Syrah, A Beguiling Grape + The Question of Sulfites / Sulfur In Wine

This week, my Eater column came out, this time on the noble and somewhat shape-shifting grape, Syrah. I focused on French and American iterations of Syrah, because that was a useful parameter for talking about the grape’s history. Check it out hereSome really great bottles in this line-up–find one of them and get drinking!

And, in my Vine Pair column this week, I took on the controversial topic of sulfites / sulfur in wine. Read here

As always, I would love to hear feedback or questions from any of you! Thanks so much for reading

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Picpoul + Limoux, Two Languedoc Appellations To Know

Limoux2_RSCatching up on updating this site with some of my recent coverage!

I wrote about the deliciousness that is Picpoul, a truly underrated grape / appellation, for Food Republic. There are, in my mind, three white wines that are truly knock-out with oysters (excluding the whole sparkling category): Chablis, Muscadet, and Picpoul. And guess what–Picpoul is waaaaaay cheaper than the other two! So, if you’re as broke as me but still like white wine and oysters, you need to read about Picpoul. Plus, the article involves someone aging wine underwater. Read here

And over on Vine Pair, where I have a weekly column, I explored the question of whether that notorious monk Dom Perignon actually cribbed the whole methode champenoise from an appellation in Southern France! Plus, there’s just some good sparkling wine info, which is always helpful since bubbles are somehow way more complicated than they seem. (Every time I think I know all the ways of making sparkling wine, I learn about a new one.) Read here.

Along these same lines (as in, Southern France themed), I sang the praises of dark-hued rosé for Vine Pair. Read here

and soon you’ll be hearing all about mezcal because I just got back from an amazing trip to Oaxaca! I had the pleasure of joining a group of raucous mixologists from around the country for a few days with El Silencio, and then spent time doing independent journalism because even though I believe that balance is importance to telling a good story, and you can’t really get that from visiting one producer only. Hasta pronto!

 

A Visit To Benjamin Taillandier’s Winery In Minervois

IMG_2025When I accepted the invitation to join a press trip around the Languedoc, in Southern France, I made an ask:

“Could I possibly suggest a producer? Benjamin Taillandier? I’ve worked with his wines before and they are quite popular in New York.”

To my surprise, my request was granted. Taillandier makes AOC wine, which is of course the minimum requirement for his inclusion in our itinerary. (Brief run-down of how European wine press trips work: producers pay some kind of fee to belong to the appellation, and that money is combined with EU funding to bring journalists over; we do not need to promise to write anything in return but, of course, that is the hope.)

I think of Taillandier’s wines as approachable, in terms of natural wine. They are under 20 bucks on a retail shelf, are not “too funky” and, in my experience, never display overt bretty notes (that’s brettanomyces, for more on that see my Food Republic explainer on terroir), and most importantly, are simply pleasurable to drink: alive, fresh, just a bit complex, and excellent with food.

When we entered the winery, located in the small town of Caunnes-Minervois, Taillandier was there working with his assistant, who was topping up barrels. The young representative from the AOC wrinkled her nose. “So, is this what you were expecting? A garage?” She gestured to the slightly cramped space around us.

“Yes, this is exactly what I was expecting!” I was not about to let her attitude ruin my experience. And I have no idea what the hell she was talking about anyway, because it really wasn’t that small; I’ve seen wineries the exact same size in various parts of the world.

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Taillandier seems to be in his 30s, though I didn’t confirm. He worked previously for natural winemaker Jean-Baptiste Senat, whose wines I’ve never tried.

The Taillandier line-up includes a white blend from Grenache Gris and an indigenous, lesser-known varietal called Terret; this wine cannot receive AOC Minervois status because of the inclusion of Terret. Welcome to Stupid French Wine Rules. They abound in the Languedoc, in particular. I really liked his white after it had some time to open up; it was mineral and lemony and superb with lightly blanched asparagus topped with shredded parmesan.

As well, Taillandier makes a rosé, from a direct press of whichever red grapes did not turn out that well (he is not a big fan of rosé, but is a big fan of Cinsault, which is what many winemakers use to make their rosé, so he’s generally just a contrarian). The 2015 rosé is Carignan + Syrah and I don’t care what Ben thinks, it’s good. He makes a pét-nat, which we did not get to try and which isn’t imported (Zev, get us some!).

And he also makes three AOC Minervois red blends—the fresh and easy-drinking Laguzelle (an unoaked blend of about 80 percent Cinsault, with the rest Syrah + Carignan); the bright and savory Vini Viti Bibi (70 percent Grenache, with the rest Carignan +Cinsault), and the mineral, bright Bufentis (from old Grenache vines at 400 feet of elevation, plus some Syrah, aged one year in used oak).

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Over lunch, Taillandier ensured that the AOC representative would never again bring journalists to visit him by repeatedly commenting that AOC regulations were stupid because they prevented winemakers from doing their best work. “The rules are made by the big producer, the cooperative wineries, and the rules are made for them, not for the real winery,” he said. “Well, that’s your opinion,” retorted the AOC rep, as if we were going to be brainwashed by him if she didn’t intervene. But Taillandier was no means the only producer who said as much during my visit to the Languedoc-Roussillon. And even without them mentioning it, any wine taster with a good palate can see that some of the indigenous varieties and single-varietal wines, none of which can be included in the AOC, come from the best terroir and oldest vines and taste excellent.

Working minimalistically is key to Taillandier’s winemaking. “Not much work is done in the winery,” he told us, “because it all happens in the vineyard.” We didn’t get to see his 15 hectares of organically farmed vines, but Taillandier explained that they are located in the “freshest part” of Minervois, up to 400 meters in altitude, with Southern exposure. Many of his vines are between 30-50 years old. The grapes are hand-picked, then cold-stabilized. There is no crushing of the red grapes at all; he calls his technique an “infusion” rather than an “extraction.” God, how I wish more winemakers would follow his lead so there would be more drinkable wine in the world. Taillandier uses a basket press for the white and rosé, and he ferments his juice in Fiberglass tanks, and uses nitrogen to prevent oxidation rather than adding sulfur. He makes about 60,000 bottles in total. New Yorkers, you can find these wines fairly easily; I used to sell them at Uva Wines on Bedford Avenue as well as at Henry’s in Bushwick.

 

 

 

 

Roussillon + Languedoc Trip Report

I’ve been sick at home for two days! Sucks, but I’m getting some writing done.

I figured I’d write a blog post about my epic two weeks in the South of France–specifically, the Languedoc-Roussillon, although I did it in reverse order. Important to know: despite this being one political region, the Roussillon and the Languedoc are different. For one, the Roussillon is Catalan (the Languedoc also has an indigenous language that’s similar to Catalan, called Occitan). People in the Roussillon are especially proud of their Catalan heritage, and they continue to speak the language and practice Catalan traditions. And another difference is that the Roussillon specializes in the fortified sweet wines known as vin doux natural. These were also once made in the Languedoc, and still are to an extent, though discreetly.

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But these regions also have a lot in common:

  • they are overlooked in comparison to France’s other wine regions
  • their production is largely dominated by blends, and the AOC regulations favor blends exclusively in basically all categories (red, white, rosé)
  • they have a wide range of producers, from small and boutique to cooperatives to large negociant projects; within the “small and boutique” sector there is some natural and biodynamic wine, though there is also some very bad wine made by wealthy expats, particularly in the Languedoc
  • the terroir is Mediterranean with some Atlantic influence, lots of schist soil and clay, excellent and powerful winds (up to 13 different types) that facilitate organic farming and, above all, the garrigue—wild-growing herbs and plants that seem to lend their bouquet to everything grown there

Without going into the specifics of the producers I visited (yet), here are some of my initial, overall observations of these two areas:

Roussillon: There seems to be some amazing terroir here, like in the Maury region where old, old Grenache vines are bush-farmed in the dramatic black schist. And the vin doux naturel is a fascinating story. All over the Roussillon, coops and individual producers have holdings of this fortified, sweet wine, some in barrel and some already bottled, going back a hundred years or more. These vintage aged wines taste amazing: full of cocoa and coffee notes, and texturally rich without being overbearing. They actually aren’t too sweet and the oxidized ones have smoky subtleties that make them ideal pairings for blue cheese or foie gras.

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But despite the originality of these wines and the low price compared to other well-known botrityzed or sweet fortified wines, the Rouissillon VDN are not particularly famed or talked about. This is a story I’d like to investigate more. And the domaines I was most impressed by in the Languedoc were Domaines des Schistes (the Rancio sec wine he makes is stellar) and Domaine Ferrer Ribière, a partnership between two friends and the 30-year-old daughter of one.

Languedoc: For me, two things were exciting about the five days I spent traveling around the Languedoc: visiting natural winemaker Benjamin Taillandier, whose wines I sold when I worked at Uva and Henry’s, and learning about the recently created (2005) appellation Terrasses du Larzac. In the latter, we visited with the husband-and-wife teams behind Domaine de la Reserve d’O and Mas de Brousses, and I was really impressed by both.

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La Reserve d’O has biodynamically farmed higher elevation terroir, and Mas de Brousses has the interesting fact of being run partly by Xavier Peyraud, the grandson of the Domaine Tempier founder (yes, Mas de Brousses works with Mourvèdre). Picpoul is an underexplored story here, I think, as well, and I have an article coming out soon on Food Republic about those lovely wines. One other very cool visit in the Languedoc was to Domaine de Fontsainte, whose “Gris de Gris” I used to sell at Uva, and where Kermit Lynch made a partnership in his early days.

Ferrer-Ribiere Carignan

And here’s a story I saw across the Languedoc-Roussillon: Carignan. After tasting several single-vineyard Carignan wines from old vines, it was clear to me that this grape is an example of why the AOC’s insistence on blending is detrimental to these regions. So many winemakers in the Languedoc-Roussillon cannot call some of their best cuvées AOC because of the insistence on blending. I heard different justifications of it, from various perspectives, and I think I would have to really know the terroir of this region to be able to fully get it. But there are some amazing Carignan wines being made there, I do know that. Cinsault is another fascinating case where it is widely disregarded. Benjamin Taillandier, however, loves it, and refuses to make rosé with it because it’s “too good.”

Overall, it was a fascinating trip and I liked the Languedoc-Roussillon wines, especially when they were made in a natural style. I think I’ll do an extra blog post about the domaines I mentioned above. This is just an initial assessment.

One more note: I discovered a really good natural wine bar (caves a manger) in Carcassonne, called Lâche Pas La Grappe. Go there and get the meat and cheese board, and try local natural wines, such as Taillandier’s).

Thanks for reading!

 

 

#CheninCheninChenin

IMG_4117Chenin Blanc is one of those varieties that wine lovers really obsess over–and master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier is most obsessed of all. I was so glad to sit down with her and learn the story of how Loire Valley winemakers realized the potential of dry Chenin by improving their vineyard and cellar practices, mainly through a return to non-interventionist winemaking.

Read my article for Eater here. Cheers!

A New Appellation, Ivy Mix Profile

Cairanne, in the Rhone Valley
Cairanne, in the Rhone Valley

My last two Eater articles have been so nerdy. And I fear it’s just the beginning.

First, I wrote about the question: Should natural wine become an “official” category? It’s a real issue in France, at the moment. Thanks to the Big Glou (which, soon, you’ll hear more about, when my article about that tasting finally comes out), I was able to interview some of France’s most important natural winemakers. Read my article on Eater, here.

And then, also for Eater, I wrote about the upgrading of a Rhone Valley appellation, Cairanne, to cru status. I know that sounds kind of boring, but I promise you, appellation politics are more interesting than the election cycle! Read it here.

Plus, I have a super fun profile of the amazingly talented mezcal-smuggling-Speed Rack-founding-Tales of the Cocktail-winning bartender Ivy Mix, on Food Republic. Her Brooklyn bar Leyenda is a must visit. Read my profile feature here.

 

Interviewing the Legendary Winemaker Philippe Pacalet

Pacalet for Tasting PanelThere are a lot of winemakers people like to call “legendary,” and often times, the prices for their bottles are drastically inflated — not just because the stuff tastes good, and comes from pricey vineyard land, but also because of the name behind it.

Philippe Pacalet is one such winemaker, but his fame was earned not only for his skills in the cellar. It is because he is one of the strongest living links to two of the most seminal figures in modern French winemaking: Jules Chauvet, and Marcel Lapierre.

Chauvet was a chemist and winemaker who began experimenting with the elimination of sulfur in winemaking, and Lapierre was one of the winemakers who followed Chauvet’s lead, turning Beaujolais wine back toward its ancestral style of low-sulfur, organic production. It’s this group of winemakers that Kermit Lynch dubbed “the Gang of Four,” and without them (and, arguably, Lynch) we wouldn’t have seen the revolution in style that occurred in French winemaking in the Twentieth Century. (More about that in my Eater article on Gamay, here.)

Pacalet goes great with pizza LOL
Pacalet goes great with pizza LOL

It’s in print and not online, but there is a PDF of my short profile of Pacalet. I have a lot more material from the interview with him and, someday, I’ll do something with it. But here is this snippet, for now. His wines are very expensive and usually need many years of aging to be at their best (I had a 2008 recently that was wonderful), so if you have a chance to taste one, don’t hesitate.