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

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!

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

Like Sitting Inside a Jewel Box: The Astoundingly Pure Wines of Alphonse Mellot

Alphonse Mellot, whose family has been making wine in the Loire since 1513.

Alphonse Mellot, whose family has been making wine in the Loire since 1513

My notion of what Sauvignon Blanc is was blown off its rocker by a tasting at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca of four exquisite wines from Alphonse Mellot of Sancerre, in the Loire. Was it just me, or did you too dismiss wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape (one of the seven noble grape varieties notwithstanding) as smelling and tasting like “cat piss” or, in my experience, canned peas?

Last night, Alphonse Mellot, the nineteenth member of his historic winemaking family to bear that name, showed me the essence of Sauvignon Blanc in my glass.

The medieval hilltop town of Sancerre lies about 125 miles south of Paris.

The medieval hilltop town of Sancerre lies about 125 miles south of Paris.

The town of Sancerre traces its origins to Julius Caesar and Charlemagne. The Mellot family’s roots in Sancerre wine date to 1513, when they were vine growers and wine producers of excellent reputation. Ancestor César Mellot was the wine advisor to Louis XIV in 1698. By 1881 the family was shipping its wines throughout France and the world. Ever since then, the eldest son has continued to bear the name Alphonse.

All farming and grape growing at the Mellot vineyard, La Moussière, is organic and certified biodynamic (since 1999), with only copper and sulfur being used on the vines—copper to combat peronospera (downy mildew) and sulfur to guard against oidium (powdery mildew). Alphonse Mellot is one of only five biodynamic producers in Sancerre. In a region where some 98 percent of fruit is machine harvested, Mellot meticulously picks his grapes by hand into small 25-kilogram (about 55 pounds) cases.

The large percentage of old low-yielding vines, with some parcels planted in 1931, 1948, and 1951, grow in soils of limestone, flint (silex), clay, and chalk, which lend tremendous complexity to the wines.

Each one of the three whites we tasted—2012 Pouilly-Fumé, 2012 La Moussière Sancerre, and 2011 Satellite Sancerre (from vines planted in 1951)—was such a precise and refined expression of lemon, lime, and grapefruit, and of its minerals, acidity, and soil. I was stunned. Complexity, structure, substance, balance, and pure deliciousness. These wines have so much energy; you can almost feel the vibrations zinging off your glass, as if it were a tuning fork.

The last wine, 2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge, was made from Pinot Noir and had all the beautiful, mind-altering aromas and tastes of that grape’s red and black fruit and earth. Move over, Burgundy!

2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge

2011 La Moussière Sancerre Rouge

The fastidious attention to detail that Alphonse Mellot displays in making his wines is so evident in their expression. The impression his wines leave you with is indelible. 

Thanks to Rom Toulon for hosting another exceptional seminar at 24 Hubert Wines. These outstanding events with the winemakers provide a terrific learning experience in an intimate setting and allow for thoughtful interaction with the wine in one’s glass.

 Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland