Alternative Shades of Chenin (and then some): Jean Christophe Garnier

I don’t want to drink ideas.  I don’t drink ideology.  I drink wine.  As I’ve written elsewhere, I like wines that have personality. . .  Expression. . .  Content. . .  Soul.  Wines that convey a sense of place.  (To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you taste it.)  But sometimes a group of wines can tell a story.  Of course, in this instance, the story is only worthwhile if the wine (dare I say “the plot”?) is good.

One of the most damning adjectives I’ve often heard applied to a wine, I’ve concluded, is the word “interesting.”  What does that mean? It’s about as descriptive as saying a wine is “nice.”  While literally it should signify that the wine holds one’s interest, the word “interesting” tends to be used in an empty fashion, when someone lacks the articulation or the vocabulary to say something coherent and meaningful about a wine.  “Interesting” tends to be used to describe a wine that, while not necessarily international in style, or showing “typicité” of a specific region, may be quirky, unusual – or of a style simply unknown to the taster.  Sometimes it’s said for lack of anything else to say.  Curiously, some wines that are described as “interesting” may be so for one sip, even two, but not sufficiently compelling to finish a bottle, much less to consider a re-purchase.

After years eschewing the use of that word, I now choose to reclaim it.  The wines I discuss below happen to be very interesting, that is, they hold one’s interest for a while.  The best of them are dynamic, evolving in the glass over hours, even days.  While not necessarily the most complex, nor the most finessed, as a group they include some very tasty wines.  And, notwithstanding my arguably snarky comment above about not caring to drink an idea, these wines also convey a young vigneron’s efforts to interpret his various terroirs.

Within this context, I’ve always found it intriguing that two producers in the same area, with similar properties, each argue for different growing and/or production methods as a means for achieving maximum terroir expression.  This is part of what makes wine fun, even intellectually challenging.  Who is to say whether, for example, an oxidative or reductive approach is more “true” or elicits greater expression from a specific plot of grapevines?  Much of this can come down to taste, and for that I simply refer the reader to to David Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” where he argues against a relativistic view of critical judgment.

These questions came to mind as I tasted through the range of wines by Jean Christophe Garnier.  Garnier is based in St Lambert du Lattay, 11 km due south of Savennieres, on the south side of the Layon River; a town technically in the AOP Coteaux du Layon  (were his Chenin vines to be botrytised and sweet.)

Originally from Brittany, Garnier worked as a sommelier and naturally became captivated with fine wine.  Ultimately he migrated into wine production.  He had a stage with Marc Angeli, who helped him get settled in the region. When a number of small plots in Anjou became available, he grabbed them.

So this is a story of someone who came from zero, no deep provenance in wine, no family history or patrimony.  Moreover, he’s working in an area where the wines (if not nobly sweet) had little to no international recognition.  It’s about someone who took a piece of property, explored and evaluated which available methods would best translate grapes from in that site into wine.

Most of his land is schistous: his “Generik” Chenin, planted on schist, limestone and marl; “La Roche” is just over a hectare of 63 year old vines planted on carboniferous soils, yielding only 20 hl/ha; and his finest plot, Bézegon, is a 0.95 ha plot of 60 year old vines on Brioverian shale, yielding 30 hl/ha.

Being of a certain time and place, perhaps, he experimented with doing things as “naturally” as possible.  He didn’t understand enough about hygiene, perhaps, or didn’t realize his equipment was insufficiently temperature controlled, or perhaps questioned the notion that SO2 “had” to be used. . . . So, as they say, “mistakes were made.” But over time, he’s come up with a few distinctive practices that result in singular, yes, interesting wines:

A number of years ago he purchased a Calvados basket press, and it is this – Garnier brand, no less – that he uses for all his wines.  The distinction does not end there: he presses over a period of 1-2 days, sometimes as many as three; thus we have a distinctive cidery, oxidative style, not out of place, one might argue, as it enhances the apple/quince character of the Chenin. For the reds, he extracts good color and soft tannin.  The wines are fermented in old oak barrels; elevage typically is in fiberglass, concrete, or stainless tanks.  I tasted these wines at one sitting, and then played with the last four over the next series of days, all maintained their integrity; the Chenins particularly continued to evolve and unfold.

Are these wines “definitive,” or should that word even apply? Do they represent the purest, or perhaps the consummate expression of the terroir?  They are, at least, Garnier’s notion of such.  They offer an intriguing, and tasty argument.  Incidentally, these wines do not solely have geek appeal: my family, including my parents, all wine lovers but not especially discriminating in Hume’s sense, found the wines intriguing and quite enjoyable.  Each person had a different preference — and yes, more than one said that the wines were “interesting.”

NV Jean Christophe Garnier Brut Nature (Vin de France) (1/3 each Grolleau/Gamay/Pineau d’Aunis)  Pale, pinkish copper, very tiny perlage.  Fresh, distinctive nose of spice, red fruits, mineral; delicate with hints of fresh herbs.  Light-boied with delicate pétillance, a mineral focus, with strawberry fruit character; a delicate mineral texture, like finely crushed stones.  Longish finish, subtly oxidative, with a mouthfilling scent.  [Each lot pressed 2-3 days, then to fiberglass tanks for ~ one month; then to bottle; Clairette de Die-style production.  Mostly 2011 vintage.]

2010 Jean Christophe Garnier “Perle a Boule” (Vin de France) (50/50 Grolleau/Gamay)  Pale salmon but some red hue. More intense soft fruitiness than the Brut Nature, with peach notes.  Light bodied, barely pétillant.  Soft, subtle sweetness, delicate yet mouth filling, if not especially dynamic.  Subtle mineral finish. Needs to be drunk super-fresh, at one sitting, immediately after opening the bottle.

2010 Jean Christophe Garnier Chenin “Generik” (Vin de France) 13%  Light amber, a little cloudy.  Appley nose, a little oxidative, like peeking into a barn filled with bruised golden delicious and razor apples.  Medium bodied and bone dry, salty on the attack and segue, firm and linear.  Mouth-filling and direct.  [Grown on schist, limestone and marl, basket pressed for 2-3 days.]

2010 Jean Christophe Garnier Chenin “Bézigon” (Vin de France)  13.5% Medium pale straw, a little murky.  Nose of quince, a bit of wet wool, chalk, bruised apples, like walking into cider barn – but no funk.  Medium-bodied and bone dry, but with ballast and persistence, leading to a quiet chalky/stony/salty finish of medium length.  Needs time to open out; as it does, the bruised apple and ripe quince come to the fore.  A more focused vintage with less weight but more of saline character, more definition and length than the 09 that follows.

2009 Jean Christophe Garnier Chenin “La Roche” (Vin de France)  Amber-yellow gold.  Riper, deeper, more intense but not more complex initially – more like sticking your nose in a cider barrel. Big and broad, more powerful and reflective of the riper vintage; textured.  Full palate coverage, even, a bit salty, but a shorter finish than the finer, more detailed and focused 2010 Bézegon.  Lots of apple and quince.

2011 Jean Christophe Garnier Chenin “Les Tailles” (Vin de France)  [a 50/50 blend of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, all free run; carbonic maceration over 3 months in 80/20 fiberglass/concrete; bottled after 6 months)  12.5% abv  Bright, deep violet ruby.  An intense, distinctive edgy and nervous nose: dark, tart blue-and blackberries, cassis, dried herbs, black currant bud, raspberry stalks, mineral.  Fresh and medium-bodied, almost gulpable, with soft, almost imperceptible tannins.  Well-balanced fresh acidity. Hints of smoke, mineral, a delicate smoky scrim.  Opens out with high tones of tomato leaf and dried herbs.  Lacking the structure and concentration of a cru Beaujolais, but more personality, weight and character than most Beaujolais-Villages. Fun!  [Les Tailles is from mostly 63 Years old vines, though some young vines have been planted to replace some missing vines.  It is about two hectares, mostly of  silt and sand, yielding 45 Hl/Ha.]

2005 Jean Christophe Garnier “Chenin Sous Voile” (Vin de France) 14.5 abv  Medium deep amber, lightly murky.  Initially, a play-do, stony, bruised appley/cidery nose.  (After a few days the playdo recedes) The wine has a dynamic attack, with a flash of ripe yellow fruit before the fruity fruit character suddenly collapses within itself, paradoxically leaving a a full-bodied, sherried wine of raw nuts with a salty finish.  Offering full palate coverage with more weight, acidity and drive than a sherry.    But it does invite one back for more, to explore odd notes of green tea, a cheesy, yeasty character, and an array of nuts.  The elevated alcohol adds to the weight and breadth, but isn’t overbearing and integrates with some aeration.  Provocative, but also quite appetizing if you like the style.  (2 barrels made)  [Garnier loves yellow wines.  When he recognized that 2005 offered the right sugar/acid balance to support the flor, he seized the best grapes from his top plot and made two barrels. Five years of elevage . . . . and no more in the pipeline.

Garnier Tasting

Sincere thanks are due to Rom Toulon of 24 Hubert for setting up this tasting,
and to Christian Troy of Indie Wineries, who graciously provided the wines.
Jean Christophe Garnier
Rue Val d’Hyrome
49750 St Lambert du Lattay
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Châteauneuf Rouge, Round Two: The Champ Walked Away, Stunned but not Defeated

That champ would be me after tasting through yet another line-up of 21 2007, 2009 and 2010 Châteauneufs.  Most of these wines were not just flammable, they seemed downright in danger of spontaneous combustion.  I will only note three that were the exceptions to the rule:  The Clos des Papes 2009 was the short term winner of the bout, full-on and supple, with old-style typicité, full palate coverage and quite delicious.  The 2010 is more structured, more savory, spicy, more linear right now and tightly knit, with firmer acidity, greater concentration and a crisp finish; this will win in the long term.  Domaine de la Mordorée’s La Reine des Bois 2010 also was relatively closed, though dense, intense and inviting; its tremendous concentration, will need to settle out and integrate.

But apart from these two wines, I felt pummeled on all sides, hit first with a blow of over extraction, pushed to the ropes by the jabs of volatile acidity, and almost felled by blow after blow of high alcohol.  The elements of the wines often were fighting with each other.  What are these winemakers thinking?  These wines feel as though the winemakers are doing one of two things: either are trying to prove something, assertively trying to make something, rather than trying to nurture the grapes into a natural expression of their land.  Alternatively, they have simply let the grapes run riot, as it were, believing that more is more.

There are those who love these wines, not just from style preference but also from their critical judgment.  It’s this latter especially I don’t understand.  To my view they are exaggerated, unbalanced, coarse, and anything but enjoyable; I’m practically under the table tasting through them, much less drinking them.  (And, truth be told, the non-trade guests who got to drink these wines at the luncheon – bigger men than I – reportedly staggered out, not fully in control of their faculties.)

The wines in this tasting were less all over the map than last years: there were the few wines of complexity and dynamic balance; the rest were of a piece, however exaggerated.  Even the wines that were fruit-for-fruit’s sake seemed just a subset of the Châteauneufs on steroids.  I will be very curious to see whether, in time, Châteauneuf’s pendulum swings back to an oxymoronic equilibrium, that is, an elegant rusticity.  I’ll champion that.

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EVOLUTION OF AND AT THE WINE ADVOCATE

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time  (TS Eliot, from The Four Quartets)

In many ways, this isn’t news; it’s been anticipated for so long:  The Wine Advocate’s coverage has evolved over the years with various correspondents; the development of the Asian market has lessened the significance of the American market; and but even here, it’s been no secret that the US wine market continues to evolve, if slowly, in so many ways:  More people drink wine, are fascinated by it, are incorporating it into their lifestyle.  Wine styles are evolving, too, with a greater interest in diversity of grapes and styles, purity, “authenticity,” provenance, and so on.  One of the biggest changes in recent years is proliferation of “authoritative” wine voices —  the wine industry’s notorious fragmentation now manifests itself here —  and most notably, the increased recognition that people rely on their social network for recommendations for any number of decisions.  (We know the review, but did our friends like the movie?)  And not only that, with a willingness to explore, many Americans are slowly growing more confident (if tentatively) as wine drinkers, thus less dependent on major tastemakers.  Asia mostly likely will get there, eventually, but they are not there now; from South Korea to Singapore, “expert” reviews and still matter, as they often do to any neophyte seeking to learn. 

It has been quite a while already since merchants could rely on RP scores to move their wines; changes at the WA simply reinforce the fact that marketing wine remains a on-going challenge as consumers, markets, and wines themselves evolve.  With luck, more consumers everywhere will explore wine, and never lose the sense of wonder, discovery, and camaraderie it engenders.

Kudos and the very best of luck are due to my friend Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW – her fine judgement and skills will serve the new stage of The Wine Advocate well.   

 

 

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New EU Rules on Wine Labelling

Rebecca Gibb reported the following in Decanter yesterday:

“The ovo- and lactose-intolerant will have greater peace of mind following the introduction of new legislation.
By Rebecca Gibb | Posted Monday, 02-Jul-2012

“Wine labels in Europe must now state whether wine contains traces of egg or milk.

“Eggs and milk products are used to clarify (or “fine”) wine and traces may remain in the final product. However, European wine producers were exempt from declaring their use until the European Commission announced in late May that new rules would come into effect on July 1, 2012. The legislation also applies to imported wines sold in Europe.

“The Commission says the new ruling is about “better informing European consumers of potential allergic risks.”

“If producers wish to market their wines in all 27 E.U. countries, they would theoretically have to provide labels in a minimum of 15 languages. To circumvent this, a series of pictorial logos has been developed, featuring pictures of a milk carton and/or two eggs – as well as the symbol for sulphites – SO2.  

“There is one exception to the new rules. If egg or milk-based products have been used during production but cannot be detected by laboratory analysis, the affected wines do not have to carry allergen labeling.

“Wines made in 2012 are exempt if they were labeled before June 30. All others from the 2012 vintage are subject to the new regulations, which were drawn up following recommendations from the European Food Safety Authority and the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV).”

Have you, or anyone you know, had an allergic reaction to wine based on the use of egg or milk-based products used in fining? Inquiring minds (this one, anyway) would like to know.

I thought I was allergic to something in red wines for about 7 (dreadful) years, until I realized the problem was all in my head.  Who knows, with those symbols, I might have thought I was allergic to milk or eggs, when, in fact, I’m really only allergic to excessive legislation.

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IMW(NA)-VDP Tutored Tastings, Part 2

Alex Stodden, Stefan Ress, Moi, Franz Wehrheim, Annegret Reh-Gartner

As noted in my associated post , the main theme of this tutored tasting was to demonstrate the age worthiness of great German wines.  Overall, the guidelines were 20 years (optimistically speaking) for the dry Rieslings, 10+ years for well-structured, Pinot Noirs, and, of course, longer for the sweeter styles.  ‘Nuff said.

The discussion  was relatively wide-ranging, stimulating and extremely informative.  Of course, the VDP provided marvelously detailed technical information for each wine, so time was not lost by people asking alcohol and residual sugar levels.  That said, both the materials and the wines themselves showed the influence of climate change, with increasing alcohol levels.  While one producer quipped that Germany loves climate change, as it has enabled growers to produce, for example, much bigger, riper Pinot Noirs (the so-called “Burgundy style,” in contrast to the lighter, leaner Pinot Noirs of 20, 30 years ago).  It benefitted Riesling producers, too, as warmer weather (most of the time) allowed for lower acidity levels, which brought better balance to the dry wines, especially in the Mosel.  Bottom line: climate change has helped Germany adapt to current wine fashion.

It has come at a cost, however.  The 1971 Wine Law is less relevant now – wine quality cannot be judged by sugar levels.  It used to be a challenge, say, to achieve 85 Oeschle, but no longer.  The sugars might be more reliable, but what about “the struggle,” as Annegret Reh-Gartner mentioned – the need for a long, slow, relatively difficult ripening period, necessary for Riesling to develop complexity and delineation of flavors?  Thus stay tuned for new changes in German wine law, which also promise to harmonize, or better, simplify, the Erstes Gewächs/Grosses Gewächs classification.  Here’s hoping!

Naturalists, take note:  The materials also noted which wines were made with natural yeasts and which used cultured yeasts.  The panel was careful to be politically correct and not suggest that one was better than the other.  Rather, natural yeasts are used by producers who prefer what Annegret Reh-Gartner referred to as “the stink,” the edgier, sweatier note they seem to elicit in Riesling.   In this instance it is a matter producer’s personal style, and whether s/he wants that character in the wine.  Others producers, quite understandably, prefer to feel they can sleep at night, and opt for a commercial yeast that they know will produce a complete fermentation.  Thus, Dr. Wehrheim, for example, uses a commercial yeast that will be relatively fruit-forward, yet leave room for expression of minerality.  It was also noted that some sites are so poor they produce grapes that simply cannot ferment to dryness with native yeasts alone.  This may be a function of Riesling’s tendency not to ferment through to dryness based on the grape itself (asserted by some), or the nutrient deficiency of the site, or high sugar levels (or a combination of these factors).  Thus, if one desires to produce a dry Riesling, a commercial strain may be the only reliable way to do so. (Johannes Hasselbach of Gunderloch remarked that they add a cultured yeast after the natural wine yeasts are dead, which is when the must reaches about 40 Oe, then allowing their wines to complete the fermentation.)

This leads to the question of dry vs. sweet German Riesling.  The German market for years now has preferred the drier styles; a few of the producers said that at least 2/3 of their production was dry wines.  Stefan Ress, who presented the one flight of Spätlesen, talked of the “dual leadership of Riesling,” namely, that German Riesling can be successful whether dry or sweet, and that historically, Germany has produced both. In other words, he countered the assertion (usually made by someone selling dry German Rieslings) that historically Germany made dry wines, and it was only in the last 60 years did the  sweeter (or “fruitier”) styles emerge.  Those who have tried to state that dry Riesling is really the “classic” and “traditional” Riesling have largely argued that the sweeter styles weren’t possible before the development of sterile filtration in the 20th century.  But this elides the fact that as noted, the natural yeasts often didn’t complete a fermentation, hence leaving residual sugar.  The yeasts were dead, and didn’t need to be filtered out.  This argument also doesn’t account for the fact, noted above, that apparently it is not uncommon for Riesling fermentations to stick, leaving residual sugar.   (I’m still trying to get to the bottom of this.)  Or the fact that before the advent of climate change, Germany was certainly at the northern limits of European viticulture, and the high acidity of Riesling grown in such a cool climate required a certain degree of residual sugar to be a balanced wine.  Discounting those who are promoting the dry wines for whatever reason, it seems to me that Germany has produced wines with diverse levels of sweetness, from dry to wines now classified from Kabinett through TBA.  And isn’t that diversity of style, in Germany alone,  part of what makes Riesling arguably the greatest grape?  (And in Germany, the greatest expression of this diversity, irrespective of wine fashion?)

Perhaps the other major theme discussed concerned the evolution of German wines.  Climate change has been a factor, certainly.  Domestic demand for dry wines (whether a consequence of a reach-for-the-polar-opposite of Liebfraumilch, or a French=dry=fine wine notion) has led producers to give the people what they want.  There is no question that dry German Rieslings appear far better balanced than they did even 10 years ago, when screaming acidities rendered — to my view — a great percentage of wines pinched and angular, if not tart and charmless.  (And I think some of them are still that way.)  Additionally, the international experience of younger German winemakers (as well as a perceived demand for bigger, richer wines than the leaner red wines Germany has traditionally produced) has prompted many to experiment, to try to produce wines similar to ones they’ve been exposed to elsewhere in the world – especially as Pinot Noir is concerned.

And as for German Pinot Noir, the wines presented clearly demonstrated a significant improvement in quality over the past 10 to 15 years.  The wines presented had more definition, clarity and poise than they did in years past.  After my last visit to the Kaiserstuhl in 2007, I noted improvements, but the progression has continued.  At that time, I still thought German Pinot Noirs, which were priced similarly to Burgundy, simply were not worth the money.  Premier cru Burgundy is now a luxury item, and German Spätburgunden offer an appetizing, intellectually and sensually satisfying cool-climate, Old World experience at a respectable and fair price. I look forward to more of these seminars and other opportunities to explore the continuous improvement of these wines, and urge others to do so as well.

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IMW(NA)-VDP Tutored Tastings: Ageworthy German Wines Part 1

One question I am asked perhaps more than any is “how long can a wine age?”  Of course, the answer is that it depends on the wine in question, but if the IMW(NA)-VDP Ageworthy German Wine seminar proved anything, it’s that top-quality German wines do age — how long they age, of course depends on the wine.  It is the divine alchemy between sugar and acidity that contribute to the long age worthiness of the sweeter styles of wines, but what of the drier styles?  Annegret Reh-Gartner answered that, saying that she “aspires” to 20 years . . . . “but I’m not there yet.”  Certainly, of the wines we tasted Monday, the oldest (only 1997) was a sweet – if not a super sweet.  But, depending on the vintage, it was clear that the best dry Rieslings and Pinot Noirs tend to be too closed and concentrated upon release, and benefit from anywhere from 4 to 10 years in the cellar.

Below follow my tasting notes from the session.  My next post will review much of the lively discussion that accompanied the tasting.

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt (Saar) Scharzhofberger Grosses Gewächs 2010: nervy nose, fully ripe stone fruit with spicy and a slightly sweaty character (only noticeable in comparison with the Müller-Catoirs that follow); a nervy, zingy palate, with a very fine, delicate stony character and high, racy, fresh acidity – with a medium, minerally, slightly saline finish.  Taut and not ready, really, but quite fine.  11.5% abv  2009:  Much more open nose, richer and riper, with a more obvious minerally character.  Slight pétillance adds age-worthiness and vibrancy to the stone fruit pits/spice/similar saline character to the long,  minerally finish, as in the 2010.  2002: Deeper lemon color, still with greenish hue.  Intense, lightly petrolly, richer nose, showing stone fruit pits, spice and a lemon-lime character – even kaffir lime.  Creamy palate, with full palate coverage, broad but light-bodied, well-balanced crisp, but softer, integrated acidity and delicate mineral layers. Medium concentration; ready to drink.  A sweaty, high-toned retronasal note leads into a crisp, saline, minerally finish.

Müller-Catoir (Pfalz) Breumel in den Mauren  Grosses Gewächs 2010:  2008: Nose initially closed, but with air opened to a more fruit-forward style than I recall, though with underlying minerality and subtle, broad sweet earthy notes below the Seville orange, stone fruit and cherry notes.  More purity of fruit than the von Kesselstatts.  Relatively speaking, more fruit-forward on the palate, though subtle soft earthy notes emerge late, retronasally, in the wine.  Weightier, solid medium-term minerally concentration, but still fresh, if lacking the elegance of the other wines.  Firm on the mid palate with a medium, crisp finish.   2007:  Very ripe nose; clean and pure; very subtly earthy.  Big, broad attack – immediately alcoholic.  While it had stony layers, and a spicy stony finish, the wine was hot and unbalanced.  At 14.5%, the wine just didn’t have the concentration to hold it.   The crowd put this poor wine through the wringer, and I am loathe to make it feel worse than it already does.  I was very disappointed with this property after the tasting: the wines seem not what they were a few years ago.

Schloss Johannesberg (Rheingau) Erstes Gewächs 2010: Very ripe nose; stony sharp and taut on the palate, showing firmness of concentration rather than fat.  On the shy side of medium-bodied, but with a subversive power and energy.  Flavors of limes, stone fruits and black currant bud.  Spicy finish. (13.0 abv)   2007:  Broad and stony, a bit hot on the finish, but with lots of mineral character and spiciness.  (12.7 abv) 2005: A ripe, generous nose, if not the most delineated.  Full, and open in the mouth offering full palate coverage and generosity with a slightly saline finish.  (12.5 abv)  I would have loved to have tried the 2008 from this, the oldest Riesling estate in the world, dating back to 817!

Balthasar Ress (Rheingau) Hattenheim Nussbrunnen Riesling Spätlese 2009:  Pale lemon with green reflections.  Dynamic peach/apricot/spiced nose.  Vibrant and ripe.  Medium-sweet, but with soft, balancing acidity; even across the palate, with underlying subtle stone and spice notes.  Very ripe,  showing some botrytic notes. Sweetish, medium finish – perhaps could use a little nerve.  This was the first wine made fully under Christian Ress’ management and new team.  2005: Bright, pale lemon.  Full palate coverage; spicy, open, and ready to drink.  Plump but crisp, with a delicate, even racy edge.  Crisp medium-plus finish. Has quite a bit of time ahead to develop.  1997: Medium-lemon color.  Ripe, but petrolly, intense nose.  Assimilated sugar on the palate; fully developed and harmonious, with oily character mingling with developed fruits. Petrolly, crisp finish, showing a delicate edge.  (Stefan Ress noted that the spring under this site ensures that there always is sufficient water supply, even in a difficult vintage such as 2003.)

Dr Wehrheim (Pfalz) Kastanienbusch  Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs 2009:  Medium ruby: nose of fresh, dark berries, vanilla and tobacco.  Medium-bodied+ and very mineral; spicy, with dark red fruits and a high-toned quality above the fruit and earthy characters (a minty note developed).  Taut, with firm, ripe tannins; really not ready to drink: should be tremendous in 10 years.  Medium finish – relatively closed.  (A warm vintage in which it was very difficult to make bad wine, Franz Wehrheim commented:  a warm vintage, with healthy grapes, and high tartaric acid levels.  2007:  Sweet fruit nose: open, a bloom of a little funk.  Sweet attack, softer acidity, more integrated tannins than in the 2009, then spice and vanilla; integrated wood. Long finish.   Ready to drink but could hold a few years as well.  Initially very pretty, a spicy, feral note emerged later in its evolution. (I appreciate the dynamic quality of this wine)  Wehrheim noted that this was an “average” years, with slightly less acidity but otherwise more or less middle of the road, if with slightly smaller yields.  2002: Earthy, integrated and harmonious nose: dark fruits, forest floor.  Smoky and even on the palate, with dark red berries, integrated flavors and medium + acidity, still crisp and meaty, forest floor character.  Medium finish.  (Cooler vintage)  This wine shows the potential of the 2009, which should be fantastic.  All of these wines were aged in German (Palatinate) oak 225l barrels for 15-18 months.

Jean Stodden (Ahr) Herrenberg Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs A much more masculine line of wines than those of the other two domaines.)  2009: Medium+ deep ruby.  Taut, closed nose showing mineral and wood.  Textured palate, smoky and mineral.  Needs time for the wood to integrate and flesh out.  Alex Stodden confirmed that this was an “easy” vintage.   2007:  Medium ruby.  Medium+ concentration and spicy, dark and earthy, with dark fruit, but wood still seems to poke out.  Firm wine with some noticeable alcohol, and very well put together, but the wood seems a little aggressive again.  Medium finish marred by alcohol.  Should do well for the next few years but doesn’t have the fruit extract to hold up like the other 2 wines in the flight. (Alex: “Some fall apart after seven years.)  Auslese Trocken 2001: Lovely nose: ripe and integrated.  Full-bodied but not heavy, soft, lovely and ripe.  Sweet, integrated attack, with “summer pudding” flavors, mineral and vanilla.  Well knit, with medium alcohol levels and integrated, balanced tannins.  These wines, all from their own clonal selection (some ungrafted) were all aged in 100% new French oak and showed it; I am unpersuaded the wines benefit from it.

Salway (Baden) Kirschberg Oberrotweil  Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs 2009: Fresh, pure, delicate, “feminine” nose compared to the Wehrheim and Stodden wines.  Sweet strawberry and mulberry fruits; subtle, sweet wet earth, sweat and leaves emerge with breathing.  Full palate coverage, fresh medium+ acidity, balanced alcohol, lithe, filigreed tannins, with a mineral/dirt/stony layer on the finish.  Ripe and supple: very pretty.  Even later opened further to show ripe, sweet compote notes.  Auslese Trocken 2002: Medium intense black cherry, spice, Christmas holiday cake nose.  Medium-bodied, with layers of vanilla, fresh cherries, pomegranates, mineral, smoke, crisp acidity and a medium finish. Lovely.  Auslese Trocken 1999: Sweaty, developed nose, with bottle variation.  The best bottles also showed lovely summer pudding aromas.  Crisp, integrated and mineral, with high acidity, and again, depending on the bottle, either the end of the road, or on its plateau, with wet leaves, developed forest fruits, mineral, sweet earth and integrated tannins.  These wines as a group were the most delicate of the 9 Pinot Noirs.

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A Question of Balance

Balance, like Justice and Equality, is often more aspiration than reality.   That was one conclusion I reached following the “In Pursuit of Balance,” tasting I attended recently in NYC.  Conceived by Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch, the notion is to highlight a wine “in balance when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.”

Now, even though this comment refers to the diverse components in wine, we all know that this conceit was conceived to counterbalance the notion of the big, fat California Chardonnay and the Pinot Noirs that seem to highlight alcohol as much as any fruit flavors. I also think that it’s a bit of a red herring to focus on alcohol (or any other single element).  I agree with Adam Lee of Siduri, who argues that a wine may have relatively high alcohol and still be balanced – it’s a question of overall coherence and the totality of the wine: does the wine have sufficient concentration, say, to counterbalance the alcohol?

I can say flatly that I didn’t go with any conscious pre-conceived notions.  I can appreciate and enjoy a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California.  I might not have been surprised if I’d found many very good wines.  Alternatively, I might not have been surprised if I’d found the wines too ripe and rich for my taste. Looking back on my notes, I can see how I tried hard to look for the positive in the wines, with comments such as “well-integrated oak,” or “supple tannins” or “full-palate coverage with a concentrated core” peppered throughout.  Try as I might to think well of elements of individual wines, or of specific wines themselves, having tasted for about an hour, it suddenly hit me how boring the tasting was.  For all the talk of diversity, even with each winery showing different cuvées, the overall effect was largely monolithic.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have the capacity for nuance, but California still has a way to go to achieve it.

I also was not prepared for the remarkable number of flawed wines, with significant volatile acidity, or at the opposite extreme, wines that lacked acidity, and the number of wines – especially Pinot Noirs – that were decidedly sweet.  I have a suspicion that this is a consequence of attempts to lower alcohol levels.  Among other things, alcohol gives the impression of sweetness.  Thus, lowering the alcohol level changes the palate impression of the wine.  I suspect that a number of producers are trying to retain their style, and leaving some degree of residual sugar to compensate for the lower alcohol level.  Sometimes the level of sugar is barely perceptible, and sometimes it is quite perceptible.  (Given that many Americans still prefer wines with perceptible levels of sweetness, these sweetness levels are unlikely to detract from the wines’ appeal.)  This is where the question of “balance” is a muddied, or the experience of balance is  subjective.  To my view, however, sweet or not, volatile or not, many wines were clumsy: straightforward, perhaps, but not nuanced; often they ended rather abruptly.  All were weightier, without the nerve, of the Handley wines I’d just tasted.

In pursuit of fairness, I list a few of the wines I found impressive. The Chardonnays were layered, with a mineral impression underneath the complexity of fruit, an element of delicacy, and a subtly pulsating central nervous system.  The Pinots had density of concentration promising a harmonious future as they unfold, with full palate coverage, supple tannins and nerve.  They all are unabashedly Californian (as they should be): ripe, rich, generous.

Copain “Brousseau” Chardonnay, Chalone 2010

Ojai “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley 2009

Cobb “Emmaline Ann” Pinot Noir 2007

Kutch “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2010

Ojai “Bien Nacido” Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2008

Ojai “Presidio Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County 2008

Peay “Pomarium” Estate Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2010

Peay “Scallop Shell” Estate Pinot Noire, Sonoma Coast 2009

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