The Triple F of Franciacorta

The act of genius in producing Champagne from a region that is (or at least used to be) absolutely marginal for wine production is hard to match: which is why there are so few successful competitors. Because of climate or choice of grape varieties, other European sparkling wines rarely achieve comparable interest or complexity. New World sparkling wines are usually adjuncts to still wine production. Yet with Champagne unable to meet world demand, we could used some alternatives.

So I was happy to spend a few days in Franciacorta last week, doing research for the second edition of Wine Myths and Reality. Producers of Franciacorta like to stress its independence by talking about Franciacorta, Franciacorta, Franciacorta, referring to the name of the area, the name of the wine, and the production method, but the fact is that Champagne has been the model right from the start. A common impetus in the 1960s was that industrialists who wanted to make sparkling wine along the lines of Champagne created what are now the three major producers–Berlucchi, Bellavista, and Ca’ del Bosco between them account for about half of all Franciacorta production. Grapes are essentially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (there’s a little Pinot Blanc but it’s pretty much fallen out of flavor), and if there are any differences in the production method from Champagne, I have yet to identify them.

Franciacorta is reputed to make wines that are more mineral, more linear, than Champagne. I am a bit puzzled why this should be, as it lies on a line of latitude well south of Champagne. Production is confined to a small region in Lombardy, protected by Lake Iseo and mountains to the north, and an “orphan” mountain to the south. The climate is temperate–it’s the farthest north you can grow olive trees, they are fond of pointing out. Anyway, my tastings suggest that the reputation is only partly correct. Harvest here is the earliest in Italy, starting in the second week of August, not because it’s the warmest place, but because producers need to pick early to keep alcohol levels low; it’s surprising that they can get sufficient ripeness by harvest time.

Because it’s warmer than Champagne, vintage wines are made every year, and there’s a greater proportion of vintage relative to nonvintage. I see a significant difference in style here, in a sense the reverse of what you find with Champagne. It seems to me that nonvintage Franciacorta is softer, and the classic minerality really shows clearly only in the vintage. In nonvintage wines, I was impressed with Ca’ del Bosco’s Cuvée Prestige, which at a million bottles per year is their major production, showing a great sense of smoothness and density. Berlucchi is by far the largest producer, and their 61 Brut Rosé cuvée has terrific freshness for rosé.

The warmer climate means that acidity tends to be lower, so dosage is usually moderate. “In Franciacorta the dosage is not usually indispensable, whereas in Champagne it is necessary,” says winemaker Stefano Capelli at Ca’ del Bosco. There’s a tendency to use dosage at Extra Brut level, especially in vintage wines (although the label most often says Brut), and perhaps that’s partly why that pleasing minerality tends to show in the vintage cuvées. A perfect illustration of why zero dosage is successful in Franciacorta comes from Bellavista’s Pas Opere cuvée, where the ripeness of the fruits gives an impression more like Extra Brut, mineral but dense rather than aggressive.FranciacortaTopoThe other major factor affecting style is location. The northern part of the area is mountainous, with limestone terroirs; opening out from Lake Iseo, the valley in the central part forms an amphitheater with sandier soils. Pinot Noir tends to be concentrated in the cooler areas to the north. Most producers have vineyards all over, and blend to achieve their desired style, but a visit to Majolini in the northeast, where the wines come from local vineyards, shows the difference. A strong sense of minerality runs through all the wines.” My wines need time both before disgorgement and for aging afterwards,” Simone Maiolini explains. Franciacorta9SKY copyVineyards in the north of Franciacorta can be on mountain slopes.

Franciacorta’s descriptions of style mostly follow Champagne, but there is one unique style, Satèn, which is a Blanc de Blancs with lower pressure (4.5 bars instead of the usual 6 bars), designed to bring out creaminess. (Some Champagne producers do this with their Blanc de Blancs also). I have to say that this seems to me to be the antithesis of the reputation for linearity: most Satèn wines show a distinctive style with a broad palate.

Franciacorta14SKYVineyards in the central amphitheater are flatter, with views of the mountains in the distance.

Most producers have a nonvintage cuvée that is their largest production, with several vintage cuvées made in relatively small amounts. Producers often refer to Crus when discussing the origins of their top wines, but there are no single vineyard labels as such, and there is agreement that Franciacorta is a young region that needs to establish its identity more firmly before any hierarchy is established. “We need time and experience to define Crus,” says Stefano Capelli. Riserva wines must have five years before disgorgement, and there are some top cuvées that spend longer, but there’s no real equivalent to the late disgorgement cuvées of Champagne.

Franciacorta is a really interesting alternative to Champagne, and although it’s very much a work in progress, here are four wines that illustrate its range.

Ca’ Del Bosco, Cuvée Prestige

This is impressive for a general nonvintage cuvée, giving the impression of a serious wine, with real depth and weight to the palate. There are citrus impressions to the nose but the palate is all stone fruits, with lots of grip and a good sense of underlying structure. Dosage is not at all evident.

Guido Berlucchi, Brut 61 Rosé

This is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. It comes from direct pressing with maceration of the Pinot Noir for a few hours at 4 degrees before fermentation. Showing freshness just short of citrus, in fact it seems fresher and less creamy than the regular Brut 61 cuvée.

Bellavista, Pas Opere 2008

Violets and nuts with chocolate impression on nose. You really see the purity of the fruits on the palate. It’s quite dry but I’m not sure I would pick it out as zero dosage, although it’s clearly into extra brut. Quite a tight mineral impression with faintly lemony notes at the end.

Majolini, Satèn 2010

More mineral impression to nose than you usually find with Satèn. The palate has the smoothness of Satèn, with hints of creaminess mixed with minerality. It’s a very nice balance with the dosage of 7.5 g only just showing, and an unusual sense of fruit purity.

The Pseudo-Science of Investigating Terroir (and Why Some Reports May Prove the Opposite of What They Think)

I am fed up with reading reports in the press that scientists have shown a role for microorganisms in terroir. I don’t know which is worse: the lack of logical analysis in the original scientific papers, or the uncritical acceptance of the conclusions by the press.

The running defect in all these papers is a misunderstanding of the meaning of terroir. The concept of terroir is simple enough: fruit grown in one place will have consistently different characteristics from fruit grown in another place. In the case of grapes, this translates to differences in wines according to their origins. But a crucial feature is consistency: it does not prove a basis for terroir to show a difference between grapes from different sources, but that difference has to be persist over multiple vintages.

Whether local microbial populations – in particular yeast, which are responsible for creating most of the flavors of wine during fermentation – contribute to terroir is the subject of paper just published by a group led by Sarah Knight at the University of Auckland.[i] It goes so far as to put “evidence for a microbial aspect to terroir” in the title. But the work is fatally flawed.

The approach superficially seems controlled: yeast were collected from different vineyards and then used to ferment examples of the same batch of sterilized juice from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Differences in the resulting wine must be due to the yeasts. The analysis rests upon previous work from the same group that showed genetic differences in S. cerevisiae populations in different locations in New Zealand.[ii] Ignoring the fact that only 4 yeast genotypes were found on grapes (potentially able to affect the properties of wine) while the remaining 21 genotypes were limited to soil, this makes the unsurprising point that there are variations in natural yeast populations.

Each isolated yeast population gave wine with a different profile of volatile compounds. Talking about reinventing the wheel! There have been too many demonstrations to count that different cultivars of yeast can have profound effects on the character of wine. Indeed, this is the basis for a sizeable industry in which yeasts selected to emphasize (or de-emphasize) particular aspects of wine character are available commercially. It’s almost trivial to choose yeast to bring out herbaceous character in Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

The logical error in the paper is to conclude that the observations demonstrate any role for microbes in terroir. Taking a single snapshot entirely misses the point, because the population of yeast may be quite different the next year. According to Ribéreau-Gayon’s authoritative book on viticulture and vinification: “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. Ecological observations do not confirm the notion of a vineyard-specific yeast.”[iii] Surely it behooves any new work to explain why this wrong?

A couple of years ago, a group led by Dr. David Mills at the University of California showed directly by DNA sequencing that different microbes were present on the skins of grapes in different vineyards.[iv] That work was fatally flawed because most of the microorganisms were what are known as spoilage organisms, and are probably not part of useful fermentation (see The Answer to Terroir Does Not Lie on the Skin).

After that, a group led by Régis D. Gougeon at the University of Dijon sampled two vineyards in Burgundy and claimed that they could find differences in both grapes and wine, although differences between vintages were more significant than differences between vineyards. I reckon their samples were too small to be significant because they analyzed only 100 berries from each vineyard, but anyway it’s interesting that vintage was a bigger effect than origin (see Will people please stop trying to prove terroir exists. It’s more useful to look for gold at the end of the rainbow).

These studies are naively touted in the press as showing the involvement of microbes in terroir, but to date there is really no evidence at all: in fact, if the microbes vary significantly from year to year, they may dilute the effect of terroir rather than contributing to it. One could make a career of debunking these studies, which could provide a really good exercise for students of science in how to misinterpret uncontrolled studies.

References

[i] Sarah Knight, Steffen Klaere, Bruno Fedrizzi & Matthew R. Goddard.Regional microbial signatures positively correlate with differential wine phenotypes: evidence for a microbial aspect to terroir. Nature Scientific Reports 5, 2015, doi:10.1038/srep14233.

[ii] Sarah Knight and Matthew R Goddard. Quantifying separation and similarity in a Saccharomyces cerevisiae metapopulation. (The ISME Journal (2015) 9, 361–370; doi:10.1038/ismej.2014.132; published online 25 July 2014).

[iii] Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon et al., The Handbook of Enology, Volume 1, The Microbiology of Wine and Vinifications, 2nd edition (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000), p. 46.

[iv] Nicholas A. Bokulich, John H. Thorngate, Paul M. Richardson, and David A. Mills. Microbial biogeography of wine grapes is conditioned by cultivar, vintage, and climate (Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA doi/10.1073/pnas.1317377110).

New Paris Cuisine Is A Challenge for Wine

Four days in Paris last week refuted the idea that haute cuisine in France has run out of steam. Every dinner was different and innovative, but a theme that seemed to run through the evenings was the introduction of Asian spices. This leaves me wondering whether the traditional matches of wine and food still stand up in France or we need to rethink.

This question has struck some producers. François Milo of the producers’ association in Provence says that, “The mondialization of cuisine has benefited rosé. In France there has always been a fixed idea of which wines (red or white) accompany certain stages of the meal. But it’s difficult to pair red wines with international foods. I think that for the future, rosé is a vin de liberté.” I did not go so far as to try rosé – for one thing there aren’t that many rosés with enough flavor interest at this level, and for another choices on restaurant lists are very limited – but I did vary my usual thinking on suitable combinations.

Turbot in coconut sauce was a definite challenge the first evening at restaurant Auguste. In fact, I found the coconut influence a bit too strong for the delicacy of turbot. Overall this seemed to offer a similar challenge to dishes of stronger fishes prepared with vanillin a few years back. Then we had gone for a white Côte de Beaune to match: this time we went for Louis Michel’s Montée de Tonnerre 2012 from Chablis to find a bit more contrast. The Chablis didn’t have quite enough minerality to cut through the coconut, but it resisted well. Actually I liked it better than the Valourent of the same vintage, tasted a few days earlier, which seemed to have a surprising amount of forward fruit: the Montée de Tonnerre at least had intimations of minerality, although I’m not sure how far they will develop with time.

There were two fish dishes at l’Arôme: légine australe on asparagus, and turbot on rhubarb. (The first was unknown to me but tuned out on investigation to be the same as Chilean sea bass, a.k.a. the Patagonian toothfish, except that it apparently comes from waters off Africa.) These were quite strongly flavored dishes, too strong I felt to match white Burgundy, but Jonathan Pabiot’s Pouilly-Fumé Predilection from 2012 provided a brilliant contrast. This is very much the New Pouilly-Fumé, all delicacy and elegance: in fact, the Anima Figure (my companion) described it as ethereal. (The antithesis of New World Sauvignon Blanc, demonstrating wonderful range for the variety, if raising the question of its true typicity.) A course of chicken oysters and gambas was less successful.

Friends in Paris had managed to obtain a table at l’Astrance for the next evening. (This had required 35 phone calls on the day booking opened.) Choosing wine is a little tricky since the menu is a surprise, but on the basis of some hints from the sommelier, we decided that a light red would be most appropriate, and went for Domaine Dujac’s Morey St. Denis 2002. (The wine list at l’Astrance is extraordinarily fairly priced, a big contrast with most other restaurants in Paris, although you can usually find some wine where the sommelier has a special connection and price is more reasonable.) The red proved extremely versatile, going well with the famous cake of fois gras, langoustine with Asiatic influences, and légine australis again. (They were a little put out at l’Astrance to discover we had had the same fish the evening before at l’Arôme: apparently there are only five boats fishing for it, one from France, which presumably supplies both restaurants). Curiously, the final lamb dish which should have been the best match for the wine didn’t quite come to life, although the wine showed a wonderful combination of crystalline brilliance reminiscent of Volnay and femininity of Chambolle Musigny. Fighting well above its communal level, you might say.

Finally abandoning restaurants with names starting with “A”, our last evening was at Jean-François Piégé. The main courses were hommard bleu (cooked in blackcurrant leaves) and turbot in a curry sauce. One of the preceding dishes was asparagus in a sauce in which I thought I also detected curry, but which turned out to be saffron pistils. The wine was a no-brainer as there was a strong selection of Raveneau premier cru Chablis at reasonable prices. We had a Vaillons 2005, which turned out to be noticeably richer than usual for Raveneau, but still showing that characteristic anise and minerality on the back palate. Possibly a leaner year would have been an even better match for the food.

I can hear a cry going up: why no Riesling? It’s a wonderfully versatile grape that matches a wide variety of foods, especially good against Asiatic spicing, and is undervalued. I would concede the principle immediately, but my problem with Riesling is that nowhere – Alsace or Germany or anywhere else in Europe – is the principle accepted that there is an international standard for dry wine: less than 4 g/l of residual sugar. So I am almost never certain enough that a wine will be dry. Producers may argue that it tastes dry if acidity is sufficiently high, but that’s a matter of subjective judgment, and I prefer not to take a risk in a restaurant. (And asking the sommelier has resulted in too many wines which were stated to be dry but on which residual sugar could be tasted.)

I believe l’Astrance started the move in Paris to surprise menus. I was struck by the fact that three evenings out of four we had a surprise in at least some courses. At both l’Arôme and Piégé, you choose your main course(s) – you can choose either one or two from a short list – but the starters and desserts are a surprise from the chef. It’s a neat solution to the difficulties of providing many choices at every course which must simplify issues like food wastage and buying-in for the restaurant. Of course, you have to be a top-line chef to pull this off. A consequence is that it does make it more difficult to find an appropriate wine. Wines by the glass chosen to match the food are offered by most of the restaurants, but my past experience is that this can be a bit erratic in providing interest in the wine.

On the last evening at Piégé, I said to the maitre d’ that a series of interesting dinners seemed to put paid to the idea bruited a few years ago in the Anglo-Saxon press that haute cuisine in France had died a lingering death. “I would have agreed with the idea five years ago,” he said, explaining that the rush of innovation is a revival of the past few years. Granted that there are similar influences, each interpretation is different: I wonder where it will go next.

Cru Bourgeois Show Strengths and Weaknesses in 2012 Vintage

With prices either stratospheric (in good vintages) or simply unreasonable (in poorer vintages) for most of the Grand Cru Classés or their equivalents, and given the trend towards a richer, more alcoholic, international style, it’s a fair question where to turn if your preferences lie towards the old tradition of Bordeaux, meaning wines that have elegance and freshness.

I have felt for some time that the best of the Cru Bourgeois may be a more interesting alternative than the second wines of the great chateaux, as prices have remained reasonable and styles have not been so influenced by fashion. But I may need to rethink this after the New York tasting of Cru Bourgeois from 2012. Granted this was only a relatively small selection of the (almost) 300 Cru Bourgeois, and the most notable were not present (not to mention the fact that the best known chateaux in this category, which had been at the highest level in the old hierarchy, withdrew from the classification when it became a single tier when the new system was introduced).

Each chateau at this tasting brought the 2012 and one previous vintage from one of the last three years. I was generally a little disappointed in the 2012s. They were all well made wines, but seemed to fall into one of two categories. About half seemed to have made efforts to make the wines more approachable, with an initial softness on the palate. The problem here, to my mind, is that this leaves the wines between two stools: neither showing the lush fruits that are in fashion in New World, nor showing the traditional more savory spectrum of Bordeaux. I don’t think immediate gratification is in the DNA of Bordeaux. The wines are quite nicely rounded, but I was left wondering whether they are competitive in today’s market against varietal competitors from the New World. The other half showed more of Bordeaux’s usual asperity when young; but supposing these wines will peak in, say, three years’ time, the question becomes whether consumers will want to buy them now to hold for the future.

I find it difficult to raise much enthusiasm for the 2011 vintage. Most of the wines are tight, with a certain lack of underlying generosity which makes it seem doubtful whether they will open out. There’s a tendency towards green notes. My impression now is less favorable than it was at the introductory tasting of the 2011 vintage a year ago, when the youthful fruits were more in evidence; in the past year, the fruits seem to have lightened, but the tannins have not. I think you just need better terroir than most of the Cru Bourgeois possess in order to have been able to get to a satisfactory degree of ripeness in 2011. (By contrast, I thought the 2011 Grand Cru Classés often managed to show elegance and could be nice restaurant wines–if they were half the price!)

The 2010 and 2009 vintages showed their character through the prism of Cru Bourgeois, with 2010 tending to precision (which sometimes takes the form of tightness in the Cru Bourgeois at this point) and 2009 often nicely rounded (but somehow mostly lacking follow-through on the palate).

Here are some wines that illustrate the character of the 2012 vintage and appellation at this level. The most elegant wine from the Haut Médoc was Clément Pichon, somewhat in the style of the femininity of Margaux just to its north. In Margaux, Haut Breton Larigaudière is still a bit tight, waiting for the elegant fruits to emerge. Illustrating the disappearance of Cru Bourgeois from top appellations, there weren’t any examples of St. Julien or Pauillac. La Haye shows the typical tightness of young St. Estèphe. To the west, Château Lalaudey is a good representation of Moulis, with a lighter take on the style of the great communes. Château Rollan de By is a good illustration of what can be achieved in the Médoc. There are some nice wines in the 2012 Cru Bourgeois–but you do have to look for them.

Does Gran Selezione Really Make A Difference in Chianti Classico?

The new Gran Selezione top tier of Chianti Classico made its first appearance in New York this week. It’s intended to revive Chiantio Classico after years in the doldrums..

Regulations for Gran Selezione are nominally more stringent than for Riserva, but the only practical difference is that maturation must last 30 months rather than 24 months. Grapes must come from an estate’s own vineyards, but the wine can be a blend or selection of lots, and doesn’t have to be from a single vineyard; the restriction just means that it cannot include purchased grapes.

A process for approval should ensure that all wines with the label live up to the demands for a top tier, which was not the case with Riserva, and this may very well be the main difference. About a third of the wines submitted in the initial round were not approved. Gran Selezione is a new name but not a new style or quality level. Virtually all of the first rush of Gran Selezione (89 wines have been approved to date) are the same wines that used to be labeled as Riserva (more or less the very best of the Riserva); there are just a handful of new wines created for the Gran Selezione category, which was approved in 2013. Most of the initial round of Gran Selezione wines are the 2010 vintage, harvested before anyone knew if Gran Selezione would become reality, so it may be too early to see whether new wines will be created for the category.

The regulations for alcohol levels seem like a throwback to a distant era, calling for a minimum of 12% in Chianti Classico, 12.5% in Riserva, and 13% in Gran Selezione. When are the authorities in Europe going to realize that the old equation of alcohol with ripeness is now half a century out of date, and the issue is to restrain, not to encourage, alcohol? Chiantis today are routinely achieving alcohol levels way above the stated limits: in the not particularly warm year of 2010, virtually all the wines are over 14% alcohol (the average for Gran Selezione was 14.2%). That said, perception of alcohol was not evident on the palate, and the relatively high level does not seem to be a problem–but it does not need to be encouraged further.

Generally freshness runs through the 2010 vintage. Some of the wines are plush enough to drink now, others are still rather tight (although none are really what you might call tannic), but the general impression throughout is that these are food wines. Against the background of alcohol levels over 14%, this confirms my view that the problem with high alcohol wines isn’t so much the alcohol level itself as the fact that late harvest and winemaking have accentuated extraction as well as alcohol, and it’s the extract that makes the wines fatiguing (not a problem in Chianti Classico).

It took Chianti Classico an agonizing period to modernize its regulations for grape varieties, by removing the requirement that some white grapes must be included, and allowing 100% Sangiovese. Today, up to 20% of other varieties can be included. Roughly a third of the wines are pure Sangiovese. The others most often include Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but some of the old indigenous varieties such as Malvasia Nero or Colorino are still found. The average proportion of Sangiovese is now over 90%. There’s a slight increase in the average proportion of Sangiovese going from Chianti Classico to Riserva or Gran Selezione (probably not statistically significant), but perhaps more to the point, there’s a tendency for producers to move to 100% Sangiovese for the Gran Selezione. Presumably this reflects selection of the best grapes for Gran Selezione, making inclusion of the other varieties unnecessary.

I have to admit, however, that I could not see any clear effect of grape varieties in tasting, and I would not be confident of identifying wines that are pure Sangiovese, as opposed to wines that have some Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. The characteristics of the individual plot, in particular where it lies on the north-south axis, and its elevation, as well of course as winemaking, are equally important. There are no rules for aging, but most producers are following a similar regime in which the wine is aged in barriques of French oak.

Gran Selezione is supposed to be the best wine coming from a producer, but there’s no formal requirement that it must be (for example) the producer’s highest priced wine. “The problem is that the top wine is often not labeled as Chianti Classico,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the head of the producers’ association. “I planted a new vineyard fifteen years ago to be my top wine, but if there wasn’t Gran Selezione it would have been an IGT. I think the Gran Selezione will be at the same level as the Super Tuscans.” It would be an exaggeration to say that the name of Chianti has been devalued, but it’s true that historic difficulties with the regulations mean that for most producers their top wines are in the informal Super Tuscan category, labeled as the nominally lowly IGT Toscana. Many of these wines could have been labeled as Chianti Classico after the regulations were updated, but I’m not aware of any that have changed. It would be a mark of success for Gran Selezione if Super Tuscans were relabeled, but I would not hold your breath. In fact, the trend is in the other direction. “The problem is that some producers have made a selection from middle of the range, which sends a mixed message to the market as to how much the producer believes in it,” comments Antonio Galloni. Some producers used to make Riserva wines only in better vintages; it remains to be seen if that will be true also for Gran Selezione.

The introduction of Gran Selezione was not universally accepted by producers, although some who were against it are now making wines in the category; probably it will settle down to become accepted as the new top tier of Chianti Classico, even if that does not mean much more than picking out the best of what used to be the Riserva category. “The real need here is to clarify Chianti’s zones and vineyards, which isn’t being done,” says Sebastiano Castiglioni of Querciabella, who is staying out of the system, and focusing on single vineyard wines. So it’s unclear whether the new category will have any effect on recognition of different terroirs in Chianti Classico, which might be a more effective way to gain recognition for the region.

It’s not straightforward to compare Gran Selezione with Riserva directly, because most producers switched the label from one vintage to the next (the other wines being simple Chianti Classico), but there are a few producers who have different cuvées in both categories. In these rare cases, the Gran Selezione is usually just a touch more intense than the Riserva, just as the Riserva is usually a touch more intense than the Chianti Classico, although the difference has narrowed in recent years due to a general improvement in the quality of Chianti Classico. The wines are richer and deeper, often showing a mix of red and black fruits as opposed to the bright red cherries of old, and perhaps the real message is the improvement of quality all round.

All Change in Roussillon: New Approaches but Still Looking for Identity

It was an indication of trends in the region that sweet wines were much less in evidence than dry at the Roussillon tasting in New York (for those statistically inclined, the breakdown was about half dry red and a quarter each of dry white and sweet wines, with a handful of rosés).

Whites have been making progress in the south of France, but it remains a bit of an uphill battle against the sun in Roussillon, the farthest south, driest, and warmest region in France. Whites were in a small minority, and on this showing, are having some difficulty in establishing a balance between becoming overly aromatic and phenolic (and alcoholic) or maintaining freshness (by picking early but at the expense of flavor variety and intensity). Most of the wines are fermented purely in stainless steel, but occasional essays into oak sometimes do bring a touch of greater roundness and complexity.

Getting a bead on the character of the region is not helped by the wide range of varieties, from aromatic Muscat or Viognier to flat Grenache Blanc or Carignan Blanc. In the Languedoc, experiments with more northern varieties, such as Chenin Blanc, have sometimes led to attractive results, but Roussillon seems more to be sticking to its traditional varieties. It’s curious that the difficulties of viticulture in cool climates have resulted in development of grape varieties that do better under marginal conditions (although none has yet produced more than serviceable results), but there do not appear to have been comparable attempts to develop white varieties for warm climates.

Reds show more consistency, although it is hard to identify styles with grape varieties. I don’t think it is so much that terroir trumps cepage as that climate (and winemaking) trump cepage: there’s a certain sameness in high alcohol and extract. It can be hard to see the cepage behind the soft, round, character, especially at entry level. Even 100% Syrah can taste more like Châteauneuf du Pape than like Hermitage. When ripeness verges on over-ripeness, there’s a tendency to convergence, although perhaps Grenache stands out a bit for its overwhelming fruit and tendency to nuttiness on the finish.

Although AOPs must be blends, mostly of traditional varieties, whereas IGPs can be monovarietal and tend to have more “international” varieties, the difference between them is not as marked as you might expect in either style or quality. I do not think that in blind tasting it would be possible to distinguish wines as coming from the AOP Côtes du Roussillon as opposed to the IGP Côtes Catalanes. (Of course, sometimes the differences are blurred by ignoring the rules: that 100% Syrah was in fact an AOP wine.)

Sweet wines run a range from Muscat Rivesaltes, which tends to be a bit dull (why is Muscat considered one of the noble varieties in France?), to the slightly “sticky” impression of many Rivesaltes, and a handful of very concentrated old wines in the ambré category. These can be good, but only the very best achieve the complexity of dessert wines from Sauternes or the Loire; given the expense of production and the limited market, you can see why producers are moving out of the category.

Roussillon is a work in progress. It’s come a long way from the days when the Midi produced cheap bulk wine, but on this showing, it hasn’t yet really found its identity completely in the quality market.

Two Decades of Ducru Beaucaillou Show Supreme Elegance But With Surprises

The Wine Society’s tasting of wines from Ducru Beaucaillou with Bruno Borie was an eye opener into the changing nature of Bordeaux, although the grand vin of Ducru continued to demonstrate its supreme elegance.

Croix de Beaucaillou was introduced as a second wine in 1995 (displacing Lalande Borie to the position of third wine). It’s now not so much a second wine as a separate brand, Bruno explained, coming from vineyards plots farther from the Gironde. This may explain why I could not see much of an obvious relationship between La Croix de Beaucaillou and Ducru Beaucaillou itself. Both come only from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but La Croix tends to have 10-20% more Merlot, and its style is more superficial. It’s round and attractive, but it’s the grand vin of Ducru Beaucaillou that shows the precision that typifies St. Julien. I was surprised by the closeness of style of the 2010 and 2009 La Croix; the difference seems due more to the extra year’s age of the 2009 than to vintage character, as both show fruits before structure.

The youngest Ducru was the 2009, smooth and silky, and just about drinkable now as the tannins are coming into balance with the fruits. “The drinkability of 2009 is evident,” Bruno says. Young Bordeaux from great vintages no longer has punishing tannins, but all the same, the tannins still have grip, and to drink it now is to miss the point, as those subtle, elegant, flavors won’t come out from under for several years. Judging from comments around me about deliciousness, and seeing the empty glasses, it strikes me that there is a willingness on the part of the consumer to accept wines with more tannins and extract then used to be the case. Yes, it’s a plumper version of Ducru’s usual style, but please don’t drink it yet.

I almost never like 2006 left bank wines as I find it hard to get past the flat character of the year, but both La Croix and Ducru showed more aromatics than I usually see in this vintage. Very good results for the year, but all the same, hard to see that they are going anywhere.

The biggest surprise of the tasting for me was the 1999: traditional claret with a light fruit impression that’s as much red as black. It’s very drinkable, what I would call a luncheon claret, and it strikes me that it’s very much what claret used to be, before the grand cru classés started going for more extraction and a deeper, richer, international style.

The next surprise was the 1996 which is simply glorious. I’ve always regarded this as one of the standouts of the vintage, but the last time I tasted it, a delicious counterbalance of herbaceousness was developing to offset the fruits. This bottle (fresh from the Ducru cellars) by contrast did not have any trace of herbaceousness, but tended more to chocolate and sweet tobacco and cedar overtones. It’s not often that I see Bordeaux losing herbaceousness with age and showing clearer fruit character.

Ducru remains the quintessential St. Julien for me, with a terrific ability to pinpoint the character of each vintage, although I tend to prefer “classic” vintages to more “modern” ones..