A Visit with Coche Dury: A Delicious 2015 Vintage

Coche Dury has long been one of the most reputed domains in Meursault, famously difficult to visit when Jean-François Coche Dury, known for his reticence, was in charge, somewhat easier now his son Rafaël has taken over. It is still very much a hands-on domain: when I visited last week, Rafaël came straight from the vineyard for our tasting.

Coche-Dury’s winery has recently been extended (at left).

On the road through Meursault, the house is surrounded by vines on three sides, and you can see the church a couple of hundred yards away. Round the back is a second building that has just been extended. While we were waiting for Rafaël, a large door suddenly opened in the new extension, and rather Bond-like, a formidable-looking tractor emerged and set off for the vineyards.

Rafaël is the fourth generation. His great grandfather bought the first vineyard when he returned after being a prisoner of war in the first world war. He continued to work at another domain while buying vineyards, and Rafaël’s grandfather, Georges, continued to accumulate vineyards, although he did not bottle the majority of his wines until the 1960s. When Jean-François started in the 1970s, there were many good opportunities to buy vineyards, and he set up Domaine Coche Dury (Dury being the name of his wife). “Today this would not be possible, because vineyards are so expensive,” Rafaël says ruefully. When Georges retired in 1985, his vineyards came to Jean-François, who retired in 2010. Rafaël has been at the domain since 1999.

From 10 ha of vines there are seven cuvées, starting with the village Meursault. Most of the vineyards are near the house, the most outlying being plots in Puligny Montrachet Enseignères and the Meursault Caillerets (adjacent to Volnay Caillerets). Winemaking is constant. “Élevage always lasts for 18 months and we are not going to change it.” The approach is artisanal to the extent of allowing malolactic fermentation to occur or not occur. “The timing of the malo is very variable, from December after the harvest to almost a year later. Occasionally a barrel does not do malo, I consider that is its wish, but it’s very rare.”

You can see the church in Meursault across Coche-Dury’s vineyards.

Tasting through the entire range of 2015s, the wines already show as delicious. “We harvested the vintage strategically to avoid predicted hailstorms, but fortunately for us they departed for Chablis.” Harvest started unusually early, at the very end of August. “We can’t make wine steadily, like twenty years ago, there is more variation now. It’s very stressful for the vigneron, every year is really different, but it’s been very good for the consumer.”

Usually some time is needed for the intense minerality that characterizes Coche-Dury’s wines to integrate, but the 2015 can virtually all be approached already. Usually “the minimum time to wait is four or five years, but the wines are formidable after ten years, and the Corton Charlemagne will be even better at fifteen years. We haven’t had any great problems with premox, only some occasional bottles.”

Meursault Chevalier 2015 opens with stone fruits in front of citrus, with that steely minerality in the background, and the comparison with Puligny Enseignères epitomizes the different between Meursault and Puligny Montrachet: the Enseignères showcases the linear precision of Puligny. Meursault Caillerets shows the breadth of Meursault more clearly than minerality at the present, Meursault Genevrières is tightly wound, and it’s only the forward character of 2015 that makes it at all approachable now. Meursault Perrières has more penetrating acidity, showing a Rolls Royce sense of power. With more roundness, Corton Charlemagne is almost perfumed behind the smoky oak and citrus palate. “C’est la douceur du Charlemagne,” Rafaël says. Every drop a grand cru: my companion, the Anima Figure, stopped spitting out.

Although they aren’t as well known as the whites, Coche Dury also has some reds. The quality of the domain shows through just as clearly, with each seeming to be equivalent to an appellation one notch above its level. Bourgogne rouge comes from two parcels close to the house; very round for Bourgogne, it makes a faintly nutty impression. Auxey Duresses has lovely aromatics of red cherries, with some faint hints of tobacco at the end. Meursault rouge makes an impression of round cherry fruits, but the palate is quite reserved and needs more time to come around.

Conditions in 2015 seemed to raise some concerns whether whites from the Côte de Beaune might be a little too rich, even a little too flabby, for greatness, which was a problem with some 2009s, but at least at Coche Dury, it seems you can have your wine and drink it: most are already openly delicious, but they should age and revert towards the usual steely, mineral character as the baby fat of the young fruits integrates. Perhaps they won’t be as long lived as the 2014s, but they are fabulous wines if you can find—and afford!—them.

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Burgundy Diary part 6: Sea Change in Meursault – Visits to Comtes Lafon, Guy Roulot, Michel Bouzereau, and Pierre Morey

My recent visit to Meursault showed a real change in style from the old view that Meursault is soft, nutty, and buttery (compared with Chassagne Montrachet that has a more citrus edge, and Puligny Montrachet which is taut, precise, and mineral). As Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau explains, “There has been an evolution in Meursault over 20 years, the wines are less rich and opulent than before. People are looking for a finer style.” This applies especially to the premier crus, as “the exposure naturally makes the village wines a little heavier.”

Dominique Lafon has made a similar transition since he took over in 1987 at Comtes Lafon. “During this period (the late eighties and early nineties), winemaking was close to what my father had been doing; he was a classical winemaker, so there was long aging, two years in barrel, with lots of new oak. The premier crus were 100% new oak. That’s what people wanted at the time: big round toasty white Burgundy became very successful, especially in the U.S.A. All the work we’ve done since then has been focused on a move towards elegance. We use just enough new oak for each vineyard but I don’t want to taste it in the wine. Now aging depends on the cru and some spend longer than others.” Is this change typical for Meursault, I asked. “I think it’s typical for the good producers,” is Dominique’s view.

What is the typicity of Meursault, I asked Anne-Marie Morey at Domaine Pierre Morey. “What sort of style should Meursault be: buttery or mineral? Meursault is more butter, Puligny is more mineral, but Meursault is the largest appellation and has terroirs that express both styles. We have the chance to have terroirs that express minerality,” she says. But when asked what changes she has made since taking over, she says, “I think we are not great revolutionaries in Burgundy.”

So you might ask: if there’s something of a consensus to move to a lighter, more mineral style, away from oak and vanillin, what’s the real typicity of Meursault, and what price terroir? If the distinction between Meursault and Puligny is less clear than it used to be, the distinctions between different terroirs within Meursault seem clearer now that the cover of oak and vanillin and butter has been removed. Take the lieu-dits at Domaine Guy Roulot, where Jean-Marc Roulot says, “The style was defined in the sixties by the decisions my father made to separate the cuvees. If you see the difference in the glass it’s justified, but if you don’t there is no point. Excess is the enemy of terroir – too much alcohol or too much oak… Our wine is lightly colored for three reasons: early harvest dates, not too much oak, and not too much battonage.”

“The first difference between the lieu-dits is the exposition, then elevation on the slope, finally the clay-limestone proportions. There’s about a week’s difference in harvest between Luchets and Narvaux.” Going through the 2013s with Jean-Marc, you move from the restraint of Meix Chavaux or Tillets to the rounder impression of Luchets, the gritty texture of Narvaux, and the more powerful Tessons. Each is distinct.

Comtes Lafon may have the widest range of premier crus in Meursault. I tasted all six from 2012 with Dominique Lafon. Bouchères is vibrant and lively, pointing towards citrus, then Poruzots is more stone fruits, Genevrières is rounder with a silky sheen, Charmes, always more backwards, has a smoky restraint, and Perrières is the most powerful. Once again, all are distinct, yet showing that commonality of Lafon’s elegant style.

I didn’t mention Coche Dury because I didn’t visit on this trip, but his wines are really the epitome of minerality in Meursault. Some feel that Arnaud Ente is a very close second in this style. No doubt there are still Meursaults in the old style, fat and oaky, but I have to say that I didn’t encounter any on this trip. Previously I’ve always been a devotée of Puligny for expressing terroir in that ineffably steely, mineral style, but Meursault is now running it a close second. Here are four examples to make the point.

Domaine Pierre Morey, Meursault Tessons, 2009: “This is a mineral terroir: the rock is about 30 cms down and the roots tend to run along the surface. This was a precocious vintage but the wine was slow to develop and elegant,” says Anne-Marie Morey. A slight sense of reduction brings a really savory impression to the citrus fruits – this one won’t succumb to premox. Fruits are elegant, citrusy, and emerging slowly. 89.

Domaine Guy Roulot, Meursault Charmes, 2012: Faintly smoky, mineral nose with citrus fruits. More subtle than Bouchères, more texture, less obvious gloss on surface, but deeper flavors with good extraction and depth. Very fine indeed. 92.

Domaine Comtes Lafon , Meursault Charmes, 2012: Restrained smoky nose. Most overt sense of structure among the premier crus, more granular on palate with strong impression that the structured citrus and stone fruits will last a long time. Tension and texture would be a fair summary. 93.

Domaine Michel Bouzereau, Meursault Genevrières, 2013: Similar to Charmes with citrus hiding some nuts, but more intensity. Lots of extract here, great concentration of fruits marked by citrus and apples, long finish. Deep and concentrated, this might be what Meursault would be like if it had a Grand Cru. 91.

Burgundy Diary part 4: a Visit with Olivier Leflaive (a Force of Nature)

Officially retired, but in practice evident everywhere, Olivier Leflaive is a force of nature. He greets the diners every night at his restaurant and hotel in the town (recommended as an excellent base for visiting producers south of Beaune), and he or his brother conduct tours and tastings every morning at the winery, a modern building on the outskirts of the town.

OlivierLeflaiveTW3Olivier Leflaive’s winery was built in 7 stages over several years

The history of Maison Leflaive is a series of happy accidents. Olivier likes to start at the beginning, in 1635 when Domaine Leflaive already owned vineyards in Puligny, but then he fast-forwards to 1981 when his father Joseph and uncle Vincent were co-managers of Domaine Leflaive. Olivier became co-manager when his father died, and he remained until 1994. “But Leflaive was a small domain, and it had a maître de chai, and it was famous so it wasn’t difficult to sell, it wasn’t challenging enough, and in 1985 I decided to create a negociant. Everyone in Leflaive put in some money.” The business started in the old cellars of Domaine Leflaive – it was big enough for tanks, barrels and bottling; we made 10,000 cases then. The office was my living room and the lab was in the bathroom.” But it expanded rapidly when Frederick Wildman came to Olivier to say they needed a new source of white Burgundy.

The emphasis of the domain is on buying grapes and making the wine. Today there are 120 growers and 80,000 cases. Most of the wine (about 85%) is white; there are 80 different white wines from Montagny to Corton Charlemagne, and a dozen red wines complete the range. “In terms of philosophy and character of wine, I was born in Leflaive style which is finesse and elegance. We don’t want to be champion of the world, for example in alcohol. I don’t want to make wine at 14%. And we use reasonable amounts of new oak, it’s usually about 15%. We don’t want to make excessive battonage. For me I don’t like the garage wines at 15-20 hl/ha, they are too heavy. All this is to explain that my philosophy is to be reasonable, never to excess.”

The profits of the business went into buying vineyards, mainly in Chassagne and Puligny, today totaling about 15 ha. There are also some vineyards that represent Olivier’s part of Domaine Leflaive, which he took over after ownership of the Domaine and Maison separated in 1994. When a wine comes solely from estate grapes, it’s indicated on the label as Récolte de Domaine. This is always true for Chevalier Montrachet, for which the only source is estate grapes: in other locations, there are also purchased grapes, and usually but not always they are blended with the estate grapes.

Control of the vineyards varies according to the arrangement with the grower. “We harvest 35 ha (including our own 15 ha), but we go to each vineyard and check the grapes as they are harvested and brought here. We stay in the vineyard until harvest is finished. We don’t believe anybody here,” is part of the reason for success. About half the white grapes are pressed at source, by the grower, and then the must is immediately transported to the winery. Typical élevage is 10 months in barrique, assemblage, and then tank for several months. There is never more than 20% new oak.

The difficulty in visiting Maison Leflaive is what to taste. “You can taste all 92 wines, from all three vintages that we have at the moment, but then you will have to stay for three days,” Olivier says. We compromise on a selection from the 2012 vintage including premier crus from the three principal communes (Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault), and then taking in Corton Charlemagne. The Puligny Folatières shows focused minerality, Pucelles is richer, Meursault Poruzots has a fuller, broader impression than the Puligny’s, and the Abbaye de Morgeots from Chassagne is the broadest in its expression, with oak just a touch more evident. The Corton Charlemagne has the backbone of the grand cru, with rich fruits of stewed citrus. If I had to choose a single word to describe the style at Maison Leflaive, it would be flavorful.

Burgundy Diary part 1: A Perfect Storm of Premature Oxidation – A Conversation with Dominique Lafon

Until the 1996 vintage, you could count on enjoying premier cru white Burgundy from around 6 or so years after the vintage to well over a decade, and you might start grand crus after 7 or 8 years and enjoy for another decade. Then everything changed abruptly, and wines began to show levels of oxidation after only three or four years: the color would darken, the aromas would resemble Sherry, and the palate would seem to dry out.

No one knows why premox started so suddenly. The first wines I experienced it with were from the 1996 vintage. It was random, with some bottles just fine while others from the same case were affected, and some producers seemed to have less problems than others, but I’ve subsequently had examples even from the producers who seemed immune. It’s been a disaster for anyone who prizes old white Burgundy, with the window for enjoying the wine really foreshortened.

What was most puzzling was that it seemed to affect everyone in a random way. As the problem has continued over the years, it’s become apparent that there isn’t any single, simple explanation. It seems to have been a perfect storm with many different factors contributing. Dominique Lafon has been a leader in looking for solutions. While there are still some producers who deny the severity of the problem, Dominique feels it should be addressed head on, although he points out that people often confuse natural aging with premature oxidation. “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.” He sees the problem as resulting from the accumulation of many factors and has been taking a very scientific approach to pinning them down one by one. “It’s no use changing everything at once,” he says “because then you don’t know what the critical factors are.”

A morning at Comte Lafon ended with a wonderful tasting of his range of premier crus from 2012 and I’ll discuss the changing style of Meursault in a later post, but now I’ll report just on the conversation in which I asked Dominique about the factors that have been associated with premox.

How much of a problem have you had with premox? “The first vintage I really saw problems with was 1999; what puzzled us was that it was very random. The first thing we thought was that we had cork failures – I think we did – but it was showing the fragility of the wine. We started by working on the corks, we asked them to stop the peroxide treatment. (Peroxide, which is a strong oxidizing agent, was introduced to clean corks to avoid treating them with chlorine, which was causing the increased levels of TCA responsible for corked wines.) We went back from silicon coating to paraffin (which makes a better seal).”

“Then I worked on the reduction level, we’ve experimented with the amount of lees we trap – a wine that is more reduced will withstand a small cork failure. We worked to get the right amount of lees that would give just that nice level of reduction. In 1999 we had a huge crop, I was looking for space, and so we had used less lees.”

Is battonage a factor? “My father did a lot but I’ve never done much.” What about racking? “We do at least 18-20 months in barrel, but in the summer we move from young to older barrels, we used to do it with air, and we used to get rid of some of the lees, but I don’t use air now and I keep all the lees. We want to have more carbon dioxide in the wine, which is very protective. And of course raising the sulfur level is easy. The future work will be to get the sulfur level lower.”

Has the problem been fixed? “We are close now. All those things were done by 2007-2008, and in 2009 I met with Denis Dubourdieu and we did experiments here and at Roulot on the pressing. We worked to get more glutathione (an indication of reduction) and less sotolon (an indication of oxidation). By splitting the pressing and leaving 20% at the end we do better, and then we oxidize the last part fully. And we start fermentation in stainless steel tanks, which makes it more precise.”

“At assemblage tanks are flushed with nitrogen before filling. We bought a machine to generate nitrogen, because you have to flush the tank four times, and the bottles of nitrogen aren’t enough and are expensive.”

“We follow the dissolved oxygen all the way through. We know 1 mgm dissolved oxygen will absorb 5 mgm free sulfur. At the lab, people are satisfied when they get 2 mgm dissolved oxygen in the wine, but we are at the point where we have 0.5 mgm before bottling and it might go up to 0.8 mgm after bottling.

“We use special bottles that allow dissolved oxygen to be checked at bottling. Since 2009 we’ve brought the wine back to the lab after 8 months to check the sulfur levels and carbon dioxide and to taste. We bottle with free sulfur around 35, when we check after 8 months it’s always 28-33, we think 20 would be enough.” We walked around to look at the bottling machine. It has some sophisticated additions to vacuum the air out of the bottle and to inject nitrogen.

What about using other closures? “I’m pretty sure that with time everyone will use technical corks. Diam (a cork that’s been treated to eliminate problems with TCA) is more consistent. I’m amazed, it’s always slightly more reduced when you compare in tastings. In terms of seal, Diam will do the work, but we don’t know whether it will get into the wine long term.”

Even in the premox era I’ve had some fantastic old white Burgundies – well, to be honest, it wasn’t intentional, they were in my cellar and I forgot about them, and by the time I found them some were shot, but the best from the late nineties were as brilliant as ever. (I have not done so well with the 2005 vintage whichseems to be aging more rapidly than usual.) I’ve tasted many wonderful wines in Meursault and in Puligny Montrachet this week – reports coming up in later Diaries – and I just hope that the problem has been resolved as these wines all strike me as awfully young, and I’d like to look forward to enjoying them at the peak, maybe a decade or more from now.

 

 

 

 

Designer Oak Labels

It used to be so simple. Wine would complete its alcoholic fermentation and be transferred into barrels, more or less new according to the strength of the year. The source of the oak would most likely be the nearest forest; you might worry a little bit about how much the oak had been toasted.

Today the degree of toast is tightly controlled, sometimes using infrared rather than mere simple fire, and is reproducible. “We at Taransaud know what medium toast is, we measure it by time and temperature, but some people still use color, which is very variable,” says Jean-Pierre Giraud. Toast was the elephant in the room at the afternoon session of Taransaud’s seminar for the Institute of Masters of Wine: it was rarely mentioned directly, but I suspect that it was the main determinative factor in barrels that had been designed for very specific purposes.

I was fascinated by the concept that a barrel could be designed directly to handle higher alcohol wines. I’ve had the view for some time that the problem with high alcohol wines is not just the higher alcohol, but a generally higher level of extraction, which makes them fatiguing to drink (although sometimes apparently performing better at tastings). I hadn’t followed through to ask the corollary question: when and where does the higher extraction take place and could it be changed?

Alcohol is a solvent, and perhaps its most obvious effect is on maceration: different tannins are extracted by pre-fermentation maceration (when there is no alcohol) from post-fermentation maceration (when alcohol is present). But the question implicit in Taransaud’s design of a barrel for higher alcohol wines is whether there will be differences in extraction during élevage of a 15% alcohol wine from a 13% alcohol wine, and whether the barrel can be adjusted to equalize the effects.

The starting point is that alcohol affects the perception of other components in the wine, reports Dominique de Beauregard of Taransaud. It masks some components, especially fruit aromas, and exacerbates others, in particular herbaceous elements. Higher alcohol extracts more toast aromas, making the wine seem heavier and more tannic. (From this I would guess that some of the adjustment to higher alcohol involves reducing the toast.) So Taransaud have developed a barrel – the working name is the A+ – which is intended to enhance fruit to compensate for the effect of higher alcohol.

I thought the blind tasting of Izquierdo 2010 from Ribera del Duero, matured in either a regular barrel or an A+ barrel, was inconclusive. In the regular barrel, the wine was tinged with savage, even animal, notes, and the finish seemed harsh and bitter. These problems were ameliorated by an impression of more fruit and a softer palate with the A+ barrel, but the wine was still pretty biting with a burning finish. I am sorry, but once you have reached 15.5% alcohol, I’m not convinced that any change in the élevage is going to bring the wine back to a reasonable balance.

The next special effect was a barrel intended to “reveal Chardonnay’s typicity and quality.” I think an issue’s going begging here, however. What is the typicity of Chardonnay? I think of it as the chameleon grape, capable of flinty minerality in Chablis, nutty overtones in Meursault, steeliness in Puligny, butter and vanillin in Napa, tropical fruits in South America. If ever there was a grape that responds to the winemaker, this is it!

Be that as it may, it seems that Taransaud, firmly centered in France, sees minerality and tension as the objective for Chardonnay. (So do I.) They wouldn’t say what is special or different about the PFC barrel that is their prototype for Chardonnay, except that the wood was carefully selected for grain, seasoning, and toasting. (This is somewhat along the lines of a phrase often found in scientific papers to which I take strong exception. “We performed the experiment carefully.” Well, yes, how else would you perform it?) Anyway, I certainly see the merit of the notion that perhaps oak should be different for Chardonnay from Pinot Noir or from Cabernet Sauvignon. However, I wasn’t persuaded by the results of this particular experiment. A Domaine François Lumpp 2011 Givry in a traditional barrel had a nose and palate showing a nice combination of citrus fruits and oak overtones, smooth and well integrated. The PFC barrel seemed to give a more muted impression and I thought I got a fugitive touch of high toned aromatics on the nose, with the acidity standing out to make the palate seem a bit disjointed. This is clearly a work in progress.

Egg-shaped fermenters are all the rage at biodynamic producers, who feel that the shape encourages a natural fluid movement that reduces the need for intervention. This is something that could presumably be measured, although I haven’t yet seen any attempt at objective judgment. Egg-shaped fermenters come in cement and now Taransaud have introduced one in wood, called the Ovum. The blind tasting was a comparison of Domaine de Chevalier 2011, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, given six months in conventional 225 liter barrels, 400 liter barrels, or a 2000 liter Ovum.

Now the problem here from my point of view is that we are not comparing like with like. The main effect is surely going to be the different ratio of surface area to volume, which is greatest in the 225 liter barrel, about 20% less in the 400 liter barrel, and only about half in the 2000 liter container. (And a further complication is that in barrels the inside is usually toasted but the heads are not.) For this to be a significant test of shape, we would need to compare a barrel or a cylinder of 2000 liters with the Ovum.

Anyway, the blind tasting to my mind validated the idea that they have learned something in the past couple of hundred years about the best containers for maturing white wine. The traditional barrel gave a classic impression, with a typical citrus fruit spectrum tinged with oak, becoming soft and ripe in the glass. The 400 liter barrel gave a much less oaky impression, with the citrus fruits coming to the fore. The Ovum gave a grassier wine with more zest, fresher and purer, but less interesting. When the audience was asked to vote for their preference, the choice was interestingly for the 400 liter, but I think that did not make sufficient allowance for the fact that the wine is very young and normally would have many more months to mature before tasting. Allowing for that, my preference was for the traditional barrique.

The final tasting was a test of Taransaud’s T5 barrel. All we could learn about this was that the wood is seasoned for five years, it comes from French oak with a very tight grain, and there is a special toasting procedure on an open fire at low intensity. Oh, and a barrel costs about €1200 compared to the usual €700. It’s intended to bring refinement to the wine. The test tasting was of Château Beauregard (Pomerol) 2009 matured in either a standard barrel or a T5 barrel. There was definitely a difference. The classic barrel produced a wine that was rich and fruity with oak that was relatively subdued on the nose but more evident on the palate, in fact it was quite dominant. Slowly emerging fruit gave a youthful impression of needing quite a bit more time. The T5 sample was more subdued, almost closed on the nose, with the fruits initially seeming sweeter and riper, and better integrated, on the palate. It gave the impression that it will be ready to drink a year or two sooner than the wine from the classic barrique. All of the winemakers – some of whom are using T5 barrels – said they preferred it. But this tasting was not done blind. I hate to spoil the party, but I wonder whether this is like malolactic fermentation in barrel: the question is whether it is a short-term effect or will persist? Will the two wines be any different in five or ten years’ time?

I really admire the efforts to go behind simply turning out high quality barrels into examining all the factors that influence the effects of wood on the wine, and asking how and which changes should be made for different situations. Just as Riedel has created a perception that we should no longer use the same glasses to taste all wines, it makes me wonder whether in years to come, we will look back and wonder at the primitive nature of the idea that oak barrels might be generic for all wines.

The Chameleon Grape: A Tale of Two Chardonnays

I call Chardonnay the Chameleon grape because its character is so much more dependent on winemaking than place. Vinify Chardonnay at low temperature and you get tropical fruits; go to higher temperatures for a more classic repertoire. Mature in new oak for smoky overtones or a full-fledged rush of vanillin; use stainless steel for a crisper finish. Push malolactic fermentation for those buttery notes of popcorn; avoid it for sharp, citrus flavors. (Yes, I know that Chardonnay shows wonderful nuances of place in Burgundy, most notably in Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, but that does not counter my argument, since there is a commonality to winemaking in Burgundy.)

Dependence on winemaking becomes even more evident at lower price levels, where yields are higher, and vineyard origins rarely feature as determinants of style. The significant impact of the hand of the winemaker was brought forcefully home to me by two mid-priced Chardonnay’s consumed on successive days. The first was the L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State, enjoyed (if that is the right word) on American Airlines between New York and London (The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet). The second was Domaine Mont d’Hortes from the Languedoc, enjoyed with dinner at Galvins Bistro in London (Review of Galvin Bistrot de Luxe), the day after. American Airlines did not think vintage was important enough to state, but the Mont d’Hortes was the recent 2010 vintage. The American wine retails around $17 per bottle; the Languedoc Chardonnay is about half that price.

The L’Ecole No. 41 comes from Washington’s Columbia Valley. According to the producer, it comes from two vineyards, Schmitt Vineyard in Yakima Valley, “which provides tropical fruit,” and Evergreen Vineyard, “which contributes crisp acidity and minerality.” I buy the producer’s claim that these are cooler vineyards, because I could taste slightly herbaceous flavors in the wine, which I took to represent unripe grapes, although the harvest Brix of almost 26 (producing more than 14% alcohol) might rather suggest over ripe grapes. I can’t say that I could see the wine as “finely balanced between richness and minerality,” because for me it seems more to have a phenolic brutality to the finish, which did not exactly complement the food.

The Mont d’Hortes Chardonnay comes from the Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue, a minor Vin de Pays in the Languedoc, not far north of the Pyrenees. This is a somewhat warmer region, but the nose shows a tang of citrus, quite fresh with just a touch of phenolics on the finish. The palate is quite full, with a fairly rich impression. There is not a huge amount of flavor interest, and once again I found the phenolics to be a little too evident, but a decent balance allowed the wine to complement the food quite well. As evident from the price, this wine sees no oak aging, in contrast with the l’Ecole No. 41 which apparently was matured in two- and three-year old barriques.

I suspect the oak is the culprit! For a wine to carry any significant exposure to oak, the fruit has to have a certain concentration and intensity; otherwise the oak just sits on the surface in a disjointed way. Given the coast of oak barriques, it is awfully hard to justify their use on wines around the $15 level (the cost of a new barrique would amount to around 20% of the retail price, which is to say close to half of cost). I suspect my problem with the L’Ecole #41 was just too much strength coming from the oak relative to the fruit. My issue with the Mont d’Hortes was a bit different: there just didn’t seem to be any character to it that said “Chardonnay.” It is a perfectly reasonable quaffing wine, well made for the price, but I had the feeling the same wine could have been produced from any number of grape varieties with very little difference in the results. Southern heat did not show directly in high alcohol (which was stated as a moderate 13%), but it might be fair to say that it muddied the flavor spectrum. I am not sure that in the case of either wine I really see the point of growing Chardonnay just so you can stick the varietal name on the label, although the wine bears little relationship to those that made the variety famous. Has Chardonnay become a brand or even a commodity rather than a variety?

The Best Terroir is the Best Terroir

How far can you take terroir? It seems blindingly obvious that some sites produce better wine than others: it is not rocket science to suppose that a sunny spot in the middle of a well drained slope will produce better wine than a cool, shady, damp spot at the bottom.  And I am prepared to buy the fact that slight differences in terroir can reliably produce different nuances in the wine: I was quite convinced of this by several series of pairwise comparisons in Burgundy when I was researching my book on Pinot Noir. Other convincing examples come from comparing, for example, Ernie Loosen’s Rieslings from different vineyards in the Mosel. You can’t mistake the fact that these wines are consistently different, although all made in the same way. But the unresolved question that sticks in my mind is whether different terroirs match different grape varieties or whether the best terroirs are simply the best terroirs. (The middle of that slope would probably produce better plums, apricots, or apples than the bottom.)

I was much struck by this issue when visiting Pinot Noir producers in Germany. All of them, of course, also produce Riesling; in fact, for most of them the Pinot Noir is little more than a sideline. Everywhere in Germany, Riesling is planted in the best terroirs. Those terroirs that aren’t quite good enough for Riesling are planted with other varieties. But where is Pinot Noir planted? Are there spots that are really suitable for Pinot Noir but where Riesling would not succeed? This does not seem to be the case. Pinot Noir is a demanding grape, and it is usually planted in spots that would also have made good Riesling. The best terroirs are the best terroirs, and it’s a matter of choice whether Riesling or Pinot Noir is planted there. And as for the effect of terroir on the nature of the wine, I saw similar effects on both Pinot Noir and Riesling: more minerality, more sense of tension in the wines from the volcanic soils in the north, to rounder, fatter wines from the limestone soils in the south, and softer, lighter wines from sandstone soils in the east.

Is it a general rule that every wine region has a top variety (or varieties) that take the best terroirs? Even on the left bank of Bordeaux, where you hear a lot about the perfect match between Cabernet Sauvignon and the gravel-based soils, it’s really more the case that the gravel-based soils are the best terroirs – so Cabernet Sauvignon is planted there. Merlot is planted in the spots that couldn’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve yet to hear a proprietor extol a vineyard for the perfection of the match of its terroir to Merlot – I suspect the match is more faute de mieux.

Are there regions that grow multiple top varieties where we could test the argument that there are terroirs that are equally good but suited for different varieties. Burgundy seems the obvious case, where the contrast is increased by the fact that Pinot Noir is black but Chardonnay is white. Isn’t it the case that the terroirs of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, are uniquely suited to Chardonnay whereas those of (say) Nuits St. Georges, Clos Vougeot, and Gevrey Chambertin are uniquely suited to Pinot Noir?

Not exactly. The focus of the appellations to the south of Beaune on white wine is quite recent. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Puligny Montrachet was mostly planted with Gamay, Chassagne Montrachet was almost exclusively red, and Meursault was divided between red and white wine. The area that is now Corton Charlemagne mostly produced red wine until the twentieth century.  And in the eighteenth century, Clos Vougeot’s white wine was almost as highly regarded as Le Montrachet, as indeed was a white Chambertin. Could we at least argue that the change is due to better understanding of what grape varieties are suited to each terroir. No:  it’s the economy, stupid.

When fashion has swung to and fro on red wine versus white, plantings have followed. Here’s a modern case in point. Beaune’s Clos des Mouches is one of the few vineyards that have both black and white grapes. But there isn’t any pattern to the plantings that follows details of terroirs: in fact, rows of black and white grapevines are more or less interspersed, according to what was needed when replanting last occurred. And as Chardonnay has proved more profitable than Pinot Noir, there’s been a trend towards replanting with Chardonnay.

If the best terroirs are the best terroirs, what determines the best variety for each location? Well, climate is no doubt the most important factor: heat accumulation and hours of sunshine are basically going to determine whether and when the grapes reach ripeness.  Are the best terroirs simply those where historically the grapes have ripened most reliably? On the hill of Corton, where the plantings of Chardonnay for Charlemagne stretch round to the western end of the hill, where Pinot has trouble in ripening, you might argue that the best terroirs are planted with Pinot and second best with Chardonnay, although I have to admit that they make wonderful white Burgundy.

So here is the challenge. Are there examples where two terroirs in the same vicinity give different results with two grape varieties of the same quality (and color if we want this to be a rigorous test)? If one terroir gives better results with one variety and the other terroir gives better results with the other variety, then I will withdraw my conclusion that the best terroir is the best terroir and matching grape varieties is down to climate.