Our Thanksgiving Wine club offered selections appropriate right through the holiday season. For your holiday shopping convenience, we thought we’d reprint it here:
Grosbot-Barbera, Brut 0, vintage– $23, organic
Elaido Piñeiro, La Ola, Albarino, Rais Baixas, 2017– $23, biodynamic
Vissoux, Chermette, Griottes, Beaujolais, 2018– $16, organic
Our final club for 2019 offers wines that can be enjoyed at most holiday feasts or anytime that you want to indulge yourselves a bit. Because the release of Beaujolais Nouveau became affiliated with Thanksgiving in this country (it is released on the third Thursday in November, which coincidentally is close to our harvest celebration), Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais has become a classic wine to serve then. You have two Gamays in your club, one from Beaujolais and a sparkling from Saint Pourcain. We’ll begin this offering then with some comments on Gamay, then move to the specific wines.
If you believe some of what historically has been written about Gamay, you may be annoyed with me for including these in your club. I hope though, that you will proceed with an open mind and a curious palate and, as members of this club, I feel confident that you are indeed wine curious. There is much more to Gamay than the insipid or even offensively tart Nouveau, and mercifully, it is no longer banned in Burgundy.
Gamay is a grape originating in Beaujolais, which is part of the bigger wine region of Burgundy. Burgundy is composed of five districts that span about 180 miles from its northernmost region of Chablis to the southernmost district of Beaujolais. In between are the heart of Burgundy—the Cote d’Or—and its overshadowed siblings the Cote Chalonnaise and Mâconnaise. That heartland is dedicated to producing one red wine, Pinot Noir, and one white, Chardonnay. Trailing south of the Mâcon is the historically maligned or just ignored region of Beaujolais.
At various times in Burgundy, Gamay has been reviled. As early as 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, issued an edict commanding his subjects to pull out their “’vile and noxious gamay plant, from which plant comes a very great abundance of wine . . . which wine is of such nature that is it most injurious to the human creature . . . for it is full of a very great and horrible bitterness. [Those who consume it have been] infected with grave maladies’’(Chelminski, 29-30).
Not surprisingly, demonizing Gamay had political roots though this sentiment stuck and was reiterated across centuries. Gamay apparently originated in Burgundy, in the hamlet of Gamay, close to the much more famous Burgundian town Puligny (that later appendaged the name of its most prestigious vineyard, Montrachet, to its name). Like Pinot Noir, Gamay is an offspring of an older cultivar of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Pinot Noir enjoys a notorious reputation as very finicky, requiring constant attention, and even so, begetting frustratingly low-yields. Gamay, alternatively, is easy to grow and happy to produce prodigious quantities.
Even as early as the late 1300s, largely due to the church’s control of large parcels of land and the monks’ trial-and-error agriculture accompanied by meticulous notes, the duchy of Burgundy was well-known for its wines. A combination of protracted war (the Hundred Years’ War with England) and the plague, produced a labor shortage, which in turn led to a wine shortage. Enterprising peasants discovered the allure of Gamay’s abundance. Unfortunately, at least two variables inhibited its appeal. Firstly, high yields generally produce wines with little character. In Gamay’s case, high production generates thin, high-acid, bitter wines. Secondly, we know that terroir, especially soils, matter. While the limestone of Burgundy is a natural marriage with Pinot Noir, it is not a good fit for Gamay. The Gamay to which growers turned in the late 1300s produced inferior wines that threatened to erode Burgundy’s reputation as the source for quality wine, ergo, Philip’s order to banish it.
Gamay’s reputation was not enhanced by its popularization in the 1960s and 1970s as Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine sold as the first fermented red of the new vintage. By 1985, more than half of all Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages wine was sold as nouveau. Gamay became synonymous with Beaujolais, and Beaujolais was reduced to nouveau, a tart, thin red that most years was not even quaffable. In the 1980s, a quartet of winemakers emerged committed to producing high quality, terroir-driven wines from Beaujolais’ Gamay. This “Gang of Four” (Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean Foillard, and Jean-Paul Thévenet) has demonstrated the capacity of Gamay to produce beautiful, nuanced wines. While they are all in Beaujolais, their efforts have resulted in lessons applied to other regions.
Among those lessons is that soil matters to Gamay. Gamay planted in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, characterized by limestone soils, yielded thin, sour, characterless wines; there was an element of truth to the charge that allowing Gamay there would erude the region’s wine reputation. Beaujolais, and parts of the southern Mâconnaise just north of Beaujolais, instead have soils of decomposed granite. Experience indicates that these soils, in which granite comingles with clay and limestone, are a better medium for Gamay. The other critical lesson the Gang of Four learned, practiced and now others imitate, is to control yields.
Though many Gamay producers have elevated the quality of wine they produce, there is still a deep resentment by the Cote d’Or producers for the rest of their AOC (Chalonnaise, Mâcon, and Beaujolais). This perspective was codified by the approval of a new regional appellation in 2017, Bourgogne Cote d’Or, covering only the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune, as opposed to the broader appellation of Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc, in which grapes from the other three regions could be included. One of the new appellation’s champions, Philippe Charlopin, expressed satisfaction that “it ensures that reds are made 100% from Pinot Noir and not blended with Gamay. . . ” (Eales, 2017).
Globally, there are approximately 91,000 acres of Gamay planted in France, Italy, the US (California and Oregon), Switzerland and various countries in Eastern Europe. The majority of these, more than 70,000 acres, are planted in France, and 55,000 of that in a narrow rectangle between Mâcon and Lyon, the Beaujolais region (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz, 385). It is also widely planted in parts of the Mâconnaise, just north of Beaujolais, and to a lesser extent, in the Loire. Our two examples in this club come from Beaujolais and the Loire.
Grosbot-Barbara, Brut 0, Saint Pourcain, 2015
Place: Saint Pourcain
I confess that with this wine, this was the first time I saw this appellation. Saint Pourcain is located in the center of France, in the Allier Department, an area better known for its managed groves of oak that are harvested to make prized wine barrels. (Trees are planted tightly, forcing them to push upward rather than spreading outward, creating a tighter grain.)
Saint Pourcain was granted appellation status only in 2009, though vineyards and winemaking have been traced to the Phoenicians who arrived before the Romans. This small appellation centered around Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule measures approximately 20 miles from north to south, and only 2 miles in width. While it includes parts of nineteen communes, there are only six hundred hectares total in the appellation across eighteen growers. Saint Pourcain allows for red wines made of Gamay and Pinot Noir, white from Chardonnay, Tressallier, and Sauvignon Blanc, and rosé made from Gamay.
Saint Pourcain wines were well-regarded in the Middle Ages, appreciated by Popes during the Avignon Papacy era and served at coronations in Reims. By the late 1700s, one of the local winemakers (another veuve, or “widow,” this one Boucard rather than Clicquot) began making sparkling wines that she sold under the name “Cristal.” Cristal Saint Pourcain enjoyed popularity through the mid-1950s. One source suggested that Roederer, a grand Marquée Champagne house whose vintage champagne goes by the name Cristal, never contested the Pourcain use of the name because they may have purloined it from the Pourcain when Roederer made its first vintage in 1877 (richardkelley.co.uk). Sparkling wine is not included within the AOC specifications, so although the grapes come from there and the wine is vinified at Grosbot-Barbara, it says only Product of France on the label.
This wine and its vigneron are a perfect fit for the principles we try to champion at Windham Wines—small, family-owned and operated, preserving the identity of place by using indigenous varieties and practices, organic when possible, and deeply passionate. Grosbot-Barbara is a partnership struck in 1996 between M. Grosbot, an owner-winemaker who was about to retire without heirs and did not want to sell his domain or vines, and Denis Barbara, a young, Saint Pourcain native who was working in wineries in Burgundy and Beaujolais following his graduation from enology school in Beaune. Barbara hoped to buy a domain in Saint Pourcain when he received a call from M Grosbot inviting him to explore the possibility of partnering to increase the quality of the wines being produced.
Denis Barbara is a self-deprecating, collegial grower-winemaker who loves what he does and understands that sharing knowledge with other regional winemakers elevates the quality of the wines produced and thus benefits all within the AOC. Grosbot-Barbara joined forces before Saint Pourcain was recognized as an AOC. From Denis Barbara’s perspective, in those early days, it was M. Grosbot who provided the years of experience and generational knowledge while Barbara contributed “scientific knowledge of plant cultivation and methods of work in the vines to achieve better quality. . . . The goal was to create a newfound recognition and appreciation for the appellation St Pourçain beyond its region of origin, to make wines that express from where they come” (https://www.domaine-grosbot-barbara.com/images/USA%20importateur-Saint%20Pourcain.pdf).
Denis Barbara now is a well-respected cheerleader and ambassador of Saint Pourcain. He has been in the trenches in the effort to revitalize the AOC and secure its future through his work ethic of “total engagement: respect for terroir, intensive work in the vines, focused harvest of the fruit, a passion for the craft and a philosophy of cooperation”. He observed that Saint Pourcain vignerons “must work diligently to maintain our vines at standards that allow us to produce wines of quality and then be prepared and able to pass on the properties to the next generation so that we continue to strengthen the reputation of the appellation.”
Denis Barbara farms eight hectares of vines, two-thirds of which are red. He works alone in the vines and the cellar, except for harvest, and but for one vineyard, Quarteron, for which he put together a consortium of friends to plant, harvest and vinify collectively.” Harvest is done manually. He does not use insecticides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
This Wine: Brut Zero
The Brut Zero is made from Gamay, harvested early and fermented in stainless steel to create the wine that forms the base of the finished sparkling wine. When the base wine completes fermentation, Barbara bottles it with a liqueur de tirage of unfermented juice and yeast to provide the ingredients necessary for a secondary fermentation that takes place in the bottle which is closed with a crown cap (like on a beer or soda bottle) then laid down in the cellar to age another four years.
The secondary fermentation in the bottle is the process that creates the bubbles. As the yeasts consume the sugar, fermentation produces alcohol and generates carbon dioxide. Because the bottle is capped, that gas cannot escape; it dissolves into the wine, creating pressure in the bottle and, when opened and exposed to oxygen, our beautiful sparkles.
Once the yeast cells consume and convert the sugars, the yeast cells die. These are called lees; they remain in the bottle until the wine is disgorged and contribute significant personality to the completed wine through the process of autolysis, in which enzymes released from the lees lead to those cells breaking down and disintegrating into the wine. This process is held to be essential for developing complexity and flavors as the wine gets enriched by amino acids, proteins and other compounds.
Denis Barbara aged our 2015 Brut Zero for two and a half years before disgorging. Disgorgement is the process by which remaining spent yeast cells are removed and the wine is clarified. By comparison, non-vintage Champagne must age on its lees for a minimum of twelve months, followed by another three months aging post-disgorgement.
Immediately after disgorgement, i.e., before the wine is corked and secured with a cage, the bottle is topped off with a liqueur d’expédition, a solution of wine and more sugar that both refills the wine that is lost during disgorgement and determines the sweetness of the finished wine (its dosage). The driest sparklings add no additional sugar, just fully-fermented wine to fill the space, and are referred to as Brut Nature or Brut Zero, like the Grosbot-Barbara.
I apologize for the primer on how sparkling wines are made via the Methode Champenois in which there is a secondary fermentation in the bottle. It is necessary to understand the process to give you a better understanding of the Grosbot-Barbara. We love finding wines like this one, with its fruit and creaminess that are interesting and delicious. It makes me drill down to learn more about the producer, his/her philosophy and their practices. That Denis Barbara ages this wine on the lees for three years is remarkable. To do that means devoting lots of cellar space to holding and aging wines across multiple vintages, none of which are bringing in any money for him while they quietly rest in his cellar. And yet, that is what the wine needs to develop its creaminess and the savory and nutty flavors that enhance the fruit. There is a lot of wine here for the price.
We’ve said it before, and here it is again, likely not for the last time—sparkling wines are impressively food-friendly. With the bubbles and acidity, they go wonderfully with rich foods made with cream and butter, or with fried foods. Creamy egg dishes, from omelets to soufflés are also classic pairings. Asparagus, both white and green, is a specialty in Champagne—again, classically in a soufflé or served as a side with hollandaise sauce. Double and triple cream cheeses, especially the latter like a Brillat-Savarin with some raspberries or dried apricots and nuts are perfect.