The Vouvray-Tokaji Connection

July 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Don’t follow the grape. Don’t even follow the region. Follow the actual spirit of the thing. I love acidity-laced wines with huge mouthfeel. That’s my spirit-center:  wines that are both ringing with juicy snap and grounded with luxe-y heft. Spätlese as a way of life. Rare.

Prayers answered: Huet Vouvray and Kiràlyudvar Tokaji. Spiritual cousins. White wine for grown-ups. Read on.

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Thanksgiving in France. Nothing says “turkey” like the Loire…

November 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

I just got an email promoting a seminar on how to pair wine for Thanksgiving that spoke of how “difficult” it is to find the right matches for America’s National Food Day. Hogwash! It’s so easy, because the foods range all over the flavor spectrum. You just need wines that have high acidity, low alcohol, and a touch of sweetness. Oh, right, for so many winemakers, wine writers and wine drinkers, that is difficult! Sorry, I forgot.

Anyway, my Portland Press Herald column today explores Thanksgiving wine by way of applauding Cynthia Hurley French Wines, an outstanding importer of wines from France. I emphasize Hurley’s Loire selections because they’re exemplary, but the portfolio represents many great French regions. Drink ’em all year, but there’s no better time than now to get acquainted…

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.

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.

You had me at “Vouvray”

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Reprinted from Portland Press Herald, September 15, 2010

Why isn’t Chenin blanc more popular? Why don’t more wine lists at restaurants that profess to know about accurate food pairing include more Vouvrays than Chardonnays? What is it about lower alcohol content, seriously crisp acidity and subtle, tantalizing sweetness that is not worth celebrating?

Chenin blanc is one of the great white grapes to match with food – in a rarefied league with Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc – and reaches its highest form in the Loire Valley region of France known as Vouvray. Chenin’s naturally high acidity, which allows it to take form as everything from dry sparkling wines to spectacular dessert wines, also makes Vouvray such an able food partner, as well as endowing it with the capacity to age exceptionally well: “moelleux” Vouvrays (those with more residual sugar than the “sec”, or dry, varieties) have been known to go more than a century; the Savennieres listed below would be fascinating 20 years from now, so buy several and track it.

When tasting Vouvray, first notice its transparency – its ability to pick up the minutest of elements from terroir and climate variation and reflect them brilliantly and clearly. Vouvray is, above all, clear, honest wine; any foolish tampering (for instance, use of new oak) is instantly revealed. Only winemakers who respect their grapes and land enough to practice restraint in the cellar produce good Vouvray; others don’t make bad Vouvray, they just stop trying altogether.

Many Vouvrays are also perfect whites as the weather turns colder, with full body and trademark honey notes, as well as unmistakable (and for whites, rare) earthiness. As you alter your menus in line with the autumn, consider these foods and preparations that match exquisitely with Vouvray: fried seafood, cream sauces, winter squash, edamame, veal, pork, mushrooms, vegetable soups and mildly spiced sautes/stir-fries. Indeed, Chenin’s green-leaf notes link better with vegetables than almost any other wine (exception: Gruner Veltliner) – an increasingly significant advantage given the way more and more of us are eating these days.

Vincent Raimbault Vouvray Sec “Bel Air” 2008, Loire, France, $18 (Devenish). Racy, sleek and vibrant wine. Lacks the sweetness some of us love, but for bone-dry-heads, this is it. There’s muscle along with sinew, though, and feral musk. Fascinating three-dimensionality at first, then kind of funnels toward pinpointedness as it finishes.

A. Monmousseau Vouvray “Clos Le Vigneau” 2008, Loire, France, $20 (Davine). The big thing here is how it evolves over time, in both mouth and glass, hitting notes of sweet, sharp, bitter. If you like stories, taste this wine and watch it narrate. Like the Raimbault, it starts wide open but narrows as it goes. For that reason, a friend and I agreed that this is the perfect wine for fried fish: It can hit the fat of the coating, the sweet of the dipping sauce, and the spritz of lemon at the end.

Champalou Vouvray 2008, Loire, France, $19 (Nappi). Open-air spirit, dry-grass nose, powerful lemony finish, fresh. Bright and lean, totally dry but not light-bodied – just achingly delicate. Fast but full.

La Craie Vouvray 2009, Loire, France, $15 (Central). Not only does this have delicious honey, it has the beeswax too: a textured, lingering mouthfeel. Apples mid-palate, laced with dried herbs like thyme and rosemary. “La Craie” refers to the chalky soils of this wine’s terroir, and lends traits of talc, porosity and real grip. I’m dreaming of a grilled Roquefort-and-caramelized-onion sandwich

J. Moreau et Fils Vouvray Demi-Sec 2006, Loire, France, $13 (Central). We’re moving toward the more viscous, lusty, nectar-y end of the spectrum here. Pears. Cream. Live mammals. Still ringed with acidity and clean as a whistle, but with a cool guitar-feedback quality of heft and fuzz.

Damien Laureau Savennieres 2006, Loire, France, $28 (Central). Savennieres is the crown-jewel subregion of Vouvray, a schist-filled microclimate capable of producing intense, regal, monumentally structured wines like this one. This is what you drink with big cold-weather meals now and 20 years from now, laughing at your friends who spent twice as much on a Burgundy with half the wild spirit of the Laureau. Aged 18 months to bring out its … its everything, minerally and large, with soft smoke and insistent hazelnut, try it with scallops, rich sauces or strong cheeses.

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