What Does One Drink During A Heat Wave In Paris?

The answer: anything and everything. Lots of water, cold cold beer, and soooo much vin de soif.

Paris, and most of Europe, is just emerging from a terrible heatwave. This past week, an energy-zapping, torturous, four-day cloud of brutally strong sunshine and 37 degree Celsius temperatures made the entire city into a greenhouse. My brain felt cooked. I tried to get work done, but it was really difficult to sit still and concentrate.

That said, I did have an article come out on Monday, ruminating on the phenomenon of “hipster celebrity natural winemaking,” in this case with the launch of Action Bronson’s wine, made in collaboration with a French grower and micronégociant Patrick Bouju. Read the story for Sprudge Wine, here

Other than that, I spent the week working on Terre Magazine; we’re assigning stories to writers around the world, plotting the corresponding artwork, and delving into the massive task of layout design. It’s interesting working with Erika and Katie across the sea, but actually it’s not so hard to communicate. We have some really compelling and unique stories in the works, and I’ll be editing throughout July and August. (For those interested in writing, see these pitching guidelines.)

Due to the heat, I really had no choice but to drink quite a bit this week. Here’s what I’ve gotten into (some of these are from the previous week; my liver’s not THAT hardcore):

Collaborative Septime x Vouette et Sorbée Champagne 

Not your average house wine! The restaurant Septime partnered up with biodynamic Champagne grower Vouette et Sorbée to make a killer special cuvée; it’s effectively the producer’s signature Fidéle blanc de noirs, made from Pinot Noir grown on Kimmeridgian soils in the Aube, but in this case élevage and tirage go a bit longer, according to the woman working at Septime Cave, where I purchased it. The juice is from vintage 2014; disgorgement was in December 2016. All of the V&S wines are rich in texture, vinous, and deeply mineral, and this one is no exception; it had notes of bitter almond, tree barks, and preserved lemons.

Cidrerie du Vulcain, cuvée “Trois Pepins”

I am smitten by the Swiss ciders from garagiste Jacques Perritaz, a former biologist who works with nearly-extinct heritage apple varieties, “remnants of a bygone polyculture,” as written on the Becky Wasserman site. This cuvée blends apples with quince and pear; it’s only 5 percent alcohol and refreshing without being sweet, loaded with mouth-puckering acidity and complex flavors; a perfect drink for aperitif at the charming caves-a-vins La Buvette in the 11ème.

Cancelli “Vini Rabasco” bianco
Trebbiano from a small estate in Abruzzo, niente chimica added, showing the true potential of this grape; the wine has luscious mouthfeel and a healthy dose of salinity layered with good concentration of fruit. Truly a pleasant wine to drink with small plates at La Buvette. I’d drunk the red several times in the U.S. but I actually think this one is more interesting. Not a wine to age, but wonderful for enjoying in a casual setting, and fantastic with pâté.

Etienne Courtois, Romorantin, 2011

If any of you out there have money and want to plant vines in a cool climate wine region, please please find a pépinière (vine gardener, essentially) who has Romorantin and grow it! It’s one of my favorite varieties on the planet, a mouth-puckering combination of lemon drops, white peaches, and stony minerality, and only about 60ha are left in the Loire Valley. The barrel-fermented and -aged Romorantin of Etienne Courtois is one of my favorite wines; it could age for another few years but right now it’s drinking marvelously and it tamed my thirst perfectly the other night at Aux Des Amis.

Luici Tecce, Taurasi, 2011

A bold, ripe Taurasi on a sweltering summer night? Might seem counterintuitive, but I’d been invited by a friend to hang out at a newish spot selling Italian natural wines called Vino Nostrum in the 11ème, and when the owners told us they had only one bottle left of this extremely limited-production, culty Taurasi… we obviously had to buy it and open it on the spot. The DOCG appellation of Taurasi features the Aglianico grape grown on volcanic soils about 500m above sea level, and the wines receive extensive aging in barrel (minimum of three years prior to release, at least one year in wood). Luigi Tecce, who is considered something of a wizard in the region, inherited the family estate in the late 90s when his father passed away; it has 5ha of vines, including some that are over 80 years old. Licorice, smoked meats, tobacco, and ripe raspberries made this a contemplative, complex wine.

La Ferme de Sept Lunes, Viognier/Roussanne, 2015

Rhone whites are under-appreciated. True, they can be flabby and sweet-tasting, but in the hands of certain producers, the unique white varieties of this region really do shine through. La Ferme de Sept Lunes, in Saint Joseph, came onto my radar during a salon I attended a few months back, called Découvertes en Vallée du Rhone. I drank this Voignier/Roussanne blend at La Buvette, and it was the perfect balance of ripe fruit and fresh acidity. In true biodynamic fashion, the estate is polycultural, working with grains and stonefruits. You can purchase their apricot, pear, and grape juices at La Buvette right alongside their wines.

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Why I Wine Write

Most of the time, I hate being a “wine writer.”

What I mean is: I wish I could write anything but journalism about wine: a poem, a novel, might better convey the aspects of wine that I really want to talk about.

It’s extremely difficult, in today’s media climate, to do justice to truly great wine, as a writer. I get a lot of offers from well-funded wineries to travel to their properties, and I typically turn these down—yes, I reject free trips to Tuscany—because I know I won’t like the wine, and I’ll have marketing literally shoved down my throat. Meanwhile, many of the profoundly interesting and moving experiences I’ve had while visiting producers are rejected by editors as “too niche.” Often, it seems that the best approach to writing about the small producers I love actually might be to take really great photos of their bottles with me wearing some hot tiny outfit, saying funny shit, but, well, ha, that job is already taken (and done quite well).

Considering that wine is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively unimportant—the stakes are much lower when it comes to, say, discussing the merits of organic wine, versus reporting on cancer research or the war in Sudan or fill-in-the-blank with thousands of subjects—wine writers deal with disproportionate levels of criticism and pressure. We are, privately or publicly, slammed by strangers and people we know, when we write something people disagree with or if we’ve made a mistake in our description of a wine. (As well, I think wine writers in the natural wine scene are viewed with skepticism because we’re highlighting very small producers whose juice is quite limited.) It’s completely impossible to please everybody, and it’s also really hard, unless you’ve made wine before or you’re a goddamn whiz of a researcher, to get every detail right—especially considering that just about none of the wine publications out there employ fact-checkers (if they do, sometimes they know nothing about wine; these are typically college interns). Of course, I am not exempt from lashing out against other wine writers who pen stuff that I find offensive. And I am deeply respectful of people—like Alice Feiring and Peter Liem—who have figured out business models that work for them in order to write independently, and I’m trying to figure this out for myself.

The long-standing cliché that wine is “bottled poetry” bears some relevance here. It’s really hard to translate a vintner’s relationship with land, and thousands of years of history—or a few hundred years or decades, as in most New World scenarios—into something communicable to a general audience. (It is literally “lost in translation.”) I’m thinking now about a wine I tasted at Benoît Lahaye’s estate in Champagne, when I visited this past February. I adore the dry-as-a-bone, electric Champagnes of Lahaye, who farms just under 5 hectares in Bouzy with biodynamics (certified by Biodyvin).

“Violaine” is a vintage wine, consisting of 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that Lahaye makes since 2008 completely without sulfites (sans soufre); it also receives no dosage. It is named for the village his grandfather and his wife’s grandfather came from; Lahaye’s grandfather, if I understood correctly (this was all discussed in French) was orphaned at a young age, and Benoît’s wife’s family actually took him in—so in other words, this couple’s grandparents were once living under the same roof. As I write this, I’m a bit worried that I’m not getting all the details right, but the point is: inextricable family histories, intangible connections, all these deeply personal things are put into a bottle and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never quite be able to replicate their essence in words. Nor do my tasting notes: “intense, pure chalkiness, rich texture, throughline of minerality but also a satisfying roundness” actually really convey the experience of tasting this wine, especially once Lahaye had explained the story behind its name.

But the fact that I’m not 100 percent sure of the details of the story is an excellent demonstration of how difficult it is to write about wine: to confirm, I would need to return to Lahaye’s home and re-interview him to make sure I understand every part of it correctly—which, obviously, would delight me—but to do all that I would need money and time, both of which are rare currency for wine writers. (This, of course, is related to my earlier point, that wine is not as vital as medicine or as impactful as politics.)

But this specific wine and this specific story are only one of many that make wine—true wine; “natural” wine; meaning wine that reflects small, specific places and does not attempt to mask the whims of climate—so incredibly difficult to explain and capture. There’s an element of mysticism. I’ve heard great winemakers stumble in trying to express it; I’ll never forget my first wine trip to France—I really lucked out and got to tag along for a few days with the Becky Wasserman crew in Burgundy, and they brought me to Frederic Mugnier’s cellar. I think I asked him some kind of prompt about the meaning of the word “terroir,” and he thought very carefully before responding: “We try, and we look at the soil, but we don’t really know exactly what it is.” That moment has come back to me many times in my wine research. I don’t think he meant, of course, that soil type doesn’t matter. But there are these oddities of life—an ancestor who shared a home with your spouse’s ancestor; a difficult vintage that turns out masterfully; a grape nearly lost to humanity that, somehow, persists in growing—which give wine its true magic. And, as much as I would like to try to communicate these things, I am often at a complete loss. 

Fortunately for every one of us, the simplest way to experience wine is without any mediation at all, by simply drinking it. Maybe the stories I want to tell about wine are best relegated to some kind of Proustian novel about all the incredible personalities I’ve encountered or befriended as I spend more time studying the culture of natural wine. Often, when I taste a really striking wine, or I meet a bold, renegade winemaker, I ask myself: how can I, as a writer, be more like this winemaker, or produce something as incredible as this wine? And I’m at a loss for an answer, most of the time. But I guess the reason I keep writing is that I hope, one day, that I will find the answer, and that I’ll deliver some work of writing that even comes close to the elegance I’ve found in so many bottles. And that I’ll be as strong-willed, proud of my labors, and, well, “unfiltered,” let’s say, as the winemakers I admire.

Bubbles & Eggs at Egg Shop Nolita, March 15th

bubbles-and-eggs-flyerIn our culture, bubbly wines are too often reserved for special occasions or celebrations. But I strongly believe that, first of all, every day should be celebrated just a little bit, and definitely with delicious wine and food–and secondly, sparkling wines can be handcrafted, terroir-expressive wines with incredible flavor and personality. Bubbly is also fun because it comes in so many different forms–pét-nat, true Champagne and methode champenoise, off-dry, etc–and it’s so light and fresh and delicious.

On March 15th, for one night only, I’m pairing up with chef Nick Korbee at Egg Shop in Nolita, for a special 5-course meal featuring exceptional sparkling wines, with dishes paired to go with them. (Yes, we chose the wines first, and then decided on the dishes!) It’s going to be a lot of fun–the perfect mid-week, and mid-March, pick-up–and I’d love to see you there. Tickets can be purchased via this EventBrite link; there are two seatings but space is very limited, so act quickly. If you’re the kind of person who likes to dine solo (like me!), you’ll enjoy the spots at the bar, and you can high five me as I run around the restaurant like a crazy person with magnums of Gamay rosé. Oh, and there will be a special welcome cocktail, too, courtesy of Boukman Rhum. See you there on the 15th!

The Ultimate Event And Book For Champagne Lovers

img_5459If you’ve ever had the chance to taste really good Champagne, you are undoubtedly aware of how special, terroir-driven, historical, and complex this famous bubbly wine from Northern France can be. There are some bad Champagnes out there, true, but with a bit of research it’s remarkably easy to find extraordinary Champagnes from growers and houses alike, in the $45-55 range at a good retail store.

Two great ways to learn more about Champagne: (1) buy the wonderful new book, But First Champagne, by the Washington DC-based writer David White; he spent time in the region getting to know producers of all sorts, and the book is written in a way that’s very approachable, no matter your level of knowledge. If you like picking up a special bottle of Champagne from time to time and enjoying it with dinner–because Champagne is not just for celebrations!–then you’ll appreciate having this book at home. 

(2) go to the Fête du Champagne! Generally speaking, this event (taking place in New York, various events Nov 3-6, grand tasting Nov 5 at the Metropolitan Pavilion) is mostly geared toward those who already drink quite a bit of Champagne. But there is a very cool seminar on offer with Champagne expert Peter Liem, for just $95, that will basically survey the region through six wines, which I’m sure will include some special selections. 

If you do live in New York, check out the Fête, and I’ll see you at the Grand Tasting! Also, it’s a nice way to get your palate primed for RAW Wine fair, Nov 6-7–but more about that to come! Check back here next week for a profile of RAW founder Isabelle Legeron, an overview of RAW, and a listing of events (i.e. after-parties and ticketed dinners) with RAW producers. Meanwhile, I’m off to buy some liver-cleansing vitamins, to prepare.

 

Tasting With Michael Cruse + Hardy Wallace, The Laurel and Hardy of California Wine

During a brief trip to Sonoma over the summer, I swung by the Cruse Wine Co custom crush facility in Petaluma. It was full-on harvest, so I felt lucky to be able to steal some time from Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy, and Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine and Ultramarine. I’ve admired their respective wines for some time, and it was fascinating to glimpse these very different projects side-by-side.

I’ve written before about how Dirty and Rowdy came to be, and about their devotion to the Mourvèdre grape. Cruse, I was less familiar with until sometime last spring, when I had a Cruse Pinot Gris at Rebelle one night; it wooed me with its boisterous aromas and notes of lemons, white peaches. That wine is no longer be part of the Cruse Wines line-up, as the vineyard changed ownership. But that’s the way things go, for winemakers who purchase fruit; Dirty and Rowdy will no longer make Semillion, one of their most beloved wines, because the vineyard has been sprayed with Round-Up, a poisonous weed killer. Along with the fact that both of these winemakers purchase fruit from various vineyards around Northern and Central California, they also both work in a very natural manner—indigenous fermentations, very low levels of sulfites, no bullshit additions at all. Those are the main unifying factors between them.

cruse-bottles-canon

Despite the fact that Hardy and Michael both buy fruit and both make fantastic natural wine, I had never considered them together, in any way. Their wines are quite different stylistically; as Michael put it: “maybe Hardy’s wines are more of a terroir investigation and mine are more of a, I don’t know, drinking investigation, [but] they’re still two sides of the same coin.” (There’s a bit of humor there, but I think Michael really means that his wines are about drinkability.) Michael emphasizes that his project is to make “wine like California used to make wine,” something he also phrased as making “table wine” when I interviewed him last spring, in New York, over a drink at The Dutch. Michael gives the impression of wanting to represent or emulate a time when California wine was a little more humble, maybe a time when wine in general was more humble—less hyped up by somms, and maybe writers like me, oops.

Meanwhile, the Dirty and Rowdy wines are born of an obsession with dry-farmed, high-elevation, old vines, particularly the Provençal grape variety Mourvèdre. The fact that all of these Mourvèdre wines are made in a relatively similar fashion (100 percent whole cluster, no destemming, old barrels) is a nod to—or even a direct replication of—a fairly Old World style of examining and working with terroir. There are also Dirty and Rowdy blends, of course, and white wines and a pét-nat, but the label is generally known for the rustic, earthy, and complex Mourvèdres.

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-29-25-am

Despite having such different projects, the two have found themselves working side-by-side, as Hardy recently moved into the Cruse winery in Petaluma. The famous slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy met in 1921; six years later they became a team and proceeded to make 107 films together, allowing their approaches to comedy to play off each other. Cruse and this Hardy weren’t exactly kicking each other in the butts and slipping on banana peels during our tasting, but they do have a friendly, spitfire humor going on, amidst a strong conversation about what California wine is and what it could be. I would also bet you that their winemaking styles are going to influence each other over time, if they aren’t already (there is a “DRC” wine in the works—“Dirty, Rowdy, Cruse,” a Furmint from Mendocino, but I didn’t taste it). And I think it goes without saying, but as a writer it’s still my duty to say it here, that Cruse Wine, Ultramarine, and Dirty and Rowdy represent an incredibly thoughtful, almost obsessive effort to discover the ultimate potential of California wine, by sourcing from the most unique sites, and exploring forgotten varieties. In a sense, this post should be about the vineyards these wines come from, rather than the bottlings themselves. But that will have to be my next trip.

I’ll let the tasting notes speak for the rest of the visit.

Cruse, 2012 Ultramarine Blanc de Noir

The Ultramarine wines, which have varied from year-to-year between blanc de noir, blanc de blancs, and rosé, are culty, very limited production traditional method sparkling wines that have become something of an Instagram phenomenon. It’s not without reason. Michael’s approach is inspired by the growers of Champagne, particularly those who have experience working in the oxidative tradition spearheaded by Anselme Selosse; Michael names Alexandre Chartogne and Jerome Prévost as two examples. The idea is that Ultramarine wines are single-vintage, and single-vineyard, single-varietal wines—terroir in bubbles, autremente dit. For our tasting, Michael disgorged his 2012 Ultramarine of Heintz Pinot Noir, of which fewer than 500 cases total were made; it will be riddled and racked this fall, then disgorged, and out to his list over the winter, then distribution in spring. The wine had no sulfur or dosage added; it displayed gorgeous, ripe stonefruits and candied lemon on the nose; the palate was rich and supple, followed by pure acidity. Such a beautiful wine now, it will be incredibly good once it’s been properly disgorged, although I imagine it would be even better were it laid down for at least a year, and there’s no question that cellaring a few bottles of these would be brilliant. (Please share one with me, if you do that.)

Dirty and Rowdy, 2014 Melon de Bourgogne Antle Vineyard:

This is a high elevation site (1700 feet above sea level) in the Chalone appellation, with subterranean limestone, and a rare planting of Melon de Bourgogne. Despite the elevation, Hardy finds that the grapes don’t have high enough acidity, so he aims for minerality in this wine. To achieve this, he leaves the juice macerating on the skins for 40 days in a one-ton bin fermenter; the juice is then moved to barrel, where it stays for about 18 months. The wine showed notes of freshly grated orange zest and delicate white flowers, and had a nice, round texture, followed by soft, wispy tannins. Hardy recommends decanting this wine.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Antle Mourvèdre

Hardy makes eight Mourvèdre wines, and he broke them down for us like this: “Antle, Shake Ridge and Evangelho are at the darker-fruit end of the spectrum. Santa Barbara Highlands, Skinner Oak Flats, Skinner Stony Creek, are on the redder-fruit side of the spectrum.” This Antle Vineyard Mourvèdre is from as slightly higher plot than the Melon—as much as 2000 feet. Hardy always does 100 percent whole cluster with Mourvèdre, lending the wines that brambly, rustic character often ascribed to Bandol. The nose on this wine was a bit reduced at first, then opened up to lush red and blue berries; on the palate, the wine traveled quickly from fruit to intense acidity that made my mouth water, and then to a strong, stony minerality. I was very moved by this wine and thought it was one of the best examples of Dirty and Rowdy that I can remember tasting.

Cruse, 2015 Saint-Laurent pét-nat

Michael is very passionate about pét-nat; he sees is as a “slightly more transparent way to make wine,” he told us, and believes strongly that good pét-nat requires technical expertise. For this reason, he is of the opinion that proper sparkling wines need disgorgement—because it makes the wines more precise and revealing of variety and terroir. “I think pet-nat’s interesting from the point of view that maybe, as we get better at it, because this is just grape juice, because we don’t add any sulfur or sugar or yeast, maybe in the right vineyard with the right variety, this could be a more transparent way to make wine. But if it’s cloudy and foaming and tastes like old saison, I can’t imagine that being the case,” Michael remarked as we tasted his pét-nat. It was completely dry, with a fruity, flowery nose, and a refreshing and savory character that would make it a wonderful food wine.

Cruse, 2015 Monkey Jacket

This is a red blend, made from about 50 percent Valdigué; 40 percent “Mendocino blend”; and 15 percent Tannat from Alder. It has lovely fruit—fresh strawberries and cherries—and great acidity. I would drink this at lunch, any day. The Valdigué is from a 60-year-old block in Calistoga, and Michael explained that Robert Mondavi once believed that this work-horse grape would be the hallmark variety of California; in the early 70s (pre-Judgment of Paris), it was more expensive than Cabernet. To me, Michael’s use of Valdigué is an affirmation of his sense of California history, and a look back to a time before the rise of Napa Valley and its expensive, cult wineries and their big, bold reds.

Cruse, 2015 Heintz Syrah

From a small plot of Syrah in the iconic Heintz Vineyard, a cold site located five miles from the ocean in the Russian River Valley growing region, is this incredible wine. If you ever come across it, drink it without hesitation. The nose provides all the black olives, blue and black fruits that you could hope for from cool-climate Syrah; it’s light and full of fresh, nervy acidity on the palate, and finishes with intense, tingly tannins and still a bit of fruit. I love Syrah in this pure, bright form. Michael makes it with 100 percent whole cluster, adds no sulfur, and ferments in concrete before aging in concrete and large used barrels.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Merlot/Cab blend

This was a barrel sample, showing lots of brambly, blue and black fruit, balanced by excellent freshness, and soft tannins. Hardy is probably blending these two barrels now. A very promising wine that I’m sure will need time in bottle. I can’t wait to drink it.

OK, enough. Go out and drink these fantastic wines, and picture their very different makers guffawing at their own jokes as they foot-stomp Furmint.