Friday, June 20, 2008

Yquem, Cheval 'tricky' to sell?

Chateau d'Yquem and Cheval Blanc are on the market with mixed messages from the trade as to their saleability.

Yquem was released yesterday at €330 euro ex-chateau, up about 9% on the €300 ex-chateau price for 2006.

Cheval Blanc 2007, released earlier this week at €320 ex-chateau, was down about 25% from €400 for the 2006, with no recommended resale price.

'Yquem is the best wine of 2007. I have sold out, and if I had another 1,000 bottles of Pétrus I would sell those too,' said negociant Jean-Luc Thunevin, adding that demand for Yquem was mainly from Europe.

Prices for Pétrus are not widely available to merchants, but Thunevin estimated it was selling for about €330 to merchants, and about €700 to clients, a probable decrease of 30% on 2006.

While Thunevin is upbeat, other professionals are not so sanguine, with some reporting Yquem was only selling below its recommended resale price of €390.

Bordeaux based negociant Jeffrey Davies, who works closely with the US market, said Yquem was a tricky sell. 'In the US Yquem will be upwards of US$700 per bottle, for something that they won't get for three years and shouldn't drink for 20,' he said.

'Demand for Yquem started well yesterday morning but then tailed off, as it seemed other negociants were offering it at €360 or €365,' said Philippe Larché of Vintexnégociants.

A merchant, who did not wish to be named, claimed that people were already selling Yquem at the ex-château price, so as not to get landed with stocks.

Another senior source who also did not wish to be named described Yquem and Cheval Blanc as 'a horrible sell.'

'This may be the first time that a first growth many not be able to allocate all its wine.'
Decanter gave Cheval Blanc 17/20, while Robert Parker's Wine Advocate awarded it 88-91 points - relatively mediocre considering the price tag.

Decanter gave Yquem 19/20, and Wine Advocate gave it one of the highest scores of the vintage: 96-98 points

Sophie Kevany
Bordeaux, France

A blending session with Michel Rolland

Famed winemaking consultant Michel Rolland is lending his expertise to the Alpha Omega project.

Though he’s world famous, and even blamed — along with critic Robert Parker — for making top wines too similar, Michel Rolland is unpretentious and self-effacing in person as he tastes wines.

He, along with winemaker Jean Hoefliger and assistant Henrik Poulsen, taste the many batches of wines to determine the optimum blends. “It’s like a think tank,” says Hoefliger. “We put a lot of brains together.”
Unlike many winemakers, Hoefliger not only has many lots for different vineyards and blocks, but even keeps the press wine separate, too. That’s a lot of wines to taste, 100 to 150 lots.

To help put the puzzle together, Rolland visits three times a year.
Early in the year, he comes to taste the new vintage “I get an X-ray of the vintage,” he says.

Then when fermentation is over, he can get a better picture of the vintage and finalize blends for the last time before bottling.
He also comes in August to blend wines from the previous year, check bottled wine and tour the vineyards.

In earlier days — Rolland has been visiting Napa Valley for 22 years — he says he was more involved in advising the growers. Now, he admitted, “They don’t need me much in the vineyards. They know what to do after 20 years.” He spends most of his time assisting with blending.

Rolland made many comments about Napa Valley between tastes. He notes that phylloxera, which forced replanting Napa vineyards over the last two decades, “is the best sad story. Now Napa has some of the best vineyards in the world. If phylloxera hadn’t happened, Napa Valley couldn’t be where it is today.”

Rolland consults all over the world — even in Virginia — but he compares terroir, the location and circumstances of a vine, to a ceiling in a room. “We can make good wines everywhere, but we can’t make great wines everywhere. We try to make the best wine we can everywhere we are. Even at $2.99, you can make a good wine.”

He added, “People (growers and vintners) will be disappointed if they don’t accept that.”

Rolland does say, “Napa Valley has one of the highest ceilings in the world. Napa Valley is a place where we can find a lot of great wines now.”

He said it has more great wines than any other place — other than his home France. He added, “There are more great wines in Napa Valley than in Italy.”

He also likes working with American wineries. “They have more energy and creativity than elsewhere. You can do so much more. They don’t wait two generations to make a decision. Americans make it in two days. I was born in Bordeaux, and I know French behavior. You need five years to convince people to do something.”

Rolland encourages growers not to pick too soon. “If you pick early, you know it will never be good, but if you wait, it could be great. We have to take the risk.

“I love what I’m doing,” Rolland concluded, “but I don’t want to work too much. I love golf, but I like to taste like I play golf.”


Organic wine-making moves on to a new level

WITH almost 6% of its vineyard converted to organic production Alsace can claim to be the greenest wine region of France.

Although the prediction made a few years ago by one top grower that 90% of Alsace’s vineyards would be organic by 2010 now seems wildly optimistic, the rate of conversion is steady and sustained. There are also a large and growing number of vignerons who, while stopping short of full organic status, claim to practice sustainable viticulture and only spray their vines with agrochemicals as a last resort.

Alsace also boasts an unusually large number of biodynamic grape growers, an extreme organic regime, based on the teaching of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian thinker, who just before his death in 1925, suggested that every farm or vineyard is part of a living organism. All the work in the vineyard and winery is done with respect of the rhythms of the waxing and waning moon, stars and planets and most treatments are homeopathic or infusions of wild plants and herbs.

On the face of it Steiner’s claims seem absurd, but many of the wines made in biodynamic vineyards are spectacularly good. Biodynamic growers fall into two camps. Some fervently believe that Steiner’s view of the cosmos is true, others are agnostic, shrug their shoulders and admit that they have no idea why their biodynamic practices work.

Earlier this month I visited four Alsace wine-makers all of whom are passionate advocates of biodynamics. The wines they made include some of the greatest I’ve ever tasted from the region, but a few were very odd indeed.

Pierre Frick is one of the pioneers of biodynamic viticulture in France. He adopted it in 1981 and has helped many other growers to follow. Some of his wines can be bought from Leeds-based organic wine specialists Vinceremos (

He is keen to reduce sulphur levels in his wines to zero (sulphur is normally added as an antioxidant and to kill unwanted bacteria). It’s a risky business, but the results were mostly impressive, with wines generally fruitier than usual if sometimes a little less aromatic. Not everyone enjoys his wines. He told me that his uncompromisingly dry, spicy Gewurztraminer 2005 was a huge hit with the Swiss who gave it a gold medal, but a complete flop in the eyes of his Parisian clients.

Clément Klur and his warmly welcoming wife Régine seem to have a lot of fun making their wine and are keen to know what visitors make of it (they even keep a chalk and blackboard for comments in their loo).

Their wines are much more consistently enjoyable than Frick’s, but perhaps don’t quite reach the heights of his best. They are recent converts – they changed to biodynamic in 2004, but believe their wines already seem better balanced with higher acidity than before. Monsieur Klur also claims biodynamic viticulture is the most effective way to cope with the extremes of weather seen over the last few years as a result of climate change.

Sylvie Spielmann went biodynamic in 2002. Most vineyard land is divided into tiny plots, but her eight hectares of vines surround her house and husband’s building yard. There’s far less chance of contamination from neighbours’ spray. Like many biodynamic wine makers she takes a minimalist approach to wine-making, letting it ferment and settle in its own time, but having worked in Champagne, Burgundy, Australia and California, she’s learned how to make vividly fruity wines, the most consistently impressive of all those I tasted.

Patrick Meyer’s wines are uncompromisingly different and he’s proud of it. Some of his wines, for example, are deliberately oxidised and won’t appeal to everyone. He claims the main advantage of being biodynamic is that he does less work. “I don’t like working in the cellar; it’s not necessary.”

He believes that biodynamics is not an exact science. “I hate dogmatism”, he says. He also claims to need more time to make his cheap wines than his great ones (of which there are an impressive number). And “the only good way to make Pinot Noir (his is unusually perfumed and elegant) is to do nothing. When you touch it, it’s too late,” he explains. A few years ago there were many people in the wine business who worried that with modern fermentation methods it wouldn’t be long before wines the world over tasted much the same.

Biodynamics, by whatever means it works, ensures that this can never be so and I, for one, am grateful.

Jane Hall

Israel's wine industry reveals its California ties

The Jerusalem Hills are glowing in the warmth of the early-morning sun. On a twisting dirt track below the vine-covered terrace of Golan Flam's winery, a shepherd drives a flock of sheep toward the pine forest in the distance. The sound of their bells drifts across the still air.

Israel is a long way from California, but when Flam begins to talk about his family background and his winemaking philosophy, California doesn't seem so far.

"Our family has a long history in the wine business," Flam says. "My father, Israel Flam, was the first Israeli to graduate from the enology department at UC Davis, and for 30 years headed the winemaking at Carmel Winery, Israel's largest." He even remembers playing, as a child, in the university's experimental vineyards.

Once on the fringe of the wine world, Israel's current generation of winemakers is traveling, studying and working in vineyards throughout the world. The international experience they bring back has created a new generation of Israeli wineries. They advocate "growing wine, not grapes," and are intent upon producing premium wines that will be recognized throughout the world.

Israeli wines have already appeared on critics' radars (The Chronicle reviewed them in April; see and are picking up medals in international competitions.

Among the new breed are Gil Shatsberg, now the head winemaker at Recanati Winery, and who, like his predecessor, Lewis Pasco, studied at UC Davis; Ariel Ben-Zaken of the well-known Domaine du Castel who studied in France; and Assaf Paz, winemaker at Binyamina Wine Cellars.

Paz also worked in French, Australian and Californian wineries, specifically Jordan Winery in Healdsburg. In 2002, while still at Jordan, he encouraged his wine enthusiast brother-in-law Doron Belogolovsky to turn the family farm in the Sharon region of central Israel into a winery. Today, Belogolovsky is the winemaker, self-taught but guided by Paz, at Vitkin Winery, considered one of Israel's up-and-coming boutique wineries.

Flam, Shatsberg, Paz and Ben-Zaken will be showing their wines at the third annual Jewish Vintners Celebration, which starts today in Napa.

The Israeli wine industry's ties to California have been solidified over nearly four decades. Israeli wine guru Daniel Rogov traces the origins of Israel's modern wine revolution to a 1972 visit by UC Davis professor Cornelius Ough to Israel.

Deborah Golino, director of the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis, points out that Israel "has some of the strictest regulations in the world" for vine import and quarantine. The Ministry of Agriculture allows in only clean clones from Golino's service, Flam says.

Not only have students come from Israel over the years, according to Andy Waterhouse, chair of the department of viticulture and enology, but non-Israeli graduates have also gone to Israel to work. One of the early ones was Pasco, an American who first studied at UC Berkeley and worked as a chef in San Francisco before getting his degree in enology. After winemaking stints in Napa Valley, he immigrated to Israel.

And Israeli winemakers' philosophies often sound remarkably like those heard in California.

"It begins with the grapes first, and how and where they are grown," Flam says.

For Flam, a love of Italy and the Italian wine culture led him both to study enology there and in France. He also worked in wineries in South Africa and Australia. But his California ties, including having viticulturalist Harold Olmo as a family friend, remained a major influence.

As he poured tastes of Flam Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay on the terrace of his winery, he told the story of sitting at a waterfront restaurant in Jaffa one day, eating calamari and shrimp, and thinking, "We need a crispy, unoaked wine with this food, not butterscotch."

He set out to make a wine that would be perfect with local seafood. "Oak is like a spice," he says, "like salt and pepper in a kitchen. The fruit needs to have space." His blend would be a sure match with calamari and shrimp, mussels or grilled red mullets, rather like drinking cassis white wine while eating bouillabaisse along the coast in Marseille.

Flam Winery, which Flam co-owns with his brother, Gilad, who handles the business end, buys its grapes from Israel's pre-eminent winegrowing regions, the Upper Galilee and the Judean Hills.

Since opening the boutique winery in 1998, one of the early wineries in the country, the Flams have developed relationships with the vineyard growers, and they supervise the cultivation of the vineyards and decide the moment to pick the grapes. It is a tricky decision when growing grapes in hot-weather climates, something Golan Flam struggles with in a similar way as his counterparts in California's hot regions.

"We have just a small window of harvest to avoid jamminess." he says. After the grapes are handpicked, they are shipped in temperature-controlled tanks to the winery. "In Israel, everything is chilled, including the bottled wines, even though our cellar in dug into rock."

Flam says his red wines are aimed for a heartier Mediterranean style best suited for the hot climate, a style often seen in California's warmer regions. He currently produces four different red wines: two Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blends, a Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon blend and a Merlot, for a total bottling of between 8,000 and 10,000 cases a year. The wines are sold in Europe and the United States as well as Israel.

"In the 1970s, when my father came back to Israel from California, winemaking wasn't glamorous, and he didn't really get to put his training into practice," Flam says. "I'm lucky. Today, winemaking in Israel is very chic, very different than for my father's generation."

Georgeanne Brennan