Spit, Blood and Madness: The Mythology of Mead

12 April 2014

The article below was written by travel writer Susie Meadows, who had a fine idea for a guest post for this blog. She contributed a fascinating piece about the mythical origins of mead:

Mead was once a staple tipple of northwest Europe. Indeed, “mead halls” were the dwellings of Dark Age kings, where warriors would carouse and boast of their warlike exploits upon the medobenc (“mead-benches” or, as we call them, “benches”). The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf , serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.

Mead was clearly an integral part of this culture – and continued to be so in the Scando-Germanic world for many centuries.

A Faded Art

Now, however, asking for a pint of mead in a British, German or Scandinavian pub would get you a blank stare or an amused raised eyebrow. Bringing a bottle to a party is an immediate talking point due to its novelty value. Everybody has heard of this once-ubiquitous drink, but nobody is quite sure what it is. A few dedicated producers still make the stuff, but it’s rare. A curious downfall for a drink once considered sacred. However, mead is making a comeback, so it’s about time we reacquainted ourselves with this ancient beverage.

Honey and Yeast

First the basics. Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey. Given the sugar content of honey it is extremely easy to make – simply add water and yeast, come back after the yeast has worked its magic, and voilà! Of course, production methods have been refined somewhat over the centuries, but the basic principle remains the same. Mead is sweet but should not be sickly, and it can be imbued with a variety of flavors to give a complex taste comparable to that of wine of beer. Alcohol content is typically around 13%, and the final product is significantly influenced by the type of honey used. It has the rather marvelous reputation of allowing people to drink without visiting a morning-after hangover upon them – although if Old English hangover poetry (a flourishing genre in Dark-Age Britain) is anything to go by, this has more to do with the mythical healing properties of honey than with fact.

Visceral Creation

So much for the theory. Now for the mythology. Mead is an incredibly ancient drink – considered by some to be the oldest alcoholic drink in the world (although it competes with beer for this title). Whatever its provenance, the drink was adopted with gusto by the people of Britain, Scandinavia and several Germanic nations. Such was their adoration for the “bright sweetness” that they imbued it with a deep mythic significance bordering on worship (anyone who has visited a British city on a Saturday night will have witnessed the evolution of this attitude to encompass the entire spectrum of booze).

Mead even has a Norse creation myth – although it’s probably not one to contemplate while enjoying a mouthful of the stuff. The story goes that the Æsir (Norse gods) had concluded a war with the Vanir (also Norse gods, subordinated in defeat). To seal their peace treaty, each of the gods spat into a vat. This was common Nordic practice, for reasons which remain unclear. Out of their spittle, they molded a man whom they named Kvasir.

Dwarven Murderers

Kvasir was incredibly wise. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, there was no question which Kvasir could not answer. He traveled the world dispensing his knowledge, until he had the bad fortune of falling into the hands of a pair of dwarves. These dwarves killed him and poured his blood into a pair of vats and a pot. They mixed the blood with honey, creating a mead which would grant anyone who drank it great wisdom and the divine gift of poetry. When the gods queried the location of Kvasir, the dwarves told them that he had suffocated beneath the weight of his great intelligence. The Norse pantheon – most of whom were never particularly noted for their intellects – appears to have accepted this dubious explanation without question.

Trickery, Sex, and Theft

Ultimately the dwarves were forced to give up their mead in restitution for some casual giant-slaying in which they had engaged. The mead was stored in the center of a mountain, guarded by a giantess named Gunnlod. By and by, Odin (a god of rare intelligence) came to hear of this turn of events and went to obtain the mead. By great artifice and cunning, Odin tricked a succession of laborers in order to obtain, by degrees, a mighty drill with which he could penetrate the mountain. In case the Freudian implications of such a device were not entirely clear to the audience, he then spent three lustful nights with Gunnlod. For each sexual encounter he was rewarded with a draught of the mead, and the conjugal consumption of mead would go on to have sexual connotations for many centuries. Each draught he took emptied one of the containers. He somehow managed to hold the mead in his mouth through each subsequent romp, and then maintain his hold on it despite transforming himself into an eagle to make his escape. (The bills of eagles are notoriously poor at holding stolen blood-mead, but Odin, as a god, was up to the challenge.) He transported the mead back to Asgard, where forever after he distributed it to men worthy of the divine gift of poetry.

The Earthly Results

Mead spread like wildfire through the Scando-Germanic world. Alcohol is of course addictive, and as we now know, sugar has similar addictive properties. The combination of high amounts of honeyed sugar and alcohol was a recipe almost guaranteed to take hold of cultures which prized drinking as highly as those of northwest Europe did. Mead swiftly became ubiquitous and even semi-worshipped. Its association with Odin led to it being regarded much as absinthe was in fin-de-siècle France – it was thought to provoke both divine artistic inspiration and divine madness. Madness was a complex issue in the Viking world. Odin was the god of madness (among other things), so in many ways certain sorts of madness were prized as signs of divine favor. Berserkers, for example, would indulge heavily in mead before battle in an attempt to provoke the kind of madness which lends itself to mass, indiscriminate slaughter. At the other end of the scale, mead was drunk by lovers wishing to woo the objects of their desire with “honeyed words.”

Honeymoon

This association with lovers is perhaps mead’s most lasting legacy. Among its mythical properties were the abilities (as mentioned above) to get one drunk without causing a hangover, and to get a man drunk without causing impotence. It was also believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac for both men and women. As such, a month’s supply of mead would be given to married couples in order to “sweeten the deal” and provoke marital bliss. The word “honeymoon” comes from this tradition. Next time a friend invites you to their wedding, therefore, consider a month’s supply of mead as a present. They’ll probably appreciate it a lot more than yet another set of silverware.

–By Susie Meadows

An Unexpectedly Centered Tasting

5 April 2014

Tasting with Rebecca DelottOver the years, I’ve tasted wine in a lot of different places, including obvious places such as tasting rooms, restaurants and cellars, as well as more unusual places such as ghost townsnational landmarks and buses. But I had a completely new and unusual wine tasting experience a few days ago, thanks to my favorite yoga teacher.

Rebecca Delott organizes periodic yoga and wine tasting events. That might strike you as gimmicky, and perhaps in less expert hands it would be. Rebecca, however, leads yoga classes as well as wine tastings professionally. The wine tasting isn’t just a way to get people to come to yoga. It’s an integral part of the class.

About 16 or 18 of us gathered at Namaskar Yoga Studio on Chicago’s north side, and participants ranged in age from late 20s to mid 50s or so. We did some vinyasa flow yoga for 75 minutes, with several opportunities to do relatively advanced poses. After the class, the couple across from me remarked, “We usually do the beginners class here, but we’re in the big leagues now!” Like any good yoga teacher, Rebecca frequently illustrates several ways to do a pose, ranging from the gentle to the truly challenging, which makes the class suitable for yoga neophytes and experts alike.

Side Angle pose with Cabernet

Side Angle pose with 2012 Apaltagua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon

I must admit I just expected to get a workout and a wine tasting, which wouldn’t have been at all a bad thing. But the yoga class left me feeling centered, grounded and relaxed — not necessarily my usual state of mind. It actually changed the wine-tasting experience. My nose and palate felt more open and receptive. Just as drinking from the right glass can enhance a wine, it seems doing some sun salutations in advance of a tasting can as well!

The four Chilean wines we sampled weren’t especially unusual — a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon — but each was well-balanced and quite tasty. Rebecca gracefully fielded an array of questions about the wines, ranging from “What does ‘unoaked’ mean?” to more technical questions about vinification. She managed to hold her audience’s attention even as she discussed carbonic maceration, an achievement I wouldn’t have thought possible.

If you have a chance to attend one of Rebecca’s classes ($40), it’s well worth it to experience how yoga affects the wine tasting experience (check the “Workshops” page of the Namaskar Yoga website for upcoming dates). Some exercise and meditation turns out to be an excellent warm-up for the palate.

Cheers and Namaste!

Unfashionable Sparkling Shiraz

29 March 2014

Paringa Sparkling ShirazLately the trend has shifted to wines with a sense of terroir, a sense of the specific site where the grapes were grown. This encompasses not just the soil but all factors affecting the particular vineyard, yet the soil tends to be the most tangible influence. A fashion for earthy-flavored wines has gone hand in hand with the increasing interest in terroir-focused wines, with more and more wineries seeking to emulate the Burgundian style: earthy reds specifically reflective of their vineyards.

Overtly fruity Australian Sparkling Shiraz is nothing like that. In fact, it’s so unfashionable (except perhaps in Australia itself) that I could barely find a passing mention of it in The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The most I found was in Sotheby’s, which described Seppelt’s Show Sparkling Shiraz as “the biggest, brashest and most brilliant” of Sparkling Shirazes, “even though its massive, concentrated black-currant-syrup fruit is too much for many to swallow more than half a glass.” Burgundian style that is not. You won’t find any sommeliers in Brooklyn clamoring to pour you a flute, not even ironically.

But just because a wine is deeply unfashionable doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of consideration. I may have my wine blogger license revoked for what I’m about to write, but I quite like a glass of Sparkling Shiraz from time to time. In fact, I was feeling particularly unstylish just yesterday evening, and I opened up a bottle to serve as an apéritif before a dinner party. I love how incongruous the purplish wine looks in a champagne flute.

The 2012 Paringa Sparkling Shiraz I served is much lighter than the Seppelt described above, which is aged for 10 years before it’s released. With 36 grams of residual (unfermented) sugar per liter, the Paringa tastes sweet but not syrupy. I quite liked its aroma of dark grape jelly and its ripe, openly grapey fruit. Some lemony acids kept things in balance, aided in that effort by tight, frothy bubbles and some light tannins on the finish. It’s fun and surprising, both in terms of color and flavor, which makes it an ideal party wine.

I could find nothing about Paringa’s South Australian Sparkling Shiraz on its website other than an image of the bottle. Fortunately the importer, Quintessential Wines, is a bit more forthcoming: “The grapes come from 14 year-old vines grown in a sub-surface limestone layer beneath a sandy loam topsoil. The 2012 vintage was an outstanding year… The wine is matured in French oak for a short period of time prior to bottling.” The tannins on the end were at least partially the result of this brief stint in oak.

Neither the bottle nor the website mention whether the wine is bottle fermented in the manner of Champagne, which leads me to believe it’s tank fermented instead. Certainly the reasonable price of $14 or $15 a bottle points to tank fermentation. Nevertheless, the bubbles aren’t too large or aggressive, as is sometimes the case with tank-fermented sparklers.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend serving Sparkling Shiraz to any wine snob friends — they might raise an eyebrow, or worse, surreptitiously research the wine on their smart phone and discover that Paringa is “Great with your favorite chocolate dessert or with bacon and eggs in the morning,” according to Quintessential Wines. Those pairings don’t exactly inspire confidence. An austere Crémant d’Alsace might be a better choice, assuming you don’t want to splash out on a Grower Champagne, currently the most fashionable of bubblies.

If, on the other hand, your friends don’t give a brix about wine fashion and just like to have a good time, a Sparkling Shiraz would be a fun and memorable way to kick off your next party.

A Red For “Spring”

22 March 2014

Agiorgitiko & Shepherd's PieNow that spring has arrived, or so I’ve heard, I would ordinarily start turning my eye to the section of my wine rack containing richer whites, like Chardonnay or Riesling. But the ceaseless whirling of polar vortices continues to mar this so-called spring, and I’m not ready to turn away from hearty reds just yet. Facing yet another day of temperatures measuring 20 degrees below normal, I fixed up a comforting beef-and-bison shepherd’s pie and opened some Agiorgitiko to go with it.

Greek Agiorgitiko is not a classic pairing for shepherd’s pie, but it should be. This hard-to-pronounce variety (ah-your-YEE-tee-koh is my best approximation) produces ever-more delicious red wines in Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula. According to The World Atlas of Wine, the northern half of the peninsula “has seen even more energy and activity than any other part of Greece in recent years,” and Agiorgitiko is one of the region’s signature grapes.

The Oxford Companion to Wine gives mixed reviews of wines made from Agiorgitiko, a name it manages to make even more incomprehensible by using the ghastly spelling of “Aghiorghitiko.” The Companion grumbles that these wines are “fruity but can lack acidity,” although “grapes grown on the higher vineyards of Neméa can yield long-lived reds.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also has reservations about the variety, but for almost opposite reasons. “The Agiorgitiko grape provides a deep-colored, full, and spicy red wine,” it argues, “that can be spoiled by dried-out fruit, or by a lack of fruit.”

Fortunately, the 2012 Tselepos Agiorgitiko lacked neither acid nor fruit, despite its rather general “Arcadia” appellation (Arcadian grapes can be grown anywhere in the central Peloponnese, in either choice high-altitude vineyards or less-desirable plains). It smelled of raspberry jam and vanilla, and it had plenty of red fruit flavor, matched by prominent, rustic acids. But it’s a dry wine, with some tannins on the finish along with a note of earth.

Casual and fun, the Tselepos Agiorgitiko would make a fine party wine, surely pairing well with a range of foods. It certainly matched the rich shepherd’s pie well; the acids smoothed out and the tannins were just stout enough to clear my palate for the next bite. And at $11.50, the price I paid for the bottle at In Fine Spirits, it won’t break the bank to serve a few bottles to your guests. Though this isn’t a wine to serve for a special occasion, at that price, it doesn’t have to be.

It looks like we’ve got more frigid “spring” evenings yet to come, and goodness knows we’ll need help getting through them. The flavorful Tselepos Agiorgitiko provides a lot of comfort for the money.

More Reasons To Drink In Colombia

1 March 2014

In case you weren’t convinced by my Colombian postcards #1, #2 or #3, here are a few more memorable drinks I had during my two-week journey. Especially after waking up to yet more snow in Chicago today, it didn’t take looking at many of these to make me want to hop on a plane and head right back.

Tcherassi Martini

The Tcherassi hotel’s Aquabar made this deliciously balanced martini from gin, aguardiente (a local anise-flavored spirit) and “lemon foam.”

Macul Gris

This refreshingly dry Cabernet Sauvignon rosé with creamy strawberry fruit and a chalky finish comes from Chilean winery Cousiño Macul, owned by the same family since its founding in 1856. It was heaven with lunch on the breezy patio of Cuzco restaurant in Cartagena.

Mojito

Aside from its unforgettable Islas de Rosarios setting, this mojito may not look especially unusual. But it tasted lusciously balanced and just a little naughty, since it was made with Havana Club rum from Cuba.

Chakana Malbec Rose

Rosé is just irresistable in Cartagena’s courtyard restaurants, like Bohemia pictured above. This ripely fruit rosé of Malbec was made by Chakana, a 12-year-old winery in Mendoza, Argentina. It had a bracingly chalky quality and sharp, orangey acids. Delicious.

Mojito on Providencia

There are two unusual things about this mojito, sipped at Deep Blue on the gloriously unspoiled Caribbean island of Providencia. First, what appears to be an orange wheel garnishing the glass is actually a lime, and second, no lime juice actually made it into the cocktail. Whoops!

Sauvignon Blanc in Cartagena

There was nothing unusual about this well-crafted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, enjoyed on the rooftop of the Movich Hotel in Cartagena. But with that view, it was hard to care.

Postcard From Colombia #3

21 February 2014

Lulo MartiniColombia is not best known for its corozo-based cocktails, but its aguardiente. This clear spirit distilled from sugarcane has a delightful anise flavor, and it resembles a less cloying and less alcoholic ouzo, with a smooth spiciness. I quite like it neat. Look for aguardiente without added sugar.

Aguardiente makes a fine cocktail base, especially in the sure hands of the bartenders at El Coro in the Sofitel Santa Clara. Although the cocktail menu there is extensive, I wanted to try something specifically Colombian. The energetic bartender Jhon had just the thing: a Lulo Martini.

He mixed fresh lulo juice, which tastes rather like lemon and orange juice mixed together, with aguardiente and a touch of simple syrup. He shook up the concoction, used a straw to taste for balance (the bartenders checked just about every cocktail for balance), and presented the cocktail to me in a chilled martini glass.

It did indeed exhibit excellent balance, with a smooth, juicy texture. The anise overtones from the aguardiente were kept well in check by the creamy citrus of the lulo and sugar.

Hmm… I wonder how much trouble I would get in if I tried to smuggle a suitcase full of fresh lulos home with me?

Postcard From Colombia #2

18 February 2014

Corozo 75 at Carmen in CartagenaAh ha! I knew it could be done — a truly delectable drink made from the Colombian corozo fruit. As I described in this post, corozo has a tart flavor somewhere in between a blackberry and a cranberry, which would seem to make it ideal for cocktails.

I tried a Corozo 75 in Cartagena at the estimable Carmen Restaurant in the Hotel Anandá, and what a revelation. This cocktail, composed of corozo-infused gin, corozo syrup and Chandon Rosé sparkling wine, tasted remarkably round and rich, in marked contrast to my previous experience with a corozo-based cocktail. The berry fruit felt deep, and yet the cocktail maintained an excellent balance, with lightness of texture from the Chandon and a floral note on top.

If you can get your hands on some corozo, this is the cocktail to make.

Or better yet (and perhaps easier), come to Cartagena’s Carmen Restaurant. The cocktail and the meal alone are almost worth the trip.

Postcard From Colombia #1

15 February 2014

Corozo cocktail at Leo Cocina y CavaSo far I have yet to encounter any Colombian wine, but I haven’t felt especially deprived. The Colombian cocktail scene, at least in Bogotá and Cartagena, turns out to be quite sophisticated. Mixologists have a bit of an advantage here, with an array of delicious Colombian fruits at their disposal that we in the U.S. can only dream about.

One of my favorites so far is corozo, a red berry which on its own tastes somewhere between a blackberry and a cranberry. It’s delicious, and I was excited to see it appear in a drink on the cocktail menu of Leo Cocina y Cava, a world-class Bogotá restaurant. Its Corozo cocktail contains Absolut Kurant, Cointreau, lemon juice and corozo juice, making it akin to a Cosmopolitan (also on Leo Cocina y Cava’s menu, made with Absolut Citron).

I felt a little skeptical about the Kurant, which I suspected would either overpower or be overpowered by the corozo, since both have pronounced berry flavors. My concerns weren’t assuaged when the drink arrived with the consistency of a loose slushie. The texture of the drink felt unbalanced, with not enough citrus to round out the vodka. The Kurant really did take over, it seemed. But once the ice melted, the sharp edges of the cocktail wore away and it became something I actually enjoyed consuming. The tart corozo came more to the fore, and the Absolut Kurant lost some of its punch.

Although this cocktail proved to be something of a mixed bag, I felt sure corozo could make a drink sing. Now, off to find a bartender who can perform a better balancing act.

In Search Of Equatorial Wine

6 February 2014

In preparation for my upcoming trip south, I consulted my trusty World Atlas of Wine, which contains precisely zero information about Colombia. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was scarcely better, mentioning the country just once, in a table, noting that it has approximately 1,500 hectares (about 3,700 acres) dedicated to vineyards, in contrast to Argentina’s vast 207,985 hectares.

None of this was a great shock — Colombia, after all, won’t win a Ms. Fancy Wine South America pageant. Of my research tomes, only the ever-comprehensive Oxford Companion to Wine offered any prose about the country. Only in the 1990s, it says, did Colombia start producing wine from vinifera grapes in any measurable amounts. Production, such as it is, centers in the country’s southeast, away from the tourist centers of Cartagena and Bogotá.

I was most interested to read that vines must be annually de-leafed by hand, a project which temperate-climate winemakers would doubtless find baffling. Why strip the leaves of perfectly healthy grape vines? Defoliating the plants forces them into a state of dormancy normally induced by winter a season which seldom comes to these equatorial vineyards. No dormancy, no fruit.

I hope to find one or two examples of Colombian wines to try out, otherwise I suppose I’ll be relegated to the local aguardiente. But I hear of a restaurant on the island of Providencia that makes its own tamarind wine, and after being beaten down by this relentless cold and snow, the idea of sipping some tamarind wine by the sea is all that’s keeping me from huddling under my down comforter until spring.

Bordeaux’s Most Underpriced Wine

1 February 2014
Michel with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Michel with Château Bastor-Lamontagne

When wine drinkers see the word “Bordeaux,” most think of great reds, and very expensive ones at that. Especially in the wake of the widely heralded 2009 and 2010 vintages, demand for top red Bordeaux has never been higher. But sweet white wines are hardly as fashionable, especially in the United States, where we like our steaks beefy and our wines even beefier.

The softer demand for sweet white wines results in softer prices, which means that some of the greatest wines of Bordeaux are affordable for you and me. Instead of St-Estèphe and Paulliac, we need to look for Sauternes and Barsac. These wines need not be relegated to foie gras and dessert pairings — many have the acids and freshness to pair well with Thai and Indian dishes, which can be difficult to match with something drier.

But really, you may wonder, are the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac actually all that special? At the recent Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I tried several remarkable Sauternes, including one with a laser-like beam of acids and minerals shooting through a gloriously rich nectar of honeyed fruit. That’s the 2011 Château Bastor-Lamontagne. It startled me, this wine, with its sumptuous flavor and pristine clarity, and I became even more startled when I learned the price: $30-$40 a bottle. Quite a difference from the stratospheric sums red Bordeaux wines fetch nowadays.

The price seems even more shocking when one takes into consideration the incredible amount of work and luck that goes into a Sauternes or a Barsac (or a Preignac or a Fargues, all of which can be classified as Sauternes, the term I will henceforth use to refer to the entire area).

The vineyards of Sauternes grow near the junction of two rivers, the key to their success. The Oxford Companion to Wine explains:

When, in autumn, the cool spring-fed Ciron waters flow into the warmer tidal Garonne, evening mists envelop the vineyards until late morning the following day, when the sun, if it shines, burns the mist away. This moist atmosphere encourages Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that attacks the grapes and causes them to shrivel and rot.

Shriveled, rotted grapes sound pretty terrible, but this “Noble Rot” reduces the water content of the grapes, concentrating the sugars. The fungus also chemically alters the grapes in many favorable ways, increasing aromas and complexity in a manner impossible to replicate by simply letting water evaporate from the grapes or pressed juice.

Chateau Lafaurie-PeyragueyNoble Rot does not usually affect a vineyard evenly, however, which means the châteaux most dedicated to quality must pick grapes by hand, picking only the bunches — or indeed only the individual grapes — that have rotted enough. In some unfortunate years, there can be so little Noble Rot that some châteaux simply skip the vintage altogether and hope for better conditions next time. As you might imagine, yields even in the best years tend to be quite low.

Fortunately, 2011 happened to be a particularly good year for Sauternes, as well as dry white Bordeaux wines (it was uneven for reds). This assertion was strongly supported by the tasting I attended, where the Sauternes ranged from memorable to absolutely astounding. There wasn’t a single dud, and believe me, I tried them all.

Even so, it pays to not go for the least-expensive Sauternes you can find. Some châteaux are more painstaking in their harvesting and winemaking than others. Ask your wine shop for a recommendation, or consider one of the Sauternes below:

2011 Château Suduiraut: This Preignac-based château ranks as a Premier Cru Classé, and no wonder — its vineyard adjoins that of the legendary Château d’Yquem. According to Directeur Technique Pierre Montégut, Suduiraut’s blend of 92% Sémillon and 8% Sauvignon Blanc has more freshness than Yquem, because whereas Yquem has some clay in its soil, Suduiraut has only gravel. And indeed, underneath the classic honeyed aroma, I detected a shaft of stone. The wine tasted very rich at first, but tightly focused gingery spice and broad orangey acids gave it admirable balance.

2011 Château La Tour Blanche: State-owned La Tour Blanche is one of Sauternes’ most important château, not only because it produces excellent wines but because it serves as a school for the next generation of Sauternes’ vintners. But Sales Manager Didier Fréchinet assured me that the wine was crafted by experts, not students, and I have no reason to doubt his claim. La Tour Blanche’s honeyed white-fruit aroma had an appealingly intriguing undertone of something burnt. There was that wonderfully lush richness, but this lithe wine moved across the palate with impressive lightness, finishing fresh and focused with white-pepper spice. La Tour Blanche exemplified what I love about Sauternes — it manages the seemingly impossible feat of tasting deeply rich and fresh and lively all at once.

2011 Château Coutet: Aline Baly, who manages this Premier Cru Classé estate in Barsac with her uncle, related that Coutet’s first recorded vintage dates back to 1643, and that until the 1920′s, M. Lur-Saluces had his horse barn on the property (a connection with Yquem’s Lur-Saluces family is gold in Sauternes). The classic honeyed fruit Sauternes aroma had enticing orange notes and a pleasing waft of salinity. The wine tasted wonderfully lush, its richness leavened with some herbaceousness, notes of bitter orange and eye-poppingly zesty acids. Delicious. The charming Baly remarked, “As Anthony Giglio says, acids are the Zamboni of the palate,” and indeed they are!

Didier Frechinet of La Tour Blanche

Didier Fréchinet of La Tour Blanche

2011 Château de Rayne-Vigneau: Situated between La Tour Blanche and Lafaurie-Peyraguey (see below), this Sauternes tasted as fresh as a dewy spring morning. It had a surprisingly green aroma, and hovering over the rich, spicy flavors was something aromatic and exotic, a whisper of something like frankincense. 

2011 Château de Fargues: The ancestral home of the Lur-Saluces family, Château de Fargues uses “essentially the same fastidious methods as Yquem,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, an assertion confirmed by Directeur Général Eudes d’Orleans. This barrel sample (it won’t be bottled until June) felt incredibly plump, with notes of roasted peaches and minerals. It developed very slowly and deliberately on the palate, the sumptuous texture balanced by big, orangey acids.

2011 Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey: This château mixes in 1% of Muscadet in with the traditional Sauternes blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It must make a difference; a delightful freshness was overlayed on top of the dark honey aroma, and the wine positively sparkled on the tongue. The zestiest acids I’d experienced so far made this wine feel incredibly lively and bright, in spite of its deep, deep richness.

2011 Château Bastor-Lamontagne: As I described above, this Sauternes was dazzling. It had a fresh and fruity honeysuckle aroma with nothing heavy about it. There was the rich and opulent character one expects from a fine Sauternes, but here, a rocket of minerality and acids shot right through the middle with electrifying focus. It rang like a bell, like a taut violin string plucked in a clear pool of nectar. I took notes on this exquisite wine, but it was unnecessary — there is no chance I’ll ever forget the 2011 Bastor-Lamontagne. This château may not be Sauternes’ most famous or highly classed, but in 2011 at least, Bastor-Lamontagne crafted a thing of invigorating beauty.

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