Archive for the ‘Rhone’ Category

Shore Leave: Wines We Enjoyed Off the Boat

June 6, 2019

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.

Cruising Down the River

May 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Need a Vacation . . .

May 16, 2019

. . . 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.

One Fine Wine: Chante Cigale Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1989

May 6, 2019
“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.

Enjoyable Everyday Wines II

March 21, 2019

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.

Syrah: The Most International Grape?

May 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Great White Wine: History, Herstory, Ourstory

June 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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appetizer

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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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3 dishes

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

Once More Into the Breach, Dear Winos

October 2, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cave de Tain Crozes Hermitages vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

Châteauneuf du Pape: Remembrance of Things Past

August 13, 2012

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

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

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

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

The Baron

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

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

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

Photo by Philipp Herzog

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

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

A representative dish of pieds et paquets

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

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