France

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Drinking Niepoort

My few days in Lyon included the unbelievable experience of drinking the first port Niepoort ever made, the Imperador made from a blend of vintages from 1842 to 1850. Beginning in 1842, Niepoort operated as a negociant style port house, as is typical for the region, buying port from families throughout the Douro and then blending, until the last two decades when Dirk Niepoort took over leadership as the fifth generation leading the family owned house.

At the end of the 1980s, Dirk began making table wine with grapes from the Duoro, sparking controversy through the region by breaking its mold, but Dirk’s still wine also inspired other winemakers to follow suit, with table wines from the Duoro now a relatively common practice. Since, Niepoort Vinhos has continued to produce some of the best still wines in Portugal, not only from the Duoro but also in small quantities from other key regions. Dirk has also shifted the house style on port away from being negociant-only to instead making the port wines from vine all the way to bottling as well. The shift in focus has brought incredible clarity to the style and an admirable elegance.

The Imperador was an unusual style for what the house would become – sweeter than what they went on to make after, and less robust, with less core palate density than wines that followed as well. Even so, it was a treasure to taste a wine not only of its age but its provenance. I have great admiration for the history of Niepoort so to enjoy a nip of their very first wine is irreplaceable.

Niepoort Garrafeira – a style Niepoort is one of the very few to make – proved to be not only the finest port I’ve ever tasted but also one of the finest wines I’ve ever had as well. Two years ago I was able to shadow Dirk through harvest in the Duoro for five days. Half way through the visit he had a special dinner to thank his winemakers and friends and I was also invited. Thanks to the longevity of the family house, his collection of aged ports is, of course, remarkable. Half way through the dinner he blinded us on two special bottles.

The first was a beautiful wine, elegant and concentrated, wonderfully aged and savory with an incredibly long finish and fully integrated sweetness – the experience was more about texture and mouthfeel, savor and well-aged spice than sweetness. It’s something Niepoort is known for – a less sweet style of port. There was a very light sense of angularity to the structure of the wine but it was pleasant, like the weave of shantung silk, with the more textural component integral to the delicate strength of the fabric. I was grateful for the wine and enjoyed it but in truth it wouldn’t have such strong place in my memory except for then tasting the wine that followed it.

The first of the two wines was a 1952 vintage port put into 5-gallon glass car boys in 1955 and aged that way until 1974 when it was bottled in a standard port bottle for market. The aging in car boy is integral to Garrafeira port, and Niepoort is one of the few to do this. Dirk told us the provenance of the wine only after we had also tasted the second.

Dirk then poured us the second wine blind. Tasting it, I couldn’t believe the experience. As soon as we sipped, we all fell silent. To this day it is the most exciting wine I’ve ever tasted – savory, palate stimulating, somehow glittering in its presentation. The wine was such a perfect experience it struck me as impossible to describe in regular terms. Later I told Dirk it felt like drinking mother of pearl – that iridescent, shimmering, metallic and pastel, sea blue inner layer of a nautilus shell. The wine was seamless, elegant, other worldly, the epitome of what we mean when we use the phrase fine wine.

Only after we tasted and discussed both wines did Dirk reveal to us what they were. The second wine had started its life as the exact same wine as the first – a vintage port from 1952 put into 5-gallon glass car boy in 1955. But while the first bottle was moved from car boy to bottle in 1974, this second remained in car boy longer, then bottled in 1987. Incredibly, the two wines had each spent exactly the same amount of time in glass, only the size of the glass had changed. The contrast between the two wines considering such a seamingly small change, and the discovery of their provenance and history was remarkable. It’s an experience I still reflect on often today – the importance of simple choices, the details, in relation to what develops later, the second wine such a testament to both experimentation and patience.

Returning all the way back to the very first Niepoort port, the Imperador, this week was inspired and charming. I’ll admit that while I admire the Imperador, it didn’t reach a place in the Pantheon for me as the 1952-87 Garrafeira did – one of the god heads of wine – but even so, it’s an experience I treasure. I learned about the history of Niepoort from tasting it, and it gave me great palate sense for how a wine like that ages – easily.

Copyright 2017 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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Tasting at Antic Wine in Lyon

Georges and I taking a picture to send Dirk Niepoort

These days it’s rare that when I’m traveling it’s not for work and work trips are thick with scheduling. So, when I do happen to have a day or two on my own I prefer not to plan anything and instead take the time to do whatever happens to happen. I’m in France for the week and ended up with a day and a half on my own in Lyon here at the start of it. So, all day yesterday I spent just walking around the city until I happened upon a wine shop that looked interesting. It turns out my spontaneity unexpectedly hit gold.

Georges Dos Santos hosts what at first glance looks like a little shop, Antic Wine, in the heart of Lyon only a few hundred meters from the Saône River. The shop is brilliantly designed with all the choicest, affordable, quick grab morsels – this time of year that’s a lot of rosé – near the entrance, moving to progressively more esoteric wines further back. The whole upper floor though (at first glance) stays rather affordable with wines for the most part below 40 €. (It turns out at the very back there is a bit of a specialty room with old Sauternes, and often asked for higher end wines from the Rhone, Burgundy, and Bordeaux.) In the midst of it I found myself a favorite Chablis producer that does go into the United States but in such small quantities it’s almost impossible to find. It turned out my selection impressed Georges, which then led to our chatting for a moment. He invited me to look downstairs where serious treasure is kept.

The basement of Antic wine is full of Grand Cru, Premiere Cru Burgundy, magnums of Champagne, and select Rhone wines. Stepping back upstairs we chatted a bit more, which led to our realizing we know some of the same people in the wine world (see the photo above we sent to Dirk Niepoort as one such example), and the next thing I knew we were deep into an impromptu tasting of wines Georges likes and thought I would enjoy. That led to our then tasting through sample bottles he is deciding whether to carry in the shop, and then we were onto Champagnes that don’t enter the United States, obscure sake he hand carried back from Japan, 170 year old port, 70 year old sherry. Eventually I discovered the tiny shop also has a big storage room with some of the hardest to find bottles in the world. He doesn’t always open so many wines but my timing was perfect as he was also going to be hosting friends later who could help drink the wines.

The whole experience was a great example of the friendliness of the wine world and the benefits of being open to spontaneous experience. Though we tasted an impressive amount of wine over the course of five hours there are three I want to be sure to mention.

As many of you know, the last couple vintages in Burgundy have been brutal leading to some producers losing 100% of their fruit. In Chablis, Thomas Pico of Pattes Loup was one such vintner who lost all of his fruit in 2015/2016. To compensate slightly for the financial hardship of the lost vintage, he created a special small production, declassified cuvée made with fruit from other parts of France. Friends supplied him with what they could and he cofermented Chardonnay, Chenin and Clairette. Though the label says Chardonnay the wine tastes anything but – it’s fresh, energetic, herbal and naturally spiced with the viscosity of Chenin but the bones and length of Chardonnay. Utterly fascinating wine and absurdly affordable at less than 20 €. Unusual wines like this occur from necessity and are well worth supporting. It turns out Polaner brings it into the States in small quantities.

Dirk Niepoort has joined forces with his son Daniel, and winemaker Philipp Kettern to make Riesling from Mosel under the label Fio Wines, and it’s awesome. The Cabinett is, as it sounds, inspired by Kabinett style wines with just a hint of sweetness to balance the midpalate on an unbelievably long fresh wash of pure, bright acidity. That sense of purity is the real hallmark of both of the Fio Rieslings (there is also a third but I didn’t taste it here). The Cabinett is utterly drinkable and begs you to run down the street to grab spicy Thai food as it would keep that palate of yours sparkling alongside lemongrass, lime, and basil flavors with the touch of residual sugar balancing the heat. The Fio, the top end of the three Rieslings, is a mind bender – it’s utterly flinty on the nose and then full of slate minerality on the palate. Totally dry with an impressively long finish – you could run down the road, order your Thai food to go with the other wine, wait till they make it, then slowly walk back to eat it at home as if you haven’t a care in the world and so much time, and the Fio finish would still be going – but most of all it’s the purity. The Fio is one of those wines I’ll be thinking about for a while. The Cabinett was 28 € and the Fio around 40 € but in case you’re looking for it Antic is the only shop that will have it in France and distribution outside Germany will be minimal.

Next time you’re in Lyon be sure to visit Georges at Antic. It’s one of those finds that’s so good I’m probably breaking some kind of industry secret by telling you about the place. If so, that just reconfirms it’s worth the visit.

Copyright 2017 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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Drinking Saint Bris

To the Southwest of Chablis, along the cut of the River Yonne, in the heart of Auxerrois sits the darling appellation of Saint Bris – darling because of its uniqueness, darling because of its smaller size, darling because the mere idea of it carries ineffable charm. The subzone of Saint Bris proves to be the only AOC in Burgundy to grow Sauvignon, the presence of which in that celebrated region is a surprise to many.

As if the idea of Burgundian Sauvignon isn’t enough, make sure to place it in Kimmeridgian limestone, near its eponymous medieval city of Saint Bris that includes what are apparently the most intricate and remarkable limestone cellars in the region of Burgundy (I haven’t seen them personally but how I’d love to).

A mere 133 hectares grow in the Saint Bris AOC. It’s been a recognized appellation since 2003. The variety found its way to the area sometime after the phylloxera blight devastated the now-obscure white varieties then growing in the region. Until that time the village of Saint Bris was actually part of Chablis but the radical change to viticultural health as a result of the louse infestation led to geographical reassignments as well, even with the still Chablisienne soils. Enter Sauvignon. By the 1970s it was being officially recognized for quality.

With its relatively small size and moderate obscurity, the area still hosts smaller production, hands on, family farmers. The Goisot family is one such example. Father and son farmers, Jean-Hughes and Guilhem, dedicate their time to the viticulture then keeping a less interventionist approach, to beautiful effect, in the cellar. The wines are stunning.

While Goisot also produces Bourgogne blanc – a Chablisienne Chardonnay, and also a classic while friendly Aligote – it was their Saint Bris I had to get my hands on. The wines are simultaneously charming and serious, full of refreshing minerality and impressive complexity. It was exciting too to taste the side by side.

Goisot 2014 Saint Bris: Exogyra Virgula and Corps de Garde

The aromatics of these wines carries the chalky signature of its region while the palate on both is mouthwatering, sophisticated and full of length. In both there is an impressive natural density to the core of the palate and a luscious mouthfeel full of mineral freshness and mouthwatering while delicate acidity. They are both impressively elegant wines with delicious length.

The Exogyra Virgula focuses on Sauvignon Blanc vines of the family estate with half approaching 40 years of age, and the other half around 15 years thanks to replanting. The vines grow entirely in Kimmeridgian lime, and are farmed biodynamically. Once in the cellar the wine is vinified in stainless with ambient yeast fermentation and a focus on freshness, then aged on fine lees also in stainless.

The nose hints at Sauvignon Blanc aromatics with a flash of fresh, pure fruits accented by wispy hints of fresh floral greenery but on the palate the wine feels like rolling river rocks through the mouth – full of not-quite-salty palate stimulation – with a satisfying balance of mouthwatering acidity and enough flesh to let the wine have presence across the palate from open to close. The elegance with texture, sophistication with easiness of this wine really impressed me. Definitely enjoy it alongside food as it would love white seafoods.

In the best vintages Goisot also produces the Corps de Garde bottling made from the family’s vines of Fie Gris, an ancestor of Sauvignon Blanc also referred to as Sauvignon Gris. The variety apparently naturally produces lower yields than its Blanc relation, which reduced its popularity among farmers, while also more readily retaining freshness. The Goisot family remains one of the few to preserve the variety in the region. They grow it too in Kimmeridgian lime, biodynamically, then vinify it in stainless steel with ambient yeasts and full malolactic conversion. The result is beautiful.

More savory, and intense compared to the more delicate Exogyra Virgula, the Corps de Garde offers wonderful complexity with elegance and an impressive detailing of flavors. There are inherent exotic spices, hints of wax, wispy floral greenery and a lot of mineral persistence throughout. Most of all I love the mouthfeel, the chalky accents, and the mouthwatering length. It’s a lovely and special wine that would enjoy more time in bottle to age.

Copyright 2017 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

For Love of Pinot Meunier

Last year I celebrated 12 Days of Christmas by enjoying a different 100% Pinot Meunier every day for 12 days. It was wonderful. Pinot Meunier is the grape that made me irretrievably fall in love with wine. Burgundy and Tuscan Sangiovese were the two wines that had made me start paying attention to wine, but it was Pinot Meunier that ruined me for life.

It’s no small thing that Pinot Meunier won my heart. Though it is widely planted through Champagne, it is actually quite uncommon to find a 100% Pinot Meunier bottling anywhere sparkling or still. So for me to happen upon a still red Pinot Meunier by Eyrie Vineyards rather accidentally early in my wine education is surprising.

Though claims have long been made that the variety doesn’t age, the truth is Pinot Meunier can age wonderfully. I’ve been lucky enough to taste examples of still red Pinot Meunier from as far back as the 1970s that not only held up but developed a sultry earthiness in that delicate frame I couldn’t get enough of.

There has also often been talk of the variety lacking finesse for sparkling wines but, again, with the right vintners that couldn’t be further from the truth. My very favorite examples have been extra brut or no dosage. The fleshiness of the grape seems to do well without added sugar. That said, there are some delicious examples of brut sparkling Pinot Meunier as well. Egly Ouriet brut “Les Vigney des Vrigny” was the first sparkling example I ever tasted years ago and it’s definitely recommended.

Visions from Instagram

Over on Instagram I share photos with explanatory captions when I’m on wine trips or working on detailed projects, like the 12 Days of Pinot Meunier. With the wine trips especially the collection of photos from a particular wine region tend to go fairly in depth and all together share the story of a region.

I’ve been asked by several of my readers if I’d be willing to gather some of these photo sets from Instagram and share them here so that the information is more readily accessible. Over the next several months in the New Year, then, I’ll be posting some of those regional collections here alongside more in-depth features on producers from those regions.

Several people also asked if I’d please share my holiday with Pinot Meunier from Instagram here. With that in mind, here is the collection captured from Instagram in screen shots. Thank you for asking, and enjoy!

Happy Holidays!

12 Days of Pinot Meunier

Day 1: The Eyrie Vineyards 1996 Pinot Meunier

Day 2: La Closerie Les Beguines (2009)

Day 3: Lelarge Pugeot Les Meuniers de Clemence (2010)

Day 4: Breech et Fils Vallée de la Marne (2009)

Day 5: Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres (2009)

Day 6: Best’s Great Western 2012 Old Vine Pinot Meunier

Day 7: Christophe Mignon 2008 Brut Nature 

Day 8: Teutonic 2013 Borgo Pass Vineyard

Day 9: Vineland 2011 Pinot Meunier

Day 10: Darting 2012 Pinot Meunier Trocken; Heitlinger 2009 Blanc de Noir Brut 

Day 11: René Geoffroy 2008 Cumières Rouge Coteaux Champenois. 

Day 12: Lahore Freres Blanc de Noirs 2009 + Rosé de Saignée w Eyrie 2012 Pinot Meunier

To follow me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hawk_wakawaka/

I also received numerous requests to get Hawk Wakawaka t-shirts back in stock over at my shop. So, Pho t-shirts and Pinot Noir t-shirts are now both available in a range of sizes, as are my biodynamics posters and Corison 25-yr Vertical art prints. Here’s the link: https://www.etsy.com/shop/HawkWakawaka

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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Chateau de Fontenille, Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux

Stephane Defraine, Chateau de Fontenille

Stéphane Defraine owner-winemaker of Château de Fontenille

Since 1989, Stéphane Defraine has led the Château de Fontenille in Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers. Prior to turning his attention to Château de Fontenille, Defraine established and farmed vineyards for other Chateaus in the region. His viticultural knowledge of the area is significant.

The Château de Fontenille grows 52 hectares with 50 currently in production, the majority planted to red varieties – 35 hectares red, 15 white. Like much of the region, 90% of the wine produced is exported, in this case, primarily to the United States and Japan. His rosé of Cabernet Franc in particular is a stand out.

The Entre Deux Mers region of Bordeaux has a celebrated history for white wine. With an increased focus on red wines since the 1960s, however, whites of the region have mostly been regarded as good oyster wines meant to be enjoyed fresh and racy in their youth. Many current examples are perfect for that, but the history of the region was established in a greater range of styles.

The moderate temperatures and unique soils of the area support white wines with incredible aging potential. (We enjoyed a 1988 Bordeaux Blanc from the Entre Deux Mers on our trip, for example, that was still in beautiful shape with mouthwashing acidity.) At the center of the difference rests not only vinification choices but also clonal selection. As the attention for entry-level Bordeaux shifted to bulk wine production, interest in high production clonal types also increased. While Defraine grows a greater portion of red varieties currently, he has kept a steady focus on the farming quality of his whites and has helped to reestablish quality clones for white varieties.

In late September, Adam Lechmere, Richard Hemming, Emma Roberts and I visited Defraine to taste his wines and learn more of his perspective on the region.

Following is some of what Defraine had to share with us beginning with his thoughts on the 2015 vintage and his approach to viticulture. He discusses his views of sustainable farming and the role of economic sustainability. Eventually he speaks about the changes in winemaking style in Bordeaux and his work with clonal selection as well.

Stéphane Defraine of Château de Fontenille

Stephane Defraine

“We don’t need to make a lot of intervention on the grapes because it is very good [weather this year]. It is a bit like 2000, ’89 too.

“What is very strange this year is July, it was very hot. We were not in hydric stress [in the vines] but I think 10 more days of hot weather [and it would have been a problem]… but we had a bit of rain in August. The plants restart then. June, it was not hot but it was very dry.

We are standing with him in the vineyard. He points to the grass he has under the vines as an example.

“When you have grass under vines you have competition and make hydric stress. When you have no grass you have no competition and no stress. All that means is that a year like this year, all of Bordeaux will be good. In a humid year though, the best terroir has good wine but when you try to affect the hydric stress of that vine [because of too much water] some places have to try harder. … Human intervention plays a role.”

We ask about how long he has been in the area. 

“In fact, I am Belgian. I arrived in this area 40 years ago. Chateau Bauduc, I planted all the vineyards.”

We had visited Chateau Bauduc the evening before and walked the vineyards established by Defraine.

Determining Vineyard Density

We ask him about how he decided to establish the vine spacing he has here at Château de Fontenille, which is closely spaced.

“Here, the Sauvignon Blanc, we have 5000 vines per hectare. Each vine produces around 1 liter. It is better in terms of concentration. It is better to have that type of vines [planting density]. When you have less vines [per hectare] you have less concentration.”

We ask him about his canopy management, which appears well balanced for the vine spacing. 

“We calculate the coefficient between the leaves and the distance [between vines] and it is 0.7. You want 0.7 [coefficient]. So, we have 2 meters distance here, and you calculate with 0.7. So, you must have 1.4 meters of leaves.” Defraine has 2 meters between vines and 1.4 meter canopy height. “It means if you have 3 meters distance you must have 2 meters leaves and you cannot [so we must plant closer. The vine will not support a higher canopy.]” Defraine’s calculations are based partially in the soil drainage of his site. 

We ask about his vineyard maintenance practices and how they appear by site and by vintage. 

“We don’t have a systematic way of work. It depends on the vineyard but we plant the grass or we work the soil or we plant the seeds.”

Sustainable versus Organic Viticulture

We ask him if he farms organically, or biodynamically, and what his views of selecting such farming practices are. His response is interesting. It could at first sound as though he is against sustainable farming practices but by the end it is clear that is not what Defraine means. 

“It is not because [your farming approach] is organic that it is good. Today there is a big confusion between ecology and health. [People think if it is organic it is good as if organic equals health. That is too simple.] It is not because it is organic that it is good. [Good farming depends on more than that.] If your body is sick, and you go to the doctor. If you have an infection, you take antibiotics. [If you don’t you get more sick.] That is part of health.

“But [here in our farming] we are responsible. You make every decision to be ecologically correct. We are members of SME [a sustainable farming program in Bordeaux]. It is a unique way for producers to make decisions to do things for the environment.

“I have a lot of respect for people that make biodynamic farming decisions. It is very hard. One of the problems is the economics too. The price of a wine from Bordeaux in a supermarket in France is 1.5 € to 3 € and at that price you cannot make ecological growing because it is difficult. You have to have the economic first for it to be sustainable. A few people use [certified] organic or biodynamic around here but very few. It is very difficult. If you do biodynamic or organic wine you have to do 1.5 less yield and at that price it is very difficult to do it that way [with less yield]. [In terms of the environment] I prefer that all the producers of Bordeaux use less product that that a few producers use almost no product.

“We do not use fertilizer in the vineyard. [Healthy farming] is a vision.

“People think when you use organic product you use less product. It is not true. When you use organic you use more. Last year, I used 8 treatments but my neighbor, he is organic, and he used 17 treatments because he is obliged [to be certified].”

Typicity and Winemaking in the Entre Deux Mers

We ask him about what makes the zone of the Entre Deux Mers in which he farms unique in terms of the wine. 

“In this part of the Entre Deux Mers we have a soil with a lot of gravel and sand. We have a soil that naturally gives a lot of aromatics. We try to keep that identity.

“When I started in Bordeaux, we were picking wine at 11.5 potential alcohol and it had acidity. Everyone had the habit of more acidity and it worked because the food at that time too, it had less sugar. And people kept the wine. But it is different today because the wine, it is made to drink right now. We do not in Bordeaux make the wine at all anymore like we used to. The problem in a year like this is the risk to wait too much before you pick in white and in red.

“[Picking decisions] are just like when you eat an apple. If you eat the apple when it is fresh, you can taste the fruit. If you pick too early, the fruit all tastes the same. If you wait too long you lose the typicity.

“Generality is the worst thing in wine. We must have our own regard for our own situation in where we are [versus making wine according to a formula or based on advice like that of a consultant from outside the region meant to apply to wine generally rather than specifically to that region and vineyard].”

Direct Engagement with the Consumer and Winemaking Choices

“More and more people are in direct contact with the consumer. In the old Bordeaux system you had the producer and the negotiant. And the producer had no idea what the consumer wanted [because the producer had no contact with the consumer]. It was very difficult for the producer to adapt his vinification to the market.

“Today, when you go to Belgium or Japan with your wine and people say, ah, I don’t want that. you are obliged to change your wine [if you want to be able to sell it]. You cannot stay in an arrogant position, this is what I make you have to take it. You have to listen. Though not too much. [You must maintain the typicity of your site.] If you make all your choices through vinification you will lose the specificity of your terroir. [You must let your vineyard decisions show through not just intervene in the cellar.]

Looking at Clonal Selection in White Varieties

We taste through a range of white wine tank samples from the 2015 vintage. They offer a sense of distinctiveness and energy with clear varietal contrast between Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle and blends of the varieties.

“We keep the wine on lees to protect the wines. We will use sulfites later but [for now] we keep it on the lees instead. In a year like this year, you do not need any sulfites in the beginning. [Defraine was able to pick before any rains so there was no rot or disease coming in on the fruit.]

“I like wine with a sense of tension.

We taste the Muscadelle last of all. It is distinctive – earthy, with a mix of treble and bass tones and vibrant acidity. It seems distinctive compared to some of the Muscadelle we’ve tasted elsewhere. 

“What I want to do is arrive at 30% of Muscadelle in my blend. We replant Muscadelle. What was very difficult was to arrive at a good selection of Muscadelle from the plants. But we never talk about that in Bordeaux. White was very disregarded in Bordeaux for a long time with the focus put on reds. [For a while whites were only for high production wines and so clones were selected for high production not for quality.] The only clone you can find of Muscadelle is a high producer. So, 15 years ago we decided to go to all the producers to ask if they had old plants of Muscadelle from before the selection [for high production] of the 1960s and now we have new clones of Muscadelle that are higher acidity and lower production. We grow those here.”

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Institute of Masters of Wine Prestige Champagne Tasting

MW Champagne Panel

The Institute of Masters of Wine (MW) hosted their annual Champagne Tasting event this week featuring over 100 cuvées from top Champagne houses. Prior to the walk-around tasting, three Masters of Wine led a panel discussion of 24 Prestige Cuvées tasted in three flights. Prestige Cuvées are considered the tête de cuvée, or best wine produced from a particular terroir of a producer. They are often smaller production than their other bottlings, though not necessarily.

The 24 wines were selected by the MW panelists – Charles Curtis, Joel Butler, and Tim Marson – around 3 themes each presented in a single flight. The first flight selected 8 of the best examples of Blanc de blancs prestige cuvées; the second side-by-side top cuvées from a single house; and the third sought to discuss the cacophony of factors that go into flavor development looking specifically at vintage versus time en tirage. In the final flight it was difficult to come to conclusions, but part of the point was considering which houses hold wine for aging on lees versus aging after disgorgement, with emphasis on the point that really the question of time in bottle on or off lees is only one powerful though small element in the quality of the final wine alongside terroir, ripeness, vintage conditions, technique, etc.

Following are notes are each of the wines poured during the panel.

Flight 1: Blanc de blancs

Blanc de blancs Champagnes

* 2009 Non-dosé Blanc de blancs Premier Cru “Terre de Vertus” Champagne Larmandier Bernier $65 The “Terre de Vertus” presents a beautiful floral lift and freshness that balances the giving fruit of the vintage. With a more generous year, Larmandier Bernier chose not to use dosage finding the balance intrinsic to the wine already. The result is a sense of delicacy and purity. This wine carries a fine mousse, fresh blossom, a kiss of citrus, just a hint of caramel, and a long persistent mineral finish. Delicious.

2009 Brut Blanc de blancs Millésime Premier Cru “Clos de l’Abbaye” Champagne Doyard $95 Showing some of the richness of its vintage, the “Clos de l’Abbaye” offers a giving, round palate with nuance and no heaviness. Notes of light caramel, a fine mousse, and a persistent crushed sea-salt minerality carrying through to a long finish.

* 2002 Brut Blanc de blancs “Le Mesnil” Champagne Salon $433 Nuanced and giving, the 2002 Salon offers a floral and seaside-brine lift carried on a body of spiced baked apple dusted by chalk. Juicy and full flavored with ample acidity and a long finish, the 2002 is just beginning to open and will surely give a long fulfilling life.

2006 Brut Blanc de blancs “Fleur de Passion” Champagne Diebolt-Vallois $143 With a floral lift of apple and lemon blossom, cascading into baked apple and pear, the “Fleur de Passion” is both soft, elegant and at the same time finessed with a giving mid palate, silky mousse, rich flavor, and a long finish.

NV Brut Blanc de blancs Grand Cru “Les Aventures” Champagne A.R. Lenoble $97 Dynamic, structural and racy. Showcasing white blossoms, mixed citrus and herbal-oil notes of apple leaf with baking spice accents, the “Les Aventures” is finessed, nuanced and intriguing, with a fine while firm mousse, and a persistent finish.

2004 Brut Blanc de blancs Champagne Dom Ruinart $152 With an emphasis on both fruit and structure, the 2004 Dom Ruinart remains taut currently while promising both nuance and complexity – notes of lush fruit, dusty earthiness, and metallic zing wound through racy acidity, and a finessed, textural palate. Give it a bit of time in bottle.

2005 Brut Blanc de blancs “Comtes de Champagne” Champagne Tattinger $ 163 Clean. Finessed with real density. Spiced orchard fruit aromatics with metallic accents leading into a palate with notes of crisp, golden delicious apple, a kiss of peach and an accent of grapefruit pith. A creamy, round mid palate followed by a crisp ultra long finish.

1995 Blanc de blancs “Blanc des Millénaires” Champagne Charles Heidsieck $178 Showing notes of toffee and coffee grounds, with a hint of truffle and spice. Rich aromatics and a full mid palate with a soft mousse and persistent, delicate, long finish. Delicious and giving.

Flight 2: Side-by-side Prestige Cuvées

Side-by-side Champagne Prestige Cuvee

2007 Brut “Belle Epoque” Champagne Perrier-Jouët $160 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier. Dusty, orchard fruit aromatics carry into a full, rich fruit mid palate and a long finish. Persistent, racy acidity wound through a full palate.

2006 Brut Rosé “Belle Epoque” Champagne Perrier-Jouet $353 Unfortunately this wine did not arrive in time for the tasting.

2005 Brut Vintage Champagne Dom Perignon $172 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Spiced, orchard fruit aromatics carry into a crisp, full-flavored mid palate followed by a long, crisp finish. Lots of concentration and a sense of density through the palate. The 2005 hosts a fuller mid palate and less drive than its accompanying 2004 rosé.

2004 Brut Rosé Champagne Dom Perignon $324 A sense of delicacy throughout. Fresh floral with berry accents lifting over baked orchard fruit and dried berry with a buttered croissant accent. Metallic zing throughout. More vinous while also less concentrated than the accompanying 2005 blanc. Elegant.

2005 Brut “La Grande Année” Champagne Bollinger $128 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. Fresh orchard fruit coupled with spiced, baked apple and pear, and orange cream accents. Ample, nuanced aromatics followed by a full palate of flavor and finessed structure. Oxidative accents throughout carrying into a long finish.

2002 Extra-Brut “R.D.” Champagne Bollinger $321 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Perfumed and nutty with notes of ground coffee, toasted almond brioche, and perfumed apple blossom. A softer mousse than its 2005 counterpart. Oxidative accents throughout leading into a persistent metallic finish. Focused while also giving. Intriguing.

NV Brut “Grande Cuvée” Champagne Krug $175 Blend unclear. Includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and 15-20% Pinot Meunier. Notes of bruised and spiced mixed fruit, and brioche with toffee and coffee grounds. Nuanced and complex palate and aromatics with a full mid palate, firm mousse, and racy long finish.

2003 Brut Vintage Champagne Krug $255 46% Pinot Noir, 29% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Meunier. Dried blossom and light spice. Pert, fresh pear and apple opening through the round mid palate followed by a crisp, focused finish. Fresher and more focused through the finish than the Grand Cuvée.

Flight 3: Vintage & en tirage

Vintage and en triage flight of Champagne

* NV Extra-Brut Grand Cru “V.P.” Champagne Egly-Ouriet $119 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. Aged 7 years on lees. Fresh and secondary notes throughout. Lively and energetic while lean palate. Notes of blossom lift over toffee and ground coffee. Rich mid palate with lean structure and long finish. Nice complexity and nuance. Beautiful.

2000 Brut “Cuvée des Enchanteleurs” Champagne Henriot $199 Aged 12 years on lees. Bold and risky. Notes of oyster liqueur, toffee and apple with toasted nut. Ripe and supple with a long, drying finish. Funky. The aromatics linger into hints of amontillado sherry with air.

2002 Brut Cuvée “Sir Winston Churchill” Champagne Pol Roger $263 Only from older vines. 10 years on lees. Subtle aromatics. Soft mousse. Persistent, firm acidity. Deliciously vinous with a nice crispness. Notes of bruised fruit, croissant and metallic zing – somehow both oxidative and fresh with a focused, long, drying finish. Powerful with nice density of flavor. Delicious.

2004 Brut Grand Cru Millésime “Bouzy” Champagne Pierre Paillard $70 50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay. 9 years on lees. Notes of ground oyster shell, cocoa, and fresh apple with light berry accents and a metallic zing. Vibrant, youthful acidity. Focused, crisp and long finish. Delicious and unique.

2004 Brut “La Grande Dame” Champagne Veuve Cliquot $146 6 years on lees. Oyster liqueur, mixed fruit – crushed berry, bruised orchard fruit, and orange cream – on brioche. A rich, lush, giving wine with a persistent finish.

2005 Brut Grand Cru Millésime “Cuvée Perle d’Ayala” Champagne Ayala $144 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir. Both fresh floral and perfumed aromatics follow through a palate of orchard fruit and cocoa with a confected apple finish. A rich palate with firm and persistent acidity.

2005 Brut “Clos des Goisses” Champagne Philipponnat $195 2/3 Pinot Noir. 1/3 Chardonnay. 8-10 years on lees. Fresh orchard fruit and perfumed aromatics. Fresh and bruised apple with toasted nut and light coffee accents through the palate. Crisp acidity cut through a rich palate and a metallic, spiced finish. Distinctive.

2005 Brut Rosé “Comtes de Champagne” Champagne Tattinger $213 70% Pinot Noir (15% red), 30% Chardonnay. 5-6 years on lees. Notes of crisp pear, metallic berry, cocoa, toasted nut and spice. Subtle aromatics need air upon opening. Full mid palate and full, giving mousse lead into an ultra long finish with firm structure.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Comparing Sherry and Champagne

Just prior to the opening of Sherryfest West, Martine’s Wines and Valkyrie Selections hosted a Sherry and Champagne event at The Battery in San Francisco. The event included several flights of grower champagnes, followed by flights of grower sherry, all accompanied by a panel of experts.

The panel included Baron Ziegler of Valkyrie Selections, and Gregory Castells of Martine’s Wines to introduce champagne, and Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias of Bodegas Tradicion, and Jan Pettersen of Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla to discuss sherry. Peter Liem opened the event with a discussion of the ways in which champagne and sherry unwittingly resemble each other.

The Houses Poured

The wine flights included Champagne Gonet-Médeville, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, Champagne Saint-Chamant, then Fernando de Castilla, and Bodegas Tradición.

Champagne Gonet-Medeville offers a focus on refined freshness, rather than opulence. The wines carry delicacy, purity, and beautiful subtlety throughout.

Champagne Larmandier-Bernier gives a center line of salinity and freshness through a body of texture and fruit presence. The wines are all made with only native yeast ferment, a condition quite unusual in Champagne, and sparkling wine more generally. With the exception of their rosé, their wines are all 100% Chardonnay. The house is also one of the biggest proponents of bio-dynamic farming in the region, a recommendation that proves challenging as Champagne suffers high mildew pressure. Biodynamic farming, then, requires far more hands on viticulture in the region.

Saint-Chamant Champagne delivers a wine of opulence, with incredible complexity, while at the same time maintaining freshness. The wines open with age offering an easy balance of opulence and mineral freshness. Current release vintages from the last decade are still quite young and would do well with time in the bottle before opening.

Fernando de Castilla could be considered a boutique bodegas, or grower sherry house. It developed through a focus on only the highest quality sherry, wines made for the best of the local market. More recently Fernando de Castilla has begun to export these unique styles of sherry outside the Spanish market. As an example, Fernando de Castilla offers one of the only remaining examples of Antique Fino, a wine made through the older approach to sherry rarely possible today. To read more on the heritage of Antique Fino: http://www.crushwineco.com/crush-library/fernando-de-castilla-antique-fino/

Bodegas Tradición, another boutique level bodegas, seeks to create the finest quality sherry by avoiding or reducing filtering, and additives, and hand selecting the best lots for bottling. The result are wonderfully pure expressions of the wine. They also succeed in delivering beautiful older examples at small production levels.

The Discussion

The coupling of champagne and sherry appears at first an unusual choice. The two wines are thought of rather separately with bubbles from the cool Northern reaches of France seeming unlike fortified wine from the warmer areas of Spain. As Liem explored, however, in terms of methodology and production there are actually numerous insightful comparisons to be made between the two wines.

Following are thoughts from Peter Liem, during his introduction to the event.

Peter Liem introducing Sherry + ChampagnePeter Liem (right) discussing the commonalities between Sherry and Champagne
Sherryfest West, San Francisco, June 2014

“Champagne and sherry are two wines very dear to me for personal, and professional reasons. On the face of it, sherry and champagne look like disparate things.

“Champagne is the epitome of cool climate, from Northern France, delicate, and low in alcohol. Sherry is fortified to be above 15% in alcohol, from one of the Southern most growing regions in Europe, and is low in acidity.

“There is a spiritual element common between the two, as well as commonality in the production processes. Both are very much about where each is made. They come from calcareous soils. We often say “calcium” for short.

“In Champagne, we have chalk. The rock, you can break it off. It is very old from the Cretaceous period. In Sherry, we have albariza. It is a younger soil, around 35-million years old, and is much more crumbly in structure than chalk. It is more akin to sand, than the rock found in Champagne.

“In Champagne, you find actual physical rocks. In albariza, when dry, which is 5 months of the year, the soil can be compact, dry, and very hard. When it rains, it turns to mud. Albariza is like a light, calcareous sand.

“The affect of both soils is to create a distinctive minerality in both of these wines. When we think about the minerality of these wines it becomes interesting to compare them. When we compare them, we can compare their processes.

“In the past we would say both come from rather neutral grapes. No one would say that anymore. Producers as recently as 10-years ago, champagne producers would say they were looking for neutral base wines because the character of champagne comes from aging.

“In general, the base wines of sherry and champagne are not wines we want to drink. Both of these wines rely heavily on yeast. In champagne, the secondary ferment, and lees aging contribute greatly to the wines’ character. In fino and manzanilla, the layer of flor affects wine in important ways. Both are aged for a long time.

“For champagne, 10-years is nothing for aging. Many of the best need 15 years to show their best. Sherry is very long lived. It undergoes very long aging processes.

“In terms of perception, there is also a lot in common. Both wines are largely misunderstood. Many people don’t even think of sherry as wine. People often think of champagne as apertif only. In actuality, sherry is a very complex wine. It is also the most food friendly wine on the planet, bar none. In terms of perception, there is a lot of work for us to do.

“Both wines are a product of blending. In some cases, these wines are the result of extremely vast blends. Non-vintage champagnes can be comprised of hundreds of base wines. A sherry solera can be 200-years old and encompass, for all intensive purposes, hundreds of base wines.

“Finally, both champagne and sherry have been sold, or marketed as brands. In both, the brand of sherry, or the brand of champagne is the defining element for the beverage. Sherry bodegas are known for giving a consistent product. A champagne house develops their blend early in the process, and is often known for it.”

***

For more from Peter Liem on Champagne, check out his site: http://www.champagneguide.net/

For more from Peter Liem on Sherry, check out his site, also carrying his book on Sherry, co-authored with Jesús Barquín: http://www.sherryguide.net/

Peter Liem discusses his work on ChampagneGuide.net in an I’ll Drink to That podcast with Levi Dalton, episode 11: https://soundcloud.com/leviopenswine/peterliem

and his book, Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, written with Jesús Barquín in I’ll Drink to That podcast episode 38: https://soundcloud.com/leviopenswine/peterliembook

***

Thank you to Noah Dorrance.

Thank you to Baron Ziegler, and Gregory Castells, Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias, Jan Pettersen, and Peter Liem.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

2

Salon Champagne: A 6 Vintage Vertical

Pebble Beach Food & Wine culminated in a panel of 9 wines from Salon and Delamotte moderated by Antonio Galloni, and featuring Didier Depond, president of the sister houses. The wines poured from Delamotte blanc de blancs included the non-vintage, 2004, and 1970 out of magnum; from Salon the 2002, 1999 from magnum, 1997, 1995 from magnum, 1988, and 1983 from magnum. To comment on the wines the panel also included Rajat Parr, Shane Bjornholm, and Emily Wines.

Salon Champagne, A Verticalclick on image to enlarge

The Value of Salon and Delamotte

Salon Champagne has long held a special fascination for me. I admire the innovation of Eugène Aimé Salon that originates with his idea to create the world’s first chardonnay-only champagne, age it minimum 10 years, and create it only in the very best vintages. The first Salon vintage began in 1905. Since, only 45 vintages total have been made — 37 of those in the 1900s. A Salon has not been made since 2008 as the vintages since have not stood up to the quality demands held by the house.

Though blanc de blancs appears as a common option in sparkling wine now, champagne’s tradition and history rests more deeply in blending grapes. Salon was the first to imagine chardonnay on its own could offer enough sophistication for the best champagne. Incredibly, Salon champagne utilizes not only chardonnay-only, but also only 100% Grand Cru fruit from a single village within Cote de Blanc, the heart of quality for chardonnay grapes within Champagne. In aging the wine a minimum of 10 years, the silky texture and flavor development of chardonnay deepens. By creating the wine only in steel tank (no barrel usage), the focus remains on purity and freshness.

Delamotte stands as a true sister house, rather than simply a second label, to Salon. Four cuvées are made by Delamotte in order to keep the focus on quality — blanc de blanc non-vintage, blanc de blancs vintage (only in good years), brut non-vintage, and a rosé. Delamotte originates as one of the oldest champagne houses, created in 1760 utilizing only 100% Grand Cru fruit from the Cote de Blanc.

The wines are utterly beautiful. Younger vintages, such as those into the 1990s right now, carry wire-y tension focusing almost entirely on juicy citrus components with light earthy notes. As the vintages age, the flavors deepen bringing the earth elements slightly more to the fore, alongside refreshing saline or olive notes and chamomile tea or bergamot. Throughout, the wines carry a seductive silkey texture and utterly long, mouth watering finish.

The Salon and Delamotte vertical tasting included some of the most special wines I’ve been lucky enough to taste. We were also the first people outside Salon to taste the newly released 2002 vintage. Depond clarified that in the Salon cellars only twenty-three magnums of the 1983 vintage remain. Two of those were opened for our PBFW tasting. Antonio Galloni is widely known as one of the world’s leading wine experts. He described the 1983 from magnum as “one of the most extraordinary wines I have ever tasted.”

Notes from Didier Depond

It was an honor to meet Didier Depond, and taste through the Delamotte and Salon vertical led by his knowledge of the wines.

Rather than interpret his comments, following are quotations from Depond through the tasting.

“The size of bubbles is the elegance of the wine.”

“To make Salon, we want a perfect balance between sugar and acidity. The most important factor is the acidity and pH in the wine.”

“It may be very difficult for you to understand. It is very pleasant right now to drink this wine but tasting vin clair is very difficult for us, even painful.” Vin clair is the still base wine that will then go through a secondary fermentation to become sparkling. The acid levels of vin clair are very high and can literally hurt the mouth as a result. “We have to imagine the wine in 15 to 20 years. It is very difficult to imagine. We keep this wine [Salon] a minimum of 10, 11, 12 years in cellar.”

“We use only steel tank. I don’t like barrel for champagne. It is my opinion. I share my opinion with myself. Champagne is about the freshness, the pleasure, the happiness. I love the cleanness, and the freshness of the wine. For me, it is the definition of the wine.”

“It is easy to drink a magnum. It is the best size for me. It is better if you drink it as two [people], rather than only one.” (laughing)

“Salon is a unique situation. It is a mono-cru. We are chardonnay, and chardonnay from only one vintage, and only one village.”

“It is a very open discussion on disgorgement. For myself, sometimes I open a bottle with a very open disgorgement, and it is very beautiful, a 30-year disgorgement, and no oxidation. Sometimes, I am disappointed, yes? But, the wine is alive. [Explaining] Sometimes, I am disappointed with myself, to see this morning, I am older. But I am rarely disappointed with Salon.”

“All dosage for Salon is at the limit of a brut wine [next to brut nature–that is, very low sugar but still present]. Dosage is very important. Sugar is a preservative. It helps the wine age. If you want to do low dosage, you have to pick your grapes a little later to balance the sugars. It is very easy to make good champagne. If you make a good dosage, you make good champagne.”

“Dosage is like a beautiful woman with just a touch of makeup.”

“Today I know exactly how many bottles we have in our cellar [at Salon] for the next 20 years.”

***

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Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

0

Drinking Gewurztraminer with Matzo Ball Soup

Gewurztraminer Characteristicsclick on image to enlarge

This week I couldn’t kick the Matzo Ball Soup craving so Jr and I spent an afternoon making it from scratch. By grating fresh ginger into the Matzo Balls, and using a touch of parsley on top of the chicken broth, the soup worked beautifully with Gewurztraminer.

Gewurztraminer produces naturally pungent, easily recognizable aromatics. The grape naturally generates higher sugar levels, leading to a predominance of off dry-to-sweet styles of the grape, or higher alcohol level dry wines. Acid levels also quickly drop in the variety. As a result, Gewurztraminers readily have a fuller mouthfeel, and oily or slippery texture. All combined, cooler climates do better for the fruit. With lower temperatures, a grape that can tend towards blouse-y flavors and feel maintains greater structural focus, and can more easily hold the juiciness to balance its fuller palate.

Following are notes from six dry examples — two each from Alsace, Alto Adige, and California.

* Elena Walch 2013 Gewurztraminer, Alto Adige, 14.5%
Alto Adige in Northern Italy stands as both the origin, and one of the most celebrated regions for quality Gewurztraminer. Elena Walch offers a beautiful dry Gewurztraminer that lifts from the glass with nicely focused fresh rose aromatics then moves over the palate with ultra juicy crisp length. White nectarine, orange blossom, and light chamomile keep the palate nicely focused, crisp, and well integrated with a slippery mouthfeel. This was my favorite wine of the tasting. I kept returning to it through dinner, and after.

Elena Walch 2012 Kastelaz Vineyard Designate Gewurztraminer, Alto Adige, 14.5%
On a steep hillside above the village from which Gewurztraminer gets its name, Tramin in Alto Adige, Elena Walch grows the fruit for her single vineyard designate wine. Kastelaz. The site has produced quality fruit for generations. The Kastelaz brings a lighter, rounder focus to the aromatics and palate, carrying white peach, honeysuckle, pear blossom, and chamomile tea alongside light spice elements. Aged on its lees, the Kastelaz gives a creamy, nicely balanced palate. Though this wine offers slightly more residual sugar, it carries nice juiciness, and natural acid levels that bring it in as a dry wine.

Hugel 2011 Gewurztraminer, Alsace, 14.15%
Alsace proves another of the more celebrated regions for quality Gewurztraminer, with the area regarding it as a signature grape. For Hugel, it is a flagship variety. This dry Gewurztraminer carries cooked pear and lifting almond leaf aromatics rolling into a perfumed white stone and orchard fruit palate accented by chamomile tea. There is nice focus here, pleasing texture, and a long finish.

Domaines Schlumberger 2008 “Les Princes Abbés” Gewurztraminer, Alsace, 13.35
Meant to celebrate the long history of the region, Domaines Schlumberger‘s “Les Princes Abbés” portfolio uses portions of Grand Cru fruit from classic varieties. The aromatics keep a focus on freshness and delicate precision carrying crisp red apple, anjou pear and birch bark from nose to mouth. With just a kiss of sweetness, the juiciness of Les Princes Abbés keeps the wine fresh on the palate.

* Thomas Fogarty Vineyards 2012 Gewurztraminer, Monterey County, 13.3%
Taking fruit from a cool, windy vineyard in Salinas Valley, Thomas Fogarty VIneyards delivers one of the nicest examples of a varietally expressive, dry style Gewurztraminer in California. Giving a touch of skin contact to broaden the palate, and develop textural complexity, the wine delivers very lightly toasted croissant with hints of orange blossom, dried rose petals, and lychee all on a crisp, juicy presentation. This wine brings nice freshness, focus, and length.

Gundlach Bundschu 2012 Estate Gewurztraminer, Sonoma County, 14.5%
Showing off the exuberant side of Gewurztraminer, Gundlach Bundschu‘s 2012 highlights the pungent lychee and oily-slippery mouthfeel typicity of the grape. The nose carries lychee and spice greenery rolling into a flamboyant, perfumed mouth of lychee, melon rind, and lily pollen. The 2012 shows the broad character of a warmer profile typical for the variety. I have to admit the expressiveness of this style is overwhelming for me.

***

Each of these wines were provided as samples.

***

post-edit: I finished this write-up in the middle of the night after a two week run of not-quite enough sleep. My apologies for the creatively varied mis-spellings of Gewurztraminer in the original posting.

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10

Reflections on Beauty and Strangeness in Wine

“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.” -Charles Baudelaire

Last night in the midst of a Paris Popup dinner at Penrose in Oakland I unexpectedly found my nose in a glass of Domaine Raveneau 2001 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre Chablis. The profundity of the experience proved quite simple. In the grapefruit, forest musk of the glass I smelled only joy.

A particular explanation of philosophy remarks that the philosopher’s work is to notice the strangeness of the ordinary. Such a view forms a sort of paradox. That is, the ordinary is in its nature strange, in other words, not really ordinary at all.

In what are known as the Kallias Letters, German poet-historian-philosopher Friedrich Schiller gives an account of beauty. “A form is beautiful, one might say, if it demands no explanation, or if it explains itself without a concept.” Within Schiller’s idea of the beautiful is the point that it transcends us — what is truly beautiful is not a matter of our own personal preferences (our preferences are fickle), but instead a characteristic of the beautiful thing itself. In saying that the beautiful needs no explanation, Schiller is pointing out that what is beautiful is simply complete — it needs no supplement. It is beautiful. A kind of straightforward aesthetic truth.

Schiller’s account of the beautiful seems to present an example of the very thing it works to define. It too needs no further explanation. That is, for any of us that have encountered moments of beauty in wine, his definition of beauty feels right. In the nose of Raveneau, there was nothing to say. I could try to describe aromas for the wine but the truer point was that the wine smelled of joy. It had no other explanation.

It must be said too, that for those of us that haven’t witnessed a moment like this of the beautiful (whether through wine or anywhere else), there is nothing to understand in Schiller’s point either. He can give no explanation because there isn’t one. You’ve either seen beauty, and so recognize the simplicity of it, or you haven’t.

Schiller’s account of beauty forms a sort of paradox as well. In his account, he shows that beauty is not a matter of personal preference. There is nothing fickle about the beautiful. Our tastes may change, but a beautiful form is in itself a beautiful form. Our recognition of it (or not) does not impact the truth of the object. Yet, there is a kind of problem.

The idea of beauty is an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is, by definition, a study of the principles behind beauty, but it is also a study of our sensory experiences, or that which we can witness about the world. The point is that, something like Raveneau may be beautiful in itself, but it can only be recognized or exist as beautiful because as humans we have the capacity to witness it. This point is tricky, and almost circular, so let me restate it.

Because beauty is an aesthetic concept, it is necessarily subjective — we are the sensual creatures that seek it — and yet, the beautiful thing exists in and of itself as beautiful, whether we recognize its beauty or not. We are the creatures that generate the very concept (beauty) that we then find in the world regardless of us.

It is here, then, that we discover the gift and strangeness of encountering beauty. We are struck dumb by the beautiful. In encountering beauty, we in a sense escape ourselves. Yet, we are always implicated in its form. Precisely because beauty is an aesthetic notion, it links necessarily to our senses. The experience of sensing something beyond ourselves at the same time gives us strength — we have the capacity to access, witness, and experience something beyond our own limits. Here, the intertwined nature of beauty — that it transcends us and yet we are implicated in it — reveals part of its power. The thing that transcends us roots us more fully in ourselves, precisely by its pulling us beyond ourselves, another paradox. In doing so, beauty reveals to us how much more is possible. It becomes a kind of motivation for us to be more than we thought we were.

Beauty reminds us how much more is the world than any of our self-involved analysis of it, and also of our ability to live more fully in it. In his book, The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller goes on to develop an account in which he treats the beautiful as an example for improving ourselves as people. There he tells us that we can strive to achieve in ourselves a sense of the completeness we witness through the beautiful. That is, when we are good there is no explanation, we simply are good. Yet, for us as humans, such goodness feels more tenuous than those moments with the beautiful, precisely because goodness for us must be an ongoing process. We must always strive for such balance without an ability to permanently arrive at it. In its parallel to goodness, beauty becomes a motivator to find comfort in our own uncertainty.

In smelling my Raveneau last night, I had no words and only smiling. The wine changed remarkably over the course of the evening, yet always carried that initial experience of my being struck. In as much as I gave myself to the wine, there was little I could say about it. To write any sense of typical wine description, I would have had to take a stance of analysis that necessarily would remove me from the very thing I sought to describe. As a result, what I find to say is this. (It is both utterly inadequate, and in itself complete. Forgive me. I can only hope the people for whom it’s meant will recognize the statement for its intended truth.)

Last night I drank Raveneau. All I can say emphatically is, Thank you.

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