Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beaune… Rhymes with Home

Beaune rhymes with home...

OK, well maybe not that much, but in my mind it does, and that’s all that counts.

Troglodytes on the Loire

I took the sloooooooooooooow train from Angers to Beaune, a leisurely 6 hour ride on a TER (ironically that stands for Train Express Regional, which, I suppose if you weren’t going from one side of the country to the other, it might qualify as). One interesting thing about following the Loire upstream was passing by its renowned chalk cliffs and hillsides, into which intrepid folks had dug charming homes and wineries. I once stayed in one of these so-called “troglodyte” places, in a B&B outside Azay-le-Rideau. My room was an old kitchen complete with bread oven, dug right into the living rock. Super cool.

Streets suffused with history

I arrived in Beaune at 9:30pm and started walking into town. I couldn’t help but grinning immediately: it had been 4.5 years since I’d last been here, and I was happier than a schoolboy on Christmas morning. I didn’t care that it was freezing, I didn’t care that my laptop bag kept falling off my suitcase on the uneven cobblestones, I didn’t care that it was pitch black and there was no one out: I was home.

Place Monge

There’s something about Beaune and Burgundy for me. The first time I visited, I felt like I was coming home, as if I actually belonged here. Maybe in a past life, I was a Burgundian Duke or winemaker (more likely a peasant, but hey, I’d have lived in Burgundy!). To me, this is IT. This is the vinous Holy Land. I do love other wine regions, but my soul belongs here. I don’t know how or why, that’s just the way it is. Your money may vary.

Hey, nice house!

And that, however, is the key word: money. To enjoy these wines, money is what you need these days. Wines from the area have shot up in price as their popularity has increased, which sucks for those of us on a budget. And it certainly doesn’t help that the better ones are made in tiny quantities. Of course, they’re much cheaper at the source, so I took advantage of that… But I was here for work, not play, or at least not that much play.

Love these guys

I was here to meet some new winemakers and visit some old friends at better-known domaines like Dujac, Jadot, and Evening Land/Lafond. Whitney Woodham, a friend from NYC who’s the GM for Evening Land, generously drove me around, and as we passed from one legendary medieval village to another I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. The sun shone on naked vines carpeting the eastern side of the valley as we wandered, and I leaned forward hungrily, trying to drink in all the sights in case I didn’t come back for a while.

Whitney poses in front of the Evening Land offices

My tastings went pretty well, I am happy to report, though there’s a lot of work left to be done, as usual. Pricing is relatively stratospheric, especially to someone used to dealing with much lower price points. With the economy improving and my network of customers asking for better wines, I want a Burgundy. So we’ll see. Keeping fingers, toes, ears, eyes and tongue crossed…

Jadot's chai

I should add that the 2010 reds/whites at the places I tasted were very nice, with pure fruit and exceptional structure, reminding me of slightly warmer, more balanced 2008s. Now that’s a vintage I’m really enjoying for its pure red fruit and bright acidity. As for the 2011s, well, it’s a tough call as they haven’t even gone through malo yet, but there was excellent potential in the ones I tried. Of course, with Burgundy, there's always one rule year in, year out: producer, producer, producer.

Oooooooooh sooooo good

My four days in Beaune flew by in a flash. There were several wonderful dinners with some lovely wines, new acquaintances were made, old friendships were rekindled, and despite the freakishly cold weather (5°F one morning, you read that right) the sun was bright, the sky was blue, and there was a spring in my step. I boarded the slow TER back to Angers with more than a tinge of regret. I promise I’ll be back, Beaune, and sooner than 4.5 years. That, I promise you.

Au revoir ma Belle Bourgogne!
PS: Pictures of Burgundy can be found HERE.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Geektime in Angers

The Chateau with a sprinkling of snow

Just when I thought I had geeked out enough on Organic or Biodynamic wines in Montpellier, here came the real geek shows in Angers, in the Loire Valley: La Renaissance des Terroirs, La Dive Bouteille, and the new Salon des Vignerons Bio (because another one is what’s really needed…), one after another. Basically three days of non-stop small producer Organic, Biodynamic or Natural wines being poured by the winemakers themselves, usually in absolutely stunning settings.

The center of Angers

Angers is a small lovely city in the Loire Valley. It’s very old, and sort of looks like what I imagine a scrubbed down medieval 5th and 6th Arrondissement in Paris would look like without all the knights, the peasants or the Plague. It’s always a pleasure to be there, even if in winter it can be pretty cold and humid. Luckily, we have lots of yummy wines and delicious food to keep us warm.

The Renaissance des Appellations Show

First up: La Renaissance des Appellations at the ancient Greniers St Jean. This stunning setting almost overwhelms you when you enter, with high ceilings, gorgeous wooden arches and stone pillars embracing the thirsty crowd. The room is quickly filled with Natural, Organic or Biodynamic fans, both journalists and buyers. Some of the favorites of the geek crowds are always in attendance (Pinon, Huards, Larmandier, etc…), and their tables are always crowded. There are also lots of interesting new producers, and it's a thrill to discover something new and delicious. Still, despite the increasing quality of the wines, there are still way too many bad examples using their labels as marketing tools. Natural/Organic/Biodynamic should not be an excuse for sloppy winemaking.

The Chateau de Brézé

The next day was the Main Event that I'd been really looking forward to: La Dive Bouteille. If I thought the Greniers St Jean were beautiful, the Château de Brézé outside Saumur, where this tasting takes place, is absolutely stunning. This breathtaking castle has very steep moats that were never filled with water, and there are stairs that lead to caves cut into its sides, where the tastings were held.

The caves fill up

This tasting is much more informal, as the winemakers stand next to overturned barrels and pour you their wines. You pretty much spit onto the cave floor, which is always fun. Each cave has several regions, and you can find some pretty amazing wines here. Again, there are some crappy ones too, but that’s to be expected. There’s a lot more energy here among both the presenters and the attendees, it’s more like a wine geek festival than a business meet and greet like the Renaissance. Which is fine by me.

Jean-Pascal and Pascal say "bonjour"

I was joined by my Muscadet producer Jean-Pascal Aubron and my Azay-le-Rideau winemaker Pascal Pibaleau, both of whom have a natural curiosity and love discovering what their neighbors are doing (warning, I’m biased about them as I think they’re doing some great work, so deal with it. It’s my blog after all). As we bounced from barrel to barrel, it was so thrilling to hear them compare notes with their friends. Why’d you do this? Why’d you do that? How’s this turning out? As a wine-lover, and someone who loves learning how things are made, this was beyond cool. And MAN were some of those wines good.

The new Salon des Vignerons Bio de la Loire

Finally, the newest show on the block arrived, and this was more like a Renaissance-light than something completely different. That said, there were many more small and younger wineries, which can be both good (high quality, exciting wines), and bad (high prices, small production, or just plain bad wines). Pascal was showing his wines here too, so it was great catching up with him as he’s such a wonderful person, full of warmth and humility despite the quality of his wines.

That night, Jean-Pascal drove in from his winery in Vallet to join us for a long, delicious and wine-soaked dinner, my last one in Angers for a week. I said my sad farewells to them, only to be reminded that we’d be seeing each other in a few days at the huge Salon des Vins de la Loire.

Finally, off to BURGUNDY!!!!

PS: Here's a full album of pictures from La Dive Bouteille for your enjoyment.
PPS: There are also picture albums of Domaine Sauvaire-Reilhe and Chateau la Croix des Pins in that Facebook folder.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

InterMezzo Visits

Domaine Sauvaire-Reilhe's 16th Century tower

After Millesime Bio, I had some time before the next round of shows in Angers, in the Loire, so I headed off to Crespian, in the Coteaux du Languedoc, north of Nîmes. Yes, I was going to be abusing my palate some more, er, I mean tasting more wine, but this time at the domaines themselves. I was there to see Hervé Sauvaire, owner and winemaker at Domaine Sauvaire-Reilhe. His family has owned this winery since the 1600s, when one of his ancestors received it as a wedding gift. Talk about a generous present!

Old-vine Carignan

Their home still has a 16th century tower, though of course it’s been renovated. Hervé met me at the train station and we drove up into his vineyards, located on rocky hillsides around his house. He’s got some crazy old vine Grenache, Carignan and Vermentino, as well as Syrah, planted in super rocky soils. When you see where these vines grow, you wonder how they can survive let alone thrive.

The winery- look Ma, no oak!

Hervé shares his chai with 2 other winemakers, and while one of them does use oak, Hervé does not. To me, this keeps the wines fresh and light on their feet, with bracing acidity balancing out the beautiful, deep minerally fruit. And while his winemaking’s not “Certified” Organic or Biodynamic or Natural, he does take loving care of his soils, as they have fed his family for centuries with the quality of his wines. And I’m not the only one to think so, his wines have been selling very well in the NY market, which makes me very happy.

Say Bonjour to Hervé!

Hervé himself is really lovely and down to earth, with huge hands that have been weathered by years in the vineyards. He’s serious, but a smile comes easily to his face. It’s people like him that make this business worthwhile. Getting them the recognition for their work is something that delights me, and just recharges my batteries. So after a hearty lunch of bull stew (a local specialty that was delicious) and his wines, off I went to see my newest winery, in the Ventoux, Croix des Pins.

Bienvenue to Croix des Pins

Croix des Pins was an old and crumbling property until Jean-Pierre Valade and two of his wine-making friends got together and started renovating it. They also purchased some vineyards at the foot of the steep Dentelles de Montmirail mountains, all old-vine Syrah and Grenache on terraced hillsides. Using Organic principles, their goal is to make wines that are pure expressions of their local terroirs. Yeah, every winemaker says that, but at the end of the day the proof is in the bottle. These wines are crisp, spicy representations of their appellations, Ventoux, Gigondas and Crozes Hermitage. And I’m not the only one to think that, Steve Tanzer’s Rhône reviewer Josh Raynolds scored them well:

And thus another long, lusty dinner with lots of wine ensued, and lots of laughter. These are soulful, good-humored folks who are thrilled to be bringing these vineyards back to life. And I’m really happy to be able to represent them in the US.
Gnarly old vines