"The Right of Spring" (with apologies to Stravinsky)
April 4, 2017
Just over 100 years ago, Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" debuted with the Ballet Russes to a riotous welcome. It became one of the most influential pieces of music of the Twentieth Century. That has almost nothing to do with this post about wine--I just always liked the title and the concept of a rite that marked the beginning of spring (though I would point out that Stravinsky entitled the introductory movement "Kiss of the Earth" which could definitely apply to wine).
I enjoy marking the transition into each season by starting to emphasize the wines that fit that season. As we move into summer, the temperature climbs and we're outdoors a lot. We tend to want light, bright, low-alcohol wines as we chill by the pool or on the patio...dry or off-dry riesling or txakolina, for example. On the other hand, as winter's snows begin to fall, we tend to want soft, ripe wines that will wrap their arms around us as we sit by the fireplace--perhaps chateauneuf-du-pape or gigondas. So if those are some of the "right" wines of summer and winter, what might be the right wines of spring?
My first thought was rosé. It fits in lots of ways. Most rosés are released in spring. In fact, you might consider the arrivals of the new vintage of rosé as an unofficial commencement to the season. And they're fresh wines, which might coincide with the fresh buds on the trees and flowers. And some of them are quite versatile--they pair pretty well with hams and Easter picnics and things we eat at this time of year. But which rosé you choose matters considerably. There are boatloads of it--and it's not all good. There are certainly more good ones than I'm going to name here, but if you're not confident in choosing, buy from someone/someplace that you have confidence in.
And don't be afraid to try several--there are a wide variety of styles. In fact, I stock quite a few rosés to get me through the spring and summer--from Clos Cibonne and Domaine Tempier to Ameztoi Rubentis to several rosés of pinot noir and the Matthiasson in the picture. I've respected Steve and Jill Matthiasson and their wines for some time. That changed just a bit a few years ago. In August 2014, the Napa area was devastated by a magnitude 6.0 earthquake, which caused perhaps a billion dollars worth of damage. Not too long after that, I got an email from Matthiasson offering me "a special opportunity" to purchase wines that would be released the next spring. "Aha!" I thought. "They must have been damaged and they need to raise capital." And I was right. Their home had been devastated--they had to move out. And their winery had also suffered. This was definitely an effort to raise capital. I was right--but I was wrong. The capital was not for them. As they put it, they were fortunate. Even though they are not among Napa's (many) rich winery owners--they've built their business the hard way--they had the means to obtain funds to repair their home and their business. But there were thousands of people in the area who weren't as fortunate. People who worked in stores and wineries and vineyards and gas stations. Regular people. People who often stretched paychecks to get to the next payday. Many of them suffered significant damage. The money raised through this special offering went directly to helping them. My respect turned to admiration. I want to buy wine from people like that. I might buy some even if it wasn't great--but no worries on that score. It's very good!
As I thought about wines of spring, the other wine that leapt out was beaujolais. We all think about and describe wine differently. So if you've ever gotten stressed out because you don't characterize wine the same way as some famous critic or sommelier--don't worry. I don't either. Some people think of wine in terms of shapes...some in terms of colors. One wine writer draws pictures to capture her thoughts about a wine. Yo-Yo Ma plays music to express his response (how cool would it be to go to a wine tasting with him!). That preamble is just to say that my terms may or may not express much to you, but to me, good beaujolais is a joyous wine. It's exuberant...but it has character. And I think joyous also describes spring and our feelings as we can begin to get out after winter hibernation.
I did say "good beaujolais" because there's probably more not-so-good beaujolais than good. The supermarkets are full of it. But there is good beaujolais to be found in almost any top wine shop. They tend to be the cru beaujolais--wines from one of the ten appellations, such as Fleurie or Morgon, that are authorized to sell their wine based on the village name as opposed to Beaujolais-Villages or Beaujolais. But, as in any appellation, the producer makes a difference. The good news is that beaujolais is not particularly in fashion, so even the best producers are affordable. You may have trouble finding the Yvon Métras, pictured above (don't stop trying) but you should be able to find Lapierre, Foillard, Dutraive, Chermette, Sunier, Pacalet or one of the other top producers. Eric Asimov wrote a good piece about beaujolais a couple of years ago in the New York Times (I don't mean to imply that's unusual--good pieces are the norm for him). It was entitled "Greatness if Not Gravitas." In the article, Asimov was talking about Fleurie and Morgon--but isn't that kind of how we all feel about spring? Greatness if Not Gravitas? Spring is a beginning. Nothing is full or mature. But it's great. Spring makes me happy. So does good beaujolais.
Find your "Right of Spring." A wine that makes you happy. Perhaps it's not rosé or beaujolais for you--it might be chenin or cab franc from the Loire or assyrtiko from Santorini or any of dozens of others. Whatever it is, find it and celebrate. It doesn't mean that's all you should drink during the new season--it's just a natural way to mark the transition. Happy spring!