It’s always a joy to have the winemakers of France come to Chicago, and particularly delightful to taste the wines of Bordeaux in our fair city. After their recent New York event, Somm’ Like It Bordeaux, Vins de Bordeaux held a tasting at The Herbarium at Bad Hunter that proved enlightening and enjoyable for industry experts and media.
As with many grape-growing lands, two rivers – River Garonne and Dordogne – flow through Bordeaux. One way to categorize their red wines is to note that those from the Left Banks tend to blend their local grapes with Merlot, while wines from the Right Banks tend to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Bordeaux wines come from 65 different appellations, many of which you’ll recognize: Cotes de Bordeaux (“cotes” denotes hillsides that overlook the right banks of the Garonne and the Dordogne Rivers), Saint-Emillion, Pomerol & Fronsac, Medoc and Graves.
The Bordeaux region as a whole produces dry whites (11% of their production) that are fresh and vibrant with good natural acidity. Bordeaux sweet whites are made from grapes affected by botrytis. They’re medium- to full-bodied and are produced mainly in Sauternes and Barsac in the southern part of Bordeaux.
Below are a few of the many standouts at the tasting:
Chablis. Remember how that was practically the only white wine we knew of back in the 70s? I always liked Chablis; didn’t know or care at the time that it was made with Chardonnay grapes – and still is today. So it came as a surprise to me that I didn’t like the original heavily oaked Chardonnay wines that came from those same grapes. Happily these days, the oaking craze has settled down quite a bit.
To my further surprise, years ago when I was searching out a white burgundy, a favorite of mine, I finally realized many of those bottles were labeled Chablis – and learned that the Chardonnay grapes used to make them are grown in Burgundy. For a good discussion of this slightly confusing situation, read Eric Asimov of the New York Times on Chablis.
William Fèvre is known for producing exceptional Chablis wines that are excellent expressions of the ideal growing conditions in their Grands Crus terroirs. In this Champs Royaux 2015 you’ll taste the minerality of the sea and the chalky soils typical of the area – which makes it a perfect pairing with oysters. Winemakers notes: Fresh bouquet of citrus and white fruits, very slight oak finish, fresh and supple,
Some experts claim Chablis is the only wine that pairs perfectly with oysters. I’m not going to argue with that or the recommendation of consuming oysters, grilled fish or sushi with this one. But I also think it has enough structure to stand up to roast pork with a light sauce or even a creamy beef Stroganoff. It’s a white wine with backbone, like some white burgundies I’ve had. At $25 a bottle, you can be proud to present this as a host/ess gift or just as a treat for yourself.
Armand de Brignac occupies a premier position among the many prestigious makers of French champagne. Owner Shawn Carter and Winemakers Alex and Jean-Jacques Cattier, freely admit their goal is simply to make the finest champagnes in the world, designed specifically with the luxury wine collector/investor in mind.
Winemaker Emilien Boutillat came to Chicago recently to introduce Armand de Brignac’s newest product, Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two, made exclusively with Pinot Noir grapes. They also asked Chef Lee Wolen at Boka to create pairings for the new blend and several other offerings with a view to educating members of the trade and press about their line of fine champagnes.
All of Armand de Brignac’s offerings are non-vintage, said Boutillat, but rather are created as blends, often from three different vintage years. For the rosé champagne, they actually use a blend of white and red wines that yields an orangey-rose color with a very fine bubble that makes a delightful aperitif.
The blanc de blancs stood out strong and smooth and full of character, which may be why the first course paired it with an unusual fish called Striped Jack – also known asShima Aji, categorized in the Jackfish family. Served with a bit of seaweed and potato and flavored with lime, this dish was the least favorite dish I’ve ever had at Boka. The champagne, nevertheless, was delicious and stood up well to the somewhat strong taste and very firm texture of the fish.
The next champagne, Armand de Brignac’s Champagne Gold Brut – its flagship wine – was extraordinarily delicate and so beautifully blended that it felt almost ethereal on the nose and palate and in the mouth. It made a perfect accompaniment to the Chef’s incredibly moist-fleshed chicken breast, stuffed under the crispy skin with house-made chicken-leg-meat sausage. Served with a small pouf of super-fine puree of parsnips, the serving was generous, the dish attractive and satisfying, and the wine a lovely accompaniment.
The next wine, of which Armand de Brignac has only made 2333 bottles, was a truly unique taste in champagne. If felt a bit strange at first on the palate, until I tasted it with the imaginative creation of a tiny piece of lamb tenderloin beside a dollop of creamy, thick apricot sauce. The combination was directly on the money. In fact, I’ve never experienced such a strong feeling of “Oh, yeah, these work perfectly together!” as I did with this pairing. This particular wine, said Boutillat, is made with a blend from harvests of 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Dessert, an extraordinarily light combination of coconut and citrus and exotic tropical passionfruit with tapioca and elderflower, was perfectly paired with the world’s only semi-sweet champagne – Armand de Brignac took the plunge some years ago to create its own demi sec champagne, a task no other luxury champagne company has ever undertaken. By all accounts, and by the taste that so complemented this dessert, they are succeeding admirably.
Boutillat, the 30-year-old winemaker who has been with Armand de Brignac for four years, came around to answer questions about the various wines and tell stories about his experiences around the world before settling down with this high-profile family-owned and -operated winery. His experience is multinational and his passion quite obvious. When asked about his comparative youth, Boutillat explained that senior owner Jean-Jacques Cattier likes to hire young people for the energy and the imagination they bring to further inspire the making of their great champagnes. Judging by the lovely champagnes at this event, luxury collectors everywhere can rejoice.
Last week was a great time for Bordeaux in Chicago. Dozens of winemakers and representatives from dozens of appellations in the Bordeaux, France wine region converged in one of the ballrooms at the elegant historic Drake Hotel to introduce their mainly 2014 vintages to press, trade and the public. Visitors walked around tasting while, behind the tables, reps from members of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux gave out pour after pour of mostly red blends, plus a few whites and Sauternes for good measure. As you read my recommendations, keep in mind I’m partial to big, dry, complex reds.
And later that evening, a fine wine dinner at RPM Steak House featured 5 lovely wines from the Pouillac appellation in Bordeaux – food and drink to set the imagination afire. Amuse bouches were tiny and flavorful, including oysters with mignonette. The appetizer course was a generous-sized disk of Hamachi, studded with caviar and surrounded by a warm, slightly sweet yuzu emulsion. First course was an outstanding Pepper-Crusted Tuna Belly – one piece of which was prepared confit (NUM!) and the other ahi-style, both served with a spoonful of sturdy mushroom Bearnaise. Utterly succulent and delicious and perfect with a Bordeaux blend, Les Tourelle de Longueville, Pauillac 2011.
Next came Prime Dry Aged Beef – two small pieces of beef aged 90 days and two aged for 9 days. Both were spectacular and were served with two vintages of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Pauillac, one from 1990 and one from 2009. Lovely, rich reds.
Then came, not one but two desserts, both outstanding. One, poached apricots served in a warm almond custard that was to die for (I am wild about anything custard), and then a Sticky Toffee Pudding with rum raisin ice cream, both served with Chateau de Suduiraut Sauternes, one from 2004 and the other from 1975. Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you, RPM and thank you, makers of Bordeaux wines par excellence. (And thanks to Elizabeth for some nice shots!)
Another way is to identify an importer that you trust. And it’s good, too, if that importer can also direct you to locations where you can buy the wines they import. And that’s exactly what Pasternak Importers do. First, they select a winery in a specific location. Then they do the taste-testing to make sure the vintage or the blend meets their quality standards. Imagine trying to pick out your own wines from thousands produced in a region, the dozens or even hundreds of wines produced by a particular winemaker! Even master sommeliers, who get paid to do this stuff, have to study diligently and practice for long periods of time before they can do their work of informed recommending.
Pasternak deals in wines in the affordable category and all the way up to premium and even luxury wines – French, Italian, and more. You can search their portfolio by region, varietal or brand, and they have an extremely handy “Find Our Wines” widget that lets you locate multiple places you can find the wines you decide to try. Just put in your zip or city and state – country? – and click to see who carries what you’re looking for.
Recently Pasternak shared a few of their wines in several price categories for review purposes. A few notes about them below:
Valdo Rose Brut, A lovely medium pink bubbly that’s perfect for company or just for fun. Called a “Best Buy” in Wine and Spirits 8/16 issue. SRP $16
Thomas George Estates Estate Chardonnay. Aromas of star fruit, lemon, banana and hazelnut characterize Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Subtle flavors of citrus zest and custard express themselves among stronger notes of stone fruit. The finish lingers long with a nice fullness. SRP $30
Thomas George EstatesEstate Pinot Noir. Wine Enthusiast says: “Raw earth and black tea combine for a classic take on the variety, high-toned in wild strawberry and red cherry. Tightly wound, it opens in the glass, staying light but with texture and body, a floral wine with just enough weight.” SRP $43
Marchesi Fumanelli Terso Veneto IGT. The blend of 50% Garganega, 50% Trebbiano Toscano makes a beautiful white wine. Intense, nutty, and toasty aromas on the nose. The palate is concentrated and powerful with lemony freshness and bready notes. A striking wine with flavors of acacia, lime blossoms and fresh apricots. Amazing acidity. SRP $40
Marchesi Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC. Brilliant ruby red color, with a pleasant aroma of dark cherry and mature forest fruit. Dry and velvety on the palate, with a hint of bitter almond. Enjoy the touch of sweet vanilla and the soft tannins. A well-structured wine with a soft, intense, long and persistent finish. A beautiful, rich and robust red to love with your Christmas tenderloin roast beef or your finest Hanukkah braised brisket and latkes. SRP $30
Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose. Strawberry and wild cherry fruit flavors, with a touch of richness on the mid palate. Dry, crisp acidity and a creamy texture and long finish. 90 points from Wine Enthusiast in 2015. SRP $22