California is blessed with almost perfect growing conditions for grapes. This is a good thing. But sometimes it can be too much of a good thing. Over-ripeness and large-scale winemaking have been obliterating the fruit for the past 40 years. Many of the wines have become so ripe, over-extracted and in your face that they’ve lost all sense of terroir. I’m not saying that all California wines are like this but lots are, especially the large, branded wines. There are some wines on the market today, very popular wines by the way, that are so far removed from the grape they’re made from it’s almost funny. Pinot Noirs that taste like Aussi Shiraz and Chardonnays that are all butter, caramel and sugar line the shelves of supermarkets and box retailers. Enough is enough.
Over the past decade or so, there’s been a movement in California being led by young, dynamic winemakers across the state that are eschewing these in your face wines and getting back to the land. They are crafting wines with little to no manipulation. They want the wines to taste like the grape and place they are made from. Their mission is to get back to balanced, elegant wines that transmit terroir. They think it’s time to make wines taste like they did before prohibition and in the 1970’s when elegance trumped power. This is a far departure from some of the large wine conglomerates who are being forced to take notice.
But it’s not just about new, young wine makers. There are some producers who’ve been crafting balanced, elegant wines for decades. They’ve resisted the temptation to follow the herd and have kept true to their principles and style. Some producers to look for are Au Bon Climat, Ridge, Littorai and Calera.
2013 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast
Jim Jensen went to Oxford University for a master’s degree and wound up in France working in a cellar in Burgundy. He knew then that he was destined to make wine in a style as close to Burgundy as he could but in California. When he returned home to California he spent years traveling around the central coast looking for soils similar to those in Burgundy. He even went so far as pouring hydrochloric acid on the soil in the hopes of finding limestone, the calcium-rich soils he fell in love with in France. In 1974 he finally found some in a former lime quarry in the mountains above San Benito County east of Monterey. He purchased 324 acres (almost impossible today!) and got to work. Many thought he was crazy. But Mr. Limestone, as he is called, new exactly what he was doing.
Jim was way ahead of his time. When everyone else was starting to chase ripeness, big wines and big scores he held steady to his elegant, Burgundian style of wine making. It only took about 35 years for everyone else to come around to his way of thinking. His Central Coast wines, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are some of the best values and most consistently good wines coming out of the state. He sources grapes from about a dozen vineyards up and down the coast, ferments with indigenous yeasts, uses mostly whole clusters to make balanced wines of precision.
The 2013 Central Coast Pinot Noir was sourced from 10 vineyards. Each lot was fermented separately in open-top fermenters. The wine was then moved to French oak barrels, 10% new, for eleven months before being blended and bottled. This was a bit closed at first but it really opened up after a few minutes in the glass. There is a core of red cherry fruit underneath some earth, underbrush and violet. It’s silky smooth with bright acidity and great texture. Plenty of fruit and spice with a long finish. At under $20 you can’t beat this for the price.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a Dolcetto. I won’t be waiting long again. Especially if I can find ones that are this good. Unfortunately, this is not in the state just yet. But I think the distributor will be bringing this in fairly soon.
Dolcetto is a traditional grape of the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy. At one point it was the most widely planted red grape of the region. Dolcetto has been mentioned in records dating back to the mid 1500’s and many believe it originated in or near Dogliani but this has not been proven. The name means ‘little sweet one’. This is not because the wine is sweet but because the grapes tend to be very sweet around harvest time.
Although Dolcetto is no longer the most widely planted red grape of the region it is still highly prized by producers. Dolcetto ripens earlier and in higher, cooler spots than either Nebbiolo or Barbera. The wines made by Dolcetto mature sooner allowing for an earlier release of the wines giving producers some cash flow while the Nebbiolo and Barbera based wines mature.
Dolcetto is mostly planted in the Langhe and Monferatto hills and around Acqui Terme, Ovada and Tortona. In Piemonte there are 7 appellations devoted to the grape. The wines produced from Dolcetto are typically soft with a tannic grip and low acidity. The aromas are of dark red and black fruits, violets, licorice and prune. The wines have a very pleasant, slightly bitter finish from the tannins. They are often a deeply colored ruby, almost purple. Dolcetto is the wine that starts the meal being consumed with the antipasti.
The Dolcetto D’Alba DOC is the largest of the 7 appellations devoted to the grape. Due to the shear size and production it is also the most well-known. It also has the most variable wines produced in a number of styles. The wines range from simple and fruity to fuller-bodied, structured and complex. Because the DOC overlaps the famous Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG’s, many producers of these wines also produce very good Dolcettos. The Superiore designation demands longer ageing and a slightly higher minimum alcohol.
I have a soft spot for the wines of Viberti Giovanni. I visited the winery 6 years ago (with the same distributor). It was a fantastic experience. Claudio, the young winemaker, took us through the vineyards and winery and gave us a great education on the geography and wine making techniques of the region. They also have a restaurant, Buon Padre, that is outstanding. We were treated to a private lunch by Claudio’s mother. Soft eggs with truffles, tajarin with truffles, anglotti del plin, beef braised in Barolo and about 4 other courses. Needless to say there were some good wines to wash down all of this traditional Piemontese cuisine. It still stands out as a top-ten dining experience. I highly recommend a meal if you are in the Barolo area.
I tasted this yesterday. It is absolutely delicious. It’s exactly what a classic Dolcetto D’Alba should be. All of the grapes are sourced within the commune of Barolo from several different vineyards. Fermentation and ageing is in stainless steel with additional time in bottle before release. The wine is deeply colored, opaque. The nose is bursting with red berry fruits, black cherry, licorice, violet and rose petal. It’s medium bodied with firm tannins and that signature pleasant bitter finish. This could be kept for a year or two but you won’t want to do that. Buy this by the case if you can find it. About $19.
Burgundy is one of the most famous wine regions in the world and one that confuses a lot of folks. There are many reasons for this: the number of appellations (100 but over 600 if you count all of the Premier Cru Vineyards separately); vineyard names on labels; village names on labels that look very similar to vineyard names; and the classification of the vineyards and the appellations. But it doesn’t have to be so confusing. After all, there are really only 2 grapes used for wine. If you are drinking white, then it’s Chardonnay (most of the time). If you are drinking red, then it’s Pinot Noir (most of the time). That’s the easy part. Once you understand a few simple facts about the region it all makes sense. Burgundy is not confusing, just complex.
The biggest reason for the confusion is the number of different appellations the region has. An appellation is a place-name and is how European wines are named. It tells you where the wine is from. Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy) and Vouvray are all places in France that make wine. They are also appellations.
Appellation laws must be followed by the winemaker in order for him or her to use the appellation name. These rules include the grape(s) one can use, where they can grow them, how much they can grow, how much wine can be made, how long the wine needs to be aged and in what vessel and many other things. This is all done to preserve typicity and promote terroir.
An example of an appellation in Burgundy would be a wine labeled Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin. This is a red wine made by me, from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits sub-region of Burgundy. I must source all of the grapes from the village boundaries and follow the rules of winemaking and aging in order to put Gevrey-Chambertin on the label. Simple enough, yes? But here is where Burgundy gets complex.
Burgundy has 100 of these appellations and they are based on the vineyards. This was started in monastic times when the monks were in charge of viticulture. They noticed that wine made from the same grape but from different plots, some only yards apart, were different. Some were better than others and some were drastically better than others. They named the plots and often put up stone walls around them (clos). Over time all of the vineyard plots were named. The wines from certain vineyards such as Montrachet, Corton, Musigny, Chambertin and several others were highly sought after and commanded higher prices than other vineyards. This led to a ranking of the vineyards from best to not so best.
The best vineyards are called Grand Cru. There are only 33 of these scattered throughout Burgundy. The name of the vineyard stands alone on the label. Chambertin, Musigny and Montrachet are examples of Grand Cru vineyards/wines. The word Grand Cru may or may not appear on the label. The next best are the Premier Cru. There are over 600 of these vineyards in Burgundy. The name of the vineyard will appear on the label after the name of the village that it belongs to. You will also see 1er Cru or Premier Cru on the label. Below the Premier Cru are the village wines. There are 44 villages that will appear on labels. Examples are Nuits-St-George, Saint-Romain, Beaune and Volnay. And then there are the regional vineyards and wines. There are 23 regional and sub-regional wines. These come from the least favorable vineyards. Although least in this case is still either good or really good in most cases. Examples are Bourgogne, Macon and Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Beaune.
Notice that as you go down the quality ladder the area the wines are from gets larger. Regional and sub-regional wines are made from grapes sourced from large areas within Burgundy. A Bourgogne can be made from grapes grown anywhere within the Burgundy region. Grand Cru wines must come from a single vineyard, some of which are very small.
Here are some examples of these different appellations:
Domaine Cleary Bourgogne Pinot Noir – I source the grapes from all over the region. This is a Regional Appellation. At this level the grape name is allowed on the label. $19
Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin – All of my grapes must come from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. This is a Village Appellation. $35
Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Les Crais’ – These grapes must come from the single-vineyard Les Crais. This is not a Premier Cru wine. This is a Village Appellation with a named vineyard on the label. The vineyard is not a Premier Cru vineyard but good enough I want you to know that all the grapes came from it. $45
Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Premier Cru Champonnet’ – The grapes must come from the single-vineyard ‘Champonnet’, a Premier Cru Vineyard. This is a Premier Cru Appellation. $80
Domaine Cleary Chambertin – All of the grapes must come from the single-vineyard Chambertin, a Grand Cru Vineyard. This is a Grand Cru Appellation. $195
The above wines are all red and made from Pinot Noir. Did you notice the prices went up as the quality went up? These wines are all very good (of course!). The regional wine is a fruit driven wine with some tannic grip but simple. It’s a wine for lighter dishes or to be enjoyed among friends. As we progress to the village wine and then the single-vineyard, premier cru and on to grand cru the wines will gain more intensity, power, structure and depth. They will show more typicity of where the grapes are from and the terroir will shine through. The only wines for long-term cellaring would be the premier cru and grand cru. That being said, they can all be enjoyed in their youth.
What’s up with Chambertin being in a lot of the wines names? Until the mid-1800’s the town was known as Gevrey-en-Montagne. But a royal decree by King Louis-Philippe let towns in Burgundy add the name of the most prestigious vineyard to their name to help sell the village wines. So, the village of Gevrey-en-Montagne became Gevrey-Chambertin as this was the best vineyard in the town at the time. Some other examples are Puligny-Montrachet and Aloxe-Corton. This is why it’s confusing to some. It would be easy to confuse a village wine, Gevrey-Chambertin, with a Grand Cru wine, Chambertin. Except for the price. Chambertin is one of only 33 Grand Cru vineyards (There are 8 other Grand Cru Vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin, all with Chambertin as part of their name!). It’s small and not a lot of it is made and demand is extremely high so the price is high. Even at the regional level the prices tend to be on the high side as it’s all about supply and demand.
So, Burgundy does not have to be all that confusing as long as you know a little about the appellation system. Remember that as you go up the hierarchy of appellations the wines will get more complex, age-worthy and expensive. They should also be better quality and more of an ‘experience’ than just a bottle of wine. There is more to Burgundy than the appellations. There are the negociants, the brokers, winemaking traditions and some other issues but I think this is a good introduction. If you want to learn more you can visit http://www.bourgogne-wines.com/ it’s a great resource that also has an educational aspect to it.
Whole-bunch fermentation and carbonic maceration are both associated with the Beaujolais region. And rightly so. The Gamay grape lends itself to the practice and the process is perfect for the production of Beaujolais Nouveau. But this region is certainly not the only region that employs the process. In Spain and France winemakers use the process on particularly tannic and rough varieties like Carignan to soften the characteristics. And there are other regions across the globe that do the same thing. In fact, whole-bunch, or whole-cluster, fermentation seems to be a buzz word right now and people are curious as to what it is and does.
In class the other night we were discussing fermentation and I was asked about whole-bunch fermentation. What is it? Why is it used? What does it do? Although the topic of whole-bunch, or whole cluster, fermentation was a bit out of the realm of this particular class, I briefly described the process. Today I came across these two articles in Decanter magazine that does a great job of letting us know exactly what the process is and what it does. You can read them here and here.