The North star

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St-Julien-en-St-Alban2

Eric Texier is a leading light in the Northern Rhône, with his traditional (whisper it: natural) winemaking techniques delivering wines which, he believes, are the equal of anything Burgundy’s Grands Crus can offer.

One might think that nuclear physics to natural winemaking isn’t a likely career path, but that is exactly the route that Eric Texier took. Today he is a leading light in the Rhône and the winemaking star who has injected life and a world-class reputation back into Brézème.

I’m chatting to Erix Texier at RAW, the natural wine fair. With an appropriately Gallic shrug at his surroundings, “These young kids,” he says, “they think natural is a new thing”.

“To make traditional, and I mean real traditional, it’s the exact same thing as making natural. I don’t see any difference. But I am an old man. I can imagine that the people who are now 20 or 25 don’t have any idea that 40 years ago, if you would go to Côte-Rôtie, nobody was using chemicals. No one. And they were all using native yeast. And the only way they have to use sulphur was to burn sulphur in the foudres or the barriques. There was no winemaking to speak of: it was only tradition. Good natural wines: they are just traditional wines.” Eric believes that natural winemaking just means going “back to the roots”, skipping “the 40 years of modern winegrowing and oenology”, something he defines as “frugal winegrowing: simple means, low-tech”.

Texier doesn’t like having to define himself as “natural” (“I don’t like this whole natural s***.”), as he says, “I’m just growing grapes. It’s the others who are chemical growers.” He feels that there is a part of the wine trade that is really part of the food-processing industry, whereas he and the other exhibitors at RAW are “just plain farmers”.

Making great wine

“I would hate my Syrah to taste like Syrah… Because Syrah, you can make Syrah everywhere. Brézème you make it in Brézème, and you have to be smart enough to bring it out in the bottle.” It is this unique expression of the terroir that Eric feels make wine utterly unique, and why he believes the current trend for craft beers won’t last (“Where is the sense of place?”).

Living in Beaujolais, his introduction to wine wasn’t via Bordeaux and Burgundy’s finest bottles, but that is what – he feels – made him realise “that great wine didn’t mean great names. Because Beaujolais, nobody cares about Beaujolais. And northern Rhône, at that time, was totally unknown. You couldn’t find a bottle of Côte-Rôtie outside Lyon and maybe Paris.”

“I drank a lot of these very old style, traditional Syrahs from the Northern Rhône, and for me they were 100 percent as great as any Grand Cru from Burgundy and from Bordeaux or from wherever […] I don’t make any difference between a Morgon from Domaine Chamonard and a Richebourg from Domaine de la Romanée Conti: for me they are the same level.” Texier sees no reason why people, “wouldn’t see Brézème as a great wine from a great terroir”.

Although today Brézème is a little known corner of the Rhône Valley, home to just six producers, it has a long history of excellence: “in the mid-1800s the price for a barrel of Brézème Blanc was the same as the price of a Chassagne-Montrachet,” Eric tells me. When I ask what happened, why the region’s wines fell from grace, he offers another Gallic shrug and a resigned sigh: “phylloxera, wars – same as usual”.

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A sustainable approach

While effectively practicing biodynamics, Eric Texier doesn’t put it on his labels. He tells me that he doesn’t identify as a biodynamiste, for which he feels, “you have to believe in a whole conception of the world I don’t share”.

“I think human kind is not able to understand a s*** about nature. Biodynamie, it’s the opposite, humankind has something very unique, very special that makes humankind able to understand and to manage nature. I don’t believe that. Definitely not. I am not biodynamiste, so it would be a lie to put the Demeter tag on my labels.”

“One of the reasons I am definitely not a biodynamiste is I don’t want to use compost, and for sure I will never use compost coming from animals. Because for me, you introduce something that is totally, totally foreign to the microbiology of the soil.” His attitude is more aligned with the no-ploughing philosophy, trying to practice permaculture, as pioneered by PA Yeomans, Masanobu Fukuoka and Bill Mollison. He believes that “everything starts from the soil”, practicing “a self-sufficient agriculture, no compost, no fertilizer, minimal chemicals” with minimal ploughing and “no naked dirt” – a rather charming phrase to suggest plenty of weeds and grass between his rows of vines.

While many winemakers proudly proclaim the tiny yields produced by their precious vines, Eric defines himself as “not a low-yield believer”. “For me, ‘normal’ yields is what the vine is able to produce if it’s in good shape. In my case it’s at least 40hl/ha, maybe 50, some years it’s 60, why not 70. When people say it’s a 10 hl/ha production, I say, ‘OK, and you want me to be impressed?’ Ten hl – if you didn’t have any disease, any trouble – no hail, no frost, no coulure, you are a f***ing bad vinegrower, you don’t know s*** about farming. You don’t make 10hl/ha out of 5,000 vines per hectare, it’s totally impossible. At least one out of two vines don’t have any grapes? What the f*** are you doing there? You should change your job.”

Beyond Brézème

While Brézème is where Erix Texier’s reputation lies, he started making wines in both Burgundy and the Rhône, and still makes a little Mâcon. I was curious whether he felt there were any similarities between the varietals he worked with or the terroirs. “Pinot has the best ability to handle new oak, which is absolutely not the case with Syrah,” he says. “Especially in weak years like ’08, you can use 100 percent of new oak and Pinot doesn’t care: Syrah does.”

He feels that Burgundy and the Northern Rhône are in the same family though, making wine “in the same spirit”, whereas Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a world away. While Pinot is trickier in the vineyard, in the winery “Syrah is a lot more delicate than Pinot. If you have good grapes, Pinot is amazing: you can make a lot of mistakes and still have a great wine. With Syrah, I don’t think so. Syrah can go very, very easily over the top. It’s very difficult with Pinot. I mean there are one or two growers who are doing Parker-style Pinot, because […] it’s almost impossible. To make that kind of Syrah, it’s very easy, a lot of people do it.”

Since 2009, Texier has also been farming a plot on the other side of the Rhône, in St Julien en St Alban. “St Julien doesn’t have the same history as Brézème, but St Julien was – for me – extremely interesting because the people I bought the vineyard from a sort of fundamentalist Protestant sect called Barbiste (they are something like Amish) […] So I found these vineyards that were not planted with clones, never saw any chemicals.” As in Brézème, he has big plans, hoping “to bring the St Julien terroir out of the darkness, because the soils are amazing, the vines are amazing, it’s incredible. It’s a very unique place.” If the results so far are anything to go by, he’s unlikely to fail.

The wines of Eric Texier

2014 Côtes du Rhône, Brézème: Syrah, fermented in a cluster, is richly evocative in hue and aroma, of hedgerow, red-berried fruit and whispers of spice. Succulent and sapid, there is no hint of 2014 dilution; on the contrary, the milder conditions have translated beautifully into an ensemble marked by both elegance and purity. Refined peppery tannins on the finish underline the pedigree of this almost forgotten region… almost, but not quite, largely thanks to the amiable Monsieur Texier.

2013 Côtes du Rhône, St Julien en St Alban: On the opposite side of the Rhône, the fruits of relatively young Syrah clones, this is the closest that Eric gets to a straightforward wine, with soft forest floor aromatics and a crunchy forward attack. There is a distinct intimation of complexity on the finish and in the finely managed tannins.

Browse the full range on bbr.com.

Category: Rhône Wine

Lodi Rules?

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Exploring California's wine country

Exploring California’s wine country

As Blog Editor Sophie Thorpe travels to California to collect our “Best Wine Industry Blog” award, she reports back from wine country.

I’ve spent the past few days loitering in Lodi, a little corner of the Central Valley that – until now – I knew very little about. Encounters with Californians that led me to reveal my destination resulted in a look of mild horror in most, or at the very least a raised eyebrow and quizzical look, assuming that it was English eccentricity taking me into the agricultural centre of not just California but the USA.

My knowledge of the area had been limited to the wines of Uvaggio, a great little producer whose deliciously juicy and moreish Barbera has become a midweek staple for me. The Central Valley is better known for producing vast quantities, and not much quality – being home to both Gallo and Mondavi’s Woodbridge winery (now under Constellation’s ownership). But it also has another side: a reputation for plots of old vines (particularly Zinfandel) and more unusual varieties that aren’t planted elsewhere. Visits with Bonny Doon and Birichino revealed that they were buying grapes from Lodi vineyards. One of the cult names for serious Zinfandel, Turley, produces single-vineyard wines in Lodi, with vineyards that date back to the late 19th and early 20th century (many of which were saved by the fashion for white Zinfandel).

But why the heck was I there? An adventure into the unknown? A pioneering spirit to see an alternative side of California’s otherwise quite glamorous industry? While I wish that was the case, it was really a little thing called the Wine Bloggers Conference, a collection of some 300 bibulous bloggers, ranging from enthusiasts to industry professionals, where we were receiving an award for Best Industry Blog. Lodi is about to get a lot of coverage, with everyone quite taken – if not by the current quality on offer – the potential that is slowly but surely being discovered.

There is an emphasis here on a humble representation of the region, its multigenerational heritage (even if some of them are farming on a truly industrial scale). As Mark Chandler, who was Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission for 20 years, said, in Lodi you have the chance to “meet the folks that work the land”.

But the folks these days are facing serious issues. Global warming is a threat, pushing up temperatures with record summer after record summer. Water poses a problem, as they are just coming out of a drought but still suffering from water shortages. Irrigation is almost required here and – as of 2015 – the pumping of groundwater is being regulated. Scientists at Stanford suggest that by 2040 the region will have seen a temperature increase of one degree Celsius, and estimate that Napa could lose half of all Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes as a result. In Lodi it is already hot – temperatures over the weekend were reaching highs of 37 degrees Celsius, and only dipping as low as 15 at night.

Much of the progress in the region is thanks to the impressive Lodi Winegrape Commission, who are remarkably coordinated. The Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area – the US appellation system) was granted in 1986 and the LWC campaigned for seven sub-AVAs to be created which have been featuring on labels since 2006 and their identities gradually being carved out. One of their most exciting projects is Lodi Rules – California’s first third-party certification for sustainability, for which they employed Steve Matthiasson, an extremely highly regarded viticultural consultant (and the man behind Matthiasson Vineyards).

While the song might say “Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again”, the sentiment towards this spot is rightfully changing. Lodi’s Mediterranean varieties might just be the new Napa Cabernet.

Category: Miscellaneous,New World

A reel from Rioja

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

While on holiday in the region, Wine Buyer Will Heslop dropped in to Haro to visit the famous Bodegas R. López de Heredia, one of the most traditional and respected Rioja producers. Here his evocative description of their extraordinary cellars is paired with Jason Lowe’s images.

It’s difficult to remain business-like on a visit to the bodega of R. López de Heredia in Haro’s Barrio de la Estación. So warm is the welcome; so comforting the aura of perfectionism; so stimulating the sights, let alone the aromas and taste of the bodega’s wines, memorable in any context but unforgettable here.

Then there’s the roar of the furnace in the cooperage and the feel of the furry, black matter – home to an array of benevolent microbes – that coats every inch of the labyrinthine cellar. A true feast for the senses, which Jason’s photographs portray far more eloquently than my words.

Photographs: Jason Lowe

Photographs: Jason Lowe

Category: Spanish Wine

Eat, drink and sleep: Champagne

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

In the second of our regional guides, Champagne Specialist Edwin Dublin runs through a checklist for a trip to the region – ticking off where to stay, what to eat and who to visit.

All told, Champagne produced about 307 million bottles in 2015, just a little less than Prosecco which now holds the crown of the largest sparkling wine producer, stolen form Champagne two years ago. Ten percent of the region’s production is drunk here in the UK, making us the largest consumer of Champagne in the world outside France, thus a pilgrimage to Champagne is – I think – a duty. And if the world’s greatest sparkling wine wasn’t reason enough to visit, Champagne recently became a UNESCO world heritage site. The region has fashioned an image of itself that is all about luxury and glitz; but if you visit the region and stop by at any little producer you drive past, not far beneath the glitz are many dedicated artisans in tiny villages, looking to produce something that reflects their specific terroir. It might not have the most dramatic scenery but those gentle slopes, that chalk soil and – of course – the Champagnes draw me back at least twice a year.

The main part of the region, the Marne Valley, encompassing the Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne itself, can be done in a few days. Epernay is the municipal Champagne capital, while the historical centre is Reims, home to its great cathedral and the deepest, most splendid Champagne cellars situated within caverns hewn from material used in the building of the city. A few hours south is the Côte des Bar (formerly the Aube) where another historic city, Troyes, is situated.

Where to stay: Epernay is a good base for the Marne. In Epernay itself, in traditional champenois style is La Villa Eugène. La Briqueterie, close to Epernay and part of the Relais and Châteaux group, offers sedate luxury (and a good restaurant). The village of Aÿ is a sleepy alternative (although it must be said that Champagne is not exactly the raciest of regions!), just up the road from Epernay, and is where we often stay, at the Hotel Castel Jeanson. All share traditional champenois architecture, with varying levels of modernisation. If it’s splendour you’re after, then head to Reims where the four-star Hotel de la Paix and five-star Château les Crayères await. Less lavish alternatives include one from the reliable Mercure group.

Make sure you eat: Curiously for such a famous wine region, there is no tangible “local” cuisine here. Two delicacies which might be classed as such are andouillettes, a very strongly flavoured tripe/meat sausage also found in Chablis but thought to originate in Troyes; and caster sugar-sprinkled pink biscuits called Roses de Reims, which date back to the late 17th century. However, there are several restaurants with classic French cuisine (haute or not). Although relatively few in number in comparison to Burgundy, for example, they range from Michelin to brasserie, and even a rotisserie. Needless to say, all of the below have excellent Champagne lists, but if you wish to try other wines, most have at least a good selection, especially the grander ones.

The best restaurants: Arguably the most famous restaurant in Champagne is Michelin-starred Château les Crayères within the aforementioned hotel, overlooking some beautiful gardens often graced by art sculptures. But if the thought of Michelin prices scares you off, the brasserie attached to it is a great way to sample some of the grandeur. Snapping at Les Crayères well-manicured lawns and reputation is another Michelin-starred restaurant A. Lallement at the hotel L’Assiette Champenoise near Reims, whose sometimes quirky cuisine has captured the imagination of many Champagne producers. Epernay too has the odd starred restaurant too, including the classically traditional La Table Kobus. Les Berceaux in Epernay is a little more restrained than the others but no less grand. And like Crayères, it too has a baby brother, Bistrot le 7 (you turn left on entering rather than right for Berceaux).

Smart but less formal is La Grillade Gourmande in Epernay. As the name suggests, grilled meats are their stock in trade but other fare can also be found. They have a covered courtyard for those increasingly common hot summers. If you crave old-style brasseries with fin-de-siècle décor, then Brasserie du Boulingrin in Reims has this in spades, with a range of set and à la carte menus. Finally, I have to mention Rotisserie Henri IV, first recommended to me by Billecart-Salmon. Situated in Aÿ, so not far from Castel Jeanson and just a short taxi ride from Epernay, it has simple but great food, a reasonable list and is a little gentler on the wallet.

Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

The best bars: Champagne (surprisingly) is not exactly famed for a vibrant night life, but there is an increasing number of good bars. The centre of Epernay, Place de la République has a huge bar with plenty of sheltered outdoor seating (the name escapes me – probably because I only go on the rare occasion I fancy a beer – but you can’t miss it), but is now also home to showrooms/bars owned by two of our growers: Janisson-Baradon and R&L Legras. Neither opens their cellars/vineyards to the public, so this is a great way to sample their wares and perhaps meet them as Cyril Janisson and Julien Barbier can sometimes be found at their respective bars. But, be warned, they don’t stay open late.

Reims is a little livelier. The Glue Pot bar/restaurant, despite the unprepossessing name and almost pub-like interior has a brilliant list (Champagne, of course, but the wines are good too) and is popular with grower producers when they meet up. It has the added advantage of opening late – which is rare in Champagne! There is also the eponymously (and a little annoyingly) named Le Wine Bar (Made in Reims, by le Vintage, to give it its full title) that also has a very good list, and food of the charcuterie, cheese, etc variety.

Make sure you drink: And whilst you’re sampling the local bubbles, do look out for still wines which are rarely seen outside Champagne, if you fancy something different. Known as Coteaux Champenois, the reds from Bouzy, such as that from our own Champagne Bara or from Cumières from Champagne Geoffroy, are amongst the best and are similar to village-level Burgundy. Or there are the Rosés des Riceys, a speciality of this southern Champagne area, which definitely suits food, being of a savoury character. Alternative digestifs are Marc de Champagne and Ratafia, which also serves as a dessert wine alternative.

Producers to visit: Of course the principal reason to visit the region is to see Champagne cellars and taste the wines. Alas, our smaller producers do not open to the public, but all of the big names do tours and tasting flights, and should be done at least once. The Avenue de Champagne in Epernay is one part of the UNESCO-listing, lined with several Champagne houses including Moët et Chandon. With arguably the grandest buildings and gardens of the Avenue, Moët also has substantial cellars to tour (with a separate entrance through another building). But it is the cellars of Reims that are the most spectacular: truly cathedrals in chalk below ground, covering acres of space. Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot are two well worth visiting.

Don’t miss: The scenery is more pretty than spectacular (the Montagne de Reims for instance is just a few hundred metres high) but the ancient cities of Reims and Troyes are definitely worth a wander. Reims of course has its cathedral, where French kings were crowned until 1825. If you wish to get the lowdown on Champagne’s history, including the early 20th century riots, then Le Phare de Verzenay, Champagne’s history museum housed within a lighthouse is worth a short spin round.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine,Miscellaneous