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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 

 

Education Life

Beat the winter blues with these big, balanced reds

big, bold red wine winter fresh balanced
Photo credit: Catena Zapata Winery (Adrianna Vineyard, Tupungato)

Winter hit us like a ton of bricks this year. It was like someone flipped a switch; from lazy Indian summer to North Pole overnight. In Montréal, we have broken records held nearly 150 years for longest, extreme cold snap. And it is only mid-January…

So, what do you drink when you can’t feel your face?

VODKA. Well, yes, but this is a wine blog folks, so I am thinking more along the lines of full-bodied red wines.

Before I go on, let me first apologize to my fellow wine geeks for this heresy. It is terribly uncool here to champion rich, dense, dark fruited red wine. There seems to have been a secret committee meeting amongst local wine writers and sommeliers whereby it was decreed: crisp, light wines good/ big, bold wines bad. I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the lighter reds too. If I was on a desert island, and I could only choose one red wine region for the rest of my life I’d pick Burgundy in a heart beat…but it would be hot on this island.

I don’t know about you, but when my fingers and toes feel like they might fall off, I don’t want a chilled Beaujolais. I want something that is going to light a fire in my belly; something with such rich, luscious fruit that I almost believe it will be summer again one day.

What I don’t want is a sweet, oaky, fruit bomb, with alcohol so fiery it tastes like kirsch. It is these wines that have given the full-bodied, high alcohol red category such a bad name in wine connoisseur circles. The missing element to these heavy, clumsy wines is balance.

Imagine a see-saw, or a two-sided weighing scale. On the one side, you have sweet, ultra-ripe fruit and high alcohol. In order to achieve equilibrium, you need an equivalent level of vibrant acidity. When these elements are in harmony, the fruit becomes brighter (less cloyingly sweet), and the alcohol is far less perceptible.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. There are far more factors at play. Not the least of which is the quality of the tannins. In a well balanced wine, they can vary from soft to quite firm (depending on the grape variety), but are smooth. That is to say, lacking the unpleasant bitterness or astringency they possess when under-ripe.

But how to find these wines amongst the vast selection on liquor store shelves?

One solution is to seek out hot, sunny regions with cooling influences. Factors like a refreshing maritime breeze, or high altitude, can slow the ripening process. The vines get plentiful warmth and sunshine for optimal sugar accumulation through-out the day, but at night, cooler air halts plant respiration and metabolism, allowing acid levels to drop more gradually. This drawn out grape vine maturation also allows tannins (naturally occurring compounds found in the grape skin, stems and pips) more time to fully ripen.

Here are just five such regions to look out for this winter:

Central Otago, New Zealand

Central Otago is a mountainous, inland region whose vineyards are the most southerly in the world. This land of extremes boasts the coldest winters, and the hottest day time summer temperatures, in all of New Zealand. The vines are planted on steep slopes, as high as 420 metres in altitude. They enjoy abundant sunshine during the day, with thermostat readings regularly exceeding 30°c. However, at night, temperatures can plummet to as low as 10°c. The region also has high UV levels, resulting in thick skinned grapes. Thicker skinned grapes have greater concentrations of polyphenols (compounds responsable for colour pigmentation, many of wines flavours, and tannic structure). Therefore, depending on winemaking procedures, thick skinned grapes tend to produce dark coloured, fragrant wines, with robust tannins.

Pinot Noir is King in Central Otago. While this variety is generally known for its pale, lighter bodied reds, here the wines are richly coloured, intensely aromatic, and bold in structure. Flavours range from ultra-ripe dark cherry, and plum, to crushed raspberries, with hints of thyme. They are vibrant, fresh, and highly concentrated, with smooth, ripe tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Rippon, Felton Road, Peregrine, Akarua, Mt. Difficulty

Gigondas, France

The Southern Rhône valley is famed for its sunny, mediterranean climate and rich, powerful Grenache, Syrah blends. Châteauneuf-du-pape is the most acclaimed, premium appellation. The double effect of the baking hot sun, and the large, rounded stones that adorn the vineyard floors, reflecting light and warmth back up to the vines, make for massive, velvetty smooth, alcoholic reds with raisined fruit. Looking for something similar, but with a more vibrant, fresher fruited character? Gigondas is the answer.

The vineyards surrounding this tiny town are perched on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains at 100 to 430 metres in altitude. Temperatures are marginally cooler here. On the rare wintry days I experienced while living here, there was often a layer of snow in Gigondas, whereas just 5km away in the lower lying Vacqueyras, and Châteauneuf-du-pape, the fields remained green. Pockets of sandy soils at the foothills, and limestone-heavy areas further up, also contribute to the fresh, elegant style of the grapes grown here.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine des Bosquets, Château St. Cosme, Domaine de Longue Toque, Perrin, Domaine de la Bouïssière, Pierre Amadieu

Mendoza (Valle de Uco, Lujan de Cuyo), Argentina

The Uco Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains, is located in the upper reaches of the Mendoza region. Vineyards are among the highest in the world, at 800 – 1100 metres.  Poor, free draining soils encourage vines to dig deep for moisture and nourishment, resulting in low yields and highly concentrated wines. The favourable climate conditions (hot, sunny days, cool nights, high UV levels, and long, dry growing season) has attracted many prominent French wine producers to set up shop. Further north, on the banks of the Mendoza river, lie the vineyards of Lujan de Cuyo. Sitting at 1000 metres in altitude, with cooling alpine breezes, this hot, dry sub-region also benefits from significantly cooler night air.

Malbec is the major grape produced here*. The wines are dark in colour, with lots of body, and velvetty smooth tannins. The Uco Valley examples are wonderfully vibrant, with elegant floral and ripe dark fruit aromas. Lujan de Cuyo wines are almost black in colour, and equally dense on the palate. Ultra-ripe black fruits, exotic spice, and mineral hints feature on the nose and palate.

* Cabernet Sauvignon and, increasingly, Cabernet Franc, also show great promise here.

Wineries to look out for: Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer, O. Fournier, Lurton, Zuccardi (the higher end, 20$+ wines), Trapiche (Terroir Series)

Ribera del Duero, Spain

The vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are located in the Castilla y Leon region, due north of Madrid, and south west of Rioja. The vineyards are planted on a high plateau, 600 to 800 metres above sea level. Hot, sunny days are tempered by chilly nights, thanks to the region’s elevated position, and to regular cold winds. Day-to-night temperature can vary by more than 50°c. These dramatic fluctuations allow for a very gentle ripening pace. Grapes are generally not harvested before late October. The Duero river divides this semi-arid land, providing a much needed water source for the vineyards to thrive.

This is red wine country. All blends must be composed of at least 75% Tempranillo (locally referred to as Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais). The balance can be made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/ or Malbec. Up to 5% of Garnacha, or the indigenous Albillo, can also be used. There are strict rules on wine ageing before the wines are bottled and released for sale. The levels range from: Crianza (2 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Reserva (3 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Gran Reserva (minimum 2 years in oak + 3 years’ in bottle).

At their best, Ribera del Duero reds are inky black, highly concentrated and full-bodied. Intense aromas of dark berry fruit and mocha are underscored by attractive French oak nuances (toasty, spicy notes). They are very fresh, firmly structured, but smooth, with elegant, polished tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Vega Sicilia & Dominio de Pingus (if you have very deep pockets), Bodegas Protos, Aalto, Finca Villacreces, Bodegas Valduero, Emilio Moro

Santa Barbara County, California

A mere 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, lies the vineyards of Santa Barbara county. The topography of this region is unique, in that the valleys run east to west, rather than the more standard north to south. There is massive diversity to be found here in terms of soil types and microclimates. The vineyards located on the eastern foothills are cooled by fog and ocean breezes funneled through the surrounding hills and mountains. Appellations such as Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley (especially the Ballard Canyon sub-zone for Syrah), and Sta Rita Hills, are gaining prominence.

Pinot Noir is the most planted red varieties in Santa Barbara County. It is generally dark in colour, with dense, powerful structure, and impressive depth of flavour. Very fragrant on the nose; brimming with black cherry, plum, and floral aromas. Syrah is also gaining in prominence. Imagine a mid-way point between a jammy, lush Shiraz and a crisp, taut Northern Rhône Syrah. This is a common style here. Rich, ripe dark berry fruit, lively acidity, full body, smooth, rounded mouthfeel, and firm, elegant tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine de la Côte, Sanford, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Ojai Vineyard, Fess Parker

 

Life

FROM BEAUNE CANUCK TO RHONE CANUCK

Dentelles de Montmirail
Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre

Hi folks. Here is the second installment in the “Throwback Thursdays” republication of my 2010 Rhône Canuck blog. This brief post details my move from Burgundy to the Rhône Valley. Enjoy!

So here I am happily ensconced in the foothills of the majestic Dentelles de Montmirail (the range of craggy mountains that towers over the sleepy hamlet of Gigondas).  My new job? To sing the praises of the noble marriage of Grenache & Syrah.

Please don’t think that I have forsaken my first loves, Pinot & Chardonnay.  They still stand mightily on their pedestals and I make the pilgrimage back to the motherland regularly!  But somewhere around my 3rd winter in Beaune the endless winter fog got the better of me.  The locals scoffed at a Canadian complaining about the cold, but these people don’t heat their lofty 17th century homes. The damp seeps in every corner and you can only put on so many sweaters before you start feeling like the Michelan man.  Sure the vin chaud helps, but what with the glass or so of petit Chablis at lunch, a kir or three for the apéro, a nice bottle of Pommard with dinner and maybe a Poire Williams for the digéstif…Beaune was definitely having a wee effect on my young liver!

So what’s a wine-loving Canuck to do?  Go home and work for one of our beloved monopolies, scheming up ways to bring the next Fuzion to Canada?  Certainly not! A stint in South Africa as a lowly winemaking assistant for Hamilton Russell Vineyards, that was the solution.  What an incredible place…the endless blue skies, the breathtaking sunsets, the generosity of spirit!  Almost, but unfortunately not quite, makes you forget the endless shantytowns, the breathtaking inequality…

A few months and a pair of callused, purple hands later, I realised what a great job sales is!  So off back to France, to start anew, in the sunny and WINDY southern Rhône as a proud footsoldier for the maison Gabriel Meffre.