Thursday, February 5, 2009
Misc. Winter things + Brunello!
Thanks to the unnervingly dry weather pruning is mostly done, with the exception of the Chardonnay that gets it last (pictured left). We are already seeing some bud swell, and it has been so dry that we have a sprinkler on the olives right now, in February! The last odds and ends of trellis are going up, and all of the 2007 Primitivo has been labeled and is quietly sitting and waiting for the right moment. We are even getting ready for the arrival of 200 Refosco Nostrano vines in a few months. On the fun event side, Rosa d'Oro will be at the Wine & Chocolate Festival at Konocti growers on Valentines day and the tasting room will be holding a Carnevale Di Venezia Masquerade party on Feb. 21 from 6pm to 9pm.
We had the good fortune to attend the Benevenuto Brunello 2004 tasting in San Francisco last month, and after having had a bit of time to digest, some interesting parallels between Brunello orthodoxy and Lake County wine got me thinking. Brunello’s aging requirements are easy to find on the web, so there is no real need to repeat them here. But, we should remember that Brunello as a DOCG wine is a very new beast. Many producers admit that they have no clear vision of what it should taste like in general, only their own representing their vision of their terroir in particular. In 1960 there were only 200 acres, now it is over 5,000. This is roughly the same size as the Diamond Mountain District in Napa Valley, which is pretty darn small. A lot of that growth was propelled by Banfi Vintners (an American company) purchasing a third of that acreage. In short, the modern style Brunellos coupled with archaic oak aging requirements are just wrong in many ways, not because oak is bad, but because many of these Brunellos have pHs in the 3.65-3.7 range and a surprising number hit 15% alcohol. International style with traditional aging requirements can be pretty ho hum. The 2004 vintage is very highly rated, often pegged at 95 points, so why would such a stunner seem so blah? The less-ripe higher-acid traditionalists seemed to fair much better without exception. I even found one person whom I respect with corroborating impressions.
Until 1998 three years in wood was mandatory for Brunello, and that was wisely been rolled back to two. But, it has become a bit of a contest in Montalcino to age longer and longer in oak anyway. Traditionally the wines are released 50 months after harvest, so a good amount of barrel time is standard. We were tasting the 2004s in 2009. Three-plus years in grand botti in a low-acid vintage is questionable, let alone three or four in barrique. Although Sangiovese Grosso's pedigree is beyond question, the aging restrictions and ensuing barrel abuse promote that sort of archaic, old-school Bordeaux mentality where brown wine is good because the English grew up on Port and like it that way. The older the better, even if that is often not the case. The king of Italian wines should be aged the longest, for it is the biggest and best. Sure, the biggest part of Brunello is marketing Brunello, much of which is for the American market. The aging is part of the mystique when trophy hunting.
The tasting for me showed the superiority of Rosso di Montalcinos (and their undeniable QPR) when made in this modern fruit-forward style. They had greater clarity in intent, showcasing fruit without frippery. Speculating about aging potential is always a touchy thing to divine, but estimating the amount of baby fat in a wine that is already over four years old should is fairly clear. Generally the lack of acid softened structure, bringing into question what was underneath it all. Tannin in many modern style bottles was so polished as to be overly soft now which was shocking when you expect something tightly wound and tense. These were very international indeed.
One possible problem is that a vintage rating is often too fixated on heat. In some areas the hotter it is, the better the wine is rated, regardless of its effect on typicity. While marginal climates can benefit from some heat, like all those great 2005 Loire reds, the Brunello zone is on the cusp of heat steadiness (2002 being the lone exception). Going for extra ripeness in a hot vintage is a modernist wine making choice, and it is at the core of some of these disappointments.
The point here is not to bash the percentage of fruit bomb 2004 Brunellos or their elegantly-suited producers (who did a good job of damage control after the scandal). It is more important to draw a parallel with what we wine producers in Lake County face as we struggle in our own marketplace. Obviously we do not face the same technical challenges that they do in Europe. Anything goes in California: you can add acid or chaptalize with concentrate at will. Not enough color? Buy a pail of concentrate. Got VA? Ten different companies will drive out to remove it by reverse osmosis. Oak adjuncts? Add at will. There are no guidelines for cropping or picking here either, just as there is no minimum dry extract and certainly no cooperage requirements. We pretty much do whatever the hell we feel like, and in Lake County, that usually means adding a lot of water to 30°Brix must. But, just like Brunello, if Lake County is going to survive as a marketable wine producer with an identity, it must develop some vision of cohesion and some sense of typicity or terroir. We need an identity.
We have a vision of our land: volcanic, relatively high altitude, a lot of talk about high UV light with dry summers and no coastal influence. We like to talk about obsidian quite a bit and red rocky soil. We are known for Sauvignon Blanc, but the long dry summers also allow ripening for late red varietals. Heck, we picked our Aglianico before November this year. But, just like the Brunello paradigm, we would be hard pressed to define what Lake County wine tastes like. Steve Heimoff blogged about his involvement in the first Lake County People’s Choice wine awards and his observations are instructive: Chardonnay – pass. Zinfandel – too fruity. Pinot Noir – pass. Cabernet – has potential but has failed to deliver. Syrah – pedestrian. He found Petit Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc to be the stars, and this is usually verified in tastings. The Lake County Tempranillo may develop in the future, but right now it is atypical cooked out black fruit with none of the sophistication seen in a Ribera del Duero or even a Toro. The basic charge: Lake County makes fruit bombs.
This criticism is not an insurmountable problem. It will be necessary to develop some sense of cohesion in the future for us to move forward though. The geography is vast but the growing conditions are relatively similar throughout the county. Either a sense of terroir will need to develop (mineral driven for example) or a stylistic unity/diversity. Diversity is a defining feature of Sonoma County, and this is a strong asset and element to that county’s identity rather than a hindrance. Dry Creek Zin and Russian River Pinot coexist happily, and they have unique attributes that are signature traits. Lake County Sauvignon Blanc is identifiable, and the Petit Sirah is getting there, but our diversity of varietals is still climbing out of the bulk wine stage. Many growers here still deliver sunburned fruit on VSP trellising without a thought. On the positive side a few of our vintners are receiving stylistic recognition now, and this is all to good effect. It will be necessary to move forward with a few traditionalists as well to expand our identity beyond merely fruit driven.
The traditionalist/modernist battle is a necessary element in giving a more complete accounting of a region’s possibilities and inherent characteristics. New or old style, few could claim that the stylistic diversity in Piedmont Nebbiolo is a bad thing. In fact it has given a much more full accounting of exactly what is possible with Nebbiolo there. The Brunello tasting was eye opening in this way. The boundaries were defined by the diversity, allowing varietal identity to emerge. In Lake County, we have no idea where our boundaries are yet, leaving a picture of ourselves fuzzy at best. It is incumbent upon us to use this freedom to good effect and not allow it to evaporate into a second-rate free for all that homogenizes our identity in the wrong way. Sure, it will be hard work, but what could be more of an honor than forging your own traditions at the new frontier?
Posted by Pietro Buttitta at 6:59 PM