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Exploring the Northern Piedmont Part 1
Christoph Künzli discovered northern Piedmont's Boca appellation at the end of the 1980s, it was, in a word, "dead."
="It was the end," says Künzli. "Everybody was gone. Most of the wines were undrinkable."
At the time, Künzli was a Swiss importer, guided by his friend Paolo de Marchi—the northern Piedmont native who created Tuscany's legendary Isole e Olena.
De Marchi introduced him to a Boca exception—retired farmer Antonio Cerri, who bottled elegant Nebbiolo-based reds from an acre he had worked for 40 years.
"Cerri made these incredible wines from another time," explains Künzli, now 54 and a gray-bearded bear of a man. "That is why I am here. I lost my heart here."
Before World War II in Italy, the hills around Boca and four other towns were covered with more than 10,000 vineyard acres. After the war, waves of locals left vinegrowing to work in local textile and plumbing industries. By the mid-1990s, only 25 acres remained under vine.
What's a rebel to do in the Jura?
It isn't easy being a rebel in one of France's smallest and strangest wine appellations. Just ask Laurent Macle.
Château-Chalon is, as the French say, particulier. The appellation allows only one kind of wine—the Jura's oxidative, Sherry-like vin jaune (yellow wine). No one knows how this white style from Savagnin grapes began, but in the cliff-top village of Château-Chalon (pop. 170) and neighboring burgs, it's taken very seriously.
Macle, however, is trying something different. "This is my little test I have been doing since 2007," Macle, 44, explains discreetly in his family's 17th-century cellars. The "little test" is four Burgundy barrels a year—1,000 bottles—of clean, complex, non-oxidative, Chardonnay-based Côtes du Jura wine.
Rosé a "cliché?"
Among Provence winemakers, Henning and Sylvain Hoesch are close to being heretics.
The father and son have made wine for a combined 40 years at Domaine Richeaume on the flanks of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, just east of Aix-en-Provence. The gorgeous 160-acre estate, drenched in sunlight reflected off the cliffs of Sainte-Victoire, is a landscape right off a Cézanne canvas, with 70 acres of organic red-soil vineyards, olive and almond groves, grain fields and a flock of 100 sheep.
The Hoesches are contrarians. They shun the local Côtes de Provence Ste.-Victoire appellation (created in 2005), cultivate outsider varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot, and even use a touch of American oak in aging wine.
And here's the worst of it: They don't care much for rosé, the dominant and booming wine synonymous with Provence.
"Personally, I would prefer not to make rosé at all," explained Sylvain, 44, a lanky, blue-eyed winemaker who bottles pink wine, in minuscule amounts, only because some customers demand it.
Luc de Conti's white mission
There was a memo that never made it to Luc de Conti in Ribagnac, France: the one that said If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
At 53, after nearly 30 vintages, de Conti is considered a leader for both quality wines and organic farming in southwest France's red-dominated Bergerac region.
But he isn't satisfied.
"Yes, we can make good red wines here, but great red wines are difficult," says de Conti, standing amid his vines on a limestone plateau about 50 miles east of Bordeaux. "Here it's easy to make great whites with character."
Hence, de Conti's latest mission: replacing his Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec with Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle. His family's 120 acres of estate vineyards are now 60 percent white varieties, and he is going to plant more.
"For me, the greatest potential for a grand vin is Sauvignon," says de Conti, his green eyes full of evangelical fervor... Read the full blog at Wine Spectator
The Paris terror attacks also took the lives of France's most outrageous wine label designers
This past week, the words "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") have traveled the world in sympathy with the victims of the deadly jihadist terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen is now claiming responsibility.
Among the slain were five of France's most celebrated cartoonists. Three of them were also among the country's most outrageous wine label designers.
"They were my friends," explains Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe, 65. For more than 40 years, Descrambe commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that varied from drunken to suggestive to sexually explicit humor. "Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the biggest bullshit in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bullshit."
Can this Monbazillac open your mind?
"I want to get out of the ghetto," says Bruno Bilancini.
Below him, the hillside of browning Muscadelle and Sémillon grapes in southwest France's Monbazillac appellation doesn't look much like a "ghetto." In fact, the gentle slopes look more like a vinous paradise.
But I get the point.
Bilancini's Château Tirecul La Gravière makes delicious cult sweet white wines that have been compared with Sauternes' Château d'Yquem. But he's frustrated that fine sweet wines are still an afterthought in the wine world. The French, for example, drink sweet whites with foie gras around the holidays, then forget about them for a year. We Americans relegate them to the dessert course.
"I want to get them out of the ghetto of foie gras and dessert wine," says Bilancini, rattling off some surprisingly delicious-sounding pairings: white meats, spring rolls, strong cheeses and curries. Even entire cuisines like Szechuan, Indian and Moroccan.
See the Video Trailer for PALMENTO on You Tube....
Robert reads from and discusses Palmento at McNally Jackson books in NY Sept. 2010.
Robert on radio