France – Burgundy

Vézelay: Burgundy’s Flyover Country

14 November 2016
Vézelay

Vézelay

I regarded the Burgundy map in my World Atlas of Wine with some consternation. In the midst of planning my road trip from Paris to Beaune, I noticed an immense gap between Burgundy’s northernmost vineyards, surrounding Chablis, and its most famous, stretched along the Côte d’Or. The shortest route between my hotels in Chablis and Beaune was 82.6 miles, and the idea of driving that entire length — almost an hour and a half — without stopping for a drink seemed incomprehensible.

Then I noticed it: a little dogbone-shaped speck of pink, hiding in the map’s vast sea of grey flanking the A6 highway. This speck represented Bourgogne Vézelay, which the World Atlas calls a “recondite mini-appellation.” Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a recondite mini-appellation, especially one close to such a lovely (if touristy) town as Vézelay. I planned a detour.

The Oxford Companion to Wine had little to say about the appellation, but my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was a bit more encouraging, noting that Vézelay’s “top-performing white wines… are superior to the lower end of Chablis, which is relatively much more expensive.” To determine what the top-performing white was, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I simply googled “best Vézelay winery.”

Domaine de la CadetteAnd it worked! Google suggested Domaine de la Cadette, the wines of which are imported by the legendary Kermit Lynch. Trusting in the judgment of Google and Lynch, I added the winery’s tasting room to my itinerary.

The words “Burgundian winery” might conjure visions of grand châteaux, but that’s only occasionally the case in the Côte d’Or, much less in Vézelay. The tasting room looked quite unassuming, in fact, and as I pulled into its parking lot, it also looked quite closed.

Ever hopeful, I walked into the similarly unassuming restaurant, the name of which translates approximately to “The Foot in the Plate” (it sounds ever so much more charming in French). Inside Le Pied dans le Plat, I met the delightful and thankfully English-speaking Martine, who explained that the tasting room had indeed permanently closed. However, the restaurant and winery were affiliated, and I asked if I could do a tasting for my blog. Martine was happy to oblige.

ChanterellesI settled into a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, decorated with potted succulents interspersed with old green demijohns. A young waitress sat nearby, brushing the dirt from a gorgeous pile of golden chanterelle mushrooms. Martine appeared with the first bottles, and I poured myself a bit of the Melon.

Melon de Bourgogne, in spite of its name, has little presence in Burgundy nowadays, long ago supplanted by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc now grows more commonly in the Loire. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Melon’s increasing importance today rests solely on Muscadet, although it is also grown to a limited extent in Vézelay…”

The Melon vineyards in Vézelay may not be as important in the grand scheme of things, but the wine they make can certainly be delicious. The 2014 La Soeur Cadette Melon had an appealingly minerally aroma and zesty flavor, with tart green-apple fruit, lively limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Domaine de la Cadette Pinot NoirI also tried two cheerful Chardonnays, the 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “La Châtelaine” and the 2014 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Galerne” (Valentin Montanet of Domaine Montanet-Thoden is the son of Jean and Catherine Montanet, founders of  Domaine de la Cadette, and the wineries are intimately linked). The organic “La Châtelaine” had fresh, creamy fruit leavened with bright, lingering spice — a wonderful contrast. But I liked the “Galerne,” named for a local wind, even better. It had a rounder aroma, more subtle flavors and a more complex journey: the creamy fruit started taut, unwinding and opening into gentle lemon-lime citrus and some light ginger spice.

I also tried two charming Pinot Noirs. The 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “Champs Cadet” tasted light and fruity, with a pop of spice. It wasn’t especially deep or complicated, but there’s nothing wrong with a wine that’s simply lively and fun. The 2012 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Garance” was more serious, with an unusual pink-aspirin aroma and a less fruity character. It tasted more earthy and meaty, with darker, brooding fruit and subtler spice.

Feeling quite comfortable by now at my little table on the terrace, I ordered some trout meunière for lunch. The fish had perfectly crispy skin and delicate flesh, and luscious butter soaked the potatoes and fresh vegetables. Martine tentatively asked me how it tasted. She looked relieved to hear my praise, and said, “Some people complain about all the butter.”

Trout meuniere“That’s insane,” I replied. Ordering trout meunière and complaining about the butter is like ordering steak tartare and complaining that your beef is undercooked.

The tight and citrusy “Galerne” Chardonnay was a perfect foil for the trout, cutting right through the buttery richness. I’d had more elegant wines in Chablis, and I would soon indulge in much fancier food in Beaune, but at that moment, with that trout and that Chardonnay, I didn’t want to be anywhere other than the sunny terrace of The Foot in the Plate.

Burgundy has other “recondite” appellations, and one of my favorites is St. Bris, which produces delicious Sauvignon Blanc. To learn more about St. Bris and how I made a fool of myself in Whole Foods, click here

The Most Unusual Wine Of Gevrey-Chambertin

28 July 2016
Gevrey-Chambertin

Gevrey-Chambertin

As we drove along Burgundy’s Route des Grands Crus, each sign we passed sent a shiver of excitement up my spine. Vosne-Romanée… Chambolle-Musigny… Morey-Saint-Denis… And finally Gevrey-Chambertin, our destination. Even to this old goat of a wine blogger, the thought of doing a wine tasting in Gevrey-Chambertin had me tingling with anticipation.

We pulled up to the Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet (which also makes wine under the name Domaine François Trapet), a relatively modest stucco house on the edge of the village with a tractor parked in front. This is a family winery, and the son, Laurent greeted us at the door. When you picture the scion of a winemaking family located in one of France’s greatest wine towns, you might imagine some sort of grandee in a flawlessly tailored sport coat and trousers and name-brand loafers. But here, in unpretentious and informal Burgundy, Laurent wore a blue athletic shirt, red shorts and hiking boots. He had been working in the vineyards.

Winemaker Laurent Trapet in his family's cellar

Winemaker Laurent Trapet-Rochelandet in his family’s cellar

The cellar served as both a functional winery and a tasting room, though it clearly was much more the former than the latter. Laurent led us through a fascinating vertical tasting of Trapet’s Le Carougeots, from a village-class vineyard kitty-corner to the La Perrière Premier Cru vineyard and just south of the village itself. We started with a taste right from the barrel.

The 2015 Le Carougeots tasted “noisy,” as Laurent remarked, with youthful acids that still felt a touch overpowering, but this was not at all a bad sign at this point in its life. There was plenty of ripe fruit, too, and I have no doubt the wine will be delicious by the time it’s released. The 2012 had wonderful dark fruit, gentle spice and velvety tannins on the finish, but it was the 2008 that really seduced me, with its sumptuous aroma and flavor of cassis (currant), a note of violets and more forceful tannins. Both vintages were difficult, Laurent explained, but both these wines were delicious, as was the 2007, which had an earthier, more savory character along with stronger spice. Tasting these wines together made it perfectly clear why vintages in Burgundy are so important — each wine had its own distinct character.

Laurent also poured us a taste of the 2013 Les Champs-Chenys, the first vintage of this wine, also made from a single village-class vineyard. Les Champs-Chenys has Grand Cru vineyards bordering it on two sides, which made Laurent think that its fruit might be worth vinifying on its own. He was right. The wine was deliciously complex, with ample dark fruit lifted by notes of fresh hay and vanilla, and after a shaft of white-pepper spice, the finish felt minerally — almost saline.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Bel-AirThe two Premier Cru wines we tasted, the 2012 Petite Chapelle and the 2013 Bel-Air, each offered a notable increase in finesse. I loved both — the dark fruit, fresh herbs and peppercorn notes in the Petit Chapelle, and the rich cassis and long finish of the Bel-Air. But I felt truly smitten by the rich Bel-Air, a funny little Premier Cru located just above the hillside from a Grand Cru. Usually Grand Cru vineyards occupy the highest parts of the hills, but because the soil in Bel-Air is so rocky, the vines are “too stressed” to make Grand Cru-level wine, Laurent explained.

Then Laurent absolutely floored me. He produced a bottle of sparkling wine; a bottle of sparkling red Pinot Noir, in fact. “What?!” My voice went up about a dozen decibels and at least an octave, and it echoed briefly in the cellar. “This is a sparkling red Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown in Gevrey-Chambertin?” I asked, again a little too loudly. I had no idea such a thing existed. Who on earth makes sparkling Gevrey-Chambertin?

Laurent didn’t seem entirely surprised by my reaction. “It is unusual. Actually, this kind of wine was popular in the late 19th century,” he explained, as I listened wide-eyed. He thought it would be interesting to resurrect the style. And indeed, sparkling red Burgundy is officially recognized, as evidenced by the words “Appellation Bourgogne Mousseux Rouge Contrôlée” on the back label. The grapes come from village-class Gevrey-Chambertin vineyards, but because Trapet has no sparkling wine production facilities, a winery in Savigny-lès-Beaune vinifies and bottles it.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Petill' RougeThe 2014 Petill’ Rouge was most definitely a red sparkling wine, not a Blanc de Noirs, the much better-known bubbly made from Pinot Noir. It looked brick-red in the glass, and it smelled of cherries and earth, as many non-sparkling Pinot Noirs do. The flavor was juicy and earthy, with elegantly small bubbles and some delightfully surprising tannins on the finish. I bought a bottle for about $16 (try finding a Gevrey-Chambertin in your local wine shop at that price).

I think of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or as one of the world’s most settled wine regions. For centuries, its terroir has been studied and carefully classified, and now its wines, while gorgeous, seemed more or less set in stone. Yet here stood Laurent, pouring me something I’d never even heard of, a wine he wanted to try making just to see how it would turn out.

The Côte d’Or, as I discovered first hand, is not entirely ossified after all. And it won’t become so, as long as winemakers like Laurent continue to take risks and experiment.

Burgundy Versus California: Two Contrasting Pinot Noirs

11 April 2016
Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Cote d'Or

Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Côte d’Or

Tasting Pinot Noirs side by side never fails to be revealing. That’s why when my friend Liz told me she planned on bringing a California Pinot to the BYOB restaurant where we were meeting, I knew exactly which wine I wanted to taste next to it. The last bottle of Burgundy on my wine rack.

I’ve had the fortune to visit Burgundy three times now, and though I’ve toured numerous other top wine regions in both Europe and the Americas, Burgundy remains my favorite. It combines picturesque vineyards and exquisite architecture with a grace found in only a handful of places around the globe. And despite its fame, it doesn’t feel especially touristy, especially if you get a bit off the beaten track. There’s more to Burgundy than just the three- and four-figure Grands Crus of the Côte d’Or.

Marche aux Vins

Marché aux Vins

On my last visit, which took place far too long ago in 2008, a colleague and I found ourselves in Rully, the northernmost village of the Côte Chalonnaise. The dollar was quite weak then, and Chinese demand had already begun to drive the price of famous Burgundy names through the roof. But in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d’Or, regular folks like us could still afford to buy a bottle of wine or two.

As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Despite the fact that many [Côte Chalonnaise] wines are little known, their quality in all appellations is very good, and the value for money even better.” I’ve always had good luck with this region. In fact, it was a Pinot Noir from Givry that first clarified my understanding of structure in a wine. When I tasted it, I could feel the layers of flavor building themselves on my palate, as sure as if they were being assembled by a construction crew. I remember when my father took a sip, he let out a laugh because it was so good. Not bad for an $18 bottle I found in Beaune’s Marché aux Vins!

We paid a visit to the Marché in 2008 — it is, after all, perhaps my favorite place to taste wine in the world — but it was our visit to Rully that I most remember from that trip. The words “Wine Tasting in Burgundy” likely conjure images of palatial tasting rooms presided over by some comte or other, and I’m sure you can find that. But we found the thoroughly unpretentious Domaine Michel Briday, a winery Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia cites as one of Rully’s best.

Stephane Briday at Domaine Michel BridayThe tasting room was little more than a cozy dining room in an old house, as you can see from the photo on the right. Pictured is Stéphan Briday, who looks less like a Burgundian scion and more like a farmer in his torn jeans and t-shirt. It was clear he knew his way around a vineyard, which, in Burgundy of all places, is of paramount importance. He is a winemaker connected to the land. His passion for the wine was obvious and his hospitality was gracious, even though it was equally obvious that my colleague and I didn’t exactly qualify as wine experts. But I knew exciting wine when I tasted it.

I came home with two bottles of 2006 Domaine Michel Briday Rully Premier Cru Les Pierres, one of which collected dust on my wine rack until Thursday night. It aged surprisingly well, considering the many temperature swings the bottle had endured. Liz took a sniff and remarked, “It’s temptation in a glass.” I agreed, loving the aroma of dusky red fruit and old wood.

Michel Briday Rully 1er Cru Les PierresAfter a splash of dark fruit, the wine moved to white pepper spice, some serious earthiness and some surprisingly hefty tannins. Wood dominated the almost rasping finish. It was a bit of a wild thing, this wine! Paired with some beef, it felt suddenly in perfect balance. As Liz noted, “That bitch was tamed by the steak.” The tannins of the wine and fat of the steak were an equal and powerful match.

The Pinot Noir Liz brought came not from Sonoma, where so many fashionable Pinots originate these days, but the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco. Despite its proximity to the city, the area is still apparently quite rugged. “No one told me I would be driving 2,600 feet up into the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Liz exclaimed, relating her drive to the David Bruce Winery. “And those falling rock signs? They weren’t kidding.”

David Bruce was an early pioneer of Pinot Noir in the region, and he merits praise in all three of my major wine reference books, The World Atlas of Wine, The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. And a Chardonnay of his competed in the famed “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

David Bruce Pinot NoirIn a rather passive-aggressive entry, Sotheby’s says that “Having gone through a learning curve, David Bruce now produces far more elegant wines than he used to.” I can’t speak about any previous vintages, but the 2008 David Bruce Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir that Liz shared with me positively exuded elegance. It had a gorgeously rich aroma — Liz noted chocolate-covered blueberries — and a sensationally seamless mouthfeel. The wine moved with impressive grace from ripe dark-red and purple fruits to some focused spice, overtones of vanilla and violets, and a finish of plush tannins. What a delight.

The two wines tasted completely different from one another: hearty and earthy versus rich and graceful. It still amazes me how much Pinot Noir absorbs the influence of its terroir and the hand of its winemaker.

I love that a grape can do that.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

Top White Wines Of 2013

27 December 2013

White WineLast year, I assembled all my favorites into one list, but because 2013 brought so many memorable wines I wanted to highlight, I had to separate them into top whites and top reds. Many of my favorite white wines of 2013 cost less than $20, and one can be had for less than $10 — yet more evidence that taking a risk on an unusual bottle can really pay off.

The 10 wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets. 

I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in balance, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply sweet and innocuous. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

You may not find all the wines below with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine shop will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2013:

 

Art+Farm's Messenger winesART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” WHITE WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #412):

I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

 

2012 BOUZA ALBARINO:

The family-owned Bodega Bouza in Uruguay focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. Powerful and exciting.

 

2012 LAPOSTOLLE “CASA GRAND SELECTION” SAUVIGNON BLANC:

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Andrea León Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night, to help preserve freshness in the fruit.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded. This Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

 

2008 CHIMNEY ROCK “ELEVAGE BLANC”:

I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.

 

Hainle Gewurztraminer Ice Wine2010 HAINLE VINEYARDS ESTATE WINERY GEWÜRZTRAMINER ICE WINE

It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this British Columbian ice wine, Hainle hit a smashing home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get your hands on a bottle of this wine, for God’s sake, do it.

 

2011 MAZZONI PINOT GRIGIO:

Mazzoni Pinot GrigioI had never sampled, to my knowledge, a Tuscan Pinot Grigio. All the quality Italian Pinot Grigios I knew of came from the mountainous north, from Alto Adige or Friuli. A Tuscan Pinot Grigio varietal — a white Super Tuscan — is extremely unusual.

Many of us associate Pinot Grigio with light, inoffensive and bland flavors; it’s a wine for a hot summer pool party or a beach picnic. But this golden-hued beauty had some oomph. After pressing, the juice sits for 24 hours on the skins, giving the wine additional body, followed by 25 days of cold fermentation, increasing the wine’s acidity. The craftsmanship is readily apparent in both the aroma and flavor.

The wine smelled fresh and lively, like a green whiff of spring. On the palate, it exhibited focused and controlled fruit, prickly acids, some aromatic qualities, and a surprisingly lush finish. It was light but complex, and a fine value for the price. Sampled with a white pizza topped with arugula and parmesan, the food-friendly acids kicked into high gear, and the wine became juicier and rounder. A delight.

 

2010 PLANETA CARRICANTE:

Planeta CarricanteThe Carricante variety is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” according to the Wine Searcher website. The Planeta expression of this ancient variety has a wonderfully seductive aroma with notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and racier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.

 

2011 SCHNAITMANN “GRAU WEISS”:

A surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay, the Grau Weiss sounds a little crazy to me, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

 

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris2012 SIMONNET-FEBVRE SAINT-BRIS SAUVIGNON BLANC:

On its label, this Sauvignon Blanc declares itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I turned to my trusty reference library for some answers as to what a Sauvignon Blanc was doing in Burgundy. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. The AOC has only about 250 acres of vineyards located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis.

The Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What an incredible value for $12!

 

2012 WEINGUT DR. VON BASSERMAN-JORDAN ÖLBERG

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-JordanThis single-vineyard Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region is a Grosses Gewächs, a “Great Growth,” indicated by the “GG” on the label. Find those GGs if you can — they designate a vineyard of top quality, and grapes of at least Spätlese ripeness. “Spätlese” often connotes a sweet wine, but GG wines are classified as “trocken” (dry). This remarkable wine had a green, honeyed aroma, rather like a light Sauternes. I loved the rich, peachy fruit; the dry, white-peppercorn spice; and the forcefully driving acids keeping everything in taught balance.

Burgundy’s Most Unusual White

13 November 2013

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-BrisWhen you think of white wine from Burgundy, if you think of anything, you likely think of Chardonnay. This is the variety that goes into the region’s greatest whites such as Meursault, Montrachet and Chablis. Certain pedantic types might also point to the lesser Aligoté grape, an acidic variety often found in Crémant de Bourgogne, the local sparkling wine. But even the most over-educated wine geek would be unlikely to think of Sauvignon Blanc.

It was thus with equal measures of confusion and excitement that I discovered a bottle of 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc, which declared itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I asked a Whole Foods employee who was stocking wines nearby if this wine was indeed a Sauvignon Blanc (the label said only “Sauvignon”). “Yes – it’s a Sauvignon Blanc,” she replied, pointing out the word and probably wondering why this over-excited idiot needed her to read the label to him.

“But it’s from Burgundy,” I explained.

“Umm, yes – it’s from Burgundy,” she confirmed, patiently pointing to the relevant word on the back label.

Semi-convinced I’d passed through a wormhole into some sort of alternate universe, I bought the wine and turned to my trusty reference library for some answers. It turns out my wormhole theory was incorrect. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. Sotheby’s argues that “This wine is as good as most Sauvignon Blanc AOCs, and considerably better than many other white AOCs made from lesser grape varieties.”

Saint-Bris, located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis, has only about 250 acres of Sauvignon Blanc vines, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. That is one small AOC. It goes on to say that Saint-Bris “is too obscure to be made with anything other than artisan passion, but it lacks the breed and concentration of great Loire Sauvignon made to the southwest.” It also lacks the price tag of the great Loire Sauvignon made to the southwest. I paid only $12 for this bottle of wine (on sale), whereas a Sancerre can easily cost two or three times as much. Frankly, Companion, I don’t think the comparison is fair.

Let’s concentrate instead on the “artisan passion” aspect. In addition to making the obscure Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc and various other Chablis wines, the Simonnet-Febvre winery also vinifies the only Crémant de Bourgogne produced in the Chablis region. This is a winery not afraid to go out on a limb. And its willingness to take risks pays off amply in the bottle.

Barley risottoThe 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What a value for $12!

The Companion is probably right that the 2012 Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc does not rise to the level of France’s greatest Sauvignon Blancs. But for those of us whose budgets don’t allow the purchase of the greatest, this merely excellent wine is quite a fine substitute.

Find It: I purchased this wine at the Whole Foods on Halsted and Waveland in Chicago on sale for $12. It usually retails for $15, which is still a great value.

Unusual Pairings At Urban Union – Part 2

5 January 2013

We drank so many tasty and unusual things at our dinner at Urban Union, I couldn’t possibly fit them all into one post. To read about some fine unfiltered/unpasteurized sake, a bright wine from France’s Savoie and a truly odd selection from Macedonia, follow this link.

To venture yet further into the obscure, read on!

Mushrooms and Domaine FilliatreauWhen most people think of wines from France’s Loire Valley — if they think of them at all — they think of crisp, minerally whites like Sancerre. But the Loire produces robust reds as well, most notably from the Cabernet Franc variety. Ex-Sommelier Andrew Algren (he left Urban Union just days after our dinner) selected a wine from the Saumur-Champigny section of the Loire, which produces “one of Cabernet Franc’s most refreshing expressions,” according to The World Atlas to Wine. According to Algren, it’s “like grabbing a handful of French forest floor and chowing down.” I was intrigued.

To me, the 2010 Domaine Filliatreau “La Grande Vignolle” tasted eye-poppingly tight, especially after smelling its deep, enticing, meaty aroma. It was very acidic and tannic, with a finish of black pepper. It screamed for food. In keeping with the French forest floor theme, Chef de Cuisine Joshua Marrell presented a course of trumpet, chanterelle and maitake mushrooms foraged, reportedly, by a local comedian. This rather daringly simple dish smelled appealingly like mushroom-topped pizza. Its earthy flavors tamed the punchy acids in the wine, resulting in positively delightful combination.

Domaine RomyBucking convention, Algren moved from a red to pink, pouring a highly unusual Beaujolais rosé (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, that fruity but usually over-sweet red released around Thanksgiving). Made from Gamay, the variety used in all red Beaujolais wines, the orangey-pink 2010 Domaine Romy Beaujolais Rosé tasted of juicy strawberries, with a firm structure and ample minerals and acids. Delicious. Served with a wonderfully garlicky dish of tender charred octopus, confit of potatoes in beef fat and scallion purée, the wine’s flavor didn’t seem to change all that much. Instead, the wine enhanced the flavor of the food, bringing its savory richness to new heights.

Algren pouring UlaciaAnd then we were back, oddly enough, to a white. Poured theatrically from overhead, as is traditional in Spain’s Basque country, Algren presented a 2011 Ulacia Getariako Txakolina. This tart, apply, slightly fizzy wine comes from near the town of Getaria, a region of cool, rainy summers which The Oxford Companion to Wine calls “hardly ideal grape-growing country.” Nevertheless, the whites, mostly made from the Hondarribi Zuri variety, have “noticeably improved” in the last couple of decades. (Incidentally, there’s a nasty rumor going around that Hondarribi Zuri is a hybrid of a Vitis vinifera variety and some other species of Vitis. Scandal!)

Algren paired the Ulacia with a dish of prosciutto from black-skinned pigs, pickled mustard seeds and crunchy celery root, to marvelous effect. The tart wine cut right through the fat of the prosciutto and became a bit sweeter in the process. A hearty, zesty combination I wouldn’t hesitate to order again. (Marrell graciously credited the inspiration for this dish to Marco Pierre White’s cookbook “White Heat.”)

Good heavens, there’s yet more to come? Loosen your belts, ladies and gentlemen; we’ve got three courses left to go.

Up Next: A stellar cru Beaujolais, a Lagrein from Italy, and for dessert… vermouth. Hey, this is Odd Bacchus, folks. Were you expecting Port?