Some winemakers are sort of like jet setters. Think about it, they jet from one beautiful wine region to another to work at wineries and vineyards, so they can broaden their winemaking skills. No wonder wine enthusiasts dream about being a winemaker, or starting a winery. But, at the risk of bursting your bubble, these winemakers and the vineyard managers, toil and stress over growing conditions, sometimes inheriting a not-so-well-planted vineyard, negotiating big equipment in small spaces; not to mention really fun stuff like pruning in 0-20˚ winter weather with the wind howling. Yep, it’s true…the wine business isn’t all about charming, or Taj Mahal-like tasting rooms, or wine dinners in elegant restaurants. It’s a lot about farming and the challenges therein. I am droning on about this a bit, because as I do these cellar visits with winemakers, and tell you about them, I am hoping to increase your appreciation of what it takes to make good wine. A lot of guts and not always much glory.
The well-travelled winemaker who inspired this blog is Burgundy born and raised, Sébastien Marquet, at Doukénie Winery. The Winery is owned by the Bazacos family, who first planted a vineyard on the property back in the ’80s. The 4,000 case production enables Sébastien to also fulfill the roles of Vineyard Manager and General Manager, in addition to winemaking duties. Before we went into the cellar to taste, Sébastien gave me an overview of the vineyards….because any winemaker of worth will attest to how good wine is first made in the vineyard. They have 12 vineyard acres on the Estate with clay and chalky soils, and 26 acres Sébastien also oversees in Fredericksburg, where the soil is sandy. We ventured into the cellar, where I was reminded of how winemakers organize production in small spaces; similar to chefs who produce an amazing array of dishes out of incredibly small kitchens. Not that Doukénie’s cellar is any smaller than most. But, as in the case of most, especially during harvest it requires moving big tanks and barrels in and out and around. Some barrels are still aging wines from the prior vintage, so space has to be maintained for them. Winemaking is truly a crossover of left and right brain activity.
We started with a Chardonnay 2009 – aging in a 10 year old French Oak barrel, sur lies. I’ve mentioned this before, but in case you haven’t read all of my blogs (hard to believe!)… sur lies is the term used when winemakers choose not to rack the wines after the first fermentation, and leave the wine to lie on the yeast. This process gives a fuller body to the wine, and is often opted for with white wines instead of doing a 2nd/malolactic fermentation; but sometimes a winemaker may choose to do both. It’s a matter of the style that the winemaker is going for. Even at this stage, wines will show their varietal characteristics on the nose and palate. We did a tour of the Chardonnays and all exhibited classic Chardonnay pear, riper apple (unlike the green apple of Chardonnay that remains in stainless steel). Also the difference in barrels, related to age, toast level (light to heavy), and country/region of origin, will all contribute something unique. The blending of all is a result of the winemaker’s creation, their own recipe, as it were.
Chardonnay 2009 – aging in a 2-year old French Oak barrel. The fuller palate on this wine, because of the newer barrel, was immediately apparent. Just as wines are organized in order of style for tasting purposes, the same applies in a cellar tasting.
Chardonnay 2009 – aging in Hungarian Oak, which can impart pretty strong aromatics to a wine. A smoky aroma was prevalent and Sébastien intends to blend this barrel with Chardonnay aging in French Oak. This way the final blend of Chardonnay will have just enough of the Hungarian Oak characteristics to complement the Chardonnay from other barrels.
Chardonnay 2009 – aging in a new French Oak barrel. Yes, a bigger, longer finish.
Chardonnay 2009 – aging in an Acacia barrel. If you’re familiar at all with Acacia, then it will not surprise you that this barrel imparts floral characteristics immediately, on the nose.
Chardonnay 2009 – from the Estate vineyard. These vines are 16 years old and this Chardonnay stood out with richness and butter (without a 2nd fermentation) on the nose and palate …but, like fresh dairy butter. Not that stuff that impersonates butter found in the grocery store. I usually don’t like that butter thing that happens in Chardonnay, but this was not that. This was a good thing.
Even with oak aging, a good winemaker will always maintain the fruit’s integrity and all of the Chardonnays (well, in fact all of the wines I tasted) did just that. Many of us have become picky Chardonnay drinkers, so I am always thankful when I taste the future of a final blend and know that this is a Chardonnay I will happily uncork! And it probably helps that Sébastien learned to crawl in his grandfather’s Burgundy vineyard, followed by boarding school in Burgundy where viticulture and oenology was the focus of studies from the time he was 13 years of age. Years making red and white Burgundies in many of the top regions such as Pommard, Volnay and Meursault goes a long way in making a Burgundy-like wine.
We then went up to the ‘club members only’ room and tasted several of the current releases available in the tasting room. Let me just say that I love that ‘club members only’ room. It’s charming, with lovely views and it makes you feel special without being stuffy.
Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – this wine had just been recently bottled, so it will be released soon. I had a chuckle when re-reading my notes, because I had actually written ‘Sancerre” instead of Sauvignon Blanc. As I’ve previously written, my favorite Sauvignon Blanc is from the Sancerre region of the Loire Valley. So, obviously, I really like this one! The nose was tropical and floral, acidity with a touch of roundness on the palate…and where did that floral come from? Well, Sébastien has aged just a bit of it in an Acacia barrel. Perfection! This could be my summer House White!
2009 Mandolin – a lovely blend of Traminette, Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc. A nose full of lychee, apricot and citrus flowers. And with just 1.5 Residual Sugar, the intense aromatics of this wine is about the fruit, not added sugar. A long finish and balance that has acidity and sweet aromatics in perfect harmony. A divine apéritif, and dinner wine for spicy grilled fish.
2007 Vin de Paille – a Riesling dessert wine. Vin de Paille translates to Straw Wine. And why would anyone think Straw Wine sounds appetizing? Well, when you hear what it stands for…you’ll get it. It’s a term for this style of wine, where the grapes are laid out on straw to dry to develop concentrated sugars. Plus, the grapes had some botrytis, which is that good bacteria that forms on grapes in wet, accompanied by humid, weather. Now, of course, the botrytis is only a good thing if you’re planning on making a dessert wine. Otherwise, you don’t want to see it spreading like mad on the clusters. This is a rich, honeyed wine with balance of richness and slight acidity, florals and spice. My peach and blueberry clafoutis, or that angel cake I make (from scratch, don’t you know) with macerated berries; Blue d’Auvergne cheese…any and all would work very nicely.
On to the reds….Petit Verdot 2007 – Silver Medal from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. This unfiltered wine delivers the inky, black currant of Petit Verdot, aged 24 months in French Oak. I see why several winemakers and some owners, see Petit Verdot as potentially ‘the’ leading red varietal for Virginia. This one has a great earthiness and although it still shows some tannin and as Sebastien said, “It’s still angular, but will continue to smoothen in the next 2- 5 years.” So this is a wine for your own cellar. Petit Verdot is pretty singular in regard to it’s fruit characteristics, but even so, when in the hands of a good winemaker, one doesn’t feel cheated. The varietal can still deliver a satisfying wine in every way.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 – another Estate wine from their 25 year old vineyard. Wow….it’s hard to get excited about most East Coast cabernet sauvignons, because the varietal can’t ripen as much as it needs to in these parts. So having 25 year old vines sure does help. This wine was rich with raspberry, strawberry, earthiness, cinnamon and black pepper. Typically, red grapes are de-stemmed first thing, but Sébastien kept the stems on to increase the tannins and structure, he did a cold soak for 4-5 days; started the fermentation at a low temperature and did 2-3 pump overs daily, plus push downs. He does not like to have too high a temperature for fermentation to avoid that ‘cooked fruit’ taste in the wine. This kind of thing is what defines a ‘winemaker’s style.’
Vintners Reserve 2007 – Cabernet Sauvignon 55%, Merlot 20%, Cabernet Franc 15%, Petit Verdot 10%. A classic Left Bank Bordeaux-style blend. Three words leapt to mind when I tasted this wine – perfection, bold and rich. Everything was spot on with this wine. The lively tannin makes it another candidate for your wine collection.
It is very satisfying to experience such gorgeous wines being made right here in Virginia by winemakers who have chosen, out of all of the higher profile regions they could be in…to be in Virginia. For Sébastien, and winemakers like him, the opportunity to be able to focus on a smaller production of high quality wines far outweighs being a cog in the wheel of a big name, high volume winery in a higher profile region. Score for Virginia!
Doukénie Winery has lots of events, like Blending with the Winemaker…gotta love that, and culinary classes! I suggest you put them on your weekend wine tasting schedule. And the wines are outstanding across the board, so think about becoming a wine club member and get entry into that private tasting room.