Understanding The Terroir of Burgundy part 4.4: Erosion: a challenge to the authenticity of terroir

Erosion Vosne wider implications

Our best understanding of soils of the Côte de Nuits:

In trying to grasp the relationship of the wines made soil from particular crus, many writers, myself included, have come to many fundamentally incorrect conclusions regarding terroir. My version could be summarized into this:

I believed that chemical and mechanical weathering of the limestone bedding naturally created soil types that were dictated by their position on the slope. Highest on the slope, the compact limestone soils were produced by the simultaneous production of clay and the erosion of clay. Lower on the slope, where transported clay enriched the otherwise arid, colluvial soils, I believed that if farmed carefully, clay production could remain in a relative of a state equilibrium with clay erosion. While, it most of these vineyards may not absolutely been in their natural state as when the Romans arrived, of many mid-slope Burgundy vineyards, I felt were relatively authentic in their terroir.  

A challenge to the authenticity of terroir:

Vosne-Romanée Les Damaudes, sitting upon the upper-most slope, with a 12% grade had equal parts clay and gravel in 2004. This is despite already having lost 54mm depth of clay sized particle since 1952. In the foreground, Vosne Malconsorts is allowed to grow it's grass in June of 2012. photo: googlemaps
Vosne-Romanée Les Damaudes, sitting upon the upper-most slope, with a 12% grade had equal parts clay and gravel in 2004. This is despite already having lost 54mm depth of clay-sized particle since 1952. In the foreground, Vosne Malconsorts is allowed to grow its grass in June of 2012. photo: googlemaps

The 2008 study on the changes to soil composition following a heavy rain event by Quiquerez, Brenot, Garcia, Petit, and Catena, presents, in my view, far greater implications than the study’s more simple intent of establishing hard erosional data following heavy rain events.

The study’s plot site, high up on the hillside, with a long, 12% grade, would challenge the perception that upper-slope, Burgundian soils naturally carry low percentages of clay or silt. This vineyard, with its 40% clay content, at the onset of the study, is doubly surprising, given that the data showed these materials exhibited a high erosional rate out of the plot area. What the soil recording reveal natural soil composition of this hillside originally contained far more clay than we could have ever expected based on the compact gravel “soil” condition of even the best of the upper slope vineyards today.

This study not only gives us a prophetic view of this vineyard’s future soil but also clearly illuminated a much more fertile soil in the past. Just as this vineyard once had an exceptionally high clay content, there is every reason to believe this was also true across the breadth of Burgundy vineyards, indicating a very different erosional story played out regarding the ‘arid’ soils of elite mid-slope vineyards. This information directly challenges our perception of the authenticity of the terroir within many of today’s Burgundy vineyards. 

What the study of this vineyard tells us is that, at least on this site, there has been a relatively tight erosional timeline, with much of the damage occurring over the past half-century. Additionally, the erosion is projected to finish its ‘third act’ in Les Damaudes over the next 25 years, at which point it will have a classic Burgundian compact limestone soil.  While it would appear that mechanized farming as the most erosive in this vineyard’s largely unreported history, we know that there was massive erosion in other vineyards over the centuries. The remaining question is: What about the historical farming of this vineyard allowed its clay to remain in this parcel of Les Damaudes?

*This article is based on the findings a pair of studies chronicled in Part 4.3, and centers upon the upper hillside plot of Vosne-Romanée’s village cru of Les Damaudes.

Why is this study so important to our understanding of Burgundy?

It has slowly become apparent that the problem in talking about the terroir of Burgundy is this: We really don’t know what the wines of Burgundy might have naturally been, had men had both the knowledge and forethought to do what it would take to preserve these vineyards centuries ago. However, a study like this (click here) gives us the ability to hypothetically see both where this vineyard is going, and what it might have been like before man caused so much erosion upon the hillsides. We were lucky that the researchers chose this particular vineyard at the top of VosneRomanée for their study. Les Damaudes is a steep hillside vineyard (in the most revered of villages) that is only midway through its journey of erosional destruction.  A study of a vineyard from any of the other lesser appellations could easily be dismissed as not being applicable to les grands villages de Bourgogne. But with a vineyard within VosneRomanée, there is no doubt as to the applicability of the information, as this vineyard is in the immediate vicinity of some of the greatest vineyards in the world, including La Tache and Romanée-Conti.

soil projection
The projected future soil composition of Les Damaudes over the next 5 storms (roughly 25 years) Click to enlarge.

It has become increasingly clear through the research in preparing this series of articles, that vineyards like Ruchottes-Chambertin have been so seriously degraded by the techniques of the farming employed there, that the terroir we talk about today is one that wears immense repercussions of the farming practices of the past centuries. However, it seemed plausible, that the upper slopes could naturally have developed a compact limestone soil, (one that is 85 to 90% crushed limestone and only 10 to 15 % clay). But these studies re-orient our thinking, forcing us to realize that this is not a soil type that is natural to Burgundy. Because of that, it is not a terroir that is natural to Burgundy.

It is not to say that these vineyards, with their degraded soils, do not produce beautiful or interesting wines, but we must realize that this is a vineyard condition that has been inflicted by man. In the truest sense, Burgundy now has a terroir that has been drastically altered, metamorphosed by the actions of man.

Note: at the bottom of this article I discuss data gaps and the certain information the study might have provided which would have been key to a more complete understanding of the soil of Vosne Les Damaudes. 

2004: Establishing a soil base-line

Although the changes to the soil makeup after the 2004 storm were covered in-depth the latter half of Part 4.3, it is the basis for projecting what the soil make up was in 1952, so it bears a brief retelling now.

Click to enlarge. Adapted from the paper "Soil degradation caused by a high-intensity rainfall event : implications for medium-term soil sustainability in Burgundian vineyards" Quiquerez/Brenot/Garcia/Petit, Catena 73, 2008
Click to enlarge. Adapted from the paper “Soil degradation caused by a high-intensity rainfall event: implications for medium-term soil sustainability in Burgundian vineyards” Quiquerez/Brenot/Garcia/Petit, Catena 73, 2008

In June of 2004, a storm, which was unusually large for Burgundy, dropped 40 mm of water on Vosne Romanee over a 24 hour period. The effects of that storm were studied, and the researchers determined that the vineyard plot had irrevocably lost between 1.8 mm and 4 mm soil due to erosion, a vast majority of which were very fine particles under 63 μm in size.  The material lost was clay and silt since erosion most efficiently targets these tiny particles. (1)

To the right is a graphic I adapted from the study to show the grain size distribution of the soil after the 2004 storm. Each rectangle represents a range of particle size. I also included the before level of clay and silt sized particles to illustrate the loss of those materials, which was shown as 25% in a graph in the study.

 

1952: the soil content of the past

Given the study’s data, we can extrapolate, at least conceptually, what the clay content on these slopes the vineyard was planted in 1952.(2)  Starting with the fact 2004 the hillside contained roughly equal parts clay and gravel at 40+% each; the balance being sand, that we can add 54 mm more super-fine material (smaller than 63 μm) that it did in 2004.  If we assume that past soil loss rates were similar to that of the 2004 storm, we can postulate how much clay would have been present in 1952.  This figure would be much easier to arrive at if the researchers had given us the soil depth, which would allow us to estimate the volume of gravel (colluvium) and allow us a much more accurate estimate, but that information was not within the scope of the study.

Click to enlarge. Adapted from the paper "Soil degradation caused by a high-intensity rainfall event : implications for medium-term soil sustainability in Burgundian vineyards" Quiquerez/Brenot/Garcia/Petit, Catena 73, 2008
Click to enlarge. Adapted from the paper “Soil degradation caused by a high-intensity rainfall event: implications for medium-term soil sustainability in Burgundian vineyards” Quiquerez/Brenot/Garcia/Petit, Catena 73, 2008

The soil loss projections of the next five large storms, predicts that erosion will remove up to 20 mm in-depth in places. The lost material, it is expected would continue to consist of primarily be smaller than 63 μm in size. 

However, would it not be logical assume soil losses of previous storms were similar to that of the 2004 storm? If so, it would not be unreasonable to apply the projected soil loss, in order to estimate the vineyards clay percentage in the past.  If these big storms (of 40+mm rainfall per event) happen every 5 or so years, we can estimate that thirty years ago this same hillside may have had as much as a 70% clay content. How much clay existed before the plot was planted in 1952 can not readily be determined without establishing a rough estimate of the volume of gravel in the vineyard, but it is likely that the vineyard, may have had clay content 85%.  Such a high percentage suggests that either this plot was either not farmed before it was planted in 1952, or was farmed quite differently in the past than it is now. 

In Retrospect

We should not have been surprised that the soils of Burgundy are not as nature created them. We should have suspected something was amiss long ago because the soil type in Burgundy today is one of an arid climate. France, and the surrounding Burgundian countryside, however, do not have an arid climate at all. Rather the climate is classified as semi-continental, where rain is frequent and happens virtually year around. These soils would naturally have at least some petrogenetic development, which it is doubtful that any vineyard in the Côte d’Or does. We were told and simply wanted to believe that the wines of Burgundy are naturally and uniquely sparse of nutrients and clay. Additionally, we have not wanted to believe that, in the course of making these great wines, man has precipitously hastened the decline of the greatest vineyards of the world, though poor farming decisions that have been made throughout the centuries. This has never been truer since the organization of vineyards for the mechanization of farming.


 

Gaps in the data: deficiencies in quantification

As transformative as this study is to our understanding of the wines of Burgundy, the paper, unfortunately, omits some fairly important information. First and foremost, it is unclear how the samples for the data were collected, and secondly how well the data actually represents the soil of the slope in the root zone. The report does say that the soil of the vineyard was homogeneous in its makeup, and no petrogenetic development was observed; meaning the entire vineyard was the same, with no observable generation of new soil. This indicates that what little organic deterioration may develop was washed away by erosion, and no soil horizons (layering) could develop  Lack of soil development and soil horizons would be caused the dual soil disruptions created by regular tilling and erosion.

However, the problem lies in the word “homogeneous”. Even if at some point the soil was homogeneous from topsoil to bedrock, erosional changes to the soils would primarily affect only the material nearest to the surface, and then most acutely in the rill affected inter-rows. Now, even after one storm, the soil is no longer homogeneous in its makeup, because the soil at a certain (unknown) depth would contain more clay and silt sized particles than the topsoil. Now there would be two soil types.

Because of this, we must assume that the researchers collected a shallow soil collection for the sample in order to determine particle size.(3)  Quantifying the depth of this sample is critical, was this a  sample from the first 25mm (1 inch) or 50mm  (2 inches) or from deeper, say 200 mm (8 inches) of depth which is the deepest that most tilling reaches? Further, when the samples were collected: ie before or after anthropogenic resupply of the sediment was returned to the slope, and before or after the soil was tilled, are both important factors in understanding the distribution of soil.  Additionally, knowledge samples at various depths of the sample would be instructive as the effective depth of the erosional change. This is ever truer after workers had returned the sediment to the hillside, and tilled back into the soil.

Root development through soil
The root zone on a hillside vineyard is often restricted to no more than 300mm (12in) to 460mm (18in) represented by the brown strip in the graphic above.  Original graphic of unknown origin.

It would appear that the study only represents changes to the surface soil: those that would most be affected by erosion, and anthropogenic resupply of the sediment to the hillside. it is possible but less likely, that the soil sample may have been taken down to a 200mm depth (8in), which is the standard reach of a plow shear. But even if samples were taken from the 200mm depth, that is only 2/3s of the minimum depth required by a vine for its root zone.

Despite questions and any doubts these numerical omissions might create regarding the validity of the numbers and projections from the study, the value of this information far exceeds reaches far into the black hole of understanding that existed before. For this reason, I accept these numbers and build in a fairly wide mental fudge-factor when considering the above.

 

 

Puligny Folatieres after a rain
A tractor moves on the road between Paul Pernot’s “Clos des Folatières” and Les Clavillons in Puligny-Montrachet photo source: googlemaps

 

Musigny anthopogenic resupply
“Anthropogenic resupply” of redepositing the sediment back upslope is now done with heavy machinery at Comte de Vogüé. photo: Steen Öhman
Musigny anthopogenic resupply 2
Heavy machinery at Comte de Vogüé. Given a major cause of erosion is compression, it’s hard to imagine this is really helping the situation much. photo: Steen Öhman

*Special thanks to Steen Ohman, sleuth, and vineyard historian who writes the excellent winehog.org, for providing me with the 1827 cadastre Map show above.

 


(1) The variance between the 1.8mm figure and the 4mm figure was not explained, but it is likely that lower sections of the vineyard, which were subject to a higher volume of rainwater runoff, and had developed rill erosion, were subject to greater levels of erosional loss.

(2) While the study lumps both clay and silt into a grouping of material by size under 63 μm, according to Wikipedia, as well as other sources, say that silt is primarily made up of the parent materials feldspar or quartz. Feldspar is prone to chemical erosion, just as is limestone, both of which metamorphose into clay (phyllosilicate minerals + water and air), while quartz will not erode due the same contact with the carbonic acid in rainwater.  Although granite (the major source of quartz-silt) is common in the areas surrounding the Cote, like in Beaujolais, it is not found near the surface in the immediate area. Although silt has been washed onto the Cotes by alluvial action and transported to the soils of the Cote by wind erosion, I have to assume that silt-sized quartz fragments are a very small minority in the area’s soil makeup. For that reason, I often refer to the study’s grouping of material under 63 μm, simply as clay. Clay, of course, is actually smaller than silt. Although the size definition varies between disciplines 1–5 μm, the metamorphological change that occurs upon clay is the ultimately defines clay, not its size.  * an underlying reason that I identify this material may also be that — no wine writer has ever attributed any of Burgundy’s success to silt. Am I cowering in conformity?

 

(3) How else could one explain a 15% change in a clay content?  The planting bed must be at least 30cm  (12 inches) for vines to be viable. Most vineyards have this with a much lower clay content, often to 30% less. If we were to use 30cm depth as a baseline, it stands to reason that the depth is likely 30% more than 30cm, being at a minimum 40cm of soil over the base rock though there is likely more. So, if the soil is 400mm deep, and 240mm of that are clay minerals, a 4mm decrease in the clay represents only a 1.7% decrease in clay content in the soil.

 

 

Advertisements

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

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

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

Click on any photo to enlarge.

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

2012 Pouilly-Fuisse “Vignes Blanches”

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

 

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

2012 Macon-Vergisson “La Roche”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

2010 Bordeaux Delivers Everything Promised

A glass of Cabernet Franc from Barboursville V...
Photo by Amy C Evans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I had a chance to quickly taste through a flight of ridiculously impressive 2010 Bordeaux. Just being fresh off the boat from Europe, they preformed remarkably well, doubly so since we had opened the flight only minutes before. I had virtually forgotten my enthusiasm for the vintage – I hadn’t tasted much since George Derbalian of Atherton Wine Imports brought 15 barrel samples by the store. That was almost two years ago. I remember now how was wowed I was then. I am wowed again now.

Vintages like 2010, despite the immense prices of the top wines, allow the more modest wine buyer remarkable value for excellent, age-able wines.  As the old French saying goes: Drink small wines in big years and big wines in small years.  If you haven’t  2009 and 2010 Bordeaux in your cellar already, now is the time. They will reward you for many years down the road.

“As the old French saying goes:

Drink small wines in big years and big wines in small years

While the whole line-up was excellent-plus some, the last three wines were simply remarkable, and absolutely lived up to their price points.  The surprise of the tasting was the Puynomand; it is a truly spectacular value.  Big and powerful, if a touch rustic, this has dense concentration for any wine up to the $30-ish price point. This is one that will lay down for 15 to 20 years – or more, depending how old you like your wine.  I’ve scored these using the twenty point system.       ~Dean Alexander

2010 Bordeaux Tasting, May 25,2013

2010 Chateau Poitevin, Medoc
Starting out strong with this Poitevin! This shows off with its ripe, complete fruit, ample concentration and lasting complexity with some toasty tannins. This will age nicely for 5 to 10 years.  15

2010 Chateau Mongravey, Cru Bourgeois, Margaux
Floral nose of Margaux’s terroir is evident as this echos the stereotype of the appellation. Much more elegant than any of the other wines, light to medium weight for the vintage. Fine tannins play along the long finish. 16.5

2010 Chateau La Bienfaisance, Grand Cru, St-Emilion  91 pts WS

Bégédan vineyards in the Haut-Medoc of Bordeaux.
Bégédan vineyards in the Haut-Medoc of Bordeaux. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Merlot’s bright red cherry fruit, very pure, with racy acidity pulling the flavors along on the extended finish. This was not showing nearly as dense and powerful as it had two months ago. This was a crowd favorite at the price. 16

2010 Chateau Belgrave, Fifth Growth, Haut-Medoc
Not much showing on the nose, but has good weight and richness on thepalate. Broad plum fruit, oaky tannins firm it all up, allowing it to finish with some elegance. This developed nicely over the course of the tasting. 17

2010 Chateau Puynormand, Vieille Vignes, Montagne-St-Emilion
Impressively deep plum is dark with lots of dusky, animal-like notes. Ripe Merlot is 100% of the cuvee, and show the power than can be achieved with this grape when grown in the right place.  Very powerful for the price, and is framed with substantial tannins, both from the skins and the oak. 17

2010 Chateau Cantemerle, Fifth Growth, Haut-Medoc
Showing a bit closed having just been opened, showing only faint fruit and subtle oak now. But this showing some excellent richness, and quite powerful, with cassis at the core.  Firm tannins pull the flavors through with authority.  This will cellar very well. 17

2010Chateau Beychevelle, Fourth Growth, St-Julien

Until I tasted the Leoville, I didn’t think a wine would be better in this tasting. It is certainly the best Beychevelle I have ever had. They have come a long way since I visited the Chateau in 1996, with its dirty, mouldy cellar and resulting dirty muddy wines.  This 2010 is a perfectly balanced wine with remarkable finesse, sweetly fruited on the nose. Excellent richness.  Solid, mouth-filling, and no sharp edges. It was complete and complex.  I absolutely loved this.  Parker may have underscored this one. 18.5

2010 La Dame de Montrose, St-Estephe
Huge for Bordeaux – It’s hard to believe this is a second wine (of Second Growth Ch. Montrose). Completely opaque – black with purple edges. Powerful nose, showing quite a bit of green-ness – presumably from Cabernet Franc, and plenty
of new French oak. Sweet, and powerful black-fruits here. A massive wine that defines the greatness and power of the vintage.  On some levels it reminds me somewhat of the very best wines coming out of Chile, but with more structure and less gras.  18

2010 Leoville-Poyferre, Second Growth,St-Julien 

This was without a doubt, the wine of the tasting.  It is bigger in structure than the 100 point 2009 vintage, but less suave and refined. That said it is simply a magnificent Bordeaux. A fine nose of minerals and stones, a touch of fresh herbs, vanilla, and shows very little oak,  sweet fruit here again, with excellent ripeness and balance, full mouth-feel, that is long, soft, sultry on the finish, with tannins holding down the long complex finish. 19.5

The line up, with current retail prices and critics scores

2010 Chateau Poitevin, Medoc  90 pts WS  $14.99

2010 Chateau Mongravey, Margaux  91 pts WS  $36.99

2010 Chateau La Bienfaisance, St-Emilion  91 pts WS, $31.99

2010 Chateau Belgrave, Haut-Medoc  91 pts WS  $33.99

2010 La Dame de Montrose, St-Estephe  94 pts RP $55.99

2010 Chateau Puynormand, Vieille Vignes, Montagne-St-Emilion 17.99

2010 Chateau Cantemerle, Haut-Medoc  94+ pts RP $44.99

Chateau Beychevelle, St-Julien  94 pts RP $104.99

2010 Leoville-Poyferre,  St-Julien  98+ $159.99

Calling It Quits: Galloni Could Have Changed California’s Wine Trajectory

In Case You Missed it Last Week. 

Antionio Galloni Resigned From The Wine Advocate.

This was disappointing news.  In his new, powerful, position of writing for The Wine Advocate, Antonio Galloni was our greatest hope of allowing a diverse spectrum of winemaking styles to flurish in California.  California Cabernets, in particular, had been pushed into a very narrow definition of style of what could be considered great Cabernet. It was a definition that had been shaped over twenty-five years, by a singular, authoritative, voice. Robert Parker’s.

“Galloni had a vastly different palate than Parker.”

Two years ago, when Galloni was given the assignment of  reviewing California wine for the world’s most powerful and influential wine publication, we began to see a momentous shift in the editorial stance there. Galloni had a vastly different palate than Parker, and it show in his very first reviews. With these more diverse reviews, we saw the possibility that winemakers could escape from the pressures to make the uniformly fruit driven, immensely concentrated, and almost monolithic style that has come to characterize Cabernet here.  The question was, would Robert Parker continue to allow such a diversion from the style that was essentially synonymous with his publication? I was incredulous that it would be allowed to continue.

But Galloni was not relieved of his duties.  He was not muzzled.  And for a time, it appeared that the arc of California winemaking might forever be altered for the better. Now, winemakers that desired to make more refined, detailed California wines, would be financially encouraged to do so. There were already dozens of winemakers out on the fringes , making wine in niche styles, that could really benefit from these changes in thinking.

“There was no doubt now, California was poised to create the most brilliant wines in its history.”

Galloni‘s second major review of California Cabs was published in late 2012, with many stars of yesteryear among the list of high scoring wines. Imagine, if you will, that the Freemark Abbey Napa Cabernet got 92 points from any publication -other than the Enthusiast.  It happened in the Wine Advocate!  It was thrilling that so many wines were rewarded for showing honest complexity on leaner frames, while many of Parker’s former favorites struggled to stay above 90 points. Galloni simply did not seem to be impressed by their bombastic, viscous fruit, if once you got past the all the flash, they were ultimately simple wines. There was no doubt now, California was poised to create the most brilliant wines in its history.

And then, just like that, he is gone.  The Wine Advocate put him in the position, and I suppose, The Wine Advocate could take it away. But before making accusations, let’s go back.

*       *       *

From The Wine Advocate’s humble beginnings, Robert Parker’s message was clear. He challenged winemakers around the world to increase their quality, by pointedly writing that specific wineries needed a “wake up call“.  He never shied away from confrontation, and insisted they clean up their winemaking, reduce their yields, and stop doing whatever lazy, careless, or penny-pinching things they were doing.  I don’t think it was his intention for them to make wine his way, he simply wanted winemakers to care.  He tirelessly fought this crusade, making fierce enemies along the way. He called winemakers out on shoddy practices, and forced them to pay attention to the details.  His words resonated across the wine world; and not just with the winemakers whom he challenged, but also with his ever-growing, subscription-paying public, who enforced his words with the power of their wallets. The readership followed his every word, not only because he was beyond reproach in his candor and honesty, but because they could identify with the reliably accessible, big, rich, sweetly fruited wines he favored. 

“Imagine, if you will, that the Freemark Abbey Napa Cabernet would get 92 points from any publication -other than the Enthusiast…  It happened in the Wine Advocate!”

As the years rolled by, Robert Parker’s legions of fans bought what he recommended, and winemakers financially felt the enormous power of his pen. They discovered being a favorite of Robert Parker brought financial success, so winemakers sought to make wine to please him.

Traditionalists were alarmed.  Wines everywhere were becoming homogenized and uniform, and nowhere was this more true than among California’s premier Cabernets from Napa Valley. So when Robert Parker, who was positioning himself to retire, named his Italian specialist, Antonio Galloni, to write his the reviews of California wine, there was a great deal of surprise.  I can’t help but think Parker was very aware of the impact of his choice.   

The Traditionalist View: Funny Youtube Video  Hitler reacts to Robert Parker scoring a Napa Cabernet 100 points

But the winds were changing. In late 2012, Robert Parker announced the sale of The Wine Advocate for $15 million. The new ownership, a group of Singapore businessmen, named The Advocate’s Asia Correspondent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, as the publication’s new Editor.  Antonio Galloni, whom many had considered to be Robert Parker’s heir apparent, had been passed over. He resigned, with plans to start his own website.  Did he quit, or was he pushed out?

I am certain that the wine industry will embrace him as a valid spokesperson, and critic.   Another voice is welcome, even though he will no longer have the high pulpit of The Wine Advocate to preach from.

About Antonio Galloni:

Antonio Galloni, born in Caracas, Venezuela, was the son of an Italian wine importer. American educated, he began writing about the wines of Piemonte, in a blog he named The Piedmont Report. He has already launched his new website, antoniogalloni.com, and will report on Italian, California and Burgundy wine, in short media-driven format.  It’s hard to imagine he will ever have the reach he had two weeks ago when he worked for The Wine Advocate.

The Wine Advocate
The Wine Advocate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.