Monday, September 28, 2009

Burgundy, Domaine Chanson & The Phoenix

I’m going to relive the Phoenix’s recent wine dinner -- not just so you all get to hear about how perfectly cooked the lamb was, how fresh the vegetables tasted, or what absolutely splendid pairings got rolled out for us during the course of the evening.

I hadn’t had the opportunity to try that many Burgundies at once (there were six -- three red and three white) to get a sense of the variations in flavor and style. The experience was reminiscent of this May at the Vintner Select anniversary celebration when I had the chance to plow through flights of Barolo and Barbaresco. I’ll share my observations, but I’ll back up a bit and give a little background on the region first.

As I’ve mentioned before, understanding French wine can be notoriously tricky. (I’ve barely made a dent in what I feel like I need to know, honestly.) French wines are labeled by region of origin rather than by grape; each region may have a number of subregions, each of which can have its own blend of grapes; names can be very similar; quality can vary wildly by vintage for various reasons; and so on. Burgundy is one of the easiest wine regions in France to understand. Just remember this:

Reds are made from Pinot Noir. Whites are made from Chardonnay.

That’s all you need to know to start.

(Yes, like all rules – there are exceptions. The lovely light reds from the Beaujolais subregion are made from Gamay, and there are a few places that grow a couple of places that grow a couple of other varietals, but 90+% of the time anything with "Bourgogne" on the label is from one of those two grapes.)

The Burgundy region can be roughly divided into three parts. The northern part is known as the Côte d’Or, home of many of the highest quality Burgundies. The Côte d’Or is also subdivided into two regions – Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. The former is known best for reds and the latter for whites, although each region produces both.

The middle third of the region is made up of the Côte Chalonnaise and Maconnais regions. This part produces many of the more inexpensive wines in Burgundy, including many that I’ve written about in other columns. Maconnais, especially, cranks out a huge percentage of the white table wine from Burgundy. The bottom third is the Beaujolais region, which is a whole other animal, making the light reds I referred to above. If you want to know more about those wines, go here.

About 60 miles northwest of the Côte d’Or, is the Chablis region, known (of course) for whites. Chablis, much like Burgundy, has a negative connotation in the minds of many, as these names were bastardized and stolen by California winemakers in the 70's, who cranked out jug after jug of plonk. The chardonnays produced in Chablis, France are...shall we say...a bit tastier.

There’s a classification system for wines in Burgundy, based on the quality of the terroir from which the grapes originate. This differs from the individual chateau classification in Bordeaux, which doesn’t follow regional terroir differences, in general. The classifications run, in descending order: Grand Cru (named by vineyard -- can cost in the thousands per bottle); Premier Cru (sometimes written “1er cru” – and named by vineyard and village); Village (named by…well…village); Subregional (from a slightly larger area – like Macon-Villages) and Regional (simply called “Bourgogne”). Chablis has its own measures of quality, but are still termed Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Village. There’s also a “Petit Chablis” designation, which roughly relates to subregional.

The wines we had, as you'll see later, were mostly village level, with one regional and one 1er cru thrown in.

To dinner...The Phoenix is a beautifully designed former gentleman's club built in downtown Cincinnati in 1893. (Think scotch & cigars, not pasties & poles.) The Phoenix is now largely a banquet and reception center, but manager of 19 years Kent Vandersall has a fairly steady stream of special events, wine dinners, and the like in the restaurant. If you haven't seen the interior of this place, it's worth the price of admission to one of these events just to have a look. It's quite remarkable, both from an architectural perspective and from the "Wow!" factor. Kent runs a tight operation. The service was exceptional and he made us, as first-time guests, feel quite welcome.

This event featured the wines of Domaine Chanson Pere et Fils, one of the older continually operating producers in Burgundy. They've been making wine in this region for about 250 years. (According to Sophie Baldo, Chanson's export manager, who "emceed" the tasting -- they are one of the five original houses in the region.) They own vineyards across Burgundy, but they've got a fascinating storage system for their wines. The town of Beaune, the heart of the Côte du Beaune, where the winery lives, is a walled city. The walls range from 8-12 feet thick. This allows the storage of the wine within the old walls, and Chanson does exactly that. As a result -- they own one of the world's only wine cellars in which you walk upwards from the entrance. (Seriously, I must see this someday...)

Until recently, their wines have not been widely marketed in the States, but according to Ed Hernandez, their domestic marketing manager (who we had the pleasure of swapping stories with during dinner), this is about to change markedly.

So, aside from the incredible cuisine -- what made this meal stand out so much for me? Contrast. Even though only two grapes were used in all of the wines, the flavors were all over the map. I'll take this course by course to give you an idea (and maybe make you a little jealous):

Reception: Chanson Vire-Clesse 2006 ($18-27/bottle retail) -- Kicked off the evening with...not a bang, exactly, but certainly an appetite-whetting aperitif. Vire-Clesse is a town in the Maconnais, near Pouilly-Fuisse. I loved the nose on this wine. In my experience, chardonnays aren't usually quite this floral, and I thought it smelled of strawberries. The flavor was very crisp and lightly acidic, but with a nice spice and structure. An excellent palate preparation.

First Course: Honey Lime Shrimp, Capellini w/Chanson Chablis 2007 ($20-30)-- A classic example of good Chablis. Plenty of minerality and acidity, floral and citrus scents, and a long, crisp finish that absolutely screams for pairing with something light like shellfish. The shrimp and capellini that we had with it was actually one of our favorite courses. The flavors were very delicate, and they married wonderfully with the wine's citrus.

Second Course: Arctic Char with White Beans, Mushrooms, and Dried Tomatoes w/Chanson Meursault 2006 ($45-60) -- My inexperience with white Burgundy had me unprepared for this wine. This wine had an incredible amount of strength and depth for a white. I was interested to hear from Sophie that Chanson ages their wines in older casks, so as not to overoak and obscure the flavors of the grapes. In this case, what they created was an incredibly complex, melony, slightly smoky wine that was full-bodied without feeling overly heavy. Paired up with a fish that's a cross between trout and salmon and those earthier vegetables, the wine stood up nicely and was able to handle the oil in the fish, which was prepared to perfection. Delightful.

Third Course: Rosemary Dijon Lamb Chops with Swiss Chard w/Chanson Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2006 -- This wine was the first of the reds. This is a regional-level wine, made from select grapes grown all across the Côte d'Or. It was a very "refreshing" red wine. Quite fruit forward, but with some very nice spice on the back end that made it very interesting. On its own, an excellent wine, but with the tiny lamb chops seasoned and roasted to a pinnacle of flavor, it made a wonderful compliment for the fairly delicate but numerous flavors of the lamb. In my opinion, as this is such an incredibly flexible wine, this was probably the best value of the night at $18-22 a bottle.

Fourth Course: Veal Marengo, Creamed Whipped Parsnips w/Chanson Beaune Clos des Mouches 1er Cru 2006 -- The showstopper. I tasted this wine and my eyes literally rolled back in my head. I'd never tasted a pinot noir this good, and I've tasted very few wines of this quality, period. (I can only imagine the state in which a grand cru might have left me. Descriptions might violate some blue laws.) Powerful, yet delicate, this wine wrapped my palate in layer after layer of smoke, spices, cherries, and other flavors that I couldn't even identify. Incredible balance. But tasting notes don't do this wine justice. The world got quiet when I tasted this wine. Alas, this was the one food pairing of the evening that didn't quite work for me. The richness of the veal stew that it was paired with overwhelmed all of the delicate flavor in the wine. I ended up drinking less than half the glass and putting the rest aside for later. The SPinC did not, but managed to sweet talk her way into another glass so she could do a side-by-side with the next course. This wine is only starting to become available in the states, and will set you back around $90. And yes, I bought a bottle to lay up for awhile. Even at this price, it was irresistible. It's apparently fine to age for 20-25 years, so this joins the "target date" wines in our cellar.

Fifth Course: Filet of Beef, Carrots Parisienne, Pinot Noir Demi w/Chanson Gevrey-Chambertin 2005 ($40-60) -- Of the grand cru pinot noir vineyards in the Côte d'Or, 24 of the 25 are in the Côte de Nuits. Tasting this back to back with the Clos des Mouches gave me a wonderful sense of the difference between the wines from the two parts of the Côte d'Or. The Côte de Beaune reds, as I learned, are traditionally much more delicate than the Côte de Nuits. The Gevrey-Chambertin was a lovely illustration of the power of the Côte de Nuits. This was a much more powerful wine. Lots of licorice and vanilla on the flavors, and a much deeper level of fruit, along with a great deal of tannin for a pinot noir. It's understandable why this wine would be set up next to a filet. I think this was the first time I'd had a pinot paired with a steak, and this one certainly had the heft to make a side dish, especially with the fabulous demiglace drizzled across the filet and carrots. While I preferred that pairing, the SPinC actually preferred the Clos des Mouches. Since the filet was roasted instead of grilled, she thought that the meat was delicate and light (or as delicate and light as beef can be) enough to stand up to the filet.

Sixth course: Fruit and Truffles. Exactly what it sounds like. Handmade chocolate yummies and some berries to nosh on while we finished the last of our wonderful wine, chatted a bit more, and eventually made our way out with smiles on our faces. For the record, the Gevrey-Chambertin went much better with the chocolate and dark fruits.

I'd definitely recommend checking out some of the special events at the Phoenix if you're looking for a good way to spend an evening. Many thanks to Ed, Sophie, and Stacey Meyer from Heidelberg Distributing for organizing the meal, to Kent for a wonderfully designed meal to complement these wonderful wines, and to the winemakers at Chanson for a slice of bliss.

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