In the Vines: Pruning and "Pliage"

 A Sauvignon vine, after pruning and "pliage" 

A Sauvignon vine, after pruning and "pliage" 

Every year in wine growing regions around the world, winemakers call on seasonal workers to team up and help with the annual grape harvest. In France, this period is called "les vendanges"- a word that refers both to the harvest itself and the experience of harvesting. It's something you do ("j'ai fait les vendanges") but also something that happens to you

There are many stories of how the vendanges have changed people's lives- the short period of time is often the source of inspiration, exciting encounters, and unforgettable experiences. I think of the vendanges as France's version of summer camp for college kids and adults- it's a time set apart from the rest of the year- and the distractions of daily life- when people come together, form a community, and synchronize to the rhythm of nature.

 Working in the vines in the springtime

Working in the vines in the springtime

I did the vendanges in 2014 and count myself among the large number of people who can say it changed the way I see the world.  Not only did the experience inspire lasting friendships, it also lit a fire in me concerning everything that goes into biodynamic farming and natural winemaking.

When the vendanges came to an end last year and it was time to say good-bye, I was sure I wasn't saying "adieu", but rather "au revoir", knowing that I would be back again to visit the vines soon. 

 Pruning Gamay vines in December

Pruning Gamay vines in December

By early December I was back. The weather had changed and the trusty boots that served me so well in September did little against the winter morning chill. But that wasn't the only difference from the harvest season. Now, instead picking the fruit of the grapevines, we were to cut back the branches by pruning each vine, being sure to pay careful attention to the equilibrium and harmony of each knobby vine foot. 

There are several ways to prune and the act, like all aspects of biodynamic farming and winemaking, is a mixture of science and philosophy, fact and feeling

Unlike industrial or conventional wineries, natural winemakers concentrate on quality rather than quantity, by pruning vines so that they have a chance to produce ripe, healthy fruit rather than being  overburdened by too many bunches. This is done by manually pruning each grapevine, choosing a primary fruit bearing branch on each side of the "cep" , or foot of the plant. The grapevines are pruned to stay low to the ground, assuring that sap can travel to feed the vines more easily and economizing energy that the vines will later invest in growing fruit

For winemakers that favor a low-intervention approach to wine making, the act of pruning may be one of the most intentional manipulations they will exercise in the life cycle of a vine/wine. While the role of man/woman is evident in the practice of pruning, and not something that occurs naturally in the life of a vine, it is not so much a violent act- but rather a humbling experience not taken lightly by the winemaker, who understands that they are affecting the destiny of not only the next year's harvest, but of the form of the vine stock itself.

 Laurent teaching us all about "la taille" on a cold winter day

Laurent teaching us all about "la taille" on a cold winter day

Pruning vines that are often older than you are, and will most likely be around longer than you, too, is taking part in a long history of decisions made by winemakers who came before you as well as sending a message to generations of winemakers who will come. 

In certain cases, when vines are pruned "à la baguette", or using a method that leaves one large cane, or branch, on each side of the grapevine foot, a secondary step is necessary. This step is called "Pliage" and refers to the act of folding and tethering the longer branch to a wire so that it will grow parallel to the ground. This method is often used with Sauvignon vines, who benefit from the restructuring that provides structure and stimulates growth

 Bringing staples back from the vineyard after a morning of folding Sauvignon vines

Bringing staples back from the vineyard after a morning of folding Sauvignon vines

Using steady and firm gestures to bend the grapevine branches proves the flexibility and resilience of the plant. The branches will resist slightly as you fold them and use a special stapler to attach them to a low-hanging wire (this doesn't hurt the branches- just creates a lose circle around them and the wire so that they stay in place), but they (rarely) split or break, and adapt readily to their new formation

Another superpower of grapevine branches is their ability to make new life. On an early April visit to Laurent Saillard's parcel of Sauvignon I was lucky enough to observe the birth of a "marcotte". Marcottage is when you take a branch of a grapevine that was left to grow long in the past year or two, and bury the middle part in the ground.

 Laurent digging a hole for a brand new, baby marcotte

Laurent digging a hole for a brand new, baby marcotte

After time, the buried branch will start to grow strong, downward reaching roots and a new vine stock is born, filling in the previously vacant neighboring space. It's a process that takes years to prepare and longer to reap the fruit of- but it's a beautiful way to create life in the vines and really makes you appreciate everything that the vines can give. 

One of the greatest things the vines offer, no matter what time of the year, is the opportunity to be silent and simultaneously in dialogue with something ancient, both inside and around you. Great winemakers listen to their vines and help them tell their story so that we can drink it all in. 

 A marcotte from a previous year is growing strong

A marcotte from a previous year is growing strong


In Season: Ail des Ours + Wild Garlic Pesto Recipe

 Freshly foraged wild garlic (right) and wild chives (left)

Freshly foraged wild garlic (right) and wild chives (left)

Every few months, I make a trip to visit dear friends and winemakers in the Loir-et-Cher region of the Loire Valley. Along with catching up with people I love and enjoying a break from the city, this is also an opportunity to see what's happening in the vines.

Participating in the vendanges, or grape harvest, last year got me hooked on the fascinating responsibility that is cultivating grapevines with the goal of making natural wine. Every season brings changes among the vines and different ways to accompany the plant to assure a healthy and robust autumn harvest

 Pruning grapevines in the Loir-et-Cher

Pruning grapevines in the Loir-et-Cher

This winter, Laurent and Noella were kind enough to let me try my hand at pruning the vines, which I got to resume on a recent trip to the vineyard, during which I also learned "pliage", or folding, in which large canes or branches of vines are tethered to a wire to encourage an optimal grape yield. I'll write more about all this in a later post- because those lessons learned deserve their own space. 

Seasonal visits to the Loire reveal not only changes in the grapevines, but in the environment all around them. An added bonus to working among the vines is the time spent roaming the forests and fields looking for wild edible plants.

 Wild garlic flowers

Wild garlic flowers

In the winter we took pruning pauses to look for wild mushrooms hidden among the leaves on the forest floor. We brought Chantrelle and Black Trumpet mushrooms back by the basketful and made hearty homemade meals from our daily haul. 

My early April visit brought a new scavenger hunt, focused on the bright green shoots that announce the arrival of spring. Among the most prevalent edible wild plants at this time of year is Ail des Ours, also known as Ramsons, Wild Garlic, or Bear's Garlic

Ail des Ours grows wild in deciduous forests with moist, slightly acidic soil. The height of the season is when the plants begin to flower just before the forest trees start to leaf. Both the leaves and the flowers are edible, the former have a sharp, concentrated garlic taste and the latter possessing a more subtle flavor

There are many options for preparing fresh Ail des Ours- the leaves can be used in a tossed salad or lightly sauteed with other greens. Laurent suggested pickling the flower buds, which should be done a little later in the season, when they are just about to flower.

Another simple recipe is Wild Garlic Pesto. I use the term "recipe" lightly here, since ingredients and measurements will depend on how much wild garlic you can find in the woods or at the market, what ingredients you have on hand and ultimately, what tastes good to you

Below is a basic recipe to get you started. Variations can include adding radish or carrot greens, using different dried nuts or seeds, or including other foraged plants- like early spring nettle leaves, which will add a bitterness and earthy flavor to your pesto. Adapt measurements and ingredients as you go, modifying to taste. 

If you can make the time, it's great to prepare a huge batch of this pesto in an afternoon. Prepare reusable glass jars to keep, or gift, your fresh, seasonal pesto!

 Potted Wild Garlic Pesto with a glass of Noella Morantin's rosé "Marie Rose", photo courtesy of Ben Nerot

Potted Wild Garlic Pesto with a glass of Noella Morantin's rosé "Marie Rose", photo courtesy of Ben Nerot

Wild Garlic Pesto

Makes about 1 cup (250 ml)

Ingredients

3 cups (50 grams)Wild garlic leaves (and flowers if desired) washed and chopped

1/4 cup (25 grams)Dried nuts or seeds- such as pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, almonds

1/2 cup (50 grams)Parmesan cheese, grated

1 cup (235 ml)Olive Oil

Salt, to taste

Preparation

Combine wild garlic, nuts or seeds, and parmesan in an electric mixer. Add about two tablespoons of olive oil before closing the lid. Begin mixing your pesto, slowly adding olive oil as you go, until you reach the desired consistency. Stop and taste often, adding salt as needed. The pesto is done when it tastes good to you.

Serve immediately with pasta or spoon into glass jars if saving for later. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for longer.  



Wine Weekend in the Loire: Exploring Vins Etrangers in France

 Saumur, site of the epic Dive Bouteille tasting 

Saumur, site of the epic Dive Bouteille tasting 

Christmas comes late to the Loire Valley, where the end of  January and early February bring gifts from around the world in the form of wine. Once a year a perfect storm of wine tastings occurs in a collection of small towns- notably Angers and Saumur- which host an influx of thirsty winemakers, sommeliers, oenologues, restaurateurs, and general wine geeks. Sipping to their palette's content these wine professionals and dedicated fans explore salon upon salon making new discoveries and savoring old favorites.

Various wine tastings in the region are scheduled within the span of a long weekend and range from intimate tastings including a handful of winemakers such as Les Pénitentes to larger events like Les Vins Anonymes and La Renaissance to the enormous event that is La Dive Bouteille, a  jamboree which welcomes over 200 vignerons. These tastings are followed by inevitable after parties taking place at the handful of restaurants and bars in town with natural wine lists and seasonal menus suited to a crowd with similar inclinations.

I'm not going to lie, it's pretty amazing. 

But it's also overwhelming. There are so many wines to taste, so much swirling, sniffing, and tongue twirling that you can easily suffer from tasting fatigue (it's a thing- wine tasting is serious business). So you try to make some sort of a plan, which are always jokes that you end up being partially the punchline of, but you try anyway.

 Suspended bottles at Le Cercle Rouge in Angers

Suspended bottles at Le Cercle Rouge in Angers

The semblance of a plan that I had during wine weekend leaned heavily towards taking advantage of the presence of foreign winemakers at the various tastings and getting to know what was going on around the world of natural wine.

The vibe of these particular tastings is so international that it seems fitting to adopt a global approach to the dégustation. The sheer volume of people- between winemakers and wine professionals- present at the salons made one wonder what was going on in the vineyards of France and wine bars of the world. Were deer and other natural grapevine predators having Mom-and-Dad-are-out-of-town parties in vineyards of France and beyond? And who was advising dinners what to drink in the wine bars and restaurants of New York, Paris, and Tokyo? I didn't seem to matter, because everyone was there,  tasting recent vintages and talking import/export.

 René Mosse at Les Pénitentes

René Mosse at Les Pénitentes

As a freelance writer / drinker, I felt free to explore without looking for anything in particular, just with my eyes out for all things new-to-me. Our first tasting was Les Pénitentes in Angers, where quite a few winemakers I had met during the vendanges were presenting their wines. Legends of the region such as Hervé Villemade, René and Agnès Mosse, and Jean-Marie and Thierry Puzelat were in the company of invited winemakers of their choosing. 

Among the invited guests was a Georgian winery called Pheasant's Tears, a winery I had first encountered at a tasting that Thierry Puzelat organized at Le Chateaubriand in Paris two years ago. Pheasant's Tears winemaker John Wurdeman, an American who has been living in Georgia since 1998, served us wines that were made using the traditional winemaking style that has been practiced for 8,000 years in the country.

The method, which is included in UNESCO's intangible heritage list, involves fermenting the wine in clay vessels called qvevri, which are buried underground and allow the wine to develop with the aid of naturally occurring yeasts and plenty of time. This method favors skin contact and whole cluster fermentation, resulting in tannic reds or slightly oxidized (in a good way!) whites. Pheasant's Tears wines vary on the skin contact spectrum and are fresh, lively, vibrant, and retain their pure juice.

The character that is created when practicing clay vessel fermentation has sparked a trend in French winemaking, with both Villemade and Puzelat experimenting with the method in their own vineyards. The Georgian method of winemaking will soon hit the New World through one of its greatest proponents in the US, Alice Feiring, whose soon-to-be-published book on the subject recounts the stories and history of one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world- coming soon to a bookstore (do those still exist?) near you!

The next day we made our way to La Dive Bouteille where an entire corner of the gigantesque Caves Ackerman was dedicated to Vins Etrangers. New and Old World winemakers shared the space, with Serbian wines neighboring South African vintages that shared a view with Greek and Chilean blends.

Our short tour covered impressive territory. We started with the Americans, namely Joseph Pedicini of Montebruno Wine in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Joseph's beautiful Pinot Noir (of which he was pouring two vintages) are inspired by lessons learned from his Italian grandmother, particularly that the best things in life are those that are made with your own hands.

Joseph explained to us that he wants his wines to express his love for the process and his desire to create something you want to share with the people you love. His wines are delicate yet concentrated, with a lovely minerality and satisfying spicy notes. Joseph giggled when we compared this wine to a Pineau d'Aunis a typical cépage in the Loir-et-Cher, “I swear it's made in Oregon” he told us, making me think it's not the first time- and won't be the last, that his wine is mistaken for French. No harm done, he seemed to take it as a compliment- I think his grandma would be proud!

Dirty and Rowdy were back at La Dive for their second year. These dudes are so chill you kind of just want to drink wine with them, whether it's their wine or not. It was fun to hear stories of their far flung voyages to their scattered vineyards that all together may just make up every type of terroir you could find in California, and possibly the entire universe. Their Semillon is a delight, even though I think it is almost impossible to get ahold of a bottle. Another great reason to come to La Dive!

We finished up our US tour with a visit to La Garagista where the thoughtful and engaged winemaker Deirdre Heekin patiently explained, in AP level French, her motivation for making natural wine in Vermont. A sommelier by trade, Heekin was tired of not being able to serve the wine she wanted, so she decided to make it herself.

 Deirdre Heekin, photo courtesy of La Garagista

Deirdre Heekin, photo courtesy of La Garagista

Creating field blends from the vineyards on and around their working biodynamic farm, Deirdre and her team make wines using hardy varietals that are suited to Vermont's cold and rugged winters. The result yields surprisingly subtle, aromatic wines. The ochre robe of La Garagista's Vinu Jancu blend belies a subdued autumnal wine that escapes being oxydatif but retains a nutty, caramelized flavor that makes it perfect for the fall.

Our final discovery in the land of vins etrangers was an easy favorite. Upon seeing Anton Von Klopper I knew I wanted to taste his wines. Embodying the essence of the unkempt connaiseur so often seen in record shops or the handful of remaining movie rental stores in the world, Anton immediately inspired confidence and curiosity. Based in the Adelaide hills, Anton's Lucy Margaux Vineyards adopt biodynamic farming and winemaking methods, shunning filtration and the use of additives.

Anton's rigeur when it comes to winemaking resembles the most adamant of European natural winemakers, but there is one sense in which the two schools part ways; Anton is not afraid to blend, like really blend. “This is all the mistakes” he told us, while pouring an experimental 2014 vintage that included a little bit of everything- both whites and reds- and tasted...pretty great, actually.

This radical blending blew the minds of the French companions I was tasting with, which I think makes for a pretty great day at the salon all said and done. Anton's wines are crisp and expressive, the results of a willingness to experiment and a commitment to using each year's juice, without resorting to the chemistry set that industrial winemakers rely on when they fear their Chardonnay won't turn out just right.

From Eastern Europe to the Southern Hemisphere it was super exciting to see how the cross-fermentation of wine traditions and new ideas can affect the ever-intriguing exploration that is natural winemaking. And the wines taste good, too.