Theme and Variants: Élevage (Raising up) and Getting Doon

Dear DEWNstah,1

If someone were to ask me about my “winemaking style,” I believe I should properly answer, “Taoist.” Let me unpack that slightly cryptic formulation: A Taoist is concerned with many issues, but mostly is trying to synchronize his own efforts and intentions with the general flow of energy moving through all things;2, 3 he is focused on preserving his own life-force, or qi, which partakes of that energetic flux.

When I started out making wine, I felt that my job was to make my wines taste as delicious as I possibly could, ideally upon release; I was less concerned about the future arc of the wine’s narrative, as it were. I wanted people to like them so that they would buy them and drink them now. To that end, I used all sorts of winemaking tricks: saigner (the bleeding of free run juice), microoxygenation (tannin management, it was called), designer yeasts, enzymes, reverse osmosis, even gum arabic(!)4 —in truth, none particularly trickier than those deployed by many of my winemaking colleagues.

But I have put aside these childish ploys and toys and now—indeed for quite some time—have grown to embrace the beauty of natural, unmanipulated wines. Along with a growing appreciation for wines produced sans maquillage, one quality that I have greatly come to esteem is the quality of life-force in a wine, the ability to resist oxidation.  Some people may use the term “minerality” to describe this attribute, citing a somewhat austere, stony aspect to the wine, especially in its youth, and especially manifest upon first opening. This is not to be confuted with astringency or the presence of tannin, though tannin is certainly part of the antioxidative system of a wine, that is the sum of the elements that allow the wine to live for a very long time. And a long life, both for the wine and its maker, is what this Taoist winemaker most sincerely wishes to achieve.

2007 Le Cigare Volant "en foudre" and "en demi-muid"
Which brings us to the 2007 Le Cigare Volant “en foudre” and “en demi-muid.” These so-called “variants” featured in November’s DEWN club wine shipment are quite different from Cigares d’antan, and they are somewhat different from the archetypal or at least expected Bonny Doon wine. The two variants reflect differences in the élevage, or the cellaring regime of the wine. One, the demi-muid or puncheon, was aged primarily in 500 and 600 liter5 barrels (this is a little more than twice the size of a conventional barrel); the other, en foudre, was aged in 10,000 liter upright wood tanks.6 But note: both variants are made from precisely the same wine when put down to cask; it is the élevage that has created the rather significant differences between them.

Why should this be interesting to us? When I first started making Le Cigare Volant back in 1984, we aged the wine more or less exclusively in large wood tanks, because that was simply “how it was done,” at least in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Platonic model of Cigare. Then I went through a slightly cute phase of aging the wine in 60 gallon barrels7 —a supremely bad idea. Ultimately, I came to really like the result of aging approximately half of the wine in puncheon and half in large wood tank. Each seemed to reveal a different facet of the wine, and the blend of the two often seemed to create the most harmonious effect, so this has in fact pretty much been our standard wine aging protocol for the last ten or fifteen years.8 But I always wondered what the course of the evolution of the wine might be if we had kept these individual lots unblended.

The role of the caviste—the French wouldn’t call him a “winemaker”—is rather a bit like that of a Chinese physician: he is to trying to grasp a sense of the qualities of the qi of the individual under consideration—is it robust or fragile?—and to plot a course most appropriate to the conservation of that individual’s life-force. If the wine is quite robust, costaud, the French would say, it will want to be exposed to a fair bit of oxygen, especially in its youth. If the wine is more fragile, the wine’s exposure to oxygen will want to be far more discreet. This latter case means generally a larger aging vessel, where there is proportionately less oxygen permeation (a smaller surface area of exposure to O2 to the overall volume of the vessel).

Now barrels, especially new ones, are something else again. On the one hand, there is far greater oxygen exchange, owing to the greater surface area exposed to air and the relative thinness of the wood staves. Oxygen tends to drive certain reactions—the condensation and softening of a wine—quite appropriate for varieties rich in both tannins (from seeds and stems) and anthocyanins (the pigmented material in the grapeskins). The oak itself also contributes wood tannins, and these act, at least in theory, as an antioxidative counterbalance to the oxygen absorbed into the wine. You see, oxygen—the softener, the polisher, the refiner of the wine—is also the hidden assassin of wine, that initiator of the tragic inversion of the hourglass, meting out the finitude of a wine’s days. So, it is all rather a bit of a dance.

About the wines, at last: I wish I could offer you very precise tidy tasting notes, but this is essentially impossible, as the wines are currently in such an enormous state of flux. On a given day they are utterly charming, filled with fruit and other vinous qualities that make us break out in song. On another they are brooding, sullen adolescents.9 In general, I can offer the following observations about some of the generalized distinctions between the two wines: The Cigare en foudre seems to be in some sense the younger or less evolved of the pair; one typically finds there more primary fruit aromas. The en foudre also appears to be the more umami or savory-intensive wine of the two; there is a strong suggestion of loamy earth/forest floor, with the occasional whiff of truffle.10

Now, the en demi-muid is another kettle of grenache. In the cellar, for visitors, it has almost always been the more attractive of the two wines, though in candor I would suggest that this may have more to do with the fact that its perceptual Gestalt is more familiar to most tasters.11, 12 What the (relatively) smaller cooperage seems to do to wine is to polish it to a high gloss. The new oak component does seem offer a bit of sweetness to the nose; the wine is slightly darker in color than the en foudre, as the oak tannin has reacted with the anthocyanins in the wine to help stabilize the color. The wine somehow seems more “classic,” more refined, sleeker and grown up; it is less “rustic” and more “modern.”  If these two wines were hairstyles, maybe the en foudre would be mildly dreadlocked and the en demi-muid would be a razor cut. I worry a bit that with the en demi-muid we are getting dangerously close here to making something in the dreaded “international style”—not precisely the outcome that I am seeking, but as a winemaking exercise, worth doing at least once.

The great sea change at Bonny Doon is that we, like good Taoists, are seeking to learn how to build wines capable of living a long time. Is longevity an absolute good?  For nuanced, complex wines, the answer is incontrovertibly, Yes.

I want to invite you to come along with us on this journey of discovery, to really grasp this other dimension of wine—its ability to change and evolve over time. Yes, I know this is a bit of a departure from what some of you may regard as the paradigmatic Bonny Doon style, and may further seem like a sales ploy to induce you to buy more wine. But the reality is that this is where we are going—hang onto your hats—and the wines really need to be tasted on multiple occasions to follow the arc of their development. They will undoubtedly live for twenty years (or more), and are nowhere near providing optimal tasting enjoyment right now13 (I am myself not so secretly rooting for the en foudre for the long term). But may I humbly suggest that you consider purchasing at least half a case of each, and opening the two variants side by side every few years?14, 15

We are both of us on a rather exciting journey; it has been my great pleasure and privilege to have traveled with you at least this far.

With very best wishes,

Randall Grahm
Winemaker and President-for-life

  1. This letter was originally sent to club members of Bonny Doon’s Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network along with their November shipment of Cigare variants. The wines, as well as the normale blend, are currently only available to wine club members, and can be purchased online at bonnydoonvineyard.com. They will be released to the general public in the fall of 2011. []
  2. The most important application of this practice vis-à-vis wine is the correct identification of a vineyard site, or to put it in the crude parlance of the pragmatic Westerner: “Location, location, location.” Identification of the genius site can be accomplished through geomancy, feng shui, great intuitive insight, sincere prayer and tremendously good luck. []
  3. The Western formulation of this dictum would be, “You can’t fight City Hall.” []
  4. A trick that I learned over there in France. []
  5. The 600 liter, thick-staved puncheons are locally called “bastardos,” because of the absolute physical difficulty of moving them around. []
  6. Cunningly fitted out with “lees hotels,” perforated stainless steel shelves, on which lees can deposit, the better to become easily digested into the wine. But you’ve undoubtedly heard my “Lees check in but they don’t check out” joke once or twice already. []
  7. 225 liters, for the metrically gifted. []
  8. The 2007 Le Cigare Volant “normale,” the wine released through our primary distribution channels, has been composed thusly. []
  9. Please further note that this variability is not in fact a defect in the wines in any sense, but rather, an indication that they are “real” wines, imbued with life, and somewhat sensitive to environmental conditions—temperature, barometric pressure, lunar cycles and God knows what else. []
  10. If you were/are a closet chthonophage (dirt-eater), this wine is definitely for you. []
  11. Robert Parker, for example, seemed to have liked this wine reasonably well (though couldn’t resist the opportunity to put the shiv in and twist it just a little bit for sport on another matter), giving the en demi-muid the slight nod to the en foudre. You have to say the man knows what he likes. []
  12. In general, the ’07 Cigare Volant has been rather well received by many professional wine critics, who have tasted it in its infancy.  I am just the slightest bit cranky on the subject, but I believe that they “get” the ’07 in a way that they did not some of the recent Cigare vintages, in virtue of the imminent power of the ’07. It is a great leap. []
  13. If you absolutely insist on tasting the wine now, you will be well advised to decant it and give it at least two hours of air. Alternatively, you can open it, drink maybe half of it tonight and try the balance over the next couple of evenings. You will note that the wine will hold up exceptionally well. You should also note—and this is likely too important a point to relegate to a footnote—that this is an utterly remarkable, atypical occurrence for most New World wines. []
  14. As the wine was aging in the cellar, we took the opportunity of tasting the two versions side by side over a period of almost two years.  What was absolutely extraordinary was the horserace-like quality of the wines’ respective showing. On a given day, one would be absolutely charming and expressive, a month later, absolutely nada, bupkis. And the following month, it pops out again, wearing a sunny smile, as if nothing had ever been amiss. []
  15. Another thought: You might consider gifting a younger person (offspring, favored nephew or niece) with a DEWN membership. []

8 Responses to “Theme and Variants: Élevage (Raising up) and Getting Doon”

  1. Thank you for sharing your insights. As an appreciator of many things Doon, and as fellow winemaker (albeit microscopic in comparative scale) I think your Taoist approach is an apt analogy as it reflects your celebration of man’s association and interdependency with nature (wine and all her “friends and enemies”) and things we can and cannot control. Yin/Yang – Science/Art etc. Wine in all it’s stages can definitely reflect a religious experience. I think that is biggest, of the many, pleasures of winemaking, growing and drinking in that it is a constant learning process and never the same twice.

    I regret to admit I have not continued my membership and have missed many interesting wines, and back stories, as a result. Count me in for future membership.

  2. Vinesnob says:

    Love all this, Randall. I made a similar, though much less visible, transition in my relationship and attitude towards wine. Maybe one day we’ll get to compare notes. See ya on the Twitter. – VS

    • Thank you very much for your periodic choice commentary on Twitter; some tres bons mots. My own attitude toward wine continues to change; while wine is certainly a “thing,” it may well also be an instrument of the sacred. I am hoping that I can continue to discern its most profound and soulful uses.

  3. George Parkinson says:

    Randall,
    Your use of the term “Taoist”, (Daoist) is intriguing. As a long time wine lover and martial artist/eastern discipline advocate myself, I often think how wine, from grape to glass, is much like the gong fu practice of tai qi chuan as a slow, soft correct posture to align the body and spirit until a moment of the unity of both can be achieved.

    It’s nice to read your words so eloquently state this approach to your wine making.

    To that end, however, I have to take you to task as you begin the article by stating a desire to “embrace the beauty of unmanipulated wine.”

    The barrel regimine you describe defeats this Daoist approach, in my opinion, and does the exact opposite. Does not unmanipulated include a greater “laissez faire” approach even with the use of the holding material that does manipulate the outcome? In a purer approach, would not the eastern thinker gently guide the energy of the juice to allow the wine to find that place nature indended, mean not only natural yeast, natural fining/filtering, and also sans-barrick to allow the original energy in the fruit to arrive at its most perfect state naturally?

    would we not have done this naturally all along if men did not employ wood, toasted to a certain level for the purpose of flavor addition, but went from clay to glass and then stainless steel?

    • George, I am actually quite in agreement with you on the generally deformative properties of wood. While the presence of oak in well-structured wines seems to enhance the breadth of the wine, it also has the effect of “planing” down, if you will, many of the wine’s unique characteristics, making it more “impressive,” but more anonymous. I am hoping that this will in fact be demonstrated in the side by side comparison of “Foudres” (large wood tanks) vs. “Demi-muids” – one of the take-home messages of this exercise.

      I am utterly intrigued by the possibilities of the élevage of wines in alternative vessels. We have done some interesting experiments with cement tanks lined with quartz crystals, but had some real technical difficulties in the execution of the tanks. (Turns out that building winery grade cement tanks is something you want to have done by someone who has done it 50 times before.) I am tremendously keen on experimenting with amphorae, ideally build with clay from the area. We are in fact working now with glass demijohns as a potential ageing medium for wine and those results are quite promising. But, whatever vessel we end up using to contain the wine should itself be benign in its effect – the world’s greatest amphorae, if they impart too much amphora character – (goût d’argile?) to the wine – are probably unsuitable. Thanks very much for your comments

  4. Miguel Raton says:

    After reading Mr. Parkinson’s comment, I am envisioning huge dropplets of wine, sans container, fementing in a perpetual free-fall (orbit) or other zero-G environment. Could space be the final fronteer of wine making?

    • Space is definitely the final frontier at Bonny Doon Vineyard ( and for most of the surrounding Santa Cruz area). Mr Parkinson does bring up a very interesting point about oak, and by extension brings up the question of whether there is any role at all for maquillage in wine? (I’m sure he would suggest absolutely none and that is a very defensible position.) All of the grands crus of Bordeaux use 100% new oak barrels in their winemaking; they would likely argue that its use ultimately is “structural,” i.e. it disappears as a flavor component and really exists only to support the wine, giving it the tannic backbone to enable it to age and to optimize its genetic potential. Tantric practitioners will use all sorts of “impure” means to achieve a higher, purer end. Certainly, the intent of the winemaker must needs count at least a bit for the ultimate success and integrity of the wine. But, yes, I’d much rather be ageing our wine in amphorae or glass-lined vessels than in barrels, even of the neutral persuasion.

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