Gracing My Table

Grace, elegance, delicacy finesse: wine attributes not much treasured these days. Punch you in the face pointy pounders get all the glossy headlines. In the same way such wines anesthetize my palate, the heavy food required to stand up to these wines with glandular issues bloats us into a a culinary world that Botero would have painted. 

Then along comes a svelte, subtle beauty that reminds you that sometimes the experience of consumption is improved if it requires your brain to become more involved in the process instead of a sedated bystander. Such a wine touched me at a lunch at Chez Panisse recently. This very non-Botero like wine was the 2006 Menetou Salon Rouge of Domaine Philippe Gilbert. Not a place name likely to be familiar to many, but this almost moving wine comes from an area unknown by Americans for its wonderful sauvignon blanc (which I also love), which seems famous compared to its pinot noir, which no one knows they grow. In this relatively obscure Loire region the team of enologist Jean-Phillippe Louis and owner Philippe Gilbert have crafted a true work of art and, only due to the less than famous name, a bargain. This property started bio-dynamic agriculture in 2006 so, as good as this wine is, upcoming vintages must be staggering. 

This beautiful pinot noir graces your table with its almost exotic floral, spiced aromatics and flavors that touch your palate with the complex thrust and parry of a champion fencer rather than the Braveheart broadsword of so many wines today. If purity is what you want in your pinot noir you’ll find it here - and find it for less than $25.

Franc-ly Speaking

The Loire is the region that the new wave point-driven winemaking tsunami washed around. Today it holds the high ground when it comes to brilliant clean refreshing wines with alcohol levels that seem almost unthinkably low. They are often unbelievably delicious bargains.Cabernet Franc is an unappreciated variety in the New World, often for good reason, but in the right hands from the right vineyards it makes a wonderful wine. The 2006 Anjou Domaine de la Soucherie is one of those wines. Just thinking about this wine makes me salivate as its zesty, acid driven freshness carries a delicious ripe fresh wild cherry fruitiness enticingly spiced with fresh herbs and a savory minty freshness. Best served with a light chill, this is a perfect summer red. At under $15, the gulps instead of sips this wine will inspire are very affordable. I love what I call the forceful delicacy of wines like this. Light and lively with an almost haunting personality, they are in no way simple as, despite their subtle svelte character, they rivet the attention of thoughtful palates.

OPN: Wines Worth Drinking - Puzelat Gamay

Touraine Gamay “Pouillé,” Thierry Puzelat 2006 $18. 13% alcohol. Cork. Louis/Dressner, New York, NY. Relative to “Le Tel Quel,” which I’ve written about here before, “Pouillé” is arguably Thierry Puzelat’s more serious – perhaps substantial would be a better word – expression of Gamay. In this case, the fruit comes from Puzelat’s own vineyards, which he purchased from Michel Oger. Situated near Clos Roche Blanche in the commune of Pouillé, the 65 year-old selection massale Gamay vines are planted in argilo-silex (clay and flint) soil that’s been farmed biodynamically for the past fifteen years. Following fermentation, the wine is aged in old oak casks until bottling, without filtration, in the summer following the harvest.

via McDuff’s Food & Wine Trail

Starting Out Stinky

Pee ychampi.jpgew - burnt match aromas, even a bit of rotten eggs. What a wine! Well after a few minutes anyway.

The 2006 Domaine Fouet Saumur Champigny is a beautiful cabernet franc. Spicy and fresh with brush strokes of wild herbs and tiny wild strawberries as it lifts and refreshes the palate. Lighthearted, but not unsubstantial, it is charmingly just powerful enough to let you know this is a serious wine, but is confident enough to not hit you over the head with its own self-importance. This is the kind of wine it’s so hard to find produced outside of Europe. Flat out delicious.

The thing is that, like so many wines like this, when the cork is popped and the wine is first poured into the glass they can be a bit stinky. The free sulfur, which is added to virtually all wines, can be a bit pungent as it takes some time to escape (blow off) and for the slight reductive characteristics of the wine to open and clean up letting the real character of the wine show through. Wines like this are waiting for something. Like a genie waiting to get out of his bottle, minimally processed wines, like this excellent Saumur Champigny, are waiting for oxygen to finish the winemaking process. After five minutes the sulfur had disappeared. After ten minutes the fruit unfurled itself in the breeze and after fifteen minutes I had an exceptional, exciting and rewarding wine in my glass. Yes, I had to wait, but if they scrubbed it clean in the cellar before bottling this wine would have never reached the pure complexity it achieved by being a bit stinky for the first few minutes. Cramming wine into a bottle is a torturous process for a natural wine. To live for a long time in the bottle it needs to be deprived of oxygen. To fully live again it needs time to breath and let the clean air back into its lungs. You have to wait for such wines to catch their breath before drinking them.

We live in a time when consumers expect things to be squeaky clean with no effort on their part. To achieve this we give up a lot. When you cut off all the edges of a wine you end up with round, dull wines. The winemaker can really only complete 95% of the winemaking process. That last five percent is up to the consumer. If you can’t become part of the winemaking process and contribute to the last steps required to finish a wine you’re doomed to industrial wines with the souls ripped out. They may be clean, but they have no heart. On the other hand, if you are willing to become part of the winemaking team and finish the job by serving the wine properly you’ll enter a whole new world of wine, which you are a part of instead of being passive spectator. Natural wines need time and care and only you can complete the process started by the winemaker.

Heirloom tomatoes may look ugly, but they taste great. Natural wines can be a bit stinky at first, but with a little patience they blossom into beauties. Superficial charms do not make delicious wines or tomatoes.

Bet You 10 Bucks

bardolino-le-fontane I’ll bet you ten bucks you’ll love these two wines. They both cost ten bucks each on top of it.

Now that I think it about I should reconsider. I could be out the $10 and I’d prefer to have a another bottle of either of these two simply beautiful wines.

  • Sauvignon, Marigny-Neuf, Vin de Pays du Val de Loire, 2007 - A bone jarring, slap in the face refreshing style of sauvignon blanc. Lovers of New Zealand sauvignon will love the ample “cat pee” punch, but there is more here with a bracing slate and mineral component. This is better than brushing your teeth as your mouth will never feel cleaner than it does after a gulp of this tart beauty. A baby Sancerre that longs for goat cheese or oysters.
  • Bardolino, Le Fontane, Corte Gardoni, 2006 - Light, almost delicate with a pure, simple clean fresh cherry nose and a lifting freshness on the palate driven by acidity and perhaps a bit of CO2. Lithe and quick from beginning to end, the mouthwatering finish makes you grab for your fork. Don’t think: eat, drink, talk and enjoy - preferably a bit chilled with your best homemade pizza. (Buy Online)

So I’m taking back my $10 bet as these wines are both too light and too acid driven for most consumers. Yet these are the types of wines I like for everyday drinking. They are not only moderate in alcohol, but so refreshing and uplifting with a meal that Wednesday night leftovers become a cause for celebration.



muzak Sometimes it’s embarrassing as an American to taste the incredible range of bargains available for under $15 from Europe and compare them to American wines at the same prices. The boring standardization of the American wine industry in this range is numbing. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different labels, but in the bottle you find only dozens of styles. As you stare at shelf-after-shelf of American cabernet, merlot or chardonnay in your local grocery store you can reliably just pick the one that’s on sale as they are all more-or-less the same wine. However, with just a little more work you can find an entire world of wine bargains that offer far more character than these homogenized industrial wines. It’s important to remember that these bargain reds should be served cool, 65°F or so, to bring out their freshness.

The red wines listed below are all under $15 and many of them are under $10. All of them were purchased in grocery stores, not fine wine shops, so it is possible to find them. Each has character, if not complexity, and best of all, they are great with food. Inexpensive American wines have become the elevator music of the wine world, wines like these are the original tunes.

  • Château Bouissel, Fronton, Classic, 2003 - Southern French estates offer some of best bargains out of France. This wine is substantial without being heavy and with the structure coming from the negrette will improve for a year or two. Rich and warm with a dark color from the malbec the tannins in the finish make this perfect for rich stews. Cassoulet anyone? 50% negrette, 20% syrah, 20% cabernet franc, 10% cot (malbec) Imported by Normandie Imports
  • Covey Run, Syrah, Columbia Valley, 2004 - What we have here is an American Côtes du Rhône and that’s a great idea. Ripe and juicy with a soft fruitiness that should please any merlot drinker. Don’t think, just drink and you’ll love it. At $6.99 a great bargain. Drink up fast and cool. (Buy online)
  • Fattoria Laila, Rosso Piceno, 2005 - Marche wines continue to be ignored Italian treasures in America, but that keeps prices down. This blend of montepulciano and sangiovese is a classic Italian red with a firm acid backbone and warm earthy flavors over the bright black cherry fruit. This matched with my penne with lamb sausage ragù perfectly.  Imported by North Berkeley Imports and Zancanella Importing. (Buy online)
  • La Ferme de Gicon, Côtes du Rhône, Vignerons de Chusclan, 2006 - This is just an amazingly easy wine to gulp. Rich, zesty, fruity and alive this is a wine all about honest simple pleasure that is happy to leave complexity to the big boys. This is a buy by the case wine at under $10 that will match with any summer meal. A half-hour in the refrigerator is mandatory and during the dog days of summer I’d serve it out-and-out chilled. Imported by Cellar Door Selections  (Buy online)
  • Villa Pigna Briccaio, Marche IGT, 2003 - Briccaio - Here is a step up on the complexity meter as it not only offers easy drink-ability, but some real character. Showing the breed of montepulciano, from which it is entirely made, this wine combines classic Italian backbone with a generous personality. A great match for your best grilled steaks. Imported by Zancanella Imports (Buy online)
  • Quinta da Espiga, Casa Santos Lima, Estremadura, 2006 - Portugal continues to pump out great wine bargains. This is a big, robust, deeply fruity wine and is a real mouthful. Those that like bigger wines will love this $8 steal. These dry Portuguese reds almost remind me a bit of what Port would taste like without the sugar.
  • Bodegas Luzon, Jumilla, 2006 - 65% monastrell (mourvèdre) 35% syrah - A big lush, ripe modern-style Spanish wine that will seduce many a merlot lover with its soft richness. Another wine for steaks or chops at your next cookout. A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group
  • Regaleali, Tasca d”Almerita, IGT Sicilia, Nero d’Avola, 2006 - I have always found the big players in the Sicilian wine scene, Regaleali and Corvo great values. They offered personality and typicity at a fair price. While these wines have modernized a bit over the years they have not gone down the road of becoming more like Australian wines than Italian wines taken by so many Sicilian producers. This wine has great backbone, good varietal character and, most wonderful of all, tastes like it comes from Sicily. Imported by Winebow   (Buy online)
  • Clos Roche Blanche, Cuvée Pif, Touraine, 2004 -  I first tasted the 2004 back in September of 2006 and it keeps getting better and better. It’s hard to imagine a wine more lifting and filled with personality at this price. This wine is for those looking for grace and elegance in a wine. Originally I recommended drinking this cot (malbec) cabernet franc blend early, but obviously there was no hurry. Imported by Louis/Dressner  (Buy Online)
  • Protocolo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, 2005 - Usually Ordoñez selections tend towards the modern school of Spanish winemaking, but here is one with a more traditional style. Very fragrant and flashing a touch of spicy/sweet American oak its ripe red fruit flavors are held taught with just a touch of tannin. With a more classic European style and balance this is a great match for gilled lamb chops or sausages.  A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group  (Buy online)
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Wine Notes

Every time I have a wine I like I put the bottle on my desk so I can write about it. When space runs out you get one of these “Wine Notes” posts. These are all wines that I have consumed with meals and have usually tasted over a period of several days. They are more often than not under $30 as I frequently find more expensive wines not enjoyable with my day-to-day cooking as they are not ready to drink or just too big and woody. These posts are a true picture of the wines that I choose to serve at home with my own meals. All the wines in these posts are recommended. In fact, you’ll rarely find me writing about a wine I don’t like unless I think it’s an incredible rip-off or a pretentious, over-marketed wine of questionable quality like Veuve Cliquot.

  • Prosecco, Montello d Colli Ascolani, Loredon Gasparini, NV - I’ve been gulping a glass of this charmer every night while cooking dinner lately and find it refreshing and uplifting after work treat. It is a lovely, creamy fruit-driven bubbly that is just barely off dry. At under $15 this is a pleasure that can be enjoyed often. I’ve been using a stopper and drinking over three or four days and the bubbles hang in there to the last glass.
  • Muscadet Sèvre e Maine sur lie, Cuvée Médaillée, Le “L“‘d’Or, Pierre Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Grange, 2005 - A steely laser of a wine. Very firm and tight with that stony minerality that only Muscadet delivers. I drank this wine over a week and it just kept getting better with air. Muscadet is the clear winner when it comes to the long wine name awards. It was perfect with some pan-fried Oregon oysters. I know it will be better with age, but I just don’t have the willpower not to drink it now.
  • Müller Thurgau Dry, Phalz, Weingut Ökonomierat Rebhotz, 2005 - This is one of those wines that have so much acidity you think your glass has a static charge as it touches your lips. Crisp with a zippy lemon-lime fruit, this was a great match to some Thai spring rolls. Wines like this should be used to define the usually misused term “dry” as this one is almost jarringly dry. As you know combining electric acidity with jarring dryness means that both me and my deep fryer love this wine.
  • Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore, Torre di Ceparano, Fattoria Zerbina, 2003 - I’ve been a Zerbina fan for a long time. While their top expensive “Super” wines get big points, what I actually love are their least expensive wines like Ceregio and this wine. The Torre di Ceparano is consistently a great value in sangiovese. Structured with authentic, earthy sangiovese fruit and character, there are few Chiantis that can match this wine and those that do all cost a lot more. If you can’t figure out what the big deal with sangiovese is all about try this wine with some braised lamb shanks. In my opinion, Zerbina is the best producer in Romagna.
  • Nebbiolo Langhe, Produttori del Barbaresco, 2005 - An very good bargain in Piemonte nebbiolo, which is something that is getting harder and harder to find. Very classic with earthy fruit, drying tannins and distinctive aromatics. You’ll find plenty of the famed “tar and roses”, which are the defining characteristics of classic nebbiolo. It is definitely worth waiting a few years before drinking this fine wine.
  • Beaujolais Le Perreon, Nouveau, Domaine de la Madone, Jean Bererd et Fils, 2007 - Served lightly chilled with homemade pizza topped with lots of sweet onions and an egg, which made a perfect match and a very enjoyable dinner. Believe it or not, there are some very good Nouveau Beaujolais wines being produced by small estates. Good luck finding them though.
  • Dolcetto d’Alba, Pertinace, Treiso, 2006 - With so many Dolcetto wines on steroids these days (six are named in the Mitchell Report), it’s nice to find a wine that you can actually drink without going to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned. Fresh, brightly fruity, pleasantly zesty and under $15, which makes this a great wine to buy by the case for casual meals. No it’s not profound, but sometimes deliciously easy is more enjoyable than profound.
  • Cahors, Clos La Coutale, 2005 - If you ever wondered why people grow malbec after tasting yet another drab commercial grocery store wine from South America, try this rich blend of 80% malbec and 20% merlot. Robust with layers of flavors and a firm backbone that leads to a warm, earthy finish. An excellent choice for this winter’s hearty stews.
  • Bourgogne, Cuvée Sylvie, Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, 2005 - A great value in fine French pinot noir. Lately I’ve been having better luck finding good pinot in this price range than with more expensive bottles. As a Burgundy lover living in Oregon, I am always ordering bottles of Burgundy to convince locals of its superior charms. Often these wines do not present convincing arguments in support of my position. However, wines like this do. This is almost picture perfect pinot noir. No, it’s not the most complex pinot you’ll ever taste, but it is delicious and purely varietal. Rich, creamy and velvety from first sniff to the last lingering essence of the finish, this wine is pure pinot pleasure. One note, by the next day the wine had faded quite a bit. Therefore, I’d suggest drinking this wine up young and pretty.
  • Côte de Brouilly, Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes, Nicole Chanrion, 2005 - This is one of those rich Cru Beaujolais wines that remind you more of pinot noir than the many insipid wines that carry the name Beaujolais these days. This is a classy gamay with great depth and richness. This wine is still actually a bit closed and needs a year or two more to really strut its stuff. Mixed with the brilliant gamy fruit flavors and aromas are touches of black truffles, herbs and a touch of black pepper. This is a wine that makes you sit up and take notice.
  • Château Aney, Haut Medoc, Cru Bourgeois, 2003 - Just a few decades ago Bordeaux was my go-to wine. It dominated my cellar and my table. Those days are long gone and now I taste more Bordeaux than I drink. However, when rack of lamb appears on my table my taste buds yearn for Bordeaux, or what Bordeaux used to be anyway. Now 2003 is not my favorite vintage and I had not tasted wines from the Chateau before, but with Kermit Lynch’s name on the back label I decided to give it a try and I’m glad I did. While like most 2003’s it is not the most structured Bordeaux you’ll ever taste it has enough of a tannic backbone that it reminds you it really came from the Haut Medoc. For me this wine is ready to drink now and over the next year or two and that nothing worthwhile will be gained by extended aging. It went perfectly with my lamb and cost less than $25. Now there’s a Bordeaux you can enjoy. It’s worth pointing out this wine is listed at 12.5% alcohol, that’s nice too.
  • Côtes du Rhône, Les Cailloux, Domaine Rabasse Charavin, 2004 - Here’s a big, ripe chewy wine that pulls it off. It took me a glass to adjust to it, but after that I found its ripe earthy warmth comforting and enjoyable. Having a big cheeseburger dripping with extra sharp cheddar tonight? Here’s your wine.

St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Vieilles Vignes, Joël Taluau, 2003

It was a very busy week and the next is sure to be busier. I was happy to arrive home for a relaxing Friday night with a kitchen full of the bounty from this week’s farmer’s market. Dinner tonight was to start with some Insalata Caprese made with some local heirloom tomatoes absolutely bursting with flavor followed by a grilled Carlton Farms pork chop sented with fresh thyme from my garden and corn-on-the-cob so sweet that it may have been better suited to dessert.

From the cellar came a bottle of St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Vieilles Vignes, Joël Taluau, 2003 and just as I pulled the cork and served the caprese Bill Maher came on HBO.  This lovely cabernet franc washed down both the meal and the political commentary beautifully. An hour later, at the end of the show and the meal, I noticed that the bottle was three quarters gone while I was not. Yet another of the pleasures of drinking wine with moderate alcohol, in this case 12.5%.

This is an easy, seductively charming wine with concentrated mouthwatering fruit. There is complexity here, but that’s not the main attraction, which is the zesty purity of the fruit. Produced from vines closing in on their 75th birthday, these old vines speak eloquently for themselves without requiring artificial amplification from oak or other manipulations that would only distract.

By the way, this wine cost less than $14. What did you drink with dinner tonight and what did it cost? If you’d tasted this wine you’d feel a bit ripped off. Me, I’m very happy. 

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine des Dorices, Sur Lie, Eermine d'Or, 2004

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine des Dorices, Sur Lie, Ermine d’Or, 2004

It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful dry white wine for under $20. Light gold in color with layers of flavor and complexity throughout. Firm slate, chalk and wet stone aromas float over delicate, bright green apple and ripe pear flavors and aromas. The finish long and perfectly balanced without a trace of the residual sugar that mars the finish of so many new world whites. Offered by the every reliable importer Christopher Cannan.