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A Loire Chateau Lunch

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I would have been content just to stroll through the gate at Chateau l’Oiseliniere, gaze at this stately, elegant, iconic home, and turn around and head directly back to the van. It was, however, an embarrassment of riches as I as able to tour the surrounding vineyards, sample a variety of delicious Muscadets, and have one of the most charming home-cooked lunches imaginable. If I didn’t have the photos to corroborate the previous two sentences, I might have though it was all a reverie brought on by my penchant for 19th Century French literature. So rather than gauzy, filtered memories, I have some sharp images to share.

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Above is proprietor Georges Verdier showing us that flowering has begun on the Melon de Bourgogne vines, which means that harvest should begin in about 90 days. Our lesson in grape growing over, it was time to sample the fruits of his labor. We found out that Muscadet is not only popular with those of us who love crisp, dry, refreshing white wines, but also (strangely enough) with felines:

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Our appetites primed by a dizzying array of bracing, memorable Muscadets, we went into the dining room to find a black olive, spinach, and onion tart with a whole wheat crust. This was no quiche; it had just enough binder to keep it together. I thought this would be more of a dish for a rosé, but the briny black olives brought out the salty, mineral-tinged aspect of the Muscadet. Brilliant.

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Next it was time for some white asparagus. I found myself counting my blessings for being in the Loire in time for both strawberry and asparagus season. We enjoyed a white asparagus custard surrounded by a green pea puree. Whoever says asparagus is difficult to pair with wine needs to try it with a richer-style, vegetable-loving Muscadet.

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We finished with langoustines atop a simple salad of garden-fresh vegetables. This seemed to be the penultimate dish to have with Muscadet, which is simply one of the finest wines to have with seafood, period.

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Here is the ubiquitous “I was there” photo that I include not out of vanity but to illustrate I have pen and paper by my side, dutifully taking notes. And although you can’t see it, I have actually glued myself to the chair I am sitting in, as I thought this was the most rational plan to make sure I never had to leave. Please forward my mail care of Chateau l’Oiseliniere.

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Full disclosure: I am a sponsored guest of the Loire Valley Wine Bureau on this trip.

The Bordeaux Report: 2009 and 2010

Bordeaux
Our own Arnie Millian is chronicling his recent European wine adventure, starting with Bordeaux. If you are curious about the heavily hyped and highly regarded vintages of 2009 and 2010 (and what Bordeaux from 1949 and 1961 tastes like), click here.

A Second Wine Worth a Second Glass

2000 Pagodes de Cos
I recently opened a bottle of 2000 Pagodes de Cos, the scond wine of the famous Cos d’Estournel in the St. Estephe region of Bordeaux. In the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, it was designated a Second Growth. Regardless of the controversy over the subjective aspects of classifying chateaus, and the accordant lobbying and politicking, Cos d’Estournel is one the finest wines in all of Bordeaux. But its price leaves it out of the reach of the majority of wine drinkers. My advice would be to seek out the less heralded vintages, which often are ready to drink much earlier and can be had at a much lower price. (Avoid 2000, 2005, and the stratospheric pricing of the mega-hyped 2009.) But if you, like me, just had to get your hands on a pedigreed Bordeaux from a highly regarded vintage, seek out the second wines of famous chateaus.

The Pagodes de Cos comes from the same vineyards as the chateau’s first wine, but is produced from the estate’s younger vines. And the 2000 was a beauty. Medium-bodied and mature, it showed great secondary characteristics that only come out of a well-aged wine. Pure pleasure and elegance. If I had to quibble–and you know I will–I wished that it was a little more concentrated. I think that’s where you really get the difference from the younger versus the older vines.

A ton of wineries from all over the world offer second labels or “declassified” wines that allow you to experience the finest of vineyards and wine-making talent. Seek them out!

I would love to hear of your favorite wine discoveries; know of some famous names and places at (relatively) reasonable prices? Let me know in the comments.

Thoughts on 2009 Chateauneuf du Pape

CdP09
Recently I attended a tasting of the Southern Rhone’s most iconic wine, Chateauneuf du Pape, brought in by Wines of France. One of the lessons I have learned in the wine business is that when you find an imported wine you like, check out the back label to see who’s responsible. I have a handful of importers whose track record I trust implicitly, and I’d add Wines of France to that list. (Look for Alain Junguenet Selection.)

This tasting was a mix of barrel and tank samples as well as finished wine. I have to admit that it’s not easy to evaluate wines in their youth. Some I find very accessible and open; others very tannic and mysterious. It’s tempting to reward the wines showing well early, but then a few years down the road the more stubborn wines might be the stars of the vintage. And though I gleaned a lot from this tasting, keep in mind these are impressions. Having said that, let’s get to work:

Clos des Papes

The Deals: Relative bargains (for CdP) that should arrive under $45.

  • Domaine de la Charbonniere
  • Chateau Fortia “Cuvée du Baron”
  • Domaine Moulin-Tacussel “Tradition”
  • Domaine Tour Saint Michel “Cuvée des Deux Soeurs”(very rich and mouth-filling)
  • Cuvée du Vatican (a powerhouse)

Top Wines: Price be damned, these were my favorites.

  • Bosquet des Papes “Cuvée Chante le Merle”
  • Mas de Boislauzon “Quet”
  • Domaine Tour Saint Michel “Cuvée du Lion”
  • Cuvée du Vatican “Réserve Sixtine”

Most Unique Wine:

  • Mas de Boislauzon “TINTO” (100% Mourvedre CdP; 1000% delicious.)

Most Impressive Lineup:

  • Domaine Tour Saint Michel for the aforementioned bargain Cuvée des Deux Sours, the ultra-rich Cuvée du Lion, and the smoky, meaty “Féminessance.” (Cuvée du Vatican not far behind.)

Best non-CdP:

  • Domaine de la Charbonniere Vacqueyras: CdP-like quality, power, and distinction for under $30.

Still Life With Rosé

Seattle Restaurant Sitka & Spruce in Capitol Hill

Ah Seattle, such a bizarre day from you Wednesday. A sunny afternoon, bright light streaming through the windows of Sitka & Spruce. Then I return to Esquin and barely escape a torrential downpour. No matter, I’m still glowing from a lovely lunch with fantastic French wines from importer Kermit Lynch.

The pictured rosé, the 2010 Domaine Fontsainte Gris de Gris, was actually a tank sample, thus the DIY vintage labeling. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s ready to go. Looking forward to the arrival of this rosé in about a month or so. I also really enjoyed the red wines Fontsainte produces in the Corbieres region of France. What was most interesting about these wines is that they go through a process called carbonic maceration. I know, it sounds a little…unsettling. But without getting bogged down in details, it’s a process most widely used in Beaujolais that helps produce very fresh, fruity, and lively reds. Do not fear the carbonic maceration!

Speaking of Beaujolais, we also sampled a few offerings from Domaine Dupeuble. Like the Fontsainte rosé, we tasted a few 2010 wines that were samples yet to be officially bottled. I had a similar reaction: “These are tank samples?!?” Could have fooled me. The 2010 Blanc, made of Chardonnay, was lively and bracing like a good Chablis; the Gamay, ready for a slight chill and to be passed around the table.

So are you ready for rosé yet?

Thank you to Kermit Lynch, Domaine Fontsainte, Domaine Dupeuble, and Cavatappi for providing lunch and the wines.

2008 Bordeaux: We Do The Hard Work

bordeaux wine 2008Not to be outdone by my tasting in an ornate hotel ballroom, our Arnie Millan recently attended a whirlwind tasting of the 2008 Bordeaux vintage. Here is his report:

I flew into San Francisco last for an intensive tasting of top Bordeaux from the 2008 vintage. The Union of Grand Cru de Bordeaux put on this tasting of 100 top estates. It’s almost easier to list who wasn’t there: all the five First Growths (Mouton, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion), Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Petrus and other high priced exotica of that ilk.

Alas, we were to taste only the other remaining top classified, or otherwise renowned, estates and have the rare opportunity to meet the Chateaux’s owners; people whom we only heretofore knew by name, mentioned in print in somewhat hushed tones. How cool is that? And they were all pleasant and unpretentious.

Overall, this is an excellent vintage which favored the Right Bank (Pomerol, then Saint-Emilion) and the estates of the Médoc, particularly Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux. These wines are drinking well now and I think they’ll show even better with age.

The biggest disappointment was the wines of Graves and Pessac-Léognan. They did not show well at this tasting. I hope age will be kind to them. This was the only region from which we tasted dry whites. The superior white was from Château Pape-Clément followed by Domaine Chevalier. One of my favorite estates there is Smith Haut Lafitte but the wines were disappointing, especially after tasting Pape-Clément immediately beforehand. On the plus side, I was able to meet and chat with the charming proprietress Florence Cathiard and her husband.

My list of the top wines of the tasting must start with Pomerol’s Château La Conseillante and Pauillac’s 2nd Growth Pichon Baron (de Longueville). They were extraordinary and smoked the rest of the pack. They were both distinguished by a vibrancy, a depth and complexity of flavor which was transparent and fresh. Amazing.

Other top wines were Les Ormes de Pez, a Saint-Estephe I tasted with Sylvie Cazes whose family owns this estate along with Lynch-Bages (tasted but not as good) and whose brother is the famed Jean-Michel Cazes. What a lovely, unassuming person!

bordeaux wine 2008Also, I enjoyed Saint-Émilion’s Pavie Maquin with owner Nicolas Thienpont (right), whose family also owns Pomerol’s elite Le Pin. Canon La Gaffelière was delicious, represented by the irrepressible and perpetually grinning Count Stephan von Niepperg (see below, dressed in amazing style).

bordeaux wine 2008A surprise was the Médoc’s Chateau La Tour de By. This is an obscure small estate whose inexpensive wine was first-rate. Here are the others I enjoyed, not already mentioned:

Saint-Julien

Léoville-Poyferré, Léoville-Barton, Talbot, Branaire-Ducru, Lagrange, Beychevelle, Gruaud-Larose and Saint-Pierre

Pauillac

D’Armailhac, Clerc-Milon, Grand Puy-Ducasse, Haut-Bages Libéral, Pichon-Lalande

Margaux
Rauzan-Segla, Brane-Catenac, Giscours, Kirwan, Lascombes

Pomerol

Clinet, Gazin

Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
Angelus, Canon, Clos Fourtet, Figeac, Larcis Ducasse, Troplong Mondot

So those are Arnie’s thoughts on the 08 vintage. Do you have any questions for Arnie about Bordeaux?

Côtes du Rhône Goes With Everything

A Tasty Trio
I was at a spectacular family-style meal that started with a welcoming glass of white and a duo of wood-fired pizzas. As we sat down to our multi-course feast, I figured we would have a different wine with each dish. With the breadth of food coming, one wine could not possibly cover all the bases and be that versatile. Could it?!? Panic mode started to settle in. Egads, I only spy one red wine!

I quickly calmed down and realized I wasn’t there for some kind of dinner that required an army of appropriate glassware and a dizzying array of wines. It was an informal gathering (that became quite boisterous) in a quiet, out-of-the way location where we had glass after glass of an easy-drinking Côtes du Rhône: the 2008 Delas Saint-Esprit. What surprised me was how well it went with everything, from a squash soup to a frittata with sorrel to a bean gratin with bacon. I concluded it must be because this is a Grenache-intense blend with maybe a small dollop of Syrah.

And then I found out I was wrong. The Saint-Esprit is mostly Syrah with a little Grenache. The exact opposite of my well-reasoned, educated, professional conclusion based on years of experience. D’oh! Only 30% of the wine goes into barrels and the rest is left in tank so it retains a lot of freshness, has very low tannins, and isn’t heavy or sweet. And certainly being in a convivial setting, surrounded by delicious food and the laughter of friends both old and new, makes good wine taste great.

So if you had to choose one red to go with a multi-course meal, what would you pick?

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2009 Delas Côtes du Rhône “Saint Esprit” $12

Champagne: V is for Vilmart

Vilmart Champagne
I can admit to being a bit finicky and quite opinionated about Champagne. My strident feelings bubbled (hee hee) over at the uncritical stance many of my colleagues have towards Grower Champagne. (As opposed to negociants who often purchase grapes or juice to blend into their Champagne, growers own the land, harvest the grapes, and make the wine. You can tell a Grower Champagne from a negociant by looking for the tiny “RM” at the bottom of the label versus “NM”, respectively.) While most of my favorites are from growers, I felt that the discussion surrounding these Champagnes, sometimes affectionately referred to as (seriously) “Farmer Fizz”, and the larger houses seemed to cleave in an all-too tidy “us versus them” dichotomy. Just because a Champagne house is big (or owned by a large company) doesn’t mean it’s bad or that Grower Champagne is good solely based on heartstring-tugging sentimentality. Part of my stance on this issue I will admit comes from my penchant to be a contrarian, but I like to judge and recommend Champagne based on the most important criteria: taste.

But lest you think I sit around all day guzzling Fortune 500 Champagne, I must tell you about my new favorite producer. And it happens to be a grower. (“You liberal hippie!”) Tasting the Champagnes of Vilmart was a game-changer for me; they are simply the finest producer of the loveliest sparkling wines.

I’ll address the rosé first, the Cuvée Rubis. Wowzers! It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to drink. Sometimes there is a bit of hesitancy on the part of people to try rosé Champagne; but for bubbles fanatics like myself, they are often the most memorable and pleasurable. The Rubis teases out flavors of every red berry fruit you can imagine, from the sweet to the tart, with a rich finish that’s like a dollop of some yet-to-be-discovered, otherworldly creamy goodness.

The 2004 Grand Cellier d’Or is a stunner. Like Krug (which is in my mind the gold standard of Champagne; the 1996 may be the best wine period I’ve ever had), Vilmart ferments and ages the still wine in barrels before transforming it into Champagne. This process gives the wines a richness and complexity that does a gorgeous dance with Champagne’s natural acidity and liveliness. Somehow the Grand Cellier is both substantial and ethereal at the same time.

So what Champagnes are you looking forward to enjoying this holiday season?

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Muscadet Built for the Cellar

Pepiere Muscadet Clos des BriordsAs a lover of the bracing whites of France’s Loire Valley, my introduction to Muscadet (made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape) was a welcome delight. And if you love oysters and (like me) have a budget far from unlimited, Muscadet is the ultimate bivalve wine. It’s the kind of wine you want to drink ultra-fresh and well-chilled. At least that’s what I thought until I was introduced to the Pepiere Muscadet Clos des Briords.*

Produced from vines planted in 1930, the Clos des Briords defies the typical profile of your everyday light and crisp Muscadet. It has remarkable depth and length and is certainly well-suited for the cellar. Last night I enjoyed a magnum (with friends; not by myself) of the 2005 and it was lovely. I feel slightly guilty for opening it up so soon, but the pleasure of enjoying it with friends washed away any misgivings.

If you are starting to cellar wine, or already do so, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value in a wine you can easily lay down for a decade. And nothing is more fun than pulling a big bottle out of the cellar; magnums rule!

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*I must give praise and a lifetime of thanks to my former Triage sales rep, Tom, for introducing me to this wine and the fact that I could get it in magnums! Go have a pizza at his place in Seattle.

Viognier is Voluptuous

Lovely French ViognierIs there a wine that smells better than Viognier? It reaches its aromatic pinnacle in a tiny little sliver of the French wine world, Condrieu. This Northern Rhone appellation produces Viognier with truly ethereal properties: fragrant like blossoming fruit trees, with a textured richness recalling some kind of nectar only accessible to mythological gods or hummingbirds.

Condrieu and other transcendental white wines, unfortunately, come at a steep price. So I was thrilled to reacquaint myself with a lovely French Viognier that hints at Condrieu but at a third of the price. The Domaine Rougié Viognier is just a pretty, pretty wine to drink and requires no accompaniment other than a corkscrew and a glass. OK, maybe some butter-poached lobster and a fennel and apple salad. And a hot date.

This Viognier inspired me to pull my well-worn copy of Jay McInerney’s Bacchus & Me; his musings regarding “The Cult of Condrieu” make everything I’ve just written seem as passionate as a parking ticket. And he has a very logical justification for why you should shell out good money for this most fragrant of white wines: “Perfume is much more expensive, and it’s not potable.”

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(Oh, and the 02-09-2009 on the label is the date the grapes were harvested. Provincial American that I am, I wondered why they would pick grapes in February. Then it dawned on me that I was an idiot.)

(And when I say Viognier is voluptuous I’m thinking Rita Hayworth in Gilda)

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