Masterclass: Wines of Santa Barbara County

Look at a map of California’s coastline and you’ll notice that its north-south direction switches to an east-west orientation at Santa Barbara. Thanks to this marked topographic shift (the longest such east-west orientation from the Aleutian Islands to Tierra Del Fuego), mountain ranges traverse east-west and valleys open directly to the Pacific Ocean, receiving the full force of its maritime wind and fog. The result is one of the coolest and driest winegrowing regions in California, with one of the longest growing seasons. No fall rains mean no mildew, making possible long hang times. All these factors suit the region perfectly to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

As I learned at a recent Guild of Sommeliers masterclass focusing on 15 wines from top producers in Santa Barbara County taught by master sommeliers Matt Stamp and Brian McClintic (of Santa Barbara’s Les Marchands wine bar), of the 20,000 acres in Santa Barbara County devoted to growing wine grapes, some 4,800 are planted to Pinot Noir, 6,800 to Chardonnay, and 1,400 to Syrah. The county’s many different microclimates enable the growing of several different grape varietals, but Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah represent the county’s focus. 

The five federally recognized AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. (There’s a petition pending for a sixth AVA, Los Alamos Valley.) These are young wine regions: Santa Maria Valley, the northernmost appellation in Santa Barbara County and, since the 1980s, home to Au Bon Climat and Qupé, was granted AVA status just 34 years ago in 1981. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two varietals grown in its foggy, windswept, and cool climate. Santa Ynez Valley, a climatically diverse and extensive east-west AVA established in 1983, has very cool coastal temperatures that warm as one moves inland. Pinot Noir does well in the cool western part of the valley, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot thrive in the warmer east. Located farthest west within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is the AVA of Sta. Rita Hills (granted AVA status in 2001). Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow exceptionally well in its extremely cool, ocean-influenced climate. Ballard Canyon is the youngest AVA, having received its AVA status in October 2013. Syrah and other Rhône varietals such as Grenache and Viognier grow well in its moderate-to-warm climate. The easternmost AVA, established in 2009, is Happy Canyon. Situated above the fog line and with less coastal influence, the climate is too warm for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc grow very well here.

The Wines

We tasted through two white flights and two red. Though our focus was Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, we tasted a few other varieties as well, beginning with the first flight. I’ve included very brief tasting impressions of the wines.

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Flight One:

Tatomer “Kick-On Ranch” Riesling 2012 (Santa Barbara County)

Lieu-Dit Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Grassini Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Happy Canyon AVA)

Tatomer’s flagship 100% Riesling was classically dry, with very little botrytis influence but with a bitterness that Matt said was a result of skin contact. Of the two Sauvignon Blancs, Lieu-Dit’s had pronounced fruity aromatics of passionfruit, grapefruit, and currant, while Grassini’s aromatics were of sweeter citrus fruits; peachy, creamy.

Flight Two:

Liquid Farm “Golden Slope” Chardonnay 2012 (Sta.  Rita Hills AVA)

Sandhi Chardonnay 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Chanin “Los Alamos Vineyard” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Tyler “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Of these four wines, the Sandhi had the most new oak (20%), but it was unnoticeable! Grapes were whole-bunch pressed, giving a much cleaner, less phenolic juice. This is a beautiful wine! Liquid Farm’s “Golden Slope” went through 100% malolactic fermentation and was round, creamy, and leesy. The Chanin was extremely aromatic and floral; broad, big. In contrast, the Tyler was leaner in style, showing a strong sulfite character.

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Flight Three:

Martian Ranch Gamay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “La Bauge Au Dessus” 2012 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Pence Ranch—Mt. Eden Clone” 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Machado” 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Martian Ranch’s Gamay was fresh and clean, with good acidity and “lots of carbonic pop!” in Matt’s opinion. The Whitcraft and Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs were both pressed 100% whole cluster and both had no new oak. Whitcraft’s ABV was a low 12.2; good acidity; tart and lean. Brian told us that Greg Brewer wanted his Machado Pinot Noir to taste “like a red bouncing ball” and, in fact, the wine had a lift and a bounce; fruit forward (riper than Whitcraft); terrific balance of ripeness and restraint. Au Bon Climat’s Pinot was aged in 50% new French oak (yet the wine was balanced); zesty, forward red fruit; spicy; unfiltered.

Flight Four:

Ojai Syrah “Solomon Hills” 2011 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Stolpman Syrah 2012 (Ballard Canyon AVA)

Qupé Syrah “Bien Nacido” 1999 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva 2004 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Three delicious Syrahs! The Qupé is from the oldest planting in Santa Maria (“X” block in the Bien Nacido vineyard), planted in 1981; the vines look like trees. The Ojai was densely concentrated, zesty, spicy, fresh, and invigorating, while the Stolpman was a bit riper and rich and belied its 14.1 ABV. The Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva represents the experimentation going on right now in Santa Barbara County winemaking. At 10 years old, and having spent 5 years in barrel, this wine is still young! Floral (roses), tar, earthinesss, and nice acidity. In Matt’s opinion, this wine is like Barolo Riserva and belongs in the conversation of Piedmont Nebbiolo. I agree!

The Guild of Sommeliers

GS_logoAn international membership organization of sommeliers, wine industry professionals, and wine enthusiasts, the Guild of Sommeliers provides members with rich opportunities for learning and networking. Members receive access to in-depth masterclasses (this is instruction at a very high level) such as the one I’ve written about here, taught by master sommeliers in cities around the country, articles, podcasts, discussion forums, online study guides, maps of the world’s wine regions, and job postings. Please support this wonderful organization by becoming a member! Visit guildsomm.com for more information.

World of Pinot Noir

image001Pinot Noir lovers, take note! Four of the producers whose wines we tasted in this masterclass—Sandhi, Tyler Winery, Au Bon Climat, and Brewer-Clifton—are participating in World of Pinot Noir, a two-day celebration of our beloved grape, and will be pouring their wines on March 7 at the Saturday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting at Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. As of this posting, some tickets remain for this event, which showcases more than 120 producers. In addition, World of Pinot Noir features a Friday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting, at which approximately 100 winemakers (a different roster from the Saturday event) will pour their wines. Food pairing seminars pair Pinot Noir with chanterelles from the Santa Rita Hills and local uni from the Pacific Ocean. Five-course gourmet dinners highlight local cuisine and the wines of attending winemakers. On Saturday night Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat—Pinot Noir and Santa Maria Valley pioneer—will be honored at a special Rockstars of Pinot Noir dinner. Visit wopn.com for details and tickets.

Copyright © 2015 by Carol Hartland

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World of Pinot Noir

wopn-logo-2-150x150Calling all Pinot Noir lovers to California’s beautiful Central Coast for a weekend extravaganza of celebration, education, and tasting of our beloved grape! Join upward of 200 top Pinot Noir producers from around the world on March 6 and 7 for the fifteenth World of Pinot Noir festival at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. The event includes extensive walkaround tastings, in-depth seminars, gourmet lunches, and five-course dinners featuring the wines of attending winemakers.

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Photo credit: World of Pinot Noir

Here are just some of the event highlights:

Friday, March 6

  • “Latitudes and Longitudes: The World of Pinot Noir,” a seminar hosted by renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson with winemaker panelists from Austria, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, Canada, and featured Burgundy producer Alexandrine Roy of Domaine Marc Roy. A three-course gourmet lunch follows, created especially to pair with the wines.
  • Friday Focus Tasting featuring Pinot Noir from some 100 producers with whom you can chat while also savoring local appetizers and artisanal cheeses.
  • Choose from among three different five-course dinner options, all featuring Pinot Noir from attending winemakers.
  • Or opt for an intimate six-course dinner with Alexandrine Roy featuring wines from her own cellar.

Saturday, March 7

  • Two seminars focused on Burgundy: one on the Côte Chalonnaise and the other on Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée. A Burgundy-inspired three-course lunch follows, accompanied by . . . more Burgundy!
  • “Food Frenzy” pairing seminar featuring regional Pinots paired with regional mushrooms (chanterelles from the Santa Rita Hills, morels from upstate New York, and maybe even truffles from Oregon!) and with local uni (spiky sea urchins from the Pacific Ocean), whose taste and texture pair deliciously with Pinot Noir.
  • Grand Tasting with more than 120 Pinot producers from around the world pouring their wines, Pinot-inspired appetizers, and local cheeses
  • Three different gourmet dinners from which to choose, including one honoring Santa Barbara County Pinot pioneer Jim Clendenen and another hosted by master sommelier Fred Dame, featuring rare and select Burgundies.

In addition, there are silent auctions and film screenings on both days.

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Bacara Resort & Spa. Photo credit: World of Pinot Noir

I’m very excited to see some of my favorite winemakers participating in World of Pinot Noir: Alma Rosa Winery, Brewer-Clifton, Laetitia Vineyard & Winery, Landmark Vineyards, Melville Winery, WillaKenzie, and Fred Loimer from Austria.

Visit worldofpinotnoir.com for further details about this not-to-be-missed event!

Copyright © 2015 by Carol Hartland

Joe Spellman on JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery and Landmark Vineyards

I have previously posted about the excellent seminars at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca (see my posts about Alphonse Mellot and Fritz Wieninger’s Wiener Gemischter Satz). This past week I attended another top-notch seminar at the Manhattan store, presented by master sommelier Joe Spellman, winery sommelier for JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery in Paso Robles, on California’s Central Coast. 

Joe Spellman

Master Sommelier Joe Spellman

Tracing the history of JUSTIN Vineyard, Joe explained to us that Justin Baldwin purchased 160 acres of the limestone-rich soils of the Santa Lucia Mountains of Paso Robles in 1981 with the dream of making Left Bank Bordeaux-style blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc on California’s Central Coast. With its elevation of 1,200-1,500 feet, Pacific Ocean breezes, and wide day-night temperature swings, Paso’s microclimate allows the grapes to develop flavor, structure, and balance. Justin Baldwin realized his dream in 1987 with the first release of Isosceles, now his flagship wine, named for the three varietals that make up the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

We tasted three wines from JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery, each one of them beautifully balanced:

2013 Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc, $14. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Whole-cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel tanks; no malolactic fermentation. Alc. 14.5%. Citrus, apple, and pear, with a crisp, refreshing minerality and a long finish. Lean, clean, citrusy and meant to be enjoyed young.

2012 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, $25. Juicy, ripe red and black fruit, hand picked and hand sorted, aged in small American oak barrels (30% new) for 16 months, and displaying the very low and soft tannins typical of Paso Robles. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, along with some Syrah and Petite Syrah, although the exact blend is not divulged. Alc. 14.5%.

2011 Paso Robles Isosceles, $88. A spicy, aromatic, full-bodied wine modeled on the Left Bank wines of Château Margaux. 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc. Aged in 100% new French oak barrels for 21 months. Unfiltered; racked twice per year. Alc. 14.5%.

Joe also brought two wines for us to taste from JUSTIN’s sister vineyard, Landmark Vineyards, located at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in Sonoma Valley in northern California.

Landmark has a very interesting history. It was founded in 1974 by a group that included Damaris Deere Ford, great-great-granddaughter of John Deere, who invented the steel plow. The first vintage of Landmark’s flagship wine, Overlook Chardonnay, was produced in 1991. In 1993, Landmark hired world-renowned enologist Helen Turley, now owner of the 9-acre boutique winery Marcassin Vineyard, who helped craft Landmark’s signature style: grapes harvested by hand and pressed whole cluster, fermented by naturally occurring wild yeasts, and aged in French oak barrels. The philosophy of Landmark’s current winemaker, Greg Stach, is “the best grapes make the best wines. The less the wine is manipulated, the more flavors and aromas remain for the consumer to enjoy.” 

The two wines we tasted were:

2012 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay, $25. 100% Chardonnay, with the grapes sourced from 22 vineyards in the following counties: 83% Sonoma, 11% Monterey, and 6% Santa Barbara. Grapes are whole-cluster pressed and native-yeast fermented in 100% French oak barrels for 10 months. Lees are stirred throughout the wine in the barrels twice per month, to create roundness, richness, and texture. Alc. 14.3%.

2012 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir, $25. 100% Pinot Noir, with the grapes sourced from cool-climate vineyards in the following counties: 53% San Luis Obispo, 40% Sonoma, and 7% Monterey. Grapes are harvested and sorted by hand, fermented in small single-vineyard lots, and aged for 10 months in 100% French oak barrels. Winemaker Greg Stach and his team taste and select from the individual barrels and create the final blend. Alc. 14.5%. Stach’s goal for this wine was to craft a fruit-forward, accessible, and reasonably priced wine with good acidity.

24 Hubert Wines has several other appealing seminars coming up. Check out their schedule here.

Cheers!

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

Bosoms, Bubbles, and Bollinger: What Shape Is Your Champagne Glass?

34, a swanky restaurant in the heart of London’s Mayfair district, commissioned British sculptor Jane McAdam Freud (daughter of the celebrated late painter Lucien Freud) to design a Champagne coupe molded from the left breast of supermodel Kate Moss, to celebrate her 40th birthday and her 25 years in the fashion industry. A spokesman for 34 described the glass as “an intricate abstract design reminiscent of Art Deco symmetry which, when held at an angle, shows a beautiful curvy shape.” The coupe has a long, slender stem and “her ‘Kate’ signature accompanied by a small heart at the base.” (The Independent, August 25, 2014)

Photo: British Vogue

Photo: British Vogue

On October 8, 2014, Kate Moss will host the launch of the coupe at 34. Filling the glasses will be Dom Pérignon’s P2-1998 (a rebranding of the latest release of the 1998 vintage from the Oenothèque series). The coupe and a bottle of 1995 Oenothèque will cost £2,123 (US$3,515).

Photo: Wine Spectator

Photo: Wine Spectator

This is not the first time that a Champagne coupe has been modeled from a supermodel’s breast. In 2007, Dom Pérignon commissioned German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld to create an advertising campaign for the release of its 1993 vintage Oenothèque. Lagerfeld’s muse, Claudia Schiffer, also happened to be a top model for Dom Pérignon at the time. Lagerfeld honored her and her bosom with a design that has a white breast-shaped bowl with a pink nipple sitting atop three white porcelain miniature replicas of Dom Pérignon bottles on a silver tray bearing Lagerfeld’s and Schiffer’s signatures. This assemblage, accompanied by a bottle of Oenothèque, could be purchased in December 2008 for $3,150.

Why did McAdam Freud and Lagerfeld cast their interpretation of the Champagne coupe from a beautiful woman’s left breast? And why did Lagerfeld make his coupe and miniature Dom Pérignon bottles of milky white porcelain? Here are some possible explanations:

Milk Bowl (Breast Bowl), from the Service for the Dairy, together with tripod base for Queen Marie Antoinette. 1788. Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Painted by Fumez, after design by Jean-Jacques Lagrené and Louis-Simon Boizot. Photo: M. Beck-Coppola (Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres).

Milk Bowl (Breast Bowl) with tripod base, from the Service for the Dairy for Queen Marie Antoinette. 1788. Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Painted by Fumez, after a design by Jean-Jacques Lagrené and Louis-Simon Boizot. Photo: M. Beck-Coppola (Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres, France).

This Sèvres porcelain milk bowl, complete with a nipple, is one from a set of four made in 1788 by artisans from the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory as part of a 65-piece dining set that Louis XVI commissioned for his queen, Marie Antoinette, to use at the royal dairy at the Château de Rambouillet. The tripod base on which the bowl sits features the head and hooves of a goat, the Queen’s favorite animal.

The bowl is modeled after a Greek drinking cup produced by Athenian potters, a mastos (meaning breast, udder), made from terracotta in the shape of a female breast, with nipple.

Attic black-figure mastos cup attributed to Psiax, ca. 520-510 BCE

Attic black-figure mastos cup attributed to Psiax, ca. 520-510 BCE. Photo: Getty Museum

In the early 19th century, Josephine Bonaparte commissioned Sèvres to make an updated version of the breast bowls for her, using the original molds. Hers were of white porcelain and 24-carat gold and were also used in the Rambouillet dairy.

Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres, France

Photo: Musée National de la Céramique, Sèvres, France

The gift of the Sèvres milk bowl from her husband may have inspired Marie Antoinette with an idea for a reciprocal gift to him: round Champagne glasses made from casts of her breasts (or her left breast in particular, depending on who tells the story)—the first Champagne coupe, so the tale goes—so that Louis XVI and their courtiers could drink to her health from them.

Kate Moss heard this story about “the Marie Antoinette coupe” too. She said, “I was excited to participate in this project. What an honour to be alongside Marie Antoinette—she was a very intriguing and mischievous character.”

Artwork by Lisa Falzon

Artwork by Lisa Falzon

But legend also has it that the saucer-like Champagne coupe was cast from the breasts of—take your pick!—Madame du Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Empress Josephine, Diane de Poitiers, Helen of Troy, and 1930s American model and photographer Lee Miller. Why? Because their men—respectively, Louis XV (twice), Napoleon, Henry II, Paris, and surrealist artist Man Ray—greatly admired their lover’s breasts and fantasized about drinking Champagne from them. In the case of Diane de Poitiers, one version of the story says that her husband, Henry II, cast the mold solely from his wife’s left breast.

Are these tales all born of men’s fantasies, the coincidental shape of a glass, an homage to a beautiful woman’s chest, and celebrity sex symbols, perhaps? In fact, the coupe was designed and made in England around 1663, which predates du Pompadour, du Barry, Josephine, Marie Antoinette, and Lee Miller and postdates de Poitiers and, if she existed at all, Helen of Troy. 

Marketing and celebratory hoopla aside, why all this fuss (and expense) over a glass whose shape is spectacularly ill-suited to drinking sparkling wine, especially a sparkling wine as miraculous as Champagne?

Photo: The Vintage Type

Photo: The Vintage Type

The large surface area of the wide, shallow coupe dissipates Champagne’s bubbles, warms the wine, and quickly renders it flat. As Benoît Gouez, chief winemaker for Moët & Chandon since 2005, says about drinking Champagne from a coupe, “You won’t have enough focus. The effervescence will go everywhere, the flavors will go everywhere, and you’re going to lose a lot of it.” (Ironically, the Dom Pérignon being served in those modern-day reinterpretations of the “Marie Antoinette coupe” is a Moët brand.)

But when the coupe was invented in the 17th century, sparkling wines were not nearly as effervescent as they are today. Sparkling wine was bottled before the initial fermentation had finished because bottles had not yet been invented that could withstand the internal pressure created by a secondary fermentation. Exploding bottles and popping corks led to the wine being called “the devil’s wine.” For those more sedate sparkling wines of the late 17th century, the design of the coupe was probably very appropriate.

The coupe was popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, thanks in part to the Stork Club, black-and-white films of the 1930s and 1940s such as Casablanca, Shall We Dance, and The Thin Man, and the penchant at wedding receptions for stacking layers of coupes into a “tower,” with Champagne poured continuously into the top glass and flowing down to fill the others below.

Personally, though I acknowledge that it’s far from the ideal glass from which to drink Champagne, I love the look and shape of the coupe. Yes, some are very plain, sturdy, and workmanlike, but those with a beautifully faceted stem, a diamond-shaped capital atop the stem, a graceful bowl, and a thin lip are exquisite to me, aesthetically. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for the 1940s glamour that I associate with them. My parents’ vintage Champagne coupes have a hollow stem, all the way to the base—a design feature that visually highlights the upward-spiraling bubbles in a most delightful way (even while the drinker’s fingers around the stem warm the wine prematurely, alas). Coupes are great for cocktails, and, when beautiful, are both fun and sophisticated to drink from!

FluteThe stemmed tall, narrow, very unbreastlike flute (so named because of its resemblance to the musical instrument) replaced the coupe as the preferred Champagne glass in the 1960s (although Audrey Hepburn was drinking from a flute as early as 1954 in Sabrina). Designed to remedy all the problems of drinking Champagne from a wide, shallow coupe, the purpose of the tall, slender flute was to preserve carbonation (and, as a side benefit, to allow more glasses to fit on a tray). There’s a much higher concentration of carbon dioxide Shoulder Flutein a tall, narrow flute than in a broad saucer. The bottom of the flute’s bowl can either taper into the stem or sit perpendicular atop it. Holding the glass by the stem prevents warming the wine, and the narrow opening at the top of the glass exposes less surface to air, retaining the effervescence and reducing spillage.

The better flutes have a rough spot deliberately etched inside the bottom center of the bowl that acts as a nucleation point for the bubbles to gather and then stream continuously upward to the top. In this way, the effervescence remains in the wine longer, which is probably why the flute is the best glass to display a sparkling wine’s bubbles. The flute will keep the wine bubbly longer than any other shape of glass. Supposedly, the narrow diameter of the top of the flute concentrates the wine’s aromatics, opposite to the way that the coupe’s wide bowl dissipates them, but I’ve never been able to discern much, if any, of a Champagne’s aromatics in a flute. Inside such a narrow diameter, the wine has no room to breathe, open, or develop. The diameter of some flutes is so ridiculously narrow that it’s impossible to drink from them without one’s nose getting in the way. Others are so tall that they become top heavy. Decorative arts and furniture appraiser Soodie Beasley said that “flutes, the extra tall ones anyway, remind me of big hair and the 1980s and ’90s.”

Trumpet fluteThe trumpet flute, with its wider mouth tapering outward from a slender stem, is a variation on the straight up-and-down flute. Because its wider opening at the top of the glass diffuses aromas rather than focusing them toward the nose, I can’t see that this design is an improvement over the standard flute, except that its wider mouth allows sipping without bumping one’s nose against the rim.

An improvement over the flute’s constricted aromatics, the tulip glass features a bowl that curves outward slightly above the midpoint, enabling some space for swirling, then curves back in at the top, directing the aromatics toward the nose.

Tulip2

Tulip

Starting around 2010, sommeliers and heads of Champagne houses such as Krug began advocating drinking Champagne, which is a white wine, out of a white wine glass, in order to taste the wine’s fullness in a way that’s impossible in a flute. The wine glass’s bowl is wide enough (and wider than the tulip glass) for the wine to breathe, open, and develop, and release its aromas and flavors. The inward-sloping sides at the top of the glass deliver the aromas into the nose and the flavors onto the palate in a much richer way than a flute can. Because of this, the wine’s finish is longer as well.

This past week a friend and I shared a bottle of Agrapart Les 7 Crus Brut Blanc de Blancs NV at the newly opened Chelsea Market (Manhattan) location of Laura Maniec’s Corkbuzz wine bar. (The “7” in the wine’s name refers not to the seven permitted grape varieties in the Champagne AOC but to the seven villages from which the grapes come: Avize, Cramant, Oger, Oiry, Avenay Val d’Or, Bergères-les-Vertus, and Mardeuil.) When the sommelier asked if we wanted the wine poured into flutes or white wine glasses, we replied, “Both, please.” We wanted to conduct our own taste test of the two glasses. As we expected, the white wine glass was far superior to the flute. We could not really smell anything in the wine in the narrow flute because its slender shape prevented the wine from coming into contact with oxygen; consequently, the aromas could not open or develop. In contrast, the white wine glass gave the wine room to open, breathe, and release its concentration of aromas. And the wider opening at the top of the glass gave each of us the room to swirl the wine and tilt the glass toward our face without spilling the contents; we had room to really put our nose into the glass and smell the aromas. Because more than 70 percent of what you taste with your mouth comes from your olfactory sense, being able to smell the wine is very important to your overall enjoyment and appreciation of Champagne!

If you’re in the fortunate position of being able to drink older, more complex, vintage Champagnes, then you owe it to yourself and to the wine to pour that precious liquid into a white wine glass in order to savor its elegance, depth, and aromas. Remember, that wine has spent anywhere from six to twenty years or more inside a bottle. How else will it open and reveal its concentration of complex aromas of yeastiness, toastiness, and brioche unless it’s allowed to come into contact with oxygen? And served at the right temperature, by the way (50°F/10°C)! Serve your Champagne too cold, and you will suppress its aromatics.

Dom Pérignon      P2-1998

Kate Moss’s festivities aside, Richard Geoffroy, cellar master at Dom Pérignon, must have to turn a blind eye to the colossal lost opportunity represented by pouring P2-1998 into a coupe, even one modeled on Kate Moss’s left breast. P2-1998 spent 12 years aging and maturing on its lees (the spent cells of the yeast that gave their bodies to the wine) and an additional two years resting postdisgorgement (after the yeast plug is removed) in the Dom Pérignon cellars. Earlier this year, Geoffroy described P2-1998 like this: “The 1998 is about energy: the wine is already 16 years to the vintage. You could well expect the maturity of the wine to be based on weight and power—paradoxically, it is not. It is full, packed with energy—so lifted, so Dom Pérignon, so penetrating; energetic and dancing, nothing weighty, nothing tired or oxidative.” I hope the guests at 34 at the christening of Kate Moss’s coupe in October will appreciate these characteristics of the remarkable wine they are privileged to drink, coupe or no. 

Benoît Gouez observed that “if you pour one bottle [of Champagne] into ten different glasses, you will have ten different wines. The glassware does affect a lot the tasting experience.”

But if your budget, as does mine, prevents you from regularly spending a minimum of $45 for a bottle of more complex Champagne, then it’s perfectly fine to drink your more simple sparkling wine from something other than a white wine glass! Personally, I’m on the lookout for a hybrid glass—something between a narrow flute and a small white wine glass. A Riesling glass, perhaps, or else a voluptuous tulip glass, both of which are wider than a flute. If anyone has any suggestions, please send them my way! My most important considerations, as I evaluate glasses, are: How does the glass feel in my hand? Is it beautiful to look at? Do I enjoy holding it and drinking from it? I want my chosen glass to feel special—and playing into that equation of elegance are overall aesthetics: the lightness and thinness of the glass and the lip, and the glass’s height. And most important: Does its shape allow the wine’s aromas and flavors to develop?

While I’m looking for my ideal glass, I’d like everyone to take a minute to remember Lily Bollinger, who ran the Bollinger Champagne house from 1941 to 1971, and what she said about drinking her Champagne. I wonder what shape of glass she used?

I drink my Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.

Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.

When I have company, I consider it obligatory.

I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am.

Otherwise I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.

Madame Lily Bollinger

Madame Lily Bollinger

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

Flatiron Wines & Spirits: Wines of Terroir and Tradition in the Heart of Manhattan

The folks at JancisRobinson.com are running a writing contest in support of independent wine retailers worldwide. They asked readers to submit an account of their favorite indie wine shop. The winning writer and winning retailer will be announced in September. Until then, Jancis and her colleagues are publishing one entry a day from those they consider the best. I was thrilled to see my submission published today (August 19, 2014) on JancisRobinson.com! Here it is.

Flatiron LogoOn the stretch of Broadway that extends from the Union Square Greenmarket to Madison Square Park, and within view of the much-photographed Flatiron Building, you’ll find a gem of a wine store: Flatiron Wines & Spirits. The first time I set foot into this shop, shortly after its opening in May 2012, and explored its selection of more than 2,000 (and growing) wines, I, like many others, wanted to buy every bottle in the store. This shop stocks my kind of wine: wines of depth and nuance that express a sense of the place they come from, made with minimal manipulation. The selection emphasizes organic, natural, biodynamic, and sustainable wines, though wines that don’t fit neatly into these categories are stocked as well. As Beau Rapier and Dan Weber, the shop’s founding managers, said, “We’re grower-driven and not dogmatic.”

Photo by Andrew Chen

Photo by Andrew Chen

Flatiron’s well-curated selection of wines and more than 200 artisanal spirits is displayed on custom wooden racks in an attractive open space with exposed brick walls, high ceilings, and large windows. Highlighted wine regions include Burgundy, Beaujolais, the Loire Valley, the Rhône Valley, Champagne, Piedmont, Tuscany, the Mosel, and California.

Wines from other regions and countries are available as well: Rioja, Bordeaux, Alsace, the Jura, the Wachau, Greece, Lebanon, Slovenia, and distinctive cool-climate wines from the Southern Hemisphere, including a few wines from Uruguay. Flatiron also stocks what just may be the largest selection in New York City of natural wines from Sicily. The store promotes newly emerging wine regions, such as Ribeira Sacra in Spain, and carries a wide selection of wines produced locally in New York State. You can also find kosher and sparkling wines, dessert wines, and sake.

Prices are competitive and fair. The bulk of Flatiron’s selection is at the $15 and above price point, but the store also features three tables of $15 and under wines from around the world—red, white, and rosé—that deliver value and quality.

Subscribers to the weekly e-mail newsletter are the first to learn about new wines coming into the shop and so get first crack at prearrival offers on the wines (many of which are highly allocated), and at special-discount pricing.

Flatiron holds free weekly tastings, Friday through Sunday (though a bottle of something delicious is usually open every day from 5 pm). Bubbles are spotlighted on Fridays, the wines of a particular producer or region on Saturdays, and spirits on Sundays, and all are offered at a discount during the tastings.

Customers can subscribe to eight e-newsletters on single topics: Burgundy, Champagne, Riesling, Italy, U.S., rare wines, “geek” wines, and spirits. Each newsletter features an informative article written by a staff member about the wines offered at discounted prices for subscribers.

Flatiron’s staff is its heart and soul. Each individual (special shout-out to Sarah, Susannah, Rosemary, and Andrew!) is knowledgeable, passionate, experienced, and articulate about wine and can suggest a bottle to suit what you’re looking for or guide you to something new to try, regardless of your level of knowledge about wine. Martin Texier, son of winemaker Eric Texier, interned at the store for a few months this past year. Staff members contribute to the newsletters and the interesting and educational blog posts on the shop’s website. And they are friendly and welcoming! On my second-ever visit, Sarah and Andrew greeted me by name. Living as I do among more than 1.6 million people on the island of Manhattan, I was bowled over to receive that level of attentive customer service at a shop I had visited only once before.

The store’s creators envisioned a space where they and their customers could explore and learn about wine in a fun, friendly, communal setting. Hosting free tastings with visiting winemakers is one way they realize this goal. Taking place in the back room around a big wooden farm table set with slate boards bearing cheeses, charcuterie, and baguettes, these tastings let customers mingle informally with the winemakers and one another while tasting and eating. One of my favorite of these stand-up tastings was billed as a New Wave California Wine Party and welcomed Nathan Roberts from Arnot-Roberts, Sam Bilbro from Idlewild, Ryan Glaab from Ryme Cellars, and Pax Mahle from Wind Gap.

Photo by Susan Berkowitz

Photo by Susan Berkowitz

The big communal table sees more formal and focused sit-down tasting seminars as well, also free, with winemakers who’ve included Patrick Piuze from Chablis, Benjamin Leroux of Comte Armand (Burgundy), Jean-Herve Chiquet from Champagne Jacquesson, and Alex Bautista from Cellar Credo de Recaredo. Imagine my surprise when, at Peter Veyder-Malberg’s seminar on the terroir of the Wachau, I found myself sitting across the table from Yo-Yo Ma!

Through their generosity of spirit at these free tasting parties and educational sit-down seminars, our Flatiron hosts foster a welcoming atmosphere of camaraderie and goodwill that inspires their customers’ goodwill in return. This was demonstrated one night at Flatiron’s publication party for Ray Walker and his book, The Road to Burgundy. Flatiron did not have any of Ray’s wines for attendees to taste, but a customer, who has been a supporter of Ray’s endeavors since his first vintage in 2009, brought one of her own (very expensive) bottles of Ray’s Pinot Noir for all of us to try.

Flatiron also hosts intimate wine dinners with winemakers at local restaurants where the chefs create menus that perfectly complement the wines. Producers who’ve been featured at these special occasions include Johannes Selbach, Steve Edmunds, Pierre Larmandier, Domaine Huet, Chateau Simone, and Montenidoli.

The shop offers free neighborhood delivery, New York City delivery, and shipping to elsewhere in the U.S. Customers can also shop on the store’s comprehensive website.

Flatiron Wines & Spirits has been featured in the New York Times, Food & Wine, Financial Times, The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, and on Dr. Vino.com.

Flatiron’s founders wanted to create the wine store where they would want to shop. They’ve certainly succeeded in creating the wine store where I want to shop. See for yourself: after you experience their impressive selection, excellent customer service, and educational tasting events, Flatiron Wines & Spirits will be the place where you want to shop too.

Flatiron Wines & Spirits | 929 Broadway | New York  NY  10010 | 212.477.1315

http://www.Flatiron-Wines.com | info@Flatiron-Wines.com

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

What a Little Sulfur Can Do

Those of you who read my post about Martin Texier and making wine with no added sulfur will remember his suggestion that the best way to understand what sulfur does to a wine is to taste one that has had two bottlings, one sulfured and the other not. I don’t know how common it is for producers to bottle two versions of the same wine, but happily for the purposes of my tasting experiment, Domaine Lapierre (be sure to watch the video on the home page, which includes a look at the vineyards and winemaking, and footage with both Marcel and Mathieu Lapierre), located in the Beaujolais cru of Morgon, is one such producer. 

Cru Beaujolais is the highest quality category of classification of wine from this region. Gamay grapes grow in granite-based soils of ten specific areas in the northern part of the district, seven of which are villages: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, and Régnié. The crus of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly are not villages but vineyard areas around Mont Brouilly (a small mountain), and the tenth cru, Moulin-à-Vent, was named for the local windmill. For an amusing lesson with winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt on the correct pronunciation of the ten crus, watch this short video from Ask a Winemaker. (Ask a Winemaker is an excellent library of hundreds of video interviews with winemakers speaking about their craft.)

The Lapierre family has been making wine in Beaujolais for more than 100 years. Marcel Lapierre (1950–2010) took over from his father in 1973. In 1981 he met Jules Chauvet, now regarded as the father of the natural wine movement. Inspired by Chauvet, who became like a spiritual godfather to him, Marcel Lapierre converted the family vineyards to organic and biodynamic production and began making wine with indigenous yeasts and little to no added sulfur. The average age of the domaine’s vines is 70 years. Since Marcel’s death in 2010, his son, Mathieu (now the fourth-generation winemaker in the family), runs the domaine and continues to make “natural, authentic, living wines from pure [Gamay] grapes . . . that express the specificity of the Morgon terroir.

Both bottlings of the Lapierre Morgon are unfiltered. According to the domaine’s website, one has a small amount of sulfur dioxide added “in order to stabilise the wine microbiologically” for purchasers who do not have a wine cellar (or, I suppose, a wine refrigerator), and the other has no added sulfur “in order to guarantee a ‘pure grape’ wine.” This no-sulfur version must be stored at 55°F (13°C).

A by-product of fermentation, sulfur is always naturally present in wine. Because it is also a preservative, an antioxidant, and an antibacterial agent, winemakers have used sulfur—in varying quantities—for centuries. Sulfites absorb oxygen and inhibit aerobic bacterial growth that can cause flaws and faults in wine. A bit of sulfur added at bottling protects wine during transportation and storage, when harmful temperature fluctuations can occur.

But sulfur has also been overused by some winemakers as a way to cover flaws and problems in their wines. Some people claim they can taste or smell an excess use of sulfur in a wine, especially by the presence of a characteristic “burned” smell, like burned matches.

To grow grapes and make wine without sulfur, except perhaps for a small amount added at bottling, requires that the grower and winemaker be absolutely rigorous, exacting, and very clean in all of their vineyard and cellar practices. The majority of producers who make wine in this way, including Marcel Lapierre and now his son, Mathieu, also use organically or biodynamically grown grapes and minimal intervention in both vineyard and cellar. The result is clean, nonmanipulated wine that tastes pure and expresses its grape varietal and place of origin.

To go a step further and not use sulfur at bottling requires even more conscientiousness and artisanal care from the grower and winemaker at every step in the process.

A Blind Tasting

I have tasted wine made without added sulfur but had never had the opportunity to taste and compare two bottlings of the same wine, one sulfured and one not. Earlier this month I was fortunate to find two such bottles of Lapierre’s 2012 Morgon. The front labels are identical:

Front labels

The back labels reveal the difference between the two. The sulfured bottling has a label from importer Kermit Lynch and a capital letter S in the lower left corner, which I assume indicates that it’s the sulfured version.

Kermit

The back label on the unsulfured bottling says “Sans sulfite ajouté ni filtration” [Without added sulfite or filtration], and there is a small capital letter N in the lower left corner of the label, indicating, perhaps, nonsulfitée.

Sans sulfur

Both bottles were sealed with red wax. I opened them and then sheathed each one in a black bag taped closed at the top. When my friend arrived to taste with me, I asked her to rotate the two now-covered bottles around and around each other and then place them side-by-side on the table. We labeled them #1 and #2. I poured a couple of ounces of each wine into our glasses. Here’s what we observed:

APPEARANCE

Wine #1: A medium-intensity, clear, and bright ruby color, tinged with purple. Brighter than wine #2, more vibrant. Even though the wine was unfiltered, it was transparent. I held the glass in front of a page of text, and I could read the text through the wine, all the way from the rim through the core.

Wine #2: Darker and duller than #1; a more garnet red. I could read text through the wine only at the rim.

NOSE

Wine #1: Youthful and very fragrant. The wine smelled of fresh red fruits: red cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. Unexpectedly, the wine also smelled earthy and herbal. This finding surprised us because from its vibrant color, we were expecting to smell only fruit. There was a lot going on in this glass!

Wine #2: We had difficulty smelling anything at all in this wine, other than a bit of spice—cinnamon, perhaps. No fruit. The nose seemed closed and tight.

PALATE

Wine #1: Tasted fresh, lively, vibrant, and pure, with a lip-smacking acidity, which carried the finish through. Acid, tannin, and alcohol were in balance.

Wine #2: Tasted duller than #1. The body was heavier as well, because the wine lacked wine #1’s acidity. The wine tasted of dried flowers (violets, roses), in contrast to the fresh flowers of wine #1. Wine #2 also tasted to us as though it were higher in alcohol than #1; we could feel a slight bit of heat from alcohol. This made no sense to us, because we knew that both wines were a low 12.5 percent alcohol, according to the front labels on the bottles.

CONCLUSION

The wines tasted like two completely different wines.

On both the nose and the palate, it seemed to us that wine #2 had a veil over it—as though we couldn’t get directly to the wine itself because it was being obscured by something. We could taste it only at a remove. It was not revealing its full self to us. We thought that with time and air, wine #2 might become more expressive and more similar to wine #1, but it did not.

However, we both liked wine #2 and agreed that if we had tried it on its own, without comparison to wine #1, we would have been happy with it.

But when it came to choosing a favorite, we both preferred wine #1 because of its vibrancy, freshness, presence of fruit, and good acidity.

We concluded that wine #1 had to be the nonsulfured bottling.

Which Wine Was Which?

We removed the black bags and saw that, indeed, the bottling with no added sulfur was wine #1.

Domaine Lapierre’s website does not specify what quantity of sulfur was used, other than to say that “only limited amounts of sulfur are added.” But knowing how committed this domaine is to producing wines that are as natural as possible, I’m sure that the quantity would have been minimal. If that’s true, then our blind tasting experiment was very instructive in showing how much the addition of even a small amount of sulfur can completely alter a wine’s color, aroma, and taste.

But again, this contrast was very marked because we were mindfully comparing two bottlings of the same wine. Had I tasted the sulfured Morgon on its own, without comparison to its unsulfured kin, I would not have been able to discern the presence of sulfur in it.

Try our experiment for yourself and taste firsthand what a little sulfur can do.

Does anyone know of other producers who make two bottlings of the same wine, one sulfured and one not?

Updates, July 2014: I want to share with everyone some interesting information I received from readers after I published this post.

One reader, Andrew, was fortunate to taste the 2013 Morgon with Mathieu Lapierre this past May. Andrew’s experience and tasting of the unsulfured version of the wine was similar to mine. He said that “the vegetative and mineral elements were very nicely present and accounted for, both on the nose and palate.” He found the wine “fairly big and almost lacy in structure,” by which he meant that underneath the fruit and vegetation was a structure that had a lightness that tied everything together.

In contrast, Andrew thought the sulfured Morgon was “jittery, not focused; it had a bitter element, almost a bit grenachy.” Mathieu told Andrew that the fruit masks the taste of the sulfur, and also that he thought the sulfured version might age better.

Damien Casten, coproducer of “Ask a Winemaker,” sent this link to a series of interviews with winemakers on both sides of the sulfur question. Particularly enlightening for me was Frank Cornelissen’s segment titled “Is Sulfur Needed in Winemaking?” In the interview, Frank says, “Sulfur stabilizes a wine, but stabilizing a wine is, in some ways, putting a wine in prison. The wines will never have the same development in the glass. A wine made without any sulfur added—from vinification up to bottling—has an incredible change in aromas.” Frank believes that not using sulfur enables his wines to more precisely express their terroir. He does not want to put anything in his wines that will cover up something or push something else out.

Damien also sent a link to some additional engaging video pronunciation lessons of regional grapes with Jo Landron from Muscadet, Alessandra Bera from Piedmont, and Sophie and Maxime Barmès Buecher from Alsace.

And finally, Jeff Patten of Flatiron Wines told me that Thierry Allemand bottles sulfured and unsulfured versions of his Syrah from his holdings in Reynard in the northern Rhône. Jeff visited Allemand a year ago and tasted his sulfured and unsulfured 2002 Reynard. Jeff told me, “Initially, the result was exactly the same as yours: the non-sulphured bottling was more expressive. But after about 15 minutes of swirling, the sulphured bottling caught up to the other bottling, and it became very difficult to distinguish the two.”

Many thanks to Andrew, Damien, and Jeff for sharing their information and experiences, from which we can all learn a lot!

NYC Public Tasting of More Than 30 Natural, Biodynamic, and Organic Wines on June 15th!

PRESTIGE WINE LOUNGE_2

Will you be in Manhattan on Sunday afternoon, June 15th? If so, then please come and enjoy a taste of summer in your glass! From 4 to 7:30 pm, The Cleveland Restaurant (located at 25 Cleveland Place, between Spring and Kenmare Streets in Nolita) will host a special tasting of natural, biodynamic, and organic wines in its spacious back garden. Spend the afternoon tasting and discovering handcrafted wines made with minimal intervention that express a sense of the place they come from.

You will taste more than 30 wines made by winemakers from around the world. There will be wines produced from grapes grown on volcanic slopes, wines made by vignerons who have replaced their tractors with horses, and wines whose grapes were harvested and vinified according to the phases of the moon. Also available for tasting will be digestifs made from hand-foraged fruits. The Cleveland’s chef, Max Sussman, will provide delicious snacks.

Prestige Wine Lounge–Garden Series, Volume 1, is the first in a series of public wine tastings organized by Thibault Chauvet, of ZRS Wines, to introduce people to these artisanally made natural wines, the men and women who make them, and the importers, retailers, and restaurants that sell them. Thibault wants to build a community in New York of lovers of these wines and this type of winemaking.

Five of the leading importers of natural, biodynamic, and organic wines will be on hand: Louis/Dressner Selections, Zev Rovine Selections, Selection Massale, Fifi’s Import, and Nicolas Palazzi from PM Spirits.

For tickets, $35, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/prestige-wine-lounge-garden-series-volume-1-tickets-11668890967

For more information, contact Thibault Chauvet at 347-703-1213 or thibault@zrswines.com.

And for an in-depth look at the beliefs and methods of one French maker of natural wines, please read my blog post on Martin Texier and the lively, pure wines he’s making without any added sulfur: http://wp.me/p4o5TE-3u

Taste for yourself, and understand where your wine comes from and how it’s made!

See you next Sunday!

Martin Texier: On Making Wine Without Added Sulfur

Thanks to Brooklyn Wine Exchange for this great image!

Thanks to Brooklyn Wine Exchange for this great image!

For those of us who prefer to drink nonmanipulated wines made with organic grapes and minimal intervention and that express their varietal and place of origin—so-called natural wines—the addition of sulfur dioxide (SO2) to our wines is a controversial topic. We prefer wines that taste as fresh and pure as possible, with beautiful aromatics, and made by conscientious and attentive winemakers. Most of us do not want wines flawed by the yeast Brettanomyces (Brett, for short), which imparts smells of barnyard, “sweaty saddle,” or gamey animal aromas. Nor do we want our wine to smell like nail polish or a mouse cage—a fault of volatile acidity (VA). The conventional remedy for these faults in wine is to add sulfur during grape harvesting and winemaking and at bottling (to protect the wines for transportation). 

Sulfur has a bad rep in the natural wine world. A naturally occurring compound, sulfur is an antioxidant, a preservative, and an antibacterial agent. Because sulfites absorb oxygen, they inhibit aerobic bacterial growth that can cause flaws and faults in wine. But some people claim that sulfites give them headaches (though I’ve also heard that it’s the histamines, not sulfites, that can cause headaches) or an allergy-like reaction. Others say they can detect an excess of sulfur in wine by a characteristic “burned” smell, like burned matches.

Last week I attended a very interesting talk at Brooklyn Wine Exchange presented by Martin Texier on the subject of making wine without added sulfur. This welcoming and neighborly wine shop offers tastings and weekly free classes in its spacious learning center. We tasted three of Martin’s 2012 wines, all made without added sulfur, not even at bottling.

Martin Texier

Martin Texier

Martin is the son of Eric Texier, who makes renowned natural wines from the Rhône Valley, in southeastern France. Eric has always worked organically. His grapes come from about 95 percent old vines, and in his quest to make pure, clear, precise wines that express where they come from, he strives to intervene as little as possible. Eric is a careful winemaker who aspires to use no chemicals. However, he is not dogmatic about using sulfur. If the wine needs a little help to be safe in the bottle, Eric will add some sulfur. 

Eric Texier is a cool guy-1

Eric Texier (Photo by Jarred Gild; Louis/Dressner Selections website)

Martin told us that winemakers have been using sulfur for at least two centuries. In the vineyard, they spray sulfur on the grape leaves as a fungicide against oidium (powdery mildew). Inside the winery, they clean barrels with sulfur to kill Brettanomyces yeast, and during winemaking sulfur can be used at several times when the grapes and/or liquid are most vulnerable to being damaged by exposure to air:

– Immediately after the grapes are picked and placed in the open vat

– Before transferring the stable wine from the fermentation tank to the barrel

– During racking—the process of transferring the wine from one barrel (off its lees, or dead yeast cells) into a new, clean barrel

– Just before bottling, as a conservative agent

Could Winemakers Use Less Sulfur? Was It Possible to Make Wines in a More Natural Way, Without Chemicals?

In 1967, a microbiologist named Jules Chauvet, who was living in the Beaujolais and making wine with his friends, asked himself these questions and decided to find out. Now known as the father of the natural wine movement, Chauvet realized that the prevailing practice of adding sulfur to the just-harvested grapes in the vat was killing a lot of the indigenous yeast—naturally present on the grape skins—that eat the sugars in the grape juice and start the fermentation. Some vignerons used so much sulfur that they had to add cultivated, commercial yeast to the grapes to get the fermentation started.

Chauvet understood that killing the indigenous yeast of the region meant that the winemakers were removing terroir characteristics from their wine. Martin defines terroir as “history, the soil and climate, the grape varietals, and the tradition of the region, which is very closely linked to the soil. People  grow the particular grape varietals and use the winemaking techniques that fit the soil and climate of the specific place. In this way, their wines are a nice expression of the fruit and the soil.” The indigenous yeast present on the grapes of any region are part of that terroir equation too.

Chauvet realized that although not using sulfur would preserve the indigenous yeast and allow the wines to express their terroir, other problems would result—namely, Brett, VA, and oxidation. Chauvet never said, however, that winemakers should use zero sulfur. He was not dogmatic in that way. In fact, he believed that using sulfur before bottling was a good thing.

In the years since 1967, vignerons who share a philosophy of wanting to make wines that express their terroir and use few to no chemicals have been experimenting and perfecting various techniques and methods, one of which is to use the enzyme lysozyme. Lysozyme, which is found in large amounts in egg white, kills bacteria, particularly the bacteria that are responsible for malolactic fermentation, or “malo.” Just after alcoholic fermentation stops, a second fermentation—malolactic fermentation—starts. This process transforms malic acid, which is green and racy, into lactic acid, which is more round and soft and imparts a butteriness to wine. In itself, malo is not a bad thing. However, if the bacteria don’t have enough malic acid to attack, and if there is still some residual sugar left in the wine, then the bacteria will attack the sugar. This process creates VA, which is the main problem for winemakers who don’t use sulfur.

If not using sulfur or lysozyme, there are other things that winemakers can do to avoid VA and other wine faults:

Cool down the fermentation tanks: The bacteria that attack malic acid can only do so at a certain temperature, around 30°C (86°F). In cooler tanks, the yeast that start alcoholic fermentation will still do their work (though more slowly), but malolactic fermentation will not start. A lot of cellars are built underground for this reason, to ensure that the temperature is not too high during fermentation.

Harvest some of the grapes a little bit earlier, when they’re still green and contain a lot of malic acid. If the fermenting juice lacks enough malic acid for the bacteria to attack, thus leaving the wine vulnerable to VA, then winemakers, including Martin’s father, Eric, will add these unripe green grapes, rich in malic acid, to the juice.

Use carbonic maceration: This fermentation technique was originally used only by winemakers in the Beaujolais. Small quantities of whole clusters of uncrushed grapes are placed inside a sealed tank, into which carbon dioxide is pumped, creating an anaerobic environment (that is, without oxygen). The carbon dioxide stimulates fermentation at an intracellular level, inside the grapes. Rather than being pressed, as in a traditional fermentation, the grapes burst as the sugar and malic acid are converted into alcohol. Wines made in this way tend to be light, fresh, low in alcohol, and very aromatic and fruity.

Carbonic maceration makes the wine a little more reductive than a regular fermentation, which means that the wine could smell very slightly of sulfur compounds. But as Martin explains, “That, for the winemaker, is a safety because you have a higher risk of the wine getting oxidized when not using sulfur [sulfur is an antioxidant]. By using carbonic maceration, you’re adding a little reduction to prevent oxidation.”

Harvest the grapes by hand. Machine harvesting can crush the grapes, and fermentation can start prematurely by the yeast present on the grape skins. Machine harvesting can also enable the juice to come into contact with air, causing problems with oxidation. These are two reasons why industrial winemakers add sulfur to just-harvested grapes. “The juice is in contact with the air, it’s starting to ferment, and you can have problems with cleanliness,” Martin said. With hand harvesting, the grapes are more likely to stay intact, and fermentation will not start early.

“These ways to save your wines are very artisanal,” Martin said. “I know very few people who do this. Ninety-five percent or more of wine is made using sulfur in the ways that I outlined. Wine is the only product in Europe that doesn’t need to specify its list of ingredients on the back label. The only things that are mandatory to include are sulfites and anything that comes from animal products, such as lysozyme.”

Martin said that some wines made without added sulfur are appearing in European supermarkets, but they can be full of chemicals.

“Just because a wine has no sulfur added doesn’t mean it’s good or ‘natural,’” he said. “Don’t assume that ‘natural wine’ has no added sulfur, and don’t assume that wine made without added sulfur is better. Making wine without adding sulfur is not easy. It’s a big risk that you take. It can lead to a lot of faults and problems. Most natural winemakers do use sulfur, but in 99 percent of cases, they use it only before bottling.”

Martin himself does not avoid wines made with added sulfur, but only when it’s used at bottling. Not before.

The reason many natural winemakers use sulfur at bottling is to protect the wine against temperature fluctuations during transportation, handling, and storage. Wine, being a living product, is sensitive to rough handling and high temperatures, and naturally made wines with little or no added sulfur are especially so. They must be transported and stored at a cool temperature, preferably 55°F (13°C).

How do you know what the winemaker’s vineyard and cellar practices are? You must ask. Ask the winemaker, ask the importer, ask at the wine shop. But even then, you may not be given correct or truthful information. Read the back label on the bottle, which in the case of artisanally made wines, often includes a statement from the winemaker about his or her vineyard and cellar practices.

Accepting What the Vintage Brings You

If you’re a vigneron aspiring to make clean wines that express their terroir, then the vintage will tell you whether you need to add sulfur, according to Martin. 2011 and 2012 were good vintages, giving nice fruit and high acidity. In fact, 2012 was a dream year for every winemaker: “2012 was such a perfect year that we didn’t have much to do. Everything was perfect: We put the grapes in the vat, fermentation happened, we took the juice out of the vat and put it into a tank, and at no moment was the temperature too high, or Brett too high, or fermentation happening too fast. We didn’t have to filter. There was no problem.”

But not every vintage is like 2012. In other years, rain, hail, or humidity can cause high levels of oidium or rot in the vineyard. Or temperatures can get too high. The grapes are already in bad condition. “Using sulfur in the vineyard won’t help you then,” Martin said. Inside the winery, malolactic fermentation can start early, before alcoholic fermentation is finished, leading to VA. In a bad year, Martin prefers to drink wine made by a winemaker who is honest in saying that he or she used sulfur at times other than just before bottling to make sure the wine is clean: “In the end, maybe the wine has lost some terroir, but it is clean and there’s a nice perfume. I prefer that to a wine from that same hard year that wasn’t controlled at all, and all you smell is Brett or VA. Both Brett and VA are very common in natural wines that aren’t made properly, and both destroy terroir.”

Martin observed that, fortunately for winemakers in the Rhône, the region’s strong mistral wind dries the vineyards, giving healthy grapes without much effort on the farmers’ part. He said that in the Loire, which is colder and lacks a mistral of its own, it’s much harder to keep grapes healthy without using chemicals in the vineyards. “It’s easier being a winemaker in the Rhône Valley than in the Loire Valley,” he said.

Sulfur Is Everywhere

There is actually no such thing as sulfur-free wine. Sulfur is always naturally present in wine and is a byproduct of fermentation. European regulations authorize winemakers to add up to 160 milligrams per liter of sulfur for reds and 200 milligrams per liter for whites. For makers of Rieslings and Alsatian wines, which have a lot of residual sugar and thus a high risk of refermenting if the yeast are not killed, the allowable limit of sulfur is up to 400 milligrams per liter. In contrast, natural winemakers like Martin’s father, Eric, and winemakers in the Beaujolais use between 5 and 20 milligrams per liter.

Martin added no sulfur at all, not even at bottling, to his three 2012 wines that we tasted at Brooklyn Wine Exchange. Some might read that statement and conclude that he is a hard-core natural winemaker. But he says that is not the case: “I am not a defender of crazy wines just for the sake of being sulfur free.” He cautioned us not to associate wines made with no added sulfur as being either necessarily a good thing “or always kind of funky. A lot of Grand Cru wines are made without added sulfur. It’s a matter of being careful and believing that it’s not OK to have faults in your ‘natural’ wine.”

Martin is striving to make wine without any added sulfur, not even at bottling. He started experimenting with making wine in 2009, but “the wines were so bad that I couldn’t drink them.” He learned from his mistakes and continued to improve through the 2010 and 2011 vintages.

What Does Wine Made Without Added Sulfur Taste Like?

Martin suggests that the best way to experience what sulfur does to a wine is to try a wine that has had two bottlings, one sulfured and the other not, such as Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon. Both versions of this wine are unfiltered. On Domaine Lapierre’s website the bottling with no added sulfur is described like this: “No filtration or added sulphur in order to guarantee a ‘pure grape’ wine. This very fine wine must be conserved at less than 14°C [57°F].” The sulfured wine is described like this: “A small amount of added sulphur in order to stabilise the wine microbiologically. This wine is designed for those of you without a cellar.”

Of these two Morgon bottlings, Martin says, “You can taste the difference, the no-sulfur one having more fruit and seems more lively right now. I had the same experience with a rosé I made back home with my brother: one bottling with sulfur and the other not, and the same result. After two years, the no-sulfur one is still better.” Martin acknowledged, however, that with more years of bottle age, or with transportation abroad, that could change.

We tasted Martin’s three wines from the 2012 vintage, all made with his father’s grapes from the Rhône and all aged in stainless steel (to prevent contact with oxygen and preserve the fresh, fruity characteristics):

3 bottles

Left to right: Anahi, Eluney, and Yelen

Anahi: 100 percent Marsanne, alc. 12.5 percent. Marsanne is a grape from the northern Rhône and is almost always used in small amounts and paired with its sister grape, Roussanne. For me, it was a rare treat to try a wine made from 100 percent Marsanne. The grape has a more apply character than Roussanne and is a bit softer, with lower acidity.

Eluney: 50 percent Grenache and 50 percent Cinsault, alc. 12.5 percent, made using carbonic maceration. Grenache and Cinsault are very common varietals in the southern Rhône. Both are fruity and have a bit of spice; Cinsault has higher acidity than Grenache.

Yelen: 100 percent Syrah (a richer grape than either Grenache or Cinsault), alc. 13 percent, made using carbonic maceration, which is not traditional in the northern Rhône.

All three wines were beautifully clean and pure, and tasted very fresh, with good acidity (“but not crazy acidity,” as Martin commented), low alcohol, and low tannins. Both reds, despite going through carbonic maceration and being aged in stainless steel, showed no signs of reduction. All three wines had no added sulfur, not even at bottling. All were completely naturally made and very delicious.

But Martin stressed that these wines are not in the style of his father’s wines. “These are the simpler version, and these are carbonic maceration, which my father doesn’t do. The wines are fresh in taste, easy to drink, but not complex like my father’s wines.”

The good acidity in the wines may have been due to his father’s practice of always harvesting a little early—“a matter of only one or two days, but it’s very important. My father likes to have more acidity in his wines because he thinks acidity is a better indicator of terroir than ripeness or alcohol. In only two days, you have a big difference.”

When asked how long his wines would age, Martin explained that it’s the alcohol, acidity, and tannins that help wines to age, and because his wines are low in those components, and also because no sulfur was added at bottling, they will not age much beyond five years.

What’s in a Name?

The label design on Martin’s wines raised many questions for me. First, the meaning of the wine’s name, L’indigène Sulfureux. He explained that the name came about during a family brainstorming dinner. Eric and his wife, Laurence, and their three children (Martin, his brother, and sister) had been discussing French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s classic 1955 memoir, Tristes Tropiques, which is partly an account of the time he spent with some of the indigenous tribes of Brazil’s Amazon Basin. The family had already decided on the wine’s name, L’indigène Sulfureux. L’indigène refers to the indigenous people in Lévi-Strauss’s book and also to the indigenous yeast naturally present on the grapes used in Martin’s wines, which start the fermentation. As for Sulfureux, Martin explained: “It’s a pun. In French, sulfureux means ‘has a lot of character,’ strongly opinionated, and sulfurous like the Devil. There’s no sulfur in the wines, so obviously, they are not that sulfurous. This wine is a little bit like this—a rebellious wine, a wine with a lot of character, yet no sulfur.”

I asked Martin whether the wine’s name could also refer to “native sulfur”—that is, the sulfur naturally produced during the fermentation of grapes. He replied that although the family was aware of that meaning, in French the name L’indigène Sulfureux could be understood only as a noun (l’indigène) and an adjective (Sulfureux).

The drawing on the label: This was done by a friend of his mother’s. The original drawing depicted a nude woman, but the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) would not approve that version, so the “official” label was redrawn with the woman covered up. But once the wines reach the US, they will bear the “unofficial” label, with the nude woman.

The TTB-Approved Label

The TTB-Approved Label

The Unofficial Label

The Unofficial Label

The names of the individual bottlings (Anahi, Eluney, Yelen): During their discussion of Tristes Tropiques, the Texier family was trying to invent names that sounded like names of indigenous tribal people from Brazil. The names are made up, but they were inspired by names found in Lévi-Strauss’s book.

Sui Generis: This is the company name as given on the label. The Latin translation is, loosely, giving birth to itself, something so unique that it does not fit into the broader context and cannot be compared with anything else. The reference here is to the native yeast and the wine generating itself.

What’s Next for Martin?

For the past year, Martin has been living in Brooklyn and working two jobs: for the New York–based importer and distributor David Bowler Wine, which specializes in naturally made, small-batch “wines that reflect something about where they are made and who made them” and also at the excellent Manhattan wine shop Flatiron Wines & Spirits, whose mission is to provide artisanally made wines that convey a sense of place and tradition.

Martin is soon to return to France and in the fall will enter enology school in Beaune, located in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. He will also continue his own personal study of permaculture, the philosophy developed by Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan and Bill Mollison from Australia, which Martin believes is one of the next big things in viticulture. Permaculture’s goal is to increase yields in agriculture without using any kind of forced activity: no monoculture, no plowing, no chemicals or insecticides. Weeds and invasive plants and  insects are kept in check by planting clover or other complementary plants between rows and vines, a practice that also gives nitrogen to the soil, revitalizing it and encouraging microorganisms. Martin said that a handful of soil from this kind of “living” vineyard smells rich and good, whereas soil from a vineyard that has had chemicals applied is extremely dry and smells like dust.

To me, the tenets of permaculture seem very closely related to those of biodynamics, in that the farm or vineyard is regarded as one integrated, living, breathing organism (plants, animals, insects, trees) working with nature in perfect equilibrium. Where the two methods differ, however, is in biodynamics’ emphasis on the lunar calendar to guide the timing of farming activities, as well as the use of copper and sulfur to combat downy mildew and powdery mildew, respectively, and the use of animal dung as compost.

Martin realizes that he is only at the beginning of his winemaking journey and says that “as I continue making wine, I’m not necessarily going to be a no-sulfur person.” When he starts making “more serious” wine, he will probably stop using carbonic maceration or do less of it. He agrees that carbonic maceration masks terroir because it puts the fruit forward and leaves less space for minerality or herbaceousness—two qualities that one especially looks for in northern Rhône Syrah. “If I plant vineyards, it’s going to be Syrah,” he said. “Something that’s more traditional of northern Rhône, a more serious project.”

We are grateful to have had Martin’s spirited, thoughtful, and articulate presence in New York this past year, and we wish him well on his next adventures. We also look forward to tasting how his winemaking evolves as a result of his studies and deeper involvement with permaculture.

Merci beaucoup, Martin, et bon voyage!

Martin 2Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

Should You Open That Bottle of Wine Today?

It depends. If you believe in the principles of biodynamic agriculture, which acknowledge lunar and astrological influences on soil and plants, then you would first check your biodynamic calendar to find out whether today is a fruit day or a flower day. Wine tastes best on fruit and flower days and not at its best on leaf and root days.

What in the world am I talking about? And what do lunar cycles and star constellations have to do with it? Here is a simple, admittedly too simple, explanation of how this works:

The movement of the moon influences more than just the tides. It affects all living, growing things on Earth. And because wine inside a bottle is a living, breathing organism, the moon’s rhythms influence it too.

Every two or three days, the moon passes through a different one of the twelve star constellations of the zodiac, from Aries to Pisces. From astrology we know that each constellation is associated with an element: earth, air, water, fire. In biodynamic agriculture, the twelve constellations and their elements correspond to four types of days:

Earth element: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn: Root day

Air element: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius: Flower day

Water element: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces: Leaf day

Fire element: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius: Fruit day

Biodynamic farmers recognize that each element affects a different part of a plant: roots grow deeply into earth, flowers need air to disperse their scent, leaves store water, and fruit must have warmth (fire) to ripen.

The moon’s passage through a constellation on a specific day and at a specific time on that day determines whether the day is a root, flower, leaf, or fruit day.

And the type of day determines whether the day is a favorable or unfavorable one for planting and harvesting specific crops and even for drinking wine (grapes, after all, being a crop).

When the crop is the root of the plant, such as carrots or beets, then it is best planted and harvested on root days. Fruit crops are best planted and harvested on fruit days, and so on.

How Do I Know Whether It’s a Fruit, Flower, Leaf, or Root Day?

To learn what type of day it is, you can consult the monthly biodynamic calendars in a handy little book called When Wine Tastes Best: A Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers by Maria and Matthias Thun and published annually by Floris Books in the United Kingdom.

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Maria Thun

Maria Thun

Maria Thun (1922-2012) grew up on a farm in central Germany and spent a lifetime observing radishes. In her early twenties, she began studying Rudolf Steiner’s principles of biodynamic agriculture, which he formulated in the 1920s. To discover whether sowing, plant growth, and harvesting really were influenced by the moon’s passage through the star constellations, Maria Thun experimented with planting radishes. She noted that even with identical soil conditions and seeds, the shape, size, and yield of the radishes varied daily depending on the moon’s position in the specific constellation in which they had been planted. Thun continued experimenting with many other types of plants and concluded that the moon’s movement through the zodiac had the same effect on those crops as it had on the radishes. Based on her observations, she then divided the passage of the moon through the zodiac into four types of days: leaf, root, fruit, and flower, each indicating which type of plant is best sown on that day.

This photo clearly shows that the radishes (a root vegetable) harvested on a root day appear to be the most robust. (Illustration from Wine Folly and Backyard Biodynamics.)

This image clearly shows that the radishes (a root vegetable) planted and harvested on a root day appear to be the healthiest and most robust. (Illustration from Wine Folly and Backyard Biodynamics.)

From her extensive experiments and observations of the effects that planting and harvesting in conjunction with cosmic rhythms have on the quality of fruit and vegetable crops, flowers, and even on animals, weather, and bees, Maria Thun developed a planting calendar. The Maria Thun Biodynamic Calendar has been published annually for fifty-two years and translated into twenty-seven languages. Since her death, both the calendar and When Wine Tastes Best continue to be published by her son, Matthias.

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How Do I Use the Monthly Calendars in When Wine Tastes Best?

It’s very easy! Here’s a picture of the April 2014 calendar:

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 Find today’s date in the left-hand column. (The next column tells you which constellation the moon is passing through that day.) Then slide your finger across the line and look at the colored bars for that date. The bars cover the 24-hour period from midnight to midnight, and the hours are listed along the top of the chart. The four types of days are indicated with colored bars: fruit days (red bar), flower (yellow bar), leaf (blue bar), and root (purple bar).

Again, the best days for drinking wine according to this system are fruit and flower days. I’ve read that aromatic grape varieties such as Torrontes and Viognier are best drunk on flower days.

A dotted line indicates that the time period is not good for biodynamic planting, harvesting, or wine drinking. Reasons for this can be because of an eclipse or the influence of other planetary interactions.

When you look at the calendars, you will notice that fruit and flower days don’t last for precisely one day. This is because the moon moves in and out of the different constellations at different times, so a fruit day might start at 2 AM on a Tuesday and finish at 10 PM on a Thursday.

The times in the calendar are GMT/British Summer Time. You’ll need to add or subtract hours from the charts according to your own time zone.

There is also a When Wine Tastes Best app for the iPad and iPhone, which you can try for free. You can search by month, week, or day, and the app automatically adjusts for your time zone.

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Whether you find these ideas intriguing or completely wacky, at least give them a try! After all, wouldn’t you want that expensive bottle of wine to taste its best at your next dinner party?

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland

Berries of the Field

Some winemakers and wine drinkers believe that the only wines capable of fully showing their terroir are those made from a single grape varietal from a grand cru vineyard. But consider for a moment the beautiful wines made from humble field blends. These wines, and their mélange of grape varieties grown all together in a winemaker’s back plot or in vineyards within Viennese city limits or in a historic California vineyard or on some of the best vineyard lands in Alsace, turn out to be a far cry from humble. In this post, I’ll look at three examples.

What is a field blend, you ask? It’s a wine made from two or more, and sometimes many more, grape varieties that are interplanted on the same parcel of land and then harvested and vinified together. By contrast, most blended wines are made by growing, harvesting, and vinifying the grape varieties separately, then blending them.

What were the original reasons for planting different grape varieties together? Necessity, perhaps? Maybe winemakers simply did not have sufficient equipment to ferment different varieties separately. Another reason could have been to protect against risk in the event of a poor harvest or unfavorable weather and ensure, as much as possible, quality and quantity from year to year.

In a field blend, one grape variety’s ripe lusciousness balances another’s racy acidic character; another variety adds tannic backbone, and another adds color, such that the resulting wines are not too high in alcohol or too lean on fruit. Because all the grapes are picked at the same time, they are at different levels of maturity, ripeness, and acidity. Some are overripe, some are underripe, but the mixing of all the grapes results in complex blends that are greater than the sum of their separate parts—a whole orchestra, if you will. “The results are more in Nature’s hands,” says Austrian winemaker Fritz Wieninger.

The Compagni Portis Vineyard

The Compagni-Portis Vineyard

One such site where this synergy occurs is the historic Compagni-Portis Vineyard at the western base of Mount Veeder in California’s Sonoma Valley. Part of the original Buena Vista estate of Agoston Haraszthy, an early developer of California’s wine industry, the six-acre field now known as the Compagni-Portis Vineyard (after owners Natalie Compagni and Stephen Portis) was planted in 1954 with a diverse mix of white grapes: Riesling, Burger, Trousseau Gris, Gewürtztraminer, Green Hungarian, and Sylvaner among them. The soil is rich in white volcanic ash, and yields are most often less than one ton per acre.

The vineyard is one of sixty-eight vineyards registered by the Historic Vineyard Society of California and is one of the few mixed-white vineyards remaining. Its vines are dry farmed and organically farmed by Phil Coturri, one of Sonoma Valley’s leading organic viticulturalists and a member of the Coturri winemaking family.

At least six vintners have used grapes from the vineyard: Bedrock Wine Co., Arnot-Roberts, Ravenswood, Carlisle, Bucklin, and Gundlach Bundschu.

Boyhood pals Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, two of my favorite of the low-alcohol, low-interventionist “New California” winemakers, produce their Arnot-Roberts Old Vine White Field Blend from grapes from this site. Grapes are pressed whole cluster, then fermented with native yeast in stainless steel, and aged in neutral French oak barrels for twelve months. I first tasted this sublime wine in 2011 and love its intense aromatics of orange blossom, ripe pear, and lanolin, its bright acidity, and crisp finish. Absolutely delicious! 

Update, April 2014: Observant fans of this beautiful white field blend wine will have noticed that the label on the 2012 bottling does not include the words Compagni-Portis Vineyard, as labels from previous vintages did. Nathan Roberts recently told me the reason for this. He and Duncan Meyers learned last year that the vineyard is divided into three separate parcels that are owned by different families. They had not realized this before, because the Compagni-Portis family was the most active in the vineyard and interactive with Phil Coturri. Because of this divided ownership of the parcels, Arnot-Roberts has stopped using, as of the 2012 bottling, the Compagni-Portis name on the label of the field blend white wine.

The information about this vineyard in the records of the Historic Vineyard Society of California does not yet appear to be updated.

An Urban Field Blend

Vineyards within the city limits of Vienna? Yes! Believe it or not, Vienna has more than 1,700 acres planted to vines. And one of the traditional Viennese wines is Wiener Gemischter Satz (mixed set)—a field blend of white grapes. In 2013, a new Austrian DAC (designation of origin similar to the French AOC) was added: Wiener Gemischter Satz, and the specific geographic region associated with this DAC is the city of Vienna.

By law, a Viennese Gemischter Satz must comprise white grapes only and must include a minimum of three different grape varieties and not more than twenty. The predominant variety must not constitute more than 50 percent of the vineyard. All grapes must be planted, harvested, and vinified together. Typical grapes in a Viennese field blend include Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürtztraminer, and Grauburgunder, among others. Some field blends comprise as many as fifteen different grape varieties.

Fritz Wieninger is an Austrian biodynamic winemaker who has been a stalwart in reviving the traditional Viennese practice of making white wines from field blends. “Especially close to my heart is the Wiener Gemischter Satz,” he says. “This is a Viennese classic that had been nearly forgotten.”

The grapes in this field blend grow in soils of shell limestone and weathered limestone with a high clay content.

I tasted Fritz’s 2012 Wiener Gemischter Satz at a recent seminar with Fritz and his Kamptal winemaking colleague and friend Fred Loimer at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca, 24hubert.com. The complex blend of eleven different white grape varieties was fragrant and floral, with vibrant acidity and fruit, pronounced minerality from the limestone soils, low alcohol (12.5 percent), and was delightful in every way. “All of Vienna in one wine,” as Fritz says.

2012 Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz

Fritz Wieninger’s Wiener Gemischter Satz

“Mixed Blacks”

Not all field blends are made from white grape varieties. Some older Zinfandel vineyards in California are referred to as “mixed blacks” because the Zinfandel grapes were coplanted around 1900–1905 with several other varieties, including Petite Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvèdre. Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Springs Vineyard is one example of a “mixed blacks” field of heritage varieties.

And Now to France . . . 

Other field blends, like Jean-François Ganevat’s J’en Veux (I want some), combine red and white grapes to make a red wine.

Ganevat’s grapes, a mix of seventeen non-AOC approved varieties indigenous to the Jura region of eastern France, include Petit Béclan, Enfariné, Gueuche, Coreau, Gouais, Argant, Portugais Bleu, and Seyve-Villard. These are some of the “lost” grapes of the Jura, now almost forgotten, that used to be the staple varieties. They are coplanted on a small bit of land behind Ganevat’s house. The vines, on their own rootstock, were planted in 1900. Ganevat’s domaine was certified biodynamic in 2006. His soils are a mix of schist, clay, and marl.

Each year, Ganevat destems the grapes for one of his wines entirely by hand. In 2009, this wine was the J’en Veux. Using scissors, he and his workers cut each berry from the cluster and leave only a trace of the stem still attached to the grape, resulting in intact grapes and no bleeding juice from tugging the grape from its stem. The grapes are then dropped individually into the barrel for a whole-berry fermentation. All grape varieties are cofermented. In 2009 about one hundred cases of J’en Veux were made.

The 2010 J’en Veux that I tasted was complex and pure, with aromas of fresh red fruit, earth, and minerals. Light body, low alcohol, and no added suphur. Bliss in a glass!

Ganevat changes the J'en Veux label design often. This one is an older version. Bottles with the latest version of the "shocking" label are not allowed into the U.S.

Ganevat changes the J’en Veux label design often. This one is an older version. Bottles with the latest version of the “shocking” label are not allowed into the United States. But if you do a Web search, you’ll find it!

Tempest in a Wine Glass

To those who fiercely believe that only a single grape varietal can best express terroir, Alsatian winemaker Jean-Michel Deiss takes the opposite stance. He coplanted his best vineyard sites with white field blends to highlight the site over any particular grape. He calls the resulting wines his vins de terroir. I have yet to taste any of these wines but am certainly eager to.

Personally, I believe that any field-blended wine can express its terroir just as ably as any single-varietal wine.

I am absolutely smitten with field blends and would love to hear about your favorites.

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland