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

Bordeaux Refresh

Here it is the middle of summer. What could be more refreshing than Bordeaux? At first blush, maybe not. But if you look at this lineup featuring 2 Rosés, 6 dry whites, only 3 reds (but prettier reds), and 1 very fresh-style sweet white, you might realize that Bordeaux can refresh. So please join me, Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton at 7pm on Tuesday, July 18th at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française for BORDEAUX REFRESH: A Look at the Lighter Side of Bordeaux Wines. In this seminar tasting, we’ll look at lighter and more refreshing wines from around Bordeaux that offer quality and value. Topics of discussion will include vintages, the styles of Bordeaux, and the grape varieties and techniques used to make the wines. Bread and cheese will be served. The ticket price will be donated to the Houston Area Women’s Center.

The following twelve Bordeaux wines will be served:
Pins des Dunes Rosé Bordeaux 2016
Rosé de Chevalier Bordeaux 2016
Ch. Martinon Entre Deux Mers 2015
Ch. d’Archambeau Graves Blanc 2015
Ch. Puygueraud Blanc Cote de Francs 2015
Les Charmes Godard Blance Cotes De Franc 2015
Clos Marsalette Pessac Leognan Blanc 2014
Ch. Carbonnieux Pessac Leognan Blanc 2014
Ch. Haut Vigneau Pessac Leognan Rouge 2014
Ch. Laplagnotte Bellevue St. Emilion 2014
Ch. Pontac Lynch Margaux 2013
Lions de Suduiraut Sauternes 2013

To buy your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or coburnsusan2@gmail.com. The cost of this class is a $20 donation (cash or check only please) to the Houston Area Women’s Center.

About The Houston Area Women’s Center:
For over 35 years, the Houston Area Women’s Center has worked relentlessly to help survivors affected by domestic and sexual violence build lives free from the effects of violence. Given our humble beginnings – we started with nine active volunteers answering donated phones – we are proud at how we have grown. Today, we have 115 paid staff, a counseling and administrative building, a residential shelter for 120 women and children, a state-of-the-art hotline call center and over 1,000 active volunteers.

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.

Thinking about Tasting Wine

I am in Bordeaux tasting and tweeting (Bear’s Hat @BearDalton_Bear) and more and so am almost too busy to blog. But this came in

https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2017/04/wine-is-tasted-in-the-brain-not-mouth/

“The flavour of a wine is created by the brain of the taster rather than the wine itself according to Gordon Shepherd, a professor of neuroscience at Yale.”

on one of my news feeds today and it is too good to miss.

Check it out and follow me on Twitter for the vinous adventures of my now battle-scarred hat as I taste Bordeaux 2016.

 

BORDEAUX 2016: Day One

Starting the week off slow, I just had two appointments today with negoçiants Thibault Lacoste of Duclot and Jean Rouge (aka Austin Powers) of Barriere. Between the two, I tasted over 50 wines today. While 50 wines would not be an unusual number to taste on a normal day in my office, today pretty well kicked my butt because I am singing the jet lag blues. Tomorrow WILL be better. God Willing. Of those 50-plus wines (about 1/3 were 2016s), there were no dogs and a few where glorious.

Best Wine of the Day: Ch. Beychevelle St. Julien 2015 (95).

Best 2016 of the day: Ch. Beychevelle St. Julien 2016 (94).

Biggest Surprise of the Day (Tie):  Ch. Beaumont Haut Medoc 2016 (92 and hands down the best Beaumont I have ever tasted) AND Ch. Taillefer Pomerol 2016 (91+ to an elegant, balanced, red-fruit Pomerol that is a pleasure in the mouth).

Had lunch today at an excellent new Italian restaurant called Murano located just off the Boulevard in Bordeaux. It’s a hidden jewel with a beautiful setting including a fabulous courtyard for al fresco dining and (at least what we ordered) excellent food and friendly service. I will go back.

The rest of my crew (Posse? Bordeaux Posse?) arrives tomorrow about noon. We’ll get them started with visits to Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou and a few of the Borie-Manoux properties (Chx. Pontac Lynch, Batailley, Lynch Moussas, and Beau Site).

Here We Go Again

Here it is, the last week of March, and I am – predictably – back in Bordeaux for my 21st vintage in a row, this time to taste the already highly touted 2016s. Three of my Spec’s colleagues will soon join me on what should prove to be an often joyous tour while sometimes a bit of a scramble to taste as many of the good, better, and best 2016 wines Bordeaux has to offer, all while soaking up the place and the culture and interacting with the people, all three of which (people, place, and culture) make Bordeaux Bordeaux. As always, we will also be looking at bottled wines that are ready to purchase and I’ll share what we find there too. As I did last year, I’ll be blogging regularly as we experience Bordeaux. Follow along as we find out the style of the vintage and if the wines live up to the early hype. Personally, I’m not off to a great start. Air France (who I usually LOVE) didn’t get my checked-bag on my flight from Paris to Bordeaux so it was late and finally delivered to the hotel. Which is great except that someone got into it and stole my Kershaw knife, my corkscrew and and my Swiss Army pen knife. Things are improving: I just had my official first dinner in Bordeaux: a Plat du Mer, Soup de Poisson (Bordeaux Gumbo – Les Poissons, Les Poissons, How I love les Poissons … ), a big bottle of Badoit, and a bottle of 2016 Bordeaux Clairet. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your livers.

Seeing Through Propaganda

A highly intelligent friend of mine who has had a long career in the wine business in Texas sent me (and apparently a large number of “undisclosed recipients”) the following by email. I was at first surprised and then appalled and then driven to respond.

The Pitiful Selection of Wines Distributed in Texas

March 8th, 2017. Filed under State LegislationThree Tier System.

Perhaps the primary reason consumers benefit by access to out-of-state products is that the traditional three-tier system that puts products on the shelves in most states is terrible at providing consumers with choices.  Consider the state of Texas.In the past 24 months, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission, which overseas alcohol sales and distribution in the state, approved the sale of 27,500 wines for sale in Texas. The majority of those wines are made in the United States by the wineries located in a variety of states.

But consider this. In that same time period, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved 140,000 wines for sale in the United States…and those are just the imported wines the TTB approved in that 24 month period.

That means that there are more than 100,000 wines approved for sale in the United States in the past two years that consumers in Texas have absolutely no access to unless they are are able to buy and have shipped to them wines from out-of-state wine stores—the only places those 100,000 wines absents from the Texas market could possibly be found.

This situation put the lie to the claim often heard by opponents of wine shipments by out of state retailers that the three-tier system provides consumers with “unprecedented” choice. In fact, compared to what is available in the U.S. marketplace as a whole, the Texas three-tier system provides a nearly unprecedentedly pitiful choice of products.

 

I replied to him as follows:

This is an obvious propaganda piece (I wouldn’t call it an article) that uses some seemingly impressive numbers while ignoring several truths about those numbers. The posters have an obvious agenda as they site information that supports their goals but leaves out most of the story. Please remember that:

1) In the first paragraph, they use the word “Majority.” “Majority” only means over 50%. They don’t specify how much over 50%. Is it 50.1%?

2) A great many any of those “approved labels” are actually duplicates because a particular producer (often with several wines) often has more than one US importer and each importer has to have a federal Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) for each wine. (How many COLAS exist for each chateau in Bordeaux? For many, more than a dozen and sometimes many more.  How many COLAs exist for each Burgundy or Rhone producer making as many as 20 distinct wines who could have as many as 20 different regional importers in the US? Could be as many as 400.)

3) Many of those wines are “buyer’s-own-brands” (private labels) that are not ever going to go into general distribution. Most of these private label wines are either from virtual wineries or from left-over juice a legit producer has after they blend their own wines. This sort of left-over juice is often sourced, along with lower-tier juice from co-ops, to be blended by virtual wineries. And many of these labels are gimmicks such as “The Bachelor Fantasy Suite Cabernet” (currently sitting on my desk) that it might be a community service to keep out of the market.

4) Many of these COLAs are for extremely limited production wines that are never going to be sold in more than a few states. (For instance, if a Burgundy producer makes one barrel (25 cases) of something, they generally will not send more than four or five cases (if that) to the US and it will get spread around to those few markets their often boutique importer deals with and not to other markets. Texas does get its share of those sorts of wines but there are a lot we don’t see because the importer specializes in the east coast or California and the wines are and have been spoken for so there is no chance of additional distribution. There are also a fair number of wines that come to Texas that folks in California or Florida may not see.)

5) Many of these wines are “Me Too” wines (yet another Provencal Rosé or NZ Sauvignon Blanc, often from a virtual winery) that are the wine industry equivalent of throwing-shit-at-the-wall to see what sticks. Often label approvals are given that are used once or twice or sometimes not at all. A COLA does not mean the wine ever got imported and if it did, even one case requires a COLA.

There is nothing “pitiful” about the selection of well over 100,000 wines potentially available at retail in Texas.
(Where did I get that provocative number? If you pull up all the granted wine label approvals for Texas from January 1, 1997 to January 1, 2017, on the TABC on-line data-base, the number is 133,405. And many active labels in Texas go back further than that 20 years. In fairness, remember that many of these approved wines are duplicates in the same ways sited above for federal label approvals.)

And these out-of-state-retail-shipper-wannabes completely ignore how much wine is damaged-in-shipment (much more often cooked than broken) when shipped via FedEx or UPS (the two most common carriers) from state to state or even with-in states. And that in dealing with out-of-state retail shippers, Texas consumers have little recourse if something goes wrong.

Texas law prohibits only out-of-state retailers from shipping to consumers in Texas. There is a legal path for out-of-state wineries to ship to consumers in Texas. And they don’t tell you that many of these NAWR members (and others) are and have been breaking the law by shipping to consumers in Texas anyway.