France – Loire Valley

Five Unusual Wines For Spring

10 April 2013

Dr. Loosen Sparkling RieslingAt last, crocuses are poking their colorful little heads through the dirt, robins are bouncing along the sidewalks, and people walking outside have expressions other than a pained grimace. Spring has finally arrived, and in celebration of the season, I think I drink is in order.

Here are five bright, springy, and unusual wines sure to banish any lingering winter lethargy which might still be gumming up your system:

1. DEUTSCHER SEKT: Frankly, most Sekt, a German sparkling wine, tends to be unpleasant, with uninspiring flavors and bubbles the size of my big toe. That’s because most Sekt is made from bulk fruit grown outside Germany. Deutscher Sekt, on the other hand, is made with German fruit, likely Riesling, that tends to be of much higher quality. Deutscher Sekt tends, therefore, to be much more drinkable, and dare I even say delicious. The Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling, for example, has a fruity/floral nose, elegant bubbles and sweet fruit balanced by zesty acids. Available at Binny’s for $13.

2. SAVENNIÈRES: Because of this appellation’s favorable location on south-facing Loire hillsides and the low maximum yields allowed, Savennières produces “the world’s greatest dry Chenin Blanc,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. If you, like me, can rarely afford to drink the world’s greatest anything, this wine is for you. Because it doesn’t have a lot of name recognition, prices tend to be very low in relation to the quality of the wine. I recently sampled a 2008 Domaine du Closel ”La Jalousie” that I described as “Rich, spicy and tightly focused — sheer delight.” But I’ve never had a Savennières I didn’t like, so don’t worry if you can’t find this specific example. Expect a bottle to cost $20-$25 in a shop.

3. MOSCHOFILERO: If you tend to prefer your whites to be aromatic and dry rather than rich and spicy, seek out wines made from this marvelous Muscat-like Greek variety. Whole Foods carries the excellent Voyatzis Wineries Kyklos Moschofilero, for example, which is a smashing value for $12 or $13. Of the 2011 vintage, I wrote, “After a slight prickle on the tongue, flavors of ripe pears and apples led to limey acids, a brief pop of white pepper and just a touch of limestone.” If you can’t find this specific Moscofilero, look for one from the Peloponnese’s high plateau of Mantinía, where the elevation keeps the vineyards cool enough, allowing this late-ripening variety time to fully develop. (Or just ask your wine shop for a recommendation.)

Massaya Classic4. ANYTHING BY MASSAYA: I’ve had very good luck with this Lebanese winery’s entry-level bottlings. The red Massaya Classic – a blend of 60% Cinsault, 20% Cabernet and 20% Syrah — is perfect for a party, with big, ripe fruit and a black-pepper kick at the end. The white Massaya Blanc is also a blend. Familiar varieties Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc each account for 15% of the wine, with the remaining 70% evenly divided between Clairette (one of the 13 varieties allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape), and Obeidi, an indigenous Lebanese grape. This wine was a bit viscous but balanced with juicy acids. When I tasted the 2009, I wrote, “The ancient flavors of honey, wood and resin stirred a desire to experience the terroir — to see the… Bekaa Valley for myself.” (The Massaya Blanc induced me to write one of my more emotional and sentimental posts.)

5. MÜLLER-THURGAU from ALTO ADIGE or OREGON: The Oxford Companion to Wine doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to this cross of Riesling and Madeleine-Royale, describing the wines made from it as “fat, flaccid… too often with a slight suspicion of rot… extremely dull, flabby.” And it’s true, this humble variety doesn’t tend to excel in its German homeland. Transplant it to more favorable, climes, however, and suddenly you’ve got something worth drinking. Here’s how famed wine critics Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher described a Kofererhof Müller-Thurgau from Italy’s Alto Adige region: “Flinty, with some melons and dirt but brighter than we had expected. Earthy but not heavy, with real vitality. Surprisingly juicy, with some white pepper.” I discovered a tasty  2009 Montinore Estate Müller-Thurgau from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which costs between $13 and $17. Ripe pear and apple flavors were balanced with a bit of prickle on the tongue, and tart acids pulled it together for the finish. I’d avoid German Müller-Thurgau, but if you see one from elsewhere, especially Alto Adige, ignore the protestations of your sommelier and give it a try.

A Fizzy Pink For Spring

30 March 2013
L'Étage

L’Étage

For years, one of my very favorite wine and cocktail bars in the world, In Fine Spirits, stood just down the street from my home. Unfortunately, it transformed itself into a fine-dining restaurant, which then proceeded to fail. The neighborhood never quite forgave the popular In Fine Spirits for jilting it (thankfully, the excellent In Fine Spirits shop remains open).

I greatly missed having a wine bar within easy walking distance, and so it was with no small amount of pleasure that I discovered L’Étageoccupying a cozy space directly above where In Fine Spirits met its untimely demise. Its by-the-glass wine list isn’t nearly as ambitious, restricting itself to “French” and “Domestic” selections, but it contains a few unusual gems, including a refreshing Domaine Giachino Jacquère from Savoie, redolent of vanilla, green apples and lime.

But since I had already written about the Domaine Giachino in this post, my attention turned to another odd duck, a Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen a rosé Crémant de Loire — most versions of this French sparkling wine are made primarily with Chenin Blanc, but in this case, Cabernet Franc dominated. The idea of a sparkling Cabernet Franc fascinated me, and I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

Château Moncontour Crémant  de Loire Brut  Rosé

Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé

I didn’t realize at the time that I was taking a bit of a gamble. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, more and more sparkling Cabernet Francs from the Loire are showing well, “However, the aggressive potential of this grape can quickly turn a thrilling raspberry-flavored fizz into something hideous.” Cabernet Franc is infamous, after all, for a tendency towards herbaceousness. Fortunately, L’Étage did not attempt to foist the equivalent of a glass of bubbly green peppers on me.

A flute came filled to the brim with the watermelon-colored Château Moncontour, and it lacked any bouquet whatsoever. It wasn’t until I took a few sips, giving it some room to breathe in the glass, that I discovered how aromatic this crémant actually was (not that I’m one to complain about an overfilled glass). Once I could actually smell it, I found the notes of red fruit and yeast enticing.

The bubbles erred on the foamy side, but their tiny size made them feel elegant nevertheless. It started off quite dry, moving to tart acids and a finish of rich, red fruit. It tasted perfectly delightful on its own, but paired with some duck rillettes topped with grainy mustard, the jammy notes became even more deliciously pronounced.

The Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé  would make a fine aperitif or an excellent mate with a range of food. The Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia makes me hesitant to recommend picking up any old rosé Crémant de Loire that you find, but if you do happen to come across one that your local wine shop recommends, don’t hesitate to give it a try. It’s perfect for a party, because it will satisfy guests who require sweet wine as well as those who demand something dry.

Thanks to L’Étage for introducing me to this festive sparkler, and welcome to the neighborhood!

SUMMARY

NV Château Moncontour Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé: Festive but elegant, with a dry start and a jammy finish. Tasty on its own, but even better paired with poultry (pork, light pastas and many Asian dishes should also work well). Serve well-chilled.

Grade: B+

Find It: I paid $9 for a glass at L’Étage. Wine Searcher listed two retailers selling the wine, each charging about $15 per bottle.

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?

Loire Gold

15 September 2012

I can’t yet bring myself to contemplate the vast array of cocktails I consumed while in New Orleans, so let’s start with something more easily digestible on this quiet Saturday morning: A glass of Savennières. This seldom-seen Loire wine is one of the best white values out there.

The World Atlas of Wine notes that this appellation occupies one of the Loire River’s rare steep south-facing banks, giving the wines an immediate leg up — south-facing hillsides (in the northern hemisphere, at least) receive the most sunlight and allow fruit to ripen most fully. The Atlas goes on to hail the dry Chenin Blanc produced here as “as dense and rich in substance as it is rigid in structure.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia puts it even more simply, noting that because of the favorable location and low maximum yields, Savennières produces “the world’s greatest dry Chenin Blanc.”

I find I can rarely afford to drink the world’s greatest anything. But drink I did. This isn’t Burgundy or Napa Chardonnay, after all. Savennières is hardly a household name, and that obscurity helps keep the price down. I found a 2008 Domaine du Closel “La Jalousie” on the by-the-glass list at Commander’s Palace, and at $14 for a six-ounce (about 1/4 bottle) pour, it’s not inexpensive. But it was worth it, and in any case, Commander’s Palace is no place for moderation.

The wine, a rich golden hue, had me at first sight, and its spicy aroma with a touch of cedar quickened my pulse a good notch or two. Sweet white fruit (like pears or apples) hit the palate first followed briskly by floral notes, ginger spice, tightly focused acids and some minerals at the end. Sheer delight. Unfortunately, its charms were overpowered by the turtle soup and the sneaky spicy heat of the redfish main course, so I was forced to order a darkly fruity glass of Morgon (a Cru Beaujolais) to compete with the fish. You gotta do what you gotta do.

But you don’t have to go to one of New Orleans’ fanciest restaurants to get a Savennières, where it might not pair well with the food in any case. Binny’s, for example, sells the 2010 Domaine du Closel for just $20, and the highly regarded 2008 Domaine des Baumard for just $23. These gorgeous wines should work beautifully with non-spicy fish, chicken, pork or pasta with cream sauce.

I spend only around $12-$15 for a bottle of wine most of the time, but now and then it’s worth it to cough up just a little more. With Savennières, you’re not paying for the fame of the name. It’s not a status symbol to own or pour a Savennières. You’re pretty much paying for the wine alone, and that’s what makes it such a stellar value.

SUMMARY

2008 Domaine du Closel “La Jalousie”: Rich, spicy and tightly focused. A little more expensive than I usually prefer, but the extra $6 or $7 buys a wallop of flavor, intensity and structure. Chill for an hour before serving.

Grade: A

Find It: Only about 30,000 cases are produced in the whole of Savennières each year, but many wine shops, such as Binny’s, will carry one or two examples. I’ve never had a Savennières I didn’t like, so feel free to take a risk on an unfamiliar producer.

 

The Advantages Of Wine Tastings

27 November 2011

Dave of H2Vino with some Mallorcan Callet

Though I don’t do it as often as I’d like, it can be surprisingly easy to go to wine tastings. Many wine shops and liquor stores host them on weekends, and even grocery stores occasionally offer samples. Tastings are a great way to get to know new wines and try things you would never consider buying a whole bottle of. More important, when you try an array of different wines in rapid succession, it becomes much clearer what kinds of wines you most prefer.

My favorite wine shop, In Fine Spirits, offers wine tastings Saturday afternoons, but every once in a while they’ll put together a big wine tasting shebang. Recently, they hosted a wonderful “Rare Vines” event focusing on limited-production wines, an exciting opportunity to try a wide range of wines made in batches of less than 1000 cases (most were under 500).

For just $10 per person — less than the price of a glass of wine in many restaurants — we sampled more than 30 wines and took good advantage of the gourmet cheese tray. (We should have taken better advantage of the spit buckets, however.)

Here are the wines I found most exciting:

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Rosé In The Desert (Part 1)

3 November 2011

Although Allah frowns on the consumption of alcohol, so I hear, I did manage to sneak a few glasses during my trip to Dubai and Oman. In that hot, dry climate, I found myself regularly drawn to juicy rosés.

One afternoon, I sat down to a light Persian lunch of lentil-studded meatballs with pomegranate sauce and herb salad at a restaurant called Anar, set in the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. I ordered the one rosé on the menu, a 2010 Sauvion “Chemin des Sables” Rosé d’Anjou from France’s Loire Valley.

Rosé d’Anjou sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember ever trying one. The color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher, it tasted fruity and fun, taking on an extra tang with the meatballs. I didn’t feel moved to deep contemplation, but it was a satisfying choice for a sunny al fresco lunch.

I later went to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine to research Rosé d’Anjou. She doesn’t pull any punches, calling it “sickly.” Tom Stevenson’s Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia takes a more gracious tone, tepidly arguing that “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a wine that happens to be pink with some sweetness.” It seems Rosé d’Anjou is the White Zinfandel of the Loire Valley!

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An Odd Array Of Toasts

20 August 2011

While planning the order of our upcoming wedding reception, we ran into trouble figuring out who we wanted to toast and when. It can get a little complicated, matching differing family structures and sets of friends. We needed a guide.

I have a set of vintage etiquette books, including the incomparable Emily Post’s Etiquette, but we thought Letitia Baldridge’s Complete Guide to the New Manners for the 90′s would be more helpful in this case. She offered very clear, direct advice, as she always does. So should you find yourself wondering who should toast and in what order, here is the official list:

The best man toasts the bride.

The groom toasts the bride.

The bride toasts her groom.

The father of the bride toasts the couple.

The bride toasts her groom’s parents.

The groom toasts his bride’s parents.

The matron or maid of honor toasts the couple.

The father of the groom toasts the couple.

The mother of the bride toasts the couple.

The mother of the groom toasts the couple.

Other relatives and close friends of the bride or groom continue toasting.

At which point the reception guests start sawing at their forearms with the butter knives.

Fortunately with our guests, we feel certain that the toasts will be at least as interesting as the sparkling wine we’re toasting with: Crémant de Loire. This bubbly from France’s Loire Valley makes an elegant, less-expensive alternative to Champagne. The bubbles tend to be fine, and they frequently express a bit of that yeasty goodness on the nose that I enjoy in real Champagnes.

So give a Crémant de Loire a try the next time you need a sparkler; they usually cost between $15 and $20 per bottle.

Cheers!

A Meeting Of Rivals

31 May 2011

There may be an almost countless number of wine regions gracing the globe, but Bordeaux remains arguably the most important benchmark of quality. It wasn’t always so, of course. The Loire Valley once held that title, its river serving as an easy trade route into the Atlantic, from which cargoes of wine swung north to thirsty Holland and England.

That all ended in the 12th Century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II favored Gascony with generous excise tax privileges, ensuring that “…Gascony became the most important supplier of the English court and London society,” according to André Dominé’s Wine.

The Loire Valley’s still wines have languished in the shadow of Bordeaux ever since, and to the north, the sparklers of Champagne continue to eclipse Loire bubblies. But again, “Saumur producers claim to have been in the fizz business long before the Champenois.” (Alice King, Fabulous Fizz.)

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