The Le Cigare Volant shows screwcap wines can age with style and grace
Randall Grahm, the Boony Doon impresario who only uses screwcaps, has insisted for years that wine ages under screwcap. This remains heresy in the wine business, which has grudgingly allowed that screwcaps are OK for cheap wine, but not for fine wine that can cellar for years. Which means not enough of the wine business has tasted this vintage of the Le Cigare Volant.
The Le Cigare Volant ($45, sample, 14.5%) is the Bonny Doon flagship, a fine red wine made in Grahm’s trademark Rhone style. Hence, Old World style and attention to terroir, but New World sensibility and technique. That means subtle tannins and a clean finish, but earthiness and spice (cinnamon, in the way it can be almost chili hot) on the front. There is also a mix of red and fruit black fruit (raspberries and plums), plus an almost gaminess that you don’t expect from California wine. Despite the high alcohol (and very high for Grahm, who prides himself on restraint), the wine is neither hot nor overwhelming.
Grahm says screwcap wines age differently than cork wines, which is not bad – just different. That this wine is still so young but intriguing speaks to this; as it continues to age over the next 8 to 10 years, the Le Cigare Volant will become richer and more complex, and it’s complex already.
Highly recommended. Serve this with lamb or duck, and enjoy not just the wine, but how easy it is to open the bottle.
I rarely discuss wine with the person who made it; what’s the point with most of the grocery store plonk I taste? But talking about the Bonny Doon Old Telegram with Randall Grahm was a treat.
The wine, of course, was even better. The Old Telegram ($45, sample, 13.9%) is a classic Bonny Doon effort – top-notch, if unusual, California fruit (mourvedre, in this case), exquisite technical winemaking, and the sense that there is something going on that you won’t find in too many other places.
Grahm, during our visit this spring, insisted that I taste the Old Telegram, saying it was one of the best he had ever made. I’m glad I didn’t argue with him. Somehow, the mourvedre – a Spanish grape also grown in the south of France – produces a Bordeaux-like, earthy, forest floor sensibility that you only get anymore in traditional and very expensive red Bordeaux. There is also some baking spice and Grahm’s trademark funky fruit (blackberry?).
Highly recommended, and the wine to give as a gift to someone who appreciates Old World sensibility or wants to try something that isn’t full of sweet fruit. Pair this with anything you’d eat with high-end red Bordeaux, including roast lamb and almost any combination of beef. It’s also young, and will only get more interesting as it ages over the next decade.
Dallas, finally, seems to be taking to Randall Grahm. The Bonny Doonster sold out a winemaker dinner at the new and much-praised Rapscallion on Monday night, and Dallas winemaker dinners usually don’t sell out unless they feature men who make massive, gigantic Napa-style red wine that costs too much money. Plus, Grahm’s wines are starting to show up on store shelves here, something that hasn’t happened in years.
Grahm’s trip gave us a chance to hold another of our sort of annual visits, where we taste his wines and solve the problems of the post-modern U.S. wine business. This time, we talked before the dinner, which I didn’t stay for since I didn’t want to stop him from schmoozing with the paying guests (schmoozing being winemaker slang for mingling with the customers).
The highlights of our chat and a few notes about three of the wines served with the dinner:
• The California drought cut yields in 2015, but Grahm said that winter rain seems to have helped all but the worst hit areas. One side effect: Many grapes ripened early, so some 2015 wines won’t have as much structure or acidity, and could be more flabby. That’s something I’ve tasted so far, and it has been quite disappointing.
• He says he is “gaining clarity” about how to approach the Popelouchum Vineyard, where he hopes to create 10,000 new grape varieties (last year’s successful Indiegogo crowdfunding project). Grahm is especially excited about using furmint, a Hungarian white grape, and a native Texas rootstock, Vitisberlandieri, that does well in stony soils. Vines are growing on the property, though money remains a problem.
• On so many wineries — that don’t own land or winemaking facilities — being bought for so much money by Big Wine: “It’s like money in the political process,” he said. “Where does it all come from?” That Big Wine is buying producers for nothing more than their brand is difficult for long-time producers like Grahm to make sense of, given that wine is supposed to be about the land the grapes are grown on.
The wines, as always, were top notch. The new vintage of the Vin Gris de Cigare ($15, sample, 13.5%) was less Provencal and more Bordeaux than usual, with a chalky finish, a less crisp mouth feel, and darker, though still subtle, fruit.
The 2012 Le Pousseur Syrah ($26, sample, 13.4%) is what New World syrah should taste like — earthy, peppery, and spicy, with soft black fruit and the tannins to match, while the bacon fat aroma is textbook. The 2012 gets more interesting as it ages, particularly as the fruit softens. This syrah is my favorite Bonny Doon wine, and I’ve even paid for it. That it tastes so fresh and alive after all this time under screwcap should put all that cork and aging foolishness to rest.
The 2011 Le Cigare Volant ($45, sample, 14.2%) is a Rhone-style blend, mostly mouvedre and grenache, that takes this style of wine toward an elegance I didn’t think possible with Rhone blends. It’s also somehow a food wine (lamb?), a contradiction usually only seen in red Burgundy. Look for a long, long wine with sophisticated tannins, layers of flavor that are only just beginning to show, and cherry fruit in there somewhere. It, too, should keep aging — maybe even a decade.
?Crowdfunding success: Randall Grahm, the Bonny Doon impresario, raised $167,857 in his crowdfunding attempt to develop 10,000 new grape varieties, beating the $150,000 goal. Which isn’t quite the same thing as the Wine Curmudgeon being named editor of the Wine Spectator with a mandate to eliminate scores, but is close enough. Most crowdfunding projects fail, and it’s even more difficult for projects that aren’t tech related (as Grahm and I discussed here) to reach their goal. That he did it speaks to the passion surrounding wine and Grahm’s skill at getting out the vote. And then there is this — how can one not appreciate a Salinger allusion?
J.D Salinger’s Seymour claimed to be a “reverse paranoid.” People were conspiring to make him happy. That’s a bit like how I feel tonight.
? The end of Pierce’s Disease? Next to phylloxera, which almost destroyed the French wine industry a century ago, Pierce’s Disease is probably the most dangerous threat to the wine business. It’s spread by insects which inject bacteria into the vine, and the bacteria blocks water from going through the plant, which kills it. There’s no cure or treatment, and the only preventative is pesticide, which brings its own problems. Now, though, Texas researchers may have found a solution, using a combination of viruses injected into the vine to kill the bacteria. Much work still needs to be done, say researchers, but this is among the most promising developments in fighting Pierce’s in decades.
? It’s all about the adjective: Our recent discussion about craft wine brings this, from the Harris survey people, about how consumers react to terms like craft and artisan. The survey found that almost six in 10 think handcrafted or handmade “strongly or somewhat communicates that a product is high quality.” Artisan and artisanal and custom are next at 46 percent, while craft is at 44 percent. The most interesting part? That save for handcrafted, most of us recognize these terms for what they are — marketing jargon with no real meaning.
Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm is perhaps the most subversive person in the wine business, and one sip of his rose, the Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, shows why. On the one hand, it has all of the necessary qualities for a terrific pink wine — freshness, nary a hint of residual sugar, and a certain stoniness that many of the great French roses from Provence have.
On the other hand, the Vin Gris de Cigare ($15, sample, 13%) also tastes like it will age for at least a couple of years. What cranberry fruit there is is hidden beneath the other components, and the fruit should slowly show itself over time. This is not supposed to happen with rose, which is usually made to last for just one vintage (and is perfectly fine when it does). That Grahm makes a rose that will age, and for only $15, is just another example of how sneaky he is, and how his wines almost never do what the wine business says wine should do.
Hence it’s no surprise that I enjoy them so much. Highly recommended; serve the Vin Gris de Cigare chilled, either on its own or with any summer food, be it salad or grilled fish, chicken, or beef. I drank it with socca, the chickpea flour pancake from southern France on a hot Dallas Saturday afternoon. If I wasn’t magically transported somewhere other than my air conditioned living room, the combination reminded me why pairings can work as long as we aren’t slaves to them.
Finally, a note about Grahm’s newest — and perhaps most subversive — project. He is crowdfunding a vineyard to create 10,000 new grape varieties, in the hope of finding a unique New World vinifera, something that didn’t come from Europe and so is better suited to our climate and soil. In this, Grahm figures he has a chance to explore New World terroir in a way no one ever has. That creating new grape varieties is incredibly difficult does not seem to daunt him in the least.
The project is about 35 percent of the way to its $350,000 goal — you can contribute here, and there are some impressive premiums. And, given my experience with crowdfunding, Grahm will have more fun than he can imagine. Not that I know anything about waking up at 2 a.m. to check the funding percentage.
My Boony Doon moment came during the 2011 Le Cigare Blanc. I said I liked it a lot, and Grahm smiled and offered that it would be even better when he added picpoul to the blend, which is currently grenache blanc and roussanne. Which demonstrates his creativity and passion, but also what Grahm admits may be a less than consumer-centric approach to winemaking. It’s not as if wine drinkers are clamoring for a $25 white blend made with three grapes they’ve never heard of.
But how dull the world would be if all we drank were chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Which, of course, is part of Grahm’s reason for being, and why so many of us appreciate what he does. After the jump, the eight wines and cider we tasted (all were samples):
No one holds court like Randall Grahm, the winemaker and president for life at California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard. Last week in Dallas, in front of a dozen or so retailers, sommeliers, and media types, Grahm discussed the Swiss anthropologist Henri Junod; the role of magnets in winemaking; his efforts to develop grape hybrids and rootstocks that are best suited to the 21st century’s climate and soil; the backlash against screwcaps; and, though I’m not quite sure how, electrons.
Along the way, he punned whenever possible — “The doonside of winemaking,” for example — and even managed to talk about his new wines, including a very subversive fruit cider, a delicious riesling so new it’s not on the winery website yet, and perhaps the best vintage ever of the Le Cigare Blanc.
Disclaimer first: I like Grahm, and he makes some of the most interesting and enjoyable wine in the world. So it’s always a treat when he comes to Dallas, and this year was no exception. The man makes me smile, and how often does that happen?
Do Grahm’s wines taste like anyone else’s? Nope, so be warned — if you need scores or 15 1/2 percent cabernet sauvignon or baseball bat chardonnay, what follows will almost certainly annoy you. It annoys many of my colleagues, and Grahm has been at war with the Winestream Media for more than a decade, despite what he claims are his best intentions. But he can’t stop telling the James Laube joke, and he told it again last week. That’s hardly detente, though it is damned funny.
Would that the Winestream Media could see past Grahm as prankster and realize that he wants the same thing it does — for Americans to enjoy wine. He just takes a different road. “Wine has to be pleasurable,” he told us. “You shouldn’t have to ask yourself if you like it.” But, having said that, he also acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges for wine drinkers, including himself, was to “learn how to push out of my safety zone,” to try wine we don’t think we’re going to like.
Among the other topics:
? The backlash against screwcaps, which Grahm has championed for years. “The cork people are like girls in junior high school who each have their own cliques, and they don’t want to let anyone in their clique,” he said. And anyone who says wine with screwcaps suffers in quality or doesn’t age? “It’s a myth,” says Grahm. “The wine just ages differently.”
? Oak in winemaking: “It’s a condiment and anyone who thinks it’s more than that also thinks ketchup is a vegetable.”
? Terroir is all. “We can’t replicate European wines” in California, Grahm said, because California isn’t Europe. On the other hand, de-emphasizing terroir with California-style winemaking, which he says happens even with some of the most expensive and highest-rated wines, isn’t the answer, either. “It’s about real wine. Does the wine have life or not?”