Monthly Archives: June 2012

Burgundian Wines 101


With my love of California pinot noir, I have longed to explore the famous wines of the Burgundy region of France.  Found among the cellars of the most discriminate collector’s, the great, elegant richness has not been easily available to the general consumer over the past few decades because of cost and the emergence of pinot noir in California and Oregon.  High quality winemakers Williams Seylem, Brian Loring and many others sight inspiration from exposure to Burgundian red wines at an early age.  So, when I discovered that Peter Nelson of Monopole Wines in Pasadena was leading a Burgundy focus class, I immediately registered.

The heart of Monopole is European wines and co-owners Nelson and Hiro Tamaki are a reliable source of providing vintages with a high quality to cost ratio.  Their extensive backgrounds as Master Sommelier to the Advanced Level of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust are impressive and led to an enjoyable, informative evening that included tasting 10 regional wines, both red and white.

Vineyard in Chambertin

The region of Burgundy lies in eastern France, southeast of Paris.   Cistern monks, during the 12th Century controlled much of the land and began devoting time to winemaking.  They were the first to discover the variety of terroir, often distinctive every few meters. It seems that the diverse soils are all great, the weather is consistent and east-facing slopes, necessary for Burgundian varietals, are abundant.  Although half the size of Bordeaux, the Burgundy region boasts nearly 100 appellations and an excess of 1,000 named vineyards.

In most French regions, the wine is recognizable by the appellation, not the grape.  As a result, most people are not aware that famous Burgundy wines from Chablis, Cote d’ Or and Maconais use more than 98% of the time, only two grapes:  chardonnay for whites and pinot noir for reds. The only exception is the most southerly village of Beaujolais that experiments with the gamay grape.

The French closely regulate each region in their country and there are four levels of quality that identify Burgundian wines.  Regional or “Bourgogne” (Bor-gon-yeh) wines, making up more than 50% of production, are generally sourced by negiotiants (brokers who purchase grapes from other growers to make their wine) from any Burgundy appellation and are made for everyday consumption.  “Village” (Vee-Lawsh) wines represent 30% of production and are also sourced by negotiants, but must include only grapes from one specific village such as Gevrey-Chambertin or Muersault.

From 600 higher altitude single-vineyards come wines that have special characteristics worthy of a Premier Cru designation, about 15% of total production. Another 33 single-vineyards (2%) have been recognized for great qualities that earn a Grand Cru designation.

Of course, the reality of those Premier and Grand Cru wines is that they are extremely expensive. A recent Wine Spectator report on top-scoring Red Burgundies included wines like the Joseph Drouhin Musigny 2009 ($594), Jean Grivot Richebourg 2009 ($700), Denis Mortet Chambertin 2008 ($650) and several others in the $300 per bottle range. The same issue of the magazine highlighted affordable Burgundies under $100. Arguments ensue that the great California and Oregon pinot noir are as good quality and, generally a much better value.

However, it’s not always a competition.  Indeed, many of California’s fine pinot noir releases are successfully replicating Burgundies but the terroir is different. Terroir within Burgundy displays diverse soils that produce that minerality, those true citrus or butterscotch flavors in its whites and the deep berry and cherry flavors, the spice and earthiness in the reds.  By opening over $700 of Burgundy wines, the Monopole class allows us to experience, first hand, the bloodlines of those produced by the Cistern monks.

The first wine opened was the 2008 Patrice Rion Bourgogne Blanc ($25), a moderately priced white wine.  The label tells us that the negotiant is Patrice Rion who sourced chardonnay grapes in 2008 from throughout all of Burgundy. With a slight bouquet and lacking depth, there was a nice minerality and a natural lemony flavor throughout the finish.  The 2007 Jaffelin Muersault ($50) from the village of Meursault in the Cote du Beane sub-region, expressed nice stone fruit on the nose, some oak and nut influences with creamy vanilla on the finish.

Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru

The last three white wines were all Grand Cru, priced among the finest California chardonnay, each conveying very distinctive flavors. The 2009 Louis Latour, Puligny-Montrachet ler Cru, “Les Truffieres” ($55)had a nice mineral, earthy quality, with hints of lemon-lime and supple melon throughout a very long finish.  Some of the world’s greatest white wines are made in the Puligny-Montrachet village and many can be aged for up to 10 years, distinct from our chardonnay that is generally consumed within 12 months of release.  Louis Latour is a well-known negotiant that, as many others, produces single-vineyard Grand Cru as well as Bourgogne wines.

Puligny-Montrachet “Les Truffieres”

The 2008 Christian Moreau, Chablis Grand Cru, “Valmur” ($50) from the most northerly sub-region also put across a nice minerality, although I preferred the Puligny-Montrachet.  The final white, the 2009 Louis Latour, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru ($90) had it all, powerful aromas, a slate-type minerality, citrus and rich butterscotch and vanilla on the finish.  This is an exceptional wine, but I was still drawn to the Puligny-Montrachet for its value.

Of the value-priced reds, my preference was the 2009 Chateau de la Cree, Santanay “Clos de la Confrerie”, a Village wine with darker, earthy characteristics of tobacco and smokiness that will only get better with age.

Domaine Christian Moreau Chablis Grand Cru “Valmur”

The next Premier Cru wines, the 2008 Domaine de Pousse d’Or Volnay ler Cru “Caillerets” ($85) and the 2007 Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanee ler Cru “Les Beaumonts” ($95) were both very floral on the nose and had classic cherry, raspberry flavors with nice intensity and silkiness in the mouth. The pure elegance of pinot noir was thoroughly on display in both.

The final listed wine, the 2005 Vincent Girardin Grand Cru “Clos Vougeot” ($150), pronounced “Clo-Vo-Jo” is living proof that Burgundy wines are not about being huge, but elegant.  After a graceful and spicy bouquet, the same traditional flavors became richer which, in

Vincent Girardin Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru

turn, unveiled layers of new essence to the finish, too expensive to own, but lovely to taste.

Laboure’-Roi Gevrey-Chambertin

Peter promised a mystery wine at the end of the session that became a 1990 Labroure’-Roi Gevrey-Chambertin, sourced from one of the most prestigious appellations in the Cote d’Or.  This mature Village wine, acquired through a private source, is old enough to drink itself. There was an explicit earthiness from bouquet to finish immersed with ripened berry flavors that did not overpower.  Declared ready to drink, grilled salmon with a Parmesan rub paired quite well with my newly acquired bottle.

The major take away from the tasting was that Burgundy wines are, in fact, distinctive and, with some experience, I may, one day, readily distinguish them from the Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara County pinot noir and chardonnay that I continue to enjoy. For some that may be dissuaded by descriptions of minerality, earthiness, smokey or tannic, the flavors of these Burgundies are neither subtle nor obvious, but as multi-faceted and integrated as the soil will allow them to be.

Finding Santa Ynez Wines

At times overshadowed by the adjacent Santa Rita Hills appellation, the Santa Ynez Valley region provides a plethora of small boutique wineries

Steep vineyards at Demetria Estate

producing very impressive releases, often under the radar of many consumers.  On a gorgeous March day, I had an opportunity to follow-up with two local winemakers, both creating stunning wines, one making history.

Deep into the valley, miles up Foxen Canyon Road, I come upon a small, discreet sign and electronic gate, the entrance to the entrance of Demetria Winery.  Inside the first gate, holding the code to the second, I began the 3.5-mile trek on a long and winding hilltop road surrounded by steep vineyards and incredible vistas.  Past the second gate, up the road another quarter-mile, we pass the beautiful home of John Zahoudanis, founder/owner and another few hundred yards, we find a classic country French estate winery/tasting room.  My arrival at Demetria, greeted by Alexei Zahoudanis, looking like the young “world’s most interesting man”, was full of anticipation of tasting good wines, including the 2009 Demetria “Eighteen” Chardonnay Reserve, Santa Rita Hills ($45), having tasted the previous vintage last year.

Grown in the westerly Santa Rita Hills appellation, known to produce diverse, micro-climate specific chardonnay, both vintages of the “Eighteen” expressed nice stone fruit, pineapple and floral notes on the nose, emphasizing rich pear and peach flavors that yield some acidity on the finish.  Adding 100% malolactic fermentation and negligible non-native yeast, this bone-dry wine is definitely one to bookmark.

Tasting room at Demetria Estate

Known for the production of both Burgundian and Rhone-style wines, Alexei suggested a comparison of the 2009 and 2010 Demetria “Cuvee Papou” ($28).  “Papou”, meaning grandpa in Greek, is a Rhone white blend tribute to John’s grandfather that, through various vintages, includes such varietals as marsanne, roussane and grenache blanc grapes.  The distinction in the 2010 vintage is the addition of 35% roussane to the traditional marsanne-grenache blanc blend.  The result is a full feel in the mouth and more expressive orchard fruit flavors, a wine that will pair well with food or just sipping on a nice summer evening.

2007 Demetria “Cuvee Papou”

Speaking of good food wine, the 2009 Demetria Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley expresses an earthy bouquet with nice acidity and spice in the flavors, a nice addition to a marinated pork roast.  Likewise, the 2009 Demetria Tempranillo ($55), from some of the oldest vines in the valley and spending 24 months in oak, has the deep, layered flavors that will stand up to spicy meats.

Soon, a gentleman looking very much like a Santa Barbara surfer  dude, with a pleasing Australian accent, joined us.  Harry Waye, the winemaker at Demetria, enthusiastically discusses his wines with anyone who will listen.  The passion exhibited by both Alexei and Harry actually made the wine taste  better.  Michael Roth, the original winemaker, is still involved as a consultant.

Saving the best wines for last, Alexei opened a bottle of 2009 Demetria “North Slope” Syrah ($37), a flagship release whose 2008 vintage received a 94-point rating from Wine Advocate.  The “North Slope” adds 5% viognier that is field-planted with the syrah, both biodynamically farmed.  It conveys ripened fruit on the nose and palate with the definitive creamy texture, setting it apart from other wines.  The next wine, the Rhone-style grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend 2009 Demetria “Cuvee Constantine,” flaunted very rich and jammy fruit flavors, notably the result of a late season heat spike, causing some grapes to be over ripened.  the end product is a nicely textured accessible wine that, according to Alexei, is ready to drink.

I am always interested when I see a good California single-varietal grenache, whether from Paso Robles, Calaveras County or points unknown.  the flavors are typically upfront with rich texture.  To my surprise, we ended the tasting experience with the all-grenache 2009 Demetria Rose’, a very nice summer sipping wine that delivers a vibrant acidity and flavors of strawberry and watermelon.  This rose’ could also accompany a light lunch.

Alexei Zahoudanis and Harry Waye

Although isolated, the Demetria Estate Winery provides aesthetics, great wine and a unique tasting experience, equal to any in the region.  Call ahead before your next visit to the area and give yourselves some time to get up and down the ridge.

Outside of Solvang, up Ballard Canyon Road, one will find Rusack Vineyards, a small boutique winery that has produced low-yield, handcrafted wines since 1995, mostly under the direction of the husband-wife winemaking team of John and Helen Falcone.  I went to taste the inaugural vintages from their new vineyards on Santa Catalina Island, but took some time to enjoy the 2009 Rusack Reserve Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills, sourced from the Fiddlestix and Rio VistaVineyards near Santa Rosa Road.  I have become familiar with the soft cinnamon on the nose and palate and the nice long finish that appear after ample decanting.  I was anxious to taste the 2008 Rusack “Anacapa,” a cabernet franc-based Bordeaux blend, to preview the bottle in my cellar.  Remarkable balance and soft flavors await, but both wines will continue to mature with some time in the bottle.

As reported before, Geoff and Alison Wrigley Rusack over the past few years have been engaged in a serious project to establish vineyards on and produce exclusive wines from Santa Catalina Island.  Alison is the great grand-daughter of William Wrigley Jr. who purchased the Santa Catalina Island Co. in 1919 and the family still owns most of the developable land.  The Rusacks in 2007 made use of the old El Rancho Escondido site along the southwestern coastline to plant 4.5 acres of vines:  2.5 in chardonnay, 1.5 in pinot noir and a special half-acre of ancient zinfandel, mined from Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands.

The vines, remnants from a rustic mission vineyard, were removed and sent to UC Davis for identification.  The lab determined the grapes to be from the zinfandel varietal and, replanted on Catalina, they exclusively make up the 60 cases of the first-harvest 2009 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Zinfandel.  Although young and not a big fruit bomb, the wine expressed a nice spice to the flavors with hints of vanilla at the finish.

A nice crispness with some oak influences aptly describes the 2009 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Chardonnay (250 cases), partially the result of 50% malolactic fermentation that impacts the full tropical bouquet and complex flavors.

All the grapes were forced to weather a 100-degree heat spike in the fall, putting even more pressure on the extensive, yet delicate harvest process.  The grapes, some battling dehydration and pests, were picked during two early mornings, quickly transported in large bins to the Catalina Airport, loaded and flown to the Santa Ynez airport and unloaded and transported again to the Rusack facility to begin the winemaking process.  You’ve gotta love their

1st Vintage Santa Catalina Island wines


The pinot noir grapes, some the last to be transported off the island, seem to have “weathered the storm” quite well.  Following a wonderful, traditional pinot bouquet of spice and black cherry, the 2009 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyard Pinot Noir (125 cases) rewards the palate with cinnamon, vanilla and black cherry through an extended finish.

One can only guess the future of the island label.  The Rusack team, with a history of success, has done extensive research and, barring a consistently unpredictable climate, has the skill to make it happen.  However, there will always be a first vintage.  My other reason to stop by was to pick up a bottle of each varietal, properly packed in a “first harvest” wooden box and quickly transported to my cellar for some maturity.  I know that luck is the result of hard work.