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.

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.

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