This post takes us to Slovenia, by way of Greenwich Village.
A winter weekend lunch in a now chilled Manhattan, wind finding its icicle way up cuffs and sleeves, and a revolving door pushed around to a warm interior. Warm walls, warm colors. Reds, oranges. The smell of garlic and flatbread.
What to order from a list so long, in such tiny print it makes one think of miniatures and meticulous manuscripts? Italy sprawled out, not only geographically, but in the hills and gullies of winemaking styles. A Super-Tuscan? A carbonic natural wine? Something aged in anfora? A spit-clean Brunello? Something luscious from Paolo Bea? Well, not with the bottarga, please.
Sitting on the left side of the page was a small series of words that drew my eye: three or four in a row, lines ending in "Vitovska."
Having spent most of my wine-drinking life within the pleasantly diverse confines of the Gallic hexagon, I still get a thrill from forays into the beyond. Oh! A Ridge Zinfandel! A Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner! Dry furmint from Hungary!
Vitovska is still a grape that looks like a vista I will not know. A sea of crisp, floral newness.
So a bottle of 2007 Zidarich Prulke was ordered. It's not actually a vitovska, just most of it. (It's got malvasia and sauvignon blanc in the mix.)
The wine was poured and, though still on its first breath of air and a bit of a refrigerated chill, it showed the skin-contact tannins and spicy appeal of its style. It was taut in the glass, with a lighter color than I had expected, a kind of orange iridescence.
Over the next hour, it went places. Places I wanted to go along with it. It opened into something of increasing textural complexity, with spicy and floral playing together in an offhanded and compelling way. The wine was also exceptionally pure.
Pure is not usually a qualifier that comes to mind when describing the so-called "orange" (skin-contact white) wines. More often, such as Movia's Lunar or Radikon's Jakot, they're a bit cloudy, and their appeal stems from their bold contradictions and intemperately prepossessed oddity rather than from any sense of fineness, chisel or purity.
Yet here it was in my glass, a chiseled thing. A chiseled orange thing.
Often times, as wine fiends, we think we know our tastes, supremely confident in the knowns and unknowns to us, the preferred and the shunned or slighted. Some good friends of mine (more in America, as France doesn't have the informatique infrastructure) make their wine purchases online and have the wines sent to their home, bypassing any physical act of wine store purchase.
To my senses, they're missing out on something crucial: shooting the breeze with smart, like-minded folk.
There is nothing to compare to stumbling into Caves Augé or Chambers Street Wines and seeing familiar faces and talking about the latest tastes. If travel expands your world, I think that talking to other people who are passionate about wine expands your palate, pushes you to new fields (regions, grapes).
Of course, there can be flubs. Poor pairings, let's call them. Or a careless caviste. I'm never going to like that Riesling, mea maxima culpa. And I'm certainly not interested in paying thrice as much as my enjoyment for something I don't quite enjoy.
But when I think back over the past months of my wine experiences, I get a little smile on my face when I see Chris Barnes at Chambers Street bringing over a Valdespino Inocente sherry. (Salty sharp zap to my brain!) Or Tim Mortimer offhandedly mentioning Lioco Indica at Discovery Wines in the East Village. (Oh, how pretty that is.) Or Max Delorieux giving the down-low on black wax Overnoy at Augé in Paris. Or Josh Adler at Spring Boutique pulling a cork on a Burgundy I have never tried.
This is our tribe, after all. Tempting as a thousand, thousand candy stores, the smart friends of the bottle wait for us to push the door open and embark upon new landscapes.
It's a playground sprawling throughout the city, throughout the world.
Joe Dressner has left us. I choose that expression carefully. In concrete reality, he passed away from brain cancer on Saturday morning. Also, though, he has left us, well, so much.
He was an impassioned importer of "real" wines from France, Italy, and Spain. A champion of candor who tirelessly cut away the bla-bla of marketing and aspirational thinking and swindlerism. A friend of honest work in vineyards and cellars. An unabashed curmudgeon of unpredictable views and angles. A man who gave to Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health. One of the funniest people ever, who left us with a body of writing in which kernels of truth hide amid uproarious floods of the absurd.
He was also a friend, to me. We shared wine, and didn't talk about it. We could argue or gossip in that particular brand of French that was his own. His real frankness and humanity allowed for conversations to swing from the acerbic to the intimate.
The wines he imported to America and which his team will continue to bring us are a good reflection of him: Clos Roche Blanche Sauvignon is preposterously good, almost blindsiding you; Domaine de la Pépière Clos des Briords is limpid, earthy, frank; Eric Texier's Rhône wines are deeply intellectual; Christian Chaussard's are hilarious, until you notice the firm backbone of seriousness.
The wines speak Joe Dressner, as do the writings and memories of him we have.
I just read an amusing article about a drunk elk that got caught in a tree in Sweden. Apparently, it was running after fermenting apples. Fortunately, I have never so much as gotten my foot caught in a sewer grate running after bottles of wine in the city.
However, several recent events have reminded me that when you catch the wine after running around town after it, you might not want to lose it again. Let me explain what I mean by that. It's that my mind has once again been jostled into the recognition that writing down the wines you taste is a good idea, along with maybe a word or two about them. (One hates to be stuck thinking: Was that blaterle* a white or a red?)
Exhibit A: "Any recollection of what we had on Aug 7th and Aug 9th?" writes S, a couple of days ago. Oh yeah, those two great dinners with friends and stupendously good food and lots of bottles. My brain now saw the evenings, though, like a scattered puzzle—of which many pieces had skittered under the radiator or behind the sofa. I remembered a Coche-Dury and offered, "I think it was a 2002, but which?" To which I was, humblingly, told: "Right, the Volnay." Ah, right. Coche-Dury red. Now I remembered, though my slipshod recall had been casting about for various Meursault Rougeots or the like.
Exhibit B: I went to a lunch just a few days ago—vibrant food and company, and a set of wines I had never seen nor tasted before, a sneak preview of imports soon to hit these shores. Talking about that meal with another friend who had not been there, I was asked, "What were the wines?" One might hang one's head to admit it, but for almost all of them, I had to go look at the pictures one of the lunchmates had taken and posted on a social networking site. For shame!
"Remember," said my friend, sitting there in scentless sensibility, "it's not unimportant to write down what you taste. There are reasons we do this."
So I will. And here, too.
*Don't worry, dear reader, I am certain that you know which color wines the blaterle grape makes.
Photo by Melody Dye
When I was a teenager, I liked to talk with my uncle about his early days training as a clinical psychologist. We would talk about the different approaches and schools. The fact that the mind had so many ways of coming at it fascinated me, and I read around, ranging and rooting for ideas. One day, we started talking about behaviorism and B.F. Skinner.
My uncle said, "He was a failed writer. He wanted to be a novelist, you know. But he had nothing to say. So he went back to the lab with his rats. Much more comfortable with the rats."
My uncle was teasing me, because he knew my perfectionism, my striving, sitting on the stairs with my composition notebook and my fountain pen. But attempts at perfection in writing do not create diamonds; they create a blank.
So, here I am before a blank blog page, and I ask myself: do I need rats, or can I grow words out of wine?
I put a picture of Causse Marines' Gaillac above, because I have always found it amusing and inexplicable that they should boldly state that no badgers are allowed in, on, or around the wine. I think I should use this as an allegory and impetus to avoid creeping beasts and get on with it.
Champagne is not dead!*
It is fairly telling that a tasting organized by a group of like-minded young Champagne growers and held on a sunny spring day in the town of Aÿ would drape itself in this rebellious slogan:
WINEGROWERS CONTINUE TO REVOLT IN THE NAME OF CHAMPAGNE'S TERROIRS!
One day, eighteen growers, pouring vins clairs and finished wines. Coming from all corners of the region, from Merfy, north-west of Reims, all the way down to Les Riceys, some 200km south, and all the way west to Crouttes-sur-Marne, almost abutting the Paris region: these were the vignerons of Terres et Vins de Champagne. If their vineyards were relatively far-flung, a shared spirit of revolt united them, however.
Revolt. The word is important. It snaps off the tongue; it is a banner and a flag of pride for the group: a front united by friendship. Ask anyone, even wine geeks who like champagne, and you're likely to hear that it is the most "artificial" of wines; that it bespeaks its terroir the least; that it is a marketing entity; that the landscapes of the region are dead.
To a large extent, commercialism and the lucre-seeking tactics of some big négociants have made this true.
But Champagne is budding. This new guard of growers—and what is equally exciting is that I can think of many others who are doing similar things in a similar spirit—believes in place. Believes in both tradition and the earth.
I was struck when Aurélien Laherte told me that his cuvée Les Clos, which is a field blend of all of the 7 authorized grape varieties in Champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, arbanne, petit meslier, pinot blanc and fromenteau) was not a wine that had been calculated with such and such a percentage of each to create a technical marvel. It was done as a "kind of archival act," he said, of conserving roots in the past, keeping alive those little berries that had their use (petit meslier keeping up the acidity in a warm year when the pinot meunier might get too flabby). "Who knows, if we have another vintage like 2003"—the heat-wave year—"we might be saved by petit meslier."
Some of the growers have ungrafted vines, like Chartogne-Taillet's Les Barres and Tarlant's Vigne d'Antan, both distinctive, and deep. Some forgo sulfur, such as Benoît Lahaye in his excellent cuvée Villaine. Many opt for low or no dosage, which ripeness allows for. We are worlds away from technical laboratories and vast quantities of wan juice tricked up with sugar and a little bit of old wine so that they taste the same from year to year.
These growers are aware of the land, the soils, the climate, and what their practices are doing. Pascal Doquet has been converting his vineyards to organic farming over the past decade, and he said with startlement that very quickly, the roots of the vines went from being spread out almost horizontally very shallowly beneath the soil to plunging downward—here, with the gesture of a hand, he showed the roots no longer rebuffed by the tight, unbreathable soil in which everything had been killed by pesticides.
But of course, the cool thing is that this is not just talk. Tasting the vins clairs showed the stuffing of what would be elaborated into finished champagnes. And those champagnes. They are so good. This is why we care.
At the end of the day, all I had in front of me was a comfortable train ride from Epernay back to Paris. How could I not beg a glass of Pascal Doquet Vertus here, or René Geoffroy Pureté or Bérèche Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche there?
I did so. I drank them down, and every drop was real good.
*By the bye, this lovely picture of vines in Vertus was taken by Pascal Doquet.
When people have asked me over the course of the past mumblemumble many weeks why I've been away from my blog, I've responded, "Oh, I haven't been away. I've been lurking."
I kid, but it is clear that I do need to feel the firm grip of vinous passion wrap itself around my, say, upper arms, straighten me in my chair, and put both of my hands on the keyboard, index fingers on F and J.
Tap, tap, tap—but where to start?
A wine post is a snapshot, a burst of light and words. Wine itself is a crystal ball.
The last glass of 08 L'Anglore Sels d'Argent is a snowglobe of... what?
If I can look through the specks into the depth of its gold, what do I see? Actually, it is a good marker, for me, of two things. I discovered this wine last summer and have since come back to it with enjoyment, enjoyment, enjoyment, and delight (and maybe a couple more enjoyments and a delight or two).
For me, it marks both the discovering of new wines and the low-level thrill of tasting the variations of a single pleasure. (On that note: there is nothing wrong with drinking Prévost's La Closerie early and often, or vice versa.)
Let's take it a shade darker.
Some of the most compelling wines I have had in the past months have been uncompromising, heavy wines. Wines that are hard to follow up with another, "meditation" wines. I should suspect myself for that. But how can you not go limp with a glass of 2001 Radikon Oslavje, all deep spice and wonder, in your hand? You can't not. You'd have to be an ascete.
1999 Ganevat Vignes de Mon Père spent 130 months in its topped-up barrel and left me, one night a couple of weeks ago, sitting on top of the butte Montmartre as though I were on the highest spot on earth. You could smell it from the decanter across the table.
But just as music that is all clash and bombast gets tiring, we need a little flutey lightness to get a kind of contrapuntal vibe going.
It was not felicitous to follow god's own Ganevat, that night, with a frilly little carbonic grolleau. But I will admit It was a nice evening out, a week later, the night I wended my way over to a wine bar in a sooty part of the 9th arrondissement with some contraband chicken liver pâté I had made at home to share a bottle of 09 Landron Muscadet Amphibolite with a friend.
My dabbles with the Melon grape have been middling to poor, but I won't give up. A current thrill is the 09 Domaine de Cadette Melon, from that variety's native land, Burgundy. I don't love it (only) for its woodcut or for the memories of Vézelay that spring in my head when a bottle gets near (or for that matter, for a happy memory of an insufficiently air conditioned hotel in Avignon where a cool bottle of Cadette Melon was a chill and a breeze and a delight)—I love it because it's deceptively simple. Something you can drink down, but then step back and nod with that pursed-lip look of being impressed. And the lime curd thing, too.
These three aspects of wines have me thinking and typing again.
A lot of people haul out champagne for the holidays; it's like that, it's suggestive. I, however, as someone who guzzles the stuff at every wine bar and restaurant and private residence in the land, rejoicing when a muzzle is offed and a conic cork removed—well, you'd think I would turn a sour eye at all the transient enthusiasm.
Hell, no. Are you, dearest reader, senseless? (I think not, and thank god this is only a rhetorical turn, because you, dearest reader who makes my blog worth continuing, are crazy like a fox.) Far from pooh-poohing the seasonal gold rush, I embrace it with all the more fervor. Everybody else wants to, too! More for all! More deliciousness!
Do it, it's les fêtes! Order another bottle of Lassaigne, of Prévost, of Egly-Ouriet, of Tarlant, holy crow. Get out the Bérèche, the Boulard, the Françoise Bedel, that crazy Vouette et Sorbée fizz. Remember your stash of Veuve Fourny, some stockpiled Gaston Chiquet or that vintage Jean Milan. Crack the new year open with Chartogne-Taillet or Diebolt-Vallois. Decide you don't have to afford to replace Selosse, 'cause it tastes so good now.
In that spirit, and in the spirit of my calamitous blog sparseness, which I intend to correct with the new year, I am currently enjoying a brand new site by the Boston-based champagnophile Peter Czyryca, Recent Disgorgements.
I would also love to hear, in my pruriently curious way, what anyone traipsing through this post might have in mind to drink, champagne-wise, for the night that turns this year into 2011.
Seamus wasn’t looking quite himself this morning. I'd made a Halloween pumpkin, carved out a carefully plotted set of eyes, one nose, one mouth. It glowed prettily with its fangs and squint, set on a windowsill. But that was a week ago. So long, Seamus, I glibly proffered as I clacked the door shut.
A week later, I'm back. Back in the night from a trip to the country, feeling around in the dim for just the right place to set the keys down, finding the way to bed in a trail of shoes and socks and pants and slipping into the covers.
This morning, I walked out in short clothes to make coffee. Oh, goodness. Seamus, no. He'd gone from ten to eighty in a few days. Time-lapse without the flow; a jerky leap into the derelict future. Wrinkled and cowed, he looked a pity. I should have kept him in the fridge like some Michael Jackson during my absence.
Farewell, fall friend.
Wine is, of course, like that. Yes, I have it on good recommendation that such fare as Ca' de Noci's Notte di Luna can hold up when one leaves a part-empty bottle be for a bit. Ditto Radikon (but, sorry, when has a 500ml bottle of Radikon ever survived an evening?). Wine, though, doesn't hold once open to the air and all things that modify and corrupt it. It's an almost Dante-ish view of the world (everyone now reread the Purgatorio and hold hands).
Yet once again I'm curious about these different side- and after-effects of our passion for wine. I am, too, about how little is known regarding the chemical specifics. Why do some wines (I've heard) require a full-day decant? Others start to fall to pieces minutes (minutes!!! (she said, striking fear into hearts everywhere)) after uncorking?
Ah, it might be just that uncertainty and those flashes of unstable and unpredictable beauty that make wine such a wily and willful partner.
But it also might be that œnology should be considered a worthy science. Some money should be put into this stuff, smart people put on the case, and then we won't have to wonder and ask and do imprecise and costly experiments with aging and storage and all of the bugbears that thwart, challenge, and enflame wine lovers.
Despite my desire for a flippant conclusion, I'll remain staunch. Our fruitlihood is at stake.
Oh, psssh, this blog hasn't flatlined, what are you talking about?*
Mysteriously, no post has appeared in two months. It could be that they do not sprout, like mushrooms after a rain, but rather must be hewn from the living blogosphere, like so many sculpted soaps.
The wine-writing bug is still jumping about in me, wearing a little sombrero—but like the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, I've been chilling with the cicadas in Avignon, rather than following those little Formicidae down a dampened Parisian street to, say, Spring wine bar, sipping something and running back to type.
I have things I want to talk about. Things I have only known since my last post here. Like 1996 Pascal Doquet Le Mesnil! 1970 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva! And so much more! (All for only $29.99! Yours! With this free tea cosy!)
I am back. Fall's fallen. It's wet and the windows are closed, and I am here to sip, and to write.
*Though thanks to TWG for the clarion-clear reminder of just how many days it'd been. Noah and a half!
Every summer from mid-July to early August there is an outdoor cinema festival at the Parc de la Villette in the northeast corner of Paris. As night falls at 10.30pm or so in these long days of the year, the film starts late, leaving a broad expanse of time to go tipple elsewhere or—which is more gratifying—directly in the park.
Aside from a couple of shameful tourist spaces—I'll name names: the Champs-Elysées and the Champ de Mars (that flat mown park in front of the Eiffel Tower)—where boozing has been proscribed, everywhere else in this fine town, one may bring one's bottle(s) and corkscrew, stemware, whatever else seems apposite, and tuck in.
And, oh my brothers, a few days ago they showed (in the original with subtitles) "A Clockwork Orange."
It had been warm that day, nearly 80°F after a week of chill, overcast and mediocre dashed-hopes summertime. No, this day was hot and sunny. It was still fine out as night fell, but it was also nice to have a woolen blanket (rentable from the park) and to sit on a canvas lawn chair and watch that still startling, still hilarious film under dark and beautiful yet calm skies, with a wind that kicked up.
My friend Meg brought the last of her stash of 2007 François Chidaine Montlouis, bought in a frenzy of appreciative relief in, I dunno, March or so, at a wine festival.
We'd had a curious bottle of bubbly back at the ranch (viz., her flat nearby) before striking out to the park, whetting our filmgoing vinous appetites with NV Domaine de L'Ocre Rouge "La Perle," a méthode champenoise from the south of France, about 11 miles north of Nîmes. Half pinot noir, half chardonnay, it rides the back of a very Champenois blend. And it has an ace up its sleeve: the vigneron is in fact a son of those chalky hills—Ayméric Beaufort, of the family renowned for the exuberantly good Champagne Jacques Beaufort. But given the dramatically different climate, the wine was a curious creature; dry with a bit of citrus pith, but also a pearish tone. An interesting discovery, and a fair friend for the small round yellow zucchinis my host had prepared, stuffed with ground pork and spelt, robed with a few leaves of basil. We should all eat basil when we go up to heaven.
Then: the park. The film. That dark yet clement sky. The savory Montlouis (damn, Chidaine is a monster of pitch-perfect winemaking). The lovely silence amid many. All were quiet. I hate to say it, but films are better when lots of people are watching them. I always go alone, but here we were all alone, and all enrapt.
But we were drinking best.
I had a madeleine the other day.
Not the tea cake, but y'know, one of those things that jogs you, like a cobblestone sticking up that catches your foot and makes you stumble into the past. A wine remembered from earlier times, one that conjured up those times. So I thought it would be interesting, amusing and perhaps even illuminating to submit this blog (and myself) to the vinous version of the (in)famous Proust Questionnaire.
Forthwith, rendered into terms propitious for wine:
1. Your most marked characteristic?
In wine, I like being (as they say in French) a horse that eats from all the troughs. There are styles of wine I like less (moelleux springs immediately to mind), but I like to test periodically my so-called wine prejudices. Sometimes there have been fabulous turnarounds. I've been seen proselytizing for chenin, of late!
2. The quality you most like in a
man red wine?
I like ethereal red wines. I also like a certain rusticity. What I don't like is overbearing viscousness or jammy fruit. My gamut might span from Pineau d'Aunis to Cornas by way of Pinot Noir and cru Beaujolais. (And indeed, I am mixing up grapes and appellations. At least I don't say "varietal.")
3. The quality you most like in a
woman white wine?
I like slightly oxidative whites. Like a woman showing her flesh. Or a barrel giving a sigh.
4. What do you most value in your friends?
I'm friends with those wines that take themselves seriously. Not in their outer trappings (unless we're talking high-quality corks)—heavy bottles, designer labels or consequential pricing. But wines that are not funny. They don't referment or reek, just as they don't float, aromatically, with the remnant particles of toasted wood chips. They are honest but honed.
5. What is your principle defect?
I break stemware.
6. What is your favorite occupation?
Two, where wine is concerned. One is obviously sitting at a table with good food and opening bottles with friends, enjoying them over the course of the evening. The other is visiting a vigneron, seeing where and how the wine is made, by whom, and tasting it there.
7. What is your dream of happiness?
A really fine Burgundy with the right amount of age. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, something I have never heard of before that turns out to be astounding. I could make my short dream list. I have friends with quirky taste.
Hm, I feel so serious! So sententious! This is the first third. Maybe the others I'll do more Dada in style. Stay tuned.
This is my latest thrill. And it's thrilling*
2008 Domaine de L'Anglore "Sels d'Argent," which I tasted a couple of months ago twice, two days in a row, made my eyes pop.
2008 Clos de l'Origine "Les Quilles Libres," tasted recently, confirmed that I must inquire more into the grape, which is simply unheralded. This wine has such utter acidity, such wiry and unpredictable aromatics, it cannot be from the Côtes Catalanes, yet it is. And it's gorgeous.
Readers (if I have any left, given my desultory posting frequency of late; a lapse I intend to right, right away), please do tell me of grapes I should be drinking more.
And do not correct the "grapes ... drinking" sentence structure: it's a synecdoche, I swear.
*Fittingly for a thrill, you'll tell me.