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None the wiser. La grève wednesday night slowed arrival at Philippe Faure-Brac’s Bistrot du Sommelier, a discreet rendezvous behind the red and gold, across the boulevard from the very special if aloof Caves Augé. I hadn’t been expecting a sumptious feast, opting for the more modest discovery tasting menu, and realised not only would I not be seeing a wine list all night, I would be guessing. And not correctly.
I wondered if the subsequent pours might have been less whacky if I hadn’t annoyed them by being more than the expected fifteen minutes late. I also wondered whether our smug sommelieress would get half of these right if she were tasting blind. We failed satisfactorily on the first pour, a 2007 Lirac blanc. A bourboulenc, clairette, grenache blanc blend from an appellation bordering Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac lies just south of some reds I regard fondly: Gigondas, Vaqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise.
Instinctively I guess Roussanne-Marsanne on unidentifiable whites; either it’s an attempt to be clever, or a poorly veiled longing for the morning casse-croûte in the St. Péray vendanges. I’m never right, and you don’t get credit for trying (at the Caves Augé Rhône tasting yesterday I got a similarly admonishing “Of course not, this is the Southern Rhône).
The amuse it paired with, however, was excellent. Impossibly tender escargot, sitting on tomato marmelade and topped with frothy garlic milk, in one of those horribly unfashionable verrines (this month’s Marie Claire and Elle à Table have kindly let me know that those dozen glass cubes they made me buy four months ago can be put away now). I have learned that the amuse gives no indication of the quality of the food ahead, so I sopped up the rest of the salty milk (pas de gâchis) and tried to come up with some obscure appellations for round two.
I thought I had nailed it too. Ange, who consulted for a first growth as part of her business school project, was similarly convinced. Sommelieress hops over: Got it? Tasting is such a weird sport to prove yourself at. In chorus (triumphant): Pouilly-Fumé. My delusions of wine professionalism melting, the sommelieress with restrained glee: Oh no no, ç’est Reuilly. 80km west of Pouilly-sur-Loire, Decanter lovingly described Reuilly as Sancerre’s almost-forgotten cousin. With hectares of unplanted AOC vineyards, Reuilly’s mineral-nettle-citrus charms go little noticed. There were no surprises in the haughty bistrot food that dominates Paris, this menu découvert was all about the oddball wine.
Reasonably frustrated by the time my glass of Bordeaux arrived, I nevertheless enjoyed its chewy pairing with crispy rouget and chorizo. Calling Médoc off the bat, this Bordeaux wasn’t French. What over-reaching wine region won’t reverently pour you their Bordeaux blend? I could pick a Napa Cab-Merlot from an Okanagan Valley “Meritage” (although this tasting makes me wonder), in BC every enterprising winemaker overstews an aquitaine-esque cuvée prestige for a good number of your canadian dollars, I’d rather be overcharged in St. Helena. We debated South America – I went for low end Super Tuscan, Ange stuck with California. I don’t think either of us were shocked to discover we were drinking Casa Lapostolle, their 2006 Tanao from Colchagua. We knew we were fishing in the dark. Good to keep your palate on its toes? Keep your ego away from the spitoon? Sure. Do I want a rematch? Of course (if you’re offering, but that’s enough disappointment at €88 thanks).
Young winemakers of the Côte d’Or gathered on Maxim’s gently rocking canal boat yesterday to present the 2007 vintage, many little more than a week in bottle. Last week Alsatian vignerons claimed that great burgundies had inspired their conversion to biodynamics and I was eager to talk to the “jeunes talents” about sustainable viticulture and what that means on their vineyards. I was a little disappointed to find that only six of the forty-two domaines had any formal tie to organic or biodynamic practice.
Instead, I heard a story familiar to tasting rooms everywhere. I trained with a biodynamic producer, but it doesn’t work here. We’re using less and less herbicide, but we keep it on hand for tough years. We have very small plots- we removed ourselves from certification because our neighbors were spraying vigorously. And a point I come across often and find most troublesome: a small amount of carefully selected artificial fungicide is less harmful and leaves my ecosystem much faster than copper. Gavin Quinney drew my attention to the copper problem while I was harvesting at Chateau Bauduc in September, and some strong opinions on all sides have impelled me to start making enquiries.
The stand-outs of this tasting were not bio. Domaine Michèle et Patrice Rion‘s Nuits Saint Georges 2006 <Les Terres Blanches> was a plump, lightly oaky, slightly spicy, lemon-scented chardonnay for which I had layers of appreciation. Maxime Rion’s Nuits Saint Georges rouge, the 2006 <Clos des Argillières> was a very charming strawberry pinot, if still quite hot. An anti-mildew treatment is used on the domaine that is permissible under Swiss and German organic certification guidelines but not in France; the Rions fall into the wide ‘almost’ organic category. Domaine Coche Bizouard poured an appealing baked apple 2007 Meursault from their high, flat lieux-dit <Les Luchets> and a bright, strongly likable Bourgogne AOC chardonnay from the same vintage.
To be honest, I had tried so many chardonnays and aligotés by the time I started on the Bourgogne rouge that my palate was slacking off and I’m sure I left many gems uncovered. This was my first adventure in burgundy, on a barge by the Champs de Mars, apart from a few magical bottles here and there, enjoyed before I knew much about limestone or Charlemagne. I’m diving into this terroir of myths and legends next month, joining an all-female wine jury in Beaune and interviewing a painstakingly selected group of winemakers. I’m welcoming suggestions for domaines to visit with something original to say, particularly those with nuanced interpretations of biodynamics.
Yesterday at the Grand Hôtel Intercontinental near Opéra Garnier, I fell for pinot gris. I had been tempted in Strasbourg in January, but I had mistrusted my palate. After tasting more than fifty rieslings the day of the competition, I was easily distracted by its gorgeous fleur d’oranger nose and its beguiling tinge of pink. Alsace is built on riesling however, and I was there to pass judgement on the new vintage.
A similar message prevailed at the Grands Crus d’Alsace tasting in Paris. Legally gewurztraminer, muscat and pinot gris can pour into a grand cru and there were interesting varietal examples of each. But riesling is king here. I warmed up on the parcours pédagogique, tasting a trio of blooming, abundant muscats followed by frankly bizarre grapefruit and bubblegum sylvaner.
I fought my way for a glass at Clos Saint-Landelin and was generously rewarded. René and Thomas Muré’s pinot gris was so supple, with unimposing acidity and a little sweetness, the 2007 was a real pleasure and the 2005 was even more delicate. While neither were hugely open on the nose, Thomas told me 2007 would pay the greater reward for ten years cellaring. Clos Saint-Landelin has been certified organic for twenty years and has recently jumped in to biodynamics in pursuit of deep roots and bright minerality. The great biodynamic wines of Burgundy were an inspiration for the move, and the Murés have already noticed more upright vines, thicker leaves and increased resistance to botrytis.
Domaine Marcel Deiss has ten years of experience of biodynamics and made the transition as part of “une démarche vers la qualité” – a natural progression for winemakers continually improving their craft. The Deiss rieslings, I am not the first to note, were extraordinary and reminded me why I was there. The Schoenenbourg vineyard has a sulfur-rich chalk subsoil that fashions the profound structure of its wines; Mathieu Deiss told me that Schoenenbourgs consistently call for six or seven years to open on the nose. The Altenberg de Bergheim, also 2005, was more inviting, a colleague called it the Sauternes of Alsace. Very rich without being heavy, “scotché” or sticky (a term derived from Scotch/sellotape I understand) and much more open on the palate, which is attributed to its limestone upbringing.
Arriving typically late at the Strasbourg Riesling du Monde competition, I was seated at my judging table with two Mosel oenologues, an Alsatian maître de chai, an instructor from a start-up amateur wine school nearby and la Reine des Vignes, autrement dit Miss Riesling 2008. While instructions continued from the podium, in german, I gleamed from the packet resembling a standardized test that I would be scoring samples on limpidity, appearance, purity, persistance, intensity and overall harmony, in visual, olfactory and palate categories. From wandering glances at my neighbors’ papers, I think I just about passed this one.
Tasting was blind and never subsequently revealed. After certain pours, we looked up and exchanged glances: This is real Riesling; This is a nuanced effort; This is lovely but this winemaker has never set foot on Alsace. Typicity was a recurrent problem. This was seemingly a silent tasting, but the fellowship between the German and Alsatian winemakers was evident whenever a riesling of suspected new world provenance surfaced. The queen of the vine engaged studiously in the ceremony of swirl and sniff. I tried to forge some camaraderie with the oenologues; I’m sure we felt similarly out of place. Our panel deliberated thirty wines in total, mostly “correct” in the French context of being boring but unoffensive, with isolated gruff malic examples or cumbersome overripe banana.
We submitted favorites to the top table jury, and I caught up with our head judge, Mosel-native Bohn Zell, maneuvering the language rift at the every-sample-submitted-is-on-the-table luncheon tasting. He underscored his admiration for Alsatian riesling, highlighting similarities in the mineral content between the two regions, but reminded me that the geology of Alsace is uncommonly diverse. I quietly sat in on the head judge deliberations, finding myself at table with a dozen mustached, bushy eyebrowed gents and Julie Andrews. Numbers were called and recalled in french and german, bottles in black bags were scurried to the table, large noses were implanted in glasses, brows twitched, heads shook, “colle” (which as far as I can tell is glue) was lamented, and all of a sudden with murmurs of consent there were prize winning wines.
Eager to get my heels into some sable and cailloux, I joined the young queen and her dauphines on the bus, where they were sitting out an animated debate about whether or not “dauphine” meant princess. Olivier Sengler came over to talk to me about gravel as we set off for the freshly minted AOC of Scherwiller. The tightly packed tour bus was in high spirits after the sedate morning of judgement; we were sommeliers, viticulteurs, cavistes, and “des grands amateurs”, a great category of compatriot I come across often and enthusiastically.
On the bus I learned that trellissing is very high here, maximizing photosynthesis in this cold region, that the sweeter the riesling the tougher the pairing (I should really have known that) and that every imaginable type of soil could be found in this valley (I knew this more or less from the topographic map on my wall in Paris). I also discovered that Alsace is a key producer of hops, with a futures market for Strisselspalt, a varietal beloved by American homebrewers. The village of St. Pierre in the distance was home to four or five microbreweries: there is a well-hidden microbrewing subculture in France that is stumbled upon because I could not find it; in Paris good French beer is Belgian. We flew by the Kronenbourg brewery (“Hey, check out that nuclear reactor”) and pulled into our picturesque Alsatian host village, being told we were a reasonably important group and would behave like it. “Discipline et serenité” – jeers – “Mais un peu quand même?”
The prestige lieux-dits of Scherwiller are Rittersberg and L’Ortenberg, granite and flint-based respectively, surrounded by a lower-lying clay heavy domain. Rittersberg produces a precise, likable pinot gris, while L’Ortenberg, a picturesque vineyard reaching up to its namesake 13th century castle, nurtures Scherwiller’s vin de garde, a fine, crisp riesling with a lucid expression of fruit. We toured the sites in harvest wagons and were revived on the hilltop by generous servings of riesling soup, a broth based on veal stock, mushrooms, cream and naturally local riesling. Invented some ten years ago (surely for groups like us), it is sold in the village next to jars of chocroute, but was probably never as delicious as that inclement January afternoon on the Ortenberg hillside.
The 52nd fair of the year’s new releases took place in Cornas village hall on December 3rd, with fifty winemakers representing all six northern Rhone appellations. My hosts had visited the tasting hall the previous evening to escape the crowds and swiftly guided me to old friends, old favorites, and what they considered the breakthrough wines of the event. After an extended lunch, where my hosts entertained guests from Dijon and after several bottles of Domaine du Tunnel (where I had harvested in September), the men of the party rose from the table and we set off for the idyllic village of Cornas.
Warmly welcomed by my increasingly merry group, I found myself regarded with curiosity by winemakers, wives, and cave workers – mademoiselle, heels, suit (will put together the Aigle-Carhartt-Barbour uniform next time) assuredly speaking bad french and taking illegible notes on their wine. The large hall was bustling – countless children, portly amateur collectors stocking up on the new vintage, friends from neighboring villages gossiping, recommendations being passed between the tables. I leaped at a chance to try Matthieu Barret’s biodynamic Cornas, the first in the area and in short supply. Despite its ornate label in black and silver and a comparatively high price, I was however underwhelmed by what I tasted. I look forward to revisiting his wine and finding out how M. Barret deals with limited sulphur application, the crutch of many organic producers.
At Alain Voge, they decided I was a journalist and received me attentively as I tried some excellent uncomplicated whites and what was the stand-out Cornas of the afternoon in my opinion, the 2006 Les Vieilles Fontaines. After tasting several rustic, jarring St. Josephs, I was delighted to come across Natacha Chave at Aléofane pouring her velvety 2006, in which I found a finesse I had not seen anywhere in St. Joseph in my short apprenticeship in the Northern Rhône. I managed to track down Aléofane this week at Cave du Lourmel in Paris 15th and I look forward to profiling the intriguing vigneronne for you along with my tasting notes.
Whisked onto a TGV back to the capital, I winced at missing a celebratory dinner at Domaine du Tunnel, where I had been fed extravagantly right through the harvest, but content to have soaked in the warm, unceremonious fair of wine and to have gotten friendly with the 2006 vintage. Enamoured with the characters of this peculiar and beautiful bend in the Rhône, and almost feeling right at home, I wonder which upcoming season of winemaking will bring me back to this magical place.
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This week Oliver Humbrecht gave us the chance to taste new releases of biodynamic wine from across France, in a side by side tasting at Porte Dauphine. Sommeliers, cavistes, distributors and journalists tasted through a cross section of wine regions, with samples showing best from biodynamic strongholds such as Alsace and the Loire.
Bordeaux’s grappling with biodynamics, as demonstrated by Chateau Falfas and others, has so far been less artful. As with many of the wines at the tasting, and with Chateau Falfas’ Côtes de Bourg 2005 Le Chevalier in particular, the biodynamie is unmistakable on the nose. “Cowshed”, among more mellow descriptions used, is not an aroma with strong appeal, and it has done much to tarnish the reputation of organic and biodynamic wine. Chateau La Grolet, in the same appellation, by contrast produced a wine that made more reference to its environment than to the biodynamic preparations (read manures) applied to its vines and offered a likable crushed strawberry Côtes de Bourg 2005 Tête de Cuvée with great value.
Not represented at Humbrecht’s Syndicat de Viticulteurs en Culteur Biodynamique tasting for obvious reasons, many non-card carrying wineries follow biodynamic principles quite closely (while others dip in at will). I visited Chateau La Tour Figeac, St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé during harvest, and their wine consultant Stephanie Deranoncourt was straightforward about their policy. Over several days on the estate, it was evident that weather forecasts were more closely watched than planetary alignments, and that pragmatism prevailed. Biodynamic preparations were “dynamized” before being applied in the vineyard and the lunar calendar was consulted, but this winemaker was not going to watch her cabernet franc rot on the vine while she waited for the harvest moon.
There were some strong showings from François Chidaine in Montlouis-sure-Loire, with the 2006 Tuffeaux resembling Condrieu, an inviting aperitif. Chidaine’s 2006 Les Choisilles showed a generous mix of honey and lemons with appealing floral aromatics. The Vouvray 2006 Les Argiles, showing white fruit stewed with honey and vanilla pods, was a stand-out.