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California's Next Super-Consultant

CONTINUING our interview
with
Mark Aubert, winemaker
for Peter Michael and Colgin

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APJ: Where does the fruit for the Cuvee Indigene come from?

MA: Part of it comes from Block 48 and part from Block 22 -- another famous part of the Gauer Ranch. Some of the 22 goes into Mon Plaisir as well.

Part 7: The new vineyards at Peter Michael

APJ: Now let’s talk about the Peter Michael Belle Cote Chardonnay. I was really impressed when I opened a bottle of the 1997 Belle Cote a couple of weeks ago. This is a relatively new label, isn't it?

lespavots&bellecote.jpg (18739 bytes)
TWIN TERRORS, 1997 Belle Cote Chardonnay and 1996 Les Pavots proprietary red wine from Peter Michael.

MA: It’s a really hedonistic wine, isn’t it? It’s a whole new project. New estate vineyard. When I got to Peter Michael in 1990, one of the jobs that was staring me in the face was to get this vineyard established.

     They found a beautiful 15-acre section of the estate. It’s on Peter Michael’s land in Knight’s Valley.

APJ: Is that the one that’s really high up? I remember visiting a high, cold vineyard in March of 1995.

MA: That would be the one. It’s about 1500 feet up. We recently planted one that’s even higher, but the Belle Cote was the highest.

APJ: What clones are planted in Belle Cote?

MA: Three different clones. I selected them based on some of my favorite wines at the time.

     I was really in love with the Sees clone which was planted on the Torres estate. I had a good friend at Torres in the late ‘80s with whom I used to taste often. That’s an old Wente clone. Not heat-treated. Lots of tropical, dried apricot, lemon zest, all kinds of interesting nuances. Bubble-gummy.

     The next clone I chose was an old Wente from Gauer Ranch Upper Barn 48.

     Then the third is the Musqué clone. Matanzas Creek made this clone famous with their Chardonnay. It’s very perfumed. Sometimes it even reminds you of a Gewurztraminer or Riesling. Full of terpenes. Very fragrant.

     So with all three clones, Belle Cote has something for everyone. Something for your sense of smell, something to taste...everything you could want.

     I think the ‘97 is the best yet -- but the ‘98 may be better still. More natural acidity than we’ve ever seen before from that particular vineyard. The ‘97 will be very nice wine to drink 2-3 years out, but the ‘98 may give 5 years of wonderful drinking.

APJ: Any other new vineyards we should know about?

     There’s a new vineyard just below Belle Cote. It's called La Carriere and it's planted to Dijon clones and some old Wentes. Now this is a really steep vineyard.

     La Carriere means "the quarry" and the vineyard does look like an old stone quarry. It was planted in 1994, but now it's starting to hit stride. It looks very good.

APJ: When will La Carriere come online?

MA: The first vintage was 1997. It was a small bottling. It only produced 1 ton an acre. In 1998 we produced about double that. It's a young vineyard

Part 8: The story behind Les Pavots

APJ: Now let’s talk about the Peter Michael reds. Up until recently they were most famous for their Chardonnays. Were reds always part of the picture?

MA: When Helen Turley got to Peter Michael in 1986, she helped to evolve a Cabernet vineyard -- one that was later all torn out because of phylloxera. Then, starting in 1989, she planted a new vineyard, which is now Les Pavots. It’s 24 acres of some very sought-after clones of Cabernet.

     She met David Abreu. And David gave her some great cuttings of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. You’ve heard of Abreu Madrona Ranch? Well, some of the cuttings for Les Pavots came from Madrona.

     David was also able to get us cuttings from Bella Oaks vineyard -- which is a daughter of Martha’s Vineyard, and of course the cuttings for Martha’s came from Margaux.

     So the clones in Les Pavots have a great pedigree.

     It’s also an extremely rocky site. The soil is a composition called Ryolitic Tuff, which is a volcanic ash with lots of rock. It runs at about 50% to 70% naturally occurring stones. Which gives the wine a wonderful minerality.

     The vineyard was planted in 1989. I think the pivotal vintage for Les Pavots was 1994. Lovely, low tannin, huge aroma. And the vineyard then was five years old. The French feel a vineyard must be 15-20 years old before it can make really great wine.

     Subsequent vintages -- ‘96, ‘97, ‘98 -- show increasing depth.

APJ: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that. Because I liked the ‘94 a lot but I also felt the 1996 was even better. And given the general vintage, that’s counter-intuitive. What’s been happening?

MA: ‘96 is a sweeter vintage. There’s a little more fat and richness in the mouth, because the vintage was a little cooler.

     But the ‘97 is my finest effort from that vineyard. It’s the best. We really hit the mark with the blend -- the cepage is 70% Cab, 15% Merlot, 15% Cab Franc. It’s all working perfectly.

     Here’s another thing. As the vines get a little older and deeper-rooted -- they start performing at a level that’s very reproducible. Since the ‘96 vintage, we’ve seen the same character coming out of each block. So we’re able to say, "Okay, Block 6 is always going to produce this beautiful note."

     Barring natural disasters like rain, I think we’ve reached a point where Les Pavots is almost on auto-pilot.

APJ: I tasted the 1997 this spring -- what a great wine! Very ripe.

MA: Very, very ripe. It's about 15.1% alcohol.

APJ: How are the vines spaced on Les Pavots?

MA: It’s 5x8. Not incredibly dense. I guess that shows you don’t have to be dense to be good.

APJ: How about yields?

MA: We get about 3 tons an acre most years. In 1998 we got a dismal one and a half tons per acre. Because the fruit set was terrible in 1998.

APJ: Now tell me a little bit about the winemaking for Les Pavots. Is that a totally natural process as well?

MA: We don’t do natural yeast. We use a lot of Bordeaux techniques here. We use an irrigator -- we irrigate the caps twice a day.

     We also heat the vats at a certain part of the fermentation process. We actually will supplement the natural heating from the yeast fermentation. We warm the tanks up to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

APJ: Why do you that?

MA: It gives you a flush of color and flavor. It’s all by design -- we’re very careful about the timing. Only at a certain time in the fermentation. Never before, never after.

     And then we do a lot of aeration mixings. We put the wine through what we call a "sump and screen."

APJ: What does that do?

MA: It’s to drive off any bad fermentation odors. Sometimes the fermentation odors can have a sweaty nuance. Almost like a locker room. We call it "dirty socks." The sump and screen takes care of that

     Also we only use the free run juice. The press wine is never used in Les Pavots. It’s sold off in bulk.

     After the wine is fermented cry, we do a one-week extended maceration, then send it to the barrels.

     It goes through malolactic in the barrels. A lot of wineries do malolactic in tank, but we do it in the barrels. We feel we get a more seamless integration of fruit and tannin by doing that. We use the same bacteria for malolactic that we use for the Chardonnays.

     Then the wine stays in the barrel for about 18-22 months.

APJ: Any filtration?

MA: No!

APJ: How often do you rack?

MA: We rack the Les Pavots about every 2-3 months in the first year. And we do it through the heads -- barrel to barrel -- which is the traditional way it’s done in Bordeaux.

     Then in the second year, when we rack, we push the wine from barrel to barrel with an inert gas. We use argon. That’s very important.

APJ: Go into that. How is it done?

MA: Well you take this thing that looks kind of like a big seltzer bottle. It’s called a bulldog. And it pushes the wine out of the barrel. You have to use argon. It imparts no flavor to the wine. Does nothing to it.

APJ: Does that give the wine any spritz?

MA: No. Carbon dioxide would, but argon doesn’t. That’s the a big selling point of argon. It doesn’t dissolve very readily in liquid.

     The argon is really gentle and it also keeps the oxygen away from the wine. That’s very important too.

APJ: So what happens next? How do you finish the wines?

MA: Before bottling, we put all the wine together using the argon-push technique. No pumps. It’s very tricky.

     But bear in mind that the different vineyard lots for Les Pavots have already been blended together. It’s already blended in the barrel. It’s aged as one wine its entire life.

     For example, in January of 1999, we classified all the different vineyard lots of 1998 Les Pavots. Then we made up the assemblage and barreled it as one wine. So you don’t have your Merlot aging separately from your Cabernet Franc and your Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a trick they do at the great Bordeaux Chateaux.

APJ: Does this happen before or after malolactic?

MA: They’re kept separate until after the malolactic. After malolactic, we make the classification. If it’s got too much dry tannin or a "dirty socks" or a "creamed corn" or some other kind of reductive character, it will be kept separate for a while. If it doesn’t get better, it’s declassified and won’t become Les Pavots. The whole classification process takes a couple of months.

APJ: And no acidification at all.

MA: No, we want that silkiness and richness in Les Pavots, and acidification can harm that. The Colgins aren’t acidified either. Bryant isn’t acidified.

"Acidifying can hurt a wine’s collectibility. The consumer doesn’t want it. Lower pH wines never do as well."

     The great Napa Valley wineries are realizing that acidifying can hurt a wine’s collectibility. The consumer doesn’t want it. Lower pH wines never do as well.

APJ: So you think not acidifying can help a wine be more accessible early on?

MA: Oh, you bet. I call it the hedonism factor. We just bottled the ‘97 Colgin and oh my God, you could just drink gallons of it now. It’s so soft and rich...and yet it’s got structure...

Part 9: Report on the 1998 vintage

APJ: Overall, how does the 1998 look from your vantage point?

MA: I would say it’s kind of in between the ‘96s and ‘97s. It has a little bit of dry tannin. But the tannin issue can be resolved with some extra rackings, I think. And the Les Pavots also has a lovely black licorice minerality with a wonderful foresty note.

     The acidity on the 1998 is higher too. We like that. We never acidify the Les Pavots. We’re very concerned about that kind of manipulation. So if we get lower acidity, so be it. But this vintage looks higher.

APJ: When did you pick?

MA: The 1998 Les Pavots? Very late. A lot of the picking was done before Halloween, but we actually picked some in November.

     Come to think of it we picked some Chardonnay in November too. One block of Belle Cote.

APJ: What’s the latest vintage you’ve ever had?

MA: 1998 is the latest I’ve ever worked. ‘91 was the latest up until that point.

Part 10. Clone vs. terroir. Which is more important?

APJ: You talk about clones more than some winemakers. I gather you feel this is very important.

MA: Very. Without the pedigree, you’ve got trouble. And you know, a lot of people assume that one clone is about the same as the next.

     But let me give an example. One of my favorite Chardonnay clones is an old Wente selection. It’s the Shot Berry. It’s been moved around in the North Coast. So now you have the Dutton selection. And the Sees. And the Upper Barn selection.

     But these are all variations of the same theme -- it’s this one selection, an old Wente clone that came out of Livermore in the late 50s. It came from Corton Charlemagne and was moved around to different growers.

     I can pick it out wherever I find it. And it just makes these muscular wines that are very pleasing to the olfactory senses. Can’t beat it.

     So I’ve come down to a few selections which I know make the most collectible wines. And I don’t want to make any compromises.

     Now on the other hand you have this clone from UC Davis called Clone 4 Chardonnay. It makes the most innocuous wines, even when grown on some of the best soil types. You taste the wine and -- well, you don’t taste the terroir. The clone sanitizes it somehow. So I stay away from it.

APJ: So which is more important? Clone or terroir?

MA: Oh, terroir is more important. Because even a simple old Wente Chardonnay grown on rocks makes a profound wine. A good example of that is Peter Michael Pointe Rouge.

     It’s grown on really thin soils that are 2,000 feet above sea level, with a south-facing exposure. If it didn’t have that south-facing exposure and the 2,000 feet and thin soils...well, let’s just say that Chardonnay would taste totally different if it were growing on some river bottom.

     So maybe the importance is 60% terroir, 40% clone. They’re both important. And the winemaker is the icing on the cake. I’ve got to make sure those flavors aren’t lost.

APJ: You’re pretty humble about the winemaker’s role.

MA: That’s the way it is. Our new slogan now at Peter Michael is "French farm wines."

     You know, when you go to Burgundy, it’s very humbling to see these beautiful vineyards -- and these very simple little wineries that have no refrigeration. That’s French farm wine. It’s all about a simple ideal of letting the clones and the soil work together and you sort of nurse them along.

APJ: Apart from the wines you’re made yourself, what’s your model of a great Cabernet?

MA: Hmmm...

APJ: What do love to drink?

MA: Paulliac. Well, some St. Emilions, too. But you know where I learned the most about how to make Cabernet? From Pinot.

APJ: Explain.

MA: With Pinot, you have to be so fine-tuned with the vineyard, with the cultivation of these grapes. You have to be right on time when you pick. You have to be very gentle when handling the fruit and destemming and so forth. You use cold soaks.

     And that’s what I try to do with Cabernet too. My model has been watching how Burgundian make their Pinots -- in the vats anyway. Of course you employ more mechanical help, because the Cabernet vineyards are much larger.

APJ: Pinot Noir is a punishing discipline.

MA: Cabernet can punish you too if you don’t do it right. You can over-vinify it very easily. Extended macerations can be beneficial or harmful. We’ve discovered that sometimes longer is not better.

     Michel Rolland likes long macerations -- 5-6- weeks is it? Well that doesn’t work for Les Pavots. It gets more tannic.

     But for Harlan? It works wonderfully. Those are soft, rich, supple wines, yet spend very long times in the vat.

APJ: What California Cabs do you like?

MA: Well, you know, Colgin and Bryant aren’t such bad products! I like Maya, Harlan -- I’ve been a big fan of Araujo ever since day one. There’s a profound silkiness you get in those wines. That’s been my model.

     My wife works at Mondavi, so we get a good deal on Mouton. And let me tell you, the ’96 Mouton. Oh man, it’s wonderful juice.

     But I drink more Burgundy than anything else.

APJ: Who are your favorite Burgundy producers?

MA: It would have to be Dujac -- Leroy when I’m feeling rich. I’ve always been a big fan of Meo-Camuzet. Their wines can be incredibly complex.

For more information about Aubert Wines, click here to send them an email.
See also our Mark Aubert Update, written in August 2001.
To find out more about Peter Michael Winery, click here to visit their web site.

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