The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Friday, July 08, 2011

Clos du Gravillas, St. Jean de Minervois

John & Nicole Bojanowski, Clos du Gravillas
St. Jean de Minervois

Gorges, one-lane roads, rickety bridges, distracting panoramic beauty: rent a small car with good handling to visit Clos du Gravillas. I stopped repeatedly to take series of photos which can’t capture the magic, because it is 3-D and 365 degrees. Dramatic depth of field. St. Jean de Minervois seems to have all the world’s white rock. There is a surplus of wonderfully exposed vineyards populated with old vines, a fact that gnaws at John Bojanowski. He wants more premium wines. Nicole is the counterweight: someone has to slow the vine shopping. Nicole started the domaine with one hectare of old-vine Carignan; in recent years the couple have added Grenache, Syrah, Terret, Muscat, Cinsault, Viognier, to amass a mighty eight hectares. But have they added no employees.

“At eight hectares I think it becomes possible to hire a full-time person,” John said.

Until now they have been stretched to the limit to farm according to their principles. Organic vine treatments to prevent oidium must be applied more carefully and with greater frequency than chemical-intensive solutions. The Bojanowskis prefer old vines that are typically planted in narrow rows, which rules out the the use of big tractors to plow. John recently bought an old horse plow which can be pulled behind a tiny old tractor. But it’s a two-man job, and slow (7 passes per row) and currently they have a labor pool of two.

But diligence and thoughtfulness are key. “Last year was the first time I was really happy with my plowing,” John said. “Even Nicole liked it.”

2010 was the right year to plow well. It did not rain from June until mid-September in St. Jean de Minervois. Which was fine at Clos du Gravillas because their old vines have deep roots that accessed moisture filtered and collected far below their porous rocky fields. But if there had been weeds on the surface sucking up moisture during the rainy spring months, the vines may have found nothing deep underground. As it worked out, Bojanowski’s yields were almost normal in this drought vintage.

St. Jean de Minervois is a special place, prized for its Muscat à Petits Grains. And Clos du Gravillas does a tasty Muscat, which they mostly sell to restaurants because John doesn’t want to add more than 5 grams of sulfur and the wine has residual sugar. Refermentations and explosions are possible.

But red wine is his passion. The gravel soil, high elevation, and Mediteranean sun allow for rich wines with brightness and backbone. John sees proper goblet training of old-vine Carignan, Grenache, or Cinsault as an art form, a way to create proper vegetative spacing for airflow but also to leave the vine in an aesthetically arresting form. “Nicole and I prune much more slowly (than some of our neighbors) to make sure we remove dead wood and space our vines in a way that will let the plant grow in a logical and healthy way.”

Walking through scattered vineyards, John showed me examples of good vineyard management, how his old vines were planted in a way that made sense and aided in the production of quality wine... and also of less-intelligent work done by a variety of farmers in recent years. The latter catalog of errors was perpetrated to make the labor less backbreaking, more mechanize-able. Trellis systems to raise up the plants that sadly don’t take into account the goal of evenly and properly ripening fruit. Vine rows meters apart that allow for machinery but sap fruit quality.

John has a goal, to make great red wine here, and his vision is somewhat outside of economics. “I have an MBA from the University of Chicago and we started Clos du Gravillas without a business plan.”

He knows his methods aren’t for everyone. “It is better to machine harvest all at once and have the fruit in the cool cellar in a couple of hours than to spend all day in the sun filling up a big hopper.” Clos du Gravillas goes to great expense bringing in fruit quickly and in small baskets at harvest. But Bojanowski acknowledges that process is not one all wineries can afford.

At the end of my trip, as I sipped Muscat in the cellar, John and Nicole tempted me with local points of interest. “Do you know how close you are to Minerve?” “St. Chinian is beautiful, you have to drive there.” I wished I were on vacation. But my route home through the hinterland included several points of alien beauty that insisted on a detour. I was alone in front of a cliff with ruined terraces and abandoned stone huts, everything overrun by garrigue. Later shepherds followed a flock on and around a one-lane country road. It doesn’t get more bucolic. Did John mention some vineyards for sale?


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