by Andy Besch
on Mar 31, 2014
I first I stumbled upon the grape Rkatsiteli years ago at a New York State wine fair in Watkins Glen. It was made by the mega Finger Lakes winery Dr. Konstantin Frank, and I loved it instantly. As for the grape, all I knew was that it came from eastern Europe, it was very old and that Dr. Frank was one of the only wineries around making wines from it. I carried Dr. Frank’s Rkatsiteli in my shop each year, while supplies lasted, and those who were courageous enough to take my word for it shared my enthusiasm.
Flash forward several years later, and along came Our Wine Rkatsiteli into my life. Now we’re not only in love but engaged. This is an Rkatsiteli of a different color, literally. While Dr. Frank’s is white, slightly fruity, fresh and crisp, Our Wine is a classic amber (orange) Georgian wine, and is savory, smoky, leafy, resiny, deep and full bodied. Night and day, as it were.
The wine is made as it has been since as far back as 8000 B.C. – so they’ve had time to work out the kinks. First and foremost the grapes are farmed biodynamically. While the American version is fermented in stainless steel, in Georgia it’s fermented in qvervri, or clay pots, similar to amphorae but without handles. The qvervri is lined with a thin layer of beeswax, and the grapes are put inside with skins, stems, seeds and all, crushed, and then sealed and buried in the ground. Combining all of the parts in fermentation gives the wine enough stability to make preservatives unnecessary. This is natural winemaking at its most natural. The grapes can remain in the qvervri for years, but the Our Wine is fermented for just six months, and then bottled without filtration.
Our Home is made with 90% rkatsiteli, along with 10% mtsvane and khikhvi. If fruit-driven wines are your thing, forget you read this review. When I say savory, I mean savory. It has wonderful acidity, a long tannic finish, and is the perfect partner to creamy sauce-based dishes, fatty fish and hearty meat dishes like pork ribs. This wine makes the price cut at $20, so be brave, buy a bottle, and enjoy a taste of true antiquity. If you like this wine, there’s more where that came from. Pheasant’s Tears is another excellent Georgian winery, and the winemaker is an American (Jonathan Wurdman). His wines are superb. Only small quantities are made and imported, so grab them when you can.
by Andy Besch
on Mar 14, 2014
in Features, Reviews
During the 14 years I was in retail, I could never find the time to get out and visit other wine shops. So with my new found liberation, I’m making up for lost time. On one of my first sojourns this beauty spoke to me – and it said all of the right things.
Domaine Barou is located in the VDP des Collines Rhodaniennes, which is a sub appellation of the Comtes des Rhodaniens. Did that help? How about it’s in the Northern Rhone, near St Joseph and the Ardeche. That’s as close as I’m going to get you. Emmanuel and Marie-Agnes Barou have been farming organically for almost 40 years (1975), and their vineyards are certified organic (Ecocert). The Cuvee des Vernes is 100% syrah from 30 year-old vines. After a brief cold maceration, and then an 18 day fermentation, it ages in five year old oak for nine months. Nothing nasty is done during that whole time, and a little bit of sulfur comes in at bottling.
The result is a $14 bottle of joy. Right away you smell the garrigue and spices, and then you’re treated to black cherries – then that same spice on the palate. The tannins are round, the mouth is full and the finish is long. And you can easily have a glass or even two, because the alcohol is sitting at 13%.
So get out there and hunt this one down, and now that you know where Domaine Barou is, you can visit them as well. Besides their wines, they’ll sell you their organically grown cherries (June), or their apricots (July) or their peaches (August and September.)
by Andy Besch
on Feb 28, 2014
When I was in Angers in the Loire Valley a couple of weeks ago, I attended La Levee de Loire, an all-biodynamic, all-Loire Valley tasting that blew my mind. Pound for pound, it was one of the best tastings I have ever attended, and I’ve been to a few. After tasting for a couple of hours, I had to rush to catch a train to Paris, but on my way out I was grabbed by Joel Menard, who, with his wife Christine, have been farming biodynamically and making wines at Domaine des Sablonnettes in the Coteaux de Layon for over 20 years. I got to know Joel here in the States because I sold his wines at my shop, and he even hosted a tasting for my customers, thanks to the folks at Jenny & Francois Selections.
I told Joel that I had stopped by his table, but no one had been there (probably out for a smoke), and that I had to catch a train. But he wasn’t going to let me go anywhere until I tasted through all of his new releases back inside the exposition. So back inside I went to taste. The wines were all wonderful. It was such fun to see the pride on his face as I rolled my eyes with delight after each sip. To pick just one to recommend is impossible, but if I were to suggest the best introduction to their wines it would be Le Bon Petit Diable. It’s 100% Cabernet Franc that sees no wood and sits in steel tanks for about 6 months before bottling with just a touch of S02. It is a light, vibrant, gulper that cries for a slight chill before enjoying this fresh glass of raspberries and lemon zest with your favorite vegetarian or chicken dish. And you’ll like it even more knowing you can have it for about $18.
by Andy Besch
on Feb 26, 2014
If you’re heading off to Paris — and there should always be some excuse to do that — you’ll find yourself rewarded not only bythe obvious (museums, food, the sheer beauty and magnificence of it all), but also with a bounty of natural wines, wine bars, restaurants and wine shops in every arrondissement. The natural wine scene is exploding all over France. I had the privilege of being there recently, and set out on a mission to check out as many as possible. Even in a week you can’t hit them all. Some are already well known, but here are a few spots you may not be familiar with, and well worth checking out.
Six years ago, I walked past this place and saw a window full of natural wine bottles calling my name. Unfortunately, they were closed for the day, it being Sunday, but the image stuck with me all these years. Coincidentally, we met a vigneron at the Dive Bouteille in Saumur who happened to highly recommend it, so of course I had to make it a priority.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Buttes aux Cailles is a neighborhood on a hill near the Place D’Italie in the 13th. It’s more like a little village than an urban neighborhood, one where you can almost forget that you’re in a huge city. Tandem is on Rue de Buttes aux Cailles and is run by Nicolas (front of the house) and Philippe (the kitchen). They’re a charming team, and they seem to be the entire staff.
The food is extraordinary and classic, the wine list a who’s-who of the natural wine world: Henri Milan, Claude Courtois, Lemasson, Mathieu Coste, Xavier Benier, Fouassier, Gilles Bley and on and on. After your meal, take a walk down the Villa Daviel and discover a tree-lined street lined with single family homes that look like they belong in the countryside. A wonderful find and a memorable experience.
La Cave De L’insolite
Axel and Arnaud are brothers who own this relaxed, cozy wine bar/restaurant in the heart of the trendy 11th. There’s a fire going in the fireplace, communal and private tables, a spiral staircase going up to another dining area and a wall full of all natural and very affordable wines.
You can drop in and buy one to take it home, or add 7euros to the bottle price and have it right at your table. There are wines by the glass as well, of course. The food is simple, clean, fresh, not heavy or expensive, and all of the ingredients are touted as biodynamic. There’s a different killer risotto every day, and every dish comes with fresh organic vegetables. I lingered over my lunch because I wanted to enjoy it all, and I did. You walk out of there feeling very satisfied, not stuffed. Before you leave, however, stop in the bathrooms downstairs for an extra-added surprise.
Aux Tonneaux Des Halles
A 1920’s brasserie in the heart of tourist-land, Les Halles? A menu that’s an homage to classic heart attack food? Have I lost my mind? Not at all, because not only is the food good big retro grub, but someone had the genius idea to pair it with a fantastic natural wine list.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just get a hankering for a meal that’s all wrong health-wise, something along the lines of oeufs mayonnaise to start, followed up by a hefty-sized steak frites (marrow bone on the side), and washed down with a hearty red. That’s exactly what I did, but I justified it because the red was a Mas Foulaquier l’Orphee Pic St-Loup ’11, biodynamic/organic, hence better for me, right? Seriously, the food, for what it is, was perfectly delicious, perfectly executed, and perfectly what the doctor ordered.
The wine list was a revelation. Besides the Foulaquier, there was Descombe VV Brouilly, Foillard Fleurie, and miracle of miracles, L’Anglore Chemin de la Brune, to name a few of the many surprises. It just all worked, including the décor, which looked like it hadn’t been touched in decades. So if you get tired of food that looks like foam, and portions that are the size of a golf ball, wander on over to Les Halles, plop down on a nice old red banquette and chow down. It’s open everyday, all day, and late at night. And don’t forget to order a bottle of Tribouley VdP des Cotes Catalanes Orchis while you’re at it.
Le Chapeau Melon
Le Baratin & Le Chapeau Melon
If you’re heading east to the Belleville section of Paris for a great wine experience, chances are you’re going to Le Baratin, an iconic wine bar for the “in the know” foodies/winers. That was my motivation, and it did not disappoint. Le Baratin doesn’t need the PR, but it is worth saying that it’s a great spot with wonderful natural wines and an excellent menu. If you ask, you can indulge in a glass or carafe of a mystery wine to taste blind, especially if they think you know what you’re doing.
So enjoy Le Baratin, but after lunch wander over a few blocks to Le Chapeau Melon and check out one great cave a manger. Olivier Camus owns it, and was the former co-owner of Le Baratin. As he tells it, he just wanted to open a wine shop, but quickly found that he couldn’t do enough business just selling wines. According to Olivier, Parisians no longer travel outside of their neighborhoods to get things like food and wine to bring home. So he was forced into serving food in order to attract more customers. As a result, he’s now known more for his food than his wines.
One customer commented on how much he liked the wine bottle “decorations” on the restaurant walls. I confess I did not eat there, because I had just had lunch at Le Baratin, but I did go on a shopping spree, ending with four bottles to be enjoyed during the remainder of the week. Olivier’s kitchen has a great reputation, his wine selection is superb, and he’s one of the few places open Sundays for dinner. Another plus is that Belleville is just a great neighborhood, not yet totally gentrified – but hurry.
Les Fines Gueules
Les Fines Gueules
A great corner spot next to the Place de la Victoire, a creative Japanese chef, a young enthusiastic owner (Serge), a well stocked natural wine list and reasonable prices. How could you go wrong? I didn’t, on a sunny, hint-of-spring-in-the-air Sunday afternoon.
It all starts perfectly, because every wine in the place is available by the glass or carafe, as well as by the bottle. You want to try a wine, but not sure what it is, and not positive you’ll like it? No problem, they’ll pop it open and pour you a glass. Right away you’re in a good mood, and it continues with entrees like two poached eggs in a light cèpe cream sauce with shaved black truffles on top. That’ll get your attention. The rest is equally inventive and well prepared, and the ambience is just right. I can imagine it gets crazy at night being so near the Bourse, which would be fun too, but on weekends it hits the spot if you’re looking for a quiet, light bite and natural wines. Bordeaux need not apply, we’re talking the Savoie, Jura, Loire and Rhone Valley. I even had a wine I used to sell in my wine shop. It was great to enjoy an old friend.
Ah, so many places, so little time. But here are a few more that are definitely worth trying. Some of them I’ve been to, others were recommended by vignerons, waiters and owners of other natural wine bars in Paris. Given the sources, I figure they’re a solid bet.
Aux Deux Amis
Le Verre Vole (10e)
Le Nansouty (18e)
O Divin (19e)
La Nouvelle Mairie (5e)
Aux Deux Amis (10e)
La Cave de L’Insolite
Les Fines Gueules
Le Verre Vole
by Andy Besch
on Feb 19, 2014
While in Saumur for this year’s Dive Bouteille, I found myself dining at Bistrot Les Tontons, a cozy, good-vibe place with plenty of local natural wines. Gerald Beaumont, Tonton’s owner, kindly introduced us to fellow diner Mathieu Coste, vigneron of Domaine Bio Coste in the Coteaux du Giennois, north of Sancerre.
We hit it off immediately, and with Mathieu desperately wanting to practice his English, and I my French, we managed to have a long conversation about his natural winemaking practices. Then, much to my delight, he presented four of his wines for tasting, one of them being the Biau ’06. Biau, he explained, is the local vernacular for “beautiful” (as well as a play on “bio”) and it’s accurately named. The cepage is 80% Gamay to 20% Pinot Noir. The minerality, which he calls his acidity, is stunning. The aroma is mushrooms and moist earth, and then comes the spice and brilliant fruit on the palate.
While it’s ready to be enjoyed now, he thinks it can go another ten years. The 2006 is his current vintage, a testament to his patience in the winery. The cost is a slight splurge, probably around $25, but well worth the experience.
And speaking of experiences, while in the Loire we also managed to swing by La Levee de la Loire, a small, superb, all-natural, all-Loire Valley wine tasting held in Angers. I’ve never tasted a more uniformly amazing assemblage of wines, many available here, and others looking for a home here in U.S. If you haven’t already, get yourself to your favorite natural wine shop and check out their Loire selections. They’re hard to beat for their diversity, their elegance, their compatibility with every cuisine, or even just as a great vin de soif.
by Andy Besch
on Jan 23, 2014
While catching up with a wine rep/friend of mine the other night at Buceo 95, a terrific wine and tapas bar on the Upper West Side, I was reacquainted with Le Clos D’Un Jour. That’s both the name of the winery, in Cahors, as well as the name of this particular cuvée. Stephane and Veronique Azemar make three cuvées on their seven hectare winery situated on the Lot River, where their total production is only 12,000 bottles, and their 40 year-old vines are farmed organically. Grass covering the entire land is weeded by Oussant sheep, who serve not only as good weeders, but also as wonderful natural fertilizers. Whatever the sheep don’t eat is removed manually, never by machine. The winery uses no pumps — only gravity — to move things along.
Le Clos D’Un Jour (the wine) is the Azemar’s flagship Cahors, and is a blend of 90% Malbec (a.k.a. Cot, or Auxerrois) and 10% Merlot. It’s fermented in steel tanks, and aged for 18 months in cement. As you’d expect, only natural yeasts are used and there’s no fining or filtration. The color is true to Cahors’ reputation for “inky black” wines, but this wine is elegant. The Malbec gives it the oomph, and the Merlot gives it the grace. Full-bodied, with surprisingly soft tannins, Le Clos is black currant heaven, yet lively and bright. For about $20, I say bring on the duck or steak!
by Andy Besch
on Jan 21, 2014
I’m kind of breaking the rules by reviewing this wine, because it goes for around $30. However, it only comes in magnums, and that’s two bottles-worth, so it really only costs around $15, so it works for me. Jean-Francois Coutelou — locally known as Jeff — has been making wines naturally since 1987 in the Herault region of the Languedoc. He farms biodynamically, and there’s no hanky panky in the winery — just natural yeasts, no filtration or fining, and minimal, if any, SO2 added. If he does add it, it’s only in bottling.
The Sauve de la Citerne (“saved from the tank”) is a wine Coutelou makes from juice that he doesn’t know what to do with, hence the name. It’s juice that he feels just isn’t quite good enough for his higher priced cuvees, so he uses it to make this fabulous value. Take it from me, there’s nothing inferior about this wine whatsoever. It’s a full-bodied blend of 80% Mourvedre and 20% Grenache. Right away you’re in for a mouthful of blackberries and black raspberries, but then along comes a wave of bracing acidity and minerality. As time goes by it softens and there’s a nice creamy, velvety quality that takes over.
So the next time you have a gang over buy a bottle or two of this crowd pleaser. It’ll be gone before you get a chance to sit down and join your friends. And if you’re a retailer, you’ll appreciate the very cool label, too.
by Andy Besch
on Jan 13, 2014
In the heart of the Willamette Valley lie 210 certified Biodynamic and organic acres, all owned and operated by the Marchesi family. Rudy is the head of the clan, which came to Oregon via the Bronx. I really like that, but what I like even more are their wines. In a bit of an unusual set up, Rudy has two winemakers — Ben Thomas who oversees the reds (namely Pinot Noir) and Stephen Webber, a Brit, who’s the lord of the whites.
Working with cooler climate grapes, Stephen gets to play with German and Alsatian varietals, and the Borealis is a beautiful blend of four. It’s about one third Muller-Thurgau, one third Riesling, 20% Gewurtztraminer and 14% Pinot Gris. I know it sounds like a car wreck, but it’s more like a sleek Mercedes two-seater. The wine starts slightly off-dry (1.6 r.s.) with ripe peach and pear, and then evolves, cruising along to a beautiful long grapefruit and lime finish. An excellent ride, with great mileage (only 12.3% alcohol) and zero sticker shock, just $16. This is definitely a wine you should park in your wine lot. Vroom vroom!