Monday, August 31, 2009

Random Encounters: Moselle VDQS

One of the beauties of a long-term love affair with the wines of France is that even twenty years into the relationship there are still new things to be discovered, previously unknown corners upon which to stumble.

One such recent encounter was with a wine from the Moselle, a department of the Lorraine region that is sandwiched between Champagne to its west and Alsace to its east, and topped off by Luxembourg directly to the north. The Moselle has been classified as an AOVDQS (Appellation d’Origine Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) since 1951, when the region’s viticultural area first began its recovery from the heavy damages sustained from bombings and trench warfare during World War II. Originally known as Vins de Moselle, the VDQS name was changed simply to Moselle in 1995. Given the impending dissolution of the VDQS system, full AOC status is now being sought for the area.

The city of Metz serves as capital to both the Moselle Department and the region of Lorraine.
View Larger Map

The area under cultivation in the Moselle has fluctuated wildly over the last century, from as much as 6000 hectares at the turn of the 20th Century to just over 1000 when the area was granted VDQS status in 1951 to near extinction in the 1970s. Major varieties are very similar to those in neighboring Alsace – Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer are all sanctioned – while the area’s cooler climate is reflected in the relative importance of the easy-ripening Müller Thurgau. As the presence of Pinot Noir, along with the Pinot Meunier that carries over from nearby Champagne, suggests, white, red, rosé and sparkling wines are all produced in Moselle. Vineyard soils are made up primarily of pebbly clay and limestone.

Moselle VDQS "Les Gryphées," Château de Vaux 2007
$19. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Potomac Selections, Landover, MD.
When Norbert and Marie-Geneviève Molozay purchased Château de Vaux in 1999, the property included 5.5 hectares of the then 39 hectares under vine in the Moselle. The area has since continued its slow recovery, growing to its current size of approximately 54 hectares of vineyards, while the Molozays' estate has expanded to 12.5 hectares.

One of about eleven wines produced at the estate, “Les Gryphées” is Château de Vaux’s everyday white, a blend of 30% Auxerrois, 30% Müller Thurgau, 30% Pinot Gris and 10% Gewurztraminer. Golden straw in tone and slightly shimmering in the glass, the wine’s aromas are evocative of light baking spices, peach nectar, savory herbs and ripe citrus oils. While it displays a fairly clear amalgam of the rich spiciness of Auxerrois and Pinot Gris balanced by the herbaceousness of Müller Thurgau, it’s actually quite a bit subtler than I’d expect from such a blend – medium bodied, low-to-medium acid and reserved in its mouthfeel. Short and relatively simple, it’s nonetheless eminently drinkable and quite food friendly, standing up reasonably well to the assertive flavors of a dish of bratwurst and sauerkraut and even showing a cool, menthol high note as it developed in the glass.

On its second day open, the wine’s acidity felt a touch brighter, its fruit rounder. The nose delivered toned down scents of cantaloupe – sweet and musky but not quite ripe to the point of stinkiness. (If you’ve left a ripe cantaloupe out on the counter this season, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) The parts may be more interesting than the whole, and the wine may take half its interest from its relative obscurity, but I still found it a fine introduction – one I’d be happy to revisit – to the wines from Moselle.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Untitled #2

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Barolo Tasted Blind with the Wine and Spirits Tasting Panel

Though an evening spent at The Ten Bells may have been the chief pleasure of a long day trip to New York last week, the primary impetus for the commute was an invitation to participate in a panel tasting of new/current releases from Piemonte at Wine & Spirits Magazine. I’d read about these tastings on the blogs of W&S editors Wolfgang Weber and Peter Liem, as well as on the pages of my estimable blogging colleague, Brooklynguy. This was my first opportunity to participate so, jazzed at the idea of a day spent tasting tons of wines from Piedmont, I jumped at it.

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good albeit polarizing pieces about blind tasting. Guilhaume Gerard, for instance, f***ing hates it – not blind tasting, per se, so much as the idea of rapid fire sipping, spitting and analyzing, like choosing your life partner based on a single speed dating event. Brooklynguy, on the other hand, sees true merit in the educational aspects of the practice, so much so that he’s put together his own succinct, all-star blind tasting panel. It should be noted, though, that his new group tasted just a few wines in their first outing and, I’m guessing, spent a reasonable amount of time contemplating each one.

At the Wine & Spirits Piemonte panel, though, we tasted blind and in rapid-fire succession – 35 Barolo in the two-hour morning session and 33 Barbera after a break for lunch – in flights ranging anywhere from three to eight wines at a time. It’s no way to really get to know any one wine. And it’s definitely work, not pleasure (though it does help that I like my work). That said, the format – we were not doling out points, just giving a basic yea, nay or undecided about each wine – is not without merit.

It forced me to assess each wine honestly and quickly. Did I like it? Was it balanced? Was it flawed in any way? Was it typical? Elegant or brutish? Drinkable or built to impress?

It’s an interesting way to get a sense of common character (or lack thereof) across a vintage and/or a particular region. It’s also a test of your own steadiness, your ability not to be swayed by the opinions of the other tasters around the table. Perhaps the hardest part, at least for me, was judging each wine on its own merits rather than on its relative performance. The old opulent versus subtle issue wasn’t the problem; I like to think I put that one to rest a long time ago. Rather, I occasionally found myself wanting to vote “yes” for a wine not so much because I liked it as because I found it far less crappy than the wine(s) that had immediately preceded it. Suffice it to say it’s a tough job, but I was more than happy to have the opportunity and would gladly participate again.

So, “What about the wines?” you’re probably asking at this point. After a single, rather lackluster 1999 Barolo from Erbaluna (participants were given a list of the wines at the completion of the tasting), things kicked off in earnest with a string of 19 Barolos from the 2005 vintage, divided into five flights based on their commune of origin. The wines were all over the place, showing the variability in the vintage from commune to commune, where there were issues with hail, rain at harvest and a relatively cool growing season. In a way, that variability made the ‘05s more interesting than the ‘04s to come but 2005 is definitely a vintage where it will pay to know your producers.

From the panel’s majority perspective, the clear standouts among the Barolo producers represented were Renato Ratti and Vietti, with Vietti’s 2005 Barolo “Lazzarito” being the only wine to receive a unanimously positive vote. It’s important to note, though, that the panel’s decision can vary significantly from that of any one taster. All four of Vietti’s entries received “yea” votes from the panel, while I liked only the Lazzarito. I voted yes on nine of the nineteen wines, while the panel ixnayed only three wines in the entire lineup. Most surprising to me was the fact that I liked two of the three wines from Michele Chiarlo, a producer whose wines I’ve normally been inclined to write off as commercial and lacking in character.

After tasting through fifteen Barolo from 2004, which is the primary vintage available on the current market, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a far more consistent vintage than 2005. The wines were more complete, showing much more typical and fully developed aromatic profiles. However, that consistency came with its own problem: alcoholic heat. Over and over again, my notes from the 2004 flights read “hot,” “touch of heat,” or “aggressive.” This time around I found something positive to say about only six of the fifteen wines, while the panel too was more circumspect, giving the thumbs up nine times. Brezza and Boroli both performed solidly, while Ceretto was a clear loser. My favorite wine of the 2004s, though, came from a producer that’s new to me, Serradenari.

I’m running short on time, so my thoughts on the afternoon Barbera session will have to wait....

In closing, as educational as I found the panel tasting experience, it hasn’t changed my mind much about Barolo. Just in case you weren’t sure, I love Barolo. But it should be obvious that I didn’t find all that much to like on this day. Of the 35 wines we tasted, there were only a couple, maybe three, that I’d go out of my way to buy and drink. Where were my favorite producers? No Vajra, no Mascarello, no Giacomo Conterno, no Elio Grasso, no Luigi Baudana… the list goes on. Without them in the field, I can’t help but feel the day’s findings were at least a little incomplete.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Ten Bells

The Ten Bells is mysterious.

Not having done a photo study before my first visit to The Ten Bells, I walked back and forth on the short block of Broome Street that runs between Orchard and Ludlow with nary a sign of the place. Literally, that is… no sign. Not even a number to signify the address I’d scribbled on a piece of scrap paper in the wee hours of the morning before taking the early train up to New York. It was only after narrowing down the options then spotting an empty Dard & Ribo bottle as I peered through one of the few unobscured window panes at the spot where I’d stopped that I knew I was in the right place.

The Ten Bells is dark.

It’s one of the few gripes I’d heard about the place. It’s so dark you can barely see what you’re drinking. It’s so dark that I didn’t even bother trying to take my own pictures. (The first two shots here are borrowed, with thanks, from Melissa Hom’s shoot for New York Magazine.)

The Ten Bells is dangerous.

Or at least it would be were it in my neighborhood. If you can squint hard enough to read the wine list, scrawled and crammed onto the chalkboards that flank the east and west walls in The Ten Bells, you’ll find a tremendous array of natural wines from artisan growers, priced fairly and chosen with care by Fifi, Jorge and the rest of the Ten Bells crew.

The stemware may be too tiny to show off the full charms of those wines – about the only other common gripe I’ve heard (or could imagine) – but that makes sense given the marble bars and tight quarters that would wreak havoc on larger, more fragile glasses. It’s also befitting of The Ten Bells vibe. There’s nothing precious about the place. And while there’s a wild wine list, it’s a real neighborhood bar first, a “wine bar” second. The staff behind that bar seemed just as happy to serve up cold beers and shuck oysters on a hot August night as they were to pour glasses of Alice and Olivier De Moor’s 2007 Sauvignon St. Bris from magnum.

My cohort Wolfgang and I agreed that we could drink wines like these – the Burgundy from De Moor and Philippe Bornard’s 2007 Arbois-Pupillin Ploussard “Point Barre” – every day. That Ploussard from Bornard, in particular, was a joy to drink. So brightly hued it could have been fresh-pressed juice; pure, lively and focused, with nothing to weigh down the mind, body or palate.

The food’s no afterthought, either. A lightly smoky, barbecue glazed octopus and potato dish was a standout. Sherry-laced sautéed wild mushrooms, a comfortingly simple dish of brandade, and a generously heaping plate of sliced Serrano ham rounded out a more than satisfying meal, pieced together from The Ten Bell’s small plate menu.

Definitely a dangerous place…. The joint may get crowded as the night wears on, but it’s a good buzz. And as long as they’re serving it up like this, I’ll keep heading back.

The Ten Bells
247 Broome Street [map]
New York, NY 10002
(212) 228-4450
Ten Bells on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 22, 2009

San Francisco Natural Wine Week

The inaugural edition of San Francisco Natural Wine Week starts on Monday. Events will be held at restaurants and wine emporiums around SF from Monday, August 24 through Sunday, August 30, 2009. This year’s event is sort of a dry run, grass roots effort put together by a group of impassioned hosts. If all goes well, it may just lead to bigger things in the years to come.

So, if you’re in San Francisco, go. If you’re near San Francisco, go. If you’re chomping at the bits for an excuse to head to San Francisco on short notice, go. If I weren’t already planning to be in San Francisco in a few weeks, I’d go…. I'd tell you more, but you’ll find all you need to know to go at the SF Natty Wine Week blog.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Scenes from Tuesday's Therapy Session

Had a great time pouring wine at Bicycle Therapy on Tuesday. A pretty decent crowd showed up to check out the new urban commuter bikes from Globe.

The Globe lineup ranges from a slick little fixie all the way up through some pretty serious workhorses. The very low key designs remind me of retro/classic British cruising bikes crossed with the utilitarian sensibility of Worksman's industrial bikes. The integrated racks on several of the models not only look pretty cool but are strong enough to handle designated driver duty.

Lola the shop dog took a moment to chill and chew before the crowds showed up for the main event.

Dan, Specialized's local sales rep, gave a quick seminar on the concept and merits of the Globe line of bikes, while his regional manager, Mike, performed a QA test on a glass of the 2008 Touraine Sauvignon "Le Petiot" from Domaine Ricard.

Fastidious wine blogger that I am, I somehow forgot to snap a shot of the juice I poured for the crowd that evening. I did deliver a seminar of my own, though, on a natural wine foursome that included the Sauvignon mentioned above as well as the delicious Gamay-based 2008 Touraine "Le Clos de Vauriou" from Vincent Ricard; the 2008 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie "Vieilles Vignes," made by Pierre Luneau at his daughter's estate, Château les Fromenteaux; and the 2007 Côtes du Rhône "Bout d'Zan" from Hélène Thibon at Mas de Libian.

I did, however, manage to catch a post-sacrificial shot of the mighty tasty hazelnut torte provided by local cyclist and entrepreneur of all things fudgey, Liz Begosh of Betty's Speakeasy, which is located just around the corner from Bicycle Therapy at 2241 Grays Ferry Avenue.

Did I mention that there was local beer on hand, too? No bike shop is complete without some.

Monday, August 17, 2009

TCA and Other Questions about the DIAM Closure

“Garanti sans goût de bouchon.” Guaranteed not to be corked. Really?

Jamie Goode, one of the industry’s authorities on the science behind wine closures, seems to think so:

”DIAM is a "technical cork" made by combining small granules of cork with synthetic microspheres to form an in-neck closure that performs very similarly to a high-grade natural cork, but without the inconsistency and taint issues. DIAM avoids the problem of cork taint by incorporating a special washing process using carbon dioxide in its "supercritical" state, when it has properties of both a liquid and a gas.

This state is achieved by a combination of pressure and temperature, and it renders the cork granules, for all intents and purposes, completely free of any musty taint. This is no mean feat, and developing this process required some serious investment in both research and plant development, but the need for such a cleaning process was made clear by the failure of DIAM's predecessor, Altec. Altec was constructed in a similar fashion to DIAM, and it looked to be a very good closure; however, the process of breaking cork down into small granules merely distributed any trichloroanisole (TCA) taint evenly among all the granules, and at such a level that an alarmingly high proportion of wines sealed with Altecs were tainted. DIAM, however, has proven to be taint-free….”
– From Wines & Vines, August 2008

As with twist caps, synthetic corks, VinoLok, and any other wine closure for that matter, the possibility of environmental cork taint – that is, TCA infection stemming from the winery itself, from timber used in construction or from corrugated packing materials – remains. Aside from that, though, I still can’t help but wonder if it’s truly impossible for any TCA to remain after the natural cork used in the DIAM goes through its cleaning process. I can say that my experience thus far seems to support Dr. Goode’s claims, as I’ve yet to have a DIAM-sealed wine that was corked. Have you?

I also can’t help but wonder whether that slogan, “Garanti sans goût de bouchon,” which I was surprised to find on a DIAM drawn from a bottle of the 2008 Languedoc Blanc from Château des Hospitaliers, is a marketing campaign sponsored by the producers of DIAM or an effort on the part of the winery to make its customers feel more accepting of an alternative closure. I’m guessing the former, but it may well be intended to work in the latter respect. Has anyone seen the same slogan on a DIAM used by any other producer?

The producers of DIAM are addressing other primary questions faced by the alternative closure market, such as oxygen exchange/oxidation failure (more on this from Jamie Goode), reduction and suitability for aging, and now offer several composition options designed for various cellaring/drinking windows. The only concern I’ve heard expressed by a winemaker is whether the synthetic cementing agents used in the DIAM may, over time, have a detrimental influence on the flavor/aroma profile of wine in the bottle. I’m convinced I’ve had wines sealed with synthetic plastic stoppers that taste of plastic, so I’m curious about that question as well.

For now, suffice it to say that the DIAM is my favorite and seems to me the most promising of the in-neck, natural cork alternatives. I’ll be interested to see how it performs on the market over the next few years.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wine Therapy meets Bicycle Therapy

With all due respect to a certain defunct/metamorphosed wine bulletin board, I’ll be offering up a little wine therapy this week at independent Philly bike shop, Bicycle Therapy.

The specs: Bicycle Therapy is located in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood at 2211 South Street. I’ll be pouring and championing small farm, natural wines this Tuesday, August 18, 2009, from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM to help shop owner Lee Rogers launch his newest product line, the urban commuter bikes from Specialized’s Globe lineup.

Come on out, check out the new rides, say hello and taste some good juice while you’re at it. Who says cycling and wine don’t mix?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Biodynamics in Action at Barmès-Buecher

My thanks go out to Guilhaume, The Wine Digger, for turning me on to these very cool, informative video clips from François Barmès of Domaine Barmès-Buecher in Alsace. Don’t let the fact that François is speaking French in the first clip scare you away; you’ll get the full gist of what he and his crew are doing just from the visuals. I’ve added these clips to my trip report and profile of Barmès-Buecher too, just in case it wasn’t long enough already.

Mixing and dynamizing biodynamic preparation 500 (horn manure), to be sprayed in the vineyards.

Adding compost preparations such as yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian to the estate’s biodynamic compost heap on the slopes of Le Grand Ballon.

Spring work in the vineyard – turning the soil, cutting the superficial vine roots to encourage deep, vertical root growth, and pruning foliage to encourage airflow and balance.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Oakmont Farmers Market Update (August 2009)

Lore has it that year three is the make or break season for farmers markets, the year in which enthusiasm begins to wane or, conversely, the market reaches critical mass. My “local” – the Oakmont Farmers Market – is now in its third year and all signs look good. It’s not that attendance levels have expanded exponentially; they haven’t. Rather, attendance and business levels are consistently steady and robust and have been throughout the season, not just at the beginning of the market year when excitement for the “new” is always at its peak. In spite of the rough state of the economy, more and more people seem to have regularly committed to the little extra effort it takes to support their local farmers. And why not? There’s a great pay-off: fantastically fresh food, a diversity of seasonal fruit and vegetables that goes well beyond what you’ll find at the supermarket, supporting the economy of your own community, and a mighty small carbon footprint to boot.

The market’s gone officially non-profit this year, having filed for 501c3 status in the preseason. I’m a member of the all-volunteer Board of Directors for the market, so look at this post as a blatant shill if you will. But I shop at the market every week and just realized that I haven’t shared any photos or market news since last year. Here are some shots and a little info from yesterday’s market session.

Orchard fruit season is in full swing at North Star Orchard. Their seemingly endless varieties of plums have been fantastic the last few weeks, peaches are hitting full stride, and early season apples and pears have just entered the rotation.

Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm brings her local cows’ milk cheeses to the market only once a month, as she rotates through a single vendor space along with two other producers. In addition to her staples, this week she was selling wedges of her once-a-year batch of Matilda’s Summer Tomme. Sue also brought a disc of her first run at making a washed-rind cheese. She’s calling it Red Cat (it’s based on the same recipe as her top selling cheese, Fat Cat) and the sample I tasted showed great promise. Right now, it’s being washed with a simple brine solution but Sue is talking with Bill Covaleski, co-founder of and master brewer at Victory Brewing Company, about going with a Victory beer wash. Now that sounds really promising…. Having tasted Sue’s cheese (and Bill’s beers), I’d say Victory Prima Pils should be just about perfect.

Just a few of the gorgeous, delicious varieties of tomatoes that the folks from Lime Valley Mill Farm (certified organic) bring to the market each week.

Sweet, bell and frying peppers, grown and harvested by Fruitwood Orchards Honey Farm in Monroeville, NJ.

Restaurateur Michael Hawthorne, chef and proprietor of Kaya’s Fusion Cuisine (it’s BYOB) in Havertown, PA, buys much of the produce he uses each week right here at the market. It may not be the most cost-effective approach for his bottom line but it’s a fantastic demonstration of his commitment to supporting both local agriculture and business in his own community.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Breton and Burgers

This one gets filed in the annals of great food and wine pairings, with cross indexed references under simplicity and beauty. For two consecutive nights this weekend, I enjoyed one of the simplest and most classic of American meals – the hamburger. In this case it was lamb burgers. I’ve found through past experiences that the ground lamb at my local farmers market is intensely flavorful but also pretty high in fat content. Trying to divide it into patties of dainty proportion just doesn’t work, as what you’re left with after the fat renders off on the grill is far too small and far too easily overcooked. So two juicy half-pounder lamb burgers it was.

On Friday, I experimented a little with condiments, adding mustard and cheese only to find them both unnecessary, even distracting from the purity of the lamb’s flavor. Saturday night I dialed it in…. Slice a ciabatta roll (I didn’t bother to toast it but it certainly couldn’t hurt) and drizzle on some good olive oil, which marries much more harmoniously with the lamb than does mustard or ketchup. On went a single slice of ripe, heirloom tomato. And the finishing touch – a few of the ramps I pickled earlier in the year. They’re damn tasty on their own (if I do say so) but are even better atop burgers, their sweet pungency working exceptionally well with the meaty rusticity of lamb.

A super simple meal, extremely tasty and even better with:

Chinon “Les Picasses,” Catherine et Pierre Breton 2004
$25. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
No detailed tasting notes for you today. This was showing so well that I just had to sit down, settle in and enjoy. Loaded with layers of black fruit and minerality, richly flavored yet lithe, juicy and graceful all at once. If, as its label suggests, “Les Picasses” is indeed aged in barriques, the wine sure doesn’t show any woodiness – just sheer succulence. And as good as it was solo it was even better when enjoyed along with the lamb burger double header. More than once my wife asked if everything was okay and I had to explain that, yes, everything was fine, those noises she was hearing were just my groans and grunts of pleasure. Good food, great wine and a pairing that beautifully exceeded the sum of its parts.

The academician in me will strive to persevere for another few years before opening my last bottle of this little gem from the Bretons but my inner hedonist will be fighting all the way. If you’re lucky enough to be holding multiple bottles, have at a couple of ‘em; this is in a really great spot right now.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Desmond Dekker - Israelites

One of the most uplifting tunes I know, and I know it'll be in my head the rest of the day. Not a bad thing.

For those not keen on the old school version, with what's either lip synching or a badly out of synch audio/video track (particularly plain given Dekker's rather extreme oral stylings), here's a more contemporary version, recorded live, December 31, 2003, on Jools Holland's New Year's Eve Hootenanny special for BBC2.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Tuesday with Terrisses, Weegmüller and Lafarge

An impromptu call led to a particularly enjoyable, relaxed Tuesday evening, sharing good wine and food among good friends. While the chicken thighs for the meal to come marinated in their bath of soy, maple, ginger and garlic, we started things off with a little aperitif, an old friend in the wine sense.

Gaillac Doux “Cuvée Saint-Laurent,” Domaine des Terrisses NV
$16. 9% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.
The Cazottes family’s Gaillac Doux is the old friend to which I refer. I hadn’t had a bottle of this in years, so was duly jazzed when I saw it emerge from the fridge. Bill didn’t have record of exactly when this was purchased but I can safely say it was a minimum of three years ago, perhaps longer. The lot number on the bottle, L MGD 01, which I take to mean something along the lines of “Lot Mauzac Gaillac Doux 2001,” suggests to me that the wine was most likely based on the 2001 vintage. Even if I’m wrong, it’s safe to say that this had seen some measurable bottle age. It came through it fresh as a daisy, with immediately satisfying aromas and flavors of fresh pressed apple sauce, complete with a dusting of cinnamon. Impeccably balanced, this could easily have paired with a dessert of orchard fruit based tarts but was not at all too sweet to serve as an aperitif. As the wine opened, it developed a lavender overtone on the nose, along with an ever so slightly oxidative character and richer flavors of apple skins and raised pastry dough. Very tasty….

Though it’s entirely proper in the context of today’s production methods to consider the Méthode Gaillacoise as synonymous with the Méthode Ancestrale, local legend has it that the Méthode Gaillacoise was originally realized by plunging partially fermented barrels of white Gaillac wine into the River Tarn during the winter following harvest. The combination of the icy-cold waters and the turmoil of the river’s flow would stun the yeasts into temporary slumber, their activity later to resume, capturing bubbles and a natural degree of residual sugar in the finished wine. Terrisses’ “Cuvée Saint-Laurent” is based primarily if not entirely on Mauzac, perhaps with a small quantity of Len de l’El.

Pfalz Scheurebe QbA trocken, Weingut Ed. Weegmüller 2007
$23. 12% alcohol. Screwcap. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Scheurebe represents only five percent or so of the plantings at Stefanie Weegmüller’s estate yet she always does as fine a job with her Scheurebe as with her expressive, broadly flavorful Rieslings. Stefi’s 2007 Scheurebe trocken could easily play ringer in a blind Gewürztraminer tasting. It’s aromatically loaded with scents of citrus oil, mint, and lemon and orange pith. This was the primary wine drunk with dinner and, at first, I wasn’t entirely convinced it played nicely with the food. A twist of bitter grapefruit (juice and peel) on the finish, along with a deeply-grained texture, makes the wine a bit too aggressive for delicate foods. But as the flavors of Bill’s Asian Chicken built on the palate, Stefi’s Scheurebe got better and better. Translation: this is intensely perfumed wine that plays best with highly flavorful food.

Côte de Beaune Villages, Domaine Michel Lafarge 2005
$35. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Becky Wasserman Selection; Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, NY.
Tough love. This was one of the most painfully dry red Burgundies I’ve drunk in a very long time; not easy in giving but very rewarding. Medium-red and slightly amber-rimmed, its aromas were of dried cherries, spice cabinet, fennel bulb and red leaf tobacco. It opened with lean, wood and grape tannins and cutting acidity; very narrowly textured yet still very fine. I found it more minerally than earthy, a trait which really suited the wine’s texture, though there was also a distinct aroma of wet clay. We enjoyed this as a meditative wine but it really needs food to blossom – I’m thinking roasted, truffled game birds would be just about perfect. Several more years in the cellar wouldn’t hurt, either. Far from perfectly balanced today but nonetheless profound, charismatic and a study in the pleasures and pain of good Burgundy.

Domaine Lafarge is farmed biodynamically. Their Côte de Beaune Villages, of which only a little over 50 cases are produced in a typical vintage, issues from vineyards situated in the commune of Meursault.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pineau is a Punk Rocker (and other unavoidable puns)

I'm not talking about Pineau de la Loire (aka, Chenin Blanc). That’s more classical, across the range. Not Menu Pineau, either. I haven’t drunk enough wines based on it to slot it into a genre – acid jazz perhaps. Pineau d’Aunis? Now you’ve got it. Punk rock all the way. Pineau d’Aunis is energetic, nervy, sometimes clumsy, usually direct and almost always a little edgy. It’s loud but not without subtlety. It wears its heart on its sleeve.

It’s also the darling of both natural winemakers and natural wine afficionados. While there are approximately 500 hectares planted to Pineau d’Aunis (aka, Chenin Noir) throughout the Anjou-Saumur and Touraine, most of it ends up blended into regional reds and rosés. Nearly all of the handful of producers who make varietal Pineau d’Aunis, though, can be counted among the top ranks of the Loire’s independent, adventurous, natural wine growers. I think it’s not too much of a stretch, too, to call it the poster child for fans of small farm, idiosyncratic Loire wines. It’s an ancient vine championed by those that strive to make the voices on the fringe be heard. Here are a couple of recent cuts from two of its more renowned producers.

Touraine Pineau d’Aunis “La Tesnière,” Thierry Puzelat 2007
$20. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
Another piece in the Puzelat…. “La Tesnière” is varietal Pineau d’Aunis, farmed organically and biodymically on clay and flint soils, aged in 600-800 liter oak demi-muids and bottled without filtration. It pours the exact color of the strawberry jam that comes in those little plasti-sealed containers served at diners and greasy spoons across America. It’s a portentous hue, as sweet strawberry jam is the first scent registered by the olfactory nerves – spiked, as so typical with Pineau d’Aunis, with an assertive streak of ground white pepper. Bright acidity dances in the far reaches of the mouth. This is uncomplicated and delicious, a wine I could drink all day. It’s quite similar in style to the Pd’A from Clos Roche Blance, just a touch gentler and simpler. Says my wife, “It smells like when you’re in France and tasting in the cellars.”

As it opened a bit in the glass, rhubarb and clove emerged, the sweet fruited aspects of the wine hit right up front but quickly shifted to drier, leaner flavors. Something about its crunchy, fresh but slightly two-dimensional character makes me wonder if this might see partial carbonic fermentation. Anyone out there know for sure? In any event, the wine lost a bit of its nerve on day two but kept every bit of its ripe, strawberry driven fruit and kicked up a notch on the peppery scale. Chilling the wine down a few degrees muted the spicier side of the wine’s aromatic profile but brought out a much more refreshing texture. Very mutable, easily enjoyable juice.

Coteaux du Loir “Rouge-Gorge,” Domaine de Bellivière (Eric Nicolas) 2006
$25. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
It might be fair to call Domaine de Bellivière the standard bearer for Pineau d’Aunis… makes sense to me at any rate. Their cuvée “Rouge-Gorge” is what got Cory started down the path of natural wine enjoyment, and it’s what kick started my own minor infatuation with Pineau d’Aunis a mere vintage back. The 2006 “Rouge-Gorge,” however, is not nearly as intense and provocative as that 2005, not is it as bright and immediate as Puzelat’s “La Tesnière” (though it should be noted that I’m comparing two different wines in three different vintages).

Muted aromas; muted on the palate, too. But this still has that signature prickly texture I associate with Pineau d’Aunis, like rolling a firm and particularly hairy strawberry around in your mouth. With coaxing, the nose did deliver some overripe strawberry, charcoal and light peppery character. 48 hours later, it actually showed much finer focus, along with more interesting scents and flavors of lime peel, dried cherries and thyme, though its fruit had begun to fade. Pleasant enough wine but really not all that compelling in the ’06 vintage, especially given the higher than average tariff on the d’Aunis scale.

The Bellivière back label talker (printed in a font so tiny and cramped that I had a damn hard time reading it) is colorful enough that I though it worthwhile to transcribe:
“Sheltered in the clay soil around the river Sarthe is the very natural red local varietal: the Pineau d’Aunis. It was introduced in the days when monasteries were common. Thanks to its uncanny similarity to its cousin the Chenin grape, it creates multi-faceted wines, showing off its richly varied aromatic palette, and its subtlety.

This is our red grape, therefore, which needs careful looking after. It produces age worthy wines in the best years, which hint at all the characteristics of the terroir. In doing this, it is a worthy addition to the list of great local gastronomic products. It makes for unexpected marriages with food, some of which can be quite exotic.”

And just in case the titular pun wasn't obvious enough....
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