Wine Wanderings: A Visit with Thierry Allemand
This visit was definitely a highlight on a recent trip to France. To get to Thierry's, we made the short walk -- perhaps 30 paces -- from the winery of Auguste Clape, where we were privileged to taste with three generations of Clapes. But that's for another blog post. Today the topic is Thierry Allemand, and especially the two interesting lessons that Thierry took it upon himself to teach us on that day.
But before we got to the schooling, we tasted through Allemand's current line-up of releases. Lucky us, these were the 2010s! Needless to say, the wines were glorious. Both the Chaillot and the Reynard were absolute stunners that really don't require any description here except to add another data point of praise for anyone out there who has any doubts. If you can find these wines, grab them (as of this posting we have a tiny amount of Chaillot left but no Reynard).
The lessons began thanks to Josh, whose perceptive questioning (see photo) induced Thierry to start popping older bottles of wine. The first was on the question of sulphur. Thierry, on occasion, will release a bottling without any sulphur added (it basically never comes to New York so don't ask!). The bottles that are sulphured get an extremely small dose. Does it make any difference? Thierry wasn't sure himself, so he opened up two bottles of Reynard from the 2002 vintage, one with no sulphur and one with a touch added at bottling.
2002 was not a great vintage of Cornas, but Thierry Allemand is one of the finest producers of Cornas there is -- maybe the finest, now that Verset has retired -- and in the hands of a great producer an off vintage isn't off at all, but simply earlier drinking. And that was the case of this 2002. The 2002s did not have the shock and awe of the powerful 2010s, but they tasted of lovely, elegant Syrah drinking at its peak of maturity. Truly a treat.
And at first there did seem to be a difference between the sulphured and unsulphured bottling. The bottle without had just an extra dose of purity. It tasted a little bit more "Syrah." Thierry, Josh, Andrew, and some others immediately noted this. But with about 10 minutes of air, the wines no longer tasted different to me. The sulphured Syrah gained a bit in purity. Both wines filled out a bit as tannins started to emerge. At this point it was certainly hard for me to conclude that either wine was superior (although Josh may have felt differently…).
Of course, comments were made about the weakness of the 2002 vintage. Which led to our next lesson, which was basically that when it comes to vintage, journalists don't know what they're talking about. To prove this point Thierry left the cellar to go to his house across the street to grab a couple of older bottles of Reynard. These were the 1994 and 1995 vintages, which Thierry served to us blind.
One of the two wines was sensational. It was drinking at what I would describe at its peak: the point where the grape variety and terroir are all abundantly transparent, and where there is still intensity and freshness to the wine, but where you also encounter tertiary flavors that come from bottle age -- those not-fruit notes like leather and forest spice, but also a succulent sweetness that only evolved tannins can deliver. The other wine was less fun to drink. It was clearly the more powerful wine, but this trait was not doing the wine any favors, as tannins dominated the picture. The wine therefore lacked transparency, as well as much in the way of interesting mature notes. No, this was not a wine that I would kick out of bed, but it was clearly not the victor in this side-by-side.
You will have guessed where this is going. Back when the wines were released the journalists all loved 1995 and found 1994 to be very mediocre. But when the wines were revealed we discovered that it was the 1994 that we all appreciated and the 1995 not so much.
So were the journalists wrong? That's a tough call. You might argue that the wines just have different peaks. The 1994 is the one to drink now, and the 1995 is the one to keep for another decade. On the other hand, these are both wines that have been given 18-19 years to age. Shouldn't that be enough? When we evaluate vintages do we really need to think about what they might taste like in 30 years? Who wants to wait that long on a bottle? All that this little experiment showed me is that we spend far too much time thinking about which vintages are "better" than others and not enough just drinking and enjoying wine.