The Black Magic of Winemaking: Tannins

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Credit: Gerald Hoberman, Getty

Last December, I took a trip to Napa and visited a ton of wineries throughout the Valley. Though not the purpose of the trip, it became a study in tannins. The experience reminded me just how impactful vineyard and winemaking decisions can be on a wine’s profile. The largest differences in the wines came in the size, shape and structure of tannin, and I realized I should know more about why those differences exist because I clearly had preferences about them.

To learn more, I reached out to three winemakers whose wines I love in large part because of their tannins: Richie Allen of Rombauer in Napa, Shane Moore of Zena Crown and Gran Moraine in the Willamette Valley, and David Larson of Soos Creek in Washington State. Richie’s Napa cabernets are highly structured wines, but were also among the very small minority that do not overload the tannins. I found this remarkable because most of the Napa cabs I had, including many from esteemed wineries that receive (incorrectly, I believe) higher scores from the big reviewers than do Richie’s, hit you upside the head with dense, chewy and often times coarse tannins that prematurely dry the mouth and kill the flavor.

Shane’s pinots (and chardonnays) from Oregon are complex and rewarding at every price point they hit, and though one doesn’t talk about tannin in the same way with pinot as is done with other red varietals, I’ve found his pinots to achieve captivating textures.

For more information on Richie, Shane and their wines, you can read about my visit to Rombauer here, a profile of Richie here, and a profile of Shane here.

David’s Bordeaux-varietal wines from Washington, a state whose climate can develop ample tannin, go through a wonderful evolution as they age. He’ll tell you that he prefers at least five years on most of his reds, if not ten, largely because it takes time for the tannins to resolve. When his wines hit their target balance, they offer classic Washington flavors combinations and textures. I recently had an 8-year old Soos Creek and loved it.

The first thing to know about tannin is, well, what it is. Tannins are chemical compounds, and the term originates from leather tanning, as leather workers used them to preserve the leather. Tannins bind proteins together. The physical sensation we associate with tannins in our mouths when drinking a wine is the actual process of proteins being bound in real time.

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Phenolic tannin. Credit: WineLand Media

The next thing to know it is that the term “tannin” encompasses two components: anthocyanin and phenolics. Anthocyanin is the color in the wine, and it’s the main focus for Richie at Rombauer because “it’s a very good indication of quality: the higher the color, the higher the potential quality.” Color is finite; there is only so much color in fruit and only that amount available can be extracted. Phenolics, of which there is usually higher quantities than anthocyanin, are chemical compounds, of which there are potentially hundreds of varieties.

Richie aims for full extraction of color. If he can hit that, then he and his team can build the desired tannin structure because there’s usually more phenolics than they need. Put another way, if they have really high anthocyanin then they can push the tannin structure without throwing the wine out of balance. However, if the anthocyanin is moderate and they try to push the tannin structure by ramping up phenolic extraction, they end up with a highly tannic wine that has a hole in the mid palate, something Richie and his fellow Aussies refer to as “donut wine” (lots of tannin around the sides and nothing in the middle). Shane, too, is focused on color. He describes one of his priorities as achieving good “color stabilization,” which is another term for the same thing: the bounding or conjugating of anthocyanin and phenolics into “complexes.”

Tannins, as David explained, “are very specific to each batch of grapes. Like everything else in winemaking there’s a lot of variability between varieties, vineyards, and even blocks within vineyards.” David is looking for great mouthfeel. His ideal tannins are the kind “that caress the mouth. It’s one of the best attributes of a wine, but hard to achieve. I’m looking for abundant but fine grained tannins, which create elegant wines.” These, as will be explained below, are long-chain tannins formed by the binding of anthocyanin and phenolics.

When speaking to a pinot noir producer, you enter a different tannin realm. Pinot’s tannins are very different than any other varietal because physiologically, the tannins and structure are unique. “You have skin tannins, your anthocyanins, and then you have seed tannins, and not a whole lot of other phenolics involved like you do with cabernet or the Bordeaux varietals,” Shane said. “This makes both tannin extraction and the mouth feel very different.” The differences in tannin that we experience in drinking pinot noir are unique tannin experiences when compared to other reds.

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Credit: EnoViti

Anthocyanin is developed in the vineyard and lives in the skins of the berries (the term used to refer to the grapes). Richie looks at many things in trying to influence color accumulation in the skins. If the berries get too large, color gets diluted. Too many berries on the vine can lead to less color. Sun exposure is key: too much sun and the berries get sun burnt; not enough sun and they don’t develop much anthocyanin. “Think of anthocyanin as sun block,” Shane explained. “If you’re giving the berries less sun, they make less sun block.”

This makes canopy (the leaves) management critical. The act of picking leaves from the vines, called “leafing,” is part of this. In Shane’s vineyards, they begin leafing right after flowering and fruit set in most cases. This approach is suited for the cooler climate of Oregon where sufficiently warm sun, needed to develop anthocyanin, isn’t in always plentiful. “More sun produces more and riper anthocaynins for us,” Shane noted.

Richie focuses on berry weight and size. Smaller berries tend to have higher anthocyanin levels. That said, Richie has his outliers. “I have a couple of vineyards that, on paper, should be terrible when you look at the numbers, but when you taste them, they’re really good and the numbers don’t match. I always say, you can graph it and draw your correlation line, but there are always outliers, and that’s why we taste.”

Shane expressed a strong desire to produced “balanced crops.” If there is too much fruit hanging, “you often get more green tannins, meaning seed, or short-chain, tannins.” Over the years the average crop of Willamette pinot noir has settled into the 2.5-3.5 tons per acre zone, “and when you hit that tonnage,” Shane says, “you’re ripening your seeds, and ripe seeds equal ripe tannins and you’re not extracting shorter tannins; you’re getting longer chain tannins and that’s your desired starting point” in achieving good texture and mouthfeel. “Balanced vines are going to give you ripe tannins and balanced wines.”

A common theme among these three winemakers is that they approach winemaking looking primarily at the structural elements of the wine, not flavors or aromas. Shane’s approach is to make wines “texturally” because texture shows through in the wine for a longer period of time than other elements and “is more of the wine itself then flavors or aromatics. Texture is the most stable part of the wine.” Therefore, when Shane extracts tannins, he’s doing it in the context of achieving that desirable texture.

Richie has been accused of making wine by numbers, and he admits that to a certain extent, he does. “All I’m doing is stacking the deck in my favor. It’s like counting cards – you’re working the probability to get a desired outcome. That’s all that we’re doing, and with fruit that’s $10,000 or more per ton, you want to make sure you nail it every time. In high end winemaking, you can’t screw it up one year and say, well, we’ll do it better next year. That doesn’t fly.”

Winemakers can’t rely on taste alone in the tannin context because of the presence of sugar during fermentation. “The reason we’re so interested in the numbers is when the wines are fermenting and you still have sugar, you can’t taste or feel tannin in your mouth. It’s all hidden by the sugar,” Richie told me. “So the only way to see if you’re heading in the right direction is to run analysis. You don’t know if you’ve gotten all the tannin out, you don’t know what the tannin level is when it’s at even three Brix. You can’t taste it. And if you keep pumping it over and you overshoot that mark, it’s too late. You can use strippers [like egg whites or gelatin] to lean the tannins, but you can’t just strip tannin without getting rid of stuff you want to keep. Fining agents are not as selective as they’re portrayed. The analysis is a good indicator of potential quality, though it doesn’t replace actually tasting either.”

David strives to balance alcohol, tannin, fruit, oak and acid. “This is largely a function of the grapes you get,” he says. In Washington, David believes the most impactful adjustment to make to find the sweet spot in the balance is tweaking sugar levels. “It matters a great deal because it determines the alcohol level, and I want a relatively low-alcohol wine.” For age worthy wines – read high(ish) tannin and high(ish) acid – alcohol is be the sticking point because while tannins and acids soften with age, alcohol remains exactly the same its entire life. A wine with great tannin and acid at bottling will fall out of balance with time if the alcohol is too high.

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Credit: Wine Folly

Fermentation is a key phase for tannin development, even though, as noted above, you can’t detect the tannins by taste, because, as David explains, “the higher the temperature the more tannin extraction you get. The longer the juice stays on the skins, the more extraction of tannin (up to a point). The tannins will start to soften as they get longer.” He starts his fermentations off at usually around 65 degrees and allows them to creep up slowly to the mid to upper-80s. This translates into fermentations usually lasting around 20 days, though they’ve gone as long as 30. He added that the shape and size of the fermenter matters as well in that it determines the juice to solids ratio as well as the flow, or interaction, of the juice with the solids.

Shane approaches fermentation with temperatures that are considered on the lower side for pinot noir. Whereas most are toping top out at around 86-90 degrees, Shane doesn’t go above 78-80 degrees. Temperatures matter for tannin extraction – warmer temperatures help to extract heavier tannins. Therefore, if he’s getting a higher extraction than desired, he will lower the temperature, and vice versa.

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Punching down the cap. Credit: Willamettewines.com

Management of the cap, meaning all of the solid bits that float to the top during fermentation, also plays a big role because the cap is where the tannins – anthocyanin and phenolics alike – originate. The two most common ways to manage the cap are “pump overs,” which involves keeping the cap where it is while pumping the juice below it up and onto the cap, and “punch downs,” which refers to pushing the cap into the juice. The former adds more oxygen to the juice, which functions to elongate the chain of the tannins. As Shane describes it, short chain tannins are coarser drying tannins whereas longer chain tannins are “umami tannins and not as drying.” Shane uses pump overs early on to elongate the tannins as those are his preferred variety. Once fermentation is over, so too is grape-based tannin development.

Phenolics drive more of the textural element than anthocyanin. When there is an excess of phenolics, winemakers strive for high levels of bound anthocyanin and phenolics because it helps to reduce coarseness. I asked Richie if determining the chains by taste is as simple as, if the wine is coarse, it’s heavy on the short chain, and if it’s smooth, it’s heavy on the long chain. “More or less yes,” he said, adding that I was “basically correct, [but] when you start to look at the types of tannins and their interactions it becomes very complicated and our understanding is in its infancy. Thus is the art of winemaking.”

Untoasted wood chips can help in this department, as do additives like enological tannin. Richie has played around with these methods in trials, and while they’ve offered some interesting outcomes, he hasn’t felt like it’s boosted quality and hasn’t deployed it in production Rombauer. However, if using highly cropped, lower quality fruit, the use of chips or enological tannin can really help develop a wine of superior quality. “I’ve known people who do it really, really well,” Richie said. “And I’ve done it myself [at other wineries]. If you don’t understand how to use exogenous tannins correctly, you’re really limiting your ability to make quality wine. Especially in the cheaper bracket. At the higher end, you don’t need to do it.”

I asked him if it’s possible to pick up on the use of these tools in a wine by taste, and he questioned whether one could. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t have the ability to do it and I don’t know of anyone who does. However, to make wines taste more palatable texturally and give them more palatable mouthfeels, especially in the lower price tier, their use is a sure way to improve your quality.” Dispelling any notion that it’s a New World thing, Richie explained that it’s very common in Europe, and referred to an unnamed friend in France who “is really well versed in how to use enological tannins and phenols to build wines to make them significantly better in that lower price bracket, and he’s really, really good at it. If I were making $10 wine, I’d be calling him to learn more.”

Measuring anthocyanin levels in the vineyard is challenging, and naturally Richie and his team have found that the most labor intensive way to measure gives them the best data. I promised not to spill the beans on this method, but after the explanation it’s understandable why those not using it are a step or two behind. These measurements, however, don’t necessarily mean anything because there is often a difference between the amount of anthocyanin in the vineyard and the amount that can be extracted in the winery. Determining the factors that drive that difference would be a holy grail in winemaking, and one that Richie is chasing in earnest. Richie does not believe that any of the theories about anthocyanin extraction hold up to scientific scrutiny, though he believes this is the direction high end red wine is going: “how you maximize color accumulation and color extraction drives wine quality.”

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Credit: Wine Folly

How one extracts anthocyanin from the berries depends on the varietal. “You always hear about cold soaks with pinot noir, and that’s not something you really hear about with many other red varieties. Syrah, maybe. Some winemakers working with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals are doing cold soaks. Nebbiolo, too. But when it comes to red varietals, when you hear cold soak you think pinot,” Shane said. David is one of those doing cold soaks with Bordeaux varietals. During that process, both make no qualm about using appropriate levels of sulfur, which they find critical to tannin development because it helps to stabilize the anthocyanin complexes in both stages.

The goal as Shane explains it is to build stable anthocyanin-phenolic complexes by bringing as many together as possible to form the longest chains they can “because these are the good tasting tannins.” Oxygen, as explained in the paragraph above on cap management, is critical for this to occur. Most red varietals require doses of oxygen exposure for these chains to form and grow longer. If you’ve ever had a reductive syrah, for example, chances are it was not racked (a method for adding oxygen to the wine post-fermentation) because syrah requires a relatively high amount of oxygen to avoid reduction. In a reductive wine the tannin complexes are scavenging for limited or non-existent oxygen in the wine, which reduces the vibrancy of the wine’s aromas and flavors. This is why, when one aerates a reductive wine, it can snap out of its reductive state.

Pinot is unique among red varietals in that it has a naturally high anthocyanin-phenol ratio. Therefore, if it’s exposed to sufficient oxygen, it does a great job on its own of building beautifully tasting tannins. “Somehow,” Shane noted, “they figured this out over 1,000 years ago in Burgundy. If you start with great pinot fruit and age it in French oak, which breathes perfectly for the varietal, and don’t mess too much with it, you get great wine.” He continued, “once it’s in barrel, all you need is once-a-month topping and the wines won’t go reductive.”

When Shane gets his pinot harvest into the winery and destems, he’s aiming to maintain whole berries (he destems roughly 80% of his clusters) to allow for a longer cold soak. “Crushed grapes tend to ferment faster because, I think, it releases more nutrients [for the yeast to feast on].” Whole berry fermentation allows for maximum anthocyanin extraction while protecting the seeds longer before their harsher and more abundant tannins begin to enter the juice. “Pinot noir is a low tannin wine in general. Almost all your tannins are in your seeds, and it’s also a relatively low anthocyanin grape.” With that in mind, Shane does long cold soaks (~5 days for Gran Moraine and ~8-10 days for Zena Crown) to maximize anthocyanin extraction before fermentation “so you can really control tannin [phenolics] extraction during fermentation using punch downs, pumpovers and temperature, the principle being that seed tannins are highly extractable in an aqueous alcohol environment (alcohol dissolved in water), whereas you don’t need alcohol to extract anthocaynins.” Since there is no alcohol in the cold soak, there’s no risk in extracting phenolics while anthocyanin is seeping into the juice.

Richie describes the profile they seek at Rombauer as an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” which is driven by the color and phenolic binding. Wines cannot achieve a high level of binding unless there’s a lot of color already in the wine, which makes it the limiting factor in driving quality if you follow Richie’s logic. When Rombauer does in-house trials, they look at the free anthocyanin, bound anthocyanin and phenolics [a.k.a. complexes], and they find that more often than not, the wines with the highest bound anthocyanin are the ones they score the highest in double blind tastings.

Quality wine evolves with age, and to many palates it improves over time. I asked Richie about older wines and why the color loss during aging didn’t necessarily lead to losses of flavor and structure. He explained that bound color, which tastes good, is stable and resists oxidation and changes in pH. Unbound color that exists in wine is unstable, and as wine ages it’s the unbound color that drops out while the bound color remains. Therefore, a wine with a higher level of bound color is going to keep its color, and its desirable flavors, longer in the bottle.

Referring back to his holy grail of winemaking, Richie noted that “tannin is kind of like the black magic of winemaking at the moment, and not everyone understands it. A lot of high end wineries run [the data], but they don’t actually do anything with it because they don’t understand it. They run it because it’s the latest cool thing to do in winemaking. ‘What tannins do you have?’ It’s like, ‘what does it matter? What are you going to do with them?’ If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, the data is useless.” Shane doubled down on the difficulty of understanding tannins. “I took a whole graduate level course on tannin chemistry. It’s incredibly complicated and possibly the most difficult college course I took. I think it was called “The Biochemistry and Physiology of Horticultural Products” or something, and we still have open questions about tannins.”

Where our understanding of tannins goes from here is up to people like Richie, Shane and David who make it a focus of their winemaking. I do think it’s important, though, too, for consumers to educate themselves and maybe even do a bit of purchasing based on their tannin preferences. I would sure love more winemakers to focus on developing those long chain complexes.

 

Zachys DC is Open and Raring to Go

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The new opening of a location of Zachys in Washington, DC is a big deal for the local wine market. Even though the location won’t have a retail storefront – at least for now – bringing one of the most influential names in wine to the District says something about the growing power and sophistication of the market here.

Zachys is bringing a number services to DC: wine storage; direct-to-consumer sales of wines otherwise not offered DTC to DC customers; tastings and classes; wine dinners; a customized corporate tasting service; collection assessment; other TBD events; and, for the first time in thirty years, a live wine auction. That last one isn’t an insignificant deal.

Wine auctions signal an opportunity to at least be around, if not acquire, the world’s best and often rarest wine. Putting aside for now the recent past proliferation of fake wine facilitated in part by wine auctioneers, including Zachys – a topic to be discussed in an upcoming Good Vitis review of In Vino Duplicitas – Zachy’s DC existence means a new and much higher level of access in DC to wines that likely wouldn’t otherwise be available to locals. While I imagine the best of Zachys’ lots will remain the purview of its New York auctions, Zachys wouldn’t have made the decision to enter the DC market if it didn’t think our market wasn’t craving a higher level of wine.

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Wine auctions are held in the biggest, most prestigious wine markets in the world: New York, London, Hong Kong, Geneva, and Paris are the standards. Although the biggest general auctioneers like Christie’s and Sotheby’s haven’t visited DC in a while, within the world of wine auctions Zachys is among the very top and their decision to auction wine in DC – their appropriately named inaugural “Capital Collection” auction will take place on October 27th and 28th of this year – marks Washington’s entrance onto that top stage, something that shouldn’t go unnoted.

Last Friday, I attended a grand opening party at Zachys, which featured sixteen different tables pouring wine from California, Virginia, France and Italy ranging in price from $14 to $1,110. From top to bottom these were good wines, many hitting their price point with impressive quality. The ability to source such a lineup is indicative of what I think Zachys is going to bring to my local market: a large range of impressive wines where anyone – even those who will never lift a bidding paddle – can find what they want. Welcome to town, Zachys!

Before signing off, I’ll highlight a few of the wines I found particularly impressive:

2014 MacMurray Range Central Coast Pinot Noir: At $19.99 it’s the best $20 California pinot noir I’ve had.

2013 RdV Vineyards Virginia Rendezvous Red Blend: While many feign spending $70 on a wine from Virginia, it stood out among the domestic offerings as the most multidimensional.

2015 Domaine Leon Boesch Sylvaner Les Peirres Rouges: a Sylvander for Sylvander haters and lovers, everyone should try this pleasurable $16 wine.

2014 Domaine Blain-Gegnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru La Boudriotte: The best white Burgundy of the night for me, I placed an order. Hard to beat at $59.99.

2014 Jl Chave Selections Saint Joseph Offerus: Year-in and year-out, this is a classic from one of the regions of the Rhone valley producing some of the prettiest syrahs. The 2014 doesn’t disappoint, and is a real value at $32.99.

2008 Chateau Larcis Ducasse St. Emillion: Really popping right now, it has all the classic St. Emillion notes and is far from poorly priced at $64.99.

2011 Chateau Margaux: Yes, it’s barely crawling at this stage, but when it gets to a full gallop…

2004 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Rocche dell`Annunziata Torriglione: From a 3 liter. Dear God, this was the best wine of the night. The bittersweet cocoa that comes with age on a fine Barolo is out in force. What a pleasure and treat.

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2012 Antinori Marchesi Pian Delle Vigne Brunello Di Montalcino: Despite having attended the Consorzio del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino’s 2012 vintage tasting in New York earlier this year, I hadn’t yet had this marvel of a wine that is, for me, a standout wine in a standout vintage. I grabbed a few for myself.

Does Bordeaux Deserve its Reputation?

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Picture: Gateway to La Cases. Credit: Le Figaro

How does one begin to write about drinking the 1975, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1990 and 1996 vintages of Gran Vin de Chateau Leoville du Marquis de Las Casas with the Chateau’s managing director, a small group of serious collectors and industry professionals? Apparently by stating he really isn’t sure, and that’s probably because he’s never been as impressed by Bordeaux as its reputation suggests he ought to be, especially when factoring in price, and so he doesn’t have a wealth of experience in which to contextualize the experience.

That’s actually not bad to start, but let’s tweak it just a bit and go with the following question as an introduction of sorts to how I approached my analysis of the experience: are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?

Two items of background before we start evaluating whether I’ve erred in marginalizing Bordeaux in my wine adventures thus far. First, Las Cases has a reputation for needing at least ten, if not twenty, years of age to begin revealing its best side, which means that these great vintages are well-suited for the experiment at hand. And second, Las Cases is made with the attention to detail and from similarly qualified terroir as first growths, so we’re dealing with sufficient quality in our test subject.

Let’s also establish a benchmark wine with which to compare the Las Cases. The week before the Leoville tasting I enjoyed a bottle of Baer Winery’s Actos cabernet sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux-style blend from Washington State. The vintage, 2010, was relatively unheralded but one of my favorites. Known for cooler temperatures and a little more rain than most desire, the vintage provided the raw ingredients for talented winemakers to produce a more refined style than Washington’s general reputation. When properly aged, like this particular bottle was, 2010 can offer quite a bit. While it may be an underdog, I rated the wine 94 points and because it retails for under $50 gave it a value rating of “A.” Here’s what I wrote about the Baer:

“Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place.”

While Washington doesn’t carry the same pedigree and panache as Bordeaux, I do think it’s reasonably accurate to say that Baer has a status in Washington comparable to what Las Cases has in Bordeaux. Not many would thrust Baer into the category of the state’s “first growth” wineries but many a Washington winemaker has called Baer a winemaker’s wine: deft winemaking that results in a product offerings many of the best elements a winemaker would want to detect. No frills and everything in balance, the wine speaks for itself and its terroir.

This further refines the central question: did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Las Cases?

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Credit: JW Wines

The evolution good Bordeaux like Las Cases goes through is described by its admirers as though it is a mystical creature itself, surrendering itself over the years to the simple confines of acid, tannin and alcohol to obtain total unity as it achieves a state of being that cannot be appreciated in its entirety by the vulgar human consciousness. I’ve heard people describe Bordeaux in effectively these terms, and I always smiled and wondered what, exactly, they were experiencing that made them describe it that way. To be fair no one at the Las Cases tasting promised such an experience nor talked their way through it in those words. But I went into the tasting, if I’m honest, hoping for some similarly-transcendental experience.

Such a moment was probably too much to expect, let alone hope for. The reality was something less than rendering my words unworthy of their subject, but something more than the simple dismissal that I’d rather have three Baer than one Las Cases every time. It was clear from first sip that there aren’t many places in the world where terroir could produce something as complex as these wines. Winemaking is an art and a science, but the central component – the grape – is agriculture. Winemakers, even if they don’t manage their vineyards, are farmers (and also soil nerds, amateur meteorologists, janitors, and a wealth of other profession quasi-professionals). You can do things to the ground to shift something in one direction or the other, but the base starting point is what nature gives you and if you want to retain character in your wine you cannot overwhelm it. The combinations of flavors in the Las Cases, as well as its ability to retain acidity and tannin over twenty, or even thirty, years, suggest that Bordeaux has earned its reputation for complex wines on the back of its soil. As much as I loved the Baer, and as special as its profile is, it simply does not offer as much diversity or depth of flavor, and I have a hard time believing it would dominate the test of such a long period of time as the Las Cases has. This in itself was the biggest takeaway for me.

That said, I’m not entirely sold. The tasting notes of the wines are below so you can read for yourself. Several of the wines were among the most complex and intriguing I’ve had, but none captured my imagination. None transported me to a forth dimension. It’s interesting that my generation has not latched on to Bordeaux the way previous generations have because it comes at a time where a number of other regions from the around the world are, or already have, caught up to Bordeaux’s general level of quality without demanding the same prices. I wonder if the rise of the rest that my youth has allowed me experience has had an impact on my openness to other regions and wines, and so the cost of Bordeaux has tainted my view of it despite its reputation.

Generational-Differences

Credit: Initiative One

At the same time, those who have been captured by Bordeaux and pay for and age wines like Las Cases seem to shun or discount many of these upstart regions. Washington State and our benchmark wine from Baer is a good example. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations with those around me at the Las Cases dinner, and my old soul tends to identify with the perspective, more or less found at this dinner, that it takes more than a few generations for a winemaking region to earn its stripes. Washington State is again a good example of this, as many of its wineries subsist on the naiveté and simplicity of their clients. But I found myself wondering during the dinner, if I snuck the Baer in as a blind ringer, how would those around the table react to it? Objectively different than the Las Cases it would have stuck out, but it’s more than just hope that leads me to believe it would have been treated as a wine worthy of enjoying. And that’s what still gets me about Bordeaux: pedigree aside, is it necessary to prefer Bordeaux in order to be a real wine aficionado? If anything, this experience taught me that appreciation, rather than preference, is sufficient.

So, to the central question of did I get sufficiently more satisfaction and enjoyment out of 20+ year old $150 Leoville Las Cases than I did a 7-year old $43 Baer to justify swapping a future Baer purchase or two for Leoville? The answer is no, though I’m more open to it than I was before.

One final note. All of the wines we tried – the six Las Cases plus a bottle each from Domaines Delon’s other four estates and a “vin surprise” – came before the year that Pierre Graffeuille, Las Cases’ managing director, said climate change clearly began affecting the estate: 2009. Since then, the estate has seen a noticeable and impactful warming in the vineyards. As temperature has such a profound impact on the grapes, it would be a very interesting experiment in another twenty or thirty years to taste the before and after of appropriately aged Las Cases.

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Credit: Domaines Delon

I did not score the wines. My scribbles that evening included a range of plus signs, from one to five, with five being the best, to track how each compared to the others. I’ve carried that “scoring” over here. Many thanks to Panos Kakaviatos and Pierre Graffeuille for this phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime experience…hopefully we’ll do it again!

2009 Petit Lion du Marquis de las Cases: God that’s a gorgeous nose. Big, dark fruit (blueberries, blackberries), cassis, black current. Smoke and sweet tobacco. Cedar. The palate is full and rigid. Flavors of sweet tobacco, black pepper. Cherries and pomegranate seeds. Celery seed. Subtle, nice acidity. It’s a firm and fleshy wine with some structure left to release. ++

2005 Clos du Marquis: Modest aromatics of black currant, orange zest, mushrooms and raspberries. The body is medium in structure with juicy acidity and perfectly integrated thin grained tannin. Flavors of cranberry, raspberry, and huckleberry. Also undergrowth, oak vanillin and green vegetables. A nice and complete wine. +++

2003 Chateau Pontesac: A nose reminiscent of Red Mountain with graphite, iodine, dark cherries and Herbs de Provence. A huge hit of red fruit punch. Full bodied with bright acidity and unfocused, fleshy tannin. Dark smoke, graphite, juicy raspberry and blood orange provide the foundation with licorice dominating the mid-palate. Complete and well balanced, it becomes lost in the mid-palate. I wanted to like this more. ++

2001 Chateau Nenin: A sharp nose of black and blue fruit, very nice pluminess to go with a delicate amount of game and smoked red meat. It is full bodied and quite juicy with red fruit and green vegetables. It’s extraordinarily clean, actually so much so that it has very little personality. I wrote down “clearly well-made but…?” It is demonstrably better with food. +

1996 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose is still quite reticent and eventually produces some rubber. The body is medium in stature with the dominant element of structure being the acidity. The tannins are in good balance and provide a solid frame. The palate is quite herbal and vegetal with crisp red berries. It’s very elegant but still tight. The entire package is let down by the nose at this point. When the nose does bloom and the palate releases this will be a true gem. +++/+

1990 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: A very woodsy nose with a lot of cedar. Smells like a musty log cabin. The palate is full, big and thick but kept light by a hit of acid. Cherries, cedar and a nice menthol kick to go with smoke and saline. Voluptuous in shape, it takes over the dance floor with big moves and doesn’t give space. I prefer more a little more finesse. +++

1989 Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose has tertiary aromas all over the place along with tobacco, saline and big cherry. The body is full. I wrote down “magical.” It is still tannic but spreads and coats the mouth. Rich, sweet raspberries, huckleberries and salmon berries. (Incidentally, these are three berries we had in copious amounts on the property where I grew up, so this was memory lane of an afternoon of berry picking). White and black pepper. Smooth, bright acidity. Tobacco and cocoa. An elegant and masculine wine, it still has plenty of life ahead of it. ++++/+

1986 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Perfumed flowers on the nose along with spiced tobacco, cassis, cedar and peppermint. It’s a nuanced and special bouquet. The palate is extraordinarily pretty with rose water, lavender, cherry, white pepper, orange ride, sweet tobacco, smoked meat and cedar. All of this is integrated seamlessly in a dynamic profile. Wine of the night. +++++

1986 “Vin Surprise” Las Cases 100% petit verdot: Not yet released for public sale. Thirty years old but still hasn’t fully released its profile. A burley wine one diner aptly described as the “unshaved wrestler in the room.” Lot of pepper and game, not much else. An excellent demonstration of why petit verdot is an important, but small, component in the Gran Vin blend. +/+

1982 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: The nose captures one’s attention. Dark fruit, rhubarb, cured red meat and minty tobacco. It leaves a ruby impression. The palate still appears young but is very complete. Frankly, too many adjectives come to mind to write down. This is an old soul’s wine. Close second to the 1986 for wine of the night. +++++

1975 Gran Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases: Aromas of freshly tanned tobacco leave, mint and chili pepper spice. Damp cardboard and just a bit of acetone. The palate has crisp acidity from which blackberries, strawberries and Acai spawn. The tannins are still present but in the background. It’s slightly minty as well. It’s quite round, but has a sturdy body and real depth. ++++

 

 

 

When Loving Wine Means Not Drinking It

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Pictured: VinTemp Corkscrew and Infrared Wine Thermometer

If this is a hard post to get excited about reading, then trust me, it is an unexciting post to write. People like me, we read about wine because we love it, we make it because we love it, we enjoy buying it because we love it. But there aren’t many people, I would imagine, who read about wine but don’t drink it, or make it but don’t drink it, or, and probably especially, buy it but don’t drink it (unless it’s a gift for someone else). But there is at least one situation in which someone who loves wine knows not to drink it: when they’re sick.

I’ve been sick this week and that’s meant having to pass up one opportunity to drink wine and postpone another. First world problems, I know, but nevertheless unfortunate ones. I have a standard cold, and thankfully it’s remained contained in my head. Just the typical sore throat and congestion. Putting aside the imprudence of drinking alcohol while sick, since I cannot smell, really at all, or taste much of anything, I know better than to drink wine.

On Thursday I oversaw a work dinner with 26 people and choose wine off a limited but tasty wine list at an upscale French bistro. Though the restaurant is different each time, I have the pleasure (and blessing) of doing this monthly and it’s something I look forward to each time. This week, however, was the worst, knowing that I should refrain from consuming for both the sake of my recovery and for the sake of the wine – good wine deserves being consumed by those who can appreciate and enjoy it.

I’ll admit, I still had a small glass of each just to see what I could pick out of each and I did have a revelation worth sharing: if you’re sick and you must have wine, a Pouilly Fuisse is much better than a Right Bank Bordeaux. The acidity and lighter body of the chardonnay was able to peak through the cold-induced smell and taste fog, and I was able to pick up on some of the pleasurable elements of the wine. Meanwhile, the subtler merlot-dominated blend remained dull and nothing more than a means to consume more calories.

I was also supposed to conduct my first winery visit this week for Good Vitis, but had to postpone the visit to a later date when my senses will be capable of giving the wine a fair shake. Something to look forward to, at least.

While I’m on the subject of when not to drink wine, I’ll make an attempt at being comprehensive. The following are five additional conditions in which loving wine means not drinking it:

Number one: when a wine is too young. This happened recently at a group tasting among wine collecting friends. A generous couple brought a magnum of a 2012 Cayuse Walla Walla Special #4 syrah. This wine is limited to wine list members (and auctions), and it was a real treat. Everyone had brought special bottles that afternoon, and I got excited when I saw this one for two reasons: first, I love Cayuse syrahs, and second, ‘why would you open a magnum of Cayuse syrah with less than 7 years, minimum, of bottle age?’ I’d have gone 10+ years myself. The wine was, indeed, quite good already, but as I drank it I knew it would be so much better if it were properly aged, and that was a disappointing thought to have while being afforded the opportunity to try it at any stage. Properly aged wine is ten times better than immature wine for me, even wine this good.

Number two: when it hasn’t properly been decanted. Few wine-related things get me more upset at seeing fantastic wine on restaurant wine lists that require more decanting time than the time I have between placing my order and my food arriving. A fine wine has optimum conditions under which to consume it, and by definition sub-optimum conditions as well. If I’m going to order a good wine – and pay a 200-300% premium for it – I want it showing its best possible face. Sadly, most restaurants aren’t bothered by this consideration and I end up ordering from the much more limited (and often lower quality) wines by the glass menu.

Number three: when the company isn’t right. For me, the enjoyment I get from good wine is always boosted if I drink it with the right person or people. With certain bottles that I buy  – Washington Rhone varietals and Chablis especially – I know who I’m drinking it with before I even have the bottle in-hand. Bill shares my love of Washington syrah, and Hannah my love of Chablis, and when I pair the wine with the person it’s more impactful as the good food pairing we also line up for the occasion. When I do drink a savory Washington syrah without Bill, I always wonder what he’d think of it, and the same with respect to Chablis and Hannah. Their mutual love of these wines boosts my own.

Number four: when it’s under (or over) the weather. As the picture above suggests, wine is better when served at certain temperatures. This goes beyond whites around 50 and reds around 60 – each varietal has its own range that is inevitably influenced by the particularities of each bottle – but generally speaking, wine served at the wrong temperature underperforms.

Number five: when it’s unsettled. Much of the wine I buy is shipped to me direct from the winery or a specific wine retailer, and I always allow the wines a full month in the cellar to settle. Bottle Shock is more than just the name of an entertaining (and important) movie about wine.

So don’t drink wine if you’re sick (or if you do, make it a bright and lean bottle), or if it’s too young, or if you can’t decant it properly, or if you should have it with that certain special person, or if it’s too warm or cold, or if it’s unsettled. Beyond that, toast away.