Archive for the 'drink' Category

Wine Stories

I’m far more interested in wine stories than wine reviews, and I wonder how many people share this feeling. (Wine blogger Pim apparently does, and points to a couple of good wine storytellers.) In fact, I’m pretty terrible at identifying and describing particular elements in the aroma and flavor of a particular wine, which is probably why I so much prefer to tell a long and involved story about a particular wine than try to review it out of context. 

Don’t get me wrong – I can pick out differences between wines, and can appreciate excellent wines that are not within my preferred “taste”; but accurately describing them in wine taster terms is beyond me (and completely frustrating for my friends).  I usually end up with some bizarre colorful comparison, such as recently “This one feels like a sword – light, thin but strong; and this one a bat – heavy and … heavy, big, hits you over the head…”

This touches on what Jancis Robinson describes as the difference between wine reviewers and wine writers.  (Given my scant record, I don’t put myself in either category).  Of course, most wine bloggers are a mix of the two:  they admit that their preferred memories of wine are very contextual – there’s a story that went along with the act of drinking that wine; but they still write tons of reviews, which seems to be the de-facto activity of wine bloggers.  I personally skip over almost all of the reviews and head for the stories.  I mean, I usually don’t buy a bottle of wine without some sort of personal connection to it, however tenuous. 

I’ve ruminated on this for a while, somehow feeling a little less assured in my wine experience since I not only was disinterested in reading wine reviews, but personally had a harder time defining all the tiny elements of a wine’s “nose and mouth”.

I ruminate still, but what brought this whole thing to a head to me was the sheer joy I had while reading a Port story that says nothing about the objective qualities of the port, but everything about the experience.  From a yoga teacher who doesn’t usually write about wine (and nod to Amanda for pointing this my way.)

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Chambolle-Musigny, pre-visited

100_0665.JPGI was digging through my Flickr pictures while composing the last post (about Domaine Sorin) when I remembered I had not mentioned a great Burgundy my friends Chops and Jane had brought over a year or so ago. They had been in France in 2004, and ended up at La Dernier Goutte. After attempting to speak French, they discovered with relief that the server spoke English – and were therefore able to get much better tasting and purchase recommendations.

They were gracious enough to share one of their purchases – a 2001 Burgundy – with Amanda and I when they returned. Actually, a few years after they returned, since they wanted to wait a few more years before opening the bottle.

I remember the distinctive taste – I knew the taste of great American Pinot Noir from trips the Alexander Valley region of Sonoma, but this was something else. Powerful, but much lighter in the mouth, less alcoholically brutal than the big American Pinots. Between the four of us, the bottle disappeared quickly, each of us wanting returning to our glasses to discover what new angle we’d discover in the wine.

Only now, looking at the bottle, do I realize where this bottle was from. Chambolle-Musginy.

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Domaine Sorin – in Bandol, and at Whole Foods

Domaine Sorin - Cotes de Provence and BandolWhen I was in France in June, I spent a day touring Bandol, the famous rosé / red wine region of coastal Provence. The first place I stopped in was a place called Domaine Sorin, and I immediately recognized the bottles. I asked the winemaker if he sold his wine in the U.S., and he said yes, a full 40% of his wine was exported to the U.S., mostly NY and CA (it is now up to 50%, according to his very fancy website). The photo shows “Terra Amata” Cotes de Provence AOC on the left, and Bandol AOC on the right – click to see a larger image.

We tried three Sorin rosés (only two now show up on his site) – he noted that all his rosés are made from exactly the same grapes and the same plots of land. And they were all that lovely faded pink colour. The difference in appellations only comes from the actual blend quantities of different grapes. For example, the Terra Amata (his Cotes de Provence AOC) is made of: Grenache 40%, Cinsault 40%, Syrah 10%, Mourvèdre 10%; whereas his Bandol AOC is Mourvèdre 60%, Grenache 30%, Cinsault 10%. Both were fantastic wines, but the Bandol was that much smoother. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a rosé that does not give you that slight bitter bite at the back of your jaw – they are harder to find in the every-day-drinking price range – but his Bandol at 12 Euros was fantastically smooth and affordable. Oh, and unavailable in the US, as far as I can tell (but if so, tell me where!)

So it was with great pleasure I walked into my local Whole Foods the other day and discovered a large display of his Terra Amata Cotes de Provence rosé, replete with a little photo and bio. I thought it was a shame that I didn’t have a photo myself of Sorin and his wines – but then I looked through my collection and discovered I did have a photo – of his vineyard.

Domaine Sorin à Bandol

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Chambolle-Musigny (pt. 2)

[Don’t miss Grégoire’s fantastic photo series of Chambolle-Musigny vineyards. A lot of the area we covered on this trip is well documented in his photo series.]

Hautes Cotes de Nuits

We headed back down the hill, but around to the other side of the ridge. This is the Haute Cotes region, which produces a lighter wine – it’s much more remote, and the landscape reminds me of some of the back valleys of Sonoma. We were looking for an auberge restaurant that Gregoire knew in one of the villages – but turns out it was closed Monday and Tuesday. We headed on through the region, and came back out further south, towards Beaune – the next big town that marks the beginning of the Cotes de Beaune region (the entire “departement” – read state – is the Cotes d’Or, and the northern part where we were is called the Cotes de Nuits, and represents only a fraction of the area of Burgundy wines).

We parked downtown, near the Hospice of Beaune, which has a fundraiser every year selling it’s wines at elevated prices to support what is now one of the most well-equipped hospitals in France. We popped into a little bakery to get some simple sandwiches, and Gregoire went around the corner to pick up a bottle of wine. We were very much in the tourist district, so they had wine stores every three doors. He came back with a half-bottle of Cotes de Beaune (the most general regional appellation there above “Burgundy”) from 1995.


We jumped back in the car, and up to Aloxe-Corton, a small town to the north of Beaune (not quite back into the Cotes de Nuits region). This is where Gregoire did his first wine internships, and he has fond memories of the place. There are two main hills here – both large mounds rising from this side of the valley, a kilometre or so from the west ridge. One has vines on all sides, and a forest on the top, giving it the look of… a Beatles haircut?

The other is the same, except the Beatles haircut has a rectangle cut out of it for statues of a virgin or saint. We drove up to the top of the latter, and had our sandwiches and half-bottle overlooking the virgin and that part of the valley. The Cotes de Beaune was still pretty lively for a 12 year old wine, spicy like a pinot noir should be, yet very light. Gregoire said it was a great deal at the price (less than 10 Euros), and I believed him.


We headed back through the vines, again passing the crazy Clos Vougeot with its centuries old walls, and divvied up blocks of grapes, some of which fetch the highest prices in the world (OK, Screaming Eagle notwithstanding). We drove right by the wall of Romanee-Conti, and their jackass but polite bilingual sign encouraging people to stay out of their vineyard (Gregoire said that at the prices the wine goes for, a single grape comes to something like 20 Euros). Finally back to Chambolle-Musigny, to catch up with his friend Veronique, widow of and inheritor of the Roumier wines.

Chez Hervé RoumierThe Roumier cave was nice and cool after a long day of driving in the heat. It’s not an old brick style cellar, but more of an enlarged garage – in fact, where she keeps her barrels looks only just a little bigger than two 2-car garages. It’s very mellow – not a formal tasting, since she knows Gregoire so well (she leaves us alone several times to answer calls etc) – although she does have 5 bottles for us to try – since she’s basically open to anyone who comes, and it’s a weekend. The Roumier wines come in several different versions – an Hautes Cotes (the lighter wine from the backside of the valley), a Chambolle village appellation, a Premier Cru appelation, and then a Bonnes Mares Grand Cru and a Clos Vogeut Grand Cru. I didn’t know that a) we had looked down on some of her Bonnes Mares Grand Cru earlier that day on the slope visit, and b) that she had some property in Clos Vougeot. I was going to taste a Premier Cru and two Grand Crus. Holy crap.

Chez Hervé Roumier

And holy crap. The village appellation was already amazing. The Premier was a little tight – it needed some time to get over bottle shock, apparently. The Grands Crus were…. well, out of this world. They were also very, very distinctly pinot noirs, much more like the big pinots you get in the US than I expected. Maybe not quite as much burning alcohol, but still huge mothers with lots of spice. And they had been opened since the day before….

Everything we had tasted that day was in little glasses – what I think of as sherry copas – that are the standard tasting glass of the French Oenological Society. Nonetheless, these wines were intense. Speaking of glasses, Gregoire had to pop out for a second to return the glasses we had borrowed from the cave down the street to drink our aligoté earlier, so I took some time to ask Veronique some questions. It turns out all the barrels we could see in the room (about 50-100 medium to small barrels – most smaller than even the simple US pickle barrels) was her total harvest for 2006 (almost all of 2005 was already in bottles). I asked her what her production was – she said 15 thousand. Cases? No, bottles. Holy crap – that’s 1250 cases. Freakin’ Kaz in Sonoma – a tiny winery – makes 4000 cases….

Hervé Roumier tasting

We made our orders, and she grabbed bottles out of large steal holding bins, and then ran them through the capping and label machines (all bottles are uncapped and unlabeled while in storage). As we were paying, Veronique asked us if we wanted to take any of the open bottles with us – they had already been open a day, and she was going to chuck them that night. We demurred for about 15 seconds, then Gregoire said he’d take the Chambolle village appellation (which was excellent). Since she had heard me say I definitely wanted to try a Clos Vougeot while we were at the tasting, she offered that to us to – I think we demurred the bare minimum 7.8 seconds to be polite, then said oh hell, we’d lighten her load. We put our 6-bottle cases (the standard in Burgundy) in the car, thanked Veronique, and headed back home.

(And needless to say, I sipped on the Clos Vougeot as I wrote my first draft of these notes…..)

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Les Amoureuses

Chambolle-Musigny (pt. 1)

There is now a special place in my heart for Chambolle-Musigny, one of the small Burgundy wine producing towns just south of Dijon. (Full disclosure: Prior to this trip, I only knew Chambolle-Musigny was somewhere in Burgundy. Almost all the information written down here was gleaned on this very trip).

The road from Dijon to Beaune (and beyond) is dotted with small towns like Chambolle-Musigny, which make up the majority of the high-end producers of the region – Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis, Vosne-Romanee, Aloxe-Carton, etc. The wine producing region stretches lengthwise south between the lowlands nearer the national highway (regular Burgundy regional appellation), up the side of the valley (usually getting a village appellation like Chambolle-Musigny), interspersed with specific plots dating to the middle ages, which have just the right slope and soil characteristics (Clos Vougeot, Romanee-Conti, etc) – these are sub-divided into Premiere Crus (about 100 or so in the entire region?) and the “highest” quality Grand Cru (about 50?). Of course, the quality is not just about appellation. Nearer the tops of the ridges, the slope is too steep and the appellation drops usually to the village if not regional level.

(A pretty decent map of the area we covered.)

It’s hot out today (mid-June) – about 25-29 C, and it will be hot and muggy all day. Both Gregoire (from WineCamp) and myself are in shorts and shirts (at his recommendation). Our first stop was at a Premiere Cru chateau that was a distant cousin of Gregoire’s. The owner was not there, but his wife was, and she gave us a brief tour.

She told Gregoire that because of the renovations they had made in the winemaking process, they’ve had to raise their prices from one vintage to the next to recoup their costs – from 19 Euros to 70 Euros a bottle. Even Gregoire was a little taken aback – they always had a top of the line series, but also always a solid 20-odd Euro wine. No more – and the wife was very confident that people would pay for it. And seeing Burgundy prices in the U.S. I don’t doubt her.

After the brief tour of the cellar, Gregoire and I went out to look at the vineyard, and he pointed out the best part of the slope – it was less steep than I would have expected (being trained in the Rhône “steeper is better” philosophy). We jumped back in the car, and off to our next stop, his favorite ridge. He drove me up and parked on the side of the road – we were on a slope, above a plot of land called Les Bonnes Mares, which is shared by several vineyards and produces a Premier Cru. This system of divvying up parcels of vines within a named plot of land is very common – according to Gregoire, although the system of splitting the land among all male inheritors is not a legal requirement, it’s a very old tradition.

Typically, all the parcel owners meet to discuss how they shall equally deal with growing challenges, so that for example, one person doesn’t decide to do some more drastic pest reduction (like spray) within the same parcel of land that everyone else is sharing (and thus affect the overall quality of that plot). In fact, so many of the well known parcels of land are split up that the few named (and well known) parcels of land that are entirely owned by one owner were referred to – at least by Gregoire – as “monopolies.” This comment seemed to me to belie the deeply-held belief that what mostly defines the wine is the land itself; the “owners” are just stewards….

The view from the slope also allowed us to see some of the more famous parcels of land in this area – Les Amoureuses and Romanee-Conti (both monopolies) and Clos Vougeot – a 60 hectare area that is shared by 80 owners – all surrounded by a brick wall that dates back to the time when the monks were originally growing grapes here. (A picture of the Clos Vougeot castle here. My annotated photo from the ridge – above – here. Closer annotate shots here.)

Then we were off to the village of Chambolle-Musigny. We popped into a “Cave à Degustation” where he used to work, and talked shop with the woman who currently works there. I perused the wines – most I’d never heard of – and listened in on the conversation. Apparently everyone is selling out of the 2005s. And no one is buying the 2004s, because it was bookended by two fantastic years.

As we left, Gregoire picked up a bottle of Aligoté. Bourgogne Aligoté is actually a type of grape, originally an easy-to-grow grape that was used mostly to grow the winemaker’s personal drinking white. It is very sharp and acidic – which is probably why it lent itself to being mixed with Creme de Cassis, an original Dijon specialty (I always thought kirs came from the south). Apparently, Gregoire’s grandfather worked as adjunct to the Dijon Mayor Kir himself, who is said to have invented the drink.

We packed our aligoté and headed up to the spot where Gregoire originally wanted to hold WineCamp, had he not decided a home-grown version was better. Up above the regular Burgundy village appellation, if you head back even one ridge beyond the first, is Hautes Cotes de Nuit, that produces a lighter version of Burgundy red. Up here is where Gregoire’s friend Veronique Roumier has an acre or so of Hautes Cotes grapes, and also a small cleared plot of land with a cabin, right at the edge of where the forest meets the vineyards. We popped open the aligoté, and I fell in love. It’s an amazing little space, up in the ridge overlooking the Cotes de Nuits valley. The aligoté we had “straight” and though it was a little astringent when we started, it was a very nice wine that mellowed after a few minutes.

The subtlety of the nose

Here we are at WineCamp, mostly focused on technology but still – we’re in France, and Grégoire has a bunch of experience with winegrowers in the Burgundy wine country, so naturally we’re drinking wine.

Late afternoon, popping open a bottle of provençal rosé.  I taste it, and at the very, very, very back of my mind I think “Hm, you can smell the cork.” I’ll state this right now – it was not a thought that caused any consternation – it was the clean smell of a cork that you’ve just pulled from a bottle.

Less than a minute later, Sylvie says, “Hmm, smells of cork.”  Everyone chimes in – yup, you’re right. The bottle, en effet, is corked.

Holy cow.  A corked bottle is that subtle?  I would have at least finished my glass – I mean, to be totally honest, I’ve definitely drunk large quantities of worse wines.  But there was no doing that – everyone immediately dumped their wine, and so went the whole bottle.

Admittedly, the next rosé was smoother and less acidic (astringent?).  But the first bottle did not hit me as so foul, so immediately off.  I was mostly taken aback by the subtlety of the nose, of determining it was “off.”

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The perfect lunch

The other day, I took a lunch break and scrounged through the fridge (as I am wont to do) looking for sandwich makings.  It was a gorgeous day outside, and I knew I had the right ingredients for the perfect lunch:  sun, wine, sandwich, garden.

See, the sandwich was only part of the equation.  It consisted of:

  • Sliced whole grain bread
  • Mozzarella, thrown on one of the slices and slightly melted under a broiler.
  • Leftover king mushrooms (from the Ferry Plaza’s Far West Fungi), sautéed in butter and white wine.
  • Mustard, of course.

The wine was a German riesling (2004 Kalinda Hattenheimer Riesling Dry) that was not as dry as I thought it was going to be (it was American dry, not European dry), and I actually preferred it a day after it had been open.  And of course, since the mushrooms had been cooked with that very wine, it went together perfectly.

But the main reason this was the perfect lunch was beause I was able to sit in our beautiful garden in Oakland, with the heat radiating off the flagstones, and eat my damn good sandwich with a simple glass of wine, and not have a care in the world.

This experience is so much like many of my seminal food – and wine – experiences: it’s less about a particular fantastic meal or glass of wine itself, and so much more about the entire event.

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