Harvest Bos part 2: Biodynamics is Ascending

I think understanding Biodynamics is most easily done by breaking it down into two basic parts:  doing things at the right time, and feeding the

harvest moon

The Harvest Moon: For centuries, farmers have known to harvest on the cycles of moon -different times for various fruits and vegetables.

land, (thus feeding the plant, and by extension the grapes).  Too much time is focused on what on the surface seems to be hocus-pocus elements, and the language of the process, rather than the reasons behind them, and I think that just confuses the how people perceive Biodynamics.

The first part is doing things at the right time.  With biodynamics, the right time is determined by the moon.  The moon exhibits tremendous forces on the earth, pulling and pushing our vast oceans (weighing 1.5 quintillion pounds) several feet in one direction or the other, every twenty four hours and fifty three minutes.   Tides rise in rivers and lakes just as rhythmically.

Humans have been aware of moon phase harvesting since ancient times.  As recently as 100 years ago, farmers understood the relationship that nature, their farms and their plants had with the moon.  “What they didn’t have in education, they made up for in observation. says biodynamic farmer Dave Bos. “Today, we tend to discount what we observe. A lot of vineyard managers write work orders from their desks,” says Bos. “They don’t even go into the vineyard to see it what it looks like. I learn a lot more from walking the vineyard and observing.”

There is strong  evidence that produce that is picked on the correct moon cycle will have a longer shelf life.  Fruits and vegetables that are meant to be stored, like apples, cabbages, potatoes and onions are better picked during the waning moon, when water content is decreased. Conversely, fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten right away are best picked during a waxing moon.  Tomatoes are best harvested during a full moon when the plant will naturally have a higher water content.  None of this dictates that you need to pick at night – in case it needs to be said.

The route of the moon around the earth is egg-shaped, meaning at the two opposite points of the egg, the moon is farther away and has less pull than when it is in its closest proximity to earth.  From down here on the ground, we are of course most aware of when the moon is ascending and when it is descending.  The gross effect of  the ascending and descending is the moon pushes for two weeks, then it pulls for two weeks.  In the vineyard, this information can lead to timing when certain vine maintenance is performed, and the end results can save the farmer significant head aches.

For example: If you prune your vine on a descending moon, this will cause a later bud break.  Pruning in Napa traditionally happens in February.  An excellent description of pruning can be read here. However, if the vineyardist prunes late, and during a descending moon, bud break will be delayed, (hopefully) until after the frosts.  Frost, of course, can decimate a vineyard’s potential crop in a single morning, so every day counts.  Conversely, if you prune during an ascending moon, bud break will happen 3 (or more) days earlier.  Those 3+ days of delayed bud break, coupled with up to two week delay in pruning can make a world of difference in crop set.

Bud break 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

Bud break 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Photo credit: fris2008)

Planting is best done during the descending moon, because the descending moon has downward pressure, and it really positively effects the root system of the plant. Conversely, it is said the ascending moon positively effects the plant above ground – the moon is pulling during this cycle.

But those who study the moon have identified 3 major moon rhythms and 13 minor rhythms -many are so subtle, that Dave says he can’t observe some of them.   The most obvious rhythm is the full moon.  Dave says the full moon amplifies every thing in the vineyard. He says it turns up the volume.  The ground is wetter during a full moon, even though there hasn’t been any rain.  The new moon is the opposite of the full moon. It is a quite time, with more a neutral effect.

Further, Biodynamics indentifies four types of “days”, they name them: Fruit, Flower, Leaf and Root “days”.  These “days” last two and half days each, so any given day can be split between say, a leaf day and a flower day. To know what kind of day it it, and what time it will change, you need to consult a Biodynamic Calendar. Biodynamic farmers use the knowledge to determine when to pick and when to plant various fruits and vegetables. 

From Maria Thun’s Biodynamic calander that is available on Amazon.com

Leaf plants on Leaf days
The cabbage family, lettuce, spinach, lambs lettuce, endive, parsley, leafy herbs and fodder plants are categorized as leaf plants. Leaf days are suitable for sowing and tending these plants but not for harvesting and storage. For this … Fruit and Flower days are recommended.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Leaf days occur, (among other times) on the full moon, and during this time their is more water in the air, in the ground, and in the plants. -this sentence is not from Thun.

Waning Crescent Moon

Waning Crescent Moon (Photo credit: I am marlon)

Flower plants on Flower days
These days are favorable for sowing and tending all kinds of flower plants but also for cultivating and spraying 501 (a Biodynamic preparation) on oil-bearing plants such as linseed, rape, sunflower, etc…

Fruit plants on Fruit days
Plants which are cultivated for their fruit or seed belong to this category, including beans, peas, lentils, soya, maize, tomatoes, cucumber, pumpkin, courgettes, but also cereals for summer and winter crops…Fruit plants are best harvested in Fruit days. They store well and their seeds provide good plants for next year. When storing fruit, also remember to choose the time of the ascending moon.” (Maria & Matthias Thun, The North American Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar).

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. 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. It wasn’t until talking to Jared Wolff from Palm Bay Imports, perhaps one of the straight-out 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 made sense.  It all has to do with the phases of the moon.

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

Maria Thun has written a book (that I admit I haven’t yet purchased) on the subject, called When Wines Taste Best: A Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers.  It’s on my to-do list.

Next up: Biodynamics: Treat the Soil, Not the Symptom.

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Harvest Bos: Biodynamic Grape Growing In The Napa Valley

Part One

The Case For Biodynamics

grgich winery, napa valley, California

Grgich Winery, Napa Valley, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the difficult, cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, winemakers and vineyardists across California were complaining of harvests rife with rot and mildew  – everyone it seems, except Dave Bos.

Dave only makes 3 barrels of his own wine,  but he points to the wine in the glass and says, “Look at the color.” “I’ve got plenty of color.  I didn’t cold soak, or do an extended maceration.  I just did a normal fermentation, and this is the color I got.” The Syrah is very dark, almost black in color.  It is the nose that sets the wine apart. It is vivid, with lavender, plum, blackberry, earthy loam, ad lots of fresh black and green peppercorns.  In the mouth there was plenty of richness and weight, with tremendous freshness.

Both the 2010 and 2011 Boss “Pheonix Vineyard” Coombsville, (100% Syrah) were spectacular regardless of vintage. In both vintages -2010 (cool) and 2011 (cool and wet) a lot of really good winemaking teams saw difficulties getting the kind of color and concentration they were looking for.

“It’s how the vineyard is farmed.” Dave says. “It has nothing to do with the way I made the wine.”  Dave Bos is a vineyard consultant, who only uses Biodynamic practices. The name of his company is Harvest Bos Dynamic Vineyard and Farm Management where he manages several small vineyards in the valley. “I manage more then I consult, it allows me to have better control. I do have a few clients that I consult for in Napa”

“I have voodoo in my vineyard”

“I consult for Brian Phoenix, who owns this vineyard.” Bos says referring to the wine in our glasses. “He is a mechanic.  Brian’s a really sharp, meticulous guy who can fix anything.  “But he doesn’t really believe in Biodynamics, so I’ve had to convince him to trust me.  “Brian laughs and says, ‘I have voodoo in my vineyard!’ . . .”Brian would tell you,” Dave adds, “he has seen a huge difference in quality and health in his vineyard since he converted it to BD.”

Dave moved to the Napa Valley ten years ago, and signed on as a vineyard manager for Grgich in 2005. The winery had already started the process of converting a few blocks to Biodynamics the 2003 looking to combat the leaf roll virus that was infecting the vineyards. When Dave got there in ’05, they embarked on the mammoth, 2 year process of converting all of Grgich’s five vineyards, covering 367 acres of vineyards, to biodynamic farming. Dave worked closely with winemaker/general manager Ivo Jeramaz to see the enormous project through completion and Demeter Certification in 2006 and 2007.

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Dave Bos, Biodynamic Farmer and Consultant

Over that time, Dave has seen the direct, positive results of the changes in a vineyard due to Biodynamics. Most notably he has witnessed the problems have been completely avoided, that his neighbors have waged desperate struggles to contain.  The 2011 vintage was especially notable. Rains in June and September caused a significant amount of mildew and rot, whereas he notice much less of this at  Grgich. In 2011, at Grgich the whites were exceptional – Dave feels they are some of the best the winery has ever made.

Having visited many, many wineries over the years, it seems every sales manager spouted off about how they are farming sustainably, many saying that they are Certified Sustainable. “Certified Sustainable” however, can mean no more than someone at the winery took a class on sustainability, not that they ever implemented any sustainable processes in the vineyard to become “Certified.”  There is no legal definition for Certified Sustainable at this time, so the meaning of the term can vary widely depending on the organization providing the certification.

Certainly there is wide use of cover crops these days, to attract the right insects and give nutrients back to the earth. I have been told by many Sales Managers that they are no longer using pesticides… but they invariably slip in the caveat, ‘unless there is no other alternative.’

The French call this kind of farming lutte raisonnee, (the reasoned struggle.)    I have begun to think lutte raisonnee means, what happens in the vineyard, stays in the vineyard.  

While all these General Managers sounds like they really have a solid environmental plan, and they use all the right buzz words, I have always gotten the feeling that there is too much spin, and a lot of lip service, being given to the subject.  I mention to Dave that sustainable farming is a talking point of every winery manager, and his response was this: “By definition, if they can continue to stay in business they are sustainable.”

The Power of a Healthy Vineyard

When Grgich Hills started converting its vineyards over to Biodynamics, there was a section of old vine Cabernet that had been part of the reserve program that was dying, and had been scheduled to be replanted the following year.  In the meantime, it was easier to farm the entire vineyard in the same manner.  So for the next year, this section of Cabernet was farmed just like the rest, Biodynamically.  At the end of the year, it was noted that the vines which had barely be producing any fruit, were looking much better, and had produced a larger crop.  The decision was made to leave them in to see what happened.  Today those old Cabernet vines still has the disease that plagued it before, but now the vines are strong enough to withstand its affliction, and once again produces a high quality crop with a feasible yield.

On a ride-with a few years ago, I had asked Mike Benziger (who is a tremendous advocate of Biodynamics) if he thought Biodynamically grown grapes produced better wine. His response was surprising.  He said that he felt Biodynamics acts like a lens in winemaking, focusing whatever you have. If what you have is good, it will focus and heighten those attributes, and if it isn’t so good, then those lesser attributes will be heightened too.  He also said that he thought that the intense focus, observation, and effort put into the vineyard, moves with the grapes into the winery.  When so much work went into growing these grapes, greater effort is made to make them into the best wine possible.

It is no accident that if you look at a list of the world’s greatest winemakers, Biodynamic producers will populate the  top 100 in a remarkably high percentage.  The primary reason is the land is healthier, so the vines are healthier, and the fruit is healthier. But also this care in the vineyard has a dramatic effect at the crush pad: to take every opportunity to do everything right.  To observe, adjust, and to not take any short-cuts.

Next Post:  Harvest Bos: Biodynamics is ascending

Syrahs of the Northern Rhone: a Showdown of Aromatics

In a recent tasting of the Syrahs of the Northern Rhones, an overriding theme stood out: these wines have significantly lower-alcohols and finer features  than the Rhones from the South.

Terraces of vineyards in the French wine regio...

Terraces of vineyards in the French wine region of Cote Rotie in the northern Rhone Valley. (Photo credit: Wikipe.

Despite its name, the wines of Cote Rotie (translation -“roasted hillside”) have uniformly low alcohols even in ripe years. This suggests, at least circumstantially, that these grapes are grown on marginally-ripening sites.  This is only partially true however.  The vineyards of Cote Rotie are perched on precipitous hillsides that drop 1000 feet down to the banks of Rhone River. The extreme angle of the slope is a dizzying 55%. This gives the vines tremendously long exposure to the sun… when it is not blocked out by fog that forms up from the river below. In the late spring and early fall, fog often blankets the vineyards, making full-ripening of the Syrah difficult. This is not a bad thing. In fact it gives Cote Rotie it’s regal, and fine featured character.

Very Notable: Over the course of several hours, wines that had shown very floral, and green-peppercorn, notes much-like peppery-floral tuberose, or perhaps geranium-like aromas, would suddenly switch gears, and begin to smell like bacon fat and black pepper.  Then, without explanation, they would flip back again, to its earlier, peppery, floral personality.

“The source bacon fat and smoked meat aromas has always been something of a mystery”

The source of bacon fat and smoked meat aromas has always been something of a mystery. Some have suggested it is the strain of yeast, cellar funk, or maybe even a strain of brettanomyces. But this switching of profiles from green to meaty suggests, at least to me, that these are different faces of the same element: under-ripeness, or marginal ripeness of the Syrah fruit that is being harvested.  

Structurally and aromatically, these Syrahs from the farthest, Northern regions of the Rhone Valley, reminded me much more of  Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Nebbiolo from Barolo, or even the Aglianico grown in Campagnia and Basilicata, than Syrah, grown anywhere else in the world.

Then there was the Hermitage.  Hermitage is a small, fairly homogenous appellation, of only 345 acres that covers three hills. Given Hermitage’s reputation, this was predictably much more powerful, significantly riper, and had a full-degree higher in alcohol. However, this special bottling, cannot be counted on accurately representing the Appellation, since it hails from Hermitages greatest sites (largely from the Le Meal vineyard with a small patch from Les Greffieux). 

The Cornas of the flight was something of a ringer too.  Mattieu Barret is a biodynamic, and almost a natural winemaker. Despite Cornas being geographically the farthest south, and warmest of all the Northern Rhone regions, Barret’s wines are much more Cote Rotie-like.  I believe this to be a conscious, stylistic difference, by picking early, in order to counter the tannic clunky characteristic wines Cornas is reputed to have.  I will meet him this coming week, and ask him about this issue of Syrah and ripeness in the Northern Rhone.

St Joseph and Croze Hermitage are much larger areas than Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas, and much less homogenous. All of the wines from these two regions also had lower alcohols. This is due to, it is said, the cool Continental climate of the appellations. These lower alcohols are also possibly due to longstanding winemaking traditions there. In any case, there was great uniformity to the wines in the tasting, save the Sorrel Le Greal

For the tasting notes below, I have listed the stated alcohol levels, which are among the lowest  from any major red wine region, that I have seen in recent years.

 

2010 Texier Cote-du-Rhone 12% alc.  A fantastic spicy nose, with fresh grapefruit rind and cream. Meduim-light in weight, with good richness and meaty tannins.  None-the-less, I do not believe this wine will age well. Texier is a producer that is part of the natural winemaking movement, meaning nothing is added to the grapes in the vineyard, nor during their production. No yeast, no SO2, no sugar, no acid, no nutrients, nothing.  $21.99

2008 Bernard Burgaud, Cote Rotie 12.5% alc.   Pretty nose of flowers, grapefruit, and red cherries.  Medium-light, with very fine tannins, but still good breadth of flavors across the palate. Finely textured, this is a very feminine styled Cote Rotie.   $37.99

2010 Domaine Faury, Saint-Joseph  13% alc. Great nose. Ripe apples, loam, smoked meat and plums. Rich and soft on the palate with meat and spice. Medium-light in weight, although it gained some weight after three hours. $26.99

2008 Domaine de Coulet, Cornas, “Bris Cailloux” 13% alc. Almost black in color. This exotic wine showed  high-toned red fruits on the nose along with a wildly changing cornucopia of anise, geraniums, bacon fat (alternately), and fresh black peppercorns. Medium weight, with long, fine, acid that was much more black-fruited on the palate than the nose was. Bacon, coffee, and leather flavors, along with the green floral components of geraniums and tuberose appeared and disappeard each time I tried it. I found this to be very similar to the 2010 Bris Cailloux in weight, not to mention in it’s stunningly aromatic, elusive personality.   Mathieu Barret is a master of Cornas, and this wine proves it beyond a doubt. Why was the 2008 vintage so (wrongly) overlooked? $41.99

2010 Domaine Des Grands Chamins (Delas) Croze-Hermitage  13% alc. Rich and spicy, but softer than the previous wines.  With this ripeness, this also does not have the earlier wines aromatics. Plum, cocoa powder, oak… This wine is comparatively powerful, but ultimately a bit simple because of it. $29.99

2009 Saint Cosme, Cote Rotie 13% alc. Very aromatic, with a  nose of grapefruit rind, earth  blackberry, toasty oak, brettanomyces, and bacon. This wine was decidedly earthy compared to the others. In th mouth, blackberries and plum were more evident on the palate. This was very rich and soft, earthy, much fuller bodied, and very complex.  $57.99

2009 Marc Sorrel, Hermitage Le Greal, 14%  Deep and powerful in nose and flavor.  Very modern in terms of the other wines tasted, with much more ripeness, thickness, and correspondingly, it had higher alcohol. Deep berry fruit, with a slight reduction. This wine was very complete, with a solid, and obvious core of fruit. Well integrated tannins. Satisfying, and even an exciting wine, if not as thought provoking, as the lighter, more aromatic, Cote Roties that they are routinely compared with.  $119.99

Saint-Joseph

Saint-Joseph (Photo credit: Renée S.)

Tasting Cain, part II

Part II:  Winemaker Chris Howell, Cain Winery, and the Taboo Subject of Brett

Cain Winery sits 1800 feet above St. Helena on the valley floor, way up on Spring Mountain Road. A sign with an arrow and the words Cain Winery, marks the longest single-lane, curvy, road/driveway imaginable.  The winery is so far out there, that after two miles down this twisting, blind-cornerd driveway, the there is a county sign that reads, road ends. Yet you still are not there yet.  Go farther; you will find Cain. There is an intense sense of quiet and isolation on the estate, and one can only imagine that has had some profound influence on the unique philosophies that guide the Winemaker and GM, Chris Howell in his quest for the true expression of this piece of land.

St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery - Rutherford, ...

Rutherford, Napa Valley (Photo credit: –Mark–)

I have found a commonality to the wines from this section of the mountain.  Two of Cain’s most immediate neighbors, Guilliams and Keenan, have very similar profile of making classically styled Napa wine, and all have unusually fine, silky tannins.  I cannot say with certainty that these fine tannins are the result of terroir speaking, but I tend to believe that they are. While I talked to Chris, (read part 1) we tasted the three wines being made at Cain. The winery’s flagship, Cain Five, is made entirely from estate fruit. The Cain Cuvee, which is part estate fruit, and part valley fruit, shared distinct commonality. The Cain Concept, is made from puchased Napa Valley fruit, was decidedly different in character and structure, although the winemaking is the same.

“both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet”

Midway through the tasting, I introduced my feeling that the wines had improved from those Chris had made in the late eighties. Soon after I told him I thought they were cleaner and more enjoyable, and he admitted there had been a lot of brett in the winery, Chris decided to show me an older example of Cain Five. He produced a bottle of Cain Five from 1999 vintage, perhaps to show that the change has been minimal, or maybe he wanted to put the matter to rest. I don’t know, but I was excited to try it. This wine certainly had more brett than the 2007 we were tasting, but not nearly as much as I seemed to remember in the wines, and the nose was remarkable. It was captivating.

The vineyard has been replanted section by section since 1995, so the 1999 Cain Five will have been made from fruit off the old, phylloxera- infested  plantings, whereas the 2007 would be mostly from the new, high-density plantings that are now trained low to the ground to speed physiological ripening, and utilizes vertical shoot trellising. Additionally, pruning methods have been improved. All of these things affect fruit quality. That said, both Cain Fives were truly beautiful wines, showing so much depth, impeccable balance, and both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet.

Chris was very generous, and allowed us to take all the wines to dinner that night, at Bar Terre in St Helena, where we tried the wines with multiple courses, often with superb results. versatility with food is something I don’t expect from California Cabernet-based wines, due to their typical extremes in terms of weight and concentration, so the fact that Cain Five could, certainly surprised me.

I have rated these wines, something I rarely do, and usually don’t feel don’t feel is appropriate. In this case, because California Cabernet has a fairly uniform style, and I feel scores have more relevance, and may convey the quality I feel these wines possess.

Cain Cuvee NV8 

This Merlot based (48%), dual-vintage blend, is drawn primarily from the lush, but brooding 2008 vintage, with the addition of the brighter wine from 2007. The Cain Cuvee is an impressively svelte wine, designed to drink young.  Blended from a combination fruit from the estate, and purchased benchland fruit, it carries with it more fresh fruit character than Cain’s higher end bottlings, yet maintains the wineries  trademark of class and perfect balance.  Bordeaux-like is the goal, and Winemaker Chris Howell has great success here, giving the wine understated poise, yet detailed, persistent fruit. The nose, with its fresh cranberry and blackberry fruit, has an almost raw, carbonic element to it, when compared to the other wines, although I doubt this was the case. Chris’ practice of picking a bit early, is particularly evident with this wine, with its yin and yang of deeper, ripe notes, and slightly under-ripe fruit, and a hint of briar and dusty road.   Lean and long, this has just enough sinew to bind it all together, with its smooth tannins. This is a wine, that will age effortlessly for 15 to 20 years, due to its impeccable balance. It is the very end of the vintage, and there should be some on retailers shelves, but the distributor, Henry wine group is shipping the NV9.  91 points

2008 Cain Concept, “The Benchlands”

Cain “Concept”, which the winery has subtitled as ‘The Benchlands” because it is maded from all purchased fruit from the valley. The fruit for the “Concept” sourced from several top-flight vineyards, including Beckstoffer Georges III and To-Kalon.  If any wine is intended to be a Cabernet, this is it.  A soft, broad nose of berries, dust, perfume, blueberries, fresh herbs, and California olives. Typical Cain, with rich soft fruit, some classic, old school,(but not assertive) California Bell Pepper, earthy, berry fruit, dusty tannins, touch of peppercorn, and a creamy texture.. Really lovely, so perfectly balanced. Andre Tchelistcheff would be proud.  This wine will improve with a few years in the cellar.  92 points.

2007 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

All estate fruit, primarily of Cabernet from near the top of Spring Mountain at 1400 ft. Blackberry fruit, coupled with brown sugar, cream, toast, cocoa nibs, and fennel, but this is so integrated, that it’s difficult to separate the aromas. The mouth is more so this way, with mocha and the burnt sugar of toffee taking a more of the center stage. Texture is of black velvet, with a dusky, notes of wet earth, and musk to it, with complex notes from the brett wrapping up the impressive package. Balance is again paramount, with Chris’ fine tannins coming into play. The vineyard was replanted close to the ground, giving better ripeness to the tannins. An easy twenty year wine, but this shows exceptionally well now, and may or may not, improve with age. 95 points

1999 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

The aroma was so intoxicating, with its undefined floral, herbal, woodsy, and fruit aromas, it almost required no tasting. The palate is very broad and rich, with the earthy loam coming to the forefront, which was somewhat exacerbated by the wine’s cool temperature. The wine wass sweet, and herbal tones in the mouth, with the tannins gripping a bit more after it had been open a while. As it aired, the loam, herbs, and mocha, and spices have overcome much of the blackberry and raspberry fruit.  The earthy-musty quality of brett is  more evident in this bottling, along with some green notes, molasses, allspice, and clove began to stand outeven more  over time, some of which can be contributed to the aged quality which is expected of a 13-year-old wine.  The wine is immensely complex, and quite fabulous, particularly with the braised lamb (at Terra in St. Helena). With a black cod, notes of cranberry fruit tended to stand out (an even older Cain Five would have been even better with this dish). This wine is capable of  aging another fifteen years, easily. 95 points

Winemaker Chris Howell, Cain Winery, and the Taboo Subject of Brett.

harvest 2005 Spring Mountain District above th...

harvest 2005 Spring Mountain District above the Napa Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Cain Winery, and taste their wines with its longtime winemaker, Chris Howell. Chris has been at Cain for the past twenty three years, starting there as a consultant in 1990.  In the  past, I had dismissed these wines, as having muddied flavors, and rustic tannins, particularly from their flagship wine, Cain Five.  But over the last few years, the wines here definitely improved. Today, these wines really impress me for their elegance, beautiful complexity, and silky, fine tannins. I wanted to find out what had changed there.

“This is where the story really begins. This is where he drops the bomb.”

Of course, I began by telling him that I think he is making the best wines I’ve ever had from the winery.  I ask him what he feels he is doing differently, from, fifteen years ago, when the wines weren’t nearly as clean and polished. He answered by saying “Not much has really changed in my winemaking. Small things mostly.” That, and the vineyard had been replanted, with the rows being planted closer together, and the vines are trained low to the ground with vertical shoot trellising, “which allows us to pick earlier than anyone else; without over-ripeness.”

He hesitated. And then began again, this time in earnest, explaining that for the most part he had cleaned up the cellar of brettanomyces.  Brettanomyces, often referred to as Brett, is a bacteria that infects wine, gets embedded in barrels, and is easily transferred from barrel to barrel, and tank to tank.  A whole cellar can quickly be infected through careless cellar practices, and even if the wine is sterile filtered, the aromas and flavors of brett remain behind.  Brett tends to obscure the fruit in wine, and give wine muddy, musty, re-fried bean aromas and flavors. The English, who have learned to appreciate Brett, used to describe it as giving a wine Barnyard aromas. The French, being more direct, simply described Brett as Merde (shit).  Wineries have spent hundreds of thousands, and some big wineries have spent millions of dollars, trying to eliminate it.

This is where the story really begins. This is where he drops the bomb. In the future he said he wants to increase the amount of Brett from what is currently is in the wines. Chris feels that Brett, in small parts-per-million,  adds tremendous complexity and cohesion to a wine.  These are statements that are unthinkable to most winemakers, and I have to say, it’s not what I wanted to hear having recently become a big fan of the winery.

To this he added a note of caution: before he would open his cellar to brett, he wants to better understand it, and to have better control of it. “You can’t add a little, and expect it not to propagate,” he added.  He admits that there is not a lot known about Brett, if for no other reason that researchers don’t tend to study what most seek to eradicate, and can do so already. 

“Today’s winemakers have a sole focus on making a perfect wine, by selecting  perfectly ripe bunches, and from that, the most perfectly ripe berries.”

Chris expounded on a feeling I’ve increasingly had over the past few years: Today’s winemakers have sole focus on making a perfect wine, by selecting perfectly ripe bunches, and from that, the most perfectly ripe berries. Wines, as a result, are becoming much less interesting, and ultimately beginning to tasting all the same. He wants his wines to be a holistic entity, reflecting the vineyard, and the vintage; carrying with it, a much wider array of flavors, like more red fruits, earth, and some herbal components. there should be elements that make the unique and of a particular place, rather than the current quest for the perfectly ripe and ultimately homogeneous fruit character. He says he is using fewer new oak barrels, rather than running the risk of over-oaking his wines. His ideal of perfection, is to create a wine of great character, with great texture, and he thinks brett can be a tool to get there.

Chris is very  cerebral, and is constantly evaluating, probing, and fine tuning the winemaking at Cain. This is a common thread I’ve found among many of the very best winemakers. . But deliberate introduction of brett, this was a lot to swallow.  I, for one, will certainly be tuned into Chris’ work in the future. He is definitely not a trend follower and is certainly is blazing his own trail here. Maybe he will be the one who can learn to use, and tame Brettanomyces. The results will be intriguing to watch and I’m rooting for his continued success.

 

 

 

CORONERS REPORT: Death of high-end Australian wine in the America.

 To this day, you hear it repeated over and over by people in the wine industry. Critter wines like Yellow Tail, killed the high-end Australian market.  The idea that low-priced wines, (with cartoon-like labels or not) killed a previously robust market segment, has been laziness on the industry’s part. The success of lower-end wine brings new drinkers into the market, not the other way around.

Some have suggested that wine drinkers simply tired of Australia’s over-ripe, over-extracted wines, and stopped buying them.  I fervently believe however, that there are two factors that worked in conjunction, to kill the Australian wine market in the United States.  First, it was actually the  Aussie winemakers who tired of making uber-ripe, extracted wines, (not the wine drinkers), and began to scale back on the ripeness, in order to make long-lived, “classic” wines.  The second reason, and this is the stake in the heart, is the long-held Australian tradition of using high levels of tartaric acid additions. These additions increase titratable acidity (T/A) and lower the pH, in order to preserve the wine.  To explain the relationship of these two factors, I should start from the beginning.

Acidification in the new world has been accepted as necessary for the past century, because the grapes in our warmer climates tend to lose so much more acidity as they ripen, compared to wines from the classic regions of Europe. By adding acid, the thought is the wine becomes more stable, and less susceptible to spoilage.  Australian winemakers have used acidification, not only to stabilize the wines, but to preserve their wines for as many decades as possible.

“But then, Australian winemakers killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.”

The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs

The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs (Photo credit: pareeerica)

In the late eighties through the late nineties, the rage among Australian winemakers was to push the ripeness and concentration to exaggerated proportions.  With Barossa leading the charge, these wines were immense, sweetly fruited, densely concentrated, and very, very ripe. They had a overt sweetness on the palate from their high alcohol and fruit, that overshadowed the tartness from the high levels of tartaric acid being added to the vats.  It was a matter of balance. These wines had enough Gras (fat) as the French say, to pull off the wine’s high acid.  These were the wines that became wildly popular in the United States. These huge wines were the entire, explosive, upper-end, Australian market.

But then, Australian winemakers killed the goose golden eggs. Australian winemakers became self-critical of this style of wines, calling the excessive ripeness, a fad.   They wanted to create great wine; and They knew these super-ripe monsters were not, and would never be, great wines for the ages. Starting around the 2000 vintage, the winemakers there, began scaling back the ripeness, looking for more elegant, complex flavors. What they did not scale back was how much tartaric they were adding to their fermentation tanks. As the levels of sweet fruit receded  the acidity beneath it was revealed. The result were tight, tough, tart, and seemingly fruitless wines. And without ever realizing why, the American public slowly stopped buying high-end Australian wines.

“This is the story of two ships passing in the night.  The American palate, and the Australian winemaker.”

Conversely, for the past twenty years in California, winemakers have sought to minimize their intervention in winemaking, and have greatly reduced the amount of tartaric acid to the fermentation vats, and some have completely eliminated acid additions altogether.  The net result is California wines have gotten softer, and more lush.  With this shift toward softer wines (particularly in reds), the American palate has become acclimated to wines with softer, more natural acidity. This is the story of two ships passing in the night. The American palate, and the Australian winemaker. Why has Chilean wine stopped its exponential growth?  Pretty much the same story.

*                   *                    *

In Australia, especially among the older generation, how long a wine lives seems to be a source of pride. I have had more old Australian wines in the past 10 years, than old wines from California. All of them have been flown in for dinners where the winemakers were the guest speakers. At a recent dinner featuring Chester Osborn, and his father D’Arry, we tasted two wines from the sixties, and a wine from the mid-seventies. Another dinner with Chester close to ten years ago, wines from the sixties and seventies were poured also. At a sales meeting, the winemaker from Wynn’s showed a wine from the sixties, two from the seventies, and one from the eighties. Stuart Blackwell, the winery manager, and guiding light from St. Hallett winery came into my store on a ‘ride-with’ / sales call.  Uniformly, the St. Hallett reds were very tart, and unpleasant to drink. At the top end of the range, the Blackwell Shiraz, there was almost enough stuffing to pull-off the wines searingly high acid, but I feared that it would close up very hard in the next year, if not sooner.   I asked, knowing the answer, if they were acidifying the wines.   “Yes, of course,” he replied. “Otherwise they won’t last.”  These wines were his legacy.  

 

OR004168

OR004168 (Photo credit: LetsGoIran.com)

Burgundy’s White Wine Blight: Pre-Mox

I asked Mounir Saouma, the winemaker and owner of Lucien Le Moine, about the ongoing problem of  premature oxidation in white Burgundy, commonly referred to as pre-mox. This is question I routinely trot-out to any producer of white Burgundy. Every time the answer is different.

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 he feels this percentage will increase over time.

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.

LUCIEN LE MOINE DINNER, 2012

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 opened The 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.

Vineyard in the French wine region of Côte de ...

Vineyard in the French wine region of Côte de Beaune the Cote d’Or (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

An example of the walls that often enclose &qu...

An example of the walls that often enclose “clos” vineyards in the French wine region of Burgundy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.