Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Art of the Assemblage
Blending in the Fields of Bergerac

If there exists a single practice that unites the often disparate perspectives on winemaking, it is the blend. While most wine drinkers associate blending with the mixing of different grape varietals, blending also includes the mixing of wines made from different vineyards, wines that have received different types of vinification, wines from different casks or barrels, and even wines from different vintages.

If there exists a number of different types of blends, the reasons for blending are far fewer. Vintage blending is a useful tool if the winemaker wants to maintain a somewhat consistent flavor and have as little variation as possible from year to year. Varietal blending can act as a safeguard against weaknesses in one of the chosen grapes caused by problems during the growing season. But the most obvious reason to blend is to add complexity. The most skillful winemakers can mix once disparate elements so intimately and harmoniously that the components lose their original definition. It is the art of the mix.

All the above mentioned techniques involve mixing one ‘finished’ or fermented wine with another. However, there are a few mix masters who have taken the concept to the vineyard and use a technique of co-plantation, actually pre-mixing the grapes in the fields. Future partners grow side by each, and are harvested and vinified together. My first contact with a winemaker who uses this technique was Jean Michel Deiss, whose Alsace blends are so extraordinary that his grand cru Schoenenbourg was the first to receive ‘grand cru’ designation, an honor formerly bestowed only on single varietal wines. His Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner share the same parcel of land and after years of growing together, he claims that they have begun to ripen at the same time. Now that's synergy!

I admit that as much as I love the principle of this more ‘organic’ approach to blending, I was skeptical…. until I met Luc de Conti from Owner Château Tour des Gendres who made the same claim. Located in southwestern France’s Bergerac appellation, Conti has co-planted Muscadelle, Semillon and Sauvignon which over time have begun to ripen at the same to,e. Hmmmm. Now the wines are fabulous but I must admit to being a bit confused as to what this system can bring to the final product. Will the grapes ultimately have a different flavour if cross-polinated by other varietals? Conti espouses, and rightly so, the need for vintage variation but does this system just lend itself to a blend of ripe and super-ripe grapes, whereby each varietal's ripeness is dependant upon the climate variations of that vintage?

It must be noted that this technique is used only for his whites, as his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot apparently have natural ripening times which are too far apart to benefit from co-plantation.

I have spent the morning trying to find a scientific reason for this phenomenon but to no avail, though I have found other winemakers who use the same principle. All I can fall back on is anecdotal evidence, like my grandma's belief that green tomatoes when placed in a bowl with ripe tomatoes ripen faster than if left separate. I would welcome any scientific evidence that is out there to explain this phenomenon.

So back to the point of this post which is the amazing discovery that is Château Tour des Gendres. The whites were crisp, rich and aromatic while the reds make many a Bordeaux pale in comparison. Here’s the rundown.

Bergerac Sec 2004, Cuvée des Conti, Château Tour des Gendres (saq....$15.70)
An enticing and delicate perfume of musky citrus flowers, followed by a rich and honeyed texture. The lolita of wines, this is so fresh and pretty one feels almost guilty about it enjoying this much. The balance between richness and acidity is perfect, especially for such a young Semillon. A field mix of 80% Semillon and 20% Muscadelle. Calling all spicy plates, you have met a wonderful under $20 match.

Bergerac Sec 2005, Cuvée des Conti, Château Tour des Gendres
Fresh from the barrel, the muscadelle was a bit overpowering and brought a bit too much sweetness to the nose. Luc said it would calm down.

Bergerac Sec 2001, Moulin des Dames, Château Tour des Gendres (saq....$33.75)
A blend of 40% Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, this is a big white wine that could still benefit from a year or so to allow the wood to integrate even more. But it is close. The 2003 are on the market but like so many 03’s lack a certain acidity. Hold out and buy the 2004.

Côte de Bergerac 2002, Gloire de mon Père, Château Tour des Gendres (saq....$22.50)
A 50-50 blend of Cabernet and Merlot and a proof that great wine need not break the bank. For those who want the combination of finesse and power that good Bordeaux does so well, and at a fraction of the price, then this is your bottle. Concentrated and explosive from the first sip, layers of slightly jammy dark fruit are intertwined with hints of coffee grounds and nutty, sweet spice. And I thought I was starting to get bored with reds.


g58 said...

Hey great post. I'm bookmarking it for reference. It's fascinating reading about you meeting these winemakers. And then you worked in some reviews too!
I know the Cuvée des Conti so it's nice to see your notes. I found the 2003 reduced at a director sale last year and now that the adjustment of SAQ prices have permanently marked down bottles everywhere, I'm not planning on turning my back on the 2004 or the 2005.
Hope to try Gloire de mon Père soon too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,

Of course there's a scientific basis to this sort of
phenomenon. I don't know about the specifics of
grapes on the vine, but as far as your Grandma's
tomatoes like bananas, I know its Ethylene gas. As a
fruit ripens, its enzymes emit ethylene gas which in
turn will speed up ripening in fruit near by. It works
for bananas, pears, avocados... In fact with alot of
commercial fruit picked unripe, they transport it,
then blast it with ethylene gas to "artificially"
ripen at the point of sale. This is off the top of my
head, but I'm sure I can root around in my food
science stuff and find more detailed information.

Nancy H.

St. Vini said...

Nicely woven tale, Bill.

I'm not sure of the synergistic effect really being in play in the vineyard level, but I do know that many in Tuscany claim the narcissus planted at the borders cross polinate the Sangiovese and Canaiolo grapes to make them "softer" on the palate.

Sorry, no hard evidence - just anecdote, but the ethylene gas theory offered by Nancy H. does indeed work on fruit.
Thanks for the defensive block on eGullet btw...