Looking backwards over a month of tasting in order to pick the Top Three Wines is an ambiguous endeavor. Imagine one full month of visiting different amusement parks every week. You climb onto one hundred different rides before picking the top three in hindsight. What’s the criteria? The most unique design? How about the rides that made you scream the loudest? Tallest, steepest, fastest, most upside-down time, or maybe just the most thrilling overall? See what I mean? Picking the top wines from scores of spent bottles calls on more than the details of balance, flavor, construction, vintage, producer credentials, and vineyard designations.
For me, it comes in the form of an unexplainable cerebral reflex that holds a spotlight on wines leaving large and lasting imprints on my brain; wines that I do not stop thinking about and search out for my cellar. Uncertain they are the “best”, they remain the most memorable. This month’s most resonant memories are three old world beauties from France’s Loire and Alsace regions as well as an Amarone from Italy’s Valpolicella.
Back in April I trekked across Valpolicella to taste with some of the most venerable Amarone producers and some of the new guard of winemakers working with Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Beyond these exceptions and for the most part, I continued to struggle with the brashness, high alcohol, and big flavors that are Amarone signposts. Earlier this month, a group of prominent Amarone producing families visited Boston from Valpolicella to feature their wines. It was more of the same, tasting wines from the usual big and medium sized producers weighing in at 15-16% alcohols. Giant mouthfuls of prune, raisin, heavy fruit, and heat prevailed.
I took a rest inside an adjacent room to balance out the high alcohols with parmesan and prosciutto when I met Maddalena Pasqua Di Bisceglie. She oversees her family’s wine program at Musella. I had to revisit her 2008 Amarone 2-3 times to believe the restraint, brightness, cherry character, framing acidity, and elegant mouthfeel that this wine produced. I looked her straight in the eyes and asked her if she knew that this wine was the best in the entire room of producers. With great Italian-female-self-effacing-restraint, she would not join me in that declaration.
So I will declare it again; the Musella was the finest Amarone in the room. Maddalena heads up one of only two fully certified biodynamic producers in Valpolicella. Biodynamic or not, the 2008 is the kind of Amarone you can drink with food and appreciate for the vineyard’s fruit. I giggled when I received an offer this month from Chambers Street Wines touting Musella as the “right kind” of Amarone to drink. Evidently, some of the really sharp palates from Chambers Street participated in the New York version of the same Boston Amarone Family tasting I met Maddalena at. For $40 at Chambers Street Wines, the wine is very competitively and fairly priced.
***1/2 $4o 2005 Domaine Huet Clos du Bourg Vouvray Demi-Sec
When I find some older vintage Huet on restaurant wine lists (the 2010 is currently on the market), I buy it. Longtime Huet winemaker, Noel Pinguet, left his position not too long ago and I cringe at the thought of an eventual end to his wines. This off dry Clos du Bourg bottling is a favorite, and I turn to it a lot with Asian, Indian, or other spicy food since the residual sugar and great acidity do well in that context.
Bistro Les Gras is a small Northampton, MA restaurant relying almost entirely on locally farmed product. Our meal of line-caught day boat cod, quail, and a whimsical version of Montreal inspired poutine was remarkable. We picked this Vouvray off the list for a reasonable $60. The few extra years the wine spent in the cellar were already rounding out the wine. Gorgeous aromatics of pineapple, coconut, and saline seem playful compared to the elegant tongue coating weight and acidity that seems more integrated and seamless with the bottle age. While these Chenin Blancs from the Loire Valley are sturdy and purely delicious when young, the 2005 has remained youthfully succulent while turning middle aged classy.
I happily bought all the available bottles in last week’s auction at Winebid.com for $40. The vintage occasionally pops up there or on WineSearcher.com, so it is worth keeping an eye out.
I brought this wine to a 50th birthday dinner celebration for a tasting buddy. The group was a bunch of folks from the Boston wine trade and winos from as far as Philadelphia. I figured this group could appreciate a wine that has turned this orange color after a dozen years in my cellar.
Typical of Zind Humbrecht wines, I am only assuming that Oliver Humbrecht’s oxidative wine making style must give a head start to the development of its deep golden amber coloration after years in the cellar. The 1997 Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris from Clos St. Urbain (inside the almost holy Rangen vineyard) will not get any better than it is today. Actually, you need to be able to appreciate wine on the downslope following the peak of maturity. I love wines at this stage. Austere drying fruit that features edginess, shrill vibrancy, and lasting acidity dominate the experience. Forget sweetness, voluptuousness, and heavy viscosity. This has turned into a lean wine with advanced dried apricot flavor. The most amazing thing to me is how it managed to advance so far yet remain so very vibrant and alive.
The 1997 Pinot Gris raised some controversy whether wines like this, or even newly released orange wines, are more the result of an oxidative process than the vineyard. I recall a conversation I had with Josko Gravner this year where he reminded me that all orange wines are not the same and that his wines were amber, not orange. The cleanliness and purity of Gravner’s wines are not overcome with oxidative funkiness like many other orange wines. The same holds true for me here with this wine, and is the central reason this wine owns a place on this month’s top three wines list. While Zind Humbrecht wines involve oxidative processes, the wines’ fruit purity stays front and center. There is not sacrifice in making sure the vineyard’s fruit is featured. It is the glacial edginess that comes with bottle age here that demotes sweet fruity flavors and creates a savory structured mouthfeel that defies any ill effects of long bottle age.
Having said goodbye to the last two bottles in my collection, I doubled down my bet on age and bought several bottles of the 1997 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Herrenweg Turckheim which is still available on Winebid.com. I may be pushing my luck with Gewurztraminer, a risk I am willing to take.