Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Back during the annual ritual known as spring cleaning – misnamed, I think: It should more properly be called spring messing – Diane asked me that question. I was momentarily dumbfounded, and all I managed to say was a lame “37?”

Many years ago, when she asked me a similar question – “Why do we have 44 bottles of grappa?” – I was able to confidently and truthfully say “Because I’m working on a big article on grappa for Decanter.”

That wasn’t the whole truth, as anyone who knows my fondness for grappa understands, but it was at least a plausible cover for my shameless indulgence. Back then, I could honestly claim to be the most important proponent of grappa in the US: I had published the first North American article about grappa back in the 80s, in Attenzione, and written about it in several other magazines as well – so I could, with a straight face, say I had a professional interest in that distillate.

But now that I am no longer an active wine journalist (except for this blog), how could I explain needing so many brandies?

.
Had I not been taken by surprise, the answer was easy, really: They all have different uses, different niches that they fill. Just as I am passionate about matching a wine with food that will show it at its best (and vice versa), so am I interested in choosing the digestivo that will best complement the dinner I’ve just enjoyed.

That’s the real key for me: Call them brandies or digestivi or after-dinner drinks, whether it’s grappa or cognac or armagnac or marc, malt whiskies or curaçao or chartreuse, whatever their name, their function for me is to complete my meal, to round off the whole culinary experience. That may sound pompous, but it tends to be delicious – and figuring it all out is sheer fun.

So: Shameless self-indulgence once again, with a slight admixture of self-education. As Brillat-Savarin so well understood, a true gastronaut’s work is never done.

You can be forgiven for wondering what all those bottles are, and what niches I think they fill. A fair enough question, so here’s a broad rundown. For simplicity’s sake, let’s divide them, as those in the liquor trades often do, into “white goods” and “brown goods.”

White goods consist primarily of my beloved grappas, of which I like to keep a goodly selection on hand – grappas of Barbera and Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, Tuscan grappas, even southern Italian grappas, from Campania and Calabria and Sicily, all regions where this originally northern drink has gotten a firm hold.
.

.
Each of these grappas differs from the others in basic ways, having the aromas and characters of the very different grapes from which they are made, and so meshing with very different meals. I take almost as much pleasure in making the right match as I do in actually drinking the grappa.

This category also includes tequilas, a class of drinks that I have been late in coming to appreciate, as well as eaux de vie of mirabelle, poire, and/or framboise, all offering a small explosion of fruit aromas and flavors. Served ice-cold, they can be by themselves a perfect summer dessert.
.

.
Then we come to the brown goods, which will be more familiar to most people than the white. These may include barrel-aged grappas, but mostly they are cognac, armagnac, and an occasional marc. Burgundy and various appellations of the Rhône are my usual sources for marc.

I like to keep on hand a basic cognac and armagnac, as well as better bottle or two – a good vintage of armagnac, and for cognac a reliable producer’s more rarefied selection of vintages or areas of growth, such as Grand Champagne or Borderies. And not to forget Spanish brandies, which are very different in character from their French counterparts.
.

.   
Finally, I always need to have a few single malt scotches on hand, and Diane is occasionally fond of an herbal liqueur or plum brandy.
.

.
Those bottles arm me for most contingencies and pretty much any sort of cooking my fair bride may wish to do; and that gives me a great sense of security and comfort, a very desirable condition for the aging wino. Also – I confess to a bit of showmanship – at the end of a dinner party, I like to set out 4 to 6 different bottles for our guests (and ourselves) to sniff and choose from. And that’s why we have 37 – or whatever the number may be now – bottles of brandy.

.

P.S. from Diane, who has just counted them: It’s only 29 now. Poor baby!

P.P.S. from Tom: I must do something about that!

 

Read Full Post »

When I think about shipboard dining, I tend to time-warp fantasize about a first-class table – and wine list – on a transatlantic crossing on the old Normandie or Île de France. Glamor and great bottles!  Alas, those days are gone forever, and the kind of shipboard dining I actually do is far more quotidian, aboard river boats cruising French rivers. The wines there amount to sort of a cross between the wine list of a decent resort hotel and what’s available on the Jersey Shore – long on utility, but very short on glamor.

All this is prologue to telling you about the casual imbibings of Diane’s and my recent stint in France – three days in Paris, plus a week cruising on the Seine. Very relaxing, even charming, but in no way glamorous.
.

The dining room on the MS Seine Princess

 

Of course we drank wine every day: Being in France, and on vacation, twice a day, lunch and dinner, which is something we almost never do at home. A lot of the wine was quite enjoyable, simple stuff for easy drinking, which, when you think about it, is what a river cruise line ought to offer. Certainly none of the other 136 passengers on the Seine Princess seemed at all unhappy with any of it. Me, I’m a crank, a wine snob, and/or a fussbudget, as most of my readers already know, so I kept looking around for more or better. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Croisieurope line, with which we were sailing, routinely offers a short list of wines at lunch, dinner, and the ship’s bar, from which it pours generously and at no charge. It has a reserve list of somewhat better wines at low fees for the special occasion or the more demanding client. That was us: We hit the reserve list almost every dinner. We hadn’t gone on vacation to save money.

Given the chef’s heavy leanings toward fish, fowl, and white meats, with most lunches we drank the basic list’s decent unoaked Languedoc Chardonnay, which made a pleasant lubricant for most of the kitchen’s fare.
.

.
Dinner was not quite as white-wine exclusive, but even there, whites were often called for. The reserve list accommodated: There too, white wines – some nice older ones included – preponderated. The most interesting of those wines for us was a very nicely aged 2010 Alsace Riesling from Roland Petterman, which showed a good structure and still-interesting fruit – a nice, mature white wine.
.

.
Not as old but still quite interesting – and red! – were two 2016 wines from Chapoutier: a Crôzes Hermitage, Petite Ruche, and a St. Joseph, Deschants.
.

.
Both were very fine and representative of their kinds, even though I would have liked them just a few years older. I’ve always been fond of Rhône wines, white and red, and I find that most of them age exceptionally well. These two fit that bill very nicely and were certainly the most enjoyable wines we drank onboard.

I should add that for our three dinners in Paris, we most happily drank red: a very nice 2020 Chinon from Marc Brédif at Père Louis (see Diane’s post), a fine but young 2014 Brane Cantenac at Benôit, and a very nice 2008 Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil, Busardières at our beloved Au Petit Riche. I’ve always loved those Loire reds also, and Au Petit Riche has a Loire-based kitchen and cellar.
.

.
See?  It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy.

Read Full Post »

Sometimes the success of a dinner party depends not just on your planning and execution but also on your good luck. In the case I have in mind, a quite nice dinner was kicked up to another dimension of pleasure by the wines we served with it – wines from a mixed case that we had lost track of and had brought home from storage just a week or so before this occasion.

The dinner, arranged on necessarily short notice, was for two visiting out-of-town friends. We wanted to give them a good meal, of course, but one with familiar dishes that we could put together within the time and culinary resources we had available. We settled on a first course of pasta alla carbonara, which prepares and cooks easily; a main course of osso buco, which we could make up entirely in advance; a cheese course, which requires no work at all; and for dessert a simple apple tart, which Diane is always happy to toss together. A nice meal, but not extraordinary.

What made this dinner distinctive was its wine and food pairings. The first of these was made possible by Champagne originally bought for long-past holidays and the rest by that mixed case of wines that had luckily wended its way home just a week before.

Of course, I can and will claim that it wasn’t just luck that I had long ago purchased those wines. But I have to admit that their meshing so perfectly with the courses of this dinner was serendipity, far beyond the reach of cunning. From the 12 available wines, I’d chosen the 3 that I thought would work best with our dishes, but I couldn’t know how perfectly they would match up. I don’t have a super palate, and we all need a little luck sometimes.

.

Our first piece of good luck: For aperitifs, a fine grower Champagne, an NV “Élégance” from Vincent Couche. This mouth-filling, aptly named wine was biodynamically grown:  84% Pinot noir, 16% Chardonnay, with 3 years on the lees. It started our evening off on a properly savory and substantial note that relaxed all four of us from the week’s busy pace. Memo to self: Keep some of this around.

.

To give our first course a little distinction, we made the pasta alla carbonara with some duck bacon we had on hand (luck again) instead of the usual pancetta. This made for a richer but less assertively flavored dish that paired beautifully with a bottle of 2008 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva. Volpaia’s high-altitude vineyards characteristically yield wines of great elegance and restraint, and this bottle proved to be a perfect, almost interlocking match with this more restrained version of carbonara.
.

.

Osso buco is always richly flavored: long-cooked veal shank on the bone creates a wonderful sauce around itself. But this is still veal, so it’s not an aggressive flavor but a mild, insinuating one. To my mind, this dish wants the gentle suaveness of Barbaresco, so I opted to match it with a 2004 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga, a beautiful wine from one of the greatest crus of the appellation, just – at 17 years – reaching its peak of mature, woodsy flavors.
.


.

With the cheeses, I went a different direction, with a slightly more assertive wine: a 2004 Château Lafon-Rochet, still from that case. Equally as old as the Barbaresco, this Saint Estèphe (55% Cabernet sauvignon, 5% Cabernet franc, 40% Merlot) had also evolved to a perfectly balanced state of maturity, which played splendidly with the somewhat battered-looking but still delicious remnants of goat, cow, and sheep cheeses we had on hand. Lafon-Rochet covers 100 acres in a single plot that lies between Lafite Rothschild and Cos d’Estournel. That’s a very nice neighborhood, as the excellent evolution of this wine amply showed.
.

.

The result of not-too-demanding cookery and wonderfully compatible wines was a dinner both guests and hosts loved. Because the interplay between the wines and the dishes brought out the best of both, the whole meal stood out as something special and memorable, making us very happy indeed. As Italian winemakers and chefs have drilled into my head, abbinamento – the matching of the food and the wine you serve with it – is everything. And if you love mature wines as much as I do, you need the luck or cleverness to have squirrelled a batch of them away years ago.

Read Full Post »

Cornas is probably the least known of all the Rhône wines. Yes, you pronounce the final S. Its zone is tiny, close to the smallest in France – 155 hectares, I think. There are single Bordeaux estates larger than that; Margaux, for instance, has 250 hectares. But if you love Rhône wines, and especially if you love the wines of the northern Rhône, you know – or should know – Cornas. The 100% Syrah wines made there stand among the great red wines of France. And this tiny appellation has a roster containing an extraordinarily high percentage of top-flight producers.
.

.
Despite that, Cornas is a classic case of “no one’s paying attention.” André Dominé’s authoritative tome Wine scarcely mentions Cornas. Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes (while tying itself into ampelographical and etymological knots over the ancestry of Syrah and the origin of the grape’s name), in its almost exhaustive roster of where the variety is grown, doesn’t mention Cornas at all.

Conspiracy theorists can undoubtably discover a deep, dark plot here, but I don’t think it’s anything more sinister than the overwhelming reputation of Cornas’s nearest neighbors and rivals in Syrah: Hermitage and Cote Rôtie. Even Crôzes-Hermitage, sharing as it does the magic name, gets much more attention than Cornas. Those appellations simply use up all the space that writers and critics can allot to the northern Rhône.

(Most readers would be shocked to know how much the tyranny of page count and column inches affects the information that gets to them. I won’t go into the misinformation conveyed by fresh-out-of-college editors who know more about everything than writers who have many years of specialized expertise. Good editors are a treasure, bad ones a disaster, for both writers and readers.) But my focus here is the wines of Cornas, not the tribulations of wine writing.

The vineyards of Cornas are all steep and rocky. There’s nothing but granite on those slopes, and nothing but Syrah in the vineyards. This is a grape that can in other places make very peppery, very aggressive, sometimes even coarse wines. But here along the Rhône river, on the hillsides just south of the town of Vienne, Syrah often shows its best, giving wines with their fruit moderated into suavity and complexity, with a capacity for great bottle age and concomitant evolution.
.

A Clape Cornas Vineyard

.
I had the good fortune, many years ago, to make my first serious acquaintance with Cornas on a wine trip to the Rhône sponsored by Sopexa. We happy few journalists visited the then-already-legendary Auguste Clape. His wines were the pace-setters for Cornas quality, a position they continue to hold under his son and grandson, who now manage the vineyards and cellar with the same passion and precision he did. I have loved the wines of Cornas ever since that visit.

The major change that has occurred in Cornas in the decades since – besides the fact that I can no longer afford Clape’s wines – is that his example has stirred emulation in many other producers, so that now there is a whole cadre of excellent winemakers in this small appellation. That includes not only negociants like Jaboulet but also small producers such as Allemand, Verset, Balthazar, and of course Clape.

It was a Jaboulet Cornas – a 2006 – that we enjoyed the other evening with a dinner of a Poulet Marengo (recipe from Robert Courtine’s classic The Hundred Glories of French Cooking). This is a dish whose simplicity belies its delicious complexity, and it elicited the best from our mature bottle. A nose of blackberry, prune, and bramble preceded a palate of similar but more mature flavors. The wine was completely smooth in the mouth – none of the pestiferous Syrah aggression – thoroughly balanced and restrained. It finished very long indeed, all leather and plum.
.

.
Lovely as that match was, the Cornas had been even better with the warm, cheese-rich gougère that preceded the chicken. There the wine showed itself even deeper and more velvety, so pleasurable that we almost hesitated to go on to the main course. There was even a tiny taste of pepper in the finish, just to remind us that this elegant wine really was a Syrah.

Read Full Post »

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.
.

.
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.
.

Vineyard image from internationalwinechallenge.com

.
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.
.

Image from joyofwine.org

.
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.
.

.
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.

Read Full Post »

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!
.

.
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.

.
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.

Read Full Post »

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!

.
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.

.
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!

.
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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.

Read Full Post »

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.

.
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.
.

.
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.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »