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Wednesday Wraparound

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I’ve been getting into a category of wine I don’t write about much, dessert wines. Although they’re largely absent from my consciousness for much of the year, about this time they start coming in for review, probably, I suspect, for the holidays. Right now I’m drinking and vastly enjoying Quady’s 2009 Essensia Orange Muscat. It’s decadently sweet, and to sip it you’d swear you were transported to some heaven where the streets are lined with oranges and tangerines. At just $25 for a full 750-milliliter bottle (most dessert wines are in 375s), it’s a good value. I could see drinking this wine almost anytime–at lunch with a smoked trout salad or ham sandwich, at 5 p.m. as a refreshing cocktail, even during dinner with a steak. Steak and Orange Muscat? Why not. Professor Saintsbury reports a dinner he served, probably in the late 1800s, at which 1870 Yquem was paired with “consommé and grilled red mullet” and another when “Sauterne, 1874” went with a “Zootje of Sole” and “Mutton Cutlets.” (And as best as I can tell, “Zootje” is a traditional Dutch dish of poached sole and potatoes in a butter sauce.) Then there is the marriage of Yquem with roast beef, a combination that goes back at least to the 19th century, and was resurrected (in Jeremiah Tower’s first book, “New American Classics”), in which he praised Yquem with with a ”rich, aged, perfectly cooked roast beef.”

So Orange Muscat and steak isn’t a stretch.

* * *

I’m reading a terrific wine book, Rhône Renaissance, by Remington Norman, with a forward by Hugh Johnson. Although it was published more than ten years ago, I’d never heard of it, until I found it in a local used bookstore. At $2.99, I had to snatch it up.

It’s definitely in the Johnson mold, hard-covered, good paper, great, detailed maps and written in a literary style (although it is not without typos. I don’t think I ever saw a typo in a Hugh Johnson book). I’m reading the section on Côte-Rôtie and am struck, once again, by the complexities and peculiarities of France’s appellation system. The Côte-Rôtie appellation apparently has been changed several times in recent decades, swelling to far beyond its original 1940 boundaries until it had extended into areas that were patently unsuitable. The result of that was a 1993 readjustment of the boundaries that shrank it back to its present size. It all goes to show how political appellation lines are, although it must also be conceded that, in the best of cases, they rest on firm realities. In the case of Côte-Rôtie, of course, these realities include, most importantly, southern or southeastern exposures and steep slopes. The actual Côte-Rôtie appellation makes a great deal of sense.

What appellations in California make the most sense? It’s easier to list the ones that don’t, which would be most of them. The bigger an appellation is, the less you can say about it, except in the most general terms. “Burgundy” and “Sonoma County” both are big appellations; the former makes a little more sense because the authorities limit the grapes there, so at least you can declare that a red Burgundy will have a certain varietal character. You can’t say that about a red Sonoma County wine, which could be made from any variety in the world. So “Sonoma County” is of limited usefulness, unless you believe that, if it comes from Sonoma County, it must be good.

But just because an appellation is small is equally meaningless. The smallest AVAs in California, by acreage, are Cole Ranch (150), El Dorado (416) and McDowell Valley (540). There’s not much you can say about any of these. (“El Dorado” is not the same as “El Dorado County,” which measures 410,000 acres.) On the other hand, the fourth-smallest AVA in California (I’m going by Wine Institute figures) is Anderson Valley, at 600 acres, and you can definitely point out a distinguishing, and fine, character to its wines. So let’s postulate for now that Anderson Valley is the sine qua non of California appellations.

Another point that author Norman makes in Rhône Renaissance is how, when Côtie-Rôtie had fallen more or less into irrelevance, its boosters did certain things to restore it to its previous greatness. They lured in investment money to replant on the best slopes. They formed a Syndicat, or regional growers association. They created a tourist infrastructure in and around the town of Ampuis, with restaurants, shops and winery signposts. They “brought…media to the region in unprecedented numbers.” Surely, these are lessons some California appellations have learned, and that others are in the process of learning.

  1. Question, Steve. Sweet dessert wines are noted/reknowned for their ability to age…Sauternes, German Riesling, Italian passito, Porto, Calif BA/TBA’s, Vin Santa, etc. Some of the most incredible old wines I’ve had have been old dessert wines. Typically, as they age & develop complexity, the “dry out” some…taste less sweet..as they develop complexity. Clueless as to where that RS goes to.
    The Quady Elysium is an example of Calif Angelica (ratafia in France)… wine that is allowed to ferment up to 0.5% alcohol (by law it must be..though I doubt that anyone in Calif follows the letter of the law) and then fortified w/ brandy/grape spirits up to 18% to stop fermentation and retain all that RS to give it sweetness.
    The question: Do you have any experience w/ Calif Angelica, such as Andy’s Essensia or Elysium, on how they age in the bottle? Any guess how long the Elysium will last?
    Tom

  2. Forgot to mention….the RemingtonNorman book is a terrific read..highly informative.
    And the new look is tres chic.
    Tom

  3. TomHill, I couldn’t begin to guess how long the Elysium will last but I don’t see any reason to cellar it. I think Elysium and Essensia are wines to drink now.

  4. Steve,
    Thoughtful post.
    The “Anderson Valley is the sine qua non of California appellations” due to the area’s fairly marginal climatic conditions for Bordeaux & Northern Rhône varieties (2nd maturity group); and forbidding climatic conditions for Midi & Southern Rhône varieties (3rd maturity group). In California’s coastal areas (with mild temperatures and extremely long growing seasons), on the other hand, one can grow virtually any variety.
    The latter reason allows the procedure of choosing varieties (in CA’s coastal areas) to be dissociated from strict site selection (climate, meso-climate and soils); pushing the decision-making process towards a pure economic and aesthetic rationale.
    Congrats on your new look!

  5. Tom:

    I had a bottle of Angelica about 10 years ago that was given to me by my father who got it from his father. The wine was supposedly made in the 1930′s and it was absolutely spectacular when I drank it. Notwithstanding the inability (or desire, for that matter) to divorce the wonderful experience I was having from the organoleptic evaluation, the wine had wonderful notes of vanilla and barrel spice, earthy/cigary notes and a sweetness that was not at all cloying. I kept the empty bottle corked in my cellar for years afterward so I could take my Proustian sniff every now and again.

  6. Steven, thanks for that note. We all have experiences with older California wines that blew us away, and I am appreciative that you took the time to share one of yours.

  7. The oldest wine I have ever tasted was 100 years old and my SF distributor Lorenzo Scarpone found it under the stairs in a San Francisco Italian Household. It was clearly made in a port style by the homeowner: sweet with higher alcohol. Apparently it was the style of the day and/or surely what that family enjoyed regularly enough that they made it themselves. I grew up drinking the same kind of wine that my grandfather, Lino Martinelli, made using his privately distilled high proof to stop the fermentation with some natural sugar leftover. Those wines were Heaven.

  8. The reason I posed the question to Steve was that I’ve had a number of Calif Angelicas (like the Heitz and the San Martin Montonico), usually made from Mission grapes, that were amazingly good, much like Steve describes. Some of these came from very old stocks over in EastSideWnry (where Andy started out). But, as I understand, they were aged in large glass carboys for yrs, sometimes in old oak.
    But my question was directed at Angelicas aged in the btl themselves. If had a couple of Andy’s Essencias from the early-mid-’82′s in the last few yrs that have showed precious little development, like any of the old Angelicas I’ve had.
    OTOH, I recently had a Pineau de Charentes (a ratafia) that was purchased back in the early ’70′s that was showing some of that development of old Angelica.
    Tom

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