HVE : a complementary label to organic and bio-dynamic

I wrote an article for Meininger’s Wine Business International on the French label “Haute Valeur Environnementale” (HVE). Farmers who have the HVE certified label, pledge to keep the use of pesticides and fungicides to a strict minimum.

You can read it here : https://www.drinks-today.com/wine/news-analysis/france-tries-alternative-organic

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Is France on its way to ban pesticides?

If you thought Brexit was the only source of entertainment with yelling people, bickering politicians and social media exploding with discussions between people who don’t listen to each other, you’re wrong! France experienced a very heated summer, and climate change for once has nothing to do with it. The subject that heated people’s tempers more than the tropical temperatures was the introduction of so-called non-treatment zones for farmers, proscribing them to spray pesticides within a certain distance of neighboring homes and schools. 

On September 9, 2019 the French government launched a 3-week national consultation on a proposal to ban the use of pesticides in a 5 metre zone from housing for low crops and in a 10 metre zone for high crops, including vines. France is the first country to launch non-treatment zones to protect the population’s health, the proposal being a joint effort between the three ministers of agriculture, health and ecological transition. Debates on the use of pesticides are obviously not new, but a very symbolical and highly mediatised case accelerated things substantially in 2014 when school children in Villeneuve, a town in Bordeaux’ Blaye region, became nauseous due to the spraying of fungicides in next-door vineyards.

Several attempts were undertaken since then to introduce non-treatment zones and other measures, that were subsequently withdrawn by court rulings after protest of agricultural lobby groups. French farmers and their representative bodies vehemently oppose government plans to curb the use of pesticides, arguing that they will lose thousands of hectares. They also point to the fact that spraying procedures have evolved already and that they follow strict rules on the use of pesticides, based on scientific research. Factors such as the speed of wind, the amount of pressure, and the type of spraying device used, are indeed taken into account before deciding how, when and where to spray. These arguments, however, did not placate civil society groups and environmental organizations, who find the farmers’ efforts and the government’s current proposal too little too late.

Enter a whole new dimension in the debate, as organic and natural wine enthusiasts started asking why it was necessary to use pesticides in the first place. However appealing this thought may seem, conventional farmers were quick to point out that copper, accepted in organic agriculture, is a fungicide, and not particularly good for people’s health either. The 2014 Villeneuve case aptly demonstrated their point, as one of the two vineyard owners who were charged, was an organic wine maker.

Daniel Cueff, mayor in the Breton town of Langouët, decided to take the law in his own hands and banned the use of pesticides and herbicides within 150 metres of housing. Needless to say that this caused quite a stir, some farmers arguing they would lose entire plots if this became a national measure. Unfortunately for Mr Cueff his decision was overruled in court, the judge arguing that decisions on the use of phytosanitary products are the mandate of the minister of agriculture. The latter, Didier Guillaume, was also quick to declare that non-treatment zones of 150 metres would be “madness for the consumer”.

There is, however, an alternative for the government’s one-size-fits-all regulation, and that’s curiously an alternative that Didier Guillaume favors in the first place : local charters. The idea is that local citizens and farmers get together and work out a compromise that suits them. Only in the absence of a local charter will the national rules be applied. This solution is also largely favored by the farmer organizations, who would hate to see “Paris” imposing rules on them. While the local charters leave room for flexibility and compromise, it is, however, no option not to have non-treatment zones at all. They may be reduced to 5 metres instead of 10 “if more performing spraying devices can be used”. If the idea of locally negotiated charters seems a good idea to some, it may prove challenging in areas where the powers that be are also in the business of wine making. Again, the 2014 Bordeaux case was telling, as the local mayor at that time was actually one of the two vineyard owners who were charged for spraying in the presence of school children.

At the date of publication of this article, the number of comments on the ministry of agriculture’s website grew to a whopping 27,000. While other consultations mostly fail to attract any attention at all, this one clearly shows that the heated summer is very likely to extend in a heated fall. With France topping the Food Sustainability Index, which also looks at sustainable agriculture, for three consecutive years, it comes as no surprise that it is the first country putting non-treatment zones on the political agenda. While it will be interesting to see what the final outcome will be in France, it’s equally intriguing to see how little debate there is in other countries. Will France’s regulation provoke similar initiatives in other EU countries? The French chest-beating that comes with the acknowledgement of their efforts on sustainability might just trigger new dynamics elsewhere. Or then again, it also might not.

Domaine Brana : showing the way in Irouléguy #Winophiles

I’m joing the #Winophiles this month in their exploration of Irouléguy, a wine region in French Basque Country. I’m very excited about this, as it brings back memories of my hiking holidays in the French Basque Country in 2015. This region is very beautiful, at the foot of the Pyrenees but also on the Atlantic coast, where surf’s up. If you hesitate between the mountains or the sea for holidays, you have both there!

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I was hiking in the region with a group, so there was no time to go visiting wineries. But when we were in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we were given two hours to see the town. I have to admit : I didn’t see town. I took this opportunity to go the winery shop of Domaine Brana instead!

The Brana family was active in the region already since the 19th century, but it was only in the ’70s that Etienne Brana lay the foundations for the current Domaine by starting a distillery. In 1984 he launched himself in the wine business and contributed to putting the AOC Irouléguy on the map. Not that Irouléguy is now known all over the world, or even in France for that matter. There is simply too little wine being produced for that, and finding Irouléguy wine outside France is no simple matter.

It’s for that reason that I bought a mix of Brana’s wines to take home. The whites and rosé didn’t last long, they were simply too good. Nowadays it’s not so unusual anymore to find white Irouléguy, but Etienne Brana made a point of making also white wine of petit courbu, petit manseng and gros manseng (also known from Jurançon) as that was a tradition before in Irouléguy.

His Ilori Blanc 2014 was a very fresh wine with lots of flowers in the nose and a rather high acidity. The Albedo Blanc 2014 was almost completely the opposite, with loads of ripe fruit like pine apple and apricot, a touch of wood and even a bit of honey as it opened up. There was a lovely contrast of ripe and fresh in this wine, the fruit being opulent and the acidity rather in the style of a Chablis. An intriguing wine.

I have a special place in my memories, however, for the Harri Gorri rosé 2014, one of the best rosés I ever had in my life. This was a wine I could sniff on forever, with red currant, strawberries, green herbs and beautiful minerality. Again the profile of this wine was very fresh and precise. Finally a rosé that has its own identity and is more than a white wine with a pink taint! I absolutely loved it. I have spent endless hours looking on the net for a place where I could buy it, but alas…

For the reds Brana also set out to choose his own path, favoring Cabernet Franc over the more common Tannat. Brana argued that Cabernet Franc was a grape that actually originated in the Irouléguy region, and that Tannat is the grape of Madiran. That might have been a smart move. It’s only a few days ago that Peter Dean reported in The Buyer that the Gascogne-based cooperative Plaimont Producteurs is gradually switching to Manseng Noir, as Tannat is producing alcohol levels that are hard to keep under 16°C in recent years.

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When I visited the winery shop in 2015 I tasted the Irouléguy Rouge 2010, but back then, it wasn’t fully coherent yet, and the wood was pretty dominant still. Nevertheless I bought two bottles, knowing this was a wine with great ageing potential. I was a little afraid that it would still be too early to open a bottle now, but a quick sniff after opening the bottle made it clear from the start : this is a beauty! Blackberries, blackcurrant, cigar box, graphite, laurel, all jumping out the glass in a beautiful bouquet. Complex like a maze, precise like a Swiss watch, and fresh like a first year student. My fear of sturdy tannins was ungrounded, the structure being velvety instead.

There’s an additional thing that’s interesting here as well. During my sommelier training we always had to discuss a wine systematically, including things such as color and viscosity. The latter is something I nowadays don’t do anymore as I don’t find it very relevant. But from the first sip of this Irouléguy, I immediately noticed that this wine was very concentrated, the viscosity reminding me of a Valpolicella Ripasso for example, but then without the sweetness. Very remarkable! This is a wine with character. Cool climate character by the way. And not unlike certain Bordeaux. That should not come as a surprise, the blend consisting of 60% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 30% Tannat.

It’s still early days to be thinking of lists, but I’m pretty sure this wine will be in my best of 2019 list somewhere. If I think of how it was when I tasted it in 2015, it’s clear this wine has come a long way. This goes to show that we often drink this kind of wines too early. And it’s nowhere near its end. Quite the contrary I’d say. My next, and sadly last, bottle will probably open in three or four years. If only I could find more of Brana’s wines. It’s clear that this is a visionary winery, a flag bearer for the appellation.

Here are the links to the other Winophiles’ posts :

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Payal at Keep the Peas shares Basque-ing in Irouléguy Wines and More

 

 

 

How is red Burgundy 2015 faring?

2015 was a vintage marked with warm weather in Burgundy resulting in wines with a lot of fruit, and good concentration. Upon release I heard some saying it was somewhere in between 2009 and 2010 in terms of style. Tasting a number of them young I found them rather ripe for my taste, preferring the 2014s, having more tension. We’re four years down the line now, so I was curious to see how the 2015s had evolved since then and if they had some of their “baby fat”. Still too early to open the more prestigious appellations, so I decided to open a few bottles that should be up for business by now.

The first wine is Dureuil-Janthial’s Rully “En Guesnes”. I visited Vincent Dureuil in 2017 and I didn’t find him at a good  moment. There had been problems in the vineyards due to bad weather and he had been up all night. As you can imagine, he was not very talkative… Luckily his wines did the talking for him. Dureuil-Janthial is especially known for his white wines, but I find him equally impressive for the pinot noirs. And La Revue des Vins de France seems to agree about the overall quality of his wines, as he was recently chosen Winemaker of the Year in France.

His basic Rully is a wine that gives enormous drinking pleasure, with plenty of ripe red fruit, and great balance. The “En Guesnes” is clearly a step up : the nose is simply enticing!

The bottle needed half an hour or so to settle down, but once it did it was enchanting, with ripe cherries, and even forest fruit. This wine definitely had meat on the bone, good concentration, and had a very smooth, velvety mouthfeel. I’m hesitant to say this, but the character of this wine actually reminded me of certain Vosnes! There was also an interesting touch of curry spice, that gave it a very individual personality. I was especially looking out for the acidity in these 2015s,  and I’m glad to say that the balance of this “En Guesnes” was just right with good acidity to counter the ripe fruit. Ripe and smooth tannins gave the backbone, and the long finish made for a great wine! No hurry to drink this, but already so enjoyable.

During the same long weekend in Burgundy I also visited Alain Gras, perhaps not such a big name as Dureuil-Janthial, but still considered to be one of the top producers in Saint-Romain. It was, however, the Auxey-Duresses Très Vieilles Vignes that drew my attention there.

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Upon opening it gave a somewhat austere impression, but half an hour later the aromas were almost literally jumping out of the glass, with ripe red fruit, noble cedar wood, and a hint of rubber. Very expressive! Again perfectly balanced, no heaviness, instead offering tremendous drinking pleasure. A very cheerful wine, more abundant than Dureuil-Janthial’s. I found it to be best after chilling it for about 20 minutes.

The last of my little red Burgundy 2015 series was the regional Burgundy of Robert Sirugue, based in Vosne. His Petits-Monts 1er Cru is still in my top 5 of red Burgundies I ever had, a very memorable wine. The regional Burgundy 2013 then again was disappointing, very meagre, so I was curious how the 2015 would turn out (unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of this one). Not chilled it was not enjoyable! Cherries on alcohol was all that came through. After half an hour in the fridge the wine gave a better impression, with also some nice ripe raspberries. This wine was considerably lighter than the other two, obviously being a wine for fast(er) consumption. As soon as the wine’s temperature went up again, the heat started coming through again. This is a bit what I feared for 2015, and as could be expected, it was the wine with the lesser pedigree that had suffered most. With the vineyards for such regional wines often being in the plains of Burgundy, where the loamy soil is very heavy, it should not come as a surprise that hot vintages leave their marks on the wines coming from here.

But all in all, I was very happy with what I found. Just as some of the initially very ripe 2009s are now beginning to show more elegance, the 2015s might evolve the same way, and already now the balance seems to be better in the 2015s than it was in the early days of the 2009s. So I think the future is looking bright!

Affordable pinot noir from Burgundy : a case of sour grapes?

In my previous post I told you about the tastings of pinot noir I organised a few years ago for my final dissertation to become a sommelier. I wanted to find out if it’s possible to find decent pinot noir under 15€. You already read that New Zealand pinot noir was doing very well in those tastings. But how did Burgundy fare? More than half of about 40 pinot noirs we then tasted were Burgundies.

I will not beat about the bush : exactly one Burgundy was considered to be good by the tasting panel. Not a great result… Some might argue that it is impossible to find good Burgundy under 15€, and if I were to re-do the exercize now, I would probably set the cut-off point at 20€ considering the sometimes crazy price increases in Burgundy.

What struck me the most was the very low quality of some of these bottles. It is actually very rare that I find a wine outright bad, even generic supermarket wines under 5€. They can be uninteresting, bland, lacking character,… But so sour, or harsh, that it is actually difficult to finish your glass, let alone the bottle, is something that hardly ever happens. And yet, amongst those entry-level Burgundies, there were more than a few of those. A useful reminder that Burgundy does not only produce some of the world’s greatest, but also wines you just want to pour down the drain…

Fortunately, the one Burgundy that was good, was also really good. In total I did three tastings and in every one there was always one or two wines that cost around 30€, so double the price of the other wines, just to make sure that everyone in the panel remained attentive and rated the wines on their real quality and not just based on the fact that these were mere “budget wines”. The Burgundy that scored really well, was actually thought to be the more expensive wine, with someone even suggesting it could be a 1er Cru… Well, it was definitely not a 1er Cru, not even a village wine, but the Burgundy 2012 of François Legros, a wine maker based in Nuits-Saint-Georges. It had a complex nose, well-integrated wood, good structure and length, probably helped by the vintage, which generally produced wines with more body, structure and potential to age.

Since this was the only Burgundy to perform so well in this price category, I decided to keep buying this wine. For the occasion of this post I opened the three vintages that I still have : 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Burgundy 2013

 

The brick rim shows obvious evolution in the color. Mainly red fruit in the nose. The toast aromas that were more prominent a couple of years ago are now completely integrated. This wine is undoubtedly the slimmest of the three, reflecting the vintage’s freshness and accessible style. Not so much margin left here though, so drink up.

Burgundy 2014

 

The evolution also starts to show here. The nose is a bit shy upon opening. There is fresh red fruit and a nice cedar wood touch. This wine was packed with fruit when I drank it about a year ago, which is much less the case now. I read somewhere that some 2014s might be in a closed phase right now. Or is the fruit already fading away? I kept some for the day after and the wine was more open and refined on day 2, so not at the end of its life yet. A beautiful example of the vintage again, with good acidity and tart red fruit being the drivers of this wine.

Burgundy 2015

 

The color is somewhat darker, more concentration in the core. The fruit is riper and tending more toward cherries. The profile is generally much rounder and riper. I actually had to cool it down a bit, as the acidity that normally plays the role of balancing the wine was here more on the background. On day two the wine showed a very different wine, boasting succulent raspberries and more freshness. It obviously still had to shed its baby fat. This wine has the greatest potential of the three and will really shine in a year or two. Very nice!

Even though I had drunk each of these wines before, it was very interesting to be able to compare them now. In general the quality stays at a good level, which is remarkable for Burgundies of around 15€. To be able to deliver consistently well-performing wines, also in challenging vintages such as 2013 and 2014, is a feat of winemaking so bravo to Mr Legros for that. And despite the price increases also for this wine, they remain modest (so far), and contribute to making decent Burgundy pinot noir accessible for wine lovers.

The 2015 sold out in my wine shop, so I hope to lay my hands on the 2016 soon. Probably my favorite Burgundy vintage of the last ten years, so very much looking forward to that!

A walk on the Hermitage

Theoretical knowledge is one thing, practical knowledge another. During my sommelier studies we had to learn a lot of facts by heart. You learn about production zones, allowed grapes, vinification methods, and of course you taste a lot of wines. But driving around in a region, walking in the vineyards, seeing the grapes is still so much more enriching. When I was in the northern Rhône last summer, I decided I wanted to drive from south to north, just to have a feel of all the appellations. When you see the northern Rhône on a map, you think vineyards in Saint-Joseph for example have an eastern exposure. Having seen the vineyards, and even having camped underneath one, I can assure you that things are much more complex. There are quite a few small rivers there that connect to the Rhône and that have vineyards on their slopes, meaning the vineyards do no face east, but south or south-east! I also saw how small Condrieu is, and how unbelievably steep the Côte Rôtie is. No wonder these wines are so expensive.

So having driven all along the northern Rhône, it’s only logical that I also wanted to see the Hermitage, that sleeping giant on the “wrong” side of the river. Hermitage is probably the most prestigious appellation in the northern Rhône, and unfortunately there is also not much wine being produced. The reason for this is that the surface for production cannot become bigger, the vineyards being limited to the Hermitage hill. There are 136 hectares that can be used for Hermitage, all the other zones on the left bank, mainly in the back of the hill, belonging to Crozes-Hermitage, with a production area of 1,633 hectares, just to give you an idea. In 2015 the total production was 5,340 hectolitres.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Hermitage, was the perfect exposure. Again, if you look at the map, you might think that the Hermitage faces west or south-west, as it lies along the Rhône, which runs from north to south. In fact, the Rhône takes a couple of sharp turns just before the Hermitage, and the hill itself faces south. Immediately after, the Rhône takes its normal course again.

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This picture is taken from the Hermitage. Here you can see how the Rhône starts taking its turn. The vineyards in the back are Crozes-Hermitage.

In fact, when I talk about “the” hill, that’s not entirely correct. The Hermitage is not simply one hill, one bump with an even surface, like the Corton hill in Burgundy. It’s actually a very long-stretched hill. In certain places there are parts of the hill that come more to the fore, while in other places there are tiny brooklets that divide the hill.

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The Hermitage seen from below

As you can see very well in the picture above, the hill is very complex with different exposures, some better than others. Some parts of the slopes do not face south, but rather south east or south west and will be in the shadow in the morning or in the evening. A second thing that is very visible on this picture is the difference in height. In certain parts of the Hermitage the hill is so steep that terraces are needed to keep the soil from sliding down in case of heavy rains. In the front behind the wall, however, these are also Hermitage vineyards, and they are completely flat.

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Another example of the different exposures of the vineyards on the Hermitage.

To add to the complexity, the soils are also very different, both from west to east, as from high to low. I’m not a geologist, so at the risk of oversimplifying things, I will explain how I understand the geology.

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This picture is not taken in the vineyards, but in the nature reserve just next to the Hermitage. Here you can see the granite rocks and how they decompose in smaller pebbles and ultimately in sand.

The mother rock is granite. The west part of the Hermitage is where the granite is most dominant. This is where the lieu-dit Les Bessards is situated. This vineyard is considered to be among the best for syrah. It’s here that Chapoutier’s L’Ermite comes from and where the famous chapel, owned by Paul Jaboulet, lies.

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In the middle (from west to east) you will find the lieu-dit Le Méal, another prestigious site for red Hermitage. Ferraton’s Le Méal 2004 was an experience that will stay with me forever. Very rich, but also very complex. Wonderful! Here the soil is mainly made of pebbles and loess, which is a sediment of dust that came with the wind. If you go to the bottom of the hill, however, you will find a much richer soil mainly made of clay, not considered to be the best sites of the Hermitage. And finally the part furthest to the east is less steep and is composed of what the French call “poudingue”, literally pudding! This refers to a conglomerate of galets, stones, that are kept together by calcareous sediment. In general, the eastern part is considered to be better suited for whites, about one quarter of the production. But when I was walking on the west part I also found quite a few vineyards with marsanne, the grape most often used for white Hermitage.

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A bunch of Marsanne grapes

As you will probably notice, the bunch Marsanne grapes you see above does not seem to be in the best shape. Well, that brings me to my last observation I made up there on the Hermitage. The hill is very complex, but that is not the only thing that explains the differences in style you might find when drinking Hermitage from different producers. The bunch of Marsanne you see above is from a vineyard belonging to Michel Chapoutier. As you may know, Chapoutier’s viticulture on the Hermitage is biodynamic. So no synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. The difference with the grapes I saw in the vineyards of Paul Jaboulet could not be bigger.

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A healthy looking bunch of syrah grapes in a vineyard of Paul Jaboulet

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Bunches of weathered syrah grapes of Michel Chapoutier

I don’t want to spark a debate about biodynamic vs traditional, but it just goes to show that many factors influence the character of the wine you ultimately get in your glass, and it’s not only terroir.

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Tired but happy with my walk on the Hermitage!

Chapoutier : instant happiness from the Rhône

In my previous post I sang the praise of Angelo Gaja’s Barbaresco. But there was one wine in the line-up of my birthday tasting that stepped up to the challenge and said : “Hey, what’s all the fuss about?! Try me!”. And that was Michel Chapoutier’s Hermitage Moneau de la Sizeranne 2012 :

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Sniffing from this glass gave us instant happiness. A very complex and seductive nose with initially a bit of typical syrah reduction, followed by ripe strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, tobacco and a bit of smoke. The wine was beautifully balanced, fresh and ripe at the same time. In a perfect spot to drink right now.

This Hermitage delivered big time. And to be honest, most of the wines I already had of Chapoutier do! Yesterday evening I opened a bottle of the Couronne de Chabot 2012, a Saint-Joseph that Chapoutier brings on the market with Yannick Alléno, a French top chef. Again typical syrah reduction aromas to begin with, real barnyard funk! Black pepper, laurel, ripe red fruit, and iron. Great freshness in this wine. And again instant happiness from the first sniff.

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Other wines of Chapoutier that really blew me off my socks in the past were Les Varonniers, a Crozes-Ermitage, with great finesse and elegance. And Les Granits, a Saint-Joseph that shares the same characteristics as the Varonniers but that is maybe even more complex.

Unfortunately, the oohs and aahs that Chapoutier’s wines provoke all over the world push the prices up at a high speed. Especially for the “premium” wines. Luckily the quality of the “basic” cuvées of Chapoutier is still high, allowing everyone to enjoy a bit of instant happiness. The Crozes-Hermitage Y/M of Alléno and Chapoutier, for example, is a real taste bud pleaser coming at a very reasonable price.

When I visited Chapoutier’s shop last summer, I bought a few more bottles for when my need of endorphins is high. So don’t be surprised if you see more raving posts about Chapoutier in the future.