Archive for the ‘Beaujolais’ Category

In Praise of Beaujolais

June 27, 2019

Summer has hit New York, and this old man’s fancy has turned lightly to Beaujolais. For me, Beaujolais is the classic summer wine. Of course I’m aware you can drink it with pleasure all year round; nevertheless, for me, alongside summer cooking, Beaujolais really shines.

Beaujolais is customarily thought of as a light wine. Like most generalizations, that one is only more or less true. The Gamay grape from which it’s made isn’t a powerhouse variety like Syrah, for instance, or austere like Cabernet. It’s softer, more giving, with a really pretty strawberryish fruitfulness that shows through in all its manifestations. But like any respectable wine grape, Gamay is sensitive to the soils and climates in which it grows, and those differences do make perceptible differences in the finished wine. That is exactly why the tight, restricted area in which Beaujolais originates is divided into so many subzones: Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Regnié, and Saint-Amour.
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In any given growing year, all types of Beaujolais are will be lighter-bodied and less forceful that the great Burgundies to their north or the big Rhône wines to their south, so if that is all that is meant by calling it a light wine, well, OK. But that doesn’t mean Beaujolais is insignificant, especially in the light of the region’s recent decades’ general shift from producing lots of wine to fashioning quality wine, and especially in the named crus.

But I don’t want to be a snob about this. I love cru Beaujolais, but the simplest Beaujolais can give great pleasure. I’m sipping one right now, as I write this, a 2017 from Domaine Dupeuble Père et Fils. It’s medium-bodied, with a soft mouth feel, and intense dark-berry-and-strawberry fruit, persistent and pleasing. In fact, it’s making me hungry for some fresh bread, a slice of a good salami (rosette de Lyon, anyone?), and maybe a thin slice of spring onion or some soft cheese. Writing about wine is not a slimming profession.

By a process of very personal association, that brings me to Eric Asimov’s long article on wine writing in the June 19th New York Times. He questions, at some length, the value and intrinsic interest of tasting notes, and argues that at best, they offer a short-lived shopping guide. As regular readers of this blog know well, I think they amount to even less than that, being one person’s ephemeral perception frozen in print as if it were eternally true. Asimov goes on to make a plea for doing wine journalism another way, chiefly by somehow finding a means to convey one’s own passion and the sheer pleasure of wine. In my own way, that’s what I’ve tried to do in many of the posts of this blog – and it’s emphatically what I’m trying to do right now with Beaujolais.

It would be easy to go the full-connoisseur route and explain the differences between the crus and wax eloquent about why Chénas and Morgon are my favorites: In fact, I’ve done that before, here. But what I really want to convey today is the non-intellectual pleasure that a lightly chilled Beaujolais gives on a hot, humid summer day, the sensuous little shiver that first juicy sip causes, and then the sense of well-being that follows as you swallow and savor. Before and after all our critical ponderings and discriminations, that’s what wine is all about, and in its proper time and place the humblest Beaujolais does it as well as any wine can.

Cruising Down the River

May 27, 2019

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.

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.
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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!

Gamay Glorified: Cru Beaujolais

July 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far this summer, I’ve been enjoying:

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

July 18, 2016

Nobody needs to be told that deep summer is Beaujolais weather. I’ve been enjoying some old favorites for two months now, and I’ve also had the pleasure of discovering Drouhin’s new selection of three excellent Beaujolais crus, a Brouilly, a Fleurie, and a Morgon.

For me, the cru wines of Beaujolais are the quintessence of Beaujolais. Call me a snob (I probably am), but I never drink Beaujolais Nouveau: When I want candy, I will walk over to Li-Lac Chocolates and get some good stuff, thank you. And I only occasionally drink simple Beaujolais, from the larger zone that surrounds the heartland of the 10 crus. More often, I opt for a Beaujolais Villages, a smaller, better zone, and then usually from a producer I know and respect, such as Roland Pignard. But most often, my Beaujolais of choice comes from one of the named and quite distinctive crus – Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint Amour.
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beaujolais map

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There are many excellent producers in these appellations, some quite small, some quite sizable. Probably the best known in this country – and certainly the most widely available – is Georges Duboeuf, who produces Beaujolais in every category from the simplest to the most rarefied. Obviously, he is a big producer, and a pretty good one, though I usually find his wines ho-hum: They just taste too industrial to me, too made-to-a-formula.

Among the big producers, I think Jadot does a better job: I like particularly its well-structured Château des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent. Indeed, I have strong memories of visiting this cru years ago, when the iconic windmill had just been restored and was set to turn again for the first time in many decades. Jadot, I believe, was a major supporter of the restoration, and most Beaujolais old-timers saw the event as a kind of rebirth for the whole zone. It may be just post hoc, but in fact the wines of all the Beaujolais crus have been steadily improving ever since.
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windmill

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Moulin-a-Vent is popularly supposed to be the longest-aging Beaujolais, and it is certainly true that in a good vintage it will age beautifully for sometimes up to 20 years – but so will Morgon and Chénas, and I’ve tasted (admittedly ideally stored) 20- and 30-year-old bottles from several other crus that drank beautifully, with an almost Burgundian grace. But ageworthiness is only an added attraction of a good Beaujolais: What really counts in all the crus are their youthful charm and exuberance, their lightness of touch and sheer refreshing enjoyability.

The bottles I like best almost always come from smaller growers who cultivate very particular terroirs and microclimates. They won’t all be available everywhere, but they are worth the trouble of seeking out. Just because a wine offers light and pleasurable warm-weather drinking doesn’t mean it has to be anything less than a real and interesting wine. Some really fine ones include Jean-Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées Côte de Brouilly, Julien Guillot’s Ultimatum Climat Chénas, and Coudert’s Clos de la Roillette Fleurie.

I have made no secret of my admiration of the house of Drouhin’s fine Burgundies, so I was more than a little interested to find that three Beaujolais crus have been added to its portfolio. The Brouilly, Fleurie, and Morgon are all grown and vinified in the Domaine des Hospices de Belleville properties – 34 acres in all – under an exclusive partnership agreement that gives the Hospice the advantage of Drouhin’s viticultural know-how and distribution while still retaining the concentration of the small grower’s familiarity with the vineyards and its commitment to them. I tasted three samples – all 2014 vintage – and found each classically true to its appellation.
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The Brouilly smelled of cherries and blackberries and tasted lightly of strawberry. It was characteristically dry and acidic, even a touch austere, with a long spice and leather finish – thoroughly enjoyable.

The Fleurie, a slightly bigger wine, showed scents of blackberry, earth, and black pepper. It was rounder in the mouth and less obviously acid, with dark berry flavors up front and a berry/pepper finish. Again, completely enjoyable, and a seemingly fine companion for any summer meal.

The Morgon, finally, was the biggest and most structured of the three, with an earthy, almost meaty nose with undertones of tar and bramble, an almost zinfandelish character (top quality zinfandel, to be sure). In the mouth, it was completely dry and sapid, rich with notes of blackberry, bramble, and earth, and with a long berry finish. Because of flavors like that, Morgon has always been one of my favorite Beaujolais crus, and this example instantly moved to the top of my short list.

All three will probably hold well, with no loss of youthful charm or vigor, for three to five years before any tastes of maturity set in – so, while these Beaujolais don’t need cellaring, you don’t have to fear putting a few of them away in a quiet corner for future enjoyment. If the stories I’ve heard about the horrific hailstorms in Fleurie this spring are half true, that may not be a bad idea.

Celebrations of the Everyday: Beaujolais and Chablis

July 6, 2014

One of the predictable pleasures of wine, paradoxically enough, is that you can count on the unexpected. There we were, two weeks ago, in a lodge in the middle of the Honduran rainforest, expecting a week of cold beer punctuated by an occasional Margarita and, if we were lucky, a glass of Argentinean Chardonnay – when we found ourselves staring at a modest but quite serious and varied wine list: bottles from France, Spain, and Italy, as well as North and South America. O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! Saved again!

Dining Room at Pico Bonito Lodge

Dining Room at Pico Bonito Lodge

A closer look deflated our joy substantially. The vintages shown were ominous: 2006 Faiveley AOC Chablis and 2007 Faiveley Beaujolais Villages. A little long in the tooth, both of them – and in that climate? A vision of dead wines, sun-baked and long gone, replaced the previous picture of cooling nectars reviving a pair of parched wino birdwatchers. But, what the hell, it was the best offer we were going to get in the middle of the jungle, so we tried ‘em.

Faivelely chablisThey were wonderful. Somehow or other, they’d been stored perfectly, and both were in fine condition. The Chablis showed just the slightest edge of oxidation, a little bit of the goût anglais that I don’t mind at all in a white Burgundy any more than I do in a Champagne, but otherwise a nice, medium-bodied, minerally white wine that went excellently with the fresh fish and chicken we had ordered. Nothing complex, nothing subtle, but an enjoyable dinner wine, and very refreshing in that Honduran heat and humidity.

faiveley beaujolaisThe next night the Beaujolais provided a similar experience. Despite its seven years of age, it was still juicy and fresh. Light-bodied for a red wine, to be sure, with no depth or complexity, but a simple, good-tasting – Gamay is just a lovable grape – and thoroughly enjoyable dinner wine, just like our basic Chablis. 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 degrees of humidity don’t want complex, deep, big wines: They want purity and simplicity and ease, and that’s what these two wines provided.

Accordingly, I hereby nominate simple Chablis and basic Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages as members 3 and 4 of CCAW – my Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines.

You can spend a bundle of money on Chablis if you’re so minded. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis easily run to three figures, and they are usually worth it for the intensity of their minerality (that famous Kimmeridgean limestone on which they grow). That and their complexity, their great ability to age and deepen, all place them within the select group of the world’s greatest white wines.

chablis map

But even though it’s not in that league, basic Chablis – simple Appellation Controlee Chablis – grown in the wider zone that surrounds the restricted Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, is no negligible wine. It has a small amount of that characteristic minerality, and, as our bottle in Honduras showed, it even shares a bit of the ability to age well. Most important, it’s enjoyable with many sorts of food, where it will reward attention if you want to pay it or quietly partner with your dinner if you don’t. And it doesn’t cost a fortune: Many are available – from small growers or from Burgundian negociants like Faiveley – at around $20. These days, that ain’t bad for an ideal warm-weather white wine.

Certainly, Beaujolais is the red wine equivalent of that: an ideal inexpensive warm-weather drink, light to medium-bodied, with charming fruit, low tannins, and a bracing acidity that allows it to match with foods of all sorts. (In the Beaujolais, they drink it even with fish.)

beaujolais

As with Chablis, you can spend a lot more on single-vineyard wines from the named Beaujolais crus (Brouilly, Fleurie, Morgon, etc.). I don’t mean to belittle those: In fact, I love ‘em – but the two broader zones that surround those crus, Beaujolais Villages and the even larger Beaujolais, produce an ocean of delightful wines, all made with the same Gamay grape and all designed for easy drinking. That, I find, is especially true in summer: Beaujolais is very hard to beat as a hot-weather red wine. And its price is equally hard to beat: I’ve seen several on sale for as little $12, and rarely do they exceed $20.

Just one caveat:  I am emphatically excluding from my praise any and all Beaujolais Nouveau. I’ve never understood the fad for this wine, which arrives every November after harvest accompanied by hoopla and balloons: It always tastes sickly sweet to me, like liquid cotton candy (and with some of the same palate-coating character). I know some people like it (a lot, apparently), but I’m not one of them. So I hereby blackball Beaujolais Nouveau from CCAW, while warmly (pun intended) welcoming Chablis and Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages to membership.

Earlier inductees into the CCAW are described here (Chianti) and here (Muscadet).

 

Hot-Weather Red Wines

August 15, 2013

Nowhere is it carved in stone that you must drink white wines or rosé all summer long. Not that that’s bad, mind you: I’ve had some lovely whites and enjoyable rosés so far this tarmac-melting season. But I can only go so long before my system requires red wine. The first signs of my withdrawal symptoms are usually quickening of the pulse at casual mentions of, say, Beaujolais, followed at the next stage by scent hallucinations: I keep thinking I smell Gragnano or Freisa. When that starts happening, Attention Must Be Paid.

Maresca family legend has it that this addiction was formed in my earliest childhood, when my Neapolitan grandfather – the man whose youthful moustache style still adorns my upper lip – fed me slices of peaches that he had cut up and soaked in his glass of cellar-cool red wine.

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Grandmother and Grandfather Maresca in their  Vegetable Garden

Maresca Grandparents in their Vegetable Garden

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The most extreme forms of the story have me still in my highchair, which became a high chair indeed as I imbibed those wine-soaked peaches. I barely remember any of this, but I still enjoy peaches in wine. My grandfather’s wine was, I am sure, homemade stuff from the-cousins-down-on-the-farm, but peaches and I are adaptable: We’ll both work with just about any fresh, fruity red wine.

The easiest recourse, of course, is Beaujolais. It’s available everywhere, and there are many good producers. In a pinch, I can even drink some of Georges Duboeuf’s better cru bottlings. His Julienas and Fleurie and Regnié seem to have a more modest touch of the banana-oil scent so prominent elsewhere in his line, which many years ago led some less-reverent wine journalists to refer to him as Georges Du Banane. Duboeuf has the advantage of availability: His wines are sold almost everywhere. NB: For peach-soaking purposes, his simple Beaujolais Villages works best.

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But for savoring purposes, there are many excellent smaller Beaujolais producers whose wines are worth seeking out. Two of my favorites are Jean Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées and Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette. The latter’s Fleurie and Christal and the former’s Morgon, Fleurie, and Chénas are among my all-time top Beaujolais.

In the US, Chénas is probably the least-known of the Beaujolais crus, but it’s one of my favorites for its intense individuality – and its surprisingly ability to age. In France, I have drunk 10- and 15-year-olds that were just lovely, almost Burgundian in their velvetiness and complexity. Moulin-à-vent is the cru that is best known here for its cellaring potential, but Morgon shouldn’t be overlooked in that regard either. Remember, it’s acidity that keeps a wine alive, and all Beaujolais have an abundance of that.

Some Loire reds also serve very well in summer, since their soft fruit – Cabernet franc – makes them tolerant of a little chilling, in the manner of Beaujolais. Don’t ice them to death, but serve a good Saumur or Bourgueil at a true cellar temperature, around 50 to 55 degrees, and you can enjoy them in the steamiest of Julys and Augusts. I haven’t actually tried slicing peaches into any of these, but I see no reason why the combination shouldn’t taste fine. In the old days – which are getting more and more distant all the time – when red wines normally ran about 12 or 12.5 degrees of alcohol, you could even enjoy St. Emilion or Gigondas served cool on a hot summer evening, but today’s higher-alcohol wines don’t respond well to such treatment, and would probably overwhelm a humble peach – alas.

More recondite choices come from Italy: harder to find, perhaps, but worth the effort. Bardolino is a reviving appellation that deserves more attention than it gets. The best of them combine the kind of light, fresh fruit and vivacious acidity that make an excellent warm-weather dinner drink and companion to fish, white flesh, or salume or pastas – a very useful, almost-all-purpose wine, and certainly suitable for soaking a few peaches.

Gragnano – a personal favorite, and probably close to the kind of wine my grandfather first dunked his peaches in as a young man in Italy – makes the perfect pizza or pasta summer wine. Grown in the Sorrento peninsula, it was once the ubiquitous everyday red wine of Naples, where I’m sure it still cradles many a peach slice after lunch and dinner. Several good growers – Grotta del Sole, Federiciane, and Monteleone for example – are now reviving the breed. Gragano is vinified from a blend of Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso, the latter a very localized, very Campanian variety.

Sicily, as you might expect, offers some lovely warm weather reds, most notably Frappato and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The latter should not be confused with the Marche’s Cerasuolo, an entirely different wine from an entirely different grape. The principal variety in both Sicilian wines is the indigenous Frappato, which makes a charming, light-bodied and light-cherry-colored wine under both denominations. Both are delightful hot-weather drinking and worth some effort to find.

Back in the north, in addition to the big, austere Nebbiolo wines, the fields around Alba also produce Freisa and Grigolino, two wines that have lost ground – in the most literal sense – to the growth of Barolo and Barbaresco. Freisa and Grignolino are almost polar opposites of those two wines: both are lighter-bodied, acidic, and sprightly – indeed, you often find slightly fizzy examples. Freisa smells and tastes like a strawberry/raspberry cocktail with an underlayer of tar (we are in the Piedmont after all), while Grignolino is the grittier, earthier, seemingly more rustic wine of the two. Pio Cesare makes a lovely example of it, and several good small growers have remained loyal to/are turning back to Freisa. Both make great companions to a summer lunch or dinner, and both take a little chilling without losing anything – in fact, a slight chill seems to me to better release their aromas.

So there are lots of wines to choose from, and you have no excuse to give up red wine because of the weather. Get busy peeling and slicing those peaches!

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An Easy Beginning

September 7, 2009

Beaujolais doesn’t often get the respect it deserves, though it was a hopeful sign that The New York Times gave it some attention not too long ago. Long overdue, by my lights: If you’re an old geezer like me, you first learned wine on Beaujolais and you never really got over your first romance.

Beaujolais’s beauty is its enjoyability and versatility. Most Beaujolais, from the simplest to the most exalted, tastes wonderfully of berries – strawberry in the lightest to black raspberry in the fullest – compounded with other woodsy, underbrushy flavors and scents. And all Beaujolais has relatively high acidity, which makes the wine very food-friendly and compatible with all sorts of meals. Even better, Beaujolais appeals to all levels of wine expertise – so delicious it’s universally likeable, yet complex enough to please connoisseurs.

Anyone just beginning to explore wine would do well to start with a bottle of simple Beaujolais from a reliable maker. Georges Duboeuf is the most widely distributed producer in the US, and he makes about every category of wine that the Beaujolais zone offers. I’m not crazy about them myself – a little too sweetish for my taste – but his wines are a good place to start. After a basic Beaujolais, the next step up is Beaujolais Villages, a wine from a more restricted area, with a bit more body. Trying a bottle of each side by side is a good way to discern the subtle but real differences.

Comparison tasting is the best way to learn about wine, and it needn’t be expensive: Most Beaujolais cost between $10 and $30 (the upper range is for the cru bottlings: see below). It’s inexpensive and fun for a few friends to get together, split costs, taste the wines thoughtfully (remembering to take notes), and then enjoy them with dinner. It may be surprising how they change with food, usually for the better – and that, in itself, is a valuable lesson about the pointlessness of rating systems, where wines are judged without food.

For a dinner for wine buffs, serve some of the fine Beaujolais crus. These wines from the heart of the Beaujolais zone, each from a tightly restricted region, are all slightly different in character:

  • Brouilly, light-bodied and lively
  • Côte de Brouilly, high-bred and delicate
  • Chénas, the smallest cru in size and one of the biggest on the palate
  • Chiroubles, usually soft and easy
  • Fleurie, stylish and – as the name implies – floral
  • Julienas, sometimes robust, more often full-bodied and serene
  • Morgon, generally regarded as the fullest-bodied and most Burgundian of the Beaujolais
  • Moulin-à-Vent, supposedly the longest-lived
  • and Regnié, which in different vintages shows some of the qualities of all of these.

 Duboeuf also makes examples of all these crus, but more interesting to my palate are bottles from small growers in the zones, in many cases from generations-old, family-run estates:

  • Try Chenas or Julienas from Domaine Sancy (Bernard Broyer; Jeffrey Alpert Selection; USA Wine Imports) 
  • or Morgon from Domaine de la Chaponne (Laurent Guillet, Jeffrey Alpert Selection, USA Wine Imports)
  • or any of the crus from Jean-Paul Brun’s Domaine des Terres Dorées (Louis Dressner Selections)
  • or the wonderful Morgons of Domaines Piron (Williams Corner Wine) or Domaine Louis-Claude Desvignes (Louis Dressner Selections)

There are, of course, many other small, high-quality producers. Head out to your favorite wine shop – the one where the staff enjoys talking about wine and knows at least its own stock very well – and try some of their selections. If you’re a long-time wine buff, you may very well rekindle an old flame. And if you’re a beginning wino, you might be starting a lifelong romance.