Playing favorites with wine

Favorite. A very strong word and difficult claim to make, especially when it comes to wine and its wonderful diversity. Sure, I love plenty of wines, like one might love their friends, or ice cream, or drinking rosé in the sun. But picking a favorite wine is like choosing your best friend, or worse: a lifetime partner! I’ve found that the way we choose our favorite wine is very much like finding that special someone.

Caveau de Bacchus (Lucien Aviet & Fils)

Recently, on my @JuraWine twitter account, I declared my flame for Caveau de Bacchus (aka. Lucien Aviet & Fils), my favorite Jura wine producer. Having enjoyed a couple of the reds just last week, namely the Poulsard and Trousseau 2009, I could talk about the gorgeous fruit, the purity of expression of both grape and soil, with the beautiful minerality and an endless depth emerging on the finish. I could wax lyrical on just how these intense little berries etch a path across the palate, crashing into my pleasure center as my frontal lobe watches on in awe. But that is only part of the explanation.

Playing favorites with wine - caveau_de_bacchus

Playing favorites with wine – caveau_de_bacchus

Just look at that cheeky little Bacchus!

Playing Favorites

First and foremost, it is important to draw the distinction between favorite and best. By definition, my favorite wine refers to MY preference. Is Aviet the “best” producer in the Jura? No. There is no such thing. But he is my favorite. That is not to say that I don’t greatly appreciate the wines of Tissot, Puffeney, Macle, etc.. They put out amazing wines and I’ve been to all these estates and drink their wines regularly. So what gives Aviet the extra edge when prompted to pick a favorite? Subjectivity of course!

Personality

To me, Aviet represents everything I believe Jura wine to be: Character, Authenticity and Tradition. I remember the first time I saw the bottle at a local shop, I asked myself how such a crappy looking label could sell over 10 euro. Now, it makes perfect sense to me. What the packaging lacks in taste, the wine makes up for, and getting past that first impression to discover what’s inside is like getting past a person’s faults and learning to know them a little better. It’s rewarding and that feels pretty good.

Insider Tip

While Aviet may be a local legend in Arbois, you won’t find the wines in the US, and only the most specialized European importers will have even heard the name. Heck, I wouldn’t even know where to get a bottle outside of the Jura, which makes me feel like I’m in the know, and that feels pretty good too. Anyone can fall in love with a George Clooney, but having someone to yourself makes it more personal.

Comfort

Finally, my favorite wines offer a sense of comfort. While a Rayas or Selosse can tickle me with excitement, there’s just something about the Aviet wines which put me at ease. After a rough day, I want to go to that cheeky little Bacchus, looking back at me with his little smirk, before I break the wax seal, pull the cork and finish off the bottle in my underwear (well, maybe not, but you get the point). No intimidation, no restraint, no guilt. But that kind of familiarity comes only with time. And getting to that point, that feels great!

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that my favorite wines are the ones which make me feel the best! Taste, while essential, is only one aspect of this.

Equations & wine appeciation: Vindicateur

 Yesterday, I came across the French site Vindicateur, which basically allows users to search through a database of France’s “best” wines, which they’ve deemed to be “unanimously” loved by amateurs and professionals alike. With their “original scoring formula”, an “equation developed by a doctor in physics aided by an independent enologist”, Vindicateur has clearly gone for the rational approach: “it is understood that a slice of subjectivity necessarily enters into the appreciation of a wine: we have simply made it so that this slice remain as as thin as possible.”

Obviously, this statement places this site at the polar opposite of the Vimpressionniste philosophy: that subjectivity is the very core of wine appreciation, rather than an obstacle which must somehow be overcome. While they leave it to the site visitors to voice their own perspectives for the wine commentaries, I still feel a bit uncomfortable browsing through a list of wines featuring numbers. No matter how intricate an equation, can one really sum up a La Tâche as an 18,7*?

The Internet has the power to bridge the gap between wine lovers and should encourage discussion. Instead, our obsession with technicalities and buying guides seeks to end all conversations under the banner of clarity, and this saddens me to no end.

An alternative to wine scores: rating the experience

Wine quality is 100% subjective. It is the philosophy behind this blog. It is the driving belief behind les Vimpressionnistes. Not only is quality tied to our own personal preference, but the context in which any tasting occurs: details such as temperature, time of the day and most importantly, our mood, play an important role in how we perceive a given wine’s quality. Not to mention our expectations, with certain labels or price tags augmenting our pleasure, or on the contrary, raising our expectations to the point that the wine in the bottle can no longer live up to our imagined gustatory nirvana.

If one holds this for true, it becomes clear that ratings as they are used in the wine press today are worthless. Any attempt to describe, or worse, define a wine by a rational point system is meaningless. We change. Wines change. Points remain and are merely a snapshot assessment of a wine at one precise moment, taken through an imperfect lens. So why go on with this practice? Because it is in our nature to judge and to quantify. Because humans need a frame of reference. Or maybe it’s simply because we want to remember what we like and tell our friends.

So what’s the alternative?

We must first learn to move away from the wine, and consider the entire experience. The experience incorporates all the subjective elements which are not present in the wine itself. The experience can be rated, because any experience will be different from the next, whether a single wine is tasted by different people, or a same person tastes it in a different context. Because the experience belongs to us, because it cannot exist without us as the wine does, we are truly capable of assessing it beyond any doubt.

So rather than assigning a precise point value to a wine, why not try to qualify a general sentiment we are left with upon tasting? For example, with a simple system of plus and minus?

when we are left with a sense of disappointment.
+ when a tasting delivers on its promise and leaves us wanting more.
++ when we are pleasantly surprised, our hearts captured, our imagination set loose.

The implications

While this may at first appear to be a mere semantic detail, a closer look suggests deeper implications. Consider a relatively affordable wine which turns out to be very enjoyable. A certain Juliénas by Michel Tête comes to mind. It was under $20 and absolutely beautiful. At first a bit austere, the aromas had developed with time into what I would still remember to this day as a truly gratifying moment. A bottle I had picked up at the last minute to accompany a meal had made my night and left me with a giant smile and a lasting memory. This Beaujolais cru had stolen the show and to me, this show ranked ++ .

But what of my first Château Margaux? A 2004 (much too young) tasted on a rainy morning, after having visited Latour and Lafite on the previous day? It was a – . As good as the wine was, it could not overcome the adversity of the specific context and my unrealistic expectations.

Was the ++ Beaujolais a better wine? No. There is no such thing as a better wine, but one should judge (since we must) our impressions, rather than an illusionnary intrinsic quality. The Beaujolais had left me ecstatic, the Margaux slightly disappointed. If a critic were to ignore the circumstances and assess the wines, the Margaux would probably have scored above the Beaujolais. But that would have left out important factors such as price, reputation… and most importantly, the I in wine!

And in the end, what really matters about a wine is how it makes us feel, is it not?

Baja California Bandit – L. A. Cetto 2007 Mexico Petite Syrah

Aware of the fact that I have been ignoring the “new world” of wine lately, my last Internet order included a couple of outsiders… without neglecting the obligatory Chablis of course! I also went for a Marcel Lapierre magnum for the long term and… well, overall, I guess I remained pretty old school, but I did throw in a decent Australian Rhône blend by d’Arenberg, as well as this evening’s curiosity from Baja California!

Mexican wine

That’s right, Baja California is so baja, that it’s in Mexico. It’s not necessarily a mainstream wine producing country, but I have enjoyed a Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon in the past, and I figured what better destination for my palate in these cool winter months? This time, the grape variety is Petite Sirah. It usually yields dark, tannic wines north of the border, and this bottle didn’t stray from the typical profile of dark berries, along with some roasted coffee notes.

L.A. Cetto 2007 Petite Sirah

Baja California Bandit – L. A. Cetto 2007 Mexico Petite Syrah

Baja California Bandit – L. A. Cetto 2007 Mexico Petite Syrah

Impression (-)

The initial nose was actually quite pleasant, and while the fruit may have come off a bit jammy at first, the tannins kept scratching at my palate and prevented this big red from getting too heavy.

This structure remains relatively contained however, considering that this is Petite Sirah, but what really stuck with me was the drastic drop on the finish. Could it be a lack of acidity, unnoticeable on the mid-palate due to the forward tannins? Who knows… I’m not a technician, but overall I was left disappointed, even if this ghost finish impression does dissipate after a few glasses, probably due to the slow numbing of the palate by the big structure and fruit.

Brazilian Sparkling Wine – Miolo Brut

For Valentine’s day, my wife and I went out to to celebrate our first outing since the birth of our daughter exactly two months ago. The few proper restaurants in the town were either closed or completely booked, but we were lucky enough to get a table after a last minute cancellation at the les Louvières restaurant [website] in the middle of the Jura forest!

First time here and we were pleasantly surprised. The setting was stylish and romantic while remaining cozy (the building is an old farmhouse) and the food was great with a clearly gastronomic touch in both the flavors and the presentation. To top it all off, this fine dining establishment prides itself on its very international wine list and so I took this opportunity to revisit a Brazilian sparkling wine by Miolo.

Miolo Brut Sparkling Wine from Brazil

Miolo

Located in the Vale dos Vinhedos (Brazil’s only official regional appellation), the Miolo winery itself is quite impressive, dominated by a tall yellow tower sporting the well established name.

If it sounds a bit Italian, that’s because this region with the city of Bento Gonçalves at its heart, was primarily inhabited by Italian immigrants who brought the culture of wine along with them. As a matter of fact, many people here still speak Italian and the landscape is more reminiscent of Tuscany than São Paulo or Rio!

The Miolo winery which I visited in June 2014

The Miolo winery which I visited in June 2014

Miolo Brut Sparkling

Impression (+)

This méthode traditionnelle* sparkler is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir aged for 18 months in bottle. This translates to a nice complexity of aromas which one could mistake for Champagne, albeit in a fruitier rather than mineral style.

On the palate, the bubbles are very elegant and the rather full texture is very pleasant and approachable. While I personally tend to prefer a more biting acidity, this bottle was actually better adapted to accompany my veal dish than a more electric Champagne might have been.

Most importantly, it matched the mood of the evening: After all the craziness and excitement of parenthood, we needed a quiet, comfortable break alone to relax and really just enjoy each other. The Miolo felt almost appeasing with just the right amount of sparkle for a perfect Valentine’s evening.

NOTES:
*méthode traditionelle, formerly known as the méthode champenoise, is a sparkling wine fabrication process in which a second fermentation is initiated in the bottle. The CO2 gas which results from this fermentation is thus trapped, creating the tiny bubbles which we love so much in our Champagne.

 

Cotton Candy – Müller-Catoir Rieslings

Context
As one of the more prestigious producers of Germany’s Pfalz region, the Müller-Catoir name alone had set expectations quite high for me. After a quick stop at their stand during the VDP tasting in Mainz last month, I was left slightly disappointed and decided to give the estate another chance, since a full day of tasting Rieslings doesn’t necessarily do the wines justice. So I dropped by the beautiful manor in the village of Haardt, just outside of Neustadt to taste through a dozen Rieslings, most from the very promising, but very young 2009 vintage.

Impression

 

What stood out for me overall was a sort of cotton candy, powdery texture on my palate, especially on the classic range -Haardt, Gimmeldigen & Mussbach- but also the terroir range’s single vineyard Herrenletten. The Mandelberg or the 2008 “Breumel in den Mauern” Grosses Gewächs felt much clearer and more elegant to me at this point however, and were the definite highlights of the tasting.

I’m wondering if this impression was due to an awkward sweetness which the wines hadn’t yet integrated, or if it was more of a texture which I associate with cotton candy. It would be interesting to re-try the ’09s  in several months, after they’ve had plenty of time to settle in the bottle and gain some definition…

The Entrance – Domaine du Vissoux 2009 Fleurie “Poncié”

Having almost gone through my last Internet order all too quickly (I only really had two red wines for immediate consumption) I placed another all-red order on Friday which was promptly delivered yesterday. Without skipping a beat, I opened one of the highlights: a 2009 cru Beaujolais from a respected producer which I had been wanting to try in this fabulous vintage!

Pierre-Marie Chermette

Located in the southern part of Beaujolais, Pierre-Marie Chermette and his wife Martine have been in charge of the Domaine du Vissoux since 1982. The estate comprises a total of 27 hectares from their AOC Beaujolais vineyard in the town of Saint-Véran to smaller vineyards further north in the top Beaujolais cru appellations of Brouilly, Moulin-à-Vent as well as Fleurie. The Poncié vineyard in Fleurie is situated at the top of a slope which requires that all work be done by hand, and this is where the quality Gamay grapes for today’s bottle are grown.

the entrance Fleurie

The Entrance Fleurie

Domaine du Vissoux 2009 Fleurie “Poncié”

Impression (++)

Wow. I was expecting a lot of fruit from this lauded Beaujolais vintage, but this is insane! The best part is that while keeping its youthful charm, the fruit shows a deep character which prevented it from falling into caricature. The fresh acidity extends the wine in length, while the fruit expands across the width of my palate, and I am simply left speechless as this beauty walks past.

Turning heads

This Fleurie reminded me of a precise moment many years ago, a moment in which time stopped and a single girl captured the attention of an entire restaurant. My buddy’s new girlfriend had made her entrance in a casual outfit, a lollipop in her mouth, her youthful strut paralyzing every man in her path. Every head turned, servers stopped in their tracks and one could almost see tiny hearts forming in their eyes.

There was no extravagance, nor anything easy or revealing about her outfit. It was all about the entrance, the context, the way everything fell into place perfectly so that an otherwise pretty girl had ascended to the status of goddess. Sure, I enjoy a nice Beaujolais from time to time, but this bottle blew me away. Nothing extravagant, nor anything easy or revealing… but what an entrance!!

photo by Al S

Cooking for Wine

Last week, I came across Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé which was so good that it has become one of my recent favorites. So I brought it home the other day when my friends were supposed to come over. I decided to serve them with this exquisite wine at dinner. But the question was what kind of food I should cook for the get together that not only tastes great but also goes along with this amazing wine. The first dish that popped up in my head was fried foie gras with toasted brioche and caramelized apples. That moment, I knew, the dinner was going to be fantastic.

cooking for wine foie gras

On my first sip, the first thing that came to my mind was the strawberry fruit yogurt I have been a fan of since ages. The color was red but not as it red as it should be. The wine is exquisite but it lacks the wildness it deserves. It’s more sober in nature than wild and active. I mean, drinking it wouldn’t make you act all crazy, rather it will give you that peaceful and passive sensation that makes you do nothing but watch as the show goes on.

I wanted to get the best out of this drink and the only way to do that was to take it with the food that would complement it in the best way possible; something that could go along with the fruity flavor of the wine; something like fried foie gras and toasted brioche with an addition of caramelized apples. And that ended up being the final menu for the night.

Food and Wine Pairing: Fried Foie Gras (++)

The crispy taste of the fried foie gras, the scent of the toasted brioche and the sweetness of the caramelized apples would perfectly match the fruity flavor of the Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé. The fried foie gras has a livery taste with a smooth and buttery texture and is usually used in preparing desserts and other sweet delicacies. Preparing it might not be so easy if you are trying it for the first time, it takes a lot of experience and expertise, not to mention the sincere effort you need to put into it to make it.

The fried foie gras with its buttery and melts-in-the-mouth properties along with the toasted brioche and the caramelized apples with their sweetness go perfectly well with the red Mas Jullien 2009. I knew it from the moment I tasted the first drop of this delicious wine. Trust me when I say that the food and the wine went along like peanut butter and bananas. The taste food was delicious, not to forget the soothing sensation of the wine. The combination made the entire dinner look like a sweet and heavenly feast.

NOTES:
Oh and by the way, did I mention that the fryer I used to cook the food is the one I bought just a few days back from Amazon? Here it is. It’s amazing and it just knows how to do its job and I love it.

Beaujolais Trilogy: Brun, Lapierre, P-U-R Nouveau

Beaujolais has had an interesting evolution over the past few decades. I get the impression that our perception of this region’s wines have come full circle, in particular with regard to the Nouveau phenomenon. So I bunched together three Beaujolais reds which I’ve recently tasted on separate occasions, and tried to retrace the many makeovers undergone by these provocative, innovative, and simply delicious Gamay wines.

Beaujolais Nouveau

When the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon first exploded on the international wine scene, in the 80s and 90s, these fruity banana bomb primeur wines had an undeniable appeal to new consumers in North America and Asia, who were only just beginning to get serious about wine. Beaujolais Nouveau was hip, and only the true connoisseurs were unimpressed, decrying the event as a marketing gimmick to sell off large stocks of relatively basic, industrially made wines.

Beaujolais l’Ancien, Jean Paul Brun 2009 Beaujolais

At the time, these connoisseurs would redirect their friends to real Beaujolais: crus* made the old-fashioned way, without the use of those commercial yeasts which inflict the wines with artificial banana and candy aromas. And unlike Nouveau, these wines were capable of aging! The word got around that Nouveau was pretty much crap, but the second part about the other quality Beaujolais behind the spotlights was lost somewhere along the way, leaving local producers with a slight image problem.

The Jean Paul Brun 2009 Beaujolais is a simple Beaujolais AOC, but made the old-fashioned way, as its name -ancien- tries to convey. The wine has very deep, yet juicy fruit feel, with strong floral notes reminiscent of violets. Although this entry-level bottling doesn’t have a tannic structure to age as long as Jean Paul Brun’s cru level wines (last month, his Morgon required a couple hours before it even started to express itself!), it is an immensely pleasurable wine which shows that serious Beaujolais is more than an alcoholic fruit juice.

Beaujolais Nature, Marcel Lapierre 2009 Morgon

marcel-lapierre-2009-morgon-label-460

The Beaujolais region would find its second wind in the late Marcel Lapierre, who passed away just last month. He was the most vocal defender of vin nature, natural wines made with absolutely no intervention in the cellar, and he convinced a new generation of winemakers throughout France to make fresh, easy-drinking wines with no added sulfites and to emphasize wine’s strongest assets: pleasure and drinkability. Along with the Loire Valley, Beaujolais has been a leader in the natural wine movement, and has been getting a lot of positive press in recent years, particularly from bloggers on the net.

The Marcel Lapiere 2009 Morgon had a stunning nose, which started off with very deep and explosive berry fruit, and evolved over time to incorporate aromas of orange peel, dried herbs and a subtle earthiness. The lively acidity of the wine kept me longing for more, even after the bottle was empty. Overall, I was most impressed with the wine’s freshness and purity of fruit. Luckily, Marcel’s son has been gradually taking over in the cellar over the past five years, and plans to continue in his father’s footsteps.

Beaujolais Re-nouveau?

Lately, I’ve been noticing that the same connoisseurs (or is it a new generation of connoisseurs by now?) defending Beaujolais Nouveau. Is it the influence of the easy-drinking attitude of the natural wine movement? A general trend towards more fruit-forward, less oaky wines? The appearance of better quality Nouveau wines from producers with a quality driven philosophy? Or maybe a return to a more festive and convivial approach to wine? Probably a little bit of each, but in any case, I’m glad that Beaujolais is bouncing back, and that we can celebrate the first wines of the vintage without feeling ashamed. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they need to get with the program!

No, this is not Coca-Cola.. quite the contrary: an all natural, no sulfites added Beaujolais Nouveau!

I celebrated Beaujolais day this year with the P-U-R 2010 Beaujolais Nouveau, which I found at a wine merchant in Beaune. The Coca-Cola style label is actually quite tongue-in-cheek, as this original Nouveau is an artisanal product made in very small quantities. It is a natural wine, with no added sulfites (or sugar as the label jokingly indicates -sans sucre ajouté-), and my first impression was that… well, it doesn’t taste anything like a Nouveau!

The wine was completely closed at first, with crushed berries and sandalwood aromas slowly emerging with time. It never did reach a full-blown fruitiness however, and reminded me more of a Pierre Overnoy Jura (also a natural wine) than a Beaujolais! Like the Lapierre, the acidity was also quite brilliant, and the wine went beautifully with a Jambon persillé, though it’s strong character is definitely not for everyone. When you think about it, this Nouveau was the antithesis of Nouveau: artisanal, unapproachable, and thought provoking. Could this be the next wave of Beaujolais?
NOTES:
*Beaujolais cru comes from one of 10 specific sub-zones of the Beaujolais appellation. While they are made from the same Gamay grape variety, the nuances in soil and micro-climate produce wines with more character, which are generally more structured and age-worthy. The ten Beaujolais crus are (from North to South) : Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.

Back in the Languedoc – Mas Jullien 2009 Rosé

After a year in Germany followed by a few months in my Jura hometown, I have returned to the south, the midi as we say in French, where nearly 2 years ago I wrote my first blog post. It was meant as an exercise in wine writing, a different approach to tasting, but what I hadn’t expected was how important the interactions would become. Not just here, but on the FB page, comments on other blogs, and more recently Twitter. I guess what I’m saying is that blogging isn’t as lonely as I thought it would be.

So what have I accomplished? Not much! I’m still broke, still obsessed, and still splurging on wines when I should be looking for my next job. Well, I suppose fatherhood is working out well, and I’m savoring every single moment with my little girl. Can’t wait for her first swim in the Mediterranean this summer! And so, in the honor of the sunny Languedoc, which I will be calling home for a while, I splurged (again) on a serious rosé by one of the leading Languedoc estates: Mas Jullien.

Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé

Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé

Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé

Rather than following in his father’s footsteps and selling grapes to the local co-op, Olivier Jullien decided to go out and bottle his own wine, from vineyards he purchased in the Terrasses du Larzac sector, also home to some of the other great Languedoc wines, such as Daumas Gassac or la Grange des Pères.

He has quickly risen to the top of the appellation, and even the entire region,  but the prices at the estate have remained very reasonable. Both times I’ve been there however, the white and both reds were completely sold out. In fact, there is a 6 to 12 bottle maximum even when buying the wines in advance.

I did find his wines at a small shop in Pézenas last week however, and while I was very tempted to pick up the white, considered by some as the best white of the entire South of France, I settled for the rosé for half the price at 12 Euros.

My first impression was that of the little fruit yogurts I grew up on: Petits Gervais., strawberry flavor. I actually carafed the wine, because it initially had a slight reduction on the nose, but this blew off very quickly and the wine presented its clean fruit aromas in a brightly decorated package, still wrapped, but hardly discreet.

The wine, much like myself, felt a bit out of place, unsettled. It clearly displayed its affection for red wine drinkers, offering its dark hair and voluptuous curves, teasing our palates like a flamenco dancer expertly lifting her dress as her bare hip disappears from sight. This wine lived and breathed the south, and yet with all the seductive charms it conveyed, it was little more than a hollow game which played itself out in front of me. A dance with no outcome.

Perhaps I expected a more convincing performance, a burst of energy which would lift me from my seat. But no. I remained a spectator, silent and all too anchored in my reality. Perhaps the stage was not ideal, or the expectation too high. Or perhaps I too felt that I was not living up to my potential, like this youthful rosé which falls short of the ambitious red it could have been.