Posts Tagged ‘Syrah

Michel Chapoutier and Domaine de Bila-Haut Tasting

In an amazing feat of self-deception, I got through my more or less wine-less pregnancy by telling myself I’d be back in full force once the boys were born. Well, nursing means I’m not doing much drinking these days. (Although I am doing a lot of eating. Good Lord, breastfeeding twins works up an appetite.) And it’s not like I have time for much leisurely wine drinking or tasting or blogging these days. Or much leisurely anything, for that matter.

However. When I got an invitation to meet Michel Chapoutier and taste his Bila-Haut wines two weeks ago, I simply couldn’t pass it up.
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One Great Buy: 2007 Les Aphillanthes Vin de Pays de Vaucluse

This 2007 Les Aphillanthes Vin de Pays de Vaucluse is one of the most enjoyable wines I’ve had all summer. And I’d say that even if it weren’t $14.99, a darn good price for a wine with this much personality. (Looks like you can get it for a buck less if you buy from the importer, Weygandt Wines.) Noted Rhône producer Domaine les Aphillanthes makes a number of wines, many in the $20-$30 range, from the traditional regional varietals: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and the like. This vin de pays is their entry level offering, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Grenache that’s a tad more sophisticated than the your basic Rhône. Sure, there’s the dark fruit and spice that make young, accessible Rhônes such fan favorites, but there’s also some leather and tobacco on the nose and finish. Especially on the finish. A wine at this price has no right to have such a long, compelling finish. But lucky for us, it does. This is a great wine to take you the fall. It’ll play nice with whatever red meat you choose to throw on the BBQ this Labor Day weekend, and will marry perfectly with stews and roasts as the weather turns cooler.

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Finger Lakes First Thoughts

We’re back from our weekend in the Finger Lakes, and I’m pulling together my pictures, videos, and impressions, many of which I’ll be sharing in the coming days. A few preliminary thoughts:

1. Not to be the master of the obvious here, but there are some truly excellent Rieslings made in the Finger Lakes. This was my first chance to taste so many Finger Lakes Rieslings at a single go, and it was great to try so many successful — and distinctive — interpretations of this variety. A lot of these wines also represent terrific value, which isn’t something that you can always say about Alsatian or German Rieslings.

2. It’s hard for me not to make comparisons to Long Island, the New York wine region I’m most familiar with, and in many ways, the Finger Lakes come off favorably. Some Long Island wineries succumb to the pressures of the nearby New York City marketplace, issuing luxury cuvées in ostentatious bottles when they’d be better off sticking to the basics of making good wines. I saw little of this during my time in the down-to-earth Finger Lakes. Compare some of the vanity Bordeaux-style bottlings of Long Island to one of the priciest wines I tasted in the Finger Lakes, a $75 bottle of late-harvest wine made from the deeply unfashionable (and in this case, deeply delicious) Vignoles variety – hardly a wine for the status-seeker.

3. A few producers I spoke to mentioned experimenting with different white varieties like Petit Manseng and Gruner Veltliner. I look forward to seeing how these grapes will progress in the Finger Lakes. I’m less excited, frankly, about the future of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Pinot Noir in the Finger Lakes, I get. Cabernet Franc too. This weekend, and in previous tastings, I’ve had some good, expressive examples of these varieties, which do well in cooler climes. But none of the Syrahs or Cabernet Sauvignons (and granted, there are only a few) I had this weekend have me convinced that these grapes have a particularly bright future in the Finger Lakes. I could be wrong — it wouldn’t be the first time — but I just don’t see it.

4. Like any other wine region, the Finger Lakes has its share of characters. My favorite character of the weekend by far was Sam Argetsinger. More on Sam, and all of the above, in the days ahead. (FYI, the picture here is a view of Seneca Lake from the Argetsinger Vineyard.)

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Behind the Label: Michel Chapoutier

When a friend suggested I write more about wine labels on STBNY, I immediately thought of Michel Chapoutier. What sets Chapoutier’s labels apart is not their look (elegant fonts, neutral colors, classic crests) but their feel. That’s because Chapoutier prints his labels in Braille. One day, Chapoutier happened to catch a TV interview with his friend Gilbert Montagné, a French singer who has been blind since birth. Montagné described how difficult it was to pick out wine by himself in a wine store. (If you’re interested in the full story, check out this article.) That gave Chapoutier the idea to superimpose Braille over his regular label. Appropriately enough, he started out in 1994 with the label for his Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage, which comes from a plot of land originally owned by Maurice de la Sizeranne, who invented the first abbreviated version of Braille.

Most of us are probably familiar with Chapoutier from his great value Belleruche Côtes-du-Rhône, both red and white. Usually available for around $10-$12, these are some of the best bang-for-your-buck wines available on the market. You could do worse than to stock up on a few bottles of these for your summer BBQ needs. Chapoutier makes a staggeringly wide variety of wines from the Rhône, Provence, and Languedoc-Roussillon — with some side projects in Australia and Portugal for good measure — and somehow manages to keep the overall quality level high. (Chapoutier might attribute this success, at least in part, to his commitment to biodynamic winemaking.) Chapoutier seems like a bit of a live wire, and I love reading interviews with him.

I’ve had many of Chapoutier’s wines over the years, and tonight Paul and I cracked open this Les Vignes de Bila-Haut. This wine hails from the Roussillon, the hot, sun-drenched region along France’s eastern border with Spain that produces big, ripe wines. This wine is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan, all grapes that flourish in the heat. The wine is inky, lip-staining purple, and the aromas are deep, dark, and earthy: blackberries,cocoa, smoke, and dried thyme. On the palate, the Carignan is a little too front-and-center for me: traditionally a low-quality variety used for bulk wines, Carignan can produce good wines when it comes from old vines, as it does here. But even when Carignan rises to the occasion, it still has this rough, rustic edge to it that reminds me of the mediocre, cheap Côtes-du-Rhône that I used to drink way too much of in my misspent youth, to hangover-inducing effect.

Nonetheless, this is really enjoyable wine for a mere $14. On his site, Chapoutier recommends drinking the wine with a “nice piece of beef” or grilled meat, which we interpreted to mean bacon cheeseburgers from the grill. It was a pretty fortuitous match. I think Michel would approve.

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My Brush with Greatness, Pt 2: 1997 La Landonne Côte Rôtie

My dear friend Gary was clearing out his boss’ office and came across a bottle of wine. Would I, he wanted to know, be interested in trying it?

Not since my brother Lee gave me a ticket to the Beastie Boys Hello Nasty show at MSG (3 rows in front of Mike D’s parents, FYI) has so much awesomeness fallen in my lap. This is a 1997 La Landonne Côte Rôtie from Etienne Guigal, one of the greatest wines of the northern Rhône, my hands-down favorite wine region. It’s 100% Syrah and can stand up to many, many years in the cellar. It’s also far north of my usual price range, even when I’m feeling spendy: the going rate for this guy is about $400.

These wines are terrific with deep, earthy, gamey flavors, and in a perfect world I would have whipped up a salmis of squab or venison sausage, but this is not a perfect world and instead we threw some delicious rib eyes on the grill. We decanted the wine 90 minutes before drinking to separate it from its sediment and to open it up a bit. (Again, in a perfect world, this probably should have been closer to 2-3 hours, but the wine, and my guests, were forgiving.)
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Rhône: My Cure for Wine Ennui

Believe it or not, I do get sick of wine. My palate goes numb and I wonder if it’s all a waste of time and money — at the end of day, it’s just fermented grape juice.

And then. Then I taste a wine that reminds me why I fell in love with wine. It’s rarely An Important Bottle that pulls me back from the brink. Nothing against vintage Champagne, super-Tuscans, or Oregon single-vineyard Pinots, but what wins my heart back every time is wine from the Rhône. Geographically speaking, the Rhône is a river in Southeastern France. The river valley is home to some of my favorite wines in the world. The northern half of the Rhône produces reds that are based on Syrah in its deepest, darkest, and most brooding form. Think Clive Owen in a glass. Southern Rhône wines are usually based on Grenache, with some help from Syrah and other lesser-known varieties (to us) like Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a southern Rhône wine. They still pack a punch, but are more gregarious, with a sense of humor. (George Clooney in wine form.) These wines have a direct, unpretentious quality that appeals to me, and they go well with some of my favorite foods, like  grilled and roasted lamb, beef, duck.

Tonight, it was this Château de Bouchassy 2007 Lirac that did the trick. Lirac is a region in the southern Rhône, and true to form, Grenache is the predominant grape variety. When I first opened the wine last night, it was a little withdrawn and, frankly, kinda boring. But when I tried it tonight, it was a completely different wine. Blackberries, dark cherries, dried herbs, licorice — there’s a lot going on here, but it’s well-balanced, with a beautifully silky texture, and all the elements work together nicely. In an ideal world, I would have opened this wine in another year or two. But this being the real world, I’ll probably have another glass tonight and polish off the rest tomorrow.

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Behind the Label: Charles Smith Wines

The highlight of my winter social calendar is an annual fondue party hosted by our dear friends Erin & Mike. It’s a madcap evening of wine, cheese, charades, kirsch, cheese, drunkenness, laughter, and did I mention cheese? During this year’s event, one of the fellow guests had a great suggestion for me and STBNY: why not write about wine labels? The stories about them, what they mean, and what they can tell you about the wine inside. I thought it was a brilliant idea (not surprising — the guy is a physicist, after all), so here’s my first installment of a semi-regular feature called Behind the Label. (If you’re obsessed with the subject, here’s a great post from a design blog with some cool wine label pics.)

My first foray into the subject is Charles Smith Wines. Based in Walla Walla, Washington, Charles Smith makes Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are big, bold and in your face — in case you couldn’t tell from the label pictured here. In fact, that’s what I love about these labels: they do a great job of describing what’s in the bottle. For example, his Kung Fu Girl, an off-dry Riesling that I’ve served at several tastings, would indeed be great with Asian food:

And the Boom Boom! Syrah (my favorite wine of his, and a good deal for about $15) is just as explosive as advertised. Some of his wines are a little over the top for me (the Eve Chardonnay is too much alcohol, too much oak, too much everything), but I respect that he’s not afraid to go big. I love the graphic, black-and-white design that stands out among the soft curlicues and muted colors that characterize so many other wine labels. The mastermind here is Danish designer Rikke Korff, who used to the design director of Levi-Strauss. As she says:

“My style of design has always been and is always rooted in the pure perspective of functionality, timelessness & simplicity. I blend that well with the guts & raw directness of rock n’ roll to create future icons and cult brands.”

Rock on.

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A Mixed Case: February Wine News Round Up

As some of you may already know, I’m housebound thanks to a fractured foot. The bad news is, I’m on crutches for another week and in one of those damn boots for a month. But the good news is, I’ve had more time to catch up some recent wine news to share with all of you. So here goes:

1. Chilean wines and the earthquake. This weekend’s earthquake in Chile occurred offshore of Maule, one of the country’s wine regions. According to reports I’ve read, (this is one fairly typical) there have thankfully been few casualties, but there has been a lot of damage to the wineries themselves and stocks of wine. Traditionally a source of mediocre bulk wine, in recent years Maule has been shifting to higher quality wines. One can only hope that this earthquake hasn’t set their progress and prosperity back too far. Yes, of course, right now there are much more important things to think about than wine. But once everyone is accounted for and the rubble is cleared, people will need jobs. And money. Which is why I’ll be picking up a bottle (or several) of Chilean wine this week, and I encourage you to do the same. Watch this space for some tasting notes.

2. Pinot Noir (fake). I spend a lot of time defending the wine industry from people who think it’s shady, devious, and out to get the average consumer. Sometimes though they’re right. Take the recent Red Bicyclette scandale. Earlier this month, a dozen wine producers and executives in the Languedoc in Southern France were convicted of selling fake Pinot Noir (it was really a blend of other, cheaper, grapes) to U.S. wine behemoth E&J Gallo, who bottled it as Pinot Noir under the Red Bicyclette brand. Now the US Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is looking into it as well.

3. Pinot Noir (real). I recently discovered that a high school classmate of mine, Serena Lourie, started a winery called Cartograph Wines in northern California. They’re sourcing Pinot Noir from a variety of top vineyards and trying their hand at Gewurztraminer and Syrah as well. They just bottled their first vintage and I can’t wait to try their wines. When I’m not overcome with insane jealousy, I love following their exploits on their Facebook page. (A Web site is coming soon.)

4. Wine in NY supermarkets. New York’s train wreck of a governor, David Paterson, recently re-introduced legislation that would allow supermarkets to sell wine and liquor. A recent poll shows that most New Yorkers support it — and so do I. Yes, it would put the squeeze on some of the small wine shops that I like to frequent. But I’m in favor of anything that makes it easier for people to purchase wine alongside food. After all, we consume them at the same time — shouldn’t we be able to buy them at the same time, too?

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Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Cheese?

First of all, apologies for my prolonged absence. I’ve been a)sick and b)busy. I know, lame excuses, but it’s been an unusually crazy few weeks here at STBNY HQ. My new job is all-consuming, and I’ve been doing a bunch of wine stuff that isn’t directly related to the site like studying for my latest wine exam (boring) and working a flower arranging/wine tasting-themed bridal shower (fun — check it out on the very cool wedding site 100LayerCake. If you’re looking for a florist, you must check out my very talented friends at Blossom and Branch.)

Anyway, enough excuses. Last Monday I had the chance to attend an intriguing wine/cheese tasting courtesy of Artisanal, New York’s temple of all things cheese, and V. Sattui Winery, a family-owned producer based in the Napa Valley. (I know, poor me, right? Seriously, I have no right to complain. Ever.) I feel the same way about cheese that other folks feel about, say, chocolate or bacon, so  this promised a lovely way to while away a few hours.

In many ways, it was. The wines from V. Sattui were well-made and enjoyable. The Vittorio’s Vineyard 2008 Sauvignon Blanc was intensely aromatic, reminding me of grilled pineapple drizzled with lime. (I know, awfully specific — but that’s a fan favorite of ours in the summer, and the taste is a familiar one to me.) Sadly, they’re getting rid of Sauvignon Blanc in this vineyard to plant the more economically rewarding Zinfandel. The 2007 Napa Syrah was good enough, but the high alcohol seemed a tad out of balance. I liked the 2006 Preston Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, but it lacked the intrigue and intensity that I associate with the finest examples of this variety. I loved the idea of the Moscato, a lightly fizzy and sweet sparkling wine, but because the wine was poured long before we sat down to the tasting, it had already lost its delicate fizz.

The 7 cheeses were wonderful — not surprisingly — but there were just too damn many of them. My favorites were a creamy, tangy Robiola from northern Italy, and a salty/sweet aged Gouda resplendent with little crystallized nuggets of cheesy goodness. But after a certain point, everything started to run together. The point of the evening was to try every possible combination and permutation of cheese and wine and rate them from a scale of -2 (the worst combo imaginable) to +2 (a match made in heaven). There’s value in understanding how wine and cheese work together, and seeing how they can bring out the best and worst in each other, but the sheer number of cheeses on offer made it almost impossible to draw any valuable conclusions. Just look at the picture I posted of my illegible score sheet. Blame the fact that I’m overwhelmed right now (see the first paragraph of this post), but sometimes too much is just too much. The experience would have been much more enjoyable had we focused on only a handful of cheeses.

Sometimes I wonder if I should take this same approach to wine. What would happen if I spent six months drinking only Alsatian Riesling and Oregon Pinot Noir? I don’t think I’d be bored. On the contrary, I think it would be incredibly rewarding to focus on these regions and varieties and learn all of their nuances. (It would also do some serious damage to my checking account.) Too often we let our appetite for novelty take over. We’re living in the golden age of wine — never has so much good wine, from so many regions, been accessible to so many of us — but we do pay a price for that choice. We risk being dilettantes, flitting from an Argentine Malbec one night to a Washington State Merlot the next, enjoying them well enough but never really understanding them.

For those of you who already know a little about wine and feel confident in your choices, I’d encourage you to try settling on a variety or a region and try to learn a little more about it. Buy a case of those targeted wines and work your way through them, attend a focused tasting  (if you’re in New York and want to home in on Spanish wine, the Cervantes Institute has some excellent classes) — or drop me a line and ask me for some guidance.

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STBNY Wine Hopes, Dreams & Aspirations for 2010

Happy 2010! Here are my wine resolutions for the year — and my hopes for the world of wine over the next 12 months.

1. Get organized. I’m a little scattered when it comes to keeping my tasting notes all in one place. I just downloaded an iPhone app called Drync Wine, which lets me take notes and store label photos of what I’m drinking–and flag wines that I’m interested in trying next. I’ll let you guys know how it works out. Not to sound like your mom, but I’d encourage you to figure out some simple way to track your consumption and preferences, whether it’s an iPhone app, an Excel spreadsheet, or a little notebook. No need to get too fancy about it — just figure out an easy, unobtrusive way to record your thoughts. It’s the single biggest thing you can do to improve your wine knowledge.

2. Try something new. Once a week, I’m going to try a wine that falls outside my default France/Spain/Long Island/California repertoire. Tannat from Uruguay? South African Chenin Blanc? Greek Xinomavro? Bring it on. If you’re very serious about this — and really, what better thing to be serious about? — check out the Wine Century Club, which is open to people who have tasted at least 100 grape varieties. There’s a spreadsheet on the site you can use to track your progress. (I’m at 114, but who’s counting?)

3. Drink more sherry. I make this one every year, and each time I fall short. I love sherry, and it’s surprisingly versatile — and well-priced. One of my favorite Christmas presents is the Moro cookbook, from the Spanish/Mediterranean restaurant in London of the same name, so I’m hoping this will inspire me to cook even more sherry-friendly dishes. In June I’ll be taking my sherry/port/Madeira and sparkling wine exams as part of my never-ending diploma studies, so that will force me to do some more sherry drinking too.

Enough about me…here’s what I’m hoping to see from the wine world overall in 2010:
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