Ripe for change
- Thursday 21 August 2008
Tasting 2005 Bordeaux, the product of an exceptional harvest, highlights the stylistic differences between modern and traditional winemakers. This is especially true for wines from the Right Bank: where Merlot-based wines reach higher degrees of alcohol than the Left Bank’s more Cabernet-focused ones, and where the garage movement, famous for its big, international-style wines, was founded.
The question is, does this more modern style affect a wine’s ageability? Can a big, high-alcohol wine last as long as the more traditional style?
Many will argue that to assess longevity, one must first consider a wine’s
level of ripeness. This in itself brings into focus the ever-continuing debate over
‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ wines. At the latest stop of Bordeaux’s Union desGrands Crus 2005 worldwide tasting tour last March in Germany, participants used words like ‘modern’ and ‘massive’ to describe Château Pavie-Macquin and its whopping 15% alcohol. ‘Feminine’ and ‘elegant’ denoted nearby Château Canon, where the harvest ended on 28 September – a day before Pavie-Macquin’s began. Canon reached 13.8% alcohol, high for the estate, but not especially high for 2005, a ripe year. ‘If 2005’s near-perfect weather resulted in naturally concentrated grapes with high sugar content, why should anyone have picked late?’ asks Jean Claude Berrouet, now retired after 40 years making Pétrus. He adds: ‘Some people say that Pétrus started too early, but we seek fruit and freshness. The taste of prunes does not interest us.’
Path to maturity
When I caught up with Michel Rolland at the massive trade show Vinexpo last year, he quipped: ‘Ripeness is like a golfer who needs to get the ball in the hole. If the ball does not fall in the hole, it is underripe, which is what people used to do in Bordeaux.’
But where is the hole? Not too far away for Berrouet, for whom overripeness is a danger if you want your wines to age: ‘Ageing potential comes from the chemical development of polyphenols, – and overripe grapes have “degraded” polyphenols.’ Furthermore, high-alcohol, high-pH wines are more fragile – ‘they may taste nice young, but will evolve prematurely,’ he says. Berrouet is not a fan of ‘modernstyle’ wines. He prefers the way Ausone and Pavie were made before Alain Vauthier and Gérard Perse took control, respectively. ‘When I drink older Ausones, I am impressed by their personality, by their extraordinary youth. The 1975 today expresses the archetype of the soul of St-Emilion, born rather elegant, but gaining in power over time.’ Near Cotes de Castillon, the hole is
further out. While spending a week on the Right Bank last November to research this article, I meet Jean-Luc Thunevin – founder of the Garage movement with his flagship wine Valandraud – who drives me around the region. Indicating limestone deposits underneath red clay, he explained that successful, modern-styled wines such as nearby Rol Valentin and Fleur Cardinal ‘can be made anywhere.’ He agrees with the US critic Robert Parker, who wrote that ‘historically obscure and lowly regarded terroirs, if managed by perfectionist proprietors who practice extreme viticulture, can produce exceptionally fine wines.’ Over lunch, I told Thunevin I enjoyed the 2000 Valandraud, but he said the wine was ‘too elegant’ and that he needs to make richer wines, in part because ‘we need higher scores’. On his blog, Parker wrote last year that ‘acidity in great red wine is LOW [his own emphasis].’ Acidity as an aging factor in red wines is a ‘myth that can be refuted over and over by history,’ he added. During a dinner at Château Beau- Sejour Becot, organised for Vinexpo by
the Groupement de Premiers Grands Crus Classés, guests are revelling in a
Figeac 1950, relatively low in alcohol and pH but with high acidity. Admiring
the Figeac, Château Canon winemaker John Kolasa says: ‘Wines with high
alcohol levels and low pHs from the Mediterranean do not age in the same
way as classic, well-balanced Bordeaux. The alcohol tends to become dry when
it ages, leaving behind the sweetness of its youth. So, I would say that this style is OK for wines which have to be drunk in their youth, but extremes rarely offer subtlety, finesse or elegance.’ Pascal Delbeck of Château Belair says
that the modern style often results in ‘overripe, over-extracted’ wines. ‘The garage winemakers and most of the current winemaking gurus are merely aesthetic surgeons who try to tailor products to qualitative perfection as defined by Parker,’ he says. ‘This taste dictatorship accentuates the effect of globalisation and single-minded thinking. Speculation which follows is principally financial – it is the culture of the terroir cash register.’ (see also When Points Mean Prizes, p60) Delbeck adds that ‘quantitative performance’ is precisely the problem with wine criticism today, which focuses on current drinking, ‘not how a wine will taste over time, or how it could be enjoyed with food.’ Over dinner (foie
gras stuffed thrush which Delbeck had hunted and cooked himself) we drink
the long-lasting Ausone 1980 and Belair 1985. ‘People try to make big wines that stand out in blind tastings,’ he says. ‘Critics taste too much wine, only physical qualities stand out. It’s more like touching rather than tasting. So rich, big wines made with lees stirring, microoxygenation – wines with big tits – win.’
So do these ‘modern-style’ wines age less well than traditional Right Bank wines?
Wine consultant Dany Rolland, wife of Michel, dislikes the question. ‘These
questions are not helpful to consumers,’ she says. ‘The terms are a bit caricatured and restrictive.’ Rolland adds: ‘The level of alcohol or acidity is absolutely not the object of the quest for the best taste of grapes, which is guided for red grapes uniquely by tannin quality.’ For winemaking and vinification, Rolland says she ‘could not be more respectful’ of grapes. ‘All that is modern in all this is that we know today what is necessary or profitable because we can accurately quantify it, often through careful analysis.’ Degrees between 14 and 15 ‘still remain exceptional and come only in certain vintages,’ she says. ‘That was the case in 1947 – a precocious vintage with a small harvest and particularly prestigious wine. Wine should not be reduced to a simple hydroalcoholic- acidic mix,’ she adds. ‘Wine is a noble drink of pleasure.’ While longevity is expected from certain great wines coming from prestigious terroirs, ‘we cannot tell for certain whether one wine or another will evolve better,’ claims Rolland. ‘On the other hand, many wines from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s did not have the structure nor the stuffing to survive eternally.’ For Rolland, ‘the most important qualitative element of a red grape is to be ripe, fruity, tasteful and lacking astringency… Like in cooking, we cannot create a good ratatouille with unripe vegetables; we would grimace at the acidity from fruit picked too early.’ John Kolasa appreciates the influence of ‘the modernist movement’, because back in the 1970s, he says, no one spoke about oenology or viticulture like today.‘People like Michel Rolland and Jean- Luc Thunevin were angry,’ he says. ‘They pushed for cleanliness. Thunevin saw a window of opportunity and didextraordinary things. You need to shock to change attitudes.’ But he adds that the pendulum has swung too far in terms of extraction, alcohol levels and use of new oak. Certainly climate change and riper winemaking result in higher alcohol levels, but beyond a certain point, high
alcohol levels merely ‘taste nice in the first few years, like a Languedoc wine. But then the wine gets hard’. One should make wines from older vines which bring concentration over time, he argues. ‘I want to make wine that you can discover 50 years later and not be disappointed.’ In a wine bar with Thunevin, négociant Jeffrey Davies brings a Balthus 2003 by winemaker Yves Vatelot for us to taste. Made from ultra-low yields, it clocks in at 14.5% alcohol, and feels that way. Do the garagistes ever go too far, I ask. Davies points out: ‘If you do not go too far, how do you know what “far enough” means?’ When I ask him what he thinks of the Moueix wines such as Château Pétrus, he replies: ‘Their harvesttimes are al dente.’ Could Pétrus be done differently? ‘Everyone in this room would love to see Moueix sublet some of his property to see what would happen.’
On the level
After 17 years researching alcohol, pH levels and the ability of wine to age, Bordeaux University oenologist and consultant Nicolas Vivas says ‘very high’
pH and alcohol levels are not good for a wine’s ability to age. ‘Higher alcohol and
pH levels can improve taste and aromatic perceptions in wine, especially young wine,’ he says. ‘Sensations of roundness, richness and smoothness are accentuated. But is it really a good prospect, at least for the great wines which should sometimes require several years or even several decades before being enjoyed? ‘The higher the pH, the more fragile the wine,’ he says, echoing Berrouet. Higher pH levels result in wines more susceptible to oxidation, for example. ‘A wine with a pH of 3.7 can be twice as susceptible to oxidation as a wine with a pH of 3.5.’ High pH levels can also lead to the onset of the yeasty ‘off ’ flavours of Brettanomyces in a wine. At Château Quinault l’Enclos,
modernist winemaker Alain Raynaud has toned down his methods since he began
in 1997. ‘We went too far,’ he says. ‘Wehave less chance of overripe grapes, because I prefer alcohol levels of 13%– 13.5% over 14%–14.5%.’ Raynaud also now uses less new oak. ‘When I first started, I used 100% new oak – and I was
not alone. We all thought 100% new oak was the best way to convey our wines,’ he says, speaking for other modernists. When tasting five 1999 wines blind from the Cercle de Rive Droite, the Quinault L’Enclos exudes cherry plum and spice on the nose, but also shows brett and prominent oak-derived notes. ‘We do not make the wine the same way now,’ he explains, with dry ice employed to prevent the brett development. Vivas notes other reasons for these
higher alcohol and higher pH levels: ‘Consumer tastes have changed,’ he says. ‘More people enjoy rounder, richer wines to drink earlier. Fewer people have cellars to stock wine for the long haul.’ Another reason is global warming – a point Thunevin also raises. Vivas warns winemakers to be wary of modernmethods to concentrate grape sugars if global warming leads to further ripeness. A pH of 3.7–3.8 represents an ‘acceptable compromise considering wine quality and natural constraints’. French critic Michel Bettane agrees: ‘Balance is the real thing,’ he says. ‘A pH of 4 is not a good indication for long-term ageing. Up to 3.7 and with good tannin support, red wines age very well.’ In a blind tasting of 15 top wines from the Groupement de Premiers Grands Crus Classés of St-Emilion, discerning the more modern-style wines such as Pavie-Macquin from more traditional styles is not difficult. Berrouet feels that
too many people ‘decry certain wines of great typicity, particularly in St-Emilion on the famous limestone plateau, where one makes finer wines, more complex and mineral’. His preoccupation in retirement is ‘to respect new wines, but also appreciate older styles’. Who knows? They may last longer, too.
Acid or Alkali - the truth about PH's
PH – which stands for pondus hydrogenii (potential hydrogen) – refers to acidity due to a predominance of hydrogen ions in an aqueous solution. The pH level indicates the concentration of acidity in wine, with low pH meaning high acidity. Wines with very low pH taste tart, while those with high pH taste flat. Dr Alexander Pandell, professor emeritus of chemistry at California State University, says measuring pH is ‘analogous to the Richter scale used to
measure the intensity of earthquakes, since both scales are logarithmic’. So wine with a pH of 3, for example, is 10 times more acidic than wine with a pH of 4. The higher the pH climbs, the lower the acidity, and vice versa. During grape maturation, pH levels increase as potential alcohol and acidity decrease. It should be recognised that a grape of quality must have a sufficient alcohol level and rather low acidity, says Vivas: ‘what we can call the spinal column of the future wine’.