I did one of these a while ago on this site: a mixed bag of various topics. Not having any major (all things are relative!) subject to fill these pages, I have settled this week on various subjects that merit a comment or two but do not fully explore any of the topics concerned. Do we ever anyway?
Wine Press: a sad state of affairs, at least in France
First up is a comment on the sorry state of the wine-related press in France today. If one is talking about those magazines sold in kiosks (and not merely by subscription), there are just a couple of these devoted to wine, and several others that purport to deal at least partially with the subject. And none of these are truly international either. When I say partially, I should say that wine is occasionally mentioned in them, and only rarely in an interesting manner. An example that illustrates this is a magazine called Cuisine & Vins de France, which comes from the same press group as La Revue de Vin de France. Its title mentions wine alongside cuisine and in identical typography (see cover above) but when I leaf through the latest edition that has just come through my letter-box, I can only say that they should definitely change the title if they were honest. This magazine, which says it is a special springtime edition, does not contain a single article on wine. It consists of an endless collection of recipes, some of which have one line at the end suggesting a wine to go with the recipe in question. Some of these recommendations make sense, but not all, so I also question the competence of those who write these things.
For instance, suggesting that a Côtes-de-Provence Rosé would be a suitable match for a Carrot Cake containing 180 grams of sugar, plus another 100 grams of icing sugar, is surely not the best idea for a pairing. Sugar with sugar is the rule, otherwise the wine will just appear thin and acidic. Ok, so it is only a Côtes-de-Provence Rosé so no big loss there, except for your palate! There are also factual mistakes, such as saying that the appellation Côte-Roannaise is situated in the Rhône region whereas it is in fact in the Loire (both the département and and the wine region). There is no mandatory wine training as a requisite for those who write about the subject, and I’m afraid this shows here!
Remarkable small Champagne producers, some fashionable some less so
It is striking to see, and not only in France, the constant rise of the small independent Champagne producer on restaurant and retail-store wine lists. Not in supermarkets, since the volumes required usually do not make this possible and also many such producers do not want to be associated with the image of modern distribution outlets and their price-slashing policies. I was in Champagne for a couple of days last week visiting a couple of these producers and they both told me how sommeliers, restaurateurs and some wine shops are increasingly interested in their wines for their intrinsic qualities, and not just for their lower prices than those of the big brands. Now of course the good major brands are still, on the whole, producing excellent Champagnes, and is is they who have created the market for Champagne in the first place. This should not be forgotten and indeed is fully recognized by the independent producers themselves. But there are, alongside, growing numbers of smaller producers whose wines are truly remarkable and, in some cases, have the added virtue of their singularity and traceablity. Being able to produce small quantity cuvées can give one an advantage in terms of precision as well as in creativity. Yann Alexandre, for example, from his base in the tiny and obscure village of Courmas just to the west of Reims, produces no less that 8 different cuvées from his 6 hectares, whose plots are spread out across a wide range of villages, in one case 80 kilometers from his base. This is largely the result of the very penalizing French inheritance laws which make parents divide their goods in equal shares amongst their children, and so render the maintaining of a viable production unit extremely expensive, and often practically inaccessible when land prices are high, as in Champagne or Burgundy. I had promised to visit Yann one day after discovering his wines in a collective tasting a while ago and I was not disappointed. All are good to very good and I especially liked his entry-level wine, called Brut Noir (curiously, as it actually contains some Chardonnay). I do feel that one should judge a producer first and foremost by his most accessible and widely sold product. His brochure as also exemplary in its clarity and simplicity. No windy waffling about the « nobility of terroir », but just a straightforward statement of what he does in his vineyards and simple, line by line mentions of the salient technical points of his wines. The prices are in what I would say is the mid-range for good small producers, between 25 and 35 euros for most bottles. This is still very reasonable given the quality of the wines and the fact (rare for a small producer) that he ages his wines for between 5 and 10 years before selling them.
Another good producer of the same ilk and also close to Reims is Pierre Trichet, in the village of Trois Puits, also with plots around and about. He has recently released a rare 100% Pinot Blanc, which is very good. Also a fine still wine, under the Côteaux Champenois appellation. Once again, I have a special weakness for his entry level wines, the two non-vintage cuvées, l’Authentique, a blend, and l’Heritage which is a pure Chardonnay. I recently drank the last bottle of a case that I bought a couple of years ago and these wines keep beautifully. Prices are even more accessible here, starting at just below 17 euros a bottle.
On another recent trip to Champagne for a book-signing evening, I was also able to taste again (it had been some years) some of the very fine wines of Erik de Sousa, whose vines are mainly in the Côte-des-Blancs region, around his base in Avize. He has become a bit of a star amongst independent producers, and I expect that his prices have followed the ascending curve of his reputation, but the quality is truly remarkable, with incredible length and finesse in the three cuvées that I tried. He also knows the satisfaction of seeing his three children following in his footsteps, each with a role in the family business. An exemplary success story here.
Passion and wine
No, this is not going to be a torrid sexploitation passage, however much fun that might be. It was the theme given to the recent annual two day get-together of France’s Vignerons Independants association for which I have, for several years now, had the honour and pleasure of acting as moderator on two successive mornings of conferences and round tables. This year’s edition was held in the beautiful region of Beaujolais (and if you don’t believe me, just take a trip there, it is just north of Lyon and holds many treasures and a lot of fine wines).
A lot of people bandy the word « passion » about in connection with wine both on the consumer’s side of the fence and on the producer’s. Does it actually mean anything though? These two mornings certainly helped to enlighten us on the subject. Passion is probably essential in the production of fine wine, but it should not blind one to the realities of what is really a difficult business. It should rather be taken as a fueling system. It cannot be a substitute for knowledge, or for application and hard work. On my side of the fence, as a writer and teacher, I would say the same. It keeps one going and is, I think, a powerful source of energy in the transmission of messages and to capture an audience. But it should not make one blind to realities.
Is Austria going too far with their DAC system?
I have regularly praised the quality of Austrian wines here and elsewhere, but I feel that, administratively speaking, they are now following too closely in the footsteps of both France and Italy in multiplying too many separate sub-regional, some of which are very small, appellations under their DAC system. The latest DAC in date is called Rosalia. Situated in northern Burgenland, It used to have the status of Grosslage, which is a large but shared single designated vineyard. Just under 300 hectares in size, it had now become a DAC in its own right. There were already four separate DAC’s in Burgenland. What is the point of having yet another one, aside from making the not-so-simple even more complicated for the consumer? Why not just leave it as a Grosslage and have it mentioned under Burgenland or whatever on labels? And there will now also be three different wines authorized from this DAC. More and more layers, regulations and separate names do not facilitate understanding from far away, and maybe even for most Austrians. Keep it simple, stupid!
PS. At the end of next week I will be in the Veneto region of North-East Italy, taking a group from a Paris wine club on some visits. I hope to tell you about some of the wineries visited and things seen, heard and tasted in this, Italy’s biggest region for appellation wines.