Articles in Drinking
I have been a customer of Javier Toscano’s for many years. He brings the juiciest melons, sweetest red onions and most colorful peppers to my local farmers market year round. So imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when he pulled a bottle of tequila from his truck and said he had begun importing the spirit from Mexico.
The market for handcrafted artisanal tequila is on the rise. In 2013, more than 13 million 9-liter cases were sold in the U.S., showing a steady growth of almost 6% each year since 2002. One reason for this increase is the ability of Mexican distillers to offer tequilas for every budget and occasion. The segment of the market for premium varieties has shown the most growth, with 2.1 million cases imported last year, so Toscano’s timing for his new venture was just about perfect.
Jalisco, Mexico, home to top-notch tequila brands
The highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, known as Los Altos, are home to some of the newest and most innovative brands of tequila in Mexico. Corazón, Cruz, Tezón and Corzo are just a few of the small-batch brands made in these hills using traditional methods. Many have won gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, widely regarded as one of the most respected international competitions.
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Toscano’s family has deep connections to Jalisco, home of agave farms and tequila distilleries. He was introduced to a distiller in the high country around Arandas who has been making tequila since the early 1900s. The quality and consistency of their product and impressive operation convinced Toscano and his partner, Jerry Gianni, that the distiller Mañana was the brand they wanted to import.
Mañana is small enough to be considered a boutique operation. The estate-grown agave comes from the approximately 400 acres of fields that are part of the distillery. The red dirt and cooler temperatures of the surrounding highlands are thought to produce sweeter tequila from the robust, abundant agave found in this region; lowland agave makes for a spicier spirit. Each plant takes six to eight years to mature and is pulled out of the ground at harvest so the farming operation involves successive plantings. The tough leaves are removed with a machete-like tool, leaving the large piña, or pineapple-looking heart, which can weigh as much as 250 pounds. The agave is then steamed in a wood-burning clay oven for three days until it is soft and golden, then put through a mill to extract all the juice. The juice is put into fermentation tanks, and yeast from Champagne in France is added to convert the sugar to alcohol. This special yeast adds a flavor and mild sweetness to the tequila and also helps to maintain a consistent product.
Toscano tells me that during fermentation, classical music is played. When I give him a quizzical look, he says, “I thought the owner was joking with me when he told me, but he said that they actually do this, then I saw the speakers on the wall.” The theory is that the sound waves aid the movement of the microbes, contributing to the fermentation process.
Music playing during fermentation is done with wines in France, as well as with other tequilas in the Arandas region. After fermentation, the tequila is distilled twice in copper stills, which ensures even heating. Each time, 20% is skimmed off the head and tail to guarantee all impurities are removed; most distillers cut only 10% from each end. This skimming process creates a smoother, higher-quality product and reduces the likelihood of headaches. The tequila is aged in barrels that have previously held Jack Daniels, imparting a smoky, spicy note and hint of caramel color. The Reposado is aged for eight months, while the Anejo ages for two years. Just as the tequila is an artisan product, so too are the bottles in which it is sold. They are hand blown from recycled glass and the label is hand forged and hammered aluminum. Workers at the bottle factory sculpt the trademark man swinging in the hammock, which is on every Mañana bottleneck; the hammock actually swings!
For my first taste of Mañana tequila, I headed down to Marinitas, a top-quality Mexican restaurant in Marin County, Calif., that has 101 brands of the spirit on its menu. A friend and I sampled one of the signature margaritas made with Mañana’s Anejo and a cocktail called a Paloma, which has grapefruit juice and Grand Marnier, using the Reposado. The more aged Anejo was silky smooth, and the Reposado cocktail was refreshing and drinkable.
Back home, I tried my hand with a recipe Toscano had given me for a Las Brisas del Mañana (The Winds of Tomorrow), an interesting combination of juices, herbs and Reposado that was haunting and delicious, just as the name implies. Mañana tequila can be found in 13 states, and distribution is growing. As more people gain an appreciation for artisan spirits and the innate drinkability of premium tequila, the need for boutique distilleries like Mañana will continue to grow.
Recipe developed by Lacey Murillo.
- 1 thyme sprig
- 1½ ounces Mañana Reposada Tequila
- ½ ounce Aperol
- ½ ounce agave syrup
- ½ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 5 ounces fresh orange juice
- Orange slice and thyme spring for garnish
- Muddle the thyme in a cocktail shaker.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and fill with ice.
- Shake well, then strain into a cocktail glass.
- Garnish with an orange slice and thyme sprig. Enjoy!
Main photo: Two cocktails from Marinitas in Marin County, Calif.: a margarita made with Mañana Anejo, left, and a Paloma made with the brand’s Reposado. Credit: Brooke Jackson
Getting a little tired of kale? Chaya can feed your appetite and your curiosity. The best way to discover it? Take a trip to Yucatan where it has been used for centuries and is integrated into the Mayan culinary tradition as much as the habanero pepper and Xtabentun — the honey-based and anise-flavored liqueur — that are also typical to the Mexican Peninsula.
The first time I heard and tasted chaya was six-plus years ago in a little restaurant in Playa del Carmen in the form of a drink. The leaves were blended in an ice cold beverage made with water, sugar and lime: beautiful green, discreet herbaceous flavor and definitely refreshing. Chaya’s aficionados, however, focus on its health benefits, recommending it for countless ailments, including diabetes, kidney stones, obesity and acne.
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Chaya, also called tree spinach, is consumed as a diuretic and a stimulant for circulation and lactation, and it is believed to harden fingernails, improve vision, help lower cholesterol, prevent coughs, improve memory and combat diabetes, according to the Mexican National Institute of Nutrition. Scientific research has not been done to support these claims, but the nutritional value of the plant has been studied. It has more calcium and protein than kale, and two times more iron and crude fiber than spinach. It also has very high concentrations of potassium, vitamin C and carotenoids.
There is a cautionary note: Many sources say chaya should not be eaten raw. In that form it is toxic, with traces of cyanide. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, chaya leaves, like several other plants and leafy vegetables, “contain hydrocyanic glycosides, which are toxic compounds, but they are easily destroyed by cooking.” To use chaya raw, Latin American vendors have employed other techniques to counteract the toxicity, such as soaking the leaves in vinegar and water.
In Los Angeles, I looked for chaya in Latin supermarkets, but found none. A couple of months ago, I went back to Yucatan and headed toward Mérida, determined to try chaya in as many forms as possible. Mérida boasts some of the most beautiful colonial architecture of Mexico, and the population, which is primarily Mayan, has carried on the language and culinary traditions.
But before reaching Mérida, I made a stop in the small town of Valladolid and had dinner at the elegant Taberna de los Frailes where I tasted a delicious velvety soup that was made with chaya and beautifully garnished with cream. It tasted like spinach soup with a hint of watercress.
The next morning, at the traditional restaurant of the hotel Meson del Marques, I was served sauteed chaya with eggs for breakfast, which, I was to discover, is a classic all across Yucatan. The sauteed leaves alongside a simple tomato sauce made for tasty reflection of the green and red of the Mexican flag.
I made another stop in the beautiful “Yellow City” of Izamal, where most of the buildings are painted yellow and where the traditional restaurant Kinich came highly recommended. Besides the chaya drink, referred to as agua de chaya, the highlights of the meal were the empanadas de queso (cheese empanadas), which showed little resemblance to Argentine empanadas except for their half-moon shape. The dough was masa, also used for tortillas. The masa was mixed with finely chopped cooked chaya leaves that brought a beautiful freshness to the delicacy, oozing with cheese and accompanied by pickled red onions, a sauteed chaya leaf and a vibrant fresh tomato sauce.
Once at Mérida, chaya found me. It arrived at the romantic Casa Azul hotel, where the welcome drink is a chaya and lime virgin cocktail. Agua de chaya is served all around town, from inexpensive joints to high-end restaurants like the one inside the classic Mansión Mérida on the Park hotel.
Chaya seems to transcend social barriers. The popular ice cream parlor on the central square served kids and families some sticks of agua de chaya that was turned into a sorbet mixed with diced pineapple. The luxurious Hacienda San Jose, about an hour east of Mérida, served a wonderful dish of chaya leaves with chopped tomatoes and cream to diners with means.
I was eager to see how chaya was sold at the local markets. There were a few bags of the leaves, but not mounds of it as I suspected. Why? Chaya grows wild as a bush and many people get it from their backyards or in the wild, I was told by the vegetable vendors, but any reason beyond that was unclear.
After a week of eating chaya in many forms, did I feel in better health? I couldn’t say so, but the flavor and texture of this green that is close to spinach and Swiss chard had grown on me. Once I returned to the United States, I feared my search for chaya would again be fruitless. Research online led me to think that only Texas had good chaya, and I wasn’t hooked to the point of changing my residence for my fix.
What a happy surprise to discover that a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles called Chichen Itza not only sold “agua de chaya,” but also offered the plant for amateurs to grow. Buyers will be warned, however, that the vinegar-and-water method is a must for those who intend to use the leaves raw.
The allure of the trip to Mérida to taste chaya in its natural and cultural environment remains, but it was heartening to know there was another place closer to my home in Southern California to sample the wonders of chaya.
Main photo: Chaya and lime drink at Casa Azul in Mérida. Credit: Philip Sinsheimer
The evolution of English sparkling wine over the last decade has been remarkable. Ten years ago few outside what was a dynamic but very domestic cottage industry took it seriously. But with investment, huge improvements in technology and vineyard management, and — most important — a clutch of major awards, the best English sparkling is internationally recognized.
Nyetimber, which recently released its first single-vineyard cuvée, the $126 (75 pounds) Tillington, and Ridgeview, which beat Champagnes including Taittinger and Charles Heidsieck to Decanter’s International Sparkling Trophy in 2010, are just two of a clutch of English wines that are taken very seriously indeed.
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Changing misperceptions at Rathfinny
Driver, the owner of Rathfinny, a $16.8-million (10 million pounds) vineyard in Sussex, intends to go some way to meeting demand. With 160 acres (64 hectares) planted, and 250 acres (100 hectacres) more to come, it’s on course to be England’s biggest single estate. There’s a gravity-fed, purpose-built, million-bottle-capacity winery; guesthouses set among rolling fields of young vines (all planted since 2012); and a wastewater treatment plant, all the trappings of the modern, wealth-created winery. I was prepared to find the exorbitant dream of a rich man, complete with luxury hotel and manicured lawns.
How wrong I was. “That’s going to be the hostel over there,” said Georgia Mallinson, the events and hospitality manager, as she pointed to a red-roofed barn in the distance. Ah, the luxury guesthouse, though “hostel” seemed an odd way of describing it. “It’s going to be used for seasonal workers, and the rest of the time it’ll be for visitors, walkers, school groups.” How much will a room be? “Youth hostel prices,” she said.
Youth hostels are for those who like their accommodation cheap, cheerful and sparse. The handsome winery — its curving grass-covered roof echoing the buxom green slopes of the Sussex hills around it — was full of guests. Among them were Vince Cable, the U.K.’s business secretary, and David Dimbleby, host of the BBC’s flagship current affairs panel “Question Time.” In green Rathfinny polo shirts were vineyard manager Cameron Boucher — a New Zealander whose last job was in Hawke’s Bay, supplying grapes to the renowned Craggy Range among others — and winemaker Jonathan Médard, a Frenchman from Epernay, fresh from a stint in the United States and Australia that included such internationally recognized names as Napa’s Newton Vineyard and Margaret River’s Voyager Estate.
Cable is Mark and Sarah Driver’s local representative in Parliament (they live in Twickenham, in west London), and when, early on, they became mired in planning bureaucracy, they sought his advice. “The local council was very obstructive, so I intervened,” Cable told me, concisely. He stepped in, he said, because he believed in what the Drivers were doing.
Finding promise from ‘the depths of the recession’
“The groundwork was done in the depths of recession, and it required courage and imagination to stick with such a project,” he said, praising the couple for the jobs they are bringing to an area of Sussex, with its depressed coastal towns, that has “serious pockets” of unemployment. “This is a real creative, imaginative industry,” Cable said, “and it’s also a successful export industry.” Rathfinny lies in the same band of chalk that forms the Paris Basin, which runs up through Champagne and northern France to form the North and South Downs. Southern England is only two degrees latitude north of Champagne — the only difference between the regions is the summer nighttime temperature, which can be 10 degrees centigrade (18 F) colder here. But there’s a microclimate here, Driver says. A substantial ridge, Cradle Hill, protects Rathfinny from the cooling breezes from the sea, six miles to the south. “It can be minus 6 degrees centigrade (21 F) a few miles away, and plus 6 (43 F) here.”
First vintage due in 2017
There’s no wine yet. The first sparkling vintage, from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is expected in 2017. Driver doesn’t expect to turn a profit until 2020. He intends to export at least 50%, mostly to the U.S., Japan and Hong Kong. The Drivers are popular, not only for the work they are bringing to the area, but for the money they have put into the restoration of the Gun Room, an 18th century building in the town. “The best thing that ever happened to Alfriston,” June Goodfield, an 87-year-old local historian said. “It’s so nice to have something that isn’t a golf course.”
They also have sponsored a wine research center at nearby Plumpton College, where Driver studied viticulture after making his millions in the world of high finance. The beautiful countryside shimmered in bright spring sun as the guests happily quaffed Plumpton’s non-vintage sparkling (a trifle too acidic for my taste). Cable said his goodbyes and stepped into his ministerial car — into the driving seat, that is, of a nondescript, somewhat grubby 10-year-old Vauxhall — and engaged the gears. It had been a peculiarly English day.
Main photo: Vince Cable, U.K. business secretary, center, gets a tour of the Rathfinny Estate from Mark and Sarah Driver. Credit: Adam Lechmere
India is trending toward wine. The favorite beverage of Dionysus is fast becoming the gateway drink for the nation’s younger generation. The tradition of two scotches before dinner is morphing into a wine-by-the-glass culture.
Noticing this change, France’s legendary House of Moët & Chandon has made its initial foray into India with the premiere release of Chandon India, a sparkling wine produced for the domestic market. The wine is made in the emerging wine region of Nashik (or Nasik), a four-hour drive north of Mumbai. The uncorking of Chandon Brut and Brut Rosé in October 2013 drew Mumbai’s glitterati and Bollywood superstars.
Most wine regions are known for their distinctive grape varietals: New Zealand’s Marlborough area for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, France’s Chablis for Chardonnay, Germany’s Mosel region for Riesling and so on.
On my recent visit to Nashik, I was impressed by its Chenin Blanc. It was so good, I suggested to a few winemakers that they brand this region as “Chenin Blanc Country.” This is the varietal that goes into Chandon’s sparkling wine. Nashik’s diurnal temperature creates an ideal growing condition for Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc — wines perfectly suited for India’s hot weather and spicy foods.
Wine just beginning to emerge in India
India’s wine industry is in its embryonic stage. In a country of 1.2 billion people, wine consumption in 2013 was estimated at 1.6 million cases, with an annual growth rate of 20% to 25%. The country has 70-plus wineries with more than 260,000 acres under vines spread among 11 Indian states. The noted areas are Bangalore in Karnataka state in the south and Nashik and Pune on the west coast, both in close proximity to Mumbai in Maharashtra state.
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On the banks of Godavari River, Nashik (with a population of 1.5 million) is steeped in mythology. It’s among the four locations where Kumbh Mela — a Hindu pilgrimage — is held, making it one of India’s holiest cities. With more than 100 temples, temple tourism is a big draw. The city is also an automotive and pharmaceutical manufacturing hub. And now comes its newest attraction — wine tourism, with some 30 wineries, fancy tasting rooms and harvest festivals.
Chandon’s winemaker, Australian Kelly Healey, was my daylong guide in Nashik. The company purchases fruit from local growers, and production, started in 2011, is done at the local York winery. Chandon’s own winery is under construction in Dindori, a subregion of Nashik, and scheduled for completion later in 2014. New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Winery is Chandon’s technical partner in Nashik, Healey said.
Avoiding soil that’s better for table grapes
Healey gave me the lowdown on Nashik’s geological profile. Hillside vineyards, some at an elevation of 1,300 feet, contain porous, red-brown, rocky basaltic soil with a slightly richer brown soil on flat land.
“The one we want to avoid is the black soil on alluvial plains,” Healey said. The rich organic matter with water-retaining property is better suited for table grapes. And there’s a lot of that going on, because table grapes exported to the United Kingdom and Russia fetch a better per-ton price than wine grapes.
From October to February, temperatures dip to mid-40 F. Harvest season is from February to March. “There’s no dormancy, so the vines are all confused as there’s year-round growth,” Healey mused.
Annual prunings are in April and September, and most farmers create artificial dormancy in April. “They spray with a hormone so the vines drop leaves,” Healey said. During monsoon season, June to August, vines are sprayed to keep them healthy. “It’s a difficult place to do organic farming,” he admitted.
Nashik’s popular varietals range from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec. Some producers are experimenting with Tempranillo, Grenache and Sangiovese. Nashik does not have an appellation certification, but the bottles bear the name. The region was pioneered in the 1980s by Chateau Indage, followed by producers like Sula and Zampa.
I visited four wineries, starting with Sula, which was launched in 1998. Back then, visitors lacked wine culture, recalled winemaker Ajoy Shaw. “They didn’t know what wine was. ‘Can we mix with water?’ they asked.”
Sula ushered in California-style wine education with an upscale tasting room and winery tours. All Sula bottles have screw caps because many consumers don’t own corkscrews. “And waiters struggle to open bottles in restaurants,” Shaw said.
Sula is clearly the leader in the Indian market, with an annual production of 700,000 cases and 29 different labels. The flagship wines are Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wines. The reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz. In tasting the Nashik reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, I found they lacked the tannin structure. No wonder, because Cabernet requires a longer growing season, which this region does not offer. So what you get here is sugary ripeness, not flavor ripeness.
I tasted an exceptional Chenin Blanc at York Winery, a wine I feel could stand up to any world-class Chenin in a blind tasting. Owned by the Gurnani family of Nashik, York is run by brothers Ravi, in charge of marketing, and winemaker Kailash, who studied oenology at Adelaida University in Australia.
In 2008, they produced their first vintage of wines from sourced fruit and the six-acre estate vineyard. Annual production of 10,000 cases includes Sauvignon Blanc Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and a Zinfandel Rosé.
In nearby Kavnai village, Vallonné Winery sits on a 20-acre estate. Founder Shailandra Pai conducted a tasting of a fragrant 2013 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2011 fruit-forward Malbec. I was impressed with the barrel tasting of the 2013 Merlot, which showed integrated tannins.
A few miles further, Grover Zampa’s 13-acre vineyard is set on a 35-acre estate. Its annual production of 25,000 cases includes 18 to 20 wines. The whites lacked fresh acidity. What stood out was the flagship 2010 Chêne Reserve, a blend of Syrah and Tempranillo showing structured tannins and fruit.
The Nashik trip was quite an experience — modern hotels in the city yet bullock carts, corn fields and sun-dried cow dung cakes along wine country’s rural trail. But Ravi Gurnani is positive about the future.
“Chandon being here is a good push for others,” he said.
Main photo: Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt
Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.
The Valais’ microclimate
Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains, I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.
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Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.
In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.
During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.
The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.
Cornalin, the new kid on the block
Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.
In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.
Rouge du Pays
Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.
The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.
Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.
A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins
On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.
In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.
A temperamental grape
In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.
Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.
So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.
Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.
Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey. Credit: David Latt
This spring, as they do every year, the most prestigious Bordeaux Grand Cru châteaux gave wine buyers and critics the chance to sample the new season’s wines en primeur, ahead of being finished. The wines — from famous areas such as Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Graves and Sauternes — are not yet bottled; many require at least one year of aging before they’ll be released. But in Bordeaux, top wines — from legendary châteaux like Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux and Cheval Blanc — are in a special category. They’re traded like futures, for their aging and investment potential.
The primeurs give experts a way to taste and pre-order the wines while still in the barrel, and to assess the vintage. All they have to do is turn up. But this spring many stayed away. The 2013 vintage was notoriously troublesome: heavy rainfall in spring and autumn, and an erratic summer caused the red grapes to ripen slowly and, in many areas, suffer from rot. Some of the most influential critics, whose scores are important for selling and pricing the wines, didn’t bother to make the trip to Bordeaux to sample the wines. They gave up on it without even a taste. (Dry white wines from Graves and Pessac-Léognan fared better than the region’s reds, while sweet Sauternes had a very good year.)
For those who did travel to southwest France for the week, there was a surprisingly upbeat atmosphere.
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“If you’re not expecting much, you can be pleasantly surprised,” said Fabian Cobb, editor of Fine Wine Magazine, an online publication focusing on wine investment. “The châteaux who had the means and the best terroirs, who were not hit by hail or too many downpours have produced some terrific wines. They may not be wines to keep for decades, but they’ll make for wonderful drinking in the next five to 10 years.”
Generally, the Left Bank of the Gironde Estuary (Médoc, Graves and Sauternes) fared better than the Right (Pomerol and Saint-Émilion), where the Merlot was hard hit and harder still to harvest in perfect condition. Botrytis (the “noble” rot that is generally undesirable in red grapes) struck many vineyards, and it was difficult to separate the good berries from the bad after the bunches had been picked.
The price of adapting in Bordeaux
Bordeaux châteaux have so much at stake, they spend fortunes each year selecting the best berries. In good vintages, discolored or unripe berries are manually eliminated on sorting tables. This year, even optical sorting machines developed for separating recycled waste and successfully adapted to berry selection were unable to spot the difference between heavy, ripe berries and light, under-mature or rotten berries. Those who could afford it used the Tribaie, a density-measuring machine that submerges the berries for a few seconds in a mixture of water and sugar, discarding any that float.
“The good berries are then quickly shaken dry before being turned into the vinification tanks,” explained Alain Vauthier of Château Ausone. “That’s what helped us make a decent wine this year.”
In 2013, vineyard location also made a crucial difference. Pomerol, the exclusive appellation next to Saint-Émilion, produced some outstanding wines from small but prestigious properties like Vieux Château Certan and Château Lafleur. At Lafleur, winemaker and owner Julie Grésiak talked of her confidence in the 70-year-old Cabernet Franc vines that make up part of her family’s 4.5-hectare (11-acre) estate.
“These individuals have found their balance in this terrain; we were confident they would ripen well, so we waited patiently for them,” she says. The wine, of 55% Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot, is aged in second-year barriques (unlike almost every other top estate, Lafleur uses no new barrels for its premium wine). Lafleur 2013 was my favorite wine of the vintage: it has elegance, verve and emotion.
By comparison, many Saint-Émilion wines seemed unbalanced: New barrels couldn’t mask the lack of healthy, well-structured Merlot. Château Tertre Roteboeuf was an exception. Indeed, this year a number of small, organic estates that have long focused on helping their old vines maintain an equilibrium with the soil showed that even in difficult years these vines can produce fine fruit.
“We practice an ancient method of pruning that enables our vines to produce well-spaced, aerated bunches, and that helped defend them against the vagaries of this year’s weather,” says François Mitjavile, the estates’ owner. His 2013 was pure, long and elegant, with the characteristic “fraicheur” — or freshness — that makes Merlot in Bordeaux so attractive.
In the Médoc, the flat ear of land north of Bordeaux city, terroir also made a difference. Château Palmer is next door to Château Margaux, but whereas Margaux’s Merlots — grown on clay — were devastated by the wet weather, Palmer’s — planted on deep gravel — fared better.
“We run 60% of Palmer’s 55 hectares [135 acres] of vineyards biodynamically,” says Thomas Duroux, the estates’ winemaker. “This most challenging vintage has made us determined to convert the rest to biodynamic methods too. It has shown us how, when the soils are alive and the vines well-adapted, they can produce characterful fruit in all seasons.”
Further north, another of the vintage’s best wines was made at Château Montrose, in Saint-Estèphe. Like the other top Médoc wines this year — including Cos d’Estournel, Mouton-Rothschild, and Pontet-Canet — Château Montrose has not pushed for too much tannic extraction or depth of colour.
“What counts is finesse, with the purity of aromas and flavour that will guarantee the pleasure of those who will drink them,” says Hervé Berland, who recently joined Montrose as CEO after 35 years running Château Mouton-Rothschild. “We were spared the devastating downpour of Oct. 4 that hit so many châteaux during the harvest,” Berland says. “Vintages such as 2013 are always very interesting. Nature has thrown everything at us, but I’m convinced that with experience — but without panic — we can always make fine wines from these great terroirs.”
Main photo: Horses plough the vineyards at Château Lafleur in Pomerol. Credit: Carla Capalbo
It is quite a special experience to taste every single vintage of a wine, but that is what I did the other day, when I was invited to a vertical tasting in London of AD The Aviator from Alpha Domus, one of the leading estates of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.
Alpha Domus was founded by the Ham family, which originally came from the Netherlands. Alpha includes the initials of the five members of the family — the parents and three sons — who established the estate, and domus means home in Latin. They bought land in Hawke’s Bay, in an area that is now recognized as a sub-region, the Bridge Pa triangle, and planted the grape varieties that do best in Hawke’s Bay: the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The soil is red metal, alluvial soil, on an old riverbed, over gravel, a variation on the much better known Gimblett Gravels of Hawke’s Bay. It is warm and free draining but with sufficient water holding capacity not to need irrigation.
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They made their first wine in 1996. AD The Aviator, their flagship wine, is a blend of the year’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Its proportions varying from year to year, and some years it is not even made. The unpredictable aspect is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can sometimes be difficult to ripen in Hawke’s Bay. Merlot is easier, but it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that provides the backbone and aging potential. The producers want a long ripening period, and aim for low yields, paying great attention to canopy management. Nor do they pick too early. As Paul Ham observed, “It is a battle of nerves over the potential rain at harvest time.”
The name The Aviator is a tribute to the many pilots who played their part in New Zealand’s aviation history and trained on de Havilland Tiger Moth planes from the Bridge Pa airfield. So, appropriately, the London tasting took place in the Royal Air Force Club on Piccadilly. And the Tigermoth biplane features as a logo on most of their labels.
Over the years Alpha Domus has employed three winemakers. Grant Edmonds, who now makes the wine at Sileni, and his own wine at Redmetal Vineyards, was their first; he was followed by a Dutchman, Evert Nijink; and now Kate Galloway makes the wine, building on the work of Grant and Evert, benefiting from older vines and fine-tuning the winemaking process.
The winemaking process for AD The Aviator has become established over the years. There is an initial cold soak for the grapes, followed by some hand-plunging and pigeage during fermentation, and then a period of aging in new and used French oak barrels. Finally, the very best of the individual barrels is selected for blending, with the winemaker looking “for perfume and aroma, with soft tannins,” Paul Ham says. “And it must be food-friendly.” At its best, this is a wine that can rival Bordeaux.
We tasted from young to old, beginning with:
2010: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec
Deep young color; ripe rounded cassis nose, with some vanilla and fruit. Paul Ham explained that they want New World fruit, with Old World complexity, and that is what they have achieved in this wine. The palate was still quite firm and youthful, but with underlying elegance balancing some ripe fruit, with a rounded finish.
2009: 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Franc
Medium color. A light, rather restrained nose. Closed and understated on the palate, with a little sweet cassis and vanilla. Quite elegant fruit on the finish. And generally less expressive than 2010.
2007: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 13% Malbec
Medium color. An elegant smoky cedary nose. A medium weight palate, with some acidity and also some tannin. A youthful edge to the wine, with some lovely fruit. An elegant concentration of flavor, and still plenty of aging potential.
2002: Kate’s first vintage. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec
Quite a deep color. Rounded ripe and smoky on the nose. Quite a tight palate, with a firm finish. Still youthful with some cedary minty notes. Some length.
2000: Made by Evert. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Malbec
Medium color. Elegant smoky nose. Quite a firm cedary palate. An edge of tannin with some acidity. A satisfying glass of wine, with balanced fruit and concentration, with length and elegance.
1999: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec
A lighter year; they very nearly didn’t make it. Medium color, with a little age. Soft cedary vanilla nose. Quite an elegant dry palate, with some supple tannins. Elegant cedary notes. And a long finish.
1998: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec.
A hot dry year, which posed difficulties for some winemakers in Hawke’s Bay. Medium color, and still quite youthful. An elegant nose, with some cedary fruit, and on the palate, quite structured, with elegant fruit, structure and depth. Nicely intense, with a hint of menthol from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Did the gum trees nearby have an impact? Satisfying length and depth.
1996: This first vintage was made by Grant Edmonds and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec were not yet in production. Medium colour. Soft cedary notes on the nose and palate. A softer palate than the others, with some elegant cedary fruit. Maybe just beginning to slither off its plateau, or maybe not? Whatever, it was soft and sweet and still very elegant. A great note on which to finish a tasting of New Zealand’s history, with a wine that also amply illustrates Hawke’s Bay’s ability to rival Bordeaux.
Top photo: From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus
It’s probably still premature to break out the Txakoli or Sancerre, or whatever crisp, refreshing white you prefer for summer, but there’s definitely a category of wine that embodies the chameleon-like nature of early spring, especially here in New York, where the weather is a reminder of Robert Frost’s lines.
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You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
– From “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
I find that France’s little-known and oft-neglected Savoie region — a tiny Alpine growing area perched up in the mountains along the Swiss border — delivers just what I’m looking for this time of year. With its versatile range of whites that run the stylistic gamut from playfully brisk to generously rich, and its light-bodied, elegantly lifted reds, Savoie wines offer the perfect way to pass the time while waiting for the first spring greens to appear at the market.
Whenever I drink wines from this part of the world, I immediately envision myself in a landscape that seems to belong in “The Sound of Music,” complete with herds of grazing cattle, sleepy little cottages and a token babbling brook. Technicolor Hollywood fantasies aside, it can’t be denied that, at their best, the area’s wines communicate an unmistakable sense of place, all mountain air and meadow grass and wildflowers.
Although not a whole lot of the area’s wine makes it to U.S. shores, what does arrive is truly worth seeking out. Producers of note include Franck Peillot, Eugene Carrel, Domaine Labbé and the extremely hard-to-find Domaine Belluard, but I’ve recently developed an obsession with a small vigneron by the name of David Dupasquier, located in the village of Jongieux, who makes a gorgeous lineup of wines from such distinctive regional grapes as Jacquère and Altesse (his whites), as well as the red-skinned Gamay and Mondeuse.
Minimalist Savoie winemaker
A fifth-generation winemaker now at the helm of his family estate, Dupasquier adopts a minimalist approach to his work in the vineyards and the cellar. For one, he harvests entirely by hand, which, given the precariously steep vines he tends, must pose a considerable challenge. Among other praiseworthy practices, he also makes a point of fermenting with indigenous yeasts, which better allows the underlying materials of the wine to shine through. For anyone interested in experiencing the high-altitude clarity possessed by so many wines from Savoie, Dupasquier’s efforts couldn’t be more faithful regional ambassadors.
His unusual level of dedication and care is evident across all of his wines, and his profound expression of the Jacquère grape is no exception. While many examples of the varietal are innocuous affairs, best used to quench the thirst of skiers after a long day on the slopes, his version possesses a bright wash of acidity and a stony mineral core that overturns expectations while remaining utterly true to its place of origin. Despite its deceptively lithe and nimble frame, it manages to deliver a sense of weight without being weighty, gesturing toward richness with a fuller, creamier texture than any other expression of the grape I’ve encountered. In this respect, the wine seems to me like an Alpine version of some of the better Muscadet cuvées that have recently raised that region’s profile.
All in all, the wines offer a refreshing dose of seasonal irony. On the richer side of the spectrum, for those chillier April days when, as Frost writes, you feel like you’re still “back in the middle of March,” Dupasquier’s stellar Rousette de Savoie does the trick. Particularly appealing in the recently released 2010 vintage and based on the late-ripening Altesse grape (known regionally as Rousette), it represents just the sort of comforting, deep-yet-chiseled, viscous-yet-fresh white to be enjoyed with the last of winter’s hearty, bone-warming fare: Think roast pork or trout in cream sauce. When the warmer weather comes in full force, however, I’ll gravitate toward his bright and elegant vins rouges. Plunged in the ice bucket before serving, the 2010 Dupasquier Savoie Gamay drinks like a transparent, mountain-grown Beaujolais, chock full of juicy red berry fruit and a clean mineral finish that sings of the rocky slopes in which it was raised. Cue the first spring chicken.
Top photo: David Dupasquier in the fields. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Dupasquier