Through Heat, Rain, Frost and Hail … Success in Chablis

Guillaume of Louis Michel

Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel

Writing about the vintage in Chablis the past five years has been…well, for those of us who have gotten to know the women and men who grow and make these classy, dry, and mineral-laced Chardonnays, perhaps “depressing” is the best word. Frost, scorching heat, ill-timed rain, and – again and again – severe hail have struck Chablis with mind-numbing regularity.

In the words of the late, much missed, Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something.”

A Rush to Harvest
Vintage 2015 started out so well! The growing season started in early April and flowering happened on schedule under clement skies in early June. Despite some very hot weather in late June (109 degrees on June 24!) and a very dry July and August, a touch of refreshing rain in mid-August got the vines going. As growers went to bed on the night of August 31, they were expecting a great harvest and Louis Michel expected to start picking on September 6.

At 1:30 am on September 1, the bottom fell out. Hail pelted almost all of Chablis for an hour or more, leaving leaves shredded and some of the fruit damaged. At Louis Michel, everything went on overdrive, with every available picker and harvesting machine (including some borrowed from growers less impacted by the hail) pressed into service to get the fruit off the vines and into the winery before rot set in. By September 4, all fruit impacted by hail was in the winery, pressed, and ready to ferment.

Then – the Magic of Doing Nothing
Louis Michel ChablisWhen you taste the Louis Michel 2015s, the question you’re going to ask is, “What magic did winemaker Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel work in the winery to make such great Chablis under such challenging conditions?” The answer: Nothing.

Because “nothing” is what Guillaume does. The pressed juice went into stainless steel tanks and then…sat there until the yeast living in the winery air decided to start bubbling away. The only two winemaking decision Guillaume made was a) to keep things cool (as always) and b) to rack the finished wine off the fine lees a bit earlier than usual.

Louis Michel Montee de Tonnerre BottleWas acid added? Nope – correctly grown grapes keep their acid even in hot seasons. Sugar added to increase alcohol? Nope – the fruit came in at a just-right 12-13%. Lees stirred to add richness? Nope – older vines and warm weather gave all the richness you’d want. Oak used to shape or intensify the wines? Nope again – the only oak barrels in this winery have been cut in half and have flowers growing in them!

As in the past few harvests, the hardest part of Guillaume job after the grapes came into the winery was calling customers around the world to tell them they couldn’t have all the cases they wanted, because the hail and heat reduced the crop by 20-30%. Next year, we’ll tell you how even more severe hail brought yields down 30-40%. The year after, we’ll have to talk about how 2017’s bitter spring frosts cost the Domaine half its fruit.

For now, though, we have once again secured an above average allocation of these very much above average wines. Enjoy them while you can!

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Fine Wine, Fine Vintages in Beaujolais

chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThere’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past three vintages is the “greatest ever” in Beaujolais.

Vintage 2014 delivered classic, vibrant, elegant wines that capture the essence of Gamay’s juicy joy. Harvest 2015 added much deeper, riper, fruit and more density than usual, but with no loss of energy or minerality. And the 2016 harvest – while seriously reduced by hail and frost – may turn out to marry the best characteristics of 2015 and 2014 combined.

What will broach no argument is that Chateau Thivin made utterly brilliant wines in all three years, continuing to cement their place among the very best in all of Beaujolais – arguably, among the best in Burgundy as a whole.

Ancient Volcano, Modern Winery
Ch Thivin la_famille_geoffray The estate founded in 1383 and purchased by the Geoffray family in 1877. The chateau (yes, there really is one), winery and the estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly.

The volcano’s very steep slope – around 40 degrees in the heart of the vineyard – provides excellent drainage, fantastic exposure to the sun, and the platform for the Geoffray family’s modern gravity-flow winery.

When others in Beaujolais chased quick and easy cash in the Beaujolais Nouveau boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the Geoffray family just kept on making fine wine. Vineyards are plowed to create healthier soils, no insecticides are used, and grapes are harvested and sorted by hands.

Whole bunches of ripe, juicy Gamay grapes roll by gravity into tanks were fermentation starts naturally with no additions of yeast or enzymes or anything else. After a day, rosé tanks are pressed gently and finish fermentation in stainless steel. Reds soak for a week or so before pressing and racking into large, old, wood casks and bottling six months later. And for these wines, that’s it.

Ch Thivin was long well-known as one of Beaujolais’s great estates within France, but pretty much unheard of in the US until the 1970s. That’s when importer Kermit Lynch first visited the Domaine and made it one his earliest imports to the USA. And I think his description of Ch Thivin today is still the best summing up we can offer. Thivin’s wines, he says, are “a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.”

Patricia Green Cellars in 2015

Not surprisingly for someone who wants to make “wines from dirt to wine,” Patty Green has worked from the ground up.
Patty Green
After a stint doing reforestation work (which sounds better than “planting lots of trees,”  Patty began in the wine business by picking grapes at Hillcrest Vineyard in the mid-1980s. By 1987 she was assistant winemaker there, followed by some consulting work in the early 1990s.

In 1993 she became winemaker and sole employee of Torri Mor where Jim Anderson eventually signed on as employee number two. After a fine run there (including plenty of highly rated wines and a bunch of local and national acclaim), she and Jim left to form Patricia Green Cellars in 2000.
The 2015 Vintage in Willamette

With 25+ vintages under her belt, Patty’s had the chance to see pretty much everything the Willamette Valley has to offer. So I think her comments about vintage 2015 from a recent newsletter are worth quoting at length:

“There is a lot of wine. Fortunately most of it is very good, an amazing amount is stellar, a couple of sites are uniquely exceptional and then one fermenter is…we’ll get to that another time. Explaining it is not particularly easy. It was a hot summer. 29 days with 90+ temperatures. That’s unusual in Oregon to say the least. There was ripeness for sure and higher than average brix. The wines in general do not taste like they are from a warm vintage, they are not big wines for the most part, they are by and large graceful, aromatic, nuanced and deeply complex wines. They are in great condition and our feeling is that they are going to be long lived and very serious wines that will happen to provide early term pleasure and satisfy both the hard core Pinot Noir drinker and those that are more casual with their varietal allegiances.
“The above summary was our take on the 2014 vintage. Nearly word for word it applies to the 2015 vintage. Overall the wines may be better. Why? We had a practice run the year before. We learned. We got better. If you liked those wines, you will love these.”
As always, Jim (taking lead in the winery) and Patty (lead on vineyards) made their winemaking decisions on the fly as the fruit arrived. Where it made sense, some blocks went into the fermenter as whole clusters. Others were completely destemmed and still others a mix of on- and off-stem berries. Each fermenter was punched down for extraction and left to soak until Jim and Patty thought it was about right and then racked off into new, second, third or fourth-used barrels as they thought made sense.
The Three Constants

In other words, the recipe here is “no recipe”! Just three things are constant for every wine: native yeast fermentation; all barrels from France’s Cadus, a premier Pinot Noir barrel house; and tasting, tasting, and tasting some more as the wines evolve to pick the right time and best blend to bottle.

In 2015, Jim and Patty bottled 20+ Pinot Noirs, each telling a unique story of site, vine variety and vintage. After a morning tasting with Jim at the winery in early March, we selected these four as our favorite expressions of Patricia Green Cellars’ unique sites and of this great, great vintage.
Patricia Green 2015s

Australian Wine’s Evolving Style

KangarooWhen you hear “Australian wine,” if you remember the 90s, you might shudder as you remember all the lukewarm glasses of way, way jammy and overoaked Shiraz and Chardonnay you drank at parties that gave you a headache halfway through the glass.

After the initial “critter wine” craze, the Australian wine industry suffered from a bit of backlash, having become known for a certain style of wine at a certain price, and not much else. Nine dollar Shiraz receded from view for a while, and Malbec became the jammy, inexpensive red du jour to sip at your neighbors’ barbecue.

A New Style from Australia
We’re introducing a new wine in the store this week, St Kilda Chardonnay Southeastern Australia 2016, that represents an overall settling on a new, more moderate style that has happened with Australian Chardonnay in particular and wine in general in Australia in the last few years.

St Kilda ChardonnaySt. Kilda is the complete opposite of the overripe, overoaked fruit bombs we’ve all come to associate with Australian wine in all ways but a really important one: the price.

In the early 2000s some producers went down a similar path that some California did, picking their fruit way too early and producing wines that tasted thin and underripe. Jancis Robinson recently wrote that she is, “finding more life, interest and certainly value in the best of the new generation of Australian Chardonnays than I am in the great bulk of white burgundies,” and what we’ve been tasting recently has us inclined to agree.

St. Kilda is the complete opposite of the overripe, overoaked fruit bombs we’ve all come to associate with Australian wine in all ways but a really important one: the price. So give Australian Chardonnay another look! We think you’ll be glad you did.