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Sauternes #3: Chateau Suduiraut 2001

Time for another Sauternes now. Deep down I think I’m a reasonably ordered individual, meaning I’m the sort of person who might just plod on with 2001 indefinitely (or at least until the wines run out). I think I will have to mix it up a bit though; there are so many other interesting Sauternes vintages to look at, including 1997, 2003, 2005 and 2007. I even had a good 1998 the other day.

So, coming soon, a different vintage, promise. For today though, another 2001. And it’s another stunner.

Château Suduiraut 2001

Château Suduiraut (Sauternes) 2001: From a half bottle. There is some very subtle volatility which thankfully dissipates. I’ve had this before with 2001 Suduiraut; although the last bottle in 2010 was clean, the one previous in 2006 was quite pungent, although it did blow off to some extent if I recall correctly. Happily here the great concentration of botrytis some comes to dominate, all heady and perfumed, with intense aromas of oranges and apricot and some creamy almond tones too. The palate is confident, just as seductive as the nose, textured, with great grip and precisely defined fruit. No shortage of concentration as the nose suggested, honey on toast with a sprinkling of citrus freshness, backed up by lots of tangible extract. This has an amazing presence in the mouth, and is incredibly long. Another superb wine from a great vintage. 18.5/20 (January 2013)

Marcottage in Margaux

Last year I wrote on the practice of provignage at Domaine de la Bergerie. In a quick two or three sentence recap, provignage is an ancient method of propagating plants, including vines, obviously. A branch or runner is pinned under the soil (with a peg of some sort, or simply by placing a rock over it), after which it will put out new roots, and by cutting the runner/branch joining this new growth to the parent plant – hey presto! – you have a new plant. For free. It was, naturally, an excellent way for peasant vignerons to propagate new vinestock for their vineyard (there’s more detail in the post linked above if the above isn’t clear).

And then along came phylloxera. And now, if you believe the books, vines in France and other infested regions of Europe must be established on grafted phylloxera-rootstock if they are to survive. Either that, or planted on certain phylloxera-unfriendly sandy soils.

Which is why the vines at Domaine de la Bergerie were of such interest to me. They had been propagated using provignage many decades before, and seemed to be thriving, despite living on their own roots in a damp clay soils, just perfect for phylloxera. Proprietor Yves Guégniard didn’t seem to know why or how they survived, but I suspected it was something to do with the fact that in every case the original runner connecting the new plant to its parent had not been cut.

Marcottage in Margaux

I haven’t thought much about it since until, late last year, at Château Boyd-Cantenac in Margaux, there before my eyes were yet more vines propagated in the same manner. The picture above shows the runner, about as thick as my thumb (and so nowhere near as old and crusty as Guégniard’s vines) which originates with the parent (on the right) and dives beneath the surface towards the roots of the offspring plant (on the left). Here, however, owner Lucien Guillemet referred to this practice not as provignage but as marcottage. Having read around, I can see no difference between the two practices; I had thought it might refer to whether the runner is cut or not, but it seems not. Descriptions of the two are identical; I would be delighted if any viticulturists or plant scientists out there want to chip in with an explanation of how they are different, if indeed that’s the case.

I asked Lucien what would happen if the runner were cut, and he was quite certain in his response; the offspring plant will die. This clearly indicates it is reliant on its parent for support, and so my initial suspicions were correct. Its own (no doubt phylloxera-infested) roots are not enough to maintain vitality, but with the help of its parent’s American rootstock it survives. Does any nutrition come from the infected root system at all, I wonder? Is the plant entirely dependent on its parent for life, or is it more of a crutch? And if dependent, is it really a separate vine, and not merely a branch? Should this be taken into consideration when looking at planting density, numbers of buds and bunches, and yields?

Three Wines from Tenuta Vitalonga

My exposure to Italian wine is not as frequent as it used to be; I spend so much time wrapped up in Bordeaux and the Loire, that opening an Italian bottle – perhaps as part of one of my vintage reviews at 10, 15 or 20 years of age – often comes as something of a treat.

So I was glad recently to take a look at these wines sent by Vitalonga, not least because my Italian experience focus so often on the classic regions, Tuscany in particular. These wines hail instead from Umbria, a small and land-locked region not quite midway down Italy’s peninsula.

I have tasted previous vintages of these wines, reported here, and these latest releases showed better. Particularly notable was the Sangiòvese cuvée, which is bright and pure. It’s intended for drinking soon, judging by its style (and synthetic closure). Not a complex or deeply characterful wine by any means, and not every wine should be; this is just a glass of dry and fruity joy. My favourite, though, was the Terra di Confine, which demonstrates that there is life beyond Sangiovese in this part of Italy.

Vitalonga

Vitalonga Sangiòvese IGT (Umbria) 2011: Bottled under ‘Korked’ synthetic closure. A very good colour to it, dark but with a vibrant rim. Some attractive fruit on the nose here, sweet and fresh, not confected, with some darker tones to it, hints of cherry and blackberry, but crisp, fresh, and biting rather than darkly ripe. A very nice texture on entry, and this conviction is not lost through the middle, which broadens a little in terms of texture, caressing quite gently, with freshness of fruit, a correct structure, good acidity and dry extract. For the level (and price perhaps?), a real success. Sure it’s straightforward, but it’s delicious, uncomplicated, easy-drinking wine. 14.5/20 (January 2013)

Vitalonga Elcione (Umbria) 2009: Bottled under natural cork, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot frm clay and chalk soils, fermented in steel, with six months in French barrique thereafter. The aromatics are bright and cool, and despite the varieties used it’s clear from the outset that this possesses a very Italian style. There are notes of cranberry skin, sweet red cherry and black pepper, all with a slightly diffuse, roasted-fruit, caramel-vanilla tinge no doubt from the oak. It has a sour-fruit character on the palate, with very firm Italianate acidity and structure, never fleshy or flattering, leading into a dry finish. A rather attractive style, albeit with better definition to the structure of the wine, which with a little time shows a bright, peppery endpalate, than there is to the fruit. 14.5/20 (January 2013)

Vitalonga Terra di Confine (Umbria) 2009: A blend of 80% Montepulciano and 20% Merlot, fermented in steel and aged in French oak barriques for 12 months. A dark hue in the glass, but a vibrant rim. The nose certainly speaks of the principal variety, with scents of blackberry and black olive, with a dark and sooty underbelly, as well as a honeyed application of oak. The palate is fresh, medium-bodied and showing bright acidity cutting through the fruits which here have a more sappy and biting, just-ripe feel than the darker scents on the nose suggested to me. It has a very lively, acid-bound style, which leads into a short finish. Good wine. 15/20 (January 2013)

Important News for Winedoctor Readers

From its beginnings more than twelve years ago my principal aim in writing and publishing Winedoctor has been the provision of high-quality, reliable, detailed and regularly updated articles. Over the years my commitment to the site, and to wine, has grown in a manner previously unimagined. I travel to Bordeaux between one and three times each year, and I visit the Loire Valley once or twice per annum, in order to visit, taste and report. In addition there are a long string of tastings in the UK which I attend, giving me plenty of early starts out of Edinburgh in order to get to London on time. It can be exhausting at times! I believe that what is published on Winedoctor makes it all worthwhile though, and feedback from readers – both wine professionals and consumers – who have found the site useful supports my belief. Thank you all, for the constructive criticisms received over the years, as well as your occasional words of praise.

So the last twelve years (well, nearly thirteen actually) have been a success. What of the next thirteen, and beyond? Naturally, in the coming years, I would like to continue to develop Winedoctor even more, with more detailed reports, broader coverage and even more frequent updates.

If something is to be done, one should do it; one should undertake it firmly.
~ Buddha

Beginning with Bordeaux, in the pipeline in the next twelve months is the publication of an extended guide to region (to be followed by the Loire), updating those pages already published, and adding many more. In addition my existing Bordeaux profiles are all being overhauled, and within a couple of years these should be complete. There will also be more focus on Bordeaux that we can all afford, with forthcoming profiles of cru bourgeois estates and the domaines of ‘lesser’ appellations lined up for publication. And naturally the vintage-focused reviews will continue; this year I will spend eight days in Bordeaux for the primeurs, generating a report even more detailed than that for Bordeaux 2011. There is also an ongoing report on Bordeaux 2010, (Pauillac 2010 published today), and later in the year I will return to Bordeaux 2009 and Bordeaux 2011 once more. As for the Loire, I can promise a huge broadening of my profiles, renewing and updating those currently online, and adding many new ones. The Loire coverage is, I believe, already the most extensive and detailed discourse on this region available online, and these further additions and updates should only enhance that. As for the vintages, it has become my custom to look at the most recent releases, so this year’s reports will touch on 2012 and 2011, but I will also continue to fill in the gaps in my vintage reports with Loire 2007, to come later in the year.

And of course, I can’t completely ignore the rest of the wine world. A trip to the Douro is planned for October; I hope I can pull this off, as it might clash with a major Bordeaux tasting in London, and I will also be leading a tour to Bordeaux with a well-known wine travel company that month. It looks as though October is going to be busy; it is already putting my organisational skills to the test, and it’s only January…..

Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death (nor charging a fee) can erase our good deeds.
~ Buddha (with additional material by Kissack)

Well that is my plan for the year. There is, however, one very significant change coming to Winedoctor that I have not yet covered, and it is perhaps the crux of this post. Since its inception in the spring of 2000 Winedoctor has been free to access, funded by the gracious support of an elite band of sponsors, as well as me dipping my hand into my own pocket, quite deeply at times, as the costs associated with flights, hotels, the hire of a not-quite-luxurious vehicle (the one pictured below – my transport for the Bordeaux 2011 primeurs – is typical) and so on soon add up. With twelve years of Winedoctor behind me I have decided that this is no longer the way forward for the site, especially if it is to continue to develop in the ways that I have described above. Having realised that, I have concluded that the time has come for me to charge for access to my writings on Winedoctor.

Hire car, Bordeaux, tastings to come....

This early warning of this change is to ensure that regular Winedoctor readers, and I know some have been reading for many years now, are aware of this forthcoming development; throwing up a paywall overnight just isn’t my style. The decision has not been taken lightly, and has been the product of a year of considered thought and planning, along with a long period of behind-the-scenes development (details of which I won’t bore you with). More precise information on the access fee, payment method, which articles will require a subscription to access them and other details can be found below. I will not be asking for payment until March at the earliest, so although change is coming soon it is not immediately imminent. I want to be straight with Winedoctor readers, and ensure the forthcoming change does not appear as if ‘out of the blue’.

I have posed some likely questions and answers below. If they don’t answer your particular query, please feel free to comment or ask questions using the form at the bottom of this post, or if you prefer you can, as always, email me.

Why change to pay-to-access?

I realise I have already explained this above, but it seems worth reiterating and expanding here. The detailed articles on Winedoctor take time to research, and travelling to Bordeaux, the Loire and other regions necessitates expenditure. It has come to the point where, if I am to be able to continue devoting the amount of time to Winedoctor I currently spend on it, and if I am to be able to expand and develop it in the way I have laid out, it becomes necessary to charge a fee. Having an income from this site would protect my ‘Winedoctor’ time from the many other pressures upon it, which are undoubtedly increasing year-on-year, and in truth the major risk to the continued development of the site. If the site generates some income, it will allow me to fence off my ‘Winedoctor’ time and thereby safeguard the existence and development of this site into the future.

Doesn’t the advertising pay for the site?

The advertising has purposefully always been low-key; only the home-page has more than one small banner. The income is small and contributes towards the costs incurred (described above), but does not cover it.

When will the Winedoctor paywall be established?

I aim to establish the paywall in March. I could set it up today, as the software is installed and has gone through integration and testing. Nevertheless, throwing up an overnight paywall smacks of rudeness and arrogance, neither of which are attributes I desire. I hope the time between my initial announcement, and the paywall being established, will be sufficient for regular readers to acclimatise to the idea of Winedoctor being a pay-to-access site.

Will all Winedoctor content be behind the paywall?

Not all of the Winedoctor content will be behind the paywall, but the meat of the site – the producer profiles, tasting reports, en primeur assessments, wine guides and so on – will be pay to view. Some content, including some new content, will remain free to all. The blog posts will remain outside the paywall, and my weekly wine of the week reports will also remain free to view.

What about the Winedoctor notes on Cellar Tracker?

I have enjoyed my association with Cellar Tracker as one of the professional reviewers. From the time of the changeover these notes will be viewable only by Winedoctor subscribers. At first this will be achieved through the exchange of information with the multi-talented Eric LeVine. Eventually the process will be automated, as it is for other professional reviews on Cellar Tracker.

What will be the fee to access the Winedoctor content?

The fee to access the content will be a one-off payment of £45 per annum (this equates to £3.75 per month), payable by credit or debit card. There will not be a per-article or monthly fee option. There will of course be options for muliple purchases for those in the trade, and discounts for WSET students and the like; details on these are to follow. Credit card payments will be collected by a reputable online card payment system (SagePay) to ensure maximum possible security and peace of mind regarding your card details. Setting this up has not been an inconsequential cost, but I consider the security of your information to be paramount, so this is the route I have taken.

What about those of us who gave you a Paypal donation?

Thank you so much – I was really touched by the donations I received, of which a handful were extraordinarliy generous. I would be delighted to offer a free year’s subscription to anybody who made a donation, regardless of the size of that donation. It does not matter if your donation was smaller than the above stated subscription fee; consider this free year of access as a reward for your spontaneous generosity. Once the paywall has been erected please send me an email and once I have verified the receipt of the donation – I have a record of all received – I will set up your access.

If there are any further questions, as noted above, please don’t hesitate to comment below or get in touch.

Sauternes #2: Chateau Guiraud 2001

Time for another Sauternes now, and after a brilliant 2001 from Château Rieussec I figured it made sense to stick with this vintage. Next up, a wine from a property situated quite close to Rieussec (although I suppose in Sauternes, most places are ‘quite close’ to one another).

Château Guiraud is owned by a quartet of notables, major financing coming from Robert Peugeot (yes, as in the cars) with expertise from Stephan von Neipperg (Canon-La-Gaffelière, La Mondotte, d’Aiguilhe, etc.), Olivier Bernard (Domaine de Chevalier) and Xavier Planty who has been here ever since he was appointed manager by a previous owner, Frank Narby, in 1988. The estate is notable for achieving organic certification in recent years. The style tends towards a slightly fatter character than most other wines of the commune, and has been on the up in recent years I think.

Château Guiraud 2001

Château Guiraud (Sauternes) 2001: A rich, lightly burnished, golden hue here. The nose has a similar depth of character, with oranges, apricots and marzipan, giving plenty of botrytis suggestions. It is full, fat and creamy at the start, showing marzipan and caramel twists through the middle, evidence of considerable richness, but with a good fresh frame to it as well, the richer and more substantial elements lifted by notes of citrus fruits and by a bitter grip that runs into the finish. This has really settled down in the last couple of years, as although it is still a substantial and broad wine the oaky overtones and rambunctious barley sugar notes experienced a couple of years ago seem to have faded. This has firmed up, and yet still carries considerable weight and substance, and is very long. Lots of nutty orange nuances in the finish, which goes on and on. A joy. Another sign of what a great vintage this is. 18/20 (January 2013)

Flawed Beauty: 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux

Take a look back to the 1970s and you can see that things were not all going Bordeaux’s way. There were some fairly shocking vintages, the wines now long dead (I accept there are always exceptions to such ‘rules’, but as a generalisation this stands). Few vintages really excite any interest; I have tasted some 1975s, quite a few years ago now, and found them hard and ungiving. I have tasted fewer wines from 1970, and thought they were better, although they were certainly far from magnificant. The 1978 vintage also produced some decent wines although, perhaps strangely considering it is the most recent, my experience with 1978 is very limited indeed. In addition, the region was rocked by the Cruse scandal when vin de table was creatively ‘reclassified’ and sold off as Bordeaux (i.e. upgraded to the status of the appellation, thereby increasing in value, but obviously ripping off consumers). And, if you’re a Parker follower, you would be inclined to say all the wines were rubbish anyway, the châteaux coasting on their laurels rather than providing true quality, none of which came along until the guru of Baltimore shook the Bordelais by the lapels.

Look to the past decade, however, and it seems like things are really going Bordeaux’s way. The wines are better; I realise that’s a slightly dangerous statement to make, as I know there has been a change in style as well as quality, and I know there are some who see the modern wines as over-fruited, cropped too late, over-oaked, over-rich, inappropriately forced through early malolactic, too sweet and so on. And they hanker for the more savoury wines of the 1950s and 1960s; I understand this position, although I think I prefer the way we have things now. The hit rate is much higher. In fact, in dissecting the vintages of the past decade, I would do the opposite to what I did with the 1970s above; there I picked out two or three decent vintages which were distinct from the dross. But in the vintages since 2000 (I’m being quite liberal in how I interpret the word ‘decade’) there are only two or three questionable vintages among others which range from good to superlative.

Bordeaux vineyard

Why the wines are so much better cannot in my opinion be laid at the feet of one event or individual. The climate is more favourable (although that can’t last forever), there is a more robust approach to viticulture in many vineyards, the processes of winemaking is better understood, wineries are cleaner and better funded thanks to the influx of big-business proprietors, there has been impetus for change and better wine-making (and more profit-making) following astute appraisals from Parker and other critics, and with improved economic prosperity (which remains true despite the recent/current depression in many economies) markets have grown, and new markets are opening up. China remains hungry for Bordeaux despite also becoming aware of Burgundy and the Rhône, and Brazil rather than the oft-touted India may well be the next big market. Little wonder that prices have risen; you could say it was inevitable, regardless of how unpalatable the numbers might appear to cash-strapped consumers (that includes me by the way).

With such broad success it is perhaps worth teasing apart which vintages are merely good, excellent or legendary. Reports from Bordeaux are likely to be very positive these days, at least that’s the case if you’re a fan of the wines (as I am). Only in vintages such as 2011 and 2007 will the criticism outweigh the praise. It can therefore be difficult to figure out what the true ‘worth’ of a vintage is, and where our interest (and cash) should be directed. With that in mind I thought it might be worth putting down a few thoughts on my five favourite vintages of recent years, and where my preferences lie. The following vintages are ranked acccording to my personal preference. These words pertain solely to the red wines, not the dry or sweet white wines. There are several caveats; first, I didn’t taste all the vintages at the same stage in their evolution. More recent vintages were tasted en primeur, but earlier vintages were tasted in their youth (at two or four years of age) or even into maturity. Secondly, my assessments are based purely on aesthetics, and I don’t take prices (which will obviously drive purchasing decisions as much as quality) into account.

Favourite Vintages….

Bordeaux 2005: I think, despite the hyperbole from some quarters about the 2009 and 2010 vintages, this is probably my favourite from recent years. There is ripeness, balance, structure and composure from many of the wines. I haven’t tasted any for some time, but have some in the cellar for future assessments.

Bordeaux 2010: This is a difficult one, as in some communes I prefer 2009 to 2010, and both have flaws to their beauty. In particular, both have given us some problematic wines on the right bank which feel over-extracted, hot and alcoholic. Nevertheless the structure and composition (on the left bank especially) in 2010 appeals more to my palate than the seductive hedonism of 2009 I think. High prices for the second vintage in a row meant I didn’t buy, but there is yet time. I have an extensive report coming very soon.

Bordeaux 2009: A luscious vintage which feels like cream on the palate. That isn’t to everybody’s taste, obviously, but it dings the hedonistic dong, if you see what I mean. Some wines, again on the right bank, come out very alcoholic and extracted. Elsewhere there is a better sense of balance. Happily I have quite a lot of this vintage tucked away for future tastings, so we should see whether they pan out to be as good as expected.

Bordeaux 2000: This is an interesting vintage; certainly a good one, but recent tastings lead me to question the greatness that was attributed early on. The wines are ready or nearly ready in some cases, but a surprising number show a distinctive green streak – very prominent in some wines – which is surprising given the rave reviews the vintage received early on (I didn’t taste it en primeur). I should be able to publish a review of the vintage some time in the next six months.

Bordeaux 2008: Perhaps some would see this as an obvious inclusion, as it has been highly rated by some, but for me it just scrapes in. It was a relatively weak growing season, cool and wet like 2007, but saved by an Indian summer. The right bank is much better than the left, which shows the nature of the vintage more plainly. I feel that a comparative tasting of 2008 and 2006 or 2001 might throw up a few surprises, but I don’t have the money to put on either event….

Beyond my top five vintages, things start to get a little hazy. I think I would probably go for 2001, 2006, 2004, 2002, 2003 and 2007 in that order. I do wonder, with a strong performance on the right bank, and decent wines on the left bank, whether 2001 shouldn’t be above 2008. But I haven’t tasted the wines for so long, I couldn’t say. I have plenty of 2001s in the cellar, but almost all Sauternes. Maybe it is time to see if I can uncover any reds?

Sauternes #1: Chateau Rieussec 2001

I enjoy buying Sauternes; after all, you get such good value for money. And I enjoy drinking Sauternes too; show me a sensible person who doesn’t. I appear to have something of an imbalance between these two worthwhile activities though, and as a consequence I have several bins full of Sauternes, many from the 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2003 vintages. Whereas there’s no need to drink up individual bottles at these sorts of ages, when you have cases or half-cases of each then there comes a time when you really have to start tucking in.

So, here’s my solution – more Sauternes on the Winedr blog. I don’t think I will manage a Sauternes every week; the spirit and palate are willing, it’s simply the lack of time (and hepatocyte attrition) that will hold be back. But I will see if I can keep it up. Maybe once I’ve worked my way through Sauternes, I will do the same with a Loire appellation. Quarts de Chaume, perhaps?

Château Rieussec 2001

On we go, with this week’s wine. We start with a bit of a bang; a stunning wine, from Château Rieussec, from a great vintage.

Château Rieussec (Sauternes) 2001: I have enjoyed many examples of Sauternes from this vintage, but here in Rieussec we have something very special. The colour is rich and golden, but then that is not particularly unusual for the vintage in question. It is on the nose that the wine begins to stand apart from its peers, with a hugely convincing display of botrytis, counterbalanced by fresh aromas of bright fruit. Representing the former there are notes of honey, fragrant and scented with thyme, along with vanilla, coconut and a little twist of caramel. The fruit, meanwhile, comes in the form of orange and apricots, bright and defined, altough clearly also suggesting botrytis. The palate does not disappoint after this strong start, showing all the convincing richness of slippery, botrytis-coated fruit, along with some tangy, grippy orange character. What impresses most is the very complete, harmonious picture it presents, despite the remarkable substance and concentrated flavour it carries. A superb wine. 19/20 (January 2013)

The 2012 St Emilion Recidivism

It is a fact of life that as soon as you write something down, it begins to date. This is most apparent in printed media, where publication lead times sometimes approaching a year mean that reference books are not infrequently out of date before they even hit the shelves. Thankfully, with electronic media, pages can be updated as and when required. This is something I’ve been working on in recent months; all my Sauternes profiles have been overhauled and brought up to date, and I have nearly finished Pessac-Léognan. All of Bordeaux and the Loire is in the firing line, but next up is St Emilion, for several reasons, not least because references to the 2012 St Emilion classification, including details of promotion or demotion in the case of a good number of châteaux, need to be added or amended. I was all set to begin the ground work yesterday when news broke that, unfortunately, the chapter on the 2012 St Emilion reclassification has not yet been completed. How timely!

The most comprehensive report on the story can be found on the Terre de Vins site here (in French). The article opens with a slightly weary comment that “history seems destined to be repeated“, as this new problem is a legal challenge by demoted châteaux, exactly as we saw with the ill-fated 2006 St Emilion classification. In 2006 a group of disgruntled proprietors turned the show into a French farce with the classification reverting to that determined in 1996, except for the 2006 promotions which were allowed to stand. To be fair, however, the complainants had good grounds, not least a lack of impartiality on the overseeing committee. As a result, a robust system was established for the 2012 reclassification, including the handing-over of overall responsibility to the INAO rather than it being managed locally, the drafting in of big names from outside Bordeaux (who should therefore be impartial) to act as a reclassification committee, and engaging with two quality-assurance bodies, Qualisud and Bureau Veritas.

La Mondotte - promoted in the St Emilion 2012 classification

Ever since the publication of the listing, however, there has been discontent in one corner of St Emilion. The north-west corner to be precise, near the Barbanne and the boundary with the Montagne-St Emilion appellation. Here lies Château Croque-Michotte, from where proprietor Pierre Carle has orchestrated a challenge to the classification. It has been low-key – with a few articles in the French press, but little written beyond France’s borders – and a rather uninspiring YouTube video (which I don’t seem to be able to locate now – otherwise I would provide a link) detailing his complaints. I have to confess I thought the complaints would peter out, but it seems as though Pierre and his sister Lucile have a larger axe to grind than I had imagined. Having submitted their dossier pointing out the errors in the classification, and calling for amendments rather than annulment, their protests have not yielded any results, hence the progression to legal action. They no longer act alone, however, as the two other châteaux demoted have joined them; these are Château La Tour du Pin Figeac and neighbours Château Corbin-Michotte. The trio certainly appear to have a case, as they claim to have uncovered minutes from classification meetings where some of the defects in the process were pointed out and acknowledged.

As yet there is no reaction from Jean-François Quenin, proprietor of Château de Pressac (which was elevated in the 2012 ranking) and president of the Conseil des Vins de Saint-Emilion, who wishes to review the dossier before making any comment.

I have to confess I have a lot of empathy with some of the weary tone within the Terre de Vins article linked above. Pierre Carle no doubt feels exasperated, as he sees that if the error he claims to have uncovered had gone his way, he would have accrued enough points to be ranked as grand cru classé (14 points was enough for this, 16 for premier grand cru classé). And although the officials involved are currently tight-lipped (and no doubt stony-faced) there are bound to be strong feelings of déjà vu here. From the point of view of a interested outsider, however, I do wonder what the outcome will be here. From within the system there must be a strong desire to reject these claims; the system regained some credibility in terms of process with the 2012 classification (even if we can snort at the proportion of promotions to demotions) but another successful legal challenge like that seen in 2006 will be a crippling embarrassment.

And does it all matter to consumers, which is perhaps where the proprietors of St Emilion should be directing their attention, especially given the prices charged by some? I sense there is already little interest in these sorts of shenanigans beyond St Emilion’s borders anyway; modern-day consumers are far more interested in what Parker and others have to say on the wines than some outdated and allegedly flawed system of ranking. When I wrote of the 2010 Cru Bourgeois gang (I can’t think what else to call them) last year I penned some suggestions on how I thought the classification could be improved, including less frequent rating, looking beyond what is in the glass (that dreaded word, terroir) and introducing internal rankings (including cru bourgeois exceptionnel and supérieur, for example). All of which sounds a little like what they are trying to do in St Emilion of course. But with this latest development I’m beginning to wonder whether the best classification in Bordeaux is the 1855 Médoc. Everybody with even a modicum of common sense can see that it is outdated and really of historical interest only, and while some châteaux perform to their level others do not, either above (Pontet Canet and others) or below (Durfort-Vivens and others). None of which matters; what matters is that some proprietors are pulling out all the stops and making great wine, independent critics inform the consumer, and prices are set accordingly. Perhaps it’s time to ditch these classifications altogether? If the recidivous challenge brough by Pierre Carle is successful, thereby cementing in place a system over two consecutive classifications where everybody is promoted and nobody is demoted, there might be no other logical conclusion.

Biodynamics and Yeast Biodiversity

Does biodynamic viticulture really make a difference to the vineyard? Over the years I’ve asked this question of several vignerons who have undergone the conversion from organic to biodynamic methods and comments on the apparently increased health of the vines have been common. Reports included more vigorous growth, deeper greener colours, thicker stems and so on (one such report came from Eddy Oosterlinck of Domaine de Juchepie, pictured below); how valid these observations are, made in unblinded fashion, comparing the current season’s growth with the memory of the previous year’s, however, is certainly open to question. And what about the microbial life? It’s easy to look at the rich, grassy and floral carpets seen in the organic or biodynamic vineyard and imagine that the soils are full of healthy and happy organisms, especially when they are compared with the scorched-earth vineyards of some chemically-managed estates. Orange grass never inspires confidence, does it? But is there any evidence to support a conclusion that one vineyard really is more ‘healthy’ than another?

Biodynamics and Yeast Biodiversity

Well, I can’t say I’m particularly well read in this area, but a recent paper published in PLOS ONE, from Setati et al at the Stellenbosch Institute for Wine Biotechnology, seems to throw some light on the matter. Methodologically, it looks like a sound study, although I would suggest that such judgements are really only valid coming from someone with a knowledge of the literature; this knowledge allows you to look at a paper with a more critical eye, rather than just believing, which is a common problem when journalists read research papers I find. With my lack of credentials firmly established and accepted, I still think this is a valid and interesting paper (link at the bottom of the page).

The study involved three vineyards, managed in three fashions: (1) biodynamic, (2) conventional and (3) integrated production. Vineyards (1) and (2) were managed as you would expect, whereas vineyard (3) was a sort of ‘half-way house’ site, where some chemicals were used, but alongside some less conventional methods including cover crops, chicken manure and soil inoculation. Samples of grapes from the three sites were taken to see how the microbial flora living on the fruit differed across the three sites. Samples were taken from numerous spots within each vineyard, and they were analysed using not just cultural methods (i.e. seeing which yeasts and other organisms grew when washings from the samples were plated out on suitable growth media) but also using molecular techniques. These fancy molecular techniques looked at the DNA (well, RNA to be pedantic, but that’s not important right now, and you get the idea) of the ribosome, a structure which not only allows typing of the organism but also allows you to see how closely a group of said organisms are related.

The results were interesting on many levels. Before coming to the biodynamic differences, the authors pointed out that (a) there was some variation within vineyards, from one row to the next, and (b) the modern molecular methods identified more species than the older cultural methods. Both findings are relevant to researchers in the area as it means (a) previous studies where sampling has been limited may be flawed because of the small sampling technique – you need to examine multiple spots within each vineyard to get a true picture, and (b) older studies using cultural and not molecular methods will have presented only a partial picture of the organisms living in the field of study.

These findings are important, but it is the biodynamic differences the team identified that were the most interesting part of the results I think. Firstly, there was certainly more diversity in the organisms identified in the biodynamic vineyard. As an example, one species – Aureobasidium – accounted for 70% of all isolates in the conventional site, 63% in the integrated site, but only 53% in the biodynamic site. Many organisms were only seen in the biodynamic site; admittedly many were seen in the conventional/integrated sites and were not in the biodynamic site, so this doesn’t really prove anything, it is more the overall diversity that is of interest.

Some species identified, such as Sporisorium, which was in the biodynamic vineyard but not the others, have never been picked up in vineyards before; this at first glance seems heart-warming, but we must bear in mind that the new molecular methods might be responsible rather than this being a result of biodynamics. Of greater interest, though, is the fact that several species identified in the biodynamic vineyard but not in the other two are of potential benefit to the vines. Meira geulakonigii and Rhodosporidium diobovatum, both living in the biodynamic vineyard studied, have active biocontrol capabilities. Meira geulakonigii is active against spider mite and rust mite, with the mites suffering 100% mortality when exposed, whereas Rhodosporidium diobovatum is active against Botrytis cinerea, which might be famous and welcome for its effect in Sauternes but in most vineyards would be regarded as a pest, causing harmful grey rot.

Clearly the study only reveals the tip of the iceberg, and there is huge scope for further work here. Nevertheless, even taken in isolation, this study seems important; biodynamics improves microbial diversity, and these more diverse species may be active against pests and rot, and thus be of benefit to the vine. None of this necessarily translates through to increased quality in the final wine though; I suspect research in that area will be fraught with confounding variables (although there should be no shortage of willing test subjects!).

Link to the paper: The Vineyard Yeast Microbiome, a Mixed Model Microbial Map

Dom Perignon 1995 and 1996

During 2013 I will try to bring a little more sense of what I’m tasting and drinking at home to the blog, alongside all my Loire, Bordeaux and other reports. Believe it or not, I do occasionally drink something other than Clos Rougeard and Château Latour (ha ha!).

I recently pulled these two vintages of Dom Pérignon from the cellar; it’s been a few years since I last tasted them, and they’re still showing well. The brand (for that is what it is) takes quite a bit of stick in Champagne circles because, considering the exclusive, ‘luxury’ image, the annual production is rumoured to be numbered in millions of bottles. I think the basis for this rumour was the extraordinarily broad distribution; there were bottles in duty free shops across the world (and there are a lot of duty free shops!). I remember spotting the 1992 in the airport in Rhodes of all places; I wonder if the Greek stocks of prestige cuvée Champagne remains as high today?

Dom Pérignon 1995 and 1996

Acknowledging this, I still find the quality of what is in the glass to be extremely good, a feat perhaps even more remarkable if the production levels really are that high. The 1995 is a super wine. But the 1996 is just a stunner – I’m very happy to have a few more of these in the cellar to “report on” in future years.

Moët et Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1995: This wine has a pale lemon gold in the glass, with a very fine central bead; there’s plenty of life and vigour in this. The nose shows all the classic finely tuned almonds and cream, but there are also richer notes now of exotic, desiccated-dried fruits and brioche, giving a rather panettone-like feel to it. The palate is very fine, with more of these brioche and almond notes, with a very fine mousse, but with the finely composed fruits found on the nose as well. Long, dry, harmonious and impressive. This is just fine for drinkinng now, although I’m sure this would hold in the cellar for many years yet. 18.5/20 (January 2012)

Moët et Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1996: A very convincing appearance in the glass here, with a fine, pale-golden hue, and a plentiful bead, with a myriad streams of bubbles. The nose is very exuberant, open and characterful, with honey-roasted almonds alongside lightly candied tropical fruits with some bright, citrus overtones. Quite serious and almost austere on the palate still, also very correct, upright, very tight in terms of its composition, brimming with flavour and texture and yet it is all packed between some very clean lines. Evolving beautifully, and really showing the merits of the 1996 vintage over the 1995 in this comparison. Brilliant wine. 19/20 (January 2012)