Thu 27 Sep 2007
… I don’t pick up a bottle of wine, but so many labels nowadays carry elaborate narratives and back-stories that are supposed to make the wine more “interesting” or “enticing” or “hip” (especially hip) that buying wine is like reading the back of the cereal box at breakfast. I mean, isn’t the idea of marketing the quick sale, rather than bogging down a potential consumer with a chapter of War and Peace (or War + Peace, as it would be today) printed in teeny-weeny type. In the time it takes to read a narrative back-label — and they mainly come from Australia and California — you could pick up three other bottles from the shelf, go to the counter, pay for the wine and be on your merry way. If one of the wines is closed with a screw-cap, you can be standing on the sidewalk outside the store slurping the juice while the poor schmuck inside is still reading the label.
We get something like this, say from the back label of what we’ll call “Capt Jack Mulligan’s Left-Handed Shiraz,” a $16 quaffer from, oh, Barossa Valley. There are a million of these wines, right, inky as midnight, 15.5 percent alcohol, and The Grateful Palate imports most of them.
“Twas a great shark took Capt Jack Mulligan’s right hand in a dawn-to-dusk struggle by the Barrier Reef. Left him with eternal pain and endless thirst, which he slaked with pitchers of red rotgut in North Coast taverns, brought him by the red-lipped wenches who shivered with fear and delight when he ran that wicked hook along their lace bodices. We know these tales because our grandfather sailed with Jack Mulligan when still a lad, and at Capt Jack’s strong left hand the boy learned the lessons of courage and endurance, and our grandfather passed those lesson on to us. We make this wine to honor the tradition of Capt Jack Mulligan and the men like him who look danger in the eye and never flinch. Braving the charge of a Great White Shark? Burying a cow’s horn filled with shit in the vineyard on a scary moonless night when the creepy-crawlies bite? Never fear, Capt Jack is here. Capt Jack Mulligan’s Left-Handed Shiraz. You don’t need two hands to drink it.”
The people who write this kind of copy are wild about tradition and heritage and ancestral pride in the land, the vineyards, the grapes, the mystique, the romance and on and on. Hence — and let’s call this one “Sonoma Vespers Cuvee Orlando Furioso” —
“Three generations ago our grandfather arrived in these rolling verdant hills, unpacked a wad of dollars from his sock, and purchased three rows of vines. By the time our father came along, the name Sonoma Vespers Cuvee Orlando Furioso was synonymous with the forces that have driven our family to the extremities of our questing craft and intelligence: Passion. Precision. Power. That’s what we’re all about. Passion, precision and power give my brothers and me, and our wives and children, and a few cousins and poor Uncle Andy and a lot of Mexicans that come in to pick the grapes, our sense of life and being, and we feed passion, precision and power into our vineyards, our grapes and, above all, our rare, perfectly crafted wines. If you don’t obsess about passion, precision and power as much as we do, if you think anything less than perfection will amount to a hill of beans, then the hell with you. You may be rich enough to buy our wine, but are you good enough to drink it?”
Sun 23 Sep 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Special occasions  Comments
Well, readers, friends, detractors, what-have-you, BiggerThanYourHead was launched in early December 2006. Nine months later, in the middle of last week, we passed the 100,000 mark for hits. In fact today, the hit-log stands at 105,555. I know, it’s not YouTube or MySpace or Gawker — or The Pour — but it feels pretty good to me. I wanted to say thank you to everybody who read and continue to read and especially to those who leave comments, because blogging is all about call and response. So keep those cards and letters coming in and tip up a glass of great juice in honor of all wine-lovers tonight. Cheers!
Sat 22 Sep 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Blind Tasting  Comments
There’s quite a to-do over at Eric Asimov’s blog The Pour about the best way to encounter and experience wine. The possibilities seem to be: (1) Over dinner with family and friends, knowing what the wine is; (2) In a blind tasting situation, where tasters know something about the wines (say, the grapes or the vintage) but not all the details; (3) In a double blind situation in which tasters know only that the wines are red or white.
Responders to Eric’s posts can be various, opinionated and vociferous, and on this issue they do not disappoint. Some insist that double blind or at least blind is the ONLY way to properly evaluate wines; others insist that such an approach is academic, intellectual, over-analytical and ridiculous and that wine must be appreciated in the context of its history, heritage and geography along with the appropriate food; still others assert that notions of history, heritage and geography are a crock and that you should just drink the stuff and enjoy it on the basis of whether you like it or not.
I think that first we have to separate drinking from tasting.
Drinking, I would say, implies sipping wine as an aperitif or having a glass while cooking or sitting down to a meal whether at home or in a restaurant or bosky dell. The themes? Enjoyment, fun, pleasure, eating good or great food while drinking good or great wine, and, sure, maybe a little education in the process, as in, “Whoa, I didn’t know a pinot noir could have these flavors. Where did you say it came from?”
Tasting is different. Tasting wine is what people do when they want to experience many wines in a short time. as at an importer’s portfolio tasting; or educate their palates and sensibilities about the wines of a particular region or property or grape and so on; or test their palates and sensibilities and knowledge against a group of unknown wines, either solo or with other tasters.
In the first category, for example, I would never go on a picnic and insist on drinking a bottle of wine blind, so no one knew what it was; what a jerk that would make me! Nor would I insist that, while standing around the kitchen before a dinner party, the wine the guests sipped should be covered so no one knew what it was and we could educate ourselves. “What a pompous spoil-sport,” the host would mutter, “last time we invite him.” When LL and I sit down to dinner and have a bottle of wine or perhaps I open two or three for comparison while we eat, I don’t put them in brown paper bags, because we have too much fun sipping and comparing, going back to the wines several times as they develop, not that we’re not also serious about this.
Trade tastings, especially large ones, aren’t conducted blind because, after all, the purpose is to let people try as many wines as possible and and develop potential orders for the wines.
In other circumstances, however, single blind and double blind tastings are not only educational and frequently revelatory but essential. Research by psychologists and sociologists has show over and again that our judgments about wine are drastically influenced by the presence of a label and all the label implies about grapes, property, region and reputation. If you understand that you’re about to taste Lafite-Rothschild 1982, the structure of expectations that knowledge imposes is almost impossible to ignore. And if I were the wine manager for a restaurant, I would insist when wholesalers came to call and present new wines that I not be told what they are in advance and then taste them double blind, or if that’s impossible, single blind, knowing perhaps that the wines were, say, reds from Australia or whites from Spain but nothing about producers and prices.
This year I’ve held two tastings for six people at home. One was blind; the panel knew they were tasting 24 merlots or merlot-based wines but knew nothing about years, regions or properties. The second event was double blind; all the tasters knew was that they would be trying 22 red wines. They turned out to be petite sirahs, and, boy, did that create a stir! In both cases, the experiences were profoundly revealing and educational.
Let’s allow Michael Broadbent, the dean of British wine tasters, writers and auctioneers, the last word. This is from one of the most valuable items in my library of books about wines. It’s Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting, a slim little volume first published in 1968. My well-worn copy, printed in 1982, is the sixth edition, published in 1979.
Here’s what Broadbent says, on page 63:
“It is my firm opinion (one of the few these days unwhittled by doubts!) that to assess the qualities of a wine by tasting it completely blind, without any hint of what it might be, is the most useful and salutary discipline that any self-respecting taster can be given. It is not infrequently the most humiliating. The first thing it does is concentrate the thoughts, and expose fresh and unprejudiced senses to the problem of analysing the colour, bouquet and flavors. To know what the wine is before one starts to taste is like reading the end of a detective novel first; it satisfies the curiosity but dampens the interest.”
Need we say anything more?
The image of the wine taster is from graphics.boston.com.
Sun 16 Sep 2007
Six of us gathered last Tuesday for dinner at Falai, a small, sleek, irresistible Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was my second visit, having eaten there back in March. The diners were LL and me, our friend Julie (with whom we stayed for part of last week), Terence Hughes of mondosapore fame and his longtime partner Ken, and Gabrio Tosti, the irrepressible owner of the fine little (mainly) Italian wine store De Vino, one block north of Falai on Clinton Street. We were joined later — hours later; it was a long riotous meal — by Gian Luigi Maravalle, proprietor of Tenuta Vitalonga in western Umbria, whose plane was late and whose luggage was lost.
Chef at the restaurant is Iacopo Falai, whose talent is for taking traditional ingredients of northern Italian cuisine, adding a sly inventive touch here and a sly inventive touch there and coming up with food that is delicious and memorable without being cute and tricky. After quite a bit of discussion and diplomacy, the table decided to order the prix fixe menu; here were the choices — Antipasto: Polenta Bianca (chicken liver, dried dates and wild mushrooms “Vellutata”) OR baby octopus with fresh celery, string beans, Granny Smith apples, American caviar. Pasta: Gnudi of ricotta cheese, baby spinach, brown butter, crema di latte, sage. Carne/Pesce: Manzo (petit filet, butternut squash and orange puree, blood orange fennel salad) OR Branzino (potato-wrapped sea-bass, leek, white asparagus, huckleberry sauce). Dolce: passion fruit souffle. Four courses for $55. Some members of our party tried to negotiate a menu without the gnudi, and the efficient, amenable and incredibly, infinitely patient manager Jiordona — pictured here with Terry Hughes (in his usual serious mood) — even offered such a deal at $50, but in the end, everyone got all the courses.
We began by quickly downing a bottle of the crisp, floral and delightful Ronco delle Betulle Tocai Friulano 2005 from the restaurant’s wine list ($44). After that, we consumed five bottles, two that I brought and three brought in by Gabrio. The first of Gabrio’s wines — and we pretty much scarfed this down too — was a new rosé, the fresh, delicate and tasty Whispering Angel 2006 — everybody who thinks that’s a terrible name raise your hand! — from Chateau d’Esclans in the Côtes de Provence; Sacha Lichine bought the property in 2006. This dry rosé offers whispers of crushed raspberries and strawberries and feathery hints of stones and dried flowers for pleasing effect. The high-concept label is attractive, the wine retails for about $22, and it’s the only rosé that Gabrio sells.
We drank these gentle opening salvos during talk and bread — Iacopo Falai is a former pasty chef, and the breads are excellent — and appetizers, of which the octopus got best marks. You can see from the image how great the plate looked. The baby octopus was exceedingly tender — it’s boiled first and then grilled — and the curl of celery and the slender batons of apple provided crisp contrasts in texture and fresh flavors. Not that the Polenta Bianca was any slouch. Indeed the combination of the creamy chicken livers and slightly crusty polenta with the sweet fruitiness of the dates and wild earthiness of the mushrooms was heady and flavorful, but the dish was definitely rustic compared to the finesse of the octopus.
Next came the gnudi, a carefully shaped oval-like nest of ricotto cheese and shredded, cooked spinach bathed in a nutty brown butter sauce with a touch of cream; leaning against this delicate construct was one sage leaf. Rich and creamy, these gnudi disappeared into our mouths in about three minutes, leaving us wishing that they had not vanished so quickly.
I picked up a bottle of Domaine Leccia Petra Bianca Patrimonio 1998 ($25) at Crossroads Wines & Liquors on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues at the suggestion of Nicolas Palazzi, who is French through and through yet bears the name of his father and honorable ancestors from Corsica. The Palazzi family owns Bordeaux properties in Cotes de Bourg, Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves, and Nicolas lives in New York nine months a year trying to market the wines. Anyway, he and I are email correspondents, and he, mindful of his Corsican heritage, had delved through the stock at the totally eccentric and treasure-filled wine store, found this wine and sent out a bulletin. “Petra Bianca” refers not to the wine’s color — it’s red, made from 100 percent niellucciu grapes — but to the chalky clay soil that nurtures the vineyards of Corsica’s Patrimonio region. The wine was imported by Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, Ca.
I’ll confess that I didn’t love the wine, though it was very interesting. It opened with whiffs of cedar and eucalyptus, scents of walnuts and walnut shell, dried spice and brown sugar, the sign of a mature red. In the mouth, the wine was dense and chewy, formidably tannic and sporting a startling hit of acid. It smoothed out and became more palatable in 15 or 20 minutes, but the whole time it was in my glass I kept thinking, “What happened to the fruit?” Of course, it’s nine years old; it would be instructive to try more recent vintages.
By this time, of course, our entrees had arrived. When I dined at Falai in March, I had ordered the manzo, asking for it to be cooked to medium rare, but what came to the table was medium or more. This time I ordered the beef rare, so it came to me at a perfect medium rare temperature and rosy-red color. The preparation at the end of the winter included parsnip puree, red wine-cooked shallots and wild mushrooms and a Marsala-truffle sauce; more in keeping with the season — and it was hot in New York last week — the petit filet came with a butternut squash and orange puree and a blood orange-fennel salad. It was a sumptuous yet completely balanced and appropriate presentation. I did not, alas — or I don’t remember, alas — tasting the branzino.
Next we opened the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo 1998 from Guiseppe Quintarelli, who is often called the “Master of the Veneto” or the “King of the Veneto.” This is the kind of wine that at first sniff and sip you say, “Well, here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” meaning that in completely the best way. This wine also came from Crossroads and cost about $76; it was imported by Robert Chadderton in New York. Despite the name, the wine has nothing to do with the merlot grape. It is, essentially, a sort of super-Valpolicella, made from corvino grapes (taken from a single hillside vineyard) in the traditional ripasso method in which the wine undergoes a second fermentation on the skins of the dried grapes used to make Amarone wines, thus providing additional strength and tannin. Nothing tannic here, however; the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo ’98 was lovely, smooth and mellow, subtle and supple, composed of black cherry, currant and plum flavors deeply infused with dried spice, potpourri and black tea with touches of moss and clean earth. What a treat!
Not to be outdone, Gabrio rushed back to his store and returned with a bottle of the Merlanico d’Orta de Conciliis 2000, a Vino da Tavola (two-thirds merlot, one-third aglianico) produced by Lombardy’s Barone Giulio Pizzini Piomarta; the importer is Vignaioli Selections in New York. The price at Gabrio’s store is $150. This is, frankly, a stunning wine, deep and rich and flavorful, and it gets deeper and richer and more flavorful as moments pass. It opens beautifully, warmly in the glass, offering notes of cedar and tobacco, leather, toasted hazelnuts and wheatmeal, black currants and plums with hints of wild berry, earth and minerals. Retaining considerable tannins, the wine is dense and chewy, packed with spicy wood, yet generously supplied with black and red fruit flavors, that wane as the large and fairly austere finish takes over. And what a match for the medium rare beef filet!
By this time Maravalle had arrived, sans luggage and sans vino for us to try, so again Gabrio rushed over to his store to get something from Tenuta Vitalonga. He returned with a bottle of Terra di Confine 2004, a blend of 80 percent montepulciano grapes and 20 percent merlot. As Maravalle pointed out, this is a young wine from young grapes, planted only four years ago, so we were not surprised that the wine was bold and brash, wild and robust, bursting with currants, plums and dark-chocolate-covered raspberries nestled in dense, leathery tannins. Another wine destined for pairing with hearty red meat dishes, it sells for $25. I would try it from 2008 or ’09 through 2012 or ’14.
Were we finished?
With wine, yes, but not with dinner, because dessert came, a sumptuous, luxurious, yet light-hearted passion fruit souffle.
And then we gathered our gear, our notes, our bags and shuffled out of Falai, by far the last to leave, hoping against hope that we wouldn’t have hangovers the next day.
Falai is at 68 Clinton Street, near Rivington. Call (212) 253-1960.
De Vino is at 30 Clinton Street. Call (212) 228-0073 or visit de-vino.com.
The top image of the restaurant, shot from behind the small bar area looking toward the back, is by Jeremy Liebman for New York magazine. The rest of the images in Falai were shot by LL or FK.
Fri 14 Sep 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Burgundy
, Pinot noir No Comments
The annual portfolio tasting mounted by Martin Scott Wines of Lake Success, New York, is so vast that participants must limit themselves in some rational manner and mount an agenda-based attack or else wander aimlessly, trying wines here and there. Held on several levels of the lobby of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, the event offered almost 900 wines, of which I tasted, between noon and 5 p.m., Monday, about 120. Yes, that’s 24 wines per hour, one wine every two and a half minutes, and that’s counting taking time to chat with people and snatch cheese and bread from the snack tables and gulp it down.
I decided to limit myself mainly to pinot noir and chardonnay, because Martin Scott’s portfolio is rich in wines made from those noble grapes, being deep into Burgundy and small producers from California and Oregon. Most of these wines were from vintage 2005, a fine year for vineyard regions practically everywhere in the world, and, indeed, these wines did not disappoint. Interestingly, however, I found the examples from Burgundy bigger, more structured and more tannic, sometimes searingly so, than the models from California and Oregon; they also possess the potential for long aging and development, some perhaps not coming into their own until 2015 to 2018.
For example, I use phrases such as “Whoa, huge tannins!” or “Holy shit, staggering tannin” for wines like the Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru “Les Corbeaux 2005 from Domaine Heresztyn (“like drinking the vineyard”), about $88; and the Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru “Clos de la Marechale” 2005 from Domaine Jacques-Frederic Mugnier (“you can smell and taste the limestone”), about $80; and the Volnay 1er Cru “Les Chevrets” 2005 from Domaine Henri Boillot (“wonderful purity and intensity”), about $100. The point, though, is not that these wines, and others like them, are merely stout and tannic, but that they are deep and powerful and exhibit profound clarity and purpose. Some are more approachable now than others, of course, and I’ll get to those wines and the other Burgundies when I write out full reviews in a full days, either on this blog or over on KoeppelOnWine.
The California pinots that showed size and structure similar to their Burgundian counterparts for 2005 included the Ketcham Estate Pinot Noir 2005, Russian River Valley (“great but quite serious”), about $55; the Pisoni Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir 2005, Santa Lucia Highlands (“what power!”); the Fiddlehead Cellars “Cuvee Seven Twenty Eight” Pinot Noir 2004 — note the year — Santa Rita Hills (“deep, intense, powerful”), about $43; and the Adrian Fog “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2005, Anderson Valley (“spare, elegant, fills the glass, wow!”), about $83. No, friends, these are not cheap wines, mostly being made in limited quantities.
Generally, however, the pinots from California and Oregon conveyed a sense of earlier drinkability and younger balance and integration than the wines from Burgundy for 2005, and just for the record, let me add that among the loveliest, most elegant and classic Burgundian-style pinots I have encountered from California is the Inman Family Wines “Olivet Grange Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2005, Russian River Valley, about $45. Pinot noir lovers who value nuance and finesse over power and size should search for this wine relentlessly.
So, we’re leaving for La Guardia in a couple of hours, and we’ll we back in Memphis this evening. I just wanted to give readers a preview of what would be going on in my (our) world of wine for a while.
Wed 12 Sep 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under New York  Comments
Hi, readers, we’ve been in New York since Sunday night. I came up to attend the annual portfolio tasting of the giant importer and distributor Martin Scott Wines — very deep in Burgundy and California boutique wineries plus lots of Spain and Italy — and not coincidentally we’ve eaten some great meals, Sunday night me and LL at Momofuku Ssam and last night with Terry of mondosapore and his permanent pal Ken and our collective friend Julie (with whom we are staying) and the irrepressible wine merchant Gabrio Tosti we had a rather riotous dinner at the marvelous Falai with six bottles of very interesting wine. All of this I will be writing about for BTYH or KoeppelOnWine. Anyway, today we head to Chelsea to tour galleries and meet some friends for dinner at Red Cat. I just wanted you to know where I am and what we’re doing. More later — with pictures and notes.
Sun 9 Sep 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Loire Valley  Comments
Tired of the full-throttle lime peel/grapefruit/tarragon/green bean assault you get when you open a bottle of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand (and increasingly from California)? The sauvignon blancs that are so crisp that the glass quivers when you set it down? Sure, those wines are fine sometimes, but they’re so upfront, so aggressive and showy that they get tiresome after a while.
Turn for relief to this trio of classics from Sancerre, in the far eastern reaches of France’s vast Loire Valley region. All three are from 2005, a great year in the Loire, as, indeed, it was in most of France if not the world. This area, where the river makes a great curve from its northward flow to heading west and slightly southwest, seems to be the natural home of the sauvignon blanc grape. The best-known appellations are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé; lesser designations are Touraine Sauvignon, Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly and Coteaux du Giennois. All produce, when the grape is properly handled, wines of great verve and energy, grounded in a full range of lemon attributes, nerves of acid and bones of limestone. The best wines are truly elegant, yet that doesn’t mean that different growers and winemakers don’t imbue their wines with varied characteristics. And because of the wide use of stainless steel in these areas, rarely does oak intrude on the grape’s purity and intensity.
Look first at the Sancerre 2005 from Daniel Chotard. This is super fresh and clean, spare and elegant yet earthy. Notes of fresh-cut grass and tarragon are subdued to lemon zest, limestone and a flash of flint. The wine is quite crisp and dry but bright and juicy, too, and it picks up hints of spiced lemon and jasmine on the finish. Attractive and delicious but with a touch of reticence. Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca. Excellent. About $19 to $26. We drank this with salmon wrapped in lettuce and steamed.
Offering more in the grassy-herbal category is Celestin Blondeau’s Sancerre “Cuvée des Moulins Bâles” 2005. The bouquet embodies mown fields of grass and hay where tangles of thyme and tarragon lay (to be Midsummer Dreamish about it) with powerful accents of lemon and hints of lime peel and tangerine. If this sounds deliriously attractive, well, it is. Acid is crisp and sprightly and even the mineral element is lively. It’s not so much elegance going on here as irresistible vitality. Imported by Ex Cellars Wine Agencies, Solvang, Ca. Excellent. About $19 to $25.
The most delicate (and paradoxically the earthiest) of these three Sancerres is Alphonse Mellot’s Sancerre “La Moussière” 2005. Mild lemon and roasted lemon scents feel the pull of smoke, ash and limestone that can’t conceal winsome hints of quince, dried thyme and tarragon. The wine is clean and crisp in the mouth, yet limestone and flint come up in a powerful tide, and the texture turns out to be both dense and ethereal. A delicious feat of prestidigitation. Domaine Select Imports, New York. Excellent. About $23 to $26.
Tue 4 Sep 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under California
, Pinot noir  Comments
Jim Clendenen is undoubtedly a fine wine-maker, and he has made Au Bon Climat, founded in 1982 in Santa Barbara County, into a great source for powerful, eloquent and sometimes eccentric versions of chardonnay and pinot noir wines. Clendenen’s best work goes into small lots of vineyard-designated pinot noirs that have a way of satisfying and defying expectations simultaneously. In their rarity and cost and as bold expressions of a personal vision, they’re not for neophytes.
But I come today not to speak of such high-toned matters but to expound on Clendenen’s basic red wine, the Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir that carries a straight Santa Barbara County designation. The year in question is 2005. The price is generally about $25.
I was in my friendly neighborhood wine and liquor store last week and came across this wine. I picked up a bottle, and I said to the floor manager, “You know, I haven’t tried this in quite a while. I think I’ll get one of these.”
“Look at the label,” he said wisely.
“O.K, sure, what?”
“It’s not 100 percent pinot noir.”
I looked closely. Mon dieu! The wine contains 18 percent mondeuse grapes!
Let me backtrack for a moment.
Most grapes fit for making wine may be used alone (100 percent varietal, as they say) or blended with other appropriate grapes. The procedure depends a great deal on geography, climate and tradition. In Bordeaux, for example, the red wines are blended from various combinations of cabernet sauvignon grapes, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot (malbec is little used nowadays). In the Loire Valley, however, cabernet franc makes its own wine, with no blending. You can find 100 percent cabernet sauvignon or merlot wines all over the world. Going back to the Loire, the white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are made from 100 percent sauvignon blanc grapes, but in Bordeaux, the white wine is always a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon and sometimes muscadelle. The most blended of all blended wines is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which tends to be primarily syrah, grenache and mourvedre but may contain amounts of up to 10 other grapes, In other parts of the world, however, you find syrah, grenache and mourvedre bottled on their own. You get the idea.
But of all the so-called “noble” red grapes, pinot noir has been sacred. Pinot noir, either in Burgundy, its homeland and apotheosis, or in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, several regions in California and increasingly in New Zealand, the grape is considered to possess such distinctive characteristics, such pure and intense inevitability (or, ideally, such inevitably purity and intensity) that it is never blended, unless, let me add, unscrupulously.
But here we have a widely-known and available pinot noir that includes 18 percent mondeuse grapes. Mondeuse is found in small quantities in the vineyards of France’s Savoie region, an alpine area just west of Switzerland. Most of the wine produced in Savoie is white, but the mondeuse grape is supposed to produce the best reds, which all accounts describe as spicy, peppery, deeply flavored, robust and rustic. So what’s it doing in pinot noir, which ought to be a model of suavity and subtlety and satiny texture?
To my palate, the mondeuse element in the Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2005 acts like coarse sandpaper to a fine piece of handmade wood furniture, roughening the surface and lending anomalous rusticity, turning — to extend the metaphor, which, given the chance, I will do nine times out of 10 — a sleek Bauhaus chaise into an Adirondack chair. Not that the wine isn’t pleasant and enjoyable. It’s dark, spicy, exotic, wild, earthy and bold, more like a combination of a zinfandel and a Cotes-du-Rhone than a pinot noir. If that’s what Jim Clendenen wants, who am I to object?
Except that I am, of course. It’s difficult to believe that Au Bon Climat’s basic pinot noir needed “pepping up” in 2005, an excellent year. Why not just let the grapes and the wine speak for themselves? What’s interesting is that nowhere on the Internet, not on the site of any wine retailer, not even on the winery’s website (AuBonClimat.com) is there a mention that the wine is not 100 percent pinot noir. So, readers, you’re saying, “Fer crissake, F.K., if nobody else cares, why do you? Yer making all this fuss about one damned wine!”
Well, readers, that’s just me, and on this blog, I’m the boss of you. It’s my substitute for being Boss of the World. In any case, every wine counts, every wine is an experience (not always good), an education (not always edifying) and an opportunity (not always to be missed). And it’s not that I’m against experimentation or wines inspired by individuality; such wines are often the treasures that we remember above all the other wines.
But pinot noir, my pinot? Leave it alone.
Sun 2 Sep 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under California
, Pinot noir  Comments
… transporting one miraculously but nowhere in evidence.” That’s what I say in one of the reviews on “A Case of New Releases” page that I just posted on KoeppelOnWine.com, expressing my dismay that some of my favorite pinot noirs from California are showing more oak in 2005 than they did in previous years, a sad device that interferes with the purity and intensity of the grape. The reviews cover a dozen pinots from the Golden State, mainly from Carneros and Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands. There’s a metaphor somewhere on the page about the resemblance of Jean Harlow’s slinky satin dresses to the irresistible texture of pinot noir wines. My favorite of the 12? Sure, I’ll go ahead and tell you. It’s the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2004, Carneros, which at $60 is hardly cheap and at 800 cases is hardly in wide circulation, but if you’re a devotee of brilliantly made, classically balanced and proportioned pinot noir, it’s definitely Worth a Search.