Thursday, August 30, 2012

Natural wine: The critics rage ... but the beat goes on

One of the most debated issues in the wine world today is the validity and viability of the natural wine movement.  The barbs hurled in the direction of its adherents have been both pointed and numerous but they seem to serve only to strengthen the resolve of the beseiged.  I will examine the arguments both for and against natural wines in this post.

According to, "Natural wines are wines that are made without the use of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard and few, if any, additives in the cellar."  According to Jim Fine (Natural Wine: Weird or Wonderful,, natural wine is basically wine as it was produced hundreds of years ago and includes techniques such as organic farming, hand-harvesting, indigenous yeasts, and no additives.

What are the driving forces behind this back-to-the-wine-future movement?  According to Mike Steinberger (Down with the natural wine movement, Slate, 9/24/10), the movement is a backlash against the perception that today's wines are highly manipulated.  By pursuing naturally made wines, adherents are "defending authenticity and artisanship" and rejecting industrial winemaking and its evil spawn "bland homogeneity."  The modern wines do you no harm physically (in moderation, that is); they are just not "holy" enough.  Natural wines are touted as "purer, earthier, and more eco-friendly," arguments that are, according to Steinberger, "philosophic and aesthetic."  The movement took root in France's Loire Valley in the 1970s and France remains the hotbed today with about 400 of its producers embracing this philosophy. 

The biggest problem confronting the proponents of naturalness in wine is the lack of an objective set of standards as to what constitutes natural wine.  As Steinberger notes, there is no: (i) classification for natural wine; (ii) no sanctioning body to say when a wine qualifies; and (iii) no agreement, even among adherents, as to what constitutes natural wine.  For example, some proponents discourage the use of any sulphur dioxide while others say that 10 milligrams/liter should be allowed and still another constituency is lobbyimg for up to 20 milligrams/liter.  Similar disagreements are encountered when the discussions turn to chaptalization, acidification, and yeast-type with some producers seeking flexibility in these areas.  As a matter of fact, the proponents cannot even agree on the nomenclature for the movement; some have deserted the label "natural" for "authentic," "real," and "naked" (Beverly Blanning MW, Natural Wine, TONG #12).

The second significant issue confronting natural wine proponents is perception of wine quality.  According to Fine, natural wines can be "funky" at times with shocking visuals and significant bottle variation due to the embargo against sulphur dioxide and other additives.  Some adherents seek to present this side of natural wine as a virtue.  According to one adherent, "The appeal of natural wines lie not only in the discovery of a new vintage every year, but also in the promise of a beverage so mercurial that every bottle, or every glass, may be unique."

Critics do not quite see things that way.  As a matter of fact, they see the marketing of wines with this level of instability as a form of vinous malpractice.  According to Blanning, by refusing to add sulphur dioxide during production, natural wine producers are making wines that are unstable, faulty, or both. Conventional producers view sulphur dioxide as (i) essential and (ii) beneficial for stability and hygiene and consider it irresponsible to bypass its use.  Natural wine proponents bristle at this characterization.  In an interview with Blanting, Alice Fiering, one of the leading natural wine proponents, described sulphur dioxide as "controlling" and "sucking the life out of wines."  It should be pointed out that there is no scientific basis for such a claim.  It should also be pointed out that Fiering and Robert Parker have clashed repeatedly and publicly over the natural wine issue with Parker basically calling her a charlatan and a knave for "peddling" the natural wine concept.

Benjamin Lewin MW (The shape of things to come, TONG #12) piles on by characterizing wine as a human invention that lies along the path from grape juice to vinegar and, in that regard, as being inherently unnatural.  Based on Lewin's argument, drinking natural wine would require that the wine -- fermented with natural yeasts -- be drunk immediately after fermentation.  Beyond that, human decisions and actions (or lack thereof) aimed at stability constitute intervention.  Lewin points to steps such as encouraging/discouraging malolactic fermentation, chaptalization, acidification, Jesus units, and oak aging as examples of human intervention that can be found at some level in the production of so-called natural wines.

With the large number of powerful critics arrayed against it, why isn't the natural wine phenomena withering away (it is, in fact, growing)?  According to Matt Walls (What the wine trade could learn from natural wines, Matt Walls Wine Blog,, while many of these wines are "challenging, difficult, or downright weird" natural wine has found a market niche relatively easily because it is "cross-cultural, vibrant and funky" and "associated with young people."  Walls talks about the importance of authenticity -- as reflected in product inputs and the story of the human element -- as being very important in the marketing of a number of brands and sees the same principle being applied -- wittingly or unwittingly -- in the natural wine arena where a set of simple, clean ingredients are made into wine by a number of simple, hole-in-the-overall farmers.  Walls compares natural wine to craft beers: authentic, straightforward, inclusive, down to earth; and here to stay.

The concept of natural wines has caused swords to be unsheathed, arrows to be strung, and knives drawn, but is this a case of vinous intolerance.  Has the market spoken but it's call been ignored by the sages in the land?  From time immemorial, small, visionary producers (even if they happen to be backwards-looking visionaries) have gone off and done weird things and time and market forces have been the arbiter of whether the ideas were good or not.  All that I am saying is that we should allow the market to make a determination on natural wines.  I do not particularly like when I cannot see through a glass of wine and the opacity is not a result of the intensity of grape color.  Nor do I revel in funky tastes or bottle variation.  But that is my style in wine. Conventional.  We are always looking to increase the number of wine drinkers and if natural wine is an enabler of that goal, we should acknowledge it as such.  We do not have to embrace it; just don't try to kill it.  The role of the critic in this instance is to compare and contrast within the segment rather than attempting cross-segement comparisons.  If there is a market for natural wine, I say let that market be served.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, August 27, 2012

Opus One: Conception and execution of the highest order

Opus One is an Oakville-based winery joint venture that grew out of Baron Philippe de Rothschild's (at that time the owner of Mouton-Rothschild) desire to partner with an American producer to make a distinctly American wine.  I have visited the winery twice in a little over a year -- once as a member of the UC Davis Wine Law Conference team that visited the facility on June 6th, 2010 and, secondly, on a personal guided tour organized by @sdematei and led by Jim Nicolette, Guest Relations Coordinator -- and this post presents my understanding of the winery operations based on onsite discussions as well as material gleaned from secondary sources.

Based on the recommendation of his friend Harry Serlis, Robert Mondavi was the only producer who was considered by the Baron as a potential joint-venture partner (Julia Flynn Siler, The House of Mondavi, Penguin 2007).  The Baron invited Robert Mondavi to meet at Mouton-Rothschild and in the course of the visit (1978) proposed a joint venture based on equal footing (a surprising proposal to Mondavi given the size and prestige of Mouton).  The agreement coming out of the meeting was for the formation of a fifty-fifty joint venture which would produce a single red wine with a proprietary name (Siler 2007).  Robert Mondavi would provide the grapes and make the wine for the joint venture until it was able to meet its own needs and a search would be initiated to identify and procure property to house its operations.

The joint venture released its 1979 and 1980 vintages simultaneously in 1984 under the winemaking stewardship of Timothy Mondavi and Lucien Sionneau, the Mouton winemaker.  The product introduced on the market represented a compromise between Sionneau's preference for a more elegant offering and Mondavi's hankering for a California-style red wine (Siler 2007).

The climate and soils of Oakville, Opus One's home AVA, has been described in a previous post.  The estate currently owns and operates four vineyards, totaling 169 acres (68.4 ha), in the AVA.  The first acquisition was the Q Block (35 acres (14.2 ha)) of the famed To Kalon Vineyard from the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1981.

This was followed by the acquisition of the 50-acre (20.2-ha) River Parcel in 1983, the Ballestra Vineyard (49 acres (19.8 ha)) in 1984, and the To Kalon K Block (48 acre (18.4 ha)) in 2008.  In 1995 the Q Block was replanted with low-yield, high-density, phylloxera-resistant rootstock.  The density of the re-plantings was five to six times higher than is normal for Napa but was pursued in order to produce smaller berries with resultant higher skin-to-juice-ratio which, in turn, would translate into more intense flavors and aromas. Overall vine density ranges between 500 and 2400 vines per acre.  Vines are spur-pruned with new plantings going to Guyot.

The goal of Opus One is the production of an extraordinay wine and the person leading that charge today is the Winemaker and Viticulturist Michael Silacci.  Mike has a Masters degree in Viticulture from UC Davis and Undergraduate degrees in Enology from UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux.  Mike spent 6 years as the winemaker at Stags Leap Wine Cellars and 1 year as the winemaker at King Estates in Oregon but is especially mindful of the years (6) at Beaulieu Estates where he got to work alongside the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff.  Tchelistcheff had come back to Beaulieu Vineyards as a consultant and Mike worked alongside him for approximately 3 years and came out of that process a Tchelistcheff disciple.

Mike came to Opus One in 2001 and put the vineyard team together, drawing extensively from Mondavi personnel. Mike sought out committed vineyard workers who were willing to take on responsibility and ownership.  In 2004 he placed the cellar workers into teams and gave each team four barrels of wine (value approximately $250,000) with the goal of having "their" wines included in the Opus blend.  According to JIm Nicolette, since that initial assignment, only one team has missed the blend.

During my initial trip to Opus I was mesmerized by the corporate strategic management skills exhibited by Mike.  These are not the type of skills that you encounter in a winery on a daily basis.  First, he was very strategic in his thinking and every action that was undertaken was part of a larger plan.  He related the story of how he eventually got the executives in France to commit the financial resources to replanting the vineyards and it was brilliant.  Second, his management style was highly motivational.  Rather than pulling folks along, he gave them a sense of shared ownership and responsibility and a "we all win together" attitude.  He spoke very highly of his staff and their successes to the UC Davis team where a lot of winemakers would have used the opportunity to laud their own accomplishments.  And that love is returned.  A fair amount of the time that I spent with Jim was taken up with favorable stories about Mike's effect on and in the workplace.  According to Jim, Mike's motivational management style has dramatically changed the culture at Opus One.

Harvesting of the grape berries are done by hand by teams working between 3:30 and 10:00 am.  The berries are deposited into small picking boxes for transport to the winery where they are hand-sorted before being placed in the destemmer.  The berries are gravity-flowed from the destemmers to stainless steel fermenting tanks on the floor below.  Each tank is dedicated to a single lot and is only used once during harvest.  The berries undergo a warm maceration at the conclusion of which the tanks are raised and the free-run juice is gravity-fed into new French oak barrels.  The remaining solid material is placed into basket presses and the resulting juice is itself placed into oak barrels for aging.

The wine is kept in oak casks for 18 months during which time it is racked and topped-up as needed.  In turbid years the wine is subjected to egg-white fining. The final blend is determined by a tasting team comprised of the winemaker, two assistant winemakers, and a contingent from Mouton-Rothschild.  The blend is generally 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remainder being some mix of the other Bordeaux varietals.  A general practice is to co-ferment the best Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot.

The wines are bottled after the 18-month residence in cask and spend an additional 18 months in bottle before public release.

Opus One bottles its vintage Bordeaux blend for worldwide distribution and a non-vintage second wine -- Overture -- which is only avaiilable for purchse at the winery or on the winery's website.  The flagship wine is generally concentrated with apparent black fruit and silky tannins but ages well, as demonstrated in a recent Masters of Wine tasting in London where Mike's favorite vintages were showcased.  The wines are generally favorably received by the critic-class and have developed a faithful following worldwide.

In closing I should note that, with Constellation's purchase of the Robert Mondavi Winery, the joint partners in the endeavor are now Constellation Brands and the Baron Philippe de Rothschild organization.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tasted a great wine lately?

My recent writings on Champagne, and its positioning vis a vis great (adj., of outstanding significance or importance -- American Heritage Dictionary; unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity -- wines, set me to thinking about what exactly is a great wine.  That thinking led to a search of the literature to see how great wines have been characterized by the people who should know (or who have opinions).

Even though I had issues with some portions of her broader article, I thought that Leslie Cramer (What makes great wine,, 8/3/08) had the best framework within which to discuss what constitutes great wine.  According to Ms. Cramer, "great wine is the exceptional result of perfect conditions, in a perfect vineyard, handled perfectly by the grower, with perfect maturation to follow." While not granular enough, her framework provides (i) the basis for a "deep dive" in search of more approachable parameters and (ii) gives us the first hint as to the importance of vintage in determining what constitutes a great wine.  Let us examine each element of this framework, leaving the "exceptional-result" component for the last.

The first component we examine is the "perfect conditions" required for great wine.  In discussing the vineyard conditions required for production of a great wine, Vintage Direct ( argues for rain in the winter and a long, cool ripening period in order to ensure maximum flavor development.  Michael Dovaz (Fine Wines: The Best Vintages since 1990, Assouline, 2009) sees specific conditions in Bordeaux based on studies conducted there in the 1970s.  Dovaz asserts that a great vintage requires temperatures in excess of 86ºF in the vineyard sometime during the berry-ripening period.  He also channels the famed French oenologist Emile Peynaud who felt that (i) the quality of the harvest was mainly conditioned upon the amount of sunshine in the month of August and (ii) that the weather in the last week prior to harvest was doubly important.

Perfect weather conditions sans a perfect vineyard will not a great wine make, a postion common to the writers reviewed.  The consensus sentiment is that only great vineyards can produce great wines and these sites tend to be (i) relatively small (Vintage Direct),  (ii) readily apparent as great sites when viewed within the context of their overall viticultural neighborhoods, and (iii) known (the author).  What are the characteristics of such sites?  According to Vintage Direct:
  • Hemisphere-appropriate site aspect
  • Excellent drainage resulting from relevant soil-type and slope
  • Relatively infertile soils
  • Old vines yielding 3 tons, or less, of fruit/acre

How the perfect conditions and vineyards are handled by the human element will go a long way in determining the greatness of a particular wine.  According to Dovaz, production of a great wine requires an "intuitive skilled grower who understands what great wine is and what it should taste like" and who implements viticultural and enological practices that promote production of high-quality grapes and wine.  In terms of the vineyard, Vintage Direct identifies issues such as vine density, row orientation, pruning method, cropping levels, canopy management, soil moisture, and pest and disease control as viticultural practices that are key to realizing the full potential of the site.  Minimalist enological practices are viewed as essential to allowing the quality of the terroir to be reflected in the final product.

Great wines do not sneak up on us.  According to Dovaz, "The birth of a great wine is heralded by rumor, the rumors confirmed by its persistence, and tastings indicate wheteher or not it is well founded."  The great wine, nurtured in the manner discussed, will manifest authenticity (defined by Essie Avellan MW as sincerity, commitment, and devotion), "absolute balance" and "perfect aromatic harmony" (defined by Dovaz as strength, richess, purity, finesse, and aromatic complexity).

Nor do the great wines sneak away from us.  According to Walker, great wines are famed for their ageability.  But there is more to it than just being able to survive in the bottle.  Dovaz sees the tertiary aromas as revelatory markers for their presence.

Great wines are not normally found at your friendly neighborhood 7-11 store.  According to Lettie Teague (Is Greatness Overrated?, April 2010), great wines are produced in small quantities and command high prices.

So what are great wines?  They are limited-production wines made from vintage-driven, exceptional-quality grapes grown on estates with exceptional soils, vineyard management practices, and winemaking chops and which exhibit authenticity, perfect balance, and aromatic harmony, qualities which persist and are enhanced over the wine's drinking horizon.

Now, have you tasted a great wine lately?

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review of Marcus Samuelson's Yes, Chef: a memoir

Marcus Samuelson's Yes, Chef: a memoir (Random House, 2012) is a multi-faceted, semi-anthropological, page-turner of a book that traces the author's life from his origin in the wind-blown, sun-drenched, fly-infested deserts of Ethiopia to the pinnacle of the chef scene in New York City, one of the world's gastronomic capitals. 

The book is, first of all, the quintessential American tale; the rise from obscure origins to the pinnacle of the chosen field.  Marcus was born in a map-challenged village in Ethiopia and was adopted, along with his sister, by a loving, Swedish-resident, middle-class family after the untimely death of his birth mother.  From his early years in Sweden, Marcus trained to be a soccer player but, after being booted off the team due to his (relatively) delicate physique, he turned to cooking, an activity that he had grown to love while helping his grandmother prepare family meals.  The book traces his struggles to gain a foothold in the industry and the travels to countries far and wide in order to pursue opportunities.  His efforts paid off  in the end with accomplishments to include: (i) Executive Chef at Aquavit, a NYC restaurant focused on Swedish cuisine; (ii) winning Top Chef Masters; (iii) serving as the guest chef for President Obama's first state dinner on the occasion of the visit of the Indian head of state to the US; and (iv) opening his own restaurant (Red Rooster) in Harlem.

But within that overarching story, there were a number of sub-stories, the first of which, in my view, is a cautionary tale about the collateral damage of blind ambition.  One of the first victims of this effect was his first girlfriend.  Once he received the "staging" appointment in Switzerland, he had broken up with her mentally.  When she followed him to Switzerland, he put her into a position where she was forced to pull the eject button.  While working in Austria, Marcus got involved in a one-weekend stand with a young woman and she became pregant as a result.  His thoughts were on the negative implications that this would have on his career and he gladly walked away when she told him that she would make no claim on him.  He did not return to Sweden for the burial of his Father or Grandmother (both of whom he had had loving relationships with) because to do so would mess up his current situation.

Another subtext was his indebtedness to the women who were a part of his life and supported him in his endeavors.  His birth mother, who walked 75 miles to the hospital in Addis Ababa to ensure that they got medical help for the TB that was ravaging their bodies.  Marcus and his sister survived the ordeal; his mother did not.  For the nurse who took them in after they had spent six months in the hospital.  She had very little for her and her own kids but whatever she had, she shared.  His sister Linda protected him fiercely (even though she was only five-years old) in their adoptive home until she attained a level of trust of their adoptive parents. She was also key in establishing links back to their relatives in Ethiopia.  His adoptive mother who was a rock of Gibraltar all through his life.  Unquestioning love.  Once she found out that he had a baby on the way, she took the responsibility of sending support payments for the kid with the proviso that he would repay her when he began earning. The mother of his daughter who was strong enough to allow him to walk away and went on to raise this daughter plus two kids from her own later marriage.  When Marcus eventually came back into his daughter's life, this woman did not point a finger of blame or scorn in his direction.  She was happy that he was finally playing a personal role in his daughter's life.  And, finally, his wife, who became one of his links back to the old old world while helping him keep his feet squarely planted on the ground in this his new.

A third subtext -- what it takes to succeed in today's world of celebrity chefs -- is inseparable from, and is almost subsumed within, (i) the story of trying to be a successful chef while cooking black and (ii) his search for his identity as an Ethiopian-born black male, who was adopted and raised in a middle-class community in Sweden by a white middle-class family, who began to develop a sense of his otherness when one of his classmates chucked a basketball at him and asked him if he wanted to play neger ball.  His struggles in this arena was exacerbated by the fact that he had chosen a profession where blacks were not well represented and his interactions with some chefs (notably, and disappointedly so, the chef at Negresco in Nice) seemed to indicate an institutional bias towards the status quo.  His first trip to the US opened his eyes to the diverse societal mosaic that was possible and brought a realization that this was the type of environment within which he wanted to operate.  Linking up with his Ethiopian roots gave him a grounding and foundation for identity construction going forward while moving to Harlem and opening a restaurant there tied him to the historic past of that community and provided him with the opportunity to meld his identity with that community as it undergoes its rennaisance.  Marcus started out not wanting to be seen as a black chef but by the end of the book he had embraced that "condition" thoroughly.

This book is beautifully written and masterfully edited.  The opening chapter is powerful, gripping, and of literary caliber.  While reading that chapter I felt as though I was walking in the desert with Marcus, his mom, and his sister as they made their way from the home village to the hospital in Addis Ababa.  His mom did not make it out of the hospital.  At the conclusion of the first chapter I had to climb up out of the book to gain respite from a heavy dosing of emotion.  The book hits its highest emotional notes whenever the author turns toward Ethiopia.  The story is presented in short, concise, impactful chapters and I read it in one sitting on a flight between Orlando and Portland, OR.  This is a definite read.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A night of wines at Victoria and Albert's: Guest post by Ron Siegel

Last Saturday I invited some of our wine friends to attend a dinner at the Chef's Table at Victoria and Alberts Restaurant. Each participant contributed bottles of wine to accompany the dinner.  I matched 18 of the wines into flights and banished the remainder into the wine bags for dispatch at a future time. 

This night would be about the reds so I limited the whites and Champagnes opened in order to ensure that our group of 7 could get through this amazing line up.

The Champagne was a Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV that the restaurant had put on ice for us.  This was a decent Champagne with a nose of lemon and biscuit and with a lighter finish. A simple but refreshing aperitif. 90 pts.

The white was a 1997 Peter Michael Belle Cote Chardonnay.  Purchased on release, this wine had a nice golden yellow color, nose of tangerine and apple with some nice floral tones. It drank beautifully for it's 15 years of age. Nice acidity and long finish. 94 pts.

Flight One

This was a Burgundy flight which was led off by a 1937 Boisseaux-Estivant Bourgogne Réserve de la Chevre Noire .  This was one of the biggest surprises of the night. A bouquet of sour cherry, mushroom and orange peel with sweet and smokey barbecue tones.  I really enjoyed this wine as it seemed to hold its intensity for at least an hour. All you could ever expect from a Bourgogne! 95 pts.

The second wine in the flight was a 1947 Vandermeulen Chambertin.  Dark color with very sweet ripe fruit but not that interesting as it lacked enough acid to balance the fruit. Rather disappointing for the vintage and not as good as the 1937. 90 pts.

The 1959 Caves du Chateau F 'Troyes Clos Vougeot had a soaring nose of red fruit, asian spice, iron, soy, and beef broth.  Andres detected Umami. This wine had incredible length and richness on the palate and seemed to get better with time. I love Clos Vougeot and this was a good one. 97 pts. This was the group’s wine of the flight.

Flight Two

This was a Bordeaux-only flight and was led off by a 1966 La Mission Haut Brion. Wow! It has been a long time since we had a Bordeaux that beat the Burgundies and this was the Groups’ WOTN. I can not keep my hands off this wine. La Mish and Lafleur are my two favorite Bordeaux wines followed by the older vintages of Lynch Bages.  This wine presented a Kaleidoscope of flavors beginning with sweet blackcherry, smoke, tar, cigar box, soy, spice, and mineral. Bev and Paula asked if they could bottle this and put into a perfume spray. The finish is near perfect as it has reached it's peak and well stored bottles will keep for several more years. 99 pts.

The 1966 Haut Brion did not seem quite right. I detected some VA on the nose. and the fruit seemed stewed and somewhat maderized.  I have had better bottles of this wine. DQ’d

Flight Three

Flight three was a Bordeaux blend flight but with the inclusion of a Napa star.  The first wine was the 2001 Ausone.  A nose of red fruits, espresso, mocha, and graphite.  Great balance with elegant and silky tannins. Wonderful length with glycerin and good minerality. This was class in a glass and definitely 1st growth quality.  Just needs more time. 95 pts

The 1989 Lynch Bages had a huge nose of black fruits, cedar, lead pencil, tobacco, and earth. Large structure and great finish. This will turn out to be one of the great vintages of Lynch but still could use more time. 97 pts.

One of the great Dominus vintages and one of the true Napa greats, the 1991 Dominus 
should have been placed blind into this flight.  I know that no one tonight would have thought that this was anything but a great Bordeaux. This wine is fully mature and showing amazing complexity with black currants, cedar, leather, tobacco, and earth.  Long finish. Very Pauillac-like. The 1991 never disappoints! 98 pts The groups’ WOTF.

Flight Four

This flight was a mix of Rhones and Burgundy.  The 1999 Charmes Chambertin Roty was a very nice Burgundy which showed cherry, bacon fat,  iron and beef broth and floral notes. Creamy texture. This showed a masculine style and matched up well with the Rhones. 95 pts

The 2000 Rayas CdP showed cherry, kirsch liqueur and rose petal on the nose. Rayas to me is the most Burgundian of the CDP's and this vintage shows it's elegance and purity of fruit. The group seemed to really love this wine. They have almost become impossible to find. 97pts. Groups’ WOTF

The next wine in the flight was the 2000 Usseglio Deux Freres CdP.  Next to the Rayas this has always been one of my favorite CdPs.  This wine kept getting better in the glass. Nose of garrigue, earth, kirsch, licorice, and flowers. Saucy texture with a beautiful finish. 97 pts.

Flight Five

The solitary wine in this flight was the 1968 BV Georges de Latour Pivate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.  This has always been the best vintage of BVPR and usually drinks like a 10-year-old Cab. This bottle was a bit more mature than others we had in the past showing red berry and plum fruits with graphite and cedar and a slight tawny-port-like note. This had a classic BV nose that I could have guessed blind as we have done a number of verticals of this wine in the past. Not the best 1968 BV that I have tried. 92 pts.

Flight Six ( Cheese Course) 

2009 B Cellars. This wine was purchased at the Premier Napa Valley Barrel Auction.
Big California style of a wine with rich red fruits and chocolate-covered cherries on the palate. If you like big, rich, and fat, this would fit the bill nicely. 

2005 Numanthia Termanthia.  A bouquet of blackberries and currants with spice box, chocolate, and flowers.  I loved the balance and finish of this wine. This is a big and expressive wine that just needs some more time in the cellar. 95 pts.

Flight Seven ( Dessert Course)

The first wine in this flight was the 1985 Raymond Lafon.  This wine accompanied the first dessert course which was Banana creme. Apricot and honey. A lighter and elegant style of Sauternes. 91 pts

Nick suggested that we substitute the chocolate dessert for the Creme Brûlée as it would be a better match for the 1996 Yquem. This again registered apricot and honey along with a creme brûlée.  Loved the nose.  I liked the weight of this as it was not too heavy and had great acidity that went well with the dessert. A mouthful of citrus and honey with a creamy texture. 95 pts.

This was a fabulous night of great food and wine. I had so much fun that the 7 hrs seemed to have flown by. I can't wait to do it again!

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Champagne: The few, the committed, the terroirists

According to Essie Avellan MW (Single Vineyard Champagnes -- The Alternative Reality, TONG About Wine, No. 4, Winter 2009), a great wine is differentiated from a good wine largely by its authenticity and its sense of place.  Fine champagne, according to Avellan, meets the criteria for authenticity (sincerity, commitment, devotion) but, for the most part, does not meet the sense-of-place requirement because (i) it is blended across terroirs and (ii) its "taste of terroir" is further diluted by sugar added at several stages.  In this post I will examine alternatives for bridging this sense-of-place gap that Avellan would say exists between Champagne and other great French wines.

In the non-Champagne wine world, single-vineyard (or single-parcel) wines are viewed as the epitome of terroir wines; as the essence of place.  But this has not been the case for the single-vineyard Champagnes that have been placed on the market by the Houses over the past seven decades.

First, these Champagnes are made in the conventional style.  Second, Champagne Houses are the least likely sources of terroir-based wines because (i) they have a business model that is working very well thank you; (ii) most of the vineyard land is owned by the Growers, limiting their potential for single-vineyard initiatives even if they were so inclined; and (iii) they have significant investments in conventionally made Champagne stocks that could be placed at risk if customers began clamoring for terroir-based wines.  Finally, Avellan sees the single-vineyard efforts by the Houses as pursuit of additional value rather than pursuit of a sense of place.  In his view, "Rarity is a luxury and the costliest single vineyard champagnes are often bought for their luxury appeal rather than for their gustatory quality." These wines, then, are upward thrusts into the luxoriosphere, brand extensions in search of even more rarefied air, rather than a "seeking-after" of the truth of terroir.

Most of the Growers' output make its way to the Champagne Houses via Co-ops but some is held back for wine production at both the Grower and Co-op levels.  According to CIVC statistics (, 31% of total Champagne shipments originate from Grower and Co-operative production while 13% of overseas shipments can be attributed to these two sources.  Beginning with the exhortations of wine importer Terry Thiese over two decades ago, Grower Champagne has gained a devoted following among serious wine drinkers (The Chronicle, Wine Selections ..., 12/12/08) and is viewed in some quarters as the wine to drink if you are put off by the lack of terroir implicit in the House style.  But not so fast, says Robert Walters.

Walters (Alternative Champagne 2, The World of Fine Wine, Issue 35, 2012) views attempts to differentiate between House and Grower Champagnes in this fashion as meaningless in that many of the growers produce their Champagnes in the conventional style.  And that assertion is borne out if you visit the website Les Champagnes de Vignerons, the umbrella brand covering all Grower Champagnes.  This site contains a description of the Champagne production process and it does not in any way differ from the process that is described on the CIVC site.  He instead describes what he refers to as "Champagne de Terroir," a wine which "maximizes the expression of the vineyard and removes the influence of the winemaker."  These Champagnes de Terroir are, according to Walters, "only produced successfully by a handfull of the finest growers."

In Issue 36 of TWoFW, Walters goes on to characterize the methods of these "Superior Grower Producers."  They:
  • Own or manage their own vineyards
  • Make wines from their own grapes
  • Begin with a desire to make wines that reflect their origins
    • Single-vineyard or single-commune wines
  • Manage the vineyards with little or no chemical input
    • Biodynamic or organic
  • Plow the soil
  • Seek lower yields than customary for the region
  • Pursue intense fruit so that lower dosage is needed
  • Use dosage in minimal amounts (when used) to balance acidity
  • Mature slowly; no fining or filtering.
The products emanating from this process are wines first and Champagne second, according to Walters.  They are drier, more vinous, clean, pure, and long of finish.  They tend to age well and, in his view, are better with food than a traditional Champagne.

The Growers that fit this mold are Egly-Ouriet, Selosse, Agrapart, Larmandier-Bernier, Jérome Prévost, and Cedric Bouchard.

Producing wine in the manner described above in Champagne is hard.  With the almost insatiable demand for traditional Champagne, it is more profitable for a Grower to expend "normal" effort in the vineyard, pick his/her grapes early, and turn it over to the Co-op post-harvest than it is to try to make a Grower Champagne using the conventional method; and is definitely easier (and less prone to barbs from your fellow growers) than taking the steps necessary to produce a "Champagne de Terroir."  As wine drinkers we should honor the commitment that it takes to attempt to make wines that bend the curve, wines that go against the grain, wines that reflect what we all pursue -- a sense of place.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Champagne: The anti-terroirist "fine wine"

Champagne is the most anti-terroirist of French fine wines in that its production flies in the face of the core principles of terroir-driven wines whose mantra is "communication of a sense of place."  A terroir-driven wine is presumed to "express the natural personality of its origin site" with the winemaker's role being confined to harnessing and bottling this natural expression with minimal intervention.  This philosophy/practice is the principle underlying the oft-used phrase "quality wine is made in the vineyard."  Champagne production works at cross-purposes with these principles.  According to Robert Walters (Champagne: Bursting Bubbles, The World of Fine Wine, Issue 34, 2011), "Champagne is nearly always a highly manipulated product and thus clashes with most of our preconceptions of quality wine."  We examine that characterization in this post.

The Champagne region is enormous and diverse (34,000 ha of vineyards spread over 25,000 sq. km and 319 villages), encompassing many soil types, aspects, and climates (Franciacorta, one of the Italian sparkling wine regions, has, in comparison, 3000 ha of vines spread over 19 municipalities.).  There are in excess of 15,000 growers spread over the Champagne-delimited area, each farming, on average, a 2-ha plot.  Rather than grower-negociant interaction (as is common in Burgundy, for example), the growers sell their grapes to a Cooperative which crushes the grapes and creates communal and varietal blends which are delivered to the Champagne Houses.  As Walters points out, this approach creates two problems.  First, the separation of the grower from the negociant has implications for quality.  The grower knows that his/her grapes will be incorporated into a communal blend anyway so there is no incentive to make an extra effort to ensure that the grapes are breaking any quality barriers.  Second, and most important from the terroirist perspective, no vineyard characteristics will be evident in the final blend.  In the Burgundy schema, the must that is delivered to the Champagne House is, at best, a Village blend and could even be a regional blend.  So the first principle of terroirists wines are shot down early in the process -- no vineyard characteristic, no sense of place will make its way through to the final wine.

From its musty beginnings , Champagne undergoes layers of manipulation before the final product emerges.  As related in my post on the traditional method, the wine undergoes:
  • Chaptalization -- as necessary to bring the juice up to 11% potential alcohol
  • Alcoholic fermentation
  • Blending
  • In-bottle fermentation
    • Solution of wine, sugar, and yeast added
    • Captured carbon dioxide dissolved in wine
  • Aging on lees which (Aromas & Flavors: Explanatory Notes,
    • Releases reducing enzymes that inhibit oxidation
    • Absorbs certain essential yeast nutrients (limits potential for refermentation at dosage)
    • Increases amino acids and other nitrogenous matter, precursors to "Champagne character"
    • Produces acetal which possibly adds a biscuity or brandy-like complexity
    • Produces MP32 which reduces tartrate precipitation
  • Liqueur de dosage
    • Adds sweetness, roundness, and complexity (Walters).
Walters raises the issue as to whether, with this degree of manipulation, Champagne can be considered a great wine.  As he sees it, much of its aroma, flavor, and texture comes from the winemaking process rather than the grape itself.  "If the initial wine is austere and much of the final character derives from the process by which it is made, we are closer to a beverage than a 'great' wine."

Let us look at the characteristics of great wines. Vintage Direct ( has identified a number of characteristics of great wines, two of which I will discuss here.  In terms of the vineyard site, Vintage Direct says that great wines come from small sites "which will be very apparent as a great site when considered as a part of the surrounding viticultural district."  We can easily identify the great wines in Bordeaux and Burgundy by the vineyards in which they are grown but it is not that easy to tie some of the well-known Champagnes to specific vineyards.  The Champagne House will say that the House style is more important than any vineyard characteristic but is that representative of a great wine? or a great beverage?

One of the other "great-wine" characteristics identified by Vintage Direct was yield: 3 tons/acre from old vines.  The idea here is that the older the vine, the less output, but the more complex the fruit.  In Champagne, the practices are a little different.  First, the vines in Champagne average 20-25 years old and are kept that way to ensure vigorous output of less-complex fruit.  A combination of less-complex fruit picked early aids in the production of the austere base wines which the Houses like as the starting point for Champagne.  According to Walters, the argument that is presented for austere base wines is that the complexity and richness added by the process would make the wines heavy and elegance-free if less-austere wines were used as starters.  Yield in Champagne, according to Walters, runs between 13 and 15 tons per acre.

Finally, Champagne has not historically been marketed as a great wine. Rather, it has been marketed as a luxury good that is associated with times of celebration.  It is broken over the bow of a new cruiseliner at launch, sprayed over a Formula 1 or Nascar winner at the end of the race, or broken out when your kid graduates from college (Free at last, free ...).  But that is not how the great wines of the world are marketed.  Great wines are marketed on the basis of the wine (complexity, aging characteristics, flavors, etc.), terroir, viticultural techniques, and pedigree.  You do not waste great wine on the bow of some hunk of metal.

While the above captures the large majority of winemaking within the Champagne region, there is some  terroir-driven winemaking in the region and I will cover that in a subsequent post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme