food & wine 09 -- French Twist
Studying wine in France reveals good news about Monterey County wine.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
When it comes to drinking cheap wine, France is divine. Pinot Noir from Bourgogne is a heartbreaking bargain at $10. Cabernet Franc from Chinon ($8) is a broke backpacker’s dream. With Provence Rose at $5, even poor parched people can slake their thirst.
There are reasons France produces a lot of good, inexpensive wine. It seems like every inch of countryside is covered with vineyards – it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see a vine sprout out of a sidewalk crack. That breeds a lot of competition.
More people drink a lot more vino, so the country’s vintners make more wines at all price points.
And, since they’re French, French oak, an expensive vessel used to hold and age wine, is cheaper.
On this side of the vine, Monterey’s inexpensive wine delivers what one would expect from low end stuff – it fails to age well, lacks acidity, and often has too much alcohol. Overused oak powder isn’t enough to conceal shortcomings (imagine a woman hoping to hide her flaws with make-up).
The surprising thing is that a lot of France’s moderately priced wines are disappointing. Their grapes see less sunlight than Monterey County’s, so their wines can be astringent, watery and too low in alcohol. And while tradition makes France unique and great, it also handicaps the fabled names – by law, their winemakers can only plant grapes native to each specific region. It doesn’t matter if their global warming-heated region would be a better match for non-indigenous grape types. Seems like a wasted opportunity. (Winemakers in our area aren’t shackled by French law – they can grow whatever grapes they want and make wine the way they like it: ripe, concentrated and friendly.)
These thoughts helped trigger an epiphany that came while swirling a Santa Lucia Highland Pinot Noir at a recent local wine tasting: When it comes to mid-priced wines, our local offerings are sublime enough to stack up to some of the best in France. The Weekly took a look at which bottles compare well to lauded French products.
’05 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands ($60) | Volnay
At the tasting, curly-headed local legend Gary Pisoni lackadaisically leans on a table, holds up one of his bottles and asks, “Do you know how to drink wine out of this without removing the cork?” Then, he flips the bottle upside down, pours Pinot into the punt (the crevice in the bottom), takes a gulp and says, “Like that,” as droplets of wine dribble down his face. With concentrated black cherry aromas and a velvety texture, it’s hard to believe this wine’s balance between finesse and power – and there are no playful tricks here, just big black cherry flavors. It’s so powerful it could be mistaken for a Cabernet Sauvignon. Although less complex than a Volnay, the texture feels like kissing crushed velvet.’05 Figge Pinot Noir, Monterey County ($25) | Nuits St. Georges
This cool climate snapper tastes like a raspberry Ring-pop and, somehow, a lot like a Burgundy. It’s subtle and distinct. Figge deserves credit as one of the only winemakers gutsy enough to grow Pinot Noir so close to the ocean. It won’t age like Nuits St. George, but not everyone can afford to keep a working wine cellar with bottles that eclipse $100. Besides, Figge’s wines are ready to be swirled, sniffed and sipped right away. Nuits St. Georges is usually too tart.
’07 Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc, Carmel Valley ($15.99) | White Bordeaux
The screwtop is a hint – when buying a wine that’s supposed to be drunk within one to two years, don’t risk buying a bottle with a faulty cork. This sucker is round, with searing acidity and a touch of tropical fruitiness. It’s fat on the palate, but way food friendly.
’06 Heller Estate Merlot, Carmel Valley ($20) | La Lalande de Pomerol
For those who let movies like Sideways govern their lives, earth to thee. There’s no reason to say, “I’m not drinking any f***ing Merlot!”
Heller planted prune trees to attract wasps so they could avoid using pesticides and hold the certified organic title. But Heller doesn’t need to plant sugar in its wine like it has in La Lande de Pomerol. The balance between chocolate and earth make it naturally delicious. There’s no voodoo here, just good grapes and a cool winemaker to make it. When Prince Charles came to Carmel, he drank wine from Heller Estate’s “Durney Vineyard,” the oldest in Carmel Valley.
’05 Boete Cheval Rouge Cabernet blend, Carmel Valley ($25) | St. Emillion
Boete owner/winemaker John Saunders once boxed Joe Fraiser. Now his Cab blend beats Bordeaux into a corner. Fittingly, its flavor almost evokes a pair of old boxing gloves: dusty, textured and full of character.
Saunders now tends to his vines rather than punching bags. Instead of his juice smelling like mouse fur and green bell peppers, like some St. Emillion wines, it’s ripe and ready to be drunk.