Wine Without Winters

https://notdrinkingpoison.substack.com/p/wine-without-winters

Some demijohns outside the mountaintop cellar of Daniel Sage, January 2019.

Poligny vigneron Valentin Morel opens his excellent 2023 book Un Autre Vin1 with a brief, scene-setting description of the warm winters that have given rise to frequent frost episodes in his native Jura and beyond2:

The 2021 vintage starts with a bad presentiment during a bike ride with bare arms at the end of the month of February. Such hot weather so early favors budbreak in the vine and makes spring frost very likely…

An increased rate of frost episodes is perhaps the most salient threat to wine production from global heating. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about another, less quantifiable effect of warm winters: a perturbance in the seasons of fermentation and élevage.

Broadly speaking, wine ferments slower and settles better at cooler temperatures. Without a nice dip into the deep winter chill, things stay in suspension, often undesirable things, like, for example, fine lees bearing the precursor molecules responsible for mousiness and mouse-adjacent aromas (peanuts, pitted black olive, boiled green beans).

A LOST TECHNIQUE

Jules Chauvet, in the autumn, would move all his barrels outside, one after another, while temperatures were negative, to precipitate the yeasts at the bottom of the barrels and separate them from the wine,” recalls the influential natural wine consultant Jacques Néauport, in his recent book of interviews.

Exposing just-fermented wine to the winter cold was a way of encouraging clarification after alcoholic fermentation, and avoiding the development of unpleasant (if transient) autolytic aromas (those deriving from the degradation of spent yeasts).

But what if winters just aren’t getting cold enough anymore? Particularly in light of modern cellar insulation and the pervading mania, even among many natural winemakers, for strict temperature control.

Néauport often underlines that mouse is not a new phenomenon.3 Nonetheless, if mouse has become the “flaw” du jour in broader wine discourse, it is partly because the conditions for its appearance have become more widespread: natural vinification, of course, but also high pH musts (due to hotter summers), and inadequate precipitation of spent yeasts (partly due to warmer winters). Oh, and inadequate aging periods (due to higher demand for natural wine, and / or financial pressure).

THE IMPORTANCE OF COLD WINTERS

Obviously, there exists no region on earth where natural vignerons have eliminated issues with mousey phases and poorly-settled wines. These things also depend on a host of other factors. But wines from cooler regions that still regularly experience nice bone-chilling winters tend to stand out, nowadays.

Look to well-aged natural wines from the Jura and the Haute-Loire, cold-winter regions whose wines have become catnip for natural wine connoisseurs in recent years. (A certain textural motif threads through the wines of Renaud Bruyère and Adeline Houillon, Thomas Popy, and Daniel Sage, for example. It derives, in part, from expert barrel-aging in very cold cellars.)

Or look to cooler zones in Central Europe, like Austria or the Czech Republic.

It is not solely due to the astute and well-financed promotional efforts of Austrian Wine Board and the organizers of the Karakterre salon that the wines of certain key natural vignerons4 of Styria and Burgenland (and Moravia!) are so beloved these days. It’s also because these vignerons are offering a natural wine profile that climate change has rendered increasingly rare in the rest of Europe: ripe, low-alcohol, high-acid wines that experience real winters during fermentation and élevage.

I suspect that, whether consciously or not, discerning natural wine lovers are responding to certain textures and profiles unique to such wines. It’s an incisiveness: natural clarification during a cold élevage encourages an enchanting clarity of expression in a finished wine.

Anyway, this phenomenon is among several reasons5 why I’ve taken an interest in the wines being produced around the town of Znojmo in the Czech Republic. The wines of Dobrà Vinice under late founder Petr Nejedlík first put the area’s sandy granite, sea sediment terroirs on the map in the 1990s and 2000s. Nowadays, several of his acolytes are showing the extraordinary results that can be achieved in the area with the elimination of sulfitage and filtration. The wines of Martin Vajčner were among my most exciting discoveries of recent years; now his friend Aleš Kovář has finally bottled his first totally unsulfited vintage, 2021, after two (and in some cases three) cold winters of élevage. A third friend produced his first tiny vintage of natural wine on the same terroirs in 2023. It feels like the first murmurs of a tiny renaissance in this obscure Moravian border town.

For subscribers, here are three new reports from the Czech Republic:

  • A visit to ALES KOVAR, a part-time vigneron farming just half a hectare of ZNOJMO SANDY GRANITE TERROIR and producing exceptional, long-aged MULLER-THURGAU, GRUNER VELTLINER, and WELSCHRIESLING.

  • A ravishing LUNCH at PRAGUE restaurant ALMA, where chefs PETR ZIDEK and MICHAL DANEK are raising the bar for MODERN CZECH CUISINE. (No paywall.)

  • A report from March’s HOKUS POKUS WINE FEST in the northeast Moravian industrial town of OSTRAVA, where I memorably jogged up a HILL OF BURNING SLAG. (No paywall.)

And one dispatch from the Haut Languedoc:

  • 20 YEARS OF LE TEMPS DES CERISES: German émigré(e)s AXEL PRUFER and UTE ZWANZIG celebrated two decades of their Haut Languedoc estate earlier this month with a splendid block party in LA TOUR-SUR-ORB.

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I’ll be in touch soon with reports from the frontline of frost in France’s worst-hit region, plus more podcasts from Copenhagen. If you’re in Beaune on July 22nd, be sure to come to the Haut Les Mains salon, where I’ll be pouring samples of my own non-professional wines alongside a who’s-who of rising natural vigneron friends from Burgundy and beyond. Stay cool till then!

Aaron


FURTHER READING

My review of Jacques Néauport, Le Dilettante

Znojmo’s Zero-Zero Virtuoso: Martin Vajčner

Prüfer’s Purchase
Axel Prüfer Sets the Record Straight

1

Full review coming soon.

2

Morel’s fears were realized once again this year, as frost struck regions from the Jura to Cahors to the Haute Loire to Moravia.

3

He says the phenomenon was long acknowledged among experienced wine technicians, but in the 2000s the issue was communicated to buyers in Paris bistrots, and from there it went global.

4

Here I refer only to the work of Central European winemakers who actually seek to produce limpid natural wines, and not to all the lees-stirrers producing rather less distinctive wines.

5

Full disclosure: I’ve begun importing Vajcner and Kovář’s wines to France on a tiny scale.