Today we are publishing a joint venture with fellow wine writer Kimberly Zambrello. Kimberly is a Boston-based wine marketing professional who runs a wine blog named The Insatiable Vine (www.insatiablevine.com). She believes in “wine being a powerful beverage, rich in history and storytelling, a product of mother earth, sensual yet sophisticated, deeply rooted in our culture, and delicious and unexpected.” For this project, we decided to talk about a special winery and a special winemaker. Thus, we asked Randall Grahm, the man behind Bonny Doom Vineyards in Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Kimberly and I decided to talk about the winery, talk about one of its wines and throw some questions to Randall. This is the result.
In the aftermath of Woodstock and the Vietnam War, California, maybe the most hippie state in the USA, was living a wine revolution. In 1976, a few red and white wines from Napa Valley were selected as the best in a blind tasting in Paris, over some of the most famous wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Local wineries were starting to produce outstanding wines. In 1979 Randall Grahm graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Viticulture and started his wine business purchasing property in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of the best areas for winemaking in California, in an area known as Bonny Doon that became the name of his winery. His first objective was to produce the best American Pinot Noir, but this turned into making wines using Rhône verities. Soon his wines became widely recognized and he turned into the champion of this style of wines and being a member of a group of winemakers known as the Rhône Rangers.
Bonny Doon was conceived by Randall Grahm during his early days of attempting to replicate Burgundy style Rhones in central coast California. This endeavor did not succeed, but when one door closes another will surely open, and with this new door swung off its hinges he created a movement, a wine revolution.
Present day Bonny Doon Vineyards has achieved many firsts and continues to restructure and reshape the way wine comes to be. From the introduction to screw caps to using Biodynamics practices, harnessing the powers of the sun and moon to create wines that unlock secrets of unachievable vibrancy. It is only fitting that the Vin Gris de Cigare’s label and name are inspired by a 1954 visit from extraterrestrials.
The science and extensive power behind leveraging biodynamics during the agricultural process are far more complicated and robust to accurately define during this review. However, in short, the practice strives to create a balance of purity and impurity between man and earth. It is about harnessing the universe and aligning the growing season to the astronomical calendar and unseen rhythmic pulses of the earth. The earth is no longer viewed as a vineyard or a vine but an entire ecosystem of life, death, rotation, and evolution; where plant, earth, animal, and universe co-conspire to live in perfect harmony.
“A Biodynamic grower is linked to his farm in a much more intimate way. One learns how to cultivate ones intuition and powers of observation, to be able to see one’s farm with fresh eyes, and to feel the great power of Nature at ones back, rather than as a formidable adversary.”
For this article, Kimberly chose Vin Gris De Cigare 2016.
Bonny Doon Vineyard caught my attention the moment I first set eyes upon “A Proper Claret”. The art was eye-catching and thought-provoking, the wine was phenomenal, but their story was truly captivating. I have spent weeks researching and reading about their great history, the winemaker’s methodologies, and their core values that set them apart from other vineyards. Through my experience with Bonny Doon, I have only brushed my fingertips a top of something monumental. Welcome to my take on Bonny Doon Vineyard.
For my journey with Bonny Doon Vineyard I chose to immerse myself into the “Pink Wine of the Earth”, their Vin Gris De Cigare 2016.
“Pink Wine of the Earth” a unique blend (49% Grenache, 19% Grenache Blanc, 13% Mourvèdre, 12% Carignane, 4% Cinsault, 3% Roussanne) concocted by the original Rhone Ranger and industry pioneer, Randall Grahm. To understand the beauty and complexity of the Vin Gris De Cigare 2016 you must dive deeper into the mind of its creator and understand the history and core principles of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Without their story, you cannot fully taste the fruits of their land.
At first glance, you will be drawn to bottle for its creative and outwardly obvious tribute to UFOs and alien invasions. The art, created by artist Chuck House, plays tribute to the 1954 story of Marius Dewilde who spotted a cigar-shaped alien craft landing on his property. An event that triggered such an uproar in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France, the mayor passed a law to protect their precious vines. You will also notice another reference as an alien face stares directly into your eyes from the top of the bottle.
Visually the wine calms your presence with a pink hue that sparkles like an ocean’s sunset. The ambiance dances from the bottle with soothing tinges of peach and an array of faint oranges. The sunlight shines in adoration as it cradles the bottle in its arms like a birthed young. Sweet smells of pure air and hints of salt whisk me off on coastal adventures. The faintest memory of beach air and seashells swirls my nostrils and brings a smile to my face. All sense provoked and invigorated. Drops of watermelon and cherry and childhood summers keep me motivated to continue my journey through this wine. Honesty, integrity and earthly perfection.
The wine tastes deeply and ethically, the care and attention to the farm and grapes reach through to your final sip. The wine is nicely balanced and perfectly rounded. There are no overpowering flavors and your palate will remain pleased and poised. Dim hints of citrus tapped into my senses with fresh morning grapefruits. Dabs of plum flavors and a minimal tang or marmalade. The overall flavors are perfectly paired with each other. The wine is fluid and tranquil. It is calming and sensual. An experience in itself.
For this article, Aitor chose Le Cigare Volant Reserve 2009.
Nowadays Randall produces a wide array of wines but maybe of his best ones is Le Cigare Volant, a Rhône-variety blend that uses the principal grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault. This blend goes against his belief of using mainly Syrah in a wine instead of Grenache or Mourvèdre. Recently we had the opportunity of enjoying a bottle of the 2009 Le Cigare Volant Réserve, a vintage that Randall considers “the most elegant and complete Cigare we have produced to date; it is literally a dream, and dare I say, a very strange synthesis of the sensibilities of southern Rhône and Burgundy.” The wine goes through a short period of élèvage in oak puncheons and then it stays for 23 months in 20-liter glass demijohns on its lees.
When we face the bottle, one thing caught our attention: the screwcap. It is a current misapprehension that screwcaps are only used in young wines, most of the times in white ones, and produced for being consumed young. Screwcaps, notwithstanding, enables wines to live approximately 50% longer than the same wine were it sealed in cork. The maturation of wine in screwcap is a bit different than the same wine in cork. The wine in screwcap is often more closed in or even reduced in its youth, but will truly remain a lot fresher over time, as compared to the same wine sealed with a cork.
We knew the wine we had in front of us was a special one; it was a 2009 so we knew Randall’s opinion about it. All our senses were on alert. We were absolutely taken by this wine. Smoothly perfumed, black fruit aromas, especially dark cherry, silky palate and a perfectly balanced structure. It was indeed a great wine that we enjoyed till the last drops of the bottle.
Some questions for Randall Grahm
Southern Rhône is known by its Grenache, Northern Rhône by Syrah. How do you manage to balance this wine using almost the same proportion of each variety?
Bear in mind that the 2009 was a fairly singular vintage for us. In general, we very seldom use such a high percentage of Syrah in our Cigare; it is generally Mourvèdre or Grenache which will play the starring role. The reason for this is that (proper) Syrah is so pungent that it will often aromatically dominate a blend and the wine will be more “Syrah” than “Cigare.” I accidentally found that if we used a high percentage of Cinsault in the blend, we could largely tame the aggressiveness of the Syrah. Cinsault has a very strong benzaldehyde component – wild cherry, if you will, and it seems to aromatically sit on top of the peppery aspect of the Syrah, affording the wine a real sense of elegance, almost recalling a Burgundian aspect.
Why screwcap for a wine made for ageing?
The wines almost age more slowly (and predictably) in screwcap, of course dependent on the type of liner that one uses. We use the Saratin (most oxygen-exclusionary) liner for white and pink wines as well as for vins de garde, i.e. wines intended for extended ageing. The maturation of the wine in screwcap (with a tight liner) is a bit different than the same wine sealed with cork. The screwcap wine will often be a bit more backward in its youth, but my estimation is that it will live 50% longer than the same wine sealed in cork. Again, I think this is a function of the fact that there is less oxygen permeation than you find with a cork. One of the benefits of the screwcap is that one is not obliged to use as much SO2 to achieve microbial control.
What do you find in using demijohns for ageing your wines?
We have used demijohns for ageing Le Cigare Volant, Le Cigare Blanc, and Vin Gris de Cigare, and in every wine they contribute something a bit different. But in general, we like the oxygen-exclusionary aspect of the demijohns – again, this helps to charge the battery of the wine, if you will. There also seems to be a greater degree of polysaccharides through yeast autolysis; this seems to contribute greatly to an improved textural element in the wine – length and suavity. Lastly, there is a non-trivial amount of glutamate released by the lees, which imparts a savory of umami character. The élevage in demijohn gives us generally a favorable result – increased complexity, better integration and certainly improved texture. The only potential Doon-side, if you will, is that sometimes the individual aromatic elements of the wine might tend to become a bit muddled. Thankfully, this does not appear to be the case with the 2009 Cigare.
You said 2009 was your best Le Cigare Volant vintage. What was so special about this year?
Nothing really special about the year frankly. We just seem to have accidentally really nailed the blend.
When you blend different varieties, what do you look for in each of them to bring into the wine, and how do you determine the right percentage of each one?
So much seems to depend on the vintage, and perhaps the diligence of the particular grower from whom we’ve purchased the fruit. But as I’ve mentioned, we usually intend to identify the real “star” of the vintage, be in Grenache or Mourvèdre, and then attempt to build the wine around that star. Generally, we are pretty successful in identifying the “A” lots, i.e. the batches that we’re absolutely certain will be included in the blend, and then we just go through a painful, iterative process of trying out differing percentages of the secondary lots to get closer to the final blend. At the end, we are just playing around, tweaking small percentages a bit to get precisely the balance we’re looking for. We try to get as close to the final blend as early in the process as we can, but it is not unheard of for us to sometimes make some last minute adjustments if the wine has moved in an unexpected direction. Obviously, it’s very important to taste the blend over and over to make sure that we’re happy with it; one’s own taste does seem to vary from day to day, I’ve observed. Bear in mind, we always try to work with the same grape varieties, but the percentages may vary enormously from year to year. In near future, when we are working exclusively with our own grapes for Cigare, these percentages will not vary nearly so much.
What is more appealing for you in Rhône varieties rather than other more “American” varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel?
I can’t really say with precision why Rhône varieties have proven to be the most appealing to me. I’m not a big Zinfandel fan, as I generally have little patience for high alcohol wines. Cabernet as a grape has very little allure for me; mostly because I feel that it is a bit simple, but also, I don’t really think I have much to contribute to the world-wide conversation about Cabernet. In a sort of perfect world, I would be making Burgundy, truth be told, but this would necessitate me living in Burgundy, and I’m not sure exactly how that would work. With Rhône varieties (especially when blended), I think I’ve been able to achieve a modicum of elegance and complexity, which is what I look for in serious wines. I am still a bit unhappy that we in the New World have yet to find our own voice, our own distinctive style that is not derivative of the Old World. I am hopeful that I will live long enough to help breed some new varieties, which (perhaps in combination) will allow us to find individual biotypes that are perhaps more congruent to our unique conditions.
Photo (c) by Nicole diGiorgio