The evening opened with an introduction by Kathleen Burk, Director of the Wine Guild, who arranged the event and organized the wines.
Whilst on a wine-tasting sweep in Romania several years ago, I (Kathy) visited Avincis Winery, where Ghislain was the winemaker. I liked the wines and enjoyed talking with the winemaker, and intended to keep in touch. However, he told me that he and his wife Angela were leaving Romania and going to Alsace, where he was born, to establish their own winery. We kept in touch.
We agreed that it would be a good idea, in these virtual discussions and tastings, to go beyond the very well-known winemakers whom we had already presented and to invite a rising star to discuss his and her wines. Hence Ghislain and Angela, who opened the evening with a lovely video showing their vineyards (illustrated below) and winery.
Ghislain did not come from a winemaking family. On a trip to New Zealand and Australia, he had his ‘first glance’ at agriculture, including working a harvest. He liked it, and he went to Burgundy to learn more. He worked at Château Chamiry, which had vineyards in Mercurey, Nuits Saint Georges and Vosnes Romanée, and then moved to Portugal, where he worked in the Douro Superior. This was his introduction to schist (a slate-like metamorphic rock). He went back to France, met Angela, an opportunity arose in Romania, and Angela, who was working in finance, upped sticks and in 2010 the two of them went to Romania.
They went to Avincis Winery, a family-owned, highly-regarded, state of the art winery of 45 hectares in Dragasani, 200 km south-west of Bucharest and one of the most dynamic wine- making areas in Romania. They worked with 11 grape varieties and in general, expanded their knowledge and experience, such as developing marketing, including developing labels and brands, dealing with international visitors, and learning how to run the entire operation. They had always wanted to return to France, and in 2017 they left Romania for Alsace.
They were attracted by the range of grape varieties and types of soil, and, Ghislain said, its borders with Germany and Switzerland, a region open to other countries in Europe. They considered offers from various areas, but in the end, there was only one person who wanted to sell the land and winery; they wanted their own place and bought it. This was at Albé in the Vosges Mountains, an unlikely place in Alsace for a winery. The climate is semi-continental (hot and dry), with between 500 and 650 mm precipitation annually. They have 5 hectares, which is planted with 50% Pinot Noir from the 1980s; this is relatively unusual in Alsace, where only 10% of the vines are Pinot Noir, although, according to Ghislain, it is starting to trend.
We wanted to know a bit more about this. Angela said that many Alsatian producers were a bit intimidated by the idea of working with a red grape variety, besides which it’s a difficult grape to work with, given its thin skin, which makes it more prone to diseases. You also have to press it lightly: you can’t ‘work’ it as you could work other grapes. She thinks that it has great potential in Albé because of the schist. The remainder of their grapes are Riesling and Sylvaner, both planted in the 1960s, and Pinot Gris, which was planted in 2000.
The vines are all planted on schist, which Angela described as fossilized clay, which easily crumbles so that the roots can burrow through. There is about a 10-day difference between their vineyard and those in the plain, which means that the later budding is more likely to escape the frost. They have a low yield of 40 hectolitres per hectare. They decided to work organically from the beginning, and in 2020 started to work biodynamically.
The harvest is manual, using relatively small 12 kg cases. They spent a lot of time establishing a cover crop with a seed coating, including cloves, mustard, peas, and rapeseed. This means there is a microbiology enriching the soil; it also helps to prevent erosion. When the cover crop plants have reached about 50 cm, they are rolled flat to produce a biomass that holds in the humidity. It also provides competition for the vines, whose roots are forced to grow further down. One of the fields is ploughed with a borrowed horse.
In making the wine, they use only wild yeasts and spontaneous fermentation, which may be a long one – they want to follow what they called the wine’s own rhythm. (They have a 2019 wine which is ‘having its own way’ and is still fermenting.) They ferment until dry. They age on the fine lees, and stir during fermentation for some wines. They have both stainless steel tanks and three ceramic amphorae. They make seven to eight wines from the five hectares, and thus produce 1,200 to 6,000 bottles of each wine. 2018 was a wonderful year in which to make their first wines, because it was a very ‘generous’ year.
We wanted to know why they didn’t grow Gewurztraminer. Angela did not think that their terroir would do justice to it. They had bought some grapes this year to have a go, and if it works, they may buy in more grapes to make some wine, but it will not be planted in their vineyard ‘anytime soon’. I (KB) asked if they had been apprehensive about having a vineyard that was so much higher than those around them; Angela’s immediate reaction was no, that they were just happy to have the chance to buy their own vineyard in Alsace (although she did briefly suggest that they may have been a bit irresponsible not looking into more details). Ghislain, however, said that when the then owner came to see them in Romania, he decided that he needed to see more of what it was like. He went back to basics and worked a harvest in Albé, learning about the grapes, the slopes of the vineyard and the taste of the soil, and at the end, they were both very excited about the chance to try something new and challenging.
Then we turned to the tasting.
We were already drinking their Crémant d’Alsace Rosé Brut NV, made from the Pinot Noir grape, with an alcohol level of 12%. It was a lovely dark salmon colour with lots of tiny bubbles. It was aged for 12 months on the lees, which came through in the flavour. It had a nice acidity with a delicious fruitiness. My own final assessment, underlined, was ‘really lovely!’.
The ‘first’ wine we tasted and discussed with Angela and Ghislain was the Riesling Terroir de Roche 2019, ABV 12.5%. Their Terroir de Roche series is intended to be straightforward and easy to drink. The wine had a three month fermentation in stainless steel, and was then filtered, bottled and left to settle for three months. According to Ghislain, the intention was to push the variety, not the terroir. The wine is pale yellow. Before swirling the glass, the wine had a sweet pastry-filling nose; after swirling more fruit emerged. It’s a dry wine. The acidity is not so openly obvious, but the structure is there. It was fresh and citrusy, without any specific fruit, but it was a mouthful of flavour, with a decent length of finish. After being open for a couple of hours, it was gorgeous. They suggest pairing it with fish, grilled or baked ‘en papillote’ with some rosemary and lime.
We then turned to the Pinot Gris Terrasses du Steinacker 2018, ABV 14.5%. The vines are planted on a 45 degree slope, with a forest at the bottom. Because the past three years have been so hot, they plan to use canopy management and create a pergola over the vines so that the branches will intermingle to protect the grapes from too much sun. ‘Steinacker’ means a field of rock. When fermenting the grapes, which took nine months, they had one-third in stainless steel tanks, one-third in old burgundy barrels, and one-third in amphorae. They used ‘bâtonnage’ in the amphorae and the wooden barrels; for the wood they stirred by hand, whilst in the amphorae, owing to convection, lees stirring occurred autonomously. This wine was pale yellow with lots of tiny bubbles; on the nose it was peach, honey and vanilla; on the palate, it was dry with slowly emerging acidity which persisted until the end, rich but still a touch linear, and with a long finish. For the nerds amongst us (including me), the residual sugar was 1.3 grams/litre and the acidity was 7.2 grams/litre. I really liked it.
The third wine was the Pinot Gris Terroir de Roche 2019, ABV 13% (not illustrated). Ghislain and Angela don’t like the usual Alsatian approach (as they described it) of having relatively high levels of residual sugar (namely not fermenting to complete dryness), so they ferment ‘to the end’, to complete dryness. We did not have the time left to linger overlong, so the points they made were its nice aromatics and its softness. It was pale yellow with some tiny bubbles, but not nearly as many as the Steinacker. It had a lovely nose, peach, but also floral (Angela added quince). It was dry, a bit soft, with only just enough acid, but the acidity finally emerged, especially on the tongue. The sweet fruit on the palate moderated the dryness, and it had a creaminess and a decently long finish.
We enjoyed the Pinot Noir Terroir de Roches 2019, ABV 13%. They macerated the grapes for 14 days, 80% de-stemmed; when they saw that the extraction was very rapid, they decided not to do any punching down (which involves pushing down the cap of skins to mingle again with the juice), but rather pumped over, a gentler method of extraction. This means no harsh tannins. They got a very deep ruby colour with violet scents. They used 100% stainless steel. Ghislain said that you got dark and red fruits, and some spiciness; the latter is not very common with Alsatian Pinot Noir. The colour indeed was a dark ruby moving towards a lighter violet at the rim. The nose is not very fruity at first, but then dark fruit predominated. On the palate, it was dry with good acidity and balanced tannins, clearly well-made. However, it took a bit of time for the fruit (with some stoniness underneath) to make itself known, which it did after a couple of minutes of swirling the glass. As it opened up in the mouth, it was very nice indeed.
We then invited questions and comments. One of us really liked the Pinot Gris Terroir de Roches because it was dry – the questioner considered much Alsatian Pinot Gris to be too sweet. He emphasised that he thought this one was delicious. He then said that he would not cross the road for most Alsace Pinot Noirs because they taste lean and bad, but he thought that their Pinot Noir Terroir de Roche was extremely good, because it has not only the aroma, but also the texture on the palate – they hadn’t lost the lovely, round, gentle palate. He liked that they used stainless steel, because you can appreciate the fruit.
The next questioner came from Luxembourg. One of his favourite Alsace wines was a Sylvaner, but the grape seemed to be disparaged by other growers. What did they think? Angela thought that one reason was that it is not as aromatic as a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer. They themselves only have 0.09 of a hectare, and it is used in our final wine, the Nous Sommes Libres 2018, 14% ABV, which is a combination of Riesling and Sylvaner grapes. The previous owner planted three rows in the 1960s, eventually took out a row so that he could use a tractor, and more or less forgot about it. They call it their ‘secret garden’. She said that the wine doesn’t do entire justice to the grape: it is a mixture of the grapes that they didn’t need anymore. The Sylvaner grapes were de-stemmed and then put in whole into the amphora and left on the skins, which made an orange wine, whilst the Riesling grapes were vinified in the traditional way. The name of the wine celebrates their freedom to do as they wished, without having a grandfather slap their hands and telling them they should do it another way. It’s unfiltered and there are no sulphites. They don’t offer a Sylvaner as such because they don’t have enough Sylvaner grapes; they harvest only about 400-500 kg, which once pressed would result in only about 250-300 litres of quality wine. That small amount is hard to work in a proper way, e.g., you need small tanks and so on, and the danger is less good wine.
One of us asked what we should eat with the Nous Sommes Libres. Ghislain said that first, they should decant it for at least a half-hour: they bottle it quickly after fermentation and there is still carbon dioxide in the barrels and this goes into the bottles. They don’t use sulphites in this wine, and the carbon dioxide rises to the top of the bottle and protects it from oxygen. They recommend it with spicy food, such as prawns and cumin, as well as with Comté. It says on the label that the grapes are grown on a hillside with minerals and no chemicals; they are then hand-picked, and the wine is made with indigenous yeasts in an amphora. The colour is between pale and medium yellow with lots of persistent bubbles; it’s cloudy. It is curiously sweetly acidic on the back bottom of the nose. When swirled there is a bigger dose of the original full nose. It is dry with almost bright acid at first, which then settles down to a sustained acidity, especially on the tongue. It has a bright flavour. Indeed, it is one of the nicest ‘natural wines’ that I (Kathy) have tasted.
Another questioner wanted to know how to find them, so that he could visit; Angela responded that he should call or email her, and that they would be delighted to see him. (Their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.) She emphasised how many beautiful villages there were around them to visit. Kathy then asked what she called a somewhat nerdish question: the wine is cloudy, which ‘natural wine’ buyers seem to prefer, but did they find it difficult to sell to ordinary wine buyers such as herself? Angela said that they only made 1,200 bottles, not enough to sell it widely, so they position it carefully, such as the Modest Merchant in London, from which we bought their wines, and a restaurant in Paris, where, Angela said, they like these sorts of wines, and are not ‘deranged’ by it - you either love or hate the style. So they send it to places where people are not frightened by the concept, a fear which she blames on the admittedly large number of terrible examples on the market.
One of us commented that he loves Alsace Pinot Gris, calling it the place where the grape reaches its apotheosis, and then congratulated them on theirs. He suggested drinking it with mushrooms. They both agreed, saying that they didn’t want to make a vulgar wine with too much sugar. The commenter absolutely agreed, saying that the balance in theirs was absolutely lovely, that it had a spiciness and sense of richness. Kathy said that she liked both the Terroir de Roche Pinot Gris and the Terrasses du Steinacker Pinot Gris, which together almost sum up what you can do with Pinot Gris in Alsace if you don’t like the wine too sweet. It was pointed out that you drink them on separate occasions, that one is 13% and the other is 14.5%, so you drink more of the 13% one, adding that the balance of the 14.5% Steinacker was good, but that you needed food with it.
Then it was pointed out that the description of the wine by their distributor says, with regard to the Nous Sommes Libres, that it is predominantly Sylvaner, but the website says that Riesling makes up 50% of the mixture. The short discussion prompted someone to say that what makes the wine super is the Sylvaner, which dominates. It was then further observed then that the Pinot Gris were absolutely superb, that they were just off-dry; he added that it was the same with Gewürztraminer wines, except that they were even more off-dry.
A questioner wanted to know how they brought out the velvetiness in their Pinot Noir. Ghislain explained that the problem with the Pinot Noir grape was extracting the colour without also extracting too much tannin. This is why they work with soft techniques of extraction, which includes a pneumatic press, and he says that they extract the ‘sandy’ tannins rather than the dry ones, and that after one or two years they become velvety.
Angela and Ghislain then left, and for a few minutes there was a general discussion amongst those Members who were still there. Amongst the themes was the necessity for us actually to buy these wines, not only to benefit Angela and Ghislain, but also to encourage wine merchants such as the Modest Merchant, who make it their goal to find and promote small but excellent winemakers. All agreed that he had certainly succeeded. Beyond that, it was suggested that perhaps we should look more at Italy, which has a legion of small, good producers. This was agreed.