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confessions of a wine fraud

Nosing the glass, nodding my head

Nicolas Joly & the Art of Doing Nothing

For those unfamiliar with Nicolas Joly, I’ll start not with a list of pertinent bio bullets, but instead with a challenge, recently issued by Joly himself. Smiling to a packed audience of acolytes (they’ve brought bottles for him to sign) and gentle skeptics (every Mulder needs a Scully), Joly suggests buying a bottle of his wine, and leaving it out, open, exposed to the air. For 8 days. 10, even. You just see if it doesn’t still sing.

"Wines made by nature will last longer when open," he says, then ribs the lengths we’ve all gone to keep our wine drinkable 24 hours after popping the cork. "Cover it in a layer of gas?" Mimicking exasperation, dropping his head. "How weak is your wine? It has no fight!” Give a wine a robust, truly organic spine and not a cosmetic one, Joly argues, and it will show you true mettle.

Though simpler on its face than some of Joly’s other assertions throughout the night (there are mentions of frequencies, magnets, the interruptive force of manmade satellites on the natural order of the atmosphere), the test captures everything the man’s come here to say.

Nicolas Joly began working his family’s Loire Valley vineyards in 1961, after a stint at Columbia and a career on Wall Street. He was soon after turned on by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, and began evangelizing the practice of Biodynamics, turning it from a relic into a movement over the course of four decades. In its details, Biodynamics is complex. Adherents refer to it as a “spiritual-ethical-ecological” approach to farming, and adherence requires charts: there are phases of the moon to track, planting calendars to follow. As a philosophy, though, it’s easy to follow. You just start with the soil.

"In the last 30 years, modern farming has been weakening the capacity of the vine to connect to the soil with its roots, and to catch the sun with it’s leaves," Joly says. One culprit here is industrial weedkiller, which strips the soil of natural nutrients that then must be replaced by industrial fertilizer, a product that induces the plant to consume more water. With that, Joly argues, comes increased susceptibility to disease, and a whole new cycle of intervention on the plant’s natural ability to express its surrounding terroir.

Biodynamic winegrowers (not makers, mind you — the only creatures with that gift are yeast) and organic viticulturists alike seek to remove all this chemical intervention and get back to a system that worked for eons before the industrial revolution. Instead of weedkillers, re-introduce animals who can do that work for you; consider the value of biodiversity in and amongst your vines. For Joly, if you can tend your grapes effectively in the field, then the work of great wine is done long before you crush or cellar a drop of juice.

The handy thing about a philosophy lesson followed by a vertical tasting? No matter whether you find Biodynamics to be an occultist hoax, an unnecessarily spiritual approach to organic farming, or an inspired, holistic how-to, your palate gets to have a say in the matter. On paper, it’s one thing; in the glass, another entirely. And in the case of Joly’s Savennieres line-up, it’s a wilderness of pure, unfettered awesome.

Savennieres “Les Vieux Clos” 2009

A hit of luscious honey on the nose, then white chocolate, though it could be a phantom born of smelling it too long; baked peach, candied pineapple & a mai-tai cut with fresh grass. Full-bodied, oily on the palate. It’s a wild thing, this one, and it gives a hell of a satisfying chase.

Savennieres “Clos de la Bergerie” 2009

Deep, dripping gold honey tones on the nose, they’re practically roasted, and from here it’s all money: marmalade, coconut, white chocolate again.

Savennieres “Clos de la Bergerie” 2007

A stand-out for me, mostly for its epic finish. Tropical fruits splayed over white smoke, and a truckload of caramel, butter, and the best kind of burnt animal flesh.

Savennieres “Coulée de Serrant” 2009

Marshmallow and rock salt, like seaside salinity that turns to salted butterscotch. Medium acidity throughout keeps the candied orange and peach notes juicy instead of jawbreaking.

Savennieres “Coulée de Serrant” 2008

More minerality here than the wines that came before, with some green grass and red apple peel laced in among the wash of golden sunshine. Full, dry, fresh on the palate.

Savennieres “Coulée de Serrant” 2007

More campfire marshmallows that run away with the nose, and then things get charismatic. It’s autumn in a glass, this one, think Halloween and caramel apples and state fairs and fantasy sex by fireplaces. If this is the wine of the occult, someone get me a membership card.

Now Serving Elsewhere

Madeira for Mothers (and everyone else, really), and Bubbles for Brides

What to Drink When You’re Drinking Before Noon

In a moment, when I say “Valpolicella works for breakfast,” let’s be clear I don’t mean brunch. It’s terrific for brunch, too, just as it is for early dinners & late night pizza and most of the times in between, but for my main thesis, there’s no reason for me to equivocate and pretend I’m solely recommending it for afternoon consumption. 

Valpolicella works for breakfast because it presents more like fruit juice than most other reds, which may be what keeps them out of the early meal game altogether (Puritanical judgement aside). Most morning cocktails have a fresh-squeezed component, and Valpolicella comes with those charms built right in. It’s lipstick red & flush with smashed sour cherries; it’s not sweet, but it’s so generous with its pure, tangy fruit that it doesn’t really need to be. The nice ones, anyway. 

Maybe it’s coffee, and maybe it’s not. 

Valpolicella is in northeastern Italy, specifically Verona, and in the grand scheme of things it’s not known for its mind-boggling masterpieces. Who cares? Most of the wine (made largely from Corvina) is simple and ends up where most wine belongs: in the wine glasses of locals who just want a glass of wine. Valpolicella is obliging, and with that, it’s already done humanity a fair amount of good. 

Allegrini has roots in the Veneto that stretch back to the 16th century, and they often make the list when someone rounds up Valpolicella of note. I came across them mostly because they’re the Valpolicella I come across. It has a fairly consistent retail presence, which is good, as it will always be close at hand when your scrambled eggs and bacon want something more than OJ. 

2010 Allegrini Valpolicella, ~$15

Yes, that’s Thousand Island on the Label

The bottle doesn’t specify that one should pair this well-rounded white Bordeaux with wings and a burger, so I’ll make the addendum here: one totally should. I’ve put it through its paces, pitting it against seriously unfriendly foods, only to have it play diplomat to every flavor.

Everyone gets a boost when Chateau Graville-Lacoste shows up, all rich, flinty funk and creamy, complicated citrus and uppercut acidity. Consider it the universal answer to “what to serve with surf & turf” and “what to bring to the dinner party” and “what to drink after I lick off the Ranch dressing I somehow got on the back of my elbow, my God, how am I still this terrible at being a grown-up?” 

Chateau Graville-Lacoste Blanc 2010, ~$17

… and Real Pain for Our Sham Ones

I drink a fair amount of sparkling wine, but very little actual Champagne. It’s a price thing, sure, combined with a touch of sheepishness over how I’d consume that bottle of Veuve Clicquot, were I to spring for it: over sushi and a rerun of Justified. It’s not that I lack special occasions, it’s that I lack self control. I’d buy it to save, and within the week have it open, squandering its charms with commercial breaks and an excess of wasabi.

The more generous wine drinkers of the world insist that popping the cork, the very act and treat of it, renders any occasion (spicy tuna rolls & FX series included) instantly special. Life’s too short to save delicious things for rare moments, the story goes, and it’s a good one. I subscribe to it. But yet, Champagne. There’s just something to be said for holding off. 

Do not pair with Raylan Givens.

I’m in awe of the practical magic of the stuff, this golden booze made in part from Pinot Noir. The region of Champagne, one of the most prized plots of agricultural territory on the globe, wasn’t slated for greatness, particularly in terms of winemaking. It’s France’s northernmost appellation, indeed one of the most northerly in the business; this latitude saddles it with a challenging climate. It’s cold, there’s frost, winters are gnarly, sugar levels stay low, acid gets outrageous. Not desirable conditions for still wine of any quality. But rather than give it up, the Champenois (assisted by a number of players, from French monks to English scientists) committed to perfecting the complex production system that would change their fate. They took their lemons and created, after many a generation of exploding glass and bad formulas and allegations of vulgarity, the world’s most beautiful, labor intensive lemonade. 

It’s romantic, but if you can’t romanticize Champagne, what’s left? Every bottle is a testament to the drive to make something greater than what seems possible at first, even when it requires a maddening amount of vision, effort, denial, or guidance from the Benedictines. It’s all a reminder of what happens when you put your back into something. Commit to greatness, get your hands dirty. Print the legend, say a toast.

The meek shall inherit the earth; the Champenois, a fortune, and a place at the heart of our happiest moments. I’ll wait to drink to that. 

Now Serving Elsewhere

New boozy posts in other corners of the internet: 5 Ways to Get Lost in Spain on Snooth (in which I track down all the non-Rioja bottles at a Spanish wine expo); They Said That About Malbec Once, Too on Grand Crüe (in which I continue to not shut up about Bonarda). 

"It’s not just older than you. It’s older than your country."

I spent Sunday afternoon at a tasting hosted by The Rare Wine Co., an importer and retailer I love even though they’ve never sold me a single bottle. They’re largely out of my range, but man, do I love their newsletter. It’s a little manila number that describes, in sweet, witty detail, all the ones that get away. I imagine it’s fun to peruse while sipping something from your cellar; I read it with a six pack of cheap beer. It’s the you can’t fire me, I quit approach

Given my usual appreciation from afar, I was excited to see that they’d be unpacking a few lovely cases on the edge of the Hudson, and so I dug up a ticket. The event focused on verticals of Madeira, Champagne, Barolo, Chianti, CDP, and a handful of other French & Italian varietals, along with a pre-auction exhibition of antique food & wine posters. You know the ones. Demons and court jesters drinking Campari? 

Maybe you had one in your dorm room. 

I’m great company to have at these events, because I love everything. Or, at least, I’m willing to love everything. I have no preferred order, no pre-standing notions of a given vintage’s prestige, no pet producer; I start at the table with the smallest crowd and I pay attention to whatever’s in the glass. I’m exceedingly hard to disappoint, but with wine like this, even if I’d shown up with outrageous expectations, the Rare Wine Co. would have handily over-delivered. 

It’s really a shame more old white men don’t get into wine. 

I managed to taste through about 23 wines (mostly arranged in verticals) before my tongue hit a liquid-love-potion stunner of a century-old Madeira and quickly punched out for the night. Stars indicate the ones that elicited some sort of appreciative profanity. 

2006 Henri Bonneau Chateauneuf-de-Pape Reserve de Celestins*
2009 Giacomo Conterno Barbera Cerretta*

1994 Cune Vina Real Rioja Gran Riserva*
1991 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Rioja Gran Reserva*

2009 Anthill Farms Pinot Noir Demuth (Sonoma)*
2009 Evening Land Seven Springs Vineyard Summum Pinot Noir, OR

2009 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina
1999 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva Bucerchiale
1981 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva
1978 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva*

2008 Caberlot*
2007 Caberlot
1999 Caberlot

2009 Giacomo Conterno Barbera Cerretta*
2007 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato*
2004 Cappellano Barolo Rupestris

2009 Flor de Pingus
2006 Pingus Cuvee Amelia*
2009 PSI

1920 Barbeito Farvilla Viera Malvasia Madeira*
RWS Historic Series Stratford Hall Lee Family Reserve Madeira
1912 D’Oliveira Verdelho Madeira

What We Talk About When We Talk About Muscadet

I spent the afternoon hunting down a bottle of Cahors for a different project, my mind set on drinking it this evening, all on its own. All day, though, the weather’s been arguing against it. We’ve got springtime sunlight and seaside clouds; it’s warmer than it ought to be. This is a day that wants a white. But not just any. 

The northeast in January? If you say so.

I picked this up last week in a sweep of the “other whites” category that left me with two Soaves and a lackluster Gruner. Fearing that it would be too austere for the pasta I keep making, I left it on the rack and forgot about it. That’s the story of many a Muscadet, I bet, and certainly those that wind up in my care. I’ve rarely had one in my price range that made me eager to try another, but this bottle, this lovely thing? It’s out to change some minds. 

Luc and Jerome Choblet are third generation winemakers in the Loire Valley, where they make whites in Cotes de Grandlieu, lakeside, behind stone walls. Their “Clos de La Senaigerie” is aged sur lie, a process that plumps and softens. Especially in this case: there’s some seriously sharp-tongued acidity here, all warmed up and filled out by the magic of dead yeast. 

For eleven of the best dollars you’ll ever spend on wine, this phenomenal, aromatic Muscadet delivers the coast of France. Prismatic minerality (shells, slate, stone), steely salinity. Green apples, wet honeydew, fresh lemons & laundry. Love, regret. A pretty girl on a jagged cliff. The kind of longing one can only do at sea. 

2010 “Clos de la Senaigerie” Muscadet, Cotes de Grandlieu, $11

Müller-Thurgau, for All Your Hyphenated Grape Needs

It took me a little longer than it should have to come around to Riesling. I don’t even have the excuse that I spent years burned by cheap, syrupy versions, and that I finally saw the light once someone introduced me to the dry gold of the Mosel. No, my first real interactions with Riesling were with the good stuff, poured by evangelists who tailored the experience to my (misguided) fear of residual sugar. I was the one who came up short. Then, after years of assuming I just couldn’t love Riesling, no matter how celebrated, I came across an Australian version that casually made the case: mashed-up peach and fresh lemon, cut with pale green herbs, lit brightly by high-noon acidity. 

Riesling, you say. I could totally get into this. 

Spoiler alert: I’m not spitting out any of number six

Last night, after the kind of lecture on German label terms that makes you feel vaguely afflicted with aphasia, we tasted through a series of beautiful Rieslings intended to illustrate the differences between the major German regions and Pradikate (NSFW) (Just kidding). The tart, slatey green & yellow fruit of the Mosel, the tropical infusion found in Pfalz. To kick things off, though, the instructor poured a cheerful Müller-Thurgau, and though it was the simplest and cheapest of the bunch, it’s the one I walked away remembering. 

"Trocken" indicates that the wine is dry. Unless it’s "trocken" as in "Trockenbeerenauslese," which indicates that the wine is extremely sweet. Cool. 

Maybe it’s because I don’t remember having ever tried an M-T, but more likely, it hooked me because I really enjoyed it, in a house white sort of way. Behind Riesling, the grape is the most widely-planted in Germany. It purportedly always falls behind the other in terms of elegance and complexity, but when it comes to cheap and cheerful, it seems to me M-T has a good grip on the game. 

In this bottle, there’s a ton of slate on the nose, wrapped up in yellow citrus fruit and red apple custard, with a little wet clay and white flowers in the distance. Taste it and you’ll find smart, jangly acidity, ripe Meyer lemon, and even more of that springy red apple that unfolds into a surprising, medium-plus finish. It’s a little more complex than I would have guessed, and for a whopping 10 bucks, I’d stock my regular fridge with it and drink it by the tumbler. With breakfast. Try and stop me. 

Müller-Thurgau Trocken, Schloss Mühlenhoff, 2009, Astor Wines, $10.99

It’s the Small Things

Don’t bother with this one if you’re looking for a gift for a wine snob (let’s not give those folks gifts, anyway), and don’t buy it for yourself if you say things like “you know, you don’t really need anything other than a simple wine key.” You’re not wrong, but it doesn’t make this thing any less fun to use: 

My favorite stocking stuffer. There’s a chance my family is easily entertained.

You insert the needle into the cork, punch the button with your thumb, and your bottle springs open. This is particularly amusing when you’re opening the second or third bottle of the night (like most things), and since it requires a cartridge replacement every 80 bottles or so, you may as well save it for when you have other tipsy people on hand to witness the tiny, CO2-driven spectacle. If, in the end, it turns out you’re unimpressed with gadgetry and will only celebrate the joys of the wine key no matter what, then at least go get this one. I’m very curious. 

CorkPopper, $24.95-ish, Amazon