Muscadet, for now and forever.

July 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

ImageWhy forever? Because you can age it, dummy! Muscadet is briny, light and great with oysters. Yes. Sure. I get you. But there’s a lot more to the story. My column in the Portland Press Herald last week tells a small sliver of that story.

Gist: Great Muscadet is not to be trifled with. Set aside your oysters, and bring on the main course, even if the main course includes hearty fish, cockles and clams, sausage. And one of the greats of the greats is Guy Bossard. Bossard is a legend in the Loire for his low-tech, all-natural approach. Now that he’s in his 60s and looking to the future, has hired a protégé, Fred Niger, and the winery is now called Domaine de L’Écu.

Whatever you call ’em, the wines are extraordinary now, but will gain tremendous complexity over the next 3-10 years at least. It’s a bargain investment: $19 for a bottle of wine that already offers much of what good Chablis does, and over time will offer even more.

Chenin blanc, not just for Vouvray anymore, but always for Thanksgiving

November 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

I think “Vouvray” rolls off the tongue better than “Malbec”, and tastes a helluva lot better too, but people don’t buy Vouvray the way they buy Malbec. So, maybe the mellifluous “Chenin” is the better way to get people drinking more wine made from this tantalizing, slightly mysterious varietal.

My column in this week’s Portland Press Herald celebrates the noble Chenin Blanc grape as it is nurtured by appropriate soils and climates outside of the fabled Loire Valley. Specifically, in South Africa — where, in one of the wines, Chenin is blended with deskinned Pinotage! — as well as Washington’s Columbia Valley and Sonoma County’s Dry Creek. Your Thanksgiving table (and guests) will repay you with many, many thanks…

Summer wines for when you’re feeling wintry

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

People have already asking me if I’m feeling OK. Maybe I laid it on a little thick at the start of my Portland Press Herald wine column today, but I was just being honest. Everyone asks how your summer’s going and if you don’t grin and say “Great!”, then somehow you’ve given the wrong answer. Summer’s great, but it can be a bit stressful as the schedule and routine explode, and you’re stuck at work when you should be at the beach.

Anyway, I’ve found a couple of thrilling wines lately to cure my summertime blues: a Muscadet with 30 months of lees-aging that tastes much grander than most Muscadet I know, and a simple roble from Jumilla (majority Monastrell) that just makes me smile. Which is often more than enough.

Desert-island wine? It’s all about the place (and the Loire)

May 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’re taken from your home and deposited on a deserted island. You’re given the choice of which  region’s wines to bring along. What’s it gonna be? I asked a bunch of thoughtful people — wine salespeople, restaurant beverage managers, writers — and they responded. Today’s column kicks off the conversation, which yielded a surprisingly clear winner: Loire Valley, France. Other contenders were Alto Adige, Campania, and southwest France; we’ll get into those in coming weeks…meanwhile, what’s your choice?

Rock on: Headrick Loire wines and the primacy of place

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve never really heard or read anyone speak eloquently about what “minerality” in wines actually is. I know I have a hard time translating into language that sense of stones in the glass. Wines from the Loire make me try harder than any other wine, though (with the one obvious exception of Mosel Riesling). From flinty Sancerre to sawtooth Vouvray, the Loire valley’s unique terroir (the geologic beneficiary of the 7.32 trillion oysters who have given their lives to its bedrock over the millennia) imbues rocks with poetry.

This week in the Portland Press Herald, I give thanks to the Loire, and specifically to Jon David Headrick, a Loire specialist who imports stunning Savennières and Cheverny, but also scintillating “everyday” Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscadet and Gamay that are joyful at the simplest of tables but hold their own at the most elegant. Jon David is on our side: the side of the small guys over the big, of the interesting over the stupid, of finesse over blast. You know: us quiet soldiers.

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.

Muhammad Ali had no problem being pretty, what about your red wine?

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, 13 April 2011

Rosé is delicious twelve months of the year, but the bulk of it is drunk from May to September. Although the past few years have seen a remarkable increase in wine drinkers’ willingness to appreciate pink wine, and the 2010 vintages are coming into stores and restaurants now, the critical mass won’t start buying for another month or so.

Consequently, let’s call this the season of pretty red wines. Pretty red wines are an easy segue into pink wine and the increased white-wine-drinking that summer brings. Pretty red wines unapologetically emphasize prettiness, which I’ll define as a tilt toward softness, smooth-edged integration of flavors, tannins in the background if anywhere, prominence of flowers and red fruit (cherries, cranberries, strawberries, certain kinds of plums; no dark plums, no blueberries) over earth and mammals.

Pretty reds are what many wine drinkers at least claim they don’t want, because as serious, substantial people they of course prefer “hearty reds” or “dry reds”. Anyone who lives in a cold climate, has adult responsibilities, eats (maybe also kills) meat and knows how to change their own oil must, of course, drink deep, dark red wine. The coffee is French roast, the flannel is thick, the boots are mud-caked, the driveway is shoveled, so the wine is dark red and bellows: The tannins are rip-snorting, the mouthfeel is Big-League-Chew, the blackberries and cocoa land their kidney punch.

To which a part of me says, Grow up, sunshine. Or at least, lighten up. It’s mid-April and aren’t we ready for something a little different? Anyway, I can’t tell you how many self-professed hearty/dry-red-wine drinkers I’ve seen taste a more supple red wine and absolutely swoon; it’s as if their souls, imprisoned by a Dostoyevsky-narrated-tale of what they’re supposed to prefer, can fly free in the honest air of joy, delicacy and grace. Some of these people even manage to crack smiles.

Here’s how you know a pretty wine: You taste the wine and all those muscles spending all that hard-earned energy “holding everything together” realize they could work half as hard and nothing bad will happen. These muscles are in your jaw, your face, your neck and shoulders; let them go.

Another way of knowing a pretty wine is when you taste it you say, “Wow, that’s just so…pretty!” And then you feel slightly ashamed, because “pretty” is one of those words our culture has come to frown on; who wants to sound like a parody of a second-grade art teacher? But it is pretty. It’s charming. Given the aggressive, overly fierce culture we find ourselves in, that smile — that connection with charm — is important. It’s not a secondary quality, it’s a kind of radical political act.

Pretty reds are, naturally, food wines, when the food is likewise unconcerned with grandstanding. The wines’ delicacy, harmony and grace come into finest focus when paired with simple, light, straightforward foods that springtime calls for: suppers made out of salads, or sandwiches; roast chicken or a simply grilled piece of fish; vegetables touched only by olive oil, salt and lemon; pasta with fresh tomatoes; soft, plainspoken cheeses.

Which grapes make pretty red wines? No iron-clad rules apply, but there are some reasonable guidelines. Pinot noir is an obvious place to start, though for the most part Pinot from France, Germany or Oregon is going to fit the profile better than California or Argentina. Gamay is often very pretty, and Sangiovese can be pretty if the winemaker knows how to tone down the sour-cherry aspect; ditto for Bonarda. Here are some recommendations, but please treat them only as starting-points for your own — smiley, charming — search:

Domaine Grand Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2009, France ($15, Devenish). This is the prettiest wine I’ve tasted in a long time, and the reason I wrote this column. Beautiful ripe fruit, soft as a baby from start to finish. (The grape is Trousseau, native to the Jura.)

Senda 66 Tempranillo 2008, Spain ($10, Mariner). Fuller-bodied than other pretty reds; let’s call it a gateway drug for those of you still skeptical. Succulent dried cherries, dried cranberries, dried roses, a little spice at the end. Gulpable, fun, playful.

Von Schleinitz Pinot Noir 2008, Germany ($22, SoPo). An amazing wine, which were it from Burgundy would cost twice as much. Mineral-rich, indeed as stony as a red wine can be and still be pretty. The cherries are the star here. Soon Von Schleinitz’s 2010 rosé will be available, and there simply are no words for how beautiful that wine is; for now, please splurge and drink this wine.

Château Bianca Pinot Noir 2009, Oregon ($14, Wicked). Perfectly supple mouthfeel, and wild strawberries dance on the tongue. What we talk about when we talk about Oregon.

Culpeo Pinot Noir 2010, Chile ($9, SoPo). Such a refreshing surprise because I don’t ordinarily associate Chilean wines with delicacy. Not complicated or even resonant, the Culpeo still expresses the softness and balance that much louder (and more expensive) wines fail to find.

Best food pairings for everyday wines (Frenched lambchops need not apply)

March 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

From Portland Press Herald, 2 March 2011

Two weeks ago I began a conversation about pairing wine with food, a conversation I’d like to continue today. It’s a conversation, not a set of rules, because as with everything the only real rule is: It depends. We realized long ago, for instance, that the petty fascist who dreamt up “no red wine with fish” must have been so soused on Bordeaux that he never savored the pleasures of Blauburgunder with salmon, Beaujolais with halibut, Blaufrankisch with tuna, or Bourgeuil with tomato-herb fish stew.

So let’s do this calmly, with no pressure and nothing hard-and-fast. There are some general guidelines we might form consensus around, or at least have lively discussions about, recognizing this as the only absolute: Wine is historically an agricultural product, made by people who love food, to accompany their meals and their lives. It’s fine to drink the same wine you know with every meal, but it’s a lot more fun to play around with the possible relationships. Moreover, that’s what wine was made for.

Questions like, “What’s a good red wine for the lamb I’m cooking tonight?” are too easy. Lamb is so earthy, profound and succulent that a better question is which red wine would not go well with it. More casual — and common — meals raise more challenging questions. What if we’re stir-frying a bunch of different vegetables and finishing with dollops of sauce we bought at the Asian market last month, or it’s taco night and everyone at the table has slightly different fillings, or there are chicken breasts or split pea soup or you got take-out?

In all such situations, the best wines are relatively light-bodied and low in alcohol because those are the most flexible, and often with less well-known grapes because those usually come from farmer-based cultures that value simple food just as you do. Below are a couple of principles with a few suggestions. Beyond that, read alcohol levels, don’t fear unfamiliar grape names, and shop wine where you can talk food with a merchant you trust. And tune in for my next column.

Hearty foods want hearty reds…kind of. Beans, braises, sausage, dark sauces have brawny flavors, but two brawns don’t make it right. Non-special-occasion brawn matches best with something persistent yet humble. The best pairings will pick up the big flavors but provide counterpoint in the body and mouthfeel, avoiding murkiness, imbalance and one-dimensionality.
Castello di Meleto Rosso Toscano 2007 ($13, Pine State), mostly Sangiovese with a touch of Merlot, is very earthy, even a little stinky, but terrifically elegant too — a tribute to diligent winemaking that emphasizes low kiloliter-to-vine yields and stainless-steel fermentation.
Don Manuel Villafané Malbec 2008 ($13, Crush) is, um, Malbec for adults. It’s a civilized style, harmonious and restrained, with intense cocoa and baking-spices notes.
Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2006 ($13-14, Pine State), from Sardinia’s indigenous Cannonau varietal, is rustic, equine and briary but surprisingly light-bodied so it stays refreshing.
Ermita San Felices Rioja Crianza 2006 ($13, Devenish) is lively, lighter-style Rioja, with vivid but delicate fruit and unusually food-friendly.

A little sweetness is almost always helpful. I’ve already permanently damaged my larynx screaming about this, but seriously: almost no one truly likes a perfectly dry wine. Wine comes from fruit! Sweetness cuts the heat of spice, complements the sugars elicited by cooking vegetables, usually accompanies lower alcohol levels to befriend more foods, and makes people happy. You just need the sweetness to be offset by acidity, which in well-made wines like these is perfectly done.
Licia Albariño 2007 ($14-15, National). Galicia, Spain’s native varietal is just as aromatic as you want a white to be, but no more so. Classic Albariño oily texture, with big dried-apricot flavor and a fresh-dough sweetness, cut clean by slamming citrus. Very fresh and open-armed, very versatile: Try it with anything heavy in garlic and olive oil, herbs and green veggies.
Fruitière Muscadet “Petit M” 2009 ($12, Central). Muscadet is known as a bracing, rocky and bone-dry white. “Petit M” covers those bases, but adds splendidly integrated sphericity and a bit of fat, which broadens its potential gustatory mates past white fish: baked or fried potatoes, cannelinis, all kinds of salads.
Montinore Borealis Northern White 2008 ($10-11, Nappi), is what Oregon talks about when it talks about yum. A my-kind-of blend of organically grown Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling, this is irresistible, a kind of gateway drug to more complex German and Austrian whites. Crisp but with subtle sweetness and rose petals, this is a great match for coconut curries, Indian dals, spring rolls, sriracha.

Peter Weygandt, real-wine scout

January 5, 2011 § 1 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.

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