In his latest book, The New France, Andrew Jefford meets some of the personalities shaping France's wine world. Here he introduces Decanter to five innovative producers.
Researching The New France gave me the chance to visit each of France’s wine-growing regions within a two-year period. I was shocked, firstly, by the beauty of the best of France’s wines. The grandeur of Pauillac or Hermitage is now echoed in Cahors, in Madiran, in Minervois, in Bandol and in two dozen or more appellations. I was struck, secondly, by how rich the quality of life, and the strength of family ties, remains in France’s wine-growing communities. Few children in the world seem as fortunate to me as those born today to France’s passionate, committed and successful wine growers: they have a life of astonishing rewards ahead of them should they choose the path of their parents. The third lesson was that terroir is the defining reality of all great wine, although the potential of most of France’s wine-growing terroirs is, surprisingly, at the very early stages of exploration and discovery.
Not everything, of course, is serene in France’s vineyards. The promotion of French wine to ordinary consumers around the world is inept; French wine law (although fundamentally precious) is inconsistent, conservative and unresponsive to change; and too many French regions see other French regions as their chief competitors.
At 200,000 words, the book is twice as long as I originally envisaged, and twice as long as the publishers wanted. Why? Partly because France’s wine culture is so complicated and so rich; partly because I realised that any thorough account of the ‘New France’ had to take account not only of what didn’t exist before, but also of the many innovations and changes in the ‘old’ France; and partly because many French wine growers are not only brilliant sensual craftsmen, but gifted thinkers and talkers, too. I wanted to give these outstanding individuals space to speak, alongside Jason Lowe’s haunting black-and-white photographs of them. Meet five of French wine’s vineyard philosophers.
The New France: Anselme Selosse
Anselme Selosse is the most charismatic, controversial grower in Champagne. ‘I have vineyards,’ he says, ‘but I don’t consider myself a proprietor. No one owns a terroir.’ He campaigns against genetic modification, and is a member of José Bové’s Conféderation Paysanne. ‘We’re not against globalisation; we’re in favour of an alternative globalisation, one in which each individual is able to enrich himself or herself on the culture and gastronomic habits of others.’ His political principles even extend to his pricing policy. ‘I don’t want to capitulate to the law of offer and demand. I apply a coefficient based on my cost price. Everything is calculated on a healthy, true and transparent basis.’
Selosse, who uses biodynamics as ‘one tool among a number of tools’, is celebrated for wood-vinifying only fully ripe grapes for his Champagne. ‘People say that in Champagne you can’t get grapes fully ripe. The truth is that most growers don’t want to. Their excuse is that the grapes ‘won’t have enough acidity’.
‘To appreciate Champagne, you need an impression of freshness, a lifted quality. Normally the chalk should give you this ‘sharpened’ impression. But when yields go through the roof, that minerality is diluted. All you can do to give your wine a flavour is to leave acidity there, to make a vinho verde, if you like. But it will only ever be a wine from unripe grapes, which is never very interesting. We get criticised because we get our grapes up to 12.8% or 13.6%. Everyone says that will make Champagne that’s flaccid and alcoholic, but that’s not at all the sensation you get as you drink the wines. Minerality replaces hollow acidity. People claim things have to be the way they are. In fact, it just gives them a chance to carry on sleeping, and not to ask themselves the difficult questions they should be asking.’
The New France: Claude Papin
Claude Papin, whose Loire valley domaine is named after one of his soil types, the volcanic spilite known locally as pierre bise, is one of France’s greatest theoreticians of terroir. In addition to the spilite (used for an astonishing Gamay as well as classic Coteaux du Layon), Papin has limestone, schist and sandstone in his other vineyards in different parts of Coteaux du Layon, in Quarts de Chaume and in Savennières – though he stresses that terroir is far more than just soil.
Papin is a brilliant winemaker, especially with Chenin Blanc. He believes this was once a red grape (‘which explains the bitterness of Chenin, and its longevity’) and that it ‘needs botrytis. Even for dry wines. The grape is well adapted to this half-maritime, half-continental region – but it’s also super-rustic, and if you don’t master it, it gives you very poor results. For it to become fine, it needs the maximum – and the maximum is botrytis.’
Like many of the New France’s greatest winemakers, Papin welcomes New World competition. ‘Without competition, we do many stupid things. Competition forces us to adopt intelligent strategies. Every time a bottle of varietal wine is sold, it prepares the way for the sale of a vin de terroir. Our foreign competitor is our first sponsor. It’s clear that the wine world in the future will be 80% varietal and only 20% vin de terroir, but that’s enough for all of us.’
The New France: Jean-Michel Deiss
Is there a more articulate winemaker than this tangle-haired motorcyclist who runs Domaine Marcel Deiss in Alsace? If so, I haven’t found him or her. Like Anselme Selosse, Jean-Michel Deiss uses biodynamics as a tool or (to use his own preferred word) ‘a starter’; like Selosse, he is in local terms a revolutionary. Deiss’ revolution, though, is not just fully ripe grapes (a battle long won among the Alsace avant-garde) but complantation: planting a range of different grape varieties on a single site. Deiss is insistent that the greatest wines of Alsace are blends, not single varietals. He likes to show visitors a 50-year-old parcel of Engelgarten where all the varieties can be found muddled, even within one row.
‘What is a terroir? It is a matrix by which the possible can be uttered. History robbed us of our memory; it robbed us of our terroirs. We no longer knew what Ribeauvillé meant, or what Bergheim might say. We had 150 varieties in the Rhine Valley in 1840. Now there are officially seven. Do you realise that 80% of all the Riesling in Alsace is clone 49? All that genetic generosity has been lost.
‘How can I spell my name with one letter? How can my terroir express itself in one syllable? How can I make music with one note? The necessity here, the absolute first priority, is to re-find complex varietal plantings in order to give utterance once again to the complexities of our terroir.’
Now that grand cru legislation permits gestion locale (the growers of a grand cru setting their own rules – including, if they agree, the use of blends), Deiss is able to practise what he preaches, most notably with his Gentil de Burg (which mixes Riesling and Gewurztraminer) and his Grand Vin de l’Altenburg, a grand cru wine in which all the varieties come swimmingly together.
The New France: Pascal Verhaeghe
Pascal Verhaeghe of Château du Cèdre is not only a prime mover in Cahors (he has established a local ‘Charter of Quality’), but he also typifies another trend in the New France, which is the way that key growers in one region can influence those in another.
In Verhaeghe’s case, the inspiration is from Burgundy’s exuberant Belgian, Jean-Marie Guffens. ‘Up until I was 20, I was studying mathematics and physics. My father was a wine grower, but I wasn’t interested in wine; it just seemed like hard work. Then I met Jean-Marie more or less by chance, through a mutual friend who was doing the harvest there. I was going to be there an hour or two; I stayed three days. I gave up my studies more or less overnight.’ What was Guffens’ lesson? ‘Pleasure. Pleasure in making wine; pleasure in tasting wine. That’s the basis of everything. And the other lesson was that there is nothing sure, nothing certain in terms of learning about soil, vines and wines. One can reinvent; one can do things differently. That is very liberating.’
Verhaeghe has put the lesson into practice at home in Cahors, with wines such as ‘GC’ fermented in an up-ended 500-litre wooden cask with its head removed; and in his new Roussillon domain, Marcevol, where he treats Grenache Blanc like Guffens treats Chardonnay from Chassagne.
The New France: Jean Paux-Rosset
Garages aren’t only in the back streets of St-Emilion. Château La Negly, in the La Clape zone of the Coteaux du Languedoc, is a domaine run along the same fanatical, low-yielding, fruit-sorting, oak-lavished lines as Valandraud or Le Dôme – though its owner, Jean Paux-Rosset, had to wait years before he got the chance to put his ideas into practice.
‘I felt 25 years ago that we had a great site, that we could do something serious here, but my family refused.’ Paux-Rosset worked as a property developer; indeed, he ran a garage – for HGVs. ‘I was thrilled when my parents finally let me take over, and in the end they regretted not having done it earlier.’ Paux-Rosset has always believed in the potential of the limestone terroir of La Clape for the stunning Syrah-based Porte du Ciel, one of modern Languedoc’s greatest wines, as well as the Clos des Truffiers, produced at St Pargoire near Pézenas. Unlike the four other producers featured, Paux-Rosset pins his philosophical banner as much on human activity as on the terroir itself. ‘For me, the notion of men is more important than the notion of terroir. You must respect the terroir, but it’s what you do which brings it alive or lets it die.’