Summer Vacation(s) Ep. 3

Where does a wine region begin and end?

There are appellation boundaries, of course, if you’re into that sort of thing. But some are way too big to be coherent (the Languedoc), others are drawn in such a way to exclude their regions’ most interesting growers (Emilia-Romagna), and still others are fragmented into complicated pieces when they might be better understood as a whole (the Sierra de Gredos).

And where did the appellations come from, anyway?

Well, from most of the places we might look ourselves: geology (where the Portlandian and Kimmeridgian limestones in Chablis end); natural boundaries (rivers, mountain ranges); political boundaries (cadastral maps, aristocratic fiefdoms, state lines); climate zones and water access (elevation may play a role); money (an area occupied by farmers that all sell to the same cooperative, or that a large producer wants to keep under the same roof).

There’s a certain principle of Aristotelian unity at play here, picturing a wine region. It’s meant to make sense, in and of itself. The color of the soils, the direction the wind blows, the village dances and the local dialect words, the history of the wine made there and what varieties are in the old vineyards…

But if you’re thinking Aristotelian unity is aesthetics (and that aesthetics is subjective)—you’re right!

Defining a wine region is always deciding to introduce rupture, difference, into what is, in fact, a spectrum. We can keep carving them up smaller and smaller: the idea of Catalunya, sure; but what about the Roussillon? The Roussillon, fine, but isn’t the Agly river valley really different from Banyuls? The Agly, of course, but what about Maury versus Calce? Calce, ok, but what about the plots on schist versus the plots on limestone?

Our other option, if we’re trying to define a region, is to walk right up to where it’s supposed to end and keep going: cross the river or the mountain or the border and see what resonances remain, what likenesses we can see, what drops out.

Questions to ask yourself while you taste:

1. These are wines grown in a warm, Mediterranean place; where do they find freshness? Is it elevation, soil, variety, winemaking? Something else?

2. All three are from different subregions of Catalunya/Roussillon, made from a range of grape varieties, on a range of soils. What do they share in common?

3. How do they change with air, or with time open? Were any of these changes surprising?

Class was on 07.09.2022. These were the wines:

What it might look like on a wine list
CÓSMIC VINYATERS, “Encarinyades”, Empordà

In one sentence
Co-ferment of carignan in all of its colors, translucent, zero-zero, amphora aged.

Who made it? Salvador Battle, who began making wine as a teenager; he came from a family of wingrowers in Baix Penedès. He and his father butted heads, so he moved north in 2013 to Empordà, fifteen minutes from the border, to found his own cellar, where he practices biodynamics and beyond—’beyond’ here meaning ‘sacred geometry, energetic cleansing, and sound vibrations.’ Today he farms 9.5 hectares, split between Empordà (8 ha) and Penedès (1.5).

Out of what? A single plot of carignan in all three colors—noir, gris, blanc—mostly the exceedingly rare carignan blanc. Of carignan blanc he says, “It is a fresh variety, with a lot of acidity and structure but it has always been ill-treated. It has been in this area for three or four hundred years but is not recognized by the European Union.”

From where? The plot is on sandy granite at about 1,000 feet elevation, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Made how? A short maceration of five days, co-fermented, mostly in steel with a bit fermented in amphora, which Salvador uses a lot of.

What it might look like on a wine list
LAMPYRES, “Anima”, Espira d’Agly

In one sentence
Mountain red from a Matassa disciple’s first independent vintage.

Who made it? François-Xavier Dauré, who worked for 5 years with Tom Lubbe of Matassa, one of the clutch of natural winegrowers in the tiny village of Calce that have revitalized Roussillon wine. (See also: Gauby, Padié, l’Horizon….). For having 213 inhabitants (2019 census) Calce is home to a shocking concentration of talent. While F.-X. was working for Tom, he’d spend his off-hours rehabbing his grandparents’ vines in the next village over, Espira d’Agly, often dipping in before work early in the predawn mornings wearing a headlamp. The neighbors nicknamed him ‘firefly’ (‘lampyre‘) and it became the name of his domaine. 2019 was his first fully independent vintage, and these are the first time the wines have been in the U.S.

Out of what? 50/50 syrah and carignan (the carignan are 3-year old brand new baby vines F.X. planted in 2016, the first year he made his own wine). The syrah is on red clay/limestone, the carignan on schist (geology is very complicated in this neck of the woods, and you often have this kind of night-day soil contrast!).

From where? Espira d’Agly, just east of Calce, from the vertiginous slopes of the Agly river valley in northern Roussillon.

Made how? Short, gentle 10-day whole cluster co-ferment in steel tank, pressed off to finish fermenting and age briefly in tank, bottled with 10ppm SO2.

What it might look like on a wine list
LA BANCALE, “Fleuve Blanc”, Fenouillèdes 2019

In one sentence
Unctuous, rich white with depth and power from the foothills of the Pyrenees. 

Who made it? Bastien Baillet and Céline Scheurs, transplants from northern France who studied agriculture in the Languedoc. They apprenticed in Latour-de-France (another Calce-like locus of Roussillon natural wine talent—Domaine du Rouge-Gorge, du Possible), where they fell in love with carignan and freshness that could be found in the Fenouillèdes, the little mountain range wedged between the Pyrenees and Corbières that the Agly runs through. They started in 2014 by purchasing a single hectare of old vines and have gradually added on — today, they organically farm 5 hectares spread across multiple parcels over 5 villages. Bastein says, “I just really like being a peasant, it’s a hard job but a great job! I like to prune the vines, to care for them, to plough and harvest…the vines are a good place for me.”

Out of what? Macabeau (70%) and grenache gris (30%) at 920 ft. elevation on black shale.

From where? The Fenouillèdes, in the Roussillon (see above).Made howHarvested the morning of August 29th, 2019 and blended in the press. Cold settled overnight, then fermented on the lees in large neutral wood vats. After full fermentation including malolactic is complete, the wine is barreled down in used French oak in a variety of sizes, and bottled in the spring without filtration.

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