Hirotake Ooka and his Cave of Mushrooms

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The Ooka is in! Get it while you can (there isn’t much)!

The world of wine is undergoing a great change, again.  The technological and industrial developments of the 20th Century left their mark on just about every human practice and though wine had been made with relatively the same methods from 4000 BC to 1800 AD, technology, chemistry, and industry changed that all.  Winemakers could use chemical treatments to fight many difficulties in the vineyard–pesticides, herbicides, sulfur treatments, and other chemicals–and to control the taste and substance of the wine in the winemaking process–oak and other flavoring agents, chemicals to kill unwanted microbial life in the wine, scientifically cultivated yeasts, powdered acids, sugars, minerality-simulating ground metals, and other laboratory equipment to clarify, “purify”, and control the taste of the wine. With these modern winemaking techniques, vastly different weather patterns across vintages and even vastly different locations in the world can produce strikingly similar wines; this is because we are tasting the wine-based beverages which have been made with heavy handed techniques.  We taste these techniques more than anything.  And many winemakers were shooting for the same flavor profile, for a “perfect wine”, which was often to satisfy the taste of certain powerful critics whose score could make or break a label/chateau.

That was the old change.  That turn in history was made by people, by a generation who held certain values which were products of their own worldview.  And our generation gets to define its own values which will even be represented in the contents of the glasses on their tables.  This new change is in some ways a look back to the way wine was made for thousands of years before economics and cultivated scientific technology made the major calls for peoples’ taste.  Many winemakers are embracing old, almost forgotten varietals like grolleau, menu pineau, savagnin, melon a queue rouge, garnacha peluda, malvar, pineau d’aunis, aligote, and trousseau.  I am more likely to have a bottle of one of these on my table than a cabernet sauvignon.  And it is not because I am reaching for obscurity, trying so hard to be cool, thinking that knowing more than someone else about a subject makes me superior to them somehow; it is because I crave adventure, something exciting and unexpected in my wine.  These are my values represented in the fermented product of crushed grapes from across the world in my glass, and I am so happy that the popularity of these wines has grown to the point that they are being sold in the neighborhoods I frequent.

We were lucky at Elf to get a case of Hirotake Ooka’s Rhone blend, called “Le Canon”, which can refer to a “cannon” as in the big guns militaries used to use, a barrel as in the big wood ones used to ferment and age wine, a beautiful woman, and a glass used to drink something.  Somehow, all of these words make sense in describing this wine.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

I wanted to talk about change in this post because whenever something changes we have to get used to some things we might not have been expecting.  I almost exclusively drink natural wine and I am getting used to these changes faster than most.  Ooka vinifies and ages his wine in a cave which is a hole dug in the side of a hill.  It is moist and cool, like the dark earth beneath us all.  There are mushrooms and mold competing for fungal supremacy on the walls.  With all of this air pressure, the carbon dioxide lodged in the wine, a natural product of anything that ferments (I hear my sauerkraut crock bubbling in the background as I write this, the CO2 talking to me as I write) does not escape the wine as easily.  I suspect that since Ooka uses no sulfur in any part of his wine-making or bottling process and since he does not fine, filter, or rack his wine, it is rarely agitated and thus the CO2 is happy to stay in its place there, little bubbles waiting to be expressed by air and movement.  I think the permission for the CO2 to stay in the wine must also be granted by Mr. Ooka since it is a natural preservative.  Without sulfur, the natural carbon dioxide takes its place to help keep the wine safe from the ravages of time and open to its (time’s) beautifying effects.

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Outside Ooka’s cave (pictures are from an amazing wine blog called wineterroirs please visit them if you are into French wine, you won’t be disappointed)

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Inside the cave, which looks like a mineshaft to me!

This all said, some people will be bothered by a red wine which has bubbles in it.  Ooka’s wine is not the first natural red I have enjoyed that was a little bit sparkly.  Give it a day of air and most of the CO2 blows off, but how many of us really open a bottle of wine 24 in advance of the time we intend to enjoy it?  Some people like the bubbles, but I personally find that they get in the way of a lot of the low-register flavors in my red wines.  And so what to do when I want my Ooka now?  I actually recommend decanting it and putting my hand over the spout of the decanter and shaking it vigorously.  The wine froths with bubbles and clears rapidly.  While this may seem a violent way of doing things it is practiced by winemakers and natural wine fanatics alike, and I endorse the technique without reservation.

So what did Ooka finally reveal to me after his bubbles had left their liquid home for the freedom of our atmospheric gasses?  The wine is purpled, almost the color of beet juice and cloudy as a witch’s cauldron (I used this phrase in one of my other posts, but I’m really hoping it catches on so I’m going to keep using it until I hear people around me using it too), you can see plenty of sediment in it even after a day’s decant.  The nose is equal parts fresh and funky, emitting the odors of ripe strawberries and the dew-soaked morning earth from which they were picked.  I definitely sense some mushroom on the nose too, can you actually smell the cave these wines were made in?! A Romantic wine drinker’s heaven!  In the glass there are some similar themes, strawberry freshness with beet-like rootiness, it’s fresh fruit with brooding undertones, a beautifully balanced unity of opposites, Grenache providing all the yin and Syrah with the yang.  But by balanced, I do not mean that this is a subtle, nuanced wine; it shouts its strong personality through an amazing zingy acidity and so many different and powerful flavors.  I was able to enjoy this wine while chopping vegetables into tiny little pieces with a couple of friends for a fermented giardaniera I make regularly.  Being around vegetables was a wonderful way to spend some time with this wine, with their earth and sun soaking into my hands as I chopped, but I would also enjoy this wine with mushrooms: it came of age around mushrooms, why not guide it to its final resting place with more mycological jewels?

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And as the opening tag line said, get it while it’s here, it’s an allocated wine and we only got a case.

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