Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bordeaux Eats

I passed through the Bordeaux region briefly last month, as I’ve been long overdue there for a visit. I spent one day visiting producers you’d probably never find written about in any wine publication and another day with some of the region’s famous châteaux. I’ll write about my impressions of these visits very soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, what immediately caught my attention the other day is this delicious report on leading edge restaurants in and around Bordeaux in the New York Times (don't miss the slide show). As much as I obsess with wine, food is even more primal to my heart, or perhaps more accurately, to my stomach.

It never even occurred to me that the Bordeaux region can be a gastronomic place, but in the few short days I was there I was enlightened about the potentials of the local cuisine. Suddenly my attention was divided. I ate a tender and juicy roasted leg of Pauillac lamb at an inn. I had a taste of Arachon oysters at a wine bar. I saw the highly prized Bazadaise cattle grazing in the fields of Sauternes.

I know I’ll be back in Bordeaux soon. But it won’t just be for the wine.

Monday, April 14, 2008

BNO: One Man’s California Retrospective

The K-man is disgusted with California wines post-‘80s, yet he has the best collection of California wines that I know of. In fact, Kevin is that increasingly rare breed of wine collector who has bought wine based on his taste not on scores.

Kevin has collected wine for decades, not overnight like some of these young gazillionaires who buy out Christie’s and John Kapon—a caveman with a huge trust fund can do that. His “old bitch cellar” as his friends have nicknamed it is amazing, not so much for sheer size, but for its discriminating personal selections. Kevin can pull out First Growths from all great vintages of the past half century, that's easy enough to do. What really amazes me is that he also collected other classed growths from off-vintages that have turned out to be overlooked gems—we refer to them endearingly as “glasscoaters” in our BNO (boys’ night out) group. This kind of collecting is brilliant connoisseurship.

And it’s not only the major wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Port, and Barolo that Kevin has pursued. He has old vintages of Mas de Daumas Gassac and Domaine Tempier. Score-monkeys today wouldn’t even know who those producers are.

So one fine day in March I received a surprise email notice from Kevin about the next BNO. It was something like a call to arms—“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

I don’t know if it was the Ides of March or he just got tired of reading James Laube’s tasting notes, but he issued an invite, which read more like a challenge, that the next BNO will be at his place and that the theme is pre-1987 California Cabernet Sauvignon. No one should even think of bringing any overripe, tannin-challenged Napa Cabernet from the 1990s or 2000s. In fact, Kevin had all the wines lined up in his head and they’re all coming from his cellar. It will be the first one-man retrospective for the BNO. I said to myself, bring it on!

Good dolmas like these with bits of lamb inside are the best pairing with aged California Cabernets...

And nothing like char-grilled steak with old Cabernets

The evening started with a magnum of Prosecco, A.G. Ferrari, very cool; it’s the perfect aperitif in the warm afternoon. I will not score this one, suffice it to say that it is very good and it surprised me that it came from Ferrari Foods.


Steve brought dolmas and patés which were terrific with the old Cabernets to follow.

The first flight consisted of a contrasting pair of perfectly cellared wines. Louis Martini’s1970 California Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “Special Selection” from Ben’s cellar, the only wine in the evening not from the K-man, was amazing for its freshness and youth. Bright ruby red with a slight bricking around the rim, it gave a perfumy leafy and Bordeaux vegetal bouquet. Many agreed it is still “unyielding” and “tight”; after all, Ben’s cellar is like the arctic, wines age there at a glacial pace. Ben explained that Louis Martini aged 50% of the wine in wood and the other 50% in stainless steel and then afterwards blended the two together for the final wine. Martini was the first winemaker in Napa to perform this élevage. I thought it was wonderfully balanced (“12 ½ % Alcohol” read the label) opening up with delicious plum and cassis flavors as well as licorice and tea. Well-concentrated and elegant, I would like to sit down with this wine again when it has been sufficiently decanted as Ben recommends. 3+? (90+?).


The other wine in the flight needed no long decanting as it was jumping out of the gates. 1968 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve Georges de la Tour”, Beaulieu Vineyard made by the greatest California winemaker, André Tchelitscheff, was darker than the Martini and seduced with intoxicating aromatics of blackberry, tea leaf, mint and tobacco. Opulent, velvety, and utterly juicy, this powerful wine swept me off my feet. 4 (95).


The next flight was epic. It was a shootout of Iliad proportions. Joe Heitz’s 1974 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvigon “Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary Vintage” was the most opulent version of this wine that I’ve tasted. Its famed eucalyptus signature was almost masked by a density of fruit that grew on the palate, tasting ripe and sweet and holding sway for a long time before releasing a dollop of tea leaf and eucalyptus and secondary flavors of licorice, oreo cookies, and gravel. This brought the house down. I’ve always thought that the greatness of the ’74 Heitz Martha’s was in its power and longevity, but it lacked sophistication. Yet, this bottle showed surprising expressiveness. 5 (100)


A worthy challenger to the Heitz was the 1974 Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Mayacamas Vineyards. Initially tight, with some coaxing the wine opened up to a decadent range of aromas that were earthy and floral. Violets were redolent. What a contrast to valley floor Cabernets! A powerful Cabernet that glided on the palate and spoke in low, sweet tones of lush blackberries and gentle, spicy riffs of tobacco and tea. 4 (95)


The first bottle of 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve” Robert Mondavi was unfortunately tainted. My heart sank. I was dying to drink this wine again as it was nearly ten years ago the last time I had it and it surprised me with its remarkable depth. Kevin casually asked, “Should I open another bottle?” No one replied. I may never get another chance and I sat next to Kevin, so I boldly told him, yes, please, let’s open another bottle. So a second bottle of this ’74 Mondavi Reserve was opened. After rinsing my glass I helped myself to a good pour of this fresh bottle. I smiled. Oh yes, this was it, all that I hoped for. This was a complete wine. The aromatics were profound, classic Cabernet currants with underlying earth and menthol, rust and leather. Gorgeous ripe flavors brimming with blackberry fruit, iron, eucalyptus, and dark chocolate. Generous but moved with grace and finished with sweet, dusty tannins. I’m in awe of this bottle. It was half-jokingly suggested that we open another bottle of this and the Heitz Martha’s and go mano-a-mano. Wouldn’t that be something? 5 (100)


Almost everything seemed anticlimactic after those monumental 1974s. Maybe the ‘74s should have been placed last. The 1975 Sterling Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, while possessing some savory fruit, tasted harsh, a bit tart, and somewhat medicinal. 2 (85). The 1975 Joseph Phelps Insignia made of 86% Merlot was more interesting for its ripe character. Matt and Steve agreed that it was like Pebble on the 18th hole by the fire, cozy and warm, chocolates and cream. A typical Insignia—simple, comfort wine that lavishes good fruit. 3 (90)



But it’s not over until it’s over. The next two wines that came up rival the ‘74s in every way. The 1979 “Volcanic Hill” Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Creek is right up my alley delivering mature, classic Napa Cabernet flavors in heaping portions: ripe black currants, mint, tea leaf, and earthy spice. Sweet and elegant, very well poised, very cool. 4 (95).


What followed next is a wine that blew me away and, perhaps, another reason for drinking the ‘74s last. The 1971 Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”, Robert Mondavi is a most singular wine and in many ways an atypical Napa wine because the style is Médoc-like. Unfiltered and the first vintage for this “reserve” bottling, it is a single-vineyard wine and a true blended wine, with a high proportion of Cabernet Franc, as much as 30% or more it is said, and aged in 100% French oak. The aromas soared magnificently—a clear, precise, penetrating, yet indescribable scent of heavenly euphoria. I guarantee, you won't smell anything like this from any California wine. Eucalyptus, sweet cassis, earth, spices, violets, Havana leaf, and lots of cola. The powerful bouquet never faded, but seemed to even increase in intensity as the wine opened up. On the palate it was balanced and well-proportioned, and content to allow the bouquet to lead. Ripe, rich in tannins, and virtually seamless. 5 (100)


Finally, the 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon “Eisele Vineyard”, Joseph Phelps Vineyards to wrap up the ’79 flight. Simple and uncomplicated, it mesmerized with its rich, soft, plump black and cherry fruit flavors that remain bright and fresh as the wine approached its fourth decade. 3 (90).


The 1979 vintage is a wonderful finalé for the greatest decade in California Cabernets. What a glorious evening! My greatest California wine night. How awesome for all the wines to taste fresh without any signs of fading soon: proof not only of the wines’ longevity, but also of their impeccable provenance. An inspired tasting courtesy of a most inspiring collector. Thank you, Kevin.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Clos Puy Arnaud

“Influenced by the spirit of Burgundy—looking for minerality, for fruit; looking for barrels, for fruit that balances the wine.” So explains Thierry Valette his vision for the wines of Clos Puy Arnaud as we walked through his vineyards on the morning of Easter Monday.

Thierry Valette holding a piece of calcaire from his vineyard

Clos Puy Arnaud (eagle’s view) is perched high on the plateau of Belves de Castillon in Côtes de Castillon. This is a small and magnificent estate. I can easily see why Thierry Valette, the proprietor, was excited to purchase the property upon discovering it soon after his family sold Château Pavie. Even on a cloudy day it was very bright here, as well as airy, with plenty of open skies looking down on the vineyards. The 7-hectare vineyard surrounding the winery and residence (another 2 hectares are located in another area of Belves) is on the plateau, with topsoils so shallow that the calcaire bedrock protrudes to the surface on some portions.

The special terroir is farmed following organic and biodynamic principles. A team of just five persons work in the estate year-round, including Thierry and Anne Caldéroni, who is the oenologist. Stephane Derenoncourt, the top consulting winemaker in Côtes de Castillon, was Thierry’s mentor between 2001 and 2004.

The vineyards are planted mostly to Merlot, with Cabernet Franc making up most of the difference and both Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere accounting for a tiny portion. I find it interesting that Carmenere, a varietal that has almost disappeared in Bordeaux, is given expression here. The average age of the vines is 35-years-old, almost entirely accounted for by the Merlot which are planted on the best site, on the plateau, as it makes the most interesting wine in this terroir. Replanting is going on, mostly Cabernet Franc and some Merlot.

In the cellar, a sorting table could be found next to the destemmer, but I’m not entirely sure how useful it is. Thierry says they purposely leave 1%-2% green grapes to the mix that go in the vats, and that there is a measure of overripe and underripe grapes that account for part of the blend. Yields are by no means high, but not very low either, 32-35 hl/ha.

Thierry on pigeage.jpg
Thierry Valette showing pigeage

I was starting to have a clearer understanding of Thierry Valette’s vision for this estate. Great terroir, organic and biodynamic farming, and a conscious effort to maintain a sense of balance in the winemaker’s inevitable intervention. My curiosity rose at how all these translate into the wine.

Thierry opened the valve of the cement vat that stores the 2006 vintage to draw a sample. The blend is 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 70% Merlot aged in one-third new oak. 2006 was a brutal harvest in Côtes de Castillon because of the rains, and Clos Puy Arnaud lost 35% of its crops. It smelled of oak and fresh blueberry aromas. Dark and flavorful, the wine is well-structured with good acidity and rich tannins. How it would integrate over the next several months until it is bottled and released I have no idea, but it will be very interesting. 2006 is not a vintage I find very promising in the right bank, yet I’m always on the lookout for exceptions.

Cement vats in Clos Puy Arnaud's cellar

We went into the chai where the 2007s are resting in barrels. Thierry has an instructive and enlightening approach to tasting young wines from barrel based on barrel elevage, rather on blocks, varietals, or clones. You see the influence of the barrels on the development of the wines. From the winemaker’s standpoint, I can see how this approach makes sense.

So, first a 2007 Merlot in Tronçais oak: dark, ripe, fruity but a bit green;
Next, 20007 Merlot in Taransaud oak: more open, rounded, fruity, good midpalate, good fullness in the mouth, one gets the sense that this is a complete wine;
2007 Merlot in Taransaud oak with more toast: spicy, Grenache-like nose, more vanilla, rough finish;
2007 Merlot without oak from stainless steel barrel: fresh, fruity, pure Merlot taste;
2007 Merlot in Berthomieu barrel: sweet, fruity aromas, powerful, rich, good tannins, toasty;
Finally, 2007 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Carmenere in Taransaud oak: fruity, spicy, licorice, minty flavors, rich tannins.

My clear favorite was the second barrel.

Thierry got increasingly absorbed with the wines as we tasted, as he has to decide soon the representative blend for next week’s en primeur. I thought he has some very good raw material to work with. Having tasted the components, I’m surprised at how promising this 2007 vintage is for Clos Puy Arnaud and, perhaps, for the right bank as well.

I had a fantastic time with Thierry, and I’m thankful for him for the experience and the opportunity to learn something about this special but little-known estate. As I was leaving, I grew excited about dinner later that night at L’Envers du Décor in St.-Emilion, where Thierry will bring the 2001 and 2005 Clos Puy Arnaud. All these tastings simply teased me, and I’m dying to drink and savor his wines!