There was a moment during the Jenny & Francois tasting and dinner last night that I had an epiphany about natural wine makers; they are all certifiably crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m surrounded by crazy people in daily life, but after hearing from Christian Binner that he tastes everything he sprays on his crops and then watching Dominique Derain howl like a rooster, I realized I was in very special company. The other half of this epiphany, however, was that because they are such free spirited individuals, the wines they craft are expressions of their personalities and are a tribute to the pioneering spirit of making wines naturally. After thanking Jenny Lefcourt for inviting us to the tasting, and saying a quick hello to the producers we had previously interviewed, I dove right into the tasting.
The first standout for me was Christian Binner and his wines from Alsace. In particular, the Cremant d’Alsace was an excellent way to cleanse my palette and get into the tasting. This bubbly is made from 70% Riesling, 10% Pinot Gris (to give it it’s “bite” according to Christian) and 20% Auxerrois. It has a wonderfully aromatic nose with very little yeasty or toasty notes that you typically get from Cremant when made in other regions in France. In fact, I got a hit of raisins or dried fruit that made me think of other Pinot Gris or Tokay I’ve had recently from Alsace. In the mouth it is extremely lean and incredibly light, but with very fine bubbles and a racy minerality that is present, but not overpowering. This wine just tasted clean, fresh and alive.
According to Christian, the fine bubbles comes from the fact it spends 3 years on the lees (natural yeast that dies off during fermentation). What I found interesting though is that unlike conventional producers, Binner does not use sugar to cause a secondary fermentation which gives the wine it’s bubbles (also known as the “Methode Champenoise”). What he uses, instead, is the free run grape juice of the following vintage which still has it’s natural sugar had has not begun the fermentation process. When I asked which grapes he uses for the juice, he simply took a deep breath and said “Well…it really depends on how we feel when we pick the grapes.” Clearly, it’s a an arduous and logistically difficult task, but my guess is that Christian relies on a little bit of intuition, a little bit of timing and a whole lot of luck. Whatever the combination, this Cremant is wonderful and as interesting and alive as the man who makes it.
Setting out in search of something a bit meatier, I came across Alain Rochard of Le Loup Blanc in the the Languedoc region of southern France. Alain is a interesting guy who splits his time between Montreal (where he owns Bistro Continental) and Minervois where he owns Le Loup Blanc. I didn’t even need to make it past the first wine to know that what I was drinking was a wine right up my alley. The wine, Le Regal du Loup, had a great nose of black fruits and spice and was dark and brooding in the glass with hints of something lighter thrown in the mix. It reminded me of a southern Rhone wine (specifically Chateauneuf du Pape) and when I said this to Alain, he got extremely excited, took my hand and said “Thank you! Those are some of my favorite wines and to be compared to them is an honor” When I tasted it, there was a wonderful balance to this wine with just the right amount of acid, tannin, fruit and kick (yes…”kick” is a technical term). It is a blend of 50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, and 20% Syrah (hence the “kick”) Alain called this wine the “perfect table wine” and said it would be great with “some roasted duck with a berry sauce” Personally, a burger and fries would have done just fine for me.
As the tasting continued, the food began to arrive and somewhere, one of the wine makers was caught drinking a Budweiser while another imitated a pig, I knew that Jenny and Francois had assembled a portfolio of more than just some wonderful wine. They had assembled a group of crazy French citizens with a passion for making some crazy good wine.