stopped).

Terre Rosso 1999: 40% Teran, 40% Merlot, 20% Cab S. Deep and warm-Nutella smooth. Concentrated dark fruit.

Cabernet Sauvignon 1998: No notes.


Thursday, 7 December 2017

Le Carton | Georgian wine dinner (გამარჯობა)


In October we took 2.5 days to cook a table full of Georgian food for 25 people to soak up 3 trips worth of wine. That afternoon we got through 31 bottles* from 12 different producers** plus a litre of cha cha and at least two toasts and to think we thought, Oh it's Sunday, we'd better save everyone a cork.

Thanks to everyone we didn't know who came and said it felt like Georgia when you left. And to everyone we knew who still came and we still know and said let's do it again and 'I didn't have a single bad wine' and the girl who said she'd like us to throw a party in her living room (CALL ME) — thanks to y'all too.

Thanks also to the Georgians for your wines and your recipes, and especially to Ènek for checking we bought the right spices and wrote the right facts.

I took some pictures before it got dark. Unfortunately this was also before the food was out of the oven and anyone was there.


*6 of them are in my Christmas guide for The Morning Claret.

** Ramaz Nikoladze (Imereti) — Mariam Iosebidze (Kartli) — Ének Peterson (Imereti) — Didimi (Imereti) — Georgian Vine Foundation (Kakheti) — Lagazi (Tusheti) — Vino Martville (Samagrello) — Pheasant's Tears (Kakheti) — Jeremy and Emily (Racha) — The Wine Thieves (Kakheti) — Zurab Topuridze (Guria) — Giorgi Makaridze (Imereti)




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