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Off The Vine
John Noakes & Chef David Repp
It’s been a while since we’ve been in the VW Bus together as we tour the wine regions of the world. The bus is tuned up and the weird smell from the back has been found and dealt with so sit back and fill up your wine glass because we’ve just crossed into the Rhone Valley—more specifically the Northern Rhone or as the French call it (Septentrionale) where expensive red wine (Syrah) is king and the terrain is steep and terraced. The soil is mostly granite. Let’s not get too bogged down in details. That’s what books are for. What Chef Dave Repp and I want to show you is a taste of the region both in your glass and on your plate—a mere peak inside the sub-regions of Cote-Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage, and Cornas that will spur you on to learn more…or maybe not. Either way it’s ok we won’t judge.
Beyond that in the next column we will drive into the much more expansive wine region of the southern Rhone where 90 percent of the wine from the Rhone as a whole is produced.
At the end of the German occupation of France a group of American and French soldiers were moving north from the Mediterranean, when they got close to the Southern Rhone Valley the French and Americans split up the region to search and explore for enemy remnants and artillery. Oddly enough the French took the east side of the Rhone River and the Americans took the western part of the Rhone. Seems like a simple random decision at first but as you dig deeper into the setup of some of the greatest vineyards France has to offer they were right on the path that the French would be patrolling. The French would never have left the Americans to trample through the best vineyards of the Rhone Valley all the while recklessly consuming some of the most expensive wines like so much beer. The French were simply protecting their national treasure that had almost been stolen away to Germany. What was the French protecting?
It was the varietal that is Syrah with its big lush fruit, and spice that is dark ruby to purple in color, tannic and at times unruly in its youth can range from simple solid red to almost purple-black having wild depth and concentration which is then capable of being tamed by Father Time into a harmonious lengthy wine that can stand up to any Bordeaux. Wow that was a long sentence but vitally necessary.
As we drive into Cote-Rotie you will notice the dangerously steep western slopes of the valley of Ampuis where the grapes must be carefully hand-picked by sure-footed workers…no wine drinking until after the day is done here. This wine sub-region which most likely pre-dates the Romans and until Marcel Guigal in the 1980’s brought this region and its magical wines to forefront of the wine world it remained a closely guarded secret of the wine elite. The wine is expensive and terrain is brutal yet beautiful. Onward my wine friends.
Now that we have gone through Cotes-Rotie with all of its glory and super-expensive red wine it’s time to roll into Crozes-Hermitage which produces fabulous Syrah in the shadow of the more opulent and expensive wines of Hermitage. Think of Crozes-Hermitage as Michael Jordan’s son who plays basketball and how his father played the game…now you get it.
Outside of the white wine made from the aromatic Marsanne and Roussanne grapes the majority of wine coming from Crozes is Red and Syrah. Relatively young to the world in terms of notoriety the 1990’s really saw the quality and quantity improve and be made more available to the wine-drinking world. Wines from Crozes that can be drunk young will exhibit rich black fruit and go down nice and easy. Whereas the bigger more serious Syrah from the region which can age for 10 years can stand up to its big-brother syrah from Hermitage.
Another small growing region that deserves a quick mention and also produces wine in the shadow of Hermitage is the Cornas region just to the south. This little known region which can offer some better value for the dollar while still not inexpensive can really give you that big French Syrah experience with the lush black fruit, tannins and structure syrah drinkers crave in the cold winter months.
Everyone grab their glass and get back into the bus as we hit the old roads and beat a path to the Southern Rhone. It is there where Chateauneuf du Pape will be among the stops that we make throughout the region.
Of course you know Chef Repp wouldn’t come up with some mamby-pamby recipe. No sir, a big burly wine like French Syrah deserves a game animal and boy does the Chef have a doozy for you this week…definitely not for the faint of heart or stomach. Venison my friends…Venison, with bacon!
Cote-Rotie, Domaine Clusel-Roch 2006, $62.99
Crozes-Hermitage, La Rollande 2005, $23.99
Cornas, Stephane Robert 2006, $39.99
Roasted Rack of Venison
3lb rack of venison
1/4 cup canola oil
4 cloves of garlic chopped
¼ cup fresh chopped rosemary
4 tbls Dijon mustard or enough to cover the rack
5 slices of bacon
1-1/2 cups red wine (Syrah)
4 cups beef or veal stock
1 cup of each: Celery, Carrots, Onion
- Marinate the venison with the canola oil, chopped garlic, and rosemary 4 hours or overnight before cooking.
- Preheat the oven to 425.
- Heat a large sauté pan to very hot. Season the venison liberally with kosher salt and pepper.
- Add 1 tbls canola oil to the pan and sear the venison rack to create a nice brown crust, about two minutes a side.
- Remove the venison and smother the top with the Dijon mustard. Place the bacon lengthwise over the mustard.
- Add the carrots, onion, and celery to the pan. Place the venison over them and pour in the red wine
- Roast the venison for 30 minutes at 425 then raise the temperature to 500 degrees and roast for 15 minutes more remove from the oven and let rest for at least 10 minutes.
- Deglaze the pan with ¼ cup of red wine and then add 2 cups of low sodium beef broth to the pan reduce by half on high heat and strain. (For thicker sauce whisk in 1-2 tbls of wonder flour (super fine flour)
“Keep your eyes on the Rhone and your hands upon the wheel”
Everybody in the bus we are heading back on the road. With the Loire Valley in our rear view mirror we are ready drink up the great wine regions of France, and impress the locals with our bad French accents. While we won’t be stopping in Bordeaux or Burgundy we will be driving through them on our way to the Rhone Valley. This will give me plenty of time to drone on about these two magnificent wine regions. It will also give us the opportunity to air out the van and get that weird odor emanating from the back seat cleared out.
With regard to Bordeaux there are five first-growth Chateaux on the left bank of the Gironde River that most of us will never get to drink:. Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Mouton Rothschild. Then there are the beautiful merlot-based wines of the right bank (Chateau Petrus, and Le Pin from Pomerol). This region stretches along the Dordogne River which runs into the Gironde where the most expensive bottles in Bordeaux are produced.
For great value wines on the right bank look toward Cotes de Blaye, Bordeaux, and Bordeaux Superieur. Of course the left bank of Bordeaux isn’t just for the rich; there are many great values to be found from the other five designated growths. In particular look for fourth growths like Chateau Talbot if you want a glimpse into excellent red Bordeaux under $75. Once you get outside the five growths you will find a mine-field of wine under $20, choose carefully. Let’s not forget white Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc blended with a bit of Semillon) while were passing through. Great for summer parties or hoarding all to your self. A couple to keep an eye out for are Chateau Bonnet and Chateau Magence…Great value wines!
Burgundy is just up ahead. Over the years, the Napoleonic law of inheritance, whereby property is equally divided amongst surviving children, vineyards have been broken up to the point where siblings can own three rows of vines and produce their own wine under their own label. Thus you get more than 2,000 different vineyards of varying quality to sift through while trying not to overpay for pinot noir.
Burgundy however isn’t just for red…oh no, it also produces some of the best chardonnay in the world, from steely-minerality that finishes crisp and clean on the palate in Chablis in northern Burgundy, to the complete antithesis (light-medium oak with malolactic fermentation) in southern Burgundy. So that we are all on the same page with regard to malolactic fermentation, that is when bacteria is introduced to the wine to change the malo acid which tastes sour like apples to lactic acid, which makes chardonnay taste more full-mouthed and buttery; think classic California Chardonnay. Any more detail than that and I risk falling asleep at the wheel. Just remember that the best way to learn about wine is to taste. I’m just drawing a roadmap of basic knowledge so that the journey of wine from bottle to the wine glass to your mouth is clear and memorable.
Wait until the next column when I break down War & Peace in one paragraph. No time to be long-winded here.
Keep your glasses full and your shades closed.
American wine making—what a triumphant story: From mass-produced jug wines in the 50′s, 60′s, and early 70′s to the pinnacle of the wine world in 1976, an event which garnered respect from French wine makers and press.
American wine making after 1976 would never be the same. That keen independent, experimental spirit that built our great nation was now focusing in on creating world-class wines. With the help of some visionary marketers and wine makers, American wine and wine making was poised to challenge, if not usurp, France’s claim (and rightfully so) to having the best wine in the world.
The famous 1976 Paris tasting pitted California chardonnay and French Burgundian chardonnay in the first round, and French red Bordeaux and California Cabernet Sauvignon in the second. The classic underdog story was about to unfold like the movie Rocky. No one really expected American wines to really compete, this was more of an opportunity for France to help the supposed neophyte wine-making Americans (which in and of itself was great!). Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, the scene is set…ring the bell…let’s get it on!
During the tasting, the panel of French judges was completely confused about the country of origin of the chardonnay. One judge remarked, “It was nice to be tasting a classic Burgundian chardonnay.” When, much to his chagrin, he discovered that it was a California chardonnay he had tasted. The grumblings and errant coughs could be heard throughout the tasting room when it was read that the United States had indeed won the blind tasting for whites with Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 taking the honors.
Now the pressure was on for round two—the reds. The room must have felt a bit warmer for the judges as the beads of sweat on their foreheads now appeared in greater numbers, the nervous energy being taken out on hastily lit cigarettes, smoke filling the room. While the second round was not as confusing for the judges there was a fear that they would figure out which ones were the American wines and vote to protect their own. The little bit of confusion that remained with the judges proved enough to keep them honest. However the battle of the reds was not so cut and dry. This was going to be a photo finish that would come down to a tie-breaking vote that left Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1973 on top of the wine world. Yo Adrian, Adrian!
California Cabernet Sauvignon won over the likes of first-growth grand crus Bordeaux giants like Haut-Brion 1970 and Mouton Rothschild 1970. Unthinkable to the French who, at the time, felt (and rightly so) that they made the best wine in the world. This wasn’t about bruising France’s huge wine-snobbery-ego, (although that must have felt good too!) I too still get a chill and feel so proud of America when I think about what was accomplished at that tasting. It showcased American pride, hard work, and strengthened the belief that anything is possible in the United States. Think about it, France had been making wine for a thousand years, and through trial and error they had figured out that Cabernet Sauvignon grows best on the left bank of the Gironde river in the Bordeux and Merlot thrives more completely on the right bank of the same river. They also knew that Pinot Noir is best when grown in Burgundy. This is where the French word Terroir comes into play.
So American wine makers like Robert Mondavi and Mike Grgich to name a couple had this crazy idea that America and in particular northern California could create world-class wines. Now it is true they were working off a great wine making model of excellence that the French had blazed for us, that certainly saved us a bit of time in trial and error. When wine pioneers like Mondavi and Grgich set their minds to make world-class wines that’s exactly what they did, and in just a matter of decades not centuries. The Paris tasting culminated with American wines and wine makers winning the direct respect of the French wine world. I see the tasting as less of a competition and more of a celebration, a coming out party if you will that was hosted by the French. It cleared the way and made possible the Super-Vineyard partnerships of American and French wine-producing giants to create Opus 1 and Dominus that still exist and create masterful wines to this day. California is considered one of the finest wine making regions in the world.
If you want to learn more about the 1976 Paris Tasting, and the American wine revolution I suggest these two books as a great starting point:
“Judgement of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine”
By: George M. Tabor
“House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty”
By: Julia Flynn Siler
In the words of LL Cool J, Don’t call it a comeback merlot has been here for years!
Ah, merlot the only grape to get its butt kicked by a Hollywood movie, and all it took was one distressed line from an actor. Dressed down like Anthony Bourdain yelling at a waiter for bringing the wrong plate to a table. Maybe merlot deserved it. Maybe after so much success wallowing in mediocrity during the 80s and 90s it deserved to be called out. Merlot’s success had made it soft and out of shape. Kind of like how I’ve become after I got married last fall. American merlot seemed to have nothing in common with its Bordeaux-right-bank masters that tend to be leaner, earthy even, as opposed to being just a mouthful of fruit with big round flabby flavors. So maybe merlot deserved a reality check. But was pinot noir the grape to do it? It is a very temperamental grape that is notoriously difficult to cultivate and process into wine, some might even say it’s fragile. This would be the grape to usurp merlot and be the next mass-produced and marginalized wine? So pinot noir explodes in popularity as the population demands that they too will, “not drink any @#*#ing merlot!” At it’s pinnacle pinot noir can be some of the best wine in the world with flavors of smoky raspberry, sage, dill and cedar held together with firm tannins. At its worst it can be thin and resemble little of what real pinot noir should taste like. I’m sure pinot noir producers started out with the best of intentions to make quality wines for under $11 but when demand outpaced supply…well, you don’t have to have be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what happened next, Larry Holmes could have solved this one. Prices sored and wine producers scrambled to put any and all the pinot noir out on the market regardless of where or how it was grown.
So here we are…2008 and pinot noir in a lot of ways has become what merlot was pre-Sideway’s, and all the while merlot has been orchestrating it’s comeback. Less demand for the grape has increased quality and lowered prices. You don’t just get a big mouthful of fruit, you’re getting some tannins and structure from letting it sit in new oak. You’re also getting more complex merlots that have leaner styles and longer finishes at great price points. Merlot is trying to gain back some market-share. But it still needs our help. Washington state and California merlot producers have really raised the bar to the point where a $13 bottle of Washington state merlot gives forth more quality for the money than spending the equivalent on a pinot noir. Most of my wine friends I think would agree that pinot noir doesn’t show, and taste like pinot noir until you get into the mid $20′s range. But that’s normal because of how difficult it can be to produce Pinot Noir from vine to wine.
So now you know the secret…Drink Merlot! Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to order a glass or a bottle next time you are out at a restaurant. Pinot noir deserves the same treatment as merlot received. So feel free to laugh openly and point the next time you see someone overpaying for pinot noir at a wine store or restaurant.
This Father’s Day weekend feel free to come down to my wine store and taste some merlot. Don’t forget to try the recipe below it goes perfectly with a nice merlot. May your wine glass never be empty and your plate always full.
Here’s a recipe from our in-wine store chef who is also the Executive Chef at Splash Restaurant in Westport, CT. It goes great with merlot.