Experimental trumps spiritual

Resurgences of older techniques & materials throughout various phases of grape growing/winemaking are in surplus as of late. People are reverting back to clay & indigenous woods (palm, chestnut, etc.), longer skin macerations, reviving autochthonous grape varietals on the verge of extinction, and plenty more. The results are, if done correctly, captivating. In our ever-lusting thirst for purpose, experimentation, and melding modern with centuries-old tactics and methods, are there occurrences that take this quest too far?

I recently hit up Chicago toting Jill Mott Selections - a slew of wines from Asturias, Bierzo, and Segovia that certainly satisfied the windy city. While there, I met up with my crew; a band of folks who deeply care about provenance, history, process, and lore. When they taste wine, they go deep - I miss this interaction more than I can utter. Educational bottles were being cracked in earnest, but also with acute standards & meaning. A jolly fellow decided to lug a magnum from his cellar that bode the region Arbois. That's all I will mention for now. An indigenous grape was carefully fermented & aged in a vessel that is receiving accolades for its unbeknownst foresight when first crafted thousands of years ago. The clay this wine was reared in hailed from & was fired some 3,800 km away. This hasn't been the first instance of curiosity/study breeding an ambrosial delight and we all know that so many of the world's greatest wines are not born in even remotely local vessels.

I want to be very clear; I thought the wine was delightful to drink & tasting it decanted versus not decanted was a decent experiment to put it lightly. The native Arbois red grape in Georgian qvevri had an air of disingenuousness about it, certain pieces missing, or maybe it was speckled with false hopes. My crux was that the educational experiment was joyful but didn't seem truthful. Why did this matter? It bothered me the entire flight home & it shouldn't have. The wine was pretty and fun to drink in the company of great comrades in life. Wines from the U.S. are aged in French oak all the time! People in France are aging wine in Spanish clay and in some cases, this clay was dug of  Chinese soil and fired in Spain!

I guess I just pondered this Arbois' potential in wood grown in close proximity to its spiritual home; Neuchatel or Vosges oak perhaps. Something seemed all too commercially exploited about an intrinsic, isolated place such as Georgia (that I already fear will succumb to capitalistic bait) shipping a 1,000L vessel across Europe. Clay feels so alive, historic, rustic, and humble. This experiment felt like a well-read peasant knowing the nobility is trying to blow a fast one by her.

End all be all, the wine was nothing short of delicious but supplied a lack of spiritual authenticity. 


Over the past 13 years I've come to know Orval quite closely. Few beers deliver this unending cease-to-amaze factor; it drinks as refreshing or thought provoking as you need and is both cherished and gulped depending on your mood. Many have told me that the longer they've consumed a beer, the less attention they actually pay it (probably much like a loved sibling that lives next door - when you see them everyday, you don't ponder their intricacies). Although this may be true for certain wines & brews, I could not imagine it happening with Brasserie d' Orval's one heralded, tri-fermented beer. 

I visited the monastery months ago and had the RARE opportunity to see the inner workings of the brewery. My guide made it known on several occasions that this was an unusual circumstance (hand selling Orval for 15 years and having a devout Catholic traveling with me seemed to be my ins). I expected the space to feel spiritual and well, like a brewery; loud at times, bustling with activity. The placidity however, was astounding and the smell of nascent Orval permeating my clothes for hours afterward was a welcome surprise I will never forget. 

The history of the monastery & brewery are well documented in books and websites so I won't go into that here. A few little known details about this serene backwoods hamlet: The brewery operates two days per week and is at capacity. Not willing to raise production has met with pleas for more beer from the national & international markets. They brew enough to satisfy financial needs (55% of profits are donated to charity) and this makes the current output satisfactory. People pine after this miraculous beer stemming from the water, attention to detail, and three very closely monitored fermentations. The main fermentation lasts four days, the second takes place in horizontal tanks w/ brettanomyces + dry hops (of Belgian + Slovenian origin) for four weeks. The young beer goes through a final mini-fermentation/conditioning in bottle via a dose of candy sugar + yeast at bottling and will finish in the maturation hall over the course of three to four weeks. 

There were many historical tales told over the course of my visit. I was lucky in my encounters with a few head brewers, markedly skeptical in the release of decades-old methods. My swearing to secrecy with at least a few crucifixes in eye's view will not render them on this virtual page but I thank them for confiding in a trustworthy soul. Whilst wondering a tunnel under the main modern chapel, I found my name etched in stone, no other names or etchings in sight. I knew traveling 4,200 miles was where I needed to be in that moment.  

The ruins are awe-inspiring, the tale, mythical. The beer is one of Belgium's best and when two, three, four, five years old... This beer too is living...