Nicolas Quillé is Randall Grahm’s right hand man in the Pacific NorthWest. Yet Mr. Quillé remains independent. He speaks his mind. I think that is precisely why Mr. Grahm paused when, after he put some of his Bonny Doon labels on the market, Mr. Quillé protested that the Pacific Rim line should be retained: Riesling could do great things in Washington State. Mr. Grahm listened, Mr. Quillé went to work.
Supplemental to this interview I suggest readers visit the fine geological vids on Wine Press North West, and this page. View the August 14th, 2007 entry and that of October 30th, 2007.
Born in France, what was your first exposure to American wines?
Nicolas Quillé When I was in high school and then in college, I worked for a small wine shop in Lyon and I recall selling and tasting a Zinfandel from California (I can’t remember the name but it had a hot air balloon on the label). I don’t remember liking it that much but I was only 16 at the time.
The second experience was in California itself. A good friend of mine brought a secret bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and asked me to taste it blind. He then went on to ask me how much I would pay for it. It was good and I thought this could be about $25. Well, it was a Caymus Special Selection, and when it told me the price (it was about $100 at the time) I thought that this was really a great country to make wine in!
Before you came to the US you took university degrees at Dijon, in Bourgogne & at Reims, in Champagne. Could you give us a glimpse into the French university system with respect to viticultural degrees? What was your course of study?
Nicolas France has 5 universities that deliver a 2 year degree in Enology (Bordeaux, Dijon, Reims, Montpellier and Toulouse). They recruit only students that already have a 2 year college degree in agriculture (mine was a technical degree in animal production and plant genetics). The curriculum requires students to do two harvests in a wine cellar or a wine laboratory (I worked for Antonin Rodet in Burgundy and Domaine de La Courtade in Provence). The curriculum is a broad mix of Chemistry, Biology, Viticulture, Enology, Accounting, Sensory Evaluation, Fluid Mechanics, etc… They are no elective classes in France, you have to take it all!!! I must say that I was good at Statistics, Enology, Sensory evaluation and Chemistry. I was pretty lame at Viticulture…
A peculiarity of the French system is that each school specializes in its local specialty (Dijon – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Reims – Champagne making…). After my Master’s in Burgundy I went for another year to get a specialization in Champagne winemaking and Champagne laws as I thought I might end up in Champagne making bubbly (My father works for Laurent Perrier Champagne). Not many students go for a specialization year as it requires students to have a Master degree in hand already.
How does viticultural/enology training in France differ from UC Davis or Cornell, the US approach generally?
Nicolas France has many layers of education from certificates to 2 year technical degrees to Master degrees and the possibility to specialize beyond the Master or to acquire a Doctorate. France has also many students trained in the Enological field (they churn about 180 student with a master degree in Enology every year). Most students in this field come from the industry with parents that are in the wine trade in some fashion. In France, winemaking schools are not open during harvest and they require students to work in the industry during that time. I never went to Davis or Cornell but it is my impression that students are more academic than their French counterpart. They often are very technically correct but lack some creativity. Obviously this is a very general statement.
What initially brought you to America?
Nicolas After my military duty in the French Air Force, I was looking for an international experience to sharpen my winemaking skills. I found a harvest job (in 1997) through the Paso Robles Grower Association at J. Lohr winery in Paso Robles. It was supposed to be a 3 months assignment so I came with just a small duffle bag full of clothes. The chemistry was good at J. Lohr and I never went back to France. I ended working for J.Lohr for a year and a half.
We’ve read you took a business degree, a master’s, from the University of Washington. From your point of view how were merlot’s fortunes affected by the film Sideways? Did you enjoy the film?
Nicolas Unfortunately I did not see Sideways. I think that Merlot was in a mature phase of its growth anyway and that the movie just precipitated this. I also truly believe that wine tastes are changing in the country as our food taste evolve toward lighter, fresher foods. Merlot is too big of a wine to be your everyday red. My opinion: switch to Riesling.
And while we’re on cinema, what is your take on Nossiter’s Mondovino?
Nicolas I saw Mondovino twice. It is a very good, thought provoking documentary that I would recommend anyone in our industry to watch. It is obviously a very personal take on the industry but it reinforced two life guiding principles for me. 1) Wine is a beverage for everyone, there is no need to make it a complicated and elitist drink. 2) The magic of wine comes from the people and the land, in the long run this is what makes it such a fascinating drink.
When did you first learn of biodynamics? What was your impression?
Nicolas Like most people I probably read about it in some trade magazine and never paid attention to it. Randall Grahm is really the person that did the most to educate me. I always had a lot of respect for Randall, so when we discussed it I never had a doubt that this was something that I should be more aware of. I have, to this date, some reservation about certain aspects of biodynamics but I am overall in agreement with the principle that the vineyard is a part of a greater organism. I guess that I am not a biodynamic jihadist, I am more of a moderate recent convert.
And now, with respect to the Wallula vineyard, what percentage is biodynamic?
Nicolas All our Riesling is Biodynamic at Wallula. This represents 140 acres total and is without a doubt the majority of all Demeter certified vineyards in Washington State. Our acreage represents about 25% of the Wallula Vineyard and this is, to my knowledge, the only part of the vineyard that is farmed biodynamically.
Could you give us some idea of the insect complex at Wallula. What are the principle grape pests in the area?
Nicolas We are blessed with few pests overall in Eastern Washington. By far the two main concerns are leafhoppers and dust mites.
And soil-borne diseases?
Nicolas None that I know at Wallula. This is pretty much virgin ground so it has never been introduced with weird pathogens.
The last time I was in near the Tri-Cities the wind was howling at 30 mph! How does wind complicate the local viticulture? How is erosion minimized? What inter-row cover crops are used?
Nicolas The main challenges in a high wind viticultural region is evapotranspiration; the vines’ stomata let much water out of the plants which requires frequent watering. Thankfully, the water retention of our soils is quite good which alleviate the need for heavy watering like this is the case for the windy Malborough region in New Zealand. We have also decent challenges with canopy management and cordon rollover on young vines (this is when the cordon rolls and “reverse” spurs position so the shoots are pointing down on a traditional Vertical Shoot Positioning trained vine). Your point about erosion is real because our soils are wind blown deposit and they leave as fast (or faster) as they came. As a result cover crops are a necessity in Eastern Washington. At Pacific Rim we are moving slowly from seeded covercrop to native grasses which are easier to maintain and a bit more “natural”.
There can be significant differences in the depth of loess deposits on the Wallula slope. The hard pan of calcium carbonate there averages to 1 foot thick. How is terroir affected by the shallower vine rooting?
Nicolas Not sure where you got the information about the calcium hard pan or “caliche” as it is referred to (may be you are referring to the Wahluke slope that is rich in caliche in an unpredictable way). This caliche layer is the result of the accumulation of calcium carbonates at the same levels, years after years, due to weathering. We do not have that problem at Wallula because over time the site had received a fair amount of wind blown loess (we think we have 40 feet) that “renewed” the top soil regularly thus moving up the crystallization zone and avoiding a calcium “loading” at the same level year after year. Because we are sitting at 1,200 feet we also have pre-Missoula flood soils below the wind blown loess (may be another 40 feet). Our soils at Wallula are definitely deep and we have buried drips down 3 feet to promote root exploration and lower water usage.
With only 6-7 inches of rain locally, how does Wallula irrigate?
Nicolas It is all irrigated with drips (underground drips). The water is pumped straight from the mighty Columbia River.
My understanding is that 15% of Pacific Rim’s riesling is of German origin. In another interview you stressed its use in blending with Washington juice for ’stylistic’ reasons. What are those reasons?
Nicolas We only use the German fraction for the Dry Riesling and it makes up 15% of that blend. The reason for using the German component are purely stylistic as you are pointing out and it is by far the most expensive part of the Dry Riesling blend. The German component usually comes from Rheinhessen and is selected by our friend Johannes Selbach in the Mosel. We use the German wine for several reasons. First, it is generally riper at lower Brix and therefore help us maintain our alcohol levels low (toward 12.5%). Secondly, it is high in acid and reduces our overall pH while boosting the total acidity of the blend. Finally the German fraction is low in phenolics and rich in minerality bringing an extra twist to the overall blend. I would love to replace it with a Northwest sourcing but haven’t found where it could come from yet.
In addition to practicing biodynamics, what other ‘green’ initiatives does Pacific Rim currently employ or plan to employ, particularly at the Port of Kennewick winery in West Richland?
Nicolas The list of our efforts and our dreams runs long. Several themes run through the business and guide our actions; first we want to be as sustainable as possible and second we do not want to greenwash the company. Our path to sustainability so far has lead us to work on 1) growing grapes that are good for your health 2) Reducing our energy footprint at the winery and our waste impact and 3) increasing the recyclability and the use of recycled material of our packaging. Our efforts are greatly helped by the fact that we are focused at 90% on Riesling (which creates great efficiencies).
We have right now 30% of our grapes farmed under Biodynamic practices. We are working with the remaining 70% of our growers to establish an Integrated Environmental Plan where we commonly agree on improving the sustainability of our viticultural practices. We have been putting together a grading system to help us grade each block on about 25 criteria and we are working on classifying all chemicals (organic or synthetic) used in our vineyards. This will lead on some serious progress I believe.
The winery was built with many energy saving features (use of natural lights, special insulation, roof that can support solar panels) and we have very high tech equipment (cross flow filters, centrifuge, Electrodialysis) that allow us to reduce our waste stream and our energy consumption. We are moving toward zero waste rapidly as we do not use diatomee earth in our filtration and we compost 100% of our pomace waste back in the vineyard.
We have greatly simplified our package which reduces waste tremendously. We are also requiring our suppliers to outline their sustainability efforts to understand their position on this topic.
We have a few other venues that we are exploring to reduce our post bottling environmental impact such as warehouse optimization (efficient shipping route, low case good inventory…) or the use of lighter alternative packaging.
You’ve mentioned the desire to let wild fermentations run their course. Can you tell us of Pacific Rim’s success with this approach?
Nicolas Our successes are very good so far. Our single vineyards are 100% wild fermented. In 2007 our sweet Riesling was 75% wild fermented and the Dry was 20% wild fermented. We are moving toward 100% wild ferments for 2008 with the exception of the Vin De Glaciere which is made from frozen grapes (can’t keep the yeast alive on the skin when it is frozen). We have put in place an elaborate system to make sure that we prepare a “pied de cuve” or starter for each vineyard a week before we receive the grapes from that vineyard.
Would you tell us a few of your favorite Washington wineries?
Nicolas My preference is based on several factors such as the winery philosophy, how good they are at their specialty and the personality of the person in charge of QC: Cayuse for its Syrah, probably one of the most Terroir focused wine in the State – Christophe Baron. Woodward Canyon for their cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series – Rick Small. Boudreaux Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon– Rob Newsom. Chinook for their Sauvignon Blanc – Kay Simon.
Why only do Riesling?
Nicolas We believe that to do things well you have to focus. What other varietal than Riesling can provide you with such a great array of styles that allow you to focus while also having fun and diversity? Riesling can fulfill us in many ways and is so relevant to today’s food. It is crisp, very natural and untouched and works with so many different cuisines. It is the greatest grape in the world.
We focus on Riesling (90% of our production) but we also play with Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer. We are not against trying a few other varietal in the future, but we want to stay very focused on Riesling because we want to make the best Riesling in the country and may be one day in the world.
Thank you, Nicolas.
I ventured up into the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA some weeks ago while doing research on the Mission Soledad itself located on the Salinas valley floor. The SLH AVA is one of many AVAs contained within the Central Coast AVA and borders the Monterey AVA which included the Salinas Valley and Carmel Valley on the west side of the SLH range. Established in 1991, the SLH AVA begins at 40′ above sea level and vineyards can be found as high as 1200′. Recent data indicates 4,700 acres of grapes under cultivation though I suspect more has been recently planted. I saw many new plantings along the AVA’s frontage River Road. Indeed, nested within the web site is another figure of 5,523 acres under cultivation. In any event, it is safe to say the AVA is clearly undergoing a period of considerable growth! Grapes grown include modest amounts of cab franc and syrah, even petit verdot, but far and away the lion’s share of acreage is dedicated to chardonnay and pinot noir.
And on May 17th the vintners of the Santa Lucia Highlands will be hosting the 2nd Annual SLH Winegrowers’ Gala.
Curiously, the official SLH web site does not have a sufficiently detailed map for driving instructions. They do, however, provide a link to the River Road Wine Trail which will save readers here a step.
As a side note, I strongly encourage those planning to attend to consider taking the Carmel Valley Road either from the West side of the SLH Range should you be coming down Highway 1, or travel it back over should 101 be your approach. Prepare to add more than an hour to your regional tour. Drive safely!
Phil and Peggy Crews are the owners of Pelican Ranch Winery in Santa Cruz, Ca. *Though their website is in need of a serious overhaul useful information may still be found there. They enjoy a substantial subscriber base and sell a high proportion of their wines through their tasting room which is open from 12 to 5 Friday through Sunday. An eclectic mix of people pass through their door, university students, winemakers, tourists, and wine enthusiasts, of course.
They are active members of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (SCMWA). I caught up with Phil at their winery located on Ingalls St. in Santa Cruz.
Admin When did you become a winemaker?
Phil Crews When did I become a winemaker? Well, that’s almost a philosophical question! At this point in time I don’t consider myself a winemaker because the goal is to buy the best grapes we can, to harvest them at the correct moment, to put them in the best available cooperage, and not to have to do anything. And the result of that process would be being a wine shepherd, not being a winemaker.
So I have been making wine since the early ’70’s. We established the winery in 1997 and moved to our current spot here five years ago. So, I’ve seen a lot of grapes come and go. I’d say probably 80% to 90% of the fruit we get is really great and so all we have to do is shepherd it from the vineyard into the bottle.
Do you have long-term contracts with grape growers. How does that work?
Phil Crews I would suspect we’re like other small wineries, and that is its pretty much a gentleman’s or gentlewoman’s agreement basically. I think a good example is that since ‘97 we began getting fruit from Los Carneros and the contract comes either simultaneous to the harvest and crush, or maybe a few moments before. By and large we don’t have any long term contracts with anybody. But yet we’ve been making the same wines from the same vineyards over and over again. There are some people who would like to engineer contacts and we’re willing to do that.
Actually, there is one exception, I won’t mention the vineyard, but the ideal situation is to become partners with a particular vineyard and then sharing in the risk in terms of the harvest and how Mother Nature is going to treat the grapes. So we’ve got a situation where we own fruit in about an acre of land, and we dictate what the tons per acre will be. We’re simply paying for an acre of fruit at a certain value. I think more and more people are going to go to that arrangement. That really develops the partnership with the vineyard and the winemaker.
And to return to the earlier question, winemaking really begins in the vineyard. The winemaker doesn’t do anything, in my opinion. Its the vineyard and the grower that really does it all. Of course, the winemaker is capable of screwing it up!
How many cases do you produce a year?
Phil Crews I would appear that we produce 1000 cases. And that number gets bumped up and down as a function of last minute changes in terms of grapes coming in. Our goal, our model is very different than a lot of places. What we’re doing is making about 20 different wines, exploring terroir under the circumstances of the different regions of Monterey, the Santa Cruz Mountains and beyond. We’re going for maritime location of grapes, and were getting enough grapes to make as many as 150 cases but as little as just a barrel’s worth, which can be from 22 to 25 cases. So, let’s see, for the last four years we’ve pretty much followed that model, it’s been creeping up a bit, but usually no more than 20 wines from 20 tons of fruit. In principle that translates into about 1000 cases.
And your barrel program?
Phil Crews What we’re doing in terms of wood, and everybody is challenged at this point, the amount of euros that a dollar will buy, of course, we all know is going down. Still I feel firmly we have to use French oak. About 10% of our wood is Oregon oak and about 25% of the wood we get is brand new French oak. All the wines are barrel fermented. And we keep barrels only about 4 years. This is really what all wineries do if they’re trying to produce wine at the top of the flavor profile. So that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to keep experimenting. I’ve tried a few American oak barrels, I’ve tried Hungarian oak, I’ve tried Yugoslavian oak, but for the flavor profiles we’re going at it just doesn’t work. So French oak is the key. Oregon barrels, however, offer very unique notes, they provide a really interesting tool to produce flavors and aromas that are unmatched by French barrels, or other parts of the country.
What kinds of wines do you specialize in?
Phil Crews Our focus is wines typically found in the Burgundy and the Rhone regions, both red and white. In Burgundy the white grape chardonnay is the most renowned, pinot gris is close behind that. Another kind of obscure fact is that we make a dry gewurztraminer and in maps that I have of Burgundy going back 500-600 years ago show that Alsace was once a part of Burgundy. Recently someone asked why we don’t put our gewutrz in a hock-type bottle so I tried to remind them of this fact. Essentially we make any wine that I think will fit nicely into a Burgundy bottle by tradition.
So the reds from Burgundy are pinot noir. For other reds we look at the Rhone; the top of the list there would be syrah. All single vineyard, like the whites. Now, there are blends we make as well, two unique blends, inspired by Rhone practices. One, Trois Amis Rouge, is a red blend of three grapes, again from a single vineyard, syrah, cinsault, and actually the petit verdot is a ringer. That’s the only grape we’ve ever had in the winery that is not traditionally Burgundy or Rhone. Of course, we know the petit verdot comes from Bordeaux. We also have a white blend, Trois Amis Blanc, that is based on fruit from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA and that’s a combination of viognier, roussanne, and marsanne. Two things that make these wines really great: firstly, the origins in the Santa Cruz Mountains, secondly, the co-fermentation, cold harvest, and barrel fermentation of all of these. And I would say that these blends are truly spectacular and something that is representative of things we’re going to continue to do.
In the past we made something we called Spectrum Rouge that illustrates our program with zinfandel, but we mixed in syrah and actually chardonnay. And there was a wonderful array of flavors and aromas that were found with the Spectrum Rouge. So zinfandel is another wine we make. And again, a question comes up, why do we bottle zinfandel in the Burgundy-type bottle? There is no short answer. The long answer is that most people… well, the short answer is that most wineries put zinfandel, for reason not at all clear to me, into a Bordeaux bottle. And given that we now know the origins of zinfandel are in Croatia it seems to me that Burgundy has a greater kinship with Croatia than does Bordeaux.
Anyway, that sort of lays out what we do here in terms of the various wines. We have about an equal mix of red and white wines, actually at this point its about 65% red, 45% white. When we started the white wines were all chardonnay but as the years have gone by we’ve expanded to these other things that really compliment the chardonnay nicely; the pinot gris, the gewurtz, viognier, roussanne, and marsanne.
One other thing to take note of, if the focus of the winery is to delve in Burgundy and Rhone style grapes then I think the ultimate expression of that is to have pinotage in the flavor mix. This coming spring we’ll release our first pinotage. Down the road we’ll add mouvedre. Assuming the wine staff can get their act together!
In addition to winemaking you have a career outside of the winery. Could you say a little bit about that?
Phil Crews Very briefly, because the readers of you blog would be quite bored with that exercise! Winemaking involves really capturing beautiful flavors and aromas that I regard as secondary metabolites or secondary chemistry and so my ability to look at that contribution to wines comes from the research I’ve been doing over the last thirty years that looks at natural products chemistry of marine organisms. Our lab on the University of California Santa Cruz campus is a thriving entity and there are many lessons that I’ve learned from doing academic research that I try and bring back to the winery. So on a day to day basis I’m a thesis advisor to all of the students who work with us; and on a day to day basis at the winery, as I said earlier, I’m the wine shepherd. I’m watching over the barrels, trying to steer them in the right direction, and not try to introduce any artificial influences. And that is also what I am doing up at the university, trying to steer student minds toward quality.
Is their anything else you’d like to add?
Phil Crews I’m trying to bring the sense of education back to the winery. For every Passport what we do is a really fun thing: I set up a tent, I have a series of questions that I present to people and get them to participate in the answering of the questions. And generally the reward for correct answers is to be able to taste barrel samples! Its been a delightful experience that we’ll repeat four times a year. I think people have really have come to enjoy this and note that if they want to have that experience they come to us at Passport.
Something special that we’re going to do in the near future is have a series of tastings of what I call ‘mystery wines’…
Phil Crews Ah… I’ll just leave it at ‘mystery wines’. It will be three or four wines that we’ll present with questions that people will have to answer. It will be a very eye-opening. Another eye-opening thing we do on occasion is we ask the question: What would you do with a bottle of Pelican Ranch wine in the unlikely event at dinner you simply can’t consume the whole bottle? And I call that my ‘open bottle tasting trial’. We’ve explored here at the winery various regimes for preserving that wine for a twenty-four hour period or longer. The outcome has been quite surprising, based on trial and error.
One other thing for the future is an exploration of our labels, a review of all the unique information we provide.
Thank you, Phil.
*Their web site has since been updated!
A couple of weeks ago I picked up Sanctuary Wines 2006 Marlborough Pinot Gris from the local Sainsbury’s supermarket. Apart from liking Pinot Gris one of the other reasons the bottle made it into the trolley was the CarbonZero logo on the label, something I remembered reading about in a magazine article earlier in the year.
CarboNZero is a scheme set up in New Zealand by Landcare Research Institute to facilitate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions based around accurate measurement of those emissions, and the parent company of Sanctuary Wines, The New Zealand Wine Company became the first winery to get the certification in 2006.
The idea of being Carbon Neutral has been around for a while, with many individuals and organizations subscribing to Carbon offsetting, paying into projects that, theoretically, reduce emissions and balance their Carbon footprint. In the UK the thought of Food Miles is becoming more common and consumers are looking to buy more locally produced goods, or produce that has Green Credentials. This is something that will likely become more important for winemakers to consider as well, as much of the growing wine market is made up of the “middle class” (pardon the use of such a typically British term) who are quickly developing an environmental conscience that needs salving – I know, I consider myself one! Of course just because something is flown half-way across the world to reach the supermarket shelves doesn’t make it automatically bad, but some green labeling will always help. A New Zealand Herald article from last year has an excellent review of this idea, and its final paragraph sums up the business side of the story, with the New Zealand Wine Company expected to double its sales in the UK.
So what are the ups and downs of being a Carbon Neutral winery? As reported in the Otago Daily Times instead of using a fleet of helicopters to move the air around and stop frost damage large fans have been installed in the vineyards, while changing packaging designs has led to a 12% reduction in shipping volumes and heat-recycling projects have cut down their heating costs. On the flip side a refrigerant leak at the winery contributed 400% more emissions than the whole year’s electricity use.
The key message from the CarboNZero scheme is that accurate measurement is the first step, you have to understand what your emissions are and how they’re affected by what you do before you can make any real attempt at reducing or offsetting them. This is clearly explained on the Sanctuary Wines site; Measure – calculate emissions, Manage– reduce emissions, Mitigate – offset emissions.
As for the Pinot Gris itself? This was a refreshing wine, reminiscent of Alsace with a waxy, sweet floral nose and full aroma. Heavy in the mouth, it was a full bodied white with a rich texture, a little grapefruit bitterness on the mid-palate into a medium long finish, not a bad wine to go with a clear conscience!
Antichi Poderi Dei Marchesi di Barolo 1967 Nebbiolo d’Alba
This was a present from my partner for my 40th Birthday last year, one of 2 1967 wines she got me, the other being the Vignamaggio Chianti Classico (Vignamaggio is famous for being the location for Kenneth Branagh’s 1992 movie of Shakespeare’s Much ado about nothing). Wine from my birth year was the perfect present and since then I had often wondered whether either of them would still be drinkable and, if so, when would be an appropriate occasion.
Both companies continue to produce wine so I’d e-mailed them enquiring what they thought about the chances of the wine being worth opening. Vignamaggio quickly responded suggesting their one would be better kept as a memento, since Chianti from that era was blended with white grapes and is less likely to have withstood the rigours of time. Marchesi di Barolo didn’t send a reply, but the more I read about Nebbiolo the more it looked like this one may have some life left in it, even though Barolo tends to be thought of more as Nebbiolo’s long-lived incarnation.
So onto the occasion, and what better then the evening before my 41st birthday? I was visiting my parents for the weekend and my mother is known to enjoy a glass or two of red so I’d have someone to share with (my father and partner don’t usually drink red). There were a few raised eyebrows once they’d realised what the wine was, but there was no going back now, the time had come.
I carefully cut and removed the foil to reveal the top of the cork level with the bottle, no signs of leakage, so a good start. The corkscrew went in easily and came out easily….too easily, the cork had broken on the way out, leaving the bottom 3rd still in the neck but unfortunately not enough to get the corkscrew back into, I pushed it into the bottle instead. Unperturbed I gently decanted the wine past the cork remnants until the bottle was empty – there was no sediment and as it poured I could see the rich dark, burnt toffee colour. Apart from a couple of small specks of cork the wine was clean and, more importantly, didn’t smell bad.
I quickly poured the first glass, if there was life left in this old Italian I wanted to make sure I tasted it at all stages. There was a definite age to the nose, my mother said it smelled of an old museum, but after a couple of minutes this mellowed and a toffee sweetness came through. In the mouth this was smooth and a little acidic, with a hint of oxidation at the front, but not too much, the mid-palate has some mustiness (the museum again) with some dryness on the finish. The next glass was about 10 minutes later, and it hadn’t changed too much with the toffee sweetness smell still coming through, maybe a little stronger. There were some features of aged sherry at the beginning, a little Oloroso nuttiness, and I could detect tannins on the top of the palate, the finish was a bit longer this time. This was a light-medium bodied wine with good acidity.
After 30 minutes another glass delivered a hit of mushrooms, the sort of smell you get when you pour hot water on dried Porcinis. It was still a bit funky, a bit sweet and showed delicate legs down the side of the glass when swirled. The taste was still the same, with a touch of stewed tea for good measure, in the mouth this was a wine of textures rather than true flavour (most of which, to be honest, had probably gone 10 to 20 years ago). It seemed to be getting drier in the mouth with time, and those rehydrated Porcini mushrooms kept coming round again.
We decided to see how it went with food, cheese to be precise. A selection of white Stilton with apricot, Wensleydale, Edam and a creamy goat’s cheese was brought out and tried with a sip or two. The Goat’s cheese was the out and out winner, its salty sharpness seemed to complement and enhance the wine perfectly, turning it sweet and delicate and removing the musty acid/tannin combination. While the Edam was neutral, the white Stilton and Wensleydale went the other way, making the drink bitter.
1 hour on and I get some cigar ash on the nose and oak, like an old wooden beam, slightly toasted and darkened with age. At the end of this glass I notice the sweetness back again and suddenly it hits me – dark Muscovado sugar! We get a jar of the stuff out of the cupboard and compare, and it’s a perfect match. This similarity was the residual smell of the just emptied glass, freshly poured it was hidden by the mushroom and musty wood.
As the end of the evening drew near I had one final glass and was surprised at how little this wine had changed since opening. The nose was still the star, a heady mix of complex aromas which I’ve never experienced before in one glass. In the mouth the slightly sweet, slightly sour, slightly acid bitterness and the tea tannin finish was unremarkable except for the fact that it was not unpleasant, a dry delicate and relatively light wine, but heavy in years. I hope that I’ll be able to try more aged wines in the future and was not disappointed by this introduction.
A chilly evening in April saw the 4th Newcastle wine fair, a twice yearly event in Sprint and Autumn put together by Chris Powell of the Newcastle Wine School with local wine retailers or merchants. I’ve only missed one so far and look forward to one of the biggest wine events in the North East of England (don’t get too excited, we’re not exactly overrunning with events up here!) and a chance to see if there’s any new and interesting wines I can try out.
This year we had 6 stalls offering 41 wines, plus Chris’s “mystery wine”, his regular blind tasting competition (which I always manage to get badly wrong). From the National retailers there was Majestic and Oddbins with a good mix of Old and New World styles.
Representing the local retailers was Michael Jobling with a purely French selection, Fenwick with a range of classic varieties from around the world and a newcomer to the Fair, Tyne Wines who had an interesting French only, Beaujolais dominated table.
Wholesalers Liberty Wines was the last of the tables, with their, mainly Italian & Australian, choices available through local retailer >Richard Granger.
The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly as the room filled up; about 130 people attended this year, a little down on previous events but still enough to mean some waiting at the most popular tables.
I’d come with 2 friends from work and they headed for the wine while I quickly checked the list to see what my “must haves” were going to be before heading into the fray and going straight for the Sparklers (as most people did). This year there were only 2 on offer – the Wafflart Rose Champagne at Tyne Wines, and a Prosecco Conegliano Valdobliadienne at Majestic. The Champagne was light and dry with good fruit, but the Prosecco was really just a glassful of froth and did nothing for me.
Onto the whites, and Fenwick had the Katherine’s Vineyard 2005 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay (Cambria, California), this was heavily oaked but the overwhelming flavour was vanilla, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a vanilla hit from any white before! It was a nice wine from the same producer as one of last year’s better offerings (the Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir). Majestic had another oaky Chardonnay, the Vergelegen 2006 from Stellenbosch with a lovely toffee taste, in sharp contrast to the Tyne Wines combination of the 2007 Domaine des Arbins Beaujolais Blanc and their Domaine Bois d’Yver 2005 Chablis Premiere Cru. I don’t know if it was the earlier memory of the two oak-monsters but I preferred the creamy-but-dry Beaujolais to the steelier lemon and lime mix of the Chablis (which was still a very good wine).
The two best whites on the night were unexpected for me, one being a variety I hadn’t tried before and the other being one I don’t usually drink. Andy from Liberty Wines poured me my first Greco di Tufo, the Vesevo 2007 from Campania – with a rich aroma, complex, fruity and well balanced it was the best by far……until the ravings of my 2 friends brought me to the Oddbins table later in the evening and had a taste of their stunning Blind River 2007 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Aroma and taste were immense on this wine, gooseberry and cat-pee nose, a large attack of rhubarb in the mouth, all of which perfectly suited my palate on the night. I usually avoid Sauvignon Blanc as my partner hates the bitterness that often comes with the variety, but I think even she’d appreciate this one.
Back to Tyne Wines for their Beaujolais selection, a simple 2007 Rose and 2006 Villages Rouge from Domain des Arbins, plus a 2006 Morgon from Domaine de l’Eglantine. The Morgon had tannins and complexity to last a few years, but more enjoyable on the night was the Beaujolais Villages, bursting with Raspberries.
The red wines in general were a mixed bag, with all of the well-known varieties represented. Most unusual was the Agiorgitiko in the 2006 Gaia Notios from Nemea in the Peloponnese, Greece. This had a spicy, slightly green nose and was very smooth in the mouth, a light-medium bodied wine and not bad for my second new grape of the night. I’m not sure if it was palate fatigue, or maybe I’m just heading in a new direction, but the 2 big reds for me on the evening were both what I’d loosely call “Fruit Bombs”. First was the 2004 Grant Burge Old Vine Shiraz on the Fenwick table, rich, juicy and complex, but this was beaten by Peter Lehmann’s 2003 “The Mudflat” Shiraz Muscadelle at Oddbins. This was richer and juicier with a superb smooth roundedness, I’m guessing from the Muscadelle in the mix. Claire from the stall held up the delicious 2007 Blind River for a Kodak moment and the red on the table behind me was the Gaia Notios which somehow ended up at my home!
So Oddbins had the 2 best wines (for me at least) – and with their five other wines, including an Austrian Grüner Veltliner and a Tasmanian Pinot Gris, all being solid examples this meant that the corporate retailer came out best on the night. Even though Liberty Wines had the Greco di Tufo and a couple of nice backups (the Gran Sasso 2006 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and the 2006 “Willunga 100” McLaren Vale Grenache) I’d say they were just nudged into 3rd place by a consistent selection from Fenwick, although I didn’t have a chance to try their Croft Pink Port, with it all gone by the time I looked for it! I’ve already discussed Fenwick in an earlier R.O.T. post and it is a store I like going into, so it was a nice opportunity to photo some of their team this evening .
It was a good evening of wine tasting and over the course of 3 hours I managed to cover 37 of the different wines. This is less than the 40 I had at the first ever Fair in 2006, but since I hadn’t discovered spitting by that point the hangover the next day was unbelievable. This time the spit buckets dotted around the room were well used and I left the room upright, relatively clear headed and a readable set of tasting notes!
As for the Mystery Wine? It turned out to be a Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre blend from the Languedoc. I’m not going to embarrass myself by revealing my guess here, suffice to say I kept up my impressively bad record. I wasn’t even on the same continent and didn’t get any of the grapes (even though I also chose a 3 variety blend!). I still have a long way to go in Blind Tasting!
It was announced April 2nd at the dinner gala ‘Cornell Celebrates New York Wines’ that Cornell University will build an on-campus teaching winery for undergraduates, a welcomed addition to their three-year-old Enology and Viticultural Program. Both Enology and Viticulture classes had long been a part of the Horticultural/Food Sciences, but only graduate students hitherto could seek degrees in either speciality. Undergrads had first to major in food science of pomology, for example. This would change when it was recognized there had emerged an acute shortage of vineyard managers and winemakers to meet the increasing demand for regional expertise in cool-climate viticulture and its associated pest complexes, a demand simply not met by West Coast university programs. New York State’s wine industry has been growing dramatically; it is currently #3 in the nation in grape and wine production. In 1976 nine wineries existed; now, 220 wineries (as of this writing!) populate the state. And over 600 vineyards. (Additional details may be found here.)
The necessary next step was to offer through Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, four-year undergraduate majors in Enology and Viticulture within the larger programs of plant and food science. (Currently 35 undergrads are enrolled in this young program, and it will be capped at about 55.) But an additional refinement is now in the works for E/V majors. Under the guidance of Professor Ian Merwin E/V will be consolidated, moving it away from the plant/food sciences major. As he wrote in an e-mail, “The initial EV majors were nested within the existing undergrad programs in Horticulture and Food Science at Cornell. The new program is independent and interdisciplinary”. And as an integral part of this move will be the construction of the winery.
The winery will provide undergrads hands-on experience in winemaking, just as Cornell’s vineyards now do for budding viticulturists. Of Cornell’s vineyards Prof. Merwin writes, “[There are] 8 acres total on two research farms near the Ithaca campus. The one in Ithaca (3 acres) has entirely hybrids such as Marchal Foch, Cayuga White, Seyval, Himrod, GR7, Chancellor, Traminette, Noiret, Corot Noir, and Concord. The one 10 miles north of campus with a milder winter climate because of its proximity to Cayuga Lake consists almost entirely of vinifera cultivars (Reisling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Lemberger, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc, now about 5 acres planted).” And of the Geneva Experimental Research Station? Merwin writes, “Most of their vinifera plantings were winter killed in 2004, so the remainder would be mostly hybrid grapes developed by the grape breeding program and grape Genetics Unit in Geneva”.
The winery will be 2400 square feet, plenty of room for a substantial case production. In fact, I asked Merwin whether Cornell, like Cal State, Fresno, will be marketing wines they produce. He would very much like to, but not if it would mean Cornell might compete with small, family wineries, a possibility he is very sensitive to. In any event, the architectural plans remain the property of Beardsley Design Associates in Auburn so I cannot post them here.
Finally, while reading the Cornell Chronicle post I noticed a list of sponsors for the evening’s event. They were Stoutridge Vineyard, Antica Napa Valley, Channing Daughters Winery, Raphael Winery, and Constellation Wines US. I was curious as to why Constellation participated. Prof. Merwin wrote, “Constellation Brands is the corporate evolutionary successor of the original Taylor, NY and Canandaigua wine companies in the Finger Lakes region. Of course it is now a very different regionally and globally integrated corporation, but there are still some of the original links and Cornell people in that corporation, and they have been supportive of Cornell’s efforts to develop this new undergraduate major”.
Cornell’s undergraduate E/V brochure may be found here.
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard needs no introduction. I shall not attempt one here. I will, however, suggest interested readers take a look at a recent post at Appellation America and enjoy Mr. Grahm’s newsletters and other writings found following the Bonny Doon link above. A final note: a second, no less important part of this interview will be posted in about ten days. Mr. Grahm has graciously invited yours truly to a barrel tasting. Notes to follow! Admin
The Ca’ del Solo vineyard has been biodynamic certified since 2003. What changes in the vineyard have you noticed?
RG In fact, the vineyard was not certified until the ‘06 vintage, though we have been farming it biodynamically since ‘02 with some mixed results in the early going. In fact, we really didn’t get our biodynamic practice together until maybe ‘04, ‘05. We have really begun to see the most dramatic changes in the last few years. Better nutrient levels in the musts, much lower need for irrigation, more even ripening (though not in all blocks), but most importantly, a greater expression of minerality in the wines, evidenced both in organoleptic evaluation and confirmed through our sensitive crystalizations of the wines.
One of the curious features of Demeter, BD’s certifying agency, is that they seem to play ‘catch-up’ with accomplished vignerons. In the winery, for example, to quote Nietzsche, “All things are permitted”. Why hasn’t BD played a more aggressive rôle in setting standards for a host of techniques including micro-ox, reverse osmosis and wine additives?
RG What you have so acutely observed is perhaps just an artifact of the American Demeter organization, which until recently has had few vineyards and wineries to certify. They are trying their best to get up to speed on winemaking practice, and to adopt standards that have international applicability. I, myself, sit on the winemaking standards committee within the Biodynamic Trade Association. We have quite recently come up with a set of standards that address the particular practices that you reference. (That was the relatively speaking low-hanging fruit and only took a year and half to develop.) Soon, I am hopeful that Demeter will address grape growing practices in more specific detail, and that will be truly a major can of worms.
You’ve introduced a daring innovation in labeling, the listing of ingredients on Bonny Doon’s 2007 Ca’ del Solo Albariño and Muscat. What has been the wine industry’s reception? And the public’s?
RG Well, so far the industry and public have been relatively silent on the subject (stunned indifference), though a few wine writers seem to have noticed, as has a fellow from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who is trying to understand precisely what we are up to, and whether or not he has an ally in us. Myself, I am trying to hold our company to a certain standard. We are ourselves moving in the direction of far less adorned, interventionist winemaking and I see this particular initiative as a way of continuing our own momentum in making wines more “honest” and straightforward, “franc” the French would say. It is quite useful for consumers to educate themselves as far as what goes into a bottle of wine. Apart from alerting the profoundly allergic to a certain lurking danger (probably a relatively small fraction of the wine drinking public), more realistically it might help consumers better understand their own preferences and predilections. Maybe they find that they prefer wines w/ lower levels of SO2, unfiltered wines, etc. I’m really not trying to tell my colleagues how they should be making wine, though certainly a part of me would love to do so. I do think that if wineries were compelled to list ingredients and relevant winemaking practice, in general the quality of wines would improve, or at least the wines would be less messed with. Withal, I think that ingredient labelling is bound to come; I would just like to see it adopted intelligently.
You’ve mentioned Cosmoculture now and again. Domaine Viret, its creator, has shaken up the wine world, especially in France, with what they’ve called their ‘beyond organic and even biodynamic’ approach. Can you give readers a measure of your interest in this movement?
RG I’m not yet sure if it officially qualifies as a movement, but I am extremely interested in what the Virets are doing, with “informed water” and the strategic placing of stone menhirs as a means of aligning energetic fields within their vineyards. I am particularly interested in the possibility of making wines that have a strong life-force, i.e. the ability to tolerate multiple saturations with oxygen without themselves becoming oxidized. While I can’t, of course, make any of these claims on a wine label, I am virtually certain that these strongly anti-oxidative wines are far healthier for consumers than wines with less capacity. Maybe it is a function of greater mineral concentration – that certainly couldn’t hurt, though I’m sure that the physical manifestation of a wine is but an epiphenomenon of its energetic configuration. (That’s a pretty New Agey construct.)
As a practical matter senescence or the aging of a vine is a common occurence in the vineyard, yet it sometimes seems death has no voice, so to speak, in BD or Cosmocultural programs. How is vine death understood within BD and Cosmoculture?
RG I can’t speak for cosmoculturists, nor am I a particularly well educated anthroposophist, but certainly vine ageing/non-productivity and ultimately death is acknowledged. My guess is that it would be thought of as a weakening of the vine’s innate power/organizational forces, as far as its ability to resist Nature’s counter-force – the reduction of the living being back to its elements. Ultimately sickness and death whether it be in humans, animals or plants is Nature’s way those beings are most capable of contributing in some way to Nature’s plan. The biodynamic practice is in fact an extremely practical one and exists in the service of a larger aim – a productive and thrifty farm. Old vines are certainly acknowledged for their wisdom – old vines, especially those that are still healthy are capable of expressing qualities of complexity that younger vines cannot begin to approach. There is a very clever vigneron in the Loire by the name of Claude Courtois, who believes strongly in the community of vines (and other crops). He feels strongly that a vineyard must consist of vines of all populations, that the older vines have something valuable to teach the young ‘uns. He would never remove an entire vineyard of old vines and replace them with young ones – that would result in a sort of Lord of the Flies scenario.
And speaking of senescense, one day Robert Parker will retire. What influence might this have on the fortunes of winegrowers but also on wine reviewing generally?
RG I think that the balkanization and fragmentation of wine reviewing will generally be a very positive development as consumers will gradually find critcs who are more or less sympathetic to their personal aesthetics and winemaking values. I think that all power and influence centered around a particular individual is an artifact of a young wine drinking culture, and it makes for a certain efficiency (kind of like monotheism). But certain polyphony is a much more natural, healthier and sustainable state of affairs.
Getting back to Bonny Doon, I’ve watched the transformation of your former property on Inglas St. in Santa Cruz. I must admit I was saddened when the paintings disappeared. What has happened to them? Will you commission new art?
RG We sold the building and are currently leasing it back. The thought in selling it was to a) take advantage of what appeared to be the top of the real estate boom (good job on that, Randall), but more significantly, give ourselves a kick in the butt as far as finding a new site for a winery/vineyard and perhaps also tasting room, with luck located somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We are making plans to move the tasting room ultimately down from Bonny Doon to Ingalls St., at least for a few years (maybe more), and new beautiful murals will spring up.
My understanding is you’ve taken an interest in cement tanks. Word on the street is that you previously experimented with plaster/cement-coated oak barrels. A recent article in Wine Business Monthly suggests cement fermenters have become attractive to high-profile Cali producers. Do you plan to use them?
RG I am very interested in cement tanks, but in fact more interested in using cement as a medium to insert within the matrix of a wooden tank. (We tried one barrel and it is not so interesting, chiefly in virtue of its extreme weight and difficulty to clean.) If you plaster the interior of a wooden tank, you have the opportunity to impregnate the plaster with all sorts of interesting crystals (it’s that New Age thing again), which may well have a bearing on the life-force of the wine. We’re doing some experiments now to really test out that hypothesis. As far as the cement “egg” fermenters, this may be God’s way of telling winery owners that they have too much money. It is an enormously cool idea, but fearfully expensive. But, yes I’m intrigued.
When you settle into your new digs on the West Side of Santa Cruz do you plan to introduce new wines and high-end blends? And, if so, will you source from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA?
RG We have already introduced a few new wines in the last year – Le Vol des Anges, which is an exquisite dessert wine (botrytised roussanne) and definitely a major step up from Vin de Glaciere. We have been working on some single vineyard syrahs, including Bien Nacido as well as a few others. I would love to source more fruit from the Santa Cruz Mt. AVA, but so far have not really found the fruit that really sets me free.
Have you considered making a sparkler?
RG We made an interest pseudo-Sekt from riesling for our DEWN club, but it was a major pain in the neck. I’ll never say never. Might be fun to make from roussanne or grenache blanc.
Given the increasing sensitivity of the public to the general notion of the ‘carbon footprint’, do you think the world-wide increase in the use of screw caps might be vulnerable to the charge of being ‘anti-green’?
RG Yes, it may be, but like everything else in life, I am sure that the problem is more complex that it appears on the surface. I for one don’t know what the energy requirement is to make screwcaps vs. what it takes to process corks, and whether indeed there are aspects of the processing of corks, viz. eluting every last molecule of trichloroanisole that aren’t incredibly resource/energy intensive.
What is your current rôle with the Rhone Rangers, a movement you helped to create?
RG All-but-forgotten progenitor.
You have been quite a prolific producer, both in the wine world and with your writings. You have read widely. Might you have a book in you?
RG There was a book in me, but it is now in the hands of an extremely prestigious publisher. There is some editorial review that needs to occur, but if the stars align, it should be coming out a year from this Fall.
What books are you currently reading?
RG Haven’t had much time for fiction (sigh), but have been reading “The Holographic Universe” by Michael Talbott – a sort of unified theory of everything. On a more personal side, I’ve been reading “Undefended Love,” a self-help book for conquering one’s fear of intimacy.
Where are you in your quest to find appropriate land for the plantation of a grand cru vineyard in the New World?
RG Going in circles.
Thank you very much, Randall.
(Let me add that I was intrigued by Mr. Grahm’s reference to a forthcoming book. In a separate e-mail he wrote this:
“The working title of the book is Been Doon So Long…. and it is a compendium of essays, poems, stories, etc., many of which appeared in the BDV newsletters over the years. We still have a few hurdles to clear, but it does appear very likely that UC Press will be publishing it in Fall ‘09.”)
Newhaven Harbour, Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland
I was not expecting a business trip to Edinburgh to provide much material for an article – deep fried haggis balls and very good curries washed down with gallons of beer doesn’t fit into the Reign of Terroir mission statement! However I was pleased to discover the hotel was next to a Loch Fyne Seafood restaurant and managed to have a pleasant evenings dining on the recommendation of my colleague Matt, who has frequented their sister restaurant in Newcastle’s Gosforth area.
Loch Fyne is named for the sea-loch on the west coast of Scotland famous for its oysters, and the company started as an oyster farm and bar in the 1980s, with the first restaurant opening in 1990. Since then it has grown to 38 premises throughout the UK (39 if you include the Sheffield restaurant due to open this week) and has garnered a reputation for quality seafood and a dedication to sustainability in its produce – they use the Gaelic saying “Nach Urramach an Cuan” (How worthy of honour is the sea) on their site. In 2007 the chain was bought by Greene King, the largest British owned brewery in the UK.
As I looked through the wine list (a copy of which is available on their web-site) I noticed a lack of obvious brand names and, although predominantly French, an interesting range of styles and types. The menu had enough variation to come up with several tempting alternatives for the meal, but as the waiter went through the evenings specials and came to “Fish & Chips” I knew what to go for – I’m a sucker for the traditional stuff! Once that decision was made I chose a Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Sur Lie, as an accompaniment, the Domaine des Dorices Cuvee Choisie 2006 Vieilles Vignes. I’ve had this style of Loire Valley white before and have not been disappointed.
A bowl of lobster bisque came first, served with bread and aioli. The rich soup had an almost “earthy’ flavour and was delicious, and I appreciated the strong garlic mayo! Matt went for the peppered smoked mackerel pâté and oatcakes, a full flavoured pâté (from the small taste I had). The Fish & Chips arrived with a small bowl of minted mushy peas (good taste, although a little desiccated) & tartar sauce. The fish, a good sized haddock fillet, was delicious and full flavoured, very meaty with a golden batter, while the chips (that’s fries to the Americans!) were the best I’ve had for a while, especially dipped in ketchup and mayo! The fish was maybe a touch dry but that’s more of an observation rather than a criticism.
Throughout the enjoyable eating experience was the Muscadet. This had a delightful pear and apple nose and a slight frizzante on the tip of the tongue, moderate glycerol texture and a nice creamy dryness and good acidity – overall a very good wine with the food.
Before leaving I asked restaurant manager Lisa about their wine list. She was very helpful and explained how the company MD, who owns a chalet in France, visits the country regularly and is keen to source as many wines as possible direct from local suppliers rather than through merchants or wholesalers. This explains the mostly brand free, predominantly old-world wines on the menu, many of whose producers are, as stated on the wine list, “eco-friendly or organic in their grape growing and vinification techniques”.
A case in point it the Domaine des Dorices Muscadet I tried, produced by the Boullault family, near the town of Vallet, this winery proudly reports controlled chemical fertilisation, minimum chemical pesticide use and intervention with non-polluting products.
After a filling meal the prospect of dessert or coffee was too much for both of us, so we thanked Lisa for her help and happily settled the £50 ($100) final bill. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Loch Fyne, the food and wine were excellent and I now need to try out the one in Newcastle to see if this is true of all their restaurants!
The Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT) will host the 2nd Annual Earth Day Food & Wine Festival April 19th. The event will be held from 1 pm to 5 pm at the historic Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia in Santa Margarita, Ca.
CCVT, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, began in 1994 when a small group of growers, wineries, and resource professionals met to create a sustainable winegrowing program on the Central Coast of California. (A seperate article forthcoming) In 1999, 200 copies of their newsletter were distributed; by 2008, 30,000 copies are sent out! For a timeline of their remarkable growth see this.
But this event is about more than wine. Locally farmed organic produce, olive oils, Fair Trade coffees, meats and artisanal cheeses will be offered in addition to educational booths; Bee keepers, chocolateers, restaurants (one of my personal favorites, Villa Creek, will be in attendance), a lavender farm, green landscapers, the list of participants goes on and on. (A full listing may be found here.)
This is the Central Coast’s premier Earth Day event.
Directions may be found here.
Please see this update for 2009.
On March 26th Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe issued a press release showing the discovery of synthetic insecticide and fungicide residues in a selection of 40 bottles of wine bought within the EU. Since the release I’ve read several related media and wine world offerings, although I don’t believe any of the single articles covered the range and implications of the topic and most disappointed me on the lack of detail and interpretation.
- WineCountry.co.za provides a sensational headline “South African Wine poisonous” (ironic since the only South African wine in the study had only trace levels of anything remotely dangerous), is light on detail, suggests a “storm in a teacup” but finishes on an optimistic tone about how the S.A. industry will improve.
- Jamie Goode shows the good research and offers some reasonable comments, although his summary plays down the importance of the findings and only looks at consumer side of the story.
- Wine Business International provides a light summary of the story and is a balanced mainstream view on the topic.
The use and issues of agrochemicals in the wine industry is not a new story, in 2002 the ATF started testing wines for these materials and California has had its own lobby group, CATs, since 1982 but this goes further back than that. In 1969 Champagne producer Jacques Beaufort needed medical treatment for an allergy to synthetic chemicals and 18 months later he stopped using pesticides on his family vines and started a practice of alternative methods for viticulture and vinification. The French site Grains Nobles does the story justice en Français (for the non French speaking Babel FISH makes a passable translation to cover the key points!), including his use of aromathérapie (inc. aromatic oils for mildew treatment) and l’homéopathie.
Back to the PAN Europe report. The full research, carried out by Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in France, Germany and Austria, showed that all of the 34 bottles of conventionally produced wine showed traces of at least one, and as many as 10, chemicals, yet out of the 6 organically produced wines only one showed a low trace of one of the less dangerous substances, the other 5 being completely free of contaminants. The supporting information sheet contains the key facts to interpret the results and, as Jamie Goode points out, the levels of chemicals analysed in the wine are minute, typically in single or double digit ug/kg (micrograms per kilogram), and there is no suggestion that the wines are actually hazardous to health in any direct sense. However Jamie then references these concentrations to LDL50 or MRL values, the former referring to doses that KILL 50% of the test population and the latter a measurement of what has actually been found on samples (and not related to what is a safe level) – so neither is relevant to help our understanding on whether something is safe for widespread human consumption. It is known that 5% of grapes tested in earlier studies “contained pesticides in excess of legal limits” and also that “30% of pesticide substances (on grapes) could be transferred into wines”, also stating that “significant levels of pesticides present in the grapes were nonetheless transferred to the wines”.
To try and cut through the confusion I asked some questions to Elliot Cannel, the UK coordinator for PAN Europe, on the research and how it may affect the wine world. While he did qualify that he wasn’t an agronomist the advice seems reasonable:
- on residue levels compared to fruit & vegetables found in stores; “the EU sets legal limits for pesticides in raw fruit and vegetables. There are none for wine or other processed foods. So we’re unable to make that comparison”
- on the minimum acceptable levels of the contaminants; “as far as I am concerned, for pesticides such as procymidone – which is an EU classified carcinogen, reprotoxin, and endocrine disruptor, I don’t think any amount in food is acceptable.”
- on practical advice to winemakers who can’t realistically remove pesticides from their options. “I’d advise anyone producing food to stay away from using pesticides classified in the EU as being ‘carcinogenic’, ‘mutagenic’, ‘reprotoxic’ or ‘endocrine disrupting’. Secondly, I’d ask farmers to look at cutting back on pesticide use. Farmers in Denmark, for example, have cut back on pesticide use by 50% over the last 20 years.”
None of this suggests that what was found in the wine is actually dangerous to the consumer, but what about the producer? The Jacques Beaufort anecdote above shows the effects this can have on health and the BBC reported last year on related research on increased brain tumours for agricultural workers exposed to high levels of pesticides. The last page of the PAN report discusses the health impacts on vineyard workers and it is worrying reading – citing higher incidences of “allergic rhinitis, respiratory problems, cancers, and chromosomal and nuclear abnormalities, as well as lower neurological capacities.”
The French government, worried about health risks and water contamination, is already looking at allocating money to help reduce the use of pesticides and Denmark (and Sweden & Norway) have been involved in a Government based pesticide reduction/taxation program since the mid-1980s. This was touched upon by Elliot, “Yes, they were given support from the Danish government in doing so, but Danish fruits and vegetables are now six times less contaminated than equivalent imports.”
For me this is the immediate concern of the PAN Europe report, not that wine drinkers are at risk, because I doubt they are, but that this is an indirect sign of the volume and toxicity of the pesticides used in winemaking which is going to have a direct effect on those industry workers, the land they pump these chemicals onto, the waterways they drain into and which concentrates them into exotic cocktails which can have unknown effects on wildlife and the general food chain which, ultimately, has humans at the top.
Not every producer can afford to be organic or biodynamic but Elliot’s take home message for the industry seems appropriate to end the article – “cut out the worst pesticides, and cut back on the rest”.
Did you ever wonder how some wine professionals can look, smell and taste a wine and deduce the grape, country, region and year produced without knowing what the wine was in advance? Some even can tell the producer or the winemaker. The name for such sleuthing is called Blind Tasting. It takes years of practice and lots of skill to be an accomplished blind taster. Especially in today’s wine world where modern winemaking has blurred the traditional typical designators that indicate where a wine is from.
All the major wine education programs, the WSET & Master of Wine program, ISG, Society of Wine Educators and the Court of Master Sommeliers, have designated tasting rules to train palates for blind tasting. The Court of Master Sommeliers is unique in the respect they deduce the wine origins orally whereas most the other programs the blind tasting is written. To pass the certifications within their program you have 4 minutes to individually give an oration on the different aspects of the wine to come to a decision of where a wine comes from and its detailed components that tell you what it is. They call the process “The Grid”.
I brought a bottle of wine to Chef Peter Garcia (PG), Certified Sommelier and Cathy Nguyen (CN), Certified Sommelier of El Meson Restaurant in Houston to blind taste. Instead of the customary “double blind” where they know nothing about the wine in the glass in front of them, they did know the theme was Cabernet Franc, but they had to figure out where in the world the wine came from and what year it was produced. They know I write about Bordeaux for WWW.ReignofTerroir.com, but they also know from previous experience, I’m likely to throw them a serious curve ball, so nothing could be certain. They still haven’t forgiven me for switching an inexpensive lean California Chardonnay into a Premier Cru white Burg bottle a couple years ago. True to form, I threw them another with this tasting.
Instead of doing the tasting as the quick 4 minute grid, and giving their results, we still followed “The Grid” rules, but we audio taped the entire detailing all their thoughts. So we have for you all the intricacies of the deductive reasoning skills of finding out where the wine came from. So, if you ever wanted to know how wine professionals amazingly blind taste wines, this is how they do it:
Donna (DCT): To start, I’d like to talk about people taste wine, but they don’t taste it like professionals do, they understand professionals blind taste, but they aren’t exposed the processes and the reasoning behind those processes, paying attention to “The Grid”. The grid is rigid in it’s processes, but I’d like to display for the readers what goes on in your minds while your working your way through a blind tasting.
PG: I’d like to say, it’s a 4 minute procedure and instead of quickly running through it, we’ll detail it and footnote it as we go along. Immediately we’ll jump in and look at the appearance. And right away I see this wine color it is of high concentration, in other words as I’m passing my hand underneath the glass, I can’t see my hand, so it gives me a full concentration. If you see half your hand or a part of it, that’s medium and then if you see your hand clearly that’s light concentration. That could either be an indication of a variety of things, of the varietal or the youth of wine. This is a red wine of course, it should be said, right now I can see the rim to core variation and that’s the difference between the density in the center of the appearance as you tilt the glass away from you to the rim and the appearance of the rim. Right now I see a light color on the rim, but it’s very dense in the center so the variation is minimal, an older wine would show much more variation, more graduation of hues and colors. This wine is not that old. We’ll see what “not that old” means in a moment, we’re going to put that in our back of our mind, because not that old could be 7 years, 3 years or 1 year.
PG: Also the brilliance of the wine will give you an indication to the varietal of the wine and even how it was made. Right now I say the brilliance is moderate plus, this wine is not exceptionally brilliant, but it’s not lackluster wine by the looks of it. The color is say dark coffee to red cherry color, this is not a garnet wine, garnet is more ruddy more rusty colored to that direction, this wine is more ruby red. That immediately takes care of the appearance, there’s no gas or unusual things you should be concerned with, it’s clear in all respects, from the appearance, well made.
PG: (smelling the wine) on the nose, immediately you note it’s not defective, it has a wonderful aroma. Strawberries and Cherries. Cherries primarily, big cherries, it has a lot of zing. It has fennel, cocoa, (smelling again) once again, cherries, herbs, some dill, cinnamon, baking spices, that leads me to believe this wine has been aged in oak. Cassis! Currants, the Crème de Cassis behind any American bar. Take a whiff of that and it’s what you get. But the aromas are highly pronounced, they come at you, they don’t have to be coaxed out. That also leads me to believe this wine is relatively young.
I get vanilla, definitely vanilla, dill, not so much dill, but vanilla.
DCT: I’m getting that dill aspect on it, it’s like whenever you open up a package of Gravalax salmon, it’s like popping out at me. (Laughing) Minus the fish smell of course!
PG: The vanilla is workin’ it. Dig out the vanilla. This is all oak footprints here.
What I like about these aromas is they are welded together nicely; it’s a nice one perfume. It’s got some floral characteristics as a secondary.
DCT: Cathy, what would you add to that?
CN: Like the herbs, I mean, I’m getting a lot of herbs, like rosemary, eucalyptus.
PG: It’s definitely highly complex; immediately you’re elevating it in your mind, this is a wine of quality. Because you’re smelling a lot of different things on many levels.
DCT: I agree.
PG: There’s no defects in the nose, we’ve identified our descriptors, fruits…..
CN: Combination of red and black fruits…..
PG: Have we discussed minerality?
CN: We haven’t?
PG: Yea, we haven’t. I’m definitely getting wet pebbles and wet river stones.
CN: Well, I mean, definitely as far as minerality is concerned, it’s dark soils, there’s a wetness to the stones, you don’t get the damp clay, it’s got a little bit of that funk like in after its been raining and kind of mildewey. After it’s been raining all night and it’s really humid out, that funk after you walk past fresh cut grass.
PG: After it’s been raining?
CN: (Laughing) It’s got that kind of funk after its raining and really humid…….
PG: Slick streets in the city of New York (Laughing), yes. Yes its wet pavement, wet slate, if you grow up in Catholic school, which I did, and you’re told to clean the black board and you get a wet cloth, you can smell the wet slate and chalk. I find that a lot in good quality wines. It takes me back to my elementary school days.
CN: It’s like on the exhale after taking a drink; it has that dry sense if you’ve been inhaling wet chalk.
PG: Speaking of more fruits, I’m getting big blueberries here. What do you think?
DCT: Hmmmm, (smelling deeply) but it’s not cooked fruit for me though.
PG: That’s another dimension, is it cooked or fresh?
CN: It’s pretty ripe though.
DCT: It’s ripe, but it’s more like where the berries are sagging on the vine and they haven’t been picked, but they haven’t gone over the edge to the cooked stage yet.
PG: Another distinction is whether the wine is very winey in the smell or fruity.
CN: At first it was winey, but as it’s opened up, it’s fruitier. Nice vinosity.
PG: I think here it’s a perfect balance, it gives you the best of both worlds, if it’s overly fruity in the nose, I tend to fear it’s flabby in the palate.
CN: I feel the longer it opens up, the more fruit showing, but at the same time it’s not losing any of its mineral or earth characteristics.
PG: I failed to mention viscosity or it’s “tears”. By looking at how the tears run or how the color of the wine attaches itself to the glass. Shiraz is classic for that. It’s going to give you an indication of high alcoholic content, indicating a warm climate, warm climate of course, providing more sugars in the fruit, providing more alcohol in the wine because of the heat. On the other hand it could be highly viscous wine as a result of residual sugar.
We all taste the wine with lots of rolling and slurping noises.
PG: Let’s confirm our nose experiences. Strawberries.
CN: Bing Cherries.
DCT: Screaming bing cherries. It’s like when you open a bag of those Chilean cherries and you’re sitting there munching in the supermarket….those big huge suckers that paint your mouth…….
CN: And then on the finish you get that nuttiness from the pit of the cherries.
PG: Yea! Now you’re getting the tannins, is that the tannins from the skins or of the barrels? Now, I wasn’t overwhelmed by wood on the nose….and the tannins I’m feeling on my palate, now there’s some wood there… but …
DCT: I’m getting more tannins from the woody stems versus the oak barrels. It’s not that upfront tannin from oak. I don’t think it’s going to be a really long ager, but a really graceful ager. It’s really elegant.
PG: Like one of the things….sometimes I look at a wine and I get the sensation of a bloody mary with a celery stick in it except it’s not a bloody mary, but it’s a wine and it’s got a 2×4 in it.
PG: It’s a pity, this wine though shows elegance in the way it balances the tannins of the wood and the fruit. So that’s interesting and it’s got that cherry pit thing going on.
DCT: It’s like rolling those cherry pits around in your mouth.
PG: Can we confirm any baking spices in the wine?
DCT: Big on the vanilla, but no baking spices….no cinnamon…..there’s absolutely no heat on this wine.
PG: I don’t get any white or black pepper on the back palate.
CN: There’s no cloves or anything like it. But at the same time, the fruit, I’m not saying it’s a fruit forward wine, it’s standing up to the wood, we were smelling dill, but the fruit is standing up to it, so I’m debating whether this is a higher alcohol or warmer climate….
PG: So lets call it. Is this a high alcohol wine?
CN: Oh no, I would call it medium. If it was high alcohol it would be filling the cheeks of my mouth.
PG: The acid really balances it out. If the acid could mask the high alcohol level, I think it’s around 13% or 13.5% alcohol. So this wine has higher acid than what you would expect, but it matches the alcohol and balances it out.
Now the minerality,……..it’s all there, the rocks we talked about earlier.
CN: It’s dusty though…..
PG: Dusty tannins…that indicates some age….
CN: It’s just a little bit….
PG: Well I mentioned earlier the colour led us to believe it’s not that old, but the finer the tannins get the older the wine is, so I think we’re in the 3-7 year range.
CN: I agree with that….
PG: Not younger than three, at least 5, not more than 7, after 7 years of age, you’re going to see more rim to core variation, more ruddy color in the rim.
Now we know it’s from a continental climate at least. We know this wine has a high quality, it has an excellent finish, it’s balanced, high minerality, we’re not talking new world here. This is certainly not Napa Valley; this is a little cooler than Napa. Besides Bordeaux where else do they make Cabernet Franc?
CN: Washington State.
PG: Maybe you’re on to something……
CN: But Washington is not gravelly.
PG: You’re right……
CN: Washington is new world, but it has that volcanic minerality.
PG: Are you getting any Bret?
CN: No, but there’s that after the rain funk.
PG: We’re eliminated California, Washington is on our radar scope, but not really considering it. What about Australia?
CN: I don’t have a 2×4 in here.
PG: What’s in New Zealand…..??
CN: Definitely not that….
CN: This has more acid, Chile, unless you’re talking top of the peaks, you’re not getting acid from Chile.
CN: Same thing as Chile and the 2×4 is not there.
PG: Where does that leave us?
CN: Not Spain, it’s not cooked.
PG: Spain would have more intensity…. South Africa
CN: Not funky enough, doesn’t have that dirty feet smell…. What about Italy?
PG: Okay, let’s consider Italy. Where are they making Cabernet Franc in Italy?
CN: You’re right. Point taken.
PG: So we’re back to France, go back to the nose, smell the nose and the aromas and see if you can plot out any bicycle tire.
CN: Its not as potent a bicycle tire. A new sneaker.
PG: Converse Chuck Taylors!
CN: Yes, that rubber, vulcanized rubber, no glue, smells like an ointment.
PG: These chemical odors, you see them a lot in Bordeaux, iodine etc. This strengthens my case for Bordeaux.
DCT: So name it.
PG: It’s not St. Emilion, it’s too masculine for that, it’s Pomerol, 2004.
CN: Pomerol, 2002 or 2003.
PG: So what is it?
DCT: Chateaux Vieux Certan 2003. 80% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot.
PG : A Pomerol with 80% Cabernet Franc ?
DCT: Remember the vintage of 2003?
CN: The summer was really hot so more Cab Franc was used in the blend.
The debate on the wine then went on another 20 minutes. 2003 was called the California Vintage in Bordeaux. Ripeness levels were a record high. While the right bank of Bordeaux is made primarily from Merlot, on very warm vintages, the Cabernet Franc begins to shine and you see more of that grape used in the blend, with the winemaker balancing the higher acid of the Cabernet Franc with the over ripe Merlot. If a traditional blend was used of 80% Merlot to 20% Cabernet Franc, the wine due to the ripeness levels of the Merlot would have probably been on the flabby side.
This is case in point of why Bordeaux blends their red varietals, maintaining the consistency of the wines. When one year a varietal doesn’t perform as well due to weather conditions another may perform very well with those factors bringing a consistent and excellent product regardless of vintage. Chateaux Vieux Certan has a very clever winemaker.
I’ve been critical on the 2003 vintage, even though the critics have been lauding it. I’ve found quite a few wines ready to drink now and that’s been a good thing, but I personally don’t think they have the aging power of a traditional vintage. Chateaux Vieux Certan shocked me with how excellent this wine was. Can’t speak highly enough about its elegance.
Though it was a tough year for France, this is a wine that shows careful decisions made with the blend. And it’s case in point why Bordeaux blends their wines versus bottling single only varietals. Cabernet Franc performs exceptionally well in soil of Chateau Vieux Certan. This Chateau is well worth collecting.
Alexandre Theinpont turned what for others was a difficult vintage for Bordeaux into something truly extraordinary. He should be very proud of this vintage.
Reign of Terroir is pleased to participate in our first ever Wine Blogging Wednesday. For a brief explanation of its origins visit this link. This month’s topic, selected by Gary Vaynerchuk of WLTV, is French Cabernet Franc wines.
Our first entry is written by Greybeard, followed by yours truly, the Admin; Donna has written an excellent ’stand alone’ piece on how wine professionals conduct a blind tasting. Her effort deserves to be posted by itself. I will do so later today. Admin
Greybeard writes: It’s good to know Gary Vaynerchuk and I have at least one thing in common, we both have a special affinity for single varietal Cabernet Franc. So when he announced that WBW 44 was on the French version of this grape I was more than happy to break open a bottle and participate on behalf of Reign of Terroir.
For me this stems back to our family vacation in the Loire Valley in 2006 (my first trip to a wine region) where we rented an old farmhouse building in the village of Fougerolles, just outside the town of Bourgueil. We have wonderful memories of touring the region – Tours, Chinon, Saumur , Vouvray and several Chateaux in the area – plus sampling a fair amount of the local wines! I quickly became a fan of the reds made exclusively from Cabernet Franc (the grape is known locally as Breton). While the Loire in general may be better known for its white and rosé wines the basic Breton reds have a rustic charm and improve into serious quality wines as you move up the scale to the better offerings from Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, the smaller neighbouring appellation of St. Nicholas de Bourgueil and finally to Chinon, the leader of Loire Cabernet Francs and historic fortress city at the heart of English-French politics & war for more than 300 years.
It was one of the bottles I brought back from this trip, the Marchesseau Fils 2003 Bourgueil, Cuvée Vieilles Vignes which was sacrificed in the name of Wine Blogging. This was purchased from the Maison du Vin in Bourgueil for the princely sum of £5 ($10 now, at the time closer to $8) and was due for drinking this year or next.
On the nose this has a strong raspberry reduction aroma and a rich oaky vanilla in the background with a subtle touch of menthol. The colour is deep and dark, promising something heavy, but surprisingly it is a little light in the mouth with firm tannins at the front and a smooth texture on the mid-palate quickly moving into a medium finish. This is a nicely balanced wine which I opened with friends and happily finished off myself to complete this article, 88pts.
Looking back through my tasting notes for other Loire Cab-Francs I came across 2 reds, from Saumur-Champigny and Chinon, and 2 Bourgueil rosés (rarities, as rosé accounts for less than 4% of production in Bourgueil) – all from the same summer 2006 vacation.
1) Daheuiller Domaine des Varinelles 2003 Vieilles Vignes, AOC Saumur Champigny – “rasperry jam nose with a smooth, balanced mouthfeel – not tannic. Slightly burnt flavour (good) and refreshing. 90pts.”
2) Domaine René Couly 2004, AOC Chinon – “rich and mellow nose, some light fruit. Very smooth tannins, almost silky/velvety. 90pts”
3) J.M Rouzier, “Les Géléries” 2005, AOC Bourgueil – “refreshing, fruity nose. Sour cherry Marzipan taste. 88pts”
4) Jacky Girard 2005, AOC Bourgueil – “ dry Rose, not much on fruit but very refreshing. 84pts”
While maybe not as beefy as Bordeaux, or as elegant as Burgundy, French Cabernet Franc from the Val de Loire can be a delight, and a bargain at the same time, and I’m glad I still have a few bottles left to come back to over the next couple of years. These reds are not too common in the stores around the UK, although Waitrose has a few to choose from, and I’d heartily recommend giving them a try if you haven’t experienced this region before.
Admin writes: My selection hails from Saumur Champigny AOC, the 2003 Clos Rougeard. The owners, the Foucault brothers, Nadi and Charles, have long been organic producers, though my understanding is that they have recently been Biodynamic certified or are in transition. (Beaune Imports has posted a fine gloss on their efforts written by Clive Coates.) Nadi and Charles produce three Cab Franc cuvées, Saumur Champigny, approx. 1500 cases; “Les Poyeux”, around 900 cases (Fork & Bottle has a nice review of the 2000); and “Le Bourg”, 300 cases. Full details may be found here. Finally, Andrew Jefford writes in his excellent The New France, “All are produced with very low yields, wild yeasts, long and soft macerations, oak-ageing (with a proportion of new oak), and bottled without filtration; they age as well as any”.
The cork broke as I pulled it out, but the wine was fine. Let it breath for a few hours as their wines are known to tight when so young. Tar and licorice on the nose; tons of raspberry jam, reduced dark cherries, and freshly sharpened pencil wood and lead; alc stated to be 12.5% but it feels hotter in the nose; very heady. The wine is easy to see through; very interesting hint of dark brick. On the palate, beautiful, bright fruit, with bitter chocolate sans sugar on the mid-palate to finish. Vegetal, bell pepper or jalapeño (?) Maybe green apple skin. Tannins softer than I expected (even though I opened this beauty far too soon), acid a bit strong. No oak to speak of on the palate but detectable on the nose. I can sense why this is their ‘entry level’ cuvée: just enough complexity to ’set the hook’ for the their more expensive bottlings! All in all, a bar-raising Cab Franc. Delightful.
On the West Coast bottles may be found as of this writing at The Wine House and The Wine Country. Price: $36-$40.
Donna’s contributions to follow.