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Jacky Blisson

Life

A MOST CURIOUS JOURNEY

Rover
Photo credit: www.classicandperformancecar.com

My grandfather Frank Egan was a wine merchant in London many years ago. It was a gentler time, so my mother would have me believe. A time where the answering of letters, dictating of future correspondence and tasting of wines would take place in the morning, thus leaving gentlemen free to enjoy a long lunch and retire to their clubs for the afternoon. Regular “breakage” would keep the house well stocked in vintage Champagne, which served nicely as a little apéritif to enjoy in the bath before supper.

The only wine regions that really mattered could be rattled off in short order: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Mosel Valley, Porto and Sherry. This narrow focus allowed educated tasters to become highly proficient in the myriad lieux-dits, individual producers and specific vintage traits of each area. Wines were assigned a personality rather than described with a laundry list of aromas. Frank liked to compare his wines to women or racehorses. To him, this visual imagery aptly conveyed the rounded, voluptuous charm of a warm vintage Vosne-Romanée or the taut, powerful muscle of a young Pauillac.

When visiting his growers, Frank would make two appointments a day, thus allowing for lunch with one and dinner with the other. He was driven by chauffeur so as to properly honour the excellent wines of his gracious hosts. Day time attire consisted of pin striped suits and a bowler hat when in the city, and evening events invariably called for black tie.

In today’s fast paced, global wine industry such a leisurely rhythm seems unfathomable. But what would Frank make of us were he suddenly catapulted sixty-odd years into the future?

Though I only knew him through stories and photos, I can imagine him sitting in some trendy wine bar, staring agape at the tattooed, beardy sommelier, repeating the words ‘Nerello Mascalese?’ with a puzzled air. I can just see him wandering the aisles of a big box store marvelling at the quantity of ‘SKUs’, at the labelling by grape variety, and the vast number of wine producing regions.  Fine wines in screw cap? From New Zealand?

The frenetic pace of wine retailing in this social media age would surely baffle him. And he might feel as though he had stepped into the pages of a sensationalist science fiction pulp, observing the use of GPS, sensors, probes and drones in the vineyards.

However, in terms of small-scale, fine winemaking, he would likely find himself back on familiar ground; much more so than if his time travelling Rover had dropped him in nineteen eighty. For the pendulum swung from tradition to innovation to such a violent degree with the embracing of mechanization, chemical weed and pesticide controls and so forth, that we are now seeing the inevitable counter movement.

Conscientious, quality-minded growers are increasingly organic (or in the process of conversion). They focus on canopy management techniques and decreasing irrigation frequency. In the cellar, spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeasts, partial or whole cluster fermentation, and the absence of fining or filtration are all the rage for many a premium, artisanal winemaker. Were Frank to hear an estate manager proudly detail these exacting methods, he may scratch his head. He would likely think to himself, well yes, those are fairly standard procedures, what’s this chap so excited about?

If he were to taste the sought-after wines of today, fashioned in the post-Parker age of restraint, purity and freshness, he may not even find that his beloved Burgundies taste all that different. They are certainly a little riper and fleshier, potentially with silkier tannins, but recognizable all the same.

After the excitement of his incredible journey, it would be understandable if Frank hurried back to nineteen fifty to settle his nerves with a wee dram with his cronies. Yet perhaps I underestimate my progenitor… He may have been the kind of intrepid fellow that, once launched on the path of adventure, could not resist his curiosity. Turning the Rover’s dials to twenty eighty, what might he discover?

Touching down in Bordeaux mid-summer, he might feel the need to take off his blazer, and even roll up his sleeves. According to climate change focused researchers at the Institut de la science de la vigne et du vin, Bordeaux weather may more closely resemble that of coastal Portugal in as little as twenty to thirty years. Examining the back label of a fine claret, he might find the late ripening Tinto Cao grape listed along side Cabernet and Merlot.

Will Champagne make only red wines, and the finest bubblies hail from England and Tasmania? Will Frank find Napa and Barossa Valley vineyards all but abandoned? With the sheer size and massive ambition of China, the twenty eighty equivalent to supermarket shelves could well be dominated by the descendants of Great Wall and Changyu.

Perhaps he will stumble upon a post-apocalyptic scenario with massive swathes of vineyards lost to virulent parasite epidemics. By then, the disease resistant, cold hearty Regent hybrid and others of its ilk could conceivably be household names.

Alas, it is time to bring this time travel reverie to a close. Frank Egan must meekly step back into the black and white photos I cherish, nosing a selection of vintage Port. Though day dreams of him pushing on, increasingly poleward and higher in altitude, in search of the finest crus, will linger in my thoughts and drive me forward.

Frank Egan

Photo: Frank Egan & daughter Hazel, Guildhall tasting circa 1960.

 

Life

THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

Condrieu - glass & vineyard
Photo credit: Condrieu vineyards, Jasper Van Berkel

Purity. This simple six letter word conjures up profound connotations of flawless perfection. In recent years, it has become a buzzword for the natural wine movement. It is bandied about freely in winery literature, press articles and the like. In a recent Meininger’s article, Canberra-based natural winemaker Bryan Martin reckoned that his pét nat sparkling Riesling offers, ‘the most pure expression of Riesling that you can get’.  Isabelle Legeron asserts that, ‘natural wines have purer flavours…’ in the Basic Introduction to Natural Wine on her excellent website.

Let me start by saying that I am an enthusiastic supporter of growers that strive to create healthy, balanced vineyards free of chemical poisons. I actively seek out producers crafting singular wines that stand out from the crowd. I therefore applaud natural winemaking and its laudable principles. However, I take issue with the community’s appropriation of the notion of purity.  This act has tacit implications for other winemaking styles. It also calls into question the true motivation of its admirers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purity means ‘freedom from adulteration or contamination’. The majority of low interventionist wines are made without additives. In this sense, deeming them pure is a fair assessment. Wild yeasts are allowed to spur spontaneous fermentation, acid levels are not adjusted, commercial enzymes are eschewed and sulphur dioxide, if used at all, is kept to a strict minimum. In ideal conditions: impeccable winery hygiene, scrupulous oxygen management, precise temperature control from fermentation right through to the moment of consumption, these wines can be divine. The complexity, elegance and, indeed purity, of well-made natural wines is, to me, a given.

But ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life. Naturally occurring yeast colonies often struggle to complete fermentation as alcohol levels and temperatures rise. Stuck fermentations are common leaving the must at risk of exposure to all manners of yeasts and bacteria that can significantly alter aromatics and flavours. This isn’t always a bad thing. In certain cases, the result is a heightened complexity that gives the wine infinitely more appeal. Be this as it may, microbial infection is a form of contamination, rendering the affected wine impure if we are to take the dictionary definition literally.

…ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life.

This idea takes on additional significance if we consider the most common usage for this term. More often than not purity, as relates to wine, is a descriptor for the character of the fruit. In the glossary section of the Wine Cellar Insider, purity is likened to ‘tasting a sweet, ripe berry off the vine’. And yet, the heady raspberry bouquet of Grenache is muted in the presence of pungent Brettanomyces-induced barnyard aromas. The acrid pitch of high volatile acidity levels overshadows the fruity vibrancy of even the spriteliest Gamay. To me, wines protected from microbial and oxidative reactions, with precision and restraint, show far brighter, more expressive fruit.

The reputed natural wine advocate Pierre Jancou, speaking though his website MorethanOrganic.com, purports that natural wines have ‘purity and honesty of expression’, while wines made in a conventional way ‘taste of the same few manufactured flavours’. The term conventional is murky. For many adherents to the natural wine movement, any manipulation in the winery equates to conventional winemaking. Following that logic, the simple act of chaptalising, commonly practiced in most cool vintage for even top Burgundy estates, renders wines conventional. I don’t know of many fortunate enough to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Leflaive that would claim they lack complexity or a true sense of terroir.

The notion of honesty of expression is also troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines. The insinuation is anything but subtle. Wines made with any form of vinification aides or antioxidants are dishonest; those that imbibe are being duped. So does the practice of egg white fining at Château Margaux make their wines less sincere? With the softening of the tannins, does the pure expression of this storied wine lessen?

The notion of honesty of expression is troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines.

American writer Calvin Trillin once said, ‘the price of purity is purists’. Time and again, I have found myself staring down zealous sommeliers who swears only by natural wines. They have an almost religious fervour about them, blithely filling their wine lists with offerings that only a handful of customers will actually enjoy. They condemn other wine styles and patronize those that dare to offer a differing opinion.

The thought that intrigues me is, deep down, do enthusiasts truly love the wines, or is it the idea of experiencing so-called purity that has them hooked? Every field has its share of purists. My musician brother told me of audiophiles that go to insane lengths and spend upwards of 50 000$ on sound systems in the pursuit of ‘the perfect sound’. Where does one draw the line between passion and obsession? And what is the virtue of purity for purity’s sake?

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not. Applying a strict set of doctrines to winemaking seems a step backward. I often hear natural wine advocates claim that the wines hearken back to the days before industrialization. And yet, I am quite sure that if our forefathers, who watched in dismay when their wine turned vinegary, could have flipped a switch to cool their tanks, or restarted fermentation with cultured yeasts, they would have. The winemakers I admire most embrace both tradition and innovation. They step back when they can and step in (with a gentle touch) when necessary to preserve wine from spoilage.

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not.

For all the well-crafted natural wines out there that truly embody a notion of purity, there are as many top class conventionally made wines that can justly make the same claim. The term cannot simply be brandished by one camp as a distinguishing feature of style.  Firstly, because the assertion is often inaccurate. Secondly, as applying the word to a specific winemaking philosophy carries the insinuation that wines not made in this manner are impure and therefore less worthy. This powerful implication could well be the reason that many wine lovers have become such die-hard fans. Perhaps it is time for natural wines to lay down the banner of purity and let drinkers decide for themselves?

 

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 3

Hamilton Russell Daycare 2007
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards preschool kids, 2007 (Jacky Blisson)

It is no secret that South Africa has a decidedly chequered past when it comes to human rights. Driving through the vast shanty towns that surround major and even minor cities nation-wide, it is apparent that inequality is still rife today. And yet, as a Canadian descendent of European settlers, it would be hypocritical of me to point fingers. The racial segregation and abuses to which our own indigenous populations have long been subjected are equally disgraceful.

In 2011, Human Right’s Watch published a damning report on the conditions of South African farm workers, with particular emphasis on fruit and wine farms in the Western Cape. Unacceptable living conditions, illegal evictions, alcoholism, dangerous pesticide exposure and obstruction to joining unions were just some of the highlighted concerns. Further fuel was added to the fire last year, when an inflammatory Danish documentary surfaced depicting slavery-like situations on certain estates.

The national, promotional body: Wines of South Africa responded to the ensuing negative press with the following statement: ‘The South African wine industry has come a long way in recent years … to improve the sustainability of one of its biggest assets – the workers. Whilst we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done, there are numerous programmes that include social upliftment, housing, land reform, education, skills and medical care for farm workers and their families. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of bodies such as WIETA and Fairtrade, there are regular audits across the board… It will take time, but the reality is that change is taking place, even despite many wine farmers running their businesses on very tight margins.’

Chris Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in the Swartland asserts ‘there is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives and in many cases you can see they visibly are being improved’. And this, despite the many challenges the industry faces. He explains that the South African wine sector, unlike the majority of wine producing countries, does not receive any government subsidies, and is at the mercy of a volatile exchange rate and high rate of inflation. Roughly 50% of South African wine is sold in bulk at very low prices, with the wineries often operating at a loss.

‘There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of farmers are doing their best to uplift their workers lives…’

This cycle of unsustainably low purchase prices from major retailers is effectively slowing the pace of progress, according to US-based South African fine wine importer Pascal Schildt. ‘Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace. Consumers need to be encouraged to trade up a few dollars, thereby allowing retailers to adjust their buying habits’.

As in most industries, buying the cheapest quality available is (more often than not) tantamount to supporting labour exploitation. A marginal shift upwards can make a huge difference to a wine estate’s ability to adequately compensate workers, with the added bonus of providing significantly more pleasure in the glass.

Just as the conscience minded among us try to buy local and/ or sustainably produced goods, we as wine drinkers can initiate change by supporting South African wine producers that are making the necessary efforts to treat workers fairly. And, despite a murky track record and the obstacles outlined above, significant improvements are to be found on a vast number of wine farms.

Quality has massively improved over the past decade, but prices have not risen apace’.

One of the pioneers of this movement is highly respected Elgin estate Paul Cluver. Their Thandi brand of wines was the first agriculturally-based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) project back in 1995. Thandi Wines went on to become the first Fair Trade certified wine brand in the world, funneling back profits to community upliftment projects like education, healthcare, housing improvements and so forth.

Top ranked Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay runs the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley pre-school on their property, accepting under priveledged children from through out the community, in the hopes that a strong early educational base will set them in good stead to succeed in their future schooling. Countless other such projects exist throughout the Cape winelands. See a list of great initiatives compiled by Wines of South Africa here.

Seeking out wines that hold the Fair Trade or WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association) accreditation is an increasingly sound way to ensure the purchase of equitably produced wines. South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world, with over 76 certified farms employing over 3000 workers. Fair Trade products are labelled with a distinctive logo, making them easy to identify. WIETA is another standard bearer, working to ensure that fair wages and acceptable labour conditions are upheld in the South African wine trade. A large number of South African wineries are members (see full list here) and are regularly audited to ensure that they meet the required norms.

South Africa is currently the largest producer of Fair Trade wine in the world.

If there is one thing that struck me during my harvest work and travels through South Africa, it was the ardent desire of wineries to prove themselves on the world stage. On the whole, they are a passionate, enthusiastic community commited to throwing off the shackles of the past. While injustices are still rampant, significant efforts are being made by many wine farms to redress the situation. Our responsability as consumers is to champion the leaders of this movement.

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 2

Swartland vineyards
Photo Credit: Swartland vineyards, Wines of South Africa

In part 2 of my South Africa series, I look at some of the exciting Western Cape wine growing districts and wine producers cropping up on our liquor board shelfs. Click here for a map of the Cape winelands (courtesy of Wines of South Africa). 

The majority of South Africa’s vineyards are situated in the Western Cape, in proximity to the coast whose cooling influence tempers the otherwise baking hot growing season. This results in good acid retention and balanced wines.  Value priced offerings will often be labeled under this large, generic region or the sub-zone of the Coastal Region. These wines can be blended from across their delimited territories.

Smaller sub-divisions (named districts and wards) exist when we move up the ladder to mid-range and premium priced wines. Within these smaller vineyard areas, more specific styles emerge. The following are just a handful of the most exciting, high quality districts that we are starting to see in regular rotation here:

ELGIN: Attractively aromatic whites and vibrant light reds flourish here due to the combined cooling influence of southerly winds and moderate elevation (350 metres above sea level). Elgin lies in a basin of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, south-east of Stellenbosch.

Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc make up the bulk of white wine production, while Pinot Noir and Syrah account for much of the red wine. Paul Cluver is an excellent, mid-sized Elgin producer making consistently high quality, good value whites and reds.

STELLENBOSCH: Likely the best-known district of the Cape Winelands, wine production in Stellenbosch dates back to the 17th century. Less than one hour’s drive due east of Cape Town, the terrain here is mountainous with sufficient rainfall and well-drained soils. While a wide diversity of soil types and mesoclimates exist (owing to the varying exposition and altitude of plantings), many of the most prized vineyard sites lie on ancient decomposed granite or sandstone beds. The climate is generally hot and dry, with cooling afternoon breezes from the south-east.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, though Pinotage, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced in abundance. Over 170 wine producers call Stellenbosch home, and trade continues to flourish. Among the many excellent wineries, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Vergelegen produces good, mid-range to premium priced Bordeaux Blends, Waterkloof for fantastic, biodynamic Rhône style blends and Ken Forrester for clean, consistent, good value old vine Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

SWARTLAND: Traditionally a wheat-producing region, the Swartland (65km north of Cape Town) has been making waves on the international wine scene in recent years as the hot, new growing region of South Africa. Hot is indeed an apt descriptor, as well as dry, making hardy, drought resistant bush vines a common occurrence. The dominant soil type is shale, with pockets of granite and schist providing interesting alternative terroirs.

The Mediterranean climate makes for excellent Rhône style reds. Lovely Chenin Blanc is also grown here. The excitement generated by Swartland’s star producers is largely justified. Fantastic, affordable quality can be found from the Kloof Street (from the Mullineux Family Wines), A.A. Badenhorst and Leeuwenkuil (bright, juicy Cinsault). Exceptional, premium to luxury priced wines from: Mullineux Family Wines and The Sadie Family.

TULBAGH MOUNTAINS: A fairly secluded valley, inland from the Swartland, encircled by mountains to the west, north and east. Due to this unique topography, cool night time air becomes trapped in the vineyards making for chilly morning temperatures that gradually rise in the hot afternoons. Soils are quite varied making for a wide variety of styles. Only 13 wine producers reside here at present, but the acclaim of their wines speaks volumes.

Traditional method sparkling wines, called ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ are gaining traction here. Syrah and Rhône blend whites are also performing well. Krone produces easy drinking, competitively priced sparkling wines, while Fable Mountain Vineyards is garnering top accolades for their premium white and red Rhône blends.

WALKER BAY: This pretty district extends from the town of Hermanus on the south coast of the Western Cape, with the majority of top-rated vineyards lying in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde valley (meaning Heaven and Earth). The close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brings cooling breezes that temper the otherwise hot climate. Clay-rich soils bring a firm structure to the wines. I spent many a happy month here, working harvest and sampling my way through the vibrant, juicy wines of the region.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the star grapes of the area, though Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage are also gaining in popularity. Hamilton-Russell Vineyards has a long-standing reputation for fine, premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard-Finlayson makes very precise, focused wines from ranging from attractively fruity mid-range whites to premium Pinot Noir. Crystallum Wines regularly impresses me with their beautifully creamy, complex wines.

 

Education

The Renaissance of South African Wine – Part 1

Hamilton Russell Estate
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards (by Jacky Blisson)

In Canada, we are often a little late to the party when it comes to new wine trends. So, if you still think South Africa is only good for inexpensive, nondescript white wines, you are forgiven. After all, that is pretty much all our liquor boards were stocking for years. Happily, all that is changing.

Read on for a three part series on the renaissance of the South African wine industry: why South Africa was typecast in a cheap ‘n cheerful role and how the industry has changed, what exciting regions to look for, and finally the people behind the wines.

South African wine producers often flinch when they see their wines lumped in to the ‘New World’ wine category. Indeed, the history of winemaking dates back to 1655, with the establishment of the country’s first vineyard by then governor Jan van Riebeeck. This may seem relatively recent when compared with the first Calabrian vines planted around 1500 B.C. And it may not appear to massively pre-date the Californian and Australian industries, which both originated in the late 1700s.

What makes South Africa stand apart from other New World regions in historical terms, is how quickly Cape wines rose to international prominence. While most other non-European wine producing nations saw little growth, and minimal export sales until the late 1900s, the sweet wines of Constantia were sought after by the European ruling class in the 1700s. According to the Oxford Wine Companion, Napoleon himself had the wine shipped in during his exile on St. Helena.

Despite this promising start, a series of misfortunes befell South African wine growers which slowly eroded the high quality image the famed Constantia wine or ‘Vin de Constance’ had brought. Pests in the form of voracious, grape eating birds meant that many estates picked too early resulting in thin, acidic wines. The Phylloxera epidemic followed, decimating over a quarter of the country’s plantings by 1890.

Partly in response to the variable wine quality and poor financial returns of so many wine farmers, a ‘super cooperative’ was formed in 1915 to bring unity and improve conditions. In short order, the KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika) became a powerful, controlling force in the South African wine industry. They were responsible for setting grape and wine prices, as well as quotas for wine production. Growers were incentivized on quantity, leading to ever increasing yields.

The international sanctions imposed by the apartheid regime led to a period of isolation. South African producers were cut off from the latest innovations in viticultural and vinification techniques, and lost touch with changing international tastes and trends.

With Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990 came a resurgence in international interest for South African wines. Sadly, by this point, most of the nation’s vineyards were in a poor state. Vineyard virus was rampant. The grape varieties planted were unfashionable; mainly Chenin Blanc, Sultana and Colombard. Wine quality was, on the whole, pretty dismal.

Given the often thin, reedy nature of the whites and astringency of the (under-ripe) reds, major market were only willing to buy in at very low rates, positioning the wines at rock bottom prices on shelf.  This set a precedent that has proved difficult for South Africa to shake off.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the situation is radically different. The number of individual estates has more than doubled, with a growing number of small, boutique wineries commanding widespread acclaim. Massive advancements have been made in eradicating vineyard virus, reducing yields, achieving optimal ripening conditions and planting grape varieties best suited to individual vineyard sites.

The European and American press have been effusive in their praise of the new wave of top quality South African wines. Neal Martin, of Robert Parker fame, has proclaimed South Africa ‘the most dynamic and exciting New World country’. Tim Atkin MW, echoes this view, calling the wines ‘world class’.

In 2007, I spent a few months working the harvest at the top-rated Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay, and touring the wineries of the Western Cape. I saw first hand the incredible strides in quality. Carefully managed vineyards and impeccably clean wineries gleaming with modern technology were the norm. The producers we met were literally bursting with enthusiasm as they eagerly detailed their winemaking techniques and proudly poured their wines. It was a far cry from the cool, superior attitude I had thus far encountered when dealing with French vignerons.

High quality South African wines now exists not only at the luxury end of the spectrum, but also in the every day, sub 15$ category. Chenin Blanc continues to dominate white wine plantings, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also enjoying high praise. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the two top seated reds, with increasing buzz generated by the bright, fruity old-vine Cinsault and elegant Pinot Noir. Gamey, smoky Pinotage (a South African created hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) provides a unique taste profile that further sets this exceptional wine region apart.

While I am loathe to place the wines of such a diverse, fast changing region into one mould, it is often true that South African wines seem to strike a stylistic balance between Old World and New. While bolder and fruitier than many European wines, they still tend to be more restrained, with greater intensity of savoury, earthy flavours than many of their American and Southern Hemisphere counterparts.

Life

A Brand New Screwing Machine…

Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre
After a few weeks hiatus, I bring you another excerpt from my 2010 blog “The Rhône Canuck”. This episode is all about the ridiculous subtleties of language that can trip you up when living abroad…

 

6 years on living in France, and I finally feel that my French is reasonably good. Of course my accent will always remain a dead give away and I seem destined to endure the vaguely patronising title of “la petite canadienne”, but all in all je me débrouille pas trop mal.

And so, after years of being teased for my gaffes in French (apparently a salopette does not mean what I thought it did…), I can now retaliate. For although many Frenchies declare themselves to be bilingual on their CVs, the percentage that actually does speak and write intelligible English is relatively small. I am regularly confronted with winery technical sheets that enthusiastically describe the “profound colour”, “specific nose” and “generous matter” of Côtes du Rhônes and Gigondas. Or, my personal favourite, the ageing process of a Merlot being explained as “breeding in tank for 6 months”. And what better food pairing suggestion than “foul”?

I still chuckle when I think of an old marketing colleague proudly explaining to a client that we had just invested in a “brand new screwing machine” (a screw cap closure unit for our bottling line). My very polite and conservative client from Saskatchewan and I burst out laughing until tears streamed down our faces…and the more we laughed, the redder and more tight-lipped my poor colleaugue became.

But before I get too smug, I must admit that this immersion in franglais has taken an alarming toll on my English. I find myself saying things like “It would arrange me if you would pass by at 6” or that I am going to “profit from the nice weather to go for a walk”. Looks like the French might have the last laugh after all…

Reviews

THE ENCHANTING WINES OF ALSACE

NIEDERMORSCHWIHR - ALSACE
Photo credit: www.vinsalsace.com

Have you ever seen one of those magical store window displays before Christmas, where all the brightly coloured houses look straight out of a fairytale? Cobblestone streets wind this way and that, and rolling hills surround the quaint little village. A gentle dusting of snow clings to the rooftops. Pressing your nose up against the glass, you wish you could step into the enchanting tableau.

Well you can.

Just head to Alsace and wander down the streets of any number of the charming towns, like Eguisheim or Riquewihr. You may find yourself half expecting to see Hansel and Gretel pop out of a doorway, fleeing from the witch’s oven.

While pretty gingerbread houses might be all the incentive you need to make the trip, there are a number of other attractive features to this historic region of northeast France. The one that interests me most, of course, is the wine.

While pretty gingerbread houses might be all the incentive you need to make the trip, there are a number of other attractive features to this historic region of northeast France.

Winemaking has a long and storied past in Alsace. Wild grapes have grown in the area since long before man appeared on the scene. Evidence of cultivated vineyards and wine production date back to Roman times.

While it may seem surprising that viticulture was established so early in such a northerly location, the region is in fact ideally suited for grape growing. The Vosges mountains to the west act as a protective barrier, sheltering the area from prevailing rain-bearing winds. As a result, Alsace is actually one of the driest, sunniest parts of France. It is the smallest wine region of France, sandwiched between the Vosges and the Rhîne river to the east. The automn season is long and warm. This is perfect for the late ripening grape varieties that are so prized here.

The vineyards line the foothills of the Vosges at altitudes of 200 to 400 metres. The best sites are oriented south or southeast maximizing sun exposure.  The geology of the region is incredibly diverse, with rock formations spanning all periods from the primary to quaternary era. Soil composition also varies widely. According to experts, areas just 100 metres apart often have significant differences in soil makeup. Granite, chalk, marlstone, sandstone, loam, alluvial and even volcanic soils can be found here.

The geology of the region is incredibly diverse, with rock formations spanning all periods from the primary to quaternary era. Soil composition also varies widely.

This explains the wealth of grape varieties that grow so well here. While most other northern vineyards focus on just a handful of cool climate grapes, Alsace boasts a great number of single varieties and blended wines. The four most important of which, dubbed the “noble grapes” are: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. While white wines dominate, some very pleasant Pinot Noir is also made here, in an earthy, spiced, light-bodied style.

The appellation system of Alsace is quite straightforward. Still and sweet wines are either labelled Alsace AOC or Alsace Grand Cru AOC. There are currently 51 vineyards deemed to have superior terroir, meriting Grand Cru status. Only the noble grapes can be planted in these vineyards.

Alsace is also a well regarded producer of sparkling white wine, under the AOC Crémant d’Alsace. These bubblies are generally blends of several different white grape varieties, produced in much the same way as Champagne, though generally with a shorter ageing period. The wines are often quite fruity, medium bodied and rounded.

The wines showed incredible complexity, pure fruit flavours, attractive minerality and beautiful depth.

While exquisite Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) and Séléction de Grains Nobles (botrytised) dessert wines can be found here, the preconcieved notion that Alsatian wines are all sweet, is in fact wrong! The decision to ferment dry or leave some residual sugar tends to be based on grape, and on the producers individual style. Many winemakers have come up with sweetness scales on their back labels or started stating sec (dry) to indicate drier styles. The majority of the region’s most celebrated grape, Riesling, is made bone dry.

I had the great pleasure of attending a Vins d’Alsace tasting a couple of weeks back. The impression that remained after tasting through a wide range of wines, was one of outstanding value. When one ventures above the entry level offerings, into the 20$ to 50$ range, the wines showed incredible complexity, pure fruit flavours, attractive minerality and beautiful depth. The racy acidity of the Rieslings and firm structure guarantees long term ageing potential.

While 20$ plus might seem a little pricey for white wine, just consider that for comparable quality you would easily be paying double to triple for Burgundy, Bordeaux or premium New World whites.

Here are a few recommendations; wines that impressed me during the tasting.

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Photo credit: www.saq.com

What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out:

Domaine Barmès Buecher Crémant d’Alsace 2013 – 87pts. PW

Lively, attractive nose featuring hints of lemon verbena, citrus, green apple and a subtle leesy note. Crisp acidity gives way to sweet honeyed, floral notes on the broad palate. Firm, persistent bubbles abound. Brut dosage.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.35$)

Trimbach Riesling 2013 – 89pts. PW

Pale straw in colour. Somewhat restrained, with savoury, earthy notes lending complexity to green apple and lemon scented nose. Racy acidity thrills on the dry, light bodied palate, with bright juicy fruit bringing depth to the mid-palate. The moderately long finish offers stony minerality and bright, lemon flavours.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.75), LCBO (23.95$)

Josmeyer Riesling “Le Kottabe” 2013 – 92pts. PW

Pale straw in colour. Elegant aromas of red apple, grapefruit and white flowers, with underlying earthiness and stony minerality. Very clean and precise on the bone dry palate, with a rounded structure and high concentration of citrus and orchard fruits that lingers nicely. A touch of grapefruit zest brings an intriguing hint of bitterness to the finish, adding to its appeal for food pairings.

Where to buy: SAQ (31.75)

Domaine Ostertag Riesling “Heissenberg” 2014 – 92pts. PW

Pale gold in colour. Heady aromas of spice, yellow apples and pronounced minerality on the nose. The palate is rich, broad and rounded, with exceptional depth of vibrant stone fruit flavours. Just a touch of residual sugar brings balance to the fresh, lemony acidity. The finish is long and layered, with ever so slightly warming, 13.5% alcohol.

Where to buy: SAQ (44.25$)

Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru “Saering” 2012 – 94pts. PW

This Grand Cru represents fantastic value! Intense, highly complex aromas of petrol, red apple, stony minerality and ripe apricots. Subtle spiced and floral notes develop upon aeration. Racy acidity is beautifully balanced by the rich, broad texture and bright, juicy fruit. The long finish is dry, with lingering stone fruits and mineral notes.

Where to buy: SAQ (33.00$)

Josmeyer “Mise de Printemps” Pinot Blanc 2015 – 90pts. PW

Pale lemon in colour. Fragrant aromas of white pear, melon, lemon curd and subtle floral notes feature on the nose. The medium weight palate is very fresh, rounded and easy drinking with bright, orchard fruit flavours. Quite dry, with a moderately long, fruity finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.90$)

Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris “Barriques” 2013 – 89pts. PW

Pale gold, flecked with green. Somewhat restrained, yet complex smoky, mineral, earthy nose, with underlying green apple and grapefruit notes. The palate is clean, precise and light bodied with fresh acidity and moderate concentration of citrus and apples. Smoky notes linger on the moderately long finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (33.00$)

Preiss-Zimmer “Réserve Personnelle” Pinot Gris 2015 – 88pts. PW

Lively ripe pear, yellow apple and baking spice, with subtle smoky minerality. Medium bodied, with zesty acidity and juicy peach flavours. The mouthfeel is rich and smooth, with moderate viscosity. The balance between freshness and sweet finish is perfectly pitched.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.25$)

 

 

Producers Reviews Wines

Producer Profile – Ferraton Père et Fils

Saint Joseph - Ferraton
Photo credit: Ferraton Père & Fils (Saint Joseph vineyards)

The French have a wonderful word for describing certain wines: digeste. I have never been able to find an adequate counterpart in English. The literal translation is digestable which, one would hope, most wines are.

Basically, the term refers to wines that are elegant, balanced and fresh, with low to medium alcohol. In my experience, these are the kind of wines that make you thirsty for another sip and, when consumed in moderation, won’t leave you fuzzy headed the next morning. They are pretty much the exact opposite of the big, oaky fruit bombs that coat your tongue, and finish warm and boozy.

Cool climate Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc are the most frequently cited digeste reds. And what of Syrah? Cue the raised eyebrows. If you think Syrah (aka Shiraz) is the poster child for massive, jammy reds, you have clearly not tasted enough Northern Rhône.

In the Northern hemisphere, the vast majority of wine growing regions lie within the 30th and 50th degree of latitude. The 45th parallel runs directly through the Crozes-Hermitage appellation, making the Northern Rhône among the more northerly, cooler vineyards of Europe.

If you think Syrah (aka Shiraz) is the poster child for massive, jammy reds, you have clearly not tasted enough Northern Rhône.

Syrah here is mainly crisp and lively, with tart red fruit, medium body and earthy, peppery flavours. The famed hill of Hermitage and roasted slopes of Côte Rôtie offer denser, more powerful reds yet, even here, beautifully fresh acidity and tangy fruit flavours provide exceptional balance and, yes, digestibility.

A couple of weeks back, I had the good fortune to attend a tasting of Ferraton Père & Fils wines. Before we delve into the reviews, I’ll give you a little background on the estate.

Ferraton Père & Fils was established seventy-odd years ago. Jean Orens Ferraton started out with just one tiny plot of land; less than half a hectare of Hermitage. The estate was passed down, as the name suggests, from father to son for several generations. As time passed, the estate grew, acquiring well situated parcels of Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage and St Joseph.

Concern for the health and sustainability of their vineyards led the Ferraton family to embrace biodynamic farming techniques in the nineteen nineties. With an eye to expansion, the Ferratons took on a likeminded investor: the Maison Chapoutier.

The quality is consistently high, even in lesser vintages. This, to me, is a sure sign of a strong estate.

Sadly, Samuel Ferraton suffered a bad motorcycle accident in the early two thousands which left him unable to carry on the family business. In two thousand and six, Ferraton was officially purchased by Maison Chapoutier, with the aim of maintaining and even furthering the high quality for which the Ferraton name stood.

Fast forward 10 years, and Chapoutier’s promise seems kept. The estate’s vineyard holdings continues to be managed according to strict biodynamic principles. The négociant wines (made from purchased grapes or wine) are essentially sourced from sustainable or organic farms. The quality is consistently high, even in lesser vintages. This, to me, is a sure sign of a strong estate.

Until recently, the tendency in the Northern Rhône was to create just one blend per appellation. Many producers still espouse this philosophy, claiming that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. However, a growing band of outliers are starting to bottle individual vineyard plots separately, to showcase the particular features of the terroir. This Burgundian approach is dear to the heart of Ferraton’s team.

“Our parcel selections allow us to showcase the superior qualities of our vineyard sites” says Ferraton’s Sales Director Patrick Rigoulet. “They play a critical role in defining what makes our wines unique”.  

Our parcel selections…play a critical role in defining what makes our wines unique

Ferraton Père & Fils has been a favourite of SAQ and LCBO buyers for years now, with a variety of the following wines on offer currently.

What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out:

Ferraton Père et Fils Côtes du Rhône red “Samorëns” 2014 – 88pts. VW

Moderately intense aromas of ripe black fruits, violets and subtle spice feature on the nose. The palate is medium bodied, with a fairly firm structure and lots of juicy black fruit. Ripe, chewy tannins give way to a hint of sour cherry that lifts the finish. This is a serious style of Côtes du Rhône, to be paired with food. Drink within 3 years.

Where to Buy: LCBO (15.95$) – as of January 2017

Pierre Henri Morel Côtes du Rhône Villages Laudun White 2014 – 89pts. VW

Pierre Henri Morel is one of Ferraton’s négociant labels. Fragrant, moderately complex nose featuring honey, macerated apricots, poached pear, and hints of cinnamon. Lovely balance on the palate; the rich, rounded mouthfeel is nicely lifted by fresh acidity. This dry, medium bodied white ends with a vibrant kick of ripe lemon and just a touch of bitterness. Drink now.

Where to Buy: LCBO (18.95$)

Ferraton Père & Fils Saint Joseph “La Source” White 2014 – 92pts. PW

This 100% Marsanne offers a lot of finesse. Elegant aromas of white flowers, lemon curd, marzipan and subtle minerality feature on the nose. A fresh, lively attack gives way to a moderately rich, rounded mid-palate with great depth of flavour. The finish is long; layered with honeyed fruit, lemon and lingering minerality.

Where to Buy: Enquire with agent Mosaiq 

Ferraton Père & Fils Crozes Hermitage “La Matinière” Red 2014 – 89pts. PW

Attractive, somewhat restrained nose of tart red fruits, with perfumed floral hints and earthy undertones. The palate offers crisp acidity, a full bodied, densely structured style and concentrated, just ripe red fruit flavours. The tannins are still quite firm, though are ripe and finegrained.

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.95$)

Ferraton Père & Fils Saint Joseph “La Source” 2014 – 92pts. PW

This is a very well crafted Saint Joseph. Elegant, layered aromas of violet, ripe red berries, red currant, white pepper and spice feature on the nose. The fresh acidity is nicely balanced by the full body and concentrated red fruit flavours. Despite a certain firmness of structure, the texture is quite silky, finishing with ripe, finegrained tannins. The oak is quite subtle, adding more structure than aroma. The finish is long and nuanced. Drinking well now, but will certainly improve with 3 – 5 years’ cellaring and should hold well for another couple of years.

Where to Buy: SAQ (31.50$) – 2012 vintage

Ferraton Père & Fils “Les Miaux” Hermitage 2009 – 92pts LW

2009 was a warm vintage in the Northern Rhône. This is evident on the heady, fragrant nose featuring crushed red berry and cherry aromas, overlaid with toasty, spiced notes. Hints of leather and tobacco emerge upon aeration. The palate is big and bold, with fresh acidity, a muscular structure and lovely depth of fruit and dark chocolate flavours. The oak is subtle and well integrated, and the finish is long and layered.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (90.00$)

Ferraton Père & Fils “Les Miaux” Hermitage 2010 – 93pts. LW

The 2010 Les Miaux from Ferraton is a highly complex, beautifully balanced expression of Hermitage. While it lacks the full throttle fruit and power of 2009, it amply makes up in finesse and precision. Ripe red fruit, exotic spice, candied orange peel and hints of leather feature on the nose and in mouth. The palate is full bodied, with lovely fresh acidity and great concentration. The finish is very long, with subtle oaked nuances.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (90.00$)

Ferraton Père & Fils “Le Méal” Ermitage 2013 – 95pts. LW

Intense, highly complex nose featuring tobacco, red currant, cherry, earthy notes and attractive minerality. A fresh, lively attack gives way to a full bodied, firmly structured, yet velvetty textured mid-palate. The depth and concentration of flavour is impressive, as is the long, layered finish. This powerful red needs 3 – 5 years additional cellaring for the grippy tannins to soften. It should continue to improve for many years to come.

Where to Buy: Enquire with agent Mosaiq 

Reviews Wines

TOP PICKS – GALLEON WINES TASTING

Wine Bottles

When I tell people that I work in the wine industry, I invariably get a lot amused comments. The general assumption is that the job entails sitting around, drinking all day. Sadly, this is usually not the case. I mean, come on folks, would you pay someone to do that?

Even on those days where wine tasting really is my assigned task, the selection on offer is often a little dreary. Mass produced wines, like any high volume consumer item, generally have little that sets them apart from their competitors. They are often passably good, but rarely great.

Every once in a while, however, I attend a tasting where the wines (from small and large wine producers alike) are really fantastic…and I do just sit around, drinking all day.

I had one such day last week, at the launch of a new agency called Galleon Wines. They are actually more of a sub-agency; the fine wine division of large, national wine company Philippe Dandurand Wines.

Just a quick segue for those of you who don’t know what I mean by wine agency: in Canada, our cherished liquor boards (a.k.a monopolies) are the sole wine importers in the majority of provinces. They are also the sole retailers in most cases. With hundreds of stores, and thousands of wines on offer, a product can easily get lost in the shuffle. A wine agency is there to represent wine producers’ products locally. Their sales force will push for greater distribution in stores, try and get restaurants to purchase and so forth.

Galleon Wines is ably steered by wine expert Denis Marsan (long time SAQ Signatures buyer) and the savvy wine salesman Pierre-Adrien Fleurant. Together with their team, they have hand selected an exciting line up of wines. The accent is definitely on French wine; with a particularly fine range of Burgundies. The common thread for much of the portfolio is freshness, purity of fruit and balance.

The majority of these wines are not available at the SAQ or LCBO, however Galleon is on the verge of launching an e-commerce platform. Consumers will be able to buy directly from the website.

This is still Canada, with all our complicated rules and regulations, so you do unfortunately have to buy cases of 6 or 12 (depending on the wine).  I recommend getting together with like-palated friends to share orders.

Here are my top 11 favourites (because I couldn’t whittle it down to 10)What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out:

Kracher und Sohm Grüner Veltliner 2015 – 92pts. PW (20 – 25$/bttle)

Kracher und Sohm is a brilliant partnership between Alois Kracher, highly acclaimed Austrian vintner, and Aldo Sohm, top New York based sommelier.

Pale straw. Elegant, moderately intense aromas of ripe peach, fresh hay and white flowers. Lively acidity and lovely precision define the light bodied palate. This unoaked white finishes with a subtle saline note and lingering white pepper. Drink now, or hold 3 – 5 years.

Domaine Franck Millet Sancerre Blanc 2015 – 90pts. PW (25 – 30$/bttle)

The 22-hectare estate in the heart of Sancerre has been passed down from father to son for 3 generations. Textbook Sancerre; with a restrained, mineral-driven nose underscored by citrus and hints of gooseberry. Racy acidity, moderate concentration, rounded mid-palate and a lingering, citrus-infused finish.

Domaine Ravaut Bourgogne Blanc 2014 – 91pts. PW (25 – 30$/bttle)

This small, 12 hectare estate is situated in Ladoix-Serrigny, 5 km from Beaune. This well-crafted white Burgundy offers a surprising amount of complexity for such a modest appellation. Pale gold in colour, with attractive lemon curd, white pear, mineral and buttery aromas. Very fresh on the medium weight palate, with a subtly creamy texture and a clean, medium length finish. Unoaked.

Domaine Queylus Chardonnay Tradition 2013 – 89pts. PW (25 – 30$/bttle)

With local star Trevor Bachelder making the wines, the Domaine Queylus is among the better estates in Niagara today. This harmonious white offers good value at under 30$. Intense floral, apricot and ripe pear aromas on the nose. The palate is quite richly textured and fruit-driven, yet balanced by vibrant acidity. The toasty, vanilla nuances from long oak ageing are fairly well integrated. Finishes just a touch short.

Domaine Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre Chablis 2015 – 90pts. PW (25 – 30$/bttle)

This sustainably farmed estate can trace its history in the local wine industry back to 1745. Pale straw in colour, the subdued nose offers hints of lemon, lime and chalky minerality. The rasor sharp acidity is nicely offset by vibrant, pure citrus and apple flavours. The texture is smooth, with subtle leesy notes. Attractive minerality comes back to the fore on the long finish.

Château de la Maltroye Chassagne-Montrachet Blanc 2014- 94pts. LW (65 – 70$/bttle)

The stunning 18th century manor house is among the most beautiful properties in Burgundy. Pale gold. Very elegant, complex aromas featuring white flowers, fresh almonds, citrus, green apple and underlying minerality. Lively and taut on the palate, with a creamy, textured mid-palate and hint of buttery richness. The oak is subtle and well integrated. Finishes long, with lovely mineral and aniseed notes.

Domaine des Varinelles Saumur Champigny 2014 – 89pts. PW (20 – 25$/bttle)

Domaine des Varinelles is situated in the heart of Saumur, and boasts mainly mature vines ranging in age from 35 to 60 years on average. Youthful, purple colour. Vibrant raspberry, green pepper, and subtle cedar notes on the nose. The palate is fresh, medium bodied and dry, with tart red fruit flavours and ripe, grainy tannins that frame the finish nicely.

Domaine Coillot Marsannay “Les Boivins” 2014 – 91pts. PW (45 – 50$/bttle)

This sustainably farmed estate is commited to keeping yields low to best express the individual terroirs. The “Les Boivins” cuvée is a lovely example. Medium ruby, with pretty floral, red berry and brambly fruit notes on the nose. Fresh acidity is amply balanced by a smooth, velvetty texture and fleshy tannins.  The oak is very subtle and harmonious. Medium length finish.

Domaine Heresztyn-Mazzini Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2013 – 94pts. LW (80 – 85$/bttle)

This is a relatively new estate, borne from the mariage of Champenois winemaker Simon Mazzini and Burgundian Florence Heresztyn (descendant of the long established Domaine Heresztyn). This is a big, bold style of Gevrey-Chambertin. The intense, complex nose features earthy, animal notes underscored by just ripe red and black fruits, violets and exotic spice. Fresh on attack, with highly concentrated fruit flavours and prominent coffee and cedar-scented oak. The tannins are ripe and chewy. The finish is very long and nuanced, with intriguing hints of cumin. This dense, tightly woven wine needs a few more years to unwind and harmonize in cellar, but shows enormous potential.

Frescobaldi Lamaione IGT Toscana 2010 – 95pts. LW (125$/magnum)

Frescobaldi’s Lamaione Merlot strikes the perfect balance between power and purity.  Deep ruby. Moderately intense brambly fruit, with underling tobacco and cedar. Very fresh on the palate, nicely counterbalancing the big, brooding structure and ripe, dark fruit flavours. The firm, fine-grained tannins and well integrated cedar oak provide additional complexity. The finish is long, with hints of tobacco and lively mint.

Trapiche Imperfecto 2012 – 90pts. LW (50 – 55$/ bttle)

Youthful, inky purple colour. Very pretty nose featuring violets, ripe black berries and dark chocolate. The palate shows lovely harmony of fresh acidity, velvetty texture, full body and concentrated dark fruit flavours. Rounded tannins and spicy oak define the finish.

Life

FROM BEAUNE CANUCK TO RHONE CANUCK

Dentelles de Montmirail
Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre

Hi folks. Here is the second installment in the “Throwback Thursdays” republication of my 2010 Rhône Canuck blog. This brief post details my move from Burgundy to the Rhône Valley. Enjoy!

So here I am happily ensconced in the foothills of the majestic Dentelles de Montmirail (the range of craggy mountains that towers over the sleepy hamlet of Gigondas).  My new job? To sing the praises of the noble marriage of Grenache & Syrah.

Please don’t think that I have forsaken my first loves, Pinot & Chardonnay.  They still stand mightily on their pedestals and I make the pilgrimage back to the motherland regularly!  But somewhere around my 3rd winter in Beaune the endless winter fog got the better of me.  The locals scoffed at a Canadian complaining about the cold, but these people don’t heat their lofty 17th century homes. The damp seeps in every corner and you can only put on so many sweaters before you start feeling like the Michelan man.  Sure the vin chaud helps, but what with the glass or so of petit Chablis at lunch, a kir or three for the apéro, a nice bottle of Pommard with dinner and maybe a Poire Williams for the digéstif…Beaune was definitely having a wee effect on my young liver!

So what’s a wine-loving Canuck to do?  Go home and work for one of our beloved monopolies, scheming up ways to bring the next Fuzion to Canada?  Certainly not! A stint in South Africa as a lowly winemaking assistant for Hamilton Russell Vineyards, that was the solution.  What an incredible place…the endless blue skies, the breathtaking sunsets, the generosity of spirit!  Almost, but unfortunately not quite, makes you forget the endless shantytowns, the breathtaking inequality…

A few months and a pair of callused, purple hands later, I realised what a great job sales is!  So off back to France, to start anew, in the sunny and WINDY southern Rhône as a proud footsoldier for the maison Gabriel Meffre.