23 December 2013

yonne bike trip: nicolas vauthier / vini viti vinci, avallon

I'll never forget how Le Verre Volé's Cyril Breward once described Nicholas Vauthier's range of low-sulfur north-Burgundian négociant wines to me. The delicate word he used was "perfectible," which is to say, capable of perfection, and by inference, not at all there yet. (This word is a godsend for anyone who must strive to be diplomatic when asked for opinions on friends' wines.)

Vauthier's Vini Viti Vinci wines had appeared seemingly overnight in just about every restaurant and wine shop I frequented. There was nothing not to love about the marginal appellations - Irancy, Bourgogne Epineuil - or the joyously ribald cartoon labels,* which typically depict mustacchioed transexuals and naked women of all races and shapes in suggestive poses. But the wines themselves initially left me a little cold. At best they were stolid examples of their grapes and not great values; at worst they were just plain flawed.

This was a few years back, though. When last June I saw a chance to pass by Vauthier's home-base of Avallon, I lost no time in requesting an appointment. For I'd belatedly learned that Vauthier had co-founded my favorite restaurant, Aux Crieurs du Vin in Troyes. And I'd already noticed his wines had been improving. The Vini Viti Vinci range now contains some very pleasant surprises, both red and white.

Reluctant to kiss the toad. 

Biking into Avallon from the west is a hair-raising experience. One careens down narrow roads over steep falls into a valley surrounding the old town above. Vauthier's cellar facilities are on the other side, beyond the charming part of town, in a semi-industrialised area near the train station.

Vauthier himself - or Kikro, as seemingly everyone knows him - is a frank, welcoming presence. He's voluble and goggle-eyed and speaks with the candor of an enthusiast, which to say unlike most folks who are born into winemaking. Vauthier wasn't, as far as I know. He did study winemaking twenty years ago, in Bel Air in Beaujolais, at age 20. But after a stint at wine retail chain Le Repaire de Bacchus he and his friend Jean-Michel Wilmes founded Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes in 1998. A decade later, Vauthier sold his share in the business and set about founding Vini Viti Vinci.

His task since then has been to remember how to make wine: how he first learned it, and everything he's learned since then, as one of his generation's most influential wine buyers.

This might explain the rocky start. With his whites he still has occasional problems with oxidation and the maladie de la graisse, which causes protein chains to form in the wine, making it oily and unpleasant. The wine must then be passed over a tough filter to break down the proteins. (Domaine Audrey et Christian Binner have been having a similar problem with their cuvée "Les Saveurs" in recent vintages.) I asked him if he had ever produced any rosé, and he said, yes, once, but it was by accident, and he's never done it again.

Vauthier lately produces 250-300HL of wine per year, with about sixteen cuvées in any given vintage. Their names change often. Sometimes it's because the wine is from a new source. He typically purchases organic and biodynamic grapes on-the-vine and works with his own harvest team. At other times the name changes are obligatory, as in 2011, when none of his wines received appellation certification.

We tasted widely from barrel. For me the most educational segment was tasting across Vauthier's Irancy wines. Each year, he says, he seems to produce more Irancy; now that he has four parcels, he jokes that he's inadvertently become "the boss of Irancy."

A 2012 Irancy "Beaux Mots," sourced from a grower who formerly sold to Caves Bailly-Lapierre, was showing reduced and shut that day.

A 2012 Irancy "Les Ronces," from a higher parcel at the top of the hill, showed higher alcohol and a wilder acid, though overall it seemed imbalanced at that stage.

The clear winner for me was a 2012 Irancy "Les Mazelots," from one of the appellation's better-known lieux-dits. It showed much more persistence on the palate, with more poised tannicity, more forthright mineral.

But Vauthier sees more potential in a 2012 Irancy "La Croix Buteix," which despite containing 5% César showed a finer grain than "Les Mazelots." Grapes for "La Croix Buteix" are purchased from Irancy winemaker Franck Givaudan, who hasn't used herbicide in 10 years.

After tasting in the cellar we repaired to Vauthier's kitchen to taste more from bottle alongside some terrines and cheese. I could have spent all afternoon there picking his brain about the last few decades of natural winemaking in France. But we had a train to catch.

As it happened, we missed the train, because I had neglected to realise it involved a bus ride to a different train station, so my friends and I wound up killing ninety minutes in a leery café in the town center. (Trains separated by bus rides are marked only by icons on the SNCF trajectories. When traveling with bicycles, beware!)

In any case, there are opportunities to taste Vauthier's wines all over Paris. His wide distribution here is partly a legacy of his years in the business and the respect paid to Aux Crieurs de Vin. But more and more it's beacuse the wines themselves are terrific. I recently had a marvelously clean and violetty 2010 Bourgogne Epineuil at Septime Cave.

And I can confirm that with the 2011 "Ton Air Méchant," a chalky and white floral Chardonnay sourced from around Tonnère I first tasted at Camille Fourmont's La Buvette, Vauthier made a winningly lovely white.

And the other day at brunch at Chez Casimir I found a bottle of the abortive rosé Vauthier had mentioned, a 2009 bottling he titled "La Grosse Nadine." In an amusing coincidence I happened to be at brunch with someone of the same name, and at 12€, the wine wasn't much of a risk. You know what ? It wasn't so bad at all: plush, vivid, with perhaps a wisp of residual sugar. Most importantly, it was lively and fresh-tasting at 4 four years of age, which tells me Vauthier, despite the occasional misstep, knows what he's up to.

* Turns out they're designed by the same talented fellow who designs Emmanual Lassaigne's rather more classic labels. It's like the id / ego divide of wine labeling. 

Vini Vidi Vinci
2, rue Achille Dubois

A profile of Nicholas Vauthier at AndrewGuard.
Another one at LaCavedesPapilles.
Some tasting notes of Vauthier's wines at WineTerroirs.

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