Finding new beauties
How to explore a world of wine
By Tim Protzman email@example.com
Watching the Oscars last week, I found myself strangely out of the loop.
I had only seen one movie on the list of nominees — Little Miss Sunshine.
This was a far cry from my normal movie consumption. I usually see at least every nominee for Best Picture. For me, movies are like wine; I try to see as wide a variety possible and not watch the same thing twice.
But there are movies (and wines) I’ve enjoyed on multiple occasions. The top one belongs to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I’ve seen this movie more than 20 times. My kids loved it, except the cornfield scene, which was too scary. The next movie I’ve seen the most is the animated Beauty and the Beast. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately because the last great wine I had was from Gascony, the province of France where Beauty and the Beast is set.
Gascony is the Maine of France, wild, wooly and rustic with deep forests and craggy peaks, haunted castles and chateaus. The people are also less pretentious than what one would encounter in Paris or Lyon. They’re farmers, craftswomen, cheese makers and goose fatteners for the prized foie gras. They also make Armagnac, an earthy brandy that’s the gentleman landowner counterpart to the sophisticated city lady Cognac. In Gascony and especially the sub region of Bas Armagnac many of the old, aging cellars are covered with a fine black mold that lives on the vapors of the evaporating spirits. Here food is an art, a relaxation and a tradition. Pigs on leashes hunt truffles. Wild boars are fattened on acorns. It is the land of prehistoric cave drawings, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Three Musketeers and the Hundred Years War. And of Domaine Lalande Chardonnay.
It’s great to find a gem like Domaine Lalande. Near Bordeaux, but further east in the traditional realm of the Armagnac makers, Lalande relies on tradition to produce a structured wine that balances the fruit, oak, acid and sugar into a world-class bottle. It also relies on ancient harvest methods like picking the grapes early in the morning when they’ve rested and full of sugar. Wine-making here is an ancient art that’s been enhanced by modern science. It involves stainless steel tanks, regular fermentation instead of malolactic fermentation and the ancient art of letting the pulp stay in the juice to impart character.
Now you probably assume that my superior wine knowledge, my need to be current on all things new and my ability to sniff out bargains and obscure wine gems led me to Domaine Lalande. Wrong. Maybe you’ll remember that Star Trek episode (the original with the guy who gained weight and now plays that lawyer Denny Crane, not Voyager or Enterprise) where the star ship reached the edge of the known universe. What did they do? They turned around and went back. Well, I’ve reached the edge of the wine universe. But instead of turning back, I asked for directions. And I was pointed to Domaine Lalande Chardonnay. One of the most important things in learning about wine is to ask questions.
“What are you drinking these days?”
“I like Australian Shiraz; what French Syrahs will I appreciate?”
Questions like these posed to a semi-knowledgeable wine shop clerk will bring great results. Some of the greatest wines I’ve ever had were so foreign to me that I wouldn’t dare to pick them on my own. Think of the old-fashioned vintner from Gascony who travels to Paris to sell his wares; a Letter of Introduction is de rigueur. Get to know the staff where you shop and get them to write you letters of introduction.
Sometimes you don’t even have to ask. Some shops feature Staff Picks or Recommendations. I rarely find anything unpleasant on these racks.
Finally, don’t be afraid of weird locations. Two decades ago nobody in their right wine mind would think New York State, Missouri, North Carolina or Romania would bring us some good grape. The picky purist misses out on these quirky but delicious locations. Until I tried Domaine Lalande a wine from Cote de Gascogne seemed a waste of time and money. I just hope Sardinia will treat me as gently the first time. This week’s wines:
Domaine Lalande Chardonnay ($9.99). Like a fine white Burgundy with a touch of gunflint, gravel and metallic tastes imparted from the soil. Crisp and acidic at first with a sweet fruit note like eating a table grape at the finish. This wine makes me wonder why I drink reds at all.
2005 Wild Horse Pinot Noir ($15.99). From California’s Central Coast. Nice but not a top shelf or even traditional pinot. Fruity and tannic all at once.
2005 Wild Horse Chardonnay ($13.49). From California’s Central Coast. This wine was typical Californian Chardonnay, but better. No fake oak or lemon or butter.
Vieux Donjon 2003 Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($37.500. This Rhone wine was less intense and very domesticated. I was under-whelmed, although it did go better with the meal instead of the glass I had as an aperitif.
Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.99) from South Africa. I had a choice between the 2005 and the 2004. I chose the ’05 but the money was in the ’04 briefcase. Very tight and tannic on opening and it took a good 3 hours to open up. And the ’04 had a cork, albeit a plastic cork, and the ’05 had a screw top.
I like the wine, would drink it again by the glass, but the screw top made me feel a little too Skid Row..