A few weeks ago there was a raging debate on my porch. It was one of those “meta” wine debates, not directly about wine, rather about the way we engage with wine. I’m pretty sure the whole thing started when I mentioned that negativity in the wine world really frustrates me. When I glance at wine chat boards and discussion forums, I see the same handful of unicorn wines praised day in and day out, and copious amounts of trash-talk about pretty much everything else. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and have considered that it’s possible, likely even, that there’s not much truly special wine out there, that most is pretty much bullshit, and that discerning palates are taking it upon themselves to point out this reality. However, what I actually think, and this is what prompted our recent debate, is that when it comes to wine it’s simply easier to hate than to love. There’s less at stake when you take a negative stance toward a wine; you’re not really putting your palate on the line when you say “I didn’t like the Clos Roche L’Arpent Rouge I drank last night; it wasn’t as good as in past vintages.” But to post on a wine forum “guess what? That bottle of Kistler Chardonnay I drank last night with my steak and hollandaise sauce was freaking amazing!” Now there’s a risk.
After I’d posited my theory, one of my guests pointed out that he thinks we define ourselves by what we hate. I pondered this for few minutes. As someone who has strong antipathies and is fairly vocal about them, I began to wonder if my hatred of Sauvignon Blanc is part of my self-definition, and I concluded that it is. I derive lots of banal satisfaction from not liking Sauvignon Blanc. On the other hand, what does this mean except that I’m not going to drink Sancerre (unless it’s made by Sebastien Riffault, in which case light oxidation masks the Sauvignon Blanc varietal character, and I’m happy)? I guess what I’m saying is: if you don’t like something, don’t drink it! Then, move on, find something you like, and tell us about it!
As we riffed on this topic, I began to think that part of the problem is that at a certain point we become so analytical about wine, that we lose sight of how to answer the very basic question: do I like this? Tasting and assessing becomes a constant question of analysis: yeast, sugar, structure, terroir, sulfur, alcohol percentage, the nose, the mid-palate, the finish, the list goes on …. We’re too wrapped up in the act of analysis (read: finding flaws of various kinds) to answer the single most relevant question of whether or not we like the wine. And, by the way, liking a wine is not the same thing as deeming its attributes to outweigh its flaws. Liking a wine is being moved by it, being fascinated, and wanting to drink more. It’s the difference between brain and heart, and when we discover that the brain is shouting over the heart’s whisper, well … it’s time to reset.
At the end of the day, I have no idea whether we define ourselves more by what we love or what we hate, though I suspect it’s a combination of both. It’s a point of pride to have been doing this wine gig long enough to know my own tastes, to be able to say with conviction that some wines are better than others, and that some wines are absolute crap. Yet I can’t help but find defensive, negative attitudes about wine to be somewhat cowardly, and righteously positive attitudes to be courageous.
After our porch debate, I began to ask myself when my last thoroughly positive experience with wine occurred, and I recalled my April visit to Dominique Belluard in the Haut-Savoie. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time to write about Belluard, to write about my Savoie visits in general, and this seemed like an opportune moment because in my experience, Belluard is a polarizing producer. Not everyone loves his wines, but those who love them, don’t mind crying it from the mountain top for all and sundry to hear.
My recent trips to Champagne have been punctuated by brief stints in other regions, where I remember that vignerons are people with dirt under their fingernails. I met British wine journalists Wink Lorch and Brett Jones at Belluard’s winery in the Haut-Savoie after a harrowing day of driving that began in Epernay, made a detour through Arbois, took me into Switzerland via nerve wracking mountain switch backs, through deadly traffic around Geneva, and finally to Ayze. It was just after 6pm; the air was crisp and chilly, and the sun was shedding its evening glow across Alpine chalets, cows, vines, and other bucolic scenery. Dominique, a startlingly lanky, weather-worn trooper, was standing in the driveway chatting with Wink and Brett when I at last reached my destination. Following the usual routine of introductions, kisses, hugs, handshakes, and establishment of myself as an adequate French speaker to converse in the native tongue, we went to see the vines.
We went first to Le Feu, one of the great crus of the Savoie (along with Jongieux and Chignin). Le Feu is an intensely steep slope of red, irony soil on top of limestone. The vineyard is planted to very old Gringet vines. Gringet is a virtually extinct grape variety cultivated only around Ayze, and most often used to make sparkling wine. The village’s proximity to Geneva poses a grave threat to this grape, as real estate in Ayze has become increasingly sought after. Bellu is the only vigneron to attempt to produce “serious” wine from this grape, and his neighbors generally regard him as a total oddball. Like other great vineyards, Le Feu feels cosmically right for vines; the slope faces south, and the thick, gnarly-stemmed vines are protected from wind by the mountain. This is not high-altitude wine; in fact the vines here are planted at lower altitude than their Swiss counterparts. Bellu told us that he can’t plant higher than about 400 meters because the temperature difference won’t work for the vines. In fact the essence of Savoie wine generally is a ripe, sun-drenched aspect of the Rhône mingling with a crisp, chilly, laser-like quality of the Alps. In the right hands, it’s a heavenly liaison.
Bellu’s Domaine is planted to 90% Gringet, 5% Mondeuse, and 5% Altesse. Though Altesse is grown all over the Savoie, Haut-Savoie, and even Bugey to the north, it finds its greatest expression in the south west of the region where Chignin and Jongieux are located. The landscape there, as I learned the following day, is quite different, warmer and more Rhône-ish. Bellu got his Altesse from the Dupasquier family, and he cultivates it on yellow marl soil. I was completely taken in by Bellu’s Altesse “Les Grandes Jorasses” the first time I tasted it, but upon getting to know the wines better, I’ve come to prefer the earthier, less tropical, and more austere profile of his Gringets “Le Feu” and “Les Alpes.” Bellu’s Mondeuse, which is absolutely impossible to find, also comes from yellow marl soils. (Note: Grandes Jorasses was astonishingly good paired with fried chicken with a lightly spicy sriracha dipping sauce. The combination of opulence and acidity did wonders for the dish.)
Bellu’s “Les Alpes” bottling comes from several plots around the village planted on a mixture of yellow marl and “éboulis calcaire”, which is limestone that has crumbled down from the mountain. The vines that give us Bellu’s vintage sparkling wine “Mont Blanc” are planted on éboulis calcaire as well. We stopped to look at several other parcels, all gorgeous, thriving with plant life and grass between the vines, though none quite as breathtaking as Le Feu.
In the cellar, Bellu is known for his use of concrete eggs. In 2003, he looked for an alternative to stainless steel tanks; he found the eggs, and has since filled his cellar with them. He’s a minimalist; the wines age for 6-9 months in eggs, then he mixes them in stainless steel. There’s typically a little bit of sulfur – around 20 milligrams for the whites, and none for the Mondeuse.
We dipped into quite a few eggs, tasting the unfinished wines, some of which had completed their fermentations, some of which hadn’t. At least for me, it’s sort of hard to taste wine this way; one sees only a rough outline of what the wine will become. I did, however, note that Bellu’s 2013 Altesse out of egg showed the honeyed, peachy, apple blossom sexiness of the finished wine, while Gringet from Le Feu was much quieter, showing great acid and mineral structure, but not much fruit.
Seated around an old wooden table in Bellu’s homey tasting room underground we began with his non-vintage Ayze Brut from a selection of vines planted on yellow marl and éboulis calcaire. This is great sparkling wine. The combination of Gringet’s earthy, honeyed, lemony, high-acid character, and a firm backbone of limestone makes this an incredibly successful sparkling wine that sells for about $20 retail, in New York. Be forewarned, however, that some of your friends will find the wine to be too dry. There’s great ripeness, however, and Bellu leaves the wine on the lees for as long as he can, which tempers the wine’s rigid spine. The bottle we tasted came from 2010 fruit, and was disgorged in 2014.
2010 Mont Blanc is bottled Brut Nature, and comes from all éboulis calcaire soil. At 13% alcohol, it was a bruiser that showed mostly structure and left a lasting impression of limestone and earth. In other words, put this bottle in the cellar as you would a fine vintage Champagne.
Tasting 2012 Grandes Jorasses, Les Alpes, and Le Feu side by side certainly helped me understand the wines better. Grandes Jorasses was a bit closed, and showed its tropical side with pronounced coconut notes. Les Alpes was very stony with wildflowers, herbs, and lemon. Le Feu was absolutely unreal. The nose offered sour cherry, anise, and tamarind. Relatively full-bodied yet light on its feet, the wine left a coating of mineral flavors, and each time I sniffed, swirled, and swished, I found something different. I was reminded of my visit a year and a half ago to Croix Boissée in Chinon, not because the wines are similar, but because of a similar sensation of transparency between the wine and the place that produced it. 99% of wine experiences will not leave the taster with such a profound sense of excitement and wonder that small plots of earth can be rendered so vividly in a glass of wine.
When we got to the Mondeuse I stopped spitting. Made in amphorae and without sulfur, the wine sees a month and a half of maceration, and has peppery, fennel-y, savory, almost Syrah-like aromas. The palate is more delicate than any Syrah, however, with irony, grippy minerals on the finish, and high acidity. The word “digeste” sprang to mind, a ubiquitous expression in the French wine world that has no real counterpart in English. (As I think I may have mentioned in a previous post, often when winemakers use the word “digeste”, they accompany it with a particular hand gesture as though to draw the wine from the mouth down through the stomach.) We may not be able to translate the word adequately, but we know what it means: a wine that makes us salivate, a wine that aids digestion, a wine that lightens as it fills our stomachs. I digress in part because I don’t like to sing too loudly the praises of a wine that is so hard to find.
We went to dinner in a delightful local restaurant, where we sipped a bottle of Le Feu with a few years of age (I don’t recall the vintage, sadly). The wine had evolved beautifully, and was a perfect accompaniment to the regional dish called “tartiflette.” As I read the menu I wondered at the panoply of ways the Savoyards put potatoes and Reblochon together. Dominique Belluard revealed himself to be a funny, sarcastic sort of man, confident, unconcerned by the views of others. I left this visit to navigate the hairpin turns up the mountain to Wink’s house with a deep sense of happiness and good will toward my industry. I loved the wines in a pure and simple way that worked as an antidote to the intense analysis and criticism of wine we perform day in and day out.