About this Blog

The blog focuses on the essence of wine and food, not how many points or stars it receives. The opinions are mine and should be taken only as that, an opinion not gospel.

Like many collectors, initially I was very much influenced by wine ratings. I purchased wines based on points, even if I had never tasted the wine. And it was much worse than that. I would drink a wine with a high rating, not like it, yet since it was highly rated I’d rationalize that I did not yet appreciate the wine, or that my palate was not sophisticated enough to understand the wine. How’s that for lunacy? As a result my cellar grew in all directions while my palate narrowed. By the time I realized the style of wine that I enjoyed, my cellar abounded with wines whose styles I did not enjoy. All of these wines were very highly rated, just not my cup of tea, or glass of wine to be more accurate. Fortunately I was able to sell many of these wines to those who either enjoyed them or wanted highly rated wines. Don’t misunderstand, I am not against wines with high ratings, in fact I own many. It is just that I now purchase wines based on the producer, the style and my palate, not the rating. Nor do I shun reading reviews. I very much respect Antonio Galloni, Alan Meadows, Eric Asimov and John Gilman and read their reviews routinely. I pay attention to what they write, not the points they award.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rockin’ & Rhonen’

Our local wine group met this past Wednesday evening.  The venue was once again Sette Cucina Italiana in Bernardsville.  Regular readers of my posts know that we frequent the restaurant quite frequently, and why not as owner/chef Allan Russo never fails to delight us with his simply prepared dishes made from high quality ingredients.  This night was no exception.

Food Highlights

Saffron Cream Mussels - In my opinion mussels can only be great or terrible.  When overcooked it's like eating cardboard.  Properly cooked, they are plump and briny crustaceans that take you back to the sea with each bite, as these were tonight.

Homemade Sweet Italian Sausage w/Broccoli Rape - An Italian classic, the dish was prepared with a touch of red pepper flakes and fresh Reggiano Parmigianno cheese.  The fork tender broccoli was a perfect foil for the delicious and expertly prepared sausage.

Homemade Tagliatelle Bolognese - On our last visit here Allan made us Spaghetti Bolognese that we raved about.  Tonight's version with a homemade and thicker pasta was lightly bathed in a delicate meat sauce was simply magical.

Short Ribs of Beef - Served boneless in a red wine sauce, they literally fell apart in the mouth. Simply delicious.

Millefoglie - Pure decadence...and oh so good with a properly made Espresso.


Emil was in the queue to select and bring the wine.  He chose wines from France’s Rhone Valley, two reds from the Northern Rhone and 3 reds from the Southern Rhone.  His selections blew us away.  More about them momentarily after a bit of history regarding the Rhone Valley.  

The reds of the Northern Rhone are all made from 100% Syrah grapes.  Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph are perhaps the most familiar of the eight appellations that make up the region.  The climate here is quite different than the Southern Rhone. The average temperatures are much cooler. There is more rain. The growing season is shorter and the region often experiences changes in each of the 4 seasons. That unique Mediterranean climate and steep hillside terroir, with its rocky soils are perfect for growing the grapes allowed in the region. The natural moisture added to the vines from the Rhone river is an essential part of the regions micro climates and terroir. Temperatures in Hermitage and Cornas are slightly warmer than the rest of the region and Cote Rotie, being the furthest north, will have the coolest temperatures.

The Southern Rhone Valley is a much larger area than the Northern Rhone. Close to 95% of all wines in the Rhone come from the Southern Rhone.  Wines from the Southern Rhone are generally speaking, lighter, sweeter, more open, and more alcoholic than wines from the Northern Rhone. Chateauneuf du Pape is the undisputed King of the Southern Rhone Valley. CdP laws allow for the use of all 15 different grape varietals in the wine.  While there are a couple of producers, Beaucastel of note, who utilize all 15, most use the Grenache grape predominantly or exclusively.  

Emil started off with two amazing wines from the Northern Rhone.  Jean Louis Chave and E. Guigal are two of the most famous producers in the region.  Their wines are fantastic expressions of how good Syrah can be, but alas they are very, very expensive.  Emil selected two wines from the heretofore unknown to us producer, Pierre Gonon.  While I have enjoyed both Chave and Guigal in the past, these wines would easily hold their own if drunk alongside either or both.
Today Pierre’s sons Jean and Pierre run the estate. In 2004 they purchased vineyards from the legendary Raymond Trollat, who retired in 2005.  The brothers farm and ferment their grapes in the old-school style…all vines are from sélection massale (best of the best), low yields, hand harvested grapes and only indigenous yeasts.  They work their nine hectares of land without any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, using all-natural composts.  Once in the cellar, they ferment the wines traditionally in open, oak vats, with regular punch-downs by foot.  The good news is that these are reasonably priced wines.  The bad news is they are rare and extremely hard to find.

2014 Domaine Pierre Gonon Vin de Pays de l’Ardecje “Les Iles Feray.  Vin de Pays translates to “country wine”, which is above table wine, but below AOC designate wine.  While still considered within the Saint Joseph appellation, the brothers choose to bottle this younger vine Syrah separately from their flagship appellation cuvée.  They feel the vineyard location on flatland close to the bank of the Rhône does not posses the same granite base as is typical of the hillside sites and thus while a wonderful Syrah in its own right, the brothers do not consider it of the same caliber as the wine born of the hillside parcels.  While they may not consider it of the same caliber, we considered it a terrific wine.  The wine possessed a deep purple hue, earthy bouquet and a light, velvety palate.  It was a wine marked more by freshness than depth and complexity. It was delicious, and unfortunately virtually impossible to find.  If you can find it expect to pay around $40.  A great value. 

The Saint-Joseph appellation is the largest in the Northern Rhone Valley with more than 100 different growers. While the wines don’t enjoy the glamour of those from Hermitage and Cote-Rotie they do not command the high prices either.  They are beautiful expressions of the Syrah grape and do not require as much aging as the big boys do.

2012 Domaine Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph Rouge.  We drank this alongside the Vin de Pays. Like the Vin de pays the wine is made from selection massale from 6 vineyards, old and new. The grapes are partially de-stemmed with vinification taking place in large open vats.  The wine ages for 14 to 16 months and is racked twice during this time.  Like the wine before it only 35,000 bottles are produced annually.  Similar to the Vin de Pays, the wine it had a deep purple hue with an enticing earthy bouquet of ripe fruit.  The wine showed amazing depth, balance and complexity.  The finish was long and elegant.  It was the best Saint-Joseph Syrah I have ever had…and I have had the JL Chave.  Unfortunately it will be impossible to find.  If you can find it expect to pay $75+.

For the Southern Rhone wines Emil selected 3 from the iconic Chateau Rayas.  Along with Henri Bonneau, Rayas is considered by most collectors, myself included, to be the finest producer of traditionally made Chateauneuf du Pape.  Importer Martine Saunier says of Rayas CdP, "It is a truly unusual wine that demands to be aged at least five to 15 years.  Personally, I describe it as the Montrachet of the Rhône Valley."

2003 Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape Pignan Reserve.  The “second” wine of Rayas CdP.  As I understand it, fruit that does not meet the standards to be bottled as Rayas Reserve CdP, is bottled separately as Pignan Reserve.  A remarkable CdP, made from 100% Grenache, it is, in my opinion, better than most other highly acclaimed CdP Reserves.  2003 was an extremely hot year resulting in wines of high alcohol and low acidity.  Despite these conditions, and the somewhat high alcohol level, Rayas made a terrific wine.  Tonight’s wine had a bit of barnyard on the nose when first poured into the glass that quickly dissipated with a few minutes of air.  The peppery palate was beautifully balanced with sublime focus and complexity.  The high alcohol was seamlessly integrated and the wine finished with length and elegance.  Rayas wines are highly allocated and very difficult to find as this vintage is. 

1999 Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve and 1998 Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve completed the evening.  What glorious wines.  I find it hard to find the right adjectives to describe Rayas CdP other than to say the wines are always round and delicious and finish with unbelievable length and elegance. That was the case with both of these wines. We did agree that the ’98 possessed a bit more depth than the ’99. These wines are available, but expect to pay upwards of $450 a bottle. Wine-Searcher.

Emil, what can I say but thank you so much for your generosity and treating us to 5 fantastic wines.


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