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Bordeaux 2015 Harvest: Video Report, Jonathan Maltus

Picking is underway in Bordeaux. The whites are all finished and it is the reds that have people’s attention now, starting with Merlot of course. I haven’t heard of anyone picking Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc yet.

There has been some heavy rain during the past couple of weeks, but the weather now seems to be dry and cool again. It is looking very promising, and I have heard some very positive comments coming from the region, not just the Bordelais but from independent visitors too. But you never can tell for real until you get to taste the wines.

Here is a brief video report from Jonathan Maltus, made on Friday October 2nd, from Les Astéries, a parcel on calcaire à astérie (what else?) and which is the source of one of his single-vineyard cuvées.

I will be in Bordeaux in a couple of weeks, by which I expect picking of the Cabernets will be well underway and may even have finished, depending on how soon they start and the size of the vineyard in question. I have plenty of appointments, most with a focus on tasting 2013s (although I have some other visits lined up to châteaux I have never visited before, where I hope to taste more) but I will be sure to get the low down on 2015 as well. Last year when I visited at this time I also managed to taste some 2014 must which was fun (being basically sweet and mildly alcoholic grape juice).

I will be keeping an increasingly attentive eye on harvest news over the next few weeks, and will continue to bring any notable snippets to the blog.

Minna Vineyard Red 2008

It will come as no surprise to learn that I drink a lot of wines from the Loire Valley. Indeed, many other regions simply don’t get a look in. But during the past couple of weeks I have suddenly shifted tack, and have been pulling the corks on all sorts of reds from across France and beyond. Many have had some age on them as well, and it has been a good reminder for me just how exciting mature wine can be. Châteauneuf du Pape from Vieux Télegraphe, Hermitage from Marc Sorrel, Domaine de Trévallon, Cornas from Thierry Allemand, Côtes du Roussillon from Domaine Gauby, La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 and so on, mostly from mid-1990s vintages. The silky texture these wines can achieve when they are in their twenties can be delightful. I really should buy and cellar more widely, instead of focusing so solidly on just two or three regions. Some of these wines are a lot cheaper than my favourite wines from Bordeaux as well (although good Chinon usually wins when it comes to price).

Minna Vineyard Red 2008

Not quite so old is this wine, also from a southern clime, the vineyards being located in the Vin de Pays des Bouches du Rhône, which places them a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. The Minna Vineyard Rouge from the 2008 vintage is mostly Syrah at 55%, blended with 38% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Mourvèdre. Likening it to any of the above wines probably leaves me open to a barrage of criticism, but I guess the unconventional (for France) nature of the blend and of course simple geography puts it closer to Domaine de Trévallon more than any other. The Minna Vineyard wines are ones I have featured before, but to recap the grapes are hand-picked, then cold-macerated before a wild-yeast fermentation in small stainless steel vats. After post-fermentation maceration with pigeage the wine is pressed, both free-run and press wine blended straight away, before going into oak for 24 months, with bâtonnage. Then there is a light filtering before bottling.

The end result is of course richly coloured, slick and approachable. In the glass the 2008 Minna Vineyard Rouge leads with the aromas of blackcurrants first, perhaps reflecting that Cabernet component, before this yields to wilder notes of grilled meats and smoke. There is also a surprisingly fresh and tense edge to the aromatics, with scents of wild perfumed strawberries and blackberries, all with an appealing gravelly undercurrent which adds some real interest. This is matched by a tense and gravelly character on the palate, with a style that seems to major on freshness and coolnesss over heat. Indeed, it shows a crunchy energy and even a little suggestion of minerally bite, such is its restraint, with a lean and sinewy middle filled with hints of smoke and more gravel. A gentle middle in terms of fruit, leading into a long, tannin-infused finish. Good stuff. 15.5/20 (September 2015)

Disclosure: The bottle was a received sample.

Terroir and Yeasts Revisited

Once I learnt of it, and really began to understand what it was telling me, the concept of terroir always made sense; in essence, two different sites will always give, even though the variety and the vinifications are the same, two different wines. So a Bourgueil from Les Malgagnes will taste different to one from Les Quartiers, even though both come from the same cellar and the same vigneron. That is terroir.

Defining what lies behind terroir, however, is fraught with controversy; understanding why one site gives different wines to another seems an impossibility. We have climate, soil, bedrock, aspect, drainage and more. Should we include the winemaker? Should we include the local microbiology, either that in the soil, on the grapes or in the winery? All have been mooted.

The thought that terroir might be a yeast effect is a tempting one. After all, as far as I am aware, few agricultural products show this ‘regionality’. Please correct me if I am wrong, but a peach from one orchard tastes much like a peach from an orchard down the road, provided the variety and agriculture is the same, but two wines from fruit grown just metres apart can be radically different. The key difference between the two products is that wine has undergone a microbiological transformation, a process not relevant to the world of peaches (unless you’re into home brewing I guess).

While there is no doubt different yeasts imbue wines with different characteristics (cultured yeasts are sold on this very basis – some types are ‘neutral’, while others produce more aromatic results) I have stated before I find the idea that terroir differences might be due solely to yeasts rather an unlikely one.

A recently published paper from Matthew Goddard and team from the University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences would appear to support my thoughts, even if the authors argue it in the other direction. The authors fermented many (over one hundred) sterilised samples of Sauvignon Blanc juice with genetically diverse isolates of Saccharomyces cerevisiae from six different regions of New Zealand. They then looked at an array of volatile compounds to see if they differed from one S. cerevisiae ferment to the next, and therefore from one region to the next.

Here’s the science bit, part one. Goddard et al found that when the juice was fermented with single strains, there was some difference between the aromatic profiles of the wine that resulted. But there are three important points here: (1) this isn’t surprising; we know different yeasts produce wines of different aromatic qualities, (2) the differences between the six regions when tested with single-strain ferments was only 10% down to the yeast, so even with a single-strain ferment the aromatic differences were 90% due to other (mostly unknown) factors, and (3) the aromatics differed from batch to batch – variation between batches accounted for 7% of the differences in levels of the volatile aromatic compounds (nearly as much as the yeast-effect, which was just 10%).

With the yeast effect hardly stronger than batch variation, is it really a plausible candidate for the cause of terroir?

And here’s the science bit, part two. Because part one is not applicable in the ‘real world’ (because wild ferments involve many different yeasts all working at the same time – they are not single-strain ferments) the team also did co-ferments, with not one strain from each region, but six single-region strains mixed together. With these fermentations, there was no statistically significant relationship between the region from which the strains came and the aromatic profile of the wines. Now this might just be a problem with sample size – perhaps running the test again with several hundred more samples would solve this (yes I know that is easier said than done – this paper reflects a lot of hard work).

Even so, for the moment it appears to me that any regional ‘yeast effect’ is identifiable but small with a single strain, but this appears to be lost in the mix once you have a body of yeasts working together, as in the ‘real world’.

Perhaps yeasts do contribute something to terroir. I am open-minded on the matter, and await some convincing research to persuade me one way or the other. But even if they do contribute, this research suggests yeasts play a minor role, which would therefore seem to indicate that the traditional view of terroir as being related to the physical properties of the site still holds true. Or at least more true than it does for yeast.

News on the 2016 Salon des Vins de Loire

In recent times I have had concerns for the Salon des Vins de Loire. To recap the fair – which is very expensive for an exhibitor – doesn’t seem to have delivered enough for some domaines to justify their participation. Several influential names – Domaine Huet, Henri Bourgeois and Château de Tracy to name just three – have pulled out, and the Salon has clearly contracted. In February this year there weren’t enough exhibitors to fill the hall, so the edge of the exhibition area was drawn in using false walls. Very ingenious. Not even the inclusion of the Levée de la Loire could change this; the Levée exhibitors were tucked away in a corner room, almost as an afterthought. Indeed, it was only on my third day there that I ventured into this corner; thank heavens I did, it was where I discovered François Pinon, Domaine de la Pépière and Jonathan Pabiot hiding.

2016 Salon des Vins de Loire

A recent release from the Salon des Vins de Loire is, however, as upbeat as ever. In particular, they hope to “build on the momentum from 2015″ which I think is a bad idea as the recent momentum has been downwards, not upwards. I stayed until the end of day three for the Salon last February (I usually leave around lunchtime) and the majority of exhibitors were packing up in the early afternoon.

Nevertheless there is some good news for prospective attendees. First, the next Salon will see the return of the Levée de la Loire, so I will be sure to venture up there earlier in 2016. Second, a new Demeter Exhibition will be joining the Salon. I suspect this is the Salon Vins Biodynamiques Demeter which was held for the first time last year at the same time as the Salon and which was largely unadvertised (I was unaware of it, anyway) and apparently very poorly attended. There are also new features aimed at Parisian restaurateurs and young vignerons (I am avoiding mention of a new Bag-in-Box feature – I have always believed a focus on quality is how a region succeeds, but this is a trade fair I suppose, so fair enough). And there will be a section featuring Loire Valley beers and ciders. It does feel as though there is a lot of sticking plaster being applied here though, because although some of these features might sound tempting, I worry that the Demeter exhibition isn’t really Loire-focused, and many of the other features are similarly peripiheral. Beer? Cider? Biodynamic wines from all over France? Should the Salon des Vins de Loire not focus on (a) the Loire, and (b) vin?

Nevertheless, there are plans for a special tasting to celebrate the Salon’s 30th anniversary, and this does sound tempting. Let’s hope there is also an opportunity for a 31st anniversary tasting in 2017.

New Crus Bourgeois Classification Announced

A couple of years ago, in my 2010 Cru Bourgeois report, I laid out the problems as I saw them with the current annually renewed Cru Bourgeois classification system. To be brief to the point of bluntness, I wrote that:

● Producing a new listing every year was too frequent.
● The system should take a more long-term view of work at each château, rather than being based on individual wines (we have critics to score individual wines).
● The bar for entry was too low – and moving it up and down each year was open to criticism.
● There was no granularity to the system, no internal layers, no information for consumers on which were the best châteaux, and thus no incentive to improve. This could easily be achieved by reintroducing an internal ranking system.

Happily, the members of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc seem to agree with some of my points. A recently received press release reads as follows:

At an Extraordinary General Meeting on 18 September 2015, nearly 75% of the members of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc again expressed a desire to create a classification system for the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc.
A provisional timetable for this new classification was submitted to a vote by secret ballot. It was carried with nearly 75% (74.38%) of the vote.
With a view to obtaining a broad consensus and to enable all those involved to have time to plan ahead as fully as possible, the publication of the classification is not anticipated to take place until 2020.
Members have been invited to participate more actively in the next stages of the project. The working committee will welcome collaboration and assistance in creating the new classification.

Congratulations to the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc, and to Frédéric de Luze (President) and Frédérique de Lamothe (Director) for having the vision to push this forward. I am sure, in view of previous events, it will not all be plain sailing.

The annual tasting of the 2013 Cru Bourgeois selection will take place in Paris on Wednesday and in London this Thursday. Sadly, for the first time in several years, I will be unable to attend. I hope it goes well.

Say Goodbye to the Ads

Good news today for those that loathe the little animated, flashing and constantly-cycled banner adverts that pop up on wine websites the world over (and indeed on just about any other website or blog in existence). From today, September 15th 2015, thanks to the support of my subscribers, Winedoctor goes ad-free.

It is now a little over two years since I implemented the subscription system and paywall. It was something of a ‘sink or swim’ moment, as I had no idea how many readers of the ‘free’ Winedoctor would remain interested when payment was required. Happily I swam; in fact the support was overwhelming, and I hit my one-year target for subscriber numbers – really a ‘break-even’ target – after just ten days. After that, I knew Winedoctor was here to stay.

Subscriber numbers have continued to climb, and so it now seems appropriate for me to look at the income streams that were associated with the old ‘free’ Winedoctor, most notably those flashing, flickering advertising banners. They are, I decided earlier this year, no longer necessary. Subscriber numbers are so good that I would rather focus on optimising the experience for my readers, and so from today I have called a halt to the presence of advertising banners on Winedoctor. Aside from links to Wine-Searcher (the little magnifying glass after each tasting note), Winedoctor is now funded solely by subscribers.

Say Goodbye to the Ads

I would like to pay homage to the advertisers who have had a presence on Winedoctor at one point or another during the last fifteen years. Winedoctor wouldn’t be what it is today without their support. The roll call of advertisers has, over the years, including some of the most prestigious names in wine and wine retailing. Indeed, one early supporter was none other than Robert Parker, who ran an advert for erobertparker.com in the early days of his new website – the old banner ad (above) appeared on Winedoctor circa 2001/2002. Others over the years have included Albany Vintners, Millésima, Bancroft Wine, Cadman Fine Wines, SmoothRed, Slurp, Spiral Cellars, Yapp, Four Walls Wine and more than one or two others (apologies if I omitted your business). Thank you all.

But most of all, thank you to all those who now subscribe to Winedoctor, as together you have ensured Winedoctor’s ongoing existence, and encouraged me to write more detailed updates and profiles, and to post more frequently (in other words, no more weekends off for me!). I am humbled by, and deeply grateful for, your support.

Is Natural Wine Spoofy?

Spoofy wine. You have probably heard the term. If not, a quick 101; the term ‘spoofulated’ or ‘spoofy’ seems to have come out of the East-Coast US wine scene (although I welcome corrections on this – it’s not as if I have spent time researching the etymology) and is on occasion used to describe wines that are made in an overly slick, international style. There’s no definition of what it is that makes a wine spoofy, but a few typical features might be a long hang-time (giving over-ripe and indistinct flavours, sweetness and low acidities), cold maceration (giving a slick presence of fruit and plenty of well-fixed colour – at least that’s my take on it), and plenty of new oak (to tart it up). Of course, one person’s tarted up wine might be another persons nirvana, so from that point of view it isn’t a term I have ever used (before now, anyway). Such wines naturally deserve critique, but to me the term ‘spoofy’ always seemed to be imbued with more than a hint of derision, not just for the wines but also for those who drink them.

Spoofy wines are ‘wines of process’; they aren’t so much about the the fruit, they are more about the winemaking, about the technique. Spoofy wines hide their origins; taste a spoofy wine from St Emilion and it doesn’t speak of the terroir, whether it be sandy (I have to confess when thinking of the style certain sandy-terroir St Emilions spring to mind first) or from the clay or limestone of the plateau and côtes (I can certainly think of one or two here as well). What you get is jammy and ill-defined fruit, sweet oak, the whole package polished to a state of ambiguity.

What is the antithesis to spoofy wine? Natural wine is surely the answer, wines that are ‘honest’, some would say ‘authentic’ or ‘real’, or some similarly indefinable term.

The word ‘natural’, when applied to wine, is imbued not with derision, but with superiority. Our wines are natural, ergo yours are unnatural. The term is no less challenging to define than ‘spoofy’, so I’m not even going to try, but ‘natural’ wines do tend to follow a schema in the same manner as spoofy wines, although here it is nothing to do with hang-time or oak. Instead, the important aspects of the fermentation are the negatives; no enzymes to clarify the juice; no manipulations with added acid, tannin, colour or similar; no preservatives, most notably no sulphur dioxide. There are some positive rather than negative correlations though, the most notable of which would have to be the widespread use of novel fermentation vessels. There is, apparently, nothing more ‘natural’ than a wine fermented in qvevri, amphorae or a concrete eggs. Another correlation is extended skin contact, in some whites, giving us orange wines.

However you look at it, ‘natural’ wines are also ‘wines of process’. Even though much of the winemaking schema is about what the winemaker shouldn’t do, as opposed to what he/she should do, there is to my mind an undeniable dogma to it. Even though the original intention may well be to let the wine express its origins without manipulation, as a consequence of following this dogma many ‘natural’ wines I have encountered do not achieve this stated aim, and instead they display characteristics reflecting the winemaking process, obscuring the origins of the wine. This isn’t true of all ‘natural’ wines of course, an example that ticks all my boxes being the 2012 La Lune from Mark Angeli, a wine which sings so clearly of Chenin Blanc and schist. But so many fall short of achieving this. Instead, their origins are obscured by features such as oxidation (the most common problem), refermentation, Brettanomyces or other funk, all of which are direct consequences of the winemaking dogma. Indeed, these are the ‘natural’ wine equivalents of the slick texture, ill-defined fruit flavours and the new-oak vanilla and toast we find in spoofy wine. Therefore, is it not true to say that the two wines are fundamentally the same; whether ‘natural’ or ‘spoofy’, are both not basically process-driven wines that fail to speak of their origins?

Bordeaux 2015 Harvest: Word from the UGCB

The pace of activity in Bordeaux seems set to pick up in the next couple of weeks. While the season has on the whole been warm, dry and sunny, the rain in August reminded everybody that it could all go wrong at any minute. There was rain last night around Bordeaux, and there are storms forecast across much of France for the rest of the weekend. The most severe weather forecast looks to be restricted to the Mediterranean coast, but there is a possibility of storms in Bordeaux, as well as the eastern and upper Loire Valley.

Bordeaux 2015

Here is an update received this morning from Bernard Olivier (pictured above with wife Anne), president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and proprietor of Domaine de Chevalier. It is, of course, typically upbeat.

2015: the dawn of a great vintage…

Located on the 45th parallel, the northern limit for the world’s great red wine regions, Bordeaux likes sunny summers to produce great vintages. The months of May, June, and July 2015 were among the hottest and driest on record. Water stress, so important for stopping vegetative growth and starting the ripening process, took place early, in July, and brought on a magnificent véraison (colour change) in early August. I have not seen such an early, even véraison since 2009. All our grapes were red by the 15th of August and many of them were already deeply-­colored.

Fortunately, the month of August was less hot and more wet, which gave a certain vigor to the vines.

Dry white wines

This month of August enabled the grapes, especially the white wine grapes, to “breathe” and retain their freshness. The first grapes were picked at the end of August. Their juices were superb and the weather forecast for the next two weeks is looking excellent… We are thus quite confident this will be a great year!!!

Red wines

The Merlot grapes will be harvested the last ten days of September and the Cabernets the first two weeks of October. These are showing magnificent potential, but we still need six weeks without a major disturbance.

Sweet white wines

The Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are slowly reaching perfect ripeness. As with every vintage, botrytis will call all the shots, but the conditions conducive to its development are all there.

It has been several years since Bordeaux has seen the dawn of such a beautiful vintage…

There are still a few weeks of suspense left before this promise is fulfilled.

Bordeaux 2015 Harvest, Smith-Haut-Lafitte

I normally refrain from writing about the Bordeaux harvest unless I have some first-hand information to offer. Otherwise, it is too easy to end up as nothing more than a conduit for the Bordeaux marketing machine. Having said that, I am feeling optimistic about 2015, and so I figured it was worth bringing a little harvest news direct from Bordeaux onto the Winedr Blog. After all, the year has been favourable so far, with warm dry weather in May, June and July, albeit followed by a wet August but good weather again so far in September (incidentally, having spoken to vignerons in Vouvray, they described very much the same pattern).

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte

This immediately seems more promising than 2014 (a very cool year saved by an Indian summer), 2013 (a washout), 2012 (a late and wet harvest with uneven ripening and rot at the end) and 2011 (also a wet, late harvest with rot at the end). By contrast harvest in 2015 is now underway, in good conditions. Here’s a report from Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, received yesterday, September 9th:

Harvest serenely started on the 31st of August with the young vines of Sauvignon Blanc. We are taking our time. The fresh nights and wonderful sunny days allow the berries to refine their maturity day after day. At SHL, it is not the acidity level that triggers the harvest but the aromatic and phenolic maturity according to our daily grape tastings.

The first juices offer a beautiful tension, volume and the perception of acidity is higher in mouth than what the analysis forecasted… Despite the drought and beautiful weather of the summer, the levels are reasonable: around 13%.

At this comfortable path, we will start our old precious and fragile Sauvignons blancs on gravel, ploughed by horse for 20 years, starting tomorrow, 10th of September. One week earlier than 2014, we think we will start the reds next week with the young Merlots on gravel. As usual the Cabernets will be last. All parameters are ideal to offer a great vintage.

Putting thoughts of the team at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte enjoying a ‘comfortable path’ to one side for now, the key piece of information here is goood acidities in the harvested whites. A warm vintage such as 2015 is bound to hold some promise when it comes to reds, but it is easy to overlook the negative effect on whites. I increasingly find some 2009s from Bordeaux and the Loire seem rather soft, and I will be looking out for signs of this when I next visit (next month, and naturally for the primeurs next year).

More harvest news as and when I receive it, and of course I will get some first-hand information when I visit for myself.

Moulis Oenocturne

Forever overlooked, save perhaps for a few famous names such as Château Chasse-Spleen and Château Poujeux, the viticulteurs of Moulis have come up with a new idea to draw in the punters: Moulis Oenocturne 2015.

In a region not renowned for embracing oenotourism (although I think this view will soon have to be reappraised the way things are changing in Bordeaux), in Moulis they will be hosting (today, so if this is of interest you will have to make your travel arrangements quickly) an evening of tasting in the village square in Moulis-en-Médoc.

Moulis Oenocturne 2015

Entry to the tasting costs just €9 (€7 for early-bird bookings, but it goes without saying that we’ve missed that) which gets you a tasting glass, access to many of the wines of Moulis all from the 2012 vintage, music from Fellini Félin and the opportunity to visit the 12th-century church. There will be street food too, from a diverse array of “food trucks” (I am delighted to learn, having been informed of this event tonight, that French for “food trucks” appears to be “food trucks”!).

Anyone in Bordeaux who fancies going can catch one of the navette buses being laid on, departing from the Place des Quinconces in the city centre. The tasting is 19h00 until 23h00. For the bus timetable, telephone 05 56 58 32 74.