John Gilman, author of the newsletter The View from the Cellar, joins us again for a Q&A. I asked him six questions; he replied with over 10,000 words! So grab a glass of wine, throw another log on the fire, grab a sandwich, channel your inner wine geek, and listen to John opine on the topics of natural wines, zero dosage champagne, some pitfalls of collecting, 2007 vintage for Port and in the Rhone, the nobility of chenin blanc, the Piedmont producer Produttori del Barbaresco and more!
Natural wines are growing in popularity. These include what might be termed “process controls” such as organic and biodynamic farming, favoring indigenous yeasts over commercial strains, as well as the rise of “no sulfur” wines. Are these wines forcibly better?
“Natural wines” is such a broad brushstroke, and I really think it is much more useful to look at the various wines that you suggested as falling under this rubric within their own context, rather than trying to lump everything together. For the short answer is that some of these trends are really very good for the overall quality of the wines, while with others, either the jury is still out or the early returns are not especially positive in my opinion. Obviously, some of the popularity for these various types of wines is generated by the quality of the wines themselves, while others are gaining in attractiveness as part of the growing international desire in many circles to do something positive to reverse or slow the trends brought about by decades and decades of short-sighted policies that have trashed our planet. Most of us want to do something positive in this context, and reaching out for “natural wines” seems like a logical step in the right direction. But there are a lot of different variables at play here, and one has to be careful that the quality of the wine is not lost sight of in the rush to adopt the purest expression of the various tenets of natural wine production. Like so many other aspects of human nature, there is a very real possibility of making a fetish out of “natural wines” and as a result beginning to value the process over the results, and it seems to me that it is not too difficult to find examples of just such wines these days. But let’s look at each sector that you discussed separately, rather than painting with those broad brushstrokes.
When it comes to organic and biodynamique viticulture, the vast majority of what I see here is very positive for the overall elevation of the quality of the wines produced by these methods, but again, if one is a vigneron pursuing this direction, it seems to me that it still behooves one to not get too zealous or puritanical in one’s approach. A perfect example in my opinion of going over the top and valuing the process over the results could be seen with Domaine Leroy’s wines in the great, great red Burgundy vintage of 1993. At the time Madame Leroy was a fairly new devotee to biodynamism, and as part of her regimen in this vintage, she refused to spray her vines against mildew, which was potentially a huge problem during this growing season. Now I do not know enough about the tenets of biodynamique viticulture to know whether or not there are treatments that are permissible to fight mildew (though I did note that other Burgundian biodynamists certainly did not share Domaine Leroy’s decimated production levels in ’93), but in any case Madame Leroy refused to do any spraying and lost some huge percentage of her crop in this great vintage. Of course she had the upscale clientele to raise her prices dramatically for her ‘93s, therefore not having to pay too dear a price for destroying three-quarters of her crop (or whatever the percentage was) by her zealotry, but the entire incident serves to show the potential down side of biodynamism if taken too far. One of my pet peeves at the time was to hear all of this bull from gullible commentators about “how Madame Leroy’s draconian yields in the vineyards this year were the reason she made such compelling wines and were a sign of her uncompromising pursuit of quality”, when in fact she simply let four out of every five of her vines’ fruit whither on the vine because of mildew, and her yields on her surviving vines were no different from any other of the conscientious vintners in 1993- though her prices certainly were!
But beyond the obvious potential pitfalls of taking the maxims of organic or biodynamique viticulture to illogical extremes, the vast majority of the practices employed by vignerons headed in this direction are really very good- both for the wines and for the planet. If one is a fan of wines of terroir, how could it not be a positive step to see a place like Burgundy, which a generation ago was largely decimated by chemical products being used on the soils, now an increasingly healthy, vibrant and bucolic garden of vineyards? When one walks through the vineyards in the Côte d’Or in the middle of the summer these days, the verdant landscape- in many places teeming with fauna and natural protections against potential maladies- is a dramatic improvement over what it must have looked like in the 1960s and 1970s. The vignoble here has never been healthier than it is today- is it just a coincidence that we talk of a Burgundian renaissance of unparalleled historical proportions these days? I think not. Anne-Claude Leflaive, the proprietor at Domaine Leflaive (Puligny-Montrachet’s crown jewel) is a staunch advocate for a biodynamique approach in the vineyards, and she is utterly convinced that biodynamism ultimately produces wines of a much more profound expression of terroir. Tasting through her recent vintages here- particularly in a vineyard such the premier cru of Clavoillon (which used to be a bid of an underperformer in the Leflaive stable)- it is pretty hard not to agree with her wholeheartedly in the greater signature of terroir in the Leflaive wines today. And this has to stem from the superior quality of the viticulture under the tenets of biodynamism.
However, there is one element of biodynamique and organic viticulture that I worry about a bit, and that is the reliance in many cases on rather elevated levels of copper in these viticultural equations. Now I am not fully up to speed on the tenets of these forms of agriculture, so unfortunately I have to speak in the broad brush strokes I dislike, but it is my understanding that copper is used quite broadly in many aspects of this type of viticulture. Now in places like Europe and the United States, there are maximum levels set for residual copper in the wines, so there are some safeguards in place and I do not think that there is any concern yet as to the elevated use of copper in the vineyards of biodynamique or organic methods- at least in terms of potential health risks for wine lovers drinking these wines. But the experience of vignerons in Australia and New Zealand should be taken as a cautionary tale in this regard, as the growing incidence of the widespread use of copper fining prior to bottling for wines that are going to be sealed under screwcaps in Australasia has led to some pretty significant questions being raised about safety and transparency, and it seems to me that copper use in winemaking and vineyard work is going to be a “hot button” topic in the coming year or two (as well it should be based on a lot of the scientific data that I have seen coming out in this regard in the last couple of years).
On other fronts, the increasing reliance and emphasis on indigenous yeasts is another very positive development in the world of wine, and this is true for a variety of reasons. First of all, indigenous yeasts are always going to produce more complex wines than cultured yeasts- period. But beyond the aspect of greater complexity with indigenous yeasts, there is also the aspect of knowing that one is getting a more traditional set of flavors and aromatics when the wine is made with natural yeasts- rather than drinking a wine where the flavors and bouquet have been “engineered” to hit certain sweet spots that had been found to be popular in some focus group. There is a hell of a lot of “wine engineering” going on secretly in wine cellars around the globe these days- often at some of the most famous and posh addresses- and I for one have been less than impressed with the vast majority of these concoctions. Perhaps other tasters are more likely to be impressed by the dog and pony show of yet another black raspberry, boysenberry and chocolate flavored cabernet-based wine, all gussied up with the same new oak flavors from the tonnelier of the moment (such as Taransaud or François Frères) that owes its aromatic and flavor signature to commercial yeasts and other cellar parlor tricks, but to my palate this formula is as boringly predictable and stultifying as AM political talk radio.
The other thing that is really nice about indigenous yeasts is that they cannot live in very high alcohol solutions, so if you are setting out to make a “Monster Truck Zin” (to use Slate wine columnist, Mike Steinberger’s wonderful phrase) or the like, you are going to need one of those power-lifting commercial yeasts which has been specifically engineered to keep the fermentation going at ridiculously high alcohol levels. So if you have a wine that was fermented with its indigenous yeasts, you are pretty sure as to not suffer from whiplash if you approach the first glass of the wine without reading the fine print on the label before tasting- which is kind of hard to do when one is tasting blind. But like anything else, one has to be pragmatic and trust the winemaker (one of the reasons I tend to follow winemakers, rather than vintages for making purchases for my own cellar) to do what is best for the ultimate quality of the wine and not be dogmatic about indigenous yeasts. When I interviewed Helmut Dönnhoff a few years ago, he was quick to point out that a lot of the great German dessert wines of this last generation owe their very existence to cultured yeasts, as the highly botrytized musts probably would have never fermented a generation or two ago, before winemakers had resort to cultured yeasts. As he emphasized, when it comes to cultured yeasts, the most important thing is to make sure that it is a very neutral yeast that does not add either flavors or aromatics to the finished wine, and is simply there to promote a good, clean and stable fermentation.
I am much less a fan of no sulfur or wines made from extremely low sulfur regimens, as I am concerned that the vast majority of wines made in this way will not age as gracefully in the real world as they would have if made with a judicious addition of sulfur dioxide. When I say the real world, I mean wines that have to survive the sometimes less than ideal aspects of shipment and delivery, as in my experience there are not a whole lot of truck drivers and captains of cargo vessels out there that are as passionate about wine storage as the vignerons who made the wines or the importers or wine lovers who are ordering them, and as long as this potential weak link in the chain of delivery exists, I worry about the long-term potential of wines made with little or no sulfur. In the cold cellars where the wines were made, the vigneron’s examples of non-sulfur bottles are likely to be just fine, but can this experience be reproduced consistently around the globe, given the very real vagaries of travel that wines still have to survive these days? I am not hopeful. For example, I am a huge fan of the brilliant Cornas bottlings from Thierry Allemand, but there is not a bottle of his “Sans Suf” cuvée in my cellar, as it has never tasted as fresh and compelling to me here in New York as his Reynards of Chaillots bottlings that are made with moderate additions of sulfur dioxide during the elevage and bottling of the wines.
Similarly, I am not a huge fan of zero dosage Champagne either. A few may age gracefully, but I strongly suspect that there are plenty of these cuvées in the market or on their way that are not going to age as gracefully as those that are traditionally hit with a reasonable dosage. A lot of the non-dosage Champagnes that I taste really seem to be missing their fruit flavors- all one gets is the soil and the yeast autolysis flavors and aromatics- both of which are intrinsic elements of Champagne, but without the fruit tones, the wines tend to be to my palate really rather austere and unenjoyable to drink. Now this is only my opinion mind you, and I know plenty of people who will very strenuously disagree with me on this point, but to date this has most certainly been my experience. And lest we forget, wine is first and foremost supposed to deliver pleasure in terms of flavors and aromatics. Now of course the possibility exists that I have simply not tasted the best non-dosage bottlings out there and my perspective here is skewed by less than inspiring experiences, but I do taste an awful lot of Champagne over the course of the year, and I am still waiting for the “wow factor” when it comes to zero dosage bottlings. It is like anything else in life, the quest for “natural wines” has to be staged within a larger context of balance- balance of approach, balance of technique and balance of results, and to my palate the happy middle ground is still generally where the world’s most profound wines are to be found.
You have a long piece about premature oxidation in your current newsletter. Is premox the greatest pitfall for fine wine collectors today–even greater than fraud?
All of my pieces are long! Speaking of which, I did notice that you were judicious this time in only sending over six questions for consideration, and thereby ensuring cyber space would not be completely exhausted by my musings ☺ Premature oxidation of dry, age-worthy white wines–be they from Burgundy, Bordeaux or California–is a tremendous problem today, and at this point in time it does not look to me as if any meaningful progress has been made since the scourge first became readily apparent when the 1996 white Burgundies began to tank. It is really a tough nut to crack, and from what I can tell, we are not any closer to discovering its source than we were five or six years ago when it first became part of many wine lovers’ lives. But is it a bigger problem than wine fraud? Of this I am not sure, but the proper answer is that it probably depends on who you are and where your wine collecting interests lie. I had an acquaintance who I used to see with some regularity for several years who is one of the largest and most passionate Burgundy collectors who I have ever met, and for him, despite his significant inventory of white Burgundies from the last ten vintages, wine fraud is by far a much larger concern for him. Now his cellar is deep enough to have plenty of old vintage of white Burgundy and white Bordeaux to draw upon to hedge his exposure to premox, and I am sure that despite his Herculean efforts to ascertain provenance on the old wines he has purchased over the last decade, it is highly unlikely that he has not had to deal with more than his fair share of expensive fakes in his cellar.
But for me, premox is by far the bigger issue for my own cellar, as I do not have a lot of wines that would be likely targets of counterfeiters, and most of those I bought either long ago or from sources that I have absolutely no worries about legitimacy. But being younger than the gentleman I just mentioned, I do not have the same reserves of old vintages of white Burgundy or white Bordeaux in my cellar, and so premox has really hit my collection hard. I have so little of either of these two categories in my cellar these days- and white Burgundy and white Bordeaux (along with the wines of Trimbach) used to be the lion’s share of the dry white wine in my cellar- and so I would be eternally grateful if a cure for premature oxidation could be found. But the issue has allowed me to more fully explore in depth other regions and styles of wines that my dry white wine budget did not allow before (being rather easily exhausted by the Trimbachs, white Burgundy and white Bordeaux), and now I have a lot more dry German riesling in my cellar these days (there was always plenty, and I do mean plenty, of traditional off-dry styles represented in my collection), as well as Sec and Demi-Sec Vouvray, Savennières, Muscadet and long-lived Sancerre producers like Edmond Vatan or François Cotat. Traditionally, a lot of these wines have been bottled with higher levels of sulfur dioxide in the first place than either white Burgundy or white Bordeaux, so I hold out the hope that this will protect them from premature oxidation. Of course, the reality is that whatever is causing premox could simply take longer to affect these dry white wines that have been bottled with higher doses of SO2, and I may have the same problems down the road with these wines that I had with white Burgs and wines from the Graves. But one tries to make as reasonably an informed decision in this regard as possible and waits to see what the future will bring- its no good to my mind to start drinking all dry white wines young simply out of fear.
On the other hand, what does worry me profoundly regarding both premature oxidation issues and fake wines, is that we may only be seeing the very tiniest tip of the iceberg. When it comes to premox, what is the guarantee that the same issue will not one day affect red wines from this same period? Since we do not know the cause of the phenomenon, it would be naïve in the extreme to assume that tannins in red wines are going to protect them as they have always done since the marriage of the bottle and the cork gave us the ability to age red wines for long periods of time. Who’s to say that the cause of premox (whatever it is) will not simply outlast the tannins, and once these red wines reach their zeniths of maturity fifteen or twenty or fifty years down the road and the tannins finally fade to the background, it is of course possible that the agent(s) causing premox will force these red wines to crash as dramatically and briskly as the white wines did? It could certainly happen, and I have had some red wines that were structured more to age on their acidities, rather than their tannins, and they most certainly fell prey to premox. The 1996 Coche-Dury Auxey-Duresses and Monthelie rouge bottlings were simply spectacular up until their tenth birthdays, and then they crashed about as fast as any heralded 1996 white Burgundy, and were clearly afflicted with premox. I had more than a case of each of these wines and drank the lion’s share when they were stellar, but the last few bottles of each were mere shadows of their former selves. If that experience were to be replicated with a big chunk of the red wines in my cellar from the vintages of 1996 to 2007, I am not sure what I would do- other than cry.
In the case of fraudulent wine, I strongly suspect that we have not seen a tithe of the problem. Logic would dictate that the best candidates for fraud would be young vintages of expensive wines that are made in large quantities- the First Growths in Bordeaux for instance. Assuming that a counterfeiter does not wish to be caught, would it not make much more sense to fake wines that would need to be cellared for twenty or thirty years and which are made in quantities of 20,000 or 30,000 cases instead of a barrel or two? Most the world’s experienced collectors of wines such as this would already know that a top vintage of Lafite or Latour is going to demand a minimum of twenty years aging before it begins to really show its character and quality, and their cases of young vintages of these wines are either sitting in warehouses or at the bottom of stacks of Bordeaux in their cellars. For the inexperienced collectors who are going to open these wines early, many of them may not even be able to tell the difference between the real wine and even a moderately successful fake, so it seems to me that the counterfeiters are pretty safe with these types of wines. Much of the wine world interested in high end and rare wines has been fixated by William Koch’s fistful of lawsuits regarding this issue and the alleged Thomas Jefferson bottles and rare magnums of old claret, or the non-existent bottlings of Domaine Ponsot Clos St. Denis from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. But in my opinion, all of this is chicken feed to what is probably floating around the globe in fake bottles of something like 2000 Lafite-Rothschild or 1996 Dom Perignon (mind these are only examples- I do not have any evidence that there are fakes of either of these two wines out there), which will be a lot harder to trace back to their sources than the Ponsot bottles that supposedly came from “some guy in Jakarta” (doesn’t this sound a little bit like the end of Ocean’s Eleven?) and his now non-working phone number.
But again, even fake wines have a potential silver lining in that the crisis might eventually induce more people to step a bit further outside of their traditional comfort zones and experiment with all of the great, cellar-worthy wines out there that are enough below the radar as to never have been targeted by counterfeiters. How about laying in a bit of Baudry Chinon, Saumur-Champigny from the Foucault brothers, Marcarini Barolo, López de Heredia, Mayacamas Cabernet, Moulin-à-Vent from Domaine Diochon, Châteaux Magdelaine or Beychevelle, Joseph Drouhin Clos Vougeot or Corton “Bressandes” from Chandon de Briailles. All of these (and there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of others like them) are profoundly cellar-worthy wines that are very likely to never, ever be targeted by counterfeiters. The other thing that savvy collectors can do to protect themselves from potential fraud is to look for the underrated, top vintages, such as 1962 or 1966 in Bordeaux, 1979 or 1986 for red Burgundy, or 1970 or 1979 for maturing Piemonte wines. Even a potentially targeted wine such as one of Bruno Giacosa’s top cru bottlings from either Barbaresco or Barolo is much less likely to be fake if it is the 1974 or 1979 Santa Stefano, rather than the 1978 or the 1971. Or again, using Bruno Giacosa as an example (not because his wines have been any more likely of fraud than any others, but simply as an example), buy his white label non-Riserva bottlings instead of the red label Riservas- if a counterfeiter is going to go through the trouble of making the fakes in the first place, would not the most likely thing be to fake the more expensive bottling and maximize profit? And by the way, some of the most profound and magical Piemonte wines I have ever tasted have been Giacosa white label bottlings.
All it takes is a bit of common sense and a willingness to stop pursuing the “best of the best” as trophy pieces and begin to appreciate wine for the profoundly beautiful beverage that it is. The wine world is a microcosm of larger current trends amongst humanity that are not altogether flattering if one takes a close look at them- this insatiable rush to grab onto what is perceived as the very best of whatever one can find and afford, before someone else steps in and hoards it all for themselves and leaves us out in the cold and only able of reading about all of the delights of Château X or Winery Y’s magical cabernet sauvignon- assuming some commentator we read still can find a golden ticket and get an invite to the unveiling when the time comes. The world of wine is profoundly deep and broad, and there is a hell of a lot of magic to be found outside of the castle of 1961 and 1982 Bordeaux, Monfortino and old Comte de Vogüé Musigny. Is 1961 Ducru-Beaucaillou better than the 1966? Yes, maybe a tiny, tiny smidgeon, but the difference is so negligible that it is borderline asinine to risk a fake 1961 Ducru when one can almost certainly find pristine bottles of the 1966 and buy and drink them with confidence. Not to mention that they are decidedly less expensive in the market right now, so one could even be tempted to invite a few friends over to share the bottle with when it is time to open it! And lest we forget, sharing is what this stuff was made for in the first place, and no great bottle tastes as good drunk in isolation as it does opened with like-minded friends jumping around the table in equal excitement at the profound magic roaring out of the glass.
Writing about the Produttori del Barbaresco, you say their wines extremely high quality year in and year out at a very reasonable price compared to other top producers in Barolo and Barbaresco. In a nutshell, what are they doing so right in winemaking yet so wrong in being undervalued by the market?
First of all, it is not just my saying that the wines are good, but just that I have had the extreme good fortune to be around when a few amazing lineups of mature vintages were shared in New York and San Francisco over the last year. Anyone who has had the pleasure of dipping more than a toe in the water of mature Produttori wines can vouch for their stunning quality. And based on the large number of high profile wine merchants, sommeliers and journalists at one of the tastings in New York late last year, I would venture that there is no real secret about how superb the Produttori’s wines have been for many decades. But your point about their relatively low profile and prices in the market in comparison to better-known Barolo and Barbaresco producers is very well-taken, and I think the answer to this question lies on several levels. Of course, Aldo Vacca, the Managing Director of the Produttori would be better placed to answer your question in certain aspects, but of course I am willing to try my hand at it as well (as long as they have not lit up the “No Vacancy” sign in cyber space yet! ☺ First of all, as to the quality, this I think can simply be summed up by the very traditional manner in which the wines have been made since the cooperative opened their doors in 1958. The long maceration times, followed up by long aging in traditional, large, old oak botti and the refusal to follow any recent fads in the region revolving around French barriques, roto-fermenters and the like is exactly the same formula that has been used by all of the great Piemonte traditionalists, with comparably brilliant results. So there is no mystery there.
What is most impressive about the Produttori is the really passionate stance that they take towards moderate yields in the vineyards, which has grown in emphasis over the last several decades, but which has always been part of the program amongst the “Soci”, or members of the cooperative. This was true when they first got started in 1958 and had to make the wines in the church basement in the center of Barbaresco before they even had their own winery, and it is true to this day. Low yields and high quality grapes are two of the foundations of the superb quality of the Produttori wines year in and year out- but this is hardly unique to their circumstances. Most great wine producers ascribe to the theory that great wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar, and this has certainly been the Produttori’s maxim since day one. Of course it was a stroke of pure genius to insist from the outset that any member of the cooperative had to consign to the Produttori one hundred percent of his or her Barbaresco production- either you are with us or you are not- was their very realistic approach right from the start in 1958. This allowed the Produttori to sidestep what has traditionally been the primary Achilles’ Heel of other cooperatives- that the members keep their best quality grapes for their own, personal bottlings, and sell the leavings to the co-op.
But the Soci of the Produttori and its directors are steeped in the traditional wine values of their region, and this is of course one of the great cornerstones of their success. It is telling that for a couple of vintages in the mid-1980s, the Produttori had a winemaker that really was enamored of the “new wave” sweeping the region, and exemplified by the wines of people like Elio Altare and Luciano Sandrone, and really hankered to make the Produttori wines in this style. It only took two vintages (one being the extremely difficult 1984s) for the Soci and the winemaker to part ways, and they hired a very young new winemaker right out of oenology school who was willing to make wines in the traditional manner that the Produttori has always championed. As Aldo Vacca reflected, “we took him of course for his talent and potential, but also because he was so young that we could help mold him in a direction that would ensure that the traditional style of the Produttori wines would never be in jeopardy again.” That was right after the 1985 vintage, and Gianni Testa has been with them ever since, with a legacy of fine wines to his credit, so the approach certainly worked.
And I think this respect for tradition is also at the heart of the second part of your question, about the relative bargains that the Produttori wines remain in the context of the pricing of some other traditionally-styled wine producers in Piemonte. The Produttori is after all a cooperative, and in a region of Italy that has always been reasonably well-represented by those leaning more towards the left side of the political spectrum- this was certainly the case amongst a significant percentage of the families of farmers who tilled the fields of the large estate owners back a hundred years ago. It is hard for most Americans to imagine or relate to (given the death of the left wing here in the US during the 1950s) the broader political spectrum in Italy in general and Piemonte in particular. Look, Mussolini’s Fascism was simply a disaster for the vast, vast majority of the population in this region, and it seems highly likely that at least part of the Produttori’s resistance to higher price levels for their wines has to do with not wanting to be seen as “screwing over their clients” because of greed or avarice. Again, this is not the same mentality that would have any meaningful representation today in places like Bordeaux or Napa Valley, but one sees this same phenomenon at work quite often in Burgundy and elsewhere, so it is not a unique Piemontese mentality. Keep in mind that someone like Jean-François Coche of Domaine Coche-Dury in Meursault sells his wines out the door at exactly the same market price as all of his neighbors, despite the fact that on the speculative market his wines sell for ten and twenty times the prices of his neighbors’ wines. In terms of the Produttori, this is only speculation on my part, but I think that this desire not to be perceived as gouging their clientele has a historical foundation that runs strong through at least the older generation of traditionalists in Piemonte.
Chenin Blanc: should it be a “noble” grape?
To my mind chenin blanc is one of the finest and least understood grapes in today’s pantheon of wine. Only riesling can give the same breathtaking degree of complexity and profundity at such a wide variety of sweetness levels, from bone-dry Savennières or Vouvray Sec, all the way up to dizzyingly magical bottles of sweet dessert wines from Montlouis, Vouvray, Quartes de Chaumes or Bonnezeaux. And chenin blanc makes utterly magical wines at every step in between, not to mention some really very complex and classy sparkling wine as well. It even is hospitable as a blending grape, as one sometimes finds it mixed with sauvignon blanc in places like Cheverny. But in many ways it is also an anachronistic grape and patently unsuited to today’s penchant for immediate gratification and simple scrutiny, for in most of its guises, chenin blanc does not really begin to show its true character or quality for several years after bottling. And ironically, given our mistaken, contemporary belief that only expensive wines are worthy of waiting for in the cellar and allowing to unfold in the fullness of time, the great values presented by many chenin blanc-based wines actually works against them in terms of the wine public’s understanding the wines when they are in their awkward, youthful stages and simply in need of a little bottle age.
But I think it is pretty safe to say that anyone that has had the pleasure of tasting a smattering of mature examples of chenin blanc from a top estate has certainly been impressed with what they have tasted. I do not know of anyone whom I have spoken with or met that, once they have a bit of experience with properly mature chenin, is not at least very impressed with the quality of these wines at maturity, though sometimes their aromatic and flavor profiles can be a bit more difficult to match seamlessly at the table than some other varietals. Not that I think that chenin blanc is particularly recalcitrant in this respect, but as the wine ages it often takes on some attributes that we normally associate more with red wines, rather than white, and I often find that with significant bottle age, many chenin blanc-based wines are at their most flattering when paired with either poultry, pork or cheese courses. But again, this is a generalization, and if there ever was a grape that did not take kindly to generalities, it is chenin blanc. So I think it is best to look at the various sweetness levels and geographic regions in which the grape excels to really get an idea about the profound potential found with chenin.
To my knowledge, chenin blanc reaches its greatest expressions in France’s long, meandering Loire Valley. As a dry wine, it is perhaps most famous in the appellation of Savennières, though I would argue that the very best Sec bottlings from Vouvray and Montlouis can also keep pace with the top examples of Savennières, and in addition to these well-known appellations, there are plenty of superb dry chenins produced in the relative hinterlands of the Loire by folks such as Mark Angelli in Anjou, or Eric Nicolas at Domaine de Bellivière in the Coteaux-du-Loir. As is the case with sweeter versions of chenin blanc, the dry wines from Savennières or Vouvray (to cite just a few examples) will shut down for a rather extended period of hibernation about two years or so after they have been bottled, so they will generally provide a short window of drinkability when they are young during which it is possible to handicap the wines and drink them with quite some satisfaction. In this early phase one usually gets notes of lime, grapefruit, quince and plenty of chalky minerality in the wines, often with notes of things like lanolin, dried flowers or gentle grassiness. However, once they start to close down, they can be some of the most imploded, recalcitrant white wines out there during their period of hibernation, and will often only show a dusty, chalky soil component on both the nose and palate that often give the impression of corkiness. Their dumb period can be every bit as unforgiving as any old school bottle of red Bordeaux, and I generally do not become tempted to open another bottle of chenin out of my cellar (once they have shut down) until the wine nears its eighth or ninth birthday. It is at this point that things really start to get interesting.
Once these dry chenin-based wines start to open again, they will generally have developed superb complexity, with the fruit tones often deepening to shadings of orange, quince, apple, and sometimes apricot or raspberry, to go along with wonderfully complex soil tones, and hints of things like honeycomb, leather and citrus zest. These are still completely bone-dry wines, but their youthful veneer of austerity has been peeled back and the wines are deep, complex and generously balanced, with the weight and authority of a top premier cru or grand cru white Burgundy and at least the same level of complexity. At this point they will drink brilliantly in most top vintages for anywhere from another fifteen to fifty years or more (depending on the wine and vintage characteristics), so once they have emerged from their period of hibernation, chenin blanc provides one of the longest-lived white wines in the world. A great bottle of fifteen or twenty year-old Savennières from Domaine de Closel for instance, or one of Domaine Huet’s Vouvray Sec bottlings at age thirty-five or forty must be numbered amongst the greatest white wine drinking experiences out there, with such wines possessing the singularly unique profiles and profound complexity that must rank them amongst the world’s most precious wine treasures. Chenin blanc’s inimitable personality at full maturity sometimes makes these flavors and aromatics something of an acquired taste amongst many wine lovers who are unfamiliar with the grape, as there really is little resemblance to other white wine grapes in this regard, but the magical complexity, depth, lovely soil signatures and impeccable balances of these wines really takes very little exposure to get accustomed to, and once one begins to understand these wines for their own inner beauty, then one never again craves other varietals in their stead.
At other sweetness levels, there are also plenty of fireworks to be found once the wines have aged for an adequate period of time, and I think the semi-dry or Demi-Sec bottlings are now amongst my favorite expressions of chenin blanc at its most gratifying. For many years I did not really realize how much I liked Demi-Sec bottlings, despite my great fondness for German rieslings at the Spätlese level, but the research I did for my article on Domaine Huet’s magical Vouvrays fully underscored just how brilliantly Demi-Sec bottlings age, and these days this is where I focus most of my own personal chenin blanc buying for my own cellar. With bottle age Demi-Sec chenin blanc wines will drop a significant percentage of their perceptible sweetness (which is never really that high to start with), with the residual sugars transforming into wonderfully complex elements on both the nose and palate that really no longer give the appearance of overt sweetness. I do not know enough about the chemistry of wine’s transformation with bottle age to really know what is going on here, but there can be little doubt that mature Demi-Sec bottlings of chenin blanc appear to be dramatically drier than they were in their youth. My two favorite appellations for these Demi-Sec bottlings are Vouvray and Montlouis, with producers such as Domaine Huet, Domaine Foreau and Domaine Pinon amongst my favorites in Vouvray, and Domaine Chidaine (now also a great source for Vouvray as well) my equivalent of Château d’Yquem in Montlouis. Not that there are not also brilliant bottles of chenin made at the Demi-Sec level by Messieurs Angelli and Nicolas (mentioned above), as well as a host of other serious vignerons in the Loire Valley.
Interestingly, it is the sweeter-styled bottlings of chenin blanc that tend to get the most attention, and while I am an unabashed fan of these bottlings (often labeled as “Moelleux” or “Liqueureaux” or with proprietary names such as in the case of Domaine Huet, “Cuvée Constance”), I do not think that they possess any more inherent complexity or potential profundity than either Sec or Demi-Sec bottlings. Often these wines will have a fair degree of botrytis in the wines, which chenin blanc takes very nicely to and produces superb sweet-styled wines with this glaze of noble rot. But in some areas of the Loire where the formation of botrytis is much more rare (such as the region of Coteaux du Layon where the famous estate of Moulin Touchais happens to be located), or in certain vintages where botrytis does not readily form, despite the long growing season and superb autumn weather, these sweeter-styled chenin wines can attain their sweetness and concentration from a period of dehydration of the grapes on the vine that the French call “passerillage”. Both styles of sweet chenin are potentially profound, and both will age for about as long as any white wine in the world. It is often with these Moelleux bottlings that one gets with age the dramatically “red wine” characteristics that mature chenin can show, with scents and flavors like raspberry, cherry, dried oranges and apricots, leather and tea leaves quite frequent with these bottlings at a ripe old age. The wines still retain plenty of sweetness as they age (though they too can be perceived as drying significantly over their early perceptions of residual sugar), but blossom in surprising and often quite magical directions that simply cannot be replicated by any other varietal.
And one of the wonderful things about chenin blanc’s current relatively low profile and popularity in the world of wine, is that it is often fairly easy to find older vintages of the very greatest estates in the Loire Valley available in the open market- often at very fair prices for an old wine. Certainly the prices for great old vintages from the Loire are only a fraction of what comparably brilliant mature wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy or the like would sell for, and despite the outstanding value that they offer, they are usually fairly abundant. The beauty of this is that wine lovers who have not yet had the good fortune to drink great, mature bottles of chenin blanc do not have to buy young vintages on “trust” of critics or other commentators and wait twenty years to find out if they really do age as well as advertised, or even more importantly, whether or not they like the style of mature chenin blanc. With the myriad of older vintages still for sale out there, it does not take a whole lot of digging to secure a few bottles of mature chenin blanc in a variety of sweetness levels and see what fans of the varietal are always blathering about. A quick scan of Wine-Searcher shows that one can find a plethora of vintages of Domaine Huet’s magical Vouvrays currently in the market from the lovely 2007s all the way back to the legendary 1921! While of course the 1921 (a vintage I have never even tasted from Domaine Huet) is quite pricey, the average bottle price of a 2007 from the estate is $33 a bottle, and one can buy great older vintages like 2002, 1997, 1996, 1990, 1989 and 1985 from a variety of reputable merchants and at very, very reasonable prices. Or similarly, one can always avail oneself of the beautiful wines from Moulin Touchais in Coteaux du Layon, who holds back their wines for many years prior to release, and experience great old chenin blanc from them. Their current releases include the 1996, 1985 and 1959!
* 2007 in the Rhône: a great vintage or “the greatest” vintage?
Now it would be ludicrous of me to comment on wines and a vintage that I have not yet tasted in depth, but one does have to recall some of the rather heated hyperbole that has surrounded the last few “vintages of the century” in the Rhône, and place the current euphoria about the 2007s in the context of the other recent, highly-touted vintages in this region. When I hear all of this talk of the greatness of the 2007s, I do not so much start salivating about the new vintage, as I do begin to reflect upon the last three purportedly high quality vintages in the Rhône: 2003, 2000 and 1998. Honestly, I cannot think of very many wines from top estates (at least in the south, where I think that most of the current hysteria is focused on these days for the 2007s) in the vintages of 2003, 2000 or 1998 that is even really profound to my palate or memorable in a pleasing manner (there are certainly plenty of over the top, mind-numbingly high-octane wines from the south in these vintages that I could never forget (try as I may), and it seems to me that in the age of global warming, less may well be decidedly more in the southern Rhône. I much prefer in general the 1999s or 2001s in Châteauneuf du Pape for instance, over their more highly-touted counterparts from 1998, 2000 or 2003. To be fair, I have had a few 1998s of late that are less heady and overtly overripe in terms of aromatics and flavors today than they were in their youth (the ’98 Cuvée de Mon Aïeul from Domaine Usseglio immediately comes to mind, as it was decidedly more tasty this summer than it had been a few years ago- not great wine mind you, but a good, solid wine that was really quite fresh and tangy for its high alcohol level–a solid 89 point wine for those keeping score at home), but to my palate, truly great vintages these most emphatically were not! All three vintages probably have more than their fair share of brilliant wines, but there are also plenty of flabby, alcoholic and overripe wines from these three vintages that were mistakenly (in my view) also singled out for unabashed praise.
So when I hear all this intoxicating talk about the 2007 southern Rhônes, I really have to place this message in the context of the other recently-touted “vintages of the century” in the region. Given, what to my palate, is the rather disappointing performances of those other recent vintages, I worry that the 2007 hype is just another in the long line of recent P.T. Barnum vintages down south. But again, I emphasize that I have not yet begun to taste this vintage in depth, and it could very well be the most exciting thing since sliced bread. But they say that “the burnt hands teaches best, for after that advice about fire goes to the heart.” So I prefer to not get swept away by others’ excitement about new vintages in the Rhône (or elsewhere for that matter) before tasting the wines, given that I have been less than impressed by a lot of the recent commentary about this region in the riper vintages. Often I find that there is a remarkable disconnect between what I like in wine and what others find praiseworthy in this region in particular, and for the most part I tend to try and look for wines with which to stock my cellar that receive the lower scores (on the rare occasion when a commentator has the temerity to print any low scores), as what usually constitutes a high scoring wine in the southern Rhône these days is something that is decidedly not for me. I am sure that there are legions of loyal fans for that type of wine, but count me out. For me, the last truly great vintage in the southern Rhône was 1989, for after this global warming really sunk its teeth into the region, and the more torrid temperatures, coupled with the inane spread of syrah and the sloppy application of new oak down south, has led in my opinion to some pretty desultory fare at some highly-touted addresses in the last fifteen years. So it is most likely that I will probably buy Éric Texier’s wines and Mont Redon in 2007 and be quite content (as I am generally a wine collector that follows my favorite domaines year in and year out, rather than chasing vintages, as in my experience, this is a much more rewarding approach to building a cellar), and leave the rest for others to pick through, unless of course I get as blown away as others when I taste through the wines from the 2007 vintage in the Rhône. 2007 may or may not be the “vintage of the century” in the Rhône, but at least it will be the “vintage of the year,” and given the year that so many folks have had in the past twelve months, maybe that is not a bad thing!
But I do not want folks to misconstrue these comments about vintage hype in the Rhône as my taking pot shots at other wine critics, as this is not the case. In many ways following a wine critic is a lot like finding a religion that fits like a glove- some folks need to believe X and follow its prophets, while for others, their beliefs in Y are self-evident and they will just as strenuously promulgate the views of their favorite proponents of such insight. And for some, they do not need to believe in either X or Y to make their way happily through the world. Whatever people need to make their life fuller and more meaningful is of course alright with me, as long as in doing this they do not impinge upon others’ attempts to do the same thing with whatever path they personally need to follow. It is the same in the world of wine- for some the word of a particular critic is like gospel for them, and nothing is more important than defending their particular prophet’s view and banishing all the pagans from the general vicinity- once of course they have been properly drawn and quartered on the wine boards. But at the end of the day what does all this hubris and occasional vindictiveness really accomplish? Absolutely nothing. Sure, some folks may get stoked up like a football team right before kickoff, but the reality is that, just like religion, when it comes to wine there is no singular path to some absolute truth- in the end it is just a series of opinions and impressions on the moving target of an ever-evolving bottle of wine.
But it seems to me that it is part of human nature to want to divide people up into competing camps and compartmentalize issues- perhaps in the hope of getting a more rational grasp on complex subject matter- as is the world of wine in its many sparkling facets. I just remain unconvinced that such an approach is particularly useful in trying to unlock the mystery of great wine. “Divide and conquer” has had more than its fair share of adherents as a policy throughout human history- with a rather mixed bag of results in the long-term I might add- but it strikes me as particularly unsuitable to the world of wine. But for many it is the only skill set that they possess, and so they apply this “pit bull mentality” to the world of wine, applying their own brand of acerbic wit briskly and frequently to the keyboard and wearying the proponents of contrasting opinions to their own sacred personal truths. Are they any more accurate for the volume of their diatribe? Do they add anything meaningful to the canon by skulking around every cyber corner, waiting to pounce on any advocate of insights contrary to their own, self-limited world view?
All of this meandering reflection does not really answer your question though, about my expectations as to the quality of (yet again) another vintage of the century in the Rhône. I suppose my short answer would be that it has been a pretty short century thus far, so yeah, it could well be the vintage of the century. But with all aspects of the world of wine, one has to ask by what criteria are the proponents of the vintage reaching their glorious conclusions? Ripeness levels? Balance? Problems with the syrah in the south that led most vignerons to eschew the use of these high-octane grapes in 2007? Certainly much of the wine trade, which has been reeling from the economic problems in general (unless they have been moving cases of Lafite and Carruades de Lafite in the Asian markets) is desperate for some good news to get consumers buying again with a bit of wild abandon, and in this case, the impending arrival of the 2007 Rhônes look to be timed perfectly. The weather reports of a somewhat cooler, drier summer are probably good portents for the ultimate quality of the wines and there is much talk of the surprisingly bright acidities in some of the wines as well (mirroring the 2007 Ports in this regard?), and these characteristics are encouraging to me. But there is also plenty of comment from vignerons in the region about the good weather that allowed late harvesting and attaining optimal “phenolic ripeness” in the wines of ’07, and of the wines being “quite fruit-driven” to quote Marcel Guigal. In the past it has been my distinct impression that these terms have been code words for overripeness and high alcohol to my palate. So the vintage reports that I have seen are sending some mixed messages. But in the end a great many of us will all taste the wines in due course, and for those who end up stocking up early, if they turn out to not be as good as predicted, let us at least hope that the after-market for the wines does not get as immediately soft as was the case with the ‘98s, ‘00s and ‘03s.
And 2007 port — also reviewed in your current issue– is it better than 2003?
At least with the 2007 Port vintage I have tasted many of the major players already, and this is as good a crop of young Ports as I have ever had the pleasure to taste. As I mentioned in the context of the 2007 Rhônes, the 2007 Port vintage has some of the tangiest, most vibrant acidity that I can ever recall tasting from this region. Consequently, there is an almost electric purity to the fruit in these wines, coupled with heightened impressions of underlying soil that is very, very exciting. They are not quite as big across the board as their 2003 counterparts, but in terms of freshness, vibrancy and youthful complexity, they seem to me to be a very significant step up in quality from the 2003s. Several of the 2003 Ports that I tasted were a tad overripe to my palate, whereas the 2007s are scintillatingly pure, zesty and sappy to the core. I cannot imagine the top wines of this vintage ever being anything but cellar treasures par excellence, and I am looking forward to following this vintage on into the future until my time is eventually up- though of course the vintage will probably outlive me by many, many decades. Someone once said that the first requirement of any great vintage is that it be low in acidity, but my experience has been completely contrary to this assertion, and I strongly believe that the greatest vintages one sees down through the ages are those that are on the high side in terms of acidity and coupled with ripe, but not overripe fruit. By this criteria, the 2007 Ports are a truly stunning vintage with profound potential for long-term cellaring and magical evolution in the bottle.
Like their counterparts in Germany (and perhaps the Rhône?), Port producers in 2007 were able to experience one of the longest and most leisurely growing seasons in a very long time. The uncharacteristically long hang times that the grapes enjoyed, coupled with cooler evening temperatures that maintained acidity at very agreeably high levels (which are very rare in declared vintages in the Douro), have produced wines of stunning aromatic complexity and purity, combined with vibrant, deep and very plush fruit qualities. Days were warm and sunny throughout the summer of 2007, but not torrid (as had been the case in the last declared vintage, the 2003s), and evening temperatures remained moderate enough that the grapes were able to maintain really excellent acidity. As was the case in Germany, flowering was early and very even in 2007 in the Douro River valley, and the grapes were able to reach a beautiful level of maturity without ever dropping their acidities. One of the hallmarks of the temperate nature of the early part of the growing season in 2007 on the Douro was the cool, but humid, conditions that followed on the heels of a rainy winter. The wet winter and humid spring saw water reserves in the vineyards replenished to very healthy levels after four very hot, dry summers that had begun with the baking summer of 2003. This allowed the foliage in the vineyards to remain vibrant and healthy throughout the entire summer, producing even ripening in the grapes and gently mounting sugar levels up until the first of September. The first two weeks of September then saw the temperatures mount markedly, but with dry conditions, plenty of ground water reserves and perfectly healthy leaf canopies, so that the vineyards were in perfect condition to take advantage of this warmer fortnight and push the grape sugars up to excellent levels prior to the harvest while still retaining the beautiful, zesty acidity that gives the 2007 Ports their remarkable purity, freshness and bounce.
In general, one could not ask for a better scenario in the Douro than what the growers were presented with in 2007. And one of the most reassuring aspects about shopping for Port is that this is one of the regions that has essentially stood aloof from all of the controversy surrounding the “modern international school of winemaking”- if one buys a case of vintage Port to lay down one is pretty safe to assume that this is going to be a traditional product that is going to age precisely along the lines of the great vintages of the past in the Douro. Can the same be said for the First Growths in Bordeaux? Probably not for all of them these days. Both winemaking and viticulture have probably never been better in the Douro than is the case today, and there seems to me a real push here to rediscover and cherish their history and their unique place in the world of wine. Sure, there are several Port lodges that are beginning to now produce dry red wines from their traditional grapes, and some of these are indeed “internationally modern” in style (doesn’t anyone ever get as tired as I am of the practice of hiring the same four or five wine consulting firms to produce essentially the same boringly predictable new oaky and flabby red wines the world over?), but this search for new wines in the region has not come at the expense of the great, classic nature of vintage Port. My gut instinct suggests that the dry red wines from the Douro will gain a more Portuguese signature with more vintages under their belt, and may one day provide an important outlet for vineyard production in years when a Port vintage is not declared.
But in the interim, we have the glorious 2007 vintage to occupy the imagination. I first began tasting young vintages of Port with the 1977s, which were then just recently released when I first started in the wine trade. And to my palate the 2007s are decidedly superior to the ‘77s, as well as any subsequent vintage that has been declared in their wake. And over the years I have had more than my fair share of wines from the 1970, 1966, 1963 vintages, and I am hard-pressed to not believe that the 2007s will ultimately eclipse all of these years as well. So we are in some pretty rarefied air for the 2007 Port vintage, and I wonder how it will eventually stack up with other legendary years such as 1955, 1948, 1935, 1927 or 1908. Of course, this will be for future generations to ponder, as the 2007s are not likely to really hit their absolute apogees of peak drinkability until their fiftieth birthdays, and then carry on happily from that point for at least another seventy-five years or so. This is not to say that they will not deliver serious levels of enjoyment before they reach age fifty, as many of the 2007s that I continue to follow are still delicious to drink a full month after I first opened them, and I think this vintage will give pleasure throughout much of its long life. But the real fireworks with the 2007s are not going to start for many decades to come, and I cannot think of a kinder or more considerate gift that any of us could leave to future generations than a few cases of these magical wines for their edification and lasting wonder.
I know I have gone on, as is my custom, for a ridiculously long time already, but before I finish, I did want to say that I really enjoy your blog and the folks that regularly visit and post here seem to be some of the most open and savvy wine people I come across on the internet. I often find that when someone asks me to comment on some emerging theme in the world of wine (which typically I have not yet heard about), I pop over to Dr. Vino to find out what is really going on in regards to a given subject, so that I can form my own opinions and comment with some semblance of accuracy. Thanks for doing such a great job and being willing to ask some tough questions on occasion when others shy away from asking, for like so many other avenues in the world, more transparency is really a good thing for everyone with an interest in the world of wine. I know we did this the last time we got together, but I would again be happy to offer any of your readers a free sample copy of my newsletter as a thank you for having me on once again as a guest of the good doctor.