A PORT PRIMER

Port is one of the most imitated styles of wine with copies being made in Australia, California, Texas, Argentina, South Africa, and even France (Bandol). The imitation has become so intense that Port has changed its official name from Port to Porto – which can only be used for Port made from grapes grown in the the Douro River Valley in Portugal. So real Port – now Porto- is a fortified wine from the Douro River Valley of Portugal.

Port is grown on rugged, mountainside vineyards. The older-style, stair-stepped, wide-terraced vineyards were built in a time of cheap labor. A newer method of terracing involves using dynamite and bulldozers to make narrower spiral terraces. The newest, most experimental vineyards are planted in up and down rows that use no terracing. The soil is mostly rock so the thought is (and so far practice indicates) that there will be very little erosion.

The five top quality grape varieties
– Touriga Nacional: small yields and disease problems but produces the best wine for Port.
– Touriga Francesca (or simply “Francesca”): Workhorse grape that handles hot areas well and produces very good wine for Port.
– Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo): another workhorse with good yields that produces big, fleshy wines; needs southern exposures to thrive.
– Tinta Baracoa: good for areas with poor exposure.
– Tinta Cao: the vine best suited for cooler areas; produces a lighter bodied wine than the other four.

 

Year-old, bench-grafted vines are planted and watered for one year. There is no irrigation after the first year. Trellising is simple on a double wire system. Grapes are harvested at full ripeness. Harvest is still a school holiday so everyone can turn out and work. Grapes are picked into wicker baskets that are collected onto trucks to be taken back to the winery. There is no mechanical harvesting.

Traditionally, the grapes are dumped into stone troughs called lagars. Winery workers get into the lagars and tread the grapes to extract as much color and flavor as possible in as little time as possible. Fermentation starts during the treading and continues into the night.. When the wines reach 5-6% alcohol, the juice is drained into 500 liter casks already containing 100 liters of 100 proof neutral white grape brandy. The wines are then aged in cask until they are shipped down river to Villa Nova de Gaia where all the major port houses have they’re aging lodges. The casks are monitored and each cask is graded on its overall quality and whether it is more suited to wood- aged Port styles or bottle-aged Port styles.

 

STYLES OF PORT
Wood Ports are those Ports that are aged in cask for more than two years before bottling. They can be divided into two main subgroups: Ruby Port and Tawny Port. True Ruby is a young, simple port with a lot of purple color and youthful fire and fruit intact; usually about three years in wood and fined, filtered, and stabilized before bottling.

Vintage Character Port or Reserve Port is a ruby port produced from grapes from further up the river than the inexpensive, simple true rubies. Vintage Character indicates a blend that attempts the impression of mature vintage port at a much lower price. They average about five years in wood and generally are fined, filtered, and stabilized before bottling.

Late Bottled Vintage Ports are Vintage Character Ports that are produced from only one vintage. Some LBVs, such as Fonseca and Warres, are not fined, filtered, or stabilized before bottling and are suitable for additional bottle aging.

The Tawnies
Ports labeled simply “Tawny” are usually blends of Ruby and White ports. These blends are inexpensive and are the lowest quality port available. The primary market for these wines is as a cheap aperitif in France. Usually, they are line-priced with the same house’s Ruby.

Aged Tawny Portos are the best Tawnies and are what the port shippers drink in Portugal. These are wood aged Tawny ports that show an average age of their contents on the label. Aged Tawny is a blend that is base on one year but is topped up each year with both younger and older wine to keep the flavors fresh and reduce oxidation while retaining the same average age as the base wine. They may be sold as ten, twenty, thirty, and over forty year old Tawnies.

Colheita Porto is a type of aged tawny from only one vintage. The wine is held in sealed barrels in bonded warehouses until it is ready to be bottled. These wines should have both a vintage and a bottling date on the label. They are more developed and focused tasting than the blended tawnies with much of the same dried fruit and nutty characteristics but more “purity” of flavor.

White Port is a dry white fortified wine produced primarily from Malvasia grapes grown in the Porto zone. It is not aged and is best served as an aperitif or mixed with soda and/or tonic on the rocks. It is often blended with ruby port to produce a cheap Tawny.

 

BOTTLE_AGED PORTS
Vintage Porto is the top quality wine from a single vintage that is bottled after two years in barrel. It is bottled without any filtration or fining and usually only one light racking. When declaring a vintage the port producer is guarantying that his wine will last at least twenty years from the vintage date. Port producers typically declare only about three vintages per decade.

Crusted Porto is a non-vintage blended port that ages and develops in the bottle like vintage port. The name comes from the crust or sediment that long bottle aging produces.

 

PORT VINTAGES
Classical Vintages are those vintages that the Port houses declare and guarantee for twenty years. These are the most expensive, biggest, and best wines from Porto. The declared vintages back to 1960 are 2011, 2009, 2007, 2003, 2000, 1994, 1992 or 1991, 1985, 1983 or 1982, 1980, 1977, 1975, 1970, 1967 or 1966, 1963, and 1960. In the paired vintages, most houses declared one or the other, not both.

Non-classical Vintage Porto is a wine that is produced in a year that is not quite good enough to declare as a vintage. Certain lots of wine, often from a single quinta or farm, are set aside and bottled and treated as Vintage Porto. These non-classical Vintage Portos were traditionally held by the producers at their lodges in Villa Nova de Gaia or in England until they are ready to drink. The wines from top houses such as Taylor, Fonseca, Dow, and Graham, and Churchill can be better than classical vintage Port from some of the lesser houses. These wines can be excellent values.

 

Winery Profile: DOMAINE ROBLET MONNOT

ROBLET MONNOT is the domaine of Pascal Roblet who is the 14th generation of his family to earn his living as a vigneron (grape grower) in Volnay. He says that for all of his memory (and, to his knowledge, for long before he was born), his family has farmed using organic principles with no pesticides or weed killers or other chemicals. In 1997 he converted from organic farming to biodynamics and since then has been a strict follower of the lunar calendar, even holding up shipping a container so as to be able to bottle at the correct phase of the moon.

PascalRobletCellarThe vineyards are in and around the three contiguous Cote de Beaune appellations of Pommard, Volnay, and Meursault. Roblet has been gradually replanting the domaine with most of his new planting at the very high density of 12,000 vine per hectare. In most of Burgundy, 5,000 vines per hectare is considered normal and 10,000 is considered high density. 12,000 is borderline fanatical.

While all the vineyards (which are among the most pristine in Burgundy) are in Pommard, Volnay (mostly), and Meursault, the actual winery is across the highway (and across the tracks) in Bligny-les-Beaune. Roblet does most of his vineyard and winery work with the help of just one assistant although he does have to hire pickers at the harvest.

The very high quality fruit he grows is brought into the winery where it is processed into tanks for a 2-3 day, pre-fermentation maceration (cold soak). No stems are used except for the ripest vintages of from the Volnay-Piture vineyard. All the other plots are fully de-stemmed. The fermentations are in these same open top tanks, most of which are temperature controlled stainless steel with a couple of wooden (oak) tanks. Cap management is by pigeage (punching down) and the wines generally get a 2-3 day cold soak before the alcoholic fermentation is allowed to start. Fermentations start naturally with indigenous yeasts and malo-lactic fermentation (in barrels) occurs naturally using the native lacto-bacillus bacteria.

The wines are aged in light toast, 30-month air-dried, all French oak barrels from one cooper (Chassin). The use of new barrels is carefully restrained to allow the purity and complexity of the fruit and the character of the sites to show through in the finished wines. The aged wines are racked only once about four weeks before bottling and that racking is from barrel to tank for the assemblage. This very protective, non-oxidative treatment is only possible because of the very high quality of the grapes produced by meticulous, very clean farming and the resulting healthy lees.

It is one thing to detail all this technique and another to taste the wines. The proof of concept is in the tasting and on that score Pascal Poblet has nothing to worry about. My notes are below. All of these wines are highly recommended.

RobletMonnotBourgogneROBLET MONNOT Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Rouge Vielles Vignes, 2010 ($27.89)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir – half from the area of Volnay and half from the area of Pommard – all grown more on clay than limestone planted to 12,000 vines/hectare. Aged 18 months in a mix of second, third, and fourth use barrels (some of which are 300-liter barrels rather than the standard 225-liter barrels). Sensory: Red in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity and medium phenolics. Offers classic red fruit and minerals with hints of cola, earth, and darker floral. Tastes like where it is from which is the lower areas near Pommard and Volnay. Classic domaine-level Bourgogne rouge. Yum. BS: 90+.

ROBLET MONNOT Bourgogne Rouge Vielles Vignes, 2011 (Coming Soon)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir – half from the area of Volnay and half from the area of Pommard – all grown more on clay than limestone planted to 12,000 vines/hectare. 100% de-stemmed and aged 18 months in a mix of second, third, and fourth use barrels (some of which are 300-liter barrels rather than the standard 225L). Sensory: Red in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Supple, fresh, red fruit and cola Pinot offering some darker earth and seasoned oak. Fine basic Cote d’Or-area Pinot. BS: 89+.

ROBLET MONNOT Volnay “St. François,” 2009 ($59.84)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. (“St. François” is a proprietary name for this cuvee; it is not a lieu dit.) 100% Pinot Noir, 2/3 is from the 1er cru Robardelle and Mitans vineyards along with (in this vintage) some Pitures with very mixed terroirs (marl, different colors of limestone, clay, small stones with clay and limestone mix, etc.) across the total of 10 parcels used. Aged 24 months in French oak barrels (30% new). Sensory: Red in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with fresh acidity and medium-phenolics. Vividly red fruit with dark spice and black pepper, cola and an indeterminate mineral earthiness. Fresh and focused and alive in the mouth. Pure. Tastes as it should – which is to say like Volnay. BS: 91+.

ROBLET MONNOT Volnay “Saint Francois,” Volnay, 2011 (Coming Soon)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir, 2/3 is from the 1er cru Robardelle and Mitans vineyards along with some Pitures with very mixed terroirs (marl, different colors of limestone, clay, small stones with clay and limestone mix) across the total of 10 parcels used. 100% destemmed prior to fermentation in open tops with pump[ overs and aged 24 months in French oak barrels (30% new). Sensory: red in color with well formed legs; dry and medium-bodied with fresh acidity and medium phenolics. Fresh and focused. Lots of simple red fruit with a bit of cola and lots of dusty limestone mineral. Precise, pure Volnay in an elegant style. BS: 90+.

ROBLET MONNOT Volnay Santenots 1er cru, 2009 ($86.89)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir from 6 vineyards located in northern Meursault (as the red wine from that part of Meursault is generally – and legally – sold as Volnay). planted at 12,000 vines/hectare. Aged 24 months in all French oak barrels (30% new). Sensory: Red in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics. In reality, this is red Meursault … but it sure tastes like fine Volnay. Classic power and perfume with red fruit and spice, cola and mineral. Yum. BS: 93.

ROBLET MONNOT Volnay Santenots 1er cru2010 (Coming Soon)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir from 6 vineyards located in northern Meursault (as the red wine from that part of Meursault is generally – and legally – sold as Volnay). planted at 12,000 vines/hectare. Aged 24 months in all French oak barrels (20% new). Red in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Again, this is red Meursault. Richer and a bit riper with a softer texture. where the 2009 is more focused, this is more open and easier to get at. Lovely in the mouth with a bit more richness and a bit less nerve. Delicious. BS: 93.

ROBLET MONNOT Volnay Brouillards 1er cru, 2010 (Coming Soon)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir Les Brouillards is a 5.6 hectare vineyard located on the most eastern side of Volnay. This plot is on a plateau where the terroir is more limestone soils. . Vines planted in 1980 and 1982. High-density planting (12,000 vines/hectare). Aged 24 months in French oak barrels (20% new). Sensory: Red-magenta in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics. Subtle, ripe, more mineral, great red fruit. Has some chewiness and a nice bit of richness. Hints at dark floral and cola. Delicious and easy to like. BS: 94+.

ROBLET MONNOT Volnay Taillepieds 1er cru, 2010 ($106.89)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir. Taillepieds is a 7.16 hectare vineyard on the southwestern side of Volnay. The terroir is large stones at the surface with clay and limestone blow. Planted at 12,000 vines/hectare. Aged 18 months in second use barrels. Sensory: Red in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics. Great mix of elegant red fruit and mineral. Elegant but with richness and a nice bit of weight. Lovely note of spice. Hnts at the exotic. BS: 96.

ROBLET MONNOT Pommard Arvelets 1er Cru, 2009 ($93.99)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir. Les Arvelets is a fairly steep, south-facing 8.45 hectare vineyard located in the northeastern portion of Pommard. Aged 24 months in French oak barrels (20% new). Sensory: Red in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium-chewy phenolics. Supple, earthy-minerally with darker red fruit and nuance of cola and darker spices with a dark floral perfume. BS: 92+.

ROBLET MONNOT Pommard Arvelets 1er cru, 2010 ($93.99)
Tech: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir. Les Arvelets is a fairly steep, south-facing 8.45 hectare vineyard located in the northeastern portion of Pommard. Aged 24 months in French oak barrels (20% new). Sensory: red-purple in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-light-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics. Supple, exotic dark red cherry and raspberry fruit with dusty oak, dark spice and Dark Floral. Vivid, mineral, alive, delicious. BS: 94+.

Always Drink Upstream From The Herd

I’m passionate about wine and wine quality and good food. I like trying new restaurants and tasting new wines. I love to cook and eat and drink. In short, I’m a wine geek and something of a foodie. I am also passionate about horses and riding and western culture and music. My wine friends think that, in addition to being a wine geek and foodie, I am quite the cowboy; but most of my real cowboy friends probably think I am quite the wine guy. Nevertheless, I am an appreciator of cowboy philosophy. Some of my favorite expressions of western wisdom include:

– Don’t squat with your spurs on.
– Good judgment comes from experience … and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
– There’re two theories to arguing with a woman. Neither one works.
– When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
– Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.
– Always drink upstream from the herd.

All of these are great advice for living a good and happy life whether or not you’re a cowboy. For me, the last one – Always drink upstream from the herd – is particularly noteworthy as it crosses over to the wine part of my life. Always drink upstream from the herd. Always drink the clean water upstream from where the herd is trampling around mudding the water they are drinking. Always drink better than the less informed. How do you do that? By becoming informed. And by not settling for the same old thing. What is the same old thing? In the most general sense (the biggest herd), the same old thing means wines like Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, Menage a Trois, Cristalino Brut, Woodbridge Chardonnay, Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio, Beringer White Zin, La Crema Chardonnay, Clicquot Yellow Label, etc. All of which reads like a list of the best selling wines in the market. So what’s wrong with drinking these best sellers? Not a thing. All of them are good, clean, commercial (in the good sense of that word) wines that deliver a fair value. But they are also a bit boring and in some cases have been dumbed down a bit, maybe to appeal to a broader (or maybe the broadest possible) audience. Or maybe the production volume is so high that these wines seem to lose their connection to a person (a specific winemaker) or a place (a vineyard where the grapes were grown).

Wines from too many places (or too big a place) lack precision and wines from too many winemakers lack soul. While not all places are good and not all individual winemakers are talented, the potential upside of a wine made (in reasonable quantity) by one person from grapes grown in one place is generally higher than that of a wine blended together from lots grown in different vineyards often in diverse regions with fermentations overseen by different winemakers.

What do I drink rather than the wines favored by the herd? Instead of “KJ VR Chard” (yes, that’s what we call it), I drink Les Tuilles Bourgogne Blanc Chardonnay from France. Instead of Menage a Trois, I drink St. Cosme Cotes du Rhone. Instead of Cristalino (an ok Cava), I drink Perelada Reserva (a much better but still cheap Cava). Instead of Woodbridge Chardonnay, I drink Louis Latour Ardeche Chardonnay. Instead of Santa Margarita, I drink Italo Cescon Pinot Grigio. Instead of Beringer White Zinfandel, I drink Villa des Anges Rose or Ch. Penin Bordeaux Clairet. Instead of La Crema Chardonnay, I drink Copain “Tous Ensemble” Chardonnay. Instead of Clicquot Yellow Label, I drink Gosset Brut Excellence or Forget Brimont Brut NV. And so on. Every one of these are wines is tied to a person and a place.

And what if the herd in question is a fancier herd? There are still wines that are herd favorites. So I may be drinking Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Franc or Snowden Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Silver Oak or Caymus. Or I may be drinking Ch. Pontac Lynch Margaux or Ch. Batailley Pauillac rather than the most recently cult-ified (a cult is the worst sort of herd), over-ripe, high-alcohol, highly-extracted “Spectator Selection” or Parker pick.
Are these the only answers? Absolutely not. Talk to the salesmen at any Spec’s store and ask them what they like to drink. They taste and drink a lot of wine and they know what’s good. They’ve been there and drunk that. Or they know someone who has. They know about what’s new and hot but they also all have and remember their old favorites.

Don’t worry of you make a few mistakes (or try a few wines you don’t like). Remember, Good judgment comes from experience … and a lot of that comes from bad judgment. A big part of the fun of wine is discovering what you like and tasting new things. Sure publications can be a good way to learn about wine but you have to remember that their publishers are all in the business of selling publications so their reporting is sometimes more focused on attracting attention than informing. (Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.)
While popularity tells you what the herd likes, it doesn’t always or even often tell you what’s best. By its nature, the herd is used to drinking the muddied waters. Always drink upstream from the herd. And remember: Don’t squat with your spurs on – which relates back to experience coming from bad judgment …

A Wine Trip to Napa and Sonoma Done Bear’s Way

Bear Dalton of Spec’s and Sarah Donaho of Frosch Travel are finishing up the planning (and budget) on a trip to the North Coast Wine Country (that would be Napa and Sonoma with side trips to Lake and Mendocino Counties) … and we are doing it Bear’s way.

“Bear’s way” means leaving the hotel about 8am with the first stop being breakfast (which in at least one case will be at a winery – OPUS One) and four(ish) winery visits a day … with most of our lunches and dinners at the wineries. We will be traveling by “Luxury Coach” (aka “the bus”). Law and policy allowing, some sparkling wine may get served/consumed on the bus. As we will be leaving at about 8am and getting back to the hotels between 9pm and 11pm (and so not spending much time there), we will be staying in nice but not fancy hotels. And we will only change hotels one time (Sunday through Tuesday nights we stay in Napa and Wednesday through Friday nights we stay in Rohnert Park just south of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County). If you like you can get in early and/or stay later. How you get there is up to you (airfare is NOT included).

The trip starts in Napa on Sunday and ends after our last visit on Saturday afternoon. The plan is for you to arrive at our hotel (Hilton Garden Inn) in Napa on Sunday (8/10/14) afternoon and for the group to gather for a welcome dinner on Sunday (Restaurant TBD). From there, the plan is …

Monday Aug 11
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Napa)
Winery Visits: Inglenook (formerly Niebaum Coppola), Schramsberg (Lunch), Corison, Shannon Ridge
Dinner at Shannon Ridge in Lake County

Tuesday Aug 12
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Napa)
Winery Visits: Domaine Carneros, Tetra-Expression-Prime Solum (Lunch), Buehler, Ca’Momi
Dinner at Oenoteca – Ca’Momi’s Pizzeria in Napa)

Wednesday Aug 13
Check out of Hilton Garden Inn.
Breakfast at Opus One
Winery Visits: Opus, Snowden (Lunch), Quintessa, Kenefick
(check into DoubleTree in Rohnert Park )
Dinner TBD in Santa Rosa area

Thursday Aug 14
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Rohnert Park)
Winery Visits: Dry Creek Vineyards, Alexander Valley Vineyards (Lunch), Ridge, Roederer Estate
Dinner at Roederer In Anderson Valley in Mendocino

Friday Aug 15
Breakfast at Black Bear Diner (Rohnert Park)
Winery Visits: Siduri, Ravenswood (Lunch), Hanzell, Sonoma Highway
Dinner TBD

Saturday Aug 16
Check out of DoubleTree Hotel
Breakfast at DoubleTree Hotel
Winery Visits: The Sorting Table (A morning Burgundy Tasting in the town of Napa), Gloria Ferrer (Lunch)
And we are done.

That’s the plan. Over the next couple of weeks, we will finalize all the visits and the itinerary. If we cannot see a particular winery, we will add another of comparable quality.
Cost is projecting to be between $3,100.00 and $3,300.00 per person based on double occupancy.
All meals, hotels, and wine country transportation are included. Airfare is not included.
The cost for a single supplement will be about $625.00.
We are finalizing the budget now.
Sarah is also working on shuttles to Napa and back  to airports.
This will be limited to 30 people.
ARE YOU INTERESTED?
If yes, please email BearDalton@mac.com and Sarah.Donaho@Frosch.com.

Pondering Pomerol

OK. I’ll start by apologizing; I’m a sucker for alliteration so “Pondering Pomeol” it is.

So, what’s to ponder? Of all the major wine regions of Bordeaux, Pomerol was the last to begin to make sense to me. Maybe that is because when I started tasting in Pomerol in 1997 with the en premiur showing of the 1996 vintage, the darling wines of the time were the Michel Rolland-influenced Merlot monoliths and the doors to tasting the Moueix wines (which offer a counterpoint) were then closed. I encountered a lot of these same sorts of monolithic reds in St. Emilion but in St. Emilion there was always a host of other wines in a variety of styles. Maybe is was because a lot of the Pomerol producers made tiny amounts of wine and those wines seemed to sell for exorbitantly high prices (before exorbitant pricing became the norm in Bordeaux). Or maybe it was because, as a young man coming up in the Cabernet Sauvignon-centric wine-world of Texas from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, I had never been much exposed to and so had never developed a taste for Merlot-based reds not just from Pomerol but from anywhere in the world.
So, as I started tasting in Bordeaux beginning in 1997 …

Let’s pause there and note that that statement reads “Tasting in Bordeaux,” not “Tasting Bordeaux. The “in” makes a big difference. I’ve been tasting and drinking fine red Bordeaux since 1976 and have worked around great Bordeaux wines since 1979 when I worked as a sommelier at the Rotisserie for Beef and Bird in Houston. I really began to focus on red Bordeaux as a salesman at Glazer’s in 1982. Also in 1982, I “fell in with bad company” in that I became a regular in a very good tasting group that met at the old Confederate House restaurant in Houston where three of the men I credit as my early teachers – Michael Lonsford, Bill Edge, and Harold Delhommer – routinely shared great wines from their cellars. Most of the best tastings I attended over those earlier years in Business were focused on Bordeaux and my early personal drinking was largely Bordeaux as well. It’s just that the vast majority of those red Bordeaux wines came from the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated left bank appellations of Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux, St. Estephe, Haut Medoc, and Graves. (Graves because at that time, Pessac Leognan had not yet been carved out of Graves.)

So, as I started tasting in Bordeaux beginning in 1997, I was exposed to a broader range of Pomerol and St. Emilion and other right bank appellations than I had ever experienced. St. Emilion was easier but I thought Pomerol was all about 85-to-100% Merlot blends that were riper and higher in alcohol and more concentrated and more extracted than the wines from most of the rest of Bordeaux. The wines I was tasting were already leaning heavily toward black fruit flavors and alcohols were often a point or more higher in these Pomerols than on comparable left bank wines. For me, tasting in Pomerol was often more miserable than pleasurable and it sometimes seemed that the only bright spot was visiting Vieux Ch. Certan (aka “VCC”).
The contrast between the wine at VCC and the wine at, say, l’Eglise Clinet in the 1996 vintage could not have been more dramatic. Both Alexandere Thienpont of VCC and Denis Durantou of Ch. l’Eglise Clinet were informative host who “built the sample” as we talked a barrel thief to draw wines from a variety of different barrels to make a representative blend (that way of sampling is much more common in Burgundy than in Bordeaux) so the samples were as fresh and lively as they could be. But the wine from l’Eglise Clinet was riper, heavier, and more dense with black fruit. It was impressive and I was impressed (and certainly told that I should be impressed) but I didn’t enjoy the wine. The wine at Vieux Ch. Certan seemed to danced across my palate with as much red as black fruit and much more nuance. It was ethereal and I gave me great pleasure. At least, that’s how I remember it. At that point, l’Eglise Clinet was above VCC in the Pomerol pecking order but that has now changed.

The challenge for me in Pomerol was finding other wines that had some of the elegance of VCC. As time passed, I began to be exposed to wines such as l’Evangile and La Croix St. Georges, Lafleur and Le Pin, and finally the Moueix doors opened so, in addition to tasting at Petrus, I also began tasting Trotanoy, Lafleur-Petrus, Hosanna, and more. Tasting in Pomerol became less of a chore and more of pleasure.
But none of that tells you what Pomerol is. Pomerol is a small town (with a 2008 population of 718 people) and wine appellation on the western outskirts of Libourne. While wine grapes have been grown in Pomerol for hundreds of years, Pomerol did not produce mostly red wine until the 1800s and did not really begin its international rise in repute until after World War II. The big jump in Pomerol’s reputation came with Robert Parker’s coverage in 1983 of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage.

Pomerol’s appellation laws require red wine only with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec as the only permitted grapes. Maximum yields are 42 hl/ha. And the minimum alcohol content is 10.5% (which seems irrelevant given current alcohol levels in supposedly under-ripe vintage).
The terroir here is largely sandy clay over limestone with variables that include spots of gravel and sand. The most famous terroir is the rise under and around Ch. Petrus which features a unique blue-clay-over-iron-rich-sand. Several of the top chateau boast plantings that are at least in part on this rise.
Most of the chateau are planted to mostly Merlot but a few have as much or more Cabernet Franc and some even have substantial plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t think of any of the better Pomerols that use any Malbec.

The chateaux in Pomerol lack the grand houses of the Medoc or Graves and the vineyards are much smaller in size so the amount of wine produced is much less. While typical Chateaux in the Medoc may produce over 40,000 cases in a particular vintage, 4,000 cases or less might be more typical of Pomerol.

As with most wine appellations, it is easy to generalize about the winemaking but there are almost as many variations as there are chateaux. In general, grapes are picked ripe or riper and crushed before fermentation in tanks which may be wood, concrete, or stainless steel. Cap management is usually pump-over (remontage) but may be punch downs (pigeage) or rack-and-return (delestage) or some combination of the three. Malolactic may be in tank or barrel. Many chateau have returned to using basket presses but with modern computerized controls. Percentages of new oak can range from 0-to-100% and barrels types can be barriques, cigars, or larger sizes. Some producers rack the wines from barel to barrel several times during aging while other employee “micro-oxegenation” using aerators not unlike those in fish tanks to give some air to the aging wines.

The wines of the Pomerol appellation have never been officially classified. While there is a pecking order, it varies somewhat with who is doing the ranking. The following are the wines I pay the most attention to.

The Top: Ch. Le Pin, Ch. Petrus
The Second Tier: Vieux Ch. Certan (trending up), Ch. Lafleur, Ch. Trotanoy, Ch. l’Evangile, Ch. Lefleur Petrus, Ch. La Conseillante
The Third Tier: Ch. Petit-Village, Ch. La Croix St. Georges (trending up), Domaine de l’Eglise, Ch. Latour-a-Pomerol, Ch. Clinet, Ch. Gazin, Ch. Certan de May, Ch. La Pointe, Ch. Nenin

(I know; I’m leaving out a lot of big name chateaux such as l’Eglise Clinet, Bon Pasteur, Beauregard, Croix de Gay, Rouget, and more as I don’t have enough of a taste for them to know where to fairly put them without resorting to the 1855 technique of simply plotting prices – which would certainly not agree with my personal pecking order. But then not everyone likes everything and these are the Pomerol wines I most enjoy.)

Pomerol – depending on its level of weight, extraction, alcohol, ripeness, etc. – goes with the same sorts of foods that typically accompany other high quality red Bordeaux. Younger wines tend to go well with grilled steaks and lamb and older reds go well with roasted or even braised meats. Virtually all of them pair well with poultry including the obvious chicken and turkey but also duck, quail and (my favorite) pigeon.

Prices range from as little as the upper $30s for some of the lesser known chateau and the second wines of some of the more known properties to as much as several thousand dollars per bottle for even younger vintages of the likes of Ch. Petrus and Ch. Le Pin. It is easy and even fashionable to complain about the prices but Bordeaux pricing (and that includes Pomerol) is more directly market driven (willing seller meets willing buyer) than the pricing of any other wine region in the world.

Parsing Pinot Noir

Of all wine grapes. probably none show the details of place and production as much as Pinot Noir. The where, the who and the how, and the when are all (potentially) more evident in Pinot Noir than in wine from any other grape variety. That qualifying “potentially” is there because, in the wrong hands, the how can obliterate the place and even the when, but then to at least some extent, that is true of every variety.

The WHAT
Pinot Noir is the red wine grape of Burgundy. It has thin black skins and white juice. Beyond that, it gets murky. It is not definitively known where the grape originated, which varieties are its parents, or even if it was a “direct domestication” of a wild grape (maybe the strongest possibility). It seems that Pinot Noir (so called because the grapes are black – noir – and the clusters are tight and shaped a bit like a pine – pinot – cone) has been growing in the neighborhood of Burgundy since at least before 100 AD. The variety is extremely mutable so there are lots of genetic variations (a number of which have been isolated as clones) as well as color variations (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris) and other genetic anomalies such as Pinot Meunier (which seems to be an ancient chimera (look it up) of two genetic strains of Pinot Noir). But, as often happens, I digress …

Even though, in a 2010 grape vine census, Pinot Noir was only the tenth most planted wine variety (sixth among red varieties), it is arguably much more important both economically and qualitatively than that quantitative ranking.

Due to tight clusters and thin skins, Pinot Noir can have problems with rot and other vine hazards. Those thin skins also can lead to lighter-colored and more delicately-flavored wines. The hallmark of Pinot Noir in Burgundy and many of the world’s other producing areas is red fruit, delicacy, and elegance. That appeal makes the wines worth the the effort of growing the difficult grapes in often marginal climates.

The best Pinot Noir wines are known for their combination of fruit and earth in which site specificity may be revealed – so Pinot Noir wines can be the ultimate combination of what and where. One part of the reason for this is that the variety tends to strongly reflect place. Another part is that, due to the happenstance of history and tradition in Burgundy, the best Pinot Noir has long been grown in smaller plots with fairly specific characteristics. While this specific site character was already well known when the best Pinot Noir Vineyards were owned by various Catholic Church organizations and aristocrats (the Ducs of Burgundy, etc.), it is even more evident now that those vineyards (places) have been divided into smaller and more specific plots. Perhaps partly because of this tradition in Europe, Pinot Noir in the new world tends to come from smaller sites (often designated with vineyards names in much the same way Burgundy wines are labeled with vineyards names) with specifically identifiable terroir. As much as its fruit character, this ability to showcase terroir is a big part of Pinot Noir’s great appeal.

 

The WHO
We often talk about wine being a product of “producer and place.” Producer is important because of two factors: resources and decisions. A producer with enough resources is going to have access to better vineyards, better equipment, and better skills, as well as be better able to react to (which may mean throwing money at) problems. A producer also makes decisions about where and how, deciding which vineyards to use and which techniques and traditions to apply to the product of the site or sites.

 

The WHERE
The first decision is “where.” Where will the vineyard be planted? Which vines will be planted? On what rootstocks? How will the rows be oriented? How will the site be farmed? All of those are influenced by the where. In much of Europe, where may actually dictate the answers to these questions. If you want to plant red grapes in the identified great terroirs of Burgundy, you pretty well have to plant Pinot Noir. If you want to plant red grapes in Cote Roie, you pretty well have to plant Syrah. But there are a lot of different clones and massal selections that you can choose from so which is right? Most producers rely on tradition. The best use the same genetic material (often a massal selection taken from cuttings from the previous vines from the their vineyard or neighboring vineyards) and often the same rootstocks they have “always used.” A grower working at a more commercial level might use mono-clonal blocks planted to some of the numbered clones isolated and propagated by the University of Dijon but, at least in Burgundy, those clones are not seen as such at the top sites.

But how does the producer choose the where? Originally, the sites were chosen because they grower recognized physical characteristics (slope, exposure, soil type, etc.) which we now lump together as terroir that had produced good wine in other maybe neighboring areas. Now (at least in the Cote d’Or of Burgundy) site is determined more by what he inherited or what his spouse inherited. In the new world, site is often less restricted and new sites are still popping up that are proving to be good spots for Pinot Noir. And so those grape growers are making those decisions about genetic material and so on.

Sometimes, both in Burgundy and in the new world, the grower is the producer or winemaker, and sometimes not. In Burgundy, a wine producer who grows his own grapes is called a domaine and producer who buys grapes from another grower is called a negoçiant. Some negoçiants own vineyards as well as buying grapes from other growers. And some domaines both make their own wines and sell some grapes or even wine to negociants. And the same is true in the US and other areas.

Whether the influences were economics, heredity, or happenstance, the where decision for Pinot Noir determines the site influence on the wine. And the consequences to that “where” (genetic material, farming practice, etc.) have a lot to do with the “what” or fruit influences on the wine.

 

The HOW
Now we get down to it – the “how” of it – all the decisions that go into the making of a specific Pinot Noir wine. Lets say you have a vineyard in Burgundy (because that is the home – both real and spiritual – of Pinot Noir). Let’s say your long lost uncle François left you a few rows in Morey St. Denis in a nice premier cru site along with some vines in Gevrey Chambertin (at the village level) and a some more on the wrong side of the road that can only be called Bourgogne Rouge (not entitled to the name of a village but still making some pretty good juice).

How will you farm the vines? You could go with conventional agriculture, you could go “Sustainable,” or you could go Organic or even Biodynamic (sort of uber-organic with a little new age hoo-doo thrown in). That basic decision on farming practice has a big influence on the health of your vineyard (and maybe your health) and consequently on the yield levels as well as the ripeness and quality of the fruit. Lets say you go biodynamic. You will soon find yourself making preparations from things such as composted nettles and “converted” manure and applying these often dilute mixtures to your vineyards following an esoteric calendar. Nevertheless, you will be in your vineyard more than many of your neighbors and it is likely that you will come up with high quality grapes. As the vines grow, you will have to decide whether to reduce crop (to concentrate flavor into the remaining crop) and/or thin leaves (to allow more sun and air into the canopy).

As harvest approaches, you will have to decide when to pick. Perhaps you ceded some of those decisions to a consultant or an employee but then you hired that person so they are still ultimately your decisions.

Once the grapes are harvested, will you crush and de-stem, just de-stem, or leave the clusters whole. Or maybe you will do a mix of say 50% crushed and de-stemed, 20% whole berry, and 30% whole cluster. At the same time, are you dosing the wines with sulfur-dioxide to kill any native yeasts or are you hoping those native yeasts will thrive and combine with the resident yeast culure in your winery to add complexity?

Once your grapes are in the fermenter, will you do a cold soak (cold prefermentation maceration) or will you allow or encourage and immediate start to fermentation? A pre-fermentation cold soak will allow the water in the grape juice to begin extracting color from the grape skins for a few days before the alcohol produced during fermentation begins extracting tannins from the skins. A three-to-maybe-five-day cold soak can add substantial color and a bit of richness to a wine that might otherwise look a bit rosé. But a 10-day cold soak can extract so much color and more that a Pinot Noir from Morey St. Denis can easily be misidentified as a Syrah form Cote Rotie. Too much cold soak can obliterate site specificity and even obscure varietal character.

During that cold soak (let’s hope you went for 3 days) and the subsequent alcoholic fermentation, will you manage the cap with pigeage (punch downs) or pump-overs? The perception in the wine world is that Burgundy always uses punch-downs and Bordeaux always uses pump-overs. The reality is that many Burgundy producers (and other Pinot producers in other parts of the world) use both techniques on the same tanks. And some Burgundy producers (such as Vincent Girardin) have eschewed punch-downs entirely in favor of gentle pump-overs. Whichever technique or combination of techniques you use, it starts during the cold soak and continues on through the fermentation.

How long will you allow the wine to stay on the skins in the fermenters? How much pressure will you use in pressing off the skins after fermentation? How much of the press wine will you blend back in as the wine goes to barrels. Will the wine go into new or seasoned (used) barrels or (more commonly) a mix of both? In what forest(s) was the wood grown? How long was it air dried before being coppered into a barrel? Who coopered the barrels and how much were they toasted? How long will you leave the wine in barrels? After the cellars warm up a bit in the spring and malo-lactic completes, will you sulfur and rack the wines into clean barrels. Will you rack again (and again) or will you leave the wine alone to develop on its hopefully healthy lees? When it’s time to bottle, will you fine and/or filter and/or cold stabilize and/or de-gass? Will you bottle slowly using gentle gravity or at high speed using aggressive pumps? All of these and more affect the taste and character of the wine.

If, in reading about a certain wine, you find some (or better, most) of the producer’s answers to these questions (including where) you can begin to predict (depending on your experience and education) what the wine will taste like. And if you’re tasting a certain wine, you may be able to see or smell or taste or even feel a note from the place or the signature of a technique.

 

So let’s have a look at two wines, one from the Cote de Nuits in Burgundy and one from Carneros in Napa.

Let’s say our Burgundy is from a biodynamic grower/producer (a domaine) based in Vosne Romanee in the southern Cote de Nuits. And lets say, in addition to holdings in Vosne and Nuits, Our theoretical producer (lets call him “Domaine Mercedes Neuf”)has a single plot in the Clos Vougeot (the largest Grand Cru in the Cote d’Or) up fairly high but close to the south end (which means better exposure and drainage and more limestone rock and less soil (broken limestone with some darker dirt and very little organic material). The grapes were harvested with an eye on the fruit-acid balance after achieving brown seeds with a potential alcohol of 13.5%. In his old wet stone-and-wood, gravel-floored cold cellar in Vosne Romanee, the producer used a three-day cold soak with no whole clusters utilizing two punch-downs and one pump-over a day and allows a natural yeast fermentation. The wine is drained and pressed off just before it reaches dryness so the last bit of the fermentation is in the barrels which helps extract a bit more new oak character from the 100% new, four year air-dried (resources) Allier and Never light-to-medium-toast oak barrels from three different coopers. Malo-lactic starts in late March and finishes just over four weeks later. The wine is sulfured and then racked of the gross lees into cleaned barrels and is then left alone for another 10 months until it is fined in barrels, drained into a tank for assemblage, cold-stabilized (to remove tartrate crystals), lightly de-gassed, and passed by gravity flow through a loose filter in an effort to stop any potential Brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast) population in the tank from moving with the wine into the bottle (which could turn a beautiful fruit-and-perfume master-piece into an earthy, barnyard-y nightmare.

Let’s say our Carneros Pinot is a vineyard-designated wine made by a high quality negoçiant-style producer (let’s call him Dinero de Papa Winery) from purchased grapes grown by an organic farmer in the hills above the highway (higher and a bit warmer with a bit less wind with alluvial deposits over old marine sediments with a bit more organic matter) who uses sheep for weed control and plows with horses to avoid soil compaction and diesel fumes. Unusually, most of the vineyard is planted to two older massal selections but some of the smaller blocks are planted mono-clonally to Dijon 114 and 115, 667 and 777 as an experiment. Our winemaker specifies the harvest date to coincide with an anticipated 14.5% potential alcohol. In his modern steel and concrete, industrial warehouse winery in an industrial park south of Napa (city), our producer went with a full de-steming and partial crushing before a full five-day cold soak. While he did not sulfur the grapes at reception, he did inoculate with a commercial yeast culture to speed along the fermentation. Cap management was manual pigeage three times daily reduced to twice daily as the wine approached dryness. After the wine was dry, he left it three more days in contact with the skins. After draining the open-top fermentation tanks into closed-top, temperature controlled tanks and pressing off the skins, the wine was blended and then barreled (a mix of 30-month-air-dried oak from several French forests and several different coopers in several different toast levels, 50% new barrels and 50% second use) where a warmer cellar caused malo-lactic to start in December and finish in two weeks. The wine was sulfured and racked after malo and the cellar was cooled down and humidified to allow the wine to develop slowly and without much evaporation. It was racked twice and then racked into a tank for assemblage. The wine was not filtered or fined, and was not cold-stabilized or de-gassed before bottling on a conventional bottling line.

How are they alike? They are both Pinot Noirs made using a lot of the same techniques with some seemingly subtle and snot so subtle differences in how they were applied.

How are they different?

Our Burgundy (Domaine Mercedes Neuf Clos Vougeot “le Sud de Clos”, 2009 $127.99, 94 points from BurgMule) wine is tighter and a bit higher in acid due to the lower potential alcohol. Our Burgundy producer’s decisions lead to a more focused, more fruit-oriented, terroir driven but not earthy Pinot Noir offering pure red fruit (cherry, red berries, even a hint of cranberry) with cola and spice as well as some dark floral perfume and enough richness. The wine got 100% new barrels but the oak notes are subtle and integrated. The delicate mineral component is present but provides as much focus as it does flavor. Already good, this is a wine that will last and develop to reward keeping.

The Carneros Pinot (Dinero de Papa “Happy Hippie” Vineyard Pinot Noir, Napa Carneros, 2009 $79.99, 94 points and a “hubba-hubba” from WineOutSider.com) is richer and riper, higher in alcohol, and less acidic. The fruit is darker red fruit with notes of black fruit as well along with a ripe fruit and floral perfume to go with an earthy richness (maybe more mushroom than mineral) and some dusty oak. The wine is a bit more architectural in that you can more readily discern its elements. Due to the higher alcohol and ripeness and lower acidity, it is easy to drink now but it may not have as much future in terms of longer keeping as acidity is the most important element for aging wine. Because it was not filtered, fined, or stabilized, it has a tiny bit of haze and there is some evident bottle variation. Some bottles are lovely but others may seem a bit too earthy with fruit being obscured.

Maybe it is not all completely predictable but neither is it a real surprise that the wines taste as they do. And the more you learn more about how these wines are made and taste how technique affects taste, the more you will see (smell, taste, feel) technique as you taste and the better you will predict color, aroma, taste, and feel from technique.

 

Champagne Friday: BONNAIRE Brut Variance Blanc de Blancs, NV

BONNAIRE is and long has been a favorite estate-bottler of fine Champagne from the Cotes de Blancs, With their production facility in Cramant and most of their vineyards in Cramant Grand Cru, they also have vineyards in Bergeres-les-Vertus (Premier Cru). I think of Bonnaire as a great source for fresh lively elegant Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. But then there is this Variance. Bonnaire Variance is a blanc de blancs but (unlike any of Bonnaire’s other cuvees) it is barrel-fermented and aged and goes through malo-lactic fermentation in barrels before the champenization process. Barrel fermentation and full malo-lactic are very unusual in Champagne and this is an unusual wine in that it has the elegance of chardonnay with the additional richness and depth that comes with the oak barrels as well as some roundness from the malo-lactic fermentation with all of that being enhanced by 68 months spent en tirage (on the lees) before disgorgement and another six months in the cellar before release.

bonnaire-bottle-variance-smallBONNAIRE Brut “Variance” Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, NV ($41.79)
A 100% Chardonnay Champagne with 70% of the grapes coming from Cramant (Grand Cru) and 30% from Bergères-Les-Vertus (Premier Cru), fermented and aged in oak barrels with full malo-lactic fermentation prior to methode champenoise. 68 months on the lees before disgorgement. Finished with a dosage to bring it to a dry brut level of 6 grams of sugar per liter. Sensory: Seems almost a combination of fine bubbly and fine White Burgundy. The fruit is more in the lemony citrus range (typical of Blanc de blancs) but the mineral and oak are there as well. The mineral is Champagne’s chalk (The Cote de Blanc is the heart of Champagne’s chalk) rather than the Cote d’Or’s limestone. The oak is not new but the character of the barrels is there as a complement. The whole is a delicious, fresh but satisfying Champagne with a unique appeal. Delicious. BS: 94+.
Note: Due to its depth and richness, this is a blanc de blancs that transends aperitif status and can be used with food at the dinner table. Recommended serving temperature is 50-53°F.

CHAMPAGNE QUOTE: In success you deserve it and in defeat you need it. – Sir Winston Churchill