Archive for the ‘France’ Category

The Case of Cases

September 20, 2018

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

A Cabernet Franc Face-off

August 30, 2018

When it comes to scenery, Long Island is no match for the Loire Valley. The flat former potato fields of the North Fork bear no resemblance to the steep vineyards and castellated towns that punctuate the shores of the Loire and its tributaries. Moreover, the soils of Long Island’s vineyards differ greatly from those of the middle Loire, home territory of Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc: If anything, the North Fork soils come closest to the low-lying, sandy gravels and clays of Bordeaux, where Cabernet sauvignon is king..

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Loire Vineyard

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Paumanok Vineyard

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But despite all those differences, Loire grapes do very well on the North Fork. White varieties particularly thrive: Almost every grower on Long Island cultivates Sauvignon blanc, the star of the upper Loire, and Paumanok Vineyards particularly has had startling success with Chenin blanc, the prized white grape of the middle Loire.

Given that, I wondered how well Cabernet franc, the chief red grape of the middle Loire, which makes such charming dinner wines as Chinon and Bourgueil, would fare on the North Fork. To find out, I decided to taste a representative Loire Cab franc from a classic appellation against Paumanok’s Cab franc – Paumanok because of its achievement with the middle Loire’s Chenin – and check out the similarities and differences. Easy and fun: my ideal combination for all chores. And made all the more fun when Beloved Spouse opted to make a classic Loire dish for us to taste the wines with: the perfect way to spend a rainy Sunday, eating and drinking our own personal sunshine.

For this experiment I had on hand a 2016 Domaine de la Haute Olive Chinon and a 2014 Paumanok. It turned out to be just as interesting and enjoyable as I had hoped. Both wines smelled and tasted authentically of the variety – light fruit aromas, perhaps a little raspberry, with earthy, herbaceous notes and even a hint of smoke, soft on the palate, with moderate acidity and subdued black fruit: not powerhouses but charmers. Those are classic Cabernet franc characteristics.

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Tasted by themselves, in the sort of isolation that so often marks professional tastings and judgings, they seemed unexciting, but sound and well made. A hint of what they were capable of as dinner wines showed in the way both got the digestive juices flowing. They wanted food, and made the tasters want it too.

As a textbook illustration of everything that’s wrong with formal wine tastings and their resulting scores, these wines changed dramatically when dinner appeared: Both just blossomed, opening complex, soft flavors that interplayed differently and beautifully with each dish. Their differences from each other, almost invisible in the formal tasting, showed more clearly with food, the Chinon slightly lighter bodied and more elegant, the Paumanok fuller, earthier – but both interacted splendidly with the dinner. (You can read about our dinner dishes on Diane’s blog, here.) It’s no wonder Rabelais loved the wines of Chinon: They played his game.
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It was abundantly clear from this little experiment that Paumanok Vineyards has gotten Cabernet franc right, verifying in my mind that it has a vocation for Loire grapes. The question it raises for me is, how much of the North Fork shares that vocation? The predominant red grapes planted there are, unsurprisingly, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, just as in California. The prestige of Bordeaux wines has largely straightjacketed American winemaking since the 1960s, and the small amount of Cabernet franc grown here is almost always used only in Meritage wines and other replications of the orthodox Médoc blend – so Paumanok deserves praise for having the courage to bottle a monovarietal Cab franc, and even more praise for getting it so right.

The Cabernet franc red wines of the middle Loire make wonderful drinking, without being overly expensive: Sunday dinner wines you could call them, if families still made Sunday dinner a weekly special occasion. They don’t demand long aging, though they can take it, and they don’t require reverence or ceremony in their consumption. Though, come to think of it, they can probably take that too: I am just remembering that humble Cabernet franc constitutes about two-thirds of the blend of the fabled Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines. I do hope some Long Island grape growers will also remember that.

Gamay Glorified: Cru Beaujolais

July 30, 2018

Summer’s here, and the time is right – for drinking Beaujolais, whatever else the Rolling Stones may have thought.

Of course, you can enjoy Beaujolais all year round, but it does seem to be the quintessential summertime red wine – light and fresh, good drinking with all sorts of food (yes, even fish and shellfish), and yet a real wine, with subtlety and nuance enough for the most demanding palate. The Beaujolais that best supply that kind of pleasure are the cru wines – bottles from the ten named districts that constitute the heart of Beaujolais country. There, they don’t just grow Gamay: They apotheosize it.
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Right now, crus Beaujolais are probably finer than they have ever been. Producers and consumers have outgrown the obsession with Beaujolais nouveau, a to-my-mind-inexplicable phenomenon of what seems the distant past (though in fact not that many years ago). But Beaujolais’ past is checkered like that.

The Gamay grape first enters history – written history, that is – in 1395, when Duc Philippe le Hardi of the then-powerful Duchy of Burgundy ordered it to be extirpated from all his territories as a variety “tres-mauvaiz et tres-desloyaulx” and producing a wine unfit for human consumption.

Obviously, Duc Philippe, like the hero of the movie Sideways, was Pinot noir man, though it still seems more than a little bit odd to accuse a grape of disloyalty. Whatever the truth of the matter, Gamay was banished from most of Burgundy, leaving the Côte d’Or free for Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Gamay migrated a bit south, where it was welcomed by the dukes of Beaujeu and where it thrived, continuing its history under the name of Beaujolais and producing wines quite fine for human consumption.

Today, as more and more producers (both traditional firms and winemakers new to the region) give Gamay respectful treatment in field and cellar, the variety is, to quote Jancis Robinson, “showing more purely its fine, refreshing, sometimes peppery, red fruit – and surprising longevity, in the case of some wines from the ten crus of Beaujolais.”

Those ten crus form the heartland of the Beaujolais growing zone, which can be thought of as a concentric (if irregular) ring: outermost, simple Beaujolais appellation; then Beaujolais Villages; then, at the core, the crus – Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour. The soil in these vineyards is quite different from the clay-laced soils of the other Beaujolais zones: Dominated by granite and slate, it confers much greater mineral character and complexity to its wines.
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Each of those crus has a character at least slightly distinct – and in the best vintages, markedly so – from the others. Noted British wine writer Jancis Robinson rates Chiroubles as the lightest, and then in ascending order of heft, Saint-Amour, Fleurie, Régnié, Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. I don’t fully agree with that: I usually find Côtes de Brouilly and Brouilly among the lightest-bodied of the crus, and Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, and Chénas among the fullest, with all the others strung out between them. But that may be a function of which wines by which producers find their way to New York, where I drink most of my Beaujolais, and what Ms Robinson has access to in Britain and France.

The key thing to remember is that all these crus share intense Gamay fruit, decent tannins, and lovely acidity – all of which place them among the most versatile of French wines for matching with foods of all sorts. Lyon, which lies to the south of the Beaujolais, is rightly regarded as one of the gastronomic capitals of France, and the Lyonnaise drink prodigious amounts of Beaujolais – so much so that Lyon is often said to be watered by three rivers: the Saône, the Rhône, and the Beaujolais. ‘Nuf said?

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I don’t want to leave this ode to Gamay too general or impersonal: I love cru Beaujolais and I wish it got more respect among wine lovers. My favorites are Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, and Morgon. I would drink a lot more Chénas if I could get hold of it: It’s the smallest of the crus, and very little Chénas ever seems to make it to these shores. If you can find any, be sure to try it: It has a marked mineral character and a distinctive, round, dry fruit.

So far this summer, I’ve been enjoying:

Chiroubles 2016, from D. Coquelet, a young grower who learned from an old master (his stepfather is Georges Descombes, a top-tier producer). If you can imagine a whole chorus of basso profundo strawberries singing in unison, then you’ve got a good idea of what this bright, zesty wine is like.
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Fleurie Les Moriers 2016
, from Domaine Chignard, where fifth-generation winemaker Cedric Chignard a few years ago took over from his father Michel. Fleurie Les Moriers is their prized vineyard, generally regarded as one of the best in the appellation. This wine seduces with lovely, brambly, black raspberry and cherry flavors, with intriguing notes of black currant. At the upper end of the medium-bodied range.
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Juliénas Beauvernay 2016
, also from Domaine Chignard, represents a new undertaking for the family. The vineyard’s old vines (average 60 years) yield a wine very much in the Chignard style: full-bodied and a symphony of fruit – black cherry shading into plum, with black berry overtones, thoroughly enjoyable.
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Morgon Javernières 2015
, from Louis Claude Desvignes, a fat, juicy, purple-hued wine, one of several fine single-vineyards Morgons from this eighth-generation producer.
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Punching Above Its Weight Class: Chateau Pontet Canet

July 9, 2018

Technically, Pontet Canet is a “mere” cinquième cru, a chateau placed in the lowly fifth rank of the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines – but you’d never know that from the way the wines taste. From the powerhouse Pauillac commune, Pontet Canet fully delivers the appellation’s characteristic force, combined with great elegance and a fine ability to age gracefully and long.

A Muhammad Ali listed among lightweights, this is an estate that indeed punches above its supposed class. A few weeks ago, Diane and I belatedly celebrated her birthday with a dinner bottle of Pontet Canet 1997, a 21-year-old from what is usually regarded as at best a middling year in Bordeaux.

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Well, there was nothing middling about this bottle: big wafts of wood smoke, prunes, and dried flowers in the aroma; velvety and balanced in the mouth, redolent of dried red fruits and underbrush, with a long, smooth finish, almost a slow glide into silence. Our cheese course brought up in it waves of fresh fruit sweetness, black, plummy fruit sweetness. It was simply lovely, and as we experienced it, we couldn’t imagine any way it could have been better without being a different wine entirely. That, I think, is all you can ask of any wine.

Pontet Canet stands apart from most other Médoc châteaux in two non-trivial respects. In its long history, it has had only three owners, and its cellars are underground. The latter is a true rarity in Bordeaux, and I do think it makes – or maybe more accurately in these days of ubiquitous air conditioning, it made – a difference in the wine.
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The estate was founded in 1725 by Jean-Francois de Pontet, an important figure in Bordeaux. In 1852 Pontet Canet was sold to the Cruse family, major Bordeaux négociants, who owned it until 1975 when it was bought by the Tesseron family, who have spent many years and francs and euros steadily improving the property and its wines. As Feret’s Bordeaux and Its Wines (the unofficial bible of Bordeaux) puts it, “At present, better than its classification…. In the 1855 classification, it was listed top of the fifth growths, but today the wine sells like a top second growth.”

Pontet Canet is a large estate, even by Médoc standards. It has 80 hectares in vines: that’s about 200 acres. They are planted 60% to Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% to Merlot, 5% to Cabernet franc, and a token 1% to Petit Verdot. Except for the tiny amount of Petit Verdot, that’s pretty much a standard Bordeaux blend.

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I have very pleasant memories of a visit to Pontet Canet not very many years after its acquisition by the Tesserons. After a dusty, warm tour of the vineyards and a tasting of recent vintages, we adjourned to the comfortably cool cellar where genial Alfred Tesseron presided over a very enjoyable dinner accompanied by several older vintages of Pontet Canet, each showing a different stage of the maturation of classic Pauillac, and each demonstrating the elegance he prized so highly in the wine.

He ended the meal with a little bit of Bordeaux theatre: An unidentified wine was served from decanter, and it really capped the evening. Headily fragrant and deeply flavorful, it was different from Pontet Canet yet similar to it in style, intriguing all of us. It turned out to be a 1945 Lafon Rochet, the fourth growth St. Estèphe estate the Tesserons had acquired at the same time as Pontet Canet. Alfred Tesseron’s point was to show us that the rankings really, finally meant very little: Almost every patch of the Médoc, he thought, was capable of greatness when it was treated properly. He made his point very well, and the lesson has stayed with me all these years.

Good as Pontet Canet already was in those years, it has been growing steadily better, and has now embarked on the whole biodynamic enterprise, one of the few major Bordeaux estates to undertake what some growers consider a very risky gamble. On the basis of too few tastings of recent Pontet Canet vintages, my palate says it’s working. The wines I’ve tasted have been pleasing and accessible, but still seem to have the structure to age as well as the vintages of the past. Given the care with which the Tesserons have managed Pontet Canet, I would expect no less.

Tales from the Crypt: A Cellar Story

June 28, 2018

My wine “cellar” is in fact a rented mini-storage unit in a big, thick-walled warehouse alongside the Hudson River, not too cold in winter and not too hot in summer. Most collectors would scream with horror at such an uncontrolled repository for their wines, but I’m not a collector and never have been.

(cover illustration © Mort Todd)

The wines I’ve stored over the years have been a hodge-podge: some bottles I wanted to give more maturity before drinking, and some samples – from back in the days when I was a more active wine journalist and samples came in over the transom – that I didn’t have time to taste at the moment but thought I might need for future articles. So if less-than-perfect storage conditions meant speeding up their maturation – in effect adding a few years to their calendrical age – that was and is no problem for me. In fact, it’s an advantage, since I have no plans to bequeath a cellar to my heirs and assigns, and I’d like to taste these wines while I still have functioning taste buds.

This is a long preamble to the fact that, now that I’m plodding my way through the Vale of Years, I’ve stopped adding wines to my hoard and started bringing home cases for tasting and drinking. Most of the time, these cases form a pretty mixed lot: My most recent one consisted mostly of 2007 and 2008 wines – some Burgundies and Chateauneufs and some Tuscan and Piedmontese bottles – all red, and all potentially pretty nice drinking, even if still a bit young by strict standards.

But this also furnished an opportunity to test just how quickly my less-than-perfect storage was aging these wines: Would I be able to taste properly maturing flavors, and would they be appropriate ones for 10- or 11-year-old wines?  Interesting questions, and just the kind to tempt an old wine-bibber to make a test.

So test I did, choosing 3 wines of the 2007 vintage from the case, a Chanson Clos des Fèves Beaune Premier Cru, a Selvapiana Bucerchiale, and a Cogno Barolo Ravera. I opted for those three wines because I know them well and am familiar with the pattern of their development. And I picked 2007 because it was a good, solid vintage in all three zones and because, at 10-11 years old, these wines ought to be on the cusp, passing from youth to maturity. So for my test purposes, these wines would be perfect subjects, able to answer the questions I’m asking.

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I allowed all the wines three hours breathing in bottle, not decanted. First wine up was the Chanson Clos des Fèves, which showed clear garnet with a definite orange edge – in a French wine, a definite sign of aging. It had a good nose of dark berries and dried fruit, with underbrush notes and a slight hint of wood. On the palate, the taste confirmed the aroma: dried cherry, medium body, fine balance, graceful and elegant, with a long, dry, fruit-and-leather finish. A little less substantial than I would have hoped, and a little further along its evolutionary path than I expected, but still not fully mature. In an ideal cellar, I would expect this wine to peak at about 20 years old or a little bit more. This bottle I would think would have needed only two or three more years to develop fully: to put on a little more flesh and open more forceful mature aromas.

Next came the Selvapiana Bucerchiale, a slightly darker wine with a bit more orange at the edge, which is quite characteristic of many Italian wines and not necessarily a sign of aging. It had a biggish aroma of dried fruits – a suggestion of prune – and earth notes. In the mouth, it was big and soft, with dark flavors – dried berries and a little tobacco – with fine balance and persistence. Not a huge wine, but mouth-filling. Though it showed no fresh fruit tastes, it still seemed some years from full maturity. I’d say that it’s on a proper path of maturing though a bit accelerated: From what I know of Bucerchiale, I would expect it to peak at about 25 years old in an ideal cellar; in mine, I think it will top off at about 20, which can’t come soon enough for me.

Then I tasted the Cogno Barolo Ravera, which showed the most orange of all the wines, and which I regard as perfectly normal for developing Nebbiolo-based wine. The nose offered a whole mélange of elements – dried cherry/berry, wet stones, mushroom, with similar notes in the mouth, where it showed as big and slightly tannic. On the palate this wine displayed no fresh fruit, but not all the mature Nebbiolo flavors that I look for were yet in place. So it is still evolving, and still needs some years before it will be fully mature. In a good cellar, this wine will go for 30 or 40 years: good Nebbiolo wines do that. In my storage, I expect it to be drinking best at 20 to 25 years old – which is a lot better for those of us not building heritage collections, but for a person of my age is still seriously pushing the envelope.

My Tasting Workshop

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This for me was a really interesting experiment, and it confirmed a lot of what I’ve thought about “cellaring” wines – principally that a lot of what have been thought to be absolutes about how wine is to be stored are far from absolute. Rather, they’re based ultimately on the evolution of wines in their makers’ caves or in the cellars of 19th century English great houses, cellars that are meant to be steadily drawn on and augmented over a lifetime and left as an inheritance for one’s heirs.

That doesn’t speak to the needs of people of more limited means and lacking anything approaching a great house, who want mature wine to enjoy in their lifetime. So as regards the “rules” of wine storage, I’d borrow a phrase from Martin Luther: Sin bravely. Just think about what you want from your wine and how to get it, then go and do it.

One Fine Wine: Deiss Alsace Pinot Gris 2011

June 18, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

Among Alsace white wines, Riesling seems to get the lion’s share of attention from the press and the public. That’s understandable: there are many great ones. But if any grape variety deserves to be Alsace’s poster child, in my opinion it should be Pinot gris, for its uniqueness, its intensity, and its outstanding quality. Nowhere but Alsace does the grey Pinot give wines of such power and grace and, at the same time, such extraordinary versatility with food.

Alsace vineyards do very well with several varieties that elsewhere get only secondary interest from growers and consumers – Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Gewürztraminer to name a few. All, in Alsace, yield wines of greater interest and surprising adaptability with food of all sorts. My usual go-to wine with Indian dishes, for instance, is Gewürztraminer, whose combination of dryness and spicy fruit answers well to the intricate spicings of Indian cooking. So, when Diane decided to make us an Indian dinner, I went into my stash looking for a Gewürz – and came up empty-handed. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I decided to try a bottle of 2011 Deiss Pinot gris. It was not as old as I really like my Pinot gris, but it’s well known by now that I’m a nut on the subject of mature wines. In any event, with Indian flavors, all the usual rules are off, so I thought I’d take a flier with that barely-seven-year-old.

Well, the Pinot gris worked out beautifully, starting right with the appetizer samosas and the garlic-and-lime pickle that accompanied them, and right on through a rich goat curry, butter-smothered cabbage, mung dal, and a refreshing chilled cucumber raita (all out of Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking). The wine either tasted totally dry or suggested some fruit sweetness according to the peculiarities of each dish, but its own unusual quince-and-mango fruitiness meshed very well with them all – and its typically Alsace firm structure meant that it never became flabby or in any way negligible. It was never just a liquid but became itself an important component of the flavor symphony of the meal.

Deiss is a prestigious family firm, headquartered in Bergheim, which is as close as you can get to dead center of the Alsace wine zone. Deiss biodynamically farms 26 hectares of vines, spread over several villages and including at least three Grand Cru sites. This Pinot gris is one of Deiss’s basic and least expensive bottlings, so its very high quality should tell you what you need to know about the family’s more rarified selections.

Deiss’s Grand Cru Altenberg Vineyard

Four Fine Bordeaux Estates

May 21, 2018

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a Bordeaux tasting as thoroughly as I did this season’s final Wine Media Guild lunch. For more than a few years now, I’ve been unhappy with a lot of the biggest names in Bordeaux because the wines have been tasting – how to put this? – more and more industrial to me, as if they were the end-result of a large-scale commercial production. Whatever the truth of that, there were no such problems with the WMG’s tasting of Château Latour Martillac (Pessac Leognan), Château Beychevelle (Saint Julien), Château Kirwan (Margaux), and Château Guiraud (Sauternes).

All were classic examples of what their appellations ought to be – or what my memory tells me their appellations used to be before The Sacred Quest for Parker Scores homogenized Bordeaux. If these wines are bellwethers of a wave of post-Parkerism . . . well, let’s just say it’s about time.

What I was impressed by in these four estates was their balance, elegance, restraint, fidelity to variety and terroir, and vitality – all qualities likely to escape the notice of the wine newbie or wannabe interested only in bold fruit, but ultimately the characteristics that separate fine wine from fermented grape juice.

  • The Latour Martillac reds all showed the lovely cedary-ness and sinewy-ness, the whites the roundness and vigor of the Graves.
  • The Beychevelles had all the balance and appeal, the cushioned Cabernet flavors, that one hopes for in Saint Julien.
  • The Kirwan wines were simply classic Margaux, enticing in the nose and opulent in the mouth.
  • And the Guiraud wines presented a symphony of botrytis and mineral flavors, amazing sweetnesses counterbalanced by vivid acidity, that amount to almost a definition of Sauternes.

These were Bordeaux wines as I haven’t experienced them in a long, long time, and I loved every minute of it.

Any of these wines, even the oldest, could mature further. The ’98 Guiraud, for instance, still needs ten years to reach its peak, and none of 2000 reds showed any sign of fading. The 2000 Kirwan, in fact, was one of the top two wines of the day for me. The younger wines all seemed to be developing quite nicely, with the 2005 Beychevelle in particular (my other top-two wine) already tasting splendid and promising years of further development. Were I several decades younger than I am, I would be cellaring these wines and trying to keep my hands off them for at least a few years more.

Here are the wines presented at the luncheon:

Château Latour Martillac Blanc 2011, 2013, 2015
Château Latour Martillac Rouge 2000, 2010, 2015

Châateau Beychevelle 2000, 2005, 2009, 2014, 2015
Château Beychevelle Amiral de Beychevelle 2015

Château Kirwan 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015
Charmes de Kirwan 2010

Château Guiraud Sec 2015
Château Guiraud 1998, 2009, 2010, 2015
Petit Guiraud 2015

That last wine is a rather charming demi-sec. The two second-labels presented, Amiral de Beychevelle and Charmes de Kirwan, both showed as smaller but still elegant versions of the primary wines. One last noteworthy quality of all the wines shown was the consistency of style each house demonstrated over several quite different vintages, which is no small accomplishment. It would be a wonderful thing if a great Bordeaux revival was a-borning.

Bordeaux Blancs: Silver Threads in a Sea of Reds

March 16, 2018

Once upon a time, the Bordeaux region produced more white wine than red. Unless you are well over 50 or of a scholarly bent, I suspect that statement comes as a surprise. Nevertheless, it’s true: It wasn’t until the 1970s that red wine production surpassed white in Bordeaux, and it hasn’t looked back since. Now white varieties account for less than 10% of the total Bordeaux vineyards – though that still amounts to over 42 million bottles of white wine a year.

Numbers like that seriously challenge our notions of winemaking as an artisanal activity, but wine has long been big business in Bordeaux. Back in the heyday of white Bordeaux, dry wines like the white Haut Brion and sweet wines like Château Yquem were the style- and price-leaders of the region. Good Sauternes have held onto a diminished market share and an undiminished reputation, and no one questions the greatness of Haut Brion blanc, but most producers of dry white Bordeaux have to scrabble hard for shelf space these days.
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Image from The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Click to enlarge.

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To cast some light on this neglected sector of the wine universe, the Wine Media Guild devoted its March meeting to exploring a broad spectrum of whites from throughout the entire Bordeaux zone: That is, from both sides of the river Gironde and its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne, as well as from the northern tip of the Medoc peninsula to about 50 miles south of the city of Bordeaux. This covered a lot of ground and many different wines, all of which were thoroughly explained by the WMG member-organizer of the event, Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW.

The appellations involved included the largest, Bordeaux Blanc, representing roughly 60% of the production, and from anywhere in the zone, and the next largest, Entre-Deux-Mers. The latter is an exclusively white-wine-producing zone lying between the Garonne and Dordogne: It accounts for about 20% of the production. Also included were representatives of much smaller appellations, including several Côtes, for example, Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg: All the Côtes together account for about 3% of the white wine production. The most prestigious zones remain Graves (5%) and Pessac-Leognan (3%). The latter used to be comprehended within the Graves, and its wines have always been among the very best of all the appellations.

The Wine Media Guild tasting ran to 30 wines, none older than the 2013 vintage and the majority from 2016. The complete tasting sheets, showing each wine, its vintage, its grape mix, importer, and suggested retail price, is appended to the end of this post. A quick look at it will show that the predominant grape varieties in Bordeaux blanc are Sauvignon blanc – the heavy favorite, with even a few 100% Sauvignon blanc wines – and Semillon, with a small amount of Muscadelle and/or Sauvignon gris occasionally used.

Most suggested retail prices are very reasonable, which is appropriate, because the great majority of these wines are pleasing companions to everyday meals. That is emphatically not damning with faint praise: The world needs more well-made, simple wines like many of these, at prices that ordinary human beings can afford; and the recent up-tick in American consumption of white Bordeaux may very well reflect a growing perception of their value-for-dollar ratio.

I am not a super-fan of Sauvignon blanc, not even in its Old-World manifestations, which tend to be more subdued (less cat’s pee) and more elegant than the New World versions. But I do think that blending Sauvignon with Semillon makes a wine that is better than the sum of its parts, so most of the wines at this tasting easily passed muster, and a few really spoke to me. Enthusiasts for Sauvignon will probably rate all these wines even higher.

Château Carbonnieux has long been a favorite of mine, and the 2015 vintage in this tasting did not disappoint. It had a combination of depth and elegance and balance that seemed to indicate it would be gorgeous in two or three more years.

Right up there with it was Château Brown, an unmemorably named wine that, as a colleague remarked, usually flies under the radar. This 2014 vintage was just lovely and kept opening in the glass, showing more and more fruit and structure.

I’d give the bronze for this tasting to the 2015 Clos Floridene, a balanced and gentle wine of real charm. These three – and a few others – are more than just everyday-dinner wines – though, come to think of it, they would do just fine with a good chicken, or a turkey thigh.

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You can see the complete Wine Media Guild list here.

A Paler Shade of Bubble: Blanc de Blancs Champagne

January 1, 2018

This year’s New York Wine Press annual Champagne luncheon went to the opposite end of the Champagne color spectrum from the Wine Media Guild’s Rosé event in the preceding week. It presented ten Blanc de Blancs Champagnes and one stray-but-interesting English sparkling wine, all surrounding an unusual menu executed by Café Centro’s chef Christina Towers.

This was, quite evidently, an enjoyable and delicious affair, and each of the wines interacted handsomely with the slightly-off-the-beaten-track dishes. Naturally, I had my favorites: I’m nothing if not judgmental, and half the pleasure of an event like this for me is the chance to draw fine distinctions in character and pleasingness.

I insist on “pleasingness,” and not “quality,” because the quality of all these wines was very high, and what I am really talking about is how well, on this one special occasion, each wine seemed to my palate. As I’ve said many times in this blog, that’s all any tasting note really is: None is the sacred scripture engraved on stone that so many consumers take them for. End of sermon.
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Of the two fine aperitif Champagnes, I preferred the Deutz – but then I often prefer Deutz, a house much esteemed in Europe but not so well known here. This 2007 showed splendidly, with all the nimbleness you hope for in a blanc de blancs, plus the impressive austerity and subtle power so characteristic of Deutz.

The diverse flavors of the first course could have proven a serious challenge for many wines, but they integrated quite harmoniously in themselves and worked surprisingly well with all three wines. Gusbourne, the English sparkler (for those who may not have gotten the memo, English sparkling wine has been making great advances in recent years), was the lightest-bodied of the three, with juicy wheat-and-yeast flavors on the palate and good minerality.

The Collet also showed as light and wheaty, lean, lithe, and fresh on the palate, with a very long finish – quite enjoyable. The Henriot, a non-vintage Champagne, tasted just gorgeous. Vinified from Grands Crus vineyards, it was classic Henriot – big and structured and graceful. For me, it was the wine of the day. In the New York area, it seems to average between $55 and $65 a bottle, a very decent price for a Champagne of this quality.

The second course again could have presented serious challenges to wine matches, with its pastis-flavored-and-colored risotto, but all three Champagnes responded very well. The nice, substantial Drappier was a touch unusual in that it contained 4% Pinot blanc (not at all discernible  to the taste). The Pol Roger 2009 made the strongest showing of the three, partially because of the good vintage and partially because of its Pol Roger character, suave and authoritative.

The final beef course should have been the most difficult for any blanc de blancs wine to deal with, but once again the Champagnes rose to the challenge. All drank well with the filet steak and the delicious short ribs in crust, though – truth to tell – both the Taitinger ’95 and the Heidsieck ’95 tasted a tad too old. Whether they were in fact beginning to fade, or whether beef just didn’t bring out their best, I couldn’t really tell.

The slightly younger – vintage 2000 – Perrier-Jouet on the other hand was a lovely, floral, elegant Christmas gift, the most enjoyable wine of the flight. Which it ought to be, given its stratospheric price (around $250). And that makes a suitably high note on which to end this report.

A Happy New Year to all!

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Blushing

December 11, 2017

By and large, I am not a great fan of blush wines, but I do make a large exception for rosé Champagne. It’s not just that it looks attractive: Contrary to still rosé wines, rosé Champagnes tend to be a little bigger, a little fuller, and to taste more of the grapes they’re made from than do the basic Champagne blends, or even Blanc de blancs.

That’s because Champagne is a wine of process and only secondarily – in most cases, a far distant secondarily – of the grapes or their terroir. I guess it’s because of the greater assertiveness of red grapes, or maybe because of the necessary fact of skin contact with the musts in the making of rosé, that rosé Champagnes show more of both their grapes and their terroir than does any other kind of Champagne. And there’s no question that – again, by and large – rosé Champagne is the most adaptable with food: It is for me the dinner Champagne.

All of this was forcefully and very enjoyably brought home for me at this year’s Wine Media Guild Champagne lunch, which spotlighted 22 examples of rosé Champagnes.
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The annual event occurred this year at mid-Manhattan’s Gattopardo restaurant, where the excellent cooking has a decidedly Sicilian bent. Not a very natural fit for Champagne, you might think, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but the afternoon’s rosés took it nicely in stride, drinking very pleasantly alongside everything from mini-arancini through rigatoni with eggplant to juicy, tender slices of veal filet, fingerling potatoes, and broccoli rape. Every wine I tasted showed well with these to-them-very-foreign foods. There aren’t many other – probably none, in fact – such characteristically French wines I would try that with.

As he has for the past decade, Ed McCarthy, who has become almost a patron saint of Champagne, gathered and presented the wines, 15 nonvintage and 7 vintage, ranging in price from a low of around $45 to a high of around $300. (In computing prices, Ed didn’t take the distributors’ suggested retail prices but an average of the actual prices he found in local retail shops.)

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The highest was Perrier-Jouet’s Belle Epoque Rosé 2006, a lovely wine and always among the most costly at these events. Definitely out of my price range, but unquestionably an excellent example of the breed. The best buy of the day was Lenoble Brut Rosé NV, a fresh and enjoyable wine from a small producer – which means that bargain hunters are going to have to work to find it. (Note: All the wines at this lunch are available on the American market, but distribution – especially for those of small production – can be very spotty.)

The vintage Champagnes of course were more expensive than most of the NV, the great majority of which fell into the $50-$60 range. One exception was Moet & Chandon’s Extra Brut Rosé 2009, which retails for about $65, and which Ed admired greatly, calling it “a very special wine,” even though he thought it still too young. At that price, it is a very special wine indeed.

Here is the whole list of the Champagnes in the order of their presentation, starting with the lightest:

 

Ayala Rosé Brut Majeur NV
Henri Giraud “Fut de Chene” Brut Rosé NV
Lamiable Grand Cru Brut Rosé NV
Phillipe Gonet Brut Rosé NV
Boizel Brut Rosé NV
Collet Brut Rosé NV
Duval-Leroy 1e Cru Brut Rosé NV

Mumm Brut Rosé NV
Henriot Brut Rosé NV
Piper-Heidsieck Sauvage Rosé NV
Lenoble Brut Rosé NV
Deutz Brut Rosé NV
Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé NV
Louis Roederer Brut Rosé 2011
Bollinger Brut Rosé NV
Moet & Chandon Extra Brut Rosé 2009
Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Reserve NV

Pol Roger Brut Rosé 2008
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Rosé 2006
Taittinger Comtes Brut Rosé 2006
Ruinart Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé 2004
Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Rosé 2006

 

These wines all showed very well: There wasn’t one I wouldn’t be happy to drink, especially with classic French cuisine. My favorite wines of the day were – predictably: I’m a creature of habit – all old reliables: Henriot, Gratien, and Roederer, followed closely by Moet & Chandon and Pol Roger.
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Ed deserves the last word: His favorites (I infer from his audible enthusiasm: He tried his best to be impartial in his presentation) included Ayala, Mumm, Henriot, Gratien, Moet & Chandon, Charles Heidsieck, Pol Roger, and Ruinart. That may seem like a lot, but Ed really loves Champagne, and the truth of the matter is that he enjoyed every single one we tasted. He is an amateur of Champagne in the most literal sense of the word: Would that every wine lover could experience Champagne as passionately as he does.