Best way to bring best French wine? Live in Loire, sleep on NYC couches
April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
From Portland Press Herald, April 27, 2011
This is a Golden Era for anyone excited about wine. That’s not because 2008 Oregon Pinots are “perfect” (though they are), nor because 2009 Burgundies are ready-to-drink-now (kinda true, which is why 2008s are better), nor because 2009 Beaujolais is the “vintage of a lifetime” (not; 2009s just taste like Malbec so the industry is happy).
It’s a Golden Era because of a generation of young, curious and un-hidebound importers, who are bringing to market an array of exciting, honest wines from little-known producers and regions that until recently you had to travel great distances to find. For under $15 a bottle.
Exhibit A: Laurent Bonnois. As the importer behind Maximilien Selections, Bonnois brings to the U.S. low-priced Old-World wines of character. Some of the best-selling in Maine are ridiculously quirky, with obscure grapes and from places even French people know little about, yet they sell because they’re delicious and real. “I like lighter wine,” Bonnois told me. “I want people to have a second glass. Oak helps wine age, but most people here don’t buy wine to age it, they’re drinking it tonight. They want to taste freshness, minerality, liveliness, acidity, balance.”
Read wine magazines and compare how many times you see such terms as “freshness”, “liveliness” and “balance” with the count for “gobs”, “huge”, “concentrated” and “inky”. I have no idea what sort of point-scores Bonnois’ wines garner, but it’s a sign of the increasing irrelevance of such reviews that ordinary drinkers are buying a lot of Maximilien wines these days. We care about the connections between wine and food, and are not rich or stupid enough to buy ego-gratifying trophy wine.
“I’m looking for pleasure,” Bonnois said, “for wines that will really go with food. When I taste, it’s with a casual sort of drinker in mind, who’s sitting at the bar or cooking dinner….Many wine-sellers and critics think people drink the way professionals taste, but it’s not so. What normal person tastes through 30 wines?! So, often what gets promoted is based on false assumptions about what people want.”
Bonnois worked for years in New York City restaurants, eventually opening a wine shop, Blanc et Rouge, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. In 2007 he sold the store and moved with his wife and two kids to Bourgueil in the Loire, where his father lives. Most U.S. importers live stateside; Laurent lives where he works, “and I sleep on a friend’s couch every time I come to NYC.” By living in France and selling his wines through a U.S. agent, he can stay closer to the winemakers he loves.
He can also live cheaply (“I’m not greedy,” he told me. “I live in the Loire and I don’t need much money”), and pass his parsimony on to us. (How else to get offbeat wines into people’s hands?) These wines pose little threat to the under-$4, market-tested corporate junk enjoying a heyday, of course, but those wines aren’t values; they’re just cheap. Maximilien brings within reach wines of uncommon complexity and truth. Here are just a few:
La Croix Blanche Côtes de Gascogne 2009, $10. Crisp and easy, this just pops. It’s what most people who choose Sauvignon Blanc are actually looking for.
Château de la Morinière Muscadet sur Lie ‘Vielles Vignes’ 2009, $12. From 35-year-old vines and aged a long time on the lees, this is a relatively full-bodied, rugged Muscadet you will drink with every meal containing oysters or tender white fish from now until October.
Domaine Grand Chardonnay 2008, Côtes du Jura, $16. A rich Chardonnay with a hint of oxidation that sees one year of oak-aging, but comes through very clean. From a winemaker who has been farming biodynamically for 20 years, using only natural yeast. All Chardonnay-lovers should know this wine. (Domaine Grand’s red Trousseau, mentioned in my previous column, is currently my favorite wine.)
Famille Laurent Saint-Pourçain 2008, $14. By now almost classic, this upper-Loire Gamay–Pinot Noir blend is what helped make Laurent Bonnois’ name in these parts. Gamey, with open-air earthy qualities and pure, driving fruit. Perfect summer red, slightly chilled or not.
Domaine du Bel Air Bourgeuil 2003, $14. When’s the last time you tasted an eight-year-old Loire Cabernet Franc for this price? Chewy, dense and alive, this brings to mind Terry Theise’s warning that a wine that is “concentrated” is only good if what you’re concentrating is attractive. Here the concentration is of land rather than fruit: pepper, branches, dried herbs.
Le Grand Rouvière Côtes de Provence 2009, $13. Old-vine love from Provence, and it hits with everything Provence is known for. Starting with a chunk of plump, oil-cured olives, then twiggy herbs, dry bark and some subtle grill marks. As it finishes, slowly, it takes on a grippy bitterness and expresses sun-baked rocks. I’d love to try this vintage in 5 years. Just a terrific red for grilled meat or even grilled whole fish.