Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jura, Voilà!

The sit-down tasting of wines of the Jura, held at Vinsite last evening, came not a moment too soon for me. I'd brought a L'Octavin trousseau to Thanksgiving dinner, and it was a bust: Pale, wan, and fizzing with refermentation. So some faith-restoration was in order.

We began with a sparkler from Dejean & Fils, a Blanc de Blancs NV made from columbard, ugni blanc (trebbiano)--grapes usually associated with the Cotes de Gascogne--and folle blanche, one of the traditional cognac grapes. It was a fine palate-cleanser, with orchard fruit notes, just a touch of the cidery tang we expect from the Jura, and surprisingly fine perlage. Then it was on to the main event:

L'Octavin Chardonnay Pamina 2008: The nose was challenging: Roasted nuts, diesel (“Failing brakes!” from across the table), charcoal, and strong vegetal character. The palate was more conventional, with some healthy citrus and mineral character. Over time, the metal-and-hot-petroleum notes faded out, and the acidity moderated. This was produced by winemakers Alice Bouvot and Charles Dagand, who have been farming biodynamically in the Arbois appellation since 2008.

Bornard Savagnin les Chassagnes Ouille 2006: Opened with a complex nose of high herbs, Christmas spice, roasted nuts, pear, and a sweet yeasty note; on the palate, very pretty pear and citrus flavors, with a touch of sherry-like tang. Over the course of the tasting, the acidity moderated and the texture plumped up. Phillipe Bornard farms about 15 acres in the village of Pupillin, just south of the village of Arbois. Bonard was a disciple of Pierre Overnoy, a pioneer of natural winemaking.

Puffeney Poulsard M 2008: Berries, rose petals, spice, linseed oil, and maybe a hint of smoke on the nose. On the palate, red berries and citrus; with time in the glass, the fruit character really came forward. For a “light” red, this had a very pleasing mouthfeel. Andrew Jefford describes Jacques Puffeney thusly: “...a secret scholar, a quiet theorist, a practical researcher.” Puffeney's Arbois was the first red from the Jura I ever tasted. That first encounter is memorialized here.

Bornard Ploussard La Chamade 2008: Speaking of firsts, it has been more than 20 years since I tasted a Château de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape that had some serious age on it; I still remember trying to parse the nose for specific aromas, giving up, and feeling I'd failed some kind of test. Much later on, I realized that when a great wine has aged to the point of fully becoming itself, the component parts of the nose disappear into a kind of unity. At the time, I called it “incense.” Much to my astonishment, this impression came back to me tasting the Bornard Ploussard: While there were identifiable aromas of rose petal and red cherry, the overall impact was more like a fine perfume. This brief romance was brought up short as I heard from the table the words “cow poop,” and the meaty, fecal aroma of chitterlings began to come on strong. (This was not the end of this wine's organoleptic story--see below) By contrast, the palate was pretty simple and straightforward, with pretty red berries and cherries.

Gahier Trousseau 2009: Red licorice and some brown spice (cinnamon?) were the first notes of the nose; I also caught a hint of blueberry (often a sign of youthfulness). There were also some strawberry/raspberry aromas. Again, the palate was straightforward, with pleasant light red berry fruit, and a touch of oxidative and mineral character. Michel Gahier's property is located next to Jacques Puffeney's.

Tasting “Food Wines” 

Our hosts, Les and Kathy, were careful to put out bread, nuts, sausage, and a selection of cheeses to accompany the wines. The Chef, who was also in attendance, had me taste some of the wines with the cheeses and sausage. This was revelatory: The L'Octavin Chardonnay, in particular, was transformed after a bite of Tomme. Similarly, the stinky character of the Bornard Ploussard vanished when accompanied by a bite of sausage. Discussing this afterward with Cara and Brian, we agreed that tasting these wines without food did them a disservice. Cara also pointed to a common theme among the wines: They tended to have quite complex aromas, followed by relatively straightforward flavors.

As was the case with the Orange wines, the wines at this tasting are never going to be crowd-pleasers. They require some work to appreciate; they are not produced in volume; and they can be pricey. And, as with the Orange wines, they have their own peculiar charm, and they remind you that wine is a living thing, not something to be “branded” and hyped. On that basis alone I'd recommend giving any of these bottles a bit of your undivided attention. (If you're interested in trying any of them out, here's the link to Vinsite; as Les says, these are so hard to come by he can't get them in case quantities. Act now, etc.)

PS: As we know, tasting is the most subjective aspect of wine appreciation. I hope some of you who were also in attendance will chime in with comments, with the understanding that I reserve the right to be completely wrong-headed about any of the bottles we tasted!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Erbaceo: Biodynamic, Good Quality, From Puglia. Really.

2009 Erbaceo Colli della Murgia IGT Puglia: I was intending to taste the 2011 Beajolais Nouveau, but I got sidetracked when Les poured me a taste of this little charmer. It's a blend of 60% Fiano Minutolo and 40% Greco. The back label says “certified organic by ICEA,” and the producer was either the first or among the first to apply biodynamic growing methods in Puglia. Take a look at their website

The wine opens with a nose of ripe fruit, dried honey, and juniper berry. “Minutolo” is known for adding floral notes; they did not seem particularly pronounced. On the palate, vivid flavors of golden apple and peach, with a floral/herbal note at the end. Fat-textured, countered by good acidity. Quite fresh-tasting for a two-year-old white. The vineyards are in Gravina in Puglia, just south of the Alta Murgia National Park, about an hour's drive southwest from Bari. If I could find some razor clams, I think I'd like a bottle of this to go with them. Scallops will do.

It is cheering to think that wines of this quality are now available from Puglia. Tom Cannavan called Puglia “the engine room of Italian wine production,” churning out around 10% of Italy's total production. Even today, most of the production goes to bulk sales. When Franco Ventricelli and Francesco Valentino set up shop in 1986, even the natives dismissed the idea of quality wine from the region. There was Cantina Botromagno, and not much else. So they are to be congratulated both for their foresight and perseverance. An appreciation of the external difficulties a Southern Italian producers face can be found here.

Available at Vinsite, (check out their spiffy new site design) priced around $15, I think.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Henri Milan and Jesús Lazaro: French and Spanish Organics

Domaine Henri Milan is a wine estate in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Provence. Henri Milan has been running the estate since taking over from his father in 1986. He grows his white grapes in blue marl, soil similar to Chablis, with some clay and limestone and gravel. The total vineyards area is 42 acres (including red grape plantings). I had done a little bit of research on the wine. Jancis Robinson praised his 2004 effusively, but also called it “intellectual,” which as we know can be a warning flag for some. Brooklynguy called the 2007 vintage “polarizing.” So on Sunday evening, when I put a bottle down on the countertop at Bob & Sandy's, I announced that they had permission to hate it if need be.

Domaine Milan “Le Grand Blanc” (N/V, but probably 2008) Vin de Table, St Rémy de Provence: This was made from a blend of Grenache Blanc, Vermentino (even French people have a hard time pronouncing “Rolle”), and Roussanne. Milan is not certified biodynamic, but follows some biodynamic practices. A little cidery tang on the nose says there has obviously been some extended maceration here, although the wine doesn't look “orange.” Our first impressions were of gingerbread, almond, pear, and some very characteristic Southern Rhone floral character. In the mouth, the wine was tannic, oxidative, and showing some flavor of grapefruit zest, with an almost grainy texture. Our next impressions, after about 20 minutes, were of more conventional apricot, anise, and dried honey flavors. At the 90 minute mark, the wine became luscious: The oxidative notes receded, the texture softened, and a rich aroma and flavor of ripe honeydew melon came to the fore (reminiscent of the super-ripe cantaloupe flavor of the Radikon Oslavje Bianco from the Orange wine tasting).

While I was more than happy with the journey the wine took us on, I think next time we'll decant for at least an hour beforehand.

Dinner featured smoked duck; I was invited to look in the cellar for something appropriate, and found a bottle I'd sold to our hosts, back in 2008, I think. The duck was going to want something with some power behind it, and Ribera del Duero is usually a good bet. Thus:

Adrada Ecologica Raices de Aza, Ribera del Duero 2004: This wine made a brief appearance in the portfolio of importer José Pastor. It was made at Adrada Ecologica, a certified-organic producer in Ribera del Duero, by Jesús Lazaro. Lazaro works the vineyard as well as makes the wine, which Pastor points out is quite rare in Spain these days. It is 100% Tempranillo, made from head-pruned vines of 70 to 80 years of age, all grown at high elevations on a single estate. It was aged in French oak for 12 months. Sandy likes a big red wine that has lots of secondary and tertiary flavors; this one offered many, including smoke, earth, roasted spice, and vanilla to go along with red, blue, and black fruit flavors and aromas. It was remarkably pure-tasting, and we were surprised at the softness of the tannins. “Raices de Aza”
translates as "Roots of the Town."

2004 is widely regarded as one of the better recent Spanish vintages. Pastor notes that while the 2005 vintage was a dry one, with attendant problems with under-ripeness, wines made on old, draught-resistant vines like those on Lazaro's property may show more refinement and elegance. (A brief search showed no bottles from either vintage still available at retail, although I would be happy to be proved wrong about this.) Read Alice Feiring's appreciation of José Pastor here. 

After dinner there was Trimbach Poire William. The Trimbachs have a reputation in Alsace for relatively austere wines; obviously, they have no such compunctions when it comes to fruit brandies. It was like drinking liquid bosc pear.

After the after-dinner drinks, the Chef snagged the duck carcass. You can learn its fate here.

 The Henri Milan was from Table Wine; the Raices de Aza was from The Asheville Wine Market.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Chef's Birthday (Champagne and Barolo)

It was the Chef's birthday, so the Chef got to eat exactly what she wanted (not that any other day is different in this regard...), which was, surprisingly, steak. She also got to drink exactly what she wanted, which was Champagne, and “a really nice Italian red” to go with the steak.

Back before he opened the New York store and became even busier than he was with the Pennsauken and Wilmington stores, the illustrious Greg Moore of Moore Brothers sometimes wrote wonderful rants about the business. It was reading one of these rants, on the depredations of certain Grande Marque Champagne houses, and especially one that produced a wine that came in a sort of Halloween orange label, that I learned about José Michel. Here's Greg:

José Michel (pronounced “Zhozáy” in French, not “Hozáy,” as in Spanish) farms 21 acres of vineyards around the town of Moussy, a small village just south of Épernay, on hillsides that face the Côte des Blancs (you can see Jacques Diebolt’s vineyards from José’s exceptional single vineyard, Clos des Plants de Chênes). He grows all three varieties: Chardonnay planted in the lower vineyards with calcareous soil, and Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir in the upper vineyards that have more clay in the soil. Fermentations are carried out in old oak casks or enameled steel vats. 
 José Michel is best known as the foremost récoltant-manipulant (estate-bottling producer) of Champagnes that are made from Pinot Meunier, a variety that gives lovely floral-toned, red fruit aromas in Champagne, but that is decidedly unfashionable with most producers. Many Champagne houses are reluctant even to admit that they use Pinot Meunier in their blends. They believe it doesn’t live long enough in the bottle. José Michel proves them wrong. In fact, the Blanc de Blanc, made from Chardonnay grown in several different plots in and around Moussy, and the Clos des Plants de Chênes, also planted to Chardonnay, are the only exceptions to the rule that the entire range of vigorous, longlived José Michel Champagnes is based on Pinot Meunier. 

A few years back, Michel's 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne became available, and I did my best to put it into the hands of as many people as possible while working at the Asheville Wine Market. It was the kind of Champagne that made friends: It was $39.99, and it was distinctive without being off the charts. I used to tell people it would give them an instant Hip Merit Badge. I still believe that.

So imagine my delight when I walked into Table Wine back during the summer and Josh put a bottle of 2002 José Michel “Spécial Club” in my hands. It's a 50/50 blend of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, made from fruit grown on vines that were planted by José's grandfather in 1929. On the nose, notes of tangerine, meyer lemon, bittersweet chocolate, red berries, and cashews. On the palate, strawberry mousse, citrus zest, and bracing mineral character. On the finish, more minerals and hints of red berry. The wine gave an initial impression of sweetness, which faded into the intense mineral character.

Then it was time for a really nice Italian red.

Azelia Barolo 2000: Luigi Scavino, in the words of Nicolas Belfrage, makes “wine of modern tendency.” He's not certified organic, but he keeps the use of copper sulfate to a minimum, and when he uses fertilizer, it's organic. He uses French oak, but only a little; he tends to shorter periods of maceration, so his wines don't have the huge tannic structure that can make Barolo difficult to enjoy without long bottle aging.

There are lots of people who will tell you that opening an 11-year-old Barolo is a form of infanticide. (We try to avoid people who speak this way about wine; we think they lack a sense of proportion, but then we're just a bunch of moldy figs here anyway.) We did give it a few vigorous whirls in the decanter, just to show that we meant business, but in the event the wine showed beautifully, with the classic aroma combo of roses, red berries, truffly funk, and just a hint of asphalt. In the mouth there was a near-perfect balance of fruit, tannin, and acidity, with a surprisingly soft texture. The classic match for Barolo is wild boar, but grass-fed steak sauced with a beef and veal demi-glace with red wine reduction was just lovely. (Now you know why the Chef likes to cook her own birthday dinner.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Beef Stew, Not The Worst Wine After All, A Bargain, A Disappointment, And An Italian Merlot a la française

Pelee Island is the southernmost Canadian vineyard, as they like to say, on the same latitude as the Napa Valley (and the Macôn). The bottle pictured above was the gift, after a fashion, of a Canadian customer. “This is the worst wine I've ever tasted,” she said, handing it to me. I promised I'd give it due consideration, and for the last four years or so it's been in the cellar, considering itself. The Chef was making boeuf à la Bourguignonne and hollered from the kitchen that she needed a cheap Pinot Noir for the pot. Somehow, I knew exactly what to reach for (I also reached for a backup bottle—another Pinot, this time from Patagonia—just in case). With no little trepidation we tasted it—and it was...Pinot Noir. A bit dilute, and just starting to show a little brown on the rim, but fine for the pot, which is where it went.

Les and Kathy brought some bottles. We started with a sparkler from the Marches, made by Garofoli from Chardonnay and Verdicchio. Guelfo Verde Vino Frizzante 2010 is light, gently fizzy, had some nice orchard fruit notes and a sturdy mineral finish. It was delightful, and became even more delightful when we found out it was priced at $9.99.

The featured wine with our beef stew was an els jelipins 2004. It is a “natural” wine, a blend of two grapes, the rare Sumoll (60%) and garnacha (40%). It is produced in the Penedès by the young and attractive Glòria Garriga & Oriol Illa, who hand-pick, making passes through the vines at various intervals, ferment at low temperatures with indigenous yeasts, and age the wine for 30 months in old French and Slavonian oak vats. Now you know we were primed to fall pantingly in love with this wine, but this particular bottle wasn't quite there. I got a little whiff of peppermint candy on the nose, which was…unusual. It was nicely textured, and had some red and black fruit to it, as well as some notes of sweet spice and cocoa. But there just wasn't all that much going on. Les and Kathy, who'd had it before, were clearly disappointed; Les said the last bottle had been much more substantial. Maybe the stew was too much for it. Although one does not like to be in the position of making excuses for a $90+ bottle. Then again, the whole point of natural wines is that they are not factory-made products, and there will be bottle variation. And as has been noted in this space before, managing expectations can be a bitch.

Feeling a bit let down, I went back to the cellar and pulled out another bottle that had been gathering dust—a merlot picked up on a visit to Tuscany in 2004, that made its way back to the U.S. during that Golden Age before the damned three-ounce rule: Fattoria La Rendola IGT Merlot 2001, from the winery of the same name, in the village of Montevarchi, not too far from Arezzo.

The wine was made by the highly regarded Fabrizio Moltard, a consultant agronomist, native of Piemonte, who moved to Tuscany to work for Angelo Gaja then went out on his own. These days he consults with many wineries in Maremma. He's the go-to guy if you're growing French grapes around Scansano. You'll recall that in the mid 1990s French grapes aged in French oak were all the rage in certain parts of Tuscany; everybody wanted to get on the Super Tuscan bandwagon. Fattoria La Rendola was no exception, and they brought in Dottore Moltard to produce wine in the Bordeaux style, and that's what they got with the 2001 IGT Merlot: Red plum, blackcurrant, and lead pencil on the nose, a silky-textured palate with more plum and a touch of cocoa, and a nice lift of acidic red berry on the finish. With air, it developed a creamy richness, at which point it became a little too much of a good thing.

It's tempting to try to find a moral here about the calculatedness of what Fabrizio Moltard does for a living vs. the deliberate lack of calculation at els jelipins, but it's only two bottles, folks. And I don't want Tom Wark to get mad at me for suggesting that winemakers might have any motivations beyond wanting to sell what they make. I have to admit that despite some recent disappointments, as a class, I find the “natural” stuff very appealing these days. How're they gonna keep me down in Paree, now that I've seen the farm?

The els jelipins and the Guelfo Verde are available at Vinsite.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Offal Experience

Last night we ate testicles. And penises. And duck hearts and tongues. We ate pig's ears, pig's blood, cockscombs, tongue, veal brains with cauliflower/bone-marrow puree, ox heart with cockles, and kidney, cheek, and tail pie.

This was a “pop-up” dinner by the Blind Pig Of Asheville, a group of chefs and miscellaneous other crazies who take a transgressive approach to cuisine. Matt Dawes (of Table) and Jeremy Hardcastle (the new Hot Dog King of Asheville) did the cooking. The carnage took place at City Bakery.

For more on the eats and some background on the Blind Pig Supper Club, check out Mackensy Lunsford at MountainX.

The event was BYOB, and several malefactors from the local scene showed up with organic lambruscos and cavas, Arbois wine from the Jura, a killer Cote du Rhone (La Ferme du Mont Cotes du Rhone Premiere Cote 2009), a sleek Ca'Marcanda from Maremma (Tuscan coastline) from Angelo Gaja, of all people, and a bunch of other stuff. We brought a Danilo Thomain Enfer d'Arvier which had suffered a bit of secondary fermentation. It was drinkable, just. For those who were asking about the grape, I mis-identified it: It's Petite Rouge, not Petite Arvine.

We also brought one of two bottles of Mas d'Agalis Yo No Puedo Mas (Russell Garrett from Sour Grapes brought the other one) which for me, at least, was the vinous highlight of the evening. The name translates as “I Can't Take Anymore” and reflects the sentiments of young winemaker Lionel Maurel, who produces this blend of 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache, and 10% Mourvèdre at his family's property in the village of Nébian, which is in the Hérault appellation of the Languedoc. Not that you'd know it from the label—the INAO has declared his organically produced wine Too Strange for the regular appellation, and insists that he label it as “vin du pays” and not give vintage information (the vintage is displayed in roman numerals—ours was VIII). In the event, the wine showed the kind of rusticity you want when you're eating offal: Aromas of game and the barnyard, spice and red fruit, followed by more solid dark fruit, earth, and a nice bite of acidity. I've seen it on the shelf at Table Wine and Vinsite, about $20 and I'm guessing it will be an essential beverage for the next Blind Pig outing.

BYOB! Yeah!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Loire vs. Languedoc

I know, I know, it seems I just toggle from one obsession to another. Now we're back at the old French North/South rivalry. The area where the Vienne meets the Loire--Saumur, Bourgueil, and Chinon--is capable of producing red wines of plainspoken elegance, and even a kind of self-effacement. I can think of some Bourgueil wines--"Les Galluches" from James Petit comes to mind--that don't really express themselves fully except in the context of a meal. Or as former colleague Elaine Thomas said, "This wine wants dinner and candlelight!"

Then there's the South, especially Languedoc/Roussillon, where hot sun, drying winds, and an abundance of soil types can result in wines that show an abundance of fruit and spice. Sometimes I think the job of the winemaker in this part of the world is to keep all that abundance in check, lest a bit of playful hedonism become debauchery.

Clos Cristal Hospices de Saumur Saumur Champigny 2009: Black cherry, hint of cranberry, “cool” herbs, then firm cherry fruit on a lightish frame, and somewhat subdued tannins, well-balanced. The 2009 is a pleasure to drink on its own, but showed best with food; in this instance, the Chef's “fake Cassoulet.” (“It's not traditional, and doesn't have all the traditional ingredients.”) Winemaker Eric DuBois has gradually shifted to organic growing practices and minimal intervention during fermentation, including keeping the use of SOto a minimum. Click here to learn more about his winemaking and enjoy the wonderful photography of Bertrand Celce.

Chateau de Lascaux Coteaux du Languedoc 2008: A blend of 60% Syrah, 35% Grenache, and 5% Mourvèdre. Black pepper, herbs, and red berries on the nose; quite luscious on the palate with more red fruit and a creamy mouthfeel. Little kick of spicy pepper and acidity at the finish; lovely stuff, and at $19/bottle, reasonably priced. A Wine Dictator Spectator “Top 100” pick, but worthwhile even so. It's easy to understand why the Spec gives it a big score; it really is a pretty "easy" wine, where the fruit borders on voluptuousness, and the oak gives it a polish like a newscaster's hair. Yet there's enough complexity here to let the maquillage slide by. (Besides, sometimes we're in the mood for maquillage.) This is made by Jean-Benoît Cavalier, President of AOC Languedoc, which is doing away with the “Coteaux du Languedoc” appellation, not sure why, except to keep us all as confused as possible about Southern Provence wines. You'll find more here about M. Cavalier and his activities.

 As of this writing, both wines are in stock at the Asheville Wine Market.