The Two Giants of Provence
It was most likely on being told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk as a three or four year old that I was first introduced to the concept of something or someone being a ‘Giant’. Forty years later, the impression that those children’s stories made on my developing brain have ensured that this word remains associated with the pejorative. Giants are not nice; they are ugly, warty, carbuncular and curmudgeonly as well as being physically massive and intimidating.
Last week presented me with two opportunities to face up to any deep-seated giant related negativity. The first when I met with Emmanuel Reynaud, the notoriously reticent owner of Château Rayas in Châteauneuf du Pape. The second when I cycled up the Mistral whipped Ventoux, a mountain that French philosopher Roland Barthes once rather floridly described as “A god of evil, to which sacrifices must be made.”
I would not wish to offend Mr Reynaud by describing him as a pussycat but it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in his company. There was no cantankerousness on display here, rather a generosity that led to an extensive tour of the Estate followed by a tasting from tank and barrel that on one occasion caused an unconscious genuflection in the direction of Emmanuel so scented, so altogether perfect was the young Grenache in my slightly grubby tasting glass.
The chance to cycle up Ventoux the day after the Tour de France had been thwarted from reaching the summit due to 100km/h winds filled me with excitement rather than trepidation. Although the climb extends for some 22km from the beautiful town of Bedoin it is the unrelentingly steep ‘middle’ section of 9.5km from St Esteve to Chalet Reynard that causes many cyclists to be dry-mouthed even before they have clipped themselves into the pedals. For me, with the morning sun leaking through the trees, the air still cool and with the painted names of cycling’s elite disappearing under my wheels, my own feeling was of an intense and concentrated satisfaction. Nearing the top an enthusiastic woman with a klaxon yelled at me to keep going and asked whether it had been difficult? “Pas facile mais pas mal” was my response, her frown indicated a slight disappointment that I had not been brought to my knees.
Jack had to slay his giant but Provence conclusively proved that confrontation is not the only policy, show some respect and Giants can be humble, approachable and life-affirming.
A good wine should keep two people entertained and engaged to the bottom of the bottle. More than an inch or two remaining suggests either an abstemious streak on the part of the drinkers or that something is not quite right with the wine.
The sommelier group of which I’m a part meets once a month to discuss and taste on various matters of a vinous nature. Choosing the topic is my responsibility and this month it concerned wines with an alcohol content in excess of 15%. This choice of subject was a response to our warming climate. Increased sugar levels in grapes (a result of greater heat summation) will ultimately result in a preponderance of wines featured in this high alcohol bracket.
Wines with these elevated levels of alcohol can feel unbalanced. Without sufficient fruit concentration, high alcohol gives a sensation of heat, even sweetness that can render the wines hollow. There are of course, exceptions, the perception of the unbalancing effect of alcohol does not follow a linear path so it quite possible for a wine at 13.5% to feel ‘wrong’ whilst a similar example at 15.5% feels ‘right’.
The seven wines selected were tasted blind (by all but the sommelier who chose the wines) and featured examples from France, Italy, Spain, Australia and the USA. The very pleasant, if unexpected conclusion, was that the reason we were tasting these wines was soon forgotten as the alcohol was as it should be; virtually invisible.
Below are the notes for four of the wines, any of which I would be happy to share and finish.
Domaine Giraud, Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition, 2010, 15%
Grape: 60% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre
Wine-making: The Syrah is aged in barriques and the wine is neither filtered or fined.
Note: Super ripe with an almost Port-like chocolate, damson and slightly raisined character. Perfumed, powerful and with good levels of concentration from this excellent vintage. Delicious.
Available from: Oriental House
Seghesio, Home Ranch, Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, 2006, 15.7%
Grape: Zinfandel with a small portion of Carignane and Petite Sirah
Wine-making: No overt oak evident.
Note: I have not tasted many Zinfandels this old but this was still showing very well. There were some signs of maturity with an oxidative, leathery aroma accompanying the red and black fruit. Even at 15.7% the alcohol was well integrated. Very good.
Available from: A3 Cellar
Domaine Tempier, Cuvee La Tourtine, Bandol, 2001, 15%
Grape: 70-80% Mourvedre, 10% Grenache, 10% Cinsault
Wine-making: 18-20 months maturation in old oak and bottled without fining or filtration.
Note: This was the only wine out of the seven that I thought tasted a little hot. The mushroom and soy-like aromas indicated that this was no longer young but there remained some balancing sweet and spicy red berry fruit. Good complexity but perhaps slightly cumbersome.
Available from: Oriental House
Mitolo, G.A.M, Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, 2010, 15%
Wine-making: Matured in 70% new French and American Oak for 18 months.
Note: Opaque, tarry and with mouthcoating tannins and great concentration of black fruit, this was quintessential South Australian Shiraz. The power on display was balanced by some sweet and sour acidity and very good length; intense but not wearing.
Available from: Wooloomooloo
Enthusiasm breeds clubs. People who love scuba-diving want to spend time in the company of others who like being submerged. Whether it is bike-riding, reading comics, listening to music or tasting wine, we all like the freedom that being a ‘member’ brings. We are allowed space to talk about our favourite subject without apology and we are able to benefit from fellow members’ passion and predilections.
And so it is with Sniff’s tasting group. We have a core of six with the occasional special guest. Meeting every two weeks, the tastings are often theme based but sometimes the greatest pleasure is derived from the decision to simply bring something we feel like sharing.
Our last tasting fell into this category and highlighted in the space of six wines the complexity of style that the vinous world has to offer. None of these wines were inexpensive but none were outlandishly priced and when the cost is shared the pleasure greatly outweighs the pain. We had representation from six different countries, one red, two whites, a rosé, one fortified and a passito wine from Italy. Fundamentally they were all delicious, whilst providing plenty of material for conversation and conjecture about how and why the winemaker had chosen to influence the wine in a particular way.
So join a club. Your knowledge and tasting ability will grow exponentially and you’ll be with people you like. What more can you ask?
Below are the six wines from our most recent tasting with brief notes and details on where to buy:
Amon-Ra, Barossa Valley, Unfiltered Shiraz, 2005, 14.5%
Wine-making: 100 year old vines, 100% new, of which 80% is French and 20% American. Both barriques, and hogsheads (225 and 300 litre capacity respectively) used.
Note: Smoky, tar-like, spicy and with a lick of licorice this is an extremely dense, concentrated, full-bodied wine that retains a certain finesse. Nearly ten years old but will continue to develop for another ten years. Sense assaulting.
Price: 3,950NTD (for the 2012)
Available from (Taiwan): Chateau Wine & Spirits
Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Ruby Port, NV, 20%
Grape: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca
Wine-making: Fortified, and only a year or two in old wood to preserve the intense fruit style
Note: Excellent quality and value Reserve Ruby. Spicy, peppery dark fruit with some of the thrust and muscularity of Vintage Port without the price tag. Pair with something salty.
Available from (Taiwan): Finesse
Château Simone, Rosé, Palette A.O.C., Provence, 2011, 14%
Grape: Primarily Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault
Wine-making: Old oak casks
Note: Pale ruby colour alerts one immediately to the fact this is no ordinary Provencal rosé. Not very aromatic with just a little red cherry on the nose but this gives way to an engaging full-bodied wine with a rich, cherry and herb fruit core. Not just for Summer and structured enough for food. I would like this with shrimp dumplings.
Available from (Taiwan): New Century Wine & Spirits
Vina Tondonia, Reserva Rioja Blanco, 1998, 12.5%
Grape: 90% Viura, 10% Malvasia
Wine-making: 6 years in barrel affording the wine significant complexity.
Note: I love traditional white Riojas and this has plenty of deliciousness wrapped within its mildly oxidative body. Peach, green pineapple, flowers and a stave or two of oak make this an alluring glass. If you never usually drink white wine you might want to practice on easier, more overtly fruity examples before graduating onto this more ‘challenging’ style. Perfect with an oyster omelette.
Available from (Taiwan): Vinaria Wine Cellar
Markus Molitor, Wehlener Klosterberg, Pinot Blanc, Mosel, 2012, 13%
Grape: Pinot Blanc
Wine-making: Aged in an Islay single malt cask
Note: Remarkable nose with a dominant seaweed, iodine tang that is briny and very Scottish in origin. Yet this is not just a vinous oddity. There is lovely palate weight, bright acid and fruit purity that is as expected from the region. If you like a tot of Ardbeg then buy a bottle of this.
Available from (Taiwan): WineTeen
Montalpruno Vin Santo del Chianti D.O.C., 2006, 15.5%
Grape: Trebbiano & Malvasia
Wine-making: Made using semi-dried grapes
Note: Very fresh tasting Vin Santo that is dominated by the aroma of roasting pistachios. Sweet but with balancing acidity and persistent. Delicious with cheese, nuts or cake.
Price: 2,400NTD for 500ml
Available from (Taiwan): P9.com.tw