Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Blanc de Blancs (Alsace) – Grapefruit rind, apple skin and bright light, focused with laser-like intensity in each bubble. There’s no complexity here, but there’s fine precision. (4/07)
(The original version, with more photos, is here.)
28 March 2006 – Hunawihr, France
After a little too much wine the night before, we’re profoundly unsuccessful in getting up early. It’s a grey day, and not just aloft; the vineyards are mostly bare, the mountains are dark with needles and the occasional glimpse of spring snow, and the Rhine plain below us is hazy and murky. It is, in other words, a fine day for a hike.
We attempt to pick up a sentier viticole in Hunawihr, but after some frustration in our attempts to locate the actual route, we end up just strolling along muddy paths through vineyards south of the village. These skeletal slopes rise against the lower shoulders of the Vosges, occasionally ducking into a small grove of trees or split by an ancient rock fence, until they crest atop the precipitous decline of the Schoenenbourg, with descends directly into the fortifications of Riquewihr. The beautifully-preserved town below it is quieter than normal. I guess it’s not tourist season.
But Riquewihr holds few surprises for us anymore, and so we take a left turn towards Zellenberg, which perches on its hill in wind-buffeted isolation. It’s a town that often gets missed in the parade of tourists shuttling from Eguisheim and Kaysersberg, through Riquewihr, to Ribeauvillé, and the evidence of this is clear from its peaceful, restrained feel. There’s nothing showy about this village, but there is a bit of a show going on.
High above, atop a church steeple, is one of those wide-bottomed baskets one sees all over Alsace. And standing – plump, tall and preening in the midst of it – is a stork, here better-known as “l’oiseau d’Alsace.” It’s nesting season, and this unmistakable regional mascot is everywhere…craning over rooftops, prancing through vineyards, or gently soaring in circles. This is our first sighting, and we spend some time staring, leading a few passing locals to look up, shrug, and continue on their way.
On the outskirts of Zellenberg we manage to pick up a remnant of the marked sentier, which of course leads us right past a bustling cooperative cellar. The French may not always embrace marketing to the extent they should, but Alsace is…different. We end up back at our gîte for a lunch of leftovers and stinky cheese, plus a wine that’s not exactly our typical midday fare.
Faiveley 1995 Nuits St-Georges “1er Cru” Clos de la Maréchale (Burgundy) – Five-spice powder, black cherry and dark, tar-like earth. This is still fairly tannic, but there’s gorgeous fruit underneath. While further complexity is undoubtedly around the corner, I do wonder about it’s fruit/tannin balance. Still, it’s very appealing right now, albeit in a fairly primary way.
Boxler (78, rue des Trois-Epis) – Visits here are always exceedingly pleasant. The family is friendly and generous, the setting is peaceful, and the wines are almost distressingly extraordinary (especially the rieslings, which are among the very best in the world). And for currency-disadvantaged Americans, there’s yet another bonus: the wines are very inexpensive compared to their Stateside counterparts.
Boxler’s wines are, in the majority, rarely completely dry…though in some vintages the rieslings can present as very close to sugar-free. But unlike some of their regional brethren, who pursue overripeness and its resultant residual sugar at almost any cost, Boxler preserves both acidity and essential nervosity. There’s a poise to their wines that is simply not duplicated by many of the critically-hyped producers that infest the region, and there’s also great transparency to terroir.
Oh…the domaine has updated its labels. In the essentials they’re similar to the old labels, but with a cleaner, more modern look. I’m not entirely sure I like them, but they’re definitely clearer. The one thing that remains unclear to the average drinker, unfortunately, are the cuvée codes, which remain part of the “secret” Boxler lore. For those uninterested in heavy memorization, there are a few quick rules that can sort out most of the confusion:
* L is always present and irrelevant
* “JV” refers to young vines
* among the four “noble” grapes (riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, muscat), other letter codes are sub-site designations within whatever grand cru is indicated on the label
* for other grapes, the letter codes still indicate site, but may also indicate that the grapes are from a grand cru vineyard (e.g. “B” on a pinot blanc)…a designation not allowed (by Alsace wine law) to be explicitly presented on labels
* the numbers indicate a specific cépage/site combination, except when they don’t, but aren’t otherwise relevant to the consumer as the grape varieties are (when applicable) indicated and the sites are elsewhere in the codes
There are a few niggling exceptions to this, of course. Thankfully, there has been a move to put some of the more important codes in a prominent label position. They’re still not truly helpful, since they’re not explained anywhere, but at least one doesn’t have to squint at the borders anymore.
Clear as mud? Good. On to the wines.
Boxler 2004 “Edelzwicker” L09 (Alsace) – A blend of sylvaner, pinot blanc and riesling (1/3 each)…which would seem to go against the original intent of “edel” as appended to “zwicker,” but whatever. It shows a sweet-smelling nose of ripe apple. Very nice, clean and simple.
Boxler 2004 Sylvaner L10 (Alsace) – Ripe green tomato and spice. Good acidity marks a long finish. This is from a site near Brand.
Boxler 2004 Pinot Blanc L20A (Alsace) – The “A” here refers to auxerrois, a typical blending component in wines labeled pinot blanc, and one that adds richness and weight. The wine is hugely spicy, with ripe pear and a zingy, almost bracing finish.
Boxler 2004 Pinot Blanc L20M (Alsace) – Very sweet, with a metallic core and a short finish. A little strange.
Boxler 2004 Riesling L20M (Alsace) – Very intense, with tons of dry extract and a long, marvelous, drying finish. In the midst of all this worthy structure are lightly sweet green apple skin and sharp, almost piercing acidity. And to think that this is just the “regular” riesling…
Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “JV” L30JV (Alsace) – From younger vines. The nose is vivid, with dried white flowers that turn to raw iron on the palate. The finish is incredibly long, but a bit edgy and cutting at the same time.
Boxler 2004 Riesling Brand L32 (Alsace) – A touch sulfur-marked right now, but pulsing and brooding underneath. It’s like licking a steel beam, with an endless, dry iron finish. Striking and majestic.
Boxler 2004 Riesling Brand “K” L32 (Alsace) – Sweeter on the nose than the previous wine, with peach around an intense core of minerality. And then, the explosion: molten iron and fire-hose water jets that simply vibrate with power and dry extract. Stunning.
Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg L31 (Alsace) – Floral and silky, with spiced apricot. There’s mass and intensity here, with a juicy core and a lovely balance between fruit and firm structure, but it’s the satiny texture that eventually carries the day.
Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “E” L31E (Alsace) – Very metallic, but creamy nonetheless, showing very little fruit but almost overwhelming presence. This will be great, but that day is many years away; right now, there’s not much to enjoy.
Boxler 2003 Pinot Gris L50M (Alsace) – Lush but nervy, with intensely spiced pear, tamarind and lychee. Sulfur is in the mix, early. This reminds me a little bit of Bott-Geyl’s Sonnenglanz pinot gris, though this carries more acidity. An early-drinker, I think, but these wines have fooled me in the past.
Boxler 2003 Pinot Gris Brand L52 (Alsace) – Very sweet lychee, pear and peach. This wine is all about its incredibly ripe fruit, but there’s an earthy undertone as well. The finish is a little strange and disappointing, however, with canned pear and strongly tinny aroma developing late in the game. Plus, it’s a bit hot. A rare misstep, though it all makes sense when one notes the vintage. Of all the grapes with which it works, I think Boxler does least well with pinot gris…though in less perverse vintages they do much better than this.
Boxler 2003 Pinot Gris Sommerberg L51 (Alsace) – Shy on the nose, showing bright pear and creamy metallic notes on the midpalate. There’s a long finish, but I think this wine is yet another victim of its vintage…it’s flat and sort of lifeless. Wake up, little pinot gris, wake up!
Boxler 2003 Gewurztraminer Brand L62 (Alsace) – Banana, cashew and exotic roses around a core of dark metal, with a gelatinous texture that resolves to sinuosity on the long finish. It’s sweet, but it’s balanced (in the context of gewurztraminer), and a rare success from the vintage.
Boxler 2004 Gewurztraminer Brand L62 (Alsace) – More metallic than the ’03, with a powdery texture that turns stingingly particulate on the finish. Leafy and very floral, perhaps almost florid. Right now I prefer the 2003 for its open lusciousness, but I think this one will age into something a little more socially acceptable.
Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “Vendanges Tardives” LRVT00D (Alsace) – Aromatically quite dry, which fails to prepare one for the stunning intensity of the palate. Dried apples dominate. As poised as it is forceful, this is a hammer-blow to the palate, but one delivered with precision and balance. Amazing.
Boxler 2004 Riesling Sommerberg “Vendanges Tardives” “Cuvée Zacharie” LRVT00D (Alsace) – Flawless. Balanced sweetness and acidity take a backseat to a blend of metals and minerals that devolve to stones and gravel on the finish. Almost breathtaking in its restrained power.
Boxler 1999 Pinot Gris Brand “Vendanges Tardives” LVTB9911 (Alsace) – Very sweet, with a gorgeous pear-dominated nose and palate. Extremely vivid. There’s surprising balance for such a late-harvest wine, and the long finish coupled with the other indicators suggests that it’s nowhere near the end of its life, but rather is much closer to its beginning. I’d give it another decade, at least.
Au Relais des Ménétriers (10, avenue Général de Gaulle) – A quiet, confident, comforting restaurant on the main southern route into Ribeauvillé. The menu is simple, with modern updates on the themes of the Alsatian classics and a few specials. The wine list is short and locally-dominated.
One can hardly eat in Alsace and avoid foie gras (or if one can, one shouldn’t), and so I start with a nicely-seared slice of lobe accompanied by grapes, then follow with a pleasant and well-seasoned monkfish filet served with spinach, morels and croutons. It’s a light dish, with all of the elements suggesting “no, you go first,” but it works in an elegant, understated fashion (with the caveat that I’m not sure monkfish can ever really be “elegant”). There’s also a terrific homemade bread with a floury exterior, something that’s being pushed out by dry, tasteless industrial loafs at too many restaurants. For dessert, I spoon into a very nice “römertopf” of strawberries, rhubarb and butter with strawberry ice cream. No, really. Butter. It works, but then I’ve been accused of liking dairy a little more than is perhaps good for me.
F. Schwach Crémant d’Alsace (Alsace) – Simple, dry and inoffensive.
F. Schwach 2003 Muscat “Cuvée Réservée” (Alsace) – Ripe and floral, showing white apricot and succulent sweetness on the finish. A little clumsy, but that’s the year.
Mallo 2001 Riesling Rosacker “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Soft and a touch hollow, with a light sweetness covering a wine that is all stones, gravel and salt. There’s some hints of early oxidation as well, including a very advanced color. I wonder if it might not be a victim of cork failure, but a second bottle procured by the concerned proprietress produces the same results. Surprising. Mallo’s not a top producer, but they’re usually better than this. And the wine’s not bad, it’s just tired.
Windholtz Eau-de-Vie Baie de Houx (Alsace) – Holly-berry distillate. It’s like drinking a Christmas tree, with pine sap and sharp needles in abundance. It’s different, to be sure.
(The original version, with more photos, is here.)
27 March 2006 – Thionville to the Bas-Rhin, France
Lorraine is grey and rainy – isn’t it always, in a metaphysical sense? – which puts a sort of psychic brake on our eagerness to hit the road early. Nonetheless, Patricia & Bruno load us up with pastries and giant bowls of café au lait…plus a little aged Burgundy for later…and the caffeine propels us out the door with renewed vigor. We make a not-so-quick stop at a giant Cora hypermarché for some supplies, then point our car east.
The drive across Lorraine is boring and wet until the forests and hills of Alsace, at which point the skies begin to clear. And the temperature – around 50°F in Thionville – rises to a balmy 70°F on the outskirts of Marlenheim, which leads to open windows and the happy feeling that spring is, despite the weather of the past few days, inevitable. We decide on the inefficient but incomparably beautiful long route to our destination, leaving all traces of A or N behind to take a version of the northern three-quarters of the route des vins all the way to Hunawihr, which brings us through nearly every impossibly beautiful jewel box village and craggy vineyard slope in the Bas-Rhin, twisting and turning all the way. The temperature continues to increase.
The vignoble is crawling with ant-like workers bearing shears and clippers and small wagons full of dead branches, while others follow with stake and wire, binding the vines into rigid forms in preparation for the growing season. This is a time of renewal in the vineyards, where everything of the past year is stripped away and the stage is set for all that is to come. There’s no excitement yet…just back-breaking work under a tenuous sky…but the sense of anticipation is building. Perhaps somewhere just on the other side of the Vosges, spring is waiting, and it will break over this region in just a few weeks’ time.
Demeure d’Anthylla – Pulling into the gated courtyard of this gîte is like coming home after a long dinner. It really does feel as if we haven’t left, though in fact it’s been three long years since we’ve been here.
Our host, Constant Eckert, is a bit of an oenophile himself (not surprising for a man who’s turned a decrepit old winery into a lovely habitation), and he gives us a bottle of crémant and a half-bottle of old riesling before leaving us to our dinner preparations. The bubbly disappears at a rather alarming rate while we prep a gorgeous rib eye of veal and a salad of frisée and lardons, after which we’re practically forced to open a second bottle to match the cuisine. It, too, disappears. How’d that happen?
Cave Vinicole de Hunawihr “Calixte” Crémant d’Alsace Brut (Alsace) – Grapefruit and geranium with honeydew rind. There’s an impression of sweetness and a good deal of wetness, but what there isn’t a lot of is tingly fizz. this comes off more like a still than a sparkling wine, and to its probable benefit. Still, it’s pretty basic as such things go.
Chanson 1995 Beaune Clos du Roi “1er Cru” (Burgundy) – Very faded and stripped, showing pale, dried cherry, strawberry leaves and earth. It’s elegant, but desiccated. Not quite mummified, though, and there’s still a minor amount of pleasure to be wrest from its bony clutches.
We shake down the weight of dinner with a pleasant evening stroll through the dark and silent stone streets of Hunawihr, diverting for a dozen muddy steps into a vineyard above the Rosacker. But the drive, the dinner, the stroll and the wine quickly conspire, and we’re sent to bed at an absurdly early hour. And why not? Tomorrow, the serious wine tasting begins.
Tasting notes from the Boston Wine Expo. These were difficult tasting conditions, where speed and distraction were the norm rather than the exception. Thus, notes are brief at best, somewhat superficial, and cannot in truth be otherwise.
Luneau-Papin 2002 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Terroir de Schistes” Clos des Noëlles “Semper Excelsior” (Loire) – All rocks and seashells, with a piercing gaze and stunning poise. Absolutely beautiful. More, please. (2/07)
Baumard Crémant de Loire “Carte Turquoise” (Loire) – Lemongrass, aspirin and herbal dust. Soft and simple, with a clumsy froth…more of a foam than an actual sparkle. (2/07)
Baumard Crémant de Loire “Carte Corail” (Loire) – Strawberry, lemon and bold anise notes. Deeper and much more interesting than the Turquoise, with some leesiness on the finish. (2/07)
Baumard 2002 Savennières (Loire) – Big white asparagus and sea salt with chalky minerality, then slate, then molten steel with…this sounds strange…a dry, watery grip. The finish brings out more asparagus alongside ripe grapefruit. There’s more future than present here. (2/07)
Baumard 2001 Savennières Clos du Papillon (Loire) – Tight, crystalline, and hollow. The finish is a long tube of chalked iron and leafy aluminum. Very disappointing. (2/07)
Baumard Côteaux du Layon “La Cuvée Ancienne” (Loire) – A blend of stocks going from 1966 to 1988, if I remember correctly. The point is to prove the ageability of Côteaux du Layon. Unfortunately, the wine tastes more tired than mature, showing pine needles, dessert spice, old golden apples, and some cider notes. (2/07)
Baumard 1991 Côteaux du Layon Clos de Sainte Catherine (Loire) – An apple wrapped with a thin sheet of metal, then re-wrapped with banana leaves, and finally drizzled with smooth, sweet vegetable syrup. Clean, upfront and fully mature. (2/07)
Baumard 2002 Quarts de Chaume (Loire) – One expects this to be terrific, and it is. Big tropical fruit well-balanced by crisp, apple-tone acids, leaves and quinine. Concentrated and very intense, yet never losing that flawless balance. Absolutely delicious. (2/07)
F. Cotat 2005 Sancerre “Les Culs de Beaujeu” (Loire) – Sulfur and quartz, with an intense, almost tingly palate. Fine and precise, with very good balance and a long finish. It’s very young, however. (2/07)
Vatan “Château du Hureau” 2004 Saumur-Champigny (Loire) – Herbs, black cherry skins and bitter licorice. The balance starts off OK, but eventually tannin overwhelms this wine. Worrisome. (2/07)
Joly 2004 Savennières Clos de la Coulée de Serrant (Loire) – Wax, chalk and slate with an intense, smoky note that veers towards creosote, then writhes back from the precipice, eventually to be overcome by a patina of ultra-flavorful pâte brisée (that’s pastry dough for the unpretentious among us). A skin-like note adds a tannic accent to the finish. This is really nicely done, with a good future. (2/07)
Huet 2002 Vouvray Le Mont “Demi-Sec” (Loire) – Stunning balance – just absolutely breathtaking, and perhaps among the finest I’ve ever experienced – between crisp apple, honeydew melon, chalk-dusted wax, and fine acidity. Piercing, with intensity and clarity, and a wine that cannot help but gain one’s full attention. Wow. Simply: wow. (2/07)
Notes from a dinner, with friends and Boston Wine Expo attendees.
Muré Crémant d’Alsace Brut (Alsace) – Balanced and medium ripe, showing apples and light cream. This is one of the better of the basic crémants from Alsace, and previous vintages have proven that the upper-level bottlings from Muré (not, to my knowledge, available in the States) are even better.
Muré’s fame, at least in the States, rests on the Clos St. Landelin and its occasionally heavy, but usually majestic wines. But they do a reliably fine job across their lineup, including their négociant range, and here’s one that will probably fly under the radar for most people. From equal amounts of pinot blanc, riesling, and auxerrois. Disgorged: 12 March 2004. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kacher. Web: http://www.mure.com/.
Viñedos de Nieva “Pasil” 2004 Rueda “Pie Franco” (Castilla & León) – Lightly spiced chalk and soda water, showing clean and pure. Quite refreshing.
100% verdejo, from older vineyard material available to this (relatively new) winery. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kysela. Web: http://www.vinedosdenieva.com/.
Bossard “Domaine de l’Ecu” 2004 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” “Expression de Granite” (Loire) – Like licking a stone tablet (not necessarily while it’s being held by Moses), sharp and tight yet building gracefully on the finish. A second bottle, tasted the next day after extended aeration, is more generous and introduces youthful, malic fruit characters, but is no less mineral-driven.
It’s curious that the French word “granit” is translated to English for this label, yet “de” remains from the French original. Ah, the mysteries of labeling. Bossard remains one of the area’s best producers, and with the trio of soil-specific bottlings whence this comes, one of the best at showing how incredibly revelatory melon de bourgogne is of terroir. Alcohol: 12%. Biodynamic. Closure: cork. Importer: Kysela.
Trimbach 1995 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – Creamy, salt-cured dried leaves and crushed oysters. Highly-advanced vs. other examples from this vintage, and while obvious signs of pure heat damage aren’t necessarily in evidence, something has brought this wine to an early retirement. Better-stored bottles are still not even close to ready.
From the Osterberg and Geisberg vineyards that form the backdrop to Ribeauvillé and to Trimbach itself, and while the same house’s Clos Ste-Hune deserves its reputation as the finest riesling in Alsace, it is more on this wine that the widespread appreciation for Trimbach’s rieslings rests. The fact that it’s less than 25% of the cost of CSH is certainly the primary cause, but the Clos Ste-Hune can be so impenetrable and strange in its youth that it can turn people away from its glories; the CFE is no less restrained at first glance, but the liquefied steel character is at least varietally recognizable. What also helps is that these wines, like most upper-end wines at Trimbach, are late-released and regularly re-released after further maturation, which undoubtedly helps sell the ageability of these all-too-frequently majestic bottles. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Seagram. Web: http://www.maison-trimbach.fr/.
Deiss 1997 Gewurztraminer St-Hippolyte (Alsace) – Smoky and sulfurous, with bacon fat and raw rosette de Lyon characteristics, and ultra-ripe lychee jam slathered over everything. The finish is sweaty, and nothing is entirely dry. This is a valid expression of gewurztraminer, and will find some fans, but for me it is far too graceless…an odd thing to say about gewurztraminer, perhaps, but such things are relative.
St-Hippolyte is a village – a pretty one, but then in Alsace most of them are pretty (pity poor, poor Epfig) – not far from Deiss’ home town of Bergheim, and right at the northern end of the arbitrary political border between the Haut-Rhin and the Bas-Rhin. It does, however, suffer a bit from an even more arbitrary notion…this one in the minds of fans of Alsatian wine…that the “important” vignoble of Alsace ends somewhere between Ribeauvillé and Bergheim, and everything north is chilly roulette. This is, of course, nonsense.
It should be pointed out, in the interests of revealing bias, that I am rarely particularly appreciative of the wines at Deiss. (It should also be pointed out that many do not share this view.) The proprietor, Jean-Michel, does possess a certain brilliance (just ask him), but I mostly find it misdirected. Much is made of the current mania for multi-variety single-site blends chez Deiss, but this only serves to amplify the previous problem at this domaine: an obsession with impact over transparency. Transparent wines certainly do not have to be light, nor to they have to be underripe (as Jean-Michel so arrogantly implies in a June 2005 letter), but they can’t obscure varietal and site character in a thudding whoomp of body and thick, sludgy anonymity either. Working from lesser material, Deiss might be able to assert that he alone is expressing his sites correctly…but this doesn’t work in his corner of Alsace. There are too many good winemakers around to make such a ridiculous claim. Personally, I would consider it a victory if he was able to actually express some facet of a site more than once or twice per vintage, because one suspects that his success rate is as much accident as design. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kacher. Web: http://www.marceldeiss.com/.
Faiveley 1990 Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru (Burgundy) – (French bottling.) Not dead, but not particularly alive either, with lots of acid, hard tannin, and only the faintest suggestion of berries on the finish. Well past it.
This is part of a large stock of Faiveley wines owned by a French relative, who regularly serves them at full maturity (usually with wild boar) and equally regularly sends some home with me. Unfortunately, the take-home bottles have almost routinely been disappointments vs. their in-France counterparts, and I wonder if the rigors of travel aren’t to blame. In any case, my success rate with the wines – as gratefully received as they are – is poor. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: French bottling, sourced from the domaine. Web: http://www.bourgognes-faiveley.com/.
CVNE “Viña Real” 1981 Rioja “Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – Dill and espresso dusted with chocolate powder, beautifully rich vanilla, and baked earth, finishing with a dessert-y dulce de leche character. I am nearly alone at our table in not loving this, but there’s just nothing but wood (and dill-flavored wood at that).
Tempranillo and graciano. I accept that antipathy towards old Rioja is one of my failings, especially since I usually don’t prefer wines with more obvious fruit. Perhaps it’s the American oak, perhaps it’s my Norwegian aversion to an abundance of dill (familiarity breeds contempt, as too often dill plays the role of “the vegetable” in Norwegian cooking…and before I get letters: yes, that’s a joke (then again, maybe it’s not)), or perhaps it’s just an issue of personal taste. What makes it more painful is that I have a very good friend who adores these wines, and opens them all the time in apparently vain attempts to convert me to their glories. Every once in a while, he succeeds, but then a wine like this comes along…which, as said in the actual note, everyone else appears to like…and my suspicion re-rears its ugly head. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vieux Vins. Web: http://www.cvne.com/.
Jaboulet Aîné 1990 Hermitage “La Chapelle” (Rhône) – Meatfruit and firm, tight, unyielding structure. There’s a phrase about tightness and nuns here that I won’t repeat, but that applies in spades to this wine. The question is: given the precipitous fall in Jaboulet’s quality over the nineties and beyond, is waiting for this one a foolish choice, or will it eventually reward the patience? This wine doesn’t provide a clear answer either way, though my guess is that there’s sufficient stuffing but there’s at least a one-in-three chance that it won’t outlast the structure in any useful way.
Côte-Rôtie provides the Burgundian ambiance (albeit particularly pork-like), Cornas is the rustic and loud country bumpkin with surprising hidden sophistication, Crozes-Hermitage is a minefield, and St-Joseph introduces some fruit to the equation…but it is Hermitage that shows syrah in its sternest, most masculine glory. The problem there is that if one doesn’t get fruit of a high enough quality, or mishandles it in the cellar, one is left with a big slurp of liquid structure with nothing to support. That’s just one of the things that’s befallen Jaboulet in recent years (ownership has changed, and improvements could finally be on the horizon), though this wine is reputed to be one of the holdouts from past glories. I guess we’ll see. Alcohol: 13.9%. Closure: cork. Importer: Frederick Wildman. Web: http://www.jaboulet.com/.
Delorme “Domaine de la Mordorée” 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pâape “Cuvée de la Reine des Bois” (Rhône) – Pretty, verging on beautiful, but still highly primary, showing spiced clove, oak (and oak tannin), and a rich, full-bodied mélange of spices and sun-baked fruit. It needs a lot of time.
Every time I have a good CdP, I wonder why I don’t drink more of it. I guess the price has something to do with it (nothing drinkable is priced at everyday levels, unless you’re loaded), but CdP is a fascinatingly flexible wine, in that it (with certain high-structure exceptions) shows well at most stages of what can be a pretty long life. This one’s grenache in the starring role, with mourvèdre supporting and cinsault, counoise, syrah and vaccarese as bit players, from old vines (though in the context of old vine-heavy CdP, perhaps not all that old…60 years or so). Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kysela. Web: http://www.domaine-mordoree.com/.
Conti Sertoli Salis 1999 Valtellina “Canua Sforzato” (Lombardy) – Lightly sweet prunes and rose hips with graphite-like structure. It’s an odd combination of aromas and sweetness, but it works somehow.
Sforzato (sometimes sfursat in dialect) means that this nebbiolo-dominated wine is, in contrast to regular Valtellina, made from dried grapes that raise both the potential alcohol and the probability of residual post-fermentation sugar. An actual raisin wine, if you will, vs. all the New World wines essentially made from nearly raisined grapes in a misguided pursuit of “ripeness.” Except for the rose hips, there’s little that says “nebbiolo” about this young wine, though careful examination of the overall structure and balance might lead one to envision an aged version of this wine that will, indeed, be highly varietally-revelatory. Alcohol: 14% (though I think it has to be 14.5% by law). Closure: cork. Importer: CHL International Trading. Web: http://www.sertolisalis.com/.
Touchais 1976 Côteaux du Layon (Loire) – Honey and sweet syrup with brioche butter. Seemingly past it.
Sweet and botrytized chenin blanc, from a domaine that regularly does late releases of their wines…which explains their ubiquity on the marketplace. Rarely are they as good as they probably could be, to my tastes, with several producers in Layon doing much better work at ageable chenin. What I’ve never had, however, is a youthful Touchais, so I have no idea what they’re like at bottling. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vieux Vins.
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: http://www.dashecellars.com/.
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: http://www.valentin-zusslin.com/.
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.