Visit to Porto and Douro: Day 2 Tasting at Ramos Pinto

One of my objectives in visiting the Douro is to define the style of each Port House. Some are more distinct than others, of course. At Taylor Fladgate yesterday morning, Croft seemed to have the most overt style, Fonseca was generous as always, and Taylor was the most refined and precise. Then in the afternoon, Churchill showed a characteristic thread of acidity, sometimes verging on minerality, always precise, through both tawnies and rubies. Today I spent the morning at Ramos Pinto with Ana Rosas, the fifth generation of the family to be involved in winemaking, who has recently taken over as their master blender.

Ramos Pinto has long been known for the quality of their tawny ports. “Tawny really is the soul of Port, it’s what the house is about, it’s how we have learned to age the wines, it’s the style of the house,” says Ana.

Defining style was a challenge as the ten year aged tawny comes from their vineyard in Douro Superior, Quinta de Ervamoira (near Foz Coa), while the twenty year tawny comes from Bom Retiro in Cima Corgo. The ten year shows all the power of the Douro Superior, the hottest and driest part of the region; in fact, the average age is between 12 and 13 years because the wines are initially so intensely colored that they take longer then ten years for the color to attenuate to the point at which the wine can be approved for tawny port. It’s still quite dark for a tawny.

The twenty year was my favorite in the tasting, expressing the full delicacy and nuance of the aged tawny style. We are also tasted some of the wines that are blended into it, some very old and concentrated (like the 1924 and 1964) so that only very small amounts are used. How many different lots are blended, I asked Ana. “I really don’t know,” she said, “it’s too many to count and the amounts that are used vary widely.” In the tasting room, there’s a large array of small bottles with samples of wines for blending. Ana calls this her piano.

RamosPinto1The “piano” of samples for blending

The 30-year tawny shows more concentration and intensity than the 10-year or 20-year, with a style that’s between them in terms of the balance between power and elegance, as it’s a blend from both Ervamoira and Bom Retiro and other vineyards (all owned by Ramos Pinto, who use only estate grapes). Ramos Pinto do not usually produce a 40-year tawny (you might certainly feel that the 30-year takes the style as far as it can go) but exceptionally there is presently a 40-year tawny, made in tiny amounts as a celebration, which shows the style of the 20-year taken to an even higher level of concentration.

So I may have failed in my basic objective of defining style, but I’m happy to say that in effect there’s a style for everyone here: 10-year or perhaps 30-year if you like some forcefulness, and 20-year if you prize delicacy.

20-year Aged Tawny

Light elegant color is a marked contrast with the depth of the 10-year. Very fine elegant impression to nose in quite distinct style. Refined on the palate with a delicate nutty impression, with a lovely balance supported by lacy acidity. Overall an impression of beautiful delicacy.

30-year Aged Tawny

Fine impression to nose, with more intensity but less delicacy than the 20-year. Lots of concentration and flavor, but maintains freshness, with a lingering, sweet, nutty aftertaste.

We also tasted some old vintage Ports, going back from 2000 to 1924. My favorite was the 1963.

Vintage 1963

Very soft on palate, lightening in color and aroma, you might say the spectrum is part way to tawny. Very fine and just a touch spirity as it develops.

 

RP2The Ramos Pinto Lodge on the waterfront at Gaia.

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Retroactive Blending

You don’t often get the chance to reconsider the blend ten years on, but this is what happened when I visited Château Léoville Lascases in St. Julien. We started with a tasting of the individual varieties from 1999. That year the Grand Vin was 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Merlot (there is no Petit Verdot because they believe it is too rustic.) Samples of the individual varieties were bottled separately (starting in new oak and then transferring to one year oak, to give an overall exposure close to the grand vin’s 60% new oak).

The Merlot showed surprisingly fresh red fruits, with just a touch of tertiary development. The Cabernet Franc was evidently more refined, more elegant, than the other varieties and showed a faint herbaceous touch with an impression of tobacco. It was less developed than the other two varieties.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was quite stern, and gave the most complete impression of any of the single varieties, showing as black fruits with a herbal edge and a touch of herbaceousness showing only on the aftertaste. It’s the most closely related (not surprising since it’s dominant component) to the Grand Vin.

The Grand Vin showed more development than was evident with any of the individual varieties, bringing greater complexity. This has certainly taken its superficial softness and roundness from the Merlot, but you can see the Spartan structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon coming through the fruits; in fact, in some ways it seems more evident here than it did in the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon alone (perhaps because the combination of fruits has less weight than the Cabernet Sauvignon alone), but the overall balance is rescued by the freshness of the finish. There is no doubt that the blend is more complex than its components. In terms of overall assessment, this is a fairly tight wine, with the fruits showing just enough roundness to counteract the leanness of this difficult year.

The most fascinating moment came when technical director Michael Georges made some new blends to see what the effect would be of increasing each variety by another 10%. I liked the blends with more Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc; they seemed to me to have at least as good a balance of fruit to structure as the Grand Vin. I could believe that either of them might be Léoville Lascases. But the blend with additional Merlot seemed to be unbalanced, to have a rusticity that had lost the character of St. Julien: I would not believe in this as a Léoville Lascases. The trick seems to be to add just enough Merlot to flesh out the wine, but not enough to go over the edge into rusticity. Further experimentation suggested that the ideal blend might have just 5% more of each Cabernet; it seemed to me that this showed just a touch more finesse than the Grand Vin. “Perhaps we should wait ten years to do the assemblage,” said Michael Georges, but then we agreed that this might have some adverse financial consequences.

For me this tasting also cast an interesting light on the question of whether assemblage should be done early or late. Some people believe that the sooner the cépages are blended, the better they marry together, and the better the final wine. The earliest practical moment is after malolactic fermentation is finished. Others hold the contrary position, that you are in a better position to judge the quality of each lot if you keep the individual cépages separate until the last moment. I felt that the retroactive blend with 5% more of each Cabernet had more youthful liveliness than the Grand Vin, but then it might of course have developed differently had this been the blend from the beginning. Based on this limited experience, I’m inclined to the view that it might be best to mature each lot separately, allowing for significant adjustment of oak and variety, as long as possible, and I think it would be very interesting to see what the châteaux would do if they weren’t under pressure from the en primeur system to blend before the April tastings.

Blending Cabernet: it’s the history, stupid

In Bordeaux they will tell you that Merlot is the perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, because the Cabernet doesn’t always ripen reliably on the left bank, and the fleshier tones of Merlot complement it by filling in the mid palate. In Napa they will tell you that Cabernet Sauvignon ripens so fully and reliably here that there is no need for Merlot; it makes a complete wine in itself. In Chile they used to follow the Bordeaux model by blending the Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot; but then it turned out that most of the Merlot wasn’t Merlot, it was really Carmenere; they did not throw up their hands with horror, tear out the Carmenere and replace it with real Merlot; now instead they make a point of producing varietal Carmenere or of blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Argentina, if they blend Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s usually with Malbec, which is the predominant black variety. In nineteenth century Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon was usually blended  with Malbec and Carmenere as well as Cabernet Franc: the Malbec was replaced by Merlot, and the Carmenere disappeared after phylloxera struck. The blend everywhere is as much a matter of historical accident as a deliberate search for what varieties best complement one another. So the question is whether Cabernet Sauvignon still needs to be blended, given that the climate is warmer  in Bordeaux than it used to be, and that the other areas where it is planted are mostly warmer than Bordeaux anyway.  And if it does need to be blended, what other varieti(es) really give the best complexity, and are they necessarily the same in every region.

Even though Bordeaux has experienced warmer temperatures in the past decade, tastings of barrel samples have convinced me that the Cabernet Sauvignon makes a more interesting wine when it is blended. As a single varietal wine, it tends to have very pure, precise, but more linear flavors: it broadens out to become more interesting when blended. I believe the same is actually true in Napa, but not for the conventional reason. Young Napa Cabernets can be so bursting with fruit that you really do not see any need for any other variety to round out and complete the flavor profile. But wait a few years. As those primary fruits drop out, the wine begins to become more linear, more austere, the bare bones of Cabernet show more clearly, and you feel that by ten years of age it would very often be improved by some Merlot, which brings more interesting savory development.

A recent visit to Chile left me wondering about the rationale for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere. If you think you have difficulties ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, try Carmenere – which usually harvests about one month after the Cabernet Sauvignon. That alone shows you why it became untenable in Bordeaux. Even in Chile, where the Cabernet ripens quite reliably, Carmenere can be questionable; it needs to be grown in the warmer sites. When it ripens fully, it develops a smooth, elegant palate, with tannins that seem more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it brings elegance to a blend. When it does not ripen successfully, it has something of the same herbaceousness as Cabernet Sauvignon itself, so it’s something of a double or quits game.

Malbec is somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon: not as fleshy as Merlot, but certainly smoother and more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon. Under peak conditions, Malbec may be a more interesting blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot, because the tannic structure is complementary: the more supple character of Malbec adds smoothness to the tighter structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It doesn’t fill in on the mid palate in quite the same way, so the wine tends more to elegance than fruit-driven power.

For roughly a hundred years, from its rise following the phylloxera problem in the 1880s until a couple of decades ago, Merlot was the perfect blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. This is not true in the warmer climates of Napa and Chile, where the “Merlot collapse problem” describes the situation in which Merlot goes straight from green, herbaceous character to over-ripe jammy character, with too narrow a chance to catch it at the right point. I sometimes wonder whether Napa’s concentration on varietal Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t due as much to their difficulties with Merlot as to the attractions of the Cabernet. I am inclined to wonder whether Syrah would be a good choice, since it has richer tannins than Cabernet and can add a touch of aromatics that increases complexity, but Napa seems fixated on a bimodal view: it’s either Cabernet or it’s a Bordeaux blend. Syrah  might also do well in Argentina and Chile, but the accidents of history mean that Malbec and Carmenere are well entrenched. Come to that, it may be time for Bordeaux to reconsider, because in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, the Merlot became so ripe and alcoholic that in many cases it was impossible to blend it into the Grand Vin and it was relegated to the second wine. (An amusing paradox here, since that can make the second wine higher in alcohol than the Grand Vin, and the concept that higher alcohol goes with wines at higher appellation levels is well entrenched in the French hierarchy.) How about going back to Malbec or Carmenere in the Medoc – or maybe Syrah.

Cabernet Sauvignon: To Blend or Not to Blend

One of the questions I’ve begun to think about as I start the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon is whether the traditional difference between blended wines in Bordeaux but varietal wines in Napa is still justified.

Blending in Bordeaux originated as a protection against failure of any one variety in a climate that was marginal (at least for the varieties being grown). Cabernet Sauvignon did not ripen reliably every year on the left bank, so blending with varieties that ripened more easily (originally with Malbec, later with Merlot) offered two advantages: adding riper flavors to the wine than would be obtained with Cabernet Sauvignon alone; and being able to vary the composition of the blend to respond to failures and successes each year. It also allowed more vineyard area to be cultivated, since Merlot will ripen in spots where Cabernet is not successful. (On the right bank, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon is even harder to ripen and so is generally replaced by Cabernet Franc, but the same principle applies). Even today, with warmer vintages and better viticulture, there is still significant variation in annual usage of each variety; Chateau Palmer, for example, has varied from 40% Cabernet Sauvignon to 68% in the first decade of this century.

The contrasting focus on monovarietal wine in Napa Valley comes partly from the move to varietal labeling that was stimulated by Frank Schoonmaker after the second world war, and which became standard in the New World. (Before then, most wines were labeled by reference to Europe with generic names such as Claret or Burgundy.) Of course, at first the situation in California was not in fact too different from that in Europe, because the rules were so lax that a wine could be labeled with a varietal name so long as it had more than 50% of the variety. Slowly the rules became tightened until reaching today’s minimum limit of 75%. The rationale for making monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon is that the grapes ripen more reliably in Napa than they did in Bordeaux, the result being that the mid palate is full of fruit, and does not need to be filled in by Merlot or other varieties. Proponents of monovarietals would argue that Cabernet Sauvignon achieves a full flavor spectrum in Napa without needing assistance from other varieties, in fact, I suppose they might take this argument to the logical conclusion of saying that you can only really appreciate the full varietal force of Cabernet Sauvignon if you don’t weaken it with other varieties.

But do these arguments for a fundamental difference in approach still hold up? In the past two decades, climate change has seen temperatures in Bordeaux warm to basically those that Napa showed in the 1970s. Napa has also warmed up a bit, but the gap has narrowed. Climate change has caused somewhat of a change in attitude to winemaking. One of the themes of my book is that prior to 1982, the issue in Bordeaux was trying to get Cabernet to ripeness; the issue in Napa was taming the ripeness to achieve a Bordeaux-like elegancy. Post 1982, a change in consumer attitudes meant that riper, fuller wines were desirable – no more of that touch of herbaceousness that characterized traditional Bordeaux. Coupled with the move to picking on “phenolic ripeness” rather than sugar levels, this led to increasing alcohol levels in the wines. Now the problem everywhere is to control the ripeness. It’s still true that Napa reaches greater ripeness than Bordeaux, typically resulting in an extra per cent of alcohol.

Is it the case that this extra ripeness means that Cabernet Sauvignon is complete in itself or is it true rather that blending even with small amounts of other varieties increases complexity? Should the Bordelais reconsider their view that monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon is uncouth; or should the Napa producers move to blending in at least a little Merlot to add variety? Before trying to answer this question, it seems to me that the basic facts need to be established. After all, wines labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa can have up to 25% of other varieties, and even small amounts of secondary varieties can have a significant effect on taste. I remember a blending exercise we did on a Master of Wine trip to Bordeaux where it was surprising what a difference it made to the feeling of completeness in the overall blend when just a tiny percentage of Petit Verdot was included. The question is whether in comparing Bordeaux and Napa we are comparing blended wine with monovarietal wine, or whether we are comparing wines blended with a smaller overall proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon with wines blended with a greater proportion.  So I propose to begin by trying to establish the constitution of wines that are varietal-labeled by determining just how many are really 100% Cabernet and how many have a minor component of another variety. That should be the starting point for an investigation of whether the best wines will be made by blending in Bordeaux but not in Napa. Of course, the answer might depend to some extent on the criteria: mine will be for complexity and elegance in the wine.

In the Médoc, there is a de facto association between quality and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first growths have higher average levels of Cabernet Sauvignon than the second growths, the other grand cru classés are lower, and cru bourgeois are lower yet. (Some of the top wines have more than the 75% Cabernet Sauvignon that would be required for them to be labeled as varietals in Napa!) Whether this is due to the fact that the first growths have better terroir (that is, more reliably capable of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon) or is due to more commercial factors is hard to say, but the fact is that there’s a correlation (albeit rather a loose one) between proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and position in the marketplace. What does this tell us about Napa, where the majority of wines have more than 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (that is, are varietal-labeled), although they do not necessarily show a price advantage over other Cabernet-based wines. Some of the most expensive cult wines are labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon, others as Proprietary Red. (Of course, whether the varietal-labeled wines are monovarietal remains to be seen.) Cabernet-based wines are certainly at the top of Napa’s hierarchy, but they don’t have to be varietal-labeled.

Which leads me to another thought. The difference between wines of the Médoc and Napa Valley has narrowed since the turning point of 1982. There is a convergence on what is sometimes called the “international” style, focusing on fruits. Partly this is due to Bordeaux closing the temperature gap with Napa, partly it is due to adoption of shared attitudes on viticulture and vinification. (Also notable is the fact that Bordeaux has increasingly moved in the direction of Merlot to obtain those richer flavors: plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux peaked at 32% in 1990 but today are only 24%, although the Médoc remains around 60%.) It is definitely more difficult to be confident of distinguishing the wines in blind tastings. So to what extent are the differences due to the focus on blending in Bordeaux as opposed to varietal focus in Napa? Would the answer become clear from a comparative tasting of Meritage wines (Bordeaux-like blends from Napa) against Napa or Bordeaux? And of course back to the basic question: what makes the best wine?