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These Nomadic Winemakers Are Taking Over Europe’s Vineyards

London-based wine collective Birds and Bats beg, borrow, and (not quite) steal other winemakers’ grapes from vineyards across Europe to turn into their “Wines of Momentary Origin” or “WMDs.”
September 3, 2015, 10:00am
All photos courtesy Birds and Bats.

What do you do when you've got a qualification in viticulture and oenology, live in the UK, haven't got the money to buy a vineyard, but want to make really good wine?

You beg, borrow, and (not quite) steal other people's grapes from wherever you can find them. At least that's what London-based Leah de Felice Renton and Nick Jones, a.k.a. nomadic wine collective Birds and Bats do. Sort of. Every harvest, they pitch up in a new wine region to make the best wine they can from the grapes they find there.

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"We graduated in 2012 in July and went to France to work the whole season," says de Felice Renton. "While we were there, I got a small inheritance from the death of my grandma. We were talking about investing in Bordeaux or Burgundy but then Nick said, 'Why don't we just make our own wine? That's what we do, that's who we are, so let's just do it.'"

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Sounds simple, right? But of course to make wine, you need a winery and you need grapes. As luck would have it, there was an English couple in the village with a spare tank who were willing to let them use it.

"So then, it was just a case of finding some fruit," says Jones. "We met this really interesting character who said he'd help us find grapes. He was like the Don Corleone of the village, with a shock of white hair, Gauloises constantly on-the-go, and fat, worn winemakers' hands. He was classic French and proper gangsta."

After traipsing around several terrible vineyards, de Felice Renton and Jones finally found one, sustainably grown by a grower who had lost the contract for his grapes and needed to sell his fruit.

"He said, 'Take whatever you want, no drama.' That was a stroke of luck," says de Felice Renton.

And so Birds and Bats was born. That year, they made 777 bottles of Syrah, which they then sold to restaurants and wine bars around London.

"Essentially, we walked around with an open bottle of wine in our pockets saying, 'We've got this wine. Do you want to try it?'" she explains.

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Again, Birds and Bats got lucky.

"We imported the wine on December 4, 2012, which is very very unusual for a southern French wine," says de Felice Renton. "And we'd sold out of it by the end of February 2013."

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The duo headed south—de Felice Renton to New Zealand and Jones to Argentina, to work the season there.

"While we were away, we got a tweet from a guy saying, 'Do you guys want to come to Germany and make a Riesling?' We got back in July and went to the Mosel valley in Germany in September 2013," she remembers. "Bish, bash, bosh. We made a Riesling called Spectre."

That winery—Staffelter Hof, run by the Klein family—is possibly one of the oldest in the world, with records dating back to 862. But Jones and de Felice Renton weren't planning on making a Riesling in the traditional way. Instead, they fermented the grapes in a variety of different barrels and bottled early.

"People kept saying to us, you can't do that, it's Riesling," says de Felice Renton.

Jones continues: "Quite a lot of older, more established wineries with a lot of history behind them have the attitude of, This is just how we do it, so we do it. It was fun getting into some heated debate with the father of the winemaker about different things we were doing."

"The quote of the vintage was, You're caring so much for the wine that you'll kill it," says de Felice Renton. "But we wanted to care for it. It's our baby."

"We couldn't just let it go to shit. We've got to get it right." says Jones.

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Birds and Bats' 2014 vintage named "The Will to Live."

Unlike winemakers with their own winery and a consistent supply from certain vineyards, Birds and Bats are nomadic, making what they call Wines of Momentary Destination, or "WMD" for short.

"WMD is wine that's made in one place for one time only." explains de Felice Renton. "There'll only ever be one wine made in this style."

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It also means that everything has to go right. And when it doesn't …

"We named our 2014 vintage 'The Will to Live' because we nearly lost the will to live making it." remembers de Felice Renton.

"I was interesting in working with Mavasjia in Croatia," says Jones. "But as soon as I got there, it pissed it down and it pissed it down some more. It made it a very bad vintage for thin-skinned wine varieties."

"I got a phone call from Nick saying, 'We're not making a wine in Croatia this year. I'm getting the plane home tomorrow,'" adds de Felice Renton. "I called up everyone I knew saying, 'We need a vintage, we need a wine, we need some grapes. Can anyone help us out?'"

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BIrds and Bats' "Wine of Momentary Origin."

Again their luck held and they found some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Croatia.

"I looked at this guy's vineyard and said, 'Right I'll be back in two and a half weeks time,'" says Jones. "He was planning on harvesting two days later, so I agreed to pay him for 2.2 tons if he'd leave it on the vines till I got back. I rolled the dice—and the sun came out! It's one of those things—you've got to gamble."

Again, Birds and Bats didn't follow a traditional route with the wine they made.

"I didn't want to make a big, blobby, fat monster of a Cabernet Sauvignon that's overly extracted, and you have to keep in a cellar for 50 million years. It's a bit pompous and big for its boots," says Jones. "I wanted to make something a lot more chilled out and relaxed, a lighter colour and a lighter style."

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After their close call in Croatia, Jones and de Felice Renton remain unfazed, and are preparing to harvest their next WMD vintage in Spain. Birds and Bats have also imported unusual wines from places like Greece, as a way of supporting other niche winemakers in emerging markets.

"There are great places in Corsica, Sardinia, and Majorca that have lots of history of wine and great potential," says Jones. "Where the grapes grow, there's always some good ones growing. If you can tap into that then there's lots of fun fruit to be played with."

Wherever they end up next, Birds and Bats' experience to date seems to show that ingredients to a great wine needn't come from a heritage of winemakers or owning your own vineyard. Wine can be made anywhere, as long as you've got knowledge, skill, a willingness for hard labour, and of course, a hell of a lot of luck.