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Archive for the ‘Alsace’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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Whites

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

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

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

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

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

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Reds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do You Riesel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re back from France and readjusted to reality. While our hoped-for sunny journey down the Rhône and ancillary vineyard visits didn’t work out as we wished – the weather was cold and grey, and the hours at anchor just didn’t permit the kind of excursions we wanted – we nevertheless had an enjoyable time. There was plenty of quite drinkable wine on board, though none of what a visit to Chapoutier or Jaboulet or Chave might have yielded, and the MS Camargue’s kitchen provided meals of a quite decent French hotel standard, so our sufferings were all of the imaginative, what-might-have-been sort.

I’m not really a cruise person, especially not on one of those floating apartment buildings I see lumbering up and down the Hudson, so the 104-passenger Camargue was quite big enough for me.

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I thought its beverage policy enlightened: The cost of all basic wines and spirits, available all day long, were covered by the basic trip fee. A slightly better selection was offered at modest extra charge, and that seemed more than ample for the week of our cruise.
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Indeed, as the choices of our tablemates, a charming and well-travelled New Zealand couple, showed, it was more than enough for everybody except us winos. Living as Diane and I do among wine-and-food fanatics, we tend to forget that not everyone judges the quality of their day by the caliber of their dinner wine. A sobering reminder it was.

That’s enough scene setting: Here’s what we drank. (For what we ate, see this post on Diane’s blog.)

With lunch, we drank one or another of the ship’s basic offerings. These were a nice white blend from Alsace, the sort of wine they used to call Gentil (in this case a Saveur d’Alsace from Maison Pettermann); a Pays d’Oc Chardonnay from St. Anian; a Syrah rosé from Pays d’Oc called La Jasse Neuve; a red St. Anian (a Carignane-Merlot blend); and a 2018 Côtes du Rhône Domaine de Lascamp – the latter especially pleasing.
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As you can see, nothing startling, but good basic wines from a variety of interesting regions.

At dinners, we tended to choose our wine from the boat’s larger and more interesting supplemental (quite reasonable) fee list. This was organized loosely by broad regions, and we chose wines from areas we were sailing through or near enough to consider local. So: We especially enjoyed a very fine Beaujolais Morgon, Les Vieux Cèdres, at six years old full of fresh, round, black-hued fruit; a 2016 Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche from Chapoutier; and a quite intense, deeply aromatic 2012 Cahors, Chateau Eugénie Tradition.
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For after dinner, the bar offered a nice battery of digestifs – Hennessy Cognac, an eau-de-vie Poire, a sound marc, as well as, for those so inclined, Port. On more than one evening we would have wished to take a marc or cognac up to the open top deck of the boat to enjoy the evening breezes. Alas, they were whistling down at about 25 miles an hour from the north: The Mistral was making the outdoors very uncomfortable, so it was seats at the bar most nights, just as in my misspent youth. What a tough trip.

More next post about our extra days in Lyon and wines ashore.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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“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

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Pinot Gris Is Not Pinot Grigio

Mention Alsace to a wine aficionado, and 9 times out of 10 the next word that pops out is Riesling. There’s nothing wrong with that: Alsace makes some of the best Rieslings in the world. What is wrong is if the conversation stops there, because Alsace also produces a perhaps even more distinctive wine from another grape variety, a variety that elsewhere produces largely simpler, everyday-enjoyable wines. There’s nothing wrong with that either, except that, as Alsace demonstrates, Pinot gris (yes, same grape as Pinot grigio) can be stunning – rich, complex, fully dry and at the same time luscious – a very different creature from the vast majority of its incarnations in other parts of the world.

Because of the physical limitations forced on me by my recent hip replacement and its subsequent complications, I haven’t been able to get out and around to taste all the newly released wines that normally I write about at this time of year, the heart of the New York wine season. Confined to home, I’ve been drinking a lot of simple, pleasant wines – or, more honestly, drinking a little simple wine as my digestion repairs itself from the ravages of some massive doses of antibiotics.

Boxler Brand 2004Every now and then, however, I’ve had to break out, especially when my Devoted Caregiver has provided an excellent meal that calls out to be matched with a better-than-average wine. This has meant delving ever deeper into neglected corners of my wine storage, with occasionally wonderful results. In this particular case, a delicious choucroute garnie (sauerkraut is wonderful for restoring the intestinal flora) accompanied by a superlative 2004 Pinot gris, Grand Cru Brand, from Albert Boxler, a wine so distinctive, so idiosyncratic, that I simply have no comparisons for it.

Let me be upfront here. A lot of people don’t like Alsace Pinot gris. They find it too rich, too assertive, with heavy, complex fruit so lush that it still tastes sweet even when fully dry. If I were pushed, I’d say it’s the white wine equivalent of Amarone – big and full and powerful, not for every meal, but incomparable when you find its slot. I love Amarone, and I love Alsace Pinot gris, especially with about 10 years of age on it. It will take more: The variety ages very well, but for me 10 to 15 years is the real sweet spot, where in a decent vintage the wine will still show youthful freshness while it has already started fleshing out its mature flavors.

Albert Boxler has been for years one of my favorite producers. This remains a small, family firm, working only about 13 hectares of vines – but what hectares! The family home and winery in Niedermorschwihr sits right at the foot of the Sommerberg, one of the finest Riesling grands crus in all of Alsace, and other vineyards lie in Brand, another excellent grand cru site. Both sites are on granite soils, which contribute to the mighty structure of the wines they produce.

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Boxler vineyards

Boxler’s Brand vineyard

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The proudly old-fashioned label on Boxler bottles tells you everything you need to know about fidelity to tradition in this great house.

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label

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My bottle of ’04 offered all the paradoxical pleasures one hopes for in a great, complex white wine: freshness with maturity, power with finesse, austerity with lush abundance. Never mind that most people think of choucroute garnie as a simple brasserie dish: That Boxler Pinot gris made love to it, coaxing every nuance of flavor out of the meats and answering them with its own battery of flavors. In the eloquent words of the immortal Brillat-Savarin, Yum!

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In Praise of Pinot Gris

The other night, still under the influence of the recent holidays, I chose to accompany a simple pork loin roast with a more important wine than I would usually use for a weeknight dinner: an Albert Boxler Pinot gris, Grand Cru Brand 2004. In one sense, it was a mistake, in another, a splendid choice. The wine stole the show. The pork roast – Berkshire pig, well-fatted and slow-cooked – was succulent and rich. The Pinot gris was more so.

boxlerAlready golden colored – that deep, lovely tint that most of us know from white Burgundies of great age – and so aromatic that you could be forgiven for thinking the grape a kin to Muscat, the Pinot gris was mouth-filling and intense. Slightly oily on the palate, its fruit was so forceful that my initial thought was that I was drinking a sweet wine, and it took a few seconds for my brain to register that all that fruit was fully dry – dry mango, dry peach, freshly made bread, and a congeries of smoke-and-earth flavors, all clamoring for attention. The finish went on forever. That was the (very) good news. The bad news was that that scrumptious pork really took a back seat to the wine, instead of interacting with it. A less magnificent wine would have been a better match, a lesson I will take to heart in the future. In happy dining, balance is everything.

That’s not an uncommon problem with Alsace Pinot gris, which is often as forward and assertive as my bottle of Boxler was. I love Pinot gris, but it can be hard to find the right dish for it. It’s a complicated grape, from almost any point of view. Palatally, it most resembles a blend of Viognier and Muscat with maybe a little Gewurztraminer thrown in. It never even remotely recalls Pinot grigio, which of course is the very same grape – or clones thereof – grown almost anywhere but Alsace. In Italy, where Pinot grigio has become ubiquitous, it is usually harvested pretty early, while the grapes still retain plenty of acidity. It is then vinified quickly at relatively low temperatures and in stainless steel to produce a wine that was once racy and brisk and refreshing and now has become (with a very few exceptions) a pleasant stand-in for water.

pinot grisIn Alsace, the grape ripens longer on the vine, its acidity drops, and its other components flex their muscles. Vinification and skin contact are longer, and the wine that emerges is a different beast entirely – bigger, rounder, with a very distinct spicy flavor and a very forceful personality. In a world of well-mannered white wines, Alsace Pinot gris swaggers. Not a white wine for everybody or everyday, but those who like it – and I am one of those – regard properly aged Pinot gris as one of the world’s greatest white wines.

Pinot gris probably originated as a mutation of Pinot noir, as its name hints. Where and when that happened is very much a matter of conjecture, though the variety does have a verifiable history of several centuries. Pinot gris has tagged along on Pinot noir’s worldwide dispersal, but – while some good ones are grown in the US Pacific Northwest – its best production zone unquestionably remains Alsace. There, it stands as the third most popular grape (behind Riesling and Gewurztraminer) and accounts for about 15% of the vineyards under cultivation (about 6500 acres in all). So there is not a huge amount of Pinot gris in the world, and even Alsace’s production is not of uniform quality.

My bottle was from an excellent small producer whose family home sits right in the middle of a Grand Cru site in the village of Turkheim: Brand, famed for Riesling even more than for Pinot gris.

Boxler vineyards

Boxler vineyards just outside Turkheim

There are about 50 Grand Cru sites scattered through the 105-mile-long ribbon that is the Alsace growing zone, and they are not all equally grand. At the same time, some sites that experts consider very fine have not been designated Grand Cru, so the designation is not a foolproof sign of quality but rather a general indicator. Alsace’s terroirs are extremely varied: Brand, for instance, is among a handful that have granitic soils, which makes its wines quite distinctive. Zind-Humbrecht, which is famous for the intensity of its varietal wines, also owns a portion of the Brand vineyards. Its Pinot gris is perhaps the most powerful wine of them all, and is usually priced accordingly.

In addition, Alsace, like Burgundy and the Italian Piedmont, has benefitted from global warming. It has enjoyed more excellent vintages in the past 10 or so years than in the 30 preceding – so this is a good time to acquire and put away some of this intriguing variety to develop the wonderful character it is capable of. Young Pinot gris is certainly pleasurable, but I like them best between 5 and 10 years old, when they still show an intensity of fruit but add to it more complex, developed flavors. Of course, the very best vintages – my 2004 wasn’t even one of those – can go longer than that and grow yet more complex and powerful with each passing year.

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Equally repulsed as Diane and I are by super-sentimental and hyper-commercial Christmases, we usually opt for a quiet dinner with a few close friends and a few choice wines, with a menu more or less traditional and background music eclectic. This year was typical in all respects, and especially pleasing to me because the match between wine and food worked out very well for each course.

[The music wasn’t shabby either: It started with a CD called Une Fête Chez Rabelais (you will see why that was chosen) to set the mood, and followed for the rest of the evening with discs featuring the late, great guitarist Jim Hall playing with musicians like Bill Evans, Ron Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre. Jim – as I thought of him, though I always addressed him as Mr. Hall – lived just down the block from us, and Diane and I always used to see him walking his dog, J.J. He died earlier this month, and we miss him; so I privately thought of this not just as a Christmas dinner but as a personal Jim Hall memorial. I admire elegance in music as much as in wine, and Hall’s playing was always a model of elegance.]

pol rogerWe strove for some elegance in the meal too. We began with Champagne, of course: It’s almost obligatory at this time of year, and Pol Roger never lets us down.

That bubbly accompanied hors d’oeuvre of a mousseline of smoked sturgeon, a mousseline of asparagus, and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, the latter served hot out of the oven, all three playing nicely with the effervescence and acidity of the Champagne.

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???????????????????????????????Aloxe-CortonAt table, our first course was morilles à la crème en croûte. The morels were fresh, not dried. We had bought them during their brief season, sautéed them in butter, and, after eating as many as we could hold at the time, froze the rest for just such a festive occasion as this.

They were delicious in their indescribably earthy, woodsy way. Swaddled in crème fraiche and cushioned on the world’s richest short pastry crust, they partnered beautifully with a medium-bodied, suave 2005 Aloxe Corton Premier Cru Les Vercots from Antonin Guyon.

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???????????????????????????????The pièce de résistance – this was definitely a French-accented dinner – was not a boar’s head (we’re not that traditional) but a long-cooked braised shoulder of wild boar, accompanied by French green beans and a puree of potato and celery root.

Lafon RochetThose in turn accompanied a very well-structured and deeply flavored 1998 Lafon Rochet in magnum. Maybe because it was in magnum, maybe because of the vintage, and certainly because of what the Tesseron family has been doing with this property for a few decades now, this wine could have easily been cellared for another decade.

Lafon Rochet is a fourth growth St Estèphe estate that the Tesserons have transformed as thoroughly as they have their more famous Pauillac fifth growth, Pontet Canet. This Lafon drank most enjoyably, to be sure, but it still showed so much in reserve that it was almost a shame to have it now. But it was a fine wine with the boar. It had the strength and intensity to match the richness of the meat, and the polish and complexity to play intriguingly with the sauce.

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Then came the cheese course.

???????????????????????????????At this point in the meal, I always rejoice in living just a ten-minute walk from Murray’s. We had:

  • a Colston-Bassett Stilton (Great Britain), which is as fine a blue cheese as exists anywhere,
  • a lovely, ash-grey-outside-chalk-white-inside Valençay (France),
  • a slightly pungent and very rich Grayson (Virginia),
  • a creamy and even richer Fromage d’Affinois (France),
  • and a great slab of Roomano (Holland), a sort of aged Gouda that simply loved the wine.

CornasThe wine was my very final bottle of Auguste Clape’s 1988 Cornas, which I served with equal parts of hope and trepidation – the hope because some previous bottles of this wine had been glorious, the trepidation because the last one I had opened had been dead.

Hope triumphed, I am happy to say: This was one of the glorious ones. In fact, it still showed some youth and vigor, and in addition its classic Cornas robustness made it a wonderful match for all the cheeses.

I am deeply sorry now for all the bottles of this now-priced-out-of-my-league Rhône beauty that I drank before what-I-now-understand-to-be their peak. Of such simultaneous heights and depths is the wino’s life made.

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???????????????????????????????Riesling VTMichele Scicolone had brought dessert, so we next consumed (yes, we could still eat!) her luscious pine-nut-and-apricot-jam tart. I matched that with a 2001 Trimbach Riesling Vendange Tardive, a wine with some sweetness of its own but plenty of acidity and real heft.

This was a shot in the dark, but it worked out well. The sweetness and savoriness of the tart meshed nicely with the lesser sweetness, acidity, and steely body of the Alsace wine. Of course, either would have been completely enjoyable on its own, but together they created one more dimension of pleasure and provided the final touch to what was for Diane and myself – and we certainly hope for our guests – a classic and only slightly Rabelaisian holiday feast.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hall.

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It was the best of trips, it was the worst of trips; it was sometimes a very good wine, it was never a bad one; it was sometimes a fine dinner, it was sometimes a disappointing one. Nobody wound up at the guillotine, though one of us – me! poor me – wound up the trip with some spectacular intestinal distress, of which you do not want the details. It’s enough to know that I have suffered for my art.

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Diane and I decamped from rainy, chilly New York for Barcelona and Paris at the end of September. We landed in bright sunshine and warmth and enjoyed that for our whole stay in Barcelona, before returning to rain and chill in the soi-disant City of Light. I hadn’t been in Barcelona since the Franco years. It’s a very different place now – lively, buoyant, prosperous, experiencing a strong surge of Catalan nationalism, which was reflected in sometimes unpronounceable menu entries. The Catalan language, which is widely spoken and written, is closer to Provençal than it is to Spanish, and it uses “X” – pronounced halfway between “ch” and “sh” – in unexpected places.

In Barcelona, the all-but-compulsory aperitif is cava: Spanish – excuse me, Catalan – champagne-method sparkling wine. I don’t normally get very excited about cava: Too many of those I taste here are stripped down to acidity and bubbles, with the fruit and/or minerality dropped out somewhere mid-Atlantic. But we drank many cavas in Barcelona, and they were all charming – nothing outstanding, but all pleasant. Must be the effect of the local air and the local tapas, which were delightful. With them and with our dinners we also drank a lot of Priorat and Penedes wines. Again many were charming but few striking.

The two best wines of our stay in Barcelona we enjoyed on two separate nights in our favorite restaurant, Casa Leopoldo. The red was the Riserva Especial of La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza 2001. This was only the third bottling of this Riserva Especial (the others are 1964 and 1973), and I thought it a bargain at €34. An elegant, limpid wine of great depth and complexity, it matched equally well with two widely different first courses and then with a spicy, tomato-ey tripe dish and an unctuous pig knuckle swathed with wild mushrooms. Any wine that can do that has guts as well as complexity.

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We enjoyed this dinner so much we arranged to return there for our final meal in Barcelona. Elinor, head of the waitstaff, who had taken charge of us the first evening, promised us a caught-that-day John Dory – Gallo di San Pedro here. The fish was grilled magnificently and tasted fresh and rich, as were the dishes that preceded it: absolutely fresh anchovies, lightly marinated, and tiny, tiny squids sautéed with chanterelles and topped with a poached egg. The wine that matched these very different flavors was equally rich and fresh: a big, luscious white Rueda, 2010 Belondrade y Lurton Verdejo (€44, and well worth it). A 100% Verdejo, fermented and aged on the lees in 300-liter French oak, it tasted wonderfully of fruit and mineral, with the oak showing not as a flavor but as a rounding and fattening of the lean Verdejo character. A lovely meal and a lovely wine.

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For more about what we ate in Barcelona, see this post on Diane’s blog.

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Paris, alas, was another story. In part it might have been the weather, but we missed the brilliance, the magic, that so many past dinners in Paris had led us to expect.

We had decided to skip the starred restaurants: What we wanted was honest brasserie cooking – but we couldn’t find it. Maybe we chose badly, maybe we were just unlucky. Some very simple things remained marvelous – sitting at a café table and gnawing a sandwich au jambon made with that amazing Parisian baguette; one lunch of roasted marrow bones followed by a small steak frites (Diane) and a shepherd’s pie (me) at Le Petit St. Benôit, accompanied by the house’s own simple Côtes de Rhône.

But other places that we knew from earlier visits – Louis Vins, Vagenende – had moved more upscale and lost some of their scruffy charm (plus, in the case of Louis Vins, its wonderful list of Beaujolais crus, now replaced by a battery of middling Bordeaux). New places – for instance, Le Petit Celadon – that we tried turned out to be much more formal than we were hoping for: good food, very correctly served, but a more starched experience than we wanted. One new restaurant, in a total mix-up, turned out to be the very kind of thing we were trying to avoid, a Michelin two-star “restaurant gastronomique,” with all that that entails.

And I could scarcely find any older wines. That didn’t surprise me in Barcelona – but in Paris? The best bottle of the French half of our vacation was a 1996 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Clos Windsbuhl (€134) that we drank at the afore-mentioned restaurant gastronomique: Jean Francois Piège at Thoumieux. The wine was lovely, deep and resourceful – it had to be, to match with nine largely over-the-top appetizers; a main course of Brittany blue lobster, dressed with red bell pepper puree, foie gras, and eau de coco (yes, coconut water); and a selection of five cheeses cunningly presented on tall chunks of some exotic wood – not to mention four desserts.

This restaurant – the current mutation of what had been for decades a fine, family-owned brasserie – seems typical of the hot trend of restaurants in Paris and New York. The menu is essentially fixed: You get a few choices of main course, and everything else is chosen by the chef. This means that you confront a succession of elaborate small dishes which may or may not make any culinary sense. The New York Times has talked about this phenomenon recently, in its rather even-handed way. I’m not going to be even-handed: I don’t like it. I don’t want that many dishes, that many different flavors, that long at table. I want fewer dishes and more choices, so I can select a wine I enjoy to match with foods I want to eat. I can only hope this latest manifestation of star-chef egoism dies an early death, before, like Sydney Carton, I am driven to do a far, far better thing than I have ever done and give up going to restaurants entirely.

Except for places like this one in Barcelona:

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