Sonoma Diary 4: The Style Continues at Merry Edwards under Roederer

Widely regarded as a pioneer winemaker in California, Merry Edwards established a reputation for Pinot Noir at Mount Eden Vineyards in Santa Cruz from 1974, followed by Chardonnay at Matanzas Creek in 1977.  When she founded her own winery in 1997, it became a leading source for single-vineyard releases of Pinot Noir. She sold the estate to Roederer in 2019, and stayed on for a year to help the transition. She had already hired Heidi von der Mehden from Cabernet-specialist Arrowood in 2015, with the idea of handing over winemaking to an experienced winemaker who had no preconceptions about Pinot Noir.

When I visited Merry Edwards in 2011, she said: “I probably have two stylistic aims. I like the fruit to come through, I view this as the personality of the wine. And I like to see the texture come through.” The style still holds through two AVA wines and eight single-vineyard releases. The Sonoma Coast is based on purchased fruit from a single vineyard; the Russian River comes from the same vineyards as the individual single-vineyard releases (some in the estate, some from fruit purchased from plots farmed to specification. “We feel that farming is the only way to come to great Pinot and that is what we have based everything on,” Merry said.). Winemaking is similar for all the Pinot Noirs. The AVAs have 45-50% new oak, the single vineyards have 55-60%. (This is down from 55-60% for AVAs and 75-80% for single vineyards, ten years ago.) Wines are usually bottled in August following the vintage, so they spend 10-11 months in barrique.

Just off the Gravenstein highway, manicured vineyards surround the Merry Edwards winery.

The Russian River Valley release shows a restrained style with a sense of structure. Coopersmith is the vineyard at the winery that Merry planted in 2001; this is a relatively cooler site. Farther north, Georganne is a warmer vineyard that Merry planted in 2005. Both were planted with the UCD37 clone that she developed at Mount Eden. They show as more refined versions of the AVA wine, a little smoother and deeper on the palate, with greater sense of structural support. The first vineyard she planted was the Meredith Estate in 1997; this gives a more varied impression on the palate and is more elegant.

Olivet Lane is the vineyard with which Merry had the longest association, making wine there for 46 years. The vineyard was planted in 1973, and Merry started making wine from it in the late seventies; it’s now the oldest single vineyard of Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley. In a horizontal tasting of the 2018 single vineyard releases,  Olivet Lane offers the greatest sense of sophistication and elegance. When I tasted the 2008 Olivet Lane at the winery in 2011, it seemed to be the most complete of the single-vineyard wines; when I tasted it again this week, it seemed to have reached a peak, and you could see the same potential in the 2018.

From 1998 to 2002, Merry followed her intention of making Pinot Noir focusing on single vineyards, but she had established a reputation with white wines, and then returned to making Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Both show a rich, textured style.

Tasting Notes

2018 Pinot Noir
Restrained nose shows dark fruits. Faintly nutty palate shows soft black fruits with hint of bitter cherries at end. This needs a little time for tannins to lighten. 14.5%   91 Drink 2022-2030

2018 Coopersmith Pinot Noir
Richer impression than Olivet Lane. Black cherry fruits show on palate with tannins on finish, giving a sense of structure. Some bitterness lingers on the finish, but overall this is softer than Georganne. 14.5%   92 Drink 2023-2033

2018 Georganne Pinot Noir
Faint spicy notes to nose. Palate shows more grip than Coopersmith, greater sense of dryness from the tannins on the finish and a hint of menthol. Fruits are a little darker and deeper, with good grip on the palate. 14.5%   92 Drink 2024-2034

2018 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir
Reserved nose, Sweeter but tighter impression on palate than Coopersmith and Georganne with hints of red fruits as well as black. A hint of eucalyptus in background enhances sense of tightness. Precision gives this a sense of elegance. 14.5%   93 Drink 2022-2032

2018 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir
Lighter color than the Russian River or other single vineyards. Restrained nose shows faintly earthy notes in the background. More sense of tension balancing the fruits than the Russian River Valley AVA release. Mix of red and black fruits on palate are followed by touch of tea-like tannins. This has the most elegant balance of the single vineyard wines. 14.2%   93 Drink 2022-2032

2008 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir
Some orange showing on rim. Development shows on nose as less primary, more mature fruits, more red than black. With tannins resolving, you can see the elegance of the fruits, soft and ripe, with only a faint hint of dryness at the end. With the tannins resolving and the fruits maturing, this may now be at its peak. 13.9%    93 Drink 2013-2025

2017 Olivet Lane Chardonnay
Nose shows stone fruits with some exotic overtones, following to a textured palate. This flavorful style offers a fine expression of the typicity of Russian River Valley through the old vines (planted in 1973). Sense of viscosity to palate enhances the long finish. The wine was barrel-fermented, went through MLF, and aged in 40% new barriques.   93 Drink -2028

2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 55%, Sauvignon Musqué 45%)
The wine opens with typical herbaceous overtones tending to asparagus. The palate shows a rich Fumé Blanc style with herbaceous elements returning on finish to cut the richness of the stone and citrus fruits. The flavorful palate is quite viscous and round. The wine was barrel-fermented with 18% new oak and had battonage for 4-6 months.   90 Drink -2025

Sonoma Diary 2: A More Sophisticated Style at Kosta Browne

Is it still true that Kosta Browne has a ‘big’ house style, I asked current winemaker Julien Howsepian. Founded by Dan Kosta and Michael Browne in 2001, the winery became famous for its forceful style for Pinot Noir. “This happened as an accident when some fruit came in at very high (25.2) Brix,” said Dan Kosta, “We made the wine, and it was just perfectly  exhilarating. That turned me on to picking fruit when it tasted good, rather than when people are telling me.”

Dan Kosta and Michael Browne sold the winery in 2017, and it moved through some subsequent changes of ownership before ending up with Duckhorn in 2018. “[The big style] is still true,” Julien says, “but we have tightened it to make a more balanced wine with a more sophisticated style.  We decided we wanted to fine tune the cellar, but we still have a bold style that is Californian, that is who we are. We want to celebrate California fruit. We’re a little more restrained, but we don’t want to turn our back on what made us successful.”

Located in old apple processing plant that’s part of a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol, where Kosta-Browne is the anchor, production is exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It has broadened from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Lucia with the addition of Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. There are five AVA Pinot Noirs, 1 Chardonnay, and 20 single-vineyard wines (15 Pinot Noirs and 5 Chardonnays).

Kosta Browne is in an old apple-processing plant in The Barlow, a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol

The late harvest policy for the old style at Kosta Browne often produced wines around 15% alcohol. They did not taste as over the top as the alcohol level might suggest, but there was no mistaking the forceful style. The current releases that I tasted on my visit ranged from 13.4% to 14.4% and in no case was alcohol particularly evident on the palate. It is fair to say they do indeed show a more sophisticated style.

The Russian River Chardonnay (One Hundred Sixteen, named for route 116 that runs through Russian River Valley) shows an underlying richness, but a mix of vessels for fermentation and aging has given it good flavor variety. “We didn’t really develop this style for our Chardonnay until 2015,” says Julien. The main difference moving to the single vineyard El Diablo Chardonnay is the increased sense of refinement. “This is our leanest Chardonnay,” Julian says. “It marks our progress with Chardonnay. We used to pick later, then one year we picked a week earlier, and realized that we’d missed the mark.”

The Pinot Noirs share impressions of earthy red fruits on the palate with an underlying richness cut by a sense of structure partly reflecting some use of whole clusters. The Russian River Valley AVA release has smoky undertones and lifted red fruit aromatics. Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Petaluma Gap is more forceful and intensifies the sense of earthiness, and has more grip on the palate. Free James from a vineyard near the coast gives a more linear, cool-climate impression, with a sense of mountain tension. Moving to Mount Carmel from Santa Rita Hills, the aromatics are higher-toned, and the sense of tension increases. “This is the coolest region we work with,” Julien says. Cerise Vineyard from Anderson Valley is the most concentrated and most tannic release.

The house style remains relatively bold, but fruits are (relatively) more restrained and better balanced by the structure. Refinement increases from AVA to single vineyard, and each single vineyard has a character you can relate to its soil, climate, and region, far from the uniformity of super-ripe fruits. Julien says the wines drink best from 3 to 6-8 years after the vintage.

Tasting the Current Releases

2019 Chardonnay One Hundred Sixteen (Russian River Valley)
Fruitful nose with bright fruits tending to citrus contrast with smoky notes from new oak. Nice balance on palate: I wouldn’t call this lean, but it shows a citrus flavor spectrum and is not big or buttery. Some richness comes through the textured palate, which is flavorful. The wine fermented 80% in barriques and 20% in foudres, and aged two thirds in wood, including new French oak, used French oak, and Austrian oak. 13.5% 90 Drink -2025

2018 Chardonnay El Diablo (Russian River Valley)
The vineyard is at 500 ft in a warm site on the east of the hill, planted with a tight spacing of the Robert Young and Montrachet clones. The wine ferments and then ages half in foudre and half in barriques; overall there is 48% new French oak and 14% new Austrian oak. Aging lasts 14 months The wine gives a leaner impression than the 116 Chardonnay, starting with its smoky nose. The palate is smoother with a silkier texture. There’s an impression of stone fruits in front with citrus behind. Good acidity supports the fruits. Flavor variety develops slowly in the glass. 13.4% 91 Drink -2018

2019 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)
The predominant source for the AVA release is Bootlegger’s Hill (almost a quarter), with about ten other sources. This vintage used 6% whole clusters and includes about ten clones, It ages in 45% new French oak for 16 months. Complex nose shows earthy notes, smokiness, bright red fruits, and some lifted red fruit aromatics. Smooth silky palate reprises those smoky notes with a sense of tobacco. Silky tannins are barely noticeable on the finish, which leaves a smoky, earthy, tobacco aftertaste. 14.1% 91 Drink -2027

2018 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
The vineyard is in the Petaluma Gap AVA planted with a variety of heritage and Dijon clones. Fermentation uses 10% whole clusters, with aging in 40% new French oak and 15% concrete to keep freshness. The nose is more forceful and earthier than the Russian River release. The red fruit palate offers a rounder impression but also has more sense of structure. Earthy red fruits on the palate are cut by a touch of tannin on the finish; good grip on the palate. Needs another year for the tannins to soften and allow the fruits to show as earthy strawberries, but already this is the roundest and approachable of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs. 14.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029

2018 Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills)
Aromatic nose is higher-toned than Gap’s Crown from Russian River. Earthy red fruit impressions are poised between strawberries and cherries. Firm tannins are just evident by some bitterness on the finish. You can see the greater use of whole clusters (49%). This has the greatest sense of tension of the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and something approaching a sense of salinity on the finish. 13.5% 92 Drink 2022-2029

2017 Free James Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
The vineyard is at Freestone, very near the coast. The wine aged in almost 50% new French barriques for 22 months. The nose has taut aromatics and a sense of tension. The palate has relatively restrained fruits tending to red cherries, and the sense of tension returns on the palate. Fruits are more linear and there is more of a cool-climate impression than other cuvees. 13.4% 91 Drink -2028

2017  Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley)
The wine ferments in a mix of wood and concrete and ages in barriques for 19 months with almost half new oak. Earthy red fruit aromatics show on the nose. This is the densest and most viscous of the releases, the weightiest with the greatest sense of extract, with red fruits supported firm tannins that show a touch of bitterness on the finish. It’s the most tannic of the single vineyard wines. That earthy impression increases in the glass. It would benefit from more time to let the tannins soften. 13.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029

Napa Diary Day 13: Mountain Wines and Others from Chappellet

“For us the holy grail is a wine that technically has a lot of tannin but tastes soft,” winemaker Philip Titus says as we taste the flagship Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, when he returned to Chappellet as chief winemaker in 1990 (he had previously been at the winery as assistant winemaker) his first mandate from Don Chappellet was to soften the mountain tannins in Chappellet Cabernet.

Chappellet is venerable as one of the first wineries to be built in Napa after Prohibition, in 1967 (one year after Mondavi). Driving up the narrow access road from Lake Hennessy, deep into the woods, it feels quite isolated. Covering 700 acres, the estate extends well beyond the 100 acres of vineyards, which range from 1000 to 1700 feet, just above the fog line. The winery was in the shape of a striking pyramid, but a new winery was built just behind it in 2014, and now the pyramid is mostly filled with barriques. There were already vines on the property when it was purchased, but there was a lot of Chenin Blanc. Following a replanting program in the nineties, most of the vineyard today is Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety for which Chappellet is best known.

The pyramidal building has been renovated.

Some Chenin Blanc was restored in 2006 and now makes the one white wine from the estate. “There was Chardonnay here, but in the early 90s I was aware it was too warm for Chardonnay. We pulled it out and went farther south. Eventually we ended up in Petaluma Gap in Sonoma.” The Chardonnay is one of the Grower Collection series of wines, which come from named vineyards aside from the Chappellet estate. The series also includes Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. It’s fair to say these wines show a different character from the bold fruity style of Cabernet for which Chappellet is known, and reflect a cooler-climate style.

“The Signature Cabernet really gets back to what we’ve been doing for the last 54 years, Philip says. “It should be ready to drink, has to be stylistically approachable, but needs the ability to age.” It started out as 100% varietal, but now is a blend with 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and Malbec. “We didn’t find that blending with Cabernet Franc improved the wine,” Philips says, but he had gained experience with Petit Verdot and Malbec when his father planted them at his family vineyard in the 1970s. (Philip and his brother were skeptical, but their father said: you’ll need them one day.) Signature comes mostly from the estate, but also includes grapes from neighbors, and reflects its mountain origins in a sense of tension. Current vintages seem to have a more mineral style than the bolder vintages of the past.

The latest Cabernet Sauvignon cuvée is the 100% varietal Hideaway Vineyard, which comes from a plot just on the other side of Pritchard Hill. The first vintage was 2016. The terroir is different from the rest of the Chappellet vineyards, and has very shallow, rocky, red volcanic soil. It shows great purity of Cabernet fruits, with slightly lifted aromatics conveying a sense of precision.

“Pritchard Hill is the top wine. Everything we do revolves around this wine,” Philip says. It’s a vineyard selection followed by a barrel selection. A bigger wine, with long aging potential, it ages in 100% new oak compared to Signature’s 50%. Like Signature, it started as a varietal but now is a blend. It has impressive depth and density and needs several years to begin to show its quality.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes

2019 Signature Chenin Blanc
Fruity nose, citrus overtones, ripe fruits but with slightly tart finish. Smooth and full of flavor, lives up to its name as a signature wine. “This is a very simply made wine,” Philip Titus says, “to keep brightness and minerality.” It’s aged half in neutral barriques and half in tank. 13.7%   Chappellet 89 Drink -2025

2019  Petaluma Gap Calesa Vineyard Chardonnay
Barrel fermented with 30% new oak and going 100% through MLF. Nose gives a lean mineral impression with only faint traces of oak. More aromatic on the palate than expected from the nose, although stopping short of exotic fruits (this was fermented at low temperature). The palate is more phenolic than mineral with a long finish. The phenolic or floral impressions are due to the range of clones in the vineyard, which tend to high production of terpenes.  90  Drink -2026

2018 Russian River Valley, Apple Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir

This comes from the cool area of Green Valley. Nose opens with hints of earthy notes and red cherry fruits. It’s earthy on the palate, which shows quite bright red cherry fruits with just a touch of tannic bitterness at the end to show the structure. It’s a very clear, precise style for Russian River, with well-delineated fruits. It’s full of flavor and beginning to develop. “This is what I like about Russian River Valley,” Philip Titus says, “a richer deeper style of Pinot Noir.” It ages in 45% new barriques.    90 Drink -2028

2018 Napa Cabernet Franc (Cabernet Franc 75%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 4%)

Nose offers sense of chocolate and tobacco, following to palate which shows some breadth with furry tannins on the finish–softer than the precision and structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Starts out quite primary but Philip Titus says it should start to develop secondary characters after 6-8 years.    91 Drink -2033.


2018 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%%, Petit Verdot 10%, Malbec 5%)
Quite a restrained nose leads into smooth palate with tannins giving a chocolaty texture and just a touch of bitter chocolate at the end. The lean character of the fruits shows the influence of volcanic soils and the elevation of the vineyards. Palate inclines towards herbal or mineral notes. This can be enjoyed now but will really come out in a few years.    92 Drink -2034

2018 Hideaway Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100%)
Chocolate notes overlay very pure black Cabernet fruits, with tannins showing as bitter chocolate on the finish. Aromatics are a little more lifted compared with the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s still very young, flavor variety has yet to develop, but it conveys a great sense of volcanic tension and purity of Cabernet fruits. It shows a mountain structure now but will become smooth and silky as it ages. It ages in 100% new oak.    94 Drink 2024-2039
2017 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
Black inky color. Stern nose shows deep black fruits. This is a rich, big wine, with a chocolaty texture that carries its high tannins well. Fruits show as blackberries with hints of blueberries, but aromatics haven’t come out fully yet. Finish is very long with some breadth on the palate. Already it shows a seamless quality that I expect to be reflected in layers of flavor as it develops    94 Drink 2027-2045

Napa Diary Day 7: Hyde Estate and Hyde de Villaine

Arriving at Hyde Estate in Carneros, there was a cool breeze blowing, and it felt about 10 degrees cooler than it had when we left St. Helena farther up the valley 30 minutes earlier. True to form, the wines showed more of a cool-climate impression than those from up valley.

Larry Hyde started with 50 acres for growing grapes in 1979 and built Hyde Vineyard into one of the most prestigious sites in Carneros, selling grapes to more than 40 producers. In 2005 he purchased an apple orchard close by, and in 2006 he planted it to Pinot Noir. “The project was launched specifically with making wine at the estate in mind,” says Larry’s son, Chris. There are 3 acres of Pinot Noir and 15 acres of Chardonnay.  More recently he purchased another vineyard in Carneros which is planted with Syrah, Merlot, Viognier, Cabernet Franc.

The Hyde Estate winery is in the middle of the vineyard in Carneros

The winery (small and practical along bare-bones warehouse lines) was built from 2014 to 2017, when Alberto Rodriguez came from Patz and Hall as winemaker. Pinot Noir is by the far the best known variety here, but there are also varietal estate wines of Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, and Viognier. The wines age for 11 months in barriques with 25% new oak. The Chardonnay is rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, the Pinot is quite aromatic with earthy red fruits backed by crisp acidity, and the Syrah has impressions of the light style of the Northern Rhône. 

Larry is also a partner with DRC’s Aubert de Villaine, a relative by marriage, in Napa’s HdV Wines, which sources its grapes from Hyde Vineyard. The project started in 2000, and the winery was built in 2003, a practical building with the appearance of warehouse. It’s located just outside downtown Napa, at the start of the Silverado Trail, and is surrounded by a 24 acre vineyard, which is managed by the team at Hyde, but the grapes are sold off. The focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Hyde de Villaine winery is just outside Napa, but sources its grapes from Hyde Estate in Carneros

Chardonnay is barrel fermented, with 15-20% new oak, and no battonage. It stays on the lees for 11 months and then spends 4 months in stainless steel. It’s 60-70% Wente and the rest is Calera by clonal origin. The style is one of the most Burgundian I have encountered in Napa; in terms of comparisons with Burgundy, there are mineral impressions like Puligny Montrachet when young.

Pinot Noir comes from two sources: Ysabel is the exceptional cuvée that’s not from Carneros, but comes from a 1400 ft high plot on Sonoma Mountain. It gives a much stronger impression of cool-climate origins than the Ygnacio Pinot Noir from Carneros, which is rounder and more aromatic and quite Beaune-ish. The Syrah, Californio, has rounded fruits supported by elegant tannins much in the style of the Northern Rhône. Bonne Cousine is a Bordeaux blend, varying quite a bit with vintage, but typically a bit more than half Merlot and a bit less than half Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grapes sources are similar for the two producers, but the wines are distinct, although Chris Hyde says, “HDV has had an impact on our own winemaking. We farm for the site, we get a little more acid.” The Chardonnay at HdV has a more eurocentric style while at Hyde it shows the typical richness of Carneros, the Pinot Noir from Hyde is more distinctly cool-climate than the Ygnacio from HdV, and the Syrah from both has an elegance far more like the Rhône than like Shiraz from the New World.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting of Hyde Estate 2017

Chardonnay
Rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, Attractive and approachable, with the fruits becoming more linear as it develops in the glass. 89 Drink -2024

Pinot Noir
Quite aromatic nose shows red cherries and raspberries, with strawberries in the background. Crisp acidity follows to hints of earthy strawberries on palate. The aromatics are quite earthy, but the overall impression shows freshness of Carneros, emphasized by some tea-like tannins on the finish. 90 Drink 2022-2030

Syrah
Somewhat stern nose leads into crisp palate with light impressions of the Northern Rhone. Tannic structure shows in slight touch of bitterness on finish, with some tea-like tannins giving impression of striving for ripeness. Fruits round out nicely in glass and seem increasingly like the Northern Rhone. The palate is moving in an attractively spicy direction. 90 Drink -2028


Tasting at Hyde de Villaine

2018 Chardonnay
Fresh nose with subtle fruits shows a resemblance with Burgundy, with hints of minerality that point towards Puligny Montrachet. Nice density, well balanced fruits and acidity, some hints of citrus and gunflint. Very fine balance. 92 Drink -2029

2015 Chardonnay
Faint notes of exotic fruits show development with touch of asperity. Fresh palate shows greater density and viscosity compared with 2018, rounder and richer. The exotic hints become fainter in the glass as the palate moves more towards minerality. The texture and overall impression reminds me a little of Corton Charlemagne. 91 Drink -2025

Ysabel (Sonoma Mountain) 2018 Pinot Noir
There’s a definite cool-climate impression, with the earthy strawberry fruits showing a touch of asperity. The dry earthy finish gives this quite a lean character. (Fruits come from a site at 1400 ft elevation.) The vineyard is surrounded by redwood trees, and it’s possible that this is response for a cedary impression on the palate. 89 Drink 2023-2031

Ygnacio 2018 Pinot Noir
Reflecting its origins in Carneros, rounder and more aromatic than Ysabel. Ripeness on the palate shows against a touch of young tea-like tannins drying the finish, with greater sense of viscosity. Still needs more time, and may become generous and elegant. It seems quite Beaune-ish. 90 Drink 2022-2032

Californio 2016 Syrah
Nicely rounded impression on nose follows through to elegant palate supported by fine, silky tannins. Purity of fruits really comes through. The elegance and fine texture remind me of the Northern Rhone 14.3% 91 Drink -2031

A Visit to Michel Drappier is Full of Surprises

Given that the basic concept of Champagne is to maintain consistency of the product by evening out vintage variation by blending, one tends to think of Champagne as a bit static in its approach. A visit to Michel Drappier gave me a different perspective, when I visited last week as part of research to update my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of Champagne.

Located on the Côte de Bar, well south of the main area of Champagne, and in fact closer to Chablis than to Reims, Drappier seems to occupy the center of Urville with a large group of buildings off the main road. Driving from Troyes to Urville along the Route Touristique de Champagne gives a rather different experience from, say, driving along the Côte de Blancs south of Epernay. The Côte de Blancs gives the impression of a monoculture of vines on gentle slopes: the Route Touristique along the Côte de Bar passes through more fields of sunflowers than vineyards, giving somewhat the impression of an alluvial valley. The vineyards in fact are along slopes a mile or so off the main road.

ChampagneRoute2The Route Touristique on the Côte de Bar passes by sunflower fields and granaries rather than vineyards

The visited to Drappier started with a trip out to his top vineyard, Grande Sendrée, in a fleet of old Citroens, led by the bright yellow Torpedo from the 1920s, followed by a 1930s model, and ending with the famous DS (which for me always brings Maigret to mind). The name of Grande Sendrée reflects its origins. A big fire in 1836 burned the whole village and the forest around. The ash was a good fertilizer so the area was planted with vines. Before phylloxera the village reached 370 ha, but now has only 170 ha. “This is an improbable place to make wine but it’s become iconic,” says Michel.

GrandeSendee1Michel Drappier’s fleet of old Citroens provide unique transport to the vineyard

“Grande Sendrée is a terroir not a clos. The name comes from cinders, it should be Cendrée. But whoever made the mistake made our fortune, because it’s a monopole.” The particular feature of the soil is that the limestone was broken up so it has more clay and humus. “It’s Grand Cru Chablis soil with Pinot Noir from Burgundy to make Champagne,” Michel says. Grande Sendrée was one of the early single vineyard cuvées. “In 1974 we decided to make a separate vinification and wanted to have a separate cuvée, but it was an awful vintage so we did not declare it. The first release was 1975,” Michel explains. It’s usually produced every 2-3 years.

From the 5 ha of Grande Sendrée you can see back to Urville and some of Drappier’s other vineyards beyond the village. Michel points to a plot of Pinot Noir that is used to make a red Coteaux de Champenoise. Adjacent to it are plots of some old varieties, no longer much grown in Champagne: Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. These are the basis for the unusual cuvée, Quattuor.

“Quattuor was almost a joke. I wanted to make a new Blanc de Blancs with no Chardonnay. I planned to have one third each of Arbane,  Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc, which I planted in 2000. The first crop was 2004, and the first release in 2007. The blend was too vegetal–it was like Sauvignon Blanc–and at the last minute we decided to add Chardonnay. So now it has one quarter of each. Pinot Blanc gives fat and texture, Chardonnay gives balance and makes it all come together. Some years Arbane dominates, some years Petit Meslier.”

“We blend and press Arbane and Petit Meslier together, the others are made separately. The total surface of Arbane in Champagne is 1.6 ha, and we have 0.6 ha, so we are the largest producer of Arbane in Champagne. I found out why my father and his generation spent 30 years pulling it out, you work for nothing. But it’s elegant. We don’t produce Quattuor every year because I want to have one quarter of each cépage.”

“My father is very experimental and is always trying things,” says Charlene Drappier, as she takes us round the cellars, which date back to 1155 and were built by St. Bernard (who left Burgundy to found the abbey of Clairvaux). St. Bernard is supposed to have brought Morillon (a possible ancestor of Pinot Noir) from Burgundy. “So we have 800 years of Pinot Noir in the house,” Charlene says. “The cellars are made of Kimmeridgian limestone, so the vines grow on Kimmeridgian limestone and the bottles mature in it.” One experiment manifested itself in a wooden “egg,” in which the wine is supposed to mature with a natural movement of fluid that in effect keeps it in contact with the lees without any battonage.

After visiting the vineyards and cellars, we tasted through the range. Quattuor makes a sophisticated impression with faint herbal overtones. Michel says this release is dominated by Petit Meslier. Later in the week, at Champagne Duval-Leroy, we taste an unusual 100% Petit Meslier, which shows a distinctive herbal spectrum; you can see why it adds complexity in a blend. Drappier’s Millésime Exception from 2012 is quite different. “For Millésime Exception the idea is the vintage not the terroir. It has to reflect the weather of one season. It is chosen from lots in the cellars, not by picking–the other cuvées are chosen in the vineyard—but for Millésime we choose those wines that are an especially good reflection of the vintage.”

Grande Sendrée 2008 is not so much overtly rich as simply full of flavor. The Grande Sendrée rosé is unusual for its perfectly integrated red fruits. For me, obvious red fruits give a rosé a disjointed impression, but this is a rare case in which they really integrate to make a characterful wine. And then there is the Charles de Gaulle cuvée, faintly toasty, showing the typical body of Pinot Noir, which certainly dominates, with an impression more towards stone fruits than citrus. “The Charles de Gaulle cuvée is named for the general because he was a customer in the sixties, but not a big one. We would have preferred to have had Winston Churchill. That is probably why Pol Roger is a major house and Drappier is a small one,” Michel says wryly. Dosage is modest on all the cuvées. “My father used to have 13 g dosage, when I began it was 12 g, then it came down to 11 g, and from the nineties to 2005 it was 9 g. Now it’s always under 7g,” Michael says.

We wound up with a wine that had been matured under the sea. This was Grande Sendrée 2005, placed under the sea at St. Malo for a year, and then retrieved to be sold as part of a charity event. It was very smooth and supple, with only the first touches of development. “I have done experiments to see what affects aging,” Michel explains. “I tried putting Champagne at altitude in the mountains, but altitude is not the answer, it ages very quickly in the mountains, so I thought I would try the opposite, under the sea. The idea was to see the effect of pressure. The temperature is 9-10C, the pressure is 2.5-3 bars, and of course there’s no light. So you lose less pressure. There’s a slight difference, for me it seems a little better after a year under the sea.”

Drappier5 Jeroboams are riddled by hand

Michel is on a constant quest to understand and control every aspect of his wine. The liqueur d’expedition is produced in house and matured for 15-20 years in oak vats and glass demi-johns, there is no transvasage and sizes up to 30 liters are matured in the bottle, and a new shape of bottle is about to be introduced with a narrower neck to reduce oxidative exposure. It’s all go.

A Perspective on Canadian Wine

Most people probably know Canadian wine only through the prism of its famous ice wine, but actually Canada has around 12,000 ha of vineyards (mostly in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula) roughly equivalent in total to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Most production is dry wine, with sparkling wine and ice wine a small proportion. A tasting at Canada House in London offered a rare opportunity to get a bead on whether this is a successful endeavor.

The wines were almost all VQA (Canada’s appellation system), so this is a look at the high end. I do think they’ve made a mistake in defining the VQAs in great detail at this stage, with ten sub-appellations in Niagara, for example, confusing rather than enlightening.

Living on the East coast of the United States, I am inclined to regard Canada as the frozen North, or anyway, distinctly cool climate, so I am frankly confused by the somewhat optimistic descriptions of climate by the Wine Council of Ontario. An amusing chart of annual temperatures in various wine growing regions appears to show that Bordeaux is warmer than the Languedoc and that Niagara is warmer than Bordeaux, which leaves me feeling somewhat sceptical.

Looking at weather station data, I place Niagara between Alsace and the Mosel. It is a little bit warmer in British Columbia, and there is certainly significant variation between the ends of Okanagan Valley as it extends for more than a hundred miles from north to south, but I am surprised to see the southern part described as warmer than Napa on the basis of degree days, as weather station data in the midpoint of the southern part suggest to me that temperatures are quite close to Alsace. Perhaps I am not paying sufficient attention to variations between microclimates.

Tasting the wines, the climate that most often comes to mind for comparison would be the Loire. With Riesling and Chardonnay as the main focus, but also a fair proportion of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier, the impression is distinctly cool climate.

Most Chardonnays at the tasting had too much oak for my taste, even though the stated usage of new oak was usually quite moderate. Even allowing for youthful character, I’m not certain there’s enough fruit to carry the oak. My impression of the Chardonnays from Niagara is that the citrus palate can be a bit too much driven by lemon. It’s fair to say that the style is European rather than New World, but given the cool climate character of the wines, I would suggest that Chablis would be a better model than the Côte d’Or, and the question should be how much (old) oak to use together with stainless steel, rather than what proportion of the oak (with many wines barrel fermented) should be new. With prices often around or above $35, competitiveness seems an issue.

Curiously given the cool climate impression, I was not generally impressed with the Rieslings. My main complaint is the style: Riesling character is often obscured by a significant level of residual sugar. I did not find a single dry Riesling. I’m inclined to wonder whether, if you can’t successfully make a dry wine, you should plant a different variety, but I suppose you might say that the best Canadian Rieslings do show a nice aperitif style.

Given the cool climate impression made by the whites, the successful production of reds is quite surprising, especially the focus on Bordeaux varieties rather than those more usually associated with cooler climates. Among them, Cabernet Franc appears to be the variety of choice for single varietal wines, and although there are certainly some creditable wines showing good varietal typicity, I find many to be on the edge for ripeness. Certainly the style is much more European than New World­—the Loire would be the obvious comparison. The best Merlots or Bordeaux blends seem more like the Médoc than the Right Bank of Bordeaux in style.

To my surprise, Syrah outshines Cabernet Franc in Okanagan Valley. The Syrahs are evidently cool climate in character, definitely Syrah not Shiraz, in a fresh style with some elegance, which should mature in a savory direction; nothing with the full force impression of the New World. They remind me of the Northern Rhone in a cool year.

There are some successful Pinot Noirs in both British Columbia and Ontario, presenting somewhat along the lines of Sancerre or Germany. The difficulty is to bring out classic typicity in these cool climates, but the best are Pinot-ish in a light style.

Some producers are now making single vineyard wines. Is it worth it? It’s an interesting question whether at this stage of development the best terroirs have been well enough defined to produce reliably better wine every year or whether a better model would be to make cuvées from the best lots. There’s also the question of whether they are competitive at price points pushing beyond those of the estate bottlings.

Favorites at the tasting

Sparkling wine, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia: Benjamin Bridge, 2008

This is called the Methode Classique Brut Reserve to emphasize the connection with Champagne: it comes from 61% Chardonnay and 39% Pinot Noir. It follows the tradition of Champagne with a faintly toasty nose showing some hints of citrus. Nice balance on palate with an appley impression. Flavors are relatively forceful.   11.5% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Painted Rocks Winery, 2013

Lovely fruits in a restrained style, fresh and elegant with beautiful balance, a touch of pepper at the end. A textbook Syrah in a slightly tight style.   14.9% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Burrowing Owl Vineyards, 2013

Black fruit impression on nose with hints of blueberries. Light style is quite Rhone-like on palate, nice clean fruits with faint buttery hints at end, more successful than the Bordeaux varieties. 14.5% 89

Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula: Hidden Bench, Felseck Vineyard, 2013

Nicely rounded red fruits with faintly minty overtones bringing a slight herbal impression to the nose. Quite a sweet ripe impression on palate with touch of spice at the end. Slight viscosity on palate brings to mind the style of Pinot Noir in Germany.   12.7% 88

Cabernet Franc, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula: Tawse Family Winery, Van Bers Vineyard, 2012

Nose shows some faint tobacco and chocolate, with palate following with typically herbal notes of Cabernet Franc. Dry tobacco-ish finish. Does it have enough fruit to stand up when the tannins resolve?   13.0% 88

Chardonnay, Niagara: Norman Hardie Winery, Cuvee L, 2012

More restrained nose than Hardie’s other Chardonnay cuvees but some oak does show through. Nice balance on palate between oak and slightly lemony fruits. Follows Chablis in style.   12.4% 88

Viognier, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Blasted Church Vineyards, 2014

Barrel fermented with some new oak. Faintly perfumed nose with the perfume somewhat clearer on palate. Fry impression to finish short of phenolic. Nice long finish on which you can just see the oak.   13.0% 89

Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the lieu-dit Bollenberg (near Rouffach, which is one of the candidates for promotion to premier cru, and where the clay-calcareous soils are suitable for red varieties). I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.

Will people please stop trying to prove terroir exists. It’s more useful to look for gold at the end of the rainbow

Grow one plot of grapevines on the top of a hill in a really sunny, exposed, windy spot. Grow another plot at the bottom of the hill in a shady waterlogged spot. It is really not rocket science to understand that the grapes are likely to be quite different, as will wine made from them. That’s terroir, stupid.

Pushing the argument to these extremes doesn’t really resolve the issue of whether terroir effects exist that produce wines with subtle but consistent differences from adjacent vineyards where there is a little perceptible difference in growing conditions. Burgundians will argue, for example, that the adjacent vineyards of Cazetiers and Combes aux Moines in Gevrey Chambertin produce different wines. Faiveley have adjacent vineyards with vines of the same age, tended the same way. “The tractor doesn’t stop,” says Jérôme Flous of Maison Faiveley. But as I describe in my book, In Search of Pinot Noir, the wines are consistently different.

Well, yes, but maybe in such cases, producers, consciously or unconsciously, are treating the wines just a little bit differently to produce results that conform with their expectations for each vineyard. You might almost call it the Holy Grail of Terroir to demonstrate that the wines from different vineyards are intrinsically different. A group of scientists have just reported an attempt to prove this.

They took Pinot Noir berries from two vineyards managed by the same producer in Burgundy, one in Flagey-Echézeaux and one in Vosne Romanée. They don’t give exact locations, but the vineyards appear to be within a mile of one another. They report that soils types are similar in each vineyard: they don’t comment on the age of the vines or planting density, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that all extraneous parameters are the same.

They took two samples of 100 berries from each vineyard in 2010, 2011, 2012 and compared the berries and wine made from them by microvinification. Well, here’s the first problem. ONE HUNDRED BERRIES! How many berries do you suppose there are in a vineyard? Let’s try to estimate this. Suppose the vineyard is 1 ha and has 8,000 vines, each with 6 bunches, and each bunch has 50 grapes. I make that 2.5 million berries. I do not think you need to be an expert in statistics to see that 100 berries is not going to be representative of the vineyard. (For the more geekishly minded, you’d need a few hundred to achieve a 5% statistical significance level.)

I won’t go into the details of the analysis, which uses formidably complicated equipment, but comes down to the ability to measure small amounts of phenolic compounds. The authors conclude that  differences between vintages are more significant than differences between vineyards. This is not a surprise. But they go on to say they can find  differences between the vineyards, for both grapes and wine. This I do not believe. It’s definitely fair to say that when you compare the samples in one vintage, all four are different. But I’m not at all convinced that the two samples from each vineyard identify any distinct character. The results look  higgledy-piggledy, and the two samples from each vineyard seem just as different from one another as from the other vineyard. Misquoting Monty Python, Every berry is sacred, every berry is great.

I believe in terroir, but I don’t believe this study proves any more than that each sample of one hundred berries is a different from every other sample of one hundred berries. (Gives a whole new meaning to micro-cuvées.) Anyway, do we want to see a scientific basis established for terroir, wouldn’t that spoil the fun?

Terroir in New Zealand

Anyone who does not believe in terroir in the New World should have come to the Circle of Winewriters tasting of Central Otago Pinot Noirs, which compared different cuvées from Felton Road and Two Paddocks. “I remember when people were not convinced that regions of New Zealand show differences,” says Nigel Greening of Felton Road, “but now we see differences even between vineyards.”

The tasting displayed Central Otago’s versatility by starting with two whites. The Riesling came from Two Paddocks. “I planted Riesling because I wanted to make a white wine and Riesling is the only white grape that succeeds in Central Otago,” says Sam Neill of Two Paddocks. He allowed an exception for Felton Road’s Bannockburn Chardonnay, which followed. Central Otago whites show a tendency towards exotic fruits: Pinot Noir is more successful, in my opinion.

Central Otago is still going through the argument of whether the best wines come from assemblage from sites with complementary properties or from single vineyards. “We are working with two different approaches to Pinot,” says Sam Neill, describing the differences between the Last Chance single vineyard wine and the Two Paddocks bottling. “One comes from a tiny vineyard in a corner. The other is an estate wine, it’s a blend of our best lots.”

Two pairs of comparisons certainly made the point that there are real terroir differences here. From Two Paddocks came the First Paddock and Last Chance 2010 Pinot’s. First Paddock comes from Gibbston, more or less the central part of Central Otago (“always the most perfumed,” says Nigel Greening), while Last Chance comes from the most southerly vineyard in the Southern hemisphere, according to Sam Neil. “There are no grapevines between here and the penguins,” he says. The difference was somewhat like the rusticity of Pommard versus the sheer refinement of Volnay.

The difference between Felton Road’s Cornish Point and Calvert vineyards 2012 was equally striking. Both have wind-blow loess, but Calvert has heavier soil, whereas Cornish Point has a calcareous subsoil. There’s also difference in wind exposure. “This is a descent into hedonism,” says Nigel of the Cornish Point. I would actually describe the wines differently, as I find the Calvert to have more obvious weight and tannin, while the Cornish Point gives a refined impression almost of delicacy. Here is a sense of finesse that quite sets the lie to the notion of boisterous new world fruit.

My own preference is for those wines that display coolest climate impressions, Last Chance from Two Paddocks, and Cornish Point from Felton Road. “Central Otago is growing up. It was known for its fruit bomb wines but I don’t see that here; there’s expression of place in these wines,” says Nigel Greening.

Link

 Tell him to buy me an acre of land, Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

To the east and south of Burgundy, the Jura is an old but little known wine growing region where the wines are a mix of the familiar (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and unfamiliar grape varieties (Savagnin for whites, Poulsard and Trousseau for reds), and familiar and unfamiliar styles. White wines made in a conventional style are called ouillé locally, meaning that the casks are topped up during élevage; the word comes from ouillage, meaning topping up. But the traditional style here is oxidized, when a voile of yeast is allowed to grow on the surface of the wine in the barrique. The wine matures under the layer of yeast, giving a result resembling fino sherry.

The ultimate expression of this style is Vin Jaune, which is matured for six years in the barrique, and comes only from Savagnin (a subvariety of Gewürztraminer but usually showing a savory rather than perfumed impression). Other oxidized wines can come from either Savagnin or Chardonnay; even after only a year or two under voile, the wines in oxidized style are quite savory. Ouillé whites may come from either Chardonnay or from Savagnin. The conventional Chardonnays have a minerality that sometimes resembles Chablis or Puligny Montrachet, but which tends to have savory overtones resembling the Savagnin. In fact, those savory overtones somewhat resemble the flavor spectrum of the Vin Jaune.  Jancis Robinson remarked on the similarity between Chardonnay and Savagnin and suggested to me that one possible explanation might be use of the same containers for fermentation and élevage.

Although the layer of yeasts that forms on the surface of the maturing wine has different species in Sherry and in the Jura, one common feature is the formation of Sotolon, a compound with an aromatic, spicy, aroma. Sotolon is also formed naturally in the plant fenugrec, whose seeds have a curry-like aroma. In fact, fenugrec is a component of Madras curry. I have been wondering if fenugrec might be making an unsuspected contribution to the aroma spectrum of whites wines in the Jura (much as eucalyptus makes a contribution to some New World Cabernet Sauvignons).

When I visited Stéphane Tissot in Arbois recently, we went out to see his vineyards, and the air was redolent with a savory aroma, hard to pin down, but somewhere between rosemary, tarragon, and curry. It had a noticeable resemblance to the characteristic aroma of Vin Jaune and the common savory element of Savagnin and Chardonnay. I’m wondering whether this could be the result of fenugrec growing in the vineyards.

There are some difficulties with this idea: the aroma of fenugrec is usually attributed to its seeds, so it’s not obvious how it would influence the grapes. And it’s usually considered to be a Mediterranean plant. On the other hand, they produce a fromage “aux graines de fenugrec” in the Jura.

The idea that fenugrec might give an interesting aroma to wine is scarcely new. Writing in the first century in Rome, Columella proposed a formula for adding fenugrec to wine: he recommended a spoonful or two per urn. This very likely produced a wine with a similar flavor spectrum to today’s Vin Jaune or Fino Sherry.

At the end of the day, cross contamination in the winery may be the most likely explanation of Chardonnay’s resemblance with Savagnin, but next time I visit the Jura I shall take a careful look for fenugrec in the vineyards (especially among cover crops in organic vineyards) to see whether it might be common enough to contribute to the profile of the wine.

Two of Tissot’s wines give a perfect demonstration of the difference and resemblance between the two styles. The conventional style is labeled Traminer and the oxidized style is labeled Savagnin.

Tasting notes

Arbois Traminer, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, 2011 This is a Savagnin matured without any oxidation. It’s quite savory at first impression, with the aromatics showing slightly after. Savory suggestions extend to texture as well as flavor. It’s hard to disentangle savory and aromatic influences on the finish. Lots of character here. 88 Drink now-2018.

Arbois Savagnin, Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, 2011 This spent 30 months under voile. Medium gold color. Powerful nose in which savory notes mingle with oxidative notes like Fino Sherry. The finish seems quite manzanilla-like. Very nice balance of influences. 89 Drink now-2023.