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Friday, February 05, 2010

For my father, liquid memories

I hardly grew up in a wine culture. My first pseudo alcohol experience was a lukewarm, frothy can of O'douls suds, “what beer drinkers drink when they’re not drinkin’ beer,” which encouraged me to ‘not drink beer’ for subsequent years to come. I always enjoyed the clinking sound that ice cubes made in my dad’s glasses of warming scotch, but never had the stomach for the strong stuff. Needless to say, I had to make my own way to the grape, and once I was smitten I couldn’t help but give back.

Introducing wine to a Michelob Light and Macallan man is no easy task, so I let cinema do some of the work for me. He took to the buddy film ‘Sideways’ immediately, so Pinot Noir became an easy test subject. Knowing my father’s penchant for personal details, I figured some background noise on a producer would help do the trick. While I figured he’d find Burgundy too obscure (and his French prejudices wouldn’t exactly help the cause), I knew of a couple American Pinot producers that he could relate to. The character I chose was Gary Pisoni.

I don’t know if it was Gary’s smuggling La Tache vines in his underwear, his uncoiled slinky locks of hair or more of a composite of his anecdotal of behavior that got my dad’s juices flowing, but the light sure was turned on. The first bottle of Gary’s we shared was a ’03 Capiaux, which technically wasn’t made by Pisoni but was a product of his viticulture nonetheless. I distinctly remember sitting at the bar next to my father, amidst our drunken and crude reverie and watching his face flush w/ genuine pleasure. The deep, woodsy, haunting flavors of the wine buzzed in our bellies like fireflies, softening his incredulous scowl into an easy smile. “Damn this is good, what the hell is this anyway?” he asked reverently. Thus began the legend of Gary Pisoni in Coelho folklore.

Every visit I made up to Connecticut was another opportunity for me to wow my father w/ another bottle. I’d even worked up enough confidence and strength to tote some French bottles up there, with mixed success. Our dinners would typically be a vinous carousel of 2 or 3 bottles from different regions and different varietals, with the food playing a trifling tune in the shadows. It was tough to coax adjectives from my father’s mouth, particularly when he was drunk (I received the genetic gel of floridity from my mother), so I paid close attention to his grunts, gestures and facial expressions to gauge his opinion of each wine. Phrases like ‘damn that’s strong kid’ could be complementary or pejorative depending on the body language. We’d retire to the smoke room to discuss things over a cigar.

Through the years he developed a fondness for Chilean Cabernet, Argentinean Malbec, Chateauneuf du Pape and Gewurztraminer from just about anywhere. No matter what the wine or how much he may have appreciated it, they didn’t seem to hold a candle to ‘the Pisoni.’ He wouldn’t always say it, but I could tell. For his 60th birthday I bought him a bottle of 2005 Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir, a bottle from the best fruit of his best vineyard, made by Gary’s son Jeff. I told him it wasn’t quite ready, but to give it a year or so and we’ll enjoy it together. It was a great evening.

Over the last couple years I’d occasionally ask him when he’d open the Pisoni, to which he’d immediately jest ‘you said it wasn’t ready yet!’ ‘But dad, I said that over a year ago, you can pop it anytime you like.’ ‘It’s a special bottle for a special occasion,’ he’d say, and I could tell he’d be reluctant to ever open the damn thing. It’s not that he coveted it, but the few things in this life that were sacred to him were things he’d make sure you knew he didn’t take lightly. ‘I’ll only open it with you, but not now, not just yet.’

I had an extra wine fridge that I gave my parents which housed the Pisoni. They felt too financially guilty to buy anything that exceeded Yellow Tail in price (too bad I don’t share their same frugality, I’d be less broke) so the fridge was generally a mélange of 1.5 liter bottles of crappy Chilean Cabernet, dime store Merlot (which really made my dad feel guilty after watching Sideways) and the Pisoni. I’d toss a bottle or two in there on my visits, but they’d be vacated just about as quickly as they got there. I guess you could say that the Pisoni was the only bottle that could call that fridge home, as the rest were just transients.

The morning my father died I went upstairs to the fridge and opened it. My first feeling upon seeing the bottle was of anger, as I blurted out ‘bastard never got to drink it,’ and I shed a futile tear or two. I thought to myself for a second and said, ‘screw it, we’re drinking that thing tonight.’ I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to act on impulse, or even if it were the right impulse, but at that point in the day I’d only slept an hour or so all night. My confidence in any thought I’d had was at a bloodless trough. I sat in the smoke room by myself with one of my dad’s cigars and thought aloud. I thought incoherently. Things didn’t really crystallize much in my mind until later that evening, until the rest of my family sat down together for dinner.

I don’t remember what we ate, but I remember each face w/ 20/20 lucidity. We’d been crying most of the day; our eyes were dried up sponges and our nostrils, irrigation pipelines. Each look was of deprived malaise, fatigued and spilled, eating of obligation and bereft of pleasure. I got up from my father’s seat and grabbed the bottle. ‘I told dad this wasn’t ready when I gave it to him,’ I said, not fully intending on opening it unless the dried sponge eyes in the audience looked at me affirmatively. I stared for a moment into the crowd like a naked boy in the street begging for a blanket, waiting for a signal. Those faces seemed to nod their heads, as if to say yes, it has to be done. I popped the cork.

I’m certain the words we toasted with were heartfelt, but I can’t say that I remember them. All I can remember is my mother whispering in my ear ‘the wine’s ready, Brad.’

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A white that's worth searching for...

What’s been lost in Chateauneuf du Pape’s red hot run has been the progress the appellation has made w/ their white wines. While the trivial percentage of total acreage dedicated to white grapes is likely to remain in the single digits, few white wines in the world are as dynamic as Clos des Papes. The domaine utilizes just about every white grape allowed under A.O.C. law, providing a unique glimpse into the range and finesse of Chateauneuf du Pape blanc.

Several popular micro-cuvees have become Roussanne dominated, which is likely the region’s most famous, and only 'noble' white grape. While Roussanne can produce exotic, viscous, exceptionally full-bottled wines packed with honeysuckle and rose water flavors, they tend to lack the freshness and mouth-watering acidity that most enophiles expect from fine white wine. While Clos des Papes does not omit Roussanne from the blend entirely, it’s clear that the singular, razor sharp edge of the wine is thanks to Roussanne’s supporting cast. The purity of the flavors is further preserved by an upbringing in stainless steel and neutral wood casks.

Fans of Huet & Foreau Vouvray or Baumard Savennieres may particularly appreciate the waxy, bitter almond-like profile that Clos des Papes tends to express. In addition, Burgundy lovers are often blown away by how this wine evolves in the bottle, so tucking a few away for the cellar may also be worth your while (Rayas, Vieux Telegraphe & Beaucastel have solid track records for aging as well).

Clos des Papes '06 Blanc CDP
This is always a terrific wine (as well as a great counterpoint to Beaucastel's Roussanne dominated blend) & one of which fans of fine Chenin Blanc should seek out. The coy nose is still reticent & taut, but the ethereal experience that unfolds in the mouth more than attones for its shy scent. A deceptively concentrated wine, packed w/ green tea, crunchy apple, macadamia nut and persimmon flavors that are tied together by a pleasantly bitter finish, which lets a shadow of honey sneak into the picture. A spry, nuanced beauty that is set for the cellar, 95 points.

Clos des Papes '05 Blanc CDP
'05 is a quintessentially understated, finely crafted field blend that reveals the typically deft 'Avril touch.' Perhaps the archetypal example of the ‘whole’ netting a greater result than the sum of its parts, the subtle, penetrating sensations of lemon verbena, chamomile tea, paraffin, marzipan and quince reverberate on the reserved, yet deeply rich core. The flavors fan out beautifully on the long, cackling finish that leaves me breathless. This white’s focus is as cunning and chiseled as I’ve ever experienced from the Southern Rhone, and I imagine this won't peak for at least another decade, 95 points.

Clos des Papes '98 Blanc CDP
Vincent Avril is a staunch advocate of waiting ten years to drink his white Chateauneuf. While I rarely possess the patience of waiting even ten months to drink any bottle of Clos des Papes, this ’98 makes a terrific case for following Avril's advice. The nose is subtle, as elegant notes of wild flowers, crushed stone, grilled hazelnuts and candied lemon verbena weave their way from the belly of the wine. In the mouth, the body is palpably sharp, with all the piercing pitch one would find in a fine Puligny Montrachet (minus the oxidation). The delicate, yet generous frame is the stuff White Burgundy dreams are made of, 92 points.