Binary thinking limits our wine experience.

This week we offer two exceptional white wines that are considered benchmarks for their respective appellations. We’ll continue to feature noteworthy white wines like these throughout the fall.

There are stages to every enthusiasm. New wine drinkers often seek the "two by four upside the head”  experience. A fascination with ever increasing intensity and concentration can often define quality for the novice. It's an honest reaction, given our culture's addiction to "super sizing" and the constant pounding from myriad external sources that scream for our attention.

It's no wonder that subtlety takes a back seat to excess and that balance is drowned out by impact - and that white wine is relegated to "oh that stuff" status while reds with huge palate presence are venerated and revered. 

Not long ago I was alternately amused and annoyed to read an email from a Portland distributor that highlighted an Australian winery's so-called “fruit impact scale” in which a certain wine's "fruit weight" was assigned a percentage as an indicator of value - as in (and please note the trademark):

 "Marquis Fruit Weight™ is the percentage of your palate (from the tip of your tongue going all the way back) that's covered by the velvety sensation of fruit, before you experience any of the structural components of the wine. A wine must have at least 65% Fruit Weight™ in order to be considered for bottling as a…”

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry in the face of such nonsense, and it begs the question of where might an austere yet detailed Nebbiolo from the Valtellina, or a great Cru Beaujolais fare under such a scale? 

How about the 1990 Giacosa Barolo Riserva I shared with friends some time ago or the superb 2005 Volnay “Champans” 1er Cru enjoyed recently at a birthday dinner? Would these outstanding wines even rate as highly on this thoroughly silly scale as a $10 shiraz fruit bomb?

And while fruit is a very important element, far more critical to the overall success of any wine in my mind at least, are balance, eloquence, identity, harmony and fidelity to place and variety. But only rarely do we hear these mentioned - even by people who supposedly know better. 

But restraint is an under-appreciated virtue in these days of hedonistic over consumption. The idea that something has been held back, that proportion and contour are valued more than impact and bombast is not fashionable. To borrow from the great movie parody Spinal Tap, we want to turn everything up to 11. 

When someone informs me that they never drink white wine - and this happens often in my business - I am tempted to ask if they ever eat a salad? How about fish, vegetables or white meats? 

But because I have a sincere and high regard for the autonomy of my customers palates and preferences, I do my darnedest to refrain from evangelizing. 

However,  I don't mind grabbing the bridle and gently leading the way to a refreshing, hopefully eye opening and thirst quenching stream. I consider it an important function in my profession. Whether the horse chooses to drink is up to them. 

The outstanding Burgundy of Francois Gay

The tiny and unassuming village of Chorey-les-Beaune lies just a few minutes northeast of Beaune. Bordered by the main highway, it has no Premier Cru or Grand Cru vineyards but is known for producing a rarity in this region of nosebleed pricing - bargain priced Burgundy. 

For eight generations the family of Francois Gay have grown grapes and made wine in this foursquare little village. The grand hill of Corton looms over this part of the Cote d’Or like an ancient and watchful fortress, and the mouth of the combe where Savigny-les-Beaune lies surrounded by vineyards and evergreens spills out just across the highway. 

Although located in Chorey, Francois Gay produces top level Savigny-les-Beaune, Beaune Premier Cru and Corton Grand Cru wines. In fact Gay‘s wines are some of the finest values in all of Burgundy. That’s why we have just one chance at the tiny allocation that comes into Portland each year. In fact, only a handful of the upper tier wines from this great vintage remain from this year’s offering. 

This small family winery produces just just 3,400 cases of wine in a good year and most of it is consumed in fine French restaurants. So it’s really quite remarkable that any wine at all finds its way to Authentica Wines in little old Eugene, Oregon. Especially a wine as popular as their Chorey-les-Beaune, a rich, fat and forward pinot noir sourced from their own small old vine holdings that surround their plain yet functional winery and residence. 

Young red Burgundy is often hard for many wine drinkers to sidle up to. As I tell many visitors to Authentica, old world wines (especially Burgundy) are all about expressing place of origin. Their flavor profile runs more towards the savory side of the spectrum, while new world wines rely on rather obvious and somewhat simple  primary fruit flavors for their charm. 

And of course old world wines are made with food in mind, which can sometimes be a challenge for new wine drinkers who often first experience these wines in a tasting setting, rather than with a meal.

But the village wines of Chorey-Les-Beaune (especially Gay’s 2016 vintage) are generally accessible, easy to understand and easy to like. And best of all, they are very affordable - especially when pricing for most top quality domestic pinot noir is taken into consideration. 

Dark cherry and similar ripe red fruits accented by a trace of cola and exotic spice define the flavor profile of these charming village wines. And unlike wines from Beaune just down the road, Chorey is not generally a very tannic wine - instead gushing red fruits take the starring role.

I ran across a wine blog recently in which the aspiring wine writer suggested you can’t find good Burgundy at the village level. Francois Gay’s 2016 Chorey-les-Beaune singlehandedly and soundly demolishes that silly argument.

I would strongly urge anyone interested in quality red Burgundy to seek out these wines. Gay’s Savigny-les Beaune Serpentieres and the Corton Rennardes are especially noteworthy. But for casual, everyday enjoyment of classic red Burgundy, the Chorey-les-Beaune has few equals. 

Please retire these two wine descriptors - now.

A large internet hawker of wine recently sent a mass marketing email that offered “rock star wines”. What could that possibly mean? Why would I want to drink a “rock star” wine?

For that matter, why would anyone want to eat the food of a “rock star” chef? Yet we hear this description constantly in reference to the latest “wunderkind’ of the kitchen, vineyard or cellar.

When I think of a “rock star” winemaker or chef, I envision some dude with holes in his jeans carrying more ink than the New York Times; who looks like he fell face first into someone’s tackle box. 

But I assume what the writer really means is the wines she is pushing are the “the latest hits” - surrounded by adoring critics and fawning fans who are willing to spend lots of money just to see an over-the-top performance. Not what I’m looking for in a wine, but thanks anyway. 

And I’m not looking for a “rock star” chef or a “rock star” winemaker either. 

And who hasn’t known the middle aged knucklehead in a mid-life crisis, who suddenly decides to live what he calls a “rock star” lifestyle. In my circle this usually involves a portly fellow in hipster garb showing up anywhere there are women under 35 with lots of expensive Champagne and other cult wines to be drunk far before they’re ready - with maybe a little Bolivian Marching Powder thrown in for good measure. In other words the quickest transformation to “jackass” that one can conceive. 

No, I’m sorry. Rock star in relationship to wine will never do. It means nothing and describes nothing. It’s almost as inane (but not quite as creepy) as the use of the word “sexy” to describe wine. 

Thanks to Robert Parker this unfortunate term slipped into the wine lexicon in the early days of wine’s modern resurgence, when wine criticism became main stream and wine writers were popping up like Matsutakes after a northwest rain shower.

Whenever someone describes a wine as sexy - and believe it or not it still happens frequently today -  it summons images of creepy, lonely old men sitting around the table caressing a bottle of First Growth and staring lasciviously into their half-filled Zaltos. 

Or maybe a hotel room dimly lit by afternoon sunlight where some rich guy sits in a velvet robe with a Cuban cigar, lustily gazing at a Methuselah of Screaming Eagle adorned with a garter belt and French stockings. 

Wine is not sexy and although your relationship may be bitter and gritty, your girlfriend is not tannic. Can we please keep that straight?

When I read such nonsense I long for the great wine writing of the past. Gerald Asher, Clive Coates or Hugh Johnson all come to mind.

Mr. Asher and others like him managed to convey the beauty, grace and subtlety of wine and the faraway vineyards in which it is grown without bombast, sensationalism or nonsense. When you read their gentle, understated prose, you somehow came away feeling just a bit wiser and with a thirst to taste and learn more. Not like you’d just stood in front of the speakers at a punk rock concert.

Everything is already turned up to 11 today as it is. In such an environment it’s refreshing to go back and read the writing of someone such as long-time Burgundy critic Clive Coates. When he  likes a wine he describes it as “good”.  When he really likes it he describes it as “very good indeed”. 

Ah, now that’s music to my ears.

Welcome to May.

Just south of Lodi the freeway passes by what could be mistaken for a petroleum tank farm surrounded by miles of old vine wine grapes planted in the endless, flat and khaki-colored, sandy soils. A series of 40 foot high metal tanks connected by gangplanks and guard rails stands gleaming dully in the central valley heat, and one would be forgiven if they expected to see the name of a large oil company on the sign out front, instead of the cheerful logo of a well known wine brand.

Not far down the road, on the secondary highway leading to Yosemite, quaint fruit stands fronted by colorful boxes of fruit and veggies beckon from the roadside. The impulse to stop and load up is blunted as you recall the many fields surrounded by sickly orange patches of vegetation you passed on the way down, a by-product of large scale Round-Up weed control.

One is reminded of how fortunate we are to live here, in the Willamette Valley where organics is widely practiced and industrialized food systems are shunned. The Lane County Farmer’s Market never looked so good.

Same for a bottle of honest, small production artisan wine made from organically grown fruit and with little intervention and no manipulation from the winemaker. Unfortunately, the vast majority of wine sold in the world today is industrially produced, and without genuine provenance. It is ginned-up from focus groups, board rooms and marketing teams. It is simply another “drinks product” loaded with industrialized yeasts, artificial coloring agents, enzymes, and God knows what else. 

On the other hand, authentic wine is a product of the long culture of a place and the people who live there. It is part and parcel of the local agricultural milieu, and it speaks of where it comes from with subtle voices of sun and rain, and soils and the hands that raised it. Authentic wine always pairs beautifully with the local cuisine and it often has a long and storied history and reputation. Sometimes it’s quite obscure and not widely known.

Authentic wine is not always a “natural” wine as strictly defined by the fundamentalists that always seem to coalesce around the latest wine and food fad. That’s the beauty of authentic wine - it never goes out of style for those who value fidelity to a place and a way of life, and who like the idea that their hard-earned wine-buying dollar contributes to the continuation of that tradition and to that community. 

In short, it’s great to be back home, in a community that values authenticity and quality - and at such a great time of the year. This Saturday I will look out my door at all the happy people at the Lane County Farmer’s Market with even more appreciation than usual, and toast them with an authentic, artisan wine. 

The magic of Rayas

The late Jacques Reynaud of Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape was one of the wine world’s more reclusive, enigmatic and fabled producers. The wines he made before his untimely death in 1997 - while buying a pair of shoes no less - are legendary, and among the rarest of the rare. If you can find them, it’s unlikely that you can afford them. But once you’ve tasted these wines - especially Rayas; but also his other bottlings Fonsalette or even Pignan, you come to understand why Reynaud’s wines engender such adulation and critical acclaim.

A friend and I recently shared a bottle of the Chateau de Fonsalette Syrah 1994, one of the last wines made in the “Jacques era”…and it was nothing short of remarkable. Perfectly stored, the cork was pristine and so was the wine. The color was still somewhat fresh, with some carmine/purple at the rim and a deep crimson/black core. The aromatics showed much of what one would expect from southern Rhone syrah - dark reddish/black cane fruits, some garrigue mixed with that gamey, wild bird savoriness and a very slight bacon edge. But somehow, all of this was delivered up in a completely uncommon manner, with an impact that went far beyond what one would expect from those separate elements. 

There existed a measured and seamless elegance not usually associated with burly, ripe southern Rhone Syrah. The textures were dense without being heavy, and the intricate and mysterious aromatics gave the impression that the wine’s core was still waiting to be found somewhere in the dark crimson heart of the wine; a heart that invited you to delve deeper and deeper with each taste. As the intense and layered flavors of the mid-palate receded, fine tannins rose to the fore to further define the wine’s form and provided a lingering, gentle persistence that brought a gentle end to the reverie this wine magically wove.

Because it was lunchtime and we had other wines to taste, half the bottle was corked and left over until the next day. And remarkably, that last half of the bottle was even better than the first - not what you’d expect from a 35 year-old wine.

But that stunning syrah left more than a lovely, lingering and almost mystical finish. It left hanging the question of what makes a wine like this so exceptional and separates it from its peers - even those who share the same general real estate? If terroir is simply a French invention - as some New World winemakers have suggested - then how does one account for such singularity and distinctive vinous personality? Is it the winemaker, the vineyard, the age and particular genetics of the vines, the unique biological colony in the cuverie and surroundings or the inherited wisdom of generations who have labored over these same vines and in these same dusty cellars? 

Of course it’s probably all of the above along with something even more intangible. The secret must lie in how Jacques Reynaud brought all these things together in his own particular manner, and how his personality and character animated the raw materials to achieve his unique vision. Reynaud was among that rare handful of winemakers whose vocation and person is so closely intertwined that the wine becomes an extension of the winemaker, in much the same way that a good painting or piece of music is an interpretation of individual materials and influences brought together by with great skill to serve a particular vision of the creator - a numinous and even spiritual process not quantifiable or subject to any ”metric”. Immune to imitation, this is certainly a very high level of intuitive creativity in its purest form.

It took son Emmanuel a few years to feel his way forward after his father’s death before the wines again took on that Rayas glow. But for those of us lucky enough to have tasted the old man’s wines the “post Jaques” wines were never quite the same. 

Whenever one has a wine tasting experience like this, it strongly suggests that there’s something far more at work in great wine than the obvious raw materials and site. It also explains why this kind of authenticity can’t be reproduced, bought or captured by opportunists, copycats and corporate beverage entities who assume they can create greatness out of whole cloth and without any sort of cultural or historical context. Not to mention without the soul of a unique and gifted winemaker.

Wines like Rayas are a powerful reminder that truly great wine isn’t made in boardrooms or focus groups, but in moldy cellars and in tiny villages in rolling hills down crooked roads, often by the unlikeliest of people; who still buy their shoes in the local village - and sometimes die while doing so.

Tasting Notes: 1978 Chateauneuf du Pape

The 1978 vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape is considered epic - the first of the “modern” great vintages that brought this old southern French appellation to the attention of a new generation of wine lovers.

I recently had the good fortune to taste a couple of the more noteworthy bottles from this great vintage; an experience that filled in some holes in my tasting experience and lent some perspective to the just released 2016s. Given their similarities, comparisons between these two vintages are inevitable, so tasting the ‘78s may offer insights into the future of the 2016s for those of you in the market. I won’t get into vintage details here - you can do that yourself easily enough. Suffice to say that a long and relatively cool, but even-tempered growing season was the common thread in both vintages.

Of course with just 3 wines it’s difficult to make any sweeping generalizations. But I’m sure that for many, the idea that these wines can not only live for 40 years, but evolve beautifully over so many decades is a wonder in itself. 

The 1978 Domaine de Pegau Cuvee Reservee was the first wine up and it proved to be the most intriguing and revelatory. Many old school writers and wine critics have written of the similarity between well-aged Chateauneuf and Burgundy, but I had never seen this tendency so perfectly illustrated as it was with this wine. 

And although it had been standing up for weeks it was still quite cloudy. In spite of this it remained a healthy - if faded - deep rose madder hue, with very little brickish/amber at the rim. Medium in weight, the ethereal aromatics of old black tea leaves, dried rose petal, faded sandalwood, and subtle raspberry flower suggested the inside of a potpourri-scented hankie drawer in your grandmother’s dresser.  

The textures were creamy and fine with no hint of grit from the still in solution, unfiltered sediments. As sometimes happens with older wines that have spent years cooped-up in a bottle, the nose only grew in intensity as the wine breathed. In fact it held together so well that it made a profound impression on tasters who purchased a taste as a SuperPour many hours later. They couldn’t put it down - their noses returning again and again to their glasses as it continued to offer new surprises. 

A couple of weeks later, my friend who had provided the wines and I returned to our favorite spot for our monthly tasting lunch and opened the Chateau Fortia 1978. At first the wine seemed sound but as it aired in the glass a tell-tale vein of tca could be discerned - if ever so slightly - buried underneath some pretty charming dark berry fruit and spice aromatics. Too bad - but maybe the waiters to whom we gave it were able to enjoy it in spite of the flaw. I certainly hope so.

The back-up bottle that day was the Vieux Telegraphe 1978, a legendary wine that certainly lived up to it’s lofty reputation. The cork was nearly perfect and the wine was more than sound - it was full-throttle with all the dark intensity that VT is known for. Still dark ruby / garnet with an almost blackish/purple center, experienced tasters would be hard-put to accurately date this wine if tasted blind. It seemed far younger than it’s 40 years and it held up remarkably well into the next day, showering the palate with copious dark blue and black cane fruits, hints of mocha and savory / meaty notes - all richly textured and with fine length. 

A limited tasting yes, but one that served to highlight the differences between three venerable properties that should be enough to encourage anyone to lay some 2016s down for even a few years if they are going to turn out as lovely as these bottles. 

And while I appreciated greatly the power and depth of the Vieux Telegraphe and realize why it has so many fans, my admiration and intrigue was captured by the exquisite Pegau. But then anything that reminds me of Burgundy already has a head start in my tasting book.