Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Unexpected Windfall

The first three were not fated ... but what would we get in the end?

Instant gratification can be overrated. This was proven to me at a dinner not long ago at the charming French restaurant Bon Vivant, tucked away on a side street in downtown Palo Alto. My good friend Daniel and I cocked our heads thoughtfully at the wine list. He has lived in Europe the past several years, and was keen on trying a local offering.

We decided on a 2011 Pinot Noir blend of Russian River Valley vineyards by Davis Bynum that he hadn’t tried before. (Incidentally, Bynum is the first house in Russian River to have produced a single vineyard Pinot Noir, in the 1970s.)

After some pleasant conversation - after all, we hadn’t seen each other in two years - our genial waiter reappeared with an apologetic smile. He was so sorry, he said, they no longer had the Bynum Pinot in stock. Would we like to try another wine?

A taste of the 2011 Lyric by Etude, please, we answered. I’d had this Santa Barbara Pinot Noir before and found it very drinkable. However, I grimaced a bit upon lowering my nose to the glass - the first thing that assailed me was a freshly painted wood varnish scent I instinctively dislike.

Good acidity can balance a wine and give it complexity, but too much leads to this sharp, unpleasant aroma. (It’s ethyl acetate, for chemistry buffs. I’m not a pro but am learning in my attempt to understand wine and flavoring.) I seem to be particularly sensitive to ethyl acetate; I’ve shared different wines on multiple occasions with companions who don’t detect the varnish scent when it all but whacks me in the face.

Thankfully, the wine filled my mouth with mellowness: ripe red fruit and a smooth, elegant finish. I believe a Pinot should always end each sip with finesse, like the end of a flowing musical phrase that leaves you wanting more.

While pleasant, the Etude just wasn’t hitting it for us. We shifted over to the next page in the menu: Cabernet Sauvignon. 2010 Stag’s Leap “Artemis” was a step up, not only in the richness of the wine but in price. But we figured if the Pinots weren’t doing it, we’d go for bigger stuff.

Our final decision on wine for dinner - or so we thought.

Now that this was taken care of, we began to peruse the dining menu. Just as we were debating whether we should have the scallops or the goat cheese mushroom tart as a starter, our waiter appeared with a bottle of wine. Ah, finally!

But the look on our waiter’s face was pinched. We are so very sorry, he began, but we don’t have the Artemis, either. Daniel and I flashed a “For real?!” glance at each other.

“However, we have the Stag’s Leap Cask 23,” the waiter continued, “If you accept this wine, we will give it to you for the price of the one you requested.” He looked at us expectantly, with a great deal of hope on his face. It was a “Please don’t kill me and write a terrible review about our restaurant!” look.

I looked incredulously at the bottle in his hands. Yes, Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon from 2009. It was at least $150 more expensive than the bottle we’d requested. Cask 23. A wine with legendary connotations.

Daniel and I looked at each other. “Well, you’ve made us an offer we can’t refuse. That’s very kind of you. We’ll have it.”

Stag's Leap Cask 23? No way! I mean, yes, absolutely!

Cask 23 did not disappoint. In fact, it enchanted. Plush and full-bodied, the dark crimson liquid filled my mouth with the subtle flavor of blackberries accented by bits of toasty bread. Was that a bit of vanilla, too? With a strong structure of balancing acidity, I was free to enjoy these flavors without any of them being overpowering.

Vanilla + toast + undertone of dark berries = Mmm …

A gentle warmth blossomed within me as the wine slid down my throat. I was delighted that such a rich wine possessed an equal amount of restraint. No buzzing sensation in the mouth or lips, just a hushed, elegant close. It felt almost reassuring, as if the wine was saying, “Yes, it’s alllll good,” on the way out.

Cask 23 isn’t bottled every year; it happens only when the winemaker deems the crop to be good enough. This is the flagship wine of Stag’s Leap and is named after the cask in which the wine is aged. In 1974, winemaker André Tchelistcheff noticed its superior contents compared with those of its neighboring casks and thus was born Cask 23.

The wine is a blend of two vineyards, Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.) and FAY Vineyard. Grapes are harvested from the volcanic soils of the eastern slopes, as well as from the alluvial soils (meaning they’re loose and gravelly, shaped by water in eons past) of the middle and lower sections from both vineyards. The former gives the wine its full structure and acidity, the latter the lush but restrained fruit and aromatic qualities.

The vanilla and toastiness likely come from the 20 month aging in French oak barrels - the wine of grapes from each section of each vineyard is aged separately, and then combined into one large cask - Cask 23 - for the final aging.

1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon meets 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild
at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. 

Stag’s Leap is more than iconic: Its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon bested French counterparts (including a Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 no less) in the pivotal Judgment of Paris, the 1976 competition that put California on the map as a serious winemaking region and forever changed the world of wine.

So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at the quality of Cask 23. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what I should expect based on research. Why? Wine is to be enjoyed. I always desire to learn the history and provenance of a wine I find exceptional or intriguing. But while in the moment, I simply want to revel in the wine in my glass and lose myself in all its sensory pleasures.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bottling the Future at Champagne Philippe Gonet

Philippe Gonet sits pretty at the top of a hill in Le Mesnil sur Oger.

May 23rd found us excited to visit Champagne Philippe Gonet. This was our second time in Le Mesnil sur Oger, a Grand Cru village of the Côte des Blancs in the southerly reaches of Champagne. This means that the Chardonnay grapes here are truly outstanding (at least, according to a 1985 decree). Within the open courtyard beyond wrought iron gates I found Karine, the knowledgeable, down-to-earth manager of the house and receiver of visitors when Head of Sales Chantal Gonet (half of a sister-brother business duo) is away.

Gonet owns 19 hectares of land comprising 45 plots, making it a small but slightly larger grower-producer than Pierre Paillard in Bouzy with 11 hectares. Their vineyards are spread across the Champagne region, yielding wines from all three grapes grown: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Their rosé wines are made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Don't just take my word for it: Hear Chantal Gonet introduce the house's history and philosophy herself!

I soon discovered that Karine preferred to speak French, so I did my best. I was still unfamiliar with many French terms relating to wine so while I relished the opportunity to push the limits of my vocabulary, I inevitably fell on my face a few times. Hey, it’s all part of the learning process.

Karine gave us quite the comprehensive tour! The facilities were abuzz with workers, both permanent and seasonal; many of the latter come from Poland. This was the season for the mise en bouteille, the bottling of the wines from last year’s harvest. I was watching the future being bottled, right before my eyes!

In contrast to the sleek, industrial facilities at Champagne Thiénot, operations at Champagne Philippe Gonet were decidedly more old world. Workers in coveralls thronged at their respective stations, keeping a manually supervised bottling machine humming.

I learned that limited production special cuvées require this human oversight; larger machines bottle “standard” larger production cuvées. Each man’s movements were nimble and precise; there was no yelling above the din of rumbling machine and clinking bottles. Incidentally, I never once saw a woman doing this kind of work on the floor during my entire trip.

Low and High Tech as Befits the Wine

Philippe Gonet uses both old world and new world technology in the vinification (winemaking) process, each for specific purposes towards the creation of the house’s ideal Champagne.

I noticed in both Champagne and later in Burgundy that winemakers spare no expense in procuring the tools they know will help them produce wines they deem worthy. It’s never solely about cost control - it’s about what’s more efficient or cost-effective after having answered the crucial question of what methods and equipment will yield wines worthy of the house’s name.

Case in point: On a mezzanine level above the bottling floor - reached via a harrowing ascent up a steep, narrow steel step ladder - stood two wine presses. A traditional wooden "Coquard” basket press from 1970 (they really still make them!) lay like a split-open pumpkin. Pressed against the opposite wall was a pneumatic press that looked like a gigantic white sewing machine turned on its side.

Traditional Coquard basket press!

Both presses are used depending on what wine is desired. The pneumatic press is generally used for blanc de blancs, 100% Chardonnay wines. It offers a very even pressure to the whole grape clusters and yields a greater quantity (800 kiloliters). The traditional press is more gentle, but it’s obviously labor intensive, yields lower quantities (400 kiloliters), and takes a longer time (4 hours). But sometimes, you can’t rush goodness for those special cuvées and Pinot Noir grapes.

There is no hard and fast rule to what grapes gets crushed where, though - it depends on the myriad factors that make the winemaker’s expertise and instincts paramount to the success of a wine. Karine qualified 90% of her statements with, “... mais se dépende,” (“it depends”) accompanied by a cryptic smile.

Sharing space with the presses were two rows of small stainless steel tanks and clusters of stacked oak barrels. The former aged standard cuvées, and the latter cradled special cuvées for 3 years to infuse them with the unique flavors that only toasted wood offers.

I marveled at how the hoses I’d tripped over downstairs were pumping the wine from the stainless steel tanks: they criss-crossed the floor like green serpents, flowing and alive, before diving out of a tiny window to bring their precious liquid to the workers waiting downstairs to relieve them of their burden.

Cuvée "Le Mesnil" 2012 aging here!

Gonet’s cellars are a joining of old and new. The portion that bore a date of 1741 on the wall was decidedly crypt-like and literally crumbling in some places. There were fallen rocks and smashed bottles. I was honestly a bit scared! Karine wasn’t.

We passed by pupitres - sandwich boards with holes, each holding the neck of a Champagne bottle. Humans rotate the bottles a quarter twist regularly for 8 weeks to make sure the lees collect in the neck for expulsion. This process is called riddling.

(Lees = yeast cells that have died after gorging on sugars during fermentation. Om nom nom.)

Only special cuvées are hand-riddled; larger production wines are rotated much more quickly by gigantic Rubik’s cube-like machines.

Before entering the chalet-style tasting room bearing portraits of “Grandpère” Charles Gonet (his son Philippe eventually took over the house), I passed by a machine with spools of labels sprawled around it. I was tempted to steal some of the gorgeous stickers; they were so attractive.

Interestingly, labels are called etiquettes in French. An easy way to remember the French word is to think “polite labels.”

Finally, to the tasting! Karine asked me where my taste preferences lay so she could decide what Champagnes she’d offer us. It was truly a personalized, intimate visit.

Champagnes Tasted

Signature Brut Blanc de Blancs

Signature Brut Blanc de Blancs - This 100% Chardonnay is the specialty of the house: “La Cuvée signature de la Maison.” This Champagne is a blend of grapes from 30-40 year old vines in Le Mesnil sur Oger (40%) and Montgueux (60%), about 90km south near Troyes.

A very beautiful, drinkable Champagne this was, and with character in spades.
  • Nose: At first, a sharp, fresh wet slate scent … melting away into smoky citrus. Yes, really. 
  • Palate: Fresh and liltingly coy with a bit of orange here, a bit of lemon there, but reined in by a refreshing acidity. I was left with a slight smolder of smoke. 

The exuberant bubbles exploded their little tiny selves against the roof of my mouth, and I almost giggled with the tickling sensation.

EXTRA-BRUT 3210 Blanc de Blancs - When I told Karine that I’m not a big fan of sweet wines, she chose this. Introduced in 2009, this full Chardonnay a relative newcomer to the family.

I loved the way Karine described it: “sans maquillage” - a Champagne without cosmetics. This means there is no dosage in the winemaking process: no addition of sugars to the wine after the dead yeast cells are expelled after bottle aging (the process is called dégorgement, or disgorgement).

The vast majority of Champagnes undergo dosage, so the winemaker can control the amount of sweetness. When done well with good wines, this practice maximizes the natural flavors of the wine and makes for a fine Champagne.

However, when used for less scrupulous purposes dosage can be used to mask crappy wines, much like when a supermarket slathers BBQ sauce onto meat past its prime and puts it on sale (ugh).

A non-dosage Champagne is called Brut nature. It is said that you can really tell the true worth of a Champagne maker by an unadorned wine because you can taste its true essence. In outstanding houses, these can embody the most beautiful expression of Champagne.

The “3210” in the name is both descriptive and clever: 3 years aged, 2 terroirs (40% Montgueux and 60% Le Mesnil sur Oger), 1 grape varietal (Chardonnay), and 0 dosage.

This Champagne was bracing and fierce, yet soothing in its angular elegance. It didn’t have that strip-the-enamel-off-your-teeth acidity that an unsweetened Champagne might threaten.
  • Nose: Okay, I’m awake! Sharply burnt puff pastry gave way to a light perfume of yellow and white flowers. A bit of lime.
  • Palate: Very fresh: Tart puckering limes and pink grapefruit were balanced by apricot compote-like flavors. How did they make this Champagne taste like so much fruit, without it actually tasting sweet? Amazing! 
If a cold shower could be completely refreshing and pleasurable, this is it.
Extra-Brut 3210

I marveled at the unique character of each of the Champagnes I’d tasted. Gonet was the third grower-producer in Champagne I’d visited thus far. I was rapidly becoming spoiled by the beautifully nuanced wines yielded through the combination of laser-sharp focus on cultivating the taste of the land, and the non-scalable winemaking techniques these small houses could afford to employ. I wouldn’t begin to fully understand what this translated to in taste until I visited the “big houses” later in my trip.

I bade a grateful farewell to Karine and tripped outside into the rare ray of sunshine that had decided to grace us for all of 10 minutes during the unexpected cold snap. I was exhausted from exerting myself solely in French for one and a half hours straight, but I was grinning triumphantly: thanks to Chantal's and Karine's generosity, I'd had another successful visit with so much learned, so much experienced.

And those tiny bubbles were still effervescent inside me, making me impervious to the wintry chill as I danced my way down the winding hill to the car. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

All Pinot, All The Time: Pinot Days SF

What better way to start a lovely summer morning?

Last Sunday I attended my first large wine tasting event: Pinot Days SF at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was the 9th annual festival focusing on California houses producing wines from this finicky, thin-skinned grape. Thanks to Curt Polikoff, certified sommelier and all-around wine expert at Artisan Wine Depot, I was able to score early entrance with a sit-down tasting before the general public was allowed entry. Much appreciated, Curt!

Thanks to a heat wave in the Bay Area, even this waterfront location in San Francisco was sunny and pleasant. (Some of you no doubt know that, as Mark Twain said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.”) At 10:45am I enjoyed a sit-down tasting, hearing 6 winemakers introduce their houses, philosophies, and trying two flights of three wines each. 

For the first flight I listened dutifully and took notes, not tasting until the 3 winemakers had presented. Then I panicked, because we were then summarily instructed to dump or go bottoms-up for to make way for the pouring of the second flight! Needless to say, I smelled, tasted, and spat in quick succession (while scribbling furiously). 

An hour later, I headed straight to the back of the festival pavilion, starting with the end of the alphabet. There was no way I could visit all 150-odd exhibitors, so my strategy was to focus on those I’d heard of but whose wines I’d never tried, then to try the wineries in the booth next door to each. This made for a good mix of “heard of” and “hitherto unknown to Susan” wineries visited! 

What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to talk directly with the winemakers and owners (sometimes the same person). The other was the focus was on small grower-producers, although there were many producers without estates (meaning they have no vineyards of their own; they source grapes from various vineyards in California). 

After an hour of roaming, I ran into friend and sommelier Steven Washuta and the inimitable Greg Wayne, both outstanding folks at the wonderful new wine bar ENO SF in Union Square, San Francisco. I’d met Steven when he was keeping the bar chic at Savvy Cellar

Not only have I learned a great deal from Steven - he shares his impressive knowledge without any pretension - it suffices to say that he writes the most tongue-in-cheek, informative, and thoroughly entertaining prose I’ve ever read in the wine industry. It borders at times on insouciance, but he tells it like it is. Take, for example: “... Tastes like the color purple.” Amen. 

With Steven (R) and Greg (L) on the festival floor - note the red cups for spitting!

Wineries Visited
  • Siduri Wines - I tasted four wines from the 2011 harvest, mostly light and fruity with a pleasantly smooth finish. They were simple, easy to drink wines except the last one, Clos Pepe Single Vineyard from the Santa Rita Hills; I believe this one will actually open up given a few years. It was tight, cagey, and sharp, with much green fruit and tart apricot.
  • Schug Winery - The 2009 Carneros Heritage Reserve was my favorite in the lineup: It had that elusive, albeit faint, minerality from the start; it was round, generous, and smooth. I found it more complex than the others. Aged 16 months, 23% new oak. The 2010 Carneros Estate was fruitier on the nose but had a very fine finish - sharp but with finessed tannins, easy to drink. 
  • VML Wine - I remembered why I bought the 2011 Floodgate (Russian River Valley) as a gift for a friend this past January. It’s a light Pinot for me, but it is a wonderful balance of fragrance and finesse with an unmistakable but graceful metallic backbone. Like a dancer’s spine, strong and gracefully curved.
  • WALT Wines - Blue Jay is a blend of grapes from three Anderson Valley vineyards, so they decided on an unrelated bird theme for the name. I tasted a couple of wines, but I confess I don’t remember much about them! Strawberry is all I’ve got, really. 
  • Kanzler Vineyards - It’s a family affair - husband, wife, and son Alex, who is also the assistant winemaker at VML (how do you think I discovered Kanzler?). I preferred the 2010 Sonoma Coast (a little too much strawberry jam for me, but there was enough acidity and peppery tannins on the finish for balance) to the 2011 Sonoma Coast (a lighter, easy to drink wine with a sweet, strawberry finish but good structure). 
  • Kendrick Vineyards - This was the booth next to Kanzler - way too much fruit for me in the 2010; 2009 was much more restrained and moody, which I preferred. Vineyards: Northern Marin, near the Sonoma border. 
  • JCB - “by Jean-Charles Boisset” - the man behind the wine - was plastered across all marketing collateral. This was definitely a flashier production, and everything proclaimed in a pointedly raised voice (because such polite company would never scream): “In case you didn’t notice, we are French! From Burgundy!” 
    • The chic, gold on black branding was stunning; everything looked like it was designed to market a luxury perfume. In fact, each wine’s name was a number, printed just like Chanel No. 5. 
Why No. 3? They claim that 1 + 1 =  3.
I give them points for creativity (or wishful thinking).
    • I tasted No. 3, a very unusual blend of 60% grapes from Russian River Valley in California and 40% grapes from Cote de Nuits in Burgundy, France. When Steven quipped, “I’ve never heard of that before …” I surmised this was an unusual combination. 
    • No. 3 struck me as more marketing hype for “Old World meets New World” but it was one of the more complex wines I tasted at the event. Like many California Pinots, it was already very drinkable at a young age. But for $123 a bottle? I don’t know! 
  • Z’IVO - This was of the few Oregonian wineries at the event! Z’IVO was the opposite of JCB: dirt-beneath-the-fingernails personality. 
    • Both Willamette Valley wines I tried (2007 and 2009 vintages) smelled like dark mushrooms bathed in soft contact lens saline solution. Salty mushrooms in mossy forest floor. Very different from the California Pinots, for certain. 
    • The wines didn’t taste like forest floor or moss, though; 2009 was savory with massively mouth-drying tannins. 2007 was salty with (thank god) more supple tannins. I don’t remember much beyond that! 
  • La Fenêtre - A small boutique grower-producer with several single vineyard wines in Santa Maria, this winery offered some interesting flavors. (Ironically, Pinot Days marked the first time I’d heard “single vineyard” as a term; I’d learned the French term monocru first, in the Champagne region in France.)
    • My notes for 2010 Le Bon Climat Single Vineyard read, “Nose: Barnyard; Palate: Salty, musky, a little bit of Pommard?” Indeed, it was pretty heavy and spicy, reminiscent of the wines of Pommard in Burgundy, but the wine possessed nothing near the power characteristic of Pommard. Not that it’s supposed to be, of course! Having been to Burgundy recently, I just couldn’t help the comparison. 
    • 2010 Presqu’ile Single Vineyard smelled like brined asparagus; tasted like cranberries and a bit of black pepper.  
    • My scribblings for 2010 Bien Nacido Single Vineyard bore the cryptic note “Metal Jams” - looking back, it took me a second to remember that this wine smelled overwhelmingly of sweet, sticky strawberry jam, with metallic flavors on the edges. But somehow at the time, this brought to mind the Adult Swim Metallica cartoon “Metalocalypse."In the end, the wine was too unbalanced for me. A great deal of metal and rust overwhelmed my palate on the finish, resulting in fatigue not unlike hearing too many high-pitched screams of “Dethklock! Dethclock! Dethclock!” by head-banging heavy metal musicians. 

The Verdict
I found the California Pinots I tried to be generally very … strawberry. 

Sometimes the wines were on the weak side, and by this I mean that they tasted thin, a little watered down. They may be perfect for another palate, but for me these wines simply weren’t concentrated enough. I craved more body: I find I desire some voluptuousness in my reds, like a well-muscled yet lithe dancer with a strong, flexible spine. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a daintier, classical piece; other times I want edgy, muscular, contemporary ballet. (Those of you who know me understand that dance is part of my vocabulary.)

On the other end of spectrum, I was being clobbered over the head with wines featuring RIPE RED FRUIT! DID YOU GET THAT? <sip … spit> RED FRUIT! <dump rest of glass> Oy!

You get the idea. 

Dear California Pinot fans: Before you throw me into a stainless steel vat for maceration, I am not disparaging California Pinots! The concept of taste preference is very subjective, and I confess I don’t yet know enough about the terroir and vinification practices of California for Pinot Noir to be a good judge of relative quality. 

It’s important to distinguish between quality and personal taste. I believe both should be afforded equal status, but for different purposes. You have to be able to tell quality between related wines given certain parameters, but in the end, what’s the point in drinking what you don’t like?

For Me: Musky in California, Fine-Boned in Burgundy
I discovered that with the California Pinots I tried, I preferred what was described as the “musky, masculine” wines. But for red Burgundies, which are also made from Pinot Noir but in the soils and climates of the Burgundy region in France, I tend to be seduced by fine-boned wines with delicacy and finesse but which possess an unmistakable backbone. 

I must like the taste of vines struggling in lands with low water tables, roots thrusting deep into the clay and limestone to drink all the minerals and nutrients locked in the earth. Oh, the minerality! The terroir!

The big, “masculine” reds in Burgundy can sometimes be too much for me - truly full of black pepper, deep earth, and mouth-drying tannins. They can be amazingly fine wines, but their character is just not for me, at least for what I like right now. 

In contrast, their “masculine” counterparts in California offered - to the preference of this drinker - fruit as an undertone (as opposed to shiny overtones as they usually are) with ripples of leather, offering more complexity with a smooth or plush mouthfeel. And I do place a great deal of importance on the final sensation in the mouth, because hey, I want it to feel pleasant. 

With Schug winemaker Mike Cox 

An interesting cultural discovery was that it was considered gauche to spit directly into the plastic buckets available at every booth. In France, following the winemakers’ leads, I spit into buckets, between barrels into the gravel floor, anywhere, really. But here, I was expected to juggle a bright red, large plastic cup with my glass, notepad and pen. Not very convenient - I constantly feared I’d drop everything onto the person crowded next to me - but I certainly didn’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, so I gave in. 

In the end, I didn’t get close to tasting and talking to folks from even half the wineries at the event, but I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Quality over quantity was my goal, and I was more than satisfied. 

I was at first shocked, then admittedly thrilled, when I saw later that afternoon that my teeth were stained a lovely shade of purple. Pinot Purple.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pour le Snacking: My Perfect French Mini-Meal

Mackerel + Cracker = Happy Cat

When rushing around the entire Champagne region trying not to be egregiously late to the appointments I’d painstakingly set up weeks in advance, eating on the go was paramount to maintaining one’s good humor … and to padding one’s stomach enough to maintain a clear head between multiple visits and tastings. Even though I sucked and spit dutifully through each dégustation (tasting), it’s impossible not to absorb some alcohol. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you!

So, stocking up on supplies in the supermarket was an economical and convenient way to have munitions for the daily journey. In combination with visits to the local boulangerie in whichever village we happened to be in for a toasty baguette and pain au chocolat or fougasse, a perfect on-the-go meal or snack could be had. (By the way, I found out that another meaning of fougasse is an improvised landmine. Good heavens. Give me the bread version any day!)

The surprise winner for me was a tasty treat that some may balk at: Chunks of canned mackerel filet swimming in tomato basil sauce, over Wasa crackers (baked rye crackers) or ripped-off pieces of fresh baguette. The fishy scent alone may put some off, but I absolutely loved it! I would wake up in the morning, looking forward to dipping crusty crackers into the gooey, red fishiness. I kid you not.

As Saupiquet, the maker of the canned mackerel filet I ate, says, “Laissez-vous séduire par les filets de maquereaux Saupiquet en sauce” - “Let yourself be seduced by Saupiquet mackerel filets in sauce” … That’s a tall order for canned fish, but I was summarily seduced.

(Check out this hilarious 47 second video of several rugged looking men dressed as various fish and crustaceans, going out to sea. “Who says that fish have to be sad?” the video asks us. Huh?! Nonetheless, I was vastly amused.)

I tried to find a suitable substitute after coming home to the US, but the closest I’ve gotten is canned sardines in tomato sauce. It’s tough to find canned mackerel, and if I find it, it’s in sunflower oil or olive oil.

And, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I searched for “canned mackerel” online and all the shopping results came back with descriptions beginning with, “Treat your cat to a meal of …” Only cats are privileged enough to eat canned mackerel in the US? Cripes!

Jean-Lou says: "My fish are fresh and wild, and Saupiquet knows how to prepare them divinely.
And, I know where they come from!"

It’s a good opportunity to try different flavors, but I confess, I miss my mackerel in tomato basil sauce. I also find myself craving a fresh baguette every day. Happily, it is fairly easy to find baguettes in one’s local supermarket in the US.

For those Stateside who are leery of eating bread that isn’t whole wheat, the Observatoire du Pain in France recommends a daily consumption of ⅔ to ¾ a baguette de tradition française for women, and ¾ for men. This is courtesy of the Observatoire’s study on the nutrition of French breads. Seriously, there is an entity devoted to the scientific study of France’s breads. Although, we probably don’t need a report to tell us it’s okay to be eating baguettes regularly - the French have been doing so for eons, after all.

And what is the result of this research for me? Now I want to eat a baguette, each freshly torn piece daintily topped with morsels of Saupiquet Filets de Maquereaux sauce tomate et basilic. Sigh!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Not At All Boozy in Bouzy - Champagne Pierre Paillard

Refreshing mid-afternoon tasting flight in a rustic setting.

Antoine Paillard was our gracious host at Champagne Pierre Paillard, visit number 2 on day 2.  To underscore the family element in Champagne, Pierre was Antoine’s grandfather. He started up his eponymous house in the 1950s, although the many of the plots have been worked on by the family for 8 generations spanning 250 years.

Antoine, along with his father and brother, keeps everything humming. Speaking of the brothers, as Gary Westby, the generous and knowledgeable Champagne Buyer at K&L Wine Merchants, put it: “If their business ever goes bad, those two could totally have another career as models.” (One could arguably say the same about Gary.)

But what was most compelling about Pierre Paillard is that while it is quite small - it owns 11 hectares total (28 acres) comprising 30 plots - this land is entirely contiguous, and wholly located in Bouzy, a village in the Montagne de Reims region (northeast). With vineyard land prices reaching over 1M euros a hectare in Champagne, having a completely contiguous plot is rare and brings an amazing boon to a maker.

Moreover, Bouzy is a Grand Cru village - the top of the top in quality designation for Champagnes. This means that the plots in Bouzy are deemed to be of excellent terroir, or land. Quality land in turn grows vines that yield high quality grapes, and eventually, Champagnes of great character.

Of course, the way in which humans make decisions in the viticulture (cultivation of vines) and viniculture (making of the wines) can mean the difference between a good and a mind-blowing wine. Notice I didn’t say “the difference between a bad and a mind-blowing wine” because Grand Cru land is supposedly of such high quality that a fairly good wine can still result from mediocre human handling!

With Antoine Paillard, in the light-filled tasting room

Antoine is deeply respectful of the legacy he is working with. The philosophy at Pierre Paillard is not only about sustainability, it’s about terroir: cultivating vines and shaping wines that bring out the best of the land’s character. In contrast, big house Mumm blends its Champagnes from 77 crus (vineyards) around the region. Whuff! With that kind of Champagne-making, “You don’t know what you’re drinking,” Antoine said with a matter-of-fact shake of his head. Clearly he sees this as a sad but all-too-common phenomenon.

At the same time, Antoine is aware of the differences between his house and the big houses. Big houses experience great commercial pressure to create Champagnes of huge volume to meet worldwide demand, with a consistent taste profile. That means formulas - more science than art, so to speak. But this is perhaps the most appropriate approach given their goals (... of world domination! Oh, sorry, did I say that?), and it seems to work for them.

At Champagne Pierre Paillard, Antoine and his family do not have this kind of pressure; they can afford to create their Champagnes carefully as local artisans. Antoine is very passionate about maintaining this philosophy; the house will remain small. Well, unless they buy out other houses’ plots, those 11 hectares are what they’ve got!

Champagnes Tasted

  • Brut Grand Cru - This is the product of 22 plots(!) in their Bouzy vineyards, with an average vineyard age of 25 years. 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay from 2008 harvest and 2007 reserve wine. Paillard ages its wines for no less than 3 years on the lees (with yeasty yumminess) in order to achieve the kind of balance of flavor and finesse it aims for.

    I found its nose gently fruity and floral, up and excited. On the palate there was a bracing acidity. This was a Champagne that refreshes - and if you’re not quite awake, you will be after a sip!

  • Bouzy Blanc de Noirs, “Les Maillerettes” - This is the name of their “mother” vineyard, a monocru (single vineyard). Paillard replants their other vineyards from grafts of the vines in this plot, thus perpetuating the family legacy in more ways than one. This wine is 100% Pinot Noir (hence “Blanc de Noirs” or “White from Blacks” although Pinot Noir is arguably a grape of a red color) from the 2008 harvest, and only the juice from the first two pressings are used.

    Upon first sniff, I can only describe the nose as very pure, clear and straight yet subtle. Imagine a chic woman with good breeding stepping into a room; it’s not her intention to attract attention, yet everyone’s eyes are inevitably drawn to her. The Champagne’s smooth, less bracing structure made this a wonderfully classy delight. I'm sure it would pair marvelously with poultry, or roasted pigeon in the Bresse style.

  • Rosé Grand Cru - A blend of their white and red (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir) from 2009 and 2008 reserve. 6% of the Pinot Noir is from their “Bouzy Rouge” - the grapes are from the little plot “Clos Pierre Paillard” just out the back of the house!

    Like the Brut Grand Cru, this one was up and excited, but it was fragrant like tea rose with a whiff of hard candy. A hint of red fruit gently underscored the mouth, with the perfume of tea rose riding the overtones. A strong acidic backbone ensured the Champagne didn’t dissolve into too much fragrance.

  • Millésime 2004 Grand Cru 2004 - Ding Ding Ding! This was the winner for Susan. 50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay, with 10 whopping years aging on the lees. If wine sitting with yeast slurry in a bottle for that long yields this kind of expansive toastiness, it’s worth the wait!

    Out of a lineup of wonderful, quality Champagnes, it was the flavor of this one that gobsmacked me. It was expansive yet structured with toasted almonds, brioche, and cheese! Like, parmesan. I was in heaven. 

As I sucked thoughtfully - I was getting better at it on my second day - and spit precious liquid repeatedly into the metal crachoir (spittoon), I was amazed by the incredible finesse and delicacy of these Champagnes. Each one possessed a unique character. Whether it was round and nutty or tight like hard candy with a bracing acidity, that exceptionally fine quality underscored - and in a sense defined - each as a Champagne of Pierre Paillard.

So that’s why I say it’s “not at all boozy in Bouzy” - not with Champagne Pierre Paillard, anyway. These are Champagnes to be savored with good friends, perhaps over a meal or dessert depending on which cuvée is chosen. Granted, you might get boozy if you enjoyed a glass or two continuously over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With such wonderful selections, the concept may not seem completely crazy … but I’m not trying that anytime soon.

I must mention that after this visit, we began referring to our black VW Golf rental car affectionately as ‘Le Petit Bouzy’! It’s not just that I can’t resist a bad pun; it was a fitting way to commemorate a new and defining experience. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Moi, Placomusophile?

Champagne caps (and a cork) collected on my trip

Yes, there is a term for people who collect Champagne caps, les plaques de muselets de Champagne. These are the attractive, shiny little things that top the corks; cap and cork are held together by a wire cage one sees on the bottles of most sparkling beverages once the (usually) gold-colored foil is removed. When you’ve got an average of 90 pounds of pressure per square inch (620 kPa) in a 75 cl (750 ml) bottle, that wire cage is a good thing.

If I recall correctly from the many questions I asked my various hosts, caps were introduced ~1881 to enable the wire to hold the cork in more securely.

But I digress. Despite being merely tin metal, the plaques are decorated in a variety of ways that reflect the Champagne house. Upon seeing a cap removed for the first time during a bottle opening at Champagne LAUNOIS, I was immediately fascinated.

You see, anything like this is terribly alluring for me. I have been an avid postage stamp collector since I was a little kid. Stamps show what is important to a country, a culture, a society. Champagne caps show the philosophy of the house and what it prides itself in.

So of course I had to ask for the little purple cap in front of me (and the cork! Hey, it’s stamped with “Grand Vin de Champagne” at the bottom. How cool is that?). Even though the design initially struck me as a tad cheesy - an old-school photo portrait of a female family member (Clémence, for whom this Grand Cru cuvée is named) - I immediately understood that family is paramount to this Champagne house, and that family is commemorated proudly. Having this cap reminds me what Champagne LAUNOIS stands for.

By way of contrast, the two big houses I visited, Pommery and Mumm, use consistent branding by displaying their logo in varying color schemes to indicate the cuvée. I’m sure there’s a whole lot more in between with different houses that I’ve yet to discover: I recently came into possession of a Veuve Clicquot cap that sports a portrait of Madame Clicquot on a warm pink border - a big house with sustained reverence for its Grande Dame.

Veuve Clicquot "Reserve Cuvée Rosé" cap, wire cage and cork still attached

Having the caps reminds me of the Champagnes I’d tasted and of the experience each house imparted. I confess I also enjoy the satisfaction of thinking, “Yeah, I was there!” whenever I see them - at least for the ones I’d collected on my trip. You bet I’m keeping the caps with each bottle I open, and recent events have shown that I’m not above begging for them at tastings back home, either!

So yes, I’m in grave danger of becoming a placomusophile. And you know what, I’m okay with that.

More Champagne!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bubbly Before Noon: Champagne LAUNOIS Père et Fils

Cuvée Dorine: Look at those dainty bubbles!

On my first full day in Champagne country, the first stop was to cult maker Champagne LAUNOIS Père et Fils. Despite it being a small house, LAUNOIS wines are much sought after and hard to get stateside. As Gary Westby, Champagne buyer for K&L Wine Merchants, told me: "I had to work on these guys for over a year before I could get them to sell me anything!" So, of course I had to arrange a visit.

Champagne LAUNOIS Père et Fils is located south of Reims in the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, in the Côte de Blancs region of Champagne. Grand Cru is the highest designation granted to a village in Champagne by the Échelle des Crus, signifying top quality. So if you’re born into ownership or manage to get your hands on any Grand Cru plots, you’re in luck!

There are three major regions in Champagne:

  • Montagne de Reims - in the north known for Pinot Noir
  • Vallée de la Marne - in the middle for Pinot Meunier
  • Côte des Blancs - to the south for Chardonnay (easy to remember: Chardonnay is a white grape, hence Blancs!)

Many of the Champagnes made from 100% Chardonnay - called “blanc de blancs” or literally “white of whites” - are from the Côte des Blancs so it was thrilling to be there! On the hills of the little villages we drove through, Champagne houses crowded right up against each other, one after the other. It was definitely Champagne-land.

I noticed many of the houses sported the same surnames. It was confusing, but upon closer examination the given names or house names were slightly different. Take for instance:

  • Champagne LAUNOIS Père et Fils
  • Champagne BONNET-LAUNOIS
  • Champagne Jean-Pierre LAUNOIS 

… and they’re all in the same village of Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, which means you could basically throw a Champagne cork from one house and hit the other.

This underscores the familial nature of the Champagne - and indeed of the wine - industry: it is a family-oriented business, and members can and often do branch out to start their own houses.

(Oh, and if you hadn't noticed already, the French seem to prefer capitalizing all the letters in their surnames. I noticed this first in email correspondence when arranging my visits: “... Dans l’attente de votre confirmation, Mélanie BERROT” - I wondered if I should sign off with “Susan LIN” but that still seems odd to me!)

Champagne LAUNOIS Père et Fils is the “big daddy” of the village. It is a small producer, even compared to Champagne Thiénot, but is the largest in the area. Many smaller houses in the area pay to use their machines and facilities. Real estate is certainly limited!

The man behind the house, Pierre Launois (I considered all caps but resisted!), was quite the eccentric collector. The house has the oddest museum I’ve ever toured; it consists of old and new caves joined up with random displays of everything from freaky anthropomorphic figures carved into vine roots to old disgorgement machines, a giant muselet (the wire cage that covers the cork), a 16th century Burgundian wine press that weighs two tons and required Mr. Launois to build a structure around it to house it (thus incurring the displeasure of his parents) … and more randomness.

Hanging out beneath the Giant Muselet in LAUNOIS' unique museum

Aurore, a fresh-faced young lady who has worked for LAUNOIS for 3 years, gave the tour. When we’d arrived, nearly 20 minutes late for our appointment (the result of jet lag and being caught behind slow trucks and enjambeurs) I introduced myself and asked to catch up to the tour since we were late. She’d responded that there was no rush; we (two people) *were* the tour! Ha!

It turned out that on the weekends, busloads of Belgians and sometimes Americans or Canadians come to visit, but on a drizzly, gray Wednesday? Just us chickens! It was a wonderful, personalized visit.

At the end of the tour, Aurore took us to a rustic little sitting room and prepared four Champagnes for us to taste. I admit to feeling a frisson, to be tasting Champagne before noon!

The first thing I noticed was that the bubbles were remarkably fine. They surged with vigor in the glass but were oh so dainty. For me, this became a visual characterization of Champagne; I’ve recalled seeing sparkling wines from other areas whoosh through the glass with big, robust bubbles. Apparently the longer the aging, the finer the bubbles.

Champagnes tasted (I confess to not having very good notes on this one):
  • Cuvée Reserve - Blanc de blancs from 2008 harvest and 10% 2007 reserve wine aged three years on the lees (i.e. in the bottle without filtering out the yeast and other sediment), this is their all-purpose Brut that can be enjoyed at any time. A bit nutty and round, but still very delicate. Gary described it as: “... all Grand Cru from the villages of Mesnil, Oger, Cramant and Avize - a roll call of the finest crus for Chardonnay in all of Champagne...”
  • Veuve Clémence - Blanc de blancs, with four years aging on the lees. This one was more dry than the Reserve, with yellow fruit and some white pepper spiciness - this one will wake you up! Sushi or other fishy seafood, methinks. 
  • Dorine - Blanc de blancs, 1 year in oak. It was a beautiful amber color and lightly fruity but an unmistakable backbone. Seems like the little girl it was named for! I felt like cheese with this one. 
  • Rose Valentine - 100% Pinot Noir. Fruity with a long finish, lightly perfumed and delicate. Again, named for a cute little girl!  

The Rose Valentine was Aurore’s favorite, but I liked Veuve Clémence even better. I usually prefer wines that are less sweet and have never been one for super fruity and delicate, but don’t get me wrong: none of these Champagnes were sickly sweet in any way. They were all nicely balanced but with different character.

In the coming days, I would come to notice and appreciate this emphasis on character in each cuvée, at the small houses. There is a real respect for the land the grapes are grown in, and a desire to bring out the best of the flavors it has to offer.

Even though Champagne LAUNOIS was started by a man and named ‘Father and Sons’, it's clear that the house is run by the women in the family. Just check out the names of the Champagnes above. You go, girls!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sharing the Road with Aliens

Please don't hurt me! Oh wait, you're a tractor ...

Driving around Champagne country, you inevitably bump up against slow-moving freaky creatures with gangling arms and tubes. I was seriously alarmed when I first caught sight of one: I thought an alien from the game Half Life had come alive to wreak havoc on idyllic countryside autoroute D9, or Route du Champagne.

What is this thing? It is called an enjambeur, a tractor that can work with 1 or 2 rows of vines. It’s used to do pruning, spraying, hoeing, etc.

After my initial shock, I got used to seeing these funny looking tractors quickly. More often than not, they were a source of mild exasperation as they made us late to appointments. It’s tough to pass slow-moving vehicles on windy, narrow, one-lane-per-direction country roads.

And trust me; these things move very, very slowly. Bumpity-bumpity-bumpity, tubes and arms twitching about such that a few times I was sure the machine would turn around to show itself for the monster it really was and start attacking us à la Final Fantasy:

Battle with Champagne Tractor, er, Boss Monster, in Final Fantasy X

But as I observed the machines and operators at work throughout the next days, I came to appreciate how well designed they are for the closely-planted vineyards with extremely narrow rows. I began to wave to the drivers as they rumbled past, if I was on foot. And after joining a rush of coverall-clad vineyard workers who had descended onto a cozy bistro in the tiny village Bergères-lès-Vertus to eat a hearty buffet lunch, the machines took on an even more human dimension and seemed downright friendly.

It was but one element of many that makes Champagne what it is today - technology next to old-world practices. Most important are the people who make it all come together, who do their part to create something wonderful for the world to enjoy.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Champagne Thiénot - Reunion with Garance

Special gift from our visit with Garance - 2002 Grande Cuvee Alain Thiénot

Reims was our first destination on this trip for a 3-day mad dash around the Champagne region. And first on the list of a packed itinerary was a visit with Garance Thiénot, the capable and lovely Director of PR at Champagne Thiénot and daughter of founder Alain.

Our first meeting had been only a couple of weeks before at a special Champagne dinner at the Plumed Horse, one of my favorite restaurants. The San Francisco Bay Area had been the last stop for Garance in a big cross-country US tour, and despite this she looked classy in French boho chic as she graciously introduced the house (established in 1985) and its Champagnes to the expectant crowd of diners. When told that we’d be visiting Reims very soon, she generously extended an offer of a personal tour of the Thiénot facilities.

The appointment was the very same afternoon we arrived in France. We’d driven from the airport in Roissy to Reims - Champagne country! After crashing for half an hour on the wildly floral bedding in our suite at the gorgeous Domaine Les Crayères - a château in the heart of Reims sitting on 7 hectares of lush vegetation - we dragged our jet-lagged bodies out into the grayness and rain to attempt driving to Thiénot in nearby Taissy.

(Of course we got lost. Roundabouts take some getting used to. And nearly every place we would go to in Reims and Burgundy, including here, was on some really tiny street that did not show up on digital map data. Heck, some villages didn’t even show up on the maps. Getting to places = Looking at maps beforehand, making vague approximations, panic, pointing, and frantic exclamations of “Here! Turn here!!”)

For a “small” Champagne house, Thiénot was very state of the art! It boasts a very modern facility in an nondescript industrial complex that, if I remember correctly, also had an airplane parts manufacturing company nearby. It was a relief to come in from the rain, although of course the facilities - once we left the cozy lobby - were a chilly 10 degrees Celsius as dictated for all Champagne working areas and storage.

We just happened to visit during the week where most Champagne houses were en tirage - bottling for the 2012 harvest - and workers were busy with a noisy, conveyer-belt style bottling machine. Clink-clink-clink-clink! times hundreds of bottles, and you get the idea.

This was after we’d walked through a narrow space containing many steel fermentation tanks with the openings for gas to escape at the top. (Explosions would be bad.) The tanks were inscribed with the house name, very classy. Thiénot prefers to control everything, including the induction of malolactic fermentation - I later learned some some makers wait for nature to decide, but this is not scalable for a growing house with greater production volumes.

Garance moved us into the next large space, where a hulking machine out of Star Wars was the centerpiece against a backdrop of crates upon crates of bottles in storage - all the way up to the high ceiling. She was very proud of this machine that stacks bottles into crates en masse - it was acquired last year and is affectionately called “Le Nain Jaune”, or “The Yellow Dwarf”!

The bottle-stacking machine did resemble Le Nain Jaune!

I learned about the remuage, or riddling, of the Champagne bottles - it can be done the old fashioned way, fait à la main (manually) in pupitres or in giant, cubic machines. Obviously it’s faster with the machines - most Champagne houses, I learned, will do the careful bottle rotations manually for special cuvées and vintage bottlings, and the “regular” editions in the machines.

Garance showed us some crates of unlabeled bottles, stored perfectly upside down - sur point - so that the sediment settles into the neck of the bottle. The necks are then frozen in a special liquid and the put into a machine where the seal/cap (no cork yet!) is removed - BAM! - the pressure (400 - 600 kPa per bottle) forcibly ejects the sediment and the “disgorgement” is done! Again, this can be done manually but obviously it’s not pleasant and a bit dangerous. Thanks, technology!

Then comes the dosage - you lose some liquid with disgorgement, so you need to add some back in the bottle. Excitingly, this is where sugar levels are set to determine what kind of Champagne results - dry (brut), semi-sweet (demi-sec) or sweet (sec) - or whatever level in between suits the chef du cave’s fancy.

After, there were the machines for the corks and wire cages … labeling … palettes of cases ready to ship. Garance makes sure that there are enough supplies to ship constantly throughout the year. The facility also handles Champagnes from two other labels, but they keep them separate from the house’s namesake products.

Although Thiénot may be considered small compared to the massive houses like Mumm, it’s clear that they are gearing up for the big time. In fact, they’re already the Champagne of choice for the Academy Awards!

Before leaving - Garance was so sweet to spend time with us especially since she had to rush off to pick up her two children from school - she presented us with a bottle of 2002 Thiénot 'Grande Cuvee Alain Thiénot'! We were flabbergasted and delighted.

After we made it back to Les Crayères, we relaxed at the beautiful lounge La Rotonde, with stunning views of the gardens. We were presented with “welcome Champagne” glasses - I didn’t even know what it is was we drank but who cares?! We’d made it! We were in Champagne country, and had already completed one appointment on my massive list. I was exhausted, but thrilled. The journey had begun.

The Tasting Notes Spreadsheet of Doom!

Booty yielded from my Master Spreadsheet!

No, not of doom … but of absolute wonder! But it sure took some work to gather all my notes, written haphazardly onto hotel notepad papers and the backs of large receipts. You’d think I’d have been more prepared, but you know what? I’d already done hours upon hours of work researching, contacting all the winemakers (in French!), and putting together each day’s schedule that I hadn’t thought as far as preparing a small notebook to bring with me. (I had my journal, of course, but that was a little too unwieldy.) Organizing the trip activities was admittedly exhausting, but absolutely worth the effort.

After coming home, I fired up a blank spreadsheet and got going. It has 12 tabs, one for each house or location visited (I consolidated the Champagne houses into one). I didn’t even include one house in Burgundy since every single wine I’d tasted there was a total disappointment! Each spreadsheet has 12 columns to cover everything from appellation to plot names, tasting notes, relevant info about the plot or the like, online resources for that wine, etc.

I highlighted all the wines I’d noted as a favorite or standout, and then created a fresh spreadsheet called “Les Vins que J’aime” (“The Wines I Love”). I separated wines from different houses by a simple red line - it helps break it up visually.

A snapshot of a section from the Master Spreadsheet

Now I had my Master Wish List. I visited my awesome local store Artisan Wine Depot, armed with a printed copy, to see what I could find! With the help of Curt Polikoff, Burgundy expert (he loves that Hill of Corton!) and certified sommelier, I left with three wonderful bottles that I can’t wait to try.

  • Bouchard Père et Fils Aloxe Corton 2010 (Pinot Noir)
  • Joseph Drouhin Beane Blanc “Clos des Mouches” Premier Cru 2010 (Chardonnay)
  • Domaine Thierry Mortet Gevrey-Chambertin "Vigne Belle" 2009 (Pinot Noir)

(It bears saying that this purchase set me back over $200 … but it’s Burgundy. Sigh.)

My main worry is that I’m getting really spoiled by the amazing wines I tasted on my trip. But I’m not going to stop tasting and trying different wines from different places. I tried a $8 bottle of La Granja Tempranillo 2011 from Spain a month ago - an impulse purchase from Trader Joe’s - with a simple rice bowl dinner and it was fun!

You don’t always need to have the most complex and beautiful wines all the time. Sometimes you want to stop analyzing and just drink! It *is* alcohol after all, people, so cheers! A la votre!

The Palette Expanded (and Mind Blown)!

My mess of wine tasting notes, waiting to be organized.

Reims, Burgundy, and just barely (one day), Paris: Ah, la France, la patrie du vin. After 12 days of tasting, spitting, eating, and getting lost on autoroutes and in tiny villages, I had countless hotel notepad papers full of tasting note scribbles jammed into a folio and a journal bursting with recountings of adventures.

As I attempted to organize my notes, I found myself wanting a CTRL+F (find) function to look up certain things or events. Sadly, this doesn’t work for hand-written documents, much less the messy chicken scratch my penmanship degraded into when my wrist fatigued. (I write. A lot. I give every detail because otherwise I will forget!)

So, I decided to document my experiences here in a somewhat cleaned-up fashion. That way I can share my experiences with curious minds, as well as look anything up easily. I’ll also add my notes about wines and foods I try as I go along, post-trip.

Discovery Highlights:
  • I love me Chassagne-Montrachet and Chablis for Blancs.
  • I love me Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny for Rouges.
  • Crémant de Bourgogne is a great apéritif drink!
  • Gougères are a great way to start a meal. (I want my cheesy poofs!)

I’ll summarize my Voyage Découverte this way:

  • I’ve had a first chance to see and taste the land through wine, liqueurs, and food. 
  • I’ve met colorful folks in the wine industry, from dirt-beneath-the-fingernails winemakers (e.g. Bernard Rion) to slick young tour guides in the Big Houses (e.g. Mumm Champagne).
  • I’ve been held hostage by an autoroute toll booth. (Never again!!)
  • My taste buds exploded slowly over the days, beautifully. I am full of wonder. I want to return. I want to learn more. 

I think something is happening to me, and you bet I’m going to let it develop. I can’t wait to see what it will be.