Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chateau de la Dauphine: 93 Pt. Organically Grown Bordeaux for $20? Yes, It's True

I am always excited when I find fine wines from an underdog region - and when they're at an unreal price, I'm especially delighted. That was the case at a tasting last week with Chateau de la Dauphine that took me by surprise.

The 100+ acre riverfront estate, on the Right Bank, is in Fronsac, a region that is not as well known or as widely trumpeted as its Right Bank neighbors in St. Emilion, but is nonetheless known for high quality wines. 

This particular estate started down the path to organic certification under its previous owners in 2012, and completed its Ecocert organic certification in 2015. (While the winery's promotional materials also say it is biodynamic, it has not been certified by any of the biodynamic certifiers.)

Chateau de la Dauphine - la Dauphine means Princess - has a long and illustrious history dating back to the 18th century, when it was visited by the French princess, Maria Josepha of Saxony. More recently it was owned by the Moeix family, a family well known for their ownership of Petrus and other Right Bank estates. (Christian Moeix has been involved in Napa with Dominus Estate as well as his new winery, Ulysses.) 

Marion Merker of Chateau de la Dauphine
In 2000, the Moeix family sold it to the Halley family who owned it and improved the vineyards until 2015, when, due to the father's death, it was sold to the LeBrune family, whose wealth comes from the medical software business. 

I had the pleasure of tasting these wines at an elegant luncheon last week in the company of some very fine wine writers - Deborah Grossman, Sara Hare (Napa/Sonoma magazine), Deborah Parker Wong, Thomas Riley, Charles Belle and Susan Lin of Belmont Wine Exchange - at the two Michelin star Taj Compton, an elegant restaurant near Union Square.

"The Halley's started on the organic path, and they made sure to sell it to a French family that shared these values and wanted to continue to improve the quality of the vines and the wines," said Marion Merker, marketing director of the Chateau, at the luncheon.  

The winery is also much visited by wine tourists, including those on Viking cruises. It stages a French picnic for tourists and recently won a major wine tourism award for its hospitality. "We made a cupcake that has foie gras (and other treats), which is very popular," Merker told us.

Photo credit: Sara Hale
We tasted through four wines - a 2016 rosé, the first rosé the winery has released, as an aperitif, followed by three vintages - 2004, 2009, and 2012 - paired with mushroom soup, filet mignon and raspberry chocolate cake. 

The 2004 was showing very well, having aged quite nicely.
The 2009 was paired with the filet mignon, which was an excellent pairing. 

There was a bit of sediment
on the 2009, which everyone wanted to photograph.
And to finish...the 2012 paired with a lovely, light cake
topped with gold flakes.

When it was discovered that my birthday was two days after the lunch, the assembled graciously broke into Happy Birthday in French. (See the video here.)

I had expected these wines to cost at least $40+, so when Marion told us that the retail price was $20 - available at KL Wines and J. J. Buckley - I was surprised. 

It makes no sense to pay Napa prices, as so many of us here in California expect to, when wines like this are on the market. Granted you have to seek them out, but I can't think of another Merlot - organically grown or not - that comes close to this for price point/quality. And although I am not a "scores person," even the esteemed Robert Parker scores the wines 91-93 pts., which is about where many of the finer Napa Cabs come in on his Richter scale. James Suckling has given the wines similar scores.

There are not very many Bordeaux estates who have certified organic vineyards, so that's just one more big plus for Chateau de la Dauphine - a royal winner in my book.

Friday, April 7, 2017

New Study Finds Glyphosate Increases Risks for Pregnant Women and Babies

A new study being released today at the Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN) conference in Washington, D.C. says that higher glyphosate levels in pregnant women's urine correlated with shorter pregnancies and lower birth weights.

The study, conducted by Dr. Paul Winchester, of Franciscan Health Indianapolis, is only a preliminary one, due to the small sample size of 61 pregnant women, but the disparities between the glyphosate exposure levels appears to be statistically significant.

To learn more, read Carey Gillam's piece today in the Huffington Post here.

CEHN also launched an online site today that explains glyphosate risks and pathways as well as preventive measures. You can find it here.

I haven't been able to locate a link with more detailed data showing the distributions associated with the graphs above, but I'm still hunting. Stay tuned. (Or email me if you find a link).

For more on Dr. Winchester, you might want to read this profile from the Indianapolis Business Journal. He's also profiled here.

Last year California wine grape growers used more than 700,000 pounds of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) on vineyards.

Here are some highlights of glyphosate use on wine grapes in leading counties. The numbers featured are the number of pounds applied to wine grapes, per 2014 California State Dept. of Pesticide Regulations reports.

Northern California

Napa: 43,000
Sonoma: 76,000

Central California

Madera: 88,000
San Joaquin (including Lodi): 93,000
San Luis Obispo (including Paso Robles): 42,000
Santa Barbara: 24,000

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Solving the Mystery of Wine Flavors?

Ever wondered why different wine critics' descriptions of the same wine don't include a single adjective in common? Why you like a wine and your friend doesn't? It's because wine has an "observer" effect - i.e. your biochemistry - and your brain - which are deciphering wine's compounds. Fluid dynamics plays a role, too, as does the makeup of your saliva.

These are the topics covered in Gordon M. Shepherd's fascinating new book, Neuroenology, which is the subject of an NPR story you won't want to miss.

And for even more great coverage, read the UK Independent's article here.

You can also read an excerpt from the book here.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Natalie Winkler: Next Gen Up and Comer Guiding Westwood on the Biodynamic Path

Natalie Winkler with buried Biodynamic preps at Westwood Wine's estate 
Westwood Wine's assistant winemaker and vineyard manager Natalie Winkler is a high energy force of nature and a Biodynamic up and comer who's turning one of Sonoma's top Pinot Noir wineries toward a more natural way of farming. She's harnessing her enthusiasm and skills in Biodynamic farming to help this Westwood up its game to even greater heights. A go getter, she's dedicated to leveraging the power of herbal and mineral preps, biodiversity and other farming practices to help the grapes at the winery's Annadel Gap site fully express their flavors.

She's not alone in using this type of farming in the pursuit of creating superb Pinot Noir.

If you want to make great Pinot Noir, look to the vineyards using Biodynamic practices for examples of some of the finest Pinots on the planet. While it started in Burgundy, those in the U.S who are in pursuit of great Pinot Noir make up the largest chunk of Demeter certified Biodynamic wineries, and their efforts typically bear fruit. (Yes, pun intended.) Because growing Pinot Noir is no picnic. Which is part of its allure. And there seems to be a magical je ne sais qua aspect of both growing this grape and the Biodynamic way of farming. Of course, Biodynamics is not a panacea on its own, but it does seem to offer an edge.

It may come as a surprise, but the fact is that all the Pinot Noir producers in the U.S. with Biodynamic vines have gotten scores of 90+ points from major wine critics (i.e. no Wine Enthusiast scores, just Wine Spectator, Galloni/Vinous, Parker, et al). Yes, that is true - not an alternative fact - of all of the Biodynamically grown Pinots - even the ones that sell for $20. (Montinore Estate and Three Degrees are in that category).

Last month I had a chance to tour Westwood's vineyard and taste the 2015 and 2016 estate wines with Natalie to learn more about how this Pinot Noir star winery, already known for excellence, is working to improve its already impressive wines.

I say impressive based on its recent track record in competitions which is really rather remarkable. The winery's 2014 Clone 37 Pinot Noir won three top awards in the 2016 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge [Best Red, Best of Sonoma County and Best of the Best awards] and its Pommard Clone Pinot took Best of Class at the 2016 Chronicle Wine Competition.)

The estate is a one of kind site, located beyond the cluster of wineries in Kenwood, at the northern end of the Valley of the Moon, where the maritime influence from the west begins to have an impact.

The 22 acre valley floor site sits on a 37 acre parcel, with the easternmost part of the property remaining wild and uncultivated, meeting the Biodynamic requirements for at least ten percent of the estate being reserved for biodiversity. The soils are gravelly loam. Thirteen acres are planted to Pinot Noir, and include nine clones (777, 667, 115, 943, Calera, Haynes/Martini, Chambertin, and 37/Mt. Eden). The rest is planted to Rhones.

"We have 16 SKUs," Winkler said. "We like to make a lot of different Pinots." (And Rhones.)

Philippe Coderey, Biodynamic vineyard consultant
Before coming to Westwood, Winkler apprenticed herself to French Biodynamic vineyard consultant Philippe Coderey, a native of Provence, who was recruited to come to the U.S. in 2005 by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon to establish the first Biodynamic program for Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon. Grahm was one of the early and very vocal evangelists for Biodynamics in the U.S. A 25th generation vine grower, Coderey had been working for M. Chapoutier, one of the great Rhone producers, who is Biodynamic.

After working in conventional vineyards previously, Winkler said she was bothered by what she learned about Roundup and glyphosate both in terms of the impacts on workers and on the soil. She decided to change course in 2014 and made it her mission to work with Coderey to learn Biodynamics.

After that she convinced Westwood to hire her and began their conversion, in January of 2015, to Biodynamic farming practices. This year the winery decided to apply for Demeter certification, which is expected in 2018. (It takes three years of farming Biodynamically to become certified.)

"It does cost 20-30% more in farming costs," Winkler said (mostly due to manual weed removal), "but we know that it's the right thing to do, because it is revitalizing the land. And with Biodynamic farming, the fruit retains more acid in the berry, which means better balance in the finished wine that we harvested at a lower brix level."

"We've seen a rebounding of vitality since we started farming this way," she said, as a flock of migrating birds flew overhead. "It's definitely made a difference."

Winkler says the site is perfect for Pinot. "The sun burns off at 11, and the wind picks up in the afternoon. The wind lowers the mildew pressure, keeping the vines aerated and lowering the humidity," she said.

Westwood Wine's winemaker Ben Cane, known for his Pinot expertise, makes all of Westwood's wines with native yeast, so getting the fruit just right is important. The first vintages from Biodynamic vines include the 2015 Estate Pinot, which we tasted back at the winery's 8th Street location. As you can see from the label below, the Estate includes all eight clones, making it one of the more unusually complex Pinots.

The winery's tasting room is located in Sonoma, just off the square, where you can taste through the Pinots side by side and also sample the winery's Rhone wines. The estate wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintages are from organic and Biodynamically farmed vines.