Friday, May 22, 2015

(VDNs = Vins Doux Naturels)

I fully admit that until recently, in my tiny Wineau mind, VDNs seemed the poor man's Sauternes or Madeiras—sweet dessert wines with little identifying character, fine in a pinch on a sparse wine list.

And now, my tiny Wineau mind IS BLOWN.

"Aha," you ask, "is this another article about how technology and advances in winemaking techniques have re-shaped a wine region?" Nope. The Roussillon in southern France (where VDNs are made) is a very old, historic region, with little-to-no modern innovation.

"Then is this about the discovery of a 'new' wine variety that truly shines in the locale?" Nope. There are over 20 classic red and white grapes used in making VDN, always have been.

"So what's the big deal?" You ask in exasperation. Calmez-vous, my dear Wineaux, and read on.

Like the Purloined Letter (except without the Poe-ian mystery,) Vins Doux Naturels are kind of hiding in plain sight. These are fortified sweet wines with such complexity of character, acidic balance, and relatively low alcohol that they are a revelation, especially when paired with food. And boy, do they pair with all kinds of food: from ceviche to Beef Bourguignon to a fig and hazelnut poundcake.

At a recent tasting led by Caleb Ganzer, sommelier at Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels in NYC, I got to taste six very different VDNs paired with a range of dishes at Corkbuzz Wine Studio. The entire experience left me gobsmacked, which doesn't happen very often. I rushed home to start writing, for as Caleb said, "No one's probably going to stumble on these by themselves—they need to be introduced to VDNs by someone in the know." So, as someone now in the know, here you go!

2009 AOP VDN Banyuls, Domaine de la Rectoire, Cuvee Léon Parcé: Very dark cherry/ruby color. Crushed raspberries, spice, rose petal perfume on the nose. Very tasty! Black cherry, raspberry, cigar leaf, sage, loooong finish. You sense the elevated alcohol, but it's integrated and smooth. Fresh and cheeky, with good acidity and minerality. 70% Grenache Noir, 20% Grenache Gris, 10% Carignan, from 50+ year old vines. ~$45/500ml

2012 AOP VDN Muscat de Rivesaltes, Château Les Pins: Medium gold color. Nose of litchi, honeysuckle, orange marmalade, and pear; those notes with peach, chamomile, and spice (white pepper, cinnamon,) on the palate. Delish! Noticeable sugar but good acidic balance. Verrrry spicy. 50% Muscat des Petit Grains, 50% Muscat d'Alexandria ~$18

2005 AOP VDN Rivesaltes Ambré, Domaine Singla, Heritage Du Temps: "Ambré" = started as a white wine and allowed to oxidize. Medium marmalade/copper color. Brittle and taffy on the nose, brown butter, liquid caramel, bit of spice, dark honey, carrot cake. Romantic and luxurious. The "sweetest" so far, but again, the acidity elevates it. 100% Macabeu. ~$N/A but around 45-50.

2000 AOP VDN Banyuls Grand Cru, L'Etolie: Medium-plus tawny brick color. Raisin, fig, prune elements, with a smoked meat/iodine savoriness. Pairs incredibly well with savory foods. Great balance of fruit/structure/sweetness. Finessed and complex. A fave. 75% Grenache Noir, 15% Grenache Gris, 10% Carignan, aged 10 years in old oak. ~$45

AOP VDN Maury, Domaine Pouderoux, Hors d'Age: Medium maroon-brown color. Light dried fruit, minerals, florals. Part oxidized, part reduced. Outrageous combination of flavors, smooth, pairs wonderfully with an array of foods, long finish and rich character. 100% Grenache Noir, aged 15 years. ~$40

1974 AOP VDN Rivesaltes Ambré, Constance et Terrassous: Medium brownish dark copper with red highlights. Very sherry-like nose, bit of bourbon, mountain florals, toasted nuts, caramel, toffee, dried fig. Whisky feel. Zingy acidity, but smooth and luxurious. Outrageously long finish. Somewhat Madeira-like. My notes say, "This is my boyfriend. I love him." 50% Grenache Blanc, 50% Grenache Gris. ~$150.

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Pique your interest? I hope so. How amazing to sip wines that are fortified and sweet—but are not necessarily "dessert" wines. They also blend well in a range of cocktails! VDNs will last quite a while after opening, so you can sample them with multiple dishes over time. And considering what you get in return, they are excellent values. So seek out some VDNs, and you will definitely impress your friends.


Saturday, May 2, 2015


Oh these glorious days, when winter's freeze at last releases its grip, the blooms appear in a riot of color, and afternoons seem to laze along under the warm sun. It's Spring! While we are all certainly rejoicing, many Wineaux may stumble over a little tricky problem; what wine goes with Spring?

Summer is easy: something light and refreshing, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Muscadet from the Loire, or a lightly spritzy Txakoli from NW Spain. Dead of winter? An inky Tannat from France, a Spanish Monastrell, or a Portuguese red blend will warm you up. But for Spring, you seek a middle ground—maybe a red that's not too overpowering, with good acidity to lift it, and elegant floral aromatics and fresh berries... LIKE CHIANTI!

Sure, Chianti makes a lot of us think of Hannibal Lecter and fava beans, or cheapo straw-wrapped bottles of yore, but this Sangiovese-based red from Tuscany can be delicious, food-friendly, and a perfect sipper during the Spring.

At a recent tasting sponsored by the Consorzio Vino Chianti, I had to wade through some head-scratchers and a couple of underwhelming offerings, but it was totally worth it to find a few real gems that were intoxicating, delicate, and delicious.

From Azienda Agricola Lanciola, the 2013 Az. Agr. Lanciola Chianti DOCG had a mild nose, but it had varied elements of florals and merde (or whatever "merde" is in Italian,) and was tasty and very quaffable. ~$15. The 2012 Az. Agr. Lanciola Chianti Colli Florentini DOCG had an exuberant nose of floral perfume and loads of blueberry, and was interesting on the palate, light but complex, with black fruits. ~$15. And the 2011 Az. Agr. Chianti Colli Florentini DOCG Riserva had another great nose of overripe berry salad and an appealing funk, still brightly acidic but balanced. ~$25.

I also enjoyed the 2010 Castello del Trebbio Chianti Rùfina DOCG Riserva "Lastricaro" for its spicy, woodsy notes, and a nice cherry flavor, with good tannins—a solid, well-balanced effort. ~$35. 

The 2011 Colognole Chianti Rùfina DOCG "Colognole" was made from 100% Sangiovese, had a nose of merde-y perfume, with cheeky red fruit on the palate, and had a good balance of flavors and structure. ~$25. And the 2009 Colognole Chianti Rùfina DOCG Riserva "Riserva del Don" was also 100% Sangiovese and had an incredible nose—so perfumey! ~$35.

I've long been a fan of the Pieve De' Pitti wines, and Caterina Gargari was on hand to share some fantastic offerings: the 2011 Pieve De' Pitti Chianti Superiore DOCG "Cerretello" had a luxe warm nose of berry/cherry fruit and spices which blossomed in the mouth, grippy, with good balance. ~$NA. And the 2008 Pieve De' Pitti Chianti Superiore DOCG "Cerretello" that she brought (in magnum—the last one she had!) had a nose of perfume and earth, was rich and voluptuous in the mouth with nice acidity, evolved, yet very quaffable. ~$NA. (Not available yet in the U.S.)

The 2012 Tenuta San Jacopo Chianti DOCG "Poggio ai Grilli" had great rose petals and red fruit on the nose, and was delish and tasty on the palate. ~$17. And the 2011 San Jacopo Chianti DOCG Riserva "Poggio ai Grilli" had amazing florals on the nose, and was full of rich blue and black fruits, violets, and was super smooth on the finish. ~$25.

Out of the 2013s I'd tasted, the one that presented the best was the 2013 Tenuta San Vito Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG "Darno," which had a gorgeous nose of berries and rose petals. But like most of the 2013s, it exhibited an unusual errant "spritz," a little secondary fermentation or something, perhaps (see "head-scratchers" above)—one producer speculated that as these were bottled quite recently it was just the nature of the wine settling down. This was not integrated yet by any means, but the nose speaks of potential… ~$NA. (Not available yet in the U.S.)

The Castelvecchio offerings were all solid, but my favorites were the 2011 Castelvecchio Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG "Il Castelvecchio," 90% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot, which was very funky with compote fruit, but bright and zingy with good balance ~$15, and the 2010 Castelvecchio Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG Riserva "Vigna la Quercia," 90% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, with spice box, good fruit, depth and structure (though I wondered if the Cab overwhelms a bit in the blend.) Still, tasty! ~$20.

Finally, the 2012 Tenute di Fraternita Chianti DOCG "Priore," a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, was grippy and spicy, with earth and dirt elements, but smooth with good integration ~$17, and the 2012 Tenute di Fraternita Chianti DOCG Riserva "Ser Mariotto" was stunning, very smooth and velvety. Gorgeous notes (like the cassis from the Cab,) balanced the earth and florals, grippy and just plain delicious. ~$NA. (Not available yet in the U.S.)

Yes, you might be frustrated with the fact that a lot of my favorites are still looking for U.S. distribution, but these relatively young producers are fighting for their representation by showcasing such lovely wines. To contrast, a very widely-distributed producer, Ruffino, was pouring two wines—neither which I found very appealing, to be honest. (See "underwhelming" above.)

You'll probably have to rely on the recommendations of your merchants and sommeliers to find the true gems, but definitly think of a 2009-2012 Chianti the next time you're stymied at what to drink this Spring. Those florals, fruit and earth notes, and pitch-perfect acidity will help you toast the change in season.