Published Work: A Master Turned Apprentice at Domaine Dujac

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(This is a piece that was written for Opening a Bottle, recounting my experience at Domaine Dujac for Harvest.)


“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

didn’t spill Clos de la Roche all over the winery floor.

That was the reoccurring nightmare I had before my harvest in Burgundy at Domaine Dujac in Morey-Saint-Denis, France. In this dream, I would absent-mindedly open the valve, thinking it was securely hooked up to a hose, and whoosh! I wouldn’t be able to stop it. Gallons of their iconic Pinot Noir splashing up to my ankles. I had ruined an entire year’s worth of Grand Cru wine.

While my first ‘vintage’ (as seasoned traveling winemakers refer to harvest) included its fair share of blunders, thankfully no one died, no (substantial) amount of wine hit the floor, and overall it was an incredible — albeit humbling — experience…

(To continue reading, click here to be redirected to Opening a Bottle.)

 

 

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Losing track of time in Burgundy…

Burgundy

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. 

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favorite day,” said Pooh.” 

 A.A. Milne

 

I love this quote. I have lost all sense of time and day here in Burgundy. I was shocked to learn today was Friday. I wake, I go, I eat, I sleep. And each day feels like my favorite.

 

Coming off another long day, my body is aching from contorting it every which way to drag hoses, wash bins, maneuver pallet jacks, dig out large vats of fermented whole clusters to go to press (which then of course must be cleaned). I have never felt so strong and so weak in all my life. So young and so old. I am sometimes amazed that I keep getting out of bed each day and endure another. My old self was more of a wuss.

 

But the truth is… once I start, I cannot stop. It’s fortifying. Primal almost. Using your body to the fullest, grunting, wincing, pushing, pulling, getting filthy, bruised, bedraggled. Then…turning on a hose, and washing it all down the drain. Not the wine of course. But, the mess you made to achieve beauty.

 

Before this harvest, I knew I had mental fortitude, but physically it has been a while since I genuinely pushed myself to any great lengths– beyond that which I could visualize. Nearly 9 years has passed since I ran a marathon, and that may have been the last time I surprised myself. Talking with the two other female interns here at Dujac, we shared how empowering (and liberating) it is to be part of the winemaking process. We don’t bother shaving or sprucing up. We just get up and do everything the guys are doing. There are no limits. And we are all learning that we are every bit as capable– with even the tasks that seems impossible at first. But we keep at it, learn the techniques and move on to the next job.

 

There is never a lack of things to do. The learning curve is steep, and I have come to respond almost involuntarily, as I scan the room and look for something to wash, someone to help, a hose that needs rolling up, chalkboards needing updates, a tank that needs a foot stomp (I can’t say my feet have ever been so wonderfully exfoliated). We begin each day tasting through each vat, and listening carefully as Jacques, Jeremy and Alec discuss what they need (remontage, pigeage, pressing). It’s at this moment one cannot deny that it is more than science. This is art.

 

We take a break at lunch to refuel, connect with one another and sip wines that are not considered ‘lunch wines’ in my world. The Seysses family has been beyond generous in edifying our experience with twice daily blinds at lunch and dinner. Yesterday , we had a 4 wine vertical of Clos Saint-Denis, since we were pressing it that afternoon: 2006 (quite fresh, forward cherry notes, beginning tertiary dimension), 2003 (you can taste/feel the warmth of this vintage), 2004 (quite elegant and pretty right now, more herbaceous but well balanced fruit) and 1999 (really high acidity met with round, ample fruit). Today, we were pressing Clos de la Roche, so we were fortunate to venture into another vintage comparison: 2011 (wow- this wine from Dujac was in such a charming place; it may have been my favorite today), 2008 (just beginning to show its age, there was still quite a bit of forward fruit and intensity), 1999 (really round, chewy tannins, generous fruit, higher acidity like the Clos Saint-Denis from 99).

 

I couldn’t be more thankful for the people I have met through this experience– not the least of which my fellow interns. Each brings with her/him such different experiences and unique perspectives. Two are from the southern hemisphere: Cooper Davis-Draper from Australia…but kind of Canadian–it’s complicated) and Willie Trew from New Zealand. This isn’t Willie’s first rodeo in Burgundy. With a couple harvests at DeMontille under his belt, he has been a great leader here. As for Cooper, he has worked a few harvests around the world as well and has proven to be incredibly patient and helpful with newbies like myself. Marie Charlemagne is a total badass who makes wine up in Champagne for her family’s domaine. She’s a total boss. And then there is Alex Karosis, a somm at Legacy Records in New York. Her insights, talented palate and experience tasting so many baller wines for her work has been an incredible add to our table conversation. And, of course, our actual chef! Tom Stafford came here from Napa to prepare our meals. Asking him the menu ahead of time is what keeps me motivated through the day.

 

Language fails when trying to articulate the energy felt during harvest. There is a sense of communion from the moment we wake up and begin tackling the day’s tasks on through the final meal together and even afterward when we retreat to our ‘annex’, play music, chat, dance, laugh, share night caps or cups of chamomile on our ‘sober’ nights, which have come to basically mean we don’t drink outside of lunch and dinner, but beer doesn’t count.

 

On that topic… Who knew it would take my coming to Burgundy– the mecca of fine wine– to finally get this Wisconsin-born gal to drink some beer? But that’s what it took. Beer is kind of a thing in the wine industry. Whether after a long day of trade tastings, competitions or super hot mid-summer bbq’s, it seems that’s what wine drinkers crave. I never understood this.  Each and every occasion I heard crown caps cracked, I would pass and gross others out by having more wine, cocktails or water. But there is one other occasion that lures our kind to those suds… making wine all day. Somehow, some way, there is just something about pure exhaustion that makes a grainy, light, crisp, lemony mediocre Kronenbourg taste really fricken amazing. Just one. That’s all.

 

Huddled under the covers, as I listen to rain fall outside, I am eagerly anticipating the Boeuf Bourguignon on the menu tonight. I dug out 2 vats today (one of which was 70hL tank of whole fermented clusters), cleaned a press, gave some tanks remontage that needed it and generally assisted with a half dozen other tasks. I am so hungry. And so happy. It is a gift to have an opportunity to use my body fully, to nourish it, to commune with others day after day, sleep and get up with the sun.

Just Being… in Burgundy.

Burgundy, french wine, French Wine Travel, Uncategorized

“I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.” – Anais Nin

It’s a nearly perfect summer evening. The patio door is open wide, the dronesome sound of cicadas compete with one another, punctuated by occasional abrupt silences they uniformly feel compelled to observe. The light is throwing that ever so hushed tone that tells one the season is coming to an end. The harvest is upon us. I drink it in, the view and a stunning glass of Collier Saumur Chenin, as I try to imagine what’s to come in just a matter of hours.

I have only had the opportunity to play at harvest here an there for days at a time– some more hands on than others. Never have I followed it from start to finish at one winery, though. Never could I have imagined ten years ago, a fledgling student in the world of wine, that I would find myself booking train tickets from Paris to Morey-Saint-Denis via Dijon and Gevrey-Chambertin to work a full harvest season at Domaine Dujac.

But… here I am.

To articulate this moment– the ‘just before’ kind of moment I hold inside like a long, meditative breath– well, words come and go, as the unwritten and unknowable are perhaps the most complex (and invigorating) of all the emotions we get to feel. The imagination is so rich. It naturally reaches for any data it can– the times I have stepped on Burgundy soil, the countless bottles I have treasured, the  maps I have pored, the harvests I have experienced however brief and the thousands of hours of study that have given me a general idea what goes on from vine to barrel. Though, if I have learned anything, it’s that winemakers are like snowflakes– each one’s approach different than the next, however nuanced. But none of it will prepare me for what I will take in… I am sure of that. And I embrace these moments in life where mystery has an actual pulse and they really make me feel I am living when I relish them.

These punctuated points in my life have come to signal growth and evolution in a very short time–a space where I just know I am hovering on the threshold of becoming more than I am as myself today. I felt this way the night before my mom died when I was ten years old. I felt this the day before I moved to New York City in 2007– alone without any contacts, and my only plan was to live at the YMCA in Greenpoint until I found something more permanent. I felt it the day before my marriage. And again before my marriage ended. All these moments had my heart beating hard with nervous anticipation– in full awareness of not knowing what might come next. All involved courage. None were without fear. I had no idea who I could be on the other side. But, as Nin so beautifully explains, it’s less a ‘new’ self on the other side, rather an adding to– a manifestation of old and new selves. A sentiment of multitudes that echo Whitman.

Perhaps a harvest doesn’t (or shouldn’t) compare to some of these other life-changing transitions. But the same sensations are stirring (perhaps with a bit more excitement balancing my nerves), and I realize that this is more than just a little adventure. It has recently occurred to me that I am standing in and staring at my mid-life crisis. Really! I didn’t quite recognize it for what it was at first. Images of ridiculous sports cars, Las Vegas benders and twenty-something lovers on the side seemed to fit the symptoms fit for a mid-life crisis diagnosis. But that’s not really what it’s about at all. In fact, seems a lot of friends in their thirties and forties are in a similar place. We wake up one day and mortality is a real thing. It sets in for the first time, really. We take stock. We ask ourselves the hard questions. We answer them with honesty. We contemplate choices–those that are safe with those that involve risk.

My reasons for going have taken so many shapes over the past couple years. When I first learned this was a possibility, I wanted the challenge– what might it feel like to rise each morning and live as a vigneron? Could I do it? Could this be a path for me? My life took turns I rather didn’t anticipate shortly thereafter, and this opportunity began to feel like an escape– a brief interlude from day-to-day real life to answer questions about who I am, what I want, where I am going. I am grateful, though, the past couple years brought a lot of self work, and I have answered many of the unsettling questions, and I can go now with a whole heart, clearer mind and really very few expectations. Just a willingness to do the best I can, ask a ton of questions and revel in being part of it all. Just being.

To press pause, just for a few weeks. To live differently. People talk a lot about being ‘present’ as the anecdote to daily anxiety, our frenetic lives. It’s hard to be present in the grind, which is so filled with ruminations on yesterday and worries and plans for tomorrow. I’d like to stop that churning for a bit and have my mind and my body in the same place, doing the same things, at the same time. Rising with the sun and closing each day with a few well earned delicious aches in my bones. To reflect on what it means to create. To relish curiosity. To savor learning. These are the reasons I am so eager to board that plane this Friday to France, where I have always felt a little closer to myself.

Euro Scribbles: A Glimpse of Galicia through Ribeiro’s Eyes…

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As I landed in a cloud draped upon Vigo in Galicia, I searched for the Atlantic in vain. But I could smell it as I walked outside and climbed inside the taxi. Not fifty minutes later and several rolling hills, we marched over one small mountain range and into the land of Ribeiro–a tiny little wine region of not 6,000 ha under vine.

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A region defined by deep valleys cut through by the Mino River and its surrounding streams, Ribeiro is not quite maritime, but not quite continental or Mediterranean either. This unique corner of the earth endearingly dabbles in them all. Picturesque terraced vineyards paint the hills. They seem to selfishly steal away gluttonous amounts of dreamlike panoramic views from the rest of the world.

 

Ribeiro sits just on the northern border of Portugal but nestled in Spain; it gazes out east at its more famous Galician neighbor Rias Baixas. Like its neighbor, it prides itself upon white varieties– comprising nearly 90% of the grapes here, though that number is beginning to change, as the climate warms and folks are finding a more willing market for its reds of Brancellao, Caino, Ferron, Mencia and Souson. Where Palomino took the lead under Franco’s power, quality-driven indigenous grapes like Treixadura, Godello and Albarino are eagerly taking its place with renewed focus in the region for leading wineries.

 

Galicia as a whole is steeped in history. It is woven into the words of every grower I met with on this glimpse of a trip. They spoke as if alluding to their grandparents but extending this to the Roman times when grapes were introduced to the area around 200 ad. With hills as green as tulip leaves and painted with relics from the 11th and 12th century, Galicia’s Celtic tradition resonated. Cistercian monks of the Monasterio de San Clodio (a pretty fascinating place we were able to visit–now turned luxury hotel) contributed to its flourishing reputation–one that even found fame in the Americas by way of Columbus. Old pigeon coups and monasteries peppered the landscape and deepened this region’s patina; their cultural past was carefully crafted within everyone’s narrative.

The medieval town of Ribadavia wore the soil in its suit– granite covered the ground beneath and composed the buildings above, emitting a mineral aroma so distinct when it began to rain. Each morning was draped in fog, and January is already the rainy season here, so it seems wet granite is a scent that is synonymous with this region.

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If you can imagine, there are 3,000 growers in this small region. At an average of 2 ha per grower, you might be wondering how they manage. Under the laws of inheritance, the land began to subdivide in the 17th and 18th centuries until today. Hence, family members have been left with a row here, a row there and often not near one another. But whether it was industrialization, war, phylloxera or dictatorship, the Galician people are proud, and little will convince them to part with their parcels. And so, many will even go so far as to abandon if not lease them out to other producers in the area, so as not to sell what is rightfully theirs. There are only about a hundred or so wineries in this region altogether, with a co-op and a couple larger wineries assuming much of the land area in production. Nearly 90% of the growers produce less than 10,000 bottles of wine.

 

In our visit, we were meant to see a range of producers–from small, family run wineries to larger cooperatives. Our first day began in Bodego Coto do Gomariz in the coveted Avia valley, where land is some of the most expensive in the region for its ideal southerly orientation and complex granite, schist and clay soils. Gomariz did their best to collaborate among family members so parcels would not subdivide too obnoxiously, and the Carreiro family is one of only a handful fortunate to have land here– a whopping 28 hectares which is quite sizable for Ribeiro, especially for a family farm. They have made concerted efforts to practice biodynamic in recent years and are growing more pleased with the results every passing vintage. These wines were thoughtful and offered such a range of style, variety and purpose. Some, like The Flower and the Bee white and red, were fun and whimsical. Others, like the Colleita de Seleccionada blanco and the Seica tinto are more serious and long-lived bottlings coming from some of the best single vineyards in their possession. Their website demonstrates their focus and dedication to quality with beautifully detailed technical notes. It was an inspiring visit, to say the least, and it was apparent that they there are committed to enhancing Ribeiro’s reputation and bottling its unique terroir.

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Later that day, we continued nearby and Finca Vinoa, which provided some of the most spectacular overlooks of Ribeiro and impressively steep terraced vineyards. We were fortunate to enjoy these views while sipping on their namesake blanco from 2014, 2015 and 2016–the same bright, youthful unoaked bottling of mostly Treixadura balanced with other indigenous varieties. This allowed for a really understanding of vintage differences. Where 2014 was quite lean, mineral and noted with lime zest, the warm 2015 was much rounder, nuttier and creamy due to some lees aging. Marmalade and ripe peaches filled the midpalate here. The 2016 was more reminiscent of the 2014, but it too saw some lees and meandered into a more lemon citrus edge than lime.

Our experience the next day at Pazo do Mar was very educational and fun. The head winemaker walked us through their modern facility and was able to explain the many ways in which they have worked to improve the quality– adhering to traditional grapes and styles while embracing many technological advantages to make the most of their produce. I envisioned their Pazo do Mar blanco and next level up Expresion (100% Treixadura) having a lot of versatility in many U.S. markets– they were clean, reflective of place and really well priced. The winery itself had such a welcoming feel, too. They put out a beautiful spread of the region’s most typical dishes (polpo, local cheeses, jamon, tortilla, Galician empanada, local bread, and maybe the most amazing tarta de requeson–Galician cheesecake). I’m a bit hungry now just reminiscing…

 

We spent an unforgettable afternoon exploring nearby Galician-Roman ruins at Castro de San Cibrao de Las, where we witnessed the unearthing of a civilization that dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. Even if you suppose this wouldn’t impress you, you are wrong, and this is not to miss if you visit Ribeiro. The history is startling. Approaching the ruins, even 20 feet away, the detail and grandeur are understated… it takes walking through the old rooms and what likely were stables, kitchens, and patios of yesteryear. Absolute unexpected highlight of the trip. Rodrigo was our guide–if he is there, request him. His enthusiasm and knowledge is vast and infectious.

We then carried on at Priorato de Razamonde with the most charming elderly Pepe Perez and his gorgeous nieces Elena and Paloma Gonzalez. This family operation began with barely one hectare and they have impressively accumulated 28 hectares. Their wines were more than solid representations of Ribeiro and what’s more, their drive to raise its reputation will involve building a wine bar, restaurant and gourmet goody shop on their property for tourism this coming year. They were clued in to social media and genuine in their desire to grow their family’s business in a way that would benefit the region as a whole.

 

A final day began at Vina Costeira winery– at fifty years old, it is the largest winery in Galicia making D.O. wines. Still, compared to some mass production facilities around the world, this seemed rather small in comparison.  The Verema awards named it the best winery in Spain in 2017.  About 40% of their production functions off cooperative purchasing of fruit, and they own the rest of their vineyards. It was an educational tour followed by a tasting of nearly thirteen wines, including a sparkling wine– the first that will be allowed to wear the D.O. Ribeiro on the label this year. Done in the traditional method on the lees for 18 months and a modest 6 g/l dosage, it was a fantastic alternative to Cava– one of my favorites of the flight, in fact.

 

We ended our travel at another sizable winery: Bodegas Alanis. They work with over 200 growers in the area to deliver on a range of value driven, regionally expressive whites. Their top of the line San Trocado and Gran Alanis were the ones that caught my attention most, using the native varieties to best achieve more complexity in the bottle.

 

And so, with that, the trip concluded. We spent our nights at Laias Caldaria in the heart of Ribeiro and a short drive from the village of Ribadavia. It had natural mineral baths that were a perfect way to begin or end each day. We dined at a few really nice places, but my favorites included: Gastrobar O Birrán restaurant in Ribadavia, Veleiro Restaurant in Cenlle (a dive-y little bar with great local bites) and Peregrinus Restaurant in Ourense for a focused polpo (octopus) menu. In general, Ourense was a terrific larger small town to wander round, do lots of shopping and wine bar hopping.

 

The quiet pocket of Ribeiro is certain not to be secret for long, as their quality continues to improve with advanced understanding of what their soils and grapes can give a glass. Wineries are working to find ways into international markets with vibrant, bright indigenous whites from the regions. And Ribeiro itself proves charming to be an insufficient word. I was so grateful to have a few days in this little corner of paradise. My appreciation most directed to April Cullom, President of Global Bridges LLC, who shines a light on the amazingness Spain has to offer in food and wine. She is also a winemaker in her own right which I was able to samples with her Alma de Vino Mar y Montano blanco.

Afternoon Fizz with Digby Fine English.

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“There is a mistaken idea, ancient but still with us, that an overdose of anything from fornication to hot chocolate will teach restraint by the very results of its abuse.” –M.F.K. Fisher

It brought me comfort to read that among mayonnaise and grandma’s boiled dressing, M.F.K. Fisher thought to include Champagne in a small list of items that she quite literally never could tire. I often think on my list, there would be parmesan cheese, coffee and yes, without a doubt, Champagne. The real stuff– the kind that is born in the vast chalky soils of Northern France. The kind whose story runs deep telling tales on the tongue of its making. The kind whose complexity is often considered unparalleled.

In general, yields throughout France for 2017 were “historically low” according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Frost and hail, the major culprits. High hopes for an increase in this year’s Champagne harvest conversely resulted in a decrease–9% below the average from 2012-2016.*  The climate is changing globally, shifting patterns, ecosystems and expectations… a little too quickly. Vignerons are waking up to the new normal and trying to adapt as best they can with revised vineyard techniques to protect their investments.

But I return to the dire point at hand. Champagne! It’s running out! Ok, hardly. No need to grab the oxygen tank just yet. We still see a good few hundred million bottles produced each year. We also must check ourselves when an alcoholic beverage threatens to steal our sanity.

But… to my delight (and let’s ignore this slight uptick in tone that there could exist one positive outcome of climate change), a new region is emerging… one that looks a whole lot like Champagne– that of southeast England to be sure. Extending from the chalky white cliffs of Dover, there are vineyards waking up and realizing the potential for high class fizz. England’s soils bear a striking resemblance to that of Champagne, and they are now nearly just a half a degree cooler than their French friends.**

I sat down with Trevor Clough, co-founder and CEO of Digby Fine English, this past week to taste through their line of sparkling wine, named for the “unsung hero”–Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) who invented the modern wine bottle as we know it today. Digby was a dream born in 2009 of soil and weather–the perfect combination for so many legendary wine regions. For the better part of the past century, lesser complex fruit was grown in the marginal, trying climate in England. However, better technology, understanding and investments have inspired a new batch of artisans to coalesce around a unified vision for premium sparkling wine.

Digby focuses on winemaking, forming relationships with growers primarily throughout SE England, sourcing their Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay from Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. Though they function as a negociant, much like the large houses in Champagne–buying their fruit to produce and blend a consistent house style–much of English bubbly comes from small growers.

We tasted through their flagship Reserve Brut from the 2010 vintage as well as both non-vintage wines (white and rose). The Reserve Brut spent four and a half years slumbering on its lees and another under cork. Dominated by Chardonnay (65%), with Pinot Meunier and Noir to counter in equal parts, this wine had beautiful dimension and balance. Its bent for romanticism was held together with a more serious expression. It had the tension and generosity of a fine Champagne but more primary fruit–a juicy quality to it. A curious minerality was said to come from the green sandstone layer of soil.

Both non-vintages were clean, straightforward and above all: fun. They reminded me of very high quality Cavas or Cremants from France. While falling short of the mystery a great Champagne or Digby’s Reserve Brut can offer, it opens up another category of enjoyment. Their rose is the epitome of this sentiment, as they are the official sparkling wine for the Leander Club– a nearly 200 year old rowing club. The foil reflects the smart dress of the British, robed in houndstooth attire with deep purple on the underside. Though they might be compared for many decades to their French competition, these details make them uniquely “Fine English.” And besides, imitation is the best form of flattery (plus, we get more fine bubbles to go around!).

English fizz can be a bit difficult to find–Digby is among the only offering in the Denver area. I went straight to the source– Harvest Wine Co– Digby’s distributor here in Denver. Here are a few places you can find it:

Restaurants: Stoic and GenuineMercantileMatsuhisa Denver

Retailers: HB LiquorsJoyCask and Craft

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Sources:

*http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/french-wine-harvest-2017-373091-373091/

**https://vinepair.com/articles/climate-change-is-putting-english-sparkling-wine-on-the-map/

More than letters: How the MW process has changed me.

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It was 2008–just when the recession was really beginning to hit home for many. I was home for the summer from grad school trying to find anyone willing to hire for temporary work. Dejected upon realizing even a local Indian restaurant was uninterested, I did what any self-respecting individual would do and walked into the nearest liquor store to find something to drown my sorrows. From the outside, it seemed like the kind of place that wouldn’t judge my ignorance. Just your average corner convenient shop*.

What I found inside were a couple of older guys and a middle-aged woman. They were putting on a tasting and reeled me in to take a sample. I was self-conscious. This woman was to the moon for Malbec, and I let her tell me more. It wasn’t my favorite grape–I didn’t know much at the time, but I was learning the darker they were, the pickier my palate. But I could have had a whole bottle after listening to her that day. It was clearly her passion.

Not much to lose, I asked if they were hiring. Voilà, my first wine gig.

That summer, I began to learn all about wine. I took home a different wine after each shift and began pairing them at home with my meals. I bought Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, and I would study each label for clues to who they were inside. I would devour any wine book I could and was fortunate to stumble upon Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked followed by Jancis Robinson’s Tasting Pleasure. These two in addition to Eric Asimov’s NY Times column made the biggest impression on me.

Nighttime at the shop, when customers would slow down, my colleague John would walk me through the store–one lesson at a time. One night, I found him sitting in the back room on an upturned painting bucket. He seemed lost in a sniff, eyes closed… just thinking. “God damn people,” he would bark (he was such a curmudgeon), “This isn’t corked. It’s gorgeous.” I wanted a sniff myself. It was a 2005 Les Allees de Cantemerle Haut Medoc. He explained one bank from the next. One vintage from the other. I was hooked. No return.

I began to give wine the same focus as I did my graduate degree in English Lit. I was switching career paths and academia was my road map in life. I completed the CSW through the Society of Wine Educators, got my certification as a sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and began to work towards my WSET Diploma, as I knew the Master of Wine was my dream. Jancis was my motivation. No one had ever made such a strong impression on me as she did at the very start of this all. Her intellect and wide lens view was admirable–her passion was palpable. Pursuing the degree she held was, to me, well… seemingly impossible! But such a worthy goal.

When I got accepted into the Master of Wine program, I was shocked, quite frankly. And when I went to the first year course days that took place in San Francisco back in 2015, I had never been more nervous and exposed. Everyone around me seemed so confident and controlled. They had lofty ambitions and impressive resumes. I laid low and scurried back to my hotel room each night to study like mad–as if it would help at that point. There were a lot of tears that week. I didn’t feel I fit. I was completely out of my comfort zone. But I wasn’t going to let go of my dream just yet.

The summer of 2015, I learned I passed the first stage. I was in the Languedoc, refreshing my email every minute… for about 5 hours, as I waited for the news. I was shocked–again! Shaking, tearing up… I was ecstatic. It had been such a grueling year, a steep learning curve. But I had made it to the big leagues. I was permitted to sit the true MW exam the following year.

For those unfamiliar, the MW exam takes place over four days in June at three locations around the world. Over a hundred students pilgrimage to these centers after years of intense self-study. The first three mornings consist of 12-wine blind tastings. In just over two hours, students are asked to identify the wines through a series of questions regarding origin, variety, methods of production, commercial placement, quality and style. The afternoons of all four days consist of five theory exams on viticulture, vinification, processing/handling of wine post-fermentation, business of wine and current topics. It is truly a holistic degree.

The year that followed first stage was unforgettably intense. My partner and I (I had a few, but one in particular) were obsessed with theory preparation. He would work on certain theory questions, I would work on mine. We would exchange, discuss, troubleshoot, complicate…REPEAT. Again and again, each week we would do this. We would call one another and force each other to answer a question in 15 minutes.

The tastings were equally grueling and really the focus for me, as I felt it was my strength overall. I practiced daily in some capacity, though leading up the exam, there were many weekends where I would do 3 days in a row of 36 wines for a true mock scenario.

I sat that exam last June of 2016 and waited for the results come Labor Day. I was losing my mind over the summer, overanalyzing every last wine on the exam. Had I really called that Austrian Riesling a Gruner?? (–wince–). I was so focused on passing tasting (‘Practical’ exam as it is called), I hadn’t given much thought to how I did on theory, assuming I likely needed to study another year for that one.

The night before results came through, I woke up at least ten times. Each time falling back to sleep to a nightmare that my email said I failed both. I would wake up again realizing I still hadn’t looked. By 5am (early afternoon in the U.K.), I had a feeling the email was available. I looked. It was there. I couldn’t open it. I laid there for over two hours, imaging what it said.

I finally walked downstairs and went outside. Sat down. Opened up the mail. I had passed tasting… and theory. I was shocked.

This past year, I have been collecting and consuming bookshelves full of research and writing my paper–the final stage in this process. Though I realized like all aspects of the MW this would be difficult, I thought having a masters in English would make it just a little more enjoyable. I was wrong. Like every other stage, the MW pushed me to my limit. I have never in my life worked so hard on any paper. Not my masters Thesis, not anything. My mentor forced me to break away from my writing style again and again. She worked so hard to guide me, and I appreciated it so much. One of my closest friends spent hours (days, really) over the course of a couple months editing my work and helping me get it to the place it needed to be, for which I am ever grateful (and indebted!).

And so, I handed my research in on June 30th. The past eight weeks has been nothing short of illuminating. I haven’t had a free weekend in years. Now I have several. I am getting to know myself again. I am stopping to sit in the park more often, read Virginia Woolf and consider getting back into rock climbing. But it hasn’t all been relaxing. The silence can be unsettling, when you put so much of yourself into a goal for so many years. I realize now, the MW process has transformed me.

Throughout my life, I have laid low, quiet, insecure– like the person I was that first year in the program. Growing up, I rarely raised my hand, even when I thought I was right, for fear I was not. I would keep a list of questions I had to research  later in the privacy of my own home. The MW program taught me to ask questions–out loud. I began to ask what seemed the most inane questions at wineries (Why do you ferment in oak? Is there a reason you chose to get Demeter certification? What was your most challenging vintage and how did you handle that? Are you reacting to climate change in any way? Which market do you feel is more receptive to your brand? Why?). I thought the answers would be straightforward. What I learned was that everyone had a different response. I became obsessed with asking questions–every kind I could. And my understanding of the decisions growers, winemakers, distributors, importers and retailers make became deliciously complex! I have always been a curious individual, but now I understand (and am unafraid) to access it. And that is one of the most beautiful gifts I received from this process.

I would love to be shocked just once more on Monday. To close this chapter and see what’s next. But I know if not now, it’s around the corner. The MW has taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons. I had always worked on degrees in solitude. But the MW made that impossible. Collaboration was key. No one can do this alone. Mentors, students, the wine industry, family and friends were essential to passing each stage so far. And it made the process so much more meaningful, really. The people I met made the experience. I look forward to the day when I can give back to future students and maintain the sense of community this program has instilled.

Wish me luck! 😉

 

*(I would go on to manage Little’s Wine & Spirits for a few years–it still has a delightful, smart selection. You should check out if in Denver.)

 

a final day in bordeaux (plus great bites and sips in the area…)

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(Almost forgot to post this one! And be sure to check out restaurants and wine bar recommendations at the end!)

Château  Beychevelle Grand Cru Classé  in St. Julien with Romain Ducolomb, Technical Director

Our final day back in the Medoc, we began at Beychevelle. As we stared out towards the Garonne from its back terrace, the technical director explained that it is important to be able to see the river– it indicates the best sites of the left bank, as it moderates the temperature and gives a light wind pattern to keep disease pressure lower.

 

We walked around the cellars and noted the higher toast regimen on his barrels– many indicated M+, where so many we had been to up to this point were M if not M-. We also learned that he uses only 50% new french oak during elevage. The higher toast and more moderate use of new oak compared to some other classified cru Bordeaux allows for the balance they are looking to achieve for the integration of flavors and aromas in their wine.

 

While we tasted through several vintages of Château Beychevelle, including ‘12, ‘06 and ‘01 (so elegant and pleasurable–needs to be consumed now), he asked us many questions about the American market. Like many others from this trip, he wanted to know how Parker scores were received now, if social media was effective, what young people might like to see from Bordeaux and what they could do to better reach the market. Beychevelle has felt that while they are selling their product as well as ever, the American market has waned for them, though not every estate shared this sentiment. For some, like Angelus, America is a top priority and market for them. We discussed with him the importance of personal contact, opportunities to give dinners and seminars, the challenge in smaller American markets competing with the futures games, where a couple larger outfits, like K&L, for example, often had significantly better pricing than what we could give collectors in our local markets (often less than what we can get at cost). We spoke of the changing thoughts on critical reviews– how many people are beginning to rely on peer reviews and professional comments on social media to inform their purchasing behavior. By sending students such as myself and Andrey over to have a personal connection to this region already has paid off in the seminars booked upon my return, as I hope to share this experience with consumers, students and clients of mine who look to me to guide them through massive negociant offerings twice a year. Finally, there’s more well made, fabulous wine than ever before. To offer lesser priced gateway wines at their estates as well as support the promotion of petit Château x and Cru Bourgeois is brilliant for cultivating interest in higher level labels.

 

Château  Anthonic Cru Bourgeois in Moulis with Jean Bernard

Just 4.5 k away from the river and a world away, we came upon a quaint, humble estate in Moulis (a personal favorite!). Here in the land of much more clay, Merlot is more prevalent. Stepping back into time, large concrete tanks from the middle part of the last century were still the fermenter of choice– of course, many in Bordeaux and throughout France are fashionably bringing these back now that they are becoming less satisfied with inox. All in moderation, this Anthonic makes incredibly supple reds that bring freshness and very floral qualities to the rim– they are so drinkable right now! Only 25% new oak, this is certainly a more modest use of wood than we have seen from most others on the left bank. We were tickled by this young man’s modest character and clear connection to the land. His experience has also landed him a job at Château Dutruch, one of the most well-respected estates in Moulis.

 

Château  Pontet-Canet Grand Cru Classé  in Pauillac with Jean-Michel Comme, Technical Director

Our visit with Jean-Michel Comme, technical director at Pontet-Canet in Pauillac was one of the most impressionable I have ever had. And while there is much I want to say about this visit, it was his discussion of the vine that captivated me. I admit, while vinification has a certain level of geek appeal for me, the soils and vines have my heart. Here was someone who wanted to talk about that. He explained things in a way that exposed his true intimate relationship with the vine as a living, breathing thing that must have respect–as much, if not more, than a human being.

 

Without skipping a beat, he wanted to discuss esca– a trunk disease that is fast devastating vines throughout France. No one had been talking about this in Bordeaux. In fact, another estate said it wasn’t an issue there. Having traveled to the Loire and Burgundy last year, I knew how widespread it was becoming, so when Jean-Michel brought it up, I was all ears. This is being compared to the phylloxera of our time– the impact is anticipated to have similar effect.

 

He immediately dismissed much that has been published and the funding that has been misused to not find solutions. In fact, he explained, this was a disease that was written about to some extent already about 100 years ago by a man named Poussart. He read these works and better understood the nature of esca– causes and development. But he also, importantly, better understood how to try to cure the vine once affected. He likens it to a rotting tooth. Much of the time, you remove the disease part and fill the cavity. In the same like, like a disease or cancer, with early on site detection and removal, you can cure a vine. So he now has ‘cureators’ in the vineyard who are trained to work intimately with the affected vines. They have salvaged 80% of their vines now. So long as it doesn’t get down to the last root, they have a chance. It takes about a half hour per vine, but it is worth the investment of new vines from scratch which take a good 12-20 years to produce quality fruit. Plus, it the old roots they want to preserve and protect in the long run, as they can always graft over them with new vines if the rootstocks remain healthy. They have adopted massale selection as well for their Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (not economical for Petit Verdot and Cabernet France). They are also looking to bring over clones of Cabernet Sauvignon from America to better diversify their vineyards in the effort to create healthy sap and vine balance in the prevention of esca. Controlling vigor and maintaining healthy sap is the most important part to him. Really anything that can weaken the vine (Excessive vigor, pesticides, lack of soil health, lack of clonal diversity), all of this makes a vine open to disease. There is absolutely no green harvesting (he was quite against that) and they keep all buds on, so as not to suppress the growth. Their goal is to help a vine along the way but not really do much to it themselves. In this way, he explained, the land and the vine is the terroir, not the human. Humans are here to serve the artist (terroir).

 

Their attention to detail and balance does not stop in the vineyard. They had a remarkable cellar, where each decision is carefully made. And while they are quick to adopt new practices like inox fermentation in the late 80s, they are quick to remove it if it is not working as they hoped. In the late 90s they went back to large oak vats. Then they introduced concrete in the early 2000s. Now, they no longer use inox. This has improved the quality of their alcoholic fermentations, they feel.

 

During elevage, they age 50% of the wine in 50% new French oak and the other 50% in 9 hL concrete egg amphorae. They tried to experiment with large oak vats for aging about 10 years ago but found the tannins did not evolve well and the wine felt tired. Regular concrete vats were too thick. They custom designed the amphorae, with some that were a mixture of concrete and limestone from the land and others with gravel from the land. Though he could not give this skeptical student a taste nor a lab assessment, he said with 110% certainly that this changed the style of the wine tremendously. Those that aged in the limestone amphorae became more powerful, structured and angular. Those in gravel had more finesse and length on the palate. In fact, he often found a great harmony when matching the vessels to the opposite soil of the grape residing within. So those on gravel were best in limestone amphorae, for example. Believe it or not, I was hooked by this man’s conviction.

 

This was the first biodynamic estate of the Grand Cru Classé . And while some might use this for a ‘point of differentiation’ for better marketing, one could tell immediately that was not the aim here. They live and breath Bio. They try to have all their workers from the area, with benefits and ample work opportunities. Those they hire align with their philosophies. For example, their carpenter has helped locate woods that are not exotic, as he was learning that those often are sourced from areas that see exploited worker conditions. They would rather pay more and know where materials are coming from as it has a great impact in the long run. They also very focused on energy conservation at the moment. They have 67 geothermal wells, which operate much of their winery. Water comes out of the soil at 15-16C. Therefore, as an example, they can bring the temperature down from a 30C vat to 8C. While they still need to account for 7C, this saves a lot of energy.

 

We only had a chance to try the 2015 which is still developing and not released for another year. It was vibrant and alive. It had a personality that was unlike most I had tried. It was very raw and honest. I have not been fortunate to try many in my life, but I know I will never think of these wines the same again.

 

Château  Phelan Segur in St. Estephe with Fabrice Bacquey, Maitre de Chai

Just when I thought there was no way anything could be impressive after that last visit, I came upon Phelan Segur–a remarkably different winery of St. Estephe. Left out of the classification, they offer great value and history to a classical Bordeaux consumer. Just as Pontet-Canet planted 1mx1m, so did Phelan Segur. This was quite common in these parts, forcing competition among vines. He openly admitted that they were hardly organic, but their attention to sustainability was growing stronger. Economically, it is not feasible to convert overnight. And I appreciated his honesty. It is not something people will just discuss and admit anymore, regardless of how common it must be to have more conventional practices, especially in a place like Bordeaux where disease pressure is higher.

 

One way they are quite innovative in the vineyard is through the use of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) in order to better understand the vigor of the vine. Herein lies the maturation potential and it greatly affects their selection. To him, this is more effective than simply picking by parcel location or soils. It reads the light space around the vine and can assist a grower for various decision during the season (especially for prevention, green harvest, etc) and at harvest for the precise time of selection. If there is high vigor, this often correlates to shorter extractions in the cellar. If lower vigor, this will correlates to riper tannins and therefore longer extractions. NDVI also helps inform how much fertilizer to apply– lower vigor requires more fertilizer up front. But also, in the long run, he explained, lower vigor also implies less leaves, which ensures the product application will be more effective and therefore require less application later and ultimately less chemicals overall.

 

Upon showing us the optical sorter, he noted that there is typically about 1% waste in a ‘normal vintage’ like 2016. For a vintage like 2013, it was 15%. I asked what they do with this waste, and it seems it’s quite valuable. For 9 hL, they typically receive anywhere from $3,000-$6,000 euro. So where they once made a rose of saignee to concentrate their reds and allow for another economic product of claret, now with more precise selection with NDVI and the optical sorter, they make more just selling what they don’t use in bulk.

 

After years and years of experimentation of various parcel blends, they realized the right combination for their house style and prefer to blend before it goes into the barrel for elevage and synthesis. It was interesting to learn about their Taransaud barrels. Most were either 333 or I.A., that I saw. He explained that 333 gave more powerful tannins, where I.A. was tighter grain that gave more elegance. Many were dried for 24-36 months, as is common, he noted. Some however, he really prefers 60 months of drying for even less oak character. He is also a stickler for texture in the resulting wine. So when he fines, he finds himself using gelatin more than the traditional egg whites. The former gives silkier finesse to the tannins, where egg white often create a bitterness he feels. They blind 7 magnums where three have one and three have the other of varying levels; one is a control. Nearly every time, the gelatin wins. He also finds it easier that he doesn’t need to report allergens to the consumer.

 

Day 6: Sauternes & Barsac

 

Clos Haut-Peyraguey 1er Grand Cru Classé  with Clara Bouffard, Winery & Tourism Management

An appropriate way to end the trip, we traveled down to the foggy region of Sauternes for a couple visits. First was this famed classified 1er Cru Classé : Peyraguey. Here, we learned that Sauternes accounts for 2% of Bordeaux’s production, comprised of 170 producers. This estate is nearly 3 kilometers from the Ciron, the all important tributary that provides these grapes with the much needed botrytis-baby-making-machine. You can see right away how this all works. Just during the time we were there, from 10a until noon, we saw the settled fog rise to oblivion as it warmed. Here the clay subsoils are paramount, bringing freshness to the grapes. The gravel and sand on top helps drainage and overall quality for that matter. D’Yquem soils were remarkably white-toned in color compared to their neighbors. The uniqueness of this terroir is incredible. It is no wonder there is a lot of concern and worry from producers that a train might be built from Paris to Toulouse that would cross the Ciron not once but twice, disrupting the singular ecology of this sacred place.

 

They make two wines, as is common here. The Symphonie is a lighter style with only about 85-100 g/l of residual sugar and no new oak aging. It is treated like an aperitif. Their main label is more traditional at 125-140 g/l RS, seeing 20-22 months in French oak (30-40% new). These wines are classic and clean.

 

Château  La Clotte-Cazalis with Marie-Pierre Lacoste-Duchesne, Winemaker

We couldn’t have concluded this trip on a better note. Meeting with Marie-Pierre was one of the highlights of this trip. She represented the 13th generation winemaker– one whom brought this sleepy estate back to life after 50 years of slumber since the last family member had the torch. Of course, they leased land in the meantime. And in fact, when they started again, they realized the value of their old equipment to remain as historical artifacts. I have rarely had the chance to see such old tanks, presses and cooperage tools. Especially in one room! To imagine how far vinification tools have come is a remarkable thing to comprehend. It is also no wonder the quality has skyrocketed.

 

This winery is steadfast into organic practices–they have been certified since 2015, although they have really been working towards it since she started in 2001. For her, it is a no brainer. The most important part of their job is to keep the fungus alive and healthy. Synthetic pesticides and herbicides will impact the biodiversity not to mention the health of the vines and the grapes. I asked how to control the mildew and prevent grey rot, but vigilance, prevention and visiting the vineyards daily is much more effective than anything else in her opinion. The cellar, to her, is merely there to maintain the potential achieved in the vineyard.

 

It takes 10 people to harvest and approximately 5-8 triages. In a near perfect year like 2016, it only took 3 times. Just as we saw in the Medoc and the right bank, 2016 gave great quality and quantity for those in Sauternes. Where Clotte-Cazalis typically gets around 12 hl/ha, 2016 saw 22 hl/ha! They use only Semillon in their first label, and they do not believe in using cryoextraction no matter how bad a vintage. Of grapes that are good enough to bottle, it is more interesting to them to see vintage variations. Consistency is not their main focus even if quality is– terroir and vintage character is most important. Her wines were gorgeous, a true testament to the quality that can be found in Barsac. We had both a 2005 and 2009–it was nice to experience such different vintages. For her, 2005 didn’t achieve the balance of 2009. Still, it was drinking nice right now– it wasn’t as opulent as the 2009, and it wore smoky, salty, savory notes… a more floral side of Sauternes. However, the 2009 was much more concentrated with florals, honeycomb and apricots in spectacular balance. The length was impressively persistent. I look forward to revisiting in 10 years…

 

Restaurants I can vouch for:

Brasserie Bordelaise

Potato Head

Le Bistrot des Quinconces  

Le Bontemps (Near St. Julien in Cussac)

 

Restaurants with High recommendations we wanted to try:

Lion d’Or (Pauillac)

Le Miles

Garopapilles

Le Mampuku

Le Chien de Pavlov

La Cagette

 

Great Wine Bars:

Aux Quatre Coins du Vins

Vins Urbains

Le Point Rouge

L’Univerre

crossing the gironde: a memorable day in st. emilion

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Day 4: St. Emilion

I can see what Emilion, the famed monk of these parts, saw when he decided to hole up in this hilly town. It somehow feels different on this side of the river. I have always had a soft spot for the right bank and its Merlot driven reds. Many are still quite affordable, and they are often ready to drink a bit sooner. While still powerful and dignified, they don’t take themselves quite so seriously. Left out of Napolean III’s best of showdown in 1855, those on the right haven’t had 150 plus years to maintain a weighty reputation. That said, some of them have risen as high in stature (and price) as their neighbors across the way. We had the opportunity to see a couple of those Grand Cru Classe As (Cheval Blanc and Angelus–2 of the 4). And while those were remarkably grand and impressive, we began in more humble dwellings– a winery that is still family run for 14 generations. This was, without a doubt, one of my most favorite visits on the entire trip.

Château Coutet with Adrien David

Crossing the Gironde once again, we were to explore St. Emilion for the day. We began at Château Coutet, a winery that was in its 14th generation as a family estate–not the story we had been hearing all week in the Medoc. We learned why this was so difficult to achieve, though, in Bordeaux, where fame and property values have made it all but impossible for families to continue from one generation to the next. And it is not because the financial reward is too hard to resist. Rather, they cannot afford to keep it. We were explained here that the inheritance tax is nearly 30%, which must be paid when passing it to the next in line. When sand soil plots start at 200,000 euros/ha, clay at 300,000 euros/ha on up to a 1 million euros, and the most coveted limestone hangs around a million euros a hectare, it becomes all too clear why so many have to sell to those like Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey and the like. But for now, Coutet is going nowhere, and they will never surrender if they don’t have to…

They were the first to be certified organic and represent one of only about 27 wineries in St. Emilion that are, in fact. They have about equal parts of the soils mentioned about, limestone being closest to the center of St. Emilion as well as clay and finally sand as you move farther downhill. They believe in maintaining ecological diversity and therefore preserve much forested land, gardens and animals as well a duck pond. They opt for massale selection to propagate their some of their oldest Merlot clones. I saw a funny looking robot off to the corner. It is a study/experiment put out by Vitirover, described: “To reduce professional risk, phytosanitary inputs and costs” on their website:http://www.vitirover.com/en/. He mentioned that his dad was the one who inspired this invention. This gadget operated by solar panel energy and is able to gently cut grass without bearing much weight, accomplishing 1 ha over a 12 day period.

 

These wines were incredibly well done, understated yet complete. They use an old basket press to extract a deeper black fruit quality. They often use wild yeast to complete alcoholic fermentation, although 2005 and 2010 required commercial strains since the potential alcohol was too high and made ‘natural’ yeast fermentation too risky. Malo is always 100% wild, as he feels the lactic bacteria is incredibly healthy. He feels this is because they refrain from using harsh antiseptic solutions for cleaning. In fact, famed enologist Denis Dubourdieu once paid him a consult visit. In preparation, he tried to clean up a little bit, and Denis caught him washing the walls. Immediately he commanded him to stop– for it is this unique, healthy bacterial environment that gives Coutet its individuality and contributes to its terroir.  

 

Château Troplong Mondot, 1er Grand Cru Classé  with Constance Denfer-Rochereau, Public Relations and Tourism

Shifting gears, we were taken to a more modernized estate, though it too has a long history. They were one of the first to adopt the optical sorter on the right bank and they were also among the first to initiate the practice of green harvesting before veraison. Our guide explained that most people do this, though our experience this week has proven to be a mixed bag of opinions about this tactic for obtaining lower yields. Those who support it, like Troplong Mondot, find it indispensible for achieving their quality. They like to stay at or under 40 hl/ha with a maximum of 10 bunches on their vines. Others, like Chevalier, are quite against it, as he feels canopy management (removing leaves and resituating the vines for optimal photosynthesis) can lead to better vine balance without wasting potential fruit.

 

We spent lunch discussing business with Constance really at their Michelin rated restaurant Les Belles Perdrix with the best view in town. Bordeaux is going through much transition in the worldwide market– a topic that came up numerous times throughout the week with wineries both large and small, firmly set in a long tradition and those scarcely known in the U.S. market. All were eager to discuss: How do Americans perceive Bordeaux? Are futures well received and furthermore relevant? How can the Bordelais effectively access incoming, young consumers and cultivate a strong relationship? Are there areas in which they should not change with the times? Are there areas in which Bordeaux should evolve and adapt to changes on the global wine scene?

 

Although Andrey and I could hardly speak for the entirety of the U.S. market, our studies and backgrounds living in contrasting wine markets gave us a chance to offer our observations. As importers, we can find the negociant system quite frustrating at times. Still, more than sharing our experience, we learned so much by listening and better understanding the reason it is a system that has lasted so long, is still strong and not likely to be impacted overnight on account of world politics such as Brexit, generational shifts, rising prices or even global competition.  I found the confidence surprising but nonetheless convincing, as this was reinforced by discussions with Aurelien Revillon, President of Lestapis & Cie—a trade house, for a better understanding of the role of the negociant as well as the en primeur landscape today—challenges and opportunities. There is a still an ever growing market for futures, from what we learned, and no shortage of interest for top classified Chateau. I really took a lot away from that meeting.

 

For those wineries less reliant on negociants, I observed great opportunity for lesser known or smaller producers in satellite districts as well as other petit Château and Cru Bourgeois, to partner with U.S. importers that might have more direct access to smaller markets in the U.S. Some wineries we met with that come to mind are Château la Croix Davids in Bourg, Château  Dalem in Fronsac, Château  des Tourtes in Saint Caprais de Blaye, Château  Bel Aire La Royere, Château  Gamille Gaucheraud, Château  Anthonic in Moulis, Château  les Carmes Haut-Brion and Château  Rouillac. At least in the Colorado market, there is a real interest in getting to know the great quality and value that can be had from Bordeaux. By cultivating a relationship with younger consumers from more affordable/accessible Chateau, there seems to be a better channel for building long term interest in all price and quality categories from Bordeaux.

Château Angelus, 1er Grand Cru Classé  A with Victoire Touton, Export Manager

The first of the two Grand Cru Classé  A’s for the day, Angelus was breathtakingly gorgeous with its recent renovations. Keeping with its namesake, the improvements reflected monastic, religious overtones–pews for the waiting room and church bells to welcome us with our national anthem. Our guide was no other than famed negociant Monsieur Touton’s niece, Victoire. She also had a knack for business and serves as their brand ambassador for the United States. The greatest difficulty in her line of work is having to educate Americans about proper timing and consumption of Bordeaux. For her, it is less about the actually vintage and more about understanding when to drink it. In an argument with a client who felt insulted that she was offering 2007 to him, she explained that it is perfect to drink right now. Later, she blinded him on it. You know the ending. He loved it and went on to apologize for his outburst against it, immediately ordering 10 cases for his market. She explained that a bad vintage by a great producer is simply a great wine that needs to be consumed in maybe 10 years vs 20-30. Once you realize this, you can appreciate the changes each year that a vintage bottling offers.

 

Most notable about this visit was the fermentation vessels. Here, inox was used for youthful Merlot to retain fresh aromas. Wood vats were used for the oldest Merlot vines. Concrete was reserved for Cabernet Franc, as it better controls the heat (CF gets hot fast! Concrete slows this down and moderates the temperature.)

 

Château Cheval Blanc 1er Grand Cru Classé  A with Stephanie Duhar, Operations Manager  

Cheval Blanc was most recently purchased by LVMH back in 1998. They have 37 ha all on one block, and they work with a remarkably high content of Cabernet Franc with a blend of typically 60% CF and 40% M. This is because they are closest to Pomerol and share the blue clay that is so coveted in Petrus, though much of their soil is sand and gravel. Walking through this winery, it was clear that they had made an impact on others throughout Bordeaux with their approach to technology, worker conditions and sustainability. Though they are not organic, they are very conscientious to practice lutte raisonnee. They practice Massale selection from their old plots to propagate new vines, and they use their own yeast for fermentation the past 3 years.

 

They vinify their 45 plots separately in large concrete eggs they designed from 9 molds back in 2011. The vision is nothing short of spectacular. These vessels are custom designed to each plot and allow for unparalleled attention to each selection. They do not prefer pigeage, so only delestage and remontage are employed to keep the skins moist and allow for a gentle extraction. Unlike Troplong, they blend at the beginning, not the end, and age in 100% new french oak for 15-18 months.
Having a real intolerance to sulphur in the cellar (I was hacking and sneezing my through some visits), I had a real appreciation for the sanitation room they built off to the side of the cellar. It is here where they clean the barrels, sulphur wick for sterilization and other cleaning practices. There is circulated air and ventilation so their workers can breath better. Plus, this makes cleaning the cellar much easier and better to fight the existence of spoilage yeasts.

 

small is beautiful: another side of bordeaux.

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Day 3: Fronsac, Blaye & Bourg

Château Dalem in Fronsac with Brigitte Rullier, Owner

The moment we crossed the Garonne and wandered between the seas (Entre deux Mers), I felt my mind relax a bit from the questions that had been racing through my mind in previous days. To the left and right, there were farmers and humble vineyards lining the way. No glitz, no glamour. No grand Château x. Just dirt, vines and people doing their winter pruning their double guyot trained vines (a healthier few feet higher compared to those across the way). Here, French was the language. And while one person at each visit understood English well to help assist with technical descriptions, one could ascertain that these areas of Fronsac, Blaye and Bourg were hardly overwhelmed by English speaking tourists, where Medoc it is nearly imperative to conduct business.

 

Our first stop was in Fronsac to visit with the owner Brigitte Rullier of Château Dalem. Here, a unique soil known as “molasse de Fronsadais”– kind of windblown conglomerate of sand, clay and limestone with iron deposit formed the bed for the vines. Merlot is dominant here, though they like working with a little Cabernet Franc to give it some complexity and herbaceous accents (about 10%). This is an estate that is well received by negociants for en primeur, and their press is abundant. This is something Brigitte has worked very hard to achieve since assuming the estate from her father (who is 90 going on 50, by the way) in 2003. She also took more of an interest in the vineyard as the focus for making the wine versus the cellar and therefore saw a real need to practice organic at this time. Though AB certification is too costly for it to make sense, she is certified through ISO 14001– an environmental management system that allows her to prove herself dedicated to standards of environmental sustainability. For example, in 2016, parasites were a big problem in this area. She decided to take the clever approach of sexual confusion into her hands– by diffusing pheromones into the environment, males could not find their mates. Alas, love goes unrequited and extinct in her case for that season.

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An eery, dreary day at Chateau Dalem…

Her wines are quite dense and attractive from the bouquet to the last sip. They lack the rusticity I perhaps expected with novice appreciation for this area. From her more modest bottling of Château de la Huste (2011) to her offerings of Château Dalem (2014, 2013, 2011, 2001), there was a common texture of defined, structured tannins against refreshingly high acid– much more than I would normally assign to Merlot. And she picks quite late, which you feel in the fruit. Still, there was nothing overripe about these. The balance was impressive. Plus, I have a soft spot for those who can make 2013 look so good. Hers had a nice backbone, charming fruit and high toned elegance. She makes a point to dry her barrels one year longer than typical, which she said was 24 months (so she does 36). She does this for better oak integration, which for her first label is only 50% new french oak.

 

Château des Tourtes in Saint Caprais de Blaye with Emmanuelle Miller, Owner

Leaving one ‘femme du vin’-inspired Château to another, Château des Tourtes in Blaye, much further north, is a property that two sisters seemed to accidentally fall in love with and take over from their parents, who began this winery in 1963, growing it from a mere 3 ha to now 70 ha. In her late teens, Emmanuelle Miller explains, the winery was the last place she wanted to return to after college. Yet, at the ripe age of twenty, nervous to know her parents were looking to sell, she warmed to the thought. She then used her persuasion a few years later to get her sister on board. Alas, she and her sister are obsessed with the business now and clearly wear passion in the way they talk about this region and its wine. The are part of ‘vigneron independent’, inviting two other wineries to join us over a wonderful lunch in their home– Château Bel Aire La Royere and Château Gamille Gaucheraud. The former is a run by a winemaker named Corrine Chevrier-Loriaud who left her family of all men in Cognac to make dry wine with a team of three other women to handle all the winery operations. She laughed and said she always was on a different path from her family. Her wines were stunning–very serious, structured and balanced. All the wines over lunch were such great representations of value and responsible farming in Bordeaux.

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In Blaye, Merlot is very important, and here you see Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Cabernet Franc, as the latter cannot get ripe enough. Malbec and Petit Verdot are the ones that are beginning to trend. They explained that they are naturally lower yielding in the Blaye (sometimes 15 hl/ha in rough years), so in the middle of the last century it wasn’t practical. Then, it was quantity not quality. Even for Corrine, when she purchased her estate in 1992, she wanted to plant Malbec for its color and spice character. Many thought she was absurd. But she believes in preserving heritage varieties. She blends 35% into her Merlot, and it makes for a harmonious marriage. Now, there is a better understanding of where these grapes are best planted; reduced yields and higher quality is a value.

 

It was interesting to learn from Tourtes’ export manager that while the southeast Asian market is important for them, the United States, while certainly a market they intend to grow and nurture, is hardly where they limit their focus, as it is too particular, segregated and complicated to manage so many relationships. Nor does a national importer make sense for their brand. Instead of competing with all the Bordeaux available in highly engaged or mature markets, he would rather carve a niche for themselves and offer value to those through Africa that express interest in Bordeaux at a value right now. Places like Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon offer more opportunity for business development.

 

Château la Croix Davids in Bourg with Didier & Louis Meneuvrier, Owners & Winemakers

Our final visit was the most unique. We went down to Bourg to meet with Didier Meneuvrier and his son Louis, a bright young man who clearly had the desire to differentiate from other in Bordeaux. It isn’t everyday a winemaker here admits that both he and his father prefer the Bourgogne way. I was intrigued…

 

We took a walk around the village to see the Dordogne hug the town tight. He explained that Bourg was one of the oldest wine villages and earned its reputation for incredible Merlot. Until WW2, they would send barrels across the river so the Château x could blend it into their wines. This was their purpose. In the middle of the century, they began to bottle their own wines under their own regional name. And although about 85% stays in France through trade and supermarket business according to their regional trade stats, exports are rising as they provide great value from Bordeaux. They get 10% more sunshine and 10-25% less rain.

 

Louis and his father make 3 wines. There is a traditional, buttoned up classic cuvee called Château la Croix David. It is a 10,000 bottle production made in a pretty straightforward way. They choose hilltop sites for deep soils that the roots can sink into deeply, draining the moisture that comes with ease. 90% Merlot and 10% Malbec see a modest 30% new french oak (225L) and a third that is one year and two year passed. The second is modeled after Didier’s personality and preference: La Marguerite. This 600 bottle production consists of 50% Merlot and 50% Malbec– it is a blend of the very best vines found on Ch la Croix David’s vineyards. This wine sees no new oak and experiences pigeage by hand in open top wooden vats. It was the most concentrated of the three.

Finally, Louis introduced us to his baby: Burgus. This comes off 0.5 hectares of Merlot. After hand harvesting and a severe selection, he keeps whole berries destemmed and puts them in a custom designed concrete tank (3m x 2m x 2.5m)– a very wide short tank, as he only intends to punch down by hand, so he needs there to be more surface area to contact. He makes a pied de cuvee (20L) to promote the fermentation naturally. He covers the cap with monoxide ice cubes (20cm) so he can avoid sulphur. In fact, he really only adds a little come bottling time– a total of 10 ppm total SO2. I saw no one else doing this in Bordeaux–well maybe aside from Chateau le Puy to some degree. He was following the trends I am seeing so many do around the world with the natural wine movement. It was very fun to see his energy, seriousness and passion to try something different. The wine was very delicious, high toned and mineral driven. He has only made a couple vintages, so I look forward to following this talent as he continues to dive deep into his budding career.

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Mulling around the Haut Medoc…

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Day 2: Medoc

Château Meyre Cru Bourgeois with Pierre Alexandre Gazaille, Export Manager

In the town of Avensan, bumping shoulders with the famed Margaux vineyards, Château Meyre has been humbly getting on as the first AB certified organic Cru Bourgeois. This has been a major focus for them since 2008– a goal that has really come to epitomise their identity, as their dedication inspired several of their neighbors to follow suit and seek them out for consulting in the humid, challenging maritime climate of Bordeaux.

 

Certification was not without risk and many mistakes in the beginning. The biggest lesson they learned was that there is little to be done after a problem occurs. Prevention, not prescription, is the way of organic viticulture. It is also a substantial loss of yield that one must account for in their budget and overall pricing. They admit, they are about as high as should be acceptable from a Cru Bourgeois to be competitive (roughly 25 euro). They are one of 278 Cru Bourgeois for the 2014 vintage. The following AOCs may be eligible for quality assessment and inclusion into this prestigious classification, second only to the Cru Classé  system: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis en Médoc, Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estèphe.

 

They are grateful for the trends they are seeing away from ‘Parker’ styles, as they openly admit their terroir cannot support the oak needed for high points. They use a light toast and only 30% new oak on their wines for 12 months.

 

Château Lamothe-Bergeron Cru Bourgeois with Anne Melchior

Without a doubt, this was the most innovative, educational and high tech of our Bordeaux visits. At Lamothe-Bergeron, we were taken on the typical tour they would give to any tourist. A mirror on the wall of the Château transformed into an image of the estate’s founder, telling us their history. Following a short visit to the vineyards, we were taken to the winery. Purple lights glowed from beneath the massive inox fermenters. It remained dark, and a video projection appeared on the tank. It walked us through their fermentation process as the whole, destemmed berries fell by gravity into the vessel to undergo a cold soak for 3 to 4 days, and the addition of yeast began the alcoholic fermentation with mechanized pumpovers (to mitigate worker strain) and no pigeage for a moderate extraction. We walked into the next room as glass separated us from the barrel room. It went dark again and a 3D hologram like image appeared in front of us. We were going to witness the process of blending– the rigorous sample process that is so crucial to Bordeaux red blends.

 

During our tasting, there were instructional sheets on tasting, maps lining the room and perfect white lighting for clarity. I was so impressed by their focus on education. They were giving their guests access to moments that otherwise might remain ambiguous as they went from one winery to the next. Now, they were given the privilege to witness the process. This is important to them, as it gives a consumer confidence. They have the perfect opportunity as well, as these are potential clients that have come to Bordeaux as an engaged consumer. Lamothe Bergeron is very active with social media. The millennials are their next audience, and they need to stay relevant and interesting. They are zooming in on the interactive, transparent and tactile sensibilities of this new generation.

 

Château Margaux 1er Cru Classé

Following a filling lunch from Lamothe-Bergeron’s exquisite chef de cuisine, we headed towards Château Margaux for a remarkably different experience from Haut-Brion. It was designed more as a compound of sorts, and workers were milling about. It was not as monastic, rather a bustling little village. One could imagine the importance this winery had on its community through the ages.

 

Over the years, they have tried to be ahead of the curve when it comes to technology. They experimented with screwcaps beginning in 2003, with no published results as of yet. In 2008, they established a small biodynamic plot. While this doesn’t go into their wine, they can learn more about how these practices would affect their wine should they ever convert. They were also among the first to sample the optical sorter. They tried this 4 separate times and were unsatisfied. They are back to traditional hand sorting in the fields and then by hand on a sorting table. This was the only winery I saw of this caliber that did not adopt the optical sorting machine.

 

They begin fermentation in inox then transfer to a barrel to finish out primary fermentation and malolactic fermentation. This act of transfer midway allows for better oak integration, as they use 100% new french oak. They incorporate 10-20% press wine, depending on the vintage (a little more if challenging for structure and reinforcement), and their wines reflect 90% Cabernet Sauvignon– more than anyone else we saw.

 

We were fortunate to try the 2007– a vintage that many have tried to ignore ever happened for its trials and tribulations. It was cooler, rainy and late to mature. They could not even harvest Petit Verdot for this reason, so it was uniquely 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. It smelled gorgeous– of mushrooms and wet leaves… a touch of olive and evolution. You could taste the rain, but it didn’t dilute the character. It was charming and real– a testament to terroir.

 

Château Brane-Cantenac 2nd Grand Cru Classé  in Margaux with Georgia Lytra, Research & Development

The moment I met Georgia, technical director/winemaker for Brane-Cantenac, I knew this was going to be one of my favorite visits. She spoke a mile a minute with a Greek accent and shortly into the tour conveyed her passion and major area of focus for her PhD surrounding sensory chemistry. SHe identified the compound responsible for mintiness in the wine here as well as what contributes to fruitiness. Now, she is hoping to identify the precursors.

 

Unlike Chateau Margaux, Georgia does prefer the optical sorter. It has received so many sunburned grapes that were so subtly damaged, their human eyes never could have caught it. The health of the skins is everything in creating the perfect texture and flavor of the wine, so this cannot be risked if there is a solution like the optical sorter, in her opinion. The oldest Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are fermented in large wooden vats, while the youngest are in inox so as not to mute the freshness. Young Merlot requires the porosity of concrete to achieve a fuller fruit profile. Though they innoculate with F33–a common yeast for alcoholic fermentation, they opt for naturally occurring yeasts for malolactic, as it underscores a cassis aroma that defines their style. From 250 plots, they do rigorous blending trials to make the final decision. This occurs before elevage. She explained that even lab tests showed that blending before revealed more integration of tannins and structural components in the wine. It was more stable. Those who blended before elevage as opposed to just before bottling were nearly 50% of our visits. It was clear that wineries are very opinionated about which is better for them after many experiments.

 

On a final note, they were working on something else that was quite unique– a 100% Carmenere. It was fascinating! It was quite smoky and stemmy on the nose, but in a very attractive way–the 2015. There was ripe black fruit to balance the pyrazines. They are experimenting with this grape in preparation of climate change. They are curious to know if it is a worthwhile variety to reintroduce. By employing integral fermentation inside the barrel, the contact area of skins increases, giving this wine an explosive purple hue and intense fruitiness. Very interesting indeed.