What Country Has The REAL Bourbon Dynasty Again?

Those French.  Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Those French. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Oh, those wacky, laugh-a-minute French.  What with their Jerry Lewis Fan Clubs, socially-constipated mimes, Charlie Hebdo (Mad Magazine for Islamophobes) and Les Tontons Flingueurs quoting, it’s a wonder they have any time to lose wars.

But, giving the French space to be French in a world that has passed them by economically, artistically and philosophically is one thing; it’s the magnanimous and condescendingly American thing to do.

Allowing them to dis good ol’ Kentucky bourbon is quite another.

cognac-expert-logoAnd yet, they have chosen risk the ire of the only superpower left on earth by publishing an article in Cognac Expert entitled

‘10 Reasons why Cognac is Better than Whiskey’.

And I shall now, like a surgical strike from an Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor on a stealth mission against ISIS strongholds, terminate the article with extreme prejudice.

  1. Cognac is the most complex spirit in the world to make. It takes the longest time to produce.
Alembic still

Alembic still

Cognac, as we all know but don’t care, is brandy that comes from a specific area in the French Départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime.  Many boring laws (grape variety, etc.) are associated with Cognac, but as far as the actual production, only two really apply to the ‘complexity’ of the makeage:  The fermented juice must be distilled twice in alembic pot stills and the resulting eau de vie aged in oak for a minimum of two years.

So let’s look at single-malt Scotch whisky (in contrast):  Although it is also distilled twice in pot stills, the law requires all malt Scotch to be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks.

Winner, Complexity Level: Whisky.

  1. Cognac is made of grapes, whisky is made of grains. Therefore Cognac can develop a variety of fruitful aromas, which whisky cannot.

‘Cannot’ is such a final-sounding word, isn’t it, French people?  Let’s gander at some verbatim Bourbon tasting notes from the excellent Bourbon of the Day blog:

angelsenvycaskRidgemont Reserve 1792:  This bourbon is true to its nose. All the fruit (citrus, banana, apple) come forward in the middle and back end of the tasting.

Angel’s Envy Cask-Strength: The finish is long and pleasant, and strangely reminiscent of blackberries.

Kentucky Tavern Straight: What is somewhat notable is the fruit in the finish: really fresh pear apricot and cherry.

And now, let’s peruse some descriptatory verbiage by the Cognac cognoscenti at the mediocre Cognac Expert blog.

conjureA De Fussigny VSOP Superieur Cognac: Aromas of dried rose flower, hazelnut note. Roundness with a subtle buttery and smoky notes.

Conjure Cognac:  Mahogany, with a nose of oak, cocoa, hazelnut spice and leather.

Paul Beau Hors d’Age, Tres Vieille Grande Champagne: Entry is fully integrated, resiny/woody and dry; midpalate is peppery, meaty, charred, maple-like and piney.

Winner, Developing a variety of fruitful aromas: Bourbon.

  1. Cognac is French. The French know how to make good food. They also know how to make great wine, everyone knows that. So anything that derives from wine AND originates from France—as Cognac does—must be the best.

SP 135529 DIEZ FRIED FLO 1/2The French eat garden slugs in melted, coagulated fatty acids.  The French eat fungus that smells to female pigs like boar testicles and  California beat the chaussettes off these beret-wearing fools in Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.

America, on the other hand, is the home of hedonistically glorious grits, deep-fried Snickers bars, truck stop meat loaf, Pringles, Manwiches and Velveeta Cheese melted on stuff.  Our wine was rated better at the Judgment of Paris, and as far as us Americans are concerned, that is the end of the story.

Winner,  Good food and wine: America, home of American whiskey.

  1. Cognac-making underlies extremely strict regulations. For example, Cognac can only be produced in the region of Cognac, while whiskey can be produced anywhere in the world.
Miss March, 'Babes of Cognac' calendar

Miss March, ‘Babes of Cognac’ calendar

So bleepin’ what?  What’s wrong with the rest of the world, you provincial twerps?  Hasn’t Bruno Mars assured you that there are really beautiful babes from everywhere, even Mars, even places we would not associate with hot chicks, like Romania or the Canary Islands or Omaha?  You know what Cognac has?  A bunch of stumpy, dumpy chain-smoking peasantettes who wear overalls and big rubber boots.

You know what Bourbon country has?  Elly May Clampett and Daisy Duke.

Winner, Hot Chicks: Bourbon.

  1. Rap. Cognac has Jay-Z, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and many other rappers ‘bigging up’ the drink – in their music and their personal life. Whiskey does not have such cool ambassadors.
snoop dogg

Snoop Dogg

Oh, please.  How lame can you get?  Snoop Dogg cool?  Dude looks like a skeleton wrapped in electric tape with pig tails.  Here’s a sample of how the atrophied brains of Cognac’s ambassadors work:

Jay-Z: “You shoot my dog, I’ma kill your cat.”

Ludacris: “Read your whore-o-scope and eat your whore d’oeuvres.”

Snoop Dogg: “Bikinis, zucchinis, martinis, no weenies.”

By contrast, let’s take let’s listen in on some of whiskey’s ambassadors:

humphrey-bogart-03Mark Twain: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

Errol Flynn:  “I like my whiskey old and my women young.”

Raymond Chandler: “There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.”

Humphrey Bogart: “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”

Winner, Cool ambassadors: Whiskey.

  1. Cognac is fashionable; a color in fashion is actually named after it: “Have you seen those beautiful cognac-colored boots of the fall collection?”

hitler-brown-shirtsFrankly, I have never heard ‘cognac’ used as a boot color, but if it was, I would presume it might fall somewhere between Fecal Fulvous and Septic Sienna.  As in, “Have you seen all those smart-looking Sturmabteilung marching through Paris in their beautiful cognac-colored shirts?”

Winner, Least offensive fashion statement: Whiskey

  1. Cognac is the oldest and most traditional cocktail ingredient: Long before Whisky, Brandy was used in cocktails and long drinks.

Of course, other than the fact that Cognac-heads are fond of saying ‘All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac’, the history is simply wrong.  The first use of the word ‘cocktail’ appeared in the May 13, 1806, edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository under the following definition: ‘Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling…’

1862’s ‘The Bon Vivant’s Companion’ by Jerry Thomas, the first book of drink recipes, contains ten ‘cocktail’ recipes, of which four contain brandy and four whiskey.

So, this one is a tie.

  1. Cognac gives you no headache. It is very rare to get a headache after drinking Cognac.
Sam Greenspan

Sam Greenspan

Hang on, hangover.  # 8 contains two sentences which are directly contradictory.  If Cognac ‘gives you no headache’, then how does it follow, in the very next grammatically-linked linguistic unit, that Cognac gives you headaches ‘on rare occasions’?  Trying to wrap my headache around that dichotomy is giving me a migraine.

Meanwhile, according to ‘11 Alcoholic Drinks, Ranked By Hangover Severity’ by the highly-trained alcoholic writer Sam Greenspan, ‘Whiskey’ ranks number five, while coming in at an undisputed #1?

I quote:

“Brandy – The rest of the drinks on this list almost give you hangovers as bad as brandy… but with brandy, ‘almost’ doesn’t count.”

Winner, Lesser hangover: Whiskey

  1. Cognac has much better story telling: For example, the Great French Emperor Napoléon used to order barrels of fine Cognac to the island of St Helena.

napoleion retreat]Why is that a good story?  Napoléon freezing his nuts off in the Russian permafrost with the Grande Armée eating the cavalry’s horses and drinking their own urine?  Now, that’s a good story.

But still not as good as John Entwistle’s song about an insane man conversing with an imaginary companion: “Whiskey man’s my friend; He’s with me nearly all the time; He always joins me when I drink; And we get on just fine.”

zz topOr George Thorogood’s song about a man who just lost his job, his girl and his apartment and stops by the local speakeasy and ordering multiple rounds of ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’

Or ZZ Top shrieking through those whiskey-straining whiskers, “I should have known better than to fool with a whiskey’n mama.”

Or Alice Cooper’s ‘Lace and Whiskey’.

Or, and so on…

Winner, Best Stories:  Whiskey

  1. Cognac is a region, a town, AND a spirit. That is indeed very hard to beat.

bourbon cityHard to beat, French people.  But not impossible.  You see, ‘Bourbon’ is also a region; part of the Lexington–Fayette, KY Metropolitan Statistical Area: 38° 12′ 0″ N, 84° 12′ 36″ W 38.2, -84.21.

And a town: 38° 9′ 6″ N, 91° 14′ 51″ W 38.151667, -91.2475

And the best goddamn spirit from here to Paris.  Paris, Kentucky, that is (the seat of Bourbon County) or, for that matter any other city who stole their name in order to reflect in the glory that is rural Bluegrass banjo and Beam country.

Winner, Supercluster, Milky Way Galactic Arm, Solar System, Earth, Region, Town and Spirit:

Bourbon.

Posted in GENERAL | 2 Comments

Chassagne-Montrachet And Hyphen-Mania

hyphen keyboardIn Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, attaching a big, famous name to your own plebian, obscure name has been an effective technique in the never-ending wine hustle.  So much so, in fact, that négociants often purchase the local hyphen supply en primeur, two years before they are released to the general public, while they are still in the callow ‘dash’ phase.

Hyphen-mania was formalized in the 1870s in order to add a note of legality to the centuries-old, somewhat odious practice of usurping the names of superb, but tiny plots of real estate to sell wines of somewhat lesser quality.  Indeed, as in the case of Bâtard-Montrachet—which at least has enough class to call the wine a ‘bastard’ Montrachet—the distance between vineyards may be no more than a hyphen’s length.

gevrey_chambertinFor the most part, it was nearby communes rather than nearby acres that found the most commercial value in tacking on the prestige names: Thus, the wine village of Gevrey, which contains the fabled Chambertin vineyard, becomes ‘Gevrey-Chambertin’, while several nearby vineyards (despite have unique AOLs) hoist the Chambertin moniker upon their backs via the Superglue of hyphenation.  There’s Chapelle-Chambertin; there’s Griotte-Chambertin and Charmes-Chambertin; there’s Latricières-Chambertin and there’s four more which hyphen-conservation precludes mentioning.

Likewise is the case with Le Montrachet, arguably the finest white-wine-growing dirt on the planet.  The whole kaboodle is less than twenty acres; add on the kit that is Bâtard-Montrachet and you have another thirty, making the total output of both, on an average year, around 100,000 bottles—eight thousand cases, or roughly that of a California boutique winery.

In 1879, engaging in one of the most peculiar cases of legalized identity fraud in wine history, the village of Puligny in the Côte-d’Or département of eastern France, decided to change their name to Puligny-Montrachet—and with a single flourish of the mayoral plume, every second-rate wine from that village became, by default, a Montrachet.

montrachet mapYet, lest that sound too dismissive, consider that second-rate is pretty damned remarkable when ‘first-rate’—true Le Montrachet—rings the cash register at over a thousand dollars for an average vintage; top producers in top harvests may command five times as much.  Granted, nobody is sponsoring a television series call Beverly Hills, 90211, but tasting wine from the hood costing a twentieth as much is a worthwhile experience: It gives you a shade of grandeur, an idea of the stylistic differences between Chardonnay produced from the thin limestone soils on the southern apex of the Mont-Rachet hill and Chardonnay made anywhere (and everywhere) else.

Beverly-Hills-90210-S01-jennie-garth-and-kelly-taylor-fans-3674117-616-464It may not be quite as potent an encounter as with a Mason jar filled with Le Montrachet Grand Cru DRC 2007, but you can certainly suppose that you’ve tasted a shadow of the great appellation—a whisper of transcendency.

In other words, it’s sort of like dating Jennie Garth’s sister.

An example of what I’m rambling on about can be seen in Bachelet-Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet 2012, retailing for around $60.  Perhaps mindful of the commercial potential of hyphens, the estate of Bachelet-Ramonet saw no harm in adding one to their name—in fact, it’s run by a Bachelet son-in-law named Bonnefoy, so it is not out of the question that a further dip into the dash-stash may be in the offing.

Puligny-Montrachet

Puligny-Montrachet

Père Ramonet, who died in 1994 at the age of 88, was a legend in Chassagne—grandson of the original vintner, he is credited with single-handedly raising the individuality bar on local Chardonnay, and even today it is claimed that a Ramonet wine is a Ramonet wine before it is a Chassagne, or a Bienvenue, or a Bâtard… or a Montrachet.  Part of the technique still at use in the cellar is a specific style of bâtonnage—the stirring in of dead yeast cells and other organic particulates while the wine ages: The fermenting mass is stirred only four times over as many months.  The theory is that some of these ‘gross’ lees, while offering subtle but distinct augmentation to the flavor, need do so with as little disturbance as possible. The must is only lightly fined and filtered before bottling, which results in a discreetly powerful wine with many layers of complexity.

Alain and Marie-Paule Bonnefoy

Alain and Marie-Paule Bonnefoy

2012 was another tough, short-crop vendange, and Bachelet-Ramonet’s Chassagne-Montrachet shows clean, but pronounced acidity.  I have no idea if it is chaptalized or not, but if so, Bonnefoy was hardly alone throughout the region. The wine is lean and unforced, fine-boned rather than opulent; it opens with a strong slate-like stoniness fading to white peach, honey and light, sweet flowers.  There’s some lime on the palate to compliment the peach notes echoed there, and the wine offers a medium long finish with the slightest tang of tannin.  Overall, it’s an understated Chardonnay, less fat than many a Chassagne-Montrachet, but made in a austere, Burgundian, mineral-driven style that the New World—whether by nurture or nature—just doesn’t emulate.

Meanwhile, keep the hyphens coming.  They alert us to intentions not always reveled in execution, and we won’t worry if hyphen-wines bask in a little reflected glory: Montrachet has enough to spare.

Sincerely,

Chris-Robert Kassel-Parker Jr.

Posted in Burgundy, FRANCE | Tagged | Leave a comment

I Am The Joan Rivers Of The Wine-Blog Oscars

joanTruly, I am.  Like Bon Jovi and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Nabokov without an aurelian badge from Nobel; Chita Rivera, the firebrand Latina unable to sing her way into a Tony.

That’s me: Never the bridesmaid let alone the bride.  Hell, I can’t even get an illegal-immigrant gig picking up rice off the concrete after the blankity-blank wedding.  It can’t get any worse than that.

Or Can It…?

Orbit_Cover_0When I reviewed restaurants for Orbit, a great metropolitan newspaper, I used to compile mandatory ‘lists’ concerning the local dining scene.  ‘Restaurant of the Year’, ‘Detroit’s Top Ten’, ‘Top One Hundred’, etc.  The fact that ‘The Ten Shittiest Bathrooms in the Ten Most Ghetto Clubs’ was the only article anyone ever read is immaterial—the point is, mustering a ‘top ten’ list was painless, because if you were one of the ten best restaurants in Detroit, you knew it, and if you weren’t you knew it, and nobody who didn’t make the cut was particularly offended, nor was anyone who made the list particularly impressed. I made far more mortal enemies—people from whom I still have to hide, like Salman Rushdie—doing a ‘Top 100’ list, because everybody with a Class C license and a Schoolcraft-trained griddle jockey figured they should be on that one.

And yet, my straits today manage to be even more dire than that.

Steve McConnell

Steve McConnell

The other day, Paso playmate Steve McConnell sent me a link to a wine blog called ‘Wine Turtle’, a ‘newish’ snore-fest that not only confesses an urgency-free, immediacy-lacking approach to the science of wine writery, but counsels those of us who believe in getting to the point that this is not the way it’s ‘supposed to be done’.

Fair enough. The Turtle blog is written by a couple of chuffed chelonians from parts unknown; one claims no formal wine training whatsoever while the other calls herself a professional sommelier, which is better than being what I am—an unprofessional sommelier.

Not that ‘training’ is a required—or even a desirable—laurel for a wine writer to rest upon.

What's so hard about this?

What’s so hard about this?

So far, along their wondrous, turtle-paced odyssey though Oenotopia, the reptilian pair have (true to their admonition about pacing) managed to publish a total of fifteen articles.  Or, in mathematical terms, seven-and-a-half columns each.  These include ‘How To Read a Wine Label for Beginners’, which I would have written except that when I asked my bodega clerk if he had any wine with labels for beginners, he assured me that his labels were for more advanced readers.

Bartles_&_Jaymes_original_flavorAnd there is ‘What’s The Best Wine Cooler?’ which mentions Eurocave and the Haier 6-bottle but totally leaves out Bartles & Jaymes Country Kwencher.  Must have been the non-professional partner that pulled that boner.

And then, dearest, loyal, beautiful-if-challenged reader, there is the feature that has so tattered the mainsail of my ego:

‘The 103 Best Wine Blogs That You Can’t Miss’

Sha’Niquakisha’s Offal & Ovaltine Emporium

Open air kitchen in Sha’Niquanisha’s Offal & Ovaltine Emporium

And yes, you guessed it: Like my top hundred restaurant list and Sha’Niquanisha’s Offal & Ovaltine Emporium over on West Vernor, Intoxicology Report failed to measure up.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the fact that had it been a strict top-hundred list, I might have figured that my years of toil and endeavor had come ‘close’ in the estimation of this strange turtleian race, but that they found themselves beholden to a captious, anal, overweening (if self-imposed) blog-limit?

And yet, these plodding, hard-shelled swamp creatures actually elevated three additional blogerinos into their hallowed fucking so-called pantheon, capping the list at 103.

Meaning that I could have secured slot number 104 and no numerical restrictions could have kept me out, but for the glaring reality…

I’m just… not… good enough!

“Chin Up and Never Say Die, Chrissy! Reach for the Moon ‘Cause the Sky’s the Limit, So Pull Out the Stops and Punch Above Your Weight, Tiger!”

There, I feel better now.  A few words of encouragement from Inner Me; the dashing, hung-like-a-Kowalski-Smoked-Kielbasa with the hot girlfriend and access to really good cocaine me.

bon joviI’m reminded that, eulogy or no eulogy, Joan Rivers made that Academy Award carpet red, blushing as it did from her acerbic barbs. Nabokov’s Nobel snub—even if it prevented him from becoming Gary Glitter’s biographer—was the result of two committee judges winning in his place; nothing suspicious there, huh?  And Bon Jovi, let’s be honest—we all know that Jon Bon Jovi is too fucking handsome to be inducted into any ‘Hall of Fame’.  That architectural monstrosity, hovering above the stinking shores of Lake Erie like a housefly over a corpse, is filled with ugly people like Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen and Billy Joel. Clearly, the inductors are just jealous.

And guess what?  Know who else is jealous? These teenage mutant ninja herpetologist-humpers are jealous, that’s who.  Jealous of… Well, maybe not Old Me.  But definitely jealous of Renaissance Me, the reborn me, the me with war-paint, berserker pre-battle chants and a savage new nom de guerre:

Phantom 104’.

scarlettLike Gloria Gaynor, I will survive; like Pete Seeger in blackface, I shall overcome.  Like Scarlett, as God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me; I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.

As proof, here’s my new favorite recipe:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/turtle-soup-recipe2.html

wine turtle

Posted in GENERAL | 3 Comments

Nuits-St-Georges Aux St. Jacques: Odoul’s With An ABV

Clipboard jackieA spitball’s throw away from the hallowed estates of Vosne-Romanée lies the somewhat less hallowed estates of Nuits-St-George, but the difference in prestige (and price) may be comparable to Prince Fielder’s salary in 2015 and Jackie Robinson’s in 1957.

It’s opening week of spring training, so forgive the baseball references.

pangea

Nuits-St-Georges in younger days

Both communes are in the southern part of Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits; both specialize in Pinot Noir and each is known for a wine quality—at varying levels of explicable description—referred to as ‘elegance’.  But we’ll get to that.  First, it is interesting to note how abruptly the lyrical gleanings of Burgundy can vary with the neighborhood, due primarily to specific terroir, which in turn is due primarily to an amazing tessellation of soils, much of it formed when Pangaea was tout le monde and you could essentially canoe from Beaune to Boston.  This quick change of geological substructure—often referred to as sous-sols—keep the parcels of real estate in Burgundy small, and the most expensive on earth.

For example, a prime acre of Napa (sans houses, etc.) may push half a million dollars and in Bordeaux, an acre may nudge a million.  But the celebrated grand cru vineyards of Burgundy average more than $2 million per acre, and a few small vineyard parcels have sold for up to $16 million.  To evaluate worth in the most prestigious crus, a solicitor may actually count individual vines and multiply; $3,000 per vine, for example, times 4000 vines per acre.

frenchwinecountryOne reason for such exclusive pricing is that the output from Burgundy is concentrated into the smallest amount of property.  Of the 1.2 billion gallons of wine the French produce per years, less than 5% is Burgundian.  Bordeaux produces twice as much wine as Burgundy; Languedoc-Roussillon makes six times more.  Even the Loire outpaces both the Burgundy and Beaujolais appellations combined—71 million gallons to 61 million gallons.

wine-searcher.com recently released a list of the ten priciest wines in the world, and to no great surprise, eight were French.  And of those eight, seven were from Burgundy.

pricy plonkThe wine that topped the list? A Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at $13,000 a bottle.  Number two, trying harder? Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux, Vosne-Romanée at $7560.

Thus rounding the bases and returning to the opening pitch of this piece:  Vosne-Romanée and Nuit-St. George and the rather striking difference in price.

Travel time between the two communes?  Four minutes.  So the question becomes, would you drive a mile to save seven thousand five hundred dollar?

Domaine Odoul-Coquard Nuits-St-Georges “Aux St. Jacques”, 2012, around $60

odouls_bottle_decal__54192Careful with those apostrophes, chillens:  With them, the Odouls, a Morey-St-Denis family of vignerons, are nothing more than the bevvie-of-choice at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Hoboken.

Sébastien Odoul is the third generation of winemaker to work the red silts and limestone-rich rendzinas of the Côte de Nuit; with his father Thierry, from whom he took the râteau in 2009, he works twenty acres, including two grand cru vineyards and four première crus. Aux St. Jacques is in the Vosnoise zone, just below Vosne-Romanée, and although it does not show  the breeding of its neighbor to the north, it clearly reflects an image of her glory.  The wine opens with a floral flash and a funneled concentration of succulent dark cherries and strawberry; there’s light spice in the foreground with chocolate cordials and a rich, fruit-driven mid-palate flanked with gentle, elegant tannins.

So there’s the ‘e’ word; elegant.  It seems like a cop-out descriptor, like a designated-hitter rule for the English language, where some random, positionless word can fill in for a regular player too weak to get on base.

But like ‘pornography’, even if you can’t define elegance, you certainly recognize it when you see it.

shadow playElegance is all the same flavors possessed by less-elegant wine packages, but more subdued and imbued with almost—but not quite—impenetrable subtlety.  It’s the ‘not quite’ that puts our eno-lexicon to the test; as writers, we attempt to bring this sprezzatura—a word from the Italian Renaissance encompassing the art of nonchalance, the studied ease of projecting power without the need to overstate—into manageable wine words.  Wines of Nuits-St-Georges in general, and this wine in particular, so near (yet so far) to a consecrated Burgundian zip code display the hemlines of grandeur, the silhouettes of Romanée renown. That’s wine elegance: Almost a Malaysian shadow play where articulated figures are held against a translucent background; all the contours visible and you can enjoy the story without perceiving all the details.

hatThere’s a certain elegance to America’s Pastime as well; a sprezzatura of loaded bases—restrained pacing, a show of ease in difficult actions hiding the conscious effort that goes into them.  And if you want ‘defensive irony’, watch the graceful, but crucial pas de deux between catcher and pitcher as they set tone and control the game behind a mask of apparent reticence and casual-appearing indifference.

That’s enough of the analogies, though.  Play ball, drink wine.  We’ll let them throw out the first pitch while we throw down the first pitcher.

Of Odoul’s; but the red stuff, naturally.

Posted in Burgundy | Tagged | 1 Comment

Noblesse Oblige: The Stillman Story (Again)

The other day I claimed I didn’t ‘do’ obligatory, but in that, I was a bit economical with the truth; I shat yon bull, I yanked yon chain, I committed a terminological inexactitude.

In short, I lied.

Noblesse Oblige

Noblesse Oblige

Because every year I exercise the concept known as noblesse oblige—essentially, the God-ordained duty that we, the nobility (in this case, the supreme and honorable intelligentsia) have to bring our wine erudition to those who lack such privilege.  Such as thee, humble reader.

Thus, one time per year, I feel a requirement to exceed minimal standards of decency and do another story about Stillman Brown.

This would be the selfsame Stillman who displayed his own noblesse oblige in 2013 by giving shelter to a homeless wine writer struggling to complete a book on Paso Robles, and by insuring that no distraction would stay this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.

sprinkler-repair-baton-rougeBy which I mean, he let me crash in the yard and turned on the sprinklers at five AM.

So, if nothing else, I owe him a review of his latest releases (Pinot Noir, Vermentino and Alicante Bouschet), and to add dignity to my grace, a favorable one—the critical equivalent of turning on the sprinklers at six instead of five.

Zeppelin Pinot Noir, San Luis Obispo County, 2013; around $40:

'Oh, the Germanity'

‘Oh, the Germanity’

If Sandburg was alive to review this wine, he might spurt, ‘stormy, husky, brawling, Pinot of the Big Shoulders.’  But he’s dead and I’m not, so let me attempt my own graphic imagery:  Think of everything that a Pinot should be—exotic, velvety, cherry and spice scented, earthy in the mouth—then rev the engine until the catalytic converter nearly (but not quite) ignites.  That’s Stillman’s Pinot Noir.  He denies my assertion that it’s a ‘Paso’ Pinot by virtue of it herculean size and relatively high alcohol, pointing to the bright and balanced acidity and the fact that the vineyard is in San Luis Obispo, not Paso.

zep labelAnd he’s got me there:  These grapes were grown a mile and half from the ocean on a high point without any intervening ridges, where botrytis is a bigger issue than disintegrating acids.  Whereas this bunch-rot fungus may be a plus in certain sugar-challenged white wines, in Pinot Noir it may produce polysaccharides that make the wine difficult to clarify and oxidative enzymes that make the wine difficult to drink.  The trade-off for extremely dense, ripe ocean-cooled fruit is extra work in the fermentation tanks, including judicious use of early sulphur dioxide and vigorous French yeasts that are, in theory, able to out-compete the mold.

The strategy was a success: There are no musty taints in the wine; rather, there are huge slathers of black cherry and raspberry candy bursting from a nose so penetrating that it actually inflates the sinuses.  That’s a good thing, by the way.  It is a bulked-up version of the varietal, granted—everything larger than life, so that the meatiness of the palate becomes a carnivore’s smorgasbord and the forest-floor earthiness is an acre or two of Black Forest layers.

"However, I mean that in a totally non-gay way.

“However, I mean that in a totally non-gay way.

For lovers of delicate, prettily-nuanced Burgundies, the wine may come across as a ‘roided countess—Stillman’s enological cover of Rex Harrison singing ‘Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?’  I’d argue that all the nuances are there, but emboldened in stature to the point where they are no longer nuance.  Some pumped-up Pinots have a distinct, off-putting, non-Pinot character, primarily because they’re fortified with something else, often Syrah.  AVA regulations state that you can blend up to 25% of another varietal to a wine, and still label it (for example) ‘Pinot Noir’.  Stillman doesn’t need to do this; his wine is pure Pinot and shows only Pinot characteristics, only clad in Central Coast armor made from Valyrian steel.

Zeppelin Winery Alicante Bouschet ‘Cayuthulu’, Paso Robles, 2013, around $30:

Cthulhu during potty training

Cthulhu during potty training

I trust Stillman’s claim that his Pinot is not adulterated because he has no qualms about admitting that this wine—despite being from an unusually high-yielding red—is 20% Zinfandel. Alicante’s history in the United States is often linked to Prohibition; the grape’s thick skins offered a natural resistance to rot, and so proved to be an ideal variety to survive train trips from California to the East Coast.  As a stand alone, it may be a bit character-free, but brother, is it color-dense: I held a glass up to the noontime sun and it could have doubled as a safety device for viewing a solar eclipse.

The nose is rich with chocolate dust and Damson plum, with a bit of spice and pepper.  How much the Zin brings to the party is unknown—the grape  is hard to locate outside of blends.  The palate offers a yin and yang effect, sweet fruit up front, tart cherry in the middle, dry tannin at the end, finishing with the re-emergence of fresh bell/jalapeño  pepper during the finale which (to my tastes) manages to come across as intriguing rather than vegetal.

Zeppelin Winery Vermentino ‘Fliegentraum’, Paso Robles, 2013, about $25:

Key to understanding Stillman Brown is getting to the root of his obsession with zeppelins, Elvis Presley, the German language and the aforementioned tentacle-deity which he renamed as a Cayucos wine pun—and once you do, please clue me in.

In the meantime, I am happily snorting a noseful of Vermentino.

fliegen labelThe name Fliegentraum is (I think) a reference to those elemental flight dreams that Freud found to be based on a particular German vulgarity providing an association between birds and sex: “We shall also not be surprised to hear that this or that dreamer is always very proud of his ability to fly.”  The Material of Dreams, p. 239.

Vermentino, a grape that produces basic, mineral-laden wines in Liguria and Sardinia, thrives in the dry, limestone soils of Paso Robles, where it takes on a Pinot Gris-like richness.  Even so, in all of California, there are probably less than a hundred acres planted, which is shame, because it makes a lovely, luscious glassful.  The bouquet of this one is filled with pear syrup, bright floral whiffs and some tropical fruits poking through a wash of sweet citrus.  It stays ripe and fleshy on the palate, adding a dimension of viscosity that fills the mouth and lingers with notes of peach and pink grapefruit.

bookAll three wines are beautiful examples of the extreme day/night temperature swings throughout the region, preserving the acids while an extended growing season sweetens the pot, allowing certain varietals with an otherwise meh resume to find strength and purpose in Paso—much as Cthulhu did in the Lovecraftian pantheon, much as Elvis did when he moved to Memphis, much as the Hindenburg did when it rose to heights above Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen, much as young Adolf Schicklgruber did upon his early release from Landsberg Prison.

This may mean nothing to you, but I assure you, it pleases young Master Brown, which is, after all, my noble obligation to ensure future lawn privileges.

Posted in CALIFORNIA, Paso Robles | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Côte-Rôtie: Prost! To The Roast With The Most

Côte Blonde et Côte Brune

Côte Blonde et Côte Brune

Among their myriad character flaws, the French are ludicrously and endlessly poetic.  Thus, the Northern Rhône appellation Côte-Rôtie, which receives an inordinate amount of sunshine, has a name translated as ‘The Roasted Slope’. And since that’s not quite poetic enough for them, they also make a red wine that has unmistakable overtones of roasted meat, which is close, but no poetic cigar.  So they make bottle verse in two subregions, Côte Blonde and Côte Brune (blonde and brunette), the first having Grace Kelly elegance and Marilyn Monroe youthful pizzazz, the second showing Liz Taylor body and a longer life expectancy.

Now we’re talking poetry.

rotie mapCôte-Rôtie wobbles atop Rhône like a pie tin on an acrobat’s pole; the appellation is a tale of two berries, one rugged and red, the other fat and white. Together, they perform a beautiful pas de deux.  And by ‘together’, I mean that the law stipulates that if the primary varietals of the region (Syrah and Viognier) commingle in a bottle, they must first commingle in the vat.

Co-fermentation is a legal requirement for the Côte-Rôtie blend, which may be up to 20% Viognier, resulting in a unique, delightful concoction that is, like the entire region, a cornucopia of contradictions.

There was a time when co-fermentation was used often in southern Old World wines, noteably in Rioja and Tuscany, where ‘filler’ whites not only softened harsh tannins, but, through an ironic trick of biochemistry, made them a richer shade of red. The practice has all but died out, and since 2006 it’s been illegal to add Trebbiano to Chianti while purist producers in red Rioja often sniff at the idea of blending Viura into the mix.

Syrah-ViognierSniffing, of course, should be what it’s all about.  Adding nonchalant Trebbiano to muscular Sangiovese or indifferent Viura to Tempranillo is one thing—bringing Viognier to the party is a whole different pocket full of poesies. Among the most assertively aromatic wine grapes in the the world, Viognier is the drama queen of Rhône, and if you take her to the tasting, you can at least expect her to pay her own way.

Thus—although I am told that vignerons in Côte-Rôtie tend to downplay Viognier’s contribution—it so changes the playing field of Syrah that a Rôtie will stand out from a nearby  Syrah-dominant Hermitage or Cornas as blatantly as a linebacker in lipstick. Overtones of femininity are displayed in a vivid floral quality to the wine—certainly in the nose, but especially on the the palate. Viognier in Syrah (as the Australians have since learned) is not merely a way to lighten up the tannins, it is as breakthrough a flavor epiphany as Reese’s peanut butter and chocolate.

Why the apparent aura of hush-hush around the tradition, I do not know.

domaine_de_bonserine_labelYesterday, I tasted three Guigal-owned Côte-Rôties from three unique lieux-dits.  I love the term lieu-dit, which is more French poetry, but legal this time: It means (unpoetically) ‘said-location’ and indicates (poetically) the smallest piece of land which has a traditional vineyard name assigned to it. There are lieux-dits all over Côte-Rôtie, and these three, all under the common Domaine de Bonserine name, produce wines of very different character.

La Garde is the smallest of the three, wresting about 3000 bottles annually from the iron-rich schists of Côte Brune. Under the guidance of négociant Guigal since 2006, estate manager Ludovic Richard and winemaker Stéphane Carell have refined techniques in the vineyard, including severe pruning, leaf plucking, and if necessary, green harvests—ensuring low yields and healthy ripe grapes. In the cellar, Carell relies on indigenous yeasts, at least a week cold-soak maceration and new oak aging for three years.

la gardeThe 2010 showed this last bit of coddling via tactile tannins throughout the wine, which begins with a full, efflorescent nose to flesh out a backbone of black cherry. Phenolic density in the palate is striking; the wine proves its pedigree of sixty-year-old vines with a rich display of cherry, raspberry and smoke. 2010 was a fine vintage in the region and the wine still displays the freshness of youth even as it begins to take on the elegance of age.

La Sarrasine is, by contrast, the workhorse property, which in this tiny world means about 2500 cases annually. This 2011 vintage wine saw less time in oak, and in 170-gallon demi-muids.  As a result, the tannins are finely-grained and more integrated into the body of the wine itself.  There is ripe red berry in the nose along with a meatier profile—the aroma of bacon frying.  Where violets dominated the nose of La Garde, here it explodes on the palate, mingling with red tea, tobacco and chocolate-dipped cherries.  The wine is shorter lived in the mouth, but 2011 was, overall, a poorer vintage than either the year preceding or the year following.

The roasted slopes of Côte-Rôtie

The roasted slopes of Côte-Rôtie

La Vialliere, another 2011, is redolent with an exotic blend of floribunda and fumé; raspberry liqueur mingles with pure plum notes, bacon rind, earthy spice (black pepper especially) and a bright acid bite.  The wine is self-assured in its statement, and opensup in the glass quite beautifully.

All three wines benefit from a very slight chill; maybe 55°F, and unveil considerable candor and character after a period of aeration. Rhône reds in particular seem to improve markedly with some breathing room in a cool environment, especially if the up-front tannins have been held in check in favor of fruit and flowers by a winemaker like Carell. Like a bloom unfolding in early spring, these wines seem to rebel against bottle confinement and want to strut, but first need about a half an hour to stretch their legs.

At between $60 and $100 a bottle, it pays sensory dividends if you allow them to do just that.

Posted in FRANCE, Rhône | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Forget ‘Wine With Chocolate’; What Wine Goes With Those Cute Li’l Candy Hearts That Say ‘Blow Me’?

One of the reasons I am a low-paid blogger instead of a highly-paid critic for The Daily Planet—a great metropolitan newspaper—is that I don’t do obligatory.

Blow MeObligatory wine columns preceding holidays are, in the minds of many editors, pablum for a proletarian, pre-programmed populi.  They insist upon running them whether or not the conclusions drawn by dutiful scribes are, like the holidays they precede, ersatz or bonafide.  Simply having the words ‘New Year’s Eve’, ‘Halloween’ or (in this case) ‘Valentine’s Day’ in the attention-grabbing headline is sufficient bait for snuffling lemmings drooling at the edge of a literary snare.

Some wine writers cave at the first withering glare from Perry White across the city room; others (apparently) like Eric Asimov build a little cork fort in their perceived wilderness and huddle inside defiantly until the savage advertisers show up in war paint and overrun the place.

Eric the Read

Eric the Read

I single out Herr Asimov only because, in his recent column ‘Wine and Chocolate Pairings for Valentine’s Day’,  he maintains that he’s hitherto resisted overtures to write such insipid twaddle with the same sort of tenacity that Winston Smith used to not send a dozen long-stem roses and a Whitman Sampler to Big Brother every February 14th.

Like our dystopian insubordinate, a short stay inside The New York Times’ infamous editorial Room 101 was evidently sufficient to make Asimov see the champers ’n’ chocolate light, and, in a statement no less powerful than Smith’s final victory over himself, Asimov now claims:

“It turns out that wine and chocolate can indeed make beautiful music together…”

wine chocolateSee, the problem is, Eric, most of us already knew that. The question (I’d hoped) wasn’t whether Port goes with Hershey’s Kisses or Malmsey with Mars Bars, but whether one wants to maintain one’s street cred at a great metropolitan newspaper, or instead, re-warm the same goddamn tripe already covered by every keyboard-pecking plonk-puppy from Oceana to Eastasia.

Let’s Re-Think the Whole Throbbing Mess, Shall We…?

Fellow bloglodytes: If you must write a Valentine’s Day wine column, I’m in favor of raising the creativity bar on themes. Unless your Food Page is underwritten by Godiva or Cadbury, I see no compelling reason that ‘Wine and Chocolate Pairings for Valentine’s Day’ has to be the best you can come up with year after year after year, particularly since a recent study by the National Institute of Health indicates that the only reason men buy women chocolate on Valentine’s Day is because they’re too lazy to think of anything else.

Meanwhile, a corollary study by the NIH points to the only reason that wine writers keep repeating themselves about Niepoort and Nestlé year after year after year:

They’re too lazy to think of anything else.

¡Ya Basta, Beeotches!

yin-yangAlrighty then; let’s get this  penis party started.  I’ll prime the engine with a quartet of dat’s wha I’m talkin bout and will expect those of you fledgling hacks who suckle my teat of free advice like  piglets at a sow’s udder to go forth and multiply, idea-wise.

Begin, for example, with the underlying biology behind food/wine pairings.  It is yin and yang; the mouth is a somatosensory organ separated from the gonads by a measly couple of feet and, as you notice from the illustration, yin and yang look exactly like the number 69, so if you have a yen for her ying yang you should yank out the yen and spend it thusly:

Wine With Obscene Little Candy Hearts

Clipboard mawbyPink is a dainty, decadent hue, both posies and pudenda; whether that sugary, bite-sized vascular organ quips, ‘I Want 2B Your Tampon’ or ‘Spread ‘Em’, the perfect foil for VD’s favorite processed sugar and cochineal-scale-insects-boiled-in-ammonia confection is ‘Sex Brut Rosé from the bondage dungeons cellars of M. Lawrence.  The molecular compound beta-ionone in the candy interacts with the estrogen-like effervescence in the wine, producing a sensory bridge from booth to boudoir, guaranteeing that the least virile and undesirable man on the planet will at least get a chance to snoop around her underwear hamper before being asked to leave.

Wine With Real Heart Meat

Clipboard aztekDismembering live humans and as a show of affection consuming still-beating hearts has been passé since Tezcatlipoca was in office, but much as the wee ones sing ‘Ring around the rosie’ as a macabre nod to bubonic plague, so may we prepare for our intended connubial conquest by serving her a roasted three-pound grass-fed beef heart accompanied by a hearty tankard of Egri Bikavér Hungarian ‘Bull’s Blood’ wine.  And when time comes for whispering sweet nothings in her ear, try the mushy Nahua love poem ‘Canpa Moyollo’:

‘Where is your heart?

You give your heart to each thing in turn.

Carrying, you do not carry it,

You destroy your heart on earth.’

Wine For When Bill Cosby is a No-Show

If both the above techniques de séduction backfire embarrassingly in your face, fret not; D.I.Y. Spanish Fly can be made with a few common household items you probably have lying around the kitchen.

Organic Aphrodisiac Wine Shake

Mix together in a blender 2 parts of frozen strawberries and blueberries, 1 part each of pomegranate juice, hamster cage cedar shavings, non-fat cottage cheese and a banana.  Add a bottle of Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 2007 and five microtabs of ‘Shiva’ blotter acid.  Blend until smooth and creamy and administer to your date at half hour intervals.

Wine to Wash Down Viagra

Clipboard penis wine And now, the moment you have been anticipating since you were fifteen years old; consummation. The actual act of physical love. Peanut butter with the chocolate, making the beast with two backs, Caesar laying his sword to bed, doing your duty for the party.  If nerves creep up like Gollum at the precipice of Mount Doom, even though you walk in the valley of the shadow of performance anxiety, fear no flaccidity; Pfizer is with thee and thy rod and shaft shall function so long as you pop the little blue pill and a stiff swig of Chkhaveri 2013.

See how easy that was?  Now, run along and develop your own unique take on Valentine’s Day wine columns, droogies.  No wine and chocolate.  No Champagne, no Port.  Nothing but blood and lust-fire.

For writer’s block lasting more than four hours, consult your physician.

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