Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Duo of the Trio Infernal

It’s the busy season ‘round these parts. Though I’ve already hit on some of the highlights from the Brewer’s Plate on Sunday, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the earlier part of the day’s doubleheader. Two winegrowers – Peter Fischer (pictured, at left) from Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and Laurent Combier (at right) from Crozes-Hermitage – stopped by the shop for a meet, greet and taste with our customers. I spent the entire business portion of the day pouring, discussing their wines with the attendees and offering the occasional half-assed attempt at translation for Laurent (whose English is as good as my French, which is to say awkwardly serviceable) when Peter wasn’t near enough to save me.

I’ve written about one of Domaine Combier’s wines here before. They’re old favorites of mine – beautifully detailed and freshly fruit driven examples of Northern Rhône Syrah. We tasted his 2006, which was fresh off the boat. His name for it is “Cuvée Classique,” though it’s simply labeled as Crozes-Hermitage. The 2006 is a bit leaner and snappier than the more robust 2005 and certainly not as soft, rich and developed as the 2003. Nonetheless, the Asian spice, citrus zest and fresh crushed red berries that form the signature aromatic profile of Combier’s reds are present as always.

The day’s tasting progression actually started with the basic Coteaux d’Aix en Provence rouge from Peter Fischer’s estate, Château Revelette. In the past I’ve often found myself on the fence about Peter’s wines, not really understanding the whites, the rosé or the more heavily elaborated red, “Grand Rouge.” It’s amazing what a difference actually meeting a vigneron and getting to learn more about the peculiarities of an estate and its terroir can make. In other words, I really enjoyed his basic rouge. Peter selected it for the day because he wanted to highlight the typicity of his region, which is at the northern extreme and highest altitude of the sprawling Coteaux d’Aix appellation. The cool nights in the hills of the region help to keep the fruit healthy and fresh on the vine, retaining more acidity than typical in the more arid, southern parts of the region. The wine is a blend, in roughly equal parts, of Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and aged in tank only. Medium bodied and with a lively acid profile, its combination of brambly black fruits and freshness recommends itself to a wide range of culinary matches.

Though both Fischer and Combier make a fairly broad portfolio of wines at their own estates, their primary purpose for the voyage was to present the wines from their new venture: Trio Infernal. The two men, along with Jean-Michel Gerin of Côte-Rôtie, bought a property in Spain’s Priorat in 2002. The three growers take turns, always two at a time, making the seven-hour road trip to Priorat once every week or two, staying for non-stop stints of 24-36 hours at a time. Of course, a full-time worker is on-hand at all times to ensure the health of the vines. As at both of their home estates, farming at the Infernal is organic and done purely by hand. A modestly natural approach is taken in the winery, with no fining, only light filtration and minimal application of sulfur.

The first two vintages at the estate were trying: 2002 for its heavy rains and 2003 for its high heat and drought conditions. In 2004, Peter explained that the trio got their arms fully around the nuances of the land, turning out wines that, by Priorat standards, were quite elegant. 2005 gave wines of more puissance – stronger of flavor, slightly fuller and a touch more tannic. For now, the trio produces only a duo of wines. Befitting their understandable obsession with the number three, they are simply called No. 1/3 and No. 2/3 (number one of three, number two of three, not one/third, two/third). They plan eventually to produce a third wine but don’t yet know what it will be.

No. 1/3 is a blend of 40% Carignan and 60% Grenache from vines spanning an age range from 15-35 years. It’s fermented in tank then aged in barrels of one, two, three and four wines. Though it’s firm of grip, there’s a bright red-fruit driven palate and young flavor profile that makes it approachable now. Laurent deems it worthy of up to eight years in the cellar; Peter ups the ante to ten.

No. 2/3 is 100% varietal Carignan, produced from extremely low yielding vines that were planted in 1906. Here, Carignan – usually relegated as a blending-only variety – shows that it can have something to say in its own right when produced from healthy, ancient vines. There’s an unmistakable aroma of dark cocoa powder and cinnamon along with crushed mulberries, all of which echo on the palate. This cuvee sees some new oak, which shows in the mouth but with good integration and in balance with the wine’s tannic structure. Both men find the wine tight at the moment and suggest it may go for twenty years. On day two, both wines were fully together, showing more openly ripe, slightly pruned dark berry and plummy fruit.

Typical Frechmen? It's a source of befuddlement for me that so many winemakers smoke. It doesn't seem to stop these guys from turning out good wines.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t drink much Priorat. Heck, I don’t drink much Spanish wine period. However, these two do show greater finesse and, not to overuse a good word, freshness than I’ve experienced in many other wines of the region. If there’s a problem, it’s that the wines fall hard in the context of QPR. At $50-60 and $100-110 respectively, they may be reasonably normal in the Priorat price range. I even understand the prices to a point; land costs are high, labor conditions are extreme and the journey alone is arduous. But I plain can’t afford to drink them. Thus is admitted one of the most commonly shared guilty pleasures of the public and private tasting experience.

If anyone out there has tried these wines or has other Priorats to recommend (or avoid), I’d love to hear your thoughts.


TWG said...

Any idea about aging? I splurged on a couple of 1/3s at the NJ tasting and neglected to consult the growers on the effects of aging.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for stopping by and participating in the discussion, TWG. If you read back to the notes on No. 1/3, you'll find Peter and Laurent's quick thoughts as to the wine's cellar-worthiness. If I were to make a recommendation based on a two bottle stash, it would go something like this. Drink one soon. Enjoy it and savor it; try to get a sense of what it's all about. With only one bottle remaining, I'd shy away from trying to carry it out to 8-10 years. As long as you've got a cool place to store it, I'd aim for five -- enough time to let the wine develop without running the risk of finding it too far down the slippery slope.

Joe said...

I just posted on the 2/3rds, and I have to say I am totally with you on the QPR. And it was even more stark in the presence of some really great wines from around the world.

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