Monday, November 1, 2010

Better Med Red Than Dead

Eric Asimov's mourvèdre-themed column today reminds me not only that it's been far too long since I've drank Bandol (my 2001 and 2003 Pradeaux are resting comfortably off-site) but that I should tell you about the newly-released 2006 Mediterranean Red from Sierra Foothills producer Renaissance, which was sent to me as a press sample a few weeks ago. The Renaissance vineyard is riddled with all sorts of grapes and I had forgotten they grew mourvèdre, but grow it they do, and this is basically 50% mourvèdre, 25% syrah, and 25% grenache.

With 0.4% residual sugar — not so much to make it even remotely sweet or turn it into a stereotype of a California fruit bomb, but enough to render it tender — the Mediterranean Red is more generous and approachable than good, traditionally-minded Bandol of a similar age. I'd even say this youngster is exuberant. Nevertheless, the flavors and proportions certainly evoke good Bandol: the berry, spice, and leather elements are classic and stitched together seamlessly.

There's not the slightest hint of Brett here, and yet there is a wild note quivering in the background that totally says "mourvèdre." That wild note paired well with the gaminess of locally-farmed ground lamb from Mint Creek Farm, while the forthright acidity helped cut through the fat. That acidity should help the wine age a few years, as should its balanced structure. The Med Red isn't particularly complex at this stage of the game, so additional aging (beyond the 36 months it spent in old barrique) isn't a bad idea. Still, I really enjoyed this wine now. Sometimes good things come to those who don't wait.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wine News From Here and There

Ken Wright's evaporatorJust a few odds and ends.

Many people agree with me that Remy Charest's article "Natural Wine: On a Practical Note.. may be the best article written of late on natural wine, as he highlights how the best practitioners are really quite pragmatic, if also dedicated and quite serious, in the way they make their wines. Really a must read.

Of course, it's easy to nod one's head at this article, as Charest profiles well-known, highly-trusted winemakers whose idea of practical intervention is to add a small shot of sulfur. What would they think of Ken Wright's practice of boiling water-logged grapes in a vacuum at 50 degrees Fahrenheit to concentrate the must? If people are not adverse to having Pierre Overnoy chaptalize (add sugar) in certain years to pump up the alcohol levels, would they be so sanguine about Wright using a high-tech device to simply take water away in a heat- and oxygen-free environment? The answer, of course, is contextual to the person learning this news (do they trust Wright?), the winemaker (what is his motivation, and how else is he intervening?), and of course the wine itself (what other reactions and results occur in the process, and what is the wine when one drinks it?).

Speaking of water in Oregon, rain is not the only threat to Oregon's exceptionally late 2010 harvest: hungry, migrating birds are wreaking havoc on vineyards throughout the state — and they quickly wise up to countermeasures. Egad.

Speaking of water in Oregon for the third time, a very alarming report from the National Center for Atmospheric Research projects that extreme drought will overcome much of the developed world by 2060, including much of Europe and the western US, if global warming emissions continue at their present rate — echoing previous studies on the subject.

Finally, in happier if less inevitable news, if you're able to get to Anjou in late November, get your buns over to St. Aubin de Luigné for Anges Vins 2010. Saurigny! Courault! Mosse! Angeli! Les Griottes! Sigh, if only I could be there...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

And On the Second Day, He Rested

Tuesday nights are not for opening the best bottle of wine, but — correct me if I'm wrong here — we all hope for something not merely tasty, but something darn good, yes? I opened the following sub-$15 wines on various Tuesday nights and was happy with two of the three.

Château de la Roulerie Anjou Rouge 2008
This cabernet franc comes from the schistous soils of St-Aubin de Luigné and it's textbook unoaked 2008 Anjou — there's an edge to the acidity that jousts well with the dark, juicy, and fairly concentrated plum / blackcurrant fruit, the stemmy dried herb notes, the brown and rock-flecked earth tones. Did I say the fruit is juicy? Yes, but it's also almost entirely bereft of sweetness. Clearly, this is old world and old school. I really enjoy the way this wine shows a fair amount of heft upon entry and then lifts nicely toward the back of the palate, and I enjoyed it with a spicy butternut squash soup. See a nice profile of the domaine from The Wine Doctor.

Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne 2007
The 2007 Rhônes I've had that emphasize restraint can, I think, justify much of the vintage hype. Some I've tasted show phenomenal balance and depth. This, however, is not one of them. Despite the undercurrent of minerality and the fleshy, tasty fruit, this is a bit heavy, a touch hot, and quite alcoholic, and while there is acidity, this performs as if it were acidified — it isn't quite integrated into the wine somehow.

Quattro Mani [toh-kai] Exto Gredic Vineyard 2008
Once upon a time I had a sauvignon blanc from Slovenia and I thought, "If Chablis grew sauvignon blanc, this is what it would be like." I was wrong, in the sense that there wasn't any seashell chalkiness, but there was a dry, steely, acid-forward character to the wine that I've since found in all the better Slovenian non-contact whites I've had, and which I find in this wine as well.

I'm not sure who's behind the Quattro Mani brand but the concept is to hire named vignerons to produce wines from throughout Italy and points nearby. This one's made in Slovenia by Movia winemaker Aleš Kristančič and it's damn cool and distinctive. Hell, it's even a single vineyard wine made from the friulano grape, or tocai friulano as it is also known. The nose is, vinously speaking, exotically herbal — it has leek, macerated mint, and basil aromas — and it's also a touch honeyed. Its steely structure is unmistakable, and still it's overlain by a round, almost rich, yet somehow un-fruited body. The finish is long and fairly complex, and it's a pretty mighty achievement given the price tag.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Clos Saron's Great 2006 Home Vineyard Pinot Noir

Gideon Beinstock, Clos SaronWhen I visited Clos Saron in the Sierra Foothills two years ago and first tasted the 2006 Home Vineyard Pinot Noir, I noted its restraint and purity but mentioned that it needed time, as the tannins and the finish were not yet resolved.

The wine is now emerging — blooming, really — and it's clear that I didn't understand then how good this would become.

I tasted this over two recent days, but even from pop and pour the wine is sappy, pure, elegant, mineral, light but deep, structured, long, transparent, and complex — everything pinot noir is supposed to be. Gideon Beinstock is a winemaker who emphasizes terroir by showing restraint on the oak and the sulphur (only 30 ppm added at crush, none at bottling), and this wine shows specific, rocky, spicy tannins courtesy the granite and old volcanic ash soils from whence this came. As for the flavors, they're not overboard on the cherries; rather, the Home Vineyard shows lovely citric acidity, orange notes, rocky minerals, and a complete presence throughout the mouth, front to back. It also has just 13.4% abv — the northeastern-facing vineyard is in a cool corridor at 1600 feet. The fruit is still young, the acidity is robust, so this has a long way to go.

If complex, long-lived pinot noir a la The Eyrie and Rhys turns your crank, you need to add Clos Saron to your list.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Visiting Evesham Wood, Eola Hills OR

Erin Nuccio, Evesham WoodLongtime Evesham Wood followers were likely surprised by the note that owner Russ Raney posted back in July: "After 24 years of a mixture of euphoria and despair (only a little bit of the latter) - Mary & I faced the golden opportunity to retire early... So as of August 2010, Erin & Jordan [Nuccio] will be the new owners of Evesham Wood Winery & Le Puits Sec Vineyard."

Myself, I'd never had the wines before, but I knew their rep as some of the more elegant from Oregon, and so I set up a visit in mid-September. As we (my friends and I) discovered after winding our way up the gravelly drive, one reason you need to set up a visit is because there's no fancy tasting room: just a cellar, a tin shed, a house, and a vineyard. And dang, that vineyard: the basaltic, reddish-brown soil was gorgeous, completely uncompacted, covered in dry grass, with not an irrigation hose in sight. After all, Russ helped found the Deep Roots Coalition, which advocates for non-irrigated grape farming, and the home vineyard, Le Puits Sec, is certified organic.

But it was Erin, as the new owner, who greeted us and began the visit with a brief tour of the vineyard. Erin's a peach (new rule of thumb: the coolest people make the best wine) and he exuded a quiet respect for the soil and the grapes. Here, he said, you can see we missed a weed, but we'd rather plow than spray Roundup. Yes, Russ planted some savagnin. Savagnin? Far out! We also talked about the difficult 2010 vintage (see my previous post for details).

Erin will, for now, keep things the same at Evesham Wood: he will continue to cork bottles by hand, rack the wine twice a year from bunghole, rather than speed things along with a bulldog pup, and inoculate using yeast that Russ isolated from a bottle of Jayer rather than inoculate with a commercial yeast or leaving things to native yeast. On the other hand, Erin will continue to run his own label, Haden Fig, and on these wines he will allow himself to experiment with, for example, native fermentation. Surely these experiments will cross over to the Evesham Wood wines, with time.

Erin was kind enough to have us taste from barrel and bottle both.

2009 Le Puits Sec Pinot Noir (from barrel) - This shows tasty blueberry and good acidity despite the heat of the vintage. It's somewhat simple right now but will won't be released until September, 2011, so it has time to develop.

2009 Temperance Hill (from barrel) - Temperance Hill is a high elevation vineyard in the Eola Hills which survives the hot vintages much better than lower vineyards. I smell a very sweet herb / syrup nose that's really familiar but which I cannot put my finger on. Erin helps: "Some people say wine from this vineyard has a cannabis quality." Ding! That's it! Amazing. The texture is really smooth, and quite fresh and light, and the wine persists on the finish.

2009 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir - This was just released and we tasted it from bottle. It's made all from purchased fruit (mostly from local, Eola-Amity vineyards) and it shows a long, orangey profile. Taken together, the three 2009s demonstrate that while all are made in (mostly) the same way from the same isolated yeast, each is specific.

2008 Le Puits Sec Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir - Now this is great stuff; top of the pops here, my friends and I agree. It's a complete wine that shows red and black fruit, lovely acidity, gracious structure, and the kind of length and finesse you look for. My cheeks quivered with acid and fine tannin. It's one of those wines that seems necessary: it's a wine with soul.

2009 Haden Fig Willamette Valley Pinot Noir - This shows a bit of the sweet herb thing, which is present mostly at the sides of my tongue — it's enough to distract me from the midpalate. I also get some peppery spice.

If I were a better writer I'd more ably convey how good it was to be there. The wines were terrific and the vibe was right. It's not just about what's in the bottle, it's about the land, and what people are doing, and how, and why. Obviously Erin's barely into his tenure but I'm betting things will continue to go well at Evesham Wood.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hens and Chicks In Oregon, Sept 2010

hens and chicks, Evesham Wood, Sept 2010I snapped the photo at right two and a half weeks ago at Evesham Wood's dry-farmed home vineyard, Le Puits Sec. Flowering was extremely late in the Willamette Valley this year thanks to a very cool late spring and the cool conditions of summer further contributed to uneven ripening (see all them green grapes?) and the old "hens and chicks" phenomenon, wherein tiny, undeveloped berries are bunched together with normal-sized berries. I saw this in every WV vineyard I laid eyes on in mid-September.

Still, things might — just might — turn out very nicely this year in Oregon. Lots of folks dropped fruit to direct ripening energy to the remaining grapes. To paraphrase Erin Nuccio of Evesham Wood, "It's like watching money fall to the floor," but that's life at the edge of ripening, and Erin, for one, prefers the cooler vintages that result in lower alcohols and greater nuance. His hope (mine, too) is that the remaining grapes are not just fully developed but show the complexity that can result from a long, cool growing season. Conscientious wineries could, with rigorous selection at the sorting table, turn out very good wines. I'm no winemaker but I don't think this vintage will be as easy on winemakers as was 2008.

Some WV wineries began harvesting last weekend, thanks in part to the modestly warm and gentle weather of the last two weeks. Others are waiting in hopes that the weather holds, meaning not that brix levels will shoot up — it's too cool for that — but that the rain holds off. We'll see: the forecast calls for nice weather over the next two days, then some rain after that. Migrating birds need to cooperate as well.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Keeping Portland Weird: Schöne Schlucht

Barnaby Tuttle of the Teutonic Wine Company"Keep Portland Weird," goes the rallying cry, and Willamette Valley winemakers Barnaby and Olga Tuttle are doing their part. Let's count the ways.

  1. Barnaby and Olga use indigenous yeasts and neutral oak barrels to make wines of place / somewhereness. Nevertheless, they invoke yet another place by calling their company the Teutonic Wine Company.
  2. Their 2009 wines are actually labeled under the Schöne Schlucht name, which is hard to remember and nigh-impossible to pronounce — and this after labeling their wines Honig Schlucht in 2008.
  3. While they make pinot noir and riesling, they also make a varietal pinot meunier despite its nonexistent market reputation.
  4. They're so Teutonically obsessed that they would have labeled the pinot meunier as schwarzriesling if the authorities would have let them, which of course would have led consumers to believe it was a white wine, particularly as it's housed in a tapered, riesling-suggestive bottle.
  5. Barnaby wore an Iron Maiden shirt to a recent tasting even though a Scorpions shirt would have been more Teutonic; somehow this offness was more fitting.
An aside: I visited a well-regarded winery during my recent Oregon visit and found wines that were nicely made, technically correct, balanced, expensive, and dull, dull, dull. Wines dressed in starched clothes. To riff off "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," the wines were so damn dutiful that I wanted to spank them, right there in the fancy-pants tasting room. You might think that the Tuttles are so intent on making German and Alsatian-styled wines that they'd be hamstrung by dutifulness, but that is not remotely the case. Instead, as I discovered at a tasting at the Storyteller wine shop, their wines may follow the low-alcohol, acid-driven style often found in Germany, but they are specific, unbound, themselves.

The Schöne Schlucht 2009 Willamette Valley Riesling, which hails from the iron- and clay-rich Crow Valley Vineyard near Eugene, would do well in a lineup of like-minded German halbtrockens without aping them too directly. It smells like pie crust and sunny fall days and on the palate nicely balances slightly tart and slightly sweet fruit flavors while also sneaking in a hint of umami up the middle. It has good extract, weight, and length, and it turns dry on the finish, with a limey twist that I associate with slate-grown riesling, although the finish here is mellower than a Mosel. It's an effortlessly substantial and seriously joyful wine from 30 year old self-rooted vines that (no surprise) performs well with spicy food.

I also really liked the 2009 Schöne Schlucht "Bergspitze", which is a pinot noir (spätburgunder) from the 1400 foot elevation Laurel Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. I suppose that vineyards 1000 feet lower suffered under the extreme heat in 2009, but not this one: the wine is only 12.5% and it shows a cool, mint or eucalyptus profile; as does the 2009 Schöne Schlucht Willamette Valley Pinot Meunier, which also shows a hint of meatiness. Both wines are very good in their own right and are more specific than many Oregon pinot noirs twice their price (they're in the low to mid-20s).

The 2009s are awfully young and, if very promising, still a bit angular, so I'm particularly glad to have found the more mature 2008 Honig Schlucht Willamette Valley Pinot Meunier at a different Portland shop to bring home to Chicago. The aromas here are infused with cherry, lingonberry, redwood forest, grilled steak, and a drop of Dracula-friendly blood, thanks to the iron-rich soils of the Borgo Pass vineyard near Corvallis. It's even better in my mouth, for it's not only lively and juicy but also has a dead sexy silkiness that's structured by fine tannins and the kind of acidity that makes the wine waft effortlessly over the palate. Finally, it finishes with a tingling, peppery, lightly tart, admirably long mineral sensation. Admittedly, I've never had a German schwarzriesling before, but this wine actually reminds me of a Chinon, particularly Baudry's Les Granges — and yes, it's that good. Alas, with that one bottle, it's all gone... Thank god I have two 2009s for the future.

How do young winemakers hit it out of the ballpark in their first vintage? I'm shaking my head.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Roussanne-a-thon! A Blind Tasting

In the wrong hands, the roussanne grape yields a wine of sweaty corpulence, a palate-flattening liquor oil. In the right hands, all that flesh can be allied with acidity, stone, and spice to render a taut grace. After experiencing deep and mineral roussannes from Renaissance and Château de la Gardine, I started to fixate on the possibilities. What can roussanne say? In what places and in whose hands does it speak most clearly? How much attention must be paid?

I decided to host a blind tasting to find out. With a gaggle of friends, a murder of pals, we brown bagged five roussannes and compared notes. We did this not in a clean room but in a kitchen. We stacked plates with cheeses and meats, grilled lamb sausages, noshed on baba ghanouj and vinegary potato salad. The wine rag gods will need to be appeased at a later date.

I found it somewhat difficult to find wines for the tasting, which we stipulated could simply be majority roussanne. Rhône blancs are usually majority marsanne, and the applicable Rhônes I did find (Beaucastel, for example) were prohibitively expensive. Brun's roussanne from Beaujolais, which I would dearly like to try, seems not to be in Chicago. And there are only so many from California to choose from, too, as even the large stores I perused offered at most two applicable bottles.

Of course, there's barely any roussanne planted in either Oregon or Washington, and per the Tablas Creek blog there were as of 2008 only 348 acres planted in California, so it follows that availability of even domestic roussanne in Chicago is limited. Perhaps so little is grown because, as our friends in Paso say, roussanne "is a shy and erratic producer even under ideal conditions... prone to shutting down toward the end of harvest, as well as to shatter and uneven yield." Gulp.

In the end, we all brought examples from California: the 2006 Renaissance Estate Roussanne from the northern section of the Sierra Foothills ($35), the 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Roussanne from high on the west side of Paso Robles ($32), the 2008 Truchard Estate Roussanne from the Napa Valley side of Carneros ($20), the 2007 Qupé Roussanne Bien Nacido Hillside Estate from the Santa Maria Valley ($40) and the 2008 Booker White from the west side of Paso ($45?). Both Tablas Creek and Renaissance grow their fruit organically and ferment with native yeasts; the other three producers trod more conventional paths, although Booker is now converting to biodynamics.

After we tasted and jotted and tasted and chatted and tasted some more, it came time for us to reveal our thoughts; and fascinatingly, the wines clearly divided into three levels.

The odd wine out, and the only one to be somewhat panned, was the Booker White, which is 60% roussanne and 40% viognier. I thought it fat and syrupy and hot — it really showed its astonishing 14.9% alcohol. Others noted some bitterness, but also mentioned orange, bubblegum, or pear tart characteristics.

Up a sure notch were the low alcohol roussannes (12.5% and 12.8%, respectively) from Qupé and Renaissance. Although they shared low alcohols, they couldn't have been more different. The Qupé, which comes from a west-facing block of the notoriously cool Bien Nacido vineyard, was lush and ripe, and my friends and I noted toasty oak, sweet pear, almond, and buttercream, yet it was also described as "spry" and "crunchy." Its lack of structure underwhelmed me but I was impressed with its smoky palate and very long finish, and I didn't find it overly ripe.

By contrast, the Renaissance, farmed from a north-facing granite slope, was stonier and more structured, but also shorter. It didn't show as well as it had previously, as this bottle was slightly oxidized, and so forest floor / mushroom / earth characteristics overcame its stony and ethereal side. I also had to ding it for its short finish. Nonetheless it was balanced and showed its characteristic salted butter, yellow flower, brown spice, and rock characteristics.

All seven of us agreed that the Tablas Creek and the Truchard, both just a tick over 14%, were our two favorites. The Tablas Creek, from calcareous clay, was praised for its characteristics of flowers and stones, apricot, brown butter, and slightly salty minerals. Upon smelling its rich marzipan nose I thought, "late harvest!" but it's dry on the palate, both clean and rich, and nicely balanced. I wish it was more structured, but no one else complained about this.

For me, the Truchard had it all: excellent structure, great length, a stony nose, brown spices, ginger, and the kind of acidity that made it feel totally alive. Interestingly, all of us noted a candied note that was alternately described as dusted taffy, chalky candy, and creme brulée, but no one thought this wine confected or sweet. Is there something about the Truchard vineyard's volcanic soils that gives it this chalky candy aspect? In any case, it received the most top votes.

All the wines were smoky and quite full-bodied, but beyond that each wine was very different, and each was made from different soils and sites and made in very different ways: whole cluster pressed vs. not; partial malo vs. full malo; native vs. cultured yeast, etc. So it's not easy to say from my limited vantage point that all necessarily express terroir and not just the variety.

One thing is clear, though: just as the better producers of California chardonnay are backing away from the butter, so too are the better producers of California roussanne pursuing definition and expression. If the wines can be good to very good now and are able partners with food, future vintages of California roussanne from these and other careful producers should be even better. I look forward to getting to know them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

With Jérôme and Sophie Saurigny, Anjou

Jérôme and Sophie Saurigny, and LuisIf you have turned your back on what Bordeaux too often stands for, you need to know about Jérôme Saurigny. He did so literally in 2005, quitting his work there and turning instead to Anjou and making wine naturally on his own at Domaine Saurigny. On paper he sounds utterly crazy. Who in his right mind would macerate cabernet franc for four months without sulfur, CO2, or temperature control? He went to enology school in Bordeaux, didn't they teach him anything down there? But Jérôme's wines do not taste foolish or crazy. They are utterly alive, fresh, vivid, and their exuberance reflects his personality.

Jérome is part of what I think of as the VdF crew of the Layon, young natural winemakers who exchange ideas and occasionally collaborate but ultimately pursue their own individual paths to making natural wine. The ones I met created rather than inherited their domaines, work long days in the vineyards and the chai, and live simply. Some actually do produce AC bottlings, but the Saurignys now only release Vin de Table / Vin de France bottlings. Between the size of their holdings — 6+ ha in the Saurignys' case — and their unpretentious pricing (these are not garagistes), I can't imagine that anyone in the VdF crew is getting rich.

The most important thing to know about the Saurignys is just how great they are, really warm and generous and welcoming. Just for starters, I arrived 20 minutes late for my appointment at Domaine Saurigny in Saint-Aubin-de-Luigné, but Sophie Saurigny was genuinely unfussed about my late arrival. Jérôme himself wasn't there when I arrived — he was over at Les Griottes with Sebastien Dervieux pressing gamay after it had been macerating for eight (!) months — but that meant I could spend some time talking with Sophie.

Sophie told me about Jérôme's stints in Bordeaux and how he found the wines ultimately boring. Here in the Layon, they take the natural approach; they only fight humidity with Bordeaux mixture and otherwise only plow, prune, and do other hand-driven work to maintain vine health. My French is poor, but I did my best to understand the full story. For example, I ask Sophie about biodynamics, and I think she said that the biodynamic approach is fine for larger domaines but that they choose the natural-only approach.

Jérôme arrived as if on a gust of wind with Luis (sp?), who'd been assisting Jérôme and Sébastien over at Les Griottes. Sophie provided cherries and pork rillots (aka rillettes), which are a specialty of the Layon, to snack on as Jérôme led the tasting. This was not some quiet, formal affair: Jérôme tore off chunks of bread, ran around gathering tasting samples, downed wine, and good-naturedly answered all my questions. Jérôme used to skateboard and he has a free, roguish energy which mirrors that in his wines.

2008 Au Suivant... VdT: We began with this cabernet franc made from 15 and 30 year old vines from St. Aubin. It's the one I referred to above where the grapes were macerated for four months in resin/epoxy tank (a vessel favored by the VdF crew), but I must emphasize that the wine is balanced, without a hint of overextraction or excess tannin. The wine is utterly alive, with a gorgeous nose of flowers and beautiful red fruits. Its acid and tannin structure are perfect, and it is a joy to drink. What a great way to start a tasting! It's also only 12% abv, which is typical at this domaine, and as with all the Saurigny wines since 2007, there are no sulfur additions whatsoever, not even at bottling.

2008 Ange Ou Démon: It's a pun — Anjou / Ange Ou — and a potentially helpful one at that, as VdF labels cannot explicitly advertise the region or the appellation, just a zip code. Look closely and you'll also see this tiny print: "L.CFCS8." More specifically, it's 25% cabernet franc and 75% cabernet sauvignon, and it's darker on the nose and much darker on the palate than the Au Suivant. This underwent one month of maceration and the tannins are both fine and lovely. Again, the acidity here is beautiful.

2008 Pactole: My first grolleau! Jérôme said this grape gives a lot of juice and not a lot of tannins. It's yet another lively, lovely wine. It's spicy, but its pepper character is finer and less aggressive than pineau d'aunis, to which it bears a resemblance, and I like it more. It's red berried but not to the point of cranberry; it's not that tart. Pactole translates as "gold mine" — another joke given this variety's commercial viability? This is only 11.5% abv.

Now we taste a few whites from bottle.

2008 Chenapan etiquette, Domaine Saurigny2008 Chenapan: "Rogue" indeed: this completely dry chenin is unlike any I've had. Its color is peach, almost like the label! The nose hints of oxidation but it's very fresh on the palate and laced with ginger and ground pepper. It's also a bit tannic! I asked about skin contact, but Jérôme said there was none, and that the tannins come from the schist. The vines are located high on a slope above the Layon. This is a fabulous wine.

2009 Sauvignon: With rare exception (e.g. the best Sancerre) I only like varietal sauvignon blanc when it comes from granite or schist, and this is indeed terrific. It's slightly orange/straw colored and a bit cloudy, but it's of course young yet. But despite its youth, it's expressive, and the schist lends a slightly spicy character to the wine. Not a catbox in sight. Jérôme says the 2009 harvest was very easy.

Now we switch to unbottled reds from tank.

2009 Gamay: Jérôme doesn't find this interesting — "pour la soif," he says. There's a bit of residual sugar still, but despite that I like the wine's purity.

2009 Grolleau: Grolleau may not have a lot of tannins, but this sample is quite tannic. I get purple fruits on the nose and it's very young in the mouth. This one Jérôme really likes.

2009 Pinot Noir: Jérôme doesn't intend to bottle this, it's just for the Saurignys and their friends. It has a big, beautiful nose but it's medium-light in the mouth, a bit tannic, and shows a strange hint of band-aid.

Back to bottled wine! Even though I was spitting, this was a lot of wine!

2008 Gamma GT: I asked why "GT" but I couldn't understand the answer. Sometimes you have to say, "Répétez, s'il vous plaît," and sometimes you should just move on. Jérôme and Sophie both said they find a hint of paper in the finish. I did not, but it's not as expressive as their other 2008 reds: hints of schist and smoke, but only a little.

Les Griottes La Griotte: This c. franc / c. sauvignon blend is made by the Saurignys' friend Sebastien Dervieux at Les Griottes, who likewise eschews sulfur and all other additions. It was unlabeled so Jérôme didn't know if it was the 2007 or the 2008. Upon tasting I thought it was the 2007 and Jérôme agreed. It showed very pure and firm blackcurrant fruit and good concentration, and it was quite young and tannic, so it needs some time yet.

2009 Les Griottes Mousseaux Moussaillon: Bottlecapped bubbly! Again, this is a peach-colored, chenin-based mousseaux. It's a touch oxidized but delicious for it. Jérôme said this was disgorged during a very cold snap in winter. Much later in the day, as we were cleaning the press, I happily quaffed a glass of this.

Now to Jérôme's sweet wines. These slayed me, as they showed the beautiful balance and weightlessness that I look for in sweet wines. And again, despite the risks, these wines have no SO2 as of the 2007 vintage.

2007 "S": This has 200 g/l of sugar but, as Jérôme and Sophie said, it "drinks like water." This is balanced and complex and expressive, with absolutely gorgeous apricot, honey, and ginger notes.

2005 "S": This comes from the Saurignys' first vintage and it has a lot more sugar: 300 g/l. Nevertheless it's not at all heavy, even if it is very rich on the palate, with brown sugar and apricot characters. Very nice lift here for a 2005, which at other Loire domaines can suffer a touch from too little acidity.

2009 liquoreux barrel samples: Jérôme vinifies the non-botrytisized grapes separately from those with botrytis, even in years like this where there was very little botrytis. The former sample was very pure, with great acidity, while the botrytisized sample was likewise very pure but included an interesting lychee note.

We are done at the chai, time to pile in the car to go to Les Griottes and see how the gamay is coming along. Here I meet Sebastien Dervieux, whom I frankly can't understand in the slightest. Luis tells me that Sebastien and Jérôme make liberal use of the local slang, which combined with my minimalist French explains things. Sebastien and Jérôme press the macerated-for-eight-months gamay with a very gentle pneumatic wooden press, which also explains a thing or two: tasting the freshly pressed juice, I find it really tannic — damn is it tannic! — but not at all bitter or overextracted. It is fresh and vital.

The rest of the afternoon is a whirlwind: lunch at the Saurignys' home in Rochefort, visits with a few of Jérôme's friends, and then back to the chai to clean the press. I helped out for a few moments after filming this video, which shows the glamorous side of being a winemaker:

Finally, we paid a visit to Domaine Mosse, whose 2005 Anjou sec flipped my wig over a year ago (I literally cried out, "Oh my god! This is like a Savennières!"). Agnès and Réné were in Toulouse but I met two of their sons, who welcomed me into their home and graciously had me taste a few wines. The Mosses do bottle with sulfur, but at extremely low levels. The 2009 Achillée VdT rosé is a quaffable blend of grolleau, cf, cs, and gamay. It has too much RS to be labeled for AC status but it's unconfected and shows nice herbs. The 2008 Anjou Blanc is totally dry and has the telltale spicy characteristics of schist-derived chenin, although some of the 5 year old vines are rooted in clay. It's quite clean and verges on medium-full. The 2007 Le Champ Boucault has nearly 200 g/l of RS but has all the acidity required to help balance the wine and drive it down the palate. Lots of apricot here, and not at all heavy.

Sadly, the day had to end, and I needed to head back to my B&B before night fell, lest I get lost. And while the Mosse wines are imported into the US by Louis/Dressner, I'm sad to say that neither Domaine Saurigny nor Les Griottes are available here unless and until some wise importer decides otherwise. Yes, yes, I understand how reluctant importers are to ship sans soufre wines, but I'm going to complain, anyway. Well, if you find yourself in Paris, do yourself a favor and head over to Crus et Découvertes, which Jérôme suggested was the best place in Paris to find his wines.

By the way, I'd like to thank Bert of Wine Terroirs for posting the story of his visit to Domaine Saurigny last March; without him, I wouldn't have known to visit. So thanks, Bert! You should check out his post for even more details about the Saurigny wines.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Visiting Romain Guiberteau in Saumur

Guiberteau cellarAt last I reached the Mothership: the Loire Valley, home of my adored chenin, home of rare indigenous varieties secreted in small plots, and home to some of the most dynamic set of winemakers in the world, many of whom pursue natural winemaking in their own ways and on their own terms. As much as I would have loved to have visited the Touraine, I focused on the Layon because of its schist and because I correctly assumed the winemakers there would have particularly interesting things to say.

But before I hit the Layon, I stayed in Saumur and biked down to Domaine Guiberteau in Mollay, just west of the great calcareous vineyards of Brézé. After experiencing three of Romain Guiberteau's wines earlier this year, it was a no-brainer to visit, a must.

Romain's grandfather bought up vineyards some decades ago but the domaine began bottling its own crop only in the mid-80s, and Romain has taken the domaine in a completely natural direction: No chemical sprays, no chaptalization, no enzymes or stabilizers, indigenous yeasts only, and a leave-it-alone approach — to paraphrase Romain, when you leave a wine alone, such as letting chenin rest on its lees rather than stirring it, it may take longer for the wine to be what it will be, but it will be better when it gets there.

Like many a Burgundian, Romain begins the tasting with the reds, which are made entirely from cabernet franc. 2009 marks a new direction for the domaine-level wines, as they are now to be aged in inox only rather than used barrels as was previously the case (and will still be the case for the lieu-dits). This allows him to respond to clients' requests for a lower-priced wine, but he also now prefers to emphasize the fruit. He finds that his reds up through 2006 are too big and concentrated for his taste. I think they have the stuffing and balance to age very well and are not at all overly large, but that is my taste. Regardless, it's clear that more recent vintages are not the least bit lesser; they are merely different.

2009 Rouge: The domaine wine had just finished malo two weeks prior to my arrival and it will be bottled in September. It is a beautiful wine, very pure, and the greatness of the vintage shines through. It is the essence of cabernet franc, fresh and deep and savory. 75% of the grapes are plucked from calcareous soils and 25% are of argile.

2008 Rouge: This spent 15 months in used barrels. 2008 was a high acid year and it was a difficult vintage, as 60% of the crop was lost to a freeze. Between my bad French and his much better English I try to understand the nature of the freeze — apparently it was not frost — but I will have to let this point be a mystery for the time being. But there's no question about this wine's beauty with its lovely dark fruits. Again, there is no trace of overripeness or overextraction, and for it the wine seems effortless. Romain says this should be particularly good in 2012.

2007 Les Motelles Rouge: This 1.4 ha lieu-dit is planted on argile in Montreuil-Bellay and the wine spent 18 months in a mix of one, two, and three year old barrels. This is lighter and more floral than the 2008 domaine, as befits a cabernet franc from 2007, but it still has good tannins and a lovely raspberry aspect. I ask about disease pressure and other problems, but Romain said he experienced none of that in 2007.

2007 Les Arboises Rouge: Romain does use some new barrels for this wine but there is not a trace of vanillin or toast. Rather, its purity is striking. This comes from a calcareous lieu-dit in Brézé and it's a bit less floral than the Motelles and shows greater acidity. The balance is great, too, and I love the red plum-like fruit. Like the Motelles, the vines for this wine were planted over 50 years ago.

Now it's time for the whites. Romain says he trades with winemakers from both Burgundy and from the south; he gets their reds, they get his whites, everyone is happy. I have nothing to trade, but I am still happy. Asia should be happy, too, as they get 40% of his production. Here in the US, only Illinois sees his wines.

2009 Domaine Blanc: This spent six months sur lie — no battonage, as previously mentioned. I've tasted a good amount of dry, unoaked Loire chenin over the years, and they are often nice straightforward wines for easy drinking. This is several notches above those wines. Just as the rouge is the essence of cabernet franc, this wine is the essence of dry chenin from primarily calcareous soils. Gorgeous apple flavors here, with depth and presence. Some young vine fruit is blended with fruit from 55 year old vines.

2008 Clos de Guichaux: This is a monopole of extremely young vines grown on argilo-calcaires, but Romain does not want to print "monopole" on the label until he is sure that the wines will perform well year in and year out, through difficult vintages and easy. The vineyard has only 30 cm of soil atop the bedrock. Romain likes this with cream sauces since its high acidity really cuts through richer food. For my part, I find this is gorgeous, with beautiful peach-driven flavors and impeccable balance. This spent 13 months in two to four year old barrels.

2007 Clos des Carmes: This is another monopole and it says so on the label. It's 2.6 hectares but only 0.5 ha worth makes it into this wine; the rest goes into the Brézé blanc. Interestingly, the vines were only 3 years old when the grapes were harvested and yet this cuvée was aged in 100% new oak for 24 months, which unlike the other wines imparts some vanillin character. Romain does not follow a recipe; he says that the batch that was aged in these barrels turned out the best and so he decided to bottle it separately.

2007 Brézé Blanc: I guess I'm an unoriginal thinker, because my notes again use the word "gorgeous." That's not to say that the wine isn't distinctive: it shows honeyed aromas that the above whites do not, and it's full in the nose and even fuller in the mouth. Of course, it's still dry. It has the acidity to move things along and the wine is both fully present — it hits every part of the palate in just the right way — and very long. This spent 24 months in new and used barrels, and no obvious oak flavors come through. It's complex and transparent. I ask Romain what makes Brézé special, why the wines from this slope are just that much better than most other spots in Saumur, and he says he doesn't know, exactly.

But to invoke Gertrude Stein, there's there there, and Romain confesses that he's very lucky: he has access to great terroir and is making a solid living without compromising his approach. Luck, yes, but also skill: these are the best Saumur wines of any that I've had. I climb back on to my bike and see a youngster looking at me inquisitively from inside the house. Someone inside is playing a piano; family is over for the day and Romain goes back inside to join them.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Getting Concrete at Domaine Jean David

Mme David, Domaine Jean DavidMuch is made of the highway in Burgundy, the N74, that separates the flat terrain from the superior hillside terroirs. Although the same dynamic occurs in the Côtes du Rhône, the dividing line here is not a highway or even a single road but an interlocking set of north-south roads that run just east of the N977. Still, as I pedaled my hired bike from north to south and back again, the divide seem to me distinct, as I was riding it.

I put the afternoon sun's fierce glow at my back as I pedaled uphill to Domaine Jean David near Séguret, who caught my attention with their "vin biologique" sign, and I wondered what I'd find. After all, good terroir and organically grown grapes only take you so far, and I'd never heard of the domaine, knew no rep.

As it happens, I'd stumbled into a domaine committed to using indigenous yeasts only, rejecting all stabilizers and enzymes, fermenting without mechanical temperature control, and bottling with a minimum of sulfur — and in the case of one bottling, none at all. In other words, the Davids (yes, they are a family-run domaine) pursue a natural winemaking regime, although they don't advertise it as such.

Mme Marine David greeted me and took me through a tasting. She explained that the Davids ferment and age their wines solely in cement. If a barrel helps tame a red wine's tannins, a cement tank is apt to emphasize them, and the tannins in the traditionally made reds are certainly untamed. They resolve at their own pace and are expressed differently in each wine. (The Davids could inoculate with a lab yeast that's designed to smooth the tannins, but obviously they do not.) Soils here are primarily argilo-calcaire, clay with limestone.

2009 Roussanne Vin de France: Yep, it's labeled a VdF, not a VdT. This is given 6 hours of skin contact, but I wouldn't label it a "skin contact" wine; it's fresh and round but hardly orange or tannic. Young, needs some time.

2009 Le Rosé de Janot Vin de Table: I have to tell you right now that this is 24% tempranillo. Tempranillo! In the Rhône! This shows a fresh strawberry nose, spices and herbs, and a bit of tannic structure in the mouth. Really a nice rosé. If I could, I'd stock my house with vast quantities of this wine (it's been a hot summer so far!)

2009 Côtes du Rhône: This young wine is strongly tannic and to my taste needs time, although it already shows fresh raspberries, good structure, and decent acidity. Vine age averages 30 years and it's a blend of 50% grenache and 25% each carignan and syrah.

2008 Séguret Côtes du Rhône Villages: The medium-bodied Séguret is a step up from the above CdR, as it shows better acidity, more complexity, and a greater sense of soil, with garrigue and licorice aspects. The average age of the vines is 50 years and while more grenache is used (68%) the Davids blend in a wider array of grapes: syrah, cinsault, counoise, and mourvèdre.

2008 Cuvée Le Beau Nez: This is the odd duck, as not only is it the sans soufre wine but I believe it undergoes carbonic maceration. The result is a much softer wine, round and approachable, fruit-driven and quaffable.

2006 Séguret Les Levants: The structure here is obviously nice but the wine was quite closed, so I'm glad I got to taste the...

2007 Séguret Les Levants: Top of the pops here. I am apt to respond enthusiastically to Rhônes that have a healthy proportion of cinsault in the blend, thanks to that grape's lively acidity and peppery quality, and here it's 18% of the blend along with 25% carignan and 57% grenache. This is not only the liveliest but also the spiciest, deepest, and most velvety red I'll taste here today. The structure and balance is very nice. The 2007 fruit energy is abundant and for my taste the wine needs a few more years so the fruit is less prominent; I expect this will be quite harmonious.

It turns out that some Jean David wines are imported to the west and east coasts of the US; we in the midwest are not so lucky.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ringing the Bell at Domaine de Piaugier

Unlike in America, where tasting rooms abound, in France it's best to call a winery to arrange a visit. I did this in other parts of France, but for whatever reason, I didn't do that before visiting the foot of the Dentelles. So I had no idea what to expect when I rolled up to Domaine de Piaugier in Sablet and rang the bell.

If I stumbled upon the winery accidentally, I didn't ring the bell haphazardly. After all, I'd previously had Piaugier's 2005 Gigondas and 2005 Sablet here in the States, and both burst with Rhône character and lifted all that fruit, garrigue, and spice with grace. So I was happy that Sophie Autran invited me in and showed me around.

Sophie first took me to meet the family, including Jean-Marc, but we couldn't talk long, as they were bottling the 2007 Gigondas. I didn't see any hired hands; this was all family. On the way down to the cellar we stopped briefly to look at the large concrete tanks where most of the wines ferment and age. Above them are inox tanks, which Sophie said are used only very briefly, immediately before blending. They do use some barrique and demi-muid for aging, and it's from those vessels that Sophie guided me through a tasting of the white varieties that will eventually be blended into the 2009 blanc.

Although the Autrans stir the lees once a week, the wines I tasted did not have the maquillage of battonage, the obnoxiously creamy texture that many stirred whites have. The grenache blanc showed a touch of heat but was still nice, the roussanne was lovely, and I was happily surprised by the particularly impressive viognier. I normally don't cotton to this variety, but the sample I tasted showed good acidity, freshness, and nascent complexity, and I found myself wishing that it would be bottled separately.

Upstairs, we were joined by a passel of New Yorkers for a tasting of recent bottlings. The 2008 Sablet Blanc was very fresh and showed a slightly tropical nose but was perhaps not as interesting as I think the 2009 will be. I was enthused by the Autran's 2009 Sablet Rosé, so much so that I had to buy a bottle (Connecticut is apparently the only US state that sees this wine). This is 100% cinsault and it's a bit peppery, very dry, and showed great mineral character.

Sophie then tasted us through four reds. While I knew that the Autrans make balanced, expressive wines, I learned that day that texture is a hallmark of these wines. They feel great in the mouth. Needless to say, they are devoid of excessive fruit, alcohol, glycerin, or oak that mars too many a Côtes du Rhône Villages. The Autrans ferment with indigenous yeast and as of the 2006 vintage began destemming.

2007 Sablet Rouge: This is the basic rouge from Piaugier, 80% grenache and 20% syrah. 2007 may be a big fruit vintage in the southern Rhône but this wine is hardly overweight or swamped in fruit. Rather, I found it very fresh, with good acidity and tannins, and the texture here is lovely.

2006 Les Briguières Sablet: This lieu dit is positioned on the southern edge of Sablet, next to Gigondas, and the soils here are more clay-rich than is typical of sandy Sablet. Grenache and mourvèdre are the varieties and they are aged for 18 months in one and two year old barrels. I got cooked cherries on the nose, but again, good acidity keeps the wine fresh, although this is deeper and more concentrated than the basic Sablet. My notes again use the word "texture."

2006 Réserve de Maude Sablet: This is the Autrans' 100% syrah bottling. It's medium weight, but it was pretty shut down when I tried it.

2007 Les Briguières Sablet: Back to the Briguières, this time the 2007. Mourvèdre is 20% of the blend. I find it rounder and more complete than the 2006, and the balance is better, too. The texture is gorgeous. The fruit was a bit prominent at this point, so this is a wine for keeping. I see from Wine Searcher that some shops in California are selling this for $16 to $18, which seems to me like an absolute steal. I can only hope this shows up in Illinois!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bistro du'O in Vaison

I may have been on a budget but I still wanted to get my food on, and Bistro du'O in Vaison la Romaine serves the kind of fresh and refreshing food I was looking for after a warm day of cycling and bus travel. To wit: an amuse bouche of mousse d'olive; a starter of smoked salmon and herbed cream cheese on toast, served with barely-dressed, slightly bitter, super-fresh greens; a beautiful duck leg in a cranberry reduction, with the meat falling off the bone; and a trio of lovely local cheeses to finish. The demi of white Vacqueyras I ordered was serviceable rather than exciting, but if memory serves there are better options for those ordering a full bottle.

On the way out of Vaison I visited Déal, the bistro's cheese monger, and picked up a fabulous semi-firm goat cheese from the Ardèche. It made for a simple yet great pleasure as I headed north to Saumur. Ah, but I'm getting well ahead of myself; I haven't yet documented my Dentelles detour!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ferme L'Avellan in Lacoste

Danielle Ravoire, Ferme L'AvellanIn the Luberon we bike from Apt to Lacoste and stay at Ferme L'Avellan, a small B&B and biodynamic farm run by the welcoming, gracious, and slightly eccentric Danielle Ravoire. What do I mean by welcoming and gracious? It turns out that the madame has baked us a lovely cherry dessert, a sort of baked custard tart, for no particular reason other than that we are guests. What do I mean by eccentric? She never mentions its for us (someone else does) and she leaves the cherry pits in the fruit, so we have to navigate the dessert rather carefully. (Perhaps this is sensible rather than eccentric; the cherries have maintained their structure; maybe the pits help.)

Inside, there's a DVD resting atop the television that attacks the scourge of GMOs and promotes biodiversity. But Mme. Ravoire lives the biodiversity rather than just watches it. She keeps a number of animals, including a peacock named "Peacock," farms all manner of fruits and vegetables and herbs, makes her own cheese, and makes red wine from her tiny, 0.5 hectare vineyard. Everything is delicious, not least of all her wine, which with a healthy proportion of carignan in the blend shows an appealing licorice note.

L'Avellan de Lacoste 2006With only 12% alcohol her 2006 is very fresh and lively, but it's fully ripe. There are herbs here but not a hint of vegetal greenness. The madame sighs discontentedly as she complains about the 13%+ alcohol found in Côtes du Rhônes. At first I am surprised by the low alcohol level, as 2006 was a warm and dry year, but as the sun sinks it gets surprisingly chilly for an otherwise warm June day; the northerly mistral seems to get kicked back off the north-facing hill and rushed downward. If this happens throughout the year, I can see how the acidity is maintained. Whatever the case, the wine is a terrific match with her strong, creamy, highly aged chèvre, the remains of which are seen at right.

The stars reveal themselves slowly and but for the baying of distant dogs it is utterly quiet.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Visit to Clos du Mont-Olivet

Clos du Mont-Olivet 2000 Cuvee du PapetI regret not snapping a photo of David Sabon when I had the chance. But he's the vineyard manager at Clos du Mont-Olivet, and as we neared the end of the tasting at the winery in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he literally had to run out to a vineyard for some reason. I quickly got my camera in hopes of snapping a shot, but he was bouncing all over the place and then ah, alas, he was gone.

David, like many of the natural and/or traditionalist winemakers I would meet in France, is intelligent, warm, and clearly dedicated. His family (cousin Thierry is officially the winemaker, though several members of the family run the domaine) is concerned first and foremost with making wines of place that age well. In youth, their CdP reds are balanced and promising and searingly tannic; in most vintages you'll want to wait a minimum of six years before drinking, or better yet ten, at which point the wines really start to show their complexity and lovely texture in the context of a firm structure.

That said, the Sabons make a variety of wines and cuvées, each of which will tell their own story, and you can drink their Côtes-du-Rhônes and young vine CdPs sooner rather than later. The entry level Font du Blanche CdRs (2009 blanc is 60% clairette, 2007 rouge is 60% grenache and 40% syrah) are approachable and fresh, and I particularly like the spice and plum character of the red. The 2007 Varène, made from 100% syrah from rented vineyards, shows fresh bell pepper notes and a solid balance between the fruit, tannins, acidity and minerality, while the old vine 2008 Monteuil-la-Levade CdR is more unruly and complicated by the aging in concrete and the generous proportion of carignan in the blend. I like this wine every year (see also my note on the 2007).

Since the challenge here in the south is to make wines that show good acidity and are not overly alcoholic, David mentions that not only must they pick the grapes before they become overripe and soft, they must be careful with their oak regime — David says that too much oak really brings out the alcohol. Thus, they ferment and age the wines according to their need in inox, concrete, old foudre, and, in very limited amounts, used barriques acquired from Burgundian producers. For example, the roussanne they use in the flat out gorgeous 2009 CdP Blanc (20% of the blend) is aged briefly in the Burgundian barrels, while the clairette (30%) and the other grapes are aged in inox. Honestly, I can't get over this wine's beauty and vibrance, its combination of depth, richness, minerality, and weightless clarity.

David then begins pouring us the red CdPs. As I've never before had a vertical of any Châteauneuf-du-Pape this is the most instructive part of the tasting. David asks us how the 2008 vintage is perceived in the U.S. (I don't know; people still talk about 2007, mostly) because all the rain and fog in that September — "like London," he says — foster comparisons with the disastrous 2002 vintage. But unlike 2002, David says the winds came to save the vintage. And indeed, there's nothing diluted about the 2008s we taste. The young vine 2008 Le Petit Mont CdP, aged partly in wood and partly in inox, may be softly textured but it also shows a big licorice note. The 2008 Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge, fermented in concrete tank and aged in foudre, needs time and it shows good concentration and mouth-ripping tannins. Spicy strawberry notes accompany the acidity, while stronger, darker notes of plum provide a baritone note.

I'm glad I already have one bottle of the 2006 CdP rouge snoozing in my offsite cellar, for the acidity here is beautiful. It shows more depth than the 2008 but is still screechingly tannic; David thinks this will show great starting in 2015 or so. John Gilman noted an alcohol burn on this wine two years ago; this seems to have faded, for the alcohol is barely noticeable despite being at 15%. The 2004 CdP demonstrates how the tannins in the Clos du Mont-Olivet reds begin to turn supple over time, and it's a lovely, graceful wine, not a mere powerhouse.

We then leap way back to the 1994 CdP rouge, which is in full-on animale mode. David says that when he was a child, his grandmother would skin rabbits for dinner and remove the intestines and that the aroma of this wine takes him back to that childhood memory. It is strange to see this kind and I think gentle man gesture to convey the ripping apart of a small mammal. Since I've never smelled a freshly disemboweled bunny, I think of mushrooms, meat, tea, dried leaves, and barn aromas (but not quite barnyard). David says this is great with cheese. Hard cheese? I presume. No, he says, fresh soft cheese like camembert or chèvre.

We finish with two examples of the flagship Cuvée du Papet. This is made from the best parcels and from the oldest (100+ years) vines, and the end result is not only rich and voluptuous but also complex and elegant. The 2006, made from 80% grenache, 10% mourvèdre and 10% syrah, is incredibly smooth, much more so than the standard CdP. The 2000 Papet, with 60% grenache and coequal proportions of mourvèdre and syrah, is my favorite wine of the entire tasting, for at the age of ten it shows both great fruit and the secondary umami characteristics. The balance is effortless and the depth is striking, and it's another reminder that I should wait at least ten years from the vintage before diving into ageworthy CdP.

After David hops away I buy a bottle of the 2009 CdP blanc, all for a mere 16 euros if memory serves, which my friend and I will consume with sausage (good choice, that) a few days later. We have to get on our bikes so that we can return them on time to Provence Bike in Avignon, and we wave to David just as he is returning from the vineyard. I wish we'd had a bit more time here...

Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the ruined chateau

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rolling the Dice in CdP

Avignon is overpriced and less charming than we imagined and so we are happy to be biking up the right bank of the Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Here, on the back roads, it is quiet and gorgeous. The hills to the west may not be high but they are scrubby, rocky, and dramatically pitched. On the flats is farmland. Hedges are cropped into fifty foot high windbreaks to protect the cherry orchards and the asparagus fields. Only the many small vineyards we pass are given exposure to the mistral. The vines are flowering and even here, in the sunny south, most are VSP-trained to maximize their sun exposure.

Some 2.5 hours later we are in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We have some time to kill before our appointment at Clos du Mont-Olivet; we will picnic up by the chateau ruins, but first, why not roll the dice and taste in some of the shops lining the streets? I want to want to explore more deeply the producers I know are good (like Mont-Olivet) but I am also here to explore and discover.

The first guy we visit is a hustler. He's dressed as if he's about to hit the nightclub circa 1992 and he whips out his price sheet to facilitate the hard sell. I ask questions, and the more questions I ask, the more uncomfortable he looks. "Biodynamie," he claims, and he sort of rustles around in his chair. Even if he's telling the truth, it doesn't matter: his wines are a forest of new wood and are as slick as he is and are completely uninteresting.

At the next place the woman cheerily admits she knows almost nothing about the domaine's wines, and the wines she pours are a swampy mess. Not tarted up so much as they're simply bad, poorly made.

We then hit the shop promoting Château de la Gardine. We are greeted by Danièle Brunel, whose husband Philippe is of the Brunel clan that's long owned Gardine. She is comfortable answering every question and sees no need to press us about anything. The wines are unabashedly modernist; they use only tank and barrique, not even a single foudre, and while they initiate fermentation with native yeasts they often finish with cultured yeasts. Set the preconceptions aside: I am responding to these wines, in some cases enthusiastically, as they show great mineral definition alongside the ample fruit.

The basic 2008 blanc, for example (50% grenache blanc, 30% roussanne) is very fresh, very lively, and shows good depth. The 2005 Vieilles Vignes blanc, the Cuvée des Générations Marie-Léoncie, is 70% roussanne and it's a knockout. I'm sighing over my glass. The texture is rich and gorgeous — and yes, this saw plenty of new oak — but there's plenty of acidity here as well as lots of rocky minerals. The 2007 CdP rouge is rich and refined but has the acidity, definition, and minerality that I look for. The téte de cuvée, the 2007 Gaston Phillippe, is made from 100 year old grenache and 40 year old syrah and mourvèdre. It's too concentrated to drink in the near term, but again, it doesn't feel tarted up.

The Gardine wines are not currently exported to the United States but they recently were. I'll be hoarding the Marie-Léoncie if I'm able to find it...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Walking Paris

Paris is eminently walkable, particularly given its size. I stayed at the Hotel Vieux Marais, just a few blocks from the Pompidou, and it was the perfect location: just ten minutes away from the Notre Dame, and then just a few minutes more to the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne. 45 minutes to Belleville. And so on. I could eat breakfast on the run: pick up a clementine from the fruit stand, then grab a coffee from a random café, a demi-baguette or a croissant from a boulanger some distance further. Art and the city beckoned.

With all that walking I wanted a seat for lunches and dinners. My budget was modest and when not picnicking I tried to choose my bistros well. I was particularly impressed by my lunch at Les Itinéraires. My glass of white Saumur may have been dull (I don't remember the producer) but both my seiche and my filet of bass were gorgeous and extremely fresh. If they'd had great natural wines by the glass I would've flipped my wig.

Thanks to Bert's Wine Terroir blog — which I found valuable in several respects — I knew to hit Le Baratin for dinner. Here, the food was simpler but likewise pure; I had an unadorned but nicely prepared bit of cod. Here, natural wine rules, and I followed a glass of Leroy Anjou Blanc with a glass of 2007 Foillard Régnié. I also liked my dinner at Le Hangar — the green lentils were particularly good, and I washed them down with a decent enough 2003 Arbois poulsard from Rolet, which showed energy and underbrush. I guess poulsard can age well!

Did I find myself in Paris during the French Open? Why yes I did, and on the most perfect day imaginable. Soderling and Stosur on the back courts? Yep. After Paris, it was on to Provence, where the real wine adventures begin...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Back From France

After having spent two weeks in France I realize how silly I was not to have visited sooner. On the other hand, if I believed in the notion that "all things happen for a reason," then this trip would be evidence, as almost every experience was great, I got lucky every time I needed luck, and the weather was either perfect or nearly perfect everywhere I went.

And while almost every French person I interacted with was friendly and polite, I also met some fantastic people, those rare persons who combine warmth and intelligence and dedication and generosity. I'm talking about Anjou upstarts Benoit Courault and Jérôme and Sophie Saurigny, the longstanding Rhône families as represented by David Sabon and Sophie Autran, and others as well. I'll be posting about my experiences with these persons and their wines in the coming days.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Few Luscious Voluptuaries

Bernard BaudryI want to talk about yeasts soon, but for now, two tasting notes.

Clos du Mont-Olivet Côtes du Rhône Vieilles Vignes Montueil-la-Levade 2007
I can't get over the creamy texture of this Clos du Mont-Olivet. Like a good cappuccino, a cream note is swirled effortlessly into a dark and slightly bitter base. Of course, there's more going on here than that — the nose shows dark fruit, dried herbs, rain on blacktop; the wine is full and dark yet fresh on the palate; the acid / tannin balance is nicely realized — but it's the effortless, unconfected texture that wins me over. Bonus geek notes: the grapes for this wine are only partially destemmed, carignan makes up a small part of the blend, and the fruit is not as sweet as you'd expect from a 2007 CdR.

Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Grézeaux 2005
I joined a friend for dinner at Cafe Absinthe and I was impressed by the wine list. I ordered duck breast, he ordered beef tenderloin. In other circumstances I might have selected the 2004 Clos Roche Blanche "Pif" but if a Baudry's on the list, the idea of passing it by is frankly unbelievable. That's because the wine is frankly unbelievable. The Grézeaux, which comes from gravelly terroir, is harmonious to the point of ur-dom; it's hard to speak of the wine's components when it's so freakin' together. It possesses a smooth, effortless grace. It is undeniably young — still unfolding, yet to achieve its zen-point, as it surely will in the decades to come — but it's also precocious and very expressive now, and if I had any of this wine stashed away, it'd be difficult to keep my hands off it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feelin' Groovy

Groovy!I'd like to deliver a big Bronx cheer to the distributor or shop (whichever applies) for ruining not one but two bottles of 2005 Chidaine demi-secs — both were heat-damaged beyond drinking — which incidentally ruined my planned "demi-sec faceoff" post. Nevertheless, I'm feeling pretty groovy this week. Health care legislation passed, I'm planning a trip abroad, March has (excepting today) been particularly warm in Chicago, and I haven't yet been laid off from my job. In that vein, here are two wines I've had recently that I thought were pretty groovy.

i Clivi Colli Orientali del Friuli Galea 1999
Winemaker Mario Zanusso (see the controversial interview on Mondoaspore) aims to make wines that are both natural and clean, and this shows in this 10+ year old blend of Friulano and Verduzzo. This is still fresh and clean to its core but it's also, thanks to its age, on the umami side of things. I actually couldn't name any specific fruit flavors in this wine; I wouldn't say it tasted like pear, for example, or apple. The fruit's definitely there, but it's been sublimated. It's a subtle wine, fairly full on the palate, and chalky-dry. The structure here is beautiful. I paired this with a turmeric and coriander-inflected vegetable stir fry, although a lavishly-prepared pork dish with a reduction would have done the wine more justice, but both the wine and I were well-served nevertheless. A very impressive wine.

Domaine Gros Frère et Soeur Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits Blanc 2004
Speaking of aged whites, I really liked this white Burgundy, too. It's not often that you see an Hauts Cotes de Nuits blanc in the US, or at least not in Chicago, but here it is. The domaine has a rep for making quite oaky reds, but this blanc is nice. It shows flowers, brown spices, and just a hint of vanillin oak on the nose. More spice crops up on the palate, with tart pear fruit and the tiniest hint of mushroom, and it's still very fresh tasting, with terrific acidity. It's linear and focused and still shows good presence and balance across the entire palate. And there are plenty of minerals on the long finish. This one I did match with pork (dry rubbed and roasted), and it was a good match.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Snapshot of Two Oregon Pinots

How do you prefer to refer to the lowest-priced and most broadly available wines available from a winery? I don't like the term "entry level" as it says more about the relative price point than the wine. "Basic" doesn't work, as it implies mediocrity when that may not be the case, and the terms "domaine" or "estate" only work if the grapes are estate grown and if other estate-grown wines are made from particular parcels or vineyards.

However you term it, such wines should act as a calling card (to borrow Terry Theise's term) and represent the winery well. They should also honestly reflect the vintage and the terroir and not be price-driven into mediocrity. So maybe I should call such wines "standard bearers," or "standard" for short. Unless, of course, they're not the standard. Regardless, I recently decided to check in on a couple such Willamette Valley pinot noirs.

Yamhill Valley Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir 2007Yamhill Valley Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir 2007
Ah, 2007, a vintage where growers in the Willamette Valley had to fight rain at harvest and make lighter, lower-alcohol wines, such as this 12.2% pinot. Yamhill's wines are typically dense thanks to their heavy, clay-rich soils, but this one you can file under "tasty bistro quaffer." It's the color of translucent rose petals, light bodied, and it delivers juicy raspberry and cherry flavors with slightly sharp acidity that mellows slightly on night two. There's a pinch of earth here, and the wine gets bonus points for showing notes of Canadian bacon, of all things!

I'm not sure where all the grapes for this wine come from. Yamhill typically bottles a McMinnville AVA-attributed "Estate" wine at this high-teens price point, but this one is labeled "Oregon." In any case, this does represent the vintage and on that merit is fairly successful.

J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir Provocateur Willamette Valley 2006
The Provocateur is J.K. Carriere's lowest-priced pinot noir but is usually made in much smaller quantities than its more expensive big sib, which is simply called "Willamette Valley." Likewise, it's made from grapes purchased throughout the valley, and in 2006 was raised solely in used (primarily thrice-filled) barrels.

The trick in this hot vintage was to avoid making soft, fat, uninteresting wines. Here, winemaker Jim Prosser pulls that trick off. This Provocateur did not show well this time last year, but it's clear that it was going through a sullen and awkward adolescence; it's only now coming into its drinking window, and barely at that. It's now promisingly pale, yet the fruit is still very primary, speaking of black cherry flesh and black cherry skins. There's some red earth and cherry wood smoke on the nose and just a touch of heat, although the heat is not evident on the palate. The balance is much better now compared to last year, the quite dry finish is longer, and complexity is emerging in the form of earth, sandalwood, sweet grapefruit, and herb tones. I like the refreshing acidity, the firm structure, the medium-full texture. The tannins are fine yet slightly raw.

I very much regret that this was my last bottle of the '06 Provocateur — this could become quite elegant — but I at least know now to keep my hands off the '06 WV bottling for at least two years, and preferably longer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Guiberteau's Fabulous Saumurs

Guiberteau Saumur BlancWhy the blogs are not abuzz over the wines from Saumur's Domaine Guiberteau is beyond me. Nothing from even Jim's Loire or any other Loire-friendly, English language blog out there that I can see. The wines are a tad pricey (mid-20s), but they're worth it as far as I'm concerned. I'm very happy that my friend Erin turned me onto them!

The wines are ultra-clean, but they are also naturally-made, transparent, and completely expressive of place. If I (and Google Translate) interpret their French-only web site correctly, the domaine hand-harvests both their organically-grown chenin blanc and their cabernet franc from 25+ year old vines to the tune of 45 hl/ha. Romain Guiberteau ferments the wine solely with native yeasts, eschews all enzymes and stabilizers, and ages the basic "domaine" level wines in two to four year old oak barrels (the top wines do see some new oak, but I've not had them). The soils are clay and calcareous silex.

The first wine I experienced from Guiberteau was the 2005 Saumur Blanc, and it's stunning. The aromas of lavender, paraffin, and apple skin show great clarity. The wine is dry and utterly precise on the palate, with a come-to-jesus delivery of elegant concentration (and concentrated elegance) — the pear and melon fruit is layered with chalky minerality, stony lemon, rainwater, and firm, well-structured acidity. The texture is full and nicely defined — the angles haven't been overly sanded down — and the finish is long.

2007 may have been a more difficult vintage, but the 2007 Saumur Blanc is, in its own way, just as successful as the 2005. It's very firm and dry as befits the vintage, but there's a richness underlying the steely, high-acid structure. It's slightly chalky on the nose; otherwise, it's quite closed aromatically speaking. It's more expressive on the palate, with flavors of melon, tart apple, honey, and nuts, and it's very dry on the long, citric finish. It's exceptionally well balanced and has the bones to age, and it should blossom as it does — it's just a baby!

Finally, I was gratified to comes across the 2006 Saumur Rouge on the wine list at the vegetarian-focused Green Zebra. This 2006 was just barely coming into its drinking window, as you'd expect from a concentrated, well-made Saumur rouge from this structured vintage, but expressive it was: a twinge of herbs, some black olive notes, beautiful acidity, and good earthiness. It was a great companion with my green papaya salad, my earthy dal, and even the pan-seared scallops served with braised mushrooms. Meanwhile, my dining companion, who's not geeky like me but enjoys solid reds with good fruit, very much liked it as well.

Do these wines represent the Platonic ideal of excellent Saumur? Maybe! I've never had the Saumur-Champignys of Clos Rougeard, for example, so I'd rather not spout such things off. But I'm happy to spout off about Romain Guiberteau's wines in general.

Friday, March 12, 2010

QOTD, March 12

Jim Budd on the insane proposal to limit Appellation Controllee Touraine to only sauvignon blanc:

Sauvignon Blanc is popular now but a SOS (Sod off Sauvignon) movement may soon appear!

I'd like to become a charter member. Where do I sign up?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscar Buzz

Lallement Grand Cru BrutI'm not sure why I'm watching the Oscars tonight — I don't like Steve Martin and several winners are practically preordained — but I nonetheless popped the cork on the Jean Lallement Grand Cru Brut green label (disgorged April 21, 2009) to help us along. Such a great wine, such great texture. It's like I'm biting into the crunchy texture and flavors of orchard fruits and honeycomb to release the plush texture of cream, nuts, and bread crumbs toasted in butter. It's also subtle, detailed, delicate, refracting herbs and chalky soil. All told, it's vivacious and totally alive; far more alive than I expect Steve Martin to be...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Vajra's 2007 Dolcetto d'Alba Coste & Fossati

2007 G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d'Alba Coste & FossatiWhen I first got into wine, and when I first found out about the reds from the Piedmont, I drank more barbera than I did dolcetto. And why wouldn't I? The neophyte follows the expert, and check out what the eminently reasonable Robinson and Johnson say in The World Atlas of Wine: "Barbera is now Piemonte's second most glamorous red grape... Piemonte's third red grape is Dolcetto." The sentiment is repeated more or less strongly in every wine book I've read. All such authors go on to praise dolcetto, but the hierarchy is clear, and as the usually-reasonable price points for the wines are usually not so different, why wouldn't have I opted for what should be the better wine?

The hierarchy, I found out, is meaningless to me, for I've experienced terrific wines made from both grapes. I value good barberas for their acidity and their peppery spice notes, and I value good dolcettos for their sweet fruit, their slightly bitter citric qualities, and the way they're apt to convey dusty earth notes. It's a matter of what I'm in the mood for and what I'm eating. And all things being equal, I find that dolcettos are more flexible at the table. The better examples hit all the marks: a pinch of earth, just enough tannic structure, lovely but soft acidity, refreshing bitterness, and plush yet firm fruit, the way a black plum or black cherry is plush yet firm. So I opt for Piedmont dolcetto a bit more frequently than I opt for Piedmont barbera. Sorry, Jancis!

Still, as much as I've grown to appreciate dolcettos from the Piedmont, I wasn't quite prepared for the 2007 G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d'Alba Coste & Fossati. At $35 this is far more expensive than any dolcetto I've had but it's also hands down the best. As the name implies, the grapes come from two vineyards in Barolo proper. This, my friends, is respect, respect for a grape that doesn't have to be third-tier. The soil in both vineyards is Tortonian, and from what I've read it's thanks to these calcareous marls this wine is indeed open and aromatic (the harder sandstone soils in the eastern part of Barolo are less friendly to early wines).

The Vajra shows depth and beautiful structure. Gorgeous, dusty boysenberry aromas waft from the glass. As for the palate, when McDuff had Vajra's 2006 Lange Nebbiolo, he noted the wine's "firm grip and slightly chalky tannins wrapped around a core of bright red fruit." Dolcetto is not nebbiolo, and I think the Dolcetto d'Alba comes from different vineyards, but substitute blue fruit for red and this description nails this to a T.

Dolcetto's modest tannins help it play well with substantial fishes, and the multilayered, elegant Vajra was great with a slab of sable that I pan seared and topped with shallots sauteed in a balsamic reduction. The wine's acidity cut through the fish's oily texture and the tannins were firm yet delicate enough to aptly frame the fish's sweet, fleshy meat. Meanwhile, the barely-sweet fruit played well with the reduction, while the earthy notes parried nicely with the fish's saltwater notes. I'm pretty sure this would also play well with roasted pork, mushroom risotto, pasta with tomato sauce, toasted polenta...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Winter Releases from Renaissance

Renaissance ChardonnayRenaissance makes some of the most distinctive wines in the US as well as some of the best, and as I've written before, their terroir's signature is carved into the wines, be they red or white, in stone and spice. And yet the more I come to know Renaissance and its wines, the more I've come to learn that they will in various ways surprise me, as do their latest releases (which, disclosure, I received as a press sample).

Renaissance Chardonnay 2006
What, Renaissance makes a varietal chardonnay? Since when? And not only is this a chardonnay, it's also the most mainstream dry white Renaissance I've tasted. Not unlike many fine California chardonnays, it was aged for 9 months in a mix of new and used oak barrels, which contributes to the aromas of salted butter, toast, flowers, and tropical fruits that dominate the nose.

But before you think, "Renaissance sells out!" know that this limited production (76 case), estate grown wine was fermented solely with native yeasts and minimally sulfured. It's fine, fresh, and lively on the palate, with robust acidity, cool orchard fruit tones, and nice structure — it's not at all blowsy or fat (this clocks in at 13.6% abv and a pH of 3.3). As it warms in the glass, the cool spice and herb tones inherent in all Renaissance wines begins to emerge — albeit to a lesser degree than in, say, their Roussanne — and the long finish is enlivened by the zippy minerality. It's definitely a top-of-class California chardonnay, and it stayed very fresh and alive over three nights of tasting.

Renaissance Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest 1992
This new release, a spicy dessert wine, is 17 years old. The nose is rich with aromas of apricots caramelized in brown sugar. It's clean and silky in the mouth, not heavy or sticky, and the robust acidity helps it stand up on the palate. Straightforward flavors of pears poached in ginger hit the mid and back palate immediately; an initial impression of modest viscosity then ebbs quickly, leaving a light but warm glow on the finish for some time. This isn't as complex or as interesting as the drier, more recently made late harvest wines that Renaissance releases, but twist my arm and I'll drink this with a pear tart.

Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon Première Cuvée 1998
This is a fascinating wine. At the first pop of the cork this smells just like a Renaissance cabernet, with deep aromas of black currant and worcestershire, but on the palate it drinks almost like a young Barbaresco, very tannic yet somehow light. The rough edges abate somewhat with just a bit of air and the palate deepens with flavors to match the aromas. On night two, the flavor of cassis comes to the fore and the acidity is more prominent, too, although the weight has dropped and the finish is slightly thin. Black cherry and black pepper flavors come to the fore on the third night — it's a living wine, ever changing — and if the finish is still a bit short, the wine seems a touch more focused: the tannins no longer have a sweet quality, the palate is silkier and just a touch more substantive than it was the previous night, and dried herbs show up on the finish. There's plenty of structure and acidity in this baby (pH is 3.4) so while it's perfectly fine to open this now, there's no need to rush. 82% cab sauv, 7% merlot, 6% cab franc, 5% malbec.

By the by, I recently drank a bottle of the 2007 Carte d'Or white Bordeaux blend, which I last drank a year ago, and it's showing brilliantly. The melon fruit is luscious, generous, and layered with crushed white stone and gingery spice, and it was a great with the smoky, tangy, earthy flavors of middle eastern cuisine. I can't imagine anything pairing better with the smoky, umami flavors of middle eastern cuisine than any dry white from Renaissance; but now that I think about it, maybe I should consider a good cru Beaujolais...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Anaba's Excellent Rhone(ish) Blend

2007 Anaba Coriol RedI continue my quest to track down balanced, complex, traditionally-proportioned, terroir-expressive New World wines, and in that context (or in any other context, really) I'm very happy to have come across the 2007 Anaba Coriol Red Sonoma County.

Made from 38% grenache, 27% mourvedre, 25% petite sirah, and 10% counoise, this Chateauneuf / Provencal-ish blend is rich and spicy, but it's also nicely proportioned, refreshing, and detailed. The nose shows concentrated dark fruit, dried herbs, black pepper, and a hint of citrus peel. I'm extremely pleased by its balance and presence at midpalate and surprised by just how much lift this has. It does show a touch of alcoholic heat, but only a touch, so that's but a small ding. This has the acidity and the balance to age nicely at least in the short term, and possibly longer.

I want to underscore the great lift this wine has, for as it turns out, the wine was aged for 21 months in 50% new French oak barrels. Winemaker Jennifer Marion must know what she's doing, for the wine is not at all glossy or laden with the cocoa or vanilla characteristics I typically find in wines that have this level of new oak. Instead, the nicely integrated herb, pepper, and citrus characteristics shine through.

I can't say that this is terroir-expressive per se, as it's sourced from a range of vineyards — the grenache was sourced from the Landa Vineyard just east of Healdsburg, which is a warm site, while the other grapes were sourced from cooler vineyards in the northwest part of Sonoma. On the other hand, I can say that the wine is just plain expressive and that it delivers balance, complexity, and plenty of character for about $30, which by artisan California winery standards seems pretty darn good to me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Two Sparklers From Argyle

Argyle 2002 BrutDundee Hills producer Argyle makes a range of still wines but they are best known for their sparkling wines. Partly that's because few Oregon producers make sparkling wine, but Argyle's also receive a lot of acclaim of the "why-drink-Champagne-when-at-this-price" type as well as high scores in rags like the Spectre [sic].

The first thing Argyle does after pressing is store the juice at a cold temperature so it "settles" without fermenting. After a few weeks, they then innoculate with a proprietary yeast, achieve at least partial malo, age the fermented juice on its lees in barrique for at least three years, and add what tastes to me like a fairly standard level of dosage. The result, as far as my palate is concerned, is solid, consumer-friendly sparkling wine that is complete and satisfying. The wines are tasty and fairly priced, but while the two bottles I tried each had a story to tell, the story is about the vintage more than the terroir, which seems to be obscured.

2002 Argyle Brut
At Argyle, the vintage decides the blend (all their sparklers are vintage dated) and in 2002 the wine is 75% chardonnay and 25% pinot noir. This verges toward the austere, in a good way, like some Loire brut chenin that I've had. It showed a touch of heat when first opened, but that dissipated, and I got herbs and yeast on the nose. The mousse shows nice texture, and then there are herbs and citrus and pear on the firm, linear, well-structured finish. I was hoping that after 7 years this would show complexity or perhaps a mushroomy aspect, but it was not to be. This was satisfying nevertheless.

2005 Argyle Brut
Here the blend flips to 65% pinot noir and 35% chardonnay. On the nose, subtle hints of yeast march in lockstep with red fruit aromas. The palate is generous but still dry (RS clocks in at 1.2%), with a fine mousse and nice layers of strawberries, apples, pear, and dry stone. The acidity is nicely energetic, and the wine paired well with a peppery, fennel-laced vegetable soup.

I can't decide if I prefer the 2005's more generous texture or the 2002's relative austerity. I'm happy with both. Still, I would have liked to have seen greater depth and more of that Dundee Hills minerality. As I said, the wines are fairly priced at $25, but if I can find deeper and more terroir-expressive Cava and Loire sparklers at a slightly lower price — and I can — I'm in no hurry to return to Argyle's lineup.