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A pair of Chinons

Date: Tue, May 19, 2009 Wine Tasting

I'd been having a hankering for some Loire cabernet franc, a hankering that had gone unsated for some time. Which is why it was propitious, then, to walk into Jay's apartment on a bright Sunday afternoon and see a handsome decanter standing next to an empty bottle with the pinkish label of Bernard Baudry's Croix Boissée. I walked up close to the artifact: 1996. A quick nose toward the top of the glass container indicated hints of just those savory, spicy qualities I had been thinking of.

Doubled was my pleasure when Chris appeared, an hour later, with a bag that included the unmistakable white-and-blue label of Olga Raffault's Chinon. A 1989 Picasses.

As the starting wines were poured (a lovely 1996 H. Billiot, deeply aromatic Ambonnay bubbles with a sapid quality and a nutty color; a surprising 1988 Piper Sonoma – Jay would say, "This does not have any right to be this good," and he wasn't wrong – followed by various Loire chenins, romorantins and sauvignons, including a 1924 Huet Le Haut-Lieu Moëlleux to pair with seared scallops), I thought on forward to the pleasures of the Chinons to come.

Good Chinon with age is like Chinon young. It hovers in timelessness, encapsulating the place with its bramble and dark fruit and violets.

Later, the Ligerian pair did not falter. The 1996 Baudry Croix-Boissée was smooth and fresh; perhaps a bit absent on the midpalate, but with good length sustaining it into its floral finish. And the 1989 Olga Raffault Chinon Picasses was a punch in the face, and I mean that in the most flattering way possible. Paired perfectly with leg of lamb, it was dark, brawny, rustic and perfect.

What more could one ask for?

Now I need some Breton Bourgueil to take care of the other side of the river, and all will be well.

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The silence of the drams

Date: Wed, May 6, 2009 Wine Tasting

I have had so many memorable wines of late that I have felt somehow cornered into silence. How to choose! How to talk about them!

But it's important to talk about them, of course - to get their texture and weave, to remember that morning you woke up with a curious aftertaste of 1983 Domaine de Chevalier Graves on your palate and puzzled over its gorgeous gravel before falling back to sleep for a little.

Or how you chased down a snappy NV Pierre Peters with a thick, heady pour of 2003 Radikon Jakot while stabbing bread into a dish of olive oil.

Or the awesome, yeasty surprise of 2000 Lassaigne Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature, which wore zero dosage with mastery and beckoned, and beckoned, and beckoned to have more of itself poured into your glass.

I want to talk about all of those things. The 2007 Dashe L'Enfant Terrible, still as nervy and peculiar and succulent as ever. The 2006 Lapierre Morgon with its silky langorousness swirling through the tastebuds. The 1998 López de Heredia Tondonia Rosado that starts out oxidized and then tightens into a dazzling burst of fruit and flowers. The floozily sappy 2006 Richaud Cairanne, the exquisite, tangled and complex 2005 Texier Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc and crackling NV Peillot Montaigneux Brut.

Not writing about them creates the danger of forgetting them. And these are wines I don't want to forget.

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Wine for rain, wine for sun

Date: Mon, Apr 20, 2009 Wine Tasting

I had never thought about it before, but there is something about the delicious minerality of a Puligny-Montrachet that goes well with the rain.

The other night I ran out with not one but two umbrellas (well, I was using one, and one had been loaned to me on some other rainy day, and I was returning it to its rightful owner, who would be on hand). Finally, despite wearing new shoes that kept wanting to remove themselves from my feet and go flying into a puddle, I managed to turn up at the set destination: a wine restaurant.

Once wet things had been cast off to some coat area, it was time to have a seat and ponder the wine list.

As the rain splashed lightly against the front window, a few minutes later, the sommelier opened a bottle of

1985 Carillon Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru "Combettes" - Well, as Tina Turner did not sing, I can stand the rain. In fact, the sound of cold patter on concrete was a great backdrop for this deceptively simple and increasingly enthralling wine. There's a term the French use that I like a lot: évidence. It indicates something's "of-course-ness." There was about this wine an ease of being, a raciness, a stony, high-handed purity, an évidence. It was youthful (not a drop of oxidation to its brisk yellow body) and a little shy until maybe a half-hour in. Then it bloomed. Blossoms under the rain.

A few days later, the sun was out. It was warm. A bunch of us decided to gather in the park, and I threw a slightly chilled bottle of López de Heredia into my bag, reasoning that the ambient temperature would warm it.

2002 López de Heredia Rioja "Viña Cubillo" - all part of my enthrallment with Riojas from this producer. Interestingly enough, I had had a bottle of this same, younger-drinking cuvée a week earlier at a wine bar: there, it was more austere, harder around the edges, tighter and more tannic. Here, under the sun, with a dog slobbering around (Peanut would eventually eat the Rioja cork) and people nibbling cut sausage, it was lighter in color (maybe the wine bar had been too dark), lighter-bodied, fresh and earthy. God, I said to myself as I cosseted it, it was such a pleasure of a wine to sip on a breezy, warm day. A wine for sun, clearly, with all its broodiness cleared away, replaced by a daringly rustic backwardness to it that had immense charm.

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Overcoming grape fears

Date: Mon, Apr 13, 2009 Wine Tasting

Since last I wrote, I have continued valiantly affronting my prejudices. Now, of course, we all have grapes we don't like. I know some highly recommendable people who have, shall we say, issues with Cabernet Franc or Grenache. (Actually, the most common bête noire among wine-drinking friends seems to be the oft-maligned yet intensely wonderful (well, to me) Chardonnay grape. I will have to get proselytizing). That said, I must reluctantly remind one and all that I myself am known for not consuming hogsheads of Chenin Blanc or Gewürztraminer, say.

But as ever, I like to be on the frontlines – or down in the trenches, pick your military image – of my own preconceptions, flighting that fight. Because, really, it's a voyage of learning, now, isn't it? Well, along with getting tipsy, carousing, and having shared mini-epiphanies with friends.

This week, two towers crumbled right down to the dust. How's that for Ozymandias?

2002 Huet Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec - this wine knocked me off my feet, and I sat down next to Brad Kane and nodded with that half-smile that indicates great pleasure and surprise. My notes from the evening I tasted it have long since disappeared into some dumpster behind a tony midtown restaurant; suffice it to say that this wine opened my eyes in a particularly crystalline way. I wanted to cup it to me, but of course that would have warmed it up, so I just stared deep into it, then gradually drank it away.

2006 Jérôme Prévost "La Closerie" - Eeeew, pinot meunier. That was the thinking. But this was immediately more imposing than other expressions I have had of that grape. A rich, vinous nose met me as I leaned into the glass. Dark amberish color, with just a touch of walnutty oxidative overtones. I was enchanted by its smell. On the palate, however, at first, this was tight, hard in its lines; very low in dosage, it was clear. The apple, quince notes were pleasant, but they were somewhat pushed aside by a hard mineral finish. This needed more age, and first, more air. So I let it open up, expand in the glass. It did come into its own with some breathing, broadening, becoming more smooth. Being a few degrees warmer also did it a nice turn. It does need age, but it is already an impressive drink.

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Taste and smell

Date: Mon, Apr 6, 2009 Wine Tasting

I have been thinking about questions involving taste and smell lately, as, recently, an offhand comment from a friend surprised me and got the cogwheels turning. I was talking about a dish I like – a foodstuff/aromatic pairing that was once (when Alain Senderens boldly used it a couple of decades ago) shocking and deliciously offbeat, but which has now become fairly standard: lobster with vanilla.

This friend recoiled. "I can't stand the taste of vanilla in savory foods. It reminds me too much of horrible overoaked Chardonnays."

Not only was my plan for a lobster bread pudding with vanilla sauce sent spiraling right down the drain, but the comment got me thinking. Does tasting and drinking wine transform our vision of food?

I know it transforms our way of smelling in the world. Sometimes when I walk out into the street, I am overwhelmed by one odor or another. I pick things apart. Leather from jackets hanging in front of a clothing store; roasting chickens with thyme and tarragon stuffed in them; and of course, the manifold unsavory scents we have to endure. There are places in the world, too, that smell corked. (I remember the unmistakable corkedness of a street off Leicester Square filling my nostrils in London last fall.) My nose is sharper than before I was interested in wine, obviously. Those muscles have been trained.

People are taught not to wear perfumes or use strong-smelling soap before tastings, but some wine geek friends eschew them always (well, maybe they're always drinking?).

But, getting back to tastes: I wonder if loving wine, and especially certain types of wine, has broadened my palate for food. Are there some foods I liked less, which I now enjoy because they evoke some flavor component in a wine I have come to love?

Fodder for thought.

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Go forth, blindly

Date: Sun, Mar 29, 2009 Wine Tasting

I don't usually taste wines blind. But last night, Chris showed up at Brad's with a bag. Two wines were within. Somehow, a 2006 Ridge Monte Bello, previously decanted and rebottled, metamorphosed upon the table, where we were eating thick-cut dry sausage (it's better that way, per Brad) and hacking into some stinky cheeses.

Chris felt best to repair to the balcony to pour his mystery wine into a decanter.

It awaited us on the table, thereafter.

So, accordingly, some time later, with steaks, we poured the mystery wine. I swirled and sniffed. Hm, very young and fruity. But with a richness to it that wasn't of a young wine from a cold climate. It reminded me of the nose on young Côtes du Rhône. I sipped. Smooth, lacking any hard angles, and very pleasant to drink.

"This has got to be Syrah," I opined. (And we'll smooth over the fact that I don't like that grape.)

Brad said, "But no, there's no peppery, garrigue thing going on..."

I shook my head. "It's got to be that! There's a kind of loamy taste there."

We debated the wine's tastes for a while, and finally, Chris showed his hand.

Good god!

Yes, it was Gallo Hearty Burgundy. No vintage noted.

Chris described having drunk this (or watched it being drunk by his parents) many a year ago, before the American wine world's new flowering. A jug wine, now utterly reviled as a distant, benighted drink of yore.

But, amusingly enough, this was more than "correct" to drink. It was even quite proper.

We surmised it might be a blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, perhaps somewhat highly cropped, resulting in lower alcohol levels.

But not a bad mass offering by any stretch of the imagination.

A truly unexpected, wonderfully nostalgic thought!

Bring out the rumaki.

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Our guys in the trenches

Date: Sun, Mar 22, 2009 Wine Tasting

(Marc Ollivier of the Domaine de la Pépière wrangles tasters)

Last night, I had a great conversation with Eric Nicolas of the Domaine de Bellivière. Not only did I have the unusual chance to bring him up to speed with the latest cutting-edge news about New York wines (eh, oui!), but we discussed a little about the winemaker's multifunctional role.

Turns out, Eric, being a Renaissance stripe of person, enjoys what has always seemed to me to be a crazily dispersive element to the job of vigneron. How, I always thought – all the while loving the non-commercial, passionate aspect of visits to domaines – can one person do the work in the vines, the work in the cellar, and then – ooh! presto-chango! – turn around and suddenly be greeting visitors, pouring wines, selling them, doing trade shows, traveling, talking the talk, etc. All the activity of a salesman, in its cold, clear-cut-ness – which most of the passionate vignerons I have visited, obviously, do not have as part of their natural fiber.

But Eric, far from frowning on or lamenting the need to get the wines tasted and to meet the (potential) hoi polloi, was enthusiastic about that element of the winemaker's life. In fact, he opined, it helped broaden horizons. It helps, he said, to leave the plots of land and the cuves.

And I couldn't help but be reminded of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who always thought that a long, three-league walk through the Lake Counties was the thing to jog the poetic spirit and get the juices flowing afresh. A change of pace, brought on by a contrast of activity.

Though he did think that laudanum was pretty good, too.

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What a difference a day makes

Date: Sun, Mar 15, 2009 Wine Tasting

A few days ago, I opened up this one, a 1996 Ridge Geyserville.

Now, as far as American wines go, I have a soft spot for Ridge. A glorious 1987 Ridge Monte Bello remains one of my most rapturous wine-tasting experiences. And not so long back, a 1999 Geyserville had impressed and astonished a group of friends who had never tasted the Zinfandel grape in their Gallic lives.

I was looking forward to trying one with a little more age, even, than that – which, while still young, had taken on a good openness, a suppleness, of nearly ten years.

But the 1996 was an animal of a different stripe.

Poured into the glass, it was inky dark. On the nose, very appealing. Ripe, spicy, with plums and dark fruit. I sipped it. Hrm. It seemed to lack elegance. It was tight, tannic, hard-nosed, with an off-putting raisiny note. Aggressive stuff, brawny and unbalanced.

I listlessly finished a glass, hoping with a little air it would improve. No dice.

As it was late, now, I left the bottle on the counter and went to sleep.

In the morning, walking into the kitchen, I saw that it had remained stranded, open, there, and mechanically put a cork in it.

At the end of the day, coming back with a bag full of food to prepare and a hankering for something white, I nevertheless looked at the 1996 Geyserville, which was still standing (with, as you'll note, streaks of disdained juice down its label like tears) on the counter. I uncorked it and poured a quarter of a glass.

Hey! This was more like it. Swirl, sniff: still that pretty nose. But now, on the palate, it had gotten very elegant. There was still a lurking little bit of overripe fruit to it, but otherwise, the pepper and dark cherry and meaty notes had coalesced into a very pleasant wine.

That, I would never have imagined. A small pleasure.

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Fresh fruit

Date: Sun, Mar 8, 2009 Wine Tasting

Spring is here. It's over sixty degrees out! (Fahrenheit, for those of you in the Anglo-Saxon world.) And what better way to bask in the newfound warmth than to open some fresh whites – and fresh reds.

I'd chilled the 2007 Lapierre Morgon. It came out of the fridge. So it was no wonder that at first, it was muted and basically said "Brr!" to the palate. But the table is warm. Conviviality is warm. And with half an hour in the glass, with the ambient temperature pushing it past the threshold of coldness into gentle coolness, this wine flowered.

A lovely, fruity, fresh Morgon that suddenly buzzed and sparked with all kinds of tinder. God, this was gorgeous. God, I took another sip and sipped in air and sloshed it around my mouth and loved it. I treated that wine with attention, as its finely unfurling gamay fruit merited.

Perhaps I had been too zealous in its chilling, one could argue. But then, it's always a fine trick to see the dove fly out of the hat.

This was definitely a dove-out-of-the-hat experience.

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Wine with others, wine alone

Date: Sat, Feb 28, 2009 Wine Tasting

Everyone has a different idea of which things in one's life one does alone and which must be done with others. Sometimes it seems to me that the variations and possibilities are as broad and manifold as the different types of likes and aversions in enjoying food. So, as it happens, just as I like every foodstuff on the planet except dill and bananas (as a fairly newfound convert to previously disliked Comté cheese and vin jaune; merci Philippe!), I am someone who prefers to go to the movies alone. I am someone who would rather enter a restaurant after someone else. I don't like to talk on the phone.

But what about drinking wine? Is the experience perceptually different when the wine is shared as opposed to when it's drunk in contemplative solitude?

So much is made of the difference between drinking wine in situ – with a meal, with other wine lovers – and sipping and spitting at a tasting. Different wines prevail; enjoyment factors and levels are tweaked, skewed and become unrecognizable from one platform to the other.

But what of the human context? If I open, say, a 2000 Rousseau Chambertin* for my own self in the privacy of my own living room with nice stemware and some food I've prepared with care, am I missing out on something?

My thought, my gut reaction, is: yes. Being able to share impressions and enthusiasms with someone or a group of friends is very important to the experience of wine drinking. Something is lost when there is no echo, no quick glance, no shared smile, no nod.

So my new stance will be, if ever I should find myself eating alone and wanting a glass to pair with the meal, to choose something novel; to make it a learning experience. But not to try for enthrallment, for emotion.

It's good to scale back, sometimes.

Now, to head out to a big wine-geek dinner. Thank god there are others of us out there!

*The cool thing about hypotheticals is that you can go as high-end as you want. And the 2000 Rousseau Chambertin is a damn lovely wine.

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Southern fraîcheur

Date: Mon, Feb 23, 2009 Wine Tasting

I have to say that I hadn't thought a lot about Picpoul de Pinet in my time. I'd had it a few times and found it a sprightly, uncomplicated southern French white (from the Languedoc, for those geographically uncalibrated to the appellation).

Then a couple of weeks ago, at the end of a rather protracted evening, I found myself in a wine bar with some friends, and here, we worked in a bottle of 2007 Félines Jourdan Picpoul de Pinet. Hey! This was not what I had been expecting. (To be honest – and I hope throngs of Picpoul producers will not come at me with pitchforks – I had seen Picpoul as a kind of southern Gros Plant... thin, spritzy, thoughtless. But shh... no more of that, oh, no.) This was not that. This captured my attention.

My recollection being hazy, I decided it was time to revisit this interesting wine, so a few days ago, I opened another bottle of the 2007.

A very expressive aromatic palate met my nose on swirling. And, tasted, it had so much character. 13% alcohol, so no frail creature, it had a bright, transparent body to it and on the palate was fresh, floral, with an excellent lime-y, peppery bite to it. It was spring in a bottle, just the thing for a late February cold snap, reminding you of warmer climes and warmer times.

And with smoked salmon, a perfect match.

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Rioja ephiphany

Date: Thu, Feb 12, 2009 Wine Tasting

Crazy ideas need a crazy followup. One such crazy idea was hatched on a recent evening when a friend of mine suggested preparing fish with mushrooms. Fish with mushrooms? Every rustic bourgeois Frenchwoman deep within my soul turned in her rustic French grave. (Please, just go with the image.) So what better wine to pour alongside a papillotte of monkfish with black chanterelles, minced Serrano ham and shallots than, of course, an aged red Rioja?


I was skeptical. But with the perfect uncloudedness of hindsight, I see that that was an inspired choice. And not just the pairing: the wine. Oh, the wine! This was one of those wines that make you realize why you spend 2/3 of your waking time* thinking, reading and writing about wine, as well as drinking it.

1985 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia - a gorgeous nose of strawberry and underbrush immediately grabbed my attention. I had in my glass that magical thing, a wine you want to coddle and sniff for a long while before even sipping it. Such glorious aromatics. At last, though, I struck out to discover if it was going to be an interesting sip, to boot. Zounds. On the palate, it was even better than what its heady scents promised. Such death-defying complexity! Waves of silky, elegant fruit and earthiness, with a sudden twist of sap and bark right in the middle, and then playing out forever, until I was wide-eyed and shaking my head. Wow.

And, some time later, as the level of the wine in the decanter got dangerously low, I savored its last sips in their full bloom, along with the utterly nosh-worthy monkfish decked out in minced black mushrooms.

Not so crazy, it turns out. Just insanely good.

*Depending on the day.

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Date: Sun, Feb 8, 2009 Wine Tasting

I think I'm usually pretty lucky. There are some things that haunt wine lovers. Corked wines. Premature oxidation of white Burgundies (and, some are now sinisterly saying, of Alsaces perhaps and next, who knows, Muscadet?). Brettanomyces. Other sundry flaws that leave you aghast and pouring out glass and bottle into the nearest drain. I don't usually run into those specters. My corked bottle rate is so low you'd think I had some kind of saran wrap secretly hidden in my fingers.*

But recently, alas, my luck was out. I had the most alarmingly, awfully flawed bottle of wine I have perhaps ever had the misfortune to taste.

2003 Léon Barral Faugères Tradition
. Now, I had the 2005 version of this usually lovely and straightforward wine a few weeks ago. It was, well, lovely and straightforward.

Flash forward to its 2003 incarnation. Uh, oops! Who poured nail polish remover into my Faugères? The nose was acetone and ungainly. It could only be less marked on the palate, I reasoned in my benightedness. Slurp. Ugh, no! It was in fact worse. Along with the nail polish remover taste was a dirty, rotten uncleanness in the background, hovering and killing all fruit and pleasure.

For once, for me, one sip was enough.

*For, as old wino's tales tell us, dipping saran wrap into a glass of corked wine whisks away the corkiness (along with some fruit and other flavor components, but you can't have everything).

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Back in time

Date: Mon, Jan 26, 2009 Wine Tasting

Yesterday, I was remembering the very first time I had a glass of wine. It was in Williamstown, Mass. It was cold, the dead of winter, with 10º snowy blasts of air cutting under my coat as I walked across the campus to the home of my French professor, Prof. P., who wanted us all to call him by his first name. Who was hosting a dinner for the French club. We'd all help, and I was to prepare the stuffed mushrooms.

He poured me a glass of white Burgundy and set it beside me as I hunkered down over the mushrooms, stuffing them just so with the farce I had prepared from various finely chopped ingredients, and then painstakingly basting the tops with melted butter.

He came over to me and said, "Look at you basting those! You're like an artist trying to get just the right touch."

I was something of a laughing stock for the rest of the evening.

So I turned my attention to the wine. First that white Burgundy, which came on, to my young American palate, like something that was going to be lush and sweet, but... it just wasn't sweet; it had a hard angularity to it that was unlike other things I'd had to drink. Some kind of tannins, some kind of minerality. So odd. I didn't like it, but I was intrigued by it and could only mark it in my mind as something I would have to learn more about.

A lush and fruity red was then poured as the guests laughed and chatted in broken, heavily accented French and ate the various bites we had prepared. This wine I understood more. There was no hard spine to break over my palate, just soft fruit.

"Don't worry," said Prof. P. in French, coming back around. "Last fall, you didn't know how to use the passé simple. Now you're reading Flaubert."

He wasn't wrong. A couple of years later, I would find myself in Ligré, quaffing rustic Chinon.

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