27 March, 2022
My blog deals with my experiences in the world of so-called natural wine, beginning in September 2020. Since then I’ve started a sort of internship with the French winemaker, vigneron, Thomas Puéchavy. As an agent I now represent Thomas as well as various other winemakers, all from the Loire. There’s a bit more background info below, ending with a short summary of my very first time in the vineyard and cellar.
My friend Pete alias Lawrence, a techno and house producer, was the first to confront me with the term natural wine, around 2017. For reasons unknown to me, I thought at first that this must be non-alcoholic wine. Pete had first drunk natural wine on his DJ-tours in Japan. In May 2020 I came across Jaja, a restaurant with an attached natural wine bar and shop in Neukölln. The next day I bought a variety of wines from them (they now run Return of the Living Wine instead), including Julien Pineau’s »Substance«, whose label was based on the New Order compilation »Substance 1987«. I googled Pineau and came across Bert Clerc’s English-language French wine blog Wineterroirs, which I then started to read regularly.
In July, two months later, it became clear that my wife Felicitas and I would not be able to go on our long-planned vacation trip in September because of the pandemic. At the same time, as part of a fundamental mid-life crisis, I had already researched whether one could actually learn or study the profession of winemaker (the answer was yes in each case) – but move to southern Germany and give up everything in Berlin? Commute? Felicitas advised me to do an internship first, a very obvious and also very good idea! I then trawled through the already-mentioned wine blog and wrote to three winegrowers who seemed interesting to me in order to get me involved as a harvest helper from 10 September on: Julien Pineau, of course, I knew one of his wines, Laurent Saillard and Thomas Puéchavy.
»Hello, Thomas! I hope this finds you well. I found your e-mail address on the Wineterroirs website where I just read about you – not knowing your wine yet, sadly. I’m very much interested in winemaking and would like to ask you whether you need a helping hand for the upcoming harvest or the time afterwards. I would be free from mid-September on, until the beginning of December, more or less. I’m a music curator during the day, which means I program a pop-music festival called Pop-Kultur, and I also help film directors finding the right music for their movies. Additionally, I run a music label called Martin Hossbach on which I release music of all kinds. It would be great to hear from you! Best wishes, Martin.«
All three vignerons answered immediately. Pineau wanted to harvest earlier, but said I could come anytime, there was always enough to do. Maïlys Porracchia, Saillard’s partner, wrote something similar. And Puéchavy? »Your mail comes at the right time…« I had chosen Thomas Puéchavy for various reasons. He had played in the legendary French folk-rock band Moriarty for a long time and had traveled the world as a musician for around fifteen years – I knew them only by name (»Jimmy« is their biggest hit). I generally get along well with musicians, so that was the first crucial point! The second? I would only need to use my rusty French in emergencies, as one of Puéchavy’s parents was from North America. Also, point three, I found it interesting that he was practically a beginner, he had only taken over his three and a half hectare vineyard in Vouvray, which he cultivates alone, in 2018 – his first vintage was the 2019. And, of course, fourthly, he made so-called natural wine, which fascinated me for the reduced, rather defensive way of production that respected the environment and, last but not least, the vine.
I booked the train ride to the Loire (70€) – door-to-door, it was only supposed to take 12 hours, and started jogging and doing push-ups regularly again. I ordered all the works of the North American natural wine journalist Alice Feiring and also the book »What is biodynamic wine?« by the Loire-based winemaker Nicolas Joly (Puéchavy was ›only‹ farming organically – but I had watched this video, had had a glass of Joly’s wine on my birthday that year and had become intrigued).
The ten days with Thomas were great. Part of the harvest had already been brought in and was happily fermenting, the rest we harvested with friends of Thomas on two weekends in September. The friends came from all parts of France. The days in the vineyard were not without effort, but at the same time very invigorating. Thomas always conveyed his attitude to us – nothing to add to the wine and nothing to take away, to appreciate and respect the terroir, in short, location, climate, grape, and to replicate what happens in the vineyard as faithfully as possible in the bottle. As a deterrent, he always had a catalogue in the car that listed dozens of little things that winegrowers were allowed to add to the fermented juice, even if they were producing organic wine! It wasn’t his thing, only small doses of sulphur, as a stabilizing external element, would be allowed just before bottling. In the evenings, the group kept trying wines from winegrower friends, blind tasting and exchanging ideas about what we had in the glass. I had never experienced anything like this in Germany, in my circle of friends. Perceiving wine as something special, but at the same time allowing every taste judgment without arrogance – I liked that.
On the days when there was no harvest, Thomas and I worked side by side in the cellar, and he always let me do the work on my own. I monitored the progress of the fermentation, took the sugar content and measured the temperature of the must. Water hose and sponge became common tools, after all there was always something to clean. I scrubbed old, used wooden barrels on the outside and cleaned them on the inside with a funny contraption. The mechanical basket press and the electric horizontal press needed to be maintained, harvest baskets stacked and sieves emptied. A certain amount of improvisational talent was required again and again.