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French attitudes toward Napa Valley, plus comparisons of winegrapes to meat?

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It’s too funny, really. When I first started out in this biz, you couldn’t give Napa Valley wine away to the French. “Mais non!” was their attitude. It was vin de table, merde, Algerian plonk.

Some of us knew otherwise, and suspected that the French—so chauvinistic in the belief that no other culture could rise to their level, especially American culture—were simply whistling past the graveyard. After all, their run of dominance—lasting for centuries—had no assurance of lasting forever, and they were continually hearing California’s footsteps coming up behind them.

But now, listen to what the respected CEO of Moët Hennessey, Jean-Guillaume Prats, has to say about Napa Valley. He previously managed Cos d’Estournal, the Super-Second Bordeaux, which he took to new heights, according to Wine Spectator, so this isn’t merely some oddball voice out of France; his father, Bruno, owned Cos. So Jean-Guillaume is, in other words, the very establishment that once scorned Napa Valley.

Here’s what Jean-Guillaume said: “I do believe some of the great wine from Napa Valley will be the equivalent of the First Growths in years to come, not only in terms of price—it is already achieved—but in terms of perceptions, of quality, and in terms of being looked after and thought after by wine collectors around the world. So Napa, for me, is soon to become the equivalent of the great Medocs.”

Wow. They ought to put those words on a billboard right next to the “And the wine is bottled poetry” one on Highway 29. You wouldn’t need the whole quote: Just “Napa…the equivalent of the First Growths” would do it.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Bordelais are finally coming around to appreciating Napa Valley. After all, Christian Moueix and Baron Rothschild did it decades ago, visionaries that they were. What’s ironic is that nowadays it’s some Americans who continue to diss Napa Cabernet. Why they’re so stubborn in this attitude, when even representatives of the top French chateaux gaze with envy upon Napa’s near-perfect climate and soils, is beyond me.

* * *

And now, from the Department of Ideas That Are Going Nowhere, let’s zip around to the other side of the world, Australia namely, where an article in the North Queensland Register is calling for wine grape prices to be more objectively determined, like meat prices.

Mr. Rob Hunt argues that, of all agricultural commodities, only the price of wine grapes “is determined using subjective criteria.” He contrasts this with “an objective system” of pricing, such as that employed by his country’s Meat Standards Australia system, in which, I gather, a short loin is a short loin no matter where it’s from, and priced accordingly. That is, indeed, an objective system. It is also very different from one in which (for example) a Cabernet Sauvignon bunch grown in Beckstoffer Tokalon costs much, much more than a similar bunch grown in Paso Robles.

But nobody ever said wine grape prices are objective. They’re not, because wine wholesale prices aren’t subjective. We pay for certain names and reputations, and I for one assume that more rigorous vineyard practices go into a highly-reputed wine than into an everyday one. So it’s not likely that we’ll be grading wine grapes the same way we grade meat anytime soon.

On the other hand, Mr. Hunt is entirely correct when he observes, I suspect there’s nothing more frustrating for growers than to see their carefully tended grapes dropped into the same receival bin as others of lesser quality.” That is a very sad situation for growers who work hard to grow quality fruit. We saw something similar happen in the early histories of counties like Santa Barbara and Monterey, where those grapes—fine quality for the most part—were shipped north or east, to be lost into vast blending vats destined for jug wines. The solution, as it turned out, was not to regulate prices, but to elevate the reputation of those counties, through small-production wineries making wines of critical esteem. You have to have the reputation first; then you can raise prices, not the other way around.

Cheers!


A tasting of 1974 wines (and one 1944)

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Went to a very interesting tasting yesterday. It was a small private affair, held at the Restaurant at Wente, a chic place tucked into the southern foothills of the Livermore Valley. The subject of the tasting was 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now, anyone familiar with the modern history of wine in California knows that that vintage was a very famous one. Bob Thompson (1979) called it “strong, showy,” and added, “May be early maturing.” Sadly, for him—happily, for us–he was wrong. Charlie Olken (1980) was nearer the mark. “The best are dark, concentrated, tannic and potentially long-lived.” He even predicted the best “may last until the next century.” As indeed they have.

When tasting older wines like these, which were all 40 years of age, quite a bit of subjectivity rises to the surface. In general, most of the fruit has faded away, and turned into drier, secondary or tertiary notes. Any fatal flaws that were initially present in the wine, such as brett, overripe grapes or excessive tannins, rise to the surface. Then too, in a group such as the one that sponsored the tasting (which was open, not blind), familiarity with these wines is very high, which also raises expectations: The tasters, most of whom are collectors with vast cellars (indeed, it was they who furnished the wines), have a certain emotional attitude invested in their showing well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I bring it up only in order to suggest that I, personally, was perhaps a little more objective in my appraisal.

Overall, the tasting was remarkable. Not a single one of the wines was dead—pretty astonishing considering their age. Here are some brief notes:

ALL 1974s:

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. Getting a little threadbare. The alcohol is showing through. Toast, caramel, loads of sweet blackberry jam, but getting tired and starting a downhill slide. Score: 89.

Mount Eden. Holding up well. Good, strong bouquet: blackcurrants, dried fruits, toast, spice. Hard to believe it’s 40 years old. Still, it’s beginning to unravel. Score: 90.

Ridge Monte Bello. A little funky. Tannins strong. Lots of blackberries and currants. A bit rustic and tired. But it held up well in the glass with some fruit gradually sweetening. Score: 89.

Villa Mt. Eden. Delicate. Earthy-tobacco. Oodles of cherries and blackberries. Very tasty—long sweet finish. Definitely in a tertiary stage, but clean and drinkable. As it breathes it opens up. Score: 92.

Mayacamas. Turning old. Cassis and blackcurrants. In the mouth, incredibly sweet and delicate, yet with California power and the ripeness of the vintage. Really classic. Will continue to evolve. Score: 94.

Conn Creek. Lots of sweet blackberry, mocha, spice. Insanely rich. Heady. Getting old, but still fresh, clean, muscular. Finish is sweet, strong, spicy. A great wine. Score: 96.

Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. Firmer, with a hard foundation of stony mineral. Tons of blackberries and blackcurrants. Very high quality and still a ways to go. Really top quality. Heady and voluptuous. This was the wine of the flight. Scote: 97.

We also had, for starters, some older white wines:

1944 Wente Brothers Dry Semillon. Browning color. Sherried aroma, slightly maderized but pleasant: nutty, toffee. Very dry, good acidity, clean, but over the hill. Still, this wine is 70 years old!!!! Score: 88.

1974 Heitz Chardonnay. Golden-brown color. Not much going on in the nose. In the mouth, remarkably fresh and lively. Good acidity, dry, clean. “Old Chardonnay.” Fruit largely gone, but a good honeyed sweeteness. Score: 88.

1974 Phelps Syrah (Wheeler Vineyard). This Napa Valley bottling is said to be the first varietally-labeled Syrah in the U.S. Pale and translucent in color, with a brick color at the rim. Pretty bouquet: spices, dried mushrooms, raspberries. Complex, dry, good acidity. Slightly maderized. An interesting wine. Score: 90.

1974 Mount Eden Pinot Noir. Beautiful color: rich robe, still some depth of ruby-garnet in the center. Complex, lovely, delicate. Bone dry, but lots of sweet raspberry fruit. Clearly old, but attractive. Turns slightly brittle and dried-leafy on the finish. Score: 91.

I don’t expect to come across any of these wines again in my life, so this was a very special treat!


California Cabernet Sauvignon: Wines in “crisis”, or just best enjoyed young?

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I’ve wondered for many years if the big, oaky, ripely sweet Napa Cabernets I’ve given high scores to will age or not. In most cases, my suspicion had been “only moderately,” but it was awfully hard to tell, since not even I, as a wine critic, could frequently get my hands on older bottlings—and besides, many of the famous “cult” Cabs weren’t old enough to be considered “old,” by the time I stopped reviewing California wine, last March.

Still, my reviews over the years show my increasing skepticism about these wines’ longterm performance. Where once I might have suggested 15 or 20 years for my top-rated California Cabs and Bordeaux blends, by 2005 or so I was lowering my estimates, and advising readers to drink their wines immediately, or over the ensuing six years.

Much of this was based on my own experience. I would routinely pull older (ten-plus years) bottles from my cellar, only to find them prematurely old and tired. The superripe fruit had turned raisiny; the alcohol had turned hot as the fruit dropped out, and the oak, which seemed like a pleasant skein of toasty richness in youth, now appeared merely clumsy.

This is why I increasingly raised an eyebrow at some critics’ prognostications about the ageability of Napa Valley and other Cabernet Sauvignons. It did not seem likely to me that many would survive twenty years, or even fifteen, or even a dozen, for that matter. But one of the glaring deficiencies of our system of critical writing is that journalists never investigate ageability recommendations of famous critics ten of fifteen years after they’ve been issued. The reasons why not are obvious: Nobody’s got the time, nobody’s got access to the wines, and ten or fifteen years after a review has been published, nobody knows or cares about it anymore. Thus, the question of the ageability of these Big Cabs has never been adequately answered, which is really a shame.

Now, in a very important article, Decanter has addressed the situation, calling into question the ability of certain Barolos, Napa Cabs, Bordeaux, Rhones and Burgundies to age before they start exhibiting exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” The article adds, “Before you decide whether this sounds appealing or not, consider that these signs of a sunshine-filled wine from a hot vintage might just also be indications of a wine crisis hiding in plain sight.”

It seems that more and more people who do have access to older bottles of these big wines are discovering “premox,” or premature oxidation, in them. After premox issues with certain white wines, a professor of enology in Bordeaux told Decanter, “I believe there is a similar scandal with red wine, and that in 10 years’ time it will be just as explosive as the one affecting white Burgundy has been. And it’s not limited to one region; all red wines that are expected to be aged for long periods of time – so Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and others – are in danger of ignoring this threat.”

The article’s author, Jane Anson, pulls no punches. “I first wrote about the subject [of premox] for Decanter.com last year and quickly realised that the findings throw into doubt not only the leading viticultural practices of the past decade, but also the work of several leading critics who have amply rewarded low acidity and super-ripe fruit; two of the leading offenders for rapid ageing.” We can debate just who those “leading critics” are. The point I would like to contribute is this: I too gave very high scores to these types of wines. But I did so based on their sheer impressiveness at the time I reviewed them, which was almost always just as they were being released. I stood by my scores then, and I stand by them today, because these wines are magnificent creatures, as rich and delicious as any wines produced in human history. Thus they fully merited their high scores.

But, like I said, I increasingly warned that these wines are not long agers. I did not bemoan this fact: most people nowadays don’t care about aging wine for a long time, anyway, even if they have a decent storage area to do it.

Can the problem be reversed? The Decanter article quotes another French researcher as claiming it can be, if “two principal risk factors” are avoided: leaving the grapes on the vine to get overripe, and then using too much oxygen during the winemaking process.

But these are difficult practices to get away from. Winemakers can pick their fruit a little earlier than they used to, but not too much: if the grapes haven’t lost their green tastes and high acids then the wine won’t be any good. And exposing Cabernet to oxygen, however it’s done, is almost de rigeur these days (through pumping over, racking and various micro-ox techniques), in order to tame the troubling tannins that can be so fierce in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s worth noting, too, that Michael Rolland’s wife was interviewed for the Decanter article, and she believes that the problem of premox in red wines is overstated. “We simply protect the fruit and ensure stable conditions throughout the winemaking process,” she said.

The Decanter article certainly doesn’t resolve the issue; nothing will, at this point. But it’s an important article because it raises a profoundly important question. What’s been your experience with older (say, ten-plus years) Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends, particularly from the 21st century?


Myth busting: Big doesn’t equate to average; small doesn’t mean great

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Brother Laube has a good column in the Nov. 30 Wine Spectator on the humungous crop size of the 2012 vintage in California. Not only was it at the time the biggest ever, but, according to Jim, for Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 “hit the jackpot.” That certainly accords with my reviews of 2012 Cabs, although there are many I didn’t taste because I left my old job last March just as they were starting to come in.

What I take from Jim’s column is the irony of large production with high quality, which theoretically is difficult, if not impossible. But it isn’t unknown. Both 2005 and 2007 were excellent Cabernet vintages in California, and both were good-sized harvests: 2005, in particular, was the highest ever until 2012 came along. Nor can we conclude that a low-producing vintage is necessarily a good one. The notoriously chilly 2011 harvest, so reviled by so many critics, was only average-sized, by modern standards.

I’ve long been puzzled by the mutually-reinforcing stereotypes that (a) high production compromises quality and (b) low production tends to equate with high quality. I’ve never believed that. It sounds good, but falls apart in the face of the evidence. The great First Growth chateaux of Bordeaux routinely produce in very high quantities, let’s say the tens of thousands of cases annually, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about them because of that fact. Why does a 40,000-case First Growth get away with it, when a 40,000-case California winery is assumed by the critics to be a mass producer?

Let’s face it, here in California there’s a real prejudice against high-production wines. What does “high production” mean? Well, it’s relative, but some California wines produced in miniscule quantities are loved by the critics who seek out what Jim Laube calls “newer, smaller producers, garagiste operations making a few thousand cases a year…”. I sometimes think there’s a critic’s mindset whereby they assume that a small garagiste winery must be making super-duper wines because it’s, well, small, and the owner does it all by himself. Blind tasting would, of course, reduce such automatic assumptions to rubble, but blind tasting is, alas, rare in the critical world, where critical assumptions are often borne out by experience because the assumer allows no contradicting information in.

If you think about it, there’s no logical reason why a tiny production wine should have any advantages over a large production wine. Why should it? Just because someone has a two acre estate vineyard doesn’t tell you anything about terroir, vineyard practices, barrel regimes or anything else. In fact, a tiny garage operation might have poor, old equipment. On the other hand, a large vineyard, properly managed, with sufficient finances, can produce great wines, especially if the vineyard manager and winemaker focus on individual blocks within the vineyard. The famous Tokalon Vineyard, for instance, contains 550 acres, and is routinely cited as one of the world’s greatest sources of Bordeaux varieties.

So consider this the start of a new category on this blog: Myth Busting. Have any you’d care to share? Let me know!


A tasting at Verité

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Wonderful trip yesterday to Verité, the Jackson Family-owned property that quite frankly is killing it in Bordeaux blends. I’ve been on that opinion at least since I gave the 2006 La Muse a perfect 100 points, their first ever; but not their last, for Robert Parker recently gave no fewer than seven 100-point scores to Verité, an unprecedented fact that causes me to joke that he copied me. The winery was begun by Jess Jackson, who met winemaker Pierre Seillan, in 1996; Jackson wanted to know if Seillan, who was then working in Bordeaux, could “make a wine of equal quality to Chateau Petrus.”

Seillan has told this story over the years, always with an insructable grin on his face, but the fact is that, Petrus or no Petrus, he has succeeded at Verité in a huge way. So it was with eagerness (to say the least) that I drove up to Healdsburg in a heavy late August mist, the day after the big Napa earthquake.

The winery itself is fairly humble, on Chalk Hill Road, near where the appellations of Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley come together. The grapes come from various estate vineyards in Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Bennett Valley and Chalk Hill; the wines thus are blends. There are three in each year: La Muse (mainly Merlot), La Joie (based on Cabernet Sauvignon) and Le Desir (primarily Cabernet Franc); the precise cepage of course varies from vintage to vintage.

Here are six notes on the wines we tasted. All are easily twenty year wines, maybe thirty.

FIRST FLIGHT

2010 La Muse. Despite a difficult, cool vintage, the wine is flashy and explosive in cherries, blackberries, cassis, red licorice and toast. But it is very young and fairly tannic, a little soft, yet elegant. While bone dry, the finish is sweet in fruity essence and sweet spice. I would lay this down until 2018 and see how it develops through the 2020s.

2010 La Joie. The inky black color surely is from all the Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) in the blend. Huge cabernet nose, with intense black currant and cassis flavors, and a bracing minerality. Good overlay of smoky oak. Tight, dry, tannic, but extraordinarily powerful and impressive. Another wine that needs plenty of time. 2018-2030.

2010 Le Desir. The most expressive and feminine of the 2010s. Is that from the Cab Franc (50%)? Graceful, yet quite tannic. Sour cherry candy, red currant, cherry liqueur. Fabulous stuffing. A potential masterpiece, with time. Drink 2020 and beyond. This was indisputably the wine of the flight.

SECOND FLIGHT

2004 Le Desir. Smells a bit hot, with grilled currant and cherry, toast, and spice notes. Such heady perfume. Grace, power, elegance, finesse. A bit spirituous, porty, but not too much. An interesting wine, still fresh. Bone dry, sticky tannins, aging well. Could improve, but for me, the alcohol (14.7%) is beginning to show through.

2004 La Muse. At ten years of age, turning the corner, developing bottle bouquet. Primary fruits turning dry: dried cherry, tobacco, raspberry, sous bois (could this be the Merlot, which comprises 85% of the blend?), orange zest, lots of sweet spice and smoke. Huge extract, sweet in fruit, yet dry in the finish. So expressive now, pure, generous, fat. Very complex and spicy. Will last for many more years.

2004 La Joie. A huge wine. At ten years, changing, with the fresh fruit drying out and developing secondary bottle notes. Power and elegance combined. Extraordinary complexity. Dried fruits, minerals, dried herbs, sweet licorice, sweet spice, espresso, orange zest. For me, the top wine of the flight, balanced and pure; but then, the alcohol is the lowest (14.2%). Elegant, great finesse and structure. Very great now, and will take another ten years, at the very least.

We were fortunate also to taste through three vintages of Cenyth, a sort of “junior” Verite ($60 to the latter’s triple-digit release price). Like Verite it is a Sonoma County blend; in three vintages the blend has varied, from Cabernet Sauvignon-based in 2009 to Merlot-based in 2010 and Cabernet Franc-based in 2011. Pierre’s daughter, Hélene Seillan, is gradually inheriting the winemaking role.

2009 Cenyth. Rich, opulent, a “Californian” wine. Oodles of blackberries and cherries. Good grip, soft acidity, spicy finish. Lots of admirable qualities. Drink now-2017.

2010 Cenyth. Softly tannic, fleshy (that has got to be the Merlot). Some floral notes, blackberries, cherries, currants. Lots of sweetness, an opulent, generous wine. Drink now-2018.

2011 Cenyth. The most elegant of the flight, drier and better structured than the others. Good acidity highlighting chewy fruit. Very dry, great charm and finesse, not as apparently sweet as the ’09 and ’10, which for me was a plus. Hélene explained how challenging the chilly vintage was; I told her Nature had given her a lemon from which she made lemonade.


Lessons Mayacamas and Inglenook (may) teach us

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I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.

Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.

A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.

Were it only that simple.

It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.

That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.

Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)

Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.

As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.

The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.

Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.

There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.


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