Alice et olivier de moor

17 February 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

Before we leave the Yonne entirely, let’s abandon Chablis’ classified vineyards & go a little further afield, to a couple making wines close to my heart and worth special consideration: Alice and Olivier De Moor.

demoor

De Moor, “of the moors,” could here be heath, fen, and wasteland; before that (Proto-Germanic *mora), it is swamp, morass, and, in Norse, High German, and Dutch, begets the word for the sea. “The development,” says the Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, “of the senses ‘dry heathland, barren upland'”— from a word that basically meant marsh, they mean—”is not fully accounted for but may be due to the idea of infertility.”

Plausible enough, just as with Athénaïs de Béru being of the heath, but clambering up a different language tree. If it’s not this, there are a couple of other candidates: a nickname surname, “moor” by way of “dark-skinned,” or, in the Netherlands, in its sense of mooring up vessels, a Dutch last name for people with that profession on the docks. But then again, here we are, on the barren upland, with our chalk-and-limestone, low-pH, high-acid soils, and our Paris Basin, and our heather and gorse. Why contort?

Alice and Olivier make wine where Olivier grew up; one of their barrel rooms is underneath his grandparents’ house. They were both Dijon-trained enologists who met when Olivier was working at a big Chablis estate, and their background meant they knew exactly how radically they were departing from their neighbors with their work in the vineyard and cellar when they began to do things for themselves. They planted their first vines in 1989, while they still had day jobs, and didn’t fully give up working on the side for another six years.

We’re in Courgis (Corgiacum, 1279; Corgi, 1321; Courgy, 16th c.), a commune of 258 inhabitants a little southwest of Chablis, -acum denoting possession (of an estate or farm or manor that would later become a little town). What the original name of the Gallo-Roman person was who would have owned the farm is…kind of unclear? Perhaps possession is a red herring, and it’s just that old root, cour, for the courtyard of a barn or stable?

(I looked into where name of the breed of little dogs called corgis comes from, just in case. But it’s Welsh, often rendered as “dwarf dog” [cor ci] but maybe more like “working dog” [cur ci], the older, non-derogatory sense of “cur” being a dog that did useful things instead of just being decorative, see for instance a sixteenth-century Welsh poet: Cyweirgyrn ynt y corgwn, “these dogs are as [indispensable] as tuning-keys for the harp,” and also a lot of contrasting medieval eyebrow-waggling about the lapdogs of noblewomen.*)

*Like this, which I found by googling “medieval lap dogs noblewomen”: “And Your Little Dog, Too: Michel’s Lapdog and the Romance of the Old Testament,” by Alexa Sand, collected in Our Dogs, Our Selves: Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society: “In the mid-thirteenth century, a variety of literary sources align noble ladies, sexual desire, and small pet dogs […] The tragic tale of the Chastelaine de Vergi, of the mid-thirteenth century, but reflective of themes present in the romance tradition from a much earlier date, turns on the heorine’s little dog… the animal both signifies the Châtelaine’s libidinous desire for and erotic receptivity to the knight and the fatal trouble into which adultery leads them.” (And in a footnote, Sand follows up: “For more on the pivotal role of the dog in this work, see Ramm, ‘Barking up the Wrong Tree?’ 54-55” which, if nothing else, proves that medievalists are having fun naming their papers.)

Anyways: the first vines Alice & Olivier planted were chardonnay, three plots named Bel Air (“a good aspect, appearance”; “place of pleasant breezes”), Clardy (I don’t know!), and Rosette (a knot that can be undone by pulling on one end; a rose-shaped decoration or medal, especially the Légion d’honneur; an imitation of a rose by way of ribbon, or any other rose-shaped ornament). They blend Bel Air and Clardy together, and vinify Rosette separately when they have enough. Lately, that hasn’t been the case, and it goes into a catch-all blend of some of their younger plots of Chablis called “L’Humeur du Temps,” roughly at the whim of the weather. All of the plots have names. I was lucky enough to taste a bottle of 2008 Rosette at the end of last August, thanks to a couple of guests who brought it to share, and it was shining clarity, beautifully developed & fresh at nearly a decade old, the oldest bottle of wine I’ve had from the de Moors. A real treat.*

Of equal interest & potential merit, though, are the wines they make up here in Chablis that are not chardonnay, and which, despite everything I wrote last week, have their own history that predates the region’s more recent monoculture. As Olivier says to Jules Dressner: “There used to be chenin blanc, dammery (local name for romorantin), pinot gris and there are still some sacy vines hanging around (tressaillié in Saint-Pourçain). Gascon was also planted for red. This was only 200 years ago.”

Chablis only really becomes chardonnay central after the entire region was virtually wiped out and then replanted in the ’50s. And, indeed, there are still other grapes!

There is a little bit of gamay scattered around, which you might blend into the regional Passe-Touts-Grains (allowing all of the grapes), or perhaps bottle as table wine. There are all of the color variants of the venerable and mutation-prone pinot family (pinecone-shaped clusters), white, grey, black. You’re allowed to have some greyish-pinkish pinecone-shaped clusters in your red wines, most of the time, with a percentage fixed by law.

There is the tannic red césar, first mentioned in 1783 as “césar ou romain,” named in either event for the local myth (apparently mistaken, writes Jancis, who locates its birthplace somewhere between the Yonne and the German Pfalz) that it was brought to the region by the legions of Caesar: emperor’s vine. Wherever the vine was born, the legacy of vineyard planting by resettled Roman soldiers seems to live on in a town name of Coulanges-la-Vineuse, southwest of Courgis (Latin originally, basically vine-growing colony; see also its named-for-vines neighbors, Vincelles & Vincelottes).

There are just ten hectares of césar left in France as of the last census (ten Gramercy Parks; ten major league baseball fields, minus the stands). Coulanges, which grows a little of it, blended as an accessory into pinot noir, isn’t itself an independent legally-defined appellation of origin, and instead has to label its wine as Bourgogne red or white, with the right to add its name just below. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bottle of this, although it turns out that a natural winemaker in the Yonne imported by Jenny & François, Nicolas “Kikro” Vauthier of Vini Viti Vinci, buys pinot noir from Coulanges-la-Vineuse for one of his cuvées. Writes the importer: “Coulanges la Vineuse is a little known appellation, even in France, and is thus an excellent source for Kikro to source very affordable grapes.” You don’t say!

Half of the rest of the césar in France is in the slightly more famous village of Irancy (first chartered as Irinciacus, 901; Irenci, 1160; Yranci, 1307), population 290, which in 1998 was given the right to its own red wines (also almost entirely pinot noir), and where there is a street on the west end named, notably, La rue des morts, the “road of the dead,” either for the streets that during the wars of religion in France ran with the blood of massacred Protestants on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, or for the Catholic corpses dumped in a well at the end of the street by an army of besieging Huguenots armed with cannon who breached the town walls nine years before and did their own massacring, it’s a little unclear and depends on how much you trust the history of an 18th-century pre-Revolution Catholic priest as regards Protestant war crimes, since I can’t find any other reference to it. (That would be the eminent Auxerre-born Abbé Jean Lebeuf.)

walking directions chablis

An hour’s walk north (or six minutes by car) takes you to the village of Saint-Bris-le-Vineaux (“the vine-growing”), named for a third-century Christian militant and former legionnaire Priscus (“Saint Prix,” his Latin name from priscus, “ancient, primitive, old”) who the Romans beheaded and killed along with his followers in a forest nearby back in 270 C.E. or thereabouts. Here, the appellation permits you to make sauvignon blanc & gris (sauvignon, like savagnin and sylvaner, all variants of “wild vine”), and here Alice & Olivier leased two plots in the fall of 1994, the year of their first harvest: 0.4 hectares of sauvignon blanc planted in 1945, and .55 hectares of aligoté planted in 1902.

We’ll talk about aligoté at length sometime soon, so I’ll leave it at this: often derided (a lot of Burgundy references to this day spare only enough words for it to give a recipe for kir), it is an underdog vine whose varietal tang, green streak, and almond-paste texture are capable of greatness when given the proper attention, and few growers show this more comprehensively than Alice & Olivier in their old-vine bottling, which they call, appropriately, “Planted in 1902“.

The last few years have not been kind to the region’s growers in general, and to Alice & Olivier’s vines in particular: hail, frost, tiny yields & nothing left… Their wines, expressive, understated, and affordably priced, have become instead prized rarities, coveted and vanishingly hard to find. You’re just as likely to find bottlings with their name under the label Le Vendangeur Masqué, the masked grape-picker, made from grapes they buy from friends. They even made a viognier from the south, called “Caravan” after the jazz standard. They made a red wine, a couple of years in a row, from a pinot noir vineyard in Tonnere, named “Etienne,” after their employee Etienne Robin, who worked for a decade for Yvon Metras, Etienne, like the English Stephen, coming via Latin from the Greek stephanos, for laurel wreath, crown, and garland, and so rewarded or honored, from the verb to encircle, wreath, or bind, the root of being honored and being sacrificed, in the beginning, having been the same…

What else? There is a chardonnay from Chitry, which like Coulanges is a place you can specify underneath your generic regional Burgundies, first referenced not as a town but as a fortified church, the Basilica of St. Valerian (6th century; later, Castriacus, 10th c.; Chistri, 1196; Christriacum, 1275; Christry, 1485). In the 16th century it was split in half between two different fiefdoms, Tonnere and Auxerre, with the division being the main street running through the center of town.

There is a young-vine aligoté cuvée, “A-ligoter,” a pun, on the grape name, ligoter from the same root as the English “ligature,” which you’d want to render idiomatically in translation, something like fit to be tied, which—well, angry doesn’t sound right, so maybe: all tied up. In some years, because they let their fermentations finish up when they finish up, they might make idiosyncratic wines that lose the right to an appellation, as when their sauvignon blanc finished up with five grams per liter of sugar instead of the legal maximum of four in Saint Bris, and so, keeping quiet about its geographical origin, they named it “Sans Bruit,” without a sound. An aligoté harvested as late as October from some their grapes in Chitry, hovering in sweetness somewhere between sec tendre and demi, they named “D’autres vallées”, from other valleys. 

Have I lost the forest for the trees? Welsh dogs, Roman wine colonies, Catholics massacring Protestants or vice-versa… Do you know there’s sauvignon blanc planted in Irancy, but when you make it into wine it’s labeled “Saint-Bris”? What’s important here?

Well: the de Moors, their work, and the wines that came out of it.

VINE BEARING THREE BUNCHES
= Land of the River-as-Goddess
 =
From the Barren Place, “All Tied Up, or the Grape’s Name” 2012
From the Barren Place, “Planted in 1902” 2012
From the Barren Place, “Planted in 1902” 2011
From the Barren Place, “From Other Valleys” 2011

VINE FROM THE THISTLE-COVERED PLACE
= Deadwood =
From the Barren Place, “The Masked Grape-Picker” 2013
From the Barren Place, “The Masked Grape-Picker” 2012
From the Barren Place, “At the Whim of the Weather” 2013
From the Barren Place, “Two Vineyards” 2013
From the Barren Place, “Rose-Shaped Vineyard, Or a Ribbon Tied in a Knot” 2008

WILD WHITE
= Village of the Primitive One =
From the Barren Place, Village of the Primitive One 2013
From the Barren Place, “Name of Origin? Won’t Make a Sound” 2012
From the Barren Place, Village of the Primitive One 2011

CONE-SHAPED CLUSTERS, BLACK
= Land of the River-as-Goddess
 =
From the Barren Place, “Red for an Honored Man” 2010

On the wine side, I’m deeply indebted to the visits & writing of the folks at Louis/Dressner, and the work of Bertrand Celce at the invaluable resource Wine Terroirs, both of whom furnished me with most of the scaffolding of fact for my etymological diving.

* And speaking of Wine Terroirs, it looks like he tasted the same vintage of Rosette at the estate in 2015 as I did in 2017. Here’s what he had to say: “The bottle looks a heavier model. Serious nose here, elegantly aromatic. Mouth : very classy. Olivier says that 2008 was a year with high acidity, they picked all along october in a sunny weather with strong northern winds wich hardened the skins and concentrated the acidity. This was by the way beginning to get cold, with frost risks. Speaking about harvest frost, Olivier recalls having heard his grandfather saying that one he picked on All Saints’ day (in November) and there was snow in the vineyard. The reason for these late harvests was that they had other farm works and went to pick when they could, and the picking was done by small family groups of 5-6 people.”

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