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What I've Been Drinking Lately: Fresh as a Daisy
By John Anderson
Nov 9, 2022
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As keen readers of this column have perhaps noticed, my aim is in focusing on what I consider to be “bargain wines”—and, especially, those retailing for $25 and under.  I do so not least because these are the wines that I myself most often buy.  But also because I fear that too many wine buffs imagine that there’s nothing much really “interesting” worth discovering at such a price point and in such wines.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I was thinking this just the other day after buying a mixed bag of…bottles priced under $25.  And after opening a few.  Now I won’t pretend that every bottle that I opened thrilled me.  There were a couple of minor dry Loire whites—both in the $17-$18 a bottle range—that seemed a tad heavy or simply “clunky,” as my colleague Michael Apstein would say.

On the other hand, there were a couple of delicious red Burgundies that proved to be, as the Brits would say, “a real snip!”  Interestingly, the Burgundies came from the same producer and same importer, yet showed-up on the  shelves of a pair of competing stores in our suburban Westchester neighborhood.  Kudos to both stores!

The wines came from an old and admired source:  The famous Chalonnaise co-operative which, somewhat coyly, describes itself on labels as “Vignerons de Buxy,” and even more coyly—though quite legally—describes its products as “Mis en bouteilles à la propriété.”  To be fair, all the other French co-ops—or at least all the ones I know of—do the same thing.  And why not!

The Cave at Buxy is, as I say, famous, though mostly for its dry whites.  The members—“les adhérents,” as the French say—are the chief suppliers of Chalonnaise whites, and, especially, Montagny, to the major négociants in Beaune and elsewhere in Burgundy.  They also bottle these wines under their own labels.

The two examples of their reds which I bought—and thoroughly enjoyed—were, first, a 2020 Mercurey “Buissonier” ($23) and, secondly, a 2019 Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise Pinot Noir “Buissonier” ($17).  Mercurey rouge can, and often is, rather rustic.  This was anything but.  Nose and palate alike reminded me of red currants, and, in particular, good red currant jelly, from, say a nice, freshly opened Tiptree jar.  I actually preferred the Côte Chalonnaise blend—meaning that the grapes could have come from anywhere in the region, including the A.C. communes of Mercurey,  Givry and Rully.  This may have been because the ’19 seems to me a red wine vintage par excellence, whereas the ’20 is more a white vintage in Burgundy.  Both, to be sure, are climate change vintages, far warmer than in past decades.  Given the higher altitudes and cooler weather of the Côte Chalonnaise, the region has, rather like the outlying climes of Chablis, so far at least, been a rare beneficiary of climate change.  In any case, I found the 2019 Côte Chalonnaise rouge to be just a tad riper, though neither bottle seemed overly ripe or alcoholic, and both came in at a stated 13.5%.  Very nice, even sophisticated winemaking, and not a trace of rusticity about either.  Oh, and I defy you to beat the prices for such charming wines.  Dare I say it?  Such charming “house” wines.

Château Lanessan is an old fave around this house.  I’ve bought it on-and-off for decades, memorably beginning with the 1976, three bottles of which I remember purchasing back in the late 1980s (for $10 the bottle).  As all the older Bordeaux books will tell you, Lanessan failed to make the cut for Cru Classé in the great 1855 Classification because the owners didn’t make the effort.  The same books will also tell you that Lanessan was and is widely regarded to be of Fifth Growth quality.  This is true.  The property, while located in the Haut-Médoc, borders the famous 2nd Growth St.  Julien property Ch.  Gruaud-Larose and is a near-neighbor to the 4th Growth Ch.  Beychevelle in the same commune.  As befits a classic Médoc red, the blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, with most of the rest of the grapes being Merlot.

The bottle I recently picked up came from the very warm 2018 vintage and cost a princely $22, meaning that it hadn’t even kept up with inflation.  The wine was, as you might imagine, fresh as a daisy, a youthful claret in color, ripe without being overripe, and delicious because balanced by very fine underlying acidity.  No rough edges!  Nice now, it will be much nicer after a decade of cellaring.  The price is right, Folks!  And the wine is very like a good St.  Julien—always its hallmark—only a lot cheaper in price.  

Lastly, there was my surprise wine:  A 2014 Alsace Grand Cru Riesling “Mambourg” from Domaine Michel Fonnée in Sigolsheim ($20).  The days when I could regularly buy Trimbach’s flagship riesling the sublime “Cuvée Frederic Emile” are long gone.  As late as 2000, I remember buying “Cuvée F.E.” in fine recent vintages for $25-$30 the bottle.  Forget that!  Today the price has more than doubled.  (And the Trimbachs’ greatest wine, the magnificent riesling Clos Sainte Hune can easily fetch $400-$500 a bottle.)  You get the picture:  A more or less mature Grand Cru “Mambourg” for $20 is by definition a bargain.

The wine, in any case, lived up to its billing, or at least to my expectations.  There are many Alsace Grands Crus—too many in my book.  Last I looked, an astonishing 51 lieux-dits had qualified as Alsace Grands Crus.  This was always the objection of the Trimbachs, who for many years opposed the Grand Cru classification project.  In theory, it was always a good idea—not least for le marketing!  But, in practice, it was always going to be problematic.  It has proven to be exactly that, though I’m also glad that it came about.  So, yes, there are some undeniable grands crus and there are some rather dubious ones.  “Mambourg” has always been counted among the former, especially for its Gewürztraminers.  But the soil and the climate win out in pinot gris and Riesling as well.
The exposure is exceptional, with plenty of sunshine, and the wines are powerful.  The Fonnée version of “Mambourg,” aged eight, is still a fairly youthful, glistening yellow.  The nose is, as you might expect, “petrolly,” as the Brits say of high-class, mature Rieslings.  But the wine is also beguilingly mineral in character and long on both nose and finish.  It is, however, somewhat sweeter than, say, a Trimbach Riesling.  This is not a complaint, but a fact.  And it’s an ongoing issue with Alsace wines in general that we’re never quite sure what level of sweetness we’re getting until we open the bottle.  Now with the Trimbachs, you know that the wine will be bone dry.  But that’s their longtime house style.  And well known.  With so many others, including many very fine growers, you never quite know until….

Heir to a famous Alsace family name, Michel Fonnée inherited vineyards including parts of no less than four grands crus.  The range is wide and can be viewed at his website (https://www.michelfonne.com/la-marque-michel-fonnem).  I’d love to see and taste more of these wines.  I can say, however, that I was delighted to taste this wonderful “Mambourg” in its prime—and still, like the actually quite young 2018 Château Lanessan, “fresh as a daisy” at age eight.

Charming.  Oh, and, did I say, a bargain?