Class Recap: “Sailing Like Phoenicians”

Picture wine’s ancient world. Vines haven’t yet been brought to western Europe. Viticulture is already thousands of years old. Wine is fermented and transported in clay jars. It spreads along the coasts, winegrowing and wine drinking both.

What unites the vines north of Cadíz, the winegrowers up the coast from Tarragona, and a polycultural biodynamic farm in an abandoned co-op just inland of Marseilles? This series of classes is about going on journeys: putting lesser-known wine regions into context by seeing what they’re linked with, and how.

Elevator pitch: The Phoenicians brought the vine to the Iberian peninsula, in search of tin. The first vines in France weren’t in Burgundy or the Loire, they were planted around the polyglot port of Massalia. Wine came to western Europe by boat, as an import.

It’s worth mentioning here that, in an important sense, the ‘Phoenicians’ didn’t exist.

There were people who set sail to the western Mediterranean from trading cities in the Levant like Tyre or Sidon for the first time, and they changed the rhythms of their world. They’d mastered new seafaring technology (examples: keels, watertight caulking), and they could brave the open water instead of hugging the coasts. The window for safe passage to the other side of the ‘world sea’ closed for half the year. You might be able to make it there and back, but just as likely, you wintered at your destination, and developed enduring seasonal relationships with the local people you stayed with.

So those people existed. But they never called themselves Phoenician, a word invented to name them that was derived from one of their most famous trading goods and which ‘can refer to a palm tree, a deep red-purple color and the mythical bird.’ They weren’t an empire, they didn’t conquer territory, they didn’t have ‘national consciousness’. At most, they might have thought of themselves as inhabitants of a particular city. (Read Josephine Quinn’s In Search of the Phoenicians for more.)

So the Phoenicians invented European wine, and they also weren’t real. I only mention this because a lot of the way wine history gets talked about is in sweeping, just-so stories, which the opposite of what I love about history itself, how much more varied and strange the worlds that have come before us were than we give them credit for, and what that can help us imagine about what’s possible for our own futures.

There’s something fundamentally unknowable about ancient wine. Even in places with ‘a thousand years of history’, what’s actually grown and how it’s made has changed immeasurably in the last century and a half. And so these bottles aren’t historical re-enactments of how wine used to be, but the things about them that may feel idiosyncratic (flor aging, co-fermentation, buried amphorae) have deep roots in wine’s real, weird premodern history.

Class was on Saturday, 1.15.2022. Some questions to ask while you taste:

1. Have you ever had sherry? In what ways does the first wine in the lineup remind you of it? In what ways is it a surprise?

2. Are you a ‘red wine person’ or a ‘white wine person’? What do you expect in terms of structure, aromatics, and complexity from a wine’s color? The wines we’re tasting all fall a little in between these two categories; do any of them challenge your expectations?

3. These wines are all grown on limestone in warm places moderated by the sea. Despite their many differences (grape variety, winemaking, region), do they share anything in common in terms of texture, shape, and energy?

How it might look on a wine list
COTA 45, palomino fino, “UBE Miraflores”, SANLÚCAR DE BARRAMEDA

In one sentence
Grower-sherry; manzanilla made like it was still the 1700s.

Who made it? Ramiro Ibáñez, who came home to Sanlúcar and started his own bodega in 2012. His winery is in a converted boat repair shop overlooking the river. He jokes that it’s his ‘albarizatorio’: soil exploration laboratory.
Out of what? Palomino, the ubiquitous grape of sherry, on the region’s blindingly white chalk soils, albariza. He even lists the three different subtypes of albariza the vines are grown on below the vineyard name on the label.
From where? A single vineyard named Miraflores, north of Cadíz on Spain’s Atlantic coast, outside of the sherry village of Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Made how? Aged biologically under a veil of yeast nurtured by ocean breezes that develops over the wine, protecting it from oxidation and changing aromatics. (Kind of like dry manzanilla sherry from Sanlúcar!) Not blended from different vintages or fortified with neutral spirit, but instead bottled after a year or so. (No so much like dry sherry, which is fortified and a complicated blend of back vintages held in a solera system!) Arguably, something like what the region’s wines would have looked like in the 18th century.


How it might look on a wine list
SICUS, field blend, “Hidra”, BONASTRE

In one sentence
The kitchen sink in amphora, not quite rosé, not quite orange.

Ok one more sentence
A euro from every bottle sale goes to a Doberman shelter in Catalunya.

Who made it? Eduard Pié, who returned home to his farming family to begin tending the vines and making wine in 2009. (His family had always been farmers, but he was the first to make and bottle his own wine from the vines.) Farming is no-till regenerative and teeming with life.
Out of what? A kitchen sink mix of everything he grows, local varieties like pink-skinned xarello, malvasia de Sítges, macabeo, sumoll, carignan…
From where? Bonastre, tucked away behind the coastal massif just north of Tarragona and, for a tiny out-of-the-way village, home to three small natural winegrowers (the best-known is probably Partida Creus, two crazy Italians who moved here 22 years ago and were among the first wave of Catalunya’s natural wine scene).
Made how? Kind of complicated! It’s a second-use wine; all of his other bottlings are single plot / single variety, some fermented and aged in amphorae buried between the vineyard rows, and it seems like he doesn’t use a press, just drains the free run juice? So afterwards, he presses all of the leftover whole berries from all of the other wines he makes and infuses them for 1-4 months. Aging is in a mix of steel and amphora. It’s low alcohol (10.5%), zero-zero, somewhere between a light red co-ferment and an orange wine. A little fragile, to be honest (the best place to drink it would be in Eduard’s back yard) but beautiful while it lasts. Open with three other friends.

how it might look on a wine list
SULAUZE, grenache/syrah, “Charbonnières” PROVENCE

In one sentence
Infusion-y Mediterranean red that’s like drinking liquid silk.

Who made it? Karina & Guillaume Lefèvre, who met hiking in Corisca and purchased the property—the site of a long-defunct small wine cooperative and some abandoned stone buildings, alongside the vines—with the help of a French government agricultural subsidy in 2004. They biodynamically farm its 29 hectares, including olive groves, wheat and barley fields and an extensive vegetable garden, and even run France’s first biodynamically certified brewery across the dirt road from the winery.
Out of what? Mostly grenache (born in Aragon and spread through the western Mediterranean by Catalán seafarers), kiss of syrah.
From where? The absurdly picturesque Provençal countryside just inland of Marseille, the port where vines first arrived in France a couple thousand years ago. Their local soils are a kind of flaky limestone called lauze, from whence the name.
Made how? The whitish-pinkish direct press juice from the second pass through the vineyards is poured over the top of the prettiest whole clusters from the first pass, and infused for two weeks. The two varieties are fermented & aged separately (grenache in concrete, syrah in big neutral barrel) and blended before bottling in the spring. No filtration, a little volcanic sulfur. 

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