30 Nov 2012

Finishing big (Sancerre, France – Day Three)

It is important to remember that everything is relative, and also that there are numerous implications depending on the person and the word. Language is complicated as much as communication itself, and over the past 14 months (to the day in fact) I have had so many situations where things can have different meanings depending on audience and context. My understanding of things, not only about wine, has changed significantly and I have discovered that it is important to always clarify and speak relatively. For example, there is a word in French that will be familiar to most wine-lovers that actually has different meanings in English which are related but have different connotations. The word is ‘grand’, and in the context of vineyard classification for such regions as Burgundy and Alsace, it means ‘great’ or essentially ‘the best’. The word can also mean ‘big’ or ‘large’, which implies size rather than importance and in terms of wine, could refer to the size of vineyards or a winery for example. When a winery produces 3.5 million bottles per year in Sancerre, this is both great and large, but in the Australian context it is merely a medium-sized winery. Everything is relative. What is interesting is that in my humble opinion I began my week with the most important producer in Sancerre and finished with the largest, and the quality of the wines to decline with each estate I visited.

Cellars in Sancerre
For my morning appointment on the third and final day in Sancerre, I visited a producer in the southern-most part of the appellation in the town of Bue. The Roger family have been growing wine in this part of the world for about 400 years, and now there are several estates carrying this name that are close or distant relatives. When Jean-Max took over the four hectares of vineyards of his branch of the family, it was the 1970s and wine (particularly Sancerre) was beginning to experience a boom, particularly in established and new export markets. From this four hectares the vineyard holdings grew to now total almost 30 hectares, around a number of the southern Sancerre villages on a couple of different soils. Today, of his three sons two of them work with him at the domaine whilst the third also works in wine in the Languedoc-Roussilon part of France in the south. All three have had experience in different parts of the world, and I met with the younger of the two who work with their father, Thibault.

The soil profile of one of the vineyards
Thibault first took me to some of the vineyards to show how elevation and exposition as well as soil type influence the characteristics of the wine. It is starting to get really cold now, with snow forecast for the weekend, so with the additional wind atop the hill it was a little unpleasant. At the time it was quite overcast and a little foggy, otherwise the village of Sancerre would have been visible. The domaine has recently replanted some of the vineyards on the soils which are heavier in clay to produce a new terroir wine in the future. In the vineyards they minimise the amount of work they do which includes the spraying of chemicals. In the winery the fruit is gently pressed to extract the clean fruit, and most of the wines don’t see any oak as is the trend here. They have some vineyards in an appellation closer to Bourges, Menetou-Salon where they grow the same varieties, and they also purchase some wine from Pouilly-Fume across the river. Over the vineyard tour and wine tasting I had the tendency to waffle about various wine-related topics and things I have experienced on my trip, and I appreciate Thibault tolerating me banging on for so long. The wines are all very good, but I thought the red wines were particularly strong for them. Thibault explained that people are rarely disappointed with white Sancerre wines, but finding a good or great Sancerre red is a lot harder. Fair enough. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Three different vintages of the top wine from Jean-Max Roger
The final estate I visited in Sancerre is located in the village of Chavignol which is famous for its cheese as much for its wine. The village in fact is practically split between the wine family and the cheese family, and they each own about 50% of the property. I noticed that throughout the week I was very often asked what other estates I was visiting, particularly whilst I was in Sancerre. I get the impression there is a bit of friendly rivalry here. When I mentioned I was finishing at Henri Bourgeois one person referred to it as the ‘American winery’, which I took to either mean it was very modern and mechanical, or it was very large. It turns out that it is both, but as I have said several times on this blog, size does not necessarily have anything to do with quality, and don’t ever let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Just don’t fall for certain producers claiming they are boutique or artisan when they produce millions of bottles. Ten generations of Bourgeois have lived here in Sancerre, but like the rest of Sancerre it was very modest until recently. In fact in 1950 the vineyard holdings were just two hectares, giving you an idea about how much Sancerre has grown in the last sixty years. There are now around 70 hectares under vine within the Sancerre appellation with more outside of it, which only provides them with half of their required fruit, and with the exception of the cooperative is the largest winery in the region.

Some of the fermentation tanks at Henri Bourgeois
The Henri Bourgeois winery compared to others in the region is a marketing machine. The reply I received to my appointment request was practically a press release that presumably gets sent to anyone requesting an appointment, and comes from the executive assistant of the General Manager Arnaud Bourgeois. The tasting room is similarly very modern and includes lots of displays both audio-visual and otherwise. I was shown around by the manager of the tasting room who used to be a sommelier, and has presumably taken hundreds of people from all over the world through the cellars. The tour was pretty PR and suggested that I had no idea how wine was made or packaged as it focused on the fermentation and bottling, not really talking at all about the vineyards. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed when I experience these kind of visits, particularly in such an artisan and agricultural wine region as Sancerre. This isn’t Bordeaux after all. Between the Sancerre, Pouily-Fume, vins de pays and Marlborough wines they bottle about 3.5 million per year, and ship the wines to over 90 countries. Keep an eye out as it won’t be too difficult to find some Bourgeois wine near you. The top wines are very good, and are certainly worth ageing as they take a little longer to develop in the bottle. The quality of the wines far outweighed the quality of the visit. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Orders waiting to go all over the world
Click here to see more photos from my final day in Sancerre, France.

All things bright and beautiful (Sancerre, France - Day Two)

Sancerre is another one of those wine words that is almost a synonym for white wine. The white wines have been well known along time not only in France but also in the UK, where as has been suggested by Chris Kissack, Sancerre is an easy name to say and thus ask for. Sancerre is on the Loire River and is thus part of the valley, but it is a long way even from Touraine let alone the western parts of the Loire. It is actually closer to Burgundy which it has more in common in terms of terroir, climate and even varieties. The AOC for Sancerre white wines was created in 1936 around the same time that most of the AOCs in the Loire Valley were established. The cultivation of grapes in this part of France is believed to date back to the Roman era, so it has a much longer history. The name is taken from the village where a castle once stood with nine towers, only one of which remains. This hill and surrounding slopes make it ideal for viticulture in a pretty cool climate, as the exposure to the sun improves ripeness. This is in contrast to Touraine which is a little more flat but also a little warmer. The key grape variety here is sauvignon blanc and is without question the best known place for the variety. 20% of the vineyards however are planted to pinot noir which produce both red and rose wines for which an additional AOC was created in 1959. With the market changing away from sancerre red wines they are beginning to produce more rose wine which is in a very light dry and food-friendly style. The white wines differ depending mostly on the specific terroir on which the vineyards are planted, and also a little on how the wines are vinified.

Always work to be done in the vineyards

28 Nov 2012

Personality plus (Sancerre, France - Day One)

Any skill for organisation I may have developed on this trip seems to have abandoned me on my break, and the journey from Touraine to the Central Loire Valley was the victim. The first thing I realised was that Orleans, the city I had decided to stay in during my time in Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, was at least 90 minutes away. The problem was that I realised this the day I was set to check-in, and changing to a motel close to Pouilly cost me the first nights accommodation in Orleans. My second big error was that I had forgotten my initial plan, which was to stay in Tours an extra night and stop at a winery on the way to Sancerre, one which I had made an appointment with. The winery is located about 150 minutes away from Sancerre, and driving back for one appointment was not something I wanted to do. So due to my incompetence I then had to cancel this appointment, something I felt quite ashamed about and also disappointed. My mood picked up a lot and I managed to move on a little as I stopped at three chateaux in Touraine which were amazing. The castles in the Loire Valley are well known to be some of the most beautiful and grandiose in Europe, as most of them hark back to the Rennaisance period when the French monarchy was one of the most wealthy and influential.

The Sancerre Centre

24 Nov 2012

Moullieux out (Vouvray, France – Day Two)

Not having done any serious winery visiting for so long I had forgotten that generally in certain countries in Europe they don’t really show visitors vineyards. I have a number of theories about their reasons for this. The first is that a lot of the time cellars are not on the estates the vines grow, partly as it is more important to use land for vines but also as originally the vineyards were owned by the church and then split amongst the people in the villages by Napoleon. The second theory I have is that with so many vignerons owning vineyards in essentially the same area they can rarely claim a terroir as their own, and must therefore talk about their expression of the terroir. Another theory I have is that there is an assumed understanding about their appellation and terroir, and there is very little need to show the vineyards. The final reason is that generally visitors are more interested in either flash wineries (Bordeaux) or cellars, and of course in tasting the wines. So it is with disappointment that after three days and seven appointments already I have only had one of my hosts show me vineyards. This is the case in France and Germany, but less so in most of Italy, Spain and Portugal. I took it upon myself to drive around the vineyards of Vouvray to get acquainted with them, but it isn't the same without someone pointing out specifics like viticulturist practices.

The cellars of Bernard Fouquet

Straddling the Loire (Vouvray, France – Day One)

Closer to Tours to the north-east sits Vouvray, the Loire Valley’s second or third most famous appelations and one of the great white wine regions in the world. Until recently no-one could claim that they were doing more for the chenin blanc variety than Vouvray, but some upstarts down in South Africa are now establishing a reputation with this misunderstood variety. To be labelled as Vouvray AOC you can only make white wine from 100% chenin blanc, but similar to Alsace they make wines of differing levels of sweetness as well as producing some excellent sparkling wine. The vineyards of Vouvray sit on a plateau about 50m above the village of the same name which lies on the banks of the Loire River. On the opposite side of the bank sits Montlouis-sur-Loire, which is actually between the Loire and River on a headland. Montlouis is also 100% chenin blanc and the wines are arguably as good, but they aren’t as famous as their neighbours across the river. I spent my first day in this part of the region on either side of the bank coming to terms with a variety that isn’t particularly fashionable in Melbourne, but is more widely planted further west.

Did I mention how cold it has gotten?

23 Nov 2012

A red dot in a sea of white (Chinon, France)

It was a little strange and unfamiliar at first, returning to winery visits and regions. Interestingly the last region I visited before my break was also in France, but was almost four months ago. I’d forgotten that fear of arriving late or not finding the winery but it came back a little bit. Visiting regions in the Loire Valley is almost like being in Inception as there are so many layers. For example you have the different parts of Chinon which sit around the town of the same name on the Vienne River, and they each have specific vineyards. Then Chinon is part of Touraine, which is then part of the Loire Valley. At this point we are already four layers deep, not including France and Europe. Chinon is the best known red wine appellation in the Loire Valley, although there is quite a bit of red vineyards mostly dedicated to rose in the whole region. They do make some white wine from chenin blanc, but it represents at most 5% of the vineyards and production. The important variety here is cabernet franc, and although there is more planted in Bordeaux, Chinon is the unofficial home of cabernet franc. Appelation laws allow them to use a percentage of cabernet sauvignon, but as sauvignon ripens later they don’t always get it to maturity in this cooler than Bordeaux climate.

Chateau de Chinon

22 Nov 2012

The Vintage Experience

After two months an important part of my trip has concluded. Important not just because I learnt a lot about wine, but also as I needed work to get a working-holiday visa to remain in Europe all year. After 10 months of solid visits to wineries with a few brief intermissions, I was grateful for a break in wine when I travelled through the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands and Northern Germany before returning to wine, this time on the other side of the fence. Another thing I was grateful for was some money and the chance to stay somewhere for free for a few months, thus saving me some money that I didn't have. It is with all sincerity that I thank first the Hasselbach family from Weingut Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen, and second Annegret Reh-Gartner and her team at Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt in the Mosel, for their generosity in welcoming me and allowing me to gain first-hand insights into German riesling.

Picking grapes in the Rheinhessen

21 Nov 2012

Vintage 2012 - Weeks 8 & 9

My final two weeks of vintage were for the most part uneventful as the harvest concluded and the vast majority of work was cleaning and checking the fermenting tanks. I was very generously taken out for dinner and lunch by the domestic sales manager and the owner respectively, and on both instances got to eat some lovely German food. There were a couple of dinners to celebrate the end of vintage; first with the Romanian vineyard workers and then the cellar team who are all locals. The winery also welcomed a journalist and they opened some bottles going back to 1983, all of which I had the chance to taste as well.

Bernd working hard pressing botrytised fruit to get juice with high sugar content.
Niklas compacting grape marc for future distillation to make schnapps.
Range of wines tasted going back to 1983.
Freshly and heavily hand-pruned vines in the Scharzofberg vineyard.
Old shoots clinging to the trellis wire. Always reminds me of snakes.
Just so you know who owns this vineyard.
This is Alexandra, one of the Romanian friends I made in the vineyards.
Walking up those steep slopes pruning requires a rest break.

4 Nov 2012

Impressions of Germany, better late than never

It occurred to me having returned to Germany to work the vintage at a few wineries that after spending about four weeks here back in February, including attending the Prowein trade fair in Dusseldorf, I had neglected to write my general thoughts about wine here. It is a strange feeling returning to wine regions that I visited about seven months ago since travelling to regions all over Europe, particularly the Mosel which was the first region I hadn't visited before in Europe. In spite of the gap things seem very familiar, and I am often reminded of some of the things I noticed. Now I am better able to compare Germany with other countries I have visited and commented on in Europe, so it seemed like the perfect time to chronicle my thoughts.

A welcome sight in the Mosel Valley

Vintage 2012 - Week Seven

Week two at Kesselstatt was mostly the same as the first. The fruit coming in is of a very high quality, but unfortunately it is in quite small quantities. With the very cool and wet weather we have been having the ripeness is not as high as Wolfgang would like, but they are very healthy bunches with little rot. It is nice to get into a routine of checking the ferments followed by transferring filtered juice into fermentation tanks each day, but it can also be a little dull doing the same thing every day. Such is the beauty and the curse of working exclusively with white wine, as they require much less work than reds. Some of the days have been a bit shorter with much less work to do in the winery as a by-product of lower volumes but healthy fruit. Thursday was a holiday in Germany and Wolfgang was nice enough to take the team to a local restaurant for some hearty schnitzels.

Gorgeously ripe berries in the vineyards opposite Schloss Marienlay, covered in morning condensation.
Schloss Marienlay, the headquarters of Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt.
The Piesporter vineyards in the heart of the Mosel Valley.
The famous blue slate soils of the Mosel.

Vintage 2012 - Week Six

Here I am in the Mosel region, based in the Ruwer Valley just outside of Waldrach. I've now been working at Kesselstatt for about ten days and it has been great so far. Almost all of the fruit has now been picked from their numerous vineyards, and every day I get to check the progress of the tanks fermenting. The winemaker Wolfgang Mertes (who has also generously provided me with a great room whilst I am here) prefers spontaneous fermentations, some of which take a week to start. Before they start fermenting the rieslings can have a character of sweet tea to them, which is quite unique and delicious. Some of the weisburgunder tanks are fermenting really slowly but show great character because of it. It has been getting colder, sometimes raining and even a bit of snow. I picked grapes my first day and also had the chance to visit some of the other vineyards.

Vineyards overlooking Trier, the town where the Ruwer and Saar valleys join the Mosel valley.
Where I am staying in the Mosel.
The vineyards above Kasel the first day of work, beautiful day and actually got a bit warm in the afternoon.
The Saar vineyard of Scharzofberg.
Bins of fruit freshly delivered to the winery.
The bins are lifted off the ground or off the back of trucks.
They are then emptied into the destemmer and the berries are pumped up to the hoppers.
Berries are free run juice go into the hoppers.
The hoppers are then emptied into one of the presses below.
The pressed juice gets transferred to tanks for settling overnight and racking off sediment the following morning.
Flotation filtering is used to separate additional solids in the juice before it goes into fermentation tanks. Here we can check to see when the clear juice becomes sediment.
Tanks must be cleaned thoroughly. This is Simon.

1 Nov 2012

Vintage 2012 - Transition

Many apologies for the delay in posting, but as the title suggests I have moved from the Rheinhessen to the Mosel, where I am completing my vintage experience at Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt. Kesselstatt is one of the most important producers in the Mosel, owning 50 hectares of vineyards in the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer valleys. Unfortunately I have had limited access to the internet, and thus it has been very difficult to post on the blog. Here are the remaining photos from my time at Gunderloch, and future posts will be catching up from the first week or two at Kesselstatt.

Quite a beautiful sight in the vineyards.
Spectacular view of the varying levels of leaf colour change.
Paul Dietz from Sydney, who took over from me at Gunderloch, taking a sample from the tank the hard way.
The baby about to start fermenting.
Paul and I sharing a beer at Oktoberfest in Mainz. I have since lost the beard.