Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Anarchy and Natural Wine in the South of France

Regular and longtime readers of this blog will know that I've always been attracted to political activism, particularly in the anarchist vein. Anarchism is often misunderstood: it is used as an analogy for chaos, disorganisation, everybody just doing what they feel like doing. It's just the opposite. Anarchists tend to do things by consensus, after discussion, everything is decided upon via votes of the majority. Anarchism, such as I've lived it, is incredibly organised: I lived in a temporary anarchist community in Stirling during the anti-G8 protests. They set up an entire 'city' with recycling, water, different community kitchens, compost toilets, entertainment and meetings every morning for thousands of people.
There are some anarchist communities in France that I visited when I lived there in 2005/6: the Longo Mai commune in Haute Provence where members are paid a weekly allowance, they grow their own food, have a radio station, to mention just a few of their activities. My daughter made friends with some of the children there. We spent Christmas at an abandoned mining town La Vieille Valette near Alès, a place that looks as if it were designed by the writer of Gormenghast. Carved stone buildings with stained glass windows snailing a trail up the mountainside, a communal kitchen around a wood burning stove, upon which hummed an everlasting coffee pot and where I enjoyed the best honey and homemade bread I've ever eaten, collected and made by the inhabitants. I spent a few days translating documents for a city commune in Toulouse with animated discussions and great food. I regularly visited Les Tanneries in Dijon, which has its own film library and tech savvy guys who can code, I remember watching them write fluently in sci-fi computer languages.
Anarchists are self-sufficient. If ISIS drops an atomic bomb on our decadent western civilisation, these are the people we will learn from if everything goes to shit. I suppose I'm also attracted to that kind of community because a one woman, one child team doesn't feel like quite enough family in a world of nuclear units.

Anarchists and Food

It's self-evident that hippies loved food, growing things, eating organically, introducing other influences such as Asian and South American ingredients into their diets. Hippies taught India and Nepal how to cook for travellers. The tea shops in Kathmandu with giant foot-high cakes attest to that. But it is less well-known that punk anarchists love good food and, being interested in the DIY attitude to life, will take the time to find out how something is made from scratch.
All this preamble is by way of introducing you to an interesting group of winemakers - Collectif Anonyme - that I originally met at RAW wine fair, organised by natural wine pioneer Isabelle Legeron, in London earlier this summer. There was this one really hunky tall tanned guy with cool tats and even cooler wine. He mentioned that he was part of a cooperative in the South of France, I said I was driving around there this summer, so he invited me to stop by. Deal!

"We are an anonymous collective but each of our wines are very personal," says Kris, the Australian 30-something who has been working in the wine industry for several years 'chasing the vendange' around France. He doesn't come from a wine background, not even in Australia but was invited to Banyuls with his then girlfriend Julia for the harvest and got hooked.
"Why Banyuls?" I asked.
"The land is affordable. Plus, it has the best wine because of a great combination of beaches and mountains. One parcel costs between 15, 000 euros and 25,000 euros. This is our third year and we are finally breaking even. 2011 was our first year, we sold our grapes to the local cooperative. In 2012 when we made our first own wine, and we were still working part-time to finance this. Our parcels of land are based on the metayage system, which are medieval tithes, dating from Roman times, still going in France." 
A 'metayage' means you give 1/7th of the crop to the owner. A fermage means you give 1/5th of the profit to the owner.

The cooperative Collectif Anonyme

There are four members currently: Kris, his present girlfriend Haida from Germany; Jackie, a British mother who has recently joined and his ex-girlfriend Julia from Germany. They are all aged between their late twenties and early forties. At the moment, they take a salary of 500 euros a month and live in caravans on site.
"That's what I've always wanted," says Kris. "To live among the vines."
The work is hard, back breaking even, everything has to be done by hand. The vineyards around Banyuls are all on steep terraces, with a 45% gradient on average, so machinery is out of the question. The terroir contains shale which gives minerology to the wines. The soil is acidic however and they've spent the last three years converting to organic. "Traditionally vegetables were grown on good land and wines on crap land." Wines grow better in poor soil. They have chosen to grow wines on north facing slopes; long term, they feel this is a better choice taking climate change into account.
"Has it been difficult to start your own business in France?" I ask. "No it's been great. The government have helped us with a grant 'l'aide d'installation' for the under 40s. We also got a subvention from the European Union," enthuses Kris. "And we are covered by French law as a social enterprise."


As a non-hierarchical cooperative, they don't believe in the cult of the personality, which is why they are anonymous and do not allow their faces to be photographed.

Low-Tech and Handmade

Much of their equipment was bought at Le Bon Coin, a French version of Gumtree. They age their wine in hand-me-down oak barrels that have had four or five wines in before. They don't use carbonic maceration, preferring 'whole grape' (with stems) fermentation which is less tannic and more elegant. Their wines are full bodied and high in alcohol, 14 to 15%:
 "but you could drink a whole bottle of our wine and not feel drunk. We like to keep everything low tech. We press wines with our feet, the old way."
"We only use a tiny amount of sulphite, a 2g tablet  so in total our wines have between 7 and 11 mg of sulphites as compared to normal wine which has up to 180mg. Even organic wines are allowed up to 130mg of sulphite."
Each of their parcels grow a different grape: Carignan, Grenache noir, Grenache blanc, Grenache gris. All of their wines are suitable for vegans.

Goals for the future

Wine Pvnx would like to expand into magnums and sell natural wine by the glass. Wine ages better in a magnum. Along with their natural low-tech approach they use cork, sustainably grown in Portugal and seal the bottles with wax by hand; Kris believes this is best with alcoholic maceration, they want to encourage a little bit of oxygenation. Every year is unique: they clean everything down each year. And every year they grow bigger: they produced 6,000 bottles in the first year, between 4 and 5,000 bottles in the second year; 9,000 bottles in the 3rd year (2014) and this year, 2015, they plan to produce between 14 and 15,000 bottles. All of their wines cost 18 euros a bottle and the sweet wines, more like a classic Banyuls sweet wine, costs 24 euros. They sell to France, Germany, Denmark, Austria and Belgium. Ultimately they would like more partnerships with restaurants, their wines match well with food.

Wines for the techno/rave generation

I tasted their whole range while gathered around a barrel outside their cave, eating an impromptu cheese and bread dinner. I was frankly so pissed (despite Kris claiming the wines aren't very alcoholic) that by the end that I couldn't even drive and had to sleep in the car, much to my daughter's cold, seething disgust. We had a massive row in the morning because of my drunken snoring and the mosquitos. I slept blissfully through the whole thing. You can tell this is not a lifestyle blog, eh? Do you think Deliciously Ella ever sleeps in the car, too shit-faced to prop up her perfect body and do a doe-eyed selfie? Anyway, I'm not a spitter-outter and I'm also a cheap date so I think I'd pledged ever-lasting love to each and every member of Wine Pvnx during the course of the tasting. I was literally slobbering over them. Needless to say I really liked their wines. They are heavy, powerful, big wines that in some ways remind me of my childhood trips to France. They possess an elegant rusticity that is right up my street.

As most of these wines were made in small quantities, only a few are available to buy on their site. Kris describes them as wines for the rave/techno generation. Many of the names and label artwork are inspired by music.

Iles dans le ciel 2013. Grenache noir, grenache gris, bit of Carignan. Sweet, tannic.
CA Rouge 2014. Only 220 bottles made. 15%. Carignan, grenache noir.
Big Rock Candy Mountain 2014, 16% alcohol. Sweet, deep red in the style of the local Banyuls wine. Macerated in french oak barrels. Grenache noir, grenache gris.
Monstrum 2013. This is naturally sweet with no added alcohol. 16% alcohol. Hand-pressed.

Available soon:
Beau Oui comme Bowie. 2015 Syrah and a little bit of Grenache Noir.
Xtrmntr 2015.
1 +1+3 2015.


  1. You touch on so many interesting issues in this post. Very interested in natural wines - were you tasting pet nat (looks like there is some in the last picture?). The recent deregulation of green belt and selling off of so much ag land in UK worries me so much due to food security. Strongly believe that we should be more self sufficient in food production - and not just in case a bomb lands one day (more subtle factors are just as alarming I reckon). As embarrassing parent to two teenage girls I have been on the receiving end of that sort of smouldering glare SO often!

    1. Pet Nat is petillante naturelle? Yes the white wine is that. It didn't start out like that, they almost thought it was a mistake but realised that it was a good almost champagne.
      Totally agree re food production and self sufficiency. The UK made this mistake at the beginning of the 20th century, we imported most of our food.
      I made that comment about ISIS because I can imagine that this would be the sort of camply horror gross out action like that would be up their street.
      Yup I am that mother.

  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment
    didn't appear. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again.
    Anyway, just wanted too say wonderful blog!


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