(with suggested music)
|Here's how it works. . .I've been involved in music all my life; as I've matured, I've gotten more into wine, finding that it pushes exactly the same 'obsessive' buttons. Given that I have my own web site, why not write about wine as well as music? Even better, why not link the two - recommend an appropriate bottle of wine to go with an interesting new album, and vice versa? While the cross-referencing is presented in good humour, the reviews stand seriously on their own; these wine recommendations are skewed towards varietal-variety and value-for-money, which means learning as we drink, without breaking the bank. Most bottles were purchased in the USA but should be available worldwide.
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Previous wine reviews and music recommendations can be found at:-
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|DOMAINE GIRARD 'LA GARENNE', $14
Loire Valley, France
I've been on a massive Sancerre kick since spring of 2002 kicked in, yet it's only just occurred to me that while I've raved about Sauvignon Blancs both from New Zealand (which tend to the tropical and fizzy) and California (which carry more body and weight, and often show oak handling), I've yet to recommend any of the truly dry, crisp and succulent examples from the grape's spiritual home in the eastern stretch of the Loire. There, straddling either side of the river, lie the two most famous appellations for this distinctive white grape: Pouilly Fumé, which produces a handful of world class wines but too many machine-harvested identikit sippers, and Sancerre, a name synonymous with sauvignon. (Try saying that after a few glasses!)
Having enjoyed international celebrity in the 1970s and 80s, Sancerre has lost some of its status in recent years, to New Zealand in particular, but this only serves to make its wines ever more reliable value. We visited Sancerre in the summer of 1999, and the hilltop village was as stunningly beautiful as anything in Provence, with vineyards up and down the surrounding slopes and several top producers working out of a village square that suggested rural stability. (Which made the swastika inscribed on the hilltop football field all the more disappointing.)
I could wax lyrical about some of the single vineyard Sancerres I've tasted recently (from Thomas-Labaille, Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy, Lucien Crochet and Alphonse Mellot, all extremely subtle, built for medium-term rounding out, and an affordable $20 or so), and the basic Pascal Jolivet bottling which is a wonderful wine but pushes the price barrier a little at close to $20; and I can warn you to avoid the over oaked monstrosity from non-traditionalist Vacheron. But if you're new to Sancerre, you might want to try one of the everyday releases from Fernand Girard, especially 'La Garenne,' which at $13-$14, represents excellent value as well as superb quality.
A description of La Garenne is that of the classic Loire sauvignon blanc: medium yellow in the glass, offering gooseberry/nettle-like aromas with some citrus (lemon and lime, a touch of grapefruit), the flint/chalk of the terroir, and cut grass; in the mouth, the wine is somewhat sharp on the attack, ever so slightly tangy from the grape's famous acidity, clean-cut and refreshing, with more of that gooseberry-citrus drive through the palate and a long, lean finish. It's what's known as a 'cafe' wine in France, for its lunchtime popularity in Paris, and though I don't necessarily get (or like to think of) the 'canned asparagus'/'cat's pee' comparisons people love fooling around with, I will note that Loire sauvignon blancs are an excellent match for otherwise 'difficult' green vegetables, like asparagus and spinach, partly due to their high acidity but also because of their green, sometimes herbal flavours. Sancerre with Loire goat cheese, meanwhile, is one of the all-time fail-safe food-and-wine combinations. I've seen the 2001 around already, a vintage that is supposedly better than 2000, which itself was a return to form after a couple of off years in the Loire. Good Sancerre can last many years (as a recent mini-vertical of Thomas-Labaille's Sancerre-Chavignol 'Monts Damnés' over at Chamber Street Wines, with examples back to 89, made clear), which means you can choose either vintage without fear. You may find many other reliable producers on your own - in a good vintage, it's hard to go too far wrong - but La Garenne certainly epitomises the subtle effervescence of an ongoing classic.
MUSCAT DE BEAUMES DE VENISE 2000
RHÔNE, FRANCE, $16 (375ML)
Having written extensively about the whites, reds and rosés of the southern Rhône, I can't afford to ignore the region's distinct sweet wine, especially as it is one of my personal treats. While hailing from the same village that also makes hearty red Rhône blends as one of the 16 Côtes du Rhônes Villages, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise merits an appelation all of its own. It is made from the white muscat grape (which pops up in various forms all over the world) as a vin doux naturel, in which fermentation is halted by the addition of pure alcohol, which arrests the wine at its sweetest while of course increasing its alcohol content. The most famous red wine of this type is port; the most enjoyable white wine, as far as I'm concerned, is this muscat. It's usually an alluring golden colour, with a heady aroma of oranges, apricots, peaches, amaretto and such-like delights; it's thick and viscuous in the mouth, with a honeyed, silky texture that does a good job of masking an alcohol content of around 15%. While generally served as a post-dinnner cordial or a dessert wine (simple fruit tarts work best), we were also offered it as an aperitif while in Provence in '99, and I found it worked just as well.
With the recent bonanza crop of superb vintages, almost any producer of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is going to deliver the goods. The best of the estates are Domaine de Durban and Domaine de Beaumalric, followed perhaps by Domaine de Coyeaux, and each are well distributed in the States. Not surprisingly though, given that this is such a small appelation, it's the négociants who dominate the market, and of all of them, I most strongly recommend Paul Jaboulet-Ainé. Year in, year out, I find these to be but a mere touch behind the aformentioned estates, and usually at a few dollars cheaper.
Always serve this Muscat cold; once opened, it will keep for at least a week in the fridge without losing flavour. But buy the youngest vintage available: unlike its red wine cousin port, this vin doux naturel does not improve with age. The 2000s are still wonderful; the 2001s should be showing up now or nearabout.
MUSIC? to my lips.2
CLARET D'ALVAH 1998
NORTH FORK, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK, USA, $17
Long Island wines veer to the expensive, even though the wine makers are hardly hurting for dollars. When we finally made a long-planned trek to the North Fork last November, we were taken aback by the bigger wineries' near palatial tasting rooms packed with weekend tourists. Th2e lone exception was Ternhaven Cellars, whose property falls short of the ten acres required to legally open a sales room on farm property. Owner and winemaker Harold Watts has therefore set up shop in the town of Greenport, conveniently enough right opposite the wine-friendly Greenporter hotel where we stayed for one night. It was a pleasure to get up on a Sunday morning, walk right over the road, and spend quality with someone who actually makes wine for his living - as opposed to a weekend worker pouring on behalf of a corporate employer.
Harold Watts is a former Columbia University professor who graduated (excuse the pun) from making wine in his Manhattan apartment when he planted vines in Long Island some fifteen years ago - just before the boom in the local wine business. Watts primarily raises cabernet sauvignon and merlot, each of which he sells by the individual bottle, but as with most Long Island wineries, he blends these two, and some cabernet franc, into a meritage that he calls Claret d'Alvah. (Claret is the English word for a Bordeaux, and Alvah's Lane is the road on which Watts has his five acres of vines.)
I picked up a handful of bottles from Watts that November day. The only one I've since opened is the 1998 Claret d'Alvah, a blend of 55% merlot, 35% cab sauvignon and 10% cab franc. Coming from a successful vintage for the region (though nowhere close to the heralded 1997), it's a forward, fruity, silky and easy going wine. There's some mint on the nose along with blackcurrant and plum, noticeable but not obtrusive oak (Watts' wines spend two years in small oak casks) and a touch of chocolate on the smooth finish. Soft tannins are present and everything is in balance. It's not a medal-winning meritage, but neither is it priced like one. All Ternhavens' wines come in under $20; at the tasting room, you can pick up the 1996 - which has come around after a few years' resistance - for a mere $12.
Though Watts is not a big player in terms of production (his three wines a year only add up to 1000 cases), he's an influential one, being President of the Long Island Wine Council. He also teaches wine-making classes. If you make a journey out to the North Fork, be sure to drive those extra few miles and see Harold in person. Ask him to show you his first wine press - it's the size of a small bucket! Ternhaven is the definition of hand-crafted wines.
As well as at the sales room, you can find Ternhavens Wines at MacAdams Liquors in Manhattan, a store that specializes in Long Island wines. Other recommended, more readily available red blends include Macari Wines' Bergen Road, a serious, inky black, broody, award-winning heavyweight that will set you back $36, but can justify the pricing with its serious body; Pellegrini's Vintner's Pride Encore, the 1997 of which seemed somewhat closed though well-structured on tasting at the property last November; and Bedell's renowned Cupola, the 1998 vintage of which has just hit the market.
MUSIC? It's New York through and through, it's an accessible mix, and it's hand-crafted by an ageing professor. Grandmaster Flash's Essential Mix sounds perfect.
2000 VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO
Tuscany, Italy, $12.50.
When warm weather comes around, there's nothing like breaking out the Italian whites. As mentioned when writing about the Minoetto Pinot Grigio, while Italian whites rarely gain the same acclaim as the reds, they seem to be increasing in quality with every vintage, they're usually food friendly but equally pleasant on their own, and they generally represent excellent value for money.
|Let's do without a bottle label for once: there was too much gold in this one. Above: a Vernaccia vine with the Village of San Gimignano in the background
Vernaccia is an excellent example of such a varietal. The name has been applied to all number of unrelated grapes (as the word vernaccia comes from vernacular, meaning indigenous) but when suffixed with the name San Gimignano, it refers specifically to a grape that has been grown around that central Tuscan town for over 700 years. To confuse matters, there is some red Vernaccia di San Gimignano, but almost all of what you'll find in high street stores and supermarkets will be like this estate bottled example from Tenuta Mormoraia. A straw yellow in the glass, it offers an enticing nose of pistachios, almonds, and stream-washed pebbles, and a suprisingly full and creamy richness in the mouth. It's got modest alcohol (just 12%), it's unwooded, it's got but delicate acidity, and it's surprisingly complex as a whole. Even though the DOC's quality is increasing, the fact that Vernaccia di San Gimignano has been around for so long and that there's so much other competition out there, keeps it firmly in the bargain price bracket off $12 and under. For a subtle summer sipper you could hardly do better.
All kinds of easy-going summer fare will work well while you kick back with this wine, but it makes a particularly good match for the mix of old music (the blues) handled in a modern but relaxed manner, as on Little Axe's Hard Grind.
LE FRUIT DÉFENDU 2000. $11.
Vin de Pays de Côtes de Thongue, France
(Review posted May 23 2002)
Fans of southern French wines, like myself, get frustrated at knowing the names of the grapes that go into the region's blends, yet never tasting them on their own. (Have you ever seen a bottle of Counoise, Terret Noir or Muscardin?) But as the country wines of the vast southern French expanse gain in credibility, producers and importers are seizing on the improving quality of certain varietals and offering them up to us individually.
Le Fruit Défendu, for example, marks the first occasion I have seen Cinsault bottled on its own. Clearly, there's modern marketing at work in this name, and I'm defeated as to why it should call itself "the forbidden fruit" without telling us on the label which fruit it happens to be. That glitch aside, I'm happy to report that on this lone example, (good) Cinsault can clearly stand on its own. A vibrant dark red, it truly explodes with spicy fruit, both on the nose and palate. The best description I can conjure up is a combination of (southern France's) Mourvédre-like muscular earthiness and deep, dark tannins, combined with (Beaujolais') Gamay-like accessibility and upfront, attractive fruit. Throw in a ferocious spiciness that begs for garlic-infused Mediterranean food as accompaniment, and you're looking at a hell of a serious bottle for a grape that is generally confined to rosé blends or to soften up the similarly maligned Carignane. Just to add to the wine's sense of fun, it hails from a vin de pays departement designed to describe such an inky, fruity and hedonistic wine's impact: it 'coats the tongue' indeed.
MUSIC? An old-fashioned varietal presented in a contemporary style sounds much like the renaissance of 80s electro pop. For a suitably modern example, try Alright On Top by Luke Slater.
DOMAINE DE LA PÉPIÈRE
|Variantions on a theme. Both Muscadets are made 'Sur Lie' (as embossed on the bottle); the 'Clos des Briords' at bottom is from old vines, for an extra 50 cents.
1) MUSCADET DE SÈVRE-ET-MAINE 'SUR LIE', 2000,
2) CLOS DES BRIORDS MUSCADET DE SÈVRE-ET-MAINE 'SUR LIE',
CUVÉE DE VIEILLES VIGNES, 2000
Loire, France, $9
Muscadet hails from the region around Nantes, at the mouth of the Loire on the Normandy coast, where the wine is extremely popular as local wines should be. Away from its home territory, though, most connoisseurs turn up their nose at Muscadet - both literally so because it can have a very oily (even saline) smell reminiscent of a fishing harbor, and also because it seems too inexpensive to be any good. Take these two examples from Domaine De La Pépière. They hail from the best of the regional Muscadet zones (Sèvre et Maine, named for two converging rivers south of Nantes); they were made sur lie as all the best muscadets are; and the Clos des Briords has the advantage of coming from old vines. Theyve then been shipped 3,000 miles to the USA and they still cost less than an industrial-style Californian chardonnay.
So dont be fooled by cost. Both wines have a creaminess, a yeastiness and that prickly nose - a little carbon dioxide, a little iodine, a little saline - that takes a while to become accustomed to. They each offer a sharp-as-nails acid attack - you can keep one of these open in the fridge for a week before it will fade - and theyre full of an oily, zesty, chewy flavor that makes them an unusual aperitif but ideal for shellfish (especially mussels). The Vieilles Vignes, not surprisingly, has considerably more depth - for a mere extra 50 cents. Whats more, there are Muscadet fans who swear the VV will develop a honey, nutty texture youll die for after ten years ageing. I cant resist the temptation and have put one bottle away for the long haul. Ill report back in a decade. And Ill keep drinking Muscadet on release - especially this Muscadet - in the meantime.
(I got both these wines at Chamber Street Wines in downtown Manhattan.)
MUSIC? Because of its acid attack, because its honest, clean, pure, vibrant, built to last, off the beaten track and good value for money besides, I recommend you hunt down Ballboy's Club Anthems.
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