Archive for the ‘Hermitage’ Category

Syrah: The Most International Grape?

May 5, 2016

The Syrah grape has probably achieved more prominence in recent years as Shiraz from Australia than it ever did under its own name in its native Rhône valley. However great the wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, they are overshadowed in the marketplace by the abundance of Aussie versions of the grape, and even by a few California renditions. Well, add two more “foreign” Syrahs to the list of winners: Banfi’s Colvecchio and Fontodi’s Case Via Syrah.

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Long-time followers of this post know that I am usually no friend to French grapes in Italy, but even the most dearly held opinion has to bow to evidence (except in politics, apparently, but that’s a subject for somebody else’s blog). The evidence in this case was provided by two successive at-home dinners that sent me searching through my wine closet for something that would match well with, for the first, a provençal-style eggplant quiche, and, for the second, beef short ribs braised in tomato sauce (red wine reduction, mushrooms, celery) almost in the manner of Roman oxtails.

What I came up with was, first, a 1998 Banfi Colvecchio, a 100% Syrah from Montalcino, and, second, a 1999 Fontodi Case Via, also 100% Syrah. The Colvecchio was grown in vineyards in the hot southeastern corner of the Brunello zone, and the Fontodi grew in the fabled Conca d’Oro in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Both bottles had slumbered many long years in my less-than-stellar storage until, at last, the moment for their star turn approached – and quite a turn it turned out to be.

However little it may be known or appreciated in the States, Syrah from the northern Rhône produces some of the world’s greatest red wines – most notably, Hermitage, which George Saintsbury in his famous cellar book called “the most manly of French wines,” and Côte Rôtie, whose name – the roasted slope – tells you a lot about the kind of growing conditions Syrah likes. It remains a surprise to me, for that reason, that California hasn’t done more and better with the variety, especially in these days of global warming.

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Jancis Robinson, in her huge tome Wine Grapes, describes the taste of Rhône valley Syrah this way:

Syrah’s flavours tend to be in the leather, licorice and tar spectrum with marked black pepper or even burnt-rubber aromas in slightly underripe examples but much sweeter black-fruit flavours in Syrah picked fully ripe in warm climates. Wines made from very ripe to overripe (and therefore thoroughly shriveled) berries can have flavours of dark chocolate and prunes, sometimes with porty overtones.

Those are, of course, the flavors of young wines that Robinson describes, and I have often tasted black pepper and traces of chocolate – dark, bittersweet chocolate – in young Italian Syrahs. But those flavors evolve as wines age, and my two examples, an 18-year-old and a stripling of 17, had mellowed mightily during their years in bottle. Mellow, in fact, was the first word that sprang to mind on tasting them – rich and round, not with “porty overtones” but with a surprising lightness and elegance on the palate. They both seemed very complete, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine any quality I would want added to their flavor spectrum: Their black fruit and lingering hint of black pepper couldn’t be anything but Syrah, but it was Syrah that had been to finishing school.

Neither was showing any sign of tiredness. I really don’t know how many years they had left in them, but it seems to me that I most luckily drank them at an ideal moment in their evolution. I only regret that I didn’t have the foresight to put away more of them. Who knew that this French grape would mature so well in the very different soils and microclimates of Italy? I probably shouldn’t be surprised considering who made these two: The Banfi Colvecchio was the handiwork of Ezio Rivella, who I recall took special pride in making truly textbook Syrah, and the Fontodi Syrah was overseen by the perfectionist Giovanni Manetti, who to my knowledge has never released a merely OK wine.

Lovely wines both, and very satisfying with the two different dishes they accompanied. If Italian Cabernet sauvignon could taste this good or age this gracefully, I wouldn’t be such a Grinch about it, and Bordeaux would quickly lose a lot of its complacency.

A Great White Wine: History, Herstory, Ourstory

June 14, 2013

In addition to all the sensory pleasure that wines provide, some of them have the added dimension of history. We all enjoy a good story, and when it culminates in a lovely glassful, that’s even better.

Diane and I and our good friend Gene recently experienced a wonderful convergence of those attractions over a celebratory dinner at Galatoire’s, in New Orleans.

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As most food and wine people know, Galatoire’s has plenty of history in its own right. Now approaching its 110th anniversary, Galatoire’s has for decades maintained its place as a – maybe the – classic New Orleans restaurant, and a dinner there is de facto a special occasion. This one was even more special because Diane and I were in New Orleans to celebrate (a) her birthday, (b) our anniversary, and (c) Gene’s birthday – one of those significant ones that end in 5 or 0. So we had a lot of convergence right there, in our own persons.

Then there was the wine. With our appetizers and first course, we drank a truly lovely bottle of 2006 Hermitage blanc from Jaboulet, the house’s great Chevalier de Sterimberg. Now there’s a wine with history!

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The Rhône has been a wine river from antiquity. Greek settlers many centuries BC may have introduced the vine to its valley, or they may have found Gaulish tribes already cultivating it. When the Romans finally got there in the first century BC, they rapidly exploited the microclimates and soils they found, and the area south of their regional headquarters at Vienne and north of their garrison at Valence quickly became an important wine center. It has remained so ever since, except for a period of snobbish neglect in the 19th century, when the wines of its principal appellation – Hermitage – were used to “ameliorate” the best wines of Bordeaux. The French even have a verb for it: hermitagiser.

Lovers of Italian wine will recognize the pattern: Northern growers scorn the wines of their south but use them to give body and fruit and finesse to their own production. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

On the Greco-Roman-Gaulish time scale, Hermitage is a Johnny-come-lately wine. It owes its start – or at least its name – to a French knight, Chevalier Gaspard de Sterimberg. According to the (fairly well attested) legend, our good knight was injured during the 13th-century Albigensian crusade, one of those episodes of French history about which the less said the better: Essentially, some of the nobility and all of the Church of southern France tried to exterminate what they called a nest of heretics centered in Albi – fratricidal war at its ugliest. At any rate, the injured and apparently chastened de Sterimberg convalesced at the top of what is now the Hermitage hill, where he built a chapel and spent the rest of his life in solitary and peaceful prayer.

Whether all the vines that now climb up to his chapel – which, by the way, gives its name to Jaboulet’s glorious red Hermitage, La Chapelle – were already there is not clear, but there is certainly a long and continuous history of viticulture on the site.

The Jaboulet firm was founded in 1807, and for a long while all the fame of its Hermitage accrued to its red wines. George Saintsbury thought red Hermitage “the manliest of wines,” back in the days when one could say such things without blushing or apologizing. Jaboulet even then produced the white Chevalier de Sterimberg, but it never acquired much of a reputation.

Then, in the mid-1980s, Jaboulet began to change the way it made the wine: complete malolactic fermentation, some time in small oak, and a unique-for-the-area blend of Roussanne and Marsanne – almost 50-50, the largest percentage of Marsanne in the zone.

The result has been what we enjoyed at Galatoire’s: a big, round white; fat without flabbiness; with unusual aromas and flavors – acacia flowers, hazelnuts, mineral – finishing with a hint of paradoxically dry honey. While still not as renowned as La Chapelle, Chevalier de Sterimberg has definitely become a cult wine in Europe and among consumers who relish the white wines of the Rhône. It has charm, and depth, and a degree of rarity (usually only 12,000 or fewer bottles made) and a wonderful ability to match with the most seemingly unlikely foods.

For example: Our bottle played happily with Galatoire’s “appetizers” (the quotation marks are there because Gene rightly warned us years ago that in New Orleans, there is no such thing as an appetizer) of souffléd potatoes and deep-fried eggplant spears, accompanied by Creole sauce béarnaise and an improbable but quite tasty muddle – mixed at the table – of powdered sugar and Tabasco sauce.

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After that, our first courses of crabmeat maison, shrimp remoulade  (Diane has written about that dish here), and seafood gumbo gave the wine no difficulty at all.

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One more bit of history converges here too: After the sudden death of Gerard Jaboulet in 1997, the wines went into something of an eclipse until the Jaboulet family sold its properties to the owners of La Lagune in Bordeaux, whose daughter Caroline Frey, a trained enologist, took over in 2003 as the manager of all the estates. The wines since then have been hers, and she has very successfully continued the most progressive changes that Gerard Jaboulet had begun. So one more story merges into the old Chevalier’s, and all – including Diane’s and mine – converged at a splendid dinner in New Orleans. Happy birthday, Gene!

Once More Into the Breach, Dear Winos

October 2, 2012

Wine season in New York began right after Labor Day with the proverbial bang, conglomerating more wine lunches, portfolio tastings, verticals, and horizontals in the past few weeks than any single liver could deal with. Here are a highly selected few of the season’s stand-out new release wines from a few of those events.

Champagne is always a good opener. Two beauties here: Ayala, which deserves to be as well known here as it is in Europe, is brought in by the small import firm Cognac One. Pol Roger, which is well known everywhere, is imported by the large firm Frederick Wildman.

Ayala is probably the smallest of the Grandes Marques, even though it was a founding member (1882) of that association. Owned since 2005 by Bollinger, Ayala has had the same cellar master (Nicolas Klym) for 25 years. Ayala regards itself as an artisan house, working with highly selected vineyards and grapes: There is quite a lot of grand cru Pinot noir in its basic Brut Majeur and Vintage Brut. I thought the Brut Majeur NV quite stylish and enjoyable, with the merest trace of sweetness in the finish. Drinkers less sensitive to sugar than I will not notice it at all. For total sugar-phobes, Ayala’s Brut Nature NV is the wine of choice: Sound, clean, and fully dry, with a lovely wheaty/toasty palatal presence, this wine would serve both as aperitif and dinner companion.

The Blanc de Blancs 2004 is vinified entirely from grand cru Chardonnay to make a lean and muscular wine, with ample fruit for enjoyable drinking. Cuvée Perle d’Ayala Nature 2002 is composed of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot noir from grand and premier cru villages. It has a fine wheaty nose, excellent body and full, mouth-filling flavor, with a very long finish. Ayala’s top-of-the-line Brut Millesimé 1999 reverses the blend – 80% Pinot noir and 20% Chardonnay – to make a lovely wine, elegant and balanced, deep and long-lasting. Very fine indeed.

Pol Roger is one of the best-known names in Champagne. The house is justly famous for quality throughout its line and for its maintenance of the distinctive fresh and full style that made it Winston Churchill’s favorite. Pol Roger “Pure” Brut Nature NV, Brut Réserve “White Foil” NV, Blanc de Blancs 2002, Vintage Brut 2002, and Brut Rosé 2004 are all cut from the same fine cloth: biggish wines that manage to be rich and austere at the same time, so that you don’t know whether to admire more the depth of their flavor or the restraint of their style. The Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999, named after the house’s most famous and most loyal client, is simply gorgeous – as usual. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Grands Marques houses is the way they preserve such a very high level of quality year in and year out. They make it look routine, but there is nothing easy about it.

I was also impressed by multiple wines from another Wildman producer, Paul Jaboulet Ainé. This Rhône master makes the whole gamut of northern and southern Rhône wines well, from its basic Parallèle 45 red and white up to some very rarified heights. I found its two red Hermitages, 2009 La Petite Chapelle and 2005 La Chapelle, very striking, the former very floral and – at this stage of its development – a bit rustic, the latter still half-closed but elegant and polished and structured for the ages. I loved Jaboulet’s Cornas Domaine Saint Pierre (2009), which was huge and utterly characteristic of Cornas – the northernmost outpost of Syrah in the Rhône, and an appellation that rarely gets the respect it deserves. Its wines are typically forceful, even aggressive in their youth, but mellow as they age into deep and polished, always identifiably southern, wines. They can age as long as any other Rhône appellation.

Much as I liked the Jaboulet reds, however, the two wines that really enchanted me were the firm’s 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape Les Cèdres blanc and 2007 Hermitage Chevalier de Sterimberg, the latter already an extremely lovely white wine, but one that will live and slowly improve for decades. Should I live so long, I would drink this wine when it’s 20 years old.

Back at the Cognac One tasting, another Rhône producer caught my attention: Cave de Tain. This is a co-op, and an excellent one. Headquartered right at Hermitage, Cave de Tain draws upon growers who produce more than half of all the northern Rhône AOC wines made. Its basic 2010 Syrah is a beautifully restrained example of the variety, while its red 2009 Crozes Hermitage, also 100% Syrah, shows the same restraint coupled with an excellent acidity and minerality, with fine potential for intermediate aging.

Cave de Tain Crozes Hermitages vineyard

2006 Saint-Joseph and 2005 Cornas, both, again, 100% Syrah, are already deep and showing complexity despite their relative youth. Both will age well for at least ten years. Neither appellation, it seems to me, gets sufficient attention from serious wine lovers.

The top of Cave de Tain’s range contains a lovely 2005 Hermitage rouge (nose of chestnuts and earth, deep palate, smooth and fresh), a 2010 Esprit de Granit Saint-Joseph (mineral and black pepper nose, deep peppery Syrah finish: needs years), and an absolutely gorgeous 2005 Gambert de Loche Hermitage (already deep and velvety; still evolving and deepening). These are all first-rate examples of Northern Rhône character.

Finally, one Italian producer (you knew I couldn’t resist): Aurelio Settimo of La Morra, one of the key communes of the Barolo zone. Tiziana Settimo, daughter of the eponymous founder and guiding spirit of the small estate for a decade now, hosted a lovely dinner at Porter House restaurant to celebrate her wines’ re-entry into the US market. Her new importer for New York and New Jersey is Verity Wine Partners. She showed the first four wines to arrive here: Dolcetto d’Alba 2010, Langhe Nebbiolo 2006, Barolo 2007, and Barolo Rocche dell’Annunziata 2007.

All four wines showed the characteristic Aurelio Settimo elegance and restraint, coupled with – especially in the case of the two Barolos – intensity of flavor and the absolutely classic spectrum of Nebbiolo components. The Nebbiolo d’Alba, although slightly lighter-bodied than the two Barolos, showed the same purity of Nebbiolo character. This is a totally pleasurable wine, ready to drink now (it loved a porcini and black truffle risotto) and likely to hold at a fine level for at least five years yet. At about half the price of the Barolos, it represents the closest you’re going to come to a steal in Alba wines these days. The commune of La Morra has been pretty much setting the pace for Barolo for a few years now, and meticulous, painstaking winemakers like Tiziana are the reason why.

That’s all for now: there will be more reports on outstanding wines as the season wears on. Coraggio!