January 1, 2009


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A White Burgundy Eve
On a silent night, the wine writer goes for white
By Tim Protzman food@hippopress.com

There have been quite a few Christmas Eves I have spent by myself. I’m not complaining. It was peaceful. This year, once again and for the first time in a while, I flew solo.

When the kids were little, my ex-wife had them every Christmas Eve. Then, as they made their way through high school, they wanted to hang with Pops. Now the 20-somethings keep their own social calendars. On any given year, my daughter may show up; this year, my son had plans with his girlfriend’s family. This allowed me to combine my three little traditions.

The first is luminaries. White paper lunch bags, with sand in the bottom and candles. I line my walkway and fire them up at 5 p.m. I do the early show for the people attending the early mass at the church across the street. Then I refresh the candles for the midnight mass. But don’t think of me as a saint. I was shamed into it because of my neighbors. The family across the street came here from Guatemala. They put on a light show for every holiday. Dancing Easter Bunnies, jigging leprechauns. Flags for Memorial Day and Fourth of July. Halloween starts the big light trilogy. A huge inflatable turkey shows up for Thanksgiving, looking like some prehistoric bird the Flintstones would eat. When Christmas comes, I’m treated to lights and wreaths and an inflatable snow globe with skating figures. Santa pops in and out of a chimney, courtesy of hydraulics — but he gets stuck quite often. 

This year I combined my second tradition with the first. I played Christmas music out my third-floor window. Not modern Christmas music, but old carols. “Adeste Fideles” and “Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel,” but no “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” All ancient, Gregorian or sacred.

And there was wine. The third tradition. A bottle of something special. In the past, there were Pauillacs from my favorite Bordeaux region. Pauillac is 37 miles from downtown Bordeaux. Christmas Eve Bordeauxs aren’t cheap, but they aren’t astronomical. A 1996 Lynch-Bages, $79; a 1989 Grand Puy-Lacoste, $92; a Chateau Latour, $129.99. And they were all delicious. There was a Napa Silver Oak Cabernet, yummy at $87.49. A 1990 Jaboulet Hermitage “La Chappelle” at $66 and a Torbreck Runrig Shiraz at $139.99. The only wine missing from this list is the 1999 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia at $99.49. I drank this one on a wet January weekend while watching my kids. That year I had the kids over Christmas because my ex was in Cozumel. She also had a business trip in January to San Diego. I felt sorry for her, but sorrier for me. So I splurged on a post-Christmas wine and I had NO regrets. And if you look at the wine prices then (from nine to six years ago) and now you can see inflation at work.

My Christmas Eve had Melville-esque tones this year as I switched it up and hunted for the Great White Burgundy. In the past my focus was deep, rich red wines full of sun and spice. Whites are more delicate, more ethereal and have a quicker finish. But a great white Burgundy is a treat. Lemon and watercress. Flint, metal and chalk notes. A slightly tannic/sour finish with pineapple or melon fruit. Stitched together with faint honey. And white Burgundy is usually less expensive than the red, even when the grapes share the same village and even vineyard name.

In the last few years, the price of top-quality wines has gone up by a large amount. Four years ago one could purchase a decent Grand Cru for $120. Now you’ll pay 50 to 100 percent more. Even the premier cru’s (look for “1er” on the label) are getting pricey. The white Burgundys I shop for now are usually “1er cru,” because the price of Grand Cru’s is too high.

As I started to look for the Christmas Eve wine, I had borrowed $40 from one of the wine rookies (I was waiting on some receivables). And I remember what wine rookie Michael once said to me: “I started liking wine after I tasted a really great white with you.”

“It must have been a Burgundy,” I said.

That first outing left me with three potential Great Whites. The first was Château De Maligny Chablis Fourchaume 1er Cru at $34.99, which isn’t a Burgundy, but a Chablis. It is 100 percent chardonnay and it does have the imprint of that region’s terroir. The gunflint and slate soil that leaves a flavor in the wine. Of all the Grand Crus I could only afford two — a Corton Charlemagne and a Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. Their price ranges from $55 for the least expensive Corton Charlemagne to $150 for the Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet.

Here’s the only wine beyond the hunt that I tasted this week:

• 2006 Almaviva for $63.99. This 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 27 percent Carmenere and 3 percent Cabernet Franc drank like a Bordeaux and finished like a Californian Cab. A bit fruity and a wee too much alcohol, for me, but this wine reminds me of why I like wine in the first place. From Chile’s Maipo Valley, this winery is a collaboration between Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Conch Y Toro.

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