That was our gracious host's question, her introduction to the formal segment of the evening for our gathered gang of eight. In the moment, no one seemed inclined to answer.
We'd all been invited to taste a group of wines that had been produced according to the methods described by Jules Chauvet, widely considered as the progenitor of the natural wine making movement in France. Or was it really the Jacques Néauport method? That question was left hanging, but no matter.... Without any absolute control or doctrine, there was still a reasonably clear focus: we'd be tasting wines fermented using carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration and made without the use of added sulfur dioxide (other than in the vineyard and, in some cases, in small doses at bottling time).
Seventeen wines later, our rather tight-lipped, largely poker-faced gathering didn't seem any more inclined to voicing a conclusion to our convening question, either en masse or individually, than at the outset. But never fear, dear reader, for I am here to give you an unequivocally clear answer.
Yes and no.
Actually, the only unequivocal answer is that there is no clear answer.
Does method trump terroir? When it comes to the Chauvet/Néauport method in particular, yes, in at least one sense. Nearly all of the wines we tasted showed the aromatic stamp, to varying degrees, of carbonic maceration. No, in at least one arguably more important sense. The best wines, even just the good wines, we tasted showed not only their varying levels of carbonic nature but also a definite sense of both varietal character and place, that is to say a taste of the vine and of the soil. It would appear that, all else being sound, method and terroir can indeed be happy bunk mates.
All seventeen wines, by the way, were tasted in a single-blind format. Specifically, we were provided with a list of the wines but all bottles were brown-bagged and poured in randomized order. The wines were revealed only after all had been tasted. In addition to the big picture assessment made above, here are some other observations I'd like to (or at least am willing to) share:
- It's a bit of a no-brainer but it still bears saying: while method doesn't necessarily trump terroir, an unacceptable level(s) of faultiness does. By my reckoning, two of the wines in the lineup (not counting one that was eliminated because of cork taint) were flawed to the point of eradicating any clear sense of variety or terroir.
- The Chauvet/Néauport approach is generally considered to be best suited to Gamay, particularly to Gamay grown on granitic soils. It also appears to meld quite nicely with Ploussard in the Jura and, based on our lineup, to hold promise for Grenache based wines from the Mediterranean regions of France.
- One of my favorite wines of the night turned out to be a varietal expression of Cinsault from the Languedoc, the Vin de Table "Pitchounet" from Domaine Mouressipe. It leaned toward the method end of the aromatic spectrum but it's a wine I'd happily return to for sheer enjoyment.
- Our host for the evening associates a certain baking spice with the aromatic signature of Chauvet-esque carbonic maceration. The aroma that struck me, though, in wine after wine, across regions and varieties/blends, was of pickling spices, dill in particular. Perhaps a better wine scientist than I could explain that; I can only say that I noticed it — and took note of it — in many of the wines.
- The wine that showed the least facet of carbonic character was a Bordeaux, a 1998 Saint Emilion from Château Meylet. I did get some of that dill/pickling spice on the nose, but that's not atypical of Merlot grown in SW France. This begs a couple of questions. Most obviously, do the darker, bolder character of Bordeaux varieties assert themselves over the character derived from (semi)carbonic maceration? Secondly, and more subtly, what happens to carbonic character with age? Does it perhaps fade? The next oldest wine in the lineup was eight years younger and it was shot, one of the two overly faulty wines mentioned above.
- I've written here before about my general dislike of blind tasting. Tasting wine without a sense of what it is or where it comes from, not to mention without a sense of enjoyment, strips the soul away from what wine truly is about. That said, as a technical exercise, there's plenty to be learned from blind tasting. First and foremost: humility. Out of seventeen wines, I completely nailed the identity of only two — and I'd hazard an educated guess that they're the same two that every person in the room also ID'd: the aforementioned Bordeaux and Marcel Lapierre's 2010 Beaujolais Nouveau. I hit correctly on the terroir/regional origins in about half of the cases and I was wildly off in more than one instance. Always a good reality check.
- Going back to the issue of "control" (in the statistical sense) that I referred to in opening, it was quite rightly mentioned by many in attendance that, while all of the wines we had tasted were made with some degree or another of carbonic maceration, there were also any number of variables in play. Variety and region aside, carbonic vs. semi-carbonic maceration, the duration of skin and stem contact, pressing or the lack thereof, barrel aging (or not), yields — and other things I'm probably forgetting — were all discussed as likely variables in the mix.
- Just as good a question as that we began with is this: Does over-ripeness obscure terroir? One of the wines I missed on most egregiously was the 2009 Fleurie from Yvon Métras (the regular cuvée, not "L'Ultime"). I pegged its big, ripe, kirsch-like flavors as a Rhône or Languedoc wine. So much for my Gamay sense.... There was much discussion later in the evening about the freak show of a vintage that was 2009 in the Beaujolais. While I'm hardly about to jump on the vintage hating bandwagon — I've had plenty of gorgeous 2009 Beaujolais — I will say that the Métras was startlingly rich and bold, at the expense of sense of place.