July 17-24, 2016
Avignon – Lyon
Aboard the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s New Ship: The S.S. Catherine
Prices start at $4,274 per person, all inclusive
(Part 2 of a 2-part series; read Part 1 here.)
Imagine wine as possessing two disparate aspects or poles – the lower and the upper, that which goes down to the ground and that which ascends to the sky. The “bottom” of the wine is its skeletal structure, its power, its centeredness,1 its ability to tolerate oxidative challenge, which in some sense can be thought of as its “life-force,” and is certainly linked with its ageworthiness. I think that this aspect of the wine is a function in part of its tannins (derived from the seeds and stems of the grapes and wood tannin from the barrels), anthocyanins (derived from skins) as well as the mineral content of the grapes (a function of carefully restricted yields, and most importantly, of vines with a wide-ranging root system, grown in soils with healthy microbial flora). You can think of this as the “will” of the wine, its vector or intention, the lead in the pencil, as it were.
And then there is this other aspect to the wine – its more aetherial, dreamy or aspirational nature. This is the heady aspect of the wine, certainly linked to the alcohol and the fruity esters. Certainly Cigares d’antan possessed this element in spades; the wines were often so very “gracious,” pleasing, maybe a bit too eager to please.2 But there is another, slightly element in wine, allied to its “light” side and that would be the contribution of the lees, or yeast cells, as they autolyze and become digested into the wine. The lees can contribute a very lovely silky texture to the wine, as well as a certain savoriness, umami, the mysterious “fifth flavor.”3 Here’s where I think things can get very interesting: I think of the lees as the anima of a wine, its personal daemon, maybe its conscience, Ã la Jiminy Cricket, a remembrance of everywhere it has been. It (they)4 can represent the very best and the very worst of the wine – its brilliance and its extreme awkwardness. Integrating lees into a wine can be a bit like integrating the slightly messier aspects of one’s own psyche, those that one would rather keep under wraps. Certainly if the lees become a too dominant element, they end up more or less consuming the wine and there is very little left. But if they are successfully mastered and seamlessly folded in, they can make a marvelous contribution, knitting the disparate parts of the wine together. Ultimately I think of lees as sort of angel that must be wrestled and mastered, lest it consume the wine, rather than the other way round.
Now with the ’05 Cigare, after laboring lo, these many years, I believe we have finally achieved a greatly successful and dramatic integration of the lees and have come up with one of the great Cigares. We have restored Grenache to its rightful position as alpha grape in the cuvée (50% in the ’05), with an enormously successful result.
The wine, which is terribly closed for business when first opened (and benefits greatly from decanting), emerges cautiously out of its shell, like a wary turtle. First nose is earthy, slightly mushroomy and vaguely bouillon-esque, all of the tell-tale characteristics of Umami Central. With more air,5 the fruit begins to emerge from beneath the earthy stratum and one begins to detect notes of black fruit – Griotte cherries, blackberries, mulberries, and a floral aspect that recalls candied violets. With still more air emerges one of the loveliest noses that one finds in wine – licorice – but oddly and improbably, it seems as if you are synesthetically savoring its particular texture as you inhale. It’s not just black licorice, but the more disciplined and non-punishing red whips, as well, and one can’t imagine licorice whips without thinking of Michel Foucault, now can one?
The texture of the wine is slightly oily and velveteen and there is a finish that just doesn’t quit – it seems as if you’re getting 16 channels or tracks of information here, perhaps some being beamed in remotely from the Mother Ship, hovering overhead – undoubtedly, encoded secret messages. There is a “gathered” sense to the wine, and one apprehends that there is a certain core or nucleus to the wine – whether these are minerals or what, I couldn’t say. The wine is the embodiment of savoriness and I love it for the same reason I love Burgundy so much – infinitely mysterious and always beckoning one ever forward.
1 “Centeredness” or perhaps “balance” is probably the most difficult phenomenon to really characterize well. Certainly, a wine that has a certain exaggerated element, whether it be green tannin or an acidic imbalance or even a lack of primary “fruit”, will likely move in the direction of greater evidence of that imbalance over time. One thing I have definitely noted is that any sort of gross manipulation of the wine (saigner, use of reverse osmosis, “watering back,” or even acidulation beyond a certain point) will tend to enhance the risk of the wine moving in the direction of a vinous “gutter ball.”
2 Certainly this quality may have been linked with my unique psychodynamics and a strong desire to please. When this quality dominates either a wine or a personality, it definitely creates some untoward consequences.
3 Yeast cells are exceptionally rich in glutamate, so it is not unreasonable to think of their contribution almost as a sort of vinous MSG.
4 The usage of the word “lees” is normally in the plural form, but usage in the singular is also acceptable, as in this instance from Shakespeare: “The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of.” Lees are indeed very mysterious on many levels as this ambiguity suggests.
5 I cannot recommend decanting strongly enough.
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