Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Celebrating Sauternes

January 16, 2017

Far more people know something of Sauternes than have actually drunk it, I fear. Sauternes seems to be one of those wines that resonate in wine lore but are consumed less and less with every passing year. I have to plead guilty to my part in that neglect: I have unconscionably ignored Sauternes for far too long.

bottle-shotNot that that was ever a deliberate plan, mind you: I just sort of fell out of the Sauternes habit. Just what a pity that is I realized over the Christmas holidays when I stumbled on a bottle of Chateau Rieussec 1989 that I had completely forgotten I had. The bottle was only slightly ulled and the cork was sound. The wine had darkened to a deep reddish amber, and as soon as I pulled the cork a rich, sensuous aroma jumped right out at me. That wine was glorious, and it immediately reminded me why Sauternes was once so celebrated. Diane and I drank it with a very fine mousseline of foie gras, and the combination of flavors was perfect, the lush sweetness of the duck livers merging with the smoky/honey flavor of the Sauternes, and both held in lively tension by the wine’s vibrant acidity, which ensured that neither tasted excessive or cloying. On the face of it, an unlikely combination, but the genius who discovered it deserves a monument, as I’m sure Brillat-Savarin would agree.

glass-of-rieussecChateau Rieussec has long been my favorite Sauternes château because it so often achieves that crucial balance of sweetness and acidity – and is so much less expensive than the fabled Chateau d’Yquem. No Sauternes is an everyday wine, though I have read that in the 19th century it was often consumed right through dinner. Tastes obviously ran more pronouncedly to sweetness in those days: Now, it would have to be a very carefully designed dinner that could sustain Sauternes all the way through. These days, when Sauternes appears at all, it usually arrives with or as dessert, with occasional roles alongside foie gras, which as you can tell, I heartily endorse, or with Rocquefort, a combination still honored in France but to my palate problematic.

Wondering about Sauternes and other cheeses, and still having some of that lovely bottle, I tried a glass of it with my favorite simple dessert: a good Bosc pear and a scoop of Gorgonzola cremificato. The combination was wonderful. The harmony of the fruit and the cheese was elaborated and heightened by the complexity of the wine.

So emboldened, another day I tried the Rieussec alongside a first-course cheese tart. Once again, I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the combination worked. The tart and the Sauternes seemed to feed off each other, accentuating the savoriness of the cheese and the sapidity of the wine, to the extent that its sweetness was scarcely noticeable. Who knew? A whole new flavor world is opening for me.

wine-cheese-a

.
Back to Chateaux Rieussec, however. This estate began life as an abbey of Carmelite monks. At the Revolution, the abbey was confiscated and sold at auction, since which time it has passed through the hands of numerous owners. Now it forms an important part of the Domaines de Lafite Rothschild. Classified a premier cru in 1855, Rieussec has always maintained its reputation. Its vineyards and cellar have been thoroughly renovated under the Rothschilds. It now tallies about 95 hectares, twice its original size, and is densely planted to Semillion (almost 90% of the vines), Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle. On the east, Rieussec abuts Chateau d’Yquem and shares a very similar terroir.
.

vineyard

.
The estate produces a second Sauternes, Les Carmes de Rieussec, and a dry white wine, R de Rieussec. I don’t find either of these very exciting, but Chateau Rieussec will always command respect as a great, complex wine. By itself, it’s lovely. With the right food, it can be memorable. I’m going to have to re-cultivate my Sauternes habit.

Aging Gracefully: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux

January 5, 2017

Over the holidays, what with Christmas and New Year dinners, both Days and Eves, plus interstitial (I love the chance to use that word) gatherings with family and old friends, we tend to pour a fair amount of mature wine at casa Maresca. This year’s sacrificial lambs included a 10-year-old Barolo, a 15-year-old Barbaresco, and (sob!) a 50-year-old Bordeaux. These wines of course gave me great pleasure in the moment but also intense pangs afterward, as I realized that none of those wonderful bottles was replaceable, much less replicable. But that’s what family, friends, and holidays – and wines! – are for: celebration of all those fleeting moments.

Of course I just exaggerated a bit: Some of the wines I’m celebrating today are replaceable, at least if you move fast.
.

baroloLet me start with the infant of the group: a 2006 Barolo Riserva Vignarionda from Oddero. I regard a 10-year-old as a young Barolo, so I decanted this and let it breathe for about 2 hours before pouring. At that point, it showed a rich, deep, earthy nose dominated by black fruits and tobacco. On the palate it tasted of those two components, with some still-emerging nutty and mineral flavors sliding in and out. If I had to be precise, I’d say black plums and black cherry, with clay notes, funghi porcini, and walnuts. It felt round and soft in the mouth with an abundance of fine but still firm tannins, and it finished very long. With food, and especially with cheese, the tannins softened and the flavors deepened.

This is an excellent Barolo, ready to drink but still far from its mature peak – and the best news is that it’s a new release. Oddero has adopted a policy of, in very good vintages, holding back some wines for release later, when they are more ready to drink and show more of what Barolo is all about. I think this is an excellent way for wine lovers new to Barolo to get a good sense of why dotty old winos like me make such a fuss about Barolo. This particular example is from a very good year and an excellent cru, so it has the structure and the components to go another 20 years, if you have the patience to wait for it. If not, just enjoy it now.

I hope this strategy of releasing some wine when it’s more mature catches on in Piedmont: I know that Massolino, a very fine winery, tried it a few years ago, and I hope it continues the practice. In these days when not every wine lover has the space or the budget for a well-stocked cellar, it’s a real service to the consumer.
.

barbarescoTasting that ’06 made me very curious about how the 2001s are progressing. 2001 remains my favorite Piedmont vintage of this new century, and I thought it was time I should look in and see how the kids were doing. So I dug out a 2001 Barbaresco Bernadot from Ceretto, a long-time favorite producer of the whole range of Alba wines. This is a wine from a fine cru in a very great year, which I fully expected to have a substantial structure and great depth, and at 15 years old might yet be very closed, so I decanted it and gave it 2 hours of aeration. As it turned out, it probably could have taken more.

This was a taut wine, showing elegance over power, with great depth and complexity, and a pure pleasure in the mouth. The predominant flavors were black cherry and roasted walnut, but what struck me most was its beautiful balance, composure, and suavity – there really is no other word. And enjoyable as it was, it’s probably 15 years yet from its peak. So the kids are doing OK: I only hope I can live – and taste – long enough to enjoy them.

There may well be some 2001 Barolos and Barbarescos still available in shops here: If you see some, you should probably grab them.
.

gruaud-larose-66This brings me to the truly mature wine of this group, a wine in every sense worth waiting for, a 1966 Chateau Gruaud Larose. Most wine lovers know that Gruaud Larose is a classic Bordeaux estate, categorized as a second growth in the famous 1855 ranking. It consists of some 85 hectares in the commune of St. Julien, planted predominantly to Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, with small amounts of Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec – a very traditional Bordeaux blend. Back in 1966 – which, by the way, was a very great vintage in Bordeaux – Gruaud Larose was owned by the Cordier family, who had by that time been its proprietors for more than half a century.

Gruaud Larose has personal meaning for Diane and me, since it is closely linked to a very long-standing friendship that we were able this December to commemorate with one old friend and several new ones. So I won’t even try to describe the wine, save to say that it was amazingly live and fresh and classically St. Julien – that is to say, mid-weight and polished, with wonderful balance and restraint. The best St. Juliens always charm and seduce rather than overpower, and this 50-year-old did just that. I only wish I had some more of it! But as I said at the start, occasions like this are exactly what wines like this are for.

Happy New Year to all!

 

Vintage Champagnes: Not Your Average Pleasure

December 26, 2016

As most sparkling wine fanciers know, blends of several grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot meunier, Pinot noir) and the reserve wines of several harvests constitute the norm for Champagne, and the reputation of the great Champagne houses stands or falls on the consistency of style and quality they can achieve in their non-vintage product. Vintage Champagnes are an aberration, made only when the quality and distinctiveness of a particular harvest justifies separating it from the house’s norm.

So vintage Champagnes are produced only in the best years – and not all Champagne houses may agree on which those are, so this is the class of Champagnes where the greatest differences from house to house show themselves. For Champagne lovers, this class of wines presents some of Champagne’s greatest pleasures and greatest distinctions.

The New York Wine Press kicked off Christmas week this year with its annual Champagne luncheon, as it has done every year for the past 13. Wine doyenne Harriet Lembeck and Champagne guru Ed McCarthy organized a presentation of vintage Champagnes from 12 great houses, covering 5 different vintages. These were all excellent wines, some of them great, and all had their partisans. Here is the slate of wines and the menu they accompanied.

2016-menu

There isn’t a wine there that I would rate lower than very good; several were excellent, and a few I thought outstanding – but (my usual caveat) that’s my palate and my preferences on one particular day with one particular array of foods. Others thought differently, and every wine had its partisans. With that forewarning, here are my reactions to each wine.
.

Apéritif

dehoursDomaine Dehours Brut Rosé “Oeil de Perdrix” 2009
The day’s only rosé wine, and a handsome one: 55% Pinot meunier, 45% old-vine Chardonnay. Lovely color and perlage, distinctive floral/mineral notes on nose and palate. A great start to the day’s “work.”
.

First Flight

flight-1

.
Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2008
A nice, wheaty Champagne with good vintage character. Ed McCarthy thinks 2008, 2002, and 1996 constitute the greatest Champagne vintages of the past 25 years. Most 2008s have not yet reached the US.

Piper-Heidsieck Vintage Brut 2006
Not as big or distinctive as the preceding Moet – that’s the difference of the vintages – but still fine, in the classic mid-weight Heidsieck style

Henriot Millésimé 2006
Robust and fine, with a lot of character – very much the Henriot approach to Champagne.

Louis Roederer et Philippe Starck Brut Nature 2009
This is a lean and muscular wine, not as big as any of the preceding but polished, with a lot of power behind its smiling face. Roederer consistently performs well, and this special bottling is no exception.

.

Second Flight

flight-2

.
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut 2008

Light and bright on the palate, showing clearly the superior character of the ’08 vintage.

Veuve Cliquot 2006 La Grande Dame Brut
Like some other 2006s here, this one showed a little lean (especially in comparison to 2008), but very elegant and fresh.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006
A goodly number of luncheon attendees thought this the wine of the day. Taittinger’s Comtes is certainly one of the pinnacles of Champagne art, and I thought this example – elegant and big for an ’06 – was excellent.

André Jacquart Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
Another blanc de blancs, another ’06, and by the evidence of these two wines I’d have to say that 2006 must have been a great year for Chardonnay. This one was lovely: elegant, distinctive, and very long-finishing. Another great wine.

.

Third Flight

flight-3

.
Pol Roger Brut 2006

A great house, and always consistent in style and quality. This example was huge and classic, with typical initial austerity followed by a rush of flavors.

Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Brut 2006
Like Taitinger’s Comtes, Moet’s Dom represents a pinnacle of Champagne achievement. For the majority of tasters, this was the favorite wine of the day. I too thought it wonderful, though a trifle leaner than the Pol Roger – not a defect, but a difference.

Alfred Gratien Brut Millésimé 2000
By far the oldest wine of the day and proof of how well Champagne ages, if any was needed. A big, excellent wine, high-toned and elegant, from a great house not well enough known in the US.

Bollinger La Grande Année Brut 2005
Bollinger is always big – not huge, but solid – and always lovely. This one, the day’s sole example of the 2005 vintage, was rounded and mouth-filling, with the usual Bollinger richness – yet another exceptionally fine wine.

*šššš

And there you have it: quite an extraordinary collection of wonderful wines, any one of which could be the centerpiece of the most important celebration. My New Year’s wish for you all is that you have the chance, in 2017, to taste them all!

It’s the Champagne Time of Year

December 14, 2016

The Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon signals to me the true start of the holiday season. It always falls on the first Wednesday of December, and it always spotlights between 15 and 20 excellent true Champagnes; this year, all Blanc de blancs. Curated again this year by colleague and friend Ed McCarthy – author of Champagne for Dummies, among several other books – this event for me is the surest sign that whatever winter and the world may do to us, consolation and pleasure are still within reach.

edAs Ed reminded us, Blanc de blancs are the most popular kind of France’s festive bubblies in the United States, even though not all Champagne houses make one. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t: Not every house has enough Chardonnay to supply its basic cuvée and make a Blanc de blancs. Chardonnay is the backbone of all Champagnes (except Blanc de noirs, of course) and there just isn’t enough of it within the Champagne zone.

That stretch of chalky ridges and hills probably constitutes the northernmost outpost of Chardonnay, and Ed believes that, as a northern extension of the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, it produces some of the finest and sturdiest Chardonnay in the world – but not a lot of it. The best lots, from Grand Cru sites like Mesnil, are especially scarce and very expensive, so a good Blanc de blancs is costly from the get-go. Rising demand for Blanc de blancs Champagnes will not make them any cheaper in the future, because there just isn’t much, if any, land available for new plantings within the Champagne appellation. So enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it – which is never bad advice, about anything.

Here, in the order in which they were presented, is the slate of wines Ed and the Media Guild gathered for this occasion, along with their suggested retail prices and selected comments – mostly Ed’s, but a few of mine – about each.

.*

roths-to-mumm

Barons de Rothschild (magnum) NV ($207 for magnum, $99 for 750ml)  An ideal apéritif Champagne, Ed says: My palate agrees.

Collet NV ($55)  New to the New York market: a small house, a cooperative, and not very familiar to Ed or any of the attendees. The wine is made from the top 10%, all Grands Crus, of the co-op’s hectares.

Mumm de Cramant NV ($64)  Once upon a time, Mumm de Cramant was one of my favorite Champagnes, but I was disappointed in this bottle, which I thought distinctly short on charm. Ed liked it better than I did.

.*

henriot-to-gosset

Henriot NV ($55)  This house is one of my current favorites, and I like almost everything it makes. Today’s Blanc de blancs was no exception. Ed didn’t think it was showing well, but the bottle I tasted was absolutely fine.

Ruinart NV ($72)  Always fine, Ed says, even though this isn’t Dom Ruinart, the house’s top-of-the-line Blanc de blancs. I thought it was lovely.

Gosset Grand Blanc NV ($77)  A great Champagne house that people in the US don’t know enough about, Ed rightly says. For me, Gosset is right up with Henriot among my favorite Champagnes. I thought this Blanc de blancs was excellent.

*

ayala-to-dehours

Ayala 2008 ($85)  Another house much more esteemed in France than known in the US: our loss. This was the first vintage Champagne of the lineup. Ed says the three great Champagne vintages of the past 20 years are 1996, 2002, and 2008, and this is one of the best Ayalas he’s had in quite a while.

Philippe Gonet Bellemnita Grand Cru 2005 ($300)  A Blanc de blanc specialist located in Mesnil. This rare bottle, from a single site of old vines, was big and powerful but a little inelegant.

Dehours 2005 ($55)  A Marne Valley grower and passionate Champagne maker: This wine is from a 1.3 hectare site – that’s about three acres – so there isn’t a lot of it.

*

roderer-to-paillard

Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009 ($85)  Another great Champagne house that does everything well, even in California. Brut Nature is relatively new to its line. Big and forceful, it’s a huge wine for a Blanc de blancs.

A.R. Lenoble 2008 ($64)  A small producer in a grand cru village and a great vintage. Ed thinks it a great value.

Bruno Paillard 2006 ($90) Not in New York right now, but coming. Ed thinks it an outstanding wine from a fine house. Its proprietor considers 2006 a Chardonnay year par excellence.

*

jacquart-to-taittinger

André Jacquart Mesnil Brut Nature NV ($70)  An NV Champagne placed among the vintage Champagnes because of its heft. I found it indeed big and fine, classic Blanc de blancs.

Pol Roger 2008 ($110 to $125)  A famous and consistently fine Champagne house, showing a great vintage – “a stellar Champagne,” Ed says.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006, ($199)  Taittinger largely launched Blanc de blancs in modern times, and this bottle showed the house’s expertise. Consistently classic.

*

perrier-to-heidsieck

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 ($300 to $350)  There was some controversy about this wine, because one or two of the bottles were seriously off. Ed thought it excellent (he got one of the good bottles), though he thinks the 2002s are far from their peak. But oh, that price!

Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires 1995 ($190 to $199)  A great, long-lived wine, long-finishing and elegant. Some people thought this the best wine of the day.

*

And there you have it: a delightful slate of Blanc de blancs Champagnes, ranging in heft from apéritif style to substantial dinner wines. For me, a perfect kick-off for the holidays. For you, I hope, a dossier of useful information. Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année !

Chambolle Musigny

November 24, 2016

Despite being an active partisan of Italian wines, I retain a deep love of French wines, especially the great French red wines. In my youth, I thought Bordeaux was king – and besides, Burgundy was way more expensive then. But now, the situation has completely changed: Bordeaux prices have caught up with or surpassed those of Burgundy, while winemaking in Burgundy is reaching new heights. Moreover, climate change is helping Burgundy achieve more good vintages than ever before, and at the same time many Bordeaux reds are tasting increasingly industrial to me – and yes, I am talking about classified growths. So I have been turning more and more often to the great Burgundy villages when I want a change of taste from my frequent Italian tipples. Ergo, Chambolle Musigny.

For me, the village of Chambolle is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Opinions obviously differ about things like this, but for me Chambolle’s red wines have the greatest finesse, the loveliest, most complex fruit, the subtlest nuance of them all. Its two Grands Crus vineyards, Le Musigny and Bonnes Mares, are normally completely out of my price range, but the few times I’ve tasted either of them persist in my memory as moments of total palatal bliss – most notably, a lunch with the Drouhin family in Beaune a few years ago, at which they poured a 1968 Bonnes Mares. I don’t know which was my dominant feeling: honor at being so treated, or sheer ecstasy from the taste of that great wine.

chambolle-musignyWhile I don’t have any Musigny or Bonnes Mares in my “cellar,” I do have a few bottles of Premier Cru Chambolle Musigny, and since Mortality has been looming over my friends lately, I sought consolation in a bottle just the other evening. I opened a 2004 Drouhin (regular readers will know my long-standing esteem for the house of Drouhin), decanted it and let it stand for about two hours before drinking it with a broiled top-quality strip steak. Bliss again, and a great respite from quotidian cares. The wine’s aroma was heady of bitter chocolate, tobacco, and dark, dry fruits. The palate was that and more, with mushroom and mineral notes interwoven with all that fruit and tobacco and chocolate. Diane and I sipped and savored and made that bottle last as long as we could, despite the temptation to just bathe in it.

I know the village of Chambolle doesn’t loom as large in wine folklore as its neighbors, Vougeot and Morey Saint Denis, or the further distant Vosne Romanée or Corton. I guess that’s the only thing that has kept its prices from passing beyond all human reach. That narrow stretch of Burgundian hillsides that we call the Côte d’Or runs from a little south of Dijon to a little south of Santenay, a distance of only about 30 miles, regularly punctuated by different villages with at least slightly different terroirs. Chambolle lies in the middle of the northern half of the Côte de Nuits, which is the northern half of the Côte d’Or (the southern half is known as the Côte de Beaune).

cote-de-nuits

If you drive south from Dijon on Route Nationale 74, which runs the length of the Côte d’Or, you’ll pass many famous wine towns. Before you reach Chambolle are Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey Chambertin, and Morey St. Denis. Just south of Chambolle lie Vougeot, Vôsne Romanee, and Nuits Saint Georges. This is obviously great wine country, and Chambolle Musigny’s sparse, pebbly, limestony soil is typical of the meager soils on which great wines grow. Plots are characteristically small – Le Musigny totals only a little over 10 hectares, and Bonnes Mares 15 – and are frequently divided among many owners, as is typical in Burgundy. Production is very limited, by law and by the quest for excellence as much as by nature: Hail is frequent here and can be very destructive – thus the always substantial price of good Chambolle Musigny. I can only say that the examples I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy have been worth it.

drouhin-vineyard

Lest you think I’m simply raving, let me close this post with Clive Coates’ summary words about the Grand Cru Le Musigny (Côtes d’Or, p. 105):

At its best the red wine can be quite simply the most delicious wine to be found in Burgundy. Speaking personally, and I am not the only one, it is the summit of achievement. With its vibrant colour, exquisitely harmonious, complex, profound bouquet, the blissful balance between tannin, acidity, and the most intensely flavoured fruit – all the petits fruits rouges you could reasonably imagine – and its incomparable breed, depth, originality and purity on the finish, a great Musigny is heaven in a glass. Would that one could afford to drink it more often.

Now that’s enthusiasm! I’ll only add that the “lesser” wines of Chambolle Musigny are, in proportion, just as profound and moving. It’s a special occasion wine for sure, but one capable of making an occasion special.

Midsummer Miscellany

August 1, 2016

A few smallish items of interest have been accumulating over these balmy days, so I will depart from my usual format and try to bring you up to date, as well as clear off my desk – the latter, of course, a hopeless endeavor.

2015 Beaujolais

All the reports I’ve read and heard about the 2015 vintage of Beaujolais have been ecstatic. Almost everyone agrees that, especially for the Beaujolais crus, 2015 is the best vintage in living memory, and the excitement is mounting as the wines have begun arriving – very slowly, it seems to me – on these shores.

beaujolais vineyard

I haven’t seen many of them in the shops yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open. For more detailed information, I heartily recommend Michael Apstein’s very authoritative account in Winereviewonline.com.

Great Dolcetto

Dolcetto is an excellent wine too little loved in this country. It has wonderful refreshing fruit, usually moderate alcohol, and lovely Piemontese structure. Though a little light in acidity compared to other Piemontese red wines, it companions beautifully with most meats and vegetables, and it especially makes a great summer lunch and dinner wine. I’ve written about Dolcetto before, but it bears repeating that the very best of them are quite distinguished wines indeed, so much so that a few years ago, those from the Dogliani zone were granted the DOCG, and the right to call themselves simply Dogliani – though no one in the US seems to have paid much attention.

The best of these that I have so far tasted have come from two producers, Chionetti and Pecchenino, and they are truly lovely wines. I’ve been reminded of this very forcefully by two bottles of Pecchenino’s best crus that I recently tasted: San Luigi and Sirì d’Jermu (deep Piemontese dialect here).

2 pecchinino

Pecchenino describes San Luigi as “ruby red, fruity, with good acidity and a slightly almond aftertaste.” Sirì d’Jermu is described as having “intense ruby red color, hints of small red fruit, good acidity, and well balanced with silky tannins.” I’d describe them both as delicious, and very convincing proof that Dogliani deserves the DOCG.

The Vietti Sale

The most surprising news of the summer surely was the recent announcement of the sale of the Vietti winery and vineyards – the whole operation – to an American firm not in the wine business. Piemontese winemakers – especially those in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, where the Vietti firm is almost a landmark – do not lightly part with land, and a sale to an outsider is almost unheard of.

 A Vietti Vineyard

A Vietti Vineyard

The aftershocks of the deal were very reminiscent of a few decades back, when California’s pioneering Ridge Vineyards was sold to a Japanese firm. Happily, when the dust cleared on that deal, nothing terribly substantial seemed to have changed: Paul Draper was still in charge, and many excellent Ridge vintages continued to be produced. It looks as if the outcome will be similar with the Vietti sale, once all the fluttered pulses return to normal. For a very clear account of this important transaction, see Tom Hyland’s two key interviews, one with Luca Currado, the now former owner of Vietti, and the other with Tanner Krause, the new owner.

Cahors/Malbec

Given the current popularity of South American Malbec, it is really a shame that more consumers don’t know or appreciate the once famous “black wine of Cahors” – which is Malbec, all Malbec, and nothing but Malbec, from the patch of France where Malbec originated. Cahors is a charming little city located in a loop of the river Lot in south-central France. It is the capital of the hilly, stony region that produces the wine that bears its name. And it is an almost black wine, deeply colored and full-flavored. Once upon a time, it was very tannic and aggressive and needed plenty of aging to soften and become palatable, but that’s not so anymore, as both climate change and new viticultural techniques have rendered the wine gentler on the palate and approachable much sooner.

Cahors labelThere are many good producers, most family-owned estates such as Domaine du Théron, now owned by three brothers who work some very old vines, and whose 2011 Cahors Malbec Prestige, tasted at dinner just a few nights ago, prompted this note. The 2011 Prestige had positively velvety tannins and drank very well already, just five years after harvest – which for a red wine of structure and interest aint bad at all. Malbec fanciers owe it to themselves to explore Cahors:  All the fruit flavor they love is there, plus some real finesse.

Some Fine Beaujolais Crus, Including Drouhin’s New Ones

July 18, 2016

Nobody needs to be told that deep summer is Beaujolais weather. I’ve been enjoying some old favorites for two months now, and I’ve also had the pleasure of discovering Drouhin’s new selection of three excellent Beaujolais crus, a Brouilly, a Fleurie, and a Morgon.

For me, the cru wines of Beaujolais are the quintessence of Beaujolais. Call me a snob (I probably am), but I never drink Beaujolais Nouveau: When I want candy, I will walk over to Li-Lac Chocolates and get some good stuff, thank you. And I only occasionally drink simple Beaujolais, from the larger zone that surrounds the heartland of the 10 crus. More often, I opt for a Beaujolais Villages, a smaller, better zone, and then usually from a producer I know and respect, such as Roland Pignard. But most often, my Beaujolais of choice comes from one of the named and quite distinctive crus – Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint Amour.
.

beaujolais map

.
There are many excellent producers in these appellations, some quite small, some quite sizable. Probably the best known in this country – and certainly the most widely available – is Georges Duboeuf, who produces Beaujolais in every category from the simplest to the most rarefied. Obviously, he is a big producer, and a pretty good one, though I usually find his wines ho-hum: They just taste too industrial to me, too made-to-a-formula.

Among the big producers, I think Jadot does a better job: I like particularly its well-structured Château des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent. Indeed, I have strong memories of visiting this cru years ago, when the iconic windmill had just been restored and was set to turn again for the first time in many decades. Jadot, I believe, was a major supporter of the restoration, and most Beaujolais old-timers saw the event as a kind of rebirth for the whole zone. It may be just post hoc, but in fact the wines of all the Beaujolais crus have been steadily improving ever since.
.

windmill

.
Moulin-a-Vent is popularly supposed to be the longest-aging Beaujolais, and it is certainly true that in a good vintage it will age beautifully for sometimes up to 20 years – but so will Morgon and Chénas, and I’ve tasted (admittedly ideally stored) 20- and 30-year-old bottles from several other crus that drank beautifully, with an almost Burgundian grace. But ageworthiness is only an added attraction of a good Beaujolais: What really counts in all the crus are their youthful charm and exuberance, their lightness of touch and sheer refreshing enjoyability.

The bottles I like best almost always come from smaller growers who cultivate very particular terroirs and microclimates. They won’t all be available everywhere, but they are worth the trouble of seeking out. Just because a wine offers light and pleasurable warm-weather drinking doesn’t mean it has to be anything less than a real and interesting wine. Some really fine ones include Jean-Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées Côte de Brouilly, Julien Guillot’s Ultimatum Climat Chénas, and Coudert’s Clos de la Roillette Fleurie.

I have made no secret of my admiration of the house of Drouhin’s fine Burgundies, so I was more than a little interested to find that three Beaujolais crus have been added to its portfolio. The Brouilly, Fleurie, and Morgon are all grown and vinified in the Domaine des Hospices de Belleville properties – 34 acres in all – under an exclusive partnership agreement that gives the Hospice the advantage of Drouhin’s viticultural know-how and distribution while still retaining the concentration of the small grower’s familiarity with the vineyards and its commitment to them. I tasted three samples – all 2014 vintage – and found each classically true to its appellation.
.

drouhins

.
The Brouilly smelled of cherries and blackberries and tasted lightly of strawberry. It was characteristically dry and acidic, even a touch austere, with a long spice and leather finish – thoroughly enjoyable.

The Fleurie, a slightly bigger wine, showed scents of blackberry, earth, and black pepper. It was rounder in the mouth and less obviously acid, with dark berry flavors up front and a berry/pepper finish. Again, completely enjoyable, and a seemingly fine companion for any summer meal.

The Morgon, finally, was the biggest and most structured of the three, with an earthy, almost meaty nose with undertones of tar and bramble, an almost zinfandelish character (top quality zinfandel, to be sure). In the mouth, it was completely dry and sapid, rich with notes of blackberry, bramble, and earth, and with a long berry finish. Because of flavors like that, Morgon has always been one of my favorite Beaujolais crus, and this example instantly moved to the top of my short list.

All three will probably hold well, with no loss of youthful charm or vigor, for three to five years before any tastes of maturity set in – so, while these Beaujolais don’t need cellaring, you don’t have to fear putting a few of them away in a quiet corner for future enjoyment. If the stories I’ve heard about the horrific hailstorms in Fleurie this spring are half true, that may not be a bad idea.

Birthday and Burgundy

June 17, 2016

D-Day has saved me from many domestic embarrassments, because the day before it is Diane’s birthday and the day after it our anniversary, and because of it I’ve never been able to forget either. This year, even though none of that trio amounted to an intrinsically important number, we decided to make a big deal of our family occasions, with Diane cooking some special dishes and me digging out some special wines. And since we’d been lately on a pretty steady diet of Italian – indeed, mostly Tuscan – wines, I opted for something completely different, to switch countries and styles entirely: ergo, France, specifically Burgundy.

You can read about the meals in Diane’s blog: I’ll just say we ate very well indeed, and probably a bit too copiously, but it was an unmitigated pleasure. I want to talk about the wines, which matched wonderfully with Diane’s dishes and were wonderful in their own right. This is what we drank.

.

Bollinger Champagne 2004

bollinger

We drank this on both birthday and anniversary, as apéritif with some tiny gougère puffs. That may show a lack of imagination, but those airy little cheese clouds tasted marvelous with that big, full-bodied, austere and elegant Champagne, so – especially since we knew there was much more wine ahead and didn’t want to finish the whole bottle of Bolly the first night – we just reprised the combination 48 hours later on our anniversary. I assure you, nothing hurt. This was a great vintage, and a perfect example of Bollinger’s reliable linking of power and grace.

.

Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2004

clos des mouches

This accompanied sea scallops nantaise, a surprisingly rich dish that needed to be partnered with a white wine of the authority of Clos des Mouches. Drouhin’s Clos des Mouches has for decades been one of my favorite white Burgundies, and I think that even with all the respect it customarily receives, it is still underestimated. I would rank it right up in the top tier of white Burgundies, and this 12-year-old showed its breed beautifully with those succulent scallops. It was big, and smooth, and deep, round and complex, with layers of flavor showing themselves in successive waves of nuttiness and butteriness and dried pear. Once upon a time, I could afford to buy this wine by the case: Those days, alas, are long gone, but I have some glorious memories of them. We deliberately stopped ourselves from finishing the bottle, thinking ahead to the rest of this meal and to what Diane had planned for our anniversary dinner.

.

Bouchard Beaune Clos des Mousses 1998

clos de la mousse

Bouchard has a monopole of this vineyard, the red-wine twin of Drouhin’s white. We matched it with a pheasant stewed with morels. This was just a glorious combination, cemented by the morels, which mediated between the earthy flavors of the wine and the near-gaminess of the pheasant. This is classic red Burgundy, just mature at 18 years, and showing all the complexity that Pinot noir at its best is capable of. This bottle we finished, with no trouble at all.

.

San Felice Vinsanto del Chianti Classico 2006

vin santo

As a small concession to Italy, and also because we didn’t want anything as sweet as Sauternes with the rustic apricot tart Diane had made for dessert, we finished with this lovely not-quite-sweet-not-fully-dry Vin Santo. Vin Santo may be an acquired taste, because it doesn’t fall neatly into the dessert-wine category, but it served ideally here as a refreshing yet far from simple conclusion to our dinner.

———*

For our anniversary dinner, we repeated the Bollinger and gougère puffs as apéritif, and drank again the Drouhin Clos des Mouches, this time with plates of Bosole oysters on the half shell. Once again, the match was perfect, the mature white Burgundy playing beautifully off the briny sweetness of those small oysters – two of my favorite things. With our entrée, a handsome rib of beef, we drank this lovely red.

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru 2004

chambolle musigny

For me, Musigny is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or, where Pinot noir shows its greatest elegance and nuance. These are rarely big wines, but they are always fascinating, and this one was no exception. We finished it with a little goat cheese and a bit of Brie, and we were very happy that we had long ago committed matrimony.

Syrah: The Most International Grape?

May 5, 2016

The Syrah grape has probably achieved more prominence in recent years as Shiraz from Australia than it ever did under its own name in its native Rhône valley. However great the wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, they are overshadowed in the marketplace by the abundance of Aussie versions of the grape, and even by a few California renditions. Well, add two more “foreign” Syrahs to the list of winners: Banfi’s Colvecchio and Fontodi’s Case Via Syrah.

.

2 labels

.

Long-time followers of this post know that I am usually no friend to French grapes in Italy, but even the most dearly held opinion has to bow to evidence (except in politics, apparently, but that’s a subject for somebody else’s blog). The evidence in this case was provided by two successive at-home dinners that sent me searching through my wine closet for something that would match well with, for the first, a provençal-style eggplant quiche, and, for the second, beef short ribs braised in tomato sauce (red wine reduction, mushrooms, celery) almost in the manner of Roman oxtails.

What I came up with was, first, a 1998 Banfi Colvecchio, a 100% Syrah from Montalcino, and, second, a 1999 Fontodi Case Via, also 100% Syrah. The Colvecchio was grown in vineyards in the hot southeastern corner of the Brunello zone, and the Fontodi grew in the fabled Conca d’Oro in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Both bottles had slumbered many long years in my less-than-stellar storage until, at last, the moment for their star turn approached – and quite a turn it turned out to be.

However little it may be known or appreciated in the States, Syrah from the northern Rhône produces some of the world’s greatest red wines – most notably, Hermitage, which George Saintsbury in his famous cellar book called “the most manly of French wines,” and Côte Rôtie, whose name – the roasted slope – tells you a lot about the kind of growing conditions Syrah likes. It remains a surprise to me, for that reason, that California hasn’t done more and better with the variety, especially in these days of global warming.

syrah grape

.

Jancis Robinson, in her huge tome Wine Grapes, describes the taste of Rhône valley Syrah this way:

Syrah’s flavours tend to be in the leather, licorice and tar spectrum with marked black pepper or even burnt-rubber aromas in slightly underripe examples but much sweeter black-fruit flavours in Syrah picked fully ripe in warm climates. Wines made from very ripe to overripe (and therefore thoroughly shriveled) berries can have flavours of dark chocolate and prunes, sometimes with porty overtones.

Those are, of course, the flavors of young wines that Robinson describes, and I have often tasted black pepper and traces of chocolate – dark, bittersweet chocolate – in young Italian Syrahs. But those flavors evolve as wines age, and my two examples, an 18-year-old and a stripling of 17, had mellowed mightily during their years in bottle. Mellow, in fact, was the first word that sprang to mind on tasting them – rich and round, not with “porty overtones” but with a surprising lightness and elegance on the palate. They both seemed very complete, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine any quality I would want added to their flavor spectrum: Their black fruit and lingering hint of black pepper couldn’t be anything but Syrah, but it was Syrah that had been to finishing school.

Neither was showing any sign of tiredness. I really don’t know how many years they had left in them, but it seems to me that I most luckily drank them at an ideal moment in their evolution. I only regret that I didn’t have the foresight to put away more of them. Who knew that this French grape would mature so well in the very different soils and microclimates of Italy? I probably shouldn’t be surprised considering who made these two: The Banfi Colvecchio was the handiwork of Ezio Rivella, who I recall took special pride in making truly textbook Syrah, and the Fontodi Syrah was overseen by the perfectionist Giovanni Manetti, who to my knowledge has never released a merely OK wine.

Lovely wines both, and very satisfying with the two different dishes they accompanied. If Italian Cabernet sauvignon could taste this good or age this gracefully, I wouldn’t be such a Grinch about it, and Bordeaux would quickly lose a lot of its complacency.

Pinot Gris Is Not Pinot Grigio

February 8, 2016

Mention Alsace to a wine aficionado, and 9 times out of 10 the next word that pops out is Riesling. There’s nothing wrong with that: Alsace makes some of the best Rieslings in the world. What is wrong is if the conversation stops there, because Alsace also produces a perhaps even more distinctive wine from another grape variety, a variety that elsewhere produces largely simpler, everyday-enjoyable wines. There’s nothing wrong with that either, except that, as Alsace demonstrates, Pinot gris (yes, same grape as Pinot grigio) can be stunning – rich, complex, fully dry and at the same time luscious – a very different creature from the vast majority of its incarnations in other parts of the world.

Because of the physical limitations forced on me by my recent hip replacement and its subsequent complications, I haven’t been able to get out and around to taste all the newly released wines that normally I write about at this time of year, the heart of the New York wine season. Confined to home, I’ve been drinking a lot of simple, pleasant wines – or, more honestly, drinking a little simple wine as my digestion repairs itself from the ravages of some massive doses of antibiotics.

Boxler Brand 2004Every now and then, however, I’ve had to break out, especially when my Devoted Caregiver has provided an excellent meal that calls out to be matched with a better-than-average wine. This has meant delving ever deeper into neglected corners of my wine storage, with occasionally wonderful results. In this particular case, a delicious choucroute garnie (sauerkraut is wonderful for restoring the intestinal flora) accompanied by a superlative 2004 Pinot gris, Grand Cru Brand, from Albert Boxler, a wine so distinctive, so idiosyncratic, that I simply have no comparisons for it.

Let me be upfront here. A lot of people don’t like Alsace Pinot gris. They find it too rich, too assertive, with heavy, complex fruit so lush that it still tastes sweet even when fully dry. If I were pushed, I’d say it’s the white wine equivalent of Amarone – big and full and powerful, not for every meal, but incomparable when you find its slot. I love Amarone, and I love Alsace Pinot gris, especially with about 10 years of age on it. It will take more: The variety ages very well, but for me 10 to 15 years is the real sweet spot, where in a decent vintage the wine will still show youthful freshness while it has already started fleshing out its mature flavors.

Albert Boxler has been for years one of my favorite producers. This remains a small, family firm, working only about 13 hectares of vines – but what hectares! The family home and winery in Niedermorschwihr sits right at the foot of the Sommerberg, one of the finest Riesling grands crus in all of Alsace, and other vineyards lie in Brand, another excellent grand cru site. Both sites are on granite soils, which contribute to the mighty structure of the wines they produce.

.

Boxler vineyards

Boxler’s Brand vineyard

.

The proudly old-fashioned label on Boxler bottles tells you everything you need to know about fidelity to tradition in this great house.

.

label

.

My bottle of ’04 offered all the paradoxical pleasures one hopes for in a great, complex white wine: freshness with maturity, power with finesse, austerity with lush abundance. Never mind that most people think of choucroute garnie as a simple brasserie dish: That Boxler Pinot gris made love to it, coaxing every nuance of flavor out of the meats and answering them with its own battery of flavors. In the eloquent words of the immortal Brillat-Savarin, Yum!