“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again” – Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
As I sit wincing over the haunting images of the April frosts via our modern world version of the telegram – Instagram – I can’t help but dwell. Isn’t it bewildering that something as beautiful as a vineyard full of candles can symbolise something so deeply menacing… as harrowing as a majority loss of a harvest, or even the loss of a vineyard, or an estate?
And then my mind goes back to January, to London’s great halls, private members’ clubs, fancy hotel ballrooms with pristine chandeliers and century-old curtains, and the en primeur tastings that take place every year; the events that draw anxious and proud vigneron/nes to London, to be preyed upon by the trade.
“Oh yes, I do like the 2017s, they’re a great effort across the board,” says the sommelière next to me.
Meanwhile the red trouser brigade is a microcosm for our modern-day Houses of Parliament. Amongst them, they debate, even bicker; “They don’t quite have the freshness of the 2016s though, do they? Oh, but they are less brusque than the 2015s, and more approachable. But they’re not where the 2014 whites are though, are they?”
I’m not a saint; I do the same. My wine rack is full of 2016 Beaujolais Crus. But when we are faced with the tortures of Mother Nature’s annual cycle, it reminds us we should be grateful to have any wine at all; and that all wines tell stories.
It is February. I sit for the fifth time in two years with Beaujolais’ inimitable Fabien Duperray of Domaine Jules Desjourneys in his lounge-cum-tastingroom-cum-diningroom. It is the start what will turn into a five-hour long contemplation of Wine’s Greatness, in all its forms.
This man knows Burgundy inside out, having sold the likes of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Arnaud Ente for decades. Later, we will sit and ponder great Pinot Noir over a bottle of Jacky Truchot Charmes-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 1995 and a magnum of Jean-Yves Bizot Echezeaux 2011.
But of equal importance to the wonders of Burgundy, is the wonders of Beaujolais’ old vines. He is on a mission to craft his own vision of Fine Gamay.
We taste his 2016s for the first time. They are the vinous equivalents of a zoo; so much energy is caged into those newly filled Zaltos. He lights a cigarette and leans back, and I sit gripping the edge of the haphazard bench I am settled on, clinging onto his every word.
He says, “you see how they’re a little reductive at the moment?” We nod.
He sighs and exhales a cloud of smoke and stubs his cigarette out. I trace the movement of ash with my eyes, imagining that he is etching his words into my memory.
“I believe that the wine has the memory of what it was like to be a grape, and that shows in the wine. It has the memory of the vintage. In the case of 2016, it’s as though the wines had a troubled childhood and that shows in their reduction – they are protecting themselves – for now.”
Our group sits in silence. Fabien gazes at the glass on the table. A single whisp of smoke rises from the ashtray. A couple of seconds later I snap back to life and realise my jaw has been hanging open on its hinges. I raise my eyes across the table to meet the gaze of one of my tasting partners, Rajat Parr, who is shaking his head in enlightened agreement.
In this single moment, Fabien had vocalised something I have been contemplating for a long time: sometimes, whether for a moment only or for the entirety of the bottle, wines will allow us to have a glimpse into their soul.
“Nonsense!” you, our reader, interrupt me. “Wines don’t have souls! They’re not alive!”
“Well, I’m not so sure,” I reply timidly.
I believe ghosts live in wine, and wines are able of awakening dormant ghosts that snooze within ourselves; they are capable of rattling our souls.
David Bowie once said, “what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.”
Wine, like music, is deeply powerful. Some wines speak to us, they ask – sometimes demand – questions, they give so much and yet take some of us for themselves too. The greatest wines leave our minds restless, yet simultaneously at peace.
Wines show themselves through a myriad of colours not dissimilar to Farrow & Ball’s paint catalogue, from the WSET’s “pale lemon” descriptor, which has quite possibly ruined a poor pale lemon’s colour for many of us forever, to the colour of cupid’s hair, to the bronze reflections of Edvard Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid statue,to dark, brooding and brown shades of muddy autumns gone by.
While wines may be exuberant one day, showing us their peacock feathers and smothering us in joy, the next day they may be invisible; closed and shy or even stoic. it is up to them, not us, to decide to whom upon they will bestow their flavours and energies, and to whom they will reveal the secrets that lie underneath their robes.
If we sit quietly with a wine and listen to it, and try to understand it, in a sense bonding with it, it will whisper its secrets to us. We must be studious and remain humble in the face of it. If we pull the wine apart, or hastily examine it, or snap a photo of the bottle for the ‘gram before we have even taken the time to get to know it, who can blame the wine if it recoils from us?
This brings me to oak.
Please, hold me back from hissing and pouncing with my claws when my neighbour sneers, “No new oak, please” –for this is not always the case, and we should not allow dogmatism into our world of wine.
The oak tree. That tall, natural, sage gentleman. It is the Ghost of Vinous Past. It is the key tool – the paintbrush – of many fine wines.
I speak for many of us, particularly those of us dedicated to the minimal intervention movement, that the last thing we want is a wine that leaves splinters stabbing our tongues like a kitten à l’attaque. It hurts and makes us recoil to have a wine thattastes like licking a burnt tree. But far too often, the rejection and fear of wines in this style means that we shun new oak altogether.
New oak, for some wines, is like calcium. It strengthens them and gives them backbone; a shell even; and allows them to age well into their eighties without getting osteoporosis. When mastered – and the use of new wood truly is mastery – the wood plays the same role that both a vineyard boot and Louboutin heel do.
In this sense, the oak can be a ghost. If dominant in young wine, it dissipates entirely with time. Take young Guiberteau Brézé, when newly bottled, its dress slips to show us its oak shoulder, but with time, the oak becomes a ghost.
It is January of this year. I am tasting Brézé 2015. Romain holds my gaze and says, “I believe new oak gives the Brézé cuvée an impression of acidity. The wood character goes away, but the lift and the fresh acid present that comes from the new wood – and new wood only – remains.”
Meanwhile, in the Vosne-Romanée cellars of Jean-Yves Bizot, snooze a couple dozen new oak barrels. Bizot creates my one-and-only desert island wine; that wine that should be impossible to choose, but that Bizot makes easy. It is Les Violettes 2005.Bizot paints the prime mastery of wine; meticulate and obsessive in the vineyards, vines are pruned short (only three to four bunches per vine), the apex is allowed to grow, Lalou-style, in order to allow the vine to have her own energy system. The extraction is extremely gentle with short macerations, after which this pure and deeply concentrated juice is put to rest in new wood, predominantly due to Bizot’s desire to use little to no sulphur.
And it works.
The wines speak of deep soul, of their place, of their hearts, of their soils. The fruit is so immensely concentrated that a spell intertwines the fruit with the wood; the tannin and the rumbling energy of the fruit somehow combine to create even more energy. At night when the rest of us sleep I am certain that sparks run through those barrels like distant thunder bolts at sea. The first time I tasted the wines, a singular, silent, happy tear slid down my cheek. It made sense.
In October of last year, chez Dujac, I am standing in the cellars with Diana Snowden Seysses. It’s her first time tasting the wines since June.
She says, “Closing the bung for a while helps me to not intervene. It’s important to let the wines become what they want to become.”
At the same time, now that we’re tasting, We Are Tasting. Everything. Across all cuvées we taste new barrels and one or two-year-olds, and we taste from experimental Stockingers. While we taste across multiple barrels, I understand instinctively that she wishes to show me the role and the guidance of the wood; whether that be new or old. The way that she taps the wood, the way she glides her hand from barrel to barrel, silently signifies their importance. The wines themselves; they are Pinot Noirs dressed in silk. There is not even a whisper of a splinter.
Since the very beginning they have used the Remond cooperage. Jacques did not have a lot of money at the start, so they decided to work with a smaller, less well-known cooperage (instead of the heady heights of François Frères), in order to really understand what their wines need. They have refined and crafted their signature toast over many years; a long toast over relatively low heat, which give a slightly sweet structure to the wine. Diana muses that while the barrels still create their Dujac-stamped wines, vintages (and thus fruit) are getting riper. Global warming is very real.
“Global warming is changing our oak regime. Jacques used 100% new wood, whereas we are reducing that to 40% for villages and 70-80% for premiers and grands crus.”
Fast forward to February, and I am tasting with Thibaud Clerget of Domaine Y. Clerget in his Pommard cellar. It is his fourth vintage this year. I notice his barrels (old and new) are ones I have not seen before. Unusual. Tonnellerie Tremeaux. I ask him how the barrels are made and what the toast level is, and he gazes at me for a moment, a twinkle in his eyes.
“I don’t know. It’s secret. I’ve worked with them since the beginning. They come here to taste with me often, and they understand my wines through that. They respect them. That’s why I work with them.”
He explains that the tonnellerie adapts according to what he is seeking in his wines, and to do this they frequently taste together, resulting in the tweaking of certain aspects.
For his Volnay Champans, he only makes one barrel and only bottles in magnum. He also uses Tremeaux for this, but experiments every year with different sources of oak and different toasting levels, for curiosity’s sake; to understand the impression it gives to the wine.
It will make for a fascinating vertical tasting one day.
For his sole white wine, the Meursault “Les Chevalières,” he works with the Chassin cooperage. He explained to me that he feels this cooperage aids him in achieving pierre à fusil (gunflint, linked to reduction). It is the first time I have heard someone link this directly to the cooperage and I was totally transfixed.
In his words, “I think that where the gunflint aroma comes from is a secret, and it’s a secret of Chassin, but I think it is related to the toasting. Whatever it is, it works wonderfully. I want to know how they do it…”
He is only at the start of a very promising life at the helm of his domaine. As I stand with him on this cold quiet February day, I get the impression that I am watching a young artist. To see him musing upon his barrels is to see an artist musing upon his blank canvases, deciding which paint to use next.
The oak regime of fine winemakers is a partnership. It is the ultimate example of human intervention to guide soil, vineyard, plant and climate to show its utmost capacity for wine. Often in wine, we omit one key factor of terroir; human interpretation.
I speak about this with Diana, and she muses, “wine is the ultimate form of human civilisation.”
My pierre à fusil conversation with Thibaud leads us to our other Ghost; the Ghost of Reduction. Reduction: the presence of unbound volatile sulphur compounds, mercaptans,….Oh you’re snoring. Sorry, have I lost you?
In unscientific terms, reduction acts as a saline, smoky backbone to white wine. It gives wines lift, and zest; it acts as the salt crust on seabass, or the 107,892th dot on a Georges Seurat painting. It cures a wine, and it shapes a wine. Without it, at times the wine feels lost, lacking, fat, tired even. Dare we say, it acts as a completion for terroir expression. It appears in many guises.
Rewind again. It is September of last year, and I find myself in Santa Barbara about to carry out one of my favourite pastimes; #reductionstudy with friends Abe Schoener and Rajat Parr. Though many winemakers have mastered reduction around the world, there are two vignerons that come to the forefront for us: Richard Leroy and Kenjiro Kagami.
We sit down to taste. The wines are Richard Leroy Les Rouliers 2011 and Domaine des Miroirs Mizuiro 2014. It proves to be the most fascinating insight into reduction and how it manifests. The Les Rouliers 2011 expresses a rumbling depth, a reduction expressed across the back palate, more of a stony, volcanic, dark smoke gunflint texture, with peach and apricot stones, but very gentle fruit – as background noise. The Mizuiro expresses matchstick and rock salt. It is very textural and very present on the front palate. The fruit is citric and poised, with a wild, rosemary lift.
Both are vinous art, without a shadow of a doubt. They are both sans souffre, and yet both are frozen in time without a single hint of age, due to their simultaneous ghost of reduction that ebbs at the edges of the glass.
But where do these reductive ghosts come from? Are they ghosts of their place, their people, their viticulture and vinification, or all of the above? Within this lies the magic of wine.
Both Abe and Raj have produced many cuvées that express reduction in its purest, mouth-watering forms. I asked them to contemplate how it contributes to their wines.
Raj pondered, “Reduction is the sharp sword that a fine wine lies on. Too much will slay you, but the perfect amount gives you an undeniable edge.”
Abe, as always, philosophised over the matter. “There is a very interesting consequence of a wine beginning its life with reduction. As long as the wine matures normally (and not under adverse circumstances) and under a cork closure, the reduction will inevitably change over time. And the changes are to be positive – the reduction never disappears or vanishes, but always turns into some other characteristic. That characteristic is apt to be more subtle than the original reduction was – and so contributes both to the complexity and subtlety of the wine over time. So reduction is one of the initial conditions that can lead to a wine being more interesting later in its life; and, even more, can contribute to the charm and interest of watching a wine develop over time.”
When looking back at our vinous memories, we also experience ghosts; ghosts of the future. As I sat and bathed in the light of these wines in September, I did not know that in a mere five months I would be standing with Kenjiro, glancing onto his magical part of the Jura and nursing his Trousseau in my glass; yes, Trousseau. It was a wine – a ghost – I did not even know existed that was nestled right there in the palm of my hand; I had only ever had or heard of his Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard. These ghosts only appear with human investment; our efforts to leap onto the trail that leads us to the source of the ghosts’ birth.
So, with this I urge you, next time you try something new, or next time you sit with an Insta-Unicorn wine – pause, reflect, hang out with your wine for a while. Nudge them metaphorically and ask them “yo, what’s up?”
Just like with a person it takes time to understand a wine. Take this time with your bottle. Nurture it. Leave it be for a little while. Come back and see what new mysteries the wine gives unto you. I don’t blame you if you talk to it, and I don’t care if people say that’s insane. I’ll be sitting next to you.
Photo by Zef Art (Shutterstock)