Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hangin' At The Usual Suspects #2

Les and Kathy have rolled out the Winter Menu, which has the American Napoleon on it, which is basically an egg and sausage breakfast item, but with more pizazz, and a tuna steak, which was not ordered, but sounded pretty interesting, and a falafel sandwich special, which I did order, because falafel always reminds me of the little joints in the Marais.

All of which is completely beside the point. We like the food at the Usual, but that's not why we go there. We go there to drink wine!

Elaine saw the Nikolaihof Hefeabzug Gruner Veltliner '06 on the list last week, and was obviously pining for it, so we had some. The nose was typical, in that it had some citrus notes, and a touch of ginger, and a hint of smoke (Elaine complained that she had a hard time detecting smokey notes when cigarettes were in the vicinity. I reminded her than on January 2nd that problem would go away.) and quite untypical because there was this fugitive aroma of what I thought of as red fruit and Elaine specifically identified as lychee fruit. "Not the stuff in syrup, but the fresh fruit," she said. We got earthy pear fruit on the palate, kind of Bosc pear, the kind with the brown skin. And after the wine had been open about 20 minutes, this Concord grape aroma came up at us. Bizarre.

Then we went to the Domaine du Clos du Fief 2007, made by Michel Tête, who has a 17-acre-plus vineyard in the Juliénas cru of Beaujolais. On the first encounter, it had that big bubblegum aroma that causes the word "amylic" to form on my lips. I mean not just a note, but a big ol' snootful of Bazooka Joe. Fortunately this subsided, to be followed by a pleasing note of bing cherry. "Bing cherry but more acidic," said Elaine. There were some mineral notes, too. (In light of the Big Controversy over "minerality" in wine, I ask you to resist the urge to make snarky comments about what kind of aroma rocks have, and how they get into wine. Let's just say that it's wicked complicated, and nobody can explain it exactly, but, you know, if you can't smell rocks in a great Chablis, then you shouldn't be drinking it. Actually, step right up and make snarky comments. They're better than no comments.)

Have we actually tasted the wine yet? Yes, we have! Gorgeous red fruit: strawberry, raspberry, cherry, fresh and ripe--all the stuff that makes Beaujolais so appealing to everyone except a bunch of stuffed shirts who don't think wine is Serious unless it contains bludgeoning tannins and etc. And those of you who, through no fault of your own, know only Beaujolais Nouveau, which used to be a charming harvest wine, and now is just a way for Georges Duboeuf to sell his inventory lickety-split.

Then there was an interval during which we paid attention to the food, and Karl was able to get a few words in edgewise.

Then:

"The fruit is falling off. There's less focus. Maybe it will come back."

"Juniper!"

"Red Currant!"

"Pomegranate!"

Then we passed around a wee dram of Balvenie DoubleWood, and it was 10 o'clock, and we adjourned.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Parker's Blind Tasting

It's all over the blogs, I guess it might as well be here, too. Big Bob Parker blind tastes 2005 Bordeaux! Ranks his favorites low, his dogs high! Whooeee! At Tyler Colman's blog, this devolved into that evergreen dispute about Parker's 100-point system. Harry sent me a link about the physiological/psychological process of tasting, which led me to Tyler's blog. I sent Harry a comment, which I will share here, because I'm too lazy to come up with another take on the subject:

"Two thoughts: First, anyone, even Big Bob, can have a bad day. It's worse for him, because he has hyped himself so shamelessly for the past decade, but otherwise it could happen to anybody. I taste blind about once a week; once in a while I nail something (Donnafugata Ben Rye! On the first sip!), and once in a while I am so incredibly far off I tell myself I should just give it up (Tasting a '94 Nuit St. Georges and deciding it was Cannonau from Sardinia).

"Second, the Parker episode has re-ignited a long-standing argument about the 100-point system. Its defenders say it isn't meant to be precise, but that, to me, is exactly the problem: People who don't know any better assume there's some real quantitative difference between an 89 and a 90; and people who do know better exploit this ignorance to their profit."

Of course, in my work, I play Parker like a violin. If he gives something I like a big score, I tell the customer "Look! Parker gave it a 93!" And if he gives something I like an 82, I tell the customer "Parker's just a fat old lawyer from Maryland! Who cares what he thinks!"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hangin' At The Usual Suspects

Karl had done me a favor while I was traveling, so I told him I'd take him out for a beer and a burger. As I recall, Elaine was just standing there minding her own business while we decided to go to The Usual Suspects, and I said "Hey, why don't you come along with us." Poor Karl. Here he's thinking he's going to go have a few IPAs and talk Jeep parts, and instead he winds up on a barstool with a wine geek on either side. Then Les comes over and tells me--for the first time!--that he's been keeping a little locker of wines for me to try.

No time like the present, so out comes a bottle of Occipinti SP68, an all-organic blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato, IGT Sicilia 2008. It's made by Arianna Occipinti, who pulls no punches with her wines. The nose was funky, with tar, potpourri, and red berries. In the mouth, the wine was surprisingly light, with more red berries and pomegranate, and this heavy earthy note that Elaine first called volcanic ash, and later amended to "basalt." She also pointed out that the two grapes don't blend so much as they lay on top of each other. I agreed that there was a definite upstairs/downstairs feel. Karl thought it was pretty good, but I suspect he was also trying to decide whether the two of us were going to be entertainingly lunatic or pedantically boring.

Well, the wine was very good, and as so often happens, the bottle became empty, and it was time to open another one, and next in Les's line-up was a Touraine Le Tesnière Pineau d'Aunis 2007 from Thierry Puzelat. Like Ms. Occipinti, Puzelat is another wild-eyed biodynamic minimal-interventionist, who resists herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, sulfites, and probably reads by candlelight.

As the incredibly exclusive club of readers of this blog (all three of you! Don't worry, I'm not gonna name names!) know, I tend to be utilitarian in my note-taking. I have read one too many reviews by Parker that include the phrase "scorched earth," and I always want to ask him how he knows what that is. But by now I already have a couple glasses in me, and Elaine clearly has no such compunctions, so I start writing it all down:

"Resinous!"

"Pulpy!"

"Beet greens!"

"Weird acidity!"

"Roses and white peppercorns!"

"Weeds!"

and finally:

"It smells like rolling down a grassy hill in late September when some of the grass is still green and some of it has turned brown!"

There was probably more, but I didn't get it all. Oh, yeah: The tannins in this baby never backed off. If anything, they became more assertive as the evening progressed.

Karl was still there when I finally got up and called it a night.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Deleted" follow-up

Erol Senel has a thoughtful post on the Broadbent/Wallace brouhaha, and it made me remember something:

In September of 2007 an article called “The Jefferson Bottles” appeared in The New Yorker. Written by Patrick Keefe, it includes this fascinating passage:

“In his book ‘Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wines,’ Broadbent acknowledges that it was through Rodenstock’s ‘immense generosity’ that he was able to taste many of the rarest entries. Much of his section on eighteenth-century wines consists of notes from Rodenstock tastings.”

If it were ever demonstrated in a court of law (and for the record, it has not) that Rodenstock was a purveyor of counterfeit wines, then where would that leave Broadbent, as a recipient of Rodenstock’s “immense generosity”?

Keefe’s article is still on line. You can read it here.

Update: It seems Rodenstock was once found guilty of fraud, although he appealed and the matter was settled out of court:

"A German collector, Hans-Peter Frericks, accused Mr. Rodenstock in a Munich state court, which found in favor of Mr. Frericks on Dec. 14, 1992, saying "the defendant adulterated the wine or knowingly offered adulterated wine." Mr. Rodenstock appealed, and the men also filed criminal complaints against each other for defamation. The charges were dropped and the cases eventually were settled in 1995. The details of the settlement are confidential." (Link to original story in The Wall Street Journal, and h/t to Ted Simon on the Dr. Vino blog for the reference.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Deleted.

A comment I made about Michael Broadbent's settling of a libel case against Random House, publisher of "The Billionaire's Vinegar," had to be deleted over at Jamie Goode's wine blog. I'm upset that Goode has had to remove posts because he is being bullied by Broadbent's son, Bartholomew. And "bullied" is the word--go read the sequence of posts for yourself.

Fortunately, the long arm of strict United Kingdom libel laws, and the threats by Bartholomew Broadbent to employ them to defend his father's honor, don't reach to North Carolina. I don't remember exactly what I posted, but it went something like this:

"Broadbent may celebrate his victory against Random House, but this isn't over. Jim Koch is still out there, and he's an angry guy with a lot of money to spend on lawyers. If he can prove that Hardy Rodenstock defrauded him in a U.S. Court, that will not do anything to help Michael Broadbent's reputation. I have only the highest respect for Michael Broadbent, and it is my opinion that he simply had a moment of acting foolishly (which could happen to any of us) with regard to Rodenstock and his wines."

It's not exact, but that's pretty much all I said.

I think this whole episode is sad, for everyone, especially Michael Broadbent himself; there are probably people who never knew his name until today, who don't know about his lifetime of achievement in the wine business, who are now going to associate his name with this nasty bit of business.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

In Cahors: Château de Haute-Serre

Cahors has a long and often unhappy history. Its days of glory go back to 1225, when Eleanor of Aquitaine (and all of London) was sufficiently impressed with the wines to dispatch English engineers to make the Lot River safely navigable for shipping. Unfortunately, producers in Bordeaux were all too aware of the reputation of these wines, and by the 15th Century had created as many roadblocks as possible, in the form of taxes and other restrictions, to discourage winemaking in Cahors. On-and-off war between France and England (a major Cahors market) through the 16th and into the beginning of the 18th Century did not help matters.

Then, in the mid-19th Century, disease (oidium) struck Bordeaux but spared Cahors, and the region came back to life—but only for about 30 years, when phylloxera arrived and very nearly destroyed the wine business. The vines recovered, but there was little cause for celebration, because by the 1930s Cahors was suffering another onslaught, this time from cheap imports from Algeria. The region survived even this, and not long after the end of World War II was gaining strength—until the crippling frosts of the mid-1950s. But Cahors came back yet again. In 1971, Cahors achieved AOC status, and the canny Georges Vigoroux celebrated by replanting his 165 acres with new vines.

Vigouroux, depending upon who you talk to, is either the savior of Cahors or Satan incarnate. For centuries, the red grape of Cahors was identified either as “Cot” or as “Auxerrois.” The name “Malbec” wasn't used. No one seems to know for sure, but I'd put my money on Georges Vigouroux as the first vigneron in Cahors to put “Malbec” on his label. I first saw “Rosé of Malbec” on a wine from his Pigmentum line in 2004. The following year, “Malbec” appeared on his “Château de Haute-Serre” label. Today, of course, the vignerons of Cahors and those of Mendoza actually have a joint-marketing agreement to promote Malbec, and Vigouroux looks just as prophetic as he did in 1971. He has quite an empire these days, including a chain of retail stores under the “Atrium” name. Château de Haute-Serre is his flagship property, now under the direction of his son, Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux.

We arrived there on Wednesday the 7th. The vendage had been underway since Sept. 29, but there didn't seem to be any great sense of urgency to bring the fruit in; the weather was cooperating—warm but overcast, and no threat of rain. The big blue mechanical picker was chugging across the vineyards just to the north of the handsome winery, known as “Atrium,” which was opened in 1987. (See photo)


Walking through the vineyard, our guide, Camille, remarked on the soil, which is basically chalk with quartz pebbles and a little alluvial soil. Asked what else would grow here besides grapevines, she paused for a moment and replied, “Trees.” Most of the vineyard is planted with Malbec, along with small amounts of Merlot and Tannat. There is also a small area—less than four acres—set aside for the production of chardonnay.

Back at the chais, we watched as a tractor-load of grapes were dumped into a feed hopper. An augur fed the grapes into a crusher-destemmer. The resulting juice was pumped via an overhead line into an assigned fermentation tank. The tanks had concrete bases, but the upper two-thirds were steel—a design I hadn't seen before. Each tank holds juice from a particular part of the vineyard, and fermentation is controlled accordingly. The whole setup—no sorting tables, no bladder presses—seemed almost casual compared to the relentless modernity of the wineries I saw earlier this year in Mendoza.

Fermentation takes about seven days; maceration about 20 days, with regular pumping-over. The regular Haute-Serre wine is then aged for about a year in neutral-oak tuns of 70 hectoliters (about 1,850 gallons). The estate's first wine, the Château le Fleur, is bottled from these tuns without further aging. The Haute-Serre and the Cuvée Géron Dadine de Haute-Serre (the estate's new prestige cuvee, created by Bertrand-Gabriel Vigouroux) receive additional aging in a combination of French and American oak, of which one-third is new each year.

We tasted the 2005 Haute-Serre, which had a lovely nose of licorice and cedar, and a sturdy palate (I think it is law that every Cahors tasting note include the word “sturdy.”) of plum and red berries, with a distinct tangy note of cranberry, and a finish emphasizing forthright tannins and earth. The 2005 “Prestige” had a similar aroma and flavor profile, but was softer and more polished. Harry bought a sixpack of the Chardonnay, called Albesco (“I Become White” in Latin). We drank some that evening and found it innocuous. I have heard that many French winemakers who specialize in reds feel obliged to produce at least a little white to be used as a starter wine for formal tasting. When I mentioned this to Eb, he told me it could also be that the Chardonnay might have a more practical purpose: adding a little bit to kick-start fermentation of the reds.

As we prepared to depart for downtown Cahors for lunch (at the excellent Restaurant du Marché—thanks for the steer, Camille!) we were advised that the 2009 vintage was expected to be an exceptional one. Can't wait to find out...

(Check out the wineglass with the round fingerhold in the stem. This is, I'm told, the "classic Cahors wineglass.")

PS: In the event, we were unable to make it to Château de Chambert. I hope to be able to take advantage of Phillipe Lejeune's offer to visit in the not-too-distant future.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sparkling wine from New Mexico

There's a fine story at Kevin Lynch and Amber Share's Native Food and Wine blog about the Gruet winery in New Mexico. There's a video interview with Sofian Himeur, Gilbert Gruet's grandson, in which he describes Gilbert's efforts to find a foothold in the United States. At the shop, Gruet is something of a tough sell--people simply cannot believe that something priced so low can be so good.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nosing Around Brive

A moment of travelogue: Yesterday, the plan was for our hosts Harry and Susan to drop off their friend Nicole at the train station in Souillac early in the morning. (Nicole is a professional photographer and photography instructor based in South Africa, check out her stuff, she's pretty amazing.) Then Lucy and I would meet them and we'd go shopping at the Friday market. Instead, SNCF decided to cancel the train stop, so they raced up to Brive-La-Gaillarde to catch the train there. We were to meet them at the big Carrefour in Brive. Well, we were late getting out of the house, and it takes longer for me to drive to Brive than it does for Harry, and by the time we got there, they'd finished their shopping and it was time to turn around and head back to Souillac before the market ran out of everything.

Over coffee, we decided that Susan and Lucy would head back to Souillac, and Harry and The Mule would take in the sights of the wine shops in Brive. We had a very good time; Harry took me to DeNoix, a tiny distillery right downtown. We tasted liqueuers made in the traditional method, using only real herbs and fruits, and best quality cane sugars. Here's a virtual tour of the place. They also sold wine at the front of the store; I left with a bottle of "Eclipse" because I saw Eric LaGuerre's name on it. I also took a bottle of something called "Triple Zero" made by Jacky Blot of Domaine de La Taille Aux Loups. This is a sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Montlouis Sur Loire AOC, with no chaptalization, no liqueuer du tirage, and no liqueuer du expedition. I got aromas and flavors of green apple, toast, and a kind of very, very dry chocolate note. Needless to say, the wine was bone dry.

We also visited La Maison Du Vin, where Jean Dubech-Janoueix presides over an impressive collection of bottles, including many that had a good amount of bottle age. This interested Harry, who has grown weary of waiting for his collection of Bordeaux to achieve maturity. What interested me was a bin filled with bottles of Domaine Gauby "Le Calcinaire" 2006, one of which I greedily grabbed. M. Dubech-Janoueix, as a good wine saleman should, pointed out that he also had bottles of Gauby's fabled "La Muntada" 2002. In a moment of uncharacteristic restraint, I refrained from laying out 70 euros for a bottle, fabled or no.

I did, however, pick up a bottle that was next to it. It was from Domaine d'Aupilhac, which I'd never heard of; it was "Vin de Pays de Mont Baudile" which I'd also never heard of. What made me buy it was the words "Le Carignan" on the label. I reasoned that anyone who was bottling that grape on its own back in 2000 must have known what he was about. The "non-Filtre" part was reassuring, too. Had I made a find? Hah! That is what Google is for, to clue you in on what the rest of the world already knows. (Nothing like finding out that your Mystery Bottle is considered "a Languedoc reference" by Andrew Jefford.) In the event, it was delicious, with a nose of black fruit, tar, and herbs, and a rich palate of sweet red and black fruit and earth, and just enough structure provided by ripe tannins and acidity.

A Brief Rumination on Château Mourgues du Grès

François Collard's father was a farmer. He grew grapes, and also fruit trees. Today, the vines and the fruit trees are managed separately (François's younger brother runs the orchard business) but the vines and the trees still grow side by side. As François says, the aroma of the viognier grape reminds him of the aroma of the apricots that grow nearby. You can learn more about Collard's beliefs about the total effect of sun, soil, water, and agriculture here.

I spent a little time with Emeric Garcia, "maître de chai" at the winery. When we arrived he was busy with the new vendage; it was a hot, dry summer right up to a week or so before harvest, when it rained. They waited while the Mistral came through and dried everything up—which turned out to be the right decision. We tasted a tank sample of the syrah; it’s just a few days old, but on the tongue you can already taste the abundance of fruit. The winery uses concrete tanks to ferment the reds in the traditional style of the region. Garcia says he gets plenty of extraction with minimal pump-over. He ferments a small amount in barrels; he jokes that these are the only places he does any punching-down. White wines and rosés are fermented in new stainless tanks (there is also just a bit of barrel fermentation). He is a careful winemaker, but not “organic.” Hoping a wild yeast will initiate a healthy fermentation is too much of a risk for a winery like this.

While Château Mourgues du Grès is neither organic nor "biodynamic," this is clearly a property run with great sensitivity to the interaction of man and nature. So to me, it is no surprise that the wines are excellent and very much of their place.

Thanks again to Anne and François for their hospitality (We agree that "eggplant" is a very strange name for aubergine.)Thanks to Sophie Laurent for the vineyard tour and the tasting. I'm sorry we didn't get a photo of Sophie as good as the one you'll find here.
The Mule with the Collards (and dogs). Behind us, on the wall, Anne's design for the winery: "Sine Sole Nihil" "Without the Sun, Nothing."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tasting At Château Mourgues du Grès

We tasted wines with Sophie Laurent, who handles exports at Château Mourgues du Grès. A native of Madiran, Sophie at a young age already has an extensive background in wine marketing, and what sounds like a daunting schedule of international travel ahead of her for the remainder of 2009, including what sounds like a hectic schedule of fairs and tastings in Asia.

Here's what we tasted:

Les Galets Dorés 2008: Grenache blanc and vermentino (80% combined) plus Rousanne, Marsanne, and Bourbolenc, all from young, north-facing vines. On the nose, herbs, light floral character, citrus and a note of honey. On the palate, bright citrus, very refreshing, with a bit of grapefruit pith at the back; then a last note of dried honey on the finish. This would be very good with the local brandade de morue or with a strong cheese.

Terre D’ Argence Vin du Pays du Gard 2007: Among the last bottles of the vintage. 40% Viognier, with roussane and marsanne. 5% of the viognier was barrel aged; the rest was aged seven months in stainless tanks. On the nose, lemon verbena and sweet mint; on the palate peach and apricot, maybe the barest hint of orange. Good acidity cuts the richness. Very appealing. The ’08, unsurprisingly, shows more fresh acidity.

Capitelles Rosé 2008: Barrel-aged for 3-4 months. Mostly mourvdre, with a bit of carignan. Vivid salmon color. Aromas and flavors of red cherry and other red fruits, oak spice, and red licorice.

Galets Rouge Rosé 2008: A little more carignan and more red fruit—bitter cherry, exotic spice, juicy, but with solid structure lent by minerality.

Terre d’Argence 2007: 85% Syrah, 15% Grenache, 5% oak-aged. Oriental spice, black olive, hint of meatiness on the nose. Follows through with deep plum, black fruits, minerals, and a long mineral-driven finish. A big wine, made from vines 40 years old and older. These are the vines below the top of the bluff; they face directly south. The deep color is the result of month-long maceration. The wine is aged up to a year in concrete.

Terre de Feu 2007: This is one that is not exported to the US. Peter Weygandt passed on it, and while I can understand why, it still seems a pity, because this is a unique wine. The “feu” refers to a fire that started near the top of the slope of the lower part of the vineyard in the famously hot, dry summer of 2003. There’s an SNCF track that runs along the crest of the hill, and a spark from a train ignited a fire that burned and slightly damaged some of the oldest Grenache vines. As she opens the bottle, Sophie says, “If you have difficulty breathing, open this wine.” It is spectacularly aromatic, releasing all the fragance of the vineyard—the wild fennel, the sweet mint, the garrigue. In the mouth, sweet tobacco vies with powerful unto jammy red raspberry and earth. The very dry finish is carried by tobacco, earth, and spice. This is an extreme wine, made only in the hottest vintages. The alcohol is labeled at 14.5%, but is almost certainly more like 15.5%. It is a bit hot at the end, just like the summers during which it is made.

Capitelles Rouge 2007: 85% syrah, 15% Grenache. The nose on this is almost like American petite sirah: Strong, rich aromas of blueberry, boysenberry, pepper and chocolate. There is also a distinctly local aroma of rich herbs. The biggest difference between this wine and a big California Petite Sirah is focus: The aromas and flavors do not disperse, but follow straight through to the finish. It's dense, rich stuff, and it is no surprise to learn that Mr. Parker thinks highly of it.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Château Mourgues du Grès

Château Mourgues du Grès sits on top of the Costieres, which despite the plural is a single long, low bluff that stretches east-west for miles, just south of the city of Nîmes .This is where the vines for the Galets wines are grown: Grenache blanc and vermentino for the whites; syrah and Grenache for the reds. Standing on the edge of the hill (where I took the accompanying snapshot), you can look south across the Plein du Boucade and see the Camargue, southwest and see the Baux de Provence. The air is filled with the scent of wild fennel, thyme, rosemary, and sweet mint.



The soil (shown at left) is unmistakably Rhone-like: a sea of large pebbles and marl that goes down as much as 7 meters. Small oak trees—bushes, really—grow beneath a line of cypress trees. François Collard says the reason he loves the ’07 vintage so much is because he can taste the sap of the garrigue in it. Anne and François Collard were exceptionally generous hosts, and I'll have more on the visit, including tasting notes, when I'm a little less jet-lagged.