Friday, May 1, 2009

Jenny, François, the PLCB and Me

It’s rare that wines brought into the US by many of our country’s most individualistic importers make their way onto the shelves in Pennsylvania’s state controlled liquor stores. The very nature of the PA system – which treats wine no differently than a widget, flexing its muscle to buy lots cheap rather than focusing on quality – works against the small importer. Once in a while though, a “SKU” or two from the likes of Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch or Rudi Wiest, to name a few, will sneak onto the shelves. More often than not, they find their way there via a distributor’s closeout sale; they’re never marked as such, so it’s a buyer beware situation. Sometimes the deals are good; sometimes they’re too good to be true. Sometimes they’re not a deal at all. Nonetheless, I’ll occasionally throw at least some element of caution to the wind and snap up a bottle or two.

Here are notes on just such a couple of wines I picked up in the last few months. I was so surprised to see anything from New York based natural wine specialists Jenny & François on the shelves in PA that I couldn’t pass up the chance. Call it part of my never-ending search for diversity and deliciousness or, if you’re feeling less charitable, my continuing willful naiveté.

Côtes de Duras Blanc, Château Haut Lavigne (Nadia Lusseau) 2007
$17. 12.5% alcohol. Plastic. Importer: Jenny & François Selections, World Wide Wine, USA Wine Imports, New York, NY.
The Côtes de Duras is a relatively large (over 2,000 hectares) but nonetheless relatively obscure AOC sandwiched between Bergerac to the north and the Marmandais to the south, roughly ESE of Bordeaux. “Un vignoble, une femme, des vins…” reads Nadia Lusseau’s label. Like most of the producers in the Jenny & François portfolio, Mme. Lusseau farms naturally, vinifies her wines on their natural yeasts and adds only minimum amounts of sulfur. Her Côtes de Duras blanc is a blend of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon. Whether it’s the work of those indigenous yeasts, the effects of slow, gentle pressing or an expression of Duras terroir I’m not sure, but this bears little in the way of the typical Sauvignon/Semillon aroma stamp. There are lots of lime juice and lime blossom flavors and aromas, maybe a little hay, but little if anything in the way of meadow flowers, grass or other citrus elements. In fact, this might easily be taken for any number of other Southwestern whites, brisk, silvery and slightly mineral but otherwise relatively indistinct.

Côtes du Rhône Villages Signargues “Domaine Grès St. Vincent,” Les Vignerons d’Estezargues 2006
$17. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Jenny & François Selections, World Wide Wine, USA Wine Imports, New York, NY.
I’ve been struggling to find any Southern Rhône reds that excite me of late. I normally wouldn’t turn to a co-op wine in search of excitement, but there are, of course, always exceptions to the rule. Just think of Produttori del Barbaresco, for example. This wine comes from an atypical cooperative, Les Vignerons d’Estezargues, which since the mid-1990s has been bottling single-estate wines from several of its larger producer-members and, since the late ‘90s, has been following a natural winemaking regime.

Totally unremarkable when first opened, this eventually opened up to show quite a pleasant nose of kirsch, ripe raspberries, black pepper and garrigue. If it’s really 14.5% as labeled, it sure wasn’t showing it. Soft texture, gentle tannins and surprisingly fresh acidity (for Grenache). Though not quite exciting, there was enough vivacity to make it food friendly and to help it go down easy. You’ll find a profile on the Estezargues co-op, along with the usual great photos, at Bert Celce’s Wine Terroirs.

So what was all my introductory griping about?

Though neither of these wines was incredibly distinctive, they were both perfectly sound and perfectly enjoyable. If you're in New York, you should expect to pay about $12 for each of these wines – just about dead-on budget-wise given their overall qualities. At that price, I might even go back for more. But here in PA they'll set you back $17 (closer to $18 after sales tax), just one of the many vagaries of our state’s entrenched, outmoded monopoly.


Brooklynguy said...

so strange, and such a shame on the pricing. you definitely need to move.


David McDuff said...

Don't go thinkin' I haven't thought about it.

(How is it that the word verification generator so often seems to know what you're thinking?)

Samantha Dugan said...

It's reading posts like these that make me so grateful that I live in Southern California, we have MANY issues but we are pretty lucky on the whole wine front. I was on a trip with some retailers from New York and they were telling me that they couldnt even sell cheese in their wine!

Can't even tell you how many times we have been barked at by some poor customer in like, Austin because we can't ship to them....these laws are insane. These poor people search high and low within their state for wines they want and they are just not there....well if no one in your state is importing it, let your residents have it shipped to them, (grumble).

David McDuff said...

Apologies for the delayed response, Sam. I've been off-line for a couple of days.

Don't even get me started on state liquor and shipping laws. Between living in PA and working in DE, I live in the middle of one of the worst parts of the country when it comes to shipping rules. PA is a strange grey area. DE -- nothing in, nothing out.

I'm lucky to have found a couple of retailers with really strong selections who throw caution to the wind (no naming names). Otherwise, I'd have no access to at least half the wines I drink and write about.

No cheese allowed in the shops here either, btw, though it is allowable in NJ and MD (at least in some municipalities).

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