By New York City Correspondent Sasha Smith
Writing about this week’s class is hard, simply because I have no critical distance. I really, really love Rhône wines. If I were the kind of person who went in for florid wine clichés, I would deploy many of them here. My affection for them borders on the irrational, to the point where I have been known to station myself in front of the (always too small) Northern Rhône section in wine stores and stare longingly at the bottles of Guigal La Landonne, La Turque and La Mouline (inevitably protected behind glass, as they should be at $250 and up — way up — a pop.)
Our instructor this week was Mollie Battenhouse DWS, a former chef who is currently a sommelier at Tribeca Grill. Enthusiastic and high-energy, she zipped through each of the appellations, her talk enhanced by pictures from a recent trip to the region. My favorite was a photo of vines from adjoining vineyards owned by Chapoutier and Jaboulet, two big names in the region. The Jaboulet vines were neat and tidy as could be, while the Chapoutier ones were positively shaggy — a result of their biodynamic approach to viticulture.
It’s easy to forget how small some of these appellations are, particularly those in the Northern Rhône. Hermitage, for example, is roughly 130 hectares, the equivalent of 320 acres, or three times the size of the Central Park reservoir. Our excellent recommended reading for this session, The Wines of the Northern Rhône, by Jonathan Livingstone-Learmonth, lists 32 producers who are working this steep, granite-laden and terraced hillside — and turning out some of the finest, most age-worthy red wines in the world. As a native New Yorker, I have a real appreciation for so much ambition crammed into such a tiny space.
And, of course, I really appreciate what’s in the bottle. My favorite red varietal is Syrah, and no one does it better. We tasted two iconic wines, Guigal’s Côte Rôtie “Brune et Blonde” 2003 and Jaboulet Hermitage “La Chapelle” 1996, both of which I had a very hard time spitting out. Drinking the first was akin to eating the best berry pie I’ve ever had between sips of coffee and a few quick drags of a cigarette. The second was basically grilled lamb and tapenade in a glass. (Trust me when I tell you that it’s much, much better than it sounds.)
At its best, Syrah doesn’t just go well with my favorite foods — it actually tastes like them.
Now if only I could use phrases like “roadside diner jumbleberry pie and coffee” and “leg of lamb with olives and rosemary” on the exam…