Understanding the Terroir of Burgundy: Part 4.2 Erosion: fundamentally changing terroir

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Erosion is constantly changing the terroir of Burgundy, and in turn, it is altering the weight and character of the wines from virtually every vineyard on the Côte. How significant is erosion in Burgundy today? As mentioned in Part 4.1, a study during the late 1990’s measured the soil loss in unspecified vineyards of Vosne-Romanée to be 1 mm per year, and the same erosional levels were measured off of the vineyards of Aloxe-Corton.  Ath that alarming rate, losses over the next century would have averaged 10 centimeters or almost 4 inches of topsoil if corrections were not taken. On the even steeper slopes of Monthelie, a study measured almost twice the erosion at 1.7 mm (± 0.5 mm year), with sections of the vineyard which measured a shocking eroded up to 8.2 mm (± 0.5 mm) erosional rate. Luckily, many growers have improved their farming practices, particularly since 2010, and these figures should be lower today. Only future studies can tell us what improvement has been made.

The grape harvest Annonymous 16th century, Southern Holland

“The grape harvest” Anonymous 16th century, Southern Holland

For centuries the solution for this problem was to bring in soil from outside areas to replace what was lost on the slopes of the Côte d’Or. However, in the name of terroir, this is no longer allowed. Current law allows growers to redistribute only the alluvium that comes to rest within appellation boundaries. One can imagine that the laborious process of shoveling out the alluvium from the toe of the plot and redistributing higher in the vineyard is a yearly chore. What earth escapes the appellation lines however, is gone to that appellation forever.

The intention of preserving the purity Burgundy’s unique terroir by forbidding introduction of exogenous soils is somewhat paradoxical, since it is only attempting to preserve the terroir à la minute. While in reality it is ultimately is failing at that – due to erosion. 

A positive, unintended consequence of this inability to replace soil is that growers have finally realized that soil conservation is now more critical than any time in Burgundies’ 1500+ year-old viticultural history. They now know that they must fully understand the factors of soil structure and erosion, while at a municipal level, their villages must invest in effective storm water management; both of which are in various states of development or improvement. 

The long uninterrupted run of vertically oriented rows presents unrelenting erosional pressures on this section of Les Folatieres.

The long uninterrupted run of vertically oriented rows presents unrelenting erosional pressures on this section of Les Folatières. photo googlemaps

While the best modern practices are stemming the tide of erosion, vineyards still can be threatened. Even great vineyards on the mid-slope, like Les Folatières in Puligny-Montrachet, which have long, open stretches of vines without significant breaks in planting, are prone to extensive erosion. While soils are depleted not only in terms of depth, they are changing in terms of particle size and makeup. Erosion most easily targets fine earth fractions, detaching them from their aggregate groupings, and sending them into vineyards farther down slope. Light to medium runoff acts like a sieve, carrying away only the smallest particles, leaving behind material with of larger particles sizes. This in a very real way changes the vineyard’s terroir, and in turn, the wines that are grown there. Wines from vineyards that retain only course soils of large particle size (1) tend to produce wines with less fruit the and less weight, and by consequence revealing a more structured, minerally character.

Even more critical is that soil loss can threaten the vitality and health of the vines, as the soil is literally carried away from beneath them. A vine’s main framework roots is said to require a minimum 11-13 inches to anchor itself to the earth and survive. The problem arises when a section of vineyard does not have extensive fracturing, and the soil level begins to drop below that one foot level. To address this, various growers have responded by “reconditioning” their land. By using a back hoe to break up the limestone below, this can give new vines planted there the living space so the vineyard can continue. Does this change the terroir and the future wine more than inputs of exogenous soil? I should think the answer is yes, significantly. 

 

Rainfall and rain strike: the first stage of erosion

rainstrike. photo: agronomy.lsu.edu/

rainstrike. photo: agronomy.lsu.edu/

Rainfall is measured by its size and velocity. A raindrop from a drizzle is typically .5 mm in size, and has a terminal velocity (the maximum speed the drop can reach) of 2 meters per second, or 4.5 miles per hour, in still air. The speed it falls, with no assistance from the wind is determined by its ratio of mass to drag. Large raindrops of 5 mm, have more mass in relationship to its drag and accelerate to 9 meters per second, or 20 mph.

Rainfall, meaning the actual physical strike of each drop, can break down soil aggregates (fine sand,  silt clay, and organic materials) and disperse them. Splash erosion has been recorded to drive particles of earth up to 60 cm into the air, and 1.5 m from its point of origin.

Once their limited bonds are broken, the ensuing runoff can carry these materials downslope. Runoff, the most obvious form of erosion, occurs when rainwater cannot infiltrate the soil quickly enough, and exacerbated by the lack of cover crop, lack of organic material, lack of soil structure and negative effects of soil compaction. Of course, this process is most noticeable during high-intensity rainstorms, the amount of soil lost during longer but low-intensity rainfall can be significant. This slower erosion can go largely unnoticed until most of the productive topsoil has been removed by what is referred to as sheet erosion.

Seasonal protection from rainstrike

Compared to most growing regions, the Côte d’Or has a very wet growing season. Storms during this period can bring irregular and unpredictable rain events that can be heavy and long in duration. The winds during harvest tend to be westerly, with warm humid winds bringing rain first over the Hautes Côtes, then to the Côte d’Or, then out across the Saône Valley. The wet warm humid conditions often encourage powdery mildew in the wake of the storms, so there is a tendency to want to prune to open up the canopy for ventilation to prevent mildew. However, the vine canopy can provide significant protection against rainfall strike, depending of course, on the orientation the rows and the of the wind direction. So good canopy coverage for the period that half of the precipitation occurs (April – September)(2) is beneficial in terms of protection from erosion.

As winter arrives, the vines will have lost their foliage, exposing the soil directly for the entire winter and spring to whatever nature has in store.

Rain Rate

storm.1

Summer storms. Bottom right Photograph: Louise Flanagan theGuardian.com, Bottom left photo Caroline Parent-Gros of A.F. Gros, Top photo Decanter.com

Rainfall is typically measured in millimeters per hour, with a light rainfall slightly tipping the scales at up to 2.5 mm per hour or less than a tenth of an inch per hour. Moderate rainfall is considered to be from 2.5 mm per hour to 10 mm per hour. A heavy rainfall falls between the range of 10 to 50 mm, and a violent rainfall is above 50 mm per hour.

 

Light rain – drizzle 2.5 mm per hour with a terminal velocity of 2 meters per second

Moderate rain 2.5 mm per hour to 10 mm per hour

Heavy Rain  10 mm per hour to 50 mm per hour

Violent rain, above 50 mm per hour

 

Good soil structure resists damage from rainstrike and runoff

Good soil structure is the result of the binding of soil into clumps of both small and larger aggregates, meaning sections of soil will bind more strongly together, than those next to them. This allows the soil to maintain the necessary small and large pore spacing, which allows water, air and nutrient infiltration and movement through the soil. Larger amounts of older, more stable organic matter tend to strengthen soil aggregates so any farming practice that increases organic matter, and the subsequent microbiological activity will result in healthier soils.  Stable soil aggregates allow the soil to resist disintegration due rain strike and thusly helps deter erosion.  It also encourages root penetration by creating weak spots between aggregate masses.

Conversely, unstable soil aggregates are more easily dispersed by rainstrike, and the ensuing erosion clogs larger pore spaces of the surface soil. This clogging forming hard crusts on the surface which both restricts both air and water absorption and increases runoff.

The fix apparently is simple. According to soilquality.org, soil forms aggregates readily with the addition of organic manure, as well as allowing cover crops to grow, which has the additional benefit of protecting the soil from rain strike and the ensuing erosion.

Infiltration rate

Erosion Runoff Ardeche

Rill Runoff running fast in Ardeche. Photo http://www.geo.uu.nl/

The speed at which rain can be absorbed into the soil is referred to as infiltration rate. An infiltration rate of 50 mm per hour is considered ideal for farming, because even in heavy rainfall, a well-structured loam will not allow puddling. While the farmers of Burgundy do have some loam in their soils, the geological and topographical factors they face are far more and varied and thus more complex than that of the typical farming situation. I could find no studies done specific to infiltration rates of Burgundian soils, but below are the general rain infiltration rates of general soil types, starting with clay.

The infiltration rate of clay soils, with good to average soil structure, unsurprisingly, do not drain all particularly well, due to their very small-sized particles. Clays typically have an IR of 10mm-20mm per hour. And as we know, transported clay, with its aligned particles, and plasticy quality greatly restricts water flow, and while it will absorb water, it will not allow water to pass through until the entire structure is saturated, greatly slowing drainage. Worse, due to poor farming practices, clay soils can have a decayed structure, which can slow absorption to less than 10 mm per hour. Water tends to puddle on clays with poor structure, causing them deteriorate to the point of deflocculation.

The study of water and how it drains is researched acutely in areas where water is scare, whereas little study of drainage is done in France where rain and water are plentiful. Hence, my investigation of water infiltration in calcium-rich soils lead me to agricultural water policy studies conducted in Palestine and Spain. One such study found that Clayey Marl, with a plasticy character, had an infiltration rate of only 4-8 mm per hour. This low rate of infiltration suggests the soil structure had already been degraded through poor farming practices. Often the villain of low infiltration rates is a combination of frequent deep tillage, herbicide and pesticide use and compaction by walking on or working wet soils, which collapses weaken soil aggregates.  In deeper soils, like at the base of the slope, collapsed soil aggregates can result in hardpan development below ground, while on sloped vineyards, disrupted soil aggregates are very susceptible to erosion.

Clay-loam and clayey-marls, like those found on many lower-slope vineyards, that retain good soil structure, have IR rates beginning at 20 mm per hour. As the percentage of loam increases (equal parts sand, silt, and clay) the IR rate increases up to 50 mm per hour as long as it retains good aggregate stability and there is no compaction.

Loam to sandy soils, which some Bourgogne-level and Village-level vineyards possess, can have very good infiltration rates, again as long as soil structures are good.  Ideally, they can absorb 50 mm of rain per hour, which is the amount that a heavy rainstorm will produce. These vineyards, however, receive all the runoff from the slopes above, and their “well-drained” soils can be overwhelmed.

Sandy soils and Calcareous (limestone) soils can have infiltration rates well in excess 150mm per hour to 200+mm per hour. The problem is these soils drain excessively well, and tend to not retain water well, and are prone to high evaporation rates.  Off point, but quite interesting, are two studies in south-eastern Australia Bennetts et al. (2006) and Edwards & Webb (2006) found that rainwater remained relatively unchanged as it moved though these porous soils that lacked significant amounts of fine earth fractions and organic material. However, water changed its chemical signature quite significantly as it passed much more slowly through clay-rich soils. This finding certainly challenges the long-held assumption that it is the limestone lends many Burgundies their mineral character.

Infiltration Rate, Slope, and Runoff.

Vogue's parcel of Musigny. Source Googlemaps

Vogue’s parcel of Musigny. Grass growth does not seem to be encouraged here. Given Cerdà’s study regarding the erosion of bare soils, one can only wonder how much greater this vineyard could be? The mitigating factor is the vineyard runs horizontally along the top of the hill, and is not deep or highly sloped. Runoff has little opportunity to gain significant suspension velocity. Photo Source googlemaps.com

A study in Spain by A. Cerdà (Univ. de València) examined infiltration rates, runoff, and erosion, on clay, marl, limestone and sandstone. Additionally, he ran these trials with three levels of vegetation covering the soil material: bare, intermediate and vegetated.  The amount of water delivered was 55 mm per hour (which some soils easily absorbed). The study showed slower rates of infiltration on the bare soils, while more highly vegetated soils reduced and almost eliminated runoff and erosion.  Interestingly, marl soils fare the worst for both runoff and erosion rates on bare soils. Yet on vegetated soils, runoff and erosion of the marl were minimal.

They observed, of bare soils, an infiltration rate of  3 to 55 mm per hour, the runoff from 0 to 83%, and the erosion rates from 0 to 3720 grams per hour.

The easily erodible marl soils had up to 83% runoff and a maximum erosion of 3720 grams per hour. So it turns out that marl soils are particularly vulnerable to erosion which sets up an interesting dichotomy: Burgundian’s penchant for discouraging ground cover between the vines, actually encourages erosion – something they seek to, and direly need to avoid.

Clay (soil) and limestone (soil) both had what Cerdà considered to be intermediate levels of runoff and erosion; with a maximum of 46% runoff, and a maximum of 131 grams of soil material eroded per hour.

When we talk about erosion, we are implying there is a slope.

Nearly level: Level, 0% Nearly level <3%
Gently sloping: Very gently sloping >1%, Gently sloping <8%
Strongly sloping: Sloping >4%, Moderately sloping <8%, Strongly Sloping <16%

Source: nrcs.usda.gov

On the rockier terrain of upper slopes, the uneven the soil surface can slow the momentum of water coming down the hillside, despite the steeper grade. However, as the runoff moves downslope, and the soil becomes smoother, the water grows in volume as in joins other rainfall which has not yet infiltrated the topsoil. This increase in volume causes the runoff to increase in its speed and its velocity. Speed and velocity increases are exponential, as its mass allows it overcomes the friction of moving over the soil below. 

Despite the fact that these moderate slopes can attain fairly significant soil depth with normal, moderate rainfall, they are also prone to erosion when exposed to heavier storm-induced runoff. Any long, uninterrupted stretch across these moderate slopes encourages a fast, and often damaging, runoff. As the speed of the water increases, it achieves a volume sufficient to carry larger and larger particles. Cerdà’s study suggests that the marl that has developed on these slopes are particularly vulnerable to heavy runoff if no vegetative cover is allowed to grow among the rows. 

Suspension velocity

water suspension velocity

water suspension velocity source: water.me.vccs.edu/

The ratio of surface area to weight determines a soil particle or rock’s suspension velocity. This is the amount of water velocity needed to carry the object in its flow. As the flow decreases, rocks with higher suspension velocity, meaning they require fast-moving water to carry them, settle out quickly, and are said to have a low settling velocity. As the water slows, it is these, the densest objects, that fall out of suspension first.

Silt and Clay particles have a very low suspension velocity due to their extremely small size, regardless of their density. These particles are easily picked up and washed away by water movement. Unless the clay particles in suspension are adsorbed as it slowly passes a homogeneous clay body (ie. a kaolinite clay body attracts kaolinite clay particles and illite particles will flocculate with an illite body), clay particles will not settle out of solution until the water becomes still and ponds. The same is true with silt, with its slightly larger particle size.

Sand and gravel are larger, with enough density to resist slow-moving water. They are considered to have a higher suspension velocity than silt or clay. But neither sand, gravel, nor even rocks the size of the palm of your hand, are immune from alluvial transport.

Up next: Erosion 4.3 In the water’s path: Studies of Erosion in Vosne

 


(1) It could be argued that because of Burgundy’s monoculture and high erosion rates will only allow calcisol, and because of that soil development (pedogenesis) is not possible due to the filtering out of fine particles, both mineral, and organic, by erosional processes. Conservation tilling or zero till could greatly change that dynamic, and it is possible with these and other techniques, that growers could expose the truer terroir of Burgundy.

(2) The Wines of Champagne, Burgundy, Eastern and Southern France,  by John J. Baxevanis Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (October 28, 1987)

(3) Could this chemical signature change the flavor of wine? This certainly raises a whole host of questions regarding the impact of fast draining limestone on the flavor or minerality of in wine. This study would suggest the long-held belief by many that limestone gives wines a minerally characteristic is false.

 

 
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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 Divergent Styles from the Northern Rhone

crozes-hermitage-80222The Rhone has been in the cross roads of style for more than two decades.  Pressure to produce riper wines of the new world has felt across Europe, but ripeness effects Syrah more profoundly than any other grape that I can think of. In terms of the Northern Rhone, very ripe Syrah loses it’s historical identity.

Tasting wines like Jaboulet‘s Crozes-Hermitage Thalabert and Hermitage La Chapelle (now made by Caroline Frey of La Lagune), or any of Guigal‘s Cote Roties or their St-Joesph Lieu Dit, you can see their density, higher alcohol, and intense flavors that more ripeness brings. These riper wines are much more fruit driven, with noses and palates of cassis and black plum. Less manipulated approaches like natural winemaker Jean-Michel Stephan, or the traditionalist approach like Domaine Jamet‘s result in wines that are much finer, have leaner structures, and have aromatics of Geraniums, Tuberose, Violets and peppercorns. Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote an excellent piece on the style divide last year – you can read here.

In decades and in centuries past, the continental climate, which is regulated by the cold air that rolls off the Alps,  has made ripening in the Northern Rhone (and Burgundy) difficult. Even the relatively minor heat variations between vintages meant the difference between ripeness and under-ripeness in these marginally adequate growing areas. Even in ripe years, the wines across Northern Europe have traditionally had lower alcohols and the reds have often had cool, green, peppery-flowery aromas and flavors.  Croze Hermitage and Hermitage, being in the wider and more open to warmer air from the south, generally produces  slightly darker and riper wine than vineyards farther up the ever tightening Rhone Valley.  As you can see in the picture above, it is these hills above Tain-l’Hermitage help keep the famed heat of the Southern France at bay.

Global warming has been a tremendous factor in winemaking around the world, but it is felt keenly in areas like Northern Rhone. Although it is difficult to attribute changing styles to one factor or another, these three things have changed the style of wines being made in Northern Europe: global warming, vintage variation, and winemaking philosophies and techniques. Certainly all of these factors are in flux and are incredibly interactive.  Read more on factors of traditional Northern Rhone styles from my blog here.

 

English: Modified version of Commons image Ima...

English: Modified version of Commons image Image:Rhone transit suspension.jpg to show the major cities, rivers and wine regions of the Northern Rhone Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is refreshing to see so many traditional Northern Valley Syrahs on the market these days, I suppose this in large part because of small importers who are championing these small tradition based producers.  We vote with our pocket books, and I’m happy to get to the poll booth.

 The following wine came from Garagiste.com that I had ordered in 2010 had been sitting in their warehouse for the past couple of years.  I didn’t know it was there. Oops! I normally wouldn’t review a past vintage, but they apparently still have some for sale.

2007 Domaine du Murinais, Croze-Hermitage Cuvee Vieilles Vignes. This is a 12.5 percent alcohol wine. Despite that, this seems riper than a 12.5% wine, with a surprisingly fresh, grape-y, black-raspberry nose, some appealing fennel-anise quality and black pepper. In the mouth, there remarkable ripeness, with significant sweetness to the black cherry, raspberry fruit. Again this is surprisingly ripe for such a low alcohol wine, but it has retained a bright, juicy, natural acidity. There is significant roundness and depth – without Cote Rotie’s leanness and sinew. Fresh fruit is the main attraction here, finishing with black pepper. For a 2007, this drinks remarkably fresh, like a much younger wine, and I’m sure the cold soak , giving a dark purple robe, is responsible for this. This is a delicious wine that although it is defined primarily by it black fruitiness, it narrowly holds onto its Northern Rhone Syrah roots with its peppery aromatics, with hints of flowers.  Score: 89 points

Domaine du Murinais has 15 hectares in Croze that they farm organically. This old vine cuvee comes from vines that are between 35 and 65 years in age. A week-long cold soak gives the wine its dark color give this wine a distinctive modernity. The winemaker’s desire to keep alcohols down is a nod to tradition.

Here is a  nice blog piece about Domaine du Murinais is here from New York Importer, T. Edward. From the T.Edwards post is this note on the producers concern about the increasing ripeness due to global warming.
“In regard to a trend that’s appearing across the appellation, Luc used to get phenolic ripeness at around 12% abv, but with climate change the average is now 12.5%, and so he’s experimenting with even lower yields to see if he can stave off any further increase.”

2011 Chateau Beauregard Ducasse, Graves Blanc

A Superb Value in White Graves

beauregard ducasseI’ve been a big fan of Beauregard Ducasse for the nine and ten vintages, and while this is not as ripe as the 2010 and lacks that vintage’s sweeter concentration nectarine and tropical components, it is still a lovely wine. The cooler 2011 vintage has plenty of the same flavors and complexity, if just a bit dryer, and not nearly as textural and viscous.  The estate, which is located about 20 miles south-east of the city of Bordeaux in the farthest south edge of the appellation in Mazeres. It is interesting to note that several websites indicate it is in Northern Graves. Not so.  Still, this is one of the best values going.

 

2011 Beauregard Ducasse, Graves Blanc        

On the nose, this shows slate and lime, along with that nice ripe nectarine that is fragrant and inviting. The mouth is long and compex with plenty of vibrancy, green apple and green papaya acidity that makes your mouth salivate. There is a bracing quality to this wine, that your palate adjust too fairly quickly, but showing some grip of tannins which release quickly leaving a slight minerality and suggestions of salinity. An excellent wine, and terriffic value.  87 points.  at $11.99 I’d buy this again.  This was fantastic with chicken breast with olive tapenade, and would be equally delicious with Vietnamese food, Dungeness Crab, Mussels, Halibut, you name it.  A superb value and worth buying.  $14     A score would confuse the issue.map-vignoble-de-bordeaux-graves (1)

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.

International Bulk Wine Competition has a Super-Gold Medal?

imagesNot only is there a competition for those who make bulk wine, but they give gold medals to the best of them.  Samples that are scored between 88 points and 95 points are awarded gold medals.  Given that the competition actually has a category for bulk wine that scores above 95 points is of special interest. These wines receive Super Gold!  Super Gold?  I’m not really sure what that is. But frankly, I find it hard to imagine a 94 point bulk wine being offered on the open market, much less a 97 pointer… but apparently there must be.   Is this the ultimate in point inflation, or just the bulk wine world’s adoption of the bell curve?

imgres40% of all wine is sold on the bulk market.

While I got a pretty hearty laugh at this yesterday, in reality I was encouraged that there is seems to be a real push in the bulk wine market for improved quality.  As it is, bulk wine  is already a big part of many a well-regarded winery’s appellation wines. Whether the name on the label says Napa or Sonoma, legally up to 25% of a wine can come from another appellation without any indication on the label.  Many, many wineries supplement their production with grapes from other high-quality, but less desirable regions, to stretch their production, and keep costs down.

Delicato Family Wines in the Central Valley, used to sell their clone 337 Cabernet production  to wineries that put the Lodi-juice in their Napa Valley Cabernets. This Lodi-grown Cabernet was said to be in high-demand by big-name Napa wineries. Apparently the 337 Cab was desired for its deep, opulent fruit that  gave wonderful mid-palate to the Napa Valley Cab blends. Eventually a decision was made that the wine was too good to sell off, and Delicato began bottling it as the 337 Cabernet.

So despite my laughing at the Bulk Wine Competition’s expense, I really should show them a debt of gratitude.  It seems I probably bulk wine may be a significant part of my wine diet without my even knowing it. Thank you to you bulk wine producers for pushing quality upwards.

2009 Charmes de Kirwan, Margaux

Wine_Cellar_at_Chateau_Kirwan_This week we were sent a sample of Chateau Kirwan’s second wine, Charmes de Kirwan by the négociant firm of Schroeder & Schyler. Schroeder & Schyler has owned the property since 1904 when they picked up the 3rd Growth Kirwan at auction for only £25,000!  Before you dismiss this as a second wine, (Charmes is produced primarily from younger vines and lots that didn’t make the grand vin) they’re doing some really nice work at Kirwan, and it has really paid off in terms of quality for the Charmes.

Kirwan, sits on the gravelly “summit”, if you will, of the Cantenac plateau.  We’re not talking about a whole lot of elevation here, but this rise of Pyrenean gravel that was deposited here 2 million years ago by the nearby Gironde River,  creates excellent drainage for the vineyards.  The chateaux of Cantenac and Boyd-Cantenac are Kirwan’s nearest neighbors, and the superb Chateau d’Issan just down the road.  In this large appellation, Kirwan is very well situated. The vineyards are planted to 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot.

2009 Charmes de Kirwan, Margaux  $40-$45

On day one,  this was showing some very pretty, delicate, floral notes that gave this wine a special quality.  It drank well immediately upon pulling the cork with soft tannins, medium weight, beautiful, and lovely Cassis fruit, with some dried herbs on the finish. Very classic and pure, it had a warm elegance to it, with no hard edges,  With Charmes de Kirwan, most of its intensity and weight is up is front; the wine lightens up on the finish with notable gracefulness. One might complain of a lack of acidity, and certainly a little more crispness would give the wine verve and intensity, not to mention a classic backbone, but at the same time the wine is refreshingly not at all heavy and is absolutely seamless.

On day two, the pretty floral nose is now gone, replaced by minerals, loam and a touch of pencil shavings.  The fruit is dryer, the tannins are very fine but a slightly drying with wood. However, the wine is so well-balanced and it has a good amount of complexity. It has filled out a bit with a fuller profile, gaining a bit of weight.

The bottom line.  The Charmes de Kirwan is a lovely wine with some complexity, but it does lack some intellectual stuffing. For a nice dinner this would be hard to fault, and would outshine most much more collectible young wines in this role. It was stunning with simply grilled lamb last night. For this aspect, I’d rate the 2009 Charmes 92+ points.  However, as an aperitif, while the Charmes is very good, this isn’t quite vivacious enough, or intellectual enough, to hold my attention for too long. In this capacity, I’d give it 88 points.imgres

Tasting Note: 2010 Domaine Laroche, Bourgogne “Tete de Cuvee”

imgresMichel Laroche is the fifth generation to run this highly regarded estate, that has grown to a very large 100 hectares since the Domaine’s founding in 1850.  While most of the wine produced comes from the family’s base of operations in Chablis, this comes from the Maconnaise  -physically about as far away from Chablis you can get and still be considered to be in Burgundy. This is a negociant wine; grown and fermented by 15 (or more) growers with long term contracts. Once fermentation is underway, the wine is transferred to the negociant (in this case Laroche) to be pressed and finished (95% malo) in their cellars.  This Chardonnay is aged only 2 months (on its fine lees) in stainless steel tanks before being bottled.

This Chardonnay has a rich nose, of like the Greek dessert Balaclava, full of lots of honey, nuts and butter and toasty filo dough, coupled with sage, chalk, and wet stones. The mouth is very dry and savory, rich and broad. The watering acidity (like biting into a crisp grape) is soften and rounded by chalky minerally, which is lemon and golden apple-tinged.  It is very good and quite complex, but its age has stripped it of much of its fruit, leaving the finish a touch bit drying and abrupt. Here is a wine that really would rise to its apex with some pure, but simple food. A roast chicken with wild mushrooms, or Swordfish with butter toasted almonds and fried sage.  This 2010 is very good wine, at the end of its run.  At this point it’s a food wine rather than an aperitif.  For something fresh, try the 2011 which should be out in the market now. 87 points.

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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.