Drinking Wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre
It’s a rare thing to find a friend with whom you can stand in the middle of a huge group of people and passionately argue (in total agreement with each other but arguing nonetheless, you know what I mean) about the importance of sci-fi as part of the mechanism for building a culture’s ethical understanding and then go straight into just as passionately discussing wines from all over the world. That level of curiosity and appreciation is a valuable gift to find in anyone. At the end of this week I fly to Texas to see a bunch of friends for work. It is one of my favorite trips of the year largely because there are more people in this group that share that innate, impassioned curiosity for all sorts of subjects in the world, as well as genuine interest in all aspects of wine. In tribute to them, and most especially to the several of whom I have honest to god love-yell argued passionately about the merits of Star Trek (and the recent horrors of Infinity War), I am re-publishing this turn-back Tuesday blog post that I originally wrote and published in April 2013. It was inspired by my friend, Annemarie, who shares my deep abiding love of Star Trek, and whom I love very much even if she doesn’t give a lick about wine.
Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre
It’s warm when I arrive for the visit of Chateau La Barre. The weather is a relief for the region after fog and cold for several weeks. The area is known for its continental climate but can also get hit with bouts of severe chill due to the mountain influence from the North. Though the Vosges range is in the distance, it still weighs influence on the vines.
My visit to the winery is unusual, as the Chateau owner is known now for his privacy. He’s resistant to interviews but offered to meet me finally in recognition of his family winery’s up coming tricentennial. Owner and vigneron, Jean-Luc Picard, treats his vines now as an homage to his ancestors.
His invitation to meet arrived with a short but direct explanation: We’re not going to talk about his previous career. It’s the Chateau we’re there to discuss, and, though he’d rather avoid interviews, he respects the work of his family and wishes to celebrate their accomplishments. Prior to retiring to his homeland of France, Picard had had a distinguished career as a fleet Captain, but now he sees that recognition as a distraction from the work he’s trying to do for the region.
Meeting the Picards
Before I have the chance to sit, Picard ushers me out to the vineyard. It’s the vines he wants to show me. The Estate’s recent developments are exciting, thanks in part to Picard’s archaeological and historical interests as well.
Winemaking hadn’t been part of Picard’s imagined retirement. He’d grown up in the vineyards with his father Maurice teaching him vine maintenance but Picard’s passions took him away from home. With his older brother Robert devoting himself to oenology, Picard felt free to follow the decision of a different path. The traditions of the Picard estate would rest in his brother’s family.
Then, almost three decades ago tragedy struck when a winery fire killed both Picard’s brother, and nephew, Réne. The loss was devastating, and the future of Chateau La Barre seemed uncertain. Robert’s widow, Marie, was able to keep the winery operating successfully until a little less than 10 years ago when she fell ill. Around the same time Picard was first considering the possibility of retirement. With the news of Marie’s illness, and clear counsel from his friend, Guinan, Picard decided to take some time in France. Then the visit led to an unexpected discovery.
We’re standing in front of a special section of vineyard Picard wants to show me. What’s unique is that the grapes are entirely pale and green skinned, an ancient variety known as Savagnin. The region has been dominated by red wine production for centuries, more recently practicing in traditional techniques of wild yeast fermentations, and aging in neutral oak barrels. As Picard explains, the style is one resembling one of the oldest winemaking styles in France, with the most delicate of grapes, Pinot Noir.
Generations ago Chateau La Barre was instrumental in helping to restore the style, once called Burgundy, through the work of Picard’s great grandfather, Acel. Though the approach was met with resistance initially, ultimately, the family was lauded for their efforts to return to less interventionist winemaking based on the grape types that grew best on the land, requiring less use of fluidized treatments, and more reliance on the vines own unique ecosystem.
Prior to Acel Picard’s efforts, it was more common for wine to be made with the use of replicated nutrient intervention. Acel’s view, however, was that such an approach created less palatable, and less interesting wine. So he scoured the historical records for evidence of older techniques. In doing so, he found ancient texts left from devotees of an ancient religion known as Christianity in which it was believed that God spoke to them through the vines. Though Acel refused the more mystical aspects of the religious views, he found the vineyard practices of the texts insightful, and adopted the technique of tending and selecting individual vines, followed by simple winemaking. Chateau La Barre’s wines soon became known for their earthy mouth-watering complexity.
Picard’s own work builds on the efforts of his great grandfather to return to older techniques but in researching archaeological sites of the region, as well as ancient texts, Picard discovered a subtle mistake in Acel’s efforts. While Acel worked to restore red winemaking traditions known to Haute-Saône, he actually restored techniques native to an area of France slightly afield from the region. La Barre, it turns out, does not rest within the old boundaries of the ancient wine region of Burgundy, but instead a political shire of the same name. Picard himself does not believe this historical reality lessens the importance of Acel’s efforts, it just changes their tone slightly, but he does want to see what can be done to explore the winemaking traditions that really were found closer to La Barre centuries ago.
Enter Vin Jaune and the Ancient Varieties
Through archaeological work Picard preformed a sort of miracle. He was able to locate still intact seeds from ancient vine specimens known once to have covered this region of France, Savagnin, as well as seeds for the red variety that had once covered the wine region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir.
Before the destructive effectiveness of the technology was properly understood, Thalaron radiation was tested as a soil cleaning technique during the last agricultural age. The bio-effects were irrecoverable with vineyards throughout the Vosges zone being destroyed and then unplantable for a generation. As a result, a collection of indigenous grape varieties were believed to be lost, including Savagnin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. Once the soil recovered well enough to replant, large interests in inter-global varieties took over and any attempts to recover the original grapes seemed over.
During the Restoration period scientists attempted to re-engineer Savagnin as well as other ancient varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but Savagnin proved too susceptible to geraniol instability to engineer. When funding for the project was cut, efforts to restore Chardonnay were deemed the least advantageous and ultimately only Pinot Noir vines were genetically manufactured.
Through intensive research Picard was able to find a cave in the Vosges range containing ancient wooden vessels that proved to have a few small seeds inside. Through similar research he also located similar containers in the area of Gevrey-Chambertin within which he located Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Cabernet remain extinct.
With the seeds Picard was then able to develop new plantings of both Savagnin and Pinot Noir. The process depended on intensive plant selection to identify which of the new off spring matched the characteristics of the historic varieties. Grape seeds do not reproduce the exact same match as the cultivar from which they originated, but instead a range of possible varieties. With some genetic work, ampelographic research, and a bit of radiographic selection at germination Picard’s work was successful. With the new plants grown from the ancient seeds he was able to restart sections of his vineyard growing Savagnin and Pinot Noir. The area with these plantings he has named Eline. It is this he wants me to see.
Thanks to Picard’s efforts we now know there is significant difference in the flavor and aging potential of wines made from the engineered Pinot Noir versus the naturally grown variety. Picard has also discovered evidence from old electronic documents known as The Feiring Line: The Real Wine Newsletter of unique vinification techniques known as vin Jaune that were once used for the grape Savagnin. Through further study he has already discovered the steps to make vin Jaune and is five years into the aging of his first vintage.
I ask if we can taste his Savagnin but he explains it has only been under veil for a little over five years, and needs at least another year before he’s willing to show it. The veil, he explains, is how vin Jaune is made. It’s a film of yeast that covers the surface of the wine and helps it age slowly. When the wine is done it will be named Ressick, he tells me, for a planet that aged too fast.
Thank you to Jean-Luc Picard for giving so much of his time.
Post-edit: Since the publication of the original post Picard shared further information on his seed recovery efforts. That additional information has been added to this re-publication of the article.
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