Sophie's Glass

I am not a cheesy person. Well. There’s the annual sob to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ while remembering that dude you thought you loved 15 years ago who now has several kids, dogs, and a house and garden somewhere outside of Nashville (for example). But in my family growing up, you got mocked for being cheesy, so I never learned the art. That said, if there were a day to be cheesy, it would have been Friday. It was my last day at Chambers Street Wines, the incredible wine store I’ve worked in for the past five years. In the grand scheme of things, five years is nothing, but in fact it’s a pretty long time. Lots of things have happened since I started at Chambers: relationships have come and gone, apartments changed, my dad died, my cat moved to Oakland, the list goes on. The people at Chambers are my family; the partners who own the store gave me the proverbial keys to the kingdom so that now I can go on and do something new, not necessarily something better, but something different.

 

It was a touching day, yesterday, largely because of the vast gray zone of humans consisting of friends, colleagues, customers, and industry movers and shakers, all united by the deep love of wine. Throughout the day, they stopped in to the shop; they sent me notes; they gave me shout outs on Twitter (which I hate) and Facebook (which I grudgingly confess I love). My friend Arnold wrote a post on his blog framing my departure as a colossal loss for TriBeCa. What a kind, generous overstatement. When I arrived at work, there was a bottle of this wine waiting for me on my desk:2008 Marguet Crayeres

 

It was a present from a long-time customer and friend in Atlanta. He wanted to say “thanks, and best of luck.” I almost cried. Really I did. The point is, I felt great. I felt confident, and I felt so completely taken care of by my community, a community I still can hardly believe exists, because in my heart of hearts I’m the nervous 20-something year old moving to the big city from rural North Carolina to pursue a lofty dream. That was almost seven years ago!

 

Throughout the day, I spoke to my boss and my colleagues as though nothing was different, as though I’d be back the next morning to bitch about clutter on the sales desk, to look at the internet orders and face the Champagne bottles. It’s funny how we do what we’re programed to do, always. If it was the last day of my life, I’d probably still start the morning with an egg on toast and a cup of coffee from Yirgacheffe.

 

It was kind of hard to work, but I like to think I tried. In fact I did the kind of work I’d largely lost sight of in my tenure as store manager: I helped the customers, and threw myself into it heart and soul, because, frankly, all the other crap is now someone else’s responsibility. I had about as much fun as I’ve ever had picking bottles of wine for people, talking them into Riffault Sancerre rather than the more standard issue Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge, telling stories about Benoit Lahaye’s donkeys and the magic Pascal and Evelyne Clairette of Domaine de la Tournelle worked in the 2012 vintage. On my last day of wine retail, it was pretty nice to reconnect with my first day of wine retail, eight years ago now, when I didn’t know what an Amarone was, and made flash cards to remember the difference between Vouvray and Pouilly-Fume.

 

We opened Champagne at about 6:30, which seemed like a reasonable time to begin getting cheesy. My coworker who goes by the handle “Gabbro Gabbro He-ey” made some incredible pimento cheese, which is a heavenly smash of shredded cheddar, mustard, mayo, smoked paprika, and pimentos. With pimento cheese, we had 2006 Pierre Peters “Les Chetillons,” a brilliantly saline, oyster shell-y, profound Champagne from Le Mesnil. My first bottle of this was last year, and it was the 2007 vintage, which was more forward and pilar-like. 2006 had begun to mellow, and was perfectly laser-like, dry, and balanced, the kind of Champagne that leaves a coating of chalk in the mouth.

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Next we opened 2009 Marguet Rose, a wine I’d been waiting for since April when I first tasted it at the Domaine. Marguet Rose is an unusual wine, and it will not be for everyone due to the natural style, by which I mean light oxidation, unusually iron-y minerality, and really full, bold, unique flavors and textures on the palate. I absolutely love this bottle of wine. It smells like rose petals, and the length on the palate is incredible, undoubtedly partly due to the fact that (unlike almost all Champagne) the finish isn’t clipped by sulfur. As it opened up, it came into its own, and I causally sipped it throughout the evening, each time marveling at its depth and complexity.

 

The in-store tasting for the evening was poured by an old school liquor business schnook named Jimmy Capone. He was pouring heftily) the Bruichladdich single malts, and everyone was getting wasted.  There was an incredible amount of loud, smoky camaraderie in the room, and I couldn’t remember the last time the shop felt so good.

 

It was fitting that we drank Champagne on my last evening at Chambers Street. It’s true that Champagne is celebratory, and should be drunk all the time and whenever possible (according to the Joe Beef cookbook, because “life is short, hard, and can often suck”), but more importantly (at least for me) because the row of Champagne bottles you see as you walk in the door of the shop is like my child and my legacy. I really, really love Champagne; it’s been my pet project for years now to find the best Champagnes according to a certain style: made by growers who are farming organically, wines made with little manipulation, to put on the shelf at Chambers. It’s one of my few accomplishments in life, the Champagne section, and when I look at those bottles, I’m proud. When I ponder my relationships in Champagne, I’m proud; dusting and facing the Champagne bottles gives me pleasure. For sure it’s going to be hard turning it over to someone else, but I have to, and those who come after me will undoubtedly do a fabulous job.  photo-2

 

 

When Susannah and I got back to our place, we opened this bottle from Pascal Doquet in Vertus. Pascal is one of the nicest people I have ever met, and he’s coming to New York in October; look out for a wine dinner on October 20th at Racines, featuring the better part of Pascal’s lineup. This wine provided an interesting contrast to the Chetillons from Pierre Peters. It’s a softer wine, with prettier, creamier notes, and less of the intense, earthy mineral core the Chetillons. That said, the finish was very long and delivered a certain chalkiness that made a lovely counterpart to the creaminess of the palate. For me the wine showed the difference between Mesnil and Vertus, the Doquet offering a feminine counterpart to the muscular Chetillons. Doquet’s wines are classic for my palate, which leans toward the avant-garde in Champagne, but I love the wines; they are warm and comforting, but also nervy, like the man. I could have imagined this wine coexisting with a late night Mariah Carey retrospective, for which something like Ulysses Collin would be totally inappropriate. There’s nothing wrong with getting cheesy every once in awhile.

 

All in all, it was a special day for me, full of goodwill toward my fellow man, full of pride, and that strange blend of happiness, sadness, and nostalgia that we all know well from our most poignant moments in life. A huge thank you for the kind words, and for supporting me as I get cheesy and drink Champagne.

A few weeks ago there was a raging debate on my porch. It was one of those “meta” wine debates, not directly about wine, rather about the way we engage with wine. I’m pretty sure the whole thing started when I mentioned that negativity in the wine world really frustrates me. When I glance at wine chat boards and discussion forums, I see the same handful of unicorn wines praised day in and day out, and copious amounts of trash-talk about pretty much everything else. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and have considered that it’s possible, likely even, that there’s not much truly special wine out there, that most is pretty much bullshit, and that discerning palates are taking it upon themselves to point out this reality. However, what I actually think, and this is what prompted our recent debate, is that when it comes to wine it’s simply easier to hate than to love. There’s less at stake when you take a negative stance toward a wine; you’re not really putting your palate on the line when you say “I didn’t like the Clos Roche L’Arpent Rouge I drank last night; it wasn’t as good as in past vintages.” But to post on a wine forum “guess what? That bottle of Kistler Chardonnay I drank last night with my steak and hollandaise sauce was freaking amazing!” Now there’s a risk.

After I’d posited my theory, one of my guests pointed out that he thinks we define ourselves by what we hate. I pondered this for few minutes. As someone who has strong antipathies and is fairly vocal about them, I began to wonder if my hatred of Sauvignon Blanc is part of my self-definition, and I concluded that it is. I derive lots of banal satisfaction from not liking Sauvignon Blanc. On the other hand, what does this mean except that I’m not going to drink Sancerre (unless it’s made by Sebastien Riffault, in which case light oxidation masks the Sauvignon Blanc varietal character, and I’m happy)?  I guess what I’m saying is: if you don’t like something, don’t drink it! Then, move on, find something you like, and tell us about it!

As we riffed on this topic, I began to think that part of the problem is that at a certain point we become so analytical about wine, that we lose sight of how to answer the very basic question: do I like this? Tasting and assessing becomes a constant question of analysis: yeast, sugar, structure, terroir, sulfur, alcohol percentage, the nose, the mid-palate, the finish, the list goes on …. We’re too wrapped up in the act of analysis (read: finding flaws of various kinds) to answer the single most relevant question of whether or not we like the wine. And, by the way, liking a wine is not the same thing as deeming its attributes to outweigh its flaws. Liking a wine is being moved by it, being fascinated, and wanting to drink more. It’s the difference between brain and heart, and when we discover that the brain is shouting over the heart’s whisper, well … it’s time to reset.

At the end of the day, I have no idea whether we define ourselves more by what we love or what we hate, though I suspect it’s a combination of both. It’s a point of pride to have been doing this wine gig long enough to know my own tastes, to be able to say with conviction that some wines are better than others, and that some wines are absolute crap. Yet I can’t help but find defensive, negative attitudes about wine to be somewhat cowardly, and righteously positive attitudes to be courageous.

After our porch debate, I began to ask myself when my last thoroughly positive experience with wine occurred, and I recalled my April visit to Dominique Belluard in the Haut-Savoie. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time to write about Belluard, to write about my Savoie visits in general, and this seemed like an opportune moment because in my experience, Belluard is a polarizing producer. Not everyone loves his wines, but those who love them, don’t mind crying it from the mountain top for all and sundry to hear.Ayze signpost

My recent trips to Champagne have been punctuated by brief stints in other regions, where I remember that vignerons are people with dirt under their fingernails. I met British wine journalists Wink Lorch and Brett Jones at Belluard’s winery in the Haut-Savoie after a harrowing day of driving that began in Epernay, made a detour through Arbois, took me into Switzerland via nerve wracking mountain switch backs, through deadly traffic around Geneva, and finally to Ayze. It was just after 6pm; the air was crisp and chilly, and the sun was shedding its evening glow across Alpine chalets, cows, vines, and other bucolic scenery. Dominique, a startlingly lanky, weather-worn trooper, was standing in the driveway chatting with Wink and Brett when I at last reached my destination. Following the usual routine of introductions, kisses, hugs, handshakes, and establishment of myself as an adequate French speaker to converse in the native tongue, we went to see the vines.vines at bellu

We went first to Le Feu, one of the great crus of the Savoie  (along with Jongieux and Chignin). Le Feu is an intensely steep slope of red, irony soil on top of limestone. The vineyard is planted to very old Gringet vines. Gringet is a virtually extinct grape variety cultivated only around Ayze, and most often used to make sparkling wine. The village’s proximity to Geneva poses a grave threat to this grape, as real estate in Ayze has become increasingly sought after. Bellu is the only vigneron to attempt to produce “serious” wine from this grape, and his neighbors generally regard him as a total oddball. Like other great vineyards, Le Feu feels cosmically right for vines; the slope faces south, and the thick, gnarly-stemmed vines are protected from wind by the mountain.  This is not high-altitude wine; in fact the vines here are planted at lower altitude than their Swiss counterparts. Bellu told us that he can’t plant higher than about 400 meters because the temperature difference won’t work for the vines. In fact the essence of Savoie wine generally is a ripe, sun-drenched aspect of the Rhône mingling with a crisp, chilly, laser-like quality of the Alps. In the right hands, it’s a heavenly liaison.

Bellu’s Domaine is planted to 90% Gringet, 5% Mondeuse, and 5% Altesse. Though Altesse is grown all over the Savoie, Haut-Savoie, and even Bugey to the north, it finds its greatest expression in the south west of the region where Chignin and Jongieux are located. The landscape there, as I learned the following day, is quite different, warmer and more Rhône-ish. Bellu got his Altesse from the Dupasquier family, and he cultivates it on yellow marl soil. I was completely taken in by Bellu’s Altesse “Les Grandes Jorasses” the first time I tasted it, but upon getting to know the wines better, I’ve come to prefer the earthier, less tropical, and more austere profile of his Gringets “Le Feu” and “Les Alpes.” Bellu’s Mondeuse, which is absolutely impossible to find, also comes from yellow marl soils. (Note: Grandes Jorasses was astonishingly good paired with fried chicken with a lightly spicy sriracha dipping sauce. The combination of opulence and acidity did wonders for the dish.)

Bellu’s “Les Alpes” bottling comes from several plots around the village planted on a mixture of yellow marl and “éboulis calcaire”, which is limestone that has crumbled down from the mountain. The vines that give us Bellu’s vintage sparkling wine “Mont Blanc” are planted on éboulis calcaire as well. We stopped to look at several other parcels, all gorgeous, thriving with plant life and grass between the vines, though none quite as breathtaking as Le Feu.

In the cellar, Bellu is known for his use of concrete eggs. In 2003, he looked for an alternative to stainless steel tanks; he found the eggs, and has since filled his cellar with them. He’s a minimalist; the wines age for 6-9 months in eggs, then he mixes them in stainless steel. There’s typically a little bit of sulfur – around 20 milligrams for the whites, and none for the Mondeuse.

We dipped into quite a few eggs, tasting the unfinished wines, some of which had completed their fermentations, some of which hadn’t. At least for me, it’s sort of hard to taste wine this way; one sees only a rough outline of what the wine will become. I did, however, note that Bellu’s 2013 Altesse out of egg showed the honeyed, peachy, apple blossom sexiness of the finished wine, while Gringet from Le Feu was much quieter, showing great acid and mineral structure, but not much fruit.Ayze bottle

Seated around an old wooden table in Bellu’s homey tasting room underground we began with his non-vintage Ayze Brut from a selection of vines planted on yellow marl and éboulis calcaire. This is great sparkling wine. The combination of Gringet’s earthy, honeyed, lemony, high-acid character, and a firm backbone of limestone makes this an incredibly successful sparkling wine that sells for about $20 retail, in New York. Be forewarned, however, that some of your friends will find the wine to be too dry. There’s great ripeness, however, and Bellu leaves the wine on the lees for as long as he can, which tempers the wine’s rigid spine. The bottle we tasted came from 2010 fruit, and was disgorged in 2014.

2010 Mont Blanc is bottled Brut Nature, and comes from all éboulis calcaire soil. At 13% alcohol, it was a bruiser that showed mostly structure and left a lasting impression of limestone and earth. In other words, put this bottle in the cellar as you would a fine vintage Champagne.Bellu Feu

Tasting 2012 Grandes Jorasses, Les Alpes, and Le Feu side by side certainly helped me understand the wines better. Grandes Jorasses was a bit closed, and showed its tropical side with pronounced coconut notes. Les Alpes was very stony with wildflowers, herbs, and lemon. Le Feu was absolutely unreal. The nose offered sour cherry, anise, and tamarind. Relatively full-bodied yet light on its feet, the wine left a coating of mineral flavors, and each time I sniffed, swirled, and swished, I found something different. I was reminded of my visit a year and a half ago to Croix Boissée in Chinon, not because the wines are similar, but because of a similar sensation of transparency between the wine and the place that produced it. 99% of wine experiences will not leave the taster with such a profound sense of excitement and wonder that small plots of earth can be rendered so vividly in a glass of wine.Bellu Mondeuse

When we got to the Mondeuse I stopped spitting. Made in amphorae and without sulfur, the wine sees a month and a half of maceration, and has peppery, fennel-y, savory, almost Syrah-like aromas. The palate is more delicate than any Syrah, however, with irony, grippy minerals on the finish, and high acidity. The word “digeste” sprang to mind, a ubiquitous expression in the French wine world that has no real counterpart in English. (As I think I may have mentioned in a previous post, often when winemakers use the word “digeste”, they accompany it with a particular hand gesture as though to draw the wine from the mouth down through the stomach.) We may not be able to translate the word adequately, but we know what it means: a wine that makes us salivate, a wine that aids digestion, a wine that lightens as it fills our stomachs. I digress in part because I don’t like to sing too loudly the praises of a wine that is so hard to find.

We went to dinner in a delightful local restaurant, where we sipped a bottle of Le Feu with a few years of age (I don’t recall the vintage, sadly). The wine had evolved beautifully, and was a perfect accompaniment to the regional dish called “tartiflette.” As I read the menu I wondered at the panoply of ways the Savoyards put potatoes and Reblochon together. Dominique Belluard revealed himself to be a funny, sarcastic sort of man, confident, unconcerned by the views of others. I left this visit to navigate the hairpin turns up the mountain to Wink’s house with a deep sense of happiness and good will toward my industry. I loved the wines in a pure and simple way that worked as an antidote to the intense analysis and criticism of wine we perform day in and day out.

 

 

My apologies in advance for a post that is somewhat scattered and unfocused in its content, also less about wine than about how we interact with it. Of late, my brain has been largely occupied by things that are not wine: big changes and life stuff. Truth be told, I haven’t been drinking much wine recently. There’s been sobriety, also Pimm’s and Pastis. I’ve been trying to track down the person I was before wine who wrote stories and philosophy papers and woke up bright eyed in the morning. (This person remains fairly elusive, but I catch glimpses of her from time to time. Right now she’s on the couch with iTunes open wondering why RZA didn’t use an oxford comma in the title of “drink, smoke and fuck.”) I’m beginning to realize – in this phase of relative moderation – that I might prefer talking and writing about wine to drinking it. This train of thought lead me to ask myself which wine writers are my favorites, which brought me to Brooklynguy, who did such a lovely job bringing wines to life through these bizarre chains of symbols.

As most of you know, Brooklynguy recently retired his blog. He’d been writing it for years; he had an avid readership, and the blog had been with him through his evolution as a wine drinker, as well as through many changes in his life. He had moments of great personal transparency with his audience, understanding that they read his stuff not just because they valued his opinions about wine and liked his prose, but because they liked him. His moments of personal disclosure were well done – like having a heart-to-heart in his kitchen over a glass of Sherry while he whipped up a snack involving little oily fishes and Japanese seasonings. It was a charismatic blog, and as much as I struggled with his palate’s ascendance from humble to baller wine, he’s my kind of writer, and I already miss his voice.

Of note in my recent vinous life was a bottle I shared with Susannah last Sunday evening. It was 2008 Benanti Etna Bianco “Pietramarina.”Benanti

Indulge me in a brief anecdote from my past with Susannah: A little over six years ago Susannah picked me up from the airport in Raleigh. I had just learned that my mom was dying, and I had no idea what the next day, week, month would hold. A New York cousin was with us in the back seat of the car. I don’t know why Susannah and I immediately began to chatter about bottles – certainly it was a coping mechanism as wine was not in the forefront of my mind. After five or ten minutes, my cousin – who had until that point remained silent – said: “I’d love to see you both in a one act play; the dialogue is great! We need to get you guys on the stage!” We’ve always loved the “parole” of wine, Susannah and I, and the fact that we don’t always agree makes our parole all the better.

Pietramarina revealed itself to be a rich, deeply-hued wine based on Carricante, possessed of such an intense and mouth-coating mineral backbone that it could have masqueraded as an orange wine though there’s no skin contact in the elevage. The aromas were at once beeswax-y and tomato leafy, pine nutty, fennel-y, and sanguine. It had the dry, brushy, wild character of an Assyrtiko from Santorini. It spoke clearly of its desert island origins.

My initial reaction was a totally banal “wow this definitely isn’t a French wine!” Meaning what? Italian white wines are capable of a masculinity rarely found in French wine. The French have a deeper tradition of white wine production, with many regions better known for white than for red. In Italy, white wine seems to sit on the shoddy back burner, an after thought to the red wine. And my association with Italian white wine – even though I know many great ones – is with cheap Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, and insipid Soave. Perhaps this is partially why the orange wine style gained such traction in Italy; orange wine exists in total opposition to yeasted, fruity, and sulfur-y Pinot Grigio.

Susannah mentioned that – like me – she generally tends to think of white wines are having female attributes, taking me back to my first encounter with a truly feminine white wine. It was Grosjean Frères Petite Arvine, which is (ironically) an Italian wine, but from the Vallée D’Aoste, which is practically France (or rather Switzerland). When I smelled the aromatic white flowers, the honeysuckle, the pristine, white Alpine mineral core, and when I tasted the round, succulent stone fruits on the wine’s midpalate, it was as though a voluptuous, Nordic heroine had entered the room.

Since then, white wines have often manifested themselves as women in my mind, having the attributes of real-life females: the fake-y, baby-voiced TriBeCa housewife finds her parallel in the cloying New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and there can be no doubt that the classy, timeless female beauties of yore: Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor are physical embodiments of Chenin Blanc grown in the great terroirs of the Loire Valley.

A favorite Atlanta customer of mine sent me his review a few days ago of the 2010 Domaine Aux Moines Savennières “Roche Aux Moines” he’d bought from us. I’ll quote him and hope he doesn’t mind: “It’s just a stunning, multi-faceted wine, a perfect example of Chenin Blanc at its best and most complex, citrusy one sip, rich and caramel-y the next, and a blend of lemon and honey on the third.” I was reminded of a type of female beauty that combines slightly quirky physical attractiveness – the full figures that used to be popular before waifish-ness became a virtue – with a complex and amusing personality. If this wine were a woman she wouldn’t be young, and she wouldn’t be fake; as she aged, she’d have gained in complexity, so that personality and looks were totally knit together to stunning overall effect. Perhaps she’d be like my mom … To me, very good dry Chenin Blanc is incredibly appealing wine, but its breath-taking nature isn’t obvious to all, and especially not to people who are used to anorexic white wines.  I’m thrilled each time someone I know gets down with a big-boned white wine and loves it.

Such as this white wine from Dominique Hauvette, for example, made from young vine Roussanne.Hauvette Jaspe

When you meet Dominique Hauvette, you start to understand the clunky, earthy yet undeniably real character of her rosé wines, and the stern, charmless nature of her reds. The wines are superb, but there’s no give at all. These wines are not going to suck up to you or coddle you; they’re going to beat you over the head with terroir. With these things in mind, I was excited to taste how Dominique Hauvette’s taciturnity would express itself in a white wine. I took the bottle home, and unfortunately left it in the freezer over night. It was the second bottle I’d frozen in a week, and I was kicking myself because freezing mangles wine completely. I allowed it to thaw in the fridge for a few days, and was astonished to find it totally unharmed and indescribably delicious with a gorgeous, lush array of honeyed, almost tropical fruits on the palate. At 13.5% alcohol, it was not the slightest bit shy, but the sweet viscosity of the alcohol seemed to escort the sexy, peachy, pine-y flavors as they danced across the palate. It’s a muscular wine, sturdy enough to withstand freezing, unapologetically full-bodied, but comfortable in its skin and with every element in balance.

By the end of the bottle, Susannah and I had concluded that Pietramarina was more masculine than feminine. I’m not sure we agreed on his look, but I imagine he’s a mid-thirties surfer with dirty blond, scruffy facial hair. While not exactly my “type,” it was delicious, thought provoking, and an excellent conversation piece.

We began to ask ourselves if all white wines are either male or female, or if some are totally sexless. My thoughts drifted to 2013 Pepière Clos des Briords. “You know” I pondered aloud “my boss recently described 2013 Clos des Briords as ‘atmospheric’.” If the wine is neither man nor woman, maybe it’s atmosphere. I read my boss’ description shortly before I tried the wine, so perhaps it influenced my tasting, but I found that drinking this wine was like walking on the rocky, blustery coast of Brittany, sea spray in my face, wet stones underfoot. The frame was so delicate, the lemon-lime fruit so sheer — a mere whisper on the horizon. Drinking the wine, I felt as though a fine, coastal mist was dampening me on a cool, spring day.Briords

I pulled this quote from an Adam Gopnick article in The New Yorker.

“In truth, language seems less like a series of cells in which we are imprisoned than like a set of tools that help us escape; some of the files are rusty; some will open any door; and most you have to jiggle around in the lock. But, sooner or later, most words work.”

Trying to make words fit wines is a meaningless yet eternally entertaining pursuit.

 

As is generally the case with these pieces of prose, a handful of tangentially related incidents coincided to make me want to write about Pet Nat (Pétillant Naturel, sparkling wine that obtains its bubbles through a naturally occurring second fermentation in the bottle.) You may well be saying to yourself: “but Champagne undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle; what’s the difference?” As I understand it, in the case of Pet Nat, the second fermentation starts and ends spontaneously due to small amounts of residual sugar and yeast in the wine. In the case of Champagne, the second fermentation is carefully orchestrated through the addition of sugar and yeast. The second fermentation happens over a long period of time, the longer the better in fact, and we are indebted to this long, slow second fermentation for the particular creamy, sexy texture of Champagne. With Pet Nat, the second fermentation happens quickly; the wine is not meant to age, rather to quaff on a warm day. Pet Nats are often bottled with a crown cap rather than with a cork, though I don’t believe the crown cap is obligatory. I should mention that Pet Nats invariably seem to have silly names and labels that feature drawings and exclamation points. Marketing to the underage audience? I’m sure I’d have chosen Pet Nat over Zima as an adolescent of 16 at the dawn of my drinking career …

Those of you who know me know that I have been railing against Pet Nat for the past few years. Several of my close friends who work in the natural wine world have, upon surveying the sparkling wine shelf at Chambers Street, demanded “where are all the Pet Nats?!!?” (The answer is, of course, “at someone else’s hipster wine store in Brooklyn.”) I’ve found that Pet Nats often contain two things I do not like in my wine: sweetness and mousiness (the yeasty, peanut husk flavor that marks the finish of many natural wines that have not been racked or filtered sufficiently to remove all the lees). While sweetness has a time and place, mousiness does not, and the combination of the two is noxious in my opinion. I believe the wine that turned me off Pet Nat for years was a Thierry Puzelat Pet Nat that was oxidative, riddled with volatile acidity, still, faintly sweet, and mousy. I just couldn’t do it anymore; I wrote the species off entirely.  The truth is that when I started to love Champagne, I stopped drinking Pet Nat. Though the two beverages are perhaps categorically similar (at least they live on the same shelf in our wine store), I find them to be radically different. (Del the Funky Homosapien and Pusha T are within the same musical category, but their music is totally dissimilar, and the question is “are there people who like both?”)

Pet Nat began to creep back into my heart a few months ago. The catalyst was a wine called Rosé, Rosa, Rosam from La Grange Tiphaine, a ten hectare Domaine in Montlouis. This wine comes from 80-year-old vines of Gamay, Grolleau, Côt, and Cabernet Franc. It’s a peppery, fruity, funky pink sparkling wine with just enough sweetness to coexist with blackberries and strawberries (I know this for a fact; I tried it in Montreal, immediately after asserting to my friends there that “wines never play well with fruits”). In spite of the wine’s faint whisper of sugar on the front palate, the finish is positively brisk and earthy, limestone-y, even … The 2012 version of this wine was very good; the 2013 is even more bracingly delicious, with the vibrant expressiveness of wine with very little sulfur. The finish offers a panoply of flavors that would – in a more conventionally made wine – be masked by the acrid, metallic flavor of sulfur.Rose , Rosa , Rosam

Part of my resurgence of interest in Pet Nat is seasonal. It’s very hard to embrace anything truly serious when the weather has finally become warm and sunny after a seemingly endless winter. February’s escapades feel unreal, as though they happened to someone else: running on the track in a dark, minor-keyed, electronic-music-induced stupor, light snow swirling atmospherically, collecting on my hair and hat. Was that really me drinking Savagnin and rich, oaky Champagne, or –heaven forbid – red wine?!? Now all I want to do is start my morning with Dr. Dre, and end my evening with reggae and a glass of fun, easygoing, refreshing bubbles.

This issue of refreshment came up a few evenings ago when I opened a bottle of 2004 Pascal Doquet Mesnil-sur-Oger. Pascal Doquet more than deserves his own write-up, which will be forthcoming before long. He’s a warm, dedicated, hyper-energetic Champagne vigneron who does great work in the vines, and makes traditional and impeccable Blanc des Blancs. His wines are broad and rich, clawed from the earth, long lees aged, with more dosage than many of the Champagnes I drink. If I were to compare them to Agrapart’s wines, I’d say they’re more rustic and less sleek, less marked by wood, but equally intense and mineral-drenched. The earthy 2004 Mesnil was my favorite wine from my tasting with Pascal. Without malolactic fermentation, it’s structured, tightly coiled Champagne that needs about a decade of bottle age. In short, it’s a dense and impressive bottle of wine with bubbles that was totally unsuited to casual deck drinking. I felt I owed it to the wine to sprint to the nearest chicken rotisserie for a bird. “Damn it,” I said to my conspirator “I really like Champagnes that taste like this … but they are not refreshing at all.” (Champagne and Toots and the Maytals, as it turns out, are kind of weird together, but a nice, frivolous Pet Nat is a perfect match.)Doquet 2004

It’s not just that Champagne and Pet Nat taste different. On the wine store shelf, they represent a juxtaposition of mood and attitude. Champagne is posh and polished, aristocratic and sophisticated; Pet Nat is lively and fun; what it lacks in class, it makes up for in jubilance and vivacity. There’s often variation between bottles; I imagine making Pet Nat to be like throwing two high-spirited people who are attracted to each other together in a room with the door closed for a few hours, wondering if they’ll emerge lovers or enemies. If Champagne is the long forging of a complex relationship between sugar and yeast, Pet Nat is a quick, volatile romance. With Champagne, the price is such that bottle variation is undesirable and frustrating, while with Pet Nat, part of the excitement is not knowing what you’ll find when you lever off the crown cap. (A week ago, we opened a magnum of Philippe Bornard’s lightly sweet rosé Pet Nat Tant-Mieux, and there was a geyser-like explosion of pink bubbles all over my deck. Exciting stuff!)

Benoït Courault’s Pet Nat “Eglantine,” made from Anjou Cabernet Franc and Grolleau, began life as a still red wine … and then the bubbles came along. This is not the sort of wine I’m generally quick to embrace, but I was mysteriously drawn to its deep, black peppery funk mingling with raspberry and dark cherry, its kiss of sweetness, and light tannins on the finish. Not unlike a Lambrusco, this wine has real character, and the uniquity of a wine that has never been made before, and may never be made again.Eglantine

A friend came to the wine store a couple of weeks ago in search of bubbles. He didn’t give a context for the wines; he wanted to try some new things. I sent him home with Rosé, Rosa, Rosam, as well as Stéphane Tissot’s rosé “Indigène.” Later I received a barrage of messages “what is this stuff? It’s crazy!” He was relaxing outside in his backyard, with wines fitting for the occasion. Several days later, he passed along one of the finest compliments I’ve received in some time: “seriously, that shit you sent me home with last time … I swear it shows up in my dreams sometimes.”

I found that in order to get back into Pet Nat, I needed – at least temporarily – to reconnect with my free-spirited inner hippie, to take a momentary departure from the person who analyzes the minutiae of fine Champagnes, to let these wines’ flaws be part of their charm rather than a reason to write them off entirely. Apparently it’s not the case that Pet Nat is a naturally made, less-expensive substitute for Champagne; the two are not interchangeable, and – I never would have believed this a few months ago – there may even be scenarios in which a casual Pet Nat is more fitting than its classier cousin. In my heart of hearts, I’m a Champagne person, but it turns out that this early summer, I’m in the mood for Pet Nat.

 

 

I recently spent the weekend visiting friends in Montreal. As I’ve mentioned before, I absolutely love Montreal, and on this trip I spent more time than usual in the countryside, walking the dog, getting my jeans and sneakers righteously muddy, enjoying the trees and the rain, escaping tense and fast-paced metropolitan life. During my sojourn, I as given an osteopathy session to treat a running injury that’s been plaguing me for months. Here’s how wikipedia defines osteopathy: “Osteopathy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine. Its practitioners claim that the wellbeing of an individual depends on their bones, muscles, ligaments and connective tissue functioning smoothly together. Osteopaths receive special training in the musculoskeletal system. They believe that their treatments, which primarily consist of moving, stretching and massaging a person’s muscles and joints, help allow the body to heal itself.” Osteopathy is extremely popular in Québec, also in many parts of Europe. Interestingly, it’s virtually unknown in the states, where we typically prefer classic, western medicine, healing with pills, surgeries, therapy etc … Even the use of the word “claim” in the aforementioned wikipedia entry seems to imply that Osteopathy may not be a form of medicine we should take seriously.

I didn’t know what to expect from my Osteopathy session, and in fact at a certain point, my friend who performed the treatment told me “don’t worry about trying to understand what I’m doing, because you’re not going to understand it.” He then proceeded to realign a vertebra to allow more blood flow to my liver, and he moved my kidneys around, which he said had migrated and were consequently pulling on my IT band. Toward the end of the session, he lightly laid a few fingers on my mid-thigh, while resting the fingers of the other hand under my lower back. “This is an energy point; your liver is talking to your IT band.” My leg became warm and started to tingle; my head became fuzzy (like after a massage). I rested for a day or two after the treatment, and when I resumed running, my injury had vastly improved.

Our constant quest for understanding is ironic given how much we don’t understand (and never will) – part of the human condition, I suppose. There are some things we are content to allow to remain mysterious – Love, for example, the hot flood of indescribable feeling for another human that causes us perhaps for just a moment to want their happiness above our own, or to link – irrationally – our happiness to theirs. We like the idea of the incomprehensible in Love; with medicine, however, we want answers! Wine is the same way … At a certain level of connoisseur-ship, we stop allowing mystery in our wine: fiches techniques, lengthy explanations of what happens in the vineyard and cellar, detailed reasons for how and why a given wine tastes a certain way. As people in the wine trade, on some level this is our bread and butter, yet with the really special bottles, there’s wonder, mystery, and a whiff of the unknown. To my knowledge no one has yet explained why some bottles of Overnoy Poulsard taste so … damn … good.

Last month I met (for the second time) Benoït Marguet of Champagne Marguet in Ambonnay. An energetic, amusing, and somewhat mystical winemaker, two impressions leap out almost immediately: the first is of rather complex and smart man who has experienced hardships and has adjusted his worldview in light of them, and the second is of a man who is remarkably well-preserved. (Benoït Marguet looks about a decade younger than he is, which made me think that if he’s treating his vines the way he’s treating himself, he’s doing something right! And in fact, he eats some of his biodynamic preparations.)  I’m acquainted with other vignerons who farm this way – Benoït Lahaye – for example; however Benoït Lahaye is not going to talk to me about the ins and outs of biodynamics unless I ask. Benoït Marguet, on the other hand, seems to live and breathe this philosophy, and he speaks about it with an almost religious fervor. I’d go so far as to say (in the most complimentary tone possible) that Benoït Marguet has a spellbinding way of speaking about biodynamics that causes the audience to believe. After our visit, I found myself pondering the mysteries of biodynamics afresh. Specifically, I began to wonder if I could believe in something I don’t understand.horse at marguet

Wikipedia offers a fairly unhelpful definition of biodynamic agriculture that includes such key phrases as “a holistic understanding of the agricultural process,” “treats soil fertility and plant growth,” “emphasizes spiritual and mystical perspectives.” My own grasp of biodynamics is a loose one; I’m all for it if it results in good wine, and many people who work biodynamically make very good wine. That said, in classic, western, pragmatic fashion, I’ve always assumed that it’s not really adherence to the cycles of the moon, decoctions and tisanes that make the wines good, but rather eschewing chemicals, and hard work in the soil. Embracing the idea that something beyond understanding can have a profound impact on wine doesn’t come naturally … at least not to me. Who can keep a straight face when looking at a dynamizer, and having its function explained?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Marguet is a fairly old Domaine in Ambonnay, and Benoït took the reigns in the late ‘90s after having worked in Washington State for Paul Hobbs. In fact he began to learn about alternative soil treatments during his time in the US. Upon his return to Champagne, he joined a syndicate of organic growers. At the time his daughter had leukemia, by which he was – quite understandably – deeply affected.  He remembers watching his father mix the chemicals for the vineyards with his bare hands, and he was inspired to look for more natural ways of treating the soil.  He is one of a growing number who believe there’s a connection between chemical agriculture and diseases of various sorts. In many parts of Champagne, the water isn’t drinkable due to the region’s long history of abuse of the land; the soils of Champagne are sick. (Or in Benoit’s words “the soil has been forgotten in Champagne.”) Organic and biodynamic vineyards make up less than 1% of the total area of the region, but for the people working this way, it’s a very serious and heartfelt project to bring at least a small chunk of the land back to a state of good health.2008 Marguet Crayeres

Benoït Marguet has ten hectares, eight of which are worked biodynamically. We began our visit in Ambonnay’s “Les Crayères” vineyard, a mid-slope, very windy plot that is considered to be one of the great “crus” of Ambonnay. On the day we visited, the soil was being worked by a couple of horses: Ulysses and Régat, acquired from Chateau Latour. The smaller of the two weighs 700 kilos, the larger 900, lighter, still, than the alternative: a five-ton tractors. Benoït thinks that tractors are very bad for the soil, and though horses are considerably more labor-intensive, he prefers them. (This was my first time seeing live horse plowing, and it’s quite a sight. A person follows along behind the horse, controlling the plow, which presses deep into the earth. Horses and drivers proceed up and down the rows in pairs of two, the large metal tines of the plow chunking and aerating the soil. (It’s not easy work for man or beast.)

Before adjourning to the cellar, we passed through the barn, which houses Benoït’s machinery and biodynamic materials. I remembered from my previous visit to Marguet the incredible variety of different plants and herbs uses to treat the soil: dried garlic and rhubarb, peppermint, chamomile, essential oils, silicate to improve the relationship between the sun and the vine. A member of our group asked how Benoït learned about biodynamics. “It’s an exchange with other winemakers; there’s not much research.” Through trial, error, and discussion with others, they discover what works. I wondered for fleeting moment what casual small talk between biodynamic farmers at a dinner party sounds like. “Have you tried that new brand of dried stinging nettles? Incredible. Gosh my horse just did not want to plow this morning!” It’s an all-encompassing project taking care of the soil to this extent.Barrel Room at Marguet

The first stop in Marguet’s cellar is a large room full of barrels that has the open-yet-enclosed feeling of a cathedral chamber. There’s a vaguely haunting stillness, an echo; the vins clairs are slowly fermenting with wild yeast, coming into their own. We tasted vins clairs from several parcels: “Le Parc,” a new midslope plot in Ambonnay with less top soil than “Les Crayères,” “La Grande Ruelle” a vineyard with south and south-eastern exposition. These will become vintage wines, requiring three years of aging on lees before release in 2015. The vins clairs at Marguet are full and vinous, and all undergo malolactic fermentation. I had heard from the importer that for the past few years Marguet has not added any sulfur to the wines. I was incredulous, and posed the question to Benoït. He told me he hadn’t used sulfur in two years, but that he’s not dogmatic. He’s experimented with cultivating certain energies in the wine that eliminate the need for sulfur. He didn’t want to talk about it, and I got the impression I’d gotten during my osteopathy session of highly mysterious processes that I should accept without asking too many questions.

In the tasting room, we began with 2010 rosé d’assemblage, a wine that is mostly Chardonnay with 6-9% still Pinot Noir added. It’s a delicate, salmon colored rosé that is fresh, earthy, and quaffable. Apparently the decision of how much red wine to add to the final blend is made after tasting blind and out of black glasses to ensure color doesn’t influence the decision. I imagine this is somewhat akin to a dosage trial, which helps the winemaker determine the final dosage through blind tasting.2009 Marguet Rose

Next we tasted an incredible 2009 vintage rosé, his 4th vintage rose. The nose was floral with raspberry notes, fennel, and chalk. From older vines, Benoït told us, on the palate the wine was extremely chalky, racy, with plenty of structure and a superb finish. At just shy of 5 grams dosage, the balance was perfect, both for drinking now and for (I would think) a fairly long life in the cellar. I don’t often go crazy for rosé Champagne (anymore), a category in which I find lots of mediocrity. However the sublime examples are truly unparalleled. It’s interesting to note that Benoït Marguet uses a majority of Chardonnay in his rosés, which I assume brings their delicate, lacy, chalky features to the forefront. He also serves them first.

Marguet’s non-vintage Brut Reserve Grand Cru was, I found, telling and illustrative of the style of the wines: rich and masculine, vinous, with high acidity, sometimes toasty and showing the faintest touch of wood. The wine showed particularly well, and offered mossy, green notes as well as Christmas spice and a lightly bitter, nutty, minerality. The wine is 2/3 Pinot, 1/3 Chardonnay, and highlights the powerful character of Ambonnay. It paved the way nicely for the chiseled, rocky, 2008 Ambonnay Grand Cru. The nights, Benoït told us, were very cold that year. The development of acid and structure certainly show this. 62%/38% (wait … is that an exact calculation?) Pinot/Chardonnay, the wine is dosed at 4 grams, and is certainly less easy and friendly than the non-vintage bottling, also more complex.

We tasted a couple of mystery bottles: a Blanc de Blancs from Mesnil — grapes sourced from Moncuit — and a 2010 vintage Blanc de Blancs from the “Les Barmonts” vineyard. The vines here were planted in 1952. The Barmonts was stunning, long and mineral-driven, and showing a touch of wood that bolstered the wine’s structure with impressive results. I’m looking forward to tasting more single vineyard wines from Marguet. This is a good project for someone as passionate and focused as he is.

The real highlight of our tasting, however, was Sapience. This is a joint effort using all organic and biodynamically farmed grapes from Benoït Lahaye, Vincent laval, and David Leclapart. The wine is made in Marguet’s cellar, and the idea as I understand it is to make a wine that is in complete harmony. The nitty gritty of what makes Sapience different from other wines is a bit hard to follow. I know that no effort is spared to promote good energy in the wine, and I’ve heard that these efforts begin in the vineyard and carry through to the bottling, labeling, and even the purple twist of tissue paper over the cork. But when you listen to Benoït speak about this wine, you forget about the nitty gritty. “The wine can be a messenger. You have to be open to it.” This particular Sapience is made up of 1/3 Pinot Meunier from Vincent Laval, and 2/3 Chardonnay from David Leclapart. It’s a revelatory experience, this bottle of wine and (full confession) I did not spit when tasting it. The wine is extremely rich and mellow with Christmas spice, and green, leafy aromatics. The palate is burnished and creamy, almost buttery, with an intensity and presence all its own. As we were drinking Sapience in Benoït’s sunny salon on a beautiful spring afternoon, the room became quiet. There were myriad questions … and then all of a sudden there were no questions at all. We drank the wine, sipped it slowly, allowed it to become warm, allowed it to open up, allowed it to transport and carry us to another place. All of a sudden, a low, distant, and melodious chant began to float through the air, a fine thread of glorious sound in the midst of our contemplative silence. Glances around the room. Where did it come from? It was as though the wine had inspired the chant, and no one wanted to break the spell, but finally someone did. “Benoït, what’s that noise?” “Oh! That’s my cell phone … ” Sometimes it’s better not to understand; sometimes it’s better just to sit back and enjoy the mystery.

 

There’s a marked difference between meeting a winemaker at his Domaine for the first time, and going to see him for the third time. (Please note that my use of “his/him” does not intend to exclude female winemakers, rather to avoid the unwieldy yet politically correct “his or her,” while admitting the reality that – like it or not – most winemakers are men.) In the case of a truly successful first visit, there’s a sense of awe and discovery. You arrive with knowledge of the wines, but without knowledge (save for what you’ve read, of course) of the person and the work behind them; there’s a palpable feeling of connection, and you walk away enlivened and inspired. It’s exciting, and paves the way for future visits that will deepen both rapport with the winemaker, and understanding of the wines.Agrapart Tasting Room

I remember my boss remarking at a recent dinner with Jean Gonon in Saint-Joseph that after three decades of traveling and tasting in France, the wines themselves are inextricably linked to people who make them to the extent that he cannot sip the wine without its author springing to mind. He has ten times my experience, yet on my last trip to France I started to feel the clicking into place of an acquaintanceship with these vignerons whom I keep returning to see. I suppose I should restrain myself to making this gross generalization about French winemakers since I know them best: some are garrulous; others are reserved; in either case most are reticent until you’ve been to see them a few times.

Leaving Pascal Agrapart’s Domaine in Avize a few weeks ago, the phrase “third time’s a charm” popped into my brain, and continued to percolate there for the remainder of my days in Champagne: when Benoït Lahaye invited me to lunch at the local café in Bouzy, when Raphaël Bérèche let me follow him around the winery while he did the racking, perhaps most vividly when I had an early morning coffee with Vincent Laval, I realized that these people are getting used to my annual visits! They’re starting to be sort of like friends! It was a lovely realization. I’ll also add with an apologetic tone that the visits I most want to write about are typically the ones from which I have no photos. For me taking pictures is a distraction, and I want to absorb every word.

What made my third visit to Agrapart more revelatory than the previous two? The initial bits were the same; we met in the courtyard and took in Pascal’s understated confidence, the frantic energy of his resident canine. We regarded the spotless winery, the motorcycle, the tanks that house juice for 7 Crus, Agrapart’s “basic” wine, also Terroirs from older vines and Grand Cru vineyards. We tasted vin clair from barrel: the Avizoise from clay soil and the Minéral from chalk soil, the Vénus from chalk and clay soils in the “La Fosse” vineyard, the Complanté from all seven Champagne grape varieties.  Agrapart’s vins clairs are unbelievable. They taste like finished wines, with a power, minerality, and concentration setting them apart from most. They are also remarkably illustrative of their terroirs: Chardonnay grown on chalk is unlike Chardonnay grown on clay, and the difference is hyper-transparent when the wines have not yet undergone second fermentation.

In the barrel room, Pascal spoke about vineyard work. He’s organic but not certified. He reserves the right to treat with chemicals if necessary, but he hasn’t needed to in many years. He works the soil, and he’s fortunate that his father worked the soil before him unlike many from the previous generation who relied on chemicals. “You tend your vines like you tend your garden,” he said, and of course the wines have depth on the palate and lingering minerality on the finish obtained through working the soil and encouraging “profondeur” (vine roots digging deep into the chalk bedrock beneath). We talked about horse plowing. Here it would be helpful to have hand gestures. “The difference between using chemical treatments and plowing with a tractor is like this” (insert widely spaced palms) “the difference between plowing with a tractor and plowing with a horse is like this” (insert one or two inch gap between fingers). It’s nice to have a horse on hand when the photographers come by!

We moved to a tasting room adjacent to the winery, not the tasting room I was used to chez Agrapart in which you stand around a small bar, but rather an intimate, sunny salon with a high table and chairs, a room that encouraged conversation beyond the brute facts of cépage, dosage, assemblage, and the other “ages” that feature in the discussion of Champagne.

Tasting 7 Crus based on the 2011 and 2010 vintages, we learned about Agrapart’s disgorgement key. There’s a letter on the cork: A for January disgorgement, B for February, C for March. This bottle was fresh, clean, and floral, with delicate stone fruits and sweet lime on the nose and palate. At 7 grams dosage, it’s balanced and easy-going. This is the only wine Agrapart makes that is not Blanc de Blancs (save for Complanté); it contains a very small percentage of red grapes, but I don’t know that I’d be able to detect them blind. It’s a wine I have varied experience with, and am sometimes disappointed by. Tasting this recent disgorgement (January 2014), I came to realize that because Agrapart releases the wine several times a year, much depends on the date of disgorgement relative to the base year. The longer the wine rests on lees the more complex it becomes; the early disgorgements are simpler. This was the same wine as the last bottle I’d tasted in New York, but with six additional months on lees.

We tasted Terroirs from the 2010 and 2009 vintages, disgorged in March of 2014. Terroirs features fruit from four Grand Crus in the Côte des Blancs: Avize, Cramant, Oger, and Oiry, the soil a mixture of chalk and clay. The vines are around 40 years old, and Agrapart uses 50% reserve wine and 50% barrel for this cuvée.  Dosed at five grams, Terroirs is more mellow, more yellow and tropical-fruited than 7 Crus, with more length and focus on the palate. I think of this bottle as the real introduction to Agrapart’s style; you feel the wood influence; you begin to get a sense of the shape of his wines: round and circular up front, long and tapering like an asymptote on the finish. Agrapart is obsessed with capturing “amertume” – deliciously bitter flavors: almond, citrus pith, notes that give tension to the wines, and cause them to have their striking shape on the palate.

Base 2011 Complanté, with 20% juice from 2010, a wine for which Pascal uses only barrels (from Dagueneau, Chidaine, and a Burgundy producer whose name escapes me), showed intriguing notes of fennel and red fruit. For me it’s the only one of Agrapart’s wines to offer a hint of red fruit, which stands to reason; he’s in the land of chalky Chardonnay. I love this wine, but in spite of its 24-36 months on lees, it didn’t quite deliver the length and profundity on the palate of some of Agrapart’s wines. This makes sense; the wines are still young.

Between 2002 and 2012, Pascal had good vintages. 2013 was the first hard one in a decade due to copious spring rain. The crop was small, but the quality was good. “Vintages are 75% work in the soil, and 25% climate,” Pascal told us. He thinks that when the vines are tended well, there’s less vintage variation due to the profondeur of the vines roots, which draw nutrients from the subsoil regardless of the conditions many meters above. Hard vintages are a challenge in the vineyard; he believes in making vintage wines in hard years. The logic was something to the effect of “why would you only make vintages wines in years when you haven’t done any work?” I smiled. People buy Champagne according to vintage: the lauded wines of 2008, the allegedly inferior wines of the surrounding years, but don’t we concur that if the person knows what they’re doing, they’ll make great wine regardless? And in general, my favorite Champagne growers do …

We tasted 2007 Minéral. This wine highlights chalk terroir. Half and half barrel and tank matured, the nose is extremely stony with white fruits and flowers. Dosed at 3-4 grams, it delivers an array of exquisite bitter flavors of almond, chalk, and citrus on the palate. It’s a wine for oysters; Pascal called it “a summer wine.” I oscillate between preferring Minéral and preferring Avizoise; at this tasting, Minéral truly sang. It fulfilled every need for a chalk laser to the brain.

We talked about the trend of separating parcels. Without disparaging the trend, Pascal simply said that it doesn’t make sense for him because he has too many of them, and he thinks it’s better to isolate the chalk and the clay and make a portrait of those two soil types. “You have to develop a philosophy” he said “you’ve got to build it like a pyramid, but then you can’t just remove a block from the base of the whole thing will crumble.”

If Minéral is a summer wine, Avizoise is a winter wine. Highlighting clay soil, especially of “Les Robarts,” a vineyard that lies partially in Cramant and partially in Oiry, it’s always made 100% in barrel. Pascal does tirer à liége for this wine, using corks rather than capsules for the second fermentation. Dosed at 3-4 grams, the wine is richer and more toasty and smoky than Minéral with tropical notes of pineapple and yellow fruit. Yet in spite of its breadth on the palate, the wine focuses on the finish as though to a pinpoint of sapid, mineral, and bitter flavors. If 2007 Minéral is a wine for oysters, 2007 Avizoise could handle a roast chicken.

2007 Vénus is – according to my palate – the most “clawed from the earth” bottling Agrapart makes, and widely thought of as his top wine. The legend of this wine is that his (now deceased) horse Vénus plowed the soil in the “La Fosse” vineyard in Avize. Now a friend’s horse plows the soil, and Agrapart seems happy with the arrangement. This is a chalky, earthy, and intensely impressive wine. With no dosage, the wine’s pretty, lime-flower fruit plays second fiddle to its sweeping, pillar-like stoniness. If I had a bottle, I’d hold on to it for a while.

We began to discuss a very geeky subject, which I find eternally interesting: making Champagne with one’s own vineyard yeast. Pascal has done it! “Most Champagne is 95% juice, and 5% water, sugar, and yeast; my champagnes are about 3% water, sugar, and yeast, but I want to make one that is 100% jus de raisin.” I asked him how he accomplished this with the 2007 Expérience, and he said “I put some unfermented 2008 juice in the bottle with some yeast from the cellar, and that’s it.” There must be more to it that I don’t understand, but I’m happy to leave the subject shrouded in mystery.

My note on the 2007 Expérience began with an expletive (safe to say I’d be emailing the supplier as soon as I’d left the winery to wheedle myself an allocation). The wine is an assemblage of Avizoise and Minéral, without dosage. It’s the fifth time Pascal has made the wine, but it’s the first time he’s been allowed to declare it “Champagne.” The CIVC (Champagne’s quality and authenticity control police) meticulously investigates all Champagne producers to make sure the wines are “correct.” Ironically, your Champagne isn’t supposed to be only jus de raisin, and it’s especially hard to made an all native yeast fermented wine that passes muster with the CIVC. The wine was soaring, expressive, and intensely mineral. As with my favorite sulfur-free Champagnes, there was a vivid-ness to the fruit, a clarity and power that were truly impressive. This wine is rare, and it’s expensive, but it’s indubitably worth seeking out.

Then, and this is a very special moment at any winery visit, Pascal left the table and came back with an old, dusty, label-less bottle. The wine was almond-y, toasty, and a bit oxidative, buttery and lactic with hints of coffee and cocoa. The bubbles were faint, but the wine was remarkably fresh. We guessed it was from the ‘90s, but it was a 1984, from Pascal’s father’s last vintage, disgorged in 2000. We didn’t spit; we chatted about this and that. We reeled out onto Rue Jean-Jaurés, bathed in glorious midday sun, quiet, reflecting on all we’d learned and all we’d tasted.

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.