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.

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.

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.




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

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)

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.

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.

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.

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?).

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.

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*:


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

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.


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

Naked Pipeage from “Naked Winemaking” at

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.

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 …

Parsing Chardonnay

I don’t like Chardonnay.” she said.
So you don’t want any of this Puligny Montrachet les Folatieres?” he replied.
Of course I do … but that’s White Burgundy.”
Which is Chardonnay.”
So why do I like White Burgundy but not Chardonnay?”
That’s a good question . . .

If you’ve ever asked that question, if you’ve ever wondered why wines taste the way they do, the answer is that it is because of where they’re from (place) – and where they were made, what they’re made from (grapes), how they’re made (technique, tradition, and even law), who made them (person – which, in fact, has a lot to do with how), and when they were made (vintage). So Chardonnay from Chablis will taste different than Chardonnay from Puligny and Chardonnay from Puligny will taste different than Chardonnay from Carneros – which will taste different than Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.

If you have a good knowledge about wine and you taste a Chardonnay, you may (or may not) be able to come to some conclusions about the where, the what, the how, and more. And, if you know the technical information about (the where and what and how, etc.) a particular wine, you may be able to (maybe should be able to) predict what the wine will taste like. That’s why we (the “collective we” of all of us wine geeks) go to the trouble to taste a lot of wine and learn about wine: we want to be able to more accurately pick wines we will enjoy drinking.

Just so you know: In the US, more people drink Chardonnay than any other kind of wine. Over 19% of all the wine purchased from Spec’s says “Chardonnay” on the label – and that doesn’t include any of the French Chardonnays labeled with place names like Puligny Montrachet or Pouilly Fuisse, Meursault or Macon, Chassagne or Chablis. This, even though many if not most people who are professionals in the wine business or who write about wine drink little if any wine labeled Chardonnay. Oddly enough, as they drink so little Chardonnay, many if not most of these professionals are not qualified to recommend Chardonnay. Many are not even comfortable talking about Chardonnay.

If we’re going to look at Chardonnay, lets start with “What.” Chardonnay is a green skinned grape yielding clear juice, likely native to France’ Burgundy region, used to make white wine. A crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc (an almost extinct white variety that has served as a parent to several better known varieties), Chardonnay is the second most planted white wine variety and may soon pass Airen (grown only in Spain and used mostly to make brandy) to take the number one spot. Chardonnay is planted in more wine producing regions around the world than any other variety. While it is a fairly neutral variety that shows the influence of place and technique, there are some Chardonnay fruit characteristics. In the coolest climates, Chardonnay can offer a lemony citrus component along with green tree fruit (apple and pear) and green banana. In more moderate climates, more ripeness can bring a broader range of citrus with riper tree fruit, occasionally some stone fruit (peach is possible) and even some melon and other tropical notes. In the warmest areas where Chardonnay is grown, the fruit can get into the pineapple, mango, and ripe banana range without necessarily loosing all of its citrus freshness. One of the telltales for Chardonnay is a nuance of banana fruit anywhere on the scale from green to over-ripe. Maybe it easier to define in the negative: All other things being equal, Chardonnay is less grassy than Sauvignon Blanc, less juicy than Riesling, less fat than Viognier, less fresh than Pinot Gris (Grigio), etc.

Moving to where, if Chardonnay is cropped at reasonable yield levels (say from under 2 to 4 tons per acre) in a balanced vineyard (one where yields are in balance with the vigor of the vines and the soil), Chardonnay will reflect the character of the place as much as any other white wine producing grape. If the yields are too low, Chardonnay can lose its place by becoming overly extracted and even gritty tasting. If yields are too high (some Australian vineyards have “achieved” from 12 to 20 or more tons per acre), place disappears into simplistic pineapple popsicle fruit. Which is not to say that all places are good places or that all or even most places even have a recognizable character. It’s just that if there is a distinctive mark of place to be found, good Chardonnay is most likely to show it.

As Chardonnay’s spiritual home is Burgundy, it seems clear that Chardonnay should grow well in chalky soils (Chablis, and coincidentally, Champagne) and on limestone (the Cote d’Or, Cote Chalonnaise, and Macon) – and it does. What is amazing is how well Chardonnay can do in other areas where the soils range from sedimentary to volcanic in origin or even on some of California’s (and Chile’s) granitic soils. Outside of Burgundy, “great” Chardonnay has come from Texas (clay over limestone), Carneros (marine sediments), New Zealand (especially Marlborough and Central Otago), and various parts of Australia (especially Margaret River). Each of these places can have a unique gout de terroir (smell of place) that can (in the best cases) mark the wine making “Where?” an answerable question.

As to how, if it is a white winemaking technique, it has been tried on Chardonnay. About the only thing that seems never to work is trying to make Chardonnay into a sweet dessert style wine. To oversimplify: If you start with 22.5% sugar, higher acidity grapes and ferment slowly in cool stainless steel tanks and block malo-lactic fermentation and minimize subsequent air contact with no barrel aging, you get a completely different result than if you start with 25% sugar, lower acidity grapes and barrel ferment (with, let’s say, at least one third new barrels) and age the wine with lees-stirring and full malo-lactic fermentation in those barrels for 12 or so months. The first sort (as made in Chablis) offers a steelier, more focused style with fresher and maybe leaner fruit and usually (at least in Chablis) a sort of chalky-limestone minerality. The second sort (as made in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley) is likely to offer riper but less intense or even ill-defined fruit flavors with lots of milky-buttery-creamy aromas, flavors, and textures accented by an almost sawdust oak component and a toasty (from the lees) richness. The first sort is all about the fruit and the place. The second sort is at least as much (and often more) about the winemaking (technique and style) and the stamp of the winemaker as it is about fruit or place, especially as both fruit and place can so easily be overwhelmed by technique (aka “winemaking load”).

Technical Considerations (The Vineyard)
Where to plant, rootstocks, genetic material (whether clones or a massal selection), row orientation, and even trellising systems are all early on decisions that can affect the wine for many vintages. Healthy vineyards are rarely replanted before they are 30 years old and often (in the best sites) not before they are 75 or more years old. Farming techniques such as sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, or even biodynamic farming also have a large effect but those effects are more immediate than which variety is planted.

When working the vines, are horses or tractors used? Horses are gentler and less compacting to the earth and often leave something beneficial behind. Tractors are faster and easier but they compact the ground and leave behind diesel fumes.
Picking date is a different “when” than “vintage.” Picking earlier gives more acid (and lower pH) and brighter fruit with potentially lower alcohol. Of course, picking too early leads to under ripe or even green flavors. Picking later brings lower total acidity and higher pH, more sugar (and so riper fruit flavors and higher potential alcohol) and other, not always positive, possibilities.

Technical Considerations (The Winery and Cellar)
How much sorting was done in the field and in the winery? (Sometimes too much sorting can lead to boring, homogenous wines.) Were the harvested grape clusters crushed and de-stemmed, just de-stemmed (whole berries), or left to go into the press as whole clusters. Was sulfur-dioxide used to kill any native yeast or other microbes from the vineyard before fermentation?

Was a basket, bladder, or screw press used? (Too clean juice is the current most popular villan in the effort to find the cause of “prem-ox” or premature oxidation in white Burgundy.) What “cut of the juice” was kept to be fermented into wine and what percentage was rejected as being too phenolic due to too much pressing? Was the pressing super-gentle resulting in light clear juice (again a prem-ox issue) or was there enough violence to it to put some solids from the pulp and skins into the juice. Was the juice run from the press straight into the fermenting vessels (whether tanks or barrels or even concrete eggs) or was it first run into a tank to settle and maybe even to oxidize before it was moved to the fermentation vessels.

Were those fermentation vessels temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or new fangled concrete eggs? If they were oak barrels, how big were they 225 liters (a standard barrel or barrique)? 300 liters (a puncheon)? 500 liters (also called a puncheon)? Or even 600 liters (demi-muids)? And what percentage of the barrels were new? The bigger the barrel, the less flavor it imparts. And the newer the barrels, the more flavor it imparts. If the wine was fermented in tanks, were oak chips or inner-staves added to layer in an oak nuance to a non-barrel-fermented wine. Wines made with no oak contact (from barrels or chips or inner-staves) are called un-oaked or un-wooded.
If oak was used, where did the wood for the barrels (or chips or stave) grow? Some forests have tighter grain and some looser which effects the density and porosity of the wood which effects both evaporation rates and how much flavor the wood imparts. How long was the wood allowed to air dry before coopering? Two years is standard, three years is better, four to five years is best. Longer air-drying means more of the harsher elements have been leeched from the wood and so the longer air dried staves impart a more subtle and somehow cleaner set of flavors. Which cooperage(s) made the barrels? Some coopers (barrel-makers) – such as François Freres – are known for heavier toasting or a distinctive style imparted by their barrels. In some cases it’s possible to discern the cooper in the finished wine.

Was naturally present yeast utilized for fermentation or were the tanks or barrels inoculated with a cultured yeast mix. Natural fermentations sometimes develop more flavors but they may stick (as in stop before all the sugar is fermented) or develop off aromas. Inoculated fermentations are safer and better controlled but sometimes may result in bland or “corporate” tasting wines. Which yeast are “naturally present” can have a lot to do with both where the grapes were grown and how they were farmed and with the location and conditions at the winery. Organic or biodynamic farming would seem to be more conducive to a healthy yeast population in the vineyard. Chemical intensive commercial farming might not. A modern steel and concrete winery with temperature and humidity controls that was designed to be clean and sterile may not develop or maintain a beneficial yeast population. An old gravel-floored, stone and wood building that is naturally cool and humid will develop a diverse population of natural flora including yeasts and malo-lactic bacteria – and a variety of molds. Because these sorts of cellars and their flora are unique, that older-style cellar can add a further sense of place to the wine.

After the alcoholic fermentation, was malo-lactic fermentation (often “ML” or sometimes “malo”) blocked, allowed, or encouraged? If blocked, how? A blocked malo can emphasize fruit but reduce complexity. If allowed, how long was the time gap between the end of alcoholic fermentation and the onset of ML? How long did the malo-lactic fermentation take? Were the wines sulfured and racked after malo finished? ML can add richness and complexity but too much malo-lactic character can hide the fruit and make a wine too rich (too buttery, too creamy, too milky) and even blousy. Was malo stopped before it completed? If so, how? A partial malo-lactic fermentation can give the best of both worlds in adding some richness while retaining some fruit flavors. If ML was encouraged, how – and how soon after the end of primary? Later malo-lactic fermentations tend to “set the fruit” better than earlier malls.

Were the lees stirred? If so, how vigorously and how often? Lees stirring can add richness but as with malo-lactic fermentation and new oak barrels, not all wines have enough fruit to handle that level of winemaking load.
How long was the wine left to age (in barrels or tanks) before assemblage? The longer it was in oak barrels, the more exposure it has had to air. That controlled oxidation makes it a bit darker and a bit richer but also a bit less fruity. To get one thing, you give up a bit of something else.

Was the wine fined and or filtered? Fining can help clarify the wine by removing proteins and other elements that can give it a haze so that it is bright in the bottle. Filtration can do the same thing as well as remove other detrimental elements such as Brettanomyces (a detrimental yeast that can lead to earthy, barnyardy, or even fecal smelling wines) but filtration has the potential to strip some flavor if used too aggressively.
Was the wine cold stabilized? Cold stabilization is the process of chilling the wine in tank before bottling to encourage it to precipitate its tartrates (tartaric acid) in the form of crystals in the tank before bottling. I don’t see where cold stabilization has any possible negative effects but some producers wont do it.

How was the wine bottled? Was it beat up on a high pressure, high speed bottling line or coaxed into the bottle by gravity flow, or somewhere in between.

Was it given more aging in the winery’s cellar after it was bottled?

Tasting can tell you (generally in broader strokes but sometimes in precise detail) the answers to many of these questions so in tasting wine you can often deduce a lot about how it was made. Knowing this sort of information about a wine (especially a Chardonnay) before you taste it allows you to predict how the wine will taste and the more you know, the more accurately you are likely to be (picking wine you like) in making your choices.

The Who of a wine becomes important because someone has to pick which grapes to use (what and where), when to pick, and how the wine will be made. That person’s education, experience, and personal preference is the focusing force that allows the wine to become what it is. Some winemakers are all about the place and others are determined to make the wine into what they want it to be.
It used to be that the more expensive the wine was, the more it tended to reflect the place. With the advent of superstar winemakers and big name consultants (Paul Hobbes, Helen Turley, etc.), a winemaking style may supersede place, which – if the place is very good – is often a shame. There has to be a guide or a shepherd to get the wine through the process and for better or worse, that person may leave his mark whether subtle or obvious.

Do you prefer more fruit and less “winemaking load?” Then you want a cooler climate, more focused Chardonnay fermented and aged in tank with blocked or maybe partial malo-lactic and little or no lees stirring. Or do you prefer a rich buttery-oaky-ripe style of Chardonnay layered with complexity and nuance? Then maybe you want a Chardonnay grown in a riper appellation (place) and fermented in mainly (or even all) new oak barrels with full malo-lactic and extended aging (10-14 months) with lees stirring in barrels – which can all be a lot of “winemaking load” so the quality of the fruit that is the starting point becomes paramount.

So let’s look at two wines that are made with essentially the same techniques: no sulfur at reception, whole clusters pressed with some solids making it into the juice, no settling, a naturally present yeast barrel fermentation (in high quality four-year air-dried, medium-low-toast French oak barrels from tight grain interior France forests made by top coopers) in a cool environment followed with some but not a lot of batonnage (lees stirring), a subsequent natural (un-inoculated) malo-lactic fermentation in those same barrels with sulfuring and racking after ML is complete, another 5-to-8 months in those same barrels before assemblage and bottling un-filtered and un-fined but with cold stabilization on a gravity fed-bottling line.

You might think these two wines have a lot in common – and they do – but let’s also look at the differences. One is made from biodynamically farmed Chardonnay grapes planted in clonal blocks and trellised with a double cordon using vertical shoot positioning (VSP) grown in sedimentary soils (southwest facing) in Carneros in California. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol of almost 15% and the wine was made in a modern “warehouse” (steel and concrete) winery with concrete floors and complete climate control.

The other was made from Chardonnay grapes organically grown in Puligny Montrachet on east-facing rocky limestone slopes planted to a massal selection (lots of genetic diversity) and trellised with a single cordon and minimal catch wires (but still essentially VSP) with minimal soil. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol content of 13.5% and the wine was made in an old stone-and-wood-cellar (under-ground in the cool natural rock) with gravel floors (to allow the humidity of the earth to keep the cellar damp which naturally slows evaporation) that has been used for winemaking for over 300 years.

Both wines are from the same fine vintage, let’s say 2009.

So how will the wines taste? Both will be excellent but there will be distinct differences.

Our Carneros Chardonnay will be fairly open and easy to evaluate and appreciate. The fruit profile will show riper citrus layered with tropical fruit. It will be riper, higher in alcohol, and a bit lower in acidity. The sense of place will be there and may manifest with a certain mushroom earthiness. There will be a lot of richness, a creamy texture, and a distinct carpenter-shop oak note. A chef might say the wine is “deconstructed” in that everything is there to see. The wine is of obvious high quality and it is certainly not “Cougar Juice.”

Our Puligny Montrachet is a bit less ripe (but not under-ripe) and so offers a more citrus and apple fruit profile. The sense of place comes through as a sort of limestone minerality (which combined with fruit profile, lower alcohol, and higher acidity might – hopefully – tell me in a blind tasting that this wine is from Burgundy. It is tightly integrated and, even though the wine was fermented in all new oak and went through full malo-lactic fermentation, neither technique is obvious. Maybe it needs decanting. Finally with a fair amount of swirling, it begins to open and show layers of slowly evolving flavor.

Both are excellent and give a high level of pleasure. One may be more of a muscular sports car and the other more of a refined sedan. In terms of longevity, I think the sports car is more fun to drive (initially at least) but will look dated while the sedan (which is still fun to drive) will age into a classic. I actually enjoy both and would be sad if I had to choose only one or the other.

What made these two wines made using essentially the same techniques so different? Place. The stamp of place in both cases was more important than all the winemaking and even the who.

What good is all of this to you? If you know what you like or what you are in the mood for, you can pick the perfect wine by picking the wine from the right place made using the right techniques to yield the combination of flavors, character, and textures you want. Parsing through the details (the Ws) helps you pick the right wine for you – and that is what wine education and wine tasting is all about.

The Six Ws of Wine

When I was learning to write, my teachers told us to answer “the six Ws:” Who, What, When, Where, Why and hoW. It was and is a good lesson. In writing about or even beginning to understand any particular wine, it is essential to consider those Ws. We’ll start with the first five in order of consideration. What, Who, Where, When and hoW. First, you have to know what you’re drinking. To begin to understand a wine you need to know who made it, where it was made, how it was made, and when it was made. This all seems pretty straight forward but there is a bit more to it.

Knowing what you’re drinking is the first step to understanding it but what does it mean to know what you are drinking? Is the wine red, white, pink, or sparkling? Is it old world or new? Is it Cabernet or Bordeaux (which may also be Cabernet)? Is it Chardonnay or white Burgundy (which is in fact Chardonany). If it is a red from Pauillac in Bordeaux, do you know enough about Pauillac to know what the dominant grape variety is? How about the soil type? How about the most likely winemaking techniques? “What” is important and the more you know about wine, the more the “what” tells you. “What” narrows the field and defines many of the other questions. Assuming you are not tasting blind and so know the basic information present on most wine labels, “what” gives the educated consumer a big head start on at least where, how, and when. Which brings us to who.

Who made the wine? Which is really to ask, “Who is the motive force behind the wine?” Is that person the owner or the winemaker or maybe a consultant or a top manager? At most California wineries, the winemaker (who may also be the owner) is the most important personality or at least the person with the most influence on style. In much of the old world, the winemaker is less important and it is the owner’s active hand that keeps the estate on course producing stylistically consistent wines. Anthony Barton at Ch. Leoville Barton has been a good example of the steady owner as motive force. Until very recently, Bart Araujo in Napa was another such owner example. As owners have become richer (or even corporate), the estate manager has become more important. While François Pinault owns Ch. Latour (along with Domaine de Eugenie in Burgundy, Ch. Grillet in the Rhone, and now Araujo in Napa Valley), his estate manager Frederic Engerer is the motive force behind the wines. (Mr. Pinault may be the motive force behind Mr. Engerer but that is more a discussion for a business school seminar than for a wine essay.)

Another trend in wine has lead to the rise of the consultants. Most top wineries in Bordeaux and many in much of the rest of the world are now using winemaking consultants. In the sense of exposing the winemaking team to outside ideas and keeping a current understanding of how a property fits into the rest of the world of wine, consultants are good thing. And when the consultant lets the wine’s personality (from place and motive force) continue, that is a good thing. But when a consultant so marks a wine that the taster can find the consultant in the wine, that can be a less than god thing. Nevertheless, there are a number of consultants who seem to put there stamp on the wine to the point that they become the “Who.” Names you often hear in this sense of consultant as motive force are (fairly or not) Michel Roland, Stephan Derenencourt, Helen Turley, and Paul Hobbes.

“Where” is really two questions. The obvious question is “Where were the grapes grown?” the other question is “Where was the wine made?” Both places have their influence on the finished wine. It is obvious that where the grapes are grown has a huge influence on how the wine will taste. That “where” can be in the larger sense as in which region or sub region (which in old world wines is more part of the “what” than the “where” because of the more geographic identification of wines as Bordeaux or Burgundy than Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir). Maybe more pertinently, “where” refers to the specific site or terroir where the grapes for this wine are grown. In both grape growing senses, where has the most power in determining what grapes are grown and what vineyard practices are used. If the “where” in question is a good influence and the “who” in question allows the “where” to speak, the place the grapes are grown will give the wine most of its character. The general place (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja, Rhiengau, etc.) will provide the outlines and the specific terroir will fill in the detils.

Where also comes into play in where the wine was made. Winery conditions vary. Some wineries are more technically advanced and other more low or no tech. Some wineries are pristinely clean and others have a more used agricultural look. All of this affects the wine. And how damp or dry, cool or cold a winery or cellar is both determines the flora (yeasts and molds) and other microbials (such as lacto bacillus) present and the evaporation rates during barrel aging. The cellar (winery) is the most underrated and under-discussed aspect of place in wine

Just how was the wine made? Does the producing area have defined or even codified tradition and practice? What is that tradition and practice? Was the process for this particular wine typical of the type or the area? If not, how was it different. Typical Bordeaux fermentation uses pump-overs for cap management and extraction of color and flavor from the grapes. Typical Burgundy fermentation uses punch-downs for cap management and extraction. But some Bordelaise are using punch-downs. And some Burgundians utilize pump-overs. And some of both are combining the two techniques in using both punch-downs and pump-overs on the same tanks (they sometimes refer to this as “punch-overs”). How long was the wine in tank? How large were the tanks? Were they temperature controlled? Were they concrete, wood or stainless? How long in barrels? What percentage of the barrels were new? Where was the wood grown? How long was it dried? How much was it toasted? Etc., etc., etc.

Again, multiple questions start with “when.” The obvious is “When were the grapes grown?” Which is to ask “What vintage?” But you can also ask: When were the grapes picked (actual harvest date(s))? When was the wine made? When was the wine put into barrel? When did malo-lactic fermentation start and end? When was the wine racked? When was it bottled? As “where” (assuming the tradition and practice of the place) may dictate much of the “how,” so also the “when” of the vintage may dictate the answers to many of the other “whens.”

Why should you care?
All of these factors, these Ws, have their affects both large and small on the finished wine. But what is all of this to you? Why (the final W) does this matter. The more and better answers you have to all of these questions, the more likely you are to learn more about the grapes, techniques, and places that yield the wines you like the best. And the more able you will be to consistently pick out wines you will enjoy – which is really the whole point of tasting and learning about (as opposed to just drinking) wine.

An Illustrative Story

One of my many quirks is that I have a great appreciation for Jewish humor. Courtesy of a link sent to me by a like-minded friend, I recently ran across this story and found it to be a great example of the process used in blind tasting to identify an unknown wine. I also hope it will set the stage for two of my coming-soon posts.

After months of negotiation, Avraham, a Jewish scholar from Odessa, was granted permission to visit Moscow. He boarded the train and sat down. At the next stop a young man got on and sat next to him. Avraham looked at the young man and thought …

This fellow doesn’t look like a peasant, and if he isn’t a peasant he probably comes from this area. If he comes from this area, he must be Jewish because this is, after all, a Jewish area. On the other hand, if he is a Jew, where could he be going? I’m the only one from our area to be allowed to travel to Moscow. Wait – just outside Moscow there is a little village called Samvet, and you don’t need special permission to go there. But why would he be going to Samvet? He’s probably going to visit one of the Jewish families there, but how many Jewish families are there in Samvet? Only two – the Bernsteins and the Steinbergs. The Bernsteins are a terrible family, so he must be visiting the Steinbergs. But why is he going? The Steinbergs have only girls, so maybe he’s their son-in-law. But if he is, then which daughter did he marry? Sarah married that nice lawyer from Budapest and Esther married a businessman from Zhadomir, so it must be Sarah’s husband. Which means that his name is Alexander Cohen, if I’m not mistaken. But if he comes from Budapest, with all the anti-Semitism they have there, he must have changed his name. What’s the Hungarian equivalent of Cohen? Kovacs. But if he changed his name he must have some special status. What could it be? A doctorate from the University.

At this point Avraham turned to the young man and said, “How do you do, Dr Kovacs?”
“Very well, thank you, sir” answered the startled passenger. “But how is it that you know my name?”
“Oh,” replied Avraham, “it was obvious”.