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Archive for the ‘Rhone’ Category

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

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

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Whites

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

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

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

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

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

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Reds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When, for a recent and rare-during-Covid dinner with friends, Diane cooked up a Rabelaisian cassoulet out of Julia Child, I decided the occasion required some good southern French wines. We’ve been drinking a preponderance of Italian wines lately, and a little change of pace was in order. The austerity of Bordeaux seemed to me just wrong for the dish, as did the delicacy of Burgundy. The Rhône definitely provided the place to go.

Châteauneuf du Pape was my wine of choice, supplemented by a Cornas, a wine from a little further up the Rhône than Avignon, city of the “new château” of the 14th Century popes. To start things off, alongside a light celery, date, and almond salad, I decided to open the drinking with a white Châteauneuf, a wine of real character that I’ve always enjoyed, but that I find few people are familiar with. That unfamiliarity, from my point of view, is a real advantage, because I love to surprise my friends with a wine new to them. In this case, that gambit really paid off: Our 2015 Domaine de Beaurenard Châteauneuf du Pape blanc may well have been the wine of the evening.
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This 32-hectare, 7th-generation estate cultivates all 13 of the traditional Châteauneuf grape varieties. It is biodynamically certified, and the vines average about 45 years of age. The white is blended from Clairette, Rousanne, Bourboulenc, Grenache blanc, Picardan, and Picpoul, none of which varieties are very common outside the Rhône valley, and several of which have become rarities even within the Châteauneuf zone.

This five-year-old showed remarkable composure and complexity, having already knit its grapes together to create a rich, generous white wine that matched deliciously with everything we tasted it with. (Several of us saved some to taste alongside the cassoulet and cheese courses, where it continued to show very well indeed.) I’m partial to older white Châteauneuf, and I would guess that this wine has years, perhaps decades, of life in front of it. I hope I do too, because I’d really like to taste it again somewhere down the line.

Then we moved on to the main course. Cassoulet can be a tricky dish to match a wine with. From one point of view, it’s nothing more than a gussied up pot of pork and beans. From another, it’s one of the elaborate glories of French cuisine. And depending on the ingredient choices you make and the cooking techniques you use, the final dish can range anywhere from rustic heavy to robust elegant. It’s never a lightweight, but it isn’t necessarily ponderous either.

Thus my choice of Rhône red wines, which in themselves span the same range. Actually, Châteauneuf du Pape by itself covers that spectrum, with the number of grape varieties grown in the zone, and the many different wine styles pursued by its many makers.

Diane’s cassoulet was what I would call succulent mid-range: Julia Child’s classic technique undergirding a mélange of lamb, duck, pork, smoked sausage, and old-fashionedly flavorful marrow beans.
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A dish like that needs wines that won’t back down but are complex enough and giving enough to match nuances with each varied mouthful of the food. So the legacy of the popes’ French exile came into play to accompany a dish that I’m sure those old popes and all their attendant courtiers would have happily devoured.

We modulated to our red Châteauneuf by way of a lovely Cornas, a 2010 Domaine de Saint Pierre from Jaboulet. This comes from an almost five-hectare site at the highest point of the Cornas appellation, which Jaboulet has owned since 1993. The vines are 30 to 40 years old, and the wine is 100% Syrah, a monovarietal wine that in my mind set up a nice contrast with the multi-faceted blend of Châteauneuf.
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Contrary to this vintage’s reputation when first bottled – several critics referred to the 2010 as “savage” or “wild” – this one was positively civilized. Mouth-filling, to be sure, but smooth and gentle on the palate, with its typical Syrah pepperiness nicely balanced with sweeter wild cherry flavors. We may have drunk this bottle a bit young, but we enjoyed it thoroughly, and it set our palates up for the more complex wine to follow.

That was a 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape Vieilles Vignes – red, of course – from Domaine La Millière.
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This estate lies in the northern part of the Châteauneuf zone and has been for some years certified biodynamic. The cellar works on very traditional lines, with long barrel rest for its Châteauneufs, which are blended from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Counoise. The house’s stylistic emphasis is on finesse and longevity, both of which our bottle achieved. In fact, it may have a little overachieved: With that rich cassoulet, it seemed a little lacking in power – a delicious wine, but a touch overshadowed by the food, maybe even a bit of an anti-climax, following the impressive white Châteauneuf and the delightful Cornas. But it still showed plenty of freshness and depth, and it perked up considerably when confronted with an array of cheeses.

Those pre-Renaissance popes may not have been models of piety, but they certainly had a good eye for a vineyard.

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To our disappointment, cruising as we were past some of the finest vineyards of southern France last month, very few of the MS Camargue’s organized excursions included winery visits or tastings. One brief but very well-organized wine tasting occurred in Tournon. This consisted of three fine samples of wines from the river’s opposite bank, Tain l’Ermitage.

The first two were excellent wines from a local co-op. It is really a wonderful testimonial to how the worldwide level of winemaking has risen that co-op wines, widely and for the most part correctly regarded as the bottom of the barrel when I started wine writing 40 years ago, can now stand as exemplars of their regional production. These two Crozes-Hermitages, a white and a red, both 2017, were exactly that.

The white, aptly named, given the omnipresent wind, Les Hautes d’Éole, had an almost-dry-honey nose and a mouth-filling medium body, with lean and nervous mature grape flavors. It was a blend of Marsanne and Roussane, classic Rhône varieties, and I found it totally enjoyable.

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The red was 100% Syrah, as is normal – almost mandatory, in fact – in the northern Rhône. This was a classic example of the breed, spicy, peppery, black-fruited and almost meaty on the nose and palate; and, with all that, soft and full, nicely balanced, with bright acidity. It could easily take a few years of aging, though it was already a pleasure to drink..

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The third wine was a 2016 St. Joseph from a small producer, Guy Farge, a fine wine of 100% Syrah. St. Joseph is an appellation that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. This bottle gave a pleasing aroma of spice and black pepper and stems, with similar flavors following through on the palate: classic Syrah flavors similar to the red Crozes-Hermitage, but intensified and refined. Soft and full and nicely balanced, it cried out for more cellar time: I’d give it a good five years before hoping to taste its peak.
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Dinner Wines at Le Gibolin in Arles

We managed to leave our boat for one meal ashore, during an overnight mooring in Arles. This dinner at the restaurant Le Gibolin turned out to be the gustatory highlight of the cruise, probably of the trip (see Diane’s account of it). We asked the proprietress to select a different wine for us with each course, which she happily did. All were excellent local wines from small producers we would otherwise never have encountered, and we drained every glass with great pleasure.

Our pleasure was unfortunately too great, since I failed to get the relevant data for all of them. The first was a profound Cairanne from Oratoire St. Martin, a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah, very balanced and deeply tasting of the south..
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The second came from the same maker, but a different vineyard and a different blend – a lot more Mourvèdre – and not entitled to the Cairenne appellation, but simply labelled Côtes du Rhône. It was called Les P’tits Gars, and it was fuller and fatter than the first wine, and played up to our main courses beautifully.
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With the cheese, we were served an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône, whose name and label neither Diane nor I can recall (our bad, but the restaurant was very busy by then and madame didn’t leave the bottle for us to read) – but its bright acidity (Alicante being the dominant grape in its blend) was wonderful with the cheese.

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Dinner Wines in Lyon: Cherry-Picking Three Restaurant Lists

Our cruise ended in Lyon, where Diane and I stayed on for three days: three dinners, as we thought of it. This was trickier than we had realized, since two of the days were Sunday and Monday, when many restaurants are closed, but we managed to find three temples of traditional Lyonnaise gastronomy while still avoiding the curse of Michelin-starred homogenization: Brasserie Georges, Le Petit Léon de Lyon, and the Paul Bocuse bistro Le Nord (Diane has written about our dinners there.)

To match with those three meals we chose a 2015 St. Joseph, a 2005 Châteauneuf du Pape, and a 2016 white Châteauneuf du Pape, and delightful choices they all were. The St. Joseph – Cuvée du Papy from Stéphane Montez – was filled with rich dark fruit both on the nose and the palate, and had a beautiful, long, blackberry finish: thoroughly enjoyable.

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Ordering the 2005 Beaucastel Châteauneuf elicited the involuntary murmured exclamation from our up-to-that moment very polished young waiter: “Wow wow wow! Big wine!” And indeed it was: big, balanced, still quite young and fresh tasting – barely ready to drink, in fact, but deep and lovely. This was beyond enjoyable: It was pleasurable both sensually and intellectually as it kept opening in the glass.

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Our last wine of the trip, the 2016 Vieux Télégraphe white Châteauneuf, felt in the mouth even bigger than the red wines we had had before. Almost golden in color, lovely and complex, fully dry yet with, among other things, suggestions of honey and quince, wanting years of cellaring yet already very fine – this was a great wine to end our brief foray into southern France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. . . from my vacation, and that’s why there’s no new post today.

Diane and I fled to southern France to escape the unnaturally cold, grey, rainy season that substituted for spring in New York this year, and guess what? We found the same miserable weather afflicting Europe too. What should have been a glorious, vineyard-visit-punctuated cruise down the Rhône turned into a soldiering-on and making-the-best-of-it slog, culminating in our both coming down with killer colds.

Diane is made of sterner stuff than I am: She managed to get a short post up this week. I’ll catch up next post. Meanwhile, here’s the view from our cabin windows when the ship was moored across the river from Tain-l’Hermitage. Ah, what might have been!

 

Chapoutier vineyards, with the Hermitage itself at the crest of the hill.

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“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

For reasons too trivial to go into, and mostly for sheer self-indulgence, I recently felt the strong need of a wine with some significant age. Diligent searching through my dwindling supply of such came up with this treasure, a fully mature Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I wish I could say I had more of it, but alas, it is now only a memory.

But what a memory!  Big and authoritative and round, as the best Châteauneufs are, this bottle – at 30 years old still perfectly sound, with no ullage – had mellowed into a deep, graceful, dark-flavored nectar. It was virtually impossible to isolate individual flavor elements, so perfectly wedded to each other did they seem. Harmony and – a word I know I use too often – elegance dominated the impressions the wine made.

For its companion dinner, Diane had chosen to make a quasi-classic innard dish from the best of France’s cuisine bourgeois: tripes à l’espagnole. We love organ meats generally and tripe especially, and this dish played admirably with the mature Châteauneuf. It tasted marvelous all through dinner, but above all, this Châteauneuf embraced cheese. It interacted beautifully with the warm cheese tarts Diane created for a first course, and the half firm, half buttery, young Parmigiano-like cheese we ended the dinner with actually seemed to expand the wine – that is, the combination made all its complex flavors bigger and deeper and longer-lasting on the palate. And this for a Châteauneuf that had already been showing a monumentally long finish. I was impressed.
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Domaine Chante Cigale is a long-time, family-owned producer, now farming some 40 hectares of vines spread over 45 plots in the Châteauneuf appellation. That’s not unusual: Because of the tremendous variety of soil substrates, most producers try to work with multiple plots to incorporate the differing characteristics into their final blend.

Blend is the most significant concept when it comes to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Producers in this zone pioneered France’s modern wine regulations. Back in the 1930s, they created the first Appellation Controlée, and the discipline they proposed then largely still holds. It allows a staggering 13 grape varieties to be used to make Châteauneuf. The principal one was then and still is Grenache, usually aided and abetted by various percentages of Mourvedre and/or Syrah (though that is far less important here than it is further north in the Rhone valley) and/or Picpoul, Counoise, and other local indigenous varieties.

Back in 1989, Chante Cigale made one sort of Châteauneuf. Now the domaine produces at least two bottlings, and one of those uses only the estate’s oldest vineyards to make a blend of selected vieilles vignes. How that affects the aging ability of the basic Châteauneuf I can’t guess, but in 1989 it wasn’t a problem: The fruit of the oldest vineyards was part of the domaine’s basic blend, and I would think that those grapes contributed importantly to the beautiful maturation of the bottle I enjoyed.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is usually described as a “rich, spicy, full-bodied” wine. That’s fair, if a bit generic, and mainly applicable to young wines – and that’s fair too, since that’s the way most Châteauneuf is consumed. Producers are even taking that into account in their cellars, striving to make wines that can be drunk at the age of five or six. Me, I’m old-fashioned, and I love the deep, dark, leather-and-cherry-and-black-pepper flavors in a velvet envelope that really mature Châteauneuf, such as my lovely bottle of Chante Cigale, can develop. They are worth the wait, and I’m only sorry that I didn’t show more restraint with this last bottle’s siblings.

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

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

Enough prologue: Here’s the list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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!

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