The importance of what lies beyond ‘taste’ – the wine that changed it all

I never really liked it. Well, there were those first few months that I utterly loved it. But I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that I enjoyed so much. Besides, I’d already told the story so many times that I was growing bored of hearing myself recount it. It was a pain in the ass. The more compliments I heard about the wine, the more I was unhappy with my role in it.

What compliment could make up for my having dramatically altered the first grapes I’d touched in Burgundy by having stem inclusion? Ironic enough, the decision was the result of putting in a maddening amount of effort in the hopes of decreasing distracting variables such as stem inclusion. But I hadn’t the backup plan nor the worry of my plans failing that might call out for the need of a second option. I did it like I do most everything else; plan what you can and run like hell until you get to the other side, brick walls be damned.

But this time it was different. The stakes had been raised, placing my first Burgundy grapes on the table of chance. After spending a bit under 24 hours hand de-stemming the 2009 Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru I began to think about the freshness of the fruit and what the extra time in the fruit cases could do to the wine. I figured the main difference between being in the small fruit cases and being inside of the fermentation tank was the sulphur. I grabbed a spray bottle and added in a tiny bit of sulphur and diluted with water and gave a spray over the remaining cases. I figured this could give some protection with the grapes were crammed inside the cases waiting to be hand de-stemmed. Another hour passed and the thoughts of decreasing freshness in the fruit ate at me.

I tossed my first whole cluster of fruit inside of the tank.

Nothing happened. the whole thing hadn’t blown up. Sure, it wasn’t to my plan. I wanted nothing but fruit in the tank to ensure that less variables made from my hands, my decisions were inside of the red liquid placed in someone’s glass. I wanted everyone to taste the differences in the vineyard, not my biases for certain vineyards that I might have. It terroir was more than a marketing term used to sell shitty wines I had to see it myself. After all, I had left California, Sonoma County, for Burgundy and all that it meant. To go that far just to make ‘my wine’ would be wasteful. I needed so desperately to see what the differences in the land could produce without me adjusting things.

But there I was, 6:30 in the morning, cluster after cluster now being tossed in. It felt bad doing something that I was against while thinking it was the best for the overall quality of the wine. I couldn’t make sense of what exactly was so good about capturing freshness of something that was inherently being restructured by the very thing was supposed to be ensuring its health. If I could have closed my eyes I would have. I didn’t want to see my same worn out hands recently curled up and tired, now clutching handfuls of grapes and then spreading open while tossing whole cluster berries into the tank.

It was done. I looked into the tank that up until an hour ago held but caviar like berries upon berries and saw stems everywhere. I wanted to jump in and start from scratch again but I couldn’t manage it. I was defeated, upset with myself. Knowing that the wine would at least be sound didn’t do much to calm my irritation.

The wine fermented without a hitch, immediately seeming to take on a woody character that Chambertin and Charmes-Chambertin didn’t. I had a few people try the wines, they liked all three of the wines. The standout? The Chaffots. My ‘skills’ and choices were complimented. I was grateful to have been a part of something providing pleasure to someone else but I couldn’t shake the thought of how my first wine would have been had I not been so struck by the detail of hand de-stemming that I missed the complete picture which led to my altering a wine, producing what I believed to be a heavily stylized wine. It didn’t have any new oak, all the barrels were at least 4 years old but a few early guesses from tasters had it at as ‘at least 50%’. Worse than that, the ‘style’ of the wine was the topic leader, not the origin of the grapes.

Of course, not screwing up my first wine is something I felt and still do feel fortunate for. Yet the experience of so much attention having been placed on my decisions for specific wines and not others highlighted a tremendous flaw in my approach to wines not only as a Burgundy lover but as a Burgundy producer. Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t many approaches in either of those roles that I consider wrong. However, as a consumer of Burgundy, as an obsessed Burgundy lover, I wasn’t paying enough attention while drinking many of these wines to the aspects that are altered by the producer. In some situations more knowledge would have helped me connect to a higher degree with the wines, especially if I could place or attribute some of what I was tasting to what was done with the wines. And if I couldn’t, at least I’d be able to have another data point about what can at times be less noticeable to me when tasting a wine. There isn’t a wrong way to go about tasting wines, but I know that with the things I appreciate most in wines, I missed out on looking at this aspect more closely. I didn’t go into tasting wines blindly before, but I had an increased interest in finding out what actually went into some of the changes within a producer’s lineup of wines and why those changes were present in some wines and not in others.

As a producer, especially in Burgundy, where the concept (and reality) of terroir is supposed to be on full display, I felt a strong pull away from having any variables in between the different wines that were brought on by my decisions. This was something I had a sense of in my first year. Though once the irritation of the 2009 Chaffots having roughly 5-8% whole cluster inclusion set in, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Anything I heard about the wine just put me off. It didn’t matter anymore that people enjoyed them, the wine inside didn’t do its job of representing the name of the vineyard on the label.

Tasting good is something that any wine can do, from any region. Technology, specific treatments dialed into a wine, ripeness, or just flat out getting it ‘right’ for the ‘right’ taster at the ‘right’ time can all play into a wine tasting good or being impressive. A sense of place is different. It is sacred, and impossible to duplicate. Sure, you may not be able to blindly guess the origins of a wine, I’m not too skilled at it either. It doesn’t matter. What does matter to me is that the wine faithfully represents its origins as well as it can. To some, employing certain changes to specific wines or wines in specific vintages, including whole clusters as well as many other aspects are merely tools used to highlight what makes the vineyard special. To my vision, variables between cuvees and even changes over vintages distort the clarity of a vineyard’s expression.

To be clear, I still quite enjoy the wines of many producers that do a good many things to their wines. I wouldn’t suggest that they deliver less of an experience to the taster. I buy, enjoy and share many wines that do not fall into the scope of what I do as a producer. I’ve a strong preference in having the context of wines outside of what I produce, enjoy or even know much about. This is one of the greatest things about wines.

Today I tried our Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Les Chaffots” 2009. The whole clusters are finally starting to fall into place and hide a bit. The fruit is closer to the memory I had of it while it was in barrel, during that time that the fruit was pushing forward, the wine in balance, without much of the clove-like clusters interfering. It is terribly young of course, as a baby, it is more cute than it is charming.

Is this the real terroir because I like it a bit more today than I did before? Frankly, it doesn’t matter what I think about a wine. The experience of those sharing a bottle will be considerably different, it does nothing to change in absolute terms what the wine actually is. What I can say is that while I prefer the wine today, it is and can only ever be a wine that has been altered dramatically from having a more linear path from grape to glass.

As much as I entertain the thought of doing it all over again and where that would leave this particular wine, I take pride in knowing that it is indeed a wine that I find immense pleasure in consuming, beyond the aspects of the story and what that means to me (as much as I can actually distinguish these feeling/experiences that is!). I take comfort in having made the choice that I did and its having such a strong impact on my outlook of wine which encouraged me to do a dramatic shift in my second harvest – a direction which I believe is fully worth the occasional what if as I raise a glass.

To everyone with enough patience in reading another one of my ramblings, I raise my glass to you. I hope to hell that we all can retain our sense of humor and wonder. And if nothing else, a filled glass next to us, to remind us that what has been good can one day be great.

Cheers

Ray

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