Friday, August 29, 2008

Wine of the Week: Vilmart Grand Cellier Rubis 2002

I’ve been in New York City since Sunday, tasting wines at Wine & Spirits magazine. I haven’t been blogging because I haven’t had that much to talk about, which might seem curious as I’ve tasted over 300 wines so far this week. Not that the wines have been bad or anything. I just haven’t had a lot of inspiration.

Tonight for dinner, however, we’re drinking Vilmart’s lovely Grand Cellier Rubis, which is one of my very favorite rosés in all of Champagne. The last few vintages have all been terrific, but the 2002 is especially grand, with a subtle, elegant complexity of fruit and a sleekly voluptuous texture. Unlike the Cuvée Rubis, which is a blended rosé, the Grand Cellier Rubis is a saignée, adjusted with about 40 percent chardonnay to keep it from becoming too heavy. It’s packed with delicious flavors of red fruit, yet it’s delicate and lively enough to be refreshing on a humid summer night in Brooklyn.

Vilmart is imported into the United States by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wine of the Week: Benoît Lahaye Brut Millésime 2002

By some fortuitous miracle bestowed upon us by the gods of wine blogging, brooklynguy and I happened to both be in Portland on Tuesday, and were finally able to meet face to face. We enjoyed a splendid dinner together at Three Doors Down, along with brooklynlady and a few of my friends, and naturally, given the company involved, there was much wine to be had. One of the champagnes that I had brought with me from France was Benoît Lahaye’s superb 2002, which is still an infant but so deliciously compelling that I am hardly able to keep my hands off of it. So compelling was it, in fact, that I completely forgot to take a photo of the bottle that night, so instead you get a photo of Benoît out in the vines on a rainy July afternoon that’s utterly typical of our dreary Champenois summer this year.

Made of 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, Lahaye’s 2002 is all grand cru fruit (roughly 80 percent Bouzy and 20 percent Ambonnay), and about two-thirds of it was vinified in old barrels. It’s intense in flavor, with concentrated notes of cassis and black cherry, yet it’s not very large in body, thriving much more on intensity than on girth. It has a sense of vibrant, almost electric kineticism that makes it feel alive, staining the palate with its fragrance and finishing with outstanding length and balance. The wood is perfectly harmonious here, shaping the fruit flavors but not at all overpowering them, and as this was made entirely without malolactic, the structure is rigid and tense. We really ought to have decanted it, but the dining room hit a bit of a rush, and I didn’t want to be a pain in the ass. It opened up more with some time in the glass, anyway, hinting at the greater complexity and depth that will come with further age. I really ought to duct tape the rest of my bottles together and bury them at the bottom of my cellar, as this wine needs at least another decade to show its best.

Benoît Lahaye is imported into the United States by Jeffrey Alpert Selections, who is apparently in Tenafly, NJ, but I don’t believe that they’ve got the 2002, unfortunately. If they do, I imagine that it would retail for around $90 or so.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Passing of Eras

Last night was my first experience at Le Pigeon, a restaurant in Portland that has been getting rave reviews both from the press and from my friend Jason, who as far as I can tell basically eats there every week. The food was excellent, and the wine list extensive and well-selected (although in West Coast wine geek fashion, we mostly brought our own). Afterwards, as I was thinking about the restaurant, it seems to me like it embodies the New Portland, a Portland that’s very different from the one that I lived in ten years ago. Don’t get me wrong, there were good restaurants back then too, and I’m not making a qualitative judgment here at all. I just think that the vibe and feel of the new wave of restaurants such as Le Pigeon is distinctly different, a little more big-city rather than small-town as in the past. It’s just a reflection of Portland growing up and becoming a more sophisticated and diverse city. Old-timers will grumble and long for the way it once was, while newer transplants will appreciate the comforts and amenities of a more modern urban life.

I continued to think about the passing of eras as the evening progressed. Among the wines that we had drunk over dinner were a 1979 Diebolt-Vallois and a 1971 Drouhin Echézeaux, both of which seemed to preserve a continuity: people today aren’t making wines like they did back then, and you can argue with me ad nauseum about all of the technical details and how winemaking is different and viticulture is different and whatever, but aesthetically speaking, drinking the 1971 Echézeaux isn’t all that far removed from the experience of drinking Burgundy made today. It’s different, yes, but it’s an experience that’s easy to relate to. It fits more or less under the same paradigm. The Diebolt is even closer to contemporary wines as, after all, the champagne culture actively tries to preserve an aesthetic continuity.

In contrast, upon arriving back at the house we opened up a 1992 Steiner Hund Riesling that was made by Erich Salomon. Chronologically speaking, this wine wasn’t nearly as old as the others, yet it felt like it came from a completely different era. “I feel like I’m drinking history,” said my friend Pete, and he was. Compared to wines made today, even those by the Salomon family, this felt old-fashioned, burnished, patinated. There was a less reductive aesthetic back then, more pronounced acidity, less flesh on the bones. The minerality in this wine was in a way more demanding, somehow fierce, rather like listening to a recording of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1942 compared to Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic today.

The same could be said of our final wine of the night, a 1966 Karthäuserhof Spätlese from the Sang parcel. While it was remarkably fresh, still showing surprisingly primary fruit and possessing a classic sense of delicacy and poise that continues to be a hallmark of German riesling today, it also felt like a relic from a completely different age, made under entirely different aesthetic conditions. Indeed, that wine would probably barely qualify as Kabinett if it were made now. The experience of drinking it is a glimpse into a world that no longer exists.

It’s not that one era is better than the other, and such judgments, in fact, completely miss the point. I wouldn’t want contemporary Austrian or German wines to be made like they were back then, nor am I nostalgic about some earlier time. In fact, if someone made wines like that, they would appear oddly anachronistic. But these old wines just make me think about the passing of time, the changes of the world and of the things in it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Vinho Verde in the SF Chronicle

I wrote an article about Portugal’s Vinho Verde that just appeared in last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle. I love Vinho Verde, especially at this time of year, and despite the increasing prices of the top Alvarinhos, it still remains one of the world’s great wine values.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wine of the Week: Jacques Selosse V.O. Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs

The reason my Wine of the Week is on Sunday this week instead of Friday is because on Friday I was drunk and disoriented, not to mention on a different continent, and I simply forgot that it was Friday. (The reason it's on Sunday, two days later, instead of Saturday is pretty much the same one.) Since it’s a decadent sort of week, I’ve picked a wine that’s a little more decadent than usual.

I had brought a bottle of Jacques Selosse Version Originale with me from Paris to share with friends, as this wine can be somewhat difficult to procure here in the United States. The V.O. comes from Avize, Cramant and Oger, and is a blend of three different vintages (in this case 2002, 2001 and 2000), aged for three and a half to four years on its lees and released without dosage. It's been a while since I've drunk a bottle of this, and it was extremely satisfying to spend several hours watching it evolve: I considered decanting it, but instead we just opened it and drank a bunch of other wines while monitoring its progress.

There’s a deep core of richness that persists on the palate throughout the long, sleek finish, its body and breadth amplified by its vinification in wood. Like all of Selosse’s wines, this possesses a distinct personality and a confident, self-assured character, but the most striking element about it is the way that it seamlessly balances its complexity and richness. There are other champagnes that can be rich — weight, after all, is easy to acquire if that's all you're looking for, even in a northerly region like Champagne — but none do it as stylishly or as harmoniously as Selosse, and most attempts to emulate him are doomed to failure.

My friend Pete, upon seeing this bottle, generously went downstairs to his cellar and brought up a bottle of Selosse's 1988 vintage, and while it was a terrifically thrilling wine, it was still severely intense and wound up. It made the V.O. look downright gentle, although comparing the two eras of winemaking, I did feel that the V.O. showed more fine-ness and elegance, especially in the way that it harmoniously fit all of its parts together.

Jacques Selosse is imported into the United States by The Rare Wine Co., Sonoma, CA, and the suggested retail price for the Version Originale is $130.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Champagne Interlude

Champagne is unquestionably ideal as an apéritif, and indeed, it’s practically mandatory at the beginning of a proper dinner. It is also an extremely food-friendly wine, of course, and if you would like to serve champagne throughout the course of a meal, its diversity of styles, varieties and weights make it possible to find a candidate to match nearly anything. But usually one ends up drinking a multitude of other wines. (Yes, I know it’s a shock, but there do exist some wines other than champagne that are worthy of drinking. Not many, but you can find a few.)

Champagne, however, is also highly agreeable at a later stage in the meal. For many years, my friends and I have practiced what we call the “champagne interlude”: a bottle of champagne placed after the main course, before moving on to salad, cheese, dessert, madeira, or whatever else is to conclude a multi-course extravaganza. This has the happy and magical effect of refreshing both palate and spirit, especially if there has been an excessive quantity or diversity of wines preceding it. (Us? Excess? Never.) And besides, it’s delicious. Oftentimes a mature champagne is perfect for this, and since mature Burgundy is most frequently our red of choice, a mature champagne seems particularly appropriate to follow the refinement and complexity of such a wine. Sometimes, though, a youthful champagne can also be adapted according to the situation and the preceding wines, if it has sufficient personality. Regardless, the champagne interlude has become an indispensable element of our gastronomical lives, and we are attempting to spread its practice in civilized society.

But what if you have had a particularly heavyweight lineup of red wines? You need a champagne that is refreshing, yet you don’t want it to appear insubstantial or impotent after the power and weight of the wines before it. You also have to find a complement in character, as you want the transition to be harmonious rather than jarring.

Last night was a perfect and thrilling case in point. At a dinner for seven, we began with champagne and white wines before moving on to an array of Barolo: a confidently post-adolescent and virile 1982 Francesco Rinaldi and a mature, leather-scented 1974 E. Pira, followed by a superb 1965 Bartolo Mascarello in magnum, a contender for wine of the night with its aristocratic refinement and its gorgeous interplay of still-primary fruit and truffley, floral background flavors. It made a perfectly delicious 1967 Borgogno seem a little coarse and clumsy, although the 1958 red-capsuled Borgogno was as outstanding as ever, combining a powerful intensity and depth with breathtaking refinement and balance. Its majestic and authoritative presence even overshadowed the normally transcendent 1947 Borgogno, although admittedly our bottle of this last night was not quite up to the astonishingly high level of others that we’ve previously tasted. Not that, you know, it sucked or anything.

So as the array of decanters was slowly being emptied, the time for a champagne interlude was approaching. But what champagne to follow 60-year old Barolo? It turned out, as pure coincidence, that we had the perfect wine already sitting on ice: the 2004 Saignée de Sorbée by Bertrand Gautherot. Pungently fragrant, possessing both weight and elegance, it had the vinosity to stand up to the reds while its clarity and complexity of fruit provided both complement and counterpoint, especially after decanting it to better release its depth of flavor. Its acidity and minerality were delightfully refreshing, and it even showed a little light tannin that echoed, unobtrusively, that of the previous wines. I could not have found a better choice, and the wine was a joy to drink.

We closed the evening with a stupendous bottle of La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada #10, generously provided for us by the graciously hospitable folks of Castagna, and which turned out to also be ideally placed in its own way, with its marvelous finesse and character. Now to attempt to recover this morning, aided by a green pu-erh from La Maison des Trois Thés, so that we can do it all over again tonight...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

With Friends Like These...

I arrived in Portland, Oregon, last night and (naturally) went directly from the airport to the ever-outstanding Café Castagna, which is pretty much my surrogate home here. Actually, I did stop off on the way to pick up a bottle of 1999 Nikolaihof Steiner Hund Riesling from my small stash of wine that I keep here in the city. Over the pleasures of a real American burger—at Castagna they grind chuck themselves, plus they make the buns, and cooked almost rare (truly rare is illegal in Oregon), with Swiss and bacon, it’s my drug of choice—I spent a lovely evening with friends, consuming many quality beverages.

My friend Dave brought a 1973 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Gran Reserva in honor of my birthday (I was born in 1973), and this bottle was magnificently fresh and youthful, in much better shape than me, in fact. Carl opened an Avery bottling of 1961 Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts that was similarly vibrant, with taut, spicy flavors that were classically expressive of this special site. Pete found a deliciously rich and resonant bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée from an older disgorgement—as a Krugist I know I’m supposed to believe that all bottles of Grande Cuvée are the same, but I’ll just say that some bottles are samer than others. My bottle of Steiner Hund was nowhere near ready to drink, but with decanting it revealed a pungent, sappy core of depth and positively lovely sense of minerality, like drinking liquid stones.

As we had to let the good people of Castagna actually go home for the evening, we reconvened back at Pete’s house, sans Carl, for some late-night bubbles. A superb bottle of 1988 Veuve Clicquot Rare Vintage, surely the most complex and harmonious bottle of this wine I’ve ever tasted, was followed by an eagerly anticipated 1964 Charles Heidsieck, which was unfortunately oxidized and uninspiring. I suppose that was our punishment for not drinking grower champagne: following these with Pierre Gimonnet’s 2000 Oenophile, all was once again right with the world, bathed in the glow of chalky, racy Côte des Blancs goodness. Having not slept for 30 hours, that was about all the abuse my body could take, and needless to say, my head is ever so slightly throbbing this morning....

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Les Papilles Insolites Extra Brut

Stopping briefly in Paris on my way to the States for a friend’s wedding, I brought along a bottle of Jacques Lassaigne’s Les Papilles Insolites to drink last night (you know, for fortification en route). This is a tiny cuvée that seems to be slightly misunderstood by most people, at least those who write about it on the internet. (I’ve even seen it referred to as Les Papilles Insolentes on a French wine forum, which I think is even better!) In truth, most people have never heard of it at all, as it’s really only available at the two places in Paris for which it’s named: Les Papilles and La Cave de l’Insolite.

What’s unusual about this cuvée is that while it comes from Montgueux, which is basically known exclusively as a chardonnay terroir, this is 75 percent pinot noir. It’s all from the 2005 vintage, disgorged in January of 2008 and released without dosage, and it’s definitely a hipster champagne (it made me think of you, Sharon). Showing an unusually pronounced color, it’s intense and vinous in aroma, feeling almost like a poulsard or other light red wine rather than champagne, and it takes well over an hour after being opened to fully reveal its depth of flavor. The earthy, taut aromas of dried cranberry, redcurrant and plum skins are lively and refreshing, and continue to expand in depth and length as this gains air — in fact, I would consider decanting this the next time I open it. I also think that it could have a better balance with a gram or two of dosage, as the finish feels quite stern and compressed, but of course that’s not in the spirit of this cuvée. Regardless, it’s delicious and intriguing, and I love its unique personality.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Life in the Provinces

August is supposed to be a quiet month, as everyone in France is off on holiday, but I still managed to visit a dozen champagne producers over the past week, which makes me feel happily productive even in the midst of summer. I’m looking forward to a brief respite from the Champagne region myself pretty soon, though, and a welcome return to more urban locales. The rustic charm of life in the countryside is definitely overrated.

My friend Ewald Moseler, who is a wine importer in Portland, Oregon, grew up in the tiny village of Rachtig, just next to Zeltingen in Germany’s Mosel Valley, which is even more out in the sticks than Champagne is. He’s often described to me how provincial the mentalities of people could be back in his hometown, particularly among the village’s fiercely proud winegrowers. “These small winemakers in Rachtig really believed that their wine was just as good as anybody else’s in the Mosel,” says Ewald. “They’d say, ‘Oh, J.J. Prüm, they just have good PR. They spend a lot of money on marketing, and that’s why they’re so famous.’”

I thought of this the other day when I met the nephew of a highly-regarded grower here in Champagne. This nephew also bottles wine under his own label, and simply could not stand to talk about his more famous uncle. Even the mere mention of his uncle’s name threatened to send him into an apoplectic frenzy. Clearly he believed that his wine was every bit as great as his uncle’s wine, and he went out of his way to remind me several times that his father had been part of the family’s estate too. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never tasted this guy’s wines, and I’ll reserve final judgment until I do. For all I know, they could be brilliant. But call me cynical: I’m pretty sure that there’s a reason why his uncle’s name is a household one and his isn’t.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Wine of the Week: José Michel Brut Pinot Meunier

Ten years ago, nobody wanted to talk about meunier, even though over a third of Champagne’s vineyard land was planted with it. If people did talk about it, it was usually either to apologize for it or to bash it for being an inferior variety. Today, meunier is downright hip, especially among the younger generation of growers, and you’re much more likely to hear positive comments about meunier now than ever before.

One producer who was a champion of meunier long before the hipsters is José Michel, in the village of Moussy, just southwest of Epernay. About half of Michel’s vineyards are planted with meunier, and he’s been making champagne from pure meunier for over 50 years (with a bit of an interruption, as I’ll tell you about in a minute). Today he makes a cuvée entirely from pinot meunier, blended from vines both in this area, the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, and the Aisne valley to the west. The current release is composed entirely of 2005, and if you’ve never tasted a pure meunier, this is a fine introduction to the variety. It shows a classic build, with broad, low-pitched flavors of apple, grapefruit pith and wheat bread, backed by hints of a savory, umami-like earthiness. It’s bold in flavor but not heavy in body, and while it’s refreshing enough to drink as an apéritif, it would probably be even better accompanied by food.

My friend Brian and I like to claim credit for this wine (even though that idea is obviously dubious at best). Whenever we visited José Michel, he would always pull out old bottles for us to taste: notable among the older vintages we’ve tasted over the years are 1952 (José’s first vintage), 1973 (the year that both Brian and I were born), 1956 (the birth year of our friend Carl, who fortunately came along on that visit with us) and 1946 (made by José’s father). These vintage wines of the past were pure meunier, and despite the popular belief that meunier should only be drunk young, these wines have aged terrifically well. But Michel’s vintage wines today are always a blend of meunier and chardonnay. We kept asking him, if these old wines are so good, why doesn’t he make a 100-percent meunier champagne now? He’d just smile and mutter some vague reply, and pour us more wine to keep us distracted. So finally, in 2005 I was at VinExpo in Bordeaux, and stopped by José Michel’s booth to say hello and drink some champagne. As soon as José saw me, he laughed and said, “Hey, next time you come I’ll have something for you and that friend of yours that loves meunier so much.” The new cuvée actually wasn’t quite ready yet the next year, but made its first appearance in 2007, much to our delight.

Incidentally, last year I had an all-meunier champagne dinner with a group of friends (I wrote a piece about it in the December ’07 issue of Wine & Spirits), involving some heavy hitters, such as Jérôme Prévost, Michel Loriot’s Vieilles Vignes and even a 1969 by René Collard. The first bottle on the table to be completely emptied? José Michel Pinot Meunier.

José Michel is imported into the United States by Wine Traditions, in Falls Church, VA. The Pinot Meunier retails for about $45.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Larmandiers

Ever wonder about the relationships between the various Larmandier estates? Yesterday I got a straight answer from Didier Gimonnet of Champagne Pierre Gimonnet, complete with an impromptu drawing of a family tree that’s almost even partially legible.

Didier is of the Larmandier clan, being the son of Michel Gimonnet and Françoise Larmandier. Françoise had a brother named Guy, who started the Guy Larmandier label, and another named Philippe, who founded Larmandier-Bernier. Thus, Pierre Larmandier, who owns Larmandier-Bernier today, and François Larmandier, of Champagne Guy Larmandier, are cousins. François has a sister who married a Waris, and they now have an estate in Avize called Waris-Larmandier. The original Larmandier Père et Fils, which was the family estate before all these guys splintered off from one another, is now owned by Gimonnet, who still makes a little wine under that label, sold mostly here in France. Happily, Larmandier Père et Fils came with eight hectares of prime vineyard land in the grand cru villages of Cramant and Chouilly, which is a big part of the reason that Gimonnet’s wines are so good now.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Three Versions of the Same Wine... Or Is It?

It’s sometimes assumed that the more lees aging a wine receives, the better off it is. While tasting this morning with Gilles Dumangin of J. Dumangin Fils in Chigny-les-Roses, he pulled out an instructive pair of bottles for us to sample. They were both the same wine, Dumangin’s 1994 vintage, and both dosed at the same level (12 grams per liter). The only difference was that one was disgorged in 2000 and the other in 2002.

Eight and six years, respectively, after their disgorgements, the two wines were very different, and not in a way that I expected. The bottle disgorged in 2000 was developed in flavor but still lively, with firm acidity and balanced notes of cream, butter toffee and dried fruits. It was a delicious example of a well-matured champagne, and one that I enjoyed drinking. The later-disgorged bottle, however, felt much less fresh, with ponderously honeyed, caramelly flavors that made it tiring to drink, and the acidity was much less prominent.

Now, a comparison of only one bottle of each, especially with 14-year old wine, is prone to variability, and you could attribute the latter bottle’s advanced maturity to cork variation or other perturbations common to wine. But Dumangin has consistently experienced the same results, and specifically opened these two bottles to demonstrate this to me, emphasizing that choosing the time of disgorgement is critical to the way a champagne develops. “We’ve realized that when you disgorge the wine when it’s very young, it stays fresh for a long time afterwards,” he says.

What is perhaps even more interesting is that he’s re-releasing the 1994 now as a Vinothèque wine, but offering it as an Extra Dry! I thought that I’d initially heard wrong, and later took the above photo as proof. It’s common that people dose old wines less, but hardly anyone would suggest dosing an old wine more. Yet the wine is delicious, and at 17 grams per liter of sugar, it’s hardly a sweet wine. In fact, it tastes less sweet than some so-called brut NVs out there, the dosage giving it richness of body and texture and expanding the flavors much in the way that a Riesling Kabinett is often more fragrant and aromatically complex than a Riesling trocken. “I tried 12 different dosages, from zero to 24 grams of sugar per liter,” says Dumangin. “We tried blind tastings with our oenologists, looking for the dosage level that developed the aromas of old wine the best. It happened to be at 17 grams.” I always say that each wine finds its balance at a different level, and this wine seems perfectly happy where it is. A terrific and thought-provoking experience.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Wine of the Week: Henri Goutorbe Brut Spécial Club 2002

I’ve just arrived back home in Champagne this evening, slightly disoriented from my voyage — I’d momentarily even forgotten that it was Friday and time for a Wine of the Week. Fortunately, I am drinking a fine bottle from Henri Goutorbe as a homecoming reward to myself (for what exactly I’m not sure, but neither do I care, as the intake of champagne seems to be my primary goal this evening). This actually happened to be the first bottle that I saw upon walking into my cellar, and seemed as good a wine as any to drink right now. Unsurprisingly, it also happens to be terrifically delicious.

Goutorbe is one of the most prominent grower estates in the village of Aÿ, although the Goutorbe family is equally as well-known for being pépiniéristes, or nurserymen for the propagation of vine cuttings. Today the Goutorbes own about 20 hectares of vines in the Grande Vallée de la Marne, and their rosé, millésime and Spécial Club are always pure Aÿ grand cru.

Goutorbe’s Spécial Club is always composed of roughly 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, and is vinified entirely in stainless steel. The 2002 shows a warm, inviting nose of mocha, raspberries and grilled nuts, demonstrating both ampleness of fragrance and harmony of balance. On the palate it turns more primary in flavor, with aromas ranging from strawberry and yellow peach to kumquat and sweet apple, picking up a hint of fresh ginger and turning much more red fruit-dominated the longer the bottle is open. It has a rich texture, feeling almost velvety even though the underlying acidity is relatively prominent, and the aromas expand on the finish with bold presence and depth. While it’s drinking well right now for a 2002, it promises to gain in complexity with a few more years in the cellar — there’s a kernel of concentrated flavor on the back end that feels youthful and tightly wound, as if preserving a little time capsule for the future.

For those of you in the United States, Henri Goutorbe is represented by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, in Syosset, NY. The good people at Skurnik tell me that they’re still working with the 2000, which is also a lovely wine — it shares a familial resemblance but as I recall, it feels a little bigger and more muscular to me, while the 2002 shows a bit more finesse and detail. I don’t know when you might see the 2002, but for now, the 2000 is suggested as retailing for $87.