Sniffing out the good juice.

Aliens in the Vineyard

My ringtone is set to R2-D2’s whistle, and I love a good dose of sci-fi.  The intergalatically-delicious wines from the Rhone Valley of France are another obsession.  Idiosyncratic California wine maker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards (you’ve gotta read his erratic, erudite prose to believe it) and his wines have long been on my radar.

SOOOOO, HOW DID I MISS THE ALIEN WINES?

Keith Farmer of Brookhaven Wines in Atlanta saved me, Luke-Skywalker-style, from my Black Hole of Ignorance by spinning this tale…

It was the 1950’s, the dark days of the Cold War, and France was gripped by a rash of UFO sightings – cigar-shaped UFO’s to be precise: “Cigare Volant.”  Media coverage was thick, and citizens nationwide were nervous.

Cigar Volant exhaust

The author & friends in CDP, fighting a gust of the Mistral; or was it Cigar Volant exhaust?

BDV logo color 0.5in

Bonny Doon’s interpretation of the Cigar Volant.

Leadership of the town and wine region of Chateauneuf-du-pape showed little concern for their citizenry, but were trés worried about their exquisite wines and vineyards.  (These wines, which today still emboss the papal regalia on their bottles, came to international acclaim in the 1300’s, during the 70 years of the Avignon Papacy.  Their popularity shows no sign of waning, especially in my house.)

The Mayor of Chateauneuf-du-pape proactively banned these “Cigare Volant” from landing in their vineyards – a publicity-grabbing decree that was reprinted in several French papers… News clip in the Le Haut-Marnais Républicain, of Chaumont, France, 1954, translated to read:

FLYING SAUCERS!

  1. Mayor does not joke around, therefore the “saucers or cigars” landing in Chateauneuf-du-Pape will be held in custody if the rural policeman catches them
  2. — Mr. Lucien Jeune, mayor of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, has just taken the following decree which was approved by the prefect for the Vaucluse and was made executory:

The Mayor of Chateauneuf-du-Pape decrees:

Article 1. — The overflight, the landing and the takeoff of aircraft known as flying saucers or flying cigars, whatever their nationality is, are prohibited on the territory of the community.

Article 2. — Any aircraft, known as flying saucer or flying cigar, which should land on the territory of the community will be immediately held in custody.

Article 3. — The forest officer and the city policeman are in charge, each one in what relates to him, of the execution of this decree.”

To the best I can discern, the law is still on the books – and seems to be working.

Vin Gris De Cigare

With or without the spaceship, this rose is tasty.

Decades later, Bonny Doon developed a family of Rhone-inspired wines, naming them the Cigare Wines in homage to those cigar-shaped craft.  Lucky for me, Keith was pouring their amazing rosé, Vin Gris de Cigare at a Vine & Tap tasting, while the above story unfolded.  Sure enough, there’s even a spaceship on the label.

Aliens aside, this is one of my favorite rosés to date – and it’s well-documented how much I love rosé.  Great balance of fruit, mineral and savory notes, with no sweetness; take this otherworldly interloper hope this summer and enjoy him with whatever comes off the grill.  Or with a cigar.

Piqued by Pinot Grigio, go figure!

To be blunt, I’ve never been a big Pinto Grigio fan.  I know, it’s Italy’s most popular white and the U.S. drinks an ocean of it, but… to me, it seems like something you’d put in an Italian baby’s sippy cup.  I generally find it watery and lackluster, without enough chutzpah to stand up to anything more than a quick, after-work Happy Hour.

So I was thrilled to taste Swanson’s 2010 Pinot Grigio – and ask for more.  Poured by Mr. Swanson himself (I’m sure that helped), it’s lemony and citrusy with a weight and mouthful surprising (to me) for a Pinot Grigio.  The debonair Mr. Swanson is proud to say this lushness comes not from oak (the wine only sees stainless steel), but from the quality of his Oakville grapes. (I’d say the addition of 10% chardonnay is also part of the success, but let’s not split hairs.)  There’s enough acid to pair with lighter food, and the balance is good.  If Pinot Grigio has let you down before, I’d give this California translation a swirl. Swanson Vineyards

While we’re talking about Swanson, I was also intrigued by their flagship Merlot.  As Chef Nancy said, “You don’t have to drink it, the gorgeous smell is enough!”

Don’t listen to Miles from the movie Sideways; there are tons of luscious California Merlots.  The best of them can get pretty pricey.  This one packs a juicy, black cherry punch at a fairly reasonable price.

Clark Swanson

Clark Swanson stopped by our neighborhood wine shop and charmed us all.

Reveling in Rutherford!

Here’s another stand-out wine from the 2013 SWE conference…

Stunner #3: Quintessa 2009 Red Wine [Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot] ($145.00)

Quintessa Red WineIf you’ve got an expense account or need a Special Occasion wine, this one is a knockout (like the price).  Bright red fruit up front with a rich, gorgeous palate.  There’s oak but it’s in check; the wine is beautifully balanced and simply gorgeous. Long finish with milk chocolate, dark berries and cassis.  No wonder the critics often have very nice things to say about this one…

 

Time to Geek Out – The Rutherford Roundup:  Rutherford is a sub-region (or AVA), as well as the “historic heart,” of California’s Napa Valley.  Many of the big-deal wineries of Napa Valley that helped put Napa on the map as far back as the 1800’s (names like Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyard, Louis M. Martini, Charles Krug Winery…) were – or still are – in Rutherford.  Justifiably famous for its gorgeous Cabernets with a touch of herbaceousness, this is your spot if you love a big Cab and are willing to pay for it.  In very general terms, these are wines that will age gracefully for a decade or more.

Wine Folly Napa Mapa

Wine Folly’s great map of the Napa Valley; Rutherford is right in the middle

 

Bring on the Beaujolais!

No surprise, the most common question I field after tasting 100-ish wines at something like the Society of Wine Educator’s conference: What were your faves? Believe or not, a few stunners really do shine in my memory. Over the next couple of days, I’ll quickly highlight them here…

Stunner #2: Georges Duboeuf Julienas Chateau des Capitans, Beaujolais, France ($17-$20)

We were lucky, lucky indeed to breakfast with the godfather of Beaujolais, Georges Duboeuf himself, at the Society of Wine Educators conference.  Well, breakfast in the sense that 6 glasses of Beaujolais constitute breakfast, but anyway…

Breakfast Beaujolais with Duboeuf!

Breakfast Beaujolais with Duboeuf!

Mr. Dubeouf’s wines are practically synonymous with Beaujolais; check out the “France” section in your wine shop, almost guaranteed you’ll see ‘em.

Chateau des Capitans, Julienas

Juicy Julienas

The stand out Breakfast Beaujolais he poured was the Julienas Chateau des Capitans. It is rich and perfumed with roasted coffee on the nose and a lush blackberry and pepper palate.  The texture is chewy and full.  This would be great wine with grilled poultry or maybe even pizza and pasta.  At under $20, it’s a steal.

Time to Geek Out – Bit o’ Background on Beaujolais:  This French wine region is located just below Burgundy, kinda the east side of France.  99% of the wines are red, made from the Gamay grape, and are typically light bodied and fruity.  If you’ve had a Beaujolais and been disappointed, try again and look for the word “Cru” on the label.  In short, this means the wine came from one of 10 specific areas inside Beaujolais, and are held to higher production standards. They rock.   And they are often a great value.

Just to make you crazy, you typically won’t see “Beaujolais” on the label, but rather the name of the Cru: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly or Côte de Brouilly.  Don’t ask me why, it’s a French thing.  But do ask your wine shop to point you in the right direction; wine geeks can get pretty nerdy about Cru Beaujolais, for good reason.Beaujolais_SMALL-MAP

Winning Wines from the SWE

No surprise, the most common question I field after tasting 100-ish wines at something like the Society of Wine Educator’s conference: What were your faves? Believe or not, a few stunners really do shine in my memory. Over the next couple of days, I’ll quickly highlight them here…

Stunner #1: 2012 Onesta Bechthold Vineyard Lodi Cinsault Rosé ($18)
Oh, yum. (No secret, I’m passionate about Rosé – you can read my most recent musings here.) This bright-strawberry-and-guava gem just rang to me; dry in the classic French style, it’s bright, juicy and boasts a remarkable creamy character I just found addicting.

Winemaker/owner Jillian Johnson is crafting her copper/pink Rosé mainly from Cinsault, a native French grape we don’t grow alot of here in the U.S. This fruit comes from the Bechthold Vineyard, in Lodi, CA, which was planted in 1886 – these 127 year old vines are probably the oldest Cinsault vines in the United States.

Onesta owner/wine maker Jill Johnson

Onesta owner/wine maker Jillian Johnson celebrating her Cinsaults.

Lodi is a warm-climate wine region roughly East of San Francisco and south of Sacramento, and deservedly famous for its Zinfandels and historic old vines. Based on this Rosé, and several other impressive Lodi wines tasted both at SWE and from my cellar (Turley’s zins are a favorite and a story for another day), I am already planning a Lodi visit in Spring of 2014. Given the small production of the Onesta Rosé, knocking on the winery door may be the only way to snag some – I’m soooo there.

It’s a Rose Riot!

Rosé wine is the Sweet Tea of the South of France. It kinda feels like the (happily) mandatory summer lunch beverage of France – just look around whatever patio you’re on, there’s a bottle/carafe/unmarked jug on almost every table. Most wine regions in the world make rosé, but France is ground zero. Approximately 10% of the world’s wine production is rosé, and France makes almost 30% of that, by far the leader.

Vinhound in Nice

Nice is nicer with an anonymous rose and a bucket of mussels.

Yes, it’s pink, or something close to pink – salmon, pale peach, copper, raspberry – but NOT sweet. (Please don’t confuse a classic dry rosé with a sugary, American White Zinfandel. Two very different animals.) Rosé is mostly made with red grapes, which start off being made like a red wine, then, end their lifecycle like a white wine…oh, it’s kinda complicated, but it all works out fruitfully in the end.

Bobby Flay recently “confessed” to Epicurious that he orders his pink wine by the truckload. This man knows his BBQ, and knows that rosé is fantastic with BBQ, grilled meats and the Great Outdoors in general (kinda like Sweet Tea). Bobby’s shade of pink is Whispering Angel, the ubiquitous coppery confection by powerhouse Provence producer, Chateau d’Esclans. As the introductory wine in this Chateau’s excellent rosé lineup, Whispering Angel is fruity yet dry and undeniably delicious. Priced under $20 bottle – like the vast majority of rosés in our market – this hits my preferred price point, given the quantity our household consumes April to October.

Vinhound Paris Rose Window

A tempting window of roses in Paris.

Chateau d’Esclans, located just north of Saint Tropez and considered a top Provencal rosé producer, recently did a lot more than Whisper to me and my wine gals. It won top prize at last week’s highly competitive LBD (Little Black Dress) Rosé Dinner, a dubious but delightful honor. On LBD night, we wine gals blind-tasted seven amazing rosés of our own choosing, with the winner (yup, Maggie again) getting a free dinner outta the deal. It was a perfect summer evening: gorgeous glasses of blush and bashful (click that link, it’s worth it), lots of trash-talk and laughter, and the most divisive conclusion of any of our LBD dinners.

Styles and grapes can vary wildly within the category of rosé (holler at me if you want to geek-out about the merits of saignee vs. direct press methods, or Cinsault grapes vs. Syrah), and the votes were split. But the soft strawberry nose and creamy mouth feel of Chateau d’Esclans Cotes de Provence 2012 deservedly carried the win. At $35+ it may not be the cheap quaffer you want to swig in your porch swing, but it’s a stunner at the dinner table.

Vinhound LDB roses

A rainbow of 7 roses on LBD Night.

Domaine Ott 2012, another top-notch Provence producer, also showed strongly (way to represent, Chef Nancy). Bone dry with stone fruit and grapefruit, Ott’s crispness was awesome with fried artichokes, its zing cutting right through the fatty of the fried. Its sexy, perfume-bottle presentation also makes Domaine Ott a great hostess gift/dinner party/anniversary wine, but again, at $35+ you’ll pay a bit more for the privilege.

Vinohound LBD rose bottles.

Voting tally on the revealed LBD roses.

Tavels always turn my head, and the 2012 Canto Perdrix we sampled was no exception. Tavel is an area within France’s Southern Rhone Valley and the ONLY French AOC (out of 300 such highly-regulated growing areas) to be designated 100% rosé wines. Tavels tend to be richer, more tannic, more substantial than their Provencal counterparts to the South, and were beloved of the Popes of Avignon and Kings of France. While Provence rosés are most often very pale, Tavels are frequently a deeper hue.

Vinohound_Tavel_AOC

Entering the Tavel AOC.

Visiting Tavel in June was definitely a party for the palate – especially a Tavel/ Châteauneuf-du-Pape winemaker lunch featuring 10 vintners, each pouring three or four of their finest. You do the math on how many wines we had with lunch. Oye.

The rosés were all simply gorgeous and just sang with the food, as rosé is known to do, including the grilled salmon starter. (Ever notice how difficult it is to pair wine with salmon? Rosé is your answer.) Incredible that wines this delicious can be consistently had for around $15.

vinohound_tavel_pairing

Perfectly peachy pairing in Tavel.

The rule of thumb on rosé is: drink it fresh for maximum punch.  Current vintage is what you’ll find on store shelves, though in my opinion, aging for a couple of years is fine, but no more than three.  As always, there are exceptions; Chateau Mordoreé, a stand-out producer in Tavel, poured us a 2008 rosé that was simply divine.  While not the rule, a top-quality rosé often develops into something even more interesting with a bit of time; look for top names like Bandol (totally badass Mourvedre-based rosés) and Tavel, have some patience and give it a whirl. They just might grow into something spectacular.

Speaking of interesting…America is definitely experiencing a rosé renaissance, with consumption up 10% over the last four years, and rising.  We’re finally catching on to what the rest of the wine world is already enjoying.  Does it have anything to do with Brangelina?  No.  But…

vinohound_Lyon_smith

Mr. & Mrs. Smith hawk their new rose in Lyon.

The wine press has been abuzz with the release of Brad and Angelina’s first rosé from their Provence estate, Miraval.  Now, rosé has been made from this estate for a long time, most recently under the name Pink Floyd.  (Seems “The Wall” was recorded in the studio on the estate.)  Their new wine is scoring good reviews, and sold out in record time.  At almost $30, it’s not the greatest value, but it’s a strange, gorgeous bottle and a good conversation starter.

Unlike pouring Sweet Tea at your next cookout.

Atlanta peeps:  find exceptionally good rosé selections at the merchants below.  Or, just scoop up an armload at your favorite shop and have a delicious summer figuring out which ones wet your whistle.

Sherlock’s, Perrine’s, La Caveau, Green’s

Ummm, remind me why we’re here?

“And we’ll serve French wine!”

The twinkling lights of the Eiffel tower still in our eyes, and my new engagement ring sparkling on my finger, we were fresh off the plane from Paris and already planning our French-themed engagement party in Atlanta.  The food was easy but the beverage…hmmm.   Our nascent wine knowledge leaned heavily towards the usual Californian suspects, supplemented by the occasional cheap-but-a-nice-change-of-pace Rioja, and most easily found at Kroger.

Armed only with a French wine class four years past, we trouped to the local wine shop known for its French imports.  Our demands were minimal: French, red, affordable, party wine. Help?

Though the words on the label meant nothing to us then, we left with several cases of a 2000 Cote de Bourg.  Fast-forward 10 years, and I now know that’s a none-too-sexy but fine, Right Bank Bordeaux AOC producing Merlot-based wine.  Not that the wines are bad, mind you, but these are fruity bottles meant to be enjoyed young – as compared to a bad-assed, multi-Benjamin Paulliac (Left Bank Bordeaux) that needs 10-12 years before you even consider yanking that cork.

But our little wine came recommended by the patient manager, had the requisite amount of French on the label to complement our party aesthetic, and boasted a friendly name, Chateau Robert  – promptly renamed Bob.

We loved Bob.  He had a tad of that yummy Bordeaux stink (excuse me, “earthiness on the nose”) and indeed, lots of fruit.  Bob was a smoothie.  And, since our engagement party attendees leaned more towards Bud than Bordeaux, left-over Bob made lots of friends at subsequent parties and dinners.  You could take Bob anywhere.

Amateur appreciators that we were then, we didn’t realize Bordeaux already played a role in our love story. The fateful April night in Paris that culminated in all that sparkling, we dined at a quietly posh yet warmly welcoming restaurant in the shadow of the Eiffel.  The prix fix menu was priced, well, Parisian, with a wine list to match.  My fiancé-soon -to-be chose a value-priced Chateau Pitray, and when it arrived, paused.  Shit.  Surely he’d missed a zero on the price – it was delicious. Screw it, he thought, you only propose once or so.

But no, the low price was right. When we gushed about the wine, the proprietor explained that chateau was no more, the restaurant had bought the last of their production, so no, we wouldn’t find it at home.  Pity about that Pitray.

Fast-forward with me again about 10 years. Last month I attended a 2009 Bordeaux tasting with my wine school buddies.  Rationalizing tasting 37 reds in the middle of the day as perfect preparation for our upcoming Bordeaux Master Exam, we got to swirling and spitting.

There were the silky Margaux’s, the approachable Saint Julien’s, the chocolate-covered punch of the Pauillacs and – I swear – a Second Growth from Cos d’Estournel that tasted like money. Big and roasted and toasted, it was the wine equivalent of a Russian oligarch, holding court on his mega-yacht in Monaco.  Damn.

But I didn’t go home with the Russian, soave as he may be.  No, tucked on the “starter table” of wines under $20, was Chateau Pitray!  Peppery and fruity and easy to quaff – Pitray didn’t take me to the yacht in Monaco, or even Lake Lanier, but it did take me back to that sparkly April night, and that’s more than enough for me.

And that’s why I want to write about wine, that’s why we’re here: it’s not the big-breasted, collagen-lipped, rich-and-famous wines that make most of us – ok, me –  happy.  It’s the tasty juice at a comfortable price that becomes a priceless part of our sensory memories. And in the end, making memories is where it’s at.

Oh, and Bob?  In March, we dusted Bob off and carted him to dinner to celebrate the 9th anniversary of that engagement party.  The waiter raised an eyebrow; this little guy will surely be dead, he offered?  But Bob is a party animal, and with a little air and patience, Bob woke up and celebrated with us.  Even at only $10 a bottle, you can’t keep a good man down.

Anniversary Dinner at Rathbuns with Chateau Robert

The author bubbling, while Bob (in the foreground) gets his groove on.

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