A Revolution In Israel: Fine Wine In The Holy Land

23 June 2017

Photo copyright Galil Mountain Winery

At present, Israel may well be the most misunderstood country in the wine world. What comes to mind when you hear the words “Israeli wine”? All too many of us still think of syrupy-sweet Ruby Port-like bottlings that people sip at Passover, and studiously ignore for the rest of the year.

And yet, Israel “lays claim to being the cradle of the world’s wine industry,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. “The southern Levantine wine industry, beginning c.4000 BC, had matured to such a degree,” the Companion explains, “that by the time of Scorpion I (c.3150 BC), one of the first rulers of a united Egypt, his tomb at Abydos was stocked with some 4,500 liters of wine imported from southern Canaan.”

Wine production in Israel continued for approximately 5,000 years, until AD 636, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards,” according to the Oxford Companion. “…[W]ith the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.” It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Israel started to rediscover its wine heritage.

Micha Vaadia

“Israel is an ancient wine region, but we lost all the knowledge because of religious reasons,” winemaker Micha Vaadia of Galil Mountain Winery explained to me at a recent tasting. “But in the last 30 years, we’re reclaiming it.” In recent decades, wineries have reduced production and sought out better vineyard locations, leading them to the higher, cooler elevations of the Golan Heights. Vaadia showed me some photos of his vineyards, lush and green in summer (above) and sometimes blanketed with snow in winter (below).

“In the last 30 years, we learned to make good wine,” Vaadia told me, “and now we’re finding our personality.” Unlike in, say, Greece or Portugal, that personality will be expressed with international grapes. Israel’s indigenous varieties were destroyed about 1,400 years ago. I expressed dismay when Vaadia reminded me of this fact, but he shrugged. “People like to look at the world with international boundaries,” he said, “but biology doesn’t work like that.”

It’s become a defense mechanism, I suspect, for Vaadia to ignore international boundaries. His vineyards stand in the far north of Israel, a tough neighborhood a few miles from both the Syrian and Lebanese borders. I overheard another taster ask him if he’s encountered any problems because of that location. “I live in denial,” he replied.

Vaadia has worked in highly regarded wineries all over the world, including at Jordan in Sonoma, Cloudy Bay in New Zealand and Catena Zapata in Argentina. He returned to Israel and helped Galil Mountain branch off from Golan Heights Winery, one of the first wineries in Israel to win international acclaim, according to the Oxford Companion. Galil Mountain separated in order to better focus on different terroirs, and Vaadia has helped make the winery truly world-class.

I tried nine of his wines, and there wasn’t a single one I didn’t enjoy. A far cry from cloying Manischewitz, these wines all had ripe fruit balanced with freshness and liveliness. They were never ponderous or heavy. I would buy any of the following with my own money:

2016 Galil Sauvignon Blanc: The aroma was big and citrusy, and the wine was no grass bomb. It had taut fruit, pointy limey citrus and a finish which moved from juicy to slightly chalky. Notably sharp focus. I found this wine on sale for $13, which is a downright steal.

2016 Galil Mountain Rosé: Vaadia poured a taste for me and said, “Lately a lot of rosés are like white wines; this rosé keeps the memory of it being red.” An unusual blend of Sangiovese, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Barbera, the wine had a beautifully shiny, deep pink color. It smelled of fresh strawberry, chalk and orange, and it tasted of watermelon candy. Slow-moving tart citrus kept things balanced, and the wine sharpened up into a dry and surprisingly long-lasting finish. This is a rosé that’s serious at heart but knows how to have fun. For $14 a bottle, it’s another excellent value.

2016 Galil Mountain Merlot: The wine smelled of dark plummy fruit and a little vanilla, but it felt incredibly zesty on the tongue. Fresh and ripe dark fruit gave way to bright acids, black pepper spice and very soft tannins. I found it for $11 a bottle, marked down from $14. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Merlot of similar quality for that price.

Appetizers at Ema in Chicago

2015 Galil Pinot Noir: When I heard a rumor that Vaadia is seriously considering discontinuing the Pinot Noir, I nearly choked on my hummus. His Pinot has a big, lovely aroma of cherries leavened with a bit of earth, and it had a wonderful zing on the tongue, with big and taut cherry fruit, broad and juicy acids and refined black pepper spice. “Compulsively drinkable” is a wine-writing cliché, and I don’t like to use it except when I really mean it. I really mean it. And it’s a real value for $19 a bottle. Oregon and Burgundy sell Pinots of similar quality for twice the price.

2015 Galil Mountain Syrah: This wine had an enticingly rich, dark aroma with some raspberry and blackberry jam, as well as a touch of vanilla and something savory underneath. It tasted rich and ripe, but again, the wine was strikingly light on its feet. Lively and focused acids balanced the cool and clear dark fruit. The spice slowly expanded in power before evaporating, leaving a crisp finish. What a pairing this would be with some kofta or falafel! The 2014 Syrah can be had for $11, marked down from $15. That. Price. Is. Insane.

2016 Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: No monster Napa Cab, this. It smelled of dark fruit, mint and vanilla, and through there was plenty of big fruit on the palate, sharp acids and white pepper spice made the wine feel quite bright and fresh. Nor was it tannic; the finish felt surprisingly soft. Very approachable, and a very fine value for $16 a bottle.

2014 Galil “Ela”: I can’t recall ever tasting a blend of Barbera, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, a mix of Italian, Rhône and Bordeaux grapes, respectively. But it certainly works in this case. The blackberry jam aroma had a note of oak in it, the first time I’d detected any woodsiness in Galil’s wines. It tasted gorgeously ripe, almost jammy, but focused acids and spice more than balanced out the fruit, as did a lift of eucalyptus-like freshness. Some wood on the end felt rather luxurious. The price is higher at $22 a bottle, but even so, it’s worth every penny and then some.

2013 Galil “Alon”: My favorite wine of the tasting, the “Alon” blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It smelled of dark fruit with a savory undertone, as well as something fresh. There was that wonderful combination of ripe dark fruit and bright acids again, and in this case, the acids and refined spice developed with slow, even confidence. The tannins on the finish, too, felt supple and elegant. This wine is one classy customer, and it’s an astonishing value at $20 a bottle.

2013 Galil “Yiron”: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the “Yiron” is one of Galil’s flagship wines. It had a rich aroma of dark chocolate-covered cherries and vanilla, and it felt lush and forceful on the tongue, with ripe, jammy fruit, ample acids and a rather sudden pow of tannins. All the parts are there, but the wine still feels young. In a couple of years it will surely taste more integrated, and I’ll be very curious to try it then. It’s not inexpensive at $32 a bottle, but even so, the wine seems underpriced.

Photo copyright Galil Mountain Winery

When I mentioned the elegance of the “Alon” to Vaadia, he smiled and said, “Our seasons are so intense. The name of the game is taming the beast. It’s a lot of work introducing finesse.”

These wines hearken back to a winemaking tradition some 5,000 years old, a tradition that was obliterated thanks to a misguided religious edict. Now, Israeli winemakers like Vaadia have rebuilt that tradition from next to nothing, crafting wines of real interest and character. Israel is experiencing nothing short of a wine revolution, and it’s a great story.

But more important for the wine consumer is the excellent quality-to-price ratio. Because Israel’s reputation hasn’t caught up with the quality of its wines, bottlings like the ones above sell for far less than comparable examples from more famous wine regions. My wine rack can expect to see a regular rotation of Galil from now on.

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!

Beyond The Basic Margarita: Craft Cocktails In Mexico

26 May 2017

Chilenito cocktails at Auberge Chileno Bay

Mexico has many problems, but the lack of a national cocktail is not one of them. Everyone, in the U.S., at least, associates one cocktail, and one cocktail alone, with Mexico: the Margarita. (Only a pedant would argue for the Paloma.)

I imagined that I would be offered a non-stop parade of Margaritas in Mexico. Some might be made with mezcal, tequila’s smoky/spicy sibling, and some might incorporate mango juice or some such. But I expected that basically the cocktail lists at most restaurants and hotels wouldn’t differ much from that at the average Cesar’s.

To be honest, this prospect did not inspire within me feelings of unmixed disappointment. I love a good Margarita. I make them myself with some regularity. A good Margarita, to be clear, uses fresh lime juice (not chemical-green sour mix), silver tequila (or reposado, if you prefer a mellower flavor), orange liqueur like Cointreau or Triple Sec, and a dash of simple syrup or agave nectar. I serve it up, in a martini glass or coupe, and garnish it with nothing, not even salt. I’m a simple kind of guy, and simply kind of lazy.

It was quite a surprise, then, when my welcome cocktail at my first resort in Los Cabos incorporated mezcal, poblano pepper liqueur, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger and B&B bitters. It was called a Chilenito, and it was a delight: sweet, smokey, a little vegetal and a little spicy.

Cocktails with sophistication and complexity, I was soon to discover, are more the rule than the exception in Cabo’s finer bars and dining establishments. Baja has as much craft cocktail cred as Brooklyn these days. Consider the evidence, in both Margarita and non-Margarita form:

A Spritz Bay by the pool at Auberge Chileno Bay, a mix of Prosecco with strawberry, lime and ginger. A very refreshing sort of Mexican/Italian sangria, if you will. I certainly did!

*****

A Humo de Comal, at Comal, the main restaurant of Auberge Chileno Bay. It combines mezcal, purple chicha (fermented corn) and lime to great effect. The rim of tortilla ash is something you smell more than taste, its smoky note heralding the smokiness of the mezcal, which mixed beautifully with the hibiscus-like sweetness of the chicha.

*****

Flora Farm may call this a Margarita, but it’s unlike any I’ve ever had. This Ginger & Beet Margarita, as you might guess, mixed tequila, fresh beet juice and fresh ginger. It had excellent balance and an invigorating freshness. Beet and ginger, it seems, add quite the frisson of health to two ounces of tequila!

*****

Tamarind strikes me as a grossly underutilized cocktail ingredient. This Mezcalita at Esperanza‘s La Palapa restaurant mixed it with mezcal and lime, and wow. It moved from sweet to smoky to sour to paprika spice, in that order. Complex and delicious.

*****

Speaking of tamarind, this Tamarind Margarita at Los Tres Gallos in Cabo San Lucas ranks among the greatest Margaritas I’ve ever tasted. The sour notes positively popped in the mouth, tempered with precision by the sweetness of the tequila, orange liqueur and agave syrup. Magnificent.

*****

A Prickly Pear Margarita by the pool at Esperanza, with silver tequila, mango, grilled prickly pear (nopal) and lime. It might have been perfectly fine, this cocktail, with just the sweetness from the fresh mango and tartness from the fresh lime. But the grilled prickly pear gave the drink subtle earthy and vegetal notes, taking it to another level entirely.

*****

Rancho Pescadero on the coast just south of Todos Santos has an immense garden, and the bartender took full advantage of its bounty in this cocktail. I watched, amazed, as he grabbed great handfuls of mint, fennel fronds, basil, chervil and cilantro and muddled them together, mixing the resulting juice with lime, simple syrup and Hendrick’s Gin, topping it all off with tonic. This Herb Tonic cocktail tasted quite refreshing, of course, with bright herbaceous and citrus notes leavening the booziness (it looks like healthy green juice, but this was a seriously strong cocktail).

As wonderful as it was to consume these drinks in beautiful Mexico, you don’t have to brave the incipient border wall to enjoy creative cocktails made with tequila and mezcal. There’s no reason you can make a delicious drink yourself at home.

A formula with which to experiment: 2 parts tequila or mezcal, 1 part liqueur, 1-2 parts fresh juice (sugar syrup and/or fresh herbs optional). For example, right now, I’m loving a concoction of mezcal, fresh lemon juice and Stirrings Ginger liqueur. Sweet, citrusy, a little smoky, and a little spicy from the ginger.

I would love to hear what you come up with — if you discover a delicious and unusual tequila- or mezcal-based cocktail, please don’t hesitate to share the recipe!

The Wonderful Whites Of Cahors

14 May 2017

If you think of Cahors at all, you likely think of big, tannic reds. Stretched along the Lot River in southwestern France, this region is the original Malbec country. Argentina can claim responsibility for Malbec’s renaissance — even Cahors winemakers admit this fact — but the grape variety was born in France. All AOC Cahors wines must be at least 70% Malbec, with the remainder a blend of Merlot and/or Tannat. Cahors white wines do not exist.

Which is not to say that white wine is not made in Cahors. Indeed, Cahors winemakers produce gorgeous white wines, made mostly from Chardonnay, Viognier and/or Chenin Blanc. But they are not Cahors. After tasting delicious white after delicious white, it struck me that the powers that be in the Cahors AOC have made quite the oversight.

And they’re not the only ones. I can find no reference to the white wines of the region in any of my usual resources, The Oxford Companion to WineThe World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. My pre-trip research gave me no reason to expect that I would encounter a single white in Cahors during my stay.

So you will, I trust, forgive my surprise when the sommelier in the restaurant of the Château de la Treyne hotel first confronted me with a Viognier/Chardonnay blend by Clos Triguedina, one of the most important wineries in Cahors. When I tasted it, I was positively shocked: ripe and rich, with stone fruit and pineapple notes, sharpening into orangey, gingery spice and a dry finish. Well balanced and classy.

Countryside south of the Lot River

I tasted this wine again at Clos Triguedina itself, hidden in the countryside just south of Puy L’Évêque, a medieval town rising steeply from the Lot. Olga and I had a tasting in the cozy old tasting room, lit by stained-glass windows (a new minimalist tasting room is under construction). We tasted the soon-to-be-bottled 2016 rosé of Malbec together. “This is like a bon-bon,” she exclaimed. And indeed, it had plenty of watermelon and strawberry fruit, but it tasted dry and spicy nevertheless. As with the Chardonnay/Vioginier blend, this rosé cannot be labeled as Cahors.

Owner and winemaker Jean-Luc Baldès worked for a time in Barsac, which, like neighboring Sauternes, produces sweet botryrized white wines. And, somehow, he has found a way to produce a botrytized wine in Cahors as well: a Chenin Blanc. The 2014 tasted lush and sweet, with ample dark honey, stone-fruit flavors like apricot, and orangey acids that slowly grow, ensuring that the wine remains balanced.

Sabine Baldès

His wife, Sabine, led me to the vineyards behind the tasting room and estate house, where her mother-in-law lives. The vines occupy a gentle but distinct rise in the land, affording panoramic views in almost every direction. This pebbly hump counts among Cahors’ finest vineyard locations, and in the coming classification, I would be surprised if it weren’t awarded Grand Cru status.

But the slope of the Pigeonnier vineyard spilling down from the 15th-century Château Lagrézette gives Clos Triguedina some serious competition. Led by Sales Administrator Yannick Druon, I toured the winery, built right into the hillside. He explained that when workers dug out the space for the winery in 1992, they preserved each layer of soil individually, so that the terroir might be restored to its former condition once construction was complete.

I won’t soon forget the 2015 “White Vision” Le Pigeonnier Viognier. It was wonderfully fragrant, with aromas of jasmine and white peach. It tasted full and fat, but not blowsy — oodles of focused spice and orangey acids gave the big, bold wine some firm boundaries. Nor was the less-expensive 2010 “Dame de Grézette” Chardonnay any slouch. It smelled fresh and fruity, not oaky, and though its fruit was deliciously creamy, this wine had no buttery or woodsy notes. Zesty spice built and built, and the wine ended dry. Very refined.

In fact, I didn’t have to travel any farther than my hotel to find a winery producing a notable Cahors white. Under the front garden of the Château de Mercuès is a well-designed contemporary winery which seems to play second fiddle to the owner’s more famous winery, Château de Haute-Serre. Nevertheless, the 2014 Château de Mercuès Chenin Blanc was a delight. It had a clear, pure, fruity aroma, and it tasted of ripe pear and lemon peel. Refined spice tightened into quite a long finish. I also had the chance to try the 2014 Château de Haute-Serre “Albesco” Chardonnay, which blew me away.  I loved its dewy aroma with notes of buttered popcorn, and its rich, buttery flavor that maintained balance with focused orangey acids and gentle spice. It might have been Burgundian.

Château Lagrézette

So far, I have found just one book that talks about the whites of Cahors more than in passing. But even in Michael S. Sanders’ Families of the Vine: Seasons Among the Winemakers of Southwest France, the whites aren’t taken very seriously:

“…Many winemakers then complete their lines with the fruit of their playtime — rosés and whites made in small quantities because, quite simply, it amuses them to turn their hand to something different.”

The whites I tasted were more than playtime. They were often quite refined and elegant, and they were always delicious. Perhaps its time for Cahors wine laws to recognize what is already happening in the AOC. It’s silly that such well-crafted wines must be labeled as Vin de Pays.

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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