Last week I profiled Marion Pla, winemaker of Domaine Marion Pla in the Languedoc in southern France. She had told me about wanting to make white wine and having to buy new land that already had white wine grapes growing on it, since she and her father were only growing red grapes at the time. This prompted a reader to e-mail asking why Marion couldn’t just plant the white wine grapes on her property.
The short answer is that Marion can plant whatever she wants. However, if she wants the wine to be labeled AOC Saint-Chinian, that’s another story. The AOC has rules about how many acres of vines can be planted within the boundaries of the appellation, what grape varietals are allowed, and how much wine can be produced per acre of vines. AOC Saint-Chinian is relatively prestigious, and the wines sell for more than they would if they were labeled simply as table wines. So Marion chose to buy land with white wine grapevines on it that was already in compliance with the rules.
Off went my e-mail. In response, I got more questions, including one about subsidies for vineyards and winemakers. Many have the impression that winemakers and grape growers get heavy subsidies from the European Union. I’ve heard various things about EU regulations and subsidies over the years, but I didn’t have the facts at hand to say one way or the other.
Well, lucky me – a French friend happened to send me a link to an article about French vineyard subsidies by Jonathan Hesford in Connexion, an English-language monthly about France.* (Seriously, a concise yet comprehensive article that I didn’t have to translate? Bonus!) Hesford, born in England, owns a vineyard and winery in the Roussillon with Rachel Treloar, his New Zealand-born wife. Wine is not a first career for either of them so they learned it from the ground up, so to speak. Hesford and Treloar learned French, bought an old winery and plots of land with mature vines on them, and set about renovating, replanting, and getting started. In the process, they found out what subsidies they might be eligible for.
It turns out that France, unlike Spain and Italy, doesn’t allow vineyards to get the general EU agricultural subsidy that pays farmers annually based on the amount of land they own and farm. This means, all else being equal, that wine is cheaper to produce in Spain and Italy than it is in France. You probably heard about French winemakers stopping and emptying tanker trucks of Spanish wine crossing into France in the past couple of years. This happened partly because of what they perceive as unfair trade practices due to differences in subsidy policy. But also because of unscrupulous French buyers who repackaged the cheaper Spanish wine to make it look like French wine. Some have even labeled the Spanish wine with French appellations.
France and the EU do give grapegrowers and winemakers some subsidies, under particular circumstances. These include start-up grants for first-time winemakers under age 40, replacing equipment with more environmentally-friendly machinery, organic conversion and maintenance, replanting of vines, and some new vine planting on land not previously used for vineyards (these last two have to be approved by the French government and the local appellation. According to Hesford, there’s a seven-step application and verification process for them).
These are straightforward, but there are two more controversial subsidies. Both result in growing less of what are perceived to be less-profitable vines. One subsidy pays growers to replace vines with more commercially-profitable varietals. The other pays growers to stop farming some of their land where they currently grow those (supposedly) less-profitable varietals. In practice, this means more Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and less of some older local varietals. Hesford cites Carignan Blanc and Tannat as victims of these particular subsidies in southwestern France.
Some growers no doubt felt they had to take these two subsidies in order to stay in business. But I hope that the resurgence of interest in local varietals creates a comeback that changes the policy. Otherwise, it appears from my reading that the rest of the subsidies are an attempt at keeping the industry around in the future. That seems sensible – and, I hope, successful.
* This article is behind Connexion’s paywall. I have asked for limited-time free access for this blog link. Stay tuned.
This week’s recipe is also the result of a coincidence. My husband Cy made me Kookoo Sabzeh for my birthday this week. It’s an Iranian herb frittata. But it’s more than that, really. There are lots of herbs in there, and so it’s more like a frittata where the herbs are like a vegetable not a garnish. There’s a lovely thick green layer on the top. Cy’s father came to the U.S. from Iran in the 1950s, and many in his father’s family came over later. Cy tells me that stepping off the elevator in the building where his grandmother lived was an aroma experience. Kookoo Sabzeh was one of the things she’d make for family gatherings. It’s also typically served for Novrooz, Persian New Year. It was delicious!
Why the coincidence? The day after having Kookoo Sabzi for dinner, I listened to the first episode of chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s new podcast, Simple Pleasures. Every two weeks he invites a guest to his home and cooks food from Simple, his new cookbook. One of the dishes he made was what he called Persian Herb Fritters, which are really just small versions of Kookoo Sabzi. His guest was Nadiya Hussein, winner of the Great British Baking Show, and now a cookbook author and food television person. It’s worth hearing their conversation, which encompasses food, child rearing, marriage, and being a Muslim woman who’s also a major international food personality in the age of social media.
So although I sent out a Kookoo Sabzi recipe e-mail back in 2008 (before this blog started), how could I not include it here? Especially since Cy has revised it from the original (and you all kept it, right? 😉) Cy had it on the table in about 45 minutes, including washing and chopping the herbs. I wish I’d taken a photo, because it’s beautiful to look at. You can serve it warm, at room temperature, or out of the fridge. According to Ottolenghi, it also makes a great sandwich filling.
We served an aromatic white wine with the Kookoo, Château d’Assas Blanc 2017 ($16). It’s a new selection for First Vine, a blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermentino, White Grenache, and Viognier. All officially sanctioned AOC Languedoc grapes, and really delicious. I love this wine not only for the way it tastes, but because of its association with my family’s history.
But if you’re looking for something a little more local and rare, try Terrasses de Perret Gris 2017 ($13). It’s a rosé from the same producer as the white, a cooperative winery in Assas. The grape is Grenache Gris – Gray Grenache – which is different than Red Grenache (often called Grenache Noir). The gray comes from the skin’s appearance, which actually looks gray. It’s occasionally used in rosé in the Languedoc and in Corsica. This is the first time I’d tasted a 100% Grenache Gris rosé, and it’s lovely. Drink it and strike a blow for subsidizing the ancient grapes!
This fresh herb and egg dish is similar to a frittata. Have it for lunch or as a side dish with dinner. Serves 4-6.
salt: 1 tsp
black pepper: ½ tsp
fenugreek, dried leaves: 1 tbsp
red currants, dried: ½ cup
chopped spinach, frozen: 10 oz. package, thawed and water squeezed from the spinach
scallions, fresh: ½ cup finely chopped
parsley, fresh: ½ cup finely chopped
cilantro, fresh: ½ cup finely chopped
dill weed, fresh: ½ cup finely chopped
olive oil plus 1 tbsp butter to coat skillet
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, salt, pepper, and fenugreek leaves. Then whisk in the spinach mixture and currants.
Gently stir in the four fresh herbs: scallions, parsley, cilantro, and dill weed.
Generously coat bottom and sides of a 10-inch nonstick skillet with olive oil and add the tablespoon of butter. Heat the skillet over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Pour the mixture in and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook for another 10-15 minutes, covered, until the egg is fully cooked and the kookoo has puffed slightly. The bottom will be browned but shouldn’t be burnt.
Take the pan off the heat, uncover, and let the kookoo cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.