Month: April 2014

The Many Moods of Chenin Blanc

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It makes no sense that Chenin Blanc, a temperamental, difficult-to-ripen grape, should thrive in the cool, northern folds of France’s Loire River Valley, a region meteorologically challenged for growing any type of vines. Chenin likes to flower early in the spring, exposing its tender buds to not-uncommon frosts, and takes its own sweet time ripening in the fall, complicating harvests by not doing so at the same time. But thrive here it does, and it has for centuries, according to ampelographers who can trace its origins to the 9th century.

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Chenin owes its livelihood to a tongue-tingling level of acidity, which in turn gives the grape a surprising amount of versatility, not unlike Riesling. Depending on where it’s grown (both climate and soil are factors) and the weather conditions at harvest, winemakers can make any style of wine they deem best, from bone dry to luscious dessert wines and everything in between. In Savennières (part of Anjou) the style is dry with waxy, floral notes, but just across the river the specialty is botrytized dessert wines from Coteaux du Layon, Quarts du Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Upstream in the region of Vouvray the predominant style is demi-sec, although dry and dessert wines are made as well.

One producer who does it all is Domaine Huet, the preeminent star of the Loire, whose wine has become the standard bearer for Chenin-based wines. In 1928, when Victor Huet bought his home and attached vineyard Le Haut Lieu just outside of the town of Vouvray, he did so with the hope that a quiet life in the country would ease the debilitating effects of the mustard gas poisoning he’d suffered in WWI. His son Gaston Huet, however, himself a WWII hero, put his heart and soul into the winery and set the bar for producing exceptional wines. He eventually bought two more vineyards (Le Mont and Clos de Bourg) and in the late 80s began farming biodynamically. Gaston and his wife had three children, but the only one to show any interest in the winery was his son-in-law Noël Pinguet, who took the helm in 1976. By then Gaston’s duties as mayor of Vouvray, which he’d been since 1947, were demanding more of his attention.

During the subsequent decades, Pinguet and Huet’s wines became the benchmark for the Loire, topping out best-of lists year after year. Then, in 2002 Gaston Huet died, and the winery was sold to Anthony Hwang, a Filipino-American businessman who also owns the Tokaji estate Királyudva in Hungary. Pinguet was supposed to stay on to make the wine until 2015 but, as with so many other buyouts where the winemaker remains, there was a falling out. Hwang had recently put his daughter, Sarah, in charge and press reports indicate that she (and presumably with her father’s blessing) wanted to focus more on the dry styles. Producing the sweeter styles of wine is a far more hazardous endeavor since the grapes need to stay on the vine longer, ideally until they’ve shriveled to raisins or succumbed to botrytis, in the case of the moelleux. But these were the wines that made Huet famous, and in October of 2011 Pinguet abruptly resigned.

It’s too soon to tell the exact impact Pinquet’s absence will have on wine quality or the styles produces. Huet did make demi-secs in 2012 and 2013, but no moelleux. Hail damaged a good portion of the crop in both years so that might be all the explanation there is. Even Pinguet only made moelleux in years when the conditions were right. Remaining at the winery are Benjamin Joliveau, who had been under Pinguet’s tutelage before he left, and Jean-Bernard Berthomé, the chef de cave, who will be in charge of both the winemaking and the vineyards. Berthomé has been at Huet for 35 years, and one would expect that some of Pinguet’s and the late Gaston Huet’s methods and philosophy were deeply instilled in him. For now there’s no reason to suspect that they won’t continue the high standards that earned Domaine Huet its esteemed reputation in the first place. But let’s hope that they and the Hwangs have the fortitude to continue making the demi-sec and moelleux wines and let Chenin Blanc show its full range of magic.

Although some producers in the Loire have experimented with new oak, traditionally wines from Chenin Blanc are fermented in neutral vessels and aged in bottle. Huet’s wines never spend time in new oak nor do they go through malolactic fermentation. Chenin’s high acidity requires the softening touch sugar even for the dry wines. Huet secs have sugar levels of 6-7 g/l, compared to 2 g/l for most dry wines, while demi-sec typically has 20-25 g/l. The high acidity, however, makes these wines taste merely off-dry. The sweetest style is moelleux (meaning “marrow” for the unctuous texture), which has 40 to 60 g/l of sugar. Moelleux wines labeled Premiére Trie, such as this one from 2005, are wines comprised of grapes picked from an individual pass through the vineyard at harvest. What they all have in common is a bracingly high level of acidity, which enables them to improve in the bottle for decades.

Turning Grapes into Gold: A Strange Alchemy in Bordeaux

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Early April is the start of en primeur in Bordeaux, when many of the region’s producers open up their cellars to the world’s wine buyers and critics for an official first taste of barrel samples from the previous fall harvest. By all accounts 2013 was a difficult year for the dry reds, with none of the famed estates of St.-Émilion, Pomerol or the Médoc being spared. For whites, however, and in particular the famous botrytized dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac, it was a stellar vintage. So, what exactly happened that made it such a great year for sweet whites? What does it take to turn out superb Sauternes and Barsac?

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Whether white or red, good wine starts with healthy grapes. In Bordeaux, situated as it is along the temperamental Atlantic coast, so much of keeping grapes healthy depends on that most banal of all conversation topics: the weather. It is no small matter here though, where fortunes can change with the crack with a lightning bolt. And last year Mother Nature threw everything she had at the vines. A cold, wet spring delayed flowering until mid-June. As a result, pollination was spotty, with a lot of failed fertilization (coulure) and uneven fruit set (millerandage). Right out of the gate there was going to be reduced crop for everyone. For producers of sweet whites this was manageable since yields need to be low anyway (a maximum of 25 hl/ha vs 40 hl/ha for classed-growth reds). Reds too could have recovered from this, but storms and hail in late July/early August destroyed a good portion of the crop, while miraculously bypassing Sauternes and Barsac. What little was left of the red grapes was then beset by humid conditions that fostered the growth of mold and mildew. Of course, this was just what the white grapes for sweet wines needed.

Fickle Fungus

The key ingredient, and what distinguishes the dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac from those made from late-harvest or dried grapes, is the unsightly, ash-like mold Botrytis cinerea (noble rot). As the fungus spreads over the grapes its filaments pierce the skin, causing the water to evaporate, which in turn concentrates the sugars. As it works its way inside, it interacts with the grape’s contents, consuming acids, extracting tannins from the skin, and producing glycerol, which plumps up the viscosity. The wines are rich and unctuous with layer upon layer of complexity. Semillon is the principal grape used (80%) since its thin skins make it particularly susceptible to botrytis infection, and it gives the wine a rounder, fuller body and lanolin/honey-like notes. Sauvignon Blanc is used in lesser amounts (20%), mostly for its acidity, but it too will succumb to noble rot even though its skins are thicker. Muscadelle appears in minute amounts, but growers find that its grapey aromas, nice though they are, aren’t worth the trouble.

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Getting botrytis to grow, however, is never a sure bet. Although its spores are present during the flowering stage, it’s not until early fall when the grapes have ripened that the fungus springs to life. But only under the right conditions: namely, misty autumn mornings followed by warm, sunny afternoons. Where these conditions happen most frequently is about 25 miles southeast of the city of Bordeaux, where the warm waters of the tidal Garonne River meet the cool, spring-fed Ciron. The difference in water temperatures creates nighttime mists that fill the surrounding hills of Sauternes and Barsac. With luck they’ll be burned off by the afternoon sun, further desiccating the grapes and keeping at bay the less-beneficent gray rot and other molds. This is precisely what happened last fall, except that humid conditions blanketed the entire region, infecting the red grapes with grey rot.

Of course, even when botrytis does take hold it doesn’t necessarily do so evenly. Since only fully affected grapes can be picked, harvesting must be done hand, usually with successive passes (tries) through the vineyard over the course of a few weeks. The area’s most prestigious producer, Chateau d’Yquem, has been known to make as many as 13 passes, which goes some way in accounting for the three-figure price tag for half-bottles of an off year. Here again the weather can wreak havoc while waiting for botrytis to develop. Rain at this time is particularly dangerous as it invites the growth of malicious gray rot and other molds, which would destroy the grapes entirely. Growers must constantly keep their eye on the forecast with their fingers crossed while they wait for this finicky fungus to do its magic.

It’s a risky, nerve-wracking business, and on average the winemakers of Sauternes and Barsac can expect only a few good vintages per decade. Just the year before, in 2012, conditions were so unfavorable to the development of botrytis (two months of drought followed by a downpour) that Yquem declared it would not be making its grand vin at all. Rather than risk its reputation, Yquem decided to take a $33 million hit. Millions of dollars lost to the vagaries of the weather.

Outstanding Sauternes/Barsac Vintages: 2011, 2009, 2005, 2001, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1986, 1983, 1967, 1962, 1959