From Goats to Wine

When you visit Sancerre, the locals are quick to extol the match between the wine and the famous goats’ cheese, the Crottin de Chavignol. Staying just outside Sancerre in the village of Chavignol on a recent visit, I was struck by the fact that I could not actually see any goats. When I asked about this, the first answer was that the goats were on the tops of the hills. But when I went back and checked, the hills were covered with vines right up to the summits. Pressing the question further, my informants grinned and explained that vineyards have become so much more profitable that they have entirely displaced the goats. A striking demonstration of the change is the situation on the outskirts of Chavignol: the new Bourgeois winery stands where goats used to roam.

Goats1

Goats used to walk along the road leading out of Chavignol

Bourgeois1The Bourgeois winery is a splendid facility at the top of the hill

There’s more than one metaphor in this. The nearest goats are to be found in Cosne-sur-Loire, a few miles to the north – but the cheese hasn’t changed its name: it is still AOP Crottin de Chavignol. In fact, the AOP was granted in 1976, right around the time when the goats began to be displaced (they were pretty much gone by the eighties). That seems somehow indicative of the way INAO (the body in charge of the appellation system) operates.

A more significant point, perhaps is that the expansion of the vineyards has been matched by major change in the style of Sancerre. Sancerre used to be punishingly acid and positively herbaceous., Today it still usually has good acidity, but vegetal qualities go no further than grassiness. Fruits range from classic gooseberries to citrus, and even in many cases to stone fruits. Some wines are positively unctuous and exotic. This is partly because of the trend to later harvesting, aided by global warming, and partly due to the increase of concentration that has resulted from lower yields. Sancerre producers don’t admit to any direct influence from the success of New World Sauvignon Blanc, but they do concede that the modern consumer wants to see more upfront fruit in the wine.

When Sancerre was very acid and herbaceous, it was a perfect match for the sharp tang of the cheese. But is that still true: do wines where stone fruits are at least as evident as citrus really match the cheese? You can still get Sancerre in the classic idiom with enough of a grassy tang to match the cheese, but most have achieved a ripeness level that has substituted a new typicity. The perfect match has disappeared along with the goats.

Terroir and Grand Cru: a Vertical of Clos des Lambrays

A vertical tasting of Clos des Lambrays led me to wonder about the whole basis for classification in Burgundy. “Clos des Lambrays is very heterogeneous. There is 60 m difference in elevation between the top and bottom, the largest in any appellation except for Corton. There is strong diurnal variation with more cooling at the bottom, which is in a valley,” says winemaker Thierry Brouin, introducing a vertical tasting of Clos des Lambrays.

So why is Clos des Lambrays a single appellation if it’s so varied? Its 9 ha are the largest clos in Burgundy under (almost) single ownership; Domaine des Lambrays owns all except for a tiny plot owned by Taupenot-Merme at the bottom. The clos has three separate microclimates: a large block at the center (Les Larrets), 2 ha at the northern end (Les Bouchots), and 1 ha at the southeast corner (Meix Rentier). Lots of limestone produces elegance in the wine.

References to Cloux des Lambrey go back to 1365. It was divided between 74 owners after the Revolution, but reunited in 1868. Clos des Lambrays was classified as a premier cru because the owner of the time could not be bothered to submit the paperwork for submission as a grand cru in 1936. In any case, the estate was somewhat neglected until a change of ownership in 1979, when Thierry came as winemaker. It changed hands again in 1996, and now has just been purchased by LVMH.

Clos des Lambrays was promoted to Grand Cru in 1981. This is definitely a curiosity. Changes in appellation status are extremely rare, and bespeak political influence as well (hopefully) as a detailed reconsideration of terroir. Surely in Burgundy of all places we expect a Cru to describe a single type of terroir: how else to justify all those tiny, tiny appellations? The major exception is Clos Vougeot, well known to have been made a single grand cru because of the history of its enclosure into a single vineyard (although the monks in fact made multiple cuvées from its different parts: supposedly the bottom part was for the monks, the middle part for higher churchmen, and the top for princes). As everyone acknowledges that Clos Vougeot can range from communal level to grand cru level, why is Clos des Lambrays different?

People often say to me, Thierry, why don’t you make a cuvée from the best two or three plots, but we don’t want to do that, Lambrays is not the best two or three cuvées, it is the assemblage of its different terroirs,” says Thierry. In fact, Thierry regards the sale to LVMH as potentially saving the clos from being seized by SAFER (a French government body that redistributes vineyards), in which case it very likely would have been broken up into many different plots, and the history lost once again. Fair enough: but this makes the point that the appellation is not in fact a construct of geography, or at least not entirely so, but in reality owes more to history. This is a dangerous precedent for consistency in the system.

In addition to Clos des Lambrays, Domaine des Lambrays also produces two other red cuvées: Les Loups comes from declassified young vines of the clos together with two premier cru sites (La Riotte and Le Village), and there is a communal Morey St. Denis. There are also whites from tiny plots in two Puligny Montrachet premier crus (Caillerets and Folatières). Occasionally there is a rosé. In fact, the tasting started with the 2013 rosé, and very fine it was too, with the grand cru quality of the grapes bringing a wonderful fragrance.The rosé is made on the sorting table, when grapes that are not completely ripe are selected out. Direct pressurage is followed by fermentation in stainless steel. We don’t like to make it too often because the appellation is only Bourgogne,” Thierry explains.

Well what about the wines of Clos des Lambrays? Winemaking is quite traditional, with fermentation of whole bunches irrespective of vintage. This may be one reason why the wines remain moderate in alcohol and are not excessively colored. “Pinot Noir is the least black grape in the world – it is red – even Gamay in Beaujolais has more color. When you see a black Pinot Noir, it’s too extracted,” is Thierry’s view.

The vertical extended from 2012 to 1999 and the style certainly showed through. Some people describe Clos des Lambrays as showing blue fruits: I wouldn’t quite use that term, but I would describe the style as upright. Younger vintages can seem tight, and older vintages – at least in the span of this tasting – soften slowly, with fruits moving from cherries more towards strawberries, but not yet evolving in a savory or tertiary direction. As a result, vintage character shows through really clearly, from the softest 2002 (you should drink this now, says Thierry), the rich 2005, 2009, and 2012, to the leaner 2006 and 2008 (showing great precision). A fair summary is that the style focuses on purity of fruit. Running counter to the modern trend, these are definitely not wines for instant gratification: it remains to be seen how that will play under the aegis of LVMH.

Brunello In Between

The official line on Brunello di Montalcino in 2009 is that it’s a very good, but not quite the best vintage—“four star, not five star,” says Fabrizio Bindocci, President of the Consorzio. From the wines presented at the Consorzio’s event in New York January 27, I’d be more inclined to give it three stars. The word most often being used to describe the vintage was “plush” but that is not an adjective I would use.

The most noticeable feature is the extreme variability, from wines that have tight red fruits with punishing acidity to fruits with more black fruits and smooth elegance. The vintage is being billed as perfect for restaurant wines, showing much less acidity and drinking much sooner than the 2008s, but I find this hard to see from comparing 2009s with 2008s at the tasting. The fact is that 2009 is so variable that it’s all but impossible to make a single generalization for the vintage. It’s fair to say that few if any wines rise above the level of restaurant wine into being worth consideration for the cellar: many in fact strike me as more what I expect from Rosso di Montalcino.

Most of the wines are around 14.5% alcohol, but this seems to fit quite naturally into their flavor spectrum and is surprisingly unobtrusive. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that one of the wines I liked best came from the north, showing floral delicacy, and had only 14% alcohol; where one I liked least came from the south and with 15% alcohol made an altogether heavier impression. But although quite a number of  wines conformed to the stereotype of finesse and elegance from the north and greater power from the south, there were plenty of reversals: nor were the wines from high altitudes (up to 500 meters) necessarily any tighter or more acidic than those from down below. The type of oak (French versus Slovenian, barriques versus larger containers) seems to be just as important. Once again, it would be brave, if not foolhardy, to generalize.

I suppose it would be fair to say that the wines I liked best fell into two styles: those with floral finesse and red fruits (where more came from the north than the south);  and those with smooth black fruits, elegant and round (where most came from the center or south.) But one of the best wines supported all the traditional arguments for blending: a mix from north and south it had a combination of power and finesse, with good flavor variety.

One thing that is evident is that the debate between  modernists and traditionalists has run its course. There are certainly stylistic differences, but (at least in the wines represented at this event) they were less extreme than they were, say, ten years ago. I have to admit however that I did not like wines showing evident new oak.

The 2009s certainly seemed quite acidic enough, thank you, so I was worried about the official line that 2008 has more acidity and should be left longer before starting (and will age longer). Of course, Sangiovese is a variety known for its acidity, but to my mind the difference is more that the fruits in 2008 tend to be firmer, in fact in many cases greater fruit concentration absorbs the acidity better. It also seems to be a more consistent vintage, although firmness sometimes becomes a bit too sturdy. In fact, I think some of the 2008s are readier to drink now than the 2009s. The 2006s at the tasting tended to be rather tight, with a certain lack of generosity, and sometimes a little crisp.

The best wines at the tasting were the 2007s, perhaps partly because many of them were Riservas. Riserva isn’t always a sure fire bet in Brunello (they can be too much) but whenever it was possible to compare a 2007 Riserva with a regular bottling, it had an extra dimension and greater refinement. These wines had a combination of smoothness with greater complexity that lifted them well above any of the 2008s or 2009s. Among the latter two vintages, the most elegant 2009s carry the day; but sight unseen, there is a better statistical chance of enjoying a 2008 given the variability in 2009.

Merlot with Elegance

The crystalline purity is reminiscent of Volnay: the sheer elegance reminds me of Margaux or perhaps St. Julien. Fruits are precisely delineated. The dominant grape variety would not be the first to come to mind in a blind tasting, but it is Merlot: in fact this is a blend of 90% Merlot with 10% Cabernet Franc, and it used to be the Premier Grand Cru Classé of St. Emilion with the highest proportion of Merlot.

Every once in a while you have a wine that really makes you rethink your perceptions of typicity, and this Château Magdelaine from 1982 is a perfect example. I have always found Magdelaine to be the most Médocian wine of the right bank, with a pleasing touch of austerity as opposed to the full fleshy opulence of so many wines. At one point, Clive Coates described it as third only after Cheval Blanc and Ausone.

A leading St. Emilion estate for two centuries, Château Magdelaine was acquired by the Moueix family (of Château Pétrus) in 1952. It has been a Premier Grand Classé B ever since St. Emilion was classified, but in 2012 two changes occurred. Magdelaine did not appear in the revised classification; and Moueix announced that it would be merged with Château Bélair-Monange, a neighboring chateau that is their other property in St. Emilion. Cause and effect have never been publicly discussed. The wine from combined properties (from the 2012 vintage) will be under the name of Château Bélair-Monange

The revised St Emilion classification definitely pandered to the internationalization of Bordeaux  by promoting Château Pavie (very controversial for its rich, extracted style since Gérard Pearse took it over) and Château Angelus from Premier Grand Cru Classé B to A. And Valandraud, an archetypal garage wine, was promoted straight from St Emilion to Premier Grand Cru Classé B without ever passing through the intermediate Grand Cru Classé. Château Figeac, the candidate at every prior classification for promotion, but whose one third Cabernet Sauvignon gives it a sterner style than most St. Emilions, was ignored.

Certainly Magdelaine has been falling out of fashion over the past decade or so, failing to get really high points from critics. If this is because it has more of a left bank elegance than right bank plushness, so be it; but it’s a shame for the homogenization of styles to be reinforced by the classification. Isn’t the French system of appellations and classification supposed to help preserve tradition rather than pander to fashion?

All I can say is that the 1982 Magdelaine is a lovely wine, the epitome of what Bordeaux was supposed to be about. It is a shame if this style is to disappear because power displaces finesse.

Bordeaux 2011: The Year of Restaurant Wines

Following the highly successful rich 2009 and more classic 2010, the 2011 vintage was bound to be a bit of a let down. Differences between appellations are especially clear this year, a consequence perhaps of more marginal conditions. There are few great wines, some that will find it difficult to achieve balance, but the best should be appropriate for drinking in restaurants from two to eight years from now if the prices aren’t too unreasonable, which unfortunately may not be the case.

Pauillac may be the most consistent of the appellations, with fruits that are distinctly more concentrated than St. Julien or Margaux, making a classic demonstration of appellation character. Tannins are usually obvious, but refined, and should come into balance over the next two to three years. Some wines seem a palpable throwback to the period when years were needed for tannins to resolve after release, but the fruits are concentrated enough to hold out. Not only the most even appellation, this is the one truest to its reputation. Particularly honorable mention goes to Pichon Baron, which shows as powerful and almost opulent, and to Pichon Lalande, which shows as more elegant and refined.

The style is also relatively even for St. Julien, with better rounded fruits than Margaux, if less concentrated than Pauillac. Acidity is usually balanced and many wines show attractive nutty overtones, with enough fruit concentration to develop nicely for the short to mid term as tannins resolve. Léoville Poyferré showed is round, modern style, Léoville Barton its usual elegance, and Saint Pierre gets an award for its refined, classy impression.

Margaux is by far the most variable appellation. Wines tend to have tight tannins that are emphasized by high acidity. Fruits tend to be light so there may be only a relatively brief period to enjoy the wines between the resolution of the tannins and the drying out of the fruits. The most successful have mastered the acidity and tannins, but are soft and approachable in a modern style that isn’t easy to recognize as Margaux. It seems the choice was between short lived elegance and approachability this year. No single chateau really stands out.

The Haut Médoc is more even than Margaux but the wines are almost uniformly light, although acidity and tannins are rarely obtrusive—but nor are the fruits. They tend to be a bit characterless, although La Lagune and La Tour Carnet stand  out for maintaining their usual styles.

The individual chateaus in Graves have stayed true to their characters, with each showing very much its usual style. The best are Haut Bailly for its combination of fruit and structure true to its classic style, Domaine de Chevalier for its elegance, Smith Haut Lafitte in more modern style but backtracking a bit from the overt modernity of 2010 and 2009, and Pape Clément the most evidently modern of all, but a definite success in this vintage. Tannins are no more of a problem than they should be at this stage.

2011 is not a success in St. Emilion. Although there are not the same problems in managing acidity and tannins as the left bank, the problematic character is a common impression of an edge of saccharine on the finish, a sense of an unbalanced sweetness. Will this become sickly as the wines evolve or disappear as they shed the puppy fat? No St. Emilion really stands out from the crowd this year, although Canon shows its typically precise style.

Pomerol does not have the problems of St. Emilion and is quite consistent—and quite superficial. There’s nothing to excess this year, the wines are approachable, but they offer no sense of the stuffing needed to support further development. You have the impression that already they are as good as they will get, and I am doubtful that they will become more complex with time. The closest to a real success is La Conseillante.

The top whites from Pessac are very fine and should drink well over the next five years. At opposite poles are the freshness of Smith Haut Lafitte, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, and the roundness of Pape Clément, half Sémillon; and then Domaine de Chevalier shows its usual elegance. I would be happy to have any of them for dinner.

Sauternes generally seem a little rustic, with fairly viscous bodies lacking the aromatic uplift that’s needed to relieve the sweetness. Notable exceptions are Suduiraut, with a classic impression of botrytic piquancy, and de Fargues, as always the top of the show.

It’s a sign of the times that no wines have overt signs of herbaceousness. They vary somewhat in whether the fruits are forward or reserved, whether the acidity is too high or the tannins too bitter, but the emphasis is very definitely on fruit in a relatively modern idiom. As a rough working rule, the modernists, who have been focusing for years on softening the tannins, came off better than the traditionalists in this particular vintage. However, there is no wine (at least in the UGCB tasting) that I would give more than 90 points, and this is not a vintage to buy for the cellar, but if prices come down, could be  useful for enjoying in the short term, especially at restaurants.

Wines were tasted at the New York visit of the UGCB tour, which presented more than 100 wines from the 2011 vintage.

The Answer to Terroir Does Not Lie on the Skin

The most common descriptor associated with terroir is “undefinable”—it’s attributed to a mix of influences including soil, exposure, and climate that create distinctive character in the wine coming from different vineyard sites. At its simplest extreme, it is scarcely rocket science to accept that grapes (or for that matter any other crop) will be quite different if grown in a sunny, well drained spot at the top of a hill from those grown in a shady, waterlogged spot at the bottom of the same hill. That reductio ad absurdum disguises the fact that there can be vineyard sites which to all appearances are identical in all the parameters you might think distinguish them, but which nonetheless consistently produce different wines. No one to date has been able to explain this mystery in any rational way.

A large part of the mystique of wine would disappear if we could explain terroir on a scientific basis, but there is actually little threat from the latest attempt, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from a group at the University of California, Davis headed by Dr. David Mills. The basic finding is that microorganisms on the skins of the grapes are different in various vineyards in California. These observations were made possible by the ability of rapid DNA sequencing to identify large numbers of microorganisms without the need actually to culture them.

So vineyards in different places have different sets of bacteria and fungi, very likely related to both region and climate. Wind, temperature, and humidity were identified as pertinent factors. This is scarcely a major surprise. But that’s a far cry from supporting the conclusion that “these differences may help explain regional patterns in wine chemicosensory properties,” which is quasi-scientific speak for arguing they might be involved in terroir.

For these microorganisms to be involved in determining wine character, they would most likely need to play some role during fermentation (their mass could scarcely be sufficient to provide any significant level of flavor components in themselves). Well, here is a problem. A significant proportion of the microorganisms that were detected are so-called spoilage organisms, which if allowed to act on the grapes in fact spoil the wine. Precautions are taken to prevent this (most typically the addition of sulfur to block bacterial or fungal action before fermentation).

In fact, wine producers divide into two groups on the issue of the role of yeasts in fermentation. Probably most producers in California are in the group who kill off all the indigenous yeasts before fermentation; cultured yeasts are then added. This provides control of the process and prevents spoilage organisms from acting, making it quite unlikely that any yeasts or bacteria on grape skins are involved in determining wine character.

Some producers allow fermentation to be catalyzed by indigenous yeasts. But here is an interesting point. In spite of a longstanding general belief that this is part of the properties of the vineyard (which makes the present article appear somewhat less than novel), it appears that the yeasts that actually catalyze fermentation are different every year. Eminent oenologist Ribereau-Gayon said, “In a given vineyard, spontaneous fermentation is not systematically carried out by the same strains each year; strain specificity does not exist and therefore does not participate in vineyard characteristics.” So it is hard for this to explain terroir. Curiously, the present paper finds that there is greater vintage variation between small vineyards than between wider areas (but this is based on a comparison of only two years). To make a case that microorganisms are involved in terroir, wouldn’t you need to show that there is some consistency in them over substantial periods of time?

The microorganisms also differ from regards to grape variety, again not a surprise, as grapes with thin skins (more easily damaged) are likely to attract different microorganisms from tougher grapes with thicker skins. This goes back to the point that many of the microorganisms are in the spoilage class, and the last thing you want is for them to affect wine character.

My bet would be that if microorganisms are involved in terroir, it would be more likely to be those in the soil that act on the roots of the grapevines, and which might therefore indirectly affect the properties of berries as they develop. Maybe the answer lies in the soil.

Reference: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1317377110

Cru Bourgeois: a Work in Progress

A tasting of Cru Bourgeois from the 2010 vintage showed some remarkable similarities and remarkable differences with a tasting earlier this month of Grand Cru Classés from St. Emilion.

Both groups come from classification systems whose attempts to modernize foundered in legal challenges, and the classification had to be withdrawn, before compromises were found to restore a system. The final systems are almost at opposite poles. In St. Emilion, reclassification every ten years takes account of the terroir of the chateau, the price of its wine, and quality (as assessed by tasting). For Cru Bourgeois, the classification is now done every year, which makes it completely different from all the other classification systems where history (very distant in the case of Médoc Grand Cru Classé, more recent in the case of St. Emilion) counts for something.

Once a château has received the agrément that is required for its wine to be included in the AOP each year, it can apply for the Cru Bourgeois label. The wine is assessed by a tasting panel. “We are not assessing style, everyone is free to define their own style, but we are really concerned with quality. Typicity is really more a matter for the AOC. There are eight appellations and even within each there is variety,” says Frédérique Dutheiller de Lamothe, Directrice of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois. So in effect, putting Cru Bourgeois on the label is an imprimatur of quality. There are also some arcane rules about timing of sales, which actually excluded Chateau Caronne Ste Gemme from the 2011 classification, although its proprietor François Nony is President of the Alliance.

The difficulty with this system, it seems to me, that it lacks practicality for the consumer. Surely a consumer expects a classification to place a producer at a certain level, that it establishes a general reputation: are they really going to look at the label each year and ask whether the wine got the sticker for that vintage? What does it say if a chateau gets the classification some years and not others? Isn’t this really rating current vintages rather than classifying the producer? And what about vintage variation—will allowance for vintage mean that the classification is awarded in a poor year for wines that wouldn’t get it in a better year?

In spite of these reservations, what sort of standard was established for 2010? Just like St Emilion there seem to be a certain similarity to the wines, and it seemed to override the appellations as we tasted through the 2010 vintage from Médoc, Haut Médoc, Listrac, and Moulis. Somewhat tight fruits were supported by a strong acidity; these wines seemed more backward than the Grand Cru Classé last time I tasted them, not so much because of tannins but because the acidity was so pressing you couldn’t really see the fruits, which seem somewhat one dimensional. This seemed like a throwback to traditional Bordeaux, and these wines need time, the antithesis of the St. Emilion tasting, where the wines all had the same soft, over fruity taste (Triumph of the Oenologue in St. Emilion). But when we got to Margaux and Pauillac, communal typicity seemed to reappear in a certain finesse for Margaux and roundness for Pauillac. However, I thought the best Cru Bourgeois I tasted was Chateau Serilhan, from St Estèphe, whose refinement belied the reputation of the appellation.

Whether it’s the character of the appellation or the individual château, it did seem to me that the Cru Bourgeois from Margaux, Pauillac, and St. Estèphe were better than those from other appellations. But Cru Bourgeois, at least for the present, is a single level of classification (as opposed to the old system, which had multiple tiers. It would be interesting, and perhaps useful for the consumer, to restore the hierarchy, but it’s not obvious how that would be done in the context of the new system, as this would really put the Alliance into competition with the critics for rating the wines. But it’s a work in progress, so wait to see what happens next.