The Magic of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

It was a lucky break. Thanks to their collaboration with the lab where I did my master’s thesis (see their most recent publication in PLOS One here) , I was recently invited to visit the world renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (known in the industry as DRC) in Burgundy. This winery, famous for its eponymous Romanée-Conti wine, which comes from grapes grown in the small (1,8140 ha) vineyard (“climat”) of the same name in the village of Vosne-Romanée. This wine is one of the most cherished in the world, and comes with a pricetag that is accordingly extravagant (NPR ran a story just a couple of days ago about a book written about a 2010 plot to blackmail the winery).

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DRC courtyard in Vosne-Romanée with its vineyard backdrop.

The history of this famed winery began around the year 900 AD, with the founding of the priory of Saint-Vivant, which acquired the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 1131. The monastery controlled the vines until 1584, when the land was purchased by Claude Cousin, the first in a long line of family-owners of this property (only 2 different families in 430 years), which continues today with Aubert de Villaine, and his nephew, Bertrand, our guide this morning, incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his wine.

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Bertrand de Villaine explains how the Corton is blended from three different parcels.

He led us into their recently expanded cellars, where he led us through a barrel tasting of the 2013 red wines from each of their 7 red appellations : Corton, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Each of them were phenomenal, still very young, of course (some just finishing or having just finished malolactic fermentation), but a wine cannot age well if it doesn’t begin with all of the fundamentals in place. This was a concept that I knew well, but did not understand on a visceral level until I tasted these wines. Each one different from the others, they were all unique and fabulous in their own way, each characterized by its particular magnificent balance. Bertrand explained that they assure this balance by waiting until the grapes are perfectly ripe before harvesting. Their neighbors might be out harvesting a few days, even a few weeks before this moment of perfection for fear of losing yield due to an upcoming rainstorm, for instance, but DRC will wait, no matter what. Of course with the prices of their wines, they are in a better position to take this risk than many producers, but it is a major risk none the less and results in a relatively high variability in the quantity of wine that they produce, but with an incredible consistency in the quality, which is, without fail, exceptional.

DSC_0238Barrel of 2013 Romanée-Conti 

Each of the 7 wines had its particular personality, all of them like someone you hit it off with right off the bat. But it is true that the Romanée-Conti is the one you fall in love with at first sight. Not in a stunningly-gorgeous-knock-your-socks-off-from-across-the-room kind of way (though maybe with a few years of maturity she becomes so), but in a far more subtle, delicate way. Such that your first sip seems so incredibly satisfying, but then trails off leaving hints of so much more to be discovered, and so you find yourself chasing her, praying, begging for her to reveal just a bit more. And she keeps tempting you in this way until your glass is empty, but you are not angry that she’s gone, but rather you have never felt more content in your life.

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Bottle storage of 2011 Romanée-Conti and La Tâche

In the bottle cellar we were introduced to another incredible beauty, this one a blond. Bertrand served us a 2007 Bâtard-Montrachet chardonnay, the only wine they make that is not sold (they do sell one white wine, a Montrachet), as they produce only 1-2 barrels (300-600 bottles) each year that are used exclusively for private tastings, special events, and the family’s personal consumption. It was glorious. I will not even attempt to describe this wine because words will not do it proper justice. I must simply counsel you to pray to someday have the chance to encounter such a bottle, as I have done thanks to the generosity and scientific curiosity of Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine.

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2007 Bâtard-Montrachet

I took 5 pages of notes during the visit, wanting to absorb everything that Bertrand told us, not miss a single detail. But I know, and I knew as I was doing so, that there is no secret recipe. I could tell you that they use 100% new, untoasted oak barrels. I could tell you that for the Romanée-Conti and a part of Richebourg and Montrachet they use a plow horse, named Mickey, to work in the vines. And that alternatively, they have a custom-built tractor that is the weight of a horse in order to avoid undo pressure on the soil and root systems. You could probably replicate their work exactly, but I fear that it would be in vain. There is something special, magical about this place. This is the indefinable in the world of wine. The sum that is greater than its parts*. There is an element here that no one can explain it, and I hope that no one tries. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves be captivated.

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Barrel cellar at DRC

*Yes, for the record, because I am sure that you are wondering, for me personally the prices paid for these bottles far exceed even the whole that exceeds the sum of the parts, but such is a luxury economy, and we must just be happy to embrace the rare opportunity to savor these wines in another context that does not involve thousands and thousands of dollars of expense, as I was so lucky to do here.

Scottish treasure in Burgundy : A tale of whisky, terroir, and biofilms

A secret treasure lies beneath the little house off the main road in a tiny village in Burgundy. A treasure one wouldn’t expect to find in this region monopolized by the grape vine.  A pot of thousands upon thousands of liters of liquid gold.

IMG_0782 Cellars at Michel Couvreur Whisky

Appropriately located, the cellars of Michel Couvreur Scotch Whiskies, a minuscule operation led by a team of 3 dedicated employees, are found in Bouze-les-Beaune. The village is named for the nearby river Bouzaise, named for the Celtic word “bosa”, meaning pocket of water, which later evolved into “bouse” in medieval English, and then the contemporary equivalent, “Booze.”  But despite this nominal link to spirits, one would never know what lies in the cellars of the unmarked house.

 The cellars, dug out by Michel Couvreur himself to a depth of 15 meters, are a fantasyland evoking an underground scene in The Lord of the Rings.  The trickling sound of an underground source fills the damp air and the walls are covered in a wet, slimy substance.  A biofilm of microorganisms that seem to thrive in the humid atmosphere, sipping in the alcohol vapors as they grow.

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This, according to Blend master Jean-Arnaud Frantzen, is the terroir of the locale of “Finishing,” or the aging of whiskies in 500 L wooden casks. Whether this represents a “true” terroir is of course debatable, but it is clear that the aging environment has an impact.  The level of humidity will dictate, by the law of partial pressures, the alcoholic composition of the angel’s share (the portion of a cask’s contents that evaporates over time) and thus of the final alcoholic composition of the whisky remaining in the barrel.  But might the environment have even more of an influence than this? Perhaps an influence from the biofilms, which, like the black fungus characterizing the walls of buildings in the region of Cognac, Baudoinia compniacensis (aka Torula compniacensis) flourish in the presence of alcohol vapors?  Or the depth below the surface?  We all felt a slowing of our own internal rhythms upon descending into this cool, dark space, pressurized place, why couldn’t this have an effect on the whiskies as well?

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Biofilms on the cellar walls at Michel Couvreur

But this terroir of “élevage,” as this type of slow, deliberate aging of alcohol is referred to in France, is difficult to pinpoint, difficult to define. All the more complicated by the fact that these whiskies have, in effect, a multiplicity of terroirs.  The barley is grown, harvested, and transformed into alcohol in Scotland (and, apparently, individual ‘terroirs’ of barley fields are effectively nonexistent, the ‘taste of place’ not seeming to infuse into a perennial plant that is then severely transformed into a distilled product).  The ‘mother’ alcohol is then shipped to France, where it is funneled into specially chosen casks.  These casks are full of history, which they subsequently instill into the whisky with which they are impregnated.

Michel Couvreur Whiskies chooses each cask individually.  The histories of the casks can be quite varied, but they all contained a potent, richly aromatic wine for a period of 40 to 50 years. The most typically used casks are those of Sherry wines, but also sought-after are variants such as Pedro Ximénez, the local sherry-like wine, Vin Jaune from the Jura region, or Colheita and Tawny Ports.  The casks are shipped to Bouze-les-Beaune immediately after being emptied (when regulations allow, Couvreur prefer to ship the casks filled, as dryness is the enemy of wooden casks, making them vulnerable to spoilage and prone to leakage later on) and are refilled, without rinsing or the addition of sulfur, with the mother alcohol.  Then the casks are sealed and stocked, for 3, 8, 10, 20… years – as long as it takes to achieve the desired result.

Frantzen adheres to a philosophy of the 8-year plan for whiskies.  During the first three years the grains of the original alcohol tend to dominate.  Then the whiskies enter the adolescent phase, commencing their maturity but with remaining marks of hotness and youth from the alcohol.  Around the 8 year point, the whisky begins to integrate and complexify, ultimately reaching a point of balance – the sweet spot where you aren’t whopped over the head with alcohol when you take a sniff, and you notice a proper level of complexity.

This complexity can be overdone however, spinning out of control and going more towards overwhelming than enjoyable. Towards the end of its life in barrel, the whisky begins to take on more of the aromas that reflect the history of the barrel, seemingly reverting to a reflection of the barrel’s unique aroma fingerprint. This fascinating transformation (that should be carefully considered in attempting to understand the aging processes of any alcoholic beverage, including wine), can, unfortunately, go too far.  The sweet spot can give way to earthy, mushroomy, woody, sherry-like aromas that overpower the freshness of the cereals and ultimately destroy the complexity that is so prized in a quality whisky.  The difficulty is that the point of maturity, and thus of overripeness, is different for each barrel.  Frantzen compares this to individual human beings – we don’t all age at the same rate, with genetics, and more importantly, lifestyle, playing an important role in whether we look and feel our age.  Someone who leads a high-stress lifestyle might feel ‘older’ at 40 than an individual who has learned to manage their stress.

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My personal favorite name for a whisky, “Intravagan’za” is meant to evoke the complexity, sparkle, explosion of this whisky in the mouth, all with measured restraint, internalizing the extravaganza. 

Besides overaging, other factors can lead to imbalance in whisky.  The problem is primarily due to attempts to ‘modernize’ the production process, using shortcuts to mature a whisky in a reduced amount of time, and thus turn a profit more quickly.  This is the general trend of innovation in whisky production, with some trial being more effective than others.  Tests have been run on the fineness of the grind used to produce the base alcohol, with higher surface area thought to give more complexity to the resulting distillate. The use of different yeast strains, as in winemaking and beer brewing, is used to alter the aroma profile of the base alcohol (note that in whisky production, as for beer, spontaneous fermentations by indigenous yeast do not occur as the grains don’t contain sugars that are accessible to these yeasts until starches are broken down by enzymatic processes).  Microoxygenation has been considered (though the high alcohol content of the whisky clears the pores of wood casks, rendering even old casks effective microoxygenation systems), though whisky making is a very secretive process, and this method shares a similar, skeptical, reception amongst whisky consumers as it does amongst certain wine consumers (justifiably or not), and thus is not widely communicated about.  Some producers use smaller cask (i.e. 50 L instead of the typical 500L used by Couvreur) to increase the surface area of the cask and thus the contact of the whisky with wood and with oxygen. According to Frantzen, this method often results in unbalanced whiskies.  Most of this innovation occurs outside of Scotland, as Scotch producers are focused on replicating the consistent quality that they have built a reputation for over the centuries.  Thus a producer like Couvreur gives us the opportunity to taste a Scotch that has branched out a bit from its roots (in particular those aged in barrels from Vin Jaune or even Burgundy wines).

And the results?  Personally I found them stunning.  Frantzen told us that given the origins of the barrels and the complexity that they seek to create at Couvreur, wine aficionados are often particularly apt to appreciate their whiskies.  With the two whiskies I was fortunate enough to taste (Overaged Malt Whisky and Blossoming Auld Sherried Single Malt Whisky) I wholeheartedly agree – these are definitely whiskies for wine lovers, and whisky lovers too.  Any producer that puts this much passion and care into their product is bound to have a good chance of creating something delicious.

 

 

 

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“Fleeting” is the producer’s whisky that is a different blend at each bottling, eternally changing and evolving.

“Does bottle age reveal terroir ?” A discussion.

When  I received the notification from Erika Szymanski’s (also of Palate Press) blog Wine-o-Scope that a new post was up entitled “Quantifying terroir with chemistry: still searching for the Holy Grail”, I knew immediately that I’d find myself responding.  The destiny became reality when I saw the article she was citing – the most recent release from the laboratory where I had started my internship just days before.

In the final phase of my Master Vintage program, I am currently doing a 6-month internship in the laboratory of Régis Gougeon, at the Institut Universitaire de la Vigne et du Vin, (Institut Jules Guyot) of the University of Burgundy.  His current PhD student, Chloé Roullier-Gall, has taken me under her wing, and is the first author on the concerned paper discussed on Wine-o-Scope.  Thus I had no choice but to seize the opportunity to respond.

The paper, published in Food Chemistry, presents findings using an ultra-high resolution method of mass spectrometry, known as Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry (FTICR-MS), which is capable of determining the exact masses, and thus the exact chemical formulas, of thousands of compounds in a sample. Gougeon and his collaborator, Phillippe Schmitt-Kopplin of Helmholtz Zentrum Muenchen in Germany, use this methodology to look at the metabolomic profiles of grape, must and wine samples, effectively ‘fingerprinting’ them to look for particularities of individual or groups of samples.  In the present paper, the team looks at a series over 3 vintages of grapes, musts, and wines from four different vineyards, two in the Côte de Nuits region and two in the Côte de Beaune region of Burgundy.

Vougeot 1View from Château Vougeot in the Côte de Nuits

In the grapes, musts and just-fermented wines, no major differences were seen based on the vineyard locations.  Each of the three vintages gives a distinct profile in the freshly-made wine, but wines from the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune region cannot be distinguished based on statistical analysis of their FTICR-MS profiles.

However, the team re-analyzed the wines in 2013, thus when the 2007s had been in bottle for 5 years, the 2008s for 4, and the 2009s for 3, and this is where the story gets interesting.  In her post, Szymanski wonders whether this follow-up analysis was out of desperation or always part of the plan, but frankly, it doesn’t matter.  In science, it is certainly true that many experimental decisions are made ‘out of desperation’, and honestly I don’t know the motivation in this case, but what is key is that they did the analysis, as this is where the most interesting result of the study was revealed.

Unlike in the wines analyzed immediately post-fermentation, the bottle aged wines do appear different based on the vineyard zone (the vintage effect remains important, as well).  Thus there is an evolution that occurs in bottle, that actually takes us back to a point where we can see differences based on the origins of the grapes – how do we explain that?! In the article, Roullier-Gall et al. propose that the terroir “impacts the initial chemical complexity of a wine, but time – i.e. bottle ageing – might be required to fully reveal it through the in-bottle diagenesis of complex chemical signatures.”  In other words, the terroir imprints its characteristics on the wine, but these signature elements are not revealed until the wine has aged in the bottle.  Could this correspond with some of the language that we employ to talk about bottle aging?  That wines need time to “open up,” “assimilate,” “integrate,” “mature” ?  Maybe there is a deeper truth to these statements than we know – something that goes beyond tannin softening and integration.  Maybe there are certain elements of a wines terroir ‘trademark’ that are only revealed after a bit of time in bottle.

Szymanski isn’t happy with this conclusion, as she says they haven’t gone this far in the study, that they have simply shown that “different wines are different.”  This is true, in effect, but dismissing it as such overlooks the real importance of the study, which is exactly this :  some kind of change is occurring in the bottle that allows us to characterize wine metabolomic fingerprints differently than immediately after fermentation.  Key changes are thus occurring to the chemical makeup during bottle aging, and we thus need to be keenly aware of this fact when choosing at which moment to analyze a wine, as this choice of time point may have an enormous impact on the results obtained.  And from a more romantic standpoint, yes, perhaps there are important changes occurring during bottle aging that reveal a wine’s identity.  But here Szymanski is right to be hesitant – it is a key finding of this study that opens up new questions to be explored, but for the moment, these questions remain wide open (but likely tied to the 95% of compounds found that are as-yet unidentifiable).

st aubin 2014 st vincentSaint Aubin, in the Côte de Beaune, during the Saint Vincent Festival 2014

In defending her statement that this paper’s sole valid conclusion is that “different wines are different,” Szymanski characterizes the researchers’ definition of terroir as broad.  They define it as the “vine-soil-climate-human ecosystem”, which I find to be an accurate summary of the most widely-accepted definitions of terroir, such as that of the OIV (Resolution OIV/VITI 333/2010) which states :

 Vitivinicultural “terroir” is a concept which refers to an area in which collective knowledge of the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment and applied vitivinicultural practices develops, providing distinctive characteristics for the products originating from this area. “Terroir” includes specific soil, topography, climate, landscape characteristics and biodiversity features.

For me, then, the authors’ definition of terroir is correct and incorporates all of the key elements, not broadening it by any sense.  In any case, even if they are only saying that different wines are different, that is not a conclusion to be dismissed.  It is, in fact, precisely the point that is interesting about this paper, which is that said differences only seem to appear after a certain time in bottle.

The criticism of merely two time points not being enough is a valid one, but this is only one article, and this work will surely be followed up, by this group or another, with a longer-term study that attempts to verify and further characterize these changes over time.  The present experiment is a proof-of-principle, successfully showing that this methodology can be applied to show differences from wines from different places, and further experimentation will need to be done to understand these differences, including additional sampling points, and certainly increasing the sample size as well.

Yes it is true that the vintage effect remained more prominent than the effect of vineyard location, but this does not, as Szymanski suggests, nullify the methods ability to distinguish terroir.  The vintage effect is stronger, yes, but the profiles of the wines can also be statistically grouped, within these vintage years, by location.  This is not surprising, as year-to-year climactic variation can be much more significant than the variation that occurs between vineyards located only a few kilometers apart (the entire zone of Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits spans a length of around 60 km), though this is complicated by the fact that terroir includes not only climate, but also geographical, pedological, and vitivinicultural factors.

In sum, the paper presents some interesting findings, not on the existence of measurable terroir effects so much as a methodology that allows us to elucidate distinguishing characteristics of wines only after a certain amount of time spent aging in bottle.  With further research this may eventually be traced to terroir fingerprints that are only revealed over time, but for now this remains an interesting theory, one to be questioned, debated, and explored, as Szymanski has already begun to do.

Personal note to Erika Szymanski : I must say that despite a bit of healthy debate here, I adore the concept of your work and of your PhD.  You hit precisely upon the theme that launched me into the world of wine with my Watson Fellowship – that it is an extraordinary context in which to understand relationships between scientific disciplines, between scientific research and those who put it into practice, and between empirical research and artistic expression. Wine is a fascinating subject matter precisely because the boundaries between all of these are constantly being pushed, prodded, dissolved, and redefined in ways that we don’t always see in other fields.  I’d love to read your thesis once its finished, and if ever you run across material that is particularly interesting in this regard, I’d be thrilled if you’d pass it along, either directly or via your blog!