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C M J GThe world of wines is a lot bigger than my grocery store buying days let on. Working at a top-notch restaurant in Los Angeles, one with a serious wine program, has afforded me a privileged view of some of the greatest producers almost nightly. I learn every shift, with my own piecemeal understanding of new and legendary winemakers crashing in sets of waves; sometimes, like last Thursday, being a sizable break that sets you tumbling.

The closing ceremonies of the sommelier staff are always the same, breaking down stations, polishing, cleaning and restocking before our nightly bonding unwinds in the cellar, after we’ve clocked out. We gather round the samples that our wine director has amassed, from guests and salespeople, or we’ll taste some interesting leftovers from service that night. Often the wines are just footnotes that don’t carry much over the late night chatter.

Last Thursday, however, was a themed evening on Burgundy, and a night that made quite an impression. It was hard not to be wrapped up by a vertical tasting of Ghislaine Barthod (my introduction to the estate’s Pinot Noirs from Chambolle-Musigny), but another producer had me stammering over its beauty. A Premier Cru Chardonnay from Chassagne-Montrachet, with which I was unfamiliar, its label simple and not letting on much more than it would be of a certain quality (as Premier Cru designates).

The Chardonnay was lemon hued in the glass and led with a developing scent of citrus, golden apple, smoke and a surplus of chalk. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, rather a slow transmission that took hold. I was revved up by the mouth-filling body (medium-plus), the luscious texture of a complex range of flavors that brought out more pear and apple under fresh-squeezed lemon, a little wood spice and a lot of chalk like two blackboard erasers smashing together violently on my palate while retaining mouth-watering acidity. It was overwhelming. Each sip surpassed the previous, and by the end of the night I had consumed more than my fair share.

I kept harping on it, until the wine director clued me in on the price of the Chardonnay from Jean-Noël Gagnard’s Les Caillerets vineyard ($100 a bottle). My ignorance had been helpful in demonstrating what a Premier Cru was capable of, without being influenced by a staggering price tag or prestige of the family and their vineyard holdings.

After that night I did my homework and saw the family’s vast reach in the village of Chassagne-Montrachet. I also read about the fickle and warm vintage from which I’d tasted (2011), and weighed my own chances to ever taste more of this wine again—to make sure it wasn’t a fluke—as few places carry the wine in California. It’s the constant reward of schooling, the unexpected storming of one’s taste, that makes for such a draw to the job. Introduced to a great wine of Jean-Noël Gagnard through the auspices of my wine director, the din of guests subsided and the after-hours repartee fading, the sea of wine becomes the night.

Ecard VVFive plus hours spent fermenting in a bucket seat works up quite a dream thirst of wine, so when I’d finally arrived in San Francisco last Thursday my friend must have anticipated it, having two Burgundy stems with their globes wetted by six-ounce pours of 2010 Domaine Ecard Savigny-Lès-Beaune Vieilles Vignes.

Demure, having a middle-sister way about her, the wine—a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, specifically the Cotes du Beaune—was youthful, prim and well mannered. Leading with ripe red fruit but yielding wet leaves, black tea and a pinch of cracked pepper that foreshadowed her development. A fitted medium-bodied dress hugged her hips, sporting modest acidity (medium), ripe tannins and leaving a trace of raspberries, cherries and a smidgeon of seductive earthy charm in an expected (medium) finish.

The wine was in a primary stage, delivering mostly fruit and minor earthen notes in liquid form to a wine-parched tongue, meanwhile portending a fantastic epicurean weekend ahead in Northern California. Though Domaine Ecard’s Old Vine Pinot Noir was in a youthful and less exciting stage, I knew that this wine would benefit from some maturing in the cellar because it possessed some key structural components and hinted at a really well-put together wine that needed a little time to coalesce. She was just letting her hair down.

Leroy BI 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.

BouchardMy 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.

I continued my countdown-to-500 this week with another sixteen wines, sampling between Burgundy and Bordeaux. In my Tuesday course it was a continuation of Burgundy, tracing the map further south along the Côtes de Beaune, the Mâcon and Pouilly Fuissé and concluding our travels in Beaujolais.

We tasted the following:

08  Deux Montille Soeur, Pernand-Vergelesses

08 Ch. Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet

08 Ch. Puligny Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet

08 Ch. Puligny Montrachet, Meursault

04 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Macon-Milly-Lamartine “Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon

94 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Macon-Milly-Lamartine (Sample)

07 Domaine Manciat-Poncet Pouilly-Fuissé “Le Crays”

95 Domaine de la Chanaise Morgon

07 Domaine Piron-Lameloise  Chenaz Quarts

Of the set we sampled there was one standout, among the many well-crafted wines that night, it belonged to the second set that we tasted, standing apart from it’s brethren by emitting unabashed odors of asparagus and baby corn—unique. On the tongue the 2004 Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon was dry, painting the inside of my cheeks with medium high acidity, boasting a shapely figure (med. bodied) and yielding strong flavors of aspargus, baby corn and some baked apple that were slow to leave the palate. It was a swan among ducks.

The following night we had our last all-about-Bordeaux class, where we would say goodbye to the Southwest of France by tasting the white and dessert wines of Bordeaux and leave on a sweet note.

The white wines of Bordeaux are paid little attention in America, favoring the hulking reds of Bordeaux, with one exception… the wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Collectors’ wines. The sweet wines of Sauternes are comprised of botrytis[ed] Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and maybe even a splash of Muscadelle.

Botyrtis Cinera is a spore of fungus that leeches the water from grapes, dehydrating them, and in turn ramping the sugar levels of each fruit that is affected. This is a beneficial process when it is done to perfection, dubbed Noble Rot; if it fails to produce the coveted sweet wines then it is referred to as Grey Rot. The method of making Sauternes and Barsac is labor-intensive and a passion of love, enshrined in history.

I mention they are collectors’ wines because of their aging ability, often spanning a normal lifetime and beyond if they cellared in the proper conditions.

Wednesday night we tasted:

09 Festival (Ch. Le Gay, Pomerol)

09 Ch. L’Hoste, Entre-Deux-Mers

07 Ch. Larrivet-Haut-Brion

08 Ch. Thieuly

07 Ch. Sigalas Rabaud

99 Ch Julien Cabernet Sauvignon from Monterey

07 Ch. Du Seuil, Graves

The Sauterne was the showstopper of Wednesday evening; in comparison to the white wines that came before, it was unrivaled, making it hard to perform the customary spit that follows each sampling. The esters of the wine jumped from the glass delivering honeysuckle and honeycomb aromas straight to the olfactory. The viscous golden liquid only got better on the tongue with honey, vanilla, almonds and apricots coating and lingering in my mouth. An interesting note about Sauternes is that there is a fair amount of acidity but it is hard to detect because of the greater amount of residual sugar masking it.

It was bon voyage to Bordeaux and Burgundy, for now, with sixteen wines behind me in two days and 432 left to taste before the year’s end; I just made it on to the freeway and am looking to get to 500 on the quick. Worth sticking around… it’s only going to get tastier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, another flurry of wines came cycling through, as I tasted 15 bottles in two days time. In Class we took a brief trip to Alsace via projector and then off to Burgundy, where we would taste these fine wines:

07 Domaine Ronald Schmitt Muscat

07 Domaine Ronald Schmitt Pinot Gris

08 Domaine Ronald Schmitt Reisling Grand Cru, Vielles Vignes

08 Hervé Azo Chablis 1er Vau de Vey

96 Hervé Azo Chablis 1er Vau de Vey

07 Goisot Saint Bris Sauvignon

98 Goisot Fie Gris

It was awesome to do a vertical tasting (tasting the same wine in different vintages), seeing bottle evolution and it’s intriguing effects—firsthand. The 96 Chablis had staying power on the palate. And after class, my roommate and his girlfriend offered me an actual glass of 09 Sauvignon Blanc from the Franciscan estate in Napa Valley to celebrate her interview with an extraordinary school.

The following night it was on to the wines of Bordeaux—specifically the right bank—from the appellations of St. Emilion and Pomerol. Renown for their structured and powerful Merlot-based blends; it would be an exciting class. We tasted:

05 Chateau St. Jean de Lavand

05 Ch. Gombaude Guillot

05 Ch. Tour Canon

08 Ch. Cheval Noir

04 Ch. Fleur Cardinale

05 Ch. Grand-Mayne

06 Ch. Canon-La-Gaffeliere

My mouth was thoroughly thrashed after the two rounds of Bordeaux. Rounding the rotation of carousel vin with the last stop falling on Canon La-Gaffeliere, which displayed unparalleled finesse and my ravaged tongue was appreciative. Scents of cedar and earth gave way to soft tannins on the palate. It was in a class of it’s own that night.

Fifteen wines from three premium regions (four, if you include my glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley)… my goodness I have tasted thirty wines in less than thirty days, only 470 left to go. It might go faster than I thought.

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