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Drinking with Dick

Ringing in the new year with friends, food, wine, and Mr. Clark’s famous dropping ball:

André Blanck 2002 Riesling Schlossberg “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Two bottles tasted, with consistent notes. Clean, wet industrial metals with dried grapefruit rind and a slightly acridity. It’s full-bodied and hollow at the same time; not because it lacks a midpalate, but because it just doesn’t “say” much of anything. Perhaps age will improve things.

The Schlossberg, a grand cru vineyard situated above the towns of Kientzheim and Kaysersberg (and a very pretty, if rough-hewn, slope), is best known for its rieslings…less so for its gewürztraminers…but it’s a site I’ve never entirely warmed to. There’s a force to the wines similar to those from Brand (another grand cru vineyard), but it too often seems that the force overwhelms complexity and nervosity. It’s not a producer-specific problem, because the site is worked by producers of varying styles (Weinbach, Mann, Sparr and Paul Blanck are the most famous), but while the wines are often very, very good, they rarely reach the pinnacles of certain other sites. It could just be personal preference at work, of course; most others seem to adore these wines, and it would be hard to argue persuasively against the high quality of the best Schlossberg rieslings of Weinbach and Paul Blanck. But I wonder if there isn’t something about the combination of searing sunlight (common to the entire south-facing band of vineyards here, including Altenbourg and Furstentum) and cooling air coming down from the Vosges via the Lapoutroie gap (Schlossberg is tucked right up into the Vosges foothills) that knocks these wines a little off-kilter, at least for my taste. Alcohol: 13.5%. Importer: Vineyard Road.

Bollinger Champagne Brut “Special Cuvée” (Champagne) – Two bottles tasted, with fairly consistent notes. Smoldering fall leaves and roasted cherry skins with fat peach and spice jar aromas and a thick texture offset by smooth pétillance. This is one of those rare NVs that actually needs age to come together; it’s a little hedonistic right now…almost slutty, in fact…and could use a little more refinement. That will come in time.

I admit it: I am an unrepentant Bollinger fan. I love pinot-dominated sparkling wine, and something about the combination of grapes, soils, and blending skill at Bollinger just tickles my Champagne fancy. I do wish the wine wasn’t so expensive, which causes it to be decidedly less than a house Champagne for me, but the quality is undeniable. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Paterno Wines International. Web:

JJ Christoffel 1995 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Auslese ** 10 96 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Beautiful creamed iron dust and long-decayed pollen with hints of lemon-strawberry custard. Firm and well-structured, very sweet, and lacking just a bit of the edge that would push it into the stratospheric realms of riesling. But it’s still excellent.

Everyone’s waiting to see what’s going to happen to this venerable house now that it has changed hands. In the meantime, there remains a decent supply of older Christoffels from which to taste the real genius at work among the former ownership. Upper-level auslesen are rarely my favorite style of German riesling; I find “normal” auslesen (which are getting rarer by the year) to have better balance and verve, and full-on beerenauslesen to have more of the sweetness one wants in a true dessert wine. This two-star auslese, however, has always retained a certain poise despite the sugary palate weight, and for that I’ve gone to it time and again when needing a well-aged riesling to convert the uninitiated. Alcohol: 8%. Importer: Terry Theise/Milton S. Kronheim/J&H Selbach. Web:

Dubourdieu “Château Graville-Lacoste” 2003 Graves (Bordeaux) – Fruity gooseberry and lemon-lime with Granny Smith apple and a boisterous, attention-grabbing personality…only once it has your attention, it has very little to say.

Bottle after bottle, this wine reminds me of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc rather than a sauvignon/sémillon blend from the more restrained soils of Graves. Blame 2003. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Kermit Lynch.

Papin-Chevalier “Château Pierre-Bise” 2002 Côteaux du Layon Rochefort Les Rayelles (Loire) – Stunning waxy/creamy chalk and honeysuckle with the most flawless texture of liquid silk and an endless, clean finish of delicate white nectarine and spice. Beautiful, with a long, long road ahead of it.

If you haven’t stocked up on 2002 Loires, you’re going to be sorry. Exquisite dessert wines of this quality are rare on the ground, and this particular botrytized chenin blanc does something the category rarely does: it tastes fantastic right out of the gate. Let me be clear about this: buy as much as you can afford, and then buy some more. Alcohol: 12.7%. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

Roederer Champagne Brut “Premier” (Champagne) – Full-bodied and red-fruited, though with a significant offset of ripe and sweet lemon, showing less assertive but cleaner and more focused than the Bollinger.

I’m not the only one to have occasionally expressed a preference for this house’s Mendocino County products over its authentic Champagnes. No doubt the effortless international market for Cristal, a cash cow if there ever was one, reduces the motivation for producing high-quality wine. Nonetheless, this is a fine Champagne for the short term; another pinot-dominated wine that is less of a dominating presence at table than the previously-noted Bollinger. What it lacks is a sort of forward-looking complexity; the apparent effort to achieve something beyond pleasant bubbly. Roederer Estate in California is unquestionably less elegant and clumsier in its fruit-forward expression, but at least there one gets the clear sense that aspirational winemaking is at play. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Maisons Marques & Domaines. Web:

Charles Heidsieck 1996 Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Funky and very difficult, with some very advanced sweaty yeast notes coupled with tart red cherry and a somewhat indolent effervescence. It might just need more time.

Rosé Champagne walks a fine line, trying to retain its regional elegance and precision while embracing the powerful influences of blended red wine. It doesn’t always succeed, at least in youth (which is why the remarkably consistent Billecart-Salmon Rosé is so justifiably famous), and here’s an example of how it can fail. And yet, all the components are there, and from a solid house like Charles Heidsieck, one would expect ageability to take care of some of the current issues. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Remy Amerique. Web:

Clos du Paradis “Domaine Viret” 2000 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Saint-Maurice “Cosmic” (Rhône) – Well-knit roasted plum and strawberry with hints of bubblegum, lavender and earth. Direct and to-the-point, though more complex than most wines of that description, with the potential for some limited aging but very little upside in doing so.

This remarkable winery produces a stunning lineup of differently-blended and sited wines from Saint-Maurice (home to them and a co-op, but no one else of note, at least on my last visit), all of which are rather forceful and (occasionally) impenetrable for a virtually-unknown village in the Côtes-du-Rhône. Plus, they’re expensive (again, in the context of an unknown appellation). What this means is that introducing the uninitiated to the domaine is problematic. The U.S. importer fought this by introducing this export-only cuvée, a grenache-dominated and “friendlier” product to provide immediate, and lower-cost, enticement on U.S. store shelves. I don’t know if the plan is working or not (the other bottlings still seem to be difficult sells), but I do know that I’ve bought cases of this wine in both its vintages. The ’99 was slightly better, but this is a quibble; good wine is good wine. Alcohol: 14.5%. Cosmocultural. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web:

Clos-Fourtet “Martialis de Fourtet” 1997 Saint-Émilion (Bordeaux) – A beautiful wine at the beginning of its full maturity. Moist leather and dark, dried berries are coupled with dried thyme and pencil shavings (both the graphite and the cedary wood) in a beverage of elegance and balance. There’s still moderate and unresolved tannin, but the fruit is so nice right now that it might not be wise to wait too many more years.

I don’t drink a lot of merlot, but of course a good St-Émilion or Pomerol isn’t just a “merlot.” 1997 was a less than heralded vintage, but carefully selected bottles are drinking really nicely over the earlier term; perhaps few show any real notion of classic balance, but that hardly renders them undrinkable. The problem, as ever for Bordeaux, is that lesser wines from off-vintages (“lesser” by the definitions of the market, not qualitatively) are a very difficult thing to sell in a worldwide market where someone has always had an excellent year, and where fun and accessible wines are strewn like litter across the landscape. The Bordelais could compete more successfully if the wines were cheaper, but we all know that’s never going to happen. And so, we have wines like this: only the devoted (or the unwary) would buy them, and all but those few will miss out on the potential pleasures such wines can provide. Alcohol: 12.5%. French bottling. Web:

Dow’s 1986 Single Year Tawny Porto “Reserve” (Douro) – Juiced plum candy and spiced figs with raw cane sugar squeezings and touches of cinnamon. Sweet, crisp and enticing, but without some of the extra complexity found in previous vintages of this wine.

I’ve often heard that the “English-owned” Port houses resist the term “colheita” (which is what this is; a vintage-dated tawny Port), but I haven’t done enough of a survey to verify the truth of the matter. What I do know is that this wine, in an earlier vintage (1982), is the one that opened my eyes to the lusciousness of aged colheitas, which are almost always cheaper and more accessible than their vintage-dated ruby brethren. Certainly, as pre-aged wines, they don’t require such overwhelming patience; one can just uncork and drink, and yet one isn’t getting a simplistic fruit bomb, but a delicious combination of tertiary wine complexities and spicy barrel influences. Alcohol: 20%. Importer: Premium Port Wines. Web:


Aucœur 2002 Régnié “Cuvée de Vernus” (Beaujolais) – Tart raspberry, underripe red cherry and apple with acid-spiked sheets of rusty iron. This is starting its downslope, and giving way to the powerful acidities within, but it was fun while it lasted.

Régnié is one of the ten crus of Beaujolais, and according to most observers I’ve talked to one of the least definable; the wines have to be taken on a bottle-by-bottle basis. This is a wine I’ve liked a great deal, and I admit to surprise at the downturn; it was never a blockbuster gamay, but it was fairly solid and balanced, and three years isn’t that old. Serve it with tart food, however, and things should be OK.

Alcohol: 14%. Importer: Violette.

Beaumont 2004 Lirac Blanc (Rhône) – Stone fruit: the cocktail version. It doesn’t require a colorful paper umbrella, because everything’s fairly restrained rather than fruit salad-y, but this texturally sticky-silk wine is rather a mélange of varied fruits uncomplexed by more interesting characteristics. As with many Southern (and Northern) Rhône whites, interest may develop with age, but I’m not sure this wine has the structure to support much aging.

Despite being right next door to Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Lirac is – along with its west-of-Avignon partners Tavel and the villages of Chusclan and Laudun (the latter duo more north than west) – somewhat of a forgotten stepsister. Despite sharing with its neighbors a healthy grenache component, the reds from this appellation always seem more like syrah and/or mourvèdre to me. I’ve had very few rosés, and I believe this is one of the first domaine-bottled whites I’ve tasted. The grapes may include clairette, bourboulenc, grenache blanc, ugni blanc, picpoul, and the usual trio of Rhônish white grapes: viognier, marsanne, and roussanne. While I don’t know the specific cépage of this wine, I suspect the lack of greater complexity is due to the blend being dominated by the grapes at the former end of that list (which is required by law), rather than the latter. Or maybe it’s just not an ideal terroir for whites. More research is needed.

Alcohol: 13.5%. Importer: Vineyard Research.

Dashe 2002 Zinfandel (Sonoma County) – Unlike another recently-consumed bottle, this one has chosen to cower under a tight sheen of coconutty oak. There’s big, generous zinberry fruit underneath it all, but the performance of this wine is a touch inexplicable. Finishes with the expected blackberry liqueur and black pepper residue, though it’s important to note that this wine isn’t hot or boozy.

Mike Dashe used to make wine at Ridge. That should be enough to convince anyone of the potential quality of his zins (which make up the majority of his portfolio). If not, try this: Mike and his wife Anne are dedicated Francophiles; even with zinfandel, the monster truck of wine grapes, they do work to achieve balance in all that they do. (NB: Anne should be a Francophile, since she’s French…) Finally, they’re friends of mine. OK, maybe the last isn’t exactly a selling point, but I thought I’d throw it out there. It may help explain my enthusiasm for these wines, which are as big and bold as anyone could want, but rarely over the top (note: “rarely,” not “never”), and my confusion as to why Dashe isn’t more popular. Anyway, what we’ve got here is a lower-cost blend from some of the single-site wines the Dashes work with, designed for earlier drinking but – surprise, surprise – built for a little aging as well.

Alcohol: 14.1%. Web:

Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Brut “Prestige” (Alsace) – Tight and unyielding, showing the barest hints of tart fruit and a featureless grey wall of industrial steel.

Valentin Zusselin et fils is a producer in Orschwihr about which I don’t know a lot, though I have tasted the wines both in Alsace and in the States, at their local importer’s tastings. This is not my favorite of their various wines, but I do encourage seeking out the others.

The Alsatian biodynamic crew’s wines share a restrained, difficult quality that with every passing year becomes ever more undoubtedly an outgrowth of the methodologies, and the argument that these issues are resolved by superior aging seems to me to only be borne out about half the time. I have no idea why biodynamics might be less successful in Alsace than elsewhere, though from both theoretical and practical standpoints it is difficult to fault the viticultural practices, and biodynamics are rarely paired with poor or abusive vinification. Elsewhere, I have heard theories (upon which I personally have no opinion as yet) that already-stressed vines don’t respond well to biodynamics, yet except on certain truly difficult sites, it’s not my impression that the grapes of Alsace are particularly stressed; in point of fact, the range of Germanic and Burgundian transplants seem often to have a fairly cushy lifestyle in the hills, slops and plains of the region. All of this summarizes to a big “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I agree, but I don’t know, and I’d love to. Any theories?

Alcohol: 12.5%. Biodynamic. Importer: Violette. Web:

Granger 2002 Juliénas (Beaujolais) – Dense and tannic. Dark berries land with a militaristic thud on the palate, and only some vividly floral aromatics and backpalate acidity mark this as Beaujolais at all. An ager, though I wonder if there’s enough fruit to meld with the structure.

This is another producer with which I don’t have much experience. After tasting this wine, I’m a little surprised, though I suspect the constant focus by local gamay fans on the wines brought by Kermit Lynch and Louis/Dressner may obscure the consistently good work done by Rosenthal in my market. Anyway, there’s much here worthy of deeper study, and I will attempt to sock a few of these away to continue the “research.”

Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Rosenthal.

In the Frick of it

Frick 2004 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Slightly sour grapefruit and limestone. Surly and maybe even a little bitter at its existence; one hopes a little time will smooth things over, but it’s not all that much fun to drink right now.

Frick is a producer I think I should like – good vineyard work, brought in by an importer whose wines I usually like, biodynamic (which usually indicates a certain qualitative fanaticism, apart from whether or not biodynamics actually work) – but don’t as often as I’d think. I’m not sure what the problem is…but if anyone knows, I’m open to suggestions. Alcohol: 12.5%. Sealed with a crown cap. Biodynamic. Importer: Louis/Dressner.

Kritt-ical thinking

Kreydenweiss 2001 Gewurztraminer Kritt “Les Charmes” (Alsace) – Succulent ripe pear and lychee dust with vivid crystalline minerality and lovely acidity. Poised, flavorful and balanced. Built for the long haul.