January 5, 2011 § Leave a Comment
From Portland Press Herald, January 5, 2011
Meet the importer Peter Weygandt, who modestly calls himself a “glorified prospector”. Weygandt’s tastes and philosophy are firmly rooted in old-school traditions, but he’s never fusty or reactionary. He stands for what I’d call a holistic, macroscopic approach to natural, handmade wines. The holistic view comprehends that no wine is made in a vacuum, according to checklists or scorecards. The people who produce them from grapes they grow themselves require long-term physical, economic and social health, just as their vines do. Weygandt calls his winemakers “midwives”, to emphasize their role as able aids in a process rather than ego-stricken engineer-geniuses.
His wines deliver remarkable value for the price (see below), but those prices are real. “You cannot have low yields and hard work in the vineyard,” he told me, “and get the same prices as wines made by negoçiants or co-ops.” Such operations, which buy often-lesser grapes from numerous growers, usually rely on increased technological intervention and low wages to drive down prices. Weygandt asserts that economies-of-scale-leveraged co-op wines’ prices ought to be even lower than they are, because they are majority profit (for the co-ops, of course, not the growers). (Perhaps Trader Joe’s $3 Shaw wines are that rare phenomenon: an honestly priced co-op wine).
None of this comes without cost to the wine itself. “There are enough consumers who can taste the difference between hand-harvested, low-yield [wines] on one hand, and the mass-produced stuff on the other,” Weygandt says. “It’s not theory; you taste the difference! I’m dependent on consumers who can taste the difference, and for whom the difference matters.”
The Weygandt-imported wines available in Maine (distributed by Wicked) that I’ve tasted share an unmistakable vibrancy and right-there-ness. This is bigger than terroir, bigger even than the familiar panoply of traditional approaches: appropriate-varietal planting, hand-harvesting, low grape-per-acre yields, minimal cellar intervention and sulfites, etc. Vibrancy and immediacy of true flavor come, to put it imprecisely but accurately, from winemakers who get it, and you’re not going to know who gets it by what’s printed on a wine label. Instead, you’ve got to align yourself with importers, sommeliers and retailers (informed middlemen) who share your values.
“Once you start to develop regulations,” Weygandt said, “you lose the entire spirit of what it’s about. This is what irks me about the ‘organic’ label. Organic viticulture addresses only what’s put on the vines. It says nothing about pruning, about deshooting, about canopy management, about hand-harvesting! Nothing about the use of enzymes and artificial yeasts in fermentation, and nothing about low yields….The regulations are all designed for the big guys, and the big guys drive the small guys out.”
This is where you come in. (Weygandt told me he has been amazed by the Maine market’s willingness to try new things.) Buy these wines for taste and liveliness alone, but in doing so you’ll be casting a vote for the small guys, for the planet itself, and for the long-term success of the way wines should be made.
Domaine des Cassagnoles Gros Manseng 2009, Côtes de Gascogne, France ($11). A little-known southwestern-France grape, producing what most people wanting an everyday Sauvignon Blanc are actually looking for: a crisp, citric white with just enough of a plump middle to keep things friendly.
Domaine Bonhomme Vielles Vignes 2009, Viré-Clessé (Burgundy), France ($17). A soaring Chardonnay that swoops outward with flowers, then tightens into stones, salt, and scrub-brush, Chablis-like. The Acadia National Park of whites.
Domaine des Aubuisieres Vouvray Cuvée de Silex 2009, Loire, France ($16). My current favorite <$20 white, for the way the softness and richness are encapsulated in crackling acidity. For the meal-making granular texture only possible with low-intervention wines. For the frangipane and cardamom notes, for the endless intrigue.
Monte La Sarda 2009, Aragon, Spain ($11). A Garnacha that’s not trying to be Malbec? Yes, this is the true, tangled, wild heart of Garnacha: Plush but peppery, woodsy and kicking.
Domaine Plouzeau Chinon Rive Gauche, Loire, France ($14). A perfect Cabernet Franc, because it has only the best of that underloved varietal’s classic attributes: Black pepper over green; long, granitic minerality; aromas of smoke, bark and wool. The fruit is integrated with such clarity, and the whole wine develops mightily over an hour or more, gaining depth rather than power. It finishes like Yves Montand or something, almost wistfully.
Clos Martinet Menut 2006, Priorat, Spain ($20). Most of us will never taste a good Priorat, because even when they’re not overripe, over-extracted and over-oaked, they need to age longer than you’re willing to wait. But here’s a good, truly approachable-now Priorat (made by a woman – a rarity in the Priorat): fat but balanced, and bloody perfect for a bloody steak.
December 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
From Portland Press Herald, December 22, 2010
Gifts that actually keep on giving
New federal laws state that any end-of-year newspaper column must either be a best-of list, offer gift suggestions, or discuss parties. Because I’m constantly afraid the black helicopters are going to swoop down and extraordinary-rendition my poor, inebriated butt to an abandoned Australian vineyard, I will obey.
Parties: Attend them. We’ll talk about bubbly wine next year, though. Until Dec. 31 you’re going to bring any old sparkling wine to parties and you’re not going to pay attention to the quality — or to the fact that many sparkling wines make the most incredible food wines. You already know how to buy a get-happy-and-a-little-drunk sparkling wine; let’s talk in January when you’re sober.
OK, on to best-of lists and gift suggestions. As most of you know, I’m navel-gazing to the point of egotism, so I’m going to talk about a few of the best wine-related gifts I have received this year, hoping they’re instructive for you.
I finally got some Riedel wine glasses, for Hanukkah. The difference is astonishing, and supports a friend’s comment, upon tasting wine from my old (wedding-gift) glasses, that no one should ever have trusted my response to a wine tasted from them. I poured a nothing-special red wine into a Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass and a wedding-present glass, and even a non-wine-lover guest was floored by the difference — in aromas, palate complexity, mouthfeel.
There are thousands of people who spend 50 American dollars on over-engineered junk gifts such as the Electric Rabbit Wine Opener, which has no positive effect on one’s wine experience (and cultivates sloth, weakness and stupefaction), when they could buy a two-pack of Riedel glasses. Infuriating, if not surprising.
What emerged from the Riedel glass was another gift: the understanding that vinifying without filtration is the single most crucial cellar behavior in determining the quality of a wine. The “nothing-special red” mentioned above is the Domaine la Bastide “Les Genets” Syrah 2008 VdP, available for around $12 (Wicked). I’ve had enough mediocre Syrah to know that it’s very difficult to find anything under $20 with this wine’s true Syrah character: Californian at first in its ripe burst, but evolves over an hour into fresh asphalt, licorice, drying plums, and smoky bacon. The wild aromas keep coming as it opens up, countered by silken texture and perfectly tuned tannins.
The wine’s importer, Peter Wygandt, emphasizes unfiltered wines because he knows how thoroughly the act of filtering “impurities” from natural wines strips much of their true character. Sometimes filtration is necessary, but it’s often used to anesthetize wines for the hypothetical “market” that supposedly doesn’t want to encounter any sediment. The gift you could offer the wine market is proving that attitude wrong, by asking your wine merchant for unfiltered wines.
Speaking of Syrah, another gift I recently received was the opportunity to be proven wrong about it. California wines generally underwhelm (or overwhelm) me, but the Bruce Neyers Old Lakeville Road Syrah 2006 from Sonoma, California, is $35 (Nappi), worth more and utterly giftable. No, it’s not Hermitage or Cote-Rotie (French home of the greatest Syrahs), but it is true to self and truly terroir-driven. It unwinds, from ripe plums into an almost existential darkness, packed with charcoal and fresh, loamy earth. A slow, harmonious, tender wine, to accompany slow, harmonious, tender food and people.
Thanks, too, to the folks at Vias Imports, who earlier this year conducted a tasting of the 2005 Cru Barbarescos from Produttori del Barbaresco (Pine State). Prices vary according to the cru, but give the Pora or Rabaja to your favorite (patient) wine-lover. Barbaresco is famously slow to mature, and a 5-year-old is preposterously young, but 2005 was so good that for the first time in my life I saw the potential energy contained in the Nebbiolo grape, a balance of minerality, spice and fruit like none other.
Passing time together is a gift. Magisterial importer Neal Rosenthal recently gifted me this explanation for the size of a wine bottle: “It holds too much wine to be drunk alone.” Wine is about sharing, which is the essence of the best things, and all gifts, and all parties. At a recent tasting of Rosenthal’s wines, I found signs of sediment everywhere — a sign that filtration was avoided (Rosenthal insists on this). His Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rouge 2006 $37 (Mariner), is pure Pinot noir heaven, with a glassy, glycerine elegance, fresh red fruit, and how’s-he-do-that mix of lightness and density. It’s lovely now, but when your loved one invites you to uncork it together in 2020, the gift will have arrived in full.