Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Enjoyable Everyday Wines II

March 21, 2019

I’m posting now about the inexpensive case of mixed, everyday red wines I put together as a complement to the dozen everyday white wines I talked about two posts back.

.
We drink a lot of white wine at Casa Maresca, but we consume even more red. I’d guess that two out every three, maybe three out of four, dinners we make call for red wines – and since I care strongly about making the wine and food play happily together, it means I like to keep a good variety of red wines on hand. And that means, of course, reasonably priced wines, for all the obvious reasons.

Enough prologue: Here’s the list.

  • Barale Barbera d’Alba 2017 Castlé
  • Barale Dolcetto d’Alba 2017 Le Rose
  • Bodegas Olarra Rioja Reserva 2010 Cerro Anon
  • Cà Lustra di Zanovelli Marzemino 2017 Belvedere
  • Centopassi Nero d’Avola 2016 Argille di Tagghia Via
  • Château de Plaisance Anjou Rouge 2017 Entre Copains
  • Cuvée des Galets (Côtes du Rhône) 2016
  • Filipa Pato (Vinho Tinto Bairrada DOC) Baga 2017
  • Oreste Buzio Freisa del Monferrato 2017
  • Oreste Buzio, Grignolino del Monferrato 2017 Casalese
  • Villa Sant’Anna Chianti Colli Senese 2015
  • Viña Real Rioja Crianza 2015

In selecting this batch of wines, I was not trying to be experimental, to try new wines or kinds of wines I’m not familiar with. Food compatibility was the goal, and compatibility with the kinds of food we cook every day was the guiding principle of selection. Hence the preponderance of Italian wines on the list, and especially the large presence of Piedmontese wines, which I think are particularly food-friendly, and which – happily – are available in good variety in the New York area.

Barbera and Dolcetto I find are especially useful. Barbera’s medium body and high acidity make it compatible with an extraordinary range of foods, from – to choose a few random examples – asparagus frittata to tomato-based sauces to grilled sausages or even steaks, especially gamy cuts like skirt steak or hanger steak. Dolcetto is softer-bodied and far less acid, and it loves buttery sauces, mushrooms, more delicate meat – especially veal in any form.

Nero d’Avola is also medium-bodied, and on the palate feels and tastes Merlot-ish. Its strong suits are stews and brown-sauced casseroles – really any dish that isn’t aggressively sauced or spiced.

Even more useful – the utility infielder of red wines – is that perfectly named Anjou red, Entre Copains – “among pals,” which is how I envision large quantities of this wine must be drunk on its home turf. It’s 100% Cabernet franc, which is a Loire valley specialty, and this is one of most welcoming versions of it I’ve encountered. Its pleasing, soft, generic red fruit would match with anything from a good pizza on up the culinary scale to simple roasts and grilled meats. It’s practically the definition of an enjoyable everyday wine.

The Côtes du Rhône wasn’t quite that all-niches useful: By itself, it was a fairly light, high-acid Rhône, with cherryish fruit and a good finish, but it rounded nicely and gained some flesh with food, especially with cheese.

The Baga from Filipa Pato was also surprisingly soft on the palate and versatile with food. It stood up well, for instance, to mideastern spiced lamb meatballs and to Indian chutneys and pickles. Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato, the acknowledged master of this grape in Portugal, and with this particular wine she has chosen a different path from that of her father’s formidable bottles.

The Grignolino and Freisa are more specialized wines that I couldn’t resist buying, since I don’t encounter them that often. Both are light-bodied, light-fruited reds ideal for warm weather quaffing, which is exactly what I’m saving them for. I should have done that too with the Colli Senese Chianti: These are always at-most-medium-bodied and fruity, with a touch of Sangiovese elegance, but this bottle was a tad too light for matching with cold weather dinners.

The Marzemino was another wine I selected simply because I don’t get many chances to taste it. This one turned out to be a big, not entirely balanced wine, black-plum fruited and a touch hot: It loved steak and mushrooms, but wasn’t too happy with anything else.

The two Riojas – Crianza and Reserva, at opposite ends of the aging spectrum – were both a bit disappointing. I love Rioja and find it very useful as a dinner wine, but of these two bottles the Reserva was too young of its kind and yet still too important for everyday utility, while the Crianza had been exposed to too much oak, which diminished its freshness and charm. I won’t give up on Rioja, however: I’ll just have to sample some others.

And there’s my necessary excuse to order some more wine. Diane, look away.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines I

February 28, 2019

If you’re a committed wine lover and need your fix every day, it’s a great advantage to live in New York City. The variety of fine wine available is unmatched anywhere in the world, and shopping is a snap. Let it sleet and storm outside: You can sit at your desk – perhaps sipping a glass of wine – and let your search engine (Wine-Searcher is a good one) investigate for you. That’s especially handy if you know more or less the kind of wine you’re seeking.

Even handier is the search service provided by several of the larger retail shops in New York, which allows you to rummage through their entire inventory by any of several different criteria.
.

.
I’m especially fond of one that Astor Wine and Spirits offers: searching by price range. That’s useful for any number of reasons, but I especially like that it offers me things I might not have thought of, wines outside my usual Italian and French go-to categories. We all get into ruts: This helps push me out of them. Twenty minutes of online browsing and I can put together a case of 12 different whites and another of 12 different reds at prices I like – say between $10 and $20 for everyday wines – and they will probably be delivered within 24 hours. For an aging wino, it doesn’t get much easier.
.

.
Let me be clear: When I say everyday wines, I mean every day. Diane and I have wine with dinner every night. All right, maybe once or twice a year we have beer, but 99 times out of 100 we opt for wine – and like most people in this galaxy, we can’t afford to drink great wine every time. Not that I haven’t done my best to raise the level of our daily bottle by, for decades now, buying wines young and unready but at reasonable prices and squirreling them away for as long as I could.

Besides, it’s not just wine we care about: It’s also and especially what Italians call the abbinamento – coordinating the wine with the food it accompanies. That’s crucial to making an everyday dinner something to relish. You have to pay attention to the way the wine and the food mesh. Much as I love mature Barolo and Barbaresco, I don’t want to drink them with a dish of frankfurters and beans. It’s disproportionate – and besides, good franks and beans are estimable in their own right and deserve a decent wine that works well with them. Don’t send a Brunello to do what a Bardolino can do better, don’t open a Beaune Premier Cru where a Beaujolais Villages is what’s needed.

(Incidentally, the above examples illustrate the first principle I laid out centuries ago in The Right Wine, my book about wine and food matching: Scale is crucial. I feel even more strongly about the second principle declared in that book: Acidity is what makes a wine food-friendly. But that’s a topic for a different post. End of digression.)

Now, just what sort of everyday wines am I talking about? Well, here’s the case of white wines, all under $20, that I recently purchased, most of which I tasted first as an aperitif (we all need to keep up our strength while cooking) and then with dinner.

 

Alsace Auxerrois Leon Manbach 2017 – Very pleasant, light, but substantial enough to handle a choucroute. Nice white-flower and mineral nose, round, but with enough acidity to work with food. Quite decent.

Alvarinho Couto de Mazedo 2016 (Vinho Verde) – Very nice Albariño, crisp, fresh, aromatic: Good aperitif, fine with fish.

Alvarinho Regueiro 2016 (Vinho Verde) – quite fine: rounder and fuller than the preceding wine, more dinner wine than aperitif. Excellent with a roasted orata (sea bream).

Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc 2017 – excellent Beaujolais producer. Nice unwooded Chardonnay, with round fruit and great freshness. Very enjoyable.

.

 

Classic Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet 2016 – This is a Muscadet producer I normally like very much, but this bottle was a bit of a disappointment. Drunk by itself, it tasted too much of oak. Food wiped that out to some extent, but it never rose to the level of crispness and sharpness I had hoped for.

De Cranne Bordeaux Sec 2016 – Should have been really interesting (the blend is 40% Sauvignon gris, 25% Muscadelle, and 35% Semillon), but turned out to be somewhat coarse and disappointing.

Gavi di Gavi Podere Merlina 2017 – Not a big, round Gavi, but a lighter-bodied, mineral-inflected example, with a marked and enjoyable citrus bite. Fine as aperitif and with lighter fare.

Meyer-Fonné Alsace Gentil 2016 – A lovely Alsace wine, so floral that the initial taste seemed German, but it rounded beautifully with a pheasant pâté and roasted chicken thighs.

.

 

Ribolla Gialla Ronchi di Cialla 2017 (Friuli Colli Orientali) – quite fine and characteristic. Stood up beautifully to a choucroute garnie, and I don’t know how much more you can ask of a white wine.

Rioja Blanca Real Rubio 2017 – A bit disappointing: old-fashioned, slightly oxidized white, not unpleasant but with no charm.

Timorasso Colli del Timorasso Ricci 2014 – A lovely light Timorasso, soft-bodied but with sufficient acid; floral aroma and delicate palate of dry pear and apricot. Very enjoyable.

Weszeli Grüner Veltliner Langenlois 2017 – Very good and characteristic Grüner, with nice balance, body, and minerality. Partnered quite nicely with Chinese dumplings and home-made egg foo young. Bright, light on palate.

.

I grant you that this is not an earthshakingly exotic list of wines: Had I wished, I could have cast a much wider net. But these are the kind of wines I like, so this time around I stuck with them. Others, of course are free to be as experimental as they wish: There were 88 other wines on the list I was choosing from. Have fun!

An Oenological Linguistic Trifecta

February 7, 2019

The recent publication of Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy (ArteVino, 2018) achieves a new high in the internationalization of wine, as well as being a serious accomplishment in wine criticism: It’s a fine English translation of a truly interesting Italian book about some wonderful French wine.

This attractive, informative volume by Camillo Favaro and Giampaolo Gravina was translated and edited by Burton Anderson in collaboration with Joanie Bonfiglio. Anderson also contributed a preface. The book has handsome photos by Maurizio Gjivovich, as well as a suite of clear and useful maps.

Italians have a different take on French wine than most Anglophone winos, a fact that made this book very interesting to me as a cultural or cross-cultural document. An inferiority complex about French wines used to color almost all my conversations with Italians about foreign wines, leading to the most preposterous overcompensations – for example, a young winemaker in Venezia-Giulia, many years ago, who had never travelled farther than Venice but who solemnly assured me that his indifferent white wine was as good as Chablis, which he had never tasted.

Fortunately, such episodes are now a thing of the rapidly receding past, and Italian winemakers these days are a lot more sophisticated. Most are much travelled, not just to their markets but also to their international colleagues and competitors. For many, that means what amounts to a pilgrimage to Burgundy, with which they often feel a deep affinity.

Most Italians even remotely professionally connected with wine – especially Piedmontese – are thinking about Burgundy when they talk about French wine. (The big exception to that gross generalization is Tuscany, where the ties to Bordeaux hold strong.)  Favaro and Gravina are typical in their passion for Burgundy, though far above average in the extent of their enthusiasm and their qualifications for writing about it.
.

.
Camillo Favaro (left, above) runs both his family winery in the Piedmont and ArteVinoStudio, an agency devoted to creative communication and design work for wineries.

Giampaolo Gravina (right) is a professor of philosophy who has also had a long career as a wine journalist, most notably as one of the editors of L’Espresso’s annual Vini d’Italia.

Both have written books on wine, separately and in collaboration: This present work is an expansion and updating of their earlier Vini e Terre di Borgogna.

Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy has little to say about the large négociant firms. Its focus is on the smaller, largely family-owned domaines – some 200 of them. The authors know their business: Just as one example, their presentation of the Chablis of Dauvissat makes a point of praising the firm’s Petit Chablis, a lovely and often overlooked wine whose “aromatics and articulation are much superior to the appellation’s standards.”

They are similarly well informed about all the domaines they feature. I was impressed, for instance, with their discussion of the soil differences and consequent differing styles of Chambolle-Musigny, a wine that is one of my favorites and a Burgundy area I thought I knew well: I learned some new things in reading through this section – as I did also in reading about Nuits-Saint-Georges, another of my favorites.

I think that Favaro and Gravina are spot-on in their characterization of the producers they discuss: The better I know the wines in question, the more I agree with. For instance, their description of Henri Gouges’s 2015s: “despite their typical internal density, our tastings have brought to light a general fusion of fleshiness with surprisingly accessible, delicious juice.”  Absolutely right, for my palate.

The two writers often manage to convey a lot of information in a direct, no-words-wasted manner. To loop back to Chablis, they very concisely describe the near austerity of Dauvissat’s cellar regime (“fermentations in used barrels, no battonage, decantation and tartrate precipitation due to natural cold, no new barrels for the élevages”) before summarizing succinctly and gracefully the character of Dauvissat’s wines – to wit: “wines of rare transparency and expressive purity, but always vibrant and sincere, never lacking tension, and capable of aging very well while expressing with nonchalance extreme precision and stylistic self-awareness.”

Nonchalance may be a bit over the top, but by and large I wish I’d said that. The writing throughout is of that high level, beautifully conveyed by the translators. Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy was for me a very enjoyable, very informative, and very personal excursion to Burgundy, and I think it will be so for any lover of Burgundy’s wines.

Snows of Yesteryear: Four Great French Wines

January 17, 2019

Around the holidays, and especially if friends are joining us for dinner, Diane sometimes elaborates our usually delicious, mostly Italianate dinners by undertaking a few complex French dishes, and I try to select wines to play up to them. This year – this past year, I must now remember to say – consciousness of the passing of time pushed me to open a battery of French beauties, the youngest a 14-year-old Burgundy and the most venerable a 52-year-old Bordeaux.

They were gorgeous, every one of them, and coordinated beautifully with the food. They were also a nostalgia trip, reminders of the kinds of flavors that got us hooked on wines in the first place, way back when newly minted assistant professors could afford serious Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Where are the snows of yesteryear indeed? Those days are gone forever, and so I fear are the kind of refined, restrained wines that were then the French norm. That incredibly elegant 1966 red Bordeaux was still live and lithe, though it had just 12 degrees of alcohol. We shall not see its like again.

.

Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru 2004
.

.
For our Christmas Eve dinner à deux, I opened this Drouhin Chambolle Musigny. Drouhin is my favorite Burgundy négociant, a house of the highest standards and impeccable reputation, for some years now committed to biodynamic production. Musigny for me is the quintessence of Burgundy, the small, sweet spot where all the magic of the Côte d’Or concentrates. If I could begin to afford it, I would drink its wines often; as my finances stand, they are rare special occasion wines. This one did not let me down.

This wine originates in several tiny parcels of Premier Cru vineyards that Drouhin owns, harvests, and vinifies together. (Tiny parcels, often only a few rows of vines, are quite common in Burgundy, where a hillside site may be divided among many owners.) After fermentation, the wine spent between 14 and 18 months in barrels. Of those, only 20% were new oak, so the Musigny Pinot noir’s rich cherry and earth flavors, and its scents of game and truffle, all showed through unmasked by any woodiness. The wine’s velvetiness results from the interplay of the grapes and wood, and shows all the customary elegance of the Drouhin style.

In the Côte d’Or, 2004 is remembered as the vintage of the marvelous September, whose sunshine and warmth transformed what had been shaping up as an iffy harvest into a splendid one. This wine showed just how splendid: its poise and grace and vitality promised years of life yet to come. A simply wonderful wine.
.

Then came Christmas day, with good friends Charles and Michele joining us for dinner. To accompany a salade de confit de geziers, a roast duck, and a cheese platter, we progressed through three red Bordeaux: Les Ormes de Pez 2000, Pichon Baron de Longueville 1978, and Gruaud Larose 1966. They all seemed to make each other better, each solo helping to form a lovely concert.
.

Château Les Ormes de Pez 2000
.

.
Les Ormes de Pez is an old family favorite, one of the first Medoc wines that Diane and I ever drank together, and one we’ve loved ever since. A humble Cru Bourgeois St. Estèphe, it has always seemed to us superior to its ranking, with a distinctive taste of its commune’s gravelly soil and dark fruit, paradoxically light on the palate.

2000 was a brilliant vintage for all the Bordeaux appellations, and this bottle was a fine example of it, supple and live and graceful. These days, when so many of the grands crus have grown big, heavy, and powerful, I think more and more that the so-called “lesser wines” are now the champions of what was once the universal Bordeaux style.
.

Château Pichon Baron de Longueville  1978
.

.
Our second red had nothing humble about: Pichon Baron was ranked a second growth in the original 1855 classification, and it has maintained that place in quality and esteem. It’s a big estate, with over 70 hectares in vines, of which Cabernet sauvignon is about two-thirds, Merlot most of the balance, with tiny amounts of Cabernet franc and Petit verdot – the classic Bordeaux blend. It’s a Pauillac and so now usually counted among Bordeaux’s heavy hitters, though – perhaps because it lies so close to the vineyards of St. Julien – I’ve always found it inclining more toward elegance and restraint than toward big fruit and power.

Certainly this 1978 fit that description, its mature fruit showing beautifully in a wonderful balance of acid and alcohol and soft tannins. Some vintage charts I’ve looked at would have it that the ’78 Bordeaux are over the hill, but my – admittedly limited – experience of them shows rather that like this wine they are just now really coming into stride, with years before them yet.
.

Château Gruaud Larose 1966
.

.
Our third wine, a Gruaud Larose, really brought back past times for Diane and me. The wine is one that has figured importantly over the years at wonderful dinners with some of our oldest friends, and this specimen is – was – my oldest bottle of it. In addition, 1966 was a wonderful vintage, genuinely one of the vintages of the century, before Bordeaux learned the retail value of declaring them so every two or three years.

Classified a second growth St. Julien in 1855, Gruaud Larose has passed through many owners since then but still occupies almost the identical territory it had in 1855. A large estate of almost 85 hectares in vines, it’s planted roughly 60% in Cabernet sauvignon, 30% in Merlot, and the remaining 10% divided among Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec. Oddly, to my mind, Gruaud Larose has a reputation for inconsistency. That has not been my experience of it: I’ve never had a less than fine bottle, and some, like this lovely 1966, have been just plain wonderful.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but this ’66 had all the elegance that St. Julien is noted for, and all the charm and warmth and life that that great vintage showed right from the start. It was probably at its peak, but it showed no sign of faltering, unless you count a substantial layer of sediment as a sign of impending doom. (I don’t.) A great wine, and it sealed a great meal with old friends – which is exactly where a great old wine belongs.

 

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..

.

Loire Vineyard

.

Paumanok Vineyard

.
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.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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?

*

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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

.
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.
.

 

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.

.
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.
.

.
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.

.
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.

.
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

.
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