By David White
One of the hottest winemakers in France is Jerome Bressy, the proprietor of Domaine Gourt de Mautens the Southern Rhone village of Rasteau.
Over the past decade, he’s developed quite a reputation. American wine critic Robert Parker has called his winery “sensational,” and France’s two leading wine commentators, Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, have said Bressy deserves recognition as one of the Rhone’s great winemakers. This past year, Bettane and Desseauve honored Bressy for producing both the “Best White” and the “Best Rosé” in the Southern Rhone.
But next year, thanks to a recent decision by French regulators, Bressy may find it difficult to market his wines.
The reason? In France, strict laws dictate winegrowing and winemaking — and Bressy violated the rules. Even though the basis for many of these rules make sense, Bressy’s tale helps explain why adventurous winemakers feel more welcome in America.
French wine laws trace back to 1935. At the time, globalization threatened the dominance of French wines, so lawmakers created a system to guarantee both quality and geographic typicity. Some laws codified tradition — like what grapes could be grown where — and others detailed total minutiae, like vine density.
Because of these laws, consumers know what to expect from French wine. Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir; white Burgundy is Chardonnay; Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc; and so on.
Jerome Bressy’s “offense” is hardly offensive.
A student of history, Bressy has spent the last few years reintroducing traditional grapes to his vineyard. So today, about 23 percent of Bressy’s estate is planted with obscure grapes like Vaccarese, Counoise, Muscardin, which are interspersed with the more common Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah. By French law, these minor varieties can only comprise only 15 percent of a red wine labeled from Rasteau.
So to label his wines as the market expects, Bressy has no choice but to rip up some of his vines or alter his blend. This despite the fact that his bottlings are historically accurate — and that France’s wine laws were designed, in part, to codify tradition.
At worst, Bressy seems guilty of “creative eccentricity.” That’s how VinConnect, a U.S. company that enables consumers to order wines directly from Gourt de Mautens, has described the winemaker. But he’s hardly a revolutionary — Bressy’s transgression is rooted in respect for his vineyard and its history.
It’s no wonder why wine writer Alder Yarrow once criticized French regulators for being “ignorant, stubborn, and backwards.”
Needless to say, true revolutionaries find it difficult to make wine in France. They turn to the new world, where experimentation and innovation is embraced.
Consider Syrah. Today, some of California’s most exciting Syrah comes from incredibly cool climates historically associated with Pinot Noir. Producers like Wind Gap and Arnot-Roberts — who both make their wine out of an old apple-processing facility in Sonoma County — craft stunning Syrah from vineyards where grapes struggle to ripen.
If a winemaker in France wanted to experiment with Syrah in the cool climate of Burgundy, it’d be nearly impossible to sell his wines, as it’d be illegal to note where the grapes originated.
In the United States, winemakers aren’t limited by such strict laws. Indeed, the teams at Wind Gap and Arnot-Roberts are constantly on the lookout for esoteric grapes with potential in California’s vast and varied climate. Arnot-Roberts, for example, crafts a delicious rosé from Touriga Nacional, a Portuguese variety. Wind Gap makes a highly regarded white using Trousseau Gris, a variety that’s even rare in its ancestral home of eastern France.
Elsewhere in Sonoma, 31-year-old Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company is making distinctly American wines that would make Jerome Bressy smile. Twain-Peterson is best known for using some of California’s oldest vines to make traditional California field blends.
In Napa Valley, a group of renegade winemakers is eschewing Cabernet Sauvignon in favor of intensely floral, crisp whites inspired by the wines of northeastern Italy. One label worth finding is Massican, whose owner, Dan Petroski, studied winemaking in Sicily. Another is Arbe Garbe, owned by an Italian named Enrico Bertoz who moved to California in 1998.
Across the United States, examples like these abound. The wine world benefits tremendously from these vintners — those who innovate new wines and preserve something special. In many ways, America is home to more winemakers like Jerome Bressy than France. That’s worth celebrating.