Wines of last year

11 January 2019

This is a list of seven bottles of wine, two big groups of wine, & two small tasting pours that I drank in 2018. I made all sorts of rules for this list—that they all be full bottles instead of tastes, that I paid for all of them, that I drank them with other people rather than alone, that they not be chenin, etc—and then I ended up breaking all of them, in one way or another. The main thing is that they’re wines that taught me something, drunk in a context that mattered, and I can’t stop thinking about them.

Rinaldi Freisa 2012

Giuseppe Rinaldi, Langhe Freisa 2012

Freisa is an odd duck. A little like nebbiolo reduced to its bones and breath. Late-ripening, strawberry-scented, sometimes fizzy, the question posed is always tannin, in more forms than you realized were possible: talc or cocoa nibs, chunky or fine-grained, shaped like a box or a cone or a mesh net… I’d been saying for a long time that I loved freisa, in the underdog-championing way that people sometimes do, but what does that mean, really, besides a posture? You can make a statement like, “This thing that is slightly obscure, difficult in the vineyard, & tricky too in the cellar, is made in beautiful but also slightly weird and less crowd-pleasing forms by some of the best producers in Barolo,” and all of that is true, but like, is it basically saying that you really love this indie band? Anyways I wanted to understand it more, or wanted to feel like I was posturing less, and so last February I hosted a tasting-slash-dinner in my living room called Freisafest so that some friends and I could get to know the variety better, and many wines were tasted & drunk, and I learned many things I don’t think I knew before.

But this isn’t about that, quite—this is about the freisas of Giuseppe Rinaldi, the man himself, of whom we were lucky enough to have four vintages open that evening, ’10, ’11, ’12 and current release, baby 2016, all of which stood out for me like bonfires in distant darkness, whole and full of pleasure and things to think about, and if I had to choose, and I do, this bullshit process of distinction is what lists are, then I choose the 2012, not because it’s the best vintage of the bunch in the long run, but because right now, if you open a bottle and you are lucky it is elegant and giving of itself and less about brute concentration and power and more about this sneaking sense of fullness, this completely articulated thing that compounds over time while you’re drinking it, it’s an autumn wine and a forest wine, but it’s sunlit.

I should mention, too, that Beppe Rinaldi passed away last September. He was 70, he was one of the great Barolo traditionalists, it’s not my place here really to eulogize him, I’m not qualified, haven’t known the wines for a long enough time, didn’t know him personally myself, you can look up all the rest from people who deserve to talk about it. It just seemed important to mention. And it will become harder, now, to find the wines, and to afford them if you do find them, and so I might not get many more chances with his freisas. I just went back to my notebook to try make sure I haven’t gotten carried away here, in retrospect. I took a few notes that evening on the wines. Next to the 12 it just says: beautiful beautiful

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Charles Dufour, “Bulles de Comptoir #5”

Drunk in Montana out of a coffee cup the morning my sister got married in June. There are things I could tell you about Charles Dufour and the new wave in Champagne he embodies, about the Aube & its future, about the perpetual solera he calls “counter bubbles” and gets a different artist to design the label for each year, about how good his 100% pinot blanc coteaux champenois is, etc, but all of that is beside the point, because this will still always be the wine I drank the morning my sister got married.

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Camin Larredya, Jurançon Sec, “La Part Davant” 2014

I’m a little obsessed with how underappreciated manseng is, to the point where I am constantly blinding people on Jurançon sec or Irouleguy blanc & listening to them call it chenin & then triumphantly pulling out the bottle from behind the bar. The last time I did this was literally New Year’s Eve. I need to find a new trick. There’s a different quality to the fruit in mansengs big & small, this tropical dimension versus chenin’s quince, like a really good daiquiri. A difference in the acid, too. I think of holding a lighter in front of a lime peel you’re expressing over a drink.

And so on my birthday in March I lined up a few of my favorite producers of manseng & tasted them side-by-side, and the story here is kind of the same as Rinaldi, a story I’m usually reluctant to tell or to engage with, you know—’What’s the best wine?’ As though the takeaway after a tasting or a night has to be that a wine won something, that a producer in a region is a superstar elevated out of their context, that there’s a bottom line to all of this. All that being said, there is a distinctness to Jean-Marc Grussaute’s work here that is really striking, and that you can read as greatness if you like. It’s this cut-crystal intensity, very fine edges, taut platinum wire in filigree, versus the others, Souch, Arretxea, say, which operate in a textural vein that’s more in the line of honey. There’s a certain class of retail person that uses ‘detail’ as a noun in wine descriptions; this has that.

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All of the Falkenstein

It’s complicated to single out a bottle of Falkenstein. I drank so, so much this year. Only slightly less than I bought. So that maybe, this time, 2019 will be the year Falkenstein older than current release survives in my cellar. And of course it can be confusing with them because they put different parcels from the same vineyard into that parcel’s fuder, bottled under different AP numbers and sometimes different prädikat levels but sometimes the same prädikat, so that you might be innocently enjoying two Niedermenniger Herrenberg kabinetts trocken that are, in fact, very slightly different wines, even apart from our inability, when we drink any bottle of wine, to cross the same river twice, so to speak. I could tell you, speaking of Herrenberg, about the pleasant sweet vegetal spring pea quality of the ’17 Herrenberg kabinett trocken (but what was the AP number? #1, I believe) versus the pineapple-y density of the spätlese trocken, I could tell you how often I want to drink the feinherbs out of magnum (all the time), or about how much I like the weissburgunder (about which more in a second). But I’ll be honest: they’ve wines I drink because they are delicious—I love acid, I brush with Sensodyne—and because I deeply respect the work the Webers do, but they’re not wines I understand. They’re wines I want to understand better. Maybe next year.

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Enderle & Moll, Weissburgunder, “Muschelkalk” 2016

It’s kind of hard to talk about pinot blanc. Weissburgunder, whatever. The wines are quiet, they’re understated, they’re exercises in textural minimalism. That’s when they’re really good—like, at the level of stripped-down beauty of an Ad Reinhardt painting. And what would really good pinot blanc look like? How do you distinguish quiet & minimalist from nondescript? Or, well…from boring? (1. There are maybe other wines like this. Chasselas, for example. 2. This is actually just a smaller version of the larger question, which is what makes wine good at all?) I used to not think about pinot blanc much, if ever. But last year, after a few different bottles over a few different months capped off by Amanda Smeltz bringing me this at the bar at Estela, the first vintage of this wine, from vines planted in the middle of the last century on a plot of shell-bearing limestone (the muschels  in  the kalk), I realized that suddenly, without even realizing it, I was thinking about weissburgunder—pinot blanc, whatever—all of the time.

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Bruno Schueller, Pinot Gris, “Pigé” 2015

Halfway through working harvest in Amador County this fall two boys with dust on their boots got into a truck and drove to San Francisco, & we ended up in Ordinaire in the middle of the afternoon drinking this electric pink juice. My friend who I was helping out with harvest also had skin-contact pinot gris in barrel; it was also electric pink. I feel like five years ago nobody was doing this thing, or if they did it was copper-colored & people were using the word ramato. What happened?

I don’t know, but here are two things: One, I’m fascinated by wines that sit and dangle their feet over the edge of categories we think of as walled boxes but that are actually a spectrum—whites with tannic structure & ageability, orange wines that are pink, red wines that drink like whites, wines that after many, many decades of age have darkened or lightened to the point where you’re not sure, for a moment, where they began from, everything eventually converging to a vanishing point. (Hashtag wine color is a myth, tell your friends.) Two, the cool thing you can offer as a generalist who gets people drunk for a living & tells stories to your winemaking & vinegrowing friends is not, as you probably already know, practical advice (you are not practical, you do not know how to do their job). It is, though, to say to someone wondering whether to buy a ton of alicante bouschet, or what to do with the clairette they planted, “Here’s an example of someone on the other side of the world doing a really good job of exactly that! Let’s drink a bottle together & talk about it.” It’s a little thing, but it makes me feel useful.

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Mugneret-Gibourg, Vosne-Romanée 2012

Burgundy is something I talk a lot about for work, and that I taste, and that I very, very, rarely sit down and drink an entire bottle of in a restaurant, in this case a restaurant uptown, with tablecloths & carpeting, which is exactly what my girlfriend and I did on this occasion, at friends & family at Leonti, in the old Dovetail space. And we had a wonderful evening, and we got the truffle supplement too. The tannins takes a second to come around but perfume is what these wines are for, and there’s a brothy density to the aromatics here in this frost vintage. It felt like settling in to the leather backseat of a soundproofed, gliding car that’s taking you exactly where you want to go. No traffic, no checkpoints, no unscheduled stops.

The Vosne village from Mugneret-Gibourg was one of the first red burgundies I ever tasted & loved back at Pearl & Ash, when at one point in 2015 you could drink 2008 off the list for something like $155. Does that seem expensive to you, or cheap?  John Gilman, who also likes the same albariño that I do, wrote that these wines are “the epitome of grace, breed and complexity,” which I find charming because it reminds me of what wine writing used to be like in the 19th century, and also because I kind of hate tasting notes that are also recipes for fruit salad. But it also disconcerts me, as somebody who talks/cares a lot about farming & transparency re: manipulations in the vineyard & cellar that I can basically tell you nothing about either. Still and all: a luxurious evening, in a luxurious setting,  with the person you love, drinking a wine that smells beautiful & that is, as burgundy is these days, for better and for worse, a luxury good. Every now and then it’s nice to get dressed up and go uptown; it gives you perspective.

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American Chenin

I did it with freisa. I did it with manseng. But here, here I categorically refuse to choose. I hosted another big catch-all dinner in June, this one to better understand what’s going on with chenin in the U.S.—mostly California, really, with some detours to Washington and Long Island—and the last thing I want is for anyone’s takeaway to be that there’s one wine that is the Only American Chenin.

I’ll tell you what we opened: Paumanok, in Long Island; Division, from grapes grown in Yakima Valley; Jaimee Motley & Pax Mahle & Hardy Wallace in Mendocino; Chris Brockway in Solano County; Ted Lemon, on the Sonoma Coast; Mike Dashe & Craig Haarmeyer in Clarksburg; Nathan Kendall & Craig Haarmeyer again, in Lodi; Matthew Rorick, & Craig Haarmeyer again, in Calaveras; Tegan Passalacqua, in Amador. We opened a magnum of Mick Craven’s chenin from Stellenbosch that he brought over with him. We opened old Vouvray, and slightly old Anjou. Soils of decomposed granite, reddish loam, or alluvial wash sat over volcanic uplift of greenish serpentine & sandstone, quartz crystals or basalt, schist and veins of limestone.

We opened by my count seven debut vintages, and missed some people too. Which is to say: the takeaway is growth, and change, and variety. It’s both breadth & depth. A decade ago most of this didn’t exist. The vines were there, mostly planted in the ’70s; the fruit disappeared into sterile-filtered supermarket wines & bulk blends, or got ripped up or regrafted over. Now, though, there’s something here. I’m doing it again next year.

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Stéphane Cossais, Montlouis-sur-Loire, “Le Volagré” 2008

I’ve told this story before, and I’ve had bottles of this wine before. But this might be the last time. And a decade after it was bottled by the friend of the man who died before he got a chance to see what it would become, it was, I think, the best bottle of this wine I’ve ever had and maybe ever will have. I brought it for some friends who host a podcast (about wine), who had me on to talk about chenin in October, which means you can actually hear an audio recording of three people becoming actively stunned into silence by how good something is.

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1969 primitivo, Giola del Colle, bottled by Filippo Petrera primitivo from his wife’s father

So you’re in Giola del Colle, in Puglia, in 1969, and nobody bottles their own wine. Everybody makes wine to drink themselves & to trade with their neighbors, vines have been here for centuries, your family & your wife’s family are both multi-generation landowners, but the stuff that’s sold for money goes to the co-ops or out in bulk somewhere. There’s a lot of rosé-type stuff, it’s hard to tell exactly what the wines were like. And you have this dream, a dream that you’ll end up fulfilling in 1987, of doing this thing: of bottling your own family’s wine, of being an estate producer, of making wine that is aged under cork and shipped overseas and drunk by people everywhere, for years after it’s harvested.

So you make test bottlings of some of your family’s wines, your father’s wine & your father-in-laws’s, over a number of years (straight out of whatever they were aged in, I guess? Out of tank? I might get some of these details wrong despite good-faith attempt & note-taking), and kind of stash some around the cellar, and fifty years later your son pulls two of bottles out & opens them at the end of a thirty-year retrospective of these wines, made without the makeup or falsity that people occasionally mistake for prestige, and this, this small taste of primitivo harvested in 1969 and aged in chestnut and made by the mother’s family, the Orfinos, is—well. For starters, it’s one of the most bananas things I’ve ever seen in a glass, pale caramel-colored with little flecks of suspended cayenne-red sediment in it, which might be alarming but it’s alive & kicking, chocolate & mint & quinine & hay & bitter almond liquor, a survivor and a herald, from the past, of all of the things that existed without any evidence or trace remaining afterwards to tell you they’d been there.

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Huet, Vouvray “Haut-Lieu” 1945

What can I say about this? Gaston Huet walked home in May, quite literally walked, after the surrender from a German POW camp, and found unploughed vinerows, untended vines; he sat down and made a wine that seventy-four years later is not just alive but miraculous & true. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to bring that harvest in? Can you imagine making a wine you know will outlive you? I tasted it with an opera singer in full voice ten feet away from me. It was, I think, the most intense synesthetic tasting experience of my life. I don’t know what I should tell you here. I don’t know what to say.

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