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A Tasting Odyssey in Three Parts

Part 1: The Midwest Comes East

On September 9 and 10, Rosenthal Wine Merchant hosted a group of its distributors and their top clients from the Midwest states of Wisconsin, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado at its warehouse in New York City.

Just a few years ago it was difficult, or impossible, to find Rosenthal wines in most of these markets.  But due to the hard work, imagination and dedication to a philosophy that is shared among the participants, the selections of RWM are making their way to the tables of many restaurants, to stores and ultimately to their clients.

Attendees were: from Wisconsin, Les Huisman of  Block 34 – our distributor – accompanied by Ben Christiansen, owner of Waterford Wines; from Nebraska: Mark McDonald from our distributor The Italian Vine accompanied by Matthew Brown of V. Mertz restaurant; from Missouri: Bradley Atwell owner of Vinoteca Wine Distributors and James Coley from Gomer’s Midtown wine shop; from Colorado: Tim Bowen, who distributes our wines through Natural Wine Company and Bruce Conklin of Old Major restaurant; and our lone representative from the Lone Star State was John Roenigk, proprietor of the venerable shop The Austin Wine Merchant.

Once the group was assembled in our offices overlooking the warehouse, Neal began the tasting. We covered a large swath of categories—Aromatic Whites, Mountain Whites, Mountain Reds, White Burgundy, Cru Beaujolais, Red Burgundy, Northern Rhone, and Provence/Languedoc—a four hour immersion in the RWM portfolio. Neal, in his fashion, wore multiple hats: philosopher, historian, geographer, even evangelist, all for the purpose of explaining how each of the wines on display gives voice to terroir.

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Neal presents his wines to the group

The Savennieres from Chateau L’Eperonniere and Chateau Soucherie were singled out for maintaining the tradition of the appellation; i.e., eschewing the gloss of new oak in favor of the classic waxy, mineral-driven Savennières profile. Later, we succumbed to the charms of cru Beaujolais, tasting, among others,  a Pascal Granger Julienas “Cuvee Speciale” 2010 that offered notes of kirsch and violets, with a pleasing gamey quality. The joy of this frequently overlooked section of Burgundy was in full view.

Another highlight of the afternoon was a group of wines from the Northern Rhone.  Neal introduced to the group two traditional Cornas growers and declared his infatuation with these funky, formidable, terroir-driven wines. True to their reputation, the Domaine Lionnet “Terre Brulée” Cornas 2007 and the Guillaume Gilles Cornas 2008 were “ornery” (to use Neal’s word) but very engaging, reminiscent of leather, tar, black cherry and granite. To close out the first session, the grand red wines of Chateau Simone, Chateau Pradeaux and Mas Jullien provided the coup de grace.

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Dinner at Marea

Part 2: Dinner at Marea

Dinner was an elegant affair at Marea, and our group was dressed to the nines—Ben Christiansen even successfully sported an ascot—it was Fashion Week after all.   We started with a pair of wines from Paolo Bea, the 2010 Santa Chiara and the 2009 Arboreus (the 2008 is described in detail here). Both wines expressed great depth and the full body that comes from extended skin maceration, while still expressing their Umbrian terroir.

To accompany the second course, we moved into Burgundy with a duo of wines from Edmond and Pierre Cornu, our long-time suppliers from the village of Ladoix.  Their Aloxe-Corton 1er Cru “Les Valozieres” 2005 was the quintessential statesman for this sometimes difficult but often satisfying appellation and its charms were in stark counterpoint to the elegant, still youthful Corton-Bressandes Grand Cru 1990, drawn from Neal’s cellar and served from magnum. The Valozieres opened up beautifully over the course of the evening, and the Corton-Bressands was in a generous place, showing bright cherries and a distinctive minerality.

Later in the evening, to provide a proper immersion in the terroir of Aloxe and its neighbor Ladoix, Neal offered another wine he brought from home and served it “blind” to all assembled. Burgundy was on nearly everyone’s lips but its age and exact origins were a mystery. After some gallant guesswork, the wine was revealed to be a Cornu Aloxe Corton 1er Cru “Les Moutottes” from 1985. Even twenty years apart, the contrast in the structure between the Valozieres and Moutottes was clear: Valozieres is a wine of firm tannins, persistent and monumental, while Moutottes is much more graceful and feminine on the palate, a 1er Cru whose origins speak of its location close to Ladoix.

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Cortons in the rounder glasses, Sagrantino in the taller glasses

We returned to Paolo Bea during our third course, tasting two Sagrantino di Montefalco wines from the Pagliaro vineyard, one from 2006 and the other from 1996. Bea’s ability to balance the tough tannins of Sagrantino by showcasing a meatiness and earthiness is unmatched. It was an excellent lesson that Sagrantino doesn’t have to be avoided in its youth if you give it a good decanting (if you can call a 7 year old wine “young”), and can be a satisfying accompaniment to a variety of foods.

The meal concluded with two impressive sweet wines: the 2003 Paolo Bea Sagrantino Passito and the 2001 Vin Santo from Villa Sant’Anna. Produced in extremely limited quantities, these two wines made for an interesting comparison. In both cases, late harvest grapes undergo months of air-drying in cellar, where they are left to mature for years following vinification. However, the parallel stops with the winemakers’ differing approaches to élevage: while Bea matures his Sagrantino Passito in stainless steel tanks and in bottle, the women of Villa Sant’Anna allow their Vin Santo to age in very old, small oak barrels deep in their caves.  Upon tasting, the Vin Santo has a more mature, nutty character than the Sagrantino Passito, which is indicative of the Vin Santo’s  greater exposure to the atmosphere of the cellar (wood being more porous than metal) during élevage.  An enjoyable, distinctive savory note stood out in both wines, yet each showed the individual characteristics of their terroir and cepage. Due to their complexity, these wines were wonderful when paired with chocolate or beignets, and matched well with the mushroom risotto that one member of our group ordered for dessert.

This last point merits special attention, as sweet wines are far too often constrained to the “dessert” category. We avoid calling any wine a “dessert wine”, as this precludes delicious pairings with savory dishes.  Neal mouthwateringly described his success pairing the Bea Sagrantino Passito with a slightly charred grilled duck breast brushed with chestnut honey, and his favorite foil for the Vin Santo is hazelnut crostata, which compliments the nuttiness of the wine.  The memory of these wines lingered long after we left the restaurant.

You can see our complete menu here: Rosenthal Marea Menu.

Part 3: Bubbly, Bordeaux, Barolo and Brunello

Short on sleep, the group reconvened at the warehouse Tuesday morning to taste a few more flights from the RWM portfolio. Starting with sparkling wines, we moved into Bordeaux, Tuscany, and finally Piedmont. The Bordeaux were an excellent exposition of classic terroir-driven wines, exhibiting their breeding by dint of the fact that their alcohol levels are still modest.  Of particular note was the terrific showing of the 2007 St Julien from Domaine du Jaugaret, which demonstrated how even a difficult vintage can yield stunning wines in the right hands. This wine was drinking beautifully at this early stage, and would be the vintage to drink in the near future, leaving the more structured vintages in the cellar.

As we made our way through each region, the group seemed especially taken with the wines of the Alto Piemonte, including a 2007 Lessona from Massimo Clerico, a 2006 Gattinara from Monsecco and a 2005 Ghemme Riserva from Rovellotti. These estates are relatively new to the Rosenthal portfolio, and are from appellations that continue to be difficult to find in much of the United States. Each producer has a distinct version of Nebbiolo, expressive of his respective appellation and personal style. From the ethereal and aromatic Lessona, to the dense 2008 Barolo ‘Rupestris’ from Cappellano, the range of nuance from one noble grape is always a joy to explore.