Buyers Guide to VINTAGES – Feb 3rd, 2018

Villages and crus in Europe’s continental climates and harvest anticipation buys from the Southern Hemisphere
by Michael Godel with notes from David Lawrason, Sara d’Amato and John Szabo, MS

Michael Godel

Michael Godel

In last week’s part one of the WineAlign Buyer’s Guide John Szabo took the main VINTAGES theme to heart and gave us “Club Med Bargains.” In his report John noted that “vineyards around the Mediterranean are a smart place to search for value. The main reason is simple: the weather is nice.” In this week’s follow-up we’re going to look at the rest of continental Europe’s finest growing regions where the weather is also quite fine though the wines are in most cases more expensive. Read John’s article to get an overview as to why. This week we’ll also delve into the southern hemisphere where harvest time is on the horizon and in some of the most parched and warmest locales, has actually already begun.

Climat, terroir, villages and crus

The most classic, iconic and archetypal wine-producing territories are in western and central Europe and each has their own set of standards to define their singular subset of historical through progressive wine production. When we think of the most classic regions in Italy we consider Toscana and Piemonte first, in Germany the Mosel and in Spain Rioja and Ribera del Duero. When thoughts turn to France we think of Bordeaux, Champagne, Alsace, the Loire Valley, the Rhône Valley and of course Bourgogne. Everywhere pre imminent and famous wine is borne there are words to describe and to explain the ambiguity or mystery of how or why these places do it best. In Bourgogne that word is Climat.

Bourgogne is but a place built upon a word, of wines designed and articulated through their very own personal vernacular. The region’s most important vineyards are defined in a word, in summary and without comparison. Climat is the word and you may be shocked to hear how it is expressed as a highly complex chain of topographical, elemental and ethnological conditions. The glossary is much longer than you might think and adds up to quite a versatile declaration. To arrive at the distilled quotient of one, no less than 20 words are employed, exercised and ushered into explanation. The lineage travels through geography-geology-topography-landscape-position-relief-aspect-exposure-slant-elevation-slope-soil-vegetation-weather-microclimate-humankind-heritage-history-tradition-knowhow and temperament. While we understand the intellectual autonomy of choosing the unescorted word Climat as acting on behalf of all these conditions, what makes it so specific as to be exclusively owned by the people of Bourgogne?

It’s really quite simple. The people of Bourgogne coined the term or rather it came to them, as naturally as signs and portents but in the most positive, abiding and permanent of ways. Climat as in the Latin verbum sapienti, “a word to the wise,” meaning it stands alone, suffices, tells the whole story. Many will ask how many base and necessary conceits comprise this peerless notion that is Climat? The answer is not how many but that it belongs to the Bourguignons and no one else, so deal with it. Climat is the perfect oxymoron, a low and slow developed and yet truly miraculous occurrence, or perhaps a marvel but also forever etched in stone. It’s hard not to feel some trepidation when it sounds like preaching through a biblical voice because like the phrase that speaks to the Ten Commandments, the word implies that nothing else is as absolute and unalterable. In the case of Bourgogne it is owned because of 2,000 years of recorded history, thanks to the educated and the phrénique, of monks, farmers and intellectuals whose minds were connected to a feeling in the pit of their stomachs and to the earth below their feet. Climat keeps you, as it were, on your toes.

Mysteries of climat, soil and orientation in Chablis

But the question begs how does Climat translate to everywhere and everyone else? It doesn’t, in a word, but it does in each territory, village, commune or cru, as terroir or whatever other moniker or phrase we wish to attach to that parochial and combinative sense of people and place. In this report we look at the regions of the Douro, Chianti, Kamptal, Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne and Brunello di Montalcino.  I’ve noted the regions but how about the villages and crus? Gaiole, Kittmansberg, Kessler, Fourchaumes, Fronsac and Nuits-Saint-Georges are all essential geographical mentions integral to the bottles’ labels. There lies within more specific sub-zones, in Italian it’s called zonazione, places of interest where microclimates and shared geologies bring land and producers together. I am no genius nor close to the first to perpetuate the idea that drawing borders along any definable lines is a very complicated subject. This is why we continue to seek the truth in the villages and the crus.

Southern harvests and drought

North America and continental Europe are mired in right proper cold winter conditions while on the flip side much of the Southern Hemisphere is in the early preparatory stages to ready the vines and production facilities for harvest. Though most of the southern world usually sees harvest anywhere from early March through late April, unusual weather patterns and climate change have quite recently been responsible for some February harvests. Farmers everywhere are adapting to the new, sometimes cruel and often unusual realities of weather that make no two vintages the same and keep growers and producers up on their toes. In Argentina harvest parties have been in full swing with Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia is Mendoza’s Harvest Festival and the festivities culminate in an impressive Central Act in the city of Mendoza (province capital) during the first days of March. In many parts of Chile the 2017 grape harvest was brought forward by almost two weeks. Concha Y Toro noted “it usually takes place in March, but (in 2017) was initiated in February due to a season characterized by high temperatures. And for this process, the calendar is not important. What is important is being on the land, where the grapevines are planted.” Massive fires on some areas of Chile were devastating in 2017, so there is much hope for great success in 2018.

Meanwhile in South Africa they are bracing for what could be the smallest harvest in nearly 15 years because of serious drought conditions. The 2017-2018 growing season in South Africa is precisely and explicitly one of the greatest reasons to foster, nurture and celebrate the culture of old bush vines. A while back John wrote about the Old Vines Project, noting “the mission, I learn, has been taken on by “The Old Vines Project”, a small, privately funded group of crusaders launched by former lawyer-turned-viticulturalist Rosa Kruger. Kruger, the great-great-granddaughter of Paul Kruger, president of South Africa from 1883-1900, arrived at the realization that old vines not only had advantages on a viticultural level, but also produced better wine, during travels around the world and tastings of many old vine wines.” John goes on later to mention the practical advantages “beyond better site expression or simply better tasting wine, on a more practical level it’s understood that the deep root systems developed over time are a buffer against extreme weather, compared to young vines with more superficial root systems. In the case of generally hot, sunny and drought-prone South Africa, this means that grapes reach full ripeness at lower alcohol and higher natural acid levels, a clear advantage in the winery if your winemaking goal is to do as little as possible.”

Bush vines, Groot Drakenstein Mountains, Franschhoek, South Africa

Bush vines, Groot Drakenstein Mountains, Franschhoek, South Africa

In South Africa’s drought-stricken vintage, in a time where water is being rationed in Cape Town, it’s likely the bulk wine sector that will be hardest hit. According to the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems yields could be down 25 to 50 per cent due to the persistent dry conditions. Most of the industry’s large irrigation dams are 30 to 40 per cent full. This means that wine grape producers’ water resources were cut by 40 to 60 per cent and they could not fully meet their vines’ water demand. The premium wine industry will likely fare better though will also see some reduction in quantity. Frequent rainfall in October and November, as well as cooler weather up to the end of November will help to sustain the vines through these early 2018 drought harvest conditions. All this speculation does not mean there will be any trackable compromise to quality. Vineyard yields and bottle quantities may be down and as a result prices up, but it looks like 2018 will be a memorable vintage for South Africa.

The New World may not have a thousand years of grape-growing and every square metre of their plantable soils assessed, delineated and defined but crus and sub-appellations are increasingly being recognized in diagrammatic fashion. Our Wine Align crü takes a look at wines from Lujan de Cuyo, the Wairau Valley, Paarl, Faure, Helderberg and Bottelary Hills sites in South Africa. In Australia we break things down further, from the Ebenezer district and 1847 grafted vines in the Barossa, not to mention Coonawarra vines as old as 110.  Let’s get this Buyer’s Guide rolling with some gems from south of the equator (plus one exceptional value from Napa Valley).

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES February 3rd

Southern Stars


Chakana Reserve Malbec 2016, Mendoza, Argentina ($16.95)
Michael Godel – Height and the work of winemaker Gabriel Boise are the impetus for bringing more game to their malbec. It could so easily get lost in a Mendoza sea bobbing with hundreds of like-minded or middle road-styled wines but height (and the use of concrete vats) does have its advantages. Savour and cool, verdant streaks for one and length, even when production is high and price is low. The combinations and permutations are gratuitous and fortuitous.…

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Wishing all WineAligners happy hunting and if you’re watching the game this weekend, grab a glass of something white (or green) and fly like an eagle. John and David will return over the next two weeks with your VINTAGES February 17th guides. I’m off to Toscana for the Anteprime collections and another deep delve into the sangiovese of Chianti Classico.


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Rodney Strong 2016 Sonoma County Chardonnay