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When I am in study mode I’ll scrupulously break down wine regions into manageable subsections, uncovering esoteric tidbits while committing requisite information like prominent varietals, climate/ microclimates and soil types to memory. Often I am more democratic about where my information comes from, proffering an area or style to my tasting group to study, like I did a couple weeks ago for the red wines of Loire.
It wasn’t new to me that Cabernet Franc reigns supreme in the Loire Valley, or that even Cot (Malbec) makes an appearance as a blending varietal in Saumur. However, just reading about the expansive Loire Valley, or any appellation by study alone is only a part of it. Tasting wine is essential and is the most important clue in pegging down a region or varietal.
We tried seven red wines from Loire cloaked in brown-bags; we found afterwards that Cabernet Franc dominated the showing, which wasn’t surprising—lip-smacking tannins and herbaceous overtones, the trademarks of the varietal, confirmed our suspicions during the tasting.
The most intriguing wine of the night appeared early on and just funked up my taste buds. I was off-kilter, trying to determine what wine could possibly pitch such a wild aroma of earthen red fruits, fallen white flowers and a Compari note (strong herbal flavors). The dry red was light in body with medium but finely grained tannins and finished as it had started—complexly. It turned out to be a biodynamic Le Cousin Rouge, consisting entirely of Grolleau—an indigenous grape to the Loire, that was completely new to me.
One of the better examples of Cabernet Franc came from Charles Jouget—an established and well-known producer from Chinon, in central Loire Valley. The 2003 Clos de Chêne Vert, despite being harvested in a terribly hot vintage hadn’t lost its step, showing deftness (balance) and youthful vigor with its spectacular display of confected red berries, violets, black pepper and tomato stems. The old vines and a prime vineyard site within the town of Chinon itself produced a structured dry red wine with ripe tannins and finished long with plenty of red fruit and savory herbs.
Even if I study thoroughly there is a good chance I will miss things. My tasting group is not only a wonderful collection of friends and professionals with similar interests but they are a catchall, keeping me honest in my assessments and introducing me to nearly extinct grapes and better examples of wines I thought I knew well. Now it’s time to get back to the books.
I was fourteen when the transformer blew out. On the eve of the millennium, in my brother’s home, someone on the block had the bright idea to ring in 2000 by candlelight, blowing out the neighborhood’s power during the Time Square countdown. Meanwhile, in France a bottle of unassuming Burgundy had just been bottled ready to forge an equally exciting memory in the future.
Thirteen years later I opened a seven-fifty of 2000 Maison Leroy Bourgogne Rouge while hanging out with friends; the culmination of love for Burgundy and reverence for a unique producer, this bottle was ready to be cherished by the august body of wine geeks with whom I shared it.
Lalou Bizet-Leroy, alchemist and owner, strongly believes in the tenets of biodynamic viticulture, converting all her family’s vineyard holdings over to the all-encompassing system by 1988. Her dedication to natural, low-yield wines that see no filtration or fining are considered some of the greatest examples of Burgundy.
I had opened this bottle of 2000 Maison Leory—a negociant bottling, unlike Domaine Leroy, which are purely estate grapes—that would test the limits on aging appellation wine.
I poured the contents carefully, mindful of sediment, between the three over-sized Burgundy stems. Wearing a medium ruby with tawny accents feathering clearly on the rim, laced with a bright aroma of maraschino cherry, black tea, clove, cinnamon and toasted fennel seeds. The scent continued to develop as the wine opened—emitting deeper flavors that made the wine quite compelling on the tongue. On the palate the Pinot Noir still showed fine and elegant tannins, with a medium, contoured body, low alcohol and taut acidity (medium) that helped deliver the developed flavors of cherry, mushroom, herbs and spices that echoed faintly after the final sips.
The Maison Leroy set an unattainable benchmark for the other wines we uncorked afterwards, exceeding expectations I’d put on Leroy, and forging an indelible memory that will rival some of my favorite wine tasting moments. With new friends and old wines it put the year 2000 in perfect perspective even if it didn’t blow the lights out.
Behind on rosé coverage, only sipping, spitting and noting for buying purposes, I wanted to highlight a recent personal experience I had with Red Car Winery’s rosé from the Sonoma Coast on a warm weeknight.
This rosé of Pinot Noir hailed from the Bybee Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, specifically the Green Valley AVA within it, close to Sebastopol. A cool microclimate allows these certified organic and biodynamic Pinot Noir grapes to achieve a delicate ripeness while balancing food-worthy acidity.
Getting past the sexy packaging, my eye focused on the color—a soft (medium-intensity) coral pink that was indicative of its abbreviated maceration (time in contact with the skin of the Pinot Noir grapes).
This rosé leapt from the glass with a youthful aroma of red cherry, peach and fresh rose petals. The mouth feel was decidedly rounder than expected, even with its medium-body and pert, mouth-searing acidity, which helped me negotiate slices of fatty salami. The finish smacked of apricot yogurt with a few fresh-picked cherries and strawberries thrown in for good measure.
A good start to my recorded rosé encounter, but if you were only mildly curious about rosé this one might be going slightly overboard—the price point is a tad steep (≈ $20)—for an introduction. For the more serious enthusiast, looking for something special, look no further.
An annual dalliance with the Rhône Valley white wines seemed a weak tribute. Rather than a once-a-year fling, I wanted to taste those unctuous wines again and revel in their visceral texture that leaves way to a seductive honey-and-mineral mousse as they course through the palate. Maybe even show them off with a dinner? Luckily, my tasting group was of the same mind, and we turned our attention to the Northern Rhône.
The region is perhaps best known for Syrah (the only permitted red grape in Northern Rhône), but the terraced slopes and continental climate are extremely hospitable to the principal white grapes of the Northern Rhône—Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane.
Our tasting featured some of the greatest producers of the North, leaving only the Viognier grape unrepresented. Jean-Louis Chave made three appearances, followed by Paul Jaboulet and François Villard. Tasting blind encourages us to keep unbiased rather than succumb to reputation. The fourth wine was profound, a deep gold painted the inside of the glass with a clean and pronounced intensity of caramel, lemon peel, minerals and essential oils (think extracts) on the nose. In the mouth, it possessed a youthful vigor with more citrus fruits emerging, sweet spice (vanilla) and a handful of rocks that coalesced into a suave full body, shaped by decent acidity (medium). We saw the cress of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave unveiled, specifically a 2002 Hermitage in the wake of the discarded wine bag disguise; the bottle’s contents’ not phased by age but enhanced by it, matching the pedigree of the wine.
One other bottle happened to really excite me during the tasting, perhaps because it was so wildly different! Before the stately and serious fourth wine, our third bottle stood out as an extrovert, youthful aromas of lime zest, peach, white flowers (Jasmine) fireworked from the glass. On the tongue the wine had a definite swagger; a full body that kept the alcohol, though medium-plus, reined in, and strutted out with rich flavors of white peach, squeezed Lisbon lemons, beeswax and a fleck of vanilla bean for a sultry finish. Flashy! Unfortunately, when we unveiled it, one member of the group missed the memo and bought Southern Rhône, fetching a sexy bottle of 2010 Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc.
These wines were probably the most difficult to judge blind, they had a lot of overlapping qualities sandwiched between their robust texture and stone-fruit-inflected flavor profiles. However with food, they were a delight. Every aspect seemed to mesh nicely with our seafood accompaniment and although nobody splurged on Chateau Grillet the tasting was another wonderful success. Might make it a quarterly engagement?
I hadn’t lost sight of my goal for Syrah: To find a bottle that was balanced, complex and most of all, affordable. I looked to a domestic producer that was synonymous with Syrah, specializing in all things Rhône.
I had a split of 2010 Qupé Syrah open and breathing on the countertop.
This Central Coast Syrah was a deep purple at the core with ruby highlights at the rim. The youthful hue was just a passing note but the enticing scent was worth lingering over. I brought my nose to the bulb and discovered scents lifting (medium-plus) of cooked plum, tobacco, sage, cardamom and jerky. The intense aromatics were mouth-watering and continually evolving. When I transitioned to the palate, the first sip showed off the structure, a flexed frame (medium body), with moderate tannin and medium acidity that helped round out the slightly warm finish of Pluots, black cherry, tobacco, beef jerky and dried herbs.
The half bottle of Syrah brought a deep list of descriptors with it. Showing more than similar domestic Syrah I have tasted this year, and for a fraction of the price (≈ $15*), this modest red, an entry-level wine from the acclaimed producer, showed well until the end, shattering my sticker price theory for Syrah and left me with one wish: A bigger bottle!
*Price listed is for 750ml, not the 375ml I tasted.
On a night that would have made Allen Meadows proud, my tasting group concentrated its attention on the village reds of Burgundy’s Cotes de Nuits. In a private room at Wilshire Restaurant, we added an extra member to the roster, to cover a wider reach of appellations from Fixin to Nuits St. Georges.
Our price ceiling was raised, digging a little deeper into the wallets (Burgundy isn’t cheap), to procure a handful of bottles—seven official entries—to show off the marvelous spectrum of Pinot Noir from one of the most respected wine regions in the world.
Before the start our collective expectations fluttered above the roof. The seven brown-bags, numbered arbitrarily, had our respect before the first sip. We scrupulously studied every pour to see if we could place the esteemed villages of the Pinot Noirs. Off to a good start with each village bringing something unique to the table, it wasn’t until the fourth bottle that I had actually picked a first favorite. Primly casting a garnet-ruby and emitting a developing perfume of cranberry, coffee and cheese curds. Pure on the tongue, a marvelously lithe structure that flashed a youthful bit of cranberry/cherry cocktail, with sumptuous burnt sugar and café au lait finish. It was elegant and supple; its attractive balance of soft (medium-fine) tannin and sweet ‘n savory flavors went the distance. When it was revealed, a bottle of 2007 Lignier-Michelot Premier Cru Cuvée Jules hailing from Chambolle-Musigny wore the motto of its tiny commune proudly—dubbed the queen of the Cotes de Nuits.
The regal Chambolle-Musigny was the odds-on favorite (for me), establishing an early lead while I enjoyed the remainder of the tasting order. I had little luck pinning the appellation to the Pinot Noir but it was terrific exposure. That was especially true of the last bottle, but what was clear, was that it was a notch above the rest. A garnet-orange vin—indicative of an older vintage—with a deep aroma of cranberry tea, shitake mushroom, white pepper, minerals, olives, and more undefinable to list. On the palate the wine was in full stride, Popeye-like muscle delivering a bruising, flavorful wallop that followed the developed nose on a long and memorable finish. Shedding the brown paper wrapper we were stunned to see a 1996 Labet & Dechelette Chateau de la Tour Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru—the largest Grand Cru site in the Cotes de Nuits—from a relatively small appellation of Vougeot beaming on the table. The quintessence of Pinot Noir.
Every wine made an argument for place and we couldn’t have ended on a better note. The spit cups were retired and we meditated on the Grand Cru and village reds as we paired them with truffle flat breads for the duration of the evening. In good company, with the hospitality of Chef Nyesha and Wilshire Restaurant, and the best wines we’ve tasted since the groups’ inception—Cotes de Nuits had made a lasting impression.
Vintage isn’t usually first on the list when I’m shopping wines, but there is no overstating its importance. A great growing season is the cherry on top after the requisite work has been done in the vineyards—however reactive. I culled a couple affordable older vintages, carefully searching closeout bins across SoCal to see just how long-lived a regional red wine—appellation Bourgogne contrôlée—could be.
2007 was a challenging vintage in the Côte d’Or, with early heat spells in spring and a cool summer that threatened rot and mildew—some of the best producers were forced to reduce volume, sorting out affected grapes for days before they pressed the best selections. With the mixed vintage report I found a lot of interesting closeouts from 2007.
One of the best values I found, under twenty dollars, was clad in a non-descript periwinkle label—2007 Domaine Sylvain Pataille Bourgogne. I drew out six ounces to rest comfortably on the kitchen countertop while I analyzed for color. As the red wine stretched its legs there was a clear ruby sheen with medium intensity and slight rim variation in the glass. After thirty minutes—about as long as I could patiently wait—I fetched the glass, sniffed, and found an effusive perfume of aardbei thee (Dutch strawberry tea), over new shoe leather and damp oak. It was simple, without the floral nuance, but making up with its surprising grip on primary red fruits that were steeped in earthy intrigue.
Not disappointed but was hardly wowed until the following night. The very same Pinot Noir had really made itself at home twenty four hours later, opening up, the flavors were deeper, the finish was longer, the body, more sultry. It had my attention.
The 2007 vintage was given a passing grade by critics and importers. That vintage provided me with the best experience and value overall—maybe they didn’t give bottles like this a second sip. It’s a shame that Domaine Sylvain Pataille cannot be found easily but that’s also what makes it special—it’s worth searching for.
After Rioja there was only one place left to discover in Spain: Sharing its esteemed status (DOCa) with Rioja, Priorat is known for crafting sinewy Garnacha-heavy blends from the North East of the Iberian Peninsula. It was time for my tasting group to validate the region’s reputation.
Aspect is everything in Priorat. Already growing in higher altitude, the grapes—Garnacha, Cariñena and some international varietals—are raised on steep terraced hillsides comprised of red/blue slate and quartz that account for the notable muscle and mineral undercurrent found in the best examples. We would be discerning terroir, pure and simple.
From the onset of the tasting, the experience was monolithic. The alleged aging potential of the wines was making itself known; in the rotation we were bombarded by a galère of hot-blooded (high alcohol) wines with youthful tannins and unencumbered dark fruit hearts that would take some time to integrate fully. Still, there were a few beauties in the Priory.
Interestingly enough, we had one bottle appear twice in our lineup (positions 1 and 5). Both bottles identical, sharing the 2004 birth year, but oddly, they were completely different in terms of evolution. Storage was now in question. The first time we tasted the 2004 Primitiu de Bellmunt, a blend of 55% Garanacha and 45% Cariñena, it exhibited cherries, licorice, tea, smoke and pepper all painted black. By the time we tasted the twin’s offering, it had been sapped of all its elegance and intrigue, falling short on the finish—two completely different tales.
The anomaly wasn’t the highlight however, just an interesting observation. Instead, tasting honors came courtesy of our last wine of the night, which took us to “funky town.” A mature bottle of 2004 Embruix de Vall Llach showed its age with a garnet hue that was bricking toward the rim. Our noses were buried deep inside our bulbs, inhaling that entire developing aroma of cooked plums, asphalt, black tea and soy sauce enjoyably. On the palate the robust red possessed a graceful structure with curvy body (medium-plus), mouth-filling tannins that conveyed a throat-warming landscape of roasted black plums, spice and dank cellar.
That last bottle was captivating. While all the wines retained their high alcohol character to some degree, with no wines registering under 14.5% ABV, only a few producers were able to use it as an advantage. In no case was that more true than the Embruix, which boasted the highest alcohol content of the evening (15.1%), and translated it into a boost of body that helped convey the developing complexity eloquently.
My Pinot Noir promised excursion continued with another expression from a large house in Burgundy. On a rainy evening in LA, I was documenting the overlapping features between producers while comparing a glass of 2009 Bouchard Père & Fils Bourgogne “Reserve” Pinot Noir to the recent memories of Jadot.
A match for the drizzly weather, the ruby tinted vin was wet in character and true to its origin, emitting a moderately expressive and developing fragrance of red berries, worn leather and wet mushroom. The development brought out an interesting set of flavors that made the Pinot Noir slightly more enjoyable by olfactory alone. Not surprisingly it translated well to the palate with medium body and acidity, delivering some earthy tones and a soft raspberry cream finish that carried longer (medium-plus) than expected.
The rain had heightened my tasting experience, giving Bouchard a distinct edge over last week’s Jadot’s lowest level offering. Though its singsong characteristics—red fruits, body and alcohol—were shared, distinct markers of the grape, there was a bit of finesse and texture in Bouchard that was missing in my previous tasting. A little extraction goes a long way. As Burgundy becomes my mantra, I’m confident that complexity will continue to trend up.
Every other Tuesday I look forward to a wild array of wines—many I’ve rarely encountered before—culled from LA’s finest bazaars by my tasting group peers, to paint an important region or varietal accurately; the tastings are meant to flesh out a theme. The fabled Rioja region of Spain would be the latest to lend its shadings.
We got things started with a familiar friend; a white wine from R. Lopez de Heredia, but it wasn’t the oxidized wine—chiming with notes of Marcona almonds, preserved lemons, button mushrooms and white eraser—that had our heads turning… rather quickly in the tasting rotation there was a bottle of questionable provenance in our midst that caused a stir—a genuine FREAK!
The wine following in the tasting appeared youthful in all aspects, from its medium ruby tones inside the glass to its cherry and plum flavors that sprang forward. I was in no way prepared for the reveal.
When we had finished our blind assessment of all six wines we removed their disguises. My wine world turned upside down in an instant after having confidently penned 2005 as my guess for vintage on the first red, staring in disbelief at a bottle of 1995 Bodegas Otañón Reserva Rioja. Only ten years off! Two of us in the tasting refused to believe the vintage—our notes could not support the age—there was nothing about it that was remotely close to eighteen years of age. We immediately filled our glassware with a second pour, which showed no signs of bricking (often found on aged wines) in color and the fruit and earth woven textile that came across in the perfumed esters were just developing; never mind the tannin structure (medium-plus and finely grained) and pert acidity of the Rioja.
Across the spectrum of Reserva level Riojas that found their way to the table, there was nothing quite like the Otañón, even the 1998 Faustino showed Jimmy Stewart like aging—graceful but apparent—with secondary and tertiary flavors superseding the sour cherry fruit.
The wine of the night was thus mired in controversy. I remained obstinate in my stance, refusing to give into the rebuttals, but in the end I simply pulled back and enjoyed the Spanish red for what it was, regardless of age, admiring the freshness especially… if it actually was from 1995.