Having a recurrent fascination with Burgundy, and an unfortunately small budget, I went to the closest store to work to pick up some Macon whites. Macon, as Neal Martin pointed out in a recent article, was the area that had made the most remarkable strides, and was still affordable, even at their very most expensive. Indeed, I’ve had a number of Pouilly-Fuisee’s that were better than a lot of Pulignys and Chassagnes, and even a cru vineyard from Domaine Ferret that was not unlike Batard-Montrachet.
This particular wine merchant has grown to be one of the big boys on the internet, and does a lot of direct importation – which is cool, I figured. There are something like 4500 producers in Burgundy, and only a small portion of them are imported. If his retailer imported the best of these unknowns, this could be my Shangri-la. Terrific wines for $12.99. Could it be that I could have a terrific source only blocks away?
“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good…”
The write-ups sounded fantastic. One had the following sign attached it:
“Once in a great while, you find wine from the Mâcon so good that when tasted blind you are forced to apply some much higher (and more expensive) appellation to it. Often, such a wine comes from hillside vineyards with better drainage and cooler nights. This is such a wine, from the slopes below the giant monolith of rock that is Solutré. Domaine Renaud is a small domaine, making Mâcon, Pouilly-Fuissé and St. Veran from 12 hectares of estate vineyards. Their cellar is modern, and they use upright ovals for many of the wines, and stainless for others.”
Along with that sign, I asked the clerks: “Which would you recommend: This 2012 Macon, or this 2011 Macon-Villages?” The answered “They are both good, if you like crisp, minerally chardonnay. And who doesn’t like that?”
So I bought both, plus a really cheap bottle of Chardonnay from the Loire – which I didn’t have very high expectations for but how bad could it be. But for $6.99 I wasn’t really going to complain. As it turns out, I’m complaining.
Bottle one:2011 Bernier, Chardonnay Val de Loire $6.99: Spritzy. Really Spritzy. After I knocked the gas out of it (which took quite a bit of effort, it was fine, and simple apple fruit, and the Loire’s characteristic limey-ness that you see in so many wines from the region. Fairly solid, pretty much what I would expect, though it could have been much worse.
Bottle two: 2011 Domaine des Niales, Macon-Village Vieilles Vigne $12.99: Spritzy, Really Spritzy.This too took quite a bit of doing to get the gas out of. Underneath it was a fairly simple wine with apple, and while it still had CO2 trapped in it, minerality. But once the CO2 was gone so were the minerals. Relatively light in weight for Chardonnay, and very representative of what has been made in Macon for the past two decades. Not special in any particular way. I was certainly hoping for more given the quality strides made in the region.
Bottle Three: 2011 Domaine Renaud Macon-Solutré $12.99: Spritzy, Really Spritzy!Underneath all the spritz was a lightly concentrated, very traditional Macon, much like the Niales. It was fine, but seemed a little bit simple, with all the minerality disappearing with the spritz.Ok, what’s going on here? Three bottles in a row? Seriously?
“these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels”
OK, I’m losing my patience here a little. This Renaud was the wine I’d had the most hope for. Solutré is shared by Pouilly-Fuisse Vergisson, and the surrounding Macon-Solutré. I picture a small producer, working the land, probably a husband-wife team which is common in Macon. This was the story of hard-working artisanal farmers in a majestic location like Macon-Solutré. That is the romance of wine. This just tasted like all the cheap Macon’s I’ve ever had, without ever stepping outside-the-box. AN it was the third spritzy wine in a row!
Maybe all the spritzy bottles made me feel a little negative toward this and the others wines. I’m well aware that crisp, steel-raised whites can be bottled with a little CO2 to help protect them, as they have short life spans. And it is true, that any wine can have an occasionally spritzy bottle. But these were near sparkling levels of CO2 – totally unacceptable levels if done to protect the wine. Recently I’ve had increasing numbers of spritzy bottles, to the point where maybe a full third of the wines I buy in stores have this problem. Granted my budget precludes me from buying expensive wines, but really, this is not acceptable. I don’t return them, because they are not ruined, they can be de-gassed, but it is disappointing nonetheless.
Many of the 2007 Burgundies are showing beautifully right now, although the bigger wines do benefit with a lot of air. While the 2007 Joseph Roty Gevrey Fontenys did show very well when it’s cork was popped at 10 am, it really blossomed and expanded over the course of the day, gaining depth and girth, and multiplied its kaleidoscopic aromas and flavors. This is the second bottle of 2007 Roty Fontenys I’ve had open in the past week, and it has been consistently beautiful on both occasions.
2007 Joseph Roty Gevery-Chambertin
“Les Fontenys” 1er Cru $110-$129
2007 vintage is currently available
This 2007 Fontenys is superbly rich from the first whiff. Now open for 11 hours, its nose is exploding with warm loam, smoke, game, leather, blackberries and black cherries, dried flowers, orange peel, dried apples, cream, and cocoa powder and notes of coffee. A fantastic wine!
In the mouth, this is grand cru-worthy, showing round and very rich, with so much depth, where all the flavors in the nose play out vibrating with verve. and exceptional complexity. Looking at the details of the wine, it was easy to miss the expansive backdrop of deep blackberry-blackberry fruit, that is so well-integrated and totally dry that it’s easy to miss – it was a ‘missing the forest for the trees’ moment. This is softer, open vintage, and for Roty is one of silky smoothness; with absolutely no raw edges – a sexy, hedonistic, yet quite intellectual wine. There is so much going on here, with remarkable palate presence, weight, and incredible length, yet is not in the slightest sweet, never cloying or heavy. Spectacular right now, and should drink well for another 5 years, and depending on how aged you like your wine, another 15 to 20 years.
Score: When first opened this was impressive, though slightly tight. A solid 92 points. After being open for a full day (and driving it a hundred fifty plus miles across the length of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley the Fontenys really improved and showed gloriously for the above tasting notes. I’d absolutely love to have a case of this in my cellar. 94 points.
Joseph Roty was one of the pioneers of the small, family domaine when he started bottling his own wine in the 1960s. The family has been based in Gevrey-Chambertin since 1710, and brothers Pierre-Jean and Philippe mark the 11th generation of their family to be growers there. Philippe Roty took over the winemaking duties from his late father Joseph, around 10 years ago when Joseph became physically unable to continue making wine. And although Philippe gets the lion’s share of credit, it truly a family effort, with all members fulfilling the essential duties of vineyard work and wine production.
The plots owned by Roty are reputed to be among the oldest in Burgundy, averaging 65 years. Some of the grand cru vineyards have vines that were plantedin the 1880s, before their plots were organized in rows, and all cultivation was done by hand. Some of the vines were eventually removed when the family started to plow the vineyards – presumably, because they could finally afford a horse and a plow.
These old vines provide Roty with very concentrated fruit, to which they add another layer of concentration: they tend to pick a bit later than their peers, usually about a week. The family is very conscious of not letting the grapes get over-ripe, and indeed they never are. Despite the solid core of fruit, and ripeness, the wines are never heavy, and are never ‘sweet’ with fruit.
The winemaking is absolutely traditional, and that is the final piece to the Roty puzzle. Their wines are not flashy or vivacious, but rather nuanced, at times muscular, complex and somewhat intellectual. It truly is a formidable package of attributes.
three features of the vineyard that keep it from Grand Cru status. All three of these factors has to do with the fact that it sits at the mouth of the Combe de Lavaux, a ravine/valley that defines that part of Gevery-Chambertin. First, sediment has washed off the mountain and down the Combe (ravine), which has given the premier crus more (and more fertile) topsoil than the grand crus at the base of mountain. Second cooler air rushes down the combe slowing the grapes maturity. And third, as the mountain turns toward the Combe (where Fontenys is) the orientation to the sun is not as optimal during harvest as the orientation the grand crus receive. This was a bigger deal before global warming, when Burgundy was often too cold to regularly ripen only the most perfectly oriented sites – which were the grand crus. Today, I believe the longer hang-time is an absolute benefit, helping, drying stems, ripening tannins, developing phynols, adding complexity, and aiding concentration of the juice by dehydration of the berries.
At Atherton, one of our best producers is Domaine Joseph Roty. But Roty doesn’t produce the most striking or flashy wines, and they are often overlooked in a flight of its peers. This wasn’t a problem some
years ago, before scores from the big periodicals started to influence the insular world of Burgundy drinkers. (who have been remarkably resistant to what Parker and the Spectator had to say.) But today the influence is felt, especially by Allen Meadows @Burghound.com who is closely read by lovers of Burgundy.
“It’s a beauty contest, and Philippe Roty’s wines come unprepared to compete in that arena.”
But Roty, like some of the most complex wines in the world, can get lost in a flight. They get passed over. When I have poured Roty’s brilliant 2008 Gevrey Champs-Chenys or the excellent 2010 Marsannay next to wines like Frederic Esmonin’s 2011s or Gros Frere et Soeur’s 2010 and 2011s, Roty’s wines fade to the background for almost all but the most experienced tasters. Esmonin’s wines which are fresher, brighter (and less expensive) and Gros Frere’s wines with their liqueur-driven, lushly-textured fruit, overshadow Roty’s thought-provoking, terroir driven style.
Reviewers who taste blind, or taste in large groups of wines from the same region, recognize these wines as being of quality, but they rarely score highly. It’s as beauty contest, and Philippe Roty’s wines come unprepared to compete in that arena. For the most part, they rarely score much above 90 points. This is hardly a ring endorsement these days for a wine that costs $60. But if you taste Roty’s wines in the context of a flight what Philippe produces, their brilliance becomes immediately clear.
So yesterday I took a flight of Roty’s wines on the road to test my theory that standing alone, Roty’s wines would shine. It was immediately obvious that these wines were showing really well on their own. From the first two wines, The 2009 Marsannay Blanc and 2009 Marsannay Rose, every buyer loved these wines. While there were some concerns about serving a 4-year-old rose to customers that expect a fresh and fruity (and simple rose) would be disappointed, they all were blown away by the wine’s stunning minerality (not acidity that masquerades as minerality) and surprising complexity.
Each red was lauded as it was poured through the line-up, beginning with the 2010 Marsannay, and the 2010 Marsannay Quartier. The 2010 Gevrey-Chambertin showed the continuation of the house style of concentrated, but never over-ripe black fruit, great purity, and never a suggestion of heaviness, and to that added Gevrey’s textbook savage, meaty, truffle-like scents. But it was the 2008 Gevrey Champs-Chenys, which I have repeatedly loved so much, and had never caught anyone’s eye in flights of Burgundy’s before, that really got the most comments yesterday. Here, among it’s previously poured siblings, it shined brightly, with all of its smoke, meat, and underbrush, with plenty of fruit, and none of the sweetness that marks the high scoring wines today. Beautiful! The last wine was the stunning 2007 Roty Gevrey Fonteny Premiere Cru. This drank like a grand Cru. And being from the softer 2007 vintage, it was lush, and rich, with a full mid-palate was absolutely seamless. There was not a single hard edge to this wine. It was remarkable wine.
First as a distributor rep, and then as a retail wine buyer, I noticed that wine tastes different on different days. Early on, I associated this solely with the fact that wine does not taste good on hot days. reds being more sensitive to the temperature outside than whites. Then an old industry salt, Don Beatty, told me it was barometric pressure that effects how a wine tastes. At that time I was tasting
roughly six wines a day. OK, I could buy that… maybe. Still, some days, regardless of the moderate weather, my palate would just be seem off.
Later, I was buying wine and tasting seventy wines a day, (or more). I was my palate was super-tuned, and I was really confused by the fact that some days wine really just didn’t taste right. I had already learned to be very careful of the foods I was eating for lunch. I had learned that using mouthwash trashed the palate. Yet, the problem of having a palate that was ‘off’ occasionally persisted. Sometimes, wines would start tasting better by the end of the day… sometimes, they didn’t.
It wasn’t until talking to Jerred Wolff from Palm Bay Imports, perhaps one of the straight-up, most intelligent and knowledgeable guys in the wine biz, told me about root days being bad days to taste wine. Finally, this was something that might make sense. It all had to do with the phases of the moon. These cycles last two and a half days each, so mid-day, or mid-evening, so the story goes, your perception of how a wine tastes can change as the day changes, from say, a root day to a flower day.
Fruit Days: Wine tastes its best on fruit days.
Flower Days: are neutral in the taste of wine and not effect the wine negatively.
Leaf Days: Leaf days are neutral-negative days for tasting wine. Not the best.
Root Days: Wine will generally not taste good on root days.
While I can buy the concept of the moon, I have yet to put it to the test. If it’s not the phases of the moon, I can’t think of any other rational explanation.
Maria Thun has written a book (that I admit I haven’t yet purchased) on the subject, called When Wines Taste Best: A Bio-dynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers. It’s on my to-do list.
Around twenty years ago, winemakers from Paso realized that the Napa Valley had a reputation for Cabernet, Sonoma had Pinot and Zin, and Paso didn’t really have a reputation for anything. They decided they were going to make themselves known for The Paso Rhone Blend. This blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache was going to catapult the region to fame. To varying degrees this has been successful despite the lack of favor of Syrah in the market place, but along came a brand that really muddied the definition of “Red Blend”. That was The Prisoner. There were other’s, like Marietta’s venerable Old Vine Red, but it was The Prisoner, with its cult-like status, that really opened up what a Red Blend category.
Then along came Apothic, an enormously successful, ridiculously large production, red blend from Gallo. It has made a massive mark on the industry, because it sells for under ten bucks and it is available everywhere. It is a baby The Prisoner, for the masses. From Apothic’s huge success, the copycats have sprouted like weeds. They are made from anything and everything, as long as they big, thick, juicy, and faintly sweet.
“Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor.”
In the last one to two years, I have been almost overwhelmed by the presentations of these Red Wines. At first they were mostly less expensive copies of The Prisoner, with varying degrees of character. Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor. To attain that thick almost sticky richness, undoubtedly they have to use a good dose of grape concentrate to boost concentration, giving the wines their similar flavor profile. They are all tasty, some bordering on delicious, but as a retail buyer, it begs these questions: Do you buy them, and if you do buy them, how many do you really need? Finally, how do you sell them? Do you put them with the Paso Reds that have regional, and varietal definition, and undermine their years of effort to forge an identity?
We have found, almost no-one comes in saying “I want a red blend.” If you make a whole section of Red Blends (say, ten wines that taste almost identical), they won’t get shopped, since most people are still conditioned to buy by varietal. In our case, we have reluctantly put most of them in the Zin or Syrah section depending if they seem to have any hint of either of those in the mix, or, (the shame of it) in the Cab section. We had been told there was Cab in The Count by Boisset’s Buena Vista Winery, and because we positioned it in the Cab section, it has become one of our best-selling “Cab blends.” Yes it is dis-indigenous, but people really like it, and they would have never found it in a “Red Blend.”section. As for how many of these Reds my store needs, I’m holding the line at around 6 or 7, out of 1600 SKUs, about as many as I carry of Sancerre.
As a wine buyer, and a wine seller, I do not feel it is not my job to be an arbiter of good taste. It is my job to only select wines that represent the spectrum of tastes of my customer base. Do I think they will like it? Is it the right price? Because of this philosophy, I carry The Prisoner, and I carry Apothic, despite the underlying feeling that these are formulaic and somewhat contrived wines. They have their place in my store because my customers buy them. On the other hand, I also carry the flag of exploration, having a selection of Natural wines, and wonderful wine from some of the more obscure regions across France and Italy for those who are more adventurous. Can I interest you in a lovely Mondeuse from Savoie?
This was to be an exceptional Friday night. I had been invited to a wine dinner by George Debailian of Atherton Imports, featuring of Burgundy’s Lucien Le Moine.Mounir Saouma, the owner/winemaker this small, well-respected negociant, was in town, and would be there to talk about his wines. I must admit, I am predisposed to like Mounir’s wines. I was introduced to them upon the release of Mounir’s first vintage, at a very memorable dinner in 2001 George Morrone’s newly openedThe Fifth Floor, in San Francisco. I fell head over heels for Le Moine’s silky, sexy 1999’s, with the highlight being the Clos de la Roche, which was simply phenomenal. I was buying Burgundy for The Wine Club back then, and ordered every bottle I could get my hands on, knowing I was onto something special. As it happened, a couple of months later, Rotem Brakir, Mounir’s wife wandered into the The Wine Club (in S.F.) and was surprised to see so much Lucien Le Moine. She had been working at Bonterra, learning about Bio-dynamics. She was so excited to see their wines on our sales floor, she brought Mounir in the very next day. Mounir was traveling the United States promoting the wines of Picard, (where he was head winemaker,) and, there was the added bonus of seeing his wife Rotem. We had a great conversation. He is so personable, very intelligent, and he has the gift of being able to talk easily, listen carefully, and engage others in conversation. Talking to him just flows.
He invited me to a Picard dinner the following night, even though I sold no Picard wines, at the now closed Cypress Club. He would resign from Picard a week later. He said it had just was too large and unwieldy, causing him not to be able to make the quality of wine he wanted to make. He was also ready to make Lucien Le Moine a full time endeavour, not just a side project. I would not see Mounir again for 11 more years.
It is a hard thing to share, since there is little enough of Mounir’s wine to begin with. They are spectacular Burgundies.
Mounier is Lebanese. Living and making wine in Beaune, he seems to acutely feel he is an outsider there. I distinctly got the feeling that he isn’t always treated well in Beaune, and as such, keeps a very low profile. As Americans, this works to our advantage. He is not willing to sell his wine to the French. This allows a good portion of his tiny 2800 case production to come to the United States, than if the French had favor for his wines too. While the Lucien Le Moine has never appeared on French wine press’s radar, he has received many accolades by the major wine writers in the United States, including the Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. Other than what wine he sends to his two importers in the United States, the balance of Mounier’s production goes to the English and the German markets. It is a hard thing to share, since there is little enough of Mounir’s wine to begin with. They are spectacular Burgundies.
Mounir produces seventy lots of wine, all purchased from growers during the second week of fermentation. This is a common practice, because many small growers who own significant portions of Burgundy’s greatest vineyards. Unlike vineyards in other parts of the world, most vineyards in Burgundy have more than one owner, each owning a particular parcel. This is partially due to French inheritance laws which continually break up parcels, and partially due to the incredible value and prestige ownership of even a few rows of a great vineyard brings to those that possess them. Each grower tends his own vines. At this point the grower may make and sell the wine himself (a domaine) or they will pick and crush the grapes, starting the fermentation, and sell them to negociants like Mounier, or they can pick the grapes and the negociant will start the fermentation at their facility.
Mounir and Rotem don’t have the resources to monitor, get picking crews to harvest, multiple vineyards – that are all coming ripe at more or less the same time. Nor would he have the manpower, equipment, or space to even get fermentation started on seventy lots of grapes. For a small negociant, this is really the only choice, and that is why the system in Burgundy has evolved the way it has. For all of the talk of vintners controlling what growers do, Mounier says that a good grower will make good choices, and you have to trust them to know their vineyards. I suppose having the right of refusal should ensure the growers will yield the best results possible.
He often buys from the same growers year after year, but the process, like at the Hospice de Beaune where Mounier is a regular buyer, is to taste the must. Mounir fervently believes that even fermenting Pinot Noir should taste good, and not be too tart, or too tannic, from the very beginning. He says he is often surprised that many winemakers of considerable reputation (who he tastes the must with) will choose very tannic vats to purchase, saying these will make powerful wines. He shakes his head, believing these vats that the respected winemakers choose may never come into balance, because they are too bitter or too hard edged. He said they might be good winemakers, but the don’t know how to taste young must. It should come as no surprise that Mounier’s wines are not tannic, and have beautiful balance, and that inner sweetness that Burgundy must have to be successful.
We started by tasting his whites with successive courses. The first white Burgundy we were poured was the 2006 Puligny-Montrachet from the premier cru vineyard, “Folatieres”. Many whites from the 2006 vintage were boytritised. Mounir had a slight amount, but the wine was long and clean with a beautiful baked apple fruit, with a broad complex palate that show the some softness of age appearing at the edges. The second wine was a taut, 2009 Chassagne Montrachet Cailleret. Green apple structure, vivid, lime-like acidity and elements of minerality, all which are hallmarks of the vineyard. Still this seemed surprisingly tight. It needed at least a year or two in the cellar. Interestingly, several thought this was the best wine, and I teased them that they were judging on the potential of the wine, rather than the wine in the glass as it drinks tonight. I think this is a common mistake in wine evaluation, being drawn to wines based on their perceived potential, rather than enjoying the wine that is drinking best now. The end result of this is the constant frustration of wishing a wine is something it is not. The mature wine is too mature, the young wine is great, but eternally not ready – until it is mature, and then it is lamented that it hadn’t aged as well as long as it should have.
Following the Caillerets, was an open knit 2007 Chassagne-Montrachet Grands Ruchottes, 1er cru. Some of my dinner companions felt this was too developed for 2007, but I have no quarrel with a wine that is drinking perfectly right now, regardless of it’s age. For me though, for drinking now, this was better than the Folatieres which needed more time and didn’t meld with the food as easily. For me this was the only wine of the night that actually showed any obvious oak at all, and a pleasant touch of reduction. These, of course, can be viewed as a criticisms, but I found the Grand Ruchottes to be quite delicious, and would happily drink it any evening over the next two or three years.
The reds begin with a lovely 2007 Chambolle-Musigny, Haut Doix. This was decisively lighter and moderately complex, with pure, warm, red cherry fruit, excellent aromatics, and long and diaphanous finish. A 2007 that precisely fits the vintage’s stereotype. The second red was the superb 2008 Corton-Renardes Grand Cru, featuring a dark cherry liqueur fruit with a pleasing duskiness, as well as floral qualities, and the smell of freshly whipped cream, and a stripe of acidity that gave character and structure to the wine. It has excellent power and length, and that inner sweetness that Mounier looks for in his must. The tannins are firm but not at all overwhelming, being quite round.
The following wine was from the highly touted, more densely fruited 2009 vintage, stellar Nuits-St-Georges “Les Cailles” 1er cru. This was significantly tighter than the 2008 Renardes, but packed with equally dark cherry fruit. This carried some earth, but also defined notes of licorice, lavender, and a creamy palate which saves it from being too tight and unyielding. This is certainly a vin-du-guard, or a wine to watch as the French say, meaning it will improve in the cellar.
One of the diners was very generous and brought two bottles of the 2002 Chambertin Clos de Beze. These were the wines of the night, having just entered their prime. Mounir explained that you can tell a wine is entering maturity because the details of the wine are not clear, they are a little foggy. They have melded together. He went on to say, ” If I were to ask you what strike you about the 2009 Les Cailles, you would not hesitate because the wine is vivid. You would say the wine has sharp acidity, and bright cherry fruit. But if I were to ask you what struck you about this 2002 Clos de Beze, you would hesitate. It this hesitation that is maturity. The features of the wine are not clear, so you hesitate.”
The Clos de Beze has a rich, soft, sumptuous palate, that was long and lingering, caressing. Where the Les Cailles was sharper, denser and more muscular, the Beze had relaxed and had become luxurious. Of course the Nuits, will never become a Chambertin Clos du Beze, it simply will not develop that way.
Mounir on Premox
During the course of tasting the whites, I asked about the ongoing problem of white Burgundies having premature oxidation, commonly referred to as premox. This is question I routinely trot-out to any producer of white Burgundy. Every time the answer is different. It seemed particularly appropriate since we were going to taste 2006 and 2007 whites.
He said he believed there were several culprits. The first being pneumatic presses. He said he thinks the common use of pneumatic presses causes wines to not have enough structure. In 2004 he made two barrels of wine from the same parcel, made the same way, barrel aged the same way, except how they were pressed. One was pressed in a pneumatic press, the other was pressed in a traditional mechanical press. He said the amount of dry extract in the wine pressed from the mechanical press was much higher than from the wine pressed with the pneumatic press, even pressed at the same bar (measure of pressure). He believes this dry extract protects the wine and gives it strength.
The second issue says Mounir, is it is much warmer now. He said that in the past, grapes picked in October would have a potential alcohol of 11% when picked. To this the wine would be chapitalized to 13% and the pH would be very low. Now, the grapes are picked at 14%, no chapitalization is needed, and the pH is quite high. To add acid is disastrous says Mounir. He believes adding acidity throws everything off, and causes a wine not to age. He said he has learned his lessons about adding acidity. He said white Burgundies are losing their ability to age because Chardonnay, is first picked late, with high potential alcohol, and low pH then they are pressed using pneumatic presses which don’t extract enough dry extract. Because of these things, the wines are weak. He says now there are four, maybe six wines out of a case that will succumb to prem-ox, but the percentage will increase with time, and the percentage will increase.
The answer to many of the Burgundian winemaker’s problems, (my words, not his) he believes, lies in five factors.
1) The first is to use a mechanical press – at least with Chardonnay.
2) leave the wine on the lees for 2 years, to not add SO2 until the wine has been on the lees for 18 months.
3) Wine must be made in a cold cellar.
4) Wine should rest on their lees, and not be racked for an extended period of time. His prescription 18 months to two years.
5) Barrels must be topped every week.
Yet, Mounier says the biggest mistake, is often the little mistakes that compound upon one another, like not topping up the barrels often enough. He said to me
“In difficult years, a lot of time you will see some of winemakers best wines. Why? Because they are diligent and they are doing everything they can to make the wine be as good as it can be. But in great years, winemakers feel the wines are strong, and don’t think their wines need to be topped as regularly, so instead of topping every other week, they top every three weeks, and sometimes once a month. It is these little mistakes that build upon one another, slowly robbing the wine of its freshness.”
Leaving the wine in barrel, on the lees for two years is a re-occurring theme with Mounir. He believes that the lees naturally protect the wine, and give it strength for the future. He does not add SO2 for the first 18 months, because he wants the wine to protect itself, and living and dead yeast does that. Adding SO2 kills living organisms in wine, which of course is why it is added. To add SO2 would inhibit the wines interaction with the lees. Which brings me to his new property in Chateauneuf-du-pape.
Mounir and Rotem have in the past few years purchased a small property in Chateauneuf. He makes a white and a red. The vineyard had a small parcel of old vine Grenache Blanc, which is a lesser varietal in Chateauneuf, because it oxidizes very easily. Most producers have long since grafted over their Grenache Blanc to Roussanne or Marsanne. He says in addition to the lack of popularity of Grenache Blanc, everybody in the region leaves the whites in barrel no more than 6 months. What would he do with these Grenache Blanc grapes?
“I decided to make the wine like we do in Burgundy.” He said. “I leave the white on the lees for two years, not adding SO2 for the first 18 months.” The wine turned copper in color at first, and he thought, “well, lets just see what happens,” and after around six months the lees pulled the color out of the wine, and it was clear, and creamy and rich. Most importantly, it was not oxidized. Instead, it was strong and powerful with a creamy honeyed mid-palate.
I recently tasted a series of sensational Amarones (meaning the great bitter in Italian) from the very traditional house of Bertani. Unlike the facilities at Allegrini and Masi, Bertani makes their wines the same way they made them for the past century. The grapes are dried on straw mats in open-air rooms. There are no state-of-the-art, humidity and temperature controlled rooms with fans blowing to quickly dry the grapes. Once the passimento stage (drying of the grapes) is completed, Bertani then ages their wines for seven years in large casks called botte. This extended time in botte allows the wine throw all its sediment in the casks. This causes four positive attributes. The wine becomes extremely stable. It does not require filtration. The wine will not continue to lose color. And lastly, the wine will not go through the normal open and closed periods most collectible wines experience.
There is another factor at work here that requires explanation:
Wines are made up of water, unfermented sugars, alcohol, and everything else is collectively referred to as dry extract . Wines that are bigger, darker, and have thicker textures, have more more dry extract than wines that are lighter, have less color, and have finer textures. Wine however, like any other liquid, can only hold a certain “weight” of soluble solids in solution. So it follows that wines that carry more solids than can ultimately remain in suspension, will at some point, drop out excess dry extract, in the form of sediment, as it ages. Wines that are particularly heavy with dry extract will start throwing a heavy sediment, creating something of an avalanche of anthocyanins (color pigment), polyphenols and tannins. As the word avalanche suggests, these elements are swept out of solution, carrying along with it dry extract that the wine could have otherwise held. The end result can be a former heavy-weight wine that can be out of balance with sharper acids than one that did not initially have as much dry extract at bottling.
The big surprise is how clean the wines are after hearing about their very traditional methods of production. I expected to get an aldahydic, oxidized wine that was pale in color. I expected to taste an experience rather than a great wine. Bertani’s Amaroni were nothing of the sort. They were remarkably clean and very powerful. The mind blower was the first Amarone I tasted from them that was 45 years old, but tasted 20 years old. Incredible! This was a great wine. Fortunately for Bertani, their sense of tradition has precluded them from following the world-wide trend toward maximum extraction, allowing their botte aged wines to have exceptional color and richness even at forty years from vintage.
The wine that followed was beautiful, and similar in character to the 1967, but was from the much more recent, 2003 vintage. European wines from the 2003 vintage have largely been dismissed as being from thehot vintage: and are unfairly characterized as over-ripe, not ageable and not classic. I have seen hundreds of exceptions to these harsh generalizations. In fact many producers made superb wines in 2003.
Bertani’s 2003 Amarone was impressive. Dense in concentration and power, rich with fruit, but no excessive over-ripeness, little to no volatile acidity – no off flavors at all. These are all things that have plagued traditionally made Amarones for decades due to the nature of their production. This is the reason many producers like Masi, Allegrini and Bussola to name three, introduced sweeping changes in to their production of Amarone. Bertani however, seems to have figured it out, without sacrificing their tradition and flavor profile.
The 2004 Amarone which followed, was more plum and blackberry fruit driven, with similar intensity and power. While, this would be considered the better of the two vintages, though I really didn’t have a marked preference to either. The ’03 and ’04 were notably similar, and shared a definite familial identity to the 1967.
These were stunning wines, without a doubt. The cost, as with many Amarones, was very high. With a wholesale of $586 per six pack, retail would be between $130 and $145 per bottle depending on mark-up.It was clear that they had been having some problems selling the wines, because they were offering a free bottle of the 1967 (with a claimed wholesale value of $580) with each six pack of the 2003 vintage. With the 2004 vintage, the supplier was offering a bottle of 1980 ($360 wholesale) Amarone, as additional discount. This is where things get a little messy.
This “free” bottle is funded, usually by money that has been budgeted for the importer’s marketing departments. There are never any bottles floating around to be given out as freebies. Budgets must be met, if a company is to pay it’s bills and employees. How it works is this: a budget is set at the beginning of the year, including a budgeting income (from selling wine). If the Amarone is not selling, the budgeted income is not being met. They cannot simply cut the price of the wine (because everything is already budgeted for the year), without funding coming from some source that is already in the current budget. This source of funding is almost always from the companies marketing department. The marketing departments of large firms, have large budgets to meet these kinds of demands that routinely crop up. This kind of action by the marketing and sales departments are obliquely called, ‘pricing and programming’. Until an new budget is drawn up the following year, a winery or an importer cannot drop the pricing of their wine, or the budget will not be met. Because the importer (in this case Palm Bay) and Bertani, cannot just simply lower their front-line pricing mid-year, they are forced to confuse the value of their wine by giving away these older bottles. It also allows them the kickdown the road with this stop-gap effort by the sales division and marketing division. Unfortunately, it is highly likely that upper-management will not really know how critical their pricing issues are, because by hook or by crook, sales and marketing have met their numbers. When they sit down to create a new budget, it will be very similar to the previous one. At the street level, the sales division and the marketing division will have to solve this problem the following year again, but not for a several months.
I noticed that the visiting Italian Sales Manager for Bertani was paying particular attention to the 2007 Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino that retails for $109.99. I told him that it wasn’t selling well.
Not with 98 points from Suckling?” he asked.
“No, it’s just sitting there.” I responded, hoping he’d see the corollary to his wine.
THERE IS ONLY ONE DAL FORNO.
With the success of Dal Forno and Quintarelli, and their shockingly high prices, most Amarone producers have doubled their prices over the past decade. I’m sure they reason, that Dal Forno is only a little bit better, and yet is five to seven times more expensive than their wines. This makes them feel they must to raise their price to maintain the perception of quality. But the fact is, Dal Forno isn’t selling well at $550 a bottle. The distributor recently sold the Dal Forno Valpolicella at half its original price, with a buy one, get one sale. Still, even with this drastic price reduction the wholesale price worked out to over $70 a bottle, roughly five times the price of Valpolcellas from other good producers. Granted, those producers don’t make a Valpolicella like this! Exceptionally dense and dark, with brooding fruit, gripping tannins framed by plenty of oak, and oh, bone dry. I mean dry, like old world wine, indicating relatively lower alcohol (I didn’t look.) With the new vintages of Dal Forno, the prices have come down by almost $150 a bottle. Testament to mis-reading the buying public, even by the top tier wineries.
Realistically, though, there is only one Dal Forno Amarone, one Hommage de Jacques Perrin, one Domaine Romanee Conti, and only one Screaming Eagle. Only a few wines, however good, can transcend a genre, and command absurd prices. Others cannot follow the escalation of price, even a fraction, because the market will not support it. The majority of all other wines must have at least the appearance of value.
Yesterday I tasted at least 100 wines. I’m the first to tell you that it got a bit out of hand, but I had known that a dozen wine reps have been waiting to see me, and I had been putting them off. I really did taste some fantastic wines in all price ranges.
One of the standouts was a collaboration of Yves Cuilleron, and Francois Villard, and Pierre Gaillard, all noted Northern Rhone producers. It began as a project in Vienne, the northern-most city in the Rhone Valley, with a population of around 30,000. Vienne was established in 47 AD, after Julius Caesar, defeated the the Helvetii tribe north of the Rhone a few years before. As good Romans do, they planted vineyards, and began a nearly two thousand year history of viticulture in Vienne. But when phylloxera wiped out most of the vineyards in France in the late 19th century, Vienne was one of the few regions that did not make a comeback.
For over a century, Vienne became farmland until wine makers in the 1990’s began to look there for inexpensive land to grow grapes. Yves Cuilleron, the great Condrieu producer, takes credit for “having a feeling” that the area could make great wine. But high quality clearly should not have been a surprise. Vienne, with its long history of wine making, had its fame chronicled by the Roman scholar Pliny (23AD to 79 AD) who is still widely read today. As late as 1789, Rhone historian N.F. Cochard wrote, “The so famed Vienne’s wine under the Romans were harvested in Seyssuel.” In Cochard’s time, Seyssuel, Vienne’s most famous vineyard, was planted on more than 100 ha (247 acres). It is amazing, but here sat a historic wine region, laying fallow as pastureland.
Vienne sits on the east side of the Rhone river from Cote Rotie, in a narrow valley, where the hot winds accelerate as the hills come together. What was to become Les Vins de Vienne started there, specifically in the Seyssuel Vineyard, with 30 ha of Syrah and Viognier planted in Cote Rotie-like, schist soil. These vines have been tended organically, something that is favored by the region’s low humidity, and lack of vine disease, since few vines have existed there for the previous 130 years. Additionally, Les Vins de Vienne has purchased land as it has become available. But in classic irony, none of the wines shown that day by the Angeles Wine Company,and Yves Cuilleron himself, were from Vienne. Here is this fascinating story of a forgotten wine region, and a modern winery built to revive
it, and the sales pitch ends up like this: Three well regarded winemakers started making negociant wines together. Not so romantic. The project had grown now to include selection from across the Rhone Valley. But let’s face it, people work to make money; it’s not about romance.
But all is not lost, because the whole line- up was stellar, negoc or not. A non-appellated Rhone Viognier was lovely, and beautifully fit the niche of a French Viognier that people can afford. At $21.99 this is a perfect wine; not Condrieu, but tasty nonetheless. Another white from a little known Northern Rhone village called “St Peray” had tremendous verve, singing with minerality, and rich Roussanne fruit. I ordered both. The reds were excellent. The Cote du Rhone Rouge, being 60% Grenache, was surprisingly cool in its fruit, with the 30% Syrah dominating. My sales floor has too many Cote du Rhones, but this was particularly unique. There were a pair of Croze Hermitages and St Josephs, one from each a blend of vineyards, and the other a single estate wine called Les Archevêques (the Archbishop) all excellent. The Croze and St Joseph were similar, the Croze was all spice, some meatiness, and subtle fruit, where the St Joseph had a blanket of fruit over its bones. Which one to buy was a toss-up, both were superb, but I try to offer more producers in a given price category, and Croze and St Joseph cost the same (around $25), and both all Syrah, from neighboring appellations in the Northern Rhone. I opted for the fruitier St Joseph since my customers, with their predominantly California palates, might not like such a cool fruited, briary, meaty, wine like this savory, Croze-Hermitage.
The Consumer is Trying to Tell Us Something
The single-estate wines from Vin de Vienne were simply too expensive for my store at close to $50. In fact, there seems to have been an unspoken revolt among wine drinkers, that $35 and above is too expensive for Rhone wine in general. I have heard this now from importers as well. I have 10 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, none of which are selling more than a couple bottles per month. What do you do, not have a selection of Chateauneuf? Cote Roties like Jean Michel Stephan at $50 to $60 aren’t selling well, even with their high scores. That Rostaing and Jasmin are asking $80 wholesale for their entry-level wholesale for around $80 putting a full retail at $100 for discounters and full retail at $120, makes me wonder if they are selling at all.
Enter the Rhone Super Cuvees
There is no contesting that the wines coming from the Rhone are better than they ever have been. Not only are the wines better than they were 15 years ago, but producers are now separating out their best blocks, particularly of old vine Grenache and making super-cuvees. These bottlings can be sought after by collectors, but this gambit was most successful when there were only a few of these reserve wines, like the Beaucastel Hommage de Perrin, the Les Cailloux Cuvee Centennaire, and the perhaps the most rare, Henri Bonneau’s Cuvee Celestine. Today, every good Domaine makes a grand cuvee, and invariably they are superb and get great scores. But simply the multitude of them, all with 93 to 95 points, makes them inherently less special, and can be quite expensive. Where does this leave the regular Chateauneuf-du-Papes with their $40 price tags and their 90-92 point scores? Certainly they have had some of the best wine removed from them, and ultimately for what?
The glut of great vintages, 2005 (a big vintage,) 2007 (a big vintage) 2009 (a big vintage) 2010, (a smaller vintage) has left a glut of overpriced wines. At the wholesale level there was a lot of hype about the 2009 vintage. The importers were saying they were selling out, and if we, the retailers didn’t commit early, we were going to get left out in the cold. The wines were poured, and indeed they were of great intensity, maybe too intense. But I was buying well scored 2007 Chateauneufs at reduced prices (below the prices of the 2009’s that were being offered) and 2007 is, I believ, to be the better of the two vintages. I felt pressured. I didn’t want to miss out, but my gut was telling me to be careful. I ordered lightly, just a couple of cases of a few well-known, or undeniably delicious wines. I ordered too much, which just didn’t seem possible. The fact was that while importers were selling out of everything they could get, the retailers were, for the most part, just sitting on the wines. The public didn’t seem to know about the hype at all.
For the 2010s, I felt the wines were for the most part, stronger, with their leaner frames and purer fruit. I was still sitting on at least half of the 2009s I had bought, and really didn’t need any more. The beauty of the pre-sale is it forces the buyer to project not only how much of a vintage they think they can sell, but how much floor-space will be available when the wine finally arrives three to six months later. It is rare that a buyer under-buys. Because the fear of missing the next big public need for a particular wine, a buyer almost always overestimates how quickly stock on the floor will sell, and over-estimates how much of the new vintage they will need to meet demand.
For 2010, I ordered less than half than the small amount of 2009 I had ordered. I think this time I might have gotten it right. Demand was light, but there was a little demand, or should I say interest.The reality is, with the exception of a couple of wines that always are sought after by at least a few diehards, there is more than enough excellent wine available locally to fill any need a retailer might have.
Bill Clinton said it best, “The Economy, Stupid.”
Most people just don’t have as much money to spend on high-end wine anymore. Everything else is so expensive: Gas has doubled, food has doubled, health care has exploded in price, while it covers less and less. Something has to give, and the first thing on the list is wine. When wine with a limited base of enthusiasts like Chateauneuf-du-Pape doubles in price in a decade, people turn to more affordable options. Something has to give, and there is no more glaring example than Rhone wines above $40.