You thought you knew what wine was? Hah!

April 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

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A scrumptious Minervois from Benjamin Taillandier

My most recent Portland Press Herald wine column is the third in a series on “natural” wine. Regardless of your feelings on this category of sorts, it’s growing in importance, and the debates are worthwhile. They signal where wine drinking is going in this country, in this world.

This week I try to focus on what to expect from the tastes of natural wine. What to expect is…the unexpected! That’s the point. Some of the wines taste just delicious, some are…interesting. Which can be great, and still delicious, or not good at all. Just like other wine! Either way, familiarize yourselves with them. Your world will open.

clos lojen

The indigenous Bobal grape makes this Manchuela wine

I’ve met a bunch of people lately who are ordering cases, because they’ve found something in wines fermented with natural (“wild”) yeasts and bottled with either no sulfur or a tiny amount, that tastes like life — like a more vivid, lifelike version of life!

Who you callin’ “fruit”?

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Reprinted from Portland Press Herald, August 25, 2010

Wine sellers use the word “fruity” at their peril. Red wine drinkers, especially, seem put off by the notion that a wine should express its origin in a grape; instead, they want “powerful,” “earthy,” “big” wines.

I do too, but not all the time – not even most of the time. Most of the time, I want to enjoy my meal, contribute to the conversation and leave the table refreshed enough to put my kids to bed and remain happy once the alcohol kick has left its jubilance phase.

“Fruity,” it seems, connotes superficiality, sweetness and childishness, whereas “dry” connotes intelligence, complexity and dank Tuscan cellars. Like “dark-roasted” with coffee, the association of “dry” with profundity is simplistic. I call a wine “fruity” if it’s sprightly, fresh-tasting and young, and if the soul of the fruit itself is present in the wine.

Generally, these wines emphasize vigor and charm. Not only is this OK (doesn’t mean you’re not a complex person), it’s preferable for the current season: still summer, but steering toward harvest time. In our foods as well as our wines, we are moving from all things crisp and tingly to slightly more heft and bass-note oomph.

Wines with prominent, balanced fruit provide the perfect bridge: The flavors are of things above ground (plants, fruits) rather than below (minerals, earth). The body is supple and less aggressive, and the tannins are subtle. The following reds show what fruit has to offer when transformed by a firm hand; they’re evidence that anyone who thinks fruity wines are childish must not like children.

Clos Lojen 2008, Manchuela, Spain, $14 (Wicked): Immediate, accessible notes of licorice, dried mint, pepper, leather and thyme. But as delightful as those components are, they’re ultimately just clothing for the wine’s (lithe, sinewy) flesh of super-fresh, ripe black plums and Bing cherries.

Made from 100 percent biodynamically farmed Bobal, a grape unique to Manchuela, it’s an all-natural wine, with no sulfites added. The 29-year-old winemaker (and fourth-generation Bobal grower) uses carbonic maceration, a process traditionally employed to make Beaujolais – the queen of delightfully fruity, food-friendly wines. The Clos Lojen is for Labor Day barbecues of burgers, chicken and pork, then on to winter squash, cranberries and root vegetables.

Camille Cayran Secret de Campane 2008, Orange, France, $12 (Nappi): You know how fruits often gain complexity when treated with spices such as star anise, cardamom and cinnamon? This wine is like that – a late-summer plum tart sprinkled with autumnal spices.

A little smoother in the mouth than the Clos Lojen, and a little more antique-y in profile – I imagine its home at a wooden bar banquette rubbed smooth by generations of loyal drinkers. But it retains that necessary liveliness.

A blend of Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Merlot, it effortlessly combines two personalities: your smart uncle who’s traveled to places and met people you never will, and your sly niece who’s always running faster than you can.

Trappolini Cenereto 2008, Lazio, Italy, $14 (Devenish): This is the most rustic, Old-World-y of the bunch, but still alert and fresh. A terrific cinnamon-and-leather earthiness from 50 percent Sangiovese mingles with 50 percent Montepulciano to provide ripeness, tomato and deep, dark fruit. A light-to-medium body keeps it August-ready, prepared to pair with day-after grilled meats still cool from the fridge.

Or, when your garden tomatoes start moving away from their prime, the best treatment is oven-roasting with some herbs, garlic and bread crumbs; here’s your wine. A roast-beef sandwich with Russian dressing or red-sauce pasta dishes would have no better friend.

Importers rule. Especially Chris Campbell.

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Reprinted from Portland Press Herald, Sept. 22, 2010

Many wine drinkers confess they often buy based on the label. Who can blame them? The variety of wines is so great, the guidance so untrustworthy. At least a superficial buy is based on one’s own reaction rather than second-hand opinion.

I fully support label-based buying, but it’s the label on the back of the bottle, which hosts one of the most important pieces of information about a given wine: its importer. Who? The importer traipses lonely wine regions looking for winemakers not yet represented in this country but – he thinks – should be. Then she makes a deal, thereby acting as crucial educator/middleman for us, the drinkers.

There are many importers with dollar signs for eyes. The important ones, though, are those with a clear, personal, passionate perspective, who usually share the following preferences: handmade/natural-process wines; smaller production; out-of-the-way winemakers. They also thrill at the prospect of finding something new, because they cherish discovery and want to push people into new spheres of experience. They barely ever mention point scores. Next time you find a wine you like, note the name of the importer (ask your shop for guidance if necessary) and start your journey: See if you don’t find other exciting wines you wouldn’t have otherwise.

To begin this line of inquiry, I can’t think of a better profile than Chris Campbell of C&P Wines. Chris has developed a far-ranging portfolio that covers every corner of Spain. He favors true sense of place over almost everything else, a relief in the current market where so much Spanish wine tends toward New World-emulating conformity (high alcohol, concentration, jam).

What does “sense of place” bring? Chris told me, “It brings purity of fruit. Distinctive flavors. Freshness. It comes only when winemakers spend most of their time in the vineyard and get out of the way in the cellar. We can all be more than consumers; we feel connected to the process.” Rather than rack up “big” wines designed to win awards, Chris wants to draw attention to the building blocks: “Y’know, before we talk about this Reserva (aged more than three years) for that once-in-a-lifetime dinner party, let’s appreciate the actual fruit in the Joven (“young” wine, with little or no aging) Younger drinkers are recognizing the value of vintage variation, place variation; they want to be surprised. The word ‘indigenous’ is bringing people in.”

The whole deal matters to Chris, as when he says, “I don’t work with anyone I don’t have a personal relationship with. When someone wants to send me samples, I usually caution them, ‘Maybe we should meet first.’ Because that needs to be in place before I commit to the wine.”

Philosophy of importing? “The guys I admire are Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Terry Theise, J.D. Headrick. They all have an attitude, but they don’t impose a style. Their egos aren’t in the way.”

In Maine, C&P is distributed by Wicked Wines.

Ametza Txakoli 2009, Arabako, $19. Salt, rocks, herbs, rounded by apricot-tinged tenderness. Thrilling mint and lemon in an incredibly fresh white.

Sa Ra Da 2008, Almansa, $10. There is no better $10 red wine. Zippy tongue-tingling start, then soft and supple – a gentle spirit.

Valdehermoso 2008 Joven, Ribera del Duero, $12. RdD is a hotspot for overdone-ness, but this 12.5 percent-alcohol red is a shimmering exception. Lively but structured, it’s really like an uncomplicated but character-ful Bordeaux, with all the cedar, cherry, and soft tannins that implies. The Valdehermoso 2008 Roble ($17) is fuller-bodied, with more cocoa and spice and a longer, more biting finish.

Rejadorada Tinto Roble 2007, Toro, $20. Adult wine, but not austere. It shares traits with Napa Cabernet, of all things – cherries, eucalyptus, 14.5 percent alcohol – but with a balance and minerality Napa would kill for. Napa’s other motives for homicide: It doesn’t have the Rejadorada’s pencil lead, dust, licorice, smoke, stone. An unoaked version, the Rosum, goes for $15.

Many other great C&P wines are out there, including two I’ve written about previously: The Castellroig Xarel-Lo (a still wine from Cava’s grape, but there are brilliant Castellroig Cavas too), $9-Enanzos, and the Clos Lojen.

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