Tasting notes: Le Clos Jordanne, Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard 2006 chardonnay and pinot noir, Twenty Mile Bench

I’ve been a fan of Le Clos Jordanne wines since their first release, the 2004 vintage, two years ago. Made from young vines, they may not have had the depth of great wines, but they certainly showed the promise. It was terrific to taste pinot noir that from the Niagara that had such a clear sense of place and such a remarkable balance and restraint.

This certainly has a lot to do with…

To read the rest of this review, go to winecase.ca, the new home for The Wine Case blog. New updates are now all on winecase.ca.

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It’s not easy being green: a post about Bordeaux, carbon and biodynamics

Two relatively unrelated bits of reading got me going on the whole question of wine and the environment, yesterday. The first one was a  Decanter News item about the Bordeaux wine industry’s Carbon initiative, and the steps it was proposing to curb the region’s greenhouse gas emissions (thanks to Tim, from Winecast, for tweeting it). The second one is a post on Alder Yarrow’ Vinography blog reacting to a (hard-hitting? scathing? vicious?) article in SF Weekly denouncing biodynamics as “Voodoo on the Vine”.

In the Decanter article, I was surprised to see how little the Bordeaux industry seems to be questioning vineyard practices, in its assessment of its carbon footprint. Of the 200,000 tons of carbon produced, says the report (as quoted in the Decanter article): “45% came from production of materials such as glass and cork,12% through moving personnel around,10% on vinification processes, and 18% on transportation of wines.”

According to this assessment, sales trips would account for more carbon than the chemical components of viticulture (like herbicides, pesticides, etc.). I’m skeptical. One possible explanation is that Bordeaux would only be counting carbon, and not greenhouse gases as a whole: agriculture produces more methane and nitrous oxide (NO2) than carbon dioxide. I’m not sure. But the fact that reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides is an afterthought in this whole assessment seems odd to me.

In the second case, I was a little depressed at seeing how the SF Weekly writer, Joe Eskenazi, described the “aggressive marketing” of biodynamic wines and the “kooky” reliance of biodynamic producers on supernatural explanations. Many of the examples he gives (like some of Rudolf Steiner‘s more esoterical beliefs) are quite striking and troubling – even though his disgust at seeing blood from cowheads is pretty ridiculous too. Eskenazi is clearly out to show that biodynamics is some kind of extremely weird sect, and to do that, he takes the most extreme examples he can find.

Funny enough, though, when I discussed biodynamics with most producers I’ve met, their goal was not to connect with astral forces so much as to reinforce the vines’ natural defences, helping vines dig deep into the soil to get more from the soil, and to get better juice by promoting the health and harmony of the vineyard’s ecosystem. Many will discuss the visible transformation of manure and compost left in cow horns under the ground over the winter, not in terms of the elemental connections of cows to the Earth forces, but because of the mineral qualities that in all likelihood emerge from this change in appearance, smell, texture – in other words, biochemical composition. And in the end, their point is the following: the vines are healthier, the wine is better, and natural life in all forms is teeming throughout the vineyards.

And that’s where I feel a lot closer to Alder Yarrow’s point of view, from his frustration about the “maddening, paradoxical mixture of scientifically sound farming practices and utterly ridiculous new-age mysticism” found in the realm of biodynamics, to the clear qualities he sees in the wines themselves:

Some of my favorite wines in the world; some of the best wines I have ever tasted in my life; some of the wineries that seem to consistently make some of the highest quality wines I have ever experienced are produced biodynamically, and I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Again, maybe a lot of these discussions, whether in Bordeaux’ Bilan Carbone or in the louder and weirder side of biodynamics, are brought on by the fact that being “green” is “cool”. In other words, by an interest in marketing, image, market share, etc., rather than a primary interest in making great wine in a healthy environment. I wrote a first post on my concerns about the potential greenwashing of organic/biodynamic wines (now including some very interesting comments by one Ned Goodwin) back in the spring, a post that, in many ways, corresponds to Alder Yarrow’s take on biodynamics.

I’m still as concerned about the tendency to put marketing and sales arguments above environmental arguments. A recent report published in the magazine of the Champagne winegrowers professional association, is entitled “Carbon assessment: a selling point”, and insists on the fact that going green would be good for sales – and that it may become essential, eventually, to enter certain markets. And here I was, naively thinking that reducing one’s environmental impact was about the environment.

As Alder points out in his blog post about skepticism and biodynamics:

[while] some wine producers are moving to make biodynamic wine because they think it will sell better, there are many more producers who have been making wine biodynamically for years, even decades without ever telling anyone about it, least of all the people who buy their wine.

In my opinion, the same applies to green initiatives in the wine world in general. Let’s just hope that, over time, we see (or actually, don’t see) more of the latter and that the former stumble and fail because their focus is in the wrong place. A healthy environment and better wine should be the main motivation here.

Tasting Note: Melon 2003, Deux Vert Vineyard, Yamhill County, La Bête

Melon from Oregon? Now that’s a wine that could qualify for Wine Blogging Wednesday 47, whose theme is “Brought to You by the Letter S”. ‘Cause it’s oh, so Surprising.

But no, I have another idea for WBW 47 that I will be posting later today, and for which the letter S is a much clearer sponsor.

Still. Melon de l’Oregon? Really?

Melon or Melon de Bourgogne is the default grape from which the refreshing Muscadets of the Western Loire Valley are produced. It became popular in the 17th Century, near Nantes, because (more…)

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…)

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.

Bio-in-a-box

 When I was in Sweden, earlier this summer, I tasted a very pleasant Primitivo that my brother-in-law Niklas served from a three-liter bag-in-a-box. We drank the box over three or four days, and the wine, of course, stayed fresh throughout that period of time. Logically enough, since oxidation was essentially avoided.

Systembolaget, the Swedish wine and spirit monopoly, sells a large selection of wines in bag-in-box format. It’s in all likelihood popular because of the high price of wine in Sweden (less waste, less weight on transport, etc.), but also because the Swedes are more accustomed and more favorable than North Americans to convenient yet not-so-aesthetically-pleasing containers, as shown by the many high-end food products that come in “toothpaste tubes”.

In Quebec, meanwhile, there is hardly a decent wine available in the box format. So much so that it has become a pejorative thing to talk about wines in a “vinier”.

Although there is one exception.

At Le Moine échanson, a great wine bar in downtown Quebec City, I tasted a remarkable organic wine served from a 5-liter box. It was from the Domaine de l’Ocre Rouge, a vineyard run by Aymeric Beaufort in Dions, in the Gard, at the southern end of the Rhône Valley region. Grenache dominates the blend, but there’s no huge fruity and cinnamon-spice mouth there, as found in so many other places. Deceptively pale, it delivers a well fleshed-out range of flavours, with fresh earth and garrigue aromas on the nose, if memory serves. For a small restaurant like Le Moine échanson, it is a great formula, since it prevents wines served by the glass from going bad before the bottle’s done.

Form is nothing, the wine says it all. And it says it real well.

I’d gladly take my daily wine from a box, if it was anything like the Ocre Rouge or the primitivo I had in Stockholm.

By the way, a tasting note found on the web allowed me to learn that Aymeric Beaufort is the son of Jacques Beaufort, a Champagne producer that turned to organic winemaking after conventional methods (pesticide in particular) began to give him severe allergies, around the beginning of the 1970s.  His enthusiasm caught on so well that it carried on to the next generation. Three cheers for that!

In praise of Pineau d’Aunis

There really are some amazing, virtually unknown varietals out there. Take Pineau d’Aunis, for instance.

I’ve had a chance to taste this rare varietal (a little over 400 hectares cultivated, only in the Loire region) three times over the last few months, at Pullman, in Montreal, and at L’Utopie, in Quebec City. In both places, the wines were from Jasnières-region winemaker Jean-Pierre Robinot under the label L’Ange Vin.

The wines were truly remarkable and completely surprising. Intense yet subtle, pale yet earthy and concentrated. Like some pinot noirs (though they are not related), they tend to be pale wines, even close to a rosé. Yet the Regard du Loir cuvée I had most recently was intense with underbrush aromas and flavors of dried orange with a nice touch of red fruit, all with surprising persistence and length. It went great with some smoked bison, and I’m sure it would work well with some trout or poultry as well.

Mind you, although this varietal can be used in wines of the Anjou appellation or in Crémant de Loire sparkling wines, it is vinified in a remarkably serious and uncompromising style by Robinot, a fiery proponent of natural, organic wines. Whether you like it or not, it won’t leave you indifferent. Wine never should.