After a 2002 Francois Cazin 'Cuvee Renaissance' recently tasted as if I had opened the bottle a bit too late, I figured I had better open this 2007 right now-- and I'm glad I did, because it was perfect and beautiful. This 2007 is unique compared to other vintages because the romorantin grapes that Cazin normally uses for his 'Cuvee Renaissance' were-- in this vintage-- diverted into this bottling, so this particular year has a higher proportion of old-vine material than usual. While researching this particular wine, I found a few other notes about this vintage from other tasters-- one writer found it to be 'mute' and not very exciting at a 2009 tasting, and another found it to be an 'acid bomb' at a 2010 dinner, but I had a completely different experience with this wine-- I found it to be quite aromatic and perfectly balanced. It seems like a timing issue-- opening it up about 7 years later must have been just the right amount of aging that this wine needed. I'm sure other vintages of Cazin Cour-Cheverny taste great after a couple years, and that's probably why everyone who got some has most likely drunk this already & was so quick to pop the cork soon after release; but to me, the extra concentrated old-vine material must have pushed this vintage to need a little more aging, so I was pretty fortunate to have forgotten about my stash for so long. In any case, the wine was beautiful-- one of those bottles that is in perfect balance and you open it at just the right time-- a wine experience that I feel lucky to have had.
In fact, it's a feeling I usually get with romorantin-- a grape that was once popular throughout the Loire (a curious vineyard nearby in Touraine at Domaine Henry Marionnet claims to date to 1850), but after the upheaval of the phylloxera epidemic it now mostly grows in the tiny Cour-Cheverny appellation, which became an AOC recently in 1997 . Romorantin's parantage is gouais blanc and pinot-- if that sounds familiar, it's because those same parents also gave us chardonnay and aligote. In the Loire since the 1500s, romorantin needs extra special guidance to shepherd its delicate pink canes into shape and minimize the effects of wind damage. When farmed with care, and when hail spares the region, romorantin defines the truly distinct wines of Cour-Cheverny. Cazin, who works with a combination of older vines planted by his grandfather and younger vines planted by himself, is considered a benchmark producer in the region and has truly helped guide what the Cour-Cheverny AOC means to the rest of the world.
At the 2o14 Virginia Wine Summit (Richmond, Virginia), I sat on the It's All Relative panel discussion about value. Fellow panel member John T. Edge of Southern Foodways Alliance brought an interesting cultural dynamic to the discussion, restaurateur Todd Thrasher (who founded some of my favorite restaurants in the D.C. area, including Restaurant Eve) brought an economic viewpoint to the conversation, and sommelier Neal Wavra brought a keen taster's perspective to the blind selections of wine in front of us. Anthony Giglio kept us all in check as our moderator.
As the four of us spoke about value, we each came from a different perspective. John talked about how being a part of the food culture in your local area is a major part of experiencing, participating, and creating regional culture.
Todd spoke about the day-to-day realities of running a restaurant group. For example, he needs a high-quality wine that he can sell by the glass, and has been pouring Thibault-Janisson sparkling wine for years because the tasty sparkler can beat Champagne prices while out-performing in quality. Neal & I nodded our heads in approval-- we both pour Thibault-Janisson bubbly too, for the same reasons.
For months in advance, I thought about value and what it means. A panel discussion about value and Virginia wine is like opening up a can of worms, because the truth is, many Virginia wines are expensive (comparatively in the market), and European wines can easily come into the market at less expensive prices, and therefore imported wines are generally more profitable on a wine list which makes them enticing options for wine directors. You'd think local products that don't have to travel would be less expensive than something shipped overseas, but that just isn't the case in Virginia.
Why? Well, I posit that it's because a thousand years ago in Burgundy, monks could experiment with all sorts of grape varieties-- and who was financing their work? Tithers. Congregations over the centuries financed all the trial & error that has brought Burgundy to where it is today. What about Bordeaux? Much of that experimentation was financed by royalty, and in subregions such as Graves, you have tithers & religious organizations financing the experimentation there, as well. With proven track records, plenty of existing vineyards and wineries, R&D investment that is centuries out of the way and was financed by someone else, and shipping infrastructure in place, these regions can make profits with less investment than in Virginia. Because who is financing the Virginia wine trade? Passionate individuals spending their own money on brand new state-of-the-art wineries, vineyards, labor, and equipment. And the wine trade infrastructure of Virginia is not a well-oiled machine as it is in established wine regions of Europe.
When I see that we have 260+ wineries in Virginia, most of them founded in the last decade, I see 260 million dollars of personal investment (and probably closer to 3x that amount) that has been sunk into starting these wineries. Wineries take years and sometimes decades to get their finances from red to black, so families who have taken this winery investment risk and need cash flow to cover operating costs end up charging prices that will keep their winery sustainable. Some criticize those prices for being too high, but ultimately the market will decide.
Is there value in local products? I believe that part of experiencing a place, and becoming part of a place, is to eat and drink the products that come up from the local earth. Part of establishing a personal identity and sense of self means taking into account your geography and placement in the world, which translates to consuming and celebrating your unique local products and being proud of what your neighbors produce. Paying a few dollars more to a local winery is worth it to me to support the wine industry here. It's also a worthy price-- in my opinion-- to become part of Virginia, sip by sip.
Eventually, most Virginia wineries will have recouped their start up costs, trade routes will be solidified, and the reputation of the region will have risen to the point where the high-quality wineries can command higher prices without the consumers raising their eyebrows. But that will take time, most likely decades.
For right now, I take heart in the fact that every day I get to watch history being made in my state. I get to participate in it. I get to taste all the results of experimental trial and error. And yes there are plenty of errors. When I buy wine for the restaurants, I put money where I think quality lies; I buy what's good and I tell the producer when I think a wine is no good. I get to be a part of all of it by voting with my dollars, and in my own tiny way, I get to help guide the industry by only buying the good wines and trying to keep anything sub-par out of my cellar. And are there great, profound wines from Virginia? Oh, yes. I taste them every day. After tasting multiple vintages from the same producers I'm starting to see the nuances of terroir emerge in the subregions. It's fascinating watching a whole new industry rise up like a phoenix from the fading tobacco plantations that once thrived and supported so many jobs here. I get to watch Virginia wine become a quotidian part of the lunch meals and suppers of locals. I get to talk to hundreds of tourists a year who have visited my city to tour the wine country here. I get to be a part of it. That makes my life more valuable.
But aside from cultural value, is there monetary value to be found when buying wines here? If you search, you'll find the values. I can still manage to pour Virginia wines year-round at competitive prices because I have found some people making great wines at decent prices. Value from many angles exists here, and I think that as the industry matures, the pricing will only become more enticing from a consumer's perspective.
The Roosevelt in Richmond, Virginia boasts an ambitious all-Virginia wine list. Such a focused list is possible because this is Virginia's wine industry blossoming phase. Each AVA and winery is searching for their identity and experimenting with so many different grape varieties and production methods; wineries make such an expansive variety of wine, from methode traditionelle sparklers to fortified dessert reds, and everywhere in between. With so much to choose from, a restaurant can fill all the bases with just local wines-- a feat that would not have been possible 15 years ago.
Their wine list is a nice snapshot of what's happening in Virginia, highlighting the top producers and interesting trends-- such as chardonnay/viognier blends and powerful Bordeaux-style reds-- that are coming to define the AVAs here. The selections are thoughtful and priced as great values.
The menu is full of modern takes on hearty southern cuisine from Chef Lee Gregory. Here are a few photos from dinner:
This 1994 Rauzan-Ségla was made in a year of major transition for the estate. The winery changed hands several times in the 1900s and was sold to the Wertheimer family (the current owners) in this 1994 vintage. 1994 was also the year when the spelling of the château cemented itself as Rauzan-Ségla-- previous vintages have been spelled both Rausan-Ségla and Rauzan-Ségla.
Once part of a much larger estate in the 1600s that was split into four different châteaux, by the mid 19th century Rauzan-Ségla wine commanded high enough prices to be named a Second Growth in the 1855 Classification.
Émile Peynaud consulted and made some changes in the 1980s, but the most evident transformations occurred after this vintage in the late '90s as manager John Kolasa restructured the vineyards, did away with machine harvesting, changed the approach to the cellar, and instituted a second label, Ségla, which drove smaller quantities of the highest quality fruit to Rauzan-Ségla.
The 1994 Rauzan-Ségla is a transition wine. It marks the end of an era, and the beginnings of a new chapter. This is the last time you'll taste most of the Rauzan-Ségla fruit in the wine-- in the following '95 vintage and onward Kolasa gave more serious attention to Ségla, the second label, and the fruit is split more judiciously into a first and second label. This is one of the last vintages where you'll taste this high of a percentage of cabernet sauvignon; Kolasa has since increased the percentage of merlot and added small amount of petit verdot. This is one of the last vintages where you'll taste the co-fermentation of different parcels; Kolasa began fermenting parcel-by-parcel to tease out the micro-differences in the vineyard).
And though this vintage marks the closing of one era, it was also the baseline vintage that inspired the Wertheimers to initiate certain changes. They purchased this estate in April, right around flowering, and so this vintage was theirs. This was probably the first year they tasted this fruit off the vine, got to try the fermenting must, and marveled at the transformation of these grapes from juice to wine. Though subsequent vintages are markedly different, the genesis for all the changes you'll taste in the late '90s and 2000s can be traced to this 1994. This wine was the starting point which helped lay the roadmap for the last two decades.
Rauzan-Ségla 1994 (Margaux, Bordeaux, France)
Complex aromas with characteristics of a dark fruit center, dense meaty overtones, green mosses, dried underbrush, raw steak, baked green peppers, dried mushrooms. On the palate the wine is powerful and full-bodied with soft & developed dry tannins. A bright acidity that is offset by the wine's richness creates an interesting balance and begs for food. It is rare that such powerful wines are so balanced. drinking great right now.
It's interesting how the perception of sweetness changes in auselesen as they age. This 1989 Zilliken was probably juicy and sweet as a ripe peach when it was first made, but as it ages, somehow, it presents drier and drier. Winemaker Hanno Zilliken also notes that grapes from the diabas rock veins that run throughout the Saarburger Rausch tend to retain residual sugar but in a way that is perceived as drier due to the diabas minerality.
Zilliken 'Saarburger Rausch' 1989
Riesling Auslese (Mosel, Germany)
Visible tartrates with a mouthwatering aromas of dark & dank mysterious microbiology against a deep clarity; sunripened peach fruit emerges as if rising up from a fauna/flora rich marsh. So special. On the palate a rich, mushroom like flavor -- a hearty wine-- sweetness balanced by mossy earthiness and savory elements. Tear inducing acid.
Click here for a full write up of Zilliken.
This is an interesting picture from the archives (circa May 2013). These are 40 year old gewurztraminer vines from Becker Estate in Germany/France (the vineyards straddle the border between the Pfalz & Alsace). By now, the vines have been grafted over to pinot noir, which has become the hallmark of the estate.
In the 1500s, the De May family purchased land in the Pomerol area and laid the foundations for their estate. Following the economic effects of the French Revolution, in 1858 the large estate was broken up into 'Petit Certan' (now 'Chateau Certan De May de Certan'), Vieux Certan, and Chateau Certan-Giraud. De May de Certan's 5 hectares fall between Petrus land, Le Pin, & the vineyards of Vieux Certan. Through 1925 the Certan de May de Certan estate remained in the hands of the De May family, until Andre Badar purchased the property. Current owner Odette Barreau-Badar's children run the estate, which is managed by her son Jean-Luc Badar. Jean-Luc believes that the 1982 is one of the family's best wines.
In the vineyards, soils are 1/3 clay & 2/3 gravel; and plantings are 70% merlot, 25% cabernet franc, & 5% cabernet sauvignon.
Chateau Certan De May de Certan 1982
rich, meaty, taught center, sinew, mushrooms, an earthy vegetal complexity like brussels sprouts
Chateau Certan De May de Certan 1985
BBQ sauce, orange zest, raw beef, oak backbone, lots of power, dried currant fruit
The Yarra Valley sits just north of Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne, and is one of the cooler climate regions of Australia that is well suited to varieties such as pinot noir and chardonnay. Some of the lovely chardonnays of Australia come from this part of the country.
The first vines went down at Tarra Warra in 1983. This 'Estate' wine is a blend of chardonnay from across their vineyard holdings, and it's fermented partially in tank and partially in barrel. The oak is evident on the palate, and elegantly so.
In the future, I wouldn't wait so long to drink a vintage, but I was curious about bottle evolution under screwcap. Whereas most wines chardonnays would be well past their prime after ten years, this one had some life in it, though I do wish I had opened it a few years sooner.
I'll always remember the first time I had the Arkenstone wines at a lunch circa 2009. They're made by Sam Kaplan-- an inquisitive and thoughtful winemaker-- whose style had that unique balance of power and restraint. When this wine was made these were baby vines, recently planted in 1998, and the 2006 was their first ever release. I'm not a fan of the sauvignon blancs that scream for attention-- but here was one that had depth and power, yet a stoicness to it. It reminded me of a great white Bordeaux. But aside from evokation of other regions, the wine had its own distinct personality. It was quiet, yet full of strength-- just like Sam himself.
Recently I revisited the inaugural vintage of Arkenstone's sauvignon blanc. The 2006 was richer than I remembered it-- time had worked a number on this one. Tartrates had fallen away, acids had mellowed, and a seemingly riper fruit manifested. Still though, the wine was lush and pleasurable. This is truly a unique producer on Howell Mountain.