Monday, 25 October 2010

Terroir. The French word that links wine inextricably to place. California?

Terroir. I'm glad there's no translation for the French word that links wine inextricably to place. Because it means one thing and one thing alone. 

A bit like dental records. Whenever you hear that phrase on the radio or television it calls out to your ears because it has one unchallenged, and only one. meaning: that the examination of dental records was the only method by which to confirm the identity of a body.

The French can take tons of grapes from a single grape variety, or a combination of grapes, and vinify them in myriad ways but the unique element that gives the resulting wine its very identity is terroir - everything affecting the land on which they are grown.

But take those same grapes and transplant them to the so-called New World and do they achieve a sense of place? 

In California, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard believes so, with what he terms vins de terroir.

The Santa Cruz pioneer has long used his renowned skills as a négociant to bring together the produce of what he considered the most expressive vineyards to create the likes of Le Cigare Volant. 

The original Rhône Ranger Randall Grahm, with his
homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Le Cigare Volant
For the 2006 vintage Randall chose Syrah from the Chequera Vineyard on the Central Coast for its fragrance, in addition to the usual Santa Maria Valley Syrah and Bonny Doon's own Biodynamic Estate Grenache, plus Cinsault and a dash of Mourvedre from 100-year-old Contra Costa vineyards. Any resemblance to Châteauneuf-du-Pape is deliberate.  

In typical pioneeering style Randall actually lists the breakdown of grape varieties on the label: 43.6% Syrah, 43.5% Grenache, 11.7% Cinsault - even 1.1% Mourvedre and 0.1% Carignan.

The revelations continue with a full disclosure of ingredients on the website, and befitting for a champion of change, a screwcap on the bottle. 

It's built for aging and will still be drinking well in 2012. For now, it's all rich red Grenache fruit and smoky Syrah spices: fresh pomegranate, red cherry, sharp raspberries and strawberries with typical Grenache softness on the palate plus dried herbs, black pepper and anise with chewy tannins and 13.5% alcohol for a long finish. Worth decanting.

As is so often the case, it has a white sister: Le Cigare Blanc. White wines are often pale shadows of their big red brothers; think Rioja as well as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but Randall Grahm applied the same exacting standards to the 2007 Le Cigare Blanc as to Le Cigare Volant. 

A single vineyard cru, it uses only Rousanne and Grenache Blanc from the Biodynamics Beeswax Vineyard of Arroyo Seco. It's lively on the nose with honey and fresh lavender scents. Fine gold in colour with a hint of green on the sticky 14.5% ABV rim, the weight of alcohol makes it smoothly silken in the mouth, the Rousanne giving a Calvados like quality to its intense pear finish.  Very expressive now but it may retreat for a year or two before maturing fully.

Randall Grahm may have categorised his earlier creations as 'wines of effort' - intellectual challenges to the winemaking norms - but Le Cigare Volant and Le Cigare Blanc are examples of his resolve to allow nature to take the upper hand over nurture in expressions of terroir that belie his earliest obsession with the Great American Pinot Noir and instead betray his determination to pay homage to the great wines of the Rhône. 

With thanks to Fields Morris & Verdin for helping me track down Boony Doon Vineyards' wines in the UK and to Berry Bros & Rudd.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Sylvaner. Poor man's Riesling?

Think of Alsace and you can picture pots of pelargoniums hanging in baskets from every building, clinging onto window ledges and crowding doorways, entrance gates and courtyards. They love their flowers in Alsace, although seemingly just the one variety.

They love their food too. Tarts two I should say, as the most popular dishes are quiche lorraine and tarte flambée. The former an oven baked short crust pastry flan with lardons and onions in a savoury egg custard, the latter an oven baked bread dough based flan with lardons and onions in a savoury creme fraiche. Note the similarity.

Because it's pretty much the same with wines. Alsace is just about the only French winemaking region that concentrates almost exclusively on varietal wines i.e. wines made from a single grape variety, not blended with other grapes for style, enhanced with a handful of Colombard for acid or Semillon for weight, nor diluted with bulk varieties for economy.

The principal grapes in Alsace are Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, with an honourable mention too for Sylvaner. What they all have in common, besides their willingness to grow in one of the the coolest wine-growing climates in France, is aroma.

For these are among the most aromatic of grapes, including some that create white wines of the very highest order. 

Across the border in Germany such headily scented fruit would almost certainly be used for producing sweet wines or at the very least wines labelled halbtrocken, literally half-dry, which good restaurant menus and attentive sommeliers should accurately describe for diners as off-dry.

In Alsace the preferred style is dry(ish). And what style. And what value.

Despite the area under the Sylvaner vine falling from some 27% to 10% over the last 30 years, since 2006 the Sylvaner grape has controversially found itself promoted to Grand Cru status but only for wines made from 14 hectares of vines growing in the Zotzenberg vineyard. Such is the power and influence of terroir in the French wine classification systems. 

Browsing the shelves of my local French Supermarket called Champion I found Jean-Marie Strubbler Sylvaner for under €3. Admittedly I was only looking at sub €3 wines and no Riesling or Gewürztraminer were available at such a low price, although I did also find a Pinot Gris. 

But it was the Jean-Marie Strubbler Sylvaner that caught my eye, my wallet, and later my nose and my palate.

It's pale and clear in the glass, gently aromatic with slight white floral scents. It falls right into the medium dry category, milder in flavour than the rest of the Alsace varietals, with green apple sharpness, good balanced lime acid, light alcohol and a clean soft fruitful finish.

Like any Sylvaner it may be derided as a poor man's Riesling, but that's really what it is. Because it's just so much cheaper than modern Riesling. What Sylvaner lacks in the way of distinctive character compared to its highly aromatic and unique Alsation rivals is compensated by the value it offers. It is everyday easy drinking, not fine dining wine. A glugger not a gloater. A welcome change from Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.

Have it with barbecues and picnics, especially quiches and savoury tarts, and reflect that at 12% ABV and only €3 a bottle, you can literally drink three times as much for the price of a decent Riesling.

© 2011 John Alexander