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Domaine Rollin VergelessesFrom time to time, even bargain-hunters need to splurge. When I do, it’s generally French: Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Sancerre dominate my list of mid-range to expensive buys, although I’ll toss in the occasional Barolo or high-end Riesling. The most recent mid-range find fit a rare profile for superior value in its price point: a really superior Burgundy for under $50. We’re talking Pinot Noir, people, something I love but don’t give enough attention. This bottle really grabbed my attention.

A little background on the appellation of origin, Pernand-Vergelesses. Located at the top of the Cote de Beaune, the L’Ile des Vergelesses is, as the winemaker puts it, “the jewel of the village of Pernand-Vergelesses.” It is famous for its elegance when young, with serious aging potential that allows for cellaring if you so desire. The soil in this area is similar to that of esteemed Corton, and harbors numerous vineyard plots of premier cru quality.

And what does such quality look like? Well, it looks really nice. In the glass, the 2006 Domaine Rollin Pernand Vergelesses 1er Cru Ile des Vergelesses is a pale cherry red, with great clarity. A truly Burgundian nose: aromas of red raspberry fruit, loamy earth, and a slight gamy hint of cured meats coalesce into that quintessential hallmark of Pinot Noir. More round red berries in the mouth, with exquisite balance; this is acidity and fruit as a subtle matrix, covered gently in a cloak of flowers. Or something. The final sip leaves your palate as bedazzled and full of longing as the first. This is a perfect answer to the question: “why Burgundy?” $45.

Summer. When we all pack up – at least once during these hot months – and go somewhere new, our suitcases cruelly overfed with laundry and comically bad book choices. After trials endured only during vacation trips – colicky babies, parking tickets, being lost for hours – we settle back into our normal lives with, if not relief, at least a renewed sense of calm. At the end of each trip, I, at least, just want something wet and delicious to wash away the dust of travel. Something with a nice chill to it, something from the Loire. Yes, I do become that ridiculously specific – wouldn’t you want the perfect glass of wine to round out the perfect nightmare: airports?

Well, I do. And the wine I plan to sip on after returning from Carmel, CA (a great AVA, or American Viticultural Area, in its own right), is… ok, no. Time to derail this post and talk about how fantastic Carmel is as a wine region and travel destination. In typical man fashion, I offer this list:

1) The town’s full name is Carmel-by-the-Sea. What? Elf-wine!?

2) After going into down and hitting one of any number of choice spas and salons and art galleries, you can hit local wine shops to taste delicious finds from Galante Vineyards and Scheid Vineyards, to name but two.

3) The ocean. The ocean, the ocean, the ocean.

Alright, spontaneous list done. The real draw of wines from Carmel is their sheer value. The Carmel AVA is located in Monterey County, known for its rich, full-bodied wines. Mountainous, but with a nice marine climatic influence, you can find astonishingly good Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot here (these comprise 70% of total grape production). The terroir is ideal for all of the traditional French Noble grapes – exceptional drainage in the soil, long growing season, and nice temperature swings in the summer leading to slow maturation of the grapes. Beyond Cabernet and Merlot, both Bordeaux varietals, vineyards are now exploring with Burgundian vines as well: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

But I digress too far. Tonight’s post, after all, isn’t about a Californian wine, or even a Bordeaux/Burgundy wine: tonight, we go in the opposite direction: a long-aging white, a sheer, delicate-yet-layered beauty made entirely from Chenin Blanc. Not only that, it’s produced by one of the progenitors of the biodynamic wine movement, Nicolas Joly. He is, perhaps, the most famous “wild man” of French winemaking.

Savennières is an appellation in the Loire Valley which is predominantly famous for Chenin Blanc, a classic grape in its own right. Savennières is one of those rare white wines that can be kept in the cellar for years and show great improvement in complexity and depth. The 2003 Nicolas Joly “Coulée de Serrant” Savennières, which I got OFF THE WINE LIST at a restaurant for a piddling $35 (it retails for around $100 in newer vintages), will be the perfect way to round out this coming vacation. The color was a lovely gold in the glass from all those years aging in the bottle, and the nose showed aromas of marzipan and pear, as well as a lovely floral element. The mouthfeel was just… huge, rich like cream but still acidic enough to be springy. Fruity notes like pear, tangerine, and apricot frolic in the supple curves of this wine, which shows a nice long finish. It paired perfectly with Korean BBQ. If you can find a bottle for $35, DO. IT. You will not be disappointed… as opposed to that time you actually tried to redeem those rewards with United.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m crazy about Bordeaux. Not a guy who goes nuts over the en primeur tastings in April, those early barrel tastings that get wine journalists salivating, mostly because I don’t buy based on hype alone. Nor do I drink the top tier Médoc monsters – Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, and so on… because who can drop $1200 on a bottle on a typical Friday? But still, something about the region – its heritage, its complex classification system, and its astonishing wines – brings me back, reliably, month after month. I can count on my hands the number of months I’ve gone without Bordeaux in the past five years.

A few points to keep us all on the same page. Most people, when they’re talking about Bordeaux wines, are talking about wines from the Médoc – the most famous wine-growing region in France, I’d say, nested along the Gironde river. All of the Bordeaux wines in the famous 1855 Classification are produced in the Médoc , with the exception of Château Haut-Brion, which hails from Graves (another favorite spot of mine for its stony, delicious Cabernet and Merlot-based reds). I won’t get into the classification system, except to note that the Wikipedia article does a good job, and don’t try too hard: it’s pointless to memorize something subject to change. Beyond that, it’s important to keep in mind that five grapes are legally permitted in red Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. White Bordeaux (especially esteemed when from Graves) can include the grapes Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle, although you’ll find odd birds like Ugni Blanc and Colombard in the blend as well.

Tonight’s wine, the 2009 Chateau La Grolet, is an odd bird as well. For all that hubbub above about the Médoc, this wine is actually from the Côtes de Bourg, a little-known, tiny appellation located just across the Gironde river from Margaux. It is produced by the winemaker Jean-Luc Hubert, entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Shows a nice crimson color in the glass. On the nose, you find very forward, savory ripe fruit and a touch of cocoa and smoke. Nice and soft in texture, medium-bodied, with just enough acid to keep things going. In the mouth, it bursts with cherry fruit backed by definite mineral notes, kind of jammy – something I love in my wine. Medium finish, with the acidity keeping you coming back for another sip. Total crowd-pleaser. Totally Bordeaux. $12.

It may not have always felt like winter proper this year, but it will still be below freezing this weekend, and has been extremely cold the past few days. I’m well-prepared, however: I’ve got just the red wine to sip during a night spent reading. Something full of poise, big yet graceful fruit, racy herbals, mineral and loam: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The southernmost appellation in the Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape became a noteworthy wine region in the 1970’s, when a number of producers went the quality route and began making wines that spoke of the region’s essential greatness: gamy, earthy flavors piercing your palate like the essence of le mistral, the wind that shivers down the slopes of the Alps. Even the name of the region, meaning “new castle of the Pope,” hints at its prestige. Pairs well with Northrop Frye and a side of Bakhtin.

But in all seriousness, let’s talk about why this wine is so damn delicious, and why it is still so magnificently in vogue everywhere in the United States. With just over 8000 acres of vineyards, Châteauneuf-du-Pape far outstrips other Rhône appellations in size. The region’s terroir features a quite distinctive characteristic: masses of smooth stones of all sizes, ranging from pebbles to small boulders. These stones help retain heat, a positive factor in the ripening process, and keep the ground from drying out, which is helpful in drier summers. Considering the fact that low yields are critical to creating high-end Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the geography is ideal for its production. Pain in the ass to till, though. This particular bottle also comes from the holdings of André Brunel, something of a celebrity in the region; his family has been making wines in the Rhône valley for more than 90 years.

Ninety percent of all wine made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is red, and the wine is nearly always a blend, whether red or white. Just as there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape there are thirteen (OK, fourteen) grapes permitted by law. To review, these include: grenache (red), syrah (red), mourvèdre (red), cinsaut (red), muscardin (red), counoise (red), vaccarèse (red), terret noir (red); grenache blanc (white), clairette (white), bourboulenc (white), roussanne (white), picpoul (white), and picardan (white). Vinification here tends to eschew small oak barriques that you’d see in Bordeaux – instead the wines are fermented in a mix of large cement vats (for grenache, which oxidizes easily) and foudres, large old barrels that don’t impart any vanilla toasty elements; these would impede the naked fruit and stony flavors that make a lot of Rhône reds so great.

So what is so great about the 2004 André Brunel “Les Cailloux” Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Well, the color, for one thing: a pale cherry red in the glass, which swirls out aromas of herbal garrigue (predominantly sage and lavender), ripe red berry fruit, cinnamon spice and notes of licorice. Finely balanced in the mouth, with that ripe fruit and licorice offset nicely by still-vibrant acidity and a deliciously deep earthy character. Finishes very well, lip-smacking and long. A fantastic value at $35. Ward off the winter with a bottle of this, your favorite book, and some warm, chewy brown bread with herb-infused oil and olive tapenade.

Just watched Captain America, and the most prominent theme, besides ‘MERICA!, seemed to be “hooray for the little guy.” So this post is a celebration of one of the little wines, a wine with of small stature and little renown… a bottle with a secret and startling strength. Heroic, searingly-youthful-yet-sometimes-muscular wine. That’s right: a French wine. Sorry, ‘MERICA?

So let’s address the grape: Picpoul. Picpoul grows mostly in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, particularly in the Picpoul de Pinet appellation, and is a very straightforward grape, with fresh, clean fruit aromas. White wines made from Picpoul tend to be green-gold in color, medium-bodied, with lively citrus notes and a zest that makes them perfect for summer quaffing. They’re casual, approachable, and simple.

This particular Picpoul de Pinet, the 2010 Domaine de Guillemarine bottling, is right in line with what I’d expect of this white. Straw gold in the glass with a tinge of green, very pale and crystal clear. A nose just chock full of lemons, lime zest, and slight gooseberry notes. The citrus carries right through in the mouth, with snappy acidity and a quenching finish hinting at stony mineral. You won’t find a better wine for Friday movie nights, provided the genre is action, the theater is outdoors, and it’s August. All that flavor for a price even the little guy can tackle: $12.

For the past two days, the most frequently used word I heard on the street was “melting.” Sweaty, lethargic days, filled with the kind of overwhelming temperatures that make the thought of waiting in line outdoors dreadful to consider. For the first time living in New York, I felt truly unable to handle the weather. Seemed like I could cook outdoors without a grill – just plop that meat on a plate and let the sun go to town: literally, roasting hot. How to cope with heat so brutal? Air conditioning, yes, but when walking home from the subway makes me insanely thirsty, and all I want is oysters – here comes the segue – what wine will do? Sparkling wine, dear readers. Fight back with bubbles. Works every time.

With that declared, I offer the following. With this weekend uniquely hot, a unique bubbly seems suitable. Champagne is always fantastic when it’s good, but there is an older option, made using the same méthode traditionnelle. Also non-vintage, also predominantly Chardonnay. And it’s from a place I had never heard of before: Blanquette de Limoux, an appellation in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. Another gem from the sea, for sure.

Produced by Gilles Louvet, the NV “Esprit du Sud” is a textbook example of high-value dry sparkling white wine. Pale straw in the glass, with a fine bead trailing lazily upwards. Deliciously floral on the nose, with a tough of white seed fruit from the Chardonnay, and notes of baked bread and a smoky flint note from the other, rarer grape variety in the blend: Mauzac, grown extensively in the Languedoc, but seen almost nowhere else. Finishes dry and quenching. Destined for a platter of shucked Atlantic oysters. Buy it now, wind up, and sucker-punch summer for only $15.

Been hard at work developing the first polished video review. Making film is thirsty work. And even in hot weather, I like my reds. So what sumptuous wine did I sip on while figuring out how to use Corel?

Something French, of course. It’s summer, so without food I tend to avoid the big boys: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Monastrell etc.; instead I tend towards lighter, fruity reds I can chill a little. Still, sometimes it’s good to have a little structure to go along with the bounce, and this bottle provided exactly the right balance for the occasion.

The 2009 Cheverny Clos du Tue-Boeuf is made entirely from the Gamay grape, of Beaujolais fame, but this is from Cheverny in the Loire. With its cool climate and ideal growing season for this ancient varietal, the Loire produces many highly regarded wines made exclusively from Gamay. I love them in summer because they tend towards lip-smacking acidity, bright fruitiness and are light in weight. Gamay from the Loire makes a perfect companion for picnics and picnic foods. In this case,  I sipped a glass in my apartment while going through photos.

First impression was of bright red in the glass, with aromas of dusty cherry and some floral notes. A nice sour quality too. Bright and snappy in the mouth, but with a silky texture and great fruit. Just impeccably balanced, really fine in all its parts. Quenching, medium finish. An amazing value in top-notch Gamay for $13 a bottle.