Regions

Chablis Versus The World: A Chardonnay Blind Tasting

30 October 2017

Someone recently asked me if I could drink wine made from only one grape variety for the rest of my life, what would it be? My first instinct was Chardonnay. It can be everything from steel-spined Chablis to rich California butterballs, and — no less important — some of the best Champagne. But those over-oaked, over-extracted California butterballs ruined Chardonnay for a generation of wine drinkers, and many people, quite understandably, avoid the grape entirely (try Googling “Anything But Chardonnay”).

Even those who like Chardonnay often have misconceptions about the grape, as evidenced by a recent blind tasting I held, in which a Master of Wine took a sip of a New Zealand Chardonnay and exclaimed, “France!” I did no better than she, even though I had purchased the wines. Blind tastings are a wonderful way to keep one’s ego in check.

The Chablis component of the tasting

A bottle of Chablis inspired the blind tasting. I had agreed to sample a 2015 William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis, because how could I resist a free bottle of one of my favorite wines? The marketer who sent it wanted me to evaluate it as an example of the vintage. I decided the best way to do that was to compare it to some other 2015 Chablis.

But then, why not also compare it to some Chardonnays from elsewhere in the world, in a modified Judgment of Paris tasting? I assembled seven other 2015 wines ranging in price from $8.50 to $57, produced in Chablis (France), New Zealand, Argentina and California. In order for me to also participate in the blind tasting, I bagged the bottles, mixed up the bags and numbered them. My husband then presented the wines to the group, so that I wouldn’t be able to cheat by looking at their necks.

The results were absolutely fascinating. The $57 wine was rather unpopular, and the $8.50 wine tasted better than expected. There was broad consensus in our group of nine tasters about the best and the worst of the bunch, but not such broad consensus regarding the grape variety we were tasting. A few people guessed that we were sipping Chardonnay, but just as many thought the wines were Sauvignon Blanc, and another guessed Viognier. Chardonnay can take many forms!

Here is what we tasted:

WINE #1

This wine proved immensely popular, garnering seven Loves and two Likes on my rating scale of Love, Like, Meh and Dislike. All but one of us guessed correctly that it came from France, an indication of France’s enduring reputation for quality. People praised its creamy mouthfeel and long finish, as well as its zesty and sharply focused acids. No one thought that it cost less than $18 a bottle, and two of us (including me) guessed that it cost $57.

In fact, it was the sample bottle I’d received, the 2015 William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” from Chablis! It costs just $18 at Binny’s, where I purchased the other wines for the tasting. At that price, it’s a screaming steal. It was the hit of the tasting.

WINE #2

Wine #2 was less popular. One taster asked, “Why does this taste cheaper to me?” I noted that it smelled richer than #1 but that it didn’t taste as complex. It felt hotter, more alcoholic, and rougher around the edges. Others liked its lightly buttery quality, and only two tasters rated it as low as Meh. One gave it a Love, and everyone else rated it as Like. Guesses as to its origin ranged across the map, though three people correctly labeled it as an Argentinian wine. A couple of people thought it cost $22 a bottle, but most wrote down the actual price.

In fact, it was the 2015 Salentein Reserve Chardonnay from Argentina’s Uco Valley, a high-quality region just to the south of Mendoza. It cost me $15 a bottle, and judging by its reception, it seems fairly priced.

WINE #3

Chardonnays from Argentina, New Zealand and California

Our third bottle fared worse, earning only two Likes and a bunch of Mehs. I liked its creamy and citrusy aroma and bright acids, but another taster remarked, “It’s acid that I don’t love.” Another commented that it was “oak city,” and a third complained that its “finish is like a teenage boy” (i.e. too fast). Others approved of its white pepper spice, however. As to its origin, the guesses divided among Argentina and New Zealand, and most people thought it cost between $16 and $18.

In fact, it was the 2015 Domaine Costal Premier Cru Vaillons Chablis, which cost me $32.29 at Binny’s. Yikes! A Premier Cru Chablis comes from one of the region’s best vineyard sites, and it should in theory be better than a standard Chablis. I think this one might need a little more time in the bottle to settle down.

WINE #4

My contribution to the pot-luck dinner accompanying the tasting: tomatoes from our garden with basil and olive oil

People enjoyed this wine much more, with only one person giving it a Meh — everyone else gave it a solid Like. And again, almost everyone assumed it was French. “It’s more expensive and it’s France for sure,” one taster asserted. Only one of us guessed its true country of origin. I certainly liked it, with its citrusy and mineral aroma, bright lemon-orange acids and finish of focused spice. Almost everyone thought it cost $22.

In fact, it was the 2015 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand’s East Coast, which cost just $16. If you prefer your wines bright, fruity and juicy, this Chardonnay is ideal for you. And considering that most people thought it cost $6 or more than its actual price, it’s a fine value as well.

WINE #5

This wine divided the group more than any other. Reactions ranged from “Dislike from me” to “It was OK” to “I like it!” One taster complained that it was something of an oak bomb, but I found it more balanced. I was one of the three people in the room who actually liked this wine for its creamy/buttery start and cleansing shaft of sharp spice. I wrote “Rich and zesty, but disjointed.” It earned three Love ratings, two Likes, three Mehs and one Dislike, and people priced it anywhere between $15 and $57, with most clustered around $18. Almost everyone thought it came from California or Argentina. Tellingly, the only people who correctly guessed its true country of origin, France, were two of the people who enjoyed it the most.

In fact, it was the wine that should have been the star of the tasting, the 2015 Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin Grand Cru Valmur Chablis (Valmur is one of Chablis’ Grand Cru vineyards). It cost a healthy $57. The problem with this wine, I suspect, is that we drank it far too young. Its components hadn’t yet integrated, and so the oak stuck out like a sore thumb. Give this wine five years in the bottle, and I have no doubt that it will be gorgeous.

WINE #6

Wine #6 was a great big Meh. Only one person rated it as Like. Everyone else rated it as Meh, aside from two Dislikes. I wrote that it was pointy — “maybe too pointy” — and others noted its spicy aroma and general roughness. Even so, people generally guessed that it cost around $15. Only two people guessed its true price.

In fact, this was the 2015 Alamos Chardonnay by Catena from Mendoza, which cost just $8.50. Four people guessed that it came from Argentina, which means either that they’re very good at blind tastings, or that they assume that a cheap-tasting wine is an Argentine wine (only one person guessed France).

WINE #7

I quite liked the balance on this wine, and others complimented it as well, saying, “I don’t want to spit this one out,” and “It’s crisp and well-structured.” Our Master of Wine in the group remarked on its lemony character, exclaiming, “It’s like lemon meringue pie!” But others complained of a “funk aroma” redolent of “dirty feet.” This wine earned one Dislike, one Meh, three Likes and three Loves, making it the second-most popular wine of the tasting, after the William Fevre “Champs Royeaux.” People thought it was expensive, too. One taster thought it cost $18 and another $22, but the rest thought it cost either $32 or $57, and came either from France or (to a lesser extent) the USA.

In fact, this was the 2015 Etienne Boileau Chablis, theoretically a step down in terms of quality from the Premier Cru and two steps down from the Grand Cru. It cost me $19, which is quite a bargain, considering that most of the group thought it cost much more.

WINE #8

And then we came to the real disaster of the tasting, Wine #8. Only one person liked it. The entire rest of the group rated it as Dislike. As people tasted it, I heard things like, “Oh God, it’s horrible,” and “It smells like Mott’s apple juice in a box.” There was a touch of pétillance, which was surely unintentional, and an odd olive brininess. No one thought it came from France — most people assumed it was from Argentina or the U.S., aside from a couple of New Zealand guesses.

In fact, this was the 2015 Mer Soleil “Silver” Unoaked Chardonnay from Monterey in California, and it cost $18. Most people assumed it cost $8.50, but I wouldn’t pay even that for this wine. Ugh. Interestingly, Binny’s no longer seems to carry this wine.

CONCLUSION

If this tasting is any indication, the notion that French wines are quality and Argentine wines are not persists unabated. When people liked a wine, they almost always guessed it came from France. Few of us guessed that a high-quality Chardonnay could come from New Zealand. The versatility of Chardonnay is also still a surprise, as evidenced by the number of people guessing that we tasted Sauvignon Blancs. And we learned that whites aren’t necessarily at their best right out of the gate. Some of them, such as the Grand Cru Chablis, clearly need more time in the bottle to settle down.

Others, such as the William Fèvre “Champs Royeaux,” are drinking beautifully right now. That wine is relatively easy to find — I’ve seen it on a number of restaurant wine lists — and it’s an incredible value for the money. Seek it out, along with the delicious Kim Crawford Chardonnay from New Zealand.

You can read a another post about the delights of Chablis here.

In Support Of Napa And Sonoma

16 October 2017

I don’t write much about Napa and Sonoma. The most famous wine regions in the United States don’t often have a place on a blog about the unusual and the obscure. But how could I not write something about them now? I returned from a week in northern Wisconsin, blissfully disconnected from the news, and returned to discover that some of America’s finest wine country was threatened with destruction. As of this writing, 19 wineries in Napa, eight in Sonoma and four in Mendocino have been damaged or destroyed in the fires, according to The Mercury News.

It’s fashionable in some quarters to disparage Napa and Sonoma. At the top of the list is the overuse of oak, followed closely by overly high alcohol content. Fans of Old World wines also sometimes accuse Californians of sacrificing subtlety and complexity for fruitiness and richness. And I’ve certainly argued that the quality-to-price ratio isn’t as good in Napa as in numerous other less well-known regions. None of these complaints is unfounded.

Nor do these complaints tell the whole story. For some time, Napa and Sonoma have been moving away from over-extracted oak bombs to more balanced wines. Butterball Chardonnays and jammy Merlots have increasingly become an exception, rather than the rule, as tastes turned against them.

I generally write about more esoteric, thought-provoking wines, because I love them, and because they often don’t get the attention they deserve. But when I’m on vacation from taking tasting notes, as I was last week in Wisconsin, at least one or two bottles from California end up in the case I bring along. Subtle Old World wines standing firm against Parkerization are great, but sometimes I just want a big, round aroma and bold, rich fruit. These are my comfort wines.

Beef stew topped with (mostly boiled) puff pastry

On this recent vacation in Wisconsin, we made a beef stew topped with puff pastry. It was delicious, if not exactly Instagram-worthy, and to go with it, I opened a 2012 Atalon “Pauline’s Cuvée” from Napa, a Bordeaux-style blend of 75% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc along with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. I loved its rich fruit and touch of oak, balanced with refined spice. My husband took a sip and said, “Now this is my kind of red.” I felt hard-pressed to disagree. It ordinarily sells for about $30, but I purchased it at Whole Foods on sale for about half that, which was a downright steal. Even at full price, you’re getting a lot of flavor bang for your buck.

I still remember my first trip to Napa back in 2003, when I knew next to nothing about wine. But I knew enough to realize that Rutherford Hill’s Merlot was gorgeous, and that St. Clement’s Sauvignon Blanc had real class. I bought bottles of each to bring home. I also purchased a case of wine from Ravenswood, a winery not exactly known for subtlety (its tagline is “No wimpy wines”). I’d go back to any of those wineries in a heartbeat. But this time, I would use the spit buckets. My stars and stripes, was I drunk by the end of the day. Even so, I felt sublimely contented as I passed out late each afternoon.

Juicy and elegant Mumm Prestige Brut by the pool at Bardessono in Yountville

My point is that though people love to criticize the wines of Napa and, to a lesser degree, Sonoma, these valleys are famous for a reason. The wines they make are frequently rich, fun and seductive, and who doesn’t like that? The valleys have suffered greatly in recent days, and they need all the help they can get. Now is the time to head to your wine shop and pick up a bottle or two of wine from Northern California. A good store clerk can help you find just the right one to suit your palate. Put any fears of oak, butter and jam aside and see what Napa and Sonoma have been up to lately.

Cracking Croatian Wine: A Book Review

29 September 2017

To purchase this book, click here.

France and Italy, to take two examples, are complicated. But if you want to learn more about the wine scenes of France and Italy (or California or Germany or Argentina, to name a few more), you have no shortage of resources at your disposal. I’m sure the books written about French wine alone could fill a storefront shop.

Croatia? Not so much.

Yet Croatian wine deserves attention. I fondly remember the Katunar Syrah from the island of Krk that I recently found at my favorite wine shop, In Fine Spirits. It cost just $21, but it counted among my favorite wines of the year. Gone are the cooperatives of the socialist era, which prized quantity over quality. Once again, Croatian winemakers are free to pursue the best expression of their grapes, as they had been for the two millennia before Tito took over.

And Croatian wine is complicated. The country has some 130 indigenous grape varieties, many of which are all but unpronounceable to those of us who require the occasional vowel (or to those of us who haven’t the faintest idea what to do when an accent mark appears over a consonant). The place names, too, often look wholly unfamiliar. Istria maybe rings a bell, but Pelješac? Brač? Maybe not.

I’ve even been to Croatia — more than once — but I still feel like a rank amateur when it comes to the wine. I was therefore very excited to see that two of my favorite fellow wine writers, Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan of Exotic Wine Travel, released a new book: Cracking Croatian Wine: A Visitor-Friendly Guide. If you’re fortunate enough to be heading to Croatia sometime soon, I highly recommend looking over this highly readable and well-organized reference work. It will give you all the tools you need to drink some of the best that Croatia has to offer.

Dr. Matthew Horkey overlooking vineyards in the Dingač wine region

As a lover of unusual and obscure wines, I simply enjoyed reading the book, even though I have, alas, no plans to visit Croatia in the foreseeable future. Some stores in Chicago do carry the occasional Croatian wine, but they’re rarely presented in an appealing fashion. As Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate once wrote (as quoted by Horkey and Tan in their book), “Let’s not turn a blind eye to the fact that it has not been easy [for Eastern European wine] to shake off the tag of a ‘poor man’s’ wine, the kind of cheap-looking bottles you see languishing on the shelves next to the cat food in corner shops.” Now, I have a much better idea what to look for.

Even the most casual wine consumer, however, will find this book to be indispensable if he or she is traveling to Croatia. Horkey and Tan spent approximately seven months in Croatia researching this book, tasting wine all over the country, and trying out different wine bars and restaurants. Their book explains Croatian wine, yes, but it also serves as a guidebook to enjoying the good life up and down the whole of Croatia.

Charine Tan in Kutjevo, Slavonia

Cracking Croatian Wine has plenty of juicy tidbits for wine geeks like me, but it never gets bogged down with minutiae. The “Brief History of Croatian Wine” chapter, for example, is just two pages long. The chapter that follows, “Croatian Cuisine,” is one that everyone should read before heading off to the Balkans, particularly the list of “20 Croatian Dishes to Try.” I wouldn’t mind a bowl of pašticada right about now…

I also appreciate the list of Zagreb’s top wine bars and wine shops in the “Where to Buy Wine” chapter, and the subsequent “How to Decipher Croatian Wine Labels” is essential reading. It ends with the line, “Not so difficult, right?” I’m not sure I agree — I think I may need to have a copy of that chapter at the ready next time I plan on buying some wine from Croatia.

Similarly, the descriptions of indigenous Croatian wine grapes are incredibly useful. If you’re going to Croatia, give it a read-through, but then keep it handy as a reference for when you’re faced with a wine list. Few of us will be able to keep all 20 of the grapes straight, especially with names like Kujundžuša and Trbljan.

The Kozlović Winery in Istria

And, of course, there is quite a large chapter on the various wine-growing regions, including not only descriptions of the local wine style(s), but also recommendations of local wine bars. Each section has a list of suggested wines to try, with options “For the discerning palate and the connoisseur,” “For the adventurous palate and the wine geek,” and for “Fun and easy to drink.” Each wine recommendation comes with a photograph of the bottle, which can be ever so helpful for jogging the memory when one is in a wine shop.

The book ends with fascinating interviews with three authorities on Croatian wines, including writers and a winemaker.

I had a few minor qualms with the book. The vocabulary choices are occasionally a touch overblown, as in: “In Croatia, this would be a spurious opinion.” And more important, I wish that the authors had taken more of an opportunity to share personal anecdotes about their experiences. They warn us that “tasting visits may turn into a hedonistic afternoon of copious food and wine,” but they give us only the briefest of examples in a paragraph in the Preface. I would have loved to have read more about those hedonistic afternoons, but perhaps that’s for another book.

Along the Pelješac Peninsula

Those quibbles aside, I wholeheartedly recommend investing in Cracking Croatian Wine. It’s easy to read, well-organized and concise. For those traveling to Croatia who plan on drinking wine, it’s essential. And, no less important, it’s inexpensive.

You can purchase an electronic copy here for $7.99, and you can also use that link to buy a paperback copy if you prefer. The book certainly whetted my appetite for a return trip to Croatia, and this time, thanks to Horkey and Tan, I’ll be prepared.

Full Disclosure: Odd Bacchus receives a small percentage of the price of the books purchased using the links above.

Photo Credit: All photos above provided by Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan.

An Interview With A Champagne Specialist

29 August 2017

I adore my job, but even I would pause a moment if I suddenly had the opportunity to become a Champagne Specialist. I recently learned, through the wonder that is Facebook, that a former classmate of mine has become exactly that.

Davis Anderson III and I studied theater together at Florida State University some years ago, and though we both had (have?) the model-like good looks and movie-star charisma to take the entertainment world by storm, the world of wine seduced us instead.

After moving to New York, Davis worked as a sommelier at restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, New York Sushi Ko and Zuma before moving to Northern California, where he now resides.

When we were bright-eyed theater students, I doubt that either of us would have expected that we’d be doing what we do today. I was curious to learn what Davis’s life was like now, and what it was about wine — and Champagne specifically — that led him to his current path. I decided an interview was in order.

Our mutual love of wine, it turns out, has a lot to do with a love of history. And, perhaps less surprisingly, I learned that we both have expensive taste.

*****

Me: You work as a Champagne Specialist for Strategic Group on behalf of the brands of Moët Hennessy in Northern California; that sounds like a dream job. What exactly does your work entail? What’s an average day like?

Davis Anderson III in Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay vineyard (Photo courtesy of Davis Anderson III)

Davis Anderson III: So, yes — it is a dream job (for me, at least). But there is no such thing as an average day. I cover roughly 50 accounts covering the areas south of San Francisco down to Carmel, so I spend a lot of time in my car. I don’t work for Moët Hennessy directly and I don’t work for the sales arm (Pacific Wine and Spirits here in NorCal). My job is to help both teams by providing education (to the sales teams, to the restaurant buyers and their staffs, as well as to consumers at events).

I also try to plan events to then help drive sales once products have been brought into an account. An example might be a poolside event featuring one of our newer products, such as Moët & Chandon Ice, a Champagne meant to poured over ice, where we bring in a bunch of Moët swag and create a party atmosphere.

Another might be an exclusive dinner working with one of our restaurants to feature a producer like Krug, with many different Champagnes from them paired with different courses through out the night, while having our ambassador from Krug on hand to discuss the wines and the differences between them.

And then, of course, like any job – there’s the administrative part which is nowhere near as sexy, but equally as important.

Me: How did you end up focusing on Champagne?

D.A.: Good question. So, unlike almost every other sommelier I know, Champagne was never truly an obsession of mine. Don’t get me wrong — I love Champagne and always have — but I didn’t have quite the same relationship to it that everyone else I know seems to have. But these Champagne houses are special. Not only are they all delicious, they’re all innovative, and they’re all very important to the history of Champagne. Champagne simply would not exist without Dom Pérignon, Dom Ruinart and the Widow Clicquot (that’s three of our five houses).

And Champagne most likely wouldn’t have survived World War II without the help of the head of Moët & Chandon, Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé. That brings us to four.

Then there’s Krug. Krug is unlike any other Champagne house, and is a house that I believe inspires all other Champagne houses. So that’s how I wound up putting my focus here: the wines are too good, too important, and have such rich history that it’s impossible not to love them.

Me: Have you been to the region itself? Any particularly memorable experiences? 

Davis and coworkers in vineyards around Hautvillers (Photo courtesy of Davis Anderson III)

D.A.: I was lucky enough to have my company send me to Champagne to study at the house of Krug for three days back in May of this year. They then extended the trip a few days so that we could visit the other houses in our portfolio. The whole trip was memorable — getting to visit Clos d’Ambonnay and Clos du Mesnil (where we had lunch in the vineyard while drinking Krug’s Clos du Mesnil), as well as visiting Hautvillers, the abbey where Dom Pérignon did all of his research… These experiences were amazing.

But one of my favorites was the emphasis on none of our brands being pretentious, and engaging what can be most fun about all of our brands. On our first night at Krug, we played ping-pong while a jazz duo played Django Reinhardt, and then we had Krug Rosé with burgers and fries in Krug’s beautiful newly renovated space.

Me: I love all sorts of sparkling wines, but Champagne does seem to be something special. Few other bubblies that I’ve tried can quite match it. Why do you think that is?

D.A.: Champagne is a unique place. You don’t find that soil everywhere in the world (the chalk and limestone). It’s an extreme climate, being about as far north as you can go and still get grapes to make wine. It rains 200 days a year on average. There’s nowhere else in the world quite like it. Even Champagne houses that make sparkling in other parts of the world are proud of them and work hard at them, but none is Champagne. Rightly, they are a reflection of the areas which they are from, which have their own unique terroir.

Me: If I’m in a store and faced with the Moët Hennessy Champagne brands, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Dom Pérignon and Krug, how do I know which one is right for me? What are the differences?

D.A.: Okay, I’m going to simplify this, and focus on the signature wine from each house.

Moët & Chandon is more focused on being bright and young and fresh and is often the most affordable of our houses. It is the #1 Champagne brand in the world, but is the #2 brand here in the U.S.

Veuve Clicquot is a much richer style, using older reserve wines (typically up to 7-10 years old on average), and a higher proportion of Pinot Noir in their blends. This is the #2 Champagne in the world, but it is #1 here. It is typically a bit more expensive than Moët & Chandon.

Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house in existence, founded in 1729, and the focus on Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) as their house style. This Champagne is a laser beam. Bright and racy with zippy mineral backbone.

Dom Pérignon, once the tête de cuvée from Moët & Chandon, is now its own house, and it will always be a vintage Champagne. The blend is roughly 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and it focuses on the tension between the two grapes. It’s also known for its signature pin-prick like sensation from the bubbles, which comes from its extended lees aging.

Krug Grand Cuvée takes a minimum of 20 years to make. Even though it is not a vintage Champagne, I believe it rivals all vintage Champagnes in terms of quality. Krug is a truly unique offering in all of Champagne.

Me: Champagne, of course, tends to be expensive. What kinds of sparkling wines do you think give us the best value for the money right now?

D.A.: Value is a great word to use, as it regards one’s opinion of what is most important in life. I personally love Champagne because I really think it is an amazing value, even if it is not the least expensive in the bunch. The process that Champagne goes through, the time it requires to make even a simple bottle of NV Champagne is so much more than any other wine region. And when you see a bottle of Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut for about $50, knowing that it took three years to reach that shelf, and then you see the 2015 Caymus on the shelf for $80… I don’t understand how people think that Champagne is comparatively expensive.

To not be totally tone-deaf, I know that $50 is not an affordable every day item for most people, but it should be an affordable luxury that you can indulge in more than just once or twice a year. But it’s also worth exploring the sparkling wines these Champagne houses are making in other parts of the world as well, which are frequently less expensive.

Me: I agree that at $50, Champagne can be a good value, and I also agree that at $80, Caymus is overpriced. But both are expensive. As you say, most people can’t spend that kind of money on wine frequently. What other sparkling wines do you think are great values right now, and can be had for less than $20?

D.A. It’s hard to do under $20… but probably Jansz from Tasmania. It’s usually closer to $20-25 depending on your retailer, but so worth it. The sparkling wine being made in Australia may be my favorite sparkling being made outside of Champagne. It’s an area that’s highly misunderstood, as people only think of Shiraz when they hear Australia, but it’s a huge country making many great and unique styles of wine, from Riesling to Cabernet. And very few of the sparkling actually reach our shores, so if you get the opportunity, I highly recommend checking it out!

Me: I am definitely putting a Tasmanian sparkler on my list! Do you have a favorite Champagne food pairing?

D.A.: People always mention caviar and oysters, which are great. But for me — it’s gotta be french fries!

Me: Sounds good to me! And long before you were pairing food and wine as a sommelier, we studied theater together. How did you end up moving from theater into wine?

D.A.: When I studied theater, I came at it from the perspective of wanting to be a writer more than an actor, and this was because I loved stories so much. I had a mild affinity for wine from a young age thanks to my father, who wanted someone to share it with, and my mother preferred (and still does) bourbon.

When I was waiting tables, as all theater majors do at some point, we would receive lots of education on the wines we were supposed to be selling, and I loved the stories of the wineries. I also noticed that people who were buying the wines cared much more about the stories and the histories than they did descriptors like “cherry, bright, apple, smoky, rich, etc.” The more I tasted and learned, the more in love with it I fell.

Wine to me is an amazing art form. It’s one in which man has to work with Mother Nature to extract the greatest expression of that grape, that area, that year, and their vision. And it’s alive and constantly evolving — having a bottle of any given wine today, it won’t be the same tomorrow. Not just because of the difference in education, but because of all the outside factors that shape the experience while you’re having the bottle: the people you’re with, the food you’re eating, the music you’re listening to, and the environment in which you’re enjoying it. I don’t know how someone who loves or appreciates art doesn’t love wine.

Me: Aside from Champagne, is there a wine region you’ve visited that you particularly connected with? And/or one that you would particularly recommend that people visit themselves?

Davis and his wife Lisa in Barolo (Photo courtesy of Davis Anderson III)

D.A.: I’ve been fortunate to visit many wine regions in Oregon, California, New York, Italy and Australia. They’re all beautiful, magical places in their own way. I highly encourage everyone to find if there’s any wine being made near them, and to go and learn about it. Wine is a constant learning experience, and there are valuable lessons to be learned from every region.

Me: And what will you be drinking with dinner tonight?

D.A.: Well, tonight will actually most likely be beer, as I’m meeting up with my extended family (my in-laws) to go and enjoy Filipino food. My wife is Filipino, and we’ve found a great restaurant not far from our house that makes authentic Filipino cuisine. While I could definitely enjoy some Champagne with it, even I like to take a break every now and then. So a nice cold beer tonight sounds good.

Germany? Ja! Riesling? Nein!

16 August 2017

On my recent 12-day trip to Germany, I decided to try an experiment. Would I be able to have high-quality German wine(s) every night with dinner — and sometimes with lunch — and never drink a single Riesling?

One could be forgiven for thinking that such an experiment was misguided at best, or quite simply impossible. I suspect that few casual wine consumers can name a single other top grape variety grown in Germany off the top of their heads. For better or worse, Germany and Riesling are inextricably linked.

But Germany has far more to offer than beautiful Rieslings. Any guesses as to how much vineyard area in the country is devoted to other grapes? Maybe 20%? Maybe 40%?

In fact, Riesling composes just 23% of Germany’s vineyards as of 2013, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Second place goes to the unglamorous but productive Müller-Thurgau at 13%, followed by Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) at 12% and Dornfelder at 8%. Indeed, red wine grapes represent a whopping 36% of Germany’s vineyards.

I love well-made Riesling, both sweet and bone-dry, but it’s time to give the other 77% of German wines some attention. Here are some of the discoveries I made.

WEISSBURGUNDER (Pinot Blanc)

Pinot Blanc barely registers in its birthplace of Burgundy nowadays. You might have seen a bottle or two from the Alsace, but there, too, it’s on the wane. But it’s one of my very favorite German whites. The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to agree: “Under the fashionable name Weissburgunder, it is now Germany’s fifth most planted white wine cultivar, with vinous personalities ranging from the full, rich, oaked examples of Baden and the Pfalz to relatively delicate, mineral-inflected variations along the Nahe and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and with quality aspirations ranging from workaday norm to occasional brilliance.”

Consider the following two examples I tried side-by-side at Hamburg’s Louis C. Jacob restaurant:

2014 Weingut Dreissigacker “Louis C. Jacob Edition” Weissburgunder, Rheinhessen

This less-expensive example had a spicy aroma marked with a note of burnt popcorn. Its lively acids worked well with food, and I very much enjoyed its clean pear fruit, green peppercorn spice and dry finish. Later at Heldenplatz, a restaurant in central Hamburg, I tried Dreissigacker’s top Weissburgunder, called “Einzigacker.” Wow. It tasted rich, balanced, focused and elegant, truly earning the name Weissburgunder, which literally translates as “white Burgundy.” Sublime.

2015 Weingut Franz Keller “Oberbergener Pulverbuck” Weissburgunder, Baden

The Franz Keller Weissburgunder (pictured with the Dreissigacker above) is more expensive than the Louis C. Jacob Dreissigacker, but its quality is unimpeachable. The aroma was more buttered popcorn, and though the lively acids were here too, they felt more refined and more focused. The arc of polished spice lasted ages. From the start to the lengthy finish, the wine developed and built with gradual determination. Oo, I love when that happens.

*****

GRAUBURGUNDER (Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio)

The total vineyard area of this grape has increased 90% in Germany since 2000, “[making] it the country’s fourth most planted white wine grape and far more popular than Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc),” according to The Oxford Companion. I can understand why people love Grauburgunder, which typically has ample fruit and zesty spice, but my heart remains with Weissburgunder. Even so, many dishes call for a spicier wine, and Grauburgunder can stand up to all sorts of recipes.

2016 Weingut Klumpp Grauburgunder, Baden

In the cozy bistro restaurant of Ole Liese near Germany’s Baltic Coast, I paired this Grauburgunder with a rich cod appetizer. It had a melony, spicy aroma, and flavors of ripe apple and honeydew. Peppery spice kept things well in balance, and the wine finished clean and dry.

2016 Weingut Bercher Grauburgunder, Baden

Back in Hamburg at traditional Casse Croute, the Bercher Grauburgunder had a more citrusy aroma along with the telltale spicy note. It tasted mouthwateringly juicy, with almost prickly lemon-lime acids, reminding me of a full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc. Just the thing to pair with some veal-and-black truffle Labskaus.

*****

SILVANER

In the first half of the 20th century, this variety was the most widely planted in Germany, but after World War II, it was overtaken by Müller-Thurgau and now, Riesling. I remember drinking a few Silvaners when I lived in Germany in the late 90s, and I don’t have fond memories of the stuff. It probably didn’t help matters that the bottles I bought cost less than $5. I know this, because all the bottles I bought that year in Germany cost less than $5. The Oxford Companion to Wine gives the grape tepid praise, calling it a “suitable neutral canvas” on which to display terroir, and noting that “encouraging examples” can be found. So don’t buy just any Silvaner you come across.

2015 Weingut Bickel Stumpf “Kapellenberg Frickenhausen” Silvaner, Franken

The sommelier of Michelin-starred Courtier recommended this Silvaner to me, and I have to think it’s one of the best out there. It’s got a mouthful of a name, and it certainly worked well with food. The wine had a slightly burnt, spicy aroma, and its most notable characteristic was its big, lemony acids. Unexpectedly, the finish went on and on. If you like juicy Sauvignon Blancs — or zippy Grüner Veltliners — a well-made Silvaner should be on your list.

*****

SAUVIGNON GRIS

This little-known grape is the “non-aromatic version of Gewürztraminer,” according to The Oxford Companion, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc.” I’ve tasted a few of these over the years, and I can’t recall a single disappointment. Should you encounter a bottle, particularly the bottle below, I highly recommend snapping it up.

2015 Weingut Lichti Sauvignon Gris “Royal,” Pfalz

For a “non-aromatic” grape, this wine certainly had an enticingly spicy and buttery nose. Ripe pear flavor moved to butter and taut spice, as the wine sharpened to a point. Rich but amply balanced, and tense with excitement. I loved it.

*****

ROSÉ

Like just about anywhere with red wine grape vines, Germany also makes rosé. I had a couple of charming examples, including the one below.

2014 Weingut Geisser “Strawberry Fields” Rosé Trocken, Pfalz

 

A blend of 90% Spätburgunder, 5% Merlot and 5% Dornfelder, this rosé was ideal for my beachside seafood dinner at Bootshaus. Its spicy, watermelon-candy aroma sucked me right in. I loved its ripe watermelon fruit (and yes, the touch of strawberry), lively limey acids and clean, dry finish. Simple, refreshing and delicious.

*****

SPÄTBURGUNDER (Pinot Noir)

It’s not just Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon that make superlative Pinot Noir. Germany’s Spätburgunder can achieve sublime clarity of fruit and refinement of spice, and sometimes even some richness. But don’t just take my word for it. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Today [Spätburgunder] is at least as deep coloured, dry, alcoholic, and well structured as red burgundy…”. Because of Spätburgunder’s popularity within Germany, all too little is exported.

2013 Weingut Friedrich Becker “Schweigener” Spätburgunder, Pfalz

This Spätburgunder had a wonderful aroma of spiced dark cherries, and flavors of dark cherries and cough syrup. Light-bodied but not a lightweight, this wine held its focus for quite some time, with polished spice serving as a backbone. Superb with some Poltinger lamb at Hamburg’s Heldenplatz restaurant.

2007 Weingut Stigler “Freiburg Schlossberg” Spätburgunder GG, Baden

The “GG” stands for “Grosses Gewächs,” indicating that this wine comes from a vineyard classified as a “Great Growth,” or “Grand Cru,” one could say. There was no way for me to resist this wine, made as it was in Freiburg from a vineyard on the Schlossberg. I spent many happy evenings at the beer garden on top of the steep Schlossberg hill when I was a student in Freiburg, and I remember seeing the vineyards there, rising from the edge of the exquisite old center.

Considering my heavy nostalgia, the wine could have easily let me down, but it did not disappoint. It smelled of dark cherries, with a savory/meaty undertone. It started quite light — it seemed like nothing at first — but dark cherry fruit firmed up, and white pepper spice focused the wine into a laser. With time in the glass, it became richer and earthier.

When I tried this beautiful wine, it brought me to tears for a moment. I never drank a wine like this when I lived in Freiburg, but it took me right back there all the same.

For more about unusual German wines, read about tasting Elbing, Goldriesling and Weissburgunder with German royalty here, and discovering the delights of Kerner here.

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