Muscadet and Game Terrines with Marc Ollivier
by Paul Courtright
It took awhile to figure out what happened to the car ahead of us (our colleagues from the Northwest) after they missed an exit, and it was hard to really relax until we knew they were okay and back on track. Equally hard was resisting the spread that Marc and his wife Genviéve had set out for us - big bowls of whole steamed shrimp, bread, salami, home-made smoked salmon, veggies, sea beans, and loads of oysters.
We commenced the visit by tasting the new vintage out of the storage tanks. Marc criss-crossed the winery, extracting pitchers full of wine from various tanks against the walls and underneath the floor. The temperature of the winery was perfect for the wine, but not so kind to cold hands and feet as we tasted through Muscadet from five different vineyards.
Marc is an affable fellow, rosy-cheeked, and perpetually smiling. His affection for his vineyards and the wines they produce is easy to see. He loves the serious, thoughtful dedication that goes into making excellent wines, as well as the simple, age-old pleasures of being a vigneron. Each vineyard holds a story, and as we drove through the Nantais countryside, looking at each of Marc's holdings, it was clear that the granite-based soils that most of his vines grow in are truly something special.
The region of Muscadet lies south and east of the city of Nantes. The best vineyards lie between two tributaries of the Loire river, the Sevre and the Maine. The soil in the area is mostly limestone and schist, which give the wines a great chalky character. The influence of the Atlantic, some 50 kilometers away, is said to impart an almost saline, sea-side sensation. The grape used to make all of the wines in this area is the little-known Melon de Bourgogne - which paradoxically has nothing to do with Burgundy.
Marc Ollivier has vineyards planted on several of the very rare sites where the soil has lots of granite. This seems to give the wines a certain gravity; they're more substantial than your average Muscadet, but they still show the liveliness typical of the region. The high acidity and pure flavors (of minerals and citrus fruit) are equally refreshing and thought-provoking.
As the day wore on, we 20-odd assembled Americans began to work our way through the delicious food laid before us, as we tasted (and drank) our way back through almost every vintage that Marc has made. Muscadet isn't thought of as a "Grand Vin", that is, a wine that can be aged. It was clear tasting vintages like 1988, 1986, and 1984 (Marc's first) that this oversight is a shame. The wines retain a stunning clarity with age, and the mineral flavours become more pronounced and varied.
On a shelf in the room where we were tasting, I noticed three terrines patiently waiting for our attention. Marc Ollivier is also passionate about hunting, and in particular he likes to hunt a breed of game bird that the French call Bécasse. As we cracked into the red wines (made up of Cabernet Franc and Côt) we gave our attentions to the country patés home-made from game hunted by Marc. We ended the afternoon with some delicious home-made apple tart and all headed back to Anger with smiles on our faces.
It's satisfying to have experiences like that - where one's expectations are exceeded with little pretense. Marc Ollivier is such a down-to-earth guy, it's hard to imagine at first that he makes such amazing wine. It would be easy to dismiss somebody like Marc as a simple farmer, until you taste the wine. Additionally, the wines of the region are undervalued, and the vineyard land is in such low regard that the French Government is paying landowners to rip out their vines to make way for the encroaching Nantes suburbs. All of this in spite of how exciting these wines truly are.
There's a lot of wine out there, and most people don't have the time to sift through it all. Given all the choices we have as consumers, we seldom know exactly where what we're buying comes from. It's our job at Paul Marcus Wines to do the work for our customers. We try our best to offer wines that have stories, wines that are made by real people. That's definitely the case with the wines of Domaine de la Pépière. These are soulful, eminently rewarding wines - and they're amazingly inexpensive. We sell the Muscadet Domaine de la Pépière 2004 for $11.99.
[Marc Ollivier will join us for dinner and pour his wine at the Bay Wolf on Sunday March 26. See below for more information.]
Pruning and Rope-Making in the Roero
by Mark Middlebrook
During a visit to the Roero last month, I spent a day in the vineyard with Filippo learning the rudiments of pruning. He spent a few minutes explaining the principles of selecting what to cut away and what to leave and then put me to work next to him. Each vine presented its own puzzle, and as I expressed doubt about what to do and about my own capabilities, he reassured me: "There are no teachers of pruning, only students" - this from a man who has been a student of his vines for close to 60 years.
After a splendid lunch made by Filippo's wife, Maria, we walked up to a vineyard perched above the region's main town of Canale. The vineyard is called Mompissano, or Mönpissan in Piemontese, and it enjoys a sweeping view of Canale and the pale, sandy slopes that give birth to some of the Roero's best Nebbiolos. Filippo is contemplating putting the vineyard name on the label of his Roero, and as we pruned, we talked about the value of vineyard designations and fantasy names on wine labels. Several times throughout the afternoon, we paused at the end of a row to pour small plastic cups of barbera from the bottle that Filippo had stashed in his coveralls as we left the lunch table. The purpose of these libations was not inebriation but energy - the practice harkens back to when all vineyard workers were given a ration of wine to carry into the vineyard and fuel their day's work. I can say from having harvested and now pruned in the Roero that it works.
That evening, other winemakers and family members gathered at the Gallino farmhouse for dinner. We began with arneis spumante and a delicious, hearty salame - both made by the Gallinos. We finished with their grappa. In between, Maria brought on a parade of authentic Roero dishes, including carne cruda (raw veal from prized raza Piemontese cows), agnolotti (tiny Piemontese ravioli), and a stew of dense, almost meaty broad beans. And of course there were plenty of bottles of barbera and nebbiolo opened, from the Gallinos and the other assembled Roero winemakers.
The next day was was Martedì Grasso (Mardi Gras), and I stopped in again at Filippo's place to find his family and neighbors involved in making rope - yes, rope. Making rope for the entire year on Martedì Grasso is an old Roero tradition - so old that even some of my other friends in the Roero looked puzzled when I mentioned it. Filippo's family hadn't made rope in many years, but he got it into his head to revive the tradition this year. They planted two big posts in the ground, hauled out several 19th century contraptions (made by Filippo's great-grandfather, no doubt), talked and puzzled and argued over the right way to do everything, and gradually progressed to the activity of twisting the thin cords into progressively larger diameter pieces.
The first attempt didn't quite work - the pieces kept breaking during the final twisting process. Finally, one of the relatives remembered that the final step required cranking both ends in the same direction instead of the opposite direction. So, after a pause for a few sips of Nebbiolo d'Alba 'Mönpissan' made by Filippo's brother Antonio, they unwound everything and started again. This time the results were good. Filippo shrugged and said, "sbagliando, s'impara" - "one learns by making mistakes". At this point, about three hours had passed, and we had one piece of rope. I was due at another friend's house, so I bid everyone goodbye as they eagerly moved on to making the next piece of rope, this time with more strands. I'm still pondering the wonder of people gathering to spend most of a cold winter day outside making rope for the fun of it.
We recently began selling the new vintage of the Gallinos' Barbera: Filippo Gallino Barbera d'Alba 2004 ($12.99), a.k.a., "Bodacious Barbera". Filippo plans to visit the Bay Area in June to pour his wines at the Slow Food San Francisco Golden Glass tasting. We hope to organize a dinner at which you can meet the man and drink a selection of his wines. We'll send out more information as plans develop.
To read more about the Roero and the Gallino family, see our June 2005 PMW newsletter.