Archive for the ‘Rhone’ 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.

syrah grape

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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.

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

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What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

two books

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

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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Hermitage

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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!

Châteauneuf du Pape: Remembrance of Things Past

August 13, 2012

If you listed France’s great red wines in order of prestige, Châteauneuf du Pape would probably come in last. It is unquestionably a great wine, and it’s long been one of my favorites, but it just doesn’t get much respect. From the canny consumer’s point of view, that’s great: It keeps the prices from soaring into the stratosphere with Bordeaux and Burgundy and the two darlings of the south, Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. But from the point of view of justice, it’s irksome: Châteauneuf deserves better.

This little effusion was prompted by a lovely bottle of ’98 Vieux Télégraphe La Crau that Diane and I broke out a few nights ago to accompany a broiled butterflied leg of lamb and some fresh chanterelles. Yes, it’s that time of year: The summer-fruiting chanterelles are in, the temperature is high, and the cooking is simple. But simple cooking doesn’t mean you have to drink lesser wines; a grilled leg of lamb will partner happily with the best reds in whatever passes for your cellar. Ergo, the Vieux Télégraphe. As fine wines will, this one prompted not just that fit of indignation on its behalf but also a bit of nostalgia that led in turn to reminiscences of its kin and to memories of my long involvement with Châteauneuf du Pape.

Like almost everyone of my generation, I learned wine on French wine – and for too long a time, that meant Bordeaux and Burgundy almost exclusively. There was so much to know there, and so much to enjoy, that I was slow to move out to other parts of France and the world. At about the same time I was learning that there’s more to Italy than simple Chianti and Soave Bolla, I began to discover the south of France, and especially Châteauneuf du Pape, which in those dark days was one of the few wines from anywhere along the Rhône that found its way to the US.

It was probably a Château Fortia that started my love affair with Châteauneuf. Memory tells me that Fortia was one of the most readily available Châteauneufs then, and one of the most important estates in France because of its proprietor’s major role in the creation of the whole French wine appellation system.

The Baron

Baron Le Roy Boiseaumairié, a Norman and a WWI fighter pilot who married into the Rhône estate, led the local fight against fraudulent wine (some things are always with us) and formed a consortium that formulated the basic rules for what goes into Châteauneuf and how it’s vinified. Later, he led the national commission that established similar regulations for France’s other wine zones. And all the while, he continued to make excellent wine at Château Fortia.

Forty or more years ago, that wine tasted of summer to me – sunbaked, in a totally attractive, travel-poster way: dark and vinous, with a hint of raisins and a deep plums-turning-into-prunes flavor that seemed to demand strong meats and stinky cheeses – which, I quickly found out, Châteauneuf responded to as to long-lost friends. How could you not like this wine? Everything about it was redolent of where it came from. Just smelling it conjured up images of tanned, gnarled farmers under a brilliant clear sky tending equally gnarled vines on rocky, arid fields. So strong was the impression that I resolved to go as soon as possible and see for myself.

I don’t know now whether I really envisaged all that before I actually got to the Rhône valley, or whether the rocks and sun that I saw when I arrived seemed so right that I persuaded myself I had foreseen it. It really doesn’t matter. The sun-dazzling, almost cobbled vineyards of Châteauneuf du Pape looked to my mind exactly like what the wine tasted like: Here was gout de terroir as concentrated and true as any wine lover could wish.

Photo by Philipp Herzog

In those days of yore, there was, alas, a large downside to that wonderful sunscape. Very few hotels in southern France had air conditioning, and the few that did were very reluctant to turn it on (“It is not yet the season, M’sieur”). I remember a ghastly night in Avignon when, forced to leave the windows open because of the heat, our room was invaded by the vampires of the Rhône, mosquitoes as big as WWII fighter planes and guided, I firmly believed, by the vengeful souls of downed Luftwaffe pilots. I grew up near the New Jersey meadows (not then The Meadowlands), and I know from mosquitoes. When Diane and I went down to breakfast next morning, having donated as much blood as the insect hordes could carry, we looked like plague victims, dotted with buboes and swellings. We had to drink a lot of Châteauneuf that week to rebuild our blood supply.

Happily, the mosquitoes were not the only ones who dined well in Avignon. There were several very fine restaurants there, and the cuisine was still classique. One in particular, Hiély Lucullus, stands out in memory both for superb food and for allowing me to say one of the few clever things I’ve ever managed in French. If the cuisine was still classique, and so were the attitudes. Consequently, not a person in France could be persuaded to understand a single syllable that came from my mouth. And since no one then would deign to understand English, Diane, whose French is good, usually spoke for us. But at Hiély, I attempted to order for myself, and what I ordered was Pieds et Paquets, a lamb knuckle accompanied by a neat little package of lamb tripes.

A representative dish of pieds et paquets

The waitress was extremely dubious, and asked me – in French of course – if I knew what I had asked for. I replied, in the very best French I could muster, that although I spoke French very badly, I ate French very well. She was dumbfounded – clearly, this possibility had never occurred to her (nor, to be just, to anyone else in France at that time). She gave us very attentive service for the rest of the evening – which by way, contained another fine bottle of Châteauneuf.

Much has changed in France since then: cuisine, attitudes, and wines. There are now more producers of fine Châteauneuf than ever, and most of the wine is better made – more consistent from harvest to harvest, more elegant, less rustic: more modern I guess you’d say (though that’s not always a good thing). Except for one or two superstar producers (you won’t find their names here), Châteauneuf is still reasonably priced, still rewards aging, and still tastes deeply of the South. Maybe it’s not as raisiny anymore, but it still sincerely loves strong meats (especially long-stewed ones) and stinky cheeses, and its generous bosom happily makes room too for a nice piece of broiled lamb. Just don’t forget the chanterelles, if you can get them. Nostalgia is all well and good, but mushrooms are of the moment.

Burton Anderson’s New Blog; and Some Wines that Surprised Me

January 21, 2012

Burton Anderson has started a blog. If you are below a certain age threshold, that announcement may not make you sit up and take notice, but for seriously ancient winos like myself, that news is electric. For those who love Italian wines, Burt Anderson is the maestro, the pioneer, the guy who got there first and first pulled it all together so that it made sense to the rest of us. His book Vino was the eye-opener, and is still an enjoyable and useful read, after 30 years. Everyone who has written about Italian wine since owes Burton an enormous debt, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. And very few who have written about Italian wine since have done so with the style, thoroughness, and total honesty that Burt brought to the task. And now he is bringing the same qualities to a blog.

As his title indicates, this blog is about more than wine: he is turning out some his best writing yet on a whole range of subjects, Italian, cultural, and topical. In my not-especially-humble opinion, the blogosphere needs more good writing like Burt’s and more of his kind of directness.

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And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different. Every now and again I taste anew a wine I thought I was familiar with or a wine I’ve never encountered before. I’ve rounded up a few of those “Aha!” experiences to share with you.

Villa Matilde Falanghina 2006.  I drank this five-year-old in late November 2011, with smoked sturgeon toasts and shrimps creole. Falanghina is a grape and a wine I love, but I usually drink it in its second or third year. So I was nervous about the age: I seemed to have lost sight of the bottle and forgotten that I had it. Although the nose seemed fine – maybe a little sherry hint, but nothing off-putting – the color when poured terrified me. It was not just gold, but orangey gold, more than a little strange. The flavor, however, was just perfect: definitely Falanghina, but past its initial freshness and into dried-fruit sensations – apricot, Diane says; some dried fig too, I thought, but minus the sugar. It worked beautifully with both dishes, and drank just fine by itself as well. Who knew the grape took any age at all? Much less that it took it so gracefully? Yet one more proof that well-made Italian white wines can last.

Li Veli Verdeca 2010. A white from an endangered grape in Puglia. Lovely stuff: medium to full body, earthy, with mushroomy notes: a real food wine – vaguely Burgundian in its bulk on the palate, but emphatically Italian in its flavors and minerality. Made by the Falvo brothers, who achieved fame for many years at Avignonesi in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano zone. In 1999 they acquired an old vineyard property in one of the most historic wine areas of Puglia, the Val d’Itria. They have sold their interest in Avignonesi and moved themselves to Puglia, where, among other things, they began the Askos project, an attempt to revive some of the most ancient varieties of the zone. On the basis of this wine, I’d say they seem to be about to do great things. We drank this Verdeca with a Basque hake with green sauce (predominantly garlic-flavored) which it took perfectly in stride.

Chave Celeste St. Joseph blanc 2007.  Enjoyed with a good lunch at brasserie Artisanal, this was not only a reminder of how good the white wines of the Rhône can be, but also a revelation of just how skilled a winemaker is the house of Chave. I think of Chave, first of all – and up until this point perhaps exclusively – as a red wine producer. The house is most famous – and rightly so – for its Hermitage, which is one of the greatest red wines of the Rhône. Some consider it the supreme rendition of that appellation, a wine of great depth and age-worthiness. This four-year-old white gave every indication of the same kind of age-worthiness – it was still fresh and vital – along with amazing nuance. It showed the kind of slate-and-wet-stones-with-dry-apricot that some connoisseurs associate primarily with Condrieu, which it more and more reminded me of with every sip. And at a small fraction of the cost! I should be surprised like this every day.

Formentini Pinot Grigio 2010. I used to know this wine as another one of the faceless “cocktail-style” Pinot grigios that Italy has been pouring out for decades now. Well, there have been big changes at Formentini, and this is no longer an airhead Pinot grigio to gulp at the bar. Now vinified from high-altitude plantings of low yield, and gingerly handled in the cellar, it has become a very interesting, medium-bodied wine to serve with dinner. Sure, you can still drink it enjoyably as an aperitif – but it now has complexity and character enough to be far more enjoyable with a good roast chicken or a delicate veal scallop. It’s a nice reminder of what Pinot grigio is capable of when some care is taken with it.

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And one after-dinner drink:

Clear Creek Grappa. Color me flabbergasted. An American grappa that tastes like the real thing! Who knew? It fooled me completely: I thought I had been handed a rather fine Italian distillate. This Oregon distillery uses local fruits and distills them in a very traditional manner to make a whole range of grappas and eaux de vie. On the basis of the single example of its work I’ve so far tasted, I have a lot of pleasant exploration ahead of me.