Remember Claret?

September 16, 2013

A few nights ago, to accompany a classic rack of lamb, I dug out a classic bottle of claret. Claret has become a very old-fashioned word for what, I am afraid, is increasingly perceived as an old-fashioned wine: good, restrained, elegant, estate-bottled Bordeaux of a classified growth. Now, I will be quick to complain about many aspects of Bordeaux wines these days, but I also freely acknowledge that Bordeaux does several things incomparably well – and perhaps the foremost among them is to accompany lamb. To paraphrase something I wrote a few thousand years ago in The Right Wine, until lambs mutate into lobsters, Cabernet sauvignon is going to be a wonderful partner for their meat – and Bordeaux can still do Cabernet as well as anybody.

Talbot 86The bottle I chose for that succulent little rack was a 27-year-old St. Julien, Chateau Talbot 1986 – a mature wine but not an ancient one, and one from a conservative estate, where the post-Parker craze for big fruit and high alcohol has even now not taken hold. This was a wine made in the classic way on a large, traditional property (256 acres) of gravelly limestone soil in the commune of St. Julien. Vinified from 70% Cabernet sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and a mere 5% of Cabernet franc and Petit verdot, the wine was fermented in glass before aging long months in wood, with numerous rackings and finings. It then rested many years in what passes for my cellar, from which it finally emerged – “gloriously” would be too strong, and utterly inappropriate to Talbot’s style, so let’s say “finely” – with great polish and an almost British understatement.

Or maybe I think that because of the wine’s name and the estate’s history. I love a wine with a story, and this wine has a doozy. Talbot is obviously an English name (everyone of my generation will immediately think of hapless Lon Chaney Jr. as Lyle Talbot, the reluctant wolfman) and an old one at that. As most wine people know, the British involvement with Bordeaux – both its politics and its wine trade – dates back many centuries, and for a lot of those centuries Chateau Talbot was there. Certainly not the present buildings, but the property has been in situ since the 15th century. Talbot, along with Gruaud Larose (another favorite of mine and, not coincidentally, one owned by the Cordier family that also owns Talbot), stands among the few Bordeaux estates that still produce wine from the same vineyards that were classified in 1855. That’s what you call stability.

.

estate

.

The estate purportedly derives its name from the man whom tradition calls its first proprietor (though there is no absolute proof of this): John Talbot, First Earl of Shrewsbury and Constable of France. This Talbot was a famous English warrior in the Hundred Years’ War – companion of Edward the Black Prince, and of Henry V and Henry VI, opponent of Joan of Arc, scourge of several French armies. He died in battle in France in 1453. By all accounts, he was a violent, aggressive man of little polish but headstrong courage – in many ways, the stylistic opposite of the elegant French wine that carries his name into the 21st century. As Shakespeare says, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

.

John Talbot

.

Chateau Talbot tends, I think, to be consistently underestimated as a wine. Its elegance and restraint seem to work against it in an age when boisterous assertion is prized (John Talbot, however, could easily be a hero for our time). Clive Coates is restrained in his praise. That the estate makes wines “of considerable flair” is the most he will say, while Robert Parker is surprisingly more enthusiastic: “consistently fine, robust, fruity, full-bodied wines” that “in certain vintages” can surpass the more prestigious wines of its sibling, Gruaud Larose. Back in 1990, Parker tasted the vintage I recently drank, Talbot 1986, and had this to say: “It’s my gut feeling that the 1986 is simply the finest Talbot made at this vast 250-acre estate since the legendary 1945.” He expected it to live until 2020.

Well, I can vouch for the fact that the ’86 was alive and entirely enjoyable just a few nights ago, though I must say I don’t find myself agreeing with much else about Parker’s description of the wine (see his Bordeaux, page 311, for the details of that). My bottle was soft and understated, with all its fruit mutated into ripe, dark flavors of earth and leather, tobacco and dried plum. Very structured still, and long-finishing to be sure, with a little lingering thrill of pure vinosity at the end. Not a “today” wine, though: no big fruit or forceful alcohol, but instead balance and polish. Chateau Talbot is a serenely self-possessed wine.

.

box 2

.

It was my very last bottle, alas! Every time I enjoy a rack of lamb now I will remember it and miss it. I could wish wines like this were as replaceable as lamb racks – but then, I suppose, they would lose the very qualities that make them special and memorable. I suppose that too is an old-fashioned sort of idea. If so – as the French would once have said – tant pis.

Etna Erupts – Wine!

September 5, 2013

Over Labor Day weekend, Diane contrived a Sicilian summer dinner out of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels – lots of fish to please the cranky detective’s exigent palate and a good meat dish followed by cheeses to satisfy us red wine lovers. Since I really enjoy matching ethnic dishes with the wines they grew up with, this presented me with an interesting challenge.

Sicily makes a lot of wine, but – truth must be told – a lot of it is very ordinary, and a lot of it is all the same, no matter where it’s grown on the Three-Cornered Isle. If one thing I didn’t want was “ordinary,” certainly another undesirable was “the same,” so I began searching for good quality Sicilian wines to match with Diane’s and Inspector Montalbano’s dishes. This turned out to be both simple and difficult: simple because I focused quickly on Etna and its environs, where some of the most interesting wines in Sicily are being made; and difficult because their distribution in this country is very spotty. I persevered, however, and came up with some lovely bottles. To wit: Benanti’s Biancodicaselle 2010 and Rossodiverzella 2010, Biondi’s Outis bianco 2009.

map

But let me begin at the beginning. I chose Etna because it amounts to quintessential Sicily, even geologically. The northeastern third of Sicily that constitutes the Etna region is, in a manner of speaking, the sole indigenous piece of Sicily: The western two-thirds are geologically and climatically very different. In fact, that western portion of what is now Sicily is a chunk of north Africa that eons ago broke off, drifted north, and bumped into Etna, where it has stayed ever since. A good choice, both for geography and for wine.

So, having said all that, I now have to admit that none of it applies to the first wine we tried that evening – my bad. For aperitivi, we drank Prosecco – not very Sicilian, but authorized (literally) by Camilleri’s treatment of the second course’s clams, which steamed them open in Prosecco, thereby opening the door for me to serve that delightfully light and pleasing sparkler to brace our palates for the meal to come. We tried two different ones: Nino Franco’s nv Rustico and Miotto’s nv Federa Extra Dry.

two proseccostotally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.

Both were light in body and alcohol and totally charming – perfect starts to a hot-weather dinner.

???????????????????????????????With the first course of fresh anchovies, we drank the 2010 Biancodicaselle. Since Etna’s reputation has skyrocketed in Italian wine circles, many new producers have been entering the scene. Benanti is an Etna old-timer that has been making top-flight wine there for decades from some long-established, high-altitude vineyards. They – it’s a family firm – have been proudly cultivating very indigenous grapes – the white Carricante, which grows nowhere else in Sicily or in Italy, and the reds Nerello mascalese and Nerello cappuccio, which are specialties of Etna and its surrounds. On the volcano’s mineral-rich soils, these grapes yield extraordinary wines, unlike any others. Benanti’s Pietramarina, a cru 100% Carricante from some of its oldest, highest vineyards, stands among the small handful of Italy’s finest white wines (unfortunately, I couldn’t lay my hands on any in time for this dinner: damn!). The parallel red wine, Serra della Contessa, ranks right up there with Palari in the topmost tier of Sicilian – or Italian – red wines.

For this dinner, because of that spotty distribution I mentioned above, I had to settle for a level below those two. Initially a disappointment, this turned out to be for my palate a blessing in disguise, in that the simpler wine matched better with the simplicity, directness, and freshness of the acidulated but uncooked anchovies. It still had the lovely, dry grapefruitiness of excellent Carricante grapes, and still those provocative Etna mineral tones that made it partner perfectly with the fleshy, oil-and-lemon-laced little fishes without either the dish or the drink dominating. For me, that’s the essence of a good pairing.

???????????????????????????????We tried a different white with the baked clams, Biondi’s Outis. The intriguing name is Greek and means no one or no man. It’s what Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was, so that later, when the Cyclops bellowed in pain after Odysseus blinded him, and his fellow Cyclopes called out, “Who is hurting you?” he answered “No one,” and they all told him to just shut up, if that was the case. What that has to do with the wine I’m not exactly sure, beyond the fact that one version of the legend has the Cyclops living on or near Etna, but it makes a good story and an intriguing wine name.

Whatever: this wine is made by Salvo Foti, who is chief enologist for Benanti and probably the most highly regarded wine maker in eastern Sicily. It differs from Benanti’s in incorporating a little (total 10%) Cataratto, Minella, Malvasia, and Muscatella dell’Etna into its Carricante. It also differs in style – a touch more rustic, perhaps, and definitely bigger, deeper, rounder in the mouth, showing both a little bit more Carricante and a little bit more Etna. The best way to put it is simply that it had more intensity, which was just fine for its place in the dinner. It was perfect with those succulent little morsels of clam, and even the deep-dyed red wine drinkers took an extra glass – for science, to be sure.

Benanti rossoWith the earthy flavors of a very Sicilian beef roll, we drank the 2010 Rossodiverzella. This was a wine I can only describe as mellow, in the most honorific sense. Round, soft, dark-fruited, tasting of that unmistakable Etna minerality, it was at the same time direct and undemanding. All it asked was that you enjoy it, which was an easy request to grant. The Nerello grapes that make up its blend are capable of lengthy cellaring, but for this particular dish an older wine might have been overkill. I like to keep the players in each course on a par with each other, so for me this match was just fine.

Taurasi 1With the cheese course, I broke pattern completely. The cheeses were from northern Italy, and the wine was from The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – that is to say, Naples – Mastroberardino’s Taurasi Riserva 1985. I had to get an older wine in there somewhere, and this proved to be the exact right spot for this elegant, deep, complex red – an absolute pleasure to drink. I do wish I had more of it, but that was my last, oldest bottle of Taurasi. Sigh. I do believe that even the seafood-loving Inspector Montalbano would have relished it, and forgiven my introduction of a “foreign” wine.

Ancient, Rare, and Resurrected

August 26, 2013

Ancient, rare, and resurrected are three adjectives Jancis Robinson uses to describe a trio of Campanian grapes: Casavecchia, Pallagrello bianco, and Pallagrello nero. The wines these three make I would call huge, complex, and elegant, and I think medals should be awarded the people who saved these varieties from extinction. They rank among the most exciting and distinctive new (old) wines I have encountered in many years.

3 grapes

.

I’ve written a little bit about all three already, and I hope to do more bookin the future: These are grapes and wines that deserve attention. I’ve tried to find out some more about them, but there just isn’t a lot of information out there. The most complete and up-to-date English-language source I know is the recently published Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz Wine Grapes, and the few paragraphs it contains on the three convey less information than a solid sense of how little is known.

Here’s the gist of it: All three are historical Campanian grapes, at one time of great importance and prestige. That much is verified by their having been planted, in the 18th century, in the famous but now vanished vineyard called Vigna del Ventaglio by the architect/landscapist Luigi Vanvitelli. Vanvitelli was architect to the Bourbon kings of Naples, and he designed their enormous palace at Caserta to rival their cousin Bourbons’ little summer place at Versailles.

Vanvitelli's Reggia di Caserta

Vanvitelli’s Reggia di Caserta

Here in the extensive and ornate gardens – again, the goal was to outdo Versailles – was where he placed the Vigna del Ventaglio, a semi-circle of vineyard laid out in ten plots to resemble a hand-held fan. Each plot contained a different variety of importance in the kingdom of Naples, and three of those were Pallagrello bianco, Pallagrello nero, and Casavecchia.

vigna del ventaglio

Such DNA studies as have been done to this point on these varieties have found no links to any other known grapes. Indeed, Pallagrello bianco and Pallagrello nero, despite their names, are not even related to each other: They are totally separate varieties. There may be some kinship between Pallagrello nero and Casavecchia, but the fact is far from certain, and the nature of the relation, if it exists, is totally unknown. Their very unidentifiability would seem to suggest that these are very ancient varieties indeed: All the new grape varieties that are popping up now have traceable DNA trails. But that is just a guess, as is everything about their origin and antiquity.

The next sure fact is that all three varieties suffered mightily, first from the devastation of phylloxera and then from the depopulation of Campania caused by poverty, emigration, and two world wars. All three varieties were thought to be lost forever, to have simply gone extinct, and it was only as recently as the 1990s that surviving vines were found and identified in abandoned vineyards, and their serious propagation began anew.

Peppe, ManuelaPeppe Mancini and Manuela Piancastelli are the people universally acknowledged to have rescued and revived all three varieties, and I was lucky enough to visit their vineyards and taste with them the last time I was in Campania. Peppe, a lawyer and winelover, was haunted by the memory of the wines he had tasted as a child, and he and Manuela scoured the countryside until they located a few pre-phylloxera vines of each variety. That was the end of his law career and her journalism career: They became full-time grape growers and winemakers. Their handful of 150-year-old vines (150 is a guess: they might be even older) became the parents of the 10 hectares they now cultivate at their Terre del Principe estate, and of all the other Pallagrello and Casavecchia vines now growing again in the ancient homeland.

Here, with apologies, are my (much abbreviated) tasting notes from that visit. The apology is because of my reservations about tasting notes – but there is no other way to convey to you just how deeply I was impressed by these wines.

Pallagrello bianco

???????????????????????????????2011: Honeysuckle nose. Floral/herbal palate, with lovely minerality and acidity; very long finishing. Suggests Viognier without being it.

2010: All the charm of the 2011, but bigger and rounder; almonds in the finish. Very fine.

2009: Almonds in the nose now – Manuela says that’s characteristic of Pallagrello bianco. Very round and fresh, with a long dry pear finish.

2008: Very similar to ’09; still fresh and very lively. Long dry fruit-leather finish. Very impressive.

2007: Not as fresh as the ’08, but still live. Bright acid and dry fruit dance on the palate. Good long finish. A supple grape that makes a distinctive wine: clearly a variety to reckon with.

Pallagrello rosso Ambruco

nero label2009: Rich, deep purple color (on all the reds). Blackberry nose. Blackberry-mulberry-leather palate. Leather and nut finish. Big, but round, with a touch of elegance. Quite fine, and very distinctive.

2008: Aroma of blackberry and tobacco. Palate rounder, smoother, more elegant than ’09: altogether more developed. Long tobacco finish.

2007: Tobacco, leather, blackberry nose. Palate similar to 2008, but with less leather, more fruit. Very long nutty/tobacco finish. Elegant and fine.

2006: Closing down a bit; just going into eclipse. Finish still fine.

2005: This either hasn’t entered eclipse or has already emerged – elegant, balanced, tasting of black fruits and leather. Quite fine.

2004: More mature aroma and very developed flavors. Nicely balanced, very elegant, very deep and complex. Manuela says that 2004 and 2007 were the warmest vintages, so this wine may be a bit advanced – which would seem to indicate that the best vintages will be very long-lived. She likes 2008 very much.

Casavecchia Centomoggia

???????????????????????????????2005: Amazingly complex nose of cacao, black pepper, spices, and beef jerky. In the mouth, soft and round, fully dry: beefy, with black fruit and leather finish. A huge wine, intense and fresh, with years of life in front of it.

2006: Nose slightly closed but clearly big. Big, soft, black fruit and chocolate palate, black pepper and mineral following. Long leather and fruit and pepper finish. Another huge, young wine. Quite fine.

2007: All chocolate in the nose. Soft black fruit and chocolate on the palate, with hints of sweetness. Pepper, spices, chocolate in the finish. Tastes very young and wants years to deepen, but its link with the older wines is very clear, as is the reason Manuela and Peppe chose to show these wines in this order.

As you can infer from those last remarks, Casavecchia is the hardest of these wines to understand, especially when young, because it is the most different from the wines that most of us are used to. You’ve got to come to it with an open mind, suspending your Cabernet expectations for sure, and maybe even your Nebbiolo and Aglianico expectations. Casavecchia makes no compromises, no apologies. I think that may be what I like best about it.

All three Terre del Principe wines are imported to the US by Vias Imports Ltd.

Hot-Weather Red Wines

August 15, 2013

Nowhere is it carved in stone that you must drink white wines or rosé all summer long. Not that that’s bad, mind you: I’ve had some lovely whites and enjoyable rosés so far this tarmac-melting season. But I can only go so long before my system requires red wine. The first signs of my withdrawal symptoms are usually quickening of the pulse at casual mentions of, say, Beaujolais, followed at the next stage by scent hallucinations: I keep thinking I smell Gragnano or Freisa. When that starts happening, Attention Must Be Paid.

Maresca family legend has it that this addiction was formed in my earliest childhood, when my Neapolitan grandfather – the man whose youthful moustache style still adorns my upper lip – fed me slices of peaches that he had cut up and soaked in his glass of cellar-cool red wine.

.

Grandmother and Grandfather Maresca in their  Vegetable Garden

Maresca Grandparents in their Vegetable Garden

.

The most extreme forms of the story have me still in my highchair, which became a high chair indeed as I imbibed those wine-soaked peaches. I barely remember any of this, but I still enjoy peaches in wine. My grandfather’s wine was, I am sure, homemade stuff from the-cousins-down-on-the-farm, but peaches and I are adaptable: We’ll both work with just about any fresh, fruity red wine.

The easiest recourse, of course, is Beaujolais. It’s available everywhere, and there are many good producers. In a pinch, I can even drink some of Georges Duboeuf’s better cru bottlings. His Julienas and Fleurie and Regnié seem to have a more modest touch of the banana-oil scent so prominent elsewhere in his line, which many years ago led some less-reverent wine journalists to refer to him as Georges Du Banane. Duboeuf has the advantage of availability: His wines are sold almost everywhere. NB: For peach-soaking purposes, his simple Beaujolais Villages works best.

.

???????????????????????????????

.

But for savoring purposes, there are many excellent smaller Beaujolais producers whose wines are worth seeking out. Two of my favorites are Jean Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées and Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette. The latter’s Fleurie and Christal and the former’s Morgon, Fleurie, and Chénas are among my all-time top Beaujolais.

In the US, Chénas is probably the least-known of the Beaujolais crus, but it’s one of my favorites for its intense individuality – and its surprisingly ability to age. In France, I have drunk 10- and 15-year-olds that were just lovely, almost Burgundian in their velvetiness and complexity. Moulin-à-vent is the cru that is best known here for its cellaring potential, but Morgon shouldn’t be overlooked in that regard either. Remember, it’s acidity that keeps a wine alive, and all Beaujolais have an abundance of that.

Some Loire reds also serve very well in summer, since their soft fruit – Cabernet franc – makes them tolerant of a little chilling, in the manner of Beaujolais. Don’t ice them to death, but serve a good Saumur or Bourgueil at a true cellar temperature, around 50 to 55 degrees, and you can enjoy them in the steamiest of Julys and Augusts. I haven’t actually tried slicing peaches into any of these, but I see no reason why the combination shouldn’t taste fine. In the old days – which are getting more and more distant all the time – when red wines normally ran about 12 or 12.5 degrees of alcohol, you could even enjoy St. Emilion or Gigondas served cool on a hot summer evening, but today’s higher-alcohol wines don’t respond well to such treatment, and would probably overwhelm a humble peach – alas.

More recondite choices come from Italy: harder to find, perhaps, but worth the effort. Bardolino is a reviving appellation that deserves more attention than it gets. The best of them combine the kind of light, fresh fruit and vivacious acidity that make an excellent warm-weather dinner drink and companion to fish, white flesh, or salume or pastas – a very useful, almost-all-purpose wine, and certainly suitable for soaking a few peaches.

Gragnano – a personal favorite, and probably close to the kind of wine my grandfather first dunked his peaches in as a young man in Italy – makes the perfect pizza or pasta summer wine. Grown in the Sorrento peninsula, it was once the ubiquitous everyday red wine of Naples, where I’m sure it still cradles many a peach slice after lunch and dinner. Several good growers – Grotta del Sole, Federiciane, and Monteleone for example – are now reviving the breed. Gragano is vinified from a blend of Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso, the latter a very localized, very Campanian variety.

Sicily, as you might expect, offers some lovely warm weather reds, most notably Frappato and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The latter should not be confused with the Marche’s Cerasuolo, an entirely different wine from an entirely different grape. The principal variety in both Sicilian wines is the indigenous Frappato, which makes a charming, light-bodied and light-cherry-colored wine under both denominations. Both are delightful hot-weather drinking and worth some effort to find.

Back in the north, in addition to the big, austere Nebbiolo wines, the fields around Alba also produce Freisa and Grigolino, two wines that have lost ground – in the most literal sense – to the growth of Barolo and Barbaresco. Freisa and Grignolino are almost polar opposites of those two wines: both are lighter-bodied, acidic, and sprightly – indeed, you often find slightly fizzy examples. Freisa smells and tastes like a strawberry/raspberry cocktail with an underlayer of tar (we are in the Piedmont after all), while Grignolino is the grittier, earthier, seemingly more rustic wine of the two. Pio Cesare makes a lovely example of it, and several good small growers have remained loyal to/are turning back to Freisa. Both make great companions to a summer lunch or dinner, and both take a little chilling without losing anything – in fact, a slight chill seems to me to better release their aromas.

So there are lots of wines to choose from, and you have no excuse to give up red wine because of the weather. Get busy peeling and slicing those peaches!

.

???????????????????????????????

Ribolla Gialla: An Unusual Grape Found in an Unexpected Place

August 5, 2013

During a short, purely escapist trip to California’s central coast, Diane and I enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner at Passionfish, in Pacific Grove, just outside of Monterey. Fine as the food was, the wine list was even better, a real departure from the almost standardized California list of Chardonnay-Merlot-Cabernet-Pinot noir. Passionfish has those wines, of course, but it focuses on the 7% of California wines that aren’t made from those grapes, and on wines that reflect a more European – i.e., food-friendly – style. It offers a very nice selection of French and Italian wines as well, and it prices all its wines at a reasonable 50-80% above cost, compared to the 200-300% (and sometimes more!) that has become the customary markup almost everywhere else. For all of which, I say Hooray!

Being there for only one meal, and having to drive some unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar rental car after dinner, we weren’t able to do any in-depth sampling of the list. But one section really caught my eye: “Orange Wine,” it was headed, and it didn’t mean wines made from oranges.

orange wine list

ribolla-406-1-1That’s where I spotted Ryme Cellars’ version of Ribolla Gialla, a grape I know well from Friuli. There it makes a very pleasant, light-to-medium-bodied white wine that works nicely with most relatively simple foods. In Friuli it’s usually made in a bright, acid style, but the description in Passionfish’s wine list showed clearly that this California version was vinified very differently for a markedly different effect, for a roundness and fullness that promised to match well with Diane’s king salmon and my sturgeon. It did indeed, and that prompted some basic research.

Ryme Cellars sourced the grapes for the 2010 Ribolla Gialla that we drank from the Vare Vineyard in Napa. As Ryme’s website explains,

We traveled a long way to find this vineyard. Our fascination with Ribolla Gialla took us to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy. Visiting one of our favorite producers, Sasha Radikon told us that there was one guy in the US with Ribolla planted. George Vare has about 2.5 acres planted at the base of Mount Veeder in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. We contacted George and were lucky enough to score a single ton from his now coveted vineyard.

Clearly, this is no big commercial project but a labor of love. Ryme Cellars – from the names of the owner/winemakers, RYan and MEgan Glaab – specializes in off-beat-for-California grapes: at present, Ribolla Gialla, two versions of Vermentino, and Aglianico. Why?

Most of our wines are made from Italian varieties simply because of the great diversity and unique character of the wines of that culture. . . . We love wines with distinctive character. They should taste great on their own, but really shine alongside good food. We love wines with ample tannin and acidity, especially if they are expected to age. We always value a great wine’s idiosyncrasies over a polished supple sameness that is so common in the wine world.

More specifically, as Ryan Glaab told me by email, he had his eyes opened by bottles of Ribolla Gialla from Gravner and Radikon at a dinner party back in 2006. “It was the most challenging, surprising, and deeply pleasurable wine experience I have had,” Ryan says. “And these wines vastly overshadowed all the grand cru Burgundy and Côte Rôtie we had that night. I knew then that I wanted to seriously pursue skin-fermented white wines. My wife and I love many orange wines, and we also make a Vermentino, but I think Ribolla Gialla is the noblest of orange wines. I sometimes think of it as the Nebbiolo of white grapes. It demands patience. It has a quiet nature and a powerful structure. There are not many grapes like it. We only make about 50 cases each year. We are very lucky to have access to the small vineyard. In the near future I hope to plant more elsewhere.”

I very much respect passion and commitment like that, and I think happening upon it anywhere is a cause for celebration. Clearly, these are two people I would like to meet, and whose kind I would like to find more of in the wine world. I hope they have a huge success without having to compromise the kinds of things they’re doing now, because what they’re doing now is very simple and very special:

The wines are produced according to simple methods. The wines are always encouraged, never controlled. We use no cultured yeast, no temperature control, no enzymes or other adulterants. We do not fine or filter. The wines are raised in used French oak barriques between 2 and 10 years old. Many of the reds are fermented on the stems. Many of the whites are fermented on the skins.

The 2010 Ribolla was all destemmed and fermented inside 2 old oak puncheons. The cap was manipulated lightly a few times throughout the fermentation. The puncheons were then sealed and the wine saw a total of about one month maceration. It was then pressed and spent two years in barrel and 9 months in bottle.

???????????????????????????????The result of that was a light-orange-colored wine with a smooth, almost waxy mouth-feel, chalky/floral aromas and a range of floral and mineral flavors that recalled without replicating Friuli Ribolla – a sort of Ribolla Plus, if you will. It made a thoroughly enjoyable drink on its own and an even better one with our two very different fish dishes. Had we been walking home, we probably would have had a second bottle, and I can’t give a wine a higher compliment than that. This wasn’t the kind of wine I expected to find on the central coast – or anywhere in California, for that matter – but I’m very happy about the serendipitous encounter. I can only hope that California continues to produce more such individualist winemakers as Ryan and Megan to make more such intriguing wines.

Used to be Twiggy: Sauvignon blanc

July 26, 2013

Many, many years ago, back in Mastering Wine, I described the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc as Marilyn TwiggyMonroe compared to Twiggy. That comparison is pretty dated now, for a lot of reasons. Most run-of-the-mill Chardonnays have gotten a lot more zaftig – not to say flabby – than they used to be, moving closer to Roseanne and Melissa McCarthy than Marilyn. Some Sauvignons have gone the opposite direction and become positively anorexic, grassy and herbal as a ruminant’s lunch. And some – especially New World Sauvignons – have plumped up (to put it kindly) and become fruit cocktails.

Once upon that long-ago time, I was quite fond of Sauvignon blanc. When its grass and herbaceousness and cat’s pee flavors were moderated by some grapiness and the occasional taste of terroir, as was common then in Sancerre and other Loire valley Sauvignons, it could be a very elegant wine, useful in many dinner situations.

From Jancis Robinson's Vines, Grapes, and Wines

From Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes, and Wines

I’m not sure, as time has passed, whether my palate has changed or the wine has, but the fact is that I haven’t these days enjoyed most Sauvignons. I found many of them extremely grassy and herbal, or at the other extreme so fat with oak and vanilla, that I simply couldn’t drink them. This may be just poor viticulture and viniculture – bad work in the field and worse in the cellar – but its consequences are that I had even begun to think of the grape variety as distinctly second tier, if not third.

I hate to lose a wine: The world’s repertory of truly noble wine grapes is not so vast that we can spare any. So I set out, in a modest, home-tasting way, to explore contemporary Sauvignon blanc. I tried a sort-of representative sample of Sauvignons from key parts of the winemaking world to see what, my prejudices and memories set aside, the present state of Sauvignon blanc truly is.

???????????????????????????????

The most obvious thing about Sauvignon blanc nowadays is that it’s grown and vinified just about everywhere: Name an important or burgeoning wine area, and Sauvignon blanc will be there. That’s pretty surprising for a variety whose northern European origins – all the DNA evidence points to the Loire valley, which was its epicenter for most of its history – make it unsuitable for growing in particularly warm areas. On its home ground, it became a notable wine as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé and later spread from the Loire to Bordeaux where it became an important component of both dry white Bordeaux and Sauternes.

???????????????????????????????In the past 50 years or so, Sauvignon blanc has become the paradigm international variety: It successfully marched around the world, colonizing California, where Robert Mondavi first made it famous as Fumé blanc, then Australia and New Zealand, South America and South Africa. In New Zealand it scored spectacular success: It became the main motor of the New Zealand wine industry, after Cloudy Bay’s version set an international standard for the breed – richly aromatic, racy, and intensely herbal/grassy. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, in the popular imagination at least, the international style of Sauvignon blanc has largely pushed the traditional Loire valley style to the margins. For my palate – and that’s the only one I can judge with – Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon blanc (I tasted the 2012 vintage) is way over the top. Here’s my tasting note (with all my usual caveats about tasting notes):

Pale straw. On the nose, Grass!!! and cat’s pee. Some mineral on palate, but very herbal/citrus. Long grass-and-something finish – gooseberry? Lean-bodied, but big with alcohol. Gets more citrus-y as it opens, but still for my palate an extreme wine – not unbalanced in the conventional wine-speak sense, but almost freakishly top-heavy with exaggerated fruit.

Unfortunately for me, that kind of wine has become the model for most non-European Sauvignon, and probably is what most consumers now think Sauvignon is all about. But since that traditional style of Sauvignon blanc is the one I used to love, I tried to find out if anyone is still making it.

So I turned back to France. Again this wasn’t a systematic tasting, nor a wide one – but it was quite satisfying. The handful of wines I tasted – 2012 Francois Crochet Sancerre Les Perrois, 2011 Domaine Reverdy-Ducroux Sancerre, 2012 Pointe d’agrumes Touraine Sauvignon Blanc – all shared a restraint and balance that made them very successful dinner wines. None was strongly grassy – in fact I had to hunt hard in most to smell and taste grass – and all showed elements of terroir in their flavor – flint and wet stones, riding along with occasional citrus (grapefruit) notes. Home at last.

Loire wines

.

Given my great passion for Italian wines, I naturally had to see what happened to Sauvignon blanc there. I tried several Sauvignons from northern Italy – Alto Adige, Venezia-Giulia, Friuli – all with some pleasure. The grassiness that I dislike was never as prominent as in New World wines – but I did find that the further west I went from Friuli the more it showed in the aroma, though rarely on the palate. So the 2011 Tiefenbrunner Kerchleiten Sauvignon and the 2012 Tramin Sauvignon (both Alto Adige) both gave a little grass on the nose while having more mineral-inflected notes on the palate. Both were fine with food. Bortoluzzi’s 2011 from Venezia Giulia showed much more mineral all through, and conveyed a nice hint of terroir.

Northern Italy wines

.

Once into Friuli proper, I found that Sauvignon blanc seems to have discovered a whole new home for itself. Producers like Villa Russiz and Vie di Romans are turning out balanced, restrained Sauvignons marked by strong minerality and gout de terroir, medium-bodied and conveying a round mouth-feel despite bright acidity. You would never confuse them with Sancerre or its kin – they offer a completely different style and flavor range – but these are wines that equally convincingly convey a sense of place, that they have found their place. Normally I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but in Friuli Sauvignon blanc turns out to be a variety I can get enthusiastic about.

Friuli wines

Barbaresco 2010: The Very, Very Good and the Not So Hot

July 16, 2013

At Nebbiolo Prima in Alba back in May, before the assembled journalists were ambushed by the grueling three mornings of 2009 Barolos, we were lulled into a false sense of security by a morning and a half of on-the-whole-fine Barbarescos of the 2010 vintage. So for most of this post, the news is very, very good: 2010 is a vintage for the cellar – possibly for many decades of aging – yet it seems to be very friendly and accessible already. In effect, it combines the best of old-style Nebbiolo structure with welcoming post-global-warming fruit.

Barbaresco is a far smaller zone than Barolo, with far fewer producers: Only some 70 Barbaresco wines were shown at Nebbiolo Prima, compared to 218 Barolos. The three townships of Barbaresco, Treiso, and Neive make up 95% of the zone, with just a tiny corner of Alba township forming the rest. The Barbaresco zone lies to the northeast of Alba, while Barolo lies to Alba’s southwest. The soils and elevations and exposures in the two zones are roughly similar, and both use only Nebbiolo to produce their wines.

barbaresco-comunes

The major differences between them are that, overall, the climate in Barbaresco is slightly cooler than in Barolo, and the regulations for its wines allow a year less aging before release; but in the same vintage, the best wines of either zone could easily be mistaken for the other’s. The different qualities of the vintages – Barolo 2009 and Barbaresco 2010 – stood out glaringly at the event in May. Where the Barolo presenters spoke guardedly of 2009 as a difficult vintage, yielding wines for short-term enjoyment, Barbaresco producers expressed unqualified enthusiasm about their 2010s. (The Barolo producers will get their turn to gloat next year, when they show their 2010s.) I didn’t hear a single disparaging remark about the 2010 vintage from anyone the whole week I was there.

The official Consorzio account of the vintage usually tries, in judicious bureaucratese, to put the best face on every harvest, an effort that was hardly necessary for 2010:

Nebbiolo . . . was able to enjoy fine weather throughout the month of September, offsetting the slight delay in the ripening of the grapes due to the wet weather between July and August. Ripening checks showed that the sugars continued to accumulate during the second half of the month, while the acid profile gradually dropped to very acceptable levels. Ripening of the phenolic components which are essential for ensuring body and ageing capacity has been excellent. Without question, Nebbiolo has responded sublimely this year . . .

I love how the dispassionate technical analysis collapses into the sheer enthusiasm of “Nebbiolo has responded sublimely”!

For us wine drinkers, the best part is that that enthusiasm was totally justified by the experience of the tastings. Here’s one of my tasting notes, picked at random from the first morning of Barbaresco tastings: “Classic aromas of black cherry, road tar, and dried roses; palate slightly closed but very smooth and elegant; lovely fruit-and-tar finish – an excellent wine, 4-star +.” Lest you think this is just cherrypicking, here’s my very next note: “Black cherry and toast on the nose; more closed than the preceding wine, but evidently built on the same lines, with an intense dark fruit finish; needs some time, but potentially 4-star +.” Just to put this in perspective: 5 stars are my highest rating, and I gave scores between 3 and 4.75 stars – all right, I’m stingy – to better than 80% of the Barbarescos from the communes of Treiso, Barbaresco, and Alba.

The not-so-hot portion of the tasting was once again, as it has been for some years running, the wines of Neive. With a few honorable exceptions – for example, Angelo Negro, Oddero, Francesco Rinaldi – the Neive wines were over-oaked to the point that their Nebbiolo character was for me completely obscured. I infer, from the fact that these wines continue to be made, that somebody must like them and buy them, but for me most Neives remain undrinkable: milestones on the long death-march of a great wine toward its ultimate pepsicolization.

Despite the disappointments of Neive, 2010 Barbaresco offers an abundance of first-rate wines that I think will be drinkable early and last long, which is the kind of two-fer package that Nebbiolo lovers dream about. Here are some of my favorites (with communes in parentheses):

  • Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco Rio Sordo (Barbaresco), Barbaresco Tre Stelle (Barbaresco)
  • Ceretto, Barbaresco Asili, Barbaresco Bernardot (Treiso)
  • Michele Chiarlo, Barbaresco Asili (Barbaresco)
  • Marchesi di Gresy, Barbaresco Martinenga (Barbaresco)
  • Pertinace, Barbaresco Marcarini (Treiso)
  • Poderi Colla, Barbaresco Roncaglie (Barbaresco)
  • Vigneti Luigi Oddero, Barbaresco (multiple communes)
  • Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco (Barbaresco)
  • Albino Rocca, Barbaresco Ronchi (Barbaresco), Barbaresco Teorema (Alba)

Also, be on the lookout for Barbarescos from such outstanding crus as Asili, Montestefano, and Rabaja, which seem to have performed exceptionally well in this vintage.

Stop the Presses: 1978 Barolo Is Finally Drinkable!

July 5, 2013

Yes, it’s true: Those formerly impenetrable 1978 Barolos, one of the most promising and also most frustrating vintages of Piedmont’s great red wine, have finally relaxed and opened – and they are wonderful, fully worth the 30-year wait since they were first released.

The 1978 vintage was unquestionably a classic pre-global-warming growing season in the Barolo zone. A cooler-than-average summer followed a cool, rainy spring but was capped by a glorious, warm autumn with great day/night temperature differentials – the latter always crucial for the proper maturation of Nebbiolo. The crop was small, and the wines were initially concentrated and very hard, with evident great structure but totally unyielding tannins. ’78 Barolos were notoriously slow to come around: Some critics feared they would never be drinkable. That worry has been slow to dissipate, as the wines remained hard and ungiving year after year.

Barolo vineyard *

Barolo vineyard *

My last post lamented the disaster of 2009 Barolo, but this one tells a very different story, a triumph for Barolo producers. My mornings at Nebbiolo Prima, back in May, were taken up with blind tastings of the newly released ’09 vintage, a painful chore at best. But my afternoons compensated: In the course of an assignment for Decanter, I visited several long-established producers whose cellars held enough older vintages to facilitate a comparative tasting of “classic” and “modern” Barolos, or, if you prefer, pre- and post-global-warming Barolos.

I was accompanied in these sessions by two colleagues, Tom Hyland, who had a similar assignment for Sommelier Journal, and Kerin O’Keefe, who was just finishing a likely-to-be-definitive book on Barolo for The University of California Press. These are two people with deep knowledge of Piedmontese wine and with palates I seriously respect – which means of course that their taste in Barolo resembles mine in being deeply traditional.

We wept and wailed in harmony at the dismal morning sessions, and we rejoiced together at our often-deeply-moving afternoon tastings. And we agreed completely that the 1978 vintage has finally come round, that it is marvelous drinking, and that it shows no signs of fatigue at all. This is a vintage, if you’re lucky enough to have it or to find it, to start drinking now and keep sipping for at least another ten years, and quite possibly more.

Here are the wines we tasted:

Barolos

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo Riserva: deeply earth-and-truffle nose; fantastically fresh on the palate, with classic Nebbiolo dark-fruit, funghi-porcini flavors, and no sign of tiredness at all. Claudio Fenocchio has now taken over from his father, who made this wine: He is consciously reverting to very traditional modes of winemaking.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate: Spicy, earthy, evolved nose, and beautiful, fleshy Barolo palate. Great balance and elegance. Elvio Cogno made this wine before he left Marcarini for his own vineyards, but the estate has maintained the same, almost meaty style into its more recent vintages.

Massolino Barolo Riserva: A grape selection, not a cru, and a great wine, still fresh, live, supple, with enormous complexity and depth: big and mouth-filling without feeling weighty or ponderous. Franco Massolino says that this wine exemplifies the style he strives for.

Oddero Barolo: Classic Barolo in the sense that it is blended from several communes and crus, and classic in every other sense as well. Beautifully evolved, dark and velvety, a wonderfully evocative wine, typical – in the best sense – of Barolo of that generation, in its fascinating combination of rusticity and sophistication.

Pio Cesare Barolo: Great funky, mushroomy aroma, just turning to truffle; deep, mature, mushroomy flavors; long, long earth and dried-black-fruit finish, with plenty of life in it yet. A big wine, as the Pio Cesares tend to be.

???????????????????????????????

Prunotto Barolo Bussia Riserva: A classic, mature Barolo, seemingly at its peak, with no sign of decline: very fine, powerful, and elegant. The nearly legendary Beppe Colla* made this wine in a very traditional manner – about 50 days of maceration on the skins, long aging in big botti.

Grand wines, all of them, and at the end of the day a very happy, very privileged bunch of journalists.

.

And One More Aging Surprise

Other than my own, that is, which is a constant surprise to me.

bussolaI recently discovered, in a case of wines that I had lost track of, a bottle of 1998 Tommaso Bussola Valpolicella Classico. Now, I had never had any intention of keeping a Valpolicella so long, and I thought surely this must be a long-dead wine – but there it was, and I am well supplied with corkscrews, so what the hell? I pulled the cork, I sniffed, and what do you know? The wine smelled just fine. Not young and fruity, as one expects of Valpolicella, but mature and somewhat claret-y.

We had it that night with dinner, and it was very pleasant: not earthshaking, but an enjoyable, medium-bodied, mature wine that might have been a Medoc cru bourgeois. I had never suspected Valpolicella could live so long or so pleasingly. Since it was only 11.5% alcohol, it had to be that brisk Valpolicella acidity that sustained it. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else has had similar experiences with Valpolicella or any of its kindred wines.

.

* Photos from The Mystique of Barolo, by Maurizio Rosso & Chris Meier

Barolo 2009: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

June 24, 2013

The news is mostly bad, I’m afraid, at least for lovers of traditional Barolo. The 2009 vintage is, to put it concisely, pretty crummy.

A chunk of my recent travels took me to Alba, as it does most years in mid-May, for Nebbiolo Prima, the week-long tasting of new release Barolo and Barbaresco. This year, Barbaresco had all the good news: Its growers were showing the 2010 vintage, which is hands-down spectacular, and about which I will have more to say in a later post. The bad news was all Barolo’s, and it was pretty dismal.

Event

.

This is not to say there weren’t some good Barolos. There were, some from consistent overachievers and some from small estates that are unknown to me. The communes of Barolo, Monforte, Serralunga, and tiny Novello did reasonably well. But many producers I normally count on joined the ranks of the serious underachievers this year and turned out wines that – to my traditionalist palate – had very little to do with Barolo. Particularly disappointing were the wines of the usually graceful commune of La Morra.

Here’s a question for the technocrats: How does a wine that (a) is too dark for Nebbiolo; (b) smells like espresso (and in one case like asparagus); and (c) tastes like coffee and toast – how does a wine like that get the Barolo DOCG designation? Something is seriously wrong here: Either I’m crazy, and my palate has gotten completely skewed, or the appellation’s tasting commission really blew it.

For the record, I don’t think my palate is very far off: Many other journalists agreed with me, and most of the winemakers described the harvest – off the record, to be sure – as “difficult” and the wines as “for short-term drinking.” I gather that many of them told a slightly-to-very different story to the trade – the buyers – who tasted in company with them a week before the journalists arrived in Alba to taste blind. Caveat emptor, eh?

Be that as it may, taste blind is what I and my colleagues of the press corps did.

???????????????????????????????

.

It was a pretty grueling experience: approximately 80 wines each morning, which would have been difficult enough had we been tasting Soave, but the bruising tannins and high alcohol of these young Nebbiolos made it an endurance contest. Most of us felt that we probably did not do justice to the last 10 or 15 wines of each morning, but there was just nothing to be done about that. The amount of alcohol absorbed through the mucous membranes, and the amount of wood and grape tannins by that point coating cheeks and tongue, weren’t going to be nullified by a short break or piece of bread or swallow of water.

So it is possible that I missed some good wines every day – but the pattern that was established each day by the first 65 samples certainly didn’t raise any high hopes for the remaining 15. Here are some of my typical comments on a string of wines from Wednesday morning (for the record, La Morra):

  • Closed – espresso finish
  • Coffee aroma – closed – espresso finish
  • Coffee and volatile acidity – palate closed – espresso finish
  • Espresso nose – closed palate – espresso finish
  • There is just nothing here to recommend. The drinking window of these wines – if there is one – runs from two years from now to five years from now. Not a vintage to recommend but to avoid.

And lest you think I’m really out in left field, here are some of the comments that Italian wine expert Franco Ziliani published from his own tasting notes:

Several wines left me totally indifferent, with no temptation to move on from sampling to drinking them, while for others I let my tasting notes speak for themselves: concentrated color, dirty wood, extractive green, wood extract, dry tannin, sub-zero pleasantness; . . .  scents of boiled cabbage and broccoli, . . . no substance, dry finale, ending on coffee-dust tones; dirty nose, reductive, extractive, vegetable, no vigor in the palate, dry tannin, toasted; . . . smelly, dirty rubber, vegetable extracts, limp, faded, sweetish in the palate, no vitality, a shameless meaningless wine.

Wishy-washy, isn’t he? One of the things I like about Franco is that he makes me look temperate.

As you can see, all that adds up to a pretty sad performance from what likes to think of itself as the premier red wine district of Italy. I can’t begin to imagine how so many winemakers got a vintage so wrong. Nor can I in all honesty imagine why many of them didn’t voluntarily declassify, or why the official tasting commission didn’t declassify for them.

Well, take that back: I can imagine one strong reason, and it begins with $ or €. But that should be the strongest reason for declassification in this case: To justify those large amounts of euros and dollars that bottles of Barolo are commanding, rigid enforcement of the quality standards is crucial. Without that, the DOCG is meaningless, the reputation of Barolo tanks, and its price plummets. So it’s in the growers’ best interests to insist on strict application of the wine’s standards to every grower in every vintage. Without that, just kiss off that new Mercedes.

To conclude this jeremiad with some good news, here’s my honor roll of wines that turned in creditable performances in this apparently very, very difficult vintage:

  • Ascheri: Barolo Sorano
  • Barale Fratelli: Barolo Bussia
  • Brezza Giacomo: Barolo Sarmassa
  • Bric Cenciurio: Barolo Coste di Rose
  • Cascina Cucco: Barolo Cerrati
  • Cavalotto-Bricco Boschis: Barolo Bricco Boschis
  • Ceretto: Barolo Prapo
  • Poderi Colla: Barolo Dardi Le Rose-Bussia
  • Aldo Conterno: Barolo Bussia
  • Aldo Conterno: Barolo Bussia Vigna Romirasco
  • Luigi Einaudi: Barolo Cannubi
  • Elvio Cogno: Barolo Cascina Nuova
  • Giacomo Fenocchio: Barolo Cannubi
  • Giacomo Fenocchio: Barolo Villero
  • Fontanafredda: Barolo Serralunga d’Alba
  • Giribaldi Mario: Barolo
  • Elio Grasso: Barolo Gavarini Vigna Chiniera
  • Elio Grasso: Barolo Ginestra Vigna Casa Matè
  • Paolo Manzone: Barolo Meriame
  • Marcarini: Barolo Brunate
  • Massolino-Vigna Rionda: Barolo Parussi
  • Pio Cesare: Barolo Ornato.
  • E. Pira & Figli: Barolo Cannubi
  • Rinaldi Giuseppe: Barolo Brunate-Le Coste
  • Gigi Rosso: Barolo Arione
  • Paolo Scavino: Barolo Bric del Fiasc
  • Sebaste: Barolo Bussia
  • Viberti Giovanni: Barolo Buon Padre

See an update on this vintage here.

A Great White Wine: History, Herstory, Ourstory

June 14, 2013

In addition to all the sensory pleasure that wines provide, some of them have the added dimension of history. We all enjoy a good story, and when it culminates in a lovely glassful, that’s even better.

Diane and I and our good friend Gene recently experienced a wonderful convergence of those attractions over a celebratory dinner at Galatoire’s, in New Orleans.

.

ht_216_wmain

.

As most food and wine people know, Galatoire’s has plenty of history in its own right. Now approaching its 110th anniversary, Galatoire’s has for decades maintained its place as a – maybe the – classic New Orleans restaurant, and a dinner there is de facto a special occasion. This one was even more special because Diane and I were in New Orleans to celebrate (a) her birthday, (b) our anniversary, and (c) Gene’s birthday – one of those significant ones that end in 5 or 0. So we had a lot of convergence right there, in our own persons.

Then there was the wine. With our appetizers and first course, we drank a truly lovely bottle of 2006 Hermitage blanc from Jaboulet, the house’s great Chevalier de Sterimberg. Now there’s a wine with history!

.

Hermitage

.

The Rhône has been a wine river from antiquity. Greek settlers many centuries BC may have introduced the vine to its valley, or they may have found Gaulish tribes already cultivating it. When the Romans finally got there in the first century BC, they rapidly exploited the microclimates and soils they found, and the area south of their regional headquarters at Vienne and north of their garrison at Valence quickly became an important wine center. It has remained so ever since, except for a period of snobbish neglect in the 19th century, when the wines of its principal appellation – Hermitage – were used to “ameliorate” the best wines of Bordeaux. The French even have a verb for it: hermitagiser.

Lovers of Italian wine will recognize the pattern: Northern growers scorn the wines of their south but use them to give body and fruit and finesse to their own production. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

On the Greco-Roman-Gaulish time scale, Hermitage is a Johnny-come-lately wine. It owes its start – or at least its name – to a French knight, Chevalier Gaspard de Sterimberg. According to the (fairly well attested) legend, our good knight was injured during the 13th-century Albigensian crusade, one of those episodes of French history about which the less said the better: Essentially, some of the nobility and all of the Church of southern France tried to exterminate what they called a nest of heretics centered in Albi – fratricidal war at its ugliest. At any rate, the injured and apparently chastened de Sterimberg convalesced at the top of what is now the Hermitage hill, where he built a chapel and spent the rest of his life in solitary and peaceful prayer.

Whether all the vines that now climb up to his chapel – which, by the way, gives its name to Jaboulet’s glorious red Hermitage, La Chapelle – were already there is not clear, but there is certainly a long and continuous history of viticulture on the site.

The Jaboulet firm was founded in 1807, and for a long while all the fame of its Hermitage accrued to its red wines. George Saintsbury thought red Hermitage “the manliest of wines,” back in the days when one could say such things without blushing or apologizing. Jaboulet even then produced the white Chevalier de Sterimberg, but it never acquired much of a reputation.

Then, in the mid-1980s, Jaboulet began to change the way it made the wine: complete malolactic fermentation, some time in small oak, and a unique-for-the-area blend of Roussanne and Marsanne – almost 50-50, the largest percentage of Marsanne in the zone.

The result has been what we enjoyed at Galatoire’s: a big, round white; fat without flabbiness; with unusual aromas and flavors – acacia flowers, hazelnuts, mineral – finishing with a hint of paradoxically dry honey. While still not as renowned as La Chapelle, Chevalier de Sterimberg has definitely become a cult wine in Europe and among consumers who relish the white wines of the Rhône. It has charm, and depth, and a degree of rarity (usually only 12,000 or fewer bottles made) and a wonderful ability to match with the most seemingly unlikely foods.

For example: Our bottle played happily with Galatoire’s “appetizers” (the quotation marks are there because Gene rightly warned us years ago that in New Orleans, there is no such thing as an appetizer) of souffléd potatoes and deep-fried eggplant spears, accompanied by Creole sauce béarnaise and an improbable but quite tasty muddle – mixed at the table – of powdered sugar and Tabasco sauce.

.

appetizer

.

After that, our first courses of crabmeat maison, shrimp remoulade  (Diane has written about that dish here), and seafood gumbo gave the wine no difficulty at all.

.

3 dishes

.

One more bit of history converges here too: After the sudden death of Gerard Jaboulet in 1997, the wines went into something of an eclipse until the Jaboulet family sold its properties to the owners of La Lagune in Bordeaux, whose daughter Caroline Frey, a trained enologist, took over in 2003 as the manager of all the estates. The wines since then have been hers, and she has very successfully continued the most progressive changes that Gerard Jaboulet had begun. So one more story merges into the old Chevalier’s, and all – including Diane’s and mine – converged at a splendid dinner in New Orleans. Happy birthday, Gene!


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 198 other followers