Tag Archives: grenache

Natural wines: the joys of simplicity

Local vigneron Rémi Curtil

Local vigneron Rémi Curtil

There’s a relatively new movement afoot here in rural France that has the wine world abuzz. Something called “natural wine” which is made almost like regular wine except it allows none of the 2,000 or so additives, enzymes, boosters of colour and other enhancers that can be used in wine production. Only sun-ripened grapes go into natural wines. That’s it. Simple, or so it may seem. The problem is there is not even a trace of sulphites added to natural wines so there is a risk of turning a juicy, well made wine into vinegar in no time. Not a choice for the faint of heart. It takes a special breed, with lots of courage, long-term commitment and a touch of folly to go this far against the grain.

Tasting on the market in Uzes.

Tasting on the market in Uzes.

Rémi at the wine cellar in Bourdic.

Rémi at the wine cellar in Bourdic.

My friend Rémi Curtil runs de Grappes et d’Ô, a one-man winery of 7.5 ha just south of Uzès.  Rémi is in the wine business for the love of pure, complex wines and the love of the land or the terroir he works throughout the year. He respects the soil and wants to transform the current norm of chemical based production to a much more ecologically friendly organic model. One only has to compare the rich living soil of an organically farmed vineyard to the weed free, barren vineyards of his neighbours to understand the harm we are doing.

Rémi has always loved good food and wine and initially trained as a sommelier. After several years working for several top restaurants in Paris, he become head sommelier for the huge Accor hotel chain and got progressively bored with wines that all tasted much the same. Rémi wanted a change so at 25 he went back to school for a year to learn the basics of grape growing and wine making at the Lycée Agricole in Beaune. Since that time he’s learned the rest on the job, working for some of the better domains in Bandol, Lirac and les Baux de Provence. He came to Uzès with the intention of one day starting his own domain and after a stint as cellar master at Domaine de Malaigues, Rémi started up in 2007 with a desire to create artisan, hand-made wines that reflect the vintage and the terroir. From what I have tasted, I would say he has done just that. There have been a few misses along the way but the vast majority of Rémi’s wine is balanced and full of character. He is very keen on the newly rewarded appellation status for the wines of Uzès and thinks it will help spread the renown of our local wines. For the moment, Rémi makes mainly red wine; a 100% grenache called Grenat, a 100 % syrah called Carmin and a blend of the two for the AOC Duché d’Uzès. And he is so thrilled about the 2012 vintage he may reserve the best lots for a super cuvée aged in top quality oak. Also in the works; a bag-in-box, unoaked white made from a  blend of white grenache, viognier and vermentino. Next year he will release the same wine in bottle.

When I ask Rémi if he has any regrets, his broad smile gives away his answer. Even though his adventure represents big risks and an enormous amount of effort, he wouldn’t give it up for anything. Long may he run.  De Grappe et d’Ô / telephone: 06 75 1999 55

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Bottles of wine and the mail’s on time!

One of the little details that I love about living where  I do is the “beep-beep” of a small yellow scooter in front of my house every day around 1 pm. I know that Serge le facteur–my postman is at the door. From time to time, if he’s got a special delivery or just needs a drink,  he’ll open up and shout at the top of his lungs “MCLEEEONN”. Normally though, the mail just drops into the box and he’s on his way.

But the month of September is not a normal month. Serge’s got a sparkle in his eye. And he can’t stop talking  about some very un-postman like stuff; bung holes, leaf thinning, maturity checks, pumping over and so on. No, believe me, he’s fine;  in fact he’s a great postman – always helpful and never short of a good story. He’s just excited about his other job. For you see, Serge is the only full time postman/wine maker in France.

Serge pumping over this years red. The cellar is modern and well equipped.

Serge Scherrer is a droll, wiry 48-year-old who grew up a stones throw from the great vineyards of Alsace in the north-east of France.  In his teens he dreamed of making his own wine and even took a viticulture course at a local college. The problem though, was that vineyard land in Alsace was scarce and very expensive and Serge had neither the right connections nor loads of money. So when a job came up at the local post office, Serge applied and got in.  And before long he had a wife and two small boys. The wine making dream started to look more and more like the pipe variety.

Fast forward to 2000; Serge and his young family are transferred to Uzès, a small town in the Gard department of southern France,  in the midst of the biggest viticultural region in the world – a more or less uninterrupted sea of vines that covers the mediterranean coast of France like a giant green belt. The region used to be the source for an endless supply of cheap, undistinguished table wines that nourished thirsty workers in France and northern Europe for decades. But those easy markets started to fall away in the late ’90’s and within a few years co-ops were closing and thousands of hectares of vines were grubbed up. Land prices fell dramatically and Serge saw an opportunity.

Low yielding, old vine grenache and cinsault vines; Serge's first vineyard.

Starting in 2003 he began the hunt for a small parcel of top quality vines. By 2007 he found what he was after: a prime, half hectare plot of old vine Grenache and Cinsault not far from Uzes. After a tense period of negotiation, the deal closed in mid-August, just in time for harvest. The dream was back on track.

Agarrus, the name Serge chose for his domain, comes from the Provençal word for the small kermes oaks that grow all over the dry hillsides of southern France. The first two vintages produced a small amount of concentrated, intense wine. But wanting to paint with a bigger palate, Serge added three more parcels of Syrah, Carignan and Grenache to the mix in 2009. Today, with 4.5 hectares that’s all farmed organically, Serge has his hands very full indeed. It’s amazing to see how far passion, determination and vision can carry a man. And he readily admits he couldn’t make it all work without his wife Lucile’s full support.

Quality starts in the vineyard

Quality grapes-soon to be fine wine.

This year he figures he’ll make almost 15,000 bottles, most of it red. The wines are uniformly good to very good and have a real sense of terroir (see tasting notes). And since he’s not in a prestigious appellation, the prices are reasonable. He sells a quarter of his production locally and expects to be distributed in Germany and Switzerland soon.

The high point each year for Serge has to be les vendanges-the harvest. His many friends (the warrior included) offer to help and in spite of the hard work and the long hours everyone has a great time.

The harvest lunch; a well deserved break for hungry pickers.

Defenses and stress fall away, laughter is king and everyone seems to get along. Around 1 pm each day the loud call, à table, summons the team to lunch, a time to unwind, drink a bit of wine or beer and kibbutz with your co-workers. Lucile prepares the delicious home-cooked food and we rise an hour later refreshed and energized. I feel lucky to be sharing the moment, for this traditional part of French culture is slowly dying off, a victim of harvesting machines and the increased costs involved. Here in the south only the smaller, quality oriented domains harvest by hand. For Serge, who has to make it on the excellence of his wines, it’s an essential ingredient.

Les Vendanges - a really festive time for all.

Son Pierre-Louis cleans up; he also designed the Agarrus label.

This same attention to detail carries over to the winery where Serge invested last year in a nearly new pneumatic press and seven stainless steel tanks with full temperature control. He admits though that he is still learning and dealing with the odd moment of panic–like the terrible grinding his pump made, until someone realized it had to be primed with water to work–but they’re becoming rare.

Teamwork saves the day.

As a guy who makes top rate hand made wines Serge qualifies as a true garragiste. The fact his winery is located in the back-end of a real garage makes him doubly worthy of the name.

By the end of a week of harvesting, Serge seems pleased. The grapes are perfectly ripe, he says, with good deep colour. The potential is there to make some great wines. The team or core of pickers are a bit sore and tired but everyone feels proud to have contributed a small bit to Serge’s amazing adventure and can’t wait to start all over again next year. Long may he run.

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Draught Horses and Dirty Laundry – c’est chaud

Martin and Joel setting up a shoot.

The last few months I’ve been busy with a new project that is very exciting. Along with my friend Martin (east2west.tv) I am making a documentary film on the wines of the Okanagan. So far we’ve had nothing but positive interest in the project and I look at it as a great new opportunity. I’ll give periodic updates on how we’re progressing but today it occurred to me just how diverse the wineries are out here in BC. There’s a real spirit of adventure and newness that you don’t feel so much in France. Kind of normal when you learn that quality wine’s only been made here for less than 20 years. Compare that to over 2,000 years in France.

One encounters just about every type of major grape variety up and down the valley. Growers are experimenting to the max  to find the best clones and the best sites for each. Some are pushing the limits truly into orbit by planting mediterranean grapes like Cinsault, Grenache and Tempranillo. Who knows? Maybe global warming will turn this arid valley into a hotbed for southern French grapes but for now the risk is high and a bad freeze like we had in December 2008 can wipe out the less hardy varieties.

I’ve also met many fascinating wine makers on my travels up and down the valley. How about a retired Israeli fighter pilot who makes stunning Viognier and Pinot Noir (http://www.silkw.net/)? Or the Punjabi immigrant who’s making great organic Pinot Gris yet doesn’t drink wine at all (http://www.kalala.ca/wine/index.php).

Tilman and his horses hard at work

And then there’s Tilman Hainle. He’s made wine for many firms over the years but today he is back at his small family farm near Peachland. He and partner Sara Norman created the Working Horse Winery as a showcase for organic and  bio-dynamic methods. As the name implies, a beautiful pair of Suffolk draught horses supply the muscle at WHW. Talk about a low carbon footprint or should I say hoofprint!  http://www.workinghorsewinery.com

Dirty Laundry makes three Gewurztraminers

As for dirty laundry, I’ve got lots but in the Okanagan everyone knows about the liquid Dirty Laundry. This dynamic little winery in Summerland – gotta love that name – has proved a point that in order to rise above the pack in the new world, the marketing and the look have to be special. A few years back Dirty Laundry  had a long, difficult to pronounce German name and was not hugely successful even though the wines were solid. In 2005 the winery changed hands and a new name was chosen from a rather steamy detail of Summerland’s pioneer past. It seems there was a Chinese laundry in the village at one time that not only starched shirts but provided other services that left customers hot under the collar! The locals referred to it as the Dirty Laundry. Since the name change the winery sells out of most of their wines quickly. The latest addition to the portfolio is a red blend called Bordello and I think it is likely the only wine in the world that comes with a magnifying glass attached! http://www.dirtylaundry.ca/

cheers,

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