WineCreator: A Roundup on Ronda

I finally found a minute to check back for reports on WineCreator, the ambitiously-named meeting of wine pundits and renowned winemakers that was held in Ronda, in Andalusia, a couple of weeks ago.

Last weekend, Jancis Robinson published, as promised, an overview of the conference, where she revealed an intriguing side of the whole operation. Apparently, this was more (less?) than (more…)

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Biodynamics: up front or backstage?

I’m a huge fan of a great number of biodynamic wine producers, and several “natural wine” producers, this last category essentially meaning that they are not only made from organic grapes, but also totally free of added sulfur, a widely-used stabilizer (For a quick description of the various types of bio wines, click here). Very often, wines made according to these methods have incredible character and individuality. You’ll probably read many raves from me about the artisan winemakers who promote that sort of viticulture and winemaking.

What strikes me, however, is that the promotion of biodynamic winemaking is presented in two ways. Some producers simply acknowledge that they work their vineyards that way – some do it only when they are asked – while others promote the fact that they are biodynamic producers almost as an end in itself. For example, you can’t tell, when looking at a bottle of Petalos, by Alvaro Palacios, (more…)

Matassa meets Montreal and Manhattan

My good friend and winemaker extraordinaire Tom Lubbe is hopping over the Pond, next week, to showcase his wines in Montreal and New York City. I’m an absolute fan of Matassa Wines, a Domaine I had the chance to visit. A great week walking through the (biodynamic) vineyards, tasting the grapes, packing bottles into cases, pallets into trucks, and to stomp those gorgeous grapes with my own bare (clean) feet (see here and here for details of my stay and, more importantly, to learn more about Matassa).

In Montreal, Tom Lubbe will be hosting (more…)

A biodynamic encouter

If you live somewhere around Toronto or Montreal, you’ll be glad to know that February will offer you a chance to meet dozens of biodynamic producers from all over the world, as they come to town for a big tasting featuring 120 wines or more. The vignerons are from the Renaissance des Appellations association, headed by Nicolas Joly of La Coulée de Serrant, in the Loire Region, one of the foremost advocates of biodynamic winemaking. Zind-Humbrecht and Domaine Cazes, Ostertag, Chapoutier, Alvaro Palacios, Alvaro Espinoza, the Fetzers and the Benzingers are also among the many notable names in the association.

The Toronto meeting is taking place on February 9, in the Distillery District (South of Front Street and East of Parliament Street, if I have my bearings correctly). Details can be found here, and tickets can be bought through here.

The Montreal event is taking place on February 11, at the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, and is organized by Slow Food Québec. Details can be found here.

Live elsewhere? Later in the year, Renaissance des Appellations will hold similar tastings in Verona, Sao Paulo, Stockholm and Dublin. If I could, I’d probably go to all of them. And if anybody goes, I’d love to get your impressions.

Tasting note: Petalos 2006, Descendientes de Jose Palacios

I’d been waiting for months for this wine from Bierzo to reappear on the shelves. I discovered it during a tasting on Spain’s “emerging” wine regions, where this cuvée made from 100% mencia, an almost-forgotten grape variety apparently related to cabernet franc (or maybe Portugal’s jaen – it’s unclear), was a star of the evening. It’s also made by a star, Alvaro Palacios, who has been central in reviving the fortunes of the Priorat region over the last two decades.

I wasn’t disappointed. This dark, purple wine was bursting with (more…)

Published in: on December 22, 2007 at 12:29 am  Comments (4)  

When wine turns green

There’s a lot of talk, these days, about wine and the environment. Conferences about climate change and its effects on winegrowing and winemaking. People who calculate the carbon footprint of a particular wine bottle, and aim for carbon-zero wine production. Decanter’s November issue is largely devoted to a report asking “Is wine bad for the planet?” (accessible with a free registration), and exploring everything from packaging to water usage, corks, chemicals and the regulatory mess that surrounds the very variable definitions of sustainable viticulture in several regions, like New Zealand or Oregon.

Sometimes, these questions are mixed up in many ways. The “conventional” (i.e. chemical) winegrowing techniques are, for instance, attacked as much for their negative impact on the environment as for their negative impact on wine quality. The well-known American wine writer and merchant Kermit Lynch, for instance, favored traditional methods for taste and quality, first and foremost. On the other hand, Alain Brumont, the famous Madiran producer, confessed, during a lunch where I had the pleasure of being a guest, to converting to sustainable methods after seeing that years of copper anti-mildew treatment had left some of his former vineyards barren, to the point where cereals would wither before reaching maturity. Treatments have since been reduced tenfold on his domaines.

It all depends what you look at, of course. If you’re looking at the local impact of winemaking and viticulture, dry farming and biodynamic practices are obviously better, environmentally speaking, than chemicals and irrigation in, say, dry areas of Australia. But if you look at the wine trade, packaging and transportation are pretty much the same all around. Mind you, wine has been traded around the world for thousands of year: it’s not the trade, it’s the intensity and the transportation methods in general, and not just for wine, that play a part in the whole climate change issue.

That makes me think of an old trick question: what’s heavier, 50 tons of lead or fifty tons of feathers? If you’ve answered feathers, you may think that it’s better to carry 20 cases of biodynamic wine across the Atlantic than 20 cases of industrial wine. ‘fraid not.

But even then, there are some comforting aspects to this whole environmental analysis. The Decanter report, for instance, pointed out this, about water usage:

Carmel Kilcline MW, who wrote her Master of Wine thesis on the wine industry’s use of water in Australia – the driest continent – says evidence suggests that when it comes down to consumption, viticulture is less culpable than other thirsty businesses such as cotton, pasture and livestock. ‘While 99% of the water used in winemaking is used for irrigation rather than in the winery, grapes are still a relatively modest user of water,’ she says. ‘In Riverland, 290 litres of water are used per 750ml bottle of wine. Rice, by contrast, requires 2,380 litres per kg, and cotton 5,020 per kg of cloth.’

In French, we have an expression that says “quand on se regarde, on se désole, quand on se compare, on se console”. Freely translated, it means that when you look at yourself, you feel bad, but when you compare, you feel better. From an environmental standpoint, you should feel less guilty about drinking a glass of imported wine than about wearing a cotton shirt. Cheers to that.

More Pressing Matters at Matassa – and a walk through the vineyards

Instead of picking a few grapes in the vineyards of Domaine Matassa, I spent more time in the cellar making myself as useful as I could, and truly learning just how physical winemaking can be.
Let’s just talk about one of the many tasks I took part in during the end of my stay there : transferring a cuvee from its original tank and taking it off the marc (the grape skins, pulp and pips that are left to ferment with the red wines after the juice has originally been pressed out of them), before the wine is put into oak barrels to continue maturing over several months, often well over a year. The cuvée in question was El Sarrat, a combination of syrah and mourvèdre that is a new addition to the Matassa line-up (the first vintage, 2006, fruity, supple and balanced, was just bottled and a large shipment sent to UK chain Waitrose – lucky Brits !).
I assisted Cédric, a quiet, careful vigneron who has been working with Tom Lubbe at Matassa since the very beginning, in 2002, in first getting a new stainless steel tank ready, and a pump to transfer the wine from one tank to the next. While the wine was being pumped away, I also pulled some leftover juice from another tank of grenache, so that those few dozen liters could be added to the El Sarrat we were transferring.
After the fermenting juice was run out of the tank of El Sarrat, I climbed in and (more…)

First steps in Matassa

I’m spending some great time with Tom Lubbe at Domaine Matassa in Calce, at the heart of the mountaineous back country behind Perpignan, in the Roussillon. I was hoping to do full days of harvesting, but the forces of nature decided otherwise. More precisely, boars had started to eat their way through the two mountain vineyards that Tom had been keeping for last, and the grapes had to be brought in earlier than ever before, to avoid losing the lot. There are still a few grapes here and there, which I’m looking to get to tomorrow, but the huge, eighteen-hour days of harvesting are done with.

There’s plenty of other work to be done in the cellars, though. Bottling and packing cuvées from previous years, moving wine from one tank to the next, or from tanks to barrels, or doing the pigeage. Pigeage consists of punching down the chapeau (the hat, litterally) of grapes, skins and pips that is fermenting in the tanks with the juice. It notably helps control the temperature of the fermentation, as the chapeau gets hotter than the juice. And it helps work the tannins and flavor components into the juice.

In a small domaine like Matassa, an exceptional biodynamic operation whose wines show freshness rarely seen in such warm climate, this is done by hand. Or rather, by feet. And legs. The technique consists of (more…)

How much alc./vol. is too much alc./vol.?

With better viticultural techniques and riper fruit comes, in an almost inescapable logic, wines with higher alcohol content. With big New World syrahs, grenaches and zinfandels reaching towards 16% alcohol by volume, and chardonnays and viogniers going for broke at 15%, a question almost inescapably comes to mind: how much is too much?

My definite, absolute answer on the subject? It depends.

I had an awful time, a few days ago, with a Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2003. The nose was dominated by alcohol, as well as the mouth feel, and though there was a bit of jammy fruit and a touch of tannin in there, it was quickly rounded off by, well, more alcohol. I remember tasting a fantastic 1995 from that Domaine, several years ago, and it was quite full of character. A 1996 vintage, also quite well-built, even felt a little austere, compared to a Cigare Volant 1996 from Randall Grahm, tasted side-by-side over a lovely leg of lamb.

Of course, 2003 was the year of the mother of all heat waves in France, which threw a lot of winemakers off their game. In this particular case, you get the feeling that the winemaker was caught off guard by grapes that had ripened too quickly, and probably stalled under the August heat. Ripening too quickly raises the sugars but does nothing for tannins and phenolics – in other words for what gives the wine structure, complexity, etc. Clearly, here, a 15% alcohol level was an indication that things went just too quickly and got out of hand.

Yet just around the same time I faced this Solitude disappointment, I also tasted a big syrah from Barrel 27, whose wines  I actually collaborate on importing into Quebec through Insolite Importation. The alcohol level on the beast of a wine called the Head Honcho, their top cuvée, is well over 15%, yet it’s nowhere near disappointing. It’s quite a mouthful, with loads of jammy fruit, generous tannins, lots of substance. Same grape, lots of heat, just like the Domaine de la Solitude, but yet, the alcohol is balanced out by the fleshy, generous fruit of long-ripened grapes. Barrel 27 favors long hang times on the grape, often harvesting very late in the fall, and it does seem to give the grapes time to round themselves out.

Believe it or not, I also had a similar experience with an Oregon pinot noir from La Bête, which was well over 15% alcohol but didn’t feel like that at all. Somehow, there was enough flesh there too, even with the much more delicate pinot noir, to round things out and make the wines very pleasant. La Bête pinot noirs always feel balanced and complex, with very typical aromas of cherries and good acidity. They are sometimes unusual, but they never feel over the top.

Zinfandel is also another example, with vines often reaching over 16% alcohol, yet never feeling thin or being dominated by the alcohol in the wine. There’s just a lot of everything going on.

The one things the high alcohol wines will not provide, however, is freshness. Balance is possible, obviously, but not freshness. High alcohol means very ripe grapes, which can very rarely correspond to good acidity levels. And even if there is a decent level of acidity, it gets covered up by the alcohol. And without acidity, there can be no refreshing feeling to any wine.

Often, I do find the big wines pleasant and fun, even serious and complex in certain cases. But in the end, they’re just not quite as fun to drink as the lighter styles (and I’m not even getting into the problem of brettanomyces that high alcohol favors in wines). A single glass of a big syrah or a big cab will make you feel full rather quickly. As a general rule, comparatively lighter, fresher wines leave you wanting more. And I’d rather finish a bottle feeling thirsty than put the cork back on because I just can’t take any more.