An Interview With A Champagne Specialist

29 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: How did you end up focusing on Champagne?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany? Ja! Riesling? Nein!

16 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

WEISSBURGUNDER (Pinot Blanc)

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

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

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

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

2015 Weingut Franz Keller “Oberbergener Pulverbuck” Weissburgunder, Baden

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

*****

GRAUBURGUNDER (Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio)

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

2016 Weingut Klumpp Grauburgunder, Baden

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

2016 Weingut Bercher Grauburgunder, Baden

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

*****

SILVANER

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

2015 Weingut Bickel Stumpf “Kapellenberg Frickenhausen” Silvaner, Franken

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

*****

SAUVIGNON GRIS

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

2015 Weingut Lichti Sauvignon Gris “Royal,” Pfalz

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

*****

ROSÉ

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

2014 Weingut Geisser “Strawberry Fields” Rosé Trocken, Pfalz

 

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

*****

SPÄTBURGUNDER (Pinot Noir)

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

2013 Weingut Friedrich Becker “Schweigener” Spätburgunder, Pfalz

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

2007 Weingut Stigler “Freiburg Schlossberg” Spätburgunder GG, Baden

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

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

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

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

Intimidation In Bordeaux

31 July 2017

“This is a professional tasting,” our escort told us, with a touch of concern in his voice. He was leading me and five other wine bloggers into the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux “Silent Tasting.” After we agreed on a place to meet after some time on our own to sample whatever wines caught our eyes, he reminded us, “This tasting… it’s professional.”

I can’t deny that I felt a little irritated at the time. Did he think we would embarrass ourselves in there? We were Millésima’s 2017 Wine Blog Award winners, which meant that each of us surely had at least some experience tasting wine. But this was Bordeaux, and Bordeaux during En Primeur Week, no less, when everyone who’s anyone in the wine world descends on the region to sample and evaluate the latest vintage. Bordeaux is synonymous with wine aristocracy, and I’m guessing that our escort felt worried that we wine commoners might not mix well with the nobility.

Bordeaux château

Our escort’s feelings, considered in that context, were perfectly understandable. I can think of few wine regions more intimidating to the average wine consumer than Bordeaux, where bottles have labels depicting palatial châteaux and, in many cases, prices to match. It’s a place, in the popular imagination, where only people with enormous wallets, super-sensitive palates and double-breasted blazers (or better yet, all three) are welcome.

But Bordeaux does not have a monopoly on intimidation. I’ve met numerous people who enjoy wine but fear being judged in a tasting room setting, regardless of the location. What if you smell peony in the aroma, when in fact you’re supposed to smell gardenia? What if the winemaker tells you that you should be tasting a gooseberry note, but you don’t even know what the hell a gooseberry is? In short, what happens if you get it wrong?

Being told you’re wrong feels terrible, and there are seemingly so very many ways to get it wrong with wine.

Eric Monneret, Managing Director of Pomerol’s Château La Pointe

Fortunately, most winemakers and winery owners aren’t waiting, panther-like, to pounce on you for saying the wrong thing. Not even in aristocratic Bordeaux.* Not that you would know it from attendees’ behavior during tastings at En Primeur Week. Millésima took us to numerous public tastings over the course of the week, and I noticed a pattern, a pattern I’ve seen at quite a few other walk-around tastings over the years.

If the tasters spoke to the pourers at all, it was usually just to indicate the wine they wanted to try. Tasters sometimes sampled the wine at the table, with dare-to-impress-me looks on their faces, or else took the wine elsewhere to try it. They might talk with fellow tasters about the wines, but I observed very few tasters giving the pourers any feedback. Curious to see if the pourers at the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux event were indeed the haughty monsters of myth and legend, I decided to share my impressions of the wines with them as often as possible.

Taster at Château Mouton Rothschild

Not a single one of the pourers, who ranged from marketing people to the winemakers themselves, responded to my comments with snobbery. Some looked quite surprised to be hearing from me, and when I complimented the ripeness of the fruit or the balance or the refined texture, of course they looked pleased. They’re human! And all humans — even Bordeaux winemakers — like receiving compliments. When I ventured a more creative description, such as, “The finish of this wine [the 2016 Smith Haut Lafitte] is like putting your head into a big soft pillow of tannins,” I gave us a meatier starting point for a discussion, and the pourers seemed to enjoy it even more.

These were not scary people. Indeed, if anyone in the room was stand-offish, it was the tasters. They wore facial expressions of slight disdain like armor. Some of them avoided interactions with pourers as a time-saving measure, allowing them to taste more wines. But I saw many tasters standing around chatting with their friends and colleagues. For them, avoiding pourers wasn’t about saving time. It was about not being vulnerable. It was about the simple and ubiquitous fear of looking foolish.

I’m not the only one to have noticed the predominance of stand-offish tasters. After trying the new vintage of Château Petit-Village in Pomerol, we sat down to lunch at the winery to enjoy a vertical tasting (a tasting of several different vintages of the same wine). I sat near one of the winery’s PR people, an elegant woman perhaps in her late 20s or early 30s. Whenever I tasted a wine — which I did with undisguised pleasure — she stared at me, smiling and shaking her head. “Wonderful!” she said, almost under her breath.

Lunch at Château Petit-Village

I asked her what she meant, and she explained that most people, when they come to taste, do not visibly respond to the wine. Their faces do not change; they don’t make any sound; they don’t share their impressions. “You are so expressive! Wonderful…” she said again, looking at me like I was a delightful if incomprehensible alien. We had great fun talking about the wines together.

Tasting wine with those who work in the industry can be anxiety-provoking. Even professionals, as evidenced by the behavior of many tasters at the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux event, can feel intimidated. No one wants to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. But the path through the fear of looking foolish is not silence and impassivity. Talk to the pourers. Give them a compliment and see what happens. In most cases, both you and the pourer will end up feeling esteemed.

And if you do happen to encounter one of the few remaining snobs in the industry who tells you that no, it’s not peony you’re smelling but gardenia, remember two things: First, it’s not about the wine. He’s trying to boost his own self-esteem by making himself right and you wrong. Second, this is one of the few times in your life you’ll have the chance to use the phrase, “Fuck your gardenia.” Don’t pass it up.

*Bordeaux is, in a sense, old money. The people there generally have no interest in trying to make you feel inferior. Napa, on the other hand, is new money, and it’s one of the few places where wine snobbery still has a foothold.

Bergerac: Underappreciated Wines & Controversial Cuisine #Winophiles

14 July 2017

This post is my first of hopefully many as part of the #Winophiles wine-writing group. Southwest France is the focus this month, and you can find links to articles about the region’s fascinating wines and memorable food at the end of this article.

I gripped the steering wheel more tightly, attempting to focus on the road, and not on the names of the Saint-Emilion vineyards I was driving past all too quickly. It was all I could do not to toss my itinerary out the window and stop at ever sign that said “Dégustation.” And therein lies the biggest problem of Bergerac. Neighboring Bordeaux, just down the Dordogne River, is a great black hole of wine, sucking up all the attention. Even I nearly succumbed to its temptations. But I had an appointment.

I turned south off the main road and descended into gorgeously unspoiled French countryside. The pavement narrowed, winding through an exquisite mosaic of vineyards, forests and walnut orchards in full bloom. Near the top of one of the highest hills stood my goal, perhaps the most important winery in Bergerac: Château Tour des Gendres.

Château Tour des Gendres

According to The World Atlas of Wine, “…there is now a critical mass of [Bergerac] producers who produce far more serious wines of all three hues, and in whites, all sweetness levels. Luc de Conti of Château Tour de Gendres, a biodynamic convert, deserves considerable, although not exclusive, credit.” My Oxford Companion to Wine agrees, noting that “…thanks to much more sophisticated use of oak, pioneering producers such as Luc de Conti of Château Tour des Gendres and David Fourtout of Vignobles des Verdots as well as a handful of sweet winemakers, some truly fine wine is being made.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also recommends the winery.

I ascended the driveway of Château Tour de Gendres to discover an ensemble of low stone tile-roofed buildings, interspersed with Aleppo pines and cypresses. There was no grand palace, à la Bordeaux, though there certainly was a pretty tour (tower). I was the only visitor on that cool, sunny March afternoon, and Martine de Conti, Luc’s wife, walked out to meet me.

Amphorae and foudre (large casks) at Château Tour des Gendres

She dressed simply and sensibly, but she wore her pink scarf, green puffer jacket and blue pants with elegance. Her English was limited, and my French isn’t exactly parfait, which meant our conversation was halting at first. But as she poured me samples of the wines made by her and her husband, and my enthusiasm for them became clear, we started to connect.

This is a classic cliché of wine writing, the wine transcending the language barrier. It’s almost embarrassing to relate the experience. But I can’t deny that connecting with Martine and Luc over their wines left me feeling rather elated.

I tried 11 wines at Château Tour des Gendres, all of which I enjoyed, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll describe only the ones that really knocked my socks off. These give you an idea of the great potential of Bergerac:

2015 Conti-ne Périgourdine: What a joy. This Muscadelle had a round aroma of apple and stone fruit, and flavors of apricot, elegant spice and a subtle note of buttered popcorn. Luc later told me that this wine was his favorite, and I can understand why. At the end of the tasting, I tried to buy two bottles, but Martine insisted I take them as a gift. If any importers are reading this, I’ll happily pay for a couple of cases!

2014 Anthologia: The grapes for this Sauvignon Blanc come only from Monbazillac, and the wine is produced only in exceptional vintages. The 2014 had an aroma of honeydew and a bit of popcorn kernel — very enticing — and the flavor development was magnificent. I can think of few more elegant expressions of Sauvignon Blanc. Perfectly calibrated and focused acids balanced out the rich, ripe fruit, and the finish lasted long after I expected it to stop. The minerality of this wine positively rang.

2014 La Gloire de Mon Père: “The Glory of My Father” blends 53% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc, with half the wine aged in barriques (small barrels) and half aged in foudre (large casks). This wine was deep and gorgeous, with an aroma of ripe cherry and vanilla, marked with a touch of something savory. On the palate, a pop of acids quickly overtook the fresh, plummy fruit, followed by refined white pepper spice and a deliciously salty/buttery note. La Gloire indeed.

2008 Parcelle Les Gendres: This wine comes from a single parcel of Merlot aged in large casks, and that must be one heck of a parcel. A transparent brick red, this wine had a big, wonderful aroma of raspberry jam. And the flavor! The clean, clear red fruit exploded in my mouth. Ample white pepper spice kicked in, followed by obvious but supple tannins, and a note of mocha on the finish. I defy anyone to declare that they don’t like Merlot after trying this beauty.

2015 Le Saussignac: Like Sauternes or Monbazillac, Saussignac is a sweet wine appellation, but as the World Atlas says, the “distinctive” and “glamorous” wines there are “made in dispiritingly small quantities.” The de Contis don’t make Le Saussignac every year — it depends on whether botrytis (noble rot) affects the grapes. If you can find a bottle, snap it up. This wine completely seduced me. Honeysuckle, exotic spice, bright orangey acids, and a finish that felt quite dry, almost tannic. Magnificent.

Tasting that last wine made me wish I had some foie gras to pair with it. Foie gras is a classic match with Sauternes and Sauternes-like wines, but few foods cause as much controversy as foie gras, the fattened liver of a goose or duck. Residents of California, where the product is currently banned, may find it something of a shock to visit the Dordogne, where foie gras appears on almost every menu, often in multiple dishes. At its best, it’s sensationally rich but also somehow light and airy. I adore foie gras, but I decided that if I were to continue eating it, and recommend pairing it with wine on this blog, I should see for myself what its production was like.

Ducks at Domaine de Barbe

My hotel in the Dordogne arranged for a tour of Domaine de Barbe, a foie gras farm nearby. Its 100 acres support about 1,300 geese and 5,500 ducks, as my tour guide, Noemie, explained. The animals spend four or five months “free range” in grassland pastures, grazing and growing, before moving into group cages for the gavage (force-feeding). Individual cages are now illegal.

Force-feeding enhances a natural fattening of the liver in fall, when the birds gorge in order to have enough reserves for migration. Ducks and geese experience the gavage quite differently than a mammal would. The birds have esophagi prepared to accept large whole fish, and they can breathe when the feeding tube is inserted. Feeders do their best to avoid stressing the animals, because stress, according to Noemie, reduces the quality of the liver. After 15 days of force-feeding ducks or three weeks for geese, the animals are anesthetized and slaughtered.

Geese awaiting feeding

The pastures looked tranquil and spacious, and the cages, while not paradise, didn’t look to be causing the geese I observed any obvious distress. I can’t say with any certainty what the animals feel about force-feeding, whether it’s uncomfortable or just another meal. But the Domaine de Barbe clearly treats its animals better than an industrial farm in the United States. If you’re comfortable eating meat in an average American restaurant, you need feel no qualms about eating foie gras in the Dordogne.

The only question is, do you pair it with Saussignac, Monbazillac or Sauternes?

For more about the wines of Southwest France, check out these other articles by my fellow #Winophiles:

–Jill at L’occasion shares “Périgord Wines: Bergerac and Duras

–Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Southern France at a Midwest BBQ

–Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Cam shares “Pistachio-Armagnac Sabayon with Strawberries and Meringues

–Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares “#Winophiles Showdown: Madiran vs Applegate Valley

–Martin from Enofylz shares “Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac? Oh My!

–Olivier from In Taste Buds We Trust shares If it makes you happy…

–Nicole from Somm’s Table shares “Cooking to the Wine: Paul Bertrand Crocus Malbec de Cahors with Lavender-Herb Ribeye and Grilled Veggies

–Lynn from Savor the Harvest shares “Basque-ing in the Sud-Ouest: Wines of Irouléguy

–Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Toast #TDF2017 with Wines from the Côtes de Gascogne

–Gwen from Wine Predator shares “Finding and Pairing Southwest France Wine Cheese & Spirits for French #Winophiles

–Mardi from Eat.Live.Travel.Write. shares two posts (!) “Clafoutis, Southwest France style” and “Armagnac: A Primer

–Jeff from Food Wine Click! shares “Exploring Madiran with Vignobles Brumont

Join our chat on Saturday, July 15, at 10-11 a.m. CDT (11 a.m. EDT, 8 a.m. PDT, and 17.00 in France)! See what we think of Southwest France, and tell us about your experiences with the wine, food, or travel in the region. To join, log into Twitter, search for the #winophiles tag, and you’re in!

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.

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