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.

 

For the Love of Wine

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Caught in the embrace of one of the Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge pinot noirs reviewed below

I’m far, far behind on uploading wine reviews so I’m doing Good Vitis’ first post focused exclusively on reviews to clear out the closet. What follows is an assortment of wines that have nothing other than cohabitation in my cellar as their commonality. These are not samples, but wines I’ve collected over the years, those I’ve shared with friends and a few that I received as gifts.

It is, I must admit, a bit exciting to share wines that I selected myself as opposed to most of the wines I write about on Good Vitis, which I receive as samples, drink at wineries and media/industry events. While I’ve many great wines through those means, I’m almost always happiest drinking wines I’ve collected myself because they are wines that are of particular interest to me. It isn’t surprising then that several of the wines below are likely to be among my top wines of 2017, notably the 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge, 2012 Cameron Clos Eletrique blanc, 2011 Domaine Fevre Montee de Tonnerre and the incredibly cool and impressive 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ, which is a white wine made from the Pedro Ximenez grape that is normally used to make Sherry.

2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points. Value: A.

Backstory: Cameron’s Abbey Ridge means a few things to me. First, right now it’s the best pinot noir I’ve ever had. Second,I’ve had the 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2010 vintages in the last year and they’ve been proof that high quality pinot benefits from extended aging. And third, they’re incredibly hard to find, so for a wine hunter/chaser like myself there’s an extra thrill earned by simply finding a bottle, especially older vintages. At the moment this is my favorite winery.

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2007 DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill (Washington) – Smelling beautifully these days, offering aromas of cow blood, high toned cherries, red plums, soy sauce, graphite, smoke and a not insignificant amount of heat. The body holds an upright stature, it’s full bodied but the acid is strong and keeps it from becoming cloying. The alcohol is a bit hot here as well, though the tannic structure is gorgeous. The flavors are Earthy with a lot of iodine, graphite, smoke, garrigue, lavender, black plums, crushed blackberries and a lot of slate-y minerality. This is still a gorgeous, complex wine, but it was better a few years ago. The heat, which wasn’t there three years ago, tells me it’s starting to decline. I’d say drink up remaining bottles soon.  93 points. Value: B

Backstory: Delille’s Harrison Hill is the first great wine I ever had. For many years I would buy two of each vintage, age them 5-8 years before opening the first, and have one per year on my birthday. I still do this, except I stopped buy them in 2011 when the price shot up to $90 and I found myself gravitating away from Bordeaux-style blends. It may not be my favorite wine anymore, but it’s no less special.

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2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre (France) – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: My favorite white wine, pound-for-pound, is Montee de Tonnerre chardonnay from Chablis. My favorite Montee de Tonnerre is made by William Fevre. I’ve finally figured out that extended aging of Chablis tends to lesson the nervous edge and wily verve that draws me to Chablis, and now I know how to maximize my Fevre investments. This 2011 was the final data point in that research project.

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2010 Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval Vineyard (Washington) – Classic Red Mountain wine. The expressive nose offers scorched Earth, loads of graphite, a little cola, orange rind, cocoa and high toned cherries. The full body offers fine, dusty tannins that are developing some polish as they get close to full integration. The acidity is bright and plays off the barely sweet red and black fruit, which is led by cherries, plums and pomegranate. There’s a lot of graphite, some saline and just a bit of smoke and mushroom. This is drinking nicely right now, I get the feeling it’s just starting to emerge of a long slumber. It has the tannic backbone and acid to go for at least a few more years, though I’m not sure the concentration will hold pace. An impressive 2010 that winemaker David Larson told me “was a challenging vintage and required all of my skills to make.” 92 points. Value: A

Backstory: Soos Creek is one of the very best values in America wine, especially for someone with a cellar and some patience. Many of their wines are sourced from  the upper pantheon Washington vineyards, yet none go for more than $45. Comparable, bigger name wineries that source from the same vineyards are often priced at least $15 if $20 higher, if not double the price. They’re also built to benefit from short to medium term cellaring, a solid 3-8 years post-release from my experience, and so if patience is exercised, not only is the wine spectacular, but for people like me who appreciate value there is an added bonus.

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2009 Waters Syrah Forgotten Hills (Washington) – Opulent unami nose of bacon fat, venison jerky, saline, hickory smoke and green pepper. No real fruit to speak of and it’s nothing worse for the wear. The palate is medium plus in stature with fully integrated and polished tannins and well balanced, but quite prevalent, acid. Again, there’s little fruit here with really just hints of cherries, crushed blackberries and boysenberries. It’s the savory notes that speak the loudest: pork belly, venison blood, general iodine, saline, hickory smoke, thyme and soy sauce. What a masterclass in New World syrah. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: the 2007 vintage of this wine was my gateway to savory syrahs. I know for most that gateway is the Rhone Valley, but growing up in Seattle I owe Waters for that lesson. This 2009 was the first time I was able to revisit Waters’ wine and it brought back memories of that epiphany many years ago.

2011 Avennia Gravura (Washington) – This is in an interesting stage in its evolution. From the get-go, the tannins seem advanced in their textual integration. However, on the palate they are still binding some flavors up tight. The nose is a bit quiet, but has nice cherry, raspberry, wet dirt, black pepper, and orange zest aromas. The body is medium in weight with dense but polished tannins, juicy acidity and nearly integrated alcohol (just a slight bite). The palate offers cherries, blueberries and black plums along with a lot of graphite, some iodine and smoke. Overall a nicely-executed and satisfying wine, but fairly straightforward and uninspiring. This has a liveliness now that will fade with time, and I’m not convinced that it’ll be replaced by anything more compelling, so I’m drinking my stash in the next year or two. 91 points. Value: C-

Backstory: When Avennia came onto the seen I got excited because its winemaker came from Delille Cellars. I immediately started buying half a case a year to lay down and recently I’ve begun to test them out. Their syrahs are very, very good. This Gravura, a Bordeaux Blend, was a little underwhelming, but given the rough vintage it was enough to satiate my Avennia craving for another few months until the syrahs in my cellar start emerging from their developmental stage.

2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ (Spain) – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points. Value: A

Backstory: A local retailer near me, Chain Bridge Cellars, introduced me to Silvia Puig’s En Numeros Vermells side project (executed in her garage) a few years back, and I’ve been a dedicated fan ever since. Each year the importer pours the wines and I enjoy tasting with him. This year he introduced a new white made from the Pedro Ximinez grape, which is used to make Sherry, and I was instantly captivated. It’s a wild experience and I took several bottles home. I’m not sure it’s going to benefit from any aging, but I don’t care because it’s that good right now.

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2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique (Oregon) – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points. Value: A

Backstory: Back to Cameron. I said above their Abbey Ridge is my favorite pinot noir. Their Clos Eletrique blanc is giving Montee de Tonnerre a run for it’s status as my favorite chardonnay. I’ve many debates with winemakers about whether it’s worthwhile to age chardonnay, and as I find my footing with aging Chablis I’m going through the same process with Cameron’s various chardonnays, which I’ve been stocking up on. This 2012 was really great when I had it last month, and I’m at odds with myself over how long to hold my remaining stash of the vintage. I’ll end up metering it out just to see, but that means exercising serious restraint.

2014 Drouhin Oregon Roserock Chardonnay (Oregon) – A generally pleasant and agreeable chardonnay, but a bit forgettable. It has evidence of oak on the nose and palate, and in the structure, but it doesn’t hide nice tropical and citrus fruits and standard chardonnay field notes. Solid and well made, but it won’t knock any socks off. Drinking nicely right now, the acid is solid but isn’t sufficient to suggest longer-term cellaring. 90 points. Value: C

Backstory: when this wine came out there was a rash of positive reviews in the professional wine media and blogosphere. I didn’t exactly rush out to find a bottle, but I kept my eyes open. While a solid wine, it just didn’t speak to me like it apparently did to many others. A good reminder that you shouldn’t put too much credence in others’ opinions when the topic is something as subjective as wine.

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2013 Bodegas El Nido Jumilla Clio (Spain) – Big briary nose: tons of black and blue fruit and barrel notes on this one. Crushed blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, sweet vanilla, toasted oak, baking spice and licorice. The full, lush body has nicely integrated chewy tannin and sufficient acid to balance the sweet fruit. There’s big alcohol on this one that is evidenced not in bite, but body, so it doesn’t detract. The palate offers a ton of black plum, blackberry, licorice, black pepper, graphite and cinnamon. I enjoyed this straight out of the bottle and over time, it’s ready to go now. Too big a wine for me on most days, but when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine this is near the top of my list. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: the review has the critical piece: when I want a big, bold and beautiful wine the Clio is near the top of my list. I had a 2006 El Nido (non-Clio) a few years back, which is their ~$125 flagship wine, and found it incredibly disappointing. It’s made by a very famous and respect Australian winemaker and it tasted like an Australian wine made from Spanish grapes, which to me was a real sin. The Clio doesn’t make this mistake, it’s entirely a big Spanish wine, and I love it for its authenticity. The Clio usually benefits from a few years of bottle aging, but more than that and it loses it’s most appealing asset: it’s outlandish youthful vigor.

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2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullon (Spain) – Holy florals, Batman! The nose is a flower store, a bit of everything, with crushed strawberries, cranberries, Sweet Tarts and tar. The body is medium in weight with juicy acidity. The fruit is a bit darker here, with overripe strawberries, cherries and boysenberries. There’s lovely violets and rose, along with creamsicle, although over time the flowers fade as cola and chocolate emerge. I really like this, and will be very interested to follow it over the next five-ish years. 93 points. Value: B

Backstory: I was really taken with the comeback of the mencia grape in Spain when I was introduced to it through Palacio’s entry-level bottle, the Petalos. The Corullon is the next step up in that winery’s line of mencia bottlings and for $20 bucks more than the Petalos you get something really very special with many pretty notes.

2010 DeLille Cellars Syrah Doyenne Grand Ciel Vineyard (Washington) – Decanted for two hours, seems like a good first move at this stage with the wine. The nose is dominated by French oak, and offers macerated blackberries, black plums, iodine and lightly tanned tobacco leaf as secondary notes. The body is full and the acid is juicy. The tannin structure offers really well formed and grippy tannins that integrate seamlessly and avoid locking up the wine. The texture reminds me of a Cote Rotie in a very good way, it’s the highlight of the wine. Concentration is a bit lacking, though that’s a vintage liability. This is fruit forward with raspberries, strawberries and cherries, but offers substantial baking spices as well. Beautifully crafted wine from a tough vintage, this is enjoyable stuff. Modest depth and concentration hold it back from greatness. 92 points. Value: C

Backstory: I acquired this as part of a wine club shipment from a number of years back. The most appropriate thing I can say about it is that it’s an excellent example of the fruit-forward stylistic type of Washington syrah. Unlike the Waters mentioned above, it doesn’t offer savoriness as it’s focus is on the fruit and baking spice.

2012 Crowley Pinot Noir Entre Nous (Oregon) – Nose: quite reticent, even after two hours in the decanter. Dark cherry, plum, cola wet soil and graphite. The body is full with fully integrated polished, lush tannins that is evidence of the warm vintage. The acid finds a nice stride but is secondary. Concentration is a big lacking here, but the flavors include slightly tart cherries, blood orange, sassafras bark, and mild black pepper. It finishes a bit tart. Nice profile but the thin concentration really holds it back. A bit disappointing. 89 points. Value: C-

Backstory: essentially the same as the Drouhin chardonnay mentioned above. A few people in the blogosphere freaked out about this and I found it disappointing in that in a vintage known for full flavor and density it lacked concentration.

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2010 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge (Oregon) – Really benefits from a 2+ hour decant. The nose is classic Cameron Abbey Ridge: brooding red fruits, blood orange, wet dirt, underbrush, highly perfumed rose and petrol. The body is medium in weight and stature, offering bright acidity and light, chewy tannin. The fruit is just slightly sweet, but offers nice tartness: raspberry, cranberry, cherry, huckleberry and plum. There’s thyme-infused rose water, sweet rosemary, smoke and a big spike of orange zest in the mid palate. Not my favorite vintage, but still an upper pantheon pinot noir. This may have a bit more to unpack with another five-ten years, but it’s drinking nicely right now. 92 points. Value: C-

Backstory: I’ve said enough about Cameron already, but I’ll just point out that I drank this too young. It’s a very important piece of data in my research on how long to age Abbey Ridge pinot.

2013 J. Bookwalter Conflict Conner Lee Vineyard (Washington) – Better with some serious decanting. The lovely nose offers crushed cherries and blackberries, loads of dark plum, cassis, black currants and cracked pepper. The body is full with thick, lush tannin and good grip. The acid is bright while the alcohol is still integrating. There’s a solid amount of graphite to go with loads of plum and cherries and strong undercurrents of black tea, cocoa and cinnamon and a saline finish. A solidly enjoyable wine now, it stands to improve over the next five years. 90 points. Value: D

Backstory: this was a gift from a family member. Bookwalter is know for big wines, and when I want that, as noted above, I go for something more like the Clio. That said, the Conflict was very enjoyable with some decanting and it didn’t last long. Ideally, I think, this is consumed between 2019 and 2022.

2013 Abeja Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley (Washington) – A bit muted at the moment, the deliciously dark nose offers jammy blackberries, bark, stewed plums, licorice, spearmint and smoke. The body is full with dense, slightly grainy tannins and good acid frame a dense core of black and blue fruits, licorice, wet soil, pencil lead, burnt orange rind and mocha. The alcohol is well integrated, this has great balance. Very pleasing now, give it five years to unwind and it will be fantastic. 92 points. Value: B

Background: another family gift, it had been years since I’d had an Abeja cabernet. I was taken by Abeja years ago but as I developed a taste for wines typically more restrained that Washington cabernets I strayed. While this 2013 doesn’t have me begging to get back into Abeja’s good graces, I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t start buying a few in the years ahead. It’s very, very tasty stuff with really nice complexity and depth.

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Sun setting over Mutiny Bay, Washington (I’m enjoying my summer vacation)

Wine is Performance Art

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Picture: Widescreen Wallpapers

One of the most interesting and intriguing aspects of wine is that it can taste of almost anything other than its constituent parts. Exhibit A: my note for the 2014 The Jack Syrah from Saviah Cellars, which would just as easily, if not more logically, describe the flavors of a charcuterie plate more than fermented grape juice:

“Aggressively aromatic with notes that are undeniably syrah, including bloody steak, olive tapenade, blackberry and smoke. Little bit of a barrel note as well. The palate is full bodied with nice acid, a touch of sweetness and fully integrated tannin and alcohol. The flavors are unmistakably syrah here, too. Loads of iodine, olives, black pepper, smoke and just a bit of dark, brooding fruit.”

The transformation of grape into wine is as magical and mystical to some as it is scientific to others, though the reality for many, including myself, is that the final product is scientific art. I consciously order those two words because while winemaking is a scientific process, there are countless variations to the process that a winemaker can choose, and the conscious choices are an expression of a winemaker’s imagination, inclinations and desires, or put another way, their creativity. The more creative they get, the further their art is from what might be considered normal or standard. This makes winemaking an art form and its product, wine, art.

You needn’t take my word for it, though, if you’d rather listen to mogul of Hollywood and wine Francis Ford Coppola, who is known to have said that risk is “an essential element of any art… If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?” Winemakers who engage their creativity take on not just artistic risk, but financial risk as well – under appreciated art in the wine industry isn’t particularly profitable.

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Picture: Coppola, center, on the set of The Godfather, which he produced. Curtesy of The Wrap.

These artistic choices made by the winemaker are some of the most interesting elements of a wine because they tend to determine its personality. The kind of person who reads Good Vitis likely understands what I mean because, like me, they probably make the effort to find out what those choices were before deciding whether to buy a particular bottle. Most wine consumers, however, don’t engage as much with the art of the winemaker as they do with the art of the wine label designer.

The importance of attractive, appealing labels to selling wine is debatable, but a look at wine shelves from Trade Joes to neighborhood high end retailers demonstrates that many wineries put a lot of effort into designing attention-grabbing labels. The 2015 Gallo Wine Trends Survey found that Millennials are four times more likely than Baby Boomers to purchase a wine based on the label, though the reasons labels matter extend beyond driving sales: a 2007 Cornell University study, for example, demonstrated that “environmental cues” such as being told where a wine was from, and the expectation created by that information, influence not only people’s impression of the wine but also the food accompanying it(!). In two separate tests, restaurant patrons eating off a prix-fixed menu and attendees at a wine and cheese reception, respectively, were offered a free glass of wine. Half were told the wine was from California and the other half North Dakota. Even though both wines were actually Two Buck Chuck, those who were told the wine was from California not only liked it better than those who were led to believe it was from North Dakota, but also enjoyed the (same) food more and consumed more of both. The bottom line is that perception matters, and for retailer shoppers often times their first and only perception of a wine prior to consuming it is what comes through on the label.

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Fire Mountain Wines of Arizona puts a lot of effort into their labels and their wines.

For a different but equally compelling reason the “fine wine” segment of the wine market, which is constituted mostly by small producers with limited distribution and often direct to consumer business models, treats its wine as though it is art as well. Higher ends goods like fine wine are often marketed by a very successful approach that sells products in the context of a lifestyle created to appeal to the target audience. Many producers of fine wine, besides genuinely believing their wine is art, offer “experiences” aimed at creating an appealing lifestyle – lavish tasting rooms to make the experience seem important and luxurious, thick and heavy bottles to create a sense of importance and substance through physical weight, wine clubs offering limited allocations and long wait lists to create the sense of exclusivity, etc. – that help to make their efforts profitable.  And, in some cases, wineries make the connection between wine and art directly by labeling a bottle of wine with an actual, and often commissioned, piece of art. A Wine-Searcher search for “artist series,” an industry term for this type of effort, returned 821 results starting at $10 and climbing above $100 dating back to the 1975 vintage.

I am not an avid collector of artist series wines, though I am partial to the very successful Artist Series wine from Soos Creek (thirteen vintages and counting), which not only tastes great but is an incredible value and ages well. Although I like an attractive label, the kind of wine art I appreciate remains the contents of a bottle. Wine’s artistic expression that speaks to me is its ability to evolve. Whether that evolution is over the course of an evening as it takes on air or the course of years in a cellar, wine is a performance art, which is not how people tend to think of it.

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Performance art “is about joy, about making something that’s so full of [a] kind of a wild joy that you really can’t put into words,” (Laurie Anderson) which is why even the most beautifully written tasting note can never adequately express a wine’s art. “Performance art is the ultimate in creativity. Since it has so many possibilities at creativity, it’s essence tends to become creativity,” (Jack Bowman) which is why you can taste a winemaker’s artistry in the decisions they make that guide their effort. Musician Andrew Castro said that “Performance art is a real-life, high-risk form of artistic expression,” and you can very easily swap out “performance art” for “wine” and make it as applicable to wine without changing Castro’s meaning. Good performance art is exciting, it engages the audience intellectually and spiritually, and that’s no different whether it’s the opera, ballet or a bottle of good wine.