Monday, March 17, 2008

Jean-Luc's Favorite Wines

Last week, I went to a great wine tasting event at Le Du's wine shop, a store hidden (but well-known) in an out-of-the-way corner of the Meat Packing District. The event was called "Jean-Luc's Favorite Wines," and it was basically a good excuse for the owner of the store to get a bunch of us to pay for him to get to open and drink some of his best wines. But I think most people there would gladly pay for him to do that any chance they get -- he is an entertaining speaker and chooses terrific wines.

Jean-Luc Le Du was the wine director for Daniel Boulud for 10 years before he left to open his own wine shop. I think of that job as the wine analog of being manager of the New York Yankees: if you wanted to be in the wine profession in the United States in some capacity other than a winemaker and you could pick from any job, that would have to be in your top handful of choices. He was born in France and hails from Brittany (where, as he says, they don't make any wine, but they produce a lot of very nice pigs), but didn't discover wine until he came to the United States in the mid-eighties. A friend opened his eyes to outstanding wines with a bottle of 1964 Château Cheval Blanc, a well-known Bordeaux from Saint-Emilion. As Jean-Luc tells it, "I didn't know anything about wine. I thought you could just go to a liquor store with five dollars and ask for a sixty-four Château Cheval Blanc." (Current bottlings are around $300 now.) But he fell in love with wine and became determined to learn about it, and began buying $100 worth of wine every week, which must have gone quite a long way in the United States in the eighties, before this country really discovered wine and our demand pushed prices up.

We had eight wines (about a half glass of each) over the course of two hours at the tasting, with Jean-Luc speaking extemporaneously about each one for fifteen minutes or more. At times, people remarked that they didn't like something as much, or didn't taste in the wine what Jean-Luc did, and a couple of times in response he made people laugh by pointing at the top of the sheet that listed the wines and had as its title, "My Favorite Wines," and saying, "If you look to the top of your sheet, you'll see it is called MY favorite wines; your favorite wines might be something else," but he said it in a light-hearted way, not at all defensively or dismissively. The lineup featured one champagne, one white wine, four red wines, and two dessert wines:
  • Vintage Champagne: Egly Ouriet 2000
  • Old White Burgundy: Puligny Montrachet "Les Combettes" 1er Cru, Nicolas Potel 1990
  • Northern Rhone Syrah: Cornas, Auguste Clape 2005
  • Priorat Blend: Clos Mogador 2005
  • Old Bordeaux: Château Grand Puy Lacoste 1982
  • Old Barolo: Barolo, Giacomo Conterno 1971
  • Dessert Wine, Late Harvest Loire Valley Chenin Blanc: Vouvray Moelleux, Domaine Foreau 2005
  • Dessert Wine: Banyuls, Dr. Parce 1961

Egly Ouriet 2000

The champagne was the first that I've ever had that I would say had a distinct character and the body of a "real" wine. I drink a fair amount of sparkling wine nowadays, often with cheeses instead of desserts in restaurants, and most of it tastes to me like good nondescript dry white wine with a bit of apple flavor to it that I like. This champagne was made of chardonnay grapes, and had the butteriness and heft of a chardonnay, and the toastiness of a bit of age. It had been oaked a bit, but not so much that it was obtrusive. During Jean-Luc's remarks, I picked up some very basic sparkling wine knowledge that is pretty obvious when you stop and think about it for a moment, but was new to me nevertheless: "blanc de blanc" means the wine was made with chardonnay grapes, and "blanc de noir" means the wine was made with pinot noir grapes. (Dark grapes are often used to make white wines: the color in red wines comes from leaving the skins on during the processing of the grapes; if you remove the skins early, the flesh of the grape is light and you get a white wine.)

Most champagnes are made to taste sort of nondescript, because the producer's goal with nonvintage champagnes and sparkling wines (probably most readers of this have only ever had nonvintage sparkling wine) is for them to taste pretty much the same from year to year so that the consumer will know what he's getting in the bottle. Like most food products where your goal is to be able to duplicate the same flavor over and over without variation, nonvintage champagnes are made by blending together raw ingredients from a wide variety of sources: wine from a lot of different grapes (the same variety, but harvested from different sites) grown in a lot of different years is combined to drive out the distinguishing characteristics of any one of them, leaving the producer with a wine that is more a reflection of how it was made than what it was made from. This is not a bad thing, because often you want something simple and good that will be exactly what you expect, a wine clearly in the style of some well-known producer, but if you only ever try nonvintage sparkling wines, you're guaranteed to miss the best and most interesting champagnes. After tasting this wine, I will look for vintage sparkling wines more in restaurants.

Puligny Montrachet "Les Combettes" 1er Cru, Nicolas Potel 1990

The white Burgundy that we tasted from 1990 was probably the standout wine of the tasting for me (although its hard to say that, because nearly every wine there was the standout the moment I first tried it). It is the first time I've ever had a white wine where I understood why someone might pay a lot of money for a white wine. This wine showed a lot of depth and many layers of flavor. A lot of the acidity had gone away with age, allowing everything else about the wine to come forward. Both this and the vintage champagne we had were a very deep golden color, pretty to look at, although later in the tasting in response to a comment someone made, Jean-Luc said that in his experience shades or depth of color tell you nothing at all about the quality of a wine or how it will taste.

Cornas, Auguste Clape 2005

The first red we had was a syrah from Cornas, in the northern Rhone. Jean-Luc said, "To me, this is syrah," and by saying that he was drawing a contrast with the style of shiraz from Australia, often big red wines with a lot of alcohol. This wine tasted a bit chalky to me, maybe what you might more politely call a mineral flavor. I thought it also had the distinct and strong smell of the Elmer's glue paste we used when we were five years old, but a friend that I shared that observation with thought it was more like rubber cement. Despite these descriptions, it was a very good wine, maybe the wine I would be most likely to buy among the reds we tried. We had the 2005 bottling, and it was a little rough and will be better with age. Jean-Luc said that he had just gotten in the 2001 of the same wine, and thought that morning about serving it instead of the 2005, but he had already sent out the list of wines to everyone attending, and didn't want to get in an argument with any of his paying customers about a change in the list of promised wines.

Priorat Blend: Clos Mogador 2005

The next red was from Priorat, in northeastern Spain just down the coast from France and Barcelona. This might have been my favorite red of the night, though not as interesting to me as the Cornas. It was a blend of Grenache and other grapes, much like what you find in southern Rhone wines (the most well-known being Chateauneuf du Pape). Jean-Luc talked about a conversation he'd had with a maker of southern Rhone blends who said that it is no mystery why wines from that region have been made from blends of a lot of grapes for hundreds of years: none of the grapes alone makes a great wine. Spanish wines are to me the easiest to identify from their taste. Most of the Spanish wine I've had seems to taste and smell a little bit like a tapas restaurant (perhaps it's really the other way around). This wine tasted like a southern Rhone wine that had been decanted and left to absorb tastes out of the air in a tapas restaurant. That remark doesn't begin to do it justice, though -- it was a lot more interesting than that. I liked this wine a lot.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste 1982

The next two red wines were really the deciding factor in my decision to spend the money to go to this tasting: a 1982 Bordeaux and a 1971 Barolo. The chance to taste one of those kinds of wines, let alone two of them, without spending hundreds of dollars doesn't come along all that often, at least not so far in my short wine life. They were both offered for sale at the tasting, for between $300 and $400 a bottle. Surprisingly (to me, at least), they were my least favorite wines of the night. But I am still very glad to have gotten to try both of them.

Both red Bordeaux and Barolo wines are very tannic, and can generally benefit from aging. Tannin, found in the skins of dark grapes, gives a red wine roughness and bitterness, but it is also what usually allows a wine to be aged. To give you some idea of the kind of edge it gives to a wine, tannic acid has a similar quality to and is the main taste in (unsweetened, obviously, and un-lemoned) iced tea. Tannins give a wine what is often called "structure," the layers of taste that you pick up in different parts of your mouth in different sequences as you taste a wine by holding it in your mouth for several seconds (or, for some wines, several minutes). The '82 Bordeaux had lost nearly all of its tannic taste, and therefore all of its "structure," and Jean-Luc remarked that it was on the verge of "falling apart." In addition it had lost nearly all of the taste of the original fruit. In fact, until I tasted this wine, I'm not sure that I really understood what it meant for a red wine to taste "fruity" other than in a very obvious way. When all of the fruit has aged away, it really hits you how fruity every other red wine is, even those that are so tannic and bitter that they aren't ready to drink. In some sense it was a very pure expression of Bordeaux, and aside from the obvious novelty aspect of getting to try an old wine, that is why I am glad to have tasted it. Take away the tannic bitterness and the regular old grape fruitiness, and what you're left with is the concentrated essence of the land that the wine came from, the minerals and nutrients and organisms in the soil, the taste and smell of the air that gave life to the vines. I thought of it like a consomme of Bordeaux. Someone remarked that it had the quality of a perfume, which I think is a good way to describe it: a light but very distinctive and powerful aroma and flavor.

Barolo, Giacomo Conterno 1971

This was my least favorite of the wines we had, though again I am glad to have tried it. Good Barolos are among my favorite wines, and one of the things I enjoy about eating in restaurants in New York is that you can often find them available by the glass because there's enough of a market here that a restaurant can go through several bottles a night of a good wine even if they have to charge $30 a glass, and they won't end up wasting most of a bottle because only one glass is sold. Barolo and Barbaresco wines from northern Italy are made from a grape called nebbiolo, which might be the most tannic grape of any used to make wines. The wines can be very rough and assertive when young, and they benefit more than other wines from being decanted well in advance of drinking -- leaving them in the glass for at least a couple of hours before you drink them is a good idea. This wine, like the Bordeaux, had lost most of the fruit in its taste. But unlike the Bordeaux, it still had a tannic edge to it. Jean-Luc said that no matter how long you age a wine made from nebbiolo grapes, it will still show tannins: he's never had one that completely lost its tannic bite. For my taste, at least at this point in my novice wine appreciation career, some of the fruit is necessary if the wine is still going to have its tannic edge. As Jean-Luc kept reminding us by pointing to the "My" in the "My Favorite Wines" title on the sheet he had passed out at the beginning of the night, each of us likes different things in food and wine (and anything else), and some friends that were also at the tasting liked this wine so much that they bought the only bottle available for sale in the store.

Vouvray Moelleux, Domaine Foreau 2005

The first of our dessert wines was a chenin blanc from the Loire valley. I haven't had many dessert wines, but I used to have a friend that liked Tokaji (pronounced "toh-kie," rhyming with "eye") dessert wines from Hungary quite a bit, and I've tasted a few of those. They taste to me like a minerally honey. This reminded me of those Tokajis, but with much more of an emphasis on the honey and not so much mineral edge. It was very sweet, but still with interesting complexity to its flavor, and not just like drinking a syrup. If price were no object, of the wines we had, this one would be second on my list to buy so I could try it again and share it with others (the first, if price were no object, would be the 1990 white Burgundy).

Banyuls, Dr. Parce 1961

Jean-Luc said this was the wine he had been most looking forward to for the evening. I believe Banyuls is a wine made in southern France just north of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Everyone says it is something like Port wine, although I haven't liked the Ports I've had that were said to be very good ones, and I've liked Banyuls every time I've had it. It is amber in color, not the deep, dark red or purple of port. I didn't find anything remarkable about it, though that is mostly because I haven't had enough examples of it to identify anything that distinguishes one from another. Jean-Luc said it is a real "wine geek" wine, in that it is a wine that is nearly impossible to find. He said that almost any famous wine you want you can get if you simply have enough money -- if you want a bottle of '47 Petrus or '61 Lafite, there is one available at nearly every big wine auction, and just by bringing enough money to the table you can get hold of them. But a nearly 50-year-old Banyuls is a real rarity, and you could see the enjoyment on Jean-Luc's face as he tasted the wine.

All in all, I'm glad I got to try all of those wines. One of my friends who was at the tasting asked Jean-Luc near the end, since he had been repeatedly and humorously making the point that these were his favorite wines, when he was going to have a tasting of his second-favorite wines. I hope he does so before too long -- I'll be there.

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