Saturday, April 29, 2017

Carrying on the Mondavi Way




Joe Harden, winemaker, Robert Mondavi Winery (Photo courtesy of Robert Mondavi Winery)


I can still remember my first visit to Napa Valley; it was just after I graduated from college in Chicago in 1978, and at 22, I wanted to see where all this great wine was coming from. At that time, Napa was an important wine region, but it was downright sleepy compared to what is has become today. 

One of the most famous wineries back then was Robert Mondavi in Oakville, toward the southern end of Napa Valley. There were several factors for this, not only the direction that Mr. Mondavi had given to this project - basically using the French model of fine estate wines, instead of churning out simple bulk wines - but it was also the handsome, mission-style architecture of the winery, designed by Cliff May, that was a lovely welcome to the winery in particular, as well as to Napa Valley in general.

I've thoroughly enjoyed that first visit with eyes wide open, and I experienced a number of great visits to the winery over the years, from a tour of the famous To Kalon vineyard, just behind the winery, to a memorable lunch with Robert and his wife Margrit. There have been a lot of changes at the winery over the past 15 or so years as most wine lovers know, and as for myself, it's been more than a decade since I've been this way.

So when I received an invitation to a Robert Mondavi winery dinner in Chicago featuring winemaker Joe Harden, it didn't take me long to respond affirmatively. I wanted to taste for myself if the Robert Mondavi wines were still of that same high quality I was used to in the 1980s and '90s. I can assure you that I was quite impressed after tasting these wines that evening.



Fumé Blanc has always been a focus at Mondavi; it was Robert who admired the Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire Valley and used the word "fumé" from that region's famous Pouilly-Fumé to identify his new dry wine made from Sauvignon Blanc. Fumé in France means "smoky", so here would be a dry white with a noticeable smoky, tangy quality. The wine was an instant success when intoduced in the mid 1960s and has been a staple from Robert Mondavi ever since.

Two versions were served at dinner: the classic Fumé Blanc from the 2015 vintage, and the 2014 Fumé Blanc Reserve. The first wine is well made with a light touch of that tangy grassiness that the variety is known for, while the melon fruit is quite attractive. Nicely balance with good acidity, this is meant to be consumed over the next 2-3 years.

The Reserve Fumé Blanc takes things up two or three notches, as the fruit comes entirely from the famed To Kalon Vineyard, directly behind the winery. As some of the fruit in this wine is from vines that are almost 50 years old (the T Block section of To Kalon was planted in 1960!), this is a wine with great character and richness; the nose reveals aromas of pear and tea leaf. Medium-full with excellent texture and beautiful complexity, this displays a more assertive grassy, herbal character, albeit in a restrained manner, as compared to the classic Fumé. This is excellent and should drink well for another five years, perhaps even longer.




Moving to the reds, there were two on tap for dinner, the 2014 Maestro and the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. The former is a blended red that changes its mix and percentages of varieties according to the vintage, with the 2014 being 73% Cabernet Sauvignon (thus it cannot be called Cabernet Sauvignon, as it is not at least 75% of that variety), 23% Cabernet Franc, 2% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. This has a good deal of attractive plum and cassis fruit with attractive notes of red flowers; there is good acidity, the wood notes are not too strong and there is very good complexity. This is a polished Napa red, delightful now, but meant to be enjoyed in another 7-10 years.

The 2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (not yet released) is a brilliant success, a blend of 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot; the fruit is entirely from the To Kalon Vineyard. Deep ruby red with a light purple edge, the aromas are enticing, with notes of black cherry, black plum and hint of vanilla from small oak barrels. Offering excellent depth of fruit, good acidity, impressive persistence and ideal harmony, this has the stuffing and structure to age for at least 12-15 years, and I may be a bit conservative in that estimate.

It is a wine such as this, along with the Fumé Blanc Reserve that instantly communicates to me a continuation of the Robert Mondavi style. To me that is grace, elegance, varietal purity and drinkability. The climate is so beneficial in Napa Valley, that is is easy for producers to craft a powerhouse wine, one destined to receive high scores. If that's your style, fine, but you'll have to go elsewhere in Napa for that. Robert Mondavi wines have always had the proper acidity to maintain harmony, a critical factor for pairing these wines with food. I can only speak for myself, but I enjoy wine with food, as wine does not exist in a vacuum. Wine on its own may offer a certain fascination, like a beautiful dress, but it's how that dress looks on an attractive woman that counts - it's the entire presentation that matters. Likewise, it's how a particular wine pairs with a specific dish that is the ultimate judge of a wine for my thinking.

So compliments to winemakers Joe Harden, Megan Schofield and Genevieve Janssens (director of winemaking) for maintaining Robert Mondavi's vision. He would be proud.



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Champagne Insight


My recently published book The Essence of Champagne: In the Glass and at the Table focuses on 50 producers, ranging from large, well-known houses, such as Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouet, to small growers, such as Cédric Bouchard, David Léclapart and others. I wrote chapters about each producer, so the book is a collection of essays about these vintners, including not only technical information such as vineyards and blending, but also personal philosophy on their Champagnes.


Here are a few excerpts from the book:

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"I don't think that owning your vineyards, which is a sign of richness, is a necessary evil to make quality Champagne." - Gilles Dumangin, J. Dumangin, Chigny-Les-Roses (Montagne de Reims)

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"I learned that finesse and elegance are the most important things in creating a great wine." - Odilon de Varine, chef-de-caves, Gosset, Epernay (Vallée de la Marne)

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"The public has little awareness of our company, yet you have the Champagne fanatics that have high respect and love for our wines." - Cyril Brun, chef-de-caves, Charles Heidsieck, Reims (Montage de Reims)

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Dominique Demarville (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

"They (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) have wonderful potential for aging, especially when the year is good. Of course, from year to year, sometimes the Chardonnay is better, sometimes the Pinot Noir. In reality, it depends mostly on the area and climate - essentially rainfall - that we have."  - Dominique Demarville, chef-de-caves, Veuve Clicquot, Reims

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"We try to make something quite natural, preserving the balance of nature, which of course, is the approach of biodynamic. Put a lot of love in your vineyards, and your vineyards will give back to you." - Frédéric Zeimett, managing director, Leclerc Briant, Epernay

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Pierre Larmandier (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

"I think that with biodynamic, the wines are a little more intense. What we think also is that we are never tired. We have energy from biodynamic." - Pierre Larmandier, Champagne Larmandier Bernier, Vertus (Cote des Blancs)

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"My philosophy is that Champagne should deliver a combination of elegance, energy, complexity - it's very complex at times. Energy, complexity, tension, minerality, elegance. That is what I want to create, because I think the trust of our terroir in Champagne is a very simple philosophy. I just want to be loyal to my land." - Bruno Paillard, Champagne Bruno Paillard, Reims

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The Essence of Champagne is available at amazon (click here)


Monday, January 30, 2017

Louis Jadot 2015 Burgundies


Recently in Chicago, I attended a sit-down lecture and tasting presented by Frédéric Barnier, technical director and winemaker for Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy's most esteemed houses. The topic was the newly released wines from the 2015 vintage.

2015 has received a lot of hype, as a great vintage; we surely hear the word great being used too often in the wine world (and elsewhere), yet we don't often hear that for Burgundy, as it is a bit of a razor's edge climate, as every year growers and producers hope for cooperation from Mother Nature. Is 2015 truly a great vintage for Burgundy?

Barnier, who succeeded long-time Jadot winemaker Jacques Lardiere a few years ago, addressed the topic of "greatness" as applied to the 2015 vintage in Burgundy. He commented that 2015 was "less difficult than past vintages," but also noted a lack of rainfall, which made for concentrated wines, but of course, a very small crop. The yields were 85%-90% normal for the whites, but only 30%-35% for the reds.

While it was hot and dry in June and July, August saw normal temperatures, so Barnier was quick to point out that 2015 would not be like 2003 in Burgundy. That year, the wines lacked proper acidity, which is thankfully not a problem with the 2015s.

There were 18 wines presented at this seminar - I will give tasting notes for most of them.


WHITES


Chablis Premier Cru "Fourchame" - Brilliant light yellow color; classic wet stone aromas with additional notes of golden apple. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Excellent persistence, very good acidity and complexity, with beautiful varietal character. Beautiful representation of terroir and ideal varietal purity. This wine is fermented in steel tanks and wooden barrels and is matured in 30% new oak; which seems perfect for this wine. 7-10 years of life ahead of this wine. Outstanding (****1/2)

Meursault Premier Cru "Genevrieres" - Distinctive aromas of anise and golden apples. Medium-full; very good ripeness and acidity. Nicely balanced with excellent varietal character. A nicely refined example of a cru Meursault, with impressive persistence. 7-10 years. Excellent (****)

Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru "La Garenne" - Straw/light yellow; aromas of ripe Bosc pear and citrus; slightly closed nose. Medium-full, good acidity, excellent persistence and complexity; quite stylish. This vineyard is one of the highest in the appellation; due to the small crop in 2015, wine from two domaines were blended together for this cuvée. Peak in 10-12 years, perhaps longer. Excellent (****)




Batard-Montrachet - Light yellow; nutty aromas (roast almonds), lemon zest and ripe apple notes. Full-bodied with excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, outstanding persistence, very good acidity. Powerful, yet with a fine sense of grace. Best in 12-20 years. Barnier noted that the Batard-Montrachet vineyard is situated in both the commune of Puligny-Montrachet as well as Chassagne-Montrachet; this wine is from rows of the vineyard located entirely in Puligny. Fermented in oak and then matured in barrels for 18 months. Superior (*****)



REDS


Santenay, Clos de Malte (Monopole) - Bright young garnet; very appealing aromas of pink carnation and maraschino cherry. Medium-bodied, tart acidity, very good depth of fruit and lovely balance. Nice finesse- a charming wine in which the varietal fruit is the focus. Best in 5-7 years. Very Good to Excellent (***1/2)

Beaune Premier Cru "Boucherottes" - Deep garnet (crimson); aromas of black cherry cough syrup, tar, black mint and iris. Rich mid-palate, medium-weight tannins, good acidity, earthy finish (Barnier labeled this as "slightly rustic"), very good persistence. Best in 10-12 years. This cru is very close to the border with Pommard, and is situated between "Clos de Mouches" and "Les Epenottes" on the lower portion of the southern slope of Beaune. Fermented in tanks, then matured in barrels for 12-15 months. Excellent (****)

Corton Pougets Grand Cru - Very deep garnet; rich aromas of red cherry, a subtle note of coffee, tar and dried red flowers. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Ideal ripeness, excellent persistence, good acidity. Superb expression of terroir; outstanding varietal purity. Powerful wine, but balanced, and displaying great style! Best in 15-20 years, but extremely appealing now. Jadot is one of only two producers to make a Corton Pougets; the other being Domaine Rapet. The cru is directly adjacent to the famed Corton-Charlemagne plot. The wine was fermented for 3-4 weeks in vats and then aged 18-20 months in oak barrels. Outstanding (****1/2, perhaps Superior ***** in another 5 to 7 years?)

Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru "Les Boudots" - Enticing aromas of red cherry, strawberry and red poppies. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Delicious wine! Quite ripe, but not forward or jammy; rich tannins, excellent persistence, subtle wood notes. Peak in 12-15 years. This vineyard borders the Premier Cru vineyards of Vosne-Romanée, at the northern limits of Nuits-Saint-Georges. This wine was fermented in vats for 3-4 weeks and then aged for 15 months in oak barrels. Outstanding (****1/2)

Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru "Clos-Saint-Jacques"- Young, deep garnet; aromas of ripe strawberry, red roses, red poppies and red cherries. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate. Big tannins, but balanced; firm structure, excellent persistence. Peak in 12-20 years. Produced from 90 year-old vines. Barnier commented that Clos-Saint-Jacques is "a Premier Cru more like a Grand Cru." The wine was fermented in vats for 3-4 weeks and then matured in oak barrels for 18-20 months. Outstanding (****1/2), perhaps Superior ***** in another 7-10 years).




Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru - Lovely young garnet; ripe red cherry, cough syrup and carnation aromas. Full-bodied with excellent concentration. Rich, generous mid-palate. Rich finish with ample fruit; outstanding persistence. Beautiful structure, quite stylish! Notes of black spice and red flowers in the powerful finish, firm tannins. Superb expression of terroir and varietal purity. Beauitful wine! Peak in 15-25 years, perhaps longer. Chapelle-Chambertin is one of nine Grand Cru plots in the Gevrey-Chambertin commune; it is situated immediately underneath Clos de Beze, with Griotte to the south. Jadot owns 0.96 acres of this cru. Fermented in vats for 3-4 weeks and matured for 18-20 months in oak barrels. Superior (*****)

Clos Vougeot Grand Cru - Young, deep garnet; aromas of black cherry, tar and cough syrup. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, quite round and supple. Firm tannins, slightly meaty finish, excellent persistence. Give time to round out. Peak in 15-20 years. Jadot is second largest owner of the Clos Vougeot vineyard, with a little more than five acres. The wine was fermented for 3-4 weeks in tanks, and then matured in barrels for 18 months. Outstanding (****1/2)


The tasting concluded with two Beaujolais from Jadot; normally this would be unthinkable, but not for the 2015 Beaujolais, which are anything but simple, quaffable wines. The lack of water was especially critical in Beaujolais, resulting in powerful wines, somewhat atypical for this district. Both wines were quite rich, and your opinion of these wines would depend on how "big" you want a Beaujolais to be.

Chateau de Jacques Morgon "Cote de Py" - Deep purple, almost black color, which is quite typical of the 2015 Beaujolais. Aromas of black plum, violets and blackberry jam. Big, big tannins! Notable persistence. Far removed from most individuals's idea of Beaujolais; best in 5-7 years. Very Good (***)

Chateaus de Jacques Moulin-a-Vent "Clos de Rochegres" - Inky purple, as dark a color as I have ever seen on a Beaujolais. Blackberry, iris and violet aromas. Full-bodied, excellent persistence. Very ripe, almost lush approach. Quite powerful, although you couldn't drink much more than a glass for some time, as this is all guts and body with little charm. Peak in 7-12 years. This was aged for a short time in 100% new oak. A controversial style of Beaujolais, to say the least. Excellent (****)


Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Essence of Champagne - available at amazon


My new book The Essence of Champagne is now available at amazon.com (click here)

In the book, I feature 50 Champagne producers, ranging from large houses to small growers. There no points for any of the estates or their cuvées, but rather I use a star system to rate the producers, from 2 (good) to 5 (superior). For each chapter, I feature one or two wines from a particular producers and include my tasting notes along with a specific food recommendation for that cuvée.

Enjoy!