Chateau d’Yquem: Fastidiousness in a Bottle

DSC_0591(Château d’Yquem)

On our recent study trip to Bordeaux, my class had the pleasure of visiting the prestigious producer of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem.  In fact, prestigious may not be a strong enough word, as Château d’Yquem is the only domaine in Sauternes classified as “Premier Cru Supérieur” in the Bordeaux wine classification of 1855 (the system which continues to dictate the classification today, more than 150 years later).  They are also the only producer of Sauternes who do not produce a second label, a sort of all-or-nothing approach that means that years of less-than-ideal weather conditions, they simply do not produce their wine, as they would otherwise risk declassification.  And in fact, 2012 was just horrible enough that we will never see a bottle of the precious golden liquid from this vintage.  They will still produce the wine (though the putrid conditions this year left them with only 216 barrels, as compared with about 900 in 2011) but it will be sold to négociants (wine traders who buy bulk wine, blend it, and then put their own labels on), who are forbidden from putting the name Château d’Yquem anywhere near the finished product.  So the 2012 Château d’Yquem will be lost in the shuffle of 2012 Sauternes, cleverly disguised so as not to tarnish the reputation of the esteemed château.

DSC_0556(Château d’Yquem in the rain, in a reflection of the disastrous weather conditions of 2012)

But despite its lack of existence this year, the meticulous process for making Château d’Yquem remains astounding.  Their nearly 40 year-round vineyard employees (17 of whom are women) are each responsible, year in and year out, for performing a series of 50 pruning maneuvers on the same parcel.  This way each worker develops a rapport with the plot, and can provide the most comprehensive, fastidious care possible.  All of this in preparation for the harvest season, which can only commence after the appearance of the illustrious noble rot (botrytis cinerea), which requires very particular weather conditions (foggy, moist mornings and bright, clear afternoons) and results in a beautiful dehydration and concentration of the grapes (of which 80% are semillon and 20% are sauvignon blanc).   These botyrized grapes are harvested in a series of passes through the vineyard (which could occur over a period of days, weeks, or even months), first selecting only the botyrized grapes and then passing through to collect the non-affected grapes which, even still, have ripened to obtain a sugar content of 20° potential alcohol (this means that if fermented to completion, this juice could attain up to 20% alcohol – and even more for the botyrized grapes – of course this is not the intent, but rather to ferment partially with remaining sugar at the end).  Furthermore, at each pass through the vineyard, there is a triple selection, grape by grape.  First by the harvester him- or herself, then when the small collection baskets are transferred into larger bins for transport to the winery, and finally upon arrival at the winery, just before pressing.

DSC_0566(Re-composed image showing all of the stages of botyrization of grapes.  Harvest occurs grape-by-grape either of the shriveled, fully dehydrated grapes, or of the plumper, non-infected grapes, depending on the interest of the particular pass through the vineyard)

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Grapes are harvested not by parcell, but by ripeness, so on a given day the lot that is harvested could include grapes from across the property.  In this way grapes from the four different soil types of Château d’Yquem, clay, sand, gravel, and limestone are assimilated into one single wine, to which the company attributes the complexity of the wine.

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And what does all of this borderline-obsessive TLC and terroir-mingling give in a wine?  We were able to taste the 2006, which was described to us as not the greatest year, but still gives a good idea of what those of us who can’t afford a 500€ bottle of wine are missing.

First impression? Eggnog! Maybe it was the coming holiday season, but when I plunged my nose in the glass before swirling the liquid gold inside, the aromas of nutmeg-y creaminess jumped right out of the chalice in my hands.  But upon swirling in a bit of oxygen – the gas responsible not only for our lives, but also the lives of our wines – honey, dried apricots, figs, and even notes of tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple and passionfruit.  Thanks to its well-balanced acidity, the wine enters the mouth fresh and clean, evoking more citrus-y, summer-y fruits, which evolve toward more candied versions and then are rounded out by a bit of oak on the finish.  The oak isn’t overwhelming, but gently supportive, carrying the wine on its journey through the mouth as if in a basket.

But is it worth the price?  This will forever remain the question, and a valid one at that, for wines at this price point.

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 P.S. Oh, and just for the sake of thought-provocation, in whatever direction you choose… what I found to be quite an interesting quote from our guide during the visit (translated by me from French, very-nearly exactly):  “We don’t do biodynamics because they [the head-honchos] are scientists.  Thus we dont talk about the cycle of the moon.” 

 

Truffles: The Quest for {Culinary} Black Gold

I knew that pigs are used to hunt for truffles, but not dogs.  So when I learned that there is a particular breed with the innate ability to sniff out the esteemed fungi, the Lagotto Romagnolo.

I was lucky enough to join in on a truffle hunt in Burgundy, home of the Burgundian truffle (Tuber aestivum).  A different species than the more well-known black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) which grows in the Perigord region, the Burgundian version is equally delicious (I recommend it thinly sliced in a simple salad of garden-fresh lettuce and vinagrette, if you are lucky enough to get your hands on them!).

Truffles can be cultivated, in a sense, by taking advantage of the symbiotic relationship between the truffles’ mycelia and the root system of certain types of trees, such as cedars, oaks, and hazels.  If a grove is planted in the appropriate soil conditions (the Burgundian truffle prefers calcarious soil types), the mycelia, or underground component of the fungus, will follow the roots of the trees as they grow up (providing the appropriate shaded and forested conditions), establishing the necessary conditions for truffle production.

The truffle hunter can attempt to search for the prized fungi by himself, but as they are often present as deep as 30 centimeters below the surface, he isn’t likely to have much luck alone.  Luckily, he has several tools available at his disposal – pigs, dogs, and flies.  The difficulty with pigs and dogs is that they must be trained not to eat their spoils.  But this is likely a simpler task than keeping track of your fly!

Though this hasn’t been a great year for truffle hunting, with the help of two canine noses we managed to walk away with a decent harvest!

Valley of many cellars… both technological and traditional

In a fascinating visit to the Valpolicella region of Italy, home to Valpolicella and Amarone wines, organized by Bolla Winery, I learned about this history of the area, tasted a range of wines coming from here, and got into deep philosophical discussions about technology, marketing, New World versus Old World approaches, limitations, and freedoms, and much, much more with Elio Novello, technical director of the winery.  Valpolicella means ‘valley of many cellars,’ but the history of the region is full of more than just great wine.

(‘Map’ of my discussion with Mr. Novello)

  (Pergola trellis system typical of this region)

(Guyot trellis system, largely adopted in Valpolicello around 20 years ago and now believed to produce lower quality grapes than the pergola system)

At Bolla, the emphasis is on the use of technology, but not at the expense of the natural.  The winery has a huge production, between 12 and 20 million bottles annually, so technology is applied intelligently as a means of reducing labor needs, and potential risk involved in human labor, to produce wine in the same way that it would be traditionally made.  For example, the winery employs a cross flow filtration system, which is a large, high-tech, expensive machine, but in fact uses no filtration material, instead relying on the natural sediments in the wine to, essentially, filter itself.  Another example is the use of an innovative method for pumping over, where they have specially designed tanks that use the pressure of the carbon dioxide naturally produced through fermentation to push down the cap of skins inside of the tank, submerging it in the fermenting must in order to extract compounds from the skins exactly as in a traditional pumpover, but without the need for pumps!

(Bottling lines at Bolla fill an entire room and pump out tens of thousands of bottles per day)

(Cross-flow filtration system – left – and electrodialysis machine for tartaric stabilization – right.  Both are fully controlled by a computer to reduce potential for human error)

I tasted their Soave Classico, a smooth, simple, highly drinkable white wine made from garganega and trebbiano (distinct from the Tuscan trebbiano) grapes, from the appropriately named town of Soave (though the name comes from Swedish heritage in the town, not the Italian word for smooth/sweet/gentle/soft, which actually is quite fitting for this particular wine).  I also tried four red wines all comprised of essentially the same grape varietals – corvina and corvenone with some other local varietals in the mix), but completely distinct as a result of terroir and/or production method.  The first was the Bardolino, a very simple, drinkable, low tannin, fresh red wine.  Then there was the Valpolicella, very different in style but only because of the different growing zone.  This wine had a bit more structure and body, owing to a bit of oak but also differences in terroir, and can hold up to a bit more aging than the Bardolino.  Next was the Ripasso, a particular style of wine made by refermenting normal valpolicella wine on the skins of Amarone wine.  This approach gives the wine a significant degree of complexity and body, though this particular specimine could use a few more months to integrate in the bottle, as the beautiful nose was not quite matched in the mouth.  Finally was the Amarone, a particular wine made after harvesting and drying the grapes in special conditions that allow for the development of botrytis inside (but not outside!!) the berries, dehydrating and changing their composition to the perfect degree, over a period of 1-3 months (but could be up to as many as 6!) before they are put into the tank for fermentation.  This yields a particular, complex, rich wine that is very special in this region.

(Bins for drying Amarone in a special warehouse on top of the hill where there is no fog and a consistent breeze, all prepped and waiting for harvest to begin)

(Dehydrated grapes as are used for Amarone production)

This type of winemaking approach, waiting at the whims of nature of the dehydration of grapes, may seem a stark contrast to the technologically advanced Bolla winery, but in fact lies at the heart of their philosophy, it seems.  The company is committed both to research and technology, but also, first and foremost, to creating a quality product for the consumer.  Something that can stand the test of time, not conforming to one fad or another, but rather a simple, straightforward, people-friendly wine that is, most importantly, enjoyable to consume.

(Wooden cask from 1884, the year after the winery was founded.  These casks =, in a nod to tradition, are still used today as the inside can be shaved every few years to expose fresh oak)

(Ancient Roman Monastery - one of the many relics of a rich, varied history in Valpolicella)

 

** Here’s a NYTimes article published today (Aug 17) about Soave, the white wine from the Valpolicella region 

Taste and feel, don’t think and do

This is the motto of winemaker PJ Barton, with whom I shared a fabulous 2 weeks at Barton Estate in Bot River, about an hour from Cape Town.  PJ has many, many ideas (most of them, he would say, a bit crazy) about winemaking, and happily shared his wealth of information throughout the time I stayed with him.  I worked with him a bit in the cellar, went with him to marketing lunches, consultation visits, and a meeting of the Bot River Association of Winemakers.  We had many intriguing conversations over many bottles of wine, his insights helping to fill out my knowledge and our conversations helping me to articulate some of the conclusions I’m beginning to draw from my experiences this year.

PJ is all about making wine from the heart.  When we went through the cellar to taste each tank and barrel, he asked me to leave my notebook behind so we could just talk about how each wine played on our palate, filled out our mouths, and, my personal favorite, personify the wines a bit.  PJ frequently would describe wines and winemaking processes in human terms, such as when he explained his feeling that a barrel is a doctor for a ‘problem wine’, and that the best thing to do with wine you’re having trouble with is to stick it in a barrel and wait, as the mediated flow of oxygen and the unique cylindrical shape of the barrel will bring the wine back into balance.  He often talks about wines in such terms, intuitive rather than scientific.  But to be honest, maybe this is a more informative way to think about wine.  The system is so complex that science can only understand one aspect at a time, breaking it down into simpler, controllable parts.  And for this reason I think it is important to have an alternative manner for thinking about the system.  Not that we should abandon the science, by any means, as it provides an incredibly valuable perspective as well, but consider the analogy of medicine and biology.  The human body is, also, an incredibly complex system, and science and western medicine represent one way of approaching it – breaking down the body into individual systems, trying to understand biology from a micro-scale and treating these individual components when there is a problem.  Contrast this with something like Chinese medicine, which we don’t have the capacity to “scientifically” understand in the western sense of the word, because science isn’t set up to answer those types of questions.  Chinese medicine represents a completely different approach, looking at the whole system rather than breaking it down into smaller parts.  I think that PJ’s approach to winemaking is in many ways analogous to this holistic approach, and it works.  I can’t say it is better or worse than a more ‘scientific’ approach, but it does have a lot of historical precedent in the old world, where people have been making wine from the heart, without access to scientific tools, for centuries.

As a contrast to PJ’s ‘from the heart’ approach, consider the case of winemaker  Rudy ?? at Bilton Estate in Stellenbosch.  PJ and I went to see him and tour his winery, and he showed us some of the ‘experimental’ wines he is working on.  The most intellectually intriguing (though I didn’t taste it so I can’t speak to that side of things) wine he had was one he refers to as 500% oaked.  This means that he put the wine in a new French oak barrel after fermentation, ages it there for one year, then moves it to a fresh barrel for a year, repeating this process for a total of 5 years.  He claims (though again, I didn’t taste it so I can’t say from experience) that it is not overly tannic, and when I asked why he thinks this would be, he offered an explanation based on tannin saturation.  Using an analogy of basketballs (tannins) and golf balls, tennis balls, and marbles (smaller molecules in the wine), he explained his theory that the wine will become saturated relatively quickly with tannins, as they are bigger, but there will remain plenty of nooks and crannies between the ‘basketballs’ in which can fit the smaller molecules – flavor and aroma compounds, etc, which will continue to be extracted from each new barrel.  I’m not sure if I agree with this explanation from a chemical perspective, as most of the small molecules in oak should actually be easier to extract than the tannins, but that isn’t my point, which is to demonstrate a very, very different approach to thinking about the wine.  Rudy has invested time and energy to research and postulate a theory explaining what he sees in his wine from a molecular perspective, while PJ would never do something like this.  His approach, rather, is to do what makes sense intuitively, based on his many years of experience making wine.  Though arguably a less ‘rigorous’ approach, I strongly believe that is has at least as much validity as any other, because like it or not, wine has this element of mystery, of surprise and unpredictability, and that is precisely what keeps it interesting.


El Campo de Amaral

(Jaime and I attempting to take a self-timer shot, but I think the way we were caught by surprise in this photo is indicative of the ever-surprising nature of vintage)

Some winemakers see their job as one that takes place predominantly in the winery, and others, like Jaime de la Cerda, are committed to creating the essence of their wines in the vineyard.  After our last grapes arrived for harvest and things calmed down a bit at the winery, I went with Jaime to Ledya valley, where the vineyards of Amaral are located, to see the source of the grapes that I’ve been working with so closely over the past three months.  It was immediately obvious, even before we arrived at the property, that this is a very special place.  Leyda is becoming ever more popular of a location for growing cool climate grapes, but the Amaral campo is located about 20 more minutes beyond the last vineyard, along a gravel road that gives the impression of leading you to the end of nowhere.  But then you turn the corner and can see over the Maipo river valley, and on a clear day, all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.  And in between are slopes covered in the red and golden hues of grapevines resting in the post-vintage calm of autumn.

The tour of the vineyards, which comprise 600-odd hectares, only a small fraction of which have been planted so far – with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir, and a bit of pinot gris and gewurztraminer, focused on three soil pits.  The first was comprised of the granite soils that predominately populate the vineyards in Leyda, as the Coastal Range is formed of granite mother rock.  This type of soil has what Jaime considers the 3 key requirements for growing vines (though, clearly, there are other very important components of terroir, especially climate and fitting an appropriate varietal for the conditions) – penetratability (the rock can be relatively easily broken up just with your hand, ensuring that the roots will be able to penetrate the rock and grow deep into the subsoil), lack of fertility – again forcing the roots to grow deep looking for food and water, and also causing just enough stress in the plant to grow quality grapes, and good drainage, which keeps the soil relatively dry, yet again forcing the plant deep into the earth to search for what it needs.

(Granite soils, typical of Leyda and characterizing some, though not the majority, of the blocks at Amaral)

The second soil pit we saw, only a couple hundred meters away from the first, was shockingly different.  This pit, composed of ancient alluvial deposits, characterizes most of Amaral, and, Jaime believes, is what makes the terroir so special.  The close proximity to the Maipo river explains the appearance of these types of soils in a region primarily characterized by granite, and alluvial soils comprise much of the most highly prized vineyards all along the Maipo river, which flows from the Andes, but the alluvial soils of Amaral are quite unique within the cool climate of Leyda.  These soils again posess the 3 keys outlined above, as the round river rocks are so old that they fall apart easily to the touch, and the bright colors suggest a variety of mineral types which, who know, might even have some sort of effect on the final qualities of the wines.

(Alluvial soils typical of Amaral)

Finally, we drove to a third pit that was shockingly white and immediately recognizable as what may well be the most highly sought after soil in the wine world – limestone.  Again possessing the three traits that characterize a good soil, the limestone suggests that this area was covered by the sea at one point in geologic history, as it is a product of deposition of calcium carbonate from marine life.  The limestone is only in a few streaky patches across some of the vineyards, but adds a third, distinct soil type to the already diverse terroir profile of Amaral.

(Limestone at Amaral)

For Jaime, at least, this is where art can come into winemaking.  His goal is to express this incredible place in the wines he makes, and this is, in essence, the challenge of any artist – to take one form, in this case a place, and express it in a new form – for us, the wine.

(Sheep left over from the region’s previously most important industry roam the vineyards, as if as a nod to New Zealand, one of Jaime’s many sources of inspiration)

(Block 901 of Syrah – planted in the style of Hermitage Syrah in France, this particular block planted at the high density of 10,000 plants per hectare)

La Belle Salive

On Friday I was lucky enough to tag along with Drs Roland Harrison and Phil Tonkin on a visit to Pyramid Valley Vineyards in Wakari, just northwest of Waipara.  We spent several hours tasting and chatting with owner Mike Weersing, an American expat who trained in France and elsewhere before coming to New Zealand to work at Neudorf and then eventually starting his own, fully biodynamic, vineyard.  The purpose of the visit was to have a bit of a dialogue about the effects of soil type on wine, and Mike presented us with some wines to demonstrate his views on the subject.  He stressed that he feels that soil exerts its most profound effects on the ‘architecture’ of the wine in the mouth – how it feels and is structured (something that, coincidentally or not, for better or for worse, would likely be challenge to pin down and analyze scientifically).  (Soil profile display in the Pyramid Valley tasting room)

Particularly interesting was the way that Mike described the effects of soil acidity.  He explained that the French refer to certain wines as inciting “la belle salive” a particular way of salivating that feels as though it is coming from the back of the mouth, at the back/bottom jaw line.  They are particularly fond of this sensation, he said, because it is similar to the way we salivate when we are hungry, thus wines that cause la belle salive are good to drink with food because they keep you eating.  And apparently, la belle salive results from wines that are grown on more basic soils – like the calcareous or active limestone soils that the French are so fond of.  He had us taste two wines, one made from grapes grown in a block containing much more active limestone (active here just refers to the availability of the calcium carbonate – the more crushed up the rocks are, the more surface area, and the more points in the crystaline structure where ions are exposed and therefore able to interact with the surroundings), and one from a block with less. I could definitely notice the distinction, but he had also just told me what to expect, so I still feel the need to do some blind tasting to test the theory for myself.  But it is certainly interesting, nonetheless! (Try it out and let me know what you find!)

Mike told me about a tasting of Waipara wines that he organized where wines of the same varietal, one grown on clay and one grown on gravel, were compared blind.  He introduced the tasting by describing what Europeans would expect to find in each of the wines (the wines grown on clay would be expected to have a more ‘slippery’ feel in the mouth), and found that people were overwhelmingly able to identify the soil type for each wine.  It is the empirical evidence such as this, that is so frequently cited and pervasive in the wine world, that keeps me interested in this issue despite all of the debate and lack of evidence in the scientific community.  And certainly a major difference point of contention that drives a wedge somewhere in the industry.

(Limestone outcroppings visible in the Pyramid Valley)

I am happy to finally see somewhere where art and science are not coexisting harmoniously, side-by-side, especially in this instance where there is division, but ‘art’ and ‘science’ aren’t necessarily the two sides of the issue.  Mike threw another wrench into the neat little picture of art and science existing harmoniously.  When I first described my project to him, he responded in a manner different from anyone I’ve met so far.  He insisted that wine is, in fact, not an ‘art,’ per se, because such a label implies some inborn talent on the part of the winemaker.  He prefers the term ‘craft’ as it better encapsulates the idea that winemaking is something that can be learned through lots and lots of experience.