In Conversation With: Southern Italy with Shelley Lindgren, proprietor A16, SPQR

Monday, March 16th, 2015, 6:30 – 8 pm

Ruby Wine, 1419 18th Street (Connecticut)

Shelley Lindgren lights up any room she enters, especially when she is about to open a bottle of wine. When she started A16 in 2004, it was modeled after the trattorias of Naples and the wine list complemented its food with a Campania focused, southern Italian selection that was unlike any other in the Bay Area. Since then, she has gone on to open two other restaurants, write two books, was nominated for a James Beard award and, not least, has stayed her incredibly charming, humble self. There is no one I can think of who I’d rather drink Southern Italy’s treasures with, and discuss the how these regions have changed over the last ten years.

Please join us! $22.50 in advance for conversation and tasting. $25 at the door. Click here to sign-up.

 

 

The Old and the Restless: Côtes de Beaune Reds

When I started diving into Burgundy 23 years ago, the one thing I kept hearing over and over was that so much was dependent on the producer. This is true of any region but, as I’ve come to see for myself, Burgundy more so than anywhere else. Two vignerons can make wine from rows six feet from one another but have very different results. Of course terroir is a huge factor. So is vintage and Mother Nature can have huge mood swings during the month of September in this corner of the world. Yet, great producers always make good wine and this could not be truer of another area.

When I decided that it was time to take the Old and the Restless to the Côte de Beaune, my biggest concern was being able to find wines from the producers that never let me down. I was spoiled early on with exposure to legendary winemakers such as Gérard Potel of Domaine de la Pousse D’Or, whose Volnay 1er Cru “60 Ouvrées,” made me wonder if indeed there was a god. Sadly, Potel passed away in 1997, and the wines have not been the same. He possessed a very rare gift.

No matter how divine the producer, sacred the terroir or perfect the vintage, older wines can be killed if they are not stored properly so I’m always very careful to buy wines from reputable sources. However, it’s pretty hard to avoid bottle variation so keep that in mind when reading the notes below. This said, it was pretty close to a monumental tasting. I’ve had opportunities to try older Burgundy throughout my career but many of the participants in this tasting, who with one exception are not in the wine industry, have not. Even those who had were floored. This may sound corny but watching people have that “ah-hah” moment with Burgundy makes my job as a wine educator most gratifying. All were blind tasted and while I knew the selection, did not know the order.

1) Domaine Philippe Bouchard Monthélie “Creux des Caves,” 1985 ($65)

I could not find any information on this producer, sorry to say. Monthélie is in between Volnay and Meursault and given that the former makes incredibly beautiful reds and the latter terrifically complex whites, it is easy to understand why this appellation is over shadowed.

Domaine Philippe Bouchard Monthélie

Domaine Philippe Bouchard Monthélie

Nineteen eighty-five was one of the rare years when just about everything went right, or to look at it in another way, nothing went wrong. Even in good vintages, 30 years can be a stretch for grand cru Burgundy, let alone a wine from a modest terroir. Initially I got a lot of mineral, cola and rhubarb in the nose and silky though dissipating fruit on the palate. This said, there was a decent finish, especially considering its elderly status. While the wine is on the downside it is far from dead. This was the general impression of the group as well. Its precision and balance was duly noted. Kudos to Philippe Bouchard.

Estimated Age: 15 – 20 years

Estimate Price: $75 – $300

2) Domaine Chandon de Briailles Corton Grand Cru “Clos du Roi,” 1998 ($95)

Chandon de Briailles has been in the same family since its founding in 1834. In 2005 they stopped using chemicals and have been Demeter and Ecocertified since 2011. Situated in Savigny-les-Beaune, Chandon de Briailles has holdings in Corton, Aloxe Corton, Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune. Less than an acre, Clos du Roi is perched 1000 feet above sea level. The vines were planted in 1961 and 1985 on steep limestone-clay marl with some sand.

The first wine I ever tried a wine from Chandon de Briailles was in 1994. It was the ’88 Corton Bressandes and that was all it took. During this time, Burgundy was if not as caught up as other regions, certainly paying attention to the traditional vs. modern, cleaner and fruit forward vs. funky and terroir driven debates and a number of producers shifted their winemaking to appeal to a perceived international palate. Chandon de Briailles always struck me as erring on the old fashion side but still made clean wines.

It rained on and off in September so there was a lot of variation this year but many of the wines are superb and I would put this bottling at the top of the class. Spicy with wild strawberries, cola, tea, forest floor and a moderate dose of “bretty” funk, it is fully expressive and does not seem to be heading south any time too soon. Everyone was pretty much on the same page, noting its funk yet appreciating the complexity it added to the wine.

Estimated Age: 10 – 15 years

Estimated Price: $100 – $150

3) Domaine Albert Morot Beaune 1er Cru “Bressandes,” 2004 ($50)

When Albert Morot started making wine in 1820, he was purely a negociant. Seventy years late his relatives began purchasing land in Beaune and today the domaine works exclusively with its own holdings. Still in the original family, Geoffroy Choppin de Janvry has been running the property since 2000. It was Ecocertified in 2014.

Morot’s Bressandes vines were about 20 years old in 2004. It has a southeast exposure on clay and limestone. Hailstorms in August made it a particularly challenging year in the Côtes de Beaune but it was not a disaster. Morot’s wines can be tough when they are young and this one is still a pup. It was a little green at first but not unpleasant, with cola, bacon fat and asphalt-like aromas coming to the fore. A couple of people smelled horseradish in the nose at first but ended up digging it in the end. All of the wines in this tasting changed as they sat in the glass but this might have more than any of the others.

Estimated Age: From the early 2000’s.

Estimated Price: $150 – $200 (based on its projected aging)

4) Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils Beaune 1er Cru “Clos de la Mousse,” 1998 ($75)

Bouchard was founded in 1731 and stayed in the family until 1995 when it was sold to Henriot. While it is largely a negociant at this point, they own some excellent plots including this monopole. A walled off eight acre vineyard grown on limestone and clay with a clay base,”Clos de la Mousse” is one of the Bouchard’s signature wines.

A number of people noticed the SO2 in this wine. The balance was a little out of whack with the alcohol sticking out like a burnt thumb. It had a good amount of spice with leafy, floral notes and the finish was long. I’m not sure if it is going to come around or not because the fruit seems like it is starting to go but I wouldn’t write it off either.

Estimated Age: 10 – 15 years

Estimated Price: $90 – $100

5) Domaine Parent Pommard 1er Cru “Les Argillières,” 2003 ($95)

Étienne Parent was among the earliest Burgundy producers to export wine to the United States, back in the days of Washington and Jefferson. Today, Anne Parent, a 12th generation winemaker, and her sister, Catherine, run the domaine. It has been Ecocertified since 2013.

Jayne Mansfield

Jayne Mansfield

Parent’s wines capture the power of Pommard, in a seductive wine. Two thousand and three was a very warm vintage and the fruit is not shy – one person called it the Jayne Mansfield of the tasting – yet it is matched with a healthy dose of tannin. I’d give this wine another five years, maybe more, before opening another bottle.

Estimated Age: 10 – 15 years

Estimated Price: $150 – $200

6) Domaine Simon Bize Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru “Les Marconnets,” 2007 ($88)

Simon Bize started out in 1880 with enough vines to make wine for his family but not much else. Four generations later, it has grown into a 54-acre domaine. The red wines are whole cluster fermented and see very little if any oak. “Les Marconnets” is a two-acre parcel planted in 1973 with deep sandy soil.

This was a last minute addition. Even though it does not meet the Old and the Restless ten-year criterion, I thought it would be fun to throw in and see if it could hold its own. No doubt, it rose to the occasion, offering a splendid bouquet of red fruits, spice, raw chopped meat and mushrooms with ample acidity and just enough tannin to keep it going a while longer. As a whole, the group thought it was older, putting it in the 15-year range yet also called it explosive and primary.

Estimated Age: 15 years

Estimated Price: $150 – $250 (one person was in the $75 camp)

7) Domaine Coste Caumartin Pommard 1er Cru “ Le Clos des Boucherottes,” 1995 ($75)

Coste Caumartin is one of the oldest estates in Pommard. Antoine Coste acquired it in 1793 and his descendent, Jerome Sordet took over in 1988, at some point along the way renaming it after himself (Domaine Jerome Sordet). Located close to Beaune, “Le Clos des Boucherottes” is a monopole on a hillside with clay and limestone soil hovering close to 1000 feet above sea level.

After four vintages that ranged from “gros catastrophe” to “not too bad,” 1995 gave the vignerons a lot of hope. One would think that after 20 years a Pommard would settle in but this one is still a little bit restless. It has a solid core of fruit, with cedar and licorice that gave it a Nebbiolo-like tinge. Some found it to be a little medicinal and harsh. Knowing how previous vintages of Coste Caumartin have aged, I’d take a leap of faith that in another three to five years the rough edges will smooth out and the wine will be in sweeter spot.

Estimated Age: 10 – 15 years

Estimated Price: $100

8) Domaine Tollot-Beaut Corton Grand Cru, 2002 ($90)

Tollot-Beaut made their first wines in 1921, at the urging of Frank Schoonmaker. Today, Nathalie Tollot, a fifth generation winemaker, is in charge. Located in Chorey-les-Beaune, the domaine has property in Beaune, Savigny-les-Beaune, Chorey-les-Beaune, Aloxe Corton and an acre and a half in Corton. These vines were planted in 1930 and 1985.

The producers were more than pleased with 2002 right after the harvest and it seems to have lived up to its expectations. Earthy but not funky with porcinis, minerals, chewy tannins and a solid mound of fruit, this wine has the longest to go of the nine tasted. One person said it seemed athletic with precise, rich flavors. Agreed yet in spite of its vigor and youthfulness, I’d be stoked to drink it now.

Estimated Age: 10 – 15 years

Estimated Price: $175 – $200

9) Domaine Lafarge Volnay 1er Cru “Clos du Chateau des Ducs,” 1995 ($175)

At this point, the Lafarge family might be the most entrenched in Volnay. They have been growers since the 1700’s and Michel bottled the first Lafarge wines in 1934. Today, Frédèric Lafarge, his grandson, is ruling the roost. “Clos du Chateau des Ducs” is situated on what was an 11th century chateau. It then came under the control of the Duchy of Burgundy until much of it was destroyed in a fire in 1749. Lafarge owns the original structures that were not damaged. A tiny 1.47 acre parcel 900 feet above sea level with 16 inches of brown clay and limestone on top of gravel and bedrock, this storied property births one of their flagship wines. The vines were planted between 1946 and 1985.

Compared to Coste-Causation’s Pommard from the same vintage, this wine seems more advanced. I got licorice, mushrooms, cinnamon and dried herbs and a few folks picked up cigar tobacco in the nose. While it has good grip, the fruit seems as if it is beginning to fade so I’d say the time to drink it is now.

Estimated Age: 20 – 25 years

Estimated Price: $150 – $200

Group Wine Rankings:

First Place: Tie between Simon Bize Savigny-les-Beaune, 1er Cru Les Marconnets, 2007 and Tollot Beauty Grand Cru Corton, 2002.

Second Place: Parent Pommard 1er Cru Les Artilleries, 2003

Third Place: Lafarge Volnay 1er Cru Clos de Chateau des Ducs, 1995

Honorable mention to Domaine Chandon de Briailles Corton Grand Cru Clos du Roi, 1998 and Domaine Albert Morot Beaune 1er Cru Bressandes, 2004.

I would happily drink any of the nine wines tasted but the ones that stood out to me most were Chandon de Briailles’ Corton as it is not only in tip top shape now, but will thrive for years to come and Bouchard’s Monthélie because I cannot believe how well it has stood the test of time. However, I’d love to revisit Parent, Morot, Tollot-Beaut, Bize and even the 20 year old Coste Caumartin again and see how these wines evolve.

Until next time,

PSB

 

Semillon: The Quintessential Late Bloomer

After the Savennières fête a couple of weeks ago, I blind tasted my tasting group on the 2000 Kalin Semillon. Nearly everyone was perplexed but one person got the varietal correct. It was obviously older yet at the same time lively and expressive; not quite Betty White, maybe more Madonna as it still has a way to go (hopefully we can say the same for Betty, too).

This is the current release and it is extraordinary. That is as much a testament to Kalin as it is to Semillon and there will be another post on this iconic producer soon. While very different from the various Savennières, Semillon is also a late bloomer, so I thought it would be a good follow up bonus wine.

Very few people go out of their way to taste Semillon, let alone hunt down ones that have age. A geeky wine, some might say, there is not a huge demand but I take heart in noting that some of California’s newer producers such as Dirty & Rowdy and Forlorn Hope are doing a stand-up job with it`. For more on that check out this post.

JT

JT

Australia has made a claim on the grape in a much bigger way than California. It is most at home in the Hunter Valley, which has been growing Semillon since the 19th century. Here, Semillon is picked early so it has more acidity and less alcohol, and is vinified without using oak during fermentation or elevage. Lean and mean in its youth – think Justin Bieber – it snowballs into a luscious, rich labyrinth – Justin Timberlake -with beeswax, honey, hazelnuts, vanilla and toast.

I used to collect inexpensive Australian Semillon (as most are) just to see how they would age and even the’96 Rosemount ($10) didn’t come into its own until it was five years old. Others, such as Tyrells Vat 1, hold up beautifully much longer.

Tyrells Vat 1 Semillon

Tyrells Vat 1 Semillon

Semillon is originally from the southwest of France but it is rarely made into varietal, dry wine. It is used to make sweeter wines in Saussignac that can be delightful. In Bordeaux, it is a major player in Sauternes and Barsac but frequently blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Pessac-Leognan and Graves have a lot of Semillon planted but again, the dry whites from these appellations are nearly always blends. This said, Semillon lends richness and aromatics that contribute to the complexity of wines such as Haut Brion Blanc, and “Y,” a dry white wine from Chateau d’Yquem.

I highly suggest that anyone who wants to start a cellar, or is already in the process of doing so, tracks down Semillon or Semillon based wines. For $30 you can get a wine that will seem like a steal when you are ready to open it in ten years. Now, you might not think that you would enjoy it and perhaps you won’t but our palates change over time so you might hit upon a bottle that is in the same space you are in somewhere down the road.

If you want to find Australian Semillon specifically, talk to Chuck Hayward (Chuck.Hayward@jjbuckley.com) at JJ Buckley. He probably knows more about Australian wine than anyone not living down under. Kalin Semillon can be purchased directly from the winery (http://www.kalincellars.com/order.htm) but Vineyard Gate in Millbrae also carries it (that’s where I found the bottle I purchased).

Until the next post – let the good times roll.

Cheers,

PSB

Frat Boys and Eggheads

Last week I held two blind tastings that were thematically as different as wines can be: Zinfandel and Savennières. The former was part of a tasting series I hold regularly, The Old and the Restless while the other one was on Super Bowl Sunday, with eight other wine professionals who also could care less about football (modern day gladiators), especially when presented with the opportunity to drink arguably some of the world’s finest Chenin Blanc.

In a sense, Zinfandel epitomizes California wine in the sense that it is just about as fruit forward as any one grape gets and is often pretty brash, especially when it is young. I’ve heard more than one person refer to it as “frat boy wine,” which really can mean a number of things since there are different types of frats (and Zins) but let’s just stick with the stereotype for now: loud bordering on obnoxious and packed with alcohol.

While Savennières is not delicate, it can be slow coming out of the gate and though promising, can force you to dig deep. However, once it matures there is nothing like it. If Zinfandel is frat boy wine, Savennières is for “eggheads” but both comparison are marginally useful, at best.

Lytton Springs Vineyard

Lytton Springs Vineyard

The Old and the Restless: Zinfandel included nine wines (all Zinfandel) that were at least ten years old. More specifically, the oldest was from 1994, a vintage I remember well as it was the year of the baseball strike, Kurt Cobain died and Hayes & Vine, my first wine bar, opened. People underestimate Zinfandel’s ability to age and there was a time when I was not crazy about older Zin as I felt its fruit was essential to its character. Maybe because I’m older I’ve grown to appreciate the grape more as it mellows out. At any rate, I thought it would be fun to throw a bunch of classic Zins into a blind tasting and see how they were holding up. In general, I thought they were very good though I wouldn’t say any were spectacular. Here are the impressions, both mine and the other tasters, listed in the order poured.

Ridge Zinfandel, Lytton Springs, 1998 (Dry Creek Valley) 14.3% ($45)

Fashion Model Collection Principessa Wedding Gown Barbie

Principessa Wedding Gown Barbie

Lytton Springs is a 112-year vineyard. Ridge has been working with it since 1972 and now owns the whole thing but up until I think, the early 90’s, there was a separate “Lytton Springs” label that was often equally impressive. I thought this wine was pleasant and still has some grip but definitely the time to drink it is now as the fruit is starting to dry up. The group seemed to enjoy it well enough to give it a fourth place finish. Among the descriptors used to describe its nose were herbal, floral and one I have never heard before but is no less valid, “Barbie Doll head.” Most people thought it was from the late 90’s and were willing to pay around $30. In case you’re wondering what a Barbie Doll’s head smells like, you can buy one for as little as $5.99 for the Barbie Beach Summer Doll. Fashion Model Collection Principessa Wedding Gown Barbie cost $125 and for the life of me, I have no idea if it smells any better.

Ravenswood Zinfandel, Dickerson, 1994 (Napa Valley) 13.8% ($54)

The Dickerson vineyard was planted in the 20’s. Ravenswood is now the only winery that uses it but the Dickerson family made their own wine at one time, as did Louis Martini. It has a signature menthol, eucalyptus nose so knowing that it was in the mix I was able to pick it out and that might have made me pre-disposed to a little favoritism, as I’ve always thought it was one of Ravenswood’s best wines. Others also got this herbaceous note but were less kind, commenting that it was medicinal and smelled like Band-Aids. It was a little hot and the finish was on the short side but 20 years can be a stretch for Zin. Everyone seemed think it was one of the oldest wines of the tasting and, as a curiosity, were willing to pay $30. In spite of this, it was the second overall favorite of the evening.

McIlroy Zinfandel, Porter-Bass Vineyard, 1995 (Russian River Valley) 13.6% ($29)

McIlroy is located in the Russian River. It is a family run property that specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and I don’t think they still work Zinfandel though could be mistaken. This is an old vineyard, most of which has been replanted. The Bass family purchased it in 1980 and it underwent biodynamic conversion in the last decade. It’s cool microclimate, abetted by ocean fog, is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and most of the original Zinfandel has been replanted. However, it is also a good site to make high acid Zin so I was not surprised that it was by far the brightest wine of the tasting with explosive cherry and cranberry fruit. A few people thought it was the youngest and most Zin-like with spice and tar. As such, the consensus was that it was from the late 90’s and that $45-$50 was a fair price. No wonder it came in first.

Joseph Swan Vineyards Zinfandel, Ziegler Vineyard, 1997 (Russian River Valley) 14.9% ($40)

Joseph Swan’s wines are far from perfect but that is one of things I’ve always appreciated about them; they are anything but formulaic. I’ve always been a fan of the Ziegler Zin, too, as in spite of its alcohol never feels overbearing. And, the nose in this wine is really great with cedar, an array of spice and dried fruit. However we all seemed to feel it was lackluster on the palate. I wouldn’t say it is completely over the hill but its drinking window is rapidly closing. Most people thought it was from the early to mid 90’s and when pressed, might pay $30.

David Coffaro Zinfandel, 1997 (Dry Creek Valley) 14.9% ($40)

When I think of Zinfandel producers, David Coffaro never crosses my mind so I was happy to include this wine and it was a sleeper, at least for me. With black olives, thyme, bay leaf, Ricola cough drops and a whiff of Lidocaine in the nose it was promising and the palate, though not particularly vibrant, was generous. Again, it seemed a little bit older than it was with most of the tasters placing it in the mid 90’s. A couple of folks were willing to spend up to $35.

Greenwood Ridge Zinfandel, Scherrer Vineyards, 1998 (Sonoma County) 14.1% ($29)

Fred Scherrer owns this vineyard and often makes very good wine from it though I have never tried one of his that has this much age. As for this 17 year old Greenwood Ridge version, it posed a bit of a quandary. Someone aptly said it seemed like there was “some character under the mess.” I felt it had the most materized nose though this did not mask a pretty strong licorice aroma. Others got porcinis, brandy, bouillon and umami. Interestingly, the majority seemed to think it was one of the younger wines, maybe from the early 2000’s. No one wanted to pay more than $25 and preferably less.

Nalle Zinfandel, 1995 (Dry Creek Valley) 13.5% ($50)

When I think of the memorable Zinfandels from the early 90’s, Nalle always comes to mind. The property has been in Lee Nalle’s family since 1927 and she and her husband, Doug, have been making wine from it for 30 years. Of the nine wines tasted, it had the most divergent reactions with some finding it way too hot while others thought it was lighter and brighter than the rest. I’m somewhere in the middle. With kirsch, pepper and Red Hots, it seems more youthful in the nose than a 19-year-old wine. Yet, the alcohol stood out which is why I say kirsch, as opposed to cherries. At the low end, some wanted to pay no more than $20 but a few were willing to splurge at $35.

Dashe Zinfandel, Todd Brothers Ranch, 2004 (Alexander Valley) 14.8% ($35)

Located in Geyserville, Todd Brothers Ranch was planted more than 50 years ago. I usually find it to be the most structured Dashe wine but this one is a little slutty. There was a good backbone of tannin and enough acid but the fruit had a sweetness that put some people off. One person said it had a lot of leg up front but not much on the finish. I don’t think it was showing particularly well but having tried other vintages of Todd Brothers Ranch, both younger and older, would give it another shot as it still has a lot of fruit. I recall some comments to the effect that it was probably more expensive than what people would want to pay, somewhere in the $30 – $35 range.

Ridge Zinfandel, Paso Robles, 1995 (Paso Robles) 14.7% ($49)

By fate, Ridge bookended the tasting, with this wine, the only one that was not from northern California, getting the proverbial bronze. One of two wines that Ridge makes from the Benito Dusi Ranch, it is sometimes under appreciated when compared to Geyserville, Pagani Ranch and Lytton Springs. It seemed older but showed up with black currant jam, an herbal and humus nose and reasonably good acidity. As a group, we were in the mid to late 90’s camp and priced it at $35.

In the End

A few people were pretty surprised by how over the course of double digit years Zinfandel can so completely change. For years, Josh Green, the publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, has been saying that Zinfandel was generally under priced, “at least in relation to Pinot noir and Cabernet.” Without agreeing or disagreeing, I think it does not get as much credit as it deserves for its potential complexity and that is in part the winemakers’ fault. Many are huge, monolithic fruit bombs that lack nuance and fall apart after a few years. Yet Zinfandel can be more so much more as this tasting demonstrated. Some frat boys turn into subdued, complex and charming men.

 

Domaine du Closel

Domaine du Closel

Savennières

Since I volunteered to host this fête with my monthly tasting group I chose Savennières, with unanimous approval. Two of our comrades were in the Loire Valley, prancing around the wine various fairs, so Savennières seemed like the morally correct thing to do.

Learning from last’s month’s slightly confusing experience of having eight wines in two separate flights, we opted for one flight with six wines instead but tragically, number four, “Vieux Clos”from Coulée de Serrant, was corked. Very sad not only because this is such a storied estate but the wine rocks.

In any event, hunting down Savennières is not an easy feat in the Bay Area. For the third time in 23 years I actually had to go the town of Burlingame, which is about 25 minutes away from San Francisco.

Downtown Burlingame

Downtown Burlingame

No disrespect meant to Burlingame – it has a very good school system – but unless you live nearby, are going to the airport or, as I discovered, looking for Savennières…enough said. I wish I could say that I see a lot of Savennières on restaurant and wine bar lists in SF, if not in retail shops, but I don’t. There may have been more living in my house last week, including some wines I have stashed away for my nephews, than anywhere else in San Francisco.

Savennières is a magical appellation, driven by its schist soil but with some variation in its terroir and more dramatic differences between producers with some making bone dry wines and others preferring a little residual sugar. While the five wines we tasted were not as extreme as it gets, there was a good range. Here it goes, in order.

Domaine du Closel, Le Clos du Papillon, 2007 ($35)

Clos du Papillon is considered one of the best sites in Savennières. It has clay, sandstone and schist soil infused with quartz and volcanic stones. How does this translate? Generally, the wines are rich yet have brilliant acidity and intense minerality. They can also be among the most long lived. Closel’s vines are 35 – 75 years old. The grapes were hand harvested from early to mid October in four passings. It was aged in 400-liter French oak, on fine lees, for 24 months and lightly filtered on clay.

One person thought it had oak tannin. A couple found the alcohol to be too high. It was 14.5% so that is not an unfounded concern but elevated alcohol does not necessarily mean the wine is hot. Some, myself included, noticed what seemed like botrytis.

Personally, it was my second favorite wine of the tasting and seemed more youthful than some of the others. Minerally with spiced applesauce, a shocking current of acidity and burnt caramel and honey in the nose, I found it to be well balanced and not overly rich. In spite of being seven and a half years old, it still has a way to go. I’d put it down for at least another five years before revisiting.

Domaine du Closel, La Jalousie, 2012 ($30)

La Jalousie is grown on clay with sand and schist. The vines were planted a little more than 15 years ago. All of the grapes were hand harvested and sorted on the vine, with two pickings in the beginning of September. After a slow, light pressing, it underwent a two-month natural fermentation and was aged on its lees in vat for one year.

There were quite a few descriptors used here including Play-Doh being one (which we all agreed is not a bad thing), parmesan, pineapple and saline. Someone thought the oak was disjointed.

The issue for me is that this wine is still very young. It had a lot of tropical, mango leaning fruit that I don’t usually get in Savennières and there was a slight hint of B.O. (yes, as in body odor), too. Yet, there is an underlying racy minerality and spice. In a couple of years I bet this it is going to be much more integrated and really shine.

Clément Baraut Savennières Pitrouillet, 2012 ($30)

Baraut makes his Savennières from a 32-year-old vineyard of lime and sand over slate that he purchased from Nicolas Joly in 2009. He harvests by hand and looks for ripeness. The fruit was fermented in neutral Burgundy barrels and was aged on its lees for eight months.

A few people have said that this tasted like Chenin Blanc but not Savennières. One person felt the finish was bitter. On the other hand, there were those who found it to be focused and fresh, with river rocks and beautiful transparency.

Of the five wines we tasted, I thought it was the least generous. It opened up over time but never gave too much. Since the tasting was at my house I had the privilege to go back and try it again three days later and finally, it was putting out – but not much. I’ve never had an older Baraut Savennières but I’d bet a buck or two that in another five to ten years it will metamorphosize into a very different animal as there is great acidity and the fruit came from a terrific plot.

Domaine Richou Savennières, La Bigottiere, 2012 ($36)

Located outside of the appellation, Didier and Damien Richou purchased a three-acre parcel in Savennières in 2010 that was planted in 2008, behind Roche-Aux-Moines.

This vintage is their Savennières debut and it is true to form. The group got a plethora of aromas ranging from guava blossoms, Asian spices, pine needles, fennel and soap. Some found it to be complex and intriguing while others though it was less serious but approachable.

While it was not a personal favorite, I’d be happy to drink this wine all day long. I got honey and minerals, with floral nuances in the nose and fresh fruit on the palate. Pleasant though it is, it seemed to lack some depth though I’d definitely give in an “A” for a first effort and would love to try it again in five years.

Chateau d’Epire, 2012 ($30)

Chateau d’Epire works with several high elevation plots, one that is just above La Coulée de Serrant. The vines for this cuvee are 30 – 55 years old. Three passes were made, two earlier in the harvest with the last coming three weeks later when the fruit was riper. The grapes were lightly pressed and the juice was left to rest for 24 hours prior to fermentation. It underwent malolactic fermentation and was aged on its lees.

Interestingly enough, this wine seemed to be older than the rest and as such, was the overall favorite as the beauty of Savennières is in full force when it matures and picks up secondary and tertiary characteristics. It smelled like wet clay infused Bit-O-Honey, with distinct notes of almonds and honey. Richly textured and with a superb, long finish, it is a classic Savennières. While delicious now, I’m not sure it is going to improve, as it seems more advanced than its years. However, for $30 it is hard to find a wine that is this complex and ready to drink.

Finally

When comparing the three from 2012, which was a great year, we could really notice the variances among the producers with d’Epire being powerful and precocious, Baraut the most restrained and Closel’s Jalousie having outright fruit and spice. In spite of the variation and personal preferences, all five were thoroughly enjoyed.

Last summer Eric Asimov, of the New York Times, wrote that Savennières was more cerebral than Vouvray. I know what he meant but never underestimate the power of the palate to instinctively appreciate unfamiliar and challenging flavors. In the way you do not have to be a musician to be swooned by Beethoven, or for that matter, Johnny Cash, you do not have to be in the wine industry or an egghead to fall in love with Savennières.

Also, one caveat here is that there is always bottle variation, especially with older wines where storage is crucial. While I believe the wines were properly aged, there are never any guarantees, even in perfectly controlled cellars.

Until next time, rock on, roll out,

PSB

Babes and Beaujolais

Last weekend, I got together with several lovely ladies, and I don’t mean for this to sound condescending as they really are lovely, in the first of what I hope are many evenings of wine tasting and a little gabbing.

All seven of us are in the wine biz and have definite opinions and unique palates. This might sound like it has all the makings of a raging cat fight but no, rather boringly, we were just tasting and discussing Beaujolais, rather seriously as you can see in the photo, and then gorging on a lavish meal that included several birds and wild mushrooms.

Babes and Beaujolais

Seven wines were tasted, mostly from 2013. While our feelings and favorites were all over the board, there was general agreement that there was a bad one in the bunch. The word on this vintage is that while there were difficulties due to coulure and millerandage, which stunt uniform berry development, the effects were minimal. There was a lot of sunshine so ripeness was not an issue though some picked later than usual.

Here’s the quick and at times, a little dirty:

Flight One

A. Chanrion Côte-de-Brouilly, 2013 ($22)

There were a few people who really loved Chanrion’s Côte-de-Brouilly, feeling that it was the cleanest in the flight and had a terrific nose with crushed, ripe strawberries. Others found it to be a lactic or felt that the finish was a little weak. I think it has the stuffings of a very good wine that is just a little bit young and unformed. Having had a lot of Chanrion’s wines over the years, I’m confident it will come together and blossom, probably in 2016.

B. Château des Rontets Saint-Amour, Côte de Besset, 2013 ($33)

Most of us enjoyed the high-toned brightness, tension and spice here but some felt it had to have too much volatile acidity. One of its detractors said it smelled like celery salt and another person detected an herbal, umami-like nose but also gave it credit for having a “slightly candied quality,” in a good way. I enjoyed it. The granitic soil came through with pencil shavings shadowing savory hamhock, clove and pepper aromas. It was herbal but not in a vegetative way. Since I don’t know this producer it is hard to gauge its age ability but I’d give a year or so to hit its stride and a couple more for further development.

C. Guy Breton Beaujolais Villages, “Mary Lou,” 2013 ($24)

I think I might have been the only one who really dug the wine Breton named after his daughter. Yes, it had VA and a little bret too, but that didn’t take away from its vibrancy, multiplicity of spice and zesty berry fruit. A few others conceded that there were similarities between B and C but for some it was too natty funky. OK, fair enough but in a year or two, when it stabilizes, it is going to be pretty scrumptious and given that it’s Breton and made from 45 year old vines, might age shockingly well.

D. Yann Bertrand Fleurie, 2013 ($31)

“Maybe the best Malbec I’ve had all day.” I’m still not exactly sure what the person who said this meant but it was funny nonetheless. Someone noted that it was “succulent” and I think all, if not most of us agreed it was the most tannic of the lot. I wasn’t getting much in the nose but there was a lot of intensity on the palate. I actually thought it was Morgon (wrong) and did not go through 100% carbonic maceration (right). Either way, it needs some time and should turn a corner by the end of this year. I don’t know Bertrand’s wines but there was enough going on to capture my interest.

Flight Two

E. Chanrion Côte-de-Brouilly, 2005 ($40)

As the only wine with some age, this one stuck out a little bit. It was interesting to learn later on that we tasted the same wine from different vintages…always a good exercise. One person said it drank like Burgundy and could see that. It was not as vibrant as the others, a result of age (sadly, that happens to the best of us), but still had lots of fruit and a great finish. Others who appreciated it more than I did found it to be the most nuanced wine, with fine tannins, high-toned fruit and spice. As said earlier, Chanrion’s wine can age but I personally I’d drink this wine now, albeit with pleasure.

F. Chignard Chenas, “Les Moriers,” 2013 ($26)

“Classic Gamay,” and “grounded” were two of the descriptions that were used for Chignard’s Chenas. Without looking at the group rankings, I seem to recall that it may have had the most positive consensus. Floral it was, with a few of the tasters picking out peonies and carnations. Peppery and minerally, with bright red fruits and taut acidity it walks the line between being clean without sterility or simplicity.

G. Corked

H. Sugnier Regnie, 2013 ($29)

A couple of the folks felt that this wine lacked nuance and was just kind of, as one person said, “blocky.” Someone thought it was “pretty and quaint.” Aromatically it is quite charming with cinnamon, pepper, cedar and juniper with granitic notes. It was simple and straightforward on the palate and while I don’t think it is meant for the ages, it is perfectly pleasant right now.

Will the wines age? Who knows, really? And with Beaujolais that is not as much of an issue as it is with other regions as its youthful vibrancy is one of its charms. However, some Beaujolais, especially from Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent, just starts coming into its own after five years of aging and can live on for a couple of decades. I suspect, as mentioned, that a couple of these will.

 

PSB

 

 

Making a Mark: Serge Hochar

Everyone would like to believe that we make a mark on this world. And, in at least a small way, all of us do. But some people leave a larger impression and in the case of winemakers, the ones who seem to be remembered long after they’ve passed are those who not only made great wine but also in some way changed the way others worked, or thought about the holy juice. This is true of Serge Hochar of Château Musar, who very sadly passed away last week.

Some of you have read the tributes and obituaries or are familiar with Musar but for those who are not, here’s some back-story.

Winemaking is no easy feat. It is made all the more difficult when there is a civil war raging in your small country. Yet from 1975 – 1990, when 120,000 people were killed during sectarian fighting in Lebanon, Serge Hochar and his brother, Ronald, kept it together and continued to make wine in the Bekka Valley. I’ve been told that they missed two vintages in total since their father, Gaston, made the first Musar in 1930, and not because of war but Mother Nature.[1]

In spite of the fighting, the brothers not only continued to keep the business going but Serge made the legendary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan that would contribute to the wine’s mystique. The European press, led by Michael Broadbent, caught on and slowly over the years, the Musar “fan club” emerged.

Serge-Hochar-Chateau-Musar

Serge-Hochar-Chateau-Musar

Hang on though, for there is another aspect to the aura of Musar, one that many wine industry professionals and enthusiast  have ignored or made excuses for instead of acknowledging that it actually added to the glory of the wine: flaws.

Many of the viticulture and winemaking practices that have become trendy have been in place at Musar for decades. Located 3000 feet above sea level, in a dry, extreme climate with snow in the winter and blistering heat during the day in the summer, the estate has been de facto organic from the beginning and received certification in 2006. Hochar fermented with ambient yeasts, limited sulfur additions and never fined or filtered his wines, long before many of today’s winemakers were old enough to grow beards, the male ones anyway.

Hochar believed that Lebanon could make world-class wine by letting the terroir speak for itself and this meant not ungapatchka-ing around. As a result, his wines have been, at times, riddled with volatile acidity (VA) and brettanomyces (bret). VA is an occasional problem with native fermentation. Bret can originate in the vineyard or be present in the winery but is remedied with filtration. By doing the former and not the latter, Musar white, rose and the flagship red can be a funky monkey in its youth. While this does not drive the wines character, at least for me, it contributes to it and, I would say, adds complexity.

I generalized earlier as there have always been people who have been accepting of VA and bret, but up until the last ten years, when “natural winemaking” started to catch on, the majority of wine professionals scoffed at what was and still is sometimes referred to as “dirty winemaking.” Maybe part of what makes Musar special is that for those who are in this camp, Musar has so much going on that these faults never seem to matter.

Nearly every tribute I’ve read has said that Musar’s wines are not for everyone but they are not nearly as polarizing as some of the articles will lead you to believe. They definitely have a strong personality and as we know, anything that lives on the fringe or away from the mainstream is going to have its haters. But, having served a lot of Musar to people since pouring the still very young 1987 by the glass at Hayes & Vine in 1995, I’ve witnessed it open up hundreds of minds, palates and worlds in just a few sips.

With its remarkable ability to age, Musar should be a beacon for winemakers who choose a more natural approach.  Of course there are many who appreciate Hochar’s work and love the wines he made and this applies to those who are not natural winemakers as well yet honestly, I feel he deserves even more credit than he has received.

Hochar‘s goal when he took over from his father in 1959 was to make a world class wine in seemingly the most unlikable of places and do it in manner that was respectful to the terroir. There is no underestimating his influence and his spirit, vision and artistry will continue to inspire through the extraordinary wines he created over the last 55 years.

 

[1] I think Serge was actually the one who mentioned that, probably twelve years ago, but don’t quote me on that. I met him several times, most recently at a tasting in 2012, and we chatted for a few minutes afterward. On every occasion, he was charismatic, humble, dynamic and polite.

 

Champagne Chartogne-Taillet

Chartogne-Taillet is deserving of its own post. Even before Alexandre Chartogne joined his parents in 2006, this was one of the hottest growers in the hood. Since he took over the winemaking, it has been on fire.

Located in Merfy, a village in Montagne de Reims, Chartogne-Taillet has 27 acres of vineyard land comprised of roughly two types of soils: sand and sandstone over chalky limestone and clay over chalky limestone. Along with more minor variations in terroir, this has given the estate the ability to blend for consistency and also make single vineyard selections with marked character.

I first tried the wines in the mid-90’s, when Terry Theise started working with grower Champagnes and immediately knew that we were going to have a long term relationship. Their wines have always been a little rich but not overly so, mineral driven but not too sleek and above all, balanced and well-made. In 2008, I visited the estate, which is to say the relatively modest house and winery where the family lives and works. Elisabeth Chartogne mentioned that her son, who was not there, had been doing some experimentation. She seemed amused but also supportive.

I finally met this son, Alexandre, last fall at Terry Theise’s trade tasting in San Francisco and towards the end, while he had a mouthful of food, rambled off a bunch of questions of which he was gracious enough to answer, when he was done chewing. My third tasting of the day, I was too spent to take great notes but was very impressed with how humble and grateful he seems.The Chartogne family has been winegrowing in Merfy for over 500 years but Alexandre’s grandparents literally sowed the seeds for what it has become today. He will be the first to tell you that he feels indebted, having benefitted from their experience of restoring this property after WWII and then his parents’ efforts to turn it into a winemaking estate.

Alexandre Chartogne

Alexandre Chartogne

Alexandre might have been born into the right family at the right time but he also had Anselme Selosse, who pioneered organic viticulture in Champagne, as his mentor. Influenced by Selosse’s non-interventionist winemaking philosophy, he only uses indigenous yeast, keeps sulfur additions to a minimum and does not filter. Numerous measures have been taken to promote healthy biological activity in the vineyards, including engaging the services of brilliant soil scientists, Claude and Lydia Bourguignon. Synthetic compounds are a huge no-no for him and man and beast(s) have been replacing machinery.

Even with all of these advantages, there is still the possibility of screwing up, especially in Champagne. Yet every wine I’ve tried from Chartogne-Taillet in the last few years has pointed in the same direction; this very talented young winemaker has quite a future ahead of him meaning that for all of us – as a friend likes to say – Champagne ho’s, there is a lot of super fabulous juice in store.

 

Chartogne-Taillet Brut, Cuvée Saint Anne, NV ($49)

Pinot Noir (50%), Chardonnay (40%)

Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Saint-Anne

Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Saint-Anne

Cuvée Saint Anne is a patchwork of several parcels in Merfy. The vines are an average of 25 years old. It is vinified in stainless steel tank for ten months, aged on its lees for three years and bottled with a low dosage. Lively with apples, spice, raw almonds and rosehips, this is one of the most reliable NV bruts you will find. I’ve been drinking it for nearly 20 years and have never been let down.

Dosage: 4.5 – 7 g/l

 

Chartogne Taillet Rosé Brut, NV  ($65)

Chardonnay (60%), Pinot Noir (40%)

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Rose, NV

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Rose, NV

Chartogne-Taillet’s rosé is the one wine that has most improved over the years. Alexandre uses some Pinot Noir from the prized vineyard, “Les Orizeaux,” in the blend and all of the grapes from the current release are from the revered 2010 vintage. Like Cuvée Saint Anne, it was vinified in stainless steel tank for ten months, but spent  just two years on its lees. Tart with apple, strawberries, hints of chalk and almonds, and a delicate mousse, it is yet another stellar effort.

Dosage: 5.5g/l

 

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Millesimé, 2008 ($75)

Pinot Noir (60%), Chardonnay (40%)

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Millesimé

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Millesimé

This is actually a single vineyard wine, coming from a 30-plus-year-old clay laden plot called “Les Couarres.” Vinified in stainless steel tank until the following spring, the millesimé is aged on its lees for five years so much of what is on the market is still quite fresh. This shows in the wine as in spite of its power, it has a vibrant, crisp mouth feel with a host of chamomile, almonds, honey and brioche on a bed of wet stones (that actually does not sound comfortable but it sure does taste good!). Without naming names, it is soooo much more refined and complex than a lot of tête de cuvees from the big houses and highly touted growers.

Dosage: 6g/l

 

These three single vineyard, mono varietal cuvées are hard to find but if you manage to locate a bottle, grab it, pay and run. 

 

Chartogne-Taillet Blanc de Blancs, Heurtebise, 2008 ($75)

Chardonnay (100%)

Chartogne-Taillet Heurtebise

Chartogne-Taillet Heurtebise

Sourced from 35-year-old vines on calcareous, sandy soil, “Heurtebise” has a deeply entrenched, chalky minerality. Fermented in stainless steel tank and aged on its lees for five years, it is nutty and creamy, with apple zest and a surprisingly lean though not short finish.

 

Chartogne-Taillet Extra Brut, “Les Orizeaux,” 2009 ($85)

Pinot Noir (100%)

Chartogne-Taillet Les Orizeaux

Chartogne-Taillet Les Orizeaux

“Les Orizeaux: is a 55-acre plot of sand over bedrock that was planted in 1961. Vinified and aged in oak barrels, it was disgorged in 2013 and bottled without a dosage. Rich and spicy, with saline, citrus and vanilla this cuvée is full-bodied and flavorful yet it retains a high level of finesse.

Dosage: zero

 

Chartogne-Taillet Extra Brut, “Les Barres,” 2009 ($100)

Pinot Meunier (100%)

Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres

Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres

“Les Barres” is made entirely from 60-year-old Pinot Meunier on ungrafted vines planted in sand rooted in calcareous bedrock. The plot was never exposed to phylloxera. A rare and apparently somewhat blessed piece of earth, it is worth the treasure hunt not just for novelty’s sake but also because it is off the hook delicious. Fermented and aged in oak barrels, it was also bottled non-dosé but does not come off as too austere. Immediately, I detected a concentrated minerality in the nose that fanned out with spice, vanilla-almond-honey, lemon and a marathon finish. If you can track down a bottle treat it as if it is the holy grail.

Dosage: zero