Wine Notes: The Challenge of Geography
It’s not easy being an arrogant American. We think we are the best at everything, but given the successes we have achieved, we tend to lack humility. Consider our entry into serious winemaking. One might think we would have adopted the standards of the Old World and started referring to wine by the place where the grapes were grown. But nooo, we had a better idea. We referenced our wine by the grape variety with total disregard for terroir. When I was younger, the idea that terroir was of the highest importance seemed silly. I grew up drinking jug wine and chardonnay from a bar gun. Later, I came to understand that a sense of place is a critical predictor of how the liquid in the dark green bottles would taste.
My new challenge is geography. Even though my ancestry is French, my geographic knowledge of the land of cheese and baguettes is limited. Consequently, I find it tricky to understand French wine. When I was invited to the offices of Cynthia Hurley French Wines, I was thrilled to learn about and taste wine from an expert on that country’s winemaking regions.
Cynthia and Robert Hurley lived in France for several years and fell in love with French wine. When Robert’s advertising career sent them to New York City in the ’80s, Cynthia decided it was time to open a wine importing business. In 1991, the couple moved to West Newton, Mass. Cynthia died six years ago, but Robert continued to run the business that bears her name.
The never-ending allure of French wine is variety. According to Hurley: “We loved the great variety of terroir, grape varietals and different winemaking techniques. This is why we got excited and started importing French wine. We learned that the best wines were made by great winemakers, not negociants or cooperatives.”
The Hurleys’ wine mission was centered around forging relationships with boutique family-owned operations. “Their name is on the bottle and their entire reputations, emotionally and commercially, are based on making the best wine they can,” Hurley says. “We have long relationships with these families, and often we are working with second-generation winemakers.”
I had an opportunity to taste offerings from about a dozen of the 45 family winemaking operations that Hurley represents. The wines from the Loire River Valley and Bourgogne regions were all fantastic and in the $20 range, shattering my first illusion about French wine. It turns out you don’t have to mortgage your house to drink great French wine.
We began our tasting with the Loire Valley, which is the second largest region for producing French sparkling wine. A nonvintage Petillant Brut produced by Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau was an elegant beginning. Petillant Brut is a style of sparkling wine made in the “méthode champenoise,” meaning its tiny bubbles are on the large size. Petillant Brut is a bargain that’s not to be ignored in the sparkling wine category. A still Vouvray we tasted from the same producer showcased a refreshing acidity and mineral finish that would pair well with goat cheese or shellfish.
From Vouvray we moved to the commune of Chinon, sharing both a rosé and a red by Domaine Couly-Dutheil. Rosé is often an afterthought, produced with leftover grapes. In this case, the winemaker chose to pick some of the best cabernet franc grapes and harvest them two weeks early, resulting in an outstanding fruity and floral expression. Conversely, the same winemaker delays the harvest by two weeks for his red wine. The delayed harvest is a risky practice, but the results here were worth the risk.
Cabernet franc often has a green and somewhat harsh finish that is wrongly seen as one of its characteristics. Such a finish indicates poor production methods and results from not leaving the fruit on the vine long enough. Not so with this selection’s attention-grabbing black cherry finish.
We tasted wines from Cote de Brouilly, Morgon, Montagny, Rully and Bourgogne. Despite the various regions, the quality was consistent. Robert has a great palate and has put together a fantastic collection of affordable French wines. He has some high-end selections, but that’s a story for another day.
You will find Cynthia Hurley French Wines at Dion’s in Waltham, Henry’s Wine Cellar in Beverly, Rapid Liquors in Stoneham, and Wine-Sense in Andover, but I would encourage you to sign up for the newsletter at CynthiaHurley.com. They will update you with their latest arrivals and connect you with a retailer. If you are out shopping, look at the back label for the Cynthia Hurley name, and trust that Robert has hand-picked this wine just for you. Salute!
Cynthia Hurley French Wines
West Newton, Mass.