Domaine Du Prince, AOC Cahors, Terroir And Quality

Ξ May 27th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Domaine du Prince is located in the south of the commune of Saint-Vincent-Rive-d’Olt. A few kilometers from the Lot River, just 15 minutes by car west of Cahors, all of its vineyards are situated atop a plateau; and as with all regional plateaux above the Lot, they share what are generally agreed to be the finest soils of AOC Cahors. Though the geochemistry is complex, a plateau’s high clay and calcareous, limestone soil blend helps maintain pH balance and improves water retention, so stabilizing a vine’s nutrient requirements, especially important in the warmer clime of these higher elevations. The wines from plateau vineyards tend to have higher acidity and, with proper canopy management, sugar and phenolic ripeness more often coincide with each harvest. The Malbec grape grown here will promise lower yields, richer aromas and firmer tannins. And should Merlot, an authorized blending grape, also be grown it, too, will share in this promise.
 
While in Cahors I was consistently told that the plateau terroir not only offers the greatest growing and slow ripening advantages, but that the finished wines are ‘classical’ expressions of the AOC. Though less than a third of all wine production comes from diverse plateaux vineyards, most sold under private labels, and though negociants typically buy from vineyards planted in alluvial soils, I cannot be certain that in a blind tasting I could always pick a wine from the plateau. But one wine that for me did emerge as a benchmark for what is meant by ‘classical’ is the beautiful wine Lou Prince from the Domaine du Prince.
 
First a bit about the family. Genealogy traces the Jouves name back to the 16th century, though a reader of old French could take it back much further. Domaine du Prince takes its name from an ancestor who while in Paris brought some wine to the King of France (another version has it the Tsar of Russia). Because he drew near the King this ancestor was nicknamed by his village the ‘Prince’. Even on official documents, on tax papers of the era, for example, the name reads Prince Jouves. The Jouves’ family has been in the wine business for generations, though they also grew cereals, vegetables and raised diverse farm livestock. It was only about 40 to 50 years ago that the vineyards of the Domaine began to be the main product; they still have cattle, sheep, and grow some cereals, but only for family use. Other farms in the area have also shifted solely to commercial wine production. This is not too surprising given that the soils are not suited for many agricultural products other than the vine, and that water for irrigation is scarce. It is to the fecund plains and valleys nearer the river that historically many farmers turned.
 
Domaine du Prince produces a number of different wines on their 27 hectares of which just 2 are used for Lou Prince. This chosen vineyard, roughly 38 years old, yields around 2,400 bottles, yes, bottles per year. Recent notice of this wine has led to the sober prediction that demand will far outstrip supply in the very near future. They already sell more than they produce, having to market increasingly scarce holdings of older vintages. Owners and winemakers Hélène and husband Didier Jouves, along with his brother Bruno, have limited land available to expand production that will reliably guarantee the same high quality. A small select block on the same terroir in the immediate area has been planted recently. These young vines should be productive in three to four years.
 
A wine producer working a single vineyard, Hélène explains to me, knows his land, knows individual vines by heart, when to harvest and, therefore, strongly senses what will be the quality of the finished wine. Drainage, cluster sensitivity to rain, disease pressures, weather patterns, all are part of the knowledge gained by experience. The continuity of historical memory becomes of decisive importance. And that is why the hectares of vineyard 30 yards away will not produce the same quality. The winemaker knows he will fool no one, he knows he will not be true to himself should he dilute the specific qualities of one vineyard with the grapes of another.
 
The Lou Prince vineyard yields about 30 to 35 hectoliters per hectare (roughly 730 to 950 gallons) from a maximum of 4 tons of grapes, all manually harvested. The clay soils are very deep here with among the deepest rooted vines on the property. The Lou Prince vines will suffer less during the hot summer months without rain owing to the clay’s superior retention and parsimonious release of water.
Then Didier gets at the heart of the matter with the observation that very few producers in AOC Cahors really know their own terroirs. They may have some on their property, but they don’t know how to identify or use them. The recent push by the local wine authorities for higher quality has everything to do with educating winegrowers on how to properly think their land. The Malbec Days celebration itself serves to bring into focus the importance of terroir. Hélène forcefully adds,
 
Hélèle Jouves “His father’s generation was just doing wine. They were not doing quality wine. They were planting vines anywhere and wherever there was room. That’s how the previous generations did things. Now the young generation is learning how to use the terroir, how to work the vineyards, in order to have good wine, even though they have been raised like the old ones. It is hard for the young to make the older generation understand what it is we are doing in the vineyard. When we are doing green harvesting, for the older generation it’s like we are throwing away wine. His father [Didier's] was sick when he saw him doing it! He didn’t even want to see the vineyards. He’d say ‘It’s impossible! How can they do that!’ Now? He’s happy to sell the Lou Prince. He knows. He can tell the difference. But most of the winemakers in the Cahors area are not at that point yet. They’re still thinking that the more wine there is, the better it is.”
 
And of the use of chemicals in their vineyards, Domaine du Prince pursues la lutte raisonnée approach. They grow in a windy, dry place so they don’t really need to use much. Near the river, anyplace where humidity and fog are issues, they would have to think differently. But not here. They do use sulphur, and bit of copper (cuivre) but only to save the crop. This, too, is a change from the older generation when chemicals of all stripes and strengths were used whether the vines needed it or not. They wanted to be sure and used chemicals all the time, including lots of copper. Now, if it is not needed, it is not used.
 
From the vineyard we drove to the winery built by the Jouves family, in recent years expanded in response to their growth. Though Lou Prince may be made in miniscule quantities, the winery as a whole produces 100,000 bottles from their combined acreage. Of these, 60,000 to 70,000 bottles are sold per year out of the winery itself. Quite good for a winery which, as Hélèle says, is in the middle of nowhere. She adds that locals know of Domaine du Prince’s reputation for high quality at competitive prices. But it is all word of mouth. They do not advertise. Their interest in the export market is to help sell the balance, some 30%. Should that prove successful, they have the capacity to produce 150,000 bottles. The extra 50,000 are virtual bottles, so to say, in that they currently sell the wine in bulk to negociants. They would prefer to put it under their own label. Should the export market show interest they most certainly will move in that direction.
 
Hélène Jouves “Many producers would prefer to put their wine under their own label rather than sell in bulk. Not long ago selling wine in bulk was still profitable. The price was good. Little work was required. They didn’t have to pay for the bottles. It was easy and easy to sell. You wouldn’t make a lot of money, but you could get a price for what it was worth. But now, the price is so low that you no longer earn money selling in bulk. So everybody tries to give more value to these wines by selling in bottle. Also the temptation is to overcrop which drives the prices down further. To increase the quality is the key to higher prices. But when selling in bulk it doesn’t matter the quality. The price is exactly the same for good and bad wines. One doesn’t help the other.”
 
I should add that their Lou Prince is what is known in the region as a Charte de Qualité wine about which I shall have more to say in a later post. Suffice to say it is a new, rigorous certification program that seeks to find the finest wines from the finest terroirs in AOC Cahors. The idea is to forcefully promote to winemakers the very real relation between quality and terroir. Each year rarely more than half the wines submitted, from the beginning a small number, meet its strict tasting protocols. Indeed, so daunting are the program’s standards that many producers decline to attempt it. Many, however, do make the attempt, thereby raising the international profile of the AOC as a whole.
 
In any event, Domaine du Prince offers a wide variety of wines, from a ‘bag in a box’, to the Charte de Qualité Lou Prince, and everything in between. And all but the ‘bag in a box’ are under cork. Lafite corks in the case of Lou Prince. (Cork closures are near universal in the AOC Cahors.) Though they have never had a tainted bottle of Lou Prince, TCA occasionally finds its way into other bottlings. More disturbing is the anti-cork attitude of some importers, Chinese and American principally. Some insist on screwcaps as a condition for doing business.
Back in the tasting/bottling room every effort is on display. A customer finishes his purchase. Off in one corner is a pallet of Lou Prince destined for New York. Outside I hear chickens. I am given a taste of the spectacular 2005 Lou Prince. Beautiful. Then a bottle. My spirits soar.
 
I met the youngest of their three children, a young boy already fascinated by the vineyard. Despite the sad fact of AOC Cahors vineyards being sold because the children refuse the patrimony, thankfully another generation of Domaine du Prince winegrowers is assured.
 
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A Vineyard With Soul, Laurent Rigal’s Prieure De Cenac

Ξ May 25th, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Technology, Wine News, Young Winemakers |

It sometimes happens in life that you meet a person of such spiritual dedication that you think things differently, your world-view nudged in a new direction. Such was my encounter with Laurent Rigal, son of Franck Rigal, family winemakers for Château de Grezels and Prieuré de Cenac in Parnac, AOC Cahors. On the first night of Malbec Days here in Cahors, what was called the Pré-ouverture, a kind of sneak preview, I tasted only a small number of wines, a few of which immediately caught my attention, this despite the tremendous heat inside the venue (I was told air conditioning was too expensive to install, coming in at around €10,000). Of those wines, one stuck in my imagination, ‘La Vierge’, from the Prieuré de Cenac vineyard. By virtue of a personal meander appropriate to this region dominated, as it is, by the Lot River, and the generous assistance of Jean-Marie Sigaud, I was to meet father and son the following day. A winemaker discussing their work often presents two faces, one public, a visage of commercial, more formal utterances, and the other, private, far rarer. I was fortunate to listen to the latter.
 
The vineyard for La Vierge is situated within 39 hectares of gently sloping hills high above the Lot River. At the top of the very highest hill is a special terroir in that it contains a 50% concentration of the most desirable soil admixture in AOC Cahors, clays, principally red, and 50% limestone. Iron, a red clay element, gives minerality and adds balance and complex aromas in the wine. The vineyard was planted on Laurent’s birthday 30 years ago, in 1979, from which the first harvest was taken in 1983. That was a very good year owing to the modest yield. The vineyard for La Vierge sees no chemicals and is all hand-picked. It is, most importantly for Laurent, biodynamic, his passion.
 
He began working this vineyard 7 years ago after finishing school in Bordeaux. There he learned the principles of terroir, biodynamics, the influence of the ocean on weather, and especially a respect for the land and its biodiversity. For it is biodiversity that informs the success of the grape harvest. And it is the responsibility of the winemaker to give back to the land what he takes away. All of these principles represented the broader change taking place in the entirety of the AOC.
 
When purchased this vineyard was already planted to the vine, but owing to its great age it was replanted with new vines, so low had the yields become. (Currently around 8,000-10,000 bottles come from the site.) It was formerly owned by a monk. The monk grew a large variety of cereals and vegetables during and after the Second World War, as well as maintaining a vineyard. Many monks sustained the local appetites and economies during this difficult time all throughout France.
 
Of the vintages from Prieuré de Cenac, Laurent has been responsible for 6, from 2003 forward. Of the difference between his first vintage and most recent he explains:
 
Laurent Rigal For the first vintage I was very excited. And very stressed! My father and grandfather set very high quality standards I had to meet. My first vintage was very hard work. I tried to make it perfect. But I felt I worked for nothing because it was a passion that drove me. Then I worked every day from early morning to mid-night, as late as two in the morning. Now I work more efficiently because working too hard on the vine and wine brings a negativity to the wine. I give the whole process more liberty and approach the harvest and vinification with greater respect, letting it develop on its own. Before I was pumping-over [remontage] 6 times a day; now I keep it at 2. It is better.
 
On the property there stands the monastery that, as Franck Rigal explains, the family hopes to renovate into a rooms for visitors, perhaps room enough for six. This he tells me as he drives our small car onto the steep slope to the vineyard hilltop. There is no road, but it is wide enough(!) Under brilliant sun, expansive sight lines in all directions above the broad and gentle slopes, we stop and I take in what they call mamelom, the ‘tit’ of La Vierge. But there is more to this name than a mere description. For Le Vierge means ‘virgin’, and the monk had cleared a place of quiet contemplation in the trees just a stone’s throw away. A spiritual topography begins to come into focus.
 
Laurent Rigal I will show you his place of quiet repose in a moment. But I want to say that here there is energy, a strong cosmic force and a telluric force. There is a concentration at La Vierge, and all around the statue is a reseau [network] that helps keep the vines in good health. There is another concentration of energy in the prieuré which serves the entire vineyard. This is very important for biodynamic viticulture because we use this energy to develop good health, to infuse the earth and the vine with life. The winemaker must learn to develop this force in the plant, the vine, and to so help reduce the quantity of chemicals.
 
We have three products in biodynamics: We use cow manure, and we prepare it according to Maria Thun – she is the person who developed biodynamie in France and Germany – we also produce mineral sprays for application on the vines. Two products are for developing the telluric force and one is to develop the cosmic force, to attract the light onto the vine. It is very important that you develop and focus the energy of the universe, the light. But this is rare. It is not easy to do.

 
So it is that the mamelom, the name of the hill, La Vierge, that of the vineyard, are descriptive elements of a kind of immaculate nursing (if I may put it that way) with the cosmos.
We then, midst a riot of bird-song, walked down the mamelom to Laurent’s place of contemplation and one of the vineyard’s power points. It was here that I took the picture of Laurent and his father, Franck. The picture of Laurent above shows him sitting at the precise power site initially discovered by the monk.
 
Laurent Rigal I was up this morning at 3 o’clock preparing and spraying, according to the calendar, the constellations, preparations for this vineyard! So I am a little tired today. In biodynamics there are four days: A fruit day, a leaf day, a root day, and a seed day. Today was a fruit day.
Here, at this quiet place, there is a concentration of telluric and cosmic force. Some people who visit this place feel this energy coursing through their fingers. And when you sit down, not to pray but to think, and if you are energy-friendly, then you may receive the energy.
And of the wine made here, the aromas and the taste of La Vierge, you can say the moon and the sun are in harmony. The wine is the expression of this union. We will be bringing a horse and cow to the vineyard soon; they bring good astral properties. This is a very special terroir for biodynamie. You have iron and orange clay.
 
Next I will show you the cave of the prieuré, but just for you. It was built by the monk. I do not often talk about these things, but you have an ambience. I can see it in the eyes when people do not want to listen.

 
In moments we are in the cave, the property’s second power point located beneath the main structure, the house to be renovated for guests in the fullness of time. Though I am a bit uncomfortable in doing so, I must stress that Laurent did give me permission to post the accompanying photo.
 
Laurent Rigal This was built by the monk, and it is in the form of the cross of Christ. I put my biodynamic preparations down here to bring into them the energy of the cave and the cross. Here I make the two products, preparations, described by Maria Thun. This one I put on the earth for an energy of concentration and recuperation…. This is a special place for me.
 
We head back to Cahors, the bridge where Laurent still faced the balance of the day pouring his wines. I was again to see him in the evening when, now nearly sleep-walking, he poured wines into the night, still cheerful, composed, radiating a great inner peace. I shall treasure my time with the gentleman and his father, among the finest moments of my time in the Cahors region.
 
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The Terroirs of Domaine Le Bout Du Lieu, Cahors AOC

Ξ May 20th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

In the interests of economy here may be found a kind of hybrid narrative, a compilation of a series of voices, principally that of the young winemaker Lucien Dimani, the son of Arnaldo, and my editorial contribution. Direct quotes will, however, be properly attributed. The point of this exercise is to faithfully present the Domaine Le Bout du Lieu’s precise understanding of their terroirs within the broader Cahors AOC. As underlined in a previous post, the Cahors AOC is kaleidoscopic, an assemblage of shifting elements only informed, not defined, by the proximity to the profoundly ox-bowed Lot river, vineyard orientation and canopy management, elevation, soil type, northern or southern exposure, blending percentages – if done- of Malbec (70% minimum in any case), of Merlot and Tannat, the blind luck of microclimate variations during the growing season, the skill of the vigneron and, it must be said, politics. What adds to the complexity is that all these elements are intertwined in such a way as to render nearly impossible durable regional harvest predictions or even the success of any given grower. To be a winegrower in the Cahors AOC is to daily roll the dice. Terroir has no ornamental value here. Rather, it not only frames the conversation, but it has the last word.
 
Preliminaries
 
From Cahors to Saint-Vincent-Rive-d’Olt is about 13 miles due west; not far, but the winding road adds time. The village has a population of 183, and less than 400 including the surrounding villages of Douelle, Parnac and Luzech. All along the road may be seen vineyards, many in the yards of private residences. The first village we passed through was Douelle which translates as ’stave’, as in the stave of a barrel.
Many, many years ago this was home to a number of cooperages producing barrels for the regions’ winemakers. Nowadays there are none remaining in the Lot region. They went out of business because larger cooperages outside the region offered better prices, and the barrels were made of a different kind of oak than the one locally grown. Different flavors came from oak from other areas. Local oak was a bit ‘green’. Political tensions within the Lot followed upon the choice by regional winemakers for barrels from outside the local economy. But that was 70 years ago.
Concrete tanks became rather more popular for the small to average sized winery because of the differences in the time and labor required for racking. Spent barrels would continue to be used owing to their greater micro-oxygenation proficiency, but imagine one tank verses fifty barrels: racking one tank takes two hours; racking fifty barrels takes two days.
 
Upon entering Luzech, past a small, well-stocked open market, we drove up a hill to a magnificent vista. It was from there that one could easily observe the alluvial to terrace, hillside to plateau terroirs, and specifically nearly all of the holdings of Le Bout du Lieu, a small part of which are on the first terrace; their larger vineyards are found on the second and third. (To clearly photograph them from the vista is another matter! A layer of fog played havoc.)
 
A bit about Luzech situated on what was once an island in an extreme meander of the Lot river. Years ago, before the building of dams and other water control structures, this particular stretch of the Lot was quite wild and treacherous, a tumult of powerful currents. Those traveling by boat, merchants in the main, would begin at the foot of the village and by the end of the day would have only traveled the length of the ox-bow, again arriving at Luzech at night. What took one minute to walk, was a challenging one day journey by barge. Indeed, many sailors lost their lives, so many that a little commemorative chapel was built at the end of the ‘island’ opposite Luzech. Now, the river’s flow is regulated by dams, land loss by canals, the flood events, too, are therefrom diminished.
 
Incidentally, from the vista point it is estimated that 15% of the total acreage under vine cultivation in the whole of the Cahors AOC may be seen. It is obvious that this AOC ought to be one of the premier wine touring destinations in all of Europe. Plans are underway to more aggressively promote exactly this. Just 50 years ago a larger percentage of the land was dedicated to a wide range of agricultural activity. Farms formerly dominated the region. Vegetables, corn, wheat, walnuts, fruits, pig, cow and sheep husbandry were the mainstays of the local economy. The vine now plays a far greater role.
 
Frosts remain a great threat. Even as recently as last week the cloudless night sky sent temperatures plummeting. No young shoot can take such thing. Historically, in 1956, a very late frost killed 99% of the young growth. Even with global warming frosts are a perpetual danger. Interestingly, owing to the scattered distribution of vineyards and the attendant micro-climates, damaging frosts and hails do not necessarily effect the region as a whole. Hail storms, for example, are very focussed. One vineyard may be destroyed while the neighbor’s is spared. In any event, the closer the river, the deeper the valley, so increases the risk.
 
With headwaters in the Pyrenees, the Lot is the greatest meandering river in all of France, with this area around Luzech having the most extreme loop. It is a tributary of the Garonne. The explanatory tile pictured above provides useful illustration.
 
The Terroirs
 
First we visit their vineyard on an alluvial terrace. Limestone and the first hints of gravel may be seen. Some say this is not a good terroir to make quality wines. Lucien is not in agreement.
 
Lucien Dimani “As long as you work well, you control the crop and the yield, you shouldn’t have any problem. Of course, if you want to do 8 tons an acre then here it is possible. You are close to the river. But it is something you cannot do on the second or third terraces, never mind on the plateau. The yields decline naturally the higher you go. There will not be the same quality, but here you can produce something similar. I know this because of blind tastings. I am sure some people would not believe me I tell them the wine they are drinking is from the first terrace.
These vines are from 28 to 30 years old. And this is high density for here. The number of vines in a vineyard depends where you are. If I compare it to Bordeaux it is a low density. So let’s say it is from average to high density, closer to high. There is an AOC recommended ratio, a minimum density of a vineyard, about 3000 vines per hectare. Here we have about 4500 vines per hectare. We have good results from this vineyard as long as we manage the crop and the fruit is not clustered too close together.
Trellising remains the same in all our vineyards, the same kind of canopy management. The only thing we change is sometimes the vigor management, but this bears primarily on the age of the vine and not the soil; and what wine we plan to make of these grapes. We’ll drop clusters to concentrate the flavors in the remaining grape clusters.
 
A lot of people are organic here, but do not always pursue certification. We have a lot of new converts as well. It has become more common. Of diseases, we have mildew and odium; but we can control them. We don’t have too much pressure. It depends on the vintage. But normally it is not something that is hard to control as long as you do your job in the vineyard. If we have to spray, we spray. If it is dry there is no reason to spray. Lutte raisonnée.
 
My father [Arnoldo] is the vineyard manager. He started working in the vineyard with his father when he was 6 years old. I, too, started working when I was 6 or 7, to help. A long time ago it was school and work. Now, everywhere in France there is the problem of the next generation of winegrowers. And it is even more difficult these days to find people willing to work at harvest. It’s easier in Bordeaux, but it is starting to become harder every year for hand-picking. So, 90% of the harvest is by machine, machines shared among neighbors. Here there are four properties and us. We share the harvesting machine. If tomorrow there were a law that we had to do everything by hand, no one would do it. And hand-picking is a huge cost.”

 
We next travelled to a second terrace vineyard.
 
Lucien Dimani “Here there is more gravel. This is also alluvial but with gravel. Even higher up will be found more gravel. We went a bit higher in elevation to another terroir. The root stock here is SO4. This is the oldest vineyard that we have. It is a vineyard we bought that my father took care of for 20 years. He did not plant it. He first rented it. Another, younger block is beyond the trees. This vineyard is a second terroir. There is a bigger difference between red clay and alluvial soils than between graveled and alluvial-graveled soils. Again, in blind tastings it is confusing. But if you have red clay it cannot be mistaken. Nearer the river the soils are also deeper. And the vine depth varies. Here the vines are about 8 to 10 meters down. It also depends on the vineyard density. The lower the density the roots tend to grow more horizontally.”
 
Then comes a higher vineyard yet, their third terroir.
 
Lucien Dimani “Vineyard orientation catches the maximum sun. When we do the leaf removal for air circulation and exposure we do it only on the rising sun side. Otherwise the sun will burn the fruit. Later, mid-August, when the sun is not so intense, we do the other side, but only on special plots. We only remove the leaf on the fruit; not above or below. The idea is to limit the humidity in the bunches themselves. Botrytis likes humidity. By select leaf pull we limit it. And we do de-budding when we prune. But we also do a green harvest later in the year if we have too many bunches that might become a source of disease. The fruit cluster, how tightly packed, depends on the clone. Of course, without irrigation a higher crop means lower concentration and lower quality. There is a balance between the crop and the quality. But there are limits above which the quality is not necessarily enhanced by lower yields. You may have 2 tons an acre, but if you lower the crop to 1.5 tons an acre you will find the quality will be the same in a vineyard harvesting at 2 tons. You will have lost half a ton per acre for nothing. You will have worked for nothing. It is about balance. Here in this vineyard the harvest is around 2.3 tons per acre.
 
This vineyard, the third terroir, sits on a small plateau. It is not strictly speaking a plateau; but we call it such because it is a flat spot on the top of a hill. The red clay is very visible. You saw the digging coming up. The surface is lighter, but if you dig it is red. The vine are between 30 and 35 years old.”

 
The significance of the respective soils, the terroirs overall, on the resulting wine will be explicated in a later post. For now we drove to the winery itself where I was to meet the formidable Arnaldo and his wife Monique, equal partners in all the winemaking labors. They had prepared a deep tasting of vintages and bottlings from respective terrace terroirs. A full account of this part of the visit will be written at a later date. Suffice to say for now that their hospitality and generosity was very well regarded by this traveler. I thank them. To their son, Lucien, rugby player, my narrator and teacher, and to his lovely American friend, Eileen, I, too, offer my humblest thanks for the nearly three hours they sacrificed for me.
 
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The Terroirs Of Cahors, A Brief Primer

Ξ May 18th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Wine History, Wine News, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

A city and its people offer to the traveler the opportunity to learn as much or as little as they wish. However, for the wine writer there is much less latitude. Cahors is a demanding AOC. There can be little true understanding without the writer’s submersion into its dizzying terroirs. As noted in an earlier post, the wines of Cahors have long been welcomed at my table. Yet choice of her wines in America has long been seriously limited. So it was that I attended a Cahors tasting in San Francisco and was spiritually transported by the rich variety. Yet even then, despite my many conversations with the patient producers attending, I could not begin to guess at the terroirs expressed, the real source of the differences. Now that I am in Cahors for the Malbec Days festival, I can begin to get answers to the new questions the San Francisco tasting awakened in me. Little could I have guessed the extraordinary lesson waiting around the next turn.
 
Wandering the streets of old Cahors in a jet-lagged fog early Monday morning, I saw a sign pointing to the Maison du Vins de Cahors. Just across from the train station, I walked in, barged in, if you like, and began to explore the sober working space. I was directed to the main office where I was introduced to the remarkable Jean-Marie Sigaud, President of the Union Interprofessionelle du Vin de Cahors (UIVC). With the assistance translating offered by Juliette and Maxim, I enjoyed a conversation that essentially threw me into the deep end of the pool, no more so than when I was introduced to The Map, the graphic depiction of the terroirs of Cahors. The work product of many days and hands by the Geographic Institute of the University of Toulouse, The Map, pictured below, is the non-plus-ultra of a terroirist’s education.
 
I shall leave the explication of its complexities for a later post. But I will say that there are 9 different terroirs classified. From the four alluvial zones, also known as the terraces, to the two different types of limestone covered slopes, up to the plateau, itself of three soil varieties. Even a cursory glance at The Map below reveals the enormous combinations afforded the winemaker, all given by the Lot’s graceful meander. Much more to come…
 
Admin Just how many producers are expected for the event?
 
Jean-Marie Sigaud We expect around 400 producers.
 
And of those producers, will small ones be present as well?
 
J-M Sigaud Not all of them. Those producing under 500 hectoliters will not be present. There are about 150 producers in the AOC making below that amount.
 
And where are Cahors wines sold?
 
J-M Sigaud You have three different markets: Export, around 20%; supermarkets make up 60%; 20% direct including tasting rooms, to tourists who come directly to the Domaine, private sellers, open markets, salons in different cities…
 
Why is it so difficult to find Cahors’ wines in America?
 
J-M Sigaud (laughs) Until 4 or 5 years ago production and consumption were balanced in the local market. Now, it is that the French drink less, not only of Cahors wine but of all wines. French people are drinking less wine. So we decided to go and begin greater exports the the United States and China.
 
Has there been any negative feedback from the use of the word ‘Malbec’? Traditionally the grape was called Côt or Auxerrois regionally. Some traditionalists, even in the US, think that this may be principally for marketing purposes.
 
J-M Sigaud There are three names. Auxerrois used to be the most used name of the grape. Traditionally it was Auxerrois. And technically it is called Côt, but more generally it is now called Malbec. So if you go to Bordeaux we will talk about Malbec because they don’t know the word ‘Auxerrois’. They don’t know what it is. We use the word Malbec because it is more internationally known. Auxerrois is only known here.
 
Those of us who love Cahors wines get a little bit worried that the closer one steps toward the general name most closely associated with Argentina, maybe the closer will become the winemaking techniques. We worry that the wines of Cahors will get softer, easier to drink when young. We like the purity of the Cahors expression.
 
J-M Sigaud The Malbec of Cahors will always reflect the difference of terroir. It will never be like the Argentine. Here we have enough rain. In Argentina they have to irrigate. We have six different terroirs in the Cahors appellation. You therefore have differences in quality.
 
You have the river, the first terrace, second and third. Each time you go into a deep bend in the river then you have this configuration. But you don’t have this configuration on both sides. Each time the river bends you will have a cliff on one side of the river and you will have terracing on the other.
 
Well, that is very helpful!
 
J-M Sigaud The best terroir is the third terrace and the plateau, between 200 and 300 meters high. The river itself is 120 meters above sea level. Would you like to know the nature of the terroir? Where the river flows you have this rich alluvial soil, a flood plain. That’s why it’s not very good for the Cahors vines; it is too rich. And you have the terraces which are the slopes of exposed earth over time. So, you have on one side of the river a cliff and plateau; on the other, the hillside slopes, the terraces exposed by erosion, all of which are of a different soil type and composition. In addition you have the North and the South. The North receives less sun than the South, so the South is preferred.
 
And there is the plateau; it is of clay, red clay. There are two types, red and white. The best terroir is red clay. We have a press document, but you are here before it is ready! The AOC is 50 kilometers long; the river makes it longer! It is about 4 or 5 kilometers wide.
 
And that is what you came here for; to find the difference between Argentina and Cahors?
 
Yes and no. I want to deepen my readers’ understanding of Cahors wines because Argentina is so much more present in the marketplace. I would like to move that in another direction, to get people to taste Cahors wines. People just don’t know Cahors. And I fear, which is to say, I know, that the Cahors style, its powerful terroir expression, and wines of similar strengths, are not well represented in America. I think Robert Parker, Coca Cola, fast food, and sweets have a lot to do with it. There are many who feel as I do. We’re looking for wines of greater finesse and character, terroir wines. We’re looking for difference. The wine of Cahors, certainly for me, and I think for others, is very much that wine.
 
J-M Sigaud Merci. The production of good Cahors wine is between 40 and 50 hectoliters per hectare. And the vine density is about 4,500 per hectare. About 80% is Malbec, 15% Merlot, and 5% Tannat.
 
And the rootstock of the vines?
 
J-M Sigaud In the ’70s the rootstock was SO4, and in the ’80s we had a lot of Riparia, 3309 and 41B, with a little bit of Richter [110]. And since the year 2000 we’ve used Fercal on the limestone soils of the plateau. Each producer had to take the good rootstock depending on where he was situated. It really depends on each parcel.
 
The harvest is around October 1st. And the harvesting degree will be between 12.5% to more than 14% of alcohol. Of course, you’ll have higher alcohol on the south side. Then you have the savoir-faire of the winemaker. The grapes will be mature, more or less, between the 1st and the 15th of October. Each producer has to decide when he wants to harvest. The more he waits, the greater the alcohol. In Cahors, despite the alcohol level, the biggest difference is the terroir in which the vines grow. Machine harvesting is done over 90% of the area with the best wines harvested by hand. Some of the producers even select individual grapes. At least one of them!
 
Does the Merlot mature at the same time as the Malbec?
 
J-M Sigaud Tannat after, Merlot a little bit before; three passes through the vineyard. The rootstock has an influence on the ripening.
 
I was then generously invited to lunch, but not before I laid eyes on an extraordinary map pictured above. The product of the Geographic Institute of the University of Toulouse, it is an extremely fine hand-painted representation of Cahors’ diversity. It is clear to see, once the geological principles are grasped, that Cahors AOC wines have an infinite number of expressive possibilities.
And while at lunch Jean-Marie Sigaud selected three wines from the restaurant menu, each to show how these elements bear upon the black wine in the glass, in this instance the terraces to plateau. Each of the wines, grown very near one another as the crow flies , was from an increasingly high elevation: Chateau Gaudou, Chateau Nozières, and Clos Troteligotte respectively. Though all three were very good, it was the last, Clos Troteligotte, made by the Christian Rybinski, that possessed the greatest electricity and finesse. It is from a plateau terroir, and continues a family tradition.

 
The conversation continued over lunch:
 
Do you enjoy your work as president of UIVC?
 
J-M Sigaud (laughs) It is a passion. The wine makes me crazy because it is such a passion, such a love for the wine. I don’t want to leave.
 
Are you elected to your position?
 
J-M Sigaud I’ve been president for 23 years, elected by the winemakers. In 2013 I will likely be leaving my position. But I am really not sure.
 
Well, it’s a very important time for Cahors wine. Surely they need a steady, experienced hand.
 
J-M Sigaud The most important thing is to meet a lot of winemakers because they all have a lot of differences between themselves. My politics is based on difference; it is difference that makes exemplary the culture of Cahors wine. Eighty percent of our winemakers are independent and 20% are in the cooperative. That is why we can have such different wines. One thing to remember is that when speaking to winemakers be sure to get your terroirs straight! (laughs) Especially for me.
 
Nowadays viticultural consultants speak only about the facts as they see them. To speak about terroir is not important to them. Nobody is interested in that! You are the first one to come here and ask to learn about our terroirs. (laughs)
 
The world has gone crazy!
 
J-M Sigaud Yes! You can’t speak about wine if you can’t speak about terroir. For many a wine is only a cépage and not a terroir. But here there is a new trend. Producers in Cahors want to underline the point that terroir is very important. Until now it was considered only a second thing, not the most important. Now it is both a cépage and a terroir.
 
Are négociants as interested in terroir here?
 
J-M Sigaud Yes, completely. The négociant makes a selection of different wines considering their terroirs. And they put the individual terroir on the label of the bottle. It’s a part of their communication with the public. Here it is very important.
A last word about these wines, [the ones we were drinking at lunch]. The basic principle is this: The further we leave the river, the better the terroir.
 
To make wine is a very personal thing. Each wine is like a portrait of a producer and his vineyard. The winemakers you want to meet here are those who while doing their job live for their passion.
 
END
 
Specific details of the multiple terroirs to come. But first I must enjoy my dessert.
 
Admin

 

Dr. Kevin Pogue pt.2, On Teaching Terroir

Ξ May 12th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

“The geomorphology, soils, and climate of Columbia Basin vineyards are the result of a complex and dynamic geologic history that includes the Earth’s youngest flood basalts, an active fold belt, and repeated cataclysmic flooding. Miocene basalt of the Columbia River Basalt Group forms the bedrock for most vineyards. The basalt has been folded by north-south compression, creating the Yakima fold belt, a series of relatively tight anticlines separated by broad synclines. Topography related to these structures has strongly influenced the boundaries of many of the Columbia Basin’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).”
 
So begins Dr. Kevin Pogue’s recent paper Folds, floods and fine wine: Geologic Influences on the terroir of the Columbia Basin. Although the text may contain concepts exotic to the unstudied reader, this is one of the languages of terroir. No mere cultural cipher, though often an elitist fetish, terroir may be properly situated by multiple sciences, Geology, Climatology, and Microbiology having pride of place. Indeed, there is a durable, extensive body of literature that can help us think the question of terroir beyond the noise of received opinion, mysticism, and marketing dissimulation.
 
What I have especially enjoyed in recent interviews, with Drs. Greg Jones, Ron Jackson, and now Kevin Pogue, is the ease with which they move among symbolic registers. As educators their message is as simple as it is practical: ‘You, too, can understand’.
 
In this, the second and final part of my interview with geologist Kevin Pogue, the reader may see performed this message. He, like his colleagues above, finds communicating their learning the only way to fully realize their passion. John McPhee once said, and I paraphrase, that the greatest truth of Geology was that fossils may be found on the summit of Mt. Everest. Imagine the anguish of knowing such a thing but of having no one to tell.
 
Please see Part 1
 
Admin I remember seeing some excellent videos [from 2006, since taken down] on the geological origins of the Red Mountain area. Riveting, outstanding videos. They told of the formation of the area in a very exciting manner. Geology is quite an elegant science.
 
Kevin Pogue That was probably Alan Busacca talking. Alan has done a lot of the work over there. Alan, as a terroirist, has gotten himself more out there than I have. He was a professor at Washington State University and got so involved in being a consultant for the wine industry that he resigned his professorship. He’s planted his own vineyard and is making wine.
 
There are a few things with me in it on YouTube doing some consulting work and clips of some of the work I’ve done for some of the wine groups around here. [See this, @5:45 forward, and this.] But Alan is a great guy. Everything he says is right on; and there is a lot of b.s. in the terroir world! It’s mostly b.s. I’m just thrilled that every time Alan says something I know it’s going to be right on and relative. I’m psyched that, in addition to myself, the other terroir spokesman for the Northwest is doing such a good job. So, I don’t feel like I’m in competition with him. I’m glad to have him as a colleague.
 
Being from Montana, I went to Crow Agency to listen to the Native American Park Ranger go through the Battle of the Little Big Horn. And when I saw the Mr. Busacca’s videos of the Red Mountain area and heard the story of the enormous Missoula Floods, he gave it such an immediacy that I was reminded of the stirring Little Big Horn historical narrative.
 
KP Yes. He was a Geology professor for 20 to 25 years. We get wrapped up in those stories! It’s a great story and a big part of the Walla Walla story as well.
 
So is the Washington teaching establishment going to perhaps lose another one of its best geologists to winemaking?
 
KP No. They are not in any danger of losing me. I am first and foremost a teacher. I also have a little consulting business on the side called VinTerra. But I don’t advertise at all. I have that website, but I actually don’t advertise almost on purpose because I’m not sure what I would do if I got a lot more business. Right now I have three clients where I’m doing site evaluations for them.
 
In addition to that I’m doing research work this summer with a couple of students; and I’m going to Italy to the terroir conference in June. I’ll be getting back from that just before the Bloggers Conference. I’m really excited about that. They do this every two years. I went to the last one in Switzerland. there were about 300 terroir researchers from all over the world. It’s a fabulous experience. I’m giving a talk on how basalt affects terroir at that conference. And there will be lots of field trips to Italian grape growing regions around Soave in the foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy. So that will be fun.
 
So I’ve got a lot on my plate! I’m teaching a full load here. I’m chair of the department. And I’m running this little consulting business. I’m doing my terroir research, and I give talks and lectures all the time. I talked at the Oenology and Viticulture program at the community college yesterday, and spoke at Taste Washington a month or so ago.
 
And you just got back from a field trip with your students. Correct?
 
KP Yeah! (laughs) That was part of my real job. I just took 40 of my students all through the canyons of Western Idaho: Clearwater, Salmon, Hells Canyon, looking at the bedrock geology of that area. We camped out three nights in the rain and snow. It was exciting.
 
I use to be a classic, hard core bedrock geologist. I did work, believe it or not, in the Himalayas and Northern Pakistan. I was working in the tribal area along the Afgan border doing kind of crazy Indiana Jones-style geology. Remote, adventurous, I’ve got all kinds of exciting tales to tell about that stuff. I did that off and on for 15 years, and then 9/11 came along. That was the end of that. But I was already very interested in wine and had been reading books on wine and terroir. And people were starting to come to me and say, “Hey, Kevin! Will you check out this soil pit? What do you think about this site?” And I thought, wow, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done here. I would wonder why are they planting that vineyard there? They should be planting it over there. That’s a silly place to plant a vineyard.
 
I then started boning up on everything I could read and learn about. I already knew the geology of the area as well as anybody. So I just decided that was what I was going to do. I have a family, and have this big terroir laboratory in my backyard. I don’t have to run off to some crazy foreign country and get shot!
 
The other gratifying thing about it was that I could go to a meeting of viticulturists and have 350 people there very excited about what I have to say. I can go to a geology conference and have only about 10 people really know what I was talking about, even at a geology conference because it is so narrowly focussed on something that only a few people care passionately about; you know, the structural geology of the Himalayan foothills of Northern Pakistan. There are 10 people in the world really passionate about that. But there are millions passionate about where their grapes are coming from. So, it’s been very gratifying to have a lot of people very interested in your research. And it’s fun!
 
Are you familiar with the work of Professor Gregory Jones?
 
KP We are very good friends. We’ve been talking about collaborating on a big project in Idaho. I was in a phone conference with him few weeks ago. We are collaborating on a project on viticultural regions over there. He’s going to be at the same conference in Italy I’ll be attending. In fact, the Italian chairing the conference was hanging out with Greg for a couple a months this winter. He was over here visiting. I tried to get him up here but he couldn’t make it.
I’ve had Greg here at Whitman to give talks. We have a lot in common. He’s sat in my living room and we’ve thrown back a few bottles of wine! (laughs) I consider him a good friend. He’s a great guy. He invited me to give a talk in a session at the Association of American Geographers conference down in Las Vegas. And then I invited him to give a talk at Geological Society of America conference in Portland this year. We’re each contributing to each other’s sessions.
 
Have you talked with a sufficient number of Washington winegrowers to have some broad observations about signs of climate change in wine growing regions there?
 
KP You know, I can’t say that the folks that I’ve talked to have said ‘Oh yeah, we’ve noticed this or that is happening’. When I talk to them I hear things like that on average they get a big killing freeze every 8 years or so. So, bring it on! (laughs) If it [climate change] makes us have a killing freeze every 10 or 15 years then all the better.
 
And as Professor Jones points out, it very often happens that subtle and small adaptations by the winegrower are made over time. The changes are not huge shifts. You may change your watering a little bit. You may have a slight adjustment in your canopy, that sort of thing. Adaptations over time.
 
KP Exactly. I’ve done some research in connection with a number of papers I’ve written and was astounded to see that in the 1860s and 1870s that Walla Walla was producing 10s of 1000s of gallons of wine that were being exported out of the Valley, mostly by Italian immigrants. And that there was a massive freeze in 1883 or so. There are these great newspaper articles talking about the quality of the wine, how it was as good as Californian. I thought, wow, this is amazing, all of this happening back then! But there was this huge freeze. And since the settlements hadn’t been there that long they just said, ‘Well, this must happen pretty often… so, forget about grapes’. It never really recovered until the 1960s or so.
 
Is that so? I was unaware of that.
 
KP Yes. There was massive production of wine in the Walla Walla Valley until the late 1800s, before it was nixed by, I think it may have been, back to back freezes. Something led them to believe that it wasn’t a good place. It was starting to come back when Prohibition hit. And then it was gone. Then in the ’60s a few people started to grow again. Indications are that the climate is a bit milder now than it was in the 1800s, early 1900s. The The Wine Project, Washington State’s Winemaking History, by Ronald Irvine and Walter Clore details the history. There are some amazing quotes taken from period newspapers about how much wine production there was very early on in Washington’s history.
 
So how were you contacted by the Wine Blogger Conference? How did they discover you?
 
KP I think they discovered me through the Walla Walla Wine Alliance because I do all the terroir stuff for the them. I’m constantly giving talks and such. I just do that as a public service for them. When I was contacted I immediately said yes. There is this fascinating story about why this is a great place to grow grapes. We’ve got to get that out there.
 
But then I found out that if you want to reserve time to speak to the bloggers you’ve got to cough up a bunch of money. (laughs) They [the Wine Alliance] weren’t sure they could afford to have me speak to the bloggers. They’ve manager to work me in as a breakfast speaker. That way everybody is just eating breakfast anyway, so it’s not ‘reserving’ precious blocks of the bloggers’ time.
 
What? Well, that’s kind of annoying! (laughs)
 
KP Yeah. Ken, I have to run to pick up my daughter from elementary school.
 
Mine is walking home! I suddenly realized this morning that, to my horror, I had scheduled our conversation just when her school let out.
 
KP We’re in the same boat, man. Talk to later.
 
Admin

 

Dr. Kevin Pogue On Terroir, Education, and Markets pt.1

Ξ May 10th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News |

The 3rd annual North American Wine Bloggers Conference is coming fast upon us. From June 25th to the 27th we will participate in a great community exercise in Walla Walla, Washington. Though the assembled bloggers give of their own divers and considerable talents, it is becoming increasingly evident that there is one substantial area of knowledge that is chronically under-represented: a working knowledge of viticulture and oenology. Now, while the rapid technological iterations of social media may be the most important topic bloggers hope to grasp, it is not enough. Indeed, social media is an empty form in search of meaningful content. Marketing is the current obsession, a force easily grasped by a 4 year-old demanding a toy gone viral. But, again, it is not enough. In this world of climate change, water scarcity, the decline of biodiversity, and the greening of our economy, it is more important than ever for bloggers to understand the basic science informing wine production.
 
So it is that I turn to geologist Dr. Kevin Pogue. I believe that his forthcoming presentation at the Conference to be of pivotal importance to our success at a durable understanding the Walla Walla region, and beyond.
 
Dr. Kevin R. Pogue is chair of the Department of Geology at Whitman College where he teaches classes on the geological history of the western United States, weather and climate, and terroir. Dr. Pogue has conducted research and led field trips in the Pacific Northwest for more than 25 years. His research interests have included the deposits of the Ice Age Missoula floods that form the basis for the soils of many of eastern Washington’s premier vineyards.
 
Recently, Dr. Pogue’s research has focused exclusively on terroir, concentrating on the relationship between topography and vineyard temperature variations and the influence of basalt, eastern Washington’s ubiquitous bedrock, on vineyard climate and soil chemistry. Dr. Pogue has presented papers at national and international terroir conferences and recently authored a field trip guide that describes the geological influences on the terroir of the Columbia Basin. He regularly contributes lectures on terroir to the Enology and Viticulture programs at Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College. Dr. Pogue has been a featured speaker at conferences of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers and at “Taste Washington”, a celebration of Washington wines hosted by the Washington State Wine Commission. His essay on the relationship of the Missoula floods to Columbia Basin viticulture appears in the book “Washington: The State of Wine”. Dr. Pogue also provides vineyard site evaluations, terroir related web content, and promotional and educational materials through his company, Vinterra Consulting.

 
Admin Hello, Professor Pogue. Greetings from sunny California.
 
Kevin Pogue Hi. It’s good to meet you, kind of…
 
What’s the weather like up there? [May 5th]
 
KP We are having unusually cool weather. And I’m thinking that viticulturalists are starting to get a little worried about delays of bloom and things like that. It’s been cool and rainy, with snow in the mountains; it’s flirting with freezing down on the bottom of the Walla Walla Valley. It’s pretty strange weather we’re having.
 
What is the uppermost elevation for grape growing in Washington, by the way?
 
KP The limit of the viticultural area in the Walla Walla AVA is 2000 feet. But you could probably grow cool climate varieties above that, like Riesling or Gewurztraminer. I’m thinking that maybe you could grow up to 3000 feet, but most of the vineyards are in the 1000 to 1600 foot range in the valleys.
 
And this is true throughout Washington?
 
KP Some of the vineyards get a little bit lower than that, but that’s probably pretty much the case throughout Washington. Most vineyards lie between 700 and 1500 feet elevation. There are a couple that are 1600 to 1800 feet. I gave a talk to the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers [WAWGG], there were about 350 people there, and I told them that they ought to be growing Riesling at 2500 feet if they wanted to grow Riesling like that of the Mosel. Now they are planting it down low where it gets really hot in the summer. Yeah, I think we could grow several varieties that would do really well up as high as 2000 to 3000 feet.
 
When you speak before associations like that of the Washington Wine Grape Growers, are they generally that well-attended? Are the winegrowers well organized in Washington?
 
KP They are. The Washington Wine Grape Growers is the largest conference of its type in the Northwest. The WAGG conference, they have it every year in February in the Tri-Cities. They have clinics and seminars, poster sessions, and then there’s a big industry presentation of all latest gadgets and machines, local suppliers attend. It’s the small scale regional version of the big Californian Unified Symposium. It is our little local version of that.
 
I was asked this year to give a talk about Riesling and Gewurztraminer terroirs in Washington. and there were about 350 people for the talk. That was a huge turnout.
 
All very serious winemakers and growers, I’m sure.
 
KP I’d say they were mostly viticultural people than winemakers.
 
I have a friend living in the Seattle area. She can’t purchase wine from a number of states, New Jersey being among them. What are some of the marketing obstacles Washington winemakers face when selling out of state?
 
KP Well, I think it has a lot to do just with recognition. When I travel to the East Coast and I go to, not the top flight places, but what many people would call a nice restaurant and look at the wine lists, there are European wines and the domestic stuff is from California. I think the typical East Coast wine consumer thinks that all good American wine comes from California. There is a lot of education that needs to be done. When they go to the grocery and liquor stores I think they are buying wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest. They are selling really well because they are an amazing value, but I think that when you get to the upper tier wines, Napa has such amazing name recognition that it is a real uphill battle to fight that. It is always frustrating for me. And when I’m sitting in a bar at a nice restaurant looking at the wine list, I always take them to task. ‘Why don’t you have any good Pinots from Oregon? Or some good Syrahs and Cabs from Washington state?’ They ask, ‘Do they grow wine there?’
 
No! Really? That is astonishing to me. I rarely have a conversation with anyone, whether civilian or in the wine business, who are not cognizant of the Pacific Northwest as a quality region.
 
KP Well, you’re running in good circles. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where the University of Kentucky is…
 
It’s a dry state?
 
KP It’s not a dry. I mean, Lexington is a wet as it can be. They have warehouse-size stores in Lexington because many, many of the counties are dry. Everybody floods in. The places that are wet are soaking wet. So they have to supply all the all the outlying counties that are dry as well as their own county.
Anyway, there are Washington wines available in some of those bigger stores, and the people who work there are aware of the wines coming out of Washington, but the California stuff just dominates. And, of course, it’s production; there is a lot more production in California. But I think Washington needs to do even a better job than they are doing getting the word out. I think they need to go out and hold more tastings, more events, just get the word out and educate. Sommeliers know it, restauranteurs know it, but people aren’t going to buy them from the list unless they realize the quality of Walla Walla Syrahs. They need to learn how great the Syrahs, for example, can be. The average person knows that Napa makes great Cabernets, but the average person does not know Walla Walla makes great Syrah.
 
We have a similar problem here in California, in miniature. Other wine regions are ghettoized; Santa Cruz Mountains, Mendocino County, Sonoma to some degree. Napa dominates here as well. They’ve done an extraordinary job. The strange quality ranking goes on even here.
 
KP Sure. A lot of it is just time. Napa has been doing it for longer. They just have this history. Also it’s that a lot of our producers are small producers, they don’t have huge productions. And they are enough people out there who do realize there are fantastic wines here. My next door neighbor is a winemaker, he’s making great wine. I said something to him about needing a sign. He’s got a new tasting room. It’s in kind of an obscure place, I said he’d might want to put up a sign. He said, ‘Why do I need to do that? I sold out my entire production last year. And back then I didn’t have a tasting room.’ As long as they’re small producers, they are not trying to get on every wine list across the country. They are selling their stuff and are pretty happy.
 
Of course, you’ll be giving an important talk at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference.
 
KP Yes. After you sent the emails I went on the Conference site and saw that they had me giving a talk on the geology of the Walla Walla Valley. Just before you called I talked with someone from the Wine Alliance and told them I wanted to change the title to The Terroirs, plural, of the Walla Walla Valley because I want to get people to a breakfast talk after they have probably been up at night drinking! The geology of the Walla Walla Valley isn’t the most inspiring thing in the world to wine writers, but maybe terroirs would be.
 
About the fellow who was reluctant to hang the sign for his tasting room. That is in a way an entrée into the issue of social media that you’ll be hearing so much about at the Conference that you’re going to want to pull your hair out! Of course, social media is a large part of the Conference’s appeal. What percentage of Washington’s winegrowers, recognizing that many are small, could benefit from social media applications?
 
KP I think they would all benefit from it. There is no doubt about it at all. I read at least two wine blogs everyday, and sometimes three or four. I read Paul Gregutt’s everyday, I read Sean Sullivan’s everyday. I’ve been going back and reading yours, now that I know about it. I’ve been reading a bunch of your past blogs and enjoying them. They appeal to an academic like me. I teach a terroir class at Whitman. And I’ve pulled a lot of stuff out of the Wine Science text book, so I’ve been reading you interview with Ron Jackson. It’s fascinating. And I read Alice Feiring’s blog from time to time. I brought her to Whitman this year to give a couple of lectures. There was a really interesting reception to that! I read Randall Grahm’s stuff, when he writes it. I brought him here the year before to give some lectures.
 
Anyway, I think it’s great. I’m going to be doing a series of tours this summer, working with a local winery. I asked her how she was going to get the word out and she said she had an email list of of a gazillion people that she keeps updated on the goings on of the winery. All she has to do is punch a button and an announcement of the terroir tours will go out to all these people. That’s fantastic! Obviously, if you maintain a big email list of people that are interested in your winery and what’s going on with it, then you can just blanket them with new stuff, new releases, events. It’s a very powerful marketing tool. She seemed to have no doubt that if I agreed to do tours for them, in conjunction with some other events, that they’d sell out immediately. We’ll see.
 
People who drink wine tend to be more educated folks. And I find that whenever I do tours around the Valley (and I kind of wanted to do one for the Bloggers Conference, but it didn’t work out), that they are just packed. People love it. They want some sort of intellectual stimulation. Why is this vineyard different from that vineyard? What is the history of this area? What is the climate of this region? Why does it have that climate? Why are these rocks here? What’s the soil chemistry? How is it different from that sol chemistry? How might that be reflected in the wine? Why are people trellising their grapes like this in this vineyard and doing it differently in that vineyard? Etcetera, etcetera. People really thrive on that stuff. It’s been a lot of fun for me.
 
You know, it’s funny. I hear this time and time again. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought in the wine blogging community. One that insists on talking about only the taste descriptors, basic and straight forward, never straying too far from the marketing aspects of wine narrowly defined. The other approach (I’m squarely in this camp) recognizes that there is an enormous thirst for knowledge out there. Having worked in a winery for a number of years, I know that once folks are no longer afraid or intimidated from asking questions that they just go nuts with curiosity. Winegrowing is farming, after all. They want answers to basic questions about the agricultural world. People love that.
 
KP Yes, and they can’t get enough of it. I’ve done a couple of tours over in Europe. I led one big tour through the southern Rhone area, and I was astounded. I walked into Chapoutier’s tasting room in Hermitage and the whole floor was plexiglass. And underneath the plexiglass were labeled boxes containing rocks and soils from all the Chapoutier vineyards. So as you walked across the floor you could look down and see how the rocks and soils differed. And when you were tasting the wine, they would pour a vineyard designate Syrah from Hermitage, and if you wanted to know what how it was different they would point to someplace on the floor. ‘Go look at that.’ For each wine they would point to a different box.
 
There were geologic and soil maps all over the walls of the tasting rooms over there. The marketing organizations over there put out geologic cross sections and soil maps because people are really into it over there. They really market their terroir. And they have this philosophy that it is all about the site; and if you have a great site you then know the wine makes itself.
 
And the reason you want to buy a Walla Walla wine is because it comes from this fabulous site in Walla Walla, not because a superstar winemaker decided to settle here. It’s not about the personality of the winemaker. It is about the personality of the land.
 
End of Part 1
 
Admin

 

Greybeard’s Corner, April 2010

Ξ May 9th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Greybeard's Corner |

Phew, what a month April was. It’s bad enough having 3 family Birthdays in quick succession but throw in an angry Volcano and several evenings out and this was a busy 30 days!
 
I was lucky enough to be at home in the U.K. when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption caused the week of air-traffic chaos over the Northern Europe, although a colleague heading back from South America ended up spending an unplanned week in Miami and another from Germany ended up using automobile and train to get home after his ‘plane was grounded. As far as the wine world was concerned some late departing en Primeur tasters had a few extra days in France and most of the Bordelais couldn’t make it to Bibendum’s Bordeaux 2009 tasting in London, but only CataVino made an attempt to look at any direct effects of the ash cloud and its economic impact, albeit a somewhat tenuous one. However, if the current fears that Eyjafjallajökull’s big sister Katla, could be due an eruption prove founded then a week’s flight chaos may seem like wishful thinking and ash-cloud related climate change may be something to contemplate.
 
Bordeaux’s en primeur circus is always big news in April, and once again we have the vintage of the century, although with many saying it is the best in living memory (and some of the tasters have been alive a long time!) then it seems ’09 will replace ’05 at the top of the lists for some time to come. Of course that means that probably only the very wealthy will be able to afford any of it, and apparently the Chinese were there in force!
Initial feedback suggests the left bank is superb (Stephen Spurrier gave Château Margaux 20/20), with Sauternes very good (although possibly not up to 2001 standard) and the right bank very good in patches. It also looks as though international palates are more closely aligned than at times past after Parker’s comments at the end of April matched what was previously being said from the Europeans – Adam Lechmere’s article over at Decanter.com encapsulates this year’s key points.
 
Also in the news in April were a couple of competition winners. First Gerard Basset took the World’s Best Sommelier title at the sixth time of asking in Santiago, Chile. French born Basset has been adopted by the British, runs the Hotel TerraVina in Hampshire and is currently the only joint Master of Wine and Master Sommelier with an MBA in wine. Moving to dining and Copenhagen was recognised when Noma won top spot at the 50 Best Restaurants in the World ahead of El Bulli and the Fat Duck. In a show of solidarity to Ali, their dishwasher who wasn’t given a visa to visit London, Chef René Redzepi and other staff all wore T-Shirts with his picture!
 
On the web the big news was the subscription wall that was erected around Mark Squire’s Bulletin board on eRobertParker.com. Vinography posted a good discussion piece on the story.
As a firm believer in an open web and transparency in all things then I can’t commend the decision but likewise am not too surprised. Mark, aka Chairman Mao for his sometimes Draconian policing of the forum, has been running the board for many years now and will probably appreciate the peace and quiet offered by having only relatively non-critical eBob subscribers left to oversee. Of course this isn’t the only wine forum for members only, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages has always been run this way, but while I had access to this a couple of years ago I did detect a whiff of isolationism in some of the threads – of course this was at a time that I was active on the most chaotic of the boards, WLTV, so anything would be tame in comparison to that!
 
As Eric le Vine of CellarTracker wrote in a prompt eulogy “the value of a bulletin board…(is)..the critical mass of knowledge and active contributors”.
Although I spend little time on forums nowadays (a far cry from my early days tearing up the WLTV boards!) for those readers who want to check out the remaining free forums then here’s a set of links to start from;
Wine Library TV is where I cut my teeth. Not for the fainthearted, and you could argue wine often takes second place to general ramblings, but a great bunch of people, several of whom have become good friends of mine.
CellarTracker; an oft forgotten forum under the shadow of the database itself.
Wine Spectator is a mainstream US focussed forum linked to the eponymous Magazine and brand, which brings it a fair share of critics as well as fans.
UK Wine pages; as you’d expect from a Brit forum this is relatively polite and friendly, and is currently where I spend the few hours a week I have for forums. A good, but not exclusively, Euro-centric view of the wine world.
Wine Berserkers which seems to be a natural home to the eBob disenfranchised.
Wine Disorder has friendly conversation but so far I’ve been put off by the simple interface and navigation features.
 
Each of these boards has a different focus depending whether you want a regional or global view of the wine world, and whether you’re an everyday drinker of a First Growth collector, and most (all?) are male dominated, some more than others.
My general advice on joining a new community are;
Be thick skinned, it’s too easy to take offence in the beginning.
Start of humble and but don’t compromise your tastes or preferences to fit in
Don’t be controversial for the sake of it – it’s easy to join in with the regular critical posts but if you do it before people know you, you’ll often become a target.
 
I was interested to see the launch of a UK based wine app for the iPhone at the beginning of the month – WINEfindr by Cortexica is an extension of the free Tesco app from last year, but with more retailers in its database, covering additional supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Waitrose along with online retailers Laithwaites and Majestic. For £2.99 I bought it and tried it out with mixed success. 2 out of the 3 wines I had open at home showed up (a Tahbilk Marsanne and a Graham’s Crusted port – both widely available in the UK). The 3rd was more obscure, Quinta do Tedo 2006 Douro from a local retailer (Corkscrew wines in Carlisle) and wasn’t recognised. Since then I’ve tried it on a half-dozen wines with limited success – it is OK for the main supermarket brands but doesn’t do well with labels from smaller independent retailers, which I tend to purchase from. As I type this I tried it on the last 2 bottles I bought, a Misiones de Rengo Cabernet Franc from the Co-op and the alta Battistina Gavi from Costco. It recognised the first as a Misiones, but didn’t have the Cabernet Franc in its lists, and had no record of the Gavi. The app is a great idea, and for supermarket only wine buying is probably worth trying, but if you get most of your wine from less mainstream sources then the database needs significant addition before it will be as good as it could be.
 
My only business trip of the month saw me among the dreaming spires of Oxford and a conference dinner in the main hall of Keble College, which included a talk from Professor Heinz Wolff (bringing back fond memories of early ‘80s TV) and copious quantities of Italian Pinot Noir (“quaffable” is as far as I’ll go in rating it). However, it was a Sunday evening meal at the Cherwell Boathouse which was most memorable with a delicious main of roast lamb rump and an excellent bottle of Quinta de la Rosa, a 2007 Douro, to wash it down.
Back up North and on a shopping day to the local market town of Hexham I found a worthy replacement for the Wine Rack that closed down with the collapse of First Quench. Dillies is an interesting business model – a flowers, chocolates and wine store which could be somewhat of a holy trinity of his & her indulgence (now Sarah comes into a wine shop with me and stays for more than 2 minutes!) I am being a little harsh comparing Dillies to Wine Rack, the range that owner Andrew Foster has brought in from Liberty Wines is much more exciting than Wine Rack’s ever was and I ended up talking to him for some time before leaving with 2 French Reds; a Cru Beaujolais, the 2008 Brouilly from Chateau de Pierreux, a 100% Carignan from the Languedoc in the form of Clos de Clapisses 2007 Carignan, and 2 New Zealand whites; Wild Earth 2008 Riesling and Yealands Estate 2008 Marlborough Pinot Gris.
This isn’t the first time Yealands has been mentioned on Reign of Terroir, my article on Babydoll sheep was prompted by their 2008 Sauvignon Blanc which ended up being rather disappointing – but Pinot Gris is an occasional favourite of mine from times past so, second time lucky?
 
The local tasting society added to busy month with the regular monthly tasting being followed a week later by a Spring dinner with a BYO (wine and partners!).
The tasting theme was Pinot Noir from around the world which had a slow start with a Dry Hills 2008 Marlborough Rosé and a French Moselle in the Alsace style from Les Hauts Brassieres 2008, before moving onto the first Burgundies of the night, a Ladoix by Domaine Chevalier and Potel’s Savigny les Beaunes. All were pleasant enough, but lacked any complexity or point of focus. The New World started well with Tasmania’s high acid, but juicy, savoury 2008 9th Island but California was a disappointment with Cartlidge & Browne’s confectionary style 2008; an overly smooth and full-bodied bubble-gum Pinot.
The best was definitely at the end with two excellent bottles from New Zealand and France; Neudorf’s 2006 Moutere from Nelson stole the night with a vegetal, slightly horsey nose and complex mouthfeel with some cabbage, herbs & sweet tannins, while the 2006 Maizières from Dureuil Janthial was a subtle and balanced Rully with a savoury mushroom taste, perfect with food or on its own.
 
Spring dinner was at the Newcastle College Chef’s Academy where local aspiring Chef’s try out their skills on the unsuspecting public – I’m reliably informed there have been no fatalities thus far! A tasty Broccoli soup improved on a bland Gravadlax starter and then came a delicious mushroom risotto as a main, finishing with a predominantly blue cheese board.
The wine got off to a great start with a dry Portuguese sparkler, the all Arinto Quinta da Romeira, with notes of apple & lime. D’Arenberg’s the Hermit Crab was a rich aromatic Viognier-blend which led us onto the two Spanish reds – the Faustino I 1996 Rioja Gran Reserva had good tannin and flavour but finished weakly, whilst Tamaral’s 2003 Finca la Mira was the reverse, starting weak but ending with a long, sweet finish. Out of curiosity I blended equal measures of both and ended up with something of interest from beginning to end to accompany the risotto!
 
My own contribution to the evening were two sweet wines to accompany cheese and desserts, one English, one French. The Three Choirs 2003 Noble Harvest Botrytis Siegerrebe had a massive lychee nose but a gentle, delicate sweet taste, relatively light compared to the full textured 2005 Haut-Rauly Monbazillac, although both were very enjoyable.
 
April’s remaining purchases were definitely veering off-piste , although is anyone who knows me surprised at that?
The 2007 Berg is Markus Huber’s Traisental Grüner Veltliner and continued my recent Gru-V buying spree, but I couldn’t resist moving south and adding the Svir?e Winery 2007 Plavac Hvar to my shopping trolley when I saw it in the local Waitrose. This unusual combination of consonants hails from Croatia’s Dalmatian coast and is made from the Plavac Mali grape, which is believed to be related to Zinfandel & Primitivo. It is actually my second Hvar Plavac Mali, I already have a 2005 Grand Cru from local maestro Zlatan Plenkovic.
My most obscure purchase for April was from the Weinhaus am Grindel in Hamburg. The last time I was there it was an interesting general wine store, but now is an arm of the Dalbergerhof Strauch winery and only sells their wines – the one I ended up with was the Chapeau vom Dalberg No. 19 2008 Acolon. The Acolon variety (yes, that’s the name of the grape – and you thought Plavac Mali was an unusual one!) is a crossing between Blauer Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) and Dornfelder and was created in 1971. Initially it was planted experimentally but is now starting to make a name for itself commercially as one of the more full-bodied reds in Germany’s arsenal.
 
Needless to say I haven’t even thought of drinking any of these, so keep a look out for their tasting notes on a Greybeard’s Corner sometime in the next year or two! However, I did manage to open one or two wines from my own stock over the month, and a few were over and above everyday quaffers.

Talhbilk’s 2005 Marsanne was a thought-provoking wine with a complex mix of sour & floral flavours, while the Felsner Gedersdorfer Moosburgerin 2008 Grüner Veltliner was lean, almost austere, with white pepper – completely unlike Ernst Loosen’s sweet, oily 2007 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett bottled for UK supermarket M&S, a moreish off-dry Riesling with clean acidity.
Lebanon once again vindicated my love affair with this country’s red wines with the medium bodied, savoury cherry Château Kefraya 2006 Les Bretèches playing warm-up to the stunning heavy-duty Clos de Cana 2001 Château de Cana. I got this during my visit to Vinopolis in London last year and I’d recommend it as a purchase to anyone wanting a herby, chewy mouthful with a perfect balance of flavor and fine tannins.
Finally I opened my bottle of Graham’s Crusted Port, bottled in 2001. Crusted Port is somewhat of a British favourite, almost forgotten but coming back into fashion now. The style is usually a blend of different vintages but unfiltered and sealed with a full cork like a Classic Vintage Port and aged for at least 3 years in bottle before release.
The Graham’s showed a deep, dark colour and a nose of smoky liquorice. Thick legs warned of the impending 20% alcohol but in the mouth it was the sweet, warm and exceptionally smooth texture that took hold with restrained tannins – one the best Ports I’ve had in a long time. And a good place to finish this piece.
 
Until next month, and with a nod to Eyjafjallajökull, Skál!
 
Greybeard

 

Dr. Ron Jackson Wine Science, Perception, pt.3

Ξ May 6th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine News |

I am more than a little sad this is the final part of my interview with Dr. Ron S. Jackson. During the hour and a half we spoke, I found him a very generous, open individual. And I insisted that I reserved the right to write him with technical questions that will most certainly arise on a blog such as mine. Dr. Jackson readily agreed. His door is open. What greater reward for my effort is there than this?
 
Part 1, Principles
Part 2, Practice
 
Admin Perhaps you could provide us with your general take on the differences between ’sustainable’, ‘organic’, and ‘biodynamic’ viticulture with respect to the health of the soil.
 
Ron Jackson O.k. About biodynamic I cannot and do not want to say anything. Organic, I can talk to that more acceptably. Certainly if a winegrower is going to use organic fertilizers, then the soil will have and maintain more compost. Depending on how you treat the soil, your soil will be microbially more complex; and complexity in microbial ecosystems normally means stability. Now, does that mean the vine is going to be better nourished? That is another question. And I’m not so sure. All I can with certainty say is that the stability of the soil will be improved. The availability of nutrients to the vine, that is a much more moot point because if you have drip irrigation, for example, and you’re a savvy viticulturalist who applies nutrients at the appropriate time and in the appropriate amounts, then your vine will be super well nourished. But your soil could be as poor as pure sand. The vine would still grow very well, fully nourished; you can limit the amount of water so that you can control the growth of the vine. In some sense, with drip irrigation used sensibly under certain conditions, you can simply tell the vine what to do and when. You can dictate to the vine how and when to grow. You have much more control than under organic conditions in which case you’re basically allowing things to develop as quote nature unquote permits under the conditions of that year.
 
Now, if you want to have control then obviously the modern way is better because you’ll have more consistency from year to year. If you want to produce excellent wine at minimal cost, that is the way to go. I would say that it is impossible to have consistency and high quality with organic viticulture at low cost. So it depends who you’re selling to. If people want the organic, they believe in that, and are willing to pay more; they like the aspect that they may like the wine this year but may not the next year, and they buy into that whole cultural element, then that’s fine. I’ve nothing against that. People can chose what they want. They’re the ones doing the buying.
 
From my perspective (I look at it more from the industrial side of things), I tend to like wine more consistent in character. I know this year it’s great and that next year it will be almost the same, and equally great. I know people who really hate that philosophy. That’s fine. There is no reason there should be only one option.
 
It is also true to say that in organic winegrowing there is the codification, the formal legal elements of what we call ‘organic’, and then there are people who have been doing organic irrespective of the codification; I’m thinking of Rodale from 60 years ago for example. I’ve often met organic gardeners who do what they do indifferent to the official definition. Of course, they may not use the word ‘organic’ on their label, for to do so would not only commit them to a specific set of rules, but also open them up to criticism that they share the whole of the practices allowed under those rules.
 
In any event, I’d like to hear a bit about climate change in your part of North America. I’ve talked to Dr. Richard Smart about his expansive homoclime database, and Professor Greg Jones recently about this. Now, about the perils but also, as has been observed, the advantages for winegrowing climate change might bring. Do you have a position?

 
RJ All I can really say is that I’m a believer! (laughs) I would have to be nuts to say that I didn’t. The evidence is too strong, and is essentially all in one direction. When you see CO2 levels essentially going off the scale you say ‘Holy Smoke’! Something is going on here. There is no doubt about it. Now, what are going to be the consequences of this? I’m scared. Literally, I’m scared. Partially because what’s going to happen to sea levels and climate, but those are not what scare me so much. What really influences me in my nighttime fears would be political consequences. That’s where is really gets serious. If you look in past histories with significant climate change, that means big political problems.
 
Population disloctions…
 
RJ Oh! That usually comes with extremes of political philosophies. They [dislocations] are often associated with wars. And famines… it’s not nice.
 
As Richard Smart said ‘Growing wine will be the least of our worries”.
 
RJ That’s right. If there is any wine to drink. Maybe we won’t even be able to get our hands on it. That is really small fish.
 
Yours is a refreshing perspective. I get pretty tired of hearing about how Napa’s fortunes might be affected while the world burns.
 
RJ (laughs) Yeah. Don’t bother me with that! That is not important.
 
Another question with respect to climate change: about the higher alcohol levels, longer hang time, the race for phenolic ripeness in hotter climates. Just what is the role of climate change in what is often called, correctly I think, the Parker Palate. Is he driving winemakers to produce a certain style or is Parker merely tasting the fruit winemakers now have to work with in a warmer world?
 
RJ Well, I suppose he [Parker] is an influence on the consumer. The producer will look at that. But it is also driven by scientific research where they are looking at greater phenolics, greater color… color influences perception, just modify the color and people will change their perception of the wine. The wine can be exactly the same, just a slightly darker color, they can change the perception. Certainly a more fruity character is more pleasant. I like that. But you can get fruity flavors but not necessarily get the high alcohol contents. There is no absolute conjunction between the two.
 
But we still need somewhat better techniques to determine when to harvest based on flavor and not so much on straight phenolics. We still are not sufficiently advanced to be able to determine this. People certainly have been for the past 20 to 30 years trying to figure out what is the most important aspect of significant humanly detectable flavor in wine. We’re still not there. And until we can define what it is that really are the significant components, we will still fall back on old techniques: intensity of color, phenolic content, sugar content, acid content, all these standard things. They work really well! There is no doubt about it. There really is a good correlation between all these factors and flavor. But if we knew even more what the actual critical compounds were, we could follow them.
 
And depending on the climate that you’re in, the flavor development, the sugar content, and the drop in acid level do not always coincide. So, cool climates tend to have a different sequence than those in the warm climate with exactly the same grape variety. What apples in Napa, California wouldn’t work necessarily in Washington. So, if we knew what the compounds were that really influence people’s perception, or a critic’s perception (laughs), the winemaker could then select when to harvest and not get high alcohol contents that are somewhat disappointing. And I find them disappointing, too. I find that wines that are getting 14%, 15% alcohol, where I grew up with 11% and 12%, I find that their balance is different. I don’t really like them. That may be simply because of habituation. I see so much of the influence of habituation. Maybe the new wine drinkers will come to think that the higher alcohol content in their table wine is natural. And if you give them something more at 12% they’ll think the wine is not balanced (laughs).
 
Yeah, I wanna get my money’s worth!
 
RJ So, habituation is a big factor. I see that especially with wine and food. Habituation is probably the major driver.
 
Also it is the American diet, perhaps, that plays a role. Coca Cola, cheeseburgers… they have a certain mouthful, a satisfying heft, a sweetness. Is this not also habituation? And wouldn’t it be foolish to think that wine would be any different. Especially when you hear the ‘trust your own palate’ mantra shouted by wine gurus. And the people who have been habituated now think that if it tastes like Coke, “hey, I like Coke, therefore….”
 
RJ That’s right! (laughs)
 
So how do you persuade people to explore and to question their palates, their routinized expectations?
 
RJ I wish somehow that I could shake people up and say ‘Try different things.’ Just take a wine, don’t look at the label at all. Pour it out, get away, just sit down and think about what you’re perceiving. Just think! Don’t drink. Think! Swirl. Smell. Analyze what it is you’re detecting. I am not expecting people to say that it has just a hint of truffle and all of this silly talk. (Well, ok, for some people it isn’t silly. But for many people I think it is silly.) Then ask yourself if there is complexity there. Do I really like this? Is this something that I, as a human being, appreciate by itself. Is the taste something that I do in fact appreciate? If not, fine. If yes, good. Then go and look at the bottle. Was it inexpensive or more? Certainly, if I could get people to do comparative tastings, blind comparative tastings, then I’d be happy. Even better, though certainly more complex because they are not readily available, would be to use black wine glasses, so you cannot be influenced by color. The only thing that can influence is taste and smell. If you don’t know where it came from, it’s just you and the wine! That’s it. You’re having a kind of conversation, you and the wine. You don’t have anybody’s comment. No other information. That’s it. That’s where you start to get truth.
 
And if you do this repeatedly, then you start to find what is really your own preference, whatever it is. It can change. It may not change. I’m not insisting that people change. I would like people to try to find what really is their opinion. Later on you can read what this critic says about this wine, if you can find such a review. Do they have a perception similar to mine? If so then you can begin to trust them when they suggest things.
 
The local merchant as well…
 
RJ That’s right. And if you like Tempranillo, then they might suggest this, and this, and this. Try some, again, blind. See how you respond. You could include your favorite wine and compare two. Can you distinguish between the two? It is just the fact that you are thinking about the wine is the best means that anyone can use to find out what their real tastes are. And to find out what quality wine can have. It really can be stupendous! My best personal experiences are wines with that I had no idea what the wines were. Or I made a mistake! (laughs) I took out the wrong wine. What have I poured here? This is ambrosia from heaven! What did I just open? It can be such a shock. Wow! Wine can be stupendous. It doesn’t have to be just nice and pleasant.
 
When I drink I never think in terms of pleasure. I think in terms of difference. For me it is the differences I find in wines that motivates me. At the store I grab varieties I’ve never heard of just for the experience of drinking an entirely new world. Then I’m interested in reading about the grape, where it’s grown… I become engaged in a larger dialogue.
 
RJ Initially it is a sensory difference, and then you augment your interest in that with all this other material, rather than going from the material to the wine. I find that having the sensory difference to start the whole thing rolling is the inspiring way.
 
Could you tell me of your latest research?
 
RJ Oh, well, since I’m retired…
 
You’re retired? You sound all of 35!
 
RJ (laughs) Oh, well if you double that then you’re pretty close! I wish I were back at 35 with all I know now. Boy, now that would be inspiring.
 
Yeah, I know. Experience always comes too late! So you’re not doing research?
 
RJ Other than writing books, editing other books, writing chapters of books.
 
Obviously you’re retired…
 
RJ It is a funny type of retirement. A wholly active retirement.
 
The life of the mind knows no rest.
 
RJ Oh, boy, I don’t want to let it have any rest. I refuse to allow it to have rest. I push it to the maximum. As you get older you need to push it to the limit. No bars held. So research is basically writing now.
 
And a cellar? Do you have a cellar?
 
RJ Oh, yes. Though it is getting depleted because, regrettably, my wife passed away three months ago.
 
I am very sorry to hear that.
 
RJ So the house is now way too big. My mother lived here, then she passed away. My wife. The house is way too big for me. It’s actually up for sale. And I had this huge wine cellar full of wine that I thought I’d be drinking for the next 20 years! I haven’t been buying. When Susan became ill, I stopped buying and began to drink. So it’s going down, but I certainly have a cellar still.
 
And the wines? What country is mostly present?
 
RJ Australia is the primary occupant of the cellar. I like a lot of Spain. Italian. Portuguese. The Portuguese I like because the grape varieties are really distinctive. Italy has a huge selection of grape varieties. I’m always intrigued with those. I like German wines. The Spanish ones, I really have a particular fondness for Rioja. It was the Marqués de Murrieta Ygay blanco that was the first white wine that sent me into heaven. That old-style white Rioja, I just couldn’t get over how stunning that was. Regrettably, you can’t get it in most Provinces of Canada anymore. Why, I don’t know. Maybe not a lot is being produced and most is being consumed in Spain! But it’s not coming to Canada, anyway.
 
It’s many of these older styles. Amarone, the very ancient style. I loved it. And my love became even greater when I realized some of the best Amarone is Botrytis-infected. Of course, this is my fungus! Now I am even more interested. Most of the literature is in Italian, and my Italian is not great. But I will fight through Italian to understand what they are saying about that particular wine!
 
I like carbonic maceration. I think it is a neat technique. Sure, it’s not considered hi-tech… well, it is hi-tech in one sense. But most connoisseur’s kind of frown on it. But it is a fun wine. Why do I have to be serious all the time? Diversity is much of the spice of life. I like that.
 
Well, sir, it has been a distinct pleasure. Oh, one last question. Did you read the patent text from Virgilio and his group?
 
RJ Yes. The patent sounds quite interesting. I was quite inspired to read it. I don’t know if this is going to be the BT of fungicides. All of these things will be great for a while, but like all fungicides, if you depend on only one, you’re designed to fail. You can’t use one. You’ve got a host of microbes out there, billions of them, and they are mutating. They are going to find a solution sooner or later. If they don’t they will simply disappear off the face of the Earth.
 
They’ve got the numbers against you. In plant pathology the current view is to never use the same fungicide more than once. Rotate. Use only if necessary, and in the right amount. Minimize the application beyond need so that you preserve these things for generations, not just for three or four years. That’s a horrible waste.
 
But his seems most interesting. From an academic point of view, it will be interesting to find out what exactly it is doing to the fungi. How is it killing them? The fungi will be able to produce proteases to break it down too.
 
But it is something different. And we need new weapons in the arsenal, that is for sure.
 
Thank you for your generosity, Ron.
 
RJ It’s been fun, Ken.
 
Admin

 

Cinco De Mayo, A Day Of Reflection

Ξ May 5th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine & Politics |

Arizona’s new immigration law casts a somber shadow over this year’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations across the country. While widely believed unconstitutional in reputable legal circles, the social consequences of the new law are as well proving corrosive of America’s historical tradition as a nation of immigrants. Polarization of political opinion, much of it crassly opportunistic, is well underway. Less interested in solutions than in energizing ‘the base’, the extreme positions on either end of the political spectrum flirt not only with violence but exploit the popular, nativist ignorance of American history itself.
 
We like to think of ourselves as a nation of laws, and we regularly trot out hallucinated visions of an America that never was. From Gone With The Wind to “It’s morning in America”, our complex cultural echo chamber feeds us myths and fictions at odds with reality. We are equally a nation of lawbreakers. And a powerful river of violence has carried our nation forward. From the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, to the Civil Rights struggle and the rise of labor unions, American social progress has often depended upon resistance to established law. But so has the nation seen regression and the erosion of rights. Violence is, after all, a contagion. It sweeps away distinction and difference; it is the enemy of civility.
 
I believe Arizona’s new immigration law perfectly captures these two seemingly contradictory forces of American history; for they are not contradictory at all. Myth is violence, a violence done to history itself. In Arizona’s case, the law reads like a Grimm’s fairy tale. It is a fable of us versus them, a fable of good and evil. And like any good tale, it clothes its violent core with a satisfying narrative. The wolf or step-mother always dies in the end. How will Arizona’s law end? The awful truth is that we know already know the answer to that question. Whether in the desert, or at the hands of ‘coyotes’ and vigilantes, Arizona’s new law, if upheld, promises that each reported death of an undocumented worker will be unremarkable, the mere consequence of ‘breaking the law’. The coarsening of our culture will only deepen.
 
I contacted the leading contenders for California’s Governorship and Governor Schwarzenegger himself for comment on Arizona’s 1070. All responded in some way. Their remarks are as follows.
 
Governor Schwarzenegger
 
“Immigration policy is, and always has been, a federal responsibility. The Governor does not support the Arizona law. He believes that comprehensive immigration reform needs federal leadership and must include secure national borders that allow for the legal movement of people, goods, and services, and creates a forward-looking labor policy that meets the needs of our economy. Arizona’s actions should be a wake-up call to the federal government. The decades of federal inaction can no longer continue.”
 
Meg Whitman
 
“I understand Arizona’s frustration with the federal government’s failure to solve the country’s illegal immigration problem. However, should such legislation be proposed in California, I would oppose it because I believe there are far more effective and suitable ways to fight illegal immigration. First, we must secure our borders. If need be, I will deploy California’s National Guard to assist federal authorities in making sure our state’s borders are secured. Second, I will build an economic fence to make it far harder for employers to hire illegal labor. Finally we must eliminate sanctuary cities. I call on Congress and the Obama Administration to take immediate action on a serious federal effort to secure our borders. It is time to see real action, not just more talk from Washington, D.C. on this vital national issue.”
 
Steve Poizner
 
“I support the amended version of Arizona’s new law, which takes a bold approach to dealing with illegal immigration while making it crystal clear that racial profiling is both illegal and wrong. Arizona has acted because the federal government has failed to secure our borders. It is time for California to do the same and, as governor, I pledge to make stopping illegal immigration one of my highest priorities. I have detailed a bold plan to address the crisis, which includes cutting off taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal aliens, employing state resources to help secure our borders, ending Sanctuary Cities, and cracking down on employers who hire illegal aliens. And to Meg Whitman and her liberal allies in Congress who want to reward illegal aliens with a ‘pathway to citizenship,’ I have just two words: No Amnesty.”
 
Jerry Brown
 
“The Arizona law is legally problematic… This is an issue of federal responsibility, and the federal government needs to step up, secure the border and enact sensible immigration reform.”
 
This Cinco de Mayo, as I drink wine in my finely maintained backyard, enjoying a bountiful feast of diverse agricultural products, my hopes and prayers shall be with all those nameless individuals who contribute to our quality of life.
 
Admin

 

Dr. Ron S. Jackson, Wine Science, Practice pt.2

Ξ May 3rd, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine News |

In this second part of three, Dr. Ron S. Jackson gets down to business. Here he discusses subjects both great and small, but all with an endearing charm and wit. He possesses that great teaching skill of measuring the demands of the question for all audiences. Equally at home discussing amines, esters, nematodes, yeast and the life cycle of phylloxera, he can easily shift to marketing strategies and his favorite beer. He is an academic at home in the world. Without further ado…
 
Part 1 may be read here.
 
Admin What lives on the surface of a wine grape? I mean the microbiota, especially with respect to wild yeast populations. Just how complex is that micro-universe?
 
Ron Jackson It is clearly very complex. Most of the organisms that are growing there have a limited effect on the characteristics of the wine. In most instances, if it’s going to have a marked influence, it’s going to be negative. It will not be positive. At least that is how most microbiologists view it. Now, there are some other people who have a different point of view. It’s like Brettanomyces, the yeast. Certain winemakers love it. And my suspicion as to why this is so is that their nose is not particularly sensitive to the off odors. Now, there is a lot of variation between people. If you’re a winemaker with an olfactory capacity that does not detect it, or you become adapted to it, then you don’t really think your wine smells of barnyard manure. To this microbiologist it mostly smells real bad. But some winemakers think it is wonderful. What is one to say?
 
If the consumer doesn’t reject this odor and the winemaker can sell their wine, then they say that makes their wine distinctive. Well, so be it. Most microbiologists just find it abominable. Certain of these wild yeasts, if they start to grow in the ferment at the beginning, they can produce some pretty unpleasant odors. Now, again, does this add complexity? If the concentrations are low enough, yes, it can add an element of complexity to the wine that it wouldn’t have otherwise. If it gets much higher, if you are sensitive to it, then it simply makes the wine almost undrinkable.
 
Most of these organisms require oxygen. And, of course, as soon as you crush the grapes and you start getting the fermentation going then the oxygen level goes down to almost undetectable levels. These organisms then cannot grow. Or don’t grow for very long. Then the Saccharomyces cerevisiae starts to grow, produce alcohol, which is toxic to most of these yeasts, so they simply stop growing, under most circumstances. Not all! There is no absolute here.
 
We’ve talked about Portuguese winemaking approaches before. Whether on the Açores or elsewhere on the mainland, wild or native yeasts populations are almost exclusively used. Would you explain the differences between wild yeasts and S. cerevisiae?
 
RJ Saccharomyces cerevisiae is there. It definitely is already there. It probably is there as the predominant yeast in the winery. In most places the grapes may come in with very few cells of S. cerevisiae on them. But the winery equipment is covered with S. cerevisiae! Now, when we say “wild” strains, those are kinds of indigenous strains with slight modifications, but there are still the same species. They have slightly different characteristics. Some produce a little bit more ethyl acetate, some produce a little bit more glycerol, things like that; so there are slight differences. If you really select strains then you can markedly affect the character of the wine by the kind of yeast you use to inoculate. This is equally true of the wild versions of S. cerevisiae that actually are occurring in the winery, on the winery equipment, in the fermentation tanks and so on.
 
I’m asking because I have friends who champion wild yeast fermentations. And I recently came across an article out of Australia about a biodynamic grower who was looking for a legal remedy to stop a brewery from opening nearby because she is afraid that her vineyard would become colonized by a yeast variety that is contrary to her principles. What would be your response and advice to the grower?
 
RJ Oh, boy! We are really becoming paranoid, I’m afraid! (laughs) Well, I’m sure that person would not consider anything I said to be of any value whatsoever. I’m in the wrong camp. I’m in the enemy camp. So obviously I would be telling her lies! There would be no reason for me to mention anything. But the evidence at the moment is that if you take to pomace from a fermentation, take it out and use it as fertilizer in the field, most of the residual yeasts will die very quickly and you may not be able to detect it in a year’s time. It’s what survives in the winery that’s important. Not what you put out on the vineyard. Sure, it my splash up on to your vine, but S. cerevisiae does not grow well at all outside. It is a really unique organism, specialized to fermentations, and does not grow well on grapes. It does not grow at all well on grapes.
 
Most breweries are not going to have many yeast cells getting out into the air. At least most breweries that I know of certainly don’t have much floating outside.
 
So what accounts for the massive die-off of yeast?
 
RJ The yeast has a comparatively short lifespan. Certainly the ultraviolet radiation from the sun will damage it. Drying will kill individual cells, especially if they are by themselves. Now, if you get a big clump of them, ok, they’re protected inside.
 
Like something you’d buy from Lallemand.
 
RJ Sure. You’ve got millions inside, coated; they dried down slowly. They can survive. But once they go onto soil and you get moisture then they will break down. There are microbes in the soil, they will eat the yeast. It’s a food source. So the yeast will be consumed and die fairly quickly. It simply has no place to grow. It will die off. It’s like taking a bunch of seed and tossing them onto dry soil. Leave them there for a year or so and all the seeds are dead. If the yeast does not have a favorable environment to grow then it will die off.
 
The origin of Saccharomyces cerevisiae seems to be on the exudate of Oak trees. There are a few other related species, but the exudate sap of Oak seems to one of the few places where you can find the progenitor of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Also included would be acorns. It’s probably from that that the yeast got into fermenting barley and fermenting grapes.
 
With respect to the effect of smoke taint on grapes in the field, I’ve read some preliminary research that Pine and Eucalyptus trees and other very aromatic plants, like sage, when grown near vineyards that there may be some aromatic component that somehow infuses the grapes, and therefore helps to distinguish the unique character of one vineyard’s wines from another. What is your opinion of that line of thinking?
 
RJ I think it is a distinct possibility. My question is how many people are able to tell? I would say only a few in 20,000. First we have the problem of establishing that there is a difference, then of recognizing the difference, which is even more complex. Most people won’t be able to do this. So, in essence, it is a tempest in a teapot simply because the vast majority of people would never be able to tell. It is amazing how imprecise human beings are in this realm of distinguishing subtle differences. If you have two shades of color right next to one another, put them together, of course, people can tell that difference. But if you then take them away and bring one back and ask which was the lighter or darker, you’ll find that people cannot make that distinction.
 
It is the same with two wines. I’ve done it with 5 or 6 wines. It’s one of the most complicated tests for trainees to have any success at. You give them 5 or 6 wines, quite distinct (you don’t want to make it impossible), usually reds. Ask them to write down their comments, how that they may distinguish each wine next time they see it. So then those 6 wines go away. Now 8 wines appear. Tell me which wine is which? And which wines were not originally there? Finally, are any of the wines you tried before present here twice? (laughs) That separates the men from the boys pretty fast! People are just stunned at how poor they are at answering accurately. They then see how much work is ahead for them!
 
This must be why some wine critics are so leery of double blind wine tastings! Your format would be quite challenging.
 
RJ It is very, very challenging, and certainly very humbling.
 
You yourself have written a book on wine tasting and appreciation. How do you approach the subject?
 
RJ The book is for universities. It’s for courses in wine sensory evaluation. That’s primarily what it’s designed for. Or for industry people who want to set up tastings. For critical tastings the first thing people have to figure out and decide is what do they want to learn from a tasting. Are they looking at it from a strictly quality point of view where is used the standard terms of quality? Or at you looking at from a varietal expression? Regional expression? Stylistic? How well the wines might go with a particular food? So each one of these ways of looking at it will influence how you assess the wine.
 
Now, from a scientific point of view, if you want to know are wines from region ‘A’ distinguishable, on average, from those from region ‘B’ and ‘C’, then in that case you have descriptors and a ranking, say from 0 to 6, or 1 to 100, and so you have your tasters rank the wines on a set of aroma descriptors. You ask about how much pineapple do you detect, for example, in a given wine. Is it 10 out of 100? Ninety out of 100? Then you take everybody’s results, measure them, do statistical analysis to see if anybody can distinguish any difference in pineapple character in of the wine. Then you can study for consistent patterns. By extension, could you then distinguish wines from regions ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’?
 
Whether wines were from a cool or warm climate…
 
RJ That’s right. Or even the different regions of Napa. Northern Napa, central Napa, southern Napa, are there really consistent patterns? Perhaps consistent for the year, but sadly most tastings of this kind are not done over multiple years so as to see whether these patterns tend to remain. Or is it just that climactic change marks where these shifts, these differences appear.
 
Also relevant would be changes in winemaking style, longer hang time, new oak, various masking elements…
 
RJ That’s right. Which type of oak, toasting level; was it natural seasoning or was it fired… multiple things that make it terribly complicated and correspondingly very interesting.
 
What’s always bothered me with a lot of the wine tastings is that one never knows whether a winery uses liquid oak extract, mega purple for mouthfeel and color density, there are all kinds of additives and technological tricks currently available. Or at least they don’t talk about it. Is it possible through sufficient training to distinguish what is a ‘natural’ wine product, in quotes, one with minimal winery intervention, from one which has been so treated?
 
RJ I would say, humanly, no. Chemically, yes. But humanly, no. I have seen absolutely nothing that would give me any confidence that people, unless there is some hound dog out there, can do it. Certainly the majority of people can’t. It’s just one of those things: that the perception of reality and reality are often markedly different. Most people don’t realize the difference between those two. Often they are afraid to believe themselves and will follow what anybody says, just like sheep.
 
And the winery that might use such adulterants protects the secret. For the information to get out would significantly alter the perception, shall we say.
 
RJ You can pretty well tell who is doing what just by looking at the price they charge. (laughs) You simply can’t have a wine produced for about $8 a bottle that has been in French oak! Pricing is an instructive element. Of course, if you charge $50 a bottle that does not necessarily mean you used high priced oak. You could have used oak extract, too, and laughed all the way to the bank that you fooled everybody. You’d at least better have a few oak barrels there for the people who walk into your winery! (laughs)
 
You could rent them from Hollywood.
 
RJ That’s right! (laughs)
 
End of part 2
 
Admin

 

From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech

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