Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Joe Campanale and Wines from the Rhône Valley at FIAF

Wine is a subject that intimidates many people. The volume of brands, grapes, regions, types and vintages makes it hard to know where to start. Plus the fact that a single 750ml bottle can run from less than $5 to over hundreds of dollars always makes people question if what they're buying is even any good. For the most part, I'm one of those people. This is why you don't see much about wine on my blog or on my Facebook page. But fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to spend an evening at FIAF (The French Institute Alliance Français) with the well-informed, young, handsome sommelier Joe Campanale. (And because at least one of you is reading this and wondering-- yes he has a girlfriend! She was at the event along with his mom.) I learned more about wine in about two and half hours than I think I had in the past five years. During college I went on a mini self-led wine tour with my parents around Keuka Lake (in the Finger Lakes of New York State). From that experience I learned a few terms and a bit about how New York State wines are grown, but on the whole my vocabulary and tasting notes were still quite limited. I was glad to spend time learning from someone with such a strong background in le vin

Joe Campanale is the Beverage Director and Co-Owner of dell’anima, L’Artusi and Anfora. After the wine tasting I asked him about how he got started in wine and became so knowledgeable at such an early age. Apparently during his time at NYU he went to a lot of the wine tastings at Union Square Wines which kick started his oenology. Eventually he went to work for Italian Wine Merchants in New York City (also close to Union Square). Later, he was hired as the sommelier for Mario Batali's Babbo. Then he and his business partners decided to open up dell'anima, then L'Artusi, both with a focus on Italian fare and wine. Most recently they opened Anfora in May of 2010 with a more European approach, highlighting natural wines- wines that emphasize terroir (the land where they are from) and not necessarily well-known or highly marketed wines. 

We were introduced to Joe by Emmanuel Dupuy D'Angeac, owner of AOC Fine Wines. He began by telling us something Mr. Campanale had said about wine in an interview: 
"Wine should be something that makes your life better. Drink what you love, not what you think you should love"
I love this philosophy on wine and think we would all enjoy our vino a bit more if we lived by it and stressed less over whether or not what we are drinking is of quality. Even though Joe is beverage director of two Italian-based wines lists, he really loves French wine, especially from the Rhône Valley. He realized when he went to buy wine for himself, he kept going for French wines, not Italian. This is in part what inspired the opening of Anfora.

Mr. Campanale taught us that the Rhône Valley is the oldest wine region in France, with wine production dating as far back as the 6th Century B.C. This area was the first to have named vineyards, which at that time was a big deal. We studied this map of the area, showing the different wine-producing regions. When you look at the map, you see the Rhône river runs north-south. In the time of the Roman Empire, it was believed that it would be too cold to live or grow wine above the southern Rhône. During the Industrial Revolution many people who had worked at the vineyards left for the factories. Slowly, people returned to the land and reclaimed wine making and today the Rhône is the second largest wine region in France after Bordeaux. 

The Rhône valley is divided into the Northen Rhône and Southern Rhône with, as Joe put it, only the river and the fact that the two regions are known for reds in common. In the North, the vineyards are positioned on the sloping hillsides so that the mistral wind does not harm the vines. Often the vineyards will be walled in by cement walls, purely to protect from wind damage. Only about 5% of all the wine in the Rhône Valley comes from the north, the remaining 95% comes from the south and is primarily red wine. The two grapes that make the red wine in the region are Syrah and Grenache which are sometimes mixed with white wine grapes such as Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier. We tasted six different wines ranging in price from $19.99 to $199.99. All except one were red.
I've tasted a lot more wine in the past five years or so, but I wouldn't say I have a palette for wine or much of a memory for it either. So, I will give you my tasting notes for the wines we tried, and a bit more information along the way but I encourage you to set out to try some of the wines yourself if they pique your interest. I enjoyed all but one of the wines. For the most part they were flavorful and interesting, but I did find one difficult to drink.

#1 M. Chapoutier, Crozes-Hermitage "La Petite Ruche Blanc" 2010 (white)
This wine comes from the Northern Rhône and is a blend of Marsanne and Roussane grapes. We used this first tasting as a teaching tool for the rest of the wines. We looked for the color of the wine by tipping the glass slightly over the white table cloth to see it without a blue background (the color all about FIAF's Le Skyroom). When looking for color you can also look for what is called "brilliance." If the wine was well filtered it will have a sparkling quality which can be called brilliant, it will be very reflective of the light. This first wine was canary colored, slightly golden with a definite shimmering characteristic. Next we focused on smelling the aromas of the wine. First, Joe suggests you smell the wine before swirling it in the glass and note what you pick up. Then swirl and smell again, you will notice new scents and nuances. There is some sort of chemical make up that Joe told us about which is why when we perceive something like the smell of "rotting fish" when we sniff wine, it is this compound that may be similar. I guess I was too busy smelling and tasting to write it down, but I will ask him about it and hopefully update this! Next up was tasting. I found this first wine to be enjoyable, but a bit watery. Perhaps it was all of that shimmer and filtration that made it taste so light. 

#2 Domaine des Auzières, Côtes du Rhône Villages Roaix 2008 (red)
This was a biodynamique wine which Mr. Campanale described as a "hippie way of making wine." There is a serious emphasis on the natural environment, organic practices and also more celestial inclusion with integration of the sun, moon and stars in the growing and making of the wine. This was the only wine I did not like and did not finish. I don't know what it was about it, but my only tasting note was "yak!" Maybe I prefer my hippies out of the vineyard. 

#3 M. Chapoutier, Crozes-Hermitage "La Petite Ruche Rouge" 2009 (red)
This was a very dark red wine. To me, it smelled of smokiness and burnt rubber. I found it a bit heavy and chewy but still easy to drink. After this wine we tasted some pâtés from D'Artagnan and French cheeses provided by Lactalis. We enjoyed a very light Président fresh goat cheese which went well with all the wines. Next a Brie L'Indulgent which is best with light red wines and champagne. We tried a Pochat & Fils Beaufort PDO, a semi-firm raw cow's milk cheese that is good for making fondue. Finally, a Société Roquefort, PDO which I attempted to enjoy multiple times, but could not come around to. Denis Cottin, the artisanal cheese expert who was leading our tasting, also served some Président Butter (yum) with our cheese selection. In France parents will have their children mix the roquefort with the butter to acclimate them to the taste. This didn't work for me, and I didn't want to waste my golden butter. 
For not being much of a pâté girl, I really liked the D'Artagnan selections. There was a Peppercorn Mousse made of chicken and turkey livers which was good but not great. Then the Pâté de Campagne, a pork pâté with parsley, that was very good with all the red wines. And my favorite of the night was the Pheasent Terrine Herbette made with pheasant, pork, fennel and herbs that was rich and textured. The herbs complimented the syrah wines very nicely. Now, back to the wine...

#4 Domaine Mucyn, Jean-Pierre Mucyn, Saint-Joseph 2009 (red)
A dark, but clear (maybe well filtered) wine with very light aromas and a pleasant, easy taste. I do believe this was the wine we tried that had a bad bottle in the batch (we didn't drink the bad one!). The bottle that was bad is known as a corked wine. When a cork is infected with a bacteria it will destroy the wine and will result in an aroma of a moldy, damp basement. As part of our education, a glass of the corked wine was passed around so we could smell the difference between the wine as it was intended and the affected wine. 

#5 M. Chapoutier, Ermitage "Les Greffieux" 2007 (red)
The fifth wine was by far my favorite. It was a bloody crimson color with a wide range of aromas- from toothpaste and mint to leather and a deeply fruity scent to sort of a comforting waft of sunscreen. Though the mix seems odd, all the scents together were harmonious. The taste was very clean, fruity and slightly chewy. Very good. I drank this one most slowly, savoring each sip and letting it roll around in my mouth. This wine is 100% syrah and comes from the steep hills in the north. Oh yes, and it was the most expensive wine we tried all night, bien sûr

Reflection of the audience in the large windows of Le Skyroom
#6 Domaine Mathieu, André et Jérome Mathieu, Châteauneuf-du-Pape "Vin de Felibre" 2005 (red)
The final wine of the evening also came with a hefty price tag: $70.99. Fortunately, this one was also very delicious. Though, I would rather save for the Ermitage than splurge on this Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wine had a deep cherry color and enticing aromas with a nice finish. A perfect way to tie up the tasting. 

After we finished our wine, Mr. Campanale talked to us a bit more about wine on the whole and also took some questions from the tasters. We discussed wine critics and how they will tend to prefer/recommend ripe wines (newer, fresher wines) because their palettes become so fatigued from tasting they usually cannot detect all the aspects of nuanced wines. We talked a bit about how Joe tastes wine for work. When he is tasting to select wines for the restaurants he rinses between tastings with sparkling water, as per his dentist's recommendation. Apparently the tannins in the wine act like sandpaper on enamel and if you brush your teeth right after drinking tannic wine, you could harm your teeth over time. 

And yes, of course I asked a question. What I'd been wondering ever since that first wine tasting in Western New York was what's the deal with grafting. I learned about grafting at Dr. Frank's on Keuka Lake. What they do is graft vines from Europe or wherever to root stock native to the Finger Lakes so that the vines will grow well in the ground, but they can then choose the grape varieties that may not be native to the area. So I had to ask a real sommelier what he thinks about this, as I assumed maybe it was a wine faux pas. Turns out 99% of the vines in France had to be grafted onto American root stock because of a blight caused by the phylloxera pest. The phylloxera was destroying the French root stock and eventually when some American root stock came over to France, they realized it did well even despite the bug and so the French vines were grafted to the American roots. Very interesting! 

As I think you can tell, I learned a lot from Joe Camapanle's breadth of knowledge on wine and the Rhône Valley. It was a great way to spend a Monday evening and something I definitely hope to repeat in the future to continue my wine education. A special merci beaucoup to FIAF for yet another fantastic, enlightening event with excellent talent, wonderful wines and delicious delicacies. 

Lucky for you, if you enjoyed hearing about this first tasting you can still attend one of the remaining four in this "Wine Tour of France" series:

April 9: Buyers & Cellars: Starting Your Collection
April 30: Green Terroirs: The Organic Debate
June 4:  Battle of the Bubbles: Champagne vs Sparkling
May 21:  Special Wine & Chocolate Tasting

All taking place at FIAF in Le Skyroom, 22 East 60th Street, NYC
For more information and tickets click here
Follow FIAF on Twitter: @FIAFNY
Follow Joe Campanale on Twitter: @joecampanale

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