Do we tend to put too much of a premium on potency, depth, and complexity-the distinguishing marks, we assume, of a great wine? Certainly in financial terms, the premium has become (to use the fashionable term) unsustainable. AAA-rated wines occupy a parallel universe. It’s time, we tell ourselves, to look for other criteria, other qualities to admire. Of course, we’ve been doing just this for years. But I know that I, and most of my friends, go all apologetic. “It’s only a simple such and such,” we stammer. “Not one of your grands crus.” Grands crus be blowed! A peasant girl can kiss like a princess.
When it comes to coups de coeur, I have as many moments of sheer delight among wines of yeoman stock (if not actual peasants) as I do among the aristocracy. Take this red Burgundy: a Monthelie (no titre de noblesse, no premier cru) from the vines of the Château de Puligny-Montrachet under the management of Etienne de Montille. That does add up to a pretty aristo name, now I think of it, but Monthelie is scarcely mainstream; it has to prove its breeding, like the princess and the pea.
I never saw, smelled, or tasted a prettier wine. It winks like a gem, the palest of rubies. It shoots straight to the olfactory nerve, transfixing it with the eager sweetness of Pinot Noir. The cherries are so fresh that there is still dust from the field on their bloom. A girl can show her cleavage but still look away; what is she hiding behind that brilliant flash of a smile? Ethereal is the word that comes to me; moving on, unpindownable, for all its flaunting presence in my nose and mouth.
Be realistic: cranberry juice is pale red, sweet, and sharp-invasive and memorable in its way. How, and why, does wine speak so much more movingly? My Monthelie (this the 2009) is an essay in freshness and purity, ripeness and lightness, but it has a core of high seriousness and deep implications. Is this just flickering memories of older, more profound Pinots, or something inherent in any good grape well matched by soil and well made by man?
Where else was it that I was stirred by the simple statement of a Pinot Noir, somewhere unexpected, recently? Oh, yes-to my delight, it was an English one and, frankly, the best English red wine I have yet tasted, from the Sharpham Vineyard in Devon. And what was that other red Burgundy that spoke with more authority and with far better enunciation than its modest appellation suggests? That was La Digoine, a cru in Bouzeron, in the Côte Chalonnaise (or région de Mercurey, as people say these days). But the vignerons, A&P de Villaine, have connections in the Côte de Nuits. Could their resources, I wondered, include old barrels from the grandest of crus?
Beeline to the Midi
Where else has my fickle heart been waylaid? In the Midi more and more often. There are still skeptics who doubt that the Languedoc-the land of gros rouge and farmers' riots-can rise above its plebeian past.
But what is this? A label with the names of two highly respected growers from the Côte d'Or. Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot, respectively from Vosne-Romanée and Chorey-lès- Beaune, are making single-vineyard wines in a Minervois village called La Cazelle that I had trouble finding on the map. Not by upgrading the prevailing Carignan and Cinsaut and Grenache to Pinot Noir, but by the techniques of pruning, selection, fermentation, and barrel aging they use in Burgundy. Their four wines- each from a different terroir, ranging from limestone to sandstone-stress different grapes. One is predominantly Syrah from ancient vines. What they have in common is an elegance, a polished silkiness, that suggests a very smart address. Historically, Carignan and Cinsaut suggest coarse thin wines, overcropped and underloved. The whole region takes on quite a different aspect when someone has enough faith to take it seriously. Could I imagine flavors familiar from the mass-production of co-ops elevated to serious finesse? If this is what modern enology has in store, the future is brilliant.
Nor do I need something so exceptional to prove the rule. Thirty years ago, I got an inkling of the potential of the extraordinary limestone island of La Clape, isolated in what was once the delta of the River Aude. Is there any other limestone hill on the French Mediterranean coast? In those days, we bought potent reds and rather stylish garrigue-scented rosé from an enologist in Narbonne who had a summer shack on La Clape. His barbecues in the bush felt more Australian than French. I tasted his son's (his name is Georges Bertrand) update of the family brew recently and realized how far the Languedoc has come.
This is the French New World. "Surging scents of garrigue, oak, caramel, and tar. Smooth, palatefilling and very moreish. A fantastic interpretation of familiar Midi flavors, savory and robust." A homelier proposition than the Gros-Tollot refinement of the Minervois, it's true, but then look at what Justin Howard- Sneyd is producing in the old sweetwine vineyards of Maury, even farther south. His Domaine of the Bee takes super-ripe classic Midi grapes to the point where it feels as though not another grape, or grape's worth of fruit flavor, could fit in the bottle. The intensity can be almost painful, but somehow all the edges are planed away. You bring out your killer cheese at the end of the meal, and wine like this is nirvana.
Hitting the Heitz
Does this enthusiasm for novelty suggest that grand old bottles (or sometimes less grand old bottles) no longer stir me? Far from it. The most magical moment in a wine lover's life is when something that has been squirreled away in the cellar-best of all, even forgotten-revenges the slight and shocks you with its brilliance. Who remembers the first faltering steps of Chardonnay in California?
So faltering that its very name was uncertain. Joe Heitz, who brought to light the first French-barrelfermented wines of Hanzell from Sonoma in the early 1960s, still had doubts in 1978. He labeled his wine Pinot Chardonnay.
My expectations of my last bottle ever (I imagine) of Pinot Chardonnay were relatively modest-until the light caught the stream into our glasses.
It was no deeper than straw and still glinting green. No need to swirl and coax the nose: it was ready and waiting, astonishingly fresh, clean, lively-and rich with the faintest balsam or resin scent. Steven Spurrier, who shared it, likened it to a good Meursault- Charmes. But a Meursault of 1978? It was complex, it was complete, and it grew, rather than faded, over the rest of dinner, surviving the Sassicaia and Latour '88s that in theory should have supplanted it. (Sassicaia, since you ask, took up the Lafite position in relation to Latour: leaner, very fine but less assertive. Latour was itself: smelling of iron, meaty and severe at the same time.) The following evening, there was still just enough Pinot Chardonnay left in the bottle to taste it again: almost no change. What can today's winemakers learn from their forbears?
Négrette at leisure
Back among the peasantry for a moment, girls or boys, I passed a very pleasant moment, if not quite a coup, with a Négrette (not what it sounds like) from the Vendée. What Négrette, a grape from the southwest, is doing near Muscadet country, I don't know. But a Wine Society buyer discovered that a family called Mourat planted it about 100 years ago, and it has more than survived. The result is a very dark light wine, if you follow me, fresh and sappy, with a crisp touch of tannin. Imagine a Cabernet Beaujolais -a good one.
I am far from being a tannin freak. It is the quality, not the quantity, of tannins that interests me. I mentally link the wines that have the scouring effect I enjoy in a category of their own to deploy on certain occasions. The evening after a rich lunch is one. Barolo is the extreme case. You know, don't you, whether it is going to be a Barolo night? Your palate feels like a good scrub.
Madiran belongs in the same group, and so do the wines of Bairrada, made from the not-very-cooperative variety of Baga. The wines of Luis Pato (his Viñas Velhas, for example), and now of his daughter Filipa, encapsulate the very Portuguese quality-indeed, the Atlantic Seaboard quality-of wines with the ocean breezes in their makeup. This is their quality: a sort of breezy freshness and edge, however embedded in alcohol and rich fruit? Come to think of it, much like the Médoc.