Wine Traditions ltd
Wine Traditions Ltd. imports wines from France produced
from independent, family-owned vineyards located
throughout France’s many wine growing regions.
Always a work in progress,
always the same three goals.
Sweeten the lips
Touch the heart
Move the soul
Select a Region
The wine appellations of southwest France are spread throughout ten different “départments”. The Romans called the area Aquitania, “land of waters”, and it has been described as the area of few roads but many rivers. This group of appellations is certainly the most far ranging and diverse to be brought together under one geographical umbrella...
Continue Reading & Map
Read Vintage Reports
Although the area is spread out, it is given contours by its impressive natural boundaries. The great mountain range known as the Massif Central forms the eastern boundary. This vast range gives rise to the Dordogne, the Lot and the Tarn rivers, which flow westward toward the Atlantic Ocean and have been so crucial to the development of the region’s vineyards. The southern extreme is formed by the Pyrénées, the source of the Garonne River whose northern route passes through Toulouse and Bordeaux. The region is met on its western edge by the Atlantic Ocean.
Within the southwest of France there are many cultural and culinary traditions. Around Toulouse one finds a distinctly southern, “Provençal” influence, while the Pyrénées is home to the Basque culture as well as the Béarnaise. Further north one passes through Gascony on route to Bordeaux and Périgord.
When the French talk about abandoning the charms of nouvelle cuisine for good old country cooking or “cuisine du terroir”, the Southwest is the first “terroir” that springs to mind. Not surprisingly, the wines of southwest France also offer a welcome antidote to “nouvelle” wines and we have chosen to work with vignerons who prefer to refine the quality of their traditional wines rather than abandon them. Many of the appellations in the Southwest have ancient and illustrious histories such as the Gaillac vineyards which date back to the Gauls and were widely planted by the Romans in the first century. In the fourteenth century over half the wine shipped from the port of Bordeaux was from the Cahors region. Reflective of the cultural diversity is the diversity of wine styles and grape varieties grown in the Southwest, many of which are particular to their appellations. Red varieties from the Carmenet family such as Fer Servadou, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc are grown throughout the region as well as Tannat, Malbec and Negrette from the Cotoïdes family. White varieties of the region include Len de l’el, Mauzac, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng. There is a bucolic quality in this corner of France, a quality which is mirrored in the rich tapestry of terroirs and local grape varieties that produce these most savory, delicious and charming wines.
The city of Bordeaux and its surrounding viticultural area are located in southwest France, in the Gironde. The area is formed around two great rivers; the Garonne which flows from the Pyrénées and the Dordogne which flows from the Massif Central. The rivers meet just north of the city of Bordeaux and flow into the Gironde estuary which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The regulating influence of the ocean and rivers, along with the temperate climate of mild winters and warm falls, have an important and beneficial effect on the vineyards...
As the city of Bordeaux evolved into an important port and center of trade in the eighteenth century, its political importance grew, as did the reputation of its wines. The Bordeaux merchants, who had for centuries dealt with wines from “up river” were encouraged at this time to leave behind the wines from the other southwest appellations in favor of the local wines that were given special “fast-track” privileges. Today, a few centuries later, the Bordeaux vineyards and their reputation have developed significantly. Presently, there are 53 different Bordeaux appellations comprising approximately 275,000 acres of appellation controlée vineyards. This scale of activity insures that one can never know Bordeaux, but rather, continue to discover it.
We have found Bordeaux to be an area that far exceeds its conventional association with classification systems and the relatively few “grand chateaux”. As in other regions of France, our portfolio focuses on small family estates located throughout the many Bordeaux appellations. Beyond the circles of merchants, negociants and journalists that often define Bordeaux; we have found independent vignerons working on a small scale whose deep commitment and sensitivity to their land and work results in the production of beautifully rich and diverse wines. The Bordeaux winemaker now works with centuries old viticultural traditions which are being interpreted through a lens of modern technology and a global exchange of ideas.
The Loire River runs a course of 1,000 kilometers. This grandest of French rivers rises in the volcanic Auvergne mountains at 1551 meters in the village of Mont Gerbier de Jonc. It takes its course flowing north through the center of France and then westward to the city of Nantes, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Along its way, the Loire River passes through thirteen departments and together with its tributaries, provides the setting for seventy-three different appellations. These seventy-three appellations fall within five viticultural regions: Auvergne, Centre-Loire, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur and Nantais...
The most concentrated areas of wine production are found in these last three regions all situated on the upper half of the river and centered around the towns of Tours, Angers and Nantes.
The Auvergne mountains give birth to the Loire and present a rugged landscape quite different from the bucolic countryside of the upper Loire between Blois and Angers. The Auvergne vineyards divide into four appellations : Côtes du Forez, Côtes Roannaise, Côtes d’Auvergne and Saint Pourçain. Today they are little known beyond their borders but wine has been made there for over a thousand years and historically they enjoyed widespread recognition. The vineyards of Saint Pourçain were among the most favored in the Middle Ages, rivaling those of Beaune and Chablis and gracing the tables of the Royal Court and the Papacy at Avignon. The overall area under vine is much smaller today than it was centuries ago. Côtes Roannaise is the smallest with 170 hectares of vines and Saint Pourçain is the largest with 600. All four taken together would be half the size of the Sancerre vineyards.
The Auvergne mountains are challenging to the viticulteur from the standpoint of topography and climate. The few vineyards that exist today are planted in the most favorable micro-climates. When the wines are well made they are extremely expressive and flavorful and give the impression of being rich in minerals and restorative, much like some of the “eaux de source” from the region.
The vineyards of Centre-Loire include the appellations of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Pouilly-sur-Loire, Coteaux du Giennois, Menetou Salon, Quincy, Reuilly and Chateaumeillant. This is the land of Sauvignon Blanc; only the appellation of Pouilly sur Loire produces wine from a different white grape, Chasselas. The Centre-Loire has the city of Bourges at its center. Historically it is a mercantile city, and from where originates the word “bourgeois.”
The vineyards of the Touraine extend in all directions from the town of Tours and are organized into thirteen appellations. Additionally, to the north of Tours is the Vignoble du Loir where the appellations of Jasnières, Coteaux du Loir and Coteaux du Vendomois straddle the Loir River (what’s an “e” among rivers?).
The vineyards are spread along the Loire’s many small tributaries such as the Cher, Indre and Vienne on the south side and the Cisse and Brenne on the north. These smaller river valleys render landscapes of human scale and infinite variety, perfectly mirrored by the wines. Wines labeled as Touraine can be produced from a long list of grape types. The authorized white grapes include Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Romorantin and Arbois; the red grapes include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Cot (Malbec), Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Four sub-appellations of Touraine, each spread about a particular village and named for that village, such as Touraine-Amboise, produce wines with a stricter set of mandates from the I.N.A.O. The wines of Touraine bring to mind the old Arlo Guthrie tune, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant….”
The Touraine is followed down river by the wine regions of Saumur and Anjou. The vineyards here extend for many kilometers and are found primarily on the southern side of the river. Saumur is well known for its sparkling wine made primarily from Chenin Blanc. The natural and manmade chalk caves are like those in Champagne and provide the perfect repository for the maturing of the sparkling wine bottles. The separate appellation of Saumur-Champigny produces Cabernet Franc along the lines of Chinon and Bourgueil.
The Pays Nantais has its viticultural roots in the Roman era during which its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean provided commercial advantage to the region. However, invasions and political instability during the middle ages hindered the vineyards from flourishing. Not until the 17th century did the vineyards begin to prosper and expand thanks to the Dutch who used Nantais white wine to make Eau de Vie. The main grape of the area is the white wine grape Melon de Bourgogne, called locally Muscadet. Muscadet was widely planted in the early 18th century after the severe frost of 1709 wiped out most of the Nantais vineyards and showed Muscadet to be one of the only varieties to withstand the cold. Sharing the same viticultural zone as Muscadet in the Pays Nantais is the VDQS appellation Gros Plant which produces wine from the grape type, Folle Blanche.
The wine region of Burgundy extends from the town of Chatillon sur Seine in the north to Lyon in the south, though; I prefer to put the southern boundary at Macon, and in this way leave the Beaujolais region as a separate entity. Thus, Burgundy includes the wine regions of Côtes de Chatillon, Yonne, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Côtes du Couchey and Maconnais. The vast majority of Burgundy’s wines are produced from three grape varieties: Aligoté, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they are produced without blending the different grape types. The result, therefore, is a mapping of these three grape types onto the whole range of Burgundy’s vineyards which consequently offers the wine lover a unique window through which to notice and appreciate the concept of terroir. The difference in taste between Chardonnay grown in Chablis and Chardonnay grown in Macon is something that will always delight me...
The Burgundy vineyards have been intimately worked and studied for many centuries which has resulted in a complex and highly detailed system of nomenclature, one that beginning in the 1930’s the INAO has tried to formalize into a logical network of “appellations controlees”. The system of appellations is uniform in its general outline for Burgundy’s different wine regions, but much less uniform in its application. For example, each of the Premier Cru vineyards in the Côte D’Or and Côte Chalonnaise is associated with its village of origin and corresponds specifically to one plot of land within that village, whereas in the Yonne or Chablis to be exact, the Premier Cru vineyards never make reference to their villages of origin and moreover, the 79 Premier Cru vineyards typically use only 17 names. So, putting differences aside and embracing contradiction, one can say with confidence that the overall appellation structure is organized from the general to the specific. At the most general level, vineyards from any of the Burgundy wine regions can produce white, red, rosé or sparkling wines with the Bourgogne appellation. At the first level of specificity (and beginning of disparity among the regions), there are 24 regional appellations, each of which is comprised of a group of villages which share a common appellation name. Two examples, which illustrate the possible variation in size, are Côtes de Nuits Villages and Macon-Villages. Côtes de Nuits Villages includes nine villages whereas Macon-Villages includes 83 villages. At the next level of specificity, there are 44 local appellations, each of which corresponds to a specific village such as Gevrey-Chambertin and Chassagne-Montrachet. Within the local appellation structure, but higher up the hierarchal scale, there are 750 Premier Cru appellations which mark specific vineyard boundaries within a particular village. Examples are Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Petite Chapelle” and Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru“Les Chenevottes”. At the highest level of the paradigm, there are 33 Grand Cru appellations which similarly mark specific vineyard boundaries within a specific village (or spanning two!).
Examples of Grand Cru vineyards are Mazis-Chambertin and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet. One of the lovely idiosyncrasies is evident from these examples; namely, why the grand cru vineyard “climat” names Chambertin and Montrachet are attached to their respective communes at all appellation levels.
If one is interested and persistent enough to comprehend the lay of the land in terms of its geography, geology and nomenclature, the picture quickly becomes much more complex when the land is divided between the many thousands of Burgundian wine-growers. The average land holding in Burgundy is two hectares (five acres) and in some of the most illustrious vineyards such as Batard-Montrachet a mere twelve hectares can be divided among 55 growers.
A deep knowledge of the wines produced in Burgundy, it is easy to see, would be best left up to those who have lots of free time. People that are teachers or NBA basketball players might have enough vacation time to tackle such a project, but only the NBA player would have the money to taste the wines. Happily, even without four months of vacation or enormous resources, the wines of Burgundy are there to give us all the taste of one of the vine’s favorite places on earth.
Burgundy wine growers certainly have no special claim to the concept of terroir, but they have embraced the notion of terroir in a way that brings it to our attention and gives us much to think about. If our attention is turned to the infinite variations of our mother earth and its ability to give these variations expression through the grape vine and its transformation into wine, then what a lovely reminder that we are from the earth, nourished by the earth and will return to it.
Our exploration of French vineyards has often been guided by the study of soils and it was while investigating the wines of Côtes du Forez and Côte Roannaise in the Auvergne that I realized the vineyards of the Cru Beaujolais covered an area that is an extension of the same Massif Central. Our first visit to this geological outgrowth focused on the northern most crus of Julienas and Saint Amour. It was apparent from the start, by simply taking in the idyllic landscape and observing the small gnarly trunks, densely planted and “back-breakingly” low to the ground, that this region could produce some special wines...
Beaujolais takes its name from the region’s early capital and strategically placed town of Beaujeu. The first official record of vineyards in Beaujolais dates from 957 when the Seigneur of Beaujeu purchased vineyards in Morgon. It is more than likely, however, that with the important Roman metropolis of Lyons so close by, the Romans had planted vineyards in Beaujolais long before. Until recently, the red wines of Beaujolais were divided into four classifications: Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, Cru Beaujolais, and Beaujolais Nouveau, with Gamay being the only authorized grape. In 2011 a new AOC was created called Coteaux Bourguignons which includes vineyards in both Burgundy and Beaujolais and among other things, authorizes Pinot Noir to be grown in Beaujolais. There is also a small production of white wine which is classified as Beaujolais/Beaujolais Villages and made with Chardonnay or as Coteaux Bourguignons which permits a small percentage of other varieties to be blended with Chardonnay.
Beaujolais wines offer a unique combination of characteristics. Generally, the wines are very satisfying, enticingly aromatic and fruity with soft tannins and enough acidity to leave the palate refreshed. In contrast to their northern neighbor, Burgundy, Beaujolais wines are earthy rather than ephemeral. Like the Pinot Noir in Burgundy, the Gamay variety is intriguingly transparent as it expresses itself across the many Beaujolais terroirs. The key variables are much the same as those in Burgundy: soil composition, elevation, slope of the vineyard, and exposition. The style of winemaking reflects the vinification options of carbonic maceration, semi-carbonic and “classic”. Equally important is the quality of extraction as influenced by the length of maceration and the temperature of fermentation. And then there is the choice between selected and indigenous yeast and the quantity of SO2 added. The native of Beaujolais, Jules Chauvet, is credited with igniting the movement known now as “natural” wine. The ideas were practiced by a small group of his colleagues and have significantly influenced the younger generation of Beaujolais winemakers.
When we began importing Beaujolais in 2001, the marketplace was dominated by Georges DuBoeuf and other negociants and wines from independent producers were difficult to find. The last two decades has spawned a new generation of wine producers who sense the remarkable potential of their terroirs and are willing to do the hard work of farming the land, producing their wine and finding a clientele. In the U.S., the wines of Beaujolais have been too frequently associated with Beaujolais Nouveau. In contrast, our portfolio celebrates the variety of expression in Beaujolais and dispels the perception that all Beaujolais sing the same song. Finally, the wines of Beaujolais are remarkably versatile in terms of their ability to be paired with food; something long understood in Lyons where Beaujolais perfectly pairs with coq au vin, poached eggs and lardon, pâte and cornichon, grilled or cured sausages, steak and potatoes. Beaujolais and “frites” – now that’s some comfort.
The Rhône and Loire rivers, if taken together, bring to a geographic focus nearly the whole of France. The two rivers never meet but they pass relatively near each other while flowing in different directions; the Loire flowing north some seven miles west of St. Etienne and the Rhône flowing south about eighteen miles east of St. Etienne, near the town of Chavanay, one of the northern most villages in the Saint Joseph appellation...
I like to imagine that long before cities were built and humans walked the earth, these two immense and powerful aqua-highways had a relationship, something akin to a gravitational pull (that’s another way of saying romance). Even though they could not see each other, I imagine they could feel each other’s presence and in the primordial silence, the movement of each river might have given rise to a song which would have echoed between the Massif Central and the Alps.
The Rhône river begins in the Swiss Alps and flows 810 kilometers until it finally washes into the Mediterranean Sea. The vineyard area referred to generally as the Côtes du Rhône extends from Lyon in the north to Avignon in the south. The northern Rhône, known as the “vignoble septentrional,” is linked to the historic importance of Lyon whose commercial and gastronomic vitality have encouraged the northern Rhône vineyards to flourish. The northern vineyards lie on a narrow band of steep granite hills that represent the eastern extreme of the Massif Central. They run along the western edge of the river for a forty mile stretch between Vienne and Valence. The exceptions are the recently replanted vineyards in Vienne and the Hermitage vineyards, all of which lie on the eastern side. The climates of the northern and southern regions are notably different, with the north being cooler and wetter (a gift from the Swiss Alps that comes with the river). This is a major contributing factor to the extraordinary qualities of the northern Rhône reds which are cool climate Syrahs. The southern Rhône is quite separate from the northern region. It fans out around Avignon some hundred kilometers to the south of Valence. The southern Rhone known as the “vignoble méridional,” benefits from a Mediterranean influence which brings warmer and dryer air. It is here that one encounters lavender, olive trees and Grenache. The geology and topology of the southern Rhône are extremely variable with rivers and glaciers leaving certain zones with an abundance of surface stones. It is the Grenache grape that above all offers a thread of continuity to the red wines of the region.
The A.O.C. scheme of the Rhône Valley resembles that of Beaujolais and by French A.O.C. standards, it is rather simply organized, but of course not without its exceptions and contradictions. The appellations between Lyon and Avignon (with the exception of the Diois vineyards along the Drôme river in the Pre-Alps) are collectively known as Cotes du Rhône and include 171 communes spread throughout six départemants. The most basic appellation in the hierarchy covers wines that are labeled as Côtes du Rhône but technically referred to as Côtes du Rhône Régionales. Virtually all of these vineyards are located in the southern four départemants: Drôme, Ardèche, Vaucluse and Gard. Also located in these same four départemants, is the next level in the hierarchy, which is called Côtes du Rhône Villages. It includes 95 communes with a select 18 that are authorized to add their specific village name on the label. At the top of the order are the 13 Crus of Côtes du Rhône which do use their village of origin names on the label but not the word “Cru”. Eight of the “crus” lie in the northern Rhone: Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Château Grillet, Saint Joseph, Cornas Saint Péray, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. Five lie in the southern part: Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Tavel and Lirac. There are additionally two villages whose red wines figure in the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation, that have been given a separate A.O.C. for sweet wines known as vin doux natural. These are the villages of Rasteau and Beaumes de Venise. To finish out the Rhône Valley viticole, there are four independent appellations in the southern Rhône: Côtes du Vivarais, Coteaux du Tricastin, Côtes du Ventoux and Côtes du Luberon. All of this is to show that simple is not necessarily synonymous with simplistic.
When I started in the wine business in 1979, the wines of the Rhone Valley, with the exception of Hermitage and Châteauneuf du Pape, were little known or appreciated in the United States. At the time, a tasting of Saint Joseph wines seemed very exotic. This is in stark contrast to the enormous popularity the Rhône Valley’s wines enjoyed today. I don’t imagine that the ancient Romans would be surprised.
Admittedly, the idea of sitting on a beach and drinking formulaic Rosé never seemed like a good way to spend our precious time in France. And so, with the exception of a short excursion into the Pierrevert, and despite a longstanding invitation to visit Barbara’s relatives in Cassis, Barbara and I put off visiting Provence for 25 years. I was completely ignorant of Provence’s magnificent geography and the remarkable clash of mountain and sea, the mighty Durance River, and of course, the charm of the Chopinesque Cinsault, an “old” grape variety that according to Jancis Robinson has a long history in southern France as well as in Sicily (Grecaù) and Spain (Sinsò.) Now I am ready to make up for lost time.
Continue Reading & Map
There is, of course, way too much industrially produced Provençal Rosé and wine prices can be a bit elevated because of the demand created by tourism, but similar to the Languedoc, Provence provides countless variations on a theme with its repertoire of sub-appellations and micro-climates.
Vineyards of antiquity – if any viticultural region of France has claim to being the oldest, the Greek vineyards around Agde that date to the 5th century BC and the discovery of pre-historic fossils of grapevines in caves outside of Montpellier give the Languedoc quite the hand to play. Geographically, this expansive area reaches from Limoux to Costières de Nîmes linking the appellations of Southwest France with those of the Rhone Valley. It is sandwiched between the Massif Central mountains, the Pyrénées mountains, and the Mediterranean Sea. Not surprisingly, the varied areas of the Languedoc have strikingly different terroirs with vineyards pushing up against mountain ranges with vines as high as 500 meters, vines planted along the Mediterranean coastal plains and seemingly endless scrubland in between. In addition to a range of terroirs that span geological periods from the primary to the quaternary, and include virtually every soil type found in France, there are significant differences in rainfall, humidity, sun-hours and wind that shape the typicity of the individual vineyards...
Known for producing massive quantities of “vin ordinaire” in the mid nineteenth century, the Languedoc vineyards, like so many others throughout France, were wiped out by phylloxera by the end of the century. Despite the efforts of the government and the growers to form coops in the first half of the 20th century, the vineyards were slow to come back, and it wasn’t until the 1970’s and 1980’s that the Languedoc renaissance came about. Now, it is certainly a breeding ground for alternative minded vintners; the spirit of independence coming probably from the Occitan roots of the region and the fact that the area lagged behind other wine producing regions in receiving recognition for its wines.
It is a region that with few exceptions has significantly less rain fall than other wine producing regions in France, making it easier to farm organically. Furthermore, the Languedoc vintners have turned to both bio-dynamic farming and “natural” winemaking in surprising numbers. These choices have been encouraged by the comradery and solidarity that is evident among the local vintners of each village.
Champagne, at first glance, seems easy to understand. It is after all the most popularized and recognized wine in the world. It has been endorsed by Napoleon, Churchill and Warhol (it’s the “war” theme). However, once the fizz of gaiety evaporates and the veil of simplicity is pulled back, Champagne reveals a region with a fascinating history that has for centuries fastidiously cultivated a complex wine appellation. It is an appellation governed by complicated regulations that touch all aspects of production, a classification system of villages that sets grape prices and a myriad of styles including: wines of a single vintage, of blended vintages, of a single grape variety, of blended varieties; all of which can have different levels of dosage ranging from Extra Brut to Doux. Dare I mention content measurement? How did a 15 Liter bottle of Champagne come to be associated with Nebuchadnezzar?
The Romans gave this region its name. I suspect that these explorers had already dipped into the “local water” before naming it Campagna in memory of the area around Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps in contrast to the vast plains that flank the region to the west the geological undulations of Champagne appeared to be a similar wonder of nature. The region’s boundaries are basically unchanged since the 15th century and the “champagne viticole” (vineyard area) today spans five “départments” , the vast majority of them located in the Marne and the Aube. The vineyards cover approximately 30,400 hectares, although this area has recently been expanded. Most of the vineyards fall into the following broad areas: Vallée de la Marne, Côte de Sézanne, Côte de Blancs, Montagne de Reims and the Côte de Bar. A complete and more precise categorization divides the vineyards into twenty regions and is explained in the wonderful book Grand Atlas des Vignobles de France.
Champagne became an important center in France after Hugh Capet was crowned in Reims Cathedral in 987. Kings were crowned in the Cathedral for the following eight centuries and during this period considerable grants were given to the local monasteries which in turn became centers of winemaking until the revolution in 1798.
Until the 17th century the wines of Champagne were labeled according to small geographic regions such as vins de la Montagne or vins de la Riviere or more specifically by village or place names such as Bouzy, Verzenay, Ay and the Abbey of Hautvilliers. These wines were predominantly made from red grapes, their color compared to an onion skin or the eye of a partridge and they were gently effervescent or not. As fashion changed, so did the style of the wines to the extent that the producers could control it. The style of Champagne that we know today began in the 19th century and continues to evolve. The biggest change in the last twenty years is the increase of small scale recoltant-manipulant, “RM” producers. These estate bottled champagnes offer a remarkable diversity of expression resulting from the different philosophies of the independent producers and the more specific terroirs with which they work. These more personal expressions of champagne stand in stark contrast to the large negociant manipulant, “NM” producers who blend wines from hundreds of villages and often produce Champagne with a calculated uniformity.
One has to like a wine region where the traditional white wine is yellow, and the red wine is translucent and where conversation regularly turns to whether a wine was produced “sous voile” or “ouillés”. From Salins-Les-Bains in the north to Saint-Amour in the south, the Jura vineyards extend for 80 kilometers along a band of hills known as the Revermont. At the end of the 19th century and before the phyloxerra outbreak, the vineyards of the Jura covered 20,000 hectares. Today, a mere 2,000 hectares are planted. Most of the vineyards are planted at elevations between 200 and 350 meters and are sequestered from view from the main roads. The dominant landscape of the area is a mix of forest and cultivated farmland sprinkled with contented looking cows. Historically, the Jura was an important source of salt, but today it is best known for its cheeses. In fact, it is hard to be anywhere in France where Comté is not included on the cheese platter. Happily, in the past few years, the idiosyncratic wines of the region have made great progress in finding their rightful place at the table of the 21st century...
The wines of the Jura are produced from five different sanctioned grape varieties. Three are indigenous: Savagnin, Poulsard and Trousseau and two are borrowed from Burgundy: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I realize that referring to grape varieties as “indigenous” and “borrowed” is partaking in a kind of simplistic and revisionist history, but as is the fashion of the day around here, I am claiming “executive privilege”. At the end of the 19th century there were 45 different grape varieties growing in the Jura vineyards and the concentration on 5 varieties in the context of gaining AOC status is consistent with the narrative played out all over France. To digress, one of the most exciting recent developments in French viticulture is the replanting of “heritage” varietals and clearly the vignerons in Jura have a lot to choose from. The Jura vineyards are organized into four appellations: Arbois, Chateau Chalon, L’Etoile and Côtes du Jura. These appellations are overlaid by three “product-centric” appellations; Cremant du Jura, Macvin and Marc du Jura. It is interesting to note that in 1936, Arbois was among the first AOC’s to be recognized by the French government, a fact that would have made the town’s most famous son, Louis Pasteur, proud. The other three appellations received AOC status soon thereafter.
The Arbois appellation accounts for nearly half of Jura’s total production, and the small town of the same name is the hub of the region’s wine activity. The appellation extends to a few neighboring villages including Pupillin which can distinguish itself by hyphenating its name, Arbois-Pupillin. Chateau Chalon holds a legendary status, the only wine produced under this AOC is Vin Jaune. Its producers are held to the most rigorous standards, including a provision that can result in declassifying entire vintages. The 50 hectares of Chateau Chalon’s vineyards are spread across four communes with only certain parcels having AOC status. Those parcels that are not included fall into the Côtes du Jura appellation. The appellation of L’Etoile boasts 79 hectares spread across five hills and five villages. L’Etoile’s soil is rich in a star shaped fossil called “pentacrine”. So, what else could this village and appellation be called? The vineyards are planted primarily with Chardonnay and the appellation mandate covers only white wines, Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille, or as I prefer to say “white, yellow and orange wines”. The Côtes du Jura, in short, is an appellation that extends the full 80 kilometers of the Jura wine region, represents about 722 hectares and covers everything that doesn’t fall into the first three appellations.
The younger generation of Jura’s wine producers are pivoting somewhat from oxidized white wines and blended red wines to white wines that are “ouillés” (topped up) and red wines that are produced from a single varietal. But it is the Vin Jaune that remains the patron saint of Jura wines. Its origin is shrouded in the fog of history, although from the 18th century forward the wine has been associated with the Benedictine monastery in Chateau Chalon which in that period was the provenance of female nobility. As they say, girls just want to have fun. Produced from Savagnin, Vin Jaune can not be bottled until six years and three months after harvest and spends most of that time in barrels, typically 228 liters, without being touched. A film of yeast develops across the surface of the wine, keeping it from spoiling. At the end of this long maturation process, the wine is put in bottles that hold 62cl of wine called Clavelin after the original bottle maker. Vin Jaune has long been considered among the world’s best wines and is able to age indefinitely which suggests a corollary with the farmer who tends her land for future generations. Vin Jaune can be a wine purchased by one generation for the pleasure of the next. An unusual selling point to say, “buy this wine and drink it in a hundred years.”
The wines of Savoie are produced in the departments of Savoie and Haute-Savoie with a small slice of the Seyssel appellation in the Ain. In ancient times this region was part of the Pays des Allobroges, and wines from this region were mentioned by the historians Columelle and Pline as already being known by the Romans before their occupation of Gaul began around 25 BCE. After the Roman occupation, the Savoie vineyards followed the typically French narrative of ownership, passing from church to aristocracy to bourgeoisie and finally in the 19th century being broken up among the local farmers...
The appellations of the Savoie are spread throughout the numerous mountains, foothills, valleys and lakes of this alpine landscape and form a complex network of terroirs whose nomenclature, no doubt in the interest of clarity, the French government has made almost incomprehensible.
I don’t know if it is coincidence or something rooted in socio-economics, but both France and the United States are rediscovering cider in a big way. Who knew that the French stopped drinking cider or that Americans ever did?
In the second half of the twentieth century, the traditional orchards of Northwest France largely disappeared, ravaged by storms and uprooted because the traditional mix of pasture, orchards and cows did not conform to the modern model of intensive farming. In 1990, the number of apple trees planted in France was 20% of what it had been in 1939. At a similar time in history our own orchards were uprooted as a result of prohibition. The apple or apple tree is indigenous to both France and the U.S., as it is in many parts of the world. Like the United States, France has bitter crab apples as their indigenous species, but thanks to the invasions and migrations of Indo-Europeans, Celts, Romans and Basques, to name a few, France has received and adapted the malus domestica, domesticated apple, a species most probably developed from the malus sieversi, an apple indigenous to Central Asia.
It is the malus domestica that has been cultivated in France for two thousand years and so many centuries later was brought to the U.S. by European settlers. This is the species that is used in French cider production and that has spawned so many varieties with which we are familiar.
The list of apple varieties grown in France is daunting with over 600 varieties having been identified. Over the centuries, apple varieties have been cultivated locally, so that from one small area of Normandy or Brittany to the next, the varieties of apples will change and thus so will the expressions of the ciders. The varieties are categorized by flavor type: tart, bitter, sweet, tart-sweet and bitter-sweet. Each cider producing area has developed a regional style based on their particular blend of flavor types and using the local varieties within each category...
In the last couple of years Barbara and I have been attracted to wines with lower and lower alcohol levels and French ciders at 4% to 5.5% certainly meet that criterion. More importantly, though, the ciders that we have chosen achieve the difficult balance of our favorite wines, which is the combination of lightness and intensity.
All industrial and most independent cider producers have abandoned traditional methods of cider production and prefer to use selected yeasts for fermentation, pasteurization to end the primary fermentation and gasification instead of a natural secondary fermentation.
Happily, there is still a group of cider producers who want to make cider following the traditions of natural yeasts and without using either pasteurization or gasification. These are the producers that are passionately resisting the sterility of modernization and who merit our support.
“Matter in alchemy is material and spiritual and spirit [is] spiritual and material.”
Distillation is an ancient technique of transformation by heat. The techniques of distillation were discovered by alchemists, the “esoteric” scientists who long pre-dated our modern chemists. The term, alchemy, has its roots in the Greek word “cheimia” which itself is derived from the Egyptian word “khemit” or “chemm” meaning black earth, a reference to the black earth found in Egypt. It was around the 13th century, long after the Egyptians began transforming their earthly substances, that alchemists began distilling wine into spirits.
There are no fewer than 51 categories of French spirits which can be organized into 6 groups: Eaux-de-Vie de Vin, Eaux-de-Vie de Cidres et Poirés /EDV de Fruits, Eaux-de-Vie de Marc, Whisky, Liqueurs et Crèmes, Rhums. The vast majority of French Spirits are Eaux-de-Vie de Vin, namely, Cognac and Armagnac.
Over the centuries a long list of medicinal benefits came to be associated with distilled spirits. Unfortunately, as the demand for these spirits grew, both production and usage turned toward pleasure and often abuse. When a spirit is made from a base of organic fruit and without any additives and the entire process is meticulously rendered, we have the opportunity to connect with the beneficial effect of the ancient alchemist’s “water of life.”
A good glass of Cognac unites the head and the heart. It induces reflection and even nostalgia. It therefore seems fitting to conjure up the provincial names of the region that preceded the departmental names, Charente and Charente-Maritime. Records show that as long ago as the 13th century wines from Aunis, Saintonge and Angoumois were recognized for their remarkable qualities. By the 18th century, the region was known for its distilled wine...