Stoners, Nuns and Wine’s Lunatic Fringe
Wines are a little like people. One I tasted recently reminded me of my friend Zach McDonald. He and I attended a “magnet” public high school in lower Manhattan where students spent hours every night on trig homework and even as sophomores had a decent idea of where they planned to go to college, which was usually Yale or Stanford. But not Zach. He wore a suede jacket with a curtain of fringe—this was the late eighties—and after classes he sat hunched on a cafeteria bench rambling in a sleepy voice about Herman Hesse and Nick Drake. If not for the unfocused look in his eyes and his expression of perpetual surprise, he would have been considered handsome. Once he showed me a notebook filled with passages he’d written under the influence of psilocybin. They didn’t make much sense but we kept our nightly confabs going until a school trip to Bear Mountain, when Zach took eight tabs of acid and leaped off the ferry into the Hudson, a stunt that got him expelled. He began going to another school, some said on Staten Island, and I didn’t hear from him again.
I thought about him a few nights ago over a glass of a wine called, simply, “Blonde,” made by an itinerant Czech named Andrea Calek. Like teenagers attempting to navigate a high school afternoon with the central goal of avoiding complete humiliation, most wines aspire to be competent, correct. The more ambitious ones make it to college night and take notes. Maybe they win some medals. Yet more and more of late I’ve been drawn to the outliers: wines that care not a whit for whether they go with Thanksgiving turkey or, for that matter, whether you like them. Sometimes they smell and taste a little weird. More often than not they happen to be made without niceties or compromises and for this reason are lumped under the term “hypernatural”—raised and vinified minimally and by hand, with few if any additives, always skating on the precipice of failure. These are wines of intent, unprimped and undeodorized, and their exuberant personalities are sometimes awkward or botched but nearly always fascinating. They are the ones that most often remind me how joyous a thing wine can be—the sequins stitched into the Nudie suit of drinking.
Consider Calek. The man rents a few hectares of grapes near the village of Valvignères, in the Ardèche, and lives among the vines in a trailer. That’s him at the top of the page in the torn T-shirt. He looks a bit like my friend Zach and I bet that like him he’s more than little bit weird. I can’t be sure—his importer, Savio Soares, has only met him twice, briefly. “Blonde” is Calek’s first attempt at bottling a commercial wine; it has no year on the label and comes sealed with a beer cap. It’s cloudy, the color of apricot juice, and it doesn’t taste far different. It sparkles in a style the French call pétillant—not with the fine prickly bubbles of champagne but with the soft effervescence of day-old seltzer. The bottom of the bottle carries traces of something that looks like clay particles that according to Soares are actually clumps of dead yeast cells. The reason for this is that “Blonde” is an uncommon opportunity to taste fermented grape juice that’s entirely free of human meddling—no fining or filtration, no sulfur dioxide, no commercial yeasts, no barrels. It’s a radical drink that I can’t imagine anyone not liking. Tasting it filled me with such childlike glee that I wanted to run to the turntable and crank up my elementary-school-vintage LP of Journey’s “Escape.” Like Steve Perry’s singing, Calek’s blend of Chardonnay and Viognier disputes moderation. Whether it’s a good or a bad thing that “Blonde” doesn’t come in a gallon jug depends entirely on your perspective.
These days you can find adherents of hypernatural winemaking in nearly every grape-producing country, but many of the oddest and most talented toil in the non-marquee regions of France, places where it’s still feasible to rent or even buy a small piece of a vineyard. (You’re not likely to find anyone with a row of vines in Bâtard-Montrachet aging their juice in clay amphorae.) In Anjou, near a small tributary of the Loire river, a pair of former wine-bar owners from Tours named Agnès and René Mosse bottle a range of sappy, cidery chenin blancs, a tart, earthy red called Boire Rouge, and one of the two rosés I drink regularly. (The other comes from López de Heredia in Rioja.) The Mosses make their fizzy Moussamoussettes with Gamay and pair of local old maids, Grolleau Gris and Grolleau Noir. These last two give it a watermelon note to go with its firm yeastiness. A dinner companion told me it reminded him of Sour Patch watermelon candy he hoarded as a kid. Unfiltered, the stuff is an opaque pink and depending on the bottle can taste a bit like pickled watermelon, too—more than most, living wines are subject to vagaries of temperature and transportation. Yet when a bottle of it is open I find it difficult to think about anything else; the Mosses’ wine is that vibrant. I like to drink it with anything from Lebanese take-out to roast chicken and, when I’m not hungry, accompanied only by a bottle opener, a glass and a lit bulb.
Here in the US an increasing number of bottles from these oenological Donovans are finding shelf space at your local shops: the Beaujolais-like Languedoc reds of Axel Prufer, the violet-scented Cabernet Francs of Pierre and Catherine Breton (my perennial favorite is the unsulfured “Nuits d’Ivresse”), the savory, leesy, brownish-yellow Coenobium made by those drinky nuns at Monastero Suore Cistercensi near Rome. (When in doubt, look for labels with the names of importers like Savio Soares, Louis/Dressner, and Jenny & François.) Many of them cost somewhere between twenty and thirty dollars, a fair price these days for a piece of potable expressionism. More than any others they insist that a wine can communicate clearly only when captured in its whole, living, and unmanipulated guise, no matter how flawed or strange. These are wines that Hart Crane would have loved—the work of modern-day ecstatics.
Photo courtesy of Savio Soares.
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