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 www.localwineevents.com 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 localwineevents.com.

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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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California Dreaming: Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Retrospective

Early October presented the opportunity to taste through 14 vintages of Domaine Carneros’ blanc de blancs tête de cuvée “Le Rêve.”  I’d been asked to moderate the tasting, which I was delighted to do, as it’s always a pleasure to spend time with someone like Eileen Crane, who embodies fierce intelligence well-wrapped in grace.  This year has been Eileen’s 34th harvest, meaning she’s had more experience producing American sparkling wine than any other winemaker. (Eileen became the founding winemaker at Domaine Carneros in 1987 following a decade at Domaine Chandon and Gloria Ferrer.)

The reception of Domaine Carneros seems to suffer a bit in the East due to differences in taste and pre-determined orientation, privileging European wines.  (A sizable proportion of East Coast wine professionals profess to prefer more acid-driven, subdued wines than California tends to produce.  And my own experience with the Vintage Brut has been capricious.)  Thus I was eager to see how Le Rêve would be received:   The combination of 100% Chardonnay (read: more acidity and tension), plus 10 years on the lees (read: greater complexity and texture), plus bottle aging from less than two through 16 years (read: how do these wines age? and, vintage variation: how varied in a region extolling its consistency?) portended a profile more likely to be received favorably, even from a skeptical, if respectful, audience.

Champagne Taittinger’s tête de cuvée, Comptes de Champagne, is also a blanc de blancs, so all things being equal, perhaps it follows that the same should apply to its California counterpart.  But, of course, all things are decidedly not equal, as the terroir is decidedly different.  The soils in Carneros are not chalky.  Champagne has no San Pablo Bay, or fog.  Weather patterns in Carneros are more consistent than Champagne.  This latter endows Domaine Carneros with fruit worthy of Le Rêve every year, which tends to come from older blocks, in the coolest part of the vineyard, where the vines are virused.  Eileen is not the first winemaker to make a virtue out of  virused vines, and, while I remain a bit skeptical of this, I can accept at least part of the argument: viruses (mostly leaf roll) lower yield, retard sugar accumulation, and retain acidities — all quite positive for grapes destined for California sparkling wine. Viruses also retard phenolic development, but this arguably is less of  an issue for sparkling wine.  What is key is that the slower accumulation of sugars allows a longer period for flavor development.  Thus, the Chardonnay grapes destined for Le Rêve theoretically have had greater flavor development relative to sugar, and render the resulting wine denser and more complex.  (I remain skeptical because it seems to me first, that flavor development does not just take longer, but it is actually delayed.  Second, sparkling wine producers tell me that phenolics do actually have an effect on the juice quality for sparkling wines, affecting, for example, mousse quality.  And, all things being equal, wouldn’t one prefer using wine from healthy vines rather than virused vines?  Further, there are all sorts of canopy management techniques one could use to help pace the ripening.   The bottom line is that it simply may not make economic sense right now to rip out these vines.  In time, there will be replanting, and we’ll have to wait (quite a long time) to see the difference should Le Rêve be produced by 100% healthy vines. In the interim we can just say that that the grapes end up working for Le Rêve notwithstanding the virused vines.)

Chardonnay, with its higher acidity and nerve, is the spine, if not the essence, of most long-lived sparkling wines.  Le Rêve may have started out with 15% Pinot Blanc, but that has declined to 1-2%; while it added to the middle palate, I might speculate that the more assertive fruitiness of the variety did not comport with the tightly knit, more elegant style desired.

As for its finesse, one critical element distinguishing Le Rêve (and Domaine Carneros) from other California sparkling wines is the elegance of its mousse.  California sparkling wines tend to have explosive, frothy fizz, a consequence of its soils being more fertile than those of Champagne.  Crane and team isolated a proprietary, indigenous yeast for the secondary fermentation that fosters a minuscule, delicate perlage.

Le Rêve is always aged a minimum of 5 years sur lie before it is disgorged. While the dosage may depend on the vintage, it tends to be at roughly 1.2%.  The fruit is usually about 10.8-11% at picking; these wines were all at 12% alcohol unless noted otherwise.

The wines below were tasted on 6th October, at Gramercy Tavern in New York City.  As my notes indicate, the wines held up extremely well, showing remarkable complexity and freshness. Most surprising was the variation in densities and aromatic profile of the wines: while the fruit does indeed seem fine enough to make a cuvée every year, the vintages do vary in density and flavor character.  And, as there should be, there is a signature style: elegant, with fresh, vibrant, quasi-tropical ripe fruit and spice notes when young; with time, the fruit character opens out, expanding into a more integrated, well-knit drink with an earthy, biscuity, toasty character enveloping a delicate mineral thread.  This is not Champagne, this is Carneros: the fruit is riper, the density a bit broader.  But they should be different, and different in kind does not imply difference in quality.  Indeed, a tough audience was impressed by Le Rêve’s longevity, but especially by its dynamic concentration, elegance and harmonious complexity.

1992 A medium-intense nose; quite toasty.  Medium-bodied, with a mousse that was still fresh and lively; a bloom of sweet, earthy brioche character; then a segue to sweet, baked fruit: apples, a hint of caramel and baking spices (allspice, cinnamon), fresh musky razor apples offers full palate coverage, a delicate texture, and a lovely, lilting, lifted finish.  Still has a youthful character but is harmonious and well-knit. (15% Pinot Blanc)

1993 Very pale straw: medium intense, initially with more overt fruit, more complex and nuanced, but then closed down to become more subdued than the 1992.  Broader on the palate and more persistent, still with crisp acidity, but the wine seemed hard to pull apart at it was still concentrated, with considerable density. Drinkable, but should continue to improve: powerful, with notes of mineral, earth, and brioche; long finish. (12.3% abv; 5% Pinot Blanc)

1994 Medium straw, a little lemon hue; delicate mousse.  Earthier nose, subtle: almost smoky, some developed notes, then baked yellow fruits.  Full-bodied and earthier, more mushroomy: much more advanced than the 1993.  Less concentrated, with a subtle mineral sheet to the finish: a different, more open texture.  Medium finish. (8% Pinot Blanc)

1995 Pale straw, with a more overt nose; some freshness of citrus with wet stone.  Medium-bodied, round, even, open, elegant and soft, with delicacy of texture and moderate concentration.  Subtle mushroom character, with a center of gravity in the front and mid-palate, driven by crisp, balancing  acidity. (1% Pinot Blanc)

1996: AWOL (Lost in the cellar)

1997 Pale straw: fresh, lemony; vibrant.

1998 Very pale straw; with a freshly-cut green apple nose. Quiet, but lively.  Medium-bodied, long and persistent, with ripe fruit and subtle earthy notes peeking out; pretty and well-knit; crisp and vibrant. (12.2% abv)

1999 Very pale straw but deeper than the 1998.  Medium-bodied+, with the subtle intensity of the nose blooming in the palate: a bigger attack than the ’98, overall bigger, richer and denser, with more persistence of flavor, and full palate coverage. Subtle segue to finish; very complex and three-dimensional; long and subtle, with exotic fruits, floral and spicy notes. Wine of the tasting.  (12.2%)

2000 Pale lemon, with a very different nose: yellow fruits, hints of spice.  Less tension on both the nose and palate.  The palate was open, earthy, more developed than the 1999, with ripe fruits; still clean and delicate but with a shorter finish.

2001 Very pale straw. Integrated nose with brioche notes dominating underlying spicy and floral character.  Medium-bodied, with a fresh attack; even across; delicate, with fresh acidity: lightly “chalky,” with appley notes. Nervy. (2% Pinot Blanc)

2002 Pale straw, with a medium-intense nose of honeysuckle, pear, and, subtle, but unmistakable, verbena: quite dynamic.  Medium-bodied but broad and intense; mouth-filling.  Ripe and almost tropical: honey crisp apple, pear; very complex with a clean finish and a three-dimensional retronasal bloom.  Lovely now but will be extremely interesting to see how this develops.

2003 Pale straw with a lemony hue.  More tropical nose of mango, hinting at passion fruit, with lemon: very fresh.  Medium-bodied with a succulent attack; even, soft and supremely elegant, with sweet fruits, crisp acidity, with a finish driven by layers of minerality, appleskin and hints of ginger spice.  Still very youthful, almost juicy. (2% Pinot Blanc, 12.2% abv)

2004 Very pale straw. Chalky nose: pear, subtle white flowers; overall, very subtle and refined.  Nervier on the palate, with more concentration, higher acidity more acidity to the attack than the 2003.  Taut, with a long finish.  Very tight and closed, but with lots of density: not ready to drink, though hinting of flavors such as mineral, ginger and apple.  One of the stars of the tasting, but will improve significantly with aging.

2005 Very pale straw with an exciting, vibrant, dynamic nose: pear, lemon, lime (almost Riesling-like), spicy and high-toned.  Medium-bodied, with a soft, ripe attack, again with a Riesling-like bloom of lime, apricot and mineral.  Decidedly different from any of the previous wines. Vibrant but with an refined, elegant finish.

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It Doesn’t Get Better than This: A Champagne Louis Roederer Tasting with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

Champagne Louis Roederer continues to be the quintessential Champagne house.  Certainly, there are plenty of brilliant Champagnes, and there are other houses with different styles — Bollinger and Charles Heidsieck immediately come to mind — where every step of the range offers dynamic, complex, vivid wine offering great pleasure but, if the mood suits, worthy of careful consideration.

In this instance, it was not just the opportunity to taste the Roederer wines currently on offer, but also the opportunity to evaluate them in the context of a few older vintages, guided by the genial, urbane chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon.  I’ve been fortunate to taste with Jean-Baptiste many times over the years; the quality of information he offers, like the wines, is always of the highest level.  It is not so much his obvious intelligence, but the depth of his perspective (having been at CLR since 1990) and the breadth of his experience: being in charge of all of the Roederer-owned properties, he has made and/or overseen winemaking in Tasmania (a nightmare he can laugh about now), California, Bordeaux, and Portugal.  But perhaps even more than that, what makes him so fun, and a conversation so rewarding, is that he really seems to relish when he’s posed challenging questions.

Spending time with Lécaillon, one is always impressed by his open-minded pursuit of producing delicious wines, wines juxtaposing power and finesse, expressive of their property, in the house style.  Not one bound by ideology, he has a clear-eyed, pragmatic perspective on his work, and works with a questioning spirit.

The larger Champagne houses are much maligned these days, seen as Goliaths opposed to the noble small growers, who, irrespective of the quality of their holdings, winegrowing and winemaking practices, have captured the imagination of many consumers. While there are many growers who craft fascinating, often brilliant wines, I think it important, as always, to look at the wine qua wine, in terms of what’s in the glass.

That said, Roederer owns enough property for about 2/3 of its production, and the purchased fruit (which they control through long term contracts) is only used for their non-vintage Brut Premier.  Thus, with the exception of the Brut Premier, Roederer is, in fact a grower; but, perhaps more important, Roederer represents the quintessence of Champagne’s essence: the art of the blend.

With the current rage about single-vineyard and terroir-driven wines, one element that seems to have been forgotten is that Champagne has dominantly always been a blended wine, whether it be among varieties, vineyards, and cuvées.  The assemblage has always been a critical stage in the production process, whether determining the style and balance of the NV, or tête de cuvée, or how the vintage is best expressed. The dominant crus underlying the style of Champagne Louis Roederer for Pinot Noir include Aÿ, Verzenay, Verzy, and Cumières; and for Chardonnay, Avize, Oger, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Cramant, Chouilly, Epernay and Hautvillers.  The house style is to have full ripeness, working to achieve 11% alcohol with no chaptalization.  Overall, Roederer expression of Champagne’s terroir could be called “purist,” in that once the fruit is in the cellar, their winemaking techniques are all designed to retain, not manipulate the essence of fruit character.  Thus, they flirt with reduction, protecting the wines from the gentle oxidative process that are the polar opposite of the full-bodied, oxidative style of other producers.  Similarly, malolactic fermentation is discouraged, because, among other things, takes the wines one step away from the purity of its origins.  Nor do they keep their wines long on the lees — five to six years at most, thinking that the toasty, biscuity flavors imparted by extended autolysis obscure the terroir.

But to return to the significance of the assemblage in the production of Champagne, Jean-Baptiste distinguished two different types of weather patterns in Champagne, which he argues is the essence of understanding vintages within Champagne itself: “Continental” vs. “oceanic” vintages.  Conversely, oceanic” vintages are wetter, but not necessarily cooler: a vintage can be wet, but also warm and humid. “Continental” vintages are drier – but not necessarily hot (e.g. 1996 and 2008).  In continental years, chalk soils allow a slow but permanent water delivery to the vines, whereas clay changes size, developing cracks in the soils, and stresses the vines to give a less balanced kind of ripening.  What this means is that the compact, chalky soils of Mesnil, Avize and Cramant work very well, while the clay in Chouilly and Vertus is more difficult.  It is the opposite in an oceanic year: with more water, the clay increases its size, fixes the water, and gives more roundness to the wines from Chouilly and Vertus.  In this oceanic pattern, the chalky soils are fine, but lack a little bit of body, as the water is used directly by the vines.  In wetter years, more wine from Chouilly will be added; further north, more north facing, and with more clay in the soil than Avize or Mesnil s/Oger, it is less powerful.  “Continental” vintages will have more Cramant and Mesnil sur Oger.


The house’s blanc de blancs style is mostly based on a blend of 3 crus (roughly 1/3 of each; while the same blocks are usually sourced, this may change from year to year).  The core crus are Mesnil s/Oger, offering purity, nervosité, and focus; Avize, imparting roundness, depth, richness and vinosity; and Cramant, enhancing the bouquet with exotic aromatics.  About 20% of the wine will be fermented in wood for texture and roundness.  The wines never undergo malolactic fermentation as a firm, active acidity is necessary for the wine’s laser-like precision, and they want to highlight the citrus, orange peel quality of the Chardonnay.  The wine always has a lower pressure (4 bar as opposed to the standard 6 bar), as they feel the 6 atmospheres is to aggressive for the delicacy they try to capture.

2004 Blanc de Blancs, which JB characterized as a “classic” vintage: bright and aromatic following a dry summer, not hot, with generous yields; they had to drop as much as half of the fruit to get the intensity and focus they wanted.  The wine itself showed a very tiny mousse; a bright, chalky nose; firm but delicate on the palate, with a tart, citrusy attack; tight and taut, opening back across the palate with a lightly chalky texture, delicately electric and nervy, with a minerally, long, delicate laser-like finish; a baby.

1996 Blanc de Blancs offered a deeper straw color, with a creamy, lemon quality to the nose, which really boasted an intense bouquet — developing but still fresh and a little exotic; on the palate a very soft mousse highlights the subtle, spicy qualities of a broad, even integrated wine still showing a firm acidity, with notes of lemon, chalk and orange peel; still youthful overall but coming along with full palate coverage; quietly powerful and intense. Yow.

1990 Blanc de Blancs: medium gold, with an unmistakable nose of development: mushrooms, hints of caramel and subtle toffee (torrefaction); medium bodied, with a full 3D bloom in the mouth, opening out with retronasal mushroom, over a fine mineral scrim; three dimensional flavors as in the nose, still crisp with a laser-like 3D focus, very long. Glorious.

Brut Vintage Flight:

Pinot Noir from Verzenay forms backbone of the Brut Vintage; north-northeast facing, it’s a great site because it has no fog and lots of morning sun, if tended well, offering relatively long, slow ripening.

2004 (70 Verzenay PN; 30 Avize, Mesnil s/Oger  dominate: the Pinot Noir was very tense and acidic this vintage, hence this wine underwent 40% oak fermentation and a little more lees contact to render a rounder, balanced wine.) :  Creamy nose, still, fresh, mineral, citrus, green apple, broad palate.  Integrated, even, long, seamless, more green apple.  Long mineral finish. Has an elegance but with tension.

1996 (Disgorged [D/G] 2007) Only slightly more lemony than the 2004, but with a brilliant hue.  Nose shows the nuttiness/spiciness of PN from Verzenay in the North (the nose is not about the fruit; it’s a singular expression.  The Pinot Noir here is from the 1st vineyards LR bought in 1845.

Huge, nutty, coffee, torrefaction, mushroom, developing more than expected, even with a future ahead; still very much alive, vibrant, retronasal spicy bruised apple, round spicy, taut, with a long finish.  Much more evolved than the Blanc de Blancs ’96: the PN was much riper than the Chard.  A brilliant demonstration of how Chardonnay’s higher acidity preserves wine.

1978:  Very difficult vintage; late harvest; picked in October; a PN year; D/G ’84 or ’85.  Jean-Baptiste tried to prime the pump, suggesting exotic aromas of aromas of curry, spice, nuts and tobacco.  He may be very persuasive, but sadly, the wine wasn’t:  Amber gold, nutty nose, intense, with earthy and arguably a curried quality; very complex, some kind of marmelade, honey mushroom, a little cheesy with smoky notes; the palate was medium bodied with initially a big attack, though with little mousse; earthy, mushroom, torrefaction, flavors, but with a short finish: the wine lacks spine and midpalate nerve; the acidity drives the wine but wine immediately falls apart, losing its balance; the acid persists on the finish; broad but not integrated.  Weakest wine of the day, alas.

ROSÉ  FLIGHT : All disgorged 5-6 years after bottling

2006 Rosé (Fruit from Cumières):  Pinkish salmon; delicate red fruit nose, not just strawberry; spicy; medium-bodied, very spicy attack all the way through to the finish, which also is long and minerally.  Overall it’s a mineral-driven wine, crisp, with great drive, mineral and spice dominate.  Intense and focused.  2006 was a difficult year with uneven results among producers.  A hot June and July, the latter with isolated hailstorms, were followed by  a rainy, humid August. Acidities by and large were slightly lower than normal; Roederer’s suppression of the malolactic gives this wine fine nerve and ageworthiness.  Jean-Baptiste thought this vintage was among the finest for CLR in the past decade, along with 2002 and 2008.

1995 Rosé: Cool harvest, thus more faintly colored, but with a spicy, inviting developed nose;  just shy of full-bodied on the palate, it was even, round, ripe, ready to drink, with medium concentration of persistent ripe red fruits, red apple, with a mineral underpinning and an integrated elegant fade, having evolved from the zip and spark of a young wine.  Delicious and harmonious.

1989 Rosé: Much riper than the 1995, therefore more color: pale, but bright orange copper/amber.   A medium intense, very complex nose nose of crème brulée crust, butter, madeleine, cinnamon, spice, exotic – baked apple skin; very dynamic; on the palate, medium-bodied, with very little effervescence; developed flavors of super-ripe red fruits, crisp, coffee, hints of mushroom; a mineral quality wrapped within which emerges to dominate a finish that also has a subtle toasty quality wafting above, 3-dimensionally; drinking beautifully with honeyed notes at the end.


The Cristal blend is generally described as 50 Chardonnay: 50 Pinot Noir, though more often than not, the Pinot shares a little more than half of the blend.   The Chardonnay usually comes from Avize and Mesnil s/Oger; the Pinot Noir from Verzenay, where, northeast facing, the grapes ripen very slowly as a cool climate variant of the variety. Typically, 1/3 of the fruit is from grand cru sites in the Cote des Blancs; 1/3 from Verzenay-Verzy, and 1/3 from Aÿ.
Half of the fruit for Cristal is now produced organically.  Slowly CLR has increased the amount of property it has been working biodynamically over the past 12 years, from 10 hectares in 2009 to 28 now, in Avize, Aÿ, and Verzenay – locations close to their press houses, where they can easily monitor the vineyards.  Twenty per cent of the blend has a large, neutral oak vat fermentation, with no malolactic fermentation.  Cristal is arguably released well before it is ready to drink — I contend it needs minimally 10 years of bottle age — thus, when young, it is always taut, very concentrated and powerful, nervy, and relatively closed; the finesse increases exponentially as the wine ages.

CRISTAL 2004:  Pale straw, with a bright nose: apricot pit! Lemon, apple, chalk, taut, elegant; on the palate a huge attack, but  elegant, energetic, with full palate presence, persistent, very long finish; finessed.  Yow, very well balanced,  Very open for Cristal, almost ready to drink, even if packed and youthful. Will be delicious ten years hence.

CRISTAL 1990: [d/g 1999; 39% Chardonnay]  Pale gold, with a nutty palate; integrated, crisp, harmonious, nervy, delicate character somehow, finessed. Full palate coverage, persistent, very complex & dynamic, three dimensional, flavors of mineral, mushroom and  rich, sweet fruit; very long with a slow fade and  a ‘fil’ of minerality throughout the finish


Cristal Rosé was created in 1974 by Jean Claude Rouzaud, who wanted a rosé with more tension and class.  It is in more of a grand vin, or should we say grand cru style, befitting CLR’s meticulous approach of careful vineyard site selection (their vineyard holdings have evolved over the years as they sought parcels likely to give the fruit quality they demanded). Much of the fruit comes from vineyards composed of clay on chalk, yielding concentrated, powerful fruit.

CRISTAL ROSÉ 2004:  Pale salmon, with a very spicy nose of red fruits; medium-bodied on the palate, stony, still very tight, with a nervy, spicy mineral finish; elegant, refined and lovely in its way, even if its best is yet to unfold.

CRISTAL ROSÉ 1995:  1995 was a great vintage, and often overshadowed by the unmistakable 1996s, with high acidity and concentration.  The 1995s are showing beautifully now, nicely well-knit and developed.  Pale gold with pink overtones, with a toasty, developing nose: smoky, honeyed, nutty, torrefaction, elegant and dynamic; the palate is full-bodied and very powerful, three-dimensional and utterly delicious, with flavors of butter, pasticeria romana, pie crust, apple; open and complex, yet still tight and concentrated, with huge mineral breadth throughout, with a retro-nasal nutty, toasty, honeyed bloom. This wine is full-palate driven, fully open, but with a long finish and a long time ahead of it.

Posted in Champagne | 2 Comments

Orwellian Wines

I’ve been flummoxed. Recently I tasted a variety of wines from two different “natural” producers, both French.  “Natural” in this instance meant not just that they’d not been fined or filtered, but that they’d been made completely without sulfur.  Apart from the first wine, a pétillant Chenin Blanc, which the vendor touted as a nice “vin de soif” – (nice and harmless it was, but I think $27 should deliver far more than a picnic wine) I found not one wine compelling.  More than that: some of them were marred by excessive volatile acidity; several were lifeless on the palate (my notes said that the wines had “no pulse.”)

My tasting colleagues, both educated and respected sommeliers, who work at a restaurant renowned for its wine list, were also baffled.  “I just don’t get it; these wines are just not very good” said one, as the other shook his head in agreement, “X is just not a good winemaker.  The wines are unbalanced; they have no complexity or elegance. What do people see in these wines?”

I pondered that question a while as I turned to the vendor’s portfolio.  The wines of winemaker X were touted as “sing[ing] their land in a way that few wines that I have ever encountered.”  But the importer continues: If you are afraid of bottle variation, cloudy whites, and slight amounts of residual CO2, then these may not be for you.”

The implication here is that bottle variation, cloudiness, and CO2 all contribute to terroir expression.  I’d like to evaluate the logic here, though I’m going to take the elements in opposite order.

There are plenty of wines outside the so-called “natural” camp with residual carbon dioxide, either because they were fermented at very cold temperatures so that it remained dissolved in the wine, and/or because it was deliberately retained – whether for its preservative qualities, to give the wine additional zip, or to highlight the wine’s acidity.  But point one here is that carbon dioxide retention is a winemaking choice by the winemaker disguised as a “natural” process and expression of terroir; a bit of emperor’s new clothing, as it were.

Second, there are many consumers who are uncomfortable drinking cloudy wines, unaware that clarity does not a brilliant wine make.   A clear wine can be a pure expression of terroir, or it can be a manipulated beverage wine.  Conversely, I’ve had plenty of young, somewhat cloudy wines, from New World Pinot Noirs to Barolos to  Burgundies.  Indeed, as most wines age, they often get murky.  So again, nothing new here: cloudiness means little on its own terms.

But it is this third element I find so curious, if not baffling: bottle variation heralded as a virtue.  (I am not going to critique the wine for not delivering the consistency most consumers look for in their wines, because these wines obvious seek a different clientele.)  Is that variation how the wine “sings?”   On the other hand, what is the terroir really saying, or how can you read it,  if it varies so from bottle to bottle?    My friend Mark deVere MW told me of studies at the Robert Mondavi Winery years back demonstrating that in any given case of wine bottles sealed with a natural cork closure, cork variability is such that the bottles could be ranked – often, admittedly, within a narrow range, one that even experienced tasters would have difficulty distinguishing – from 1 to 12.  But in this instance, the variability is not attributed to the cork, but presumably to the vineyard.

My frustration here is that even small parcels are actually a composite.  Were bottles of wine made from individual vines, significant variability could be justified, given the variables among individual vines and the specifics of their cultivation.  But that is not how wines are made.   Grapes, sensitively tended, give expression of the terroir; it is the winegrower’s job to shepherd those grapes – assembling a cuvée —  to become the “best” expression of the parcel in question.  Selections are made of the grapes, first at harvest, and then of the wine, before bottling, in determining the final cuvée.  This is, perforce, one of many decisions a winemaker makes in determining how that vineyard is expressed in a given vintage.

So, winemakers  (call them winegrowers if you prefer) make decisions; they make wine; it’s tautological, but that’s the reason they are called winemakers.   Whether the cuvée is a single vat or multiple vats, it is the composite cuvée that is deemed to be the “expression” of a vineyard, and not, say, how it subsequently has morphed into a different wine in each of the 300 individual bottles that could be produced from a 225-liter barrel.

Moreover, I am flummoxed over the notion of these wines as being “pure.”  What, exactly, does purity mean in this context?  I would think that careful grape-growing would be followed by a series of practices designed to protect the purity of the fruit expression.  Thus, the grapes would be protected from oxidation, degradation and spoilage throughout the winemaking process, whether left alone in inert vessels, or perhaps given greater complexity through blending or some form of barrel ageing.

My suspicion is that, unwittingly or not, natural wine aficionados use the term “pure” in its Orwellian sense. (See G. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946).)

This of course begs the question of whether the deliberate oxidation of grapes or wine is a “manipulation” – can’t we just call it a “technique”?  It incontrovertibly changes the character of a wine and influences its style.  Roederer is more reductive; Bollinger is more oxidative: they produce different styles, differently complex; different interpretations of how their terroir is best expressed.  For some areas, such as Rioja, that can be considered part of the terroir, if your definition of
terroir includes “tradition.” – that some, like Anselme Selosse admitted to me that his solera and oxidative winemaking practices, allow his wines to “breathe,” as he puts it are, in fact, a stylistic choice: he believes these practices are necessary for the greatest expression of his terroir.  Fair enough; that is his interpretation of what his properties have to say.   For Lopez de Heredia, the same, along with generations of tradition.  But all of these producers control their oxidative processes, and all produce wines with complexity, finesse, balance and elegance.

But it’s not so much the oxidative nature of these wines that I find troubling.  It’s that the fruit also was not protected from bacteria and biochemical reactions that do not enhance complexity or finesse, rather, the opposite: they contribute to the degradation of aromas, flavors and structural balance of the wines.  The overwhelming majority of the “natural” wines I’ve tasted have a rosin-like astringency, a subtly gritty texture on the palate: I don’t mind it; it arguably adds interest; but it doesn’t add to elegance or finesse: indeed, the opposite.

I’ve concluded that the interest in “natural” wines is a function of a number of different forces.  First, it is a reaction to the creation of soulless, generic beverage wines.  Similar to that, and particularly for those captivated by the romance of wine, it is a reaction to the corporatization of wine production.  For some, and I think this is mostly relevant to winemakers, it is a revisionist, or iconoclastic view of winemaking.  In other words, even if Peynaud writes “sulfiting the must is vital,” what would happen if I, as a winemaker, experimented in not doing that, and then offered the result for sale?  Another example could be a wine resulting from not following the conventional wisdom that the winemaker needed to regulate the rate of fermentation?  These instances might lead to interesting wines, they might not, but they are more an intellectual exercise on the part of the winemaker that then gets packaged into something cool and novel: is that any less a marketing device directed at a self-defined wine intellectual than a beverage wine marketed to a casual consumer? All of which, ironically, has me plump “natural wine” in the same category as “beverage wine”: if, in the end, it excites some people about wine, and gets them interested in wine as a category, that’s great.  I’ve always said I want more people to drink some wine.  But don’t believe the wine is great, or even just better, because it is quote-unquote natural.   If you pay attention to it, the wine will tell you itself.  (And most of the wines have told me that they just aren’t very good!)

While in the end this may seen as a rebellion against the tyranny of the winemaker, or ‘manufactured’ wines, it obscures the fact that winemakers (even if we call them “wine growers”) exist to make wine.   Further, I would argue that these wines call even greater attention to the winemaker, ironically, since the wines’ texture and high levels of volatile acidity testify to the winemaker’s refusal to protect his fruit or wine from bacteria or other sources of degradation.

I need to stress here that I have nothing against ‘natural’ wines per se.  I don’t hold them to standards different from any other wine – if anything, I arguably am prejudiced towards them, as, if I understand them correctly, they are intended to have personality and reflect their origins.  I’m certainly not saying all natural wines are bad; I can’t even say they are coherent as a group, or even within an individual producer.  I’ve had a few terrific ‘natural’ wines, but plenty of undrinkable ones.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I enjoy them for the intellectual argument, as well as the challenge they offer to other winemakers to think through the choices they make as they craft their wines.  And just as I hope that some mass-market wine drinkers eventually will seek out more complex wines that tell a story of it’s origins, I hope the same will happen to some consumers of Orwellian wines.  But more often than not, I think these wines are a chimera.

Posted in natural wines, wine flaws | 7 Comments

Ribera del Duero Calificación de la Vendimia 2010

I eagerly accepted when the Consejo Regulador de Ribera del Duero invited me to be the 1st outsider (read: non-Spaniard) to participate in their annual vintage assessment.  I’d been to Ribera a few times ‘round, and have attended numerous D.O. tastings, but was eager to revisit the region, increase my familarity with it, and blind-taste a variety of raw wines strictly to evaluate their quality.

An added attraction was that this exercise forced me to consider what exactly the qualification means, and what it is intended to do.  One wag chortled “what, you’re going to judge whether it’s a 3, a 4 or a 5?!”  — True, since 1982, when the D.O. was established, the panel accorded a “regular” assessment to only two vintages (1984 and 1993); all others were “Buena,” “Muy Buena” and “Excelente.  On the other hand, one can argue that improvements in viticulture and modern vinification methods have facilitated grade inflation and bracket creep, along with preventing a grade of “deficiente.”  Further, a warm, arid clime like Ribera is unlikely to have a washout (“deficiente”) vintage that might blight a more marginal, or tenuous area.  But there is vintage variation: 2007 was a very difficult vintage, with a cool, wet summer capped by a late September frost, producing wines of inconsistent quality; 2008 was also cooler than normal but not so wet, thus the wines are more elegant and consistent; and as for 2009 and 2010, I’ll discuss them further below.

Ribera del Duero is a young appellation, founded at a time when bigger wines, especially in the New World were on the ascent.  Cynics argue that that Ribera del Duero wines run the spectrum from A to B; critics snipe that they lack elegance, that their fleshiness results from manipulation rather than terroir expression.  These views however, either misunderstand what Ribera wines are about, or result from the taster imposing their own biases on the wines.  Certainly, the big, fleshy Riberas appear to predominate at large, cacophonous survey tastings of the region, often drowning out quieter expressions and alternative styles, but that’s common to these sort of large tastings.  That the region has more diversity than many give it credit for became clearer to me in the quiet of the assessment, as well as my time visiting various bodegas.

The evaluation was held a week before the official opening of the Consejo’s new headquarters, and construction workers were still scurrying around to have every last detail in place before King Juan Carlos I arrived for the dedication.  Even if a new paint smell lingered in the hallways, our tasting conditions were perfect.  We were in a silent, sleek, pristine, dedicated room with proper tasting equipment: desks outfitted with under-desk lighting and spittoons.

The panelists, apart from myself, primarily included local winemakers and enologists (including those from Vega Sicilia, Felix Callejo, Viña Arnáiz, and Viña  Vilano), plus a few Spanish journalists and a sommelier.

Ten 2010 samples sat before us.  All we knew generally was that they the Consejo’s technical team selected samples to represent wines from all areas of the (rather large) appellation; that they all were intended for further ageing; and that they reflected a variety of producers, i.e. that they could have come from small estates, large estates, or cooperatives.  A variation in quality was deliberate.  We received detailed information from the Consejo regarding the growing season and harvest parameters, as well as how it compared to other vintages and the norm for the region.  Thus, we knew the season started with a moderate fall followed by with a typical winter, with temperatures slightly cooler than the norm.   Spring, especially during May, was much cooler than normal in the region, off by about 0.5˚ C, causing frost problems in the first half of the month, after budburst, delaying the ripening cycle. (With Ribera located at such high altitudes, frosts are commonly a problem early and late in the growing season).  The cool weather continued into June.  July and August were warmer than historical norms.  Rainfall was double that of 2009, but still within historical norms; the most important element was first, a storm on June 27th primarily in the area around Roa, with damaging hail and flooding in isolated parcels; and later an intense rainy spell during the harvest, between October 9-11, which fortunately were followed by windy days that quickly dried both the vines and the soil.  The harvest, which began on September 20th, concluded on November 3d, and was relatively relaxed, producing very healthy very healthy fruit, though in very small quantities: the crop was down over 18% in volume compared to the year prior.  Perhaps similar to 2010 Bordeaux, these conditions allowed a slow but complete polyphenolic development, along with retaining acidities and freshness (as opposed to overripeness) of fruit.

As for the individual samples, we were given a sheet telling us whether it was drawn from vat or barrique, along with the technical parameters of the wine (pH, TA, abv, etc.) and how they compared with historical norms (taken from 1996-2010).

So, on to the wines! How to judge?  It might be easy just to look at the top wines, especially the ones that felt “aspirational.”  But in this instance we were given wines from various levels of producer and reflecting different styles. I felt the die had been cast in advance when we were reminded that last year, the panel anointed 2009 an “excelente.”  2009 was a warm vintage, bestowing rich, voluptuous wines conceivably aligned with the bold style of wine with which Ribera is now associated.  As I mentioned above, the weather, however, differed in 2010: it was cooler, with a longer growing season.  Sitting there with the wines facing me, I thought, ok, just dive in, think nothing, rather, say nothing– just receive what the wines have to say.  Let them talk to me, and try to understand that based on objective parameters of quality: complexity, balance of the structural elements, length on the palate and on the finish, fruit concentration, and tannin quality.  As such, tasting through the wines, it was clear that 2010 offered a different style of wine.  Again, how to judge?  Subjectively, when I’m evaluating quality, finesse, longevity, and elegance of structure garner greater weight than power, weight, fleshiness and swagger.  I wasn’t there in 2009 to draw a fair comparison, but in the vintage comparisons I’d done before the blind evaluation, I saw consistently how the 2010s had more restraint, elegance, fine-grained tannins, and overall a firmer, more delineated structure than the 2009s.  Perhaps the 2010s will not be so accessible immediately; perhaps they don’t fully conform to the image Ribera now chooses to project; but they are likely to acquire greater interest as they integrate over time and achieve secondary and tertiary qualities.

So, I plunged in: the first wine was a joven, with fresh, very clean fruit, showing some complexity, with solid concentration for its purpose, sweet tannins, and full palate coverage.  Honest, pure, elegantly structured, and not over-extracted.  The second wine was one of two that appeared a bit reduced; the third was the aristocrat in the crowd: long, taut, persistent, linear, with full palate coverage, a firm structure and a very long finish. This wine stood head and shoulders above its peers, and set a standard none others matched.  The other top wines I found focused, well-structured, and, if not exuberant, dynamic on the palate, already showing some complexity, with secondary flavors of mineral, tobacco, dark berries and anise. Some wines were refined, some flashier.  All the wines, however, showed sweet tannins, generous amounts of alcohol, and dark berry flavors with some mineral and/or tobacco qualities. If I ended up singling out that wine #3, it wasn’t just because of the tannin quality, but because, even in this raw stage, the wine was the most elegant, showing breed rather than highlighting sweet fleshy fruit. I privilege elegance over power, even if that power is sleek.   Not a single wine was “slathered,” as they say, with new oak, but then again, those that had seen wood hadn’t seen it for very long  – this, of course, allowed us to see the fruit for what it is, neither enhanced nor obscured by wood.  Several of the wines were focused, dark and mineral-driven rather than fleshy, fruit-forward and exuberant.  A few with fleshier fruit had a glossy elegance to them.  Overall, I found the wines relatively dynamic, with sweet, refined tannins and alcohol levels balanced with the considerable level of fruit concentration; even if they were quite closed and tight at first, and largely remained so, they opened out a bit across the palate in time; the best were concentrated, with a firm core of minerality, with notes of violets, licorice and dark berries.

Admittedly, this was only 10 samples.  As I visited bodegas before (and after) the tasting, I found that I preferred 2010 to the flashier 2009, but that’s a subjective prejudice, privileging structure and longevity over immediate accessibility.  But in evaluating the vintage, I thought, well, if 2009 was “excelente” for the fleshy, attractive vintage it was, isn’t 2010 equally “excelente,” albeit in a different style? In the post-tasting discussion, nobody gave the vintage a rating other than “excelente” or “muy buena,” and it turned out that the general consensus was “excelente.”  While this was determined by a simple averaging of the scores, it ultimately doesn’t send a clear message.  If Ribera del Duero wants to be known as a big, fleshy wine, then isn’t 2009 closer to “excellent” than 2010?  Or is it that Ribera isn’t necessarily a megavinum, and is capable of more refinement and nuance than many critics acknowledge?  The more I taste wines from the region, the more I see that there are many differing styles, from the restrained elegance of Perez Pascuas (Roa), the slightly more virile wines of Finca Torremilanos (Aranda del Duero), the sweet earthiness of Pesquera, the glossy, if pretty, extraction of Aalto and Pingus, to the packed, massive, mineral (and arguably exhausting) wines of Atauta (Soria).

And above them all sits Vega Sicilia, whose old vines on steep slopes of fractured, crystallized calcareous chalk – the vineyard sparkles with reflections of what appears to be shattered glass – produce wines with no parallel in the region.  And curiously, if it is Vega Sicilia’s “Unico” that defines Ribera del Duero, it ironically is a wine that is decidedly not the big, fleshy megavinum that many Ribera producers are trying to create, because  . . .  because they think that’s what the consumer wants?

Thus, as of this writing, I see Ribera del Duero still as a young region still in search of itself.  Yes, the wines tend to be ripe, because the climate is relatively warm.   I think many people’s narrow focus on fruit in wines generally – abetted in Ribera wines by the abundant fruit concentration – causes them to overlook not just the fine minerality expressed in the wines, but the fine, sweet, well-wrapped tannins, and especially the virile acidities in these wines, which frame the fleshy wines and impart nerve and tension to the more restrained cuvées. The Consejo also has done its part reinforcing this narrow image of the region by focusing on the “fruit-forward” character of the wines, giving scant attention to the finely etched mineral thread they also have.  Even if most of the vineyards are planted on limestone and chalk over a schistose substratum, there is considerable diversity of terroir among vineyards (not surprising for such a large region); diversity in style among producers; and even diversity in intent within the individual producer, who may produce both an elegant reserva and an extracted flagship cuvée. Moreover, our impression of Ribera del Duero as a big, fleshy wine is also skewed by the style of wines primarily imported into our market, namely, the crianza, reserva, and special cuvée – all wines of greater concentration and power, plus oak influence.  The fresh, inexpensive, unoaked, delightful joven wines are far fewer and far between, and, I would argue, not what comes to mind when people think of Ribera wines.

In the end, I’m not persuaded that “rating” a vintage at this early point in its evolution says very much.  Certainly, the exercise has offers publicity to the region, an excuse for writers to write and readers to think about the wines.  That said, I’d be dissembling if I said I found it pointless and would not care were I not invited back.  But a simple rating out of context can be confusing.  Is it a statement of the vintage’s early accessibility?  Of its potential to age?  Of its conformity to current fashion?  Of, as in a dog show, its fidelity to an idealized standard of wines the region could produce?  Moreover, apart from the fact that pundits frequently misconstrue a vintage’s longevity, I think that reducing a vintage’s “character” to a simple great/good/bad/indifferent/miserable characterization may do a disservice not just to the vintage, but also to the individual wines produced.  The test of a winemaker is crafting a lovely wine in less than auspicious circumstances.   I also think it is sends a confusing message to the consumer looking to understand quality and for guidance in their buying decisions.   It’s confusing because the message currently conveyed is that the big, ripe, accessible vintages are “better” (rather than simply different) than the – choose your language – more classic, leaner, structured, elegant, refined, nervier vintages.  It’s misleading, when they are taught, for a different example, that 2000 Barolo is the “best”; sure, if “best” means flattering and early drinking; but wouldn’t it be more accurate to call 2000 Barolo “flattering while young?”  And 2001, “more structured, concentrated with greater ageworthiness”?  And, to return to Ribera, according two, but very different vintages the identical assessment over-simplifies matters to consumers.  (In fairness to the Consejo Regulador, their press release on the 2010 vintage does discuss the structural elements that suggest the wines’ aging potential, but in time, are people going to read that?)

It may be pointless to cavil with the way ratings over-simplify wine to make it more accessible – I’m far from the first to do this.  But I think it important to recall that if all wines are not alike, neither are all consumers.  Someone might really prefer one vintage over another based on their stylistic preferences. I don’t think it would take much to refine these preliminary vintage assessments with slight qualifications; buyers looking to stock their cellars with vins de garde have different buying requirements than those seeking early gratification.

Nitpicking aside, what did this Vintage Assessment accomplish? Yes, PR.  But it also prompted me to look more closely at this young region, to look beyond the prejudices and over-generalizations, and to appreciate the diversity in style and terroir Ribera del Duero has to offer.  My hope is that in time, the Consejo moves beyond repeating the “fruit forward” mantra, and toward encouraging efforts to refine our understanding of the various styles and “goûts de terroir” the region has to offer.

Posted in Ribera del Duero, Vega Sicilia, wine ratings | Leave a comment