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…

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?

Restaurant Bresca, where wine and food actually have fun together

November 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

I write this week about Krista Kern Desjarlais, chef-owner of Bresca in Portland. Krista’s a fantastic cook, of course, but more important (for me) is that she really understands wine’s relationship to food. She crafts a dynamic, continually moving list that never dumbs down, never plays to the big crowds, yet provides countless crowd-pleasing options.

Krista is all about lesser-known regions, and her girl-after-my-own-heart fascination of the moment is with Austrian reds (or, for another good link, Austrian whites), which she rightly sees as well-attuned to the profiles of food and mood in this little corner of our world: cold-climate varietals, very pure and direct, no-BS, complex but inviting.

For most of us a meal at Bresca isn’t an every-week affair, but next time you can save up some nice-meal scratch, get there. And for all-y’all Portland restaurants that don’t get it — and you know who I’m talking about, and you know I mean some of the “best” restaurants in Portland — pay attention to how Krista puts together her list.

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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