An Apologia for Le Cigare Volant: An Introduction to the ’05 Vintage, Part 1 of 2

We’ve been making Le Cigare Volant since 1984, back when I thought it would be an interesting and fun thing1 to make a blend of the principal grape varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape,2 grown under California conditions.  I didn’t quite realize at the time that Cigare would become so synonymous with Bonny Doon and vice-versa, nor that I would ultimately come to identify so strongly with the wine itself.  It has become the truest lens of my current winemaking ideas, aspirations and obsessions, a reflection, of where I am going as a winemaker and where the company itself is headed.

So, just to set things straight:  The Cigare is not a vin de terroir, not by a long stretch.  Most significantly, it derives from multiple, geographically disparate vineyards, so in a real sense, it is a vin d’effort, a composed wine.  But the last several years, I feel that we have made some great breakthroughs with the wine, and while Cigare is not yet expressive of a particular place, it evinces incredible refinement and complexity, and something like a strongly defined distinctive style and aesthetic.3

When I first started producing Cigare, I imagined that it should taste a lot like Châteauneuf-du-Pape to be more or less successful.4 Over the years, to my great chagrin, I have frankly come to really not care so very much for most Châteauneufs; the wines often, though not always, are just too big, too tannic, and generally too alcoholic for my taste.  One glass will usually be as much as I can take.  When I began years ago, I didn’t know much about Rhône wines, or indeed about much of anything at all.  What I had read about Châteauneuf was that it should absolutely positively be Grenache-centric and never see much new oak or small cooperage.5 So, this injunction was pretty strictly adhered to, at least at first, and the first vintages of Cigare were quite successful, indeed, have held up well with the passage of time.

Over the years, I have found myself being pulled in various directions.  Rather wrongheadedly, I decided early on that I needed to increase the production of Cigare – primarily because I imagined that I could – but, alas, there was (and still is) a very finite amount of really superb Grenache in California’s cooler climes.6 As a result, the percentage of Grenache in Cigare began to decline beginning in the late ‘80s, through the ‘90s, rather like the percentage of almonds in a Hershey bar.  Worse, we experimented with barriques (disaster), found that puncheons (double barrels) worked much better, but we may have for a while become too reliant on smaller cooperage,7 but now seem to have found a good balance between smallish cooperage (puncheons) and large wooden upright tanks for the élevage of Cigare.8

When we began to use screwcaps on all of our wines in 2001 everything changed once again.  It has been a bit of a learning curve to understand how to properly utilize this powerful technology.  The chemistry is a bit challenging to understand (indeed, to explain).  Under certain conditions, the use of the screwcap will temporarily render the wine quite backward a short time after it is bottled.9 People who are unfamiliar with the phenomenon of “backwardness” of wines sometimes don’t grasp that in fact this is an extremely auspicious sign of ageworthiness and the presence of a strong life-force in the wine.10 We have made the mistake of releasing at least one Cigare (the brilliant ’03) far too early, when it was in a particularly backward stage.  It was misunderstood at the time, alas, but it is now drinking so magnificently, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have at any time not loved this wine to death.

Which brings me to the subject of Ugly Ducklings and being thoroughly misunderstood.  (If one is misunderstood, it can only be thoroughly.) Certainly this is a thematic that has dominated my own life since childhood, most dramatically through young adulthood – junior high school being the most painful memory.  I do wonder how much of this drama I have brought to the winemaking process, but certainly Le Cigare Volant is a wine that has been largely misunderstood, if only because some people, notably some highly influential wine critics, have been thinking Chateauneuf, and in fact in so many respects, my Platonic model for wine greatness is not Chateauneuf, but rather, in fact Burgundy, of the red persuasion.  My own personal psychodynamics aside, this brings up the larger issue of what one is truly attempting to achieve with a winemaking style, and this brings us to the question of the interplay of darkness and light, power and grace.

(Part 2 of 2 continued in next week’s post.)

‘Apologia’: Please note that this fairly obscure word does not in fact mean “apology,” but rather a written formal defense of something that one believes in strongly.

1 In the earlier, more lighthearted days of my wine career and of the wine business in general, one did not believe that one was saving the world through the creation of any particular wine.  You just did it non-self-consciously because it was something you wanted to do.

2 Subsequently I learned that virtually every Mediterranean grape-growing area carries a strong tradition of producing blended wines, rather than mono-varietal wines, for several reasons: 1) Growing a range of different grapes allows one to spread the risk of failure of a single one, owing to frost, poor pollination, etc. 2) In a warmish climate, it is often difficult to achieve sufficient complexity from a single varietal wine.  Different grapes contribute differing complexing elements – acidity, color, tannin, fragrance, etc., resulting in a blend that is far more interesting than a monocépage offering.

3 With the caveat of course, that the aesthetic of a vin d’effort will never be as ultimately compelling as that of a great vin de terroir.

4 Well-intentioned people, when they are trying to be nice to me, tell me how much (even still) Cigare tastes like Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

5 The principle reason for the admonition against new oak is that Grenache is typically very high in alcohol, and alcohol is an excellent solvent for wood tannin; a Grenache-based wine in new wood will taste very woody, very quickly.  Small cooperage is problematic because Grenache is said to be an “oxidative” grape – i.e. it doesn’t have a great capacity to absorb tremendous amounts of oxygen.  Best to put it in a large vessel, where there is minimum oxygen exchange.

6 This is an occult fact that few people properly appreciate: In California, one can ripen Grenache in areas generally far cooler than almost anywhere else in the world, owing to our preternaturally long growing season.  This enables us to produce Grenache that is exceptionally well balanced, as far as natural acidity, enormously fragrant and possessing a beautiful complement of anthocyanins.

7 Barrels or puncheons can help a wine in many ways.  Youngish barrels impart tannin, which helps to add structure to the wine, stabilize the color.  They absorb a fair amount of oxygen from the ambient environment, probably more than optimal for Grenache (though certainly appropriate for a variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon).  Where they are brilliant, however, is in their geometry.  They offer quite a bit of surface area to volume aspect – surface area on which yeast lees can deposit and ultimately become more easily digested into the wine.  Too much “structure” from newish barrels makes wines taste modern and “international,” something I’m not too crazy about.  The balance between roughly ½ puncheons and ½ wood tanks seems just about right.

8 Into the wooden tanks we’ve placed perforated stainless steel shelves on which the lees can deposit, which I call “lees hotels.”  Lees check in but they don’t check out!

9 This phenomenon is likely mostly due to the transformation of one of the main redox couples in a wine solution, disulfide (not so particularly detectable) and thiol, (aka mercaptan, quite detectable at concentrations 1/50th to 1/100th of disulfide), as the redox potential of the wine changes post-bottling, owing to the suddenly more oxygen exclusionary environment created by the screwcap.  With time, as the wine re-equilibrates, the thiol turns back into disulfide and the “problem” spontaneously resolves itself.  One can either think of this phenomenon as a “problem” (often promptly rectified with the deployment of a decanter, or with the simple passage of time), or rather as a sign that the wine is filled with life-force and is therefore capable of long ageability.

10 Perhaps somewhat analogous to the phenomenon of colic in babies.

    One Response to “An Apologia for Le Cigare Volant: An Introduction to the ’05 Vintage, Part 1 of 2”

    1. Bob says:

      Talk about leadership, and direction.

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