Archive for the ‘France’ Category

One Fine Wine: Château Les Ormes de Pez 2001        

January 16, 2020
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Château Les Ormes de Pez (you pronounce the z, so it unfortunately sounds like a tiny candy) is a long-time favorite of Diane’s and mine: It’s one of the wines we learned on, so to speak. This 2001 is from a half case that I squirreled away years ago and have managed to keep my hands off until now. And boy, am I happy I did!

The estate is an ancient one, now owned (since WW II) by the Cazes family, proprietors of the far more prestigious Lynch Bages. Les Ormes de Pez is classified as a cru bourgeois, and still occupies pretty much the same land it did when the famous 1855 classification relegated it to that lowly rank. As a consequence, it has never had the cachet – or the price – of the collector’s darling premiers crus Bordeaux. So much the better for us simple drinkers: de Pez has consistently produced fine wines, completely characteristic of the St. Estèphe appellation.

Especially in the hands of the Cazes family, the wine routinely achieves a quality level that, in my opinion, deserves a much higher ranking. (If de Pez got it, that would probably drive its price up, so let it continue to under-rank and overachieve, I say.) Its name no longer suits it either: The glorious grove of elm trees – les ormes — that identified it has long since gone the way of the buffalo – or, more accurately, the way of all European (and a good many American) elm trees, wiped out by a blight.

The wine endures the passage of time better than the estate’s rank and name. My bottle of 2001, after suffering in my far-less-than-ideal storage conditions, was nevertheless just lovely. A very deep garnet color; an earthy, black currant nose; deep, evolved flavors of underbrush, mushrooms, and black fruits; soft but still perceptible tannins; big and round (surprisingly big: I had not expected so substantial a mouthful); long, long finishing: To my palate this was classic St. Estèphe, mature and elegant and still very much alive, a wine of great equipoise and balance. That’s what I go to the great Bordeaux for, and that’s what Les Ormes de Pez of 15-25 years of age always gives me.

Feret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines (known as the Bible of Bordeaux: my edition is the 13th) says that the winemaking at Les Ormes de Pez is handled by the team that oversees Lynch-Bages with “the same attentive care which helps produce wines with bouquet, mellow and rich in flavor, consistent with the traditional quality of great Saint-Estèphes.”  Amen.

Champagne Extravaganza

December 19, 2019

Once again, as he has for the past 20-some-odd years, friend and colleague Ed McCarthy organized the Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon, this year held in the special-event space at restaurant Il Gattopardo. Ed, the author of Champagne for Dummies, has the finest Champagne palate and deepest store of Champagne knowledge of anyone I’ve met in wine journalism, and the lineup of wines he collected for this occasion exceeded impressive: 20 specimens of the best bubblies around. Here is the whole festive list:

Pol Roger Valentine Leflaive NV Blanc de Blancs
H. Mumm NV Blanc de Blancs
Collet “Collection Privée” 2006
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque 2012
Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis 2009
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV
Piper-Heidsieck “Rare” 2006
Boizel Joyau de France 2000
Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2005
Palmer & Co. 2003 (magnum)
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2007
Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004
Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Rosé 2007
Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2004
Louis Roederer Cristal 2008
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2006
Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2008
Bollinger La Grande Année 2008
Krug Grande Cuvée 168ème édition

Lists like that are what make Wine Media Guild events important. The chance to taste a battery of wines of this caliber (and cost!) happens only rarely, and for a wine professional the opportunity to taste so many such wines side by side, both by themselves and then with a good lunch, in congenial company and comfortable circumstances – that’s simply incomparable.
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One of the Two Tasting Tables

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It hardly counts as a spoiler alert to say at the outset that there wasn’t a single bottle of those 20 Champagnes that I would not happily drink for Christmas or New Year’s Eve or my birthday – or tomorrow’s breakfast, for that matter.

The Champagne guru did have a reservation, however: Ed thought that almost all the wines were too young. For example: of Champagne Collet’s 2006 Collection Privée, he said “it still needs time”; of Boizel’s 2000 Joyau de France, he said it was “still quite young” at almost 20 years of age; of Champagne Palmer & Co’s 2003, poured from magnum, he said it was “a bit young still – amazing”; and of Louis Roederer’s 2008 Cristal, he said it was “a great Champagne that needs 20 years to develop.”  Do you sense a theme?

Ed likes his Champagne mature, and I can fully sympathize with that. That this Cristal can develop fascinatingly over the next 20 years, and then stay at a beautiful plateau for 20 more, I have no doubt – but I would certainly want to dispel any notion that it wasn’t pleasurable drinking any time before then. Ditto for all the other “too young” wines in this lineup. Yes, they will all get better, more complex, more nuanced, with more age, but none of them was in any way not enjoyable right now.

They may give you more later in their life, but then as now, whether they show their best or not will depend on what food you pair them with. It is true of all wines, but, I think, especially of Champagnes, that the food pairing can make or break the wines. “Buy on apples, sell on cheese” is a universal wine maxim. For example: Our lunch ended with a lovely, light, refreshing dessert, an orange and Grand Marnier custard on pan di Spagna, with which not a single one of these fine Champagnes matched well – not even the lightest entry in the field, Pol Roger’s Valentine Leflaive NV Blanc de Blancs. The light sweetness of the custard made all the Champagnes taste too big, too austere, even bordering on harsh; whereas simple dry chocolate biscotti matched with most of the Champagnes quite decently, and certainly more pleasurably.

So the lesson is, if you’re going to invest in any of these fine and costly specimens, think very carefully about what to serve them with, lest you just throw your money away – or worse yet, decide that you just don’t understand Champagne and give up on the whole genre, which would be a terrible triumph for the Christmas Grinch.

For the sake of those who always ask such questions, I tried to come up with my five favorite Champagnes of the day, but I couldn’t do it. By the most rigorous process of elimination, I came up with eight favorites – and I hasten to stress, favorites on this day, in these circumstances. Here they are, in the order in which I tasted them.

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Pol Roger Valentine Leflaive NV Blanc de Blancs: New in the US, light-bodied and charming. Ed called it a “fresh, vibrant baby.”


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Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis 2009: As I am, Ed is a fan of Gratien, a Champagne house not as well known in the US as it deserves to be. My quick note on this wine says simply “meaty and very, very good.”

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Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2006: “Something special – outstanding,” Ed said of this wine, and I agree completely.

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Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2005: Another Champagne house better known and more esteemed in France than here, and another long-time favorite of both mine and Ed’s. I found it very elegant; he said it was “drinking beautifully.”

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Louis Roederer Cristal 2008: What more can one say of Cristal?  This is a great wine that deserves all the praise it gets.

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Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2006
:  Yet one more of my long-time favorites, always big and elegant. Ed called it “outstanding,” and I agree.

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Bollinger La Grande Année 2008
: One of the biggest, deepest wines in the whole lineup. Classic Bollinger, structured and complex, this is definitely a wine that will last for decades.

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Krug Grande Cuvée 168ème édition:  Krug achieves with its NV the kind of distinction that other houses match only with their tête de cuvée, and it does it year after year, here for the 168th time. How’s that for consistency?

 

So there you have it, in all its sparkling splendor. The only thing I can add is to wish you all a joyous Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Yule, or all of the above, as suits your seasonal inclination: May your days be merry and bright, and only half of your wines be white.

 

Mortes pour la France

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The Pleasures of BYOB

November 4, 2019

Diane and I don’t dine out much anymore, for three key reasons. First, we can’t stand the noise levels: In most New York City restaurants, the din reaches a volume so painful that conversation is impossible. Second, the cuisine has become too californicated – too fussy, too many incompatible ingredients, too many fantasy creations. And finally, the clincher: Prices for the kind of wine we enjoy are stratospheric, so much so that I could buy a case of enjoyable wine for the cost of a single meal out.

And of course, restaurant wines are never old enough to have developed the kind of mature flavors we love, or if they have, the prices have shifted from stratospheric to astronomical.

Thus, we mostly stay home, do our own cooking, and drink our own wines. But recently some friends told us about Temple Court, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant at Manhattan’s Beekman hotel. Colicchio is a cook who respects the great culinary traditions, lightening and modernizing them, but preserving their integrity and depth. So Diane and I tried a lunch at Temple Court and loved it – all except for the wine prices, which verged on terrifying. The ambiance was lovely, very old-New Yorkish. No loud music, ambient noise at a comfortable level. And the food was excellent.
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Just recently we learned that on Sunday evenings, the restaurant allows patrons to bring their own wine, with no corkage fee. Oh frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! An expedition was rapidly organized, and five of us descended on Temple Court with five bottles in hand and palates honed. Spoiler alert:  It was all wonderful, so brace yourself for a lot of superlatives.

So compatible was this group in terms of taste that all but one of us ordered the same meal: Lobster Thermidor to start and Venison Wellington for entree. Clearly, classic palates ready to work on gently modified classic dishes.

The Thermidor was a lightened and more elegant version of the very rich traditional preparation. With it we drank two white Burgundies, a 2008 Drouhin Puligny Montrachet and a 1995 Ampeau Meursault. The older bottle still showed fresh and light on the palate, with lovely Chardonnay floral and mineral accents.
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The Drouhin wine showed those same sorts of flavors, but bigger, with more flesh – probably the result of longer time for the wine on its lees. Both were lovely wines, the Ampeau probably better as an aperitif and the Drouhin better matched with the Thermidor.
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While we rested our forks for a few minutes before the venison, we started on a bottle of 2010 Aloxe-Corton red from Michel Mallard, a small Burgundy producer who sells most of his wine locally, which one of our group bought right there at the winery. This bottle gave all the pleasures of Pinot Noir from prime Burgundian terroir and served as a beautiful modulation to the more aggressive flavors to come.
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With the arrival of the venison, our immensely helpful and attentive sommelier Lise poured us glasses of our ’03 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle and 1999 Fontodi Flaccianello. Both of these were wines to which I could easily have devoted a One Fine Wine post.

The Tuscan wine was simply gorgeous, a great wine from a great vintage. Flaccianello is 100% Sangiovese, classified as an IGT wine back then and still proudly continued as such by maker Giovanni Manetti, even though it could now call itself Chianti Classico DOCG. This ’99 showed all the bright red fruit and liveliness on the palate that Sangiovese is capable of – and that’s a great deal.
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A beautiful wine, but bettered with the venison by the Hermitage, a lesser vintage from a more aggressive, less nuanced grape. This bottle showed the classic Syrah force, depth, and pepperiness — and though for my palate it lacked subtlety, its character matched better with the venison, foie gras, chestnuts, and wild mushrooms of the Wellington than did the lighter and more agile Flaccianello.
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An important lesson there, it seems to me: A lesser wine can be a better choice, depending on what you’re drinking it with. It’s not just the quality of the vintage that’s at stake, but the nature of the combination. As Italian winemakers are often acutely aware, the abbinamento – the match between the food and the wine – is crucial. The flavors of the venison Wellington preparation needed not a nuanced wine but a bold one. The lobster Thermidor, on the other hand, was all about nuance, which is why the more complex Puligny worked better with it.

After this Lucullan feast, five magnificently satisfied diners made their various ways home, blissfully smiling all the way. No dessert had been needed or desired: no wonder.

One Fine Wine: Drouhin’s Puligny Montrachet Les Folatières 2010

August 19, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Most Burgundian experts – I do not pretend to be one – agree that the Puligny appellation stands at the peak of Burgundy’s white wine mountain.  Clive Coates flat out calls it “the greatest white wine commune on earth,” and I’m not prepared to argue with him.  Within the confines of the Puligny commune (not a big one, by the way: 230 hectares of vineyards by Coates’s count) lie the Grands Crus Chevalier-Montrachet and Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, as well as parts of Bâtard-Montrachet and the glorious Le Montrachet, plus 23 premiers crus (all or parts thereof).  Just statistically, that’s impressive.

Tasting the wines is all the more impressive.  These wines strike the palate as big but not heavy, with the bright, mineral attack of lighter-bodied wines and the persistence and depth of more full-bodied ones: a classic Burgundian balancing act, in fact.  Coates describes the wines of the Folatières vineyards, which are my specific focus here, as “fullish, meaty, mineral wine with plenty of weight of fruit and good grip – a typical Puligny premier cru in fact.”  I’m not sure I understand or agree with all that, but I recognize it’s meant as high praise – and that I emphatically agree with.

A week or so ago, Diane indulged my nostalgia for one of the best dishes of my youth by making for us a lovely dinner centered on veal francese, a simple, succulent dish that I thought worthy of a better wine than had ever been available for it in the local restaurants of Jersey City (in those days a dying industrial town of declining prosperity and population).  Especially since we were preceding it with some lovely Scotch smoked salmon, I thought I’d follow the hint of its name and match it with a good French white.  I was lucky enough to have on hand a modestly aged single-vineyard Puligny Montrachet, a 2010 from Drouhin, one of the producer-negociants that I rely on for consistent quality and a house style that emphasizes elegance rather than brute force.  Drouhin didn’t let me down: That golden-in-the-glass Folatières just sang with every aspect of that meal, from the smoke and salt of the salmon to the delicate meat sweetness and succulence of the veal.

Most people think of the wines of Burgundy as historic, originating on sites first farmed by Medieval monks, if not before that by Celts and Romans.  But Folatières is of more recent development: The village of Puligny and the fame of Montrachet may be many centuries old, but the high-hillside, rocky vineyards of Folatières are only about a hundred years old.
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Their quality was evident from their earliest yields, and the appellation quickly assumed the importance and commanded the respect it is now routinely and deservedly given.  My 2010 Drouhin was, by the standards of great Burgundian whites, still very young, and it evidently had many more years before it than was at all likely that I could wait.  Be that as it may: By my standards, it was one fine wine.

Smiles of a Summer Night

August 8, 2019

Midsummer dinner parties always present problems. You want to keep things simple and light, but you also don’t want to treat your guests as if they were fashion silhouettes who make a meal on a single lettuce leaf and a martini olive. Plus, if your guests have palates, you want to offer them the bounty of the season and also wines appropriate to that bounty: light, but not insubstantial; fresh, but not without complexity. And all the while, you have to offer placatory sacrifices to the gods of the electric grid, so that the power doesn’t go off in the middle of prep or the middle of dinner. Oh, first-world worry worry worry!

Those of you who follow Diane’s blog already know how she recently pulled off this trick. My part involved less work but – I flatter myself – more tact: matching the appropriate wines to those tasty dishes. Hors d’oeuvres are always easy: you can’t go wrong with a Prosecco or a Champagne. This time I opted for Champagne, because . . . well, mostly because I’ve already drunk my lifetime quota of Prosecco this hot summer.

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I’ve been tinkering with grower Champagnes lately – because they vary interestingly from the Grands Marques norms – and the one I opted for this time didn’t disappoint. Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Cuis Premier Cru, Brut NV was an intriguingly mineral-and-white-fruit blanc de blancs: 100% Chardonnay, vintages 2010-2015; disgorged March 16, 2019; dosage 6g/l.For my palatal preferences, blanc de blancs is the ideal summertime Champagne, light enough to titillate, complex enough to hold your interest. This one provided exactly that combination.

Our first course at table was classic summer fare from Naples: zucchini a scapece and a platter of just sliced, never refrigerated heirloom tomatoes surrounding a still-moist-from-its-whey mozzarella di bufala. Naples dictated the wine choice here: a sapid and lovely Greco di Tufo, tasting of its volcanic soils and bittersweet fruit. Ours was from Benito Ferrara, his cru Cicogna, a perennial – and entirely deserving – Tre Bicchieri winner.
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With the pasta, we switched to red wines, and I got a surprise. Fresh fettuccine pointed me to northern Italy, so I chose a Ghemme, one of Piedmont’s subalpine denominations that blends upwards of 65% Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) with the indigenous Bonarda and sometimes a little admixture of other, very localized grapes. These northern wines emphasize elegance rather than power, and are usually lighter-bodied than more southerly Piedmont Nebbiolos like Barolo and Barbaresco.
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My wine, a 2011 Monsecco, perfectly supplied the lighter body and elegance, but it also offered much greater fruit intensity – cherries! – and depth than I had expected. It got everybody’s attention from the first taste, and kept it. Ghemme and Boca and Lessona, but especially Ghemme, are staging a real comeback, and you should know about them:  they are fine wines, and considerably less expensive than the better known Barolo and Barbaresco.

Diane’s summertime secondo directed me back to Naples, so with it we drank a lovely 2007 Taurasi Primum Riserva from Guastaferro.
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Gorgeous and big and deep, this wine – vinified exclusively from very old Aglianico vines still on their own roots, a rarity even in Campania’s often sandy, sulfur-laced soils – will last for decades more with no loss of vigor or flavor. This too is a winemaker to know about.

For our cheese course, I went back north again, for Barolo this time: a 1999 Barolo Colonnello from Aldo Conterno. I wanted to finish with a crescendo, and this great cru in a great vintage from a great producer provided it.

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The wine was lush: big in the mouth, round and deep, with dark, brooding, still fresh-tasting fruit understrapped by abundant now-soft tannins and generous acidity, it was ready for anything the cheeses threw at it.

Smiles this summer night were abundant, though they bore no resemblance to the ones induced by the Ingmar Bergman movie from which I shamelessly lifted my title.

In Praise of Beaujolais

June 27, 2019

Summer has hit New York, and this old man’s fancy has turned lightly to Beaujolais. For me, Beaujolais is the classic summer wine. Of course I’m aware you can drink it with pleasure all year round; nevertheless, for me, alongside summer cooking, Beaujolais really shines.

Beaujolais is customarily thought of as a light wine. Like most generalizations, that one is only more or less true. The Gamay grape from which it’s made isn’t a powerhouse variety like Syrah, for instance, or austere like Cabernet. It’s softer, more giving, with a really pretty strawberryish fruitfulness that shows through in all its manifestations. But like any respectable wine grape, Gamay is sensitive to the soils and climates in which it grows, and those differences do make perceptible differences in the finished wine. That is exactly why the tight, restricted area in which Beaujolais originates is divided into so many subzones: Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Regnié, and Saint-Amour.
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In any given growing year, all types of Beaujolais are will be lighter-bodied and less forceful that the great Burgundies to their north or the big Rhône wines to their south, so if that is all that is meant by calling it a light wine, well, OK. But that doesn’t mean Beaujolais is insignificant, especially in the light of the region’s recent decades’ general shift from producing lots of wine to fashioning quality wine, and especially in the named crus.

But I don’t want to be a snob about this. I love cru Beaujolais, but the simplest Beaujolais can give great pleasure. I’m sipping one right now, as I write this, a 2017 from Domaine Dupeuble Père et Fils. It’s medium-bodied, with a soft mouth feel, and intense dark-berry-and-strawberry fruit, persistent and pleasing. In fact, it’s making me hungry for some fresh bread, a slice of a good salami (rosette de Lyon, anyone?), and maybe a thin slice of spring onion or some soft cheese. Writing about wine is not a slimming profession.

By a process of very personal association, that brings me to Eric Asimov’s long article on wine writing in the June 19th New York Times. He questions, at some length, the value and intrinsic interest of tasting notes, and argues that at best, they offer a short-lived shopping guide. As regular readers of this blog know well, I think they amount to even less than that, being one person’s ephemeral perception frozen in print as if it were eternally true. Asimov goes on to make a plea for doing wine journalism another way, chiefly by somehow finding a means to convey one’s own passion and the sheer pleasure of wine. In my own way, that’s what I’ve tried to do in many of the posts of this blog – and it’s emphatically what I’m trying to do right now with Beaujolais.

It would be easy to go the full-connoisseur route and explain the differences between the crus and wax eloquent about why Chénas and Morgon are my favorites: In fact, I’ve done that before, here. But what I really want to convey today is the non-intellectual pleasure that a lightly chilled Beaujolais gives on a hot, humid summer day, the sensuous little shiver that first juicy sip causes, and then the sense of well-being that follows as you swallow and savor. Before and after all our critical ponderings and discriminations, that’s what wine is all about, and in its proper time and place the humblest Beaujolais does it as well as any wine can.

Shore Leave: Wines We Enjoyed Off the Boat

June 6, 2019

To our disappointment, cruising as we were past some of the finest vineyards of southern France last month, very few of the MS Camargue’s organized excursions included winery visits or tastings. One brief but very well-organized wine tasting occurred in Tournon. This consisted of three fine samples of wines from the river’s opposite bank, Tain l’Ermitage.

The first two were excellent wines from a local co-op. It is really a wonderful testimonial to how the worldwide level of winemaking has risen that co-op wines, widely and for the most part correctly regarded as the bottom of the barrel when I started wine writing 40 years ago, can now stand as exemplars of their regional production. These two Crozes-Hermitages, a white and a red, both 2017, were exactly that.

The white, aptly named, given the omnipresent wind, Les Hautes d’Éole, had an almost-dry-honey nose and a mouth-filling medium body, with lean and nervous mature grape flavors. It was a blend of Marsanne and Roussane, classic Rhône varieties, and I found it totally enjoyable.

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The red was 100% Syrah, as is normal – almost mandatory, in fact – in the northern Rhône. This was a classic example of the breed, spicy, peppery, black-fruited and almost meaty on the nose and palate; and, with all that, soft and full, nicely balanced, with bright acidity. It could easily take a few years of aging, though it was already a pleasure to drink..

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The third wine was a 2016 St. Joseph from a small producer, Guy Farge, a fine wine of 100% Syrah. St. Joseph is an appellation that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. This bottle gave a pleasing aroma of spice and black pepper and stems, with similar flavors following through on the palate: classic Syrah flavors similar to the red Crozes-Hermitage, but intensified and refined. Soft and full and nicely balanced, it cried out for more cellar time: I’d give it a good five years before hoping to taste its peak.
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Dinner Wines at Le Gibolin in Arles

We managed to leave our boat for one meal ashore, during an overnight mooring in Arles. This dinner at the restaurant Le Gibolin turned out to be the gustatory highlight of the cruise, probably of the trip (see Diane’s account of it). We asked the proprietress to select a different wine for us with each course, which she happily did. All were excellent local wines from small producers we would otherwise never have encountered, and we drained every glass with great pleasure.

Our pleasure was unfortunately too great, since I failed to get the relevant data for all of them. The first was a profound Cairanne from Oratoire St. Martin, a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah, very balanced and deeply tasting of the south..
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The second came from the same maker, but a different vineyard and a different blend – a lot more Mourvèdre – and not entitled to the Cairenne appellation, but simply labelled Côtes du Rhône. It was called Les P’tits Gars, and it was fuller and fatter than the first wine, and played up to our main courses beautifully.
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With the cheese, we were served an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône, whose name and label neither Diane nor I can recall (our bad, but the restaurant was very busy by then and madame didn’t leave the bottle for us to read) – but its bright acidity (Alicante being the dominant grape in its blend) was wonderful with the cheese.

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Dinner Wines in Lyon: Cherry-Picking Three Restaurant Lists

Our cruise ended in Lyon, where Diane and I stayed on for three days: three dinners, as we thought of it. This was trickier than we had realized, since two of the days were Sunday and Monday, when many restaurants are closed, but we managed to find three temples of traditional Lyonnaise gastronomy while still avoiding the curse of Michelin-starred homogenization: Brasserie Georges, Le Petit Léon de Lyon, and the Paul Bocuse bistro Le Nord (Diane has written about our dinners there.)

To match with those three meals we chose a 2015 St. Joseph, a 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape, and a 2016 white Châteauneuf du Pape, and delightful choices they all were. The St. Joseph – Cuvée du Papy from Stéphane Montez – was filled with rich dark fruit both on the nose and the palate, and had a beautiful, long, blackberry finish: thoroughly enjoyable.

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Ordering the 2005 Beaucastel Châteauneuf elicited the involuntary murmured exclamation from our up-to-that moment very polished young waiter: “Wow wow wow! Big wine!” And indeed it was: big, balanced, still quite young and fresh tasting – barely ready to drink, in fact, but deep and lovely. This was beyond enjoyable: It was pleasurable both sensually and intellectually as it kept opening in the glass.

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Our last wine of the trip, the 2016 Vieux Télégraphe white Châteauneuf, felt in the mouth even bigger than the red wines we had had before. Almost golden in color, lovely and complex, fully dry yet with, among other things, suggestions of honey and quince, wanting years of cellaring yet already very fine – this was a great wine to end our brief foray into southern France.

Cruising Down the River

May 27, 2019

We’re back from France and readjusted to reality. While our hoped-for sunny journey down the Rhône and ancillary vineyard visits didn’t work out as we wished – the weather was cold and grey, and the hours at anchor just didn’t permit the kind of excursions we wanted – we nevertheless had an enjoyable time. There was plenty of quite drinkable wine on board, though none of what a visit to Chapoutier or Jaboulet or Chave might have yielded, and the MS Camargue’s kitchen provided meals of a quite decent French hotel standard, so our sufferings were all of the imaginative, what-might-have-been sort.

I’m not really a cruise person, especially not on one of those floating apartment buildings I see lumbering up and down the Hudson, so the 104-passenger Camargue was quite big enough for me.

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I thought its beverage policy enlightened: The cost of all basic wines and spirits, available all day long, were covered by the basic trip fee. A slightly better selection was offered at modest extra charge, and that seemed more than ample for the week of our cruise.
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Indeed, as the choices of our tablemates, a charming and well-travelled New Zealand couple, showed, it was more than enough for everybody except us winos. Living as Diane and I do among wine-and-food fanatics, we tend to forget that not everyone judges the quality of their day by the caliber of their dinner wine. A sobering reminder it was.

That’s enough scene setting: Here’s what we drank. (For what we ate, see this post on Diane’s blog.)

With lunch, we drank one or another of the ship’s basic offerings. These were a nice white blend from Alsace, the sort of wine they used to call Gentil (in this case a Saveur d’Alsace from Maison Pettermann); a Pays d’Oc Chardonnay from St. Anian; a Syrah rosé from Pays d’Oc called La Jasse Neuve; a red St. Anian (a Carignane-Merlot blend); and a 2018 Côtes du Rhône Domaine de Lascamp – the latter especially pleasing.
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As you can see, nothing startling, but good basic wines from a variety of interesting regions.

At dinners, we tended to choose our wine from the boat’s larger and more interesting supplemental (quite reasonable) fee list. This was organized loosely by broad regions, and we chose wines from areas we were sailing through or near enough to consider local. So: We especially enjoyed a very fine Beaujolais Morgon, Les Vieux Cèdres, at six years old full of fresh, round, black-hued fruit; a 2016 Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche from Chapoutier; and a quite intense, deeply aromatic 2012 Cahors, Chateau Eugénie Tradition.
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For after dinner, the bar offered a nice battery of digestifs – Hennessy Cognac, an eau-de-vie Poire, a sound marc, as well as, for those so inclined, Port. On more than one evening we would have wished to take a marc or cognac up to the open top deck of the boat to enjoy the evening breezes. Alas, they were whistling down at about 25 miles an hour from the north: The Mistral was making the outdoors very uncomfortable, so it was seats at the bar most nights, just as in my misspent youth. What a tough trip.

More next post about our extra days in Lyon and wines ashore.

I Need a Vacation . . .

May 16, 2019

. . . from my vacation, and that’s why there’s no new post today.

Diane and I fled to southern France to escape the unnaturally cold, grey, rainy season that substituted for spring in New York this year, and guess what? We found the same miserable weather afflicting Europe too. What should have been a glorious, vineyard-visit-punctuated cruise down the Rhône turned into a soldiering-on and making-the-best-of-it slog, culminating in our both coming down with killer colds.

Diane is made of sterner stuff than I am: She managed to get a short post up this week. I’ll catch up next post. Meanwhile, here’s the view from our cabin windows when the ship was moored across the river from Tain-l’Hermitage. Ah, what might have been!

 

Chapoutier vineyards, with the Hermitage itself at the crest of the hill.

One Fine Wine: Chante Cigale Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1989

May 6, 2019
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

For reasons too trivial to go into, and mostly for sheer self-indulgence, I recently felt the strong need of a wine with some significant age. Diligent searching through my dwindling supply of such came up with this treasure, a fully mature Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I wish I could say I had more of it, but alas, it is now only a memory.

But what a memory!  Big and authoritative and round, as the best Châteauneufs are, this bottle – at 30 years old still perfectly sound, with no ullage – had mellowed into a deep, graceful, dark-flavored nectar. It was virtually impossible to isolate individual flavor elements, so perfectly wedded to each other did they seem. Harmony and – a word I know I use too often – elegance dominated the impressions the wine made.

For its companion dinner, Diane had chosen to make a quasi-classic innard dish from the best of France’s cuisine bourgeois: tripes à l’espagnole. We love organ meats generally and tripe especially, and this dish played admirably with the mature Châteauneuf. It tasted marvelous all through dinner, but above all, this Châteauneuf embraced cheese. It interacted beautifully with the warm cheese tarts Diane created for a first course, and the half firm, half buttery, young Parmigiano-like cheese we ended the dinner with actually seemed to expand the wine – that is, the combination made all its complex flavors bigger and deeper and longer-lasting on the palate. And this for a Châteauneuf that had already been showing a monumentally long finish. I was impressed.
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Domaine Chante Cigale is a long-time, family-owned producer, now farming some 40 hectares of vines spread over 45 plots in the Châteauneuf appellation. That’s not unusual: Because of the tremendous variety of soil substrates, most producers try to work with multiple plots to incorporate the differing characteristics into their final blend.

Blend is the most significant concept when it comes to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Producers in this zone pioneered France’s modern wine regulations. Back in the 1930s, they created the first Appellation Controlée, and the discipline they proposed then largely still holds. It allows a staggering 13 grape varieties to be used to make Châteauneuf. The principal one was then and still is Grenache, usually aided and abetted by various percentages of Mourvedre and/or Syrah (though that is far less important here than it is further north in the Rhone valley) and/or Picpoul, Counoise, and other local indigenous varieties.

Back in 1989, Chante Cigale made one sort of Châteauneuf. Now the domaine produces at least two bottlings, and one of those uses only the estate’s oldest vineyards to make a blend of selected vieilles vignes. How that affects the aging ability of the basic Châteauneuf I can’t guess, but in 1989 it wasn’t a problem: The fruit of the oldest vineyards was part of the domaine’s basic blend, and I would think that those grapes contributed importantly to the beautiful maturation of the bottle I enjoyed.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is usually described as a “rich, spicy, full-bodied” wine. That’s fair, if a bit generic, and mainly applicable to young wines – and that’s fair too, since that’s the way most Châteauneuf is consumed. Producers are even taking that into account in their cellars, striving to make wines that can be drunk at the age of five or six. Me, I’m old-fashioned, and I love the deep, dark, leather-and-cherry-and-black-pepper flavors in a velvet envelope that really mature Châteauneuf, such as my lovely bottle of Chante Cigale, can develop. They are worth the wait, and I’m only sorry that I didn’t show more restraint with this last bottle’s siblings.