The two red Côtes du Rhônes from Patrick Lesec that are available in Maine serve myriad important functions for me. First and foremost, they’re tremendously enjoyable wines, interesting and real but utterly approachable, that retail for under $15 without selling their souls to do so.
Each in its own fashion, the “Richette” and “Bouquet” taste definitively true – pure flavors and aromas, the essences of the grapes, the signatures of the soils – and in ways that you just intuitively know are based on how they’re made, which is, in a nutshell, exceptionally naturally. If anyone wants to know why to produce a wine using organic viticulture (Lesec’s grapes are 100 percent organically grown, though not certified) and indigenous yeasts, and vinifying with used barrels and no racking, these wines are your answer. More on all this below.
There’s another important reason to pay attention to these wines, though. It’s less about them as objects, and more about them in the context of one’s own personal education as a wine drinker and human. The Lesec “Richette” 2010 ($14, National) is made primarily from Côtes du Rhône’s most prevalent grape, grenache, while the Lesec “Bouquet” 2009 ($14) is made primarily from syrah.
And so we are provided with a surprisingly rare opportunity to perform a controlled experiment of sorts, where we can taste two wines made near each other, by a small team with a single perspective on how wine ought to be made and what wine from this vast region should taste like, and find out what majority-grenache CdR is about and what majority-syrah CdR is about.
You can really drill down on subtle distinctions that end up having considerable impact on the final product. By attending to the effects of this one macro-terroir on two different grapes, you can learn a lot about one of the world’s most important wine regions and two of France’s great red varietals. It’s a short wine-education seminar in two bottles. But you can also learn the more important set of lessons, which concern your own tastes, your own templates and assumptions.
I discussed these and other questions with Jim Elston, president of Chemin des Vins, an importer of many fine and distinctive French wines. Elston works with Lesec in a collaborative sort of negoçiant relationship: Lesec sources fruit from growers he trusts, who vinify the wines in their own cellars. The wines then go to Lesec’s winery for blending and elevage (the period between fermentation and bottling), according to Elston’s specifications.
“Our elevage is, basically, ‘don’t touch the wine,’ ” Elston (who has recently moved to South Bristol to live full-time) told me.
Another way to put this is to say that the wines are made naturally. That is an infamously unreliable term, but if I could demand one mandatory feature of a wine label, it would be whether the yeasts are indigenous (or “uninoculated” or “wild,” or however we want to describe the yeasts that are naturally occurring in a given vineyard and cellar) or cultured (or “inoculated,” i.e. cultivated somewhere else, purchased and added during fermentation). Much of what constitutes a “natural” wine stems from that feature.
The grenache-emphasizing “Richette” is made from mostly 20- to 30-year-old vines, raised entirely in stainless steel tanks to emphasize the primary freshness and brightness of all that grape’s lovely red fruit characteristics: red plums, red raspberry, ripe red strawberry, kirsch. The “Bouquet,” from average 40-year-old vines, is done partly in stainless steel, but mostly in a combination of foudre (very large, old wood casks) and smaller barrels. This suits the syrah’s black heart – blackberries, black plums, black currant, iron – and its destiny as a bigger, grittier, denser, more structured wine.
Both are delightfully clear of purpose, a fact I ascribe to another crucial winemaking principle that Lesec and Elston hold dear: minimal application of sulfur. Because the wines are not racked (moved from one container to another, in order to clarify the wine and rid it of sediment), they are less exposed to oxygen, and the natural carbon dioxide created during fermentation can serve as the main guardian of the wine’s freshness.
Wines that are racked lose that natural carbon dioxide while gaining exposure to oxygen, thereby requiring the prophylactic function of sulfur. Sulfur protects wine from oxidation but masks the nature of the wine itself. (Lesec adds a very small amount of sulfur at bottling as a preservative.) Hence, the tremendously expressive aromatics on both wines, the purity and drive of their fruit articulation.
Interestingly, all this technical background leads to some important considerations when drinking the Lesec wines themselves. So much carbon dioxide is retained in these wines, relatively speaking, that if you pop the cork on a bottle and take a quick slug, you’ll actually sense the CO2 on your mouth.
Elston recommends waiting two minutes after opening a bottle before your first taste. (I’d suggest trying a small sip immediately just to know what CO2 is like.) Then swirl your glass a bit and enjoy.
However you approach the wines at first, the more exciting drama takes place in a different time frame: over days. I was amazed at how days two and three of even the “Richette” (remember, that’s the fresher- and younger-tasting wine) gave me three different wines. What at first is indeed mostly elegant red fruit shows over hours and days a much more piquant side: twigs, nutmeg, consomme. Succulence moves to savory.
The “Bouquet” picks up in some sense where the ‘Richette’ ends, and moves in an almost opposite direction, from angular to pretty. Peppery at first, it is multilayered and iron-rich, almost bloody. A bit of that pencil-lead character comes on as well. By the next day, it calms, and you even get hints of violets and dried leaves.
The “Bouquet” is a complicated wine, and we’re at a good time to live alongside it. The stock of bottles from the challenging 2009 vintage is dwindling, and within another couple of months the available wine will be from 2010, a much more consistently fine year. Trying those side by side will be yet another welcome controlled experiment, and I hope they’ll inspire you to set aside a few bottles to try years from now. (I expect the “Bouquet” to gain in intensity and depth, while the “Richette” will likely expand its elegance.)
Perhaps all this will motivate you to try Lesec’s large but refreshingly restrained Châteauneuf-du-Papes as well: the La Lionne d’Or Blanc 2010 ($29) and Les Pierres Dorees Rouge 2010 ($42).
Even before you go there, though, appreciate these basic Côtes du Rhône wines for their transparency and honesty, a very clear drama with grape variety, soil and weather in the starring roles.
Elston told me, “I want these wines to give pleasure, but even more to make clear where they’re from.”
The beautiful thing is that drinking them with an attitude that brings them into dialogue with each other makes clear where we’re from as well.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: