I Put A Red Wine in the Fridge by Mistake but Like the Result

For reasons that we had better not go into, I made an unfortunate mistake with a bottle of red Côtes du Rhône and put in the fridge to cool down for dinner (I had thought it was a white). Although my first reaction when I opened the bottle and it turned out to be red was that I had spoiled it for dinner, this turned out to be an interesting experience.

I had a glass to start off at fridge temperature while the rest of the bottle warmed up (in a container of warm water given the emergency conditions). Actually it didn’t show too badly – difficult to get the aromatics, of course, but the palate was quite smooth, evidently powerful, and seemed quite refined for Côtes du Rhône. It gave the impression it might have quite a good proportion of Syrah.

Once it came up to room temperature, it was a different story. Blackberry fruits on the nose showed a touch of asperity, and the palate was overwhelmingly powerful. With 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 20% Mourvèdre, coming from 40-year-old vines, fruits were intense, although not jammy. Too dense to see structure directly, but must be there underneath. High alcohol, at 15%, contributed to a mix of sweetness and bitterness on the finish. All traces of refinement disappeared and the wine showed the brutality of power. This was the 2011 vintage, so some of its strength is due to youth, but with 15% alcohol I find it hard to see how it’s going to calm down.

I actually enjoyed the wine more straight out of the fridge. Alcohol was evidently high but not oppressive, and the palate gave a much calmer, more refined impression: although it was harder to see fruit flavors, they weren’t tainted by sweetness and bitterness on the finish. So if you are going to drink a 15% red Côtes du Rhône, it may not be a bad idea to cool it down a bit first.

So the Cork Is Crucial in Premature Oxidation of White Burgundy

Because of the problem of premature oxidation, I no longer cellar white Burgundy for the long term, and I am drinking all my older vintages. At the moment I’m going through 2005, with generally disappointing results: most wines show some oxidation, with about half being at the point where the wine is drinkable but has lost much of its true character, a quarter being past the point where you really want to drink them, and a quarter still showing reasonably on form. (Curiously, the few 2002s that I also have left sometimes show better than the 2005s). This is specifically a problem of the Cote d’Or: with Chablis, my 2002s seem to be coming to end of their natural life span, but the 2005s are still lively.

It is fair to say that until this week, I have hardly had any 2005 white Cote d’Or in the past year that has been absolutely on form. But then I had an interesting experience with the Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne. At first I thought we were not going to be able to drink the bottle, because I could not get the cork out. It seemed to be wedged in so tightly, it required more than the strength I could apply to extract it, but finally it came out. And then a revelation! The wine was a classically pale color. Not a trace of oxidation in appearance, or on nose or palate. The steely, mineral character was like turning back the clock two decades: I thought this style had disappeared from old white Burgundy. I would say it was at its peak, except that since there is no sign of it tiring, it might well go for another decade in classical fashion. If the cork is tight, that is.

I have had this wine three times previously, twice from my own cellar, once at the domain with Jean-Charles le Bault de Morinière. All of the previous bottles showed a more oxidative style, mostly as a more nutty texture. I did not open the bottle tasted at the domain, of course, but the other two showed normal extraction of the cork. One opened only a week earlier had a faint touch of perceptible oxidation in the background. I’m not sure whether you could call this premox ten years after the vintage. As Dominique Lafon said when I discussed this issue with him, “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.”

Up to a point, there’ll always be bottle variation with older wines, but my experience with white Burgundy is that it’s far greater than it used to be: one bottle can be too oxidized to drink, while another from the case has just a trace of oxidation. The correlation between a cork that was too tight to extract and the total absence of oxidation suggests that corks may still be part of the problem. Actually, I don’t think corks are worse than they used to be, in fact they are better, but the wine is more on the edge (as the result low use of sulfur and other changes in winemaking), so that any lapse in the cork is absolutely revealing.

It’s a sign of the conservatism of Burgundy that although the premox problem strikes at the very heart of what white Burgundy is all about, there’s been almost no move to screwcaps. If ten or fifteen years ago, when it was clear the problem was not transitory, producers had at least experimented with screwcaps, by now there would be a definitive answer as to whether they would be an acceptable solution or would bring other problems. Given my recent experience, however, I cannot understand why tighter-fitting corks weren’t tried at least for a partial solution.

Can Rosé Be Interesting?

I admit that I have always had doubts about rosé, where the compromises you have to make to get the color right sometimes seem to be at the expense of flavor. I could understand the position of the sommelier at a Michelin-starred London restaurant, who when I said I was going to visit producers in Provence, commented “Rosé is not wine.” The tricky thing is that you make rosé more or less like a white wine, but from black grapes. Can you really make an interesting wine from black grapes if you’re constrained by needing to harvest earlier (to maintain freshness), so the grapes don’t reach the ripeness levels they would have for making red wine?

For my palate, rosé should avoid showing overt red berry notes and should be savory, perhaps even slightly saline. That is probably why in general I don’t much favor rosés made from Grenache, which basically accounts for most of French production, from Provence, Languedoc, and the Rhône. Nor do I like the slightly sickly quality of most rosé from the Loire, which is required to have 10 g/l residual sugar. (I am inclined to think it’s a bit of a waste to use Cabernet to make sweet rosé.) My preference in rosé tends to be for Sancerre, coming from Pinot Noir, and at its best showing an elegant minerality. (One of the best rosés I have had was declassified from the Clos des Lambrays in Burgundy.)

The movement towards producing “premium” rosés in Provence seems to be in the right direction as I find they usually tend to show less red berry fruits and more savory minerality. (I’m not convinced, however, by the move towards defining sub-appellations for the Côtes de Provence on the basis of terroir, as so far differences in the wines seem to relate more to vinification than to terroir. I will be very interested if anyone demonstrates terroir in rosé.)

Château d’Esclans is at the extreme end of the move towards premium rosé. I tasted all four of its cuvées this week. Whispering Angel, of course, has taken the world of rosé by storm, although actually it comes mostly from purchased grapes. Even though it’s the entry level, I think it has a very good balance of fruity to savory elements, giving it some flavor interest. Moving to the chateau wine, which goes further into the premium class, the balance shift a little more in the savory direction. With the two super-premium cuvées, Les Clans and Garrus, there’s a real sense of underlying structure. Tasting the 2011, Les Clans is now just right, but Garrus has a slightly phenolic or even tannic impression suggesting that it actually needs a little more time.

I asked owner Sasha Lichine what makes the difference between the cuvées: terroir? yields? grape varieties? vinification? “All the wines start out in the same way. Temperature is brought down to about 8 °C with dry ice, the wine goes into closed presses under nitrogen, and as soon as juice comes out it is tasted and assigned to one of the four cuvées. The wines come 90% from free run juice, with the rest from pressing, so there is essentially no maceration. The cold system is the key,” Sasha explains. “What used to happen in Provence was that people were picking too early and then macerating to get the color out. We manage to pick a bit later and riper.”

All the wines are dominated by Grenache, but there’s a small change in other varieties going up the ladder. There’s also a change in vinification: Whispering Angel spends a short period in cuve, Château d’Esclans spends six months in cuve and wood, and Les Clans and Garrus spend ten months maturing half in cuves and half in old demi-muids (600 liter casks) with frequent battonage. You can see the extra richness that comes from the battonage.

There are some differences in sources–Garrus tends to come from the oldest vines–but the basic difference between cuvées is selection. “For the first vintage of Garrus we just creamed off the best three barrels, and then for Les Clans we creamed off again,” Sasha recollects. What’s the intended difference in style? “As you go up the ladder, the wine fills your mouth more, you should not necessarily taste the wood, the wine should keep its freshness, and by Garrus you should get tiny tannins.” The change along the range is a striking demonstration that rosé is not necessarily just rosé, but that it can have distinctive character and (to some extent) ageworthiness. As this is unprecedented for rosé, it’s hard to judge how softening with time will play out against development of flavor, but at a rough guess I would be inclined to drink Whispering Angel and Château d’Esclans when they are released, Les Clans about three years after the vintage, and Garrus about five years after. The relative prices of the cuvées more or less indicate their relationship. When Sasha purchased Château d’Esclans in 2006, he was quoted as saying his aim was “to make the best rosé in the world.” Whether Garrus is the best rosé in the world is debatable, of course, but it is probably the most expensive.

The Peak of Mourvèdre: Domaine Tempier’s Bandols. Unyielding when young, when do they come around?

I’ve tasted young vintages of Domaine Tempier’s Bandols, and visited the domain for a comparison of recent cuvées, but these wines are so stern and sturdy when young that they are hard to assess, and you feel you may be missing the point. So I seized the opportunity to go to a vertical tasting in New York extending back to the early eighties (organized by Acker with a dinner at Boulud Sud).

The appellation wine from 2012 is impenetrable to the point at which it’s hard to get a good sense of future direction, but the single vineyard La Tourtine shows fragrant, elegant aromatics, albeit monotonic at this stage, but in a straight lineage back to 1989, 1986, and 1983. It’s a fantastic impression of the purity of Mourvèdre fruits (it’s 80% Mourvèdre), but although it softens and broadens out with time, it isn’t until it’s reached thirty years old, at least for me, that the aromatics calm down enough for it to be a really good accompaniment to food.

La Migoua, which has 50% Mourvèdre, shows broader flavors in all vintages. A direct vertical from 1989 to 1985 shows less vintage variation than you would see with, say, Bordeaux or Burgundy, but the 1988 stands out for its breadth, compared to the slightly tighter impression of 1989, the less intense 1987 and slightly flatter 1986, until you get to the 1985, the most complete wine of the tasting.

In every vintage where there was a direct comparison, La Tourtine seemed to me to be the finer wine, but La Migoua, with its broader flavor spectrum, was a better match with food. It is however probably no coincidence that my preferred vintage for both wines is the oldest tasted, 1985 for Migoua and 1983 for Tourtine.

There was only one vintage of the cuvée with the most (95%) Mourvèdre, the 2005 Cabassou (which comes from a specially protected spot in the Tourtine vineyard), which however developed more complexity in the glass than shown by any of the younger vintages of Migoua or Tourtine.

Mourvèdre has high tannins, but these have been well tamed in all the cuvées, and the issue in aging is not so much resolution of bitterness as the need to develop flavor variety. None of these wines showed the gamey character that can be associated with Mourvèdre, a sign perhaps of the ripeness of the grapes. Development comes slowly, beginning after about ten years for Migoua and nearer to twenty for Tourtine. The first signs of savory character do not show for almost thirty years, 1985 for Migoua, 1983 for Tourtine (but the Tourtine did not seem anywhere near realizing its full potential).

Will complexity develop in the next decade or will the wines begin to decline? Since these single vineyard wines were first produced in 1969, I’m beginning to wonder whether in fact there is a long enough history yet to be able to assess their development.

Clos des Goisses Triumphs in the Best and Worst of Vintages in Champagne

Vintage Champagne is a rarity. Most houses produce a vintage only in the best years, typically around three times a decade; lesser vintages are never seen, but just blended into the nonvintage. I’m not sure if Clos des Goisses is unique, but it’s certainly an exception as a vintage wine is released virtually every year, “It’s a special spot,” says Charles Philipponnat, “we’ve released a vintage every year in the past thirty five except two when we didn’t make one, and one when we decided not to release it.”

Clos des Goisses is one of the most striking sites in all Champagne, a narrow band of a steep slope perched across the river at Mareuil sur Aÿ. The topsoil is very shallow, the slope ensures drainage, so the vine roots penetrate well into the chalk base. It’s one of the very few genuine clos in Champagne, and Philipponnat have owned it since 1935. Alcohol is unusually high for Champagne, at 13%, due to the ripeness of the site.

Goisses7JClos des Goisses from the top of the slope with Epernay just visible in the distance.

So you can get an unparalleled sense of vintage from Clos des Goisses. At a dinner with Charles Philipponnat organized by Bordeaux Index in London, wines were arranged into pairs on the basis of aromatic relationships, rather than presented chronologically. First came 1980 and 1997, because of a shared tendency to grassiness. In the case of 1997, Charles Philipponnat thought this showed as Angelica (an aromatic grass). One of the most varied impressions of the evening, this changed in my glass from toast and brioche to ginger and then to tea. The 1980 is steadier, with a nose poised between herbal and spicy, and a savory impression with vegetal overtones. I don’t believe I’ve had a vintage Champagne from 1980 before, and it’s certainly a stunning demonstration of the capacity of the site.

Next came 1996 and 2002, two great vintages joined by high acidity. The 1996 runs true to form; with 6 g/l of malic acid – malolactic fermentation is always blocked for Clos des Goisses – it has a tight structure showcasing precision of the fruits. Classic for the year, it shows well in comparison with the grand cuvées of other houses. By contrast 2002 is softer and more elegant, in fact it gives an ethereal impression of floating on its bubbles. For me, this pair gave the most contrast between any two matched wines.

1990 and 2000 were extremely ripe vintages with very large personalities – “more representative of the usual character of Clos des Goisses,” says Charles. The 1990 certainly seemed to be the wine of the night: the palate offers perfect balance between broad mature flavors with tertiary notes and lovely lacy acidity, which gives a sense of precision. This vintage epitomizes what Clos des Goisses is all about. The 2000 hasn’t developed nearly so far but gives an impression of a younger version of the 1990 with years to go.

Finally the 1976 was paired with the 1995. It’s a tribute to the character of Clos des Goisses as a wine (as opposed to an aperitif) that they could be matched with the cheese course. The 1976 is fully mature, with a savory impression that becomes a little vegetal in the glass. It conveys a more mainstream impression than 1980, but shares with it a feeling that there’s not much to be gained by holding on for any future disgorgements. Curiously the 1995 gave the impression of having been disgorged before the 1976, although in fact it was the other way round. A second bottle gave a fresher impression, but I still didn’t get that sense of infinite depth that came from 1990 and 2000.

Bottles came directly from Philipponnat and were relatively recent disgorgements. My sense of the older or lesser vintages is that at this point they need to be enjoyed fairly soon after disgorgement. 1990 and 1996, however, clearly have character to develop in the bottle; and 2002 is a mere baby. Clos des Goisses shows as one of the great Champagnes. Dominated by Pinot Noir, in great vintages it’s as deep and broad as any grand cuvée, and in lesser vintages it still comes over with great character and interest. Vintage absolutely shines through.

Comparing Ruinart Champagne in Bottle and Magnum Produces Unexpected Results

A tasting this week at Roberson in London of the current releases from Champagne Ruinart together with a short vertical of the vintage Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs included a fascinating comparison of the 2004 from bottle and magnum.

The style of the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is quite deep. Indeed, when the tasting started with the “R” de Ruinart Brut and the nonvintage Blanc de Blancs, it seemed to me that the “R” had more of that crisp brightness I expect from Blanc de Blancs, whereas the actual Blanc de Blancs was deeper and nuttier. The vintage Blanc de Blancs follows the same profile as the nonvintage, but with greater intensity.

The 2004 from bottle shows lovely aromatics leading into deep white flower and citrus fruits on the palate. Nutty overtones give a mature impression that extends into slight suggestions of brioche. Overall it is deep but lively. The magnum offers less obvious aromatics and the most immediate difference in impression is a distinct touch of bitterness on the finish. The difference narrows with time in the glass, but the magnum continues to offer more obvious sense of texture and structure. (This did not produce any evident preference among tasters, some of whom preferred the bottle, others the magnum.)

Conventional wisdom holds that magnum is the ideal format to age wine; because the neck of the bottle and magnum are essentially similar, the greater volume of wine in a magnum has less exposure to oxygen (both initially in terms of the airspace in the bottle, and with time as oxygen enters through the cork). So if anything you would expect a magnum to age more slowly, and in the case of Champagne to appear fresher than a bottle, but this was not the case.

The house style at Ruinart is extremely concerned with oxidation. “Freshness is the golden thread of the house,” says Amelie Chatin of Ruinart, who came from Reims for the tasting. “To achieve our signature freshness we have a reductive winemaking process. For crushing we use a pneumatic press, not the traditional basket press. And there is no wood, everything is fermented and matured in stainless steel. Fermentation is at low temperature to maintain aromatics. Every stage is important, including our special shaped bottle, which has a narrow neck to admit less oxygen.”

I could attribute the effect of the magnum versus bottle more easily in terms of oxidation if we were dealing with red wine. In that case, I would assume that exposure to oxygen had softened the tannins in the bottle, but not yet in the magnum. That’s a more difficult explanation for Champagne, where every effort is made to limit skin contact (where the tannins originate) in winemaking. My companion, the Anima Figure, thought the magnum showed tea-like aromas, which would certainly be consistent with some effect relating to tannins.

At this point in time, I preferred the liveliness of the bottle to the bitter structure of the magnum, but I’m certainly curious as to whether the effect is actually due to a difference in rate of aging, in which case in due course the bottle may appear tired when the magnum is fresh. (The difference was not due to time of disgorgement. Magnums are often disgorged later because they age more slowly, but in this case both bottle and magnum were disgorged more or less together, about 16 months ago.) I hope to be invited back in, say, five years to reassess the situation.

Given the impression that the bottle is just on the point of developing toast and brioche, I would normally assess potential longevity at around another five years, but the next wine was the 1998, from bottle disgorged after 9 years in 2007, which is only a little tertiary. Blanc de Blancs here shows not with crisp freshness but in the creaminess of the palate, which is moving in the direction of toffee and caramel. The point about difference between bottle and magnum was perhaps made sideways on by the next wine, a 1993 magnum, disgorged after 10 years in 2003: this was more developed, certainly, with faint mushrooms and other tertiary notes, but it seemed more to have greater intensity of  butter and caramel on the palate than to be as much as five years older than the 1998. Another light on changes in Champagne, incidentally, comes from dosage, which has effectively halved over a decade: 10 g for 1993, 7 g for 1998, 5.5 g for 2004. (Amelie says it may go back up a bit in future). There is a really clear lineage of development from 2004 to 1998 to 1993 which identifies Ruinart’s style for Blanc de Blancs as complex creaminess. Anyway, the 2004 may go longer than I thought at first, but more tastings are needed to assess whether to go with bottle or magnum. I am always available.

Is Bordeaux 2012 the Restaurant Vintage of the Century?

“Lovely restaurant wine” is the phrase that appears most often in my tasting notes from today’s UGCB tasting in London of the 2012 vintage. Although there were no wines that seem to have the longevity I would require to buy for my cellar, there are many wines that I expect to enjoy drinking three to ten years from now. There are clearly significant differences between the appellations, but I do not entirely agree with the view of the vintage that was expressed at the en primeur tastings. Now that the wines are out of barrique and into bottle, it’s evident that it is too simple just to characterize this as a year when Merlot was more successful than Cabernet, although clearly the vintage has been shaped by the fact that there were heavy rains in the Médoc in late September, and October was generally wet. This made it much easier to get ripe Merlot than Cabernet.

Notwithstanding the difficulty with Cabernet, the only appellation in which I get any sense of the overt herbaceousness that used to characterize Bordeaux is Moulis-Listrac, where the wines are light but the best have enough potential flavor interest to suggest an elegant future. However, I have to admit that I do not mind a faint herbaceous edge, although not everyone will like it. Chasse-Spleen stands out for me as the best wine, elegant and taut.

Not surprisingly considering its size, Margaux is the most heterogeneous appellation. Wines range from showing noticeable tannins to having relatively soft palates, but all are distinctly light weight. The key for the short term is the character of the tannins, and the question for the mid term is how the fruits will show as the tannins resolve. In the best cases, the wines will be light and elegant in the feminine tradition of Margaux. I especially like Rauzan-Gassies for its appealing liveliness, with nicely ripe tannins. Just to the south, the glossy sheen of La Lagune gives an elegant impression that is more Margaux-like than usual. At the Cru Bourgeois level, I liked Labegorce, as much St. Julien in its precision as Margaux in its elegant femininity. Some wines may simply not have enough stuffing to withstand the loss of the initial burst of primary fruit, although in the immediate future the soft, furry palates may be quite appealing. The potential problem is that a sense of dilution may turn hollow on the mid palate.

With its compact size, St. Julien is much more homogenous and many wines make a fragrant, almost perfumed, first impression, with a classical sense of precision to the following fruits. Tannins seem riper and in better balance with the fruits than in Margaux. These will be perfect restaurant wines (if the price is right). Gruaud Larose stands out for its fragrant elegance, with tannins already integrating into an elegant palate. Beychevelle makes an impression of classic precision.

Pauillac seems less uniformly successful to me. There’s a more solid impression to the fruits and tannins. I would never use the word rustic in conjunction with Pauillac, but at this stage there is a certain robust impression, which will translate into solid fruits, but without the fragrant uplift that characterizes St Julien. Pichon Baron stands out for showing its usual power with ripe tannins and a fragrance that is unusual for the year. I also very much like Grand Puy Lacoste, which shows as a something of a half way house between Pauillac and St Julien, taut, smooth, and elegant.

It is difficult to assess St. Estèphe from this tasting as the top wines were absent, but the wines generally show a tight character with hints of the hardness you sometimes see in this appellation. As the tannins resolve, the wines should be light but relatively elegant. It is quite successful at the Cru Bourgeois level, and I especially like the light elegance of Phélan Ségur.

You would expect Pessac-Léognan to do better than the Médoc given its higher content of Merlot, and the best wines have smooth black fruit palates (smoothness is the mark of the appellation in this vintage) with nicely tamed tannins, sometimes showing a touch of the classic cigar box, but too many just seem soft without sufficient supporting structure. Smith Haut Lafitte stands out for the depth of its fruits, and Domaine de Chevalier for its sense of elegant liveliness, with a tension that is unusual in this vintage.

Over to the right back, where St. Emilion is a bit of a conundrum, Canon just edges out Canon La Gaffelière as the wine that best exhibits a classic sense of smooth opulence. Other wines seem to be moving in a more savory direction, almost pointing towards the Médoc, such as La Gaffelière and Clos Fourtet, but Troplong Mondot is the standout in the savory direction. Many seem round and soft but without much stuffing.

Pomerol shows an unusual sense of structure, with some wines displaying faint herbal overtones on opening. The ripe black fruits of Beauregard just edge out Bon Pasteur, which however is more structured than opulent, in contrast to Michel Rolland’s reputation for overt lushness. As always, La Conseillante is nicely balanced, with nothing to excess, and more underlying structure than is immediately apparent. Sometimes Pomerol is too opulent for me, but not this year.

Now that they are bottled, the whites do not seem as impressive as reports from en primeur suggested they would be. The standout for me is Domaine de Chevalier, with a beautiful balance between grassy impressions of Sauvignon on the nose and waxy impressions of fat Sémillon on the palate. This is very fine indeed, with classic elegance. Some of the wines I usually like seem to be showing a crowd-pleasing softness, quite attractive in a Burgundian sort of way, but with insufficient freshness to last.

This is not a year for Sauternes, but two wines stand out. Coutet is classically botrytized, rich and deep, and totally delicious. Climens is much lighter, really elegant and fresh, and with a beautifully balanced flavor spectrum: it may not be so long nived, but it is lovely now.

The range for me runs from wines I would enjoy in a restaurant from, say, a year or so from now, to those that I would hold for three or four years before starting. The best will offer a classic representation of their appellation in a relatively lighter style; few will be really interesting more than a decade from now. I just hope that, after the restaurant markups, they will seem as appealing economically as gustatorially.