Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I don't want chicken shit in my wine!

After many years of wine tasting you are a real wine connoisseur. At home you have collected an impressive wine cellar full of exquisite wines. You know all wine regions and the most common grapes. When you have visitors at home you always know how to impress people with a well-chosen bottle of wine. During restaurant visits the wine list always ends up in your hand and people are staring at you full of admiration while you are selecting a white for the starter and a red for the main course. When tasting a wine with the well-dressed sommelier standing next to you still presenting the bottle, you feel like a king!

Probably you have followed one or two wine courses, where you confirmed that you are good with wine. You are a gifted taster, at least better than your family members and many friends. Besides you are subscribed to one or more international wine magazines, out of interest, but also to discover new wines. Often you are surfing on the web to obtain extra information about a wine, winemaker or wine region, and so you end up on the holy grail of the web, the many wine blogs. The best proof of this is that you are reading this article. You already have met many winemakers and you always know what to ask them. You know the basis of wine making and you know that to obtain healthy grapes a lot of work has to be done in the vineyard. You often are involved in wine tasting sessions and when tasting blindly you sometimes make a fool of yourself, while being jealous of someone next to you who seems to be able to provide better descriptions of the tasted wines. I guess you start to sit uncomfortable on you chair by now, as you really recognise yourself in the above description. No need to, as I just described the average wine lover, and not you specificly, as I probably don’t know you.
OK, I just continue my article, well knowing that I start skating on thin ice and that some people will felt attacked. I frankly don’t care about people masturbating while looking at a prestigious wine label on a bottle. Everyone needs his pleasures and comforts, just like a baby like to suck on a piece of plastic in the shape of a female nipple. But I read and hear more and more the biggest nonsense from wine journalists or connoisseurs or even sommeliers when describing a wine. And I have to say, I am sick and tired of this bullshit. Wine tasting is reduced to a recital of subjective taste sensations: ‘red fruit, I think red berry, but very ripened, even sultry, oh but also some leather, a kind of sandal leather and after a while even development of butter... and prunes and yes, also graphite and King-mints (I am not joking)’. Tasters are just happy while detecting a smell of dry grass in their glass, where I think it is much more interesting to think about the equilibrium, purity, freshness, drinkability, minerality and stability of the wine, but also the quality of the finnish for instance. I have read wine tasting notes where the juice was still described as wonderful even having impressions of varnish, a likable paint odour, touches of turpentine, warm wood glue, Tipp-Ex, a typical rubber nose, black elastic (I am still not joking), old cheese, a smelly well, nice burned flavours (?), gasoline, hairspray or a mysterious sulphur scent. According to me those are all errors in a wine. What am I saying; those are for sure all faults in a wine that even can be explained chemically. Apparently there is a diminishing of norms taken place in the area of wine. Believe me; if these characteristics are reflected in a wine, then something seriously went wrong during the vinification. There is even a chance that the wine is already in an irreversible phase on its way to vinegar, certainly if you detect acetaldehyde (ethanal) or ethyl acetate ester. There might be the frequent use of chemicals in the vineyard and in the cellar, where after the formation of H2S in the juice other chemicals as mercaptans and/or thiols are formed, which provides unpleasant odours. Personally I find it important that any wine drinker is aware of this type of information and realise that this impurities should be avoid in a wine or any drink. There is no sane and critical person who wouldn’t scratch his head when detecting those kind of smells in a plate of food. ‘Yes, Mister 3-Michelin stars Chef, the sole with grilled, smoked and lacquered Oosterschelde eel, served with fresh quinoa with aromatic herbs and season vegetables, spider crab emulsion and dashi was delicious, especially when combined with that subtle scent of burned rubber giving the whole creation an extra punch.' To clearify my point we all know for sure that every glass of industrial orange juice with the smell of Tipp-Ex will stay untouched. I still don't rest my case...

Also when I occasionally read the international wine press, I am shocked by so much amateurism and ignorance. I recall a wine tasting note from a top wine from Rhône, written by the most loved and hated wine journalist on this globe, where he described the delicious flavours of ‘chicken manure’. Indeed, chicken shit, or rather manure, but we all know what the first phase is of manure. Probably there was an infection of the Uncinula Necator fungus, but please do not see this as something positive in a beverage. Another common attack is Brett (from Brettanomyces yeast) with ethyl 4-phenol as a notable derivate. A slight contamination will provide a nose of stable or leather. Most of the time I associate it with the smell of Geuze-beer. But with higher concentration your wine starts to smell like shit and I hope we can agree that this is not what we are aiming for.

‘Quel beau nez Petrolé’, is what you hear quiet often when describing the nose of a Riesling. This typical smell of petrol should be due to the unique minerality of the terroir some tried to make us believe. In fact the North American specialised press label a Riesling without these characteristics as atypical. Just be sure that most German winegrowers exclaim a loud big ‘scheisse’ when detecting 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene in the juice, knowing at the same time that they will be able to sell the wine anyway. Look, that you and you and you and basically half the planet like the smell of petrol in a wine glass should not bother me too much, but I like it when people are informed correctly. By the way I would also advice to look up the nearest refinery in your area and to drive regularly towards it if you like that smell. Also avoid washing your hand after fueling your car. With a bit of luck you can still smell that perfume at night in bed. Not sure if your partner will like it.
Another molecule is however considered at the slightest sensation by any wine drinker as an error: 2,4,6-trichlooranisol. When detecting even a ppm of this substance in the wine every connoisseur will ostentatiously and clearly conditioned thrown away the wine and to make sure to warn everyone by a big shout of the word ‘cork’. There is absolutely no question to try to detect other sensations to this devilish wine.
To finalise this article, I would like to focus on natural wines. Let’s face it: there are a lot of bad natural wines on the market. As the demand is growing fast, there are more and more (young) wine makers who tried to make the step, sometimes forgetting that there are many obstacles to the creation of a pure balanced stable wine. Their bottles are imported by the many wine importers who are dying to get new ‘organic’ talents in their wine range. One of the biggest problems, according to me is the stability of the wines. Very often they are not, which you can easily detect, except most wine importers. This means I get more and more remarks that natural wines are awful except a few exceptions. I tend to agree with this statement!!

"En dégustation, ce qui nous intéresse, ce n'est pas la longueur, mais la qualité de la longueur. Mangez de la merde, vous verrez, c'est long en bouche!" Pierre Overnoy (winemaker in Jura) Nov 2008

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Anne, Françoise and Joseph: the real pioneers of natural wines

This is probably the most difficult piece I will write on this blog. It’s about an encounter I had with the two sisters Anne and Françoise H, former winemakers settled in the heart of the Loire wine region in France. The 6 hours that I spent with them on one icy cold Saturday afternoon-turned-evening has affected me tremendously for many reasons. I was slightly reluctant to enter their world, and I felt a certain kind of sorrow to see so much misery, combined with the disbelief of how cruel people can be towards the atypical among us. But above all, I have a deep respect for the fact that these women have spent their entire lives swimming upstream in the very conservative world of wine. They have worked so hard and lived in such inhumane conditions, that they both practically walk like cripples - hunched over a piece of branch which they use as a walking stick to prevent them from falling over and never standing up again. Fortunately though, they do have each other and it's been that way ever since they can remember. There was simply no time or place in their world to start a family of their own. To Anne and Françoise, the options were either to make wine in what was viewed as an 'extreme' way, or leave one another to raise children. Their outlook has been so hardened by the constant harassment they've endured, that they don’t care about what other people might think, and have no qualms with speaking their minds freely. I now know for sure that people mainly change under the influence of other people. They have certainly triggered things inside me, if only for the time being, most definitely for the better! I've grappled with the thought of sharing this precious encounter with them publicly, but have come to the conclusion that it would be a good thing to do, so long as I remain honest and integer. Of even more importance though, I felt a deep longing from Anne and Françoise's side, to tell the story of theirs as well as that of their deceased brother, Joseph.

The first time I heard their names, actually I read it, was via a label on a bottle of wine – there is a wine from Domaine Les Griottes called Anne Françoise Joseph, a homage to the family H, as the newly emerging winemakers were able to use a piece of their vineyard. A few days before my trip, I had lunch in restaurant Veranda with Wouter De Bakker, a famous sommelier and successful wine importer. The meal prepared by Davy Schellemans was fabulous, as always, and the wines were very juicy and pure, as we like them. So in short, the lunch was splendid and while drinking coffee afterward, Wouter told me the story about the two sisters and their wines. The description of the estate left me with the desire to pay them a visit as soon as possible, which happened only a few days later.

In the wine region Coteaux-du-Layon, somewhere in Anjou, a young man called Joseph started in the ‘50’s to make wine with the help of his two younger sisters. He wanted to produce wine without any use of pesticides and other shit in the vineyard and chemicals during the vinification. He could obtain 6 hectares of vineyard, mainly existing of Chenin-vines that never saw a molecule of non-natural matter. Why this pioneer was so obsessed to obtain natural wines, despite the increasingly relentless pressure of the other winemakers and growing wine industry, seems now with the ecological trend self-evident, but was for that time too crazy for words. The heavy lung problems of their father, due to chemical gasses used during the First World War has certainly left its mark on the entire family, as they had to move to a tiny cottage due to financial problems. It is a fact that brother and sisters saw it as a mission in life to make pure wines free of any additives, despite the many setbacks. They were poor as a church mouse, but they still insisted. It was the few compliments from occasional passengers that motivated them to continue that lonely road. The wine making process was very simple at first sight: after picking the healthy grapes they were pressed, so the natural fermentation could start of the juices, where after it was aged for 6-9 months in old barrels of 220 litres. The only intervention was the occasional heating of the cellar during the winter as they couldn’t afford that the wine wouldn’t be finish in time, as the year after they had to use the same barrels. Each year it was a battle to obtain the ‘appellation’(awarded by an organization composed of other winemakers who didn’t understand their wines), so that they wisely decided in 1989 to sell their wines as "vin de table". Since then their wines received a number on the cork, starting with 1 and ending with a 14 in 2003.

The day before I left, I had one of the sisters on the line who assured me that I was welcome to visit. A female navigation voice brought me to the small ancestral house right on time. The yard was a mess and full of old, used equipment and tools. There was clear evidence that indicated to the making of wine, and not in such a distant past it seemed. I also couldn't help but notice some clucking chickens, a few dogs, an abandoned old cow and a vegetable garden. Upon arrival the door was already open in spite of the winter cold. I guess they must have heard my car. My first thought when entering the living room was that no one lived there besides three dogs, five cats and two abashed beings. Clearly I was not expected. They probably thought that whoever had called them up on the phone, like so many before him, would not show up - especially considering the bad weather conditions. The tiny room was filled with rubbish (if you do not have much, you don’t throw anything away) and the table had not been cleared, for what must have been several days! Sometimes people lose their determination.

After the fading of the initial embarrassment and after presenting them with two boxes of Belgian chocolate, the atmosphere became very open and amicable. I discovered two very strong personalities, who had an opinion about everything. I was really amazed by the eloquence of both women. They complemented each other very well, to the extent that when one began with an argument, the other automatically completed it. This must be the result of living in such close quarters! There was a big need for them to talk.. and talk, but never was there a moment where I was bored. Anne was 86 and the younger sister, Françoise, was close to the 84. They were genuinely pleased with my visit, my interest in their wine and my knowledge of natural wines. I was able to taste all the vintages they had in stock and this was a huge challenge. The wines are stored randomly in a sort of stable. There is little light and you must try to decipher the vintage on the cork. I found the 1975, 1976, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001 and the outsider, the 2004. Not bad for a first encounter with a wine estate during a first visit, and of course incredibly fascinating to have a tasting of real natural wines from many different, yet all very specific years. Both sisters used their elephant-like memories to remember each year as if it was just last week. I was pleasantly surprised by the aging potential and stability of the wines without any added sulphur as an anti-oxidant. I won't divulge any tasting notes, even though I wrote down many impressions. But I will say that 3 wines were phenomenal, some 'very good' and some just 'good' and that you can taste the effects of global warming very clearly when moving gradually from the ‘70’s to the ‘90’s. The region of Anjou gives of very rich wines and this you could taste clearly, especially when tasting younger vintages. Most of the wines tasted fairly young and some bottles still contained carbon dioxide, which is the perfect prevention of oxidation of the liquid. Longer aging periods in barrels would have rounded off and completed some of the wines, but I have to admit that I do like this sleek style. The theory that you should store your wine at a temperature inferior to 14⁰ C has now been proven to be false for good, as those so called 'sensitive natural wines' saw fluctuations between 5⁰ and 30⁰ C and for 20 or 30 consecutive years at that.

We spoke of the wars, about a famous forest in the area, about faith and religion, about the 'others', about burglars and of course about real wine, because that’s how Joseph labelled his own. The rest should not be called wine! It is noteworthy to realize that those 3 people began and continue to make natural wines totally isolated from other pioneers. The names of Pierre Overnoy and Jules Chauvet didn’t ring any bells to them. They vaguely remembered a visit of Eric Callcut, an incredible winemaker between 1995 and 1999, but they were not aware that after 4 years he left Anjou to do something completely different, as far away as possible from the world of wine. About Claude Courtois, they asked me if he was "the big man with the long beard" but they couldn't tell me more than that about him.

At the end of the day I had bought some of their wines, wines that I will cherish for the rest of my life. My fear was that by writing about them it would entice people to invade their premises, like a kind of tourist attraction. This is not just a selfish reflex, but rather a clear conclusion after observing that those beautiful old souls are not equipped to receive and deal with people, let alone to sell bottles of wine. It took more than an hour to prepare only a few bottles, including manually writing and sticking the labels on the dirty surfaces. I encapsulated all the bottles myself, as they lacked the necessary power in their shaky hands. During the farewell, they asked me if they could kiss me and of course, I allowed this. It is after all the French way, two kisses, one on every cheek. Anne made the symbol a cross on my forehead with the movement of her thumb, exactly as my grandmother did to me before bedtime, and Françoise gave me one of the sweetest compliments you can receive as a father. A few minutes later, sitting in my cold car, I saw in the reflection of tears in my eyes in the rear view mirror.


In 2005, Joseph passed away due to a combination of poor medical treatment and the absolute refusal of taking antibiotics to combat a wound to his right hand. His last vintage, the 2004, remained in a forgotten barrel for five years until some visiting winemakers questioned what was inside it. After tasting the wine they begged to bottle it: the wine had received a ‘voile’, which gives it an oxidative character. Some abhor it. Myself and others are fond of it. So much later than expected, the 2004 was born and it was decided that it would not be given the number 15, since the wine was not in line with all other wines from the family H!

To watch a movie:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Some reflections about natural wines (part 2): a plea to name natural wine from now on just 'wine'

One of the oldest definitions I've found about wines dates back from the end of the 19th century and originated in Fance: le vin est une boisson acoolisee obtenue par la fermentation naturelle du raisin, fruit de la vigne (wine is an alcoholic drink obtained from the natural fermentation of grapes, fruit of the vine).

There are probably even older definitions, but I can live with this one. It speaks of natural fermentation. Also, Louis Pasteur who studied the matter intensively, always spoke about natural fermentation. In the current definitions about wine the term ‘natural’ has been omitted. It is clear that these days the process of fermentation (talking about beer, wine or food products, e.g. cheese) is almost always enhanced and accompanied with the necessary interventions and for sure controls. There is no way we can still talk about a natural fermentation.

Therefore, I plead to reintroduce the old definition of wine. It is the product which comes from a natural fermentation. This means that the use of the term ‘natural wine’ is a pleonasm. Wine should be, by definition, natural! We really should just be calling it ‘wine’ instead of having to state the obvious. There are many others, ones which are fabricated, that should NOT be classified as wines anymore, as they are mere surrogates* of wine. And so, let us call it what its is. A surrogate.

* Definition of surrogate according to Wikipedia: product that substitutes another, but with less quality!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Some reflections about natural wine (part 1): it began in … Paris

I still remember my first sip of natural wine. Real natural wine. Some events possess the power to change lives and I honestly believe that during that tasting, something changed in me. It was in Paris during the autumn of the year 2000. I was walking the streets of this wonderful city on my own when I stopped by a small wine shop as I was interested in some of their wines. The shop owner, an older man called Monsieur Audry (I recently came across his business card again) presented me with a glass of wine. It was a Chenin Blanc from 1996, from a totally unknown winemaker in Anjou. I vividly remember what struck me the most about that wine: the nose had a very wild character and a broad spectrum spanning in all directions – it seemed that nothing was properly defined! The mouth was very refreshing, with a higher acidity than that which I was used to, but the kind that you can find in fresh fruit. The juicy taste stayed in my mouth for a long period of time. The winemaker was Eric Callcut, and his wines were sold under the name The Picrate. I decided to buy many boxes of different cuvée’s, all made in 1996 and in 1998, as the prices in French francs were ridiculously low. Coming home, I tried to smuggle all those bottles into my cellar, but my wife caught me and couldn't understand my need to purchase such a large quantity of wine. That being said, she is now my ex-wife, and I still have some of those bottles left as well as the regret of not buying that shop's entire stock of Les Picrates. A few years later Monsieur Audry sold his shop and moved to Sancerre where he started renovating an old castle. Sadly, Eric Callcut decided in the same year that I discovered him to stop making wine. Drinking, and also sharing his wines, still fills me with enormous pleasur...