WOTY#2 - Clos de la Roche in Spirit

Posted by CrushWine

Tom's Wine Of The Year
The Best Damn Pinot Noir That Isn't
Thierry Puzelat's Personality Filled Knockout:
"KO - Clos de la Roche"

I didn't go to the Loire Valley looking for a "Wine of the Year." The truth is, in a way I was hoping *not* to find anything. It'd be too predictable, really. The fulfillment of a wine business cliché - taking a trip and buying everything that you taste. "Not me," I said to myself. In fact, I think that I compensated in the other direction ... with an overly critical palate.

When I first tasted Thierry Puzelat's "KO - Clos de la Roche" I knew it was something special, but it was only with the context of my notes of a few hundred wines tasted over several weeks that it became clear to me that it was not only one of the best of the trip, but also the best of the year: a rule-breaking, complex, robust yet silky Pinot Noir-esque wine for food or cocktails that proves that what's in the bottle depends on the relationship between the winemaker and the grapes.

Those of you who remember my previous WOTY know that I make my selection for a very particular reason (2008: authenticity, 2007: intensity, 2006: "gulpability").

2009 is all about personality and the battle against homogeneity. You see, even within the French-hipster hotbed of vinous creativity that is the Loire, there are plenty of spineless, made-by-specific-recipe, rule-driven wines. It's as if fear (and profit focus) paralyzes winemakers into bludgeoning their grapes with the same formula each year, no matter what nature gives them ... resulting in a bottling that is completely devoid of personality.

Not here. If anything, Thierry's wines (and this bottling in particular) have a style personality of their own derived from experimentation, working with what nature gives you and good ol' terroir. In fact, it seems that his main guiding belief is that it's often necessary to do things that without concern -- and often with exacting disdain -- for the whims of fashion. All of this makes sense, though, when you look at Thierry himself in context. Throughout my travels I asked winemakers what their favorite music was ... a shocking majority of those with 'road more traveled' winemaking philosophies responded time-and-again with... "Sting" while Thierry was unabashed with his choice of "California Music" aka Punk Rock, counting NOFX and the Gimme Gimmes as some of his favorites.

My first taste of the rulebreaking 'Clos de la Roche' was during a somewhat distracted sampling of his full line of negociant bottlings. I wasn't really paying attention to labels and quickly jotted notes while I chatted with Thierry. After spitting, I wrote the following: "On the nose, beautifully floral, with sweet earthen notes. Light medium in body, juicy fruit, soft tannins, touching aromatic complexity. Great Pinot."

When I commented that it must be tough to make great Pinot Noir like this in Touraine, he laughed both with and at me ... this wasn't Pinot Noir, but rather Côt, in a bottling he calls "Clos de la Roche" ... now I was chuckling at myself, having been fooled just the way he wanted me to be.

I later found a quote of Thierry's about the grape that makes perfect sense: "Many people around here think that Côt is a tannic and rustic grape that always makes heavy duty wines with "hairy legs." But it's a grape that has as a true aromatic smoothness. By delicately working with whole bunches at low temperature and not punching down until the last moment, we don't extract too much tannin and can obtain very silky wines."

Yes, it's this silken character "atypical" of Côt which lost Thierry the right to print the Appellation on the label -- the tasting committee authorities didn't find this bottling to be authentic of the region, so he was only allowed to label the wine as VDT (Vin de Table ... for more see below).

But who needs typicity when the wine is this delicious? While elegant, it is also robust: (Stephen loves sports analogies, so here goes) it's like the NHL's highly talented, bruising bad boy Chris Pronger dressed in silk pajamas. In revisiting the wine and focusing a bit more, it was clear that the grape is not Pinot Noir -- there is certainly a Côt heft in the midpalate, and a textbook rusticity that's not only the Touraine stamp of terroir, but also the grape itself. No matter, it's still the best damn Pinot Noir that isn't.

Whether you're a geeked out devotee of Abe Schoener's experimental Scholium Project masterpieces or just like outstanding bottles of Pinot, I strongly encourage you to try the wine, though you should really take advantage of special 6-pack pricing and/or snag an ultra-rare magnum and share a little punk rock in a bottle with your friends. At $25 it's also a candidate for February weeknight gulping, and while ready to pop and pour this winter, properly cellared bottles will hibernate over the winter and emerge in July as a thrilling BBQ wine, perfect with grilled fish and meat (for maximum enjoyment please chill ever-so slightly to cellar temperature).

After tasting the wine, I asked the inevitable question: how much do you have left? The answer was only a few hundred bottles and a couple of magnums, and on the spot, he graciously agreed to sell the entirety of the remaining stock if we could work something out with the importer Louis-Dressner. Worried that it would sell out before I returned to New York, I asked Crush buyer Joe Salamone to lock it down, which he did. The wine is being picked up next month and is due to land in New York in February. Given the extremely limited quantity, (tiny, actually by Wine of the Year standards) if you are interested in securing bottles for your collection or holiday table, you should reply to this email immediately or call the store at (212) 980-9463.

Tom Stephenson
General Manager
Crush Wine & Spirits

2006 Puzelat Clos de la Roche

The scoop on Thierry

Thierry Puzelat is a rebel, an unrepentant outlaw and a survivor. When he was a child, there were 15 winemakers in the immediate vicinity of his village. They're all gone now: victims of their own difficult choices post 1985 phylloxera outbreak to replant their vineyards with productive hybrids instead of more noble varietals (with the goal of selling as much fruit as possible to large wine conglomerates). It was a race to the bottom when the supply of grapes for cheap wine in Europe far outstripped demand. Though these Domaines had plenty of (now, nearly worthless) grapes, none were suitable for Domaine bottling. Today only Thierry remains, continuing the family legacy started by his father's courageous choice in the 1970s to become the only estate for miles to bottle their own wine.

According to Thierry, 14 hectares is enough for him: while he knows he could sell more wine -- and doesn't deny that he needs money to live, he enjoys his way of life and doesn't want to be monetarily rich. He prefers to enrich his life by his relationships with his friends and children and to have time to do other things in his life besides work. I would argue that this actually gives him more time to perfect his craft (and listen to Punk Rock).

50-60 hectares would not only be possible, but relatively "easy" -- he certainly has the land in the Clos Tue Bouef, and the demand is constant as his wines are some of the darlings of the Paris winebar scene, not to mention a rabid Japanese following. Instead, as a laboratory of sorts, he started a small negociant business that relies on purchased grapes from growers who farm their plots organically or biodynamically.

He summed it up for me in one sentence: "I want to make wines that me and my friends wants to drink, and to be honest about wine - that's my guiding principle."

What's up with the Puzelat symbol?

It's from the Book of Kells, one of the most artistic renditions of the Gospel in existence.
Thierry wouldn't speak to it's exact meaning, but after some research, it's clear to me that it represents his ability to
combine intricate detail and bold energy -- using the kinetic energy transmitted by the land into the grapes to lavishly illiuminate the palate -- with the priority and ultimate goal of aesthetics (taste) over utility.

KO - Clos de la Roche

Since the tasting committee didn't approve his wine for AOC status, Puzelat was forced to label it a VDT. Now prohibited from putting the grape or where the wine came from on the label, he opted for the only logical choice... to call the wine what it is. To him, it is indeed Côt (spelled here phonetically, 'KO') expressing itself in a sexy, Burgundian style. Hey, if they won't let you put a grape or a region on the bottle, why not name it after one of the deepest, darkest, heartiest wines in all of Burgundy: Clos de la Roche.

So How Much SO2 does he *really* use?

Puzelat's wines have a reputation for being unsulfured, however, a conversation a few years ago with Joe Dressner refuted that rumour. The word direct from Thierry is that he adds a mere 10-15g to stop oxidation -- a mere fraction of the 100+ grams of others in the Loire and around France. Too much sulfur, he commented, gives him a headache.

Meal of the Year

Side Note: For my 'meal of the year' see Le Chat (french | english) - A Charlotte Dagueneau recommendation in the sleepy Sancerre suburb of Villechaud ... at 15x the price the 3-star L'Arpege has nothing on it!)