Judgment Day in Paris

What does being a wine nerd mean? Actually, what does being a nerd mean? If we define nerdery, then we can define wine nerdery as being simply the fact of presenting nerdlike attitudes to the subject of wine. The key word in the last sentence is “subject”, a nerd needs a subject to obsess about. Nerdery, at least the way I understand it, is different than passion. Passion is a strong desire, an overwhelming attraction for something whereas nerdery is a consuming desire to learn and know everything about a subject. I goes beyond liking something, there needs to be a thirst (see what I did here) for knowledge and lore, no matter obscure.

And there is a wine lore, undeniably. Actually, there are several wine lores; one could approach the subject matter through geography (the producing regions), science (the fermentation process), botany (grape varieties), law (bottling and labelling regulations)… There is a lot to know, there is a lot to learn, there is a lot to bore your friends with.

Personally, I like history, and there is a history lore of wine. Of course, mostly it consists of trends, underlying tendencies and slow processes rather than seminal events. There are however such events that helped shape the wine world. Once such event, known as the Judgment of Paris seems a good topic to bore you with today.

Judgment of Paris by Rubens

Judgment of Paris by Rubens

First of all, let’s mention the pun aspect. The judgment of Paris is the seminal event that caused the Trojan War, with the Trojan prince Paris finding in favor of Aphrodite against her fellow goddesses. In the wine world, it refers to a blind tasting event, held in Paris, on May 24th 1976, that pitted French wines around their US counterparts.

Eleven judges, nine from France, one from the UK and one American, blind tasted ten red wines and 10 white wines. The reds were all Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated blends, pitting top Bordeaux against top Napa Valley wines. The whites were all Chardonnays, this time pitting Burgundy against the Napa Valley. Remember, the year was 1976, so if you think French people are snobbish about non-French wines now, imagine how it must have been back then. Also, the grades given by the non-French judges were not counted, so the rankings are purely French-based.

tasting

Why did that tasting become a seminal, world changing event then? Well, because the US wines won. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars dominated the red competition and Chateau Montelena won the white wine contest. Just to be thorough and drool a bit here were the line ups for each contest (ranked by result with their final score).

Red wines

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973, Napa Valley (127.5)

Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 (126)

Château Haut-Brion 1970 (125.5)

Château Montrose 1970 (122)

Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ’Mountain Range’ (Montebello) 1971, Santa Cruz Mts. (105.5)

Château Leoville-Las-Cases 1971 (97)

Mayacamas 1971, Napa Valley/Mayacamas Mts. (89.5)

Clos Du Val 1972, Napa Valley (87.5)

Heitz Cellars ’Martha’s Vineyard’ 1970, Napa Valley/St. Helena (84.5)

Freemark Abbey 1969, Napa Valley/Rutherford (78)

White wines

Chateau Montelena 1973, Napa Valley/Calistoga (132)

Meursault-Charmes 1973, Roulot (126.5)

Chalone Vineyards 1974, Monterey County/Soledad (121)

Spring Mountain 1973, Napa Valley/Spring Mountain (104)

Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973, Joseph Drouhin (101)

Freemark Abbey 1972, Napa Valley/Rutherford (100)

Batard-Montrachet 1973, Ramonet-Prudhon (94)

Puligny-Montrachet 1972, Les Pucelles, Domaine Leflaive (89)

Veedercrest 1972, Napa Valley/Mt. Veeder (88)

David Bruce 1973, Santa Cruz Mts. (42)

Of course this constituted a big surprise, there were controversy, protests, endless discussions about what it really meant. In the end, it did not matter, the result was that American wines were put on the map and I believe it’s a good thing. There is a movie about the event, it’s called Bottleshock and I plan to watch it soon. The question is rather, why did I decide to write about this now?

montelena

Well, it just so happens that last week, I was lucky enough to share a bottle of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay with some friends. It wasn’t the 1973 vintage of course, it was a 2011, which in a way is good because, like the vintage used in the competition, it was 3 years old when drank. It is a fantastic wine, crisp, with aromas ranging from tropical fruits to citrus while still sampling some peach along the way, great balance and acidity. One of the best wines I had all year. The price also doesn’t hurt, you can find it for around $50 which for a “star” wine is a bargain. For instance another wine from the contest, the Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles from Leflaive, will cost you around $200 for a bottle of 2011. I’d rather have the Montelena, thank you! It’s not often you can sample a wine that actually made history, or even just a wine that is famous. Price tends to be prohibitive for these bottles, and it is okay, it makes them even more special. An affordable, historic, great wine is something to celebrate though. This nerd will continue looking for wine knowledge, especially if it’s that tasty.

MWWC10 : Values, tradition and the value of change

It’s a new month, it’s a new Wine Writing Challenge! As always, the theme was chose by the last winner, The Sybarite, and his choice was “Values”. I’m looking forward to reading what people will come up with, in the meantime, here is my entry. I hope you will excuse the very academic title, just a shout out to high school French students now taking their philosophy baccalaureat exam.

MWWC

Values, tradition, and the value of change

“Values” is a tricky word, so many possible meanings… When in doubt, I like to start with a quote; it helps settle the issue at hand and give perspective. I think something important about values was formulated by an early 21st century philosopher, Seth McFarlane: “It seems today that all we see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely?” A good question if I ever heard one.

“Good old-fashioned values”– that sounds like something I can work with. Let’s just go through other possibilities: San Francisco values (too political), Addams Family values (too black and white), Risk-adjusted business value (too from my day job). You know what, I’ll stick with the “good old fashioned values.”

And it’s not because that expression contains the name of a great cocktail; I actually have things to say about the idea of good old-fashioned values in wine. Added bonus: this angle allows me to channel and use what is pretty much my only advantage against the other writers in the competition, the fact that I’m French. It’s kind of a dumb thing to leverage, but we must all focus on our strengths, right?

Mad Men old fashioned

It’s old fashioned

There is something in the French psyche that can drive me insane when I think about it too much: it’s the rampant, pervasive and maddening conservatism. To foreigners, a common French trope is the constant striking and demonstrating in the streets. This trope holds true, but what people don’t realize is that strikers do not ask for more, they just protest change and reform. There is entitlement here, but I think there is also a fear and rejection of change and evolution. Let’s continue to do things this way because that is the way we always did them.

French winemakers and French wine can have a tendency to hold on tight to those good old-fashioned values. I am not saying it’s a bad thing; I just have a problem when people do things a certain way just because it’s tradition without even considering potentially better ways.

To be fair, this reliance on tradition is more prevalent in Burgundy and Bordeaux, the two classical wine growing regions.  Bordeaux wine still relies on a classification of Grand Crus dating back from 1855, with only one Chateau changing ranks (Mouton Rothschild moving from second to first in 1973). As for Burgundy, most of the terroirs were classified by monks in the Middle-Ages. As you can see, there is a premium on tradition here.

And to an extent, it makes sense, because tradition really is part of the brand. When you buy a bottle of Bordeaux, you pay not only for the wine but also for the name, the tradition, the aura of Bordeaux. That’s why things tend to move slowly there. And I’m not just talking about wine-making techniques; even marketing, sales channels and labels tend to emphasize tradition and old-fashionedness.

chateau-chasse-spleen-374997

It says Chateau and it shows a chateau

Bordeaux labels will depict the Chateau, and Burgundy labels will aim for an old-timey feel with cursive letters, family crest or even faux-parchment labels. Once again, those characteristics are part of what you pay for. They’re the cultural trappings of the wine. In a way, it’s akin to buying Apple products: you’re paying for more than just a phone or a computer, there’s a mystique you buy in, some turtleneck clad values you display to the world while making a purchase.

Old-timey much ?

Old-timey much ?

Maybe I’m overthinking this? You’re right, I’m totally overthinking this. Anyway, traditional winemaking values are being challenged in France, but you’ll have to explore less iconic regions to see it. It’s not very surprising: Bordeaux and Burgundy rely on their traditional, high value image, and they are shackled by restrictive and strict labelling laws. When you move down in the hierarchy of appellations, you have more freedom and you can have some fun.

Take the Loire Valley for example. It’s definitely an old region of France, and one with strong ties to French history, but its wine industry doesn’t overly play the old-fashioned card. In a way that wine region is less scrutinized than Bordeaux, and so producers can try things out, stretch boundaries and get away with it. Here’s one of my favorite wine labels.

SO2

Notice the difference?

Can you imagine a Burgundy producer going with something like that? That would shatter a painfully constructed image and go exactly against their commercial and advertising policy. The good old-fashioned values are part of wine culture, especially the French wine culture, and for the most part it’s a good thing. My problem is, sometimes those values can get in the way of fun.

And I like having fun. I mean, given the choice between having fun, being bored and feeling miserable, I will probably pick having fun 99% of the time. When I tell people I’m into wine, I sometimes feel that their minds race to words that start with an “s,” like snobby, stuffy or serious. Wine should be fun; you should be able to like a wine because the bottle looks cool, you don’t need to know the ancestry of a wine producer over the last twelve generations to enjoy his wine. The heritage, the values are part of what makes a wine, but if they are the only thing it has to offer, then, well, that does not sound appealing. I don’t like tradition for the sake of tradition but I don’t like change for the sake of change either.

I know I might sound like a hypocrite because I do write a blog dedicated to learning as much as I can about wine, about the winemaking, the varieties, the producers…. And I love doing so; it’s a significant and happy part of my life. I just don’t want it to come at the expense of enjoying wine for what it is, a fun way to get a few friends together. Here are my wine values, I don’t know if they are “old-fashioned,” I’m not sure if they are “good,” they are probably not “good old-fashioned,” but they’re mine. Now I just need to find a way to get a few more of that skull and bones bottle !

A cheese and wine habit

I have a confession to make, a dark secret, a deep flaw, an unspeakable weakness in my otherwise pristine character. I cannot resist cheese. As far as I remember, I was never able to control myself around a piece of cheese. During the month I spent in Paris around the holidays, I’m pretty sure 75% of my meals were cheese and bread with sometimes a bit of lunch meat thrown in for good measure.

And, well, I did it again… Last weekend in New York City I wandered into a dark place, a place of addiction and despair, a place of cheese. This is my story, may God have mercy on my soul and may it serve as a warning to you. Don’t let your children get hooked up on camembert.

So yeah, cheese. Cheese and wine actually, I found a bistro that offers a few cheese and wine flights designed to go together, and, since I have a problem, I had not one, but two such flights : six cheeses, six wines. It made for a beautiful way to start the day.

Flight number 1:

cheese flight 1

Delice de Bourgogne with Ca’Furlan Prosecco (Veneto, Italy)

The pear and orange aromas of the wine compliment the creamy, dairy-like flavors of the cheese. The pairing makes it lighter, crisper, it cleans the palate and supports the cheese

Robbiola due latti with Three Saints Chardonnay (Napa Valley, California)

The cheese is very creamy and the wine very oaky. It works out well, without the oakiness the wine wouldn’t be able to keep up with the strong flavor. Both wine and cheese have a nutty taste that makes for a really nice finish.

Pont-L’Eveque with Louis Jadot Santenay (Burgundy, France)

Pont-L’Eveque is an intense, funky cheese from Normandy, kinda like the weird cousin of camembert. The Santenay as enough acidity to hold its own and cut through the funkiness, the aromas of tart red berries from the wine give a necessary dose of freshness to your taste buds

Flight Number 2:

cheese flight 2

Pecorino with Hugel Riesling (Alsace, France) :

Both wine and cheese have a salty, mineral side that blend together and create something even better.

Brillat-Savarin with Olivier Leflaire Bourgogne Blanc (Burgundy, France)

Brillat-Savarin is the creamiest cheese ever. The simple chardonnay with good acidity is a good match, it’s actually a very classic match between creamy cheese and acidic wine to cut some of that fat from the cheese

Epoisses with Chateau Haut-Selve, Graves (Bordeaux, France)

Ah, Epoisses,… Stinky, almost liquid, delicious Epoisses. A cheese that you are allowed to eat with a spoon… Here paired with a very fruity Bordeaux it’s the cheese that provides acidity and the wine that is rounder. Another great pairing.

After all that cheese and wine I stepped back into the sunny streets of NYC. So, I have a little bit of an addiction, but I can stop whenever I want! The only thing is that, well, I really don’t want to.

Antidepressant in wine form, Chasse-Spleen 2003

Château Chasse-Spleen 2003

Region: Moulis en Medoc, Left-bank, Bordeaux, France

Grape: Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated blend with Merlot and Petit Verdot

Price: around $55

chateau-chasse-spleen-374997

I need to go back in time a little since this bottle has a bit of a history, both old and recent. A few years ago, when I was still living in Paris, one of my good friends was sad. Actually she was depressed, quite intensely so. It is not easy helping depressed people; at least it isn’t easy for me, as I never know what to say. That’s why I decided not to say anything but do something instead. Now, in French, Chasse-Spleen means “chasing away sadness” or “chasing away melancholia”. According to legend, the name was coined by Lord Byron or Baudelaire, there are competing stories. In any case, I thought a couple bottles of this wine would be a good gift for my friend. If they couldn’t chase the sadness away, at least it would make her smile. So I went ahead, gave her this gift. She did smile, and I did keep a bottle for myself to remember that I can be a good friend sometimes.

Fast forward a few years to last weekend, I still have my bottle of Chasse-Spleen with me, now in Boston. Another friend, a person close to me will leave Boston next week. Saying goodbye sucks, and, as was the case before, I don’t know what to say. So, to send up my friend in style and chase away the sadness of a goodbye, I opened the Chasse-Spleen and shared it with her. It seemed appropriate.

Eye: deep garnet

Nose: Clean, medium + intensity, black fruits, plums, blackberries, hints of freshness (mint)

Palate: Dry, high acidity, full body, smooth tannins, long finish (black cherry)

2003 was a heat wave year in France and wines from this year usually show it. This one is no exception, there are a lot of cooked fruits aromas: blackberry, cherry and plum mostly. The wine still has high acidity and the tannins give it a bit of structure amid all the fruit. There are hints of oak, I got tobacco or mocha and I also found a hint of something refreshing like white mint. The finish is long with lingering aromas of ripe black cherries.

Food pairings: The wine was shared over cheese which was not a bad idea. Traditional Bordeaux pairing with lamb might be a good option too.

Overall opinion: I might be hard press to give a fair assessment of this wine given the emotional baggage coming with it. I was always going to like it, but I still believe it was a solid Bordeaux from a very warm year. Another good lesson for my study of Cabernet.

Three shades of red

I’ve decided, as a studying project over the next couple months, that I would learn more about Californian wines.

I’d like to focus on reds made from the grape varieties used in the Bordeaux region. Contrarily to Burgundies, Bordeaux wines tend to be a blend of various varieties in varying proportions. There are three main varieties used: Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. They each have distinct characteristics and producers blend them depending on the result they want to achieve by emphasizing certain traits or dampening other ones. Here are a few key points for each grape (broad strokes).

Cabernet-Sauvignon : the Structure

cab sauv

Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively new grape, a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon. It is pretty hardy, produces low-yields and ripens late. Common flavors are blackcurrant, blackberry, green bell pepper or even cedar and tobacco. In a blend, Cabernet-Sauvignon contributes high acidity and tannins, a key element to give structure to a wine and give it good aging potential. It also has a strong affinity with oak, which of course doesn’t hurt in terms of aging.

Merlot : the Body

merlot

Merlot is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, and, the most planted grape in France. It tends to produce full-bodied, smooth and velvety wines with black and red fruits aromas : blackberry, plum, cherry, blackcurrant,… It ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and can overripe quicly after that. In a blend, Merlot provides softness and body, mellowing the tannins and acidity of Cabernet-Sauvignon

Cabernet-Franc : the Fruit

cab franc

Cabernet-Franc is used to make varietal wines in the Loire valley, notably near the town of Chinon, but it is also one of the varieties used in the Bordeaux blends. Like Merlot it ripens earlier than Cabernet-Sauvignon (the reason it can grow in a cooler climate like the Loire Valley). Common aromas would be raspberry, blackcurrant and violets. In a blend, Cabernet-Franc contributes fruit flavors and finesse. It doesn’t have the staying power of the other two grapes but it can add some flavor to the mix.

There are other varietals used in Bordeaux, mostly Malbec (color) and Petit Verdot (tannins and colors), but these are the main three. Depending on where you are in Bordeaux, wines will have more of one varietal and less of the others. Some wines are Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated (mainly on the Left Bank), some are Merlot dominated (Pomerol and St-Emilion) and there even are Cabernet-Franc dominated wines (Cheval Blanc, Ausone)

Now that the basics, and to be honest, these are the very, very basics, are explained, it’s time to start drinking!

Did you know : party like it’s 1787

… that the founding fathers knew how to party ?

After writing the US Constitution, the 55 members of the drafting committee had a little celebratory party… The bill was 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Bordeaux, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and 7 bowls of alcohol punch large enough that “ducks could swim in them”. Once again, 55 members,…

The price is right, somewhat

The price element cannot be overlooked in wine. I mean, people do not pay me to drink so I have to pay for it myself with hard-earned money from my Clark Kent job, which means I have to factor in the price of the bottle in my appreciation of the wine.

And wine can get pricey, it’s probably an issue that puts people off from wine, they expect that good wine is pricier and feel they cannot afford a good bottle. They read in a magazine that a bottle of 2009 Chateau Margaux is selling for $195.000 and the image sticks. There is a certain level of truth to that belief that more expensive means better, but not a whole lot. It is of course more complicated than that. I believe a lot of it has to do with perceived quality versus real quality of the wine.

What factors in the price of a bottle? Since I’ve been discussing Burgundy lately, let’s start with that. In Burgundy, parcels are small, the vineyards are small, and thus production is small. By simple virtue of the Offer and Demand law, prices for what is rare goes up. In this case it’s the offer side of the equation that is driving the prices up, what is rare is usually more expensive.

On the other hand, if you look at Bordeaux, yields and production are much larger but prices for the grand chateaux are still incredibly high. That is because they are recognized as brands. Like a Louis Vuitton bag is different from another handbag, a Chateau Latour is different from any other wine. People recognize and value these brands; they associate it with high quality, whether real or perceived, and thus are ready to pay more for it. Here it’s the demand side of the question that drives prices up.

chateau-latour-468x422

Rarity and recognition, these are the two forces driving prices up. This does not mean however that you cannot get a good bottle for a reasonable price. When I mention wine as a brand that means it is subject to the same laws as brands. Brands go through trends and fads. A wine that is popular and demanding high prices now may see its perceived value drop down in the future whereas its real value will remain the same. So looking for downward trends might actually be a good way to score bargains.

Another good idea, for high level Bordeaux is to look for “second vin” (second wine). Most of the Grand Chateaux produce a set number of bottles per vintage. Why ? To keep the value of their brand of course by not producing too many bottles and driving their prices down. When they have more grapes than needed to produce that set number, they produce a second wine. This second wine is made from grapes from the same vineyard and is produced by the same people, second wines are very similar to the main wines in everything but price. My favorite second wine is Baron de Brane, the second wine of Chateau Brane-Cantenac. A bottle of the 2009 vintage is worth $70 for the main wine and $27 for the second wine.

brane

Besides, let’s think things through for a second. You’re at the wine shop; you see a $20 bottle and a $40 bottle. Is the $40 bottle going to be twice as good as the cheaper one? Probably not, but what is true is that its perceived value is in fact twice as high. Another example, you decide to buy both these bottles (you big spender, you!) and you decide to invite me over to drink them both (Thank you), It turns out we find the two wines are very similar in quality, both equally enjoyable. Which one is the most impressive bottle then? Of course it’s the $20 one because it has the best value for money.