Nothing is Normal Now – Including the Wines I’m Drinking

In Houston and the surrounding area, in fact on the whole post-Harvey Gulf Coast of Texas, nothing is normal now. And what passes for normal won’t return for a while yet, maybe not for a very long while. Yet life goes on. If we were affected by the storm and the subsequent floods, we  may be stunned or shocked or angry or all of them. If we came through with little or no loss or damage, we may feel guilty or blessed or both. In either case though, we sleep and wake, we eat and drink – and we continue living.

I know that during the Saturday night and the Sunday of the actual storm (August 26 and 27), a lot of us (me certainly included) were drinking very good wines in the spirit of the hurricane party. I know some legendary bottles were consumed then. But after that something seemed to change. Some have been doing heroic work helping their neighbors even before the water has subsided. Some have donated materials and monies. Some were almost immediately back at their jobs – even as others in the city couldn’t get to or from their homes. As one who was back in the office on August 29, I can say that I am back in my routine but that it is anything but normal. My routine at work is not normal and my routine at home is not normal. We are sleeping and waking, eating and drinking but the eating and drinking is different. More meals at home whether dinner for 2 or dinner for 10. More comfort foods and fewer steak nights. And while we are still drinking wine, the wines are in some ways different. We have drunk a few bottles of a lovely Sancerre and a fine Alsace Pinot Gris (we rarely drink white wine at home). We have drunk several bottles of Zinfandel (both some Ridges and some Ravenswoods with my Bolognaise – which for me is much more of a winter thing), and we have drunk (with my turkey-and-andouille-sausage-gumbo) a couple of the best bottles of Beaujolais I’ve tasted in years. All of which is not to imply that we have abandoned bubbles. We are still a fizz friendly family but we are drinking more basic bubbles (Perelada Brut Cava, Mercat Brut Rosé Cava, and Jansz Rosé) and less actual Champagne just now.

Here are my notes on some of the unusual drinking we’re doing of late:

Domaine FREY-SOHLER Pinot Gris Rittersberg, Vin d’Alsace , 2015 ($19.94)
100% Pinot Gris from the Rittersberg terroir (a microclimate 8° warmer than average for Alsace with shallow, granitic soils on slopes. Famed with alternating rows of clover cover). Pneumatic press, fermented and aged 9+ months in classic old wooden foudre, Residual sugar of 16.4 grams-per-liter (1.6% RS).     Straw color with good legs; off dry, medium light-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and scant phenolics.    Supple, ripe, rounded with ripe soft pear and ripe lime and lime peel fruit to go with a mineral freshness. Exactly what I am looking for in an Alsace Pinot Gris. Fine with fish, pork, or veal. Has enough residual sugar to be able to handle some spice (including a bit of curry or Asian spice) in a dish. BearScore: 91+.

FRANÇOIS LE SAINT Calcaire Sancerre, 2015 ($26.49)
Under the organic label from Domaine Fouassier (the largest landholder in Sancerre), this 100% Sauvignon Blanc grown in Calcaire soils. From the pneumatic press, the free-run juice is transferred by gravity to stainless steel tanks for an indiginous yeast fermentation. The Sancerre is briefly aged on fine lees to add complexity.     Green straw color with good legs; dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity and scant phenolics. Delicious supple ripe citrus and tree fruit Sancerre with a fine mineral character. Textured and dimensional with layers of flavor unusual in under $70.00 white wines. Hints at tropical. A great wine from a great vintage. BearScore: 95. (revised score – this may be the best under $40 white wine I have tasted in the last five years)

Domaine DUBOST, Beaujolais Villages, 2015   ($14.99)
100% Gamay from 40 year old vines on rolling slopes of sand, limestone, and granite over a sandstone shelf in the heart of the Villages appellation between Beaujeu and Villie Morgon. Biodynamic and cropped at 36 hl/hc, handpicked grapes. Whole grape fermentation in concrete and steel tanks, 6-8 day at 20-25°, pressing and first racking, completion of alcoholic fermentation at 25° with daily pumping over for 20 minutes each day. Malolactic fermentation at 20°, racked and then raised undisturbed in concrete and steel tanks through the winter at 15°. No fining, light filtration.     Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity and medium phenolics. Fresh, juicy, ripe, dark red fruit and a lot of it. Some earth and a bit more spice. Delicious ripe drink of reference standard Beaujolais. YUM. BearScore: 92. (revised score)

Chateau de SAINT AMOUR, Saint Armour – Beaujolais Cru, 2015   ($18.89)
100% Gamay from 20-year-old-vines grown in south-facing vineyards fermented using a semi-carbonic technique and aged in tank (no oak).     Red-purple color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Utterly delicious, supple. Fresh, almost crunchy red and darker red fruit and spice with a subtle mineral earth. Has a lovely sweetness of fruit. Pure and complete. WOW. BearScore: 94. (revised score)

At some point, things will get back to normal and I’ll resume my routines but for now I am feeling blessed  – and enjoying drinking some different wines.

Geek Speak: FARMING PHILOSOPHIES

When I talk about fine wine, the first two considerations are Person and Place. Person refers to the living Motive Force that drives the quality of a wine or wines. That person may be an owner or and estate manger or a winemaker but whoever it is has, within the context of the property in question, the power to effect quality in positive fashion. They are the decision maker behind the wine. Place refers to the specific vineyard or vineyards where the gapes are grown. The Person can have a great deal to do with the Place. The Person choses to farm in the Place, chooses how to farm, and chooses how to make the wines.

IN THE VINEYARD
Those Farming choices (a sort of philosophy of farming) range from chemical-driven commercial agriculture through sustainable farming to organic farming and on to biodynamic farming.

Commercial farming is farming with a lot of chemical inputs in the form of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers, often with a big dose of irrigation. Practitioners say commercial farming gives them the most control and I suppose they’re right. the problem is that there is little if any microbial or beneficial insect or other life left in the vineyard with all that control so the soil is dead and the vine needs the fertilizers in order to grow.

Sustainable Farming means farming in such a way that the land is nourished and not poisoned. Sustainable grape farming often means using organic methods, fertilizers, and solutions wherever feasible but allowing non-poisoning chemical treatments (that nevertheless disqualify the farm as “organic”) when they are necessary. The idea of sustainable farming is to keep nutrients in the soil and pollutants out of the soil and plants while still maintaining an economically viable crop.

Organic Farming excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and plant growth regulators. As far as possible organic farmers rely on crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures, and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and tilling, hoeing, and plowing to supply plant nutrients, push down roots, and control weeds. Insect and spider control is accomplished by using sexual confusers, facilitating predator insects, and building bat boxes to encourage bat populations. Birds and rodents can be controlled by encouraging predators (owls, hawks, and even barn cats) to take up residence near and hunt in the vineyards. Some wineries keep cats to hunt gophers and install raptor perches so hawks that hunt grape eating birds and rats will have a vantage point from which to hunt. International organic farming organization IFOAM states “The role of organic agriculture, whether in farming, processing, distribution, or consumption, is to sustain and enhance the health of ecosystems and organisms from the smallest in the soil to human beings.”

Biodynamic Farming is an ecological and sustainable farming system, that includes the principles of organic farming. It is based on eight lectures given by Rudolf Steiner shortly before his death in 1925. Steiner believed that the introduction of chemical farming was a major problem and was convinced that the quality of food in his time was degraded. He believed the source of the problem were artificial fertilizers and pesticides, however he did not believe this was only because of the chemical or biological properties relating to the substances involved, but also due to spiritual shortcomings in the chemical approach to farming. Steiner considered the world and everything in it as simultaneously spiritual and material in nature and that living matter was different from dead matter.

While all the elements of organic farming are present, biodynamy further specifies homeopathic treatments and a timetable dictated by celestial (mainly moon and planet) events. Biodynamic Farming is seen by many as organic farming taken to a the next level. Most scientists say that the preparations used in biodynamy are too dilute to have an effect. Nevertheless, biodynamic grape growing often produces fruit of fantastic quality and that fruit is often made into fantastic wines. My original thinking on biodynamic farming was that the bump in quality came because adherents of biodynamic practice often spend more time in the vineyard than other farmers. That would validate the old French saying that “The best thing for a vine is the sound of the vigneron’s (vine-grower’s) voice.” I now know that there is a whole lot more to it.

Organic and biodynamic farming encourage the presence of a robust microbial (yeasts, bacteria, fungi, etc.) population in the vineyard. These microbes are in the soil and on the vines and even on the surrounding flora in the vineyard. This is not new. What is new is that we now understand that this complex inter-related microbial population is the mechanism that brings terroir (specificity of place) into the wine. Each vineyard has its own specificity and that uniqueness is expressed in its microbial population. All the aspects of terroir are important but the microbes are the way they get into and are expressed by the wine.

IN THE CELLAR
When it comes to wine, “organic” come in various shades or degrees. While organic farming usually produces excellent grapes, organic winemaking often produces pretty lame wines. There is some specialized lingo here. Here’s the scoop on Organic Wine vs. Organically Grown.

Organic Wine is wine made using organic methods from organically grown grapes. Organic winemaking precludes the use of sulfur in the winemaking, cellaring, and bottling processes. Because sulfur is not used, organic wines may be sought after by those suffering from sulfite allergies. For most others, organic wines are to be avoided due to their inherent flavors of oxidation and spoilage.

Sulfur, SO2 – Sulfur in the form of SO2 (sulfur-dioxide) is widely used in winemaking both as an anti-oxidant and as an anti-microbial agent. It is virtually impossible to make “clean” wines without sulfur. Judicious use of SO2 helps keep wines fresh tasting and stops the microbiological spoilage that can give many so-called organic wines off putting (often dirt, sometimes fecal, occasionally chemical) aromas. Wine made using sulfur may not be labeled “organic”.

Sulfur may be used at different places in the process. While many commercial wineries dose the incoming grapes with sulfur dioxide to kill off anything microbial coming in from the vineyard, Fine Wine producers not only don’t do that, they encourage those microbial populations to transition in to the winery and encourage microbes indigenous to the winery as well. Those indigenous winery microbes are the mechanism by which the character of the winery get in to the wine. So there are actually two terroirs present in a properly made wine: the terroir of the vineyard and the terroir of the winery.

Organically Grown on a wine label means just that; the grapes were grown using organic farming methods but the winemaking was not organic – at least in that sulfur was used. Organically Grown incorporates the best of both worlds: great farming and clean wine making. Much of the best grape farming done today incorporates as much organic and even biodynamic principle as possible. Many wineries are leaning that direction and they seem to be divided into three camps: Sustainable Farming, Organic Farming, Biodynamic Farming. Some practice but never enter the certification process, some certify at on level but practice at the next rung up. Quintessa is certified as biodynamic while Opus One farms using biodynamic principles but apparently has no plan to get certified as biodynamic.

The more organic or biodynamic the farmer works, the better the fruit will be (all other things being equal) and the better the health of the soil. Better fruit and healthier microbes give the best raw materials to make fine fine.  Responsible winemaking with sulfur dioxide added until after malo-lactic fermentations are complete allows both terroirs to translate into the finished wine while stopping spoilage and oxidation.

 

BEAR on BORDEAUX 2016 (Part One)

2016 is another great Bordeaux vintage. True words. But what kind of great vintage? Greater than 1985 or 1990? Greater than 1995? 2005? Yes to all. Greater than 2009 and 2010? Harder here but but still yes. Greater than 2015? Not sure there yet. How can that be? Read on for answers.

Ch. Haut Brion

Overview of Another Great Vintage
2014-2015-and-2016 follow the same pattern as 2008-2009-and-2010 and 1988-1989-and-1990 before that. Not quite good-better-best but more like fine-excellent-excellent. There is some debate as to whether 1989 or 1990 is better as there is some debate as to whether 2009 or 2010 was better. There will be debate as to whether 2016 is better than 2015. While opinion seems to lean toward the latest vintage in all cases, the real answer is that they are all great vintages and your preference will depend on the style of wine you prefer and which chateau’s wine you’re tasting. (The caution in all three cases is to not forget about 1988, 2008, and 2014, all of which offered lovely wines at prices well below those charged for the most sought after vintages.

So what happened in 2016? Put simply, the vintage started wet and got dry. Just when it looked like it might be too dry, some September rains freshened things up. When I was in Bordeaux in March and April of 2016, it was wet and even in the Medoc a bit muddy. And mud on my western boots is not a common thing in Bordeaux. May and June continued wet except for a window of better weather around flowering. July and August had virtually no rain which was at first a relief and then a worry as it got too dry. Some of the younger vines were not able to get enough water due to less developed root systems and some of lesser terroirs just didin’t hold enough water. Some very welcome rain came September 13th which was enough to freshen up the established vines on the better terroirs but was sometimes too-little-too-late for the younger vines and lesser terroir.

The result? If a chateau had established vines on the better terroirs, 2016 gave them ripeness and developed phenolics with refreshing acidity – which is to say that they got the raw materials for a great vintage. It was then up to each chateau to harvest at the right times and avoid messing up the process in the winery. More often than not, they succeeded – which is why 2016 is a great vintage.

READ MORE

SIPPING DIFFERENT

SIPPING DIFFERENT

Summer is here and it’s getting (gotten?) hot. If you’re at all like me, your pace has slowed a bit, you’re eating some different (lighter) foods, and maybe thinking about drinking some different (cooler and more refreshing) drinks. Now, about the only spirits I drink any more are cool refreshing Margaritas (and that’s a year-round thing) so my different drinks for summer are all wine – or at least wine-based. Yes, I drink different wines during the summer: No oak whites, some with a little residual sugar, Rosés (but we have a dedicated Rosé class coming soon),  lighter, more chill-able reds, and the occasional wine concoction. So on Monday, June 26th at 7pm, please join me (Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton) at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française for SIPPING DIFFERENT. We’ll discuss and taste through fifteen summer sippers (all wines I love) that cover the gamut from wine concoctions to chill-able reds. Come cool. Be cool. Get cool. Sip Different

The line up:
Green Sangria (Bear’s Award Winning Recipe)
Carpano Bianco Vermouth
Lillet Blanc
l’Herre Gros Manseng, Cotes Gascogne, 2016
Losen Bockstanz Wittlicher Lay Riesling Kabinett 2015
Paternina Verdejo, Rueda, 2014
Frey Sohler Pinot Gris Rittersberg, Alsace, 2015
François le Saint Sancerre Calcaire, 2015
François le Saint Sancerre Rosé, 2016
Duboeuf Ch. de St. Amour, St. Amour (Cru Beaujolais), 2015
Chamisal Pinot Noir Stainless, Edna Valley, 2014
François le Saint Sancerre Rouge, 2013
Casa Gran Siurana Gr-174, Priorat, 2015
Besserat Bellefon Brut Rosé, Champagne, NV
Quady Elysium Black Muscat, California, 2013

Sipping Different will cost $50.00 per person (Cash or Check) or $52.63 regular. The class will meet at 7pm on Monday, June 26, 2017 at l’Alliance Française. To purchase your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or coburnsusan2@gmail.com.

L’Alliance Française is the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).

If you buy a ticket and will not be able to attend, please cancel at least 24 hours before the class or you may be charged. Later cancellations will not be charged if we can fill the seat. This is often case as we regularly have waiting lists for these classes.

With almost 40 years experience in the wine business and 30-plus years experience teaching about wine, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton is one of the top wine authorities as well as the most experienced wine educator in Texas.

BLOGGING BORDEAUX: Day Five (04/02/16)

SEEING IT FRESH
It’s nice to have company when I travel. When I visit a place – such as Bordeaux – that I visit often, it’s particularly nice to have someone with me who’s never been there before. On this trip, I’m traveling with three Spec’s wine guys – Richard Malphrus, Robert Boyd, and James Barlow – who are all well-traveled and experienced and have good-book-and-tasting-knowledge of Bordeaux but have never been here before. Why is that good? Other than the fact that they are good company and are getting invaluable boots-on-the-ground experience, having them along helps me see it fresh through their eyes. And that keeps me from taking what I am seeing-doing-and-tasting for granted. I pay attention not just to the places and people and wines but to how these three accomplished wine professionals react and respond to those same things.

MAKING SAUSAGE
Much of this trip is about evaluating the 2015s and some is about finding fine mature wines to sell. Both of those parts are what everyone imagines and wishes they could be part of. And trust me, in that regard, the guys I’m traveling with are living the dream. But some of it is about basic Bordeaux business and some of that is about as glamorous as watching sausage making. It has to be done and the results are worth the effort but much of the time the people engaged would rather be doing something else. While there’s probably not a lot of wine geek consumer interest in reading about a good (but not great) sub-$10 Bordeaux rouge (such as Ch. La Maroutine) or Entre Deux Mers (such as Ch. Nicot Blanc), those wines still have to be tasted and evaluated and prices have to be negotiated. It helps to have a lot of experience but it also helps to have those fresh eyes mentioned above.

TIME MANAGEMENT
I’d like to be posting every day while I am here in Bordeaux but the fact is we leave the hotel early and get back late. For the last two nights, getting some sleep was more important than a blog post. Nevertheless, Thursday, Friday and today (Saturday) saw us tasting some fabulous wines at price points ranging from $12 to potentially over $500. Still this not a sprint so much as an ironman; there’s another week to go and sleep is essential. So I’ll post when I can and sleep when I have to.

TASTING NOTES
I take notes on almost all the wines we taste on a trip like this. An acquaintance in Bordeaux (who is a bit of a dirty old man) once told me that “Tasting wine is like kissing girls. You remember the best and you remember the worst and for the rest you need a diary.” He went on to allow that most girls kiss differently each time you kiss ‘em.

He had two points and both, however expressed, are valid. 1) Without detailed tasting notes, even great wines can begin to run together … but there are wines that – for reasons both good and bad – transcend the need for a note. On the plus side, first sips of both 1996 Ch. Margaux and 1999 Ch. Latour come readily to mind. And 2) Tasting notes are only an instantaneous snap shot of a wine right in the moment when you’re tasting it. You freezing that moment in a note – like shooting a photograph – does not lock the living, evolving wine into that moment. The wine will change so some of the sensory perception information in a tasting note is going out of date the moment the note is completed.

Whenever possible, I taste wines multiple times to get a more complete impression. But even on wines that I only taste once on a given trip, I have – over an-almost-forty-year-career tasting Bordeaux and twenty years of coming to Bordeaux to taste – a frame of reference of tasting wines from the same property(s) in other vintages or at the least tasting lots of similar wines.

For me, tasting notes are most valuable when there is some technical data included and are best used as an indicator of overall quality (that’s where the score comes in) rather than as a passport photo for strict identification purposes (Is that really you?).

2015: A VERY INTITIAL GENERAL IMPRESSION
Out of over the 300 wines I have tasted so far on this trip, the seventy-seven 2015s have given me enough of a sample size to begin to form some impressions.

Which is a bold statement because there are over 8,000 chateaux producing wine in Bordeaux. These wines range from the cheapest (say 4 euros-a-bottle in a French super-market) to the most expensive (including some that may sell for thousands of dollars per bottle). Of those 8,000 chateaux, fewer than 1,000 have much chance of doing any meaningful business in the US. If you gave me enough time (and an incentive to do it), I might could name as many as 700 chateaux and a good number of those would be properties I regularly drive past but gave up on tasting years ago. At this point when I taste a new vintage, I’m actually looking at a selection of no more than 400 wines (some tasted two or three times) out of the 8,000 or so possibles – and some of that is for informational purposes only. Ultimately, Spec’s will likely buy somewhere around 200 different Bordeaux wines from the 2015 vintage with maybe 100 to 125 wines being glamorous names and the others being fine serviceable value wines that actually make up most of the unit sales volume of the Bordeaux category. But I digress. Actually, I digress rather a lot but … there I go again.

So my so-far-so-good impression of the 2015 Bordeaux vintage (based on a sample size of 77 wines out of a likely to be tasted 400 or so wines) is this:
2015 as a vintage offers charming, easy-to-like wines of balance and some elegance with forward fruit and plenty of freshness. The fruit character (on both sides of the river) tends to red and dark red and darker red fruit with – at least so far – almost no black fruit. Place (terroir) seems to be part of the equation here maybe more than it has been in some recent great vintages (such as 2009 and 2010). So is 2015 a great vintage? My trusted friends in Bordeaux say so and my still limited sample has shown me nothing as yet to make me think otherwise. Some are saying the vintage is a bit better on the right bank than the left but, at least in the wines I’ve tasted so far, I haven’t seen that. For me, the quality is pretty even across both the Merlot-dominant and Cabernet-dominant wines. I have heard Bordeaux professionals describe the vintage as a cross of 2009 and 2010 with the charm of the former and some of the structure of the latter – but I am not yet ready to argue for or against that assessment. Of course, it can be argued that, at whatever price point, the wines I’m tasting are the best of the best – and I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

SO WHAT’S THE BEST 2015 I’VE TASTED SO FAR?
That’s easy. The 2015 Ch. Lafite Rothschild is not only the best 2015 I’ve tasted so far, it is also the best young Ch. Lafite I have ever tasted.

Ch. LAFITE ROTHSCHILD, Pauillac, 2015
A blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Merlot fermented using pumpovers and aged in 100% new French oak barrels.   Red-purple colored with well formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. The tobacco leaf is there and so is the beginnings of the pencil shavings along with a note of black tea leaf. Dark and darker red fruit with spice and some black pepper. Dusty gravel. Elegance personified and quite ethereal. Has the expected Lafite weightlessness. BearScore: 98-100.

Other 2015s That Have Made Big Impressions*:

MyHatAtGrandCorbinDespagne.jpg

My hat at Ch. Grand Corbin Despagne

Ch. Latour, Pauillac
Les Forts de Latour, Pauillac
Ch. Rieussec, Sauternes
Ch. Canon La Gaffeliere, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé
Ch. Grand Corbin Despagne, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé
Ch. la Croix St. Georges, Pomerol
Ch. La Pointe, Pomerol
Ch. Gruaud Larose, St. Julien
Ch. Beychevelle, St. Julien
Ch. Leoville Barton, St. Julien
Ch. d’Issan, Margaux
Ch. d’Aiguilhe, Castillon – Cotes de Bordeaux
Ch. Clos Marsalette, Pessac Leognan Blanc
*These are not necessarily the highest scores but they did make the biggest impressions.

Best 2015 Values Tasted So Far
Ch. Laplagnotte Bellevue, St. Emilion Grand Cru
Ch. Vieux Clos St. Emilion, St. Emilion
Vieux Ch. Saint Andre, Montagne St. Emilion
Les Brullieres de Beychevelle, Haut Medoc
Ch. Tour Salvet, Haut Medoc
Ch. Truquet, St. Emilion

BIGGEST 2015 SURPRISE
I wasn’t expecting to taste any Rosé on this trip (drink maybe but not taste) so that was surprise number one. Surprise number two is that, while I liked the 2014 iteration of this wine, I didn’t love it. I do love this 2015 Bordeaux Rosé.

PINS de DUNES, Bordeaux Rosé, 2015
Formerly called “Pins de Pyla,” this is a blend of 1/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, 1/3 Merlot, and  1/3 Cabernet Franc made using direct pressing (no saignee) and aged only in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks.   Pale-pink-rose in color with good legs; dry, light-bodied with fresh, refreshing acidity and scant phenolics. Bubble-gum-dust and Jolly Rancher melon, strawberry, and citrus. Although all that fruit leaves a sweet impression, the vivid acidity and beam of mineral keep it dry, clean, and super refreshing. Delicious. BearScore: 92+.

So, just out of curiosity: when was the last time you read a blog post that mentioned both Ch. Lafite Rothschild and a simple Bordeaux Rosé? Maybe not in the same breath but at least in the same post.

More soon.

AtWorkInBordeaux

Bear at work in the tasting room at Compagnie Medocaine

Punching and Pumping in Burgundy

When I travel to winegrowing regions, I taste a lot of wines – often 60-100 or more a day – and I ask a lot of questions. If you’re not going to do both, why travel? Sometimes the wines surprise me and sometimes the answers surprise me. I always learn something new. On my most recent trip to Burgundy, I learned a lot.

I’ve been going to Burgundy pretty regularly now for over 18 years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about the winemaking but long before I ever visited Burgundy, I knew that Burgundian red winemaking meant fermenting Pinot Noir grapes in open-top fermenters and managing the cap using pigeage or “punch downs.” That’s what I had been taught, that’s what all the books said, that’s what I expected to see, and – when I got there – that is in fact what I saw. Open-top fermentation tanks with the apparatus necessary to punch down through the “cap” of skins that forms on the top of the juice. No surprise there.

Why is this necessary? To understand, we need to start at the beginning or at least the beginning in Burgundy. By the time winemaking made it to Burgundy, people knew how to make wine.

Naked Pipeage from "Naked Winemaking" at PalatePress.com

Naked Pipeage from “Naked Winemaking” at PalatePress.com

The whole bunches (whole clusters) of grapes were brought into the vat room and dumped directly into the vat. While the weight of those clusters on top broke some of the grapes on the bottom which released some juice, there wasn’t much juice in the vat. So someone had to get in the tank and move around to break up the grapes and release juice. Think the famous grape stomping scene from I Love Lucy. Only naked. And up to your chest. (There is a story that, as recently as ten years ago, a certain Vosne Romanee producer had the gymnastics teacher from a local school come work out in his tanks, but I digress.)

Pigeage plate

Pigeage plate

Once enough juice is released, the indigenous yeast from both the vineyard and the winery start the fermentation. The fermentation produces both heat and carbon dioxide. The heat helps break down more grapes and release more juice further fueling the fermentation. And the carbon dioxide makes it a bad idea to get back in the tank as you wouldn’t be able to breath. So from the start of fermentation on, the grapes were manipulated by pushing down through the cap with either a plate-on-the-end-of-a-pole or a sort of four-pronged-square-fork-on-the-end-of-a-pole. As carbon dioxide is heavier than air, it tended to stay on the surface of the fermenting juice so someone standing on top of the tank punching down with a long pole was OK. Not that anyone knew what yeast or carbon dioxide was. They were doing what experience had taught them. Once the juice was mostly released, it was run off and finished fermenting without the skins. Vatting times were generally short (no more than three days) and the resulting wines were light red in color and fairly light bodied.

Pigeage fork

Pigeage fork

As time passed, vatting times increased and the wines got (somewhat) darker and (a bit) richer. It turned out that there was a lot of color and flavor in the skins. It also turned out that there was a lot of bitterness in the stems. As time passed, some winemakers began removing the grapes from the clusters and just putting only the grapes (without any stems) in the vat. The grapes gave up their juice more readily as the network of stems did not provide structure to keep the grapes from getting crushed. Pigeage (punching down) was still the order of the day.

Longer vatting times put a higher priority on managing the cap. Left to itself, a tank of fermenting grape juice and skins will separate into the juice below and the cap floating on top. And the cap is further pushed up by trapped carbon dioxide release by the fermenting juice. Since there is flavor and color in the skins, the wine maker wants the skins in contact (as in mixed in) with the juice so that flavor and color can be extracted. So someone had to stand on top of the tank and, using a punch down pole, poke through the cap down into the fermenting wine. This both pushed grape skins (and pulp and trapped seeds) down into the wine and allowed wine to come up into the hole created and seep from there into the cap. In each vat,  several holes were punched through the cap once or twice a day depending on how active the fermentation was for 5-7 days. The other reason to punch down (or otherwise keep the cap wet) is that spoilage organisms can colonize if the cap is allowed to dry out.

Fast forward to modern times. The red Pinot Noir grapes of Burgundy are generally brought into the winery and run through a crusher/de-stemmer. Some producers both de-stem and crush the grapes. Some producers only de-stem so as to get whole berries into the tank and some add some whole clusters (anywhere from 10% to over 50%) to the tank. Some producers use all whole clusters.

Most Burgundian winemakers use a cold pre-fermentation maceration or “cold soak” before allowing the fermentation to start. The cold soak allows an aqueous (water-based) extraction to draw out color and flavor before alcohol is formed. Alcohol extracts tannins which are not soluble in water so tannin extraction doesn’t start until after the actual fermentation gets going and produces alcohol.

To cold soak, the winemaker either chills the tank down using the tank’s temperature control or (old school) adds dry ice. The goal is to get the temperature in the tank to below 12°C. The grapes are kept like this, macerating in their own juice for from three to as many as ten days. During this cold soak, the cap forms and must be managed. The options are to punch down or pump over. Punching down (pigeage) breaks open or crushes more grapes and releases more juice. Pumping over (remontage) takes the juice from the bottom of the tank and sprays it over the top to filter back down through the cap. The advantage to pumping over is that it is gentler. The disadvantage is that pumping over can introduce extra oxygen to the wine – and Pinot Noir tends to be oxidative so too much oxygen can be a real problem.

Conventional wisdom says that Pinot Noir producers punch down and because Pinot Noir is less extracted than say, Cabernet Sauvignon (which is usually made with pump-overs), that punching down is the gentler process. Both statements are less than fully true.

Starting with the second premise, standard plate-on-pole (or now more often plate-on-the-end-of-a-hydraulic-ram) punching down is actually a more aggressive extractive technique as the plate breaks, tears, and crushes the skins which allows more extraction of flavor and color. Pumping over is more gentle as only the juice is moved and no metal comes into contact with the grape skins.

The idea that most Burgundian Pinot Noir producers are using only punch downs as an extractive technique is more challenging. Just looking around certainly makes it seem that way. Most Burgundian wineries have lots of open top tanks whether wood, concrete, or stainless steel (or even plastic or fiberglass). And many have rails mounted on the ceiling above the tanks from which hangs a hydraulic ram with a punch-down plate at the bottom that can slide into position over each tank to make the punch downs.

But when you start talking to wine makers and asking detailed questions, another view emerges. Most of the best winemakers I saw on this trip say they are doing at least as much pumping over as punching down and some say they have virtually abandoned pigeage. Maybe they are pumping over in the cold soak, doing a little pigeage as the fermentation starts and then finishing with pump-overs. Some winemakers say there are a few days where they will do one pump-over and one pigeage. And some winemakers showed me a sort of four-pronged fork with which they were doing their pigeage rather than using the plate-at-the-end-of-the-pole. They say the fork is gentler and tears the grapes less but they are still pumping over as well.

The only winemakers that almost have to do at least some pigeage are those that are using all whole cluster as there is initially very little juice in the bottom of the tank. Until enough grapes break open to release enough juice to pump over, pigeage is necessary. Once there is enough released juice, they can (and many do) switch to pumping over.

And then there are the wineries, mostly newer, where there are no open tops or pigeage equipment. The first of these I noticed was several years ago when I visited Vincent Girardin on the east side of Meursault. On my most recent visit to Burgundy, I noticed that the Vignerons de Buxy co-op in Montagny had no open-tops and they acknowledged that all the wines are made with remontage (pumping over). The wines were clean and fresh and showed no oxidative problems so apparently they have it figured out. In visiting a number of other wineries they told me they were using the same sort of closed tanks (which I had incorrectly assumed were just for blending or white wine making) to vinify red wines. Who knew?

If Burgundy is so good – and (at least at the top of the quality pecking order where I work) it is – why change? There are several reasons. Grapes are riper. Winemakers now better understand aqueous (water) extraction versus alcoholic extraction. They better understand what happens with seeds during fermentation. They better understand what happens with stems during fermentation. They better understand both sugar ripeness and phenolic (stems, seeds, and skins) ripeness. The younger wave of winemakers has more education. All the better winemakers have more tools at their disposal. Newer better pumps make pump-overs gentler and less oxidative.

The conventional wisdom that the best Pinot Noirs from Burgundy are made using only punch-downs is incorrect. At this point, it is safe to say that most of the best properties are using both techniques (pigeage and remontage) on the same wine but it seems that there is (currently) as much or more pumping as punching going on.

Myth Busters would be proud.

Thinking About Thanksgiving

Several people have called to ask about my Thanksgiving Wine Picks and “Can you send me those recipes?” and “How do you …?”

Thanksgiving is America’s feast day. We’ve all participated in it but we only do it (this particular sort of feast) once a year so there can be pressure and confusion. So here’s the whole Thanksgiving Food and Wine deal. Please click on the links below. Enjoy your friends and family. Enjoy your food and your wine. Enjoy the time before and after. And don’t forget to give thanks.

Click here for my Thanksgiving Page. Or click on the links below to go directly to those topics.

Thanksgiving Wine Picks for 2014
My picks for before, for the meal, for dessert, and for later

Tweaking the Turkey: Pairing the Thanksgiving Feast with Fine Wine
Here’s what I do for the Thanksgiving meal with recipes for the bird and sides and more and a section on how to tweak the turkey to go with specific wines.

My Thanksgiving Time Line

My Thanksgiving Blessing

Wishing you and yours a healthy, happy, safe, and delicious Thanksgiving holiday.