by Wine Owners
Posted on 2019-04-17
A secret of the greatest wines of the world is their balance of glucose and juicy fruit, offset with a certain amount of balancing natural acidity. Perception of sweetness is affected by additional factors beyond fruit acidity, such as oak barrels and amino acids.
The French have a word for a sweet-fruited, succulent mid-palate – sucrosité.
Even the most classic palates enjoy wines that show a crunchy sucrosité. Cross the line in a hot vintage though, and that perfect pitch sweetness turns sugary.
So what are the challenges behind trying to preserve the all-important mid palate character and aromatic profile in a vintage that’s the hottest in more than 50 years?
Feel vs numbers
Extreme climatic conditions challenged the current winemaking playbook by numbers. We suspect looking at the numbers alone to decide perfect phenolic maturity this year will not have worked as well as trusting in human judgement based on daily tasting of berries from across the myriad plots that make up a typical Château’s vineyard holdings.
In 2016 Figeac’s stunning success was in part down to an ultra-gentle infusion to minimise extraction. It was a year, like 2018, where polyphenals (tannins and colorants referred to as 'IPT' for short) were huge and needed gentle handling. Combine high IPT numbers with high alcohols and the potential to create an out-of-balance wine increases.
High sugar levels in super-ripe fruit can be a worry in a vintage like 2018. Fermentations are prone to stall where high sugar levels feed rapidly rising alcohol levels. In many instances stuck fermentations can be kick-started by tipping in musts from other vats where the fermentation has already successfully completed. But there’s no getting away from the atypical character of the resulting wine. Of course extra sweetness can be offset with acidification in the cellar - permitted in Bordeaux as elsewhere.
To the manor born
It’s a year where terroir appears to have played a significant part in cutting the grade. However unfair this may seem, the best soils and expositions tended to deliver the best wines. A bit like a heat sink regulates and dissipates excessive temperatures, somehow so do the greatest vineyards.
As reported by Jane Anson in Decanter, Eric Kohler put it like this: 'even after 25 years of working at Lafite I continue to be full of admiration for this terroir. Other plots that we own reacted to the heat at times, but Lafite just kept sailing on as usual'.
One lump please
Away from top terroir, there were a lot of sugary mid-palates in 2018. You either enjoy the extra sweetness or you don’t. We’ll be avoiding the wines with more than one lump.
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2019-04-08
Much has been said of the hot, drought conditions of 2018 from July onwards and the consequent high alcohols, higher than normal pHs and high polyphenols (colorants and tannins) that resulted in dense, rich, darkly coloured wines.
A warming planet we are told is likely to get warmer and wetter – in which case the sort of challenges posed by the weather in 2018 are likely to become a more common occurrence. Might whole bunch fermentation be a rational response to these increasingly extreme conditions?
Whole bunch fermentation is a bit of a nouveauté in Bordeaux, practised by producers with a leaning towards Burgundy style and weight.
There are a number of arguments in favour of whole bunch:
Stems act as a sponge in fermentation and leach colour out of the wine by absorbing some of the colorants. In a really hot Bordeaux vintage such as 2018 this helps make the wine’s robe less black and more attractive.
Stems in a very hot vintage are more likely to be fully lignified and a higher percentage can be used without imparting unripe flavours into the wine.
Stems give a perception of greater freshness, apparently because of additional molecules that have ‘attractively astringent properties’. In reality they don’t actually lower the pH; they tend to do the opposite since the pH of stems is higher than in grapes.
Stems marginally lower alcohol levels in the finished wine.
Two estates in Bordeaux stand out for their practise of vendanges entières:
Chateau Rouget in Pomerol is owned by Domaines Labruyère who famously own Jacques Prieur in Burgundy. The wine was exceptional, very rich yet beautifully balanced, a gorgeously controlled mid-palate and with alcohols of 14 degrees (low for 2018 given a 85% merlot dominant blend) and with a pH score of 3.62. That’s low for the vintage, where other Chateaux were boasting about how low their pHs were at 3.65-3.69. Small differences in pH can make a very significant perceived difference.
Chateau Carmes Haut Brion appears to also be a fan of Burgundian weight and style, and have used whole bunch for the last few vintages very successfully, having produced a shockingly good 2017. In a much hotter year than any of the preceding 4 vintages how would it fare? Very well, with a perfumed nose, croquant fruit, stacked for sure, yet with real presence and poise fin de bouche.
In our view both these Chateaux produced wonderful wines in 2018, and insomuch make an argument for how whole bunch can work well in a hot vintage where balance and constraint are the watchwords, and where finesse and focus are much harder to achieve than in a more normal, temperate year.
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2019-04-08
Given the climatic conditions of the Bordeaux 2018 vintage described in an earlier post here – what impact did this have on the wines produced?
The new chai in Beychevelle which was used for the first time in 2016 and which helped to manage the 2018 vintage.
©Fabian Cobb / Wine Owners
The generic statistics fail to reveal the arduous nature of the vintage for the vine growers and whilst the widespread difficulties left their imprint on the wines the essentially dry and hot summer which lasted through to the autumn brought a phenolic ripeness to the fruit and permitted the chateaux to harvest in conditions almost unseen for decades.
The three main issues in the Bordeaux 2018 vintage:
Devastating phenomena such as hail which continued late into the year
Mildew – a threat which persisted until early summer
Drought-like conditions in the summer and autumn
Hail, as large as tennis balls, arrived in Bordeaux in May. The devastation it wrought on some vineyards was total and some estates will produce no wine from this vintage. Others were luckier although it reduced their crop. Some vines, incredibly, although struck by hail, managed to repair themselves. For one estate this was only the third time in 30 years hail had struck First floors – not an easy phenomenon to manage.
Given the persistent rain the mildew was extensive in Bordeaux in 2018. The warm almost tropical weather in June followed by further outbreaks in July brought huge casualties across Bordeaux. This was a year of firsts. Managers had rarely if ever seen such extensive ground rot and one estate in Margaux lost two-thirds of their crop overnight. This reduced the remaining crop to one bunch per vine. A common way for estates to deal with the threat of mildew is to de-leaf the vine permitting air to circulate and dry out the plant. However, the canopy might be needed later (as it turned out) and if this effeuillage was too drastic the consequences would be felt later on. Maintaining a canopy might also help to maintain the freshness and fruit. As it turned out, the second half of the year needed to use the resources (water) of the first part. Without this water it would have been a very different vintage.
Once the anti-cyclone established itself over the region the grapes matured with a richness unseen before. This in itself meant additional care at harvest time. One estate manager commented that the change in conditions from the end of July to when people returned from their holidays in August was ‘spectacular’. Something he ‘had never witnessed in the 25 years or working on the estate’. Not only that but the meteorological forecast was ‘extraordinary’ – and was fulfilled.
Given the replenishment of the water table the remaining harvestable crop was of outstanding quality. Merlot berries were normal size because their growth cycle coincided more with the presence of water in the soil but the Cabernet Sauvignon were small and concentrated – but not ‘cooked’ nor ‘confit’.
Some estates might produce normal or near-normal yields but 20-30% less was common, 50% not uncommon, with some reduced to 10hl/ha - a volume not seen since the 60s.
Judging maturity is probably the most important factor to produce a good wine. Undoubtedly, given the richness of the grapes this was going to be another area of distinction for the various estates – when to harvest? Ironically, some estates decided to harvest early to preserve acidity (one source of freshness). But it’s not clear this was a functional objective. As one technical manager told us, ‘some estates near them were harvesting 10 days earlier than them, when normally they would be harvesting a week later. Clearly, a disparity in vision. When the harvest did come in, there were still summer conditions and, if they could, estates cooled the fruit down before it was processed. Realising the grapes were rich, extraction would need to be managed ‘almost by itself’. Reducing the temperature of fermentation was a more common technique along with less pigeage or remontage, for example, and other techniques often employed to extract more. This helped to preserve the fruit and freshness. Tannins dissolve more in higher alcohol solutions - extracting the polyphenols wasn’t going to be a problem in 2018. Some estates had the highest IPT (Indice de Polyphénols Totaux) of any year on record.
The successful red wines from the Bordeaux 2018 vintage (and there are a lot less of those than expected) are dense, deep coloured almost opaque in cases. The benchmark 2018 nose is red fruit driven with some chocolate and coffee aromas. The pallet is full and round, and the tannins have the potential to be silky. Surprisingly, the wines have maintained a degree of freshness. The wines are structured with unusual body. It is a good year for the dry whites which have preserved good acidity and are perfectly ripe. The sweet whites are concentrated and rich but lack the complexity of really good years due to the late arrival of botrytis – it was simply too dry.
A model of the new chais currently underway at Chateau Figeac
©Fabian Cobb / Wine Owners
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2019-04-08
To compare with the 2016 vintage in Bordeaux visit our post 2016 vintage conditions
Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron – 2eme cru classe ©Fabian Cobb / Wine Owners
Looking over the weather stats for the Bordeaux 2018 vintage one is struck by several positive features and, unfortunately, a couple which are likely to cause some difficulties for winemakers. There are certain key weather conditions which the vine needs to perform well. Bearing in mind, always, that generic weather data does not focus on an individual terroir and the way it might cope with the weather nor does it reveal winemakers’ attitudes and decisions.
Bearing in mind the chart above, there are 5 essential conditions for a good vintage:
A calm, warm and relatively dry period in the Spring to permit healthy flowering and
similar conditions for fruit set a little later;
Gradual introduction of dry summer conditions to induce hydric stress no later than veraison (when the grapes change colour)
Warm weather for even maturation with adequately dry (but not too dry) conditions in August and September, and
Optimum harvest conditions in September and October without rain.
Looking at the chart above one can see that many of these conditions appear to have been met except that although cumulative precipitation was beneficial in the first few months, the wet conditions in June and July plus the warm weather encouraged the onset of aggressive mildiou which provided very difficult conditions for many and particularly estates managed on biodynamic principles. It was an unusually sunny and dry summer fulfilling the criteria for a good vintage although a hail storm in late May affected a few properties in the Medoc. The resulting long period of hot and dry conditions might be referred to as a ‘drought’ – it hardly rained at all for 4 months. The year which had started late for vine development reversed itself and it became an ‘early’ vintage – a rare enough occurrence in Bordeaux.
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2018-12-17
Ahead of the new 2017 releases in early 2019 it's time to report on Burgundy and its news.
Another warm summer produced accessible, fruity wines.
Left to do their thing, the vines were wont to produce very high yields especially in areas hit by frost damage in 2016 as the plants strove to compensate. Yields in Chardonnay were as high as 80 hl/ha. Now that’s a lot.
With a long run of short harvests stretching back to 2009 for several communes, the temptation was to let nature’s abundance run unabated. The trouble is, pinot noir is particularly susceptible to a large crop, so the trick in 2017 was to work to constrain yields.
Just as many over-cropped 1999s are now showing flat, far from being the great wines they might (and should) have been, we shall see which producers in 2017 haven't applied the brakes hard enough in due course.
For those who produced normal yields, 2017 is a delightfully juicy, fruit-forward year. Yet the best wines have more than just fruit: there is a fine mineral structure, a chalkiness and salinity that complements the raspberry coulis, kirsch, griotte, plum and fruit pastille characteristics.
The best pinots show appealing sucrosité with plenty of supporting freshness, which contributes to a sappy, mouth-watering persistence.
Above all I loved the harmony, balance, progression and energy of the best reds. I wouldn’t be surprised if they never shut down, and stay delicious from early on in their development throughout a moderately long drinking window: after all the 1997s are just about still hanging in there these days, and the 2017s have the potential to be rather better.
The perfect 2017 pinot has flowing raspberry fruit, a vinous, kirsch-like refinement, an infusion of Seville oranges and hints at a darker side with liquorice and spice.
The question mark over 2017 is whether a proper degree of intensity has been achieved. The vintage doesn’t seem to reach the same level in general as 2016, and yet the greatest 2017s do rival (and in a few cases surpass) their 1 year old siblings.
2017 is also very much a vintage where the appellations are reflective of their classification. Stepping up through a range from Bourgogne, through village wine and premier cru up to grand cru feels like an exercise in stepping up through the gears, with more oomph and interest at each change.
Whites are generally delicious as long as yields were tightly managed, and though the acidity levels were apparently a little less than in 2016, the very best still show a notable pithiness, a chalkiness and a bright intense citrus core that successfully counterbalances a tropical fruit character of pineapple and guava.
Looking ahead to 2018, this is going to be a very tricky vintage. It was really hot, and the choice of picking date will have been critical.
Many producers were searching for perfect phenolic ripeness, waiting until the pips indicated an expected level of maturity. Some producers believed that perfect phenolic ripeness was not the only deciding factor for picking a harvest date in 2018. Those that were concerned about alcohol levels went early. They got their grapes in as early as the start of the last week of August finishing during the first week of September.
Producers needed to avoid too much extraction in 2018 for fear of introducing bitter flavours, especially those who had gone early. The gentlest of infusions seem at this very early stage to be the making of the best wines. Even so you won’t see many wines straight out of barrel with that trademark shining ruby robe of classic burgundy in 2018.
The most exciting wines tasted from barrel were made from grapes carried in at around 13.5 degrees but there are tales of 15 or (even!) 16 degree behemoths, whilst 14.2-14.5 degrees feels like a norm in the vintage.
The early pickers were fearful of what might happen if they let the alcohol levels rise too far, and they were evidently right. There were very real risks of partially completed fermentations and consequent high residual sugars in the juice. Several producers we spoke to had a battle to restart stalled fermentations, typically by tipping in the lees of another wine that had completed its fermentation more successfully.
The wines are largely dark purple or purple-black, opaque in appearance, and unsurprisingly show exuberant New World fruit and tend to have a mouth-coating texture due to the higher alcohols. There are some who argue that this is a very great vintage in the making; that vintages like 1947 were very hot indeed and yet they have transformed into great old bones. Taking a necessarily broad view at this early stage I would suggest that there are likely to be a rather small number of potentially very great wines.
Fourrier continued experimenting with Amphorae in the 2017 vintage with La Combe aux Moines, but they are sure to come into their own for 2018. The terracotta enables the wine to breathe whilst acting as a totally neutral vessel. This accentuates minerality and produces a wine – if unblended with wine aged in wood – that would be too strict. Certain of his wines including Clos St Jacques and La Combe aux Moines have a proportion of the production being aged within these fabulous looking clay containers for the 2018 vintage. The finished wine will be blended with the other part of First floor in barrels. It will be fascinating to see the results – could these turn out to be some of the greatest wines ever made at this wonderful domaine?
2017 – The year that distribution changed
Producers are not blind to the fact that certain merchants have been selling their UK en primeur allocations to Asia, notably Hong Kong. They are not happy to discover that importers cross geographical boundaries, even if the wines sold may be subsequently stored for a period of time in the UK.
Nor are their agents impressed, who have the clout to recommend their producers shift allocation to where demand is currently being met indirectly.
As a result certain top producers have withdrawn a significant part of their allocation to the UK in favour of Asia, even though there is much more wine this year to go round - in some cases up to 3 times the quantity of 2016.
With Brexit uncertainty depressing the Pound, more wine not necessarily translating into larger allocations for the UK, and the secondary Burgundy market having risen substantially during the course of 2018, there are few reasons to imagine that prices will fall. Which makes it a tricky call for consumers who don't want to lose their allocations and yet this is one of the most uncertain of times. High release prices for great vintages such as 2015 and 2016 were swallowed. We will have to see how digeste 2017 proves to be.
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2018-06-28
Whilst expensive Burgundies make the headlines, there's another revolution taking place that is transforming the qualitative level of winemaking more generally in Burgundy.
It's a revolution that's very different to the one caused by an influx of corporate cash snapping up top domaines that produce some of the region’s most sought-after wines.
Daughters and sons who are graduating from l’école viticole, and who spend their stages at new world wineries or with progressive in-region vignerons, are taking best practises in the vines and chais back to familial domaines and transforming quality of those wines. Other offspring are going it alone, relying on their social network to buy grapes from friends and friends of family. And still others are coming back to their roots, turning their back on a career in Paris for the siren call of the Côte d’Or.
In a way there’s a relationship between the two; the big money coming in is offering the promise of a wealthier future to the next generation.
Within this dynamic atmosphere there are lots of value buying opportunities. One doesn’t have to be a millionaire to own and to drink Burgundy. But you need to be quicker to claim an early allocation than previously. Prices of new discoveries rise fast. Whereas in the past it would have taken many vintages of successes before a domaine became established enough to justify rapid price hikes, these days positive press and ensuing price escalation can happen quickly.
How do I discover new producers?
Follow your favourite merchants – they’ll organise events or dinners at which the wines they represent can be tasted, allowing you to figure out which of the wines they are offering you think are the real deal.
Follow the critics – Neal Martin is now at Vinous, William Kelley has assumed the mantle at robertparker.com and Steen Öhman is busy discovering new talent at Winehog.
The blog format of Winehog is well suited to reading about new discoveries, where he’s picked up on Thibaud (Y) Clerget, Nicolas Faure, his fiancée Amelie Berthaut at Berthaut-Gerbet, Maxime Cheurlin at Georges Nöellat, Duroché, Jean-Marc Bouley, Arnaud Tessier, and Jean-Marc Vincent to highlight a range of notable domaines.
Charmes Dessus 2012, Domaine Tessier © Nick Martin
His latest discovery is Marthe Henri Boillot in Mersault, a true ‘start up’ having returned to pick up the remnants of her grandfather’s estate and has cut sourcing deals with friends.
It’s a familiar story. Down the road in Santenay Jean-Marc and Anne-Marie Vincent picked up the reins of his grandfather’s lapsed estate back in the late 1990s, and have transformed it into by far the best domaine of Santenay, making wines of great succulence, nerve and aromatic complexity. In fact, his reputation as one of the best true vignerons on the whole Côte is widely recognised by many other top producers all the way up into the Côte de Nuits.
They say birds of a feather flock together. Just look at Jean-Marc’s vigneron network, and you discover producers who share the same qualitative ethic and who are in search of constant improvements; producers such as Olivier Lamy, Jean-Marc Bouley and the passionately intense, super-fit Bruno Lorenzon in Mercurey.
Jean-Marc Vincent © Nick Martin
High density planting, low plant yields, vine training to minimise stress on the vine’s foot, braiding à la Leroy, soil microbial activity/ fertility, low sulphur addition late on in the winemaking process, rigorous triages of natural corks - are typical leitmotifs of these, and a growing number of young, ambitious producers.
In Vosne-Romanée, the brilliant and young family winemaker at Arnoux-Lachaux, Charles, has employed the braided training technique of his heroine Lalou-Bize Leroy to magical effect in his Aux Reignot vineyard, adding definition, an extraordinary energy and drive to this profound wine that is Grand Cru in everything but name. Arnoux Lachaux’s prices have skyrocketed so in that sense that particular ship has sailed; plenty are yet to leave port.
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2018-05-09
'Passion Asset' is a phrase of two halves. Alongside all the asset-focused work we do here at Wine Owners, we try to indulge the passion-focused bit too. Jonathan Reeve returned today from five busy days touring and tasting around eastern Sicily. Below is a summary of the trip, and five suggestions for Sicilian wines worth adding to your cellar (with a 5 – 10 year drinking window).
Erupting with Pride
Sicily has confidently reinvented itself in the past fifteen years, and is clearly proud of its achievements. Bulk blending wines have now been moved firmly to the background, and the island’s wineries are focusing their attention (and ours) firmly on quality wines and regional styles. Nowhere is the pride more obvious than around Etna. It seems so overt there that it borders on a sense of superiority, forgivable only because of the wines’ clear quality and First floors’ lofty perspective over the rest of the island. Etna remains the island's flagbearer, its wines a clear step or two ahead of the other regions in the charge towards quality and international recognition. Etna wines are blessed with pure fruit flavours, stunning ruby-like colouring, and the excellent acidity which is a signature of volcanic soils.
Wild and high atop Etna, Cornelissen’s volcanic ‘Magma’ Vineyard (900m)
There is a sense of competition on Etna, with a handful of the top wineries quietly jockeying for the very top spot. Happily, their stylistic differences mean there is room at the top for them all; elegant Benanti, classic Graci, pure Torre Mora, bold Terre Nere, natural Cornelissen. We spent three days around Etna, mostly around the northern side where the best (blackest) terroir is to be found. One sunny afternoon we sampled the various and varied crus of Frank Cornellissen (whose ‘Munjebel CS’ shows just how Burgundy-like Etna wines can be, but whose wines have not yet proved themselves cellar-worthy), and those of the Tenuta delle Terre Nere (whose sexy Santo Spirito features among my suggested purchases below).
Among our gracious hosts during the visit was Antonio Benanti, who spent four full hours guiding us around his vineyards and wines. The quality and ageing potential of Benanti's Etna wines was abundantly clear, as was his focused, classic winemaking style.
A classic Rovittello label; Benanti before it was ‘Benanti’
The stand-out wine from Benanti's range was the Etna Rosso from his vineyard in Rovittello. Rovittello is clearly a village to watch; Torre Mora's vineyard and winery is also there, and the high quality of their Etna Rosso from 2015 and 2016 was undeniable. The little-known Torre Mora estate was acquired in 2016 by Tenute Piccini of Tuscany, and given a very classy upgrade. Viticulture and winemaking have both been overhauled, with clear results, and the wine style brought up-to-date to a fresher, vibrant, more-classic wine style. Complimenti Piccini.
Rejuvenated: Tenuta Torre Mora, Rovittello
No Wine Is an Island
Sicily has a broad range of wine styles – and more importantly clear distinctions between those styles. Also vital is that these styles work together; they complement one another, rather than competing. Fresh, crisp, elegant Etna Bianco is clearly distinct from broader-styled Inzolia-Chardonnay IGT blends and citrus-tropical Cattarratto varietals. Taut, bright, ruby-like Etna Rosso is a world apart from the dark, plummy Nero d'Avolas made in the island’s south-eastern corner, and another world again from the juicy, mouthwatering Cerasuolos from Vittoria (these combine Nero d'Avola's brooding depths with Frappato's ripe-strawberry brightness). Add to this core the island’s traditional trademarks – fortified Marsala and sweet Muscats from Pantelleria and Noto – and you have crystal-clear stylistic diversity that any region would be proud of. The wildcards in the pack were the handful of dry Moscato wines we tried. These were an unexpected surprise –refreshing in every regard. First was Planeta’s super-refreshing, aromatic Allemanda, and then COS’ amphora wine Zibbibo-in-Pithos, which calls to mind orange blossom and Earl Grey tea.
Amphorae at COS. Definitely not jug wine.
Sicilians Don't Shrug
Marketing is key to Sicily's new look, and the island is doing it with flair. The island is more than just 'shrugging off' its old reputation. Those shoulders are shimmying with Mediterranean style, brilliantly exemplified by Donnafugata’s colourful labels. A visit to a Sicilian wine shop is like a visit to an art gallery. Many of the top wineries are hot on hospitality, too, with comprehensive tours and tastings available, and an increasing number offering accommodation (we stayed for two nights at a chic farmstay owned by the Occhipinti family). Planeta stood out on the hospitality front; our morning visit to their Buonivini estate was guided with expertise and generosity. We specifically requested to taste a few back-vintages of Cerasuolo di Vittoria and reds from Noto, to assess their cellaring potential. A cluster of wines from 2005 to 2015 soon appeared, and confirmed that top-level wines from both of these DOCs are indeed capable of developing for over a decade. One clear pattern was that the aromas and palate take on lives quite distinct from one another over the years; the 2005 Santa Cecilia Noto had a savoury nose of black olives and herbs, but retained noticeable fruity flavours on the palate. The lifespan of Sicilian wines will almost certainly increase in the coming years, as Sicily’s new generation of quality-focused winemakers continues to find its groove. This does beg one question, though…will the lively, soulful marketing and label designs disappear once the wines get more serious? Let’s hope not.
Five Sicilian Wines Worthy of Your Cellar
- Planeta Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico 2015
Drink 2018 – 2023
- Cos Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico 2013
Drink 2018 – 2023
- Benanti Pietramarina Bianco 2016
Drink 2019 – 2029
Contact Benanti and tell them I sent you: email@example.com
- Torre Mora Etna Rosso 2015
Drink 2019 – 2025
Not yet released. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Terre Nerre Santo Spiritu 2015
Drink 2019 –2025
Planeta Buonivini Estate, Noto
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2017-11-24
The Don, St Swithins Lane, London, a converted wine warehouse, was the venue for one of Wine Owners tasting evenings offered to its members – Trial and Terroir Dinner based upon the 2011 Bordeaux vintage. The evening was conducted in one of the Don’s private rooms with an earthy dinner by head chef Frederick Forster.
Lionel Dougnac, buying director for De Luze & Fils, one of Bordeaux’s most influential negotiants, helped us navigate the properties surrounding the waters of the Gironde estuary. Lionel has been in the Bordeaux trade for over 20 years, specialising in buying classified growths. He has also worked for the top barrel-maker in France. Oaking became an interesting discussion point half way through the evening.
The focus for the evening was to explore the concept of terroir through the different wines presented during the evening from the 2011 vintage in Bordeaux. A vintage which left many enthusiasts wondering if the so-called ‘harlequin’ year could justify its high prices at primeur. Not surprisingly, there was immediately an exchange over what terroir might mean and during the evening there was plenty of opportunity to plumb the depths of this compelling subject. Lionel was quick to point out that, in his view, terroir was not just about the weather and soils but also included other factors, and even the ambitions of the domain owner.
2011: for those that might have forgotten, it was an unusual year by any standard. The year started with a massive water deficiency in First floors, and an unusually warm and protracted Spring. This meant that the vines were well in advance over the average year. Average temperatures during this period were close to if not in excess of any records previously recorded. It culminated in two extremely hot days in June where the temperature exceed 40°C. Some exposed bunches of grapes, especially on gravel soils, were scorched and losses were considerable, as much as 20% of the crop in some instances. If vignerons were concerned that any continuation of the drought would decimate whatever crop remained they needn’t have worried as damp, cool weather set in for much of July, followed by a very hot August. The heat precipitated some substantial downbursts and overall precipitation was above average for the period. An Indian summer followed which provided optimum conditions for the harvest in September. A series of circumstances which profited the white wines of the region but the red wines were heterogeneous.
L’Evangile vs Vieux Château Certan: the expression of the two first wines on offer provided an interesting contrast. The owners at VCC, the Thienpont family since 1924, have always worn their heart on their sleeve combined with an increasingly obsessive focus on managing First floor at a micro level of geography – and an ambition to let the terroir speak for itself using minimum intervention in the wine making. L’Evangile, now wholly owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild since 1999 (they had earlier acquired a majority a shareholding) is a neighbour from ‘Haut-Pomerol’ with an ambition to become one of the top Pomerol estates. The latter’s substantially higher Merlot in the blend offered a very round and pleasing profile – a whopping 94%, leaving little room for their Cabernet Franc. It was very elegant and restrained which contrasted with the beautifully defined structure of VCC. There were pleasing elements in both wines. Interestingly, guests were not to be tempted by the more voluptuous offer and unanimously preferred the ‘aesthetic values’ expressed in Vieux Château Certan 2011.
In Pessac, the contrast was even more stark. Haut-Bailly, as always, attractive and feminine, seduced much of the company with its approachable elegance based on a more merlotised style than usual - a statistical recognition, if nothing else, that its Cabernet Sauvignon suffered that year. The Cabernet Franc, already on the way out at the domain, hardly got more than a top-up role. Haut-Bailly have always acknowledged that their terroir has issues under dry conditions such as those experienced in 2011. La Mission Haut-Brion was altogether more muscular and intense. It possessed a complex tension which will be years in its evolution. Lionel had obviously selected the wines he felt would give us more to ponder. We digressed into a conversation about how artists’ materials are perhaps the elements of physical terroir; that artistic genius is the inspiration, imagination and ambition of an estate’s terroir interpreted by the owner. Whatever the canvas that year, Wine Owners terroirists’ marginally preferred the more ‘traditional’ yet polished properties expressed in the intense muscularity of La Mission Haut-Brion 2011.
The grand estates of Pauillac were represented by Pontet-Canet and Château Pichon-Longueville Baron. This gave us an opportunity to discuss the influence of biodynamic viticulture in the region and its impact on the wines of Pontet-Canet. Clearly something had separated the processes of these two estates which are largely comparable in terms of size and varieties. When it came down to it, Pichon Baron managed 82% Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend, whilst Pontet-Canet a mere 60%. Yields were disparate too – 39% in the case of Pichon Baron whilst at Pontet-Canet it was 32%. It’s worth just quoting from the specification sheet of Pichon-Baron 2011 to understand properly the enormous lengths châteaux had to go to preserve the quality in the bottle:
“Bespoke grape picking: the grapes were picked and brought in the vat-house plot by plot, in order of maturity, with particular attention to selection on the plots. Sorting in the vat-house was highly meticulous [their bold] keeping only the very best grapes. The grapes were sorted twice, both before and after de-stemming. Once de-stemmed, the selection of the grapes was fine tuned on two sorting lines, one manual and one using optic systems.”
This extensive and costly work appears to have been justified as the assembled company substantially preferred this wine. Perhaps the more laissez-faire practices of biodynamics don’t favour complicated years albeit it may be a more ‘authentic’ product.
Our final flight of the evening ended with a cheese plate and perhaps two of the most interesting wines of the evening – Chateaux Montrose and Calon-Ségur. Both estates in their own ways have seen major upheavals over the last 5-10 years. One could even be forgiven for thinking that terroir might the servant of the ambition of the two new owners. Certainly, the Bouygues have invested colossal sums in an estate which they were always destined to own. The recent vintages have all demonstrated that their terroir has justified the trust of its billionaire owners producing wonderful wines in supposedly less good vintages. 2011 was no exception. Montrose’s enhanced ‘environmental responsibility’ which the Bouygues have brought to the estate extends the work of one of its founders, Mathieu Dollfus, who established a programme of social care for his workers building them free housing in the ‘Montrose village’, included them in profit sharing and even offered free health care – making ‘unique contributions to the community’ of Saint-Estèphe. The windmill which stands on the property is a ‘symbol’ of his tenure and his fight against phylloxera – the windmill drew up water which flooded First floors – a practice which had some success in reducing the disease at the time. At Calon-Ségur, despite the death of its owner at harvest time, pulled off a stunning wine - contradicting received wisdom about yields (the estate had one of the largest yields of all the wines tasted) and demonstrated that even in turbulent times estates can pull something out of a hat. Triumph in adversity is part of the story of Bordeaux. Opinion was equally divided on their relative merits.
Lionel’s deft commentary on the wines permitted discussions on all other matters of interest to the guests. This wasn’t just a working evening – although there was much to delve into.
The evening conversation turned to a brief but informative discussion about the commercial prospects of ‘La Place’, advantages or otherwise of buying en primeur and discussions on some practices of specific châteaux to release wines as ‘library’ wines after primeur campaigns - subjects which Lionel was uniquely qualified to explain.
For those still with the will to carry on tasting there was ample opportunity with additional samples as backup. Overall, the unscientific assessment was that there were 3 stand-out wines – La Mission Haut-Brion 2011, Montrose 2011 and Vieux Château Certan 2011.
Broader definitions of terroir escape the confines of the tightly worded official description. The Australian economist David Throsby outlined the concept of a ‘cultural good’ (in his seminal book Economics and Culture, 2001) which might fit better to the breadth of considerations Lionel managed to convey during the evening. Throsby’s thesis is that a person’s preference for something would be based upon the characteristics of the good which contribute to its cultural value. Some of these are highlighted above in quotes but, in summary, they include aesthetic properties eg elegance and balance; spiritual value – emotional and inspirational attachment; environmental which includes PDO (L’Appellation d’origine protégée) and environmental responsibility; historical – evolution and tradition; symbolic, such as the name of ‘Bordeaux’ itself and what it inspires and among others one might conjure; and authenticity which is embodied in the unique character of a wine drawn from the local area where it is produced.
The WineOwners Trial and Terroir Dinner managed to elucidate these concepts and more.
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2017-08-09
Caroline and Ludovic Decoster from Chateau Fleur Cardinale
Wine Owners: What is your greatest moment/regret as a winemaker?
Caroline Decoster: It’s a little bit sad to start this interview by a regret, but I have to say that we lost 95% of our vineyard in one night last April. It was heartbreaking. We’ve already invested in new machines, called Frostguards, for the end of the year, that will prevent us for this kind of catastrophe, but our main regret is not to have had them before.
WO: In what ways have your wine making changed over the last 10 years.
CD: The global warming has affected our wine making. We are located in the coolest part of the appellation of Saint-Emilion, which means that we have a late ripening terroir. Ripening the berries over the past decades could had been difficult in this part of Saint-Emilion, because of the lower temperatures during October - which is the moment of the year when we usually harvest. But nowadays, due to this global warming, we can benefit from Indian summers year after year, to reach the optimal ripeness effortlessly.
WO: What vintage are you proudest of?
CD: It’s very easy to be proud of a successful vintage. Like in 2010 and 2015, the wine growers were most of all very lucky, thanks to good conditions all year long. But in difficult vintages, all the right decisions that we took in tough moments were decisive to make a good wine in the end. Like in 2014 and 2016 : after months of rain and cold temperatures, the sun came back at the end of the summer, and everybody was so excited to finally have good conditions of ripening, that some vineyards completely de-leafe the bunches, which could be a mistake in some cases: the weeks after that we’d had the hottest temperatures for September since 50 years. We did not de-leafe completely, because we were sure that everything could still happen, and it was the right decision to take.
WO: If you had to define your wines/domaine in one sentence?
CD: Lots of wine owners will say how passionate they are about their wines : but we believe that passion can isolate you and make you blind. That’s why we rather prefer to talk about the « enthusiasm » that we have for our life, a positive and dynamic way of life that we want to share in each glass of Fleur Cardinale, with a lively fruit, and wine with a great energy.
WO: Tell us about your terroir & microclimate, and your approach to winemaking.
CD: First floor is located at the east of Saint-Emilion, on one of the highest points of the appellation, and is planted on clay-limestone soil in the middle of the hillsides. The planting is 75% Merlot with 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Our aim, vintage after vintage, is to preserve the freshness of the fruit in the glass.
In terms of viticulture, it means for instance that we want each vine to be very healthy, and to express the full potential from its terroir. This year, we’ve been certified High Environmental Value (HEV). This certification is the highest level of a generalised scheme for the environmental certification of farms. It guarantees that the presence of factors of biodiversity (hedges, grass strips, trees, flowers, insects, etc.) is very widespread on our vineyard and that the pressure applied to the environment by our practices (on air, water, soil, climate, biodiversity and landscape) is kept to a minimum.
In terms of vinification, it means that the ageing time in barrels is perfectly well-managed : The wine is aged for 12-14 month maximum, in new French oak barrels. Our coopers provide us with barrels produced exclusively from wood of the 3 most qualitative French forests. A Burgundy toast has been adopted for all our barrels: this kind of toast is realized at a moderate high heat and for an extended period of time, so as to preserve the purity of the fruit and the silky touch of the tannins.
Thank you so much to Caroline for taking the time to answer our questions. All our best wishes to the entire team at Fleur Cardinale!
You can visit the domaine's website here and follow their dedicated work on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
by Wine Owners
Posted on 2017-04-28
27th April is a date with heart-rending connotations. On that night last year (2016), the vast majority of the Cote D'Or was affected by a really hard frost. The rising sun the following morning burned the vines and a high proportion of the young plant growth was irrevocably damaged, reducing the size of the harvest by up to 80%-90% in the worst affected vineyards.
Much of the month of April 2017 has been unseasonably warm. In Bordeaux en primeur week of 3rd April saw temperatures in the mid to high 20s centigrade, and that warm weather held for a good 3 weeks, encouraging bud break and a significant amount of plant growth 2-3 weeks ahead of the normal cycle.
But during the night of 27th April, temperatures dived as low as -4c, and in certain sectors a large proportion of the potential crop has been lost.
The best terroirs next to the Garonne were largely if not entirely unaffected, thanks to the warming influence of the river. But away from the river, and near woodland, this year's hard frost hit hardest. That means some areas of Margaux were badly affected, the Haut Medoc, Listrac and Moulis, with bits of lower lying areas of St Julien also touched.
Significantly there has been widespread damage across the right bank including in St Emilion, aside from the Plateau which was spared. Pomerol is said to have also been affected. The right bank satellite appellations have been hit very hard. South of the city certain parts of Pessac and the Graves have been affected, where the damage is said to have been patchy.
Low lying areas have been most affected, which means a lot of second wine from some top estates will have been much reduced if not entirely wiped out.
Fears were that the early hours of the 28th April would create more devastation. The weather forecast did not augur well. And as painful as it is to say, that's exactly what happened. Our hearts go out to all those affected. Like a boxer flat out on the ropes at the bell yet with the prospect of having to go back in the ring to receive more punishment the following round. No doubt low lying areas and estates near woods or forests were once again worst affected. We pray that overall it won't be as bad as 1991.
Aside from the terrible blow the frosts have wreaked, the commercial implications are threefold: there will be less 2016 wine offered at first release than would have been the case, certainly in the worst affected sectors; what is released might be more expensive than it would otherwise have been; and it could slow down the en primeur releases, resulting in a longer campaign.
The best second wines in 2016 could be worth extra focus if you are intending to drink at that level, as there will be proportionally much less next year.