As wine connoisseurship evolves, I look toward developing ways to express the aspects of wine I love the most. I recognize that wine is a product of nature and science; my goal is as natural as can be: to help make the connection between joy of taste and the bountiful pleasures of life.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Like aurora borealis…straight up to the cosmic heights

Last week I did my part to “represent." I did so in a way that many folk from Atlanta wouldn’t and, in fact, consciously choose to not. Making the pilgrimage this time meant that I would be the only one in attendance at Martine’s regional wine tasting in Chicago. Martine’s, unlike a few other European wine importers, has managed to maintain a brilliant core group of wine producers that somehow – at least in this market, seem to totally escape the radar of the masses and or tractor beams of many the persnickety, cherry pick’n, wine buyers.

I can recall only a few times over the years when an opportunity arose like this one. Scene after scene, from hotel lobby to tour bus, and onto a nearby brassiere, the tone of conversation (mostly in French) was steeped in humility as the winemakers - many for the first time - made their way through the bustling streets of Americas heartland metropolis. I was sure that this trip would be worth it, I envisioned what it might be, I wished for it to be all that and more and, sho'nuff - woooop - there it is!

We shared an extended meal on the first evening in a quaint Alsatian restaurant just blocks from the hotel. My round table was brimming with conversation. Again, mostly in French. I understood about 25% of what was being said and if it weren’t for the men on my right and left, I could have just as well drawn a picture of my surroundings. Claude Chevalier, winemaker and proprietor of Domaine Chevalier, on my left and Dirk Niepoort of the Douro house, Niepoort (perhaps one of the finest winemakers in the entire Iberian peninsula) on my right.

Topics ranged throughout the evening but what really caught my attention concerned the idea of interplanting grape varietals. I vaguely recall discussing this topic with winemakers in the past and have since done a bit of reading about this viticultural practice. While not in attendance that evening, I think the most prevalent example of this technique or wine growing ideology can be found at Domaine Marcel Deiss.

The Domaine oenologist, Marie Helène Cristofaro, sums it up best: "Old vines are like an alphabet to express the vineyard," she explains. “The idea is to have vineyards planted with mixed varieties, which are then made into wines known by the name of the place, like any other French region." Christofaro claims that in order to express the characteristics of a vineyard, a range of different varieties does best. "We think the clones we have now in Alsace are too simple to express the complexity of each vineyard."

For years the practice of growing different varietals together in a specific macro climate or macro terroir has been routine. What sets Jean Michel and Cristofaro apart is this firm dedication to the taste of place. To a winemaking purpose that trumps any labeling law, traditional standard or status quo. If the goal is clearly to show the place, to transform the terroir into the juice, to insure that every bottle of wine, regardless of its cepage represents (there’s that word again) the true taste of place, then according to Domaine Marcel Deiss and many folks at my table, interplanting is the answer.

Here in America and in many other viticultural regions, this practice would never have a fighting chance. Why you ask? I say, simply because it’s just not the same objective. The world has become brand and varietal driven. Less and less it’s about the agricultural product or a showing of what wine can be from a particular area. Initially, while considering the concept of interplanting vineyards, one Pinot Gris vine, followed by a Riesling, followed by a Pinot Blanc, followed by a Muscat and so on - folks around the world really pushed back. I think that blocks of one varietal next to another block was one thing but for the sake of harvesting and general vineyard management, this idea of interplanting was considered bunkum. Here is where it gets cool.

So you’ve gone against the grain – aka Domaine Marcel Deiss; you’ve been dubbed a freak, you’ve been told, “Hey, dummy. Don’t you know Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris don’t ripen at the same time?” You’ve been shunned and told that only an idiot would interplant, but you remain sure that in order to really captivate that vineyard and the specific nuance of that micro terroir, you’re doing the right thing.

The summer months pass, harvest approaches and then like medieval herbal witchcraft, meets southern gospel, meets aurora borealis on a cool November night in the upper peninsula of Michigan, you stand in the middle of your vineyard, you look at the clusters of berries: to your right, to your left, then behind you and some two over and one across. You glance up at the heavens, arms outstretched and shoes off with your feet firmly planted in the dirt you realize that the closeness of the vines you’ve planted and the unlikely even ripeness of all the grapes is your reward and personal thanks from the vines. A cosmic and celestial gathering! Like a lost child reunited with a parent at Disney world, the vines thank you, they revel in their nearness and familiarity; they love each other, recognize each other, understand each other, and have deeply missed each other. At last and all together the vines show you what it really means to have a unified relationship with Mother Earth. They have intermingled their tentacles beneath your feet and have become one.. in this way, the bottlings that come from vineyards like this are like extraterrestrial elixir. If you aren’t feeling grounded or just need a dose of something legal your doctor can’t prescribe. Well, you know.

This practice is being contemplated and acted upon as you read this. Get ready - and don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

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