“Making good wine is a skill. Fine wine is an art.” – Robert Mondavi
Normally, I don’t pair salmon with Chardonnay. All palates are personal and correct for themselves. Mine prefers Sancerre. But, as with many dishes, how the protein is prepared or the dish is sauced, is as important as the entrée itself. Besides, I was looking for an excuse to open this wine “find” and it worked so well, I had to share the experience. On the plate
is broiled sesame salmon (Alaskan wild-caught Sockeye). It was prepared with a mixture of lime juice, honey, vegetable oil and coconut aminos and served with tropical fruits. The Chardonnay? A 2016 “Novellum.”
Novellum comes with the simple “Vin de France” appellation, meaning Wine of France. Uncorking the wine shows it is from the Roussillon region in Southwest France, not the Cote de Beaune so well known for Chardonnay. But I was drawn to this wine by noticing on the back label that it was an “Eric Solomon” selection. There are names on labels that have, for me – for decades - indicated value. Solomon is one of them. With an ARP of $12, and this bottle on sale for just $8.97, and being unfamiliar with French wines labeled by variety instead of region, I took a chance based on the Solomon name.
Good thing! An interesting Chardonnay. Interesting and also pleasurable, and (luckily) a great pairing with the salmon. Tasting this wine leaves you puzzled, questioning just what it is that makes it unique. It’s not oaky. In fact, it finishes clean and is crisp throughout, while yet not being thin or overly acidic. Excellent balance. But something different is going on here that sets it apart and makes it pleasurably unusual. The vines average 30+ years of age, so fruit is concentrated. But that’s not it. The area in Roussillon in which the grapes are grown average an elevation of 15 meters (49.21 feet): nothing extraordinary. Soil is clay, limestone and galets – pretty much standard. The area in Roussillon is where the Pyrrenees meet the Mediterranean and near Mount Canigou - about par in advantages vs disadvantages for growing Chardonnay grapes. Problem is, the wine itself speaks all positive. After fermentation, the wine is aged in steel (80%), accounting for its aromatics, freshness and fruit. 20% (often less) is aged in wood, but the wood is neutral. Aging is for three months in tank on the lees of Viognier and therein lies the difference.
This is genius wine! This is cool climate California meets the sophistication of
Maconnais, a unique “hybrid” that is 100% Chardonnay from 100% Vitus Vinifera , sustainably farmed and made into wine with great thought at every step along the way. 5% undergoes malolactic fermentation. That with the lees contact provides enough body while maintaining the classic French profile of balance and subtlety, suggestion vs. prevalence, finesse vs imbalance.
In the glass, it presents medium lemon. The nose offers light and bright notes of lemon backed up with deeper notes of candied orange. Enjoy aromas of tropical fruit and notes of apricot and green apple. On the palate, both the lemon and orange repeat, but are joined with a hint of lime. An undercurrent of minerality carries throughout the taste with hints of crushed rock. The palate is layered. Honeysuckle, green apple, apricot and a mild yeastiness, offset nicely by the citrus adds, complexity. The texture is honeyed. Others pick up pear, herbs, sour peach, white peach and spice.
This is not wine with a gimmick to be different (for better or worse). It’s not aged in barrels used to age soy sauce or balsamic vinegar. Years ago, Jean-Marc and Eliane Lafage (proprietors) worked with a cooperative in Languedoc to make Novellum from a site that in most years had some botrytis. Today, in Roussillon, there is no botrytis. Using grapes affected by “noble rot” is not a gimmick. But I think the wine is better off without it. This is a clean, medium plus bodied wine that makes the most out of a rather neutral grape. It emphasizes terroir, not the winemaker’s talents though they cannot be minimized. Each decision (neutral wood, percentage of malolactic fermentation, percentage of tank aging) is critical to the finished product. And aging on the lees of Viognier ranks high among those decisions. Adding weight without the secondary notes of oak adds a subtle finessed note of grace and interest to this varietal of a thousand faces. That this wine is available at such a price affords everyone an opportunity to experience it. And, frankly, it competes with wines at 4-5 times the cost.
Nor is this 2016 vintage Novellum a once in a decade hit. Rated 92 by Wine Advocate, it earned 90 points in 2015, 89 in 2014 and 92 in 2013. It seems making art is a habit with the Novellum of Jean-Marc and Eliane Lafage.
A votre sante!
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