Saturday, April 22, 2017

A TALE OF THREE 99S



Last night, by sheer coincidence three bottles of 1999 French wines appeared in our regular Friday night blind tasting. Together they underscored an important point about aging potential that we keep rediscovering: Bordeaux beats them all, even when it is an unimpressive, cheap label. 


The first bottle was this Burgundy, Chateau Corton Grancy, Grand Cru, a haughty label. It’s a top of the line Pinot Noir, from the mother-lode of Pinot Noirs. Its exalted vineyards, near the famed village of Corton are centuries old. Purchased in 1891 by the renowned negociant Latour family, the property has been producing elegant, expensive wines from average 40 year old vines, masterfully crafted and aged. 


I bought the bottle as a vertical of six in a benefit auction, paying $200 per bottle. The first one I opened a month ago, a 1996 was indeed worthy of its label, well liked by everyone in our group. 1999 was a vintage of exceptional quality and quantity in Burgundy, the wines powerful, charming and well balanced with great concentration and color. A vintage to drink young or old, according to the pundits. 

They were wrong about this one. The Corton Grancy had a tanky nose, oxidized flavors and hints of brown sugar, a sure sign of chaptalization (they added sugar to the wine during the winemaking process). It was over-the-hill and no good. A waste of money.



Next came Domaine Tempier Bandol, Cuveé Speciale ( it means a special bottling, akin to the “reserve” labels we often see in domestic wines). The wine looked old, with light brown rings around its rim. It smelled old and had more than a hint of Brettanomyces on the nose. It was powerful but odd, its excessive acidity running through it like a grand river. Before it was unveiled I guessed it as a very old Barolo, from the mid-80s maybe. 

Bandol is actually a cult wine from Provence, near the famed Mediterranean coast of the French Riviera. At one time this was a great wine. Now it had turned into a tired, scrawny old horse. 


Finally, 1999 Chateau Aney. This is a Cru Bourgeois, a pedestrian label from Bordeaux. It was – and still is – quite cheap, around $20 then, less than $30 nowadays. The wine was smooth and silky, with herbal and spicy flavors, well balanced and with a good finish. Most importantly, it looked and tasted young. No one in the group guessed 1999. 


It’s from the Left Bank, Haut-Medoc, the varietal composition around 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, the rest Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. The vineyards go back to 1850, re-invigorated by current owners  from 1978 onward. Nestled between two storied appellations, St. Julien and Margaux, whose 1855 Cru Classe Bordeaux will drain your check-book fast, Ch. Aney is a superb bargain that  delivers true to its terroir. 

For many of you out there who are die-hard fans of Napa, how often do you get a Cabernet mix so good, so age worthy, for that price? 

This coincidental pitting of grand names in Burgundy and Provence against a humble label from Bordeaux is yet another confirmation of what I’ve known for decades. For collectors interested in aging wine, Bordeaux is a must as a backbone of their collections. Good news: it doesn’t always have to cost an arm and a leg.

Monday, April 10, 2017

CLONES; BEWARE OF THE BUZZ



Watch out for a new word buzzing through the wine world: Clones!

I’ve been hearing it in tasting rooms, especially those that sample Pinot Noir, from Santa Barbara to the Russian River. Recently the word struck a sensitive nerve. “They should take their clones and shove them up their ass!” I said, about the wine you see in the photo. 


We tasted it blind in our Friday night wine group and we all agreed that it was a domestic Syrah. Then someone said, “What about Pinot Noir?” The wine was maroon in color, had a Syrah nose and Syrah flavors. It was hot, high alcohol. No way! This was not Pinot Noir. If it was, the winemaker had to be deranged, I said. We unveiled the wine. It was Pinot Noir. Then someone read the back label. It announced that they had used 115 Dijon and Pommard clones in making the wine. That’s when those unkind words flew out of my mouth.



In viticulture, the word clone refers to the reproduction of a vine directly from a bud or shoot of another vine. Biologically this is known as asexual reproduction; no seeds are involved. Cloning is done by cutting a twig with a bud from the mother vine (known as a cutting or budwood) and grafting it to the rootstock of the recipient vine. Less commonly the budwood is directly planted in the ground and allowed to sprout its own roots. 


Cloning has been around for ages. In the past it was mostly used to control vine yields or for disease protection. In a most famous example, the disastrous phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century that devastated European vineyards was eventually overcome by cloning American hybrids that were resistant to the root louse that caused the devastation. 

                                                                    Four Dijon & one Pommard clones

More recently, scientific research in viticulture yielded a new understanding that specific clones can affect wine quality. In the 1960s and 70s various clones were developed to solve the conundrum of pinot noir success in North America, then a seemingly impossible goal. Gradually a series of clones became available that allowed viticulturists and winemakers options in controlling various characteristics of vines and wines. 

Developed jointly by French and American researchers, these new clones acquired names associated with certain regions, such as Dijon 114, 115, 667, 777, 828 developed at the University of Dijon, or Pommard 4 or Wädenswil 2A developed at UC Davis. 



Initially embraced by Oregon winemakers who, using such clones, successfully built a distinguished Pinot Noir region in the New World, clones then spread across other appellations and varietals. Nowadays “a winemaker/grower selects cuttings the way a chef would select spices for his kitchen,” says wine writer Matthew Citriglia. There are actual recipes for the clones. For example:

Pinot Noir Dijon Clone 113: Naturally high yielding, very fruitful, early ripening.  Classic blend of plum, cherry, and raspberry fruits with a cedar and pepper finish.  Known for elegant aromatics.

Pinot Noir Pommard UCD 4: Consistent from year to year, has balanced vigor, late ripening, very fruitful.  Can be blended or used alone.  Known for spice and velvety texture.

Pinot Noir Wädenswil UCD 2A: High yielding if not managed, slow and later ripening, almost always the last picked, resistant to botrytis and powdery mildew, best grapes in wet years.  High-toned fruit and aromatics make it a good component for adding elegance to blends.

And so it goes. 



Cloning is one of countless technical steps that go into the creation of wine, well known by viticulturists and winemakers. They may also be of interest to super wine-geeks. But they have no business in wine labels or in the mouths of those who sell wines. Most consumers don’t understand or care about winemaking techniques. 

So why is the spotlight shining on clones all of a sudden? Why else but PR!



What better way is there for newcomers into a crowded Pinot Noir field to get rapid respect by associating their product with names like Dijon, the gateway to Burgundy, motherland of the varietal, or Pommard, a highly respected appellation within this famous region that produces wines with sublime elegance?


The problem with clone promotion is that a Pommard clone does not necessarily result in Pommard-like wine. Terroir and winemaking remain crucial in the style of the final wine, easily outdoing the source clone. The Cattleya I so disliked,  Pinot Noir grotesquely disfigured beyond recognition, is a good example of this. 

The web site of Cattleya winery announces that their winemaker was trained in France. Do you think she somehow missed what true-to-the-grape Pinot Noir should be like? Of course not. 


She is making extreme Syrah-like Pinot Noir because it is commercially viable. It caters to palates that are willing to pay big bucks for big wines. Never mind that it smells and tastes nothing like what it’s supposed to be. 


I can appreciate this profit oriented mentality. Countless others are also doing it. But for Heaven’s sake, don’t associate your disfigured wines with exalted names like Pommard  that imply something totally different than what your bottle delivers. 

It is the hypocrisy of the new clone craze that infuriates me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

WEATHER AND WINE; LET'S KEEP IT SIMPLE




The complexity of our wine universe forces us to break it into categories to make sense of it all. Varietals and geographic regions are the most common, but hard to master. Another one I find quite useful is easier: climate. There are only two climates worthy of note: warm and cool.


Identifying wine profiles from these two climates is fairly easy. It is one of the essential first steps in my assessment of wines I taste blind every Friday night as I attempt to guess what each is. Last week I hit a home run with an Alto Adige Pinot Noir that I correctly identified. A wine from the mountainous region of Italy near the Austrian border, it had the typical characteristics of a cool weather pinot. From there I didn’t have far to go in guessing the region. 

First some basics.


Vineyards do best in temperate climates. In the overall map of the world, this translates to between latitudes of 30 to 50 degrees. Above 50 (e.g. Russia, Scandinavia) it’s too cold. Between the 30s is the Equator, too hot. Within those two strips of 30-50 we find all the grand wine regions of the world.
Cool climates are not supportive of red wine grapes. Thus in the higher latitudes such as Austria, Germany or upstate New York, white wines predominate. This being said, with global warming, these areas are becoming friendlier to red varietals. 

Let’s review reds and how they differ in cool versus warm.


Warm climates produce riper grapes, and that translates to wines with fuller bodies. They have dark red colors, high extraction and high alcohol. Their fruit flavors range from dark berries such as blackberry, boysenberry or blueberry on the lighter side, to prunes, plums, figs and raisins on the heavier side. The ripeness of the grapes also translates into sugar, appearing as hints of sweetness in the mid body of the wine, or in many cases, outright dessert-like sweetness.

 Cool weather wines on the other hand are lean. They are lighter in color and body. Their fruit profiles are more redolent of red berries: strawberry, cranberry, or raspberry. They are lower in alcohol and sugar. They tend to be more acidic especially in their finish, giving them a tart flavor compared to warm-weather wines. While this feature may not favor them in comparative tastings against warm weather reds, their light structures and acidity make them more food friendly.


These distinctions become easily identifiable with common varietals that grow in different regions of the world, warm or cool. Syrah, cabernet franc and pinot noir are good examples. A cab franc from the cool Loire Valley of France where the varietal is the principal  red grape of the region (Chinon, Bourgeuil, Saumur) tastes totally different than that from California where the grape is hard to distinguish from cabernet sauvignon.


I find the warm-cool distinction most useful in pinot noir. The traditional home of this varietal is the Burgundy region of France where the wines are lighter in color, extraction and alcohol and quite acidic.  Burgundy has a cool climate. So do Oregon and New Zealand, and they have acquired a reputation for Burgundian pinot noir styles.

By contrast pinot noirs from California, a warmer region, are fuller bodied, fruit forward, have hints of sweetness in mid-palate and higher levels of alcohol. Some from Central Coast or Santa Barbara areas, the warmest of California pinot regions, can easily be mistaken for syrah. This, despite the fact that pinot noir thrives only in those enclaves of California where prevailing climate conditions are comparatively cool.


There are several cool zones where pinot noir is an exotic rarity, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. These are near latitude 50, white wine regions. Also included are Alsace and Alto Adige, mountainous regions of France and Italy that border German speaking lands. Let’s not forget red Sancerre, a pinot noir from the Loire. The climate in these regions used to be quite unfriendly to the varietal, resulting in nearly undrinkable, indistinct, watery pinot noirs. Thanks to climate change and warmer temperatures, new, better pinot noirs are emerging from them.

As with everything about wine, a simple concept can be made infinitely more complex. Many would argue that climate cannot be oversimplified into just those two distinctions. There are other weather conditions that play important roles in wine styles. 


Take sunlight for example. Exposure to sunlight produces fuller bodied wines. Grapes need a minimum of 1400 hours of sunlight to ripen (translates to about two months). Vineyards exposed to more sunlight produce bigger wines.


Fog exposure tempers daily temperature extremes. In wines like pinot noir it can control over-ripeness and lead to better nuanced wines. Some of the best pinots from California come from valleys that suck up fog from the Pacific Ocean. 

Wind, rain and humidity can be good or bad for wine grapes depending on their dose.


Finally there is topography. In vineyards layered out on slopes, the better wines come from higher up where soil drainage helps a lot.


The subject can be daunting. It certainly is for vineyard managers and winemakers. But for us drinkers, regardless of the complexities of weather, the simple distinction between cool and warm stands as a useful approach in assessing wines. Try doing this a while and you’ll see.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD AND ITS GRAND IMPRESARIO, BARON PHILLIPE





In our rapidly changing times, one of the amazing wonders in the wine world is the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux that has stood rock solid for over 160 years. Its top tier in particular, the exalted First Growths, has been impenetrable. Except on one occasion in 1973, when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted from Second to First. It could only have happened through the efforts of a true impresario and that, Baron Philippe de Rothschild indeed was.

                                                                                    Baron Phillipe in 1922

A descendant of the famously wealthy banking family, Philippe, born in 1902, spent his youth as a playboy, Grand Prix car racer, playwright, and producer of theater and films. His 1932 movie Lac aux Dames, the first French talkie, gained international recognition.

All the while, the flamboyant young Baron was also running the family’s wine business since 1922, having taken the reins at age twenty. In those days Chateau Mouton Rothschild languished as a Second Growth, not too shabby a spot, but unacceptable to the family. According to them, the relegation of their wine to Second Growth was an act of monstrous injustice, perpetrated because Phillipe’s grandfather Nathaniel, who purchased the property in 1853, was from London.


When the 1855 Classification was created upon orders from Emperor Napoleon III, its tiers were to be based on contemporary market prices. At the time Mouton fetched the same price as Lafite,  made by another branch of the Rothschild family and assigned First Growth status. Phillipe’s family considered their relegation to Second as an act of anti-British discrimination.

Mouton had a motto as Second Growth: Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton je suis. First I cannot be, Second I do not stoop to, Mouton I am.


The maverick Baron was to shake up the wine world in countless ways throughout a long career. He began in 1924 with an act unheard of in Bordeaux: bottling the entire vintage in the chateau. In those days Bordeaux growers sold their juice to negociants (special wine merchants) who matured, bottled, labeled and marketed the wine. The growers, whose names were on the wines, did not have control over the quality of the end product. Phillipe’s move was considered crazy by his contemporaries, but soon became standard in Bordeaux and substantially contributed to the high quality of wine that emerges from the region.

Baron Phillipe then came up with the concept of lesser wines under the umbrella of the grand label, unusual then, ubiquitous now. In 1932 he began selling lower quality wine, unworthy of 1855 Cru Classe, under a new label: Mouton Cadet. It became the number one selling red wine in the world.


His next big idea was an absolute marketing genius. He commissioned different artists to create labels for each vintage of Chateau Mouton. Starting in 1945 with a simple but patriotic design that celebrated the Allied victory of World War II, the labels came to include some well known artists – Dali, Miró, Chagall, Picasso, Warhol, Koons – and countless others. These labels eventually took a life of their own and began exerting influence over the price fetched by older vintages.


To my knowledge there is no other example of a grand wine which appreciates in price based on its label as well as its longevity. Baron Philippe could not have known that his artistic labels would wield such influence when he pioneered the concept. He was just being himself, an impresario who came up with grand ideas. For those interested, these labels can be viewed online or at the chateau’s art gallery in their original states.


Labels aside, if the wine was not good, it would not wield high prices. But it is.  We recently tasted a 1989 Ch. Mouton with a catchy water-color label by the influential German painter, Georg Baselitz. It was amazingly robust for a twenty-seven year old wine, nuanced and complex, with no off-putting features.


Rothschild lobbied the powers that be for decades to elevate his wine from Second to First. He eventually succeeded. The 1973 vintage of Mouton was released as the first First, and in an auspicious coincidence, with a label by Picasso. It turned out to be an inferior vintage, but no one cared. It was triumph at last.

The iconoclastic Baron did not abandon his shockingly innovative ways in old age. After his humiliating defeat in the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976, where an American upstart from Napa, Stag’s Leap took the award for best red, he took the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. Teaming up with an equally colorful innovator across the Atlantic, in 1980 he inaugurated Opus One, a joint venture between Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Robert Mondavi Winery.

                          Baron Phillipe (right) with Robert Mondavi (center) and his son Tim (left)

This act, at age seventy-eight, was as shocking to the haughty French, who disdained Napa at the time, as his taking full control of the winemaking in his Chateau at age twenty-two. But it turned out successful and glamorous, just like everything else he touched.


In the aftermath of the historic promotion to First Growth, Chateau Mouton changed its motto: Premier je suis, Second je fuy, Mouton ne change. First I am, Second I used to be, Mouton doesn’t change.