Young Turks in Beaujolais: Mee Godard

Maybe it’s time for another revolution, and perhaps the recent study of soil types, represented on the walls of several producers by copies of the multicolored maps showing the soil types in the Crus, has been a contributory factor. Visiting producers, say, twenty years ago, most would have one, or at most two, cuvées from a Cru. Now it is common to find multiple cuvées from each Cru, each representing specific terroirs. Morgon is a case in point. It’s a sign of how things are changing that Louis-Benoît Desvignes recollects, “When I started a special bottling (the Vieilles Vignes from Javernières on the Côte de Py) in 2009, people thought I would lose customers.” But this week I visited several producers who make cuvées to express different terroirs in Morgon, from the sandier soil of Corcelette, to the more alluvial soil and greater clay of Grand Cras, to the volcanic terroir of Côte du Py.

Mee Godard was studying biology at university when her father suggested she might become an oenologist, and a minor in wine science led her to Oregon and then back to France. Why Beaujolais? “Because I discovered these wines at a tasting in the region. When I left my winemaking job in Beaune, I came here to look for vineyards.” At the end of 2012 she was able to buy in house in Morgon that came with 5 ha of vineyards. A year later she added another hectare in Moulin à Vent, and this year another hectare. The house is just at the edge of Côte du Py, which has long been recognized as Morgon’s best climat.

Mee is still building the domain, with a base in Morgon.

Mee’s winemaking is distinctive. “I try to make vins de garde. I try to use as much whole bunch as possible, mostly about 70%, so there is some carbonic maceration, but I don’t want to have a lot, just some in individual berries.” Both pigeage and pumping-over are used. Everything is aged in wood, using a mixture of barriques, demi-muids, and foudre with only a little new wood. “Last year I didn’t buy any new wood, the year before I bought a new demi-muid.”

These are certainly wines for aging, quite reserved at first. Tasting the three cuvées of Morgon from 2013 through 2015, Corcelette tends to show red berry fruits with a touch of tannin at the end, Grand Cras is a little broader with just a touch more aromatic lift, and Côte du Py is the roundest and richest, but always with that sense of tension, and precision waiting to emerge. 2013 is the most uptight, even a little stern, 2014 opens out to broader expression, and 2015 is the richest. There is also a cuvée which is a selection from a special plot in Côte du Py, called Passerrelle 557, which shows striking purity of fruits. These are real wines expressing terroir but needing time to develop; a million miles away from the soft aromatics without backbone of most Beaujolais, they prompt a comparison with Burgundy.

Young Turks in Beaujolais: Julien Sunier

Beaujolais has been in the doldrums as long as anyone can remember. Briefly rescued by the success of Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980s, the solution became the problem as Beaujolais became a synonym for very fruity inexpensive wines. The so-called Gang of Four led by Marcel Lapierre caused something of a revolution by focusing on making more natural wines to bring out terroir. “My father was part of a group that rebelled against the industrial production of Beaujolais,” says Mathieu Lapierre, adding, “We try to make natural wines but it’s difficult to defend them from the industrial system.” It’s a measure of his attitude that when asked about global warming, he says, “I’m not sure about that, the real question is why some people in Beaujolais chaptalize; if you reach 12% do you need more alcohol?”

One feature of some new producers in Beaujolais is that they don’t come from a winemaking background, and their different approaches to winemaking show that it’s possible to make great Beaujolais in more than one way. Julien Sunier’s parents live in Dijon, but were not involved in wine, but Julien became involved in winemaking, getting an exposure to Beaujolais when he set up a winery for Mommessin. In 2008 he decided to establish his own domain.

Julien’s winery is well off the beaten track for Beaujolais, in a converted farm in Avenas, which originally he bought as a residence. “The elevation here is 750 m,” he says, “and you know you can’t have vines above 600 m in Beaujolais.” Originally he bought the farm to be a place to live. “I had a bad idea of Beaujolais when I came here, the Nouveau idea,” he says, “but after working at Mommessin I decided to start my own domain.” We tasted his wines in the living room of his stylish house, which used to be a cow shed; the winery is adjacent. He rents vineyards in Regnié, Morgon, and Fleurie. “From the start I decided to be organic, and that represents 90% of the effort,” he says.

Julien’s house, stylishly converted from a cow barn, is at the left; the winery is at the right, with tanks outside to take advantage of the natural cooling of 700m elevation.

“Winemaking is natural, we do not use any of the 250 oenological preparations. We stopped chaptalization and filtration in 2010 and I add only a gram of sulfur at bottling.” The length of maceration varies. “If it’s a rich year I will leave it on the skins and do something generous, but we don’t look for extraction, I won’t do pigeage or pumping over. So even when there is a long maceration, there is not too much extraction. I want the vintage to present itself.”

Julien’s entry level wine is a Vin de France called Wild Son. It comes from purchased grapes from Beaujolais Villages—the hailstorms of the past two years left many growers short of grapes so that unusually they decided to buy some to augment production—and it shows slightly spicy red fruits with just a touch of aromatics. “This is an example of Gamay made in the old way, when I taste with people from the village they say it’s like the wine their grandparents made. I didn’t invent anything, I’m just trying to forget the last 60 years.” It’s declassified to Vin de France because of continuous problems getting the agrément for the AOP. “The people who do the agrément don’t like my style, they like thermovinification [a winemaking method that critics say homogenizes wines]. I’ll play the game for the Crus, but for this I wanted to emphasize the domain.”

For the Crus, wines are transferred to barriques before fermentation has ended, so they really get some exposure to lees as they age. In 2016, the Regnié is smooth and silky, the Fleurie is smooth and spicy with hints of Fleurie’s fleshiness showing, and the Morgon is taut, crisp, and precise. Julien points out that when he was at Mommessin he found an old wine list showing that in the 1920s, the Crus of Beaujolais priced the same as Chambolle Musigny, and although he doesn’t say it, you feel that his aim is get back there.

A Bad Experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune

I wish restaurants would adopt rational policies on corkage (as I argued in my previous blog). Alas, rationality in wine policy has not reached France, where I am spending July. I had a particularly bad experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune. Since Beaune is the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, you might expect some sympathy towards people who want to drink special bottles of wine for one reason or another. While there are some restaurants with a good attitude, the Hotel de Beaune is particularly hostile.

One of my visits on the Côte de Beaune was to Albert Grivault, where after a tasting of Meursault and its premier crus, M. Bardet opened an old bottle to illustrate its aging potential. “If Meursault had a Grand Cru, it would be the Clos des Perrières,” he said, as he opened a bottle of the 1985 from his monopole. It was splendid: mature but not too tertiary, with a faint trace of minerality. (What a counterpoise to the problems of aging whites in the Age of Premox!) After the tasting, he very kindly gave us the bottle to finish off with dinner.

We were staying at the Hotel de Beaune, which I have regarded as my watering hole in Beaune more or less ever since it opened, and we eat at the bistro once or twice on every visit. We always order a bottle from the list, but this time I took the Clos des Perrières along and asked if as a favor we could drink it with our meal. The waiter went off to ask his boss, who went off to ask the owner, and then came back to say “Pas Possible.” I explained that this was an unusual situation, and that we had to drink the bottle that evening because it had been opened and would not keep, I offered to buy a bottle from the list but drink the Clos des Perrières instead, but “Pas Possible.”

The bistro at the Hotel de Beaune where the attitude has become “pas possible”.

So we took our bottle and went round the corner to L’Ecrit Vin, where the reception could not have been more different. “You have a special bottle, we have special glasses,” said the owner cheerfully, producing some Riedel Burgundy glasses. The staff all showed interest in the wine, which was magnificent: I had been concerned that over some hours since opening it might have become too tertiary, but it went the other way, with its innate minerality really coming to the fore. It seemed younger six hours after opening than in the initial tasting.

I recognize that restaurants can establish whatever policy they like with regards to corkage (and obviously they don’t want people to bring cheap bottles they bought in the town), but as I pointed out in my previous blog, an inflexible policy seems economically against their own interests. The Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune was not full that evening, so all their policy accomplished was the loss of two covers. In case it seems that my description of the Hotel as hostile seems exaggerated, I can only describe our departure. I had not met the owner of the Hotel de Beaune, Johan Björklund, on our previous visits, but he made a point of coming to speak to us when we checked out of the hotel: “I hope you never come back,” he said. Indeed we will not.

A Win-Win Proposal for Wine in Restaurants

For people who believe that enjoying a meal requires a fine bottle of wine to match the food, dining out is becoming problematic. When I started eating out, markups on wines in restaurants usually brought the wine to about double the retail price. (Yes, I realize that makes me sound like Methuselah.) At that level, I certainly felt free to experiment and to try new wines that might interest me. In fact, I often made discoveries from restaurant lists.

With markups now usually bringing wine to three or even four times retail, this is a completely different game. Couple this with sharp increases in retail prices from classic wine regions, and this means that it becomes more or less prohibitive to order Bordeaux or Burgundy from a restaurant list.

Enter corkage. While once it was all but impossible to find restaurants that would let you bring your own wine, this has now become much easier in London and New York, to the point at which there are enough choices that I feel able simply  to avoid restaurants that do not have a corkage policy. It’s especially noticeable that new restaurants, for whom the cost of establishing a good wine list is significant, seem more reasonable about corkage than longer established restaurants.

Offering the sommelier a taste when you take a wine to restaurant sometimes leads to an interesting discussion. I was enormously impressed by one restaurant in London which not only has a reasonable corkage policy, but where the sommelier reacted to my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Provence by saying, “I like your wine, it is very interesting, and I will investigate getting some for our list.”

It is noticeable (perhaps counter intuitively) that it’s the restaurants that have an interest in wine, and which really try to have interesting wine lists, that are more receptive to corkage than those who simply buy their list from a distributor and regard it as no more than a profit center. Whatever the quality of the list, I think the restaurant is acting against its own economic interests by refusing to allow corkage. Unless the food is basically sold at break-even, and all the profits come from selling wine, what purpose does it serve in effect to tell winelovers to go somewhere else. Unless the restaurant is always full, all that has been accomplished is to keep a table empty.

A rationale way to handle corkage would be to charge the average profit on a bottle of wine. That way it would make no difference to the restaurant whether you brought a bottle and paid corkage or bought from the list. Another would be simply to charge the cost of the cheapest wine on the list (and the restaurant comes out ahead because they get to keep the bottle). Is it too much to ask that restaurateurs should realize it’s a win-win situation to have a corkage policy that is financially neutral for their bottom line?

Tales of Superlative and Other Wine Service

I have a test for attentive wine service in a restaurant. I stretch out my hand to pick up the bottle from the table or from an ice bucket close by, but before I can grasp it, the sommelier is there. (You might argue that we should never get to the stage at which I feel the need to refill the glass, of course, but sometimes it might not be immediately obvious.) If the sommelier arrives after I have poured the wine and says reproachfully, allow me, as he puts the bottle back, he has failed the test.

I agree with Frank Prial, who wrote some wonderful articles in the New York Times years ago, arguing that he felt proprietary towards a bottle he had ordered in a restaurant and would prefer to be allowed to pour his own—my particular beef is when too much wine is poured; my companion, the Anima Figure, does not like to drink too much, but I find it embarrassing to continually stop sommeliers from over filling her glass—but I view having complete control of the bottle as a lost cause. (Frank Prial said, “The days of wine rituals are coming to an end. And as Ko-Ko says in ‘The Mikado’: ‘And they’ll none of ’em be missed; they’ll none of ’em be missed’,” but I think he was overly optimistic.)

The situation is usually more easily controlled with red wine, which is most often left on the table, than with white, when the ice bucket is not necessarily within reach. But whether the wine is red or white, I believe that if a sommelier is going to put the bottle somewhere out of my reach, he has created an obligation absolutely to be there the moment my glass is empty. Alas this does not always happen.

At one famous restaurant not a million miles from Mâcon, I had two contradictory experiences of brilliant wine service and falling down on the job. I ordered a bottle of Leflaive’s Puligny Montrachet, Clavoillons premier cru. The sommelier came back to say they had run out—but offered the Les Pucelles premier cru from the same vintage at the same price. This was an extremely handsome offer as the price of Pucelles on the list was double that of Clavoillons. This is really harking back to old values, I thought, these days they would more often come back and say, sorry, you’ll have to choose something else. But then during the dinner, my glass ran out, without a sommelier in sight. Against the protestations of my companion, I walked over to the ice bucket a few feet away, collected the bottle and poured us both wine, and then returned the bottle. No one noticed, even when I repeated the performance a little while later.

It’s an affectation to put the bottle where the customer can’t reach it. An equal affectation is not to put any salt on the table. Since individual tastes for salt vary so widely, it is impossible to predict who will or will not want it. Just as with wine, if the salt isn’t within reach, the restaurant has created a burden for itself, but I can’t count how often a hot course has been put on the table, lovingly described by the waiter to the point of listing all the ingredients—but then the moment you actually come to taste it, all the waiters have disappeared, and where is the salt? I feel like the King and the Dairymaid: “All I want is a little bit of butter with my bread.”

So make up your minds, restaurateurs. Either  make sure the wine is always in reach and put salt on the table, or train your staff to be absolutely sure that someone is watching every table every single second.

Chablis Diary: the New Wave in Chablis

I was going to call this blog “the Young Turks of Chablis,” but that would not have been quite accurate since change is not so much coming from a younger generation as from producers who have simply rethought what sort of wine they want to make. The common feature lies with people who established domains relatively recently, sometimes turning around old family domains with a change of generations, sometimes starting from scratch.

Chablis seems to me to have shown less change than other areas of Burgundy over the past twenty or thirty years. Whereas on the Côte d’Or there has been a steady move towards growers bottling their own wines, and recently “micro-negociants” have become the form of expression for producers who do not own vineyards but want to make high quality wine, in Chablis there remain many small growers who send their grapes to the cooperative (admittedly La Chablisienne is one of the best co-ops in France).

Large producers from Beaune have not made a huge impact in Chablis, although Drouhin-Vaudon is long established, Louis Latour bought Simonnet-Febvre in 2003, and Faiveley bought Billaud-Simon in 2014. Land prices in Chablis have not soared in the same way as the Côte d’Or, but fragmented holdings and unwillingness to sell have restricted supply, so it has not been easy for new producers to come into the market. However, in the past few years there have (finally) been some changes, and visiting this week, I found several (relatively) new, dynamic producers.

I found the first Young Turk on a previous visit in 2014 (A Visit to Patrick Piuze). Patrick’s driving force is interest in the variety of terroirs. “The essence of the place depends on the mosaic of soils, when you realize this you want to make lots of cuvees not just one. Most people here blend, they don’t worry if the vines are old. We try to buy grapes we like from special sites. I want to be as close as possible to a domaine without having to purchase land.” A bit tight when young, his wines have real intensity, with alcohol levels a bit lower than average.

My first visit this week was to Catherine & Louis Poitout, who have set up their domain in an old building on the banks of the Serein. The domain started in 2011 with family vineyards from both sides. There were many small parcels of varying qualities, and in 2012 the holdings were rationalized. “The true taste of Chablis is mineral, with the most simple vinification,” says Louis. “We do the same vinification for all cuvées. There is never any wood, everything is kept as simple as possible.” The range extends from a direct and fruity Petit Chablis, to Chablis Bienommé where minerality begins to emerge, Chablis Les Venerées from old vines, offering increased sense of texture, and premier crus Vaucoupin (all minerality) and Les Fourneaux (herbal and round).

The Pitout domain is in a charming old house on the banks of the Serein.

But the most unusual Pitout wine may be the Vin de France, Franc de Pied, L’Inextinct, which as its name indicates, comes from very old, ungrafted vines. “We found this parcel in 2012, it was in very bad condition, the vines had been cut across at the base, and everyone thought they would die because they’d been cut at the graft, but they just regrew. They are ungrafted and we regenerate them by the old method of sticking a shoot in the soil. The wine is labeled as Vin de France because it doesn’t fit our idea of Petit Chablis, and it’s not in Chablis AOP.” It offers great sense of fruit purity, with richness on the palate, but retaining the liveliness of Chablis.

The Fèvres are a very old family in Chablis, but the husband and wife team of Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre formed their own domain relatively recently. Both Gilles’s grandfather and father were presidents of the cooperative, and Nathalie was the oenologue. “In 2003 we decided to form our own domain so we left the coop,” Gilles explains. With 12 ha of family vineyards, they built a small winery, and then in 2005 the domain expanded to 50 ha with the inheritance of more family vineyards. “All the wines are around the village (Fontenay-près-Chablis), basically between here and the grand crus, so we are a right bank domain.” The Petit Chablis is lively and crisp, intended to be consumed in the first year, Chablis has greater weight and more fragrancy, Fourchaume has greater sense of texture and that fragrancy of the house style comes out more clearly, Valourent moves towards greater richness, and Preuses shows more subtlety. A tasting here is a real demonstration of differences in right bank terroirs. “You can taste the difference in the grapes from different terroirs when they come into the cuve,” says Nathalie. There is light use of wood in vinification. “We think 30% in barriques is enough, we want to keep freshness and minerality, Chablis should be tense and mineral.”

Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre constructed their winery in the heart of the vineyards at Fontenay-près-Chablis.

Samuel Billaud spent twenty years making the wine at the family domain, Billaud Simon, sold to Faiveley in 2014, before leaving to form his own domain, which is now located in renovated mediaeval buildings right under the ramparts of Chablis. The very stylish cuverie has many small stainless steel fermenters to allow vinification by parcel. He has a few family vineyards but also buys grapes as a negociant. His bright style brings out lively citrus flavors across the range, starting with a Petit Chablis coming from a vineyard that used to be considered at premier cru level long ago but was not included in the AOC. The same style follows in a Bourgogne that is a blend between the areas of Chablis and Mâcon, and then the style intensifies in the Chablis. There’s increased sense of focus and precision in the premier crus, increased richness moving from left bank to right bank, and then from premier cru to grand cru. There’s consistency of style, with greater texture and flavor variety, and more subtle impressions, moving up the range.

Samuel Billaud’s domain is a cluster of old buildings around a courtyard in the center of Chablis.

My last visit in Chablis was to Thomas Pico who created Domaine Pattes Loups with only two hectares of family vineyards when he decided that he wanted to be organic, but his father, at Domaine Bois d’Hiver, didn’t want to make the conversion. Today Thomas has about 12 ha for Pattes Loup (with roughly an equal area remaining in Bois d’Hiver). Even allowing for the fact the most of the wines were tasted from cuve, because the 2015 vintage is undergoing an unusually long élevage, these were among the most concentrated and forceful wines I tasted in Chablis. Fruits tend to citrus, bright and intense. It takes about a year for the wines to develop roundness; the 2014s are just beginning to soften. Thomas is committed to an artisanal approach. My companion, the Anima Figure, remarked that winemaking has become more scientific. “No it hasn’t,” Thomas shot back.

Thomas Pico has a modern building for Domaine Pattes Loup in the village of Corgis.

Each of these producers has their own style, of course, but the common feature is a sense of authenticity, a commitment to a view of the typicity of Chablis that preserves freshness and minerality. It’s a wonderfully refreshing antithesis to a general tendency to make all wines taste the same, with vaguely amorphous soft aromatics that can be attractive but don’t convey a sense of place.

Here are suggestions for reference wines that give a good idea of the style of each producer:

  • L & C Poitout, Chablis, Les Venérés
  • Nathalie et Gilles Fevre, Fourchaume
  • Samuel Billaud, Mont de Milieu
  • Pattes Loup, Chablis, Vente d’Ange

 

Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

You sniff a glass of wine: it has a bouquet of aromas characteristic of its variety, promising an interesting palate. The palate is full of the anticipated flavors, rich and perhaps a touch exuberant, but not yet multi-dimensional as this is a recently released young wine. This is a beautifully crafted wine, representing its region and grape variety, but then a sense of warmth hits you on the finish, sometimes running into an impression of overt heat. The wine would be perfect if only it had a percent or so less alcohol. I have had this experience many times on this visit to Napa.

When asked about alcohol levels, a small minority of winemakers in Napa say it’s a concern, but most say this is what the climate gives you, and the wine is balanced, so there is no problem. Well, my response is yes and no. Generally the wine is balanced, and at a tasting you may not always notice the high alcohol, although it may express itself more forcefully in the course of drinking a bottle with a meal. But even when alcohol is not obvious, I believe the reason is that the balance that is necessary to hide it involves more extraction. It’s the combination of high alcohol and extract that makes the wine fatiguing rather than the alcohol alone—after all, fino Sherry is 15% alcohol and can be delicate and elegant. Indeed, some wines are getting into fortified territory. My companion, the Anima Figure, who is less tolerant of high alcohol than I am, commented on a Chardonnay at dinner, “This winemaker should be working in a distillery,” because the sense of raw spirits entirely hid the fruits.tokalon10

Napa Valley viewed from the To-Kalon vineyard.

Balance is surely a compromise, and the problem, I think, is that achieving phenolic ripeness is regarded as the ne plus ultra, so all other aspects of balance are pushed into the background. Okay, in the old days balance used to be regarded as basically getting enough sugar to achieve 12% or 12.5% alcohol; next a slightly more sophisticated approach was to look at sugar/acid ratios: it was assumed that if the ratio was about right the wine would be good. Those wines would be regarded as seriously unripe by the criterion of phenolic ripeness (although that is not so new: in ancient Rome, Pliny recommended tasting the seeds to judge when grapes were ready for harvest).

But does making phenolic ripeness the single criterion for harvest achieve balance? What if phenolic ripeness is achieved at punishing alcohol levels—Pinot Noir at 15% or more, Cabernet Sauvignon at 15.5% and up, Zinfandel well into the 16%s. Doesn’t “balance” imply making some compromise between sugar, acid, and phenolic ripeness, in which the first two count for something, if perhaps not as much as the last? Is it heretical to ask whether the wine might actually be better if the grapes were picked at slightly lower ripeness, but with better balanced sugar and acidity?

I question whether it’s a true balance if grapes are picked solely for ripeness and then acidity is added, alcohol is adjusted, or water is added to get to more acceptable parameters. (I have not found a single winemaker in Napa who denies needing to use watering back at some point: adding water when the sugar level is too high is now legal, but it seems a dubious means for achieving balance.) Part of the problem is that the current generation of winemakers is not really conscious of the great change in alcohol levels. “This vintage is quite moderate, alcohol is only 14.5%,” one winemaker said, “sometimes we have been pushed up over 15%.” Another said, “As long as I’ve been making wines, I have never seen alcohol below 14%.”

When 14.5% alcohol can be regarded as moderate, we are in big trouble. Even if I enjoy it at a tasting, it is too fatiguing to share a bottle over a meal. My own rebellion against this is not to purchase any wine for my cellar which is over 14% alcohol, and to look at the label before opening a bottle at a restaurant: if it’s over 14% I send it back and make another choice. I recognize that a one man consumer rebellion won’t get very far but you have to start somewhere.

The mantra in Napa Valley is that the Cabernets can be enjoyed more or less on release but will also age well. How soon you can drink them depends largely on your tolerance for tannin in young wine; for my palate most of these wines really need four or five years before the tannins calm down enough to let fruit flavor variety show, but more to the point is that alcohol is likely to become more evident as the tannins and fruits lighten up. With lower alcohol, many of these wines would have great potential for classic longevity; but with alcohol around 15%, I suspect they are Cheshire Cat wines: the grin of the alcohol may be all that is left.

What can be done about this? Part of the problem is that the current combinations of rootstocks and cultivars are generating higher sugar levels in the grapes. One change came when AxR1, widely planted in Napa, had to be replaced because of its sensitivity to phylloxera: the rootstocks that replaced it give higher growth rates. Another is that the ENTAV clones introduced over the past decade or so were selected thirty years ago in a cooler period specifically in order to ripen sooner to avoid past problems with insufficient accumulation of sugar. We need new clones and rootstocks designed for the era of global warming. But that takes time: right now winemakers need to start regarding balance as something where reasonable alcohol and acidity are part of the equation as well as phenolic ripeness, and not ancillary factors that you either live with or adjust artificially when they get completely out of control.