Postcard From Sachsen

10 May 2015
Saxony's Schloss Wackerbarth

On the grounds of Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

If you haven’t heard about wine from Sachsen (Saxony), Germany’s smallest wine region, you’re not alone. Even many Germans are unaware that Sachsen produces wine, let alone wine of real character.

Vineyards along the Elbe

Vineyards along the Elbe

Because I’ve visited Dresden twice before, I knew that the area — the most northeasterly wine region in Germany — had vineyards. But because I’d always stayed in the city, I had no idea how beautiful the vineyards were. The Sächsische Weinstrasse (Saxon Wine Road) follows the Elbe River outside Dresden in the former East, passing by terraced vineyards, wine taverns and elaborate villas. I found it startlingly beautiful.

Even more startling was the quality of some of the wine I tasted, ranging from elegant Méthode Champenoise Sekt to barrique-aged Weissburgunder of true Burgundian richness, balance and depth.

Rapeseed field near Meissen

Rapeseed field near Meissen

How has this surpassingly beautiful region escaped notice, even in its home country? Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the idea of “wine from former East Germany” doesn’t sound especially promising. Also problematic is that almost none of the wine is exported.

I foolishly allowed only one day to explore the wineries of Saxony on this trip, but what a day! It involved not only wine, but a castle and a princess as well. A post devoted to it will be coming shortly.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

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

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

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcards From New York City

10 April 2015

New York has an all-too-beguiling array of craft cocktail lounges and wine bars. I had a wonderful time on my last visit, mostly confined to Lower Manhattan. But this time, for reasons too tedious to explain, I maintained a relatively tight radius around Times Square.

Times Square, in case there’s any doubt, may be “The Crossroads of the World,” but it hardly qualifies as an epicenter of fine drinking or dining. Overgrown, bloated versions of chains such as Olive Garden and Bubba Gump Shrimp are the order of the day, and, most notoriously, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar (the New York Times review of the place ranks among the greatest restaurant take-downs of all time).

Nevertheless, with a little digging, I discovered some perfectly pleasant places for drinks and dinner just a short walk from the heart of dining darkness.

Standing Stone Vineyards Riesling

At Thalia on the corner of 50th and 8th, I found a local wine on the by-the-glass list, the only New York wine I encountered during my stay: a 2013 Standing Stone Vineyards Riesling from the Finger Lakes. The waiter didn’t really sell it — he described it as “Not too sweet. Just a little sweet. It’s good. You know, it’s good.” He seemed to be trying to convince himself as much as me.

I quite liked it, actually. It had an aroma of light honeysuckle, a little orange blossom and that telltale note I describe as “fresh shower curtain” which many Rieslings from the Finger Lakes seem to exhibit. It’s much pleasanter than it sounds. The flavor was well-balanced, with ripe pear and red apple fruit balanced by broad, orangey acids. There was a bit of sweetness there, but it finished dry. And most important, it worked well with a spicy tuna and scallop tartar.

Honeysuckle Cocktail at Charlie Palmer at The Knick

Charlie Palmer at The Knick just opened, and judging by all the empty tables around us, it’s still a bit of a secret, despite it’s location on the corner of 42nd and Broadway (its fourth-floor setting doesn’t attract foot traffic). It’s a refreshingly quiet place for a drink or dinner in this overrun neighborhood.

I tried a Honeysuckle cocktail (above), made from Appleton Estate V/X Rum, lemon juice, honey and Yellow Chartreuse, which tasted delightfully sweet, citrusy and floral. Unfortunately, balance eluded my friend’s Old Fashioned, an overly sweet and syrupy concoction of Elijah Craig 12-year-old Bourbon, Demerara sugar syrup and Giffard Crème de Pêche.

Bar Centrale

The classic cocktails at Bar Centrale may not have been especially unusual, but they tasted perfectly balanced and carefully crafted. Hidden in an unmarked brownstone townhouse on 46th and 8th, this bar is perfect for an insidery-feeling pre- or post-theater drink.

My Sidecar (cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice) was right on the money. My friend ordered an Aviation, a drink of gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and crème de violette which can all too easily become a syrupy perfume bomb. But the bartender mixed it perfectly. I could clearly identify an almond note from the maraschino liqueur, and the floral flavor of the crème de violette remained just under the surface, where it belonged.

To ensure that you have comfortable seating, reserve a table in advance.

Rum House

Fans of the film “Birdman” will recognize The Rum House as the bar in which Riggan confronted the drama critic. We visited on a Saturday afternoon at about 5 p.m. and had no trouble getting a table, which felt like a mini-miracle in a neighborhood thronged with theater patrons. I loved the buzzing-but-cozy atmosphere, and the drinks we ordered were beyond reproach.

My Rum Old Fashioned, though unorthodox, worked beautifully. It moved from molasses sweetness to an appealingly bitter and spicy finish. I felt very suspicious of my friend’s cocktail, The Escape, a piña colada-like blend of dark rum, coconut cream, pineapple juice and sweet vermouth. I anticipated the usual boring milkshake-like flavor, but this drink wasn’t just a sugar attack. It had a delightful nutty quality, and even a bit of depth afforded by the vermouth.

Alamos Malbec

Most unusual of all was this complimentary bottle of 2014 Alamos Malbec I discovered waiting for me in my hotel room. You’ll notice how vigorously the name had been crossed out with a Sharpie marker. Was the wine poisoned? Was it cursed? I couldn’t tell, so I left it with some local friends and hopped a plane out of town.

Sorry, Chad and Kevin! Open with caution!

Vernaccia Di San Gimignano Reassessed

25 March 2015

Tuscan Wine TastingWhat I read about Vernaccia di San Gimignano was not especially encouraging. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia says, in its usual pull-no-punches style, that “most are bland.” A more diplomatic Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “the wine has attained only modest quality and price levels.”

Both sources agree that the best versions of Vernaccia di San Gimignano are “crisp,” with Sotheby’s praising its “vibrant fruit” and the Oxford Companion extolling its “refreshing quality,” “attractively bitter finish” and “unquestioned superiority over the standard bland Tuscan white blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia.” That’s better, but even these positive comments seem to be a case of damning with faint praise.

Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San GimignanoNevertheless, because Vernaccia di San Gimignano ranked as one of the most unusual options at a recent tasting of Tuscan wines, I dutifully gave a few a try. Each producer I visited offered at least two versions, an unoaked wine and a wine that had spent some time in barriques (oak barrels). The Oxford Companion takes a vaguely dismissive attitude towards “attempts to give it additional complexity with small barrel maturation,” but the technique worked for me. Each of the barrel-aged versions I tried, as indicated by the word “Riserva” on the label, was delicious.

The unoaked Vernaccias di San Gimignano I sampled tended to have cheerful fruit, limey acids, some white-pepper spiciness and often a hint of salinity. They tasted refreshing, and with their tartly bright acids, I suspect they’re at their best with food.

The barrel-aged wines achieved another level entirely, mellowing the texture and adding additional layers of flavor. The 2012 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Le Mandorle”, aged in new French oak, was more brooding than the unoaked Vernaccias, with notes of dark orange and cream and broader, rounder acids. I also enjoyed the 2012 Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Aurea”, with its aroma of creamy white fruit and roasted grapes. It tasted rich, but it had a delightful green freshness and distinct focus, with a zap of spice.

Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San GimignanoAs tasty as these wines were, my personal favorite was the 2013 Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “La Luna e Le Torri”, which translates to “The Moon and the Towers,” referencing the amount of time the wine ferments — one lunar month — and the famous medieval towers of the city of San Gimignano. A blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, this wine spends a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to the complexity of the wine. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

Unfortunately, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines can be difficult to find. But keep that name in the back of your mind, because at some point, you’ll likely encounter a shop or a wine list that has one. I highly recommend trying it. A scan of Wine Searcher revealed that most Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines retail between $15 and $30, and that’s a steal, even towards the higher end of that scale.

« Previous PageNext Page »