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.