Deep Thoughts after IPOB: Wine as Photograph, Ripeness as Saturation

And now, it’s time for Deep Thoughts . Click for a Deep Thought.

The In Pursuit of Balance (or IPOB, to sound like an insider) tastings and seminars have established themselves as a powerful force in shaping the discourse of wine criticism and perhaps even production. Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr’s pet project has grown into a tasting that’s almost become a ‘who’s who’ of the wine world.

Their initial complaint was quite simply that domestic wines are often too ripe, too hot, too big, too everything; and that we must reclaim a sense of balance in our wines to access the best Sonoma terroir has to offer.

Many have since accused them of driving up prices and proffering illegible, contradictory notions of balance. Each time a threshold is set (say, an eminently reasonable maximum alcohol at 14.5%) some valid counterexamples arise to explode the rule; and by necessity a more vaguely iterated allusion to balance follows.

The annual New York City IPOB event passed through last February, and I enjoyed the chance to taste a number of Sonoma wines I’d wanted to test for some time, but never could, as I had nearly always rather spend money on Burgundy. The ‘Pursuit’ portion of the tasting is no joke, as I tried a few wines that still struck me as patently unbalanced, and a few others that were ravishing and surprised me with an earthy character.

But it was an audience member’s question during a seminar that has haunted me these last few months. The seminar discussed Triumphs and Failures in the Pursuit of Balance, and brave, honest winemakers were asked to present an example of a vintage they were proud of, and one they weren’t — each from the same vineyard.

Andy Peay of Peay Vineyards spoke about how he wished they’d picked his 2009 Peay Vineyards Ama Estate Pinot Noir two days earlier. To view the original interview, do so here (exact time is at 1:01:11): http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/59186856

The critical question for Andy Peay is this:

Well, we’re talking about expression of vineyard; this is the same vineyard, it’s just basically a two-day difference. So, maybe you’re not getting what you wanted out of that vintage, but at the same time it IS the expression of the vineyard; it’s just … two days later?

Andy Peay responds (note he’s not the Peay winemaker; Vanessa Wong is):

Absolutely; but, terroir includes man. And when we make a decision, it affects how that terroir, how that physical vineyard shows. So: yes, we have our hand in that terroir … and we make a decision what to emphasize.

The audience member who made this observation regarding the ubiquitous expression of terroir came across as some sort of philosophical absolutist, who had accepted as a tautology that any grapes harvested from anywhere were necessarily an expression of that place.

It seems alluring and perhaps even unassailable on the surface; but as many of us know, it’s patently untrue. And I feel as though we need to find an efficient, logical means to assert why.

How about this: It is only in a certain combination of circumstances that you end up rendering a wine capable of expressing uniqueness and therefore a sense of place via terroir.

It got me thinking of photography. (Please indulge my cliché; I’m going to try to bring something new to this). The notion that a wine is not unlike a photograph of a vineyard is common currency.

But what about the idea that ripeness itself is not unlike photographic saturation?

Many of us have played with sliders while trying to adjust light levels of photos on our phones or computers — say, for example, those that came out too dark in wine cellars.

One false move with a slider, and your entire photo is a monolithic, black block of darkness. There is no visible content.

There is no expression.

Olivier Clape fades into darkness.

Short of some tedious, masturbatory discussion about the constancy of artistic expression in a postmodern context (ie. Yves Klein’s Voided Self; or say ‘the absence of expression is the expression’), can we acknowledge it is hard to see Olivier Clape in this third frame above?

Is ripeness in wine really that different? Too ripe, and your photograph of a vineyard goes black. Too radically unripe, and your photograph goes completely white: equally inexpressive.

And is it useful to think of wine as a photograph? I think so. It is indeed an impression, a capture of an agricultural moment in time.

The photo’s subject should be terroir. Otherwise, why take the photograph, if there is not some unique subject to be recorded?

The subject may instead be an industrial idea of fruit. Much like a retouched model in an ad: Photoshopped to holy hell with burning white, supernova teeth not of this earth, barriers of foundation as makeup, and inhuman manufactured curves.

The photo’s frame is thus élevage, and oak. Too much wood, and your frame swallows your photograph, denying access; squashing terroir expression.

It’s an analogy I find alluring, compact, and intuitive.

EXACTLY HOW DOES ONE ‘KNOW’ TERROIR?

How lucky are Burgundians to have had Cistercian monks carve out their terroir into distinct, meaningful portions centuries ago? And, perhaps even moreso, to have had the hand of man sculpting and reinforcing the idea of what each of those wines should taste like; cementing that identity with each successive decade of wines resembling each other. They have a prefabricated persona and reference handed to them on a silver spoon (or tastevin, rather). A Vosne Romanée cannot be a Gevrey Chambertin; a Chambolle Musigny cannot be a Nuits Saint Georges.

But in the undiscovered badlands of the New World, deeper questions of exactly how winemakers get to “know” terroir are far more commonplace.  It begs the question of how they may judge how successful they were at expressing the vineyard or region.  This is fraught with difficulties even if we often pretend it isn’t; does it really end once we say ‘Oh, this is a cooler nighttime, maritime-inflected climate; and this vineyard is at less of a slope and in a warmer basin with a fair amount of clay, so: this wine should have more broad-shouldered fruit than neighboring vineyards’? It certainly can’t be that easy.

Many Burgundians scoff at the very notion that Pinot Noir was planted in California. On ne peut pas planter du Pinot Noir n’importe où, quand même….! a prominent Pommard winemaker noted, recently1. Whether continuing drought conditions will render irrigation impossible and perhaps bear out the accusation remains to be seen in a number of Californian wineries. Meanwhile, many vintners are marveling at even more flavorful grapes resulting from the drought conditions, and expect long-lived vintages.

A handful of industry tastings recently got me thinking how we have overripe offenders on both sides of the Atlantic.  But rather than bitch about shoddy wines for an entire article, I’d like to talk about the surprises: some exceptionally good Pinot Noir from California I’ve tasted at IPOB, and a surprisingly disappointing Pinot Noir from France that ended up acting like a jam applied to my roast chicken recently.

DISARMINGLY GOOD CALIFORNIA PINOT NOIR …

… is absurdly expensive; I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with Vincent Price. And yet, I’m intrigued by these wines below. Often, tasting New World Pinot Noir is like putting a blanket over your head and temporarily forgetting about Burgundy: candied, overspiced, cherry cola confections reign … this, after all, was the impetus behind IPOB. Sometimes, though, the wines exceed expectations, and invite blind tastings with Old World wines mixed in to test our assumptions.

This 2012 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir forced me to come back and retaste it at the end of the IPOB tasting to ensure my palate wasn’t playing some trick on me.

The wine is unique. It offers enthralling earthy aromas of vulcanized rubber tire intertwined with cola. This may sound strange to those who are shy with precise, free-form wine descriptors (if so, please read this article), but this aroma courses like a vein through my very favorite  Pinot Noirs growing everywhere from Burgundy to Baden, Germany. The Hanzell’s fruit brought to mind blueberries on the palate. I admired its ability to retain a sense of light weight on the palate, all the while with a dense fruit trapped in a lively acidic, watery suspension.  I asked about the élevage; these are medium toasted barrels, and the wine sees 9 months of new oak, then 1 year in old oak. It spends 2.5 to 3 years in bottle. The glass residuals brought to mind Papier d’Armenie incense paper suddenly.

A great deal of the fruit that goes into this wine is either directly from — or at the very least a massale selection from — a historic vineyard which is the oldest continuously operating Pinot Noir vineyard in North America, comprised of Mount Eden clones atop St George rootstock, planted in 1953.

Ultimately, it was the earthy tire character of this wine which reminded me of my favorite wines from Gevrey, Morey Saint Denis, and Nuits Saint Georges; but as I thought more about that tire aroma, I began to wonder: if the Michelin guide were to recommend this wine, would it be cannibalism? (The Michelin man is made of tires, after all).

The 2012 Hanzell Pinot Noir retails at around $125, and sells directly for $98.

Littorai Wines

Other wines which impressed were the 2012 Littorai Savoy Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, again with a similar potentially reductive tire aroma, which led to beautiful black cherry, and a tight, neat, lean finish; it tapered into such a precise, lean strip of intense flavor. With a bit of air, it took on an aroma of sweet corn and earthy tire atop cherries. “A very rustic vintage”, Ted Lemon noted;  perhaps that’s why I’m captive. His 2012 Littorai Cerise Anderson Valley Pinot Noir was noble and reserved, evoking leather and peach pit. It felt coiled and elegant. These are also $120 bottles, FYI.

And a fascinating wine, to my mind, was the 2012 Cobb Diane Cobb Coastlands Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. It had much brawnier, dark fruit, but boasted great acid, and proved alluring even if these high elevation, dry-farmed coastal vines yielded a wine that attained over 14% ABV. It flirted with the ceiling of ripeness and extraction, but remained quite alluring — not unlike a fighter jet testing its service ceiling, and returning to reveal a test pilot with a triumphant grin and a pounding heart, who barely made it out alive but relished the experience. I would happily drink this wine; and that is rare for 14+ ABV Pinot Noir in my book! (Although to be fair, the Hanzell discreetly attained 14.3% as well). Sells for $85 direct. Instructive.

UNBALANCED RED BURGUNDY?

It may be unfair to transition to a $25 red Burgundy on the heels of $100 plus domestic examples? But then again, that’s why I’m buying more Burgundy, as so very often, carefully sourced Burgundy can offer mind-blowing Pinot Noir at prices far inferior to domestic Pinot Noir! Well, this time around things didn’t quite work out. Maybe, as promised, this wine WILL integrate with time, but I am skeptical. I have not tasted a young red Burgundy so very marked by oak and ripeness in a very long time. On the outside chance it does, I’ll save the last of my two bottles to see. 

A Parisian friend who’d tried the 2009 (his wine blog is here) recommended the Sylvie Esmonin Bourgogne Cuvée Sylvie to me, and as I was previously unfamiliar with Sylvie Esmonin’s wines, I bought a couple. Yet another friend said Esmonin’s wines could have a savage rustic character.

Well, this wine isn’t rustic at all.  The 2012 Sylvie Esmonin Bourgogne Cuvée Sylvie is mind-bendingly ripe, and seems to attest to the contact of ripe fruit with new oak, as the palate bears a telltale nutmeg aroma which I typically only sense in California or Oregon Pinot Noirs which resulted from that formula. However, it would be surprising that such an entry-level wine should see new oak; it may simply be ripeness. BBR notes Esmonin’s penchant to pick ripe here. Even importer Jules Dressner notes the oak élevage as pronounced in the wines during their early years: see his blog, here.

While trying to find technical details on this wine, I stumbled upon a flame war that has raged for over 11 years on the French website La Passion du Vin, with winegeeks up in arms about the preponderance of new oak in Sylvie Esmonin’s wines: http://lapassionduvin.com/phorum/read.php?9,33336,758381. If you don’t read French: a number of people refuse to purchase her wines after judging them patently out of balance — “an ocean of coffee” (cf. the torrefactive, toasted oak aroma infused into the wines); others believe the oak integrates with time.  Her romantic liaison with Dominique Laurent, aka. ‘Monsieur 200% New Oak’, is touted by some as a means of explaining her approach towards new oak (as if she is incapable of making her own decisions). While she does indeed use Dominique Laurent’s coopered barrels — and partisans swear that the oak aroma from his particular oak barrels diminishes over time! — I think it is unfair to infer his hand in her wines.

I am not an oak jihadist. I love 100% new-oaked wines from Comte du Liger-Belair, the few Dugat I’ve gotten to try … and many others. Similarly, I love the ripe wines Bertrand Maume made in 2009; they retain an earthiness and an essential Gevrey-ness. It’s simply a question of whether either the oak or ripeness swallows the photograph, as it were.

We did indeed finish the Esmonin Bourgonge with our dinner; it was a somewhat serviceable wine on some level. But it was with a profound sense of loss, as it didn’t really speak of Gevrey Chambertin at all — the touted nearby source of these vines, the wine I’d hoped to pair with my roast chicken and lentils … that felt swallowed in darkness.

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  1. You can’t just plant Pinot Noir anywhere! []

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