Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Construction of the Rhone wine region landscape

I have been selected to participate in a Press Trip to Chateauneuf du Pape and Tavel prior to DWCC14. I will, of course, be reporting on my findings both during and after the trip but, in keeping with my blog's mantra of "a story within a story," I will set the stage by describing, in ever-tightening circles, the environments within which the winemakers of those two regions operate. I begin here with the outermost circle, landscape formation in the Rhone River Basin, the broader region within which these two appellations are located.

Source: grid.unep.ch
The Rhône wine region runs along its namesake river for 250 km (150 miles) -- and 6 departèments -- between Lyon in the north and Avignon in the south with a division into northern and southern sub-regions at the point where the Drôme tributary intersects the main course. The Northern Rhône is characterized by a continental climate, granitic soils, steep slopes, and the mistral (a high-speed --140 km/90 miles per hour -- north wind that is funneled between the Massif Central and Vercors when there is high pressure over northern France and low pressure in the western Mediterranean) while the south has a more Mediterranean climate, the marin (a moist sea wind), and stony soils. What they both have in common, though, is a sea of red wine: only 2% of the region's production is white.

The Rhone Valley is a sedimentary basin but, unlike the expansiveness of its two better-known compatriots (Paris and Aquitaine basins), it is corridor-like and tightly bound between the unflinching basement rock of the Massif Central to its east and the younger rocks of the Alps to its west (Fanet, Great Wine Terroirs).


I have treated the formation of the Massif Central in my comparison of Douro and Beaujolais granite and schists. Suffice it to say that it was part of a vast mountain range (The Hercynian Mountain Belt) stretching from Britain to Eastern Europe which was formed as a result of a continental collision which ended 200 million years ago. This range has been severely eroded over millennia and in many places only exist as "basement" rock, hidden from view by sedimentary deposits. The figures below show the distribution of cover and basement rocks in current-day France as well as the composition of the varying rock types.

Basement and cover rocks of France.
Source:http://www.virtual-geology.info/lozere/lozere.html

Relationship between basement and cover rocks.
Source: http://www.virtual-geology.info/lozere/lozere.html
Formation timeline -- basement and cover rocks
Source: http://www.virtual-geology.info/lozere/lozere.html

The table below catalogs a series of events from the Lower Cretaceous onwards which have had contributory effects to the current Rhone Valley landscape. The figure immediately following shows the geologic construct of France as a whole and, outlined in black, that of the Rhone River Valley.

Period
Action/Occurrence
Result
Lower Cretaceous
(135 - 96 My)
Reef limestone deposited on continental platform surrounding Vocontian Trough (deep undersea area south of today's Valence)
Hard limestone hills now surrounding the Rhone Valley
Upper Cretaceous
(96 - 65 My)
  • Vocontian Trough filled with sandstone/sandy limestone/marly-sandstone
  • First phase of folding in Provence due to uplift of Pyrenean-Provençal axis (through end of Eocene)
  • Formed right bank of Rhone, Tricastin, and Massif d’Uchaux
  • Forced the Jurassic and Cretaceous cover northward
Oligocene
(36 - 24 My)
Thick deposits of conglomerates, sandstones, limestone accumulated in the foothills of the young hills
Rhone Valley axis collapsed
Miocene
(24 - 5 My)
  • Sea used the Rhone Valley as a corridor to link up to sea covering Central Europe
  • Alpine uplift reaches a crescendo
  • Sands, marly sands, sandy molasse deposited
  • Rhone digs itself through Miocene deposits as well as Urgonian limestone (formation of the Donzère defile)
  • Carves deep gash in basement granite north of present-day Tain l'Hermitage
  • Raising of the region along its eastern border
Pliocene
(5 - 2 My)
  • Final marine incursion
  • Deposits of fine argillaceous and argillaceous-sandy elements
Quaternary
(2 -  My)
Erosion changed the look of the landscape
  • Rubble and scree built up in the piedmont of the Urgonian limestone hills
  • Four levels of stony terrace systems formed along the Rhone and tributaries
MY = Millions of years. Data sourced from Fanet, Great Wine Terroirs.


The types of soils present in, as well as the location of, vineyards are a result of these landscape formation activities. In a follow-up post I will detail the vineyards and their soils.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tasting the wines at Domaine Guy Roulot

The tasting during our Domaine Roulot visit proceeded on two tracks: a tasting of the 2012 whites followed by a tasting, some of it blind, of some older Roulot vintages. The 2012 tasting segment tasered terroir onto our palates while the free-form segment cemented Raj Parr's reputation as an accomplished blind taster with superior knowledge of Burgundy wines.


2012 Meursaults

The 2012 vintage had been abnormal with hail damage, mildew, odium, and heat combining for a 60% reduction in stock. We tasted through the full range of Meursault wines. Given that these wines were from the same vintage, and had been subjected to similar winemaking treatments, any differences should be attributable to terroir. And we did note such differences. There were consistent observations of fruitiness, minerality, and crisp acidity but texture, degree and shade of fruitiness, type of minerality, and florality varied depending on the source of the fruit. Our observations regarding these wines are captured in the table below.

                           Domaine Guy Roulot 2012 Meursault Wines
Classification
Climats/Lieux-Dits
Location
Characteristics
Bourgogne Blanc

Meursault
Citrus, mineral, acidity
Meursault

Slope south of valley
White fruit, citrus, floral, mineral, freshness

Tillets
Highest on the slope and facing south
Floral, focused, step up in quality

Vireuils
North of Tillets at slightly lower elevation; east-facing
White fruit, richness, crisp acidity, will age well

Luchets
Further north and lower
Sweet white fruits, floral, citrus, chalky minerality, richness

Narvaux
Adjacent to Tillets
Only 1 barrel made. Slight oakiness

Meix Chavaux
North of Premier Crus but at same elevation
Lemon, stone, denser than wines preceding, mineral, sea shell

Tessons
do.
First bottle deemed improper by Jean-Marc. Second bottle fresher fruit, minerality, crisp acidity. Balanced with a long finish
Premier Cru
Bouchères
Northernmost
White fruits, mineral, citrus

Porusot
South of Bouchères
Tight minerality, sea shell, citrus, crisp acidity

Charmes
On Puligny border; 70-year-old vines
4 barrels made. Big, rich fruit structure

Perrieres

Big structure. Grand Cru quality. Pear. Weighty, mineral. Long finish


Pre-2012 Vintages

The first wine tasted in this segment was the 2011 Bourgogne Blanc. Jean-Marc said that this vintage had experienced early flowering and harvesting and there had been no attacks of odium or mildew. This wine had great texture and balance. Ron voiced that it was the best Bourgogne on the planet. The next  offering was the 2011 Tessons, a wine which revealed lemon, pear, and a distinct mineral note.

The next wine was offered blind. Tangerine, earthiness, and a chalky minerality. One of the things that we noted during this trip was that the winemakers all wanted to have Raj taste their wines blind. They constantly put him to the test and he consistently hit the mark or came pretty close. In this case he surmised 2010 Bouchères. It was 2009 Bouchères instead. Jean-Marc rapidly followed with another blind wine which Raj thought was a 2005 Tessons. It was. The third blind wine was ripe and open. 2003 Tillets said Raj. Right again. A tour de force of blind tasting in my opinion. The next wine offered had tangerine and honey on the nose and was very rich. I got lucky and tagged the vintage as 1989. It was a 1989 Bourgogne Blanc.


The final wine tasted was the 1992 Perrieres. Sweet tropical fruit to include pineapple. Ron described it as absolutely amazing. Jean-Marc called it "old Chardonnay." Raj said that this is one of his 10 best wines of all time.

A blockbuster end to a truly amazing tasting and a truly amazing day. Unfortunately the morrow did not attain this level of sustained, intense brilliance.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Winery visit with Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Guy Roulot

To taste a Domaine Roulot wine is to taste a sense of deep rootedness, fine and crystalline, and yet somehow open. Although subtly powerful, the wine never imposes itself before the taster has time to form his own reactions... For me, the subtlety and finesse of Jean-Marc's very feline wines fulfill the criteria for a legitimate work of art: conventions coexisting with freedom of access and interpretation.
Thus had Jonathan Nossiter (Liquid Memory) described the wines of Domaine Guy Roulot. And, after stellar visits at DRC and Domaine Armand Rousseau, we were on our way to taste the wines so eloquently described by Nossiter.

Domaine Guy Roulot is headed by Jean-Marc Roulot, scion of the namesake founder, who took the reins of the Domaine in 1989 from a succession of caretaker winemakers who had overseen production since the death of his father in 1982. The Domaine is known primarily for its plot-specific whites from Village and Premier Cru sites in Meursault but it also produces red wines with grapes sourced from Auxey-Duresses and Monthélie as well as a Bourgogne red sourced from Volnay and Puligny-Montrachet parcels.





                          Domaine Guy Roulot Meursault Climats and Lieux-Dits
Classification
Climats/Lieux-Dits
Location
Soil Characteristic
Wine Descriptors
Meursault

Slope south of valley



Tillets
Highest on the slope and facing south

Floral and mineral.
Vineyards on the upper slope make bititng, precise wines*

Vireuils
North of Tillets at slightly lower elevation; east-facing

Rich yet racy

Luchets
Further north and lower

Round with great length

Narvaux
Adjacent to Tillets

Generous, lush character

Meix Chavaux
North of Premier Crus but at same elevation

Opulent and ripe

Tessons
do.

Powerful, long, complex
Premier Cru
Bouchères
Northernmost
Shallow, stony soil
Silky texture; medium-bodied; elegant.
Bigger, rounder, easier*

Porusot
South of Bouchères
do.
Fuller body

Charmes
On Puligny border; 70-year-old vines

Round, fleshy, ripe, mineral, complex; great depth of flavor
Source: rarewineco.com; *Dominique Lafon in Nossiter’s Liquid Memory.

Jean-Marc's commitment to these terroirs, and their wines, is illustrated by his comments to Nossiter: "... I am as attached to my village vineyard designation as the premier cru. The day I can't bottle my Tillets, Meix Chavaux, and Tessons separately is the day I'll leave any system of official designation. ... We need to continue to work to understand the individual identities of each parcel of vines, whether it is at the village, premier cru, or grand cru level." In a more recent conversation with Benjamin Lewin MW, Jean-Marc ranked the differences between lieux-dits as: (i) exposition, (ii) elevation, then (iii) the clay-limestone proportions with a resultant 1-week differential in harvest-initiation between Luchets and Narvaux.

One of the early decisions that Jean-Marc made upon taking the reins at Domaine Roulot was to pursue organic farming. In explaining his decision to Nossiter, Jean-Marc spoke admiringly of biodynamicism but going organic was a huge step for the winery. It was a step, however, which allowed the individual identity of each plot to be "more strongly expressed." Even though practicing organic principles since 1989, the estate was not formally certified until 2013.

The estate produces both white and red wines with the whites made from Chardonnay or Aligoté and the red from Pinot Noir. The winemaking processes are illustrated in the graphic below.


A winemaking couple from Santa Barbara was joining us for the tatsingt so, after hurried introductions, we headed to the cellars. It was clear that Raj and Jean-Marc were good friends and were happy to see each other because they immediately fell into an animated winemaking conversation which threaded its way through our entire visit. It was fascinating and a wonderful learning opportunity for us.

The wines to be tasted were placed on an upright barrel in the center of the room and Jean-Marc began to open them. The tasting would unfold in two parts: a tasting of the 2012 whites followed by a tasting, some of it blind, of some older vintages.

As he opened the first bottle, Jean-Marc looked around the cellar ruefully noting that, under normal circumstances, barrels would be stacked three rows high. The 2012 vintage had not been normal though with hail damage, mildew, odium, and heat combining for a 60% reduction in stock.


Jean-Marc Roulot opening bottles for our tasting
Jean-Marc Roulot and Ron
Rajat Parr and Jean-Marc
The results of the tastings will be covered in a subsequent post.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Meursault? Or less so?

The Meursault commune, 5-km long and located just 7 km from Beaune, is the northern entry point to, arguably, the world's greatest concentration of stellar Chardonnay vines. While it cannot rival its Côte de Beaune compatriots Puligny-Montrâchet and Chassagne-Montrâchet in number of Grand Cru vineyards (it has none), the wines of Meursault are world-renowned and, as will be discussed later, may be undergoing a refinement in style even as we speak. I will be writing a post on our visit to the Guy Roulot cellars in the near future and so wanted to provide some context herein for that upcoming post.

Source: musée-boissons.com

In his book on the vineyards of France (Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines), James E. Wilson identifies what he refers to as Nuits and Beaune soil packages. The Beaune package is comprised of strata from the Callovian (Mid Jurassic) and Oxfordian (Upper Jurassic) periods, capped by Nantoux limestone. The Nuits package is comprised of Bajocian and Bathonian deposits (both Mid Jurassic) topped by Comblanchian limestone. The Nuits package dominates on the Côte d'Or before diving deep underground in the vicinity of Nuits-Saint-Georges. It reappears at Meursault but, to the north of the village, is overlain in the belly of the slope by a Beaune strata package. It is in this part of Meursault that red grapes are grown. To the south of the town, the Beaune package predominates and continues through Puligny-Montrâchet and Chassagne-Montrâchet. This area is home to some of the finest white wines in the world.


The plot architecture of the Meursault vineyard has the leading-edge of the Premier Cru vineyards abutting the Volnay commune and separated from the southern Premier Crus by a thick band of Village-level lieu dits.


The allowed grapes in the Meursault commune are Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc for whites and Pinot Noir and accessory grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris) for reds. Accessory grapes are limited to 15% of the vines on a given plot and must be vinified as part of a field blend. Planting density is 9000 vines/ha with max loadings of 10,500kg/ha for whites and 9000 kg/ha for reds. No irrigation is permitted.

At approximately 400 ha, Meursault is larger than Puligny-Montrâchet (202.98 ha) or Chassagne-Montrâchet (301.43 ha) but has fewer Premier Crus (19) than does Chassagne (56) and only two more than Puligny. Of the 400 ha, approximately 130 ha is designated Premier Cru with the most well-regarded climats being Les Perrieres, Les Genevirières, and Les Charmes. The best of the Village lieu dits are Clos de la Barre, Tesson, Chevalierès, Rougeot, and Narvaux.

In 2010, the region produced 18,400 hl of wine, 400 hl of which was white. The red wines produced in the north of the commune are labeled Volnay-Santenot in order to take advantage of the higher standing of Volnay reds. White wines produced in Blagny to the south are allowed to be labeled as Meursault-Blagny to take advantage of the market strength of Meursault in white wines. The best producers in the region are Comtes Lafon, Coche Dury, Guy Roulot, Jean-Philippe Fichet, Francois Jobart, Patrick Javillier, Michelle Bouzereau, and Arnold Ente.

The Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) is the "voice of the Bourgogne wind trade" and, on its website, describes the wines of Meursault thusly:
The young wine is redolent of toasted almonds and hazelnuts in a floral (mayflower, elder, bracken, lime, verbena) and mineral (flint) setting. Butter, honey, and citrus fruits are also present. On the palate it is rich and fat, with a cheerful and appealing taste of hazelnut.
BBR, on its website, describes the wines as "... typically rich and savory with nutty, honeyed hints and buttery, vanilla spice from the oak." But these descriptors may no longer be applicable across the board. In a 2010 article profiling Domaines des Comtes Lafon, Burgundy-Report gave a halting, non-specific observation of a shift in this particular producer's offerings: "I have the impression that there has been a style shift in both red and white wines in recent years ... the whites of the 1990s were ... forceful, and very well oaked." The whites he tasted on this particular trip "mesmerized" him.

In a recent post (Burgundy Diary part 6: Sea Change in Meursault -- Visits to Comtes Lafon, Guy Roulot, Michel Bouzereau, and Pierre Morey), Benjamin Lewin MW observes that this visit "... showed a real change in style from the old view that Meursault is soft, nutty, and buttery ..." He summarized the key elements of the change as follows: "Previously I have always been a devotée of Puligny for expressing terroir in that ineffably steely, mineral style, but Meursault is now running a close second."

Does this mean that Meursault has not been properly expressing its terroir all along? Or does it mean that terroir is fungible in that region? Stay tuned.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Drops of God: Wine quest as wine education platform

The Japanese manga series Drops of God performs the extremely difficult task of spinning a yarn which grabs and holds the attention of the general reader while simultaneously imparting learnings that are of interest to both the novice and experienced wine drinker. I explore this fine dance in this post.

The Drops of God is a consolidation and translation of a Japanese manga series ((i) style of cartoon originating in Japan; (ii) often published in magazines or comic books and generally appearing serially in those media -- wise geek.com) which was created by a brother and sister team (Yuko and Shin Kibiyashi) writing under the pseudonym Tadashi Agi. The series has been published continually from 2004 to today.


The protagonist in the series is Shizuku Kanzaki, a beer company salesman whose father, Yutaka Kanzaki, the Robert Parker of Japan, dies suddenly, leaving his home and a ¥2 billion wine collection in his will. Now for the twist. The estate is not willed directly to Shizuku. Rather, he has to identify 12 wines (The 12 Apostles) and a 13th (The Drops of God) by name and vintage -- based solely on his father's written description -- in order to claim the estate. And this has to be accomplished within a year. To me this is a quest, a journey through 13 wines which has the home and the wine collection as its pot of gold.


But not so fast. He is not the only participant in this level of the quest. His father had adopted a famous young wine critic -- Issei Tomei -- as his legal son one week before his death and this "second son" would also be competing against Skizuku for ownership of the estate. The wines are to be tasted blind. To increase the level of difficulty of Shizuku's quest, the adopted son is an accomplished and well-regarded wine critic while Shizuku has never had a glass of wine in his life.

Source: thermalservices.wordpress.com

In order to compete effectively in this top-level quest, Shizuku has to embark on a second quest: to acquire the detailed wine knowledge that would allow him to compete against Issei. For, you see, Shizuku was not totally unequipped for this fight. While he had never drank a glass of wine, his father had given him a lifelong education in aromas and flavors. His quest then was to marry that flavor knowledge to individual wines so that he could identify those wines in the blind tasting competitions he would be having with Issei to determine the winner.

The authors use diversions and distractions from the main quest in order to maintain high drama and keep the plot line fresh and interesting for the general reader. It is the wine-education aspects that are of especial interest to us though and I have attempted to capture the essence in the chart below. Whether on the tortuous path of the main quest or on one of the diversions/divergences, Shizuku is being exposed to new wines. The exposure to those wines, and the stories wrapped around them, keeps the interest of the experienced wine drinker (I for one have drunk specific wines, or vintages of wines, because I first encountered them within these pages). For the relatively inexperienced drinker, the authors use these wines as a jumping-off point to explore some of the more fundamental wine concepts and that, as I see it, improves their understanding and appreciation of wine, and, hopefully, encourages exploration.


It may seem somewhat incongruous that some of these fundamental wine principles are being explored through the lens of some of the most expensive bottles of wine in the world but it becomes less so when one considers that the wine collection that is being pursued will be populated with these types of wines. And these are the wines that Shizuku has to become familiar with in order to be competitive.

No. I am not going to tell you how it ends because I don't know.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme