“When I was a child, I wanted to be God,” said Andrea Calek, and laughed. “Not president or a winemaker. President is nothing. It’s so small. I wanted to be God.” And while he doesn’t consider his work in the cellar or vineyards to be god-like in any way, he has found a slice of paradise in Ardèche, living in a trailer amongst his 5ha of Ecocert certified vines.
“In 1997-98,” he said, “I was working a little bit with olive trees, but I wanted to do something more deeply. I had two things that interested me, archeology and wine, but archeology was too complicated to study, so I chose to make wine. I saw that I drank more wine than olive oil, so I said to myself, Don’t be stupid,” he added and laughed. And so, while studying wine he met Petit Max, or Guy Breton, at a Beaujolais Nouveau party thrown by Marcel Lapierre. “He was good friends with Petit Max. I met him again when I was working with a negociant house and consulting company,” he said. And soon Calek was working 20 hours a day and living with Petit Max.
“I like to make wine,” he said. “I like dreaming. In vinification, I’m closed in the cellar and nobody can come in. I try to feel, I don’t try to understand because it’s too complicated for my brain. I can analyze [in the lab] all I want, but it’s too complicated. I try more to feel what happens.”
Farming 5ha of (30-70 year old) Syrah, Grenache and some Merlot that are planted hillside to clay and limestone soils in Alba La Romaine, Andrea also purchases fruit from his friend Gerald Oustric (Le Mazel), whose property neighbors his. “Gerald has most of the vineyards in the sun,” he said. “I have more cold terroir, so I pick after him and I have less alcohol. He makes more extraction than me. I make A Toi Nous to sell it within the year of vinification. It’s made like a primeur.”
When Calek first met Gerard, he was farming 30ha, but Gerald wanted to reduce it to 20ha. “It was 2004, and he proposed to me to take a few hectares,” he said, “but for me it was too early.” When he completed his studies in 2007, Calek was ready for his first vintage.
Purchasing the equipment for his cellar from Domain Peyras, who had gone bankrupt after two difficult vintages in 2005, Calek employs carbonic maceration, making wines that are clean and expressive of terroir. “With carbonic maceration, you can do anything. Most carbonic maceration, as we call carbonic maceration,” he said, “it’s half carbonic maceration and no more."
And while Calek is known as a ‘natural’ winemaker, he doesn’t subscribe to any school of thought, other than his own. “I make the wine. That’s the most important. I try to make the wine in a beautiful way, how I feel the beauty, but of course I’m never able to make what I imagine,” he said. “For me, beauty is a multitude of imperfections with a nice composition in space and time. For me, it’s not perfection. For humans, it is not possible.”
Refusing to write ‘biologique’ on his labels, Andrea prints ‘contains sulfites’ on his labels, even if he’s analyzed the wine and has found no sulfites in it. “It doesn’t interest me,” he said. “It’s marketing. I make wine. I drink wine. If somebody adds one gram and if it’s good, it’s good for me. I don’t care. After, I can ask him why he put one gram, because technically that interests me. But it’s about the feeling, the pleasure.” And it’s about the clean profile of the wines.
From Jacques Neuport, Petit Max and Guy Breton, Calek learned that natural winemaking is not an excuse for badly made wine. “You have to try to work clean,” he said. “If you work well, then it’s not that difficult. For me, natural wine is not leaving the wine to go on holiday for six months and coming back. You don’t use chemicals, but you are there all the time before bottling.”
With his first vintage in 2007, a hot year, Calek said, he starts each year anew. “Every year you finish the vinification, you say, I learned a lot of things,” he said. “But before the vinification, you say, I don’t know anything! Because the balance in the grape is different. Everything is different.” In 2008, he lost all of his Grenache because it was so cold. And in 2009, it was extremely hot. “People were calling all the time from Beaujolais,” he said, asking for advice, but he had none to offer. And just last year, he was unable to purchase additional Syrah from Gerald because Gerald had had problems with the fruit and didn’t have enough for himself. So Calek took Gerald’s Grenache and made A Toi Nous.
As for Blonde, the wine that put him on the map in the States, Calek said, “I stopped it because I never wanted to do it. I make it still, but just for me. It’s quite easy and when it’s well done, it’s a level of Champagne, but it’s much cheaper. And sometimes it’s not at the level of Champagne, but it’s very nice to drink.” The first bottling was the result of a white wine in 2007 that took three years to ferment. Figuring that he didn’t have the space to continuously store the wines while he waited for the fermentations to complete, Calek started making Blanc instead, which ferments for two years in neutral oak.
Last year, his fruit yielded 250hl of wine, and from Gerald’s harvest, he made an additional 50hl. “All the time,” he said, “I make 10-15 wines, but I don’t sell them. It’s experimentation and that’s enough for me. I make lots of other things,” he added. “You have to come to my place to taste them.”