Let us look at some similarities between lambic beer and wine. First of all, there is presentation. Lambic beers are often sold in 750 ml champagne bottles with distinctive labels. For example, Cantillon bottles feature beautiful labels with artwork produced by local artists or family members. Then there is the ritual of serving lambic. In ideal circumstances, a cool (but not chilled) bottle of aged geuze is retrieved from the cellar, presented and poured from a wicker basket. Some lambic beers are best suited to serve in wine glasses (unblended lambic, grape lambic) or in champagne flûtes
Second of all, experienced wine drinkers often like lambic beers. Unlike many beer drinkers, who often go through progressive stages of sampling sour beers before getting an appreciation of traditional lambic, wine drinkers have been observed to take an instant liking to brews like Cantillon. Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre van Roy has drawn attention to the fact that the Cantillon Gueuze museum in Brussels is often visited by wine aficionados.
Finally, there is, of course, the production of lambic itself with its use of barrels, aging, and blending. Some lambics are aged in wine or cognac barrels and are released to the market as special Cuvées or as a Grand Cru. There is a rich history of blending lambic with grapes. Cantillon produces two fruit lambics from grapes: Vigneronne (lambic with muscat grapes) and Saint Lamvinus (lambic with merlot and cabernet franc).
This raises an obvious question: what can a lambic connoisseur drink when no lambic beers are within reach? Let’s say you are in a restaurant with your friends and the menu contains a tiny list of beers that only features Lindemans Kriek. You do not want to be a spoiler so you look at the wine list. Now, it first should be noted that liking lambic does not necessarily predict what other alcoholic bevarages one likes. So it should be clear that there is a strong element of personal preference involved in this review. I will not focus on other beer styles (obvious choices for the lambic drinker are Flemish reds and some of the wilder saisons) and confine myself to wine.
Red or white wine? I don’t think it is possible to rule out either of them. One could argue that the lack of tannins in (most) whites more closely resemble the preference of old oak (or chestnut) barrels by lambic brewers. On the other hand, one could argue that the greater complexity and aging potential of red wines should resonate better with lambic drinkers. Since the idea that white wines are necessarily less complex or lack aging potential is a myth I do not think this view can be sustained. Because the wines that are often praised by writers on lambic are whites, I shall mostly confine myself to white wines and leave the reds for a future blog post.
One relatively obscure type of wine that is occasionally discussed in the context of lambic (notably in Jean-Xavier Guinard’s book “Lambic”) is vin jaune, or “yellow wine.” Vin jaune is a very unique type of white wine made in the Jura region of Eastern France and made from the Savagnin grape. But unlike other regions that produce wines from this grape, in the Jura the resulting wine is matured in old barrels for at least five years. During this period a thin film of yeast (the voile) forms on top of the wine and prevents the wine from further oxidation. The wine is bottled in characteristic 62 cl small bottles and have great aging potential.
The similarities between lambic and vin jaune are more to be found in its production than in taste, with aged unblended lambic coming closest. In terms of aroma, Vin Jaune is more similar to dry sherry than other wines. If one likes sherry there is a good chance that one likes vin jaune (and vice versa). One interesting aspect that lambic and vin jaune have in common is that both alcoholic beverages are sometimes returned to the store by buyers who did not know what to expect and feared that they purchased a product gone bad. Like straight lambic, vin jaune can be enjoyed at cellar temperature with cheese and nuts. Another similarity is price; expect to pay a lot for vin jaune, even if you are used to buying good wines. Not a vin jaune, but a good introduction to these types of oxidized wines is Chateau d’Arlay’s Cotes du Jura Blanc, which is a blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin grapes matured in old oak barrels.
Although the riesling grape is praised by wine writers for its high acidity, minerality, and elegance, most (American) wine drinkers associate riesling with desert wines of high residual sugar. As a consequence, some of the best dry rieslings in the world can be obtained for prices that would be unheard of for more popular white grapes and reds.
Maison Trimbach is to riesling wines what Cantillon is to lambic. This Alsace winery has been around since 1626 and is renowned for its dry and laser-sharp rieslings. Like Cantillon, the Trimbach family has a strong commitment to their style of (white) wine making and do not shy away from expressing their philosophy in the strongest terms, as illustrated by the following quote from Hubert Trimbach:
We are Protestants. Our wines have the Protestant style — vigour, firmness, a beautiful acidity, lovely freshness. Purity and cleanness, that’s Trimbach. No wood: I hate wood! Purity and cleanness, always. Parker has taken us in the wrong direction. He has a sweet tooth. The Americans have corrupted the taste of wine drinkers. These wines are long in cask, they do malolactic, they sit on their sediments, they get so fat that only Americans can drink them.
There are other similarities. The only exception the Trimbach family allows to their rule of making bone dry wines are the late harvest Vendanges Tardives and “noble rot” wines which, like Faro lambic, can be enjoyed as desert beverages Like a good lambic, Trimbach dry rieslings benefit from aging. Their rare Clos Sainte Hune Riesling is considered one of the best dry Rieslings in the world.
Cantillon uses Italian muscat grapes for its “white wine lambic” Vigneronne. Muscat wines are typically sweet but, as can be expected, the Trimbach winery makes a very dry version. And just like Cantillon produces one year-round beer that is not a lambic, Iris, Trimbach produces one red, Pinot Noir, that lacks the oppressive woodiness that characterizes many reds.
This is just a brief, and subjective, review of wine styles that may appeal to lambic drinkers. Other recommendations come to mind such as the Brett “infected” and oxidized wines from Chateau Musar in Lebanon and the Savennieres wines from the Loire Valley in France. Going beyond wine, lambic drinker may want to try the unpasteurized (organic) ciders from the Dupont Family in France or the Isastegi estate in the Basque country of Spain.