The alpine wines of Charles Neal
i’ll get this out of the way first, so if you only read one sentence, let it be this one: Few wine importers have a selection of wine quite as offbeat and worth looking into as Charles Neal, and none more affordable.
Based out of San Francisco Charles specializes in small producer wines from lesser known regions and varietals in France. His main business consists of wines from the southwest region of France (he imports this wine of merit. In addition to these regions he also imports from the alpine regions of France, which have been home to some of the most unique wines in the world.
All the wine comes from two small regions, the first Savoie is known almost entirely for its cheeses, and is little known for it’s high acid whites and bone dry reds. The second, Jura, is slowly becoming more well known for the bizaare sherry-like vin jaune (literally yellow wine) and the work of produces such as Jacques Puffeney and Stephane Tissot, who are working to bring these wines to the larger world.
Before i get into the wines themselves one thing needs to be said about drinking these wines. With the exception of the sparkling and dessert wines these wines are all food wines. They are all high acid, dry wines meant to stand up to the hearty regional cuisine, not sipping wines, but they are all varying degrees of good.
Note; All wines were tasted at Soif Wine Bar in Santa Cruz where Charles himself was giving a tasting of the wines from this region, where all wines are available for purchase.
1. ’07 Chateau de Ripaille, Chasselas, Haut Savoie.
Made from the most popular grape in Switzerland, this is a wine almost completely stripped of fruit. Acidic, mineral, almost briny this is the reason they make Comte.
2. ’07 Domaine Quenard Chignin, Jacquère, Savoie
Jacquère is one of the reasons that Charles Neal is such a good importer. Here is a grape that no one has ever heard of, can pronounce (just look at the synonyms), or is going to pick up on a whim and what does he do? He buys up several bottles and brings them over. this wine tends to have a lot of raw tropical fruits in it (not sweet in slightest, mind you) with just a hint of banana bread to keep it from being overwhelming.
3. ‘0t Domaine Bernard Apremont Vielles Vignes, Jacquère, Savoie
i have always wondered how much difference old vines (the Vielles Vignes of the name) make when tasting wines, but until now i had never gotten a chance to do a heads up comparison. This wine was definately softer than the one above, with marmalade and soft acids replacing some of the more bracing qualities. Whether it was due to the age of the vines or the individuals involved in the wine making process is still a mystery, but these wines were different enough to note it.
4. ’07 Jacquin et Fils Rousette de Savoie, Altesse, Savoie
Altesse is another grape that is little known outside the region it is grown, which is a shame because it was of the highlights of this whole tasting. It has an overall softer nose and mouth feel than the Jacquère, smelling somewhat of lemon meringue (the lemon and the meringue mixed) and brioche.
5. ’04 Domaine Labet, Chardonnay/Savignin, Jura
some of the strangest wines that can be found anywhere are white wines coming from the Jura. Oftentimes made with the ubiquitous and oft-maligned (for good reason) chardonnay, these wines are a good kick in the throat to anyone has sworn off these wines. There is no doubt that they are chardonnay, but you will find little in comparison with their full malolactic 200% new-oak-new-world cousins. the uniquest of the unique chardonnays coming out in the Jura are the wines fermented like sherry, that is to say there is a space left in the barrels to allow flor (a type of yeast) to develop on the top of the wine. this gives the wine an oxidative, slightly off flavor that many people will love, and unfortunately many more will hate. Hhis particular wine has a strong almond nose, and just a little bit of sweet pears that balance out the oxidation. This is my nine thumbs up wine from the tasting.
1. ’07 Maison Angelot, Bugey Savoie, Gamay \
Worth it for the label alone, (a comic Brillat-Savarin exploding in a hail of fruit). Drier than almost any gamay i’ve ever had, a lot of allspice, cinnamon, with a slight earthy truffle nose. I would recommend this wine with chocolate.
2. ’07 Maison Angelot, Bugey Savoie, Mondeuse
Mondeuse is the most famous red grape from the alps, and by my estimation the reason the wines aren’t known anywhere. A heroically acidic grape (i’m sticking by my “heroically,” sense be damned) the wines that come from the varietal are bone dry, and can leave your teeth feeling like the enamel has been stripped right off. i love them, others will certainly disagree, but i can say definitively that you should never serve without food. this wine is a medium bodied, pie-spiced and cooked fruit wine. I would serve pork cooked with apples.
3. ’06 Charles Trosset “L’expression d’un Terroir,” Arbin, Savoie, Mondeuse
The better of the two mondeuses that Charles offers, and the stand out of his alpine reds, with a suitably pretentious name. Where the other was fruit forward, this one pulls out some strange earthy spices, dill and parsley and lavender, with some anise notes. it also may be the driest wine i have ever had in my life. I would serve some suitably country sausage with this one.
1. NV Domaine Rondeau, Bugey-Cerdon, Savoie, Gamay
One of the stranger wine experiences i have ever had, a low alcohol sparkling pink that tastes like strawberries that i actually enjoy. Cerdon has become something of a cult wine in recent years given it’s easy to drink yet very hard to find nature. An excellent apertif.
1. NV Domaine Labet “Macvin de Jura,” Jura, Savignin/Chardonnay/Poulsard
Macvin de Jura is one of a host of fortified wines that rarely, if ever, see the light of the day outside of their birthplace. Slightly oxidative like the above chard, with a mellow sweetness. Drink as an apertif, or with a pear tart.