Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Agony of TCA

TCA can bring a grown man to his knees.

I have been a pretty good customer of Jacques and Hamptons Wine Shoppe for a bit so when Jacques decided to come to Florida for the holidays, he said that we should get together one evening over a bottle of 1986 Mouton that he would be bringing into town.  Never one to turn down an opportunity to drink old first growths, I said "sure."  Jacques called me regularly to ensure that things were still a "go" and said, "Oh, by the way, you can bring some friends along because I will be bringing two bottles."  I made the dinner reservations at Capital Grille and invited two of my buddies and their wives to partake(@hlyterroir declined the invite because he was still recovering from having drunk a 2006 Shafer Hillside Select on the preceding Thursday.).

On the morning of the dinner, Jacques called and asked if I could direct him to someone at the restaurant because he wanted to go over and decant the wines prior to the dinner.  Dinner was at 7.  Fred and Laurie rode with us and we were the first to arrive.  Jacques came in a little after and, as we were completing introductions, Jeff and Dee strolled in and completed the party.  We were shown to a circular table in a comfy, cozy corner towards the back of the restaurant.  This was the first time that I had met Jacques face to face, and the first time that any of my friends had spoken to him, but "many a friend is made over a bottle of wine" and we quickly settled down to comfortable conversation.  Jeff launched the wine proceedings with a bottle of Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs NV and I followed in short order with a 1953 Remoissenet Vosne-Romanee Clos de Reas and a 1968 Vina-Valoria Rioja.  These wines drunk beautifully with the Rioja being the more longer-lived of the two in the glass.

By this time we had worked our way to the main course and the main event -- the 1986 Moutons.  Jacques had the decanted wines brought over and the first one poured into our glasses.  After an initial whiff, a crestfallen look overcame him. "It's corked," he said.  Dee did not agree.  Both Jeff and I felt that the wine was flat and I did get some TCA.  Jacques pushed the first decanter aside and called for the second.  The look on his face after sniffing the wine was one of pure disbelief.  This one was also corked.  As a matter of fact, it had higher levels of TCA than did the first.  Jacques was mortified.  He had taken such care in setting this up.  He was in a new town with new friends.  He had drunk my Remoissenet and Vina-Valoria.  And he had delivered two corked bottles.  He was inconsolable.  His wife tried to tell him that it was not his fault; that it could have happened to anyone.  He looked daggers at her.  Of course it was his fault.  He had brought the wines.  Even worse, he and I were in negotiations for me to purchase some '86 Moutons off him.  And now this.  I sought to defuse the situation by by whipping out a 1998 Alvaro Palacios L'Ermita and then a soothing 1983 d'Yquem; but to no avail.  Jacques was a beaten man.  TCA had racked up another notch on its belt.  It had taken the dignity of another innocent victim. 

Jacques dragged himself dejectedly back to the valet stand to retrieve his car and, as he faded into the mist that enveloped the area, I thought to myself, there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pop Goes the Maestro??? Investigating the Future of Champagne Closures

“The Champagne cork hasn't changed for 150 years, so I think it's high time we evolved a bit.” These were the words uttered by Carol Duval-Leroy, head of the Champagne house Duval-Leroy, producer of several of this author’s favorite go-to bubblies.

The house of Duval-Leroy, amongst others, are exploring the efficacy of “non traditional closures” to address several issues, a few of which include the long-term sustainability of the cork forests of the world, the loss of product due to the introduction of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or cork taint, and the problems a lot of people have with opening Champagne safely, either struggling with the bottle or putting someone’s eye out as the cork flies across the room at a typical velocity of 45 miles per hour.

The aroma of wet cardboard or freshly poured concrete that signals the presence of TCA drives wine lovers to dump innumerable bottles down the drain. The problem is accentuated in sparkling wines like Champagne, where the bubbles only serve to volatilize the taint, making it all the more noticeable. Various studies suggest TCA affects anywhere from 1% to 7% of wines. This is a rate of failure that would be unacceptable in almost any other industry - what if 5% of all cars produced by a particular manufacturer wouldn't start!?!

Two alternative closures have been marketed recently, the Maestro and the Mytik Diamant. Over the last several years, variations on the traditional Champagne cork have been appearing on the market, such as the cork by Cortex Company, which has a silicon disk fixed to its bottom. The concept is that, when compressed in the neck of the bottle, the silicon disk prevents the wine from any contact with the cork, thus preventing the possibility of TCA taint. (Author’s note: from personal experience, this concept has fallen woefully short on several occasions)

The Diamant is a composite cork; that is, fashioned from bits of cork compressed under pressure. The process utilizes compressed and heated carbon dioxide and, if the manufacturer is to be believed, renders the product 99.99% TCA free, in a process similar to that used to decaffeinate coffee. In the three years since its release, Mytik Diamant has been adopted by nearly 15% of the Champagne market, including renowned houses like Billecart-Salmon and Moét et Chandon.

The Maestro employs an integrated aluminum lever system that opens a concealed crown bottle cap similar to that on a soda or beer bottle. (For those who may not know, the crown cap is already utilized for most of the time the champagne is fermenting and at the winery, and the traditional cork is added as part of the final processing.). As a bonus, the Maestro still gives you that satisfying pop upon opening.

While the Maestro will certainly render Champagnes under its closure free of TCA, Duval Leroy is concerned that there could be some sort of environmental catastrophe that would endanger the supply of natural cork, and it would have a million bottles in the cellar with no alternative closures. (Cork is the bark of an oak tree native to Spain, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, southern France, Italy, and Tunisia, and is a renewable resource, with harvests from a single tree occurring every 10-15 years over a 150 to 250 year lifespan of the tree.).

Given the success of the Stelvin (screw cap) closure (increasing in use ten-fold in the last 7 years) with still (non-bubbly) wines, the manufacturers are confident that cork’s days are numbered in the sparkling wine world as well. Being so tied to tradition and their luxury image, the majority of the Champagne houses may be slow to move toward the new closures, although several, including Drappier, Duval-Leroy, Billecart-Salmon, and Moét et Chandon, have run trials on the Maestro.

If the success of these new-fangled Champagne closures depends on pleasing public and Champenois palates, it could be a long wait.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Champagne Going Green

With the holiday party season moving ahead at full throttle, selected Champagne producers in France are doing their part to ensure that the Champagne we pop in celebration of the good times is just a little bit greener (environmentally friendly).

In response to a 2003 study that found that the Champagne industry emits 220,500 tons of carbon dioxide every year in the process of transporting their product around the world, the region’s trade organization, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), is recommending that producers switch over to a newer, sleeker bottle. The goal is to achieve a 25% reduction in the carbon footprint by 2020 and 75% by 2050. Production and shipping accounts for nearly a third of Champagne’s carbon emissions, with the husky (nearly 2 pounds of glass) bottle the biggest offender.

The new bottle is only marginally slimmer than the traditional bottle and about 2.3 ounces lighter. Not much of a change you say? One must remember that two (2) factors significantly influenced the decision to alter the Champagne bottle – safety and tradition.

The design of the slimmer bottle required a significant re-engineering in order to handle the pressure of Champagne (nearly 3 atmospheres – or 90 PSI ) for more than four years - from bottling all the way to the consumer’s hands. Think of it as 3 times the pressure of the air in your car’s tires. Although the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is often (incorrectly) thought of as the inventor of Champagne, he was the one who first thickened the glass (in the mid-1600s) to contain what was often referred to as “the devil’s wine” because its vessels exploded so often.

Champagne houses go to great lengths to cultivate an image of luxury through packaging and pricing - and will gladly explain to you that other sparkling wines are inferior because they simply are not Champagne. With tradition being a major factor, producers are very reluctant to alter, even in the slightest, the manner in which their product is seen or presented to the consumer. Therefore, the new bottle had to be molded so that consumers would barely detect the difference in the bottle’s classic shape. In order to optimize the efficiency, the new bottle also had to fit all of the existing machinery at all of the Champagne houses.

But this small reduction in weight (from a slightly narrower profile in the shoulder of the bottle) reduced the carbon emissions associated with bottle production alone by 7%. The slimmer shape allows approximately 2,400 more bottles (200 cases) to be transported in the standard truckload, therefore putting fewer trucks on the road. The estimate is that this will result in a reduction of nearly 9,000 tons (18 million pounds) of carbon emitted annually - the equivalent of taking 4,000 small cars off the road.

Depending on the Champagne house you favor, you may already own some of the new bottle style and did not realize it. Vranken-Pommery Monopole, which, in addition to Champagne Vranken and Champagne Pommery, also owns Heidsieck, Company Monopole, Cuvée Diamant, Demoiselle, and Champagne Charles Lafitte, switched to the new bottle in 2003, and introduced it to the retail markets in 2007. Expect to see slimmer bottles from Veuve Cliquot and Moet-Chandon in 2013-2014.

The cost of the bottle is marginally less (dropping from 43 cents per bottle to about 41), but not enough to alter the pricing to the consumer. It will remain to be seen, however, if the savings resulting from the reduction in transportation costs will be offered to the Champagne lovers around the world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mastering the Medoc and Graves: Tasting the Medoc Wines

A total of 10 wines were tasted at the Steven Spurrier Mastering the Medoc and Graves course which was held at Decanter HQ on October 8th, 2010.  Eight of the wines were red and two white.  The whites were both Graves AOC -- the only dry white AOC in Bordeaux other than Pessac-Leognan -- while the reds were drawn from St. Estephe (2), Pauillac (1), St. Julien (2), Margaux (2) and Pessac-Leognan (1).  In terms of vintage, three of the wines were from 2005 (an exceptional vintage, according to Decanter), two were from 2003 ("Expect wines of finesse and structure with some ageing potential" -- Decanter), and one each from 2008, 2007, 2006, 2001, and 1998.  In this post I will report on the Medoc wines tasted and will reserve the Graves wines for a future post.

The first Medoc wine tasted was the 2006 Amiral de Beychevelle, the second wine of Chateau Beychevelle.  Annual production of this label is around 12,500 cases, approximately 1/3 of the Chateau's total production.  The grapes for this wine are picked from vines averaging 25 years of age and were picked earlier than were grapes designated for the flagship wine.  The wine is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot.  The wine was aged in 50% new oak after fermentation in temperature-controlled vats.  The wine had a full, young color in the glass and black olives, mushrooms, and vanilla on the nose.  It exhibited a hint of spiciness and great balance.

The second Medoc wine tasted was the 2005 Chateau d" Angludet from Margaux.  The estate encompasses 32 hectares on sandy-gravelly soil and is planted to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot.  The fruit is machine-harvested and fermented in concrete vats.  The wine is aged for 12 months in 33% new oak and egg-white-fined before bottling.  Annual production is 10,000 cases.  The Angludet had a more intense color than did the Amiral de Beychevelle and appeared somewhat concentrated.  Red and black fruits on the nose as well as some vegetality.  Rich on the palate with blackcurrants and a definitive earthiness.

We next tasted the 2005 Pauillac (ex Chateau Latour).  This wine, Chateau Latour's third label, is a blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 27% Merlot.  It had great color and concentrated red berry fruit , iron, and graphite on the nose.  On the palate some greenness, a metallic tone, and medium plus acid.  Steven Spurrier saw this wine as "balanced" and "classy" and indicated that it should be drunk over the next 2-3 years.

The next Medoc wine tasted was the 2005 Chateau de Pez from St. Estephe.  This wine was a blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot and had been matured in 40% new French oak barrels for 16-18 months.  The wine had good color but a diffuse rim.  On the nose it exhibited raw meat, steel and black fruit.  On the palate, a good round mouthfeel, vanilla notes, and good acidity.  A balanced wine that is approachable now.

The Chateau Branaire-Ducru was from the heat-wave vintage of 2003.  This estate is set on 60 hectares which are planted with 35-year-old vines.  The blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot.  The wine was aged for 16-20 months in 60-65% new oak barrels.  The nose showed green notes, stewed red fruits and baking spices while the palate exhibited a green note and an overarching richness.  A beautifully balanced wine which can be drunk over the next three years.

The Chateau Rauzan-Segla (Margaux) was drawn from the oft-overlooked 2001 vintage.  The blend -- 63.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33.5% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc -- has been aged in 55% new oak barrels.  The wine showed maturity in the glass while the nose showed red fruit, a fragrant elegance, cassis, dark chocolate, vanilla, and lacquer.  The wine had a good round mouth feel and a fairly long finish.

The final Medoc wine was the Chateau Calon-Segur (St. Estephe),  drawn from a vintage (1998) which was, according to Steven, more of a right-bank vintage than a left.  The grapes for the wine had been sourced from 35-year-old vines planted on the estate's 55 hectares.  The wine was aged for 18 months in oak barriques after fermentation.  The wine had a fragrant florality, red fruit, and spices on the nose and harmony, sweetness of fruit, and length of fruit on the palate. This was clearly the most elegant of the Medoc wines that we had tasted.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Framework for Wine-Region "Mastering" Courses using Steven Spurrier's Decanter Medoc-Graves Class as a Case Study

On October 18th, 2010, I attended a course titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves.  The class was held at Decanter's London HQ and was led by noted Bordeaux expert, and Decanter Contributing Editor, Steven Spurrier.  In my October 13th review of the course, I commented thusly: "There was something missing though, and after giving it some thought, I arrived at the conclusion that it was context.  While the course is titled: Mastering the Medoc and Graves, we were not provided an overarching framework at the beginning of the class; and how tasting these specific wines would allow us to attain those objectives." I will, in this post, propose a framework that can be applied uniformly to all mastering courses and, in a series of supporting posts, provide the relevant contextual input to the framework.

In my opinion, mastering a wine region intimates a comprehensive understanding of the elements that contribute to the making of fine wine in that region (theory), the construct of a "strawman" of the characteristics of fine wine from that region (application), and the ability to taste through a sample of the wines  to identify the characteristics included in the strawman (practice). If these criteria are applied to the Medoc and Graves course, we should have been identifying the characteristics of fine wine in these regions and then tasting the wines to see how/if they reflected those characteristics.  The first contextual element would thus have been met: an objective and a set of related tasks.

The elements that contribute to wine quality are location, climate, vintage, aspect, soil, grape variety, viticulture, vinification, and the winemaker.  Of the foregoing, all but the winemaker could be considered at a regional level.  That is, these elements could have been discussed as it relates to the Medoc and Graves and, in my view, are essential contributors to a mastery of the regions.  They were either mentioned anectdotally or in passing in the class.  I have filled that gap with a series of supporting posts on the Medoc, Graves, Medoc and Graves vintages, and viniviticulture in the regions.  This constitutes the first step in truly mastering the Medoc and Graves.

The next step is building a strawman of the characteristics of the wine.  Steven did provide a starting point in that he saw wines of the Medoc tending to austerity.  He also described Margaux wines as "charming and elegant," Pauillac as "sterner and tougher," and St. Estephe wines as "a little more rustic." To the Margaux description I would add aromatic and excellent ageing potential.  St. Julien wines exhibit power and concentration along with elegance and require ageing to demonstrate their true potential.  Pauillac wines are powerful, complex, and tannic. St. Estephe wines are balanced and elegant with a structure that lends to ageing.  With the charaacteristics of the regions in hand, the second step towards mastery of the region has been taken.

The final step is tasting the wines and one of two approaches can be taken: (i) taste the wines blind in order to attempt to identify the region of origin based on the identified characteristics; or (ii) tasting the wines non-blind to determine if they match up with the defined regional characteristics.  Upon successful completion of this step, masterey of the region is within grasp.

In retrospect, we utilized a modified version of the latter approach in our tasting of the wines from the Medoc and Graves.  I will discuss the wines and the tasting in future posts.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Viniviticulture in the Medoc and Graves

Grape growing and winemaking in Bordeaux is classical in the sense that most of the core viniviticultural processess predominant in the world today can trace their roots back to Bordeaux.  On the left bank vines are planted at high densities to induce stress and are trained low to take advantage of heat reflected from the gravelly terrain.  The better chateaus have a higher percentage of old vines and implement rigorous replanting regimes in order to optimize vineyard potential.  Yields are closely managed through actions such as pruning and green harvesting.  For the most part, grapes are machine harvested with hand-harvesting reserved for the finest wines.

Once in the winery, grapes are subjected to scrutiny at a sorting table where unsatisfactory fruit and unwanted objects are removed.  Both black and white grapes are crushed to break the skins and stems are removed from the white grapes; black grapes may or may not be de-stemmed.  White grapes are pressed to remove the skins and are then shunted to the fermentation tanks for the initiation of that process.  Black grapes are allowed to macerate for between 15 and 21 days -- including fermentation and post-fermentation -- in order to extract tannins, color, and flavors from the skins.  White wines will ferment for 12 - 15 days between 10 degrees and 20 degrees Celsius while red wines ferment between 8 and 10 days at 28 to 30 degrees Celsius.  Fermentation is carried out in temperature-controlled, stainless-steel tanks or epoxy-lined concrete vats. The choice of yeast to ignite the fermentation process is the winemaker's decision but many winemakers opt for cultured yeasts in order to reduce uncertainty.  During and after fermentation the must is kept in contact with the skins through a pumping-over process (Punching down of the cap is also utilized but pumping-over is more prevalent.).

Post the red-wine fermentation process, the free-run juice is bled-off into storage vats while the remaining engorged skins are pressed to extract the remaining juice.  This pressed juice is stored separately from the free-run juice.  Red wines undergo malolactic fermentation wherein the hard malic acid is converted into softer lactic acid.  This process is optional for white wines which may, instead, go directly from fermentation to racking.  Both red and white wines are racked to vats or oak barrels for cellar ageing.  Sulfur is added at this time to stabilize the wine and combat oxidation.  The oak barrels are 225 liter in volume and can range from neutral to 100% new oak.  The best wines will be placed in 100% new oak barrels and will be resident therein for 24 months.

In many cases, plots and varietals have been vinified and stored separately and blending these separate wines into the final product prior to bottling is one of the critical tasks of the winemaking team.  Based on the results to date, it is a task that they are especially well-equipped to handle.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Medoc and Graves vintages

A vintage begins when the grower determines that an ideal balance between sugar and acidity has been attained; a condition which will vary between varietals and from plot to plot.  Vintage is especially important in a region like Bordeaux as the quality of wine produced may vary widely from year to year as the region is particularly susceptible to rainfall at harvest time.

Weather is the most important variable in vintage quality and can make its presence felt in a number of ways.  Winter freezes can damage grafts and cause vine death while spring frosts can damage buds.  Excessive temperatures can lead to early ripening and a sugar-acid imbalance which can, in turn, reduce the ageing potential of the wine (see, for example, the 2003 vintage in Bordeaux).  Drought conditions can force the vine to use sugars for its own internal processes thus leaving smaller amounts of sugar for storage in the grapes.  Excessive rains close to harvest can lead to a dilution of the sugars and flavors in the grapes and the damp conditions can promote rot.

I consulted a number of sources to determine their perspectives on left-bank vintages between 1995 and 2005.  Robert Parker provides a separate numerical rating for the Medoc and Graves while Jancis Robinson, Decanter, and Berry Bros & Rudd provide qualitative descriptions of the vintages and, within that content, make any necessary distinction between the right and left banks.  All reviewers consider the 2000 and 2005 left-bank wines to have been superior. Parker rates the 2008, 2003,1998 and 1996 as outstanding, with all others in the decade being Above Average to Excellent.  Jancis Robinson relegates the 2003 and 1997s to "drink-now" status (you may remember the tiff between Robinson and Parker as to the merits of the 2003 vintage).  She sees 1996 as a "tough, slow-maturing vintage ... for keeping not drinking ..."

The most important barometers of the perception of vintage quality are the price at which the wine is initially offered to the market place as well as its performance over time in secondary markets.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Graves sub-region of Bordeaux

On October 8th, 2010, I attended a class titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves which was held at Decanter HQ in London and led by Decanter Contributing Editor, and noted Bordeaux maven, Steven Spurrier.  I detailed the Medoc sub-region in a prior post and will cover Graves in this post.

The name Graves is derived from the dominant characteristic -- gravel -- of the soil in the region.  The soil is comprised of gravel, sand, and clay carried out by the Garonne over thousands of years. What is considered the Graves sub-region begins at the gates of the town of Bordeaux and extends for 50 miles along the left side of the Garonne River.

Nestled within the confines of the Graves sub-region are the noted AOCs of Pessac-Leognan (dry red and white wines), Sauternes (sweet whites), and Barsac (sweet whites).  The Graves AOC is the only Bordeaux region that is legally permitted to produce dry reds and whites as well as sweet white wines.  The sweet whites are produced under the Bordeaux Superieur AOC.  Graves covers 3400 hectares and is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for red wines and Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle for whites.

Graves has a one-level classification scheme which was originally implemented in 1953 for reds and then revised in 1959 to include dry white wines.  There are 16 Graves Classified Growths, all located in the Pessac-Leognan commune.  The most notable of these classified growths is Chateau Haut-Brion, the only non-Medoc wine to have been included in the 1855 Medoc classification scheme.

The red wines from Graves are distinctively garnet-red in color and are more robust than wines emanating from Medoc.  These medium- to full-bodied wines are characterized by red fruits, blackcurrant, and cinnamon.  The whites, which are barrel-fermented and aged on their lees, are flowery with notes of passion fruit and apricots.

Pessac-Leognan, in the far north of the Graves sub-region, was a part of Graves until it gained its own AOC designation in 1987 in recognition of its distinctive soils.  The 1350 hectares of Pessac-Leognana encompasses the most respected producers in the Graves sub-region to include the aforementioned Haut-Brion but also such notables as Chateau Pape Clement, Chateau Haut-Bailly, and Chateau Bouscaut, among others.

The red wines of Pessac-Leognan -- made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc -- exhibit a powerful bouquet along with red fruits and cocoa.  These wines can age 20 years and beyond and gain in complexity after 7 years, adding spice and other tertiary flavors.  The whites are medium- to full-bodied and will age up to 15 years in cellar.  These Semillon-Sauvignon blends will exhibit orange peel, boxwood, and passion fruit.  The crisper whites will have Sauvignon as the dominant grape in the blend while the fuller bodied whites will be Semillon-dominant.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Medoc sub-region of Bordeaux

On October 8th, I attended a class at Decanter HQ in London led by Decanter Contributing Editor Steven Spurrier and titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves.  In a previous post, I reviewed the class as an event.  In this and subsequent posts, I will report on the regions, the houses, and the wines covered in the course.  I begin the series with a look at the Medoc.

The Medoc is a part of the larger (and storied) Bordeaux wine region which is concentrated around the Gironde estuary and its tributary rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne.  The region owes its winemaking prowess to a number of factors: (i) a temperate climate characterized by humid springs, hot summers, sunny autumns, and relatively mild winters; (ii) the warming influences of the Gironde and the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean; (iii) its soils (quartz and flint pebbles over a subsoil of marl on the left bank and clay, limestone, and some gravel on the right); and (iv) protection from the ocean winds by the Landes pine forest to the southwest.

The Medoc is divided into two sub-appellations, the Medoc to the north and the Haut-Medoc, with the Medoc covering 4700 hectares and the Haut-Medoc 4300.  The Medoc sub-appellation, called Bas Medoc in earlier times, has heavy, moisture-retaining soils which are much more suited to Merlot than the Cabernet Sauvignon which dominates in its neighbor to the south.  Many areas in the Haut Medoc have large deposits of gravel which were washed down from the Pyrenees thousands of years ago.  This gravel provides excellent drainage and ideal conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon which does not like "wet feet."  These gravelly soils also retain warmth and, in so doing, aid in the ripening of the grapes.

The Chateaux in the the Medoc have been ranked since the 1855 World's Fair and that 1855 Classification, as well as the Cru Bourgeois classification, have been covered in a previous post.

Within the Haut-Medoc appellation there are a number of communal appellations which are renowned for producing some of the finest wines in the world.  Beginning with St. Estephe to the south of Medoc, these communes hug the Gironde until ending with Margaux at the fork which heralds the beginning of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.  St. Estephe covers 1200 hectares and its wines are considered to be rustic.  They are tannic, muscular, and long-lasting.  Pauillac is 1100 hectares in size with wines that are considered powerful, yet elegant.  There are 15 classed growths but three Premier Crus (Chateaus Lafite, Latour, and Mouton) in this commune.  St. Julien is the smallest of the communes with 900 hectares and has 10 classed growths.  Its wines age well and combine elegance with austerity.  Margaux covers 1300 hectares and its wines are thought to be the most "perfumed, feminine, and elegant."

I will cover the Graves region in my next post.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Interview with Dr. Tony Wolf, Virginia Tech Viticulturist, on $3.8 million USDA wine quality improvement grant

Virginia Tech ( was recently awarded a $3.8 million, 5-year grant by the US Department of Agriculture's (USDAs) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to lead a multi-state project designed to improve grape and wine quality in the eastern United States (US).  Within Virginia Tech the project will be led by Dr. Tony Wolf, Professor of Viticulture in the University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Director of the school's Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center.  I interviewed Dr. Wolf recently in order to gain a better understanding of the project's origins, objectives, deliverables, and measures of success.  This blog post summarizes that conversation.

Dr. Wolf has been with Virginia Tech for over 25 years, having been hired initially in the late 1970s as a Viticulture Extension Specialist when the University saw an opportunity to become involved in wine-grape education and research.  Dr. Wolf has continued with his statewide viticulture responsibility but added a significant administrative responsibility with his appointment as Director of the Alson H. Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in 2003.

The grant to improve grape and wine quality in the eastern US was awarded by NIFA at the conclusion of a rigorous peer-review process.  NIFA is the successor organization to Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services (CSREES).  CSREES had relationships with state Departments of Agriculture and funneled research funds to those organizations based on the number of farms in the state.  The state organizations would subsequently allocate funds to in-state research entities.  This process is still followed to some extent through block grants to state agricultural organizations but, for the most part, USDA research funds are funneled directly to research organizations through peer-reviewed grants.  NIFA, according to Dr. Wolf, provides a transparent process for allocation of USDA funds.  A key NIFA funding vehicle is the Speciality Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) which was "established to solve critical industry issues through research and extension activities" and gives priority to "projects that are multistate, multi-institutional, or trans-disciplinary; and include explicit mechanisms to communicate results to producers and the public."  SCRI has a current-year funding budget of $47 million.

University's had "seen the writing on the wall," both in terms of the shift in the research-funding-allocation mechanism as well as the SCRI mission, and a number of land-grant Universities banded together to pursue a multi-state, multi-disciplinary project.  The first concrete step in this initiative was a planning proposal submitted to the USDA by Cornell University.  This planning proposal was funded by the USDA with Cornell University as the Principal Investigator (PI).

Grape growers on the eastern seaboard face a number of fundamental issues, to include unpredictable precipitation during the growing season and inconsistent quality definitions.  The project seeks to improve the quality of grape and wine production in the eastern US by attacking these problems as part of a standard research and extension project.  The planning process for development of the grant proposal was a dynamic one which began in mid-2009 and continued through November.  The final proposal included seven institutions -- North Carolina State University, University of Maryland, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University, Virginia Tech, and the Connecticut Agricultural Expansion Station -- and 22 PIs.

The project, as awarded, has four objectives: (i) promotion of grape quality; (ii) matching varietals to sites; (iii) development of a GIS-based approach to vine location; and (iv) dissemination of study findings to users.  Teams have been formed around each objective.

A specific example of one of the study areas is the exploration of cover crops in the vineyard.  Precipitation during the growing season in the eastern US aggravates canopy management as it results in too much canopy which, in turn, can lead to poor fruit quality and rot.   Cover crops can increase soil health but can also cause drought stress in dry years.  Cover crop research is ongoing in North Carolina, Virginia, and the Finger Lakes region of NY to test the use and optimality of cover crops in northeast US vineyards and its potential contribution to an increase in the quality of grapes produced.

A federally and state-funded project named NE-1020 is currently underway in the US.  This multi-state project seeks to understand the performance of wine grapes under different climatic conditions.  The GIS component of the Virginia Tech study will bring the NE-1020 project under its umbrella and incorporate its data and findings into the portion which is tasked with using GIS technology to match varietals with vineyard sites.

Dr. Wolf sees the primary project deliverables as being comprised of decisionmaking tools.   The first tool envisioned is a GIS system that would assist a prospective wine maker in determining whether or not a particular plot would be appropriate for planting grape vines and growing quality grapes.  This tool will be the extrapolation of a platform that is currently in place at Virginia Tech's Center for Geospatial Information Technology.  The second tool will be used to aid the grower in varietal selection based on elements such as soil drainage, etc.  This tool will be developed as a result of incorporating the NE-1020 project into the VA-Tech project.  The third deliverable will be an assessment/evaluation tool.  A 1000-person survey will be conducted by the Virginia Tech Center for Survey Research in order to baseline the current practices and state of knowledge of regional grape growers.  That survey will be repeated in four years in order to assess the impact of the project on the practices and knowledge of the growers.

In addition to the decisionmaking tools, Dr. Wolf foresees some deliverables that are more in the educational realm.  For example, there will be a research summit at the end of Year 2 to report on progress-to-date as well as preliminary findings.  In addition, there will be state-wide workshops with team members and end users for information dissemination and feedback-capture.  Finally, all research findings will be provided on the web and be accessible to end users.  The USDA has an electronic vehicle called E-extension which presents research information to users based on communities of practice by region.  The Virginia Tech research results will be available to users on that vehicle.

This project will be successful, according to Dr. Wolf, if (i) there is improvement in the perception of eastern US wines in the market; (ii) if they can see trends that growers are siting vineyards scientifically; and (iii) if there is an improvement in the sales and profitability of eastern US wines.  Historically there has been a stigma associated with the quality of eastern US fruit, varieties, and winemakers.  Improving the grape and wine quality in the region will go a long way towards dispelling that stigma.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cellar Tour and Dinner at Château d'Yquem with M. Pierre Lurton, GM: Decanter d'Yquem Weekend

We made our way back to Les Sources de Caudalie after the Château Cheval Blanc visit and, after stopping to take pictures at Petrus and a few other château, what had originally been billed as an afternoon free quickly became a mad dash to be ready in time for our transit to Château d'Yquem.

When we started out, the light was failing and it was fully dark by the time we got to our destination.  Based on the vehicles' climb up the slope to the château, and the orientation of the lights in the distance, one got the sense that the daytime view would be dramatic.  There was some disappointment that we would not experience that view on this visit (a feeling that was enhanced when M. Lurton mentioned, during the introductions, that the daytime view was spectacular).  We turned into a gravel driveway and pulled into a darkened courtyard that was surrounded on all sides by buildings and/or walls.

There was a commotion to our left and three people came crunching towards us in the dark.  One of the two males gave Sarah Kemp a welcoming peck on the cheek and then proceeded to shake everyone's hand.  This was Pierre Lurton, General Manager of both Château dYquem and Château Cheval Blanc.  He was accompanied by Valérie Lailheugue, who was introduced as being responsible for Corporate Communications but, as the evening wore on, it became evident that she was the institutional memory of the Château.

After these "in-the-dark" introductions, M. Lurton indicated that we would go visit the cellar.  He said that  he was not going to spend a lot of time on the workings of the Château as we would probably find it boring after two days of listening to similar material.  The cellar was fronted by a brightly lit foyer whose walls were decorated with framed pictures of vines and bunches of grapes. M. Lurton stopped in front of these pictures and began to speak.

He begun by informing us as to his responsibilities at both Yquem and Cheval Blanc and indicated that he was also making wine in Argentina.  He referred to d'Yquem as possessing "sensual terroir" and said that its 105 hectares (the Yquem website says 188 hectares of which 113 is under vine) sits in the middle of the 2000-hectare Sauternes appellation.  He briefly explained the botrytis-formation process and told us that the traditional Yquem blend is 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc.  The grapes are picked beginning in the middle of September and continues through an average of six waves.

As we walked through the cellar, M. Lurton continued his discourse.  Wines from individual plots are stored separately in the fermentation room.  The wines are stored in 100% new oak and are in barrel for 34-40 months.  Annual production is between 500 and 1000 barrels.  The Chinese market has been good for the company but the biggest consumer of d'Yquem continues to be Italians.

After leaving the cellar we repaired to the tasting room.  Glasses were already set up in anticipation of our arrival and M. Lurton and Valérie went behind the bar and began pouring the 2007 d'Yquem for us to taste.  M. Lurton indicated that the 2007 vintage was a good one in Sauternes.  The grapes were late-picked because of an Indian summer with the earliest picking on September 10th and the last of six waves occurring on November 6th.  The wine has 125 g/l of residual sugar and 14% alcohol.  It has a golden color and, on the nose, botrytis, rust, intense pure fruit, light honey, peach, pineapple, and a sense of the complexity that is embodied in the wine.  The wine exhibits a little spiciness and a very long finish.  It was bottled 8 months ago.

Upon completing the tasting we decamped to the courtyard and made our way over to the Reception and Dining rooms.  We entered a small foyer and to the right was a cream-colored room with white trim and furnished with stunning period pieces.  On the walls were ancient-looking tapestries and paintings and, covering a part of the polished wood floor, a beautiful Parisian rug.  This was the room in which the champagne reception was being held.  I gingerly stepped into the room so as not to break anything.  My wife stepped right in and sat in one of the chairs to change from her cellar shoes to her dinner togs.  I held my breath waiting for the antique chair to break and bring her crashing to the ground and me a bill from Château d'Yquem for damage to their property.  But the chair held up and I started breathing again.  In my relief I hastily downed a glass of the Veuve Clicquot which had appeared as if out of thin air.

The reception lasted for about 30 minutes before we were summoned to the Dining Room, the setting of which is shown in the picture below.  A seating chart on an easel showed where everyone would be sitting and individual name tags stood at attention on a sideboard.

The first course was a Medley de Saint-Jacques aux Truffes (Scallops with truffles).  The presentation was excellent and a member of the wait staff circulated with a bowl of brown truffle sauce as an accompaniment.  Some diners poured the sauce directly over the course while others placed it on the side.  This course was paired with the 2007 vintage of Y, the Château's dry white wine.  The wine had a botrytized nose to go along with nuttiness, rusty nails, lemon zest, grassiness, tropical notes and white fruits.  This wine paired very well with this course.

The second course was Noix de Veau (round filet of Veal), Girolles (chanterelle mushrooms) et Tombée d'Epinards (cooked-down spinach).  This course did have an optional rust-colored sauce as an accompaniment and was paired with a 1996 d'Yquem.  The wine was delicate and fresh and less rich than the 2007 tasted earlier.  I found this pairing to be a little rocky as my palate kept asking "where's the red?"

For our next course we had a selection of cheeses (Comté, Roche baron, Bleu d'Aurergne).  The final course was a Gratin de Pamplemousse (crusted grapefruit) and was paired with a 1988 d'Yquem.  This wine had an excellent bronze color and was rich but balanced.  This wine paired excellently with this course.

This was a truly excellent meal both in terms of the gustatory items as well as the environment that was created for us that evening.  The setting was fabulous and will be imprinted on my memory for a very long time.  M. Lurton was a gracious host and was ably assisted in that endeavor by Valérie.  M. Lurton regaled us with story after story drawn from his personal experiences and Sarah matched him tale for tale.  It was a pleasure to be sitting next to her, and diagonally across from him, so that I could absorb both the words and facial expressions of these two as they bantered back and forth.

We did not want to leave. But, alas, we had to.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lunch at Château Cheval Blanc with Pierre Clouet, Technical Director: Decanter d'Yquem Weekend.

Château Cheval Blanc knocked our socks off on Saturday.  Technical Director Pierre Olivier Clouet had just spent 90 minutes expounding on the theory and practice of viticulture and viniculture and now he was set to host us at a champagne reception and sit-down lunch.

As we made our way into the reception room, we were met with flutes containing Dom Ruinart 1998, a wine described by the House as "the ultimate expression of Chardonnay."  After we were all appropriately "armed" the wait staff began circulating with an hor d'oevres of thinly sliced sea bass on toast points.

At the conclusion of the reception we were shown into the dining room.  The room was tastefully appointed with palm trees and potted plants and with a long, oval-shaped dining table running down its center.

We chose our seats, perused the menu (cream-colored, elegant construct, with flowing script and a brown tasseled ribbon), and waited for the fireworks to begin.

The first course was Mozzarella de Bufflone (Buffalo Mozzarella), Brunoise de Légumes et Copeaux de Jabugo (mixture of vegetables and Spanish Ham shavings).  This course was accompanied by a 2003 vintage of the Château's second wine, Le Petit Cheval.  In describing this wine Pierre talked about jam, licorice, and menthol notes as well as freshness, maturity, and balance.  This vintage was aged in 100% new oak.  Further expounding on the philosophy of the Château, Pierre indicated that the taster should focus on the mid-palate when tasting either Le Petit Cheval or Cheval Blanc.  The Château's goal is to have the wine on the palate at all times: attack, mid, and finish.  The mid-palate comes from the fineness of tannins and is a function of the soil.  In the case of Cheval Blanc wines, the tannins have density with silkiness.

The second course was Dos de Cabillaud (Cod back), Purée à l'Ancienne (Mashed potatoes with aged olive oil) and was accompanied by the 2001 Cheval Blanc.  The wine was fresh and presented red berry notes, spice, menthol, licorice, and violet.  The wine showed excellent concentration and density and had a long finish.

The third course was Fromages Affinés (Refined cheeses) while the final course was Salade de Mangue (diced Mangoes), Macarons et Grog à la Passion (Macaroons and Passion Fruit punch).  It was at this time that we got our first glimpse of the "big cat", the amber-colored nectar of the gods, a bottle of d'Yquem.  The 1997 vintage of this wine was poured to accompany our dessert.  As can be seen in the picture below, the wine has a rich golden color and was an aromatic delight.  Very rich on the nose with a plethora of tropical fruit notes.  Silky on the palate with a smooth, ultra-long finish.

This was an excellent meal from top to bottom. Every course was exceptional and went exceedingly well with its pairing partner even though some of these would not have been my personal pairing choices going in.  The consistency of the Buffalo Mozzarella and the presence of the ham shavings were very agreeable with the freshness and balance of the Le Petit Cheval while the presence of the aged olive oil and the medium body of the cod complemented the Cheval Blanc.  And what about the d'Yquem? Pure heaven.

As we staggered out of the dining room, there were two thoughts on our collective minds: (i) we had just had a phenomenal experience and (ii) the Yquem champagne reception and dinner was only three hours away and two of those hours would be occupied in traveling back to the hotel and then to Château Yquem.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Château Cheval Blanc visit with Pierre Olivier Clouet, Technical Director: Decanter d"Yquem Weekend

We arose on Saturday morning and, after breakfast, boarded two vans for transit to Château Cheval Blanc.  Master of Wine James Lawther was especially helpful during the course of the journey, pointing out the landmarks and points of interest as we traversed this hallowed ground.

As we turned into the road on which Château Cheval Blanc is located, James pointed to a nearby château and identified it as Château l'Evangile, the producer of one of my favorite Pomerols.

After we disembarked into the château courtyard, three men came hurrying up to greet us.  The youngest of the three (barely out of diapers I would say) introduced himself as Pierre Olivier Clouet, Technical Director of Cheval Blanc and, he said, he would be leading the tour as well as hosting us at the subsequent sit-down lunch.

Prior to 1832, according to Pierre, Cheval Blanc was a part of La Tour Figeac, the vineyards of which lie northwest and west.  Cheval Blanc consists of 37 acres (35 of which are planted to vine at any one time) and is planted 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot.  The Château is only one of two in the St. Emilion Appellation which is classified as Premier Grands Crus Classé A (the other is Château Ausone).  The Château has been in the hands of the Laussac-Fourcaud (later Fourcaud-Laussac) family continuously until it was acquired jointly by LVMH and Belgian businessman Albert Frère in 1998.  Pierre Lurton, of the famed Bordeaux Lurton family, was installed as General Manager after the acquisition (While at dinner at d'Yquem later that evening, M. Lurton regaled us with a funny story regarding his interview for that position.  I will recount that story in my post on the Yquem visit.).

Continuing the discussion, Pierre noted that St. Emilion was characterized by Merlot and limestone but that there was no limestone on the Cheval Blanc property.  Cheval Blanc stands at the limit of Pomerol (and at this time he points out l'Evangile, Petrus, Certan) and has huge dollops (my word, not his) of Pomerol soil. The Cheval Blanc soil composition is 40% clay, 40% gravel, and 20% sand.  This is important to the château because, in his view, 80% of wine quality potential lies in the soil; excellent wines come from good soil.  The soil at Cheval Blanc is poor in nitrogen and water -- very dry -- and this stresses the vines into producing lots of tannin, aroma, and acidity.

The factors that he focuses on in managing the vineyards are: quantity of grapes produced, maturity, and protection against diseases.  The château manages quantity through winter pruning, green harvesting, and soil fertilization.  Vines are pruned in the winter to retard development.  The goal is to have 7 buds/vine plant but the pruning is vine-specific and a particular plant may end up with more or less.  Using this process, vineyard workers can only prune 300-400 plants per day.  Green harvesting reduces the likelihood of rot and increases concentration in the remaining grapes.  The château sprays to protect against diseases but in decreasing quantities.  They are moving more to planting vetch (a flowering plant in the legume family) on fallow soil in order to purge and aerate the soil.

Pierre identified three types of maturity: technology, aromatic, and tannin.  He sees technology maturity as revolving around finding a good balance between sugar and acidity, with acidity being key to the ageability of wines.  Aromatic maturity strives for freshness, with greenness at one end of the spectrum and botrytization at the other.  Tannins flow between density and ripeness.  These three maturities need to be optimized on the same day in order to begin picking fruit.

After this discussion in the courtyard, we moved into the cellar to discuss vinification.  Pierre pointed out the heavy cranes overhead and indicated that they were in the midst of a major expansion project which would provide additional space for storage and small fermentation vats.

Château Cheval Blanc's vinification process is "classical."  Sorting is essentially by the pickers in the vineyard who select the best bunches.  These bunches are carried to the sorting tables in small baskets for additional assessment before being pressed.  Juice flows into concrete fermentation vats and when a vat is full fermentation is initiated by adding artificial yeast to the mix.  Artificial yeasts are used to guard against the risk of incomplete fermentation resulting from the exhaustion of natural yeasts during the process.  The juice is pumped over the cap three times per day and this pumping over continues until fermentation is complete.  Maceration continues for 15+ days until a 4-member committee calls a halt to the process. Malolactic fermentation occurs in vats because this yields, according to Pierre, purer fruit and greater elegance.  After malolactic fermentation, the wine is racked and sulfur is added.

Blending occurs 6 months after fermentation.  The wine is aged for 16 to 18 months in new French oak with racking every three months.  They protect against oxygen during racking by using nitrogen to force wine from a full barrel into a clean empty barrel through a connecting, air-tight rubber tube.  Using this process, 33 barrels are racked every day, with 5 weeks required to rack all of the cellars.  After 6 or 7 rackings, the wine is left to be clarified by gravity.

Barrel quality is assured by conducting blind tastings with coopers- and Cheval Blanc staff.  These tastings are done across all coopers and then for the barrels from a single cooper.  This process is utilized to select coopers as well as to improve the tightness-of-fit of the barrels sent to the Château.

At this point we concluded the tour and proceeded to a champagne reception and lunch.  These will be covered in a subsequent post.