France

A Wine Revisited

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In the summer of 1923 Lord Sebastian Flyte entices his friend Charles Ryder to escape the confines of Oxford and spend the day at his family’s estate. “I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey — which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.”

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From the BBC’s adaptation. Aloysius guards the wine.

Evelyn Waugh, one of Britain’s most acclaimed novelists and author of this scene from Brideshead Revisited, was known for creating some of literature’s wittiest characters, many of whom had a glass of wine or a cocktail in hand. Waugh was a knowledgeable oenophile so his selections are both informed and precise, lending scenes that extra bit of authenticity. So why, of all the wines in the world, did he send his two main characters off on a picnic with a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey? It’s an intriguing choice.

Throughout Waugh’s stories you’ll find clarets, champagnes and burgundies, but his true passion was for dessert wines, a taste he acquired during his student days at Oxford in the early 1920s. In an essay titled “Drinking” he writes: “We tried anything we could lay our hands on, but table-wines were the least of our interests. We drank them conventionally at luncheon and dinner parties but waited eagerly for the heavier and headier concomitants of dessert.” Port, sherry, Tokaji, he loved them all. “We were not ashamed (nor am I now) to relish sweet wine. Yquem had, of course, a unique reputation. Starting to drink it in a mood of ostentation, I was led to the other white Bordeaux.” By that he means Sauternes, the luscious, golden, dessert wine made possible by a little gray fungus Botrytis cinerea, aka noble rot. Which brings us back to the Chateau Peyraguey. Waugh doesn’t send Sebastian and Charles under an elm tree with a bottle of Dom Pérignon or Romanée-Conti; they’re bestowed with sweet Sauternes.

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A perfect pair

But why Chateau Peyraguey? It’s an unusual choice since the wine hasn’t existed as such since 1879 when, following the death of the owner, a family squabble split the property in two and became Clos Haut-Peyraguey and Chateau LaFaurie Peyraguey. Given the fact that Waugh wrote the novel in 1944, long after rupture, what was he up to? There were plenty of other Sauternes chateaux he could have chosen. Did he simply use his creative license and shorten the name for convenience, or did he intentionally send his characters picnicking with a bottle that was a half-century old?

Plausibility for the latter comes in the next chapter of the book when Waugh endows Sebastian’s family estate with a wine cellar stocked with old vintages (which the two proceed to drink their way through the following summer). It’s a minor detail but a telling one that exhibits not only Waugh’s knowledge and taste in wine but also his skill as a writer. With a single bottle he encapsulates one of the book’s main themes. The scene is set in the aftermath of World War I when Britain is reeling from the loss of so many young men. The devastation has left no family, rich or poor, untouched and upended many of society’s traditions. Sebastian mourns this lost innocence and yearns for an earlier time. Here then, is a bottle from before the Great War, before the carnage, a golden, sweet wine still in possession of its youthful charms and virtue.

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Of course, there is no way of knowing Waugh’s intentions, (he died in 1966). It is, however, still possible to have a picnic of strawberries and wine made from same plot of land as the Peyraguey. Clos Haut-Peyraguey and Lafaurie-Peyraguay are readily found in good wine stores and are an extraordinary value at $40 per half bottle. Both properties sit near the famed vineyards of Chateau d’Yquem, a half-bottle of which is never under three figures. This prime real estate earned the original Chateau Peyraguey the status of Premier Cru Classé in the 1855 Bordeaux classification, and the two current chateaux have been able to keep that same ranking. It’s one step below the top classification of Premier Cru Classé Superiore, whose sole occupant is Yquem.

Both properties have recently come under new ownership with promises to bring their wines to even greater heights. Clos Haut-Peyraguey was purchased in October 2012 by Bernard Magrez, who owns numerous wineries around the world, including Château Pape Clément, Château La Tour Carnet and Château Fombrauge. The 12-hectare vineyard is planted with 95% semillon and 5% sauvignon blanc on gravel, sand and clay. Wine destined to become the grand vin is fermented in oak and then aged in oak barrels (50% new) for 18 months. The winery’s long-time cellar master, Anthony Defives, continues to make the wine even in his new role as estate manager, so the style is unlikely to change dramatically.

The only vintage I was able to find in New York was 2005, a year with near-perfect conditions for both the dry reds and sweet whites. A long, dry summer, was followed by heavy rain in September, which is just what those tiny Botrytis spores needed to flourish. And flourish they did. Botrytis is one of the first scents to spiral out of the glass, closely followed by honey and caramel, dried apricots, and chamomile. A bright acidity keeps it light on the palate and is accompanied by flavors of caramelized pear, prunes and more honey. It’s a gorgeous, complex wine. Recent vintages to look for include 1995, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Lafaurie Peyraguey was acquired last year by Silvio Denz, who added the 36-hectare property to his collection of Saint-Émilion vineyards such as Peby Faugeres and Faugeres. He purchased the vineyard and its postcard-perfect chateau (parts of which date to the 13th century) from the French energy company GDF Suez, which had acquired it in 1984 and subsequently modernized the facilities, renovated the chateau and installed climate controlled cellars. Denz also owns the crystal company Lalique and had a special engraved bottle made for the 2014 vintage.

A bottle of Lafaurie Peyraguey from 2006 showed much less botrytis than the 2005 Haut-Peyraguey, but was a denser, more concentrated wine. It’s made with 93% Sémillon, 6% Sauvignon blanc, and 1% Muscadelle, fermented and aged in oak (40-70% new) for 18 to 20 months. Here the flavors lean more toward baked apples and quince, with dried figs, honey and caramel. The presence of oak was also more noticeable. The vintage had been a difficult one with many grapes spoiled by bad rot and very little Botrytis. Producers had to be vigilante in the vineyard to salvage what harvest they could. Such are the perils of making Sauternes. Given the challenges, this is still a very good wine, with enough acidity and concentration for it to age for decades. Top vintages include 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Don’t forget the strawberries.

 

 

 

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The Many Moods of Chenin Blanc

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It makes no sense that Chenin Blanc, a temperamental, difficult-to-ripen grape, should thrive in the cool, northern folds of France’s Loire River Valley, a region meteorologically challenged for growing any type of vines. Chenin likes to flower early in the spring, exposing its tender buds to not-uncommon frosts, and takes its own sweet time ripening in the fall, complicating harvests by not doing so at the same time. But thrive here it does, and it has for centuries, according to ampelographers who can trace its origins to the 9th century.

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Chenin owes its livelihood to a tongue-tingling level of acidity, which in turn gives the grape a surprising amount of versatility, not unlike Riesling. Depending on where it’s grown (both climate and soil are factors) and the weather conditions at harvest, winemakers can make any style of wine they deem best, from bone dry to luscious dessert wines and everything in between. In Savennières (part of Anjou) the style is dry with waxy, floral notes, but just across the river the specialty is botrytized dessert wines from Coteaux du Layon, Quarts du Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Upstream in the region of Vouvray the predominant style is demi-sec, although dry and dessert wines are made as well.

One producer who does it all is Domaine Huet, the preeminent star of the Loire, whose wine has become the standard bearer for Chenin-based wines. In 1928, when Victor Huet bought his home and attached vineyard Le Haut Lieu just outside of the town of Vouvray, he did so with the hope that a quiet life in the country would ease the debilitating effects of the mustard gas poisoning he’d suffered in WWI. His son Gaston Huet, however, himself a WWII hero, put his heart and soul into the winery and set the bar for producing exceptional wines. He eventually bought two more vineyards (Le Mont and Clos de Bourg) and in the late 80s began farming biodynamically. Gaston and his wife had three children, but the only one to show any interest in the winery was his son-in-law Noël Pinguet, who took the helm in 1976. By then Gaston’s duties as mayor of Vouvray, which he’d been since 1947, were demanding more of his attention.

During the subsequent decades, Pinguet and Huet’s wines became the benchmark for the Loire, topping out best-of lists year after year. Then, in 2002 Gaston Huet died, and the winery was sold to Anthony Hwang, a Filipino-American businessman who also owns the Tokaji estate Királyudva in Hungary. Pinguet was supposed to stay on to make the wine until 2015 but, as with so many other buyouts where the winemaker remains, there was a falling out. Hwang had recently put his daughter, Sarah, in charge and press reports indicate that she (and presumably with her father’s blessing) wanted to focus more on the dry styles. Producing the sweeter styles of wine is a far more hazardous endeavor since the grapes need to stay on the vine longer, ideally until they’ve shriveled to raisins or succumbed to botrytis, in the case of the moelleux. But these were the wines that made Huet famous, and in October of 2011 Pinguet abruptly resigned.

It’s too soon to tell the exact impact Pinquet’s absence will have on wine quality or the styles produces. Huet did make demi-secs in 2012 and 2013, but no moelleux. Hail damaged a good portion of the crop in both years so that might be all the explanation there is. Even Pinguet only made moelleux in years when the conditions were right. Remaining at the winery are Benjamin Joliveau, who had been under Pinguet’s tutelage before he left, and Jean-Bernard Berthomé, the chef de cave, who will be in charge of both the winemaking and the vineyards. Berthomé has been at Huet for 35 years, and one would expect that some of Pinguet’s and the late Gaston Huet’s methods and philosophy were deeply instilled in him. For now there’s no reason to suspect that they won’t continue the high standards that earned Domaine Huet its esteemed reputation in the first place. But let’s hope that they and the Hwangs have the fortitude to continue making the demi-sec and moelleux wines and let Chenin Blanc show its full range of magic.

Although some producers in the Loire have experimented with new oak, traditionally wines from Chenin Blanc are fermented in neutral vessels and aged in bottle. Huet’s wines never spend time in new oak nor do they go through malolactic fermentation. Chenin’s high acidity requires the softening touch sugar even for the dry wines. Huet secs have sugar levels of 6-7 g/l, compared to 2 g/l for most dry wines, while demi-sec typically has 20-25 g/l. The high acidity, however, makes these wines taste merely off-dry. The sweetest style is moelleux (meaning “marrow” for the unctuous texture), which has 40 to 60 g/l of sugar. Moelleux wines labeled Premiére Trie, such as this one from 2005, are wines comprised of grapes picked from an individual pass through the vineyard at harvest. What they all have in common is a bracingly high level of acidity, which enables them to improve in the bottle for decades.