2011 Joseph Roty, Gevrey-Chambertin, “Champs-Chenys”

Champs ChenysChamps-Chenys is one of those vineyards that was given a short shrift when the official INAO classification occurred in 1936. While the vineyard just at its hip (the lower section of Mazoyères-Chambertin*) is classified as Grand Cru, Champs-Chenys was only classified as a village-level wine. At first blush, the two vineyard sections look like a mirrored image of one another. Both vineyards hold the same position and exposition on the hillside. Both vineyards sit above the same Comblanchien limestone. But the difference between Mazoyères (bas) and Champs-Chenys is that Mazoyères sits in richer, sedimentary soils, that over centuries have washed down from a small combe, or ravine, cut into the hill above. This gives the wine from Mazoyères significantly more depth, power, and authority than a wine from Champs-Chenys can, with its limestone-rich marl that is covered with pebbles and galets and sprinkled with pyrite.

Immediately above Champs-Chenys is the Grand Cru “au Charmes” which is more commonly known as Charmes-Chambertin. Charmes has a marl topsoil like Champs-Chenys, but under that lies Premeaux limestone which is more friable than the Comblanchien below Champs-Chenys, so the vine’s roots are better able to penetrate deep into the stone below. Charmes is also warmer with the vineyard being tilted on the hillside toward the sun, and better protected from the wind, being tucked behind the hill. Charmes is well known for its delicate fragrance and rich, seductive fruit, and round smooth mouthfeel.

“This is a wine that is prized by cognoscenti of Burgundy’s finest, yet most under-appreciated vineyards.”

 

Aviary Photo_130556986614926167While all of this side by comparison to Mazoyères and Charmes point to Champs-Chenys being a lesser wine, it is actually very good news for those who realize what a solid vineyard Champs-Chenys actually is…  not to mention what a value it is (in terms of Burgundy) due to its simple village classification.  Additionally, Chez Roty’s parcel of vines is north of 50 years old, and the old plant material, coupled with Philippe Roty‘s considerable winemaking skill, leaves you with a wine that is routinely superb in quality. This is a wine that is prized by cognoscenti of Burgundy’s finest, yet most under-appreciated vineyards.  Roty’s lieu-dits of Champs-Chenys is without a doubt premier cru quality, and it can age effortlessly for decades.

photo 22011 Joseph Roty, Gevrey-Chambertin “Champs-Chenys”

The 2011 is just now coming out of what I felt was a considerable shock after shipping. A full 5 months after arrival, (Roty releases a year later than most other producers,) this Champs-Chenys is displaying this parcel’s distinctive smoky and savage aromas. It is the only cuvee in Roty’s line-up possesses these decidedly meaty smoky traits, indicating it is not the winemaking style rather the plot dictates the wine’s profile.  Although it drank well from the first moment, it really developed beautiful nuance over the course of a day, unfurling notes of roses, blood-like iron aromas underbrush, loam, blackberry and black cherry fruit.

After about an hour, it began showing the exotic, smoky, wild game-tinged aromas I expect to see from Roty’s Champs-Chenys.  The wine is round and quite fresh, and though not as powerful as bigger vintages, this does not lack for concentration. It has good structure, round tannins, and relatively soft acidity, making this a pleasure to drink now. The overall effect is a black-fruited, mid-weight Gevrey that is ripe, but without heaviness, nor is there any sur-maturity. It has excellent fresh fruit character of black cherry fruit that keeps it lively and long. The tannins are fine-grained and the finish that resonates long, and with nice complexity, all of which is highlighted by a deftly handled use of barrique. This a beautiful wine that will keep developing with age, but drinks beautifully now. 90 points when first opened.  92+ points when given time to open up. Very Highly Recommended.  $70

 

*Mazoyères-au Charmes can legally be, and usually, is labeled as Charmes Chambertin. This is because Charmes is a much more recognized name, making it easier to sell. Roughly 10% the wine make from this vineyard is labeled as Mazoyères-Chambertin

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2012 Fredreric Esmonin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Prieur

Clos Prieur Bas, with Clos Prieur 1er Cru and Mazis Chambertin directly behind it.

Clos Prieur Bas Vineyard, with Clos Prieur 1er Cru, Mazis Chambertin and the legendary Clos de Beze directly behind it.

Domaine Frederic Esmonin, a firm that produces solid wines from their cellar in Gevrey-Chambertin every year, really made some special Burgundies in 2012. The wines retain Esmonin’s characteristic freshness while gaining a touch more swagger, with modest but noticeable increases in ripeness, concentration, and depth. This is not to say these 2012s are big or heavy wines. They are not, but many crus could use a few years in the cellar.  Having tasted through the entire lineup at our San Francisco Tasting in April, the Clos Prieur was the one wine that was lighter, and quite a bit more aromatic than all of the others.

For me, Clos Prieur was a standout. It had such superb balance, and the aromatics melded seamlessly with its broad red cherry-filled palate while retaining an almost airy weight, all of which struck just the right cord. Whereas the other Gevreys were dark, impressive and somewhat brooding, the Clos Prieur was translucent and open. It is said by some winemakers that these vineyards just south of the village are prone to lightness and delicacy and that if care is not taken can be light and washed out if yields are not kept in check.

The grapes at Esmonin grown lutte-raisonnee. They are said to be destemmed, though I have detected what I believe to be the presence of at least some stems in the cuverie on more than one occasion. The fruit is cold-macerated for a few days, giving them the wines their dark color, before fermenting traditionally. The wines are bottled quite early, giving them a uniquely fresh, almost grapey quality when they are young. Andre Esmonin, Frederic’s father, makes the wine here. I reviewed the delicious, and darker 2012 Esmonin Hautes-Cotes de Nuits earlier this year. See that review here.

Clos Prieur Bas in the center of the map sits in deep marl (loose, earthy deposits that are a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate) over a Combanchien Limestone base.

Clos Prieur Bas in the center of the map sits in deep marl (loose, earthy deposits that are a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate) over a Combanchien Limestone base.

2012 Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Prieur 

This Clos Prieur is just lovely. A translucent ruby-red, this Pinot is all about purity, a quality that not celebrated often enough, and because of that occurs all too rarely in wine. The nose is fresh and buoyant, with cherries, smoke, a touch of thyme, vanilla, and some of Gevrey’s iron-rich meaty notes, along with a light airy quality of fresh roses. Initially, the wine appears lean, but as the palate adjusts, this gives way quickly to a soft round palate that is light and lovely. It’s rose-tinged flavors of cherry, deeper plum, orange peel, vanilla, and cream with a touch of stem, are perfumed and lifted,  just floating on and on. If you look for that animal, it is there, but not so apparent at this stage. I’m assuming this will become more prominent as it ages. This is not a wine and wine style people will accept as being a high scoring wine, but I have to say I really, really enjoyed this. Some have said this to be a bit simple, but I did not find that to be the case. It just wasn’t big and powerful.  Is there a confusion about what complexity is? The future for this wine is that it is destined to change; I think fairly dramatically. I may gain some more weight, and its freshness will certainly replace the more typical Gevrey traits of forest floor and savage animal notes, on it’s very aromatically driven platform. Esmonin’s wines are noted for how effortlessly they age, and this should be no different.  91 points (but I really liked it more than that).

Map produced by geologist Franciose Vannier-Petit for the Gevrey Chambertin Viticultural Society

Map produced by geologist Franciose Vannier-Petit for the Gevrey-Chambertin Viticultural Society

The Vineyard and the Geology

Clos Prieur is the name of two distinctly different vineyards. Despite this, writers have historically referred to them as a single vineyard that is split by classification. The Clos Prieur-Bas section, where this plot is located, sits down-slope, with much deeper marl topsoil, than its sibling. The bottom of Clos Prieur-bas is even more fertile, affected by the alluvial soil that was washed down from the Combe de Lavaux over the centuries.  Beneath the vineyard, virtually impervious to the penetration by the roots of vines, lies the very hard, fine-grained Comblanchien limestone.

On the other hand, the smaller premier cru of Clos Prieur-Haut, which sits atop Clos Prieur-Bas like a mignon, has shallower marl soils and the friable Crinoidal Limestone below. The very bottom of the vineyard is similar soils and Comblanchien to Clos Prieur bas, but it is amazing how closely these ancient vineyard divisions echoed the geology that had not been mapped until very recently. We can thank geologist Francoise Vannier-Petit and the Syndicat Viticole de Gevrey-Chambertin for this in-depth, (literally hundreds of investigative trenches were dug) in order to deliver this ground-breaking research. (I was unable to resist the pun.)

Notably, the premier cru of Clos Prieur sits among a string of premier cru and grand cru vineyards, including Chapelle, Griotte and Charmes-Chambertin, All which follow the same swath of Crinoidal limestone that runs North-South from Gevrey to Morey-St-Denis – and probably doesn’t stop there! This crinoidal limestone flows below the road (the Route de Grand Crus) which is the upper-most boundary of  Clos Prieur-Haut and is no more than 200 yards wide at this point. The Crinoidal limestone widens as it reaches the Clos-de-Beze vineyard, coving half of that cru and half of Chambertin as well. While the road turns away from its path along the limestone toward N74, the line demarcating vineyards continues to follow limestone below.

2011 Domaine Terres Dorees, (Jean-Paul Brun) Beaujolais L’Ancien

Jean Paul Brun's Domaine Terres Dorees near the Southern Beaujolais village of Charnay. While not a privileged address, Brun is making some superb Beaujolais from across the region.

Jean Paul Brun’s Domaine Terres Dorees near the Southern Beaujolais village of Charnay. While not a privileged address, Brun is making some superb Beaujolais from old vines here in the Beaujolais des Pierres Dorees, and from plots in Crus Beaujolais Villages he has purchased over the years.

I suppose saying the name of the firm that imports Jean-Paul Brun’s wines will say as much about the wine, right up front, as I can in a paragraph. It’s Louis/Dressner, the king among the proponents of “natural” winemaking. Pick a wine from Dressner’s portfolio, and it’s bound to be one of the least manipulated wines you will find in the marketplace. Indeed this is the case of Domaine Terres Dorees: Brun farms biodynamically, typically does not capitalize (- his wines hover around 12%+ alcohol,) uses indigenous yeasts, often does not use SO2, or uses the most minuscule amount. Instead, he relies on encouraging residual CO2 to remain in the wine during bottling to protect it as it ages (which may require decanted the wine before drinking.)  With diligence and meticulousness, the wines of Domaine Terres Dorees are routinely phenomenal.

A map borrowed from Decanter.com of the Beaujolais Crus. Note that Terres Dorees is quite a distance away, but still in the Beaujolais appellation.http://www.decanter.com/people-and-places/wine-travel/530454/beaujolais-six-estates-to-visit

A map borrowed from Decanter.com of the Beaujolais Crus. Note that Terres Dorees is quite a distance away – 100km from the Crus (top left map) but owns various plots in Cru Beaujolais appellations. http://www.decanter.com/people-and-places/wine-travel/530454/beaujolais-six-estates-to-visit

 

Jean-Paul Brun, Robert Parker, and the Natural Wine Debate

Brun started his winery with 3 hectares of family owned vines, and over the last 35 years has continuously added to his vineyards, bringing his current landholding to a sizable 25 hectares in Beaujolais des Pierres Dorees (in far south near Lyon) and 5 hectares of Cru Beaujolais scattered across various villages. Domaine Terres Dorees produces roughly 300,000 bottles / 25,000 cases per year. What is notable is for a winery of this size to produce wines which are not only biodynamically farmed, but produced in virtually an organic. That’s no easy feat, with so many of vats and barrels to monitor at any one time. Brun claims in the interview on the Louis/Dressner site, that he is not against using SO2. He says he’d much rather see people make good wine by adding sulfites, than produce bad wine because they couldn’t control the results of not using it, which is so often the case. Winemakers who don’t use SO2 and then make flawed wine, “discredits sulfur-free wine,” as a category, Brun says forcefully.  By extension, I take that to mean the work he is doing. Jean-Paul adds “For these guys it becomes less about making great wine and more about being part of a “cool” movement.” (see Side Bar, Counselors for more on this subject)

 

2011 Domaine Terres Dorees, Beaujolais L’Ancien $16

This wine is alive, and so vibrant! You can tell just by the color, but it’s the nose that hits you first, even you as you pour the wine. It virtually shoots out with high-toned cranberry, cherry fruit, and then finally clove and cinnamon notes eventually take over… (these are the tell-tail aromas of stem inclusion, although reports are that he de-stems.) In the mouth, the wine is light in weight yet spreads out broadly. It has an expansive texture that is soft, caressing and willowy, yet tingles with energy and vibrancy. The flavors just keep resonating, with rich black cherry, plum, and fresh, dark, black-skinned grape notes.  Brilliant winemaking for a “simple” Beaujolais to be sure, but then this is no mass-produced plonk either. A serious winemaking team put this effort together, using a good vineyard source, and farmed in an exceptional manner.

Don’t count out the fact that it is a natural wine*.  I have noticed a bright vibrancy that well-made ‘natural wines’ have in common. It is a unique characteristic that other wines, that have had SO2 added to them don’t share.  In the mouth they so fresh and alive, and an extra measure of expressiveness. Could this commonality be no more than the CO2 on the palate?  Whatever it is this had that unique characteristic in spades. Highly recommended: 91 points.

Reading Between The Lines

L’Ancien often indicates an old traditional methods of winemaking, but not in the case with Brun’s Beaujolais.  Here it refers only to the vine age. They are certainly over 50 years old according to some sources, though the Louis/Dressner site says 80+ years. Regardless of the age of the vines, there is little about the way Brun makes wine that is traditional for the often mass-produced wines of the Beaujolais appellation. Even though I am absolutely sure I tasted stem contact in this Beaujolais, it is written that he favors de-stemming. Destemming is fairly unusual in Beaujolais. Perhaps he de-stems his more prestigious crus, but not this l’Ancien?  In any case, there is a bit of cold maceration to set the color, which helps give it its dark color despite its relatively low ripeness of 12% alcohol.  It is also written that he releases late for Beaujolais, preferring to give extra time in the barrel, more that 18 months, to soften up the tannins. Again, I suspect this regime is for the Cru Beaujolais, and I am sure this lower tiered Beaujolias l’Ancien only saw any oak, it wasn’t for long. It was very fresh, even now after a year on the market. The 2012 has already been released in the US Market.

This wine comes from his vineyards that surround his winery in Beaujolais des Pierre Dorees, – way down South in Bas Beaujolais. Pierres Dorees means stones of gold, referring what is colloquially called “yellow sandstone” that dates back to the Secondary Era (between 30 and 70 million years ago). This “sandstone” is more famous for its use in building the golden stone architecture of the area than it’s presence in the vineyards – since in the past no one took the wines made there very seriously.  Sedimentary rock that has or more 50% calcium carbonate in the form of calcite  (which often comes from the fossilized remains shellfish) is considered limestone, and less than 50% is considered sandstone. It is well documented that the entire area was covered by oceans millions of years ago, having left many deposits of the calcareous (chalky) remains of sea life across the growing area. Some people have casually written there is a limestone sub soil there. But that kind of bedrock really sits below Domaine Terres Dorees and the rest of Beaujolais des Pierre Dorees?   That’s a good question.

 

most likely a natural wine may be more accurate.


 

Read an outstanding and colorful interview with Jean-Paul on the Louis/Dressner website. Be sure to click on the small gray words Read More below the word Interview to open it up – it’s not as obvious as it should be.

 

Side Bar, Counselors

SB 1: Can We Just Get To the Truth? 

There are conflicting accounts of Bruns methods (as well as for the total area of his holdings) with multiple sources stating various and wildly conflicting things. Where possible, I have used direct quotes from Brun to determine the “facts” I report here.  However, here is a typical dichotomy: Brun in a Louis/Dressner interview from 2011 alludes to not using sulfur at all, but the Louis/Dressner producer profile says he uses minimal SO2. It is entirely possible that since the website info was written, Brun had since stopped using SO2 altogether, and the Dressner website simply hadn’t been updated.  Other exporters site Brun is a natural winemaker, not using SO2. One website rawfair.com is written as if it were a Torres Dorees press release:

Le Domaine des Terres Dorées represents 30 hectares in Southern Beaujolais and 15 hectares in the Beaujolais crus. The soil is calcareous in the South with hints of iron and the stone is a golden color hence its name: Pierres Dorées means Golden Stones. Here we labor the soil, we protect the vines with copper and sulfur.”

While the Dressner site says the holdings are smaller at 40 acres, and quotes Jean-Paul Brun in the interview saying he has 5 hectares in among the Cru Beaujolais appellations.

So much wine reporting is done with casual exchanges of information, often being translated from one language to another. Then, with is so much room for error and misinterpretation, the information, gets propagated by multiple sources, be they wine writers, bloggers, retailers, and the general public, appearing all across the web as fact.  The original source material is buried by this regurgitation, and there is no reference to when the information was written, or even if it was correct in the first place.

 

SB 2: The Natural Wine War of Words

That couldn’t be underscored more poignantly than by Robert Parker’s recent essay (if you can call it that) “Articles of Merit: There is No Reason and The Truth is Plain To See”, which was published on erobertparker.com. In what quickly devolves into a rant,  he scorns the vocal natural wine proponents who rage against the mainstream wine world, and call mainstream winemaking over-ripe, cookie cutter, commercialized, and soulless. Of course Parker is routinely blamed for most of these vinous atrocities, and who can really blame him for letting loose?  Parker shoots back at the natural wine crowd: “just how absurd this notion is becomes evident when the results are oxidized, stale, stink of fecal matter as well as look like orange juice or rusty ice tea being poured into a glass and passed off as “authentic”, “natural” or “real” wine.”  Parker goes on and on, skewering and lambasting. And while he has many good points, it ends up sounding like bitter, drunk typing.  Clearly the battle lines are squarely drawn, with the hipster/artist natural wine folks on one side decrying wine’s industrialization, and their cries for natural wine with purity and untethered expressions of terroir; and the rest of the wine world, just trying to put a good glass of wine in their glass.  The reality is there should not be a war of words here, and I’m sure Jean-Paul Brun is shaking his head in frustration.

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

DSC_0443

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

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

P7141848

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