When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Some truly great wines sneak up on you, sip after sip, taste after taste—deepening, resonating, and ultimately resolving into your own realization that you are experiencing something profound. More commonly in my experience, however, great wines hit you like a lightning bolt, with a silent detonation that snaps every iota of your attention to the wine itself.

That’s what it felt like the first time I tasted the wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers, perhaps more than 10 years ago. I remember the moment well. I was sitting at a dinner table on the lawn at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, and two seats away from me sat the famed importer Martine Saunier, to whom I had been introduced a few minutes before. As we settled into our table, Martine retrieved two bottles from her oversized handbag and plunked them on the table.

The labels intrigued me from the very start, with their slightly amateurish label design and funky fonts. At the time, I had no idea where they came from. IGP Vin des Allobroges meant nothing to me. “Where the hell is Allobroges?” I thought to myself. Eventually, our attendant sommelier came by and opened them up, and then, at my first sip, the heavens themselves opened up, and I was hopelessly smitten for life.

Yes, I am a sucker for wines that taste like liquid stone. And few wines in the world manage to taste and smell more like pulverized stone than these, which are unquestionably among the very best that are produced in the little region of France known as the Savoie.

A classic U-shaped glacial valley in the Savoie

Nemesis of Ice

Few things can resist the power of a glacier that knows where it’s headed. When ten million tons of ice are headed your way, even at the creeping pace of a few centimeters per day, you get out of the way or you are ground to dust. Some of the world’s most spectacular u-shaped valleys are testament to this incredible power. Yosemite. The Fjords of Norway. Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland.

Occasionally, however, there are times when instead of obliterating, the ice embraces, flowing around and over a bit of stone instead of wreaking its slow pulverization.

Often, these snags of stone will become the sites of recessional moraines, buildups of soil and glacial effluvia that are left behind as the ice melts and the glacier seems to retreat back up the valley it has carved towards the cirque of its birth.

The glaciers that carved the Tarentaise valley started their grinding about 2 million years ago, and finished their retreat only about 10,000 years ago, leaving behind the beautiful valleys of the French Alps, and stunning lakes such as Geneva and Annecy.

And in a place that would eventually be called Cevins, in an otherwise beautifully scoured u-shaped glacial valley, as a glacier turned to water a small spur of solid schist gathered the stones and soil that the ice would no longer hold. Over time, a village sprang up in the shadow of the hill that rock and earth created, and the local residents, likely citizens of the Roman Empire at the time, planted grapes in the fractured schist soils. The vines were tended, some for better some for worse, and eventually, the townspeople placed a small chapel at the summit, dedicated to Notre Dame des Neiges, “Our Lady of the Snows.”

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

The Organic Visionary

Like many small-scale vignerons of his generation, Michel Grisard grew up on his family’s mixed farm, which produced wine as well as produce, eggs, and meats. The Grisard family, though, was perhaps a little deeper into wine than most, as they also ran a vine nursery, providing plants for new vineyards in their area.

 After studying Agriculture at university, Grisard joined the family business only to have his father pass away a year later, leaving Michel to run the nursery and winery. Once joined by his brother in the family business, Grisard decided his future lay elsewhere, and in 1982 he left to work with the small acreage of Mondeuse he had planted himself, renting the St-Christophe Priory in the village of Fréterive to use as a cellar.

Grisard’s approach to viticulture was quite traditional at first, in keeping with his university education, replete with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and fertilizers galore. However after meeting biodynamic consultant François Bouchet in 1994 through Michel Chapoutier, he quickly became the first biodynamic producer in the Savoie region and was certified organic three years later, and never looked back.

Soon after, thanks in part to having sold his wines to restaurant Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Grisard’s wines became quite sought-after.

As part of his explorations of nearby terroirs, Grisard eventually came across a tiny little town with a hillside full of derelict vineyards and crumbling stone terraces. The precarious slope over the little town of Cevins had been left out of the Savoie AOC region, in part because the narrow valley receives less sun than other areas of the region, and was thought to offer too much challenge in ripening grapes.

For Grisard, the unusual schist soils, steep southerly exposure, terraced plots, and a seemingly ancient history of wine growing were too much to resist.

Grisard created a company, solicited investment, bought or rented the majority of the land on the hillside, and between 1998 and 2002 he planted nearly 13 acres across the hillside with Mondeuse, Persan, Altesse, Jacquere, and perhaps some of the region’s first plantings of the little known Mondeuse Blanche.

As the first plantings began to yield fruit, Grisard made the wines under his Prieuré St-Christophe label, but as this unique hillside matured, it became clear that it needed its own identity.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep bowl near the top of the Cevins hillside

The End of a Journey, Beginning of a Calling

In the early 2000s, winemaker Brice Omont was working at a big production facility in Champagne, but while his hands were busy, his heart was somewhere else. He was both spiritually and literally searching for somewhere to make wine. He thought he might eventually end up in the Loire, given his interest in organic and biodynamic winemaking, but he made several trips to Anjou the surrounding areas and didn’t find what he was looking for.

Then some friends suggested he look at the Savoie. “I said ‘oh, you mean vin de raclette? I don’t think so,’” recalls Omont, referencing the Savoie’s (unfortunately still lingering) reputation for cheap, ski-resort swill. “I was prejudiced. But eventually, I took a vacation in 2003 and came to the region, thinking that I would just have a look.”

During his visit, he stopped off at the local Ministry of Agriculture office and explained that he was interested in organic winegrowing. “They said to me if that’s what you’re interested in, there is only one person for you to speak with. His name is Michel Grisard.” 

“I called Michel Grisard and I visited,” continues Omont. “I tasted his wines and…” he shrugs. “Wow. The Mondeuse, the Altesse. I realized immediately the brilliance of his approach. His wines were superior to every Savoie wine I had ever tasted. So I talked with him, I told him I was looking for a place to make wine, and he told me that a young vigneron he had been working with had recently left.”

Grisard then went on to describe a small hillside of schist in the Tarentaise valley.

“I came back to Champagne, and I told myself, ‘This is it. It’s not the Loire, it’s the Savoie.’ And I knew that if I didn’t do this that I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

One week later, Omont was back in the Savoie, gazing up at the little hill of vines with a tiny white chapel at its summit.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

Ardoisiers Against All Odds

“On my first day,” says Omont, “I thought that this was no problem. The second year I realized what kind of a hill it was that we had to climb. It was very high, and very difficult, and I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to do it. We didn’t have the means at our disposal to achieve our ambitions.”

The bank agreed. When Grisard and Omont went looking for more money, no one was willing to give them a loan. “I told Michel it was a shame, but it looked like we needed to win the lottery in order to make it work,” says Omont. “Three years later we were completely out of money.”

Omont describes calling their first and best customer and breaking the news that the banks had turned them down. “He said to me, ‘What is the plan?” And I told him we didn’t have one. That we were done.”

Click the images in the gallery below for larger views.

But that customer called 10 other customers—some retailers, some restaurateurs and some consumers—and as a group they came back to Omont and told him to open a bottle of wine, and when he did, they said they would collectively co-sign for a loan, and that they would all come to help whenever the winery needed a hand.

“I pinched myself because I couldn’t believe what was happening,” says Omont. “The bank did not understand, but these people did. They had a passion for wine. Many people told me we were crazy to do this, that we’d lose control and that these people would run everything. But these people wanted no salaries, no investment returns. They just said, ‘take your time, don’t worry, do it the best way. We are just happy to drink it. If you want to give us some bottles, we’ll be happy,’ but no more than that. It’s the opposite of this kind of jungle economics you hear about. There are times when you’re scared of humanity. And then there are times like that where you just shake your head and say, ‘Fantastic.’”

Most of the investors remained silent partners, but eventually, two became advisors to Omont and Grisard, helping them think through the structuring of a healthy business, to plan for expansion, and in 2010 helped them secure the somewhat ramshackle building with a rare underground cellar that Omont located in the village of Freterive,

Around this time, Omont and Grisard had a falling out, and Grisard, who would retire from winemaking altogether in 2014, stepped away, leaving Omont solely in charge.

Soon after Omont joined, the wines were given their own identity, named after the slate (ardoise) roofs of the small vineyard huts that dot the hillside.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers

A Song of Schist and Clay

Ardoisiers farms 38.3 acres of vineyards located in two primary places, the fractured schist hill of Cevins and several plots surrounding the villages of St-Jean-de-la-Porte and St-Pierre-de-Soucy, which feature the typical Savoyard mix of clay and fractured limestone tumbled from the cliffs of the Combe de Savoie. From these two areas, the domaine has historically made five wines, named primarily for the soils in which they grow.

The Argile Blanc is a blend of Jaquère, Mondeuse Blanche, and Chardonnay farmed from 4 different locations around the village of St-Pierre-de-Soucy, some of which include some schist in addition to limestone. Some newly acquired vineyard plots that include some Roussanne plantings mean that a fourth grape may soon join the blend.

Its red counterpart, Argile Rouge, is mostly Gamay, with Mondeuse Noir and Persan, and comes mostly from around St-Jean-de-la-Porte.

The Schiste white wine, an unusual blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche comes from the hill at Cevins, as does the 100% Altesse wine named Quartz.

The red blend named Amethyste is also overseen by Our Lady of the Snows, and features a blend of Mondeuse Noir and Persan.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
The mica-schist stone of Cevins.

The simplicity of Ardoisiers winemaking will come as no surprise to fans of biodynamic and organic wines. Harvests by hand proceed slowly, and the variety of exposures across his sites means that a month or more can pass between the first grapes harvested and the last.

I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.

Omont uses whole clusters, presses his whites gently, and ferments with ambient yeasts, adding no sulfur until just before bottling. If the wines take 3 months or even 6 months to finish their fermentation, Omont is happy to let them do their thing. Malolactic conversion occurs naturally, and the wines age in enamel tanks or in used oak barrels. After the 2004 vintage didn’t go through malolactic, Omont has worked to reduce his use of sulfur to a minimum.

“I take my time. You have to let fermentation construct the layers of aromas in the wine. And the wines need time,” says Omont. “In the end, it is not complicated. When I started I told Michel that I wanted to do pump-overs. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Let it go.’ I thought wines that were so good meant I had to know a thousand things to get them right. But in the end, it’s just easy. You just have to take care of your grapes.”

Omont farms without pesticides or herbicides, applying compost to the vines, occasionally some copper and sulfur, and some (though not all) of the biodynamic preparations, choosing to pay more attention to his vines than any particular regimen of treatment.

But no matter how well he cares for his vines, there’s one thing Omont can’t control.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
A steep section of the hill at Cevins

Climate Insurance

“Ten years ago, we had nine good years, and then one bad year,” says Omont. “Since 2018, we have had one bad, one good, one bad.”

Indeed, the week before I arrived in the Savoie in mid-July, the region had been hit by serious rainstorms, not to mention some frost in the spring, leading Omont and many vintners to estimate mildew-driven crop losses approaching 50%.

“We need to make sure that if I invest to make improvements to the building, and if we continue to sell our wines overseas, that we are OK. If tomorrow we lose 80% of our production, we are dead,” says Omont. “We have to prepare for the worst.”

In formulating his strategy for climate survival, Omont took inspiration from some winemakers in the Jura, where he saw small established players going to other parts of their region and leasing vineyards as a hedge against weather calamities.

“In the next ten years, we will for sure have more difficulties,” says Omont, “so I am preparing now to make more stock.”

In 2018, Omont debuted a Jacquère named Silice Blanc, and in 2020, he made a Silice Rouge from Mondeuse Noir. Both are labeled with the name “Maison des Ardoisiers” and are made with grapes purchased from organically farmed vineyards that Omont has identified and contracted around the Savoie.

As the wines of Ardoisiers have seen increased demand, these new wines are an attractive proposition that allows more people to try Omont’s wines, but without him feeling like he is sacrificing quality for the sake of commercial scale.

More importantly, the diversification of his vineyard sites has already proved out Omont’s strategy. “With this year’s rain and frost, we’d be dead without Maison des Ardoisiers.”

Custodian of a Voice

At 45 years old, and with just over 17 harvests at Ardoisiers, Omont is in the prime of his winemaking career, and the wines reflect his confidence and the understanding of both the grapes and the sites he has to work with.

One day I will die, and this terroir will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.

“My biggest regret is that we didn’t build a library of these wines,” he says. “I know these wines will last 10 or 15 years or more, but at the beginning, I had no choice. When someone called and asked for more bottles, I was happy to help them.”

Altesse in particular, says Omont, has the capacity not only to age but to develop and improve with time. Like Riesling, Semillon, Assyrtiko, or Catarratto, Altesse begins with chiseled acidity and deep stony qualities, but it gains a fleshy weight and an attractive buttery, saline richness over time, undergoing a transmutation that seems almost magical.

Persan and to a lesser extent, Mondeuse Noir, also have the ability to develop attractive secondary and tertiary characteristics with age. “People say Persan ages like Pinot, and Mondeuse ages like Syrah,” says Omont.

Eventually, perhaps, Ardoisiers will be able to hold some bottles back, but with a production of only a few hundred cases for its top wines, that will be slow going.

In the meantime, Omont seems content with his progress, and quite comfortable with the direction he is headed.

“We are just messengers,” says Omont. “One day I will die, and this terror will continue. Have I listened correctly to the terroir? Have I expressed correctly the terroir? I am lucky enough to have the chance to do that.  Each vintage, I ask myself, did I do a good job expressing what this place has to say?”

For those of us who love to hear the whispers of magical places and taste the majesty of a landscape in the glass, the answer is an unqualified yes.

* * *

I am particularly indebted to Wink Lorch and her tremendous book Wines of the French Alps for some of the background information about Michel Grisard that I have included above.

Tasting Notes

In case it is not obvious from the above, or the scores below, these are some of my absolute favorite wines in the world, and (at the risk of making them harder to get for myself) they come with my highest recommendation.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Blanc” Jacquère, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest gold in the glass with almost no color, this wine smells of green apples and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, green apple, grapefruit, and a hint of white flowers are bright and juicy with fantastic acidity. Great wet chalkboard minerality. These grapes come from the limestone studded soils of Apremont. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.

2020 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Blanc” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apples, wet stones, and white flowers. In the mouth, deep stony flavors of green apples, white flowers, and citrus pith are welded to wet pavement. Incredibly stony and delicious. A blend of Jacquère, Mondeuse Blanc, and Chardonnay. Comes from 4 locations around the village of Saint Pierre de Soucy which feature limestone studded clays referenced by the wine’s name. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Schiste” White Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of star fruit and a bit of unripe greengage plums, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, gorgeous star fruit, wet chalkboard, lime flower, and lime zest flavors are wonderfully mouthwatering with faint salinity. Mouthwatering and stunningly mineral. Like drinking stone. Comes from the vineyard on the hill below the Our Lady of the Snows chapel, along the Rue des Ardoisiers in Cevins. A blend of Jaquère, Roussanne, Pinot Gris, and Mondeuse Blanche. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith, warm hay, dried herbs, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, grapefruit pith, dried herbs, and wet stones swirl in a wonderfully deep stony cistern of flavor and mineral expression. The crushed rock quality continues in the finish with some pithiness and a hint of lemongrass. These grapes are also from the Cevins vineyard. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

2012 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Quartz” Altesse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of melted butter and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, saline flavors of lemon oil, wet pavement, and seawater take on a shimmering ethereal quality that is simply and irresistibly mouthwatering. Rich on the one hand, and then also light and zingy on the other, this wine is utterly compelling. This bottle demonstrates what happens to Altesse with some age: it fattens up and to the searing liquid stone minerality it adds a layered buttery caramel quality. Boom. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $120. If you can find it, buy it.

2020 Maison des Ardoisiers “Silice Rouge” Mondeuse, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberry and aromatic herbs like lavender and pennyroyal. In the mouth, stony bright flavors of boysenberry and dried sage are suffused with a cloud of powdery tannins that fill the mouth and leave a chalk-dust minerality lingering on the palate. Fantastic acidity. This is the only wine at Ardoisiers that is destemmed. After a week of maceration, this wine is fermented and aged in steel tanks. 10.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Argile Rouge” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of berries and bramble, green herbs, and a hint of sawdust. In the mouth, gorgeously bright acidity makes flavors of mulberries, redcurrant, and plum mix with the faint bitter sourness of plum skin. Wonderful tangy flavors and faint herbal notes are welded to wet pavement minerality and a long finish. Whole bunches of 65% Gamay, 25% Mondeuse Noir, and 10% Persan macerate for 10 days before fermentation. Ages in large oak foudres for about 9 months before bottling, and then released the following year. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberries, and aromatic green herbs. In the mouth, saline flavors of mulberries, sour cherry, and herbs swirl and crackle with phenomenal acidity and stony minerality, with the saline notes making for a mouthwatering finish for minutes. Incredibly delicious. Stony faint tannins. A blend of Persan and Mondeuse Noir that I could drink all day long. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

2016 Domaine des Ardoisiers “Amethyste” Red Blend, IGP Vin des Allobroges, France
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried sage and other herbs with sour cherry, mulberry, and dusty road notes. In the mouth, deeply mineral flavors come through a haze of chalk-dusty tannins and a core of sour cherry and mulberry fruit tinged with hints of citrus peel crackles with mouthwatering acidity. Wonderfully long, juicy finish. Outstanding. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.

When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers
Winemaker Brice Omont and the lineup of Ardoisiers wines

The post When Stones Speak: The Wines of Domaine des Ardoisiers appeared first on Vinography.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

Can you taste integrity? Spend enough time thinking and talking about wine, especially great wine, and inevitably you have to move beyond the merely tangible. Wine is more than just geology, chemistry, and botany. Like any human craft, honed over lifetimes and generations, it begins to contain something of us, to reflect something of the human spirit behind it.

All of which is why my answer to my opening question is unquestionably yes, just as you can taste honesty or love in the bottle as well. Sometimes subtle, sometimes electric and deeply powerful, the sensation of these (things? forces? principles? ideas? energies?) isn’t extremely common in my experience, even for those who drink selectively with deliberation and care. Their perception in wine, like a psychedelic experience, depends heavily on set and setting. We easily bring as much to wine as we get from it.

I recently got a deliciously heavy dose of bottled integrity on my visit to the Savoie region of France. On a crystalline-bright morning, I found myself wandering one of the more remarkable vineyard sites I have ever visited, listening to a very young man speaking (and acting, and farming, and winemaking) with a level of conviction and vision that are rare in winemakers twice his age.

On every wine trip I take, I hope to encounter at least one producer whose story and wines make the whole trip worthwhile. My visit to Domaine Curtet, was definitely one of those moments.

Florian Curtet hasn’t been in the world of wine for long. At a mere 30 years of age, he’s basically just a few years out of school. A local Savoyard, originally from Annecy, he studied enology in Beaune before returning to Annecy to continue his studies of Agriculture, in part with an internship that found him working with the well-known organic producer Jacques Maillet.

Florian Curtet in the vineyard.

Maillet was good friends with fellow Savoie producer Gilles Berlioz and with different harvest dates between their estates, Berlioz and Maillet were in the habit of helping each other out occasionally during harvest. One day Berlioz brought with him a young woman named Marie who had recently come to two important realizations. The first was that she wanted to make a life for herself in wine. The second was that the Savoie was where she wanted to make her home. And after meeting the young man working alongside Maillet, she would soon come to a third realization.

As they say, one thing led to another. Florian and Marie fell in love, and George Maillet decided he wanted to retire. Lacking any interested heirs, Maillet asked Curtet if he wanted to take over his property. Being handed 12.3 acres of perhaps the most immaculate organic vineyards in the area was more than fortuitous for the Curtets, who leaped at the chance to pursue their dream of a domaine to call their own.

Their first vintage was 2016, the same year their first child, Lily was born.

Both Florian and Marie believe strongly in their approach to winemaking and winegrowing, which is remarkably clear-sighted and unique, given their youth.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet

The Forest Vine

Curtet believes strongly in the synergy between grapevines and their surrounding ecosystem. Having purchased a set of what most people would have considered pristine organic vineyards, he is busy returning them as close as is practically possible to what he believes is their natural state. But instead of anchoring on the concept of a holistic farm with animals, plants, and people working without outside inputs (as biodynamics often does), Curtet chooses to focus instead on something that might best be described as… wilderness.

“My philosophy is not organic or biodynamic,” explains Curtet. “It is the philosophy of the green place. Green is carbon, it’s nurturing the soil. If you nurture the soil, you will have good fruit. My work begins with and continues constantly to understand how nature functions. It’s important to see how a forest [ecosystem] functions, and when you see that, you realize that agriculture, as we practice it now, is crazy. It’s the opposite of the forest. In the forest, you have leaves and branches and plants all falling to the earth and it’s never turned over. You see the fertility, you smell the mushrooms. The soil is dark. It is soft. The soil of the [average] farm is not like this, it is very poor, and yet we’re eating this poor fertility all around the world. Geology doesn’t create soil, vegetation does.”

I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school.

Curtet prunes during the winter, but other than that, he does no canopy management. Not content to have his vineyards merely surrounded by trees, Curtet has planted hundreds of trees in between the rows of his vines, around and among which he expects his vines to eventually climb and twine. In the meantime, he’s cobbled together branches in places to make what can only be described as arbors that he hopes the vines will climb. The vines are encouraged to sprawl, creep, and flop to the point that they can be difficult to distinguish from the chest-high mix of cover crops that populate the rows. He plans to keep the fruit in the 3- to 6-foot zone, while letting the vines wander where they will, fulfilling what he says is his obligation to let the plant express itself.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Tree seedlings planted mid-row in the vineyard.

“For me, it is important each year to produce and protect a lot of leaves,” says Curtet. “The field must be green. Green is diversity, a sign of life, energy, and growth. Green means roots are at work down in the soil, which will bring balance to the grape.”

When I asked him where these ideas came from he shrugged. “I started by doing the opposite of what I was taught in school,” he says. “I tried to do it my own way. No one told me or taught me to do this. I read some books, I visited some organizations, went to visit some winemakers some farms who were doing things differently.”

“It’s all about how you think,” he continues. “For me, plants, if you respect them, they will respect you. If you understand nature, you don’t have problems. But in school, they teach you that you will have problems, and then you come up with expensive solutions. School, for me, was not objective. Schools depend upon the money of the people who are selling you products or the tractor. There are forces at work there that are about harnessing people into a commercial culture, making them slaves of that culture.”

A Personal Vision

Standing in Curtet’s vineyards, it’s a little hard not to feel a sense of joy and delight, perhaps not unlike watching a group of very young children at play with their imaginations and nothing more than the random items they find around them. The vines and their surrounding vegetation are bursting with life and simply doing what they do, blissfully growing as best they know how. Not being particularly given to mystical, metaphysical, or spiritual expressions, I nonetheless can’t deny the vibrant energy evidenced by the riot of green life on display.

Dry farming is, like many places in France, de rigueur in the Savoie, and surrounding vegetation plays a key role for Curtet in ensuring his vines have enough to drink throughout the year on his unusual (for the Savoie, which is mostly limestone and glacial till) decomposed sandstone soils.

Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify

“Plants create moisture,” says Curtet. “Without vegetation, there is no morning dew. You don’t have water returning from the air to the soil. Trees also pull water up from into the shallower parts of the soil, nurturing plants with shallower root systems. I believe most water problems in the vineyard can be fixed with vegetation.”

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
The “molesse” sandstone soils of Curtet’s Le Cellier des Pauvres Vineyard.

Curtet farms roughly what might be considered biodynamically, with no herbicides or pesticides, and up until recently he has maintained his Organic/Bio and Demeter certifications as a way of generally signaling what his wines are all about. But with the coming vintage, he says he has decided to drop the Demeter certification.

“These labels and certifications are less and less restrictive these days,” he says. “Things have become very commercial, and now there’s an industrial organic culture, where basically all you have to do is not use systemic pesticides or herbicides and you qualify. And now with biodynamics, Demeter says they want a farm to be autonymous but then they allow people to buy treatments from outside. If you’re biodynamic, for instance, you can go in the vineyard with a tractor whenever you want. It’s crazy. I don’t respect this philosophy, so I don’t use the name biodynamics anymore.”

Interestingly, Curtet doesn’t believe in compost piles, which he says heat up to the point that it kills some of the life within the compost.

“They’re sterilizing life,” he says, “if you’re putting that compost on the vineyard then you’re putting something not very dynamic in the soil.”

Place Not Variety

In the two vineyard plots that he works, Curtet has planted or grafted a massale selection of Jacquere that he has gathered from what he considers all the best sites in the Savoie, along with a number of other white varieties including Gringet, Altesse, Mondeuse Blanche, Molette, and Savagnin, many of which will be harvested for the first time in 2021. These are all planted in a 7.4-acre vineyard named Le Cellier des Pauvres (The Cellar of the Poor). In a 4.9 acre vineyard named Les Vignes de Seigneur (The Vineyard of the Lord), he also has some very old Mondeuse (a number of vines more than 100 years old) as well as Gamay and Pinot Noir.

Curtet says that at some point he’s interested in farming all the immediate genetic relatives of Mondeuse, as if there’s something about having a complete family tree growing in one place that provides a sense of completeness and harmony. At the moment, the scientific jury is still out as to whether Mondeuse Noir is the child or the parent of Mondeuse Blanche.

Despite making several single-varietal bottlings in his first few vintages, Curtet says he has decided to make only two wines moving forward, a white field blend (he feels confident harvesting all his white varieties simultaneously and co-fermenting them) and a red blend assembled after fermentation (as Mondeuse and Gamay ripen at very different times).

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Curtet’s two wines

Curtet says he never plans to make more than the roughly 2000-2500 cases he produces each year, though some of the trees that he has planted in the vineyards are heritage apples, and he has plans to make cider, in part a nod to his wife’s Brittany heritage.

Simple but not Natural

When it comes to winemaking, “I don’t use any artifice in the cellar,” says Curtet. “I only use sulfites at bottling. I don’t want mouse [taint], it tends to make customers not happy.”

Curtet ferments with whole clusters (preferring what he says is a slower, “less dynamic” fermentation that way) and ambient yeasts in large concrete tanks, where the wines age without racking until they are ready for bottling.

“I don’t have oak, I don’t want oak,” says Curtet. “I want the expression of soil and grape, not the ‘style’ of oak. I prefer the wine to live in larger volumes, too. I think it produces more harmony, diversity, and balance.”

For purely economic reasons, Curtet’s first few vintages have aged for only 9 months in tank on the lees, but Curtet says he will be moving to 18 months of elevage soon, as he feels two winters in the cellar will make the wines “more finished.”

At first, Curtet was making his wines in a rented facility while keeping his eye out for a property reasonably close to his vineyards. A couple of years ago, he spotted one, and now he and Marie have a small farm in the town of Châteaufort where they have built a modestly functional winery, remodeled a stone cellar into a little tasting room, and are busy rebuilding an old farmhouse for their family to live in.

Small is Beautiful

“Our philosophy is to be small,” says Curtet. “If you are big, you have a lot of people working for you, and you don’t know your own work. My work is to be in the vineyard and in the cellar, to meet my customers or journalists like you. We take time to do that, and to reflect on our system of culture.”

In addition to Florian and Marie, the estate’s workforce consists only of Florian’s sister, who has been working with them for the past couple of years, and an occasional additional harvest hand. While his sister helps out in the vineyards when there is work to be done, Curtet says her main job is to “develop the commerce within 100 kilometers.”

Part of Curtet’s “small” philosophy involves an attempt to sell 50% of his wine close to home. “There’s a lot of carbon and pollution involved in selling farther,” he says. “Now with all the problems in the world we are trying to sell differently in addition to working differently.”

Paying off the Philosophy

I walked the vineyards, explored the cellar, and heard all of this before I had ever had a single sip of Curtet’s wine. And I must say, that when I finally did sit down opposite Florian in the little whitewashed, vaulted stone room they use to welcome guests, I was nervous. After being so impressed with Curtet’s clarity of thought, so dazzled by the vitality of his vineyards, and so charmed by the scale and dedication of his operations, I was dreadfully scared that the wines might not measure up. Or simply that they might not be to my taste.

But I am happy to say that they both handsomely paid off my anticipation while deepening my appreciation for Curtet’s vision. Were they the most amazing wines that I tasted while in the Savoie? No. But they were really damn good. And as an expression of Curtet’s ideas and skill they were an incredible beacon suggesting possibly profound things to come from this little family estate.

I’ll put it bluntly. I don’t think I’ve met 30-year-old vigneron with more promise or conviction in my life, and I can’t wait to see what Curtet and his wife will have managed to produce in 10 years, when their vineyards look more like wild orchards, and his new plantings have some more complexity that comes with maturity.

Mark my words, this is just the beginning of something truly great. And if, indeed, you want to know what integrity tastes like, just go find yourself a bottle of Domaine Curtet.

The Forest Dreams of the Savoie Vine: The Wines of Domaine Curtet
Florian and Marie Curtet

Tasting Notes

2019 Domaine Curtet “Tonnere de Gris” White Blend, Savoie, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and chamomile and bee pollen. In the mouth, bright lemon and apple and grapefruit flavors have an electric, dynamic quality with bee pollen and lemon oil and gorgeous acidity. There’s NOT a heavily mineral core here, which is what you might expect from these grapes grown on limestone. A roughly equal blend of Jacquere and Altesse. 11% alcohol. Tonnere means lightning. Gris refers to the soil. Bottled lightning, indeed. Score: between 9 and 9.5.  

2019 Domaine Curtet “Frisson des Cimes” Red Blend, Savoie, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wild berries and herbs, with a floral perfume resembling something like walking through a flower garden in summer. In the mouth, gorgeously bright berries, herbs, and flowers make a seamless whole that is remarkable. Faint, velvety tannins hang in the background and caress the palate while fantastic acidity keeps the berries, herbs, and flowers vibrant and juicy on the palate. A blend of Gamay, Mondeuse, and Pinot Noir. Fermented in concrete with 1 month of maceration of whole bunches, no pump-overs or punch-downs. 11% alcohol. Cime is the outline or shape of the mountain. Frisson is the “sensation of being on the crest,” according to Curtet. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

Unfortunately, these wines are not yet available in the United States, and earlier vintages are all but sold out. The US importer for Domaine Curtet is Martine’s Wines.

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 11/22/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This past week included wines from all over the place. But let’s start quite close to home, at least for me. Urban Legend Cellars is a small operation working out of the “wine ghetto” on the island of Alameda, near Oakland. Run by the husband-and-wife team of Steve & Marilee Shaffer, who are “recovering” engineers from Silicon Valley who decided they wanted to make wine. They purchase grapes from a wide range of sources, and make a number of wines, including this Vermentino, from the Clements Hills sub-AVA in Lodi. It’s quite fresh and tasty, and might easily convert anyone to Vermentino’s charms.

A little farther afield I’ve got a cracking Chardonnay from J. Christopher Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which illustrates perfectly why people are so excited about Oregon Chardonnay. It’s crisp and citrusy, and gorgeous.

You could say the same thing about the Dr. Loosen Riesling from the famed “spice garden” vineyard, Ürziger Würtzgarten, in Germany’s Mosel River Valley. One of Germany’s more famous sites for Riesling, made by one of Germany’s more famous names makes for a scintillating example of the form.

Let’s move on to reds.

Before I dive deep into a pool of Syrah, I’ve got a Pinot from J. Christopher winery that will be of interest to anyone who likes their Pinot Noirs more on the savory, earthy side.

I was recently sent a number of Côtes-du-Rhônes, which were a lovely reminder of how I really should be drinking more of them. All were compelling, from the lean dark fruit flavors of Stephane Ogier’s rendition, to the more savory, brooding qualities of Delas Frere’s interpretation.

But my favorite example of Côtes-du-Rhône comes from Clos Bellane, a small organic producer that sits at more than 1200 feet of elevation on steep, limestone slopes outside the village of Valréas, which sits in the northern part of the southern Rhone wine region.

Vigneron Stephane Vedeau purchased the Clos Bellane estate in 2007 and is making really remarkable wines there, as this, his entry-level wine, demonstrates. It’s wonderfully aromatic, incredibly fresh and bright, and just a delight to drink. And at between $16 and $20, it’s a shockingly great value.

Back on this continent, I was really delighted to see just how fresh the Owen Roe “Ex Umbris” Columbia Valley Syrah was in its expression of boisterous blackberry fruit. A bit father south in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, Troon Vineyard is making whole-cluster fermented Syrah where you can really taste the influence of the stems, making for a savory interpretation of the grape.

Lastly, I’ve got one of the regal wines of Taurasi, the Piano di Montevergine from venerable producer Feudi di San Gregorio. This wine comes from the estate’s oldest plantings of Aglianico at an elevation of around 1300 feet above sea level in the Irpina region of Campania, not far from Mount Vesuvius. Even at 8 years of age, this wine is still a bit of a monster when it comes to tannins, and needs some air to mellow, as well as perhaps some more time in the bottle. In my personal experience it is a wine that rewards significant aging, especially if you appreciate the leather and dried flowers scents that Aglianico can offer with some time in the bottle. Now, however, the Piano is a bit forte, if that’s your speed.

Tasting Notes

2019 Urban Legend Cellars “Gill Creek Ranch” Vermentino, Clements Hills, Lodi, Central Coast, California
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of poached pear in sweet cream. In the mouth, bright pear and pastry cream flavors have a slight tinge of lemongrass and chamomile. Silky textured, this wine has a very nice acid balance and crisp finish with a hint of orange peel. 13.1% alcohol. 168 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24.

2018 J. Christopher “Olenik Vineyard” Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith and white flowers. In the mouth, the wine is quite floral, with a gorgeous quartz-like crystalline quality and juicy lemon and lemon pith flavors, and a touch of green apple. Very elegant and poised with just a hint of salinity in the finish. . 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Dr. Loosen “Ürziger Würtzgarten Spätlese” Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of tangerine zest and white flowers with a hint of lemon cucumber. In the mouth, gorgeous exotic citrus flavors mix with honeysuckle and rainwater minerality, all sizzling with excellent acidity. Lightly to moderately sweet, but definitely in my sweet spot. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2016 J. Christopher “JJ” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry fruit shot through with a hint of barnyard funkiness. In the mouth, pure bright cherry and raspberry fruit has a nice zing thanks to excellent acidity. There’s some bitter cedar and herb notes lingering in the finish along with that faint hint of manure. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2018 Clos Bellane Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Valréas, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich cherry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy flavors of cherry mix with incredibly aromatic herbs like wild thyme and lavender even as a crystalline stony quality makes the whole red and black fruit concoction glint and shimmer on the palate. Barely perceptible tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2017 Stephane Ogier “Le Temps Est Venu” Côtes-du-Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark cherry fruit and a touch of forest floor. In the mouth, juicy black cherry flavors are shot through with dried sage and other dried herbs making for quite a savory impression. Very faint powdery tannins creep about the edges of the mouth, while a faint bitter herb and orange-peel note lingers in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Delas Freres “Saint-Esprit” Côtes-du-Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cassis, and potting soil. In the mouth, flavors of black cherry, cassis, and wet earth have a wonderful freshness to them thanks to excellent acidity and a faint green herbal kick that meshes with a definite stony quality. Dark and brooding, yet without feeling heavy, and quite delicious. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. click to buy.

2018 Owen Roe “Ex Umbris” Syrah, Yakima Valley, Washington
Medium to dark purple in color, this wine smells of rich blackberry fruit with a hint of woodsmoke. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy blackberry and cassis flavors are positively electric on the palate thanks to fantastic acidity. Faint, powdery tannins dust the palate while notes of licorice emerge on the finish. Excellent. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Troon Vineyard “White Family Selection” Syrah, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth and chopped herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and cassis flavors are shot through with a cedary, incense quality, thanks no doubt to the whole cluster fermentation, which seems to have imparted a sort of woody note from the stems. Excellent acidity and freshness, with tightly wound, muscular tannins that flex through the finish. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2012 Feudi di San Gregorio “Piano di Montevergine – Riserva” Aglianico, Taurasi, Campania, Italy
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of leather, dried flowers, and licorice. In the mouth, massive, billowy tannins envelop a core of black cherry, licorice root, and dried flowers, even as earthier, darker notes rumble about in the basement. Good acidity, but still massive even with 8 years of age. Give it some air, or better yet, another 5 years in the bottle. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.

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Wine News: What I’m Reading the Week of 8/3/20

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the wine stories that I find of interest on the web. I post them to my magazine on Flipboard, but for those of you who aren’t Flipboard inclined, here’s everything I’ve strained out of the wine-related muck for the week.

Milla Handley, The “Pioneer Queen” Of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir And Handley Cellars Founder, Dies At 68
A very sad loss, far too early. F*ck you, COVID.

As France’s wine industry contracts, an incalculable cultural loss
Robert Joseph tallies the damage.

From Champagne to Japan: Richard Geoffroy releases his first sake
Very interesting career move.

What will the world of luxury look like in the new normal?
Even more exclusive, probably.

As Champagne Sales Plummet, Producers May Throw Away Tons of Unused Grapes
Expect lots of extra aging in the bottle….100m bottles or so.

As Wine Country harvest approaches, farmworkers continue to pay high pandemic price
The wine industry has a front line, too.

South African Wine Businesses Launch DTC Platform
While others turn to bootlegging.

How Our Changing Times Are Changing Wine
Thoughts from a Houston sommelier.

Phylloxera Breakthrough Brings Hope to Vineyards
It’s a start. We’ve got the DNA sequenced now.

What Is a Great Wine? Verdicchio di Matelica Has Some Ideas
Eric Asimov on complexity.

4 Black Sommeliers Share Their Perfect Pour and How the Industry is Changing
More stories of inspiration.

Elin McCoy: Why wine matters
Elin’s last column for Decanter

The Goopification of grapes: why ‘clean wine’ is a scam
Felicity Carter, like me, uses the word scam quite deliberately.

Rediscovering Tuscany’s Forgotten Classic
Those of us who can’t afford as much Brunello as we’d like haven’t forgotten it.

What is Natural Wine?
Jim Clarke’s take on the regulations.

Foley Johnson winery in Napa Valley closes after worker tests positive for coronavirus
Not under control yet.

Wine Knowledge and Culture: Are They Related?
A very interesting article about the correlation between a “culture” of wine and knowing something about it.

France’s 8-Year-Olds Head Off to Wine School
Teaching wine to third graders. Awesome.

Why champagne houses are in a tussle with vineyard owners in northeastern France
Another take on Champagne’s current woes.

Man Sends Empty Bottle of ’Suspicious’ Mouton for Verification
But is he the victim or the future fraudster?

Microbiologists clarify relationship between microbial diversity and soil carbon storage
More evidence for the benefits of living soil health.

Natural wine’s (inevitable, problematic) entry into the ‘wellness’ industry is here
Esther has more to say on Clean Wine.

Champagne losing its fizz as global pandemic clobbers sales
Yet one more take on Champagne’s struggles.

Wine Girl Author Victoria James: 10 Questions on Where We’re Headed
James talks with Dottie and John.

COVID Bringing a Painful Evolution to the Wine Business
Evolution does hurt.

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Fantastic White Wines and Sparkling from Lucien Albrecht

Back in May I joined Lucien Albrecht winemaker Jėrȏme Keller for some wine (duh) and snacks at a small media get-together. I said “yes” because many of these wines are like old friends, particularly the sparkling and Pinot Blanc. It was an impressive set of bottles, and here are my favorites of the lot.

Idyllic Alsace in the fall.

Lucien Albrecht Sparkling and White Wines

(Note that the 2018 wines were recently bottled and a couple months away from release when I drank them. Their condition at the time was excellent, so I only imagine them currently even better.)

Lucien Albrecht NV Rosé ($23)

When I worked at a Seattle wine shop (Esquin), for many on the staff this bottle was the answer to the question, “What wine is always in your fridge?” Rosé sparkling wine is at the top of my favorites list, and at just over 2o bucks, it’s hard to beat this bottle. Made from Pinot Noir.

Lucien Albrecht 2018 Pinot Blanc Balthazar ($14)

This wine is a slammin’ bargain, so fresh and tasty. Strangely/surprisingly, this wine is actually 70% Auxerrois. So how/why is it labeled “Pinot Blanc”? Good question. I reached out to the folks representing Wines of Alsace, who got in touch with the Committee of Alsace Wines (CIVA). Here’s what I found out.

The rules for still wines are:
  • Producers are allowed to label their wines “Pinot Blanc” regardless of the Auxerrois percentage in it, as “Pinot Blanc” is considered an appellation in this case, now, instead of the grape variety.
  • If the wine is 100% Auxerrois, it can be labeled either Auxerrois or Pinot Blanc.
  • However, if the wine is a blend and not 100% Auxerrois, it cannot be labeled Auxerrois, and must be labeled Pinot Blanc. 

These rules should be changed. Though perhaps for many markets the word “Pinot” in the name gives it a familiar association, unlike Auxerrois which is probably wine anxiety-inducing in comparison.

Enjoy this wine on a deck chair under a pool-adjacent umbrella.

Lucien Albrecht 2018 Gewurztraminer Réserve ($23)

This is a grape that’s been hit-or-miss for me. Dry versions are often stripped of the grape’s aromatic/textural wonders, but too-sweet Gewurztraminers can be overwrought and oily. (Here’s a good dry one from California, BTW.) This offering from Albrecht, however, is classic Gewurz. This is what the grape should be, textbook stuff. There’s a decent amount of sugar in this Gewurz, but you’d never know because it drinks quite dry. Break out the spicy food.

Lucien Albrecht Riesling 2017 Grand Cru Spiegel ($30)

A big step up from the (very fine) regular bottling. “Riesling really shows where it grows,” says Keller. So I can only imagine what a special site Speigel is. Almost completely dry and very age-worthy. It’s cool to find another white wine at 30 bucks or less that can greatly reward your patience. (This Italian Verdicchio is another recent gem along those lines.)

So clear some space in your fridge. Have a couple bottles of sparkling rosé in there for brunch, Tuesday night, grilled salmon, whatever. Reach for some PB when you need a glass after surviving a stiflingly hot, crowded subway nightmare. Maybe the Gewurz with Nashville hot chicken? And the GC Riesling with a roast pork/broccoli rabe/provolone sandwich, transport you to Philly (food-wise).

This post was written on a day where the heat index in Brooklyn at 2:11pm EST was 110 degrees.

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Traveling 54 Years in One Evening with Two Wines

A duo of bottles serving as bookends to a media event sponsored by Barton & Guestier  practically told the story of French wine, how the industry has developed, and how tastes have evolved. Yep, over five decades of change distilled (fermented, rather) into one short, yet memorable, evening.

Let’s start from the end, which is the beginning.

The final wine served was a 1964 Château Léoville Barton, out of magnum (!) no less. Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of old wines. A lot of times they are just…dead. And you’re around a bunch of fawning wine people pretending that it’s profound when it’s bad vinegar. Just admit it’s bunk and open up a cold beer, ok? (End rant.)

But sometimes, a well-aged wine defies logic, history, and the march of time. This Léoville Barton was one of those bottles.

Here’s my hyperbolic take while drinking my slight, yet profound, pour:

Forest floor. Like you’re on a quiet hike in an old-growth forest at dawn. The sun pokes through and casts church-like rays of light both misty and mystical.

The ground is soft, so you lay down and it embraces you like a cool hug. You have a ripe, red berry in your pocket and you pop it in your mouth and let it dissolve. 

A bird chirps and a friendly squirrel climes onto your shoe like you’re Snow White.

Barton & Guestier can trace its beginnings back to 1725, when Thomas Barton left Ireland to try his hand in the wine business in Bordeaux. Later on, Daniel Guestier joined up with Thomas’ grandson, Hugh. This association became formalized in 1802 with the creation of  Barton-Guestier Wine Merchants. The acquisition of the vineyards that would become Leoville Barton happened two decades later. (The property is still in the hands of the Barton family today.)

Now let’s fast-forward two hundred years. 

Barton & Guestier: Back to the Future

Traveling 54 Years in One Evening with Two WinesOur welcome wine was the 2018 Côtes de Provence Rosé, a wine so pale I asked if it was a white wine. The thing that struck me the most about this wine, besides it’s quaffable nature, was the bottle shape.

Its elongated neck and curved base are totally unique. It’s like a teardrop-shaped wine amulet, which shouldn’t be surprising once you find out the bottle was inspired by the pink Tourmaline stone. Which, if you are into crystals, is a stone purportedly all about “love and spirituality, encouraging compassion and gentleness during periods of growth and changes as humanity works toward enlightenment.” That’s above and beyond what this wine (or any wine/beverage) delivers, but I will say that a glass of it (and the sight of the bottle) does encourage a pacific nature, delivered from the other side of the Atlantic.

I’m also a big fan of the closure, the glass Vinlok. It’s also pink, which is a nice touch. More elegant than a screw cap, it’s also nice because you can lay an open bottle on its side in your fridge. I don’t see why more producers of drink-now wines aren’t using it; perhaps it’s a cost issue.

Barton & Guestier: Past and Present, Side-by-Side

Looking back my photos, I was most struck by seeing the 2018 rosé next to the 1964 Bordeaux. I’m guessing back then when you thought of French (still) wine, BDX was king/queen/one to rule them all. And I’m sure that opinion, particularly among wine connoisseurs/collectors held true for decades after that.

But in 2019, I bet if you asked most wine drinkers what they think of when they think of French wine, it’s rosé from Provence. The extent to which it has taken over the seasonal wine market is astonishing. Of course, this overshadows Bordeaux, a region make a TON of fantastic, well-priced whites and rosé for summer drinking. (I am particularly fond of Bordeaux Clairet, a deeper, richer style of rosé perfect for those who rarely stray from red.)

It seemed appropriate that the tasting was held at Dear Irving, a new outpost of the stylish cocktail bar at the top of the Aliz hotel. As I gazed out the window, there was an unmissable landmark of a bygone era. The old McGraw-Hill building, an Art Deco gem.

Traveling 54 Years in One Evening with Two Wines

Will there ever be another building like it? How long will it last? What state is it in? The parallels to the 1964 Bordeaux were obvious.

How strange it was to view this solitary icon from a location embodying New York in 2019, drinking the most modern, the most “now” of wines.

Enjoy everything you can while it lasts.

Note: I wrote this post as part of a contest sponsored by B&G:

Share the love for B&G by publishing an article, blog post or social media feature for a chance to win a stay at Château Magnol, Barton & Guestier’s Food and Wine Academy. The winner will be selected on July 31, 2019 and will be announced on @bartonguestier_france social media channels. All entries will be judged by Barton & Guestier’s team for authenticity, creativity and exceptional work in capturing the essence of the brand.

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Go Gamay Go: Two Bottles Starring My Favorite Red Grape

Gamay freaks unite! And they/we do, across the globe, thanks to #gogamaygo. Check it out on IG. I believe the origins of it come from my friend Treve Ring but I’m not sure. And though the grape is popping up all over the world, the best stuff is from France. Particularly Beaujolais. Here are two French Gamays I got for like $15 each at Grapepoint Wines. With their chugability, freshness, and chill ways, they will have you saying, “Go Gamay Go!”

Go Gamay Go for $15 or Less

Beau! Beaujolais 2016

Un-beau-lievable value here. The front label says, “cool – red – wine” and I have to agree. (Well, the name’s pretty corny but that’s right up my alley.) Anyhow, it’s cool in the way Ray-Ban Wayfarers are as well as cool like “serve chilled.” Made from 40-year-old vines. Sealed with a screw cap, which is excellent.

Emile Balland En Attendant Les Beaux Jours 2016

This is a triumph over (climate) tragedy wine. A freeze in the Loire Valley destroyed 80% of buds on the vines at Emile Balland. So this Gamay cuvée made from purchased grapes expands the name of the winery’s “Les Beaux Jours” wines to add a “En Attendant.” Which now means, “Waiting for Beautiful Days.”

I wish I could be this poetic about a turn of events that hurt my heart and bottom line, but that’s why I’m some milquetoast wine blobber and people like Emile Balland persevere when the chips (grapes?) are down.

Read about a Cru Beaujolais with a label making me sentimental.

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My Favorite Bargain White Wine in the History of the World

Many highlights of being in Tacoma for Thanksgiving but one was undoubtedly being reunited with a long time Hall of Fame white wine: Domaine des Cassagnoles Cuvée Gros Manseng. This is the top white wine, pound for pound, dollar for dollar you’ll find. I haven’t seen it in New York but it has kind of a cult following in Seattle. (Which I will take some credit for from my days as a buyer.)

Domaine des Cassagnoles 2016 Cuvée Gros Manseng Reserve Selection (Côtes de Gascogne) $13

If you’re looking for bargain white wine, head to Southwest France. Particularly, the Côtes de Gascgone region, the home turf of DdC. The winery makes a blend even LESS EXPENSIVE than the Gros Manseng (which is the grape, BTW). If you see CdG on a label, just buy that dang white wine.

So this bottle has so much easy-drinking flavor and actual texture. It’s not too searingly acidic like a lot of cheap white wines. I’d call it medium-bodied, which is remarkable for a “simple” wine. It’s not perfume-y like a Viognier or Torrontes, but is aromatically enticing. The Gros Manseng checks off so many boxes for a wine of this price. (BTW, got the price from Wine-Searcher.)

If you’re having trouble finding it, the importer is Weygandt-Metzler. So when you go to your local wine shop, let them know this is the company responsible for bringing this amazing bottle to our fair shores.

I also wrote about the Gros Manseng back in 2010. A very short, to-the-point post.

Also, if you missed the natty wine kerfuffle that recently set the insular indie wine world ablaze,  read about it (along with my thoughts) in my newsletter.

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François Villard Makes the Ultimate Viognier For Under $30

I’m grateful when I get to go to big wine trade tastings, but they can be overwhelming. One hundred-plus tables, many of them crowded with clamoring masses, yearning to drink taste free. My advice is to go in with a battle plan. Study that spiral-bound playbook you get on arrival! But sometimes it’s dumb luck that gets you (re)discovering a favorite. Case in point: stumbling upon the François Villard Viognier “Les Contours de Deponcins.”

So Villard is a famed producer in the very small appellation of Condrieu. I can say, without a doubt, the best Viognier in the world comes from here. Period. Game over. The wine “Les Contours de Deponcins” is not a Condrieu, but very, very close to one due to grape sourcing just outside the defined region.

François Villard Viognier “Les Contours de Deponcins” 2015

There is no white wine as exquisitely perfumed as Viognier. Unfortunately, most examples from the US are overblown, oily, soapy, and boozy.

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

Can a wine cause time to slow down/freeze and make you feel like you’re floating in space?

Drinking this Viognier is akin to misting essence of honeycomb all over a silk sheet then wrapping yourself up in it like a burrito then gently hovering over a cooling river while angels hand you bouquets of white flowers on a star-lit paradise journey.

There’s oak, but the barrels are all a few years old. (Don’t be afraid of oaked white wines!) So the oak adds mostly texture. It’s just delicious AF. No food needed! Enjoy this alone or with someone special. (BTW, YOU ARE SPECIAL.)

Let’s talk price. The average cost for a bottle on Wine-Searcher is $25. That is an astounding deal for a wine of this quality and pedigree. IT IS SPECIAL! SO. MUCH. SPECIALNESS.

A note on vintage: I’m not a big fan of aged dry white wine and especially Viognier. This is a drink-now wine. I see there is a 2016 vintage available as well. Go buy it, right now. (Please.)

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Master Sommelier Larry Stone and Lingua Franca Wines

lin·gua fran·ca noun: “a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different.”

Lingua Franca Vineyard LSV

The headline for this article could read: “Local Boy Does Good!” Larry Stone is one of the most influential people in the wine industry. (Period). One of the first Americans to pass the Master Sommelier exam (#9 in 1988), the only American ever to win France’s Grand Prix de Sopexa competition (better known as the “Best Sommelier in the World”). Wine director for Charlie Trotters. Founder (With Robert De Niro and Robin Williams) of the legendary Rubicon in San Francisco. Dean of Wine Studies at the International Culinary Center.

In 2006, he left the restaurant business to become the Gérant of the Niebaum-Coppola winery, now Inglenook. He worked with Augustine Huneeus at Quintessa, started his own Napa property Sirita and he also ran a négociant firm, Deux Chapeaux, with Daniel Johnnes. In 2010, Stone became president of Evening Land Vineyards, where he collaborated with Burgundian winemaker Dominique Lafon. Today, Evening Land is in the capable hands of Stone’s Protégé Rajat Parr.

In 2012, Stone started a new winery next door – Lingua Franca.

Master Sommelier Larry Stone and Lingua Franca Wines
Larry Stone tasting at Esquin

Stone brought together a team led by Dominique Lafon. Who is Burgundy’s best-known winemaker, his name is attached to one of its most famous Domaines -Comte Lafon. The Comtes Lafon domaine, contains well over three hectares of premier cru vineyard as well a piece of burgundy’s grand cru Le Montrachet. Lafon Montrachet sells for thousands of dollars a bottle. He has been rightly called “the Wizard of Burgundy.”

He also brought on board winemaker Thomas Savre, who worked with stone and Lafon at Evening Land after working at luminary Burgundian properties as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Dujac, and Maison Nicolas Potel. To manage the vineyards he brought on local viticulturist Mimi Casteel. Mimi is the daughter of Ted Casteel and Pat Dudley, co-founders of Bethel Heights Vineyard. She brings with her a lifetime of living and working in the valley and her families well known reputation for Sustainable and Biodynamic farming.

Master Sommelier Larry Stone and Lingua Franca WinesStone was in negotiations with Evening Land’s neighbors to purchase the land adjacent to the famed Seven Springs Vineyard, even before he left the project. After he left Evening Land the Janzen family approached him with a deal to buy the land. He sold his stake in Sirita Winery, auctioned off his personal wine collection and convinced a few friends to invest.

They cleared the land – removing fruit and Christmas Trees – planted a vineyard and built a winery, designed by Lafon and Savre. Across the road from Seven Springs it is also adjacent Domaine Serene’s Jerusalem Hill Vineyard, Argyle Winery’s Lone Star Vineyard and Domaine Drouhin’s Roserock Vineyard.

A perfect vineyard sight, a remarkably capable team and an astute understanding of the wine business. It is not surprising these wines are already creating a buzz. Lingua Franca is being poured at high-profile Paris restaurants Vitus, Taillevent and Spoon. Impressive for a new minted American Pinot Noir.

Master Sommelier Larry Stone and Lingua Franca Wines

The entire first vintage from Lingua Franca received 90 plus point scores from Wine Spectator! With The Tongue N’ Cheek making it in the

Lingua Franca Avni Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills 2015 $36.99 btl

Refined and precise, featuring a structure that’s elegantly complex, with raspberry and cinnamon aromas and sleek cherry and mineral flavors. Drink now through 2022. 772 cases made.

92 Points Wine Spectator

He told me, “We are not trying to make ‘burgundy’, although that is of course an influence. We are making wines of very little intervention, wines of place”. Stone describes it as “exploring Oregon with the mind of Burgundy.” The name Lingua Franca represents the concept of universal language, of bringing people of different worlds to common ground – shared conversation, shared enjoyment. Lingua franca could be described as a conversation between Oregon terroir and years of traditional Burgundian winemaking.

If you were to make a list of what you would need to make a great wine, every box would be checked off on the list.

Not bad for the son of refugees.

His mother was a cheesemaker, and his father was a produce buyer at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Stone was always enamored with food and even making his own wine at age 14. At the UW, Stone was a National Merit Scholar who studied abroad in Montpellier, France, and Vienna. He pursued a doctorate in comparative literature, earning a Fulbright Scholarship to University of Tübingen in Germany.He never finished his dissertation.

He was one of Seattle’s very first Sommeliers’ at a restaurant called the Red Cabbage. Later working at the Four Seasons Olympic before heading to Chicago and Charlie Trotter’s.Master Sommelier Larry Stone and Lingua Franca Wines

Local boy does good, and then some.


By Lenny Rede

Leonard Redé is the marketing person here at Esquin Wine and Spirits. An instructor in the Wine Technology Program at South Seattle, he wrote the curriculum for the Associate of Arts Degree in Food and Wine Pairing Sommelier Studies. A classically trained chef and pastry chef he was nominated for educator of the year while Chef Instructor at the world renowned Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. He garnered international attention at his award winning restaurant Sapphire kitchen and bar. A restaurateur, wine steward, chef and educator with over 30 years of industry experience he has a unique blend of culinary and wine expertise. He loves to share his passion for all things gastronomic and he’ll gladly help you navigate the world of wine and is always quick with a wine pairing or recipe.

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