Wine geeks have a new natural wine importer to fall in love with, Bonhomie Wine Imports. The company, founded by Charlie Woods, is slowly emerging as a major player in the scene. On Wednesday, February 29, the relatively new importer held a portfolio tasting at Hearth restaurant in the East Village. The tasting, accompanied by many of their producers, was a rare opportunity to taste through a stellar selection of natural wines, interesting varietals and converse with some very passionate wine professionals.
Bonhomie imports mostly French and Italian wines, however they will soon be importing their first German producer, Eva Fricke. Charlie focuses on the French imports, while Diego Decorte is responsible for the Italian side of the portfolio. Charlie, a very down to earth and personable guy, attributes his philosophy of terroir-driven wines to a long working relationship with Mark Whitmore of Vineyard Expressions.There he learned about the concept of terroir, as well as the importance of organic farming, and developed his passion and skills that serve as his foundation today. He later spent 4 years working closely with David Bowler at David Bowler Wines before starting to import wine on his own for the first time in 2008.
What has always struck me about Bonhomie’s portfolio is that their wines are not necessarily ones that retailers or restaurants need to carry. They are simply wines you want to drink and converse about, have them to adorn your shelves and stand out on your wine list.
One of Bonhomie’s more established producers, Clotilde Davenne, was the winemaker for Jean Marc Brocard for 17 years before embarking on her own project. Located in Chablis and Saint Bris, her vineyards are farmed organically and she does not age her wine in oak. The wines are a very clean, mineral expression of terroir. Clotilde did not strike me as someone with something to prove after 17 years of working for someone else. She simply makes wine she feels is authentic, as well as something she enjoys to drink. This is clear after tasting through her 2 Cremants. The Brut is two-thirds Pinot Noir and one-third Chardonnay, and like the Rose is made with zero dosage. When asked why she prefers this style, Clotilde smiled, and simply said that this how she likes to drink it and that is a true expression of the varietal.
In addition to the Cremants, there were other stellar wines on display. The ‘Vielles Vignes’ Saint Bris 2010, being among the highlights for me, as the minerality exploded and the aromatics reminded you what it must smell like when you go sniffing old vines in Saint Bris. The wines are slightly austere, yet soft and inviting, just like Clotilde herself. Bonhomie Sales Representative Brandon Klinzman calls Clotilde “the rockstar” of their portfolio and after tasting through her Aligote, Chablis and Grand Cru wines you can clearly see why.
Nicolas Haeni, of Domaine de Cabasse in Cotes du Rhone, is a true Vigneron. He works the land, makes the wine and wears his black, grape stained hands during harvest as a badge of pride. He has studied oenology and worked in South Eastern Australia. He enjoys the knowledge and science behind wine but prefers to rely and on intuition, instinct and tradition. Science, in this case chemistry, is factored in and used as a security measure for worse case scenarios. The grapes are meticulously tended for, tasted and picked when they are right for making a somewhat forward wine style with elegant finesse. Brix are measured before harvest but it is only one aspect in a very large picture. Work throughout the vineyards and winery vary greatly depending on the vintage. Nicolas, like many other Vignerons, believes that wine is easy to make in good vintages but the real skills of the Vigneron are more clearly evident in less giving years. These wines are great to taste on their own, but I highly recommend trying the Sablet, Seguret, and Gigondas side by side to understand how different old vine Grenache can express itself. Minimal intervention and sustainable wine practices are employed.
North of the Rhone is Domaine des Terres Vivantes in Beaujolais. Here, Ludo and Marie Gros maintain a small organic farm while raising 4 children. In addition to grapes, they also grow their own organic wheat as well as bake fresh bread. Needless to say, the idea of using industrial yeasts is a concept lost on the two of them. They produce two elegant Beaujolais Village wines that are good enough to make you stop buying Cru Beaujolais for a while.
The first, ‘La Lutine’ 2011, comes from alluvial silt and displays a delightful lightness and an extreme drinkability. It is authentic Beaujolais Village plain and simple. Their other wine, ‘Vielle Vigne 2009, is grown on granite soil and has more of the structure reminiscent of a Cru. According to Charlie Woods, if there was one producer is his catalog that everyone should know, it is Terres Vivantes.
At trade tastings I always like to periodically drop in on the Champagne table, clean up the taste buds and reinvigorate the palate and mind. Well, the problem here is that these Champagnes are so good that you find yourself doing a whole lot more than just rinsing your glass and palate. The lineup is stacked with 4 stellar Grower Champagnes representing different villages of the region.
Jean Velut, in Festigny, displays wine of extraordinary character and complexity from chalky, flinty, and red clay soils. Next there is Michel Loriot known for a NV Brut, Blanc de Noirs made from 100% Pinot Meunier. It has serious body and structure and will exceed your expectations. Thirdly, you have Pierre Brigandat in Channes,, whose ripe fruit is carefully balanced with great minerality from kimmeridgian soils. Lastly, there is Marie-Noelle LeDru in Ambonay. If Clotilde Davenne is the rockstar of Chablis, then Marie-Noelle might be the movie star of Champagne. With only 6 hectares of land, which she tends herself, the wines are stunning in every way.
Diego Decorte has been working all over Italy, establishing relationships and importing wines he believes display, character, finesse and ageability. Colombaio di Candia, in the northern Piemonte, produces an Erbaluce that leaves me speechless. It is absolutely exquisite. They are one of the oldest producers in the region and it is the only varietal they grow. Vibrant acidity, spicy orange rind notes, and intoxicating aromatics leave you wanting more as soon as your glass in empty. Fresh salads, particularly fennel, are amongst the many foods I would love to pair with this wine.
In addition to the 2010 Erbaluce, they offer a 2000 and a 1990 vintage as well. The 2000 seemed young still and almost the same color as the 2010, while the 1990 was slightly darker, but for 20 years of age still had good acidity and only a very slight oxidative quality. Personally, I preferred the freshness of the 2010, but admire any bottle of wine that sells for $20 and can age for 20 years.
Marco Gemme, of Azienda Agricola Fontanessa in Gavi, made me think of Sonoma’s Tony Coturri, because of his rugged, hippie-like appearance. He’s working with 2 varietals, Cortese and Timorasso. The ‘Ca Adua’ Gavi 2010, offers exceptional value and complexity and is made from younger Cortese vines. The 2010 Gavi di Gavi, uses older vines and is grown on poor rocky soils of clay and sand rich in iron. Six months of lees contact, ambient yeasts, and minimal sulfur give these wines incredible depth, complexity and structure. Their Timorasso, a thicker- skinned grape is very intense and a must for all wine geeks out there.
A few other highlights from Italy include Ottin’s wines from the Valle d’Aoste, especially, the smoky but delicate 2009 Pinot Noir along with the meatier 2009 Fumin. Heading back into the Piemonte it would be a shame not to mention the wines of Azienda Agricola Montalbera. A sparkling Grignolino, a regular Grignolino, and 2 Ruche’s make me wonder why these varietals are not more known or more popular.
It is clear that both Charlie and Diego have brought their experience, knowledge, and passion into piecing together Bonhomie Wine Imports. While not content with the term ‘natural wine,’ for it’s vagueness and broad connotations, Charlie prefers to let the wines and the producers tell the story themselves, and that they do.