This post is my contribution to Cory Cartwright's 32 Days of Natural Wine, on his blog Saignée:
The other day I went to a small wine shop because they had a particular Champagne that I wanted to bring to a wine dinner. I saw it on the shelf and let it sit there as I browsed the rest of the selection. The woman behind the counter came out to talk with me as I looked around. She was very pleasant and also very proud, rightfully so, of the wines she chose for her store. She was talking about her favorite summer wines and she pointed to Dominique Derain's Allez Goutons, a distinctive Aligoté imported by Jenny & François, and said "This wine drinks like beer. I bring it when I'm hanging out with beer drinkers - they always like it."
I'm familiar with Allez Goutons and I like the wine very much. I think I see the connection with beer, as the wine is cloudy, low in alcohol, and sometimes a tiny bit spritzy. I imagined serving the wine the next time I cook something Vietnamese or Thai, something spicy. Then I imagined those beer drinkers she was talking about, tried to picture them. Would they be more or less interested in Allez Goutons if they knew it is a natural wine? The word "organic" on food is appealing to consumers - would the word "natural" on a bottle of wine make it more appealing to customers?
A simple means of identifying natural wine would probably help the average consumer. Imagine something like the Demeter certification, but not only for biodynamic wines, for all natural wines. When shopping for wine, discerning between natural wines and other wines would become as simple as discerning the reds from the whites. There are many people who eat consciously and carefully, yet unknowingly accept the destructive farming practices and the frightening chemicals used to make the wines they drink. Proper labeling could help these folks to spend their money on wines that jibe with their ethics regarding food.
And you know what - in spite of all of that, I sincerely hope that this kind of labeling never happens. Natural wine is a legitimate movement, and as such, it is at risk of being co-opted by the marketing folk. The "natural" label, as I see it, might do more harm than good.
Remember when the word "organic" really meant something? It wasn't all that long ago when the most common way to buy organic food was at your local farmer's market - organic produce was scarce in supermarkets. Now organic food is everywhere, and anything can be organic. Dole sells organic bananas and there are Organic Cheetos. Soon we might see organic Dick Cheney and organic BP, and the sad part is that people will feel better about them once they're organic.
"Organic" has become a marketing term as much or more than it is an indication of the healthful qualities of a food product. What does it even mean to say that food is organic? From the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service:
Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (PDF) and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards.Sounds good. But think about the way this actually works: food ingredients are scrutinized by a governing body and either approved or disapproved for use in organic food production. If a food producer can show that they only use ingredients and techniques that are approved by the governing body, their product can be labeled as organic.
Spanish mackerel are in season and the Blue Moon fish people are bringing them to market. Spanish mackerel are not as pungently "fishy" as other mackerel, but they are certainly of that type. Their flesh is more of a cream color than the oily gray of Boston mackerel, for example, and they have beautiful silvery skin that is flecked with distinctive yellow dots.
This is a fish that children will eat, assuming it is very fresh and simply prepared. Last weekend at the market I saw Spanish mackerel for the first time this summer. Bill Maxwell, the farmer whose produce is far and away the best at the market (he has no website so this will have to do), had corn for the first time too. A simple summer meal came into focus, things that we love to eat, and that we hoped our little daughters would enjoy too.
Broiled Spanish mackerel - nothing but a slight brushing with good quality soy sauce, a sprinkle of salt after it comes out of the oven. You can blend mirin with the soy too, perhaps some grated ginger, and so on.
Boiled corn - I read somewhere that the best way to boil corn is to drop the corn in the boiling water and turn off the heat immediately, cover, and let the corn sit for a couple minutes, that's it. Based on these results, I'm a fan.
Kirby cucumbers with a bit of vinegar - thin slices, toss with a little salt, a small glug of white or rice vinegar, a little thinly sliced red onion. Toss again and let sit for at least a half hour.
That's the dish - an early summer dinner of broiled Spanish mackerel with corn and vinegary cucumbers. You be the sommelier - what wine would you serve with this meal? I'll let you know what we drank and how it worked out at the end of the comments.
Oh, by the way - the little daughters devoured their fish, and the vegetables too. And I hadn't even starved them for two days prior, or anything like that.
Recently I attended a small dinner organized by Michael Wheeler and Joe Salamone and Stephen Bitterolf of Crush. This dinner happened because those guys were able to find certain northern Rhône wines that are beloved to them, and they decided that they wanted to drink them together.
What are the northern Rhône wines that drive these guys to drink? Hermitage? Nope. Côte Rôtie? Nope. Well not on this night, anyway. It was Cornas, mostly, and one particular St. Joseph. We convened at Apiary, where Monday night's no corkage policy and the generally excellent food turn the dining room into a who's who in the NYC wine trade.
After drinking six top Cornas wines, after thinking and talking about them, I was very happy. But it was when the next wines hit the table that I had a little Cornas breakthrough. And the wines that hit the table were from St. Joseph. I'll explain that in a minute. Here are the wines we drank, first:
2006 Auguste Clape Cornas.
2001 Auguste Clape Renaissance.
2001 Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillot.
2001 Thierry Allemand Cornas Reynard.
2000 Noël Verset Cornas.
1993 Noël Verset Cornas (magnum).
1992 Raymond Trollat St. Joseph (2 different bottles).
1985 Raymond Trollat St. Joseph.
These wines provoked lively discussion and the views that will appear here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views held by the network or any of its corporate sponsors. And I should mention that Verset and even more so Trollat's wines are impossible to find, and this was an incredibly generous thing to do, to share these rare wines.
The first thing I learned is that the 2006 Clape Cornas is not a wine that appeals to me, and I found little that identified it as Cornas. To me it felt more like a highly polished and very modern Syrah, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with that, and while in that context it was perfectly good wine, it isn't something that I would buy for myself. The 2001 Renaissance, though, was an interesting wine. It was well balanced and expressive, and there was an pleasing animale character underneath the black olives and dark fruit.
I had never before sat with Thierry Allemand's Chaillot and Reynard, and I relished the opportunity. It's funny - in drinking and comparing these 2001's, the Reynard was probably the better wine, but I took more pleasure in Chaillot. Reynard showed as a more complete wine. There was a pronounced menthol character on the nose that colored the fruit and soil, the wine had grit and substance, it was well extracted and also well balanced. The alcohol in the Chaillot stuck out a little and it felt a little herky-jerky at times, but there were things about this wine that excited me more than anything about Reynard excited me. I liked its comparatively elegant expression and sheer texture, the energetic brightness of the fruit, the almost delicate finish.
It's always a treat to drink the wines of Noël Verset. The 2000 was very good, although I must say that I have had better bottles of it. The magnum of 1993, however, was great. Balance, grace, depth, character - this wine seemed to have everything. Verset's wines do something for me that I've not found in any other wine. There are two distinct layers, if that's the right word. There is a top layer of fruit, perhaps some floral tones, and this is the pretty layer. Even with 17 years of age, when the fruit is not as fruity anymore, there is a prettiness to this aspect of the wine. Under that is a baked soil, earthy, far more rustic layer, and it doesn't act to compliment the top layer. It is almost at complete odds with the top layer, and this conflict is engrossing and weird, and somehow harmonious and lovely.
And then came Raymond Trollat's wines from St. Joseph, and all of the sudden I understood what Cornas is supposed to be. The Trollat wines were so very different from the Cornas wines that preceded them. They had none of the rustic edge, they came off as seamless, without edges. The 1992 was my favorite, with its beautiful floral aromatics and its gentle elegance.
It might sound like a very simple and basic thing, but for me it was a profound moment, drinking the Trollat wines after all that Cornas. I'm not saying that I think Cornas is better than St. Joseph or vice-versa. It was just one of those moments in which something that you hear as wine common knowledge is illuminated in a personal way. I've heard and read that Cornas is rustic. There is something rustic about Cornas wines, and when they're well made, it doesn't detract at all from the experience of drinking the wines. And maybe trying to compare a Cornas to St. Joseph is kind of silly - they are apples and oranges. But I had to drink great examples of each wine, together, at the same dinner, in order to understand this.
Some good news to share on the 2008 Houillon/Overnoy Poulsard, $36, Louis/Dressner Selections. The first time I had this wine it didn't show as well as I might have hoped, and after that I read mixed reviews from fans of the estate. My issue with the first bottle was a persistent effervescence that did not work its way out of the wine even with several hours in a decanter.
But if the bottle I recently had is any indication, this can be excellent wine in 2008. I gave it plenty of time in the decanter again, but I drank a little while cooking and it was immediately better than the last bottle. There is variation here, perhaps more so than with other wines, but that's just part of the experience. There is essentially nothing done to this wine to preserve it, just some naturally occurring carbon dioxide, and that's part of why the taste is so enveloping, why the wine functions as such a clear window to the hillside soils in Arbois.
I love this wine. A good bottle is a special experience, perhaps the finest existing version of wine made from the Poulsard grape. For me, it is the seamless mingling of bright red fruit and woodsy underbrush. The sheer elegance supported by the firm structure. The incredible purity that highlights the lovely rustic elements of the wine. The energetic tingle. A true pleasure to drink.
It is a flexible wine too. I have not done so myself, but I could imagine drinking this with oysters - something about the brine and the mineral element of the wine. It is fantastic with sautéed mushrooms or mushroom soup. And it works with red meat too, although I've not tried fancy sauces or anything. This time we had it with simply prepared grass fed sirloin - salt and pepper, that's it. Also some fresh fava beans with mint, a touch of green garlic, and a little olive oil. And some roasted Japanese turnips. When drinking very complex wines, it's nice to cook simple food.
As good as it is now, I must exercise some self-control and put a bottle away, as reliable sources assure me that this wine is beautiful with age. I meant to do that with the 2007's, but it just didn't happen. Wish me luck this time.
To eat steak in Chilmark is sort of like going to Peter Luger and ordering the fish. It is possible to do such a thing, but why would you? Most of the seafood that we ate while on vacation came from boats like these:
The guys on these boats go to work in the middle of the night. They're catching flounder, sea bass, sole, tuna, clams and lobster. We walked on the docks right next to these boats and to me they seemed like very old men - wrinkled and worn, sleepy, a bit creaky and crabby, but with plenty of practical knowledge, the kind that only lots of time working and living can produce.
Some of them made me think of the junky space ships from the original Star Wars movie.
At what point does the boat cease to be seaworthy?
This looks alarming to me, but it's probably normal, like a worn in pair of sneakers. What do I know from boats?
Anyway, one fun way to eat seafood in Chilmark is go to Larsen's Fish Market to buy lobstah, clam chowdah, and crab cakes, and eat them while sitting on the dock out back.
Those plastic rocks glasses contained Marc Ollivier's Clos des Briords and Granite de Clisson, by the way.
One day, in a stroke of good luck, we saw a sign outside of the Chilmark United Methodist Church.
The ladies in the back kitchen were not playing games. They might look sweet and kind, but these are hardened lobstah roll pros and they will stuff lobstah to the point of overflow into a hot dog bun.
There's no hidden layer of iceberg lettuce on the bottom to make the lobstah look more plentiful. This is all lobstah. A squirt of lemon, the daughters dancing around and taking tiny inquisitive bites...vacation.
Back in March a guy named Nathan from Chicago read this post about fondue and the Puffeney Melon-Queue-Rouge I drank with it, and emailed me with an interesting question:
You indicated (and I've read elsewhere) that Melon-Queue-Rouge is a grape variety. Edward Behr in his Art of Eating number 72, 2006 devoted to the Jura suggested that it was a version or strain of chardonnay. The way he wrote it led me to think that it was in fact chardonnay. I recall him also mentioning something about red stems. There is of course plenty of "regular" chardonnay grown in the Jura, which he wrote about at length. I haven't been able to find much on the interwebs or in my various Oxford companions. Do you happen to know whether this grape is different than chardonnay, and, if so, are the two related? Not sure why I care, but I like to know these things.Here is Ed Behr on Melon-Queue-Rouge, on page 13 of issue number 72 of the Art of Eating:
Melon is the arboisien name for Chardonnay, and this strain has red stems. Both it and Puffeney's regular Chardonnay have straightforward satisfying fruit. These (referring to Puffeney's-ed.) whites are topped up, one Jura tradition, and yet their style, which somehow hints at oxidation, isn't one you recognize from either Burgundy or the New World.Nathan - I don't know why either, but I care too. So I asked a bunch of Jura wine makers when they were in town recently, and a couple of importers too. What is Melon-Queue-Rouge? Is it Chardonnay by another name, or is it another grape? Here are some of the answers I got:
We took our summer vacation kind of early this year, and spent most of the past week in Martha's Vineyard. We had a fantastic time - just a great vacation. This is a part of the country where places have names like Woonsocket and Squibnocket. The view from our deck was kind of nice.
We had a weathered little table to sit at (reminded me of the table on our deck in Brooklyn) and a lawn that rolled down to some marshes and a salt water pond. From that same spot looking north we could see Menemsha, a 300 year old small fishing village.
To the delight of our small daughters, rabbits would come and play on the lawn as the sun went down and the weather cooled.
Most of the Vineyard is dry - no alcohol for sale. It seemed like a good idea to bring some wine, even though it would have to sit in the trunk of the car for about 6 hours driving on a hot day. What wine to bring to Martha's Vineyard? I figured we'd be eating a lot of seafood, so along with a few bottles of rosé, I brought along a load of Muscadet, all from the 2007 vintage.
We opened them all at the same time and drank them over the next 5 days, getting to know each one as it developed. These are all very good wines - I really like 2007 in Muscadet. I cannot say that one was the absolute favorite, but Marc Ollivier's wines were both great. Domaine de la Pépière Clos des Briords, $16, Louis/Dressner Selections was richly perfumed and intense upon opening, very beautiful, and then it closed up for a few days. But it was very lovely again after about four days. Same with the excellent Granite de Clisson, $22, Louis/Dressner Selections. This was creamy and aromatic and completely delicious. But either this bottle wasn't as great as others I've had, or perhaps Briords is just as great of a wine in '07. The most delicate wine of the bunch was Jo Landron's Domaine de la Louvetrie Le Fief du Breil, $18, Martin Scott Imports. Still quite aromatic and very lovely, but with more of a lacy texture than either of the Pépière wines.
Fief du Breil was too delicate for fish tacos, for example. Luneau Papin's L' D'Or, $18, Louis/Dressner Selections, however, was rich and full enough for this lunch. Guy Bossard's Expression d'Orthogneiss, $22, Kysela Imports, is still a bit of a mystery to me. The wine began poorly, and I thought that it might have been a damaged bottle as it seemed too golden in color and rather advanced in its aromas and flavors. But it did very well with air over the next few days and in the end showed compelling and nuanced aromas and great balance and detail on the palate.
Hard to imagine wine not tasting great here.
I live in Brooklyn, but I also live in New York City, and from time to time I go to Manhattan, where things can get pretty fantastic pretty quickly. Recently I found myself on the upper east side of Manhattan for lunch, and I cannot remember the last time that happened. I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch at The Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges (whose new downtown place I recently kvetched about). 77th Street between Madison and 5th Avenue - I'm talking about stately awnings and flags. You would be forgiven for mistaking this place for the Icelandic Consulate, or something of that nature.
The interiors are amazing too. Of course there is the lighting and the stained glass, but notice the rug - that's tiger skin! The Mark staff maintain that no tigers were harmed to make the rugs, but I don't see how that can be true.
So why the fancy lunch on the upper east side on a random Tuesday? Didier Séguier, wine maker at Domaine William Fèvre was in town, and the Henriot people most generously invited me to this lunch and tasting.
I had a ball at this lunch. I sat right next to Didier Séguier and he is a lovely guy, very happy to talk about his wines and Chablis terroir, about his young daughter, or anything else that came up. There were five wines on the table, all from the 2008 vintage, which Séguier said is his favorite of the past 10 years, maybe more. He said that it is a "connoisseur's vintage," one that really showcases the different Chablis terroirs, like 2007, but that the wines have a bit more body than in 2007.
We tasted each of the wines, and then we drank them with lunch! An exclamation point because I thought it was such a smart way to do something like this. Sure, they could have barraged us with 15 different wines, but instead they selected five, and allowed us to get to know them with food.
I liked all of the wines, and of course it is great fun to drink wines from Grand Cru terroirs like Bougros and Les Clos, but on this day the wine that showed best was the 1er Cru Vaulorent, a wine made from a parcel within the 1er Cru Fourchaume vineyards. This wine was ripe and rich, but also very controlled and elegant, and it showed classy white flower and stone aromas and flavors. The finish was rather delicate, and the fruit there was outlined with distinct seashell and iodine notes, quintessential Chablis sensations. The Grand Cru wines were bigger and richer, and also still very much closed, so it was hard for me to truly understand them. I would love to drink them again in 5 years. But they were certainly delicious, and Les Clos in particular seemed to offer tremendous potential. It was more expressive toward the end of lunch with a simple and terrific plate of grilled black bass served with braised fennel, a dish that looked far more lovely before I tucked into it, before I snapped this photo. But you get the idea.
During our lunch I asked Dider Séguier which Chablis wines he liked to drink when he wasn't drinking his own wines. He said that he obviously liked Raveneau and Dauvissat, and then he named a few that I hadn't heard of (and mostly cannot remember now), and said that they were very small producers whose wines he doesn't think make it to the US. It turns out that one of them does, Domaine Collet, whose wines I've not had, but will have to try. I asked if he likes Alice and Oliver De Moor and he said yes, he likes some of the wines very much.
And when he said that about the De Moor wines I had a moment of clarity regarding an issue that's been in the wine news lately - Natural wines. There are Natural wine people out there who would patently dismiss the Fèvre wines because they are not remotely in the Natural wine camp (the fact that Séguier is in the process of converting fully to organic farming notwithstanding). Some of these people would dismiss the wines without ever tasting them, in the manner that in high school the goths dismissed the jocks, and the punks dismissed the stoners, but that's not what interests me here. There are measured and open minded people, real wine lovers, who might dismiss Fèvre wines because they fall under a large corporate umbrella, or dismiss them because they are made conventionally and they don't fit in with the prevailing ethos of Natural wines. I will admit that I have dismissed them too.
But I've had plenty of Fèvre wines in the past few months, and they can be very, very good. And the things is, I also love Alice and Olivier De Moor's wines. For me, there is room for Alice and Olivier De Moor and there is also room for Fèvre, they are not mutually exclusive. Appreciating a Fèvre wine does not dull my enthusiasm for the De Moor's amazing wines or my appreciation of their earth-friendly environmental practices. Nor would my enthusiasm for the De Moor wines be dulled if there were a severe rot problem in one of their parcels, and they were forced to use a chemical spray in order to preserve their income that year.
One of the problems with the natural wine movement, as I see it, is that it has painted itself into a corner, in a way. To acknowledge that Fèvre's wines, for example, can be very good, to drink one and to find it delicious and terroir expressive, would somehow be a betrayal of the Natural wine movement. There are very few things that can wisely be viewed in stark black and white terms, and I don't think that wine is one of them.
The market is really getting good now. Peas are in full swing, and yellow and zucchini squash are here too. The other night I made a quick, easy, healthy, and delicious pasta dish. The idea was to take fresh sweet shell peas, toss with finely chopped mint, enrich with a bit of ricotta, and turn this into a "sauce" for rigatoni. And since the yellow squash looked so enticing, I added it too.
Okay, that's the dish, rigatoni with peas, yellow squash, ricotta, and mint. You be the sommelier - what wine would you serve with this? C'mon, don't be shy. Doesn't matter if you're a professional sommelier or a home cook like me. This dish hits the table and you can open anything you like - what would it be?
I'll tell you what I came up with and whether or not it worked well at the end of the comments.
Well, the chef at Alto did, anyway. Levi just organized the whole thing. And lucky for me, he invited me.
Ready for some more strange retail stories? Weird advice from the folks in the trenches? I know I am. Sorry if I sound like a flippant jerk, but here's the thing: it's easy for me to think that every wine store is like Chambers Street or Uva or Slope Cellars. When you are shopping at these stores and you have a question, the people who work there will answer it honestly or tell you that they don't know the answer. But sometimes the hunt for a specific wine leads me away from those stores and the few others like them, to random friendly neighborhood wine shops, and I am reminded that all is not right in the vast world of wine retail.
People love to answer questions, even if they have no idea of the factual answer. People love to criticize without any context regarding the object of their criticism. People love to make blanket statements that are misleading, and may or may not pertain to the issues at hand. And friends, I'm not speaking of the fine men and women who serve our country as United States Senators or Congressmen. I'm speaking of the people who work in our friendly neighborhood wine retail shops. And although you and I aren't really hurt by this because often times we know what we're looking for, imagine what transpires between these folks and 95% of the customers, people who just want a little advice on what to drink.
I think it is the responsibility of the wine store owner and manager to make sure that the sales staff knows something about the wines being sold. It's risky to make things up when asked a question because sometimes we customers can tell that you're making up the answer. And this does little to build trust between you, the seller, and us, the buyers. I'm not at all suggesting that retailers, or anyone else, should know everything. But if you are asked a question and don't know the answer, just say so. Ask another employee, ask the manager, or just leave it at that - "I don't know" is a fine answer, when it's the truth.
Some of the things I've been told by retailers lately make me feel very sad. If I had accepted these things as truth, as I'm guessing 95% of customers do when speaking with wine sales staff, I would be ignorant of my own ignorance (probably already true, but that's another story). Here are a few recent tales, Wine Retail Horror Stories... (I would love to insert drops of blood or something here, but Blogger for some reason does not enable that function).
They Shouldn't do that in the Jura
I was shopping at a large store in lower Manhattan, looking to buy a few bottles of Jacques Puffeney's 2007 Trousseau. There was only one bottle on the shelf, and the wax seal was a cracked mess. I asked a sales guy if he had more bottles. "How many do you want," he asked. "I'd like three," I said. "Okay, I'll grab two from downstairs.""Actually, the wax on this bottle is cracked and I want to cellar these for a while, so if you don't mind, I'd like three bottles from downstairs. I'm hoping for intact wax seals." Yes, I was being somewhat anal, but the point of the wax seal, as opposed to the typical capsule, is to prevent air from getting into the wine bottle.
The sales guy then says "They shouldn't do that in the Jura. The wax seals are always breaking and they don't do anything for the wine anyway. There's no difference whether or not the wax is chipped."
Now, I'm no scientist, but everything that guy said sounds wrong to me. Was he simply too tired to haul a third bottle from downstairs? Was he angry at the Jura and the lovely people who live there? Why say these things? I realized at this point that further conversation was pointless, and simply said "Fine, but I'd like three bottles with intact seals, if that's okay."
Doesn't that seem like a strange thing to say to a customer? That's a New Thing They're Doing in the Jura
Recently I was poking around in a wine store on the upper-west-side, a neighborhood joint that I had never before stepped into. Not the same store where I witnessed the Jura/Jurançon debacle, but it was the same afternoon. The selection was very good, and there were some slightly older vintages mixed in with the usual assortment of '07s, '06s, and '05s. I stumbled across a few bottles of 2000 Domaine de Montbourgeau L'Étoile Cuvée Spéciale, a delicious Jura Chardonnay made in the oxidized style. Two of the three bottles on the shelf had no vintage labels, the third had the 2000 banner at the top. Wow, I thought, I might have stumbled on a great deal here - the price is right. But wait - none of the bottles had wax capsules, and I felt as though Montbourgeau's wines always have wax seals at the top. Maybe these bottles were from an original shipment that arrived 6 or 7 years ago. I asked the very nice guy who had already competently answered other questions - "Have these wines been in the store for a while or are they newly released?"
"Oh these are new," he said.
"And this is the Cuvée Spéciale, the one made in the oxidized style," I asked. This was mostly to keep the conversation going, to help me to determine whether or not I could believe anything else he said about the wine.
"Oxidized style?" he asked. "This isn't oxidized. Why do you say that?"
Okay, so he doesn't know the wine. Whatever, maybe I can find out whether they bought it as a library release or if it had been sitting there for the last 6 years. So I said "But is this something you recently bought, or is this something that's been in the store for a while?"
"This is brand new wine," he said. "That's a brand new thing they're doing in the Jura."
I'm sorry, but if you're selling something you should know what it is. That's not asking too much - that's a very basic standard. Again, it's all well and good not to know something, but why pretend, like this guy did? Can you imagine how much nonsensical "information" is going out everyday to unsuspecting customers at their local wine retail shops...
Wine is Wine
When searching (in vain) recently for a specific bottle of Sigalas Santorini, I went to a wine store that I'd never heard of in Manhattan, just because an internet search said that the store carried the wine. I should have called to confirm before going, but I didn't. When they didn't actually have the wine in stock, the manager took an interesting tactic. He basically tried to make me feel like an idiot for desiring it.
"Why would you want Sigalas 06," he said. "That wine is dead now anyway."
"Hmmm," I said. "I tasted one recently that was delicious."
"No, you don't want that. Get a different wine," he said. "I have another Santorini wine back there now."
"Yeah, but it's the Sigalas specifically that I wanted."
The guy then said "Sigalas thinks he is doing something special, but he's not. Wine is wine, right?"
What can you really say to that? And how many people get their wine wisdom from this guy? Not every store can staff up with the best and brightest, obviously, but this is all too common at our neighborhood spots.
Am I wrong? Am I expecting too much? What do you think - how is the service at your neighborhood joint?
There is a big Jura wine tasting today in Manhattan, the second such event. I learned a tremendous amount at last year's event and I'm excited to take part in today's event. A steady flow of Jura wine makers has descended upon NYC for this tasting, and yesterday, completely by chance, I had the opportunity to observe one of them on a "work-with," that thing wine makers do with their importers when they're in town - going to various retail shops together to show the wines.
On my late lunch break I was at an established and well respected upper-west-side wine retailer (when searching for specific Santorini wines, one must be willing to travel from Brooklyn) and a man and woman walked in. They both looked a bit weary, they had shoulder bags with them, and they stood and waited patiently near a little table with empty glasses on it.
I understood that they were waiting to show their wines to the buyer at the store. When the buyer came over, the woman introduced the man (didn't hear his name) as a wine maker from the Jura. My ears perked up - of course! They're in town, I thought, and they're probably spending their days working the retail circuit with their "handlers," the people who represent their wines in NYC. I buried my nose in the Greek wine section which was conveniently located near the tasting table, but I kept my ears open. I wanted to hear this conversation.
About a month ago I ate Wensleydale cheese from Neal's Yard and loved it, and most callously called it a Cheddar, which in fact it is not. Bronwen Percival, the cheese buyer at Neal's Yard, discussed this at the end of the post in her comments. Bronwen knows about a lot about cheese, which is kind of like saying that Stephen Hawking knows a lot about physics.
Well, it's been a long time coming, but I finally tasted the mack-daddy of cloth bound Cheddars, the king, if you will. I speak of Montgomery's Cheddar from Neal's Yard.This is a raw milk cheese that is aged for at least one year. I think Neal's Yard's description of the cheese is right on:
Rich, sweet, fruity, nutty, beefy flavours. Sometimes reminiscent of the caramelised edge of a Sunday roast. The texture is drier than most other cheddars with a grainy and crystalline crunch as it ages.A friend and I enjoyed this cheese alongside a piece of Wensleydale the other night. Eating them together provided, for me anyway, a clear definition of Cheddar. Wensleydale shows some moistness at room temperature, and tastes of butter, cream, and grass. Montgomery's is more golden in color, harder and crumblier, and much different in flavor. As the above tasting note indicates, the flavors here are more savory. Both cheeses are wonderful, and I have no favorite. This might sound odd, but there is something about Wensleydale that makes me think of it as a morning cheese, and Montgomery's is for afternoon or night time. That said, breakfast this morning was Montgomery's on a slice of 7-grain and it was absurdly delicious.
Honestly, who drinks Aligoté? It's so acidic and harsh and there isn't much of a reward. There's a reason that people add crème de cassis to Aligoté - it raises the beverage to a potable level. But I've had a few genuinely good bottles of Aligoté in the past year, one in particular that was truly memorable, and I began to wonder if Aligoté wines are improving.
I was at a dinner with Peter Wasserman a few weeks ago and he told me that Aligoté used to be 40-50% of Burgundy plantings, even in the 1er and Grand Cru plots. I don't remember what Peter said about when this changed, but I think he said it was the 1950's...? Anyway, Aligoté needs to be ripe, Peter said. It needs to be picked later than Chardonnay. Old vines don't hurt either. But most producers simply weren't devoting that kind of attention to Aligoté and it made more sense to pull out the vines and replant with either Chardonnay or Pinot. At that dinner we drank a great bottle of Lafarge old vines Aligoté and I was excited to find out whether it would be that wine or the fantastic Alice and Olivia de Moor Aligoté that would stun everyone at the tasting.
So, is there something happening here - are Burgundy producers making better Aligoté, or are these wines still best as Kir fodder? What better way to find out than to convene the Brooklyn Blind Tasting Panel and get into a few bottles. I decided to focus on 2007 because it's a great vintage for white wine in Burgundy, and also because some of the 2007 Aligoté that I drank last year I remember thinking would benefit from a few more months in bottle. For this tasting I was joined by three guys who know a lot about wine - Justin Chearno of Uva in Williamsburg, Scott Reiner of Discovery Wines on the Lower East Side, and Joe Salamone of Crush in Manhattan.
We tried our hardest. We were open minded and very serious about tasting these wines, but I must sadly tell you that if this sample of wines is representative of Aligoté, and I think that it is, Aligoté is still very much hit or miss (mostly miss), and it under-delivers at its price point. Here are the wines we drank, along with some notes:
2007 A. et P. de Villaine Bouzeron, $22, Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Aubert de Villaine makes wine for this other Burgundy producer called DRC. I've always been a bit biased against these wines under his own label. "What, 'cause you make DRC it means you automatically make great wines from the Côte Chalonnaise?" This is good wine though. Justin and Scott both picked it as their #2 wine in the tasting. It didn't "win" the tasting, but I'm listing it first anyway because by the time the tasting was finished and we sat down for dinner, this was clearly the best wine on the table. During the blind tasting it showed white flowers and a bit of honey, it was well balanced and well made, although everyone thought that it was a bit simple. It was better over dinner, but still not a wine to race to the stores for.
2007 Catherine & Dominique Vin de Table Français Allez-Goutons, $23, Jenny & François Selections. This wine was kindly donated by Jenny & François for this tasting. No one voted for this wine, but everyone enjoyed it, and everyone gave the same reason for not voting for it. "It was really good, but so different from the others and it didn't speak so much of Aligoté so I didn't vote for it." I really liked this one - it was just ever so slightly effervescent and at 11% alcohol, it was light and lively with grapefruit pith on the nose. The palate was delicate and sheer, and very satisfying. Some thought it was too much about natural wine making, but I didn't. It was the only wine that held up well the next day. This is something that I would enjoy drinking again, but it is probably more divisive than any of the other wines we drank.
2007 Domaine Ramonet Bourgogne Aligoté, $22, Imported by Diageo Chateau and Estates Wines. Scott and I both picked this wine as our favorites of the tasting. I liked it because it smelled like Chardonnay, it was bigger and bolder than the other wines, and it had a lovely pungent minty nose. Scott thought it was the most complete wine. Justin thought the nose was great, with granite, rock, and soil. Joe felt that it was beefed up a bit. somehow made larger than it would naturally be. He felt a wood presence that intruded on the wine. For whatever it's worth, this wine did not maintain its goodness over dinner - by the time we ate it seemed disjointed and inflated like an air balloon.
2007 Paul Pillot Bourgogne Aligoté, $14, Imported by Margate Wine and Spirits. Joe and Justin both picked this wine as their favorites of the tasting, and Scott and I liked it too. Justin said that it was lactic at first, but that the fruit and acid balance was great, and he found himself thinking that he really wanted to drink it. Joe said that this wine rocked in the context of the tasting. It was nicely detailed with flowers and he appreciated the nature of the acidity - he said that most of the wines in the tasting showed acidity at the edges, but in this wine the acidity formed the core of the wine. I liked it too - my notes say apples, soft and pure, balanced, stones on the finish. The thing is, this wine was, to be honest and fair, basically undrinkable an half hour later over dinner. It completely fell off the table and became something that we were mystified about. How could it have been so good in a blind tasting and then been so bad while eating?
2007 Alice et Olivier De Moor Bourgogne Aligoté, $19, Louis/Dressner Selections. This was the truly memorable wine that I had a few months ago, and I was certain that it would "win" this tasting. The bottle we had was not representative of the wine, sadly. Joe said that although it was an outlier, he liked it anyway, and that it reminded him of northern Burgundy near Chablis - Kimmeridgian soils. I wanted to like it but I thought the nose had an oxidized quality that just turned me off, made the wine seem flat and lifeless. That said, I thought it was interestingly herbal - kind of minty, with lemon curd and herbal flavors, and a stony finish. Scott said that he initially didn't care for it but that it grew on him. We all agreed, drinking this wine with dinner, that it was an off bottle. Perhaps not flawed, but not representative of the great '07 De Moor Aligoté. In 2007 the De Moors combined their young vines Aligoté with their Plantation 1902, a beautiful Aligoté made from 100 year old vines. This bottle was not representative of the wine.
2007 Domaine Guy Roulot Bourgogne Aligoté, $20, Michael Skurnik Imports. I picked this wine as my second choice, but no one else particularly liked it. And they were right - it dropped off like a hot potato during our dinner. But during the tasting I liked its lean and stony profile and its pungent lemon scent. It was clean and acidic and very long, and I was certain that it was the next wine, the Lafarge. The others thought it was too creamy, too correct, with some artifice. Joe found the finish to be short - it grinds to a halt, he said.
2007 Michel Lafarge Bourgogne Aligoté Raisins D'Orés, $27, Becky Wasserman Selections/Martin Scott Imports. This wine was kindly donated by Peter Wasserman and Martin Scott imports for this tasting. This is an excellent wine made from 60-80 year old vines. It is delicate and intense and very stony and pure. But the bottle we drank was nothing like that, and we were shocked when we saw it unveiled - everyone knows how good this wine is, but this bottle was simply not right. The mid-palate was hollow, and it just wasn't very expressive. Joe thought it was the least together of all of the wines, with a darkness to the mineral finish. Justin thought the alcohol protruded a bit, and Scott thought it didn't carry its wood well. But trust me, this is a really good wine, and the bottle we had just showed terribly.
2007 Domaine Marcillet Bourgogne Aligote, $14, Savio Soares Selections. This wine was kindly donated by Savio Soares for this tasting. Scott thought this wine showed a lot of funk on the nose, that it was woodsy. Justin thought it was complex with woodsy and floral honey flavors, but also a bit murky on the finish. Joe and I both found it to be oxidized on the nose. He liked the expansive mid-palate, but he called it fundamentally flawed because the nose was so oxidized. I found the nose to be entirely oxidized and weird, and simply assumed that it was well past its prime.