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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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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Handley (Anderson Valley) Pinot Noir Retrospective 1993-2009

I keep hearing talk that California Pinot Noirs are “evolving,” and I might agree, but again, that nebulous term states neither what they were nor what they’re evolving into.  Two tastings recently in New York City offered perspective to this notion, not with the results I might have expected.

For the first tasting Milla Handley and her assistant winemaker, Kristen Barnhisel, presented a vertical tasting of 13 of Handley’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, from two different 2009 pre-release bottlings back to 2000, 1998, 1997 and 1993.

Handley’s wines were thoroughly enjoyable, and if anything, tasted more akin to Pinots from Oregon than from more southerly regions in their own state.  This indicates how foolish it is to treat California Pinot Noir as if it were a monolithic category.  At the same time, the fact that these wines fly under the radar and are not widely coveted suggests that Americans still prefer the richer, weightier, showier styles.  (How rich and juicy? I’ll get there in a minute.)

The tasting demonstrated that the Handley wines are clearly ageworthy.  Although the vineyard sourcing has varied slightly over the years, the wines carry a signature aroma of red fruits, notably cherries, with a darker note of smoke or mineral.  They are bright and taut, sometimes nervy, driven by crisp acidity balanced by an elegant fruit extract.  These are not showy wines; indeed, the nose is often subdued, though the more recent vintages, sourced from older vines and more diverse vineyards, are more aromatic, and promise to be even more complex.  What most characterized the wines, however, both a freshness, and a sense of being grounded: The wines offered full palate coverage without undue weight; the mid-palate had a subtle if striking gravitational pull, grounding them and the taster.  They were alive, vibrant, sometimes pulsating.  A lifted finish graced the best wines with delicacy.  And the older wines suggest that the younger wines will only become more complex in time.

These wines don’t stand for profundity, but they are truly balanced, with verve to match.  The home vineyard, in the western, cooler part of the Anderson Valley – is only 20 miles from the ocean, at about 250 feet above sea level — and is clearly capable of producing good quality fruit.  A mix of clones is planted on clay loam (20-30%) with a sandstone base.  The depth of the soils is such that the roots can travel 3-4 feet deep for water and nutrients.  Handley’s RSM Vineyard (named for her late husband) is a different matter entirely.  Planted in 1999 and 2000, it is in the hills behind the winery about 900 feet above sea level.  She primarily planted Dijon clones, notably 115 (compared to the Roederer and Martini clones on the home vineyard). The soils are different — fractured sandstone and some shale; the root have not yet been able to penetrate deeper than about 2 feet, and the yields have never exceeded a meagre ton an acre! It has only produced a single-vineyard wine in 2005 and 2009, both wines being persistent and impressive, with the 2009 showing more density, spice, and lifted complexity, benefitting from additional vine age.

So: have these wines evolved?  Yes and no.  The wines themselves have the capacity to evolve gracefully and harmoniously.  Future vintages promise even greater complexity. What has not changed is the style: no chasing fashion trends here, no move to “bigger = better” only to discover that an unequal sign would have been more appropriate.

It never ceases to amaze me how less accomplished wines get so much more attention from the so-called experts than the tasteful, poised Handleys.  Just as well: these experts don’t deserve them.

1993 Pinot Noir  Developed Pinot Noir Nose:  Wet fallen leaves, earth, underbrush, but still fresh red berries underneath.  Medium-bodied and taut, with full palate coverage; delicate, even, with a mineral segue to a refined, pretty finish.  Fully integrated.  Flavors as per nose: tart red berries and cherries, mineral and earth.

1997 Pinot Noir Much riper nose suggesting a much riper season.  Less bright than the 1993, and slightly volatile.  Medium-bodied and elegant, but plumper than the 1993; fully integrated with a medium finish. Cherries and mineral again.

1998 Pinot Noir Reserve Deeper ruby.  Darker, with a more focused nose expressing cherries and spice; considerably more complex: earth, cinnamon, clove and mineral.  Fuller and denser on the palate,  with a clear “grounded” presence leading to a longish “mineral” quality to the finish.  Firm acidity integrated but keeping the wine bright.

2000 Pinot Noir More restrained than the earlier wines, with high-toned floral notes; also cherries and raspberries.  Medium-bodied, crisp and even; very well-knit with more concentration than the 2002.  More intense mineral character, nervy and more persistent.  Firm layer of minerality under the red fruits.  Still fresh and three-dimensional, with lifted fruit and a high-toned vibrating finish.

2002 Pinot Noir Medium crimson.  Quite earthy and more intense aromas.  Pretty on the palate with purity of red fruits and underlying mineral. Less complex and a bit shorter but still showing the same bright, crisp cherried palate profile.

2003 Pinot Noir Darker crimson with more concentration.  Reserved fruit; more mineral and lavender character.  Medium-bodied and very crisp, with more concentration on the palate.  Seems a bit closed initially but an earthy retronasal character emerges, joined with hints of developing fruits. Pretty.

2004 Pinot Noir Deep crimson. Dark, bright cherried nose.  Fullish, rich, with surprising weight and flesh on the palate.  Showing considerable density, underlying minerality – very clear and transparent.  Even, with a pulsating finish; relatively long.  (Earliest harvest on record; very small crop).

2005 Pinot Noir RSM Vineyard  Impressive, lovely lifted nose.  Pure and very expressive as it opens out.  Fullish and with a riper impression of soft fruit and tannin, but the balance of fruit extract, firm acidity and almost imperceptible tannin drive the wine.  Very persistent with mineral threads throughout.  Impressive, with a longish finish.

2005 Pinot Noir  Medium cherry: this is the most primary wine yet in the flight.  High toned; mineral, develops complexity as it opens.  Big and mouth-filling, with a  lush attack held in check by crisp, fresh acidity.  Grounded finish of sweet red fruits.

2006 Pinot Noir  Quieter nose; more restrained with more apparent mineral notes.  Medium-bodied, even, taut and nervy.  Mineral, smoke, bright fresh red and sour cherries.  Medium mineral, smoky finish.

2007 Pinot Noir  More density than the 2006 with the beginning of smoke and earth emerging on the nose; concentrated, even and long on the palate.  Relatively closed with a medium finish.

2009 Pinot Noir  Medium deep ruby, with a plumper, ripe, more open nose.  Medium-bodied+, plump, even and well-integrated.  Bright sweet red fruits, fresh acidity, underlying mineral; seems really grounded.  Vibrant, streamlined finish driven by the acidity’s tension.

2009 Pinot Noir RSM Vineyard  Showing much more concentration as the vines age.  A spicy density to the nose, with much more complexity, showing notes of clove and vanilla.  Full-bodied, with a soft attack, then grip and structure take charge.  Firm, impressive and long, with full palate coverage.  Acidity well integrated.  Long finish with lifted subtle complex aromatics of dark red fruits, minerals, vanilla and spices.

The second tasting? Next entry.  Stay tuned.

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IMW-NA Tutored Tastings: German Riesling


— see to purchase tickets

We – meaning the Institute of Masters of Wine (North America) have just announced the forthcoming German Tutored Tasting, which we are hosting jointly with the VDP.  As I will be moderating the tasting along with my colleague Sheri Sauter Moreno MW, this seemed an opportune time to reflect on the seminar we held in the fall, and to give insight as to what will be coming on 21st May.

The September seminar was the first seminar designed, to the degree it is possible, to convey the influence of teroir on German Riesling.  More specifically, the aim was to evaluate the diversity of soils and site to a diversity of gustatory characteristics revealed in a wine year after year.  While the soil type may not be necessarily causative (i.e. chalk in the soils may not necessarily result in “chalky” wines), it was an initial attempt to for seminar participants to understand salient characteristics of specific vineyards or regions and the wines they produce.

Unlike the large IMW-sponsored walk-around tasting (“Germany’s Ultimate Terroir Wines’) held in 2002, this IMW-NA/VDP joint venture presented 20-odd wines as a tutored tasting.  I moderated a discussion among Reinhard Löwenstein (Heymann-Löwenstein) and Raymond Prüm (S.A. Prüm), representing the producers and my friend, the inimitable Paul Grieco, representing the trade.

One of the more curious elements that arose in this discussion was the role of residual sugar.  Are the sweeter styles (from Kabinett through TBA) legitimate classics, with the sugar an intrinsic quality of the wine, part of the “true” expression of terroir, and as such, an essential element of the wine’s structure? For many of us early American Riesling fanatics, such as myself, these wines were the initial standard of reference in the mid-to-late 20th Century.  Or, as many producers are now urging us to believe, is the sugar a cloak, obscuring the terroir, which is only expressed in purest form in a dry Riesling?

This topic has been mentioned in passim on the web, but largely within the context of when and why consumer demand for sweeter or drier styles of Riesling led to producers catering to these demands.  I need not traverse that discussion, as my focus is narrower, viz., whether the argument currently proferred by German wine producers is true, that dry Riesling is the ultimate expression of terroir,  and that dry Riesling is the in fact the “traditional” method for producing German Riesling.

The argument that the sweeter styles are a development only of the later 20th century (to placate an unsophisticated consumer base) has largely been based on the following notions:

  1. The sweeter styles weren’t possible until the advent of sterile filtration in the mid-twentieth century; and
  2. The sweeter styles were developed primarily as a marketing ploy, first to appeal to a domestic audience starved for sugar after the rationing of World War II, and to appeal to an export public that preferred sweeter wines.

I suspect the truth is more nuanced.  It’s been my suspicion that the argument that “traditionally, all German Rieslings were vinified dry” ironically is itself a marketing ploy to present the drier styles as “true,” “traditional,” and “a purer expression of terroir.”   The collapse of the Liebfraumilch-bracket of weak, sweet whites; domestic perception (looking at France as the model) that fine wines are dry; and the maturing of Anglo export markets toward drier styles of wine impression that fine wines are “dry”, persuaded German producers both to produce and promote drier wines to distinguish themselves from the past and to position themselves for the present and presumably, a brighter future.

The historical evidence supports the notion that German wines were always made in a diversity of styles.  So does basic logic.  It stands to reason that in such a cool climate (and this particularly applies in the Mosel), with a grape variety inherently with high levels of acidity, producers wishing to produce a balanced wine would find a way (say, by adding sulfur) to leave the wines with enough sugar to provide structural balance.  Additionally, many winemakers who ferment with native yeasts told me that their yeasts died naturally once the alcohol levels reached 8 or 9 percent by volume, leaving a considerable amount of residual sugar.

On its face, a wine with residual sugar can certainly be said to reflect terroir in a site where the grape ripens fully and retains its acidity such that the wine shows a balance between its acidity, alcohol and sugar level.  Suddenly BA and TBA wines – not to mention Sauternes, Bonnezeaux and Tokaji — are less terroir-reflective?

As for myself, I confess I cut my teeth with the acidity of fine Kabinetten years ago, and never lost my love for them.  I well remember the IMW “Germany’s Ultimate Terroir Wines,” event, largely from the 2001 vintage, and even then, I thought a considerable number of the trocken wines were simply too angular, even contorted.  Apart from climate change creating an entirely different vinicultural environment, my impression is that producers are settling into producing more balanced, concentrated and complex dry Rieslings.  I’ve grown to appreciate them, ok, love many of them, for all their intelligence, nuance and purity.  But I can’t deny the childlike joy I experience every time an electric Kabinett graces my palate.

As for the conclusions of the seminar, I can’t say we linked particular soil types with specific results, but we certainly understood how the numerous variables in different terroirs combine to produce entirely expressions of Riesling.

Trocken Flight

1. Weingut Karthäuserhof (Ruwer)  2010 Riesling Spätlese Alte Reben trocken

Intensely floral nose, with a stony core; the fruit expression was more of stone fruit pits.  Dry on the palate, the wine again had  a stony core,  with hints of stone fruits, lemon, lemon pith, an apricot essence and hints of spice. Very lean, with tart acidity.  According to the producers, the slate highlights the floral component of the wine; wines from the Ruwer are typically racy and spicy, with bracing acidity.[Soil: red slate (ferrous); Exposition: S/SW; vines average 30 years old; Yields 30hl/ha; lees contact; Alcohol 12.5%; Acidity 8.8; RS 8.8]

2. Weingut Künstler (Rheingau)  2010 Hölle Erstes Gewächs

This wine had a decidedly different nose, being much fruitier, riper and more intense.  Medium-bodied, the palate was surprisingly earthy, and not about the fruit at all:  a dense impression of wet stone, sweetly sweaty, persistent and very long, with a very long finish.  Shows the power of the Rheingau.  The dark topsoil must absorb heat and facilitate a riper, more powerful wine.  [And now a wine grown on calcareous clay marl, a black-brown topsoil over a heavy, ochre-colored Cyrena marl.  Average vine age 50 years; 30 hl/ha; Lees contact; Alcohol 13.5% Acidity 8.9; RS 7.10]

3. Weingut Toni Jost (Hahnenhof, Mittelrhein)  2010 Hahn Grosses Gewächs

A much fruitier nose of peach and apricot, accented with a spicy quality clove)  Dry, with less density than the Künstler, bu still stony, with hints of peach pit, and more filigree; a wine more about warmth and elegance than power. Medium+ finish.  [Dark blue Devonian slate; 60% slope; exposition S/SE; vines average 42 years;  38hl/ha; lees contact; 12.5%; acidity 7.10; RS 9g/l]

4. Weingut Schäfer-Frölich (Nahe)  2010 Felseneck Grosses Gewächs

An intense nose of very ripe fruit; very complex and dynamic, with spice, stone, and earth notes: Impressive.  Medium-bodied, blooming just after the attack, with flavors of earth, sweat, lemon, stone: persistent, zingy, textured, dynamic and very complex, with a long stony finish evocative of wet cement. Arguably the wild, explosive aromatics are a result of the wild yeast fermentation in a cool climate; the zingy acidity a consequence of the quartzite. [35-60% slope on Devonian slate with Basalt pebbles and off-white Quartzite. 25 hl/ha from ~ 40 year old vines, lees contact; 13.2%; 7.4 Acidity; RS 5.9]

5. Weingut Wittmann (Rheinhessen)  2010 Aulerde Grosses Gewächs

A very ripe nose suggesting botrytis: apricot, apricot pie, baking spices, brown sugar.  Just short of full-bodied, crisp and rich, with a stony underpinning; flavors of roasted peach, tropical fruit, stone and spices.  Offering full palate coverage, the wine is broad, relatively dense (all clearly a consequence of deep, warm, relatively heavy soils) with a firm, crunchy stone quality and a long, vaguely smoky, stony finish. [Aulerde is the warmest of the Westhofen sites, having heavy clay marl with a small amount of limestone; subsoil of clay and gravelly sand; exposition S/SE; vines average 50-60 years;  15hl/ha; lees contact; 13%; acidity 7.20; RS 8g/l]

6. Weingut A. Christmann (Pfalz)  2010 Idig Grosses Gewächs

Stony, firm, high-toned nose. Dynamic, earthy and stony on the palate, with very dynamic retronasal qualities; high acidity, firm, dense fruit held in reserve: stony, seemingly chalky and high toned, with a very long finish.  Powerful and concentrated:  this wine needs time.  [Calcareous rock & clay topsoil; 1 meter below is tertiary limestone rocks mixed with chalky sand; 32 hl/ha; 30 year old vines; 103° Oe; 3 months on fine lees 13.5%; Acidity 8.9;  RS 3.2]

FRUITY FLIGHT: Young wines

7. Weingut S.A. Prüm (Mosel)  2009 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese

Off nose.  Wine did not seem clean.

8. Weingut Geh.Rat Dr. v. Bassermann-Jordan (Pfalz)  2009 Deidesheimer Leinshöhle Spätlese

Off-dry, soft on the palate but with crisp acidity; a little earthy: mouth-filling, with a subtle texture, stone fruits with subtle minerality, very easy to drink and a medium+ finish. The least exciting wine of the flight; I usually like their wines a lot, so I was disappointed.  [Clay to clay sand, with some limestone; no lees contact; 9.5%; Acidity 7.3; RS 72.9]  The clay brings bigger shoulders and weight.

9. Weingut K.F. Groebe (Rheinhessen)  2010 Kirschspiel Spätlese

Very complex and individual nose; quite floral.  Off-dry but with a denser palate than the Basserman-Jordan, plump and rich, with very ripe fruits and exotic spices.  Quite generous if not the most finessed, which I admit I miss.  [37 year old vines on clay marl with sedimentary limestone (with a small amount of weathered lime silt); limestone dominates the subsoil;  30 hl/ha; lees contact; 8.5%; Acidity 9.6; RS 87.5]

10. Weingut Robert Weil (Rheingau)  2010 Kiedrich Gräfenberg Auslese

Complex and powerful spicy nose.  Just shy of full-bodied, the wine is dense, rich and complex.  With flavors of apricot, grilled peach, cinnamon, clove, and allspice, it is spicy and floral with a mineral quality throughout.  Offering a powerful full palate coverage and a concentration of energy, the wine is quite persistent with a long and complex finish. [24-40 year old vines from 6 different Geisenheim clones yielding 38 hl/ha, planted on fine-grained mica: a stony, fragmented phyllite mixed with loess and loam. The phyllite grains are larger than slate, smaller than schist; lees contact;  8%; Acidity 10.9; RS 131.5]

11. Weingut Ratzenberger (Mittelrhein)  2008 Wolfshöhle Auslese

More filigreed than the Weil; spicy, honeyed and botrytic with light petrol notes. Broad and elegant, sweet but crisp: Not as rich as the Weil, but very pretty and elegant, with notes of ripe stone fruits and mineral, wrapped with the honeyed, spicy notes from botrytis.  Medium finish. [42 year-old vines  yielding 15 hl/ha on an alternating soil structure of clay slate and crystalline slate; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 10.9; RS 140]

12.  Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken (Saar)  2010 Rausch Auslese

Intensely, high-toned floral nose.  Medium-bodied, crisp, racy and nervy with flavors of lime, lime marmalade, orange peel and mineral.  Zingy acidity.  Bracing and exciting with years ahead.  [30 year-old vines  yielding 28 hl/ha on diabase slate; steep, south-facing vineyards; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 12.5; RS 156]

13. Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein (Mosel)  2009 Uhlen Auslese

Rich nose with botrytic qualities.  Rich, even fat on the palate, heavily botrytis, with lots of honey, clove, spices, grilled apricots and crème brulée. Less nerve and filigree than the prior wines, botrytis seems to have overtaken the wine, which is a bit lacking in acidity given the sugar. Unctuous but muddled. [45 year-old vines  yielding 36hl/ha on Devonian slate with chalk and limestone; S/SW exposure; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 9.7; RS 224]


14. Weingut Egon Müller-Scharzhof (Saar)  2004 Scharzhofberg Spätlese

Ripe, fragrant, highly aromatic nose of stone fruits and “slate” – still young and fresh but with hints of petrol peeking out.  Crisp and clean on the palate, with integrated sugar – almost dry.  Delicate, refined and elegant with a medium finish.  Wow.  [42 year-old vines  yielding 15 hl/ha on S/SW and S/SE facing slate and Devonian slate soils; lees contact; 7.5%; Acidity 10.9; RS 140]

15. Weingut Joh.Jos.Prüm (Mosel)  2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese

Incredible wine: intense nose and huge palate, still zippy with CO2.  Fresh, young with a stony, mineral, slightly green finish: not ready to drink. Tart and closed.  Both the level of SO2 and the fermentation with indigenous yeasts cause this wine to emerge from the hole and be ready to drink. [Deep, weather-beaten grey slate with slopes up to 70 degrees. 8% abv]

16. Schlossgut Diel (Nahe)  2002 Dorsheimer Pittermänchen Spätlese

Yellow-lemon color.  Intense nose of petrol and mineral, underlying, fading stone fruit quality.  Full-bodied, integrated and round; off-dry; earthy and mineral with a “sweaty” note.  Very high acidity contributes to the wine’s considerable persistence and clean, long, finish.  [20 year-old vines yielding 50 hl/ha on slate, quartzit and gravel; 6 months lees contact; 8% abv; Total acidity 8.2; RS 73g/l]

17. Weingut Reichsrat von Buhl (Pfalz)  1997 Forster Ungeheuer Auslese

Earthy nose, with petrol but also botrytis evident: honey, spices, crème brulée.  Rich but not fat on the palate, with honey, spices, roasted stone fruits and especially brown sugar driving the finish.  Intense, but not the most filigreed, variegated or interesting.  [20 year-old vines planted on sandstone and limestone yielding 10 hl/ha on a south and southeast facing vineyards; 3 months lees contact.  8.8% abv; TA 8.0; RS 108]

18. Weingut H. Dönnhoff (Nahe)  1997 Oberhäuser Brüke Auslese

Nose appears younger than the von Buhl.  It is also incredibly complex and vibrant, still very primary.  Full-bodied, integrated and three-dimensional palate, very persistent and dynamic, seemingly dancing. Limey, citrus, spicy, minerally, yow.  Very long and persistent.  [30 year-old vines planted on grey slate covered with loess and loam; lees contact; 8.5% abv, TA 10.6; RS 129]

19.  Hessische Staatsweingüter Kloster Eberbach (Rheingau)  1989 Rauenthaler Gehrn Trockenbeerenauslese

Dark amber with a light amber rim and greenish highlights: seems prematurely aged.  Initially, the nose showed intense aromas of raisins, caramel, spice, burnt sugar.  Full-bodied and sweet on the palate, rich but not treacly, with a long finish.  Unfortunately this wine was a flash in the pan and fell apart quickly after pouring.  [20 year-old vines on south and south-east facing slopes composed of decomposed slate, quartzit and loess; lees contact; harvested 21 October 1989; 12% abv; TA 10.2; RS 132g/l]

20. Weingut Prinzsalm (Nahe)  2010 Grünschiefer Riesling QbA

A very interesting wine from a curious site of green slate (resulting from the level of sulphur in the soils, unique to the vineyard site Felseneck Wallhuasen.)  Bone dry, firm, with tremendous length and finesse, with tremendous minerality and light peach flavors. [8-35 year-old vines yielding 40 hl/ha; southern exposition with slopes of 30-50 degrees; harvested 26 and 26 October 2010; lees contact; 12.5% abv; TA 9.0 g/l; RS 6.9 g/l]

NB: It was noted that while in Urzig there is both red and blue slate, what is important is not so much the ferrous nature of the red slate but rather the difference in the structure, or the organization of the slates.  If the sediment is different, the taste will be different. How so? A query to pursue.

I look forward to the seminar on the 21st, where we’ll be able to evaluate and discuss several vintages of Grosses Gewächs Rieslings and Spätburgunders, and a flight of Kabinett Rieslings.  Tickets are available at

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Across the Map: Châteauneuf du Pape 2007

To what degree are our notions of wine quality a social construction?  Is it notions of quality that are historically contingent, or is it just questions of style?  Notwithstanding all I’ve written in my “First Principles,” to the degree that one may think of a “True,” “Pure” or “Ideal” wine (in the Platonic sense), does such a concept make any sense? (I will be exploring these, and related questions in greater detail in future writing, as I explore the hermeneutics of wine tasting and criticism.)

These, and related questions, hovered in the back of my mind as I tasted an array of 2007  Châteauneuf du Pape wines.  This is an appellation that has changed considerably over the past few decades, both in terms of grape-growing practices (notably the increased plantings of Syrah from the 1980s through the early part of this century) and wine-making practices as well.  This vintage, with warm days and rather cool nights, was regarded by many as a great vintage, and fine vintages tend to show more consistency of quality.  While certainly not an exhaustive tasting, such, it still offered guidance about where Châteauneuf is these days.  The answer?  Seemingly, all over the place.  Admittedly, the appellation is not a small one; the vineyard sites vary and there is considerable variation of soil types within the vineyards; and, of course, the blend of grape varieties allows for endless iterations of Châteauneuf du Pape, even if at root, it’s a wine that’s really about Grenache, whether it’s 100% Grenache, or not.

And that’s only a few of the variations in the vineyard, not to mention cultural practices, especially the historical situatedness of the vigneron.  (This largely refers to their place in history, which will influence the vinicultural choices they make.)  Which, then, includes vinification options: cold soak? De-stem? Fermentation temperature and vessel? Pigeage? And so on. Perhaps it is the vast number of variables that inevitably leads to Châteauneuf being an AC without one style one could point to as being “typical.”  One could gloss that Châteauneuf tends to be an expansive, generous wine, with its top expressions nonetheless show elegance, harmony and finesse — but that includes a stylistic value judgment, both oversimplifying the matter and not saying very much.

The differences among the wines wasn’t so simple as “traditional” vs. “modern.”  On the one hand, there were three wines, very different one from the other, that stood head and shoulders above the others: the pulsating, layered Rayas; the massive, concentrated Chapoutier Barbe Rac; the well-knit, harmonious and long Clos des Papes.  These three wines, in my view, were what we might call “classic” Old World wines: complex, synergistic, with the grape and resulting wine a medium for the expression of the land.  At another extreme, there were wines that “embraced the fruit” — a comment coined by a Russian River Valley friend articulating his wines’ style.  Wines in this group seemed deliberately crafted to be fruit forward, to deliver purity of fruit, tout court.  (It makes sense, actually, as Grenache has fruit as its essence, much as does, say, Pinot Noir.)  In the middle, perhaps, was another category: wild, untamed, sauvage, sometimes out of balance, assertive and brawny, if not downright aggressive.

Thus, instead of the consistent high level of quality one might have expected in this vintage, there was instead tremendous variety, both in quality and in style.  (Not all “traditional” wines were good (or bad); and the same could be said of the more “modern” wines.)  But this raises another question: if we cannot point to a particular style of wine as being “typical,” does that mean our standards of quality need to be adjusted — so that we don’t judge Châteauneuf du Papes according to their “typicité” — or that the appellation and the producers themselves are still sorting out what “typical” might be for themselves, collectively and individually? One way or another, it appears that the standards of “quality” within  Châteauneuf du Pape are as varied as its terroirs.

All wines were in magnum unless noted otherwise.

1. 2007 Château Rayas

Medium deep ruby but intense, focused, with a bull’s eve nose drawing you to a focal point in the glass: intense aromas of raspberry, spices, still seeming relatively primary, but at the same time quite exotic, with high toned cranberry, saffron, and other Indian spices.  Full-bodied, with a huge front palate attack.  Initially hard to sustain, with noticeable alcohol and firm tannins; but once initiated, those tannins are vibrant, vibrating and very alive. A very persistent wine, with volatile acidity offering a bit of lift into the pulsating finish.  Full palate coverage; very layered.  The tannins resemble vibrating cello strings.  Flavors as per nose with a smoky, meaty element. [90-100 year old vines on limestone soil; 100% destemmed; 100% Grenache; epoxy resin concrete fermentation for 3 weeks reaching 30-33° C; 12 month stainless vat elevage.] (750 ml)

2. 2007 Chapoutier Barbe Rac:  Deeper color than the Rayas, with a tighter, more closed nose, which also offers more “mineral” character, though aromas of raspberry reduction, ripe baked fruits, spices, cherry: Fresh and tightly wound. Fuller on the palate than the Rayas: alcoholic, but less volatile, rather chewy, with a dense mid palate. Very spicy, with vanilla, black pepper, dark cherries (including Caucasian sour cherries), with a mid palate center of gravity yet still very taut as it moves back on the palate, with a savory, smoky quality; cured meats. Persistent, firm, but relaxes slightly as it’s chewed, with mineral, smokey bass notes in the finish.  Will be great in time.  For a long time. [100% Grenache on marl and clay; whole bunch; no destemming; 10-14 days in concrete vats; enamel-lined concrete for malolactic fermentation; then 16 months in old demi-muids & founders; 12-16 months elevage.]

3. 2007 Isabel Ferrando Colombis: medium+ dark ruby, with a candied nose – even candied apple.  Much less complex than the first two, though with notes of fresh and dried strawberries, with allspice in the deep background.  Full-bodied, with a sweet attack and very sweet, soft, zaftig tannins; a more flaccid structure than the first two wines; also more obviously alcoholic and volatile. A smokey, minerally, spicy quality to the medium finish (encouraged by the alcohol), but the wine lacks the density of the earlier wines.  The Rayas seems poised in retrospect. [100% Grenache from 60-100 year old vines; 100% destemmed, fermented in a truncated cone-shaped oak vat; 14 months in new oak]

4. 2007 Domaine Giraud “Grenaches de Pierre”:  Medium deep ruby, with a nose of raspberry and “mineral” nose, then cherry, herbal, lavender; still fresh.  Full-bodied and broad, with more obvious, appetizing acidity than the Colombis, giving the wine tension and adds to its mineral expression.  Less persistent, layered and complex than the 1st two wines, but still offers full palate coverage with a lifted, spicy finish of medium+ length. [100% Grenache on sandy soil; 80-100% destemmed; cold maceration and fermentation at 23°C for 3-4 weeks; 18 mod concrete tank elevage.]

5. 2007 Domaine la Barroche “Pure”:  Very dark ruby with a medium rim.  An intense nose, seeming yes, “pure” in that it is fruit-forward, or at least fruit-driven, a fruit essence of black raspberry/black cherry/vanilla, fruity black chocolate in the Valrhona style, all emerging out of a pastry flute.  Full-bodied and broad, pure but not complex, with high alcohol and insufficient density to sustain it; mid-palate center of gravity, crisp finish; short and simple. [100% Grenache from 100 year old vines on sandy soil, 50% destemmed; concrete foudre ferment @ 31°C stainless MLF]

6. 2007 Clos des Papes: Medium deep ruby, the nose much more tightly wound in a concentrated way, with more mineral than fruit speaking: raspberry and cranberry add flesh to the minerality, showing both density and breadth.  Full-bodied, with a big attack, immediately palate coating and complete: very impressive: layered, well-knit, harmonious and long, with a mineral layer continuing throughout as a rich, subtle smoky thread.  [65Grenache/20Mvd/10 Syrah/5 Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin; destemmed; 3 week ferment at 32°C, no new oak; 15 months in old foudres.]

7. 2007 P. Usseglio Cuvée de Mon Aieul: Very dark crimson, with an intense, overripe nose: dried raspberry, blue- and blackberry; dried cherries, cherry pie; candied cherries.  Full-bodied with a sweet attack, quite extracted, with flavors of dark cherry and vanilla before the alcohol kicks in. Concentrated, tannic within, then alcoholic and short.  Flavors as per nose; the wine seems forced, pushed, with a woody finish. [95 Grenache/5 Syrah; 50+ year old vines; destemmed, 14-16 months in concrete; 10% in small 1-3 year old barrels]

8. 2007 Domaine Durieu “Lucille Avril”:  Medium ruby, with an alcoholic nose, and no density: raspberry aromas.  Full-bodied, broad, with full palate coverage, but volatile, then spicy and alcoholic: impossible to sustain.  Hot finish.  Short, then bitter and stemmy.  Woody; no finesse. astringent: downright unpleasant. [90% Grenache, 6 Mvd, 4 Syrah from 100 y.o vines, no destemming; 3-4 week maceration; Grenache aged in concrete; the others 16-18 months in new oak]

9. 2007 Domaine Saint Préfert Reserve Auguste Favier:  Very deep crimson: sour nose, as if it were still fermenting: sour plum, tart red fruits, relatively pure fruit forward focus.  Full-bodied, but much bigger on the palate than the nose suggested.  Sweet fruit attack and segue, but not very layered or dense.  Even, crisp, fresh pure: a crowd pleaser for a certain kind of crowd. [85 Grenache (vats)/15 Cinsault (barrels); 20 hl/ha from 40-100 y.o vines; destemmed]

10. 2007 Domaine Grand Veneur Vieilles Vignes Alain Jaune et Fils: Very dark ruby, with a layered, concentrated dark raspberry nose.  Full-bodied, tense, concentrated and firm, with a “masculine” structure.  Spicy, then alcoholic, though mineral/stony character emerges: taut and assertive, with a center of gravity toward the front of the palate.  Lots of extract and feels forced.  Stony finish but not three dimensional: a bruiser. [50% Grenache/ 40 Mvd/ 10 Syrah from 40-90 y.o. vines on marine sandstone with a layer of Alpie diluvium clay limestone; some stones in the topsoil; destemmed; 16-18 months new oak.]

11. 2007 Mas de Boislauzon Quet: Very dark ruby, with a relatively closed nose: black raspberry, black cherry; mineral, charcoal, tobacco.  Full-bodied, with a  big, full-on, fruity attack; initially lovely, then gritty, with no finesse.  Smoke; harsh underneath some pretty fruit quality, but astringent tannin and crisp acidity: a little mean, with a medium finish.  Lightly volatile, but ok: it’s the other parts that create the problems.  Rustic and not integrated. [80 Grenache/20 Mvd on sandy soils from 5 lieux dits; no destemming; aged in tank and small oak]

12. 2007 Domaine de la Janasse Chaupin: Very dark ruby and not very clear, with a lightly candied nose; somewhat liqueurish; evokes Cherry Heering.  Full-bodied, with a big attack of sweet cherry and raspberry flavors; sexy, impressionable, then alcoholic and short.  Not very complex; extracted.  Later, the sweet (medium) tannins seemed well-wrapped, and the wine appeared well-knit, even and well-styled, with a medium finish.  The impression of this wine varied significantly depending on what was tasted before it. [100% Grenache on cool, soils of clay and sand with large stones; 80% destemmed; 14 mos. elevage: 70% foudre, 30% new, small oak]

13. 2007 Domaine Saint Préfert Collection Charles Giraud:  Medium+ deep ruby, with an odd nose: lightly confected, seemingly with hints of brett, then spice, then alcohol.  Full-bodied and even, with high-toned spice notes, but lacks the depth to handle the level of volatile acidity and alcohol.  At best one could say it is “delicately nervy” — the spice quality adds to its core and nerve. [90% Grenache, 5 Syrah 5 Mvd; 15 hl/ha; destemmed, 18 months in 3-5 year old small oak casks]

14. 2007 Domaine Pegau: Very dark crimson, with a distinctive nose: dark cherry; not very complex yet, but yielding lots of Indian spices, and seemingly not overly alcoholic.  Full-bodied, nervy, taut and spicy, with lightly astringent tannins, but perhaps a bit shallow on the mid-palate. Disjointed and uneven across the palate; angular; the structural elements seem to be fighting with each other.  Disappointing after a promising nose. [85% Grenache from 95 year old vines; 4% Mvd; 2 other varieties; whole cluster ferment, then 18 months in old foudres.  15.5% abv]

15. 2007 Domaine de la Solitude Reserve Secrète: Very dark ruby, with a lightly funky nose: not especially defined, but vaguely earthy/garrigue-evoking, with lavender. Crisp, with fresh acidity, nicely volatile, imparting lift and nerve, though wood peeks out after an integrated palate.  Shows well in the line-up; medium finish. [65% Grenache; 35% Syrah fr0m 50+ year-old vines on sandy & clay with stones; destemmed; 16 month tank elevagel 10% new barrels]

16. Domaine de la Janasse Vieilles Vignes: Medium+ deep crimson, with a firm, dark raspberry nose; quite concentrated.  Alcoholic on the palate, with concentrated cherry/raspberry fruit; firm, but with a short finish.  I expected more. [85% Grenache; 10 Syrah; 3 Mvd; 2% others from 60-100 year-old vines on varied soils; 80% destemmed; 14 month elevage, 75% in tank, 25% small barrels, of which 40% are new]

17. 2007 Deux ex Machina Clos St Jean: Very dark ruby, with a tight nose: not very expressive beyond some dark ripe raspberry, blackberry and a “mineral” note.  Good immediate impression on the palate, but no vibrancy or liveliness especially on the finish.  Fine, reasonably well-integrated and seemingly à point now, with enough tannin and acidity to give edge to what essentially feels like a hedonistic pleasure.  Short and not nuanced, especially on the finish.

18. 2007 Reserve des Deux Frères, Domaine Pierre Usseglio: Dark ruby, with a leaner, almost weedier nose, more resiny and linear.  Just over medium-bodied, with a much fuller palate than the nose suggested, but dominated by peculiar notes of cooked orange.  No freshness.  [100% Grenache, grown on sand & clay with very large stones; 25 hl/ha; destemmed; 20-day concrete maceration; 12-15 months elevage, 60% in new barrels & demi-muids, 40% in 1-3 year old barrels.


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