Sophie's Glass

Apr
20

Patrimony.

Definition: An estate inherited from one’s father or ancestors.

Forewarning: those of you who read because you enjoy my incisive comments about wine and poetic tasting notes, stop now; this post lacks both. While my gums and esophagus recover from a deluge of vin clair, please indulge me in a handful of anecdotes that are principally about culture rather than wine. Isn’t it part of the joy of writing a blog that one writes what one wants?

A friend planted the word “patrimony” in my brain a few months ago, but the nebulous idea behind this post began to germinate over a year ago when I was sitting beside Aurélian Laherte at dinner in Champagne.  A few years younger than me, when I first met Aurélian in 2012, he wasn’t a father yet. He had taken over the vineyard management and winemaking at the family Domaine after finishing school, and an internship in California at Kendall-Jackson (where he learned to speak English, and not to allow malolactic fermentation). I imagine it’s challenging handling the Domaine because the land (75 parcels in total spread over a wide variety of terroirs), is owned by many family members, necessitating the creation of a micro-négociant operation that allows the purchase of grapes for the common cause: Domaine Laherte Frères. Undaunted, Aurélian took on this task, then he began to work the land organically, and in some cases biodynamically, then he started a family. He’s making really superb Champagne right now, and our most recent tasting confirms that his wines are getting better and better. (This is the view from Chavot.)view from chavot

I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about at dinner, but the feeling began to creep over me that this young man had already done a lot with his life! ‘Not only am I an ambition-less loser compared to this dude,’ I thought, ‘but he’s getting something out of life that I’m missing.’ I tried to fathom what it was, something along the lines of an intimate sense of past and future far bigger than oneself, a sense of family history, place, and work that transcends one’s own selfish, short little life, putting it into context, as it were. I wondered if Aurélian ever considered not being a winemaker; did he ever consider – say – moving to Paris to play guitar in a rock band, or going into investment banking? Chances are he did as a child; we all dream when we’re young. When did reality set in for him? When did he realize that he was going to take over the family business? Marry a woman from Champagne who would contribute her own patrimony to the Laherte holdings? I started to realize that there’s a very real cultural difference between myself and my American friends, and these Champagne vignerons I’ve been getting to know over the past few years … and it has to do with patrimony. (The 2009 Laherte Empreintes made from Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay “Muscaté.”)empreintes

I felt empty after my conversation with Aurélian (of course this had little to do with him, and was basically just me contracting an acute case of “thinkies”). Where was my sense patrimony? Two memories sprang to mind, one of walking in the woods behind our house in North Carolina with my parents. It was a crisp fall day and my dad turned gleaming hazel eyes to me and said “one day, Sophie, this will all be yours.” I smiled, tight-lipped, vaguely weighed down by responsibility, the desire to unburden myself. A few years later, in my one attempt to learn the family business (construction), I asked my dad to let me work for him over the summer. The answer was a resounding “no.” He didn’t want me wielding hammers, saws, and nail guns, and thus any notion of taking over the family business disappeared.

Amongst my American contemporaries, there are plenty who have started families. For the most part they don’t live in New York City, a place that lends itself especially well to protracted youth. However even amongst my friends who have gotten on with it and settled down, none have taken on their parent’s business. Why? My theory is that it’s because American culture relentlessly encourages the concept of the self-made person, the person who follows youthful dreams, the person who indulges endless, selfish quests to do exactly what they want in life. I’m intentionally painting a negative picture, here, because I think that in living this way, we miss something. However, I also think that it’s basically impossible for us not to live this way. The cultural fabric of our being as Americans lacks a strong sense of patrimony.

Benoït Tarlant took the reigns at his family Domaine circa 1999. There have been Tarlants making wine in and around Oeuilly in the Vallée de la Marne since the 17th century.  Like Aurélian, Benoït works with many different parcels and soil types (around 40-ish parcels comprising ten hectares in total). Due to the nature of French inheritance laws, land is divided between children, and then traded or sold: small yet valuable morsels in an age-old game.  (Tarlant’s delicious Brut Zero bottling.) Tarlant Zero

While the land, winery, and spacious, museum-like tasting room are Benoït’s patrimony, he – like all of my favorite Champagne vignerons – leaves his imprint on the wines. Serious and innovative, he works the land, plowing, using biodynamic treatments, catnip for hale and frost, decoction, tisanes. He has ungrafted Chardonnay planted by his grandfather growing on sand, the texture of which keeps phylloxera at bay. From these vines he makes the superb Tarlant “La Vigne D’Antan.” Curious about the so-called “forgotten” Champagne grapes, he planted a vineyard by the winery in Oeuilly to Arbanne, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc. He makes a cuvée called “BAM” from these grapes that will be released soon. Based on the 2008 and 2007 vintages, it’s a stunning wine, floral and full of soaring white and green fruit on the nose, ripe and primary on the front palate with the bracing, biting acidity of Arbanne on the finish. The most stately and aged wine Tarlant releases is the Cuvée Louis. From a vineyard called “Les Crayons” with just a few centimeters of topsoil above the chalk, the wine is based on the ’99, ’98, ’97, and ’96 vintages. Long lees aging in the bottle gives it savory, nutty aromas, and butteriness; the palate is amazingly rich and yet totally dry with two grams dosage, and the finish closes in with chalky minerality. Louis is the pensive counterpart to BAM’s electricity. Mightily impressed by the man’s brains as well as his wines, in Benoït Tarlant, I perceived an excellent balance of adherence to tradition and an impulse to put one’s own personal touch on the wines. (Experimental amphorae in Tarlant’s cellar.)amphorae at tarlant

Because of the successful branding (if you will) of Champagne as a luxury product, the region’s land, grapes, juice, are incredibly valuable. I assume this creates more of an incentive to do the job. How often have we worried that Marc Ollivier will have no successor at Domaine de la Pepière in Muscadet? When the wines sell for peanuts and the land isn’t worth very much, where will the children find motivation to continue the work? They have to know they’ll make a living. Of course the reverse of the coin is that there’s widespread lazy vineyard work in Champagne, as demonstrated by the dead soils that cover the region’s gently rolling hills, every now and then a patchwork of green indicative of a grower who doesn’t use herbicides. If Grand Cru vineyard land in Champagne is part of your patrimony, you can do basically nothing in the vineyard, sell your over-cropped, chemical-laden fruit to the négoce, and earn a reasonable annual salary. I’m inspired by growers who work the land, many of whom have mightily improved upon the work of their parents before them, who grew up in the prime era of herbicides, pesticides, and trash being dumped in the vineyards.

Toward the end of my trip I went to a tasting of Champagne vintages going back to the 1960s. Held in the courtyard of the Castel Jeanson in Aÿ, it was a beautiful spring evening in Champagne, and the party was complete with oysters and a local food truck serving crudo, fish stew, prawns, etc … More dressed up than I’m used to seeing them in their native habitats, some of the growers were wearing jackets, fine leather shoes, button-down shirts, sweaters. They were dressed for the occasion in the lightly preppy manner of French men. Many mind-blowing wines were poured, the vintages explained by the grower presently at the helm of Domaine, though the older vintages were made by the previous generation. Mid-way through to tasting, a 2007 “L’Apôtre” from David Léclapart was poured (Chardonnay from the village of Trépail), and David took the microphone. The summer that year, he explained, was cold; the wine was precocious. He’d decided to prepare a few songs to illustrate the character of the vintage. What followed was a 15 minute long musical montage featuring oldies as well as pop hits from Daft Punk and other presently ubiquitous songs from Virgin radio, NRG, and Skyrock. David’s pensées overlaid the music, and by the end everyone was clapping, dancing, hands in the air. It was an amusing and jubilant production, and David’s 2007 “L’Apôtre” was fabulous, expressive, leafy, and ripe. (In this picture: Dominique Moreau, Pascal Doquet, Aurélian Laherte, Fabrice Pouillon, Françoise Bedel, Benoït Tarlant, David Léclapart, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, Raphaël Bérèche, Vincent Bérèche (and two I don’t know).)champagne homies

Champagne is an odd and interesting place, at a fascinating time in its evolution. I field a lot of criticisms of Champagne (as a category) from colleagues in the wine world, but I truly think there’s a group of people who are making remarkable wine there, who are rescuing their patrimony while incorporating their own ideas and talents. And on a personal level – as a self-obsessed American – I’m glad when the notion of my own patrimony floats, unbidden, to the forefront of my mind.

It’s good to be seated across from Doug Polaner masquerading as Pierre Larmandier, Pascal Agrapart, Jérôme Prévost, Peter Liem, Dominique Moreau, Nathalie Falmnet, and Thomas Calder pretending to be Cédric Bouchard. The occasion was a tasting put on by the fine folks at Polaner Selections entitled “The Champagne Revolution.” Apparently staging Champagne seminars is all the rage these days, and I’m certainly not complaining. It’s quite civilized to sit at a table with a place to write, water, paper placemats that indicate what’s in each glass, and inidvidual spittoons, and if the growers are present to discuss their wines, even better! (To clarify, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier and Cédric Bouchard were slated to be there, but extenuating circumstances kept them in France, and their wines were well presented by Doug and Thomas respectively.)Champ Revolution Glasses

By “Champagne Revolution” we mean Champagnes that focus on micro-terroir, Champagnes that are first and foremost wines, Champagnes to which every attention is given to the vin clair; the bubbles come later, and in some extreme cases, are viewed as superfluous.  This type of Champagne, which is becoming increasingly popular, is born in the vineyard through organic or biodynamic vineyard management, and is often made to express the various characteristics of one grape variety planted in one vineyard, in one vintage. The “Art of Blending,” often sited by négociants (as well as growers who have an ample stash of reserve wine in their cellar) isn’t relevant to growers who champion precise minimalism in the cellar, and little to no blending whatsoever. No offense to blended Champagnes, which are often superb, but “vineyard-forward” Champagnes are my favorites.

Not so long ago a customer asked, and I referred the question to Peter Liem, for a book that goes into detail about the characteristics of the different villages in Champagne. She asked me how important village character is. Is it, for example, as striking and significant as in Burgundy? Peter told me he’s in the process of writing said book, which is thrilling. In the meantime, the study of hyper terroir focused Champagnes gives us some clues as to how the villages differ. I learned at this seminar, for example, that as one travels north to south in the Côte des Blancs, the soil becomes chalkier; the chalk comes closer to the surface. “Naked chalk!” (Use your imagination … )

The first wine we tasted was an excellent example of the “naked chalk” style of Blanc des Blancs: 2008 Terre de Vertus from Larmandier-Bernier. Pierre and Sophie Larmandier have been at the forefront of organic growing in Champagne for some decades; they’ve been certified in organics since 1992, and biodynamics since 1999. In the cellar they use a combination of stainless steel, neutral barrel, and foudre. The alcoholic and malolactic fermenations take place without innoculation, and there’s no fining or filtration. From two parcels at the extra chalky southern tip of the Côte des Blancs, close to Mesnil, aged sur lie for four years, and bottled non-dosé, this wine is a chalk exposé. The nose offers lemon, white flowers and stones, and a touch of sake-like creaminess. The palate is super fresh and clean, showing the power of the vintage on the finish. Without an ouce of additional fat or weight, yet muscular in its structure, it’s a striking and impressive bottle.

Next we tasted 2007 Vénus from Pascal Agrapart in Avize. I may have mentioned this before, but my good friend who buys the wine at restaurant Daniel commented to me last year when we were visiting Agrapart together, that “he has that master of his Domaine thing going on” (understated confidence?). Our notes from the seminar describe both the man and the wines as displaying “quiet reserve, as well as a profound depth and complexity that is nothing short of beguiling.” I’d agree based on limited knowledge. Agrapart farms ten hectares in the northern Côte des Blancs, divided between something like 70 tiny parcels of vines. He’s in the northern Côte des Blancs, and makes a cuvée that highlights chalk (“Minéral”), a cuvée that highlights clay (“Avizoise”), and a cuvée that highlights chalk and clay (“Vénus”).  (Vénus comes from a parcel called “La Fosse” and the wine is named for Pascal’s now deceased horse who ploughed the soil.) All of Agrapart’s base wines are made in barrel, and for the top wines he uses the technique of tirer à liège (aging under cork rather than capsule) for the second fermentation. This is an oxidative aging process that allows the wine to breathe throughout the course of its élèvage both before and during second fermenation. Vénus could not have been more different from Terre de Vertus. The nose was ripe and tangy with yellow fruits such as Mirabelle plum on the nose. More full-bodied than Terre de Vertus, it showed a weighty, Burgundian character that made the Larmandier seem positively linear in contrast. Personally I also found Vénus to have a longer finish and more profundity on the palate than the Terre de Vertus, but in fact both wines were superb, and the contrast was fascinating.

At this point a panelist brought the revered name of Anselme Selosse into conversation. If one had to site the top two names in grower Champagne in the town of Avize, they would be Selosse and Agrapart, so on some level it certainly makes sense to explore the contrasting styles of the two vignerons. Also: we were to taste Prévost next, and Prévost is a Selosse acolyte. It was time to bring Selosse into the discussion. In fact I loved what Agrapart had to say about Selosse: namely that he thinks Selosse prefers to make wine, while he prefers to work in the vineyard. This is an excellent point. Though organic vineyard work contributes to the depth of Selosse’s wines, it’s not a “hands off” philosophy in the cellar. I don’t have enough experience with Selosse’s wines to knowledgeably comment on them, but in my experience they are richer, more oxidative, more marked by blending and dosage than Agrapart’s (excluding the famed Selosse single vineyard Champagnes, which I’ve never tasted).

This was my first time meeting Jérôme Prévost, an amusing and dynamic man with a tendency to gesticulate and roll his eyes skyward. He readily fell to joking with Agrapart, and his liveliness brightened the room. Prévost works with Pinot Meunier planted on a two hectare parcel in the town of Gueux, where the soil is sandy with crushed shells and chalk underneath. From Selosse, he learned to harvest at very low yields, and to ferment his wines in barrel, though in contrast to Selosse, he says he “tries to do nothing in the cellar.” Interestingly, Prévost prefers to work with lees aging in barrel rather than in bottle, and his wines are released quite early. The current release of “Les Béguines,” which is of course sold out, is 2011. He told us that he thinks his wines show best with as much as six years (!!) of bottle age. I drink perhaps two bottles of Prévost a year, and personally I like to taste them about one year after disgorgement, because I like the incredible zestiness, zippy acidity, and minerality he brings to the Meunier grape. I love this bottle of wine, and it contrasted the two Chardonnay based wines beautifully. The nose is toasty and honeyed, but also intensely layered with green, vegetal notes, graphite, smoke, and Christmas spice. The palate felt ripe after the two Chardonnays, but with very high acidity. The wine is bottled Brut Nature, and I’m sure the extreme ripeness and low yields help it find balance without the addition of sugar (or in this case MCR when he chooses to add some). Efflorescence

The second flight of three Champagnes took us to the Aube, where the temperature is slightly warmer, and the Kimmeridgian soil is more closely akin to the soil of Chablis than the soil of the Côte des Blancs and the Montagne de Reims. We began with 2009 Marie-Courtin Efflorescence. A relatively young Domaine, Marie-Courtin was created in 2005 by the talented and focused Dominique Moreau, who, one might say, is obsessed with good vineyard work, and makes wines that are the antithesis of blended Champagnes.  Moreau’s Efflorescence comes from 25-48 year old massale selected Pinot Noir vines. Unlike her “basic” Résonance bottling, the juice that goes into Efflorescence is matured in wood, which gives more warm, rich, flavor and texture to the wine. The creaminess and fine-ness of the bubbles are certainly indicative of its three years aging on lees in the bottle. For me, this was the wine of the tasting, a surprise given that it comes from the warm 2009 vintage. The acidity and minerality of these wines is so stunning, long, and resonant on the palate that you’d never guess the vintage. I had the same impression tasting this wine that I’ve had drinking Vincent Laval’s 2009 Cumières, the impression of vineyard work trumping the warmth of the vintage. As the vine roots reach deep into the soil, there’s no lack of acid and mineral flavors even in warm years.

Earlier in the seminar, the same attendee who had asked about the influence of Anselme Selosse on the wines of Agrapart and Prévost, inquired about how the movement toward vineyard-forward Champagne spread. Dominique Moreau picked up this thread and addressed it aptly, I thought. She made an analogy. (This is a rough approximation of what she said.) “When your child is born, you give them a name, and you think your child is the only one with that name. Later when the child goes to school, you find out that several other kids in the class also have that name!” It’s not as though there was a ringleader and others followed suit, but rather the movement grew organically, cropping up in various different sub-regions of Champagne, and now there’s a robust and really quite wonderful conversation thriving between growers who work in this way. I’ve always viewed Champagne as being refreshingly outside the natural wine movement, but in truth all of my favorite vignerons in Champagne work their soils without chemicals, and practice fairly minimal intervention in the cellar.

Nathalie Falmet has a degree in perfume! After perfume school she went to winemaking school, and has since then become both an oenologist and a vigneronne. She inherited three hectares of vines planted on clay/limestone soil in the Côte des Bars, from which she now makes wine. Her vineyards are planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, with slightly less Chardonnay than the two red grapes. She only makes single vineyard Champagnes, and she is clearly a skilled oenologist. That said, here is my opportunity to assert my identity as a Champagne hipster by saying that while her wines are balanced, they have more dosage than I like, and they generally leave me ambivalent at best. We tasted the 2008 “Val Cornet” made from Pinot Noir and Meunier. I liked the wine more than I’d liked it the first time I tasted it; it’s an opulent, burnished, and well-made Champagne that is just a touch too slick for my palate.

When I began this post, I had the idea I’d make it to the end, when we talked extensively about yeast and Pascal Agrapart told us about the cuvée he makes without innoculating for the second fermentation, but now I’m not sure. The last wine we tasted was 2009 Roses de Jeanne Ursules Blanc de Noirs from Cédric Bouchard. It’s a ripe, red-fruit driven Pinot Noir that reminded me strangely of an Austrian Riesling from a warm year. It had qualities to recommend it: a mellow nuttiness on the nose and a pretty, floral raspberry note, creaminess on the palate from fine bubbles. Bouchard bottles under lower pressure than most, and generally releases his wines without very much aging on lees in the bottle with the result that they are vinous and taste quite good once the bubbles have disappeared (which does not take long due to the style). As is often the case when I drink Bouchard, I was underwhelmed. I wanted more acidity; I wanted this wine to be more like a Champagne. I respect these wines, but I don’t love them. My final comment is that I was glad to have Thomas Calder confirm what I was certain Cédric had told me when I visited him two years ago: that his father made him go to winemaking school when he was 14 years old! However, it was not until Cédric went to Paris to work as a caviste that he discovered others with the same name …

 

Mar
18

The Simone.

Years ago, a friend who — like me — was a line cook in a former life, invited me to lunch at Celebrity Dairy in Siler City North Carolina. Celebrity Dairy is a bucolic goat farm that also features an inn, a full kitchen, and an event space. The guest chef that day, my friend explained, was his friend Chip Smith, a superb local chef who he wanted me to meet. A delightful afternoon ensued; we ate many courses of classic French food that had been elegantly tailored to incorporate local and seasonal ingredients, and then we visited the goats. (I almost took one home…)  I met Chip Smith and Tina Vaughn for the first time.

In Chapel Hill, Chip and Tina opened Bonne Soirée, by far the classiest restaurant the town has ever seen. I dined there once, perhaps twice, before I moved to the metropolis. Perhaps it’s pretentious to use the word “dine,” but I can’t help it; the word “eat” in this context would seem to diminish the experience, which is at once of food, wine, ambiance, and hospitality. The attention given not just to the quality of the food, but to space, noise level, presentation, wine pairings, service, etc… was of a caliber previously unknown in Chapel Hill. After I moved, I heard news of Chip and Tina through the small culinary community of my home town and environs. Ultimately, even though the area has a thriving food and wine scene by any standard, the town wasn’t ready for a restaurant like Bonne Soirée. Luckily for us, Chip and Tina found a sympathetic investor for their new venture, and they came to New York.

Chip and Tina’s restaurant on east 82nd Street is called The Simone; I was fortunate to dine there recently for the first time. Committed to enjoying the evening without interruption, I did not take a single picture or tasting note, but happily Tina has furnished me with pictures of the wines we drank that night. Set back from the street by a small terrace that will be the envy of all and sundry once spring deigns to grace us with its presence, The Simone is ever-so-slightly sunken into the ground level of the building, which doubtless contributes to its peaceful ambiance. Walking in the door, I was struck (as I had been at Bonne Soirée years ago), by Chip and Tina’s ability to create a quiet dining environment. Most restaurants are incredibly loud, especially in New York, and, like over-seasoning, loud music and the din of fellow diners can destroy even the best culinary endeavors.

Once seated we accepted glasses of Champagne and large leather-bound menus hand-written (by Tina) in beautiful, sloping, calligraphic script. The fellow who took me to The Simone is a VIP (for lack of a better word) there, and so I can’t swear that a Champagne flute miraculously finds its way into every diner’s hand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case because Tina is impeccably hospitable. I looked over to the neighboring table to see Eric Asimov of the New York Times enjoying a jovial meal with friends.

Rosenthal Amigne

To start I ordered terrines of various sorts: quail and foie gras, pork with Armagnac soaked prunes, served on a bed of perfectly al dente lentils du puy with two mustards and brioche. (I can’t stand the expression “house-made,” so I’m going to leave it out. Please assume, dear reader, that everything at The Simone is made in situ.) Tina poured a Swiss wine from the Rosenthal portfolio: 2010 Amigne from Cave des Tilleuls. Amigne is the grape variety, grown on schist, gneiss, and granite soils, almost exclusively in the town of Vetroz. This is a big, broad, sexy wine — somewhat like a ripe Altesse with waxy yellow fruits, and a honeyed, nutty character — with wood used in the élèvage, robust in alcohol but with high acidity. Sometimes these wines are sweet, and the sweetness level is indicated by the number of bees on the label: one bee for a dry wine, two for a demi-sec, and three for a sweet wine. C’est mignon! I certainly appreciated venturing into Switzerland after my recent escapades in the Savoie.

Coenobium

My companion had a fiery red soup based on red peppers topped with a layer of creamy foam. Tina served Coenobium, the orange wine made by Cistercian nuns under the supervision of Giampiero Bea. I’m sure Coenobium needs no introduction to many of you. It’s a striking wine made from native grapes to Lazio: Malvasia, Verdicchio, Grechetto, and Trebbiano. Maceration on the skins gives it a deep, orange color, and the body and complexity necessary to stand up to a full-flavored soup. One (among many) compelling aspects of dining at The Simone was that Tina curated the entire experience for us, and we had the pleasure of getting to know her palate and pairing preferences. It would never have occurred to me to drink a Swiss white wine with terrine, nor would Coenobium have dawned on me as a match for red pepper soup, but the pairings were very good. I’m often asked to pick bottles of wine from restaurant wine lists, a task that should be fun, but is in fact daunting and stressful; if the wine list is long enough, it feels like homework. I’d like someone else to do the choosing; in fact, the only thing that makes me happier than a quiet dining room is someone else picking the wine!

Coda di Volpe

Next there was a puff pastry tart with caramelized onions, gruyère, prosciutto, and a sunny side up egg. You can’t really go wrong here. Tina’s wine choice was fascinating: Coda di Volpe from Campania in southern Italy. Had I been called upon to propose a wine for this dish, my thoughts would have gone immediately to eastern France, or perhaps Alpine Italy, but Campania? In researching this wine, from the Vadiaperti winery in Avellino, I came across such a fabulous rendering of Italian into English that I’m compelled to share. Antonio, who made the winery’s first bottle of Fiano in 1984 “loved walking through his lands, among his vineyards, watching their seasonal changes, smelling their perfumes, touching their fruits; he considered himself a “vine-dresser.” It’s now Antonio’s son, Raffaele, who makes the wine. From volcanic soil, it’s a full-bodied, earthy and musky white wine that certainly speaks of the warm, dry Mediterranean climate of Campania. Perhaps it was the wine’s inherent volcanic smokiness that harmonized with the caramelized onions, perhaps its layered richness that mirrored the dish. In any case, I’d be thrilled to encounter this wine again. As a confirmed consumer of almost exclusively French wine, there are moments when I ask myself why I don’t drink more Italian wine and this was one of them.

Roche Vieille Saumur Champigny

My main course comprised every single one of my favorite foods (except cheese). It was rainbow trout stuffed with Swiss chard, raisins, and fresh garlic, wrapped in bacon, and served atop potato rostii, drizzled with caper brown butter. Interestingly, here I would have potentially sprung for an Italian white wine, especially considering the combination of seafood, raisins, and garlic, which finds its way into Sicilian food from time to time. But Tina flipped the script on me! She served a Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny! The gentlemen who make this wine are clearly winemakers by day and jesters by night. They have an amusing and energetic website that was fun to look at, but left the Domaine shrouded in mystery. It’s a fairly plush, ripe style of Cabernet Franc, necessary to accommodate the bold flavors of this dish. In fact the dish was so flavorful that, in retrospect, I’m hard pressed to imagine a white wine that could stand up to it … Those of us who are gluttons know the moment well when one needs to stop eating, but the food is simply too delicious to let the plate disappear into the hands of the quietly hovering server.

After dinner, there was Cognac, Armagnac, lingering at the table chatting with Tina and the staff, brief greetings to Chip, who’d been slaving in the kitchen. We met the restaurant cat, who surfaced once the other diners had left. It was a civilized amount of time to digest such a satisfying meal. We weren’t rushed in order to turn a table or clean up. On the street in the bracing winter air, I began to think about Manhattan restaurants, how corporate they’ve become, the fancy ones owned by massive restaurant groups: Danny Meyer, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, etc … There are so few truly independent eateries. And despite that the food, the service, and the wine at these establishments is often excellent, you’ll never find a hand-written menu, or the level of personal attention given to each diner that Chip and Tina offer at The Simone. Maybe my evening at The Simone reminded me of my hometown, the friendliness and generosity of the south, a little escape from the fast, cold, hard city. But this restaurant is special, and that I’d encourage every local reader to check it out … before it becomes insanely popular and you have to wait months for a table …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It happens. The thing that fueled the fire of inspiration in January is mysteriously gone in March; a daily battle is waged between winter and spring, with winter still sadly the more frequent victor. Ennui and melancholy take over and one alternates between lying in bed wallowing, trying to stay warm, and drowning the sadness with senseless cups of coffee and glasses of wine with friends. Where did they go, those afternoons spent diligently attempting to transform aromas, textures, and flavors into words? Suddenly it all seems meaningless. Existential crisis. Yet crisis that thankfully abates with the next trip to France and the promise of adventure on the horizon.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t drunk some fun wines recently, but there’s no thematic unity. Because there are so many massive trade shows in late February and early March, tasting wine becomes a chore, and then there’s the obligation to drop by various boozy functions to greet out-of-town vignerons. Somewhere a reader is groaning: “cry me a river (or, as my dad would have said: “tears as big as horse turds…”), but in all earnestness, this is a job with its thrills and hardships just like any other.

Doquet Lineup

One particularly bleak morning a few weeks ago (is there a darker time than the last two weeks of February?), the entire lineup of Pascal Doquet Champagnes miraculously turned up at Chambers Street like a cluster of spring crocuses. I’ve had a number of excellent experiences with these wines over the past few years, both with recent disgorgements of older vintages (1995, 1996, 2002, 2004), and with newer releases of non-vintage bottlings. I will save the fine details for future posting because I’ll be visiting Monsieur Doquet in a month and will be able to furnish more information. Doquet makes wine in the Côte des Blancs: Vertus, Mesnil, Oger, Mont Aime, and the style is broad, chalky, toasty, and varying in balance depending on the cuvée. While I liked Doquet’s old vine 2002 Mesnil, I preferred the 1995, from a cooler vintage and with blocked malolactic fermentation. In general, these wines attract me in slightly cooler years. 2004 Vertus, for example, was stunning at our tasting, with savory flavors, chunky and cheesy with a firm and lingering spine of chalk and acid. It was even better when I reopened the bottle that night. I was also mightily impressed by Doquet’s basic non-vintage Blanc de Blancs, which showed a fine laciness, delicacy, and chalky filagree. As with humans, one doesn’t demand of young Champagne the complexity, the soulful depth of an older vintage, one looks for easy attractiveness and smiles. One asks it to be made well and delicious.

Doquet NV

Not long after this tasting, I began to correspond with Monsieur Doquet, who surprised me with his friendliness and eagerness to banter. As a general rule when it comes to email (if they use email…), vignerons are all business. Countless times I’ve opened correspondence with casual American small talk (“I read the most recent review of your wines in Le Rouge et Le Blanc; congratulations on the great write-up!”), and been met with terse “what day and time would you like to come taste with us?” Pascal Doquet peppered his first email to me with several emoticons (je n’ai jamais encontré un vigneron qui les utiliser), was full of praise of the selection at Chambers Street Wines, and complimented my French, which is a constant work in progress and far from good. Needless to say I’m very much looking forward to my visit, and in the meantime, I enjoy a grin of pleasure glancing at the bottles of Doquet on the shelf.

A few days after our Doquet pick-me-up, I decided that the best way to combat emotional ennui and insanely cold weather was to throw myself into my work, which in this case meant drinking a vast lake of wine from the Savoie. I began with Dupasquier, a Domaine just shy of ten hectares in Jongieux. When Guilhaume Gerard of Selection Massale moved to New York a few years ago, I tasted these wines and absolutely swooned for the Pinot Noir; this time it was the 2010 Gamay that got me, which is not to disparage the Roussette or the Mondeuse; both are outstanding as well. What is most arresting about these wines is their ripeness. I gather it’s because the grapes are grown on or around Marestel (“Mah-reh-tel” no “s”), which is an incredibly steep, south-facing vineyard that benefits from daytime warmth and nighttime cool. The wines age in old barrel and are released fairly late, which undoubtedly also contributes to their warm textures and seamlessness. For me, Dupasquier’s Gamay offered the perfect marriage of herbal, Alpine flavors, and ripe, sweet, tangy red fruit. I convinced a friend to take one home; he reported back that he found the wine “sociable,” and I imagined I knew what he meant: sweet enough to spend an afternoon with, but soulful and interesting enough that he didn’t get bored. Just when the wine’s brambly, leafy, herbal nose and succulent front palate begin to wane, there’s a backbone of bloody, sanguine minerality.

Dupasquier Gamay

I loved every sip, and I especially enjoyed knowing the difference between “recolte à la main” and “cueille à la main.” It’s the little things in life.

 

Bellu Altesse

 

On Wednesday of last week our Belluard allocation arrived and my personal celebration of the Savoie (in this case the Haute-Savoie) continued with the arresting Gringets of this fabulous Domaine by Chamonix-Mont Blanc. This time (only our second purchase of Belluard outside of the non-vintage Ayse), we received Altesse “Grandes Jorasses” from the estate’s half hectare parcel. I tasted my bottle with a number of other humans ranging from Guilhaume to the kind folks at Terroir TriBeCa, and over the course of the afternoon and evening as the bottle circulated, it became so absolutely lush and sexy that it drowned out everything else in competition for my attention. (And it was exceptional with fried chicken.) Words may fail me here. The aromas of Altesse are exotic and range from white peaches and cream to mango to white flowers such as narcissus and gardenia to pale, wildflower honey. Belluard’s offers this spectrum of feminine aromas with weight, succulence, and a ripe, honeyed sensation on the palate that’s not unlike Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. And then there’s the fresh current of mineral running through to the finish. This is likely disclosing more than you, dear reader, wish to know, but there’s a category of wines to be drunk in bed (implication: with someone else), and this is certainly at the top of the list. (And it was exceptional with fried chicken.)

Gahier Trousseau

In despair at the lack of Jura red wine available, I picked up some stray cases and bottles from Rosenthal Wine Merchant, including some 2012 Gahier Trousseau “La Vigne du Louis.” I didn’t have low expectations, but I didn’t have high ones either. The last time I tasted through a lineup from Michel Gahier, I liked about half the wines. In 2011 I went to visit Gahier and was extremely impressed by him; he’s understated, thoughtful, kind, and talented. It’s easy to forget because Neal Rosenthal imports his stuff in New York that Gahier’s a natural winemaker. He has less than seven hectares of vines in Montigny-lès-Arsures (the best terroir for Trousseau), which he says is the most he can work by himself and without chemicals. He began to bottle under his own name in the ’90s, though his family has been making wine in the area for generations. When Gahier first came to the market, he was billed as a sort of Puffeney protégé, but I think in fact while he and Puffeney are friends (and neighbors — Montigny is tiny), they didn’t actually work together, and the styles are really different. The “Bérangères” vineyard, whence Puffeney’s Trousseau, is adjacent to “Les Grands Vergers,” whence one of Gahier’s Trousseaus. I was delighted to find, however, in drinking “La Vigne du Louis,” a wine with which I wasn’t previously familiar, a very pale color, an ethereal delicacy, and a light carbonic spritz on the palate that one wouldn’t find in either “Bérangères” of “Grands Vergers.” With lots of wild strawberry and sour fruit on the nose, the wine opened up to reveal a delicious soily-ness and grapes-smashed-on-rock character that I loved. After an hour, the tannins and limestony minerality on the finish became one, bringing the wine together and giving it ineffable Jurassic tang. Perhaps a bit to particular to be “sociable,” for me who has acquired the taste after a number of years of quaffing these oddball wines, it was a lovely companion two evenings in a row. Really, can one ask more?

Today spring seems to be winning the war. It’s not warm, but the light is changing; the sun’s setting later, and the air isn’t quite so biting. We’ll wear shorts again, and drink Rosé on the deck, smile and laugh. Writer’s block won’t last forever, only until the next wave of inspiration.

A few days ago at a meeting of our P.G. Wodehouse appreciation group (the one where we sit around watching Masterpiece Theatre from the early ‘90s and drinking wines inspired by the British Empire), the subject of Amaro came up. My good friend the spirits buyer at Chambers Street proffered the following rhetorical question: “do you know how many restaurant people and bartenders come to the store looking for interesting Amaro?” (answer: lots.) It’s true. Beverage geeks love Amaro; wine people love Amaro. Why?

For most people, Amaro is an acquired taste. Flavored with bitter herbs and/or quinine, citrus peel, roots, barks, etc… Amari and kin range from sweet and lightly bitter to totally dry and intensely bitter, with quite a bit of variety in between. Amari are based either on spirit, in which case the alcohol percentage is close to that of a gin or a vodka (35-40%), or on wine, in which case the alcohol percentage is like that of –say – an Oloroso Sherry (16-20%). (I should add that typically a wine-based Amaro is called “vermouth” or “aromatized wine.” To me this is – in a sense – hairsplitting as the essential quality is that of bitterness.) Amaro comes from Italy, but many other countries in Europe make similar digestifs, and one I’ll mention below comes from Mexico. In other words the Italians don’t have a monopoly on the stuff even if theirs are perhaps the best known.

I imagine mixology types enjoy Amari for their versatility in cocktails; for wine people, I think appreciation for Amaro comes in part from the need to have something to sip after dinner. Frankly, wine gets old at a certain point in the evening, whiskey is too much, and I try to like Cognac, I really do … What could be better than a bitter digestif that calms the stomach, ameliorates the fullness that typically follows dinner, and generally offers a finishing touch to the meal? (answer: nothing.) Our generation of wine people look for extreme, challenging, and “adult” flavors: the most piercing acid, the deepest, soiliest minerality, the bitterest Amaro. We grow to love these tastes, to seek them, and to prize them for their complexity. You know what wine people don’t drink? Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. You know what wine people do drink? Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista. Here are some of the Amari I have enjoyed recently:

fernet vallet

I first tasted Fernet-Vallet (from Hidalgo, Mexico) at the sadly no longer existent East Village cocktail lounge called The Beagle, where the bartender noticed us gazing at the bottle in wonder and offered us a sip. Fernet-Vallet finds its roots in the 1860s when Henri Vallet immigrated to Mexico during a brief period of French colonization. Fernet is a sub-category of Amaro that is totally dry and quite intensely bitter, and truthfully I’m still a bit shocked that Fernet-Vallet’s Italian cousin, the ubiquitous Branca, has developed such a following. Even before Branca began to paper the New York City subway tunnels with ads featuring scantily clad ladies with crocodiles on leashes, people were sidling up to the bar to order Fernet-Branca. At a dive bar I used to frequent regularly, a bartender told me that if he sold enough of the stuff, Fernet-Branca would buy him a tattoo. I digress. Fernet-Vallet has no sweetness, and intriguing aromas of Christmas spice (clove, cinnamon, cardamom) that set it apart from its Italian cousin. That said, to me Fernet-Vallet errs on the side of dryness. I find myself wanting just a touch of sweet to balance its medicinal character on the palate.

bigallet

When Bigallet (pronounced “bee-jah-leh”) China-China (“keenah-keenah”) arrived at the wine store, I could not wait to try it. Bigallet is from Virieu in Isère, Rhônes-Alpes, a totally off the grid eastern French nook where the Rhône and the Savoie run together. Flavored with citrus peels and gentian, the root of a lovely blue Alpine flower, Bigallet packs lots of everything: sweet, bitter, alcohol. Based on neutral spirit, it weighs in at a hefty 40%, and is heavy with the aroma and flavor of macerated orange rind. It’s reminiscent of thick-cut traditional English marmalade, and my favorite pairing with it was a syrup-soaked Greek almond cookie called Finikia. If Fernet-Vallet tastes to me slightly unbalanced on the side of dryness, Bigallet has the opposite problem. Still, I enjoyed my bottle over a number of weeks, and when I discovered I could drink it in bed on a cold night with an adjacent cup of tea and be put to sleep virtually immediately, I liked it even more!

Braulio

After my first sip of Braulio, I thought: “here is a real wine lovers Amaro.” Braulio, which – like Bigallet – dates back to the late 19th Century, is from the Alpine hills of Bormio in the Valtellina. It’s flavored with 13 bitter herbs including gentian and wormwood, and is aged in oak barrels for several years before release. Ladies and gentleman, Braulio is wonderful. At 21% alcohol, it’s light enough to be consumed as an aperitif. Spicy and extremely herbal, aromatically, Braulio reminds me of Pineau D’Aunis from the Loire Valley. There’s an uplifting delicacy and mild sweetness to this Amaro that is in perfect balance with its bitterness, and, as the rather silly Braulio website would suggest, it’s highly evocative of the Alps.

del capo

Caffo Vecchio Amaro del Capo is a medium-bodied (are these terms used for Amaro?) digestif from the sun-drenched southern Italian region, Calabria. Its flavorings include mandarin, juniper, licorice, chamomile, and 25 more… Pale in color with a harmonious balance of sweet, bitter, and alcohol (35%), Caffo Amaro del Capo is not unlike Braulio, yet while Braulio offers pungent, woodsy, Alpine spice, Caffo offers waxy lanolin, pine nuts, and star anise. I often find notes of pine nut in southern Italian white wines: Falanghina and Grecco, and I wonder if this quality in an Amaro is an expression of terroir. I suppose one could say so, given the choice of herbs, barks, and fruit peels varies regionally. A small expansion of our concept of terroir could certainly allow us to find terroir in Amari, even if we don’t find a direct transmittance of soil itself. While I didn’t experience the love-at-first-sight sensation I’d had upon first tasting Braulio, I like this Amaro very much.

erborista

I hadn’t tasted Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista in several years, since Levi Dalton brought a bottle to a mutual friend’s birthday dinner. Even mixed with sparkling water, I recall it as the bitterest thing I had ever tasted, with an intense bitterness that drowned out my palate’s every sensation, and lingered for minutes on end. I spent 2.5 years afraid of Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista. However recently, as I was having a surge of interest in bitter liqueurs, I had an opportunity to try it again thanks to the generosity of a coworker. My reaction was staggeringly different. I loved it. I had always imagined that the Varnelli distillery was somewhere in the north west of Italy, Piedmont or the Alps. As it turns out, Varnelli finds its home in Pievebovigliana in the Marche, on the Adriatic coast of Italy (the calf of the boot). Erborista, the top of the line for Varnelli, is the ultimate Amaro. Unlike others that are sweetened with sugar, Varnelli’s Amari are sweetened only with honey. There are no artificial colors or flavors added, and the herbs, roots, and barks that contribute to its flavor are smoked before processing. The artisanality of this Amaro shines through. The nose offers floral and sour red pit fruits, and a honeyed, leathery note of spice and sandalwood. It’s a touch cloudy and rusty red in the glass. At 21% alcohol, it’s perfectly ethereal on the palate, barely sweet, also tannic and lastingly bitter. I’m curious as to where the tannins comes from, whether this is, in fact, a wine-based Amaro, taking its tannins from grape skins and seeds, or perhaps the tannins come from the maceration of barks and herbs… In any case, Erborista offers an unparalleled experience on the palate, leaving the sides of the mouth, the tongue, and the cheeks ringing with potent, succulent bitterness.

 

“I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James’s Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure and authentic accent of its prime, the same words of hope.” (Evelyn Waugh; Brideshead Revisited)

 

The notion that I’d write a post about austerity versus opulence in wine has been nebulously floating around in my mind for a few weeks. A few years ago I read a Jay McInerney novel called Brightness Falls. (As many of you undoubtedly know, Jay McInerney is an educated wine drinker and writer.) In the first chapter of the novel – set, as I recall – in the ‘80s, the characters are drinking Condrieu at a dinner party. I remember thinking: “Who drinks Condrieu?” And the truth is that in the present wine-drinking climate, people aren’t drinking much Condrieu, or late harvest Alsatian wine, and even Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be a hard sell outside of corporate gift and cassoulet season. Why? Because the fashion has shifted away from opulence in wine and in the direction of austerity. Filigreed, highly acidic, dry Riesling and Loire Valley Gamay at 11.5% alcohol are wa-ay cooler than big, lush Viognier or really anything made in the southern Rhone (save the wines of Eric Texier), and of course the fashion for austerity extends to food and related comestibles as well. (Note the rising popularity of very lightly roasted, high-acid coffees.) These comments will likely strike wine folks as obvious to the point of banality, but what I’d like to suggest is that in a balanced life there’s room for opulence. (Variety being the spice of life and all, your tight pants only flatter you more if you occasionally don a pair of baggy ones.)

 

I recently went to a Burgundy dinner featuring Grand Cru wines from Gevrey-Chambertin. This was an unparalleled gustatory experience, and also a thought-provoking one, as I found myself pondering how the category of red Burgundy interacts with the concepts of opulence and austerity. For the most part, Burgundy elegantly bypasses wine fashion pendulum swings, by which I mean that since time immemorial, man has loved Burgundy, and will continue to love Burgundy into the future until climate change eventually renders fatal damage to these precious vineyards. Sure – styles of winemaking change, yet there’s an undeniable timelessness to these wines that is an ineffable part of their allure. These are the world’s greatest wines – people seem to agree – whether they grew up with Condrieu or Pineau D’Aunis. Furthermore, even in their taste profiles, great Burgundies ally opulence and austerity: lush, sweet fruit pressing up against a rigid, earthy spine. (Why do I suddenly feel as though I’m talking about sex? In fact, it’s not just me; Burgundy is sexy.)

 

On a personal level, I’ll go ahead and put this Burgundy dinner in the “opulent” category, not just because it was expensive, but because it’s objectively lily-gilding-and-saying-“fuck-it” to drink that much Grand Cru Burgundy in one sitting. This experience was so totally out of the ordinary for me, and it had the effect of reminding me of who I am as a wine drinker, namely someone whose aesthetic tastes run to the austere, namely not someone who does this kind of thing. That said, clearly I was glad I did it. I won’t go into too much detail about the wines we drank; for that you’ll need to consult Brooklynguy. In truth I was merely moonlighting at his Burgundy Wine Club, and it’s only with his permission that I share my thoughts on the wines we drank.

 

We began with two fascinating white Burgundies (not Grand Crus from Gevrey). 2002 Hubert Lamy Saint-Aubin En Remilly and 1998 Clos de L’Arlot Blanc were served at the same time, accompanying a celeriac soup garnished with almond cream. (The food, incidentally, was excellent.) The En Remilly vineyard is situated, I believe, right next to Batard-Montrachet, and the wine had the oyster shell and mineral profile of a fine, restrained white Burgundy from a very good vintage. There was a compelling green, mossy streak running throughout that I associate with my favorite white Burgundies. It was a very good wine. The ’98 Clos de L’Arlot was polarizing. The wine has Pinot Blanc in it in ample proportions, and comes from a ripe vintage. More burnished, mellow, and richer than the Lamy, it was spicy, almost foxy like a Gewürztraminer, with less acidity. While perhaps more interesting, it was less delicious than the Lamy. However, as the L’Arlot opened up over twenty minutes, it developed its own green, earthy streak, and by the end of the flight it had improved significantly.

Our first flight of red wines featured 2002 Simon Bize Latricières-Chambertin and 1998 Ponsot Chapelle-Chambertin. In spite of the fact that more impressive wines were to follow, this remained a favorite course, in part because the Bize was one of my “wines of the night.” It was undeniably complex and I could have smelled it for half an hour before taking a sip.  It was extremely soil-y with a touch of funk, graphite, herbs, hints of rose petal and fruit seed. With time in the glass it began to show ground coffee and fennel on the nose. The palate was quite firm with graphite flavors lingering as its minerality clamped down on the finish. The Ponsot was radically different. The nose was full of sappy, sweet fruit: cranberry, sumac, and Christmas spice such as cinnamon and clove. It had less acidity (the product, we speculated, of the vintage; we’d seen the same contrast with the two white wines…) As it opened up in the glass, the fruit took on a cloying and candied quality. If Bize showed the austere side of red Burgundy, Ponsot showed the opulent. The austere framework of the Bize seemed to foster its complexity, made it thought provoking, beguiling, allowed it to have layers and secrets, which revealed themselves as we drank. In its wake, the Ponsot was big-boned, monolithic, pretty, tasty, even… but boring.

02 Bize

Next we drank 1998 Bachelet Charmes-Chambertin and 1995 Drouhin Griotte-Chambertin. There was much “ooh-ing” over the Bachelet, which, like the Bize, was extremely earthy with rose petal notes. I found the wine to be reticent on nose, but exploding with power and structure on the palate. It was intense, masculine wine with bracing acid and minerality on the finish. Its flavors were not unlike those of the Bize, but it was so much sturdier and louder. It wasn’t a personal favorite, but I respected it, and it delivered the sheer brawniness that characterizes the reputation of Gevrey-Chambertin. It took us but a few minutes to conclude that the Drouhin, sadly, was oxidized.

98 Bachelet

Honestly, I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable. I don’t like bragging about wines I drink. Sure I’m a snob, but I’m not a Wine Baller, nor do I aspire to be. Yet no matter how much humility I try to bring to this text, the statement “then we drank 1992 Georges Mugneret Ruchottes-Chambertin and 1992 Armand Rousseau Mazy-Chambertin” feels like braggery. I swooned for the Mugneret. It was fennel-y and herbal on the nose with red fruits and root vegetables such as beets and carrots. My tasting note contains an expletive (“fucking awesome”). The finish had bursts of acid and soil-y earth yet was incredibly silky, like an exquisite red China silk had somehow become potable. The Rousseau, with its beet root and carrot nose, its broad, impressive palate, felt younger, more juicy and generous, less resolved, and also a bit simpler. Rousseau is one of the Gods of Burgundy, Mugneret one of the Demi-Gods, but I maintain that on this particular evening in January, 2014, Mugneret was the lovelier wine.Rousseau Mazy

We finished with 1989 Jadot Chambertin Clos de Bèze and 1994 Armand Rousseau Chambertin. About Jadot, I have little to write; I was surprised by how youthful the wine was. About Rousseau, I doubt I could have written had I wanted to. The wine was astonishing, and utterly transcended my wine experience to date. I have but a surreal memory. The nose offered sweet plum, Christmas spice, amaro, abundant red fruit; it conjured an image of the Christmas pudding my family used to eat after the holiday meal, while tasting nothing at all like a Christmas pudding. This essentially says nothing; the wine married savory and sweet flavors, earthy and fruity ones. It was down right opulent in texture, rich and round on the palate yet also feather-light. I found myself thinking something to the effect of “goddamn it – wines aren’t supposed to taste this good,” but it did, and I relished every sip.

94 Rousseau Chambertin

We sat around talking about Russian oligarchs and the insanely wealthy, wondering if they drink wines like these for lunch. I publicly upheld my view that regular consumption of Baller Wine is bad for one’s mental health, as well as one’s relationship to wine. It’s good to drink humble wine, and it’s apparently also good to whet one’s beak with Grand Cru Burgundy. I sat up to leave, entirely satisfied, brain heavy with thoughts, belly heavy with duck confit, as another guest sat up to fetch a bottle of Zind-Humbrecht Vendange Tardive to polish off the evening…

All in all things are pretty good right now. Life returns to normal after the rush of the holidays: wine schnooks come to the shop to hock their wares, mostly mediocre bottles with a few standouts here and there, one responds over and over again to the request for “a nice, full-bodied red,” and outside the storm rages, snow and mixed wintry precipitation, sky darkening at 5pm and giving way to long, slow, cold evenings. We listen to Bach Partitas.

 

The leisurely pace of January after December means there’s time to hang out with friends. (My lovely French teacher recently told me that the French don’t “hang out.” There’s no French expression for this act – or non-act. When the French socialize, they do something: have a drink, eat a meal, have a coffee, knit, for Christ’s sake. I guess they don’t sit around aimlessly shooting the shit like we do.) Of course working in the wine business, when we say; “hang out,” we invariably seem to mean “sit around a table laden with bottles and foods, amidst convivial chatter, often about wine.” I imagine some might find this pastime tiresome, but ask any wine professional and they’ll tell you it rarely gets old. I was fortunate enough to usher in the post-holiday chill with dinner at the home of skilled cook and raconteur, JBT. (more…)

After a couple of incisive comments from friends about this blog, its style and content, I’ve decided as one of my New Year’s resolutions to make some changes … Once I figure out how, I’ll remove the twitter feed as, frankly, I strongly dislike using twitter and there’s no point in listing tweets that occurred circa 2012. Folks tell me I should write shorter posts, and post more often, which is sound advice that will hopefully lead to more comments and dialogue. Truthfully, I’m a long-winded academic when it comes to wine, and I find it hard to imagine only telling part of the story when I could tell the whole … However (hearkening back to a time during my semester abroad in England when one of my professors made me reduce my essay on Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss by 1,000 words before coming to see her again), I’ll try to say less. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who read in 2013! (more…)

In the car on the way to a train station in rural New Jersey with my aunt and best friend, I commented that as a young person I used to look forward to the winter holidays, and that as an adult, I no longer do. This is not because I’ve become disillusioned regarding Santa, nor is it because large-scale family gatherings are stressful or unpleasant (for me, they’re delightful), nor is it due to some sort of holiday gift giving phobia. I no longer look forward to the winter holidays because I work in wine retail, where the month of December looms like a massive, month-long black cloud.

Late November kicks off the season of mayhem, when every red-blooded American, it seems, wishes to answer one vital question: “what wine should I have with my turkey?” Each year, I hope against hope that folks will have moved away from that odious grape: Sauvignon Blanc, which seems to imbue the wines made from it with the unmistakable odor of cat-pee and lemon-juice-stewed herbs. And each year I find myself fielding afresh requests for “a nice Sauvignon Blanc to pair with turkey.” Friends; hear ye! Sauvignon (both Cabernet and Blanc) is not the right wine for Thanksgiving! Suck up your prejudices and buy a Chardonnay or a Riesling or a Beaujolais or a Pinot Noir, for the love of God! (My best friend, who also works in wine retail, told me she will not allow her customers to buy Sauvignon Blanc for turkey.) And Thanksgiving is just the beginning, the front bracket to a season bracketed by New Years Eve at the other end.

(more…)

A couple of weeks ago my downstairs neighbor, Zach, and I were enjoying a low-key Friday evening over some (for the most part horrible) Greek wine samples. Zach writes for a number of publications including Tasting Table. In addition to being savvy and knowledgeable about wine, he is an excellent writer. You may find his work here: www.zacharysussmanwine.com. We were consuming a meal I typically make just for myself and don’t foist on other humans: swiss chard, squash and onions, chunks of sausage held together by eggs and baked in the oven. Unable to tolerate another glass of Agiorgitiko, Zach cracked a 2000 Lopez de Heredia Rosado, which was closed and a touch musty at first but blossomed as it warmed up to deliver all of the lactic, caramel, and orange rind, dill, and tobacco-y notes we like to smell and taste in Lopez Rosado. The fruit played a very faint second fiddle to savory and earthy tones and it suited the food and mood quite well. We found ourselves in conversation about the concept of “authenticity” in wine. (more…)