Sunday 18 March 2018

La Coulée d'Ambrosia

In two weeks I’m moving to the Med so we spent the last two days in the mud. We stayed in an old dike house and made the most of having no electricity but time and two wood stoves in the sense that we were mostly busy with lunch. 

And pre-lunch and post lunch and — by extension — post breakfast, which is when we drank this, a rusty tangerine-coloured spritzer of a Grolleau (Noir) from La Coulée d’Ambrosia which is not only a pét nat and not only an experimental pét nat (he made about 50. He likes it. More to come next year) but an experiment ALSO! in distillation. The distillation of, to be precise, lunch in the autumn Alps and bubblifying and bottling it and  by "it" I mean my childhood memories of lunch in sparkling mountain air and glacial water gurgling down rocks and moss and sweet and dying and dried grasses and apples and rough-cut hunks comté and sausage washed down with flip-cap $%#pschh#! bottle Apfelmost while cow bells tinkle and smoke curls up from down beneath.

And because it was an experiment it was also a gift, gifted after a tasting with Jean-Francois Chéné post-Dive that went on so long we got stuck in the snow. I’ll not exaggerate and say  something like, ‘Luckily it was so great we didn’t mind’ cus we did — minded for our lives every second of the four hours it took to drive the 120-odd kilometres to Tours looking for a place to stay the night — but it was great capital G Great, even. 

Definitely the most interesting tasting I’ve been to.

And you'll have to trust me on that because by the time we got to the interesting stuff, I stopped taking notes.

Jean-François Chéné started his domaine in 2005 with 5 ha in Beaulieu-sur-Layon in Anjou, the same village Sebastian Dervieux, so, Babass, used to live (there’s still a note taped to his kitchen door behind which we helped unpack his groceries this summer). Now he’s down to just under 2 ha with 1.2 ha of it Chenin, 0.43 Grolleau and 0.32 Cabernet Franc. Of all this, most of it goes to Japan.

He is the third generation to make wine in his family and the second (after his grandfather) to work organically; but only, he said, after his first five years of following chemical-heavy convention. It was the way Babass and Pat Desplats (at the time working together as Domaine Les Griottes, since dis-banded) talked about wine in terms of life and energy and emotion that changed his mind and actions.

So far so normal.

But the way he’s coaxed the ghost of a Spanish Pedro Xemiez from Anjou Cab Franc and Chenin is exceptional. The wines he makes in this style (he also makes one a la vin jaune), their depths and tastes (soy sauce and browned butter, caramel drenched pancakes, cask-aged honey and mains-charged Warhead candies sours), are phenomenal.

And while not exceptional, the tasting gave me a new appreciation of the good a spot of staying power can do. Not only in terms of the style of winemaking (François practices ‘Passerillage’ for his naturally sweet wines, allowing the grapes to dry-up on the vines and then ages them, untouched, under flor for 36 months to 5 years to achieve their kaleidoscope of sumptuous sweets and sours), but also when a winemaker releases wine for sale. While recognising reality and its financial pressures, he heart and soul believes in only selling a wine when ready; a refreshing if idealistic response to too many wines being rushed out into the world just to be poured down the drain for their faults (he believes in just sitting out ‘even’ soirée).  

Tasting notes

Smell starts reductive to open towards a mango chapstick rimmed glass of just- poured Orangina and, faintly, but now that I thought it, unmistakably, of a stick of Juicy Fruit gum

Looks like a stratified tangerine sky with a halo of ocean foam.  

Taste: (American) apfel(cider)schorle with marmalade bitters, papaya and the suggestion of dried summer grass.

Super dry, like sucking a crystal. Porcelain-fine bubbles. Wear wool socks.

(We also bought a couple magnums of Francois' 2015 Grolleau 'Le Boit Sans Soif' for Le Carton pop up MAGS, BAGS MAC 'N' CHEEZE / VINO BRUTALO (+some Italo) on Monday).


Wednesday 14 March 2018

How natural wine killed the tasting note

I was on the Internet the other day, on a forum.

(Bear with me.)

Specifically, a thread on a Facebook group that turned into an argument about whether tasting notes have a place in natural wine. It got fairly heated.
Now, I know people are wrong on the Internet all the time; that one shouldn’t take them too seriously. And I know, don’t read the comments, but I just couldn’t figure out who’d come up with this stuff. Luckily an army of keyboard warriors were on duty, itching to set anyone with a different opinion straight. “Hell” they said, “I won’t do (or taste) what you tell me.”
Think about it. The tasting note. The audacity of it. So obviously a relic of the past – back from when the power rested not with influencers, but with the few. Of course it’s dead.
But times are different now everyone has their own blog. The world smaller, Instagram’s reach bigger. There’s no place for experts where we’re headed. I admit, they were knowledgeable those few. Proper professionals some of them. But that’s the whole problem: they wrote like it too. Shrouding the truth with jargon and obscure descriptions conjured up to make us feel stupid. I mean, what else are you to make of notes like, ‘tastes like a Patagonia night sky?’
No, what we need is fighters. Warriors willing to dedicate their days to the Internet CAPS YELLING for all that is natural, wild and free. The sort of people who just ‘get it’ – no critical questions asked. The do-ers who just do what everyone else online is doing. Those who won’t just go gently into the good fight but goddamn rage, rage against the machine (by which I mean Christmas music, Parker, the elite and, most annoying of all, people who genuinely get excited about what they’re drinking and start spewing incredibly niche, totally unhelpful tasting note “poetry”).
Natural wine is the next frontier and we need radical thinkers and concept-shakers. People who aren’t afraid to look the universe in the eye and ask the big blue sky questions: ‘Vintage chart vs. Insta-grid? Why string along adjectives when you can line up bottles? Why write a poem when you can snap a picture? Who has time for talk when there are trophy unicorns not yet captured on my feed???!’
The frontier is the future and the future is wine that is accessible to all! Wine by the people for the people, unless it’s from the Jura and then only for those with allocations. Wine with labels that look like they’re made by anarchists that no real anarchist could afford unless their parents take them out – again – for dinner.
Yes, I look forward to the future. One without people who know more than us. A future that’s open, more understanding and inclusive to all. And we’re getting closer. Even now we hold no secrets. We share everything (good) we drink on Instagram.

(Written for and originally published on The Morning Claret)


Thursday 1 March 2018

Natural wine, acid punk and all that jazz

In November The Guardian published an 1800-odd word article about natural wine of which approximately zero said anything new. Not that it had to. A piece called “The cult of natural wine – ‘this is like punk or acid house’” was bound to rip through the Internet like wild fire, breaking news or none. To re-post was to validate – a digital secret handshake. See guys, we are cool.
I saw it going round again the other day and got annoyed. Then I got annoyed at getting annoyed. Finally I took action and did what we all do: I blamed Facebook for wasting my time. But I’m sorry Facebook, I was wrong. It wasn’t you this time. It was yet another article saying the same old stuff four-plus years (and that’s a big plus, I’m a newbie) after it’s already been said.
I know, don’t be a snob. Education is important. People need to know there are alternatives; they need to start somewhere. But let’s just imagine we’ve already started. That instead of copy-pasting the same old stuff, we’re charting out where we’d like to go next and that you’ve asked my advice. Well, here goes:
It’s time to move on from just labelling natural wine as ‘different’. As something you’re for or against, have to learn to love or ‘get your head around’ – how can people get their heads around factory farming but not deal with a bit of residual sparkle in their ‘but it’s not meant to be sparkling’ wine?!. It’s not only something made by cowboys and drunk by Ginsberg’s angel-headed hipsters with their pizza while their parents wonder what they’re up to (though a lot of it is drunk by hip kids), and so what if it’s cloudy.
So where to begin? Talk to the winemakers, watch them work, drink around. Consider the gravity of what they’re doing. The parallels and lessons we can draw. Afterwards, whether a wine’s unfiltered may no longer seem so newsworthy. And while I’ve got my advice hat on, here are six more things we definitely don’t ever need to hear any more about:Natural wines come from a philosophy that can give a perspective on the way we do other things; on the more holistic, hands-off mentality we really need to start applying elsewhere. Their makers put in a hell of a lot of hard work. They run huge risks. For or against or not-what-you-know is not the point. ‘Cool’ is not the point. We’re framing the subject wrong by making it seem black and white. You don’t think in terms of black and white when talking about a rainbow.

1. That natural wine is a fad
Nope, but I’ll give you ‘trend’: an upward trend among the environmentally conscious to adhere to sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices while producing artisanal products for those who care. On a good day, I might even call it the future.

2. That there’s no definition of ‘natural’
Get over it. No one seems to be too concerned about what standards conventional wineries are held to or whether there’s room for abuse.

3. That there’s a fourth colour of wine you didn’t know about
Orange wines are often dragged through the mud of generalities about natural wine even though they are not necessarily natural per se. Also, evidence dating this style back 8,000 years means the fact you didn’t know about it is a little besides the point. Think about it: you’re a farmer. You’ve got lots of things to do. You’re thirsty. Are you actually going to bother taking the skins off, robbing the grapes of their natural protection just to make it a colour we nominally call ‘white’? Didn’t think so. And just a thought: Was rosé such a difficult debutante?

4. … and that it tastes like nuclear ceiling drippings while the reds and whites tend towards flawed cider, farmyard, hamster cage, what my grandfather’s wine tasted like or (gosh!) grape juice

5. The no hangover thing
Wine is alcohol and alcohol is ethanol and ethanol is a toxin and if you drink too much you will die or at least wake up with a hangover, natural or not.

6. That natural wines can’t age 
Here, I did some research. I WhatsApp’ed four friends to recall an old natural wine they enjoyed still in top form. The results:

Emidio Pepe, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1976, ’78, ’80, ’82, ’88 
Domaine les Roche, Chinon 1978
La Stoppa, Stoppa 1996
Nicolas Joly, La Coulee de Serrant 1999, 1990

The discourse is still too concentrated on low hanging fruit. Let’s reach higher. We can have both meat and juice.

(Written for, and originally published on The Morning Claret)

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