A recent Saturday afternoon wine-tasting event organized by Le Temps des Vendanges, a natural wine shop in Toulouse, gave me the chance to meet some winemakers who I had read about on Bertrand Celce’s excellent wine blog, Wine Tasting, Vineyards, in France.
These included a couple, Jean-François Nicq of Domaine Foulards Rouges and Laurence Krief of Domaine Yoyo from the Roussillon region, Nicolas Camarans from the Aveyron region northeast of Albi in southwestern France, Jean Maupertuis from Côte d’Auvergne in the center of France, and Jeff Coutelou of Mas Coutelou, near Béziers, in the Languedoc region.
Beginning with the couple from the Roussillon, whom I don’t know for certain are actually “an item” (but their tables were adjacent to one another, and Laurence Krief told me that she named one of her wines KM 31 because it was the number of kilometers between her vineyard and the Foulards Rouges vineyard of Jean-François Nicq.
“Yoyo,” as most people call Krief, and Nicq have now eliminated that “courting” commute by choosing to live together somewhere in-between their two vineyards. “In-between” is on the eastern slopes of the Pyrenees, in the French Pyrénées-Orientales department, 10km from the Mediterranean seaside resort of Collioure and the border with Spain. Both are strong believers in organic viticulture. They produce an impressive array of delicate and elegant wines from old Grenache, Carignan, Macabeau and other varieties traditionally used in this Catalan region. Each of their respective vineyards includes some Syrah and Mourvèdre vines, but it’s these deep-rooted, old vines (some of them are over 100 years old) that bring such purity, freshness and complexity to their wines.
The Foulard Rouges wines are somewhat more approachable, with red, white and rosé Soif du mal cuvées that illustrate Nicq’s sense of humor and wine-drinking philosophy. The French expression “vin de soif” refers to refreshing wines that are drunk to quench your thirst. Nicq, with his twinkling eyes and mischievous grin, has turned around this expression to mock the anti-wine attitude of some in the French government. “Mal” means “hurt” in French, thus “soif du mal” is a thirst that carries with it pain. Granted that there are very real dangers related to excessive alcohol consumption, but Nicq’s clever name choice for his wines eloquently expresses the viewpoint by French winemakers that their government has gone too far in demonizing wine.
All three of his Soif du mal wines come from north-by-northeast-facing vineyards that allow the grapes to ripen to full phenolic maturity without having excessive alcohol levels (13 degrees for the red; a level rarely found in Roussillon wines). Their excellent balance, combined with old-vine naturally low yields and the freshness brought forth by the granite soils, gives each of them bright, fresh fruit flavors and a strong mineral salinity that must frustrate to no end government officials bent on eliminating wine from French tables.
Laurence “Yoyo” Krief takes Nicq’s natural wine philosophy even further. Whereas his grape yields are already a low, 15-25hl/ha (approximately half of what most French appellations permit), her KM 31 cuvée is made from century-old Grenache and Carignan vines with an absurdly low, 8hl/ha yield. There’s the same elegance found in Nicq’s Foulards Rouges wines, along with complexity and power that speaks of old-old vines, increased extraction of the grape tannins during vinification, and time spent in well-used oak barrels.
Jean Maupertuis…a different type of Gamay
A long time ago, when average wine consumption in France was around 160 liters (213 bottles) per person, the Côte d’Auvergne was home to more Gamay vineyards than anyplace in France, including the Beaujolais region. These wines supplied much of the daily wine ration for millions of industrial workers. And, if you’re working close to heavy equipment, and drinking several liters of wine per day (which must have been the case, as these factory workers were drinking more than their share of wine; that per capita consumption figure was for every man, woman and child in the country), you needed to watch the alcohol content carefully. Something around 8 degrees was about right, and the high-yield Gamay was a favorite vin de soif.
Jean Maupertuis makes several different Vins de France wines (he stopped submitting them to the Côte d’Auvergne AOC years ago, as the response was always the same: “atypical” wines not fitting the appellation’s criteria). This is another example of how an appellation, rather than guaranteeing quality, may shield poorer producers from market forces. There are undoubtedly numerous Côte d’Auvergne wines on the market using the AOC as a brand, but which are inferior in quality to Maupertuis’s wines.
His Gamay vines are all relatively old, with most having been planted between the 1940s and 1960s, but he has several parcels of vines from the beginning of the last century. A small plot of young and vigorous Beaujolais Gamay is used to make rosé or sparkling wine, but the best wines come from the Gamay d’Auvergne variety, and these less-productive older vines produce wine with a higher alcohol level (around 11.5 degrees) than when France was an industrial power
These Maupertuis Gamay wines have a soft, beguiling bouquet that brings to mind small red fruits and flowers. They are juicy and thirst-quenching, with a gentle nose and a slight peppery feel that make them enjoyable wines to drink. Which is probably why those industrial workers liked the Gamay grape so much. But more-restrictive driving laws, and those two or three additional degrees of alcohol make it best to limit your consumption.
Wresting bears and rugged terrain
For years Nicolas Carmarans ran a Paris wine bar. He sold it to become the El Bulli of the Aveyron, a ruggedly austere mountain region northwest of Albi in southwestern France. These foothills of the Massif Central mountains only have a few vineyards. He only has a little over three hectares of vines, much of it on single-row terraces that demand Herculean manual labor, as he doesn’t use any chemicals in the vineyard (or, for that matter, in his wine cellar).
The allusion to the legendary, now-closed Spanish restaurant El Bulli refers to the mysterious alchemy in Carmarans’s wines. Carmarans, who looks like someone who might wrestle bears, ferments most of his wines in large, open-top oak vats, except for his whites and rosés, which are fermented in barrels. He doesn’t use any additives, and he relies on indigenous yeasts for the fermentations. Some of his wines pass through a semi-carbonic maceration of whole bunches in fiberglass tanks. He doesn’t use temperature-control equipment to regulate the fermentation, sometimes managing the temperature of incoming grapes by leaving the boxes in the sun to warm them if they’re too cold.
Besides Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Gamay, he works with a half-dozen local grape varieties such as Fer Servadou and Negret de Banhars, which is one of the world’s rarest grape varieties (he has 1,500 of the world’s remaining Negret de Banhars vines).
Before he closed the 3-star El Bulli restaurant in 2011, Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià was often described as “the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on earth.” He could take a pecan and a clump of spinach, people said, and change your taste buds forever. Similarly, Camarans exhibits a free-thinking, off-the-wall, risk-taking imagination that may just change your mind about “natural” wines.
Each of Carmarans wines is fruity, alive and gently silky in a mysterious alchemy sort of way. Take his cuvée 12, a mixture of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Fer Servadou that spends four months fermenting in an oak vat, then one year in an oak barrel aging. It’s a light red with just 12 degrees of alcohol. Its energetic, sour cherry fruit base is held in tension with a firm backbone of acidity and fine tannins. Your mouth remains puckered until a long, clean, crisp finish leaves you anticipating the next sip. A simple wine that is simply delicious.
That such wine can come from the Aveyron, a region where “remote” is one of the more polite adjectives that might be used to describe it, is evidence that good terroir can be found most anywhere. It only takes imagination.
The exception that proves the rule
The exceptional wines of Mas Coutelou, made by Jeff Coutelou in the village of Puimisson in the Languedoc, prove conclusively that some of the best wines in France are hors appellation. He makes a dozen different Vins de France cuvées from typical southern France varieties– Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre for reds, with another parcel co-planted with Sauvignon blanc, Grenache blanc and Muscat petits grains for a selection of white and sparkling wines.
His website explains that he’s worked his vineyard organically since 1987, “before organic viticulture was fashionable.” He doesn’t make all 12 cuvées every year, as it depends on the millésime (i.e., weather), and he adapts his wine vinifications (long or short grape maceration before fermentation begins; traditional or carbonic maceration; punch-down or pump-over of the wine; sulfur usage; etc.) to the year’s climate.
A good friend of Didier Barral from Domaine Léon Barral in Faugères, Coutelou shares Barral’s conviction that good wine is made in the vineyard. He works his soil with meticulous viticultural practices, he uses severe pruning and vine management to limit yields, and then he hand harvests the grapes that are then rigorously sorted.
“Natural” wines often cost more than the conventional sort, but he breaks that rule by offering some of the best-value, and most interesting pure and drinkable wines that I’ve ever tasted. Only three of his wines were available for tasting at this dégustation: 7, rue de la Pompe; Le Vin des Amis, and Classe!.
Le Vin des Amis (€9) is a delicious blend of Grenache and Syrah that is made without any sulfur. Intense red fruit with a delicate undercurrent of violets make for an elegant and fresh wine that anyone would want to share with their friends. Rue de la Pompe (€7), which is mostly Syrah with just a touch of Grenache, is fresh and pure, with cherry and red fruit notes balanced by good acidity. This is followed by a complex tar-tobacco-and-violet finish that most wines costing three times its price don’t have.
And my favorite was the Classe! cuvée, which lives up to its name by offering elegantly rich, dark fruits of perfectly ripe Syrah and Grenache with the spicy overtones of old-vine Carignan. It’s a complex wine with bracing acidity, making it the perfect wine to accompany a thick, grilled steak. That it costs less than €10 is little short of amazing.
I can’t wait to taste the other Mas Coutelou wines, and Jeff Coutelou told me about an even greater temptation to get me to Béziers: a dry Grenache made using the fractional-blending solera system. Evidently, this was a common practice in the Languedoc region when Coutelou’s grandfather began this tradition of saving part of each year’s harvest to produce an apertif-dessert wine that has the dry, nutty flavor of fine sherry wine. These treasures aren’t for sale, but it will be worth the drive just to taste a sample of this almost-forgotten winemaking tradition.