A Rainbow of Roses from Provence
From Slovenian wow whites to salmon-hued Provence roses
When I was invited to a lunch at Ai Fiori for wines from Slovenia
(being introduced to America for the first time), I was skeptical. I’d gone to some disastrous tastings in the past—wines from India and Bulgaria come to mind—and had somewhat resolved to shun wines from places that had little or no time-tested pedigree (time-tested in terms of modern winemaking techniques, that is). I accepted this invitation for two reasons: first because it was at Ai Fiori (which just had gotten three stars from the New York Times); and second because I was curious.
Slovenia used to be part of Yugoslavia, and winemaking there goes back to Roman times: the 15th and 16th centuries BC. The Pullus winery presentation started off with the winemaker and importer establishing Pullus’ pedigree, tracing its cellar location back to 1239 and claiming to have the oldest grape vine in the world (400 years old). At first, the whole tone of the tasting was highly formal and solemn with lots of speechifying; it felt like something out of Communist times with Tito (years ago I visited Tito’s summer residence in Yugoslavia and got a sense of a stiffness from the cold, formal interiors).
The young winemaker, Bojan Kobal—who spoke English quite well and was boyishly handsome in that clean-cut Eastern European way—led up to his tasting with an exhaustive history and terroir lesson, giving details of the gravel, clay and marl soil and the sub-Pannonian climate, etc. (This is the part of being a wine writer I don’t care for: the sessions with tedious and detailed analysis of the soil and climate influences and the weather reports for each vintage year.) But then the big surprise came when we tasted through the Pullus Slovenian wines.
The first wine, Welsch Rielsling 2009 ($15) was fresh and fruity with tropical flavors and a perfect acidity: A truly exciting wine. Next, the Pinot Grigio ($15) was again fresh, fruity with an unusual light pink color, and simply lovely. The Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($15) was powerful and expressive with notes of tomato leaf and black currant, a touch of grapefruit and passion fruit both on the nose and taste. Another Sauvignon Blanc called Pullus G 2009 ($20), was a delicate, delicious wine. And the last white, Traminer G 2008 ($20) had wild rose, lychee, bright citrus notes, even honey on the nose. These five Slovenian whites totally wowed me. The wines were well-made, highly flavorful, balanced, enticing.
While tasting the wines, Bojan described them in such detail, telling exactly how he made each one, that I almost felt as if I could enter the Pullus winery and make them myself. He presented two reds, both pinot noir (which I was not as crazy about as the whites). The Pullus Pinot Noir 2009 ($15) was savory and balanced, made from old vines, but I found it slightly vegetal, like the style of certain South African reds. Another journalist, Peter Hellman, a buddy who often sits next to me at tastings (and whispers his opinions in my ear), thought the Pinot Noir was really quite good, especially for that price. The tasting ended with the Pullus G Sweet 2009 ($35) made of yellow Muscat with a lovely apricot flavor and again it was a triumph—like the others, it has been taking medals and just got “best in show” at the prestigious San Francisco wine competition.
And the cuisine at Ai Fiori didn’t disappoint either. Our reward for listing to almost two hours of weather reports and wine notes was a lunch featuring Ligurian crustacean ragout with scallops and spiced mollica and the most extraordinary high design platter with lobster tails and claws set against strips of grilled pink grapefruit. The Sauvignon Blanc soared against this lobster dish.
Lucky me. On a dark, rainy Monday I started the morning tasting Provence rosés from about 20 wineries, all having just arrived from France for the summer season. It’s always a thrill to taste the new vintage and envision yourself drinking rosé on the deck of an oceanfront Hamptons house while grilling sardines on the barbeque.
I entered the room and like a magnet was drawn to Chateau Minuty, which has the most beguiling pale salmon color and comes in an iconic bottle (shaped like a bowling pin). It’s all estate grown and bottled and is the true prestige insider’s brand, i.e. among those people who know Domaines Ott—the most expensive rosé, considered the Chateau d’Yquem of the rosé world—but who like the softer price of Chateau Minuty Prestige ($30). This year, the brand is releasing a new wine, Rosé et Or ($45), another gorgeous translucent pale salmon hue made from 95 percent Grenache and 5 percent Syrah. Chateau Minuty is served in all of Andre Balazs’ properties from Chateau Marmont in LA to Sunset Beach on Shelter Island and also often at my own property (especially because I can’t afford Domaines Ott).
I skipped from table to table led by color. I am partial to the light orange and light pink more so than darker pinks. The darker pinks are all-year-round rosés and are better food wines, whereas the lighter-hued rosés are my choice for spring and summer sipping before dinner. Next was the lovely Chateau Sainte Marguerite—set one 124 acres sea with palm trees and a pine forest facing the Mediterranean between St. Tropez and Toulon—which also displayed an iridescent pale orange. The domaine has a cru classe classification for its high standards. Esprit de Sainte Marguerite ($18), from organically farmed grapes, had notes of exotic fruit and raspberries.
Domaine Houchart, near Aix en Provence at the foot of Mount St. Victoire, is an historic 200-acre estate where in the 1850s, Cezanne used to meet with owner Aurelien Houchart. Domaine Houchart Cotes de Provence Rose ($12) had flavors of strawberry, white peach and almond and sported a lovely label with a gold and green pattern modeled after a period ball gown.
I followed my eye to the next pale pink to Chateau D’Esclans, which is a grand estate in the heart of Provence. Chateau D’ Esclans Whispering Angel ($20) is made from Grenache with a little Rolle (which is the secret to their blend) and Syrah, Cinsault and Tibouren and is vinified in stainless steel. The winery’s consulting oenologist, Patrick Leon, worked with Mouton Rothschild for two decades, and is creating some rosés that are not just simple summer picnic wines. Chateau D’Esclans “Les Clans” ($60) is made from 50- to 80-year-old vines and is aged, Burgundian style, in new and second-year 600 liter barrels for 10 months. The winery made only seven barrels of this for the whole world. The result? Les Clans tastes more like a great Meursault (Cote de Beaune Burgundy) and is one of the few rosés meant to age. In fact the pourer told me that at a recent dinner party, chef Charlie Trotter prepared his famous rabbit terrine and paired it with Les Clans.
There’s always an active debate in the wine world about oak-aging. Should all wines get the expensive oak treatment? French oak barrels cost close to $1000 each and put the price of wine way up accordingly. Winemakers throughout the world seem overly addicted to giving every grape variety oak aging and in doing so, think they will get more respect for their wines. In Greece winemakers are taking fabulous fresh whites like Assyrtiko from Santorini and aging them in oak. I say let a Greek Santorini be oak-free and fresh and let a rosé be a rosé—true to its original self, inexpensive, playful and not pompous. It’s Provence after all