Germany send-off Pt. 1 – From Pontet-Canet to Riesling

After a busy week of formalities and paperwork, punctuated by multiple vinous send-offs, I am now slowly settling back in my hometown of Saint-Claude in France’s Jura region (near Switzerland). Looking through pictures and tasting notes for the wines we had over the last week, I must say that everyone in Frankfurt went all out in making sure that my final impression of Germany was a great one! Thanks everybody!

With my bags packed and a last minute dinner planned to empty the fridge (and the wine cabinet), I invited my buddy Alex who stayed true to his Blind Tasting Club wine blog theme by presenting a couple anonymous bottles, as well as a few other interesting wines to send me off in style.

Check out Alex’s take on the evening. Towards the 6th or 7th bottle, we decided we would create a diaBlog (as in a dialog via our blogs), so check out his vimpressions in italics below!

Memories

We started the evening off with a couple old bottles: a 1959 Inglenook from Napa Valley RIESLING, which Alex had found on Ebay for a bargain price, and a 1986 Lacoste-Borie, the second wine from Pauillac’s Grand Puy-Lacoste, a well regarded Bordeaux Grand Cru estate.

Old Vintage 1959 INGLENOOK - Napa Valley RIESLING - WINE LABEL

1959 INGLENOOK – Napa Valley RIESLING – WINE LABEL

The ancient Riesling from a legendary vintage was still alive, with fresh pineapple and some apricot notes underneath a very distinct aroma of…. what is that?! It was something I knew, and yet could not place. Alex mentioned shoe polish, and it may have been along those lines, but I just couldn’t figure out where I had experienced it myself (my shoes not necessarily being the most shiny).

I completely agree with Alex that the wine was still very drinkable and “fresh” for its age. He’s definitely an expert at digging up these unexpected gems!

El Coto Rioja Crianza 2011

El Coto Rioja Crianza 2011

The Crianza was everything I expected from this often overlooked vintage: mature aromas (leather, dead leaves..) with a hint of fruit and a soft, almost soothing feel which put me at ease.  It wasn’t too full, but not thin either, although it was definitely time to open this bottle. Overall, I was pleased that the wine was still alive, and enjoyed the classic mature Crianza experience at a relatively low price (around 30 euros at a small wine shop in Mannheim).

While I didn’t necessarily find it as stinky as Alex did, I was equally impressed with the wine‘s longevity considering it is only a second wine.

Both wines showed that it’s possible to reveal memories of a distant past without spending a fortune, while creating new memories for the future.

The (Bio)dynamic duo

The next two red wines were served blind (with a quick Riesling break in between), and it turns out that both are the product of biodynamics, showing both the ups and downs of this natural farming method.

Santa Cristina Toscana 2013

Santa Cristina Toscana 2013

On the up-side, there was the Santa Cristina Toscana 2013, from the first vintage where the vineyards were conducted entirely in biodymamics. It seems that they cracked in 2007 under pressure of rot, but that they have since gone back to the natural methods.  This is an extremely acclaimed wine, which has gained a lot of attention in the past few years, propelling the estate to the top of the unofficial Bordeaux hierarchy.

The wine was full of ripe fruit, with sweet banana/coconut aromas from the oak aging (?) which still requires some time to integrate, even though this bottle was decanted earlier. While the nose had me thinking of a new world Toscana, the impression of freshness which it left and the impressive structure was, on second thought, clearly old world, although not necessarily “classic” Bordeaux. In any case, this wine needs time, although it was already quite enjoyable; a trademark of the ’05 vintage.

I tend to agree with Alex that the ripe banana, which is usually something I associate with American oak in Bourbon for example, is probably a product of the aging process, but the very youthful fruit almost had me thinking of Nouveau wine… hence the insolent question mark In any case, I’d love to try another bottle in another decade or so!!

The Les Balisiers 2008 “Lune Rousse”, a Gamaret* from the Swiss Geneva region, was clearly a disappointment however. The barnyard smell and rustic texture was quite unpleasant and we only ended up having the one glass each. The wine was partially aged in clay amphora, and I’ve had marvelous wines made in this way before, but I’m just not sure the Gamaret grape is really all that great on its own.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try this Gamaret the next day. Alex says it completely opened up and gained in silkiness and fruit.

Riesling!

We finished the night with a series of German Riesling from well regarded producers in the Nahe and Rheingau regions. I’ve definitely enjoyed learning more about these  fabulous wines during my year in Germany, and tasting some phenomenal whites by authentic, passionate winemakers. Unfortunately, they can be hard to find in the rest of Europe, particularly in France, but that just means I’ll have to make trips back and enjoy the beautiful scenery along with the wines.

Alsace Pfaff Gewurztraminer

Alsace Pfaff Gewurztraminer

Christophe Dalbray Collection Priveé (Red)

Christophe Dalbray Collection Priveé (Red) 750ml

Christophe Dalbray Collection Priveé (Red) 750ml

All three wines were Prädikatswein**, with some remaining natural sweetness, but they exhibited their sugars very differently. While the Alsace Pfaff Gewurztraminer was supposedly at the “lower” Kabinett level, it was the roundest, most charming wine with a definite off-dry feel. The more mature Christophe Dalbray Collection Priveé, had already integrated its sweetness, showing instead a more elegant profile, perhaps even slightly lacking in fullness (maybe because of the average vintage?). But the 2006 Schäfer-Fröhlich was probably the wine of the night for me. It had the intense fruit explosion of the Künstler, while providing a mouth watering acidity which balanced out the sugar and just kept me wanting for more… and to me, that’s what German Riesling is all about! Good thing I brought back a couple souvenirs…

I think Alex says it best when he describes the Diel as lacking in personality, mostly because of the overly-soft acidity. His assessment of the “exotic” Künstler is right on, but I suppose that I was hoping for a more chiseled acidity rather than the more “elegant style”. But that’s just my own masochistic preferences influencing my expectations We definitely saw eye to eye on the Schäfer-Fröhlich though, even if he preferred the red of the night: Pontet-Canet. I think I was more touched by the fact that my “German chapter” was coming to an end.. and the fact that I was possibly more enthusiastic, it being the last bottle of a long night of drinking!

NOTES:
*Gamaret is a grape which was engineered in Switzerland by crossing the Gamay variety with Rechensteiner, which is itself a little grown German crossbreed. Gamaret was  primarily developed to add color to the Swiss Pinot Noir or Gamay wines, although more and more, it is bottled as a monovarietal.

**Prädikatswein is a German wine classification which is based on the amount of natural sugar present in the grape at the time of harvest. From least to highest, these categories are: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. While the first three can be made into a dry or off-dry style, the dry wines will usually be labeled as trocken.

Duck sauce – Domaine Rimbert 2009 Saint-Chinian Comocolo

I really don’t consider myself a foodie. I mean, I enjoy good food, but I don’t have the curiosity and passion behind what’s on my plate as I do for the wine in my glass. In general, I consider the dish to be secondary and my wife prepares meals according to the bottle I plan on opening. Last night, however, was food night!

Since we’ve come to the South of France, we’ve been firing up the barbecue practically everyday, and this time, we decided to go all out and try our favorite meat: duck. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures, as I haven’t acquired the food porn reflex, but this magret (duck breast) was absolutely magnificent! I won’t try to describe it either. So why do I even bring it up? Because of the wine (of course!) and the incredible food pairing that resulted.

Domaine Rimbert

Domaine Rimbert is situated in Berlou with about 30 hectares of old-vine parcels spread across the slopes of the Languedoc’s Saint-Chinian AOC. From what I could read on the French website, the bon-vivant Jean-Marie Rimbert [video] runs his 28ha estate since 1996 in good humor (francophones, check out the very funny lettres on the home page), specializing in terroirs of schiste, or slate. In fact, the first time I encountered his wines was the very elegant and rose scented “Mas aux schistes“. You may chuckle, the pun is intended.

2009 Saint-Chinian Comocolo

Domaine Rimbert 2009 Saint-Chinian Comocolo (Despite the cute chick on the label, it's with a grilled duck magret that this wine truly shone.)

Domaine Rimbert 2009 Saint-Chinian Comocolo (Despite the cute chick on the label, it’s with a grilled duck magret that this wine truly shone.)

Despite the cute bunny on the label, it’s with a grilled duck magret that this wine truly shone.

Impression (+)

The Comocolo is blend of the southern varietals (Syrah, Carignan, Grenache) and is the more accessible bottling by the estate. As such, it does not offer the complexity of the Mas, but is more fruit forward and youthful. In fact, this is a straight up fruit bomb. The ripe crème de cassis aromas explode, covering the entire palate with a juicy coating of sheer pleasure, while the smooth tannins do their best to scrub it off so that the wine doesn’t feel heavy and finishes in style.

Food and Wine Pairing: Duck Magret (++)

Although I would normally pair duck with a classic Pinot Noir, I was really itching to try the remainder of this Saint-Chinian with the magret (I also didn’t have any Burgundy on hand). I figured the incredible fruit would pair nicely with the bloody red meat, while the extra southern power could provide balance with the char-grilled skin. I had no idea it would be this good though!

My wife didn’t prepare the usual red wine and balsamic reduction to go with the duck, since we wanted the simple grilled experience. The wine replaced the sauce however, and our meal was transformed into a magret au cassis with every sip, while retaining the character of the tender meat and crispy skin.  My favorite part is that the wine delivered tons of fruit without the sweetness of a sauce or reduction. When you think about it, what better to serve duck “sauce” than in a glass?

Joke label – Grand Vin Misérable!

Here’s a pic of a funny Bordeaux Supérieur which was given to me as a present to taste blind…. it kinda lived up to the name, since it was so herbaceous I had guessed it to be a tired, old Cabernet from a cold region (even though it’s actually 2015?!)

Chateau Migraine

Chateau Migraine

I can see how this very herbaceous “Miserable” “Last Cru” from the Domaine “Charlatan” would give one a “Migraine” the next morning!

Enjoy the label! Thanks again to Alex for the headache!

NOTES:
The real name of the estate, along with the vintage and appellation are actually on the “back” label, which would actually legally be considered the front, since it contains all the legal notices (which must all appear on the same label.. except for the sulfites notice). This is a common practice, even for serious wines, to avoid crowding the presentation.

How to turn a mistake into a rosé sorbet.

When I realized that I had forgotten the bottle of rosé in the freezer this afternoon… well, my wife jokingly said that I should make some kakigori (japanese crushed ice). So I broke the bottle in a plastic bag and recovered what I could.

Frozen Rosé Rose Sorbet

Frozen Rosé Rose Sorbet

Looks nice, but not really that tasty. Then again.. I’m not really sure how the rosé was to begin with.

A Muscat Aged in Outdoor Glass Jugs!

I mentioned earlier that I had moved back to the Languedoc, just outside of Frontignan. On my Twitter account, I jokingly said that I wouldn’t be reviewing any Muscat wine, the local specialty, but it turns out that I found a pretty interesting bottle from Domaine de la Plaine aged outdoors in glass jugs! Skip the next section if you’re already familiar with Muscat.

Muscat de Frontignan

Muscat is one of the few grape varieties which is consumed as both a table grape and a wine. It is also one of the only grapes which retains its distinct aromas after fermentation. We say that the wines literally smell “muscaté” and it is an intensely fruity scent. The closest thing I can think of is cantaloop melon, but that’s probably because it is usually served with a glass of muscat in the area (whereas other parts of France sometimes prefer Port wine).

Frontignan is a Languedoc AOC which is limited to sweet fortified whites from the Muscat grape. The wines are immediately seductive, and I’m probably not the only one to have first lost my sobriety to this charming apéritif as a teenager. With age and knowledge however, Muscat wines tend to lose their appeal, as they can be a bit simplistic and heavy.

Domaine de la Plaine Muscat Mil’Or

Domaine de la Plaine Muscat Frontignan Mil'Or

Domaine de la Plaine Muscat Frontignan Mil’Or

Impression (+)

While I tend to prefer the late harvest Vin de Pays Muscat wines, which are not fortified and present less residual sugar, this Mil’Or bottling is in fact a proper fortified Frontignan Muscat AOC. What makes it unique is that it ages an entire year outdoors, in the sun, stored in big glass jugs of various sizes.

This exposes the wine to a slight oxidation, which in turn gives the wine interesting sherry-like aromas of walnuts. The intense, juicy muscat fruit is still in the foreground, but the added complexity from this original maturation technique gives the wine terrific length. I was still tasting it on my drive home from the estate! It would be a shame to serve this as an apéritif. Domaine de la Plaine estate only makes about 5,000 bottles each year.

Wine totem pole

Wine totem pole

They also tried a new experiment, which is to replace the big jugs of wine with regular 75cl bottles on a “wine totem“. Apparently, it hasn’t proven very successful, other than as an original garden ornament. The wine’s color hasn’t evolved a bit in a year, and the they told me that the taste is slightly off, but they are just gonna keep waiting and see what happens.

Wines of Pézenas in the Languedoc: la Garance & la Grangette

Local market at Pezenas

Local market at Pezenas

Old streets in the town of Pézenas.

Last week I drove out to Pézenas (between Montpellier and Béziers), and while I didn’t have time to stop at any estates, I insisted on checking out a local wine shop so that I may try a couple reds from an area which I am not very familiar with. The town is lovely by the way, and I definitely recommend a stroll in the small streets protected from the strong afternoon sun.

Domaine la Grangette 2008 “Rouge Franc”

Our plans were to have some asparagus pasta at a friend’s apartment for lunch, prepared by Paola, his Italian friend. My initial reaction was to go for a Sauvignon Blanc or Rolle based wine to match the green notes of the asparagus, but one of the guests did not drink whites (urgh). As a backup, I picked out this relatively inexpensive Cabernet Franc, a rare grape variety here in the South, from the Domaine la Grangette.

Impression (+)

Immediately, I was surprised by this wine’s aromas. Because the climate in the Languedoc is much warmer than the cool Loire Valley or even Bordeaux, where this grape is primarily grown, I was expecting a riper version with only subtle herbal notes. What stood out however, was an intense tobacco spiciness, combined with the luscious fruit. The website makes no mention of oak aging, so my guess is that this is a varietal expression, and a very original one at that! The beauty of this wine though, is that despite its intense character, the medium body and smooth texture kept it very easy to drink, especially with the asparagus which brought out a floral element in this lovely red.

Domaine de la Garance 2007 “les Armières”

Pierre Quinonéro took over the Domaine de la Garance with his wife in 1998 after recovering from a serious accident. Although he releases his wines under the Vin de Pays d’Oc label, the estate is considered one of the flagships of the Pézenas/Caux area. The Les Armières bottling is made from old-vine Carignan and aged for 27 months in large oak barrels.

Impression (++)

“What an amazing wine!!!” From the moment I dove into the very deep fruit and noble oak aromas, that’s all I could say (making me very poor company). What really got me was this red’s amazing texture and energy on the palate. Difficult to put into words, it’s as if this cactus shaped wine had been crafted from solid steel and satin needles. The edgy tannins and acidity provided contrast and excitement, while the intense fruit polished this sculpture and made it pleasant, no.. presentable. What character! It felt as if the wine’s different elements were branching out in every direction, but the whole remained in a fragile state of balance in which a sense of tension prevailed. A masterpiece!

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.