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August 20, 2014

Wine List Review: Absinthe Brasserie & Bar

From its inception in 1998, Absinthe has had a very good wine list. Originally chosen by Eric Vreede, who is now the Director of Operations for the entire Absinthe Group, it has always focused on smaller producers who make wines that work with the California/French bistro fare.

Now in the hands of Ian Becker, who has been the Absinthe Group’s Wine Director since 2008, the selection continues to be one of the most reliable in the Bay Area. There are a lot of bottles here, for sure, and while I have a bias against very large wine lists that lack focus, Absinthe’s selection is dynamic and I have no doubt that a lot of thought and hard work goes into it.

Vreede has not been involved in the wine program for a number of years but Becker said that when he took it over, the one directive he was given was to show Burgundy a little extra TLC. Not exactly a hard pill to swallow for most wine buyers, Becker dived in and Absinthe’s Burgundy section is stellar.

Featuring multiple vintages from classic producers such as Comte Lafon in Meursault going back to 2003 and Chevillion in Nuits-Saint-Georges to 1993, the list could be used as a historical document for future generations who want to know why Burgundy became so popular at the end of 20th century. If you are looking for more budget conscious options, there are quite a few wines from the Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise such as the 2009 Jean-Baptiste Ponsot ’09 Rully ($48).

Burgundy may be the centerpiece but other French regions are well represented. Pierre Gonon’s 2010 Vin de Pays de L’Ardèche, “Les Iles Feray” ($48) provides Rhône drinkers with a little more excitement and value than the better known designations. If you want Côtes-du-Rhône extraordinaire, there are multiple vintages of Domaine Fonsalette, which is owned by Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the Loire, over a dozen wines from Didier Dageneau in Pouilly-Fumé are offered from vintages dating back to 2004.

The California section is second only to Burgundy. In a sense, this part of the list has more breadth as celebrated newcomers such as Bedrock Wine Company and Arnot Roberts join more entrenched producers including Calera, Corison and Diamond Creek.

While French and California wines might be the natural accompaniments, at least with the food, other European countries, especially Italy, have a presence. The half dozen wines from Luigi Ferrando in northern Piedmont caught my eye right away with the 2005 Etichetta Bianco, a wine that is on par with way above average Barolo, being a relative value at $87.

Close to 20 wines are served by the glass. Since oysters are always a must at Absinthe, the ’12 Branger Muscadet, Le Fils des Gras Moutons ($9), would be my starting point. After that I’d have a hard time deciding between Dr. Heyden’s Riesling Spätlese, Oppenheimer Sacktrager from the Rheinhessen in Germany ($9.5) or Julien Fouet’s 2012 Saumur Rose ($9.5) that is made from Cabernet Franc. I’d probably finish up with the ’10 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel, ($14.5), a beautifully constructed version of this native grape.

There are also a few special cellar selections. As is the case with the other wines by the glass, these wines rotate but currently they are pouring Katherine Kennedy’s’07 Cabernet Sauvignon for $30. This may seem like a high glass price but it is a bit easier on the wallet than paying $140 for the bottle.

There is always a sommelier on the floor to help you out if you are too overwhelmed, not familiar with the wines or just don’t want to want to think. And not thinking is ok; that’s why many of us, myself included, go out to dinner.

Now in its 16th year, Absinthe has become a landmark and if its wine list continues along this path it should continue to reign as one of the Bay Area’s best. If Burgundy or older California wines are your thing, you should definitely make it in at some point during your visit. If you are not that picky but just want a good glass of wine, Absinthe is still one of the most dependable spots in San Francisco to find local or foreign wines of great quality and worth a visit. 

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar
398 Hayes Street
(415) 551-1590

Photo by Thomas Hawk / CC BY.

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