Chinon and the Chevelle: French Wine, American Thunder

Chinon and the Chevelle: French Wine, American Thunder: Pairing Loire wine with the wheels of Dirty Harry.

french wine american thunder

After teaching Chinon as part of my “Looks Like Red, Acts Like White” seminars at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June, this Loire Valley red has become a new passion for me.  Its medium weight and zesty berry taste makes it blissfully versatile with food, a fine bedfellow for both lighter and richer dishes.  Comprised of the Cabernet Franc grape, Chinon’s subtle “green” flavor – often manifesting itself as green olives, green pepper, or even pine needles — gives it a uniquely punchy personality that can be invigorating during interminable, sleep-inducing dinners.

It is no surprise, then, that I resolved to take Chinon to my relatives’ home for the mother of marathon meals, Thanksgiving.

Cue needle screech.

French wine on the most American of holidays?!  Homeland Security could cart me away for such an unpatriotic transgression.

So to balance things out, I was left with no choice but to borrow a ’67 Chevy Chevelle SS muscle car from the good folks at the Classic Car Club of Manhattan.  At least my ride would be unambiguously American.

On Thanksgiving Day, I loaded my wine bag with Chinon and the other treats listed below – and jumped into this brilliant blue thunder-chariot.  There’s no better way to feel like a Duke of Hazzard than to ride the rumble of 350 horses, emanating from an overpowered 396 “Big Block” V8 engine, a symbol of the halcyon, if smoggier, time before oil crises and politically correct Prisuses.  Like a growling volcano, this beautiful barbarian felt like it could blow at any time, which must be why it came equipped with a fire extinguisher near the gear stick.  We set off more than a few car alarms roaring out of the city.

My family was pleased with both my transportation and the wine, even if the former made the latter arrive a bit shaken and stirred.  It was the kind of cross-cultural match that France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, would surely admire: French wine, American thunder.


Chinon: She-non
Chevelle: She-vell

The Chinons:

Domaine du Colombier Chinon Cuvee Vielles Vignes 2004(France, $17)
A medium-weight charmer that shows essences of dried currants and spice, with a hint of martini olives on the palate.

Philippe Alliet Chinon Vieilles Vignes 2003 (France, $30)
A smooth, light-to-medium bodied sip with aromas of black cherries, tobacco leaves, and freshly-tilled soil.

Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 1989 (France, $44)
The rare older Chinon in stores now, it offers a pretty perfume of cranberries and plums, joined by notes of cedar on a smooth, enduring finish.

Also in tow:

Villa Sparina Monferrato White Montej 2004 (Italy, $13)
From Italy’s Piedmont region, this fascinating blend of Chardonnay, Muller-Thurgau, and Sauvignon Blanc displays considerable complexity for the price, with a swirl of grapefruit, pineapple, and almonds that stays refreshing to the end.

Domaine Jean Chauvenet Nuits St.-Georges “Les Vaucrains” 1er Cru 2002 (France, $70)
A show-stoppingly gorgeous red Burgundy—smooth and silky, showing blackberries, coffee, game meats, and a vapor trail of violets.

EOS Estate Vineyards Petite Sirah 2004 (California, $18)
A complex mix of wild berry and cassis greets the nose, with hints of mocha and sweet spice, which becomes a rich (but not heavy), spicy, highly-likable sip on the palette.  A good example of a less familiar varietal (Petite Sirah) prospering in a rising-star region (Paso Robles).

french france french american

Salon: The Secret "Cult Champagne"

Have you ever heard of cult champagne? When wine lovers rhapsodize about “cult wine,” they are typically talking about ultra-high quality, small-production California cabernet sauvignon blends like Screaming Eagle or Araujo Estate or a few other rare reds from around the world, such as Le Pin from Bordeaux or Pingus from Spain.

cult champagne

But who has ever heard of “cult Champagne”?

Prestige cuvées like Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grand Dame, and Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, despite their exalted reputations, are hardly produced in the microscopic quantities that qualify for cult status; indeed, DP is rumored to have a production run exceeding 100,000 cases annually.

And then there’s Champagne Salon, which sees an annual trickle of just 6,000 six-bottle cases, released only three or four times each decade.  Rap songs don’t refer to it.  Its packaging is far from bling-y, unlike, for example, Cristal’s gloriously translucent bottle or Dom Perignon’s sexy black curves. In fact, the “S” marking Salon’s label symbolizes, for me, the notion of singularity: there is but one version, made from a single grape (Chardonnay) and a single vineyard, the fabled Le Mesnil.  There is no rosé bottling, no non-vintage cuvée, no sweet version – as all of Salon’s eggs are in one basket.

And what a fine creature these eggs make. Because Salon originates from 100% white wine grapes that are grown in uniquely chalky soil, it typically enters the world with a lean, citrusy, sometimes steely quality – refreshing for sure, but hardly the nirvana of nuance it will be capable of achieving down the road.

Indeed, Salon needs time to strut its stuff, even though it ages at the winery for a minimum of eight years before release. Whereas many cult Champagnes are at or near their peak when young, Salon invariably improves with at least a decade or more of bottle age. When I visited the winery last year, the 1996 Salon ($225-275/bottle) proved itself just this kind of monument in the making: appealingly crisp and pure, but not yet showing the sublime subtleties that age will bring.  In contrast, when I tasted the 1990 ($400-$450) a few years ago in California, it displayed a complex nose of almonds and baked bread and honey, balanced beautifully by an apply goodness and a racy vein of acidity – the essence of cult Champagne at its shimmery best.

cult champagne cult champagne cult champagne

Published in the October issue of Number Wine, a terrific new wine magazine distributed in Europe.

A Splendid Spin in Aspen

Report from the 25th annual FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen.

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The old airplane’s propellers groaned and wheezed like a wounded beast.  While my seatmate (a chef from the Midwest) and I tried to distract ourselves by talking about much we were looking forward to this year’s Food & Wine Classic, I couldn’t help wondering why a blue-chip airline like United was flying such a shanty prop plane from Denver to Aspen.  Shouldn’t an illustrious destination like Aspen merit the airline’s best commuter jets, or at least ones with engines?—not a rickety propeller job, the kind of 70’s jungle jumper you’d have seen ferrying Jim Jones’ disciples on a one-way trip to Guyana.  There wasn’t even toilet paper in this jalopy’s bathroom – just a lonely, half-used box of Kleenex lying next to an outhouse potty hole.

The turbulence intensified as we started our initial approach into Aspen.  As the nose of the plane pitched down in a Kamikaze dive, my seatmate and I slid down in our seats, stretching our legs under the seats in front of us as if trying to reach an invisible break pedal.  And then, in an unexpected and poignant moment of primal desperation, she and I – two total strangers – clutched each other’s hands, waiting for the final death plunge.

It didn’t happen, of course, and comic relief came in the form of a preternaturally relaxed Drew Nieporent, stretched out behind us like the cool kid in the back seat of a school bus.

“Ah, this is nothing,” the insouciant and kingly restaurant impresario declared, “I’ve been on far worse flights to Aspen.”

His words helped a bit, as did the thought that with Todd English, Marcus Samuelson, and other super-chefs on board, an unplanned “forest landing” would have made one hell of an obit.

We survived – sweaty, shaky, and grateful to be on terra firma — in a paradisiacal place of azure skies, verdant hills, and bountiful wine, no less.  And things only got better from there. Speaking at the Food & Wine Classic was an unalloyed pleasure.  I developed two new seminars for the Classic – “Sparkling Substitutes” (i.e., non-Champagne bubbly) and “Looks like Red Wine, Acts Like White” (light reds), each taught twice.

The audiences couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and wine-curious.  We had great fun from start-to-finish, whether it was performing a group chant to pronounce Gewürztraminer (“Guh-vurtz” and “tra-me-ner”) or laughing about rap-star Ludacris’ admonition in my book not to “guzzle one’s Cristal”.

My fellow speakers were the best in the business, including Best Cellars guru Josh Wesson, whose attendance at my red wine seminar was a special treat, as the spirit of his classic tome, Red Wine with Fish, fit perfectly with the subject matter. And how often does one get to the opportunity to exchange sartorial advice with Tony Giglio, as much a maven of pocket squares as he is of the imbibable.  And it is always a delight to visit with the über-talented Lettie Teague, Food & Wine’s executive wine editor, whose new book, Educating Peter, is as scintillating as her columns in the magazine.

To ensure that the wine at my seminars would be well received, months ago I had assembled a “Civilian Tasting Panel” – nine non-wine-pro friends who helped me blind-taste over 70 selections of both non-Champagne bubbly and light reds. This made for two memorable, wine-soaked evenings, where we sat around a long wooden table like a big Tuscan family, slurping and sloshing and giving honest, off-the-cuff reactions to the wines.

The favorites that emerged from these tastings became the line-up for my seminars in Aspen.  They are all fetching sips for summer:

“Looks Like Red Wine, Acts Like White”: Light Reds 

  • Ponzi Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 05
  • Duboeuf Julienas Domaine de la Seigneurie 05
  • Domain Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Rouge 04
  • Remy Pannier Chinon 05 * Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche 04
  • Bodegas Nekeas Vega Sindoa El Chaparral 05

[Note: these light, low-tannin reds are all chillable.]

“Sparkling Substitutes”: Non-Champagne Bubbly

  • Mionetto Sergio Extra Dry NV
  • Schramsberg Blanc De Blancs 04
  • Brüder Dr. Becker Scheurbe Sekt 04
  • Llopart Leopardi Brut Rose 03
  • Hill of Content Sparkling Red NV
  • Ceretto Santo Stefano Moscato D’Asti 05

Devastate Your Friends on New Year’s Eve: The Kit

To coincide with my seminars at the 25th anniversary of the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen this weekend, I am auctioning off a very special “Devastate Your Friends on New Year’s Eve” Kit. All proceeds go to FOOD & WINE’s Grow for Good campaign to raise $1 million for Farm to Table, a national initiative dedicated to encouraging sustainable agriculture and increasing people’s access to locally-grown foods.

Mark’s “Devastate Your Friends on New Year’s Eve” Kit

Be the vinous hero among your friends when you serve these rare gems straight from Mark’s personal collection.  Before and during the ball drop, you will enjoy a fascinating face-off between two best-of-breed Blanc de Blancs Champagnes–one from a top “indie producer” and theother from a legendary Champagne house.  The first is a magnum of the stunning no-dosage Grand Cru Cramant from Guy Larmandier, the marvelous artisanal grower-producer whose Champagnes are mostly only obtainable at auction.  The other, the Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Brut Blanc de Blancs, hails from the splendid 1996 vintage and has received ecstatic praise from top wine critics.

As you and your guests savor the first hours of the new year in a state of bubbly bliss, you will cap the evening with divine nectar from Austria- the ultra-rare Nittnaus Trockenbeerenauslese Neusiedlersee Pinorama 1995.  Your guests will marvel at both your ability to pronounce the unprounceable [TRAWK-uhn-bay-ruhn-OWS-lay-zuh] and how such a delicate dessert wine can offer so much complexity – a rapturous swirl of honey, orange, apricot, and chocolate, buttressed by a racy vein of acidity. To master these wine types and many others, we are including a signed copy of the best-selling Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine.

  • Guy Larmandier Grand Cru Cramant Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (1500ml magnum)
  • Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Brut Blanc de Blancs 1996 (750ml)
  • Nittnaus Trockenbeerenauslese Neusiedlersee Pinorama 1995 (375ml)
  • Signed copy of Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine (Penguin)

Fail-Safe Ebullience for the Holidays

With Christmas well-nigh and New Year’s celebrations arriving soon thereafter, I am constantly being hit up to recommend a delicious, interesting red to give as a gift or take to cocktail parties.

cocktail parties wine

The answer is easy: secure a bottle of the Shooting Star Blue Franc 2004, a wine I first encountered six months ago at New York’s well-edited Appellation Wines & Spirits and have since included in several wine seminars.

Like the Governator, this wine is an Austrian in West Coaster’s clothes, being that it is from an Austrian grape (Blaufränkisch) grown in Washington State (where the same grape is known as Lemberger, not to be confused with the stinky, rind-washed cheese, Limberger).

Here is why the Shooting Star Blue Franc hits on all cylinders:

* Gustatory scrumptiousness: its vibrant mix of red-berry fruit, combined with a soft, silky texture, will please any party

* Cocktail-party intrigue: not the usual Cabernet, this red stands out for its unusual grape of origin

* Gentle on the money-clip: clocking in at a reasonable $14

* Captivating label: an old, blue-hued 100-franc note (a “Blue Franc”) making it look like a wine at least twice its price

* Relatively available: in addition to Appellation Wines (, it can be ordered at New York’s Astor Wines, Michigan’s Bello Vino Marketplace, and California’s Solano Cellars, among other merchants.