Home | BaltimoreBrew.com
Culture & Artsby Francine Halvorsen8:54 amSep 27, 20120

Searching for great French wine, in a Baltimore mansion

Above: Could we find affordable French wine with as much “wow” as our Cylburn Arboretum venue or our Classic Catering People food?

If you’re about to decant a $1,000 bottle of ‘80s vintage Chateau Margaux Premier Grand Cru Classe, these selections will not impress you. Likewise, a $100 Montrachet or a $300 Pomerol may bring out the poet in all of us, but they were not on our list of regional French cuvees, either.

No, what we were looking for, as the weather turns chilly, were French reds and whites that wouldn’t make us blue (with an impossible price tag.)

It’s the wine lover’s eternal quest. France produces so many different types of terrific wine from different regions–spicy Rhones, svelte Burgundies, profound Bordeaux, exuberant Loires and Gascognes and earthy, mysterious Languedocs.

Tasters Greg Krauss and Hannah Byron at the Cylburn Mansion on the eternal quest to find some great, reasonably priced French wines.

Taster Hannah Byron scoring wines at the Brew’s latest blind tasting. (Photo by Fern Shen)

We decided to explore and compare high quality, reasonably priced examples from many regions.

Choosing from the small wineries of the famous areas like Bordeaux and Burgundy and from the more unheralded regions, like Gascogne and Dordogne, we came up with a list we hoped would include some treasures readers could find here in Baltimore.

We uncorked these in a perfect setting–the Mansion at the Cylburn Arboretum, where the roses were blooming in late-summer shades of pink and yellow and the spiky-leafed cannas blazed away in bright tangerine and lipstick-red. North Baltimore’s own gorgeous terroir.

The mansion at Baltimore's Cylburn Arboretum. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The Cylburn Arboretum mansion. (Photo by Fern Shen)

In the soft light of a late summer evening, the tall windows offered a view of the expansive grounds and sent sunlight bouncing off the room’s ornate mirrors.

The 124-year-old stone building – home-base for activities ranging from chamber music to geocaching to stilt-walking – is a model of traditional venues put to modern use, much as ancient French vines have benefited from modern viticulture.

Keen Tasters and a Chef Who “Brings It”

Happily, after blind-tasting ten wines from various regions we discovered several we would drink with pleasure, unembarrassed by our reasonable frugality. Our food pairings were well-matched small plates prepared by Chef Bryan Davis from The Classic Catering People.

(The wine quality may be up-and-down at these events, but Chef B always “brings it,” like the Orioles’ Adam Jones, consistently delivering a powerful performance at the plate.)

Chef Bryan Davis, of The Classic Catering People, prepares Tandoori-rubbed Scallops. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Chef Bryan Davis, of The Classic Catering People, prepares Tandoori-rubbed Scallops. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Another part of our Brew Decants formula is a lively tasting panel and this group savored the good and less-good sips with particular gusto:

I was joined by Hannah Byron (Assistant Secretary, Maryland Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts), Tracy Bumba (Audience Development for the Dolan Company), Susan Patz (Cylburn Board Member and Secretary) and Gregory Krauss (editor Fern Shen’s husband), a Hopkins MD and longtime wine aficionado.

1st place: Guigal Gigondas 2007, Rhone $31.99, red. Score: 20.
2nd place [a tie]: Boillot Montagny 2010, Burgundy $29.99, red. Score 17 AND Château Suau, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux Rouge, Prestige 2005, $26.95. Score: 17.
3rd place: Domaine de Pouy vin du pays des Cotes de Gascogne 2011. $8.99, white. Score: 15.
[These wines are available at Graul’s Wine Shops. The Château Suau was courtesy Kysela Pere et Fils Ltd. importers.]

Along with these five, we benefited from the presence of Cylburn’s Nancy Hill and Lili Levy and from Kelly Burke and her partner Marta Hanson, a Hopkins associate professor at the Institute for the History of Medicine and the author of the Brew’s Urban Forager column.

As always, we used our 1-to-4 scale:  “4” – you’d buy a case, “3” you’d buy a bottle, “2” you’d finish the glass, maybe have a second,  “1” you’d pour it out.

Watery Wannabes and Chemical Undertones

One of the reasons wine tastings are conducted “blind” is that they yield results like this one. We were surprised to find that one of the wines we really bashed was the priciest, most elegantly labeled bottle in the group: a Chanson Pommard, Burgundy 2010. It sells for $42.99, but our tasters gave it only a 7.5.

Francine Halvorsen and Susan Patz. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Francine Halvorsen and Susan Patz. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“Pale and thin,” Tracy said. “My tongue feels fuzzy.” Greg dubbed it “a table red, a cheap thrill for lunch.” I wrote “watery, dilute – a wannabe.”

It made us wonder what grade we might have given it, if we’d been influenced by its credentials.

Taster Tracy Bumba, joining in one of many toasts. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Taster Tracy Bumba, joining in one of many toasts. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The most charitable spin on the bottles we dissed was that they might be regional wines that taste better when sipped where they are produced.

But the tasters  generally sailed into the flops with gusto:

“It seemed almost as though it has turned – it has a mysterious bad flavor,” Susan said, of the Bellevue Touraine Sauvignon Blanc 2011.  “Dry, flat and thin,” Greg said. “I might drink it while cleaning out the cellar.”

A Symphony

Our winner was the first red we tasted, Guigal Gigondas 2007, $31.99. We gave it a “20” – it was our only bottle to earn a perfect score. A Southern Rhone wine (primarily of grenache), it’s the lesser-known cousin of the more expensive Chateauneuf du Pape.

Tasters raise a glass in thanks to Cylburn's Nancy Hill for making the event happen. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Tasters raise a glass in thanks to Cylburn’s Nancy Hill for making the event happen. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Hannah, who could be brutal about the bad bottles, melted for this one.  “It’s got good legs, good color. Complex, but not too heavy or oaky,” she said. “It’s very smooth.”

It wowed me, as well. I see this wine as great with grilled salmon, bronzini or meat but with enough complexity to just sip alone. “A symphony in red,” I wrote on my score sheet. “A full range of notes, a mid-mouth crescendo and no jarring tannic chords.”

“Excellent and probably better a year from now. This would be good at any fancy dinner,” Greg said. “If this one is $20, it would be quite a bargain.” At $32 it was our priciest bottle. But we all really, really liked it.

Doug Birch, Marta Hanson and Kellly Burke shared the hard work of tasting.

Doug Birch, Marta Hanson and Kellly Burke cheered on the tasters.

“Smooth and lovely,” Susan said. “I would put candles on the table for this one.”

It made Tracy crave “a nice steak.” The Bronzini Taco Plank we were served at that point had just the grilled flavor we all wanted; it came with charred pineapple salsa, avocado pulp and micro-cilantro.

“Like a Good Southern France Burgundy”

We had two second-place wines, each scoring “17.” One was the last white we drank – Boillot Montagny 2010, $29.99. Hailing from the Burgundy region, it seemed to me to avoid that crude cliche chardonnay taste and instead yielded a bit of citrus and pear flavor.

“I love the luminous color and that it’s complex without being too acidic or leaving a white wine aftertaste,” I wrote. “It is a chardonnay without a dominant mouth-feel.”

Tandoori-rubbed scallops, one of the food pairings provided by The Classic Catering People. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Tandoori-rubbed scallops, one of the food pairings provided by The Classic Catering People. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Greg and Susan liked its oaky, dry quality (“Like a really good southern France Burgundy,” Greg said), but not Tracy, who preferred more fruit in the aroma and taste.

The Tandoori-Rubbed Scallops (with curry emulsion and toasted coconut) added a sweet and savory layer to the dry, subtle burgundy.

Pairs Well with Short-Rib S’mores?

The other second-place finisher was Château Suau, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux Rouge, Prestige 2005, $26.95. The color on this wine was riveting – a deep crimson, with light highlights. It took a while to grow on us.

“I’m drinking it but not getting it,” Tracy said at first. “It’s earthy, which I like, but I taste more potential than anything else.”

Still life with Short-ribs S'more and phoenix tattoo. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Still life with Short-ribs S’more and phoenix tattoo. (Photo by Fern Shen)

At first the mouth-feel did seem a little tannic – frizzante or young, Hannah thought. But then the underlying flavors and some extra breathing-time overcame that. Susan was the first to “get” this wine: “I think it’s hardy and woodsy. I can see its biceps! It seems aged right to me.”

With that initial bite and then a sequence of flavors with each sip, it would hold up well to rich autumn dishes, I thought, or suit a crispy-skinned Thanksgiving turkey.

What Chef Bryan served at this point was Savory Short Rib S’mores,  a small dish of minced short ribs on a pumpkin biscuit, topped with goat cheese cream and jalapeno demi glaze. It could not have been a better match. The depth of the wine and the layers of the savory S’mores resonated deliciously.

“Surprisingly, I Like It”

Wood-smoked Sage Duck puts a smile on taster Greg Krauss. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Wood-smoked Sage Duck makes taster Greg Krauss smile. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The third place wine was interesting in that it confounded the tasters who generally don’t favor sweet wines. A crowd-pleaser and our best value, the Domaine de Pouy Vin du pays des Cotes de Gascogne 2011, $8.99 got a score of “15.”

“It is fruity, but it’s crisp,” Greg said.

“I think it is lovely, cool and gentle,” Susan said. Tracy found it “refreshing,” and I, who generally like them dry, felt it was nicely textured and balanced.

Hannah hung tough, saying that what she sipped was “too sweet,” but she allowed as how it would be “a lovely summer lunch wine.”

This wine worked well with one of our more savory-sweet dishes, a small plates of Wood Smoked Sage Duck, served with butternut squash and poached blueberries.


THE  LIST: Our top four wines, plus all 10 wines organized by region 

– THE FOOD: contact our sponsors:
The Classic Catering People
99 Painters Mill Road
Owings Mills, MD


“Wine wisdom for a roasting region: our taste-test of 8 roses”

“Tasting delivers a master class on malbecs – and savoring a meal”

Most Popular