Over the years, the Pinot Noir grape variety has garnered quite a reputation and following in Burgundy, France, and is now booming with much success in both California and Oregon as well. What most wine lovers do not know, is that Pinot Noir is also the patriarch to a family of other Pinot grape varieties—two of which, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, can often offer exceptional value.
Take the 2012 Au Bon Climat Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris blend, for instance. Owner/winemaker Jim Clendenen has made quite an international name for himself and his Burgundian styled Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. He is one of those winemakers, interestingly, who believe that the grand white Burgundies of old were not produced solely from the Chardonnay grape variety, but included other Pinot Noir off spring, such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Beurot and Pinot Blanc. In homage of this thought, Clendenen produces this unique blend Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris as a separate bottling. At roughly $20 a bottle retail, this very elegant, highly refined, minerally Chardonnay taste-a-like REALLY over delivers for dollar.
Interestingly, Clendenen also blends these two grape varieties with another distant cousin variety, Aligote, to produce a vanguard Reserve level bottling named Hildegard (roughly $48 a bottle). We recently tasted the 1999 and 2003 and walked away totally wow-ed and impressed. They both were closer to a top echelon white Burgundy in quality, minerality and style. The emperor of Burgundy, back in its glory days, was Charlemagne. Hildegard was his wife, who Clendenen named this cuvee after as a homage to the glorious, aristocratic white Burgundies of old.
Another standout well worth checking out is the Cantina Terlan Pinot Bianco (roughly $22 a bottle) from the steep, rocky hills of northeast Italy. This wine is brisk, riveting and full of lip-smacking minerality and refreshing acidity. Furthermore, unlike many of the other wines from this area which are more fruit driven and much simpler, the Terlan Pinot Bianco has true character, virility & hutzpah. Because it also quite remarkably light in body, this wine can work with a surprisingly wide array of foods.
In 2007, Cheryle and I tasted a very unique white wine, while visiting Burgundy and the house of Lucien Boillot. The wine’s label simply read—“Les Grands Poisots” and was produced from the Pinot Beurot grape variety, which is another Pinot Noir offspring. I was astounded to smell and taste such a cornucopia of cherry like essences from cough drops to sour cherry, to ripe red cherry; nuances I normally associate with a red grape like Pinot Noir. From this, I walked away with a clearer understanding of the connection between Pinot Noir and its offspring.
As a side note, I was then somewhat taken back, when I re-tasted the wine after it actually arrived here in the Islands, as the wine now tasted not of cherries as I remembered but instead much more about minerality from the limestone rich soils the vines grow in. Yes, the French have a skill of showing the “sense of place” through their wines. I had heard that a few cases of a more current vintage has arrived here in Hawaii. At roughly $29 a bottle, this is a wine worth checking out, not only because of its uniqueness, but more about how elegant, refined and interesting it is.
We reopened our VINO restaurant on October 1, 2015 & still wanted it to be a neighborhood eatery, where people could just come hang out & have some good wine & good food at reasonable prices. It took 4 1/2 months to redo the place.
Well, there was a wall that needed some “loving”.
This past June while visiting Ancient Peaks winery in southern Paso Robles, our friend Amanda Wittstrom Higgins showed us how they were going to display 5 of their different soils from their Santa Margarita Ranch in their newly renovated tasting room. Boing!!! What an idea!….one we looked to also use on that VINO wall.
This is just the start, but will give you an idea of the intent.
I thought of all the restaurants which showcase pictures of the owner/Chef standing next to some celebrity or in front of some iconic restaurant somewhere in the world, which impressed them. I have also seen other eatery’s featuring pictures of farmers & fisherman they work with.
Well, for us, especially with a name like VINO, we look to feature the soils from some of our favorite vineyards in the world & here is the start.
There are many wines available which prominently label the grape variety. Many of the resulting wines are much more about the grape varietal nuances. (Familiarity…..which is really good thing).
In contrast, there are many other wines, especially from the Old World, which are named after their place of origin. Furthermore, these also showcase that “sense of place” in both smell & taste. In the most interesting of these cases, the soil the vines are planted in, somehow plays a very critical role in the finished wine’s character. The French refer to this concept as “terroir“.
With that in mind, the 5 glass pipes on VINO’s rock wall feature soils/rocks from 5 of our favorite & unique vineyard sites.
#1 is schist soil from the seaport village of Collioure, down in southern France. This is where the Pyranees Mountains dive into the Mediterranean Sea near the border where France meets Spain. Our favorite producer of the area (AND one of our favorite producers from anywhere else for that matter) is Domaine La Tour Vieille. We love their various bottlings of Collioure, which is why their rocks are up on our wall . The wines are VERY unique & feature a lurking, masculine, sultry, provocative core though done with grace, suave-ability & surprising deliciousness (as opposed to just being tasty)! The site where these schist rocks came from is too steep to use any kind of machinery to just add further to the intrigue. Co-owner Christine Chateau is a VERY insightful, deep though practical thinking, true artisan.
#2 is clay-limestone soil from Burgundy, France. Beneath this layer is a bedrock of solid limestone. There is actually a limestone quarry down the road some. These rocks came from the Premier Cru vineyard of Genellote located above the hamlet of Blagny & entitled to label their resulting white wine as Meursault Premier Cru. Interestingly, their limestone has some marl to it AND this particular vineyard is located at higher elevation making for VERY different wines than those from the vineyards located below. I believe this is a monopole for Cherisey, & a real favorite of ours. We love profoundly stony, soulful, intensely structured, old style white Burgundy like this. It stirs the soul & reminds me of where we came from in terms of wine styles.
#3 (right in the middle) is fossilized oyster shells from the Santa Margarita Ranch located in southern Paso Robles, 1000 feet in elevation, 14 miles from the ocean. The vineyard actually has at least 5 different soils types, but the owner, Ancient Peaks winery, is just now getting into a real winemaking groove, with blends from vines in the different soil veins. We just, for instance, came up with a unique Cabernet blend, named “Pikake” for Hawaiian Airlines’ First Class Service International using a core of Cabernet grapes grown in the oyster shell influenced soils which is very different from their own estate bottling.
#4 is red slate from the Nackheimer Rothenberg vineyard, which is located in the Rheinhessen region of Germany. Rising from the Rhine River, this steep, rocky/red slate soiled vineyard, in my opinion, is the crown jewel of the region. Owner/winemaker Johannes Hasselbach (& previously his father Fritz) are producing some of the very best wines out of Germany under the Gunderloch label. Furthermore, because of the resulting wines’ underlying stoniness (which greatly butresses the wine’s acidity) & the highly refined style make their wines VERY well suited for the kinds of foods, especially Asian inspired, that we have here in the Islands AND also so thirstquenching for those especially hot days.
#5 is black/gray slate from the iconic Wehlener Sonnenuhr, one of Germany’s most revered vineyard sites. Since Bert Selbach of Dr F Weins Prum is a descendent of the Prum family, he inherited some of the Mosel River’s most hallowed vineyard sites, including this one. Using grapes from these unbelievable sites, he masterfully crafts some of the most ethereal, airy, finesseful, filagreed Rieslings out of Germany. We just love his wines!
We did not label the rocks, because we did not want this to be a museum like piece. Hopefully, however, these rocks will stimulate conversation. They also remind & inspire us daily a handful of the true treasures of the wine world.
Here is a note from long time wine friend Bruce Neyers, which I enjoyed reading & thought you might too.
“I learned earlier this week that Paul Bara of Bouzy died a few days ago, in Bouzy at the age of 93. I had to pause and collect myself upon hearing the news. I met Paul on my first trip to France for Kermit, in January 1993. He greeted us wearing a suit and a tie, along with a handsome cloth homburg that seemed to have come right out of a Marcel Pagnol film. He said he wore it all day because he never knew when he had to go into the icy cellars. He collected all 12 of us in his office — prominently decorated with beautiful antique maps of the region. He poured each of us a glass of Champagne, then sat us down in classroom fashion and conducted a lecture replete with photos of the vineyards, and a history lesson of the Champagne region. He spoke of Champagne as three regions, and then talked about the historical, cultural and political reasons it had become divided. He was a big man, powerfully built and physically imposing, and he seemed even larger standing in front of us all, wielding his pointer to show this or that district and describe the Champagne from each respective area. He then took us to the cellar and pointed out the pick marks of the tunnels in the chalk. He explained how they were dug by hand in the days before the ‘Great War’, and then showed the tunnel extension that he had dug himself, alone, without help. I seem to recall that he said he could get about two meters deep a day, about 2.5 meters high, and 2 meters wide. Their bottling system was most impressive, as it was an antique, capable of doing only one bottle at a time. He would always disgorge a few bottles for us — I think he kept them on the riddling rack just to show off. No one could ever take a photograph of him disgorging Champagne, so fast was he able to disgorge it. He would do a dozen or so bottles in just a few seconds. He was an intellectual on his craft, and always affable, professorial and generous. And he loved to drink Champagne. He reminded me of why it is that Champagne makes us so cheerful. I’m so pleased that I had the chance to have met him. Please make it a point to enjoy a bottle of Paul Bara Champagne this week, and think pleasant thoughts of this impressive pioneer. He was one for the ages“.
Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants
I recently jumped on a plane on a last minute notice to San Francisco to meet up with my best friends Nunzio & Joanne Alioto. Despite landing & getting settled around midnight, Nunzio & I headed for the Napa Valley at 6:30 the next morning to visit with some of Napa Valley’s true icons. It was a very short visit I will certainly treasure forever.
Our first visit was with Ric Forman. I remember tasting what I thought was his first wine, the 1969 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon, back in the late 70’s. (he corrected me…..apparently 1966 was his first vintage, though not at Sterling). Sterling was definitely a hot California wine ticket back then & one that escalated under his reign with the 1974 being a most highly acclaimed crown jewel. Rick went on to Newton & later in the mid 80’s founded his own label–Forman Vineyard. On each visit to the Napa Valley, I make it a point to stop by & see his vineyard. It really is something special–a pushed up river bed, surrounded by solid rock on each side. The gravelly soils is what his Cabernets clearly showcase, especially with some bottle age. Who better to talk story with about all of the different clones & selections of Cabernet Sauvignon in our effort to better understand where it all lies today? Ric has always been a very straightforward man, who is an incredibly skilled & gifted technician & uber focused & dedicated. By the way, I was also surprised to see he now produces an Atlas Peak grown Pinot Noir with his wife Cheryl under the Rossi Wallace label.
As we headed back to St Helena for our next appointment, we stopped for a cup of coffee & ran into long time, iconic Howell Mountain Cabernet meister (subsequent Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir standout), Bill Smith. Bill, almost unassumingly so, helped change the Napa Valley Cabernet category with his inky, massive, powerful, intensely structured Howell Mountain Cabernets under his La Jota label (which he later sold off to Kendall Jackson back in 2002 or 03). In addition, he was instrumental in championing the Viognier & Cabernet Franc grape varieties through his stellar bottlings. In speaking to him, I was clearly reminded how humble & unassuming he really is. I just hope that the newer generations remember Bill’s remarkable ground breaking contributions made over the years to further the Napa Valley to the world class position it has today.
We then met up with the venerable Bruce Neyers. We were anxious to meet with Bruce because of his long tenure in the Napa Valley where I first met him in the late 70’s early 80’s when he was running Jospeh Phelps. Secondly, since 1992 when he left Phelps, he worked with iconic wine importer Kermit Lynch creating quite an understanding & niche for all of their artisan French (& now Italian) producers across the country. Thirdly, Bruce & his lovely wife Barbara launched their own wines under the Neyers label, which they purchased from Joe Phelps back in the 90’s. Bruce made the most memorable 1992 Merlot from their estate vineyard in Conn Valley. I knew Bruce would be a wealth of information, not only on Cabernet & the Napa Valley, but on even more critical wine growing topics such as sustainability, cover crops, clones versus heirloom/heritage vines AND a much more practical perspective on “hands off” winemaking. He certainly delivered on all topics & then some. Imagine speaking about what his friend, the truly iconic Joe Swan did way back when to help change the wine game in California & then 2 minutes later, talk about what Noel Verset & August Clape did in Cornas to change the game there. I truly admire how Bruce is able to sift through all of the jargon, innovations, trends & understand & apply what makes the most sense in pursuit of a living vineyard & timeless wines. When asked, for instance the pros & cons of rootstocks St George & the en vogue 3309 & 420A, Bruce said something simple like “St georges has been here for 40 or so years. It wants to be here”. To put it another way, here is a man who helped create Insignia & usher it on the world wine stage with all of its subsequent accolades, yet grow & make his own wine from a VERY different slant. I can’t remember the last time, we bought an Insignia, awards, accolades & all, but we buy the Neyers Cabernet every vintage.
Our final appointment in the Napa Valley on this day was with superstar Mia Klein. She consulted on many star projects such as Dalla Valle, Viader, Araujo, Spottswoode & Etude just to name a few. Her own label is Selene. I remember how thrilled I was when in 2003, Mia was selected as “Winemaker of the Year”. It was one of those rare occasions, when someone received an award they really deserved. My vote, if I had one, would have been won many years before, when a group of us were invited up to Dalla Valle to taste a vertical of their wines. This meant tasting the early on ones made by Heidi Peterson Barrett & the 1994, 95 & 96 crafted by Mia Klein & Tony Soter. It was a night & day comparison & I have been a believer since. Mia’s wines have such elegance, grace, refinement, textured & balance, all masterfully done. In addition, she has much aloha & is a REALLY good person, which makes it all a complete package. Because Mia has consulted for projects sourcing grapes from up & down the valley, we knew we would get a very different perpsective on the topic. She also pulled some barrel samples from various vineyards to illustrate her thoughts on site over vine. (By the way, each of the wines were truly superb–inspiring & soulful core with an already charismatic, classy personality.) I would love to go on & on about all of the wine highlights she crafted which I have been fortunate to taste over the years, but let me instead just say–She is a Master!
We headed home to shower & freshen up and then on to the City for dinner at Nostra Spaghetteria. (It is a restaurant located in the Mission district which is a must to dine at if you are looking for great pasta, good wine & reasonable prices). Anyway, who pops in–Fred Dame, the legendary Master Sommelier. Just so every knows, Fred was the one who got the MS Program to come here to America back in 1986. He gave us the opportunity AND he has been championing the whole program to more & more generations since. Thankfully, Fred also came with a magnum of 1996 Chapoutier Hermitage “Le Meal” in hand to share. Next to him on the right is Nunzio Alioto, another one of the iconic, old time Master Sommeliers. TWO game changers to say the least!!!!
What a phenomenol 1 1/2 day trip, wouldn’t you say?
To better set the table, let’s first spend a few paragraphs discussing another wine category-“trophy” wines. Since many wine lovers are more familiar with this niche, I thought it would be easier.
–2002 Harlan Estate–“trophy”
–1997 Abreu “Madrona Ranch”–“trophy”
–2008 Penfolds Grange–“trophy”
–2003 Guigal “La Mouline”–“trophy”
–1982 Chateau Latour–“trophy”
–1985 Romanee Conti from Domaine de la Romanee Conti–“trophy”
Get the idea? Impact wines….wines for the cellar….TODAY, 96 to 100 point rated wines….”guess what I have”…..”how did you get that?”….only 50 cases produced…..110 year old vines…..1/2 a ton per acre yields….Michel Rolland consultant……Grand Cru.
Nothing wrong with that! If I could afford them, I would certainly look to buy some. AND, if wineries out of this elite circle had the means to produce these kinds of wines & the resulting cult like following, at these high prices, I am sure most would. After all, would you prefer to get $7 for your Tuscan born bottle of red wine OR $150 (pre-paid) for your Sassicaia? For me…NO brainer.
A distinctly different wine category is what I refer to as “country” wines. An example of this style of wine would be that $7 bottle of Tuscan born red listed above. It is a style of regional wines commonly served at cafes & bistros along the Mediterranean basin & those scattered throughout the countryside. At eateries, where one can see workers wearing overalls/jeans, as well as more fashionably dressed business people, these are the wines which develop a following for other reasons.
–regional (yes, that would be great)
–delicious (if we expect our foods to be delicious, then hopefully the wines we wash them down with them are delicious too.)
–lighter bodied (that would be great but not absolutely necessary)
–wonderfully food friendly
–& most importantly gulpable (& therefore NO hard edges)
Here are some examples of what we mean.
Domaine Skouras “Zoe”–this is the handiwork of owner/winemaker Giorgio Skouras. Burgundy trained, Giorgio is part of the new age stars trying to move Greece & its wines into the modern era of the world wine stage. In this case, this wine is produced from 2 indigenious grape varieties–Roditis & Moschofilero, both grown down in the Peloponnese. This wonderfully perfumed, light & crisp white wine is yet another example of what we refer to as “aromatic”, whose fragrant qualities heighten & uplift foods in a similar way that fresh herbs do. Furthermore, you will be amazed how these kinds of wines synergize with fresh herbs & create pairing magic. Lastly, this wine really is tasty, light bodied, food friendly, gulpable AND really affordable!
MY Essential Rose–is one of the wine projects of the brilliant & ingenius Master Sommelier Richard Betts. The first vintages we tasted where from Provence, France. They were as delicious, light, minerally & therefore ethereal as they come. The first clue was how lightly hued the color was…..& whose nose was as pretty as pretty can be with a very captivating, subtle minerality that not only kept things interesting, but also greatly added to perceived buoyancy of the wine. The crazy thing is, though, the price tag!!!! A real deal & a real steal! You will be amazed at how wide a window of foods this wine can work with–rich soups, salads, pizza, sausage, marinated meat, BBQ. I suggest you keep several bottles in the refrigerator. Furthermore, there are many other PINK wines, today, that one can enjoy along these lines too. You should come by VINO & see how many wonderful roses we normally carry–from light & pretty to more masculine. We feel they represent a very important segment of food friendliness.
Domaine de Fontsainte Corbieres–this has been one of our absolute favorite French red “country” wines for a couple of decades. As old timers recall, it wasn’t that long ago that most of southern France was noted for producing a sea of mediocre wines. Yes, quality has changed, partly because of the focus on small, interesting parcels of intriguing soils, altitude & old vines & partly because of better farming & certainly better winemaking. I also believe, however, America, specifically, has also grown to love & therefore embrace indigenious, country, historic & cultural ways of these families whose passion & determination perservere. They’ve proven Fontsainte’s property, for instance, was cleared & farmed by the Romans way back when. The current family took over in the 17th Century. Rather than planting more & more Syrah, or using lots of new oak barrels like many of their neighbors, they’ve instead chosen to make wines like their predecessors have. This bottling, for instance, is mainly Carignane grape based. While Carignane is not showy, flashy or noble, in this case it sure is UBER-delicious AND incredibly food friendly. The Grenache, Syrah & other grape varieties just add nuances & more character to the wine.
Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais–“good” Beaujolais is one the most important sub-categories of food friendly red “country” styled wines for me. The whole secret is finding good ones. It really is not as easy as one would think. Part of the challenge (& not limited to Beaujolais) is that there are a growing number of suped up versions–meaning bigger, more intense, more profound, more dramatic–which is not a bad thing at all for me, it is just moving that particular wine out of the “country” wine zone for me. There now are thankfully quite a few brilliant, provocative, masterful Cru Beaujolais being produced today & kudos to each of them for their hard work, determination & truly fearless passion, but when I am hankering for a delicious, light bodied, food friendly gulper, I look for Dupeuble. This family has been farming their vineyards for 500 years, & today is organic & biodynamic. When you examine their grape growing & winemaking practices, they truly take as natural of an approach to both as they can BUT, most importantly, this wine is absolutely delicious as can be, light on the palate with a very understated minerality which helps to make each glass better than the last. Then, I suggest you consider the price. In my world, it is a Hall of Famer!
Cantine Valpane Freisa “Canone Inverso”–Freisa is a grape variety local to Piemonte, which we see less & less bottled on its own. In this day & age of power, dark colored & showiness being in fashion, I don’t think Freisa fits the desired grape variety list. What caught our eye with this wine, however, was the enticing perfume this grape variety can offer, which makes it a very interesting alternative for the dinner table. Like the “aromatic” white wine I mentioned above, I also believe there is a niche for “aromatic” red wines, in terms of foods, too. Cantine Valpane produces honest, more masculine styled, blue collar wines….nothing fancy…no frills…no fancy packaging. We love their Barbera del Monferrato, but have also become enamored with this bottling. Try this with an herbed pizza or thyme roast chicken & you will see what can be.
Chateau Fontanes “Les Traverses de Fontanes”–so we close with this “country” red from southern France. This cuvee is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon….from 40 year old vines, organically & biodynamically farmed! The vineyard is remote, surrounded by sun baked rocks, wild shrub & herbs & one can readily smell them in the finished wine. Yes, it is a wine which truly is about a sense of place, rather than a grape variety. So…..I ask that you try a glass of this wine, next to a glass of your favorite higher end Napa Valley Cabernet. (Since the Fontanes is surprisingly reasonably priced, just pop a bottle when you are intent on drinking the Napa Cabernet). THEN….I suggest you try the same 2 wines with a pizza or a piece of salami. Hopefully, you will better understand the difference between a “trophy” wine & a “country” wine!!!!!!
Here is a fun game I like to play when I go to wine country or when I hang out with other sommeliers/wine professionals. I like to ask each– their top 5 favorites of a wine category–whether it is Pinot Noir, regional Ligurian, unclassified Bordeaux, great values, or whatever they may insights into. Then from there, those that I don’t know, I start doing research on them.
It’s quick, fun & certainly a learning opportunity.
Here is a note from our dear wine friend, Bruce Neyers that really moved me. I thought you might want to read it too.
“Dixon reports on word just in from Thierry Allemand that Noël Verset died over this past weekend. Dixon called him, “A kind and gentle soul with a genie’s touch with the Syrah”.
Those of you who accompanied me on the early KLWM France trips will no doubt remember the tastings with Noël, on the packed earth floor of his ancient cellars in Cornas. His eyes twinkled like a fairy tale elf as he bounded up and down the ladder to draw samples out of the casks, some of them used for winemaking by his grandfather. I have one bottle of Noël’s Cornas left in my cellar. I plan to drink it next Saturday night, and think about this remarkable man who so changed my life. All of us who had a chance to meet him should take a moment and reflect on our good fortune. For those of you who might not have seen it, a few years ago I wrote a remembrance of my first meeting with Noël, on my 1993 Kermit Lynch trip to France with Ehren Jordan. I wanted to read it again while thinking of Noël, and I thought you might enjoy one last look at this remarkable man.
The World’s Greatest Syrah, and a Teardrop
I met Noël Verset in 1993, on my first trip to France for Kermit Lynch. Although he was then in his late seventies, he was still actively working the vines and making wine. Kermit had arranged a two-week trip for me to meet his growers; the itinerary that he laid out started in Alsace and ended 12 days later in Marseilles. My friend and former colleague, Ehren Jordan, had moved to France a few months earlier and was working for Jean Luc Columbo in Cornas. I was pleasantly surprised when Ehren offered to take some vacation time and join me for the trip. He said it would give him a chance to visit some other regions and taste a wide range of wines. I welcomed the prospect of another driver and especially an interpreter. After meeting at the airport in Strasbourg in early January, we traveled through France together — visiting many of Kermit’s suppliers and tasting their wines. I was learning as much as I could about the wines, their history, their production techniques, and any other details that would help me sell them.
After a short drive through Alsace, we continued on to Burgundy, then to Chalonnaise, Mâcon and Beaujolais. We entered the northern Rhône in Vienne. From Côte-Rôtie we drove to Condrieu. After stopping to visit a producer in St. Joseph, we drove on to Hermitage. All along this part of the route we tasted Syrah. In many places, we tasted Syrah like I had never tasted before, for we were in the home of that seductive wine. After a tasting with Gérard Chave, in Mauves, we drove on to Cornas for another visit, followed by dinner at a local hotel. Ehren was excited to return to Cornas; this was his new home. As the only American living in the region, he was a celebrity, well known by many of the locals. Everywhere we went, people would see his large white American car with its Pennsylvania license plates, and begin to wave at us enthusiastically. Since he didn’t want to be late for our appointment with Noël Verset, we sped through the tiny back streets of this ancient town. At the end of what seemed like a deserted alley, we parked the car and walked towards a sign noting the cellars of Noël Verset, Vigneron. We rang the bell and were immediately greeted by the short and cherubic Noël.
He was delighted to see Ehren. As I learned during our tasting, Noël’s wife of over 50 years had died four years before and, since his two daughters had long ago married and moved out of the area, he was living alone. Over the previous few months, he and Ehren had formed a close bond. Weekly, they prepared a dinner together and shared it, along with a bottle of wine, at Noel’s kitchen table. At one point, Noël confided in me that the meeting with Ehren had been important for him, coming as it did during a time when he was still trying to come to grips with the enormous grief he felt over the loss of his wife. We tasted several wines in his rustic cellars, then adjourned to the kitchen, where Ehren and Noël assumed their customary spots at the table. Before Noel sat down, however, he walked across the room and opened the door leading down to his frigid basement. Behind it stood a recently opened bottle of Verset 1988 Cornas.
The 1988 vintage in Cornas, as I was to soon learn, had been an especially good one. Knowing how much Ehren enjoyed this wine, Noël had set aside a bottle for us to drink while we sat and talked. In a few moments, he reached behind him and withdrew from the bookcase a large, plastic-covered photo album. Drawing a satisfying gulp of wine, he opened the book to the first page, careful to tilt it so that I could see the photo, a black and white of a strikingly attractive, slender woman in a bathing suit of the 1930’s, standing on a beach on a bright summer day. Her hair was wet, presumably from a dip in the Mediterranean, which could be seen behind her in the photo. Noël said that it was his wife, during a summer vacation they took in Cannes. She died, he said, in 1988, and whenever he drank a bottle from that vintage he liked to look at the old pictures of them, enjoying the early days of their life together.
With this, he slowly turned each page, and made a comment regarding when and where it was taken. Ehren translated for me. In a few minutes, I was transfixed, both by the magnificent wine and by this beautiful woman who was, sadly, no longer part of Noël’s life. He seemed cheerful, though, especially when talking about the photos. And then I noticed a drop of moisture as it fell from his eyes and splattered on the vinyl covering the photograph. I looked at him and saw his eyes full of tears. My eyes welled up, too.
Noël ran through the rest of the album quickly now, as his teardrops were coming a bit faster and the end of the bottle was in sight. With a final sigh, he closed the book, turned his back on us for a bit longer than he needed to, then turned back to face the table. He was entirely composed by then. I can’t remember if I was.
Noël looked at me, as he was taking a final sip of wine. “So what do you think of my 1988 Cornas?” he asked. I paused for a moment, composed myself, and replied, “I think it’s the greatest Syrah I’ve ever tasted.”
Bruce Neyers Kermit Lynch National Sales Office
I was greatly saddened to hear of Noël Verset’s passing this past weekend. He certainly was one of the world’s true, iconic winemaking masters.
Sometime in the 1980’s I became so intrigued, bordering obsessed, with a group of Syrah Masters from France’s northern Rhone Valley–Chave in Hermitage, Gentaz in Cote Rotie & Clape & Verset in Cornas. Each were imported at that time by Kermit Lynch. (To that, I later would add Trollat in St Joseph & Allemand in Cornas to the list). I am most thankful to Kermit for introducing me these wines.
In hindsight, I was very fortunate to be exposed to these masterful Syrahs before the meteoric rise to superstardom by Guigal & the sheer power of high Robert Parker ratings. I therefore understood what true, authentic, pure, artisan Syrah could be.
While I genuinely loved each of these producer’s wines, the Verset Cornas truly had a special place in my heart. Above all its attributes, they had soul. People would always point out ‘flaws” in the Verset wines to me, but I REALLY didn’t care, as the Verset wines went straight from my taste buds to somewhere deep inside of me. I therefore enjoyed them on SO many levels.
I remember reading somewhere Noël’s career in wine began in 1931, working alongside his father at the tender age of 12. I believe his first vintage under his own label was sometime in the 40’s. During his 70 plus year tenure, he was able to acquire great holdings on the Cornas hillside, including Champelrose, Chaillots & Sabarotte (the soul of his wines). Interestingly, though, from those iconic lieu dits, he still produced only one Cornas.
I started hearing rumors, of an impending retirement by Noël with the 1999 vintage. I was therefore thrilled to still get some 2000……then some 2003….& finally a smidgeon of 2006. During that time, I later discovered, he had been slowly selling off his parcels to people he chose to sell to, which included Allemand & Clape, yet still made some quantities of wine for “home use”.
One of the crazy side notes to this story, is that his wines were so reasonably priced, considering how hard the vineyards were to work because of their remarkable rockiness/steepness. Furthermore, how crazy is it that Guigal & Chapoutier were getting at least 10 times the price further north for their “fruit bombs”? My mind set was always I’ll gladly take 1 bottle of Verset for 1 bottle of Guigal, much less the going rate of 10 to 1!
Yes, I am sorry to say….the end of an era.
When one is looking for top echelon Cabernet, for most wine lovers Bordeaux, France or California’s Napa Valley would probably pop up first.
Makes sense. After all, Bordeaux has quite a long history of producing world-class Cabernet based red wines. The much “younger” Napa Valley, on the other hand, vaulted onto the world wine stage, when a bottling from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars finished first in the 1976 Paris Wine Exhibition blind, comparative tasting of Californian & Bordelaise Cabernet based red wines.
What most people do not know or remember is that the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon “SLV” was followed (in order) by 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 1970 Chateau Haut Brion, 1970 Chateau Montrose & then the 1971 Ridge “Monte Bello” in fifth place.
Back then, in the late 70’s, I didn’t even stop to think that the Monte Bello vineyard was not located in the Napa Valley. This iconic vineyard is actually located at somewhere between 2000 & 2600 feet elevation in the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation, near Cupertino, overlooking the Santa Clara Valley. I remember reading somewhere, that the vineyard is roughly 83.5 acres in size, spread out on 33 parcels on the hillside, (but not sure if this information is current today).
Makes you wonder why anyone would plant vines way up there on that remote, high elevation site? AND, it makes you wonder how could they have known the quality would be akin to Californian Grand Cru?
I’ve been fortunate to have tasted the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello a few times over the years & would wholeheartedly agree it is a standout wine.
Furthermore, just so you know, the 1971 Monte Bello was NOT a one vintage wonder for the winery either. Several other vintages–1968, 1970, 1971, 1977 (one of the very best Californians I have ever had), & later the 1981 & 1985 have also really stood out.
Another non-Napa Valley Californian Cabernet Sauvignon site which has stood out to me over the years is the Laurel Glen vineyard. Located at somewhere between 800 to 1000 feet in elevation atop Sonoma Mountain, it was originally 3 acres in size (today, listed at 16 acres in size), planted in 1968 to an unknown Cabernet vine selection, (which is today considered proprietary). Grapes from the earlier vintages were sold to Chateau St Jean & Kenwood. Patrick Campbell purchased the property in 1977 & produced his first commercial vintage with the 1981. Over the years since, Laurel Glen produced some very provocative, earth driven, more elegant, balanced Cabernets……some of my favorites over the years……AND, which got better with age (unlike many of its Californian peers). I was amazed, when the 1997 was released, as it was the very first Cabernet, Patrick (& co-winemaker Ray Kaufman) produced that was over the 14 degree alcohol mark. Patrick sadly sold the estate a few years back. Thankfully, I still have some older vintages stashed away somewhere.
When speaking of Sonoma born Cabernet Sauvignon, I also really have to mention those from Scherrer Winery & owner/winemaker Fred Scherrer. The grapes actually come from his father’s vineyard located on a bench above the Silver Oak planting in Alexander Valley. I am continually amazed at how elegant, classy, refined & wonderfully layered his Cabernets are. One could say, they are Cabs, crafted by a Pinot master. I am also amazed at how much better & more harmonious each get with some bottle age. Just know, Napa Valley Cab lovers, the Scherrer renditions display red fruit, not black fruit & deftly display a stony minerality rather than decadence & opulence.
A growing hotbed today for Cabernet Sauvignon in California is Paso Robles, which is located roughly halfway between San Francisco & Los Angeles. It seems the real sweet spot for this grape variety in the region is on the westside of Highway 101, amongst the rolling hills (& therefore hillsides) born of marine influenced, calcareous soils such as limestone & siliceous clay. People are now comparing these growing conditions more & more to Bordeaux’s St Emilion sub-region. The resulting wines therefore typically feature red fruit, rather than black fruit. In addition, what really initially caught my attention was the innate minerality underlying throughout the wine from beginning to end, which not only creates interestingness, but a fascinating buoyancy too. Where Justin Winery was the ground breaking pioneers back in the 80’s, it is becoming more apparent that today the Daou brothers star is really starting to shine brightly in the category of Paso Robles Cabernet based reds. There is sure much more to follow in the future, pending dealing with the area’s extreme water shortages the past several years.
I almost excluded mentioning the vast potential I believe there is in the Happy Canyon sub-appellation of Santa Barbara. Because it much further east, it is therefore much warmer than the other Santa Barbaran subregions. Coupled with more shale & gravel soils, this has the making for some very interesting potential. Keep an eye out. Happy Canyon’s time will come!
It is amazing how every few years, a new superstar winery seems to emerge. Today, it happens so quickly, the velocity largely due to the media, specifically the writings of Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer & of course the Wine Spectator.
In contrast, when I was growing up in this industry, I had a bucket list of wines I would hope to taste one day. The list included several vintages each of Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Petrus, Cheval Blanc & D’Yquem, DRC Romanee Conti, La Tache & Montrachet, Chave Hermitage, Bollinger “Vieilles Vignes Francaise” & Egon Mueller Scharzhofberger Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese, just to name a few.
Outside of that classic realm, my list list also included a few iconic “other” wines, which I had only heard about–such as Penfold’s Grange Hermitage (as it was called way back when), Giacomo Conterno Barolo “Monfortino”, Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino, AND, of course Vegas Sicilia Unico.
I was absolutely thrilled, for instance, to taste the 1971 Grange Hermitage in the early 1980’s. The Food & Beverage Director I was working with at that time was from Australia & therefore had quite a stash of Grange Hermitage wines, I believe dating back to 1955. I remember having to trade a 1966 Chateau Haut Brion and a bottle of 1971 Krug to get it. (quite the cost for a young, aspiring sommelier back then). I don’t even want to try & remember what it took for me to get some of the even older vintages. But the experience was worth it nonetheless.
Likewise, I was absolutely thrilled to taste my first Unico, the 1962, sometime in the mid 1980’s. I must admit I remember being underwhelmed at first. How could after all, an iconic wine, one only dreamed of one day tasting, ever live up to its almost mythological reputation?
With my second taste, however, I came to the realization that the pinnacle of wine for me at that time came from either Bordeaux and Burgundy and I was therefore comparing/judging “other” red wines based upon those 2 models. Oh, the 1971 Grange was much bigger & more resoundingly deeper & opulent than the 19XX Chateau Latour……or the 1962 Unico was more rugged, hearty & coarser than the 1962 Chateau Margaux.
I instead now had to adjust my thinking to….the 1962 Unico was indeed a very interesting, unique red wine, which tasted like NO other. Furthermore, it deftly showed the potential the Tempranillo grape variety has…..AND therefore set a standard for other Spanish reds to be measured by in the future.
I can still say the same today.