Once More Into the Breach, Dear Winos

Wine season in New York began right after Labor Day with the proverbial bang, conglomerating more wine lunches, portfolio tastings, verticals, and horizontals in the past few weeks than any single liver could deal with. Here are a highly selected few of the season’s stand-out new release wines from a few of those events.

Champagne is always a good opener. Two beauties here: Ayala, which deserves to be as well known here as it is in Europe, is brought in by the small import firm Cognac One. Pol Roger, which is well known everywhere, is imported by the large firm Frederick Wildman.

Ayala is probably the smallest of the Grandes Marques, even though it was a founding member (1882) of that association. Owned since 2005 by Bollinger, Ayala has had the same cellar master (Nicolas Klym) for 25 years. Ayala regards itself as an artisan house, working with highly selected vineyards and grapes: There is quite a lot of grand cru Pinot noir in its basic Brut Majeur and Vintage Brut. I thought the Brut Majeur NV quite stylish and enjoyable, with the merest trace of sweetness in the finish. Drinkers less sensitive to sugar than I will not notice it at all. For total sugar-phobes, Ayala’s Brut Nature NV is the wine of choice: Sound, clean, and fully dry, with a lovely wheaty/toasty palatal presence, this wine would serve both as aperitif and dinner companion.

The Blanc de Blancs 2004 is vinified entirely from grand cru Chardonnay to make a lean and muscular wine, with ample fruit for enjoyable drinking. Cuvée Perle d’Ayala Nature 2002 is composed of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot noir from grand and premier cru villages. It has a fine wheaty nose, excellent body and full, mouth-filling flavor, with a very long finish. Ayala’s top-of-the-line Brut Millesimé 1999 reverses the blend – 80% Pinot noir and 20% Chardonnay – to make a lovely wine, elegant and balanced, deep and long-lasting. Very fine indeed.

Pol Roger is one of the best-known names in Champagne. The house is justly famous for quality throughout its line and for its maintenance of the distinctive fresh and full style that made it Winston Churchill’s favorite. Pol Roger “Pure” Brut Nature NV, Brut Réserve “White Foil” NV, Blanc de Blancs 2002, Vintage Brut 2002, and Brut Rosé 2004 are all cut from the same fine cloth: biggish wines that manage to be rich and austere at the same time, so that you don’t know whether to admire more the depth of their flavor or the restraint of their style. The Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999, named after the house’s most famous and most loyal client, is simply gorgeous – as usual. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Grands Marques houses is the way they preserve such a very high level of quality year in and year out. They make it look routine, but there is nothing easy about it.

I was also impressed by multiple wines from another Wildman producer, Paul Jaboulet Ainé. This Rhône master makes the whole gamut of northern and southern Rhône wines well, from its basic Parallèle 45 red and white up to some very rarified heights. I found its two red Hermitages, 2009 La Petite Chapelle and 2005 La Chapelle, very striking, the former very floral and – at this stage of its development – a bit rustic, the latter still half-closed but elegant and polished and structured for the ages. I loved Jaboulet’s Cornas Domaine Saint Pierre (2009), which was huge and utterly characteristic of Cornas – the northernmost outpost of Syrah in the Rhône, and an appellation that rarely gets the respect it deserves. Its wines are typically forceful, even aggressive in their youth, but mellow as they age into deep and polished, always identifiably southern, wines. They can age as long as any other Rhône appellation.

Much as I liked the Jaboulet reds, however, the two wines that really enchanted me were the firm’s 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape Les Cèdres blanc and 2007 Hermitage Chevalier de Sterimberg, the latter already an extremely lovely white wine, but one that will live and slowly improve for decades. Should I live so long, I would drink this wine when it’s 20 years old.

Back at the Cognac One tasting, another Rhône producer caught my attention: Cave de Tain. This is a co-op, and an excellent one. Headquartered right at Hermitage, Cave de Tain draws upon growers who produce more than half of all the northern Rhône AOC wines made. Its basic 2010 Syrah is a beautifully restrained example of the variety, while its red 2009 Crozes Hermitage, also 100% Syrah, shows the same restraint coupled with an excellent acidity and minerality, with fine potential for intermediate aging.

Cave de Tain Crozes Hermitages vineyard

2006 Saint-Joseph and 2005 Cornas, both, again, 100% Syrah, are already deep and showing complexity despite their relative youth. Both will age well for at least ten years. Neither appellation, it seems to me, gets sufficient attention from serious wine lovers.

The top of Cave de Tain’s range contains a lovely 2005 Hermitage rouge (nose of chestnuts and earth, deep palate, smooth and fresh), a 2010 Esprit de Granit Saint-Joseph (mineral and black pepper nose, deep peppery Syrah finish: needs years), and an absolutely gorgeous 2005 Gambert de Loche Hermitage (already deep and velvety; still evolving and deepening). These are all first-rate examples of Northern Rhône character.

Finally, one Italian producer (you knew I couldn’t resist): Aurelio Settimo of La Morra, one of the key communes of the Barolo zone. Tiziana Settimo, daughter of the eponymous founder and guiding spirit of the small estate for a decade now, hosted a lovely dinner at Porter House restaurant to celebrate her wines’ re-entry into the US market. Her new importer for New York and New Jersey is Verity Wine Partners. She showed the first four wines to arrive here: Dolcetto d’Alba 2010, Langhe Nebbiolo 2006, Barolo 2007, and Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2007.

All four wines showed the characteristic Aurelio Settimo elegance and restraint, coupled with – especially in the case of the two Barolos – intensity of flavor and the absolutely classic spectrum of Nebbiolo components. The Nebbiolo d’Alba, although slightly lighter-bodied than the two Barolos, showed the same purity of Nebbiolo character. This is a totally pleasurable wine, ready to drink now (it loved a porcini and black truffle risotto) and likely to hold at a fine level for at least five years yet. At about half the price of the Barolos, it represents the closest you’re going to come to a steal in Alba wines these days. The commune of La Morra has been pretty much setting the pace for Barolo for a few years now, and meticulous, painstaking winemakers like Tiziana are the reason why.

That’s all for now: there will be more reports on outstanding wines as the season wears on. Coraggio!

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