A Map of the Jura Region

Jura

Jurassic Wines: They’re Not Just for Dinosaurs Anymore (New Arrivals from Jura!)

Tucked in between Burgundy and Switzerland, the Jura wine region has, until recently, somehow managed to remain off the radar of most American consumers. It’s sort of understandable–this area tends to produce the favorites of wine geeks in search of something new and different. However, a bit of understanding can lead to appreciation by any wine drinker for these unique and often ‘funky’ wines.

A Map of the Jura Region

Jura’s unusually cool climate allows the production of refreshingly crisp whites with mouthwatering, tart acidity and ultra-pale reds that astonish with their unexpected complexity. Sparkling wines, known as Crémant du Jura, thrive here as well, taking advantage of high acidity levels in the grapes to make wines that are similar to Champagne–but a lot more affordable. Easily recognizable Chardonnay and Pinot Noir beckon the uninitiated with their familiarity, a gateway to the more obscure grapes of the region–Savignin (known elsewhere as Traminer), Poulsard, and Trousseau.

Vin Jaune

The most distinctive, and probably best-known wine style of Jura is Vin Jaune, or ‘yellow wine‘. To make Vin Jaune, very ripe Savignin grapes must be harvested from low-yielding vines. They go through the usual white wine routine–conventional fermentation, secondary malolactic fermentation…seems pretty standard, at first. But here’s where things get crazy–the wine is then transferred to old Burgundy barrels that are filled incompletely, and placed in an area that is well-ventilated and therefore subject to temperature fluctuations. This is basically the opposite of how a winemaker would want to store any other type of wine during the vinification process, but for Vin Jaune, this is how the magic happens.

Owing to these unusual conditions, a thin layer of yeast (known as the voile) forms on top of the wine, similar to the flor in Sherry. Then the winemaker must sit patiently for at least six years, as the wine slowly oxidizes, protected by the voile from turning to vinegar. This patience is eventually rewarded with the resulting dry, aromatic, nutty wine–often with aromas and flavors of exotic spics such as turmeric, cardamom, and ginger, walnut, almond, apple, and sometimes honey, with a deep yellow-orange appearance.

For best results, Vin Jaune should be allowed to breathe for a while before serving, and paired with its neighbor and natural ally, Comté cheese.

The Wines of Jura

Cremants du Jura

A thorough exploration of the wines from the Jura region would comprise a wide variety of flavors and styles. It’s always nice to start off with some bubbles, and Domaine de Montbourgeau’s Crémant du Jura is an excellent choice. This 100% Chardonnay sparkler is light, fresh, and bursting with racy citrus acidity, making for the perfect aperitif or a great bottle for brunch.

Whites

To ease in to Jura whites, it’s best to start with a good old-fashioned actual white wine, before moving on to those zany orange ones. Michel Gahier’s 2009 Chardonnay ‘La Fauquette’ is a lovely example, brimming with Chablis-like minerality with undertones of dried apricot. Faint nutty aromas hint at the slightest bit of oxidation.

For an introduction to Vin Jaune, look no further than Jacques Puffeney’s 2006 Arbois Vin Jaune. Monsieur Puffeney, known to his peers and admirers as “the Pope of Arbois“, is one of the most well-known and revered vignerons in the region, and for good reason. This orange wine is produced only from the finest barrels after eight and a half years of aging under voile–two years longer than the minimum requirement. This enticing wine shows intense oxidation, dripping with honey, almond, and hazelnut aromas, dried apple flavors on the rich and creamy palate, and a surprisingly bone-dry finish.

Reds

It’s not just the whites of Jura that are worth talking about–the reds are pretty fascinating themselves. Often receiving less attention and shorter aging from their white counterparts, Jura reds (made from Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot Noir) differ wildly from what most American palates are accustomed to consuming, in that they are so light as to frequently be mistaken for rosés, yet highly complex on the nose and palate, filled with floral and peppery aromas and often a healthy dose of terroir–or less euphemistically, funk.

Trousseau, the most powerful of the Jura red grapes, is often used to add structure and color in a blend alongside Poulsard–but it can undoubtedly shine on its own as well. Michel Gahier’s 2012 Trousseau ‘Les Grands Vergers’ demonstrates intense, hearty blackcurrant fruit, cherry candy, earthy, smoked tea, and marked peppery and gamey notes, softened by hints of violet perfume.

Another bottling from Michel Gahier, 2012 Ploussard (a confusingly similar synonym of Poulsard) is much paler in color than the Trousseau, but is by no means lacking in flavor. The nose is lovely and floral, reminiscent of roses and ripe, juicy strawberries and cherries. The palate, however, is no delicate flower. Tannin and minerality give great structure to this faintly tinted wine, making it a “serious” wine that also happens to be very, very easy to drink. Another wonderful example is Jacques Puffeney’s 2011 Poulsard, which echoes many of the flavors in Mr. Gahier’s bottling, which may have something to do with the fact that they are neighbors. The Gahier leans a bit towards a more fruit-forward style, with the Puffeney shows a little more earthiness.

Some Jura Wines Available at Paul Marcus Wines

All of these Jura wines (and many more!) are now available on our shelves. Whether you are just beginning to explore this intriguing appellation, or have been drinking Jura wines since before they were cool, there’s definitely something for everyone in this un-sung, under-appreciated, and frequently under-valued region.

Burgundy Wine

Let The Burgundy Conversation Begin…

Burgundy Wine

Photo Credit: Wine Folly

[CA] Mark, let’s talk about Burgundy, and the white wines from the Côte de Beaune.

[MM] (drinking) Uh, sounds good, where should we start?

[CA] Well, I remember a quote from a book I read some time ago. Let me share it with you. I think it will set the discussion – and eventually, our glasses – in motion!

Something about Burgundy excites spirituality. Where Napa Valley restores hope that beauty has a future in the modern era and Bordeaux simply makes one want to live, it is after savoring a fine Burgundy that even the most skeptical are willing to concede a higher power.

[MM] Was that from Matt Kramer’s book?[CA] Indeed. Your memory is congruent with your consumption…. The paraphrase above is from the elegant beginning to Matt Kramer’s brilliant book Making Sense of Burgundy.

[MM] Hey, Chad – I admire Kramer’s book as much as you do, but spare me the spiritualist folderol! If gods there be, then let him/her/it/they drink what they like. We wine-loving humanists need concede only that land, vines, and people combine in this little swatch of France to make two of the truly great wines on earth: red and white Burgundy.

[CA] Hey, it’s not my spiritual “fold-your-own”! I was just pointing out how, for many of us, Burgundy is at the apex of wine wonderfulness. Burgundy, both the whites and the reds, are arguably the wines that most clearly embody a particular plot of land. So before we talk about the wines, let’s quickly look at the region of Burgundy: The region is as complex as the wines it births!

[MM] You’re right – Burgundy is complex – so on with the show!

Burgundy basics

Where is Burgundy?

[CA] Generally speaking, the region of Burgundy follows the Saône river north from Lyon through the hilly vineyards of Beaujolais and on through the Mâconnais to Tournus, where it parts ways with the river and veers east into the Côte Chalonnaise. It then continues northeast, roughly paralleling the wiggly river, and into the glorious heart of Burgundy: The Côte d’Or. We may divide this “slope of gold” into the Côte de Beaune and The Côte de Nuits. It is in this 30 by one-half mile ridge that we find the very best Burgundies. Continuing northeast we come to the last great Burgundy region: Chablis.

[MM] Nice little geography lesson, Chad. My only quibble is that you’re perpetuating a misconception about the name of that storied slope. Although “Côte d’Or” does indeed translate literally as “slope of gold”, the name is really a contraction of “Côte d’Orient”, or “slope facing east”. Still, given the prices of some of the wines, there’s some poetic truth in calling it the “slope of gold”! Quibbles aside, how about one of my expertly drawn maps to help folks get the picture? Now stop snickering, Chad!

[CA] I’m not snickering at you, I’m snickering with you!

(Mark draws a pair of maps.)

[CA] Great!

Which grapes make up most wines from Burgundy?

[CA] Nothing difficult here: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Although other grapes, like Gamay and Aligoté, are used in Burgundy, we will deal here with wines that are exclusively Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds. In some cases, the Burgundians blend Gamay with Pinot Noir to produce inexpensive, everyday wines called passe-tout-grains.

[MM] One of the great things about Burgundy is that it’s wine from single varietals (with the relatively uncommon exceptions that you mention). There’s a beautiful purity – at least in the best wines – that you don’t get in wines blended from several varietals. That purity is an especially clear “lens” for terroir – the specific soil, exposure, and mesoclimate of the vineyard comes through the wine in a particularly clear way.

[CA] I agree with your image of the lens and that there is in fact a unique quality that comes from a wine made with a single varietal. I must, however, add to your generalization of “blended wines”. There are many spectacular blended wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux, for example, that have terroir, because terroir includes culture, and I would argue, are to some extent necessitated by culture –

[MM] Okay, let’s stay focused….

[CA] Oh, alright…pass the halibut over here, will ya’?

What should I eat with white Burgundy?

[MM] White Burgundies of all types go well with fish, pork, and chicken. The richer whites from the Côte de Beaune are divine with richer fish, such as salmon, scallops, lobster, and crab. In addition, anything with a butter or white sauce will play off the wine beautifully. If you’re doing the cheese thing, aim for richer cow’s milk cheeses, such as Brillat-Savarin. And as I’ve learned from you, Chad, white Burgundy is a great way to transition from Champagne to red wine during an extended, multi-course dinner.

[CA] It is surprising how versatile the white wines from Burgundy are! There are so many microclimates that the amazing Chardonnay grape can achieve a nearly unlimited range of weight, acidity, and complexity. There are also hundreds of fine producers, making the options even more bountiful. It is exciting! I agree with you about the fish opportunities – wonderful accompaniments to Chardonnays from the Côte de Beaune! If you are having an older wine or a particularly rare or fine wine, I say have it by itself! Wine is food after all….

The Burgundy bull’s eye

How do I begin to understand Burgundy?

[CA] Good question. Thinking & drinking. First, think of an archery target. Think of the concentric circles getting smaller and point values getting larger as you go toward the center. The outermost circle of the target represents the wines simply called Bourgogne (blanc or rouge), in which the fruit can come from anywhere in the Burgundy region. Bourgogne accounts for 56% of all the wine in Burgundy. But how will I recognize one of these wines in a retail store? Another fine question. Following each level of quality there will be a “Shelf example.”

[MM] Here’s a Bourgogne Blanc (white Burgundy) that we sell a lot of, because it’s cheap ($8.99), light, crisp, and easy to like. It’s made by Lamblin & Fils, a producer who happens to be in the Chablis region of Burgundy. As you explain, the Chardonnay grapes could come from anywhere in Burgundy, but in this case, they happen to come from around Chablis.

Shelf Example: 2001 Lamblin Bourgogne Blanc

[CA] Next come the Appellation Communale wines, where the fruit must come from the specific place-name (called a “commune” in France) on the label. (A vineyard name is permitted, but the letters must be significantly smaller than the name of the commune.) The Appellation Communale wines, which account for 30% of the wines of Burgundy, correspond to the second concentric circle on the archery target – they come from smaller geographical areas and are worth more, both in cost and quality.

[MM] Wine geeks sometimes call these “A.C. wines” in order to indicate that they’re more specific than ordinary regional Bourgogne but not as specific as Premier Cru wines from specific vineyards. By the way, in Europe, a commune is not a place where hippies hang out and name their kids after flowers. It’s the smallest local political division, usually comprising a town and the surrounding countryside, and bears the name of the town. Here’s an A.C. white Burgundy from the commune of Meursault.

Shelf Example: 1996 Chapelle Meursault

[CA] The next level of quality comes with the Premiers Crus, which use the name of their commune followed by the name of their vineyard. The Premiers Crus account for only 11% of all Burgundy. They correspond to the third concentric circle on the target – a tightly defined set of areas and similarly elevated cost and quality.

[MM] Now we’re getting specific! Burgundy is all about the pyramid of specificity – from region to commune to individual vineyard. The terroir of each vineyard is capable of producing a wine that tastes unique, and chasing that uniqueness is part of what makes drinking and learning about Burgundy so rewarding. Here’s aPremier Cru white Burgundy from Les Charmes vineyard, located in the commune of Meursault. (It’s worth mentioning here that almost every Burgundy vineyard is divided among lots of owners. Thus, one easily could run into a Meursault Les Charmes from a different producer than the one shown here.)

Shelf Example: 1998 Boillot Meursault, Les Charmes

[CA] Exactly right Mark, there are a lot of wines from Les Charmes vineyard, which is of particular interest for someone who wants to do a more advanced white Burgundy tasting – one that includes Meursault Les Charmes bottlings from different producers. This type of tasting can be very educational (and somewhat expensive), but one will ultimately come away with a sense of the vineyard itself.

[CA] However, there are exceptions to the seeming rule that a vineyard name on the label means a Premier Cru wine in the bottle. For example a wine labeled Meursault Desirée is not a Premier Cru vineyard but is a particularly good vineyard.

[MM] Fortunately, the punctilious French labeling laws come to the rescue here. A Premier Cru wine always will say “Premier Cru” somewhere on the label. But your observation is a valuable one – Premier Cru is a general indication of higher quality, but not all Premier Cru wines are better than all A.C. wines. One still needs to know something about the producer and vineyard in order to make an educated guess about the quality in the bottle.

[CA] The next level in quality is truly a leap to the top shelf: the Grands Crus. These vineyards nearly always represent the very highest quality wine available in Burgundy – the bull’s eye in the target. There are 30 Grand Cru vineyards. Each has its own appellation. The Grands Crus account for a mere 3% of all wines from Burgundy.

[MM] Grand Cru wines are freaking expensive (usually $75 and up) and almost always require considerable bottle aging before they’re ready to drink. But boy can they can be amazing – and of course at that price, they ought to be! (As wine writer Stephen Tanzer has said, “for that amount of money, I expect a wine to give me an orgasm and wash my car.”) Anyway, here’s a Grand Cru white Burgundy from the vineyard Le Montrachet. This vineyard straddles the Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet communes, which lie directly south of Meursault.

Shelf Example: 2000 Lafon Le Montrachet

What other indications might tell me about the quality of the wine?

[CA] Great question. I always look for the best producers and the finest vintages. And the price. The price almost always goes up according to the quality of the producer, vintage, and vineyard site.

[MM] Of these factors, I think that producer is most important. Certainly vintage is significant, especially if you intend to age the wine for a long time. But the “best” vintages” aren’t always the best wines for current drinking. In addition, good producers usually make good wine in less than ideal vintages. And at this point, we should remind readers that we at Paul Marcus Wines pride ourselves on helping our customers make sense of the various producers, vintages, and appellations.

[CA] Great point! It is true that there are great wines made in most vintages, usually by the best producers, producers who know their vineyards and who are willing to cut away some of the early fruit to ensure the remaining fruit gets ripe. It is also worth mentioning, as you indicated, that the Paul Marcus Wines staff drink these wines and have come to know the producers we represent! As evidenced tonight!

Some Côte de Beaune appellations

[CA] Let’s look at a few of the wonderful Appellations Contrôlées in the Côte de Beaune:

[CA] Chassagne-Montrachet: There are a total of 864 acres of vineyard in Chassagne-Montrachet. Of this, 836 are commune-level and Premier Cru. The remaining 28 acres are Grand Cru. The Grand Cru vineyards are split between Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. The hyphen adds to the confusion. It was added as a marketing device (with great success) to sell all the wines from Chassagne and Puligny as an extension of the very great single vineyard of Le Montrachet. Chassagne-Montrachet wines of all levels should have richness and a noticeable mineral component from the clayey-chalky soils.

[CA] Puligny-Montrachet: There are a total of 606 acres of vineyard in Puligny-Montrachet. Of this number there are roughly 248 acres of Premiers Crus (14 different vineyards) and 77 acres of Grands Crus (4 different vineyards); the remaining vines are commune-level. The wines from Puligny-Montrachet taste similar to those from the adjacent Chassagne-Montrachet, but the best Puligny wines show a bit more elegance and breed.

[MM] Meursault: This appellation’s relatively large 1,079 acres of vineyards lie just north of Puligny-Montrachet and just south of Volnay. The wines from Meursault are a little richer and softer than those from neighboring Puligny-Montrachet, which makes Meursault a great “bridge wine” for people who are used to drinking richer California Chardonnays and want to try white Burgundy. Meursault’s 89 named vineyards include no Grands Crus, but Les Charmes,Les Genevrières, and Les Perrières are the vineyards that come closest to Grand Cru quality.

[MM] St.-Aubin: “Aubin”, in my Americanized pronunciation, rhymes with “oh man” – as in, “oh man, are these good wines and good values!” The 585-acre appellation sits in a side valley that extends westward from Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. St.-Aubin is a more modest appellation than the others listed here – meaning that the wines are a little lighter and a little less complex. But from the right producer, the wines have a graceful balance of lively acidity and vibrant fruitiness, and they’re often cheaper than other Côte de Beaune wines of comparable quality. I’ve especially enjoyed wines from the two Premiers Crus vineyards that abut Puligny-Montrachet: En Remilly and les Murgers des Dents de Chien (“big rocks shaped like dog’s teeth” – a mouth-watering vineyard name if ever there was one).

Drinking white Burgundy

Chad & Mark spend hours tasting some new releases from Château de Puligny-Montrachet.

[MM] One fine day in May, our good friend Nicholas Griffin from Beaune Imports brought by a bunch of newly-minted 2001 white Burgundies from the Domaine du Château de Puligny-Montrachet. This producer has made very good wines for many years, which we’ve happily sold for many years. In 2001, however, things changed. Winemaker Etienne de Montille, from one of the best producers in all of Burgundy, Domaine Hubert de Montille, has taken over in the vineyard and in the cellar. The changes include a transition to biodynamic farming, fermenting with local, indigenous yeasts, and unfiltered bottling of the wines. The results of these changes are spectacularly delicious wines that more accurately reflect their terroir.

A few weeks later, Nicholas generously dropped off more bottles of these wonderful wines so that Chad and I could taste through them at our leisure and write them up for this newsletter. Amidst halibut, sea bass, mango, and several cheeses, we polished off the better part of six bottles over six hours. Yes, the wines were that good. Following are our favorites.

Our tasting notes: 2001 Château de Puligny-Montrachet whites.

Bourgogne Blanc ‘Clos du Château’ ($19):

[CA] 1st note: If this is the lowest level of fruit in the Côte then Whoa! Build a moat because I’ll drink it all.
2nd note: Pale straw. Pears picked from a tree in full sun. Fresh mango notes with mineral punctuation and slight hints of sun-dried raspberries. The finest Bourgogne blanc I have tasted in years!

[MM] Citrus and pear aromas set the stage for a beguiling “acidity trajectory” on the palate – the wine enters mellow, rises in pitch, and then falls away gently and gradually. This is amazingly classy Bourgogne blanc.

St.-Aubin En Remilly ($35):

[CA] 1st note: A truly great bottling from this vineyard.
2nd note: Minerals mixed with river-washed stones. The summer hay color belies the richness of the middle palate and the long and complex finish.
3rd note: …the long and complex finish. Details: Because it will get better in 2-5 years and is a great value, it is a perfect wine for the cellar.

[MM] Stony minerals and crisp apples on the nose. Great finesse and follow-through on the palate – soave fruit wrapped around a brilliant core of minerality. The wine fattens up nicely after it’s been opened a couple of hours – don’t drink it too quickly!

Puligny-Montrachet ($40):

[CA] 1st note: Wow! This “AC” wine has some serious “DC”.
2nd note: Lightly toasted, buttered sourdough notes provide a great foundation for the sliced ripe pear on the mid palate. A dollop of crème fresh and blood orange accentuate the complexity, range, and depth of this wine. Tangerine notes ring around a single smooth stone garnish and the mineral chords that will give this wine longevity.
3rd note: Before going out on a wire a tightrope walker would do well to taste this wine. It would give her a helpful and delicious idea of balance. Details: This is the best wine for current drinking, along with Bourgogne blanc, but will age well for 5-15 years. Really.

[MM] Great, galloping minerality. So much topography here – peaks and valleys, alpine vistas above timberline. This wine walks the tightrope between fruit and minerality. (Which one of us said that first, Chad?). It’s perfectly balanced right now. I want to drink it right now. Oh, I am drinking it right now. Lucky me!

Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Chalumeaux ($50):

[CA] 1st note: Whirls & worlds of richness and chalk laced with hazelnut, un-toasted pine nuts, and fresh white corn. A Meyer lemon garnish suggests the terrific acidity and structure that keeps the wine suspended.
2nd note: It is, above all else, the mining the vines did and the layers of soil and sub-soil they met along the way that give this wine its unique class. A truly great wine!
3rd note: This Chardonnay is the BMW 7-series of wines: it has incredible luxury and comfort while still driving like a racecar. Details: Absolutely drinkable now. But you could wait a few years for this (unless you just can’t help it. I understand.) Will age with grace and dignity for 15 years.

[MM] Undeniable Premier Cru breed – almost unbearably high-toned. Thirteen extra overtones. This is a young wine. If the A.C. Puligny-Montrachet walks the tightrope between fruit and minerality, then this wine dances it. If, like Chad and me, you’re an intrepid explorer, drink it now. But set aside at least one bottle for a decade or so. Great wine.

For those who want more [PS from CA and MM] If we haven’t answered all your questions about Burgundy, then check out our first article on Burgundy in the November 2002 Paul Marcus Wines newsletter. It covers some of the same ground as our dialogue here, but with an emphasis on red Burgundy.

Better yet, come visit the store and ask any of us to tell you more about Burgundy and more about the wines from Burgundy that we’re jazzed about right now. Everyone who works at Paul Marcus Wines is a Burgundy lover, and we’re always happy to share our knowledge and enthusiasm.

Back-to-School Burgundy Special

If you’re ready to have as much fun as Chad and Mark, then take advantage of our Château de Puligny-Montrachet special through September 15th. When you buy any six wines from this producer, we’ll take 10% off. This deal includes everything from the $19 Bourgogne on up…. Besides the 2001 wines mentioned in this newsletter, we have wines going back to 1997, plus a Pinot Noir from Monthelie. We also have a tiny quantity of Grand Cru wines – please inquire.

(by Chad Arnold and Mark Middlebrook)

Roero Map - Discovering Roero

The Roero

Roero Map - Discovering RoeroOn a clear afternoon in southern Piemonte, the narrow walkway around the tower of Barbaresco gives a breathtaking view of Italy’s greatest winegrowing territory. Directly around and below you are the Barbaresco zone vineyards. You look southwest out over the towers of Alba to the Barolo zone – the village of La Morra perched high, and the castle of Barolo a little beyond. You’re standing in and looking at the Langhe, a region that includes the hilly zones of Barbaresco, Barolo, and the Alta Langa farther south.

Train your gaze northwest, across the Tanaro River, and you’ll see a set of hills with a different name – the Roero. (Head there at dusk and you can look back at the Barbaresco tower in a majestic, brooding vista that Fred Seidman captured in one of the photographs hanging in our wine shop.)

The Roero hills, like those in the Langhe, are blanketed with vineyards – as well as orchards, fields, and truffle-yielding woods. While less well known than the Langhe, despite its proximity and equally long winegrowing tradition. Geography and reputation conspire to draw most visitors south and leave the Roero hills looming behind. “Geography” is the Tanaro River valley and the Asti-Alba road that runs through it. Together, the valley and road make a beeline for Alba. “Reputation” is the pull of the storied vineyards and cantinas of Barolo – pilgrimage destination for wine-lovers and beneficiary of the majority of the area’s tourism.

And yet, the Roero yields what is arguably Piemonte’s greatest white wine (Roero Arneis), Barbera of quality equal to the Langhe’s, and excellent Nebbiolo – often at prices that are a notch below Langhe wines of comparable quality. It’s also a great place to stay, eat, taste wines, walk, and bicycle. (More on those activities later in this newsletter!)

Arneis

An indigenous white grape variety called Arneis is the Roero’s wine calling card. A little of it grows elsewhere, but it’s ubiquitous in the Roero, and even people in the Langhe agree that the sandy soils there make the best terroir for Arneis. Until the end of the 1970s, Roero winemakers used Arneis primarily for blending with Nebbiolo – a pinch of Arneis softens Nebbiolo’s notoriously hard tannins and thus yields a slightly softer, younger-drinking wine. Then a few dedicated producers such as Bruno Giacosa and Cerretto showed what Arneis vinified by itself as a white wine could do, and the Arneis craze was on.

DOC / DOCG

Roero Arneis became a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – a wine of controlled origin and grape variety) in 1989. Just this year, it was elevated to DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – a designation usually reserved for the best regional wine types).

Roero Arneis is one of those remarkable Italian white wines that combine ample body with a crisp, refreshing quality. It smells of fruits and flowers, but then don’t most white wines? There’s a deeper core in there, like the richness of honey but without its sweetness. And then there’s a smoky note (from the grape and the terroir, not from oak), plus a minerally vein that runs through all the best white wines. Like so many excellent but less common wine types, Roero Arneis is hard to describe but easy to like.

Roero Arneis We Carry

To find out for yourself, take home a bottle of Marco Porello Roero Arneis ‘Camestrì’ 2003 ($11.99) or Matteo Correggia Roero Arneis 2003 ($16.50), or try a glass of Cascina Ca’ Rossa Roero Arneis ‘Merica’ 2003 at the Eccolo dinner on Monday night. All of these wines – and especially Corrregia’s – show the richness and weight of the 2003 vintage, with plenty of aromatic appeal. The 2004 bottlings of these and other Roero Arneis will be arriving soon, and they promise amazing aromatic freshness and lighter palate profiles.

Roero Arneis is a satisfying aperitivo and goes great with most antipasti, including the fishier, anchovy-laden dishes that are so favored by the Piemontese. Really, it’s hard to imagine any lighter fare, including summer pastas and salads, that Roero Arneis wouldn’t go well with.

Barbera

Regular readers of this newsletter may remember my encomium to Barbera in the March 2003 newsletter – it remains a favorite everyday red wine for most of the PMW staff and quite a few of our customers. What I’ve noticed since then, however, is how many of our best-selling Barberas come from the Roero. That’s partly because they tend to have high quality-to-price ratios, and partly because they just taste so damned good!

Much of the Roero is steep hills composed of sandy soils. Steep hills are good for ripening, and sandy soils often give wines an extra dimension of aromatic beauty. The Langhe may make heftier Barbera, but here they excel at producing lovely Barberas. Or, you can ignore these subtle distinctions and just enjoy drinking them.

DOC

Barbera grown in the Roero falls in the Barbera d’Alba DOC (“Barbera from around the town of Alba”), as does most of the Barbera from Barolo and Barbaresco. So you often can’t tell from the label whether a particular Barbera d’Alba is from the Roero or the Langhe, unless you happen to know where the producer or his village is located.

Roero Barbera We Carry

Our best-selling Barbera without a doubt is Filippo Gallino’s Barbera d’Alba 2003 ($11.99). If there is a better pizza-pasta-lasagna wine in the world, I’ve yet to find it. It has that dark-cherry-and-berry Barbera sappiness, with a hint of pepper and menthol to keep things interesting and snappy acidity in the finish to keep the wine refreshing. As our sign in the store says, this is bodacious Barbera.

We’ve got two other Roero Barberas in the store at the moment: Cascina Ca’ Rossa Barbera d’Alba 2003 ($15) and Cascina Val del Prete Barbera d’Alba ‘Serra de’ Gatti’ 2003 ($16). These are slightly more concentrated, complex, and longer on the palate than the Gallino. Both are irresistible.

It’s also worth noting that 2003 has turned out to be the Barbera Vintage. All of Europe sweltered during the summer of ’03, and many wines from the vintage don’t quite have the snappy freshness that we love. But Barbera’s naturally high acidity kept the wines fresh and vivid, and the extra heat only deepened their irresistible fruit.

Although the Roero is a great source of fresh, everyday, under-$20 Barbera, some producers are showing that they can make serious, barrique-aged Barbera to rival those from the Langhe. (See the March 2003 newsletter article referenced above for more information about this style of Barbera.) On Monday night at Eccolo, we’ll be drinking the Cascina Ca’ Rossa Barbera d’Alba ‘Mulassa’ 2001, a single-vineyard Barbera that Angelo Ferrio aged for 18 months in barrique. One of the benchmark “serious” Roero Barberas is Cascina Val del Prete’s Barbera d’Alba ‘Carolina’. (At a certain tony restaurant in Los Angeles, the staff know Mario Roagna, the proprietor of Cascina Val del Prete, as “Mr. Carolina”.) The 2001 is long gone, and Mario didn’t make any in 2002, but keep an eye out for the 2003 vintage – it will be wickedly good.

What should you drink Roero Barbera with? What shouldn’t you drink Roero Barbera with? All things tomato-y. Antipasti. Anchovies and especially bagna caoda (the anchovy-based dipping sauce that serves as the ketchup of Piemonte). Chicken. Sausages. It even works with moderately spicy food and some Asian dishes.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo is the great wine grape variety of Piemonte, as our September 2004 newsletter describes. Although Barolo and Barbaresco are the most famous incarnations of Nebbiolo, Roero Nebbiolo has been held in high esteem since at least the 17th century. More importantly, there’s some genuinely excellent Nebbiolo being made in the Roero right now!

DOC / DOCG

As in the Langhe, the Roero bottles two kinds of Nebbiolo. The first is a fresh, younger-drinking wine usually called simply Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo. (As with Barbera d’Alba, the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC doesn’t tell you where in the region around Alba the Nebbiolo grapes come from – it could be either or). The more serious, structured wine is called simply Roero. Like Roero Arneis, the Roero DOC is being elevated to a DOCG this year. So “Roero Arneis” DOCG is white wine made from Arneis, and “Roero” DOCG is red wine made from Nebbiolo. Got it?

The region has already made a reputation for itself with Arneis. Whether it will take its place alongside Barolo and Barbaresco as the third great Piemontese appellation depends entirely on what the producers do with Nebbiolo – and on whether the elevation to DOCG status causes critics to pay more attention to what producers are doing.

For now, we can ignore all of that and simply thank Bacchus (and Angelo Ferrio) for the Cascina Ca’ Rossa Langhe Nebbiolo 2003 ($16). This is what young Nebbiolo should taste like – fresh but sophisticated, supple but with enough tannin to do meat justice. As is true with Barbera, the sandy soils of the Roero lend a particularly pretty aromatic profile to Roero Nebbiolos like this one.

Marco Porello’s Roero ‘Torretta’ 2001 was one of our favorite Nebbiolos in the store about a year ago. The 2003 vintage of this wine should arrive before too long, and judging from how it tasted in Piemonte in March, it will be another winner.

Roero Nebbiolo We Carry

Angelo’s Cascina Ca’ Rossa Roero ‘Audinaggio’ 2001 ($38) is excellent Nebbiolo from an excellent producer in an excellent vintage. This wine impressed me mightily at a lunch in March, and you’ll have the opportunity to drink it, as well as the 1999 vintage, at Eccolo on Monday 20 June.

Three other “serious” Roero Nebbiolos are worthy of mention, even though we don’t have all of them in the store at the moment. Filippo Gallino’s Roero Superiore 2001 was still in tank when I tasted it in March, but it had all the makings of a superb wine. Mario Roagna makes two impressive single-vineyard Nebbiolo wines: Cascina Val del Prete Nebbiolo d’Alba ‘Vigna di Lino’ ($38 for the 2001 vintage) and Cascina Val del Prete Roero. Both are widely acknowledged as being among the top Roero wines – we’ll be getting these in as new vintages when it becomes available.

Meat and game are the classic matches with Nebbiolo. Lamb and Nebbiolo play well together, and I particularly like gamy birds such as pigeon with Roero. See our September 2004 newsletter for more suggestions.

Birbét

After all this talk of “serious” wines, it seems suitable to end with a purely fun wine. Birbét is the Roero’s version of Brachetto d’Acqui – a light, low-alcohol, slightly sweet, frizzante red wine for after dinner. (It’s a red analogue of Moscato d’Asti, made from the Brachetto grape rather than from Moscato.) “Birbét” is a Piemontese word meaning lively, fun, and a little bit mischievous – you’ve been warned! It smells of strawberries, rose petals, and cinnamon. Midwestern grandmas and sommeliers love it. It goes down easy and doesn’t intoxicate (much), but still makes everything and everyone look prettier.

The one that we have in the store and that Eccolo pours is Cascina Ca’ Rossa Birbét 2003 ($19). Drink some and watch your life improve.

I spent 25 wonderful days in France & Spain visiting regions such as: Burgundy, Loire, Paris, and Cataluna during the month of March. Some of the many highlights were:

Burgundy: Always A Highlight

The 2001 Côte de Nuits reds are excellent. This is a terroir-driven vintage, which I find exciting. If I had to generalize at this point, I’d characterize the vintage as a very good one, perhaps somewhat similar to the ’93s, showing great precision with lots of lift and brightness. Although it is not a super-ripe vintage, the fruit is intense. There’s a nice balance to the mouth feel and the specific terroirs sing out brilliantly. Some wines drink well early, but most should be medium-term drinkers (five to eight years). We are especially looking forward to carrying the wines of Confuron-Coteditot, a new producer for us from Vosne-Romanée. His wines are very stylish, clean, and delicious, with the village wines from Chambolle, Gevrey, and Vosne-Romanée drinking very well young. His premier crus are going to be more stunning with a little time.

A good place for lunch in Gevrey is Aux Vendange de Bourgogne, which serves traditional French Burgundian food and has a wonderful wine list from Gevrey (of all places!). It’s not that expensive, either. My favorite place to eat is Ma Cuisine in Beaune – it has a super wine list that is unbelievably affordable and wonderful country-rustic food.
Rhône: The wines in the northern Rhône were in fine form, as was the food at Le Chaudron in Tournon. The trip continued into the southern Rhône and then west to Languedoc. Our stops at Château la Canorgue and Domaine de l’Hortus were heartwarming – good people, good wines, good food.

Cataluña (Spain)

A two-day detour into Spain was highlighted by a meal at the Michelin two-star Cellar de Can Roca in Girona. The meal began with the sommelier wheeling out three carts the size of painting easels – one each for red, white, and Champagne/rosé wine lists. Needless to say, the choices were superb and varied, as was the food. It featured clams, baby fava beans, skate wings with fennel, salt cod with truffles, goat, and many desserts.

Loire

Then we were back to work and into the Loire, which showed off its wonderful 2002 vintage. It’s a very generously flavored vintage with a nice acidity to push those ripe flavors. 2002 is solid and four-square – no arguments here.

Paris

The trip ended where it began, in Paris. The meal at Au Bascou in the 3rd arrondissement was exemplary. While the wine list is not inspiring, the food is. I remember a wonderful smoked tuna in puff pastry appetizer and great main courses that featured goose and milk-fed baby lamb. I can’t imagine how one could ever get a bad meal here.

Burgundy Watch

In our November 2002 newsletter, we described the consummate pleasure of drinking red and white Burgundy – and warned you that enjoying this pleasure requires choosing carefully among the many producers, appellations, vineyards, and vintages. We’ve been tasting a lot of Burgundies lately – especially from older vintages going back to 1995 – and we’ll use this “Burgundy Watch” corner of our newsletter to call your attention to wines that we think are drinking particularly well right now.

Red Burgundies

1996 Jacky Truchot Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Aux Combottes’ ($50): Here’s aged, premier cru Gevrey in its prime: lots of secondary aromas and flavors reminiscent of autumnal things – drying leaves, mushrooms, game, spices – and still plenty of fruit and acidity.

2000 Albert Morot Beaune ‘Cent Vignes’ ($36): This is a young wine that’s drinking well now, with Morot’s typically graceful muscularity and Beaune premier cru elegance. This wine is a great introduction to red Burgundy, as well as a worthy mid-range bottle for Burgundy lovers.

White Burgundies

1997 Denis Pomier Chablis ‘Côte de Léchet’ ($25): Premier cru Chablis can be a charming thing when it’s young – a bracingly tart, stony, lemony palate awakener. But it turns into something else again with some bottle age, as this bottle shows: deeper, more complex, still vivid, but now more suave. This wine takes 45 minutes or so to fully open up after you’ve pulled the cork, but if you have the patience, you’ll be rewarded with a lovely glass of aged Chablis for not a lot of money.

An Exploration of California Wine Country With Chad Arnold

Day One

Bright sunlight over an endless vista of curling vines. Bright sunlight that lights further rays which in their turn light other fields of vision. So begins the day. For me, most days begin with doughnuts and questions, and not always in that order! Today’s doughnut was a chocolate stuffed oval with multi-colored jimmies on top. Today’s question was, “Why should we drink California wine?” George Mallory would quip, “Because it’s there.” But I would add, “Because it’s here.”

Last month, two dear deer-hunting friends of mine were married! In addition to reading a 39-page poem composed of 365 couplets of anoximetric bore-o-meter, I was asked to select the wines for the festivities. We drank both New World wines and European wines. Because they were married in Yountville, and because they love great wine, it seemed more than logical to serve some fine California juice.

So, today’s easy question of why we should drink California wine has many equally easy answers: because we were all there and because so much of it is so good! And because so much of it is so good, much of it will likely provide pleasure!

What are some of the other reasons? Terrific climate, microclimates, and diverse soil types. A range of altitudes and a range of attitudes from hundreds of talented winemakers. Varietal diversity and perhaps most importantly, exciting experimentation in the vineyards and wineries. But are there even more reasons to drink California wines? Sure. Full flavor, incredible richness, and a hefty alcohol content help. We could drink California wines “for political reasons,” or “to support the local economy,” or “because a friend made it, and I got it for free.” More good reasons methinks.

Still Growing

California winemaking is comparatively young, and in such a stage of development there is great excitement and great potential. Furthermore, because we often toast to the future, we should toast to the future of California by drinking the wonderful wines from diverse regions throughout the state! These seem like good reasons to me! How about you?

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the notables drank Madeira. However, they were to some vinous extent saying, “Viva Vitis Labrusca!” They soon realized the error of that way [Vitis labrusca is a native American grape species that has been all but replaced by the European species Vitis vinifera for winegrowing. -Ed.] but have never stopped trying new things or ways of doing old practiced things! Thank the gods for open-mindedness and free expression – not to mention fine soils and sunlight!

But let’s not avoid the truly great wines made here because there may be better wines made elsewhere. Great wines are made all over the world. For example if you were to pick one wine (say the Romanée St. Vivant from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti) as the only wine you would ever drink again, you would, I dare say, but will say, be shortchanging yourself of so much great wine. Ugh! What an awful thing to do to such a sublime wine. So, drink as much different quality wine as you can.

For example if you find yourself in a small town in France, say Montlouis, you might be lucky enough to happen upon François Chidaine, who makes a number of incredible Chenin Blancs that are very inexpensive. Furthermore, Chenin Blanc is not something most people would likely pick off the shelf at their local market without threats or assistance. But when in Rome (or Montlouis!) drink the local wines with the same relish that you enjoy the local cuisine. I think it is a policy worth exploring. Sound good?

While not drinking a particular wine is a legitimate un-engagement (assuming you have actually tasted it) of that wine, it is a much more tenuous position to dismiss an entire region or country or hemisphere. Furthermore, it is easier to dismiss something than it is to endorse it. So: There is a distinct relationship between how much you know and how much you like. Lesson: Like a lot and like it alot!

Day Two

On day 2 of what will be a long and rich marriage, I was asked to “make some calls” as the “wine guy” so that the remaining guests might go wine tasting. Clearly they wanted more wine. Poetry, even in its highest expressions, takes a rumble seat to alcohol. So, I made my first call. The winery I called said they would love to help us, though we weren’t asking for help, per say, but they were just too busy (selling wine I guess) to accommodate a group of a dozen or so genial folks with canes and sunglasses. Not an atypical response in my experience.

The second call met with a genial, professional voice. The call was to Miner Family Vineyards, and a gentleman named Villamor Zapata answered and said “Good morning, Miner Family Vineyards, can I help you?” I immediately apologized for my long and digressive poem (not remembering that the gentleman to whom I was speaking was not at the ceremony.) Anyway he paused, I imagine politely, and continued saying that they, too were busy, but that we could come by and taste some wines of our choice if I promised not to bring a copy of the poem. I should say at this point that Paul Marcus Wines sells wines from Miner Family Vineyards from time to time.

Well, we were well escorted through the fancily dressed crowds to a private, sun-lit balcony overlooking the vined valley. Rows of Reidel glasses were on the table. And then the bottles! Rows of them too! We drank the following wines in the following order and re-tasted them in another and then another:

1) 2001 Sauvignon Blanc

20% neutral oak, 80% stainless steel.
539 cases produced.
What a wine! No kidding, a Napa Sauvignon Blanc with nerve and richness, not oaky richness but richness from fruit picked at the perfect time. For those of you who are unsure about S.B., give this beauty a whirl or a swirl!

2) 1999 Oakville Ranch Chardonnay

90% new French oak, spending 10 months in those very barrels.
683 cases produced.
With so much oak, you might be expecting a clumsy, typical Napa Valley Chardonnay. But no. It was quite rich but not lacking in acid. To liken this to a Meursault would be silly; it may remind you of a wine from that town, but this was a Napa Chardonnay, which is one of the reasons it was so good. It was geographically accurate. For example, only wines from Corton Charlemagne remind me of wines from Corton Charlemagne. It should be this way.

3) 1999 “Wild Yeast” Chardonnay

100% Malolactic Fermentation, 100% Barrel Fermented.
14 months in new oak, 75% of it new. Total Acidity .60.
Wow! This was a world class Chardonnay! Rich and harmonious. Complex without being complicated. A complicated wine demands the sipper or swiller to force connections between ultimately discordant elements like oak and fruit. A complex wine shows with great beauty how these elements can come together for the taster. It takes the right understanding of the land and winemaking talent to end up with a great, complex glass of wine. Remember, there are only two kinds of wine in the whole world: Indoor & Outdoor. Sorry for the digression (this was part of the poem). Back to the wine in hand: an utterly fantastic Chardonnay! Available at Paul Marcus Wines for $50.00, it’s expensive but well worth it!

4) 1999 “Stagecoach” Merlot

95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.
20 months 80% new French oak, 20% new American oak.
Yes, there is a lot of new wood, but only because there is so much fruit. Balance, baby. This is a sensual, seductive wine that reminds me of an estate in Pomerol. But to its credit it is clearly from Napa. No kidding. Great varietal definition and length. Superlatives are often overused and often overextend the virtues of the wine itself. It is not the idea of the thing but the thing itself. So drink this wine!

5) 1998 “Oakville Ranch” Merlot

75% merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon.
20 months new oak, a mix of French and American.
This is a big boy. Or big girl. Whichever. This wine needs time to harmonize, but it’s all there. The marriage of great fruit, prime vineyard sites, and aesthetic insight is evident here. But it will be few years before the wood and grape tannins become integrated, and then the good times will roll. I would wait about 5 years to enjoy this fully. And then I would have a few extra bottles around to further the discussion of art and life! (Or at least the next bottle!)

These excellent wines were accentuated by being enjoyed in the Napa Valley, by being in the sun, hell, by the odd circles of birds. It was, however, the company and the conversation (which was not limited to wine!) that gave us the ability to fully appreciate the wines and gave the wines, I think, a fine venue! As birds to a cluster of perfectly ripe Chardonnay, we did continually circle back to the wines themselves.

Because art like love cannot exist in a vacuum and because these wines were art, they were lovely. And because we had walked through the vineyards and felt the sunlight and smelled the air that went into the grapes and into our glasses and into our bodies, we had come perhaps to a better understanding of what it means to enjoy the good life. Perhaps this is yet another aspect of terroir? Nice to think it is.

The Beginning of Edmunds St. John

In the early 1980s, Steve Edmunds was a mild-mannered postman, delivering mail in the Bay Area. But his friends knew that something was wrong. Steve’s dissatisfaction with the U.S. Postal Service was evident, and his wife, psychologist Cornelia St. John, suggested that he find a new line of work to maintain his sanity. Then, in 1985, it happened – that crazy, rash moment of terrifying impulsiveness that we all fear, especially in a loved one –Steve started a winery.

Steve’s version of going postal wasn’t entirely unexpected; he had long been a home brewer and winemaker, and before his stint with the U.S.P.S., he worked in the retail end of the wine trade. Over the years, a chorus of his friends, led by Cornelia, had encouraged him to make wine commercially. So, with Cornelia’s blessing and support, Steve founded Edmunds St. John winery.

Steve was one of the first California winemakers to focus on Rhône grape varietals like Syrah and Mourvèdre. He was one of the earliest and remains one of the most vocal proponents of terroir in California–of making wines that express as vividly as possible the place where the grapes are grown. In March and April, the crew at Paul Marcus Wines had the pleasure of getting together with Steve over meals to discuss his winemaking and enjoy many of his currently released wines.

Wine Made For Food

The fun began when Paul Courtright and I joined Steve for lunch at Grasshopper on College Avenue. When we asked Steve how he did things differently than many other California winemakers, he responded: “It’s about balance. The wine shouldn’t push the food off the table. Wine should invite you to eat – and to drink more!”

And so we did. Steve popped the corks on his 2000 Pinc Froid (a rosé made from Nebbiolo grapes) and 2001 Los Robles Viejos White (a blend of Rhône white varietals – Roussanne, Viogner, and Marsanne – all grown in the Rozet Vineyard near Paso Robles) as our waiter delivered fried calamari and peanut chicken salad.

Steve explained that the first thing he did when he decided to make wine commercially was to taste a lot of wine to find out what exactly he wanted to make. During this oenological odyssey, he found that the wines he kept coming back to were from southeastern France and northern Italy. At the same time, he read some articles about carbonic maceration, a traditional southern French winemaking technique that can yield wines with more distinctive aromas and delicate flavors. He also read an article by Robert Mayberry, author of the book Wines of the Rhône Valley: A Guide to Origins. Mayberry suggested that someone find some old-vine Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Grenache in California and make a Côtes-du-Rhône style wine using carbonic maceration and neutral (i.e., not oaky) aging vessels.

An “Aha” Moment

These enticing but discrete hints came together for Steve when he tasted a 1983 Qupé Syrah during a meal at Chez Panisse. (In those days, California Syrah was about as common as vineyard-designated California Cabernet.) Steve describes this as his “aha” moment: “I realized that someone could make good California wine from Rhône varietals. There were too many signs from the universe that I should do this.”

As our 12-spice pork ribs arrived, Steve paused to open his 2001 California Syrah and then continued his saga. Syrah was to play a large part in Steve’s future, and he, along with others like Bob Lindquist of Qupé and John Alban of Alban Vineyards, helped put Syrah on the map in California. But Steve was at least as captivated by Mourvèdre, the primary varietal in Bandol rouge and an important supporting player in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and other southern Rhône reds. The trick back in the mid 1980s was finding any Mourvèdre (or Mataro, as it was known to California grape growers).

Choosing a Vineyard

After much fruitless searching, in 1986 Steve discovered the Brandlin Ranch on Mt. Veeder above Napa Valley. Richard and Chester Brandlin were growing old-fashioned grape varietals using old-fashioned techniques that respected the soil and the plants. Steve snapped up the small amount of Mourvèdre that they were growing and used the grapes to make the best wine of his second vintage, in 1986. As Steve proudly points out, François Peyraud of the famous Bandol producer Domaine Tempier said of this wine when he tasted it, “la terre parle” (“the earth speaks”).

Since then, Steve has reprised this combination of serendipitous grape sourcing and skillful, minimalist winemaking many times. We asked him how he thinks about the process of making a great bottle of wine.

Steps To Producing Great Wine

First is the place – the fruit source. Steve described his job as “finding places that create distinctive grapes”. He’s concerned about the appropriateness of the grape varietal to the site, of course, but he’s looking for more than mere appropriateness; he wants sites that demonstrate a particular, unique character. Steve has managed repeatedly to unearth great, distinctive vineyards that are farmed by people who really know and care about their land.

Second is picking fruit at optimum ripeness rather than hyper-ripeness. As Steve said of winegrowing in the balmy California climate, “you’ve got power; you don’t need to do anything to generate power”. In fact, you need to ensure that you don’t let this natural advantage turn into a freakish caricature. Steve works with his growers throughout the season, tastes the grapes every week, and then leads the harvesting when he determines that the grapes have fully developed their flavors without losing their fresh acidity.

Letting Nature Take The Reigns

And finally, Steve says his job in the winery is to “get out of the way”. In other words, he ferments the grapes and lets them turn themselves into wine with as little additional manipulation as possible. His youngest barrels are 13 years old, so there’s no oak obscuring the distinctiveness of his grapes. He eschews high-tech gear and instead uses old-world winemaking techniques that preserve and accentuate terroir.

The most exciting manifestation of all of this theory at the moment is in Steve’s new Los Robles Viejos wines from the Rozet vineyard west of Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County. In addition to the white wine mentioned above, there’s Los Robles Viejos Red – a blend of Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, and Counoise from the Rozet vineyard. Some of the grapes also find their way into his ever-popular Rocks and Gravel – Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah blended from vineyards in Mendocino, El Dorado, and San Luis Obispo Counties. Steve is particularly enthusiastic about the Mourvèdre from Rozet: “We’ve harvested grapes for three years now, and each year the Mourvèdre is the best. It makes a wine that has a distinct identity.”

The Châteauneuf challenge

Although Steve strives to make wines that speak of where they’re grown – which is to say, specific vineyards in California – his models are the wines of the northern and southern Rhône in France. While California wines have plenty of power and luscious fruitiness, many of them lack the specificity, subtlety, complexity, and food-friendliness of their European models. In a friendly challenge to the two best appellations in the Southern Rhône, Steve put his Rocks and Gravel and Los Robles Viejos Red up against several excellent wines from Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Most of the staff of Paul Marcus Wines got together with Steve for a tasting and dinner at my house in Oakland. We were joined by Keven Clancy, the representative from Estate Wines Ltd. who sells us Edmunds St. John wines, and Patrick Comiskey, Senior Editor of Wine and Spirits magazine and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine section.

All of us knew that we were tasting 2000 vintage Edmunds St. John, Gigondas, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, but we didn’t know the specific identities of the wines, and we carried out the tasting blind (that is, the bottles were covered up until after we’d tasted and discussed them). The “Gigondas flight” of wines comprised the Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel, Domaine de Font-Sane Gigondas, and Château du Trignon Gigondas. The “Châteauneuf flight” contained four wines: Edmunds St. John Los Robles Viejos Red and Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Clos des Papes, Vieux Télégraphe, and Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils.

Testing The Wines

In both flights, Steve’s wines showed themselves as worthy peers of their French brethren. Neither of his wines stuck out as being obviously Californian – our guesses about which wine in each flight came from California frequently were wrong. Nor did Steve’s wines seem simpler or less food-friendly than the others. (After the analytical phase of the tasting, we tucked into a big pile of grilled meats and sausages.)

As I look back over some of our notes from that evening, my central impression is that all of the wines sat comfortably at the table as peers. We quickly moved beyond the “spot the California wine” game to more interesting questions of how each wine distinguished itself in terms of floral, animal, spicy, sappy, tannic, and acidic qualities. All of these were wines worth drinking and cellaring, wines that invited us to eat (and to drink more!), wines that made our evening together a finer one.

But wait, there’s more!

Steve is a man of many talents. Besides making great wine, he’s an accomplished singer-songwriter and an inspired writer. To verify the latter claim, visit edmundsstjohn.com and check out any of his newsletters. Then subscribe to the organolepticians, which grants you the privilege of receiving his future newsletters via e-mail. You’ll hear about, among other useful things, the annual Edmunds St. John Post-Harvest, Pre-Holiday shindig in December, which is always fun and tasty. The Edmunds St. John Web site also describes Steve’s CD Lonesome on the Ground, which we have available for sale in the store.

Note: Steve is also the the object of an article by Patrick Comiskey that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine section on Thursday June 12, 2003.

PMW California Favorites

2000 Pinc Froid ($10.99)

This wine is almost too much fun. It’s rosé from Nebbiolo grapes, in the style of a northern Italian rosato from Piemonte. The wine is full-flavored, minerally, dry, and just a touch smoky. It’s a great aperitif and sit-out-on-the-deck-with-friends wine. It adds an increment of pleasure to any barbecue. And it goes perfectly with 1970s album-length rock songs.

2001 California Syrah ($18)

Here’s one of the great bargains in California wine – a sophisticated but friendly Syrah for under twenty bucks. It’s medium-bodied, supple, clean, and just fruity enough without being excessively grapey. Like all of Steve’s wines, the California Syrah plays well with a wide range of foods. We’ve enjoyed it with grilled meats and even not-too-sweet Asian dishes.

2000 Los Robles Viejos White and Red ($25 each)

If you want to know what terroir is about in California, then you’ll want to drink and cellar these Southern Rhône style wines from the Rozet Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County. And even if you don’t care about terroir, you’ll want to drink these wines because they’re just so damned delicious! Rich Roussane sings the main melody in the white wine, while meaty Mourvèdre forms the backbone of the red. It would be hard to find a better match than these wines for southern French cuisine and Mediterranean-inspired California dishes.

Sky Vineyards

1999 Zinfandel ($25)

Sky makes our favorite Zinfandels year in and year out. This is artisanal wine at its best. Winegrower Lore Olds and his daughter Maya tend their vines just below the crest of Mt. Veeder and make their wine by hand. Sky Zinfandel has plenty of lip-smackingly luscious fruit, but unlike a lot of other Zinfandels, this one is sophisticated, balanced, and a great complement to food. It also ages magnificently – we recently had the pleasure of drinking the 1989 and 1990 vintages up at Sky. So get a few bottles for now and a few more to stash in your basement or closet. You won’t regret it now or later.

Babcock

Brian Babcock’s 2001 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($16.50) is one unbelievable wine for the money. It’s one of our biggest sellers – not too oaky, but with plenty of richness and length on the palate. This is a “go to” wine, meaning that it’s a wine for anyone just starting out and a screaming deal for everyone.

Palmina

We don’t normally get excited about Italian-style wines made in California – the Italian originals usually are better wines and better values. But we are excited about the wines that we just started carrying from Palmina in Santa Barbara County. Steve Clifton, of Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fame, is the owner and winemaker.

The 2002 Bianca ($21)

This is a blend of Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia, Tocai, and Pinot Grigio. Here’s Chad’s inimitable description: “Sumptuous honeyed notes revolving in perfect circles around further perfect circles of melon and fig. A spicy gasket of viscous cinnamon and nectarine all supported by vibrant acids and perfect balance! Wow. This is an intellectual’s entry back into the wonderful world of stuff. Wonderful stuff.”

The 2000 Nebbiolo ($32)

Coming from the Stolpman vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, this wine leans towards the floral side of Nebbiolo – violets, rose petals, cherries, and a little cedar – and displays that classic Nebbiolo combination of power and elegance. Serve it with braised or roasted meats or simply with a nice piece of aged Parmigiano Reggiano.