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Balthazar: Worthy Wine Destination, BYO Sommelier

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Welcome to Eater's column, Decanted, in which WineChap's Talia Baiocchi guides us through the treacherous world of New York wine lists. Today: Balthazar.

2010_07_balth-decanted.jpgNo one ought to go to Balthazar to be comfortable or to have a quiet, romantic meal. No one ought to go if they intend on leaving without being shoved or having to shout. Getting elbowed in the entrance is simply a matter of course; the restaurant is, after all, “fake French, authentic New York” as Amanda Hesser so aptly put it. Perhaps that’s why after 13 years—and in spite of the weekend preponderance of fanny packs and tube socks—Balthazar is still relevant. But who really knows why? For some of us, it could be anything but the “New York-ness” of the place. It could just be the lighting, which casts a glow so benevolent it could make a hobbit look like a Lempicka lady. Or it could be the steak tartare or that inherent need we all have to shove good-looking people around. Or maybe, just maybe, it could be the wine list.

For the last eight years, Balthazar’s list has been under the direction of Chris Goodhart, the recently departed Wine Director for all McNally restaurants. Balthazar was the original muse and soon became the model for the subsequent “hurricane McNally” that would sweep this town and claim a restaurant in almost every neighborhood south of 14th St. Goodhart’s lists are all quite recognizable in that they share the same simple recipe: combine nerdy outer-regional values, quirky back vintage finds, and well-priced standards. Shake well. Makes up to eight McNally restaurant wine lists. However, to say that there’s a recipe is not to demean its outcome; on the contrary, it’s proprietary in its use of ingredients and execution. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Balthazar has the rare ability to buy wines in large quantities (the restaurant’s cellar space is very large by NYC standards) and the budget to buy back vintage wines with frequency. This allows for the vintage depth and the pricing that is well below standard in many instances. For these reasons, Balthazar is one of the city’s great wine destinations, though it’s not without its flaws.

The 400-plus bottle, all-French list (including a page of reserve wines) requires that you bring your own wine service. Yes, that’s right: BYO sommelier. Balthazar does not have a somm on the floor, and with the opening of two new restaurants in two years, it seems the McNally-wide training of the staff has fallen to the wayside. On a recent visit, we watched as our bottle of ’95 Trévallon (a wine that is notorious for its level of sediment, especially with 15 years under the belt) was placed on the table without any offer of a decant. (Clearly the server was not familiar with the wine.) After we asked, she handed it over to the manager, who proceeded to dump the wine into a decanter while hamming it up with a server who was pretending to fold napkins. When the wine came back looking like swamp water, we thanked him for defeating the entire purpose of decanting the wine, ordered something else, and waited patiently for it to settle down. This is but one of a few unsavory wine experiences we’ve had here over the years.

But in a recent phone conversation with Balthazar’s new Wine Director, Rebecca Banks (who’s been at Balthazar as wine director under Goodhart for 5 1/2 years and has essentially been running the list for 2), she suggested that while she doesn’t have plans to change the Goodhart recipe (no need to riff on a successful concept), she does see a need to revamp the training program here (and at Schiller’s, Lucky Strike, and Pravda which are now under her guidance). While we do have faith that Banks can do the training program a solid, we still think that you ought not go to Balthazar if you’re looking for great wine service—for now at least. Instead, go for the list itself. When it comes to the wines under $100, you’ll find refreshing doses of vintage depth, classicism, and quirk. The selections change frequently, and like many of the former Goodhart captained lists, it accomplishes more in three to four pages than most do in 25.

Bang For Your Buck
Aligoté “Plantation 1902” 2008, A&O De Moor $55
Alice & Olivier De Moor are two of Chablis’ most progressive winemakers; they farm organic and biodynamic and use little to no sulfur, native yeasts, and large Burgundian barrels (and cement and stainless for the young vines Aligoté and steel tanks for their Sauvignon Blanc). This cuvée is sourced from vines dating back to 1902 in the De Moor vineyard holdings in Saint-Bris (a region where only Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris can be bottled under the appellation name). It is consistently one of the great bottlings of this varietal: rich, ever so slightly oxidized, and buttressed by that Aligoté brand of searing acidity. This wine is distributed in extremely small quantities so act quick and with conviction.

Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1989, Poniatowski $56
Exceptional value from Prince Poniatowski, who has since been gobbled up by the exceptional François Chidaine estate (as fortuitous as a gobbling can be). Effusive, groping classic Chenin nose and full mouthfeel still that is still intact at 21-years-old.

Cour-Cheverny “Cuvée Renaissance” 1996, F Cazin $60
A true treat to find Cazin’s Cuvée Renaisssance, a demi-sec 100% Romorantin partially affected by noble rot (or botrytis). This is truly an excellent wine to experience in back vintage as it has shed some of its baby fat, allowing the grape's natural acidity and minerality to take center stage.

Chignin Mondeuse 2004, R Quénard $54
The Savoie region is better known for its great skiing and white wines, but this bottle, made from the obscure Mondeuse grape, is proof that this Alpine region is a more diverse bargain bin than we imagined. Those that have beef with Cabernet Franc best stay away as the varietal has a similar greenness to its aromatic profile.

St-Chinian “L’Engoulevent” 2007, Y Pelletier $54
Yannick Pelletier never went to oenology school and instead decided to study under the winemakers that inspired him. He spent time with Didier Barral of Leon Barral in Faugères and the Cuilleron-Villard-Gaillard trio in the Northern Rhône. He gained respect for organic and biodynamic in the vineyard and a non-interventionist approach in the cellar and has applied his experience to create honest wines. This is a blend of old vines Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan.

Canon-Fronsac 2001, Château Moulin Pey-Labrie $70
A nice shift away from the increasingly massive wines of Bordeaux, this is a Parker-lust free, elegant Bdx drinking well now.

Off The Beaten Path
VdP de l’Hérault “Rosé Frizant” NV, Mas de Daumas Gassac $45
Often dubbed the Lafite of the Languedoc, Mas de Daumas Gassac and its curmudgeon of a winemaker have already been immortalized in many a book and movie for the transcendent nature of their exotic, farmhouse wines. This méthode champenoise sparkler is made up of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Manseng and trades the trademark Gassac funk for flowers.

Vinsobres 2007, Coriançon $35
Vinsorbes is a tiny village in the Northern Rhone that, until 2005, was part of the Côtes du Rhône Villages conglomerate. With only a small amount of wine sneaking out at this altitude, the results are certifiably obscure. This is primarily Grenache, with some Syrah and Mourvèdre in the mix to make a dense and pouty wine with plenty of honest earth and minerality.

Côtes du Jura 1978, J Bourdy $170
Caves Jean Bourdy have been making wine since the Middle Ages. Currently in their 15th generation of family winemakers, they’ve amassed an impressive cache of library wines that are now some of the most sought after fringe bottlings around.

Crowd Pleaser
Edelzwicker “Sept Grains” 2005, Barmès-Buecher $39
Husband and wife team putting out powerful, principled wines. This “Sept Grains” (seven grapes) is a field blend bottled from the free run juice from the first press of all of the grand cru fruit. Wonderfully aromatic, plush vintage velvet couch of a wine.

Costières de Nîmes “Perrières” 2006, M Kreydenweiss $33
Marc Kreydenweiss is one of the pioneers of biodynamic farming in Alsace. With a foothold in the region and following for his white wines, Kreydenweiss got an itch to try his hand at red, and he ended up south in the former Languedoc appellation: Costières de Nîmes. He farms using the same biodynamic and organic principles to create this blend of Carignan, Grenache, and Syrah.

Under $40
Muscadet “Sur Lie” 2009, Pépière $28
Pépière is to Muscadet what George Benson is to Yacht Rock: iconic, cool, seductive?we could go on. Salty, citric, etc. In other words, exactly what Muscadet should taste like.

Beaujolais“L’Ancien” 2008, Terres Dorées $34
Terres Dorées is located in Charnay in the southern portion of Beaujolais, and owner Jean-Paul Brun is making some of the great value wines out of this region (see also: his Beaujolais Blanc and Rousanne). His wines are made without the addition of yeast and are bottled with minimal sulfur. The “L’Ancien” is sourced from the domaine’s oldest vines and is vinified using traditional Burgundy techniques (i.e. no carbonic maceration). Beautiful, versatile juice.

Break The Bank
Savennières “Clos de la Coulée de Serrant” 1985, N Joly $150
The Godfather of biodynamics deserves a page-long rhapsody, but we’ll keep it brief. Clos de la Coulée de Serrant is his flagship wine, sourced from a tiny parcel of 7 hectares of land on predominately red schist soil from vines averaging between 30-40 years of age. One of greatest arguments for Chenin Blanc’s nobility here in back vintage and priced to move.

Meursault 1er Cru “Gouttes d’Or” 1999, Comtes Lafon $250
Meursault's most famous 1er Cru sites are undoubtedly Charmes, Perrières, and Genevrières, but there are several others--like this here Gouttes d’Or--that are worth seeking out. For those not acquainted: Lafon is one of the great masters of Meursault, and his wines often carry an epic price tag to match. This is an excellent opportunity to experience his magic with Meursault, with some bottle age, and at fire-sale pricing.

Saumur-Champigny 2004, Clos Rougeard $100
The rarest and most sought after producers in Saumur producing the finest example of Cab Franc in this terroir, period. The vineyards have been farmed organically for decades and the wines are made in limited quantities and are relatively unknown outside of a small geek circle as a result. Needs a gentle decant and some time to mellow out there.

Côte-Rôtie “La Chavaroche” 2000, B Levet (magnum) $175
Classic Northern Rhone Syrah from one of the region’s great small artisan winemakers, out of mag, and at an exceptional price.

Gevrey-Chambertin “Lavaux St-Jacques” 2005, A Rousseau $295
Likely lovely enough to enjoy with a decent decant, but still too young to bring to the adults table. Don’t be a pedophile. Wait until this is of age.

WineChap is a start up that seeks to foster more intelligent boozing by demystifying the culture that surrounds restaurant wine lists. Currently the site boasts more than 160 wine list reviews in New York City.


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