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.