Chateau Musar: Simply Sui Generis

I have tasted Château Musar in depth only twice. Once in New York, in 2009 at a tasting with Serge Hochar, when we had white vintages from 1999 to 1959 and reds from 2000 to 1966, and last week in Miami at Wine by the Bay’s commemoration of Serge, with an excellent range of wines, including whites back to 1998 and reds back to 1989. At both tastings, the wines impressed me as brilliantly different from anything else.

Production at Château Musar has now extended to include the Jeune line (red, rosé, and white) from young vines, and the Hochar Père et Fils line (lighter wines for immediate drinking, in the modern fashion), but although all these are well-made examples of their genres, for me the real interest came with the Musar white and red.

The white is much less well known than the red, but every bit as distinctive. It comes from the indigenous varieties Obaideh and Merwah; they are said to be related to Chasselas, Chardonnay, and Sémillon, but if they are, terroir is clearly trumping variety. Fermentation is unusual as it lasts for nine months in barriques, then the wine is bottled conventionally enough after a year. It’s held until it is seven years old for release, so you never really get the chance to see what a young wine tastes like.

The long fermentation gives an oxidative character: for me the nearest resemblance to other wines might be to the whites of the Jura, with an intensely savory quality approaching a touch of fenugreek. My favorite of vintages from the 2000s at last week’s tasting was the 2000: light, subtle, and developed, but it paled besides the densely savory 1998. What I love about these wines is the way they start out herbal and become increasingly savory with age. Normal experience would suggest they should hold for a few years, but this is no doubt an under-estimate; at the tasting in 2009, the 1959 was developed but fresh; in fact Serge said at the time that the wine was showing the youth it did not have when it was younger.

Fermentation for the reds is also very slow: six months in cement, followed by a year to mature in barriques. Then the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Grenache are blended, and spend another year in cement cuve before bottling. The wine is not released until seven years after the vintage, but there is certainly no need to taste it sooner. The current release, the 2007, still has to come together, although the mix of blackberry fruits, high toned aromatics, and sweet tannins is promising.

The 1996 vintage puts Bordeaux or Burgundy to shame, with a lovely balance between delicate fruits and tertiary notes, with a drying touch of cinnamon at the end. It reminded me a bit of some of the old Daumas Gassac Cabernets from the eighties, with that Mediterranean twist on Cabernet. I was astonished by the sheer precision and depth of the flavor of the rather washed-out looking 1989. At the New York tasting in 2009, we started with the red 1981, as Serge said that this age—about twenty five years—is the average age at which his wines are ready to drink, but I would beg to differ and suggest you don’t have to wait quite that long, as the 1996 was perfection this month. But I am sure it will improve until it reaches the ethereal quality of the 1989.

Is Pontet Canet 2004 the Best Kosher Wine Out There?

I do not usually drink Kosher wine. My recollections from childhood of sickly sweet wines with the foxy taste of non-vinifera grapes form a mental block. But a friend recently was given the Kosher cuvée of Pontet Canet 2004, so we set up a side-by-side comparison with the regular cuvée from my cellar.

I find it difficult to see the point of Kosher wine. If it’s not necessary for orange juice to be certified Kosher, why should wine need to be certified? How do grapes differ from oranges or lemons or other fruits? I suppose it’s reasonable if the wine is to be used for sacramental purposes, but it seems to be confusing things to require certification for a wine to be drunk with dinner. Of course, winemaking involves more manipulation than producing fruit juice, and I can see that it may also be necessary to certify that non Kosher products have not been used—the most obvious being some fining agents—but basically any wine that has been made in the usual way without fining or filtration should not breach the rules of Kashrus.

Fining is not an issue at Pontet Canet as the wine is not fined anyway. The Kosher wine comes from specific parcels, so that it can be guaranteed to be kosher all the way from vineyard to bottle. “The wine cannot be exactly the same, but it has to get the soul of the place… It comes from some specific parcels with the three main varieties chosen to represent the best they could the average of the estate. There is no Petit Verdot… It has to be Kosher from the receiving of the grapes. Making a selection of some barrels would mean that all the barrels would have to be produced in a Kosher way,” winemaker Jean-Michel Comme explains. About 10,000 bottles of Kosher wine were produced from each of the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages, and the only difference in production from the regular cuvée was that it was made in vats with an automatic system of pumping over for the weekends (because the supervisors could not be there on Saturday).

The wines were surprisingly different. To my palate, the regular cuvee is more evidently Cabernet-based; not overtly herbaceous, but not directly fruit-driven, settling down to a very nice balance of acidity with developing fruits, not quite ready yet, smooth and elegant, very much in the classical tradition of Pauillac. The Kosher version seems softer (it feels as though it has more Merlot) with lower acidity. It is more approachable and seems ready now. The difference seems almost like a subtle change in seasoning, and I wonder if the main factor could be the absence of Petit Verdot (there is 2% in the 2004 regular cuvée). It would not be unreasonable to drink the Kosher cuvée now, but to hold the regular cuvée for another three or four years. The comparison is a fascinating demonstration of how every aspect of winemaking impacts the wine.

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.