Musings of a Wine Maven

A ROSÉ GIVES ME STREET CRED IN FRANCE

by Jerry Clark

Having a passion for wine is wonderful. Yet if people think this appreciation has turned you into some kind of vinous savant, then beware. As I write the story of my recent experience that led to this caveat, I am reminded of a scenario from an old Hollywood western—I am a longtime movie buff—in which some folks envision you as the fastest gun around the OK Corral, and they would love nothing better than to outdraw you.

I had such a “quick draw” moment earlier this fall in Bordeaux. It was totally unexpected, as it came in the very agreeable environment of a wedding reception at Château Giscours in Margaux. There I was, soaking up the luscious atmosphere of a third-growth Bordeaux estate—with roots dating back to the 16th century—when the father of the bride (henceforth known as FOB) came over to my table holding a covered bottle and telling me he had a mystery wine for me to try.

Perhaps you have imagined such a figure swaggering toward your table from across the room, holding a bottle of unknown wine and suggesting to all assembled that surely you can identify the contents. You desperately try to ignore the idle table chatter and apprehensive smiles, all directed your way. Once you swirl and taste, your reputation is on the line. All heads are turned to you, as you examine the wine in your glass and reflect, and then to the challenger, as he cradles the bottle, perfects his Cheshire grin, and imagines you sprawled out face down in the dust of Tombstone’s Main Street.

While such a moment can initially be numbing, I approach the challenge as a compliment. Still, when done in front of the full array of 240 invited guests, you must immediately go into your game face, and begin to parry with your host.

If you know something of the challenger’s preference in wines, you can open your gambit with a comment like “not changing the glasses Charley?” Hmmm. “You must have got change back on your twenty when you picked this one up.” When he responds that what he is pouring could never be picked up for anything near a twenty dollar bill, you counter with “Alas, are we going to be honored with something from your trove of pre -1995 Châteauneuf du Papes.” A hint of surprise out of him will suggest you just might be embarking on the right path. On the other hand, if he smirks uncomfortably you may have put him under an embarrassing light with those guests that only know of his reputed cellar without ever being offered anything special from it heretofore. Nothing wrong with a little rattling, but don’t draw blood.

Forget offering up that you are suffering from nasal congestion, or some other such thing. You must take a shot, even if it’s wide of the mark. If you are wrong, you can always take solace in the words of one of the legends in the UK wine world (though I cannot recall now if it was Michael Broadbent or Harry Waugh) who, when asked if he had ever confused a Burgundy with a Bordeaux, replied, “not since lunch.”

Closer to home, I also take comfort in a conversation I had some 20 years ago with Pascal Ribereau-Gayon, grandfather of the groom in the wedding at the center of this story; he was the  Director of the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux and consultant to more than 30 leading estates (most notably Yquem).  I was somewhat taken aback when he told me that if the winemakers of the five Premier Crus—Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Lafite, and Mouton—were seated around a table and each asked to pick out his wine from the five glasses placed in front of them, they would be hard-pressed to do so.

There is no reason anyone should be distraught or even uncomfortable if the correct answer does not surface when placed in such a position; on the other hand, when you get it right, a feeling of pride is generated that might stay with you for a lifetime.

Once we had received our save-the-date message, I began imagining how great this wedding would surely be. A dinner at Château Giscours—a Third Growth Bordeaux Château that can claim its original vineyard dates back to 1552, coupled with the family lineage of the groom, whose paternal side can trace continuous and dedicated work toward improving methods of oenology all the way to the laboratory of Louis Pasteur—is undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime invitation.

The stage was set for a classic Bordeaux experience.  And it was, except for a few “natural wine” interlopers courtesy of the FOB.  Early on, I learned that the FOB had insisted that a favorite Beaujolais of his also be served at the celebrated Giscours dinner. I was dumbfounded—surely the groom would convince his wife-to-be of the magnitude of this faux pas. What a delicate situation, I mused.  Imagine my surprise when I learned what other wines the FOB had arranged to include.

Assembled in a lovely outdoor space adjoining the old cellar where dinner and dancing were to take place, we began an apéro that lasted almost two hours. No red wine was served; only Champagne and a still white.  I anticipated finding the white to be from Graves. Wrong. It was wine prescribed by the FOB, and it came from Muscadet, which is well north of Bordeaux and on the far western side of the Loire River, just before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. It was from the 2012 vintage, which to my thinking (at the time) must be showing its age. I sought out the groom for an explanation. He recounted to me that his new father-in-law is a great admirer of fine wine, but drinks only natural wines of which the Muscadet, and later the Morgon to be served at dinner, were reputed to be stellar examples.

When I audibly mumbled “natural wine,” as if I could not fathom such an adjective, my nephew proceeded to tell me he was fine with all this. In fact, he said he and his friends in Paris only hang out at bars that offer a good selection of natural wines. So after my glass of bubbly, I followed up with the Muscadet. It was excellent. Its slightly golden hue initially peaked my interest, and though I could not imagine they would serve a white that was on its downward slope, I had fully expected to be disappointed. Personally, I could not imagine cellaring a Muscadet more than a couple of years. After the first taste, I was compelled to ask the barman to show me the bottle. Sheepishly I can now admit that, heretofore, Muscadet equated to flavored rainwater. I doubt that I had ever tried more than a half dozen in my life, and never cellared so much as a bottle. This surely was not Muscadet, sourced from a single grape variety, Melon de Bourgogne (the name of the grape variety I could not then even recall).

I sought out the FOB in the crowd to learn more. When I caught up with him, I held up my glass with a puzzled expression.  He looked me straight in the face and told me this is natural wine, resting fifteen months on its lees, and no sulfur added. Though four years old, he suggested it had at least that many years of pleasurable drinking ahead. Satisfied, I thanked him for arranging to have it here and returned to the service bar for a refill.

The dinner was excellent.  Two reds were to be offered but, for some reason, we did not receive the Morgon at our table. After trying in vain to have the waiter serve it, I took myself over to the nearby table of the FOB and mentioned my disappointment. Immediately he asked me to go back for my glass and return for a pour from their bottle. As with the Muscadet, no sulfites were added. He assured me it was a wine to cellar, and after tasting this viscous, uncharacteristically full bodied Gamay, I wholeheartedly agreed.

Unwittingly, I had just constructed a passage between our two tables, and it would be traversed two more times before the party was over.

The after-dinner speeches by the family and close friends of the married couple, and accompanying antics that heightened the joie de vivre, were stellar. By time the dancing commenced, all of us were most convivial, having drunk profusely in the previous three and a half hours. Idly working the crowd I wandered near the FOB’s table and he motioned me closer. He was now pouring (just for his table) an Alsatian Pinot Noir, naturally made of course. It is the only red grape variety produced in that region, and when living in France I enjoyed it on several occasions, even cellaring a couple just to see how they would age. With the small amount of vineyard area given over to it, relatively little leaves Alsace. It is lighter in color and body than what you typically find in Burgundy and can be fruity, even quite flavorful, which this example surely was. Again came a respectful symbolic tip of my hat toward a lovely natural wine, and an almost bowing at the waist to show my deep appreciation being one of a small handful of guests given a sample to taste. As I returned to my table I made a mental note to check if I still had any Alsatian Pinot Noir remaining in my stores, hoping there was still one from 1985.

Tasting these three naturally made wines was an unexpected bonus to being in Bordeaux under such pleasant circumstances. For some time I have been pondering the subject of natural wine, which had been freshly re-awakened in Lodi, California this past August during a tasting of six Zinfandels coming forth from a six local winemakers who now annually set aside a small amount of their total harvest from which they each produce wines with minimal intervention in the winemaking process. I very much enjoyed what I sampled in Lodi, and I was truly impressed by the three French natural wine examples just tasted in Bordeaux.

The FOB had one more wine, which he brought to my table a short time later…wrapped in a white cloth napkin. I did not see him coming until he was right next to me, holding the draped bottle.  Very quietly, but loud enough to be heard by the table companion to my left, he announced that he had a mystery wine for me to try. I was not flustered at all, but I did wonder if I, as the only American at his daughter’s wedding–and clearly ignorant of what was happening in the natural wine movement in France–would be fodder for stories he would later tell when back in Paris. But there was no time to reflect further.  The FOB asked me to empty my glass to receive his latest elixir. 

Once poured, my table neighbor peered at my glass and immediately whispered to me that it looked like a Burgundy, but from an off year. Happily, though I had quite a bit to drink and the lighting was not great, my memory bank of the countless glasses of red wine I had faced in a life tracking Dionysus kicked in. Burgundy, yes, were it a Passetoutgrain (Gamay). But, as one of the two dinner wines served that evening was a Gamay, it was not likely the FOB would introduce another to me. Nor did I believe he would serve up any wines from disappointing vintages.  At first, the color almost reminded me of the Alsatian Pinot Noir I had tried earlier, and though this was equally translucent, the shade was more of a darker pink than red. Think of the tint of a red onion. Without tasting, I turned my head up to the FOB and stated, “from the color it should be a Tavel.”

Seven of the ten major French wine regions; the appellation of Tavel lies in the Rhône Valley region. Map by W.T. Manfull

In my re-telling of this moment over the balance of my life, I will likely recount that he was visibly shaken as he unwrapped the bottle to reveal, just as I had said, a Tavel. He was not, however. Displaying full composure, he nodded toward me, and without providing any information about the wine or the producer returned to his table. As it was yet again another fine example of a naturally made wine I raised my glass and looked over to his table to acknowledge that he had poured another truly fine example of a vin naturel.  But by then he was bent over, head-to-head, in conversation with a friend, obviously recounting what had just transpired at my table, and he did not see my gesture.  

Could I have lost the draw and ended up face down on Main Street? Yep, certainly, but the very first rosé I had ever tasted, drunk back in 1969 at a company Christmas party,  was a Tavel from Château D’Aqueria and  I have never forgotten that Tavel color. D’Aqueria was then touted as le nec plus ultra of rosé, the summit of rosé. The pelure d’oignon colored rosé of the Midi was in little evidence back then, as the U.S. market was awash in Mateus and Lancers.

I went unhesitatingly with what my experience told me, the words Michael Broadbent, Harry Waugh (or whoever it was!) and Pascal Ribereau-Gayon, the groom’s grandfather, echoing in my mind. What more can one do?

 

Notes:

All illustrations are the work of Mike Dater.

I later learned that the Tavel I identified is produced by Eric Pffirerling of Domaine de l’Anglore. Curiously, I located only one U.S. retailer (in California) that has Pffirerling’s Tavel, at a price suggesting the cases were hand carried back and the deliveryman sat in first class. But if you are traveling in the south of France I offer up his contact information:

Domaine de l’Anglore
81 Route des Vignobles
30126 Tavel

tel: +33 (0)4 66 33 08 46

I searched in the U.S. for two of the other natural wines from the wedding reception, succeeding in learning that the Muscadet (Domaine de l’Ecu) and the Morgon (Domaine Foillard) are available.

I was not able to ascertain the name of the Alsatian Pinot Noir served at the reception but my cellar notebooks suggest I have a 1985 from Domaine Zind Humbrecht, made from grapes harvested in their Herrenweg Vineyard in Turckheim. I’ll confirm when I get back to Lyon.

39 Comments

  1. Street cred indeed! Heck, I’m impressed. 🙂

    BTW, the illustrations that go with your article are super.

  2. Yes, though I have yet to meet illustrator extraordinaire Mike Dater I believe we are kindred spirits.

  3. Jerry, you need to write a book about your wine adventures! I am sure it would be a best Seller! Great article and can almost taste the wine as I read your story.

  4. Just loved your article! Keep them coming!

  5. Claire Schmidt Jones January 4, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    I could hardly wait for the punchline. We have parallel lives. My first rose might have been a Boone’s Farm in 1969. I love when a seemingly insignificant moment in Life pays off years later.

  6. Claire,
    There is much of 1969 I don’t now recall, but that Tavel color is still very clear. Wasn’t Boone’s Farm an early screw cap product?

    • “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.” A quote attributed to at least half-dozen people, which in itself is an ironic comment on the quote. Boone’s Farm indeed had a screw top, so that means, I guess, that while I remember the 60’s, I must not have been there? Or I was and I wasn’t – a kind of Schrödinger’s cat paradox.

      • Ha, ha. Did not know that quote, but thoroughly understand it. And if you have any questions, just ask Dennis Hopper, eh. So now I have to give praise to Boone’s Farm as a pioneer in packaging wine.

  7. Jerry, your latent talents never seem to stop appearing. You can write my good friend! Looking forward to receiving you card on a political position. Love to you and your beautiful bride. Dick

  8. As a fellow guest at this wedding I must attest to the validity of the wine maven’s story. I was not the only one impressed with the certainty in which he declared the wine a Tavel!

    • Thanks for the certification of my memory. French weddings go on for such a length that its easy to confuse matters, especially alcohol related.

  9. Jerry,

    Excellent job! Natural wine I suppose is defined as bottled without sulfates? Buy the way, Foillard makes very good Bojo. Try Marcel Lappierre’s 2015 Morgon, he is in a class by himself. Bojo is the only thing I drink with chicken these days.

    Woody

    • Woody,
      You are so right about Beaujolais. I had virtually ignored it until a friend asked me three years ago to locally buy some Lappierre Morgon which he could not source in Boston at the time. So I added a couple of bottles for myself and was wowed by what I tasted. Natural wine basically is making it the way the monks did a thousand years ago. Minimum or zero sulfates, and natural yeasts. No fancy cellar techniques, such as reverses osmosis and the like.

  10. This story reminded me of when we stopped at Val Joanis with Mike and Mary a few years ago, and how they they pulled out the good stuff for us because of you (also probably thinking they would make a big sale- clearly they haven’t spent a Tuesday at ocean state job with you). You’re not a bad person to hang around with at a party or winery though ;).

  11. Florie,
    Vigneron’s and their staff are passionate about wine. So when a visitor is captivated by what they do, and shows it, many good things happen. As to Ocean State, well, I also like a good bargain when I see it.

  12. You’ve done it again, Jerry! Your writing is just as lavish as the wines you speak of. Can’t wait for the next entry, keep ’em coming!

    • Mina,
      I expect to maintain the writing, well, as long as the wine cellar continues to provide the lubricant. So glad you enjoyed Quick Draw McGraw.

  13. Jerry, your daughter was keeping this blog a secret from me! I fear I won’t get any more work done today as I am now totally lost in your magical, wine-soaked world and need to dig my way through the archives. Bravo!
    p.s. Let me know when you plan to uncork the 1985 Alsatian Pinot Noir…. I’ll be there. Lots of love!

  14. Maura,
    Just like her to keep my light under a basket. Kids.
    I will first have to get that Alsatian out of the cellar in Lyon and back here. So lets think about opening it up the end of the year.
    Great hat by the way.

  15. This is a wonderful story, Jerry, and once you mentioned the OK Corral and Tombstone, I saw the entire wedding party dressed as gunslingers… with glasses of wine in one hand, and their guns in the other. You have a wonderful way with words!

    • I wish though that I could have overheard the conversation at the FOB table after I nailed it. What element caused the greater surprise? My being an American?

  16. congratulations Jerry for this great article ….I was waiting for the conclusion and not surprised by your answer of the Tavel wine.
    Jean

  17. Jean,
    Amazing how color can stay with you. For a number of years we had several tastings a year with friends where different flights of four wines were tasted blind. In those flights where different grape varieties were on display after a time you could begin to appreciate shades of color for different grape varieties.

  18. A delightful read and once again I am left with my mouth watering for the wines described.

    • Karen,
      I have managed to locate here in the US one of the natural wines served up at the wedding. Must arrange a time for you to try it. I am certain you will be impressed.

  19. Jerry , really enjoyed reading.
    I would have loved to see the drama taking place….!
    On a different note,
    still little uneasy with this new fashion of said natural wine.
    A said Natural wine is unclear to me,knowing that it is a must to control and keep a steady temperature at very low level and therefore difficult to manage, unless at the vinery or with sellers able to manage the complete supply chain under strict temperature controlled environments. You will certainly recall Marcel Richaud comments.
    Maybe a topic for further investigation and next blog?

  20. Thanks for your comments Jacques. I would hardly call natural wine a new fashion, unless you are referring to its level of interest in the American market. Getting deeper into the subject is of great interest to me, but back home in America we are at the bottom of the learning curve, unlike what I saw in France recently. On the consumer front, Parisian “bo-bo’s” seem much farther along in this movement than their US counterparts, and with good reason. They have considerably more naturally made product to choose from then we do.

    • Monsieur Clark, Bravo!
      You nail me down with 2012 Domaine de l’Ecu we tasted together . A tasting is worth thousands of words. This bottle do Muscadet 2012 from Gneiss, made from organic grapes and as stated on the back label is “NO MAKE UP ,JUST A TRUE WINE”
      Surprisingly good muscadet and even better the day after.((I Kept it (vacuvin)cooled in the fridge.))
      Thanks for sharing this bottle.

  21. Hi Jacques,
    I will weigh in on this issue, too. I, also, am uneasy with proceeding too much further on these pages without defining what is meant by “natural” wine. However, we are a little constrained in doing so because “natural” wine has not yet been defined by its proponents (and perhaps will not be).
    I see one of my tasks, as Editor, being to define (as much as possible) natural, organic, and biodynamic wine so that, on these pages, we use the words consistently, and do not muddle up the subject any further. Those definitions will be in the “Resource” section of PWZ.
    To that end, I am attending the Millesime Bio Conference in Marseille in January. Information collected there, along with input from professionals producing such wines and additional research, should provide some clarification and set the stage for dialogue on the kinds of issues you raise. A blog post dedicated to this subject is a very good idea.
    My thanks to Jerry for getting this subject on the table for discussion!

    • Hello Suzan,
      I am lookkng forward to learn more about this topic through Provence WineZine.
      Thank you for opening this subject up in your blog.
      Best
      Jacques

    • Jacques,
      So now you can imagine how pleased I was upon tasting this lovely Muscadet after first believing it was sacrilegious to pour such an interloper on the grounds of Chateau Giscours. Thank you on your note about how well it drank for you when you finished it the second day after opening. Now I am looking for the Foillard Cote de Puy Beaujolais served at the wedding dinner.

  22. Always a pleasure reading your articles, Jerry! I remember visiting Chateau Giscours back in the day and being offered their upcoming 1981 vintage “en primeur” at a mere 50F a bottle. Still kicking myself for having passed on such a great deal!

  23. So the exchange back then means it was about $10 a bottle. Yes, a self kick seems reasonable. Happily 10 euro’s can buy a pretty good bottle of red wine in France today, though not likely in Bordeaux.

  24. $10 a bottle in the Languedoc/Roussillon can buy great wine! Lafage makes some unbelievable ‘stuff’ in the $10-$15 price range.

  25. I certainly agree with you. Thanks for the tip on Lafage, as I do not know them. Will check it out soon.

  26. Had me in stiches Jerry. I’m often face down in Tombstone at Cotignac Wine Club “name that wine” tastings. You done us proud!

  27. The great thing these “duels” provide is an opportunity to sharpen our senses. As a result of that evening I have taken on a whole new respect for well made Muscadet.

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