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Producers Reviews

TERROIR WINE: The Winemaker’s Holy Grail

Randall Grahm Terroir Wine
Photo credit: Nicole diGiorgio sweetnessandlightphoto.com/ Bonny Doon Vineyards

The ambition of many a vineyard-owning winemaker is to craft the finest possible vin de terroir. It is a lofty notion – the story of one vineyard’s specific climate, soil type, orientation, and so forth, expressed through its grape variety(ies) and through the winemaker’s touch, to create a unique wine that could only come from that specific place and vintage.

Randall Grahm is a renowned Californian wine producer; founder of the Santa Cruz-based Bonny Doon Vineyard. Grahm has focused on the pursuit of terroir wines since selling his major brands: Big House Red, Pacific Rim, and Cardinal Zin back in 2006. At a recent tasting in Montréal, Grahm waxed lyrical on the subject.

Grahm separates wines into two categories: those that express winemaking technique, and those that convey provenance.

Grahm separates wines into two categories: those that express winemaking technique, and those that convey provenance. Both are of value. Not every vineyard site has superior qualities. Many are simply adequate to the task of producing good value, easy-drinking wine. And there is nothing wrong with that. A skilled winemaker can enhance quality using a variety of specialized techniques, but the resultant wines will never provoke the kind of “emotional or psychic resonance” Grahm attributes to terroir wine.

In certain, very special vineyards the world over, wine producers have observed a curious phenomenon. Despite using similar grape growing and winemaking techniques as practiced in neighbouring vineyards, the wines from these sites are different, and inexplicably better. They possess a sort of ethereal beauty that stirs the soul. In long established vineyard regions, these plots have been identified with special names or hierarchical classifications like Grand Cru, Grosse Lage, etc.

Grahm has traveled widely, and tasted terroir wines from across the globe. The one common factor he perceives in all of them is minerality. This buzz word is a hot topic of debate in wine circles. Wine writers (yours truly included) regularly describe wines like Chablis or Mosel Riesling as mineral – generally meaning that they smell of wet stone or struck flint, or that they provoke a prickly textural sensation on the palate separate from acidity or carbonation.

“Before I die, one thing that I want to know is…what is minerality?”.

Earth Science experts dismiss minerality as hogwash. A vine’s mineral uptake is so minute in quantity as to be imperceptible to the nose or palate, they say.  Theories abound on what causes these flavour compounds, but for now, no common consensus has been reached.

“Before I die, one thing that I want to know is…what is minerality?”. Grahm views minerality as a “function of greater resistance to oxidation”; an essential “life force” possessed by terroir wines. He sees a correlation between this mineral expression and “a presence of higher concentrations of minerals in soil, a favourable ratio of grape root mass to fruit mass, and healthy microbial life in the soil”. These are the conditions that Grahm is working with in his vineyard.

In a quiet corner of the San Benito County AVA, an inland area of the Central Coast of California, Grahm found Popelouchum. This 113-hectare vineyard in San Juan Bautista was a former settlement of the Mutsun people, a subset of the Ohlone tribe. The word means paradise in their dialect, and this is just what Grahm feels he has found.

Every effort is being taken here to ensure that the full potential of the site is expressed through the grapes. Dry farming using sustainable and biodynamic practices, low yields, moisture retaining biochar for soil amendments, and so forth.

Grahm muses that minerality gives wines an essential “life force” that sets them apart.

Grahm has even dedicated a portion of the vineyard to experimenting with growing grape crossings from seed. His ambition is to create new varieties perfectly suited to his land (and similar such vineyards) – with the necessary disease and drought resistance, along with an elegant, and refined flavour profile. This is important work in an era where climate change is dramatically altering growing conditions, making grapes once ideally suited to a site no longer viable.

The Popelouchum project is still in its infancy. The sole release, a 2015 Grenache grown from ungrafted vine cuttings taken from Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-pape, is incredibly vibrant with a highly perfumed, complex nose, silky structure, and persistent, dare-I-say mineral-laced finish. Sadly, you won’t find it on liquor store shelves. The bottling was so small that Grahm is sharing it privately with friends and enthusiasts. Commercial sales are still a couple of vintages down the road.

In the meantime, there are a wide range of Grahm’s Bonny Doon Vineyard wines on offer to distract us. They may not be the absolute expression of terroir that Grahm now seeks, but they certainly are skillfully made and very pleasant to drink.

My top 5 from this weeks’ tasting include:

(What do VW, PW, LW mean? Check out my wine scoring system to find out.)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Vin Gris de Cigare 2017 – 87pts PW

Pretty pale rose in colour. Subtle floral, and red apple hints feature on the nose. This tempting rosé really comes alive on the crisp, creamy textured palate. Light in body, moderately firm, with concentrated, tangy orchard fruit flavours.

Blend: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Carignan

Where to buy: SAQ (22.75$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Proprio Gravitas 2015 – 88pts PW

Attractive Sémillon character, with notes of lanolin, lemon zest, acacia, and exotic spice on the nose. Fresh, medium in body, with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel and pithy grapefruit notes on the finish.

Blend: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat

Where to buy: SAQ (20.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Blanc 2014 – 92pts PW

Absolutely killer quality for the price. Sourced from a single parcel, the Beeswax vineyard in Monterrey County. Intriguing aromas of fennel, anise, ripe lemon, apricot, and hints of toasty oak keep you coming back for more. The palate displays excellent balance, with fresh acidity, an ample frame, and highly concentrated, baked pear and spice flavours. Beautifully creamy and layered in texture. Just a shade warming on the finish.

Blend: Grenache Blanc, Roussanne

Where to buy: SAQ (35.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant 2012 – 90pts PW

Quite earthy and brooding in nature, with aromas of licorice, black cherry, hints of pepper, and dried floral notes. Fresh and full-bodied, with a firm structure and ripe, grippy tannins. Moderate concentration of juicy, brambly red and dark fruit gives way to cigar box and spiced notes on the medium-length finish.

Blend: Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault

Where to buy: SAQ (40.00$)

Bonny Doon Vineyard Old Telegram 2016 – 93pts LW

Lovely floral nose, underscored by hints of dried orange peel, fresh cranberries, raspberries, and black cherry. This weighty, highly concentrated red really shines on the palate, with vibrant acidity, and well-integrated cedar-spice from mainly older oak ageing. The tannins are very elegant; fine-grained and ripe. The finish is long, earthy, and fresh.

Blend: 100% Mourvèdre

Where to buy: Enquire with agent, Trialto 

 

Reviews

A Week in the World of Luxury Wine

Chateau Pichon Baron Visit
Photo credit: Château Pichon Baron, AXA Millésimes

It was on a particularly cold and dreary day in January that I sat down to write an essay that would bring me here, today, staring out at the majestic terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley. The Institute of Masters of Wine had issued a challenge to its students; a chance to win a scholarship trip to Bordeaux and Porto courtesy of the illustrious AXA Millésimes group.

The tour would include visits to the second growth Château Pichon Longueville Baron in Pauillac, the first growth Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, Château Petit-Village in Pomerol, and the Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley. Only five winning essays would be selected, giving the authors a truly intimate experience at each winery.

Such an exciting opportunity seemed worth penning a couple of pages on a topic of AXA Millésime’s choosing. And against all odds, I won!

The trip dates were set for late April, just six weeks before the Masters of Wine tasting exam. Preparing for this fateful event has consumed me over the past six months. Getting out from behind my spitoon and back in the vineyard was exactly what I needed to shake off the cobwebs. It was high time I reminded myself what all the struggle and sacrifice is for.

I arrived in Bordeaux to cool, blustery weather and felt a little disheartened. Months of daydreaming about brilliant sunshine will do that to you. The drive out of town furthered my sense of anti-climax. It had been some time since my last visit, and I had forgotten all about the ugly, commercial outskirts. The juxtaposition is startling. One minute you are staring out at super-markets, strip malls and squat, stucco housing, the next you are surrounded by swathes of vineyards and stunning châteaux.

We pulled up to Château Pichon Longueville Baron just before lunch. This was to be our home for the next two days. All traces of jetlag were washed away as I gazed up at the graceful turrets. A glass of chilled Agrapart Champagne also helped set the tone, for what has been one of the most unforgettable chapters of my wine journey so far.

From an impressive vertical tasting of recent vintages at Pichon Baron, to blending 2017 vintage Petit Village Pomerol, to a botrytis master class at Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, our Bordeaux experience was second-to-none.

Now, in the lazy heat of the Cima Corgo (Upper Douro), we are basking in the complexities and hedonistic pleasure of top-class Port at Quinta do Noval.

Over the next few articles, I will endeavour to share my adventures with you, so stay tuned!

Education Reviews Wines

IT IS WORTH PAYING MORE?

Is it worth paying more for fine wine

In one of Hugh Johnson‘s fabulous books, he advocates buying ageworthy wines by the case, so that bottles can be opened periodically, over the span of their recommended drinking life, to see how they evolve. Until recently, I would have judged this very sound advice indeed.

However, at least where Burgundy and Bordeaux are concerned, this just isn’t feasible for the average wine lover anymore. Even the most diehard fans of these classic cellar stockers are pulling back on bulk purchases. The wines have simply become too expensive for all but the world’s uber-wealthy.

With so many new, premium wines and wine regions popping up all over the globe, you might wonder how this is possible? Surely the increase in fine wine supply would equate to lower prices? Not so! Why is this? The reasons are manifold…

The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines developping such star power that well-to-do collecters, savvy wine traders and affluent status seekers flocked to them, driving prices ever higher. Massive economic growth in China from 2005 onward led to rash of seemingly overnight millionaires. Investments in luxury goods, including Grand Cru Bordeaux, ensued at an impressive pace. In Burgundy, a similar phenomenon occurred, and was compounded by regular poor harvests, and the scarce volumes of this comparably small vineyard region.

The cult of the wine critic in the 1990s and early 2000s led to certain wines to develop such star power … driving prices ever higher.

A 2011 Fortune article details the meteoric price escalation over the past 25 years, notably in Bordeaux. A bottle of Château Lafite Rotschild 1982 was listed at 84$ US in a 1986 fine wine catalogue, whereas the 2008 vintage came out at a whopping 1800$.  Likewise, a Joseph Drouhin Echezeaux Grand Cru 1983 was on offer at 30$. The 2015 vintage sells for an average of 205$ US on price comparison sites like Wine Searcher.

Have these wines reached such lofty prices, that they now cost more than they are worth? Many in the wine trade would respond with a resounding YES! Retailers from the US and UK have tried various tactics in recent years from lobbying growers’ associations to boycotting purchasing to get the top estates in Bordeaux to bring down their prices.

In my opinion, the question of quality-price ratio is a deeply personal one. I would never spend upwards of 3000$ on a purse because it is adorned with crisscrossed LVs. However, many would argue superior craftsmanship, or simply the pleasure of owning an iconic item, to validate their purchase.

On the other hand, I have no qualms shelling out thousands of dollars on world-wide travel, and will happily pay ten times the price of a local bus for the convenience of jumping in a cab on a rainy day.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all. While the top estates still produce excellent wines in poor vintages, they are not a patch on their counter parts in fine growing years. The buyer therefore needs to arm themselves with at least basic vintage information. Prices do drop marginally in poor vintages (at least in Bordeaux), but rarely in line with the quality difference.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of fine wine purchasing is the hit-and-miss nature of it all.

Wine is a living thing, that evolves in bottle. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the drastically worse. It can be affected by cork taint, and smell sharply of wet cardboard. It can go through a “dumb period” early in its cellaring, whereby the aromatics are muted and the palate so firm as to give little pleasure. It can also age more rapidly than expected, appearing dried out; lacking in fruit and glycerol.

You just never know what you are going to get.

So why do oenophiles still clamour after these insanely priced, potentially disappointing luxury wines? Simply put, because when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before. A truly fine Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, at the height of its ageing curve, is so complex, so elegant, so powerful and yet silky on the palate that you feel the sensations continue to play across your tongue long after you have swallowed. The experience bears no ressemblance to that pleasant, fruity 50$ Pinot Noir you carafed last week-end.

The same can be said for the top châteaux in Bordeaux, though you need to wait a little longer for the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon tannins to mellow. In their prime, these beauties offer a level of finesse, of balance and of sensuality, that is just incomparable with their more affordable brethren.

…when they are good, they are like nothing you have ever tasted before…

Whether you are able or willing to part with a chunk of your savings to have such an experience is up to you. With a little luck, you can find a generous sponsor or befriend someone in the wine trade with good connections! This has always been my modus operandi. I haven’t tasted a Romanée-Conti yet…but remain ever hopeful.

Who am I to judge? Learn more about me here.