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The Wandering Palate Christmas Table - Annus Chenin, Ad infinitum
However – in the lead up to the festive season and with the serotonin levels rising, the spatial memory of debauchery throughout of the Gregorian calendar cannot be ignored, and in truth a great influence on what will adorn our Christmas table.
There is one grape variety that has dominated the palate this year – The Year of the Chenin Blanc, or Annus Chenin as it were - and having flirted with this leprotic white grape for most of my sommelier career, and tortured many people with it, I feel somewhat reconciled or vindicated, that – finally – chenin blanc may have its day.
I vividly remember my first encounter with chenin blanc, in fact my first ever visit to a winery as a sommelier, to Collards in Henderson, Auckland, where the late Lionel Collard infected my with an incurable virus and passion for wine, and a (one way) mission to sell chenin blanc.
Collards Chenin Blanc was unquestionably the most sophisticated white wine in all New Zealand at the time, in the 1980s, only he and I were the only ones that knew this. Collard had an innings as long as chenin blanc can age and his obituary in the New Zealand Herald maps a heroic wine journey – follow the link.
My first encounter with French Chenin Blanc was equally impressionable; a lecture from the late Len Evans on Clos de la Coulée de Serrant, which he was the agent for in Australia. “Marsh, this is one of top white wines in the world. Oh, and it’s also as dry as Taranaki on a Sunday and has more acid than your last girlfriend, and don’t forget it.”
That acidity – inherent in chenin blanc – has been the bane of its marketability. On the international wine stage, this dental filling finder has remained in wine marketing no-man’s-land for decades - until now.
So what has changed? Not a lot really, in the popularity stakes, apart from the diehard winemakers in South Africa or Loire Valley and their loyal followers; most merchants cannot give it away.
What is significant though, or the big change factor is the consumer’s acceptance of a little residual sugar sweetness in white wine; indeed a spoonful of sugar is now back in fashion. Whoever would have thought, with the dictators of taste banishing ‘medium-sweet’ wines to oblivion and anyone seen drinking such a wine cast as plebeian - that now a soft sweetness and richness in a white wine is ok – even enjoyable!
The chenin blanc that rebooted my limbic system and hardwired the olfactory was Bella Ridge Estate, strangely as it may seem, from the Swan Valley, Western Australia, with an infectious and neurotic (as the chenin grape) Israeli winemaker, Alon Arbel, (disciple of Collard?) turning up on my doorstep in Singapore armed with several vintages of the stuff.
Tasting and talking through his range of wines, I was completely (chenin reborn) and this man is arguably making the best chenin blanc in Australia, as prosaic as that may sound, I soon discovered that all the heavy-weight sommeliers in Australia were already on to Bella Ridge Chenin Blanc and that it was a brilliant match to the modern Asian cuisine and that your average cosmopolitan Sydney and Melbourne palate had totally got the gist of residual sugar and racy (read adrenaline) acidity with spicy Southeast Asian dishes.
When I find that (lost) notebook with my tasting notes on Bella Ridge you can be assured of a lengthy piece, meanwhile visit www.bellaridge.com.au.
My next chenin encounter was in Melbourne, Australia, at PM24, legendary French Chef and Paul Bocuse protégé, Philippe Mouchelle's bistrot at 24 Russell Street www.pm24.com.au. It is impossible here to not order his signature rotisserie ‘Organic Milawa Chicken’, and what equally enticed us was the sommeliers recommended wine pairing of a Marc Bredif Vouvray 1996 – denoted as just realised direct from the winery.
Extraordianary I thought; what winery these days would release their wine 14 years down the track (commercially inconceivable); with most a slave to cash-flow and trying to get the wine bottled and released in the same year as the vintage. Moreover, the wine was very reasonably priced, I recall mid A$60s, and was brilliantly textural and buttery-rich on the palate, yet still vibrant in acidity (as you would expect) and finishing dry-ish but soft and harmonious.
It went fabulously with the rotisserie-roasted chicken and you can see where this is leading, as in it’s a no brainer to pair up with the Christmas roast turkey.
My more regular encounter with chenin blanc throughout the year has been with Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Vouvray Moelleux 1997, Loire Valley, on the supermarket shelves of Jason’s and Cold Storage in Singapore. Sometimes there’s an upside to incompetency and mediocrity, as is the case here; with these androids having no idea what they were stocking and the floor stacks invariably a mix of 2005 and 1997, at the same price.
Why you have this sort of wine as a floor stack is beyond comprehension anyway, moreover apart from the odd bottle of emergency supplies Cotes du Rhone, this is about the only wine I have over bought from them, the range being so utterly, utterly pathetic.
I should mention that the Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Vouvray Moelleux 1997 is one strange sister, with some pretty weird aromas to begin with; bordering on varnish and corky, musty and reductive smells with a certain wet animal pelt odour. Yes, I know, doesn’t sound at all good, but once it breaths out it evolves to a myriad of smelly complexities (in the positive) building in texture and aroma to a hedonistic collision of pongy cheese, poached stonefruits, unctuous caramel-buttery-nutty richness, musk-rosewater-Turkish delight-aniseed melange, and a bolt of wet limestone and pumice minerality with a mysterious subtle nuance in the background like inside of a farmers wet gumboot.
It’s a shocker really and only for those who enjoy sticky, smelly cheese like Gorgonzola or similar, and a wine equally melodramatic. Actually, it’s a brilliant drink simply on its own. It is worth mentioning that this is one of the leading biodynamic producers in France, and I suspect their wines are made with minimum sulphur, which may explain some of the funky characters – but hey, I like it! http://www.huet-echansonne.com/Accueil/indexen.html
My next chenin encounter was Milton Vineyards Te Aria, from Gisborne, on the sunny east coast of New Zealand’s north island. Annie Milton was in Singapore to participate in the Family of Twelve www.familyoftwelve.co.nz events that I helped organise with this band of Bros, the cream of established New Zealand vineyards.
It was a revelation to try Annie’s Te Aria Chenin Blanc, brimming with zesty orange and blossom floridity, and the palate bursting in energy with baked apple flavours and subtle honeyed richness, and with a hint of residual sugar all in perfect harmony with that ever-present cobalt acidity.
These guys have been championing chenin blanc since the early 80s moreover, the pioneering practitioners of organic and biodynamic viticulture in New Zealand; and everyone (in the trade) knows it and respects them greatly for it. I am hoping that Milton wines will be available in Singapore again in the near future. www.millton.co.nz
And to top of my Annus Chenin, I was invited to MC a Biodynamics master class for Alfa Wines, in Singapore, who organised an impressive ‘Vintners Tour’ with several of their winemakers coming out from Europe. Alfa is the importing trade arm, so consumers would perhaps know them as E-Wine Asia, follow the link: http://www.ewineasia.com/index.php/vintners-tour-2012-masterclasses
All the wines present by our wines four biodynamic producers were fascinating, full of character and energy, as were the winemakers, Jean Dominique Vacheron of Domaine Vacheron, Marc Kreydenweiss of Alsace, Emilio Foradori from Elisabetta Foradori Morei Teroldego Trentino and Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves.
It was Thierry Germain’s Domaine des Roches Neuves Insolite 2011 Saumur Blanc that really caught my tonsils; wow what a glass of energy this is, brimming in geraniums, chrysanthemum tea, apples and pears, marmalade citrus – an extraordinary perfume – and mirrored on the palate with bristling, nervy acidity and incredible length, indeed it just kept on going forever, enticing one back for another sip.
I’m stuffing a few bottles of this in my bag for the Christmas table, in Melbourne as Germain doesn’t have an Australian importer – yet, hello, calling all merchants... He also makes formidably endowed and incredibly complex cabernet franc, and you won’t hear me mention the c-word with such enthusiasm often; check out www.rochesneuves.com
It will however, be a line-up of Marc Bredif Vouvray that will be sipped pre-Turkey, with the Turkey and after the Turkey with the vintages 2010, 1999, 1988, 1969 Vouvray all coming direct from the vineyard (all currently available – the mindboggling really) through their Australia importer, Negociants http://www.negociantsaustralia.com/
Needless to say, a chenin aftermath article will be posted, meanwhile you can check out our last Melbourne Christmas table in 2010, click here
And, of course, the Wandering Palate how to cook a Turkey click here
I did allude to Goose being on the menu, to which I have indeed ordered a 4kg specimen from my favourite poultry provider, The Chicken Pantry at the Queen Victoria market, Melbourne, and will cook this up on Boxing Day – full coverage in due course.
And the pinot noir? Notice I did not say red, and for good reason – read The Wine Whisperer – “Pinot Noir Does Not Fight Back” click here
The pinot noir of choice for our Christmas table and I have to say the most extraordinarily gorgeous red wine I have drunk this entire year, is Rippon Mature Vines Pinot Noir 2009, from Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand.
I will be writing an essay on this in due course but folks, I can tell you this is a wine of the most breathtaking purity and brightness of fruit, with an intensity of fruit-spice melange and exhilarating acidity that can only come from old vines (read VV Grand Cru), all wrapped in a plush framework with invisible tannins; distinctly and definitively a New Zealander, but wearing a beret.
And Rippon is a fascinating story; one of New Zealand’s pioneering vineyards and champions of biodynamic viticulture in the most pristine, picturesque vineyard in the world www.rippon.co.nz/
We might have a little Champagne to open up the palate, and usually we go for an Artisan Grower Champagne, something people can’t pronounce which invariably translates to good value. I am however rather partial to Pol Roger and their vintage 2002 is a knockout, indeed leagues ahead of most other big-house vintage Champagnes I have seen. And if your wallet can stretch to it, track down some Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 1998, arguably one of the best Champagnes money can buy.
We normally drink a little Rosé Sparkling between drinks – that is a constant flow of the stuff between wines, when the sommelier is dragging behind the consumption and can’t get the bottles open quick enough... for sipping whilst cooking the Turkey, and you need something versatile in the kitchen when its 7am! And for a palate cleanser before the Christmas pudding and wine, then something to slip back into, before slipping off to unconsciousness.
The Wandering Palate Rosé Sparkling of choice at the moment is the Quartz Reef Methode Traditionnelle NV, 100% pinot noir and with a wonderful succulence of fruit and mouthwatering juiciness that keeps you coming back for more; as good as any Champagne Rosé and exceptional price/quality rapport www.quartzreef.co.nz
There will be a need for a pudding wine, something that can keep up with Christmas Pudding, a little fortified and the favourite at the moment is Chambers Old Vine Muscadelle (Tokay in the old vernacular); there’s something about the not too treacle like, caramel-toffee sweetness that is supremely unique to Rutherglen fortifieds; http://www.rutherglenvic.com/wineries/winery.asp?wineryID=25
Of course a digestive will be an imperative and my wife has an impressive capacity for grappa, and she likes Nonino, which is convenient as I prefer Amaro and Nonino happens to be the best – of both http://www.grappanonino.it/it/
And its good night nurse after that...
Merry Christmas and Happy Drinking