Tony McClung, National Sales Manager for Rosenthal Wine Merchant, stopped in Philly last week to lead a whirlwind tasting tour through the mountainous wine regions of eastern France and northwestern Italy. (I stole Tony's spiffy portrait, at right, from his Facebook page. Thanks, Tony.) Wines originating from high altitude vineyards make up a sizable portion of the Rosenthal portfolio. In fact, Luigi Ferrando – whose sparkling Erbaluce Tony poured to set the stage for his seminar – was the first producer to sign on with Neal Rosenthal when he started his import business in 1978.
Erbaluce di Caluso Brut “Cuvée del Fondatore,” Luigi Ferrando NV
Luigi Ferrando’s estate consists of steeply terraced vineyards in the communes of Caluso and Carema, both located in north-central Piemonte near its border with the Valle d’Aosta. All work in the vines is done by hand, as the slopes are too steep for machine-assisted farming. “Cuvée del Fondatore” is a sparkling example of the local white specialty, Erbaluce di Caluso, made in the traditional (Champagne) method. Its waxy texture combines with flavors of slightly bitter baked apples and marzipan to deliver substantial richness on the palate; the wine’s hint of sweetness is balanced by brisk acidity. Minerality and a touch of herbaceousness both appear on the midpalate, while nuances of brazil nuts and black tea linger on the wine’s finish. Though served as an aperitif within the context of Tony’s class, I’d much rather see this on the table alongside cardoon and cheese antipasto, which is something of a Piedmontese specialty.
Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, Ermes Pavese 2007
The lighter, brighter entry in the evening’s opening pair of sit down whites was Ermes Pavese’s 2007 Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, aka Chasselas but grown in this case at 1200 meters in the Valle d’Aosta, where the vine is known as Prié Blanc. Phylloxera has yet to find its way to these upper reaches, thus enabling Ermes to work with vines planted on their original rootstock (franc de pied), which he propagates by pushing shoots from his existing vines into pots until they take root, later to be clipped and moved to a new home in the vineyard. The wine’s strikingly mineral nose also shows a still-lingering yeast influence, along with intense scents of lemon pith. Delicately grapey in flavor, it’s crisp, clean and easy wine that shows a kick of bitter melon fruit on the finish.
L’Étoile, Domaine de Montbourgeau 2005
L’Étoile is a tiny AOC in the Jura, named for the Jurassic period fossilized worms shaped like starfish (“étoile” means “star” in French) that are found in large quantities in the area’s subsoil. Montbourgeau is one of only six producers in L’Étoile and, as far as I (and Tony) can tell, is the only winery to export any of its produce to the US market. A blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay, the wine is produced in an intentionally oxidative style, as the broader textures delivered under oxygen’s influence help to balance the wine’s naturally enamel stripping acid levels. When first poured, it delivered distinct aromas of decaying leaves, morphing after 20 minutes into a much more Sherry-like nose. It reminded me very much, in fact, of Manzanilla Pasada, with its salty minerality and intensely gripping acid and extract levels. This one threw the class for a loop. I dug it.
Canavese Rosso “La Torrazza,” Luigi Ferrando 2007
Shifting to red, Tony took us full circle, right back to Luigi Ferrando. “La Torrazza” is a blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera, grown on the glacial soils in Canavese, an area that surrounds Caluso in north-central Piedmont. Even after the distinctive aromatic profile of Montbourgeau’s L’Étoile, this was unquestionably the most pungent wine of the night. Scents of sweaty armpits, pine needles, sheep pasture and as one student insisted, male cat’s pee, were all in evidence. Tony suggested that the wine’s unusual aromas are a side-effect of working with slightly under-ripe Nebbiolo, a characteristic of the cool, difficult 2007 vintage in the area. Funky, definitely, but it still delivered drinking pleasure via a core of dark red berry and wild plum fruit. Though perhaps not the most technically correct wine of the lineup, at under $20 it’s certainly worth exploring.
Arbois “Poulsard M,” Jacques Puffeney 2005
“M” is one of two cuvées of Poulsard produced by Puffeney from all of 1.2 acres planted to the vine on his property. It’s named for Jacques’ daughter Marie, who favors a fruity-style expression of Poulsard. Pale ruby and rose rimmed in hue, with enticing aromas of freshly fallen leaves and wild, tart cherries, followed up by flavors of rose hips, pine sap and red delicious apple skin. A classic example of the fact that lightness of body and color certainly do not preclude intensity and depth of flavor, it delivered savor and tactile complexity galore. I’d love to pair it with roasted pheasant or other small game birds. WOTN in my book.
Vallée d’Aoste Torrette Supèrieur “Vigne Rovetta,” Grosjean Frères 2005
The brothers Grosjean are among the newest producers in Rosenthal’s camp, joining just three years ago. Their Torrette Superieur is a blend of 85% Petit Rouge, 5% Cornalin and 10% Fumin, from vineyards situated between 1000-1600 meters in altitude in the Valle d’Aosta. Though steep enough to render tractors and other machinery superfluous, the slopes on the Grosjeans’ property are just gentle enough to permit planting without cutting terraces into the hillside. This is quite elegant wine, with a nose of tar, clove, smoke and black fruits echoed along with an extra lacing of baking spices in the mouth. High acid with a gentle but persistent tannic structure. I’m thinking rabbit stew….
Saint-Joseph “Les Pierres Sèches,” Yves Cuilleron 2006
Here’s where the “mostly” in my title comes in, as Tony’s inclusion of Saint-Joseph pushes the “mountain wine” envelope. It’s not all that far from the Alps, though, and between the steeply sloped vineyards tumbling down to the Rhône below and a relatively cool climate, I’m willing to let him slide. The two wines from Yves Cuilleron certainly provided contrast to the evening’s other entries. Rosenthal’s relationship with the Cuilleron family goes back 27 years, to a time when the estate was overseen by Yves’ uncle. The 2006 “Les Pierres Sèches” (the dry rocks) rouge showed classic Northern Rhône aromatics of mixed red berries, nutmeg, hothouse flowers and white pepper. Its vibrant, blood red color was matched by its rich, sanguine mouthfeel. One of four vineyard designated Saint-Josephs in Cuilleron’s arsenal, it comes from a granitic soil base and ages for 18 months in barriques. Roast pork or duck breast with a red wine sauce au poivre would work really well, methinks.
Vin de Table “Roussillière” (MMVII), Yves Cuilleron NV
Cuillerons sees fit to produce a liquoreux wine from his vines in and around Saint-Joseph. The AOC authorities don’t see fit to allow for sweet wine under the local appellations, so “Roussillière,” hits the market as a Vin de Table, a designation that allows neither vintage dating nor mention of the grape varieties involved. Yves gets around the vintage rule, as do so many other individualistic producers, by using code – simple roman numberals in this case. As for the blend, per Cuilleron’s website this is an “assemblage de trios cépages blanc” – the translation, given the area, being Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. The wine achieves its sweetness through a triple threat of late harvest, botrytis and stopped fermentation. The result is quite delicious, buoyed with just enough acidity to keep its unctuous texture from weighing down the palate. Aromas of marmalade and aluminum signal the botrytized aspect of the wine, while lush scents of peach and apricot nectar, along with hints of mint and basis, anchor it to its place.