Indulging My Inner Wine Geek, on the Lower East Side

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

The first cool nights are upon us, meaning  rose season is over. That’s fine by me, as my rose of choice this year, Massaya, from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, sold out its entire bottling weeks ago. What to drink now is the question:

Wine lists will begin tilting toward reds and fuller bodied wines in general, optimistically hoping this will be the year American consumers stop identifying themselves as red or white drinkers. Little chance of that. The backlash against Chardonnay rages on, which is good news for white drinkers looking to broaden their horizons. Red drinkers are drowning in twin seas of unremarkable Pinot Noir and over extracted, highly alcoholic Malbec.

Most American wine drinkers are drinking fruity, un-oaked wines with noticeable residual sugar, but the wine landscape here isn’t grim at all. Some good, interesting bottles can be found for $10 or less, and finding something great under $15 is still easy. This is New York – wine geeks are a dime a dozen – we’re not limited to the selection of, say, a typical Wisconsin supermarket. Anyone with a $20 bill in their wallet can drink very well without spending all of it.

What to drink now? I love Bordeaux for value. Call me conservative if you like; I prefer “classic.” Reds from this region pretty much established the French export wine trade. They’ve been making wine there for almost two thousand years, and they make A LOT of it.

When they have a good year the top wines sell for top dollar, to be drunk decades from now. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and the pedestrian Bordeaux from good vintages make great daily drinkers. 2005 and 2009 were great years for Bordeaux reds, so you can practically shoot in the dark. Just look for the name Bordeaux and either of those years on the label. (2010 seems to be shaping up to be another great vintage). What you’ll find are dry, slightly tannic, oaked wines, less fruity than what is currently trendy – wines made in the classic food-friendly style.

The reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or a blend featuring the two. The comparatively unsung whites are usually Sauvignon Blanc, but much drier and rounder than currently popular examples from New Zealand or California. I‘m very happy with the Chateau Jacquet Bordeaux Blanc 2010 being poured at the Canal Street bar Clandestino right now ($8 a glass) – it makes for a great introduction to white Bordeaux. It has a round, almost oily texture in the mouth that’s very satisfying.

The importer who brings in the Jacquet also imports Chateau de Pizay Beaujolais 2010, which is a steal at $12-$13 a bottle – a perfect reference for what a red Beaujolais wine ought to be. Skip the hype (and inevitable let down) over the Beaujolais Nouveau this year and enjoy a bottle of Pizay, slightly chilled, with your Thanksgiving dinner. (Or any time you’re in the mood for a light bodied, slightly fruity red; you‘ll thank me later). I haven’t yet seen it for sale in the neighborhood, but it’s distributed by Martin Scott (a heavyweight), so any local wine shop ought to be able to order it for you.

While on the topic of light bodied reds, let me suggest a neighborhood Pinot Noir comparison: California Vs. Burgundy — each weighing in at under $15 a bottle. Bogle Pinot Noir is available at Delancey Wine (41 Essex St) for $13, also by the glass ($9) at Sweet Grapes Wine Bar (39 Essex) next door. It’s super juicy, with red fruits prominent (not much plum or prune – more cherries and berries). Approachable and easy to like, if a little simple, this wine is a clean expression of Pinot Noir fruit.

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Representing Burgundy we have Pierre Clarron, Bourgogne Hautes-Cotes de Beaune 2008 ($15), available at Seward Park Liquors (393 Grand St): Pinot Noir made in the traditional style. The fruit (mostly cherry) is far more restrained here, balanced against elegant tannins and acidity, offering a glimpse of why some pay big dollars for the more prestigious wines from this region. Elegance ain’t cheap, but this wine gives you quite a bit of it for the price.

Both of these wines are very well made, but they’re about as stylistically different as you can get. For $30 and a few blocks’ walk you can try this comparison yourself. It really shows how huge the differences in region and winemaking style can be, even though the grape is the same.

Staying in the neighborhood: Have you checked out September Wines (100 Stanton, between Ludlow and Orchard) yet? This little boutique has a few things going for it: a good selection, including plenty of $15 bottles; decent prices; knowledgeable staff; AND they deliver. They also go out of their way to be environmentally conscious, both in their selections and business practices. Those who value green ideals will feel good about shopping here. Those who don’t care one way or the other can still find some very good wines. Those who are tired of mass market wines will enjoy shopping here, as there’s not an example of such to be found. The focus is on interesting wines from small producers. That’s where the excitement is.

Many of us make the hike north to Astor Wines (399 Lafayette St), which makes perfect sense. The place is huge, the prices and selection are great and the staff know their stuff. It’s just a bit out of the way, and I find when I go I usually have to spring for a cab to get home. That eats up a chunk of the money I just saved, and as a result I don’t end up hitting Astor as often as I could. If I’m leaving the neighborhood to buy wine I want more than a few dollars saved; I want the full-on hardcore wine geek experience.

This can be found at Moore Brothers, (33 E 20th St, between Broadway and Park) a place where devotion to wine borders on fanaticism. One brother is a sommelier, the other a wine merchant. They only deal with one importer, who assures the wines are shipped under refrigeration from the winery until they arrive at the store. (No chance of these wines cooking in a container carelessly left in the sun on a dock somewhere). This results in a somewhat limited selection, but it’s meticulously curated. Every bottle I’ve had from them has been somewhere between good and excellent, and I‘ve tasted many with a friend who is a regular customer.

The staff go out of their way to ascertain your tastes and sell you a wine that will pair well with your meal. They basically hand sell the wine. Each bottle comes with a printout of technical specifications, including Greg Moore’s own (sometimes floridly written) tasting notes. It’s almost shocking that at this level of service and sheer geekdom (the store itself is kept at 56 degrees) they still manage to have a selection of under-$15 bottles. (Head’s up: most of the customers are more than a little bit on the posh side – it is the Flatiron, after all).

I’ll have much more on wine and local wine establishments in future columns. We have so much going on, and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

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