Thursday, October 19, 2017

The New Chablis Négoce

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Posted by Burke Morton On August - 27 - 2010

I tried a line-up of 1er and Grand Cru Chablis earlier this week that were new entries in the resurgent negociant trade. For decades negociants in Burgundy--more specifically, those who were not also growing their own fruit--were, in far too many cases, little more than swill merchants. That has changed dramatically over the past twenty years, with two Chablis-oriented purveyors, Verget and Brocard, among those showing the way. These négociants purchase high-quality fruit from growers with whom they have influence regarding growing practices. Their track record of beautiful wines is impressive, and they have been joined by a Québecois named Patrick Piuze, who made wine at Verget for four years, then spent a year or as cellarmaster for Brocard. Clearly the lure of being his own master was too much to turn down (who can blame him?), so he decided to start his own label with fruit from the 2008 vintage.

Thank goodness. That's what we need--more wine! Okay--sarcasm aside, we REALLY DO need more good Chablis, which remains, in my view, in tragically short supply.

As a rule, the style cultivated by Patrick Piuze differs from his former employers: Verget's wines are creamy and with softened-edges yet still quite bright, while Brocard's wines are more streamlined and gilded more obviously with the classic brilliance of fruit grown in the Côte d'Auxerre. Piuze's wines are a step beyond this--they are austere, effulgent, tensile, and haunting, due mostly to a most transparent purity. While I recognize that these wines may cause some revulsion from those who tend to like soft and pillowy Chardonnay, I would contend that lovers of Gro­ßes Gewächs Riesling [a recently implemented Grand Cru system (don't get me started on the folly of that) in Germany from which the wines are, by law, intensely dry] would be enthusiastic. I'm actually convinced that anyone who loves great Chablis will like these wines, because they are crafted with such care. They were all excellent wines, but my favorites were the 1er Cru Mont de Milieu, which was more enchanting than the Grand Cru Les Preuses (one of the more famous Grands Crus of Chablis), though it lacked the classiness of the Grand Cru; the Grand Cru Blanchots was also extraordinary--supremely succulent and penetratingly aromatic, with a rapier zing driving it along. In the end, the one that stood out the most was one of those that seemed least impressive initially: the Grand Cru Bougros, which I discovered was absolutely mesmerizing TWO DAYS after it had been opened, whereas it was clearly well-made but overly reticent when I tasted with the others. What a difference two days makes.

These were great wines, but don't yet have much market penetration. Ask your retailer about them, because they'll hear about them...eventually...so help speed things up!

Popularity: 10% [?]

The Dog-Days: 2003 in Europe

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Posted by Burke Morton On June - 18 - 2010

The dog-days of summer are relieving themselves on my front door. I hurried into the house just now, trying to elude the heat, and started thinking about the 2003 vintage in Europe. I don't want to sound like I think fondly of it--no one should, given the humanitarian toll exacted upon Europe, France in particular. Although many fine, idiosyncratic wines emerged that year, it was a tough vintage overall, as Europe hadn't experience that sort of heat in anyone's memory. More than a week of over 100ºF across a mostly non-air condidtioned continent...this wasn't good for anyone.

The wines of this vintage are difficult to read in a long-term/short-term sense, but the conventional wisdom is that the best made wines from '03 are still not worth keeping for an extended period (20-30 years--or more), because the acid levels never had much of a chance to build up, as grapes ripened quickly and were only minimally exposed to the cool temperatures of autumn that encourage acid development. Pundits got hold of this and pronounced that these wines would have unbelievably short lives, sounding more like a doctor telling a cancer patient how long he has to live. However, conventional wisdom regarding deleterious weather effects on wine is, at best, shoddy, and the generalized prognostication is thrown off a bit by those who dealt well the vintage conditions. However, there were a few European producers whose are always reliable that didn't get the vintage right, and what with all the heat and dryness coming out of nowhere, they're hardly to be blamed.

The 2003 vintage was relatively successful in Spain, the Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Puglia, and Sicily--all places that are used to hot summers. The main worries of '03 for me were Austria, middle-to-northern France (especially Burgundy, Loire, Champagne, and Alsace), and Germany. And to narrow it down further, two varieties concerned me: the Pinot family and Riesling, which don't generally perform well in oppressive conditions without some extraordinary and prescient vineyard management. Because of the heat, the 2003 vintage produced wines that were larger-than-life with ridiculously thick textures and dense fruit profiles. German Rieslings were unbelievably full-bodied, like Barry Bonds between 1998 and perjuring himself. Burgundy seemed to suffer the most as far as reliability (I know, I know, those of you who follow Burgundy will say that this true in any case): there were far too many jam-on-toast, indistinguishable-from-one-another Red Burgundies from 2003 to permit much plauditory locution. These jam-on-toast wines were actually not bad, but if wine from one Cru tastes exactly like those from another Cru, then one of the principal and most compelling reasons for buying Burgundy is gone. However, the good Burgundies--red or white--possessed both some measure of subtlety and an impertinence that reminded you that they were from a normally cool climate.

Flash forward to now, and the well-made '03 Rieslings from Alsace, Austria, and Germany presently seem to have more acidity than they did through most of 2008. I have had many within the past year that have a surprisingly fresh acidity, such that I now wonder how much longer they'll make it. The 1973 vintage in Germany produced wines that few thought would live long lives, but here they are, still full of vividness and youthful vigor. The weather wasn't so extreme in 1973 as it was in 2003, but we might see a similar evolution (however, I'm not suggesting that you test this out, because if the wines are good now, there is no reason not to drink them). The well-made '03 Burgundies have also proven resilient. The '03 Bourgognes (entry-level wines) that I bought are still a bold and assertive smash, and even continue to have that saucy character I mentioned. This element usually mellows over the course of five years or so in the lower-end wines, but here we are after six years in the bottle and they're still motoring.

Why am I writing about this today? I see many 2003s still in the marketplace. I wonder why that is? I went to four different wine shops today, doing a little survey, and there are many wines from the south of France (mostly Gigondas and some upper-end Côtes-du-Rhônes, but also a few Châteauneuf-du-Papes), the Loire Valley (mostly Vouvray and Savennières, and some sweet wines, but a couple of Sancerres from the cousins Cotat, which are unusually long-lived...for Sancerre), Alsace, Burgundy, and Germany.

Do you still have '03s left in your cellar? Are you seeing them on shelves? I'd snap them up, particularly if you have some idea of quality, because the wines from this vintage may be extreme, but if they were well-made, then I don't doubt they'll be good.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Appellations and Their Shortcomings

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Posted by Burke Morton On October - 15 - 2009

Chianti (photo: leeloosu)I was walking my dog this morning and we walked by a recycling bin containing an empty cardboard box that was once a case of Chianti. I won't name the Chianti, because I can't say anything nice about it, but it did fire my brain on this topic--that this wine (and others like it) bothers me. It is here that people are immediately suspicious of where I'm going with this, and some have even said, "Oh, so it's not good enough?" or "What, you can't imagine someone is actually drinking that?" Um...in truth, there are better choices, but that really doesn't bother me at all. Indeed, it is a necessity, because--while I am annoyed that the wine is from a HUGE production cooperative that masquerades as an estate--it is cheap, potable wine that people buy by the case, and this is one of the principal engines of the wine industry. What bothers me actually has more to do with politics.

The Chianti region is a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), which is an Italian designation for wine of superiority, modeled after the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system in France. The rank of Italian delimitations goes, from the humble to elite, DO to DOC to DOCG. The Chianti zone is supposedly in the top class, yet its wines can be so uninteresting! Thanks to political maneuvering, it is the same exalted level as is assigned to the Chianti subregions of Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina, both of which produce decidedly more captivating and significant wines. In fact, some of Italy's finest wines come from Chianti Classico.

I'm not suggesting that every wine be "significant", because that would be BORING. DOCGs are supposed to stand for a certain level of quality. At least, since the wines have to pass a panel tasting to be approved for the classification, one might reasonably conclude that this is a quality assurance step. There is no evidence that it will assure my enjoyment of a Chianti. At a minimum, it assures that the DOCG designation means LESS than it should. I'd reclassify Chianti as a Denominazione di Origine, because DO is seldom used and is about as noble as the average Chianti. There are certainly some Chianti producers whose wines are superb, but as a class, they are not reliable as anything other than a good steady drink. There's something to be said for that, but that isn't supposed to be the definition of a DOCG.

It's not like the Italians are the only ones guilty of this. In France, all wines submitted for Appellation approval have to be anointed by a tasting panel...except in Burgundy, which is the area that MOST NEEDS TO MEET A STANDARD!!!!! So you could pay $200 for a Grand Cru Burgundy and get a pretty bad wine, because the Burgundy wine establishment pulled the ultimate snow job to get out of having to submit every wine to meet approval. Burgundy is so fragmented, they argued, and estates often have so many wines, that it would be confusing, and someone might be able to slip a second bottle of good wine in the place of a substandard one so both would pass consideration. They also questioned whether there were enough qualified tasters to adjudicate the proceedings, and of course, tasting young wines is such a difficult thing to do. So to keep the governing body (the INAO) that determines these things from being overwhelmed, the growers suggested that they submit only one wine as a representation of an estate's portfolio...and that is how it is. That's BS! If ever there was an entity that was efficient with bureaucracy, it would be the French Government, and here is one sure way to screw the consumer without having to be responsible! "It's not my fault--the INAO gave the wine its approval...."

Based on this, you might wonder "why bother with Burgundy?" Well, once you've tasted a great one, you'd understand without having to be told. Besides, I can report that things are improving in Burgundy, as a new generation of growers take over and strive for quality in a way that their forebears thought economically unfeasible.

For the most part, the systems of regional quality control in France and Italy work well, but political wranglings have weakened them, but the soiled spots are routinely exposed by writers who specialize in the regions, and of course, none of these things can be perfect. In these days of retooling the Health Care system, these things seem rather small, but they are also perhaps an object lesson.

Popularity: 11% [?]

Pinot Noir

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Posted by Burke Morton On August - 10 - 2009

Pinot NoirThis great grape of Burgundy has been a wine-world nexus of legend and disappointment for at least two millennia. It can achieve such glorious heights of seductiveness and heart-rending power that it is the one grape variety that ambitious winemakers worldwide want to wrestle with at some point in their career path.

A capricious (and therefore expensive) vine to grow, Pinot Noir only thrives in a narrow range of climates, and while it will yield fruit in the hot regions that the much more flexible Cabernet Sauvignon is routinely grown in, the main charms of Pinot Noir--a sensuous essence and graceful subtlety, along with the more cerebral transparency of provenance--are lost to what would be better-off sold in a jar as imitation cherry jam.

It is exactly these charms that have fascinated and excited drinkers of Pinot Noir since the Romans occupied France. In its youth, it has flavors and aromas akin to cherries, violets, raspberries, and rosehips. As it matures, it sheds these nubile elements and acquires qualities that remind me of some experiences I've had while camping--woodsy, game-y notions that are warming and unforgettable.

Burgundy is still the standard-bearer for this variety, producing Pinot Noirs of a sensational assortment of characteristics within a 60km span of the roughly 80km length of the Côte d'Or and Côte Chalonnaise combined. Depending upon the growing area, it can be extraordinarily perfumed and shimmering, or zesty and bold, or intensely powerful and rich, all without losing the essential ethos of Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is also grown with great success in Oregon, California, Italy, Austria, New Zealand (especially Central Otago, but really almost anywhere is good), and Australia (esp. Yarra Valley in Victoria and Margaret River on the southwestern coast). There are many excellent examples from other regions of France (Alsace, Champagne, and the Loire Valley), and from less commonly considered growing areas like Germany, Austria, and Italy.

In my experience, Pinot Noir is not for everyone, insofar as a drinking it without food is concerned. It often has a fragile, nervy, and mercurial character, even when the wine is quite robust. Merlot is much more of an everyman's wine, and is (or was, but is becoming so again) appropriately popular. I have found that those who dislike Pinot Noir in general, actually enjoy it with an appropriate food pairing. Because of the wide variety of flavors and styles in which Pinot Noir can be cast, it is good to know the wines you are choosing from before going in, or consult with your sommelier or wine retailer.

Tasting Pinot Noir
One should use a bulbous glass when tasting Pinot Noir. The commonly accepted design for a Pinot Noir Glass looks like a brandy snifter on a tall stem. This glass is designed to give the aromatics of Pinot Noir room to expand before directing them to the taster's nose through a small opening.

When tasting many other wines alongside Pinot Noir, one should taste Pinot Noir first. This is true for white wine as well. White wine can (and Riesling will) cause the taster's perception of Pinot Noir to be distorted and unpleasant.

Pinot Noir with Food
There is hardly anything that really doesn't work with Pinot Noir, though sweet and/or spicy foods are typically not a good combination, but I've had many exceptions. Also, it isn't terribly good as a companion for most smoked fish, but see below for an exception.
Land: roast beef, steak tartare, charcuterie, lamb loin, pork loin, rabbit, veal, liver, duck, game birds, quail, squab
Cheese: Époisse, Gruyère, aged goat, Brie
Fish: salmon, trout, smoked bluefish, scallops, tuna, shark
Fruit & Vegetables: mushrooms, cherries, beets, fennel, eggplant, root vegetables

Unless you're looking for deeper knowledge about Pinot Noir, you may stop here without missing a thing....

More on Pinot Noir (for those with the desire to fill up on relevant info)

The Pinot family is a convoluted one. Pinot Noir is one of the more ancient vine varieties, and is, as a result, genetically unstable. This led to the mutation of the vine into Pinot Gris (and Pinot Gris then mutated into Pinot Blanc, so the mutation hardly helped stabilize the vine). We also have other mutations of Pinot Noir, the most important of which is Meunier (aka Pinot Meunier). Also found in the Pinot family are the many progeny of Pinot and Gouais Blanc: St. Laurent, Auxerrois (also known as Pinot Auxerrois), and further on down the family tree, Chardonnay.

Growing location imparts an ineffable set of qualities to Pinot Noir that is impossible to duplicate except from the same set of vines. Apart from Riesling, it is the grape that most eloquently expresses terroir, or the combination of soil, micro-climate, and various uncontrollable human macro influences, of a given growing site. One can perhaps correlate the ethereal Pinots from Russian River Valley to the ethereal Volnays grown in the Côte de Beaune of Burgundy. However, from vineyard to vineyard in RRV the wines have an individualistic character, and this same effect is even more dramatically exemplified in Volnay, due to strictly defined sub-regions based on, usually, soil type. The differences between these wines side-by-side and half-way across the world can be even further radicalized by the winemaker's actions in the winery.

Pinot Noir is not just difficult to work with on the vine, but also in the winery. It never endures recipe winemaking (though some try to subject it to this), because questions continuously arise over the fragile juice that is turning into wine. A notoriously thin skin leaves yearly concerns about the wine's potential tannin content as an oenologist tries to extract what little color is willing to leech out of the grape skins without also getting too much tannin. I.e., one can easily have overly tannic wines trying to achieve the dark purplish-red typical of Pinot Noir. This is bad because grape skin tannins are much less appealing ("mouth-puckering" comes to mind) than tannins acquired from an oak barrel (which is more-or-less pleasantly tongue-gripping). Conversely, the skins can often contain very little tannin, so no amount of additional soaking will yield tannin in the appropriate character and in enough quantity to ensure longevity. To solve this winemakers may leave the stems in the fermentation vat (if they don't already use a whole-cluster method) to impart necessary tannic structure. This has its own problems, as the stems may not be fully "ripe" themselves, so the tannin character they can impart is potentially quite harsh. Another concern revolves around pigéage (which is the punching down of the cap that forms during fermentation) or pump-overs (which uses a vacuum pump to keep the cap wet). Generally the gentler the better (pigéage is gentler), but I have heard some winemakers argue for pump-overs in certain vintages.

France, with the world's tenderloin of Pinot Noir production in Burgundy's Côte d'Or, continues to produce the most soul-stirring examples of this hallowed variety. In addition to the Côte d'Or and Côte Châlonnaise mentioned above, Pinot Noir is planted to a limited extent also in the Côte d'Auxerre in northern Burgundy, and the Mâconnais at the southern end. Champagne holds the single largest area of Pinot Noir in France. Aside from using it for sparkling wine, several estates make still red wine, often blended with Meunier. The reds and rosés of Sancerre in the Loire Valley are made from Pinot Noir, and it is also the only legally allowed red wine grape in Alsace.

Pinot Noir is Germany's most noble red variety, and it increasingly successful in Pfalz, Rheingau, and Baden. Germans refer to it as Spätburgunder or Blauburgunder.

In Austria, it is an important if minor variety in the Burgenland (that would be the German for Burgundy...), the country's principal source of red wine, where it is grown alongside St. Laurent, Blaufränkisch, and Zweigelt. Austrians often refer to Pinot Noir as Blauer Spätburgunder.

Pinot Noir is a commonly found grape in Switzerland where it is often blended with Gamay to make Switzerland's most famous (which isn't saying very much--market penetration of Swiss wine is not good) wine, Dôle.

California has perhaps the most reliable climate for growing grapes in the world, and Pinot Noir is grown widely there, but is most successful (to my mind), in no particular order, in the Central Coast, Sonoma County, Mendocino, and Carneros.

Oregon is more climatically aligned to Burgundy, and the wine profiles are similarly diverse. A source of some sensational Pinots, most of the wines in Oregon are made in the Willamette Valley. There is an excellent case to be made for the Pinots of the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon, which are typically more dense and velvety.

New Zealand is now well established as a source of fine Pinot Noir. Central Otago has been showing great promise, but Marlborough and Christchurch (esp. Waipara) produce excellent wines as well. The wines tend to start at an expensive tier (around $30), but top out far below the most expensive wines from Burgundy, California, and Oregon...for now.

Known as Pinot Nero in Italy, it is widely planted in Lombardy, in the northern reaches of Italy, where in addition to making red wine, it is used in Franciacorta for that region's sparkling wines.

Spain has very little Pinot Noir planted, and given the typically high average temperature of the growing season, this will likely stay that way. There are plantings across eastern Europe, but nothing has as yet taken hold as a new hot-spot for Pinot Noir.

Popularity: 8% [?]

Rosé Shows its Mettle

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Posted by Burke Morton On July - 16 - 2009

Rosé...or: How Long Do You Age Your Rosé?
I conducted a little mini-tasting on my deck today--we don't get such beautiful days here often...besides, where else should one have a tasting of Rosé? I opened six wines: 2008 Muga, 2007 J.K. Carriere Glass, 2005 Domaine Ott Château de Selle, 2004 Château Musar Cuvée Rosé, 2003 (!) Pascal Cotat Sancerre, and 1998 (!) Domaine de la Mordorée Tavel.

The idea was to have some wines with presence, and to see how they held up. Hard to rank these, given that they were all sensational. I bought these over the past five years, after having tasted them in their youth, so I was predisposed to like them--take that at face value. I knew that the older ones should hold up, and I am happy to report that they did.

Experiencing the Wines
That the Mordorée Tavel was brilliant was not a shock, but it was so warming and suffusing that I didn't relate to it much as a Rosé--it had taken on a life of its own, in much the way that older Alsatian Muscat does (where the orange blossom scent is gone and replaced by caraway, which gives it a quality of ancient wisdom in a package that still seems youthful). It had a curious meat-juice quality that was so fresh and deep that my first thought was of the Grilled Duck Breast Salad I used to get at one of my previous restaurant jobs.

I suppose that I was drawn most closely by the Cotat Sancerre Rosé. It has some red wine characteristics, and as it warmed up, it displayed more of that tone, and this is not uncommon with Pinot Noir rosé. It never lost its rosé-ness, however--there was an ineffable notion of sunshine through it--and yet it was six years old. A year ago I wrote that the '04 from the same producer was the best Rosé I had ever had. This doesn't top that, but it's smashing wine that supports the legacy of quality from this estate.

Domaine Ott releases this wine a vintage behind the current wines in the market, and I bought it in the fall of 2007. It was moody (for rosé) and deep, possessing traits akin to white Burgundy, which is the style cultivated by this estate for this wine (they have others that are more crystalline and gossamer, but Château de Selle is their "serious" wine), and it was perfect for a day like today. Had it been hot, I would probably have enjoyed it anyway, as the weight of the wine is not its main feature, but because it is barrel fermented, its edges are more integrated.

J.K. Carriere was a sensational delight, again. I am amazed by this wine and its depth of flavor and richness of texture. Other than because it's rosé of Pinot Noir, it has these qualities because Jim Prosser, the winemaker/owner of J.K. Carriere, dumps Chardonnay lees [lees are the dead yeast cells, grape skins, seeds, pulp, et al., that settle to the bottom of a fermentation tank when fermentation is complete] into the wine, giving it that creamy texture and moody aroma. If you can lay your hands on some of this wine, I would do it.

Chateau Musar was fabulous. I have heard that it is entirely Cinsault, but I'm going to have to look that up. Current vintage is 2005 (in this market, anyway), and I believe the '06 is on the way, so this '04 is a bit behind, though not really by Musar standards. It was still fresh and lively, and it had an exotic, heady aroma, which I enjoyed greatly. I have come to expect this in Lebanese wines...I would like to see them achieve better market penetration. Dark color--I've had some some Pinots Noir from Germany and Alsace that aren't this dark!

Muga--for $15, you should be buying this wine, by the case if you can. Wow--has some Viura blended into the Tempranillo, and it works wonders. Not that Tempranillo needs help, but it makes it more of a rollicking experience. Gloriously beautiful color--salmon-ish, not unlike the Domaine Ott in that way,

So I had all of these wines with a lunch of Italian bread, Caprese salad, and some balsamic-marinated portabello mushrooms, and the pairings were remarkably reliable. Only the Muga and the Tavel tangled with these, and for differing reasons. The Tavel's acidity was not prominent, and so it bucked against the mushrooms, and the Muga tasted fine with the Mozzarella, but not so much once the tomatoes were introduced.

All this tasting was done with the swirl-sniff-sip-spit method, of course, but I did return to the J.K. Carriere for an actual drink of wine.

There's always an exception to every rule, but I hope we can put to rest the notion that Rosé doesn't age.... The lion's share of Rosés don't age well, so perhaps it would be better to say that some Rosés improve with age. The task is to find them.

Popularity: 4% [?]

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You don't need to speak French to know that the iPad can double as a Champagne Sabre.... Happy New Year!

Popularity: 65% [?]

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