Fans of Andrea Calek’s natural wines often portray him as something of a rock star, mentioning his mohawk, his smoking habit, his general aloofness and the fact that he lives in a trailer next to his vineyards in the Ardèche, in southern France. And while those traits are all true, behind Calek’s veneer of cool is a studious winemaker and an innately curious person fascinated by ancient Incan ruins and whole hog charcuterie.
Calek, who was born in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), produces about 40,000 bottles of wine annually divided between four reds and one white. Each is incredibly unique, completely free of sulfur and other additives, and together his portfolio offers a broad spectrum of flavor profiles from soft and sultry, to robust and structured.
"I am very lazy. I don’t like work." - Calek
Calek says that his favorite wine, which he describes as "not bad," is a Chardonnay/Viognier blend simply named "Blanc" ($27). The Viognier is cultivated according to massale selection principles, a form of viticulture in which a winemaker chooses vines he/she deems "best," or as Calek puts it, "the most interesting ones to you, based on the quality of the grapes." During the growing season, the winemaker snips budwood off vines to propagate new plants. Calek explains that this practice yields more disease-resistant vines by enhancing genetic diversity. Once the grapes are picked and crushed, Calek ferments the Chardonnay and Viogner grapes separately in three-year-old Burgundy barrels for two years. The result is an erotic, lush wine that is also high in acid, with white flowers and beeswax on the nose and palate.
Of the four reds Calek produces, the all-Grenache "A Toi Nous" ($19) is the lightest and most quaffable, and one that displays a pretty translucent garnet hue. His other reds are much more assertive. The "Penultieme," ($30) a blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Viognier, packs a big, plummy nose full of crushed roses and a complex tannic structure. The all-Syrah "Chatons de Garde" ($33) displays the grape’s signature meaty, smoky notes; it’s light but powerful, with a lasting finish. And the "Babiole" ($24), made of Syrah and Grenache, has a stinky nose that almost resembles sculpting clay, and a soft, earthy palate. It’s robust without being cloying.
With regard to red wine production in general, grapes are usually partially de-stemmed then fermented in stainless steel. But, Calek ferments his reds stem-on in plastic vats. Afterward, "Penultieme" and "Chatons de Garde" go into used Burgundy barrels for one year, while "A Toi Nous" and "Babiole" hit steel tanks for one month and three months, respectively.
All of Calek’s wines are fresh and alive, which seems to be because he lets the grapes do their thing. "I am very lazy. I don’t like work," states Calek when asked to describe his winemaking philosophy. But while this explanation complements his image as an iconoclast, also consider that he studied natural and biodynamic oenology for two years at an agriculture school in Lyon and helped to convert natural wine producer Domaine Hauvette in Provence to biodynamics. Calek also worked as a natural wine consultant to various producers in Beaujolais for three years.
He started his own wine label in 2007, and by his second vintage was making the wines totally sulfur-free. But Calek's path to winemaking began by accident. He was traveling through France, eventually planning to make his way to Brazil, when he met a girl and decided to stay. The relationship faded, but Calek had begun working in olive tree vineyards, and soon became curious about making wine, prompting him to enroll in an oenology school near Lyon.
Over twenty years later, Calek’s wanderlust has not faded. He went to Thailand for one month in 2011 and then trekked around archaeological digs and jungles in Peru for two months the following year. He learned how to make curry in Thailand and now fashions some approximation of it in his trailer, where his cramped kitchen is outfitted with a toaster oven and a cold smoker. Calek’s French fusion curry involves spaghetti or quinoa, coconut milk, and vegetables he buys at an organic farm up the road—an ideal pairing for his "Blanc." He also loves working with whole pigs, which he kills himself and then turns into sausage, paté, and chorizo. With his cold smoker, he smokes duck breast, which couldn’t be a better pairing alongside the "Penultieme." So, is Calek actually lazy? That might just be another facade for a person who seems to take the utmost care in the vineyard and the kitchen alike. Seems more like his style is about choosing when to roll his sleeves up and when to let nature run its course.