Vintage Report: Bordeaux 2016

I must start with a confession: I did not taste all of the 150 wines on offer at the UGCB tasting of the newly released 2016 Bordeaux. One afternoon was not long enough. But from tasting all except a few of the lesser château (lesser being a relative term when the tasting is restricted to “grand crus”), this is a great vintage.  Virtually all châteaux show ripe tannins fading into the background behind the fruits. The wines are beautifully balanced, with the underlying structure overt only in a few cases of lighter fruit density. Yet the wines are well structured, with the density of tannins evidenced by greater palate fatigue compared, for example, with last year’s tasting of the 2015 vintage.

The word that appears most often in my tasting notes is “elegant.” This is not an exuberant vintage; even the modernists are quite restrained, and should show classic elegance as they mature. It’s a less obvious vintage than, say, 2009 or 2010, with a certain sense of restraint. Alcohol is not at all evident.

Margaux shows the usual variability expected from the large size of the appellation. Some wines display that classic feature of Bordeaux: fresh acidity, which in conjunction with good fruit density should ensure longevity. For châteaux where acidity is less evident, the beautifully rounded smoothness of the fruits is more evident. Rauzan-Ségla is the height of silky elegance, Rauzan-Gassies shows a step-up in refinement, Giscours is not as robust as usual, Durfort Vivens has moved towards modernism, Lascombes has backed off a bit, Prieuré Lichine is the most overt modernist, while Brane Cantenac, Ferrière, Kirwan, Marquis de Terme are on the lighter side.

St. Julien gives a lovely impression of precision on this vintage. Palates don’t seem quite as round as those of Margaux, but acidity is always balanced, and tannins are nicely supple in the background. The overall impression is perhaps a touch lighter than in Margaux, but more refined. The vintage is more even here, not surprising given the small size of the appellation. Beychevelle shows its traditional dryness, Gruaud Larose is elegant but perhaps lighter than usual, while Talbot is smoother than its old dry style. Lagrange seems to have lightened up from its usual modernism, Langoa Barton is elegant and a touch less weighty than Léoville Barton, which as always shows the quintessential elegance of the AOC, Léoville Poyferré shows its adherence to modernism in a faintly nutty palate, and Gloria this vintage outshines St. Pierre with greater sense of precision.

When I tasted the first Pauillacs, they seemed to have more weight than St. Julien, but to follow the same general style of precision, without the usual plushness. Batailley is quite assertive and faintly medicinal, Grand Puy Ducasse has classic reserve, Grand Puy Lacoste is classy but in a lighter style, Cleric Milon shows restrained power. Then I came to the great trio of Lynch Bages, Pichon Baron, and Pichon Lalande, all showing smooth, round, plushness , and great finesse. They will surely become classics, with d’Armailhac only a touch behind.

St. Estèphe really shows the strength of the vintage. Even the lesser wines (a relative term in this context) show well rounded fruits and convey an impression of elegance. There is no sign of the hardness that the AOC sometimes develops. Phélan Ségur is on the lighter side, Ormes de Pez and de Pez are rounder and riper than usual, Lafon Rochet is a little tight but elegant, and Cos Labory shows a movement in the direction of Pauillac.

Pessac-Léognan did not seem so plush, but there is a great sense of elegance, with most châteaux showing an attractive balance between black fruits and barely perceptible tannins and acidity. Domaine de Chevalier is a standout for its precision; Smith Haut Lafitte has overtaken Pape Clément in the modernism stakes; Haut Bailly is quite tight and elegant rather than plush; Haut Bergey is dry and fine; Carbonnieux is slightly spicy and more supple than usual; Carmes Haut Brion is quite reserved; the structure shows through at de Fieuzal; Latour Martillac is on the lighter side; Larrivet Haut Brion impresses with the elegance to come; and La Louvière, Olivier, Malartic Lagravière are attractive already.

St. Emilion shows a richer character with the warmth of Merlot coming through, but the wines show restraint rather than the almost overwhelming sense of richness of some earlier vintages. Canon and Canon La Gaffelière are the trumps, with a great sense of finesse and elegance. Larcis Ducasse, La Gaffelière, and Pavie Macquin have more structure than most, making them less approachable now, but promising longevity. Beauséjour Bécot is warm and attractive, La Dominique shows a step-up in refinement, Dassault is attractively nutty, Figeac is very restrained and more backward than most, Troplong Mondot promises elegance, Trottevielle is finer than usual, and Valandraud continues its move towards classicism.

Pomerol does not seem as opulent as usual, but shows a finer, more elegant style in this vintage. The warmth of Merlot is still evident, but the best wines show a real grip and potential for longevity. The gap between Pomerol and St. Emilion seems less than usual. Beauregard makes a modern impression, Bon Pasteur is fine and silky (with a nod of obeisance to the Médoc in its structure, this quite refutes the notion that Michel Rolland is all about opulence and power), Clinet is less generous than usual, La Conseillante shows the iron in its soul, Gazin is less obvious than usual and more elegant, Petit Village is fine, restrained, and elegant, while la Pointe and Rouget show more the traditional opulence.

The whites from Pessac Léognan tend to a silky elegance. Carbonnieux has more concentration than usual, Domaine de Chevalier is very fine and more obviously Sauvignon Blanc than usual, de Fieuzal, La Louvière, Malartic Lagravière, Olivier all show sweet citrus fruits with a grassy overlay. As with the reds, Pape Clément is tight but promises elegance, while Smith Haut Lafitte goes full force modern with lots of new oak showing.

Lots of botrytis shows on the Sauternes and Barsac, but I was generally a bit disappointed by wines that seemed a little heavy on the palate, without the delicious piquancy that lifts up the great vintages. Bastor Lamontagne is quite elegant, Doisy Daëne, Doisy Vedrines, Lafaurie Peyraguey, and Clos Haut Peyraguey are more unctuous than elegant, Coutet is rich, Guiraud is a step-up in elegance from usual, de Fargues seems less subtle than usual.

The vintage is less variable than usual for reds and dry whites, and gives a sense that this year you can have your wine and drink it. Many wines seem attractive even on release, yet have a fine underlying structure promising an elegant longevity. It’s classic in the sense of balance, yet modern in its approachability.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Port 2016: a Glorious Vintage

The vintage marks a sea change from the tradition that Vintage Port is undrinkable when young. Tasted just before release, virtually all Ports of this Vintage are amazingly approachable and can be drunk even now, except for Quinta do Noval Nacional, which shows its structure more obviously, and perhaps Taylor, which is very firm. “Young Port can take a bit of getting into,” says David Guimaraens, chief winemaker at Taylor Fladgate, “what’s so remarkable about 2016 is how attractive they are now.” There’s a remarkable uniformity of purity in the fruit expression. “The character of the vintage is the purity of fruits and the linear backbone and precision,” says Charles Symington. Whether the new approachability is due to better viticulture, better control of tannins, or improvement in the quality of brandy added to stop fermentation, the result is unmistakable, a case of having your Port and drinking it, as the wines have both immediacy and longevity.

Making Port is not for the fainthearted given the mountainous nature of the vineyards

  • Cockburn comes from one of the warmest spots in the Douro and made back-to-back declarations in 2015 and 2016. Perfumed aromatics on the nose lead into a fresh palate with some almost malic impressions, and just a faint touch of raisins on the finish. It is almost ready! 93
  • Croft shows taut mountain fruit, emphasized by a strong concentration of secondary varieties. Made traditionally in granite lagares, it is silky, sweet, and refined, with a good sense of precision. 93
  • Dow’s is typically fermented a little drier than the average Port, and it’s obviously not quite as sweet as the other Ports of the 2016 vintage, giving a slightly restrained first impression. Light and elegant rather than powerful, with faint acid lift at the end, very pure on the palate with chocolaty impressions on the nose. 92
  • Fonseca has a sense of minerality and precision offsetting the richness of the fruits in this vintage. Elegant yet showing the usual weight of Fonseca, this is a great success for the vintage. 95
  • Graham’s shows a sense of precision and lightness of being, you might almost say airy, but there is a sense of iron in the backbone. “Tannins are so integrated at first impression, you ask, ‘where are the tannins?’, says Charles Symington. This is a classic demonstration of Graham’s elegant style. 95
  • Quinta do Noval opens with a fresh, complex nose, with herbal impressions. Very refined, almost tight, on the palate, with a great sense of precision and an impression that it’s a fraction less sweet than average. 95
  • Quinta do Noval Nacional made only 170 cases in 2016. The nose is sweet and tight, The palate is deeper than Noval, with more sense of tannic structure on the finish, giving very much an impression of old vines. Richness coats the palate and hides the structure, but the tannins show as dryness at the very end. This needs time but will last for ever. 96
  • Quinta da Romaneira has a very lively expression on the nose. Very sweet and rich on the palate, it is more obvious than Noval. The sweetness shows in front of the structure, and it’s weightier, but not as precise as Noval, reflecting its warmer microclimate. 92
  • Quinta do Vesuvio shows a sweet style, in fact its sweetness is perhaps the most evident among all the Vintage Ports. The palate is faintly raisined and faintly malic, with lifted aromatics. 92
  • Taylor’s has a discrete nose verging on austerity. The palate gives a firm impression of iron in the backbone, although the tannic structure is pushed into the background by the fruits. You can see the Vargellas vineyard in that austerity and structure, balanced by the voluptuous fruits from the rest of the blend. This must be one of the wines of the vintage. 95
  • Warre shows its more feminine side, without the weight of the heavy-hitters, but is typically elegant and fresh, and almost ready. 92

The wines were tasted at an event when the major Port Houses in the Taylor Fladgate and Symington groups, together with Quinta do Noval, presented their entire range of 2016 Vintage Ports in New York this week.

 

 

 

Bordeaux 2015: Taming of the Tannins

Judging from this week’s UGCB tasting of 2015 Bordeaux in New York, the vintage is very good, although lacking the sheer wow factor of 2009 or 2005. I see it as a modern take on classic tradition, by which I mean that the wines tend towards elegance and freshness, but without the heavy tannins or herbaceousness of the past, and are relatively approachable.

After a day tasting around 100 chateaux, I had a 1978 Léoville Lascases for dinner: the difference in style is most marked in the delicious tang of herbaceousness marking the 1978. Needless to say, there was not a trace of herbaceousness in any of the wines of 2015. I miss it.

2015 is a relatively homogeneous vintage: there is more or less even success across the board. It is even true that the difference between modernist and more traditional châteaux is much less marked than in some past vintages. In previous vintages the modernists–among which I include Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafitte, Lascombes, Lagrange, Léoville-Poyferré, Pichon Baron, Cos d’Estournel–have stood out for forward fruits, very ripe and round, sometimes approaching New World in style: in 2015, modernism takes the form of a smooth sheen to the palate, with tannins tamed and very fine. But it’s a general mark of the vintage that tannins are rarely really obtrusive, and the taming of the tannins is likely to mean that, unless it closes up unexpectedly, the vintage will be ready to start relatively soon,.

Appellation character is clear this year.

  • Margaux is very fine and elegant, although there is a tendency for the lighter fruits of the appellation to let the tannins show more obviously than in other appellations. The appellation generally gives somewhat the impression of a lighter year. Durfort Vivens has really revived, with a fine effort that speaks to Margaux, Kirwan has more finesse due to its new cellar, Lascombes is more elegant and less modern than usual, Rauzan-Ségla is quintessential Margaux, and Siran presents a great view of Margaux from the class of Cru Bourgeois.
  • The same sense of elegance carries to St. Julien, except that here the tannins universally seem exceptionally fine in the background, making many wines more immediately attractive; St. Julien is closer in style to Margaux than to neighboring Pauillac. Beychevelle as a very convincing expression of the appellation, Gruaud Larose is very much on form this year, Lagrange seems lighter compared to its usual modern style, Léoville Barton is stylish and elegant, the quintessential St. Julien, while Léoville Poyferré is distinctly more modern.
  • Moving into Pauillac, there is more power in the background, with wines somewhat rounder, but there’s a range from almost rustic to utterly sophisticated. Tannins are held in check by density of fruits, making wines seem relatively approachable. A fine effort from d’Armailhac is almost plush, it’s a good year for Grand Puy Ducasse but it doesn’t have the breed of Grand Puy Lacoste, which is structured and built to last, Lynch Bages is a solid representation of the appellation, Pichon Baron shows the smoothness of its modern style, but this year Pichon Lalande gives an even more modern impression and seems quite approachable.
  • It’s always hard to get a bead on S. Estèphe at the UGCB because so few châteaux are represented, and the top châteaux are missing, but if I got any sense that the vintage was less successful in any one appellation, it would be here. Tannins are well in front of fruits and less tamed than in other appellations: the classic tightness of St. Estèphe tends to show through. None of the wines can be called generous, although Lafon-Rochet gets half way to Pauillac with a smooth palate, Cos Labory shows the tightness of St. Estèphe, and Phélan Ségur seems on the light side for the appellation.
  • Outside of the great communes, La Lagune will be a classic, La Tour Carnet is more modern but not as obvious than usual, Cantemerle is quite smooth.
  • Cru Bourgeois show in similar style to the grand cru classés, but with less refinement and roundness; there isn’t the difference between the classic approach and the luxury wine approach of rich years such as 2009, although the advantage of the grand cru classés remains obvious.
  • Graves has many lovely restaurant wines, that is, well balanced for drinking immediately.
  • In Pessac-Léognan, I did not get much sense of the classic cigar-box in the reds, but the wines did seem a little more granular than the Médoc. Domaine de Chevalier is lovely with its usual crystalline brilliance, Haut Bailly is more granular, Larrivet-Haut Brion is smooth, Malartic-Lagravière is just a touch more tannic, Pape-Clément is not quite as modern in its aromatics as Smith Haut Lafitte.
  • It’s a very good year in St. Emilion, with wines showing the generosity of the right bank, but nicely restrained rather than lush. In fact, restrained is the phrase that occurs most often in my tasting notes. Beauséjour-Bécot is smooth, Canon is beautifully refined, Canon La Gaffelière is a top result for the appellation with layers of flavor, La Gaffelière is true to the structured tradition of the château. Making its first appearance at the UGCB, Valandraud no longer makes the outrageous impression of a garage wine, but seems in the mainstream.
  • Pomerol does not show full force lushness, and is only a little more fruit-forward than St. Emilion, with many wines showing more obvious evidence of structure than usual. The restrained black fruits of Clinet tend to elegance, even Michel Rolland’s Bon Pasteur shows evident structure.
  • Whites are decent but nothing really stood out for me: Graves produced lovely restaurant wines in whites as in red. Pessac-Léognan seems less concentrated than usual, and wines tend to be soft and attractive. Particular successes: Châteaux de France, Malartic-Lagravière, Pape-Clément, Smith Haut Lafittte.
  • Sauternes are delicious, with Château de Fargues as a standout. A sense of purity makes the wines refreshing.

Overall a very good year, with wines tending to be restrained rather than obvious, most needing only a few years before starting, and probably best enjoyed in the decade after that.

Why Technology Is Not the Main Issue in GMO for Grapevines

I have despaired for years of seeing a reasoned discussion of the implications of genetic engineering for grapevines or other plants. Politicization has created an atmosphere in which it becomes impossible to discuss on a rational basis the advantages and disadvantages of the technique. Of course there are dangers, but they have to be weighed against potential gains.

This was brought back to mind by an essay by Hrisha Poola, the winner of the wine writing competition on jancisrobinson.com. In his essay (available at https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/wine-gets-crispr) he focuses on the potential use of the new CRISPR technique for GMO of plants and in particular grapevines. This is a valuable exercise, but I can’t help feeling that in focusing so closely on CRISPR, this somewhat muddles the wood and the trees.

Genetic engineering of the grapevine has been possible for a couple of decades, as indeed it has for other crops. In fact, the grapevine is an outlier in the lack of GMO. CRISPR is a technical development, an important one, that makes it much easier to do genetic engineering, and which offers much greater precision than before. It’s significant enough that the authors are candidates for a Nobel prize, but it does not represent the same paradigm shift as the introduction of gene editing itself.

Concentrating on the technique, and giving the impression that it is CRISPR that has actually created the possibility for genetic engineering, distracts us from the main issues. We should be discussing the implications of loss of diversity by exacerbating the trend to use clones, that is, to risk allowing a few genetically engineered clones to replace existing genetic variation. In that context, the interesting question about CRISPR is whether, by making the process easier, CRISPR might make it possible to introduce the same change into a variety of base material and thus reduce the effect of loss of diversity.

We should be discussing how to weigh up the pros and cons of the use of sulfur and copper, necessary for organic viticulture, against the possibility of eliminating them by genetic engineering of the plant. We should be discussing whether it’s better to use steroid sprays to control fungal diseases as opposed to changing the genetic constitution of the plant. And, of course, all this should be within the context of explaining how using genetic engineering relates to conventional plant breeding, and what are its advantages and disadvantages relative to cross-breeding.

It is perhaps significant that Hrisha’s essay opens with a quotation from Mukherjee, who has had a great success with his book (The Gene: An Intimate History), but which is skeptically regarded in the scientific community for its over simplification of epigenetics. It is a sad truth that those who have the public ear tend to trivialize or politicize the issues. I don’t want to cavil, I would love to see an informed debate on the topic, but discussions need to be based not on technique and technology, but on the principles of what is involved.

Unfortunately we live in a culture where the media do not take science seriously, or perhaps to be more accurate, where they do not regard it as a topic that should be treated seriously. I remember years ago when we published a significant paper on the common cold virus in Cell, it made the concluding item on the evening news in the form of a report showing clips from Charlie Chaplin movies where the actor was ridden with cold. Very funny, but not going to help public understanding of science. Sadly, nothing has changed in thirty years. Only last week, a report that alcohol might cause cancer by leading to the production of acetaldehyde was trivialized on Reuters by video clips of drunken revelry. It’s never going to be possible to have serious debate against that background, so kudos to Jancis for publishing a serious essay: but let’s move on from the technology to the philosophy. Now that would be something!

I Want My Glass From the Bottom of the Imperial

I was at a wine dinner last night which served three first growths from 1989 all from Imperial. The Margaux was surprisingly earthy, the Latour was the standout–it may become ethereal if we live long enough to see it–but the Mouton was variable. I tried three glasses: the first was definitely corked, the second was on the edge, and the third seemed fine at first, but showed signs of cork taint an hour later. A normal enough experience, you might say, especially since 1989 was a period when cork taint was perhaps at its peak–but I believe all three glasses came from the same Imperial (equivalent to 8 bottles). Bottle variation is common enough, but how can there be variation within a bottle?

This set me wondering about the diffusion of TCA from the cork into the wine. I’ve never regarded a corked bottle as being anything other than simply corked, by which I mean that the wine is spoiled, and that’s the end of it. But if the bottle is large enough, is it possible that the top has a greater concentration of TCA, and that the contaminant might not have diffused to the bottom? The idea is rather at odds with the usual analogy used to explain the power of cork taint: a couple of teaspoonfuls is enough to contaminate a swimming pool. It’s never been suggested that the deep end would be less affected than the shallow end.

Certainly I’ve never been able to detect cork taint by sniffing the cork, which I assume is the purpose of the exercise when it’s presented to you at a restaurant, even when it’s obvious in the wine: I suppose it needs to be dissolved in the liquid to be effective. But suppose a bottle has been lying down ever since release, with some TCA in the cork. It’s going to diffuse into the wine, and the nature of diffusion is that its concentration will be greatest nearest the source, that is, the cork. If the bottle is very large, perhaps the difference might be great enough to detect in the glass. (How much time is needed for diffusion: would such an effect be more marked when the wine is young?) On the other hand, the moment the wine is poured, the liquid will be stirred up, and the TCA should become generally distributed. (And moving the bottle around would certainly have a homogenizing effect.)

So I’m mystified. It’s difficult to see how there could be significant variation in cork taint between one end of the bottle and the other, but the fact is that three glasses were all different. Logic or no logic, as a precaution I think in future I will try to have my pours from the bottom of the Imperial rather than the top.

Bibi Graetz: Wine in the Hills of Fiesole

Bibi Graetz has a penchant for making wine in unusual places—high up in the hills of Fiesole, overlooking Florence, and on Giglio, a steep and rocky island off the coast of Maremma. Well outside the famous areas, the winery in Fiesole is there because “I was born here. My grandfather bought the house and land, did some farming and made some wine that was sold in bulk. My father planted a 2 ha vineyard here in the 1960s, after talking to the local farmers.” Bibi started making wine in 2000, but “when I started it was not a business, it was all very casual. I remember people coming to the house to buy wine in demi-johns. I threw myself into winemaking and since then it has been my life.”

The medieval castle of Vinciaglata is at a high point overlooking the vineyards. Now empty, it would make a splendid winery.

Bibi sources grapes from vineyards all over the area. Besides the small plot in Fiesole, which has expanded to 4.5 ha and is just across the road from the winery, there are vineyards all over the Chianti area, “like a stripe running through the whole area of Chianti,” Bibi says.

Right from the beginning there have been two wines, Testamatta and Colore, both labeled as super-Tuscans. The approach is the antithesis of the increasing worldwide focus on single vineyards; both wines are blends from multiple sources. “I was in love with old vineyards, so it didn’t make any sense to buy land and plant—I planted my first vineyard only in 2012—so I looked for old vineyards. I still don’t own vineyards, but I have long term contracts; we manage the vineyards but don’t own land. So it doesn’t make sense for us to make a single vineyard wine. Our idea is more like a super-Tuscan than a Burgundy concept.”

We tasted barrel samples of the individual vineyards from 2016. “We are going to taste the vineyards from north to south,” Bibi said. As he described the sources, it became clear that Bibi is in love not only with old vineyards, but also with vineyards at high altitudes. All except one of the vineyards are above 300m. You might say his wines are all high altitude wines. And not only was there a wide spectrum from the different vineyards, from the cool climate impressions of a plot at high elevation above Greve in Chianti, to the more powerfully structured expression of a south-facing vineyard south of Siena, but there was a remarkable difference between barrels of different ages, even though there is no new oak in Testamatta. In the early years, the wines went into 100% new oak, under the advice of an oenologist, but this changed after 2005. “I don’t work with an oenologist any more because I like to do my thing. I worked with an oenologist at first, but they didn’t like my experiments.” Today Bibi’s view is that, “for Testamatta it is important not to use new oak, we wouldn’t have the fruit coming forward. The uniqueness of Testamatta is that we don’t impose a style, you don’t have the oak, you just have the impression of the grapes coming out.” Indeed there is wide vintage variation: 2016 will be a powerful vintage, but 2015 is infinitely elegant.

The family house and small winery buildings are grouped around a courtyatrd, right on the road through Vincigliata.

Testamatta comes from seven plots and is 100% Sangiovese. Colore is a selection of the best lots, from the oldest vineyards, and is about a third each of Canaiolo, Colorino, and Sangiovese. The vineyard plots used for Testamatta are more or less the same each year; there is a little variation in the Sangiovese used for Colore as it always has the best barrels. “Colore has a little new oak, we look for the lots with more structure, so it has a bit more volume.”

Bibi also makes the white wines on the island of Giglio, just off the coast of Maremma. “It’s basically a rock in the middle of the sea, it’s a pretty arid climate—it never rains!” Bibi says, with perhaps a slight exaggeration. “Vineyards go from sea level to 300m. We are planting one at 550m. You can do a big white wine in Giglio, it’s not so easy to find a big white from Tuscany.”

White wine has always been a bit of a problem in Italy, in my view. The paucity of interesting white wines has led me to start meals in Italy by choosing a red wine, irrespective of what food we might choose. There’s a handful of exceptions, starting Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzi, which I love for its savory character, and there are some Chardonnay’s from the north following a more Burgundian model, but it’s hard to argue with the view that white wine is much more difficult than red.

Bibi’s whites have their own character. There is a strong emphasis on Ansonica. Scopeto (named for an area of Giglio) is the entry level, and is a blend of Vermentino and Ansonica. It has 20% fermented with skins for one week “in the old way” and has a slight impression of an orange wine. The other whites are all 100%. Ansonica. Chiozzolo really is an orange wine, fermented on skins for 7 days and aged in new barrels that come from Burgundy. Bugia is more conventional, aged 90% in stainless steel and 10% in wood. Last year Bibi produced a white Testamatta for the first time, just 700 bottles. “For Testamatta I took the best parcels, there’s no skin contact but it’s fermented and aged in 100% new oak. Here I think you go towards a big white wine.” The common feature, whether it comes from the grapes or from skin contact or oak maturation, is a sense of extract and texture to the palate, almost a sense of austerity to restrain the fruits. Powerful would be a misleading description, but these are definitely wines with a strong personality. In the white Testamatta 2016, the oak is already beautifully integrated and is (as it should be) a subtle presence in the background. I suspect it will prove to be just as successful as its famous red brother.

Making wines in three places,Bibi is a busy fellow. White wines are made on Giglio, Testamatta and Colore at the small winery in Fiesole, and the entry level wines, which are part of a negociant activity, under the Casamatta name, are made in rented space at a larger winery. “Our winery is not big enough to do entry level wine,” Bibi explains. It has been difficult to visit or purchase wine at the winery, because it’s basically a small group of buildings extending from the family house. But this may change as Bibi is thinking about moving into larger space, which would relieve the cramped conditions at the winery, and allow there to be a tasting room. Spending a morning with Bibi, I got the impression that it’s not just wine that ferments here: there is a constant ferment of ideas. In the air at the moment are the possibilities of introducing a single vineyard wine or a second wine to Testamatta. This must surely be one of the liveliest wineries in Tuscany.

 

What to do about Ullaged Wines?

I discovered about a dozen seriously ullaged wines when I was doing a physical inventory of my cellar, which I do every year to check on what’s really there (some bottles get consumed without recording, some get taken to events, some just disappear…) While I’m at it, I check the conditions of the bottles. Although the cellar is temperature- and humidity-controlled, some bottles do develop ullage—corks don’t last for ever, no matter what.

On a previous check, I discovered ullage in most of my bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1970. I asked Mouton what happened, and this was the reply: “In 1970, we used cork of 54 mm length and we had problem due to the size of the cork and not the quality. Today we use cork of 49 mm length and it is much better. When the cork is too long, the space between wine and cork is not enough to absorb temperature variations.” Pity they didn’t do a recall!

This year the ullaged bottles were all one-offs, with vintages ranging from 1948 to 1975. I have been trying to find a way of enjoying them. Their condition really restricts them to being tried at home, they are too unreliable to offer to guests, and the combination means it may be ambitious to have the whole bottle at one sitting.

Coravin seemed like it might be a solution. Use Coravin for the first half of the bottle, so as to protect the rest with nitrogen, and then pull the cork to enjoy the other half a day later. But the corks are too fragile. Turning the bottle up to use the Coravin, wine washes out right around the cork. Another problem is that, as the bottle is turned more towards the horizontal, the sediment gets all stirred up. So Coravin may be great to enjoy pours of young wines, but once a wine is old enough to have any substantial sediment, it creates as many problems as it solves.

Even extracting the corks without getting fragments into the wine is a problem, but assuming the cork can be got out, I have a working solution. Because of the difficulty of extracting the cork, and uncertainty as to whether the wine will be drinkable, the bottle needs to be opened a bit in advance. Once the cork is finally out, I bubble a little nitrogen into the wine to stop any deterioration before we drink it. A little later, we start on the first half of the bottle.

Assuming the wine hasn’t deteriorated in the course of dinner, I then decant the remaining half into a half bottle. This allows the sediment to be filtered out. Then I sparge the bottle with nitrogen. There have been on or two incidents when the sparging was a bit too vigorous, and we lost some wine, but basically this removes any free oxygen. Obviously it can’t reverse any oxidative changes that have occurred in the wine, but it seems to stop any further deterioration. The wine goes back in the cellar over night to keep it as cool as possible. (Yes, I am aware of Dalton’s law of physics, which means that each gas equilibrates independently in a solution, but be that as it may, so far, on the basis of an admittedly statistically insignificant sample, it works; every wine has been enjoyable the day after.) The Lafite 1961 even improved, and was even smoother and silkier the second day.

The staying power of some of these old wines, especially first growths, is remarkable. Mouton 1949 was rich, full, and opulent: every drop a first growth, even though it was only a second growth at the time. In a blind tasting, I suspect I would have mistaken it for an old Latour. Canon 1966 and La Conseillante 1966 showed unexpected precision. Some bottles were, of course, undrinkable, but I still have several more to go.