Sonoma Diary 1: Not Only Chardonnay at David Ramey

“The press have characterized us as a Chardonnay house,” says David Ramey, a fraction ruefully, “but I think we make world-class Cabernet as well.” He makes his point with a tasting of the complete range of Chardonnays, showing his Eurocentric aesthetic when he divides them into ‘village wines’ (AVA) and single-vineyards. We followed this with a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons from a recent vintage and from the ‘difficult’ 2011 vintage.

David Ramey founded his own cellar in 1996 after making wines for several wineries in Sonoma and Napa. Today his children Alan and Claire are taking over. The winery is a bare bones warehouse-like structure on the outskirts of Healdsburg. Estate vineyards are mostly in Russian River, but grapes also come from long-term contracts with vineyards on Sonoma Coast to the west and Napa Valley to the east. Production is 60% white and 40% red.

The winery is a practical building in Healdsburg

The Chardonnays offer a textbook illustration of differences between areas and sites. Pressed as whole clusters, they ferment and age in French barriques, for 12 months with 15% new oak for ‘village’ wines and for 20 months with 25% new oak for single vineyard wines. Aging is identical for all single vineyard wines. Style does not change going from an AVA wine to a single vineyard, but these develop greater flavor variety and more complexity, and give the impression of more structural support for longer aging.

Fort Ross Seaview is relatively lean compared to the richer Russian River Valley or Carneros. In Russian River, Westside and Woolsey are leaner than the more opulent Rochioli and Ritchie. The cuvée from Hyde Vineyard in Carneros offers one of the most Burgundian-like expressions of that vineyard I encountered this month.

How long will they last, I asked, with the problems of premature aging of white Burgundy in mind. “Twenty years,” David says, “with no premox!” After some years of trials, the winery made a switch in 2013 to using the Diam technical cork, which not only guarantees absence of TCA, but also offers a controlled rate of oxygen ingress. David makes his point about the effect this will have by pulling out a Woolsey Chardonnay from 2013 and a Ritchie Vineyard from 2009. The 2013 (under Diam) was scarcely different in appearance from the current release, and nose and palate showed the same style, but with increase in depth and density resulting from age. The 2009 (under conventional cork) was a deeper color, and the organoleptic spectrum showed the beginnings of oxidative changes. “Diam will allow the wine to age longer and retain the same character,” David says. (The winery is given to experimentation and trialled screwcaps, but David does not believe the wines would ultimately achieve the same complexity as under cork.)

We turned to red wines. The Pinot Noir from Russian River shows the restrained style of the house, and the Syrah from Petaluma Gap (a relatively cool area) showed a northern Rhone-like freshness. But the Cabernets were the pièce de résistance. Annum comes from a variety of sources in Napa Valley, about half from Oakville, the rest from Mount Veeder and Saint Helena or Diamond Mountain. The restrained style is reinforced by some subtle hints of bell peppers to cut the black fruits. Good as Annum is, however, it is eclipsed by the single-vineyard Pedregal, which is subtler and deeper. Both wines are blends, Annum with a minor component of Cabernet Franc, and Pedregal with Petit Verdot (the two varieties are cofermented rather than blended to get a more integrated result). For both wines we compared the 2015 vintage with the 2011, a year that had been generally slated by the critics at the time. But the 2011s showed beautifully as classic representations of the Bordeaux blend, with the varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon really coming out. “Some critics are looking for power, but we’re showing the 2011 vintage now,” David says.

There’s room for all styles in Napa and Sonoma, of course, but across the range these are real food wines: there is nothing forced or pumped up here.

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

Tasting Notes

2018, Fort Ross-Seaview, Chardonnay
This comes from the Charles Martinelli Ranch, two miles from the pacific at 1,100 ft elevation. Fresh nose leads into elegant palate with some buttery overtones. Generally a relatively lean, well balanced impression, just short of expressing minerality. 14.2% 91 Drink -2028

2018, Russian River Valley, Chardonnay
Fruit is a little more obvious on the nose than with Fort Ross Seaview Chardonnay. It’s a touch fatter on the palate, with a touch more viscosity, but also more sense of citrus in the fruit spectrum. Very flavorful. This comes from a variety of sources, with more than 50% from Westside Farms, the rest from four other sites. 92 Drink -2028

2018, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
Fresh nose leads into palate with filigree sense of acidity. Fruits moving towards yellow plums. Greater sense of texture to the palate compared with Rochioli, and long finish. David Ramey says this is usually the richest of the single vineyard wines. 93 Drink -2030

2018, Russian River Valley, Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay
Restrained nose with faintly herbal, piquant impressions. Palate shows lovely balance of stone and citrus fruits with some bare hints of oak in the background. There’s just a touch of citric acidity to offset the oak. Flavors are now emerging on the palate. David Ramey says this is usually one of the richest single vineyard Chardonnays. Sourced mostly from Mid-40 block with the rest from River block. 93 Drink -2029

2018, Russian River Valley, Westside Farms Chardonnay
Fragrant nose with sense of perfume and filigree acidity. Oak shows faintly in background with just a hint of residual bitterness. This cuvee has a restrained sense of asperity., This vineyard is also the major source for the Russian River Valley Chardonnay, which shows as fatter from its other components. 93 Drink -2030

2018, Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay
Bright acidity reinforces the lively impressions of the citric-driven palate, offset by a touch of oak on the finish. Softly textured palate shows yellow plums and citrus. Lovely balance and texture. David Ramey says this is usually the leanest of the single vineyard Chardonnays. 93 Drink -2031

2018, Carneros, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay
More herbal impressions here, compared to Russian River Valley single vineyard wines. There’s a fugitive whiff of gunflint, and David Ramey says this is often a feature of this vineyard. Greater sense of extraction on palate, although not more viscous. Fruits incline to citrus with touch of bitterness from oak in the background. Great flavor variety is coming out on palate. 93 Drink -2031

2013, Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay
Color is barely any darker than the 2018, still lemon rather than gold. Nose shows faintly herbal overtones and age has brought more evident depth to the palate: the citric impressions are a little more forceful and there’s a hint of gunflint. Everything is a bit deeper and more intense. 92 Drink -2027

2009, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
A little deeper in color than current vintages and more golden. The nose shows just a whiff of development and a trace of oxidative influences is evident on the palate, although still at the stage of adding complexity. While this is still very good, it shows more of a change in character, moving away from the primary citrus influences. This vintages was bottled under conventional cork, and later vintages bottled under Diam will no doubt show as fresher at the same stage. 91 Drink -2025

2017, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir
This comes from a mix of clones and terroirs, ferments with 23% whole clusters, and ages for 14 months with 40% new oak. Does not show the flamboyant style of exuberant fruits and viscous palates of the more extreme Pinots from Russian River, but is nicely balanced between earthy fruits and herbal notes. Structure shows in a bare hint of bitterness on the finish that should resolve shortly. 90 Drink 2022-2030

2015, Petaluma Gap, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah
Complex nose shows red fruits and a fugitive trace of menthol. Palate is slightly herbal, slightly nutty, full flavored, with that suspicion of menthol returning on the finish. Developing nicely with good follow-through on the finish in a style reminiscent of the northern Rhone. 91 Drink -2029

2015, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Cabernet Franc 17%, Malbec 3%,)
Sweet ripe fruits show a nicely restrained style, with a palate more focused on blackberries. Tannins are supple in the background. There are some faint and attractive herbal notes showing retronasally on the long finish. The Eurocentric style is reinforced by a fresh not of faint bell peppers at the end. 92 Drink -2031

2015, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Petit Verdot 11%)
More subtle and deeper than Annum. Very faint bell peppers on the nose. Beautifully restrained, Bordeaux-like freshness, nicely rounded fruits are supported by supple tannins, hints of bell peppers and tobacco come back on the finish. It has the quality of top wines of seamless layers of flavor. 94 Drink -2031

2011, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 75%, Cabernet Franc 25%)
The wine opens with absolutely delicious classic notes of bell peppers to counterpoise the black fruits. Palate is smooth and supple with tannins resolving. The cool climate impression reflects the conditions of the vintage and really reflects varietal character. 92 Drink -2027

2011, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Petit Verdot 24%)
Nose shows subtle notes of bell peppers and faint hints of development. A leaner, mineral character balances the black fruits. The finish shows a good sense of texture with firm tannins supporting the fruits and some hints of dryness developing on the finish together with notes of tobacco. 93 Drink -2029

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

The Whirlwind at Domaine Stephane Ogier: Tasting Cote Rotie lieu-dits

Stéphane Ogier is something of a whirlwind. He greeted us when we arrived at the winery, while simultaneously sending out a delivery of a few cases, and saying goodbye to a large group who had just had lunch and a tasting. Originally his parents had a winery in the village, but Stéphane built a striking winery in contemporary style on the main road between Ampuis and Condrieu 2013. The ground floor includes a spacious tasting room, and there’s a vast winery underneath.

The new winery has a striking design.

Stéphane spent five years studying viticulture and oenology in Burgundy, and then returned home to join the domain in 1997. “That is why great Burgundy, along with Rhônes, are my preferred red wines,” he says. Michel Ogier had sold his grapes to Chapoutier and Guigal until 1983, when he started to bottle his own wine from his tiny 3 ha vineyard in Côte Rôtie. One of Stéphane’s main objectives was to increase the estate to a more economic size, and he added vineyards in several lieu-dits in Côte Rôtie, now totaling 11 ha, and at La Rosine just above Côte Rôtie, as well as planting Syrah farther up the river at Seyssuel, and acquiring a hectare in Condrieu.

Tasting here is an extended process, as the focus is on barrel samples from Stéphane’s many different lieu-dits in Côte Rôtie, all of which are vinified and aged separately. It’s the way par excellence to understand the different terroirs and the basis for making individual wines versus blends. You really get a sense of the variety within Côte Rôtie. At the end, you feel you are almost ready to start blending…

IGP La Rosine comes from the plateau above Côte Rôtie; rich and plush, it offers a foretaste of the Côte Rôtie. IGP L’Âme de Soeur comes from Seyssuel and is more mineral. The Côte Rôtie Reserve is a blend from 10 lieu-dits. There are four single-vineyard wines. “There are no Grand Crus in Côte Rôtie, but I have mine—they are the cuvées of Belle Hélène, Lancement, and Côte Blonde,” Stéphane says. Viallière has also been a single-vineyard release since 2015. Other lieu-dits may be bottled separately depending on the year.

Lots are variously destemmed or fermented as whole bunches. Viallière is elegant, Côte Blonde is rounder with slightly lifted aromatics (it includes 5% Viognier), Lancement is broader and may age longer, and Belle Hélène, from 80-year old vines, is the most complete and subtle. All wines age in barriques, with 1-year to 6-year old barriques for the Côte Rôties, but the only cuvée showing obvious oak is Belle Hélène. The approach is modern, showcasing elegance and purity of black fruits. “Elegant” appears often in my tasting notes.

The wines mature slowly. When you taste the 2010 and can still see the tannins, you think the current vintages must be brutal, but not atall. Tannins seem, for example, to be quite similar in their impression on the finish in 2015 and 2010. Stéphane says it is best to wait 10 years to start, and 15 years for a great vintage.

2018 barrel samples from Côte Rôtie lieu-dits

Besset: nice aromatic lift with chocolaty impressions on nose. Very fine on palate, quite precise, greater precision and breed than La Rosine. Very fine, silky tannins, very elegant, sense of purity to the black fruits enhancing the sense of precision. All destemmed.

Mont Lys: very fine, precise, linear, not quite the breed of Besset, relatively lighter, more sense of linearity, not so profound. This is a wine to blend.

Montmain: chocolaty impression to nose, fine but rounder than Besset or Mont Lys, chocolaty at first, but then a sense of minerality grips the palate. Whole bunch.

Côte Boudin: comes from the lower slopes, all destemmed. More coffee than chocolate on nose, soft impression on palate, furry tannins, showing a touch of bitterness at end. Moving towards floral impressions although whole bunch.

Fonjeant: chocolaty nose moves to become slightly tart and then palate shows faintly acid edge. Partially destemmed, this will bring freshness to the blend.

Champon: always the last parcel to harvest. Very fine impression here points to potential delicacy. Quite tight, tannins fine but a little bitter, Very good acidity. This will really bring freshness.

Lancement: one parcel here goes to the separate cuvée, the others go into the general Côte Rôtie. All destemmed. Tight impression to nose, follows to palate, delicate impression, but less floral than Boudin. Precise impression, the most Burgundian, the most lingering finish, moving in a savory direction.

Côte Blonde: faintly chocolaty, faintly acidic, very fine, a chocolate edge, sense of coffee at the end, more evident aromatic lift. This will be fragrant as it ages. This has 5% Viognier, which explains the aromatic lift.

Belle Hélène: gives the most complete impression on the nose, with some delicate aromas of vanillin, hints of coffee and spice, very fine granular texture. This will be very elegant. Solely Syrah but 80 years old, planted by Stéphane’s grandfather.

 

 

 

 

A Fascinating Visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa

A visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa was a revelation about the movement to finesse in St. Joseph, as much for whites as for reds. Gripa is one of the old-line domains in Mauves, in the heart of the St. Joseph appellation. “I’m Fabrice, Bernard’s son,” says Fabrice Gripa when I arrive, “I took over the domain in 1993, now I’m the winemaker and manager (and owner). My family has been in France since the seventeenth century, and involved in wine since then; my grandfather made some wine, but mostly sold in bulk, as glass was expensive and he bottled wine only on special demand. My father started bottling in 1974 and since then we have bottled everything.” The address of the domain is in the main street through Mauves, but in fact the premises–an old building and caves–are round the back and quite extensive.

The domain is just behind the main street through Mauves.

Vineyards are half red and half white, all in St. Joseph except for 5 ha of white in St. Péray. “All our St. Joseph plots are in the “berceau” (the heart of St. Joseph),” Fabrice says, “divided between Mauves and Tournon.” Winemaking is traditional. “We are quite classical, there’s really no innovation here.” In each appellation, there are two cuvées, a general blend, and a selection from the best plots (called Le Berceau for St. Joseph in both red and white). The first new cuvée was introduced in 2016, Le Paradis from St. Joseph. “I planted the vineyard 20 years ago and now it’s good enough to be made alone,” Fabrice says.

Whites are an unusually high proportion of production here. Fabrice is interesting about them. “White is a novelty in this area, until recently it was 99% red. The whites used to be powerful. People here like whites that are quite massive, they don’t like acidity. Even now if you try to use a northern vineyard for whites, people don’t like it, they think it has too much acidity. The difficulty with Marsanne is that it needs oxidation, but it becomes over-oaked quite easily. There was no experience with Roussanne until the recent replanting. Then it was trial by mistake.”

“In the 1990s, the most important thing for reds was to be big and concentrated. Everyone was taking grapes off to get down to 35 hl/ha. They made the whites the same way, so the whites were very strong and powerful. It works in Hermitage because the terroir compensates, but in St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, the wines were heavy. When I grew up, whites were heavy and bitter, and made for aging. It’s very easy to put wine into new barrels for two years and then to sell it, but to find the right balance of oak and aging is more difficult.” Gripa’s whites age in barriques or demi-muids with 10-15% new oak.

“The big difference between St. Péray and St. Joseph is of course the soils, the climate is similar, but there’s granite in St. Joseph,” Fabrice explains. The white St. Joseph is 70% Marsanne with 30% Roussanne and is quite aromatic. The Berceau cuvée comes from a single vineyard of 100% Marsanne and is correspondingly more powerful. If you drink the whites young, open a few hours ahead. In St. Péray, Les Pins is 70% Marsanne and 30% Roussanne, while Les Figuiers is 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne, and includes old vines. Usually at 3-5 years the fruits become less obvious, and savory almost herbal notes appear, a bit sooner for a hot vintage, a bit later for a cool vintage. “4-5 years is the best time to drink the white,” Fabrice says, but then he pulls out some older vintages. After ten years, the aromatics have changed completely, from fruity to savory. The revelation is a 20-year old St. Péray, all full of savory flavors. It is fair to say that Les Figuiers is the most elegant wine I have had from St. Péray.

By contrast with the whites, Fabrice prefers the reds younger. “The Syrah with Hermitage has a stage when it goes down quite low, but then it comes back. St. Joseph stays down. I prefer the St. Joseph between 4 and 5 years, I find Syrah less interesting after 10 years than earlier.” The St. Joseph red can be quite stern and tannic on release, but after 3-4 years becomes more fragrant, mineral, and precise. Le Berceau comes from a plot of vines first planted in 1920 in the St. Joseph lieu-dit. Its richer, deeper, more concentrated fruits make the tannins less obvious even though the wine is more intense. It can veer from overtly powerful in hot vintages to relatively fresh in cool vintages.

Le Paradis is a selection from a 2 ha plot­–the rest goes into the St. Joseph blend–and there are only 2,000 bottles. It spends a year in demi-muids with 25% new oak, followed by a year in 4-5-year barriques, and is very fine, with a great sense of precision and tension. Its silky tannins show all the tautness of granite. “Most of the reds of Tournon are powerful,” Fabrice says, “and I wanted to change tradition with this terroir, which is really different.”

Hearing Fabrice’s thoughtful analysis of the reds and whites, not to mention tasting the range through both young and old vintages, made this one of my most interesting visits to the Northern Rhône last week.

Impressive Range of Northern Rhone Wines at Cave de Tain

I don’t visit cooperatives very often, but sometimes they can give an insight into a region that’s otherwise hard to obtain, especially when they produce wines from all the appellations that can be compared directly. One great cooperative is La Chablisienne, another is the Cave de Tain, which I visited last week.

Founded in 1933, this is the most important cooperative in the Northern Rhône. All the appellations are included (as well as varietal wines from IGP Collines Rhodaniennes). Most of the grapes come from members of the cooperative, of course, but the Cave owns some vineyards, including 21 ha of Hermitage (which came from the estate of Louis Gambert de Loche, who founded the cooperative). This makes them one of the major owners of Hermitage (the others being Chapoutier and Jaboulet). The Cave de Tain is a modern building located just next to the hill of Hermitage.

The introductory range is called Grand Classique, and offers an unusual opportunity to compare all the appellations of the Northern Rhone with similar vinification. In whites, Crozes-Hermitage has more character than St. Joseph, while Hermitage is distinctly richer and deeper. In reds, Crozes-Hermitage is immediately pleasing, but St. Joseph has more grip and character, and Cornas presents a smooth modern impression, yet retains a sense of earthiness in the background. Hermitage is smooth and moves more in the direction of elegance than power.

Each appellation also has an organic cuvée, marked bio, and in each case the fruits are just a touch rounder, riper, and smoother than Grand Classique. (If the only difference is in viticulture, the comparison makes an effective argument for the advantages of organic culture.)

Special cuvées from each appellation come from selections of the best parcels. In whites, Les Hauts d’Eole Crozes-Hermitage is 60% Marsanne, 40% Roussanne, compared with the 100% Marsanne of Grand Classique, and gives a classier impression with greater concentration. The Grand Classique Hermitage is 100% Roussanne and in another league; Au Coeur des Siècles, the special selection Hermitage from select parcels, is 100% Marsanne, giving a richer impression, but also is a touch more rustic, so this is a rare case where I prefer the “regular” cuvée to the special selection.

The red special cuvées are generally worth the small extra cost compared with Grand Classique or Bio. Crozes-Hermitage Les Hauts de Fief is a more serious wine than the other Crozes-Hermitage cuvées. St. Joseph Esprit de Granit is from a selection of parcels, and shows the extra tautness of granite compared with the other cuvées. While the Cornas Les Arènes Sauvages is not at all savage, it has greater grip than the other Cornas cuvées. The smooth, sleek character of the Cornas cuvées clearly show the inclination of the Cave de Tain towards modernism. In Hermitage, the special cuvée Gambert de Loche (named for the founder of the coop) has the most sense of structure, and more grip than the other Hermitage cuvées.

The coop maintains an impressive quality across the entire range, and is certainly well in touch with modern trends. It has a huge modern building in Tain l’Hermitage, with a boutique and tasting room that is always busy. Just round the corner is the Cité du Chocolate, where Valrhona has created a museum of the history of chocolate, so this is an interesting neck of the woods.The museum of chocolate is a major attraction in Tain l’Hermitage.

Visit to Porto and Douro Day 3: Morning at Quinta da Noval

Quinta da Noval has always been an icon for me because of the Nacional vineyard, a tiny plot of 1.7 ha just below the winery, where the vines are all planted on their own roots. Apparently it was treated heavily against phylloxera, but as the present vineyard was planted in 1924, it’s not obvious why it wasn’t planted on rootstocks. Unfortunately I’ve never had the 1931, which some people consider the best Port of the twentieth century, but I was able to visit the vineyard and taste the latest vintage. It has a large number of different varieties, all mixed together, which is common in old vineyards in the Douro, and as vines die they are replaced by another of the same variety. It’s a mystery how the vines are able to survive on their own roots when all around it is necessary to graft to avoid being consumed by phylloxera.

NovalNacional2Quinta da Noval

Quinta da Noval is a lovely property high up above Pinhao, with about 145 ha of terraced vineyards. The Port is made in modernized lagares, modernized in the sense that they have heat exchangers to control temperature, but traditional in the sense that the grapes are still trodden by foot for the first three days, as winemaker António Agrellos considers this produces the best results. After that, a robot takes over. Since 2000, Noval has produced red table wine as well as Port. “When we took over, the vines were not in very good condition, and with 60-70 ha we didn’t have enough grapes to make table wine as well as Port, but we have planted and now we have enough,” António says. “We’ve tried foreign varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t work but Syrah is good, but mostly the wine comes from indigenous varieties.”NovalNacional4

An old vine in the Nacional vineyard

We tasted the range of red wines and Ports. Here are some highlights.

Labrador 2012 (table wine)

This is a pure Syrah. “This is not an authorized variety, but many people plant it and we’d like it to be authorized for the Douro,” says António. Aromatics and palate somewhat reminiscent of Northern Rhone, smooth somewhat along lines of Cote Rotie, just a faint touch of pepper on the finish. Still rather young, needs time.

Colheita 2000

This shows just a touch more complexity on the nose than the 20-year tawny Port, with the fruits cut by a vaguely herbal impression. Sweetness is subsumed by flavor variety and seems more subtle. Lovely combination of iron structure and elegant fruits, with lots of character.

Vintage 2013

“Our aim is to make a vintage Port every year,” says António. There wasn’t one in 2010, but since then there has been one for three years running. For me, the most recent, the 2013, is the most approachable at present. Restrained nose shows aromatic black fruits just poking out. Already wonderfully smooth with layers of flavor developing. A little spicy, a touch nutty, but not too spirity. Promises to become extremely elegant.

Nacional 2011

Silky smooth over and above the 2011 Noval. Layers and layers of structure underneath an elegant sheen of the fruits, iron fist in the velvet glove; concentration of old vines shows through, but without heaviness.Vinicide to drink now.

Noval2The lagares

 

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

I Put A Red Wine in the Fridge by Mistake but Like the Result

For reasons that we had better not go into, I made an unfortunate mistake with a bottle of red Côtes du Rhône and put in the fridge to cool down for dinner (I had thought it was a white). Although my first reaction when I opened the bottle and it turned out to be red was that I had spoiled it for dinner, this turned out to be an interesting experience.

I had a glass to start off at fridge temperature while the rest of the bottle warmed up (in a container of warm water given the emergency conditions). Actually it didn’t show too badly – difficult to get the aromatics, of course, but the palate was quite smooth, evidently powerful, and seemed quite refined for Côtes du Rhône. It gave the impression it might have quite a good proportion of Syrah.

Once it came up to room temperature, it was a different story. Blackberry fruits on the nose showed a touch of asperity, and the palate was overwhelmingly powerful. With 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 20% Mourvèdre, coming from 40-year-old vines, fruits were intense, although not jammy. Too dense to see structure directly, but must be there underneath. High alcohol, at 15%, contributed to a mix of sweetness and bitterness on the finish. All traces of refinement disappeared and the wine showed the brutality of power. This was the 2011 vintage, so some of its strength is due to youth, but with 15% alcohol I find it hard to see how it’s going to calm down.

I actually enjoyed the wine more straight out of the fridge. Alcohol was evidently high but not oppressive, and the palate gave a much calmer, more refined impression: although it was harder to see fruit flavors, they weren’t tainted by sweetness and bitterness on the finish. So if you are going to drink a 15% red Côtes du Rhône, it may not be a bad idea to cool it down a bit first.

Southwest Diary part 3: The Old Guard and the Vanguard – the Madness of Gaillac

In two days in Gaillac I taste varieties not found anywhere else and meet three of the most forceful personalities in wine. This is the connectedness of it all: the common link is the determination to preserve the old varieties.

Gaillac is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France—there are wild grapevines in the nearby forest of Grésigne–and the only place where some of the old indigenous varieties are still grown. White varieties are Mauzac, Len de l’El (Loin de l’Œil), Ondenc; black are Fer Servadou (Braucol), Prunelard, Duras. But these days, most wines come from Syrah, Merlot, or Cabernet.

GresigneTWWild grapevines grow near Gaillac. Courtesy IFV Sud-Ouest.

The authorities in Gaillac seem especially determined to stamp out individuality among their producers, yet have no clear idea of what Gaillac should represent. It’s a very curious view the appellation has of itself, that wines made from varieties as different as Braucol, Duras, or Syrah can be labeled as Gaillac, styles as different as dry white, semi-sweet white, and a vin de voile (an oxidized style grown under a layer of flor) can be labeled as Gaillac, even a sparkling wine made from the Mauzac grape, but varieties that were grown here two centuries ago aren’t allowed, and producers who make low-sulfur wines are thrown out of the appellation because of supposed notes of oxidation. I hear all about these problems from three top producers.

Wednesday morning: lunch with Patrice Lescarret and Virginie Maignien at Domaine Causse Marines. Hidden away behind the village of Vieux, a few miles from Albi, Causse Marines is a tiny property that just looks like a residence from the road. It’s indicated only by a modest sign, as most of the wine is exported, and cellar door trade isn’t especially important. We talk about the aims of the domain, which focus on making natural, biodynamic wines from local varieties. “There’s no intervention here, except a very little sulfur,” is how Patrice describes his winemaking. It’s a point of pride that there are no clones in the vineyard: everything is propagated by selection massale and Patrice chooses and grafts the vines himself.

One advantage of Causse Marine’s site is a three week difference in harvest from the rest of Gaillac, which gives more freshness to the wines. It seems to keep alcohol levels down too, as everything we tasted with lunch was a modest 13% or so. “It’s legal to add tartaric acid to acidify,” Patrice says, “but I prefer to bring up the acidity by including a little Chenin Blanc in the blend.” In fact, cuvées vary between blends of the old varieties, Mauzac, Loin de l’Oeil, Mauzac, Ondenc, and single varietal wines. For the reds there are Braucol, Duras, and Syrah. The general style is fresh and lively, giving a sense of wines in the old style. But only the entry-level wines are labeled under the Gaillac AOP: after continued battles about the use of very low levels of sulfur, Patrice gave up on the appellation and now labels all his other wines as Vins de France.

Wednesday afternoon: Domaine Plageoles is an old family domain with three generations presently involved. We meet with Bernard, who’s the middle generation. All of the domain’s wines are from single varieties, and I ask Bernard if the domain does not believe in assemblage on principle. He looks a bit surprised, and then laughs and says, “Yes, you can make good wines by assemblage, it’s just that we think we express terroir more clearly with single varieties. Like Burgundy.”

Bernard’s father, Robert, has retired, but comes out to talk about his rediscovery of the old varieties. He restored several varieties that were no longer being grown in the region by obtaining plants from a conservatory, and the domain now produces around fourteen cuvées from these formerly lost varieties (well, seven of them are subvarieties of Mauzac). Some are allowed in the appellation, but Prunelard, Mauzac Noir, and Verdanel are Vins de France.

Robert is rather cynical about modern viticulture. “People are ossified, few people want to shake things up, it’s necessary to be provocative,” he says. “Why has no one found a way to eradicate phylloxera,” he asks, answering, “Because they don’t want to.” I asked about his restoration of the old varieties. “My father had started to have some old varieties, then one day I realized, that’s our heritage,” he explains. He concludes with another provocative thought. “There are no bad cepages, only bad vignerons.”

Thursday afternoon: Michel Issaly is an enthusiast for authentic wines. “We want to preserve the historic cepages, we work almost only with the old varieties,” he says, “with just a little Syrah and Merlot.” Viticulture is natural and seems to use Michel’s own version of a cross between organic and biodynamic. “Vinification is absolutely traditional – I don’t even use too much temperature control for the reds, I want to respect the year. What’s stated on the label should correspond to the conditions of the year. The wine should be a photograph of vintage and cepage.”

Michel only labels a couple of his wines as Gaillac; the rest are Vins de France. “I have pulled my wines out of the appellation because they say they were oxidized.” I have to say myself that after tasting through their ranges with both Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly, to say they are oxidized seems like nonsense. I could see no problem with the wines I tasted. These old varieties give a relatively tart wine, with moderate alcohol, and sharp fruit flavors tending to the red spectrum: they are completely different from the international model of the extracted wine with dense black fruits.

The most original wine made in Gaillac is the Vin de Voile. Meaning that it grows under a veil, the name implies that it’s similar to the traditional style in the Jura. It comes from Mauzac, which grows a layer of flor yeast when the barrels aren’t full. “It started because they used to draw wine out of the barrel without topping it up,” explains Michel Issaly. “It’s been made here for three hundred years, and it’s the real historic wine of Gaillac.” Today the wine is typically bottled after seven years. It has a unique character: at first you get a fugitive impression of the original fruits, then the dry Sherry-like notes take over, giving a savory impression with a touch of fenugreek.

Michel concedes that his wines aren’t typical. “There are few vignerons left who work with authentic varieties,” he says, “they are all using Merlot, Syrah, and Gamay.” By reintroducing the old varieties, Robert Plageoles offered Gaillac the chance to perpetuate its history, but Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly are rare producers who are taking up the challenge. Patrice’s problems with the AOP are summarized by this exchange. Is this typical, I asked about Les Greilles, as we tasted the only white that Patrice bottles under the appellation label. “If you mean historically, yes. If you mean in terms of current production, no; today most Gaillac is made using industrial yeast and contain Sauvignon Blanc, so the typicity has changed.”I can understand why the Gaillac Syndicat feels compelled to authorize international varieties, since authenticity isn’t everyone’s glass of wine, and you have to live in the commercial world, but it’s a pity they have in effect excluded their most thoughtful and individual producers.

Blending the Altitudes

“We play with the altitude like in France they play with the latitude,” said Hervé Birnie-Scott when I visited Terrazas de los Andes in Mendoza. The winery here was the first to be built in the middle of vineyards, in 1898, by one of the founders of winemaking in Argentina, but it went bankrupt (like almost all) in the bust of the 1960s. It was purchased by Domecq, who intended to use it as a distillery, but when they in turn sold it, Chandon purchased it with the intention of using the house for entertainment. When Chandon decided to move into production of dry wines in Mendoza, this became their headquarters and winery. Terrazas’s first vintage was made at Chandon in 1992, but its own winery was refurbished and was used from 1998. Some of the original Chandon vineyards were transferred to Terrazas, and when the trend to making varietal wines intensified in the late nineties, they purchased more land.

Today Terrazas has vineyards at various altitudes into the Andes, with 500 ha of black grapes, which include 270 ha Malbec, 180 ha Cabernet Sauvignon, 50 ha Petit Verdot, and some Merlot and Syrah; there are also 52 ha of white. There’s a very interesting approach here in matching varieties to terroir, where altitude is the main determinant. Going west from Mendoza towards the Andes, the land rises up from 800 meters to 1200 meters within some 20 km. Syrah is planted in the warmest vineyards, near Mendoza, and then as the land rises, varieties are chosen for successively cooler temperatures, culminating in Chardonnay at 1200 m elevation. With an average temperature drop of 0.6 °C per 100 m, the difference between the lowest and highest vineyards is comparable to going from the south of Italy to the north of France. Syrah is planted on the warmest sites at 800 m, Cabernet Sauvignon between 900 and 980 m, Malbec around 1067 m, Merlot in the highest sites for black grapes at around 1150 m, and Chardonnay at 1200 m.

The focus is on varietal wines. I asked Hervé whether this was a marketing decision or because they express the terroir better. “The dominant influence was the United States and Australia, driving in the direction of varieties. If you go through the phone book, under M you will find Malbec, but where would you find “blend?” We produced what people wanted to buy. Commercially there was a feeling that Malbec was just a table wine, and there was pressure to produce Cabernet Sauvignon. But from outside Cabernet Sauvignon was boring and the Malbec was discovered. The driving force was the journalistic view – the next big thing for you is the Malbec,” he says.

The top Cabernet here is the single vineyard Los Aromos, at 980 m the highest elevation at which they grow Cabernet. Yet the wine is refined and pure, with that directness of 100% Cabernet, but no signs of harsh mountain tannins. The Reserva range is made in a more obviously approachable New World style. Terrazas also has a collaboration with Château Cheval Blanc to produce a Cabernet-Malbec blend, Cheval des Andes. Here the French influence dominates, as the wine was clearly marked to be a blend from the very beginning.  Interestingly it seemed to me to have a firmer character than the single varietal Los Aromos.

Tasting Notes

Mendoza, Terrazas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, 2009

There’s an immediate fruity impression of smooth black fruits with the tannins giving a slight edge to a warm finish. This is very much in the New World approach of fruit-driven wine, easily approachable, with just a touch of high toned aromatics. It’s soft and furry and the structure isn’t really evident (although 30% new oak was used). 14.4% 87 Drink to 2018.

Mendoza, Afincado Los Aromos Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

The vineyard is in Perdriel, but the name has been trademarked and so cannot be used on the label. Some character shows immediately with a savory impression initially extending almost to barnyard and then clearing more towards a spicy and vegetal spectrum. Smooth on the palate and elegant, a refined impression with a fine texture coming from the tannins, and a touch of blackcurrants and cassis emerging on the finish. It’s just a touch linear, with precisely delineated fruits in the style of pure Cabernet Sauvignon, somewhat reminiscent of samples of pure Cabernet from Bordeaux. The wine was matured in 100% new oak.13.6% 91 Drink to 2022.

Mendoza, Cheval des Andes, 2007

There’s a warm nutty quality on opening that makes you think about very ripe Cabernet Franc, a reasonable thought given the antecedents of this wine in a collaboration between Terrazas de los Andes and Cheval Blanc, although in fact it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Smooth on the palate to the point of obscuring the tannins, some wood spices showing, but after the initial burst of generous fruit, a more sober palate shows a somewhat monolithic black fruit character with a dense structure that will take some time to resolve. It’s quite elegant and well balanced, but lacks the sense of uplifting acidity that characterizes the left bank in Bordeaux. It lacks subtlety, said my constant companion, the Anima Figure. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2020.