My Pinot Year WEEK 1: Revenge of the Rise of Brut Rose: Unrated Director’s Cut

Posted: January 12, 2010 in Pinot

If I was going to approach this whole thing like the science projects we did back in grade school, what with the baking soda volcanoes and dissected frogs and models of the universe, I’d need a hypothesis.

HYPOTHESIS: Somewhere in the month of September 2010 I will become sick and tired of Pinot Noir for the rest of my life. It will terrify and disgust me and I will flee from it like Pete Carroll flees NCAA sanctions or Stephanie Meyer flees literary merit.

Lucky for me it’s only January and I’m still in the honeymoon phase of this whole disaster of an idea. My girlfriend points to every passing martini and it doesn’t even phase me…yet.

Still, it’s important to see all the subtle differences one grape has to offer. With last week’s Gruet fresh in mind, I called my good bartender friend (yes English majors he is BOTH a good friend and good bartender) Ralph, and told him about My Pinot Year.

A note on Ralph: He grew up next door to the house from “Pretty In Pink.” I find that fascinating. That’s got to mess someone up, right?

No wait: An acolyte of Jonathan Gold’s shamanesque seeker-style of guerilla warfare, Ralph’s been THE man to introduce me to more than a couple of LA’s out-of-the-way spots serving the best are-you-kidding-me dishes. In other words, I trust this guy.

When he’s not indoctrinating me into the cult of the huitlacoche quesadilla (that’s corn fungus, paleface), you can find him tending bar over at Pop in Pasadena.

Ralph told me to stop by some night. He had some things I needed to try.

Pop is just like it sounds; a dessert spot specializing in Champagne and other sparkling wines from all over the world. Tucked into an ancient brick building in Old Pasadena it feels like a speakeasy that woke to find Prohibition over. French electro-pop. High ceilings and chandeliers. The mirror behind the bar has got to be a set piece from The Great Gatsby.

I arrived the night of the BCS Championship game, and while the other spots in town were at capacity with burnt orange and crimson, I took a stool at the bar and Ralph poured me a horse of a different color.

“It’s about time you tried some Brut Rose. Hundred percent Pinot.”

Music to my ears.

Brut Rose. That’s fancy French talk for “dry” and “pink.” It’s used to described any Champagne or sparkling wine that tastes dry (as opposed to sweet) and looks pink (as opposed to, um, not pink).

Ralph explained the color comes from tossing a splash of red wine in with the rest of the unfermented juice, usually from the same varietal. Or it comes from a process called “maceration,” which is just as sexy as it sounds; brief fermentation with the grape skins (which give red wines their distinct color) still intact. Then the grapes get naked and ferment some more.

Ooh baby.

The first glass Ralph poured was a Cremant d’Alsace, which just means it’s a French sparkling wine NOT from Champagne the region but from Alsace the region. I like to think of Alsace as Champagne’s younger sister; she’s not as rich or pretty, but she’s definitely worth dating because she’s also not as stuck up. And she had this on-again/off-again thing with Germany so you know she’s a bit of a freaky too.

In any case, Alsace is known for first-rate wines and their Cremant didn’t disappoint. The back of the bottle said something about hints of “red berries,” which I found troubling. Did it mean hints of ALL red berries? Like raspberries and strawberries and crunchberries? Or was it more like the Platonic IDEA of red berries, like, somewhere in the ether there’s this ideal berry and it’s red and this is exactly how it would taste if we could squeeze it and bottle it?

Either way, it’s one of those suggestive food-porn buzzwords I’m not totally comfortable with because descriptions like that may do more harm than good when trying a wine for the first time. That first impression, that moment of discovery, that should be yours.

Am I tasting red berries because I taste red berries, or because you told me I’d taste red berries?

Am I being manipulated?

I had to ask myself this because, more than once working as a waiter I’ve pulled that exact shenanigan on guests interested in the specific details of a particular bottle on a massive wine list I’ve never tasted before.

“Sir with this vintage you’ll find it fairly fruit-forward…What kind of fruit, sir?…Red berries, sir.”

$180 red berries. Listen man, it’s not dreck. In fact it’s really good and it’s going to taste really really good with your Long Island duck and the lady’s poached salmon. Now if you want me to decide for you what it’s going to taste like I’ll do it. It’s why—in this waiter’s life—they pay me the big bucks.

With that Original Sin in mind I took my first drink and I couldn’t stop these words from jumping out of my mouth: “It’s just like Pop Rocks!”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, have you ever popped a cork on a killer bottle of Pop Rocks?

“What kind of fruit, sir?…Pop Rocks, sir…The red ones. And it’s pretty effing awesome.”

The second Brut Rose came from south of the equator. The winery is Santa Julia (incidentally the patron saint of torture victims…not the best mascot for your wine label artist) in Mendoza, Argentina. There were no red berries. It was not fruit forward. But there was something else.

You hear all the time people talk about terrior; qualities in the wine that come not from the grape but the soil the grape grows from. I have yet to be convinced of terroir (Oh sweet merciful lord the comments I’m going to get), but is it possible to pick up qualities that come from a barrel the grape is stored in? Because the Santa Julia had something to it that wasn’t fruity so much as barrel-y. Which is all fine and dandy I guess, but with a palate that tends toward sweet, not my cup of tea.

Finally Ralph pulled out a fresh half-bottle and popped the cork.

“This is a Rene Geoffroy Brut Rose de Saignee,” he said, “Premier Cru.”

Translation: The real deal. Finally a Champagne. The region I spent last week ragging on was ready to clear its throat and say something.

Ralph said, “One reviewer wrote this is what would happen if strawberries had orgasms.”

I was immediately red-berry suspicious.

But I took a sip.

Wow.

It’s like a ninja Plato kicked me in the mouth. Like I spent all this time trying things that were supposed to represent a thing, and then I tried a thing that WAS the thing. And it blew my mind because it didn’t taste like anything at all. Instead it tasted like the answer to a Zen riddle that was right in front of me the whole time.

Not getting me?

Okay. Take the idea of flavor out of the equation. Because Brut is not really supposed to taste too much like anything. That’s why it goes so well with dessert; it’s not competing with your fresh fruit or crème brulee so much as complimenting it. It’s about the texture. Let the bubbles do the talking. The grapes are just the vehicle to get there. Then they lose the ego and stand aside. There’s no barrel. There’s no terroir. And there’s no red berries.

But hey, to each his own.

Amazing. Three very distinct flavors, each saying something very different. All classified as Brut Rose. If this were a teachable moment I’d toss off some lazy advice like, “Trust and respect your bartender. He works hard and knows what he is doing.” Instead I’ve found scribbled in my notebook the following: “Ralph is sacred in his ancient wisdom…like Lou Diamond Phillips in ‘Young Guns.’”

But that was after like five glasses of wine. So I’m not too sure how reliable that is. Just go and check it out for yourself.

RAW DATA:
Lucien Albrecht NV Brut Rose Cremant d’Alsace; pop rocks!
Santa Julia NV Brut Rose Mendoza, Argentina; not so much.
Rene Geoffroy NV Brut Rose de Saignee Premier Cru; the real deal.
Dig It: www.PopChampagneBar.com

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