Not Everything Sucked in 2016 – Ten Memorable Bottles
In a speech commemorating her 40 year anniversary accession to the throne, Queen Elizabeth described 1992 as “an annus horribilis.”
Compared to the last 12 months, a few royal divorces, sex scandals and a tell-all book don’t even come close to the horrors the world has witnessed and the bleak future that at least in the short term, lies ahead.
This said, even in the worst of times, art is made and some say thrives, science endures and wine continues to serve as life’s lubricant.
I started a series last January, “25 Wines in 25 Years” and was hoping to finish it by the end of this year. That probably won’t happen. I’ve realized that it is easier to remember significant wines from a long time ago than those I’ve had more recently. Maybe my long-term memory is just inherently better or those were better times and better wines. More likely, I’ve just gotten very caught up in the events of the last few months professionally, personally and those that have afflicted the world at large, to really give a shit about what I drank from 2003 – 2015.
However, even with everything that has happened in 2016, I still had my share of deliciously memorable bottles, especially those shared with people who mean a lot to me. These are the ones that come to mind:
Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot Les Meuniers de Clémence, 2010 ($58), Vallée de Marne, Champagne, France
Since I began on such a somber note, let’s go straight to bubbles. Every year, right around this time, I try a new Champagne producer that makes me think of the old Batman TV show – POW! Holy atomic pile, Batman! – You get the idea, or not if you didn’t watch it…which would be too bad. Great show. The 2016 honor goes to Lelarge-Pugeot. Located in Vrigny, a village in the Marne Valley, Lelarge-Pugeot slowly underwent what amounted to an organic conversion over the course of 25 years.
Composed entirely of Pinot Meunier from four vineyards, this is the kind of juice I could drink all day, most days anyway. A housemade yeast was used for secondary fermentation, which even with organic producers is pretty uncommon. It was aged in the cellar on its lees for three years[i] and bottled with a small dosage of five grams per liter.
Two thousand and ten had its challenges in Champagne and you could say that this wine’s beautiful outcome is more a measure of Lelarge-Pugeot working in concert with Mother Nature than her generosity. Yeasty and nutty, it has a classic almond brioche character yet there is also an apple cider current running right below the surface. With shimmering minerality and searing acidity, it is vivacious and bright with an explosive finish.
Domaine des Huards Cour-Cheverny, Francois I, 2011 ($28), Loire Valley, France
Oh happy day it was when I heard that these wines were back in California. I poured Huards’ “Romo” at CAV probably ten years ago when they were with a different importer. Now with T. Edwards, they are once again available in this market and I’m a little bemused I haven’t seen them around more but there is a whole new generation of wine buyers since last time Huards was in town so hopefully that changes.
Domaine des Huards has been in Michel Gendrier’s family since 1846 and Romorantin[ii] was introduced to the property in 1922. In 1998 they converted to both organic and biodynamic viticulture, eschewing all additions save for minimal SO2.
This bottling is made from the oldest vines on the property, averaging 75 years of age. While the nose has a hint of petrol, it’s very Burgudnian on the palate having an almost Chassagne-Montrachet like quality with an almond oil richness, searing acidity, mineral undertones and aromas of white flowers and apples.
Thomas Batardière Clos de Cocus, 2014 ($36), Loire Valley, France
Thomas Batardière is a protégé of Mathieu Vallée of Château Yvonne, who I think is doing some of the best stuff (at least from what I’ve tasted) in Saumur. This is not a guarantee that Batardière is going to have the same level of success but I’d bet my lucky $2 bill he comes close.
After a foray into filmmaking and working as a sommelier, Batardière became interested in viticulture so he went to school in Beaune while working at Yvonne. Obviously ambitious, he bought five acres of old vine Chenin Blanc after graduating and started making wine in 2012. He now has almost nine acres to his name and has been Demeter certified since 2015.
While his other Chenin Blanc wine, “L’espirit Libre,” is drinking better at the moment (that sells for about $26), this is one for the ages. It comes from the top of a 58-year-old vineyard in Faye d’Anjou comprised of schist and clay. If you decant it and wait a few hours you’ll get an idea of what the future holds.
AmByth Estate Sauvignon Blanc, 2014 ($28), Paso Robles, California
Funny that with the various wines AmByth makes – extremely good and age worthy ones at that – this Sauvignon Blanc stuck with me after a recent tasting more than any of the others. One of California’s most artisan and pure of heart wineries, AmByth is biodynamic and organic. They are the only US producer in Renaissance des Appellations, a biodynamic organization started by the Joly family.[iii]
Most of the wines come from their estate atop the Templeton Gap in Paso Robles. In 2015 they had a fruit shortage, a result of the drought, so they also bought some Sauvignon Blanc from the organically farmed Coquelicot Vineyard in Solvang.
Fermented and aged nine months on its skins in amphora, pressed and then given another three months rest in amphora before bottling, it was made more like a Friulian or Georgian[iv] wine than a California Sauvignon Blanc. As is true of reds, orange wines can have too much tannin but Phillip (the winemaker and owner) got it right. With a grip that is not much stronger than mildly steeped tea, rosehip, citrus and a hint of gooseberries, it offers a multiplex of flavor yet is not ripe or showy.
La Onda Cinsault Pais, 2015 ($28, available in February, Biobio, Chile)
Dani Rozman worked and traveled in South America from 2013-14 so he was not a complete stranger when he decided to make wine in Chile in 2015. As part of an agreement with Leo Erazo of Rogue Vine, he was allotted fruit in exchange for his labor. The grapes are from Biobio, Chile’s southernmost and coolest region with the Cinsault sourced from an 80 plus year old vineyard in Guarilihue and the Pais coming from a 150-year-old parcel in Quillon.
It underwent whole cluster fermentation, spent 11 months in neutral oak and was bottled unfined and unfiltered. What strikes me most about this wine is its unfrivolous freshness. Rozman’s California wines are good but this time he hit the terroir bullseye. It is an extremely impressive first effort and provides further evidence that Rozman has many great wines ahead of him, both north and south of the equator.
Lisini Brunello, Ugolaia, 1995 (NA), Tuscany, Italy
I decided to open three ‘95’s over my birthday weekend in November: Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, Monte Vertine Le Pergole Torte and the Lisini Brunello, Ugolaia. All three were superb but somewhat surprisingly, Ugolaia was the showstopper.
Made from a single vineyard planted in 1978, this is Lisini’s flagship. I spent a momentous afternoon there in 1998 and somewhere have a photo of the vineyard. Yet, as is true of all wines, the glory was in the bottle so I’m not going to bother looking for it.
Since my early days at Astor, I’ve had a thing for Lisini. It is classic but not rustic. While others in the 90’s were switching over to Brunello that would drink on the early side, Lisini never strayed from tradition. It has soul and exudes the dusty earthen intensity that is Brunello. I still have a bottle of the 2000, which will not be seeing daylight anytime soon.
Domaine de L’Ange Vin de France “Camille,” 2011 ($105), Loire Valley, France
Jean-Pierre Robinot is one of the best winemakers on the planet. He had a natural wine bar in Paris in the 90’s before he bought his first vineyard in 2000 and moved to Chahaignes in Tours. It’s likely that spending years tasting other people’s wines gave him a perspective that has enhanced his talent.
“Camille” is the pinacle of his red wines. Made from Pineau d’Aunis vines planted in the early 1900’s, it proves what this previously sidelined and sometimes maligned grape is capable of doing. I opened it with a bunch of people on a Friday night at Ruby, not the best time to seriously drink or think about wine. Even with the excess stimuli in the air, it grabbed me and for a split second blocked out the noise. Unfortunately, there is not much made but if you can find a bottle, it is well worth shelling out the dough. There are very few wines that I think are worth $100 – this is one. Unsulfured, I wonder how well it will age but that is more of a passing question in my mind than a concern as it is pretty amazing now.
Xavier Benier Vielles Vignes, 2014 ($26), Beaujolais, France
Unlike many of my comrades, Beaujolais often leaves me a little nonplussed. The overall quality – at least for natural Beaujolais – is high but I rarely reach for it. I’ve always felt this way and since many now cost upwards of $40, I’m even more critical. Xavier Benier’s Vielles Vignes is a notable exception.
Benier took over his family property in 2002 and started working organically in 2005. Some of his wines, including this bottling, do not have added SO2. He also has cuvées from Regnie and the Côtes de Brouilly made from purchased grapes but I think his estate wines are much more expressive.
While his Vielles Vignes is made from a 100-year-old schist parcel it still would only qualify for the Beaujolais AOC since it is from the southern part of the region. Perhaps this is why he opted to go down the VDF path instead. Regardless, this is as complex a wine as you’ll find in Morgon or Moulin a Vent. It has broad-based spice with cassis and floral tones and while relatively light, it is hardly thin. I’m putting a couple of bottles away just for kicks but truth be told, it might not get better but just stay in its current happy place for a while.
Roark Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills, 2015 ($42), Central Coast, California
A lot of people asked me which were my favorite wines at Califermentation. A few really stood out but this Pinot Noir stole my heart. I rarely drink California Pinot Noir as I find most boring at best and quite frequently, candied and cloying to the point of being undrinkable. The California Pinot Noirs I enjoy tend to be from the old school – Calera, Mount Eden and the Hanzell’s that were made by Bob Sessions. Also, while I think Ryan Roark does justice to all of the fruit he touches, he took this wine to a higher level.
For all of these reasons, this was a memorable bottle. I revisited it a few times during the fair. It has a strawberry bush aroma and flavor that made me think of Nuits-Saint-Georges. There is also a very slight note of tomato plant, which is fairly common with Central Coast Pinot Noir especially those made with stem inclusion. Lively but not in your face, it has restored my faith in California Pinot Noir, for a while at least. It’s only available through the winery and is pretty limited but if you are as jaded as I am when it comes to Cal PN, this wine is worth the $42 splurge.
Coturri Sangiovese, 2000 (NA), Napa Valley, California
Sometimes a wine is just in the right place at the right time.
I paid Tony Coturri a visit late last spring and he was kind enough to sell me a bottle of his ‘00 Sangiovese. About a month later, my aunt passed away quite suddenly. After her funeral, I spent the weekend with my sister and her family, and our father in the Hamptons. We went to the American Hotel in Sag Harbor for dinner and I brought the bottle with me.
Both my brother-in-law and father are red wine guzzlers but I wasn’t sure if they were going to like it. Tony’s wines can draw strong reactions and no one in my family is afraid to speak their mind, though some – the men – are more diplomatic than others. Big relief, everyone, except for my sister who thinks old wines smell musty, thoroughly enjoyed every drop. You can read about the wine here but what I remember most is the experience of that weekend, which was difficult for a number of reasons for most of us. However, for a few hours, we were able to put that aside and just enjoy the rare time we had together, as my sister lives in LA and my father is in NY. I said before that wine is life’s lubricant but for many, it is also its glue.
And on that note, I want to wish everyone a safe, healthy and happy New Year. For many of us, the impending transition of government is overwhelmingly upsetting but we are not helpless. Pick one thing and get involved. Since it’s Patti Smith’s birthday, I’ll let her have the last words.
“And the people have the power
To redeem the work of fools
From the meek the graces shower
It’s decreed the people rule.”
[i] By law, vintage Champagne must spend at least 15 months in the bottle on its lees before it is released.
[ii] Cour-Cheverny has been an AOC since 1997 and is only permitted for wines vinified with Romorantin. This grape is grown not only in Cour-Cheverny but several surrounding towns, which are also allowed to use the AOC label. Romorantin was brought to the appellation five hundred years ago by King François I, hailing from Burgundy where it is now extremely scarce.
[iii] Nicolas and Virginie Joly of Coulée de Serrant. http://coulee-de-serrant.com/en/
[iv] White grapes from both Friuli and Georgia are often fermented in amphora whole cluster and the skins and stems impart texture.