When I read the wine magazines--and yes, I do read them--there are times when I see an 89-point review and it seems like a travesty, based on what I think a wine delivers in terms of flavor and bang for the buck. Then there are are times when an 89-point review seems like over-inflated hype, for exactly the same reasons.
And then there are the times when I wonder if a wine has received an 89-point review from a major magazine because somebody lost their nerve on the way to a 90+ rating and settled for something a little more safe. It often happens when the grape is weird, or unfashionable, or both. It can even happen when the winemaker or region is weird and/or unfashionable.
Today I'm reviewing just such a wine: the 2004 Domaine de Bellivière Coteaux du Loir Le Rouge-Gorge. ($14.99, K & L Wines; the 2005 vintage is available from other merchants for $17-$25) It received an 89 from Spectator, and try as I might I wasn't able to find any Pineau d'Aunis that had ever received more than an 89 from the magazine. (I could be wrong on this point, but I spent 3 hours looking through the database before I gave up. If I am wrong, I'm sure that someone from WS headquarters will be by to correct me.) This 89-point and below niche for Pineau d'Aunis is surprising, given the fact that the wines are often described as exhibiting textbook varietal characteristics. So what's the deal?
I'm not the only person asking this kind of question regarding wine scores. If you want to see what other writers are wondering about wine scores, check out dhonig's collaborative 89 Project blog. For those of you who aren't familiar with this effort, dhonig gathered up a bunch of interested folks and asked them to be on the lookout for wines that received 89-point ratings from the major wine critics. 89-point wines are, in the words of dhonig, "the red-headed step children of the wine world." The 89 Project gives us a chance to take a second look at some overlooked wines and, in doing so, discover some truly interesting and often affordable treasures that those who are slavish to shelftalkers will see right through at the store.
Treasures just like Pineau d'Aunis. Domaine de Bellivière is a family-owned winery in the Loire that specializes in making wine from two of the region's traditional grapes: Chenin Blanc and Pineau d'Aunis. While Chenin Blanc has gained some traction among American wine drinkrs, Pineau d'Aunis is a relative rarity over here. And it's not likely to become any more widely accepted, given the fact that the wine normally scores below 90 points with most wine critics.
One of the reasons for these scores may be that Pineau d'Aunis will simply not be to everyone's taste. It's a grape that actually seems to try to make you wrinkle up your face and wonder what you're drinking. The defining character of Pineau d'Aunis is often "pine"--a slightly resinous, green, and herbal quality to the wine that some people react to as if you'd just poured Pine-Sol into their Pinot Noir.
So what was my reaction to the 2004 Domaine de Bellivière Coteaux du Loir Le Rouge-Gorge? At first I was reminded of a gamay from the Beaujolais by its dark ruby color and the light-medium body of the wine. The aromas of topsoil and forest floor were also not unlike Beaujolais, which I often find has a wonderful earthiness. The flavors of cherry, earth, and spice were strong and definite, which will make some people love it,and others hate it. Pineau d'Aunis is at its best--like many wines--with food. This is not really a stand-alone wine unless you are wanting to come to terms with it on an intellectual level. This is only going to work with food, and then think about something earthy like mushrooms, truffles, beans, and charcuterie.
This is not a big fruitbomb: fat and sassy and easy to love. What it is, however, is textbook Pineau d'Aunis. And for under $15, it is certainly a very good QPR choice if you are looking for a traditional bottling of a very special grape. As such, shouldn't it get more than a B+? I sure think so, and so does Parker who didn't lose his nerve and gave it a 90 instead of an 89. Are there other grapes that routinely get consigned to the under-90 bin? If so, let me know what they are because I'd love to try some more of them. If they're as interesting as Pineau d'Aunis, they'll spice up my evening glass of wine for years to come.