I have nothing against tasting notes. Truly I don't. Some people write such lively and lovely ones, one wants to read them for the joy of it, not necessarily in order to bone up about the wines being described. Interesting, that: the tasting note is normally a thing with an expiration date. Who wants to know ten years down the line what a freshly released Sancerre tasted like, back in the day? But the effort of insight and originality remains persuasive, timelessly. Creative minds work with material and produce novelty and brilliance, and for this I am glad.
Yes, you can't go reading through the last pages of the Wine Spectator magazine, as someone (I forget who) recently wrote. But on the other hand, you can't simply have a lavish description of the winemaker or the bottle label or vinification practices or time in barrel or just say "we enjoyed it so much!"; a little more needs to be said about the experience of a wine.
Yet two days ago, I hit my tasting note nadir. I sat in front of a list of wines and my sharp memory of each, and there was just no way I was going to extract anything interesting, let alone a series of quips and quirks and potentially thrilling and enlightening material. I gave it a bash. But lord, it was wan. And I tucked the document away, and eventually, reader, I deleted the document.
I have nothing against points. I like stars and hearts and numbers, they catch your eye. I also have nothing against descriptions of dogwood and plums and pear tarts. Those are pretty, and evocative.
But it's true that a tasting note, when you get right down to it, is like a Schechuan peppercorn. It's a loud, spicy blast in the middle of what needs to be meatier to handle the intensity of its purported "objectiveness."
And points are like a metal skewer: eat around them.
Pic by genial writer Manuel Camblor.
Terroir, yes, indeed. It is often said—and rightly so, I think—that the foods and wines of a region flush, by nature. Some kind of terroir symbiosis. Some earthy confluence of tastes and angles. Swig that Sancerre with your local goat cheese (come to think of it, hit the crottin motherlode at a small boutique in Chavignol, if you're ever in that bend of the Loire Valley); pour some dark and stainy Cahors with your cassoulet (and avoid heart disease while plowing through duck fat and sausage).
Readers of this blog might know that sometimes I drink champagne. But what regional specialties does that call forth? Gougères have been sneaked in the side from Burgundy. Puffy interlopers. Oysters? Forget about it, they're from coasts afar.
But... Champagne production also gravitates around the more southerly town of Troyes. Whose specialty is a rare delight: the tripe sausage known as andouillette, grilled crispy and often served with a mustard sauce.
Thus it was that Troyes native and genial vigneron Emmanuel Lassaigne arrived at a natural wine tasting last weekend in Paris as an ambassador of his terroir. With a small array of bottles showcasing his compelling way with chardonnay, what else to taste alongside than a very natural andouillette, he opined. Served nature. So nature that it was simply raw, and Lassaigne took it from its plastic sleeve and cut it into thick rounds with his folding knife. Cut and serve.
Jarring to eat something raw that usually gets fried up, but the thing was fatty and tasty and a great foil to the chiseled beauty of the bubbles. With a pedagogical smirk, he explained that of course, you have to choose wisely the andouillette that can withstand the direct glare of raw eating. Often, seasonings include chopped onion and the like, which just doesn't do.
But this did. As did a magnum of La Colline Inspirée, Lassaigne's cuvée made from old vines and redolent of the sunny slopes of Montgueux, and the poem that inspired the bottling's name.
Pic by Meg Zimbeck
Unable to contain myself, I have returned to my frequent thematic stomping ground of farmer fizz.
Just up, a guest post scribed by me for my friend Scott Reiner's blog, The Wine Explorer.
In the meantime, I shall sedately relax from the pleasant aftereffects of a few bottles of Lassaigne (07 Papilles Insolites, 06 Le Cotet) and Selosse (Rosé) shared last night with a pair of similarly champagne-hoovering friends.
Yes, Pommard. It's one of those things that people who don't know anything about wine know. Like Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Margaux. The word Pommard has a heft to it, a stately ring.
I knew Pommard when I knew little about wine—less about Burgundy, even, than Bordeaux (my early days were curiously canted toward the Loire and the western seaboard of France). Pommard, when I started to gather up the splinters of Burgundy information, well, Pommard was the Côte de Beaune's masculine wine, ruggedly flexing its muscles near the lacy Volnay.
(Then I went there. It was astouding to see a little string of Christmas lights, those villages, so close: a mere kilometer in distance, apiece, from Beaune to Pommard to Volnay to Meursault. But that should be the subject of another, daintily nostalgic post. (I'm sure you all know how dainty and nostalgic I can get, here.))
It took some time for me to debunk the standard Gallic wisdom: Volnay = girl wine. Pommard = boy wine.
I've had a lot of tangly, rustic Volnays (most recently a 2005 from Henri & Gilles Buisson that was angular; though traditionalists might argue that that was the bluestocking version of the feminine Volnay). And there are some supple Pommards afoot.
2002 Jadot Pommard. There you go. I wanted pinot. Burgundian pinot. I hankered for it, craved it. So I thought: well, I'm having dinner by myself and it'll be simple and lazy, some goose rillettes and a piece of Camembert*, or something. I uncorked this.
OK, yum. Just yum. Just yum. Silk and lace and (yuck, that's starting to sound like a Victoria's Secret catalog); scratch that. What I mean to say is that it was pure. Vibrant 2002 pinot fruit, little cherries, all the pleasure that a balanced, tasty Burgundy can bring. Glug-worthy, hell.
So if Pommard has to be the man's wine, I'm going to wear a hat and a fake mustache. I have no shame.
*For all of you cheese snobs out there, I gleefully invite you to indulge in an actual good, non-industrial Camembert. The poor thing got so popular for a reason, and despite the fact that 97.99% of today's Camembert is made in a factory in Laval (I approximate), the real thing is great. Perhaps too great for potential moderation, but that is another issue altogether.
After several days in the Loire Valley tasting natural wines, I find myself back in Paris. Natural wines hold pride of place hereabouts, as well; so it was that I stopped in to a local store — Naturalia, an organic food store, for those curious — and picked up a bottle of 2008 Clos Roche Blanche Cuvée Gamay.
What can I say about this wine but that it gives vins nature a good name? It burnishes those tarnished images of sanctimonious flops: VA-riddled, Brettanomyces-laced catastrophes poured forth by certain natural winemakers with all of the earnestness of Moonies, proclaiming that inadvertent secondary fermentation is just the voice of the grapes coming out. Damn it: teach those grapes to sing properly.
Which is what they do, at Clos Roche Blanche. This wine is a joy. It is clean and balanced; the fruit is unabashed in its forthcoming freshness; the texture is silken; the whole has masterful transparency of its grape and earth. It avoids funkiness as a disgracedly tattered flag. This is a wine, like others of the domaine I have had the luck to taste and drink, that is Platonically simple, and ridiculously good.
It's a shame the Touraine appellation is almost a mar for producers who are doing such astounding work. As I've written here before, I would rather drink their Sauvignon Blanc than many, many a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, supposedly of nobler extraction.
At a recent day of tasting in the small Loire village of Valaire, I joined champagne vigneron Olivier Collin at a table full of Italian wines. The Roagna lineup included a white, "Solea," that was mostly chardonnay, but which included a certain amount of nebbiolo in the blend (about 25%). Olivier Collin asked Roagna about its color, which to the naked eye was indistinguishable from the color an unblended chardonnay would have. As they discussed the way the nebbiolo grapes were handled, I started to think about color in champagne.
Olivier's own pinot noir, the Ulysse Collin Blanc de Noirs, is an uncommon treat. But despite the "blanc" part in its title, it is nearly pale pink in color. I first tasted the 2005 a year ago at the domain, and the vigneron had been considering calling it a rosé, then. (Or at least he referred to it as "the rosé.") But now it was slightly attenuated in tone, and while with time it has evolved into a lovely drink, it bucks the tradition of lily-white blanc de noirs in its unabashed and very natural tint.
Two questions arose in my mind: (a) why do makers of champagne want their blanc de noirs to be white? and (b) how do they get it that way?
Apparently, adding lees from chardonnay is one of the little rabbits in that magic-trick hat. Another is using activated carbon to strip out the color. This is not a happy thing for the finished wine, as far as taste nuances go, though.
Which made me muse on why it was so important to get the stain out. Why the search for whiteness? Whence tint as anathema?
Tasted that same day, a "gris" of pineau d'Aunis from Catherine Roussel and Didier Barouillet of Clos Roche Blanche was just a drop of pomegranate juice in a barrel's worth of off-white. Yet it is "the rosé."
At what point, then, does a wine become rosé? Is it a question of its taste, or of its color? Or of our perception of it?
I may need to pour some Ulysse Collin as I ponder this.
Or some Clos Roche Blanche.
It was a month and a half ago, back in the dim gloom of mid-December, as the days were pulling tight and the dark, cold curtain of night fell with its heavy, blunt blade earlier and earlier...
(I should cue some atmospheric music or something. How about bluegrass? Nah.)
I went out to Le Verre Volé for warmth and boudin noir with fellow wine tippler Rahsaan M. (though I should note that he is not a fellow boudin noir enthusiast, despite an unexpected openness to tasting a tiny dab on the end of a knife). As is the wont of inveterate lushes the world over, we began the evening with champagne and moved on to darker fare, and against all reason, a third bottle for two.
Which he suggested should be a 2006 Champ-Levat Mondeuse. Now, my experiences with Mondeuse had gone from the catastrophic – a cooked mess of a bottle picked up on a lark at a shop in New York renowned for poor storage, in 2004, back when I'd had to ask what a Mondeuse was, by gum – to the pleasing – young fare from Franck Peillot at last spring's Louis/Dressner tasting. But it wasn't something I thought it'd be worth giving my liver the sock for.
However, it was. This silky purple thing, with piquant tannins but much peppery lushness, was like a mountain Syrah. It was so pretty, so lovely, so empty, by the end.
So it came to pass that a few weeks later, as the days were getting longer, but damn, it was still flippin' cold out, friends and I found ourselves at Le Bistrot Paul Bert, where after a fine 2005 Villemade Cheverny "Bodice," I jumped up and down like a monkey (well, verbally) insisting the Champ-Levat Mondeuse was the thing to try.
It did not disappoint, and even though the context was different and the foodstuffs dissimilar (I was eating a yea-big andouillette stuffed with coarsely chopped tripe, alongside gratin dauphinois), that unexpected elegance was there. That river of purple. That soulful bramble.
I can't wait to have this again.
For all those who have an unquenchable thirst for more about champagne, surf away immediately to the excellent website Paris By Appointment Only and peruse my roundup of some fine bubbles I'll try to be drinking again post haste in 2010.
It's the end of the year, but I'm not going to do a "best of" or "top #" post. I'm just not. In fact, I'm just going to slap up a picture I like of a wine that pulls no punches, and then ramble about other things.
The year 2009 is drawing to a close, and my wine life, it would be fair to say, went through an unbridled overhaul, over these twelve months. Many discoveries were made (or offered my way, or stumbled into); some previous favorites discarded in light of new twists to the tastebuds; and former dislikes rallied to and overcome, until these days, you can sometimes find me ordering a chenin blanc.
Clearly, that's one of the fun things about taking an interest in wine: watching your palate evolve. Favorite Cali Cabs of yesteryear (all right, I didn't get to go through that phase, but you can imagine some similarly dark back-story for me, if you'd like) give way to shimmery Muscadet or wiry Albariño.
There's a Comments section, below; I'd be interested to hear some tales of vinous discovery and change from my ever-vigilant readership. What have you unearthed? What do you suddenly shun?
And a free bottle of Puzelat "Brin de Chèvre" for anyone who can guess one wine I used to adore but now can't stomach.
The intention was obviously to write about an astounding champagne I'd had a few weeks ago. But then other great bubbles came my way, and I realized it would be hasty to sum up everything in one epiphanic blanc de noirs. So I'll give you a pair, instead.
2006 Lassaigne "Les Papilles Insolites" - this is a 100% pinot noir with no dosage and no sulfur. I had been forewarned that it would be unlike most typical Champenois fare. (As though that would shake me!) So I popped it for myself, because in that case – this is the principle of going to movies alone, to avoid the dread "bad choice" that could alienate one's movie-going companions – there would be no one else to register shock, discomfort or, well, drink the rest of the bottle. I let the cork out and poured some into a Zalto champagne flute. The bubbling liquid was deep yellow in the glass. And a lean in to smell what was nutty and aromatic led obviously to a taste, which led to a few moments of internal parsing, then quickly, a contented nod. Oh, yes. This wine had everything I pine for in a good glass of champagne, but was, obviously, not something one fills one's stem with every day. It has depth and breadth, is vinous but detailed, streamlined. Crunchy fruit to it, and tannins to structure the whole thing. This would be a champagne to decant, if I could ever be that sensible. By the next day, it had developed roundly, and was even more compelling. I am itching to get back to one of the two wine merchants who purvey it and snap some more up.
NV Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru - ashamed as I am to admit it, I used to think pinot noir-dominated champagnes were not my style – Selosse Contraste aside, I would say with a dandyish chuckle. Well, not a bit of it. If Lassaigne's Papilles Insolites was already one colossal raspberry to that particular prejudice of mine, a recent bottle of Egly-Ouriet's Brut Tradition (75% pinot noir) was a kick in the pants, to boot. I can no longer claim disdain for that robuster grape. This bottle, disgorged in mid-2008, was of vinous depth that had me grinning from ear to ear. The notes of almond paste and toast were addictive. I vaguely recall that I had had too much to drink that evening. But this, dear readers, was worth the plunge into excess.
It's mushroom season; we're in the thick of it, and beneath, say, a squab en crapaudine or a ballotine of wild duck will be a little heap of black chanterelles or mousserons or cèpes. A few days ago, I was wandering around with a camera and snapped these boletes raw. It was only later, looking back at the girolles and chanterelles and pieds bleus and sheep's foot mushrooms I had also taken in the "seasonal market" series that my eye was caught on the price. Well, 50€ a kilo! That's 75 of your American dollars, at this juncture. Sure, split it by 2.2 to get the equivalent in pounds, but in truth, that's not the price of leeks.
I stumbled upon an article in the Times (London) about organized crime visiting the forests of southern France. And whatever the validity behind the alarm (I have heard expert talk that the fear is slightly overblown and the situation a bit different than described) the truth remains that King Cèpe can only be had for a ransom.
So, in the spirit of populism, I will not write such siren song phrases as, "The murmur of voices filled the restaurant, and the cepes glistened in the dim light."
No, instead, I'll suggest a cheap quaffer that'd go well with that kind of thing. The bounty of good, unpretentious fermented grapes can be all of ours.
2007 Clape "Le Vin des Amis" - a little wine from a great Cornas producer; a little bit like a Cornas, with good tannins and a rustic back-end. There is fruit, there is bark. There is a certain spiciness, that of black pepper ground. It is a happy thing, and a friend of the forest. I had this recently, and I look forward to having it again.
Now for the cliffhanger: soon I will write about the best Champagne I have had in well over a year. A year, note ye, filled with... Champagne.
It's November and is almost time for the "new" wines to come out. I got an early taste of one a couple of days ago when I stopped by at the unusual wine store La Cave de L'Insolite. (I say this with redundant literalness: "insolite" being the French for, well, "unusual.")
2009 Karim Vionnet Beaujolais Primeur - Vionnet used to make wine for another natural Beaujolais producer, Guy Breton, but is now making his own. If this is a glimpse of the 2009 vintage, we are in for quite a bit of fun. Gorgeously crunchy and light, carbonic yet weighty, this new gamay is uncommonly lovely. After sipping some of Vionnet's 2008 Beaujolais — a wine with a hard tannic edge but lots going on — this, on a return visit several minutes later, was lacy, spicy, and had a marked tendency to disappear in a snap.
2005 Villemade Cheverny "Désiré" - A 100% pinot noir bottling that Villemade, these days, only puts into magnum. The wine had been open for several hours and had finally digested its oak and was offering light, funky, soulful Loire pinot. I find this a much more expressive and racy wine than the sometimes angry "Ardilles." Gorgeous and also difficult to keep in the glass.
I came away from the day with something no one would expect me to be glugging in the dark Parisian autumn (or at any other time or place, truth be told):
Gérard Schueller Edelzwicker - no vintage on this 1 liter bottle, but I believe, if I read the tiny coded small-print adeptly, it may be a 2004. In the glass, it is cloudy. Beeswaxy yellow and cloudy. The nose is aromatic, floral, very pleasing. And on the palate, this has an excellent balance between sweet and savory and sour, with a bit of yeasty umami. It's got persistence, it's got an unusual appeal for what is generally the throwaway wine of Alsace. I would not throw this away. I might even acquire more.
It was a dark, dark, dark fall night. The wind was whipping, and garish bright lights festooned the outside of the Cirque d'Hiver, where many children and balloon-holding parents streamed across the rue Amelot, blocking a taxi in which Barbra Austin and I were ensconsed, late for dinner.
One block later, we egressed from the cab and met Todd and Scott outside of the restaurant Repaire de Cartouche, a place as old-fashioned and wood-decked as a country inn in some tale of banditry.
One hour later, the scents of porcini cream steamily filled the air around a large, circular table, upon which an almost-empty bottle of 2005 Villemade Cour-Cheverny "Les Acacias" stood, beading.
Soon after would arrive dishes of game and mushroom; what better fodder to match them with than something redolent of the iron blood of the Mourvèdre grape?
2001 Grange des Pères Vin de Pays de L'Hérault - What a fine thing this was: heavy on the blood, resoundingly echoing the sang that stood amid the flesh of a well-crusted venison steak to my left and the deep, stewed-wine daube to my right. (My own dish of pheasant picked up the ruffles of cabernet, I think.) I love this wine; this is the third vintage of it I've had, and each time, I have marveled and swooned; marveled and swooned. It is long and profound and exciting. It calls you back to it with great presence and is demanding.
The only way to follow up such a powerful wine was to slip into something similarly prepossessing, yet more coy.
2001 Allemand Cornas "Reynard" - The nose was slight, after the previous, with a curiously lactic note. But on the palate, the silky rush of it all was a jolt. It could hold its own after the Grange des Pères, and more. A lush beauty of northern Rhône syrah. It also paired well with the various game dishes, of which bites were being passed, here and there, across and around our table of eight.
We gobbled and drank.
Then there was no more food, plates were being cleared, and the wine was gone. It was time to turn back to the list.
Three of our party had just spent ten days in the southern Rhône, so perhaps it was time for a complete and total paradigm shift.
"Do you like Arbois?" I asked my friend Todd as I looked sharply up over the edge of the wine list.
"I've had vin jaune, but I must admit, it's not my favorite."
"What about a red?" I'd seen something that had sparked my desire.
There was general ignorance as to the reds of the region, so I filled in with enthusiasm. Words came tumbling out of me as I described poulsard, plousard, ploussard, trousseau.... Was I making any sense? My thoughts were on Overnoy. I was trying to convey the essence of Jurassics, but I'm sure clarity ran low. It was a jumble in his mind like a word-salad e-mail, from what I could tell, as I drew to a close.
Nonetheless, we ordered it.
2007 Overnoy/Houillon Arbois Pupillin - The light color of this wine is a jape. It's a quick switch. This wine is a berry blade. It's a sharp flick of the colorful rope. God, I love this wine. It's got intense acidity and lovely aromatics. It is long and fine on the palate.
It was a great way of ushering in dessert, which I forewent for more of it.
I love those sticky, fatty, piggy dishes, especially as in Paris, autumn is starting to cool down the air and a cold breeze sometimes picks at my cuffs.
Lately, I stopped in at Le Comptoir and knew I had to glut myself on some offal. The main course would be a boned, breaded pig's foot. But what to drink with it?
2008 Gramenon Poignée de Raisins - The match was tasty, as was the wine itself. All silk carbonic perfection from this young-vines Grenache cuvée of the "natural" Côtes du Rhône producer. It had both raspberry-fruited purity and clove-y, peppery complexity; it was "natural" and showed the thin edge of no sulfur, but had no flaws. Nary a whiff of brettanomyces, etc. In fact, the absence of flaws, in combination with natural winemaking transparency, was a source of fascination, pointing out that when it's done right, that approach is compelling.