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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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.

Lovers of Amarone, Blogger/Sommelier Marina Betto Has Something Worth Reading!

There are some really talented wine bloggers out there, often somewhere half a world away and you need to use the translator (if your French or Italian isn’t up to snuff.)  Here is an example of one such blog by Italian blogger Marina Betto, sommelier and writer for Italian Sommelier Association and on-line publications about gastronomy, botany and gardening. She collaborates on Glocal Vini & Terroir with Sommelier Massimo Sacco, from the Fairmont Monte Carlo.

Italian Wine Writer Marina Betto

Italian Wine Writer Marina Betto

 Vini & Terroir : Pianeta Amarone

Amarone, today, begins to have a certain appeal, especially on some Asian markets and in some areas of the U.S. market. Abroad is often associated with Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello.It ‘a modern wine that has ancient roots, produced in the Veneto region in the area of ​​Verona to Lake Garda to the west and north to Soave. This territory has always cultivated the vine and wine product, chasing quality; these valleys ancient heart (Valis Polis Cells) are, for centuries, an area of ​​wineries. We are located on the territories of high, medium and low hills, if not plain. The hillside vineyards are most suitable because without fog, which do not facilitate the quality of the grapes, the richest of the skeleton, calcareous, give more minerals, texture and fragrance. read more

 

My comments to Massimo’s post are below (with a little editing:)

“Marina, I really liked your post.  Even through the computer translation, it has a wonderful rhythm and great verbal illustration. You have terrific knowledge of the region and it really shows in your writing and discriptors.  Here are a couple of thoughts I have on the wines you write about; three of which I know fairly well. imgres

Masi is probably the most “wine-like” of all the Amarone’s I’ve had, generally being dryer and slightly less alcoholic, and no aldehydic or acetic qualities, being very clean and elegant. I sold Masi for nine years for a distributor, and I find it to be a very unique voice in the field of Amarone. They rarely get the scores they deserve because they are not as opulent as wine tasted next to them. They are however very beautiful with a tapestry of complex flavors and silky textures. This style trans

imagesBrigaldara is a wonderful producer, and he seems to be on his own path stylistically (at least from what is brought into the United States.) I get a tremendous breadth of flavors from him, from green tobacco notes through ripe blackberry and into raisin and prunes. His are a kaleidoscope of flavors, and the alcohol I never though was much of an issue. At least I don’t remember it being hot. I got the impression that he had clones that ripened unevenly, or he picked certain lots at different ripeness levels intentionally. The effect is brilliant whatever the reason. His are intellectual wines with an ungainly, nontraditional beauty.

image_1141755_full Bertani is a house I written up in one of my first blog posts (which you may have seen). Until I was able to experience a depth of Bertani Amarones in a flight together, I didn’t have a fair impression of them. Bertani is a big house, with lots of traditionally commercial wines, but their Amarone is traditional in the best way – it stands the test of time. Here Bertani stands out. Although their Amarone doesn’t have the body and density, and as the French say “gras” of other houses, they have a purity and complexity that won’t fade over time. Because they don’t grow and pick their grapes for extraction, and then bottle their Amarone after seven years in botte, which allows the wines an excess dry extract falls out before bottling, the wine that goes into the bottle will remain complex and stable in the bottle. But while this robs the wine in the near term of its mid-palate and makes a more acidic wine, it also allows the wine to age virtually unchanged for decades.  Beautiful stuff.

Accordini,which I’ve had a few times (and briefly sold them when they were imported by one of the suppliers we represented) I never could really wrap my head around them, stylistically.  They tended to be denser and blacker, with blackberry fruit and some earth, a bit more port-like (or even somewhat Priorat-like) is my recollection, than Amarone-like. They’ve been getting top notes from American critics recently, but although the quality is good, I’ve never really been drawn to them.” 

Thanks for a great post,

Dean

The Red Blend Explosion: From The Prisoner to Apothic

Around twenty years ago, winemakers from Paso realized that the Napa Valley had a reputation for Cabernet, Sonoma had Pinot and Zin, and Paso didn’t really have a reputation for anything.  They decided they were going to make themselves known for The Paso Rhone Blend.  This blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache was going to catapult the region to fame.  To varying degrees this has been successful despite the lack of favor of Syrah in the market place, but along came a brand that really muddied the definition of “Red Blend”.  That was The Prisoner.  There were other’s, like Marietta’s venerable  Old Vine Red, but it was The Prisoner, with its cult-like status, that really opened up what a Red Blend category.

Then along came Apothic, an enormously successful, ridiculously large production, red blend from Gallo. It has made a massive mark on the industry, because it sells for under ten bucks and it is available everywhere.  It is a baby The Prisoner, for the masses.  From Apothic’s huge success, the copycats have sprouted like weeds.  They are made from anything and everything, as long as they big, thick, juicy, and faintly sweet.

“Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor.”

English: Freshly harvested grenache grapes in ...

English: Freshly harvested grenache grapes in the California wine region of Santa Barbara, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last one to two years, I have been almost overwhelmed by the presentations of  these Red Wines.  At first they were mostly less expensive copies of The Prisoner, with varying degrees of character.  Now there is a flood wines, built to a recipe, that are remarkably uniform in style and flavor. To attain that thick almost sticky richness, undoubtedly they have to use a good dose of grape concentrate to boost concentration, giving the wines their similar flavor profile. They are all tasty, some bordering on delicious, but as a retail buyer, it begs these questions:  Do you buy them, and if you do buy them, how many do you really need?  Finally, how do you sell them? Do you put them with the Paso Reds that have regional, and varietal definition, and undermine their years of effort to forge an identity?

We have found, almost no-one comes in saying “I want a red blend.”  If you make a whole section of Red Blends (say, ten wines that taste almost identical), they won’t get shopped, since most people are still conditioned to buy by varietal. In our case, we have reluctantly put most of them in the Zin or Syrah section depending if they seem to have any hint of either of those in the mix, or, (the shame of it) in the Cab section.  We had been told there was Cab in The Count by Boisset’s Buena Vista Winery, and because we positioned it in the Cab section, it has become one of our best-selling “Cab blends.” Yes it is dis-indigenous, but people really like it, and they would have never found it in a “Red Blend.”section. As for how many of these Reds my store needs, I’m holding the line at around 6 or 7, out of 1600 SKUs, about as many as I carry of Sancerre.

As a wine buyer, and a wine seller, I do not feel it is not my job to be an arbiter of good taste. It is my job to only select wines that represent the spectrum of tastes of my customer base. Do I think they will like it? Is it the right price?  Because of this philosophy, I carry The Prisoner, and I carry Apothic, despite the underlying feeling that these are formulaic and somewhat contrived wines.  They have their place in my store because my customers buy them.  On the other hand, I also carry the flag of exploration, having a selection of Natural wines, and wonderful wine from some of the more obscure regions across France and Italy for those who are more adventurous.  Can I interest you in a lovely Mondeuse from Savoie?

Tasting Cain, part II

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

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

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

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

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

“both showed character rarely matched in California Cabernet”

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

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

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

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

Cain Cuvee NV8 

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

2008 Cain Concept, “The Benchlands”

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

2007 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

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

1999 Cain Five, Estate, Spring Mountain

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

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

harvest 2005 Spring Mountain District above th...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Two Superb Wines from Domaines with Something, and Nothing, to Prove

The Gros Family is iconic in the commune of Vosne-Romanee.  When the renown Jean Gros (Bernard’s father) retired in 1995, four separate domaines sprung off from various family members. Anne Gros (Bernard’s cousin), is certainly the most coveted by collectors, but there is also the highly regarded A.F. Gros (Bernard’s sister.) Then there is Michel Gros, (his Brother) who traded all of  his Richebourg to gain a monopole of the premier cru Clos de Reas – a vineyard  synonymous with his father’s legendary name. Lastly, there was Bernard.

For many years, Domaine Gros Frere et Soeur (Bernard Gros) was considered the less serious producer of the family, making ripe, voluptuous wines that were based on fruit  -in virtually every vintage- rather than shooting for finesse.  Perhaps there was too much influence by the now discredited Guy Accad, but in the mid-ninties these were certainly opulent Pinot Noirs, in terms of Burgundy.

Vosne-Romanée, célèbre petit village vinicole ...

Vosne-Romanée AOC. The village of Flagey-Echezeaux pop. 500 is pictured. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past few vintages however, Bernard’s wines have repeatedly shown the kind of restraint and complexity one expects from a serious Burgundy house.   This Gros Frere Vosne Premier Cru is source largely from Bernard’s plot of younger vines in Echezeaux, and has the remarkable depth and physiological ripeness, but is not over-ripe or excessively heavy.  Considering that Gros Frere wines trades at a third or half the price of similar quality Burgundies, they are one of Burgundy’s the relative values.

2010 Gros Frere et Soeur, Vosne-Romanee, Premier Cru $79.99

This was sensational; clearly showing its high percentage of fruit from the younger vines from Gros Frere’s Echezeaux parcel.   Deep berry fruit, with warm spices, smoky meat, grilled fennel bulb, and plum. The same flavors play across the palate, with excellent palate impression, fruit, and a dried stems element, dark loamy earth.This is rich, sultry and satisfying. A superb bottle of red Burgundy.

                                                                           *              *             *

Since 1975, Vincent Mongeard has worked in the vineyards and cellar of his family estate, Mongeard-Mugneret, in Vosne-Romanee. He farms 33 hectares (81.5 acres) from 35 different vineyards. His vines are quite old, averaging 45 years in age. In the past, the domaine had been accused of using too much oak, but has pulled back on use of oak over the past decade. Since 1998, Vincent began sourcing his own wood, and having the barrels made for him to his own specifications.  Still the specter of suspicion lingers, with the oak police continually, and critically, examining the amount oak being used by Mongeard.

 ” Still the specter of suspicion lingers, with the oak police continually, and critically, examining the amount of oak being used by Mongeard”

1999 Mongeard Mugneret Grands-Echézeaux

1999 Mongeard Mugneret Grands-Echézeaux bottling (Photo credit: testastretta-999)

Vincent’s wines have become more refined as well. Where they had been routinely characterized with faint praise as sturdy, darkly colored, and concentrated, none of those descriptions can be used here. This quote by Robert Parker is routinely used on the web (even by it’s importer Vineyard Brands) : “the style of winemaking seems to extract rich, supple, concentrated fruit from the grapes…” But Parker stopped reviewing Burgundy in the mid-nineties, after he was sued for libel in 1994 by the firm of Joseph Faiveley, and found himself unwelcome in many cellars. So you have to ask yourself, how valid is this quote after almost 20 years? On many occasions  it is sited that Vincent only uses stems on his top two or three bottlings.  I definitely noted stem notes in the Nuits-Les Plateaux I tasted.  Things change over time. Good winemakers don’t make wine by a recipe.  When will we actually judge the wine in the glass rather than being influenced by these overly repeated characterizations?

This is the wine I tasted.

 2010 Mongeard-Mugneret Nuits-St-Georges, Les Plateaux $49.99

Beautiful, if one of the least Nuits-like wines I’ve tasted. In fact the vineyard is very close to Vosne Romanee, and tastes quite a bit like one. It was effortless, whereas many Nuits can seem to try too hard, are too dark, are too rough around the edges, are too tannic for their acids. Light to medium in weight and completely translucent. Warm aromas of cedar-wood, cherry, cranberries, flowers, cinnamon, dust, and twigs. In the mouth, it is light but mouth-filling, lovely, soft and very, very long, with its flavors  of faint cherry, dusky cranberries, and dried twigs resonating on and on.  An outstanding value in fine red Burgundy.