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Archive for the ‘Rhone’ Category

This is my final post for 2021. It presents the last of my 12 special cellar selections for the year, Quintarelli’s 1981 Amarone. What a spectacular series it turned out to be!

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When I got this Amarone, somewhere back in the middle ‘80s, I remember thinking that I would have to put it away for a while. I’m pretty sure that I was thinking that the “while” in question would be about 5 years, or maybe, since this was a Quintarelli, 10. I’m sure I had nothing like 40 years in mind. That just happened, as year after year I considered tasting the wine and decided to give it a little time yet, until this particular Amarone got pushed back into the Do Not Disturb portion of my brain, and there it stayed for a few decades.

At last its moment came round, and I was worried alternatively that I had waited too long and that I was still rushing it.

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That’s a legitimate worry when Amarone is concerned. These are notoriously long-lived wines, and in some vintages they can be very slow maturing. 1981 is, I suspect, one of those vintages. In the Veneto that year, the grapes matured very slowly on the vines, so in some spots the harvest was late, and required several passes through the vineyards to bring in the grapes as they came ready. Fermentation was also long and slow. So ‘81 showed itself early as a wine that would demand patience.

You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking 40 years was enough, but I couldn’t be absolutely certain. I’ve opened 20- and 25-year-old Amarones only to find they were years, perhaps decades, away from full maturity: drinkable, of course, because of their intense fruit, but still tasting and feeling like young wines, and lacking the mature, complex flavor I hoped for, as well as the balance, depth, and, above all, the velvet mouth-feel of fully mature Amarone.

To this point, the oldest Amarone I’d drunk was a 47-or 48-year-old Bertani that celebrated my 75th birthday, and I remember it vividly as one of the most profound wines I’ve ever tasted, with flavors and aromas so deep and concentrated they seemed endless. The empty bottle still smelled wonderful two days later: I could hardly bring myself to throw it out.

Quintarelli doesn’t have the history with Amarone that Bertani does, but Giuseppe Quintarelli in his lifetime became an acknowledged master of the wine: A colleague once quipped that Quintarelli was a black belt in Amarone. Some knowledgeable critics still regard him as the greatest winemaker in the history of Amarone, and I find it hard to argue with that. The “lesser” wines of his that I’ve tasted — Valpolicella and a handful of IGT wines – have always been impressive, big and rich and deep, with a thoroughly craftsmanlike character: superbly made wines.

That latter characteristic is crucial, I think, because Amarone, like Champagne, is an oddity in the universe of wine: It is a wine that owes more to technique than to terroir, more to art than to nature. You start with the late harvest and the number of passes through the vines the winemaker chooses to make. Compound that with the degree of noble rot the winemaker encourages/discourages/prohibits. Then add in the timing of drying and pressing the grapes, and the choice of vehicle in which fermentation occurs. Then whether he does or doesn’t permit malolactic fermentation, plus all the subsequent decisions about handling and aging the wine.

All these craftsmanly decisions affect the wine in more profound ways than its terroir does. All are the techniques of an artist whose chosen medium is the juice of grapes and the wood of barrels. Those appassionati who pursue Amarone are winemakers in the most profound sense, and the resulting wine reflects their skill and artistry more significantly than it does the character of the grapes that go into it. Champagne is the only other wine I know of which you can say that.

Well, the moment of truth arrived, the cork was pulled, the wine was poured, swirled, sniffed, and tasted. The immediate results: two simultaneous, totally unrehearsed “Wow!”s. No kidding: off the scale.

Here are my first five words about its aroma: honey; raisins; prunes; chocolate; chestnut. Here is my first tasting note: “all of the above in velvet!”  This was simply an amazing wine, of elegant power, depth, and duration. It rolled right over foie gras and barely noticed a rich, fruity, pan-roasted duck. I find it hard to imagine a dish that would challenge it – perhaps high-mountain game, like chamois?  This wine was wonderful, still fresh and rich, and simultaneously complex and deep. It is unlike any other Italian or French wine I know, and made a powerhouse conclusion to my 12 cellar selections for the year.

For those who may be curious, here the other 11, in the order tasted, each name linked to my post about it. There is a lot of fine drinking here. In all honesty, I’m not sure what I learned from the whole endeavor, except confirmation that I love mature wine, and that it is well worth the effort of putting some bottles away for your own and their old age.

Happy New Year to all my readers, and many of them to come!

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January

2011 Sabbie di Sopra Il Bosco, Terre del Volturno IGT, Nanni Copé

February
2001 Costa Russi, Langhe DOC, Angelo Gaja

March
2001 Hermitage AOC, E. Guigal

April
2004 Monprivato Barolo DOCG, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio

May
2009 Campi Raudii, Vino Rosso, Antonio Vallana 

June
1975 Gruaud Larose, Grand Cru Classé Saint-Julien, Cordier (then)

July
2007 Vintage Tunina, Venezia Giulia IGT, Silvio Jermann

August
2003 Montevetrano, Colli di Salerno IGT, Silvia Imparato

September
2001 Corton Grand Cru AOC, Bonneau de Martray

October
1989 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Vendanges Tardives Riesling, Alsace AOC, Trimbach 

November
1996 Barolo Riserva DOCG, Giacomo Borgogno & Figli

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In my not very often very humble opinion, Châteauneuf du Pape blanc is one of the most consistently under-rated and under-celebrated wines in the whole often-over-rated French wine pantheon. At its least, white Châteauneuf makes an unusual, gutsy glassful of flavors uncommon in white wines. At its best, it can offer a remarkable experience of depth and complexity that, to my mind and palate, are far more profound than that provided by most Chardonnay-based wines.

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I’m not trying to be polemical here, I just call them as I see them. I really love these wines, and I really love many fine white Burgundies as well, but it seems to me that a lot of reflex genuflection before hallowed Burgundian idols has replaced actually tasting the wines and making your own comparisons. Be honest with yourself: when was the last time you – thoughtfully – drank a Châteauneuf du Pape blanc?  One with ten or more years of cellaring?  I’m willing to bet that for most readers of this post, and for most wine lovers generally, the answer is something on the order of “Gosh, I can’t remember.”

What prompted this outburst was a gorgeous bottle of Vieux Télégraphe blanc 2016 that Diane and I and two good friends recently enjoyed. It accompanied – flawlessly – a New Orleanian sausage and oyster gumbo, a tricky dish of complex flavors and assertive spicing that the Châteauneuf seemed to love as if it were a long-lost friend. The wine adapted to every nuance of the gumbo without losing any of its own strong character, without sacrificing any of its depth and complexity. We all loved it, and I wish I had more of it: That, alas, was my last bottle. I had only had a few, and I drank them all too soon: Lovely as they were, they had years of development still in front of them.

That is another characteristic of these great wines:  They are enjoyable and distinctive at almost any age. In their youth, multiple fresh fruit flavors will dominate the palate. As they age, those flavors will darken and deepen, surrendering some freshness and acquiring a battery of mature flavors, meaty, leathery, mushroomy flavors that will open more and more in the glass and alter with the food that accompanies them.

Make no mistake: at any age, white Châteauneuf is a food wine par excellence. It will match with anything from a simply grilled fish – I think it’s terrific with boned shad – to a spicy mélange like our gumbo to any imaginable white meat presentation, from Wiener schnitzel to poulet à l’ancienne and beyond. For the life of me, I can’t understand why a wine this versatile and enjoyable isn’t better known and more popular. Selfishly, I’m also happy about that: There isn’t a lot of white Châteauneuf, and it’s pricey enough already. Not Burgundy pricey, nor at all priced above the quality it delivers, but pricey enough that I don’t drink it every day – alas.

Almost every Châteauneuf estate of any merit produces a small quantity of white wine, and because of the large variety of grapes permitted by the AOC regulations, there can be many intriguing differences among them. Trying a few of them is interesting in itself, as well as is measuring their differing responses to the foods you pair with them. The principal white grape varieties used are Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Bourboulenc, and Counoise. Despite the prestige of Viognier, the most frequently used grapes are Roussanne and Marsanne, probably followed by Grenache blanc. All the growers have their own preferred blend, usually – not surprisingly – reflecting what grows most successfully in their own fields. It makes for a richly various range of wines that are always fun to explore.
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Just for the record: some of my favorite Châteauneuf du Pape whites come from Beaucastel, Mont Olivet, Mont Redon, La Nerthe, and of course my lovely Vieux Télégraphe.

 

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The protagonist of Martin Walker’s mystery series, chief of police in a small Périgord town, is known to me as “Bruno, Chef de Cuisine,” because he spends as much time cooking as he does detecting. My beloved spouse, who consumes mystery novels the way other people eat candy, has needless to say noted this aspect of the stories and has in fact re-created for her blog several of Bruno’s feasts.

Most recently, she and her co-conspirator Hope put together one such dinner that required serious white wine accompaniment. That, of course, became my problem, and problem it was. Neither my household supply nor my local retail shops provided the sort of very localized Périgord wines that Bruno delights to serve. I had to be creative and find some that I hoped would be equivalent wines to match with Bruno’s – and Diane’s and Hope’s – dishes. You can see the details of the dinner in Diane’s blog. The wines I chose to accompany it were a Mâcon blanc, a Condrieu, and a Savennières.
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My first problem was that the author was not entirely helpful in talking about Bruno’s wines. He described only two bottles, which I can’t imagine would have been sufficient in kind or quantity for the variety of dishes and number of guests. His first wine was a Château du Rooy Bergerac blanc, a blend of to-me-unknown-percentages of Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle. Insofar as this was served as an apéritif with a splash of cassis – a kir – it presented no difficulties. All I needed for that was a good basic white wine, not too fruit-forward and with decent acidity, so almost any well-made simple white Burgundy would serve well. I had on hand a nice 2019 Mâcon-Villages from Michel Barraud that fit the bill perfectly, and made a beautifully refreshing kir to accompany a warm summer afternoon’s cooking.

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The same wine, minus the cassis, seems to have served Bruno as the first dinner wine, and this presented a bit more of a challenge. Bruno’s wine would have had a distinctive, spicy character, with – I’m guessing because he was serving it with foie gras – suggestions of sweetness without any actual sugar presence. Condrieu, with its rich Viognier character, suggested itself, and I was lucky enough to have lurking in my “cellar” a bottle of 2016 Condrieu La Chambée from Les Vins de Vienne.

Condrieu is a tiny appellation, and this wine is sourced from just two hectares of vineyards at different spots within it. It’s 100% Viognier, laboriously farmed on steep and rocky slopes above the Rhône by three devotees who make up the winery.

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The wines of Condrieu are famed for their complexity, depth, and distinctive combination of minerality and spicy fruit in the nose and on the palate. All that makes it a natural choice to accompany foie gras, exactly the sort of wine I think Bruno (or Martin Walker) would have chosen. Ours did not disappoint: Indeed, it made us aware how far short of foie gras our otherwise fine pâté de campagne fell. Memo to self: get more Condrieu, and above all, find some foie gras.

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Our third wine presented the greatest challenge of all: The only other wine mentioned at Bruno’s dinner (a gift from his guest the Baron) was from Vignobles Les Verdots, again a white Bergerac, vinified from approximately two-thirds Muscadelle and one-third Sauvignon gris. The producer’s website, not very modestly, says of it:

This wine figures among the great white wines of France. Rich, spicy, with mineral and fruit notes on the nose, a whiff of smoke and lightly toasted too. The palate is generous in aromas and flavor, with good body, minerality, well-balanced and exceptionally long. It is also elegantly packaged.

This bottle would have been served with Bruno’s main course of braised chicken in a wine, tarragon, and cream sauce. Now there’s a challenge!

I had a wine that, mutatis mutandis, might fit that description, but I’ve had it around for a while and I was beginning to worry about its soundness: a 2003 Coulée de Serrant Savennières from Nicolas Joly. I decided to give it a shot.

All Savennières wines are special: They originate only in a tight little zone of steep hills in the middle Loire, where the Chenin blanc from which they are exclusively vinified reaches heights of flavor and depths of character attainable nowhere else.
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Coulée de Serrant Vineyard

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Also, Savennières ages remarkably well, growing deeper and more profound for many years – though I was more than a little nervous, given the deficiencies of my storage, whether I might have gone too long with this particular bottle.

Another also: The winemaker, Nicolas Joly, is a bit of a wild man. The most famous grower of the zone, he was the first there to go biodynamic, and he did so with a vengeance: natural fertilizers spread by hand from cow horns on nights of the full moon – that sort of thing.

Nicolas Joly

So my bottle of Savennières was sure to be memorable: the question was whether that would be for good or for ill.

Appearances didn’t answer that: a very dark, old gold color didn’t tell us anything. The nose, however did, and the news was good: exotic aromas, of earth and mineral and woodruff and dried cranberry (yes!) indicated the wine was very much alive. The first taste confirmed it, the same elements as in the nose wrapped in a silken package, smooth on the palate, leaving an impression of great suavity and a finish that went on and on.

A totally distinctive wine, that not only went beautifully with our version of Bruno’s chicken dish but also made me wonder how it would taste with good bloc foie gras. Must get some foie gras! Bruno is a very lucky man, with his seemingly endless local supply.

 

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I have always been ambivalent about Syrah, but I’ve never had any doubts about Hermitage. The appellation is tiny: Its total acreage is only slightly larger than the largest of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru estates (yes, estates, not appellations). But the wines of Hermitage deserve every syllable of the praise that is lavished upon them.

Syrah, on the other hand, the sole grape variety of Hermitage, is a first-class crank. Grown anywhere but the northern Rhône, it occasionally produces fine wines, but more often than not it gives hard, high-alcohol, aggressive and over-assertive bottles marked by an almost exaggerated spiciness, as if the chef had simply lost it when peppering the stew.

Hermitage is the antithesis of that, holding all those dangerous tendencies of the grape on a tight rein. Balance is what Hermitage excels at. What you expect would produce tension, even discord, instead yields grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.

There used to be a word in French, hermitagiser, to describe the practice of adding some wine from the Rhône to (especially) Bordeaux, to give it more body and color – all before the AOC regulations, of course. And almost every wine lover is familiar with Saintsbury’s description of Hermitage as “the manliest of wines,” a description that would still be useful if it weren’t so sexist.

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All this wind-up should tell you why I chose a 20-year-old Hermitage as one of my cellar explorations for 2021. As almost any reference book makes clear, Hermitage and its cousin Côte Rotie are both Syrah-based wines, Hermitage completely so, Côte Rotie allowing (but not always using) a small admixture of Viognier.* And as all the textbooks emphasize, both are wines that demand and brilliantly reward aging.

Now, 20 years is not what Saintsbury and other connoisseurs of his generation would have considered long aging, but for me, it’s quite long enough – especially considering that my un-cellar-like storage facilities have probably expedited the wine’s maturation, so that my 20-year-old might be the equivalent of a 25- or 30- year-old bottle from the winery. So it’s about time I looked in to see how the kid is doing.

Not to keep you in suspense: The answer was Very well indeed. All my worries about my poor storage conditions blew away at the first sniff from the bottle after I pulled the cork: The wine was sound – just how sound wouldn’t come clear until later when, after giving it a few hours’ breathing, I poured it at dinner.

That was when my Hermitage, in no sense an aperitif wine, really showed its stuff. A paragraph or so back, I described Hermitage as displaying “grace and depth and a sense of an almost serene power.”  That was spot on.

First, the aroma. Here’s my note exactly as dashed off at the moment: “Rich, rich nose – dark plums and blackberries and black cherries, then black pepper and leather.”

Then, the palate: “Velvet in the mouth, almost feeling weightless, even though it is a big, mouth-filling wine. Tastes of leather and meat and black dried fruit, then cherry. A very long, cherry-leather finish.”  That was just tasting the wine by itself.

After a few forkfuls of lamb and lentils, the Hermitage broadened and sweetened and got even bigger – and, if possible, even more supple and graceful. This was truly a memorable wine, and an absolute justification of all the encomiums that Hermitage from makers like Guigal and Jaboulet and Chave regularly receive. When you read praise like that, it isn’t hype: You’re reading honest reporting.

 


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Special note for grape nuts:  Recent ampelographical studies, especially DNA studies, of Syrah have uncovered a web of relationships with some famous and some negligible varieties. Viognier is probably a genetic brother/sister/cousin of Syrah, whose family tree is amazingly complex. Syrah itself is probably the grandchild of Pinot by way of a field cross of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche (neither a very distinguished wine grape), and it is in all likelihood a cousin of Teroldego, which can yield some wonderful red wines in the Italian north. This makes it part of a family of grape varieties strung along high mountain trails that cross the national boundaries of Switzerland, France, and Italy.

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

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

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Whites

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

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

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

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

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

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Reds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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