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ôte Rôtie wines are a must for name droppers. Gully hillsides, big lettering, and vietnamese ricefield-like density. It’s all the intensity of manpower with a view on petrochemistry, all the picturesque of the northern Rhone Valley, all the unaffordable legends of the Côte Blonde and the Côte Brune, that make this place sort of a Mulholand Drive for the Rhone region – where light and dark hair have been sharing their destiny for aeons. This terroir gives the word « rôti » (roasted) all its nobility, despite the challenge. When associated with poultry, it evokes greasy displays, age-old spits and approximative food. But when associated with the word « Côte », everything changes. It’s all about fine tasting and thrills for the nouveau riche. Yes, with its very coveted micaschist and granit, this is an exceptional soil. So you could easily see Jay-Z soon leave Courvoisier to the bliss of the northern Syrah. Yet this morning, by the terrible weather of a never-ending month of May looking like November, this is not hip-hop that that comes to my ears. It’s Lunacy that resonates, its long lasting taste in mouth, so precise in its complexity. Swans VS Clusel Roch, stubbornness had to have a taste and an ear.
One usually doesn’t give much thought to the idea of « raised » wine. Bottle labels still amount to wine processing, to specify in which barrel the juice soaked and for how long. Labeling synthetic logic and focus on the process … the « aged in oak barrels » mention conforts your good taste and your budget. But let’s go back to the notion of raising. The winemaker raises vines. And a visit to the Clusel Roch estate awakens all the practical and esthetic dimension of the fact. I humbly listen the presentation speech. Raise vines? Cut them, dig them, nurture them, harvest them before ripening, then when ripe, then over-ripe : the living material fully occupy its nurse. Ok. Let’s rewind that for a second. Raise wines : select them, observe them, treat them so they can get the best out of the soil. « The clones we used to find in nurseries, coming from selectors … something was obviously wrong. Then we looked at our oldest vines, planted by our grandfather in 1935. So we decided to select ourselves, we just had to get into it ». Have a taste at the various juices of the estate and enjoy : it’s all about variation on a shade. The same grape you quickly classify on your palate – Syrah : let me guess … subtle spices and blackberries? You’ll probably cleverly add some young leather and this unmistakable violet… Let me refresh your memory for a bit. Have you ever smelled violets? Last time you did it was with your toilet bomb. There as many species of violets as types of undergrowth forest, while there is only one synthetic fragrance for your Air Wick, your car deodorizer and your generic duty free soap. I believe that’s what Brigitte is explaining to me, but a lot better. The estate claims itself as a peasant one : chestnuts, market garden, and of course, wine. See the landscape integration:
Because it is the very foundation of a peasant’s (peasant : from the old french word païsant meaning ‘one from the pays’, or countryside) craft : observe, evaluate, select, go forward and backwards. Hesitate, rework, take advantage of the vagaries to strengthen your beliefs. « We noted down everything for 3 years : vine morphology, leaf characteristics, production, grape and seed quality. My husband went around the vines with his daughter ». Let’s skip technicalities (sanitary control, grafting, finding the good tree surgeon to multiply, rootstock parcels…) but this is the heart of it all : you don’t settle for clones. You dig around to widen the palette. And you dig with a pick the lands too steep to be mechanized. Variation on a shade. Michael Gira : « I write the songs on the acoustic guitar, then I bring them to the band (…) I allow the band and myself to then build them into something that becomes a band song. » Variation on a shade. Identical repetition and progressive enrichment of harmonics which slowly deploy, but deeply settle in. A groove in the rock. A parcel so thin it threatens to collapse, a melody so rich YOU threaten to collapse. Sweat and tears share the same taste. « Syrahs have been selected for the Languedoc region, where they plant 5000 grapevines by hectare, but here we plant 10 000 grapevines by hectare. What are we going to do with cash cows? Harvesting before ripening is a nice hobby, but still … ». There’s a paradox in this appreciation of the facts : we adapt to the climate and the soil. Despite climate change (petrochemistry, again) or soil change (manpower), soil and sky eventually are less elastic than the only material you work with : the living. The vine is a material that knows how to extract a flavour from the rock, which in turn will be extracted by man. Even yeast cells are indigenous, they are part of the heritage. So the winemaker works around the living and weighs this ever mutating, growing, underground exploring, light sensitive machine. The winemaker protects it with the force of mutilation, cuts, and selection of the best chances to express a potential that only the vine knows. And Gira exploits exuberant noise in order to give it a long and austere form, like a tunnel that needs to be long and dark before releasing light : « I provide the impetus for it and I guide it along the way, but it grows through us playing it live as a band, and everybody has input so it grows organically ». And listening is like tasting : it is about detecting elements to appreciate the journey in which artists get us into.
Austerity of a hill to climb,
every grape is unique.
Gira, again. M. Gira is no fluokid. He doesn’t like peer-to-peer, and scolds the listener with his mystic authority. He hammers this point in, even if any geek may find this stance incredibly reactionary. « Buy this record, it’s my craft ». Respect and protect the craft of an artist. Kitten videos are free, idiocratic networks can live from their own publicity, it’s far from their first debilitating function. But Gira’s work is to be paid. One might find the price is unfair, one might not download it, and then find the record too expensive, even from the merch table, even from Young God Records, website held by Gira, breeder of many « proto » labelled genres (history is the first to massively select from artistic movements to its subcategories, from folk to industrial). There is very little hope to see Michael do a Harlem Shake with his friends. That is a strange thing to be seen in this « everything for free » era. We are the spoiled children of gratuity, raised with free Metro newspapers and used to it. We barely spare ourselves the « free newspapers are futile but they restore the interest for reading » false argument. Free music is fun, it’s fresh, it’s exhilarating, it fills bloggers’ playlists who might live from publicity if the traffic is good. But the « Buy my record » attitude is demanding, it’s complex and it’s even rude. By winter pickets are built (« it makes no sense to buy pickets from the other side of Europe when here we all have chestnut trees »), everything is manufactured by hand or with a pick. The grass is handled, the soil has its structure restored. The last square meter of resistance is a parcel that’s too steep, too far. To be forced to give it some Round Up is a heartbreak, as if Agent Orange invaded the floral prairie. Definitely too much of Vietnam on this Côte Blonde. « Inevitably, all this has a cost ». So craftsmen organize rarity, series limited by nature and effort, selected by hands, time and space. The infinite market growth, your hard drive full of mp3s, all your iTunes coupons, this tasteless bulimia of jingles that are supposed to save your life. This explosive inflation of dead-end options never cease to baffle me. What will be left of all this? This XXL world sometimes needs to refocus, to take the fireworks back into their original powder. It may be as simple as this : the density you only can find in the craftsman’s obsession. This way he has to improvise while keeping a focused direction. 25 000 bottles of the finest terroirs – don’t fight over these – you can always blow off some steam by clicking a few likes. Heady, precise, repetitive, a texture enriched around a small sensitive window, a perfect length on the palate. Great places never die.