Posts Filed Under on the road
image: Palate Press
Steve Mirassou, pretending to take a photo (or, sharing his opinions on the state of Livermore Valley juice)
One of my media tours this year had me returning to California’s perennially underrated Livermore Valley, where I’d not been for a few years, and reconnecting with the likes of local vintners Karl Wente and Steve Mirassou, neither of whom I’d seen (or, more importantly, tasted with) lately.
The tour was very well executed, with comprehensive tastings dedicated mostly to varietal wines from Cabernet, Petite Sirah, and Chardonnay. Generally, I remain impressed with the combination of gumption, quality, history, and irony coming out of the region.
It’s the latter two aspects that really got my pseudo-journalistic juices flowing, and they’re the focus of a feature I penned about the trip (titled The Mother Vine: Livermore Reconsidered) that’s now available over at Palate Press. Both words and pics are by me, so you can come back here and flame me if you hate either. Lots of vino was tasted that didn’t make it into the final article, much of which I’ll be trickling out in the form of mini-reviews in the coming weeks.
So… this is the part where you go on over there and read it.
Unless you don’t like irony, history (and this one is about as deep into the history of California winemaking as one can get, as the area is home to the mother vine clones of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that now dominate the state’s plantings), or exciting developments in U.S. wine… in which case, I’m not sure that I can help you… hell, I’m not sure that anyone can help you… have you sought out the assistance of a professional for that condition? Because, seriously, I am starting to worry about you. Just sayin’…
The ugly truth is that I – quite lazily – did not really want to write about Champagne cooperative Mailly (which takes its moniker, and the fruit from its Grand Cru vineyards, from the town of the same name). In fact, I felt so lazy about it, that I employed the writer’s laziest device (the dash) in the very first sentence (shame on me!).
Founded in 1929, this mainly Pinot Noir brand of Champers is owned by twenty-five families (three of which account for more than eighty percent of the outfit overall), produces 500,000 bottles a year, and is farming from the same spots it has since the 1960s. It’s a co-op; the least sexy of Champagne’s production options from a consumer perspective.
No fancy house (though the fact that the seven floors of the co-op stretch down over twenty meters underground is pretty cool). There’s a neat little tasting room, white chalk roads, and cellars dug by hand (over a period of thirty-six years; by the company founders, mind you, and not by the Gauls).
But while Mailly might not be much in the way of looks when considered next to its more, uhm… media-friendly Champers peers, its wines give plenty of those superficially sexier houses in the region a total run for their money…
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“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful…”
In theory, it ought to be easy to hate on the Champagne house Bollinger.
They’re big (producing about 3 million bottles annually); they’re kitschy-famous (getting the royal warrant from the UK market in 1884, and then becoming the official Champers of agent 007); they’re fairly corporate (a staggering – and, one imagines, barely manageable – 175 shareholders); they have that other matriarch, the one with the famous and too-oft-cited quote about basically drinking Champagne all of the time (and let’s not forget that Lilly Bollinger originally resisted the release of a rosé, viewing it as “red-light district” wine, which casts serious doubts as to her sanity in my view…); and they have 5 kilometers of cellars under the town of Ay, housing 700,000 magnums full of aging wines (ok, that last bit is actually really cool).
But with Bollinger, we have a clear case of the gimcrack facade belying a core of true vinous substance (rather than the other way around). So… sorry, but the haters are gonna need to shelve that shiz for a few hundred words.
On a rainy day in September, my visit included a chat with Adjoint de Cave Denis Bunner, a young guy who had a my-job-is-really-awesome smile chiseled onto his face in a near-permanent state. He seemed to revel quietly in the history of Bollinger, dating back to when Ay was the epicenter of Champagne production. He described Bollinger as a “living patrimony” to Champagne, thanks primarily to Madame Jacques Bollinger’s tenacity: “She would say, ‘if it’s good for the wine, I don’t care about the cost; we do it!'”…
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Jean-Claude Fourmon – president of the fourth-generation family-owned Joseph Perrier in Châlons-en-Champagne – doesn’t seem at all deterred by the fact that, in the U.S., his brand is probably best known as “that other Perrier” that not-as-many people have tasted.
He’s quick with amusing witticisms, bordering on platitudes if not for his fantastic delivery; things like, “a day without Champagne is very sad” (truer words were never spoken, I suppose), “we all know that Prosecco is a poison” (definitely not true, but funny), “grapes, blend, and dosage make all the difference, the rest is fantasy” (refreshingly honest), and “‘Can I have another glass?’ That is how I measure success!” (not a bad watermark, methinks).
Now, if he were less affable, he might be a bit more worried about the fact that, since they export seventy-five percent of their production, having a lower profile in one of the world’s largest wine markets isn’t ideal. But Fourmon seems to think that history will prevail.
After all, Joseph Perrier has the Champagne traditions that wine geeks love: along with multi-generational family ownership, there’s multi-generational grape-growing supply agreements, multi-generational cellarmasters, equipment that’s reminiscent of a working museum, and a history that puts the brand in lock-step with the better-known Champers houses (in the early twentieth century, they shared the region’s first paper label with those other brands – only the brand names was changed on each at the time)…
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