24 June 2013

the angevin clan, pt. 1: mai and kenji hodgson / vins hodgson, rablay-sur-layon

From L: Kenji Hodgson, Cedric Garreau, M, Mai Sato, Nicolas Bertin, J. Taken in Bertin's vineyards.

After departing from La Dive Bouteille this past January, my friends J, M, and I went to visit a few newly-installed Angevin vignerons. We'd planned to make separate appointments with three domaines - Mai & Kenji Hodgson, Cedric Garreau / Gar'O'Vin, and Bertin-Delatte - but upon learning that their proprietors are all good friends and collaborators, it was decided we'd all taste together at each cellar and then have lunch. 

For J, M, and I, tasting at the three domaines that morning was revelatory. It might have just been an on-palate day.* But after just about every taste, we were having "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" moments, looking at each other, like Cortez's sailors, "with a wild surmise." 

All of these vignerons are onto something. All are members of a collective of organic Angevin vignerons who organise tastings together, loan each other equipment, and generally support one another in the daunting task of making and selling quality wine from Anjou, a famously schizophrenic region, nigh-on uncategorizeable, home to everything from industrial Cab Franc rosé to ageless Quarts de Chaume. The collective officially call themselves "The En Joue Connection," which has facetious gangster-ish implications that I will relegate to a footnote.* I can't speak for the entire collective, because I haven't tasted all the wines. But with regards to Bertin-Delatte, Vins Hodgson, and Gar'O'Vins, I thought it might be more helpful to think of what they're presently achieving in Anjou in terms of some other poets, namely the Wu-Tang Clan.  

When the Wu first burst onto the NYC rap scene in 1993, it was an embarrassment of riches. Nine new voices, stylistically distinct, but complementary, uniting to create a universe unto themselves. Bertin-Delatte's consistently complex Chenins and the domaine's central role in organising the clan make it probably the Ghostface of the bunch. The smooth-talking, fine-grained likeability of Cedric Garreau's reds make him Method Man. Vins Hodsgon's expressions of Chenin, Cabernet Franc, and Grolleau, meanwhile, have the high-toned intellectual precision one associates with the GZA's rhyme schemes.

I'd been keen to meet Kenji and Mai Hodgson since first reading about them on Bertrand Celce's indispensable WineTerroirs blog, and soon after tasting, at Paris 20ème restaurant Roseval, their stunning sparkling Chenin, which at the time I described as possessing a "cinnamon / ozone accord."

The Hodgsons' story is irresistably bizarre: they're Japanese-Canadian winemakers who've settled in Rablay-sur-Layon via Vancouver and the Tochigi Prefecture of Japan. Kenji and Mai met in Vancouver, where Kenji studied engineering before abandoning it to work as a wine writer. Further curiosity led them to intern at Coco Farm Winery in Japan, and later work at the Joie Farm winery in the Okanaga region of British Columbia. Along the way they became interested in natural wine, experimenting with low-sulfur use and natural fermentation with the winemaker at Coco Farm, and tasting widely among the plethora of French natural wines imported in Japan. 

So Kenji and Mai up and moved to France in 2009. They worked harvest at Chateau de Stony in Frontignan, and later with Mark Angeli of Ferme de la Sansonnière in Anjou. A year later, with encouragement from natural Loire luminaries like Olivier Cousin and Claude Courtois, they purchased their first vineyards in Rablay-sur-Layon, just south of the Layon river that gives its name to the famous sweet wine. They now farm 3ha of vines, and share a drafty cellar and equipment with another young vigneron, Damien Bureau, who wasn't present that day.

There are so many astonishing facets to this story. Such as: how on earth does one decide to be a wine writer in Vancouver, home to some of the world's most draconian and obstructive liquor laws? It would be like deciding to be a sex columnist in Riyadh. I'm also unable to resist observing that the Hodgsons moved to France at about the same time I did, with about the same level of language expertise (nil). Since then, they've integrated into a French rural community and established a wine domaine. Whereas all I seem to do is bicker about coffee service and make countless enemies... 

Anyway, I'm in awe of people who know what they want to do and pursue it single-mindedly. And the Hodgson's determination has already paid dividends, in terms of quality at least. Their wines are superb. They produce a still and a sparkling dry chenin, three red cuvées, and a rosé, all in tiny quantities, and all typified by a tense, soaring acidity that is catnip for sommeliers.

Stylistically, the Hodgson's wines straddle two worlds: one senses the detail-oriented finesse of the winemaker's backgrounds in contemporary conventional vinification, as well as the pure-fruited honesty of the rangier natural scene they've embraced in Anjou. The wines don't taste like those of their mentors (Courtois, Cousin, Angeli, etc.): they taste thrillingly new.

Mai had prepared a nice rice / egg / carrot / celery / pea salad that we had at lunch later that day. 

We arrived to taste at the Hodgsons' shared cellars in the midst of a torrential downpour, hence no photos of the outside. Inside we tasted barrel samples of "Faia," their Chenin, dry as a sword-blade; "O Galarneau," their burnished old-vine Cabernet Franc; and "La Grande Pièce," a keenly cranberryish Grolleau.

The highlight for me was a Cabernet Franc from a schiste and clay soil parcel near Layon formerly owned by fringe-natural vigneron Benoit Courault. If Courault's wines can sometimes strike me as representative of what oxygen does to excellent fruit, the same fruit showed much more poise and expessivity in the Hodgson's hands.

Later over lunch with we tasted a bottle of the 2010 "Heart & Beat," a tiny production rosé that sees a year in barrel and a year in tank before bottling. Rosés in the contemporary wine market suffer from numerous prejudices, one of which states that they must be consumed very, very fresh. But acid and freshness are all in balance in the "Heart & Beat"'s crunchy strawberry-rhubarbe profile, presumably a result of what was probably a whanging surge of acid in the original Cabernet Franc must.

Like a classic GZA verse, it's a wine that evidently takes some time to unpack before its intricate construction becomes clear.

* If an off-palate day is when everything tastes weird, no matter how much bread one chews, an on-palate day is when even breathing near gas stations feels symphonic.

** In French, to "mettre un fusil en joue" means to take aim at something or hold it at gunpoint. It refers to the way one holds the stock of a musket against one's cheek when one is aiming. How the phrase retains any hint of threat is beyond me. Have you ever been held up at musket-point?

NEXT: Cedric Garreau / Gar'O'Vins, the Method Man of the Angevin Clan

Le Breil
49380 Champ-sur-Layon
Tel: +33 (0)6 48 41 03 90

Related Links: 

An offer on the Hodsons' wines from my friend Josh Adler at ParisWineCompany. (Free registration required.) 

La Dive Bouteille 2012 Round-Up

Bertrand Celce's excellent piece on a visit to Vins Hodgson at WineTerroirs.
Celce also accompanied Kenji and Mai on a sales trip to Paris, which he covered on WineTerroirs.


  1. Good thing you did not find the U-God equivalent there!

    It's a great blog you have, especially for someone like me who is living in a country blessed with a government liquor monopoly (Finland). Your blog offers quite a unique look on the many unspoken heroes of French wine.

  2. Good news.
    I discovered your blog 2 day ago and like so much what you write.
    Thank you so much!