Fine SOB Cabernet

Fine SOB Cabernet

If you want to drink the best wines, look for the SOB.

Huh? You know, wine made from Sustainable, Organic, or Biodynamic grapes. Why is that important? Commercial farming is based on control with lots of chemical inputs and fertilizers and use of chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides to control weeds, pests, and fungus. They do that but they also kill many of the beneficial microbes (yeasts, bacteria, molds, etc.) and beneficial insects and earthworms in the vineyard. SOB farming does not use chemical inputs and remedies so SOB vineyards have healthy microbial populations that support healthy insect and earthworm populations which aerate the soil (keeping the soils alive) and prey on detrimental insects. And, as it turns out, that healthy microbial population is also the means by which terroir or a sense of place is transmitted into the wine.

Fine Wine (which is a definable thing) comes from an identifiable Place and an identifiable Person. That place is where the grapes are grown and that person, whether the owner or estate manager or winemaker, is the motive force behind why the wines are grown and made and taste as they do. That motive force decides whether to grow (or buy) SOB grapes with which to make their wines. And they decide what techniques to use in the winery. A Person who goes to the trouble to grow SOB grapes is likely to refrain from dosing said grapes with sulfur-dioxide (an antimicrobial) when they come into the winery. And they are likely to keep a clean-but-not-sterile winery that has its own beneficial population of yeasts, bacteria, and fungi. Further, they are likely to let those two healthy microbial populations (vineyard and winery) interact to generate a beneficial Indigenous Yeast Fermentation.

So when a winery harvests grapes from an SOB vineyard, they bring a sampling of the natural microbial population of that vineyard into the winery with the grapes and those microbes, if allowed (by the Person who is the motive force) work with the natural microbial population of the winery to express both the Place of the vineyard and the Place of the winery into the wine. This indigenous yeast fermentation starts much more slowly with a greater variety of yeasts (and other microbes) doing the work and transmitting their flavor inputs than a cultured commercial yeast fermentation. The result is a more complex set of flavors making it into the fermenting wine.

If all of this happens and the Person behind the wine makes other good decisions throughout the process, the result can be wines that move beyond being “just” fine wines into Great Wines that show real excellence. For me, the hallmark of that excellence is wine that is Layered, Textured, and Dimensional (LTD). And the vast majority of all the wines I’ve tasted that I find to be LTD wines are made from SOB grapes with an indigenous yeast fermentations.

Here’s my selection of some of the best of the SOB Cabernets from California I have tasted (and drunk) lately. None of these wines are blockbusters and, although they sell well in steakhouses, none are what I think of as Steakhouse Cabernets. Rather, they are elegant balanced, nuanced wines that often exhibit layering and textures and dimension. These are what I think of as Great Wines.

ARAUJO EISELE ESTATE Cabernet, Napa Valley, 2013   ($485.89)
100% biodynamic Cabernet Sauvignon given an indigenous yeast fermentation in temperature-controlled tanks with pump-overs. Aged 20 months in all French oak barrels (all new).     Purple-red color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with balanced acidity and medium chewy phenolics.   Rich and ripe but completely in balance. Elegant and lovely with delicious dark and darkest red fruit. Layers in tobacco and gravel-earth with notes of spice and cedar. Stunningly good in its freshness and richness and over all pleasure it gives. Integrated, Complete. Layered-Textured-Dimensional BearScore: 100.

RIDGE Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2014   ($178.99)
An all estate, sustainably grown (at yields of less than 1.5 tons-per-acre) blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petite Verdot from genitically diverse vineyard blocks given an indigenous yeast fermentation and an indigenous,naturally-occurring malo-lactic fermentation. Aged 17 months in 100% new air-dried oak barrels (97% American, 2% French, and 1% Hungarian).     Deep-dark-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Lovely, balanced, elegant, supple very Cabernet-tasting red offering tobacco and spice with graphite and dust and hints of ceda and black pepperr. Complete, integrated, delicious. Nuanced. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. Stunningly good wine that stacks up with the very best wines made anywhere in the world. BearScore: 100.

OPUS ONE, Oakville Napa Valley, 2014   ($289.74)
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, and 2% Malbec grown organically on the estate’s vineyards. Indigenous yeast fermentation in temperature contolled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers. Aged 18 months in all French oak barrels (100% new)   2014 was the earliest budbreak in winery history.     Red-purple colo with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium phenolics.   Supple, dusty-juicy, alive. Delicious ripe complex but focused Cabernet with tobacco, dust, cedar, and subtle graphite. This is one of the very best Cabernets made in Napa Valley today. Balanced and complete. Already drinkable but a wine to keep. BearScore: 98+.

QUINTESSA, Rutherford, 2014   ($165.99)
A biodyamically grown, estate-bottled blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, and 3% Carmenere fermented with indigenous yeasts in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks using pump-overs (21 to 25 days average maceration) and aged 21 months in French oak barrels (85% new). Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Riper and richer. Supple and delicious with juicy red and some black fruit accented with tobacco, black pepper, dust, cedar and more. Long and delicious. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. YUM. BearScore: 96+.

INGLENOOK Rubicon, Rutherford, 2013   ($161.47)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate’s certified organic vineyards fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 Months in 100% French oak barrels (75% new).     Red-magenta color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Supple rich elegant classic (not modern) Cabernet . Red fruit and tobacco with spice and graphite. Balanced. Subtle. Integrated. Complete. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. BearScore: 96+.

INGLENOOK Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, 2013     ($66.49)
A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petite Verdot, and 2% Merlot from the estate’s certified organic vineyards fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 months in 90% French & 10% American oak barrels (50 new).     Red color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium chewy phenolics.   Elegant balanced Cabby Cabernet. No manipulation or over ripeness. Just lot of classic Napa Cabernet Fruit with tobacco and graphite and a welcome bit of dust. Takes a minute to open up but more than repays that bit of required patience. Quite Delicious. BearScore: 94.

TREFETHEN Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll – Napa Valley, 2014   ($45.99)
A blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 6% Petite Verdot, and 2% Merlot (all sustainably grown on the estate’s main ranch) fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 months in 59% French 31% American, and 10% Hungarian oak barrels (48% new).   Purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly acidity, medium phenolics.   Supple focused elegant Cabernet. Lovely pure focused balanced red fruit and tobacco. Delicious. BearScore: 93.

HEITZ Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, 2012   ($221.99)
100% Certified Organic Cabernet Sauvignon fermented with blocked malo-lactic (very unusual in red wine making) and aged 1 year in Oak tanks followed by 30 months in French (Limousin) oak barrels (100% new), no ML     Deep-red color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Lovely supple, ripe, juicy. Darker red fruit with herbal notes of tobacco and euchalyptus to go with some dusty earth and integrated oak. BearScore: 95+.

HEITZ Cellar Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, 2010   ($84.99)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon (certified organic) fermented with pumpovers but blocked malo-lactic fermentation. Aged 1 year in oak tanks and then 30 months in all French (Limousin) oak barrels (all new)   No MLdeep-dense-red-purple color, and with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium phenolics.   Dusty tobacco, cabby red with all red fruit. Elegant and balanced. BearScore: 93+.

HEITZ Cellar Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2012   ($48.99)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, all from the estate’s vineyards and almost all organic (Oak Knoll is farmed organically but not yet certified.     Fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers to start and finished in American oak tanks. 1 year in oak tanks, 2 years in French Limousin Barrels (some new). Unusually, Heitz’ Cabernets get no malo-lactic fermentation. One additional year of aging in bottle before release.     Deep-dark-red color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Supple, fresh, lively, tobacco and red fruit Cabernet in a balanced, elegant, decidedly Claret style. BearScore: 91+.

GRGICH HILLS Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2012   ($56.97)
A blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon with 12% Merlot, 5% Petite Verdot, and 4% Cabernet Franc all from the estate’s certified organic vineyards. Aged 21 months in all French oak barrels (60% new) and then aged 2 years in bottle before release.     Purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.   Classic old-school Napa Cabernet with chewy, lively fresh darker-red-and-some-black-fruit accented with notes of tobacco leaf, graphite, cedar, and dusty oak. Delicious. BearScore: 94.

The State of Rosé – Fizz, That Is!

7pm   Monday  December 11th  at
The Wine School at l’Alliance Française

In The State of Rosé – Fizz, That Is!, we will focus in on, taste, and discuss only Rosé Sparkling wines from around the world but with the major emphasis on Champagne. We’ll look at how they’re made (all methode champenoise), how they get their color (a variety of ways), their styles and nuances, where and from what grapes they’re made, as well as pink fizz with food. We will taste through the diversity of dry pink bubbles as we look at a total of 15 wines. The wines tasted will be served in Riedel Degustazione stemware and a selection of cheeses and bread will be served.

The lineup includes:
Mercat Brut Rose NV
Villamont Cremant de Bourgogne Rose NV
Jean Baptiste Adam Cremant d’Alsace Rose NV
Roederer Estate Rose Anderson Valley – Sparkling NV
Andre Clouet Brut Rose Grand Reserve NV
Michel Mailliard Rose Cuvee Alexia Champagne NV
Jacques Picard Berru Brut Rose NV
Jose Dhondt Saignee Rose Brut Champagne NV
Jean Vesselle Oeil De Perdrix Champagne NV
Camille Saves Rose Brut Grand Cru Champagne NV
Besserat De Bellefon Cuvee Des Moines Brut Rose NV
Billecart Salmon Brut Rose NV
Bollinger Special Cuvee Rose 6/cs NV
Rothschild Rose Champagne 6/cs NV
Egly Ouriet Brut Rose Champagne NV

The State of Rosé – Fizz, That Is! will cost $80 per person (cash or check) or $84.21 (regular). To purchase your ticket, please email reply to Bear Dalton at BearDalton@mac,com. Please include a daytime phone number in your response. Please do not respond to Susan Coburn as she is on vacation.


L’Alliance Française is French Cultural Center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., it 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 over 35 years 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.

Of Interest

LUXURY CHAMPAGNE Tasting Benefiting Sonoma Fires Relief – 
There are still a few seats left for this coming Monday’s (12/4/17) extraordinary and (at least in my experience unprecedented) look at most of the very top Luxury Cuvee Champagnes in a comparative format. For more information, please see https://bearonwine.com/2017/11/27/luxury-cuvee-champagne-benefit-tasting-for-sonoma-fires/

BORDEAUX 2017
For a good, informed, even first look at the 2017 vintage in Bordeaux from one of the best Bordeaux writers working today, please see Jane Anson’s Decanter article at
http://www.decanter.com/learn/vintage-guides/en-primeur/bordeaux-en-primeur/bordeaux-2017-how-it-is-shaping-up-380695/

MAYBE THE BEST NAPA VALLEY CHARDONNAY I’ve tasted in over two years!
I don’t often drink California Chardonnay but when I do, this 2016 from Trefethen is the kind that gets me going. Delicious, balanced, elegant. The integrated oak and subtle richness are components here but fruit and freshness are what this is all about. This is not “Cougar Juice.” Rather, it is Chardonnay that a Burgundian winemaker would recognize and drink.

TREFETHEN Estate Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley CA, 2016  ($29.99)
100% sustainably grown Chardonnay, half of which is given an indigenous yeast fermentation and half of which is innoculated. 69% is barrel fermented witht he balance fermented in tank. 8% gets malo-lactic fermentation. the assemblage is aged 9 months in all French oak barrels (19% new).      Straw color with well formed legs; dry, medium light-bodied with fresh acidity. Best Trefethen Chardonnay I have ever tasted and maybe the best Napa Chardonnay I’ve tasted in two or three years. Citrus and a bit of mixed apple fruit with mineral and freshness. Integrated and pure. California answer to 1er cru Chablis. Delicious.  BearScore: 93+.

Bordeaux Reboot

7pm on Tuesday, November 14th at The Wine School at l’Alliance Française

A few weeks ago, I attended a very frou-frou Bordeaux lunch with some people who are reputed to be big collectors of Bordeaux. One of them engaged me in conversation telling me that, while he still drank the Bordeaux wines in his cellar, he no longer bought Bordeaux because “the good wines were just too expensive.” He continued by saying he was buying “only new world wines now.” I think I actually sputtered when he said that. I would contend that there is more value in Bordeaux now than ever before. If you doubt that (heck, even if you don’t doubt), then please join me for Bordeaux Reboot (7pm Tuesday November 14 at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française) and give me the chance to prove my case and reboot your thinking on Bordeaux. We are in a golden age of delicious Bordeaux wines from all areas and at all price points. In this seminar tasting, we’ll look at 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. All wines will be tasted from Riedel Degustazione (tasting) glasses. The full ticket price will be donated to the Houston Area Women’s Center.

The following twelve Bordeaux wines will be served:
Les Charmes Godard Blanc Cotes De Franc 2015
Ch Le Conseiller Bordeaux 2014
Ch D’aiguilhe Cotes De Castillon 2014
Ch Laplagnotte Bellevue St Emilion 2014
Ch La Pointe Pomerol 2014
Ch Carbonnieux Rouge Pessac Leognan 2014
Ch Tour Salvet Haut Medoc 2014
Ch Pontac Phenix Haut Medoc 2012
Ch Pontoise Cabarrus Haut Medoc 2012
Ch Haut Bages Liberal Pauillac 2014
Ch Pontac Lynch Margaux 2014
Petit Vedrines Sauternes 2012

To buy your ticket, please contact Susan at 713-854-7855 or coburnsusan2@gmail.com. The cost of this class is a $30 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.

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.

 

Geek Speak: TERROIR

If you read about fine wine for more than a few minutes, you will run into the word “terroir”. Too often terroir is italicized either in print or verbally – I see some people make finger quotation marks each time they say terroir. One comment often made about terroir is that it is “an untranslatable French word that means blah, blah blah …”. Wine-writer and sometime l’Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux lecturer Dewey Markham translates terroir into English as “terrain”. He’s not wrong but he is over-simplifying a bit; whole books have been written about terroir. I would propose that, at least for wine lovers, terroir has – through assimilation – become a word in English with the same meaning it has in French.

Terroir (pronounced tear whar) takes in the whole combination of soil, exposure, climate and microclimate, viticultural practice, and situation or “happenstance of location” that gives a wine its possibly unique particularity of place. Great terroir comes through in great wine. It is possible to make bad wine from great terroir but not the reverse. While terroir usually refers to the place, terroir also can denote that unique character of place found in the aromas and flavor of a wine. A wine from a single-site or a contiguous vineyard is more likely to reflect its terroir than a wine blended from multiple disparate sites.

Each of the following elements inter-relate with the others to create the terroir both in the sense of growing conditions and in the sense of flavor, of a particular wine or place.

Viticulture is the practice of grape growing. As a practical matter, a viticulturalist is grape grower (sometimes called a wine grower or, in French, a vigneron – which is another useful term we should assimilate into English). In most wine writing, viticulture refers to the science (and art) of grape growing in a more academic way than would be applied to the everyday farmer. Hence, someone called a viticulturalist is more likely to be a head of farming operations for a company or an outside consultant who advises the farmer or vigneron on anything from trellising to treatments as they relate to growing wine grapes. Viticulture encompasses all the farming practice in play in a particular area or vineyards or block. It includes the decision to farm conventionally, sustainably, organically, or biodynamically. It includes trellising and irrigation, and drainage decisions. It includes decisions about treatments and supplements and fertilizers and cover crops and even whether to use horses or tractors to plow. Viticulture, as it is broadly practiced in an area over a long period of time, is a key component of the area’s terroir.

Exposure refers to the orientation of the vineyard both to the sun and to weather patterns or other climate influences. An east-facing vineyard on a steep slope will be shaded in the afternoon but a south-facing vineyard on a steep slope will get sun all day. A vineyrd with a high ridge to the west may be shielded from weather coming in from the west. A vineyard on a slope may garner some frost protection as heavier cold air rolls down hill.

Situation refers to the physical site or “happenstance of location” that gives a wine from a single site its uniqueness. Part of this is exposure but part might include proximity to a river or pond that provides more water or a cooling or temperature moderation effect. Situation might have to so with a billboard or building that shades the vines for part of the day. Situation would include a natural occurrence like being on the flight path for certain birds which may feast on ripe grapes.

Climate is the average local weather as observed over a long period of time. Many microclimates will make up the average climate of the area.

A microclimate is a very local area where the climate may differ (slightly or not so slightly) from the surrounding area. Microclimates may exist because of a nearby lake, gulf, or river which may cool the local atmosphere, or because – as in Chateauneuf du Pape – a heavy concentration of stones on the surface absorb heat duing the day and radiate it at night which keeps the vines (and grapes) warmer. Slope can be an aspect of microclimate: south-facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere and north-facing slopes in the Southern Hemisphere are exposed to more direct sunlight than opposite slopes and are therefore warmer for longer. Microclimates can be used to the advantage of vignerons to help choose which grape varieties (varietals) to plant in which part of a vineyard. The right microclimate can ripen grapes in one particular spot in an area that could not normally ripen the same variety.

A key component of terroir is the soil and what is beneath it. The vine is influenced by each layer both in terms of the layer’s mineral and organic content and by its physical properties including depth, density, temperature, and water holding capacity (water drains through sand and gravel but is held by clay).

Topsoil is the top layer of dirt where most organic activity takes place. Insect and microbial activity breaks down dead organic matter into humus. Most of the organic matter needed by the vine comes from the topsoil.

Subsoil is a mix of minerals and some humus near the top. Compared to the topsoil, subsoil is lower in organic matter. This is the layer where most of the soil’s nutrients are found. In non irrigated vineyards, vine roots come to and pass through the subsoil looking for water.

Below the subsoil, comes the weathered parent material from which the rest of the soils are typically formed. This could be broken limestone and limestone clay on top of solid limestone. Here the only biological activity is plant roots reaching down for water. This layer is full of minerals. Physical weathering breaks the parent material up into small pieces. This layer may contain rock particles that are different from the bedrock it sits on. Alluvial action brings in and mixes rock and other elements from other areas into this layer .

At the bottom is bedrock. Bedrock generally produces much of the soil above it. There is virtually no biological activity in the bedrock but grape vine roots will fine cracks and seek downward through bedrock looking for water.

You might think that the “place” of the vineyard finds its way into the grapes through the root system and the vine itself. If so, you’d be in agreement with most wine enthusiats from twenty years ago … but you’d also be wrong. Plant biologists and physiologists have concluded that the vine offers no mechanism for terroir to enter the fine.

 

The MECHANISM of TERROIR
So how does terroir get from the vineyard into the wine? As it turns out, via the micropes that live in and around the vineyard. Microbes? Yes, the yeasts, bacteria, fungi, and more that are present on and around the grapes. When the grapes are harvested and brought into the winery, the microbes come with them. When this population is healthy, the flavor of the place is trasmited to the wine as it ferments and ages. These microbes bring the dusty gravel taste to Pauillac and the mushroomy earth component to Chassagne. But this only happens in vineyards with healthy soils that provide a good environment for a robust microbial population. Commercial farming that utilizes chemical herbicides and pesticides and fungicides results in soils devoid of beneficial microbial activity and leads to simpler, commercial tasting wines. What sort of farming gives the desired result of a healthy microbial population? Sustainable (with no chemical inputs) is better but organic and biodynamic are best. Although yields may be lower with some natural pest issues and no chemical fertilizer, the resulting fruit often has more flavor and requires less manipulation in the wine making process. And the vineyard (which includes the soil and the inter row cover crops and the vines themselves) are healthier and able to support the critters (microbes) that make the difference between good wine and great wine.

So maybe the most important part of terroir is the native microbial population and the most important reason to embrace organics and biodynamics is to retain the character that the microbial mix brings to the finished wine.