Wine additives and manipulation

“Chaptalization” and “watering back” come close to words that cannot speak their name: at the very least, they are extremely sensitive subjects that you bring up at your peril with producers in France on the one hand, and in California on the other. Each is a miracle of transmogrification. Chaptalization consists of turning sugar into wine; well, technically the sugar is converted into alcohol, but the bulk of the sugar increases the bulk of the wine – in fact you can calculate that it’s a lot cheaper to increase the volume of your wine by chaptalization than by growing more grapes. Watering back is the practice of diluting the must before fermentation; this is pretty much a direct conversion of water into wine. Attitudes to the processes are mirror images: chaptalization is illegal in California, and watering back is regarded as a fraud in Europe. In the course of thinking about what determines the typicity (or typicities) of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and Napa, I have been trying to get some information about the extent of the two processes. As I am off to Bordeaux for my first research visit, I’ve been concentrating on chaptalization for now, but I’ll return to watering back later when I go to Napa.

Chaptalization is legal in the northern parts of Europe, and consists of adding sugar, up to a limit that is usually below 2%, to the must, either before or during fermentation. Introduced as the result of Chaptal’s advocacy in the early nineteenth century, it compensates for lack of sugar when the grapes don’t reach sufficient  ripeness to have an adequate level of alcohol. Some producers believe that best results are obtained by adding sugar before fermentation, effectively creating the level that would have been reached if the grapes had been riper. Others believe that gradually timed additions are better, or a small addition at the very end, which stresses the yeast – DRC are great believers in this last option, and no one could quarrel with the quality of their wines!

It seems to me that it’s a reasonable question of public interest as to how much chaptalization is used, but whenever I’ve attempted to find out, I’ve been given a royal runaround. Producers who use chaptalization in France have to make a declaration to the tax authorities in order to pay tax on their usage. When I wrote my first book on Bordeaux, I asked the Customs authorities in Bordeaux for information, but they said the local office of INAO would have it. So I enquired in Bordeaux, but was told INAO in Paris would have it. Of course, INAO in Paris then told me that the Customs in Bordeaux would have it!

Spurred by the fact that the famous ampelographer Pierre Galet quotes the Service de Douanes as his source for figures on the use of sugar in Bordeaux between 1996 and 2000, I made a renewed effort last month. “Producers who wish to enrich their wines by sucrage, by adding concentrated must, or by concentration by cold treatment (congélation) must deposit a declaration of enrichment at the local office of the Customs,” Patrick Leduc of the Douanes informed me. “But the service cannot divulge any statistics on the use of sugar,” he added. So I asked him how M. Galet had obtained the figures that feature in his book (Cépages et vignobles de France : Tome 3, Les vignobles de France), which show that Bordeaux was the second highest user of sugar after Champagne (which of course uses it for dosage). Why cannot I have similar information for the years from 2001-2010, I asked. “Because our service does not possess the requested information,” M. Leduc replied.  When I pointed out that there’s a small inconsistency here, that first it’s claimed Customs can’t divulge the information, then when it’s demonstrated they have in fact previously divulged the number, they claim they don’t have the information, I received no reply. (You have to wonder what’s the point of paying taxes if the authorities don’t even know they’ve got the money.)

I do not think this obsession for secrecy serves the interests of the producers well. When I’ve asked in Bordeaux about the use of chaptalization, the usual answer is that it’s been much rarer since 1997. That’s pretty much what you would expect from the run of warmer vintages. The fact alone that alcohol levels are now pushing 14% in Bordeaux, whereas previously it was a struggle to get to 12.5%, suggests that chaptalization often may be unnecessary. What I expected the figures to do was to confirm the anecdotal impression that chaptalization is less frequent (although I don’t expect it to have disappeared completely, and it might well have needed to come back for the 2011 vintage). But before I conclude that Bordeaux is generally free of added sugar, I’d like to see some confirmation in the form of real numbers. Producers are fairly transparent about which varieties go into the assemblage each year, what proportion of production is diverted to a second wine, how much new oak they use – so if chaptalization is a respectable process, why should there be such secrecy about it, especially if it’s in decline?

I still have not succeeded in obtaining any information about the extent of chaptalization in Bordeaux since 2000, but the sugar manufacturers are quite proud of the varied usages of sugar in France. Their annual report gives the tonnage used for the 15 most important sectors. Chaptalization just creeps into the bottom of this list (just below Glaces, sorbets et crèmes glacées). Assuming that wine is treated at 1.75 kg/hl (just below the limit), it’s possible to calculate what volume of wine has been chaptalized, and what proportion this is of the total harvest in France. It comes to between a quarter and a third in cool years (such as 2007) but drops to around 17% in warmer years (such as 2005). The rock bottom level was 13% in the record hot year of 2003. (The percentages would be higher if the average level of chaptalization was lower.)

We are pitifully under informed about wine compared to the information that is mandatory for foods. I’m not advocating that the label should have a detailed list of every ingredient that was used to treat a wine, but I do wonder whether it’s naive simply to assume that wine is a natural product made from grapes, and to allow labels to state features such as the percentage of each variety but not other ingredients. Of course, it would be a lot less glamorous to say “this wine was made from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, and 2% sugar.”

The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”

Is Ripeness All in Cabernet Sauvignon

I’ve been mulling over the issue of ripeness as I begin the research for Claret & Cabs, because the issue seems to be exaggerated with Cabernet Sauvignon, and also with its parent Sauvignon Blanc, relative to other varieties. I think this is because they share the property that varietal character depends on production of pyrazines, in particular IBMP (3-isobutyl-2-methoxy-pyrazine for those technically inclined). Pyrazines form during vegetative growth, essentially during the period before veraison, and then are gradually destroyed by exposure to sunlight. People are very sensitive to them, which would have been an evolutionary advantage, as they are an indication of unripe fruit. IBMP gives Bordeaux its classic notes of bell peppers. This dramatic transition in flavor spectrum is not something I associate with most other varieties. With Pinot Noir, for example, there is certainly a change as the grapes pass from unripe, through ripe, to super ripe, and you see a transition from light, red acidic fruits to darker, riper, black fruits, but you don’t really see a whole flavor component completely disappearing. Is this why the “international style” has made more impact with Cabernet Sauvignon than with other varieties?

As the climate has got warmer, and as criteria for harvesting have moved to greater degrees of ripeness, the concentration of IBMP has fallen in Cabernet Sauvignon, and these days it’s quite rare to detect it in young Bordeaux. Indeed, if you mention the word “herbaceous” to a Bordeaux proprietor today, he is likely to take it as a personal insult. Herbaceousness has never been much of a character in Napa Valley Cabernet, which has always achieved a greater degree of ripeness, and I suspect that most Napa producers would actually regard it as flaw.

But have we lost something here? No one wants to go back to the days of vegetative wines – remember when they couldn’t ripen Cabernet in Monterey and the wines became known as Monterey veggies – but are the wines as interesting when they present simply a monotonic array of fruit flavors. “We need grapes that are cooked, roasted, and green; even this last is necessary; it improves in the cuve by fermenting with the others; it is this that brings liveliness to the wine,” said the Abbé Tainturier at Clos Vougeot almost three hundred years ago; I think he may have had a point. Isn’t there a key point in complexity in which the faintest, barely detectable, touch of herbaceousness brings a crucial element? Does pursuing maximum ripeness lead to optimum complexity?

Something that has been puzzling me lately is the apparent reversion to type of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. When the wines were first bottled, they were full of lush fruits: you would have been hard put to detect herbaceousness. This is still true of the Chateau Latour, so fruit-bound, and with such with intense aromatics, that it just seems infanticide even to think of drinking of it. It won’t take fifty years to come around like the 1928, but it certainly isn’t ready yet (tasting note in Chateau Latour: Wines for the Ages). On the other hand, the Margaux has reverted to type, and I think the Lafite is about to do so. By reversion, I mean that some herbaceous notes are poking through the fruits, not at all obvious, indeed very subtle against the background of the fruit intensity, but bringing additional complexity. But where did they come from?

Pyrazines come from the grape (mostly from the skin, also from the stems if the grapes weren’t destemmed), and the concentration cannot have changed in the wine since bottling. It must be that as the tannins resolve, and the fruit concentration lightens, you begin to see pyrazines that were there all along but hidden by the fruit intensity. (So the supposed threshold for detection isn’t everything.) I must say that I did not see this coming until I detected faint herbaceous around year 2000 in the 1982 second growths. For me it’s an important contribution to complexity, so I’m puzzling over how to spot the potential in young vintages, which since 1982 have of course become even more intense in overt fruit concentration. Indeed, I wonder if and when they will go the same route as the 1982s.

 Château Margaux 1982

Has now reached a stage of perfection not to mention classicism. Developed black fruit nose has herbaceous overtones turning more distinctly to bell peppers in the glass. There’s a delicious balance of savory black fruits with a herbaceous catch on the finish. There has been a complete reversion to classical type from the lushness of the first decade, with a perfect offset between the black fruits of the palate and the herbaceous overtones of the finish.   96 Drink till 2022

Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982

Still a dark color, although now garnet rather than purple. Black fruits are just beginning to show some development on the nose, with a hint of menthol, and a touch of austerity cutting the fruits. Typically very smooth on the palate with those layers of flavor typical of Lafite, in fact still quite youthful and fruit-driven. Tannins are now resolving but are very fine grained and ripe, the structure will keep this going for years. Smooth and elegant rather than voluptuous. 93 Drink till 2023

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?

Cults and Icons: Cabernet versus Merlot

I’ve just started the research for a book on Cabernet Sauvignon, which I’m calling Claret & Cabs to emphasize the comparison between the classic style of Bordeaux and the New World style. A large part of the book will focus on Bordeaux and Napa Valley, but I plan to try to identify interesting Cabernet Sauvignons made elsewhere, especially from regions that aren’t well known. I suspect that this will be a more difficult task than it was for Pinot Noir in my last book, and I wonder whether that is because Cabernet is less of a terroir grape than Pinot, so style is more determined by the winemaker, giving power to the big battalions rather than to small producers exploiting unusual terroir niches. Anyway, that’s a topic for a future blog.

Another difference between Pinot and Cabernet is that cult wines are much less a feature of the world of Pinot. Are cult wines concentrated on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, rather than Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese because the first group can give heavily extracted, powerfully intense wines, whereas the second group is more about delicacy? (Is this a metaphor for the state of the modern world?)

Claret & Cabs will conclude with a chapter on Cults and Icons, and I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide what makes a wine qualify. The First Growths of Bordeaux clearly have iconic status, in fact they’ve had it ever since, indeed before, the 1855 classification. One question I will ask is whether that has always been justified. The other question is which other chateaux should be included – the super-seconds perhaps? One noticeable feature of the list, however it exactly comes out, is likely to be that it consists exclusively of major chateaux.

This is a big contrast with the situation in Napa Valley, where the majority of cult wines are based on the managed scarcity of tiny production runs. It’s not quite so easy to define the cult wines here. In Bordeaux, you can pretty much rely on the relative pricing, which has a structure firmed up by the last couple of centuries of distribution through the restrictive practices of the Place de Bordeaux (essentially the local market of negociants).  Consistent pricing is not so readily available for Napa Valley, but whether you define cult wines by taking a slice at the top price tier, say over $250 per bottle, or in terms of Parker points, a feature in either case is that production is often under 1000 cases, sometimes only 300-500 cases. (The correlation between pricing and critics’ scores, for which I take the Wine Advocate as definitive, is more distant for Bordeaux than it is for Napa, presumably because the 1855 classification and other historical factors have a greater influence, and indeed I shall look at this in a future blog.)

In any case, the fairest comparison for the cult wines of Napa Valley might be more with the limited production garage wines of the right bank of Bordeaux than with the great chateaux of the left bank. But the garage wines are virtually all Merlot, either monovarietal or heavily dominated by it. (Is the lack of garage wines on the left bank due to the fact that the chateaux there are so successful already they feel no need for them?) Since the book is specifically on Cabernet Sauvignon, however, I’m going to have to compare the top wines of the left bank with top wines of Napa. Should I use simple criteria of price or critical scores or should I filter the results by demanding a certain scale of production? At the height of the craze for garage wines, a producer on the right bank who was not participating, said to me, “it’s easy enough to produce high quality wine on a miniscule scale by using all the tricks of viticulture and vinification, but the real issue is to get quality wine when you have tens of hectares to cultivate.” I’m still struggling with the issue of whether wines that are only available on limited mailing lists, indeed where you can see the inheritance of a place on the list being fought over, should be regarded in the same light as wines in general distribution that anyone can buy. Some time in the next few months I have to decide on my criteria for including wines in the final chapter: all suggestions welcome.