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)

A lesson in Argentinian viticulture

As the core of Argentina’s wine industry, Mendoza, located at the foothills of the Andes, a 16 hour bus ride west of Buenos Aires, is particularly known for Malbec.  I spent a day visiting vineyards across the different areas of Mendoza with Nicolas Cordoba Micarelli, who is in charge of the vineyards for Kaiken Wines in Mendoza.

I learned a lot visiting a bunch of their different vineyards with Nicolas, travelling all over Mendoza, to vineyards with a range of different climates, altitudes, and soil types.

At a few vineyards we took samples of berries (important to take berries from different rows, different vines, different bunches, different sides of bunches, etc. to be sure to get as much representative a sample as possible.  These samples will be analyzed for the acid and sugar content in order to assess their ripeness and determine when to harvest.

But because we had so much ground to cover in one day, Nicolas assessed several of the vineyards Nicolas just by looking at them, or in some cases by tasting the berries.  He taught me some of the key things to look for at this time of year.  For example, the canopy isn’t overgrown, as that would indicate that the vine is sending its energy to the leaves instead of focusing on ripening the fruit.  Dying leaves toward the bottom of the vine are indicative of water deprivation, but they have to cut off the irrigation as harvest draws near to prevent too much vigor in the canopy, so this is a bit of a delicate balance.

Nicolas also gave me his take on what to look for when tasting grapes in the vineyard.

1.  How easy is it to separate the pulp from the seed? (this gets easier with increasing ripeness, as I was also taught at Pinord Priorat)

2. Spit out the seed and look at the color – it changes from green to brown with ripeness.

3. Taste the flavor of the grape of course – checking the balance between acidity and sugar.

4. Always chew the skin the same number of times, to be able to accurately compare the tannins between different berries.  How hard/green/soft/etc. are they?

5.  Spit out the skin and assess its color as well.

Amazing how much a systematic approach like this helps you get much more out of tasting! It definitely helped to taste differences between berries, though much more experience is required before I’ll be able to know how those differences would translate into a finished wine!!

And finally, a billboard in Mendoza city.  Not sure quite how to feel about this…

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.

Pegasus Bay – Science and Wine in Action

Yesterday I went up to the Waipara Valley with Roland Harrison (Director of Lincoln’s Centre for Viticulture and Oenology) and Olivia, an intern from France. Though only 5-6 km from the coast, the valley is protected from the cool easterlies that characterize the climate of the Canterbury plains by hills, keeping the valley significantly warmer than Christchurch, only 40 minutes south.

(Vineyard planted on the Teviotdale hills that protect the Waipara valley from cool easterly winds)

We visited Pegasus Bay, where winemaker Lynette Hudson gave us a tour and a tasting of their wines.  The decor in the cellar door and restaurant suggests a nod to European influence, and sure enough this influence isevident in the wines, which display a decidedly refined style.

(Tasting room at Pegasus Bay, with winemaker Lynette Hudson at right)

Though Waipara is not the most well-known of the wine regions in New Zealand, the industry has sunk its teeth into the area, and Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes do especially well here, and Pegasus Bay makes fine examples of each.  I have not found myself to be much of a Riesling fan, but I loved the Bel Canto late harvest dry Riesling that they make, as it has a much more delicate nose than many Rieslings I’ve  had, strongly characterized by orange blossom and even orange rind, but despite this delicate but poignant nose it is smooth and even a little rich in the mouth.  I also particularly enjoyed their Pinot Noir, as I have found many New Zealand Pinots to be far fruitier than I’m used to (mostly having tasted Pinots from Oregon and Burgundy, which tend to display more earthy tightness – particularly those from Burgundy), but theirs struck a lovely balance between fruitiness and structure, with a good balance of tannic characteristics.

(The gorgeous grounds at Pegasus Bay) 

The team at Pegasus Bay has worked with Lincoln Universtiy on research projects, one of several collaborations that allow Lincoln researchers to study wine in a commercial context.  This type of approach introduces a lot of complexity because of the inability to control all variables, but can provide an important perspective when approaching a variety of questions, giving useful and direct applications for the industry.  At Pegasus Bay, they have incorporated findings from the trials into their winemaking practices, and also conduct their own experiments in the vineyard and winery.  This type of relationship between winemaker and researcher seems to provide benefits for both sides, giving the researcher a constant stream of questions and samples, and giving the winemaker ideas of what they could be doing differently.  What I found most interesting in my visit at Pegasus Bay, however, was the way in which they actually apply these results.  It wasn’t just a blind acceptance of whatever the scientists told them was good, they still continue their own experimenting and make their wines in as small of batches as possible to be able to preserve any differences they have, and then utilize these differences in the blending process to best suit the particular style they are going for in individual wines and in the brand as a whole.

(Bathroom wall at Pegasus Bay)

Jet Lag 101

After a 28 hour flight and 12 hour time change with a stop in Dubai (where I saw a $12,500 bottle of 1947 Petrus in one of their incredibly abundant Duty Free shops), I have arrived in New Zealand!  I stayed in Auckland for a couple of days which allowed me to have my first taste of Kiwi wine at Stonyridge Vineyard on stunning Waiheke Island, just a short ferry ride away.


(View from ferry to Waiheke Island)

(Wine tasting at the gorgeous Stonyridge Vineyard)