July 22, 2008

Original Roots [ROOTS 4]

(the series finally gets serious)

So now we're down to brass tacks. We have Keith Levenberg's list of Vitis vinifera rooted vineyards. And we know Thomas Jefferson loved Bordeaux. We're so close to the goal line you can almost taste the freshly cut grass, loamy soil and chalky, graphitic elements of the limestone (for our slower readers, that's a little tasting note joke; the bouquet of endzone). So, of course, it would be at this juncture where we hit a snag.

No one from Bordeaux makes the list.

There are a few vineyards that have proved immune to our pesky little invader. But many of the vineyards on Levenberg's list are an experimental race against time. It turns out, you can plant vines on their own roots, and grow perfectly good grapes even with Phylloxera already present in the soil. It's only after about 25 years, give or take a decade, that the infestation become life-threatening. Unfortunately, this is right about the time when the grapes start getting really good. So some vintners are willing to roll the dice, see how far they can stretch production. Others play a rotation game, re-planting in cycles. But if you have dirt as preciously over-valued as Bordeaux, you aren't playing games with it.

So what are we to do?

Come on. It's a thought-experiment. How hard could it be to think our way around this dilemma? Bordeaux is a blend of (mostly) Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. And there's plenty of Cabernet Franc on Levenberg's list. We'll start there. Fill in the other grapes as we go.

For anyone who thinks this is cheating. Get over it. Wines made from ungrafted vines are enormously interesting. And neglected by collectors and connoisseurs. Which means you can find some amazing bargains. The Carl Schmitt-Wagner Riesling grown on ungrafted vines planted in the 19th century is $20. Twenty bucks!! The own-rooted Pierre & Catherine Breton, Bourgueil Franc de Pied is only a few bucks more. And both are sensational. Morever, as we can't be more precise, we'll just have to try to drink as many of these wines as we can. Then seek a calculus of varied experience that trend toward an answer.

That in mind, the Lab has chosen as its first "Jefferson bottle" a 2005 Charles Joguet Chinon, Les Varennes du Grand Clos Franc de Pied (K&L Wines, $43). According to the winemaker's website, "the production methods used to make this experimental cuvée, born with the 1986 vintage are still kept secret." Which is simultaneously sexy and lame. But the Joguet house employs organic and sustainable farming, picks by hand and produces only single-vineyard wines. Jefferson would have been down.

Our Lab notes: We probably opened this 10 years too early. It's a deep garnet color, almost indigo, and iridescent on the fringe. A tight, green nose of plum jam, dusty coriander and fresh turned earth. A impeccably balanced wine, even with the sour bite of young tannins. Fruit and stones turn a tight, harmonious... (given context, gotta be a) Virginia Reel. It's impossible to extricate fruit from mineral. Is it chalky cherry or plummy granite? Perhaps it's mere projection, but this wine has a discernible purity and a racing vitality. It is a subtly beautiful wine.

Jefferson would definitely have been down.

We'll be doing this again.

(antique claret image: © Mikko Pitkänen | Dreamstime.com )


Edward said...
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Edward said...

Thought provoking, that grafted vines are only giving a glimse of the dirt, compared to ungrafted vines.

I saw Keith's list, and note I've had the chance to try a few wines that are on the list. Whilst they have been impressive, I did not think they where outliers.

I wonder if the difference, if any, is related to vine age. With the unaffected vines being ancient vines which are very low yielding and marginal (especially in the case of the Australian examples that were cited).

J David Harden said...

I had another from Keith's list last night. Different grape, different region (different color even!), but I would say there was a common feature related to both bottles expression of terroir. It is hard to see clearly, but it's less like a glimpse, more like hiding in plain sight. The integration of the elements (fruit, mineral, acid, sugar, tannin, etc) in both wines is what strikes me. The appreciation of terroir, for me, is more holistic with these wines (based on a very limited data set which I'm hoping to extend). It's more about an overall impression, less about a detail.

Given my limited experience with wines on Keith's list, I would agree they are not outliers, but I'm wondering now if I'm now predisposed to find this "holistic expression of dirt" now that I think it's there? Guess we'll see.

The vine age question is a good one. There are a few that are grown as you describe (couple in your and my children's native Australia in that category), but just as many, in fact, probably the majority are grown on young vines which will likely succumb to the bug before reaching full maturity. Certainly worth an "experiment" to see if it's possible to elucidate a difference. Or maybe several experiments...


Keith Levenberg said...

I am, needless to say, in total agreement with your observations re integration. It isn't so much that these wines show you something other wines don't, but that they often show it with such staggering harmony and finesse.

It's a hard phenomenon to test, because the Joguet is one of your only opportunities to compare like with like -- i.e., same producer, same grape variety, same vineyard, grafted and ungrafted. In 2005, I found the franc de pied and the standard Varennes du Grand Clos comparable, but maybe only because they were both so off-the-charts good (and brutishly young). In 2003 and 2004, I preferred the franc de pied.

What was the dominant grape in the Bordeaux Jefferson was drinking? Cabernet franc seems more likely than sauvignon, but it might have been malbec or carmenere.

J David Harden said...

I hadn't actually thought about Joguet's uniqueness. But you're exactly right. I wonder if any of Calera's own-rooted vineyards are growing in proximitty with grafted vines? I'm driving by next month, so I'll make it a point to stop in and ask. Although as you point out, not sure that these anecdotal tests will yield anything definitive. But it's good fun testing the hypothesis.

As for Jefferson, there's several ways to answer that. Jefferson drank copiously enough that we could probably claim an affinity for just about any of the 'usual suspect' varietals. The infamous Bordeaux unearthed in Paris are from Lafitte (sic), Margau (sic), and Branne Mouton (now Mouton Rothschild). Hard to draw any conclusions from the list, however, as they all are likely fakes. But Jefferson ordered Lafite and Haut-Brion directly from the producers. I'd have to do some research to know if the blend in 1784 was proximate to their current Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wines.

J David Harden said...

By the way, how did you put your list together in the first place? For my money, it's a major resource. And I'm grateful for your having done it.

Beau Rapier said...

Isn't it possible that at least some of the Bordeaux Jefferson drank (and everyone else of means and taste at the time) was blended w/ wine from Spain or the Languedoc? And it may have even been cooked or slightly fortified? Clearly there was little to no legal parameters at the time, so the actual varietal make-up is probably impossible to tell or verify. But maybe the top Chateaux were already completely quality minded at the time, regardless of laws.

Also wondering if the Lab has info. about how the wine was shipped and stored. Did they only ship during the cooler months, for instance, or is possible that Jefferson's 5 year old Chambertin tasted like 15 year old Chambertin. (This is based loosely on an experiment w/ rapid aging the Lab did earlier). Cheers and great discussion.

J David Harden said...

There is no question that Jefferson would have had many an adulterated Bordeaux. It's why, after his visit to the region, he began to order his wine directly from the producers. The Bourdelaise probably didn't start "cheating" with outsourced grapes until later, but commercial agents were known to stretch the high-end of their inventory with additions of local plonk.

J David Harden said...

Standing corrected on further research... "Improvements" with French and Spanish wines, some even fortified ones, were being made in Bordeaux during Jefferson's era.