My first gig as a legal adult was tending bar at bar-mitzvahs, and let me tell you, there’s nothing that screams ‘relentless march of time’ more disconcertingly than seeing one of those kids today with gray patches flecking a full beard.
Michael Korn is one such kid, and despite his questionable judgment in pursuing a career in wine hawkery, his passion, personality and paragon palate probably made this pathway inevitable, come hell or high patrons.
He’s as good as they get.
I ran into him last Saturday at Jim Lufty’s exclusive, very fine Fine Wine Source. And by exclusive, I mean that Lufty’s name has been associated with rare and collectible wines for decades, and his Livonia bodega is, for terminally with-it locals, a go-to spot for undiscovered specialties and trophy vintages at fair mark-ups across the board. Tastings and winemaker visits there are rampant, so a trip to the small, bottle-jammed storefront usually winds up being more than a quick stop for a red pop. Lufty’s inventory demonstrates a conspicuous weakness for the classic wines of Europe and equally, a loyalty to quality wines from the New World—Michigan included. His shelves are heavy with gems, so if you haven’t checked him out yet, shame on you–you owe it to yourself to do so.
Anyway, Back to Korn Porn:
So the wine-line on the morning I wandered in was a broad selection of Southern Rhônes with stickers ranging from $12 to $90. Tasting seventeen wines at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning is a sweet challenge, but it tends to put the forthcoming and fully-expected Detroit Tiger’s second-half-of-the-season trouncing in perspective prior to first pitch.
Despite the thirteen grapes allowable in wines from the region (a bucket of Twinkies if you can name them all), So Rhô reds have certain recognizable in-your-face dimensions; they tend to be non-subtle and exhilarating with deep, compelling textures and aromatics; they’re fleshy, sensuous, zaftig wines, the enological equivalent of a Rubens painting. Even with significant improvements in technology and technique, they remain today what they likely were two thousand years ago: Distinctly Rhôneish.
In fact, these are the wines of which Thomas Jefferson said in 1787: ‘The first wine in the world without a single exception’.
There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, and Korn’s portfolio contains at least a couple, but only at price points where you would not expect to see the stars. The rest expand upward with undeniable confidence, geometrically, predictably and even appropriately as the dollar signs on the tags stick close behind—after millennia of ups and downs, the days when Rhône’s significant contributions to the wine world were misunderstood and undervalued are fading fast, so you can expect to pay a significant assessment for a representative example of the best.
Even so, unlike the apex wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux—even Napa—down here in the papal provinces, you still get what you pay for.
(Incidentally, any of the following selections will sit down proudly to celebrate a Coming of Age alongside the bagels and brisket.)
Because of the extensive collection of Southern Rhônes tasted, I’ll divvy them up into three separate articles. This one represents the wines of Domaine du Pégaü, owned by the Féraud family: Paul, the dynamic pater, mom Odette keeping books, while the wines are made, with increasing spunk and aplomb, by daughter Laurence. Formerly known as Domaine Féraud, Pégaü—named after the wine jugs found at the Pope’s palace in Avignon—is a winery steeped in tradition (wines are sampled from foudres, ancient chestnut wood vessel—but with an eye toward the future, both of the region and the industry.
Pegovino, VDP d’Oc, 2007, about $12: The most forgettable wine first; Pegovino is not meant to be a show-stopper, but a simple, juicy, generic, everyday bevvie. Aside from a slight polymeric nose, it fits the bill. The VDP classification is quality step-up from the blanket designation ‘table wine’ and a step down from the blanket AOC Côtes du Rhône. If this were an Italian wine (which, if it was made a couple hundred miles to the east, it would be) we’d call it a Spaghetti Red. As it is, it serves as a suitable foil to the succulent sausages of Southern Rhône; it shows red fruit, herb and earth, but only in baby portions.
Plan Pégaü ‘Lot # 2007’, about $19: A good example of how the classification system in France can go a little screwy. Plan Pégaü is a superior wine to Pegovino, and pricier for sure. But since it is designated Vin de Table, it does not wear a vintage, which the Férauds get around by labeling years by lot numbers. Previous vintage was Lot # 2006 and the subsequent vintage will be… well, you get the point. The wine itself is bright, ripe and sweet, with a head of Provençal herbs and a silky mouthfeel behind notes of currant, licorice, kirsch and orange peel. Not long on the palate, but works some entry-level Rhône magic while it’s there.
Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Cuvee Reservee’ Blanc, 2007, about $39: Bracingly acidic (most CdP whites forego malolactic in favor of this characteristic tang) with a citrus backbone that suggests lime zest and Meyer lemons, but quickly evolves into ripe tropical fruits with notes of apple skins and pear preserves. This sumptuous framework of fruit is balanced by a nice yeasty richness; there’s a distinct minerality, and a reappearance of the lemon/lime notes in the finish.
What follows is a vertical flight of hedonistically lush, plush Châteauneuf-du-Papes from a trio of back-to-back-to-back vintages which were truly astonishing in their bounty. Older vines from the best exposures did exceptionally well during these halcyon years, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape especially. Muscle, sinew, powerful aromatics and deep extracted colors were all characteristics of these vintages. They’re all priced the same, so take your pick.
Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Cuvee Reservee’, 2005, about $90: Viscerally delicious, unstoppably complex with aromas of black cherry, wood smoke, straw flowers and dried lavender leading into a round, succulent mouthful of concentrated black fruits and brown sugar syrup; the finish is generous nearly to the point of overboard. Should continue to expand and improve for decades.
Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Cuvee Reservee’, 2006, about $90: The weakest of the three vintages, which means it warrants a 90 rather than a 98. Even so, there is an edge of spice and incense in the ’06 that was restrained or overpowered in the ’05. Combine that with a fat, opulent mid-palate stoked with chocolate, espresso, jammy black cherry and a steady undercurrent of silky, toasty tannins and you have a somewhat exotic version of a textbook CdP. Needs further cellaring to truly come into its own, but if you crack open a bottle, I swear I’ll come over and share it with you and not complain.
Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Cuvee Reservee’, 2007, about $90: If you believe the charts, ’07 was by far the best of the three vintages represented, and if you believe your nose, you may just agree. A grandiose bouquet of savory, fennel and thyme interweaves plum liqueur and cassis, with black cherry emerging the closer to the glass you get. A phenomenally structured wine that’s way too young to seriously consider drinking now, but which displays such extracted fruit essences that you may be fooled into thinking otherwise. In truth, CdP is like those silly glitz kids with the tiaras on Little Miss Perfect—you can play at maturity all you want, but when you peek at the birth certificate—in this case the vintage—it’s time to go home, settle down, and come out to play when you’re all grown up. For both the wine and the toddlers, that’s probably around 2025.