Sunday, April 26, 2009

April 25th - Marseilles & Bandol

4-25-09 – Marseilles & Bandol

Michel and Anna invited me to go to Bandol, to perhaps go sailing on Michel’s sailboat. I met them in front of the hotel , and we left in their car. We drove down the Rhone valley, past Aix-en-Provence, Mont Luberon, and down toward the coast. Provence has beautiful countryside, orderly farms, planted in espaliered fruit trees, with tall cypress and platane trees lining the fields to protect against le Mistral. At the same time, it still seems very wild and natural; the homes are built from the same rock of the mountains and hills all around, and the scrubby ‘Garrigue’ brush is largely composed of wild herbs and flowers that blend seamlessly into the edges of the farms themselves. It is difficult to see where nature ends and the hand of man is a very subtle thing here.

About an hour into the drive, we went through a tunnel, and emerged with the sea in sight, and Marseilles spread out before us. This is a major seaport – ships of every description were in evidence, loading and unloading cargo from around the world. Ferries from here reach Rome, Corsica, Barcelona, Genoa, Beirut, Alexandria, Lybia, Morocco, and Algeria. Humans have lived around here for 30,000 years, evidenced by cave paintings in the area - It was established as a seaport by the Phonecian Greeks 3,000 years ago, and was important to every power since. The Vieux Port is still bustling within its very sheltered walls, but today it is filled with pleasure boats, instead of the vessels of commerce which used to bring the wealth of the world here. We crept up on the road along the Cornice, where you can view out to sea. It is possible to see the islands where the Count of Monte Cristo was supposed to have been held as a captive, and he escaped by swimming away in the sea.

From here, we turned a bit inland, and followed the motorway toward Toulon. We passed Cassis, which is famous for the Calanques – a landscape of high mountains that fall into secluded fijord-like grottos – perfect for boating and swimming. We arrived soon at Bandol, which is both a larger wine region made up of several villages, and a small seaside city. We found Michel’s boat, the Llhassa, which is about a 40’ sailing boat, and set up aboard. The wind was blowing between 25 and 40 knots while we were there, and the entire harbor was filled with the sound of whistling rigging of the hundreds of boats in the marina. We had lunch on the boat, and enjoyed the combination of warm sun with cooling breezes. It was far too windy to go out sailing – outside the protection of the harbor, the sea was whipped into whitecaps, even within the sheltered bay.

We walked the waterfront, checking out the boats – some of them were quite impressive megayachts – also the motorcycle variety was very good! Many groups of people were playing Petanque on the crushed granite boules court – I guess that this is the Provencale sport, and perfect for a breezy Saturday afternoon with one’s friends!

After several hours, we packed our things and left to visit a Domaine owned by friends of Anna & Michel. We drove up into the mountains, quickly gaining altitude as we left the seaside behind. Vines appeared very quickly once we rounded the first bend from the sea, and as we appeared in a higher valley, every hillside was terraced and planted to vines all around.

We arrived at the Domaine de La Laidière, high above the valley floor and with a commanding view of the village of Sainte Anne d’Evenos. We were received by Freddy Estienne, who owns the Domaine. His father and grandfather established the estate in 1941, with some small vineyards which are still owned by the family, and began to produce wine. Since then, they have purchased other vineyards slowly and reclaimed an impressive high terraced slope above the winery which had fallen into disuse over many years, replanting the traditional cepages of Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsault.

Freddy makes his wines very traditionally, but uses stainless steel, temperature controlled fermentors for the initial fermentation and then ages the wines in large wooden foudres for about 18 months for the reds. He only buys a new foudre every year or two, so the wines are not at all dominated by the wood, but instead stand on the strength of the wines themselves.

We tasted many wines – the white and rose are beautifully refreshing. The rose is a direct pressed wine, meaning that it does not remain on the skins for any time at all, and as such is a pale, delicious, fresh wine. The reds are deep and serious, relying heavily upon the Mourvedre – a grape that produces deep, richly textured wines with aromas of rich earth, blackfruits, and sometimes even leather and blood (this is a good thing, a very good thing!) He opened many vintages for us, both from recent bottlings as well as dating back to 1993.

At the end of our tasting, he beckoned us downstairs into the storage cellar for bottled wines. He has a collection of bottles going back to the first years of the estate, under his father and grandfather. He selected a bottle from his dwindling supply of the 1950 vintage, and brought it upstairs, opening it for us in an overwhelming show of generosity. It was aged, but still vibrant and alive, and amazingly consistent with the younger wines we had been sampling.

This is what wine can be about – it can become more than just a beverage, more than just an art or craft or agriculture, or hobby. To imagine the efforts and toils that Freddy’s grandfather and father endured to bring this wine to bottle – it is staggering. To realize their belief in the terroir of Bandol itself (theirs was one of the Domaines which were instrumental in developing the Appellation d’Origine Controlee for Bandol,) and then to taste the wine which came from their early vintages here in this place – it was to see how wine can also become a thread of history and of place. It ties the generations of their family together, and ties them to this place where they have made their lives. It is a bit of time-travel, a chance to taste the still-lingering fruit from that long-ago summer, and to remember all that has changed since. And yet the continuity between each of the bottles we tasted reminds one of all that does not change – the terroir, the cycle of the sun & seasons, the rhythms of life.

Merci Beaucoup, Beaucoup, Beaucoup, Freddy for sharing this precious bottle with us and for connecting us with your family and your sublime place as well. I will always remember this show of generosity!

April 24th - Chateauneuf du Pape & Orange

4/24/09 – Avignon / Chateauneuf du Pape / Orange:

I arrived from Paris on the TGV and went to collect my rental car. At the office, it quickly became apparent that the rental was going to be a lot more expensive than I had expected from the online quote – mostly because I needed to rent it in Avignon, to be returned in Montpellier, and the expense for a one-way rental was astronomical. On top of that, they would not rent to me a GPS for a one-way rental. I decided to skip it, and took the shuttle into Avignon to check into my hotel.

Once I was on the shuttle, I telephoned to Victor’s father, (Victor is a French Oenology / Viticulture student whom will become an intern with us at Eos this harvest,) Daniel, to let him know that I was in Avignon. He arranged to meet me at 2pm, and we went up the Rhone river about 10 miles to Chateauneuf du Pape. We visited several of the Domaine Beaurenard vineyard sites within Chateauneuf du Pape, and met several of the vineyard workers, who were hand-weeding around the vines. There were so many rocks that the tools they were using were the sturdiest hoes that I had ever seen, complete with a backside of the hoe that allowed them to perfectly work around the trunk of the vines. Daniel said that his system is totally organic now, and in fact he was going entirely to biodynamic viticulture, starting with this season.

Some of the vineyards that we looked at were planted in 1920 – these are some of the oldest vines in their domaine. Daniel said that he is the seventh generation of his family in the vineyards – they have a barn on the property that has been in the family since approximately 1685. Even some of his workers have been there for a long time – one has been an employee for 20+ years, he started working when he was 14. And that employee’s father had worked alongside Daniel’s father, Paul Coulon for most of his career.

The oldest vineyards still producing in their domaine were planted in 1902. ‘Perhaps I will have to replace them, but they still give very good quality wine, but not so much of it’ he said. ‘Or perhaps Victor can replace them!’ It was interesting to see the soil types and how they differed throughout the areas of Chateauneuf. The oldest plantings were established in the areas where there is more clay in the soil, and less rocks. This was the most fertile, and easiest to farm ground. As this land became scarce, growers moved up into the areas where the glaciers deposited mountains of stones. In some places, more than 90% of the soil is made up of rocks! These rocks can reach up to 200 feet deep in places, so they are very well drained. The stones came from as far away as the Alps, carried by the massive glaciers that scoured the valley of the Rhone, and were dropped here when the glacier turned.

In some of these secondary areas, there are huge mounds of stones – the farmers wives used to have the task of carrying stones out of the vineyards, in order to make it easier for the horses to work in the vines. But as many as they pulled up, more shifted up from under the earth – so today there are just as many stones, but many of the vineyards have margins with banks of stones piled up around them. It still would be easy to turn your ankle out here – it is quite incredible!

Daniel told me about a specialist whom he had met with several weeks before. This person is a horticulturalist who works with understanding soil condition and health by analyzing the weeds that grow on the floor of the vineyard. By looking at the type and biodiversity of the species represented, he can tell whether the soil is in a sustainable place, or if it is lacking nutrients, or is not a stable mix of types. This seems quite interesting to me, and quite logical - certainly the state of a soil will determine which species can become dominant in it - and the mixture of types all can give and receive different things within the soil. A stable vineyard soil should exhibit about 20-25 species in this area, according to the specialist - Daniel's vineyards have as many as 42 in some places, and the specialist said that there are no specific challenges that are apparent to him in these locations.

After several hours in the vineyard, we toured the winery, and tasted through the wines. They produce a range of wines, everything from Rose to Cote du Rhone, a very high quality Rasteau, delicious Chateauneuf Blanc, and some magnificent Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge – the wine that this region is justly famous for. The wines of Beaurenard are largely Grenache, with smaller amounts of Carignane, Mourvedre, Syrah, Cinsault. I love Chateauneuf du Pape; it walks a beautiful balance between being a strong, powerful wine of extract and heft, but at the same time it is elegant, not overly tannic, and very layered. You can clearly taste the mineral and restrained ripe red fruit character of the wine, and the use of oak is subtle and tasteful – used to support the fruit and the wine, but not to be an obvious component of the flavor of the wine.

After several hours with Daniel, I met Anna, Victor’s mother. She took me to see the city of Orange, where she grew up, and where she works now. Orange was an important Roman city when they conquered Provence. It still has a mostly intact Roman theatre which dominates the hillside in the midst of the city. It is spectacular to see the workmanship that leaves such a massive, complex structure standing after over 2000 years. This is only one of three Roman theatres in the world to still have its stage wall – the large wall that would be behind the performers – preserved (the other two are in Syria and Turkey.) This keeps the acoustics intact as they were 2000 years ago, and enables the performers to be heard clearly by every one of the 9000 seats surrounding the theater. In the warm summer evenings, there is a full schedule of Opera and other performances that still take place many evenings of the week.

Next, we headed back into Avignon. We met up with Anna’s friend, Michel, who is a pathologist in the city. We went to a restaurant which a friend of theirs had just purchased 2 weeks ago, to sit outside and have oysters. These oysters, which were from near Montpellier, are known to be a bit more salty than the Belons from near Bordeaux. I was told that when I am in Bordeaux, I must enjoy some local oysters (which I will definitely do!)

April 24 - Paris to Avignon

After the usual hassle of air travel in the US, it is a pleasure to be riding across France at high speed on the TGV. Easy to show up at the station, in the centre of the city, purchase a ticket with 20 minutes to spare, step onboard with my bags and be underway within minutes. I certainly hope that the US begins to adopt high-speed rail service – it makes so much sense.

It strikes me just how agricultural France really is. Only a few minutes into the travel, one escapes the 11 million plus people and congestion of Paris, and we are riding across landscapes filled with fields of mustard, alfalfa, and freshly planted fields with scarecrows erected. Forget about California’s ‘Happy Cows’ – if they could see their French cousins, with rich glossy long red coats, chest-deep in lush green pastures… Somehow the dry scrub of the western range wouldn’t seem so good at all.

Looking at the map of the travel, it appears that we are heading to the East slightly, not quite as far as Dijon, and then skirting down the backside of Burgundy, emerging in Macon. From there, we will continue down through Lyon, and next down the Rhone Valley to Avignon. This train will also stop in Aix-en-Provence and finally Marseilles, but that will be after my exit.

I am planning to pick up a rental car upon arrival and continue to Chateauneuf du Pape, to meet with Daniel Coulon, of Domaine Beaurenard. Daniel’s son, Victor, is a third-year student in Agriculture and Oeneology in Toulouse, and will be an intern for us at EOS beginning in August and through the harvest season. It will be fantastic to meet his family, they are good friends and past business partners of my former clients, Bob & Jim Varner, of Park Wine Company. They used to import many French wines from Burgundy, the Rhone, and the Midi to the United States, and formed a fast bond with the Coulon family.

I am staying in Avignon this evening. I was there last summer, and made some friends – I don’t know if I will be able to contact them or not, but I will stop by where they work and see if they are around. Since I have the car, I think that I will try to explore more of the region of Provence – I don’t have a great guide book, unfortunately, but I imagine that opportunities will present themselves. There is a village called Les Baux that sounds interesting, and I would like to visit other wine regions. I need to arrive in Montpellier Sunday to meet the group of winemakers whom I will be travelling with – Montpellier is not very far away at all, so it should be easy.
Nimes is on the way, apparently with amazing Roman artifacts, and I would love to perhaps see Arles, Aix-en-Provence, etc… Probably Saturday evening will be left to chance as far as accommodation – it could be interesting to end up in a smaller village, rather than the cities that I usually end up in – cities are good, but off the beaten track could be interesting as well.
Last year in Montpellier, I made a good friend of Philippe Chapon, who is the Chef/Owner of Tamarillo’s. His cuisine is based on flowers and fruit – very creative and delicious. One guidebook that I was looking at purchasing listed his restaurant as their choice for dining in Montpellier, and stated that Philippe taught pastry to chef Gordon Ramsay! I will ask Philippe about this on Sunday, when I see him.

We are in more forested terrain at the moment, it is difficult to look out the window without eyestrain. I suppose that we are traveling over one hundred miles per hour – possibly near two hundred.

April 23rd - Paris

I am in Paris - for the first time ever in the springtime. I think that I have only ever been here in the winter, with cool misty greyness everywhere. The light lasts until late in the evening, and the flowers and trees are all exploding in green and vibrant colors. Birds are singing everywhere, the sun is shining and everything seems perfect!

I am not here in France just to enjoy - I have meetings all the following week - a series of technical trainings with a company called 'Vivelys' which does winemaking consulting, has developed several significant winemaking technologies, and has some very exciting new sensory analysis tools with built-in multivariate statistical analysis over the internet. Those meetings begin on Sunday and stretch throughout the week to Friday - it will be with 9 US & Canadian winemakers, and we will travel from Montpellier in the South of France, upward with our final destination in Bordeaux, stopping at wineries throughout the region as we go to view case studies of the ways that their technologies have been implemented.

In addition, I am traveling this weekend to Avignon, to meet with the family of the student who will be our intern this vintage at Eos. They have a Domaine in Chateauneuf du Pape & Rasteau, just north of Avignon. It will be great to meet them and get to know something about their winemaking.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Harvest 2008 - drawing to a close

The 2008 vintage has been really difficult for growers throughout the Paso Robles region. Frost early in the year, below average rainfalls for 2 years running, and difficult weather a flowering made for stunted and late shoot growth, poor fruit set, and really uneven crop ripeness. As we got into harvest, fruit flavor profiles and tannin development lagged way behind sugar levels, forcing us to leave fruit on the vine longer in hopes that tannin and flavor would catch up and reach equilibrium.

As we moved through the early stages of harvest, we found that we were harvesting at approximately 30% below our crop estimates – a dramatically short crop. We scrambled to source additional Chardonnay for some of our programs, and were able to secure some very nice looking fruit from Santa Barbara County, as well as the Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley AVA regions of southern San Luis Obispo County.

As reds started to come in, the silver lining to the 2008 vintage became apparent as the fruit crushed up into deeply colored fermentations – the loose clusters caused by extreme shatter early in the year left lots of sunlight and air exposure on the fruit, helping to build anthocyanin (color pigments) in the skins of the grapes, and reducing fungal disease pressure.

Just when we were becoming accustomed to a leisurely pace of ripening and steady flavor development, a series of extremely cold nights set in. We had more than a week of days with highs in the 70’s and 80’s, but overnight lows dropping slightly below freezing. Several areas measured 27 degrees, which is about lethal for a grape leaf. Many of our growers started running their overhead sprinklers during the nights, to buy a few degrees of protection from the frost – one of our growers had so much ice build up on his vines that the first three rows of trellis buckled and bent over under the weight!

Most affected were low-lying areas where the cold air could not drain away. In many of the vineyards, you will see a pattern of frost-killed leaves in the low lying areas, or anywhere that the topography causes the air to pool up and stagnate.

We were really lucky in a lot of cases. Even within vineyards that had widespread damage, we mostly had some affected vines around the edges. Vineyards that were hit hard are basically done for the season. The cold actually causes water within the leaf cells to freeze, bursting them; walking in the vines after a freeze, the air smells a lot like fresh-cut grass, that vegetal, wet leafy aroma. Whatever stage of flavor development the vines were at prior to the freeze is just where they will stay; further time on the vine is only serving to dehydrate the otherwise unripe fruit.

At this stage, we are basically prioritizing the order that we bring in the rest of our fruit. Everything is about as ripe as it is going to get, just time to bring it in and get it started on a path toward what it will ultimately become.

Overall, I think we managed quality well in this vintage. I figure that about 10-15% of our red wine lots are of top quality, and I am really pleased with most of the white wines. Speaking with other winemaker friends, it sounds like we did better than the average in one of the most challenging vintages in recent memory.

More photos at my account:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Morning Samples - Russell Vineyard 9/16/08

One of the best parts of working in wine on the Central Coast is that you get to spend a lot of time outdoors in some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere around. This morning was no different; I got out the door just as the sun was threatening to come up over the ridge, picked up a thermos of coffee, and was climbing around in a hilltop vineyard in the mountains just west of Templeton by the time that the sun popped up out of the fog blanketing the valley floor.

I was pulling some cluster samples from the Russell vineyard, which is on the Russell family's estate in the west hills of Templeton / Paso Robles. They are selling us a small amount of fruit from this vineyard, and from what I understand, my friend Russell From is getting fruit from here as well, for his Herman Story wines, and Loring Wine Company is in one of these blocks too, so I have some really good company. The site looks down the hill at the L'Aventure winery, which turns out some of my favorite wines in the region (everyone knows them for their pricey, highly rated estate red wines, which are fantastic, but I love their dry rose too, and for about $16 I can afford to drink a lot more of it!)

The top photo tells the story of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Paso Robles AVA this vintage. Not much of it mostly - poor weather when the vines were blooming essentially made for really loose clusters, with very few berries - as you can see, it looks like 80% of the cluster is just plain missing, and that is pretty accurate in a lot of cases. This phenomenon was really tied to bloom date, so it can be really isolated by age of vine, health of the vine, cordon height, elevation, exposure to sunlight, cold air drainage off hillsides, inversion layers, and basically anything else that can influence the timing of the vine. For this reason, it has been really difficult to get solid estimates of crop loads this year, and the vines seem to be ripening at really different rates; vines with little fruit may be a week or more ahead of their more loaded down neighbors.

My guess is that we will be down regionally about 30% or more compared to an 'average' harvest year in many of the Bordeaux varieties, particularly Cab Sauvignon. Ouch! But will the wines be really, really good to make up for the short crop? I think that in some cases they will be. We are having really good ripening weather currently, with cold nights and warm days, and everything seems to be inching its way toward ripeness at a pace that we can keep up with and make good picking decisions. The strategy that I plan to follow with such an uneven crop is to err on the side of picking a bit ripe; it doesn't take much unripe fruit to really make hard, thin wines out of what could otherwise be generous and full. I will try to keep water to the vines, so that the clusters that are ripe will not raisin while the rest of the crop is just getting their flavors in line.

It will be interesting to see this year's result!

Click this link for more harvest photos

Monday, September 15, 2008

Burst Bubble

Disaster struck today (well, maybe “Disaster” is overly dramatic…) – the bladder on our main white wine press blew out while pressing a load of Chardonnay grapes. Modern wine presses operate under air-pressure; you can imagine a large, perforated tube with a balloon inside. We load this tube with grapes, then inflate the balloon, which squeezes them gently against the sides, allowing juice to run out through the perforations.

This is a really good way to extract clear, high-quality juice from the grapes with a minimum of tearing of the skins and minimal release of color and tannin compounds into the wine. However, just like any balloon, these membranes are subject to being torn, punctured, or just wearing out over time.

This is what happened today; it is hard to tell whether there was some imperfection in the membrane itself, or if a sharp object (such as a wire or a clip from the trellis system,) started a tear that eventually caused the whole bag to blow open. This is a pretty good tear, nearly 8 feet long parallel to the long side of the membrane – I’ve not seen one this big for a long time. It is much more common to get a puncture or pinhole that can be patched up pretty quickly. Replacing the bladder is a messy, sticky, and hot job if you have to do it in the middle of the day – you have to climb inside the press and undo about a thousand bolts (it seems like,) and then pull it back out the manhole, clean and lube the inside of the press, and reattach the replacement. Luckily we have a replacement on hand, but now we are running without a backup until we can get another replacement sent over from France (at about $7000-9000!!) So we have to be really careful and hope that we make it through the rest of the white wines, in particular. We have about 420 additional tons of white grapes (other than late harvest) yet to come in, so we need to get a bit more mileage out of this press!

So far we have taken in the following tonnage: Chardonnay, 297.72 tons. Pinot Gris, 19.88 tons. Muscat Blanc, 49.23 tons. Sauvignon Blanc, 40.23 tons.

Reds will be a bit further off – maybe late next week at the earliest. I think that Zinfandel and Tempranillo will be likely to be the first red wine varieties that come in.

For more harvest photos, click this link.