Young, Gifted and Back – The Rhone Ranger Returns !

In February this year, Minister for Agriculture Brendan Smith launched a call for submissions for what the Department of Agriculture called The 2020 Strategy.

Bord Bia provided a discussion paper where it used the word quality only three times in its entire presentation and this was part of a platitude like statement on the Irish Agri-Food Business “the sector has a strong international reputation as a provider of high quality food and drink products. This provides a solid basis from which to build and enhance our presence across key markets and product segments” the Bord Bia paper suggested.

This at a time when Ireland’s export of pork to China was still banned. That ban was finally lifted last month on the 21st of May 2010, two years after the worldwide scare and horror at potentially carcinogenic nature of Irish pork and pork products. Ireland and carcinogenic foodstuffs is what I recall of visits to France and German in its aftermath as shelves were cleared of Irish foodstuffs.

Maybe it is just as well that BordBia are glass half full kindof people, because a fortnight was not to pass after the Chinese removal of the ban, when Ireland was being once again put centre stage for its contribution to European Agriculture, when last Wednesday 3rd of June, Pharmaceutical giant Wyeth pleaded guilty at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to four counts regarding the illegal exportation of waste.

Just in case that sounds a bit administrative, this resulted in 50,000 pigs having to be destroyed in Holland after waste water from the production of contraceptive pills at Wyeth’s Newbridge plant eventually found their way into Dutch animal feed.

Allowing minimum standards, based on an idea of compliance rather than encouraging or fostering maximum standards based on producing the best cheese, beef, pork, salmon or wine in class is at the root of the Irish Agri-food business’s dilemma about its way forward in the 21st century.

With that on my mind back in March I felt moved to provide my own submission to the Department Of Agriculture as did about seventy other parties and it was refreshing to see that many of these submissions from a wide range of stakeholders and interested parties were now taking a broader picture than simply maximising short term exports and trotting out a well worn mantra on obviously wounded quality standing in the world at present.

Wine is by no means a perfect activity, but on balance it provides perhaps the most ambitious model for business in the 21st century and one that we should be studying in Ireland.

It has done so by solid legal frameworks for its highest standards. It has sought through the European Appellation Controllee system to instil and police the absolutely best practices, the highest quality and where necessary the more expensive methods of production, providing the finest, best product in the world in its class.

Irrigation for example will increase your yields, this could lead to increased exports, increased market share and so on. In most of the important European wine regions it has been banned, you will be arrested if you engage in this activity.

The wines made by irrigating are not dangerous, merely less interesting, complex or spiritually rewarding as the variations that nature gives from year to year.

However, irrigation once let out of the bag and in the hands of a producer who is looking to their bottom line can lead to over-cropping, dilute, poor wines but able to be sold at rock bottom prices.

If you allow irrigation, while the good farmer will do the right thing you legally permit the Quarter End obsessed to produce vile rubbish.

Eventually consumers do move back to quality as the resilience of the European wine market shows and when drought and over farming leads to dust bowls, the industrial farmers loose their shirts.

We think in some way we are too small to just produce jewels and superstars. I would suggest we are too small as an Agri-food nation to think in any other way.

What we need to do is look at what 1.5 hectares, about 4 acres of land in the Rhone can do and see if there are lessons in this for us.

Anatomy of A Superstar Artisan

Stephane Montez is a young, superstar wine maker from the Cote Rotie in the Northern Rhone. Why do we not know who are the superstar poultry, fish, bread, beef and mushroom producers are in this country.

What you may ask does that really mean, well it means that he sells every last drop of his produce, his wines, at one of the best price that is available

Thankfully we do have around 350 artisan manufacturers who are adhering to the maximum ambitions frameworks. Their produce is highly valued across Ireland, where according to the Taste Council €427 million’s worth of its output is consumed. Local consumption accounts for 90% of its output.

The Taste Council is a vigorous voluntary body dedicated to promoting this artisan sector, it includes some of the leading artisans and fellow travellers such as Chefs Kevin Thornton and Ross Lewis, Cheesemonger supreme Kevin Sheridan, Darina Allen and John McKenna who between them have held a flame for Ireland’s rebirth as a fine food powerhouse in Europe.

An example of where this promotion of artisans as icons and economic powerhouses is well exemplified by youngish Stephane Montez.

“I keep saying, now that I have taken over, the winery, and in my head I am thinking it was yesterday. I am saying just taken over, but you know it was 10 years, no.” Stephane Montez clasps his hand to his mouth and rolls his eyes. “Oh my goodness, it is over 10 years. I took over in 1997.”

The phrase young winemaker was used in 1997, but looking at Stephane Montez today, the phrase they should have used in 1997 was, infant winemaker. In his early thirties, Montez today is still is the leading young advocate for AC Cote Rotie, AC Condrieu and AC St. Joseph wines where he owns tiny parcels and produces award winning and highly sought after wines.

What this means in practice is that during the quieter times in the vineyard, Stephane Montez is invited to speak and present his and other Rhone wines to wine lovers and wine conferences around the globe.

Wine, like much of agriculture has a rhythm to it that can feed nicely into the real world economy and the necessity of sales and marketing. Vines need to be tended, kept ticking over for several periods during the year and then for the harvest, the first few months on the cellar and bottling there is intense 24 hour a day activity and then its back to tending.

During the tending period, the soils need gentle tilling, the vines need to be watched for any signs of infection and they need to be pruned and tidied.

Meanwhile Back In The Rhone

It is a beautiful time in countries with vines, in the northern Rhone Valley it can feel like you are in some 1950s John Wayne western. The valley is very steep. The hills and slopes of wine appellations like the Cote Rotie, Condrieu and St. Jospeh seem to approach nearly vertical at points.

As you drive along the base of the valley, on the banks of the Rhone River itself, you see twitching flashes of sun reflecting of metal, signals perhaps, glinting out from the inaccessible hills, then suddenly a nearly vertical thin stack of smoke rises like a balloon into the pure blue, cloudless sky.

It is not the presage to a Comanche attack on the wagon train, rather this is the tending of vines in action, snipping, cleaning and burning the dead vinewood.

It is slow meticulous work. This leaves time for travel and educative branding, on the worldwide artisan tasting circuit.

Last week Stephane Montez was in Dublin hosting a typical round of tastings, talks and dinners. Who wants to present his wines is insightful, these  include many Michelin starred restaurants around the world. They recognise that what he is doing in wine is a mirror of what they are doing with food and matches the ideals of the other sources on their menus.

Kevin Thornton for example hosted a sell out wine pairing evening for Stephane Montez’s wines where hand crafted wines were matched with brilliant and well sourced foods. For instance hand picked garlic leaves and milk fed Wicklow lamb, matched with Montez’s Domaine du Monteillet ‘La Cuvee du Papy’ AC St.Joseph 2007.

As ever, though in Kevin Thornton’s case it was intimately known where the lamb came from, even here, a farmer’s name and a specific site was not specified. This is the added value to an Irish product that the St. Joseph wine has and we do not. We know Stephane and his fellow workers were in the vertical slopes during September 2007 hand picking each berry off the 30 years old vines, that it was rushed down the slopes in tiny plastic boxes so that the grapes did not break and begin to ferment or spoil.

That a cool maceration was carried out, for a week, then treading of the grapes, then a long and slow fermentation to get maximum extraction, before settling into the long process of large oak age maturation. No added sulphur, no preservatives, no yeast inoculation, no fining even occurred. Nothing artificial or supportive was done.

The front label on the wine says AC St. Joseph 2007 and the name of the Domaine, with a fancy Stephane Montez signature lettering. That’s it. By keeping a tight, ambitiously regulated industry the winemakers around Europe and here in the Rhone have convinced us with their legitimacy, their attention to detail and their honesty that the product is their beloved creation.

Ireland’s future as an artisan and economically successful food and drink producing nation, is best sought by embracing and protecting good Irish farmers, beer, cider, spirits and wine producers, cheesemakers, salmon smokers and breadmakers, by establishing the best standards and policing them rigorously, not by sanctioning minimum standards, which allow rogues riggle room.

Obviously I feel this is best done by an Appellation Controllee system for every product we make, but there are bound to be other solutions.

We could start tomorrow however by demanding to know, when and where that lamb was reared and by whom, when was that lettuce picked and where. Restaurants could start too by including, voluntarily, a great deal more detail on the careful sourcing rather than just putting this as a platitude in the front of the menu.

Wine tasting evenings might be considered in conjunction with the beef farmer concerned or the cheesemaker. The wine world has elevated and maintained standards by informing wine lovers about the look and feel of the vineyard, about the winemakers and their techniques. It is a spotlight within which it is hard to come in and say, the we add a packet of flavouring and E1873 and hope for the best.

The Irish consumer purchases the Taste Council suggest around €14.5 billion foodstuffs a year, €0.5 billion we make ourselves, now €14 billion, that is a market share to capture that would make even the most ardent Marxist salivate. Lets make wine like superstars of our distillers, brewers, cheesemakers, beef farmers, cider makers and our hardy winemakers. Wine’s success with Irish consumers shows we have an appetite for integrity.

The Artisan Wines of Stephane Montez

Stephane Montez, Les Hauts du Monteillet, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, Rouge, 2007 (89) around €13.95

Montez, Les Hauts du Monteillet, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Rose, 2006 (88) around €13.95

Les Hauts du Monteillet, Vins De Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Blanc 2007 (90) around €19.95

Domaine du Monteillet, Marsanne/Roussane, Blanc AC St.Joseph 2007 (92) around €25

Domaine du Monteillet ‘’Les Grandes Chaillees’ AC Condrieu 2007 around €43

Domaine du Monteillet, Rouge, AC St.Joseph 2008 (90) around €22.95

Domaine du Monteillet ‘La Cuvee du Papy’ AC St.Joseph 2007 (92) around €29.95

Domaine du Monteillet ‘Fortis’ AC Cote Rotie 2007 (95) around €55

Wines are available at selected wine shops and off licences nationwide including  Cases  Wine Warehouse, Riverside Commercial Estate, Tuam Road, Galway; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2; Redmonds Of Ranelagh, Ranelagh, Dublin 6; 64 Wines, 64, Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co Dublin; Sweeney’s, 6 Finglas Road, Harts Corner, Glasnevin, Dublin 11; Donnybrook Fair, 89 Morehampton Road, Donnybrook  Dublin and most good wine shops.