The birth of a wine fop
A loaf of bread, a bottle and a hot chick
By Tim Protzman firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mafia has long held to the tradition that sons were to be discouraged from following their fathers into “this thing of ours.” The same should be held to wine aficionados. Not that my son — who never liked wine — is in any danger of succumbing to La Cosa Vino, but his best friend is.
It started last summer when Dan returned from his junior year at college. He started dating a girl called Sascha. She was a pretty woman but had a fatal flaw. She held dual citizenship — half British, half American — and she liked wine. It’s a really cosmopolitan combination that is sure to speed any young man’s spiral into wine foppery.
I blame myself. I introduced the juicy pinot noirs of the far west — Steele, Echelon, Elk Cove, Drouhin, Edna Valley. All approachable and palate pleasing for novices, all priced between $11.99 and $34.49. Then we flew west, across the Pacific, over the island from Lost to the land of the kiwi — New Zealand, home of fruity, slightly sweet pinots nurtured in the less smoggy southern hemisphere sun, where Christmas is a beach day and the trade winds ripen the fruit in the cool New Zealand evenings. Here we sipped the Giesen’s, Te Kairanga, Muddy Water and Nautilus. These wines were bigger with more fruit and a dense concentration with hints of clove, licorice and anise.
And finally we ended up in the infernal regions of pinot noirs, a place that worships the grape so highly that saying “pinot noir” is taboo and to drink a glass one must ask for it by the name of the place where it’s grown. Yes, all true wine fops end up in France. Or Italy if they’re good in soccer. Or Germany if they belonged to the Robotics Club in high school.
Behind every great wine fop is a woman, and in Dan’s case it was Sascha. It started with a simple bottle of Monthelie (pronounced Mon the ly) that Sascha brought over to Dan’s house. They opened it with cheese and Kettle Krisps, a rustic version of Cheetos. This could be the day that Dan turned from innocent wine drinker to full-blown fop. The wines of Monthelie are not among the greatest of Burgundy but they represent one of the best values and are made with traditional methods. And if you were to pour one glass of West Coast Pinot, one glass of New Zealand and one of Monthelie, the Monthelie would seem much different in characteristics from the others.
The wine is paler, ruby-colored, not purple. The fruit is more subdued and layered, more like dried fruit than ripe, juicy fruit. The wine would have a hint of ammonia in the bouquet. It would be a tad more elegant. less powerful tasting and an easy match with food. It has the ability to morph and present different flavors with different foods. And it’s generally less alcoholic in content, around 12.5 to 13.5 percent as opposed to the New World’s 14 to 15 percent.
I saw less of Dan as he descended into foppery, but he was away at college. I heard that his speech was peppered with words like “structured” and “finish.” I feared the worst.
Last week Dan invited me over. He had gotten a job at a local winery, whose products were underwhelming. I had been to their tasting room. Some of their wines were ordinary and some were putrid. But Dan was in the business. He was learning. He knew all the words. He even knew brix (which measures the sugar content in liquids) and, worst of all, he knew about malolactic fermentation. He described it in full disgusting detail in front of his mother! I wanted to wash his mouth out with soap.
Dan insisted we taste. He let me choose. They were all from Chamard Vineyards, a little 12-acre patch in Connecticut near Long Island Sound. Dan had become well versed in wines of the North Fork of Long Island and insisted on repeating, “Ya know, we’re only 12 miles from the North Fork.”
I asked if he had any other wines, or one of his famous strawberry margaritas. He didn’t. He gave me four or five choices. Now I know what a condemned prisoner must feel when they ask him if he prefers hanging, firing squad or electrocution. I choose a 2005 rose made from pinot grapes.
I was delighted that it was so fresh and lively. The beginning tasted of watermelon and cranberry, the finish was a bit leaden at the very end, but the 2005 Chamard Rose made with 75 percent pinot noir, 10 percent Cabernet Franc and 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon was truly delicious. Some of the grapes are sourced from Long Island’s North Fork (mostly pinot noir) but everything else was estate grown. And it cost $8.99, which endeared it to my cheapo self. I thought it could use a hint of fizziness, like the Bandols of Provence display, but it was very good. It wiped out my lasting impression of Chamard’s chardonnay, which I tasted at the vineyard and couldn’t wait to spit into the bucket.
Next, Dan opened a 1998 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and it blew me away. It was a very light and airy cabernet without the grape jelly and rubbing-alcohol character that spoils so many of today’s inexpensive cabs. It was two-dimensional with a hint of structure and the fruit was reserved and demure. I tasted cherry and pickled crabapple with a touch of straw. The finish had chocolate grace notes. Again some of the cabernet sauvignon grapes were sourced from Long Island, but the vineyard grew its own cabernet franc. The only shocking thing was the $28.89 price tag. The wine’s from Connecticut for godsakes.
But when compared to many $29 Californians, it shows superior crafting and quality. And it’s different. Not hugely different as to be awkward, but pleasingly different as to be interesting. Hugely refreshing in a world where all wines seem to be merging in flavor and appearance.
The last wine we tasted was a Cabernet Franc with some merlot and cab sauvignon blended in. In the Southern New England American Viticultural Area a wine only has to have 75 percent of the grape type listed on the label to be called by that varietal. Cab Franc is a cold-weather grape. In France’s Loire Valley they grow it for medium-bodied wines. The canes can stand a frosty winter, so it’s planted extensively on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.
But it’s a mean grape. Dour, grumpy and rough like your old third grade teacher. I hadn’t appreciated it as the lead grape, only as the supporting grape. But this time it took home the Oscar. Smooth was my first thought. Flavorful was my second. Hints of chocolate, apricot, red and black licorice and blackberries. The tannins were stronger than the cab sauvignon’s, but with a cracker the wine tamed immediately. And Dan had done his homework and bought a 1995 so it had a few years on it.
Chamard Vineyards in Clinton, Conn., makes about 12,000 cases of wine a year. Not every wine will be great, but every one will display an individual style that many larger wine producers abandoned striving for long ago in search of more profit.
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