In a recent article in The New Yorker, writer Bill Buford collaborates with the legendary chef Daniel Boulud on several classic old-school French dishes, among them the chartreuse, an absurdly involved sculpture of game birds stuffed inside gently cooked and carved vegetables (and bacon). All along the preparation, you have the sense that it can’t be worth it. But as the dish is finally served, Boulud, who began his apprenticeship in classic French kitchens when he was 14 years old, exclaims, “C’est le vrai gout de la France.” “That’s the real taste of France.”

I think that’s what a customer was recently seeking when she asked me to recommend a fail-proof category for good red wine. “You know, a red wine. Like, a good, deep, dry wine that makes you think, ‘This is red wine.’ I want something to depend on.”

She’d found such a category for that sort of white (Verdejo, funnily enough), but she was having difficulty doing the same for red. Of course. Categories don’t work (she’ll probably find that out about Verdejo at some point). But I did find the wine that she’s looking for. It’s not the only red wine in the world. But while you’re drinking it you feel like it is.

Andre Brunel’s wines are the vrai gout de la France. This is evident in his matchless Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but it’s no less evident in his “ordinary” Cotes du Rhone 2010, which costs just 13 bucks. There’s plenty of more interesting wine out there. But I’m not sure there is any wine that is more convincing of its own internal integrity, more expressive of its place and all the history that supports it.

Brunel’s family has been making extraordinary wine for generations. From exceptional vineyards of vines averaging 40 years old, the principled stickler Brunel lavishes as much attention on his $13 Cotes du Rhone as he does on his celebrated Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

“We have so many old vines,” Brunel told me, “so you cannot change the way of cultivating in such vineyards. We are doing the same things the ancients were doing.”

This is true of Brunel’s viticulture, but not completely true of his cellar practices, due to the impositions of a particularly nasty and tenacious culprit: global climate change. There’s less rain overall in Chateauneuf these days, and temperatures are decidedly hotter.

When Brunel started helping his father in 1971, at the age of 23, they were picking grapes past the middle of October. Recent harvests, even of the late-ripening Grenache, have occurred weeks earlier to retain the grapes’ acidity. That earlier pick affects the wines’ flavors, of course.

Brunel’s wines are noteworthy for their balance: the way deep, ripe fruit mingles with forested aromas and profound savoriness. But balance in a wine comes from balance in environment, and gets harder to maintain when the conditions become hotter and drier.

“The rain now comes less frequently but more quickly,” Brunel said. “In one day we get the same amount as used to come in three days. That way, it cannot penetrate the soil as well.”

This is an especially violent shift in Chateauneuf, whose famous “cailloux,” the large stones that form the vineyards’ top layer, drain water quickly. Without a more gradual hydration, the vines simply cannot get fed an appropriate diet.

If the climatic trends continue, Brunel said, he (or his son, Fabrice, who at 32 is gradually learning the “ways of the ancients” Andre puts such stock in), may have to irrigate the vineyards. One concession the Brunels have already made is to destem after harvest. Grapes pulled off the vine earlier, though physiologically ripe, come with overly green stems that would impart bitterness and off-kilter tannins to the wines.

In hearing all this, I was reminded of the technique-heavy practices of conventional Californian winemakers: Irrigate, then adjust acidity and alcohol levels with reverse osmosis and various additives before bottling, to achieve an artificial performance of coherence that is far from the true balance a less addled natural world can impart.

Let’s look on the bright side, though. Brunel’s wines are terrific right now. I’ve long been fascinated with the everyday white, the Domaine de la Becassonne 2012 ($16, SoPo). White Cotes du Rhone (and Chateauneuf) are usually a problem: the grapes — Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, Clairette, Grenache Blanc — simply do not have enough natural acidity to evolve into a wine that is both interesting and lively. Their promise — extravagant aromatics, tropical fruit, honey and Asian spice — is so often fatally undermined by an overheated, flabby profile, cloying and exhausting after the first sip.

The Becassonne has for a long time been for me a shining exception, a beacon of vivacity and intrigue for years. Brunel attributes its lean, bracing minerality to a relatively large proportion of Clairette, next to the Rousanne and Grenache Blanc. The grapes are hand-picked quite early (by the end of August).

The 2012 vintage is interesting because it’s so atypical of the genre. The wine’s freshness, wrapped up in salt, melon and white nectarine, reminded me of an Alsatian Pinot Blanc: soft, bittersweet, mountain-floral. Tightly wound with the ripe-fruit notes very subtle, it actually got better and better over three days in my refrigerator: more beeswaxy and resonant, but also with more of a punch and drive that it lacked upon first opening.

Then, the “ordinary” red Cotes du Rhone 2010 ($13, SoPo), unfiltered from old-vines Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah fermented in concrete tanks. That inimitable, “vrai gout” conversation among every element of the plant cycle: soil, roots, branches, leaves, fruit. It’s the whole picture, with tannins integrated, both toothsome and silken.

I try not to anthropomorphize wine, but it seems to know what you want, and then meet those desires. For me, and I’m sure for that customer as well, it is almost endlessly interesting, and dependable indeed. 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market, but not all the wines mentioned in this column are necessarily sold there. His blog is, and he can be reached at [email protected]


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