Archive for the ‘France’ Category

One Fine Wine: Deiss Alsace Pinot Gris 2011

June 18, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Among Alsace white wines, Riesling seems to get the lion’s share of attention from the press and the public. That’s understandable: there are many great ones. But if any grape variety deserves to be Alsace’s poster child, in my opinion it should be Pinot gris, for its uniqueness, its intensity, and its outstanding quality. Nowhere but Alsace does the grey Pinot give wines of such power and grace and, at the same time, such extraordinary versatility with food.

Alsace vineyards do very well with several varieties that elsewhere get only secondary interest from growers and consumers – Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Gewürztraminer to name a few. All, in Alsace, yield wines of greater interest and surprising adaptability with food of all sorts. My usual go-to wine with Indian dishes, for instance, is Gewürztraminer, whose combination of dryness and spicy fruit answers well to the intricate spicings of Indian cooking. So, when Diane decided to make us an Indian dinner, I went into my stash looking for a Gewürz – and came up empty-handed. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I decided to try a bottle of 2011 Deiss Pinot gris. It was not as old as I really like my Pinot gris, but it’s well known by now that I’m a nut on the subject of mature wines. In any event, with Indian flavors, all the usual rules are off, so I thought I’d take a flier with that barely-seven-year-old.

Well, the Pinot gris worked out beautifully, starting right with the appetizer samosas and the garlic-and-lime pickle that accompanied them, and right on through a rich goat curry, butter-smothered cabbage, mung dal, and a refreshing chilled cucumber raita (all out of Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking). The wine either tasted totally dry or suggested some fruit sweetness according to the peculiarities of each dish, but its own unusual quince-and-mango fruitiness meshed very well with them all – and its typically Alsace firm structure meant that it never became flabby or in any way negligible. It was never just a liquid but became itself an important component of the flavor symphony of the meal.

Deiss is a prestigious family firm, headquartered in Bergheim, which is as close as you can get to dead center of the Alsace wine zone. Deiss biodynamically farms 26 hectares of vines, spread over several villages and including at least three Grand Cru sites. This Pinot gris is one of Deiss’s basic and least expensive bottlings, so its very high quality should tell you what you need to know about the family’s more rarified selections.

Deiss’s Grand Cru Altenberg Vineyard

Four Fine Bordeaux Estates

May 21, 2018

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Bordeaux tasting as thoroughly as I did this season’s final Wine Media Guild lunch. For more than a few years now, I’ve been unhappy with a lot of the biggest names in Bordeaux because the wines have been tasting – how to put this? – more and more industrial to me, as if they were the end-result of a large-scale commercial production. Whatever the truth of that, there were no such problems with the WMG’s tasting of Château Latour Martillac (Pessac Leognan), Château Beychevelle (Saint Julien), Château Kirwan (Margaux), and Château Guiraud (Sauternes).

All were classic examples of what their appellations ought to be – or what my memory tells me their appellations used to be before The Sacred Quest for Parker Scores homogenized Bordeaux. If these wines are bellwethers of a wave of post-Parkerism . . . well, let’s just say it’s about time.

What I was impressed by in these four estates was their balance, elegance, restraint, fidelity to variety and terroir, and vitality – all qualities likely to escape the notice of the wine newbie or wannabe interested only in bold fruit, but ultimately the characteristics that separate fine wine from fermented grape juice.

  • The Latour Martillac reds all showed the lovely cedary-ness and sinewy-ness, the whites the roundness and vigor of the Graves.
  • The Beychevelles had all the balance and appeal, the cushioned Cabernet flavors, that one hopes for in Saint Julien.
  • The Kirwan wines were simply classic Margaux, enticing in the nose and opulent in the mouth.
  • And the Guiraud wines presented a symphony of botrytis and mineral flavors, amazing sweetnesses counterbalanced by vivid acidity, that amount to almost a definition of Sauternes.

These were Bordeaux wines as I haven’t experienced them in a long, long time, and I loved every minute of it.

Any of these wines, even the oldest, could mature further. The ’98 Guiraud, for instance, still needs ten years to reach its peak, and none of 2000 reds showed any sign of fading. The 2000 Kirwan, in fact, was one of the top two wines of the day for me. The younger wines all seemed to be developing quite nicely, with the 2005 Beychevelle in particular (my other top-two wine) already tasting splendid and promising years of further development. Were I several decades younger than I am, I would be cellaring these wines and trying to keep my hands off them for at least a few years more.

Here are the wines presented at the luncheon:

Château Latour Martillac Blanc 2011, 2013, 2015
Château Latour Martillac Rouge 2000, 2010, 2015

Châateau Beychevelle 2000, 2005, 2009, 2014, 2015
Château Beychevelle Amiral de Beychevelle 2015

Château Kirwan 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015
Charmes de Kirwan 2010

Château Guiraud Sec 2015
Château Guiraud 1998, 2009, 2010, 2015
Petit Guiraud 2015

That last wine is a rather charming demi-sec. The two second-labels presented, Amiral de Beychevelle and Charmes de Kirwan, both showed as smaller but still elegant versions of the primary wines. One last noteworthy quality of all the wines shown was the consistency of style each house demonstrated over several quite different vintages, which is no small accomplishment. It would be a wonderful thing if a great Bordeaux revival was a-borning.

Bordeaux Blancs: Silver Threads in a Sea of Reds

March 16, 2018

Once upon a time, the Bordeaux region produced more white wine than red. Unless you are well over 50 or of a scholarly bent, I suspect that statement comes as a surprise. Nevertheless, it’s true: It wasn’t until the 1970s that red wine production surpassed white in Bordeaux, and it hasn’t looked back since. Now white varieties account for less than 10% of the total Bordeaux vineyards – though that still amounts to over 42 million bottles of white wine a year.

Numbers like that seriously challenge our notions of winemaking as an artisanal activity, but wine has long been big business in Bordeaux. Back in the heyday of white Bordeaux, dry wines like the white Haut Brion and sweet wines like Château Yquem were the style- and price-leaders of the region. Good Sauternes have held onto a diminished market share and an undiminished reputation, and no one questions the greatness of Haut Brion blanc, but most producers of dry white Bordeaux have to scrabble hard for shelf space these days.
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Image from The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Click to enlarge.

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To cast some light on this neglected sector of the wine universe, the Wine Media Guild devoted its March meeting to exploring a broad spectrum of whites from throughout the entire Bordeaux zone: That is, from both sides of the river Gironde and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne, as well as from the northern tip of the Medoc peninsula to about 50 miles south of the city of Bordeaux. This covered a lot of ground and many different wines, all of which were thoroughly explained by the WMG member-organizer of the event, Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW.

The appellations involved included the largest, Bordeaux Blanc, representing roughly 60% of the production, and from anywhere in the zone, and the next largest, Entre-Deux-Mers. The latter is an exclusively white-wine-producing zone lying between the Garonne and Dordogne: It accounts for about 20% of the production. Also included were representatives of much smaller appellations, including several Côtes, for example, Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg: All the Côtes together account for about 3% of the white wine production. The most prestigious zones remain Graves (5%) and Pessac-Leognan (3%). The latter used to be comprehended within the Graves, and its wines have always been among the very best of all the appellations.

The Wine Media Guild tasting ran to 30 wines, none older than the 2013 vintage and the majority from 2016. The complete tasting sheets, showing each wine, its vintage, its grape mix, importer, and suggested retail price, is appended to the end of this post. A quick look at it will show that the predominant grape varieties in Bordeaux blanc are Sauvignon blanc – the heavy favorite, with even a few 100% Sauvignon blanc wines – and Semillon, with a small amount of Muscadelle and/or Sauvignon gris occasionally used.

Most suggested retail prices are very reasonable, which is appropriate, because the great majority of these wines are pleasing companions to everyday meals. That is emphatically not damning with faint praise: The world needs more well-made, simple wines like many of these, at prices that ordinary human beings can afford; and the recent up-tick in American consumption of white Bordeaux may very well reflect a growing perception of their value-for-dollar ratio.

I am not a super-fan of Sauvignon blanc, not even in its Old-World manifestations, which tend to be more subdued (less cat’s pee) and more elegant than the New World versions. But I do think that blending Sauvignon with Semillon makes a wine that is better than the sum of its parts, so most of the wines at this tasting easily passed muster, and a few really spoke to me. Enthusiasts for Sauvignon will probably rate all these wines even higher.

Château Carbonnieux has long been a favorite of mine, and the 2015 vintage in this tasting did not disappoint. It had a combination of depth and elegance and balance that seemed to indicate it would be gorgeous in two or three more years.

Right up there with it was Château Brown, an unmemorably named wine that, as a colleague remarked, usually flies under the radar. This 2014 vintage was just lovely and kept opening in the glass, showing more and more fruit and structure.

I’d give the bronze for this tasting to the 2015 Clos Floridene, a balanced and gentle wine of real charm. These three – and a few others – are more than just everyday-dinner wines – though, come to think of it, they would do just fine with a good chicken, or a turkey thigh.

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You can see the complete Wine Media Guild list here.

A Paler Shade of Bubble: Blanc de Blancs Champagne

January 1, 2018

This year’s New York Wine Press annual Champagne luncheon went to the opposite end of the Champagne color spectrum from the Wine Media Guild’s Rosé event in the preceding week. It presented ten Blanc de Blancs Champagnes and one stray-but-interesting English sparkling wine, all surrounding an unusual menu executed by Café Centro’s chef Christina Towers.

This was, quite evidently, an enjoyable and delicious affair, and each of the wines interacted handsomely with the slightly-off-the-beaten-track dishes. Naturally, I had my favorites: I’m nothing if not judgmental, and half the pleasure of an event like this for me is the chance to draw fine distinctions in character and pleasingness.

I insist on “pleasingness,” and not “quality,” because the quality of all these wines was very high, and what I am really talking about is how well, on this one special occasion, each wine seemed to my palate. As I’ve said many times in this blog, that’s all any tasting note really is: None is the sacred scripture engraved on stone that so many consumers take them for. End of sermon.
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Of the two fine aperitif Champagnes, I preferred the Deutz – but then I often prefer Deutz, a house much esteemed in Europe but not so well known here. This 2007 showed splendidly, with all the nimbleness you hope for in a blanc de blancs, plus the impressive austerity and subtle power so characteristic of Deutz.

The diverse flavors of the first course could have proven a serious challenge for many wines, but they integrated quite harmoniously in themselves and worked surprisingly well with all three wines. Gusbourne, the English sparkler (for those who may not have gotten the memo, English sparkling wine has been making great advances in recent years), was the lightest-bodied of the three, with juicy wheat-and-yeast flavors on the palate and good minerality.

The Collet also showed as light and wheaty, lean, lithe, and fresh on the palate, with a very long finish – quite enjoyable. The Henriot, a non-vintage Champagne, tasted just gorgeous. Vinified from Grands Crus vineyards, it was classic Henriot – big and structured and graceful. For me, it was the wine of the day. In the New York area, it seems to average between $55 and $65 a bottle, a very decent price for a Champagne of this quality.

The second course again could have presented serious challenges to wine matches, with its pastis-flavored-and-colored risotto, but all three Champagnes responded very well. The nice, substantial Drappier was a touch unusual in that it contained 4% Pinot blanc (not at all discernible  to the taste). The Pol Roger 2009 made the strongest showing of the three, partially because of the good vintage and partially because of its Pol Roger character, suave and authoritative.

The final beef course should have been the most difficult for any blanc de blancs wine to deal with, but once again the Champagnes rose to the challenge. All drank well with the filet steak and the delicious short ribs in crust, though – truth to tell – both the Taitinger ’95 and the Heidsieck ’95 tasted a tad too old. Whether they were in fact beginning to fade, or whether beef just didn’t bring out their best, I couldn’t really tell.

The slightly younger – vintage 2000 – Perrier-Jouet on the other hand was a lovely, floral, elegant Christmas gift, the most enjoyable wine of the flight. Which it ought to be, given its stratospheric price (around $250). And that makes a suitably high note on which to end this report.

A Happy New Year to all!

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Blushing

December 11, 2017

By and large, I am not a great fan of blush wines, but I do make a large exception for rosé Champagne. It’s not just that it looks attractive: Contrary to still rosé wines, rosé Champagnes tend to be a little bigger, a little fuller, and to taste more of the grapes they’re made from than do the basic Champagne blends, or even Blanc de blancs.

That’s because Champagne is a wine of process and only secondarily – in most cases, a far distant secondarily – of the grapes or their terroir. I guess it’s because of the greater assertiveness of red grapes, or maybe because of the necessary fact of skin contact with the musts in the making of rosé, that rosé Champagnes show more of both their grapes and their terroir than does any other kind of Champagne. And there’s no question that – again, by and large – rosé Champagne is the most adaptable with food: It is for me the dinner Champagne.

All of this was forcefully and very enjoyably brought home for me at this year’s Wine Media Guild Champagne lunch, which spotlighted 22 examples of rosé Champagnes.
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The annual event occurred this year at mid-Manhattan’s Gattopardo restaurant, where the excellent cooking has a decidedly Sicilian bent. Not a very natural fit for Champagne, you might think, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but the afternoon’s rosés took it nicely in stride, drinking very pleasantly alongside everything from mini-arancini through rigatoni with eggplant to juicy, tender slices of veal filet, fingerling potatoes, and broccoli rape. Every wine I tasted showed well with these to-them-very-foreign foods. There aren’t many other – probably none, in fact – such characteristically French wines I would try that with.

As he has for the past decade, Ed McCarthy, who has become almost a patron saint of Champagne, gathered and presented the wines, 15 nonvintage and 7 vintage, ranging in price from a low of around $45 to a high of around $300. (In computing prices, Ed didn’t take the distributors’ suggested retail prices but an average of the actual prices he found in local retail shops.)

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The highest was Perrier-Jouet’s Belle Epoque Rosé 2006, a lovely wine and always among the most costly at these events. Definitely out of my price range, but unquestionably an excellent example of the breed. The best buy of the day was Lenoble Brut Rosé NV, a fresh and enjoyable wine from a small producer – which means that bargain hunters are going to have to work to find it. (Note: All the wines at this lunch are available on the American market, but distribution – especially for those of small production – can be very spotty.)

The vintage Champagnes of course were more expensive than most of the NV, the great majority of which fell into the $50-$60 range. One exception was Moet & Chandon’s Extra Brut Rosé 2009, which retails for about $65, and which Ed admired greatly, calling it “a very special wine,” even though he thought it still too young. At that price, it is a very special wine indeed.

Here is the whole list of the Champagnes in the order of their presentation, starting with the lightest:

 

Ayala Rosé Brut Majeur NV
Henri Giraud “Fut de Chene” Brut Rosé NV
Lamiable Grand Cru Brut Rosé NV
Phillipe Gonet Brut Rosé NV
Boizel Brut Rosé NV
Collet Brut Rosé NV
Duval-Leroy 1e Cru Brut Rosé NV

Mumm Brut Rosé NV
Henriot Brut Rosé NV
Piper-Heidsieck Sauvage Rosé NV
Lenoble Brut Rosé NV
Deutz Brut Rosé NV
Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé NV
Louis Roederer Brut Rosé 2011
Bollinger Brut Rosé NV
Moet & Chandon Extra Brut Rosé 2009
Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Reserve NV

Pol Roger Brut Rosé 2008
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Rosé 2006
Taittinger Comtes Brut Rosé 2006
Ruinart Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé 2004
Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Rosé 2006

 

These wines all showed very well: There wasn’t one I wouldn’t be happy to drink, especially with classic French cuisine. My favorite wines of the day were – predictably: I’m a creature of habit – all old reliables: Henriot, Gratien, and Roederer, followed closely by Moet & Chandon and Pol Roger.
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Ed deserves the last word: His favorites (I infer from his audible enthusiasm: He tried his best to be impartial in his presentation) included Ayala, Mumm, Henriot, Gratien, Moet & Chandon, Charles Heidsieck, Pol Roger, and Ruinart. That may seem like a lot, but Ed really loves Champagne, and the truth of the matter is that he enjoyed every single one we tasted. He is an amateur of Champagne in the most literal sense of the word: Would that every wine lover could experience Champagne as passionately as he does.

Wine Writing Again: Born Yesterday

September 28, 2017

Nobody complains more about wine writing than wine writers, and I admit that I am not the least complainer of the lot. But this time it’s personal: My ox is being gored.

For the New York Times food section of September 13th, Eric Asimov wrote a nice, informative essay about the wine of Cahors. Asimov is one of the best wine writers the Times has had, and he did a good professional story about his discovery of the revival of the traditional, Malbec-based, “Black Wine” of this historic region. The problem is, the story has been written before – probably several times, because this news isn’t new; but the time that concerns me most is the article on this subject Diane and I wrote for Food & Wine magazine 35 years ago.
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The resurrection of the fabled wines of Cahors apparently is an often-repeated – or continuous – process. Our article reported then the same facts that the Times story does now: In the Middle Ages, the wines of Cahors rivalled those of Bordeaux, particularly in the English market. They lost ground as the English armies that had occupied much of central France – including Cahors – gradually retreated to the coast, enabling Bordeaux to establish its ascendancy. That dominance was completed when the phylloxera devastated the Cahors vineyards. In the aftermath, it proved too difficult and too expensive to replant the vineyards on the steep slopes that had provided the Black Wine’s greatness, and viticulture largely retreated to the valley floor and viniculture to mediocrity. But lo! a new generation of winemakers is now arising, and they are reclaiming those difficult slopes and with them are restoring Cahors’ historic greatness.

The hero of the Times story is Jean Marie Sigaud, who is credited with, in 1975, having the “brilliant idea” of planting grapes again on the hillsides. Well, our article’s paladin was Georges Vigouroux of the reclaimed hillside vineyards of Château Haute-Serre, who since 1976 had been making big, powerful, elegant wines there, which, by the time of our visit in ’82, were being hailed in France as reviving the glories of Cahors.

I’m not complaining here simply that Diane’s and my work has been ignored (though obviously that irks me, and if the Times didn’t maintain its stupid policy of isolating its wine writers from their peers and colleagues, it could easily have been avoided), but about a common fault of the wine writing profession that I think is far more serious – the total failure to acknowledge, or, in many cases, even be aware of, the work of predecessors. In almost every other discipline, writers are expected to recognize previous efforts, especially those substantially in agreement with them. In wine writing, articles are written as if history began yesterday – and that’s deplorable.

I realize that most writers can’t afford the luxury of a research staff – but surely a Google search is within reach? Some reading around in the area you’re writing about? And publications the size and authority of the Times could afford to pay someone for an hour or two of archival work? Or am I just being an old pedant, and demanding something no one is really interested in?

Probably the latter, I suspect.

Prosecco and Champagne: Tasting Beyond the Bubbles

August 7, 2017

I have been enjoying both Champagne and Prosecco for many years now without ever thinking of making a direct comparison between them. I had, without a lot of thought about it, consigned them each to its own niche: Prosecco light and pleasing and sort of frivolous, Champagne a more serious wine for more important occasions. But I was brought up short recently by an innocent question from a wine civilian about what really was the difference between the two.

I had started giving the stock answer about the different grapes that each is made from, when I realized that in fact I had never drunk them side by side so as to be able to give the answer that my civilian friend was really seeking – the differences in how they taste and how that affects what one ought to drink them with. Not a glaring omission, you might think, except that that kind of side-by-side comparison is exactly what my first book, Mastering Wine, is based on and is what I have always believed is the best basic method of learning about wines. Color me embarrassed.
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To make up for that slip, and with Long-Suffering Spouse as a willing collaborator, I put together a tasting of a representative Prosecco and a representative Champagne designed to explore the two thoroughly: first, tasting alone in the classic clinical way; then with two stages of a dinner – first as apéritif alongside caviar, then alongside a main course of sautéed soft-shell crabs. (No one says a wine tasting can’t be a little self-indulgent.) It would be understatement to say the experiment was very interesting. You can read Diane’s account of the foods here.
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To keep the playing field as level as possible, I wanted to use readily available wines. Ideally, I would have liked them to be similar in price, but that proved impossible. No Prosecco in my local markets came anywhere near the price of most Champagnes, so I availed myself of an Astor Wines sale on sparklers to buy Nino Franco’s Rustico at about $15 and Pol Roger’s Brut NV at about $38. That’s close to standard price for the Prosecco and a very reasonable price for the Champagne. Rustico is a DOCG Prosecco Valdobbiadene, which is one the best zones for Prosecco, but it’s Nino Franco’s basic bottling. (The firm makes others, including a brilliant vintage bottling that is capable of great aging, but none was available locally.)  The Brut NV is Pol Roger’s most basic Champagne, so in that respect there was no tilt in the playing field, but I’m afraid the difference in price between the two wines definitely provided one.

So what did the tasting show me? Visually, there’s not much difference between them, both a pale gold, the Champagne a shade darker. Both had lovely fine and persistent perlage, despite the fact that the Rustico was made by the Charmat method and the Pol Roger had the benefit of the full méthode champenoise (not topics that I can go into here).
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The aromas showed more differences. The Rustico was yeasty smelling, hinting of fresh bread, while the Pol Roger was a tad more intensely bready, hinting of toast. Both were pleasing and inviting.

In the mouth, the Rustico tasted light and fresh, with floral and fruity notes, and specific suggestions of apple, while the Pol Roger showed more wheat and less fruit (though hints of pear popped up), by comparison seeming even a little austere on the palate and in the finish. The Rustico finished long, with a touch of elegance polishing its freshness.

This direct comparison was very instructive. Of the two wines, the Prosecco seemed the more direct and – I considered two words here – simple or honest. It was more obviously fruity, though we’re talking about nuanced fruit here, not in-your-face jam. It struck me as more immediately enjoyable, less demanding of attention or analysis. The Champagne seemed less direct or accessible – more intellectual, so to speak. It seemed weightier, more imposing. (The Prosecco had 11 degrees of alcohol, the Champagne 12.5.)

I deliberately used white wine glasses, not flutes, because I wanted to taste the wines and not just the effervescence. As the two wines sat for a while in the glasses and their sparkle faded, the fruit of the Prosecco showed better, while in the Champagne the winemaking came to the fore.

I would say that with neither of these wines is fruit the point. It’s an attraction, of course, but sparkling wines are a contrivance, and the point of the contrivance – at least in my opinion – is lightness and pleasure first and everything else after. Obviously there are outer limits of how much lightness and how much or little of anything else is desirable, and every winemaker and every drinker has to decide what those are for themselves.

Nothing I tasted in this match-up pushed me to prefer one wine over the other. Both offered high levels of pleasure of slightly different kinds, but in fact the two wines surprised me by how similar they were. And those similarities persisted with different foods, both wines tasting equally satisfactory in their own ways with caviar and blini and soft-shell crabs on toast.
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Each dish called up the Prosecco’s light, fresh fruit and the Champagne’s relatively greater weight and depth (the latter, I am certain, the result of being vinified from a blend of grape varieties rather than a single one). So there were no knock-outs or TKOs, just two excellent contenders of very slightly different weight classes, each performing in character in a variety of circumstances. As old carnival barkers used to say, ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice.

I could certainly have gotten more dramatically different results by choosing different wines – Nino Franco’s impressive vintage Primo, for instance, or Pol Roger’s always wonderful Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill – but I wanted to get as near parity in my selections as I could. Likewise, other palates making the same comparisons might come to different conclusions or perceive greater differences than I did. All I can tell you is what I tasted, and urge you, if you’re curious, to make the comparison for yourself.

France’s Least Known Great White Wine

July 6, 2017

Unique is probably the most overworked word in the whole wine lexicon, but if there is any wine it really fits, that’s Savennières. If you don’t know this Loire rarity, it’s time you made its acquaintance. This is an intriguingly paradoxical wine: both austere and opulent, with a set of aromas and flavors that instantly separate it from all the Chardonnay- and Sauvignon-based white wines you’ve ever tasted. Those flavors grow more intense and more distinctive as it ages, and it is a white wine that can age very long indeed.

I had promised Long-Suffering Spouse no wine visits on our Loire vacation, but one of our shore excursions included one. Ironically, we went off to this visit not even expecting it: The description of the morning’s attractions didn’t mention what for us turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip, a visit to the Domaine du Closel/Chateau des Vaults, a premier estate in the tiny Savennières appellation.

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The Savennieres zones lies just southwest of Angers, on the north bank of the Loire – one of the most precarious places in France to grow grapes. Most of the zone is hilly, affording lovely views of the Loire valley from the tops of the vineyards, the best of which lie on south-facing slopes about 100 meters above the river. It’s the soils that give Savennières its character. At Domaine du Closel, for instance, the best sites have a thin layer of topsoil over bedrock of slate and quartz, which forces the vines to send their roots very deep into cracks and runnels seeking nourishment. That kind of stress can make great wines, and in Savennières it does so quite often.

Evelyne de Pontbriand, the proprietor and winemaker at Domaine du Closel, walked us up the steep slopes to view the vineyards. These immediately adjoin those of Nicolas Joly, for some years now the most famous name in Savennières. It was breezy up there, and the vines grew fairly close to the ground – not more than two-and-a-half to three feet tall, as I recall.

A biodynamic grower, Mme. de Pontbriand in her brochure describes her soils in loving detail: “They are shallow, very warm and consist of purple and green schist, purple sandstone enriched with volcanic rocks (quartz, phtanites and organic matter).” I’ve visited many vineyards, and I can vouch that that qualifies as a very complex bed for vines.

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I should say vine, not vines: In Savennières, there is only one: Chenin blanc. This is not a variety highly regarded in most of the wine world, but on the banks of the Loire – most usually the south bank, I grant you – it yields lovely wines, ranging from dry and charming to sweet and magnificent. Most of those come under the Vouvray appellation. Savennières forms Chenin blanc’s greatest dry expression, a wine of tremendous complexity and great aging potential. I have been lucky enough to drink a few twenty-year-olds that still live in my memory for their vibrancy and depth.

The tasting that Mme. de Pontbriand provided after the vineyard tour didn’t extend to older wines, unfortunately, but it did include all three of her bottlings:

La Jalousie 2014, her base wine, a relatively early-harvested (to preserve the fruit and acidity) wine with a greenish-gold hue, dry and light with a touch of elegance. This shows a muted version of Savennières’ distinctive flavor spectrum. It is a drink-every-day wine, with – Mme. de Pontbriand insists – an extraordinary aptitude to marry with asparagus and artichokes, which certainly shows just how different a white wine this is.

Les Caillardières 2013, a wine of deeper gold coloration and deeper aromas and flavors. I sniffed pears and baked apples and mineral notes, with similar elements emerging on the palate. Already somewhat complex and elegant, this wine seemed to want a few more years to develop further.

Clos du Papillon 2015, the top cru, which Mme. de Pontbriand regards as “one of the most beautiful expressions of Savennières.” I won’t argue with that: Even this young, I found it very elegant and complex, with unduplicatable floral and vegetal aromas and flavors – almonds and apricots, lemons and nuts and flint – a whole potpourri. De Pontbriand says “The Clos du Papillon is harvested in two selections: The first selection during the « fresh fruit aroma » period and the second one later with some botrytis during the « cooked fruit, quince and smoked aromas » period. Both selections are put in barrels and assembled 16 months later. The wine then remains a few months in vats.”

We purchased two bottles of the 2006 Clos du Papillon on the spot, and last week opened one to accompany a dinner of turbot in the sauce beurre blanc that the Loire had failed to give us. The wine was so good that I seriously regret not throwing away half our clothes and filling the suitcase with bottles of it.

It tasted indefinably spicy on the palate – woodruff and star anise, maybe – with a vigorous herbal/vegetal attack and with minerals present but secondary; a wine totally different from the Chablis one might be tempted to compare it to. It had clay and earth aromas in there too, but not stone, and as it warmed, dry honey came up, even distinctly acacia honey; I think that’s the touch of botrytis speaking. It was a very big wine, but not at all fat: the finish in fact was very long and lean. As I said at the start, Savennières is paradoxically austere and opulent, and this bottle fit that description perfectly. I plan to get more of it, and hope to live long enough to drink it when it matures.

Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines

June 26, 2017

I’ve just enjoyed eight days of lazily cruising up and down the Loire between its mouth at St. Nazaire and Bouchemaine, the river’s farthest navigable point for a vessel the size of our paddlewheeler, MS Loire Princesse. In wine terms, that’s a journey through the winebibbing home of Rabelais. We journeyed upriver, into the heart of vinous lightness – from the land of the Melon de Bourgogne, which makes Muscadet, and into the realm of the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. These, usually alone but sometimes with other grapes, make a whole range of light to medium-bodied wines, mostly named for the places they’re grown – Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur, Vouvray, etc.
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This was not, however, a wine trip. It was a vacation. I had promised my Long-Suffering Spouse no wine tastings, no vineyard visits, a complete break from all that. I hadn’t promised not to drink wine, however, an activity LSS heartily approves of, so we enjoyed the Loire Princesse’s plenty throughout our long sunny days and protracted evenings on board. I hadn’t really registered how far north the Loire lies: Daylight lasted until around 10 pm every day.

Now, the Loire Princesse isn’t one of those floating apartment buildings that ply the Med or the Caribbean: It’s a small – 90 passengers – shallow-draft sidewheeler specially designed to navigate the difficult waters of the Loire, which is often wide and shallow, with multiple channels, all prone to flooding at some seasons and going almost dry at others.
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So the ship doesn’t have huge storage space, and its wine offerings were consequently distinctly limited. They were, however, reflective of the region we were sailing through, and the simpler ones were included in the basic trip amenities and always generously poured. Some better labels were available for purchase at very reasonable prices. Moreover, they matched very well with the cuisine of the cruise. Best of all, in the true Rabelaisian spirit, they were enjoyable wines in themselves and very efficient reminders of the affability and adaptability of Loire wines.

I confess that I often forget about Loire wines. That is really unfortunate, because they are, by and large, genuinely enjoyable and very affordable. There are only a handful of really great ones, but there is an abundance of delightful wines that tend to get lost in the frantic search for Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator 90-pointers. Most days, with most meals, I would much rather drink a superior Chinon for $30 or less than an inferior Bordeaux for the same price or more.

The Muscadet appellation has several regional subdivisions. The one we most often encounter in the US is Muscadet Sèvres et Maine, which is what the Princesse was offering: 2015 Château Cassemichère Muscadet Sèvres et Maine sur lie. “Sur lie” means the wine was allowed to remain on its lees until bottling, a practice that gives normally lean Muscadet a bit of depth and roundness. The Cassemichere was a typical Muscadet, a light white wine with small citrus and mineral notes, very clean and fresh.
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There is a lot of Muscadet on the US market, and most of it is like this wine, simple and enjoyable but in no way distinguished. There are, however, a handful of outstanding Muscadets, either because of the character of their soil and microclimate or the care of their producers, or both. Some I have enjoyed include Domaine de la Pepière, Domaine de l‘Ecu, Bregeon, and Louvetrie. Bear Muscadet in mind the next time you’re serving any shellfish: It’s usually inexpensive, and the crustaceans and the wine seem to love each other.

The Muscadet zone is very consumer-friendly: There is essentially one appellation and one grape variety. The red wine zone of the middle Loire, upstream from Nantes and the Muscadet country, is only a little more complicated. There are several appellations, but just one dominant variety, Cabernet franc. Forget anything you may know about this grape from its appearances in Bordeaux: the Cabernet franc of the Loire is a completely different animal – softer, fruitier, with more enlivening acidity and fewer abrasive tannins. In very good harvests it can age for a decade or more, but most years it makes a much more accessible wine to drink relatively young. Loire reds show elegance and gentleness more than power or depth: They are for me perfect summertime red wines, companionable with all sorts of food, intensely satisfying and accessible, never confrontational. If you’ve forgotten that a red wine doesn’t have to be up in your face to be impressive, you need to try some Loire reds.

The main appellations for them are Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, and Saumur. Of these my favorite tends to be Chinon, which I find slightly more elegant, slightly more intensely varietal, and slightly more age-worthy. On shipboard, we drank 2015 Domaine Olivier Bourgueil, 2014 Clos de Perou Saumur Champigny, and 2015 Clos de la Lysardière Chinon.
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I grew quite fond of the Chinon, which had delightful fresh fruit and enough depth to match well with the chef’s fondness for wild mushrooms and complex sauces. Other good Chinon producers include Domaine Couly-Dutheil and Domaine Philippe Alliet.

The Loire Princesse didn’t stock any Vouvray, which disappointed me, because this charming white wine, vinified from the Chenin blanc grape in the middle Loire, in its driest forms makes an excellent dinner wine. I can recommend Domaine Huet and Domaine des Aubusières and the Cuvee Silex of Vigneau-Chevreau.
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All in all, the valley of the Loire remains still what it was for Rabelais, a soft and pleasant land teeming with palatal pleasures. It served as a healthy reminder to this wine journalist that a wine doesn’t have to be profound to be estimable or powerful to be enjoyable. I hope all your vacations are as delightful as mine was.

Next post: France’s least known great white wine.

The Lure and Lore of the Loire: Vacation Time

June 8, 2017

By the time you see this, oh courteous and bibulous reader, I will – airlines and computer systems and terrorists permitting – be cruising up the Loire from Nantes to the château country, through Muscadet land and into Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur, and Vouvray land.
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With any luck, I’ll have some insights and discoveries to pass on to you in about two weeks. Ainsi nous esperons, eh?