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Daily Archives: May 2, 2013

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Meeting Randall Grahm

Barrel tasting with Randall Grahm

The first time I met Randall Grahm, he began discussing chi within a few minutes of my arrival. We’d stepped into Bonny Doon‘s winery cellar in the Mission district of Santa Cruz. “The ability to tolerate oxygen is the chi of a wine.” He went on, “wine needs oxygen, but it is also affected by oxygen.”

We were standing next to the upright wooden tanks for the label’s signature red blend, Le Cigare Volant, and he wanted to explain the connection between a wine’s chi and it’s contact with lees. The puncheons Grahm uses for aging his blend contain multiple levels of shelving, creating what Grahm calls “a lees hotel.” The wine’s lees settle on different levels, giving “more surface area for the lees to get digested.” As the wine breaks down the lees, they produce savoriness, but the also give the wine a greater ability to withstand the negative effects of air.

But it isn’t lees that Grahm is focused on. The discussion is meant to raise a different point. “One of the main mysteries of wine,” Grahm tells me, “is why some wines live and some wines die. Like good Burgundy, that wine is good for a week.” Asking him to explain further what he means, Grahm refers to the liveliness of a wine after it’s been opened, the way some wines resist oxidation and stay beautiful for days after opening. “We should all be focusing on answering one question, what are things we can do to give wine life, to help wines live?” Grahm says.

The Life of a Wine: The Role of Minerality

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Half a year later, Grahm and I are talking over the phone for an article I wrote on the idea of minerality. In the article, I was able to reference Grahm’s point that a useful place to start would be to simply assay mineral levels in wines themselves. But his discussion went further. He offered a unique account of minerality I didn’t have the word count to share.

In the phone conversation, Grahm returns again to the question of oxidation. “What is the mechanism that leads some wines to resist oxidation?” Neither of us had referenced our previous conversation at this point. The question of a wine’s life is simply central for Grahm. “There are wines whose phenolics,” he tells me, “are not off the charts and yet they don’t oxidize.”

To put it another way, there are wines with obvious characteristics that we know resist oxidation–they are high in sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative; they are low in pH, or rich in tannin. “But subtract these factors out,” Grahm emphasizes, “and there is still a class of wines that do not oxidize, and that is not explained by those physical variables. What is at work there?” It’s the same question Grahm called wine’s greatest mystery as we tasted his signature blend.

Wine’s Mystery Class

Randall Grahm

For Grahm, the class of wine’s that do not oxidize and yet do not carry the understood mechanisms–excess sulfur dioxide, low pH, rich tannin (or perhaps have only one of them in a non-explanatory way)–are the mystery class. He lists examples that seem to produce a higher number of such wines–Haut-Brion, wines from the Saar or Mt. Etna, Chablis, many Rieslings, but his paradigm case is Lesona (an Italian wine incredibly hard to find information on). “Lesona,” he tells me, “you could leave those wines open for a month and they don’t oxidize.”

I ask Grahm if he finds anything in common between the wines he listed as examples, and he does. “Lesona wine, this appellation in Italy, is textbook mineral city.” For Grahm, it is a very particular account of minerality that the mystery class shares. In his experience, Grahm tells me, wines that stay alive after opening always also carry “a sort of experience on the palate.” He describes that experience for me.

“There is a persistence on the palate.” He says. “A savoriness, or saltiness, and,” he pauses to think. “What I call dimensionality to the wine.” He trails off for a second then returns. “Forgive the lapse into synthesia. The wine just seems to have some sort of multi-dimensionality, a non-linearity.” We discuss the shape of it for a while, and I recognize the sensation as a kind of echo on the palate.

“Yes,” he responds. “there is a doubling of the sensation, a kind of secondary aspect to it” as if you catch a scent or flavor in the wine “and then immediately after follows a relief, or accompaniment in the wine,” not another flavor exactly, but an echo of the initial flavoral experience.

The description from Grahm seems to resemble the French account of minerality from Master of Wine, John Atkinson, I discussed in the article. As Atkinson explains his understanding of the French notion, minerality operates as a kind of “organoleptic action of mineral-bitter-salts element” that hinges flavors and structure together. Minerality operates, then, in this account as not just a flavor but a link between taste and acid or tannin, as well as a physical response from the mouth itself. As Grahm describes it, the echo seems to correlate with a kind of overall tension on the palate, as if the wine is directed and the mouth must follow.

Soil and Vinification Correlation

Talking with Randall Grahm

Beyond the sensory commonality Grahm sees in his wines of interest, there is also a correlation with mineral rich ground. He recognizes that current science denies a direct line from the mineral ions in earth to literal mineral content in wine, but the point is moot. Even if the ions don’t literally appear in the wine itself, who cares if such ground so often does generate quality wines? The calcium rich marl of Colli Orientali del Friuli, and Collio I add to the list. He agrees, but he wants to discuss a more ready example in limestone.

What Grahm notices is that the kind of experience he described occurs very often with wines from limestone soils, but most especially in whites. “White wines from limestone soils are more transparent,” he explains. “It can be easier to blind limestone soils on whites because they’re simply less encumbered.” There are fewer elements, such as tannin or anthocyanins, to block the palate expression of the soil. But Grahm points something else out. With limestone soils, such wines “are often very closed when [the bottle is] first opened up, both in whites and reds.”

But the source of a wine’s life doesn’t rest only in its soils, the role of vineyard care, and the winemaker is also clear. I ask Grahm what he’d recommend to winemakers wanting to create wines full of minerality, that last after opening. The answer is straightforward. “Buy some land in a mineral rich area, find soils rich in minerals, then farm in a way that is maximally expressive of those qualities.” For Grahm much of what that means is inspired by the work of Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who emphasize the importance of micro fauna, and micro floral life in the earth. Supporting the longevity of old vines is also important.

The role of reduction early in the winemaking process also seems relevant. By giving wine a shot of oxygen early on, it seems to become more resistant to its negative impacts later. In Grahm’s view such an approach also adds an additional layer of complexity ultimately to the wine. “The reduction aroma initially occludes things present in how you farm. But as it dissipates, it adds another dimension,” giving room too for the terroir to show again. This process of reduction is another way in which a wine closes, then opens up over time.

Atkinson too describes a correlation between this sort of reductive fermentation process in making champagne (though not in the sulfidic sense) and the experience of minerality in both the vin clair and final sparkling wine, as he has studied for years at the shoulder of Billecart-Salmon‘s Chef de Cave Francois Domi. Current thought suggests a likely correlation between this sense of reduction, and the later presentation of minerality in wine. Hildegaard Heymann, of UC Davis, and winemaker Clark Smith are both examples of people that have shared such an account in interviews, or written on it.

Finding the Life of Wine with Air

Bonny Doon wines

It is this point about certain wines beginning closed, then opening up with time that finally makes Grahm’s point. “These wines are changeable.” For Grahm, the idea gets to the heart of appeal for his mystery class. “They move. They start out closed, and then they move and change in the glass.” The description of wine’s movement circles us back finally to an idea Grahm shared when we first met. “A wine that lives,” he tells me, “is responsive to oxygen. It breathes.”

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