Sunday, May 27, 2012

A little aging goes a long way: Aligoté and Lopez de Heredia

As I was tasting through a lineup of roses at Frankly Wines in Tribeca on Wednesday, I asked owner Christy Frank why no one in New York carries the Olivier LeFlaive Aligoté that I'd enjoyed so much the previous day at Aquavit. I mentioned the comparison with the de Moor, and she asked what years they were - 2009 for the LeFlaive, 2010 for the de Moor. Aligoté is meant to be drunk very young, but Frank suggested that the extra year could well have been critical in ridding the LeFlaive of what she called "that battery acid taste," which had displeased one of my coworkers who drank the de Moor on its own. Frank said that within the last year she bought some Aligoté from Domaine A. et P. De Villaine. Aubert De Villaine is the co-owner and co-director of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, whose wines are the most hallowed, and expensive, in Burgundy. Frank bought a few cases of the Aligoté on close-out from the distributor both because they were cheaper and because the extra time in the bottle softened the wine's acidity and made for a much more drinkable beverage. (If you're in Chicago, you can pick up a bottle of the 2009 at Binny's for $24.)

I experienced the difference a few years in bottle can make yesterday in drinking a 2001 Lopez de Heredia Vina Gravonia, a wine entirely of Viura, which is also known as Macabeo. I had the same wine two years ago, probably not long after its release in the U.S. and remember it as being almost unpleasantly sharp. Yesterday, though, it had a beautiful soft gingerbread smell and, one of my friends said, a touch of petrol (a good thing, as in a Riesling, but perhaps one that needs a descriptor more appealing to Americans who don't like gas fumes). The acidity had receded into the background but gave the wine a backbone and allowed it to stand up to a softy, smelly cow's milk cheese.

That same backbone of acidity was present in a 1991 Heredia cosecha, their grand reserve Viura that I bought at the winery in November in a spasm of vacation-induced profligacy and drank at lunch on Friday. It started off smelling like hazelnuts, then rolled into orange zest, lemon zest, light caramel and popcorn with butter and salt. Many of those flavors come courtesy of the Kentucky and Missouri oak barrels in which the wine is aged for years on end. A pea soup brought out the floral quality in the wine, which went perfectly with a Spanish blue cheese. Heredia's best whites can age for decades, but the people at the winery said this one was ready to drink, and they knew their product. If the euro keeps dropping, I may feel less guilty about picking up another one when I go back to Haro this fall.  


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A softer Aligoté and a cheap LeFlaive for those on the left coast

Aligoté is Burgundy's other white grape, the very poor cousin of Chardonnay. But many of the region's good producers offer affordable wines made from Aligoté. Olivier and Alice de Moor offer one that's about $20 and goes nicely with oysters. One MFWC member thought the de Moor Aligoté went well with a simple spring picnic; another found the acidity unpleasant when he consumed a bottle on its own.

They'd both be happier with the 2009 Aligoté from Olivier LeFlaive, whose Puligny-Montrachet I sampled in January. Aquavit, the outpost of Scandinavian cuisine in Midtown, has the LeFlaive Aligoté for $14 a glass, and it's a winner with the restaurant's herring and bouillabaisse. The wine has enough acidity to stand up to both but is cleaner and rounder than the de Moor, with a touch of oak. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be available in New York, though Frederic Wildman has the 2010 listed on its website. Assuming a per bottle price of $15, it's worth keeping an eye out for:    

Those of you in the Bay Area can cool your heels with another affordable LeFlaive:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Austrian olfactory overload - and a damn good $15 red

Wine dinners challenge the guest in two ways. The need to remain reasonably sober is obvious; hence the small pours and the spit buckets meant to facilitate the evaluation of a dozen or more wines. But even for those disciplined enough to avoid overindulgence, sensory overload is almost inevitable, not just for the palate, but for the nose. Several hours of swirling and sniffing in search of subtle aromas is in its way as mentally taxing as taking a law school exam.

That's especially true when the smells are unfamiliar, as they were last week at a dinner where the wines of Austria were poured. (See for a description.) Austria is most famous in this country for its whites, particularly Gruner Veltliner, the grape most widely grown in the country, and Riesling. The shorthand description of an everyday Gruner is tropical fruit with some white pepper, but that seemed a woefully inadequate description of a higher order of the species from Rudi Pichler in a magnum that the Austrian Wine Marketing Board sent over for the event along with several others. It had pineapple and white pepper, but there was an almost floral smell I couldn't place, which would be a theme of the evening for me - sort of like the many law school exam questions I couldn't figure out how to unlock. I could only describe many of the wines as herbal in the way a liquor might refract and concentrate the smell of a particular herb, but i couldn't place the herb. My vocabulary of smells was impoverished.

The aphasia reached its apex with a 2007 Blaufrankisch from Paul Achs. The nose was entrancing, and the wine tasted like a very good burgundy, but after three hours of sniffing, that was the best I could manage. A few days later, I wandered into Astor Wines and asked their Austrian expert about Achs. The wine I had isn't imported into the U.S., but I picked up a 2009 Achs zweigelt as well as one from Rosi Schuster, a producer in Burgenland, the easternmost part of Austria. For $15, it was a really good wine, well-balanced, nice, controlled fruit, and just enough tannin to keep you honest. It had the liveliness and lightness of a good Beaujolais but enough complexity to hold my attention. It's a wine that will bring me back to the Austrian red section.     

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The mysteries of vintage

Wine geeks with money obsess about vintage. The wines that echo through the decades have a year appended to them, like the 1947 Cheval Blanc and the 1961 Latour that were famous enough to win a shout-out in the movie Ratatouille. Sometimes the year itself takes top billing, as with the 1982s from Bordeaux. These are legendary wines with prices to match. As someone who frequents far more modest precincts of the wine universe, MFWC has often wondered why vintage matters. Intellectually, I understand that weather varies from year to year, especially in Europe, and that differences in temperature and rainfall can have dramatic effects on the wine. The '47 Cheval Blanc is itself the product of an intensely hot summer in Bordeaux. But how does this manifest itself in everyday wines?

I got my first inkling a few months ago at Gramercy Tavern when I split a bottle of Michel Gahier's 2009 La Vigne de Louis, a wine made from the Trousseau grape. Trousseau is grown only in the Jura, in northeastern France, and it generally produces a light wine. This one had a fuller nose and was much more robust than I had expected - more alcohol, bigger flavors, and much less obvious acidity. The same thing happened when I drank the Gahier Grand Vergers that I picked up at Union Square Wines during one of their sales. It turns out that 2009 was a hot year throughout Europe. The hotter the climate, the more sugar the grapes produce, and the more alcohol the wine made from them has. The French have a term for this, coups de soleil, or sunburn, to which Pinot Noir is especially susceptible because it ripens earlier than other grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is more impervious to heat, which makes it a better grape for California. (The you, Oxford Wine Dictionary.)  

If sunburn tastes like the 2009 Volnay Premier Cru "Carelle Sous la Chapelle" from Domaine Rossignal-Fevrier, I can live without it. Wines from Volnay, in Burgundy, are famous for their delicacy, the OWD tells us, but this one had all the subtlety of a 240-pound fullback rumbling for three yards and a first down before meeting a linebacker head-on. The wine's heat - its alcohol - was too much for me when I tasted it last week at a gathering of lawyers in New York. In fairness, the person next to be very much enjoyed it, but she and her husband prefer bigger wines.

But vintage shouldn't lead to overly sweeping judgments, as the other wine served at the dinner showed. Aloxe-Corton is about seven miles northeast of Volnay, with the small town of Beaune right in the middle. (Puligny-Montrachet, whence the bargain-bin 2009 Olivier Leflaive I had this winter, is five miles south of Volnay; Arbois in the Jura is 60 miles east as the crow flies.) The '09 Dubreil Fontaine Premier Cru from Corton-Charlemagne near Aloxe-Corton was delicious. Served a little too cold at the cocktail hour that preceded the dinner, its acidity was forward, but once it warmed up, its nose was entrancing, beautiful, delicate, soft. I didn't take notes, since I was ostensibly at the dinner in a professional capacity, but the wine seemed better integrated and more polished than the Puligny-Montrachet. Delicacy prevents me from discussing the crass question of value in this case, but it's safe to say that I won't write off the 2009 whites from Burgundy.