Wine Columns - published each Thursday in Decanter China, and monthly in SCMP.
How sweet is it in Prosecco country?
05 April 2013
Image courtesy of Miattia Mionetto
Hang out, make wine, get access
25 April 2013
Image courtesy of Chateau Lynch-Bages and Viniv
An evening at one of Viniv's client MashUp weekends just might be the most unusual networking group in the world, and almost certainly one of the most fun. You could be seated next to Lee Soo Man, record producer and founder of SM Entertainment in Seoul, regularly cited as the 'king of K-Pop', and opposite Pete Johnson, ex-heavy metal guitarist turned celebrated cigar manufacturer who counts New York mayor Rudy Giuliani among the fans of his Tatuaje signature smokes.
Soo Man didn't make it this weekend, but Johnson was there, as were Duco Habemma and Job Roodnat, the Dutch founders of iconic clothing company Scotch & Soda, and Bernice Liu, the Canadian-Hong Kong singer and actress who is currently filming a TV series in mainland China but had flown in to Bordeaux for the night.
Don't expect to speak about their day jobs here though. This is a winemakers' hangout, and everyone is concentrating on blending their latest vintage. Over 20 groups of friends from a dozen countries are here, taking final tasting decisions before bottling their micro-cuvées of 2011 wines. You'll get further by discussing percentages of cabernet sauvignon than autograph hunting.
There's no doubt though that the profile of clients hasn't gone unnoticed by the Cazes family of Chateau Lynch Bages, who are hosting the evening and who are the new owners of Viniv. They have been smart enough to see that these people, who feel passionately enough about Bordeaux to want to see behind the scenes, and are happy to pay around £8,000 per barrel for the privilege, are worth getting to know.
'I liked (CEO) Stephen Bolger as soon as I met him, but I thought his idea was crazy,' says Lynch Bages owner Jean Charles Cazes (pictured) frankly. 'But what finally convinced me were the people making the wine. Many are already serious wine collectors. This is complementary to our existing business, and it makes perfect sense to have it in Bages village.'
There are other benefits beyond a client list. 'Bordeaux has always been renowned for its wine,' says Cazes, 'but it’s conservative. Viniv is a way of breaking the rules and making a connection with other wine lovers.'
Like Cazes, I first met Bolger - who grew up in Chicago with a French mother - when he moved to Bordeaux in 2008. His plan to create the French version of a Californian custom crush winery always seemed like it could work in a region as iconic as Bordeaux, if he could just convince the locals to sell their fruit to him.
'I had a lot of knockbacks at first,' says Bolger, 'until I worked out how the Bordeaux system works, and went through a broker - which is how everything gets done here. He made a few calls, and doors started to creak open. The big breaks came when we found a winery home in Jonathan Maltus' Chateau Teyssier in Saint Emilion, and when we convinced Eric Boissenot (wine consultant to four of the five 1855 First Growths) to come on board as winemaking consultant for our clients.'
There were a nervous few months after hearing about the financial difficulties of the Californian company last year (now also rebranded from original name Crushpad, as The Wine Foundry). Behind the scenes, the Bordeaux version separated fully from its parent company and became majority-owned by the Cazes', who had by now become convinced of its potential. It moved from Saint Emilion (although Maltus will continue to provide grapes) to its own custom winery in the restored village next to Chateau Lynch Bages. And this was not just the purchase of a company: Bolger has become COO of Lynch Bages and the Cazes' holding of winery and tourism activities.
Besides the clear benefits of the setting - Pauillac is the heart of serious winemaking in Bordeaux and the village of Bages comes complete with the hotel Cordeillan Bages and its two-star Michelin restaurant, bistro Cafe Lavinal, and Cercle Lynch-Bages wine school - clients of Viniv now get access to Daniel Llose and the winemaking team of Lynch Bages itself, as well as Boissenot. Lynch Bages grapes are not on the menu for clients, but the Cazes family do provide some plots from their other vineyards, and clients continue to have access to fruit sources from celebrated appellations like Margaux, Pauillac and Saint Emilion, as well as vineyards in emerging appellations with old vines and superior terroir.
The social side has also taken a step forward. The dinner on Saturday took place in the harvester’s room at Lynch Bages. This is where hungry pickers will come after bringing in the season’s grapes, replenishing with hearty local food before heading back out to the vines ('you have earned it,' says Cazes, 'you've been working hard on your wines all day'). And a nabuchodonosor of Lynch Bages 1985 was cracked open to accompany the lamb, slow-cooked over an open fire.
Shamit Khemka, who lives in New Delhi and runs IT company Synapse India, says something I heard several times during the night. ‘The association with Lynch Bages adds a level of confidence, just knowing it is part of the Cazes family. I love the concept, and I hope I'm making wine that my children can inherit.'
'Last year was about getting the practical aspects of the new company finalised,' says Bolger, 'now we can get on with running it.' Since 2008, 400 clients from over 20 countries have made a Viniv barrel. The team just signed up clients from Moscow and Azerbaijan last week, with nine barrels sold during the 2012 en-primeur week alone.
Interest from Asia is starting to increase - and here again the influence of the Cazes family is going to be beneficial. Bolger has run events in Hong Kong and mainland China, but will now also have the benefit of Qing Chi, the Cazes family representative in China. Chi got her masters degree in Bordeaux, spent six months at Lynch Bages, and is now based full time out of Shanghai. There are also plans to make use of the status of the celebrated Pauillac estate.
'Lynch Bages receives 20,000 visitors per year,' says Bolger. 'We want to make it easy for them to get involved with Viniv, and so are going to have four or five pre-established blends that people can just sign up to be a part of, and not have to do a full barrel or get involved in the process of selecting blends and designing labels'.
Most, however, find the problem is not getting less involved, but more. 'I started off with one barrel,' says Bernice Liu, whose wine (pictured on the right) won bronze when submitted (blind) to the Decanter World Wine Awards, 'and I just keep signing up for more. It's the wine, but it's also the whole experience.' One Viniv client, Jonathan Drake, is based in Zurich but has just bought his own vines in South Africa. 'Once you get in to this,' he tells me with a hint of alarm, 'if you could you would do it for the rest of your life'.
Chateau Rauzan-Ségla - Profile
24 April 2013
Image courtesy of Benjamin Zingg, Switzerland
2nd Cru Classe, 1855
Rue Alexis Millardet,
+33 557 88 82 10
Location: AOC Margaux, next to Chateau Rauzan-Gassies, and close to Chateau Brane-Cantenac.
Production: 52ha, making on average 10,000 cases of Rauzan-Ségla, and 10,000 cases of Ségla.
Five things you didn't know about Chateau Rauzan-Segla:
- In 2012 Rauzan-Ségla reintroduced horses for working the vines. Their two shire horses are called Titus and Lionel.
- Director John Kolasa headed up First Growth Chateau Latour for seven years from 1987 to 1994 before heading to this AOC Margaux property, taking his Latour colleague David Orr with him. ‘When we arrived in 1994,’ recalls Kolasa, ‘we had everything to do. There were no computers, no records system to speak of, and everything was harvested by machine. When the grapes were picked, the cellar was full of tanks all at 220 hectolitres, meaning you were effectively blending immediately because everything had to be chucked in together.’
- At the 1855 Classification, Chateau Mouton Rothschild was placed at the top of the 2nd growths, with Rauzan Ségla right behind it, so when Mouton was moved up to 1st growth in 1973, Rauzan Ségla took its place as the top of the 2nd growths.
- Rauzan-Ségla‘s 18th chateau interior was restored by interior designer and architect Peter Marino in the 1996. His past projects include the Chanel building in Tokyo, Giorgio Armani’s private residence, and the Dior boutique in New York. Flagstones in the entrance hall were sourced from a 12th century English church (the owners bought the ruin purely to pull up the floor).
- In the small tasting room in the tower, an 18th century tasting table takes pride of place. It doubles as a spittoon, with a pipe that leads to a bucket, and was bought from a broker in Bordeaux, originally by Bernard Ginestet, previous owner of Chateau Margaux. If you look carefully, you can see the grooves in the marble top from where 18th and 19th century wine tasters have rubbed their glasses.
Current owner: Alain and Gerard Wertheimer. The brothers are also owners of Chanel (together with their step-brother Charles Heilbronn), one of the few remaining privately-owned luxury goods companies in France. Alain is chairman of the board and lives in New York, while Gerard is director of the European arm and lives in Geneva. Charles lives in France, dividing his time between Paris and Normandy, where they have a stud farm.
Most notable previous owner: Pierre Desmezures de Rauzan, who created both these vineyards and those of Pichon Longueville in the 17C. He bought the noble house of Gassies in 1661, when he was also manager of Chateau Margaux (where he remained until 1663).
Other chateaux owned: Chateau Canon (Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé). Also négociant company Ulysses Cazabonne, built up by Kolasa while at Chateau Latour. The company also bought Saint Emilion Chateau Matras in 2011, now making the second wine Clos Canon.
Commercial strategy: Négociants sell 100% of production (20% through their own Ulysesses Cazabonne negociant), and 85% is exported. Major markets France, USA, Japan and Korea. China represents 10%.
Second wine: Ségla
Through the centuries:
Separated from Rauzan Gassies in the early 18th century, as one of the three of the Rauzan brothers began making his wine differently. The split became official in 1763. Towards the end of the 18th century, one of the daughters of the owner married Pierre Louis de Ségla, although he was to die soon afterwards in the French Revolution. The property remained in the Ségla family until 1866, when it was sold to Mr Eugene Durand-Dassier. By 1960 it was owned by Liverpudlian John Holt, who made a few improvements to the cellars and vineyards, but in 1973 grapes were still being trodden by foot after harvest, and the bottling line was outside the cellar. In April 1994, the Chanel brothers arrived, and investments began. In January 1995, they hired vineyard architect Bernard Mazieres (also responsible for Yquem and Mouton Rothschild) to begin work on the vat room, and in the same year, they introduced a second wine, Ségla. A year later they moved on to the main house, Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s head designer, produced the 2009 label for Rauzan Ségla.
Consultant: Eric Boissenot, with John Kolasa as general manager and Henry de Ruffray as technical director at the chateau.
Plantation and vineyard work: Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Merlot (41%), Cabernet Franc (1%) and Petit Verdot (4%), planted at 6,600 to 10,000 vines per hectare. A few key improvements can be dated back to the Holt days – namely the replanting of high yielding rootstocks with better quality, lower yielding plants. Later, when Kolasa arrived in 1994, he introduced the idea of sorting tables on trucks in the vineyard, a technique he was bringing in from Latour. And immediately after the first harvest, the new owners started laying a major drainage system, with the joint investment of Chateau Margaux and the local town hall. There are 38 full time staff at Rauzan Segla, and over half of these work in the vines. And in January 2008, they bought 8.5 hectares from Chateau de La Bourgade that were already planted at 10,000 vines per hectare but in need of a lot of work. Certain vines are over 50 years old.
Vinification: 35 stainless steel and temperature-controlled vats, in different sizes from 41hl to 220 hl for plot by plot vinification. Alcoholic fermentation for 6 to 8 days, with daily pumping over, then maceration for 12 to 20 days depending on vintage. Approximately 60% new oak barrels.
Terroir: The deep fine gravel plots of the Château Rauzan-Ségla terroir also show some layers of clay at different levels. A new 8.5ha gravelly (‘Latour-style’) plot, Boston (which belonged to Palmer in the past), has been planted. ‘But it will be for my successor, in 15 years, to include in the first wine.’
Recent improvements or changes: The underground cellar was started in 2002, finished in 2004. A fault with the design meant it flooded and needed to be fully dried out, and it was finally used in 2012. Currently undergoing another of those Mécoc building projects. This time the building work of for 10,000m2 of storage, with an area for stocks and labeling, and a new cellar with more tanks for further refining the vinification – and taking the barrel storage out of the underground cellar.
Recent Decanter scores (en primeur and other tastings):
2011 en primeur – 18 points
2010 en primeur – 18.5 points
2009 en primeur – 18.5 points
2008 en primeur – 19.5 points
Average bottle price in UK market: £50-£100
It's a cliché, sure, but I was not going to spend a weekend in Venice without seeking out the perfect bellini.
It's worth the search because this combination of white peach juice and sparkling prosecco can head towards the stickily sweet if you're not careful (I'm talking about you, Ca'Sagredo Hotel).
What you need is a barman who knows how to squeeze fresh peach juice and shake it with enough ice so that a thin layer forms on the top of the drink, just as with a good martini.
You can, of course, head to Harry's Bar to see barman Claudio Ponzio. He manages to make an excellent drink despite the hordes of tourists who would pay homage no matter what he poured.
But for me, it was the Gritti Palace that managed the best bellini I've ever had. Served in oversized chilled champagne coupes, with one part peach juice to one part prosecco ("It's important to press some of the pink skin into the juice to give a deeper tinge, and also to ensure more structure and bite to the juice itself," says our beautifully dressed barman), it offered the perfect "hint of summer" combination of gentle bubbles (the prosecco was stirred first to temper its exuberance slightly) and fresh, fragrant juice.
It's pretty much a given that the 15th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini never tasted the drink that bears his name; the link comes because his paintings were often said to have a pink glow about them.
But then you're also unlikely to find many bars serving bellinis in prosecco country itself. This lies just an hour or so to the north of Venice, and the locals there like to serve their prosecco neat, in a small wine glass, ideally accompanied by a plate of Asiago cheese, another staple of the local mountains.
The Gritti uses Bisol Crede Brut in its bellini, from one of the best-known names of the region. The Bisol family has been making wine here since the 16th century. You can visit a Bisol estate in Venice itself, located on Mazzorbo Island - an amazing spot with an excellent hotel-restaurant, the Venissa, and two hectares of walled vineyards.
Here, Gianluca Bisol, together with oenologist Roberto Cipresso, have carefully restored the vineyard and brought the dorono grape variety back from the brink of extinction, producing a white wine in tiny quantities, so far only available at the Venissa.
But I wanted to explore the Valdobbiadene and Conegliano regions, where the prosseco vines are grown on the vertiginous Treviso hills. I was lucky to get a tour from another storied winemaker of the region, Primo Franco.
He runs Nino Franco, the firm founded in 1919 by his grandfather Antonio Franco, who, after fighting in the first world war, founded the winery in the town centre to bring his village back to life.
This is the heart of quality prosecco production. In recent years, there have been expansions onto the plains in the Friuli region, making a more generic, low-cost style of wine. To mark out the higher quality wine, in 2009 the original hillside areas were named Prosecco Superiore and granted the DOCG category, the highest level for Italian wine.
Producers had to agree to tighter controls on production, making wine from a particular type of grape, known as glera, from a specific geographic area, the Cartizze hills. The rest - almost invariably non-vintage - is bottled under DOC Prosecco.
The DOC and DOCG labels have been getting attention on the mainland recently. Sparkling wines are still a tiny part of the overall market, but Italy is the second-biggest exporter of the style behind France.
As with champagne, there are different sweetness levels. But the sugar ( dosage in the French version) in prosecco is added before the second fermentation rather than at bottling. One result is a slightly lower alcohol content as not all the sugar turns to alcohol.
This helps explain the fresh, easy charm of prosecco, which emphasises the floral, lilting nature of the grapes, with pear and apple blossom flavours taking precedence over the brioche flavours of champagne.
There are more complex examples, such as the wonderful Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze from Nino Franco, where tropical fruit flavours add depth and persistency. But the real pleasure of prosecco is that it doesn't try too hard.
"We are happy to celebrate the grace and freshness of prosecco, and the easy pleasure that it gives," says Franco, pouring another glass.
Wine opinion: winter in the vineyard
08 March 2013
Image courtesy of AFP
"In the summer, I'm usually working with a small team in the vineyards," says Olivier Tregoat, a terroir expert and vineyard consultant in Beziers in the south of France. "On a typical day, we'll be taking readings of the vines, and checking shoot growth, water stress, and all the other indicators of how good a growing season we are having."
Tregoat enjoys working in a team, but he also loves being out among the vines in the winter months, often on his own.
"[In winter, I work] on mapping the terroir of a specific site, drilling holes, taking soil samples to compare chemical profiles, getting to know every contour of the land," he says. "It's during winter, when all is bare and there are no leaves and grapes to hide the swells and hollows of the vineyard, that you can learn to read a landscape. That's when you start to realise how terroir works its magic."
Driving through a wine region in winter it's hard to believe people care about what is happening in a vineyard. Most of the obvious work has moved inside.
But the five months of rest that vines get between the leaves dropping after harvest (in the northern hemisphere by the end of October or early November) and the first stirrings of sap rising in March the following year can be crucial - not only to the running of the wine estate, but to the quality of the wine.
For a start, there are plenty of physical jobs to get done. The winter months are when most wineries make decisions about which vines need to be pulled up and entirely replanted, and which areas of a vineyard need to be "filled out" with new vines. Then there is soil to be worked, cover crops to be used to monitor soil nutrient levels, vine training decisions to be taken, new pickets to be planted, new wires to be strung, and vine plants to be pruned so they are ready for the new shoots. These are the months when the "big picture" decisions are taken.
Ideally, vines like a relatively cold winter, when they can retreat to full dormancy and the low temperatures can kill off undesirable pests that threaten new growth. Vines are smart, and use energy (sugar) - stored in roots, trunks and branches during the growing season - to effectively protect against frost; but if temperatures drop below minus 10 or minus 15 degrees Celsius, there can be problems with injuries to the plants, even total loss in some cases.
Not that this has been a problem this year. No danger of frost damage so far (although no winemaker will relax until May. The time of greatest risk is not winter but spring, when new buds spring to life). Instead, much of this winter for the region's winemakers has been about navigating muddy fields, or pulling boots on and wading through water to reach vines in the lowest-lying sites.
Jean-Baptiste Bourotte, owner of two estates in Pomerol, and one on the outskirts of Saint-Emilion, describes a rainy winter: "Rain makes life more complicated. Now we are pruning the vines, and on the heavy clay soils at Chateau du Courlat in Lussac-Saint-Emilion, when you have to carry a kilo of clay under each boot from one vine to the other, it makes days very long. When cold and wind come into it, it's hard to analyse each vine and make the right pruning decision."
It's not just about the practicality of getting jobs done. The weather during winter also has an effect on the quality of the next season's wine production. Laurence Geny, a researcher at the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences (ISVV) in Bordeaux, explains that you can estimate the moment of the next year's grape harvest by looking not only at the temperature during the growing season, but also the overall amount of sunshine that the vines receive between January and June. The amount of sun that a vine gets when it is bare affects the stored energy and the vigour with which it will attack its new growth cycle.
'The amount of rain that falls the previous summer, the number of days over 20 degrees during the winter months, and those over 25 degrees during the previous harvest, the amount of sunlight received even on cold winter days … all have an effect on the growth rate of the grapes for the next vintage," says Geny. "Knowing these things help us monitor the vines, and work out likely treatments needed during the growing season to keep things healthy. Winter is a great instructor for winemakers."
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on Mar 08, 2013 as What do winemakers do outside in the winter?
Wine opinion: fermenting a friendship
13 December 2012
Image: Harvesting tea near Puer in Yunnan province: Xinhua
Two terraces - one where rows of tea trees grow on Mount Jingmai in Yunnan province, the other in the wine-producing region of Saint-Emilion near Bordeaux, France. About 8,700 kilometres apart, the regions have embarked upon a relationship involving an exchange of trade and culture.
Libourne, the closest city to the Pomerol and Saint-Emilion vineyards, signed a co-operation agreement last month with the region famous for producing Puer tea.
As a result, a maison du vin (wine house) will open in Puer to showcase the wines of Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Saint-Emilion and its satellites, Montagne, Lussac, Puisseguin and Saint-Georges. At the same time, a salon de thé (tearoom) showcasing the range of Puer teas will debut during the Vinexpo wine fair in June in Bordeaux. It will be an outpost of the wine fair in Libourne, and there are discussions to make it a permanent feature of the city.
Since the accord was signed, two Chinese delegations have visited Libourne, and one French group travelled to Puer. That delegation - which included Libourne Mayor Philippe Buisson, and the presidents of the wine syndicates of Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol and Fronsac - went to learn about the tea culture and to better understand its links with the wine culture in Bordeaux. They visited local tea producers, and wine importers.
In return, the Chinese delegates met with key Libournais wine producers, including Christian Moueix, the director of Chateau de Viaud, which is now owned by Chinese food conglomerate Cofco.
"Libourne is the most important wine city in the region outside of Bordeaux itself, with its own wine merchant and production base," said Herve Cayla, a consultant with Gailong International and an adviser to the Puer regional government, speaking from Beijing. "So when the local Puer government approached me to suggest a partnership in the region, it made sense for it to be there."
At first glance, the two cities might not seem to have much in common: for one thing, Puer has three million inhabitants; Libourne, a little more than 25,000. And while there is a large statue in Puer to Zhuge Liang, a prime minister to Emperor Liu Bei during the Three Kingdoms period (AD220-280) and seen as the father of tea cultivation, you have to look pretty hard in Libourne to find a statue to commemorate the world-famous vineyards that lie just a few kilometres from its central square.
However, there are similarities. Both regions can date the history of their local productions back almost two millennia, and they have a similar relationship to the agricultural production that surrounds them and are important centres of trade for those products.
Buisson points out there are also many similarities between the two products. "Puer tea is hand-picked at harvest each year, is labelled with a vintage, and its taste is affected by the soil it is grown in and by the weather conditions during the year of harvest," he says. "It can also undergo a fermentation process [naturally or artificially] in which microbes act on the tea leaves, causing the flavour to change to become smoother and more complex, in a process very similar to malolactic fermentation in wine.
"What's more, Puer is known for being rich in polyphenols, and is said to have health benefits, much as the 'French paradox' is said to be linked to polyphenols in wine."
Another similarity: raw Puer tea can be aged for up to 30 or 50 years without diminishing in quality, and it can attain similarly high prices as the best wines of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol - 200 grams of the best examples can reach prices of up to €1,200 (HK$12,000) - not too far away from the price of a bottle of Chateau Petrus.
"We hope Libourne can become the European centre, and shop window, for the teas of Puer," says Buisson. "Of course, we know the benefit of exports for our local winemakers, but this is as much a cultural exchange as an economic one."
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on Dec 13, 2012 as Fermenting a friendship
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Ingelnook, and a Bordelais in Napa
18 April 2013
Image, Francis Ford Coppola (right) and Philippe Bascaules (left), courtesy of Inglenook Winery
Almost two years in to heading up Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook winery, Philippe Bascaules – who moved to Napa for harvest 2011 after 20 years at Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux – tells me that he has very little time to make friends locally, as he is so focused on the job in hand.
I hope he doesn’t think I’m meddling, but I can’t resist giving him a little nudge. There are at least 20 French winemakers in Napa, making up a small but select group. A surprisingly high proportion of them come from Bordeaux, including Philippe Melka at Melka Wines, and Benoit Touquette at Hartwell Vineyards. Even more surprising is that there are at least two who have spent significant parts of their career, just as Bascaules has, at the 1855 First Growths.
Christophe Paubert at Stags’ Leap grew up just outside Sauternes, and worked as cellar master at Yquem for a while, while Denis Malbec at Blankiet Estate was not only the former cellar master at Chateau Latour, but was born at the chateau and was the third generation of his family to work there. A little more tangentially, over at Heritance, Bernard Portet (co-founder of Clos du Val) was born in Cognac but learnt about wine from his father who was manager of Chateau Lafite Rothschild.
I suspect, however, that Bascaules will resist my suggestions for a while longer. Not just for the practical reasons of running a large estate with over 100 staff but because, as he said when I met up with him last week for a vertical of the past three vintages at Inglenook, ‘I don’t want to be influenced by my neighbouring winemakers just yet. Since arriving, I have wanted to make up my own mind on what needs to be done at Inglenook. One of the striking things about Napa is that you can find everything in the vineyards, from choice of grape variety to choice of trellising system and irrigation methods. Everyone is convinced that they are right, but nobody knows for sure, so I want to experiment and choose what works for these particular vines that I am getting to know. It’s liberating to have all these options, but it’s tough.’
Liberating must be one word that sums up a move from the confines of the appellation controlée system in Bordeaux to the relative freedom of Californian winemaking. Bascaules is part of the rebirth project of Inglenook being undertaken by Coppola, who has owned the estate since 1975, when he named it Neibaum-Coppola. In 2008 he hired French oenologist Stéphane Derenoncourt as consultant winemaker, and in April 2011, acquired the rights to the original name, as it was when Gustave Niebaum first bought the property in 1880. Coppola has now also reassembled the original vines, and reintroduced the labels from the 1930s post-Prohibition era, with Inglenook Rubicon for the first wine, and Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon for the second wine. He came to Bascaules for help in restoring another traditional aspect of the property; its elegant wine style.
‘That is the goal we are working towards. In the 1940s and 50s,’ says Bascaules, ‘alcohol levels here were regularly 12.5%-13%. I have tasted some wonderful older vintages, and this is the profile that we are looking to recreate. The vineyard needs very different things in Napa than in Bordeaux of course. Vine density, for example, needs to be high in the Médoc because there is underground water in the soils, but in Napa there is very little groundwater, so overly-high density can lead to vine growth blockages. But what I can do in Napa that I couldn’t in Bordeaux is make more use of tools such as irrigation. In some conditions, the tight rules of France are tough. Even in Chateau Margaux, there were years such as 2003, even 2005, when the young vines would have benefitted from irrigation, but we were unable to. Now I am happy to be able to experiment.’
Inevitably, the experience at a First Growth has informed his choices. ‘The wines of Margaux teach what are the qualities needed to make a great wine：complexity, intensity, persistence, and a texture that is both dense and soft. In Inglenook, I have only introduced changes slowly, after being convinced that they would improve things. This is certainly something I learnt at Margaux. But Inglenook has over a century of history of its own, and 30 years with the Coppola family. It has its own personality and specificities; we are simply working to finesse them.’
In many ways, Bascaules had an easy start. 2011 was a miserable one for many Napa winemakers, with rain and rot risk through the growing season. For the newly-arrived Frenchman, it was a home from home, as steering top-quality grapes through challenging weather was a skill he had naturally honed in Bordeaux’s maritime climate. 2012 was more difficult – even as his neighbours may have been smiling – because there was little rain and it was more classically ‘Californian’.
‘Overall 2012 was more concentrated,’ Bascaules agrees. ‘We tried small amounts of irrigation during September, instead of the more traditional period in July and August. This helped avoid over-concentration of berries, and the resulting high alcohol levels. We practise no de-leafing at all, because protection against the sun is all-important. The grapes can get sunburn even early in the season sometimes, so in 2012 we harvested the two sides of the bunches entirely separately and vinified them in separate tanks, picking the western (sunny) side a little earlier to maintain freshness.’ All of these choices meant that 2012 ended up being the earliest harvest in 10 years – with the results clear in the glass.
‘Coppola would prefer no irrigation at all (as is practised at Dominus), and l believe he is right, but it can be an effective short term way to bring down alcohol levels. Over the long term, we are looking at canopy management and other practises. We’ll work out the best system’.
There are moments, happily, when Bascaules does get to enjoy the Californian lifestyle, travelling to Yosemite National Park, or to Tahoe for skiing. And he’s slowly getting used to the different approach to people management in the US culture. ‘One of the biggest problems I have with the winery staff in Napa is not getting them to do what I suggest, but stopping them from rushing in too quickly. I have learnt not to think out loud, because people tend to react immediately, and get on with it, sometimes before I have made a decision. That is very different from my experience in France…’
In the glass…
Inglenook Rubicon 2011
This will be bottled in June 2013, and is a great example of the style of Inglenook that Bascaules would like to be making. The tannins are rich and smooth, with the nutty, almond flavours that suggest they were fully ripe, but there is a precision to them, and a general sense of freshness that suggests nothing got over-ripe. On the palate, the fruit is fleshy through the mid-palate, with blackcurrant and liquorice, without the prunes and figs that you can taste in hottest years. Only French oak is used, and the quantity of new oak has been brought down to 70% from 85%. The second wine, Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon, has a few telltale green tastes of a cooler year, but there are none in Rubicon. ‘I want to make Californian wine,’ Bascaules says, ‘but moving away from the over-ripe style of the past decade. The challenge is not to lose the qualities of this 2011 in the hot years.’