Friday, 22 November 2013

Everything you think you know about wine is wrong

Back in the mists of time, I remember being taught that all wine-producing grapevines (Vitis vinifera) are grafted onto American rootstocks, to protect them against the splendidly named Phylloxera vastatrix.  Phylloxera is a louse with a complex life-cycle which includes feeding off the roots of vines.  The damaged roots allow in other diseases which can lead to the death of the plant.

Phylloxera is native to North America and arrived in Europe in the second half of the 19th century.  Over the following decades vine disease and death became endemic across Europe’s vineyards, causing concern, bordering on panic, that winemaking could be wiped out by an unknown enemy.  Once the culprit had been identified the search for a solution began.

The answer lay back in North America, where native vines such as Vitis rupestris had evolved in the presence of Phylloxera and had developed a thick enough “skin” on their roots to resist the attentions of the pest.  All was not plain sailing, though, as these native American vines differed from European varieties, producing wines with what we politely call “foxy” flavours.

The eventual solution was to develop hybrids of these natives and to use only their rootstocks, allowing growers to graft their familiar Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay and indeed any Vitis Vinifera variety onto them.

Without the sturdier, hybrid rootstocks based on the native American vines, I gathered, not a single vine of the European Vitis vinifera would be left standing.

Grand tastings of ancient and rare wines sometimes trumpet “pre-phylloxera” vintages of claret, Port or Madeira – providing a fleeting glimpse of wine as it used to taste before the technique of grafting changed it forever.  For most of us, it’s a taste we can experience only vicariously by reading tasting notes of the lucky few who have tried them.

But then I began to come across to exceptions to the American rootstocks model, such as the ungrafted vines found in Colares, Portugal.  There, the incredibly sandy soil is a barrier that the Phylloxera louse has never been able to cross, avoiding the need to graft the vines onto protective rootstocks.  Bollinger Champagne also famously has its tiny walled vineyards of ungrafted vines in Äy, producing its “Vieilles Vignes Françaises” cuvée.  There are also vineyards in Chile where ungrafted vines flourish, because natural barriers (the Pacific Ocean, the Andes, snow and ice to the south and arid desert to the north) as well as strict quarantine on imported vine stocks have kept the country Phylloxera-free.

Once you start looking, it seems, there are ungrafted Vitis vinifera vines almost everywhere, from Australia and Argentina to China and Crete.
Henry Marionnet's Touraine winery
Recently in Touraine in the Loire Valley, I was intrigued to discover a producer, Henry Marionnet, who has 6 hectares of ungrafted vines, including Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay, as part of his 62 hectare Domaine de la Charmoise estate.  M Marionnet is not blind to the risks he is taking and is fully aware that Phylloxera is as prevalent in his vineyard as it is anywhere else.  Currently, however, the fungal-based diseases eutypa and esca are more pressing concerns for winemakers in the Loire, where they are currently responsible for vine dieback and death on a worrying scale.  While Henry Marionnet has no plans to increase the proportion of ungrafted vines on his estate, thus far disaster has not struck and he has succeeded in making delicious wines from his ungrafted vines, sold under the label Viniféra.
Henry Marionnet
While I have grown used to stumbling across ungrafted vines at almost every turn nowadays, it is unusual for a winemaker to make a wine purely from such vines. My inner wine geek rejoiced as I was treated to a tasting of two wines – made from the same variety and from the same vineyard and vinified in exactly the same way, but one from ungrafted Sauvignon Blanc and  the other grafted onto a rootstock in the usual way.  While the grafted wine made perfectly textbook Touraine Sauvignon, with plenty of herbal, blackcurrant leaf flavours, the ungrafted wine was a revelation.  It had greater intensity, more pronounced fruit and with a broader range of flavours – a more substantial wine in every way.
Marionnet Sauvignon Blanc Viniféra
The same experiment with M Marrionet’s Touraine Gamay provided a different illustration of the role of rootstocks.  The ungrafted wine had more structure, but also more elegance and delicacy than the grafted one.
Marionnet's Cot from ungrafted vines
Henry Marionnet’s Viniféra wines are not widely available in the UK, but you can find his Gamay Viniféra at Caves de Pyrène of Guildford for £15.97 a bottle or at Exel Wines for £90.09 for six bottles.  His Provignage, made from ungrafted vines of the very rare Romorantin grape is available through The Wine Society for £42 a bottle.
Provignage, made from Romorantin grapes
Heny Marionnet’s wines were a fine illustration that the world of wine is not static and will always contain more complexity and contradictions that you will ever find in a text book.  The wine world, as with real life as a whole, is often messier and more interesting than the theory.  Those working at the margins are often the people who propel the world of wine forward into other, more interesting places, enriching it for us all.  Even if sometimes they make us despair of ever being certain of anything ever again.

Maybe not everything you think you know about wine is wrong – but it seems there is always something new to learn.  Sadly, I hear we are now supposed to refer to Dactulosphaira vitifoliae instead of good old Phylloxera vastatrix.  Is nothing sacred?

Monday, 11 November 2013

How do you hedge that?

No, I have not taken up answering horticultural queries.  This was a question posed by a merchant banker recently when I explained the risks involved in making great dessert wines such as Sauternes.

Wine growers in Sauternes, Tokaji in Hungary, Bonnezeaux and Vouvray in the Loire Valley, or indeed anywhere where the sweet wines depend on the development of botrytis cinerea (or noble rot) in order to attain their signature intensity and complexity, have an anxious time of it each harvest time.  Ideal conditions for noble rot combine morning mist with warm, sunny afternoons in the weeks leading up to harvest.

Filaments of botrytis cinerea fungus pierce thin-skinned grapes, such as Semillon and Chenin Blanc, resulting in loss of moisture from inside the grape, thereby increasing the concentration of sugar and acids, relative to the water content – but the same is true for grapes left to shrivel on the vine.  What makes noble rot so special is that it also leads to chemical changes within the grape which, rather than spoiling the flavour and making it taste mouldy, lead to the development of an array of additional flavours ranging from barley sugar to marmalade.     

In order for the beneficial effects to happen, botrytis cinerea  needs to affect ripe, healthy grapes.  Unripe or damaged grapes will go on instead to develop regular bunch rot, which will only spoil, rather than enhance flavours.  And healthy grapes can also be affected by bunch rot, rather than the noble kind.  While a small percentage of rotten berries in white wine will not affect the flavour (as I witnessed this September in Muscadet), because the grapes are immediately pressed and only the juice is fermented.  Any amount of rot (noble or not) in red wine can spell disaster for the wine, as the entire berry, mouldy skin and all, is required in the fermentation tank and the resulting wine is at risk of developing off-flavours and being undrinkable.

Almost as bad as the wrong kind of rot, is no noble rot.  Winemakers cannot legislate for noble rot and are subject to the weather delivering the goods at the right time in the ripening cycle.  If it doesn’t arrive in the vines, producers can make a late harvest dessert wine, or demi-sec style wine, but these will never have the complexity and age-worthiness of nobly rotten wines.

So, the right kind of rot pitches up at the right time, now you need to pick the grapes – sometimes individual bunches, sometimes individual berries affected by rot are picked.  Either way, several pickings or “tries” are needed to gather the grapes, adding to the expense of the process.

Since the grapes will have lost a great deal of moisture, yields will be incredibly low.  Whereas a grape vine might produce a single bottle of good quality dry wine (or perhaps 2-3 bottles of mass market wine), it will produce just a single glass of highly concentrated dessert wine. 

Finally, the winemaking is hardly a doddle.  Imagine trying to extract juice from a raisin and you begin to see the difficulty in pressing nobly rotten grapes.  The small amount of resulting juice is so high in sugar that fermentation is slow and can stop readily – a problem known as stuck fermentation.

Given all the trouble that goes into making them (if they can be made at all), these wines are really woefully underpriced and underappreciated.  It’s a wonder anyone carries on doing it – how do you hedge that indeed?  Perhaps the only logical answer is, "By having already made a fortune as a merchant banker."

When everything goes right – some recommended wines where botrytis plays a part:

The FMC Chenin Blanc 2011 - £24.50 from Great Western Wine, also available via independent merchants
This is not a dessert wine, but late harvesting of the grapes and inclusion of some botrytised Chenin Blanc berries makes for a rich, complex, off-dry style of wine.  Fermented using natural yeasts in new French oak barrels and left on the lees for 12 months, this has flavours of apple, quince, a hint of honey and hay that begins with a rich hit of ripe fruit, but finishes clean with piercing acidity.

Château Climens
2013 is unlikely to go down as a great vintage for red Bordeaux wines, but their loss could be Sauternes’ gain.  The warm and humid weather which arrived in late September provided ideal conditions for the rapid spread of botrytis, inimical to red wine quality and forcing many growers to pick red grapes earlier than they would have liked.  But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good and makers of sweet wines in the region were treated to an early and rapid spread of noble rot among their vines.  2013 could be a Sauternes vintage to watch out for when it arrives on the market in a couple of years’ time.

If money were no object Château d’Yquem would be my everyday Sauternes.  However, back in the real world, my favourite Sauternes is Château Climens – technically it’s from Barsac, the region adjoining Sauternes, but growers there are entitled to use the better known name of Sauternes.  Owner Bérénice Lurton manages to produce wines that are intensely sweet, yet beautifully drinkable, with elegant, smoky complexity.  While you wait for the 2013 to arrive, you can pick up a half bottle of the 2010 for around £70.

Château de Fesles Bonnezeaux 2010

Fesles is one of the most highly regarded producers in Bonnezeaux,  in the Anjou region of the Loire.  Early morning mist rising from the Layon river in late summer can create the ideal conditions for the development of noble rot, as it did here in 2010.  This is lusciously sweet with huge concentration and a feeling of stoniness as well as flavours of stone fruit.  It will age beautifully.  This vintage seems to be hard to find in the UK, but other botrytis vintages can be found, including the 1999, £26.96 for a 50cl bottle from Vintner’s Selection.  About half the grapes were affected by botrytis, the rest were late harvest, shrivelled berries.  It has a heady nose of honey, toast and quince, with luscious baked fruit on the palate.