Why Does Wine Criticism Try to be Objective When Everything Else is Personal?

“The wine has a ruby appearance and the nose shows a mixture of earthy strawberries and red cherries. The palate has delicate nuances of tobacco and chocolate to offset the red fruits, and there is a lingering bitterness on the finish from presently unresolved tannins.” Sounds sort of objective, doesn’t it? You have to wonder whether really the purpose of a tasting note in the modern fashion to identify the various influences on nose and palate wouldn’t be served better by a direct chemical and physical analysis of color hue, aromatic components, acidity, alcohol, phenolic compounds, etc. At least that would be objective instead of pretending to be, although whether it would tell you whether you would like the wine is another matter.

But how can a tasting note tell you whether you would like a wine when everyone has a different palate? Sample the diners at a restaurant – everyone likes a different amount of salt on their food, why should they all like the same wine? (And what is it with restaurants that refuse to put salt on the table? Isn’t it the height of arrogance for a chef to decide that his level of salt and pepper is perfect for everyone? Is that different from the position of the wine critic? I have noticed a correlation, by the way: at restaurants with salt on the table, I rarely need to add salt to my food; at restaurants without it, I often have to ask for salt. I suspect this reflects an attitude problem with the chef – for some reason that is obscure to me, chefs who under-salt are adamant about it…)

The old style of wine criticism that went in for flowery metaphors wasn’t to my mind much more useful than today’s more technical analyses. “This wine is like a friendly Labrador bounding out to meet you,” is one that has stuck in my memory. I suppose technical criticism gives you more sense of what a wine might be like, although I am puzzled by the contrast between the trend to soi-disant objective analysis with the general focus in today’s environment on personalization. Look at Twitter and Facebook: it’s all about ME, and the more personal the anecdote, the better. Look at the decline in newspapers, where in desperate attempts to keep readership, half the articles are about the writer not about the news? Why is wine an exception, why do we look for comment that’s actually about the wine instead of about the taster’s totally subjective reactions and reminiscences?

It’s interesting that in a group of tasters, people can usually distinguish different wines but often describe them in different, sometimes opposing, ways. The difficulty of relating to someone else’s tasting notes may be less in differences of perception than in differences of description. I used to taste with someone who often distinguished wines as having black olives versus green olives. I could see what he meant, although my own descriptors were quite different – but I would have been puzzled if not quite misled to have tried to assess wines on the basis of his notes alone. I keep tasting notes on every wine I drink; they are useful to me, but I don’t fool myself that they would necessarily be useful to anyone else.

 

Burgundy Diary part 4: a Visit with Olivier Leflaive (a Force of Nature)

Officially retired, but in practice evident everywhere, Olivier Leflaive is a force of nature. He greets the diners every night at his restaurant and hotel in the town (recommended as an excellent base for visiting producers south of Beaune), and he or his brother conduct tours and tastings every morning at the winery, a modern building on the outskirts of the town.

OlivierLeflaiveTW3Olivier Leflaive’s winery was built in 7 stages over several years

The history of Maison Leflaive is a series of happy accidents. Olivier likes to start at the beginning, in 1635 when Domaine Leflaive already owned vineyards in Puligny, but then he fast-forwards to 1981 when his father Joseph and uncle Vincent were co-managers of Domaine Leflaive. Olivier became co-manager when his father died, and he remained until 1994. “But Leflaive was a small domain, and it had a maître de chai, and it was famous so it wasn’t difficult to sell, it wasn’t challenging enough, and in 1985 I decided to create a negociant. Everyone in Leflaive put in some money.” The business started in the old cellars of Domaine Leflaive – it was big enough for tanks, barrels and bottling; we made 10,000 cases then. The office was my living room and the lab was in the bathroom.” But it expanded rapidly when Frederick Wildman came to Olivier to say they needed a new source of white Burgundy.

The emphasis of the domain is on buying grapes and making the wine. Today there are 120 growers and 80,000 cases. Most of the wine (about 85%) is white; there are 80 different white wines from Montagny to Corton Charlemagne, and a dozen red wines complete the range. “In terms of philosophy and character of wine, I was born in Leflaive style which is finesse and elegance. We don’t want to be champion of the world, for example in alcohol. I don’t want to make wine at 14%. And we use reasonable amounts of new oak, it’s usually about 15%. We don’t want to make excessive battonage. For me I don’t like the garage wines at 15-20 hl/ha, they are too heavy. All this is to explain that my philosophy is to be reasonable, never to excess.”

The profits of the business went into buying vineyards, mainly in Chassagne and Puligny, today totaling about 15 ha. There are also some vineyards that represent Olivier’s part of Domaine Leflaive, which he took over after ownership of the Domaine and Maison separated in 1994. When a wine comes solely from estate grapes, it’s indicated on the label as Récolte de Domaine. This is always true for Chevalier Montrachet, for which the only source is estate grapes: in other locations, there are also purchased grapes, and usually but not always they are blended with the estate grapes.

Control of the vineyards varies according to the arrangement with the grower. “We harvest 35 ha (including our own 15 ha), but we go to each vineyard and check the grapes as they are harvested and brought here. We stay in the vineyard until harvest is finished. We don’t believe anybody here,” is part of the reason for success. About half the white grapes are pressed at source, by the grower, and then the must is immediately transported to the winery. Typical élevage is 10 months in barrique, assemblage, and then tank for several months. There is never more than 20% new oak.

The difficulty in visiting Maison Leflaive is what to taste. “You can taste all 92 wines, from all three vintages that we have at the moment, but then you will have to stay for three days,” Olivier says. We compromise on a selection from the 2012 vintage including premier crus from the three principal communes (Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault), and then taking in Corton Charlemagne. The Puligny Folatières shows focused minerality, Pucelles is richer, Meursault Poruzots has a fuller, broader impression than the Puligny’s, and the Abbaye de Morgeots from Chassagne is the broadest in its expression, with oak just a touch more evident. The Corton Charlemagne has the backbone of the grand cru, with rich fruits of stewed citrus. If I had to choose a single word to describe the style at Maison Leflaive, it would be flavorful.

Burgundy Diary part 3: the Revival of Pousse d’Or, a Neat Invention, and the 2013 vintage

I remember the wines of Pousse d’Or from the early nineties as being among the most elegant in Volnay, with an indefinably delicate expression of Pinot Noir. Then with Gérard Potel’s death in 1997 the domain somewhat fell out of view. A visit this week explained the history and demonstrated its return to full form.

Patrick Landanger, who had been an engineer and inventor, bought the domain in 1997, and started by employing a régisseur (general manager). But it was very difficult to sell the 1998 vintage: many of the contacts with clients had been personal, and there wasn’t much confidence after Gérard Potel’s death. “Patrick was told that if he wanted to regain confidence he would need to make the wine himself. So he went to oenology school… The first vintage he made was 1999, which was well received,” explains commercial manager Marleen Nicot.

There’s been major investment here in a new building that houses a gravity-fed winery. It’s built into the side of the hill, with three levels to allow berries to come in at the top, go down into the barrels, and then down again for bottling. “We are happy to have the slope of Volnay here and to able to the work by gravity,” says Marleen.

Production is focused on red wine. There are 17 ha today, which is significantly more than in 1997, but the only white wine comes from a vineyard that was purchased in Puligny Montrachet. The heart of the domain remains the premier crus from Volnay, but Patrick has extended the domain first farther north on the Côte de Beaune with two vineyards in Corton, and then into Chambolle Musigny with some village wine and four premier crus. If Volnay is the most elegant appellation of the Côte de Beaune, Chambolle is its counterpart on the Côte de Nuits, but you don’t often get the chance to compare wines from these two appellations coming from the same winemaker.

Patrick has not stopped inventing. All the barrels of red wine have a glass structure on top that looks like a decanter. Called a ouilleur (from ouillage, which means topping-up), it’s a device that keeps the barrel completely full. A polythene top with holes and a flap allows gas be expelled, but air cannot enter. So the head space above the wine is filled by carbon dioxide that is released naturally from the wine. It means that opening the bung for topping up is required less often. You can also see whether malolactic fermentation is proceeding without needing to open the bung.

For all the premier crus there is one third new oak, one third one-year, and one third two-year; grand Crus have 40-45% new oak. Larger barrels (350 liter) are used for the white wine – Patrick prefers to reduce the oak surface – and oxidation will be lower. (I wonder if that will help to avoid premox). Ouilleurs are not used for the whites because of the need for battonage.

PousseDor-BarrelTW1The ouilleur reduces the need for topping up

We tasted the 2013s from barrique. The name of the Volnay Bousse d’Or reflects the refusal of the authorities to allow the same name to be used for both the domain and a premier cru, and the wine gives a precise, yet intense impression that will be very Volnay-ish as it develops. Two more premier crus from Volnay are in the same general style. Clos des 60 Ouvrées has a bit more punch and structure, but is less generous at this stage. People who like wines younger generally prefer Bousse d’Or; those who prefer to wait may prefer 60 Ouvrées. Clos d’Auvignac is concentrated and structured. The Chambolle Musigny’s seem a little rounder, a little more feminine, rising from the village wine with fruits that are lighter than the Volnays, to the premier cru Charmes, which is more restrained but promises to move in the direction of finesse and silkiness, to Les Amoureuses, which adds a touch of spice and a glossy sheen; then moving to the grand cru Bonnes Mares there’s just a bit more roundness and power, that indefinable difference that marks the grand cru. The 2013s have been successful here, and my two favorites of the moment are Bousse d’Or and Amoureuses, but in the future it would make a fascinating blind tasting to compare the exression of terroirs in the premier crus from Volnay and Chambolle Musigny as they mature.

Burgundy Diary part 2: Domaine Leflaive – the Quintessence of Puligny & the 2012 Vintage

Domaine Leflaive has become very grand. The first time I visited, twenty years ago, things were casual: I called the domain when I was in Beaune, and made an appointment to visit that afternoon. I met with Anne-Claude Leflaive, who had recently started the experiment with biodynamics, and we had a long tasting, punctuated by discussion about potassium levels in the soil (a sensitive issue in Burgundy at that time, as much of the soil had been poisoned over the previous decades). This time, an email to the contact address on the web site produced an automated response to say that there are no direct sales to new customers, no visits for consumers, and professionals should contact the local importer.

Once you arrive in Puligny, you have to know where to go, as there are no signs to the domain, and no nameplate at the entrance; perhaps to discourage casual visitors, there’s a line with domestic washing hanging up at the entrance to the rather grand courtyard where the domain is located in the Place des Marronniers. But just to complicate matters further, the Place des Marronniers no longer has any chestnut trees and has been renamed the Place du Pasquier de la Fontaine, perhaps to represent its gentrification with a fountain. This is a sad turn of events for an area proud of its history. But the wines of Domaine Leflaive are more splendid than ever.

LeflaiveTW3Domaine Leflaive was one of the first to take up biodynamics, is probably the most ardent biodynamic practitioner in Burgundy, and has been fully biodynamic for almost twenty years. From 1992 to 1997 there were experiments in which some vineyards were organic and some were biodynamic, and the wines were bottled separately. As a result of the trial, Anne-Claude decided in 1997 to go biodynamic. That was a difficult vintage when acidity generally dropped fast, says general manager Antoine Lepetit, but the biodynamic vineyards retained acidity better than others. Better acidity has continued to be one of the main benefits of biodynamics.

Winemaking is fairly traditional, with everything going into oak, a delay of about 6 days before indigenous yeast start fermentation, and then a delay of some months before malolactic fermentation happens. (Because Puligny has a high water table, cellars are above ground, so temperature responds to external conditions and it’s too cold for malolactic fermentation over the winter.) After a year in barrique, there is assemblage, and then the wine rests on full lees in small stainless steel tanks for most of another year. “We keep barrels for up to five years so we buy 20% of new oak each year. Bourgogne has 10% new oak, village has 15%, there’s 20-25% for premier crus, and 30% for grand cru (apart from Montrachet which is often one barrel). It’s been the same for the past twenty years. What’s important for us is to give the wine no more oak than it can take,” says Antoine.

We tasted all the premier crus from 2012, and the grand crus from 2011. “2012 is not the easiest vintage to taste now, it has high dry extract,” Antoine warns me. Indeed, the wines are pretty reserved at the moment. The Puligny has faintly smoky notes emphasizing a mineral impression, but hasn’t yet developed that steely backbone of minerality that is the hallmark of Domaine Leflaive. Clavoillons (for which Leflaive has almost a monopole as the domain owns almost all of the Cru) shows some steel but is relatively muted, Folatières is dumb on the nose but more rounded on the palate than Clavoillons, Combettes (where there is only a tiny plot) has a more forward impression of stone fruits, and Pucelles is the knockout of the vintage, showing a delicate nose, smoky palate, and silkiness on the finish. The vines of Bienvenues Bâtard are the oldest in the domain, and the wine shows lovely citrus with notes of oak showing at the end, Bâtard Montrachet has more depth on the palate, and Chevalier Montrachet takes the prize for the most subtle mélange of citrus versus stone fruits, smoke versus minerality, fruits versus steel. It would be vinicide to drink any of these wines now, but if forced to choose one for dinner, I would have the Pucelles.

Burgundy Diary part 1: A Perfect Storm of Premature Oxidation – A Conversation with Dominique Lafon

Until the 1996 vintage, you could count on enjoying premier cru white Burgundy from around 6 or so years after the vintage to well over a decade, and you might start grand crus after 7 or 8 years and enjoy for another decade. Then everything changed abruptly, and wines began to show levels of oxidation after only three or four years: the color would darken, the aromas would resemble Sherry, and the palate would seem to dry out.

No one knows why premox started so suddenly. The first wines I experienced it with were from the 1996 vintage. It was random, with some bottles just fine while others from the same case were affected, and some producers seemed to have less problems than others, but I’ve subsequently had examples even from the producers who seemed immune. It’s been a disaster for anyone who prizes old white Burgundy, with the window for enjoying the wine really foreshortened.

What was most puzzling was that it seemed to affect everyone in a random way. As the problem has continued over the years, it’s become apparent that there isn’t any single, simple explanation. It seems to have been a perfect storm with many different factors contributing. Dominique Lafon has been a leader in looking for solutions. While there are still some producers who deny the severity of the problem, Dominique feels it should be addressed head on, although he points out that people often confuse natural aging with premature oxidation. “They open an old bottle and say it’s oxidized, but if you open a 1996, it’s not premature oxidation, it’s the aging process.” He sees the problem as resulting from the accumulation of many factors and has been taking a very scientific approach to pinning them down one by one. “It’s no use changing everything at once,” he says “because then you don’t know what the critical factors are.”

A morning at Comte Lafon ended with a wonderful tasting of his range of premier crus from 2012 and I’ll discuss the changing style of Meursault in a later post, but now I’ll report just on the conversation in which I asked Dominique about the factors that have been associated with premox.

How much of a problem have you had with premox? “The first vintage I really saw problems with was 1999; what puzzled us was that it was very random. The first thing we thought was that we had cork failures – I think we did – but it was showing the fragility of the wine. We started by working on the corks, we asked them to stop the peroxide treatment. (Peroxide, which is a strong oxidizing agent, was introduced to clean corks to avoid treating them with chlorine, which was causing the increased levels of TCA responsible for corked wines.) We went back from silicon coating to paraffin (which makes a better seal).”

“Then I worked on the reduction level, we’ve experimented with the amount of lees we trap – a wine that is more reduced will withstand a small cork failure. We worked to get the right amount of lees that would give just that nice level of reduction. In 1999 we had a huge crop, I was looking for space, and so we had used less lees.”

Is battonage a factor? “My father did a lot but I’ve never done much.” What about racking? “We do at least 18-20 months in barrel, but in the summer we move from young to older barrels, we used to do it with air, and we used to get rid of some of the lees, but I don’t use air now and I keep all the lees. We want to have more carbon dioxide in the wine, which is very protective. And of course raising the sulfur level is easy. The future work will be to get the sulfur level lower.”

Has the problem been fixed? “We are close now. All those things were done by 2007-2008, and in 2009 I met with Denis Dubourdieu and we did experiments here and at Roulot on the pressing. We worked to get more glutathione (an indication of reduction) and less sotolon (an indication of oxidation). By splitting the pressing and leaving 20% at the end we do better, and then we oxidize the last part fully. And we start fermentation in stainless steel tanks, which makes it more precise.”

“At assemblage tanks are flushed with nitrogen before filling. We bought a machine to generate nitrogen, because you have to flush the tank four times, and the bottles of nitrogen aren’t enough and are expensive.”

“We follow the dissolved oxygen all the way through. We know 1 mgm dissolved oxygen will absorb 5 mgm free sulfur. At the lab, people are satisfied when they get 2 mgm dissolved oxygen in the wine, but we are at the point where we have 0.5 mgm before bottling and it might go up to 0.8 mgm after bottling.

“We use special bottles that allow dissolved oxygen to be checked at bottling. Since 2009 we’ve brought the wine back to the lab after 8 months to check the sulfur levels and carbon dioxide and to taste. We bottle with free sulfur around 35, when we check after 8 months it’s always 28-33, we think 20 would be enough.” We walked around to look at the bottling machine. It has some sophisticated additions to vacuum the air out of the bottle and to inject nitrogen.

What about using other closures? “I’m pretty sure that with time everyone will use technical corks. Diam (a cork that’s been treated to eliminate problems with TCA) is more consistent. I’m amazed, it’s always slightly more reduced when you compare in tastings. In terms of seal, Diam will do the work, but we don’t know whether it will get into the wine long term.”

Even in the premox era I’ve had some fantastic old white Burgundies – well, to be honest, it wasn’t intentional, they were in my cellar and I forgot about them, and by the time I found them some were shot, but the best from the late nineties were as brilliant as ever. (I have not done so well with the 2005 vintage whichseems to be aging more rapidly than usual.) I’ve tasted many wonderful wines in Meursault and in Puligny Montrachet this week – reports coming up in later Diaries – and I just hope that the problem has been resolved as these wines all strike me as awfully young, and I’d like to look forward to enjoying them at the peak, maybe a decade or more from now.

 

 

 

 

Chablis Diary part 7: a Visit to Domaine Laroche and the Question of Screwcaps

Any visit to Domaine Laroche that starts by seeking guidance from your GPS is doomed to failure: you go round and round a square with no apparent way out that will lead to Laroche. In fact, Laroche headquarters are in an old monastery built between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to which access requires driving through an archway that doesn’t seem wide enough for the car. The best way to get there is actually to park at the Laroche boutique in town, and then someone will show the way though a couple of narrow passage ways to the winery.

LarocheTW With 90 ha, Laroche is one of the largest producers in Chablis. There are 60 ha Chablis, 25 ha premier crus, and three grand crus. The Chablis St. Martin under Domaine Laroche comes from their own 60 ha and is a selection of the best lots. It’s about 70% of total. The other 30% is blended with purchased grapes and named just as Laroche (because it’s not just the domaine) and called only Chablis. You have to look carefully at the labels to distinguish.

The Chablis is all stainless steel with no battonage; premier and grand crus come from assemblage of lots matured in cuve with lots matured in barrique. There’s steady graduation of intensity and power going up the hierarchy. The top wine is the Réserve de l’Obédience, which is based on blind tasting to blend the best lots of Blanchots. My experience in the past has been that this carries a lot more oak than Blanchots or the other premier crus, but sales manager Sandrine Audegond says this it varies according to the vintage. “In the last five years, the oak level has varied from 30 % to 100 % (majority of used oak, however), as a result of the blind tasting.”

I ask whether the style of Chablis in general and Laroche in particular has changed with global warming? “No, not really, if there’s been any change it’s due more to viticulture. If the grapes are ripe, if you have thick skins, you will always have minerality. In Chablis, to be absolutely frank, we have an awful climate, summer can be quite unsettled. The blessing of the place is that we have a long dry period in September,” says Sandrine.

What about Laroche’s much vaunted move to bottling under screwcap? “Michel Laroche was dark red when he saw cork manufacturers because he was fed up with quality,” Sandrine explains. Petit Chablis and Chablis are now under screwcap; premier and grand cru are done under either screwcap or cork, and the buyer can choose. What difference do you see in the development of the wines, I ask. “If you want to keep freshness, keep the screwcap, but you will lose some complexity. If you want to develop very complex character, stay with cork.”

Chablis Diary part 6: Negotiating Chablis, a Visit to Patrick Piuze

Until Patrick Piuze came along, it was hard to think of a negociant who made interesting Chablis. Some of the large firms from the Côte d’Or have taken positions here, the Chablisienne cooperative is a major player with about a quarter of all Chablis, but the running is mostly made by individual domains.

Patrick’s winery in the heart of Chablis is an old building bought from Vocoret, in fact it still says Vocoret on the side. Inside it’s larger than it appears at first sight from the cramped interior, as it’s connected by a tunnel under the road to caves on the other side. This was constructed in the period when a Vocoret was the mayor of Chablis, it probably wouldn’t be possible today, Patrick explains.

PiuzeTW2
What is the driving force to be a negociant in Chablis? “I wasn’t born here, I came from Montreal. I ended up in 2000 in Burgundy at Olivier Leflaive and they asked me to look after the winery they were building in Chablis. I’m still here. Even if land is cheaper here, I had no money, the only way to make a lot of appellations is to be a negociant. The essence of the place depends on the mosaic of soils, when you realize this you want to make lots of cuvées not just one.” Production is  65% Petit Chablis or Chablis; 35% is premier and grand cru.

“We try to buy grapes we like from special sites, before we worry about having a specific appellation such as Blanchots etc. There are a few barrels of each wine – no single barrel wines.” That’s all very well, but I wondered how it’s possible to get grapes from top sites. “Well the structure of Chablis is different, there are many growers. The people we buy from may produce wine, but aren’t looking to distribute more bottles, it’s fast cash to sell the grapes. If a grower hasn’t created a brand, vinifying doesn’t have the same plus value. I want to be as close as possible to a domaine without having to purchase land.”

Patrick harvests the grapes with his own team. “Choosing harvest date is one of the most important things. And it‘s important to decide whether to pick in the early morning or afternoon, it depends on the conditions. We are an early picker. Harvest is typically 90 days after flowering. A wine can have only one backbone. 90% of white wines in the world have an alcohol backbone, but we have an acid backbone. Our wines are 12 or 12.1% alcohol, never more than 12.3%.”

Petit Chablis is matured in cuve, Chablis is a mixture of cuve and barriques,  premier and grand crus are entirely in barrique. Not only is the wood old, but it’s chosen specifically for its history. “We buy only old barrels, to add density not makeup. If you lose the minerality you might as well make Macon. We only buy barrels from high acid vintages, because the wine of the first year marks the barrel.”

The style here reminds me just a little of Verget, where Patrick worked for a period, in getting to full ripeness without excess, but it’s a bit tighter; there’s a sort of silky sheen to the fruits, a sense of stone fruits adding to the citrus and minerality of Chablis; yet always with that wonderfully moderate alcohol. I pushed Patrick on why he can get such a complete impression at alcohol levels a per cent below everyone else, but I couldn’t resolve the mystery.

We tasted a range from 2012 and 2011, and that sense of tension counterpoised against the elegant fruits runs through the whole range from premier crus to the more overtly full grand crus. Terroir comes right out: Preuses the most feminine as always, Bougros racy, and Valmur ripe. It’s easy to understand why the wines sell out within a couple of weeks of the vintage.