Sunday, April 28, 2013

Contextualizing Kimmeridgian soils

Writing on winegeeks.com (The World's Top 10 Wine Soils), Sunny Brown undertook the description of the top 10 wine soils ranked based on "... the unique qualities, historical importance and market appeal of the wines." The top rated soil was "A basin of limestone marl that starts in England and runs all the way down through the vineyards of Champagne, the Loire Valley and ultimately Burgundy. It is on this ridge, known as the Kimmeridgian, that the best vineyards lie." While the soils underlying Burgundy, Champagne, and the Loire may be the best in the world -- and while Kimmeridgian soil can be found in each of these regions -- Kimmeridgian soil is given broader scope in the Brown post than is the case. I present my arguments below.

At varying periods of the earth's history, portions of present-day Europe were covered by shallow seas. Such was the condition during the Jurassic period in the time span we now call the Kimmeridgian Age, identified by ammonite and oyster fossils found in associated strata.

Modification of IUGS Chronostratigraphic
Chart (stratigraphy.org)
Ammonite -- Kimmeridgian marker
Exogyra virgula -- Kimmeridgian
marker (Source: zeably.com)

According to James Wilson (Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines, University of California, 1998), French geologist Alcide d'Obigny, while working in the south of England in the middle of the 18th century, named the Jurassic limestone in Dorset as Portlandian. In his work east of that site, in the vicinity of the village of Kimmeridge, he encountered a dark marl in the layer below the Portlandian and named it Kimmeridgian. The Kimmeridgian soil found in France differs from that found in Britain in that it is a "relatively uniform chalky marl and thin marly limestone containing many lenses or banks of seashells" (Wilson).

Strata from periods post the Jurassic continued to be deposited into the shallow seas and many of these layers were forced to the surface when the area that is known today as the Paris Basin began a slow sag during the late Tertiary and Quaternary periods. This slow tilting of the Basin allowed the Seine, Aube, Yonne, and Loire rivers to "downcut through the rising ridges, thus cutting the Kimmeridgian-Portlandian outcrop band into an archipelago of wine areas" (Wilson).


Source: timkeen.com

Now that we know the origin of the Kimmeridgian, lets examine its extent. In the 10-best-soils article, Brown indicated that the vineyards of Champagne, Burgundy, and the Loire Valley reside upon this hallowed soil. But the images above would seem to indicate otherwise. The figures show that upper Jurassic deposits (which would include Portlandian and Kimmeridigian deposits) came to the surface in a band that falls below the Champagne  and Loire bands and above the Burgundy band.

And Wilson supports this observation. He, in fact, refers to the Kimmeridgian outcrops as the Kimmeridgian Chain in that they are distinct and separate from their associated wine regions. The primary Kimmeridgean vineyard sites in France are: (i) the Aube sub-region of Champagne; (ii) the Chablis, Tonnerre, and Auxerrois areas of Burgundy; and (iii) the Pouilly, Sancerre, and Menetou-Salon areas of the Loire Valley.


Wilson sees the key to Kimmeridgian soil as the way it works with its Portlandian partner. The marly soil of the Kimmeridgian develop good structure and water-retention characteristics and is easy to cultivate. The hard limestone of the Portlandian contains many fossils and fragments and is also cracked by frost. This enables aeration of the slopes as well as aiding in drainage.

Chablis is the "big island" in the Kimmeridgian chain and is home to some of the finest Chardonnay known. The defined region was recognized in 1923 by the Wine Tribunals as being grown on a sub-soil of Kimmeridgian limestone while wine grown anywhere else in Chablis would be classed Petit Chablis. The mid-slope in Chablis maps almost perfectly to the Kimmeridgian outcrop with the soft, carbonate-rich mud rock being capped by Portlandian Barrios limestone and supported by Calcares à Astarte, itself a limestone (Jennifer Huggett, Geology and Wine: A review, Proceedings of the Geologists Association, 2006). This south-facing Kimmeridgian slope has significant sun exposure and is home to the Chablis Grand Cru vineyards.

Source: justburgundy.com

Wilson notes that geologic conditions identical to those experienced by the Grand Cru slope extend both northeast and southwest but that the vineyards on those sites are classed as Premiers Crus. That is an indication that Kimmeridgian soil is not the key ingredient in the making of a Grand Cru Chablis. As a matter of fact, the reference to Kimmeridgian limestone in the definition of Chablis was discontinued in 1976, a tacit admission, according to Huggett, that "slope and orientation are of greater importance to wine quality in Chablis."

In the vicinity of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire (Central Vineyards sub-region of the Loire Valley), faulting has caused the east bank of the river (Pouilly side) to be lowered, thus causing the typical Kimmeridgian slope to lie flat and the retention of elements of the Tertiary (sands, clays, and freshwater limestones) and Quaternary (high-river-terrace sands, gravel, and clay) period. The town of Sancerre sits atop a fault ridge the eastern side of which is Kimmeridgian topped by Cretaceous soils while the west side is brush-covered gravel slopes. Further west, the best vineyards sit on the classic Portlandian-Kimmeridgian combination. The Portlandian here is thinner but, according to Wilson, is reinforced by ferruginous sandstones of the basal Cretaceous and weathering of the sandstone infuses the rock with iron. Wilson talks about three "lithologic Kimmeridgian zones" in Sancerre:
  1. St. Doulchard marl -- this soil weathers into "terres blanches" (white earth). Also contains glauconite, a granular mica that is rich in iron
  2. Calcaire à Astartes -- lies below the St. Dulchard and identified by the presence of the clam Astartes
  3. Calcaire de Tonnerre -- soft and porous limestone in its Sancerre incarnation. Hard around its home base of Tonnerre.
The Calcaires weather in combination to form a pebbly soil called caillottes.

Quincy and Reuilly are not considered part of the Kimmeridgian chain as they have been recipients of the Tertiary outwash from the Massif Central, a result of the breakdown of the "Portlandian barrier." The Kimmeridgian strata disappears under the Lower Cretaceous west of Reuilly.

To summarize then, Kimmeridgian soil is the result of the Paris-Basin-sag-related upthrusting of sedimentary layers that were laid down during the upper Jurassic age. Kimmeridgian formations usually exhibit as slopes capped by Portlandian limestone and generally exist as islands remote from their associated wine regions; regions which have soil profiles that are dependent on the era and types of their formations.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Part X -- The Future: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

Over the course of nine prior posts, I have explored varying characteristics (Origins, regulatory histories, macro-level characteristics, production zones, vineyards, fermentation and aging, wine styles, nonconformity, and production levels) of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava. In this post I explore the future of these wines.


Broadly speaking, the sparkling wine markets of the future will not map seamlessly to the markets of the past: they will differ in both size and scope. According to a study done by the research firm TNR (Glittering future for Champagne and Sparkling Wines, beveragemedia.com, 8/16/12), the share of drinking dollars devoted to Champagne and sparkling wines will grow from 5.1% to 7.8%, growth resulting both from increased consumption in existing markets as well as new drinkers in the developing world. According to TNS, spending in this category will increase by 4.2% in Brazil, 5,4% in Nigeria, 4.2% in South Africa, and 4.1% in the UK. Factors that could potentially mitigate these growth projections are perceptions that these wines are (i) indulgences and (ii) only to be consumed on special occasions.

Now let's look at the prognosis for each of the wines under consideration.

Champagne

Champagne has experienced a decline of 4.4% in shipments from 2011 to 2012 with declines occurring across all producer types: 5.3% for Growers; 4.2% for Champagne Houses; and 3.5% for Cooperatives. The challenges faced by Champagne include:
  • Customers turning to lower-priced alternatives
  • Declining wine consumption in traditional wine-producing European countries 
  • Grape price increases averaging 3.5% over the last three growing seasons .

Jean-Marie Bassillère, President of Unions des Maisons de Champagne sees the Champagne growth markets as being primarily non-European with an especial focus on America and Asia. Retooling for those markets will require extensive planning and bountiful resources (Giles Fallowfield, UK "not the future of Champagne growth," decanter.com, 4/2/2013). Luxurysociety.com (BRICs: The Future of Champagne, 5/28/12) supports the focus on emerging economies because (i) there are now more high-net-worth individuals in the Asia/Pacific region than anywhere else outside the US and (ii) they are conspicuous consumers of luxury items, a mantle that Champagne wears easily.

Africa is also viewed as a key target market of the future. Nigeria and South Africa have in common cultural linkages to European countries to go along with oil wealth (Nigeria) and an in-place and growing wine culture (South Africa).

The combination of declining regional consumption, shifts in destination markets, and increasing product costs may have a deleterious effect in the producers lacking strong brands. Without strong presence, the smaller players will be poorly positioned to pass price increases along to the market with attendant negative effects.

Franciacorta

As was shown in Part IX of the series, Franciacorta production levels pale in comparison to the levels of its compatriots. Further, only 8% of its production is exported. That dynamic represents a potential future problem for this wine. Small production and declining consumption could place a squeeze on the product. It will face the uphill task of seeking growth in strange new markets  -- that may be more amenable to the luxury cachet associated with Champagne -- while its home base is being eroded. The region is blessed with deep-pocketed owners with capital from other industries and the ability to stay in the game until they figure it out.

Prosecco

A key driver of Prosecco's growth is the overall growth in sparkling wine sales in the US, UK, and Australia, a result of the breaking of the linkage between sparkling wine and celebration.  In these countries sparkling wine has become an everday drink and this plays right into the hand of Prosecco, the quintessential everyday drink: low in alcohol, light, and affordable.

Also, Prosecco is a key ingredient (along with Aperol orange liquer and soda) in the Aperol Spritz, an aperitif that originated in Italy in the 19th century and is growing in popularity in the major Prosecco markets.  According to italiandishblog.com, this aperitif is a great way to start a meal because it is (i) low in alcohol and (ii) light and refreshing.

And there is no wane in sight.  First, the extra-territorial "imitators" have been cast into disarray by the shrewd strategic move of the Prosecco producers to take their future back into their own hands.  The Prosecco DOC was first awarded in 1969 and was restricted to wines produced in the Conegliano-Valdiobbadene region.  Growers felt that the brand was under attack by "imitators" using just the grape variety and moved to isolate those competitors by changing both the rules and the venue of the game.  Prosecco growers agitated for, and gained regulatory acceptance of: (i) the extension of the Prosecco DOC to cover all of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and approximately two-thirds of Veneto; (ii) promotion of the original Prosecco DOC to DOCG status; (iii) changing the name of the source grape from Prosecco to Glera; and (iv) restricting the use of the name Prosecco only to Glera sparkling wines produced within the delimited zones.  The growers felt that these actions would serve to protect their territory, the brand, and the quality of Prosecco.  The regulations authorizing these actions came into law in 2009.

Second, the Managing Director of leading Prosecco player Mionetto USA sees the current sales levels as just scratching the surface (shankennewsdaily.com).  The core consumers of the product are 40- to 50-year-old women and this segment has been lightly penetrated.  Younger drinkers are still experimental but they are trading up to Prosecco from "cheaper Cava."  Deeper penetration of these markets, plus pushing into other market cohorts and demographics, provide plenty of opportunities for this wine in the future. As a matter of fact, the Prosecco region estimates that its production will grow from 220 million bottles today to 1 billion bottles within the next 25 years (Rebecca Gibb, Prosecco region "to grow fivefold," Decanter, 11/10/11).

Cava

Spain, currently with an 8.7% share of the sparkling wine market, is the only country projected to show declines (0.4%) in market share over the course of the study period. Cava is a low-cost alternative to Champagne in a future where consumption is declining locally and the newer markets are susceptible to luxury and status as buying decision points. In addition, Cava has some internal issues which need to be addressed in order to retain the long-term viability of the brand.

First, Cava has to deal with the causes and effects of a breakaway wine appellation. Ravento i Blanc had quit the Cava DO appellation because of its "low image." The DO is perceived to: be volume oriented; have no geographical distinction as it relates to climate and soils; have low viticultural standards (Jane Lawrence, decanter.com, 3/15/2013). Ravento I Blanco sees its proposed new appellation -- to be presented to the Consejo Regulador this spring -- as addressing the problems of the Cava DO. The appellation will be built around a small geographic area surrounding the Anoia River and will have tighter production rules than is the case for Cava DO. The risk for Cava is defections of producers to this, now competing, brand or the formation of multiple breakaway appellations by similarly disenchanted current members.

There is another faction within the Cava DO which acknowledges that the described problems exist but see breakaway appellations as a cowardly solution (Lawrence). According to this faction, change should be wrought from the inside where the benefits would accrue to all members. Towards that end, two recommendations will be made to the authorities as potential solutions to the problem: (i) shrink the appellation and (ii) have the entire Penedès region designated organic. The latter proposal is seen as adding value and allowing market differentiation.


Either way, Cava has to resolve these internal issues so that it can quickly pivot to addressing the shifting market dynamics. Its past success as an export-driven brand will stand it in good stead in this new environment. Cava needs for Champagne to be successful in the new markets so that it can come in and pitch itself as a low-cost alternative.

*****************************************************************************************************

Well this has been a long and, on my part, pleasurable trip. I hope that the insights provided will aid in your thoughtful exploration of these brands in the future. Thank you for accompanying me on this trip.

For a look back at previous posts in the series, please click on the appropriate link below.

Part I -- Origins
Part II -- Regulatory histories
Part III -- Macro-Level characteristics
Part IV -- Production zones
Part V -- The vineyards
Part VI -- Fermentation and aging
Part VII -- Wine styles
Part VIII -- The nonconformists
Part IX -- Production levels and markets



©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Right Bank rules: French versus Italian Merlot tasting

Bordeaux and Italian Merlots are, for the most part, markedly dissimilar. That is the conclusion of a tasting that encomapssed 10 Merlots from each of the areas. The tasting (which I hosted) had two objectives: (i) to identify and describe differences, if any, between Merlots produced in France and Italy and (ii) to identify and describe the differences, if any, between Merlots produced in different Italian wine regions.


The setup of the tasting unfolded over an extended period. First, I contacted Italian wine professionals and persons with knowledge of Italian wines in order to develop a preliminary list of Merlots to be included in the tasting. Once I had this information in hand, I set about procuring the wines. Simultaneously, I researched the wines and producers and reported my findings in several posts on this blog.

In terms of the French wines, members of the tasting panel were asked to propose selections from their cellars for inclusion in the tasting. Requirements for the wines were (i) a minimum 75% Merlot and (ii) at least five years old.

The pictures below show the wines that comprised the tasting population.
Distribution of Tuscan Merlots to be tasted: by sub-region and year
Distribution of Friuli Merlots to be tasted: by sub-region and year
Distribution of Right-Bank Merlots to be tasted: by sub-region and year

The tasting was designed as a flighted-pair, double-blind, comparative tasting with random allocation of pairings. It was felt that such a design would eliminate label and (unconscious) pairing bias. Panel members were asked to open their wines at home and to give me their wine bags as soon as they entered the premises. I had developed a numbering scheme for the population of wines and placed each into its associated numbered paper bag. I had also numbered a set of corks and they were placed into a "hat." Numbers were drawn from the hat until a French and Italian "number pair" was selected then these numbers were matched against the numbers on the paper bags to get the associated wine pairs.



It was decided that we would taste a flight, comment on it, and then reveal the identity of the wines. We used the wine number to describe it until the reveal. So, for example, on pouring, everyone would be made aware that wine #6 was in the left glass and wine #14 was in the right. At the reveal, they would learn the identity of each wine.






The course of the tasting was set by the first flight. Wine #18 was poured into the right glass and wine #5 into the left. Participants felt that wine #18 exhibited flavors and aromas of blue fruit, balsamic, Chambord, and raspberry liquer. It was "porty" and seemed to be produced from over-ripe fruit. Called decadent and Shiraz-like. One of the participants said this was definitely Bolgheri. Wine #5 was widely acclaimed as Bordeaux. It was described comparatively as "restrained," and being of "better quality." Russell said that the rose petal and tar aromas screamed Pomerol. At this point the wines were revealed and wine #18 was in fact the 1998 Messorio and wine #5 was the 1998 L'Evangile. The table below shows the distribution of wines by flight over the course of the tasting.


In flight after flight, with two exceptions, the team had little difficulty in differentiating between the French and Italian Merlots and were less than complimentary about the Italian wines. The words "porty" and "balsamic" " and Napa-like" reared their heads often. The Redigaffi was described as vegetal and being bright but having no fruit. It tasted, according to one panelist, like an off-vintage Pomerol. The L'Apparita's balsamic character was "a dead giveaway for an Italian" and it had a "Chianti smell." The La Ricolma was described as a Calistoga Merlot, then a Napa Cab. One reviewer felt it was the worst wine he had tasted so far. And on it went.



Two exceptions to this drumbeat were 2004 Galatrona and the 1993 Masseto. The Galatrona was described as having the coffee smell of the Right Bank and was riper than its counterpart (which turned out to be the 2006 Bellevue Mondotte) but with a limited finish. The room was split on this pairing with some panelists finding the Galatrona more complex than its flight partner. The finish on the Bellevue was held to be longer. After the reveal, panelists said that Galatrona was a wine that they would be buying in the future. The Masseto was paired with the 1996 La Mondotte and everyone agreed that this was a very strong pairing. Panelists had difficulty picking out the Bordeaux in this pairing and could not wait to see which Italian Merlot was standing toe-to-toe with a Right-banker and not giving any ground. This wine is one of my favorite wines period and I was extremely pleased with its peformance.

The consensus best wines of the night were the Petrus, Masseto, Clos L'Eglise and L'Evangile. The wine which was least appreciated was the Miani. The Gravner-Clinet flight was classed as horrible because the Clinet was corked and the Gravner might as well have been.


As Steve Alcorn points out, Pomerol Merlots are among the finest wines in the world. That title is still intact post this tasting.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, April 15, 2013

Italian Merlots: Tenuta di Castelgiocondo's Lamaione (Montalcino, Tuscany)

There are few Italian wine family names that are as storied or as pedigreed as Frescobaldi, a Florentine name that stretches back 30 generations to the 1300 start in wine production at Tenuta di Castiglioni in Val di Pesa. Today Marchesi Frescobaldi is one of the most significant wine producers in Italy with nine estates and over 1000 ha devoted to that task.


The family's wine production principles rest on two pillars: (i) respect for tradition and (ii) an openness to research and experimentation. This openness is illustrated by the family being the first producer in Italy to plant international varieties with the introduction of Bordeaux varieties at the Nippozano and Pomino estates in 1855.

Castelgiocondo, situated on the southwestern slopes of Montalcino, was acquired by the Frescobaldis in 1989. The estate, originally built in 1100 to protect the road between Siena and the sea, is 815 ha in size (230 ha of which is dedeicated to vines) and sits at elevations ranging between 180 and 400 meters.

Castelgiocondo's Merlot is a mono-varietal sourced from a 12-ha vineyard on the estate called Lamaione, also the name of the resulting wine. The Lamaione vineyard is 300 meters above sea level and has a southeast exposure and clayey soil that is rich in limestone. The vines are trained low spur pruned cordon and are planted to a density of 5500 vines /ha. The grapes undergo 12+ days of fermentation and 4 weeks of maceration. Malolactic fermentation occurs in barrique followed by 24 months of barrel aging in new French oak. The wine spends 1 year in bottle before release to the market.




©Wine -- Mise en abyme

The St. Emilion wine region

The world's most renowned regions for the production of Merlot wines are St. Emilion and Pomerol on the right bank of the Dordogne River in Bordeaux. I have previously written about Pomerol and, as a precursor to an upcoming post on a French versus Italian Merlot tasting, I herein provide a similar treatment for St. Emilion.

St. Emilion, the oldest winegrowing region in Bordeaux, is located 40 km north of Bordeaux City and 8 km east of Libourne on the right side of the Dordogne River. Its 5400 hectares encompasses eight municipalities and a part of Libourne and supports the activities of 800 grape farmers.




The region is blessed with a mild maritime climate and higher daytime temperatures than other vineyard areas in Bordeaux. Average annual temperature is 12.8℃ and annual rainfall is 800 millimeters. The risk of frost is lowered as a result of the air movement facilitated by the Dordogne and Isle rivers.

Grapegrowers in St. Emilion contend with the most diverse soils of any Bordeaux region. The most desired locations are situated on clay- and chalk-rich soils that, while not well-suited to the reliable ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon, is a perfect fit for Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The soil underlying Châteaus Figeac and Cheval Blanc is a "gunzian" gravel akin to that found in Graves and the Medoc and allows Cabernet Sauvignon to flourish at these sites. The St Emilion soils are graphically illustrated in the figure below and their characteristics highlighted in the table immediately following.

St Emilion soils map (Source: http://en.vins-saint-emilion.com)

Beginning in 1955, St. Emilion chateaus were classified as being either Premier Grand Cru Classé A or B, Grand Cru Classé, or St. Emilion based on criteria to include "historical reputation of the winegrowing estate, as well as strict requirements regarding soil, analysis and tasting." Unlike the Medoc, the St. Emilion classification is designed to be revisited every 10 years in order to reward quality and, to that end, has been revised in 1969, 1986, 1996 and 2006. The 2006 revision was contested by chateaus that lost out in the process so the system functioned under the 1996 revision while the challenge wended its way through the courts. A 2012 revision was issued to replace the 2006 version and is now the "law of the land." The Premiers Grands Crus Classé chateaus of the 2012 revision follow:

Premier Grand Cru Classé A
Château Angelus
Château Ausone
Château Cheval Blanc
Château Pavie

Premier Grand Cru Classé B
Château Beauséjour
Château Beau-Séjour -Bécot
Château Bélair-Monange
Château Canon
Château Canon la Gaffelière
Château Figeac
Clos Fourtet
Château la Gaffelière
Château Larcis Ducasse
Château la Mondotte
Château Pavie Macquin
Château Troplong Mondot
Château Trottevieille
Château Valandraud

Sixty percent of the wine produced in the region is classified as St. Emilion. The requirements for this wine are yields of 9000 kg/ha, must weight of 180 grams of sugar per liter, and 11% minimum alcohol. St. Emilion Grand Cru wines have lower yields (8000 kg/ha), higher must weight (189 grams of sugar/liter), and higher alcohol requirements (>11.5%) than their St. Emilion counterparts. In addition, Grand Cru wines must have the approval of two tasting panels and must store the wine for an additional 14 months before release on the market.

The allowed grape varieties in the St. Emilion and St. Emilion Grand Cru appellations are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carmenère. The distribution of vineyards by variety is as follows: Merlot - 60%; Cabernet Franc - 30%; Cabernet Sauvignon - 10%; minuscule amounts of Malbec; and no Carmenère. Vineyards are planted to a density of 5500 vines/ha and the average size  is 5 ha.

Saint Emilion wines are primarily Merlot rounded out with Cabernet Franc and Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon wines produced in the small, gravelly area adjoining Pomerol. The wines tend to red and black fruits when young and gain complexity with age where the aromas/flavors lean to spices, minerals and truffles. Annual production is around 36 million bottles and top recent vintages are 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2010.



©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, April 8, 2013

A summary of noteworthy Tuscan Merlot offerings

In a January 2001 article on Italian Merlot (New Wave Merlot in Italy, Wine Business.com), Franco Zillani notes that the presence of Merlot in Italy was first documented by one Salvatore Mondini who identified the variety as being present "in various regions of the north as well as in Tuscany, Latium, ... and Campania ..." From these beginnings, Merlot, according to Zillani, spread through the northeastern zones of Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Alto Adige but, even though ranked fifth in vines planted in Italy, the variety was never taken seriously in the classic production zones. All of this changed in the 1990s, however, when non-traditional zones began to experience success with Merlot planted in the appropriate terroirs with tightly managed yields.

Kate Bailey (Italian Merlot Wine, wine.lovetoknow.com) agrees with Zillani's narrative, characterizing the "Merlot march" across Italy as having occurred in three distinct waves: (i) a late-19th-century initiative by vintners in the hillside region of Trento City and in the Vallagarina Valley: (ii) an early-20th-century spread through Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Alto Adige, the northeastern portion of the country; and (iii) a more modern advance in Tuscany, the former bastion of Chianti.

And it is with this "more modern advance" that this post is concerned. The Merlots of note in Tuscany are centered around Bolgheri and Suvereto in the Province of Livorno, Chianti Classico (Provinces of Florence and Siena), and Bucine (Province of Arezzo). A number of small-production, mono-varietals reared in this region have begun to gain critical acclaim. Names such as Masseto (Wine Spectator 100 points in 2001), Redigaffi (Wine Spectator 100 points in 1997 and 2000), and Messorio (Wine Spectator 100 points, 2004), among others, have grabbed the attention of critics and wine collectors alike and, in so doing, have led to steady value appreciation for those lucky enough to own these wines. The figure below shows the distribution of these wines-of-note across the Tuscan landscape.

Click to enlarge

Even though in pursuit of a common goal -- production of high-quality Merlot wines -- the conditions and approaches faced/applied by the relevant producers are, in many cases, markedly different. For example, locational differences mean that Chianti-based producers operate in a continental climate and with galestro and albarese soil while their coastal counterparts operate in temperate climates with stone- and rock-imbued clay soils.

With the exceptiuon of Petra, all of the producers have small Merlot vineyards and this fact, coupled with green harvesting, results in small final production numbers. It should be noted that at 30,000 bottles annually, Masseto has more than twice the production of the next highest Tuscan Merlot (Galatrona).

The majority of producers use stainless steel tanks for fermentation, age in new oak for 18+ months, and age in bottle for at least 6 months. The characteristics of the individual wines are summarized in the table below.

Click to enlarge


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Italian Merlots: Fattoria Petrolo's Galatrona (Colli Aretini, Tuscany)

The 272-ha Petrolo estate is located in Bucine (province of Arezzo) and falls within Colli Aretini, one of the eight Chianti sub-regions (to include Chianti Classico), where its vineyards are strategically positioned along the slopes of the hills bordering the Chianti region.


Tuscan wine region map with Colli Aretini colored dark green

Originally part of the medieval fiefdom called Galatrona, the estate was bought by the Bazzocchi family in the 1940s and is currently owned by Lucia Bazzocchi Sanjust and managed by her son Luca. The lands are allocated to vineyards (31 ha, 26 of which is currently in production), olive groves (19 ha), and woods and arable land (222 ha).

The estate's 13 vineyards are distinct islands dotted across the property but with a concentration in the northern portion. Vineyard altitudes range between 250 and 450 meters and the soil is a layered mix of galestro (loose marl and limestone) and albarese (weathered sandstone). Vines are planted at densities of 5000/ha and yields are limited to 20 hl/ha.

Antonio Galloni (Wine Advocate, August 2009) stated, "Proprietor Luca Sanjust and his team craft some of the most beautiful wines in Tuscany at the equally picturesque Petrolo estate." That is no accident. The estate is focused on producing wines of the highest quality and that focus is reflected in its personnel as well as vitivinicultural practices. As regards personnel, the agronomist is Dr. Carlo Nesterini, the enologist is Dr Stefani Guidi, and the external consultant to both these gentlemen is the noted Dr. Carlo Ferrini. As it relates to viticulture, the winery conducts two green harvests: post-flowering and post-veraison. It is felt that this practice yields better wine balance.

In the winery, fermentation is carried-out in glass-lined, temperature-controlled, concrete vats. Grapes are fermented separately (vineyard, variety, condition) with each batch subjected to extended maceration (14 days) in order to achieve maximum extraction. The must is kept in contact with the cap via pump-overs.

After malolactic fermentation, the wine is racked off the lees for aging. They are aged in new French oak for 18 months, 6 of which are on fine lees. At the conclusion of the aging process, the wines are bottled and then returned to storage for an additional 6 months of aging.

Galatrona, the estate's 100% Merlot offering, was first brought to market in 1994 as a Tuscan IGT wine and has retained that classification ever since. The Merlot vines were first planted by Lucia in 1990 and today numbers 30,000. Annual Merlot production is 13,500 bottles.


The wine is well regarded and much heralded. It has been compared to Pomerol's Le Pin and Petrus and has been a consistent recipient of Gambero Rossi's Tre Bichieri award as well as being consistently assigned 90+ scores by Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, April 5, 2013

The hunt for an auction lot: Premier Napa Valley 2013

Leaving Orlando at different times, and travelling to Napa via different routes, a team of dedicated and focused wine hunters descended on Premiere Napa Valley 2013 (#PNV13) with the aim of lassoing one of the auction lots on offer and dragging it back kicking and screaming to the (former) land of orange groves. This was my second PNV event (having attended PNV11 with Mr and Mrs @wineontheway) and I was looking forward to the associated fun and excitement.

Premier Napa Valley is the Napa Valley Vintners annual, invitation-only, barrel auction for wine retailers, wholesalers, restauranteurs, and members of the press. Auction proceeds go towards the trade association's promotional and other activities on behalf of valley winemakers. A total of 211 wineries contributed lots to the 2013 edition of the auction. These were either 5-, 10-, or 20-case lots; were from a yet-to-be-released vintage (2011 for the most part with some 2010s sprinkled in); and were unique as regards the wineries current offerings.

I travelled out to PNV13 as a guest of Andres Montoya, proprietor of The Wine Barn (@thewinebarn), an Orlando-area wine retailer (Andres has had some success at this venue having successfully bid on lots offered by B Cellars (2011) and Tamber Bey (2012)). In addition to my wife, other "team members" included Ron and Bev Siegel, Carson Gray (Beverage Director at Luma on Park), and two other Wine Barn customers. Andrew took the responsibility of identifying events in which we would participate and booking our reservations. And a fine job he did.

Our scheduled events were as follows:

Thursday, February 21
Tamber Bey Vineyards -- Andrew only as he was scheduled in earlier than other team members
AD Hoc 20-case-lot tasting -- open only to prior successful bidders
First Taste of Yountville -- Trade-only preview of upcoming releases from Yountville producers
Robert Foley Tasting -- Tasting of Foley wines; held at 750 Wines in St. Helena
Next Generations Tasting -- held at the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch

Friday, February 22
Boswell Caves Tasting
Spring Mountain Classic
Shafer Vineyard Tasting
Oakville Tasting

Saturday, February 23
Barrel Tasting
Auction

I flew in to San Francisco on Wednesday night, overnighted in the city, and then drove up to Napa on the following day. We were scheduled to meet at Ad Hoc to begin our quest. We rendezvoused in the reception area, greeted each other like long-lost siblings, grabbed our badges, and got down to business. This was the beginning of 2.5 days of intense tasting with the aim of identifying a few lots that we could bid on at the Saturday afternoon auction.


Team at Spring Mountain




Of the many events that we attended, three stood out for me: two scheduled events and one unscheduled. The first of the scheduled events was the Shafer tasting. The Shafer winery is beautifully positioned on the hillside with a commanding view of its surroundings and with the famed Sunspot Vineyard rising ever upward from its rear. The design of the space lends itself well to large gatherings and the event was well attended. The winery was pouring four vintages of Hillside Select from magnums, an experience that I had not previously had. And, finally, the men  (John and Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez) responsible for the stature this winery has attained were casually roaming around among the attendees chatting freely with anyone who had an ear to lend.

Elias Fernandez sandwich
The fabled Sunspot Vineyard at Shafer
John and Bev

The second scheduled event was the Barrel Tasting on Saturday morning. Previous auction lot winners are allowed in 30 minutes earlier than the general population so you have the option of selecting the wines you have on your radar for additional follow-up in a more sedate setting. Once the room begins to fill up, tasting becomes more of a progression. What I find amazing though is the fact that a large majority of the key players in Napa are present in that room on that morning and are accessible for dialogue. I was especially pleased to meet Stephane Derenoncourt ( I am a huge fan of his wines) for the first time.

The unscheduled event was a visit to Corison Winery. I was live tweeting our activities as we went from event to event so Cathy tweeted me an invite to her event. I accepted her invitation and after our visit to the Oakville Tasting, we headed over to her establishment. We had arrived late at the Oakville event and had missed some of the wines we were on the lookout for and had also missed out on the food opportunities. We were hungry and so to fortify ourseleves before going into Corison, we stopped at Dean and Delucca and chowed down on some vegetarian Chili. The Corison event was scheduled to end at 7:00 pm and we barely made it in under the wire. We were the last visitors in the building and they were pouring a vertical of Kronos Vineyard from mags. Heaven. And Cathy was there to provide us insight into her vineyards and winemaking philosophy. A philosophy which has long endeared her to the hearts of wine lovers who believe in restraint. Heaven squared. We did not leave right away.



At the conclusion of the tastings, I queried Andres as to his thoughts. His response:

"Overall I was focused on finding wines with balance, mainly those that displayed good, bright, healthy, ripe flavors in their fruit, with very little to no herbaceous notes, but with fresh and abundant acidity and long finishes. This was obviously a challenge this year, as the majority of the Bordeaux varietal blends from PNV 2013 were from the somewhat difficult 2011 vintage, which you could say was not a typical sunny, all-is-well harvest as were the previous 2-3 years; or even the much-anticipated 2012 wines many were buzzing about. But I think years like 2011 present a good, fair challenge to the Napa establishment and really separates the technical winemakers from the true artists of the trade. I also felt that hillside vineyards were the best of PNV 2013, especially Spring Mountain wines, which showed deep, rich flavors and intense, punchy acidity, which I always feel is the backbone for ageability."

Based on the above criteria, he identified the following wines as worthy of consideration

Wine of the Show:
Lot #17 Spring Mountain Vineyard 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon La Perla Vineyard

Close-to-the-Top Favorites:
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Ignem et Aquam
Derenoncourt 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Las Posadas
Barnett 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain
Vine Hill Ranch 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Assesment Blend
O'Shaughnessy 2011 Petit Verdot Howell Mountain
Notre Vin Cellars (Denis Malbec) 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon One Hundred Vines Howell Mountain
Detert 2011 Cabernet Franc Oakville

Other Notable Lots:
Schrader Cellars 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon TSA Cuvee
Shafer Vineyards 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Sunspot Vineyard
Arkenstone 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Block 1 Lower Howell Mountain
Roy Estate 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Voix Basse
Promise 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford
J. Davies 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Rock Garden Block Diamond Mountain
Oakville East 2011 Cabernet Franc Majek Oakville
Gandona Estate 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill
BURE Family 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville
Kapcsandy 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville
Seavey 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Masochist's Hill
Keenan 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Waited So Long Spring Mountain

Good Buys:
Louis Martini 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon 254 Meritage Blend
St. Supery 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon
Volker Eisele 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Chiles Valley District
Cain 2011 Cabernet Franc Orchard Block Spring Mountain
Hill Wine Co. 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain
Tierra Roja 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Katherine's Blend Oakville

So the partying is over. This is where the rubber meets the road. Auction time. An enterprising member of our team had locked off seven seats in the front row to the left of the auctioneers and I thought that was great. Until the air conditioner started blowing cold air directly on us and never stopped. I was a block of ice by the end of the proceedings. The biggest shock for us happened while were were still trying to get comfortable in our seats. The Schrader lot was offered at too high a price and the auctioneer had to back it down. He offered it at $25, 000, got one bid and no follow-ups. And it was sold. Shocker. That was a bargain based on what that wine had previously done at this event.

We bid prudently on our lots of interest and then sat on our paddles when the per bottle price got above our threshold. We were disciplined. And proud of ourselves (This was out of character for Ron who has never met an auction wine that he does not own.). Eventually the Louis Martini 20-case lot came up for bid. Now this was the very first wine that we had tasted at Ad Hoc way back on Thursday and we had tapped it as a sleeper. We waited until a few rounds of bidding went by and then went in with a decisive bid. The auctioneer said the magic words (Going once! Going twice! Sold to Paddle #) and we were the proud owners of a 20-case lot.





We left the auction flushed with the glow of a successful hunt. But we could not stop talking about the one that got away. The Schrader purchaser got a real good deal.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Italian Merlots: San Giusto a Rentennano's La Ricolma (Chianti Classico, Tuscany)

The second of our Chianti Classico Merlots is San Giusto a Rentennano's La Ricolma. As is the case for Castello di Ama, San Giusto a Rentennano is located in the village of Gaiole in Chianti but is east and south of its compatriot in a position overlooking the upper course of the Arbia River.


The current estate site has had a storied life beginning as a medieval monastery for Cistercian nuns, then becoming a 9th century military fortress which served as the boundary between the formerly warring polities of Siena and Florence, and finally, passing into the hands of the Martine di Cigala family through a 1914 marriage.

The estate is 160 ha in size and is sub-divided into the following activity spheres: 31 ha devoted to vineyards; 11 ha for olive groves; 40 ha to woods; and 78 ha for cultivated and grazing lands. Management is the purview of Martini di Cigala family members Elisabetta, Francesco, and Luca.

The estate's vineyards sit at 270 meters on steep hillsides with southeastern exposure and is rich in sand, clay, lime, volcanic ash, and calcium. The vineyard -- certified organic since the 2008 vintage -- falls under the stewardship of Ruggero Mazzilli with Attilio Pagli as the consulting oenologist.

The overriding philosophy is an almost fanatic pre-occupation with quality. According to Skurnik Wines, San Giusto will sell off all or part of a poor vintage in bulk rather than place lower quality product on the market. Antonio Galloni, writing in the Wine Advocate, stated, "This small, family-run property is a great source for hand-made artisan wines that reflect the best of the Tuscan vigneron spirit."

La Ricolma -- appellation IGT Toscana -- is a 100% Merlot sourced from grapes grown on 1.5 ha of vineyards that sit on marl, limestone, and clay soils. The grapes are hand-harvested at full maturity and, in the 2009 vintage, was limited to yields of 50 quintals/ha. Yield is managed via green harvesting where between 30% and 50% of the fruit is dropped in July and August.

The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks for approximately 18 days after which the must is racked and pressed. After an additional racking, the wine is placed in French oak barriques to mature for 20 - 22 months. At the completion of maturation, the wine is bottled unfiltered and held for an additional 6 months before being placed on the market. Annual production averages 5000 bottles.


Galloni, writing about La Ricolma in the Wine Advocate (in 2012), said "San Giusto's Ricolma is differentiated from most other Tuscan Merlots for its firm sense of structure and generous tannin, both of which place it closer to Sangiovese than Merlot stylistically. There are more famous (and more expensive) Merlots being made in Tuscany but few that consistently reach this level of excellence."


©Wine -- Mise en abyme