In December of 2022 we welcomed Sue Dyson & Roger McShane from Living Wines, a wine importer based out of Tasmania. Sue & Roger have since 2008 brought some of the world’s cult, small scale and hard to find wines to Australia.
They are a cornerstone of the minimal intervention/ natural/ artisanal wine scene here in Australia. Their influence on wine lists, wine writers, wine buyers, wine shops and as such the wine drinking masses is quite profound. As they have acknowledged their story is linked several other upstarts at the same time, including Andrew Guard, Neville Yates and Dan Clark.
As separate entities they took massive punts on unusual or abstract wines from unheralded regions of Europe. They put their money where their mouth was, when the market here was only just emerging.
If you have a love of wine, especially from France, then the below conversion is truly a must read. It ended up being a true lesson in the complications of rules, language and perspectives.
Below is the first part to some edited transcript from a wine culture conversation they had with the restaurant teams of Neighbourhood Wine & Old Palm Liquor. They framed the conversation, not just by the wines we tasted, but using examples of wine labels from wines they had sold from the same producers over the last 13 years which they had on a handout.
Over to you Roger
Okay, well, here you see all of Living Wines. We've done this quite deliberately despite the fact that it would've been easy to grow into a larger organisation. We stuck at just Sue and I because we want to be the people who come through to sell to you. Also because we have the direct connection with the 65 producers in France.
In 2006 we were lucky enough to buy a house with some friends in France. After spending time at the house and drinking local, organic French wines our palates changed. These wines were much more savoury than Australian wines at the time. We decided the only way we could afford to drink them at home was to start to import them.
We began importing organic wines from the region around our house. Then one day we went into a restaurant in Paris called Le Verre Volé, I don’t know whether some of you know about Le Verre Volé, but it's a very famous restaurant serving natural wine just near Canal Saint Martin in Paris.
We walked in about five past 12, and every single table had the same wine on the table. And we said “well, we don't want to be embarrassed so could we order the same wine”. It turned out to be, and I always get this wrong, that it was Jean Foillard’s Morgon Côte du Py (Beaujolais). It turned out to be a natural wine. We'd already talked to some organic producers and all of a sudden we were confronted with this natural wine.
A week later we read a story, a research study, saying that if you were a vigneron, a person who works out in vines in France, then you had a higher chance of dying of cancer than the rest of the population. They thought it was the sprays that were used in the vineyard. It helped convince us we should only work with organic and natural wines.
So, what is natural wine? Very simply put it’s no (synthetic chemical) sprays of any sort in the vineyards and no additions in the winery itself. And that goes to the yeast as well. You can't make a natural wine in a winery where they're adding commercial yeast because that commercial yeast gets into the rafters and gets into the walls and the floors. So you’ll have commercial yeast replicating and then adding themselves to all the wines made in the winery. So it's only places where the natural yeast is in primacy.
We've got 65 producers in France at the moment. We don't have wine from all of them all the time,, we sort of cycle around them. Today we picked three whose story we thought you might enjoy. The first story is about Agnès and René Mosse. Agnès's father had a wine bar in Tours, they took over and eventually turned that into a natural wine bar.
While they were doing that, they also planted vines, not too far from Tours, near Angers, which is the next big town along from Tours. Then they left the wine bar and started making wine. The first time we drank one of their wines was about 2008 in Provence. Ironically it was a red wine, which was not the wine they were renowned for, but it was enough for us. The whites they were known for were Chenin Blancs which then they had in the Anjou appellation. Now, almost nothing is appellated.
And I think that's one of the things that'll come through today, not with the Champagne people, because Champagne is too important a brand for them to lose. But with so many of our producers, including the first two we’ll taste today, Mosse and Bornard, they started in the appellation, and the labels have the names of where the wines come from. But as they've gone on the conflict between the people we work with and the rule makers in the appellations eventually just became too much and so most of them have left. With René Mosse, once you met him, you would understand why. He doesn't suffer fools gladly and eventually they just got sick of people saying, this is not typical. In a lot of the appellations in France, you have to submit your wine to a panel and the panel decides whether or not it's typical of the appellation. And if it's not, then they say, sorry, you can't put Anjou on your label and they charge you for the pleasure.
A lot of the people on the panel are about 110 years old and they have said this is the way this wine has been since, you know, the 1930s and this is the way it’s going to be.
And so eventually that's the point where someone says in French, get stuffed. And once they do it (leave the appellation) for one wine, then it becomes really easy for the rest. And in fact, for the Mosses, I think all we are left with now is the Savennières (the cuvée called Arena), which is still in the appellation, but we think it's the only one.
I'll just tell you another quick little story about the appellation and how stupid the rules are. We had one of our producers write down in Roussillon which borders the Swiss
Sorry, borders the Spanish border, the Pyrenees. They were natural and they had a few wines in the appellation down there.
One of the requirements of the appellation was that you had to have a sulphur book to say when you had administered sulphur to your wine. Except they didn't add any sulphur.
So they didn't have a book.
They didn't have a book. Anyway the appellation people came and inspected everything that they did. And they, at the end of it, they said, oh, um, now where's your sulphur book?
And they said, oh, we don't add any sulphur so we don't need a book. They said, no, there's a rule, you have to have a sulphur book. They said, we don't add sulphur. They said, no, we have to have it. They fined them and said you have to have another inspection in three months time. So three months later (with a new inspection fee of course) they went through all the same thing again and the inspector said, now where's your sulphur book?
Here it is. It said sulphur book in French, written on the outside, they opened it up, there's nothing in there and the inspectors were satisfied.
(An OPL team member asks if you can still use sulphur in natural wine)
Ah most use a little bit of but among our 65 some will never use any. So, Julien Peyras, whose wines we just received, doesn't use any. Quite a few of the Mosse wines don't use any sulphur, but they do if they need too. There are some, like Julian Peyras, who would prefer to pull his left eye out rather than use sulphur.
He's an absolute fanatical about it. So are producers like Jean Pierre Robinot (part of their portfolio) who would never use sulphur.
They'd prefer to lose the wine.
Robinot for example, Robinot uses tannin as the preserver and tannin (naturally occurring) is in every wine. You've just have to know how to get it working in a preservative way in order to make sure that the wine is preserved and Robinot knows when that has happened.
We also have some producers who usually always add a little like the Cadette (Burgundy) wines. So our portfolio does have some wines with some sulphur and that's probably a reflection of the fact that we've been doing this for a long time because in the beginning, most of the people who we worked with added some sulphur. But as time has gone on, we've been doing this since since 2008, it's quite easy to have a portfolio with no wines with sulphur. The people who didn't add sulphur at the beginning were really mad, now it's almost normal.
(A team member asks about some people staying in the appellation, like in Beaujolais)
Well, some people do. It's a matter of choice.
The Bahama Llama (Chief Taster)
It’s worth discussing that with appellation rules it controls far bigger things than something like a small chemical. It's far more to do with grape varieties used. So if you're in the Rhone, you can only have a certain proportion of certain grape varieties. To make a single varietal wine is quite constrained. So instead the producers have to be a bit more creative and work in the Vin De France generic label, which is for wines from all of France. Vin de France these days is a really interesting selection of wines, and less a statement of quality than before. Before it was supposed to be a slap down, with this terrible designation. But now it's more of a statement of pride working outside of these rules.
You can't tell now, you can't draw any conclusions from it. Traditionally in France people bought wine based on where it came from, not by who made it. So if you went to a bistro in Paris, you would see the region listed. They wouldn’t have Jean Foillard’s wine. It would just say Morgon and it didn't really matter who made it because the rules tended to determine what the wine would taste like.
Yes, the wines wouldn't reflect the winemaker. The wines were made in those days to reflect the appellation.
Whereas now it's as much about the vigneron as the region.
We were having a meeting with our French accountant one day. Sue had this list of 50 things she wanted to get through with the accountant. And at five to 12 I could see he was getting really agitated and I had to say to Sue, you have to stop because it's nearly 12 o'clock and he goes to lunch at 12 o'clock . And that's what happens all over France. The most dangerous time on the road in France is not at night, It's at five to 12 because people are speeding to get home or to a restaurant to have their lunch. And sure enough, we went down to a restaurant just down near his office and personally he just wanted to drink a Bourgeuil, a Cabernet Franc.
(A reflection on how a normal Frenchman wants to drink the appellation, not a producer or style)
Now getting back to the Mosses, when we first started working with them, there were these two young kids, Joseph and Sylvestre, but over the years we have worked with the family they have grown into impressive young men.
We remember going to a wine bar called Aux Deux Amis in Paris one day and finding Joseph working behind the bar. He’d grown up.
A few years ago René retired, something he probably was not ready for but he had seriously injured his back (“I won’t tell you what I was doing except that I should not have been doing it”, he told us!), and the boys (now men) took over responsibility for making the wines. But they were hardly new to winemaking. They had already done 15 or more vintages because they've been doing it since they were children. One of the first wines they created was Bangarang, which we have a label for today. They wanted introduce new ideas like carbonic maceration and they wanted to make light reds to chill down and serve cold.
René would never have made a wine like Bangarang. The first thing René said to us when we talked to him after the boys took over was ‘they don’t ask and I don’t tell them’. Agnès, his wife, who looks like she's 30, still works quite a lot in the vineyards and when we were there this year she was still doing all the work to make the lunches during the harvests for 20 or 30 people. René, however, is very much still the family cook on a day-to-day basis.
So something about the label, I don’t know how many of you know what Bangarang means.
No. Well evidently there’s a story about Pirate.
(Multiple people say Hook, the children’s film)
HOOK, So hook, when they took over from their parents they named it Bangarang.
And that's why
If you look at the lot number on the label number down the side, it comes from the film Hook.
Their father, when he experimented with label names, chose names that were all related to jazz, for example, Magic of Juju, like a few of the wines, are connected with jazz. It’s a symbol of the generational differences between René and Joseph and Sylvestre.
(The 1968 album from Archie Shepp)
And there are also wines which are named after places, the names of the vineyards. One is called Marie Besnard which we never normally get except when there's a really bountiful vintage like 2018 when they had enough to make a separate cuvee. More usually, the wine from Marie Besnard is one of the Bs in Initial BB. the other is the B from Les Bonnes Blanches but from the very best part of the Bonnes Blanches vineyard.
When we first met René, I can still see him in his shorts standing there, I've got a photo, it helps me remember, he's standing at the bottom of Bonnes Blanches and he says, this is my place. So for him the Chenin is what really Mosse is about. The reds are peripheral, but the Chenin is the soul of the place, which is ironic because we first drank their red wine and that's what we fell in love with, mainly because it was one of the first natural wines we drank where, when we tasted it, we got the prickle. That tells you for certain you're drinking something that hasn't been messed around that some people say is a fault. It’s not bubbles but there's a distinct prickle. The first time we drank the Anjou Rouge, that was what got us in. And you either fall in love with that or you don’t.
(The team inquire what that means)
It's a little bit of dissolved carbon dioxide that's still in wine. You often find it in our reds from the Jura. It’s just a tiny thing that is something like a prickle. Sometimes you'll see a little fine bubble, but normally not. It goes away as you drink it.
Background to that is that that it would be classified as a fault by the wine show personnel whereas some of our producers like to have a little bit of carbon dioxide left in the wine because it's preservative. Bacteria die in the presence of carbon dioxide. There's a young chef who's doing great things in France. Some of you may have heard of a guy called James Henry, who's a very good friend of ours. We first introduced him to natural wine one drunken night in Hobart many years ago He was cooking down there briefly before he moved to Paris. And he took one sip of this wine (a Hervé Villemade wine) and he just looked stunned and he said, this wine is dancing on my tongue. And that was the ‘prickle’. Once again he just totally converted to natural wines and he went to France and eventually opened Bones, which for a brief time was one of the most dangerous places on the surface of the earth (for hedonism that is).
(He has since opened Le Doyenné, an extraordinary project many years in its inception, which is about an hour out of Paris. This beautiful restaurant sources all of its fruit and vegetables and some of its meat from its own garden. Opened in July 2022 it has so far won Le Fooding’s and Paris Time Out’s Restaurant of the Year. And of course, it has a wonderful wine list.)
However, one thing we should add about the Mosse wines is that Sylvestre and Joe have been very faithful to their parents’ named Chenin Blanc cuvees, like Bonnes Blanches and Le Rouchefer.
They still make them in exactly the same way as their father and mother. But 2020 was a very good vintage .so they thought they could experiment a little and not worry if they lost something. This last Mosse label Initial Carbo is one of two very different Chenin Blanc wines they made that year. It’s a Chenin Blanc made using carbonic maceration, which is something of a sacrilege! Another, Nova, was even more radical, with the grapes being infused for 218 days, with absolutely no intervention. These experiments with grapes from the Bonnes Blanches parcel were quite a statement about the changing nature of the domaine.
Now let’s go to the most famous label of all the wines we bring in. (Bornard)
Continues into Part 2: Bornard, The Fox Of The Jura..............