Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Brooklyn Blind Tasting Panel #4 - Inexpensive Provence Reds

Everyone knows that well made Bandol is beautiful and age-worthy wine. But the inexpensive red wines of Provence? Even at under $20, these are not exactly popular wines, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. The marquis wine crowd doesn't even know that these wines exist, and the cool-cat wine crowd prefers light red wines with low alcohol. Some of my favorite wine stores, Chambers Street included, do not stock even one inexpensive Provence red wine. Why would they - the wines are high alcohol, clunky, sweet fruit bombs without any grace. Aren't they?

Some are, yes. But there are some great under $20 red wines from Provence. Wines that can offer the same level of quality as good Beaujolais or Loire red wines at those prices - delicious wines that express terroir and work perfectly with food. When well made, these are wines that offer lots of power and intensity, but also a modicum of grace, and that's an intriguing combination. Okay, these wines are not as flexible with food as Loire or Beaujolais wines, but there's plenty of room to play around here. I'm not saying that I want to drink an inexpensive Provence red every night, but when I want a big red wine and I'm not spending more that $20, I think there's a lot to like in Provence. I'm talking about lavender and other Provence herbs and gamy leathery animale aromas - not just ripe fruit.

With that in mind, I convened the Brooklyn Blind Tasting Panel to take a closer look at inexpensive Provence red wines. For this tasting I was joined by Rosemary Gray, the Champagne, Austria, Germany, and Sake wine buyer and a manager at Chambers Street Wines, Ben Hagen, the wine buyer at Slope Cellars, one of my favorite Brooklyn retailers, and Dan Melia who runs the US operations for Mosel Wine Merchant.

Such a great group for this tasting - Rosemary drinks loads of minerally white wine and has a tough time with big red wines like this. Dan represents a load of German Riesling producers and also rarely drinks wines like these. And Ben said that he studiously avoids wines like these, that he can't deal with the alcohol and the big fruit. We tasted (and then drank with dinner) 8 wines, all of them currently available in NYC retail stores.

Ben thought the wines were interesting, and found that he had a lot to say about them, which he felt was a good thing. He also felt that he wouldn't buy any of them for himself other than the first wine below, that he found the fruit to be candied in many of them. Dan felt that there wasn't a lot of pleasure in many of the wines, he didn't feel like he wanted to sit there and drink them. And he wasn't saying that he wished he had food with them, he meant that sometimes he just wants to drink a wine and he didn't find many that he wanted to just sit there and drink. Rosemary was surprised that she liked the wines, but she found the group to be hit or miss, and imagined that it would be tough to shop for these wines without knowing exactly what you wanted. I wasn't disappointed - I thought that some of the wines were very good, and very much expressive of Provence. And these wines can offer unusual flavors. things that I don't experience in wines from anywhere else. Here are the wines we tasted, with a few notes:

Three of us picked the same wine as our favorite, the 2006 Delille Vin de Pays du Mont Caume Terre d'Ombre, $17, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Reymond Delille makes Bandol at Domaine de Terrebrune, and this is a very similar wine. I don't know the exact blend but it's lots of Mourvedre with some Grenache and Cinsault in there. Could be Terrebrune Bandol but younger vines, could be the same wine but a different blend, using less than 50% Mourvedre, I just don't know. But it really stood out for me in this tasting - earthy and intense but still energetic and lively. The nose was very animale with bretty leathery notes, dark and a bit spicy. Spreads out on the palate but the wine is nicely structured, the fruit is bright and perky, and it is infused with this herbal animale funk. I thought it was well balanced and delicious. Dan was worried at first that the animale would obscure the wine, but he was very happy with the savory, spicy taste, and found the wine to be entirely approachable. He thought it got better and better over the course of the evening. Ben thought it was a classic Provence red wine, with an interesting chestnutty quality, and Rosemary thought it opened up nicely and showed a lightness and deftness that balanced the animale intensity. She thought it would be a good candidate for the cellar. I can tell you from re-tasting it the next night that the wine continues to improve, and all the balance, character, and class that you could want in a big red wine. And it's drinkable - the alcohol is a entirely reasonable 13%. This is one to buy if you come across it.

The next four wines were all quite good, and were preferred by some of us, enjoyed by all, and in no particular order:

2004 Domaine du Deffends Côteaux Varois Clos de la Truffière, $19, Robert Chadderdon Selections. During the tasting and then dinner, this wine was good but also a bit weird. A blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, I found bright citrus fruit on the nose - think persimmon, and also some very prominent sandalwood aromas. Although the texture was very smooth and the fruit bright, I found the wine to be a bit disjointed and wasn't crazy about it. Dan at first found it to be glossy and manipulated, and said that he was dismissive of it initially, but thought it improved with air. Ben and Rosemary both liked the wine, seeing past the incense smells and finding something classically Provence about the wine. And let me tell you that on day 2, the wine is the best of the bunch, with a harmonious nose that shows brightly floral fruit and loads of Provence herbs, and a structured but graceful and joyous palate with a long lavender finish. This is a wine that I want to drink on day 2, or to cellar for 5-8 years and then open up for some wine-geek friends in the winter with a bowl of stew.

2007 Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence, $14, Michael Skurnik Wines. This was Rosemary's favorite wine, and it is the most spare of the lot, without the pungency of some of the other wines. This wine has lovely and bright strawberry fruit, and a shot of animale earth that offers nice contrast. I thought the fruit was interesting in that it reminded me of the way that black tea can be fruity. The wine is energetic and well balanced and is easy to like - everyone liked it. It is still quite good on day 2 and shows a pronounced black licorice character, and continues to show an attractively spare structure. It is 12.5% alcohol and under $15 and eminently drinkable.

2006 Château Jean-Pierre Gaussen Vin de Pays du Mont Caume, $11, Moonlight Wines Imports. I wrote about this wine last summer, and I liked it again in this tasting, but not as much as some of the other wines. The nose shows a dark and earthy animale character, but I wanted this to be balanced by brighter fruit. There is good acidity and structure, but in the end I thought the wine just wasn't very interesting. Rosemary thought the alcohol stood out a bit, and although it is only 12.5%, it does stand out, on day 2 also. But the fruit is also brighter on day 2. Dan liked this wine more and more as the evening wore on, and he said that it was the one he was thinking about the next day. Who knows about this wine - it is mostly Mourvedre and those wines from this place are a bit of a mystery, I think.

2008 Comptoirs de Magdala Vin de Pays du Mont Caume La Chance, $17, Jenny & François Selections - this wine kindly donated by Jenny & François for this tasting. This wine was entirely different from the others in its lightness and drinkability. It is very young wines of Cinsault, Grenache, and Mourvedre from the back garden of Antoine Pouponneau's garden (he makes Bandol at Tour du Bon). Rosemary liked it a lot and said that she wanted to drink it more than the others. Dan too said that it offered pleasure, and that he didn't find as much pure pleasure in the other wines. Ben liked it too, but didn't find it to be as expressive as the others. I enjoyed this wine but I thought it was more expressive as a natural wine than as a Provence wine, and that it drank more like a Beaujolais than a Mourvedre blend. This is not a bad thing, but if I were looking specifically for a Provence red wine, I would be a bit disappointed if this is what the salesperson sold me.

2008 Commanderie de Peyrassol Vin de Pays Portes Méditerraneé La Croix, $13, Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchant. I really like this wine. I loved it in 2007, and I like it in 2008, but I will say that it is a very weird wine this year. The fruit character is bizarre, very floral, and almost confected. Rosemary said it was like drinking some sort of plastic toy. I thought the nose with its persimmon and pineapple fruit was simply strange, but the palate was interesting and in the end, attractive. No one thought it was flawed, and no one disliked it, but everyone thought it was very weird wine. It is a blend of Syrah and Cabernet, and there might be other grapes in there too. The alcohol is 14% and it does stand out a little bit. I liked it because to me, it is so clearly of Provence. It is unusual, but with a rare and bloody steak...I'm in.

2005 Domaine de Triennes Vin de Pays du Var St Auguste, $18, Imported by The Sorting Table. This is a modern and well made wine, but a wine that offers little to distinguish it as a Provence wine. It is much more about Cabernet Sauvignon than it is about Provence. Everyone pegged is as Cabernet, and everyone found it to be glossy and modern, and most found it to be unappealing. I thought it was well made and I liked it, although I would again be very disappointed if this is what i came home with, wanting Provence wine. On day 2 it was muddy and nondescript. 13.5% alcohol.

2005 Château du Seuil Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, $9, Winebow Imports. This is a closeout deal, and it simply didn't show well at all. Non-descript, modern, devoid of any real character, this is not why I'm interested in Provence wine.


Clarke B. said...

Thanks for fighting the tide and sticking up for the wines of the south. A few thoughts:

(1) I understand that this was a price-point-driven tasting and not the rigorous examination of a specific terroir, but there is a world of difference between, say, a baby Bandol and a Coteaux Varois, and I don't think all these wines are necessarily in the same meaningful peer group.

(2) Natural wines tend to stick out in tastings the same way that hugely extracted fruit bombs do, announcing themselves as immediately different from the rest of the lineup, and I don't know if that's a good thing. (This is part of my developing thesis that ultra-natural-tasting wines and Parkerized wines are really two sides of the same coin. You mention that the Comptoirs de Magdala "was more expressive as a natural wine than as a Provence wine"... I encounter this often, and while I frequently find the wines delicious, it really bothers me.)

(3) Dismissing southern wines as big, alcoholic messes is a common meme, and something I've even been guilty of myself from time to time, but it's totally misguided, and it precludes meaningful engagement with true wines of terroir. It's the "DISCO SUCKS" of the current wine scene.

(4) Dan, what's all this about "pleasure"? Hippie.

Anonymous said...

I am going to agree with Clarke on this one. What's all this prejudice against southern wines? And the mantra being repeated over and over that "lighter, low this and that" is preferable to "fruity, powerful wines..." My oh my! How can someone even compare a Bandol to a Mosel wine? It's the same as saying that Mahler is not as good as Mozart...

There's a lot of beauty in "big, powerful" reds... there are many criteria that could be used to evaluate such wines as well, "balance" for one...

Pretty soon this will all backfire, the talk about "I just can't see myself drinking that, or being interested in this..." Good, real, genuine, traditional wine, is interesting no matter what color, class, gender, or race...

Ben said...

I agree completely that there is a place for the full spectrum of "real, genuine, traiditional wine" but the question posed to us was whether or not we would purchase any of these wines for our own pleasure. I have occasions where I reach for a sturdy red to pair with a hearty meal but most frequently I find myself enjoying lighter, higher-acid wines (largely a reflection of the style of food I cook/eat). That's just how I roll. No prejudice, just personal taste and opinion. I love Bandol, but rarely have an occasion to drink one. And I don't think Dan ever compared Mosel wine to Bandol - he, again, was simply articulating what wines he enjoys most. Really, there was no hatin' or discriminatin' going on - merely evaluation and articulation of our tastes and how these wines fit in. Harmless stuff, really. Good times...

Brooklynguy said...

Yes, I think that what Anon is complaining about is true - that there are people in the wine world who are prejudiced against or towards certain wines, and that is annoying. But that is precisely why I wanted to do this tasting, and why I invited these smart folks to join - they are open to interesting expressive wine wherever they may be from. Non one was comparing anything to anything else, or starting by hating Provence wines.

"Good, real, genuine, traditional wine, is interesting no matter what color, class, gender, or race..." - true true.

Either I didn't write about this correctly in the post, or perhaps you are feeling frustrated about a real thing, but a real thing that wasn't actually a part of our evening.

Unknown said...

Interesting post, and certainly encourages me to not write off any region and taste with an open mind. Thanks for your fantastic blog Brooklynguy.

Ben, it's Marc here, former customer who moved back to San Francisco. Hope you're well! Wish we could still walk down the street to Slope Cellars.

Dan said...

Wine, schmine -- the real bummer is that I'll never speak to Clarke again. I have ended friendships with those who even uttered the word 'hippie' in my presence.

Much better to be accused of seeing the world through Mosel-tinted glasses! Truly, as the rest of the crew has already made clear, I think we took each of the wines on its respective merits, though I didn't care for the ones that were brown, poor, female, or Asian.

Clarke, to your (much appreciated, first THREE) points:

(1) Agreed, though doesn't much of the difficulty here rest on the shortcomings of a particularly unsatisfactory appellation system in Provence? I would imagine that it is very difficult in the States to put together a grouping (outside of Bandol) where apples-to-apples would be possible.

(2) I'll be interested in hearing more about your thesis as it develops. In the context of this tasting, it was interesting to note that those wines which were to my mind immediately noticeable as 'natural' wines all improved over the course of the evening, whereas the seemingly more heavily manipulated ones just stayed put. I think that the two-sides-of-the-coin idea certainly holds water at first glance, and especially at blind or industry tastings where a first sip is all you get. The hope is that 'natural' wines - and here we get to my bugaboo, which is defining with nuance and open-mindedness what that term might mean - might offer more over the longer term, whether that's an evening or a decade. But - and I assume this is what you were getting at when you said that easily-identifiable 'natural' wines might not be a good thing - the danger is that this 2010 definition of 'natural' can easily lead to laziness, i.e., "it smells 'natural,' so I know I'm supposed to think it's good."

(3) What was great about this line-up was that (to my taste) not a single wine could be deemed big, alcoholic, or sloppy. It was a treat to have that easy complaint removed for the night; it mean that we really need to engage with what we had in front of us. Of course the point is that just because they're NOT big and alcoholic doesn't mean that I have to like them, just as a film without CGI or explosions is not always worthy of praise.

(4) Seriously. I've only had Cherry Garcia once. I prefer their vanilla.

viNomadic said...

Love when you do this. Forwarded the last couple to my Cali buddies trying to jog their palate. sorry I've been a stranger, again. Will be in town between tomorrow April 13 & the 25th- if it sounds like I can stay away from the home situ a week or so longer, I'll try...cheers.
PS- @ Carlton Arms Hotel, next to Baruch College on 25 corner of 3d Ave.

Clarke B. said...


Sorry for the delayed reply... I couldn't pry myself away from the 73-hour version of "Dark Star" I was listening to.

You make excellent points above, and I think your last couple of sentences in (2) provide hugely fertile ground for discussion. I love your comment: "'it smells "natural," so I know I'm supposed to think it's good.'" This reminds me of my fellow college radio DJs' frequent endorsement of so many middling third-tier indie bands that happened to be doing the right things (i.e., amateurish singing, no solos, "interesting" lyrics, funneling/aping cool and accepted predecessors). Is it really OK for wines from totally different regions and grapes to taste virtually indistinguishable just because they're not spraying or using sulfur? Not for my money.

On the topic of properly and nuancedly defining the term, I'll offer this: not every natural wine is a "natural wine"... Know what I mean?

Clarke B. said...

One quick follow-up to my indie rock analogy... Just as an embrace of super-"natural wine"-tasting wines and an embrace of Parkerzied wines are two sides of the same coin, so the blind championing of indie rock that's doing the accepted thing musically is just the flip side of thinking that technical virtuosity is synonymous with good musicianship.