Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Wine Writing Again: Born Yesterday

September 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Probably the latter, I suspect.

Prosecco and Champagne: Tasting Beyond the Bubbles

August 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France’s Least Known Great White Wine

July 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines

June 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lure and Lore of the Loire: Vacation Time

June 8, 2017

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

Domaine Antonin Guyon: 50-Year-Old Newcomer

May 18, 2017

Not all the quality wine houses in Burgundy are centuries-old firms: There are a few relative newbies who have made it into the upper echelon. One such – one impressive such – is the family firm Domaine Antonin Guyon, a good portion of whose lineup of wines I had the pleasure of tasting just a few weeks ago.  Guyon is a 50-year-old firm, which by Burgundian standards makes it the new kid on the block.

As I’ve been growing older (wiser and more knowledgeable, I’d like to say, but let honesty prevail: older), my youthful passion for Burgundy has been steadily reviving, and I’ve found myself playing catch-up with all that has happened in that appellation while my attention has been elsewhere. Much indeed has happened there: Perhaps most significantly for wine lovers, global warming has been doing wonders for Burgundy’s ripeness at harvests.  While by no means yet an earthly paradise of reliable sunshine and moderate precipitation, Burgundy in recent years has been celebrating more good harvests than had ever been the norm before.

Other changes too have occurred: More small growers now bottle their own wine than ever before, and more small, relatively specialized (in subzones, or organic wines, or other esoteric criteria), high-quality négociants have found a niche in Burgundy’s business landscape. And a few newcomers have even been able to break into the winemakers’ winners circle by patiently  and carefully acquiring small parcels of land, one at a time, to eventually assemble a sizable domaine of top-quality sites.  Domaine Antonin Guyon is a perfect example of this.

Dominique Guyon

Founded in the 1960s by the eponymous Antonin (who was himself, in his mid-fifties, a wine newcomer), with vineyards in two of the prestigious Côte d’Or appellations, Meursault and Gevrey, the estate grew substantially in the 1970s with his son Dominique’s small-piece-by-small-piece acquisition of what amounted to a substantial stretch of vineyards in the Hautes Côtes de Nuit. Continuation of that policy has brought Domaine Guyon to its present extent: 47 hectares of vineyards in 27 Burgundy appellations.  The caliber of those vineyard sites will be apparent in the list of wines presented at the tasting I enjoyed.
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2014 Bourgogne Blanc
A very nice basic Burgundy, typical and pleasing. An excellent entry-level wine.

2012, 2013, and 2014 Pernand-Vergelesses 1e Cru Sous Frétille
Lovely wines. The 2012 is approaching readiness – nicely aromatic, soft and round in the mouth, tasting of white fruits and wet stones. The ’13 is similar to that, but appropriately younger and not fully formed, while the ’14 is an infant, discernably like the other two but still developing and even a bit closed.

2011 and 2014 Meursault-Charmes 1e Cru Les Charmes Dessus
Big wines, but even the 2011 is still somewhat mute and unready, though it does show a good strong finish, which promises very well for its maturation. The ’14 is very young, pleasing but still unformed.

2012 and 2013 Puligny-Montrachet 1e Cru Les Pucelles
I’ve always been fond of Puligny-Montrachet, and these two did not disappoint me. The ’13 was fine, with a firm body and mineral-laced pear and apple flavors, finishing long.  The ’12 showed even stronger: In fact, it was my favorite white of the tasting – big and elegant and very long-finishing.

2011 and 2012 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru
In theory, these were the biggest, most structured whites of the tasting. They probably are, but as such they also need the most time to develop.  The ’11 was just opening and giving hints of greatness, while the ’12 was almost totally closed.  On the basis of what Guyon is accomplishing with “lesser” crus, I would trust these wines to develop beautifully, but they will need time.
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2012 and 2013 Hautes Côtes de Nuits “Les Dames de Vergy”
The 2012 was quite typical of the zone – a little rustic, very soft and drinkable. The ’13 showed higher acid than the ’12, and tasted richer and more lively – a very nice wine indeed for simple dinners.

2012 Chambolle-Musigny Les Cras
Regular readers of this blog will know my fondness and respect for the wines of Musigny. I enjoyed this example very much: Rich and soft, it was already starting to develop some complexity and elegance. Quite good, I’d call it.

2011 Gevrey-Chambertin La Justice
A very different wine from the preceding Chambolle. Slightly sharper and more angular, more acidic and more assertive.  It needs time to round out and compose itself.

2012 and 2013 Volnay 1e Cru Clos des Chȇnes
Terroir triumphed over vintage variation in these two wines – their similarities are remarkably strong. Although still young, both are developing nicely, already round and composed and very enjoyable.

2012 Corton Bressandes Grand Cru
A lovely wine, with typical Corton heft, and already complex. It needs time to pull together further, but it will be very fine.

2011 Corton Clos du Roy Grand Cru
A thoroughly admirable wine, already almost fully in balance. Big, smooth, and deep – in short, very fine indeed.

2011 Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru
Not as big as the preceding Corton, but strikingly elegant. In five years, this will be a memorable wine.

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For me, this tasting served as bracing reminder of just how much there is to love in Burgundy. As one of my fellow tasters remarked about half-way through the lineup – with very heavy irony – “This is brutal work.”

 

 

 

 

My History with Nuits-Saint-Georges

April 17, 2017

Quite recently, and for no special reasons beyond a nowadays almost constant nostalgia and a lovely looking piece of beef scheduled for our dinner, I opened for just the two of us a bottle of 2002 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Les Boudots.

This is a wine that has a long history with us, almost as long as our marriage. Way back at the end of the Sixties, we decided we wanted to really get to know wine. We had been enjoying it for some time, but haphazardly: now, we felt, it was time to learn it systematically. We were both academics, so what would you expect? There were, in those days, very few wine books and even fewer wine courses, and of course no online resources because there was no line to be on. So during one of our then fairly frequent visits to Baltimore, we went to Harry’s, a wine shop that I knew had been patronized by the most esteemed of my graduate-school mentors, and we asked the proprietor to put together a mixed case that would allow us to familiarize ourselves with a range of wines.

He asked us only how much we wanted to spend. I’m pretty sure we said a hundred dollars, gulping at the enormous expense. Harry then put together for us a dozen wines that Diane and I drank with dinners over the next few weeks, paying as much attention as we could to what was going on in our mouths. That was one of the most pleasurable educational experiences of a life that has been blessed with many wonderful educational experiences of all sorts. It not only taught us a great deal about wine and its many guises, it also provided us with a battery of what became life-long favorites – one of which was Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Boudots.

Henri Gouges

That first bottle, as I recall, was a 1964 vintage from the (I later learned) important Burgundy producer Henri Gouges. My most recent one was from Jadot, a name familiar to most wine lovers. There have been many other Nuits-Saint-Georges between those two, not all Les Boudots, not all Premier Cru, indeed not even all cru, but our fondness for the commune’s combination of earthiness and grace, rusticity and elegance, has never wavered. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is our growing preference for older wines: I don’t think we would now drink a Nuits as young as that ’64 then was, if we had any choice at all.

I’ve also learned since then a great deal more about the wine that so impressed us. Just like almost everything else connected with wine, what I learned involved a little geography, a little history, and a lot of nomenclature: grape names, place names, wine names (sometimes the same as one of those first two, sometimes not), yet more specific place names, producers’ names, negociants’ names, and names of a lot of practices and procedures in the vineyards and the cellar. I take a lot of that for granted now, but it was initially very humbling to realize just how many elements and how many people contributed to the making of that glass of wine I was so casually swirling, sniffing, and savoring – and it’s a very healthy exercise to remind myself of all their efforts now.

So: Nuits-Saint-Georges. The wine takes its name from a small town/large village about halfway between Dijon and Beaune, in northeastern France, not too far from the Swiss border. The town lies at the very southern terminus of the Côte de Nuits, to which it also lends its name. That piece of earth is the northern half of the fabled – in wine lore at least – Côte d’Or, a stretch of vineyards that in its entirety runs from just south of Dijon down past Beaune (for which its southern half is named) to Santenay – about 30 miles or so of vineyards, never more than a few miles wide. Collectively, this is the domain of Pinot noir and Chardonnay, and the wines vinified from those two varieties in the various townships of the Côtes are some of the most prized and sought after in the whole world of wine geekery: Gevrey Chambertin, Morey Saint Denis, Chambolle Musigny, Vougeot, Échezeaux, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges – and so on, through Beaune and Pommard and Volnay right down to all the Montrachets.

Nuits-Saint-Georges has been famous for its wines for centuries – just how many is hard to determine. Not far to its east lies the Cistercian abbey of Citeaux, a site from which, in the high Middle Ages, knowledge of viticulture and viniculture spread out to the rest of Europe – so for at least that long. In the modern ranking of Burgundy crus, Nuits-Saint-Georges was awarded 38 Premiers Crus – more than any other Burgundy commune – but no Grands Crus. Some Burgundy experts – of which I am certainly not one – say this was a sound judgment, others say that it was primarily due to the modesty of Henri Gouges, at the time the region’s most important personality and a member of the commission determining those rankings. Be that as it may, Les Boudots – sometimes Aux Boudots – has always been esteemed among the most significant sites of the appellation.

Les Boudots Vineyard

The Boudots vines grow in the northernmost piece of Nuits-Saint-Georges, right up against Vosne-Romanée, of whose terroir Boudots’ slopes are a continuation. That creates one of the first nomenclatorial problems the aspiring Burgundy-bibber encounters: According to the Burgundy experts, Boudots’ wines are the least typical of Nuits-Saint-Georges – not earthy enough, not rustic enough, and so on – and this, apparently, is not good.

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I just don’t get that. What difference does that name make? Just because Boudots lies in the Nuits-Saint-Georges appellation, do the qualities that make a fine Vosne-Romanée make a bad Nuits? This doesn’t make sense. In my experience of Boudots and other wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges – not all of them, by any means – Boudots has its full share of the rusticity, the solidness, the substantiality that for the experts seems to be the hallmark of this commune. But to that it adds an elegance, a polish, that lifts it above the rest. So for me, if Boudots is atypical of the wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges, it is atypically better and more elegant, and I love it.

It is entirely possible that my experience of Nuits-Saint-Georges is not extensive enough to make this judgment, but I can only go by what I have tasted. If any good soul wants to set up an appellation-wide Nuits-Saint-Georges tasting for me, I will be happy to participate with open mind and open mouth. In the meanwhile, I intend to continue reveling in Burgundy’s recent succession of fine vintages by enjoying my Boudots whenever I can afford it.

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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.”
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First Flight

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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.

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Second Flight

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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.

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Third Flight

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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.

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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!