15 March 2010

Cujo, Django and le Mistral

The 'Mistral', a wind that blows southward through the Rhone valley with such ferocity that even Mother Nature bows to it, equalizes everything, penetrating even the marrow of the soul.  Against all good advice I jogged into the rising sun this morning down the hill outside our Rasteau redoubt.  With the Mistral at your back, the sensation of speed becomes a function of your ability to remain upright and slow your body's natural tendency to jog at Chuck Yeager speeds.  Now, things can get complicated when the wind strikes your flanks, as it did when I first heard Cujo, the hairy black Satan dog, bark at me from a chateau's fence line across the road.  As his loaf turned into trot, and trot into sprint, my legs' compulsion to respond in kind were met with somewhat fierce opposition from le Mistral.  Long story short, I was Usain Bolt for a good 150 yards, rounding the bend towards the St. Didier cathedral full of fake energy, adrenalized only so far as the first one meter worth of incline.  Fortunately, I'd ditched the dog; or Cujo, me.

This was a day of joy, of things beyond the scope of explanation and comprehension, and I wasn't about to let Cujo interrupt my enjoyment of it.  Within an hour or so of my arrival back at the house, we were on the road again toward Avignon and its Palais des Papes and the Pont du Gard further west.  What a ride!  And how the wind owned us!

I can't say enough about the old walled city of Avignon as it progresses deeper toward the Palais.  We couldn't help but stop and peek inside la Vache a Carreaux, a restaurant that at first glance demanded we retreat into its colorful Noveau warmth with a now-ness.  We passed it by en-route to the Palais, but I harbored a secret dream to return to the restaurant one day.  Well, this was a day for dreams to come true, damn the Mistral.

After scouting every inch of beautiful scenery and outcrop of the Palais and its gardens, we returned to la Vache and had the Meal of a Lifetime.  There's no justice in describing just what arrived on my plate this Sunday afternoon.  All I can do is provide the address and pray with an almighty vigor that you do what's required of you to visit this place:  Centre historique: 14, rue de la Peyrolerie.  I washed my farmer's salad down with a VdP Vaucluse blanc from Roger Sabon.  It was spot-on, letting the salad speak for itself.

Yes, not enough can be said of the area around the Palais, so let me detail the rest of the day with a stab at brevity.  The Pont du Gard is a must-see.  It's a nature hike of the highest order, but don't pay the 15 Euro to park in the designated lot.  Park further down past the traffic circle where the locals do.  Oh, I almost forgot: les Halles near the center of Avignon's walled city, an closed-air market open on Sunday.  What a clutch encounter.  With the myriad streets available to us to reach the Palais, how we stumbled on this treasure is beyond me.  Again, this was a day of unspoken yet answered prayers, of dreams come true.  We made our compulsory wine purchases and opted for a plethora of fruits, pasta and plenty of Mediterranean fare.

Needless to say, dinner was special.  But something elevated it, brought it to another galaxy of enjoyment...  Django Reinhardt.  Discovering the music of Django Reinhardt has made the feeling of being in Rasteau and Chateauneuf-du-Pape--exploring their riveting landscape, soaking in the stories and vins of old and new generations alike--singular and celestial.

Soooo, I'm writing this on Monday night when I should be talking about what happened today, not yesterday.  Perhaps the bottle of d'Aqueria's 2006 l'Heritage Lirac, Trio Infernal's 2007 Priorat 'Riu', and Bosquet des Papes' 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape got to me.  I got a little sleepy and gave up.  So I'm giving up again with this post, cutting things short, and planning to get to ramming speed on today's events on another post.  And what a day this was...

13 March 2010

Beaujolais 101: En-Route to Rasteau and the Roots of Vintegrity

What a spectacular trip down to Rasteau. Skies clear as glass, valleys full of smoky haze, wind whipping loose the dusty topsoil.  You couldn't ask for more perfect driving conditions, nor a more perfect introduction to the mystifying, undulating waves of Beaujolais terroir.  The drive from St. Amour through the winding narrow paths of Julienas southbound toward Morgon is about as intoxicating as scenery gets for junkies like us.  While it wasn't exactly easy to find our way to Domaine de Thulon, who graciously responded to our request for tasting, it wasn't hard to pinpoint it when we found ourselves in the general area of Lantigne.  Thulon's opposing turrets are formidable, if even a bit intimidating--sentinels standing watch over a treasured landscape rich with the memories of harvests and generations.  Carine Jambon, a sprightly and knowledgeable host, greeted us in the courtyard with smiles and laughter.  This was going to be fun; I could see the dark and brooding Opale in a decanter, dangling precariously from Carine's fingertip.  She's done this before.

We began the tasting with a delicious, linear Beaujolais Blanc (100% Chardonnay).  It was certainly refreshing, its acidity muddled only slightly by the extreme stagnant cold of the barrel room in which we were tasting.  If there were one thing I would have changed about this experience, it would have been tasting in a room indoors.  But that's not me complaining; that's me dreaming.  This was real life, and it's hard not to make due when after Beaujolais Blanc comes a rapid succession of traditionally vinified Cru Beaujolais.  This stuff was great, and showed particularly well in the cold.  My assessment based on this tasting is that Beaujolais really is better slightly chilled.  Moreover, Beaujolais is better when it's Beaujolais, not Gamay with Revlon barrique.

What am I talking about here?  Have I gone mad?  Beaujolais and new oak?  Yes, I am serious.  New oak.  And no, I've not gone mad.  This is for real.  Thulon is producing three different wines that despite certain slights of tongue and hand are emphatically oak influenced, two of which benefit greatly--yes, I said it--from this regimen (one of which is not affected in any way by its new oak treatment).  The names are not important; those who care know these wines already.  My origin of discord here is where tradition and its inherently singular identities collide with the modern world and the irreversible course it's set for itself as it yields to the ubiquitous and uniform tastes of contemporary wine criticism.  I respect that Thulon continues to make exceptional and honest Cru Beaujolais--their Regnie Vieilles Vignes was more revelatory today than it's every been, as was their Morgon--but the question I had no heart to ask was, "Why doctor Gamay?"  Is there a blazing hot need to buy new barrels every year to produce these wines that contextually have nothing to do with the region?  Are there customers knocking at the cellar door demanding this style of anti-Gamay?  It doesn't sound very plausible.  From a Body und Soil perspective, it's downright sacrilege!

But a moment of clarion honesty is due.  If these wines have nothing to Beaujolais, they certainly have everything to do with flavor.  But are the two not inextricably linked?  Be honest: Is Beaujolais really about granite, or is it about tasting the Gamay rainbow?  If Thulon had eschewed all production of traditional Cru Beaujolais and opted instead for this uncharacteristic saturation of color and density of extract, I would have bone upon bone to pick.  I'd have their skeleton at my feet in heartbeats.  As it stands, this is far from the case, as I've detailed above.  The '1947' and the 'Opale', I have to believe (convincing only myself here), are strictly about flavor density, and I harbor zero doubt that customers do in fact come banging on the cellar door demanding wine that tastes great, who care little about what's 'traditional' for Gamay and even less about how much new oak was used during elevage or how much longer the individual berries sat in maceration than the traditional Crus.  These are not questions that sit at the forefront of most consumers' minds, and for that very reason the intelligent and passionate winemaker will occasionally--invariably?--take a stab at making something that's just downright crazy, experimental, even ludicrous, just to see what happens.  It isn't about integrity at that point; it's just a man, his grapes, and his passion for flavor.  And fun.   

Alright, I think I used the word flavor 96 times.  I'm spent.  But I'd be lying if I told you this trip was going to be about anything else.  Tomorrow's a day off, a day to sleep in for an hour or two, and then knock out some hill runs at the feet of the Dentelles de Montmirail.  Then off to the market at Roaix, Avignon, and a particularly famous bridge.  And Monday?  Well, then the tastings begin, so stay tuned for more from the south of France, the Land of Flav--...sorry, couldn't do it.

Off to Chateauneuf...TODAY!

I made some promises a few weeks ago that Strasbourg's tasting notes and a few other 'events' would be catalogued in detail here. That has failed to happen. Life gets in the way sometimes. Sometimes other opportunities trump the necessity to sit in front of a microchip and commemorate the past. So, here's me looking towards the future...as in later today.

Courtesy of D. Stone and Dominique the Donkey, aka Tom, who graciously demanded I accompany them to Rasteau and the greater southern Rhone (yes, that's right--Chateauneuf du Pape!!!), I'm on a mission to peel off the layers of this complicated tapestry of vines and terroirs to see what really lies beneath it all.  Passion?  I hope so.  Tradition?  Goes without saying...I think.  Progress and innovation?  Nothing wrong with that.

So...yet another event coming up, one that I'll be doing my best to document every day during our stay.  Tune in!

04 March 2010

Joe Dourthe

What a sensational gift.  The following wine was brought over to Villa de la Vogel for Christa Francis' Friday night "Wine and Dine Fiestathon" by two kind ladies, Jess and Sarah.  They brought another 2001 Chianti Classico Riserva, the name of which escapes me right now, but should also prove to be extremely interesting, if not equally good.  Though the girls probably didn't realize it, the wines for the dinner had already been preselected, and thus their own wine became ipso facto my mid-week wine # 2, Vignobles Dourthe 'Cour du Roy', Appellation Bordeaux (12,5% abv). 

While there seems to be very little information regarding this operation, lacking even a passing mention on Vins et Vignobles Dourthe's own website, www.dourthe.com , I can tell you there's enough info in the bottle and glass to prompt the questions "Where did you buy this?" and "How much did it run ya?"  At first, however, I found the low-grade composite cork distracting.  It makes the product seems so industrialized.  While I understand Dourthe is a very large--some might even go so far as to say industrialized--company, the wines I've tasted from them are nothing if not inspired.  At first glance the wine displays an opaque profile, a salmon-tinted rim, and a translucent ruby core.  The nose is far from bombastic, as one would hope from Bordeaux, but still puts out blackberry, ripe cherry, cassis and clodded earth with aplomb.   Hints of tarragon reminiscent of the other night's Pinot 'M' meet savory sage notes.  Nothing overtly says OAK, though the label boasts a 12-month √©levage in new oak.  This seems to have the requisite ripeness to stand up to whatever its oak regimen may have been.  There is nothing green about the wine, and there's only the slightest hint of steminess I frequently find in these more generic Bordeaux AOC wines (though in most others, that note is far more pronounced). 

The palate is silky smooth, full of fruity flesh, restrained sweetness, imperceptible tannin, and a pleasantly herbal finish.  Cranberry and pomegranate flood the first sensations, followed closely by notes of fresh blueberry and sugared rhubarb, echoing a plowed earth note that carries stridently through the (dare I say) long-ish finish.  With ample air and swirling, black licorice really starts to take center stage.

This seems to be standard fare for the folks at Dourthe.  I don't know who the talent is behind their viticulture and winemaking team, but this is yet another wine from their large Bordeaux stable that comes free of harsh edges, full of pulpy, vibrant fruit, lacking nothing whatsoever in terms of Bordeaux typicity--acidity, savory but linear fruit, and palatable dirt--and finishing with the freshness that demands gulp after gulp. These are indeed the unifying characteristics of all the great Dourthe wines, the Belgrave's, the le Boscq's:  extreme drinkability, respectable complexity, and very fair pricing for the quality.  If you see this wine or anything else with the name Dourthe on it at the grocery or the wine shop, rest assured you're getting a fair shake at delicious bargain Bordeaux.  They're wines even Joe Dirt--or is it 'Dourthe'?--would be proud of.

Thanks Jess and Sarah!

The Long Delay

My apologies go out to those who've been anxiously awaiting the tasting notes from Strasbourg's 2010 Exposition des Vins des Vignerons Independants.  I'm not delaying intentionally; there's just other stuff going on, and that will be a long post.  In the meantime, two great mid-week wines struck me as particularly good, and  I felt them worthy of mention here.

The first wine was Georg Rumpf's 2005 Spaetburgunder 'M' (13,5% abv).  With a vibrant garnet hue and opaque profile (still translucent from above), this looks like it could be Cru Beaujolais, not what's typical for German mid-level Pinot Noir.  I'm used to the really light, almost pinkish stuff that infiltrates the wine-lists of nearly every ur-typical German restaurant this side of the Rhein.  But then again, while this wine masquerades as the 'M'id-tier Pinot at Weingut Kruger Rumpf, it's everything and anything but.  The nose is an army of assaulting forces, but it takes a good 30 minutes to grasp the onslaught.  Black licorice and cassis assail, with follow-on support from the likes of maple-y gingerbread, cinnamon powder, and steeped tarragon and rosemary.

The palate is the textbook expression of maturity and integration.  I believe this will not get any better than it is right now.  Seamlessly textured, round in an Einstein-ish way (as in perfect), and finishing with long silky poise, this Pinot expresses everything that is great and preferable in German Spaetburgunder (Pinot Noir).  Judicious, discreet application of oak, tightly knit acidity, the ability to transmit both the red and dark fruit characteristics and, likewise, the ability to transmit those earthy, herby aspects specific to site that inform the Rumpfs' related bottlings.  All that in a preeminently quaffable, light-on-its-feet style that says "Drink me," as much as it says, "Study me."  Serious stuff that I'd serve to both novice and self-absorbed wine snob.

Oddly enough, this stuff tastes even better with Steve Winwood's 'Chronicles' in the background...

Check the next post for mid-week wine # 2.