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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

In Praise of Pinot Gris

Pinot gris is the least celebrated of France’s noble white grape varieties. It’s also the most distinctive and, for my palate, the most interesting, so I’m very glad it’s finally enjoying a bit of attention from critics and consumers.
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However, there’s a lot of confusion about what Pinot gris is. You’re right, it is exactly the same variety as the Italian Pinot grigio. But the wines it yields in the Italian northeast – the arc from the eastern Veneto through Friuli, up to the Slovenian border – are very different from the wines it produces in northeast France; in Alsace, up against the border with Germany.

Different soils and climates, different clonal selections, different cultivation and vinification, very different aims – all make for wines that can be in no way alike. Unfortunately, there is an ocean of boring Pinot grigio being produced and only a trickle of really fine bottles, from a handful of serious makers like Albino Armani (more about this in a later post).

In Alsace, for at least the last decade – and for some producers much longer than that – the choice has been to target a different market segment, to opt for less quantity and more quality. I can only wish that more winemakers would choose this direction – and I’m pretty sure that no one who has tasted a Pinot gris from a good Alsace producer – Hugel, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, to name just the most prominent examples – will disagree.
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Vineyard image from internationalwinechallenge.com

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Jancis Robinson’s authoritative Wine Grapes says “Alsace Pinot Gris can be as luscious as a ripe peach or apricot, with a hint of smoke, developing biscuity, buttery flavours with age.” That’s true, but there is more to the variety than that: Bottles I’ve drunk, especially older ones, have also had a wealth of earthy, sometimes even metallic, notes: a little copper among the limestone. A few posts back I mentioned a 2013 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris that was emphatically in the range Robinson describes, but also with a little of that metallic zing. It was a lovely wine, and its departures from the “orthodox” flavor pattern didn’t disturb me at all. Pinot gris is a fascinating grape, and quite variable from producer to producer and harvest to harvest – all of which is part of why I like it so much: there can be a little surprise in every bottle.

That variability is probably traceable to Pinot gris’s origins. The Pinots in general present a huge ampelographical puzzle. The whole family is noted for its inclination to mutate, which makes working with any branch of the group – but especially one like Pinot gris, itself already a mutant – a tricky business. Our grape originated centuries ago as a field mutation of Pinot noir, and it remains one of the darkest of white grapes. Robinson describes Pinot gris berries as ranging in color from “pinky purple” to “almost as dark as Pinot Noir.”  That color range mirrors the range of styles that winemakers can coax from those grapes.
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Image from joyofwine.org

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To test and taste a really mature Pinot gris, a Trimbach Reserve Personelle of the excellent 2001 vintage (yes, this is a white wine that will age 20 years), Diane and I made a small Alsace feast. Foie gras to start; then a choucroute garnie with spareribs, knackwurst, slab bacon, and kielbasa; and a sweet apple pancake as dessert. It was a long, slow dinner, and this 21-year-old bottle performed beautifully.

The wine was a lovely light amber-gold, with occasional green glints as the light changed. The aroma was just as pleasing: hay, and honey, and strawberries first, then undertones of forest and earth.

On the palate, the same flavor spectrum showed strongly, and the wine felt smooth, mellow, and deep, but not at all heavy. It was lovely, balanced and restrained, with that youthfully brash Pinot Gris fruit relaxed by age into a graceful symphony of flavors, marked on the palate and in the finish by that intriguing, almost coppery edge. It accompanied all three courses very happily, and it especially liked the choucroute, which highlighted the Pinot gris’s acidity, making absolutely clear what structures this wine and gives it its longevity.
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For me this was a great indulgence, both because I love choucroute – it’s a great winter dish – and because I also love mature wines, especially when they confirm my beliefs about their character and merit, as this gorgeous Pinot gris certainly did.

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A Tale of Two Bottles

Over the course of many, many meals at home during this long siege of Covid, I’ve been winnowing down my collection of older wines. Over the years, I’ve tried to keep some sort of track of what wines I have, but I am not really a very orderly type, and some things just got away from me. Occasionally this has produced a nasty shock, when I’d discover that a wine I really wanted to drink now had apparently been drunk long ago by an unremembering me.

Very occasionally, the shock has been a pleasant one, as when, recently, looking for a wine for a belated holiday dinner with friends, at the bottom of a nearly depleted bin I discovered two dusty bottles of Bonneau du Martray Grand Cru Corton 2000 – perfect accompaniments for the boned and rolled fresh ham Diane was roasting for that fête. Serendipity!
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Some of my regular readers may recall that back in September 2021 I opened a bottle of 2001 Bonneau du Martray Corton for that month’s cellar selection. Really attentive readers may even recall there was a bit of drama about the condition of the cork and whether the wine would be sound. (It was.)

Well, those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it, so I once again had my bit of drama. After I wiped a healthy layer of dust from the two bottles, I began carefully drawing the corks. The first bottle cooperated beautifully: the cork came out smoothly, and the wine smelled wonderfully fresh, still fruity and live. The second bottle, which had lain in identical conditions by the first one’s side for all these years, was a very different story. Its cork looked sound, but when I began to try to ease it out, the top quarter-inch pulled away from the rest of the cork, which proceeded to crumble to pieces. What I could sniff of the wine in the bottle was no more reassuring than the condition of the cork. No serendipity this time.

A combination of curiosity and parsimony made me not discard that bottle but set it aside, lightly covered. I also kept a decanter and filtering wine funnel handy, though I selected a backup bottle should that second Corton prove as dead as I feared it was. I would leave it up to our guests whether, for science (science is a stern mistress) they wanted to try a taste of it or not.

Well, dinnertime came, and we six started with a pureed cauliflower-and-leek soup – a nice wintry dish – accompanied by an absolutely gorgeous bottle of 2013 Zind Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Hunawhir Pinot Gris. I really must do a post about Alsace Pinot Gris sometime soon: the characteristically rich aroma and the complex, deep fruit of this wine set a very high bar for my 21-year-old Corton to match.

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Well, the first bottle of Corton cleared that hurdle easily. It was wonderfully smooth and elegant in the mouth, with delightful fresh berryish scents, and a palate of similar fresh fruit flavors, mingled with more mature meaty sweetnesses and foresty notes. Just a fine wine, which was very quickly consumed by the assembled multitude.

This of course led to the question of Bottle #2, which, given how fine #1 had been, was no question at all: Curiosity prevailed. I filtered and decanted it, poured it around, and awaited judgment as we all judiciously swirled, sniffed, and sipped. No one spat.

It wasn’t dead. It wasn’t corked. Weakened, yes. Paler in color, much lighter in aroma, and more delicate in taste than the first Corton, but definitely still alive. To me, it tasted at least ten years older than its sibling, but if we had drunk it first we wouldn’t have been disappointed. We would probably have called it charming – not overwhelming, but in no way bad.

This was a very, very illuminating demonstration of just how much difference a cork can make in a potentially superb wine. How long the world’s supply of first-rate cork will last is yet one more environmental problem. Worry, worry, worry.

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This is my final post for 2021. It presents the last of my 12 special cellar selections for the year, Quintarelli’s 1981 Amarone. What a spectacular series it turned out to be!

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When I got this Amarone, somewhere back in the middle ‘80s, I remember thinking that I would have to put it away for a while. I’m pretty sure that I was thinking that the “while” in question would be about 5 years, or maybe, since this was a Quintarelli, 10. I’m sure I had nothing like 40 years in mind. That just happened, as year after year I considered tasting the wine and decided to give it a little time yet, until this particular Amarone got pushed back into the Do Not Disturb portion of my brain, and there it stayed for a few decades.

At last its moment came round, and I was worried alternatively that I had waited too long and that I was still rushing it.

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That’s a legitimate worry when Amarone is concerned. These are notoriously long-lived wines, and in some vintages they can be very slow maturing. 1981 is, I suspect, one of those vintages. In the Veneto that year, the grapes matured very slowly on the vines, so in some spots the harvest was late, and required several passes through the vineyards to bring in the grapes as they came ready. Fermentation was also long and slow. So ‘81 showed itself early as a wine that would demand patience.

You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking 40 years was enough, but I couldn’t be absolutely certain. I’ve opened 20- and 25-year-old Amarones only to find they were years, perhaps decades, away from full maturity: drinkable, of course, because of their intense fruit, but still tasting and feeling like young wines, and lacking the mature, complex flavor I hoped for, as well as the balance, depth, and, above all, the velvet mouth-feel of fully mature Amarone.

To this point, the oldest Amarone I’d drunk was a 47-or 48-year-old Bertani that celebrated my 75th birthday, and I remember it vividly as one of the most profound wines I’ve ever tasted, with flavors and aromas so deep and concentrated they seemed endless. The empty bottle still smelled wonderful two days later: I could hardly bring myself to throw it out.

Quintarelli doesn’t have the history with Amarone that Bertani does, but Giuseppe Quintarelli in his lifetime became an acknowledged master of the wine: A colleague once quipped that Quintarelli was a black belt in Amarone. Some knowledgeable critics still regard him as the greatest winemaker in the history of Amarone, and I find it hard to argue with that. The “lesser” wines of his that I’ve tasted — Valpolicella and a handful of IGT wines – have always been impressive, big and rich and deep, with a thoroughly craftsmanlike character: superbly made wines.

That latter characteristic is crucial, I think, because Amarone, like Champagne, is an oddity in the universe of wine: It is a wine that owes more to technique than to terroir, more to art than to nature. You start with the late harvest and the number of passes through the vines the winemaker chooses to make. Compound that with the degree of noble rot the winemaker encourages/discourages/prohibits. Then add in the timing of drying and pressing the grapes, and the choice of vehicle in which fermentation occurs. Then whether he does or doesn’t permit malolactic fermentation, plus all the subsequent decisions about handling and aging the wine.

All these craftsmanly decisions affect the wine in more profound ways than its terroir does. All are the techniques of an artist whose chosen medium is the juice of grapes and the wood of barrels. Those appassionati who pursue Amarone are winemakers in the most profound sense, and the resulting wine reflects their skill and artistry more significantly than it does the character of the grapes that go into it. Champagne is the only other wine I know of which you can say that.

Well, the moment of truth arrived, the cork was pulled, the wine was poured, swirled, sniffed, and tasted. The immediate results: two simultaneous, totally unrehearsed “Wow!”s. No kidding: off the scale.

Here are my first five words about its aroma: honey; raisins; prunes; chocolate; chestnut. Here is my first tasting note: “all of the above in velvet!”  This was simply an amazing wine, of elegant power, depth, and duration. It rolled right over foie gras and barely noticed a rich, fruity, pan-roasted duck. I find it hard to imagine a dish that would challenge it – perhaps high-mountain game, like chamois?  This wine was wonderful, still fresh and rich, and simultaneously complex and deep. It is unlike any other Italian or French wine I know, and made a powerhouse conclusion to my 12 cellar selections for the year.

For those who may be curious, here the other 11, in the order tasted, each name linked to my post about it. There is a lot of fine drinking here. In all honesty, I’m not sure what I learned from the whole endeavor, except confirmation that I love mature wine, and that it is well worth the effort of putting some bottles away for your own and their old age.

Happy New Year to all my readers, and many of them to come!

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January

2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé

February
2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja

March
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal

April
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio

May
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana 

June
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)

July
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann

August
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato

September
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray

October
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach 

November
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli

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This, the antepenultimate bottle of my 12 cellar selections for 2021, Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Émile 1989 Vendange Tardive, qualifies as a rarity for me: a late-harvest wine with more than 30 years of age.

You can think of vendange tardive as a rough French equivalent of German Auslese or even Beerenauslese wines. These are often exquisite nectars of lovely sweetness enlivened by good acidity – at their best among the world’s finest dessert wines. I’m not a great fan of dessert wines but I was hoping that Alsace’s reliably assertive acidity would balance out the wine’s residual sugar to create an intense and rarified dinner wine.

The Trimbach family has been making wine in Alsace for nearly five centuries, so they are obviously doing many things right. Chief among them is their Riesling expertise, shown most conspicuously in their single-vineyard Clos Sainte Hune, probably Alsace’s most esteemed wine. But all Trimbach’s Rieslings are excellent, and I am especially fond of its Cuvée Frédéric Émile, a fully dry wine that – at a very fair price for its quality – always balances intense minerality with fine Riesling fruit and typical Alsace acidity. Those are the qualities I was hoping to enjoy in my 30-year-old bottle of the Vendange Tardive.

Trimbach makes vendanges tardives only in exceptional years, using Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling or Muscat grapes, generally affected by noble rot, from its best vineyards. It characterizes the wines as intense and with exceptional finish: suited to foie gras, rich creamy dishes, blue cheeses, washed-rind cheeses, and velvety desserts. It calls its Cuvée Frédéric Émile Riesling, rare even among Trimbach’s vendanges tardives, “the treasure that Riesling lovers dream of having in their cellars.”

Well, with this 1989 bottle, this Riesling lover hit the jackpot.

Initially, I had been a bit worried about the condition of the wine. The bottle showed some ullage, the capsule was domed, and the foil showed some staining, as if it might have leaked. I feared I might have a dead wine on my hands. But the cork came out clean, and a quick sniff of the bottle was very reassuring: an intense and remarkably fresh whiff of classic Riesling.

In the glass, the wine showed the dark amber color that one expects of a long-aged white wine, and it still smelled and tasted fresh, despite its 32 years of age. I even tasted hints of that “diesel” flavor that Riesling appassionati speak of, which they consider a signal of highly desirable varietal typicity.

There were the merest hints of sweetness on the palate, all beautifully balanced by enlivening acidity and fine minerality; with a smooth, mouth-filling medium-to-full body: in all, a truly impressive and totally distinctive wine. It harmoniously accompanied a bloc of mi-cuit foie gras, which further emphasized its sapidity – a word I know sounds pretentious, but is the only adequate one for this remarkable wine.

Vendages tardives are not wines for every day, but they can make any day special indeed. I am very happy this bottle survived my far-less-than-perfect storage conditions so well.

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Wine lovers are obsessed with places, and no place is more renowned than the hill of Corton, in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits.

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Geography, geology, and microclimate are only the start of its near-legendary status. Add in over 1400 years of continuous viniculture, started by the direct intervention of Charlemagne and followed by centuries of labor by laymen and monks, to culminate in secular fame in the 19th Century and an explosion of celebrity in the 20th. Bottles of this hill’s best wines now sell for prices that probably would have purchased an entire hamlet in the 19th century.

From the beginning, Corton was famous for red wines, which still account for the bulk of its production. Its one great white is only a small part of the AOC, and a surprisingly late addition: Chardonnay doesn’t seem to have arrived there until the middle of the 19th century. Almost all the white comes to the market bearing the name of Corton’s great progenitor: hence Corton Charlemagne, grown on the western slope of the hill (an unusual siting in Burgundy).

These days, a huge percentage of that single contiguous vineyard is farmed, vinified, and bottled by Bonneau du Martray, the family that has owned the vineyards for more than 150 years. Its Corton Charlemagne is a benchmark for white Burgundy, but it does also farm a small amount – about one hectare – of Pinot noir to make red Corton Grand Cru, the wine I am celebrating today. Its 2001 edition, now a ripe 20 years old, is my September Cellar Selection.
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Most Burgundy buffs will think this more than a little perverse, since Bonneau du Martray’s red wine is usually regarded as considerably inferior to its white. But, as my wife and many friends will probably happily testify, I am nothing if not perverse.

Besides, whether or not Bonneau du Martray’s red is in fact inferior to its white, the red is still a Grand Cru from a site famous for red wine and a bargain compared to its white sibling; and – perhaps most important – I’ve been cellaring this 2001 bottle for a long time and I really wanted to find out just how good it is. I may be perverse, but I am neither patient nor immortal, and this inquiring mind wants to know.

I don’t drink Burgundy Grand Cru every day – nor every year, for that matter – so I asked Diane to prepare a meal that would give it a real chance to show its best. She opted to make an elaborate steak au poivre with a creamy mustard sauce, gratin dauphinois potatoes, and peas braised with shallots and butter: a complex set of dishes that should put any red wine on its mettle.
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First course would be simple, a few tortellini in brodo, and after the steak we would finish with some cheese – a slab of young Brebis, a nice sheep milk cheese, and a round of a good, ripe, stinky Camembert. That, I thought with real anticipation, is a fine test-your-red-wine dinner.

Well, then reality raised its ugly head, as it always does. When I nonchalantly started to pull the cork, it crumbled to pieces. I would have to strain and decant the wine. And the condition of that cork was worrisome: Would the wine be sound?  Keen anticipation gave way to anxious worrying. I hate reality.

I needn’t have worried. The wine was wonderful, and it performed equally gracefully with every dish of the meal. In retrospect, I would say that the condition of the wine was directly inverse to the condition of the cork. That Corton was plain and simply great. It didn’t send me into the kind of lengthy-catalog-of-fruit-flavors-and-multiple-strained-metaphors rhapsody that I have heard and read far too often from passionate Burgundy buffs, but I loved it from the first sniff of the glass to the last sip of the nectar.

The nose was rich and elegant, redolent of forest floor and mushrooms: a fully mature aroma, I would call it. On the palate, it was graceful, mouth-filling without being heavy, and long, with flavors of dried plum and cherries, mushrooms and leather, and overall great polish. The fine finish lingered long in the mouth.

This was not a powerful wine but a wine of supreme . . . sophistication, in its best sense, is almost the only word. It was together, it was complete, it was serene. It has been a very long while since I’ve drunk a Corton Charlemagne, but I find it hard to believe this red Corton could have been very far inferior to it, no matter what the conventional opinion holds.

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In my not very often very humble opinion, Châteauneuf du Pape blanc is one of the most consistently under-rated and under-celebrated wines in the whole often-over-rated French wine pantheon. At its least, white Châteauneuf makes an unusual, gutsy glassful of flavors uncommon in white wines. At its best, it can offer a remarkable experience of depth and complexity that, to my mind and palate, are far more profound than that provided by most Chardonnay-based wines.

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I’m not trying to be polemical here, I just call them as I see them. I really love these wines, and I really love many fine white Burgundies as well, but it seems to me that a lot of reflex genuflection before hallowed Burgundian idols has replaced actually tasting the wines and making your own comparisons. Be honest with yourself: when was the last time you – thoughtfully – drank a Châteauneuf du Pape blanc?  One with ten or more years of cellaring?  I’m willing to bet that for most readers of this post, and for most wine lovers generally, the answer is something on the order of “Gosh, I can’t remember.”

What prompted this outburst was a gorgeous bottle of Vieux Télégraphe blanc 2016 that Diane and I and two good friends recently enjoyed. It accompanied – flawlessly – a New Orleanian sausage and oyster gumbo, a tricky dish of complex flavors and assertive spicing that the Châteauneuf seemed to love as if it were a long-lost friend. The wine adapted to every nuance of the gumbo without losing any of its own strong character, without sacrificing any of its depth and complexity. We all loved it, and I wish I had more of it: That, alas, was my last bottle. I had only had a few, and I drank them all too soon: Lovely as they were, they had years of development still in front of them.

That is another characteristic of these great wines:  They are enjoyable and distinctive at almost any age. In their youth, multiple fresh fruit flavors will dominate the palate. As they age, those flavors will darken and deepen, surrendering some freshness and acquiring a battery of mature flavors, meaty, leathery, mushroomy flavors that will open more and more in the glass and alter with the food that accompanies them.

Make no mistake: at any age, white Châteauneuf is a food wine par excellence. It will match with anything from a simply grilled fish – I think it’s terrific with boned shad – to a spicy mélange like our gumbo to any imaginable white meat presentation, from Wiener schnitzel to poulet à l’ancienne and beyond. For the life of me, I can’t understand why a wine this versatile and enjoyable isn’t better known and more popular. Selfishly, I’m also happy about that: There isn’t a lot of white Châteauneuf, and it’s pricey enough already. Not Burgundy pricey, nor at all priced above the quality it delivers, but pricey enough that I don’t drink it every day – alas.

Almost every Châteauneuf estate of any merit produces a small quantity of white wine, and because of the large variety of grapes permitted by the AOC regulations, there can be many intriguing differences among them. Trying a few of them is interesting in itself, as well as is measuring their differing responses to the foods you pair with them. The principal white grape varieties used are Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Bourboulenc, and Counoise. Despite the prestige of Viognier, the most frequently used grapes are Roussanne and Marsanne, probably followed by Grenache blanc. All the growers have their own preferred blend, usually – not surprisingly – reflecting what grows most successfully in their own fields. It makes for a richly various range of wines that are always fun to explore.
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Just for the record: some of my favorite Châteauneuf du Pape whites come from Beaucastel, Mont Olivet, Mont Redon, La Nerthe, and of course my lovely Vieux Télégraphe.

 

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The protagonist of Martin Walker’s mystery series, chief of police in a small Périgord town, is known to me as “Bruno, Chef de Cuisine,” because he spends as much time cooking as he does detecting. My beloved spouse, who consumes mystery novels the way other people eat candy, has needless to say noted this aspect of the stories and has in fact re-created for her blog several of Bruno’s feasts.

Most recently, she and her co-conspirator Hope put together one such dinner that required serious white wine accompaniment. That, of course, became my problem, and problem it was. Neither my household supply nor my local retail shops provided the sort of very localized Périgord wines that Bruno delights to serve. I had to be creative and find some that I hoped would be equivalent wines to match with Bruno’s – and Diane’s and Hope’s – dishes. You can see the details of the dinner in Diane’s blog. The wines I chose to accompany it were a Mâcon blanc, a Condrieu, and a Savennières.
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My first problem was that the author was not entirely helpful in talking about Bruno’s wines. He described only two bottles, which I can’t imagine would have been sufficient in kind or quantity for the variety of dishes and number of guests. His first wine was a Château du Rooy Bergerac blanc, a blend of to-me-unknown-percentages of Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Insofar as this was served as an apéritif with a splash of cassis – a kir – it presented no difficulties. All I needed for that was a good basic white wine, not too fruit-forward and with decent acidity, so almost any well-made simple white Burgundy would serve well. I had on hand a nice 2019 Mâcon-Villages from Michel Barraud that fit the bill perfectly, and made a beautifully refreshing kir to accompany a warm summer afternoon’s cooking.

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The same wine, minus the cassis, seems to have served Bruno as the first dinner wine, and this presented a bit more of a challenge. Bruno’s wine would have had a distinctive, spicy character, with – I’m guessing because he was serving it with foie gras – suggestions of sweetness without any actual sugar presence. Condrieu, with its rich Viognier character, suggested itself, and I was lucky enough to have lurking in my “cellar” a bottle of 2016 Condrieu La Chambée from Les Vins de Vienne.

Condrieu is a tiny appellation, and this wine is sourced from just two hectares of vineyards at different spots within it. It’s 100% Viognier, laboriously farmed on steep and rocky slopes above the Rhône by three devotees who make up the winery.

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The wines of Condrieu are famed for their complexity, depth, and distinctive combination of minerality and spicy fruit in the nose and on the palate. All that makes it a natural choice to accompany foie gras, exactly the sort of wine I think Bruno (or Martin Walker) would have chosen. Ours did not disappoint: Indeed, it made us aware how far short of foie gras our otherwise fine pâté de campagne fell. Memo to self: get more Condrieu, and above all, find some foie gras.

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Our third wine presented the greatest challenge of all: The only other wine mentioned at Bruno’s dinner (a gift from his guest the Baron) was from Vignobles Les Verdots, again a white Bergerac, vinified from approximately two-thirds Muscadelle and one-third Sauvignon gris. The producer’s website, not very modestly, says of it:

This wine figures among the great white wines of France. Rich, spicy, with mineral and fruit notes on the nose, a whiff of smoke and lightly toasted too. The palate is generous in aromas and flavor, with good body, minerality, well-balanced and exceptionally long. It is also elegantly packaged.

This bottle would have been served with Bruno’s main course of braised chicken in a wine, tarragon, and cream sauce. Now there’s a challenge!

I had a wine that, mutatis mutandis, might fit that description, but I’ve had it around for a while and I was beginning to worry about its soundness: a 2003 Coulée de Serrant Savennières from Nicolas Joly. I decided to give it a shot.

All Savennières wines are special: They originate only in a tight little zone of steep hills in the middle Loire, where the Chenin blanc from which they are exclusively vinified reaches heights of flavor and depths of character attainable nowhere else.
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Coulée de Serrant Vineyard

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Also, Savennières ages remarkably well, growing deeper and more profound for many years – though I was more than a little nervous, given the deficiencies of my storage, whether I might have gone too long with this particular bottle.

Another also: The winemaker, Nicolas Joly, is a bit of a wild man. The most famous grower of the zone, he was the first there to go biodynamic, and he did so with a vengeance: natural fertilizers spread by hand from cow horns on nights of the full moon – that sort of thing.

Nicolas Joly

So my bottle of Savennières was sure to be memorable: the question was whether that would be for good or for ill.

Appearances didn’t answer that: a very dark, old gold color didn’t tell us anything. The nose, however did, and the news was good: exotic aromas, of earth and mineral and woodruff and dried cranberry (yes!) indicated the wine was very much alive. The first taste confirmed it, the same elements as in the nose wrapped in a silken package, smooth on the palate, leaving an impression of great suavity and a finish that went on and on.

A totally distinctive wine, that not only went beautifully with our version of Bruno’s chicken dish but also made me wonder how it would taste with good bloc foie gras. Must get some foie gras! Bruno is a very lucky man, with his seemingly endless local supply.

 

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June is a special month for us, containing Diane’s birthday and our anniversary, separated only by D-Day. (Make of that what you will.) And Gruaud Larose is a special wine for us, holding long associations with celebrations past and friends we shared them with.

Just one example: Eons ago, our friends Pat and Fernand had us to stay with them for a week at their apartment in Paris, and to repay their hospitality Diane and I took over their kitchen and made a dinner featuring the first bécasse (woodcock) any of us had ever cooked or eaten. The wine we drank with this brave endeavor was a 1953 Gruaud Larose, one of many memorable tastes during that altogether memorable evening.

You can see why it was easy to choose the June wine from among my special cellar selections for 2021. After more than a year of having our spirits depressed by Covid, I wanted a wine that would remind us of joyful times and help us start renewing them. So Gruaud Larose it had to be.

Those are the sentiments that lay behind my choice. Behind them lies a very estimable wine, a second growth Saint Julien, a property that, although it has had many different owners over the years, still occupies almost exactly the same fields it did when it was classified in 1855. It’s a substantial property, even by Bordeaux standards: 87 hectares in vines. That’s well over 200 acres, divided into roughly 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, about 8% Cabernet Franc, plus a small amount of Petit Verdot and a smidgeon of Malbec. Those vines yield a formidable wine, which some critics describe as rough and even rustic in its youth, but capable of fine aging and development.

My previous experience of older Gruaud Larose vintages gave me great hopes for this 1975 bottle. So too did the eminent Clive Coates’s assessment of the vintage, in his classic book The Wines of Bordeaux: Vintages and Tasting Notes 1952-2003.

Very good color. Rich, full, fat and ample on the nose. This is very promising. Fullish body. Vigorous. Very good tannins and grip. No astringency. A meaty, quite solid wine. Long, rich and satisfactory. Plenty of life ahead. Very good indeed.

At that time, Coates rated the ’75 Gruaud 17 out of 20 and suggested its drinking window ranged from “now” to “2008+.”  Diane’s birthday dinner would test just how much beyond 2008 that plus sign would allow.

For the meal itself, we recapitulated one of the best dinner main courses we’d ever made for ourselves: fabulously lush Tournedos Rossini. Our first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise, another big, rich dish, so we matched it with a big, rich Champagne, Pierre Brigandat’s brut NV. This grower’s blanc de noirs loved the intensity of the scallops, enveloping them in a complex web of dry, dark berry-and-mineral flavors – a delicious match of food and wine.

The stage was thus set for the Gruaud Larose to strut its stuff – and strut it did. Coates was very right about the wine’s having “plenty of life ahead.”  The color was dark and even, and the first whiff of the aroma gave a generous rush of ripe, dark, mature berry, followed by mushroom and leather. The flavor followed suit: not quite meaty, but mouth-filling and multi-layered. Lovely in itself as the wine was, each bite of food – whether the beef, the foie gras, or the Madeira-reduction sauce – called out another element in it. And for all its complex, mature flavors, this 1975 Gruaud Larose still felt fresh and live. It showed no sign of tiredness or of approaching the end of its life – which is always an excellent thing for a wine at a birthday celebration.

We don’t have many bottles of Gruaud Larose left – certainly no more ‘75s – but you can be sure that what we have will be reserved for very special occasions, moments when Diane and I need to be reminded that, as Gilbert and Sullivan so wryly put it, “there is beauty in extreme old age.”

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I’ve always been partial to underdogs. When I was a kid, I was the lone Brooklyn (yes, Brooklyn) Dodger fan in a very large family of Yankee fans – and even the misery that that entailed couldn’t cure me of my fondness for long-suffering hind runners.

It was almost inevitable, then, that when I started getting seriously interested in wine (which back then always meant French wine), I found myself drawn to the seemingly least estimable of the famous Bordeaux wines. Of the five great Médoc appellations – Graves (as it then was), Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estèphe – only Saint Estèphe doesn’t have a Premier Cru estate. In fact, despite being the second largest of the crus, it has only five classified growths: one fifth growth, one fourth, one third, and two seconds. That’s a paltry showing compared to neighboring Pauillac’s three firsts, two seconds, and large handful of lesser growths.

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Saint Estèphe’s wines were often condescendingly referred to as slightly rustic and inelegant, and usually compared, to their disadvantage, to the wines of Pauillac. One could come across even esthetic sniffing about the “false orientalism” of Cos d’Estournel’s pagoda towers. I always thought there was a sort of double standard at work here. It is probably true that the wines from many of Saint Estèphe’s small estates have a less polished, more artisanal character – which I regard as an attraction – than those from the great Premier Crus, which are pretty great in size as well as reputation and price. But no one ever said a word about the scale of winemaking at Château Margaux or Château Lafite, whose respective 81 hectares and 103 hectares bring their winemaking close to industrial-scale production.

But that’s really beside the point. Even those who belittle Saint Estèphe as an appellation usually make an honorable exception for Cos d’Estournel and for Montrose, both quite evidently superb wines. I love them, of course, but I am also very fond of many lesser names from the commune: Calon Ségur, Cos Labory, Lafon-Rochet (this now becoming very fashionable), Meyney, Phélan Ségur, and especially Châteaux de Pez and Les Ormes de Pez. The last two are among my favorite wines, and I’ve written about my enjoyment of them before (here and here). But they are classified only as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, below even Fifth Growth – a lowly enough designation to keep the wines’ prices well below their true worth. Tough luck for them, fine for me. Sometimes supporting the underdog pays off.

 

Saint Estèphe is the northernmost of the five great appellations, and its soils are supposedly more varied than those of the other zones – though anyone visiting the peninsula on which they all (except Graves) lie will be hard put to see any very significant variation in soils or altitudes or exposures. We are far from the mountains here. The major variations from estate to estate are due to the field mix – just what quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted and fermented – and to the winemaker’s aims and skills.

Decades of being dismissed as negligible wines kept the prices of almost all Saint Estèphes very low and discouraged any serious investment of time, effort, or cash in the vineyards and cellars – all of which, of course, contributed to the perpetuation of their low reputation. The wine boom of the past 40 or 50 years has changed all that, and more and more good wine is being produced everywhere. That is emphatically true in Saint Estèphe, where I find the quality of the wine being turned out by many formerly neglected properties is steadily rising. This underdog may not yet be ready to take Best in Show, but it is clearly showing better and better all the time.

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I have always been ambivalent about Syrah, but I’ve never had any doubts about Hermitage. The appellation is tiny: Its total acreage is only slightly larger than the largest of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru estates (yes, estates, not appellations). But the wines of Hermitage deserve every syllable of the praise that is lavished upon them.

Syrah, on the other hand, the sole grape variety of Hermitage, is a first-class crank. Grown anywhere but the northern Rhône, it occasionally produces fine wines, but more often than not it gives hard, high-alcohol, aggressive and over-assertive bottles marked by an almost exaggerated spiciness, as if the chef had simply lost it when peppering the stew.

Hermitage is the antithesis of that, holding all those dangerous tendencies of the grape on a tight rein. Balance is what Hermitage excels at. What you expect would produce tension, even discord, instead yields grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.

There used to be a word in French, hermitagiser, to describe the practice of adding some wine from the Rhône to (especially) Bordeaux, to give it more body and color – all before the AOC regulations, of course. And almost every wine lover is familiar with Saintsbury’s description of Hermitage as “the manliest of wines,” a description that would still be useful if it weren’t so sexist.

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All this wind-up should tell you why I chose a 20-year-old Hermitage as one of my cellar explorations for 2021. As almost any reference book makes clear, Hermitage and its cousin Côte Rotie are both Syrah-based wines, Hermitage completely so, Côte Rotie allowing (but not always using) a small admixture of Viognier.* And as all the textbooks emphasize, both are wines that demand and brilliantly reward aging.

Now, 20 years is not what Saintsbury and other connoisseurs of his generation would have considered long aging, but for me, it’s quite long enough – especially considering that my un-cellar-like storage facilities have probably expedited the wine’s maturation, so that my 20-year-old might be the equivalent of a 25- or 30- year-old bottle from the winery. So it’s about time I looked in to see how the kid is doing.

Not to keep you in suspense: The answer was Very well indeed. All my worries about my poor storage conditions blew away at the first sniff from the bottle after I pulled the cork: The wine was sound – just how sound wouldn’t come clear until later when, after giving it a few hours’ breathing, I poured it at dinner.

That was when my Hermitage, in no sense an aperitif wine, really showed its stuff. A paragraph or so back, I described Hermitage as displaying “grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.”  That was spot on.

First, the aroma. Here’s my note exactly as dashed off at the moment: “Rich, rich nose – dark plums and blackberries and black cherries, then black pepper and leather.”

Then, the palate: “Velvet in the mouth, almost feeling weightless, even though it is a big, mouth-filling wine. Tastes of leather and meat and black dried fruit, then cherry. A very long, cherry-leather finish.”  That was just tasting the wine by itself.

After a few forkfuls of lamb and lentils, the Hermitage broadened and sweetened and got even bigger – and, if possible, even more supple and graceful. This was truly a memorable wine, and an absolute justification of all the encomiums that Hermitage from makers like Guigal and Jaboulet and Chave regularly receive. When you read praise like that, it isn’t hype: You’re reading honest reporting.

 


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Special note for grape nuts:  Recent ampelographical studies, especially DNA studies, of Syrah have uncovered a web of relationships with some famous and some negligible varieties. Viognier is probably a genetic brother/sister/cousin of Syrah, whose family tree is amazingly complex. Syrah itself is probably the grandchild of Pinot by way of a field cross of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche (neither a very distinguished wine grape), and it is in all likelihood a cousin of Teroldego, which can yield some wonderful red wines in the Italian north. This makes it part of a family of grape varieties strung along high mountain trails that cross the national boundaries of Switzerland, France, and Italy.

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