Monday, April 26, 2010

A Visitor from the Luberon

When I visited Domaine de la Citadelle back in the fall of 2000, I viewed it at the time as simply a happy coincidence. I was staying for a few days in the Luberon, and our home base was in a B&B located in the valley below the hilltop village of Ménerbes. There just happened to be a winery, a handsome one at that, within easy walking distance. We kind of had to check it out, non? As luck would have it, the wines we sampled in the Domaine's tasting room were pretty damn tasty so, after taking a spin through their Musée du Tire-Bouchon, we left with an armful of bottles to enjoy with our lunches (and afternoon snacks) over the next few days.

That happy coincidence turned into a more surprising one when, three or four years later, the wines of Domaine de la Citadelle showed up at the shop where I work. They've remained in steady rotation there ever since. As with wines from other estates I've had the chance to visit, I enjoy a certain comfort in selling them, as first-hand experience always makes what's in the bottle more personally meaningful — and correspondingly easier to recommend.

Over the ensuing years, I've met Alexis-Rousset Rouard on a few occasions. Alexis' father, Yves Rousset-Rouard, essentially created the Domaine de la Citadelle when he bought the property — a farmhouse and eight hectares of vineyards at the time — in 1989. Alexis joined his father at the estate in 1995 — it's now expanded to include approximately 40 hectares under vine — and has since taken an ever increasing role in both farming and winemaking responsibilities. Saturday just past, I got to know Alexis a good deal better, spending the better part of the day helping him pour and present his wines for the steady stream of customers that came by the shop to taste with him.

When the clock struck closing time at the tasting table, I posed a simple question to Alexis: shall we head to a local restaurant, or accept an invitation to dine with friends? His quick answer: chez amis.

Sometimes staying in really does trump going out, especially after a long day at the office. That's Alexis above, relaxing at the kitchen island in the home of our gracious hosts, Bill and Kelly, with my friend and coworker Eric resting it out in the background.

Since our hosts hadn't made it to the tasting, we carried along a bottle of Domaine de la Citadelle's 2008 Luberon blanc "Le Châtaignier" (pictured way up above) to enjoy with dinner. It's a blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Bourboulenc, fermented and aged solely in tank. As with all of Alexis' wines in the "Le Châtaignier" ("the chestnut tree") line — there's a red and rosé as well — it's produced from a parcel-by-parcel selection of young vine fruit and vinified with the intention of producing a bright, fruit-driven, relatively simple yet characterful wine for everyday enjoyment. Like all of the estate's wines, it's also marked by refreshing acidity; Alexis likes to call it tension. We're not talking tongue-twisting action for all you acid freaks out there, but we are talking about brighter acidity than typical in most of the Southern Rhône. That acidity is a direct side effect of the cool nights and moderate elevation (about 300 meters) in the Luberon vignobles, where harvest typically starts 8-15 days later than in other parts of the Southern Rhône.

The crisp yet ripe texture, orchard fruit flavors, and delicately mineral finish of "Le Châtaignier" blanc made for a delicious pairing with Bill's pan-seared scallops and crunchy "green linguine."

Alexis' vin blanc was a no-brainer, but there was a big question facing us for the rest of the night. Just what do you pour when a winemaker comes over for dinner?

I'd considered bringing along an older Domaine de la Citadelle bottle from the home cellar (something like this, perhaps), but then I figured that Alexis can drink his own wines pretty much whenever he wants. Hmmm...

I think we were all in accord that one can rarely go wrong with Champagne. Bill had actually figured that one out ahead of time, as he had a bottle of José Michel's 1997 Champagne "Spécial Club" lightly chilled and ready to be popped when we arrived. Michel's "Club" bottling is consistently delicious wine. While the '97 may not have quite the elegance and fine structure of the 1996 (that I wrote about as a guest Chez Brooklynguy quite some time ago), it was still vibrantly youthful, showing all of the richness, opulence and ready-and-raring-to-go qualities of the '97 vintage.

What else, though? So many options... but is Burgundy really a bad way to go? We thought not.

We paired Robert Ampeau's 1994 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru "Combettes" with Bill's franco-american spin on spaghetti carbonara. The sauce featured quail's eggs in place of the traditional hen's eggs; pork belly that Bill had smuggled back from Paris in the stead of pancetta; and sautéed ramp greens in lieu of the oft-tossed fistful of chopped flat-leaf parsley. The caramel depth of the wine's tertiary fruit and its stony finish turned out to be a surprisingly decent match to the subtly smoky yet delicate flavors of the pasta. It wasn't the most vibrant bottle of the '94 Combettes I've had but it was still in great shape, an admirable showing.

The 2007 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru "Morgeot" of Henri Germain wasn't too shabby a match with our next course, either. Bill's really been dialing it in at the stove-top of late. His butter-braised grouper cheeks, each one about as big around as a standard muffin-top (guess I should have included something in the photo to give a sense of scale), were absolutely scrumptious. I really dig Henri Germain's wines, too. They're hard to resist when they're young, like this bottle so painfully was — all nervy and wound up like a spring but with vibrant, focused fruit intensity and great length. I've yet to taste any mature examples of his whites but there's a bottle of the 2002 version of this very wine waiting in the cellar for that certain moment. Just keeping my fingers crossed that there won't be any prem-ox issues....

Just to be fair, we threw in a little red wine between courses.... The 2005 Montefalco Rosso "Vigna San Valentino" from Paolo Bea — a blend of 70% Sangiovese along with 15% each of Montepulciano and Sagrantino — was snappy, fresh and vibrant. Way too easy to drink and a beautiful example of just how approachable and versatile Sangiovese-based reds can be at the table.

While we obviously opted for an all-Euro entourage of wines, we didn't want to leave Alexis without a taste of home — our home, that is. I'd missed the morning's ramp romp (yes, working on Saturdays is not without its downsides) but Bill and some friends had gone a-foraging and the ramps pictured above were fresh and tasty as could be, lending their springtime fragrance and savor to all three of the dishes we enjoyed on Saturday night.

Looking back at last year's edition of the ramp fest, it seems we broke out a remarkably similar range of dishes and even some coincidentally (and happily) similar wine selections this year. Turns out there's comfort to be found in both the familiarity of home and the reassurance of consistency.

We'll expect you back again next year, Alexis.


TWG said...

Whatever happened to Jose Michel at MB?

David McDuff said...

Nothing happened to Michel in particular, Tom. The entire Wine Traditions (José's importer) portfolio is no longer available there.

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