Category Archives: Wine Styles

Bordeaux 2011: Vintage Review

This past week, at the culmination of the Master of Wine seminar, the Institute of the Masters of Wine held their annual Bordeaux tasting.  This year focused on the 2011 vintage.  After the spectacular back to back successes of 2009 and 2010, 2011 brought a challenging year but also a year where the individual communes could show their classic styles.

  
Weather Recap
The spring started off a bit on the early side and rapidly warmed up to the second warmest April on record.  May followed suit and also was quite dry causing an early flowering.  Drought conditions early in the year can cause difficulties later in the season if enough water is not available to the vine during the time just after flowering.  This period of the year is called the “cell division and expansion phase” and allows the vine to set the number of cells that will make up the grape later in the season.  If not enough water is available during this phase the berries can remain quite small which, if water becomes available later in the season can cause splitting and exacerbate rot.  Drought conditions during this phase can also affect shoot growth and leaf development which may result in the vine being out of balance.

June of 2011 in Bordeaux was equally problematic due to a severe heat spike which resulted in early sunburn on many vineyards.  Sunburn damages the cells of the grape skins and results in reduced color and flavor formation.  Late season sunburn can also result in cooked flavors however this was not the case since July rapidly cooled and the rains returned leading some estates to worry about rot.  Additional large rainstorms in September caused many estates to pick earlier than usual further exacerbating an already difficult year.  As always, those producers willing to make the rigorous cuts in fruit selection were able to make good wines.  Here are my impressions from the various regions.

Graves

Still quite a ripe style of wines over the producers I tasted.  Not as intense as 2009 or 2010 however some black fruit is evident, more so than most of the other communes.  The tannins were characteristically gravelly over all and the mid palate was missing some of the generosity of the previous two vintages.  Overall a classic representation of the area.

St. Emillion

St. Emillion was showing its very structured, slightly blocky tannins and quite a bit more cassis and dry herb notes than the past two years, clearly reflecting the cool season post veraison.  For my tastes, I definitely preferred its neighbor Pomerol for the 2011 vintage.

Pomerol

Pomerol still showed the lush mid-palate weight that it is known for relative to St. Emillion however 2011 was a more classic vintage for the region than the previous two.  The minerality of the old world is back and was something I had found missing in the uber ripe previous two vintages.  The texture of tannin was chunky and the Merlot dominant blends were clearly apparent when compared to the more fine grained tannins of the Left bank.

Haut Medoc

Granitic minerality with focused cassis and dry herb characters but only modest mid-palate weight and structure.

St. Estephe

Quite lean mid palate and high, fine grained tannins.  Lots of cassis but some black cherry and wet granite as well.  These definitely need time to soften.

  
St. Jullien

This commune was my favorite for the vintage.  The elegance of the styles complemented the classic beauty of this vintage and the wines showed very well integrated oak balanced with beautifully textured, fine grained tannins.  These wines stood out as having the most affinity for the cool end of the season and the lovely texture of the wines reflected winemaking that embraced the vintage rather than working against it.

 
Paulliac

The most surprising of the communes I tasted since there seemed to have been little regard for what 100% new oak would taste like over the natural flavors of such a classic and restrained vintage.  In many of the producers I tasted, the oak was dominant and overpowered the more delicate fruit.  Maybe with time, this will integrate further however I am not convinced it will resolve.

Margaux

A lovely showing for Margaux.  Although the perfume of the commune was not as apparent in this vintage, the tannins were powerful and refined with a velvety texture which complemented the highly concentrated mid-palate.  Of all the communes, Margaux seemed to have retained the most concentration on the palate and the ripest fruit profile showing blueberries and black cherries.  The elegant style and mineral notes still clearly said old world however, which is a welcome change from the riper styles of the previous two vintages.  These wines are evolving beautifully and should show classic complexity in the years to come.

Of course, much of the wines that were tasted are classed growths with the means to handle a challenging vintage and come out on the other side with a classically elegant wine.  This means that the widespread deliciousness of the 2009 and 2010 vintages will be restricted to those estates with the means to be very selective and I would choose from the non-classed wineries very selectively.  It’s a good year to know the history of the producers.  If they were able to make a good or great wine in 2007, it is likely that they would be able to repeat the performance from the 2011 vintage.

Challenging Personalities: Exploring the Tough to Grow Varieties*

Over the years, multiple varieties have made the news for one reason or another.  Some, like Gewurztraminer, suffer from difficult to pronounce names.  Others suffer from identity challenges. Chardonnay anyone?  Still more are actually difficult to get to a bottle in once piece without the high involvement of the dedicated growers to make quality wine.  Here are a few of those challenging personalities and how much work needs to be done behind the scenes to create our favorite wines.

Zinfandel – The Indecisive One

Zinfandel has a tough issue.  Is it a rose or is it a serious red?  Is it going to be high alcohol or more moderate? Consumers are often not sure because, inherently, this variety is naturally indecisive. It tends to ripen extremely unevenly so you can have huge spans of ripeness within the same cluster.  This makes picking calls very tough since the Brix can vary so much from cluster to cluster.  Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company says he has seen clusters with 21 Brix berries and 28 Brix berries. “Part of the trick of growing Zinfandel is that you have to be comfortable with lack of some uniformity.”

Zinfandel also has very tight clusters and thin skins which makes it prone to rot. Twain-Peterson sees issues with this as well.  “The biggest year to year issue I see is the potential for botrytis where the wing lies on top of the main cluster. It ripens a little behind and can be heavy, […] weighing down on the rest of the cluster.” This pressure on the thin skins can cause the berries to burst and introduce botrytis into the clusters. “We battle this by almost always dropping wings on vineyards with higher historical botrytis pressure.”

Pinot Noir – The Drama Queen                                                                         

Pinot Noir has always had a reputation for being tough to grow.  You can look at it wrong and it will rot.  It is prone to diseases, sunburn, berry splitting, and nutrient issues.  Making high quality Pinot Noir is a labor of love but those growers who have taken it on have found ways to make it work for them.  In upstate NY, with high humidity and cool growing conditions Pinot Noir can be especially challenging. Thirsty Owl Wine Company winemaker and vineyard manager, Shawn Kime states “Intense canopy management and a prudent spray program are needed throughout the season long to allow grapes to reach their full potential. Vine balance is also extremely important. This doesn’t just mean not over cropping, but also not under cropping. Under cropped vines have too much vegetative growth and can be more susceptible to berry splitting and late season rot.”

Carneros Grower, Jennifer Thomson of Thomson Vineyards states “genetically many Pinot Noir clones display thin skins, tight clusters and compact berry formation which is a haven for pests and makes Integrated Pest Management essential for growing high quality Pinot Noir.” Grape berry moth, Mealy bug, and a host of other pests love Pinot Noir for its nooks and crannies in which to hide.  She tries to achieve “a balance between location, clone and seasonal characteristics” in order to grow great Pinot Noir.

Petit Verdot – The Goth

Envision walking into a vineyard that is otherwise happy and healthy except for one block which looks yellow, stressed, and spindly. Chances are that block is Petit Verdot.  It has a high propensity for over-cropping and generally doesn’t make very high quality wine unless it looks stressed.  Robert Mondavi Winery Vineyard Manager, Matt Ashby, points to extreme crop thinning to maintain quality.  “It will regularly grow 4 clusters per shoot, and it is a low vigor variety [with] very light pruning weights, so it will be out of balance for high quality wine if it is not thinned aggressively.  For Mondavi this means 1 cluster per shoot.” Another grower who chose to remain anonymous says “It’s a grey variety.  It always looks a little depressed when you are growing it properly.”

Rhone Whites – The Clique

This group of varieties tend to run in packs, meaning they are grown in similar locations, and they all have their own quirks. Viognier is an irregular setting variety which tends to only develop flavors towards the high end of the Brix scale and dump acid like last week’s leftovers anywhere outside of the Northern Rhone.  When asked about the challenges of Viognier, Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, CA, replied “The variety is prone to get mildew so you have to be on top of your spray or dust program.” Then he said he would not classify Viognier as the most difficult to grow. According to Bewley, Rousanne is far more challenging to grow.  “It shatters at set, it gets both mildew and botrytis and it is very hard to ripen.  It always comes in after Viognier or Marsanne.  Even Picpoul is easier to grow.”  Marsanne tends to set a heavy crop leading Bewley to come back and thin. “We must go through the blocks and cut off 50% to 75% of the fruit to make great wines.  The great thing is that these varieties make wonderful wines if cropped at a low yield.”

There are so many varieties in the world, it would be impossible to name all the difficult ones at one time. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and the Rhone Whites tend to have the greatest reputation for being finicky but there will always be growers out there willing to deal with their challenging personalities.

* This article was originally written by me and published on Snooth.com however I also really wanted to share it with my readers that may not have had the chance to see it there. This version is the un-edited original sent to Snooth.com and does not contain any omissions or editing from their version.

Vancouver International Wine Festival Observations

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I LOVE Vancouver.  If I had to choose an international city to live in , it would be a toss up between Paris and Vancouver.  I also love talking about wine to people and the Vancouver International Wine Festival gave me the opportunity to do that in such great surroundings.  I learned several amazing things at the festival this past week.

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1) Robert Mondavi is credited with starting the festival.

Many people came up to me to let me know this fact.  He is very well respected here and one person even credited him with being the catalyst for Vancouver’s thriving wine and food scene that is has today. This further cements my belief that Mr. Mondavi was a force to be reckoned with and full of boundless energy and passion for sharing wine with people.  I only hope that I can live up to at least half of that for my career.

2) Canada has some startlingly good wines.

From the austere and crisp Benjamin Bridge sparkling wine (Light and Bubbly) to the ripe and luscious Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc (Spicy and Smoky) that we had with dinner last night, to the elegant and intense Inniskillin Ice Wine (Sweet and Luscious),  Canada has some amazing wines to offer and we rarely see them in the rest of the world. I find with most countries to which I travel the best wines are the ones that are found domestically and Canada is no different.

3) The Vancouver International Wine Festival is Fantastic!

It is well organized, well run, and has enough representation from all countries that you feel you have indeed sampled a large portion of the world of wine but not so large that one can easily be overwhelmed.  One of my MW study partners, Matt, and I had enough opportunities in between pouring to run around and work on our blind tasting skills with virtually every style of wine we would need in the room.  Ice was never too far away and rinse water was plentiful.  There were enough people emptying spittoons that they never were more than half full at any given time.  This year’s country of focus was Australia and admittedly, while I am not a huge Shiraz fan, the wineries really put on a good showing with lots of Rieslings, Chardonnays, Semillons, Cabernets, and Bordeaux blends to get a good sense of what is going on down under.

There were also non-wine related observations…

4) Leather pants appear to be back in style.

I counted no less than 15 individuals sporting leather pants.  You see one person and you assume they are quirky and perhaps a bit non-conformist.  You see two people, and you think vaguely wonder if it is protection from the still slightly chilly wind.  You see 6 people and you wonder if you missed a fashion article on how the new trend for spring is leather leggings.  You see 15 people and it is pretty certain that the leather pant/legging is here for the season.

5) There are many types of VIWF visitors.

There are those which are jaded and wander the rooms glancing above your heads at the signs, peering over the shoulders at the people currently being served at your table, with a non-interested aloof look that suggests they are wondering what they are doing among the rest of the rabble in the room.  There are the interested tasters who resolutely work the room picking and choosing from the different wines and occasionally asking questions.  There are the people with plans and are on a mission announcing at their arrival that they are ONLY tasting Pinot Noir today! There are the new to wine tasting visitors that don’t realize they are supposed to be spitting and within 20 minutes of the start of the tasting they are already weaving about and you end up spilling wine on them because they can’t hold their glass steady enough and you are trying to pour the smallest amount possible without looking like you are trying not to serve them.  There are other winery representatives, taking a break from their own booths to tour around the room. Then there are my personal favorites, the avid enthusiasts, that have great questions and generally will come with one to 3 other avid enthusiasts.  Once these types find out one is a winemaker, you’d best be on your top game! “How do you know when to pull a wine out of barrel?” “What is the meaning of neutral oak?” “What’s the difference between Napa Valley and Carneros?” “What process do you use to determine your blends?”  I love these folks.  It makes my time at the table very exciting.

I loved my time in Vancouver this week and it was a fitting finale to my time as the red winemaker for Robert Mondavi.  At the end of this week, my family, and I are driving out of Napa bound for New York.  I can’t believe it has gone by so quickly!  Don’t worry though.  I still have plenty of blogging left in me!  Stay tuned for next Monday!