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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wine Blogging Wednesday#20: Aligoté and Saumur

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I really like the theme of this Wine Blogging Wednesday, which is for us to blog about white wines that are not from the Big Three varietals, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Riesling. Actually, aside from Rieslings, I really don't drink much of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. I drink plenty of Bourgogne Blanc and Sancerre, you see, but not a lot of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. ;-)

All joking aside, I really do like a lot of white wines from somewhat unusual grapes. In fact, I like so many of them that I have such a hard time picking what to write about. I've settled on two of them, one is a Bourgogne Blanc made entirely from a lesser known grape called Aligoté, and the other is my favorite wine from the Saumur appellation, made from the Chenin Blanc grape.

The first wine I'm writing about is a Bourgogne Aligoté from a young domaine named after the current wine maker Bruno Clavelier. Domaine Bruno Clavelier is my favorite find from my trip a few months ago to Burgundy. On that trip, I visited many well known winemakers and tasted wines in many an illustrious cave, but it was this young domaine that was the coup de coeur of the trip.

Claveliercave I remember the day quite well, my friend Claude (of The Fine Wine Review) and I got to the domaine at the end of a very long day of tasting. I was so tired that I planned to skip this tasting altogether –I'd never heard of them anyway- and just take a nap in the car, or I'd certainly fall over nose first into my soup at dinner later. But when we arrived at a drab looking building right off the Route de Beaune in Vosne-Romanée, it was already quite dark. I didn't feel safe napping in the dodgy looking parking lot, so I end up following Claude inside.

I hadn't planned to taste any more wine, my palate was so dead by then I could hardly tell wine from beer. But when inside, I was handed a glass of white before I could say no. It was a cold glass of '03 Bourgogne Aligoté. I'd been tasting a lot of '03 burgundies earlier in the trip, and found a lot of them forgettable at best.

2003 was a tough year in Burgundy. You probably remember how hot it was in Europe that year. The Burgundian vineyards, so accustomed to the cooler climate of the region, suffered the effect the extreme heat. The results are wines that –while not summarily bad- are very atypical of Burgundian wines. They taste much closer to the ripe, low acid California Chardonnays than they do the typical Burgs.

Claveliercave2_1 I took a sip, this wine was different. This mouthful of Aligoté was vibrant, with hints of green apple and a little lemon. The sprightly acidity was amply supported by the ripe fruit, the direct result of the phenomenal heat in 2003. It was not only delicious but it woke me up. I went on tasting one lovely wine after another in that cave, and then to a huge dinner with my palate fully refreshed.

I learned that the Aligoté had been the traditional white grape variety in Burgundy, before phylloxera wiped out the vines of the Côte d'Or in the late 1800s. When the vineyards were replanted with rootstocks from America, Chardonnay took over as the dominating varietal in the region.

Aligoté can be a tough grape for wine. The acidity level can be quite high, and might be too sharp for those who prefer riper wines. Bourgogne Aligoté -usually considered the poor cousin of other white burgundies made of the nobler Chardonnay- is destined to be drunk young and merely as vin de table. But in hotter years, while Chardonnay suffers, Aligoté can make absolutely delicious wines, with the riper fruits balancing out the sharp acidity beautifully.

Clavelierportrait Also, as with any other wines, even a tough grape varietal can make lovely wine in the hands of good wine makers. Bruno Clavelier is certainly one of those. His family has been rooted in wine making for many generations -his father made wine for the famous Domaine Comte de Vogüé, actually. His grandfather, who made wines at the family domaine, refused to use any chemical or potassium fertilizers on his vines –long before organic wine making became de rigueur- preferring manure from his own cattle. This practice continues to this day, minus the manure from the family's cattle.

The Aligoté vines at the domaine are over 70 years old. The age gives the wine plenty of complexity, and you can really taste it in the glass. The particular bottle that so charmed me was from 2003, a very hot and ripe year, and the wine was surprisingly marvelous. I tasted this wine again today. Becky at Soif ordered it for me from Martine's Wine, the US importer of Bruno's wine.

I've been shouting from rooftops that people should try more of Bruno Clavelier's wines. Well, perhaps not rooftops exactly, but I did get David to pair his recent Citrus Modernista dinner at Manresa exclusively with wines from Bruno Clavelier. Everybody at that dinner loved the wines.

This 2003 Aligoté is only $17, a pretty good deal if you ask me. And if you are in the mood to spend a little more for a really good bottle, try his Permier Cru La Combe d'Orveau which often has a finesse and structure that can put some Grand Cru to shame.

The second bottle I want to talk about today is my favorite Saumur Blanc. I hadn't planned on writing about this wine, but had a change of mind when Becky at Soif called to tell me that she just got in the Saumur I told her about. We had a chat the other day about Chenin Blanc, and I told her that my favorite was from a very small producer called Chateau Yvonne, in the Saumur appellation. The white wines from Saumur, in the Loire Valley, can be made from Chenin Blanc and/or Chardonnay, but this particular one I am writing about is 100% Chenin blanc, so it fits the theme for this post.

The Chenin Blanc grapes, also called Pineau de la Loire, are grown in many wine producing areas around the world, but the best wines made from them are from the Loire Valley, particularly the dry whites from Vouvray, Saumur, Savennière, or the sweet wines from Quarts de Chaume. Chenin Blanc is susceptible to Botrytis, or the Noble Rot, so the raisins –even those intended for dry whites- are picked as late as possible, sometimes even in November. The hope is to let the raisins pick up some botrytis so the wine develops a bit more complexity.

Chateau Yvonne is a very small producer in the Saumur appellation, they make white wine only from Chenin Blanc grapes, 80% of which are from vines that are over forty years old. Their vineyard is biodynamic, and their wines are made without filtration or sulfur.

This particular Saumur Blanc is from the 2001, a very good year in the Loire, and is about #30 retail. This wine is light yellow in color, with a vibrant nose of citrus, Linden blossoms, and a light vanilla from the barrel age. The wine has good minerality, bright acidity, and a great structure. It's just beautiful, just beautiful.

At Soif today, Hugh Weiler, Chris Avila(the sommelier and chef at Soif, respectively) and I played with pairing these two wines with some dishes at the restaurant. We paired the Saumur with a delicious pea soup, with crispy pancetta and crème fraîche. The creaminess of the soup went perfectly well with the slight vanilla nose that came from barrel aging in the wine. The structure of the wine was also substantial enough to support the salty and fatty pancetta. This was a very happy, if a bit unorthodox, pairing for this wine.

For the Aligoté, we had a bit of a problem. The first dish we chose -a delicious raw bass with raisin, mushroom, and coriandar seeds- proved to be a little too acidic for the Aligoté from such a ripe year. We changed the pairing to another dish –Dungeness crab salad with mango, chive and cucumber. This was a much happier pairing, with the sweet crab meat and mango providing a very good foil for the Aligoté. The local Myer lemon in the dressing did a beautiful job accentuating the citrus note in the wine. This was a much happier pairing than the fish.

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