Turkey Day

November 25, 2009

For whatever reason people always seem to be confused about what wines to pair with Thanksgiving dinner. I never really put too much thought into it until this year – we always had a red and a white on the table that seemed to go pretty well, but since I have been appointed de facto sommelier for every social gathering, I decided to pay a little more attention. In the weeks leading up to what is both the biggest wine sales day and the biggest eating day of the year, I pulled information from a few tastings, the most useful and fun being The Second Glass’ Thanksgiving Crash Course at Downtown Wine & Spirits, a few episodes of Wine Library TV, and an article in Wine Spectator, to put together my own primer to Thanksgiving wine pairing.

First of all, apparently there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to Thanksgiving – pair to the turkey or pair to everything else. Not especially useful, considering turkey is, in and of itself, pretty boring. This presents another decision: choose a wine that complements the turkey because of their similarities, think dry whites, or one that plays to a contrast – I have the Southern Rhône in mind. The alternative, pair the wine with the sides, is equally futile, how exactly would you categorize the eclectic mix of accompaniments that adorn a Thanksgiving table – mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and who knows what else?

The good news about nearly every flavor being represented means it’s hard to go wrong. My number one rule of wine pairing is especially relevant here: forget the rules, eat what you like and drink what you like.

Now to examine, evaluate, and hopefully improve on a few traditional pairings:

Pinot Blanc. This plays to the turkey, and is actually quite a good move because they tend to be high in acid and pretty versatile, i.e. they will also fair well with most of what else you put on your plate. I actually suggest any of the four major white grapes from the Alsace – the others being Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. All of these wines are going to be high acid and widely appealing. Depending on your crowd you can run the range of the dry-sweet spectrum.

Beaujolais Nouveau. This is just silly, and probably has only made its way onto the Thanksgiving table because it happens to come out around this time of year. It should all be gone by Thanksgiving anyway, don’t keep that stuff a whole week. Plus pairing this with cranberry sauce is like pairing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with a grapefruit. Cru Beaujolais may not be a bad idea though.

Zinfandel. This was the one Thanksgiving pairing that I was familiar with, and to be honest I think it still does a good job. These wines tend to be big, full of bright red fruit and spice that seems to be perfect for the late fall. As an added bonus, the alcohol on these can creep up to 15-16%, which when working in tandem with tryptophan is the perfect recipe for sending unruly family members to bed early. As an alternative, try some Italian reds with some of the same flavors – Nero D’Avola if you want something lighter in body or a big Piedmont red, again, know your crowd – Pinot drinkers go with the former, Cab drinkers, the latter.

Southern Rhône. I am slowly starting to believe that these wines may be good for absolutely everything. This actually is a traditional pairing – the stewed fruit flavors and underlying spice make these wines a great complement to most of what is going to appear on your plate. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the classic, but you would be fine with a generic Côtes-du-Rhône, or, I suggest a Vacqueyras, which tend to be a little more fruit forward and accessible. They had an interesting move at the Second Glass tasting, using a Spanish red from the same grapes instead of a Rhône, which I thought did just as well.

So what is going to be on my table? We are of course going to start with bubbles, and I’m thinking of venturing outside of Champagne for this one and going with a sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire. For whites I plan to go with an Alsatian Gewürztraminer because I think it will complement the sweet potato casserole that I’m making and also because I want my family to try new things. My Dad is a Chardonnay drinker, so that will make its necessary appearance. For reds I think I’m going to go the Vacqueyras route, though I’m also thinking about a Piedmontese blend I tried at the Wine Bottega, the 2003 Le Piane, a blend of Bonarda, Nebbiolo, and Vespolina. For dessert I’m going to go Port, though at the Second Glass tasting we had an Australian dessert wine from Muscadelle that would be awesome with pumpkin pie. I however will most likely have moved on to Grand Marnier at this point. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

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Just like that, it was graduation day. The third and final class of my three week adventure of the wines of southern France at Jonathon Alsop’s Boston Wine School was to finish with a night on the wines of the Rhône, which was, and still is, my absolute favorite wine region in the world. The last day of class was wonderful, by far the best of the three week series, and it confirmed what I already know and love about the Rhône and also taught me a few things.

 

First, though, a slight digression. November was always one of my favorite months in school because it is full of holidays, and this year was no exception, though we did not have the day off. However the last day of class happened to fall on Beaujolais Nouveau Day, so we of course had to celebrate. If you’re anything like me, take a moment to check your preconceptions at the door and give this silly holiday the momentary benefit of the doubt. For those who are unfamiliar, a brief lesson: Beaujolais is a wine-producing region in southern Burgundy that makes a red wine from the Gamay grape (as opposed to Pinot Noir from which most red Burgundy is made). Some of it is actually quite good – Cru Beaujolais and Beaujolais villages, but it tends to have a reputation as cheap easy drinking fruit juice in the U.S., largely because of a phenomenon called Beaujolais Nouveau, popularized by George Duboeuf, that colorful bottle that is all over the place right before Thanksgiving. The concept is not unique to Beaujolais; apparently pretty much everyone does it – a celebration of the harvest where the current year’s grapes (i.e. 2009 right now) are fermented and made into a wine basically as soon as possible, and intended to be consumed again, basically as soon as possible. Beaujolais Nouveau day falls on the third Thursday in November, a week before Thanksgiving, and tradition says the wine should basically all be gone by the year’s end, though in actuality you’re better of treating it like a carton of milk and drinking it literally that week.

 

I consider myself to be part of the new generation of wine people – Gary Vaynerchuk is as much of an authority to me as Robert Parker, and The Second Glass as much as Wine Spectator (if you are not familiar with the first part of either of those comparisons stop reading right now and check out those links), i.e. unpretentious, but for me Beaujolais Nouveau quickly joined the ranks of things that I could not respect, along the lines of white zinfandel and putting ice cubes in your wine. However, for whatever reason I was feeling particularly open-minded on this particular evening. I still believe I could fool most people with a bottle of cheap vodka and at most three ingredients from the grocery store into thinking they were drinking Beaujolais Nouveau, but after trying two of the 2009’s before the last day of class, I at least have elevated this wine above that horrible mistake that created that sweet pink juice. First we tried the Duboeuf, the most famous Beaujolais Nouveau, followed by the Domaine Berrod. The wines were not awful; the most prominent flavor on both was a cranberry component, and they did taste almost watery, perhaps a result of the rushed fermentation process, but again, not terrible. The Berrod was slightly more complex, and actually had some secondary spice flavors going on. Also, and this perhaps is the whole point, there was this somewhat appealing characteristic of super-fresh fruit. Most interesting though, even if the wines sucked, which they actually didn’t, was the bit of education that I got from drinking such a young wine. I didn’t pick it up at first, and perhaps only did later because of the power of suggestion, but there was a pretty evident banana peel component on these wines, especially the Duboeuf. Apparently this is one of the first esters (chemical product of the reaction between an alcohol and an acid that is less dense than air and contributes to the aromas we pick up) to be created, and is thus characteristic of young wines. I have definitely noticed banana before, especially in Pinotage. Considering my background, the organic chemistry of wine is an area I now intend to learn more about and discuss further when I know what I’m talking about, and thus Beaujolais Nouveau Day served its purpose in at least prompting this discussion. Aside from that though, I respect the idea behind it, and the wines likewise serve their purpose as a celebration of the harvest; as long as you don’t expect too much from them I guess it’s a kind of cool tradition… just drink them before Thanksgiving.

 

With the holiday behind us, it was on to the Rhône, the last topic on this semester’s syllabus. Since I actually know a thing or two about the Rhône, some quick background. This Côtes-du-Rhône appellation runs along the Rhône river from Vienne in the north to Avignon in the south. It is divided into two distinct regions, the Northern Rhône, which produces predominantly Syrah based wines – Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas; and the Southern Rhône, where the blends are more diverse, though the primary grape is usually Grenache – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and the various Côtes-du-Rhône villages. Division into the north and south is somewhat misleading, since the latter accounts for 95% of the region’s total production. The wines are mostly red, with good fruit and body but mostly defined by a characteristic spicy component. However as we will see, there are also some high quality serious white wines produced in this region as well.

 

We began with some pink, the 2007 Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône Rosé. Guigal is perhaps the largest producer in the Rhône, making everything from generic red, white, and rosé Côtes-du-Rhône to red and white Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, the three famous single vineyard ‘La La’ Côte-Rôties that sell for $375 each, Condrieu (white), and many more. I found this particular rosé boring, with classic rosé flavors – basic red fruit flavors, but somewhat muted, and not much going on on the nose. However drinking the Guigal gave me two ideas – I want to compare this generic rosé to their Tavel, a southern Rhône appellation that produces exclusively rosé. Also, I intend to do a single-blind comparison of Gigondas and Vacqueyras, again two southern Rhône appellations, reds this time, that are similar but with key differences – I figure the same producer and same vintage would be a nice basis for understanding said differences.

 

On to the reds. First up was a Nîmes, an obscure southern Rhône appellation I had never heard of. The wine was okay to good, with a definite floral component on the nose and an almost meaty thing going on on the palette, but what was most interesting to me was that the blend was mostly Syrah, pretty much as far south as you can get, proving that the rules in the Rhône have their exceptions. Next were two generic Côtes-du-Rhônes from the village of Estézargues. Both of these wines were very good – they were fruit-driven, but had complex aromas ranging from cured meats to a redwood porch. I don’t remember specifics, but next to one I wrote “I don’t know what it is but this is everything I like about Southern Rhône wines,” and next to the other, simply “93.”

 

A Rhône tasting wouldn’t be complete without perhaps the hottest thing in the wine world right now, a 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, CDP from here on out, is perhaps the most famous region in the Rhône, ever since the 1999 Guigal was Wine Spectator’s 2002 wine of the year. Robert Parker declared the 2007’s the best vintage in the southern Rhône that he’s ever tasted, and has already given out multiple 100 point scores. So CDP means the ‘new castle of the Pope,’ named after the town containing said castle during the dual papacy, when there was a Pope in Avignon as well as Rome. There are 13 grape varietals permitted, though usually Grenache dominates, often blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre, the others allowed being Picpoul, Terret Noir, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Picardan, Cinsault, Clairette, Rousanne, and Bourboulenc (yes, some of those are white grapes). The region contains large river rocks, which absorb a lot of solar radiation during the day and thus keep the vineyards warm during the night. Our representative CDP for the evening was the Domaine du Vieux Lazaret, which I thought was pretty typical of the style. It had a cooked or stewed fruit aspect as opposed to pure fresh fruit, tasting almost like a spicy fruity dessert, with a nice finish, lingering but not especially tannic.

 

Heading north, we then tasted a Crozes-Hermitage, which is southeast of the famous Hermitage appellation, and, according to Wine Spectator, related to it only in name. However much credence one gives that claim; certainly St. Joseph is stylistically closer to Hermitage, these northern Rhône wines are all inky deep black Syrah based wines, sometimes blended with white grapes for aromatics – Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and Marsanne and Rousanne in Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and St. Joseph. The Côte-Rôtie that I had at The Wine Cellar on my 21st birthday, perhaps because it was of course the first alcoholic beverage I ever had, was one of the best wines that I’ve ever tasted, so I know the potential of this region, but this particular wine didn’t do anything for me.

 

The final wine of the evening was a special treat, a 1988 Guigal Hermitage Blanc, not quite the oldest wine I’ve tasted, but a wine that I is not much older than myself, a white nevertheless, that really attests to the ageability of these wines. It was a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne, and Bourboulenc, a pretty typical blend for a white Rhône. What was interesting about this wine was at first it was kind of meh, and I was a little disappointed – aromatically challenged, and not too much on the palette either. However after about five minutes or so in the glass, the wine really began to come alive. As is typical of older wines, it really started to evolve rapidly, and seemed to be accelerating, almost like it was making up for 21 years of being trapped inside of a bottle. My first observation was that the absence of acidity. As the wine began to rapidly oxidize, aromas and flavors of pineapple, apple, honey, beeswax, and butterscotch began to develop, in approximately that order and the wine was delicious, though it did taste a little muted – perhaps it was at its best maybe five years ago. Nevertheless this was a great opportunity, especially when Jonathon revealed he just happened to find a bottle that he had laying around, that he had paid $8 for (current vintages go for close to $200).

 

I couldn’t think of a better way to end school than with the Rhône – this only reinforced my conviction that this is the absolute most exciting place in the world for wine, and we tasted some very good ones tonight. I will be keeping my eyes on the course offering schedule to see what’s in store for next semester, and if you’re in the Boston area I suggest you do the same. It’s never too late to go back to school, especially when you get to drink wine.

 

The Languedoc-Rousillon

November 22, 2009

I was all proud of myself for being early for my first day of school last week. Well I was going to be late for the second day, which was to focus on the wines of the Languedoc-Rousillon. A further difficulty was that I had just been tasting Barolo and Barbaresco; it’s kind of hard to go from the big black Nebbiolo grape to the lighter style wines of Southern France. Good thing I had a twenty minute drive across Boston to reset my palette.

 

I didn’t know much about the wines of the Languedoc before this tasting, other than that I liked most of what I had tried, and that the wines were similar to the rest of Southern France – mostly red blends, dominated by grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, Carignan, Cinsault, typically lighter but often with powerful herb, spice, and rustic flavors. As far as distinguishing Languedoc wines from their Rhone counterparts, I really had no idea. Also, I suspected, which this evening confirmed for me, a good deal of variety and diversity, and my perception of the Languedoc is still that it includes a hodgepodge of wines often more different than alike. Makes sense considering this is the largest wine producing region in the world, accounting for a third of all French wine production, and producing more wine than the entire United States! First lesson of the evening.

 

We began with a white wine, the 2008 Saint-Peyre Picpoul de Pinet, Picpoul being the grape varietal, and the word meaning, ‘pucker up.’ Fitting, since this wine was extremely high acid, but with Chardonnay-like fruit flavors, green apple and pear, while light and crisp and more reminiscent of a lot of Italian whites. Next was a rosé, I believe of Grenache, the 2006 Domaine des 2 Ânes, which translates to ‘two gigantic asses,’ apparently what the vineyard proprietors’ parents called them when they decided to begin making wine in the Languedoc. This was especially dark for a rosé, and had more red wine aromas on the nose than I expected. I was actually quite fond of it; it had a nice raspberry and pink lemonade component on the palate and a good amount of acid, a perfect summer porch wine.

 

We moved on to a pair of easy-drinking red blends that were what I had previously thought of as the archetypical Languedoc wines. I believe both were predominantly Grenache, though I could be mistaken. The first was a lacking on the nose, but on the palette had clear flavors of black cherry, grape, and pomegranate – I want to say dark fruit but not going in the same direction as say a Merlot toward black and purple fruit which tends to have softer flavors, but rather stronger flavored dark-red fruit. The texture was also interesting, it was silky smooth, but at the same time had quite a full body. The second wine had more going on on the nose, specifically a very interesting cotton candy component. The fruit was of the brighter red variety – cranberries, raspberries, and red as opposed to black cherries, and the wine was also a bit lighter in body. Both of these were delicious, not hedonistic fruit bombs, but definitely fruit-dominated wines that still had backbone and complexity. Whereas with the wines from Provence, there was a sophistication and elegance at the center, but the wines almost dared you to not take them too seriously, these Languedoc wines were screaming at you not to take them seriously but still unable to shed their underlying refinement. Think the younger sister in Wedding Crashers – absolutely crazy; but with everything that comes from that high-society modern American equivalent of an aristocracy upbringing; ultimately harmless, not like an off-the-deep-end dangerously rebellious wild child; and most importantly, almost certainly a hell of a lot of fun.

 

One of the most important things I learned at school this week is that I really like Carignan, and that most people don’t. I remember having one or two Carignans before and being especially high on them. Tonight we tasted the 2004 Les Camuzeilles. Of the eight of us, I was the only one who did not find the nose extremely disagreeable. The consensus was that the wine tasted much better than it smelled, though again I believe I was the only one who enthusiastically liked it. The wine was infected with Brettanomyces, a particular type of yeast that I had thought was always a flaw, though I discovered that I actually liked the aromas and flavors it imparted. Besides the obvious barnyard component on the nose, there was also an aroma that someone identified as antibiotic-like. As my olfactory memory began to kick in, it was unmistakably Amoxicillin, the fluorescent pink antibiotic with its bubblegum flavors that I used to look forward to getting ear infections as a kid just so I could have this stuff. There was also cured meat thing going on, and not just simple bacon, this was like walking into a charcuterie. On the palette, there were the same gorgeous red fruit flavors as the last two wines, but here they shared the stage with this chocolate, almond, coconut set of flavors. The powerful aromas from the nose persisted on the palette, but gradually became mellower as the other flavors emerged. This wine was right up my alley, but I could see how a lot of people would dislike it.

 

Next was a Syrah from Montmirat that I wasn’t especially crazy about. It was very dark, and had a good amount of black and purple fruit, a nice mocha component, a bit of cinnamon, and this cold fireplace thing on the nose, but to me it tasted a little fake. All the parts were there but it just didn’t seem like it was put together well. Stylistically it was a lot like Northern Rhone Syrah, but just not as refined. Finally, we finished up with a dessert wine, the 2006 Domaine de La Rectorie “Cuvée Léon Rarcé” Vin Doux Naturel, a Banyuls, which is a fortified red wine similar in style to Port from the Rousillon. It was actually very good, not incredibly complex, but certainly seductive. What I liked about this wine is its potential to appeal to a broader range of drinkers; compared to Port it lies closer on the spectrum to a still table wine.

 

I have my suspicions that the Languedoc-Rousillon is going to be the quantum mechanics of my wine education. The first time, you think you get it. The second time, you are confused again and realize what you thought you understood, you do not. By the third time, you realize you most likely will never get the whole thing and it’s just a matter of holding enough of the pieces together at once to feign an understanding. Maybe I’m exaggerating, because I do feel like I’ve come away with a better idea of the region and its styles, but with nowhere near the same level of confidence as I have with everything else I’ve explored thus far. Perhaps this is to be expected from the largest wine producing region in the world. What I do know though is that these wines are fun, widely appealing (except maybe the Carignan), and great value. Maybe that’s all I need for now.

 

Last Thursday’s adventure began at the Wine Bottega, featuring 19 wines from the Piedmont. The Piedmont is the one Italian wine region that I continue to get really excited about. My experience with Italian wines has been interesting; the vast majority have been unexciting and mediocre, and quite a few awful, but on the other hand some of the absolute best wines that I have ever tasted have come from the boot. Barolo and Barbaresco have for me most often fallen into that latter category; these are some of the most incredible wines, big and powerful, but at the same time nuanced, refined, and delicate. As with all of the Bottega tastings, I left this one with a much better idea of what Barolo and Barbaresco are all about, and it only affirmed my belief that the King and Queen of Italian wines absolutely deserve their nicknames, and I got to meet a bit more of the royal family as well.

Like most great tastings, we began with bubbles, which Kerri quickly poured to get me caught up to the first group. I had no idea they even made sparkling wine in the Piedmont, and this wine, made from the erbaluce grape (check another one off the list), is a nice alternative to Champagne. I didn’t write down any notes on this one, but I remember liking it. We then tasted two more whites. The first was an Arneis, which was interesting because of its body; it had a simultaneous creaminess and spritziness going on and clean pure fruit flavors with a bit of minerality, essentially a white wine that I find it hard for many people to dislike. Next was a Gavi, which was surprisingly rich and very aromatic, perhaps due to the fact that it was aged in acacia.

We then tasted a few more reds leading up to the king and queen, starting with a Grignolino. Grignolino actually means, ‘many pips,’ or seeds, and these wines are especially tannic but light in body, giving them a unique place in one’s food-pairing arsenal, I’m thinking an antipasto platter with prosciutto and hard Italian cheeses. Next was a Freisa, which I have had blended with Barbera before, but by itself it produced a nice easy-drinking light-bodied wine that was highly aromatic, with bright red fruit on the palette but a somewhat rustic component on the background that is unmistakably Italian. Pinot Noir drinkers need to try this. The 2007 Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto d’Alba caught me off guard, bringing the familiar flavors of Dolcetto, bright red fruit with a hint of spice and bitterness, but with a surprisingly full body. The 2003 Le Piane, from Boca, in the northeast Piedmont, was a blend of Bonarda, Nebbiolo, and Vespolina, immediately made me think Thanksgiving – it was a little lighter in body than your typical Nebbiolo, high in acid, but with a similar flavor profile to Barolo and Barbaresco, though perhaps a little more approachable and far more affordable. Next was a 100% Nebbiolo (not a Barolo or Barbaresco though, maybe a Duke or Prince) that had obvious black cherry flavors. Finally, another Nebbiolo from a pair of winemakers one of whom’s name differs from that of the grape only by the absence of a single ‘b’ and the other’s indicates its color (Piero Nebiolo and Claudio Rosso). I tried two awesome single vineyard Barberas from these guys last month, and their Nebbiolo is every bit as exciting, with a gorgeous nose and tons of big red fruit on the palette, a perfect wine to transition into the royal couple.

Starting with her majesty, the abbondanza showcased five examples. Any time I had heard Barolo and Barbaresco described prior to this tasting it was always relative to each other; Barbaresco tended to be more elegant and supple whereas Barolo was more powerful and weightier; hence the Queen and the King. The common feature was the Nebbiolo grape, which I found brought tons of super fresh powerful red fruit. Not candified fake red fruit like some Syrah, Cabernet or Malbec, not subtle fruit like New World Pinot Noir, and not the riper black fruit like Bordeaux or Napa Valley Cabernet or Merlot. Imagine every red fruit you can think of, at its optimum stage for eating, freshly picked. That forms the centerpiece of these wines, surrounded by just enough body, tannin, acid, and spice to present a complete package that just screams elegance and complexity – big and bold, but necessarily so. The first two ladies were from Roncaglie, one of the premier areas within Barbaresco. The most striking feature for me from this pair, an ’04 and an ’05, was a silkiness that rivaled the best Pomerols. Two more ‘04’s, a classic vintage, followed. The Cigliuti Vigne Erte I simply wrote 93 next to and seriously contemplated picking up a bottle of. The Ca’ Rome Maria di Brun was a little tannic, though still had everything going for it and most certainly will open up after a few more years in the bottle. Finally we tried the 1997 Fratelli Oddero Barbareso, which mellowed out with its age and its flavors were a little more subtle, with more of a creamier and spicier component. Not unlike an old queen – think Elizabeth II today, she’s 83 but still has it.

And now the king. The first Barolo was a 2003, the Gabutti Boasso, which in comparison to the Barbarescos was obviously fuller-bodied, but also had more of a smoky note going on that set the stage for the next three. Very good, not earth-shattering, but at $40 when the average price of the Barolos in this tasting was close to twice that, definitely a wine to consider. Next, a duo of 2005’s from Elio Grasso, two different vineyards and both carrying a $75 pricetag, both of which were incredible. The Gavarini Chiniera had all the beautiful red fruit, good firm tannins, but was a little bit lighter, almost approaching the Barbarescos, which the folks at the Bottega attribute to a higher altitude and limestone soil. The Ginestra Casa Maté was more classic Barolo, with a cola flavor coming through on top of the fruit and more body. Tasting these two side by side was interesting because the only difference is the terroir and the microclimate of two different vineyard sites; everything else, vintage, producer, vinification, was identical, yet the wines were completely different. The final Barolo was the 1993 Paglieri da Roagna, La Rocca e La Pira Riserva. First of all, let me begin by saying this is the best wine that I have had in a long time. I didn’t even make any specific tasting notes, I simply wrote ‘unbelievable,’ but this wine had everything going on that the other Barolos did – gorgeous red fruit, spice, body, just the right amount of oak, with this austerity that comes from age that I can’t put into words. In all seriousness it was truly majestic; if we’re talking kings, think Charlemagne compared to George III. The take home message here is to let these babies grow up. 2004 was a legendary vintage, 2005 almost as good, whereas Parker gave 1993 a 91, but this single ’93 was light years ahead of everything else we tasted. I’ve always known that we, the modern American wine consumer, are drinking almost everything too young, but this juxtaposition really drove that point home for me. Buy some 2004 Barolo, sit on it for a decade, and be prepared to be amazed.

The last wine of the tasting was something unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before, and likely never will again. The nonvintage Vergano Mauro is a Nebbiolo based wine infused with various herbs and spices. Maybe I was just in a holiday mood, since I found Thanksgiving on the Le Piane, but this wine smelled exactly like Christmas. There was a definite eucalyptus component, almost gin-like botanicals, and a quinine thing going on, almost like if you spilled a gin and tonic at a holiday party that had way too much holly and scented candles, but while you were smelling all of this you were drinking a very good Barbaresco.

To summarize, this tasting was incredible, definitely deserving of the largest crowd I have ever seen at the Wine Bottega. I thought I was 10 minutes early and still only made it downstairs by a stroke of luck, and it was wall-to-wall when I resurfaced from the cellar that I have grown to love. If possible, Barolo and Barbaresco are even higher on my list, and I can now say that with more confidence rather than just having tasted maybe two of each. The vibrancy of the fruit really surprised me, and also what I think I like most about these wines, that they can somehow maintain that fruit with everything that makes Old World wines so compelling. While I loved the Barolos, I think I have a slight preference for Barbaresco; there’s something about the silky mouthfeel that gives the queen a slight edge for me. Also, the other Piedmont wines all showed well and gave me some insight into what else is happening in this region. Finally, that last wine was definitely a unique treat. If I didn’t have to rush off to the Languedoc-Rousillon to try more wine I certainly would have stayed longer.

My inability to pass up on a wine tasting, particularly from two of my absolutely favorite regions, inevitably led to a scheduling conflict, or at least a logistical nightmare, or at least a very busy evening filled with great wines that I had to taste at a slightly faster pace than I would have preferred. First up was the Piemonte Abbondanza at the Wine Bottega, featuring 19 wines from this incredible region. After tasting through the Piedmontese wines at breakneck speed, or at least as quickly as possible with the largest crowd I had ever seen in the Wine Bottega, I then headed Southwest to the Languedoc-Roussillon for the second tasting, Week 2 of ‘The Wines of Southern France’ at Jonathon Alsop’s Boston Wine School (I actually did travel west across Boston). So despite the fact that I had to navigate parking in the North End, sacrilegiously rushed through Barolos and Barbarescos, and was twenty-minutes late for my second day of school, I tasted some fabulous wines, learned quite a bit, and all in all had a fun, albeit hectic evening When the jetlag subsides I will write about each of these in more detail – the Piedmont post will probably be up tonight and the Languedoc not too far behind.

I recently had the opportunity to go back to school, Jonathon Alsop’s Boston Wine School, that is, for a three week series on the wines of Southern France.  Not sure what to expect, I deliberated over what to wear for several hours, made sure I had a fresh notebook and extra pen, and waited nervously for the bus.  Okay the only preparation advised was to wear dark colors in case you spill wine on yourself and to let the T (Boston’s lovely public transportation system for those unfamiliar) be your designated driver.

Being the good student that I am, I was the first of six to arrive, which meant that I probably got to enjoy one more glass of wine than everyone else during the meet and greet.  This was already beating the hell out of B.C.  Checking the syllabus, I discovered week one was all about the wines of Provence, to be followed in turn by the Languedoc-Roussillon and then finally the Southern Rhone.  So we sipped a rose and enjoyed roasted tomatoes and garlic as the remainder of the class trickled in, and then moved to the table.

Coming in, I would say I was moderately familiar with the wines of Southern France in general, but only minimally so with those of Provence.  I knew it was in the Southeast corner of France, made a good amount of rose, and a wine called Bandol from the Mouvèdre grape that I had had a few of and was quite fond of, but that was about it.

Rather than focusing on each wine in turn and using this to build a composite picture of the region, this tasting took the opposite approach.  We talked in general about Provence – history, style, cuisine, attitude, terroir; and the wines themselves served as a sort of a backdrop for that discussion.  We barely got into specific appellations or varietals, but I feel like I now have a real sense of the wines of Provence, what I like and dislike, when and where I would want to drink these wines, and who I would recommend them to.  For this region, this approach worked, in a way that I don’t think it would for say Bordeaux.

First of all, Provence has an ancient wine history, going back 2600 years, predating pretty much the rest of France by a millennium.  Perhaps paradoxically, the wine culture here is more relaxed in comparison to much of the rest of France.  A lot of the wines are consumed locally, there is a lot of diversity and variability in blends, and bottles come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  The general sense I got was a more carefree attitude about wine, which complements perfectly these easy-drinking and fun wines.  They are also the most Italian-like of French wines.  Because of the latitude, very little white wine is produced; rose is basically Provence’s white wine.  The reds tend to be very fruit forward and light in body, using classic Southern Rhone grapes – Grenache, Syrah, Mouvèdre, as well as international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet.

I always find it interesting to try and personify wines, both styles in general and specific bottles, and this one came to me almost automatically.  A Provençal wine is the girl at the bar dressed sexily but not sluttily, sipping a dirty martini.  She’s only going to have one, maybe two tops; she’s not going to get drunk, but is still going to have more fun than 90% of the people in the bar.  What’s more is she’s strangely approachable, not saying she’ll go home with you, but friendly and down to earth.  These wines exude confidence and sophistication, but at the same time beg not to be taken too seriously.

So onto the wines themselves.  We started off with a rose of Grenache, that was drier than I expected, nothing special, but quite good.  The first red was a Merlot, which had way more red fruit than right bank Bordeaux or California Merlot, which I tend to find heavier on purple and black fruit.  We then tasted through three red blends, mostly from Southern Rhone grapes and showcasing the 2005 and 2006 vintages.  The common theme here was again bright red fruit – strawberries, raspberries, cherries.  The Jaboulet Isnard Côtes du Ventoux had a mesquite spice component on the nose that was quite unique.  The Saint André de Figuière “Cuvee François” had a creaminess to it that suggested oak, but very, very subtle.  Finally the Mas de Gourgonnier, which came in a very cool squat bottle that looked like it should have had Cognac in it, had an obvious lavender component on the nose.  The time I spent as a kid smelling everything in Yankee Candle and Bath & Body Works has done wonders for my ability to identify and articulate these aromas.  On the palette these three red blends were actually pretty similar, whereas the noses were completely different.  The wines also were somewhat static, which I do not mean to equate with simple.  Rather than a dynamic progression of flavors though, in each wine the same flavors persisted from attack to finish, a still image, albeit complex and lasting, rather than a movie.  We finished up with a dessert wine of Muscat, which had unmistakable honey and Grand Marnier flavors and paired phenomenally with the Brie that we were served.

All in all I was pretty high on Provençal wines.  I feel like these are great wines to drink by themselves, but I am equally excited for Bistro du Midi (a Provençal restaurant coming to Boston at the end of this month) to open because they also pair incredibly with this cuisine.  I am equally high on the Boston Wine School.  A couple of highlights – the cellar feel is awesome, Jonathon takes his food pairings quite seriously, and they do bachelorette parties!  I’m even excited to do my homework.  Granted, our homework assignment is to find a bottle of wine representative of Southern France, drink it, and be prepared to talk about it next week.  I don’t remember school being so much fun.

A Century of Wine

November 9, 2009

How many different grape varietals have you tried?

5? (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc)

10?  Okay, add Zinfandel, Riesling, Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and Syrah

20?  Malbec, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, maybe something crazy like Petite Sirah

How about 100?  This was the challenge posed to me about two months ago by Dale Cruse who runs an awesome site called DrinksAreOnMe.net.  There is a group called the Wine Century Club, currently boasting 622 members, of which I am now one of, who can say that they have tried 100 different varietals and have a cool little certificate to show for it.  Basically how it works is you go to their site, print out the application that has a list of 185 grapes and space for you to write in others, check off what you’ve tried and send it back.  You don’t have to have tried the grape as a single-varietal wine; blends are permitted.  The process works entirely on the honor system (I won’t spoil their threat), but if you’re lying about trying grape varietals to get a piece of paper there’s something wrong.  A quick statistic for motivation: apparently less than 3% of applications downloaded are completed.

Obviously there is much more to a wine than grape varietal; consider California Cabernet versus Bordeaux, Sancerre versus New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Chardonnay vs. Blanc de Blanc Champagne, Zinfandel vs. pink juice… you get the idea.  Focus on varietal is a uniquely American phenomenon, and I think a major set of blinders for today’s wine drinker, but that is a discussion for another time.

Now that I’ve made that disclaimer, let me counter it with my recommendation: DO THIS!  In the big picture the acute focus on grape varietal is harmless, and going through the process will inevitably get you to try new wines and learn more about wine and yourself, which is always a good thing.

My own adventure began on September 2.  I printed out the list, and began to check off everything that I had tried up to that point.  I had 42 to start with (actually 41, I somehow overlooked Grüner Veltliner, but I discovered this in a couple of days).  In case anyone is curious, this is where I began:

Albariño

Barbera

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Sauvignon

Carignan

Carmenère

Chardonnay

Chenin Blanc

Cinsaut

Dolcetto

Gamay

Gewürztraminer

Greco

Grenache

Grüner Veltliner

Malbec

Marsanne

Merlot

Montepulciano

Mourvèdre

Muscat Blanc

Nebbiolo

Nero D’Avola

Petit Verdot

Petite Sirah

Pinot Blanc

Pinot Gris

Pinot Meunier

Pinot Noir

Pinotage

Prosecco

Riesling

Roussanne

Sangiovese

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Gris

Semillon

Syrah

Tannat

Tempranillo

Viogner

Zinfandel

Not bad, I was almost halfway.  My prediction was I would cruise along pretty steadily and then get stuck somewhere in the 80’s or 90’s.  I began deliberately buying wines that contained grape varietals I had never tried, or couldn’t remember trying, and got another 5 or so in the next couple days with some red and white Italian blends.  The next major chunk came at a gala tasting at Brookline Liquor Mart of about 70 or so wines; I paid particular attention to what grapes were in the wines I was less familiar with, and scribbled down varietal names on my notes.  I quickly added a few more white Italian grapes that I had never heard of but possibly have had before.  The Israeli table required me to do a little research when I got home, but that took care of at least another 4 or 5 grapes.  Then there was the Wine Riot about a week later, where I had a similar experience at the Greek table.  I also discovered that I really liked a lot of the Greek wines.  During the next couple of weeks I bought some more wines based entirely on the fact that they contained varietals I had never tried, a Lemberger for instance.  I went to dinner at Sportello and ordered two bottles that I was not familiar with – a Falanghina and a Gaglioppo (side note, Barbara Lynch’s restaurants are a great place to try awesome and unique wines, props to wine director Cat Silirie).  I tried a few more new varietals at smaller tastings, like the Grolleau at the Loire Valley tasting described below.  By the way all four of the wines that I just mentioned were fantastic.  Over the course of these few weeks I also checked off a few grapes that I had had before but didn’t realize when I did my initial tallying: I had missed all of the grapes in Port, and didn’t realize that the principle grape in Amarone was called Corvina, though Port and Amarone were no strangers to me.  On the other hand, I refused to check off Torrontés without trying another one even though I am positive that I have had several in the past, but I couldn’t remember.  I finally finished about six weeks in, with a Schioppettino coming in as varietal #100 at another large tasting, this one at Bin Ends.

All in all this was a good experience that led me to try wines I most certainly otherwise would not have, discover some things I really liked, and learn a little about what varietals are in what wines.  I recommend to anyone with the time and the curiosity, and it requires more of the latter than the former, to take up this challenge as well, though I don’t want to overstate its value – checking Mandilaria off of a list is likely not as important as understanding the difference between Pomerol and California Merlot, but you will certainly benefit from doing this and as a bonus have a pretty certificate to show for it.  In case anyone cares, here’s the rest of my final list:

Agiorgitiko

Aglianico

Aidani

Alfrocheiro

Alicante Bouchet

Aligoté

Aragones

Arinto

Assyrtiko

Athiri

Auxerrois

Avesso

Blaufränkisch

Bobal

Bonarda

Brachetto

Canaiolo

Colombard

Colorino

Corvina

Falanghina

Folle Blanc

Frappato

Freisa

Furmint

Gaglioppo

Garganega

Godello

Grenache Blanc

Grolleau

Hárslevelü

Kotsifali

Loureiro

Malvasia

Mandilaria

Melon de Bourgogne

Molinara

Mondeuse

Moschofilero

Muscadelle

Negroamaro

Passerina

Pinot D’Aunis

Ribolla Gialla

Roditis

Rondinella

Schioppettino

Tinta Barroca

Tinta Cāo

Torrontés

Touriga Franca

Touriga Nacional

Trebbiano

Trincadeira

Verdejo

Verdicchio

Vilana

Zweigelt

As an endnote, in case 100 varietals is not enough, the Wine Century Club recently introduced a new tier of membership, the Doppel Members – those who have tried 200 varietals.  I’ll keep you posted.