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Undervalued White
Chenin Blanc might be the most undervalued white out there. It’s a grape that can age 100 years (no exaggeration), has amazingly complex flavors and has lots of great bottles for under $15. Trouble is, only a few regions grow this grape and they’re all huddled up together in northern France and are still 3 hours outside of Paris. Certainly not the easiest place to visit.

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Steen from Africa
Fortunately, South Africa and California are taking up the reigns so it doesn’t require a plane ride to Paris and a three-hour road trip through bucolic hills. Sounds awful, I know. South Africa especially churns out exceptional value under the label “Steen,” which sounds a lot more like a beer than a wine. Nevertheless, Steen = Chenin Blanc, and the Africans are doing wonders with it. Plenty of good ones exist right under your nose, such as one of my staples from Man Vintners that shows up on Fresh Direct for $7.

Welcoming Wine
Today’s wine properly clobbered Man Vintners in the complexity category, even though there’s plenty more Man Chenin Blanc to be purchased. It’s just that this French Chenin Blanc was the perfect occasion to celebrate a home-coming and a reunion of sorts.

See, last year on birthday #29, the Zapatos had brought a bottle of wine to the rooftop celebration. And this wine stood out in my mind so much that I saved the bottle, looked up Vouvray on a map and went around asking town asking for the wine. We may have even discussed purchasing a case that evening up on the roof. Regardless, the case never found its way to my cellar (read: plastic tub in the basement locker) and another year passed.

Best Borough in NYC
Then, the Zapatos move to the best borough in NYC and invited this wino over to the house because that’s what neighbors do, and we’re now one neighborhood away. So I stopped over and was treated to frisbee, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (a great read if you have time), and a bottle of the Vouvray you see above.

Surprisingly sweet to the taste, there’s a lot of action happening in this wine. Starts off like green apples, but gets that sweetness in the middle like membrillo paste and then backs off the sweetness on the end. Sorta like Mohammed scaling his mountain and heading back home, never the same. Really delicious and complex.

Detail Up!
2008 François Pinon Vouvray “Cuvée Tradition” from Vouvray, Loire Valley in France

Random Googles:
* Vouvray, Savennieres and Montlouis – three of those places in the middle part of the Loire valley that made Chenin Blanc famous in France.
* The importer who brought today’s wine to the USA passed away this week. All the more fitting to be drinking his wine as a tribute.
* Some ampelographers think Chenin Blanc is one of Sauvignon Blanc’s parents.

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Confusing Muscat
Muscat is really confusing. You think you know it because Muscat has that hear-me-roar smell that makes even aromatic wines like Gewurtz and Riesling bow in admiration. Truly, if there is a smelly wine king, Muscat is he.

Fecund as a Father, a Founding Father
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a king, Muscat is also incredibly fertile and has more offspring than Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson combined. And yes, this fecundity makes for very awkward family reunions. Worse still, Muscat is a mutant so image some shape-shifting virile Founding Father and you have an idea who this Muscat character actually is.

Someone told me there are nine Muscat families, presumably all somehow related and trading on Mr. Muscat’s namesake. On this blog, we’re up to Muscat #3 – Muscat of Alexandria. History buffs will already be able to tell where this grape comes from and which queen quaffed this grape before the asp had the last word.

Brewer in the Muscat Family
Muscat of Alexandria is apparently the unscented Muscat of the family who bathes often and refuses perfume like many of his brethren and sistern. He would be perfect to work at a sake brewery, where even the faintest hint of a smell gets into the sake. Muscat would not be in your sake.

No Mancloud of Muscat
As with most unscented men (Mr. Zapato excepted), he’s not that popular. Women like the tall, dark and scented men who wear Italian cut shirts and ferment each more in cologne. Men who love to ride elevators just to asphyxiate lesser mortals who haven’t yet developed the ability to travel in clouds of Acqua di Gio. Muscat of Alexandria spends most of his time at the table wine section, probably busing the tables of his more odoriferous Muscat relatives.

Allez cuisine!
Thankfully, with the right TLC from Mother Nature, there are regions where Muscat of Alexandria reigns supreme in regal dessert wine splendor. Setúbal, Banyuls and Malaga – three tiny regions that won’t be on your wine map unless your wine map is much better than the crayola-marked version hanging on my wall. Setúbal makes a dessert wine called “Moscatel de Setúbal” – spoiler alert, it’s Muscat of Alexandria. Banyuls is in France, literally spitting distance from Spain, and makes its dessert wine from Muscat of Alexandria – its wine’s name, being French, is the same as the location – Banyuls. Malaga takes its Muscat of Alexandria, swirls it with the sherry grape Pedro Ximenez, and punches out the third of the Muscat of Alexandria dessert wines. To the best of my knowledge, none of these have a picture of Cleopatra VII on their bottles.

This particular wine is from the Banyuls region and, true to form, is a sweet dessert wine. Thanks to the good folks at Claret Wine Bar in Sunnyside, Queens, which is easily the best wine bar in a three neighborhood radius, we know this featured wine is 70% Muscat of Alexandria and 30% Muscat Petit Grain (aka millions of other names). For this wine, we’re talking lots of apple smell, extremely sweet taste and a big taste of apricot and some other fruits that better tasters would be able to identify.

Detail Up!
Muscat de Rivesaltes “La Prieure de la Vin” 2009 from Banyuls in Languedoc-Roussillon, France

Random Googles:
* Muscat de Rivesaltes (confusingly made from two grapes also named Muscat) is a French dessert wine with an elfin cousin who only appears around Christmastime – Muscat de Noël.
* South Africans call this grape “Hanepoot” and somebody at Jo-burg thinks it’s a Pan-African panacea.
* Wisconsin, one of 50 states in the US to produce wine, puts Muscat of Alexandria at the top of its wine tourism blurb. Strangely, they fail to mention cheese.

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Bartender Enthusiasm
When a bartender gets excited about a wine, it’s time to listen. When a bartender starts giving tastes of his homeade limoncello and gushing about a new wine he just got in, it’s time to order that wine.

Best. Photo. Available.
Vermentino, the wine that the bartender loved, is an Italian wine. Typically. They also make some in the southeastern part of France next to Italy where they call it Rollé and really don’t export it much. Principally, that’s why the bartender was so excited – you don’t find this Vermentino every day! He’s correct – looking online, the vineyard has no website, there’s almost nobody who’s mentioned this wine and there are exactly zero photos of it. Apologies for the photo – it’s literally the best on the web.

Arc of History
Vermentino, despite its Italian ascendancy, has hovered around that Spanish-French-Italian arc of the Mediterranean for at least 700 years. Nobody’s quite sure where it originated on that arc but today it’s most firmly established in Liguria, Sardinia and Piedmont – the parts of Italy closest to France. Provence, Corsica and (increasingly) Languedoc-Roussillon – the parts of France closest to Italy are producing quite a bit of Rollé as well, and even the US in the 1990s started planting some due to its easy growing. While pretty unknown at present, if bartenders keep talking up this wine with such energetic aplomb, expect to be seeing much more of this grape on the menu in future years.

Lots of flavor – mostly apple, smells sweet but isn’t really – surprisingly, it’s tart with lots of acid.

Detail Up!
2009 L’Alycastre Vermentino by Domaine De La Courtade in Provence, France

Google Randoms:
* Vermentino has the best nickname, which Piedmont people use to describe it – “Favorita”
* Sounds like Australia’s hip to the Vermentino scene – they know it can grow in regions too hot for most whites.
* Mario Batali’s restaurant recommends this wine. Liked this place even before finding out about Batali’s Traverse City connection

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Tale of Two Columns
Most often the menu on the table shows two sides – one white, one red. The white side has the favorites you’ve heard of, the red side has 4 wines, maybe 5. At the top of the list (read: lightest body), you see Pinot Noir, followed by Merlot, followed by Malbec or something you don’t recognize, and then Cabernet slams it home with the bass line.

Rugby on the Menu
However, once in a great while, there’s a wine that doesn’t fit the menu. Mansois is that wine. Not sure whether it’s heavy or light, tannic or not, dark or light. It defies categories. In fact, this wino went straight to the internets after trying it to find out what this strange wine involved. SW France, rustic in some parts of the region (translation: heavy and tannic), light with paprika in other parts. Almost nobody outside of the region (renowned for french rugby and Armagnac) grow this grape. So, thank you Rugby France – you’ve managed to break free of the menu in a really top-quality way.

Detail Up!
Marcillac 2009 Domaine Du Cros from Marcillac, in SW France “Lo Sang del Pais”

Fantastic body – fills up the mouth with none of the sticky tannins at the back of the tongue that clog up other wines. Bunch of strawberry and something black and sweet on the lips but kinda peppery too. Really different combination – like the first time you saw Angelina’s lips.

Google Randoms:
* Mansois has an everyman codename: Fer Servadou. Fer= iron, which should make you think twice before chopping down its vine.
* “Lo Sang del Pais” – blood of our country. Slightly heretical perhaps, but all delicious.
* The “corrida” join rugby and Armagnac on the list of SW French specialties. H/t Spain.
* Virginia plants a little of this Fer Servadou. Could use more of this here in the USA

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2011 Champion

Pinot Noir is the world champion of wine, it’s official. At least for 2011 that is. In a nerdily-awesome remake, somebody on twitter started Marc Madness, a competitive bracket mirroring college basketball for grape varieties. Whites on one side, reds on the other, and only in the finals do they meet (full bracket here). Riesling blew away the competition on the white side, trouncing everyone in its path (maybe Chardonnay was close) but then it hit the juggernaut of Pinot Noir. Luck ran out in the second half, and Pinot emerged covered in garlands as Riesling hit the showers and regrouped for next year.

Generational Revolt
Pinot Noir is that current sweet spot in wine-taster’s mouth. It’s red, it’s difficult (like all annoying winos) and it’s the opposite of all those big wines that people have loved and keep loving for years. Think big California Cabernets and bigger Chardonnays that coat your mouth in wine — soooo 1990s. Now it’s all soft, round, small, restrained fruit that grew up in France and went to boarding school abroad. It’s sophisticated, it sounds sexy and it probably wears a brooklyn fedora on the weekends. Call it a generational revolt or “these darn kids” (shakes fist) but it’s what’s in season.

Pinot and Jazz
Check your wine bar list and fax me if you find a list without Pinot. Just won’t happen. Most likely, they’ve got several – one from Burgundy, one from Oregon and one from California or New Zealand. That’s where the Pinot kids hang out. Burgundy – it’s the heartland and the soul of the grape, kinda like jazz and New Orleans. You can talk all you want about Dizzy’s, Chicago and Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center, but jazz is New Orleans. There’s no dispute. Then you get the newbies, the Oregons, the California hotspots and New Zealand’s Central Otago – all doing interesting and pretty cool things that nobody’s tried before. Oregon, always the hippest of any social trend, holds an annual Pinot Fest for “Pinot freaks.” Clearly not your grandfather’s wine festival.

Today there’s actually two options to check out, one from Burgundy and one from Austria. Why two? Parents – they come in twos and so should their wines. My dad mentioned that he liked red wines but not the heavy ones, which makes sense – he’s a light guy, both in humor and in weight. Also, he adores puns and somehow Cabernet seems way too serious for puns. So, I’d been saving this Austrian Pinot for a long time and thought it’d be perfect to try with them during a night of cooking in.

Turns out, it was way heavier than expected, although still in that medium-body range. Plus, it had all kinds of interesting, unexpected stuff along the side of the road – like driving through South Dakota. Not that everyone likes driving through South Dakota or stopping at the Corn Palace. So, between four of us, we came up with red fruits, dark finish and extremely smooth finish. 4 different votes though: 1 for magnificent, 1 for liked it, 1 for ok and 1 for didn’t like it.

Taste Too
Luck played a big hand in the second Pinot since our waiter pretty much insisted we try it at dinner the next night. The “Bourgogne” label threw us a bit but we managed to figure out that we were in Burgundy territory and the “Pinot Noir” on the label convinced us we were into a second bottle of Grape #29. Lighter body than the Austrian (or than almost every red – my dad approved; one could tell by his Groucho eyebrows at the use of the phrase “good body”) and really smooth, this wine got consistent voting – no magnificents, no oks, no didn’t like its. Just 4 liked it – perfect for the family dinner table.

Detail Up!
Austrian – Pinot Noir Gesellman Siglos 2004 from Bergenland, Austria
French – Pinot Noir Bonnes & Guerre 2009 from Burgundy, France

Random Googles:
* Pinot Noir = Black Pine(cone) – see a bunch, you’ll get it.
* Spätburgunder – the unpronounceable German name for Pinot and, consequently, the reason we call it “Pinot”
* Monks grew Pinot in Burgundy for about 1,600 years until they had their lands seized in the French Revolution – apparently, they still have a lot of monasteries among the vineyards.

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