Sunday, December 29, 2013

Whaddaya Drinkin' New Year's Eve?

A quick drive by of bubbly stuff for the New Year. All but the last are pretty widely available.

Under $15: Gruet. Nathalie and Laurent Gruet, the sparkling wine geniuses of Alberquerque, New Mexico. I can't think of anything else of this quality in this price range.

$20-30: Domaine Hubert Clavelin "Brut-Comté" Cremant du Jura. Stick a bottle of this into a tasting of typical NV Champagnes and this will pass muster without a murmur. It's 100% chardonnay, and made in exactly the same way as the real stuff, and tastes that way, too.

$30-$60: The truth is, a non-vintage bottle from almost any of the Grande Marque houses will do. I'm partial to Louis Roederer, but the standard is pretty high across the board.

Lotto winners and hedge fund managers: Hard to argue with Krug. But for about $175, Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle achieves a similar luxe style. Eb at the Asheville Wine Market says it was the hit of a tasting that included Dom and some other high-end stuff.

Geeky: Champagne Aubry Nombre d'Or Sablé Blanc des Blancs. Note: I've never seen, much less tasted, a bottle of this stuff. But I really, really want to. I fear I don't get enough Arbanne and Petit Meslier in my regular diet. Barring that, an old favorite: Champagne José Michel, Pinot Meunier. Proudly made from Champagne's underdog grape, and just delicious. I think Josh still has some on the shelf.

PS: I'll be pouring at Table Wine on New Year's Eve; not sure yet what the lineup will be, but I'm confident it will be great. Noon to 5 p.m. Stop by and say hello.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Brief Meditation On "Natural" Wine

 Somebody posted a query about "natural" wines and what anyone though of them. I wrote a response, and thought it might be okay to break with the usual wine reviews and post it here, too.

I remember tasting Thierry Puzelat's "Le Telquel" for the first time and being startled at how alive it seemed in the glass. Not long afterward, I learned that if you got 9 good bottles in a case of 12, you were to consider yourself fortunate. Then I had a conversation with a friend in the biz, who wondered whether Puzelat had any notion of the attrition rate on his wine.

In the years gone by, I have purchased any number of wines imported by Louis/Dressner or Jenny & Francois--not inexpensive wines, either--which turned out to be fizzing with refermentation or with the burnt-hair stink of reduction, or varnishy, or just plain unpalatable.

To put the best possible face on it, I suppose it is possible that the people who made these wines had no concept of the rigors of not just the trans-ocean but the U.S. transcontinental distribution chain. I prefer to think they did not just ignore the reality of it. But I don't know. The wines were bad, and they were bad because the winemaker had put dogma before quality, as promoted by Nicolas Joly, they guy who thinks wine must first be true and then be good. Sorry, I'm not having any. I don't ask wine to make me virtuous; I want it to taste good.

Even so, the fact of that first, startling encounter with a well-made and properly stored biodynamic wine remains strong in my memory. Enough to encourage me still to tempt fate from time to time with one of Joly's Coulee De Serrant bottles. (Opened a 2004 recently--just a touch of VA, and some astoundingly exotic fruit.)

At the other extreme, I've tasted many, many deluxe bottles from the Napa Valley that appeared to have been adulterated with boysenberry syrup. And more than one or two "garagiste" wines from Bordeaux. You know what I'm talking about, and you know it is why I still have murder in my heart for The Wine Advocate. (Only in my heart, Uncle Bob, only in my heart...)

The issue isn't whether something is natural or unnatural. It's whether the wine is good to drink. To use my preferred example, most people would be shocked if they knew how Champagne was really made. For the large houses, their NV bottling is not so much wine as it is a beverage. Economics rules all; growing the grapes and making the product are done in the most risk-free way possible. (To this day, I look at the chapter on quality in Tom Steveson's World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine and see the headline "Quality Begins In The Vineyard" and cringe.)

And yet. And yet: The big houses crank out a reliable, and reliably tasty, product, year after year. They are not interested in terroir, their selling points are consistent style, image, and strength of distribution.

Things are changing in Champagne. These days, the Recoltant-Manipulant, the guy who grows his own fruit on his own land and makes the wine himself, is ascendant. He is not interested in making a consistent product, but in making the best of whatever nature gives him. This is admirable, even if it does not always result in a wine that much resembles what the big houses make.

I believe, then, that what matters most is not whether a winemaker follows a particular philosophy, but his intent: Are you making a beverage, or are you making wine? Sometimes a beverage--like a bottle of Mumm's--is just the thing. But for the most part I prefer wine, myself.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Charles Baur Edelzwicker 2011

Armand Baur was the first in the Baur family to vinify and bottle wine. The Baurs have cultivated vines for several generations, on 30 acres in Eguisheim, of which about a quarter are in the grand cru vineyards of Eichberg and Pfersigberg. The soil is mostly marl: clay mixed with limestone; it is hard, but crumbly, and the limestone provides good drainage. Sandstone is also present. The Eichberg vineyard in particular is known for Gewurztraminer.

Charles Baur Vin d'Alsace Edelzwicker 2011: The nose teases with hints of tropical fruit, green apple, spice, and a whiff of floral notes. In the mouth, the first impression is of dried honey and ripe pear; as the wine moves to the back of the mouth, bright citrus and green apple flavors take over, creating a pleasant balance. The texture is just a bit creamy. Mineralic and appley notes carry the finish. This was made from 50% pinot blanc, 40% Sylvaner, and 10% Gewurztraminer. All fruit was hand-harvested and hand-sorted; prolonged fermentation was temperature-controlled, and the wine was left on its lees for a few months, then bottled. It paired beautifully with moderately spicy Chinese-style pulled pork. At $12.99 (Asheville Wine Market) this is a very good value, as are the other Baur wines, including a pinot blanc and a Crémant d'Alsace that is supposed to be scrumptious.

 P.S.: For those who've wondered: The difference between Edelzwicker and Gentil is that the former has AOC status; the latter does not.

Oh, and check this out: A cork made by the French firm Diam Bouchage, guaranteed to have no cork taint:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dafnios: Drink This Wine Or It Will Die Of Loneliness!

From the Department of Lost or Nearly-Lost Causes:

While Greek wines have become more visible in the United States (ten years ago, being in the Euro-Zone was a plus), most of the attention has been paid to whites. Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini shows up on many lists these days, and with good reason: With it's bright citrus and mineralic character, it's easy to love.

Reds are another story. For one thing, it takes most Americans a moment or two to form the names of the two principal red grapes. “Xinomavro” and “Agiorgitiko” do not flow trippingly off the American tongue. For another, the former can be hugely tannic, and the latter doesn't really have a clear identity: It can be aromatic and fresh-tasting when made for immediate consumption; spicy, smoky, and a bit tough when made for ageing.

And then there is Liatiko, a red grape that is native to the island of Crete. I'd never heard of it until I saw a wine called Dafnios on the by-the-glass list at Table in fabulous downtown Asheville a while back.

Dafnios is a wine from the Dafnés appellation in central Crete, made by Nikolas Douloufakis, whose grandfather Dimitris  began cultivating grapevines and making wine in 1930. Liatiko is native to Crete (and no relation to the Italian grape Aleatico, with which it is sometimes confused). Douloufakis ages it in oak for nine months before release.

Domaine Douloufakis “Dafnios” Liatiko 2010: In the glass, it could easily pass for a red from the Jura: Pale red, with a touch of brown at the rim. The nose has floral and spicy notes, followed by flavors of red and black berries, a light, smooth texture, and relatively low acidity. If you like, think of this as a Poulsard that speaks with a Southern Italian accent. (I was chatting with Mike Tiano not long ago about it, and even he said it was hard to describe. I'm doing the best I can...)

I found it to be very food-friendly, and a pleasant change of pace from other lighter-bodied reds. It is also priced nicely; it is on the shelf at the Asheville Wine Market for $15.99.

Should you find yourself at Table anytime in the near future, I urge you to go ahead and gamble the $8 or whatever it is for a glass of this; the staff tells me I'm the only one who ever orders it, and if that remains the case, it will doubtless fall off the list, which would be a shame.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Even More Macho Rosé: "Harri Gorri"

Domaine Brana has been covered here before; you'll find background information here.

Domaine Brana “Harri Gorri” Rosé 2012: This was produced from 70% Tannat and 30% Cabernet Franc. It is named for the red sandstone prevalent in the Basque Pyrénées Atlantiques. You know going in that there will be tannins aplenty, but that is hardly the whole story. The nose is surprisingly complex: I got notes of grapefruit pith, wintergreen, watermelon, and Earth. In the mouth, red berries and what are referred to in polite company as “unresolved” (e.g., bitter, woody) tannins. It paired beautifully with the Chef's preparation of sea scallops on a bed of corn and peppers. It's available at Table Wine, I think it's around $18, and worth every penny.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Leverano Rosato: "Yeah, that's good."

In a way, it's kind of embarrassing to be writing a note about Leverano Rosato. I've known about it for years, and I've certainly drunk a whole bunch of it, but I never thought to review it. It was just part of my mental landscape, I guess. I had a glass the other night for the first time in a few months, and it brought me up short: It had this little note of anise that until that moment hadn't caught my attention. I started to actually think* about how it smelled, tasted, how it looked...and you know, it's a really pleasant drink.

Vecchia Torre began in 1959 when fifty growers in the town of Leverano in the Salento district of southern Italy banded together to form the Cantina Sociale Cooperativa of Leverano. Today there are 1,240 members growing negroamaro, mavasia nera, trebbiano, and other grapes on a total of almost 2,700 acres of vineyards, turning out about 3.7 million gallons of wine a year. They average a relatively modest yield of 3.6 tons/acre, proof to me of the quality-mindedness of the co-op.

 Vecchia Torre Rosado DOC Leverano 20112: Coral pink in the glass, with aromas of raspberry and a hint of anise. In the mouth, soft red berry fruit, and adequate acidity. It is made from a blend of 80% negroamaro and 20% malvasia nera. The anise note makes my argument that this is a disctinctively Italian pink. At $8.99/bottle, it is no wonder it is so popular with the local Italian eateries. And because it is so inexpensive, they feel free to experiment with it. Cucina 24 used to offer it infused with herbs! Widely available in Asheville.

*You may have seen this article by Mr. Asimov on rosé and “unthinking drinking.” I see no problem with “unconscious gravitiation toward a familiar or unthreatening sort of wine...” Hey, it's good to be adventurous with wine. But it's not a requirement! I guess being excessively serious about wine is a common professional hazard for New York City sommeliers. But you and me, we are not sommeliers, and sometimes it is more than enough to take a swallow and think “Yeah, that's good.” And go on with whatever else you're thinking about.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Summer wines: An aristocratic Sancerre; a gulpable Rosé

Summer wines, high and low: A Sancerre of aristocratic origins, and a pink from the  Costières de Nîmes meant for gulping.

The names of winemakers Jean and Ginette Thomas—and their children Julien and Christale—often appear coupled with the word “aristocracy.” Their 33-acre property has been in their family since 1670. They share the tiny (population abut 300) village of Verdigny with some distinguished neighbors, also in business for multiple generations, such as Domaine Bernard Reverdy & Fils and Domaine Paul Prieur & Fils. Verdigny is home to these producers largely because of vineyards like  La Crêle, which is noted for its limestone-laced soil and the small white stones known as  caillottes that freckle the surface. It has a desirable southeast-facing slope, and is planted to sauvignon blanc vines of an average age of 35 years.

 Domaine Thomas & Fils “ La Crêle” Sancerre 2011: A pale straw color in the glass. On the nose, floral notes, lemon, lime, and pineapple. In the mouth, the pineapple flavor gives an impression of richness, but the acidity and mineralic quality keep it very refreshing. All fruit was hand picked, and fermentation took place in stainless tanks. This one of a very few top-quality whites that stands up to being served quite cold. On a hot summer's day, it is a bracing, mind-clearing experience. We actually drank it along side some cheese-stuffed lamb sliders that the Chef concocted in a very small kitchen while we were visiting friends and family on Cape Cod. The wine came from a tiny but thoughtfully stocked shop in Duxbury, MA (aka “Deluxebury” which tells you everything you need to know about it). It's imported by Robert Kacher.

We recently opened another Kacher selection, from one of my favorite winemakers, the indomitable Diane de Puymorin, famous for her premium Costières de Nîmes wine produced under the name Chateau d'Or et Gueules.  Her bargain line is sold as Domaine de la Petite Cassagne. She's in the village of St. Gilles, almost directly south of the city of  Nîmes, where she has the advantage of the bluffs that form the  Costières and relative proximity to the Camargue.

 Domaine de la Petite Cassagne Rosé Costières de Nîmes 2012: Pale pink in the glass, almost but not quite what the French call oeil de la perdrix. It is a blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. On the nose, strawberry, watermelon, and just a bit of the sweet herb melange that the region is famous for. In the mouth, sweet red fruit balanced by tart citrus. This is for gulping, not for contemplation, and at $11.99 you can gulp quite a bit of it. Delicious with a dinner of grilled eggplant, sweet torpedo onions, and fresh corn on the cob.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pledging Allegiance To Roussillon

It is a commonplace among people who write about wine and food--especially Old World (France, Italy, Spain, Germany, etc.) wine and food--to recommend drinking the local wine with the local cuisine. I know for a fact that in certain areas of France, it is not only recommended, it is, as a practical matter, the only available course of action. When you're in the Perigord, you might find a Rhone or two on a wine list, but then again, you might not. Chianti? Forget it! Come to think of it, I can recall a time when it wasn't all that easy to find a bottle from Bergerac or Cahors in the Napa Valley, either.

Where I live in western North Carolina, the wine industry is too small and too new to have integrated itself into the local food culture. Perhaps one day Sean McRitchie's awesome "Ring of Fire" cabernet franc will pierce the consciousness of the region's chefs, but apparently Fate does not want McRitchie to become famous too soon.

So, unlike basketball (30 years a Celtics fan, no matter where I live), I get to choose my wine allegiance. I suppose Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne are obvious choices, and the Loire and Piemonte can be dazzling. But after a life-altering visit a few years ago to Maury and the surrounding area, my heart belongs to the French side of Catalonia. So I pledge allegiance to Roussillon, and to the crazy-quilt of soils for which it stands. One nation, under Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Muscat and Maccabeu, with vin doux naturel for all.

The gentleman who symbolizes Roussillon's transformation from backwater to avant-garde is Gérard Gauby of Domaine Gauby, who recognized the potential in his father's ancient, low-yielding vines. Read Rosemary George's appreciation of him here. Among other things, he has brought up a generation of disciples to carry on his concept of "more bio than bio" grape-growing and winemaking. One of the best is Jean-Louis Tribouley.

Click here to read Tribouley's story in his own words (and those of David Schildknecht). 

Jean-Louis Tribouley "Orchis" Vin du Pays des Cotes Catalanes
This was made from fruit grown in his Coume du Roi vineyard, planted with about 75% Grenache and 25% Carignan. As has always been the practice in most Roussillon vineyards, grapes were hand-harvested. Unlike most, the  grapes were also hand-destemmed. As you'll have read in the link above, yields are ridiculously low. The wine opens with aromas of cinnamon stick, chocolate malt, sweet herbs, and orange rind. In the mouth, assertive flavors of black and red cooked raspberry and cherry. Very full mouthfeel, slightly grainy texture: Rich but not unctuous. There is a bit of alcoholic heat. The overall impression is of a wine that is deep, juicy, exotic, sensual, and to me completely addictive.  Tribouley's wines are usually available in Asheville at The Asheville Wine Market and at Table Wine. Orchis is usually priced in the mid-$30s.

If you think my notes on this wine are over the top, take a gander at David Schildknecht's for the 2010 vintage. (What does "an ineffable sense of crystalline mineral impingement" mean, anyway?)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Macho Rosé

I think it was the spring of 2003 when The Chef and I and our friends Harry and Susan were exploring downtown Biarritz one evening, looking for a tapas joint, or in the local jargon a place for "bocas parilles" (little bites). For whatever reason, nothing seemed appealing, and at about 10 pm we gave up and walked into a little brasserie on the Port-Vieux, across the street from the deluxe-looking "Restaurant of the Midnight Swim." (Restaurant de la Baignade de Minuit). We ate piles and piles of tiny moules, and Susan taught us how to use the mussel shell as miniature tongs for extracting morsels. We accompanied this with a bottle of an AOC Irouleguy wine called "Argi of Ansa," the most macho rosé I'd ever tasted. And no wonder--it was 70% tannat, softened with a bit of two cabernets, sauvignon and franc. It smelled of flowers and citrus, and tasted of strawberries, but with the kind of tannic kick usually reserved for a big Madiran.

This episode came to mind as we tasted a rosé of nebbiolo, pressed into our eager hands by Josh on a recent visit to his place. It was made by the Caves Coopératives de Donnas, a co-op in operation since 1971, located in the southeastern corner of the Aosta appellation, just above the border with Piemonte. They produce a mere 12,500 cases a year of reds, whites, and rosés. The town of Donnas was settled by the Romans--it has a stone arch carved out during the First Century--and is known for a climate mild enough to allow the cultivation of lemon trees as well as grapevines. It once had it's own tiny DOC, but has since been absorbed into the larger Valle d'Aosta DOC.

Nebbiolo is famously difficult to grow. It prefers calcerous marl (chalky limestone) to grow in, and because it ripens late, wants a southern exposure. It is also famously tannic, which is what brought the Irouleguy comparison to mind.

2011 Caves de Donnas "Larmes du Paradis" Valle d'Aosta DOC Rosé: On the nose, citrus, strawberry, and a bit of yellow fruit. In the mouth, red fruit, apple, and lots of tannins. If you like your rosé very dry, you'll like this a lot. It's not as aggressive as the Irouleguy, but still a pink wine for manly men. Context, of course, is everything: It seemed quite fruit-forward when served alongside grilled radicchio and endive.

PS: "Larmes du Paradis" translates as "Tears of Paradise," which is a lovely name except that according to various search engines it is also a euphemism for "acid rain." Go figure.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dinner at Rouge Tomate, or A Love Song To Pascaline

The Chef and I went to New York last weekend to attend the anniversary of some old friends. We had a night free, and when I asked some local wine folk where to go for dinner, the consensus pick was Rouge Tomate. With another old friend, M. Thomas, we sat down at one of the very spacious booths. M. Thomas and The Chef checked out the menu and you know what I did. The wine list is extensive, and exclusively organic. My eye fell upon the half-bottle list for something to start with:

Franz Hirtzberger "Rot Tor" Gruner Veltliner Smaragd 2011: Franz Hirtzberger represents the fifth generation of his family to work vineyards in the town of Spitz at the western end of the Wachau valley in Austria. "Rot Tor" means "red gate," red as in blood: The gate was the scene of bloody fighting against Swedish invaders back in the 1650s (not that anyone still holds a grudge…). The soil in the vineyard--designated for federspiel and smaragd production (roughly equivalent to premier and grand cru)--contains a mix of gneiss, mica, schist, and brown soil (loamy stuff containing organic matter and rock that provides good drainage). Viticulture is organic, and all fruit is hand-picked, only at full maturity--harvesters make as many as five passes through the vineyard to achieve this. The wine is fermented in stainless, then matured in large wood casks. Because he is at the cooler western end of the Wachau, his wines are highly regarded for their mineralic character and purity of fruit. Our bottle lived up to the billing, with aromas and flavors of earthy peach, green apple, white pepper, and a hint of tropical fruit, all underpinned by firm mineralic character, and all wrapped in a richly textured framework.

It is always pleasant to get lucky on a first bottle, and useful not to push your luck. So I had a chat with the sommelier, the lovely and knowledgeable Pascaline Lepeltier. You can read her story at the Rouge Tomate website.  I was thinking about a Montlouis from Francois Chidaine for the upcoming seafood courses; she suggested instead something not quite so acidic:

De Moor "D'Autres Vallées" 2011: We were familiar with the work of Chablis iconoclasts Alice and Olivier De Moor through their wonderful “Bel Air et Clardy” Chablis. But this was something I'd never seen or heard of: A late harvest Aligoté, made from fruit grown on a small parcel of the De Moor's 15-acre estate. Bottled unfiltered, unfined, and without cold stabilization, it was nonetheless absolutely clear and bright in the glass. Technically, the wine is considered "medium sweet," but the fierce native acidity of the Aligoté keeps everything in balance. Aromas and flavors of green apple and citrus. It paired beautifully with scallops and carrot gazpacho. I admit to going a bit gaga over it. And to wanting another discussion with Mlle. Lepeltier.

There were two remaining savory courses on the tasting menu involving rabbit and duck. I attempted a thoughtful expression and said, "Rabbit and duck--sounds like something from the Southwest might be appropriate?" She disappeared for a few moments, and returned with a red from Gailliac:

"Le Duras par Robert & Bernard Plageoles" 2007: This is labeled as vin de table, because the Gailliac AOC tasting committee rejects it as "untypical." Which is insane, because the Plageoles are known for making some of the best wines to ever come out of the appellation. Robert, the father, has been described by Andrew Jefford as a "viticultural archaeologist" who speaks of the ancient Romans who once worked these vineyards "as if they had left just a year or two earlier." He has long been an advocate for organic wines and for the many obscure grapes native to the region. Bernard, the son, is less flamboyant, but equally dedicated to producing wines that fully reflect the Gailliac terroir. This wine is made from the Duras grape, known for its dark color and spicy character. It grows in Gailliac and in a few small pockets in the nearby Côtes de Milleau. As expected, it presents a dark, almost blue-black color in the glass. It looks like it will be a bruiser, but it isn't: Aromas of blackberry and spice (black pepper?) lead to a palate where fruit and spice vie with tannins and minerals for attention.  It has some richness to it, but it is not at all heavy: it has a kind of rough-hewn elegance.

With five courses and three bottles behind us, plus a few generous pours from Pascaline, who wanted us to try some of her pairings for the tasting menu, we resisted the final list of sweet wines, slurped the strawberry shortcake/souffle dessert, and shuffled out onto East 60th street, not stuffed, but pleasantly stunned. We walked back up the West Side to our hotel, plotting how to convince Mlle. Lepeltier to trade in her boogie board (according to her bio, she surfs, she plays tennis, the piano…) for a mountain bike and hiking boots.

                                                                  Health Food

A last note: We did not find out until the next day that Rouge Tomate defines itself more or less as a health food restaurant. Had I known the place had a nutritionist on staff, I might have given it a pass, expecting some glum virtuousness. I am very glad that I didn't, and am thrilled to report that virtue and hedonism can co-exist at an extraordinarily high level. Salud!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lapeyre Jurançon: A Heightened State Of Alertness

When the Pyrenees thrust themselves up to the Earth's surface about 500 million years ago--long before the Alps--the result was a chaotic terroir where chalk, clay, schist, and sandstone formed layer upon layer, studded with rocks of all sizes and shapes. Consequently, there is little uniformity from valley to valley. This is the geological heritage of the Jurançon, an approximately 1,500-acre appellation for white wine tucked up against the Spanish border in the Basque/Bearnaise country of southwestern France.

One of the most favored locations for vineyards is La Chapelle de Rousse, where the hills resemble ampitheaters (conques--literally, "sea shells") and the vines are planted on terraces. The soil here is called "poudingue," a kind of crushed chalk, very dense, and laced with galets--big pebbles that washed down from the mountaintops ages ago. This is where Jean-Bernard Larrieu grows about 24 acres of gros manseng, petit manseng, and just a bit of courbu. For generations, his family grew fruit here--mostly strawberries--and sent their grapes to the local co-op.

                                 Conques at Clos Lapeyre (Charles Neal Selections)

When he took over the property in 1985, he concentrated on winemaking. Over the years, his operation became organic in a system he describes as one "which respects the plant, its physiology and its environment; a system of culture which allows our grape varieties to express the minerality of the poudinque, the freshness of the Pyrenees, perhaps the softness of ocean (not so far) and surely the passion of our job."

Jean-Bernard also embraces modern techniques: He ferments at high temperatures and uses temperature-controlled stainless in the winery.

2009 Larrieu "Lapeyre" AOC Jurançon Sec: This is made from 100% gros manseng, showing a beautiful pale gold in the glass. It opens with aromas of peach and citrus with a hint of sweet herb on the nose; in the mouth, peach and apricot amped up with near-electrifying acidity. This is a steely, nervy wine--the first sip sort of shocks you into a heightened state of alertness. Clean, citrusy finish. Available locally at Table Wine Asheville. You might want to call Josh to make sure he still has it in stock: 828-505-8588.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Wine Lolly

No, I haven't posted lately. Yes, I have many reviews to write. Later. For now, The Wine Lolly Video:

Now, go get yourself a bottle of rosé. It's time.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Two For Summer: Boas Vinhas Branco and Tramontane Côtes du Roussillon

Two wines for summer: One for grilled seafood, the other for grilled sausage.

Nuno Cancela de Abreu, who heads Sociedade Boas Quintas, has made the production of high quality wines in the Dão region of Portugal his life's work. After getting an advanced degree at Montpellier (one of the French equivalents of UC Davis), he ran the Association for the Development of Viticulture of the Douro Wine Region; by 1987 he was teaching enology at the University of Trás - os - Montes and Alto Douro in Portugal. He started Boas Quintas in 1991 on his family's estate in  Mortágua, in the Viseu district of north-central Portugal. Ten years later, he ran Quinta da Alorna, a property that has been in continuous operation for nearly three centuries. He also consulted for other estates. In 2010, he left all of this to start Boas Quintas.

The Dão Region is surrounded on three sides by mountains that lessen the influence of the Atlantic, with warm summers and lots of rainfall. It is mostly planted to touriga nacional, but white grapes grow well here, too. The best is the Encruzado, which has benefited hugely from temperature-controlled fermentation, since it is prone to oxidation otherwise. According to Jancis, there were a mere 729 acres planted in 2010. This is the principal grape in Boas Vinhas Branco. The other grape—in smaller proportion, is Cerceal Branco, which adds a sense of freshness and also a dose of acidity. The grape is commonly confused with Sercial, which is used to make dry Madeira. The two are unrelated.

Boas Vinhas Branco 2011: As mentioned above, the wine is made from a blend of 70% Encruzado and 30% Cerceal Branco. On the nose, lime, green apple, a little pear skin. In the mouth, peach and pear, a very good balance of fruit, acidity, and mineralic character. It's refreshing; it has charm; it's $11.99. I'm thinking this will pair well with one of the Chef's shrimp-and-fresh tomato dishes, once the season arrives. This is going to be available starting next week, says Josh at Table Wine. This is a no-brainer for those who, like me, would like to add variety to a warm-weather diet of Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, and Pouilly-Fumé.

“Tramontane” is the name of a strong, dry, cold wind that blows into Roussillon from the north, the local equivalent of the southern Rhone's Mistral. Philippe Gard (an agricultural engineer who lives in Banyuls and consults in Bordeaux) and Andy Cook (a New Zealand winemaker/négociant who now lives in the area)  started the Tramontane project in 2008. They own a few parcels of vineyards in the region, including one near Argelès along the Mediterranean south of Perpignan, and one at St-Jean Lasseille, about ten miles inland.

Tramontane Côtes du Roussillon 2010: The wine is 100% old-vine, gobelet (bush) trained grenache, made from grapes purchased from vineyards in Tautavel. It opens with a big nose of red berries and black licorice, followed by rich red fruit with surprisingly complex spice flavors and a strong note of mineralic character. Unfiltered. No trees were harmed in the production of this wine. At $14.99, this has a ton of rustic character, and while it will never be confused with anything from Gauby or Tribouley, it manages  to offer richness of fruit without excessive weight. We drank this alongside the Chef's garlic sausage, and it was almost like being back in Collioure. Available at the Asheville Wine Market and other fine emporia where everybody seems to know I'm a sucker for this style of red.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Giocato, Ostatu, Quinta do Alqueve: Values From Slovenia and Iberia

Edi Simčič is something else. After years as a grower, supplying his local co-op, he started making wine in 1990. His home base is Goriška Brda in Slovenia, 500 yards from the border with the Collio Goriziano appellation in far eastern Italy, near Trieste. He's always gone his own way, fermenting in oak long after his colleagues across the border had moved to stainless, and championing the Rebula (Ribolla Gialla) grape. His Bordeaux-style luxury cuvee “Kolos” sells for big bucks.

But we are here today to talk about his son, Aleks, who now runs the estate, and appears to have completely absorbed his father's philosophies and techniques. More specifically, we're here to talk about his Giocato Pinot Grigio, an inexpensive PG that tastes like no other I've come across. It's made from grapes grown in vineyards that are about 15 miles from the Mediterranean, on soil so mineral-laden that it's been described as “salty.” Unlike the family's “big” wines, this was fermented in temp-controlled stainless.

Giocato Pinot Grigio Goriška Brda 2011: Aromas and flavors of red and green apples, lemon zest, and floral notes, with just a pleasing hint of sherry-like tang, and lots of mineralic character. It is much fuller in body than many Italian PG wines that cost a lot more. At about $15 this is a bargain. It seems to be out of stock locally, but I'm sure it will be back around, it's just too good to pass up.

Fernão Pires is the most widely planted white grape in Portugal, where it also goes by “Marie Gomes.” Before the advent of temperature-controlled fermentation, it was usually distilled. Jancis Robinson assures us that while it is commonly mistaken for Trebbiano Toscano—with which it shares a susceptibility to oxidation—the two are not related.

Pinhal da Torre has about 90 acres in the town of Alpiarca (D.O. Ribatejo, about an hour's drive northeast of Lisbon) planted to Fernão Pires, Arinto, Viognier, and miscellaneous other grapes. Owned by Paulo Saturnino Cunha, the Quinta do Alqueve estate has been thoroughly modernized over the last two decades. His white wine, made from his workhorse grape, is yet another example of how a “non-noble” grape can be coaxed toward, if not greatness, then certainly a high level of goodness. Hugo Rodriques is the winemaker, and Francisco Cunha is the vineyard manager, who sees to it that everything is picked by hand, destemmed, and subjected to rigorous sorting.

Quinta do Alqueve Fernão Pires DOC Ribatejo 2010: This opens with aromas of  pineapple, lime, and lemon, and a funky herbal note that I can't define. On the palate, it gets richer as it passes from the front of the tongue to the back. This actually has a bit of tannic structure. Although they are not related, it reminds me of some of the better-quality Spanish whites made from Airen, where it shares the distinction of being the most widely planted white grape. This came from the Asheville Wine Market.

Bodegas Ostatu is a family winery located in the heart of the Rioja Alavesa region in the town of Samaniego. It was, frankly, just another Rioja producer until it got a visit from the formidable Hubert de Bouard de Laforest of Chateau Angelus,  who convinced the Samaniego family to abandon carbonic maceration (employed to create an early-maturing, easy-drinking style) in favor of traditional fermentation, with profoundly favorable results. While Ostatu is mostly known for Rioja Crianza and Reserva, the family also grows Viura and Malvasia on half-century-old, south-facing vineyards at elevations of approximately 2,000 feet.

Rioja Alavesa Ostatu Blanco 2011: Made from 90% viura and 10% malvasia, this opens with aromas of lemon and green apple, a bit of Sauvignon-like grassiness, followed by lovely pear flavor and a nice lemony snap at the finish. Not a terribly complex wine, but absolutely delicious, and an example of how the Viura grape (aka Macabeo) generously responds to cool fermentation. Iñigo Sáenz de Samaniego is the winemaker; he ferments in stainless.  Iñigo also shares vineyard management responsibilities with his brother, Ernesto. (There is also another brother, Gonzalo, and a sister, Mariasun—this really is a family operation.) At around $15, this is also well worth seeking out. The one I tasted came from Table Wine.

Friday, February 22, 2013

South Africa 3: Refined Reds

People in Stellenbosch will tell you that their region could be "as big as the Napa Valley" in terms of its potential impact on the international market. I have no predictions to offer, but there certainly are similarities of style. Most of the South African reds I tasted were big, bold, and pretty alcoholic. And then there was the Diemersfontein Pinotage which was simply bizarre (although Terry Fox came up with a great pairing idea: Chicken mole). But there are some truly refined, elegant wines made there as well; here are notes on two of them. (You don't really need to read anything more about Groot Constantia, do you? Wait, you do? Okay.)

The Cloof Farm, where the grapes for Duckitt wines are grown, has been around for two centuries. The town of Darling is located just north of the Cape Town metro area. Vineyards were first planted at Cloof in 1966, with additional plantings in 1976 and 1987. A cellar was completed in time for the 1998 harvest, and the first Cloof wines were released 1999. Today, there are a total of nearly 360 acres. Vines are mostly trained as gobelets, or bush vines; they need less water, grow their roots deeper, have a leaf canopy to protect grapes from sunlight, and produce smaller crops of small, thick-skinned berries (N.B.: The merlot grapes for this wine were trellised). Yield is around 1.6 tons/acre, which is quite low compared to typical South African yields of around 3.8 tons/acre. The name commemorates William Duckitt, who settled in Darling in the early 1800s, and taught agriculture. Today, Peter Duckitt is the viticulturalist responsible for the vineyards at Cloof.

Duckitt Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Darling 2007: Winemaker Christopher van Dieren went for full malolactic fermentation in stainless tanks, then created a blend of 76% merlot and 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, and transferred to barrels (43% new French oak) for 15 months. After fining and a light filtration the wine was bottled. Cloof does not advertise itself as organic, but it is a participant in something called the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, a South African nature conservation group. Among other things, the winery has stopped using pesticides, and minimized the use of fertilizers and herbicides.

On the nose, cedar, pencil lead, deep plum, and a hint of gravel; on the palate dark red fruit, rich in texture but not excessively so, and just enough acidity to brighten the finish. I thought it hit a nice balance between Napa-like opulence and St. Emilion-like restraint. It's pretty alcoholic at 14.38%, but not at all hot. The wine is distributed in the UK by Winesulike; it sells there for the equivalent of about $13.50, which seems an incredible bargain.

Chris and Andrea Mullineux are young, attractive, and very smart winemakers. You can read all about them here.

Mullineux Syrah Swartland 2010: The grapes were sourced from six vineyards in Swartland; some grapes were grown on shale and schist, some on decomposed granite, and some in iron-rich soils. Vines were 15-20 years old. The Mullineux family has long term leases on these vineyards, and is directly involved with viticultural management. As with Cloof, yields are unusually low for the region. A portion of the grapes were crushed and destemmed, and then up to 50% whole bunches were added. Indigenous yeasts were used, and there was a daily punch-down; sometimes twice a day depending on fermentation. After completion of malolactic, the wines from each parcel were racked, blended, and aged 11 months in barrels and foudres, using about 15% new oak. The wine was bottled unfiltered and unfined.

My previous experience of South African Syrah/Shiraz was limited; the most memorable was the Porcupine Ridge, a second label of Boekenhoutskloof; it was a cheap and cheerful wine with lots of fruit, lots of pepper, and a wonderful aroma of hard salami. The Mullineux is in a different category altogether, with some of the same black fruit, only with far more elegance, and peppery notes enhanced with some smokey, herbal character. In the mouth, the wine was full-bodied with complex red and black fruit flavors. It was more like a Crozes-Hermitage than some wines I've tasted that actually were from Crozes-Hermitage. No wonder the Platter Wine Guide named it “Red Wine Of The Year.” In Cape Town, the wine was priced at the equivalent of $27.27. Kysela imports it into the U.S. This may or may not be available through Bordeaux Fine and Rare; I've never seen it on a shelf in Asheville.

Monday, February 18, 2013

South Africa 2: Riesling!

The happiest surprise of our visit to South Africa, for me, anyway, was discovering the local rieslings. We tasted three, one each from Jordan, Klein Constantia, and Thelema, and each was impressive.   Our admiration grew as we learned more about the history of the grape in the region. Here's a quick backgrounder, courtesy of Mike Froud of the Top Wine SA blog. He presents a sorry history of misleading labeling, and explains why Jordan calls its riesling “The Real McCoy.”

  Jordan “The Real McCoy” Stellenbosch Riesling 2011: This was made from dry-farmed 25-year-old vines grown on decomposed granite, at an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet. Were it from the Pfalz, it might qualify as a dry Spätlese, given its 7.7 grams/liter of residual sugar and a relatively hefty 13% alcohol. It had a lovely green/gold color, a nose suggesting lime, sweet spice, and mineralic character, and a palate of lemon, lime, and peach, all in a richly textured frame. The finish was refreshingly tart, with citrus and mineralic notes. It paired beautifully with gembok tartare (see below).

Kleine Constantia Riesling 2011: According to the winery, 2011 was a tough year for riesling; yields were unusually low, and the grapes ripened early with lower than normal sugar content. The wine was fermented in large (132 gallon) barrels and stainless tanks, and left on its lees for six months. The style is more like a kabinett: 2.6 grams/liter of RS, and 11.6% alcohol. It had an intense nose of citrus and sweet spice, with some petrol notes. On the palate, it seemed unformed; the fruit, acidity, and mineralic character were jostling each other rather than working in harmony. I'd love to taste this again in about five years! That doesn't seem likely, though, given the low yield, scant acreage planted, and the lack of availability in the U.S. (Cape Classics is the importer, and they bring in only the Vin de Constance, which will be the subject of some future review.)

Thelema Stellenbosch Riesling 2010: Thelema has some of the highest, and hence coolest, vineyards in the Stellenbosch region—up to 3,000 feet above sea level. The vines are 26 years old and planted on a variety of decomposed granite called red Hutton. (Click here for a more thorough discussion of South African vineyard soils.) For this wine, grapes were destemmed, crushed, and left on their skins for 12 hours prior to fermentation in stainless. At just under 12% alcohol and 9.4 grams/liter RS, this reminded me—as did the Jordan—of a Pfalz dry  Spätlese, showing a lot of fruit balanced by firm acidity, and a rich texture. There's a pronounced aroma of lime and petrol followed by lovely flavors of peach, citrus, and mineralic notes on the palate, with a clean, pure-tasting finish. In fact, “pure” is a good one-word descriptor of the wine. I really liked this a lot, and am pleased to report that Cape Classics does bring this wine into the U.S., priced at around $13. I don't think anyone in Asheville carries the stuff; in theory, at least, it is distributed by The Country Vintner. I'll have to check with Anne Kaufmann...

The Mule with The Real McCoy and a plate of gembok tartare at the excellent Jordan Restaurant, at the vineyard, found at the end of a very long one-lane road, out to the west of the town of Stellenbosch.

Friday, February 15, 2013

South Africa 1: Organics and Oddities

The Chef and I spent a lovely two weeks with our good friends Harry & Susan, who eschew winter in the Perigord for three months in Gordon's Bay, a beach town about 45 minutes east of Cape Town, South Africa. When the four of us are together, the conversation tends to be about what we ate and drank the day before, what we are eating and drinking now, and what we'll eat and drink next.

Harry racked up many kilometers on his white Hyundai (I would conservatively estimate that more than 60% of the automobiles in the Western Cape are white) taking us around the Winelands. We visited Vergelegen, Thelema, Jordan, and Waterkloof in Stellenbosch; Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia on the Cape Peninsula; and Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Findlayson out east in the Overberg appellation. The wineries range from the grand (Vergelegen is where Nelson Mandela has been known to entertain foreign dignitaries) to the functional (Hamilton Russell's tasting room is refreshingly modest).

Wine reviews will appear as my lousy work habits permit. These first three are definitely not typical South African wines (well, the Pinotage is, but it's an odd version). Next time there will be a discussion of a few bottles that were real knockouts. Two of them are rieslings. Yes!

Reyneke  was on my list of places to visit; in the end we never quite got there (Jordan is a near neighbor), but we did manage to open a bottle. I learned of Johan Reyneke from reading Monty Waldin's Biodyamic Wine. Reyneke, who in 1998 took over his family's hundred-acre farm just outside the town of Stellenbosch, is one of a very few South African winemakers to rigorously follow biodynamic precepts. Click here for pictures and a brief story about how he works.

Reyneke Reserve White: We drank the 2011, a blend of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. The chenin definitely leads off, with aromas of melon and yellow fruits; after a bit you start to pick up notes of lime and oak. The palate follows with more yellow and tropical fruit, with a zing of grapefruit pith at the back end, along with some chalky mineral notes. The chardonnay seems to be more for texture than flavor. The 2010 got 93 points from the Wine Spectator; Johan Reyneke says the wine improves with a few years of bottle age, which may explain why we found it to be a good-not-great wine. These wines recently became available in the U.S., but as best I can determine, only in the New York/New Jersey metro area. In Cape Town, the wine sells for 167 rand, equivalent to about $18.50. A quick search showed prices at around $23 online.

Da Capo Idiom Zinfandel 2007: This was strange. Zinfandel with the aroma and flavor of chocolate mint. It is made by Bottega Family Wines, which holds an annual “La Vendemmia” festival to celebrate its Italian heritage. I presume therefore that winemaker Reino Thiart knows what he's doing, but this did not resemble any zinfandel or primitivo I've ever had before, whether from Sonoma or Sicily or anywhere else, for that matter.

Diemersfontein Pinotage 2009: Another oddity. As the label indicates, the phenomenon of vinifying Pinotage so it comes with aromas and flavors of coffee and chocolate is now going into it's twelfth year. It provoked a brief discussion of the meaning of "torrefaction," and it was pleasant enough, I guess. I found myself wondering what foods it would pair with. I'm still wondering.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wines For The Time of "Hard Choices"

This post is in honor of a sentence from the President's Inaugural speech: "We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit..." We know what "hard choices" means. At least for the vast majority of us. Here are some wines to get us through what the District of Columbia courtiers refer to as the ever-popular "shared sacrifice."

Not that we have it in for the entire 1%. Nothing could be further from the truth! A few of them are trying to make wine more economically appealing for the rest of us.

For example: An international trio of wine moguls, Alfeo Martini (Italian), Roger Gabb (English) and Christoph Mack (German), got together in 1991 to form Mondo del Vino, a wine producing group that operates a dozen labels across Italy, from the Piedmont to Sicily. None of the three are winemakers; their backgrounds are in distribution, a business at which all have been independently successful. I'd never heard of them (except for the Ricossa name for Barolo) until I came across this odd Grillo/Pinot Grigio blend.

Mánerra Grillo/Pinot Grigio IGT Sicilia 2010: Someone is growing Pinot Grigio in Sicily? Apparently so. This is a unique blend of  Pinot Grigio (30%) and the Sicilian native Grillo (70%). The Grillo gives some citrus and sweet spice notes, and adds body. Pinot Grigio adds a bit of finesse and some tropical fruit notes. There are peach and apple flavors, and nice snappy acidity. At 13%, there's a touch more alcohol, which makes sense, since Pinot Grigio doubtless gets a lot riper in Sicily than it would in the Alto Adige. Ahough the grapes are grown in Sicily, the wine is actually produced in Priocca, in the Piedmont area, where Mondo del Vino has its headquarters and main production facility. It's clean, tasty, and shows quite a bit more character than similarly priced Pinot Grigio from the north. At $8.99 a bottle, I'd buy cases of the stuff.

I've commented before on the way the wines of the Bierzo region of Spain, where the Mencia grape rules, were presented years ago as the Next Big Thing. It didn't happen, but the wines did not go away, either.

Bodegas Peique 2010 Tinto: This is 100% Bierzo-grown Mencía produced from 45-year-old vines and aged in large barrels—50% French, 40% Russian (!) and 10% American—for two months. On the nose, black cherry/berry and earthy aromas lead into a soft, silky palate of ripe yet savory red and black fruits, with mineralic/earthy/tannic notes at the finish. If I remember correctly, this is priced at about $11, and gives a kind of pleasure similar to that of certain Beaujolais Village wines at $15.

Récoltant-Manipulant producer Michel Collon makes Champagne in the village of Landreville, in the Aube region, which is in the Champagne appellation, although it is more than 90 miles south of Epernay. (If it were a bit further west, it would be part of Chablis.)

Champagne Collon NV: This is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier, and 20% Chardonnay. It opens with some toasty/Brioche-y notes, along with aromas of apple and pear skin; followed by mostly mineralic character on the palate, with a hint of creaminess and apple/pear flavors. I found it lacking in complexity, but it is nonetheless unmistakably from Champagne, and for less that $30, a real value for money.

All three of these are available at the Asheville Wine Market.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Belated Note On A Champion Champagne

Now that the New Year's celebrations have come and gone, a belated word about Champagne. Every year I tell myself I need to drink more of the stuff, but unlike Madame Lily Bollinger, my bank account forbids me drinking it only when I'm happy, or sad, or entertaining company, or when I'm thirsty. But I was in the Asheville Wine Market last Saturday, and I saw a certain bottle on the shelf, and decided that I had a short time to live and a whole long time to be dead, and thus this tasting note.

François Champion is a third-generation Récoltant-Manipulant producer in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, in the Côte des Blancs region of Champagne.  (Chouilly is Grand Cru for Chardonnay only.) The house was founded in 1951 by his grandfather, André, and takes its name from his father, Roland. He has 44.5 acres from several parcels in the village, along with a small vineyard in Verneuil where he grows Pinot Noir. Most of his production goes to vintage Champagnes, but he does make a non-vintage Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs—about 21,000 bottles a year, according to my calculator. It is all free-run Chardonnay juice, aged 30 months on its lees and all R.D. (“Recently Disgorged,” which is to say the lees were removed just before the wine was released). The dosage is relatively light at 8 grams per liter; the southeast-facing vineyards in Chouilly produce ripe fruit, so less is needed.

N.V. Champagne Roland Champion, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Chouilly Grand Cru: Opens with a truly distinctive nose, featuring a strong parmesan-like umami note, with citrus, apple, and just a little yeasty brioche. In the mouth, flavors of lemon, apple, hazelnut, bitter chocolate, and candied citrus peel emerge over time. And after all that mid-palate richness comes a clean, pure, mineralic finish. We opened one of these on New Year's Eve last year, and on New Year's Day this year (the Mule was working the other side of his life, making music, on the Eve). I intend to make it a tradition. At $60/bottle, this blows the doors off many higher-priced bubblies.

As the bar was set quite low during 2012, I feel—no doubt foolishly—confident in predicting a better 2013. Happy New Year!