Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Wine Detective?

At a recent Domaine Ponsot tasting, it was interesting enough tasting the wines and listening to Laurent Ponsot, the fourth generation in the winemaking family, talking about them. But, like a great detective novel, it was the twist at the end that made it especially memorable.

Let’s focus on the wine first. Like most Burgundian producers, Laurent respects the land. He insists that it is the overall geology of Burgundy, not merely the soil, that results in so many appellations—1,250 in total. Wines from two adjacent rows of vines can be totally different if the rows are on different sides of the fault line, because the minerals underground are not the same. Hence his remark, "We don’t produce Pinot Noir, we produce appellations."

To preserve integrity, Laurent has no fixed rules for making a wine. He does only what is necessary to help it express itself. The vineyards are organic and the work is natural. Also, he does not use new oak barrels, first because of the overpowering wood flavour imparted and second because of the fast ingress of oxygen—a new barrel transmits too much oxygen, resulting in premature oxidation. He compares this with the tragedy of a child destined to be a sumo wrestler: the child was overfed so much that he died young. Laurent's newest barrel is five years old.

We tasted the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Laurent reckoned 2010 was 100% a 'terroir wine'. The weather was not great so the sun did not have a great influence on the grapes. Yield was down across the board, but for those who made it the wine was a true expression of terroir. In contrast, 2009 was an easy vintage with perfect weather. Even the lesser vineyards produced better and riper grapes than normal. It was a '35% vintage' wine, according to Laurent. For me, both vintages were good, though the younger wines were too closed.

We were surprised to see that the wines were sealed with a synthetic closure, the Ardea Seal AS-Elite to be exact. Laurent was excited about this. He had spent 20 years searching for the perfect closure and eventually found this in Italy. It has a polymer section in contact with the wine that allows oxygen to go in but not wine to go out, like a Goretex layer. Compared to cork, this gives the dual advantages of avoiding TCA taint and enabling more precise control of maturation.

But on top of this the Ardea closure, being difficult to copy, offers the additional benefit of making it easier to spot counterfeit wine. The topic of counterfeiting makes Laurent animated. He proudly points out that all his bottles have the domain name inscribed in the bottom, and the label is made of a paper like that used in bank notes that can be verified using special machines. Even more impressively, each bottle also carries a hologram for authentication. Clearly Laurent is out to make sure his wines will not easily be counterfeited.

I smiled, perhaps questioning whether all this was a little excessive. It was then that Laurent dropped his bombshell. He earnestly told me that he works in collaboration with the FBI, and that it was his investigation that led to the arrest of the infamous Rudy Kurniawan in 2012! I had followed this story closely last year but during the tasting it didn't cross my mind that the gentleman next to me was the man that had sent shockwaves through the auction market. Shame on me, I should have done more research beforehand.

To Laurent, the winemaker is only one element in the process, and wine is mostly made by itself. He reckons he is the laziest winemaker out there, often preferring to travel the world getting closer to customers. Well, I reckon being a counterfeit detective should also be taken into consideration!

Domaine Ponsot is available from Altaya.

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