Friday, January 30, 2009

And Now, For Something Completely Different

My friends have been here in Champagne for the past few days, and we’ve naturally been seeing many great producers and tasting wonderful wines. Yesterday while visiting Richard Geoffroy of Dom Pérignon at the picturesque Abbaye d’Hautvillers, we were joined by François Audouze of L’Academie des Vins Anciens. (In fact, if you read French, you can read about our visit on his site.) François generously brought along an old Château Chalon to taste just for the hell of it. I’ll confess that I paid less attention to it at the time than I would have liked to, as I was focused too deeply on the array of multiple vintages and versions of Dom Pérignon in front of me: the 2000 and 2000 Rosé, 1996, 1995 and 1975 Oenothèques and a slightly flawed but still astounding 1966 in magnum. I love vin jaune, but it’s demanding stuff, and I was simply too occupied to fully switch gears.

Through a series of random events that are too boring to detail here, I had the opportunity to spend some proper time with this 1959 Château Chalon again later in the evening, and as is typical for vin jaune, it was even better after being open for several hours. I’ve never tasted anything from this producer, Vichot-Girod, but this wine was pungent and assertive in aroma, the sort of wine that you can smell from a meter away. Tasting it in Hautvillers, it was fresh and vibrant, with complex fruit flavors ranging from citrus peel and apple skins to jackfruit and orange melon, intertwined with heady, exotic notes of curry powder, praline and macadamia nut. Upon returning to it in the evening, it had become even more youthful and intensely fragrant, adding hints of savory undertones not unlike top-class grüner veltliner: sweet carrot, green lentil, snap pea. It felt voluptuous and enveloping, aided by its disarmingly velvety texture in this warm vintage, and the manner in which the myriad and potentially disparate components all seamlessly wound themselves together was remarkably striking, lingering with sappy, staining presence and length on the finish. This wine was otherworldly, in the sense of being so utterly removed from anything else of this world, and in the highly focused environment of Champagne it seemed even more like an alien being. But it was fun to drink.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Barrel Tasting the 2008 Fleur de Passion

Without fail, one of the highlights of my year is tasting Cramant in barrel with Jacques Diebolt of Champagne Diebolt-Vallois. At the risk of appearing gluttonous and over-privileged, I’ll admit that I’ve already been fortunate to do so twice with the 2008s, even though it’s still early in the vin clair season (they usually get bottled in early April). The majority of Diebolt’s wines are fermented in enameled or stainless steel tank, and naturally those are a joy to taste as well, but he also makes a selection from his finest parcels in the village of Cramant, planted with vines from 40 to 60 years old, to vinify in barrel for his prestige cuvée, the Fleur de Passion.

The Fleur de Passion is fermented in old, 205-liter pièces, without malolactic, and bottled without fining or filtration. In most cases (as with the 2008) it is also unchaptalized, and fermented with natural yeasts. Although the final wine is blended from several different parcels of Cramant, the various lots are kept separate throughout the fermentation and aging. They aren’t always exactly single-parcel selections, as some of the parcels are too small to fill up a standard 4,000-kilogram press, but each marc (the Champenois term for a pressing made from 4,000 kilograms of grapes) yields ten barrels of wine, which are all kept separated until the final blending, just before bottling. The result is that these selections from different marcs offer an extraordinary opportunity to taste across the Cramant hillside, comparing wine from some of the village’s top parcels, made exclusively from old vines by one of Champagne’s greatest grower-producers. For the terroir-obsessed, I do not believe that there is currently a finer method of studying the terroir of Cramant.

Although I’ve been doing this with Diebolt for a number of years, I’ve never really written about it, as the experience is largely valuable only in terms of personal edification—once you buy a bottle of the finished Fleur de Passion, all of the component parts have long since been amalgamated together, and are no longer worth talking about except as purely theoretical discourse. But I suppose that a discussion such as this serves to accentuate how different the various sectors of the village really are. In Champagne, most people tend to think in terms of village rather than of vineyard, but in truth, a village covers a relatively large area, and the terroir is rarely consistent from one side to the other. Certainly each of the component wines for the Fleur de Passion has its own personality and distinctiveness, even though they are all from the village of Cramant. These wines represent the very top lots of the vintage for Diebolt, and thus are always wonderful to taste every year, but the 2008s are exceptionally pure and finely expressive, demonstrating the outstanding potential of this vintage. Below are notes for each of the six wines that will be considered for the 2008 Fleur de Passion; in Diebolt’s cellar, the number of the marc is written on the barrel, and so that is how they are referred to.

#18: This combines the vineyards of Pimonts, Rouillées and Gros Monts in roughly equal proportions, although the percentage of Pimonts is slightly larger. Pimonts is located towards the western side of the village’s viticultural area, in the great amphitheater of vines below the village itself. Les Rouillées is also located in this sector, on an unusually steep, south-facing slope just under the village, while Gros Monts is on the eastern side, below the Butte de Saran. Of all of these marcs, this #18 seems to be the most classical in feel, contrasting the subtly rich depth of Gros Monts with sleekly citrusy acidity and a flowery, delicate length. “This is very typical of Fleur de Passion,” says Diebolt. “I think that the final blend will appear very close to this.”

#20: Diebolt experimented with putting Les Bauves into barrel for the first time in 2008. Bauves is a vineyard farther away from the village, in the direction of Oiry: “It’s not on the plain,” says Diebolt, “but it’s on the last coteau before the plain.” The chalk here is closer to the surface than in many other places, under only about 25 centimeters of topsoil, and you feel it in this wine, expressed as an austere, racy energy. It doesn’t have the gras or the expansiveness and complexity of aroma that some of the other lots show, but it’s very soil-driven and vivacious. Still, Diebolt doesn’t think it’s really what he’s looking for in this cuvée, and he’s unsure whether he’ll use it in the final blend. “At the moment,” he says, “I think it will go into the Cuvée Prestige, not the Fleur de Passion.”

#21: The south- to southeast-facing vineyard of Buzons, on the flanks of the Butte de Saran, is home to some of Diebolt’s most prized holdings, and together with Les Pimonts, it’s the inspiration for the creation of this special cuvée. Marc #21 is pure Buzons, from vines planted in 1951—as soon as you put your nose into the glass, you know you’re in the presence of something grand. Buzons is only about 200 meters away from Les Bauves, higher on the slope and closer to the Butte, but the topsoil here is deeper and the character of the wine more complete, with a resonant depth and a rich, sleekly muscular build. Tasting this in December, it seemed as if it was less overtly minerally than some of the other wines, due to it’s ample richness of fruit, but upon tasting it again last week, I noticed a pure, almost crystalline chalkiness emerging from underneath the fruity girth, anchoring the flavors and adding a greater sense of completeness and depth. The finish shows the multi-dimensional fragrance and regal bearing that I always associate with this site, persisting in finely detailed length—if this were bottled as Coteaux Champenois blanc, I would happily purchase it. It will undoubtedly make an even greater champagne, though.

#22: Three-quarters Buzons and one-quarter Gros Monts. This is highly instructive, as the majority of it is virtually the same wine as #21. The difference between the two wines is incredibly striking, however. The vineyards of Gros Monts and Buzons aren’t too far away from each other, but as I’ve come to acquaint myself with their respective personalities over the years, I’ve found them to make wines of markedly different characters. Buzons is rich, complex, but also very fine and detailed—when people talk about Cramant as being a rich terroir, it’s vineyards like Buzons that they’re thinking of. There’s a seamless combination of strength and finesse, and a sense of grand cru depth and expansiveness on the finish. Gros Monts has a richness of body typical for this side of the village, but within that context it emphasizes its sense of finesse, with a pronounced chalkiness and a lithe, airy raciness. Diebolt’s vines here are 40 years old, so there’s no lack of gravitas, but the overall impression is one of elegance rather than power. Here, you’d expect Buzons to dominate, but it’s actually the reverse—in both my December and January tastings, I felt that it was the racy, flowery character of Gros Monts that put itself into the foreground, and overall this feels more kinetic and less overtly rich than the pure Buzons.

#24: This is two-thirds Pimonts, which faces east-southeast, and one-third Fromattes, which is the vineyard on the hillside directly across from it—the soil is virtually identical in character, but Fromattes faces west. In contrast to the previous two wines, this is quiet up front, feeling deceptively delicate in body but building slowly on the palate towards an expansively aromatic, subtly complex and chalk-driven finish. The sense of verticality on the back end is tremendous, a poignant expression of a regal terroir.

#26: As a counterpart to #21, this is pure Pimonts, and Jacques Diebolt’s pick as his personal favorite of the 2008 wines. According to Diebolt, the name Pimonts is derived from “petits monts”, in reference to the gentle rise on which this site lies, and it’s one of the oldest-known terroirs in Cramant: “Vines have probably been planted here for over a thousand years,” he says. The character of the wine from Pimonts is quieter and more introspective than that of Buzons, and it seems to me to consistently be the most refined and most complete wine from year to year—if any of these were to be made as a separate, single vineyard champagne (a distinctly unlikely possibility, so don’t get your hopes up), I would imagine it to be Pimonts. Like the previous wine, from Pimonts and the neighboring Fromattes, this builds with a slow, unhurried grace and an aristocratic sense of elegance. It’s extremely minerally, almost steely in its chalky intensity, yet it doesn’t feel at all aggressive, its minerality deftly integrated into a larger array of components. On the superbly expressive finish it’s the longest of all of these, demonstrating a subtle, nuanced complexity and going on and on in airy, finely detailed fragrance.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Goblessness Personified

2000 Bouzy Rouge by Paul Bara. Pure class. This wine is so intense that I can only drink a little bit of it at a time, and yet it achieves this without any sense of weight whatsoever. (I mean, come on, it’s grown at close to the 50th parallel, for crying out loud.) An ample, effortlessly fragrant aroma of pure, crushed berry fruit saturates the palate, but at only 12.5 percent alcohol, this feels delicate and lively rather than rich, infused by a profound sense of minerality. You can almost taste bits of chalk in the glass. The most striking thing about this wine is how terroir-specific it is: it’s clearly from the southern portion of the Montagne de Reims, but it’s just as clearly from Bouzy and not Ambonnay, with its voluptuous, red-fruit flavors and generous fragrance.

It’s funny—this wine would probably be laughably expensive if you were to import it into the United States, but I would pay the money. I daresay it would be a better buy than many wines from Burgundy in the equivalent price range. Perhaps a 1989, 1996 or maybe 2002 could be more complex and grand, but it’s difficult to improve upon the sheer satisfaction of this wine. This is reference-standard stuff, not only for Bouzy, but for Coteaux Champenois as a category.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Smelling the Mousse

It was Christophe Constant, winemaker and oenologist at Champagne J.-L. Vergnon, who first told me to smell the mousse just after pouring a glass of his champagne. Bubbling up in the flute as mousse is prone to do, it was all frothy and white—I was patiently waiting for it to die down, but he said, “Smell it. Usually the mousse smells green and neutral, but if the fruit is truly ripe, you will get the aroma here.” I’d never really thought about this before, but it turned out to be quite revealing. Constant harvests his grapes very ripe, generally over 11 degrees of natural potential alcohol, and in his champagnes the mousse is as fruity and aromatic as the actual wine is.

This holds true for other champagnes that are made from genuinely ripe fruit. The Ulysse Collin Extra Brut 2004 that I drank the other day has a deliciously fragrant mousse, with notes of white flowers and sweet tropical citrus that quickly turn to deeper, more autolytic aromas as the bubbles die down. A similar experience is found in Jérôme Prévost’s new 2006 Les Béguines, where the mousse smells sweet and floral, like pear candy; as it dies down, the yeastiness of the wine emerges and the fruit aromas of the wine completely change. David Léclapart’s 2005 L’Amateur, another naturally ripe, unchaptalized champagne, is youthful and awkward right now, revealing little of the depth that it surely conceals, yet the mousse is fragrant and fruity: whatever this wine is suffering from at the moment, it isn’t lack of ripeness.

Other champagnes, as you can well imagine, have a mousse that smells distinctly less appealing. What’s curious is that the nose itself is quite generously forgiving—even in a champagne that’s not terribly ripe, the fruit aromas can be forthcoming enough on the nose to make up for it, and I imagine that a high degree of chaptalization probably helps to amplify this as well. The long lees aging gives richness and substance to what is otherwise rather neutral fruit, deemphasizing the green, herbaceous aromas that would be present if it were merely a still white wine. But one place where the true character of the fruit can be found is in the mousse.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Same Terroir, Different Hands (With Apologies to Brooklynguy)

I really can’t stand Modest Mouse. I know that Isaac Brock is regarded as a musical demi-god by many people, and I can’t understand why. To me it sounds like he’s just shouting, and a lot of the music is reminiscent of what my friends and I might have sounded like back in high school when we were trying to learn how to play our instruments. Curiously, however, when Mark Kozelek (of Sun Kil Moon, and formerly of Red House Painters) reworked a number of Modest Mouse songs for a cover album entitled Tiny Cities, it turned out to be one of my favorite things that he’s ever done. Kozelek is a brilliant songwriter himself, but he loves to reinterpret other people’s music as well, and at his shows you’re often likely to hear a stripped-down rendition of a song by AC/DC or Kiss in the middle of a set of original material. The striking thing about Kozelek’s imaginative and slightly cheeky cover versions is how vastly different they are from the versions that you might already know.

A fine example is Space Travel is Boring, one of my favorite tracks on Tiny Cities. The Modest Mouse song is relatively banal (one might even say boring): an ADD-infused piece of schizophrenia whose constant changes in tempo make it highly irritating rather than innovative. You can judge it for yourself here, paired with an equally irritating video that results in a semi-masochistic sensory experience.

Kozelek, on the other hand, transforms the song into a gem of rare and poignant beauty, brimming with longing and melancholy. The Sun Kil Moon recordings tend to be a little more highly produced than those of the old Red House Painters days, but that doesn’t diminish the essence of the music.

I was walking down a snowy Soho street in NYC the other day listening to this song on my iPod, and it made me think, obliquely, of brooklynguy’s post on terroir a couple of weeks back. He was talking about multiple interpretations of the same vineyard, and how fascinating it is to compare examples of the same terroir made by different hands. Of course, brooklynguy’s examples involved comparisons between some of Burgundy’s greatest winemakers, which makes the experience exponentially more enjoyable. My Space Travel is Boring example is like tasting a Volnay Clos des Chênes from Patriarche Père et Fils and then tasting one from Michel Lafarge. You’d never know the greatness of the vineyard by drinking only the former.

Friday, January 16, 2009

There and Back Again

Despite the frigid temperatures and snowy sidewalks, I didn’t really want to leave New York. Of course, when my friend called to tell me that US Airways 1549 had just landed in the Hudson River, that made me even more skeptical about getting onto an airplane. But a car ride, plane ride, RER ride, metro ride, train ride and taxi ride later, I find myself back home in Dizy, where it’s almost eerily quiet after the bustle and chaos of NYC.

It’s my habit to open an especially good bottle of champagne upon arriving home from traveling, as a sort of reward for enduring the indignities of such unpleasantries as airport security and Paris metro staircases, but also as consolation for being suddenly apart from the people who made my journey so enjoyable. Tonight I was rummaging around in my cellar and found a bottle of Ulysse Collin 2004 Extra Brut, which of course made me want to drink it. It’s been several months since I last tasted this wine, although prior to that I’ve certainly consumed my fair share of Collin’s tiny production, as I love this wine so much.

This 2004 was first disgorged in July of 2007 and released in October of that year; a second disgorgement was done in January of 2008, and the bottle that I am currently drinking was from that later lot. It’s difficult to accurately compare the two disgorgements without actually tasting them together side by side, but one thing about the July 2007 disgorgement is that over the past year and a half it has rapidly developed a greater depth and substance with post-disgorgement aging, and today it seems to be a significantly different wine than it was when it was first released. This bottle from the January disgorgement seems to continue the trend, with the wine retaining a similar set of flavors but continuing to put on more weight and volume, while also increasing in complexity of aroma. I like this wine much better as a non-dosé extra brut now than I did back in October of 2007 when I first tasted it—it seems to be settling down into its skin and acquiring a real harmony and completeness, and drinking it tonight by itself, without food, it shows a delightful balance and expression. Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder if someone has drilled a hole in the bottom of my Riedel glass, as every time I look at it, it seems to be empty.

I miss New York already. But at least here I’ve got way more champagne.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Unexpected Pairing

I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging this week in NYC, although I’ve naturally been tasting and drinking a fair amount of wine. One of the most memorable wines of the week was at brooklynguy’s house a few days ago, at the end of a lovely dinner involving Françoise Bedel with lentil soup, Mugneret-Gibourg Echézeaux with lamb and Roses de Jeanne just for the sheer pleasure of it. To wind down, brooklynguy served fresh ricotta from Esposito’s in Carroll Gardens, drizzled with Italian chestnut honey. It’s a delicious and refreshing combination that could probably pair with a number of different wines—I didn’t have anything particular in mind, but I was pleasantly surprised when he chose to accompany it with the 2007 Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph Les Oliviers.

Made of marsanne blended with roughly 20 percent of roussanne, Les Oliviers comes from a highly renowned, south-facing hillside of the same name. Gonon produces both white and red St-Joseph of a rare purity, character and expression, and it’s difficult to see how anyone interested in traditional winemaking could fail to be moved by this wine. Its delicate flavors of pear skins, beeswax, honeycomb, white flowers and fresh quince demonstrate a finely poised balance, unfolding slowly and quietly on the palate rather than revealing themselves all at once. Delicate might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of today’s Northern Rhône whites, but this wine does indeed project a sense of delicacy, with its discreet flavors and elegantly controlled depth of fruit. It has a lovely texture, feeling like the lightest crushed velvet, and at 13.8 percent of alcohol, it feels fresh, lively and sleekly harmonious. The most impressive thing about this wine is its sense of restraint—in an era when so many Rhône wines subscribe to the philosophy that bigger is better, this wine is a model of finesse and subtlety. There’s something in its waxy, floral aroma that echoed and complemented both the ricotta and the chestnut honey, and the wine’s judiciously balanced weight allowed it to play harmoniously off of the cheese without dominating it.

Brooklynguy promises me that next time the ricotta will be Brooklyn’s Salvatore, which he was unable to procure that day, and I’m sure he will have another delightful pairing to surprise me with. But it would certainly be fine with me if we just drank another bottle of Les Oliviers....

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On Transport

I was talking on the phone a few weeks ago with Beau Timken, proprietor of True Sake in San Francisco. If you don’t know True Sake, you should—when it opened in 2003, it was the first store outside of Japan devoted entirely to sake, and it continues to be America’s premier sake retailer, with a selection of over 200 brews. At the moment they ship only within California, but Timken tells me that in the first quarter of 2009 they will unveil their new online shop, which will have the largest online sake selection outside of Japan, and shipping will be possible to other states whose laws still allow their citizens such freedoms and pleasures.

One of the things that Timken mentioned in the course of our conversation was that sake, like wine, tastes different when it’s been transported to different parts of the world. This is not necessarily a sign of abuse or mistreatment, but simply a function of transport—if you put a living, complex entity such as wine or sake (or a person, for that matter) on a boat for a month, it’s not going to be entirely the same as it was if it stayed at home. I often see this in younger champagnes when I taste the same cuvées (and often the same disgorgements) in both France and in the United States. The wines generally taste much more youthful in France, while in the States they feel slightly rounder and less aggressive. This isn’t always a bad thing, especially in the case of young champagne.

Timken describes a similar difference in sake, where a given sake will often taste crisper and edgier in Japan, while after being rocked on a boat during the 30-day journey to California, it seems to become slightly rounder and mellower, smoothing it out. He told me that he’s done experiments at home of gently shaking bottles for 30 consecutive days and comparing them with the same sakes left undisturbed, and has also found notable differences. Timken says that he even knows an owner of a prominent sake brewery in Japan who secretly prefers the mellowed taste of his sakes after they’ve been shipped to the United States, although of course if he made this known in Japan, it would likely cause an uproar.

Ultimately, none of it really matters for most of us, practically speaking, as we usually haven’t got a choice—most of our drinking experiences take place in the regions where we live, and any effects of transport automatically become part of the overall experience, for better or for worse. It’s useless to get hung up about it. But it’s curious to think about nevertheless.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dental Hazards

I’ve been in New York City all week, tasting Austrian (and now Loire Valley) wines for Wine & Spirits magazine. As anyone who’s ever tasted vast quantities of high-acid wines at one time knows, dental health is one of the major casualties of the freak show that is professional wine tasting.

Here at the magazine, I generally taste between 100 and 120 wines a day, five days a week. Now, the state of my teeth and gums is not what you might term “magnificent”, “outstanding”, or “impeccable”. They’re healthy enough, but they would never be models of perfection for aspiring students of dentistry. This is not for lack of attention—I brush religiously with a soft toothbrush, I floss fastidiously and I try to remember to see the dentist for checkups whenever I should. But perhaps the steady onslaught of wine is simply too much punishment for my teeth to handle. It probably has something to do with genetics as well, unfortunately.

This week, I’ve been using a fluoride rinse each morning before my tastings, and it seems to be helping considerably. My mouth feels much less beaten up after each tasting session, and when I taste a group of 40 red wines at a time, they leave less of a stain on my teeth than usual, which I interpret (from my distinctly non-dentistry-savvy perspective) as being a positive sign for oral well-being. Not quite sure if this does anything in the way of gum protection, though, which is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Anyone have any advice for tooth and gum health in regards to winetasting? I know that at least one of you out there must be a practicing dentist or have some secret dentistry special forces training or something to that effect....

Monday, January 5, 2009

Jura Night, Again

Coq au Vin Jaune Night, a.k.a. Jurafest, has become more or less an annual event among my group of friends in Portland. This year, inspired as always by the aristocratically elegant version of coq au vin jaune aux morilles that we tasted many years ago at Jean-Paul Jeunet in Arbois, my friend Pete continued to refine his technique of creating this iconic dish, reexamining his methods and taking the whole thing in a surprising new direction. It turned out to be spectacular, aided further by a Berthet-Bondet Château-Chalon that formed the base of the sauce, rather than just a sous voile savagnin as we normally use. If you think there isn’t a difference between the two when used for cooking, well, there is. If you think it’s ridiculously decadent and extravagant to use an entire bottle of Château-Chalon to cook with, well, that’s true too.

Of course, we washed this fantastic poultry down with plenty of wines from the Jura, ranging from chardonnay to savagnin sous voile to multiple vintages of poulsard (or should I say ploussard) from Emmanuel Houillon. The headlining act of the night, however, was vin jaune, one of the world’s great forgotten wines. It was a revelation for me to taste the 2000 from Domaine Labet—I’ve enjoyed several of the estate’s other wines but have never had the opportunity to taste the vin jaune. Pure, savory and subtly intense, it’s one of the most elegant vins jaunes I’ve ever tasted, which is hardly surprising as it’s only 13.5 percent alcohol. We paired it with the 2000 Berthet-Bondet Château-Chalon (a bottle that we didn’t reduce in a saucepan), another superbly delicate and elegant wine. From one of the finest producers in the appellation, this clearly demonstrated the finesse of the cru in its silky texture and ethereal, filigreed aroma.

A pair of wines from Jacques Puffeney was outstanding: the 1996 Arbois Vin Jaune is one of the finest Puffeney wines I’ve ever tasted, and this bottle was as lovely as ever, balancing a saline, oyster-shell character with pungent aromas of spiced pear, jackfruit, curry powder, saffron and candied citrus. It’s still extremely youthful, needing more time to develop in the bottle, whereas the 1988 is showing superbly well now, its sappy, boldly fragrant depth complemented by spicy notes of clove, mace and nutmeg.

The most sought-after of all vins jaunes is the rare version made by Pierre Overnoy, made in miniscule quantities in selected vintages before he retired in 2001. With his avoidance of sulfur, his 1998 was deeper in color than the other wines on the table, but that was hardly a fault—its resonant depth and sophisticated complexity of aroma elevated this wine above the rest, finishing with astounding intensity, subtlety and length. It was the sort of wine that prevented you from putting anything else in your mouth for another five minutes after each sip, its panoply of flavors fiercely gripping your palate and refusing to let go. The phrase “wine of meditation” is often overused, in any language, but Overnoy’s vin jaune, in any vintage, is one of the few wines that truly merits the description.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Old School

Syrah is one of my favorite red grape varieties—or more accurately, I should say that syrah from the Northern Rhône can produce some of my favorite red wines outside of Burgundy and Piedmont. Yet I find that I rarely purchase modern examples to drink. It’s not that there aren’t good wines being made—there are plenty. It’s just that first of all, I prefer Northern Rhône wines when they have a reasonably significant amount of bottle age, and second, I prefer a distinctly lighter style of syrah, one that emphasizes terroir over fruit and that avoids excessive amounts of ripeness and alcohol. Anything remotely jammy, massive, prodigious or that has gobs of anything sends me running the other way.

A trio of wines the other evening from three of my all-time favorite syrah producers provided plenty of food for thought. The lovely 1985 Cornas from Noel Verset was fragrant, open and alluring, with heady aromas of bacon fat and exotic spice. Verset’s wines always require a good deal of time to show their best, and the 1985 felt like it was at a perfect point of drinking, balancing a lingering richness of fruit aroma against an expansive backdrop of mature, soil-driven complexity. In contrast, the 1985 Côte-Rôtie by Marius Gentaz was still youthful, primary and slightly constricted, requiring about half a hour to emerge from its shell. Like the Verset, this was a masterly demonstration of both variety and place, developing a marvelously porky, bacon-y fragrance and revealing an intense depth of aroma along with the inimitable silkiness of fine Côte-Rôtie. I would find it difficult to believe that either of these wines were more than 12.5 percent alcohol, yet their aromas were so riveting and pure, proving once again that you don’t need weight or power to achieve intensity and expression.

With its quietly elegant refinement, soft-spoken intensity and restrained balance, Gentaz’s Côte-Rôtie is the antithesis of the modern blockbusters that are at the forefront of the region today. While surfing the web recently, I ran across Robert Parker’s review of the 2003 Côte-Rôtie La Turque by Guigal, a wine to which he awarded 100 points. Parker writes, “This is a prodigious effort that may eclipse any other vintage Guigal has ever produced! It possesses similarities to the 1999, but it is even higher in alcohol, more unctuously textured, thicker, and longer. Encapsulate the character of this single vineyard in a top year, add more depth, intensity, alcohol, and power, and this describes this freakishly rich 2003.” Lavish praise for Parker, but to me, freakish is the operative word here. He goes on to say, “This is the stuff of modern day legends. As for what it actually tastes like, just take my notes for any of the great vintages and add more power, glycerin, alcohol, tannin, and concentration... that about defines this 2003!”

This review made me think of the third wine of our evening’s trio, the 1979 Hermitage by J.-L. Chave. The Chave estate is still one of the appellation’s greats today, but the wines of that era and this one are markedly different, and it’s hardly a surprise as to where my preferences lie. Of the magical, heartbreakingly sublime 1979, I could write, “This is the stuff of legends, a glimpse of a bygone age. Just take my notes for any of the great vintages of the modern day and add more finesse, elegance, subtlety, delicacy, complexity and grace. Take away glycerin, power, tannin and excess concentration, and subtract two percentage points of alcohol to create an even more weightless, hauntingly ethereal expression of the Hermitage hillside. That about defines this 1979.” 100 points on the gob-less scale.