Everyone talks about the terroir of wine, but what about the terroir of the winemaker?
Surely a sense of place must inform the personality, skills and intentions of a winemaker, just as soils and climate influence the potential of a wine.
Gilles Martin, an award-winning winemaker who has consulted at dozens of Long Island wineries for the past 18 years, grew up in France and worked there as well as Germany, Australia, Virginia, California and (again) in France before settling on Long Island. Not only have these far-ranging experiences brought Martin to a high level of technological excellence, they have also deepened his philosophical outlook and dedication to his craft.
Martin was born in Meaux, France, a small town about 25 miles northeast of Paris and 10 miles from Champagne. Most of us are familiar with Meaux’s famous cheese, the Brie de Meaux, and for its outstandingly pungent mustard (moutarde de Meaux); it is easy to think of a childhood in this agricultural town as sweetly idyllic. Indeed, Martin cherishes memories of his family’s “joie de vivre” which, he says, “really helped me to discover in depth the world of aroma, flavors and savors, with all the flowers and berries from my father’s garden, all the ripe fruits from my grandparents’ orchards and all the fresh produce from my hometown market, where I used to sell fruit with my father and my grandmother.”
Martin looks back at his early days of harvesting apples in his grandfather’s orchard with delight. Still, he knew that farming was not easy for his family.
“My grandfather ended up in farming because his health required him to live in the country, as, at his time, the polluting coal burnt in Paris damaged his lungs,” he said. “Growing on a small farm teaches you how much hard work is required to succeed, and raising animals make you realize how enslaving it can be.”
Being a farm boy was only part of the legacy Martin took from Meaux. This part of France, continuing north into the Champagne region, was forever in the middle of strife. Meaux’s ruined abbeys, castles, and monuments are constant reminders of invasions beginning with the ancient Greeks and Romans. In 1422, the English, under Henry V, laid siege to the town. During the French Revolution, Meaux’s townspeople destroyed its abbey; in 1814, Napoleon’s army damaged much of the city in a desperate retreat from Wellington’s allies.
A massive commemorative war monument, “The Tearful Liberty,” stands in Meaux’s central square bearing witness to the sacrifices of French and Americans whose joint efforts finally ended the horrific trench warfare from 1914-1918.
Meaux was among the first French towns occupied by Germans in World War II. It was liberated by American allies in 1945.
Martin is mindful of these historic struggles.
“I had the opportunity to pursue studies beyond what my parents could have achieved on their time, following a difficult post-World War II period,” he said. “I enjoyed studying science, biology, physics and chemistry so the food industry was a fit for me, allowing me to choose a scientific career, close to nature and not being stuck behind a desk.
“I always created my own path, a result of deep commitment to learning, permanent observation and continuous curiosity.”
That curiosity first led him to Paris, where he studied food technology and found a job with General Foods researching sugarless gum. Then he followed the advice of an uncle in the south of France (where Martin had spent happy childhood summers) and changed his attention to wine, graduating with a master’s degree from Montpelier and winning a prize for his thesis on cold filtration.
At that point, Martin’s work focused on industrial processing for large companies. An internship in Australia introduced him to winemaking on an enormous scale, with fruit being trucked 400 miles from field to fermenter. As his career took a path from one opportunity to another, to Germany and back to the south of France in a dreadfully wet vintage, he became proficient in dealing with any and every possible winemaking challenge.
“Enology is a real science, requiring a scientific education that gravitates around viticulture, microbiology, biology, chemistry and some good understanding of physics and mechanics,” he said. “The real life experience and the savoir faire acquired during each vintage … is more formative than all the years you’ve trained on a school bench.”
In 1988, Martin decided to follow the path of Lady Liberty and make wine in America. After a stint at a small Virginia vineyard, he parlayed his credentials into a job with Roederer Estate in California. For six years, he lived in the remote Alexander Valley, dedicated to the craft of premium sparkling wine.
Love intervened when Martin met and married a linguist on his return to the Rhone Valley, where he worked for Roederer affiliate Delas Frères winery. When his wife was offered a job in the U.S., Martin found work at Macari Vineyards in Mattituck, making Long Island his home.
Since then, Martin has made wines for numerous local wineries, including Macari, McCall, Martha Clara, Broadfields, and Bouké. He has been winemaker at Sparkling Pointe winery in Southold since 2004. He is also winemaker for Sherwood House Vineyards and is the consulting winemaker at Kontokosta Winery, among several other North Fork vineyards.
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As much as he loves making still wines, sparkling winemaking thrills his heart. Speaking of transforming the clear still wines into bubbly, he offers a colorful metaphor.
“The ‘vins clairs’ or base wines are the modest larvae which will later metamorphose into beautiful butterflies: the sparkling wines,” he said. “Knowing them well is to anticipate their metamorphoses. I am the artisan of their cocoons, patiently weaving the fine silk for their birth.
“The style of these wines is a reflection of the terroir where the grapes are grown, and the winemaking practices I learned from all the great winemakers I had the privilege to work with,” he continued. “Part of the thought process comes from a place in my heart where all these organoleptic memories lie.”
Ask Martin to describe his ideal dinner and you will find, in his choices, the depth and devotion—the terroir — of his career, in every delectable taste:
“Start with a Brut Seduction from Sparkling Pointe to stimulate the appetite. With the fizzy spirit of this wine, the atmosphere relaxes and everyone’s eyes become all sprinkles. [With seafood], we would drink a Sancerre from Noel Reverdy, a family member on my wife’s side, or appreciate a local [Greenport] sauvignon blanc from Kontokosta or One Woman Winery. A fish in sauce, and our choice will go to a deeper white, a Meursault from Bertrand Darviot, a cousin from Meursault. Or the beautiful Long Island barrel-fermented chardonnay from Sherwood House Vineyard, full of mandarin confit, buttery and vanilla aroma.
“With grilled lamb, a reminder of those lamb ribs from ‘le pays Cevenol’ where I spent a lot of my summer growing up in France, I’d pair a syrah from Delas Frères, a velvety pleasure of silky tannins or a Côteaux du Languedoc from Domaine de Nizas, full of black berries with a hint of ‘the wild flowers from the garrigues.’ Then a Ben’s Blend from McCall Vineyards with cheeses: a ripe Brie de Meaux, my birthplace, or a goat cheese from Chavignol; a Muenster (always served with cumin seeds) from Alsace, the cradle of my mother’s family, and the delicious creamy Roquefort.
“For the finale, a white dessert wine (or Port) from Bouké wine will toast our Norwegian omelet, light and fluffy. I may top it all with a well-deserved nap!”
This story originally appeared in the summer 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press