Grape Varieties

Beaujolais Reassessed #Winophiles

14 November 2017

Poor Beaujolais. Who drinks it anymore? There must be people who pay attention to the release of the new Beaujolais Nouveau vintage each November 16, but I don’t know any of them, and I’m a wine blogger. The last time I had a Beaujolais Nouveau in my wine rack was in May of 2006. I remember the moment very clearly: A wealthy couple attending my 30th birthday party presented me with a 2005 Beaujolais Nouveau as a gift. Mm, Beaujolais Nouveau in May… yum. Merci beaucoup.

Honestly, I can’t imagine why anyone would buy Beaujolais Nouveau, at least in the U.S. It often costs more than $15 a bottle, which is insane for a wine that’s supposed to be simply fruity, cheerful and gulpable. The last time Beaujolais Nouveau was stylish was in the 90s. I know this because The Oxford Companion to Wine tells me that consumption of it peaked in 1992, when “nearly half of Beaujolais AC was sold in this youthful state.” And also because I was flipping channels a couple of months ago and came across an old “Frasier” episode in which the titular character offered his sophisticated date a glass of the stuff.

Brouilly, a Cru Beaujolais

Nowadays, if Frasier were attempting to impress a date with his wine sophistication, he would likely present something from Jura, or at least Alto Adige. Beaujolais is simply not chic.

This is a shame. Beaujolais still squirts out far too much overpriced and overhyped Nouveau (which would be an OK value for $10 or $11 a bottle), but it also produces thoroughly charming and sometimes quite intense wines. These wines are “compulsively drinkable,” as the cliché goes, and usually very food-friendly. But many of the best, problematically, don’t even have the word “Beaujolais” on the label, except perhaps in fine print on the back.

What Beaujolais should you buy then, if not the famous Nouveau? Skip over basic Beaujolais and start with Beaujolais-Villages. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “It is almost always worth paying more for a Villages wine for its extra concentration.” Beaujolais-Villages wines have more oomph because they come from hillier vineyards in the north of the appellation, as opposed to the flatter sites in the southern half.

I recently received a bottle as a free sample from the Vignerons de Bel Air, a cooperative of some 250 wine growers in Beaujolais. Its Beaujolais-Villages comes from 50- to 60-year old Gamay vines in vineyards around the southern edge of the region’s hilly northern section. The Gamay variety, which tends to be frankly boring almost everywhere else, for some reason flourishes in the granitic soils of Beaujolais, where it can make wines of real interest.

Manti (they taste better than they look)

Certainly the 2016 Beaujolais-Villages was a pleasure. I sampled it over a delightful dinner with one of my favorite tasting partners, the inimitable Liz Barrett, at an underrated restaurant on Chicago’s North Side: Turkish Cuisine (the owners aren’t the euphemistic sort). I liked the wines aroma of dark fruit with a touch of vanilla, and its juicy, mouthwatering acidity. The acids shifted to warm spice, and together they provided a through-line, ensuring that the wine never sagged. It didn’t quite stand up to the yogurt-rich sauce on our manti (little lamb-filled raviolis), but it worked beautifully with our next course of roasted lamb. Interestingly, this wine was labeled “Natural,” indicating, according to the press materials, that it experienced softer filtration and has less sulfites.

The other three wines I received as free samples from the Vignerons de Bel Air were from Beaujolais’ best vineyards, classified as Cru Beaujolais. These are the Beaujolais wines really worth seeking out, and these are the wines that often lack the word “Beaujolais” on the label. There are 10 Beaujolais Crus: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié and Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. They all have distinct characters, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll concentrate on the three Crus of the samples.

First, we tried what proved to be my favorite of the four wines, the 2015 Domaine Baron de l’Écluse “Les Garances” Côte de Brouilly had a tighter-grained, more expensive-seeming aroma than the Beaujolais-Villages, with notes of prune and a meatloafy savoriness, as well as a whiff of violet that Liz first detected. It looked quite dark and concentrated, but it proved to be light on its feet, with ample dark fruit, warm spice, juicy acids and an iron tang on the finish. It felt well-integrated and refined, and it stood up well to the manti, with enough heft to punch through the yogurt. It also paired wonderfully with all the roasted meat we tried (chicken, lamb, spiced ground lamb and gyro).

According to The World Atlas of Wine, bottlings from the large Brouilly Cru “can vary enormously. Only those grown on the volcanic slopes of Mont Brouilly in the much smaller Côte de Brouilly Cru are really worth ageing.” I believe it — I’m sure this wine could have easily handled several more years in the bottle.

The 2015 Domaine de Briante Brouilly, another “natural” wine like the Villages above, had an earthier character, with an aroma of blackberry fruit, mushroom and sausage. I liked how the wine started with clean, clear fruit and then mussed it up with those wonderful juicy acids and some forceful (but well-integrated) tannins. It didn’t manage to cut through the yogurty manti, but it paired perfectly with the chicken kebap and became even spicier with the lamb. This wine proved to be Liz’s favorite, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to drink it again myself, given the opportunity.

Finally, we tried the 2015 Dominique Piron Côte du Py Morgon. The World Atlas tells us that “Morgon is the second-largest Cru, associated with its famous, volcanic Côte du Py, whose wines are particularly strong, warm and spicy.” Liz called it on first sniff, noting the wine’s distinct tart cherry aroma. I thought it smelled rather like sweet barbecue. “Yes, cherry wood-chip smoke,” she agreed. There were those characteristic juicy acids again, leavening the ample black-cherry fruit. The wine felt lighter-bodied, but with plenty of spice and supple tannins. It was heavenly with the chicken, but it also worked well with the lamb, which brought out more of a violet note in the wine.

What a joy of a tasting. I had to be careful not to consume too much — we had four bottles between the two of us — because these Beaujolais were such fun to drink. Each had ample fruit and juicy, mouthwatering acids, ensuring that even the most concentrated of them remained lively and light on its feet.

The Beaujolais-Villages was good, but I fell in love with the Cru Beaujolais. These wines would be perfect for a dinner party, because they’re food-friendly and easy to drink, yet they also offer a sense of refinement. Best of all, because they’re unfashionable, Cru Beaujolais wines are not expensive. I see on the Binny’s website that Morgon starts at just $16, Brouilly can be had for as little as $17, and Côte de Brouilly for $24. The wines we had tasted far more expensive than that.

Yes, Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! But it is the “vieux” Beaujolais, the Cru Beaujolais, that has now truly arrived.

For additional perspectives about Beaujolais in general and these wines specifically, check out these #Winophiles blog posts:

  • Our host for the month, Jeff from Food Wine Click!, shares “Tasting the Beaujolais Pyramid over Dinner”
  • Jill from L’Occasion shares “No Sleep ’til Beaujolais: The French Wine That’s Keeping Us Up All Night
  • Martin from Enofylz writes “Ready To Elevate Your Beaujolais Game? Go Beyond Nouveau!”
  • Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Savoring and Sipping Bottles and Bottles of Beaujolais”
  • Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm writes “Say Yay for Beaujolais
  • Jane from Always Ravenous shares “Beaujolais Wine: A Foodie’s Dream”
  • Nicole from  Somms Table writes “Cooking to the Wine: Stephane Aviron Cru Beaujolais with Pork Tenderloin While Jumping Life Hurdles
  • Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Thanksgiving for Two: Mushroom-Stuffed Pork Loin Paired with Beaujolais Cru”
  • Michelle from Rockin Red Blog writes ”Exploring Cru Beaujolais with #Winophiles
  • David from Cooking Chat shares “Food-Friendly Red Wine from Beaujolais”
  • Gwendolyn from Wine Predator writes “Do you know the way to Beaujolais?”
  • Liz from What’s in that Bottle writes “Discover Real Beaujolais”
  • Lynn and Mark from Savor the Harvest shares “Beaujolais Beyond Nouveau”

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.

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.

The Not Shiraz Of Australia

10 June 2017

The wild success of Australian Shiraz caused its own undoing. Like Santa Margherita did with Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail made Shiraz first ubiquitous and then reviled. Fortunately for Italy, few regard the insipid and overpriced Santa Margherita as representative of all Italian wines. I’m not sure the same can be said of Yellow Tail and its fellow critter quaffers (wines with cute animals or animal parts on the labels). Insta-hangover Yellow Tail put me off of all Australian wine for years, and only after I visited the continent a few years ago did I start dipping my toe in again.

Australia’s unjust reputation as a lake of rustic, chemically-tinged Shiraz lingers, despite the country’s vast variety of wine grapes and wine styles, made in an array of vastly varying terroirs. It’s not all sun-baked cooked fruit Down Under. The cool-climate Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and even Rieslings are pure delight: fresh, vivacious and well-balanced.

Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re unaware of these wines. A large part of the responsibility for Australia’s ongoing reputation as a Shiraz monolith lies with distributors. At a recent Australian wine tasting in Chicago, I tasted some superlative not-Shiraz, and I wondered aloud to a gentleman pouring why we don’t see more of that sort of wine on store shelves. “It’s the distributors,” he remarked. “This is really hard to sell to them — they just don’t buy it.”

Most distributors must think that we’re not interested in interesting Australian wines. Let’s give them a reason to change their minds. I found all sorts of beautifully crafted wines at this tasting, and I didn’t have the time to try even half the ones I wanted to.

First, what to avoid: About 60% of Australia’s wine grape crop comes from hot interior regions, according to The World Atlas of Wine, and much of this is sold in bulk, often without indicating its place of origin. Skip any wine that doesn’t come from a specific region. Look in particular for bottlings from the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Tasmania. Of course, this list is not exhaustive — Australia makes high-quality wines in numerous other locations — but I find examples from these regions consistently compelling.

You might not see the specific labels below on a wine list or in a local shop, but this at least gives you an idea of the sort of thing that’s happening right now in Australia. My goodness, they’re making some exciting stuff!

WHITES:

Assyrtiko: I can’t recall trying an Assyrtiko produced outside of its home in Greece (the grape originated in Santorini). The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “its ability to retain acidity in a hot climate has encouraged successful experimentation with it elsewhere,” notably in Australia. This 2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko comes from the Clare Valley, north of the Barossa Valley which is north of Adelaide. Its higher altitude gives it cooler nights than Barossa, and cool nights help grapes retain acidity. I loved this wine. Its apple-inflected fruit had a touch of creaminess to it, and its lemon-lime acids were so lively as to verge on pétillance. The wine felt juicy, but it ended clean and dry. Not inexpensive at $35, but it has the chops to back up the price.

Chardonnay: I’m sure that like California, Australia makes its share of flabby, over-oaked and over-buttered Chardonnays. And like California, it can also make Chardonnay with focus and elegance, rivaling those of Burgundy. For example, the 2014 Tolpuddle Chardonnay from Tasmania, an island off the south coast that is Australia’s coolest wine-growing region, had a wonderful aroma of slightly burnt buttered popcorn. It tasted a little of butter too, it’s true, but juicy lemon-orange acids and refined white-pepper spice kept the wine perfectly in balance, and it finished on a refreshing tart note. Superb, but expensive at $60.

Marsanne: This grape variety may be from the Rhône, but the world’s largest Marsanne vineyard is in Australia’s Nagambie Lakes region, north of Melbourne, as are the world’s oldest Marsanne vines. Both belong to Tahbilk, a winery founded by a Frenchman in 1860 (the oldest vines date to 1926). The 2015 Tahbilk Marsanne had the appealing aroma of a fresh caramel apple, overlayed with a hint of roses. It starts with clean, clear, pure fruit, which promptly gets roughed up by some rowdy orangey acids. The wine tastes fresh, juicy and round, and worth every penny of its $18 price tag.

Rebecca Loewy of importer Old Bridge Cellars with some Brokewood Semillon

Riesling: Riesling fear still runs rampant. Just as many think of all Chardonnay as oaky butter bombs, there are those who regard all Riesling as insufferably sweet. There is sweet Riesling, yes, but there are also bone-dry versions like the ones presented at this tasting, a 2016 Jim Barry “Lodge Hill” Riesling ($19) and a 2010 Kilikanoon “Mort’s Reserve” Riesling ($35). They both came from the Clare Valley, a region which produces “some of Australia’s finest Riesling,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. And both had classic aroma aromas of shower curtain (more often called “petrol”) and white fruit, flavors like apples and pears, tart and juicy acids, and dry finishes. The impressive liveliness of the 2010 Kilkanoon served as a reminder of Riesling’s capacity to age with great grace.

Semillon: The most important grape in Sauternes can also produce dry wine of great distinction, as evidenced by the 2009 Brokenwood “Oakey Creek” Hunter Valley Semillon ($32). This wine is an exception to my cool-climate recommendation — it’s far to the north of the other regions noted above and as such, it’s subtropical — but according to The World Atlas of Wine, “Hunter Semillon is one of Australia’s classic, if underappreciated, wine styles.” I loved the Brokenwood’s juicy freshness, balanced with a touch of creaminess to the fruit. It was the wine equivalent of a margarita, in the best possible way. I’d buy this wine any day.

Vermentino: Traditionally grown in northern Italy and Southern France, this grape also does quite well in the McClaren Vale, a region just south of Adelaide with thin topsoil and a climate that “could hardly be better for the vine,” according to the World Atlas. The 2016 Mitolo “Jester” McClaren Vale Vermentino had aromas of shower curtain and tart orange, and deliciously light and clean fruit on the palate, followed by orangey acids and a dry finish that verged on tannic. Very well-integrated, and a steal at $16.

REDS:

Grenache: I tried two examples of this very fruity variety, known as Garnacha in Spain, from regions on either side of Adelaide: the McClaren Vale to the (cooler) south and the Barossa Valley just to the north. The 2014 Yaldara “Ruban” Barossa Grenache tasted ripe and richly fruity, with ample white pepper spice and a savory, almost bacony note underneath. An excellent value for $23. The 2013 Woodstock “OCTOgenerian” from McClaren Vale blends 15% Tempranillo with the Grenache, resulting in a cherry-tinged wine with a cough-syrup note, leavened by bright acids, focused spice and a eucalyptus freshness. A bottle of this would be $27 well spent.

Pinot Noir: Perhaps the ultimate cool-climate red grape, known for its success in places like Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Noir also shows beautifully in Australia. Consider the 2016 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, which exhibited classic aromas of dark cherry and earth. I loved its clear tart-cherry fruit, lively acidity and notable spice, as well as its surprisingly long finish. It would surely pair well with a range of foods. More power to you if you can find a Pinot of similar quality for $20. I also tried the 2016 Giant Steps Pinot Noir, also from the Yarra Valley, which costs twice as much. For that additional $20, you get more depth and ripeness of fruit, more polished acids and spice, and more-than-usually graceful shifts from note to note.

Shiraz: Well, I couldn’t escape an Australia tasting without trying at least one Shiraz, so I made it count. I sampled the 2012 Jim Barry “The Armagh” Clare Valley Shiraz, and I knew immediately that I would love it. I could smell the wine three inches away from the rim of the glass! The aroma exploded with big, jammy red fruit, along with a touch of wood. Woo! And what a luscious flavor: huge fruit, like fresh raspberry jam, and no small amount of wood. Yet both flavors were beautifully balanced, and ample acids kept the wine from feeling ponderous — it felt startlingly light on its feet, though certainly not light-bodied. Immense, but elegant. And that’s what you get if you plunk down $245 for a bottle of Shiraz!

Sauternes: It’s What’s For Breakfast

28 April 2017

Everyone agrees that we should all be drinking more Sauternes. The World Atlas of Wine calls it “lamentably underappreciated but incomparable,” and The Oxford Companion to Wine argues that “it remains underpriced in relation to the enormous pleasure it brings to those growing numbers of wine lovers who find a fine Sauternes has an undeniable place on the dinner table.”

Alas, Sauternes is the gym membership of wine. We all think it’s a great idea, but too few of us actually take advantage of it.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I attended a dinner where the Sauternes truly flowed: at the charming Auberge les Vignes in the village of Sauternes itself. Over some exquisite foie gras and sensationally flavorful duck breast that had been grilled in the restaurant’s fireplace, the six of us who won the 2017 Millésima Wine Blog Awards discussed Bordeaux’s famous sweet wine with Pierre Montégut, the Technical Director of Château Suduiraut.

Auberge les Vignes

“People tell me all the time that they love Sauternes, and that they don’t understand why people don’t drink more of it,” he said. “Then I ask them, how many bottles of Sauternes do you drink in a month? Or in a year?” If people manage two or three bottles a year, they’re at the top end of the curve, unfortunately. I’m ashamed to admit that I probably average only a bottle a year myself.

What makes Sauternes so special, anyway? In a word: rot. The vineyards of Sauternes (and neighboring Barsac) grow near the confluence of the Garonne and Ciron rivers. Starting in the early autumn, the Garonne is warm enough so that when the cool spring-fed waters of the Ciron flow into it, the temperature difference causes evening mists. The fog creates conditions ideal for the development of Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot. This mold looks ugly but it is vital to Sauternes.

The vineyards of Château Suduiraut abut forest and the vineyards of Château d’Yquem

Noble Rot causes minuscule holes in the skins of the grape, encouraging water inside to evaporate, concentrating the remaining juice. But simple concentration isn’t enough — that only sweetens the wine. The mold also chemically alters the juice, usually Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, adding important complexity and aroma. Unfortunately, the mold does not affect all the grapes at once, and the best châteaux harvest multiple times, sometimes going so far as to select berries individually in the vineyard.

When it works, the wine is sweet, yes, but it also has an almost startling liveliness, with big but focused acidity and a shaft of spice, in addition to flavors such as green tobacco, mint, oak, orange, saffron and jasmine combining with the honeyed richness. It’s one of the most sensual wines I can think of. The combination of sweetness, acidity and freshness is one of the wine world’s most compelling.

Agnes Nemeth and the Head Sommelier of the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel

Why do we deny ourselves the pleasures of Sauternes? Well, dessert wine just isn’t a thing in the United States, for starters. I have yet to attend a dinner party in Chicago in which a friend presented a wine to pair with dessert (or a dessert wine as dessert), and people don’t think to order it in restaurants, either. And it’s not just Americans. Even in the city of Bordeaux, the Head Sommelier of the restaurants in the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel said that she rarely sells Sauternes. People might order a glass from time to time, but it was highly unusual for a table to order a bottle.

On my visit, what we’re missing by ignoring Sauternes became painfully clear. First, let’s start with something inexpensive and relatively easy to find: the 2013 Lions de Suduiraut, a new Sauternes developed by Suduiraut to emphasize freshness and minerality, which you can open immediately with no decanting, according to Montégut. The flavor started on a rich and honeyed note, but a wave of sharp ginger spice swept in, along with bright, orangey acids. The finish was fresh and spicy, not sweet. It’s absolutely delicious, rather sexy, and a screaming value at just $13 for a half-bottle.

Pierre Montégut, Technical Director of Château Suduiraut

What about something a little older and more expensive? We did an unforgettable vertical tasting (trying several different vintages of the same wine) at Château Suduiraut, one of which was the 2009. Its aroma had more to it than the Lions’ did, with heady honeysuckle, tropical fruit and some spiciness. The flavor kept changing and flowing — honey, orange, cardamom, hay — and all the notes felt beautifully integrated and refined. Fellow Millésima blog award-winner Agnes Nemeth of Hungarian Wines remarked, “I would really use this as a perfume.” Binny’s sells this wine for $45 for a half-bottle, an excellent value considering the quality. Even better, buy a magnum of it from Millésima for $190 and throw a party.

Sauternes, though white, can age just as well as any red, especially in the good years. Consider the 1997 Château Suduiraut, which had an aroma redolent of honey and something savory as well. It tasted of overripe apricot and dark honey, which moved into toffee/caramel country. Deep and dark orange acids, along with some spiciness and a touch of something smokey, assured balance. Gorgeous and complex.

To hammer home the point, Montégut also presented us with a bottle of 1975 Château Suduiraut to have with dessert at the Auberge les Vignes. This wine is older than I am, and yet it still feels lively. The aroma had an almost startling freshness to it. And I felt thoroughly seduced by the flavors of dark honey, green tobacco, dark orange and honeysuckle. The acids and spice were more than up to the task of balancing the sweetness. This unforgettable wine can be had for $80 to $100, according to Wine Searcher. That’s insane. I’m tempted to buy a bottle before I finish writing this post.

The 1975 Château Suduiraut caused quite a stir at the Auberge les Vignes!

We also had the chance to try numerous Sauternes en primeur, which means that we sampled the latest vintage, 2016, well before bottling, in order to try to determine the vintage’s quality. According to Montégut, Sauternes this young should display balance, freshness, and energy on the finish, if they’re to attain greatness.

I think the 2016 vintage should be quite fine, even though the Noble Rot arrived only in the last half of October. The 2016 Bastor-Lamontagne had more citrus to it than honey, with ginger spice and a dry finish. Château Guiraud took things a step further, balancing its dark honey flavors with deep orangey acids and a surprising blast of eucalyptus freshness. Lafaurie-Peyraguey offered stone fruit, incense and more of that eye-opening eucalyptus. And then there was the Sigalas-Rabaud, which kept itself taut as it moved through flavors of honey and peach, ending with such freshness that I felt as if I’d just popped a breath mint. Wow.

Jeff Burrows and Lisa Denning at our vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut

Which brings me to breakfast. We started our vertical tasting of Château Suduiraut at 9:30 a.m., at the end of a long week of château hopping. The week was a joy, to be sure, but exhausting. That tasting at Suduiraut perked me up far more than the pot of coffee I’d had earlier. The wines — we sampled ten of them — felt positively invigorating. Each one made me feel more and more energized, even aroused.

At brunch, we Americans tend to drink only two alcoholic beverages: Bloody Marys and sparkling wine. Why not Sauternes? I wrote in my notebook, “These would be amazing with some chicken and waffles!” Or pancakes and sausages. It’s an ideal breakfast wine. And because Sauternes is sweet and spicy, it also would work well with a range of Asian foods. If you think of sweet wines as simple and heavy, you’re not thinking of Sauternes. Instead, think rich, racy, complex and fresh.

Rare is the wine which will please absolutely everyone, from the most amateur wine drinker to the most jaded connoisseur. Sauternes is one of those wines.

For more about Sauternes and some fantastic photos of the vertical tasting at Château Suduiraut, check out this post by fellow award-winner Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick, or this post for more photos of the village itself.

Award-winner Chiara Bassi of Perlage Suite also wrote about Sauternes, posting about our dinner at Auberges les Vignes here. She also wrote about our 2016 en primeur Sauternes tasting here, including detailed tasting notes about 19 different wines.

And on my blog, you can learn more about the 2011 vintage and why Sauternes is Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine.

Note: These wine samples were all provided free of charge.

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