Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Agony of TCA

TCA can bring a grown man to his knees.

I have been a pretty good customer of Jacques and Hamptons Wine Shoppe for a bit so when Jacques decided to come to Florida for the holidays, he said that we should get together one evening over a bottle of 1986 Mouton that he would be bringing into town.  Never one to turn down an opportunity to drink old first growths, I said "sure."  Jacques called me regularly to ensure that things were still a "go" and said, "Oh, by the way, you can bring some friends along because I will be bringing two bottles."  I made the dinner reservations at Capital Grille and invited two of my buddies and their wives to partake(@hlyterroir declined the invite because he was still recovering from having drunk a 2006 Shafer Hillside Select on the preceding Thursday.).

On the morning of the dinner, Jacques called and asked if I could direct him to someone at the restaurant because he wanted to go over and decant the wines prior to the dinner.  Dinner was at 7.  Fred and Laurie rode with us and we were the first to arrive.  Jacques came in a little after and, as we were completing introductions, Jeff and Dee strolled in and completed the party.  We were shown to a circular table in a comfy, cozy corner towards the back of the restaurant.  This was the first time that I had met Jacques face to face, and the first time that any of my friends had spoken to him, but "many a friend is made over a bottle of wine" and we quickly settled down to comfortable conversation.  Jeff launched the wine proceedings with a bottle of Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs NV and I followed in short order with a 1953 Remoissenet Vosne-Romanee Clos de Reas and a 1968 Vina-Valoria Rioja.  These wines drunk beautifully with the Rioja being the more longer-lived of the two in the glass.

By this time we had worked our way to the main course and the main event -- the 1986 Moutons.  Jacques had the decanted wines brought over and the first one poured into our glasses.  After an initial whiff, a crestfallen look overcame him. "It's corked," he said.  Dee did not agree.  Both Jeff and I felt that the wine was flat and I did get some TCA.  Jacques pushed the first decanter aside and called for the second.  The look on his face after sniffing the wine was one of pure disbelief.  This one was also corked.  As a matter of fact, it had higher levels of TCA than did the first.  Jacques was mortified.  He had taken such care in setting this up.  He was in a new town with new friends.  He had drunk my Remoissenet and Vina-Valoria.  And he had delivered two corked bottles.  He was inconsolable.  His wife tried to tell him that it was not his fault; that it could have happened to anyone.  He looked daggers at her.  Of course it was his fault.  He had brought the wines.  Even worse, he and I were in negotiations for me to purchase some '86 Moutons off him.  And now this.  I sought to defuse the situation by by whipping out a 1998 Alvaro Palacios L'Ermita and then a soothing 1983 d'Yquem; but to no avail.  Jacques was a beaten man.  TCA had racked up another notch on its belt.  It had taken the dignity of another innocent victim. 

Jacques dragged himself dejectedly back to the valet stand to retrieve his car and, as he faded into the mist that enveloped the area, I thought to myself, there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pop Goes the Maestro??? Investigating the Future of Champagne Closures

“The Champagne cork hasn't changed for 150 years, so I think it's high time we evolved a bit.” These were the words uttered by Carol Duval-Leroy, head of the Champagne house Duval-Leroy, producer of several of this author’s favorite go-to bubblies.

The house of Duval-Leroy, amongst others, are exploring the efficacy of “non traditional closures” to address several issues, a few of which include the long-term sustainability of the cork forests of the world, the loss of product due to the introduction of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or cork taint, and the problems a lot of people have with opening Champagne safely, either struggling with the bottle or putting someone’s eye out as the cork flies across the room at a typical velocity of 45 miles per hour.

The aroma of wet cardboard or freshly poured concrete that signals the presence of TCA drives wine lovers to dump innumerable bottles down the drain. The problem is accentuated in sparkling wines like Champagne, where the bubbles only serve to volatilize the taint, making it all the more noticeable. Various studies suggest TCA affects anywhere from 1% to 7% of wines. This is a rate of failure that would be unacceptable in almost any other industry - what if 5% of all cars produced by a particular manufacturer wouldn't start!?!

Two alternative closures have been marketed recently, the Maestro and the Mytik Diamant. Over the last several years, variations on the traditional Champagne cork have been appearing on the market, such as the cork by Cortex Company, which has a silicon disk fixed to its bottom. The concept is that, when compressed in the neck of the bottle, the silicon disk prevents the wine from any contact with the cork, thus preventing the possibility of TCA taint. (Author’s note: from personal experience, this concept has fallen woefully short on several occasions)

The Diamant is a composite cork; that is, fashioned from bits of cork compressed under pressure. The process utilizes compressed and heated carbon dioxide and, if the manufacturer is to be believed, renders the product 99.99% TCA free, in a process similar to that used to decaffeinate coffee. In the three years since its release, Mytik Diamant has been adopted by nearly 15% of the Champagne market, including renowned houses like Billecart-Salmon and Moét et Chandon.

The Maestro employs an integrated aluminum lever system that opens a concealed crown bottle cap similar to that on a soda or beer bottle. (For those who may not know, the crown cap is already utilized for most of the time the champagne is fermenting and at the winery, and the traditional cork is added as part of the final processing.). As a bonus, the Maestro still gives you that satisfying pop upon opening.

While the Maestro will certainly render Champagnes under its closure free of TCA, Duval Leroy is concerned that there could be some sort of environmental catastrophe that would endanger the supply of natural cork, and it would have a million bottles in the cellar with no alternative closures. (Cork is the bark of an oak tree native to Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, southern France, Italy, and Tunisia, and is a renewable resource, with harvests from a single tree occurring every 10-15 years over a 150 to 250 year lifespan of the tree.).

Given the success of the Stelvin (screw cap) closure (increasing in use ten-fold in the last 7 years) with still (non-bubbly) wines, the manufacturers are confident that cork’s days are numbered in the sparkling wine world as well. Being so tied to tradition and their luxury image, the majority of the Champagne houses may be slow to move toward the new closures, although several, including Drappier, Duval-Leroy, Billecart-Salmon, and Moét et Chandon, have run trials on the Maestro.

If the success of these new-fangled Champagne closures depends on pleasing public and Champenois palates, it could be a long wait.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Champagne Going Green

With the holiday party season moving ahead at full throttle, selected Champagne producers in France are doing their part to ensure that the Champagne we pop in celebration of the good times is just a little bit greener (environmentally friendly).

In response to a 2003 study that found that the Champagne industry emits 220,500 tons of carbon dioxide every year in the process of transporting their product around the world, the region’s trade organization, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), is recommending that producers switch over to a newer, sleeker bottle. The goal is to achieve a 25% reduction in the carbon footprint by 2020 and 75% by 2050. Production and shipping accounts for nearly a third of Champagne’s carbon emissions, with the husky (nearly 2 pounds of glass) bottle the biggest offender.

The new bottle is only marginally slimmer than the traditional bottle and about 2.3 ounces lighter. Not much of a change you say? One must remember that two (2) factors significantly influenced the decision to alter the Champagne bottle – safety and tradition.

The design of the slimmer bottle required a significant re-engineering in order to handle the pressure of Champagne (nearly 3 atmospheres – or 90 PSI ) for more than four years - from bottling all the way to the consumer’s hands. Think of it as 3 times the pressure of the air in your car’s tires. Although the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is often (incorrectly) thought of as the inventor of Champagne, he was the one who first thickened the glass (in the mid-1600s) to contain what was often referred to as “the devil’s wine” because its vessels exploded so often.

Champagne houses go to great lengths to cultivate an image of luxury through packaging and pricing - and will gladly explain to you that other sparkling wines are inferior because they simply are not Champagne. With tradition being a major factor, producers are very reluctant to alter, even in the slightest, the manner in which their product is seen or presented to the consumer. Therefore, the new bottle had to be molded so that consumers would barely detect the difference in the bottle’s classic shape. In order to optimize the efficiency, the new bottle also had to fit all of the existing machinery at all of the Champagne houses.

But this small reduction in weight (from a slightly narrower profile in the shoulder of the bottle) reduced the carbon emissions associated with bottle production alone by 7%. The slimmer shape allows approximately 2,400 more bottles (200 cases) to be transported in the standard truckload, therefore putting fewer trucks on the road. The estimate is that this will result in a reduction of nearly 9,000 tons (18 million pounds) of carbon emitted annually - the equivalent of taking 4,000 small cars off the road.

Depending on the Champagne house you favor, you may already own some of the new bottle style and did not realize it. Vranken-Pommery Monopole, which, in addition to Champagne Vranken and Champagne Pommery, also owns Heidsieck, Company Monopole, Cuvée Diamant, Demoiselle, and Champagne Charles Lafitte, switched to the new bottle in 2003, and introduced it to the retail markets in 2007. Expect to see slimmer bottles from Veuve Cliquot and Moet-Chandon in 2013-2014.

The cost of the bottle is marginally less (dropping from 43 cents per bottle to about 41), but not enough to alter the pricing to the consumer. It will remain to be seen, however, if the savings resulting from the reduction in transportation costs will be offered to the Champagne lovers around the world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mastering the Medoc and Graves: Tasting the Medoc Wines

A total of 10 wines were tasted at the Steven Spurrier Mastering the Medoc and Graves course which was held at Decanter HQ on October 8th, 2010.  Eight of the wines were red and two white.  The whites were both Graves AOC -- the only dry white AOC in Bordeaux other than Pessac-Leognan -- while the reds were drawn from St. Estephe (2), Pauillac (1), St. Julien (2), Margaux (2) and Pessac-Leognan (1).  In terms of vintage, three of the wines were from 2005 (an exceptional vintage, according to Decanter), two were from 2003 ("Expect wines of finesse and structure with some ageing potential" -- Decanter), and one each from 2008, 2007, 2006, 2001, and 1998.  In this post I will report on the Medoc wines tasted and will reserve the Graves wines for a future post.

The first Medoc wine tasted was the 2006 Amiral de Beychevelle, the second wine of Chateau Beychevelle.  Annual production of this label is around 12,500 cases, approximately 1/3 of the Chateau's total production.  The grapes for this wine are picked from vines averaging 25 years of age and were picked earlier than were grapes designated for the flagship wine.  The wine is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot.  The wine was aged in 50% new oak after fermentation in temperature-controlled vats.  The wine had a full, young color in the glass and black olives, mushrooms, and vanilla on the nose.  It exhibited a hint of spiciness and great balance.

The second Medoc wine tasted was the 2005 Chateau d" Angludet from Margaux.  The estate encompasses 32 hectares on sandy-gravelly soil and is planted to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot.  The fruit is machine-harvested and fermented in concrete vats.  The wine is aged for 12 months in 33% new oak and egg-white-fined before bottling.  Annual production is 10,000 cases.  The Angludet had a more intense color than did the Amiral de Beychevelle and appeared somewhat concentrated.  Red and black fruits on the nose as well as some vegetality.  Rich on the palate with blackcurrants and a definitive earthiness.

We next tasted the 2005 Pauillac (ex Chateau Latour).  This wine, Chateau Latour's third label, is a blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 27% Merlot.  It had great color and concentrated red berry fruit , iron, and graphite on the nose.  On the palate some greenness, a metallic tone, and medium plus acid.  Steven Spurrier saw this wine as "balanced" and "classy" and indicated that it should be drunk over the next 2-3 years.

The next Medoc wine tasted was the 2005 Chateau de Pez from St. Estephe.  This wine was a blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot and had been matured in 40% new French oak barrels for 16-18 months.  The wine had good color but a diffuse rim.  On the nose it exhibited raw meat, steel and black fruit.  On the palate, a good round mouthfeel, vanilla notes, and good acidity.  A balanced wine that is approachable now.

The Chateau Branaire-Ducru was from the heat-wave vintage of 2003.  This estate is set on 60 hectares which are planted with 35-year-old vines.  The blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot.  The wine was aged for 16-20 months in 60-65% new oak barrels.  The nose showed green notes, stewed red fruits and baking spices while the palate exhibited a green note and an overarching richness.  A beautifully balanced wine which can be drunk over the next three years.

The Chateau Rauzan-Segla (Margaux) was drawn from the oft-overlooked 2001 vintage.  The blend -- 63.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33.5% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc -- has been aged in 55% new oak barrels.  The wine showed maturity in the glass while the nose showed red fruit, a fragrant elegance, cassis, dark chocolate, vanilla, and lacquer.  The wine had a good round mouth feel and a fairly long finish.

The final Medoc wine was the Chateau Calon-Segur (St. Estephe),  drawn from a vintage (1998) which was, according to Steven, more of a right-bank vintage than a left.  The grapes for the wine had been sourced from 35-year-old vines planted on the estate's 55 hectares.  The wine was aged for 18 months in oak barriques after fermentation.  The wine had a fragrant florality, red fruit, and spices on the nose and harmony, sweetness of fruit, and length of fruit on the palate. This was clearly the most elegant of the Medoc wines that we had tasted.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Framework for Wine-Region "Mastering" Courses using Steven Spurrier's Decanter Medoc-Graves Class as a Case Study

On October 18th, 2010, I attended a course titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves.  The class was held at Decanter's London HQ and was led by noted Bordeaux expert, and Decanter Contributing Editor, Steven Spurrier.  In my October 13th review of the course, I commented thusly: "There was something missing though, and after giving it some thought, I arrived at the conclusion that it was context.  While the course is titled: Mastering the Medoc and Graves, we were not provided an overarching framework at the beginning of the class; and how tasting these specific wines would allow us to attain those objectives." I will, in this post, propose a framework that can be applied uniformly to all mastering courses and, in a series of supporting posts, provide the relevant contextual input to the framework.

In my opinion, mastering a wine region intimates a comprehensive understanding of the elements that contribute to the making of fine wine in that region (theory), the construct of a "strawman" of the characteristics of fine wine from that region (application), and the ability to taste through a sample of the wines  to identify the characteristics included in the strawman (practice). If these criteria are applied to the Medoc and Graves course, we should have been identifying the characteristics of fine wine in these regions and then tasting the wines to see how/if they reflected those characteristics.  The first contextual element would thus have been met: an objective and a set of related tasks.

The elements that contribute to wine quality are location, climate, vintage, aspect, soil, grape variety, viticulture, vinification, and the winemaker.  Of the foregoing, all but the winemaker could be considered at a regional level.  That is, these elements could have been discussed as it relates to the Medoc and Graves and, in my view, are essential contributors to a mastery of the regions.  They were either mentioned anectdotally or in passing in the class.  I have filled that gap with a series of supporting posts on the Medoc, Graves, Medoc and Graves vintages, and viniviticulture in the regions.  This constitutes the first step in truly mastering the Medoc and Graves.

The next step is building a strawman of the characteristics of the wine.  Steven did provide a starting point in that he saw wines of the Medoc tending to austerity.  He also described Margaux wines as "charming and elegant," Pauillac as "sterner and tougher," and St. Estephe wines as "a little more rustic." To the Margaux description I would add aromatic and excellent ageing potential.  St. Julien wines exhibit power and concentration along with elegance and require ageing to demonstrate their true potential.  Pauillac wines are powerful, complex, and tannic. St. Estephe wines are balanced and elegant with a structure that lends to ageing.  With the charaacteristics of the regions in hand, the second step towards mastery of the region has been taken.

The final step is tasting the wines and one of two approaches can be taken: (i) taste the wines blind in order to attempt to identify the region of origin based on the identified characteristics; or (ii) tasting the wines non-blind to determine if they match up with the defined regional characteristics.  Upon successful completion of this step, masterey of the region is within grasp.

In retrospect, we utilized a modified version of the latter approach in our tasting of the wines from the Medoc and Graves.  I will discuss the wines and the tasting in future posts.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Viniviticulture in the Medoc and Graves

Grape growing and winemaking in Bordeaux is classical in the sense that most of the core viniviticultural processess predominant in the world today can trace their roots back to Bordeaux.  On the left bank vines are planted at high densities to induce stress and are trained low to take advantage of heat reflected from the gravelly terrain.  The better chateaus have a higher percentage of old vines and implement rigorous replanting regimes in order to optimize vineyard potential.  Yields are closely managed through actions such as pruning and green harvesting.  For the most part, grapes are machine harvested with hand-harvesting reserved for the finest wines.

Once in the winery, grapes are subjected to scrutiny at a sorting table where unsatisfactory fruit and unwanted objects are removed.  Both black and white grapes are crushed to break the skins and stems are removed from the white grapes; black grapes may or may not be de-stemmed.  White grapes are pressed to remove the skins and are then shunted to the fermentation tanks for the initiation of that process.  Black grapes are allowed to macerate for between 15 and 21 days -- including fermentation and post-fermentation -- in order to extract tannins, color, and flavors from the skins.  White wines will ferment for 12 - 15 days between 10 degrees and 20 degrees Celsius while red wines ferment between 8 and 10 days at 28 to 30 degrees Celsius.  Fermentation is carried out in temperature-controlled, stainless-steel tanks or epoxy-lined concrete vats. The choice of yeast to ignite the fermentation process is the winemaker's decision but many winemakers opt for cultured yeasts in order to reduce uncertainty.  During and after fermentation the must is kept in contact with the skins through a pumping-over process (Punching down of the cap is also utilized but pumping-over is more prevalent.).

Post the red-wine fermentation process, the free-run juice is bled-off into storage vats while the remaining engorged skins are pressed to extract the remaining juice.  This pressed juice is stored separately from the free-run juice.  Red wines undergo malolactic fermentation wherein the hard malic acid is converted into softer lactic acid.  This process is optional for white wines which may, instead, go directly from fermentation to racking.  Both red and white wines are racked to vats or oak barrels for cellar ageing.  Sulfur is added at this time to stabilize the wine and combat oxidation.  The oak barrels are 225 liter in volume and can range from neutral to 100% new oak.  The best wines will be placed in 100% new oak barrels and will be resident therein for 24 months.

In many cases, plots and varietals have been vinified and stored separately and blending these separate wines into the final product prior to bottling is one of the critical tasks of the winemaking team.  Based on the results to date, it is a task that they are especially well-equipped to handle.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Medoc and Graves vintages

A vintage begins when the grower determines that an ideal balance between sugar and acidity has been attained; a condition which will vary between varietals and from plot to plot.  Vintage is especially important in a region like Bordeaux as the quality of wine produced may vary widely from year to year as the region is particularly susceptible to rainfall at harvest time.

Weather is the most important variable in vintage quality and can make its presence felt in a number of ways.  Winter freezes can damage grafts and cause vine death while spring frosts can damage buds.  Excessive temperatures can lead to early ripening and a sugar-acid imbalance which can, in turn, reduce the ageing potential of the wine (see, for example, the 2003 vintage in Bordeaux).  Drought conditions can force the vine to use sugars for its own internal processes thus leaving smaller amounts of sugar for storage in the grapes.  Excessive rains close to harvest can lead to a dilution of the sugars and flavors in the grapes and the damp conditions can promote rot.

I consulted a number of sources to determine their perspectives on left-bank vintages between 1995 and 2005.  Robert Parker provides a separate numerical rating for the Medoc and Graves while Jancis Robinson, Decanter, and Berry Bros & Rudd provide qualitative descriptions of the vintages and, within that content, make any necessary distinction between the right and left banks.  All reviewers consider the 2000 and 2005 left-bank wines to have been superior. Parker rates the 2008, 2003,1998 and 1996 as outstanding, with all others in the decade being Above Average to Excellent.  Jancis Robinson relegates the 2003 and 1997s to "drink-now" status (you may remember the tiff between Robinson and Parker as to the merits of the 2003 vintage).  She sees 1996 as a "tough, slow-maturing vintage ... for keeping not drinking ..."

The most important barometers of the perception of vintage quality are the price at which the wine is initially offered to the market place as well as its performance over time in secondary markets.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Graves sub-region of Bordeaux

On October 8th, 2010, I attended a class titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves which was held at Decanter HQ in London and led by Decanter Contributing Editor, and noted Bordeaux maven, Steven Spurrier.  I detailed the Medoc sub-region in a prior post and will cover Graves in this post.

The name Graves is derived from the dominant characteristic -- gravel -- of the soil in the region.  The soil is comprised of gravel, sand, and clay carried out by the Garonne over thousands of years. What is considered the Graves sub-region begins at the gates of the town of Bordeaux and extends for 50 miles along the left side of the Garonne River.

Nestled within the confines of the Graves sub-region are the noted AOCs of Pessac-Leognan (dry red and white wines), Sauternes (sweet whites), and Barsac (sweet whites).  The Graves AOC is the only Bordeaux region that is legally permitted to produce dry reds and whites as well as sweet white wines.  The sweet whites are produced under the Bordeaux Superieur AOC.  Graves covers 3400 hectares and is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for red wines and Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle for whites.

Graves has a one-level classification scheme which was originally implemented in 1953 for reds and then revised in 1959 to include dry white wines.  There are 16 Graves Classified Growths, all located in the Pessac-Leognan commune.  The most notable of these classified growths is Chateau Haut-Brion, the only non-Medoc wine to have been included in the 1855 Medoc classification scheme.

The red wines from Graves are distinctively garnet-red in color and are more robust than wines emanating from Medoc.  These medium- to full-bodied wines are characterized by red fruits, blackcurrant, and cinnamon.  The whites, which are barrel-fermented and aged on their lees, are flowery with notes of passion fruit and apricots.

Pessac-Leognan, in the far north of the Graves sub-region, was a part of Graves until it gained its own AOC designation in 1987 in recognition of its distinctive soils.  The 1350 hectares of Pessac-Leognana encompasses the most respected producers in the Graves sub-region to include the aforementioned Haut-Brion but also such notables as Chateau Pape Clement, Chateau Haut-Bailly, and Chateau Bouscaut, among others.

The red wines of Pessac-Leognan -- made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc -- exhibit a powerful bouquet along with red fruits and cocoa.  These wines can age 20 years and beyond and gain in complexity after 7 years, adding spice and other tertiary flavors.  The whites are medium- to full-bodied and will age up to 15 years in cellar.  These Semillon-Sauvignon blends will exhibit orange peel, boxwood, and passion fruit.  The crisper whites will have Sauvignon as the dominant grape in the blend while the fuller bodied whites will be Semillon-dominant.