Chablis – setting the stage for the Phantom

Chablis – setting the stage for the Phantom

 White soil of Chablis Grand Cru 'Blanchot'

White soil of Chablis Grand Cru 'Blanchot'

Chablisenne terroir is a phantasmic, white ghost of a thing; interminably hard to put your finger on, yet always present. The beauty of Chablis is that the natural veil of fruit and winemaking tradition only thinly covers this wispy sense of place. From the simplest village level bottling through to Grand Cru Le Clos, it is always there, speaking to us from that indefinable amalgamation of environment and soil.

But what is this terroir thing? How does it come to be? How does one capture and define the essence of a place as unique as Chablis?

Traditionally these are not generous wines, nor is their essence easily proved by the neophyte or those accustomed to the demonstrative over the demure.  I would caution that this apparent lack of generosity is not due to a meanness of spirit, but rather that the translucence of the fruit causes a cautious propriety.  For if expression of terroir is the heart of a wine, then few wines wear it closer to the vest than Chablis.

I recently had the pleasure of working with a winemaker from a seminal Chablisenne producer, Domaine Laroche, here in Texas and of sharing his wines with a group of sommeliers and connoisseurs. The story of Domaine Laroche is not uncommon in French viticulture- a dynamic and driven prodigy revitalizes his family domaine to create a market leader in the span of a generation.  As is also commonly the case, once the domain reaches a certain size it is purchased by a much larger entity, the prodigy steps down, and the story starts again.

This is where I re-discovered Domaine Laroche, just after the ‘changing of the guard.’  I had tried the wines before this change; they had struck me as modernist, somewhat foursquare and spoke to a more dynamic winemaking philosophy. As a sommelier, I saw the advantage of having a transitional style of Chablis which positioned itself between the classic leanness of the region and the more powerful expressions of their neighbours to the south, but the wines were of little personal interest. When, jumping several years forward, I had the chance to spend the day in my hometown with the new Laroche winemaker, Gregory Viennois, I was forced to redefine my reference point for the producer. 

Interpretation and experience define a winemaker and the latter typically is the progenitor of the former. What I find most interesting is the inverse relationship between the two. That is to say, with confidence in ability should come a simplicity of interpretation.

The wines were not as fleshy as before, nor were they as seasoned by winemaking and oak.  That classic leanness was there, the white bones of terroir could be easily seen through a delicate draping of fruit expression.  Lithe but not meager, well structured but not over proportioned. I was impressed with what I was tasting.  As I spoke with Gregory of traditional vineyards, of classic winemaking techniques and of the classic elegance of the region, I had to assume that he was a native Chablisenne, raised on the traditions of those who had gone before. This was not the case. Although he did get his start in Burgundy, he soon traveled far afield geographically and stylistically. Having worked for producers like Smith Haut Laffite, with flying consultant Stephane Derenoncourt and lastly as the technical director for Michel Chapoutier, one would expect his style to more closely follow that of his predecessor at Laroche.  How then did he come to redefine the wines in a style so removed from the sturdy fruit expression of the Northern Rhone and Bordeaux? I was intrigued.

Romantically, I would like to imagine that anyone can be bewitched by the enchanting terroir of Chablis who has had a chance to spend time in her presence. Realistically, however, it is likely that Gregory’s ability to capture the savory essence of Chablis is more due to his talent as a winemaker.  Regardless, the elegance of the wines I tasted would not have led me to believe that the winemaker had just come from the roasting slopes of the Northern Rhone.  There had to be more to the story and I was determined to find out.

After a day of getting to know Gregory, we had a chance to share Laroche’s top wine “Reserve de l’Obedience” with a table of local sommeliers and aficionados.  My surprise came shortly afterwards when Gregory invited me to join them in Chablis the following year. The offer also included the rare opportunity to be a part of blending the very same wine we had just shared with our guests.  I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to discover these answers first hand.

The tasting took place in the cellars of the ancient monastery (8th century) in which Laroche still ages their finest wines.  The group was mainly comprised of Laroche employees with the exception of Stephane Derencourt, myself and two other sommeliers.  The task was simple- taste through 42 barrel and plot selections from within the company’s 11.3 acre holdings of Grand Cru ‘Blanchot’ and narrow it down to at least three selections that best represented the vineyard. The parameters were also straight forward. Only those examples, which captured the essence of the vineyard without falling to the extremes (too much acidity, too powerfully aromatic or too much cuvee, would make it to the table. Of these, only the most exceptional (those in the center of an imaginary triangle drawn on the table) would become part of the final cuvee.

 Winemaker Gregory Viennois making the final call on a sample.

Winemaker Gregory Viennois making the final call on a sample.

Each of the 42 selections was tasted blind and each one was given serious deliberation by the assembled team. Glass after glass was poured as we stood in a circle around that massive stone table.  The pattern was the same each time:

1.       We all paused, intent on the dancing greenish yellow apparition we were about to consume.

2.       In robotic fashion we tasted, swished, swirled and spat as wine folks do.

3.       We paused again, staring blankly as we tried to frame an opinion on this ephemeral representation of soil and place. Was this what we were looking for? Did it represent essence? Poise? Balance? Was it worthy?

4.       No one spoke. We looked up at one another and then fixed our gaze on two men: Gregory the winemaker and Stephane the consultant.

5.       Gregory would speak first, of his own volition or after a short query, and address his words to Stephane or the management team. They typically responded in the affirmative after which the floor opened for comments from the rest of the group.

The conversation was in French, typically charged with emotion, and devoid of all that techno jargon like PH, dissolved solids and skin phenolics. Being a left-brained taster, I was struggling. There was very little of anything resembling the scientific process of which I was accustomed, no real talk of how or why. Granted, I understood well the parameters of excessive qualities of acid, aromas and body, but there seemed to be something fundamental that I was missing. Even if my notes ran parallel to the consensus of the group in terms of structural analysis, those wines which garnered the most excitement from Gregory and Stephane left me flummoxed. What was it they were tasting? 

I started speaking less and listening more, curious to discover what I was missing. The bottles came and went as the imaginary points of the triangle slowly filled.  Several bottles were clearly marked by oak, others by notes of fermentation or reduction, and these were quickly rejected. Interestingly, several wines that showed what most people would describe as an elegant fruit profile reminiscent of Chassagne-Montrachet or a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay were just as decisively removed. Even samples which had the balance and drinkability of a finished wine, which we somms all found quite agreeable, barely made it on the table, if at all. Why? Wasn’t balance the goal of the tasting? Not too much of this or that?

No.

 Only the grouping of samples at the center of the table will be chosen for the 'Reserve de l'Obediance'

Only the grouping of samples at the center of the table will be chosen for the 'Reserve de l'Obediance'

What I realized about three-quarters of the way through the tasting is that I had it wrong. What we were looking for were not the samples that had the best balance of acid, aromatics or body but rather those examples in which the essence of terroir wasn’t obscured by any of these three elements.

I had noticed on rare occasions, in the past, where it seemed like the terroir, specifically this quixotic “minerality” we are all battling to define, seemed to dance above the structural components of a wine. That is to say that the fruit, the alcohol and the winemaking elements all seemed to underpin and passively frame an expression of the soil in a wine. (I am always impressed when I have the chance to taste a wine like this, knowing that I am witness to something special.) What I came to realize during my time at that tasting at Domaine Laroche was that this was what these men were trying to achieve. They were setting the stage for the phantom.

Gregory had told me earlier during a tour of the winery at Laroche, “Everything I do is to protect the expression of terrior.” He spoke of the ecosystem that surrounded the vineyards, of the necessity for organic methods and of allowing a chance for the transmittance of these elements into the wine.  We drove throughout the commune of Chablis, seeing a range of vineyards, each with a unique soil type and exposition. We spoke of trellising methods, of soil porosity, of viticultural hazards and of local traditions. I had even spent an afternoon wandering alone in the Blanchot vineyard doing my best to understand how all these elements came together to define its unique “sense of place.”

I sought to establish as many empirical parallels as I could between what I had experienced in the vineyards with Gregory previously and what I was then tasting.  And, although I felt like I had a much greater understanding of Chablis the region and Chablis the wine, I still didn’t feel like I could put my finger on Chablisenne terroir.  I was missing something very important, I was trying to objectify a process that was based on subjective human interpretation.

 

 

The ‘gout du terroir,’ the minerality we are so infatuated with, is present in the wines we taste.  Regardless of what science is or is not yet able to quantify, the gustatory analysis of millions of wine drinkers across a dozen generations is an empirical enough of a process for me to believe. However, I feel we often fail to realize that the presence of terroir in a wine is dictated more by the process of winemaking than by some natural occurance. 

There is no such thing as non-interventionist winemaking; wine does not occur naturally.  We have removed the grape from its natural habitat, we have promoted genetic variation, we decide when to pick, etc. etc. Granted certain wines are less manipulated than others but laissez-faire winemaking itself will never provide us with the finest expressions of terroir.  Just as a great chef is able to highlight the quality of his ingredients without obscuring them with technique, it takes a truly talented winemaker to recognize and define terrior in a wine.

 Chablis terroir masterclass

Chablis terroir masterclass

Quality is a human invention; it is based on our subjective interpretation of how well a thing represents a theoretical standard of perfection.  Quality in winemaking is achieved when a wine best represents the intention of what the winemaker is wanting to represent.  Is it the best representation of a varietal? Is it the most dynamic and expressive wine ever made? Does it best represent some idea of historical typicity or does it represent the flavors of where it is grown? Each one of these potential ideals can only be realized through the hands and the palate of a talented winemaker.

Terroir therefore is a thing to be crafted, or at least to be captured and framed with the other elements in a wine. The peculiarities of a place may allow a wine to be naturally more expressive, such as leaner fruit expression in the case of Chablis, or intensely focused structure in the case of Priorat, but it takes a talented winemaker to really highlight its essence.

Are these “earthy” wines necessarily better wines? One can only answer in the affirmative if the goal of the winemaker was to demonstrate that particular quality. A wine that accurately demonstrates the traditions of a particular region or the intended consumer-friendly style should be technically rated just as good.

Personally, I find the ability of wine to represent a sense of place in such a specific way as one of its most alluring qualities.  However, I think we as sommeliers are doing ourselves a disservice if we think it’s the only marker of quality.  We need to always remember that what we are tasting is a handmade product, not something just plucked out of nature.  Our definition of quality must always be tied to the subjective process involved in making a truly fine wine.

Champagne - Behind the label

Champagne  – Behind the label

The air feels like a wet blanket and everything is dripping. The walls, the ceiling, the racks of bottles… it’s all covered in this tangled carpet of black mold.

As your eyes adjust to the gloom you start understanding the scale of what you are standing in; you are surrounded by millions of bottles stacked floor to ceiling. Literally MILLONS! Down here in these cold, dank tunnels, that really do go on for miles, it’s hard not to be struck by how truly bizarre this place is.

I have to say that I was honestly struggling a little with the antipodean nature of the whole Champagne process when I was last there. Having just seen the rows of gleaming stainless steel tanks, the immaculately sterilized production rooms, and to then be marched down a staircase of near Dantean proportions into that dark place, rattled my senses. In contrast to the polished air above, down there the air is heavy with age as the walls sweat with the dew of percolating rains, and this strange yellow glow from the sodium lamps casts bizarre, sickly looking shadows that dance across that living shag carpet of  mold. The contrast is so stark that one’s tendency is to want to reject that these two worlds really do exist side-by-side. Beverage factory meets hallways to the underworld…?

It’s an odd drama that is played out every year as the fruits of the summer sun are morphed into a salve for our social cravings, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this strange parallel only defines a portion of what is Champagne. Granted the elements of their physical environment and the tasking process of making sparkling wine do play role in defining the Champenoise character but there’s more.

To understand the Champenoise the first thing you need to grasp is the effect of the requisite timescale.  Nothing happens quickly here, there are no quick returns on investment. You get this sense of constant improvement and of the importance of generational succession.   This is a group of merchant farmers who have ridden the waves of every major financial crisis for the last 200 years.  Come war, boom or bust they know what it takes to survive.

The second point to understand is the importance of reputation and the overshadowing need to maintain image at all costs.  This is the point I would like to focus on because we must understand that the most important thing for the Champenoise is to define and communicate their individual brand image.  Competition is fierce in the wine industry but it’s taken to a different level of intensity in Champagne.  Marketing dogma is ubiquitous and it’s up to us Somms to read through this somewhat darker side of the Champagne industry, to wipe the mold from the bottle if you will, in-order to best communicate these wines to our guests.

I will attempt to objectify the world of Champagne in 4 categories into which we should be able to fit most every Champagne (although not necessarily every producer): Reductive, Oxidative, Populist and Terroir Specific

Caveat lector! This is merely a quick analysis for the purposes of more effective restaurant service. There is truly no way to objectify any endevour where quality is based on subjective human interpretation.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, Populist Champagne.  Please don’t let the title in any way detract from the importance of this category. This is the true work horse of the Champagne industry, these are the recognizable labels (read color in certain cases), the well known names and most of the non-vintage blends. Typically they have a higher dosage*,  tend to be more fruit forward and also tend to be lower on the price scale (note that I didn’t say in-expensive!). We can hope to expect that the individual producer’s style is well represented in every wine they make, but here you can expect a somewhat simpler, more approachable profile. However, it’s not uncommon for producers’ tete de cuvee (best) wine to fall into this category. It's also important to understand that this category is not wholly exclusive unto itself and actual style of these wines may be oxidative or reductive and/or come from single expressions of terroir.

How would you find these wines beyond just looking at price? Look for higher levels of dosage (above 8 grams/liter), the minimum of time required on the lees** and a higher percentages of red grapes in the blend, especially Pinot Meunier.   

Reductive Champagne - Reductive in winemaking terms refers to wine which has had minimal exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process. In some cases this can be a fault and create off-flavors in the wine, but what we are discussing here are wines which have been made in a style that is defined by minimal oxygen exposure.   Winemakers do this by not utilizing any porous materials during elevage***, through rigid use of SO2 and not allowing malolactic fermentation**** to occur.  In Champagne the winemakers also have the choice of which grapes to allow in the blend, and since most grapes are purchased they also have the option of terroir.  Chardonnay, especially Chardonnay from the Cote de Blanc, tends to add a more focused and linear structural profile to the wine vs. the profile of two Pinots.  Wines made in this style typically express a nervous verve of acidity, tart green apple flavors and chalky minerality in their youth. With age they soften to display a range of almost smoky qualities, think peat smoke, espresso roast and roasted almond, and in the best years these flavors can continue to develop for decades. Reductive Champagnes are perhaps the most difficult wines to understand in their youth and they can also be chided as being too dry by less experienced wine drinkers.  These wines require our attention as Sommeliers as much for the accurate translation of their aging subtleties as for their attractive understatedness. Classic examples include:

  • Salon
  • Taittinger
  • Don Ruinart
  • Dom Perignon

Oxidative Champagne – Oxidative is actually the opposite of reductive.  Wine and oxygen have a love hate relationship; the addition of oxygen can create range of new, more complex aromatic chemicals or it can turn a wine into vinegar.  However all aging is essentially oxidation and the art in winemaking is in discovering a balance point of oxygen exposure which best expresses a wines potential.  As one would expect, oxidative Champagnes are exposed to more oxygen than reductive styles during the winemaking process. This typically includes aging in oak, allowing malolactic fermentation to take place and the use of less SO2. Additionally, the use of Pinot grapes is commonly employed for their slightly broader palate and more exotic fruit spectrum.  There exists a huge range of sub-styles within this genre, some wines will only show a hint of that oxidative roundness and others will take on full blown oxidative and aldehydic notes similar to a sherry.  Even though these wines may also be a little tight on release, you won’t find that tart green apple quality here but rather a slightly sweeter yellow apple quality with notes of almond and just a hint of caramelization. With age these wines display a tapestry of dried fruits, dried flowers and exotic spices. Classic examples include:

  • Krug
  • Bollinger
  • Selosse
  • Vilmart

Terroir Specific Champagne – The vast majority of Champagnes are blended products; blends of vineyards and vintages. Therefore, the very thought of a single vineyard wine is quite incongruous in Champagne.  Up until recently this was a very rarified category and there were only a few very expensive wines like Bollinger “Vielles Vignes Francaise” and Krug “Clos du Mesnil” that were examples of single parcels of Champagne terroir. However, with the relatively recent Grower Champagne movement the access to single vineyard/terroir specific selections has become much more democratized.  The idea that a single grower has the capacity to vinify and age enough wine to be economically viable was unheard of until a group of wine critics and wholesalers started marketing the uniqueness factor of these wines.  Now the average consumer can purchase a wine that represents the terroir of a single vineyard/single producer without spending a ridiculous amount of money.  

Caveat Emptor!! Just because a wine is marketed as Grower or Terroir Specific doesn’t mean is a good wine.  In fact, there is a much greater risk in purchasing a wine from smaller “Grower” Champagne houses than one from the established Grand Marque producers.

Although there is always a risk in purchasing anything artisanal vs. a more established product line, in the best cases these wines can rival the depth and complexity of the big boys for much less money. Its important to understand that just like the populist style category this category is not exclusive unto itself. You will find a huge range of styles (reductive/oxidative/populist), blends and even single varietal wines that you might not expect like 100% Pinot Meunier or Pinot Blanc.  Some classic examples include:

  • Pierre Peters “Les Chetillons”
  • Bollinger “Vielles Vignes Francaises”
  • Chartogne-Taillet “Les Barres”
  • Krug “Clos du Mesnil”

The lesson is all of this is to not take any Champagne at face value. It’s our job as sommeliers to translate the subjective value of Champage and all other wines for our guest’s pleasure. With Champagne this can be made even more difficult with all of the inherent marketing but thankfully more often than not the technical information is also out there.  Make sure you populate your program’s wine list with a range of these categories. There is nothing worse than being forced into a vinous profile because a Somm is only buying wine for his/her own palate.

Take the time, do the research, look behind the label and past the sales pitches.  Our job is to communicate objective qualities in a subjective manner and the mark of professionalism that will set you apart is how well you are able to do just that.

Here are the Somm Bytes

  1. Champagne producers are masters of marketing and it’s up to us Somms to look beyond the label.
  2. Most all Champagnes can be divided into 4 categories:
    1. Populist – Fruit driven, higher dosage, more immediately approachable profile
    2. Reductive – No Oak, No Malo, often Chardonnay dominant, need age. Lower Dosage.
    3. Oxidative – Often aged in oak, typically go through malo, often Pinot dominant, very ageable.
    4. Terroir Specific – becoming more common, single vineyard, single producer, range of dosage and may be either reductive or oxidative.
  3. Just because a wine comes from a “Grower” producer and is terroir specific doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good.
  4. Just because a wines comes from a “Large” producer and is a blend of vineyards and years doesn’t mean it’s going to be a mediocre product.
  5. The mark of professional for any good sommelier is how well they are able to translate objective qualities in a subjective manner that their guests can best understand.

*Dosage is essentially the sugar added to the wine after the second fermentation to balance the inherent high acidity.  Sugar also has the ability to “hide a multiple of viticultural and vinicultural sins”

**Minimum lees aging describes the minimum amount of time a wine must spend aging on the dead yeast cells that percolate out of the wine after fermentation. 15 months of Non Vintage / 36 months for vintage is commonly utilized in Champagne.

***Elevage means raising in the sense of rearing a child. It’s a commonly used French term used to describe the process of developing the characteristics of a wine during the winemaking process.

 ****Malolactic fermentation is the process by which bacteria metabolizes the tarter, green apple flavored malic acid into softer, rounder lactic acid. Lactic acid is most commonly found in milk products.

Domaine Chanson - Bastion of history re-invented

Domaine Chanson - Bastion of history re-invented

Talk about contrast and juxtaposition! Chanson is a brand that has been around for nearly 300 years and is even housed in a Louis XIV defensive fortifications in the heart of Beaune but  has just been purchased by a forward thinking Champagne house and has built one of the most modern facilities in Burgundy. Yet they’ve recently made a controversial commitment to vinify all their red wines with stems, a traditional practice that had almost disappeared. 

My question is: what is the heart of Chanson? Do they have an identity which supersedes all of the recent change and investment? Or are we now dealing with a completely different animal compared to the Chanson of 20 years ago?

These questions were what brought me to spend two days with Gilles de Courcel and Jean-Pierre Confuron (managing director and winemaker) in Beaune and the answers to these questions might surprise you as much as it did me.

Originally called Maison de Vins de Bourgogne, Chanson was founded in 1750 by Simon Verry.  In the 19th century this old house now housed in the Bastion de l'Oratoire came under the leadership of Alexis Chanson whose family already owned large tracts of vineyards in and around Beaune.

Although it remained a dominant force in the industry for another 150 years towards the middle of the last century the grand old house was losing steam. The family had lost interest in winemaking, yields went up and quality went down. This was the state that Group Societé Jacques Bollinger, owners of Champane Bollinger, found Chanson in when they were looking to expand into Burgundy. The sale was completed in 1999

The sale to Bollinger may very well be THE seminal moment in the history of Domain Chanson. Not only did Group SBJ  invest heavily into new technology, new facilities and new staff, it’s easy to see that they also infused a completely new raison d’etre into this proud old company.

 The more time I spent in Chanson’s cellars and touring their vineyards to more I realized that to compare the Chanson of 20 years ago with the Chanson of today is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Other than the vineyards sites owned by the company, the use of the brooding Bastion de L’Oratoire and the name (which they almost changed) this is an entirely different company.  A point that was verified by Mons. Courcel at dinner one evening when I asked him if any part of the soul of the “pre Bollinger” Maison Chason remained. He seemed slightly uncomfortable with the question and as if to justify their current position he started to recount all of the changes they had again, then paused, and said.

“We still focus on Beaune. We are specialists here just as they were and we chose to keep the name to honor the treasure of such a rich history. But our philosophy, our vineyard practices and our winemaking practices are so different that very little remains of the old Chanson.”

Interesting as all this is; the re-instilling a new vigor into a iconic Burgundian producer, what I find most intriguing is the position that the New Chanson has taken on winemaking, specifically the use of stems, and how that contrasts with the influence of a leading Champagne producer.

The influence of Bollinger cannot be understated. The new winery they have just completed is likely the most modern and specialized in the Cote d’Or. Rows of gravity-fed 1000L stainless fermenters stacked on top of each other, white wine on the bottom and red on the top, for handling each of their vineyard lots separately. Long slow pressing, long cold soaks, very gentle punchdowns and everything that can possibly done to protect the freshness of the fruit is done. They have even invented a cooling tunnel which all the fruit runs through which rapidly chills the grapes coming off the vineyards. Everything is state of the art and very well thought out.

In contrast the winemaking is done by Jean-Pierre Confuron who is known for his use of stems during the maceration process. This use of stems is a decidedly rustic and some might say archaic approach to making Burgundy and might be seen as a juxtaposition against the polish and freshness they are pursuing in the winery.

 One of the most beautifully situated vineyard in all of Burgundy and the crowning jewel of the Chanson holdings, Beauve Clos des Fèves. Note the fractured limestone rift on the left.

One of the most beautifully situated vineyard in all of Burgundy and the crowning jewel of the Chanson holdings, Beauve Clos des Fèves. Note the fractured limestone rift on the left.

However, in the hands of the Jean-Pierre, just awarded Best Winemaker in France by Le Revue de France, the result is quite fascinating. At least it adds a savory, spicy complexity on the palate and in the best cases it provides a unmatched depth which feels so much more familiar than anything added by oak. The reds are fascinating but I was particularly impressed with the whites. Their stance on minimal oak usage and their fanatical approach to purity of fruit makes their collection of wines a fascinating study for those interested in understanding terroir.  To exemplify this point, I found out that their Chablis was just put in the same category of quality as Dauvissat and Raveneau by Decanter magazine.

Lastly, I think its important to mention that both the General Manager Gilles du Courcel the GM of the winery and winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron both own and operate their own wineries; Domaine Courcel in Pommard and Domine Confuron-Coteditot in Vosne-Romanee.

End of the day, I believe that this is a producer to watch. Just as the mixing of cultures creates an eventual cuisine greater than the parts, my prediction is that the blending of traditional Burgundian elements with modern Champenois knowhow and a list of incredible vineyard sites will all come together to create a beautiful vinous symmetry .

  Here are the Somm Bytes

  1. Founded in 1750 and housed in that big Medieval looking structure with the moat in the middle of Beaune, the Bastion de L’Oratoire.
  2. Chanson owns relatively large percentage of vineyards for a producer of their size, around 20%, especially focused in and around the village of Beaune. They are focused on growing their holdings.
  3. Although they purchase a great deal of the fruit needed and are a negociant in that sense, they purchase very little wine, less than 5%, and most of the vineyard management comes under their control. No machines are used for harvesting.
  4. Known for their Vire-Clesse, Chanson was instrumental in the elevation of these villages to AOC status.
  5. Gilles du Courcel the GM of the winery and winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron both own and operate their own wineries; Domaine Courcel in Pommard and Domine Confuron-Coteditot in Vosne-Romanee, which adds a small producer mentality to this relatively large producer; currently producing about 1 million bottles.
  6. Currently the largest land owner in Pernand-Verglesses
  7. New oak usage averages around 30%, even for their top wines and both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation occur in the same barrels.
  8. Natural yeast are used and they neither fine or filter their wines.
  9. For each wine they only do one bottling in order to insure that qualities are the same from one bottle to the other.
  10. The use of stems is standard for red wines along with long, whole-berry cold soaks are used to capture as much primary fruit as possible. In order to limit the amount of SO2 used Chanson has developed a chilling tunnel which is attached to their sorting table so that all fruit stays cool as it enters it cold soak.

Guigal 2015 “Shaped by Terroir and Circumstance”

The whole thing could be misconstrued as being a bit ostentatious.

The big names on the hillsides, the recently restored castle and the new flashy warehouse on the main street with its lacquered gold exterior….  Don’t forget the modernity of their wines punctuated by sweet new oak; at the very least one can say that this producer isn’t shy.

As is so often the case though, further investigation caused me to realize that to define a seminal producer like Guigal with such a cursory glance is a mistake. So, here is a little more context I gleaned from a recent trip to Cote Rotie that significantly changed my perspective of E. Guigal and their wines.

Let’s start with a little bit of history because to understand Guigal and their wines you need to know who Etienne Guigal was; the E of E. Guigal. 

Etienne’s story is one that reads like a list of unfortunate circumstance and perseverance from the very start. His father died when he was 2 weeks old and when he was only 7 years of age his mother sent him off to work in the apricot orchards since she could no longer afford to care for him. When he had spent more than half of his life toiling amongst the fruit trees he decided it was time for a change of careers at age 14. It all started with a visit to his brother in Cote Rotie who was tending vines for Vidal-Fleury in 1924.

 How amazing is it that this 14 year old young man had enough foresight to see that his future would be tied to those steep cliffs. What other 14yr olds do you know who would choose the more difficult and less popular of two paths? (wine grapes were a significantly less important crop compared than apricots at that time)

Through sheer force of will and the mettle forged within him by circumstance Etienne started to elevate his station in life by saving what little money he made to purchase vineyard land. In time he would go on to own the company he started with, Vidal-Fleury, and become the largest land holder in Cote Rotie by a considerable margin. Yet life wasn’t through challenging Etienne.  He had to fight his entire village when the local mayor decided that the hills of Cote Rotie would be much better for the elevage of second homes for rich Parisians. A law was passed that requiring the vines to be Cote Rotie uprooted which Etienne successfully overturned. Yet, it’s likely that the greatest challenge of all for Etienne was learning how to transmit all of his drive and fortitude through the hands of his 18 year old son Marcel when he suddenly went blind.  He never gave up, and this headstrong young man ended up vinifing 67 harvests at the base of his beloved cliffs.

Why is all this important? Taste Cote Rotie ‘La Turque’ and tell me you don’t sense the spirit of the entrepreneur within it.  It’s larger than life, aggressively forward thinking and polished with all the trappings of luxury.

 Look at an image of the cliffs of Cote Rotie you can understand how the dreams of a lonely young man toiling on them under the summer sun might fixate on one day raising a family in that Chateau below. Its lovely shaded gardens next to the cool waters of the sparkling Rhone must have seemed like a vision of heaven.

 Take into consideration all of the perseverance it took for this same young man to triumph over life’s adversities and to prosper from such a harsh terroir and you might be able to forgive the audacity of emblazoning one’s name on a hillside. 

The spirit of the entrepreneur, the determination of a young man set on changing his stars and the dream of a better life, this is what defines Guigal. These are the traits required within men who desire to overcome the intensity of this region so defined by the indefatigable Rhone and its cliffs so rudely sculpted by weather and 2000 years of men’s toil. 

I think now I understand Guigal just a little bit better and I challenge you to consider some of these points the next time you serve/taste their wines.

 

Somm Bytes – E. Guigal

  1. Based in Cote Rotie, where they are the largest landowner, Guigal produces wine from across the Northern Rhone and some regions in the Southern Rhone.
  2. Guigal owns 35ha of the 230ha total ha in Cote Rotie. The remaining hectares are divided among 130 +/- other growers.
  3. Works organically in the vineyards whenever possible.
  4. Guigal has its own team of 7 fulltime stonemason’s whose job it is to repair the miles of stone retaining walls in their vineyards.
  5. Many of the walls still exist from Roman times, 2000 years ago. “Those walls don’t need fixing” says Phillip Guigal.
  6. Stylistically they have a relatively modern and fruit forward style with significant use of new French oak. They own their own cooperage and source oak from only one forest, Jupilles, within the larger region of Troncais
  7. Guigal owns other producers, Vidal-Fleury and Bonserine both which have their own production team and Domaine Jean-Louis Grippat and Domaine Vallouit which have been incorporated into the Estate.
  8. Currently managed by Phillipe Guigal son of Marcel Guigal whose father Etienne started the company.
  9. Investing heavily in the historical landmarks of the Northern Rhone. Guigal made a deal with the French government to purchase Chateau d’Ampuis. They also offered the services of their stonemason team for 1 year free of charge to repair the terraces of L’Hospice du St. Joseph.
  10. Guigal produces more than 3 million bottles of Cotes du Rhone of an exceptionally high quality. Phillipe and Marcel routinely taste 100 wines a day from 800+ producers in the Southern Rhone in order to determine what will make it into the blend. “this is our business card” explained Phillipe, “it represents the rest of our company so it has to be a exceptional everytime you open a bottle."

The La La wines

The La La wines are the crown jewels of the Guigal regime. Sourced from their best parcels on the cliffs of Cote Rotie; La Mouline, La Turque and La Landone? Are some of the most sought after wines in the world. Although made in the same manner, (fermented in stainless with continous pumpovers for 4 weeks and 42 months in 100% new oak), each has its own style and flavor:

La Mouline is the most feminine in style, beautifully aromatic and silky with 11% Viognier in the blend. The vineyard is shaped like an amphitheatre which concentrates the ripe fruit intensity balanced by depth of minerality from very old vines.

La Turque comes from a vineyard with a higher percentage of iron is the soil which although balanced by limestone gives this wine a darker fruit core and more structure than La Mouline. Contains around 7% Viognier in the blend.

La Landonne really captures the essence of Cote Rotie. Coming from clay rich limestone soil with a high degree it is the most intense, most structured of the three wines with exceptional potential to age.

Paso gets established with 11 new sub AVA’s

Skip to the SommBytes                                                                                                                                                  

Let’s face it the last thing we need is more geography to cram into our dehydrated brains. Hell, I still haven’t recovered from the DOCG hemorrhage from back in 2011. So, when I heard that Paso was shooting for 11 sub-AVA’s I was less than thrilled

To be fair, having had to try and navigate my way through those hills I know this region is a long way from being homogeneous, and its huge, but seriously? 11 sub-regions? I mean, sure I get it, delineation of sub-regions by micro-climate and soil is the progenitor of terroir conceptualization but at first glance I gotta say I’am skeptical. Especially when I see a producer name in an appellation.  Vino de Pago ‘alla Americana’ anyone

After a little digging I stared to change my tune a little. I hadn’t realized that Paso isn’t just large, it’s the largest “non-regional AVA in California at 609,564 acres. To put it in perspective all of Napa is only 1/5 that size and they already have 16 sub-AVA’s. There is a considerable change in altitude across the region but what is most significant is the temperature differential from the area around the Tempelton Gap and the regions on the eastern border of the appellations along the Tremblor range.

My curiosity was aroused and I knew that I had to do a little more research in order to distill all this information into more manageable bits that might have some relevance table-side. After a lot of digging I have gone ahead and detailed each region below.  However, since I know most of you have the attention span of a squirrel mainlining 4Loko you can scroll to the bottom get the Somm Bytes which I feel like are the most relevant snippets of information we might be asked tableside or during an exam.

The information is still kind of sketchy for some regions so if you see some inconsistencies, don’t hold it against me. What is written here is what I have discovered after digging through legal petitions which were submitted to the TTB (about 500 pages of them), by each of the proposed regions.

Regions are also labeled with a Maritime influence quotient #. (1 most influence, 8 least influence)

Adelaida District  – Maritime influence quotient 6

  1. Approx. 53,100 acres located on the far Western edge of the appellation
  2. Approx. 1300 acres of vineyards with 19 bonded wineries
  3. Cooler region II – III, transitional mountain climate, averaging 3030 degree days
  4. Averaging 25 inches of precipitation a year
  5. Days above 100F: 7
  6. Most vineyards found between 1100 – 1800 feet about sea level
  7. Notable wineries in the area: Justin, DAOU, Lone Madrone, Halter Ranch, Adelaida

Creston District – Maritime influence quotient 4

  1. Approx. 47,000 acres found in the Southern, central portion of the appellation.
  2.  Approx. 1400 acres of vineyards and at least 8 bonded wineries
  3. Lower elevation, moderate region II-III climate, approx. 3100 degree days per year Average 11.57 inches of precipitation per year.
  4.  Most vineyards planted between 1030 - 1300
  5.  Moderate amount of Maritime influence
  6. Days above 100F: 20
  7. Notable wineries in the area: Camatta Hills Vineyard, Calf Canyon, B&E, GreMark, Stanger

El Pomar District – Maritime influence quotient 3

  1. Approx. 21,300 acres in total, inland of Templeton Gap, approx. 2000 acres of vines and at least 4 bonded wineries.
  2. Most vineyards are found between 840 to 960 feet above sea level
  3. Moderate region II climate, approx. 2952 degree days
  4. Average 15 inches of precipitation per year.
  5. Notable wineries in the area: Hansen, Stillwater, McClean Vineyards

Paso Robles Estrella District – Maritime influence quotient 5

  1.  Approx. 66,800 acres in total, approx. 8500 acres of vines and at least 14 bonded wineries
  2.   Most vineyards are planted between 750 – 1000 feet above sea level
  3. Moderate-Low region II-III, approx 3270 degree days, effected by cooler maritime breezes via the Salinas River Valley during the warmest days of summer and fall.
  4. Days over 100F: 18
  5. Average about 14 inches of precipitation per year
  6.  Largely valley floor topography of the Estrella River floodplain.
  7.  Largest sub-AVA in Paso Robles.
  8.  Notable wineries in the area: Tackitt Family, Bon Niche, Rachita Canyon, Silver Horse, Graveyard

Paso Robles Geneseo District – Maritime influence quotient 7

  1.  Approx. 17,300 acres located at the heart of the PR AVA just west of the city.
  2. Approx. 3000 acres of vineyards and at least 16 bonded wineries
  3. Higher degree days than El Pomar, PR Estrella or Creston District (3500 – 3600 Degree days) making it one of the warmest sub regions. Region III – IV transitional climate
  4.  Large range of soil types (clay loams, sandy soils, alluvial deposits) with a large range of ph (5.6 – 8.4). Mostly leftover alluvium from the Estrella River and Huerhuero Creek
  5. Average of 14 inches of precipitation
  6.  Elevation ranges from 860 – 1050 ft.
  7. Wineries located in the region: Eberle, Rasmussen, Rio Seco, Pear Valley, Bianchi, Barr

Paso Robles Highlands District – Maritime influence quotient 8

  1. Approx. 60,300 acres in total, approx. 2000 acres of vineyards and no bonded wineries.
  2.  Most continental climate along with San Juan Creek.
  3. Warm Region III-IV which is tempered by pronounced cold air drainage in the evenings. Approx. 3678 degree days
  4.  Semi-Arid climate due to rainshadow influence with the largest diurnal shift/temperature range of all regions.
  5. Approx. 12 inches of precipitation per year

Paso Robles Willow Creek District – Maritime influence quotient 1

  1. Approx. 21,300 acres in total with approx. 1400 acres of vineyards and over 20 bonded wineries.
  2.  Shares its western border with the York Mountain AVA
  3. Coolest region in the larger Paso Robles AVA. Cool Region II with approx.. 2900 degree days (cool air from the ocean enters this area first before any other region in Paso Robles)
  4. Mountainous area, most vineyards are found at 1000-1300 feet above sea level and most vineyards are on south-to-southeast facing slopes. Harvest is typically 2 weeks later here than in the rest of the Paso Robles AVA.
  5.  Distinguished from the Templeton Gap sub-AVA by being higher in elevation and more mountainous.
  6.  More precipitation than lowland areas, 26-34 inches per year. Vineyards may be dryfarmed
  7. Days above 100F: 13
  8. Notable wineries in the area: Turley, L’Aventure, Saxum, Jack Creek, Denner Vineyards and many more.

San Juan Creek – Maritime influence quotient 8

  1. Approx. 26,600 acres in total, located on the western border of the San Andreas Fault. Approx. 3000 acres of vineyards and at least 2 bonded wineries.
  2. Site of the first large scale commercial vineyard in Paso Robles; Rancho Dos Amigos. Several other large scale vineyards are now found in the region including: San Juan Vineyards, Filipponi, Thompson Vineyards and a significant portion of the Central Coast Farming Vineyard.
  3.  First grapes were crushed in the region in 2000
  4. Semi-Arid climate due to rain shadow influence, warmest region in Paso Robles in reference to daytime highs, evapotranspiration and water stress. Average precipitation is 10.42 inches a year. Warm region III (low region IV in some areas) with an average of approx. 3400 degree days.
  5.  Days above 100F: 20
  6.  Notable wineries in the area: Row Eleven, SVP Winery

San Miguel District – Maritime influence quotient 7

  1. Approx. 30,800 acres located at the center-northwest part of the PR AVA surrounding the city of San Miguel. Approx. 1500 acres of vineyards and at least 10 bonded wineries.
  2. Site of the first plantings in the Paso Robles (Mission San Miguel Arcangel)
  3. Warmer Region III-IV climate in the rain shadow of the Santa Lucia Range
  4. Very little maritime influence accept when effected by cooler maritime breezes via the Salinas River Valley during the warmest days of summer and fall. Second lowest average precipitation (11.4 inches per year) and one of the earliest ripening areas in Paso Robles.
  5. Alluvial floodplain soils
  6.  Notable wineries in the region: Caparone Winery, Rabbit Ridge, Pretty-Smith Vineyards and Winery, Domine Degher, Vista del Rey

Santa Margarita Ranch – Maritime influence quotient 2

  1. Approx. 18,300 acres in total. 800 acres of vineyards and no bonded wineries.
  2. Robert Mondavi Winery leased over 1000 acres in the region in the early 2000’s and developed a large vineyard which makes up the entirety of the planted area in the region.
  3. Cool region II climate with approx. 2900 degree days.
  4. Area of pooling for cool maritime air and higher precipitation than other areas 29 inches per year on average.
  5. Early frost is a particular hazard.

Templeton Gap District – Maritime influence quotient 1

  1. Approx. 35,600 acres in total of which approx. 2300 acres are vineyards. Currently at least 35 bonded wineries are found in the region.
  2.  Cool region II climate with approx. 2900 degree days. Coolest area of the larger Paso Robles AVA.
  3. Most vineyards are found between 900-1300 feet above sea level
  4.  Most maritime influence along with Paso Robles Willow Creek District
  5. Mixture of alluvial soils and bedrock.
  6. Average of 20 inches of precipitation per year.
  7. Days above 100F: 12
  8. Notable wineries in the region: Kenneth Volk, Wild Horse Winery, J Dusi, Clos la Chance, Zenaida Cellars, Orchard Hill Vineyard, Victor Hugo 

Here are the Somm Bytes

  1. The sub-AVAs in Paso are loosely related to climatic differences and geographic features.
  2. The coolest (in terms of temperature but with some relation to the adjective..) regions are those closest to the Templeton Gap: Willow Creek and Templeton Gap. They are also the regions with some of the highest rainfall.
  3.  The warmest and driest regions are those found the farthest east: Highlands and San Juan Creek.
  4. All regions share at least one border except Santa Margarita Ranch, which is the farthest south and has a unique microclimate with relatively high precipitation and cooler temperatures. The region is a trap for the cool air from the ocean and surrounding hills and has one of the most significant diurnal shifts.
  5. The most populous region in terms of resident wineries is the Templeton Gap District and the least populous is Santa Margarita Ranch.
  6. The site of the oldest plantings in Paso is found within the San Miguel District (home of the Mission San Miguel Arcangel
  7.  Area with highest elevation vineyards on average is Adelaida District.
  8.  An area to watch for further growth (in the humble opinion of yours truly) is the Adelaida District. Its high elevation, mountainous, has enough precipitation to allow dry farming, relatively cool with significant diurnal shift and much of the area is not yet developed.
  9. The soil types are numerous but are mostly a mixture of decayed bedrock/shale and alluvial deposits. Topsoil and organic matter are more prevalent in areas with higher precipitation (western border)
  10. Yes, this is something we should know… The climatic and geographical features of these sub-regions are distinct enough (more so than you might find along the Napa Valley for the most part) that it will have a marked influence on the style of wine. 

It’s a constant frustration, and stimulation, for us Somms when we discover there is something else out there to learn. That’s normal for any profession I suppose.

However, in my humble opinion, what defines our skill as a sommelier is the degree to which we care enough to be the resource our guests expect. Consider yourself the "wine Google alla minute." 

That being said, its important that we don't come off  as a dictatorial, robotic type resource but more as a gregarious librarian of sorts with the ability to translate our knowledge to anyone's level of understanding.

Its so important that we always seek better translate all the facts we commit to memory into “table-side” relevancy and into a vernacular defined by our guests understanding. This is why I believe its important to  have these quick tidbits of info (SommBytes) memorized so we can quickly translate all this data for our guests.

“The best sommelier is not the one with the most knowledge but the one who can best communicate that knowledge.” BR

Go forth, drink well and happy studying!

Benjamin Roberts