Dan and Howie, it's very rare that I have anything useful to contribute the home wine making threads -- maybe I'll try a couple of vintages at the home winemaking facility that's only six miles from my home.
But, I attended a fascinating seminar by Randall Graham a few years ago, and thought you experts might enjoy my faltering steps in blending. I've edited out all of his references to mircro oxygenating, I hope -- if not, my apologies:
Report from Boston: Randall Rides Again; The Effects of Microbullage and Blending. [As posted on WLDG.]
Randall Grahm Rides Again! Boston Wine Expo, Sunday, January 21, 1999. The flier promised a great deal, and Randall delivered! This post contains my complete notes; TNs are also posted separately.
“As we write, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon is conducting a unique experiment, the results of which will be revealed to attendees of this seminar. Grahm uses microbullage, a homeopathic oxygen dosage, for fermenting red wine to manipulate tannins. Several different barrel experiments on components of Cigare Volant are being treated with different levels of microbullage. You will taste those experimental wines and several finished examples of recent Cigare Volant. You will learn more from Grahm on his efforts to increase flavor in his wines and enjoy the results of his cutting edge winemaking.”
Grahm delivered an informal “State of the Doon Message.” He said that “Cigare Volant is the flag – actually space – ship of Bonny Doon. It reflects what Bonny Doon believes about red wine at the time it is made. It is a blend of four different wines: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The wine with the most moral authority wins. Different wines will lead in different vintages.”
Generally, there are few sources of Grenache in California, and they are generally low quality. Much of Bonny Doon’s art is devoted to “tricking” that wine. He described several techniques for modifying the grape juice, then intensifying it. He called Grenache an ugly duckling wine, often an under-achiever, but at its best, brilliant. The 1998 vintage was brilliant, the best he had ever seen at Bonny Doon.
Grenache is particularly sensitive to shatter, and in 1998 the yield was 20% of normal, less than one ton an acre. Bonny Doon gets its Grenache from a vineyard in Gilroy. It is owned by a man who was an “old coot” in 1984 when the contract was made – and now he is a “really old coot”. He refuses to make any changes in his vineyard, and Bonny Doon must work with the grape juice they get. “But, of course, we all live in an imperfect world.”
Grahm said the key 1998 components all had unusually high levels of alcohol: Grenache 15.5%, Syrah 15.0% and Mourvèdre 15.0%. All three wines were highly concentrated.
The Syrah comes from a vineyard in Bien Nacido, the best vintage ever, with an extraordinarily late harvest in early November. He said that Syrah is generally misunderstood: it should not have the forward, fruity characteristics of Shiraz, but should have the floral, delicate, feminine characteristics of CôteRôtie. The essence of Syrah is demonstrated in cold areas: white pepper, bacon fat with age, an Oscar Wilde character. Warm weather Syrah (and Australian Shiraz) is juicy and very different in Grahm’s judgment.
Mourvèdre comes from a 90 year old vineyard with beach sand soils. Old Mourvèdre is a treasure of California that is rapidly disappearing: “Mourvèdre vineyards are being replanted to condos.”
Cinsault is a funky grape for Bonny Doon, and is the only constituent of Cigare Volant grown by Bonny Doon itself; “tragically” it suffers from hydrogen sulfide – apparently caused by a nutrient deficiency in the soil. “The curse of the home vineyard!” [Someone asked if the nearby maximum security prison – “within burrowing distance” according to Bonny Doon’s newsletter – caused the problem. Grahm said he didn’t think so, but seemed to consider the suggestion seriously.]
Grahm described some of the techniques used to manage the problem, but said that they all reduced the quality of the wine made from Cinsault. (He stayed silent when members of the audience suggested we leave Cinsault out entirely when we each blended our own version of a 1998 Cigare violent.)
Grahm said his hero was Patrick Ducournau, a winemaker from Madiran, France who owned a vineyard planted to Tannat. Grahm said: “Tannat produces a hard, astringent, bitter wine that only gets worse when you try to improve it. But what is a mother to do?”
What Ducournau did was think about tannins and decide that he could alter the tannin profiles by introducing oxygen. (Grahm said it was human nature to pick single elements out of the much bigger world, and then focus on those elements. He said he was reminded of a Far Side cartoon in which all of the oxen in a team going through Death Valley look at an ox’s stall by the side of the trail.)
Ducournau’s theory of tannin, as I understood it from Grahm, is generally as follows:
There are four types of tannins: hard, green, soft and dry. The fate of all hard, green and soft tannins is to become dry, to die, to become undrinkable. A winemaker seeks to soften tannins, and seeks to make them stay soft for a long time. Oxygen will make tannins move from the hard and green categories into the soft category, but oxygen will also oxidize the wine and make the soft tannins dry and die. On the other hand, removing oxygen [“reduction”] will create hydrogen sulfide and destroy the wine’s aroma. Seeking balance is one of the major challenges of all winemakers.
[Grahm got into a long discussion of Ducournau’s various techniques for softening tannins: polymerization (i.e. creating longer chains of tannins) and other chemical reactions. As he went on, he said the discussion had gotten “too geeky”. My technical notes are unclear, and they aren’t reproduced here. The essence of his remarks was that carefully controlling the introduction of oxygen into wine will soften tannins.]
[Deletion of section on Microbullage.]
Grahm emphasized that over the centuries cellar men had used other techniques to do the same thing; elevage has been the most common technique. Oxygen will permeate wood and the bung areas in barrels, and the oxygen will be absorbed by the wine. Cellar men use larger barrels for wines with lots of softer tannins because there is relatively less wood in contact with the wine; they use smaller barrels for wines with harder or greener tannins because there is relatively more wood in contact with the wine.
Grahm’s approach to the problem had been different than Ducournau’s as a conceptual matter. He got interested in acupuncture and the concept of vitality or Xi [pronounced “ghee”]. We all have X; too much when we are young so we have to find ways to control its release; too little as we age so we have to find ways to protect it; none at all and we die.
Wine is like that. Some wines have lots of Xi; others have much less. The enemy of XI in wine is oxygen: wine with the ability to absorb more oxygen will have a longer life. Grahm said he thinks of wine as being on a journey: beginning, middle and end. Most of the focus is on fermentation at the beginning of a wine’s life, because that is an exciting period, like the culmination of the sex act. Ducournau stops his efforts to control oxygen when the wine is bottled, but Grahm said his goal is to make wine immortal.
One must protect the wine’s Xi after it is bottled, and the way to do that is by keeping lees in the bottled wine. (Lees are the yeast bodies left after fermentation.) Reason: lees are oxygen scavengers and will remove oxygen from the wine and protect the soft tannins. Keeping lees in the wine present several problems, but Grahm said he believed he could solve them: “This is the secret of immortal life. I could have been an alchemist during the Middle Ages, and I can be one now. Of course, this is economically ruinous. But we have no choice.”
[From Bonny Doon’s web page: “THE ALCHEMIST
TO SEE THE WORLD IN A GRAIN OF
AND A HEAVEN IN A WILD FLOWER,
HOLD INFINITY IN THE PALM OF
AND ETERNITY IN A GOOD CIGARE.]
One of the technical problems is that the lees will fall to the bottom of tank over time and make a very hard film, as hard as concrete. They somehow have to be kept in suspension in order to have enough for an entire vintage. In the sample lots, Grahm is using various methods of riddling, or turning the five liter bottles; but the are very heavy. Another problem is time; Grahm said he had to release his wine for two reasons: to get money … and to get money. Finally, the techniques can add two to three years before wines can be released.
We then made our own 1998 blend of Cigare Volant, using glasses of each of the four constituent wines. Grahm suggested that we blend one third each of the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and just a touch of Cinsault. Many people left out the Cinsault. [Grahm said there were special beakers for measuring the exact quantities, but that he didn’t think great precision was very important.]
Grahm tasted the result and called it “pretty great”; most people agreed. Someone suggested that because the Grenache was so intense and saturated, we add a bit more. The result was surprising; the new blend had significantly less aroma and was more closed in taste.
Grahm asked if we like the blend better than the individual constituents. There was a general preference for the blend, but I said that I preferred the Grenache on its own. Grahm said he thought it was a very close call.
We then moved on to a comparison taste of the 1995 Cigare Volant and the 1995 Cigare Volant Reserve. Grahm said Bonny Doon had made 10 or 15 five gallon carboys of the Reserve, different carboys containing 2%, 3% or 4% lees, and being rotated in different ways – 180 degrees, 360 degrees, etc. at different times -- to mix the lees in the wine. They had spent three years in the carboys, and the wine had been bottled two weeks ago in anticipation of the tasting.
Great presentation; other notes available on request.