The Legend of Abruzzo & Beyond: Emidio Pepe

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When Kayce told me she booked us for two nights during our honeymoon at the Emidio Pepe agritourismo in Abruzzo, Italy, I thought, ‘no way.’ Seemed too good to be true. Emidio Pepe is a legendary wine producer. Legendary Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine, and legendary trebbiano white wine. It’s essentially the winery of Abruzzo, at least according to what I know, and it’s not always easy to find bottles in the United States. I had heard great things, but had never actually verified them since I’d never tasted any Emidio Pepe. I was hoping this wasn’t going to be too good to be true.

Months later, as we drove up the winding road on our final approach to the winery, I allowed myself to transition from skeptical to hopeful; if my first step inside the place carried any trepidation, I’d jinx it. The Pepe estate, which consists of the family home, winery, vineyards and an agritourismo (essentially a full service boutique hotel serving food grown on and near the property), is perched on top of one of the many hilltops in the rolling countryside of Abruzzo. The property has an idyllic setting: affixed atop a hill with a roughly 270 degree view of the surrounding rolling hills, which are mostly draped in vineyards and topped with either agricultural estates or small villages. Beyond them are large mountains, some of which go into the several thousands of meters above sea level.

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The view from our room

Even though our stay at Emidio Pepe was part of our honeymoon, Kayce was understanding in recognizing that, given the weight of Emidio Pepe in the wine world, it should be leveraged for a Good Vitis piece, and so I sent an email ahead of time asking for some one-on-one time with a representative of the property in order to collect information for a post. We were paired with Gianluca, who runs the commercial side of the property, for a tour and tasting the day after our arrival.

A side note on Gianluca: He appears to be a true asset for the company, and for its visitors. Though not part of the Pepe family, he was hired to run the agritourismo and represent the winery around Italy. Having spent time in England for work previously, he speaks very good English and knows how to connect with Anglos, an important skill for Pepe because of the high percentage of visitors they get from the US, UK and other countries with whom the common language with Italians is English. He is a gracious and warm host who cares about every visitor’s experience.

A second side note on Gianluca: He also really knows his wine stuff. He took us on our tour of the winery, explaining numerous aspects of the process and providing answers to questions that are only known by people who study the craft. We had a great discussion with him about skin contact wines from Italy, and he wrote down several suggestions that we are eager to pursue. It’s clear he’s a true wine lover.

As a wine region, Abruzzo hasn’t had much recognition in America, at least the type of recognition that a winery focused on quality and uniqueness like Emidio Pepe would want. Most of America’s experience with Abruzzo comes by way of inexpensive and fairly simple wine, the three most common of which are made as varietally-labeled wines from the signature grapes of the region: white grapes pecorino and trebbiano, and the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. In Washington, DC, where we live, it’s much easier to find these wines on a bar’s happy hour menu for $8 a glass than it is in a wine shop for more than $15 a bottle. Abruzzo is vastly overshadowed by Italy’s better known region, though Emidio Pepe is one that transcends this reputation of simple wine.

Part of what sets Emidio Pepe apart is the focus they have on making wines that transcend themselves with significant aging – we’re talking twenty-plus years for the better vintages of montepulciano and five-plus years for trebbiano.

To say “transcend” with age rather than “improve” or “evolve” is to imply more gravity, namely that there is a significant transformation that happens from an early stage of the wine’s life to a later stage. This kind of change can be exemplified by two tasting notes, two experiences, that are almost, if not completely, different: the structure, aromas and flavors show little resemblance to each other as the structure becomes more regal and the common themes are reduced to (critical) things like quality and style. Transcendence on this scale is limited to the best wines in the world – some, but not nearly all, Bordeauxs, Burgundys, Barolos, Brunellos (lots of B’s now that I think about it), Riojas, Vouvrays, etc. Pepe’s transcendence puts it in the most elite of company.

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Gianluca and the author walking the Emidio Pepe cellar

Nearly half of each year’s production is placed in Emidio Pepe’s cellar for future release, and when I say “future release,” I’m talking five to twenty years later depending on the vintage and variety. Each year, these older vintages are made available to a maintained list of collectors. America is the biggest destination of these library releases.

I’ve come across serious library programs before, but none come close to this level of dedication to releasing “wine that is very good and elegant,” as Gianluca put it. Walking the cellar is an experience: rows and rows of unlabeled bottles segregated by vintage. Every vintage since the first in 1964, save the eight they skipped due to poor quality, are there. Finding the section reserved for a personally important year is a lot of fun. I scoured the room for 1983, my birth year, while Kayce was disappointed to learn that her birth year, 1989, was one of those skipped.

To go even further, the wines are bottled unfiltered and made in a very reductive manner, which are factors that contribute to the wine’s ability to improve with age. “Reductive wine” refers to wine that is made with techniques that limit its exposure to oxygen. Because oxygen inherently and irreversibly kills wine (it ages wine to death just like it does humans), the less the oxygen exposure, the longer-lived the wine. Also, oxygen exposure forces a wine to release its aromas, flavors and textures, and so if you’ve had a wine that becomes significantly more interesting as it sits in your glass or decanter, you’ve likely experienced a reductive wine opening as it takes in oxygen for the first time.

When the older Pepe vintages are released, it is because the winery believes the vintage is beginning to hit the early part of its drinking window. Before bottles of old vintages are shipped, each wine is opened, decanted and re-corked with a new cork. This process helps rid the wine of the significant amount of sediment that has built up. Given the amount of reductiveness in Pepe wines, the brief decanting does little to stunt its growth. By the time a bottle of 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo makes its way to a customer in 2019, for example, it’s beginning to reveal its promise. I can attest to this example as the 2000 was one of the wines we tasted.

Making wine for the long haul is centered on the belief that when good wine ages, it gets better. While “good” is the operative term in that sentence, the underlying premise is that the wine is made in a way that allows it to become better with age. “Good,” therefore, carries the implication that the winemaking is done intelligently and purposefully with the goal of the final product being better later than it is sooner. This leads to practices in grape growing and winemaking that may not otherwise be followed. I point this out because unless this conscious choice is made, the wine likely won’t improve much beyond a more limited amount of time.

This is the starting point from which Emidio Pepe makes its wine. At the winery level, there seems to be some correlation between interest in making reductive wines and interest in making what is being referred to these days as “natural wine,” an approach characterized by minimal human intervention and minimal use of “unnatural” products (e.g. synthetic pesticides, fining agents, etc.). Emidio Pepe is often considered a “natural” wine producer. Though there is no definition of natural wine (a fact that in my view undercuts the argument for natural wine), when a wine is good, it’s good, regardless of how it’s made.

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A Pepe vineyard

Natural wine proponents argue that following minimalist techniques, like limiting pesticide use in the vineyard or refraining from additives in the winery (some go so far as to exclude all additives, including sulfur, a natural element and effective preservative in even small doses) produces a wine more inclined to taste like the terroir and vintage than if more human intervention and manipulation were used, and is better for nature and human health.

This means that unless someone really, really knows what they’re doing, a poor vintage of natural wine can taste like a poor wine. It also means that if something goes wrong in the vineyard or winery, the winemaker has few tools to correct it. I’ve had truly terrible natural wines that would’ve been better with some human intervention, and I’ve had great natural wines that would’ve been worse under a heavier human hand. I see no reason why natural winemaking is inherently better. If a property can produce better wine by following some natural winemaking process, I’m all for it. If they can’t but still chose to, then they should re-evaluate the business.

We had an interesting discussion with Gianluca about the topic of natural wine during our tasting with him because Emidio Pepe is often categorized by others as a natural wine producer. We got an answer not that different from the paragraphs above. It effectively went like this.

Part one: We’ve been making wine from these vines for a long time (the trebbiano vines are 35 years old, the montepulciano are 50) using the same vinicultural and winemaking techniques, and so we’ve learned what we need to do to get the best harvests. Further, because all these vines and our winemakers know is what we’ve always done, both have learned how to adapt effectively to nature’s various curveballs.

Part two: Because we love our grapes so much and want to show them off, we only do what is necessary to showcase them as they are, and nothing more.

Part three: If at any point we decided a change in the vineyard or winery would lead to better wine, we’d probably make it, but only after serious study.

Part four: This process is the original winemaking process – it is organic and biodynamic by its own nature, not by a desire to get a certification – and we like its outcome. If this happens to fit someone’s definition of natural wine, great.

Though Pepe could easily be called natural wine and few would argue with it, I think a more appropriate term, if we need one, is old school winemaking. Emidio Pepe was established in 1964, and though today’s vines aren’t the originals (the montepulciano is 50 years old and the trebbiano is 35 years old), it is easy to maintain organic and biodynamic methods, as they do, when that’s all the vines have known their entire lives. Pepe has effectively been organic and biodynamic since 1964 in practice, though actual certifications came later (when organic and biodynamic became a thing requiring certification to commercially claim). The idea is a “natural expression of the viniculture” as Gianlucca explained it.

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Gianluca explaining the foot treading phase over one of the wood vats

The winemaking process is similarly straight-forward and consistent from year-to-year. All grapes are handpicked and foot tread, which represents the entirety of the pressing process. The whites and reds are tread in different vessels, both made of wood. The skins from the white grapes are not reintroduced to the juice, while the red goes through fifteen to twenty days of maceration. Naturally occurring yeast is allowed to initiate and complete fermentation. Tightly-trimmed stems are included with the white grapes in the treading, but removed for the red. The whites are aged in temperature-controlled stainless steel while the red is aged entirely in concrete.

These aging vessels are critical to their respective varieties because of Abruzzo’s searing heat and the desire to make reductive wines. While we were there in mid-June, temperatures were consistently in the mid-90s. They rise through July and August. It is imperative that the whites go into cold jacketed tanks in order to maintain safe temperature, and the concrete tanks that the reds age in are fantastic for maintaining low temperatures on their own. Given Abruzzo’s heat, it shouldn’t be surprising that canopy management in the vineyard is imperative as well to protecting the grapes from sun burn and keeping sugar levels reasonable, which can build quickly in this kind of heat. Vines in Abruzzo are allowed to maintain thick layers of leaves across their tops to provide shade and protection for the grapes.

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Pepe vines

Additionally, because montepulciano is so strongly expressive and naturally inclined to produce big wines, concrete is preferred at Pepe because it tames this tendency by allowing little oxygen to come into contact with the wine compared to what oak barrels would allow (more oxygen means bigger wine in this context). Punchdowns are used once per day, and no batonage (stirring of the wine while aging) is performed. This combination of stainless steel for whites and concrete aging for reds (versus oak for either), a small amount of punch downs (versus pump overs) and zero batonage (versus some) are all reductive techniques relative to their alternative methods.

The moral of the Pepe story is that the two things that do not change from vintage to vintage is the unique qualities that come from this approach and Pepe’s terroir. What does change is the influence of the vintage on the wine. The dinner we ate the first night of our stay included the current releases of the pecorino, trebbiano and montepulciano. Later, when we met with Gianluca, we tasted some different vintages.

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We started with the 2016 Trebbiano, which pours a dark, golden honey color that belies the absence of skin contact in the winemaking process. The aromatics are tropically themed with a linear spice that cuts through the center. Pineapple, mango, marzipan, Key Lime and a petrol-like quality not unlike that found in high quality riesling waft at first sniff. Over time, a gorgeous sweet aroma develops as well. So saturated, the bouquet has its own structure, a quality I’m not sure I’ve experienced before and one that blew me away. On the palate, it is medium bodied with round and sturdy acid that creates great tension. The flavors lead with a crisp mineral Key Lime pie, followed by peppery spice, saltiness and pineapple. It broadens with as it takes on air, coating the mouth with sweet peach and vanilla spice notes. This brilliant wine is among the very best I’ve had, red or white. 95 points. Value: A+.

From there we moved to the 2015 Pecorino. This variety is normally planted at 500-700 meters in elevation in Abruzzo, but Pepe put theirs at 250 meters because it packs on sugar very quickly. This lower elevation helps with limiting direct sun exposure on the grapes, and they harvest the pecorino before their other grapes to keep sugars low as well. Aromatics are tricky when producing pecorino, and Pepe actually shuts fermentation down a bit early in order to do that. Given all this, I know now why I’ve never had great pecorino until I tried Pepe’s, which is phenomenal.

The nose starts off slightly funky and a bit muted, but with air it takes on mushed banana, lanolin, apricot, orange plum, orange marmalade, sweet Thai chili sauce and Kiwi. The body is plush and soft, offering less acid than the Trebbiano. The flavors are similarly soft and a bit salty. Citrus carries the day despite the preponderance of tropical flavors, including banana, quince, passion fruit, zesty lemon peel and white pepper that really pops. It has a wonderful light oiliness sensation. 93 points. Value A+.

At this point, we transitioned to the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Gianlucca opened the 2000 and 2010, both exceptional vintages for the estate that he called “among the best for Abruzzo.” The 2010 will be re-released soon. There are six sectors of the oldest vines on the property, and the grapes from them are made into a separate batch that goes into the lot that is held back in the cellar for future release. The 2000 and 2010, taken together, exemplify the transcendence I discussed earlier. You’ll see in the tasting notes below a number of differences that could suggest two different wines. I had a difficult time picking a favorite as each has so much to offer and left me wanting nothing more than another glass. What was evident in tasting them side-by-side is that 2000 was a warmer year: the body, structure and alcohol are all more significant than the 2010.

The 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has an exquisite nose showing signs of sweet tertiary aromas with a sherried/carmelized note. I also picked up roasted and jarred piquillo peppers, sweet mint and canned cherry. The palate remains quite robust in structure and weight; in fact, it appears to just be hitting puberty. The flavors are similarly sweet as the aromas, but the spice is really taken up a notch. The fruit is mostly red and crisp, but somehow also saturated and dense. The acid and tannin spine is keeping everything perfectly framed and structurally integral, developing a slight chewiness as it takes on oxygen. There are strong elements of scorched earth and wet pavement, with smaller doses of tomato paste and mint. This is a perfectly balanced wine with serious depth and elegant structure. It has another ten-plus years of great life ahead of it. 96 points. Value: A.

We finished with the 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The nose offers an interesting combination of primary, secondary and tertiary notes with some funk thrown in for very good measure. Nevertheless, it remains a bit muddled and needs time to delineate and develop clarity. The palate delivers a full-bodied wine that is quite broad, but also surprisingly soft for its youthful age compared to where the 2000 is right now. A funkiness similar to the nose is found in the mouth, and and pairs nicely with red fruit, tomato leaf, blood orange and loads of pepper spice. Extended oxygen brings out fine, slightly chewy tannin and elevates the peppery kick. Those who decide to buy this should consider laying it down for at least another ten years. 96 points. Value: A.

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Some old and new vintages that are ready for release

We were completely taken with Emidio Pepe’s wine (as well as the agritourismo, which we can’t suggest strongly enough). Putting aside the romanticism added by the fact that it was our honeymoon, the tranquility and beauty of the estate and surrounding area, and some of the best food we’ve ever had, I don’t remember a winery that I’ve been more excited to follow and collect since my discovery of Oregon’s Cameron in 2017. Pepe has immediately jumped into my top-5 favorite producers, maybe even top-3. Their wines are especially appealing for me as my favorite wines are those built to age, and then aged. Emidio Pepe deserves the highest marks on quality, personality, process and business model. If only more wineries did it this way…

Try this Wine: Good Memories Juice

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I’ve mentioned many times on this blog that I love aged wine. The really good stuff transforms into something beyond its constituent parts, taking on flavors and aromas of complicated dishes rather than mere ingredients – Christmas spiced-poached pear with caramel sauce, for example, rather than simply pear or even yellow pear. And the structure becomes otherworldly as the years, or decades, smooth the edges and melt each part into a single, glorious sensation.

Wine can’t do this when it’s young. Tannin needs time to smooth out and integrate, that’s why we sometimes refer to tannin “integration.” Acid magically “mellows.” Flavors fascinatingly “develop.” Wine needs time to mature and evolve, not unlike we do as humans. Sure, all the bits are there when a wine is first bottled to become something great, but many bottles need years and years to improve, just like us.

Some wine doesn’t get better with age, because it’s made to be its best right away. It’s big and it’s bold, or it’s enjoyable in a simple way that time destroys. I’m not sure there’s a great human parallel to this, perhaps a student athlete who flames or burns out before their chance to go professional comes along could be comparable. For the purpose of this Try this Wine post, though, this type of wine doesn’t qualify.

Count me as someone who appreciates the wisdom of elders who have something important to share from their life’s experiences. Maybe that’s why I appreciate the story that older wine tells, a story it needed a lifetime to develop.

I recently undertook an unintentional experiment with aged wine when I bought a 2004 Delille Doyenne Syrah from Winebid.com, an online auction website. As I was removing the foil to pop the cork, it dawned on me that in 2004 I turned 21 years of age and could buy good wine for the first time.

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Mean Girls was released in 2004

A whole host of memories flooded my mind from that great and transformative year in my life. That was the year I became a college senior, and I was living with one of my closest friends, dating someone who remains a close friend and entering my first real year of retirement from serious competitive cycling. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was learning the words to Usher’s “Yeah.” And because I could finally buy alcohol from stores, it was the de facto first year of my self-guided path to wine snobbery.

Delille Cellars was my gateway. Founded in 1992, Delille has been one of Washington State’s wine industry staples since. Robert Parker once pronounced Delille “The LaFite Rothschild of Washington State.” It helped to pioneer the Bordeaux-style red (and white) blend in the state, and also makes very good wine from Rhone varieties under the Doyenne label. The fruit comes from vineyards that are among Washington’s very best, the oak program is serious and well-resourced, and the winemaking talent is champion-level.

I was introduced to Delille before my 21st birthday by a neighbor who gifted me a bottle of their Harrison Hill blend, which became my favorite wine for the next decade or so. I joined their wine club before I could responsibly afford it, and before I realized how getting a case each year of wine that demands serious aging can lead to storage nightmares. Yet I looked forward to each shipment as it meant growing a collection that mattered to me.

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Delille and Doyenne wines are built for serious aging, and Harrison Hill is among their wines that require the most aging to reach their peak. I’m still sitting on Harrison Hill and other wines from the 2008 vintage that I received while in the club that won’t be opened for at least another two or three years. When I saw a bottle of 2004 Doyenne Syrah on Winebid.com a few months ago, I pounced on it because it was a chance to jump the line on aging wine myself and drink a properly-aged Delille now.

As I mentioned earlier, only after getting the wine did I realize its significance. It added an incredible amount to the experience. The wine was good, which was to be expected, but it was better because of the significance of the vintage and producer in my life and wine story. It was essentially experiencing my history from a perspective that was not my own, but complimentary to it; not from a personal point of view, but from a wine’s point of view. In 2004, although I didn’t know it to the extent that I do now, what happened in the creation of the Doyenne that year was part of my wine creation story.

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Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that people try to find a wine that is now nearly impossible to acquire (though if you can, it’s worth getting). My recommendation is to find a wine from a producer and vintage that both mean something special to you. Relive the memory, but from a different angle, through some combination of a place or winemaker and a year when something special happened in your journey.

Tasting note: The nose is just the other side of vibrant, but beautiful in its refinement and subtleties: signature Red Mountain graphite minerality, crushed cherry and strawberry, violet and crushed rock. This is a saturating medium bodied wine with integrated bright acidity and smooth and refined tannin. The structure strikes a brilliant balance between forgettable and dominant. It offers flavors of texturally-driven graphite minerals, brambly red and purple and black fruits, loads of currant, kirsch, black pepper and licorice. It’s probably two or three years past it’s prime, but it’s still damn good. DeLille really does hit another level with significant age. 94 points. Value: A+.

Where to buy:

Ha! Like I’d know what wine was right for you… Here are some means for finding that special bottle:

First, check out online wine auction websites. The one I use is winebid.com, which is an online auction site with auctions that begin on Monday and end Sunday evening. The inventory is refreshed weekly. The website, which is easy to use, is currently selling more than 8,000 wines with opening bids from $7.99 to $16,995 (a 1.5 liter 2005 d’Yquem), which is all to say, there’s something for everyone. Other online auctioneers include Sokolin, K&L, Spectrum, Sothebys and others.

Second, there’s always wine-searcher.com, which allows you to search for specific wines. Make sure you have the search settings appropriately set for your needs (e.g. the checkbox that includes stores that will ship to your state if checked).

Third, there are retailers who specialize in finding rare and old wines. Zachy’s (which also runs auctions) and Rare Wine Co. are two well-known stores with national reputations. If you live in a major wine market, chance are you have at least one or two retailers who provide bespoke services for tracking something down.

Forth, go direct and contact the winery, they might have something that fits the need.

 

When is Wine Conceived?

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Credit: sayingimages.com

On July 11th, I celebrated my 35th birthday with a birthyear 1983 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf de Pape, one of my favorite French estates. Though it drank well and was special because of its vintage, it would have probably shown its best, not unlike myself, ten or so years ago. As an unreasonable comparison, the 1995 Seven Hills Klipsun merlot from Washington State we drank later that evening was more prime-like. Over the wine and grilled lamb chops, my fiancé and I debated what was actually older: myself or the birthyear wine? My birthdate is July 11th, 1983, but what was the actual birthdate of the Beaucastel?

The question can be put another way: when does wine become wine? I certainly had my theories, as did Kayce. One potential answer is the day fermentation begins because wine is alcoholic, and we couldn’t consider pressed grape juice to be wine, right? I’ve never heard someone make the argument Welch’s grape juice is wine.

If one grants that fermentation is birth, there remains an important question: is the beginning of fermentation the point of wine’s conception, or when fermentation completes or somewhere between? If I can reference the abortion debate for this discussion (CONTROVERSY ALERT), some people argue that conception is the beginning of life, while others say life doesn’t begin until birth. If we want to use those respective logics, life at conception means wine is born at the beginning of fermentation, whereas life at birth results in wine being born at the completion of fermentation.

My fiancé hypothesized that a wine’s birthday is the day no more additives or methods are introduced because that is the point at which it receives no more human nurturing and stands, if you will, on its own legs (get it?). Prior to that, the required human support means it is not matured yet into wine. For a wine that goes into barrel and then bottle without any additions or further manipulation (even racking), its birthday is the day it is put into barrel. If a wine receives a hit of sulfur prior to bottling, then bottling is its birthday.

Neither of us was able to convince the other, and it became clear Kayce and I weren’t going to settle the debate. So, I decided to put the question to a few winemakers. The breadth of responses were akin to a joke we Jews make about ourselves: two Jews, three opinions. That is to say, no consensus (so thanks, winemakers, for your “help”). Below are the responses, which I found very entertaining to read. I hope you do too.

If readers have their own opinions, I’m on board with doing a subsequent piece featuring thoughtful reader responses if a sufficient number are received. Please email them to goodvitis (at) gmail (dot) com.

Charlie Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery on Spring Mountain in Napa wrote, effectively, that wine is born when fermentation ends:

“The  consensus opinion, of course, is that the year the grapes are picked is the year that the wine is born. It’s always seemed to me, though, that within that year the day that the last yeast cell stops converting sugar to alcohol [is the birthdate]. Or, to put it another way, the day the primary fermentation ceases, is the first day in the life of the wine. It is the first day grape juice is fully, finally converted to wine and day-one in the life of the wine. It becomes ‘finished’ wine on the day it is bottled, but as wine, it was born days, weeks, even years, before.”

Adam Lee of Siduri Wines and Clarice Wine Company in California had, as is wonderfully typical of Adam, a philosopher’s answer:

“I’ve been on a Julian Barnes kick lately, re-reading many of his works, and I came across this quote in The Sense of an Ending: ‘Someone once said that his favorite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born.’ I thought of this quote when you described a somewhat too old birth-year wine and asked when is a wine actually born.

“A wine dies most often when the cork is popped, or the cap is unscrewed and the wine drunk. I have participated in a wine’s death in joy with friends, and killed an entire bottle myself in sadness and depression. The occasions change, and I interact differently with them each time and with every bottle. And yet every time, wine remains a constant for me in all of life’s moments. As someone who makes wine, the death of those bottles inspires me every year to take what nature provides and birth that into wine. For me, the wine is born in my mind and in my memory’s museums (thanks Kanye) before a new season’s grape is ever grown.”

Mattieu Finot of King Family Vineyards in Virginia not only answered the birthday question, but outlined a wine’s lifespan:

“The period of bud break to harvest this is the pregnancy stage. The process of birth, which is fermentation, takes a little bit longer than it is for humans. Once alcoholic fermentation is complete, then it becomes wine. When alcoholic fermentation is complete, that is the wine’s birthday.

“Malolactic fermentation is like losing your baby teeth in that it doesn’t really change who you are because you’re human already.  Receiving an ‘addition’ [e.g. sulfur] is like having braces because it is optional and doesn’t say anything about whether you’re human (or wine) or not; not everybody needs them and at the end this is just esthetic.

“Once the wine is bottled this is when the wine is an adult and it can take care of itself. Wisdom comes with age…. not when you are 20…. still crazy, strong and all over the place! But, when you get too old, you are losing your muscle and sometimes forget things… a little less substance, even if you were a strong brilliant person!”

Fellow Jew, Garry Cohen of Maryland’s Mazzaroth Vineyard, called it a “nice question” and included a bit of spirituality in his answer:

“I maintain that it’s wine once the fermentation has finished. From then on, it will always be changing. Whether through the use of oak, ml, additives, aging, etc. But at the risk of being a bit spiritual, once it’s finished fermenting and you can do a blessing over it, then it is born.”

Amen.

Barboursville’s Luca Paschina in Virginia answered, mostly, with a story and a wicked curveball:

“When is a wine birthed? What an interesting question it is. Well, let me tell you what happened earlier this year. The daughter of very dear friends, which we have not seen in a while, came to our house for dinner. Since her parents have hosted us at their home several times with great food and wines, I decide to serve her a wine from her birth year, 1990.

“I searched in my cellar, which is predominantly occupied by Barboursville Vineyards wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, but could not find any good ones from 1990. After initial disappointment, suddenly I realized that since she was born in March of 1990, she was conceived/born in summer of 1989 and happily I reached for a 1989 Barolo which, by the way, was one of the most fantastic growing season of the past 40 years in Piedmont. The wine was beautiful, meaningful  and truly appreciated by all of us.

“Therefore, when is a wine born? Perhaps the Beaucastel was born at bud break on April 8th 1983.”

Not far up the road from Barboursville, Ben Jordan of Early Mountain, began with an analogy:

“For me the best analogue is when the fruit is cut from the vine. Before that the flowers are fertilized, the fruit is formed and develops with a connection to the plant, and the time on the vine is basically gestation. Like birth, harvest is a dramatic change, because the fruit will never be connected to the vine again, and it begins the (hopefully slow) march through life to death. If the vineyard is well cared for, then the point that the grapes hit the picking container marks the point when the microbiome can begin to transform the fruit into wine. This is its birthday.

“Like a newborn, the wine grapes are most fragile right when picked and the winemaker/parents must work attentively, focus on little else, and spend every day (and night) with the newly forming wine. It is the decisions and approach during this short but critical time, along with the fruit’s genetic makeup, that will determine the personality of the wine.

“Fermentation is the childhood. Early on it is almost unbearably charming as the wine is rapidly changing into something more recognizable, becoming more stable, yet still vulnerable and needing of constant attention. The wines emerges from fermentation as the awkward teenager. No one really loves them, except their winemakers, and some days even they are not so sure.

“After that, the wine must grow up, and there is less and less the winemaker/parent can do. They can intervene, yes, but it becomes harder and harder to effect change in a positive way. Once the wine is bottled, it leaves the house, there is not much else winemakers can do other than hope that it will go out into the world and make them proud.

“As a note: If we are trying to make this analogy only with the plant and fruit (and not wine), I would still say that birth begins when the fruit falls or is plucked from the vine. At that point the offspring is no longer connected to the parent, and the question of whether it survives no longer depends on this connection. At this point the fruit and seed have the ability to grow up into a plant. Apologies to biologists.”

Drew Baker of Old Westminster in Maryland went the fermentation route:

“Wine is alcohol made from fermented grape juice. When looking at the tense of the verbiage, you notice that ‘fermented’ is in the past-tense – meaning that the fermentation of the juice has been completed. With that being said, I believe a wine is born when the fermentation is complete – aging in oak, concrete, stainless steel, bottle, etc. does impact a wines flavor profile, but to my mind the wine is already born.”

Finally, Forge Cellars’ Rick Rainey in the Finger Lakes weighed in:

“I will give you the short version.  The wine is ‘birthed’ once we put it into bottle.  Then it is finished and can be enjoyed as we exactly intended it.  Yes, it may not be ‘optimum’ and need aging to give the full pleasure but ideally it is ready, give or take a few weeks to recover from bottling.”

Late addition: Brent Kroll, Sommelier and Founder of Maxwell Park, one of DC’s most respected wine bars, and one of Food & Wine’s 2018 Sommeliers of the Year:

“I believe a wine is birthed when the grapes are harvested from the vine.  Wine can always be manipulated or adjusted past that. Often what happens past that is beneficial to protect the wine but sometimes they are over enhanced and that year of the harvest can be hidden. Those grapes are what speaks for that year in my opinion and lines get too blurred if you open the door past that. On the other hand, the only exception I might grant, even though I wouldn’t, is sparkling wine. I can see how something being 10 years old past disgorgement or being disgorged 10 years after the harvest are completely different. It’s hard then to judge the age by the vintage but I still stick to my initial thought. If you have to put a vintage on mixed vintages I would take the average based on the quantity of each vintage in the wine.”

And there you have it: no consensus on a wine’s birthday. Like the abortion debate, it rages on.

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.