Weird Science

I started on the reading material for my class last evening. The first chapters are the “technical” ones, first biology : the vine, its parts, how it lives, what it needs, photosynthesis and all that. Then, it’s chemistry : fermentation, alcohol, sugar, blue meth,… It’s all well and good if you ignore the fact that I hate science. Chemistry and physics were the two classes I always dreaded in school and to this day I feel nothing but apathy at best and loathing at worst for science.

But, wine science serves a greater good, so studied on I did. I was reminded of a quote by Rabelais, 16th century French philosopher ( a class I didn’t dread in school) about “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’ame.” Science without conscience is just ruin of the soul. If you switch “conscience” with “purpose” in the quote, then you get something. Science for wine isn’t too bad, it serves a purpose, the purpose tastes good. I’m willing to see science as a necessary evil if it leads to grapes being fermented. Also, topically, Rabelais is often associated with good food and wine, especially Chinon wines from the Loire Valley, coincidence ? I think not.

Credits : Wikipedia

Credits : Wikipedia

Having reconciled myself with science, I kept studying. A big challenge is going to be the vocabulary, since I’m learning english words whose French translation I don’t know. It’s a process, nothing a little googling can’t solve. I am now familiar with buds, nodes, canes, spurs, shoots, tendrils and of course, permanent wood (not to be confused with transient wood which just phases in and out of reality). Okay, vines are plants, roots go down, sun comes in, photosynthesis happens, the plants grows. Everybody wins.

It gets more interesting when the lesson moves on to grafting. Basically, every vine producing grapes for wine is the result of grafting. Grafting is the process of joining 2 species of vines together to get qualities from both. Example : vitis vitifera is a vine that can produce wine grapes, which is good, but it is really fragile against the phylloxera parasite, which is bad. In fact, it those little bastards almost destroyed european vines in the 19th century. Enters vitis berlandieri, its grapes are unfit to produce wine, which is sad, but its roots can stifle phylloxera parasites by filling their greedy little mouths with sticky sap, which is good (and also really funny). Grafting the top of vitis vinifera on some vitis berlandieri roots, you get a vine that produces good grapes and can resist phylloxera. Jesse, you take this one.


Thanks Jesse. Now I’m starting to look at the scary part for me : chemistry. Compounds and reactions, fermentation, stuff turning into other stuff because stuff happens. I’m not kidding, “stuff” is an accurate snapshot of my knowledge level here. I’ll have to take copious amount of notes. I can’t wait to get to the part of the class where there are maps. I like maps, I understand maps. In the meantime, onward, for science !

Unusual Loire valley wines

There are a few worse ways to spend a weekend evening than sharing wine with a friend. Sometimes there is even pizza, so things get even better. Last weekend’s wines had a theme: Loire valley weird stuff.

We started out with the Cuvee du Rosier 2013 by Pascal Janvier in the Coteaux du Loir AOC. It’s a light summer red to serve chilled, made from a pretty obscure grape called Pineau d’Aunis. The Coteaux du Loir appellation is located on a hill overlooking the Loir river, a tributary of the Loire river. I know, it’s dumb that the Loir is a tributary of the Loire, but hey,… The wine is light in color with red fruit notes, spicy undertones and a “meaty” aspect on the nose (interestingly enough, Pascal Janvier, the wine maker, is a butcher by trade). The acidity is high and the alcohol level pretty low, served young and chilled it will go well with cold cuts, appetizers or even grilled meat and veggies. It retails between $15 and $20 and it’s a well-made, original wine made from a variety that was described as the Hipster of all varieties by my wine shop guy.

Loire lineup

The second wine was le Grolleau, Clau de Nell 2011 by Anne-Claude Leflaive. Now, you see the name Leflaive and you think Burgundy. You might even be a little bit more precise and think Puligny-Montrachet. You’d be right, Anne-Claude has been running the Leflaive estate in Burgundy since 1994, it’s one of the great estates of Burgundy, producing incredible white wines, including some Grand Crus (Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet and Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet). Anne-Claude Leflaive bought some land in the Loire Valley in 2008 to experiment with a different environment and that’s how the Clau de Nell came to existence. This particular wine is made from the Grolleau variety, a Loire Valley grape often used in Anjou to produce rose wine. The wine is light bodied with high acidity, served chilled too. It’s aged in Burgundy casks which shows through a hint of smokiness. The main aromas will be floral with violets come to the foreground. It’s more expensive than the Cuvee du Rosier with prices ranging between $35 and $40 but it’s an extremely well made, interesting wine, not just a thirst quencher like the other.

Rose and whites, it’s summer after all

Now that I am back to a more regular posting and drinking schedule, my weekend tasting nights have picked up again. As the picture below will show, life was good. Here is the lineup from that evening.

soiree rose

Philippe Tessier, Cheverny 2013

I am not normally a rose fan but I had a good feeling about that Loire Valley offering. Cheverny is an appellation that produces red, white and rose wines. The rose is made from Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes. It had a nice salmon color with some almost orange tinges. Red fruit notes with a bit of underlying spice, a very refreshing combination, perfect for summer, BBQ, appetizers… It is also quite cheap, you can find it for $10 or so. Stock up before summer ends!

Cheverny tessier

Arianna Occhipinti, Tami Grillo 2010

Ah, Arianna… I like many of her or her uncle’s wines, Tami is her affordable, varietal wine line. Grillo is mostly known for being used in Marsala but is beginning to be used as a varietal. Things got interesting because Grillo is supposed to be fresh, simple, meant to be drank young, but we actually drank a bottle of 2010, the wine had aged and it was not a bad thing. A lot of oxidation notes gave it a unique character, it should have gone terribly wrong, but it didn’t. Now I need to get a bottle of a more recent vintage to try it the way it’s supposed to be drank. This one is also pretty cheap, around $15 I believe

Tami Grillo

Badenhorst Family Vines, Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2013

Finally, the most classic South African Chenin Blanc ever. Clean, crisp, acidic, a very good example of what Springbok Chenin Blanc is supposed to be with lots of citrus notes and white peach. A very solid selection, especially for the price: $15

Copy of Secateurs Chenin 2009

And for the swing and a miss of the night, we had that bottle of Fume Blanc 2011 from Grgich Estate. It was by far the most expensive and acclaimed bottle of the evening, it was supposed to rock, and it was corked.

The sad part is that you could still get the awesome aromas behind the cork taste, but, I guess it was finally not to be. Well, the other wines provided plenty of material and a lot of enjoyment. The evening was a success.

MWWC10 : Values, tradition and the value of change

It’s a new month, it’s a new Wine Writing Challenge! As always, the theme was chose by the last winner, The Sybarite, and his choice was “Values”. I’m looking forward to reading what people will come up with, in the meantime, here is my entry. I hope you will excuse the very academic title, just a shout out to high school French students now taking their philosophy baccalaureat exam.


Values, tradition, and the value of change

“Values” is a tricky word, so many possible meanings… When in doubt, I like to start with a quote; it helps settle the issue at hand and give perspective. I think something important about values was formulated by an early 21st century philosopher, Seth McFarlane: “It seems today that all we see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely?” A good question if I ever heard one.

“Good old-fashioned values”– that sounds like something I can work with. Let’s just go through other possibilities: San Francisco values (too political), Addams Family values (too black and white), Risk-adjusted business value (too from my day job). You know what, I’ll stick with the “good old fashioned values.”

And it’s not because that expression contains the name of a great cocktail; I actually have things to say about the idea of good old-fashioned values in wine. Added bonus: this angle allows me to channel and use what is pretty much my only advantage against the other writers in the competition, the fact that I’m French. It’s kind of a dumb thing to leverage, but we must all focus on our strengths, right?

Mad Men old fashioned

It’s old fashioned

There is something in the French psyche that can drive me insane when I think about it too much: it’s the rampant, pervasive and maddening conservatism. To foreigners, a common French trope is the constant striking and demonstrating in the streets. This trope holds true, but what people don’t realize is that strikers do not ask for more, they just protest change and reform. There is entitlement here, but I think there is also a fear and rejection of change and evolution. Let’s continue to do things this way because that is the way we always did them.

French winemakers and French wine can have a tendency to hold on tight to those good old-fashioned values. I am not saying it’s a bad thing; I just have a problem when people do things a certain way just because it’s tradition without even considering potentially better ways.

To be fair, this reliance on tradition is more prevalent in Burgundy and Bordeaux, the two classical wine growing regions.  Bordeaux wine still relies on a classification of Grand Crus dating back from 1855, with only one Chateau changing ranks (Mouton Rothschild moving from second to first in 1973). As for Burgundy, most of the terroirs were classified by monks in the Middle-Ages. As you can see, there is a premium on tradition here.

And to an extent, it makes sense, because tradition really is part of the brand. When you buy a bottle of Bordeaux, you pay not only for the wine but also for the name, the tradition, the aura of Bordeaux. That’s why things tend to move slowly there. And I’m not just talking about wine-making techniques; even marketing, sales channels and labels tend to emphasize tradition and old-fashionedness.


It says Chateau and it shows a chateau

Bordeaux labels will depict the Chateau, and Burgundy labels will aim for an old-timey feel with cursive letters, family crest or even faux-parchment labels. Once again, those characteristics are part of what you pay for. They’re the cultural trappings of the wine. In a way, it’s akin to buying Apple products: you’re paying for more than just a phone or a computer, there’s a mystique you buy in, some turtleneck clad values you display to the world while making a purchase.

Old-timey much ?

Old-timey much ?

Maybe I’m overthinking this? You’re right, I’m totally overthinking this. Anyway, traditional winemaking values are being challenged in France, but you’ll have to explore less iconic regions to see it. It’s not very surprising: Bordeaux and Burgundy rely on their traditional, high value image, and they are shackled by restrictive and strict labelling laws. When you move down in the hierarchy of appellations, you have more freedom and you can have some fun.

Take the Loire Valley for example. It’s definitely an old region of France, and one with strong ties to French history, but its wine industry doesn’t overly play the old-fashioned card. In a way that wine region is less scrutinized than Bordeaux, and so producers can try things out, stretch boundaries and get away with it. Here’s one of my favorite wine labels.


Notice the difference?

Can you imagine a Burgundy producer going with something like that? That would shatter a painfully constructed image and go exactly against their commercial and advertising policy. The good old-fashioned values are part of wine culture, especially the French wine culture, and for the most part it’s a good thing. My problem is, sometimes those values can get in the way of fun.

And I like having fun. I mean, given the choice between having fun, being bored and feeling miserable, I will probably pick having fun 99% of the time. When I tell people I’m into wine, I sometimes feel that their minds race to words that start with an “s,” like snobby, stuffy or serious. Wine should be fun; you should be able to like a wine because the bottle looks cool, you don’t need to know the ancestry of a wine producer over the last twelve generations to enjoy his wine. The heritage, the values are part of what makes a wine, but if they are the only thing it has to offer, then, well, that does not sound appealing. I don’t like tradition for the sake of tradition but I don’t like change for the sake of change either.

I know I might sound like a hypocrite because I do write a blog dedicated to learning as much as I can about wine, about the winemaking, the varieties, the producers…. And I love doing so; it’s a significant and happy part of my life. I just don’t want it to come at the expense of enjoying wine for what it is, a fun way to get a few friends together. Here are my wine values, I don’t know if they are “old-fashioned,” I’m not sure if they are “good,” they are probably not “good old-fashioned,” but they’re mine. Now I just need to find a way to get a few more of that skull and bones bottle !

Greengages, it’s a Vouvray thing: Marc Bredif Vouvray AOC

Marc Bredif Vouvray Classic 2012

Region: Vouvray AOC, Loire Valley, France

Grape: 100% Chenin Blanc

Price: around $20

vouvray classic

Sometimes, things work out. Last Friday just a few hours after I had written a post on Chenin Blanc, I went to have dinner with some friends. As I took a look at the wine list, my eyes got caught on a bottle of Vouvray, probably the most famous Chenin Blanc AOC in France. I thought this was 1) a sign, and 2) a pretty damn good occasion to illustrate what I had just written about. Also, the bottle was pretty cheap for a restaurant, around $30 I believe. In short order, the bottle was ordered, opened and laid to rest in an ice bucket.

As I started to give some Chenin Blanc background to my (American) friends, I realized something. It would be difficult explaining Chenin Blanc without mentioning greengages given the fact that this is often the main aroma of the variety. I have never seen greengages in US grocery stores, even though they are pretty common in France. They’re a small, green variety of plum (called reine-claudes in French) so I had to give that bit of information. It was more useful than I thought since the wine turned out to be very greengagy indeed.

So, they look like this...

So, they look like this…

Eye: pale gold

Nose: Clean, medium intensity, stone fruits (greengages), citrus and flowers

Palate: Off-dry, high acidity, medium body, long finish (grapefruit)

Considering I drank this wine the evening after I wrote my Chenin post, I kind of went for a mental checklist while tasting it. Style? Off-dry. Acidity? Very high, mouthwatering even. Greengage aromas? Yes sir! On the nose, and on the palate both. It is a refreshing, medium body wine that checks off pretty much all characteristics of a Vouvray. The final is pretty long too and there are notes of grapefruit and white flowers to complement the greengage.

Food pairings: I had it with fried chicken. Given the high acidity of the wine any fatty dish would make for a good pairing. I think creamy cheese for instance would be a nice match.

Overall opinion: Good example of a classic off-dry Vouvray with a vibrant acidity for a reasonable price. I’d strongly recommend it if you want to get a good idea of what a French Chenin Blanc should taste like (or if you’re curious about the greengages thing)

So many puns, so little time

For the first time since starting this blog, I regret having decided to write in English. I like writing in English, I think it suits my style of writing and the way I think, but with today’s subject, it would have been a treat to write in French! See, I have a dirty secret, an addiction I can’t resist. I cannot stay away from a bad pun. It’s a disease, I can’t help it. Today I wanted to talk about Chenin, and this word is very close to the French word “chemin” (path, trail), tha possibilities where endless. But I write in English so you have managed to escape from “Tous les Chenins menent a Rome” or “Le petit Chenin qui sent la noisette” or even “Chacun sa route, chacun son Chenin”. God that would have been so great!

Chenin Blanc grapes

Chenin Blanc grapes

When it is not used for bad puns, Chenin Blanc is a white grape variety that, like many varieties, is originally from France but is now planted in many countries. The main characteristic of the variety is its high acidity. Because, or rather thanks to this acidity, Chenin Blanc can be a very versatile grape. It is actually versatile in two ways; first of all, it can grow in a wide variety of climates, from the cool Loire Valley in France to warmer climates like Australia. The climate and the soils will make for significant differences between Chenins from different regions.

The second aspect of this grape versatility is that it lends itself to a lot of different styles. Its high acidity can be used to enhance certain blends, but even in varietal wines the range of possibility is wide. Chenin can produce dry wines, off-dry wines and even sweet wines. It can be made into sparkling wine too. It lends itself well to noble rot, the use of lees or malolactic fermentations.  The same goes with use of wood. Chenin responds well to oak or even other woods but can also be made in a clean unoaked style. You can pretty much do whatever you want with Chenin in terms of styles and winemaking techniques. It should also be noted that this variety has a very long ageing potential, mostly due to, once again, its high acidity.  

Sparkling Vouvray

Sparkling Vouvray

Common aromas and flavors of Chenin depend on the style. Dry Chenins exhibit notes of reine-claude (greengage), pear, apple and honey. Off-dry or sweet styles can remind of peaches, marzipan or quince. And finally, Chenins from warmer climate have a lot more tropical fruit to them, like guava or pineapple.

The main region of production is the Central Loire Valley in France, a cool long river valley that flows into the Atlantic. Even within this region you can find a lot of different styles. The most famous AOC is Vouvray, near the city of Tours where Chenin Blanc is made into dry and sparkling wines during cool years and into off-dry or sweet wines in warmer years. Other Loire Valley AOCs for Chenin Blanc include Anjou (regional AOC), Montlouis (next to Vouvray), Savennieres (mostly dry), Coteaux du Layon (sweet).

Vines in Vouvray

Vines in Vouvray

The second home of Chenin Blanc is South Africa. There is twice as much Chenin Blanc planted in South Africa as there is in France; it is actually the most planted grape in South Africa where it is called Steen. South African Steen tends to favor an off-dry style with more tropical flavors than French Chenins. The main production area is Stellenbosch near the Cape.

So, to recap : versatile in climate and style, high acidity, Loire Valley and South Africa, good for making bad puns in French. Yep, we have Chenin Blanc covered!

Changing the apero game : Saumur Chenin Blanc

Reserve des Vignerons, Saumur AOC, 2011

Region: Saumur AOC, Loire Valley, France

Grape: 100% Chenin Blanc

Price: around 6 euros / $8


Is there something Frencher than the apero? How can you even translate it into English? It’s basically a pre-meal, meal. Sort of pre-gaming a meal with a few glasses of wine and some light fare (olives, lunchmeats, crackers,…)

I had kind of an impromptu dinner at my uncle’s last night, and of course we started things off with an apero. Now, traditional apero wine in my family is Bourgogne Aligoté so I was extremely surprised when my uncle brought out a different apero wine! Shock, stupor, confusion, and all that range of emotions I usually experience when trying to understand women and that I didn’t expect to feel at the sacrosanct apero time.

But anyway, new wine for the apero, from the Loire Valley, more specifically the Saumur AOC (centered on the town of the same name). Wines from that region are predominantly made with Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc. A distinctive feature of the region, other than the influence of the Loire River of course, are the chalky soils made of tuffeau, a white stone that is often house to build houses in the region.

Here's a example of tuffeau architecture

Here’s a example of tuffeau architecture

Eye: Pale lemon

Nose: Clean, medium plus nose. Pear and yellow apple with hints of honeysuckle. There definitely are some smoky, flinty undertones.

Palate: Dry, medium minus acidity, medium body, medium finish.

Citrus aromas that transition to yellow apple with honeysuckle and the smoky, flinty undertone from the nose is still there and kind of supports the wine all the way into the finish

Food pairings: Great for the apero of course! It would be nice with cheese, especially goat cheese and it would work with seafood too.

Overall opinion: Check the price. Yup, it’s a below $10 bottle of wine. And it’s very enjoyable; I’ve had pricier wines that I enjoyed less. It’s not extremely sophisticated but neither is it too simple. The smoky notes are a nice distinctive feature that helps the wine stand out. For a wine that price I think it’s a bargain. I wasn’t even mad at my uncle for breaking tradition.

Yo ho ho and a bottle of wine

Today I want to scratch the surface of something that has been on my mind for a while about the way wine is marketed. A few years ago, with my embryonic wine knowledge, I noticed that in the US and more generally, in any non-European wine region, the prominent feature on a label is the grape variety. Most of the time, the variety does not even appear on a French wine label.

 I said scratch the surface because I’m sure there is more to it than 500 words worth and I’ll probably get back to it later but let’s start with the basics, or at least some basics. In Bordeaux and Burgundy, you never see the grape variety on the bottle, mostly because well, it’s illegal. Labeling laws are very strict in those regions, in Burgundy they are location based and in Bordeaux they are producer based. You will never see wines from there showing Chardonnay or Merlot on the labels.

It’s not like producers have a choice then, it’s not a marketing choice but a marketing constraint, they have to work within set boundaries. That is not the case of producers in other regions like the Loire Valley. This region attracted a generation of young producers that brought a more modern approach to wine marketing, there are a lot less regulations about labeling there and, to be honest, they can do pretty much whatever they want. You’ll get fantastic original labels there; a personal favorite is the Cuvee SO2 by Domaine de l’R, based near Chinon, proudly flying the skull and bones.

cuvee So2

SO2 is sulfur dioxide’s chemical notation; it’s often added to wines in order to protect wines from bacteria and oxidation. The “contain sulfites” message on the labels comes from there. Frederic Sigonneau’s the wine producer wanted to produce a wine without any sulfites, and he decided it to call it after SO2. No conservatives, no sulfites, no quarter.

This sort of label is unimaginable in Burgundy or Bordeaux where people do thing one way because they have always done it this way. That’s why I tend to look at them as “old” regions and places like the Loire Valley as “young” regions where anything can happen, kind of a far-West approach to winemaking. Now, I’m not going to lie to you, I did this post mostly because I wanted to show that skull and bones label !