Chenin blanc


As the guru of modern biodynamism, Nicolas Joly has a lot to account for. The proprietor of the ancient estate of Coulée de Serrant, in Anjou’s tiny Savennières appellation, a fleck of prized Loire Valley real estate southwest of the city of Angers, in 1980 he by chance (on a skiing trip) came upon the obscure Rudolph Steiner’s semi-mystical homeopathic/astrological principles of agriculture, delivered in a series of lectures in 1924, and embraced them with the zeal of an aimless fanatic ripe for the fall. Wonder what would have happened if, instead of Steiner, Joly had discovered Wilhelm Reich, thereby filling vineyards around the world with enigmatic orgone machines instead of cow horns filled with silicalized dung. Or L. Ron Hubbard. Some people require a higher power to which to submit, and Joly found his in Steiner, who was not, allow me to point out, a farmer, yet somehow has been beatified as the Madame Blavatsky of viticulture.

Readers may think that I approach this subject with undue levity. Well, sorry, shoot me, but while some of the practices of the biodynamic movement make complete sense for anyone thoughtfully engaged in farming and are already widely employed in aspects of sustainable and organic agriculture — avoiding chemical pesticides and herbicides, using cover crops between rows, trying to establish a sense of natural harmony within the vineyard — other methodologies seem to come straight out of a New Age commune where flower-decked nymphs and satyrs promulgate fertility according to the alignment of the stars. Why do otherwise intelligent people not understand that the stars are really very very far away and that the so-called astrological “signs” are primeval figments of mythic imaginations?

(The best introduction to the principles of biodynamic agriculture and to the history of Coulée de Serrant and the wines of Nicolas Joly comes from Chris Kissack, aka The Wine Doctor. I highly recommend this post.)

A few producers and winemakers around the world have embraced the biodynamic principles, to greater or lesser degrees, perhaps encouraged by Joly’s writings and his boundless sincerity — the crushing sincerity of the zealot — and often these producers and winemakers turn out wonderful wines; I encounter such wines at the “Return to Terroir” biodynamic events regularly, and I have written extensively about them over the past three months, which you must not take as an endorsement but as curiosity and concern. As far as Joly’s wines are concerned, I have never encountered the problems with oxidation that some writers mention, and even when they may have been difficult to assess, as they tend to be initially, the wines have exhibited nothing less than tremendous energy and vitality. On the other hand, I taste many wines not produced under the strictures of biodynamic principles that are also models of energy, vitality and verve. Readers may point to the successes bred by biodynamic methods and say, “See, they work,” to which I reply, “Except when they don’t.”

My first encounter with a wine from Nicolas Joly was at the restaurant Rubicon in San Francisco around Thanksgiving 1996. The wine was the Clos de la Bergerie Savennières 1992, Joly’s “second-tier” chenin blanc and it cost $48 on the wine list. (Big sighs, groans, rolling of eyes and the chorus, “Those were the days!”)

In January 2003, I had dinner at La Caravelle in New York and tasted one Coulée de Serrant wine from 2000 and two from 1999. (The “entry-level” Les Vieux Clos used to be labeled Becherelle for the American market). I’ll include the notes from my old newspaper column:

Though at first it seems serious and reticent, Joly’s Becherelle 2000, which carries a straight Savennières designation, blossoms with honeysuckle and jasmine and seethes with a sort of liquid minerality (mineral liquidity?) that amalgamates lemon-lime and limestone with peaches and baking spice and rollicking acid. This should drink beautifully through 2010. Excellent. About $33.

Joly’s decadent but not decorative Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, sports a bright gold color and a bouquet that teems with smoke and old wood, orange zest, creme brulee and roasted apricots. Though touched with the earthy, damp leaf complexity of botrytis – the “noble rot” that affects very ripe grapes in proper autumn conditions and helps produce the world’s great dessert wines – this wine is bone-dry and perfectly balanced with a flinty-limestone element; the effect shows up in its plangent intensity, overwhelming ripeness and vibrancy. Keenly wrought, racy and elegant, Clos de la Bergerie 1999 is a great match with rich fish and seafood dishes. Well-stored, it could be a 15- to 20-year wine. Exceptional. About $43.

Third in this roster is the exotic, exuberant Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1999, a bright golden-yellow wine (made from 40 to 80-year-old vines) whose qualities of cloves and cinnamon, pineapple and pineapple upside-down cake, bitter orange and tangerine seem not of this world. You have to keep reminding yourself: This is a dry wine! The tension and constant resolution here among a luxurious silky texture, ripe buttery fruit, zinging acid and deeply rooted mineral elements are thrilling. Long life ahead, 20 to 25 years. Exceptional. About $80.

In New York again, for the first and third “Return to Terroir” tastings in 2004 and 2006, I found the Joly wines from vintages 2002 and 2003, respectively, difficult to fathom, reticent, closed, oddly brooding in spirit for white wines, all qualities that match the reputation the wines have for not showing well in the first three or four years.

Then, in March 2007 I discovered a cache of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000 at a local retail store, $40 a bottle; I bought three. Here’s what I wrote (some extraneous comments edited) at the time on this blog:

Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2000, Savennières, Loire Valley. At a bit more than six years old, this example bursts with quince, peach and pear, spice-cake, mango and orange rind that get smokier and more roasted as the minutes pass, all nestled in a plush texture cut by vibrant acid. The wine tastes like honey, but it’s completely dry, so dry, in fact, that the finish is austere, offering the slight bitterness of grapefruit rind tempered by lanolin and a touch of jasmine. Exceptional, and under-priced at $36 to $40. Long life ahead; drink now through 2010 to ’14 (well-stored). 2010 to ’14! More like 2018 to ’20 I would say.

I include these notes on previous Joly wines I tasted (or drank) because they reveal a sense of consistency that seems to run true, at least in my experience, from year to year. They do not make an immediate bid for your regard, yet even in youthful reticence they offer tremendous vitality and the innate potential for richness. Some writers, particularly French critics with long experience and memory, decry the era of Nicolas Joly and prefer the wines produced by his mother before the son took over the estate. I cannot speak to those issues. I can only assert that generally I find the wines of Nicolas Joly and Coulée de Serrant to be among the world’s greatest expressions of the chenin blanc grape. Do biodynamic practices make them so? Do these esoteric methods “work”? Yes. No. I don’t know. The philosophy is what it is; the wines are what they are.

The wines of Nicolas Joly are imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York. Prices are approximate and represent a range found on the Internet. Image of Nicolas Joly from jimsloire.blogspot.com; map from vinsurvin-blog.com.
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Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos 2009, Savennières. The color is pale gold with faint greenish-gold highlights; the aromas come first as classic chenin blanc — hay, candle wax, camellias, a delicate touch of honey — then deeper aspects of cloves, quince and ginger, dried orange rind, a winsome whiff of lilac, and, amid these sensual delights, a touch of something slightly astringent, slightly bracing and withholding, perhaps a hint of salt-marsh. The richness expands across the palate, not quite buttery but certainly ripe and fat yet — always a “yet” — again that feeling of resisting its own power, of insisting on a sense of spareness or refusing to surrender to its own florid potential; remember, this is a completely dry wine. Flavors of spiced and roasted lemons and pears are permeated by bright animating acidity and the presence of clean scintillating limestone minerality that burgeons through the finish. 15.2 percent alcohol. Approximately 580 cases produced. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. Prices vary widely; say $35 to $50.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines. The 33-hectare vineyard of Roches aux Moines, among the most important in Savennières, is its own appellation; Joly owns 3.5 hectares. The vines average 30 to 40 years old, though some are as old as 80 years. There’s an immediate impression that Clos de La Bergerie 2009 is both more intense and concentrated and more generous than its cousin, Les Vieux Clos ’09. It’s a golden wine, rich, shimmering, honeyed, again almost buttery yet imbued with a formidable acid and mineral structure that provides a reservoir of inner resources; this is authoritatively dry, fine-boned, crystalline, a-quiver with crispness, liveliness and vitality and beautifully balanced among the suppleness of its texture, the ripe, spicy forwardness of its stone-fruit flavors and — here we are once more — the sense that the wine (as I scribbled in my first note): “resists too much richness.” That quality of inherent leanness, of a vibrant linearity, saves the wine from excess and flamboyance and keeps it consistently inviting as well as multi-layered; the evidence points to terrific grapes from an excellent year (following the inconsistent vintages of 2006, ’07 and ’08 in the central Loire) and skillful winemaking. So: macerated peaches and greengage plums with a vivid hint of pineapple; hay and straw, quince jam and lemongrass, a slightly earthy note; a spice-packed, resonant, elegant finish. The alcohol level is controversial: the label, as you can see, states 13.5 percent; in his survey of the Joly 2009s, Chris Kissack at thewinedoctor.com, says that the alcohol content of this wine is 15 percent; and the importer’s website has it at 15.8 percent! Whatever, there’s no trace of alcoholic sweetness or heat; the wine is exquisitely balanced, but with a gratifying risky, nervy edge. About 580 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25 or ’26. Exceptional. About $45 to $60.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Nicolas Joly Clos de Coulée de Serrant 2009, Savennières-Coulee de Serrant. The 7-hectare Coulee de Serrant vineyard — about 17.3 acres — is wholly owned by Nicolas Joly; like Roches aux Moines, it is a sub-appellation of Savennières. At a little more than two and a half years old, the wine is a beguiling and intriguing merging of dryness that hints of a core of sweet ripeness with a lush yet spare, lithe texture and intense resonance and vibrancy married to profound limestone-like minerality. Does this wine out-perform — not that it’s a contest — Clos de La Bergerie 2009? Again, I would say that the case is one of matters of degrees; the wines are similar in character, but Clos de Coulee de Serrant 09 possesses not only the limpid, luminous, spicy stone-fruit qualities — and, yes, the quince and cloves and ginger, the earthiness of damp hay, a touch of leafy fig and greengage, an extra hint of lightly buttered cinnamon toast — of its stablemates but it feels actually savory and mouth-watering; this wine practically glistens and gleams with personality (the topmost layer) while it delivers a pretty damned consummate iteration of the depth and dimension of which the chenin blanc grape is capable. 15.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2014 through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $65 to $90.
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Pine Ridge Winery, founded in the Napa Valley in 1978 by a partnership headed by Gary Andrus, made its reputation on cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, but the smartest business move the producer ever made was in creating a chenin blanc-viognier blend and selling it cheap. This justly popular wine — if I owned a restaurant I would sell it by bottle and glass — hits all the points the American palate desires in an inexpensive white wine: it’s tasty, nicely complex for the price and a trifle sweet.

The Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier 2011 is a blend of 79 percent chenin blanc and 21 percent viognier. The wine is clean and fresh, with beguiling aromas of ripe pears (and pears and more pears), roasted lemons and a hint of peaches, twined with touches of mango, lemongrass, jasmine and green tea, for a flirtatious note of the exotic. Pear, peach and citrus flavors are spicy enough (and slightly herbal) that the wine is almost savory, not to mention crisp and lively with bright acidity that cuts through a lovely, moderately lush texture. That trifle of sweetness emerges mainly in the finish, but makes the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier 2011 a good match with slightly spicy cuisine. It’s versatile too; we drank it one night with whole-wheat linguine with walnuts, orange zest and red chilies and the next with cod and chorizo stew. 12 percent alcohol. Michael Beaulac is Pine Ridge’s general manager and winemaker. Bottled with a screw-cap for easy opening. Very Good+. About $14, representing Fantastic Value.

A sample for review.

I’ll show you on the map to the right. Though nominally included in any survey of the Loire Valley, tiny Fiefs Vendéens actually lies fairly far south of the city of Nantes and the surrounding region of Muscadet, the farthest western area in the long reach of the Loire River where it debouches into the Atlantic. When I encountered the wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas at the “Return to Terroir: Les Renaissance des Appellations” tasting in New York last week, my question was exactly the title of this post: “Where the hell is Fiefs Vendéens?” You have to love the opportunity to try wines from tiny, out-of-the-way areas!

The Vendée lies in the ancient province of Poitou, the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine and part of her vast realm. The area was devastated during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and during the internal Wars of Religion (1562-1598). The Vendéens are fiercely independent and royalist, launching a major — and doomed — pro-Catholic war against the Revolution (1793-1795), refusing to recognize the authority of Napoleon when he escaped from Elba in 1815, and attempting a revolt against Louis-Philippe in 1832. Things are calmer now.

Vineyards are a small segment of the flat agricultural landscape of the Vendée. The grape-growing and wine-making activity of Fiefs Vendéens centers on four communes — Mareuil, Brem, Vix and Pissotte — with many of the vineyards lying a stone’s-throw from the sea. The vines, not trained on trellises, bend low to the ground because of the constant wine. Grapes for red wine are gamay, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir; for white wine, the grapes are chenin blanc, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; other, more obscure grapes, such as groslot gris (also called grolleau), are also permitted. The small region labored in obscurity for many years, finally achieving VDQS status — between Vin de Pays and AOC — in 1984. VDQS stands for Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure; the designation accounts for about 1 percent of French wine. In March 2011, Fiefs Vendéens was granted full AOC recognition.

A great deal of that advancement is due to Thierry Michon of Domaine Saint Nicolas, of the shore-hugging commune of Brem. The fully biodynamic estate, since 1995, is located on the Ile d’Olonne; Michon cultivates 37 hectares, about 95 acres, of vines, an enormous amount for the region. The wines are beguiling, flavorful yet spare, and highly individual, thoroughly unfolding their connection to the schist and limestone soil that dominates in Brem. It was a pleasure and somewhat of a gratifying puzzlement to try them, since all authentic wines have something of the paradoxical about them.

The wines of Domaine Saint Nicolas are imported by Jon-David Headrick Selections, Asheville, N.C. The prices I list are more approximate than usual, if available. Image of Thierry Michon from jimsloire.blogspot.com
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Domaine Saint Nicolas Gammes en May 2010, Fiefs Vendéens. Made from 100 percent gamay grapes, this punningly-named crowd- pleaser is utterly fresh and clean, blithe and bracing, with notes of red and black cherries and dried raspberries and undertones of roses and violets and an intriguing slightly mossy earthiness. The color is bright cherry with a tinge of dark ruby at the center. There’s a brief episode of sweetness on the entry, but this is, at least from mid-palate back, a dry wine, vibrant with acidity and couched in terms of — here’s that word again — an intriguing complex of red and black fruit flavors. both ripe and dried, flinty earthiness and exotic spice. 13 percent alcohol. Not complicated but truly charming. Very Good+. $NA.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Reflets 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, will appeal to those for whom enjoying a rose is a matter of pleasure shaded by Puritan tartness and asperity, for this is indeed a very dry rose permeated by the crispness of resonant acidity and the austerity of limestone-and-flint-like minerality. It’s a blend of pinot noir grapes, gamay, groslot gris and negrette that results, on the other hand, in lovely scents and flavors of red currants and mulberries with a pale touch of plum and peach skin. I was tasting this wine mid the madding crowd of a major trade event, but it instantly put me in mind of crusty bread, rabbit terrine and a blanket outdoors. 13 percent alcohol. Very Good+. $NA.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Les Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is, depending on the source you read, a blend of 80 chenin blanc, 15 percent chardonnay and 5 percent groslot gris; the wine aged eight months, 80 percent in tank, 20 percent in oak barrels. I don’t want to overuse an adjective — you know, “intriguing” — so allow me to say that the wine is mysteriously curious and captivating. I couldn’t say precisely what the 5 percent groslot gris brings to the wine, but from the chenin blanc come dominating elements of straw, greengage plum, lemon balm, pear and precision-tooled acidity; the chardonnay, I would say, contributes a bit of body, moderate lushness and back-notes of cloves and grapefruit. No great depth or concentration but delightful and delicious. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $17.
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The make-up of the Domaine Saint Nicolas Le Haut des Clous 2010, Fiefs Vendéens, is 100 percent chenin blanc. The wine is spanking fresh and clean, bracing as a brine-laden sea-breeze after a morning rain, deeply minerally in the limestone and flint range; it’s quite racy and nervy, animated by the tang of lemon pith, lime peel and slightly bitter peach skin, yet softened with appealing touches of camellia, lemon balm, spiced pear and damp straw. Super attractive and drinks like a charm. Excellent. About $20-$25.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Can there be another wine in the world that blends pinot noir with cabernet franc? That’s the case with the unusual and ambitious Saint Nicolas Cuvée Jacques 2007, Fiefs Vendéens with pinot noir in the dominant 90 percent position. I have no information about the oak regimen — zut alors! the winery’s website needs a total overhaul — but I will say the the wine is dry, spare, elegant, packed with notes of dried spices and flowers and great reserves of dry, earthy tannins. Perhaps the cabernet franc, blended at 15 percent in some vintages, accounts for a paradoxical tinge of ripe fatness, a hint of the grape’s black olive and bay leaf character and rugged structure, though this is, again paradoxically, if not quixotically, quite subtle; somehow, the wine achieves smooth balance and integration. I’ve never tasted anything like it, and I mean that as a compliment. Excellent. About $25-$27.
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The Domaine Saint Nicolas Pinot Noir 2009, Fiefs Vendéens, is distributed only in the United States of America. It’s a rather spare, delicate pinot noir, offering fresh and clean scents of red and black cherries and a bit of red and black currant permeated by dried spice, touches of rose petal and pomegranate and a hint of cola, all presented in a manner much more French than the ripe, opulent pinots of California and Oregon. Lovely purity, with moderate intensity. Very Good+. $24.
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The French wine industry is heavily regulated by government rules about what grapes can be grown where, what kinds of wines can be made from what kinds of grapes, how those grapes are to be treated in the vineyard and the winery and so on. Indeed, most European countries operate in the same highly regulated manner, a situation becoming more complicated as the EU itself imposes its will on the continent’s grape-growing, winemaking and labeling. One can make wine in France outside the permitted practices for a particular appellation, but one cannot label or market such a wine as originating in that appellation. Working outside the system of permitted grape varieties and methods entitles a wine to the simple categories Vin de Table or, recently authorized, Vin de France. Labels for Vin de Table cannot carry a vintage date or the names of grapes; wines coming under the designation Vin de France, which will eventually replace Vin de Table, can convey that information, a change greeted with approbation by many French winemakers for the flexibility it affords.

Today I offer five “outlaw wines” from France. One is Vin de Table, three are Vin de France (one of these is sparkling), while another sparkling wine is entitled only to the term mousseaux. Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré was made in large clay amphorae; it’s an example of the new “orange wine” phenomenon.

These wines were encountered at the sixth “Return to Terroir, La Renaissance des Appellations,” a tasting of biodynamic wines mounted in New York on February 27.
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Beauthorey Ultima, non-vintage (but 2008), Vin de Table. Alicante bouschet, carignan, cinsault, aramon, gros noir (says the website; Christophe Beau told me that there are 12 grape varieties in this wine). Actually sort of ultimate; deep, rich, ripe, spicy; curiously earthy and fleshy, unique slightly funky mossy and foresty qualities, yet tremendously clean and fresh, blazing acidity, rapt dimensions of roasted and slightly stewed red and black fruit scents and flavors; hints of smoke, licorice, lavender. Amazing what a great winemaker can do with supposedly no-count grapes. Biodynamic. Excellent. About $25 (an estimate; Beauthorey lost its US importer.)
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Domaine de la Garelière Milliard d’Etoiles, non-vintage, Vin de France. (“Billions of stars”) Cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Pale gold color, gently but definitely sparkling; rose petals, peach and peach skin, hints of apples and strawberries, super attractive; crisp and lively, brings in a touch of lime and limestone; ripe, a little fleshy and macerated even, but a seaside tang to it, clean, brisk, bracing. Wish I had a glass right now. Biodynamic. Very Good+. About $NA.
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Bossard-Thuaud Vin Mousseaux de Qualité, non-vintage. Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet), folle blanche, chardonnay and a touch of cabernet franc. No dosage, so bone-dry, but despite the spare, lean elegance, quite charming and elevating; exuberant effervescence, pale straw color; very clean, crisp and confident; jasmine and camellia, cloves, limestone and lime peel, faint backnote of almond skin; very refined and stylish, packed with limestone and flint-like minerality that almost glitters, lively, vibrant. Made by Guy Bossard and his wife Annie Thuaud at Domaine de l’Écu. Biodynamic, vegan. Excellent. About $23.
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Domaine Viret Paradis Dolia Ambré, non-vintage, Vin de France. 30% muscat petit grains, 25% roussanne, 20% each bourboulenc and clairette rose, 5% grenache blanc. Light amber color; orange rind, lime zest, cloves, flint, tinge of lemon and melon; bright acidity, dry, crisp, steely, yet smooth and supple; delicate hints of baked apple, roasted lemon, spice box, all in a spare, almost lean package. Biodynamic. Very Good+. $NA.
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Domaine Viret Solstice VIII, non-vintage (but 2010), Vin de France. A blend of mourvèdre, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, caladoc — totally a new one on me; it’s a crossing of grenache and malbec — and marselan. Very pleasant, light and delicate, quite dry, builds power as it develops; notes of dried red fruit and exotic spices, slightly cherry-berry and sour melon; acidity cuts a swath of the palate; gains austerity from mid-palate through the spicy, mineral-flecked finish. Biodynamic. Interesting at first, then growing enjoyable. Very Good+. About $15-$20.
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Here is a sparkling wine that for quality and price you should grasp to your bosom and purchase by the case. The Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience, non-vintage, is a blend of 60 percent chardonnay grapes, 30 percent chenin blanc and 5 percent each mauzac and pinot noir made in the Crémant de Limoux appellation in southwest France, not far from medieval walled town of Carcassonne. The wine is a collaboration between the Bourgeois family, the well-known importers headquartered in Asheville, N.C., and Domaine J. Laurens.

Limoux has an interesting history, because the first sparkling wines were apparently developed there as early as 1531, at the Abbey St.-Hilaire, and pre-dating sparkling Champagne by 150 years. These wines, traditionally made from the mauzac grape, underwent a natural process of second fermentation in the bottle in the Spring after the harvest, as the temperature warmed. The fairly rustic Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wines were supplemented in 1990 by the creation of Crémant de Limoux, designed to be more modern and to exploit the increasing acreage in the region devoted to chardonnay and chenin blanc grapes.

The Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience offers a mild straw-gold color and a plethora of teeming bubbles. The bouquet is a subtle weaving of biscuits, lemon zest and baking spices highlighted by a pointed limestone element; the impression is of pinpoint focus and vibrancy with nothing fancy or flashy. In the mouth, this is clean, bright, effervescent and very dry, a pleasing combination of a soft generous texture (and hints of macerated citrus fruit) with taut acidity and an upright, straight-arrow minerality in the limestone-flint range, much as if it were a cadet version of the hallowed Champagne itself. In fact, not wanting to make too hard a sell here, but the Cuvée Stéphi Ebullience makes a fair bid for elegance, presence and class beyond its station. Don’t neglect this in your sparkling wine plans. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20.

So today is January 4th, meaning that tomorrow is Twelfth Night and the 12th Day of Christmas, bringing the 2011-2012 edition of this series to an end. Stop by for a couple of valedictory selections.

On Christmas Day 2011, let’s begin this series of Champagnes and sparkling wines with a product that’s not only charming but pretty darned complex and a bargain to boot. The emphasis this time around is on the diversity of French sparkling wines, and we’ll touch on several areas outside of iconic Champagne. The wine today is the Champalou Vouvray Brut, a nonvintage sparkler made from chenin blanc grapes, or as they’re called in the region, pineau de la Loire. Chenin blanc reigns supreme in the central Loire Valley, specifically the part called Touraine, after the city of Tours. The estate was founded in 1983 by Catherine and Didier Champalou, who make only about 12,000 cases of white wine annually, all from chenin blanc grapes.

The Champalou Vouvray Brut is made in what’s called méthode traditionelle, that is the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle; that’s the step that produces the essential bubbles. (The term méthode champenoise, by the way, was outlawed for label use by the EU in 1994.) The Champalou Vouvray Brut is fermented in stainless steel tanks and allowed to rest on the lees of spent yeast cells; then it is transferred to bottles, given a dosage of yeast and sugar (to kick-start the second fermentation) and capped; it spends 20 months in bottles before being corked and released.

The color is shimmering pale gold; effervescence is mild but persistent. Heady aromas of almond and acacia, lemongrass and quince, with a touch of something earthy and straw-like, are tempered by a cut of steel and limestone. This is surprisingly creamy and substantial, almost luscious, but balanced by bright, crisp acidity and more of that clean, slightly austere limestone minerality to bolster flavors of roasted lemons and spiced pears; hints of candle-wax and camellia come out in the long, lively satisfying finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent, and Great Value at about $19 to $26, reflecting prices around the country.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal. A sample for review.

Here’s a terrific sparkling wine from France that will make your palate and your pocketbook happy. It’s the Marcel Martin Tête de Cuvée Crémant de Loire Brut. The requirements for the Crémant de Loire appellation include originating in the regions of Anjou-Saumur or Touraine, lower grape yields than go into the Loire’s other sparkling wines and a higher percentage of free-run juice, as well as one-year’s aging, as opposed to nine months for other local sparklers. Grapes tend to be chenin blanc and cabernet franc, though chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and some indigenous grapes are allowed. “Tête de Cuvée” on a label implies that the product is top (or “head”) of the line, but the term is not regulated in France, so consumers must depend on the honesty of the producer. These wines are made in the champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle.

Marcel Martin Tête de Cuvée Crémant de Loire Brut presents a medium straw-gold color such as Rapunzel’s hair might be; a tremendous fountain of tiny bubbles erupts from the bottom of the glass and surges upward to the surface. This is all roasted lemon, steel and limestone, with hints of winsome acacia and almond, straw and bracing sea-salt. This sparkling wine truly is full-bodied and creamy, though cleanly cut with rapier-like acidity and scintillating limestone and flint minerality. The finish is long, fervent, steely and spicy. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+ (with a couple more +s if I could; it’s that close to Excellent). I paid $23, but I have seen prices as low as $17 around the country.

Imported by The Stacole Co., Boca Raton, Fla.

The history of Domaine du Tariquet is complicated — the progenitor was a bear-tamer — so it will suit our purposes merely to say that the same family his owned the property since 1912, first the Artaud family and then, through marriage in the early 1940s, the Grassa family. Today, the third Grassa generation operates the estate, which originally produced only Bas-Armagnac and then in 1982 added white wines in what were pioneering blends of chardonnay and chenin blanc or chardonnay and sauvignon blanc or ugni blanc and colombard. These white wines and a rosé, great values among them, are the subject of today’s reviews. The appellation is Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne, in the southwest region of France called Midi-Pyrénées. For centuries, Gascony, which shares a mountainous border with Spain, was home to a Basque-speaking people whose origins and affinities really lay in Spanish culture; in fact, the root of the words Basque and Gascony is the same. Côtes de Gascogne, surrounded by predominantly red wine regions, is unusual in that 91 percent of the production is white wine, the rest being about 8 percent red and 1 percent rosé.

Imported by Robert Kacher Selections, Washington DC. Samples for review.
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Domaine du Tariquet Classic Ugni Blanc Colombard 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. 70 percent ugni blanc, 30 percent colombard. Ugni blanc is the same grape as the usually nondescript Italian trebbiano; by keeping things simple and controlling the grape’s inherent withering acidity, it’s capable of making an attractive, lively wine of no huge character; it would help if yields were kept low. Paradoxically, ugni blanc is the principle grape in Cognac and Armagnac, precisely because its neutral nature and high acidity make it perfect for distillation and wood aging. Anyway, this little quaffer is as alluring as all get-out, offering hints of lemon, pear and yellow plum woven with touches of jasmine and cloves, a bit of almond skin and something slightly herbal. Fresh, clean, delightful and very nice as an aperitif or with mild cheeses and seafood dishes. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $9, a Real Bargain.
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Domaine du Tariquet Chenin Chardonnay 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Chenin blanc 75 percent, chardonnay 25 percent. This is pleasant enough but certainly not the most attractive or compelling of this group of wines. Crisp and vibrant, with tasty touches of lemon, quince and green plum and a burgeoning spicy element supported by a hint of limestone. 12.5 percent alcohol. Good+. About $11.
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Domaine du Tariquet Chardonnay 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. While the other wines noted in this post receive no oak aging, Tariquet’s Chardonnay 2010 was given three months in barrels. Amazing quality for the price here: this is clean, fresh and bright, with pears and roasted lemon for the nose, highlighted by hints of grapefruit and pineapple and gentle spice and a touch of buttered toast, while a few minutes bring round a note of jasmine; the texture deftly balances moderate lushness and a very pleasing texture with resonant acidity and a bit of limestone in the background. Surprising heft, presence and personality for a chardonnay in this range. 12.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $11.
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Domaine du Tariquet Cote 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. This beguiling wine is a well-balanced blend of 50 percent chardonnay and 50 percent sauvignon blanc, each grape nicely delineated yet fitting seamlessly into the package. Fresh aromas of apples, pears and slightly spiced and macerated lemons with hints of thyme and freshly-mown grass and a touch of jasmine; crisp and quite lively, with spicy, roasted lemon and grapefruit flavors ensconced in a texture seductively poised between chardonnay’s ripe lushness and sauvignon blanc’s tidy spareness, all encompassed by a finish packed with limestone. We enjoyed this wine with seared rare tuna, under a dense peppercorn crust. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
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Domaine du Tariquet Rosé de Pressée 2010, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. My favorite of this group. A blend of 30 percent each merlot and cabernet franc, 25 percent syrah and 15 percent tannat, the wine was made in the fashion of a white wine, that is grapes pressed and the juice removed from the skins, rather than the saignée method of crushing the grapes and bleeding off some juice before it colors completely. This example is unusually ripe and fleshy for a rosé, though the color is a pale melon-copper; aromas of fresh strawberries, red currants and melon unfold to elements of pomegranate, almond skin, thyme and limestone; a lovely, almost silken texture is riven by scintillating acidity and limestone-like minerality, pointing up spicy red fruit flavors that aim toward a finish that gets spare and almost austere. A superior rosé, charming yet with a fairly serious edge. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $12, a Great Bargain.
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The theme today, such as it is, is diversity. I chose eight wines that were either 100 percent varietal (or a little blended) from eight different regions as a way of demonstrating, well, I guess the amazing range of places where wine can be made. Eight examples barely scratch the surface of such a topic, of course, and a similar post could probably be written in at least eight variations and not use the same grapes as primary subjects. Another way would be to create a post called “1 grape, 8 Places,” to show the influence that geography has on one variety. That topic is for another post, though. All the whites were made in stainless steel and are perfect, each in its own manner, for light-hearted summer sipping. The reds, on the other hand, would be excellent will all sorts of grilled red meat, from barbecue ribs to steaks.
All samples for review or tasted at trade events.
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Sauvignon blanc:
The Long Boat Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, from Jackson Family Wines, is the archetypal New Zealand model that bursts with pert notes of gooseberry, celery seed, new-mown grass, thyme, tarragon and lime peel; it practically tickles your nose and performs cart-wheels on your tongue. It’s very dry, very crisp, a shot of limestone and chalk across a kiss of steel and steely acidity that endow with tremendous verve flavors of roasted lemon, leafy fig and grapefruit. That touch of grapefruit widens to a tide that sends a wave of bracing bitterness through the mineral-drenched finish. Truly scintillating, fresh and pure. 12.8 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Ca.
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Riesling:
The Gunderloch “Jean-Baptiste” Riesling Kabinett 2009, Rheinhessen, Germany, is a fresh, clean and delicate wine that opens with hints of green apple and slate and slightly spiced and macerated peaches and pears; a few minutes in the glass bring out a light, sunny, almost ephemeral note of petrol and jasmine. Ripe peach and pear flavors are joined by a touch of lychee and ethereal elements of lime peel, grapefruit and limestone that persist through the finish; the texture is sleek, smooth and notably crisp and lively. Really charming. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.
Rudi Wiest for Cellars International, San Marcos, Ca.
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Chenin blanc:
Made from organically-grown grapes, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2009, Carmel Valley, California, is refined, elegant, almost gossamer in its exquisite melding of tart apple and ripe peach with spiced pear and a hint of roasted lemon; there’s a touch of chenin blanc’s signature dried hay-meadowy effect as well as a hint, just a wee hint, of riesling’s rose petal/lychee aspect. (This wine typically contains 10 to 15 percent riesling, but I can’t tell you how much for 2009 because I received not a scrap of printed material with this shipment, and the winery’s website is a vintage behind; hence the label for 2008. Hey, producers! It doesn’t take much effort to keep your websites up-to-date!) Anyway, the wine is crisp and lively with vibrant acidity and offers a beguilingly suave, supple texture. It’s a bit sweet initially, but acid and subtle limestone-like minerality bring it round to moderate dryness. Lovely. 13.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
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Chardonnay:
Roland Lavantureux makes two wines, a Chablis and a Petit Chablis. Both are matured 2/3 in stainless steel tanks and 1/3 in enamel vats; the Petit Chablis for eight months, the Chablis for 10. The domaine was founded in 1978 and is family-owned and operated. The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 2009 makes you wonder how the French wine laws differentiate between “little” Chablis and “regular” Chablis. This rated a “wow” as my first note. It feels like a lightning stroke of shimmering acidity, limestone and gun-flint tempered by spiced and roasted lemon and hints of quince, mushrooms and dried thyme. This wine serves as a rebuke to producers who believe that to be legitimate a chardonnay must go through oak aging; it renders oak superfluous. (Yes, I know, oak can do fine things to chardonnay used thoughtfully and judiciously.) The Roland Lavantureux Petit Chablis 09 radiates purity and intensity while being deeply savory and spicy; it’s a natural with fresh oysters or with, say, trout sauteed in brown butter and capers. A very comfortable 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19 to $23.
Kermit Lynch Imports, Berkeley, Ca.
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Pinot noir:
Bodega Chacra, which makes only pinot noir wines, was established in Argentina’s Patagonia region — the Rio Negro Valley in northern Patagonia — in 2004 by Piero Incisa della Rochetta, the grandson of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the creator and proprietor of Sassicaia, one of the most renowned Italian wineries, and nephew of Niccolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta, who currently manages the family’s winemaking enterprises. Bodega Chacra produces three limited edition pinot noirs, one from a vineyard planted in 1932, one from a vineyard planted in 1955, and the third made from a combination of these old vineyards and grapes from two 20-year-old vineyards. The vineyards are farmed on biodynamic principles; the wines are bottled unfiltered. The Barda Pinot Noir 2010, Patagonia, is an example of the third category of these wines. It spends 11 months in French oak barrels, 25 percent new. Barda Pinot Noir 2010 is vibrant, sleek, stylish and lovely; the bouquet is bright, spicy and savory, bursting with notes of black cherry, cranberry and cola highlighted by hints of rhubarb, sassafras and leather. It’s dense and chewy, lithe and supple; you could roll this stuff around on your tongue forever, but, yeah, it is written that ya have to swallow some time. Flavors of black cherry and plum pudding are bolstered by subtle elements of dusty graphite and slightly foresty tannins, though the overall impression — I mean, the wine is starting to sound like syrah — is of impeccable pinot noir pedigree and character. 12.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $30.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
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Zinfandel:
If you grow weary, a-weary of zinfandel wines that taste like boysenberry shooters, then the Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, California, is your cup of, as it were, tea. No bells and whistles here, just the purity and intensity of the zinfandel grape not messed about with. Grgich Hills is farmed entirely organically and by biodynamic principles, and winemaker Ivo Jeramaz uses oak judiciously, in this case 15 months in large French oak casks, so there’s no toasty, vanilla-ish taint of insidious new oak. The color is medium ruby with a hint of violet-blue at the rim; the nose, as they say, well, the nose offers a tightly wreathed amalgam of deeply spicy, mineral-inflected black and red currants and plums with a swathing of dusty sage and lavender, wound with some grip initially, but a few minutes in the glass provide expanse and generosity. Amid polished, burnished tannins of utter smoothness and suppleness, the black and red fruit flavors gain depths of spice and slate-like minerals; the whole effect is of an indelible marriage of power and elegance and a gratifying exercise in ego-less winemaking. 14.7 percent alcohol. We drank this with pizza, but it would be great with any sort of grilled or braised red meat or robustly flavored game birds. Excellent. About $35.
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Cabernet sauvignon:
You just have to rejoice when you encounter a cabernet, like the Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mendoza, Argentina, that radiates great character and personality — yes, those are different qualities — and maintains a rigorous allegiance to the grape while expressing a sense of individuality and regionality. The vineyards average 3,510-feet elevation; that’s way up there. Five percent malbec is blended in the wine; it aged 15 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels, and while that may seem like a high proportion of new oak, that element feels fully integrated and indeed a bit subservient to the wine’s strict high-altitude tannins and granite-like minerality. Aromas of black currants and black plums are ripe and fleshy, a bit roasted and smoky, yet iron-like, intense and concentrated; a few moments in the glass bring up classic touches of briers and brambles, cedar and wheatmeal, thyme and black olive, a hint of mocha. This is a savory cabernet, rich, dry, consummately compelling yet a little distant and detached, keeping its own counsel for another year or two, though we enjoyed it immensely with a medium rare rib-eye steak. What’s most beguiling are the broadly attractive black and blue fruit flavors permeated by moss and loam and other foresty elements married to muscular yet supple heft, dimensional and weight. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $25.
Imported by Vine Connections, Sausalito, Ca.
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Tempranillo:
Here’s a terrific, slightly modern version of Rioja, by which I mean that it’s not excessively dry, woody and austere, as if made by ancient monks putting grapes through the Inquisition. Bodegas Roda was founded by Mario Rotillant and Carmen Dautella in 1991, in this traditional region that abuts Navarra in northeastern Spain. The deep and savory Roda Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain, blends 14 percent graciano grapes and five percent garnacha (grenache) with 81 percent tempranillo; the wine is aged 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, and spends another 20 months in the bottle before release. The color is rich, dark ruby, opaque at the center; aromas of black currant and black raspberry are infused with cloves and fruit cake, sage and thyme, bacon fat, leather and sandalwood, with something clean, earthy and mineral-drenched at the core. That sense of earth and graphite-like minerality persists throughout one’s experience with the wine, lending resonant firmness to the texture, which also benefits from finely-milled, slightly dusty tannins and vibrant acidity, all impeccably meshed with smoky, spicy flavors of black and red fruit and plum pudding. 14 percent alcohol. An impressive, even dignified yet delicious wine for drinking now, with grilled meat and roasts, or for hanging onto through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $45.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
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We continue to work our way through one of our favorite cookbooks, Jamie’s Italy (Hyperion, $34.95), by British chef and cooking personality Jamie Oliver. Many of the dishes he presents are eminently suited to the ferociously hot weather we’re enduring, that is, cooking is at a minimum (well, risotto takes some time at the stove) and the effects are light and delicious. We prepared these two meals on consecutive nights this week.

First was the Fennel Risotto with Ricotta and Dried Chili. This is basically a risotto, made the usual way, with minced onion and garlic (or shallot), white wine, a little butter, but halfway through, you add the thinly sliced fennel that you’ve slowly sauteed with pulverized fennel seeds, garlic and olive oil. You add ricotta, Parmesan and lemon zest before the cooking is finished and at the last minute sprinkle on the crushed — or “bashed up,” as Oliver says — dried red chilies, fennel tops and more Parmesan. This was a seriously tasty dish, bursting with sweet, earthy flavor and heat but not heavy or too spicy.

With the risotto, I opened a bottle of the Graham Beck Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008, from the Coastal Region of
South Africa. Traditionally, the chenin blanc grape is called steen on labels, but that usage is becoming rare as the country’s wines are imported more widely into the United States. What a beauty this is! Scents of quince, yellow plum and pear are wreathed with crystallized ginger and cloves and a touch of honey. There’s more of a citrus tang on the tongue, like lime peel and grapefruit, with a hint of mango. The wine is notably crisp and lively, yet the lovely texture is neatly balanced between spareness and almost luxurious lushness. This aspect is tempered, as the minutes pass, by a tide of piercing minerality in the form of limestone and damp shale. At a bit more than two years old, the Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008 offers an alluringly mature example of the grape. The winemaker was Erika Obermeyer. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $16, representing Great Value.

The wine was terrific with the risotto, the richness and fruitiness of the chenin blanc working well with the sweetness and richness of the risotto yet playing off the heat from the dried chilies.

Imported by Graham Beck Wines, San Francisco. A sample for review.
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The next night, we tried grilled swordfish with salsa di Giovanna, which could also be done with tuna. Giovanna sauce is really just a vinaigrette, but in addition to the olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper, it contains finely sliced garlic and chopped fresh mint and oregano. I mean, that’s it, but, mama mia, what a sauce it made for a wonderful, thick swordfish steak LL bought at Whole Foods. You just grill or saute the fish, and when it’s on the plate, dribble the sauce over it. Oliver gives credit to Giovanna, a cook at an estate in Sicily for teaching him this method. We tend to under-cook swordfish, so this was incredibly moist, tender and flavorful in the way swordfish can be when it’s not over-cooked, as it almost always is in restaurants. LL made roasted potatoes and bok choy sauteed in olive oil and garlic to go with the swordfish.

On this occasion, I opened the Margerum Klickitat Pinot Gris 2009, which carries a designation of “American.” That means that the grapes were grown in one state, in this case Washington, and the wine was made in another state, in this case, California. According to the TTB — Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — you can make a cross-county wine and list the counties on the labels –as in, say, 65% Napa 35% Mendocino — but not so with an interstate wine; those have to be called “American.” “Klickitat” is a county in southern Washington named for a Native American tribe of the Yakima group. The winery is in the town of Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley.

The Margerum Klickitat Pinot Gris 09 is a super-attractive wine on the model of the versions of Alsace, where the pinot gris grape can reach its apotheosis. Apple, lemon and pear aromas are woven with apple blossom and jasmine that develop, after a few minutes, lovely notes of tangerine and orange blossom. Plenty of flowers, yes, but the bouquet remains charming, balanced and compelling and not overwhelmingly floral. Spicy and herbal elements — spiced pear and lemon; dried thyme — make themselves known, both in the nose and mouth, and they increase their effect at the same time as the wine takes on more damp gravel-like minerality; while delicate in its constituent parts, the wine adds up to a substantial presence in its weight and lively, slightly lush texture. This all went down so easily, and it paired beautifully with the swordfish and Giovanna sauce. Winemaker was Doug Margerum. Production was about 1,450 cases. Drink through 2012. Excellent. Suggested retail price is about $16 (I mean at the winery), but here in Memphis, I paid $22.
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