In Praise of: St Emilion

I had the opportunity to go with June to a tasting of 35 chateaux located in St. Emilion on the Right Bank yesterday. Put on by Balzac Communication, our marketing company and the representative of this group of wineries, the tasting was held in San Francisco and featured the 2009 and 2010 vintages, nearly 70 wines total.stemilionmap

St. Emilion grows the classic Bordeaux varieties, Merlot making up the bulk of each wine, followed by Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the wines we tasted yesterday had at least 65% Merlot while many contained no Cabernet Sauvignon at all.

Coming from the perspective of a California winemaker this tasting was amazing for its ability to show how different familiar grapes can be when grown and vinified in different climates. It took a while to noodle through the intricacies of flavor and structure that belong to St. Emilion, and with just a fledgling understanding still of the region, there were a number of observations I’m comfortable making:

  • The 2009 vintage was uniformly darker in its fruit presentation (think dark to black berry flavors) and seemed to be richer through the mid-palate in terms of viscosity and tannin
  • 2010, while showing redder fruit than 2009, had extraordinarily focused tannin and acidity, and a length that far-outstripped 2009.
  • Many of the 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc blends, especially in 2010, showed significant red fruit and acidiity. The addition of Cabernet Sauvignon markedly changed the structure of the wine, addiing midpalate richness and a change in the “color” of the fruit.
  • Compared to California, these wines appeal most to those who prize structure over fruit, who want a wine that is leaner and harder through the mouth and that may show its best with significant age.
  • There is very little difference between alcohol levels in this part of Bordeaux compared to California. In fact, many of the wines crept into the high 14% and low 15% range. This was one of the most surprising personal discoveries. I think the California wines show less alcohol than the St. Emillion wines because of a sense of more fruit-forward, fleshier structure.

If one is attempting to make blends from traditional Bordeaux varieties like I am with LINEAGE | Livermore Valley that can compete against the world’s best, it is absolutely essential to have at least a passing familiarity with how those grapes are being handled in other parts of the world. This tasting was a great opportunity to accomplish that.

Speaking the Same Language

Working in the cellars all day for weeks at a time, you tend to lose track of what’s going on around you. In at 5am out at 7pm…kiss the wife, have a drink, go to bed. Not the most balanced life, but it is short and it leads to its own kind of magic.

The carved-out hours here and there I can spend with June are the best. Getting to spend a minute or two in passing with a fellow true-believer is good too.

I ran into Collin Cranor, a friend, and the winemaker at Nottingham Cellars, the other day and we tasted boxesb&wout of a fermentor together and shot the shit for a few minutes. We are living the same kind of life, dealing with the same pressures, the same hopes…the same fears, and it’s comforting to know that you are not alone.

Talk always comes back around to the current vintage, about the prospects for greatness, about folks who are doing a good job and folks who aren’t; sins of commission and ommission. Our watercooler holds 265 gallons of Cabernet.

Some people in our business like to think they can control all inputs, that the finished product is only the formulaic addition of certain ingredients at certain times. Nature is an irritant only, something to be overcome, they believe. With all these great tools, Nature can seem inconsequential as the wines are pretzeled into something that bears no real resemblance to what the season chose to give but is a close-enough approximation to what they thought they wanted to achieve.

They miss the point, of course. Once the vision is created, you spend the rest of your life trying to divine one more small piece of the Mysteries each year so that, at some point, they travel down the same lit path – Nature, the grapes, the winemaker – figuratively hand-in-hand in the words of James Dickey “in full knowledge/Of what is in glory above them….”

Trying to coax some bit of self-awareness and truth out of the thing I love to do is as religious as I care to get. But for those who’ve read in these pages before will know, I acknowledge that the bottomless nature of wine, those unplumbable depths, guarantees a lifetime of kneeling at her altar.

Back to the Future

I had a wonderful experience last night guest lecturing for John Kinney’s Enology class at Las Positas JC in Livermore. John is an incredibly bright guy and the owner/winemaker of Occasio Winery here in the Valley. He wanted me to talk about my philosophy on barrel use and what part they play in the scope of winemaking.

So I brought some samples of a few wines to share with the class; wines that I thought showed the evolution of aroma and mouthfeel and alive-ness over the period of a couple of years in wood.  The wines were well received, and I thought the point was made.

What made the night so wonderful, though, was the interaction between passionate people. Most of the people in the class won’t have jobs in the industry, but wine – in its bottomlessness – has ahold of them, nonetheless.  The eagerness with which they asked questions, and the breadth of subject matter of those questions was a total blast to confront.

I went to graduate school to teach college literature and to write the next great novel. I went only part way but have come to find that passion and creativity can be expressed in the language of anthocyanins as well as it can in iambic pentameter.

Last night was a lovely way to see the past and present converge in the future.