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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

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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When, for a recent and rare-during-Covid dinner with friends, Diane cooked up a Rabelaisian cassoulet out of Julia Child, I decided the occasion required some good southern French wines. We’ve been drinking a preponderance of Italian wines lately, and a little change of pace was in order. The austerity of Bordeaux seemed to me just wrong for the dish, as did the delicacy of Burgundy. The Rhône definitely provided the place to go.

Châteauneuf du Pape was my wine of choice, supplemented by a Cornas, a wine from a little further up the Rhône than Avignon, city of the “new château” of the 14th Century popes. To start things off, alongside a light celery, date, and almond salad, I decided to open the drinking with a white Châteauneuf, a wine of real character that I’ve always enjoyed, but that I find few people are familiar with. That unfamiliarity, from my point of view, is a real advantage, because I love to surprise my friends with a wine new to them. In this case, that gambit really paid off: Our 2015 Domaine de Beaurenard Châteauneuf du Pape blanc may well have been the wine of the evening.
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This 32-hectare, 7th-generation estate cultivates all 13 of the traditional Châteauneuf grape varieties. It is biodynamically certified, and the vines average about 45 years of age. The white is blended from Clairette, Rousanne, Bourboulenc, Grenache blanc, Picardan, and Picpoul, none of which varieties are very common outside the Rhône valley, and several of which have become rarities even within the Châteauneuf zone.

This five-year-old showed remarkable composure and complexity, having already knit its grapes together to create a rich, generous white wine that matched deliciously with everything we tasted it with. (Several of us saved some to taste alongside the cassoulet and cheese courses, where it continued to show very well indeed.) I’m partial to older white Châteauneuf, and I would guess that this wine has years, perhaps decades, of life in front of it. I hope I do too, because I’d really like to taste it again somewhere down the line.

Then we moved on to the main course. Cassoulet can be a tricky dish to match a wine with. From one point of view, it’s nothing more than a gussied up pot of pork and beans. From another, it’s one of the elaborate glories of French cuisine. And depending on the ingredient choices you make and the cooking techniques you use, the final dish can range anywhere from rustic heavy to robust elegant. It’s never a lightweight, but it isn’t necessarily ponderous either.

Thus my choice of Rhône red wines, which in themselves span the same range. Actually, Châteauneuf du Pape by itself covers that spectrum, with the number of grape varieties grown in the zone, and the many different wine styles pursued by its many makers.

Diane’s cassoulet was what I would call succulent mid-range: Julia Child’s classic technique undergirding a mélange of lamb, duck, pork, smoked sausage, and old-fashionedly flavorful marrow beans.
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A dish like that needs wines that won’t back down but are complex enough and giving enough to match nuances with each varied mouthful of the food. So the legacy of the popes’ French exile came into play to accompany a dish that I’m sure those old popes and all their attendant courtiers would have happily devoured.

We modulated to our red Châteauneuf by way of a lovely Cornas, a 2010 Domaine de Saint Pierre from Jaboulet. This comes from an almost five-hectare site at the highest point of the Cornas appellation, which Jaboulet has owned since 1993. The vines are 30 to 40 years old, and the wine is 100% Syrah, a monovarietal wine that in my mind set up a nice contrast with the multi-faceted blend of Châteauneuf.
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Contrary to this vintage’s reputation when first bottled – several critics referred to the 2010 as “savage” or “wild” – this one was positively civilized. Mouth-filling, to be sure, but smooth and gentle on the palate, with its typical Syrah pepperiness nicely balanced with sweeter wild cherry flavors. We may have drunk this bottle a bit young, but we enjoyed it thoroughly, and it set our palates up for the more complex wine to follow.

That was a 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape Vieilles Vignes – red, of course – from Domaine La Millière.
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This estate lies in the northern part of the Châteauneuf zone and has been for some years certified biodynamic. The cellar works on very traditional lines, with long barrel rest for its Châteauneufs, which are blended from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Counoise. The house’s stylistic emphasis is on finesse and longevity, both of which our bottle achieved. In fact, it may have a little overachieved: With that rich cassoulet, it seemed a little lacking in power – a delicious wine, but a touch overshadowed by the food, maybe even a bit of an anti-climax, following the impressive white Châteauneuf and the delightful Cornas. But it still showed plenty of freshness and depth, and it perked up considerably when confronted with an array of cheeses.

Those pre-Renaissance popes may not have been models of piety, but they certainly had a good eye for a vineyard.

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Do You Riesel?

I’m sure you know the old groaner: “Do you like Riesling?” “I don’t know: I’ve never Rieseled.” Unfortunately, that seems to be true of many wine lovers. While most wine experts rank the Riesling grape right up with Chardonnay for quality and versatility (putting aside for a moment the claims of more southerly white varieties), you would never know that from its sales in these United States: They amount at best to a slight fraction of Chardonnay’s.
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Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Clos Saint Urbain

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Nobody knows for sure why that is. Wine professionals regularly sing the praises of Riesling, but the wine-buying public just doesn’t seem interested. I myself for many years didn’t Riesel, but I know why that was. And now that I do Riesel, I have a theory about why many wine drinkers don’t. But one thing at a time.

For a long time, I avoided Riesling because very cheap, very simple, and quite sweet German Riesling had been one of the earliest wines I tasted when I was young (probably too young to drink legally, but we won’t go there). I pretty quickly found that there were ‘better – better for my developing palate, at least — wines available that accompanied food more sympathetically and were not much more expensive. As my palate moved more markedly in the direction of drier and drier wines, the memory of Riesling’s sugars – coupled with German Riesling’s reputation, then as now, as one of the world’s great sweet wines – effectively ended any interest I might have developed in the variety.

It was only many years later, when I began seriously exploring the white wines of Alsace, that I started to appreciate Riesling. It was a slow process, with a lot of preconceptions and prejudices to overcome, but the producers of Alsace have a deft hand with aromatic white grapes, vinifying them into substantial, fully dry, and still wonderfully scented wines. Those characterful white wines gradually wore down my resistance, and I began paying attention to Riesling.
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Muré Riesling Clos Saint-Landelin

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Over the years, I came to admire a great many of Alsace’s fine large and small producers, all of whom share the goal of vinifying dry white wines that show both varietal intensity and the character of individual terroirs. Here are some of the ones I’ve most enjoyed. All these producers make good-to-fine basic Rieslings, and all produce superb Grand Cru wines.

  • Beyer: A small but highly reputed producer. Top of the line: Riesling Comtes d’Eguisheim.
  • Boxler: Basic Riesling Vieilles Vignes, Grands Crus Riesling Sommerberg and Brand.
  • Deiss: Riesling Altenberg and Riesling Schoenenbourg.
  • Hugel: A centuries-old firm, one of the stalwarts of Alsace, Riesling Jubilee. (Hugel no longer names its vineyards, though they are some of the best in Alsace)
  • Josmeyer: Riesling Hengst, Riesling Le Kottabe.
  • Muré: Riesling Clos Saint-Landelin.
  • Trimbach: Another Alsace stalwart, Riesling Frédéric Emile, The Riesling Clos Sainte Hune is probably the most highly reputed – and most expensive of Alsace wines.
  • Zind-Humbrecht:  By Alsace terms, a brash newcomer making superb wines, Riesling Clos Saint-Urbain, Riesling Clos Windsbuhl, Riesling Herrenweg.

Now, here’s where my theory enters: I have come to believe that Riesling is what I would call a geezer’s wine. That has become an honorific in my vocabulary. To enjoy such a wine fully, to realize its greatness, you need to know a fair amount about wine and about your own palate. A dry Riesling demands that you pay attention to it – sip it slowly, roll it around on your tongue, think about what you’re tasting and feeling there – and that’s probably the greatest deterrent to its popularity in this country. As a people, we pay very little attention to what we put in our mouths. Even wine drinkers eat the majority of their meals mindlessly. In an environment like ours, a grape that requires you to think seriously about what’s in your mouth – not its calories but its flavors — just doesn’t have a chance.
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Riesling Clos Hengst

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Riesling is worth the effort. The floral aromas, the variety of vegetal and mineral flavors it presents, the way it translates the different terroirs and climates in which it grows, its remarkable ability to broaden and deepen with age — in all these ways it far surpasses its chief rival Chardonnay. Make no mistake: I love the great white Burgundies and drink them happily when I can afford them, But I can afford a great Riesling more often, so that’s a no-brainer.

In a purely selfish way, I’m glad more Americans don’t share my enthusiasm. If a few millions of us started seriously to Riesel – well, you know what will happen to its price: bye bye, bargain greatness.
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Riesling Clos Windsbuhl

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Readers of Diane’s blog will already know that we recently had two important-to-us occasions to celebrate under Covid-19 restrictions. Indomitably, we rose to the occasions and celebrated quite satisfactorily, with both foods and wines.

1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin

Since Diane had originally planned to cook French for her birthday dinner – she had to cook, since dining out was impossible under Covid 19 conditions – I opted for an old Burgundy to celebrate the feast and the cook, and I stuck with that choice even as her dinner plans evolved.

My 1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin wasn’t a really antique wine, alas, just 30 years, but then this also wasn’t one of those landmark birthdays. Nevertheless, at our ages no birthday is insignificant, and I had high hopes for this relatively humble village wine. Not a premier or grand cru, but from an esteemed commune – some people think Gevrey Chambertin the best of the Côte d’Or – of a fine vintage, from a négociant-éleveur who at that time was at the top of his game. Some people considered Faiveley the best large producer in the Côte d’Or.

Well, Monsieur Faiveley delivered beautifully with this wine: It was velvet, it was harmonious, it was deep and delicate simultaneously. Mature Pinot noir – great mature Pinot noir – has the ability to be many things at once, as this one was, and which is why we cellar it in the first place.

Young wines, no matter how great, just can’t bring the battery of complex flavor elements that make a wine like the 1990 Chambertin so memorable. With a light, savory cheese custard it was all restraint, with the assertive flavors of a well-spiced casserole-roasted chicken, it showed that it could play that game too, throwing up a shower of notes that picked up on all the nuances of the bird and its sauce. Chef and sommelier traded compliments all evening.

2006 Ridge Montebello

While the birthday dinner was elegant, as befitted its celebrant, our anniversary dinner was earthy, as suited our years together, and the 2006 Ridge Montebello wine on which Diane had long had an eye for it proved a perfect match for both the literal earthiness of morels à la crème in puff pastry cases and the heartiness of a rib of beef.

Ridge Montebello is one of California’s greatest wines, if not flat-out its greatest. It combines the complexity of Bordeaux, which is its great model, with the incredible lushness of California fruit, which the terroir of the Montebello Ridge provides in abundance.

Together, the two create a wine bigger, richer, and more balanced than most of its models. It is based on the classic Bordeaux blend of about 60-65% Cabernet sauvignon, with the remainder made of Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Petit verdot. For my palate, Montebello stands right up there in heft and beauty with the biggest Pauillacs, and perhaps can exceed them in longevity.

In style, this Ridge was the complete opposite of our twice-as-old Chambertin. This bottle of ’06 was only slightly evolved. Its flavors – the whole great wonderful rush of them – were still primarily youthful flavors, a congeries of lightly dried cherries and peaches, pears and figs and plums – plums, not prunes – all sustained by abundant, softening tannins, brisk acidity, and that characteristic Montebello underlying minerality.

This wine clearly had years of life before it, but it was so thoroughly enjoyable that any regrets we had about the infanticide we were committing were shallowly felt at best.

These two dinners were not at all bad for sheltering-in-place celebrations. In fact, their only downside was that, after all the fun was over, we still had to do the clean-up!

 

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In this post I’m toasting some marvelous vins perdus, bygone French wines, stirred to reminiscence by Covid-sheltering time. This usually happens after a leisurely dinner, when I’m sitting at the table and sipping the last of the day’s wine. When that wine happens to be French, so, usually, are the memories. Remember, I’m a geezer, and like almost all of my generation, the wines I learned on almost all spoke French.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

One recent dinner of not-quite boeuf bourguignon featured a lovely bottle of Bouchard Côte de Beaune 1er cru, a blend of wines from several of Bouchard’s vineyards. Bouchard is one of the great négociant houses, and in my youth was internationally famed as a prime source for fine Burgundies. So back then I didn’t hesitate for a second when I was invited to join a group of journalists to visit Bouchard’s cellars and vineyards in celebration of – if my memory is accurate – Bouchard’s 175th harvest or year of bottling or something significant like that. Senior moment: I can recall the wines, but not the reason.

This was a stellar trip, kicked off by a spectacular dinner and equally fine brandy in a soigné rooftop restaurant overlooking the panorama of Paris. I have no idea how the neophyte journalist I then was got invited to join that small group of otherwise distinguished wine writers, but I knew I was happy.

And I continued so for the rest of the trip. It rapidly became clear to me that this junket was not the usual fare for wine journalists. As we meandered around Burgundy, visiting and tasting in cellar after cellar, talking to growers and wine makers, and dining extremely well night after night, we noticed that at each dinner, among the many good wines that were poured, there was always one very special one, either an older bottle, or a special vintage, or a particularly prized cru. No one grew blasé, and we looked forward with real eagerness to each night’s revelation.

At our farewell dinner, the pièce de resistance turned out to be a forty-year-old bottle of Bouchard’s Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus, a monopole and one of Bouchard’s most esteemed wines. You can guess our anticipation as the wine was poured and we swirled and sniffed – heaven! – and finally sipped. The entire table, until then babbling noisily, was awed to silence for a few moments. Until one of my colleagues, with characteristsic New York irreverence, broke the silence with “I’m drinking the baby Jesus’s velvet pants!” Crude, but in its way quite accurate, and much appreciated by our French hosts.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Back in the present, that dinner table conversation about Burgundy led Diane and me to talk about our favorite Burgundy firm, Drouhin. Drouhin, I think, doesn’t get enough respect: Its wines are so consistently good that many critics just take them for granted. Drouhin is still a family-owned concern, and the whole family works single-mindedly to achieve the elegance that has become the hallmark of their wines.

About ten years ago, I was invited to spend a long weekend in Beaune visiting their cellars and vineyards. This was a very different experience from the Bouchard trip, much more en famille. I was the only guest, for one thing, and each day a different Drouhin ferried me around to vineyards and through cellars and answered, with great patience, my endless supply of questions.

I remember particularly a conversation with Veronique Drouhin, who is in charge of most of the winemaking in Burgundy and in Oregon as well. There she works with many young interns, mostly students from UC Davis, and when I asked her about the differences between working in Oregon and in France, she provided a book’s worth of information, which I still wish she would write up and publish. What I remember most strongly of that long conversation was her account of the greatest difficulty she had encountered in working with young American winemakers.

“The hardest thing,” she said, “is teaching them to do nothing. Whenever an instrument says that something – sugar, acidity, alcohol – is a little abnormal, they want to intervene, to do something to correct the reading. I try to teach them to be a little patient, to wait a bit and whatever it is will probably correct itself, whereas whatever correction you make can only be corrected by another correction.

“They are all very strongly technologically trained, and it is very difficult to persuade them to trust the wine. But you must trust the wine!” That remark, for me, summed up in a nutshell the whole difference between Old World and New World approaches to winemaking.

My last dinner on this trip was literally en famille, with the patriarch Robert Drouhin and the whole family. Now, this was a great honor, and when I realized the wine that was being poured with no fuss was a 1966 Bonnes Mares, I was flabbergasted! I had mentioned casually to Veronique that Musigny was for me the sweet spot of all the Côte d’Or, and now the family was giving me one of France’s ne plus ultra wines. I have never forgotten its depth and savor and elegance: a wine and an experience of a lifetime. With no fuss made.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

The French, of course, are capable of very great fusses when the occasion warrants. One such was the restoration of their emblematic windmill at Moulin-à-Vent, an event I attended that was called to mind by a bottle of this year’s Beaujolais that we’d enjoyed recently with another dinner at home.

In 1999, the citizens of Beaujolais had been working on restoring the long-defunct mill’s machinery all winter. A fête had been scheduled for a day in normally windy March to mount the sails and operate the mill again, for the first time in decades. Journalists from all over Europe and the US had been invited.

France’s most prominent yachtsman and his racing crew had been asked to mount the sails on the mill’s great arms, and we all watched as they swarmed over the rigging and expertly spread the sails – just in time to receive, in a small Burgundian miracle, the first breath of wind in five days. A huge cheer went up from press and locals alike as the great arms began slowly to turn and the old mill came back to life.

A raucous afternoon of picnicking, eating, drinking, singing, and general jollity followed. Much fine Beaujolais was consumed that day, especially Jadot’s great Moulin-à-Vent, Château des Jacques, and along with it many slabs of jambon persillé and slices of saucisson rosette de Lyon. Nowhere near as glamorous as a Parisian restaurant, of course, but perhaps even more authentically French.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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