Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy (introduction)

The History, the Threats, and Why Terroir is Important

 

Roman Wine FriezeTerroir as a notion: 

The notion of climate and terroir palpably began with the establishment of Clos de Bèze in 630 A.D.  And despite the countless changes of governments, laws, and ownership, the shape and size of Clos de Bèze have remained unchanged in the intervening 1384 years.  However, there were notions of terroir that appeared long before. In the first century, Columella (the only Roman agronomist whose records still exist) wrote of a varietal that had physical leaf characteristics that leave little doubt that the Romans grew Pinot Noir in Burgundy.  The quality of this wine would eventually eclipse Falernian wine in the eyes of the patrician class. That this vine was so perfectly suited to the Burgundy region, Columella wrote: “…it alone gives a good name to even the poorest of soil by reason of its own fertility.”

Monks at Clos VougeotWhile terroir is, at its heart, the physicality of a place, it is also the acceptance of terroir as a notion, that allows its expression in the glass. The concept of terroir asks that winemaker should produce the best wine they can, that still truthfully represent the site, while simultaneously requiring the wine drinker to appreciate what each site uniquely brings to the wine made from it.Interestingly it has been the historical difficulty of ripening grapes in the Côte d’Or that has made terroir apparent in Burgundy. This marginal ripening, coupled with the transparent nature of the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay that is grown there, lay bare the influence of the vineyard position: the soils below and the weather above. In many ways, it is a quest of purity, and that is something that can easily and quickly be muddied by over extraction, over-ripeness, and blending. Jacques Lardiere, the now-retired manager of Louis Jadot used to say (in the late 1990s) that the terroir would speak, “even if you planted Syrah” in Burgundy. I mentioned Lardiere’s statement to the then winemaker of Mommessin (I don’t recall who that was) and his response was: “That’s funny coming from him.” (1)

The Historical Battle for Ripeness: The Importance of  Vineyard Protection and Exposition

Clos la Roche in winterComplete phenolic ripening in Burgundy has been the holy grail of every winemaker in the Côte d’Or since the middle ages. Given that the last so-called “Little Ice Age” only ended in the 1850s, it is not a complete surprise that only the warmest vineyard sites (the grand crus) could semi-consistently achieve ripeness.   The key to ripeness was a vineyard had to sit on a slope – facing east to southeast, angled to receive the longest rays of the harvest sun. Here, the hillside, and the flat village land at its foot created a heat trap for the ripening crop, sheltering it from the wind which might otherwise disperse the heat. In the long history of Burgundy, it has been only these protected vineyards, on the mid-slope, that could achieve the temperatures necessary to fully ripen the grapes right before harvest.

Climatic and Economic Threats

However, the climate is warming. In absolute numbers, from 1990 to 2006, the average temperature has gone up 1.2 degrees F., and it had already gone up 1.2 degrees F. in the previous thirty years. Today, the crop is consistently ripe enough to make good wine across all climates, in virtually every vintage. At this point in time, we are witnessing the greatest period of in all of Burgundy’s almost 2000 year history under vine. The confluence of winemaking and wine growing knowledge as well as perfect ripening temperatures is granting us truly remarkable wines. I think there is room for some additional warming without major concessions to wine style and terroir. Although, I suppose if it does, we’ll have bigger problems than lamenting the passing of the golden age of Burgundy.

With the increasing ripeness, the winemaker is both pushed toward, and drawn to, making wines with deeper color (anthocyanins), fuller fruit, and more structure. With the clamor for riper, richer, grand cru-styled Burgundies, regardless of how expensive they are, there is a significant economic reason for winemakers to follow this path. But as Burgundies fatten up, terroir is increasingly obscured. It is very possible there will be fewer noticeable variances between the wines from many vineyards unless winemakers and the wine buying public truly embrace terroir. The relevance (and indeed the future) of terroir in Burgundy hinges on the wine appreciation that goes far beyond what is good or bad, in a search for “the best.” The concept“the best” is often at odds, and in many ways contradictory the notion of terroir, and if we don’t actively embrace and extol the differences between vineyards, from grand cru to village lieu-dits, we will lose what is so unique about the region.

Classification

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

Chevaliers du Tastevin with clergy circa 1950

The terroir of Burgundy was codified unofficially in 1855, by Jules Lavalle, and again in 1920 by Camille Rodier, both of whom graded the vineyards in five qualitative levels, the best being the Tete de Cuvees. Governmental classification would not come until the late 1930s. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the depth of the depression, and against a backdrop of the tensions of a brewing second war in Europe, that the French Government finally moved forward with establishing the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) system. The Ministry of Agriculture established the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1935, and over the next few years this body defined the official regional appellations for wine and foods across France. It was a uniquely French thing to do, and in a marketing sense quite brilliant, but the idea was to protect these agricultural regions and heritages from change.  In doing so they both branded and secured these places and products as unique in an emerging global economy. When dividing the appellations, the INAO heeded historical ownership and village boundaries, as well as physical and observable geological observation, in as much as it was understood at the time, without intensive study and the benefits of modern technology. And it was done: nearly etched in stone.

But to look past the classifications: to the maps, the geology, and the topography of the region is the goal of this article, in order to understand why certain sites create certain types of wine. What’s more, this knowledge allows us to be predictive of what style of wine we might expect a vineyard to produce based on available geographical and geological information.The subject gains remarkable complexity if you dig too deeply, requiring significant chemistry and geological explanation, of which I’m not qualified. So I will attempt to keep this a more general overview of the important aspects of terroir in Burgundy: ripening and exposition, (meaning how a vineyard faces the sun, slope,) the amount of soil and it’s makeup (topsoil, limestone, and clay) and , and a vineyard’s protection from the wind and weather.

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Note

(1) I too disagree with Lardiere. While Syrah can be quite transparent when just ripe, like in Cote Rotie, the moment it gains weight it becomes significantly dense and can carry a remarkable level of dry extract. Pinot Noir cannot achieve the size, weight, and tannin of Syrah. The short distance between Cote Rotie and Hermitage generally produces a vastly different wine: of terroir is obscured by Hermitage’s additional size and weight.

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See the other articles in this series

Marl: The Most Misused and Misunderstood Word in Burgundy Literature?

Preface to my upcoming article: “Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy”

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Saumaize-Michelin: A First Look at Roger Saumaize’s Intense 2012 Chardonnays

An Antique Map of Pouilly Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the five villages that make up the appellation.

An Antique Map of Pouilly-Fuisse. Vergisson is the Northern-Most of the four villages that make up the appellation.

Saumaize-Michelin is a top-flight small biodynamic grower-vigneron who is making some beautiful wines from his cellar in Vergisson.  Pouilly-Fuisse, unlike the appellations such as Chassagne and Meursault, is not centered around a single village, but rather four separate villages, Vergisson and Fuisse being the most renown. Vergisson sits in a valley below the massive limestone monolith of  La Roche de Vergisson, and some of its vineyards climb up and around the backside of this behemoth. Vergisson, the northern-most village, is the coolest in the appellations, and because of that, it is reputed to have the highest levels of acidity. In 2011, I would not have been so sure, but with these 2012s, the acidity and concentration of these wines (particularly with the Macon) are jaw dropping.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.

Roger Saumaize on a newly plated, steep-sloped vineyard that he thinks has tremendous potential.

2012 Pouilly-Fuisse “Vignes Blanches”

While the 2011s were a bit fat in Maconnaise, this, the first of the 2012 Pouilly to be shipped from Saumaize is sensational in zingingly crisp acidity, with lots of chalky minerals in the nose and the palate: round river stones, apple, lime peel, some nice weight, and modest viscosity. The wine is long and fresh, there is also a waft of balsa and mahogany sawdust. While there are many inexpensive Pouilly-Fuisses on the marketplace, this is definitely not one of those. This is a big step up in quality and verve, and it should improve as it puts on weight and gras with a couple years of age. A fantastic Chardonnay that is comparable in style and quality with a fine St-Aubin. This is drawn from several of his Pouilly-Fuisse Vineyards around Vergisson.  $32.00   92 points

 

Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.

Outside the green line that demarcates the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation, are vineyards that must be labeled as Macon or Macon-Vergisson depending on their location.

2012 Macon-Vergisson “La Roche”

Everything about this wine is intense, including its nose of cooked cream, lemon, lime peel and butterscotch. In the mouth there is ripping acidity, etching and intense in its attack, pushing the wines concentrated size and weight to their limit to hold this all together. This is a very powerful wine, that has both ripeness and fresh lemon and lots of lime peel flavors, some interesting twig/stem-like flavors, and finally, it gains some breadth in the back of the mouth, with fresh, yeasty bread dough flavors, and finishing with frothy cream, and toasty notes.  Impressive for its concentration and fierce attack, but it is almost difficult to drink.

“Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon village-level wine can be.”

Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize's top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block

Vergisson in the foreground and La Roche de Vergisson towering above. The vineyard Les Crays, one of Saumaize’s top plots can be clearly seen (the area of the tan vineyard block

I fear this will turn to all lemon curd as it matures, but I’d like to see this mellow just a bit. For now, it really wants to be paired with some fatty food to tame it a bit.  Wow. That’s a mouthful. It is difficult to judge at this stage. Will it come into balance? Time will tell.  If it can broaden out and sufficiently cover the fierce acidity, this could be a 91 or 92 point wine. But if the lemon flavors overwhelm the other fruit as it matures, this will ultimately fail for me, getting a low 80s score.  Either way, Roger Saumaize is swinging for the fences with this daring attempt to totally re-write what Macon-Village level wine can be.

This Macon-Vergisson vineyard had a particularly small crop, and we got half of the wine we received in 2011. Only 10 cases were imported.

 

Vergisson has various soil types, and Saumaize’s vineyards various vineyards represent this.

Ronchevats sits in deep, younger, Triassic era soils of non-calcareous clay, meaning there is no limestone present, although there is a significant amount of magnesium present.

The Les Crays vineyard, at the foot of La Roche de Vergisson, as well as Courtelongs to the south of town has soils that are made up of white Marl (a mix of clay and decomposed limestone) with a high percentage of limestone in the mix.

Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas

Croinoids, a multi-armed sealife that feeds through a center mouth, were abundant in huge numbers during certain periods in the prehistoric seas.

The top of Sur La Roche vineyard has shallow soils with Crinoidal Limestone (limestone full of Crinoidal fossils) from the Bajocian era limestone from the middle Jurassic 170 million years ago to 168 million years ago. This period is associated with the development of ammonite biozones  While lower on the hill has shallow soil over limestone from the Bathonian stage 168 million years ago to 166 million years ago. It is interesting to note that the older limestone sits above the younger limestone on the slope. What major upheaval of the earth resulted in that?

2012 Sobon Estate Zinfandel “Old Vines” Amador County

Sobon Estate property, which had been a winery site since 1856 when it was established first as Uhlinger Winery.  In 1911, Enrico D’Agostini purchased it. The property is a California historical landmark.

Sobon Estate property, which had been a winery site since 1856 when it was first established as Uhlinger Winery. In 1911, Enrico D’Agostini purchased it and operated it until . The property is a California registered historical landmark.

The Uber-Green Sobon Estate Winery

Sobon Estate is one of the most reliable Zin producers in the state, and they don’t charge an arm and a leg for their good work. The mothership is Shenandoah Vineyards which Leon and Shirley Sobon founded in 1977. In 1989 the Sobon’s purchased the d’Agostini winery, and this time self-titled it Sobon Estate. The d’Agostini property came with 113 acres of vines, many of them very old. The best lots come from three sites: Cougar Hill, Rocky Top and Lubenko vineyard blocks. The Sobon’s converted to organic farming in 2002. And unlike others who claim to bring their wines up to “only a minimal” 35 ppm of SO2, can learn something from Sobon Estate winemaker Paul Sobon who only allows 15 to 20 ppm of free sulfur at bottling. Paul learned his craft at the Chablis leading producer William Fevre, and the legendary Australian Balgownie in the Yarra Valley – in addition to his time at UC Davis earning his enology degree.

“…the finish is really fascinating and pulls this wine a long way back in my estimation. “

Tasting Notes: 2012 Sobon Estate Zinfandel “Old Vines” Amador County

Sobon Estate's basic-level Amador Zinfandel that sells for a bargain $10.99 at Beltramos

Sobon Estate’s basic-level Amador Zinfandel that sells for a bargain $10.99 at Beltramos

Day One: The wine’s muted nose of cooked-fruit, anise and a disjointed element that came off as slightly metallic didn’t show off the good-stuff that came later. I guess I should say right off : this is not a great wine. But that isn’t to say it is not worthy. Other than the nose, the wines greatest flaw is that it has an enormous hole right in the middle. While the wine has fruit, it really doesn’t have that core concentration of fruit it needs to cover the gap between the wines front end and the backend with its potent 14.5% alcohol. I know that’s a lot of negatives, but the finish is really fascinating and pulls this wine a long way back in my estimation. It suddenly surprises, with chalky minerality, briar-like stemminess that is wonderfully peppery. Add to that, it has slightly drying and spicy tannins give it a serious pause, making the back-end of this wine the star here.  It’s lingering strawberry, black cherry fruit rounds out the finish.  Great wine or not, at 10.99, this is a terrific value packed with unexpected nuance. Wines with this much ying and yang of rough and sublime are only mis-served by scoring them, so I will not.

Day Two: The mid-palate has filled out substantially, and I have found this wine responds well to a cool cellar temperature which makes the fruit pop. The downside is this buries the spicy finish which had shown so brilliantly yesterday. But at least now, with a bit of a chill, the alcohol doesn’t feel so warm and the palate is more complete with no hole in the middle.

Definitely, check our the Cougar Hill and Rock Top bottlings from this winery which are a big step up in quality from this basic bottling, yet can still be found under $15. The Rocky Top tends to be a bit dryer in fruit, while the Cougar Hill tends to be a bit more sweetly fruited, depending on the vintage. These are always two of the most solid, (and frugal) buys you are going to find in Zinfandel.

solar_house2

The Shenandoah Valley property is so green that it has a negative carbon footprint, meaning it actually eliminates more CO2 gasses than it produces.

Sobon Estate on Citysearch

Saint Aubin, Chardonnay, and Henri Prudhon’s 2011

This photo is shot from the middle of Les Mergers Dents de Chien 1er Cru. The vineyard is rugged, with  small areas that seem not deemed plantable. Here it slopes down to the highly regarded "en Remilly." Nearby to the left across an unplanted spit of land sits the Grand Cru, Chevalier Montrachet. Just visible, across the mouth of the valley,  you can see village of Chassagne.

This photo is shot from the middle of Les Mergers Dents de Chien 1er Cru. The vineyard is rugged, with areas that seem not deemed plantable. Here it slopes down toward the highly regarded 1er Cru “en Remilly.” Nearby, to the left, across an unplanted spit of land sits the Grand Cru, Chevalier Montrachet. Just visible, across the mouth of the valley, you can see the village of Chassagne. and some of the Chassagne 1er Crus.

“Les Murgers des Dents de Chien” 1er Cru

The ascension of Saint Aubin in the eyes white Burgundy devotees is in full swing. This rise in popularity has multiple facets, but no doubt people have noticed the uptick in ripeness and complexity from the wines of the region.  They will tell you however of the emergence of  really talented, – tell your friends about this guy – kind of wine makers, that are now producing wine in Saint Aubin. This, of course, only adds to the allure of buying  (relatively) affordable, yet high-quality, white Burgundy when the prices of the big names are going nuts.  In the past there had been little reason to delve into these “satellite” appellations, since there were really so few buyers and plenty of good Chassagne and Puligny that could be had at reasonable prices. But things have changed. Competition has become fierce to secure what little wine can be produced from three famous villages of the Cote de Beaune. People began to whisper about Saint Aubin.

An aerial photo of the vineyard. the great Chevalier-Montrachet is just out of sight over the scrub trees, down the hill to the left. The close proximity to this great vineyard has done wonders for the reputation of Saint Aubin in recent years.

An aerial photo of the vineyard. the great Chevalier-Montrachet is just out of sight over the scrub trees, down the hill to the left. The close proximity to this great vineyard has done wonders for the reputation of Saint Aubin in recent years.

At the mouth of the valley that holds the appellation, Saint Aubin shares a border with Chassagne Montrachet on one side, and Puligny Montrachet on the other. All along the once lowly Saint Aubin border, sits a hit parade of famous Premier Cru vineyards: Chassagne-Les Chaumees, Chassagne-Les Vergers, Chassagne-Chevenottes, Chassagne-en Remilly, Puligny Champ-Canets, and most importantly in terms of prestige, at the top of the hill, it adjoins the great vineyard of Chevalier-Montrachet. And to guild the lily, Saint Aubin is also a mere separation from the famed Puligny vineyard of Les Folatieres.  But whereas the Grand Crus of Chassagne and Puligny directly face the sun, and the premier crus get fine exposure, the hills of Saint Aubin largely turn away from the sun. This gives its vineyards fewer hours of direct sunlight during the critical final moments of ripening, just at  a time when the weather is often already starting to get cooler. Additionally, being in the valley gives them no protection from any wind that might also steal needed warmth. The result is a crisper, more lime driven wine than those in Puligny and or Chassagne, most of which sit in the protection of the hillsides.

And Then There Is Global Warming

Beyond all of that, the defining factor that brought Saint Aubin up in the estimation of Burgundy aficionados (whether they know it or not) is global warming. Global warming has had an enormous impact on the style of wines around the world, but has been especially impactful on the character and quality of the vineyards in Northern Europe. As little as thirty years ago, only the vineyards with the very best exposures, that where tipped toward the sun on hillsides, and protected from the wind and weather, could sufficiently ripen grapes enough to make good wine in most vintages. In absolute numbers, from 1990 to 2006, the average temperature has gone up 1.2 degrees F., and it had already gone up 1.2 degrees F. in the previous thirty years.  Today, the crop is consistently ripe enough to make good wine across all climates* in virtually every vintage.

Aviary Photo_130437250206082158Domaine (Field) Prudhon, Saint Aubin

Vincent and Philippe Prudhon run this highly regarded family estate in Saint Aubin, from its 14 hectares (7,500 cases). The vineyards are planted with meter by meter spacing, giving a densely planted vineyard of 10,000 vines per hectare.  The brothers use a pneumatic jacket press to extract the juice from the grapes, and then rack directly into barrique, where primary and malolactic fermentations are completed. The wine left on the fine lees until they are racked and bottled. It was their father Gerard who took the leap from selling their family’s grapes to negociants to bottling and marketing the wine themselves in 1983. And it was Gerard that was one of the major forces in showcasing this up and coming, but uncelebrated region.  And once again, (as I wrote in my Kermit Lynch piece,) so many great French domaines have emerged because they partnered with foreign exporters to find fertile markets for their wines, and to sell them at higher prices than they could have sold them in France. With Neal Rosenthal in New York and Richards Walford in London exporting up to 85% of the domain’s production, this gave the family the freedom to re-invest in vineyards and equipment, and ultimately allowed them to attain the success and reputation they are known for today. Today Domaine Henri Prudhon, along with Hubert Lamy and Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (who is actually based in Chassagne) are the three great champions of Saint Aubin.

Les Mergers des Dents de Chien

Mugers refers to the broken, vertical tectonic plates that form natural walls (Mergers) along the ridgeline. They jut out of the earth, pushed the geologic forces that formed the hill Mont-Rachet. Often were used as the natural separation of vineyards, these ragged Dent de Chien  (teeth of the dog) decisively define the division between Puligny and Saint Aubin, physically, financially and one suspects emotionally. The Dent de Chien area (see map) runs along the top of the ridge line of Mont-Rachet  is left wild and not farmable. However, in the 1980s, 10 hectares of scrubland was cleared and planted with vines (with great excitement) extending the vineyards en Remilly and Les Murgers des Dents de Chien, bringing Saint Aubin that much closer to  Chevalier-Montrachet. This development was significant because it sparked a real feeling of legitimacy within the vignerons of Saint Aubin. They point to their vineyards having the same limestone base and thin soils as Puligny’s very finest vineyards, and they now believe their wines, in the best years can rival the much more prestigious vineyards in terms of quality, if not reputation.

Aviary Photo_1304390753651275332011 Henri Prudhon, Saint Aubin 1er Cru “Les Murgers des Dents de Chien”

Day One: Having such high hopes and expectations of course is a mistake, but I was somewhat disappointed with this bottle: it was crisp with lime and leafy-green pyrazine flavors, and long, tight acidity. It was clearly very closed, and it was not clear whether there was any weight or real fruit or character behind its shrill facade. But most disconcerting was the green flavors that straddled the jalapeño/eucalyptus flavor profile. I can’t say this is unusual with 2011s, since it was a cool vintage.  I think these flavors will integrate with a year or two (plus) in the bottle, but only time will tell – I’ll certainly find out since I have another bottle. On the positive side it showed some power and intensity with plenty of viscosity indicating ripeness, and the fruit trying to break out. I hoped a night later, with a little air, this might show better, indicating a good evolution in the bottle.  At $30, I’m not feeling this was money well spent. Score on day one: 83 points. Day Two: That was certainly the case: on day two the green flavors have integrated and ripe apple, and tropical fruit flavors have broadened the palate, pushing down much of the lime notes that were so predominant yesterday. The wine has nice ripeness that was so carefully camouflaged the previous evening. Baked apple and hot river stones comes off the nose, with banana, mango, brioche and in the distant background are notes of geraniums and vanilla.  In the mouth, the entry is linear, but broadens quickly on its bright acidic notes, fanning out with baked apple, tropical fruits, brioche, toast. Now I’m more hopeful of my investment. Score on day two: 87 points.   *Climate(s): A French word referring to vineyard(s) as a homogeneous unit having a particular exposure and climate.

Argh! Too Many Spritzy Wines!

Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson

Roche de Solutré in the heart of Macon, and above the Pouilly-Fuisse village of Vergisson

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”

Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!

Argh! More Spritzy Wines! My Grapes of Wrath!

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.

Lust-worthy: 2007 Joseph Roty Gevery “Les Fontenys” 1er Cru

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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.

The Domaine

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 planted in 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.

The ravine Combe de Lavaux defines most of the premier crus of Gevrey-Chambertin

The ravine Combe de Lavaux defines most of the premier crus of Gevrey-Chambertin

The Fontenys Vineyard

Les Fontenys sit adjacent to the Grand Crus Ruchottes-Chambertin and Mazis-Chambertin. There are

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.gevrey map

A Great Producer That Fails Comparison Tastings: Joseph Roty

Stand Alone Producer

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

From author:" Tast de Gevrey Chambertin: ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia

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.

Tasting Note: A Burgundian Minervois? Anne Gros

From the author: "THe vinyards are all ar...

The vineyards are all around the village of Minerve. Minerve gave its name to the Minervois, a region and a wine appellation” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a wine from the formidable Burgundian husband and wife team of Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot. But this wine isn’t from Burgundy, it’s from the Languedoc’s Minervois appellation. I suspect that a Minervois has never tasted like this before.

There are so many pieces to this puzzle of a wine, that I suppose I should just deal with the tasting notes first. Later, I can talk about all of the perplexing peripheral issues this Minervois presents. I have to say right up front, this is a wine that raises many more questions than it can possibly answer.

2009 Domaine Anne Gros & Jean-Paul Tollot, “Les Fontanilles” Minervois 

This blend of  GrenacheSyrah, Carignan and Cinsault is dark, almost black in color. On the nose, there is some liqueur of cherry and raspberry fruit, but this wine isn’t giving off much in aroma. In the mouth, the wine is soft, very soft, much softer than anything I’ve tasted in quite some time. But the there is considerable fresh, red cherry fruit, and deeper black fruits, particularly the deep black cherry I associate with a riper premier cru, or grand cru Burgundy. The significant fruit of Les Fontanilles is accented with faint notes of smoke, thyme and a touch of black pepper. The mouth-feel is round and supple, but not the slightest bit heavy, and it has a very creamy texture. This wine has a remarkable delicacy, and I keep getting a watermelon-like fruit, right on the surface of this wine. It’s pretty, very pretty in fact, and surprisingly it has tremendous balance. It is really quite delicious, and just calls out for a second glass.  $32   86-92 points

And that is it.  That is all I could find in the wine. It was delicious. It was very pretty. But without much acidity, it’s range of flavors was limited. I really can’t explain how the wine had so much fruit, with virtually no acidity or tannin, yet somehow it remained so remarkably balanced. It had good richness, and it never once approached being flabby.

“Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine.”

This wine was like a beautiful, delicate young girl, with really nothing to say. Very nice to be around, but you can’t talk politics or philosophy with her – maybe the most basic current events, but not much more. Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine. This is a wine of great finesse, balance and elegance, with really lovely fruit. It’s like a beautiful top-flight Burgundy without the nose, or any complexity, really at all.

The 2009 Les Fontainilles is a very difficult wine to judge.  You can’t really throw a number at it, and say this is an 86 or a 92.  It is both of those scores depending on which angle you look at the wine.  It does some things magnificently well, and almost fails in other areas. It is both fascinating and perplexing.  I guess the bottom line is, would I buy this for $32?  The answer is yes; not only is it really elegant and finessed, it delicious. And most importantly, all this rigorous head scratching makes it well worth the price.

The Winemaker, Anne Gros

anne Gros pic   For those not familiar with Anne Gros, she is one of the real succ ess stories of Burgundy. In 1988, at 22 years old, she took over her father’s failing Domaine Francois Gros. He had health issues, but really, he had never made the quality of wines his brother, the famed Jean Gros, produced. She was almost instantly a star. By the mid-nineties, her tiny production of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Clos Vougeot were highly sought after, and prices were going up. That was twenty years ago, now she is married to another vigneron, Jean-Paul Tollot, of Domaine Tollot-Beaut in Chorey-Les-Beaune, and together they have three children.  Anne now wanted a new challenge.  So they began a long search for a new project. It had to be somewhere else, and it had to have soil similar to Burgundy’s marl and limestone. The search lead them to Minervois, and a property with very old vines.

The Vineyard, “Les Fontainilles”

This vineyard, Les Fontainilles, is a north-facing, bowl-shaped, 7 acre vineyard of flaky, grey sediment-soil, the French refer to as Gres. The vines were planted between the 1960s and the 1980s, predominately to Grenache, although Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault are grown there also. Half the wine is aged in wood, the other half in stainless, preserving all that fresh cherry and raspberry fruit. A good description (by Robert Parker) of the project can be found here. The property is in the far South of Minervois, right on the St Chinian border in a tiny village called Cazelles.

And All of the Unanswered Questions….

So, there are a multitude of questions that revolve around how to judge such a wine.  The winemaking style clearly has transformed what we expect from these varietals, and from the region in general.  That said, the style is non-interventionist, and done with a much more delicate hand. Clearly, this wine was not acidulated or manipulated in any way. Presumably Anne and Jean-Paul believe acidification of grape must is a tremendous mistake (as many top winemakers do), this is intended to be a true expression of the vintage and the terroir. Has it succeeded in this?

The key question, I suppose, is should you treat the grapes of the Sud (Southern France) as you would Pinot Noir? Is Anne Gros revealing the true nature of the grapes and the vineyard? Is she really getting everything out of these grapes that she should in order to tell the whole story of the land and the grapes? This is a beautiful wine, with a lovely finesse, but it doesn’t really have much in the way of complexity or verve, and these are serious nagging issues. Is she leaving those qualities in the must? The alcohol is 14.5 percent, so these grapes were ripe.  Did they pick them too late, forsaking the grape’s natural acidity?  It wouldn’t seem so, since there were no signs of over-ripeness to the fruit character. But the fact remains, that with Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards needing attention five hours away, these Minervois vines may not get that minute-by-minute attention they might need in a hot year like 2009. The winemakers simply can’t be in two places at once.

And then, there is this question: if you break the mold of a regional wines typicity, such as Gros and Tollot have done, will others realize it as brilliance and embrace the approach, or will they walk away? This is always a risk that the visionaries and the rule-breakers contend with. These are great gambles, that pay off for some like Piero Antinori when he bottled Tiganello as a Vino di Tavola and so many others who have done things the way they think is best, regardless of convention. These are risks that make reputations and change the industry. But for every maverick that succeeds brilliantly, and are vindicated by their position, there a countless others who fail quietly.

Anne Gros and Jean-Paul have staked a significant energy and money into this project, and are relying on their position as great Burgundy producers to help sell their wines, which are definately Burgundian in style.  It is a tough road for sure, one that a fellow Burgundian has traveled. According to an article by Jancis Robinson MW, the well-regarded Jean-Marie Fourrier from Gevrey-Chambertin, had bought a winery in Faugerers, nearer the coast. His experiment resulted in having to walk away from the venture after just a few years. Advice he would give to other Anne and Jean-Paul, whom he had never met?

Spend lots of time with local people from the Languedoc as they can be very helpful – or they can make your life much harder. When you run two businesses 400 miles from each other, the temptation is to work, work and work with the obligation of success. But don’t forget that you are considered a foreigner by the local people. 

This is not to say that Anne Gros is on the wrong course. But as delicious as this wine is, it raises more questions than tasting it can answer. I am interested to see if the 2010s will have better retained their structure, being a year that was cooler, and the wines from 2010 generally had much brighter acids.  For me, that would be the deciding factor. But when a wine is this delicate in a hot, fruit driven year that is marked by most wines being massively concentrated and heavily structured, it’s hard to imagine what will come next.  I may get to taste a couple of the 2010’s in a couple of weeks time. We’ll see then.  I personally can’t wait to read the next chapter.   Dean

Bordeaux and Burgundy’s Relevance on the American Wine Scene

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P7141848 (Photo credit: cumi&ciki)

Bordeaux and Burgundy have been in something of the doldrums in terms of relevance on the American wine scene since the recession began in 2008. It was at this time that, while the near collapse of financial markets in the west, there was an influx of new wealth in China.  The Chinese nouveau riche with their insatiable appetite for the best Bordeaux had to offer, drove prices up at a time when budgets were shrinking here. Also at the very, most wealthy, in America and Europe and Russia just continued to gain wealth – snapping up blue chip wines for their cellars. The result the rarest of Burgundies and the most highly celebrated Bordeaux climbed, and climbed in price

The resulting wine trends in the United States was a combination of a rejection of Bordeaux’s pricing, and focus on wines from other places. For the generally stayed Bordeaux drinker, Brunello di Montalcino was an easy retreat.  Comparatively, Brunellos were cheap, delicious, and some of the very best producers weren’t much more than $60. With their excellent international reputation, softer tannins, Brunello was a socially acceptable down-sizing for the Bordeaux drinker.  For a more adventurous Burgundy drinker, there was a lot of thrilling options to choose from, most notably the remarkable Barolos and Barbarescos coming from Piemonte, and Aglianicos from Campagna and Basilicata.  Although for inexperienced tasters these wines have more challenges of in terms of structure and bitterness, their aromatics and texture are a huge draw with those wines, surpassing Burgundy in quality and complexity at each price point.

“The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that cannot be produced anywhere else in the world.”

This economic dynamic created a scarcity of the top wines, while most of the lower and middle tiered wines sat, lingering in distributor warehouses and retailers shelves.  Of course this has always been the problem. The top 1% of wines has an eager market, the rest are more difficult to sell. Only now, this disparity is much more acute.  Now, as the stock market soars and the housing market moves back toward record highs, we can predict that this trend will continue.  The difference I think, is the wine in the next tiers down will be forced to lower their prices because the most of the middle class is not gaining wealth in the recovery.  There will not be an increased market for middle tier wines, rather these wines will need to retreat some in price.

In the past, the first growth and second growth Bordeaux were not so expensive that the middle class wine buyer could buy them occasionally, and the same went with Grand Cru Burgundy.  But I have always felt the soul of those appellations are those below those haut crus.  In Burgundy, I have always felt, that if you don’t know the premier cru’s you don’t know Burgundy.  Sure the Grand Cru tasted great.  They were ripe and succulent – anybody could like those.  The true soul, the heart and character of Burgundy is in the terroir, and if the wines got too ripe, this would be covered up, and the aromatics would be buried. For that reason I have always been a fan of the ”off years.”  To me, they seemed to retain more aromatics and just seemed to age better. The ripeness of the Grand Crus, at least to me, often masked the vineyard’s terrior.  As for Bordeaux, I have always been a fan of the 3rd through 5th growth Bordeaux and Cru Bourgeois. I know, it’s an underdog thing, but they were really good then, and today they are much better even now which in many cases justifies their price increases.  Besides, what hasn’t gone up in price?

Having just started to go out into the marketplace this week with some of these Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, it is fun to watch the light bulbs go off as the wines are tasted.  In many cases, the reactions I got are as if these buyers had suddenly remembered that Bordeaux and Burgundy even existed.  That’s how far removed the wine industry in many places has become from these two regions.  The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that can not be produced anywhere else in the world. It makes you wonder if part of the problem with the relevance of Bordeaux is not only the prices, but the extreme modernization of the wine making, and the resultant fruit-driven styles that have taken hold there.

Givry vineyards 3

Givry vineyards 3 (Photo credit: Max xx)

Tasting the wines from these two classic French appellations is like a re-awakening. They are beautiful, full of personality and character. Sure, because of my new job I have a vested interest in the success of Burgundy and Bordeaux in the market place.  But I left my buyer’s position at The Wine Club precisely so I could immerse myself in the amazing portfolio at Atherton Wine Imports. While there certainly is a lot more competition for their attention, but I think Burgundy and Bordeaux are, and will again gain in relevance in the American wine consciousness.     Dean 

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.