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Collectif Anonyme: the faceless winemakers of southern France

Collectif Anonyme: the faceless winemakers of southern France

by Laura Martin 23 October 2018

Laura Martin meets a group of rebellious caravan-dwelling winemakers responsible for producing some of the best natural wines in Europe.

It’s been a long, hot summer in Europe. And in France’s Côte Vermeille, where the pretty villages nestle in terracotta-hued landscapes between the Pyrenees and the Gulf of Lyon, it’s been one of the toughest years on record for winemakers.

After a very wet and humid spring, there was week after week of relentless forty-degree heat. And while it was hard enough for humans and animals to survive these temperatures without getting sunstroke, it was even worse for the crops. The grapes were under attack. But for Collectif Anonyme – an ever-changing team of winemakers headed up by the ebullient Kris – this year’s heatwave could actually give them their best vintage ever, thanks to their dedication to natural, organic processes.

It’s the group’s seventh year of making wine, and although they’re also known as the wine punks, don’t be fooled by their nickname – these guys make some of the best examples of natural wine in Europe; 10,000 bottles of it a year, by hand, with a 100-year-old press.

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They’re a ‘faceless’ producer, and they like to stay anonymous as they don’t agree with the current domaine procedure of the workers toiling away in the vineyards, only for the owner to come along and stick his name all over the bottles at the end of the season. They’re also faceless in the sense that they literally don’t allow photos of their faces, almost like the Daft Punk of the wine world. I joined them at the end of September when they were pressing their grapes in their cave (cellar) in the little fishing village of Port Vendres.

You hear the gang first before you see them, as they pump out whatever music they’re feeling at the moment. When I arrive hip hop music soundtracks their work, as Kris, Agata and Leo extract every last drop of juice from today’s Carignan grape vendange (harvest). I ask Kris about the heatwave and whether he feared all might have been lost for his grapes because of the extreme conditions. ‘Quite the opposite,’ he says. ‘The heat killed off a lot of the diseases that can attack the grapes. What ruined the harvest round here for some people was the wet and tropical spring, so a lot of people had diseases on their vines. But because we work with natural preparations, it made the grapes resilient.’

Natural wine, in its simplest explanation, is wine made by fermenting grape juice with as little interference as possible throughout the whole process. The wines in turn are fresh, young, lively and full of interesting flavour profiles that you wouldn’t get with commercial or conventional wines. These are not bottles to be stored away in wine cellars for years – they’re to be enjoyed today, which resonates with the Collectif’s simple mantra, found on their branded hoodies and tote bags: ‘Drink More Wine’.

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The crew live in caravans on their vineyards in Banyuls-sur-Mer, a few miles from their cellar, which means they’re fully connected with what’s growing around them. After all, what other winemakers can say they both sleep and rise alongside their grapes? Like an additional member of their family, the vines and the terroirs are given constant care and attention throughout the year, with a little natural nudge where needed.

This year, Kris tells me, what saved their crops was a spray they made from horsetail plant and stinging nettles. ‘We spray the mixture on the leaves because it’s natural and free,’ he says. ‘The plant looks super-healthy and has great flowering too, so these things protected the vines against the weather. Working hard during the humid season has given the plants what they need to be strong enough to fight the heatwave later. We’ve already made 1,000 litres more than we did last year. We’re so excited to try the results.’

Also exciting is the arrival of Agata, the newest member of the Collectif. Agata is a natural wine sommelier from Poland who is using her skills to put her own imprint on the selection of fine wines produced this year. ‘It’s much more satisfying to make wine rather than being just a sommelier, as that is just showing someone the product of someone else’s work,’ she says.

On that note, they crack open a couple of their 2017 bottles, which all have some incredible artwork and spray-painted labels on them. The Beau Oui Comme Bowie (€21 from their online shop, 15.5%) – complete with the Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt printed on the front – is a deep, fruit-heavy drink, with undertones of both plum and blackcurrant. Mouton Noir/Scary World Theory (€15, 13.5%) is a lighter red that’s warm and glou-glou – very gluggable.

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In 2017, Vanity Fair Spain called Collectif Anonyme’s wines ‘exceptional…they taste clean and express their origin’, and Kris says he would describe his bottles as ‘powerful yet elegant, fruit-driven and a good reflection of the terroirs we have here’.

Agatha adds that the vendange this year has been highly fruitful, and in turn so has their winemaking. ‘We’ve made some cuvees together, for the new season. The first one is Chardonnay, which has been macerating for almost a week, then by total accident we found some Mourvedre grapes, so we were able to make rosé.’

All the wines will be sulphite-free for the 2018–19 season, making them even closer to the all-natural fermented grape juice that the gang aspire to create. And while the trend for natural wine has soared to new heights over the past few years – more than €8 million worth was imported into the UK in 2016, and even Aldi started stocking an ‘orange’ wine in 2018 – Kris and Agatha believe that in France, the scene took a bit of a bashing a year or two ago.

‘There was a boom here, then a bit of a bust, which I think was due to quality,’ explains Kris. ‘There were a lot of funky wines that were being marketed as natural, but were in fact wines that had obvious faults and they weren’t so enjoyable to drink. So there was this big buzz about it and then people wanted to try them, and had these sorts of wines for the first time and didn’t like it. It was more about the winemakers putting out dodgy products.’

He adds that – much like an artist going on to a new movement – the changing face of Collectif Anonyme and their passion and personality shines through their wines. ‘I’ve been making wine for some time now and what you realise is that you can tell a lot about the personality of a person by tasting the wine they make. Do they focus on attention to detail? Do they like taking risks? Do they like extremes or do they prefer elegance? When you drink a good winemaker’s wine, in a way you’re drinking their personality as well.’

These are all questions Kris considers when blending his wines each year – and it’s this that ensures he’s always pushing things forward. ‘If natural wine is going to continue being this insurrectionary thing in the wine world, you’ve always got to push limits. If you just settle down with the results of a good year, it means doing the same thing again and to me, that’s boring. It would be driven by capitalism. I always think it’s better to start again and be revolutionary.’

Vive la révolution!

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