An alternative to wine scores: rating the experience

Wine quality is 100% subjective. It is the philosophy behind this blog. It is the driving belief behind les Vimpressionnistes. Not only is quality tied to our own personal preference, but the context in which any tasting occurs: details such as temperature, time of the day and most importantly, our mood, play an important role in how we perceive a given wine’s quality. Not to mention our expectations, with certain labels or price tags augmenting our pleasure, or on the contrary, raising our expectations to the point that the wine in the bottle can no longer live up to our imagined gustatory nirvana.

If one holds this for true, it becomes clear that ratings as they are used in the wine press today are worthless. Any attempt to describe, or worse, define a wine by a rational point system is meaningless. We change. Wines change. Points remain and are merely a snapshot assessment of a wine at one precise moment, taken through an imperfect lens. So why go on with this practice? Because it is in our nature to judge and to quantify. Because humans need a frame of reference. Or maybe it’s simply because we want to remember what we like and tell our friends.

So what’s the alternative?

We must first learn to move away from the wine, and consider the entire experience. The experience incorporates all the subjective elements which are not present in the wine itself. The experience can be rated, because any experience will be different from the next, whether a single wine is tasted by different people, or a same person tastes it in a different context. Because the experience belongs to us, because it cannot exist without us as the wine does, we are truly capable of assessing it beyond any doubt.

So rather than assigning a precise point value to a wine, why not try to qualify a general sentiment we are left with upon tasting? For example, with a simple system of plus and minus?

when we are left with a sense of disappointment.
+ when a tasting delivers on its promise and leaves us wanting more.
++ when we are pleasantly surprised, our hearts captured, our imagination set loose.

The implications

While this may at first appear to be a mere semantic detail, a closer look suggests deeper implications. Consider a relatively affordable wine which turns out to be very enjoyable. A certain Juliénas by Michel Tête comes to mind. It was under $20 and absolutely beautiful. At first a bit austere, the aromas had developed with time into what I would still remember to this day as a truly gratifying moment. A bottle I had picked up at the last minute to accompany a meal had made my night and left me with a giant smile and a lasting memory. This Beaujolais cru had stolen the show and to me, this show ranked ++ .

But what of my first Château Margaux? A 2004 (much too young) tasted on a rainy morning, after having visited Latour and Lafite on the previous day? It was a – . As good as the wine was, it could not overcome the adversity of the specific context and my unrealistic expectations.

Was the ++ Beaujolais a better wine? No. There is no such thing as a better wine, but one should judge (since we must) our impressions, rather than an illusionnary intrinsic quality. The Beaujolais had left me ecstatic, the Margaux slightly disappointed. If a critic were to ignore the circumstances and assess the wines, the Margaux would probably have scored above the Beaujolais. But that would have left out important factors such as price, reputation… and most importantly, the I in wine!

And in the end, what really matters about a wine is how it makes us feel, is it not?

Baja California Bandit – L. A. Cetto 2007 Mexico Petite Syrah

Aware of the fact that I have been ignoring the “new world” of wine lately, my last Internet order included a couple of outsiders… without neglecting the obligatory Chablis of course! I also went for a Marcel Lapierre magnum for the long term and… well, overall, I guess I remained pretty old school, but I did throw in a decent Australian Rhône blend by d’Arenberg, as well as this evening’s curiosity from Baja California!

Mexican wine

That’s right, Baja California is so baja, that it’s in Mexico. It’s not necessarily a mainstream wine producing country, but I have enjoyed a Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon in the past, and I figured what better destination for my palate in these cool winter months? This time, the grape variety is Petite Sirah. It usually yields dark, tannic wines north of the border, and this bottle didn’t stray from the typical profile of dark berries, along with some roasted coffee notes.

L.A. Cetto 2007 Petite Sirah

Baja California Bandit – L. A. Cetto 2007 Mexico Petite Syrah

Baja California Bandit – L. A. Cetto 2007 Mexico Petite Syrah

Impression (-)

The initial nose was actually quite pleasant, and while the fruit may have come off a bit jammy at first, the tannins kept scratching at my palate and prevented this big red from getting too heavy.

This structure remains relatively contained however, considering that this is Petite Sirah, but what really stuck with me was the drastic drop on the finish. Could it be a lack of acidity, unnoticeable on the mid-palate due to the forward tannins? Who knows… I’m not a technician, but overall I was left disappointed, even if this ghost finish impression does dissipate after a few glasses, probably due to the slow numbing of the palate by the big structure and fruit.

Brazilian Sparkling Wine – Miolo Brut

For Valentine’s day, my wife and I went out to to celebrate our first outing since the birth of our daughter exactly two months ago. The few proper restaurants in the town were either closed or completely booked, but we were lucky enough to get a table after a last minute cancellation at the les Louvières restaurant [website] in the middle of the Jura forest!

First time here and we were pleasantly surprised. The setting was stylish and romantic while remaining cozy (the building is an old farmhouse) and the food was great with a clearly gastronomic touch in both the flavors and the presentation. To top it all off, this fine dining establishment prides itself on its very international wine list and so I took this opportunity to revisit a Brazilian sparkling wine by Miolo.

Miolo Brut Sparkling Wine from Brazil

Miolo

Located in the Vale dos Vinhedos (Brazil’s only official regional appellation), the Miolo winery itself is quite impressive, dominated by a tall yellow tower sporting the well established name.

If it sounds a bit Italian, that’s because this region with the city of Bento Gonçalves at its heart, was primarily inhabited by Italian immigrants who brought the culture of wine along with them. As a matter of fact, many people here still speak Italian and the landscape is more reminiscent of Tuscany than São Paulo or Rio!

The Miolo winery which I visited in June 2014

The Miolo winery which I visited in June 2014

Miolo Brut Sparkling

Impression (+)

This méthode traditionnelle* sparkler is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir aged for 18 months in bottle. This translates to a nice complexity of aromas which one could mistake for Champagne, albeit in a fruitier rather than mineral style.

On the palate, the bubbles are very elegant and the rather full texture is very pleasant and approachable. While I personally tend to prefer a more biting acidity, this bottle was actually better adapted to accompany my veal dish than a more electric Champagne might have been.

Most importantly, it matched the mood of the evening: After all the craziness and excitement of parenthood, we needed a quiet, comfortable break alone to relax and really just enjoy each other. The Miolo felt almost appeasing with just the right amount of sparkle for a perfect Valentine’s evening.

NOTES:
*méthode traditionelle, formerly known as the méthode champenoise, is a sparkling wine fabrication process in which a second fermentation is initiated in the bottle. The CO2 gas which results from this fermentation is thus trapped, creating the tiny bubbles which we love so much in our Champagne.

 

Cotton Candy – Müller-Catoir Rieslings

Context
As one of the more prestigious producers of Germany’s Pfalz region, the Müller-Catoir name alone had set expectations quite high for me. After a quick stop at their stand during the VDP tasting in Mainz last month, I was left slightly disappointed and decided to give the estate another chance, since a full day of tasting Rieslings doesn’t necessarily do the wines justice. So I dropped by the beautiful manor in the village of Haardt, just outside of Neustadt to taste through a dozen Rieslings, most from the very promising, but very young 2009 vintage.

Impression

 

What stood out for me overall was a sort of cotton candy, powdery texture on my palate, especially on the classic range -Haardt, Gimmeldigen & Mussbach- but also the terroir range’s single vineyard Herrenletten. The Mandelberg or the 2008 “Breumel in den Mauern” Grosses Gewächs felt much clearer and more elegant to me at this point however, and were the definite highlights of the tasting.

I’m wondering if this impression was due to an awkward sweetness which the wines hadn’t yet integrated, or if it was more of a texture which I associate with cotton candy. It would be interesting to re-try the ’09s  in several months, after they’ve had plenty of time to settle in the bottle and gain some definition…

The Entrance – Domaine du Vissoux 2009 Fleurie “Poncié”

Having almost gone through my last Internet order all too quickly (I only really had two red wines for immediate consumption) I placed another all-red order on Friday which was promptly delivered yesterday. Without skipping a beat, I opened one of the highlights: a 2009 cru Beaujolais from a respected producer which I had been wanting to try in this fabulous vintage!

Pierre-Marie Chermette

Located in the southern part of Beaujolais, Pierre-Marie Chermette and his wife Martine have been in charge of the Domaine du Vissoux since 1982. The estate comprises a total of 27 hectares from their AOC Beaujolais vineyard in the town of Saint-Véran to smaller vineyards further north in the top Beaujolais cru appellations of Brouilly, Moulin-à-Vent as well as Fleurie. The Poncié vineyard in Fleurie is situated at the top of a slope which requires that all work be done by hand, and this is where the quality Gamay grapes for today’s bottle are grown.

the entrance Fleurie

The Entrance Fleurie

Domaine du Vissoux 2009 Fleurie “Poncié”

Impression (++)

Wow. I was expecting a lot of fruit from this lauded Beaujolais vintage, but this is insane! The best part is that while keeping its youthful charm, the fruit shows a deep character which prevented it from falling into caricature. The fresh acidity extends the wine in length, while the fruit expands across the width of my palate, and I am simply left speechless as this beauty walks past.

Turning heads

This Fleurie reminded me of a precise moment many years ago, a moment in which time stopped and a single girl captured the attention of an entire restaurant. My buddy’s new girlfriend had made her entrance in a casual outfit, a lollipop in her mouth, her youthful strut paralyzing every man in her path. Every head turned, servers stopped in their tracks and one could almost see tiny hearts forming in their eyes.

There was no extravagance, nor anything easy or revealing about her outfit. It was all about the entrance, the context, the way everything fell into place perfectly so that an otherwise pretty girl had ascended to the status of goddess. Sure, I enjoy a nice Beaujolais from time to time, but this bottle blew me away. Nothing extravagant, nor anything easy or revealing… but what an entrance!!

photo by Al S

Cooking for Wine

Last week, I came across Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé which was so good that it has become one of my recent favorites. So I brought it home the other day when my friends were supposed to come over. I decided to serve them with this exquisite wine at dinner. But the question was what kind of food I should cook for the get together that not only tastes great but also goes along with this amazing wine. The first dish that popped up in my head was fried foie gras with toasted brioche and caramelized apples. That moment, I knew, the dinner was going to be fantastic.

cooking for wine foie gras

On my first sip, the first thing that came to my mind was the strawberry fruit yogurt I have been a fan of since ages. The color was red but not as it red as it should be. The wine is exquisite but it lacks the wildness it deserves. It’s more sober in nature than wild and active. I mean, drinking it wouldn’t make you act all crazy, rather it will give you that peaceful and passive sensation that makes you do nothing but watch as the show goes on.

I wanted to get the best out of this drink and the only way to do that was to take it with the food that would complement it in the best way possible; something that could go along with the fruity flavor of the wine; something like fried foie gras and toasted brioche with an addition of caramelized apples. And that ended up being the final menu for the night.

Food and Wine Pairing: Fried Foie Gras (++)

The crispy taste of the fried foie gras, the scent of the toasted brioche and the sweetness of the caramelized apples would perfectly match the fruity flavor of the Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé. The fried foie gras has a livery taste with a smooth and buttery texture and is usually used in preparing desserts and other sweet delicacies. Preparing it might not be so easy if you are trying it for the first time, it takes a lot of experience and expertise, not to mention the sincere effort you need to put into it to make it.

The fried foie gras with its buttery and melts-in-the-mouth properties along with the toasted brioche and the caramelized apples with their sweetness go perfectly well with the red Mas Jullien 2009. I knew it from the moment I tasted the first drop of this delicious wine. Trust me when I say that the food and the wine went along like peanut butter and bananas. The taste food was delicious, not to forget the soothing sensation of the wine. The combination made the entire dinner look like a sweet and heavenly feast.

NOTES:
Oh and by the way, did I mention that the fryer I used to cook the food is the one I bought just a few days back from Amazon? Here it is. It’s amazing and it just knows how to do its job and I love it.

Beaujolais Trilogy: Brun, Lapierre, P-U-R Nouveau

Beaujolais has had an interesting evolution over the past few decades. I get the impression that our perception of this region’s wines have come full circle, in particular with regard to the Nouveau phenomenon. So I bunched together three Beaujolais reds which I’ve recently tasted on separate occasions, and tried to retrace the many makeovers undergone by these provocative, innovative, and simply delicious Gamay wines.

Beaujolais Nouveau

When the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon first exploded on the international wine scene, in the 80s and 90s, these fruity banana bomb primeur wines had an undeniable appeal to new consumers in North America and Asia, who were only just beginning to get serious about wine. Beaujolais Nouveau was hip, and only the true connoisseurs were unimpressed, decrying the event as a marketing gimmick to sell off large stocks of relatively basic, industrially made wines.

Beaujolais l’Ancien, Jean Paul Brun 2009 Beaujolais

At the time, these connoisseurs would redirect their friends to real Beaujolais: crus* made the old-fashioned way, without the use of those commercial yeasts which inflict the wines with artificial banana and candy aromas. And unlike Nouveau, these wines were capable of aging! The word got around that Nouveau was pretty much crap, but the second part about the other quality Beaujolais behind the spotlights was lost somewhere along the way, leaving local producers with a slight image problem.

(Beaujolais l’Ancien, Jean Paul Brun)

The Jean Paul Brun 2009 Beaujolais is a simple Beaujolais AOC, but made the old-fashioned way, as its name -ancien- tries to convey. The wine has very deep, yet juicy fruit feel, with strong floral notes reminiscent of violets. Although this entry-level bottling doesn’t have a tannic structure to age as long as Jean Paul Brun’s cru level wines (last month, his Morgon required a couple hours before it even started to express itself!), it is an immensely pleasurable wine which shows that serious Beaujolais is more than an alcoholic fruit juice.

Beaujolais Nature, Marcel Lapierre 2009 Morgon

The Beaujolais region would find its second wind in the late Marcel Lapierre, who passed away just last month. He was the most vocal defender of vin nature, natural wines made with absolutely no intervention in the cellar, and he convinced a new generation of winemakers throughout France to make fresh, easy-drinking wines with no added sulfites and to emphasize wine’s strongest assets: pleasure and drinkability. Along with the Loire Valley, Beaujolais has been a leader in the natural wine movement, and has been getting a lot of positive press in recent years, particularly from bloggers on the net.

The Marcel Lapiere 2009 Morgon had a stunning nose, which started off with very deep and explosive berry fruit, and evolved over time to incorporate aromas of orange peel, dried herbs and a subtle earthiness. The lively acidity of the wine kept me longing for more, even after the bottle was empty. Overall, I was most impressed with the wine’s freshness and purity of fruit. Luckily, Marcel’s son has been gradually taking over in the cellar over the past five years, and plans to continue in his father’s footsteps.

Beaujolais Re-nouveau?

Lately, I’ve been noticing that the same connoisseurs (or is it a new generation of connoisseurs by now?) defending Beaujolais Nouveau. Is it the influence of the easy-drinking attitude of the natural wine movement? A general trend towards more fruit-forward, less oaky wines? The appearance of better quality Nouveau wines from producers with a quality driven philosophy? Or maybe a return to a more festive and convivial approach to wine? Probably a little bit of each, but in any case, I’m glad that Beaujolais is bouncing back, and that we can celebrate the first wines of the vintage without feeling ashamed. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they need to get with the program!

No, this is not Coca-Cola.. quite the contrary: an all natural, no sulfites added Beaujolais Nouveau!

I celebrated Beaujolais day this year with the P-U-R 2010 Beaujolais Nouveau, which I found at a wine merchant in Beaune. The Coca-Cola style label is actually quite tongue-in-cheek, as this original Nouveau is an artisanal product made in very small quantities. It is a natural wine, with no added sulfites (or sugar as the label jokingly indicates -sans sucre ajouté-), and my first impression was that… well, it doesn’t taste anything like a Nouveau!

The wine was completely closed at first, with crushed berries and sandalwood aromas slowly emerging with time. It never did reach a full-blown fruitiness however, and reminded me more of a Pierre Overnoy Jura (also a natural wine) than a Beaujolais! Like the Lapierre, the acidity was also quite brilliant, and the wine went beautifully with a Jambon persillé, though it’s strong character is definitely not for everyone. When you think about it, this Nouveau was the antithesis of Nouveau: artisanal, unapproachable, and thought provoking. Could this be the next wave of Beaujolais?
NOTES:
*Beaujolais cru comes from one of 10 specific sub-zones of the Beaujolais appellation. While they are made from the same Gamay grape variety, the nuances in soil and micro-climate produce wines with more character, which are generally more structured and age-worthy. The ten Beaujolais crus are (from North to South) : Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.

Back in the Languedoc – Mas Jullien 2009 Rosé

After a year in Germany followed by a few months in my Jura hometown, I have returned to the south, the midi as we say in French, where nearly 2 years ago I wrote my first blog post. It was meant as an exercise in wine writing, a different approach to tasting, but what I hadn’t expected was how important the interactions would become. Not just here, but on the FB page, comments on other blogs, and more recently Twitter. I guess what I’m saying is that blogging isn’t as lonely as I thought it would be.

So what have I accomplished? Not much! I’m still broke, still obsessed, and still splurging on wines when I should be looking for my next job. Well, I suppose fatherhood is working out well, and I’m savoring every single moment with my little girl. Can’t wait for her first swim in the Mediterranean this summer! And so, in the honor of the sunny Languedoc, which I will be calling home for a while, I splurged (again) on a serious rosé by one of the leading Languedoc estates: Mas Jullien.

Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé

Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé

Mas Jullien 2009 Languedoc Rosé

Rather than following in his father’s footsteps and selling grapes to the local co-op, Olivier Jullien decided to go out and bottle his own wine, from vineyards he purchased in the Terrasses du Larzac sector, also home to some of the other great Languedoc wines, such as Daumas Gassac or la Grange des Pères.

He has quickly risen to the top of the appellation, and even the entire region,  but the prices at the estate have remained very reasonable. Both times I’ve been there however, the white and both reds were completely sold out. In fact, there is a 6 to 12 bottle maximum even when buying the wines in advance.

I did find his wines at a small shop in Pézenas last week however, and while I was very tempted to pick up the white, considered by some as the best white of the entire South of France, I settled for the rosé for half the price at 12 Euros.

My first impression was that of the little fruit yogurts I grew up on: Petits Gervais., strawberry flavor. I actually carafed the wine, because it initially had a slight reduction on the nose, but this blew off very quickly and the wine presented its clean fruit aromas in a brightly decorated package, still wrapped, but hardly discreet.

The wine, much like myself, felt a bit out of place, unsettled. It clearly displayed its affection for red wine drinkers, offering its dark hair and voluptuous curves, teasing our palates like a flamenco dancer expertly lifting her dress as her bare hip disappears from sight. This wine lived and breathed the south, and yet with all the seductive charms it conveyed, it was little more than a hollow game which played itself out in front of me. A dance with no outcome.

Perhaps I expected a more convincing performance, a burst of energy which would lift me from my seat. But no. I remained a spectator, silent and all too anchored in my reality. Perhaps the stage was not ideal, or the expectation too high. Or perhaps I too felt that I was not living up to my potential, like this youthful rosé which falls short of the ambitious red it could have been.

Designer Wine – Enzo Boglietti 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo

Enzo Boglietti 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo

Mas Jullien

Much like the label, one might start by describing this Italian Nebbiolo as modern and simple. Unfortunately, the elegance of the designer label did not find its way into the wine. Enzo Boglietti is a well known producer of Barolo, but this Langhe red from the same grape was a bit too stylized for my taste. The nice underlying acidity was not enough to compensate for the overly soft texture and overwhelming toasty oak aromas. I pictured this wine as a plump teenager laying on an extra coat of vanilla flavored lip gloss. Perhaps that evening’s suffocating heat amplified the sensation of heaviness in the wine, but in any case, it is not a style which I particularly enjoy, in particular for the wines of the Piemonte region, whose beauty lies in their firm purity. I can’t recall if Enzo Boglietti’s Barolo wines showed the same character, or if this approach is solely meant for the more youthful Langhe Nebbiolo. Anyone else have a recent experience with these?

A fortified red from…. the Beaujolais?!

My uncle came to visit for a couple days, and in addition to some of my favorite Jura reds, he also brought along this very original bottle of fortified wine from the Beaujolais.

Domaine des Terres Vivantes

From the little I could find online, the Domaine des Terres Vivantes -Living Soils Estate- is a relatively recent organic estate in southern Beaujolais run by Marie and Ludovic Gros. Before setting off on this new adventure, she was a baker and he was a sommelier, and so they not only craft wines in the Beaujolais AOC, but also bake and sell their own artisanal bread.

Fortified Gamay: Volutes

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this bottle, since my uncle didn’t really know what it was, just that it was sweet. Also, the Volutes is labeled as a “spiritueux” (spirit) and contained 18% alc/vol, so my first thought was a Pineau des Charentes type drink, which is made by adding distilled spirits to grape must (ie. unfermented juice).

After contacting the winery, I found out that Burgundy/Beaujolais does have such a product called riquiqui., but it turns out that this bottle is actually a fortified red wine similar to a Banyuls or Porto. The estate first made the experiment in 2003, the year of the heat wave which provided many over-ripe grapes. They were able to repeat the process in 2006 and 2010 by harvesting part of their Gamay 15 to 20 days later and adding a neutral spirit to halt the fermentation at around 40g of residual sugar.

Ripe aromas of dark fruit and griotte cherry reminded me of some of the more exuberant Uruguay wines which I had very much enjoyed in South America, though with noticeably more alcohol. On the palate, soft tannins confirmed this impression, but the sweetness gives the wine a more mellow feel, while the surprisingly racy acidity keeps it composed and relatively fresh on the delicious finish, with lingering pomegranate notes.

I think it is this freshness that sets this Beaujolais apart from the more southern Banyuls or Porto, and I very much enjoyed the wine, though the alcohol can be a bit too present without some food to balance it out.

Ludovic Gros also mentioned that they are currently working on a proper “cooked” wine, which is reduced to only a third of its initial volume and reaches 19.5% alc/vol. Interesting, but probably not for me…