People often say first impressions are important. Many people are quite happy to make important decisions based on first impressions, and it pays to be aware of that in our own lives. The same is the case for wine. So much wine is “judged”, and most judgements are merely first impressions, those of a snapshot in time, a glance, sniff, swirl and spit on a tasting bench.
When we drink wine at home we at least have an opportunity to get to know a wine, to spend a little time together whilst it unfurls in the glass. Just as when we meet another person for the first time, we decide whether we want to spend the evening chatting (another glass or two), or to meet up again (an extra bottle, or do we order a case?).
But first impressions can be, and often are, deceptive. The first two bottles of red wine this year proved very different experiences and are a case in point. The disparity between these two wines when initially poured, sniffed and supped, was startling. One wine was love at first sight and the other was something approaching disgust. But this latter wine was not a complete unknown, at least as to origin, grape variety and winemaking technique. It was that degree of experience which frankly stopped it going down the sink. In both cases the wine was beautiful. It was merely the case that the second wine needed to be listened to.
So, what was wine number one? At the Real Wine Fair last year I reached the American wines on the far side of the room during the second half of the afternoon. I’d been given a number of strong recommendations to go and chat to a winemaker I’d neither met before, nor whose wines I had tasted, Martha Stoumen. As often happens with brilliant wines, word gets out at these big events and bottles get swiftly emptied, so by the time I got there her Post Flirtation Napa Red 2016 was all gone, like the rest of her samples.
It was only a month ago that I spotted some bottles on the shelf at that great source of hard to find wines, Solent Cellar in Lymington, Hampshire. I can sometimes rely on the people at Solent Cellar to tip me the wink when something interesting comes in, but in this case they didn’t. I think they had no idea how desperate I was to try this, but there it was, just a handful of bottles on the shelf when I visited. If Solent Cellar was in London I think they’d have lasted a day there at most, so I was lucky.
“Post Flirtation” 2016 is a blend of Carignan (65%) and Zinfandel (35%), very much a glugging wine of just 11.3% abv (labelled 11% on the overlain UK label). It is all concentrated red fruits like cranberry, redcurrant and pomegranate, maybe a touch of raspberry (like a red fruit sorbet) but with a slightly bitter rhubarb note as well. You serve it cool and knock it back, simple as that. It’s lighter in weight than the colour suggests.
But what charm, what charm indeed. I’m increasingly enjoying wine that tastes like alcoholic fruit juice rather than wine that tastes, in its chewy sweetness, rather more like a very big slice of Black Forest Gateau. Even in winter. If you are with me on this, then you’ll love Martha’s “Post Flirtation”.
There’s only one thing wrong with it, and that is the mere 330 cases she was able to make. If you believe not only in first impressions, but also in love at first sight, then this is what you need, if you can find some. Retail price is around £23, imported by Les Caves de Pyrene. Serve cool or lightly chilled.
The second wine was decidedly not love at first sight. It looked fine but the first sniff showed a farmyard smell that probably is best left not described in detail. In fact a friend told me that he’d experienced the same farmyard bouquet but obviously not as badly as I had. Volatile aromas often affect different bottles in different ways.
I should introduce the wine in question, really, Overnoy-Crinquand Ploussard 2015. The Crinquand brothers are cousins of the much more famous Pierre Overnoy, and they are also, like Pierre, based in Pupillin, near Arbois in the Jura. What do we know about them that might assist us in deciding how to approach this wine?
We know that although you will see a sign advertising their wines as you leave Pupillin in the direction of Poligny (their house is in the centre of the village), they are pretty low key and not all that well known, except for the Overnoy family name. In fact this domaine of around 6ha of vines is one of the most old fashioned still working in the region. We might think of Puffeney, Overnoy-Houillon, or perhaps Lucien Aviet in these terms, but the Crinquand brothers are very old school. Theirs is one of the only truly mixed farms I know of in the region, their dairy herd being as important as the vines.
In the cellar the wines are fermented in large old oak barrels and aged in a wide variety of barrel sizes. They no longer use the old wooden press, but most equipment is secondhand and decidedly low-tech. Sulphur is added at bottling, not a lot, and one suspects that this is merely because that is what was always added rather than any “natural wine” philosophy (though note that they do have agriculture biologique certification). As Wink Lorch says in her profile of the domaine in Jura Wine, this is “perhaps the closest one might find to how a typical Jura vigneron made wine 50 years ago”. Although her notes on the wines are positive, I’m still not sure to what extent that was a compliment?
To appreciate this wine for the potential in the glass required a two-stage process. The first involved action and the second, time and faith. It was in fact Wink Lorch who taught me how to deal with reductive wine, and gave me the confidence to pursue such a course of action.
Reduction appears in wines which have, for whatever reason, been protected from oxygen during winemaking and bottling. If wines are not racked (from one container to another) during ageing in barrel (or tank), then reductive notes can appear on opening.
These reductive (as opposed to oxidative) notes can take a number of forms and are most noticeable on the nose. Struck match or rubber are two common descriptions often attributed to reduction, but worse, such as “sewage” (to put it politely) is at the extreme. Of course the farmyard smells I experienced could have been caused by other things besides mere “lack of oxygen”, bacterial spoilage, for example. One never knows.
But if you find a wine like this, and indeed many natural wines are made reductively, the first thing to do is to treat it a little roughly. The wine lacks contact with oxygen and it needs to gulp some down. Swirl it in the glass. Some people might place a mat, or a hand over the glass and shake it vigorously. Splash decanting (into a decanter or carafe) helps no end, and will usually sort it out.
This is what Wink Lorch did to one of my favourite wines, Domaine de la Tournelle Uva Arbosiana. We were at Terroirs in London some years ago, a few months before she published her Jura book. She glugged the bottle of the Clairets’ gorgeous pink Ploussard into a carafe, stood up, placed her hand firmly over the top and shook it violently. And it worked (don’t risk this anywhere near new carpets, folks…outside the back door in our house, I can tell you, if I want to try this at home!).
The first glass of our Overnoy-Crinquand was fairly disapointing (after merely swirling), but that in itself was clue enough when the first sniffs had suggested it might be sinkward bound. After a while the ugly duckling blossomed into a swan. 2015 is a plush vintage in Jura, as with almost all of Eastern France. When the reductive nature of the wine had dissipated, the fruit here was smooth, and softer than many vintages. But soon there was a lovely haunting redcurrant flavour coming through, perhaps with a touch more raspberry on the nose.
It’s a warning. Knowing a little about how a wine might be made, how it might develop, and how to serve it is not a magic gift, nor intuitive really. It’s a matter of mixing experience with learning from someone who knows the wines better than you do (in my case, Wink). My first impression here was not positive at all. By the time we were half way through the bottle it was as if we were drinking a different wine, and a quite beautiful wine at that.
As far as I know, no one is currently importing Overnoy-Crinquand into the UK. Perhaps someone will tell me I’m wrong. There may be a little in the USA. Domaine visits are strictly by appointment.
Happy New Year!