Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday Wine Retailer "Best Christmas Vest"

It's a great vest. Not too flashy, just the right amount of Holiday spirit. Just like its wearer. Merry Christmas, Josh!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Five Farmer Fizzes

Terry Theise, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the presence of Recoltant-Manipulant Champagnes in the Unites States, likes to call them “Farmer Fizz,” which might sound pejorative to some, but that's just Terry trying to cut through the decades of pomp and circumstance that the big Grande Marque houses have laid on with a trowel in their largely successful efforts to present Champagne as a luxury item.

“Recoltant-Manipulant” translates more or less as “Grower-Maker.” This contrasts with “Négociant-Manipulant,” which translates as “Merchant-Maker.” The Grande Marque houses are N/M; the farmer fizz guys are R/M. These letters are usually in microscopic type somewhere on the border of the typical Champagne label. Unlike anywhere else in the world of wine (except Sherry), in Champagne, the people who grow the grapes and the people who make the wine operate separately. The big houses buy fruit, and often finished still wine, from wherever they choose, and then blend to achieve a house style—a wine that will taste the same every year, regardless of vintage. At a time when at least a portion of the wine-drinking public is waking up to the importance of terroir, this arrangement is the world turned upside down. And let's face it, most of the Champagne world is perfectly content with this state of affairs. Farmer fizz, its increasing popularity notwithstanding, still represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. Champagne market.

We, for better or worse, are not most people, so we were very happy when Les Doss of Vinsite announced a tasting of Grower-Maker Champagnes, held this past Tuesday evening. Thus:

Roger Coulon Brut Grande Tradition Premier Cru NV: Eric and Isabelle Coulon, representing the Coulon family's eighth generation, are based in Vrigny, in the Montagne de Reims, a bit more than six miles from Reims (pronounced "Rhhhaams" as though you were clearing your throat). They have just over 27 acres on dozens of tiny parcels in the villages of Vrigny, Pargny les Reims, and Coulommes la Montagne, all on southeast-facing slopes composed of chalk and clay. The assemblage for this wine is 50% Pinot Meunier, 25% Pinot Noir, and 25% Chardonnay. The dosage is quite low at 7 grams per liter, which is feasible thanks to their ability to harvest very ripe fruit.

The wine showed aromas of roasted nuts, brioche, and cocoa powder, followed by a palate of mouthwatering citrus, toffee, vanilla, minerals. Learn more here.

Pierre Peters Brut Cuve de Reserve Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs NV:

The Peters family history in Champagne begins in 1858 with Gaspar Péters, a native of Luxembourg, who married a local girl who owned a few acres of vineyard in Le Mesnil. For many years, they were growers only. Today, the family has 45 acres in the villages of Mesnil sur Oger, Oger, Cramant, and Avize, all on a chalk outcrop in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Whole bunches are picked by hand, pressed very, very carefully, and fermented in stainless. The assemblage for this Cuvée may contain wines from reserve stock going back 15 years. Click here for more on the wines and their history.

This is a Blanc de Blanc, 100% Chardonnay. It opened with a nose that offered hints of green apple and pear. The palate was very clean, linear, and ended with a burst of citrus. Our friend Jay Murrie at 3Cups compares it favorably to Salon. Our friend Ryan, who sat with (and charmed) The Chef at the tasting, called it “Sushi wine,” and I'm inclined to agree. It is no-nonsense, very focused Champagne, and it is easy to imagine it alongside a few pieces of super-fresh, precisely cut toro. Champagne Peters website.

Jean Lallement Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV: 

 Jean Lallement (pronounced Lall-Mont, it says here) farms 10 acres between the Grand Cru villages of Verzenay and Verzy, in the Montagne de Reims region. The soil is mostly limestone. Made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Terry Theise says this is the favorite wine in his entire Champagne portfolio, and it is easy to understand why. We got wonderfully integrated aromas and flavors of toast, apple, anise, pear, and lemon, all beautifully balanced, with a pleasing texture—not too austere, not too fat, just right. The combined sensations of toastiness, fruit, and minerally spice have a magnetic appeal. This was the bottle I'd most like to take home. Here's a brief meditation from Peter Liem on Lallement.

Francis Boulard Brut Nature Mailly Grand Cru NV:

Boulard's website is a model of clarity; you can read the details of this wine's production here. Boulard is a by-the-book biodynamic grower; he stopped using weedkillers and chemical fertilizers in 2001, and has been guaranteed biodynamic by EcoCert since 2004. Like a very few other courageous vignerons, Boulard does not “green harvest” to keep yields low. Instead he goes out early in the year and prunes his vines short. This is a Brut Nature, so there is no dosage at all; he depends completely on ripe fruit for his sugars. In a tasting of small-production wines, his is the smallest of all: Just 7.5 acres under cultivation—and fruit from his Mailly-Champagne vineyard, used to make this wine, is just a fraction of this! This was made from 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay. It offered aromas and flavors of orange blossom, chalky minerals, and lemon cream. Remarkably, it had not a hint of the harshness that is often a feature of non-dosage wines. In my limited experience of non-dosage Champagnes, this has the best balance of fruit and acidity, and the most pleasing texture.  

Guy Larmandier Brut Rosé Premier Cru NV: 

 The Larmandiers have been growers since 1899. Today, François Larmandier farms 22 acres in four villages in the Côte des Blancs: Cramant and Chouilly (for Chardonnay only) are Grand Cru; Vertus and Cuis are Premiere Cru. All parcels are planted to Chardonnay, except for a small portion of the Vertus vineyard, where Pinot Noir is grown. The rosé contains 12% Pinot Noir from Vertus; the balance is Chardonnay blended from all the villages.

The first bottle stank of brett. Fortunately, there was a second bottle: gamey, meaty, grassy, with lots of minerals. Hints of red berry and kiwifruit developed on the palate over time. Don't let the “gamey/meaty” note fool you: This was light, elegant Champagne, showing lots of finesse.

Thanks to Ryan, Parris, and Cara for sharing their knowledge and insights. I listen to them and feel confident that the future of wine in Asheville is in good hands. And, of course, thanks as always to Les and Kathy for making this all possible. All the wines tasted are available, in varying states of limited quantity, at Vinsite.

PS: This Asimov guy is reviewing some of the same wines. You might want to check him out.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

André Ostertag Veilles Vignes Sylvaner

André Ostertag is my kind of winemaker: He uses biodynamic methods, but prefers not to talk about them; he is deeply suspicious of the mystical aspects of biodynamic practice. And while this may classify him as a practical winemaker, he his hardly one who lacks imagination. For example, he has devised his own classification system. Domaine Ostertag produces 16 different wines classified in 3 different types: Vins de Fruit (Fruit wines), Vins de Pierre (Stone wines) and Vins de Temps (Time and Weather wines--typically, late harvest wines). He is very much a believer in terroir, and, as his classifications demonstrate, he understands how different aspects of terroir can come to the forefront in a wine's production.

He is also my kind of winemaker in that he not only grows the much-maligned Sylvaner grape, but treats it with respect and actually gets something good out of it. Most (but not all--see below) of those growing Sylvaner in Alsace are using it as a blender, where its neutrality, high acidity, and high yield are appreciated, although enthusiasm for the grape has diminished over time: 35 years ago it claimed about 30% of Alsace vineyards; today it is more like 10% (about 3,000 acres). Although it is thought to have originated in Transylvania, Sylvaner (or Silvaner)'s true homeland is southern Germany, far from the Mosel, where it makes the excellent Franken wines.

The Chef wanted to make an “easy” Sunday dinner with one guest, and decided to bake chicken on a bed of cabbage, apples, and sweet onion, spiced with juniper berries and allspice. Here's the link to her recipe. The cabbage/apple combination suggested something from Alsace, and when I went looking, my hand fell to a 2009 Domaine Ostertag “Les veilles vignes de Sylvaner.” It had a bit of cinnamon in the nose, along with notes of pear and yellow fruit. In the mouth, it tasted of pear (skin and flesh) and very forward mineralty. The overall impression mingled rich fruit flavor and crisp mineral character. Sylvaner is noted for high acidity; it was not particularly assertive here.  It played very nicely with the baked chicken, demanding no special attention to itself: It was very relaxing wine. This was made from 50-70 year old vines. Mindful of Ostertag's three classifications, I'm guessing this gets filed under Vins de Fruit, since the old vines bring the fruit to the fore, and I don't believe this is a wine intended for aging.  Kermit Lynch imports; we got this at Vinsite. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't remember how it was priced; it was well under $20.

There was an earlier encounter with excellent Sylvaner in these precincts; described here.

PS: I'm glad some of you enjoyed the games posted a while back. I don't know about you, but I find these little amusements helpful during the holiday season. So here's the Motherlode.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Shopping Guide? Really? (Updated) (Up-Updated)

For two whole years I have resisted the lure of crass commercialism. Well, that's enough of that. When they tell you virtue is its own reward, they're not just kidding around. Hey, don't take my word for it, ask Anthony Bourdain.

We all know the joke about establishing what kind of girl you are. When I start “monetizing” and linking to Amazon, then you'll know for sure. The only thing that holds me back right now is whether it's actually worth the money. We'll see. Without further adieu, here is the Wine Mule's Holiday Shopping Guide!

I like to read. These are worth reading:

The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine (Mitchell Beazley Wine Guides) (Hardcover). Andrew Jefford is a terrific writer, and his survey of French winemaking, published in 2002, is still amazingly up-to-date, anticipating the “natural” revolution that has taken so many French wine regions by storm. And there are some hidden treats. For example, in the section on the Loire is one of the clearest explanations of the biodynamic phenomenon, illustrated with some truly heretical commentary from Nicolas Joly. (I just looked at Amazon, and they're asking $90 a copy, used. So much for great gift ideas! Get it from your local library.)

Barolo to Valpolicella (Classic Wine Library) and Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Nicolas Belfrage is still the guy I turn to for the details of Italian wines. Again, these were published in 2003, yet they are still timely; none other than Josko Gravner (accurately described as a “radical”) makes an appearance in the section on Friuli. The second volume is especially worthwhile, although admittedly not for the casual reader--unless you're really, really interested in learning about the mediocrity of Sardinia's Nuragus grape. (Oh, this is ludicrous! Amazon wants $69 and $79 each, respectively, in paperback, used. See above.)

Oldman's Brave New World of Wine (Norton). Mark Oldman is a wine popularizer—a guy who writes about wine for Everyday with Rachael Ray and talks about it on TV for PBS. This book was damned with faint praise when it was released in October 2010, and it is true that his complicated charts and celebrity-fawning can be hard to take. On the other hand, he's hip to a lot of the up-and-coming wines and regions; the “Culinary Sweet Spot” gauge is pretty straightforward; and honestly, I'd buy it just for the pronunciation guides. (On sale for $13 at Amazon! This is more like it!)

Reading Between The Wines (University of California Press): Terry Theise is that rare thing, an importer who lives his convictions. He believes in Riesling, especially when it's from the Mosel, with a faith that is profound. He was an early advocate of Recoltant-Manipulant (now known as “Grower”) Champagne, and I feel tremendously grateful for that, because if it were not for Terry Theise, I might never have known the pleasures of Chartogne-Taillet “Cuvée Fiacre,” a wine that literally stunned me into silence when I first tasted it. He's also an advocate of Austrian wines, and was instrumental in introducing Americans to the joys of Gruner Veltliner. I don't know how to classify this book, except perhaps as a long love-letter to the land, the winemakers who work the land, and the wines themselves that have moved his soul. Personally, I have reservations about some of his ideas, but in the scheme of things, these are piffle. As I wrote to a colleague, "It has caused me to re-evaluate the way I evaluate." ($17 and change at Amazon. Well worth it.)

The Science of Wine: From Vine To Glass (University of California Press): Jamie Goode is very knowledgeable about wine, and has a PhD in plant biology. He's also a pretty astute writer. The combination of these qualities make this book very worthwhile, especially for those of us who never took an organic chemistry course. Popular discourse on the making of wine is rife with misinformation, disinformation, and plain ignorance. The Science of Wine is the only antidote I know that can be safely used by non-scientists. ($30 and change at Amazon; you'll make it back winning bar bets.)

Update: Terry Theise has reminded me that science is not static, and that Goode has updated some of the information that appeared in "Science of Wine." So I'm about to order a copy of his latest, "Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking." ($16 and change at Amazon.)

Up-Update: My friend Jeff Waggoner sent me a link to Eric Asimov's Holiday Reading Guide. Asimov is correct in noting that one of Goode's attributes is that he says "We don't know, because there's no research" quite often. This was the case in "The Science of Wine," too. On the other hand, I think he's read a little too much Alice Feiring, because Goode is absolutely not a stooge for anybody, certainly not Constellation or Diageo or any of the other big boys in the business.

PS: The Oldman book was a freebie, sent last season, from an obviously misguided publicist. I'm supposed to disclose this or risk fearsome penalties from the Federal Trade Commission.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Clos Roche Blanche L'Arpent Rouge Touraine 2010

Didier Barrouillet, former chemical engineer turned vigneron, and his partner Catherine Roussel, who inherited the land from her family--which had worked the land since the end of the 19th Century--run Clos Roche Blanche, a property of about 44 acres in Mareuil-sur-Cher, a village along the Cher river in the Touraine appellation. The soil there is clay and flint. Barrouillet practices minimal cultivation--the plough is used sparingly if at all. Everything is hand-picked, and fermented in a miscellany of vats and barrels. He prefers CO2 to SO2 as an anti-oxidant. He is a true believer in the power of terroir, as he explains in this quote from an interview:

"The wine I make is the consequence of my work in the vines. I almost never taste in the cellar, because I know what the end result will be. When I first started, I took no interest in the vineyard. But my natural evolution has led me to spend less and less time in the cellar. And this evolution continues in that today, I almost don't pay any attention to the vines and focus principally on what's happening in the soil. The vines are a direct consequence of what is happening in the soil." Read the whole interview here.

Clos Roche Blanche L'Arpent Rouge Touraine 2010: Made from 100% pineau d'aunis, from whatever juice is left over after making rosé (surely the only instance of this in all of winemaking!). I tasted this with Les at Vinsite. On the nose, we got herbs, cinnamon stick, face powder, floral bath salts, orchid, and lily. In the mouth, spicy clove ("Red hots!" said Les), sour cherry, barely ripe strawberry, and a distinct mineral character vaguely reminiscent of aspirin. The wine seems very fresh, very vibrant, very alive. I have been known to say that certain reds from the Loire had "the wild green thing." This one has it. It has been billed as a great "summer red" to be drunk slightly chilled on a warm afternoon. I plan to open some over the course of this winter, to remind me that summer will come again.

I was sorely tempted to not publish any tasting notes on this wine; the specific components of aroma and flavor are really beside the point. The reason to drink L'Arpent is to take your senses on a kind of virtual tour of the vineyards of the village of Mareuil-sur-Cher. When you hold the glass to your nose, and then to your lips, the wine is telling you what it's like to actually be there. It's a lot cheaper than plane tickets.

Another reason to enjoy this wine now is that Clos Roche Blanch is shrinking--a decision of the owners, who want to maintain close control over what they're doing in the vineyard. Scarcity will become an issue. (And a quick note to say that all is well on some of the property they sold off--it is being cultivated by the young and talented Noëlla Morantin.) For more on Clos Roche Blanche, read Chris Kissack's thoughtful report and read the notes and look at the pictures at Bernard Celce's website.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bodegas Bielsa: A "Natural" From Campo de Borja

Campo de Borja has nearly 20,000 acres planted to vines. The climate—dry with extremes of temperature (over 100° F to 19° F)--tends to produce big-bodied wines high in alcohol. Co-ops dominate, and with notable exceptions (Borsao Reserva, Fagus) tend to produce wines of excellent value but a certain predictability of style. But the “natural” forces are now at work in Campo de Borja, too. Judging from a newly imported garnacha, the new guys are raising the stakes.

Bodegas Bielsa Viñas Viejas 2009: This is 100% Old Vine (45 years and older) Garnacha, organically grown by winemaker Roberto Pérez on Rhone-like large pebbles (galets). Aromas and flavors of licorice, blackberry, strawberry jam, and earth make a full-frontal assault on the senses. I've been tasting a lot of Loire reds lately, and have grown used to parsing subtleties. Not necessary for this! What sets it apart from even the better conventionally produced garnachas from the region is complexity. That jumble of aromas and flavors just keep coming on and evolving in the glass. Although well-disguised, there is also some tannic structure at work here. At $12.50 (Vinsite) this really is a great value. Imported by Farm Wine Imports.

For your amusement: Forbes (Capitalist Tool) thinks the stuff is great, too. (You'll need to click through an ad.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Oregon Wine History Video

Everybody who likes wine has an “Aha!” moment. Certainly everybody I know who works in the business has one of these stories to tell. Mine is short and simple: I was in San Francisco in 1979, reporting on a metals and mining conference (my chequered career, Part III, I think). One evening I went to Ernie's, which back in the day was quite the place. Probably for the first time in my life, I found myself actually studying the wine list (I was trying to impress somebody). I ordered a bottle of Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, because I could pronounce the name. I don't remember much about it, except that I'd never had anything like it before, and it was really good with steak au poivre.

I'm telling this story to explain my relationship with wines from the American West Coast. Obviously, it was a product of the Napa Valley that set me off on what has turned into a life-long exploration of wine, which in turn led to my becoming a wine salesperson. Yet if it weren't for my friends who occasionally put a bottle in front of me, I probably would not drink anything from the West Coast at all. This is partly a matter of personal taste—I'm not a huge fan of Cabernet Sauvignon from anywhere, not even Bordeaux—and partly a practical professional decision. Most of the customers I dealt with over the years did not need or seek my advice on wines from the West Coast. And since hardly anyone ever asked, I pretty much let the whole subject go. I'm not proud of this; it's just how things played out.

The point of all this verbiage: Mike Veseth writes a blog called the Wine Economist; he is the Robert G. Albertson Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound. I stumbled across this video on his site while looking for something else, and found it very affecting. Not enough to go out and buy a bottle of Ponzi, maybe, but then again, maybe I will. Note: The audio is poor for the first 1:30, then becomes normal.

Oregon Wine History


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Link-O-Rama (updated)

I've thought about doing something like this for a while. So what the hell:

Why I don't review Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Why patience is not merely a virtue, but provides tangible rewards.

Why if I could be anybody, I'd like to be Cathy Ho.

So you think you know France? Prove it!

A report from the Newspaper Of Record. ...and what really happened.

Not new, but still required reading.

…and since you all enjoyed the Vignobles game, here's another one. You can tell it's English, because there's a butler involved.