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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

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

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Geography, geology, and microclimate are only the start of its near-legendary status. Add in over 1400 years of continuous viniculture, started by the direct intervention of Charlemagne and followed by centuries of labor by laymen and monks, to culminate in secular fame in the 19th Century and an explosion of celebrity in the 20th. Bottles of this hill’s best wines now sell for prices that probably would have purchased an entire hamlet in the 19th century.

From the beginning, Corton was famous for red wines, which still account for the bulk of its production. Its one great white is only a small part of the AOC, and a surprisingly late addition: Chardonnay doesn’t seem to have arrived there until the middle of the 19th century. Almost all the white comes to the market bearing the name of Corton’s great progenitor: hence Corton Charlemagne, grown on the western slope of the hill (an unusual siting in Burgundy).

These days, a huge percentage of that single contiguous vineyard is farmed, vinified, and bottled by Bonneau du Martray, the family that has owned the vineyards for more than 150 years. Its Corton Charlemagne is a benchmark for white Burgundy, but it does also farm a small amount – about one hectare – of Pinot noir to make red Corton Grand Cru, the wine I am celebrating today. Its 2001 edition, now a ripe 20 years old, is my September Cellar Selection.
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Most Burgundy buffs will think this more than a little perverse, since Bonneau du Martray’s red wine is usually regarded as considerably inferior to its white. But, as my wife and many friends will probably happily testify, I am nothing if not perverse.

Besides, whether or not Bonneau du Martray’s red is in fact inferior to its white, the red is still a Grand Cru from a site famous for red wine and a bargain compared to its white sibling; and – perhaps most important – I’ve been cellaring this 2001 bottle for a long time and I really wanted to find out just how good it is. I may be perverse, but I am neither patient nor immortal, and this inquiring mind wants to know.

I don’t drink Burgundy Grand Cru every day – nor every year, for that matter – so I asked Diane to prepare a meal that would give it a real chance to show its best. She opted to make an elaborate steak au poivre with a creamy mustard sauce, gratin dauphinois potatoes, and peas braised with shallots and butter: a complex set of dishes that should put any red wine on its mettle.
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First course would be simple, a few tortellini in brodo, and after the steak we would finish with some cheese – a slab of young Brebis, a nice sheep milk cheese, and a round of a good, ripe, stinky Camembert. That, I thought with real anticipation, is a fine test-your-red-wine dinner.

Well, then reality raised its ugly head, as it always does. When I nonchalantly started to pull the cork, it crumbled to pieces. I would have to strain and decant the wine. And the condition of that cork was worrisome: Would the wine be sound?  Keen anticipation gave way to anxious worrying. I hate reality.

I needn’t have worried. The wine was wonderful, and it performed equally gracefully with every dish of the meal. In retrospect, I would say that the condition of the wine was directly inverse to the condition of the cork. That Corton was plain and simply great. It didn’t send me into the kind of lengthy-catalog-of-fruit-flavors-and-multiple-strained-metaphors rhapsody that I have heard and read far too often from passionate Burgundy buffs, but I loved it from the first sniff of the glass to the last sip of the nectar.

The nose was rich and elegant, redolent of forest floor and mushrooms: a fully mature aroma, I would call it. On the palate, it was graceful, mouth-filling without being heavy, and long, with flavors of dried plum and cherries, mushrooms and leather, and overall great polish. The fine finish lingered long in the mouth.

This was not a powerful wine but a wine of supreme . . . sophistication, in its best sense, is almost the only word. It was together, it was complete, it was serene. It has been a very long while since I’ve drunk a Corton Charlemagne, but I find it hard to believe this red Corton could have been very far inferior to it, no matter what the conventional opinion holds.

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In my not very often very humble opinion, Châteauneuf du Pape blanc is one of the most consistently under-rated and under-celebrated wines in the whole often-over-rated French wine pantheon. At its least, white Châteauneuf makes an unusual, gutsy glassful of flavors uncommon in white wines. At its best, it can offer a remarkable experience of depth and complexity that, to my mind and palate, are far more profound than that provided by most Chardonnay-based wines.

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I’m not trying to be polemical here, I just call them as I see them. I really love these wines, and I really love many fine white Burgundies as well, but it seems to me that a lot of reflex genuflection before hallowed Burgundian idols has replaced actually tasting the wines and making your own comparisons. Be honest with yourself: when was the last time you – thoughtfully – drank a Châteauneuf du Pape blanc?  One with ten or more years of cellaring?  I’m willing to bet that for most readers of this post, and for most wine lovers generally, the answer is something on the order of “Gosh, I can’t remember.”

What prompted this outburst was a gorgeous bottle of Vieux Télégraphe blanc 2016 that Diane and I and two good friends recently enjoyed. It accompanied – flawlessly – a New Orleanian sausage and oyster gumbo, a tricky dish of complex flavors and assertive spicing that the Châteauneuf seemed to love as if it were a long-lost friend. The wine adapted to every nuance of the gumbo without losing any of its own strong character, without sacrificing any of its depth and complexity. We all loved it, and I wish I had more of it: That, alas, was my last bottle. I had only had a few, and I drank them all too soon: Lovely as they were, they had years of development still in front of them.

That is another characteristic of these great wines:  They are enjoyable and distinctive at almost any age. In their youth, multiple fresh fruit flavors will dominate the palate. As they age, those flavors will darken and deepen, surrendering some freshness and acquiring a battery of mature flavors, meaty, leathery, mushroomy flavors that will open more and more in the glass and alter with the food that accompanies them.

Make no mistake: at any age, white Châteauneuf is a food wine par excellence. It will match with anything from a simply grilled fish – I think it’s terrific with boned shad – to a spicy mélange like our gumbo to any imaginable white meat presentation, from Wiener schnitzel to poulet à l’ancienne and beyond. For the life of me, I can’t understand why a wine this versatile and enjoyable isn’t better known and more popular. Selfishly, I’m also happy about that: There isn’t a lot of white Châteauneuf, and it’s pricey enough already. Not Burgundy pricey, nor at all priced above the quality it delivers, but pricey enough that I don’t drink it every day – alas.

Almost every Châteauneuf estate of any merit produces a small quantity of white wine, and because of the large variety of grapes permitted by the AOC regulations, there can be many intriguing differences among them. Trying a few of them is interesting in itself, as well as is measuring their differing responses to the foods you pair with them. The principal white grape varieties used are Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Bourboulenc, and Counoise. Despite the prestige of Viognier, the most frequently used grapes are Roussanne and Marsanne, probably followed by Grenache blanc. All the growers have their own preferred blend, usually – not surprisingly – reflecting what grows most successfully in their own fields. It makes for a richly various range of wines that are always fun to explore.
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Just for the record: some of my favorite Châteauneuf du Pape whites come from Beaucastel, Mont Olivet, Mont Redon, La Nerthe, and of course my lovely Vieux Télégraphe.

 

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The protagonist of Martin Walker’s mystery series, chief of police in a small Périgord town, is known to me as “Bruno, Chef de Cuisine,” because he spends as much time cooking as he does detecting. My beloved spouse, who consumes mystery novels the way other people eat candy, has needless to say noted this aspect of the stories and has in fact re-created for her blog several of Bruno’s feasts.

Most recently, she and her co-conspirator Hope put together one such dinner that required serious white wine accompaniment. That, of course, became my problem, and problem it was. Neither my household supply nor my local retail shops provided the sort of very localized Périgord wines that Bruno delights to serve. I had to be creative and find some that I hoped would be equivalent wines to match with Bruno’s – and Diane’s and Hope’s – dishes. You can see the details of the dinner in Diane’s blog. The wines I chose to accompany it were a Mâcon blanc, a Condrieu, and a Savennières.
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My first problem was that the author was not entirely helpful in talking about Bruno’s wines. He described only two bottles, which I can’t imagine would have been sufficient in kind or quantity for the variety of dishes and number of guests. His first wine was a Château du Rooy Bergerac blanc, a blend of to-me-unknown-percentages of Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Insofar as this was served as an apéritif with a splash of cassis – a kir – it presented no difficulties. All I needed for that was a good basic white wine, not too fruit-forward and with decent acidity, so almost any well-made simple white Burgundy would serve well. I had on hand a nice 2019 Mâcon-Villages from Michel Barraud that fit the bill perfectly, and made a beautifully refreshing kir to accompany a warm summer afternoon’s cooking.

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The same wine, minus the cassis, seems to have served Bruno as the first dinner wine, and this presented a bit more of a challenge. Bruno’s wine would have had a distinctive, spicy character, with – I’m guessing because he was serving it with foie gras – suggestions of sweetness without any actual sugar presence. Condrieu, with its rich Viognier character, suggested itself, and I was lucky enough to have lurking in my “cellar” a bottle of 2016 Condrieu La Chambée from Les Vins de Vienne.

Condrieu is a tiny appellation, and this wine is sourced from just two hectares of vineyards at different spots within it. It’s 100% Viognier, laboriously farmed on steep and rocky slopes above the Rhône by three devotees who make up the winery.

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The wines of Condrieu are famed for their complexity, depth, and distinctive combination of minerality and spicy fruit in the nose and on the palate. All that makes it a natural choice to accompany foie gras, exactly the sort of wine I think Bruno (or Martin Walker) would have chosen. Ours did not disappoint: Indeed, it made us aware how far short of foie gras our otherwise fine pâté de campagne fell. Memo to self: get more Condrieu, and above all, find some foie gras.

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Our third wine presented the greatest challenge of all: The only other wine mentioned at Bruno’s dinner (a gift from his guest the Baron) was from Vignobles Les Verdots, again a white Bergerac, vinified from approximately two-thirds Muscadelle and one-third Sauvignon gris. The producer’s website, not very modestly, says of it:

This wine figures among the great white wines of France. Rich, spicy, with mineral and fruit notes on the nose, a whiff of smoke and lightly toasted too. The palate is generous in aromas and flavor, with good body, minerality, well-balanced and exceptionally long. It is also elegantly packaged.

This bottle would have been served with Bruno’s main course of braised chicken in a wine, tarragon, and cream sauce. Now there’s a challenge!

I had a wine that, mutatis mutandis, might fit that description, but I’ve had it around for a while and I was beginning to worry about its soundness: a 2003 Coulée de Serrant Savennières from Nicolas Joly. I decided to give it a shot.

All Savennières wines are special: They originate only in a tight little zone of steep hills in the middle Loire, where the Chenin blanc from which they are exclusively vinified reaches heights of flavor and depths of character attainable nowhere else.
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Coulée de Serrant Vineyard

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Also, Savennières ages remarkably well, growing deeper and more profound for many years – though I was more than a little nervous, given the deficiencies of my storage, whether I might have gone too long with this particular bottle.

Another also: The winemaker, Nicolas Joly, is a bit of a wild man. The most famous grower of the zone, he was the first there to go biodynamic, and he did so with a vengeance: natural fertilizers spread by hand from cow horns on nights of the full moon – that sort of thing.

Nicolas Joly

So my bottle of Savennières was sure to be memorable: the question was whether that would be for good or for ill.

Appearances didn’t answer that: a very dark, old gold color didn’t tell us anything. The nose, however did, and the news was good: exotic aromas, of earth and mineral and woodruff and dried cranberry (yes!) indicated the wine was very much alive. The first taste confirmed it, the same elements as in the nose wrapped in a silken package, smooth on the palate, leaving an impression of great suavity and a finish that went on and on.

A totally distinctive wine, that not only went beautifully with our version of Bruno’s chicken dish but also made me wonder how it would taste with good bloc foie gras. Must get some foie gras! Bruno is a very lucky man, with his seemingly endless local supply.

 

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June is a special month for us, containing Diane’s birthday and our anniversary, separated only by D-Day. (Make of that what you will.) And Gruaud Larose is a special wine for us, holding long associations with celebrations past and friends we shared them with.

Just one example: Eons ago, our friends Pat and Fernand had us to stay with them for a week at their apartment in Paris, and to repay their hospitality Diane and I took over their kitchen and made a dinner featuring the first bécasse (woodcock) any of us had ever cooked or eaten. The wine we drank with this brave endeavor was a 1953 Gruaud Larose, one of many memorable tastes during that altogether memorable evening.

You can see why it was easy to choose the June wine from among my special cellar selections for 2021. After more than a year of having our spirits depressed by Covid, I wanted a wine that would remind us of joyful times and help us start renewing them. So Gruaud Larose it had to be.

Those are the sentiments that lay behind my choice. Behind them lies a very estimable wine, a second growth Saint Julien, a property that, although it has had many different owners over the years, still occupies almost exactly the same fields it did when it was classified in 1855. It’s a substantial property, even by Bordeaux standards: 87 hectares in vines. That’s well over 200 acres, divided into roughly 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, about 8% Cabernet Franc, plus a small amount of Petit Verdot and a smidgeon of Malbec. Those vines yield a formidable wine, which some critics describe as rough and even rustic in its youth, but capable of fine aging and development.

My previous experience of older Gruaud Larose vintages gave me great hopes for this 1975 bottle. So too did the eminent Clive Coates’s assessment of the vintage, in his classic book The Wines of Bordeaux: Vintages and Tasting Notes 1952-2003.

Very good color. Rich, full, fat and ample on the nose. This is very promising. Fullish body. Vigorous. Very good tannins and grip. No astringency. A meaty, quite solid wine. Long, rich and satisfactory. Plenty of life ahead. Very good indeed.

At that time, Coates rated the ’75 Gruaud 17 out of 20 and suggested its drinking window ranged from “now” to “2008+.”  Diane’s birthday dinner would test just how much beyond 2008 that plus sign would allow.

For the meal itself, we recapitulated one of the best dinner main courses we’d ever made for ourselves: fabulously lush Tournedos Rossini. Our first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise, another big, rich dish, so we matched it with a big, rich Champagne, Pierre Brigandat’s brut NV. This grower’s blanc de noirs loved the intensity of the scallops, enveloping them in a complex web of dry, dark berry-and-mineral flavors – a delicious match of food and wine.

The stage was thus set for the Gruaud Larose to strut its stuff – and strut it did. Coates was very right about the wine’s having “plenty of life ahead.”  The color was dark and even, and the first whiff of the aroma gave a generous rush of ripe, dark, mature berry, followed by mushroom and leather. The flavor followed suit: not quite meaty, but mouth-filling and multi-layered. Lovely in itself as the wine was, each bite of food – whether the beef, the foie gras, or the Madeira-reduction sauce – called out another element in it. And for all its complex, mature flavors, this 1975 Gruaud Larose still felt fresh and live. It showed no sign of tiredness or of approaching the end of its life – which is always an excellent thing for a wine at a birthday celebration.

We don’t have many bottles of Gruaud Larose left – certainly no more ‘75s – but you can be sure that what we have will be reserved for very special occasions, moments when Diane and I need to be reminded that, as Gilbert and Sullivan so wryly put it, “there is beauty in extreme old age.”

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I’ve always been partial to underdogs. When I was a kid, I was the lone Brooklyn (yes, Brooklyn) Dodger fan in a very large family of Yankee fans – and even the misery that that entailed couldn’t cure me of my fondness for long-suffering hind runners.

It was almost inevitable, then, that when I started getting seriously interested in wine (which back then always meant French wine), I found myself drawn to the seemingly least estimable of the famous Bordeaux wines. Of the five great Médoc appellations – Graves (as it then was), Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estèphe – only Saint Estèphe doesn’t have a Premier Cru estate. In fact, despite being the second largest of the crus, it has only five classified growths: one fifth growth, one fourth, one third, and two seconds. That’s a paltry showing compared to neighboring Pauillac’s three firsts, two seconds, and large handful of lesser growths.

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Saint Estèphe’s wines were often condescendingly referred to as slightly rustic and inelegant, and usually compared, to their disadvantage, to the wines of Pauillac. One could come across even esthetic sniffing about the “false orientalism” of Cos d’Estournel’s pagoda towers. I always thought there was a sort of double standard at work here. It is probably true that the wines from many of Saint Estèphe’s small estates have a less polished, more artisanal character – which I regard as an attraction – than those from the great Premier Crus, which are pretty great in size as well as reputation and price. But no one ever said a word about the scale of winemaking at Château Margaux or Château Lafite, whose respective 81 hectares and 103 hectares bring their winemaking close to industrial-scale production.

But that’s really beside the point. Even those who belittle Saint Estèphe as an appellation usually make an honorable exception for Cos d’Estournel and for Montrose, both quite evidently superb wines. I love them, of course, but I am also very fond of many lesser names from the commune: Calon Ségur, Cos Labory, Lafon-Rochet (this now becoming very fashionable), Meyney, Phélan Ségur, and especially Châteaux de Pez and Les Ormes de Pez. The last two are among my favorite wines, and I’ve written about my enjoyment of them before (here and here). But they are classified only as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, below even Fifth Growth – a lowly enough designation to keep the wines’ prices well below their true worth. Tough luck for them, fine for me. Sometimes supporting the underdog pays off.

 

Saint Estèphe is the northernmost of the five great appellations, and its soils are supposedly more varied than those of the other zones – though anyone visiting the peninsula on which they all (except Graves) lie will be hard put to see any very significant variation in soils or altitudes or exposures. We are far from the mountains here. The major variations from estate to estate are due to the field mix – just what quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted and fermented – and to the winemaker’s aims and skills.

Decades of being dismissed as negligible wines kept the prices of almost all Saint Estèphes very low and discouraged any serious investment of time, effort, or cash in the vineyards and cellars – all of which, of course, contributed to the perpetuation of their low reputation. The wine boom of the past 40 or 50 years has changed all that, and more and more good wine is being produced everywhere. That is emphatically true in Saint Estèphe, where I find the quality of the wine being turned out by many formerly neglected properties is steadily rising. This underdog may not yet be ready to take Best in Show, but it is clearly showing better and better all the time.

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I have always been ambivalent about Syrah, but I’ve never had any doubts about Hermitage. The appellation is tiny: Its total acreage is only slightly larger than the largest of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru estates (yes, estates, not appellations). But the wines of Hermitage deserve every syllable of the praise that is lavished upon them.

Syrah, on the other hand, the sole grape variety of Hermitage, is a first-class crank. Grown anywhere but the northern Rhône, it occasionally produces fine wines, but more often than not it gives hard, high-alcohol, aggressive and over-assertive bottles marked by an almost exaggerated spiciness, as if the chef had simply lost it when peppering the stew.

Hermitage is the antithesis of that, holding all those dangerous tendencies of the grape on a tight rein. Balance is what Hermitage excels at. What you expect would produce tension, even discord, instead yields grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.

There used to be a word in French, hermitagiser, to describe the practice of adding some wine from the Rhône to (especially) Bordeaux, to give it more body and color – all before the AOC regulations, of course. And almost every wine lover is familiar with Saintsbury’s description of Hermitage as “the manliest of wines,” a description that would still be useful if it weren’t so sexist.

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All this wind-up should tell you why I chose a 20-year-old Hermitage as one of my cellar explorations for 2021. As almost any reference book makes clear, Hermitage and its cousin Côte Rotie are both Syrah-based wines, Hermitage completely so, Côte Rotie allowing (but not always using) a small admixture of Viognier.* And as all the textbooks emphasize, both are wines that demand and brilliantly reward aging.

Now, 20 years is not what Saintsbury and other connoisseurs of his generation would have considered long aging, but for me, it’s quite long enough – especially considering that my un-cellar-like storage facilities have probably expedited the wine’s maturation, so that my 20-year-old might be the equivalent of a 25- or 30- year-old bottle from the winery. So it’s about time I looked in to see how the kid is doing.

Not to keep you in suspense: The answer was Very well indeed. All my worries about my poor storage conditions blew away at the first sniff from the bottle after I pulled the cork: The wine was sound – just how sound wouldn’t come clear until later when, after giving it a few hours’ breathing, I poured it at dinner.

That was when my Hermitage, in no sense an aperitif wine, really showed its stuff. A paragraph or so back, I described Hermitage as displaying “grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.”  That was spot on.

First, the aroma. Here’s my note exactly as dashed off at the moment: “Rich, rich nose – dark plums and blackberries and black cherries, then black pepper and leather.”

Then, the palate: “Velvet in the mouth, almost feeling weightless, even though it is a big, mouth-filling wine. Tastes of leather and meat and black dried fruit, then cherry. A very long, cherry-leather finish.”  That was just tasting the wine by itself.

After a few forkfuls of lamb and lentils, the Hermitage broadened and sweetened and got even bigger – and, if possible, even more supple and graceful. This was truly a memorable wine, and an absolute justification of all the encomiums that Hermitage from makers like Guigal and Jaboulet and Chave regularly receive. When you read praise like that, it isn’t hype: You’re reading honest reporting.

 


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Special note for grape nuts:  Recent ampelographical studies, especially DNA studies, of Syrah have uncovered a web of relationships with some famous and some negligible varieties. Viognier is probably a genetic brother/sister/cousin of Syrah, whose family tree is amazingly complex. Syrah itself is probably the grandchild of Pinot by way of a field cross of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche (neither a very distinguished wine grape), and it is in all likelihood a cousin of Teroldego, which can yield some wonderful red wines in the Italian north. This makes it part of a family of grape varieties strung along high mountain trails that cross the national boundaries of Switzerland, France, and Italy.

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Europeans say Bordeaux and Burgundy, Americans say Cabernet sauvignon and Pinot noir. That difference isn’t merely cultural – though no cultural difference is really mere – but in a sense ideological. It points to two different orientations to wine and the wine world.

I was reminded of this recently by an online article of Daniele Cernilli’s called “Beyond the Varietal.” This was not another rehash of stories about the meaning of terroir, but a reasoned argument about what matters in a wine besides its grape variety. Essentially, Cernilli argues that to speak of, say, Richebourg, as Pinot noir is to completely miss what is distinctive about that wine; and to talk only about, say, Nebbiolo, is to fail to understand what makes Barolo Cannubi great. Here, I’m less interested in that than in why the US makes so much of varietals.

There are complex reasons why Americans think of variety first, many of them deeply rooted in the brevity of our history with wine. As a nation, we have no tradition of wine drinking, save for a few exceptional individuals like Thomas Jefferson, who championed it. But such examples only tended to push wine drinking and wine knowledge further out of the mainstream and to isolate it as an aristocratic interest of the landed and wealthy.

This of course was intensified by the whole area of wine being so completely dominated, for so long, in the consciousness of English speakers, by French wines, all of which bore place names that conveyed no information, in a language that many Americans continue to find impenetrable and unpronounceable.

I think it is safe to say that wine in the US did not begin to take hold among the general population until non-aristocratic Italians and other southern Europeans began arriving here in significant numbers. We Americans who now love wine owe a huge debt to those once-looked-down-upon spaghetti joints, with their checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles. Those were probably the first wine bottles many Americans had ever seen. And drinking what had been in those flasks to accompany their “exotic” spaghetti and meatballs was probably the first experience of wine many of them had ever had. It’s important to remember that that world doesn’t lie very far in our past: It’s still relatively recent history.

The biggest part of American wine history of course belongs to California. How many of us remember when California produced Chablis, Chianti, Burgundy, and Rhine Wine – even Champagne? For a good many years, California marketed wines that way, until the fledgling European Union made ending that commercial appropriation of historic and important place names one of its chief goals.

That was when naming wines for the grape varieties that made them started to be the norm in America. It succeeded not just because it was the ethical thing to do, but largely because for a tyro wine drinking nation it was easier to learn and remember the names of a few grape varieties than all those European regional and town names. Varietal naming told you something about what was in the bottle that, unless you already knew a fair amount about wine, names like St. Julien or Chambolle-Musigny didn’t. And popular wisdom had it that connoisseur claptrap didn’t matter. Who cared who made the wine or where it was made? It was all Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir or Chardonnay, wasn’t it? (No prizes will be given for the correct answer to that question.)

That simplicity also greatly aided marketing, and it’s safe to say that marketing is king in America. You could order a glass of Chardonnay with your dinner, and for most people that was the end of it. You didn’t think about it, you had no opinion of it: It was safe and you hadn’t embarrassed yourself. Why complicate things by considering whether the wine was a good example of Chardonnay or not? What does that mean anyway? Besides, those who worried about whether they had gotten a good Chardonnay needed only to check its 100-point-scale score: Over 90 and you were gold.

You certainly didn’t want to complicate things further by worrying about where your Chardonnay was made: Napa? Sonoma? Paso Robles? Mendocino? North Fork? Finger Lakes? Where are those places? Who cares? My wine got 92 points from the Spectator and a whole paragraph of soft-core palatal porn from Parker:  I’m good. So what if it’s from a plot of land that until a few years ago grew scrub oaks and mesquite, and from a producer who until a few years ago was a roofing contractor? This is a brave new world, that has such markets in it.

And that of course is the point: Marketing is what it’s all about. Americans are not challenged to go beyond varietal in evaluating a wine because varietal is marketable, and knowledge and taste and judgement are not – unless you can articulate them numerically. How do you assign numerical value for 800 years of continuous grape cultivation in a single spot, dating back to Cistercian monks, or for generations of family winemaking? How many points is it worth for an Emperor to have had his troops salute a vineyard as they marched by? (There will be no prizes for the correct answers to these questions either.)

I know this sounds snobbish, but the inescapable fact is that anything that involves knowledge, let alone knowledge and taste, is snobbish. Oh, it’s true that in this country, some kinds of snobbery aren’t snobbish: We’ve all been bored to tears by a baseball or football super-statistician, or a micro-brewery maven, or by the person who knows everything that can be known about the Grateful Dead. Those lore lodes don’t involve too many foreign names, so they sound comfortably American – and they certainly don’t seem to imply that “you think you’re better than me,” which is what wine snobbery is considered to imply.

At bottom, I think it is that implicit non-egalitarian threat that has kept Americans wedded to grape varieties as their passport to wine, despite all the limitations of that approach. This may be changing, as more Americans do become more seriously engaged with wine, and as Europe, despite the best efforts of the EU, succumbs more and more to the attractions of mass marketing. Small European cheese makers have already felt the chilling effects of this process. Can wine makers be far behind? Probably not, so be a snob and enjoy it, while you still can. We may live to see the day when, to be sold in the US, St. Julien and Chambolle-Musigny and Barolo Cannubi will all have to be pasteurized. Absit omen.

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This is my first post of the new year, and it’s really not so much a post as a preview of posts to come. Late in 2020 (a year that will live in infamy), Diane asked a provocative question: “If you could only ever drink a dozen of all the wines we have in storage, which would you choose?” She followed with an even more provocative statement: “After all, we’re not kids any more; it could come to that.”

Needless to say, in the middle of a Covid pandemic and in the face of the approaching new year – hell, new decade, which it is extremely unlikely that I’ll see the end of – this set me to thinking about which of my wines I would absolutely want to be sure of tasting. It also got me brooding about how long it would take, with regular consumption, to drink my cellar dry, but that is an entirely separate problem for me and my liver to work out. The immediate question was which 12 would I choose – and, of course, why those?

Let me cut to the chase. Here are the dozen bottles I selected. They are in no particular order, because there was none to their choosing.

2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja
2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)
1981 Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico DOC, Giuseppe Quintarelli
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach
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Eight Italian wines, four French, one of each nation white, the rest all red. I wonder what that says about me? Or does it say anything at all? I’ll leave that for you to answer as you will: Just keep in mind what your answer will say about you.

Well after the fact, I realized that the principle of selection behind these 12 wines was simple, even obvious. There was an aspect of each one that I wanted to check on: the vintage, or the grape(s), or the maker, or some unusual viticultural element, or simply how well the wine was aging. Maybe a little personal projection and concern behind that last bit of curiosity, but nevertheless a subject of genuine interest. I’ve got a lot of ’01 Barolo and Barbaresco squirreled away, and it’s now almost 20 years since that vintage was harvested — though, truth to tell, I keep thinking of it as still a young, recent vintage, so all the more reason for a reality check.

Anyhow, there they are. It’s my intention to taste and write up one of them a month as a sort of continuing thread through whatever else 2021 may bring. I hope it will sustain your interest as much as it already piques mine.

And – lest I forget – Happy (I hope truly happy, prosperous, and healthy) New Year to you all!

 

 

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Everybody needs everyday wines, especially at this time of year. But make no mistake: My emphasis is on good everyday wines, not just anything because it’s cheap. Obviously, inexpensiveness is an added attraction, but goodness comes first. I long ago decided that life is too short to ever drink mediocre wine, so even though I could never afford those legendary, crème de la crème bottles that headline so many ads, I’ve worked hard to ensure that the wines that accompany my daily bread are pleasurable, respectably made, and honorable examples of their breed.

What I’m going to talk about now are some wines that I can pretty reliably find in my vicinity. Let me offer a caveat about that: With the vagaries of importation and distribution, the variations of harvests, both qualitatively and quantitatively, compounded by the impact that Covid has had all around the world, none of us can ever be sure that the wine that is in shops this week will be available anywhere next month. That said, here are some wines that I have been enjoying for a few months now and hope to continue drinking for a good while yet.

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Whites

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A staple white wine that I can almost always get because it’s from close to home is Paumanok Vineyards’ Festival Chardonnay. If worse comes to worst, I can drive out to Long Island’s North Fork and carry some home from the vineyard. This wine is everything that basic, unoaked Chardonnay ought to be. Fresh and vigorous, with lovely, clean fruit and a sound structure, it will serve as an aperitif wine as pleasantly as it accompanies dinner. True to its Long Island heritage, it especially loves fish and shellfish.

Another equally versatile white wine is Pra’s beautiful Soave Classico Otto. Many people underestimate Soave. This wine shines with an intense minerality that will remind those drinkers of a really nice Chablis. The ones who already know Soave’s many virtues will appreciate the fruit and life and balance of this fine example of the breed. It may be my favorite Soave of them all, and I don’t exclude Pieropan from that consideration. Certainly, for everyday drinking, and in its price range, it’s matchless.

One more Italian white wine has recently become available in my area: the charmingly and appropriately named Il Gentiluomo, a 100% Cortese wine from Paolo Pizzorni, in the Monferrato zone of the Piedmont. I’m hoping this one stays in the market for a while, because it is a lovely, simple wine, medium-bodied and deliciously fruity, with excellent balance. It works with all sorts of light dishes from meat antipasti to roasted chicken. It particularly loves veal in all forms, from scallops to roasts.

We used to keep a lot of basic white Burgundies around for everyday use: They have a combination of fuller body and terroir character that makes them quite distinctive and intriguing. But Burgundy prices have begun another of their periodic ascents into the stratosphere. While there are still a good number of wines suitable for everyday use, their price now makes that inadvisable for most people. Your best hope, if you must have a Burgundy (and who, occasionally, does not?), will be to look for wines from Mâcon or Mâcon-Villages, but you will have to shop sharply.

You would be better advised to shift your attention northward to Alsace, where almost every producer offers a basic blended wine at an attractive price. Hugel’s Gentil is an excellent example of the breed, enjoyable in itself and extremely versatile with food.

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Reds

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Red wines offer more questions and more choices. After all, the wines range from light and understated to formidable, and the foods they’re asked to accompany are similarly varied in intensity and spicing. Especially in warm weather, I like to keep some Beaujolais on hand. The crus are my favorites – Fleurie, Juliénas, Chiroubles, Morgon, Chénas – but I also have a fondness for Jean-Paul Brun’s Terre Dorée basic Beaujolais, L’Ancien, which has plenty of character to pair with its charm and vivacity. His cru wines are also fine, but there are now many good producers of those available, so it is worth trying several to see whose style pleases you.

Still in the French range, Côtes du Rhône wines are always useful. The named villages are best, though they can get pricy – but careful shopping will almost always net you a Gigondas or Vacqueyras at a decent price. There are many makers, some quite small operations, so it’s impossible to predict what will be in any particular market, but IMO they’re all worth a try.

We drink a lot of Italian reds at casa Maresca, and it’s a frequently changing cast of characters, depending on what’s available. Distributors seem to have synchronized cycles: One season the shops will be filled with Tuscan wines, another it will be Piedmonts, with other regions’ reds getting whatever shelf space is left. That’s a shame, because there are fine, inexpensive red wines pouring out of every part of Italy, and a high percentage of them are well worth a taste.

I like to keep a lot of basic Chianti Classico around because of Sangiovese’s versatility with food, and there are many good ones available at quite decent prices, particularly the best wines of the best co-ops, which lack the prestige and therefore the market clout of the best estate wines. Lately I’ve been drinking with great pleasure a lot of Clemente VII and Panzano, both produced by Castelli del Grevepesa.

Equally adaptable with a whole range of foods is Barbera. This is a grape that, because of its naturally high acidity, can happily match with almost anything. For my palate, the greater body and more restrained acidity of Barbera d’Alba works best, but Barbera d’Asti, often accurately described as “racy,” has many partisans. There are many makers of both kinds, ranging from some of the most famous names in the zone (Ceretto, Gaja, Vietti) to some of the smaller growers (Oddero, Barale), and prices can consequently be all over the place, but patient shopping can usually reward with a really pretty wine at an attractive price.

When it comes to softer, less acidic everyday reds, you’ve got good choices from all over Italy. Here are my current favorites.
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  • Dolcetto, from the same zones as Barbera and from many of the same makers – but look for Dogliani, a subzone so distinguished that it has won the right to use its own name rather than Dolcetto.
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  • Valpolicella Classico, not Superiore, and definitely not Ripasso. The Classico has rediscovered the simple charm that once made Valpolicella one of Italy’s most popular wines. Brigaldara makes a nice one.
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  • Lacryma Christi, from the slopes of Vesuvius, a soft-bodied, round, and mineral-inflected wine that matches wonderfully with pasta and pizza and sauced or braised meats. There are now a fair number of producers intermittently available in the US, but you will never go wrong with a bottle from Mastroberardino, the once – and maybe future – king of Campanian wines.
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Let us hope that the new year brings us whole tides of enjoyable, affordable wines like these. Covid and its consequences aside – this too shall pass – we are blessed to live in a golden age of winemaking, and there is no reason not to enjoy this abundance while it and we last.

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In a recent post, I wrote about a fine California Charbono from The Wine Trust’s portfolio, and this time I intend to talk about some of its French and Italian wines.

The name, The Wine Trust, will probably not resonate much with most wine drinkers, who rarely pay any attention to who imports or distributes the wines they love. That’s not a grave error, though the information can be useful. Among other reasons, it’s worth knowing about an importer’s other wines, since different importers’ portfolios reflect different interests and preferences and styles of wine. If a particular importer brings in a wine you really like, you might very well find other gems in its lineup. Obviously, this is particularly true of smaller, more specialized importers.

The Wine Trust, for instance, shows great strength in Bordeaux: Its collection features many of the famous châteaux. What is of special interest to me, since most of those more famous wines have moved well beyond my economic range, is that The Wine Trust also has an impressive array of the smaller, less celebrated châteaux, which increasingly represent the real values in Bordeaux. I mean estates like Cantemerle, Cantenac Brown, Giscours, Clinet and my special favorite, Ormes de Pez. I think a selection like that is an excellent sign that the importer in question is using real discernment. Anyone can go after the famous names: It takes some knowledge and taste to find the real beauties in the ranks of the many less famed.

But the firm’s portfolio ranges farther afield than Bordeaux, and many of its less costly French and non-French selections seem to reflect an interesting palate at work. With that in mind, I sampled two French whites and two Italian reds from its portfolio. The results were interesting indeed.
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The whites were two classic French appellations from very different zones along the Loire river: a 2017 Muscadet Monnières-Saint Fiacre from Menard-Gaborit and a 2016 Chenin blanc from Idiart.
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The Menard-Gaborit was classic clean, lean Muscadet, crisp, mineral, and slaty, with dry floral notes and a long finish. We drank it very happily with fried scallops, which fattened it up somewhat. It all but screamed for fresh shellfish, making it absolutely clear why Muscadet is generally conceded to be the oyster wine par excellence. This bottling would be fine with any selection of oysters or clams on the half shell, or with any selection of sushi and sashimi, for that matter.
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The Idiart Chenin blanc derives totally from its eponymous grape variety, a specialty of the middle Loire valley, where it has been cultivated for centuries. Compared to Muscadet, this is a bigger-bodied wine, rounder and deeper and less edgy: the acid is held more in check by other fruit and mineral elements. This particular example rested ten months on its fine lees, which gives it a touch more richness. I thought it a nice, chalky young Chenin, with fine potential for drinking over the next few years. (Loire Chenin blanc can take bottle age quite nicely.)
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The two red wines I tasted from The Wine Trust’s portfolio were a Valpolicella and a Barbera, both from the 2017 vintage.
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The Valpolicella, a Classico from Monte Santoccio, sported an intriguing nose of dry grapes and volcanic soil. (The Valpolicella and Soave zones have the northernmost volcanic soils in Italy.)  Dried cherry and peach appeared on the palate. It seemed a bit austere for a Valpolicella, but fine, beautifully balanced and enjoyable drinking – especially with its easy-to-take 12 degrees of alcohol, a rarity these days. By the way: cheese brought up this wine’s fruit very delightfully.
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The other Italian red, a Barbera d’Alba from Giacomo Vico, showed a lovely black cherry nose and palate, exactly as one would hope for in its kind. This was an intriguing wine, less “barolized” than many Alba Barberas. It felt light on the palate, and long-finishing, with fine balance and more obvious bright acid (which is absolutely characteristic of the Barbera grape) than many Alba specimens. In short, it was completely true to its variety but in a way slightly different from most of the examples from its zone.
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That too was true of the Valpolicella, with its little extra touch of austerity and restraint. So we have an importer who chooses paradigm French wines and very fine Italian wines with a bit of a twist. I call that interesting.

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