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Fine Tuning

Great wine estates, and wine estates striving to be great, often give much contemplation and spend huge amounts of money making incremental changes they believe will make their wines even better or at least not let them fall behind their competitors.

Recently, I had vertical tastings of current and older vintages of the Medoc’s Château Lagrange in New York and Napa Valley’s Sequoia Grove at the winery.  Looking back, I was impressed by the wines made by both, although Lagrange has the much longer history and much older vintages from which to choose.  But, looking forward, I was also impressed with the improvements both estates are making or have recently made.

Lagrange, a huge property in Saint-Julien, dates back to the 1600s, but it was in poor shape when Suntory bought it 30 years ago.  Bruno Eynard has been there for 17 of those years, first as technical director for Marcel Ducasse and more recently as general manager.  Lagrange wines occupy a nice middle ground between the “traditional” Medoc lean machines and “modern” fruit-forward wines.  Eynard’s recent vintages are tasting quite good, but nevertheless new investments are major – new reception area, new vat house, smaller fermentation vessels, picking in smaller containers, 25 new hectares of vines, a large permanent staff of employees to harvest and work the vineyard, on-site composting, new tourism facilities – and so on.

Sequoia Grove was born in Napa a couple of years before Suntory purchased Lagrange, but the same improvement-by-project philosophy holds true there, if at a lesser level and over a shorter time frame.  Winemaker Molly Hill says, “We try to do at least one major improvement project each year.” That may be better sourcing of grapes, new properties acquired, more oak barrels for aging, air knives for sorting, declassifying grapes meant for a $65 blend into the Sequoia Grove’s “everyday” cab.  As with Lagrange, both older and recent cabs taste delicious, but Hill and president Michael Trujillo think they can do better.

Yet there is also a conundrum at work here.  If conditions in vineyards and wineries were so primitive in the past, why do some older wines in estate verticals taste so great? Whether it’s in Napa or Bordeaux or Burgundy or McLaren Vale, wineries like to do throw vertical tastings and bring out very old vintages at celebratory dinners.  And everyone agrees that some of them taste fantastic!  How did they make that happen under such “primitive” conditions before anyone heard of phenolic ripeness, when fears of late rains often resulted in too-early picking?

Don’t get me wrong.  Even I can taste improvements from vintage to vintage due to changes in the vineyards and at the winery.  And I know for a fact there are now fewer poor vintages because winemakers have the knowledge and equipment to turn disasters into decent wines.

Still, the question nags, “How could they make such great wines back then when conditions were thought to be so poor?”  For example, by general consensus at the vertical tasting, the 1959 Lagrange, made in concrete tanks from what might be considered over-cropped grapes, was superb.

Some possibilities raise their hands.  Perhaps the winemaker back then stuck to traditional basics and knew how to nail it when weather gave him good grapes.  Or that he was making wines for the ages, as was the custom then, and not for immediate drinking.  And perhaps those vintages we don’t taste were so poor that bottles weren’t made or no longer exist or are left un-opened. In other words, great wines were made only occasionally.

Or, just maybe, it’s that a great terroir planted to the correct varieties trumps everything else.

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