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This page last updated
Fri, Feb 18, 2005

2005 WINE REVIEWS

For a full list of iJamming! wine reviews, please visit the Wine Home Page.

JEAN LALLEMENT
CHAMPAGNE BRUT NV
FRANCE, $30-$35

So, it's Valentine Time again and you're under pressure to treat your loved one to wine and roses. Or chocolates. Or, so hope the marketing types who never run out of reasons for us to spend our hard-earned money, Champagne.

I understand your resistance. I hate forced celebrations the same way you do. Especially Valentine's Day, and its inherent insistence that the human race conveniently pair off into shiny happy (and hungry) couples every February 14th. (February, of all northern Hemisphere months! This is the pits of the winter, when the days are short, the nights are cold, and the Scandinavians are busy committing suicide. This is when relationships traditionally fall apart. Why don't the marketing people just move Valentine's Day to the middle of August?)

And then there's the issue of Champagne. I like the stuff, I really do, but generally speaking, I'd sooner spend that hard-earned money on fine wine. Most champagne is insultingly over-priced and distressingly unsatisfying. And that's because, as the champagne houses know all too well, the majority of non-vintage bubblies either get watered down with orange juice for mimosas/bucks fizz, poured over fellow sportsmen's' heads in celebration – or knocked back on Valentine's Day without comment for fear of offending one's generous other half. What motivation do these houses have for improving the taste if nobody's stopping to actually taste in the first place?

Jean Lallement. Gives small Champagne growers a big name

Here's your answer: the steadily growing number of small growers from Champagne opting to bypass the big houses and bottle and market their estate-grown grapes themselves. Not only are these champagnes more distinctive than those of the familiar brands, they're often also cheaper. Go to any semi-decent wine store and you'll see what I'm talking about: alongside Veuve-Cliquot, Mumm, Perrier-Jouet and the like, you will see other Champagnes from individual names. People like Nicolas Feuillate. Pierre Brigandat. Henri Billiot.

And this man: Jean Lallement. Operating out of the Grand Cru village of Verzenay, in the Montagne de Reims area of Champagne, Lallement produces two wines – a Brut and a Brut Cuvée Reserve, each bottled as non-vintage, each comprising 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Production is limited – just 1700 cases a year, of which less than 10% are marked for the United States (those courtesy of renowned specialist importer Terry Theise). But the price is right: a bottle of the regular Lallement Brut was found for $30 in New Jersey and generously brought along to open up a recent dinner in New York.

And? It was a show-stopper. You certainly wouldn't have known this was Non-Vintage: the golden color and toasty, dry nose suggested some considerable bottle age. The flavors were cakey, doughy, honey-coated, leather-wrapped and almost gingerbread like, with good weight, full body, a serious – or is that joyous? - fizz and a long, focused finish with some sweetness revealing itself right at the back end. This is the kind of champagne that refuses to be watered down with OJ, or wasted as trophy-winner's shampoo. It's the kind of champagne that stands up to all manner of fine food. It's the kind of champagnes that rivals wines of similar price as a drink of real class and complexity. It's the kind of champagne that will hopefully shake the major champagne houses in Reims and Epernay out of their lethargy. It's certainly the kind of champagne to give small growers a big name.

Oh, and it's a great way to get laid. Happy Valentine's.


MUSIC? Match this aphrodisiac with appropriately romantic music. From iJamming!'s February Hitlist, drink the Lallement alongside 'Fall In Love' by Tim Booth, 'Because Our Love Is Real' by Erasure, 'Because Of You' by Willie Hightower, and 'Stay With You' by Lemon Jelly. If you're recently jilted, crack open this heartbreaker of a bubbly anyway as you crank out Johnny Thunders' 'You Can't Put Your Arm Around A Memory.' Or The Slits' 'Love And Romance.' Or Graham Coxon's 'Bitter Sweet Bundle Of Misery.' Or just get like Miles in Sideways and take it to your local diner to spite the one you hate love.
(All these records and more reviewed here.)

AZAGADOR
LA MANCHA 2002
SPAIN, $10

HERDADE DO ESPORAÕ
VINHA DE DEFESA
ALENTEJO, PORTUGAL 2002, $13

If you drink red table wines from Spain or Portugal, chances are you're going to be tasting a lot of Tempranillo. You just might not know it: as in Bordeaux, the Rhône and much of Italy, the producers tend not to announce the blend in their bottles. Besides which, Tempranillo goes by almost as many names as there are wine regions in this part of the world.

That explains why it doesn't have the global reputation of other noble grapes. The experts may know that Tempranillo forms the backbone of fine Spanish wines from Rioja and Ribeira del Duero, but I had to get out my Encyclopedia of Wine Grapes to discover, a few months back, that a Tinta de Toro from northern Spain was simply Tempranillo by its local name. Similarly, the Portuguese wine reviewed here referred on its label to a grape called Aragonez; out came the reliable encyclopedia to inform me that, yet again, this was in fact Tempranillo.

Discovering Tempranillo in its regional variations is, at least, a relatively inexpensive game – allowing that, Rioja, Ribeira and the Grenache-dominated Priorat aside, Spain and Portugal are still largely under-performing, overly producing wine nations forced to keep prices low by New World competition. My friend Tom paid $10 for the Spanish wine and a few bucks more for the Portuguese one from his local store, Prospect Wines in Park Slope – and this after several months drinking Spanish wines for well under $10. (One of the greatest pieces of wine advice you will ever hear is to find a local store that understands your palate and stick with it. You'll be happy as the store gradually recommends higher quality wine – and the store will be happy that you start spending a little more.)

La Mancha is a Spanish region, south of Madrid, so vast that its vineyards cover more than four times that of all vineyards Australia's combined! That statistic should be so widely planted and so little known illustrates the problem facing the bigger Spanish market: so much wine, so little reputation. Fortunately, things appears to be moving in the right direction. The Azagador - 80% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Merlot, aged four months in French oak - offers up a jammy nose, with a slight chocolate/mocha taste that's a result partly of the oak but also of the Tempranillo. Of medium body, relatively low acidity and very little tannin, it's an easy, unfussy, difficult-to-dislike (though relatively one-dimensional) wine.

Winter Warmers: a (mainly) Tempranillo from La Mancha, south of the Spanish capital Madrid.

And a (mainly) Tempranillo from Alentejo, south of the Portuguese capital Lisbon.


Pay just $3 more, however, and you're in a different league altogether. Note my choice of reference: Herdade Do Esporaõ, a standard-bearer for Portugal's wine revolution, shares its owner, Dr. José Roquette, with the Sporting Lisbon football team. Roquette must have deep pockets: in the late 1980s, he built a new winery for his estate to rival some of the best in Napa, firmly putting the Portuguese wine region of Alentejo on the wine map, and a few years later brought in Australian wine-maker David Haverstock. Herdade Do Esporaõ now makes many different wines starring local varietals, with the Vinha de Defesa a blend of Aragonez and "French Castelao." As already noted, Aragonez is Spain's Tempranillo by its Portuguese name, but Castelao, so my books tell me, is Portuguese in origin! No wonder us consumers get confused.

As with its La Mancha neighbor, this (predominantly) Tempranillo wine has much by way of chocolate/mocha and jammy plummy fruit. But it's marked by surprisingly crisp acidity, a more solid body, greater finesse, firmer tannins and much more of the spiciness for which Tempranillo is known. If the La Mancha is an easy-going cocktail wine ready for instant consumption, the Vinha de Defesa feels like it would be rewarded by a few years' cellaring. And if the La Mancha is fairly (over) priced at $10, the Vinho de Defesa seems like a comparative bargain at $13. Each indicates the improving quality of their nation's regional wines - while offering ample proof of Tempranillo's temptations.

MUSIC? These are wines from large producing - and largely forgotten - regions of Spain and Portugal, areas where time is an abstract and where wine, music, dancing and sex are all wrapped up in an everyday celebration of life. Bring the past into the present and pair these warm, fruity, spicy Tempranillos up with the reissued Slits album Cut.

ALBA VINEYARDS
CHAMBOURCIN 2002,
NEW JERSEY, USA, $13

If you know any Old World Wine fanatics, you'll be aware that they wear their prejudices with almost as much perverse pride as white supremacists. Serve such a person this wine and chances are they'll recoil with all the horror of that racist whose daughter brings home a black man for dinner. For one thing, they'll point out, Chambourcin is a 'hybrid' – not a 'noble' grape like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah but a man-made, disease-resistant cross-breed. To make matters 'worse', they'll then note, this particular man-made cross-breed is from New Jersey. It's bad enough for the prejudiced that fine wines have emerged from New York, Virginia and even Rhode Island, to name three of America's east coast States, but New Jersey - (supposedly) the land of endless surburbia, HBO Mafioso, oil refinery- and strip mall-studded highways, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, the Trump Casinos of Atlantic City and the broken boardwalks of Asbury Park - seems the least likely place on earth to get in on the quality wine game.

But here it is. A damn fine wine from a serious, ambitious yet environmentally conscious winery. Better yet, at $13, it doesn't push the price bracket like so many of its New York cousins. In the glass, this Chambourcin, from Alba Vineyards in western Jersey, near the Delaware River, emits a nose that's part juicy fruit – some plum, some black currant, and plenty black cherry – and part tobacco/cedar/pencil shavings. It's obviously seen some wood maturation, but unlike unsophisticated east coast wines, the oak is kept in the background: it's the fruit that soars into the mouth here, with tangy acidity, a touch of spice, and that medium-bodied, vaguely vegetal texture that suggests roots not in the fields of New Jersey, but the vineyards of the Loire. Tasted blind, I would be seriously tempted to label this wine a Cabernet Franc from that grape's spiritual home up there in north-western France.

As it turns out, that's not far off the mark. Chambourcin may be a hybrid - but at least it's a French hybrid, which in the world of wine fanatics, makes it ever so slightly less unacceptable. (Quite what the French were ever doing producing mutant grapes they then forbade from being used in French wine is a story for another day.) As it turns out, where Chambourcin is grown in France, it's primarily in the Loire, and the east coast of America is closer in climate to the Loire than it is to Bordeaux, California or anywhere else on the wine map. (Read this iJamming! feature on Cabernet Francs from the Loire and New York State for more detail.) Find good wine-makers with an understanding of what grapes work best in their vineyards, like Rudy Marchesi and Tom Sharko of Alba, and there's no region for New Jersey not to produce a Chambourcin that could pass as a Chinon.

Few hybrids reach this level of quality. But Chambourcin has a reputation as the little hybrid that could; apart from New Jersey, you'll find the grape up and down the east coast of America, and all over Australia's New South Wales. While I liken the Alba to a Loire Cab Franc, I've seen other Chambourcins compared to anything from Beaujolais (arguably the lightest of red wines) to Zinfandel (arguably the heaviest). Clearly, this is a grape that, grown in the right climate, can pack serious amounts of flavor and quality into a bottle. Drink it young – the grape itself has only been around for 40 years, so it has no history of long-term maturation – but do drink it. Like the pathetic white supremacist, you'd be a sad person to let your prejudices prevent you from enjoying our delightfully diverse world.


iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2000-2005.