Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Earliest German Harvest in Recorded History

Lending credence to a slew of recent discussions about the effects of global climate change on the traditional delicacy and relatively low alcohol of the Rieslings -- and wines in general -- of Germany, here's a short video clip from Reuters which reports on the August 28 start of the earliest harvest ever recorded in German wine making history. Though the images are clearly not from a top quality estate, the early harvest is likely to continue as a pattern throughout Germany's wine regions.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Morey-Saint-Denis

Morey-St.-Denis sits in the heartland of the Côte de Nuits, sandwiched between its more famous neighbors Chambolle-Musigny to the south and Gevrey-Chambertin to the north. Though its wines are not as undervalued as those of Auxey-Duresses, for instance, they can be somewhat easier on the pocketbook relative to the wines from neighboring communes. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that Morey-St.-Denis suffers in recognition even compared to Nuits-St.-Georges, which includes no Grand Cru vineyards, in spite of the fact that Morey does sport its fair share of great growth sites. In fact, over 50% of the acreage in Morey-St.-Denis is rated either Premier or Grand Cru, one of the highest concentrations of top sites in all of Burgundy.

So why this relative obscurity? Up until the 1960’s, nearly all of the fruit grown and wine produced in Morey was sold to négociants. And much of it was labeled, depending upon style, as either Gevrey-Chambertin or Chambolle-Musigny. It’s only since the modern swell in prominence of small estate bottlers that the individual reputation of Morey has finally started to come into its own. Still, its wines tend to be described relative to those from neighboring communes – one part grace à la Chambolle-Musigny and one part sinewy structure as in Gevrey-Chambertin.

Morey-Saint-Denis “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine Truchot-Martin 2004
While I can’t say that Jacky Truchot’s wines are exemplars of the typicity of today’s Morey-St.-Denis, they certainly do epitomize the elegance of which the commune’s wines are capable. His is a style, based on the farming and winemaking practices he learned in the 1960’s, which expresses the deepest, oldest traditions of the region. Few if any other producers still make wines in his manner; regrettably, neither does he. Jacky retired at the end of the 2005 vintage, making this 2004 the penultimate bottling of MSD “Vieilles Vignes” ever to emerge from his estate.

Like virtually all of M. Truchot’s wines, the first thing that strikes notice is the incredibly pale yet pretty hue of the wine in the glass. Pigment and tannin extraction techniques were, to say the least, subtle within Jacky’s regime. However, there is no resulting loss in savor or aroma. The wine nearly leapt from the glass. I accommodated by gladly accepting its invitation to explore. What did it taste like? The combination of aromas and flavors brought back a clear scent memory from the past: the beach. I’ve had plenty of red Burgundy’s that have hinted at the flavors of seaweed and the fishing pier; not this one. Here, the experience was literally like taking a deep inhalation while standing at the shoreline at sunset on a warm September evening – soft, fresh, invigorating and comfortably reassuring. Subjective, yes, but that was the wine. I’ll miss it.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Two Cities, Two Cheese and Beer Events

‘Tis the season, apparently, for beer and cheese festivities. In one day, I’ve received notice of two events in two of my favorite cities, both featuring a panoply of curds and suds.

For the New Yorkers among you, and for those who are good last minute planners, my favorite NYC indie cheese shop, Saxelby Cheesemongers, will be co-hosting a night of Chocolate, Cheese and Beer this Wednesday, August 29, from 7-9 PM at Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village. The tasting will feature seasonal, American farmstead cheeses paired with Jimmy’s selection of craft beers and a slew of chocolate goodies. Reservations are required and can be made by via e-mail to or by calling Saxelby Cheesemongers at (212) 228-8204.

Jimmy’s No. 43 | 43 East 7th Street, New York, NY 10003 | 212-982-3006

From New York straight to Philly, Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing Company, will be teaming up with the crew at DiBruno Brothers’ new Chestnut Street location on Thursday, September 13, from 6-8 PM. Garrett is one of the brewing community’s great champions of beer and cheese pairing. He also happens to make some pretty outstanding brews, six of which will be matched with some of DiBruno’s carefully selected, international fromages. Call DiBruno’s at (215) 665-9220 x237 to make a reservation.

DiBruno Brothers | 1730 Chestnut Street, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia, PA | 215-665-9220

Sunday Brunch at Teresa's Next Door

Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Teresa’s Café – a casual, Italian/American BYO located in the heart of the Main Line community of Wayne, PA – was among my semi-regular stops for casual business lunches. In the subsequent years, I’d more or less forgotten about the place, as my regular dining orbit now more naturally revolves around Philadelphia itself. However, the name had resurfaced of late in the context of its new sibling, Teresa’s Next Door (TND), a Belgian style bar and bistro. The original Teresa’s remains a BYO for wine but patrons now have the ability to stop in next door for a beer, cocktail or for alternate and late night meal options. With a friend in for a Sunday visit, we called TND to confirm that they’re open for lunch and then headed on over.

In concept, Teresa’s Next Door is clearly Wayne’s answer to Philadelphia’s Belgian stalwarts like Monk’s Café and Eulogy. The bottled beer list is biblical in proportion, focusing primarily on Belgians but with a good peppering of local and international brews. With over twenty choices, the on-tap offerings actually outnumber those available at most Philly spots. What’s lacking, though, is the warm, dark, cozy, slightly euro vibe of places like Monk’s. For TND is clearly an offspring of the tidy, blue-blood community in which it sits. The room is spacious if narrow, stark, bright, very clean and smoke free – not your typical gastropub environment. Eight booths, nine or ten two-top tables and a long bar provide seating options for about seventy guests. The dinner menu includes the stalwarts of the Belgian beer bar genre – mussels, burgers and charcuterie platters – but also dabbles in French bistro fare (steak frites). It loses its focus however, perhaps in answer to anticipated requests from the local crowd, with the inclusion of a smattering of Mexican-American dishes.

As it turned out, we had landed at TND for their inaugural Sunday brunch. Given that it was also our first visit, I’m going to limit my scope here to a one-dish review. I was initially drawn to both the omelet (Serrano ham, goat cheese and fresh herbs served with fruit) and the Pennsyltucky (scrapple, eggs over easy, fingerling home fries and toast). However, feeling the need for a caloric infusion after a decent bike ride earlier in the day, I settled on:

Teddy’s Eggs, 8 oz. sirloin, two poached eggs over brioche toast with spicy lemon hollandaise
A serious portion of heart-stoppers special, this consisted of two thinly sliced strips of griddle seared sirloin served open-face on a sliced brioche bun, each topped with a poached egg and a generous dollop of lemony, slightly salty hollandaise. Whole fingerling potatoes, cooked home fry style, were the only side. The selection of a good brioche bun and à la minute preparation of the hollandaise served to raise this dish above the level of just satisfactory. The eggs were tender, though I would have preferred a bit of run to the yolks which were cooked to firmness. The potatoes would have benefited from being sliced lengthwise, before their stint on the griddle, to encourage development of caramelization and crispness. And the plate could have used a visual lift from a sprig of something green. On the plus side, the steak was cooked a perfect medium (temperature preferences were not requested), a good choice by the chef for this cut and presentation. On the down side, the beef suffered from intermittent spots of livery flavor, most likely brought on by oxidation introduced via the thin slicing and preparation methods of the steak.

Lest I forget, beer is clearly the raison d’être of the place. I’m a sucker for hand-pumped suds and also have a soft spot for local brewers, so, starting the “Teddy” theme of the day, I opted for a pint of Victory Brewing Company’s Uncle Teddy’s Bitter. A classic English style bitter, this is a light to medium bodied ale with a smooth texture and, contrary to its name, only a gentle hint of bitterness. A new American hop monster it’s not. I think the body and texture of the beer might actually be improved by the more assertive textures delivered by a regular tap system. The gentle textures resulting from the low, natural carbonation in a hand-pulled cask left this otherwise good session beer feeling a bit flat on its feet. To accompany my steak and eggs, I selected a bottle of Atomium Premier Grand Cru, a Belgian strong ale I had yet to try but which has been popping up of late on beer lists all over town. Brewed with six different grains, it delivered a spicy, somewhat floral nose with a creamy, slightly off-dry palate which matched well to the contrast between the animal flavors of the steak and the citrusy, eggy zip of the hollandaise.

Most of my admittedly minor gripes should be easy fixes as the kitchen at TND becomes more practiced with the dishes on their brunch menu. For their first Sunday, it was not a bad effort. I’ll be headed back for an evening run at the mussels and, of course, more beer.

Teresa’s Next Door
126 N. Wayne Avenue
Wayne, PA 19087
Teresa's Next Door in Wayne

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Question of Corks

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that I’m not much of an adherent to the school of writing short, quippy posts. That said, I do occasionally rant as much as the next food and wine blogger. Lately though, I’ve found myself inclined to take on some larger topics, from an exploration of Burgundy, including a brief discussion of oxidation, to the culture of wine shopping and the frightening combination of “enjoying” wine with a smoke.. Should we bloggers be leaving the big issues only to the “big guys?” That wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?

If there’s a topic that has been bandied about in the wine world more than any other in the past few years, it must be the issues surrounding TCA and the continuing use of natural corks. One of those arenas where science meets ritual, the cork question has captured the attention of just about everyone who is remotely interested in wine. We’ve all heard the debates about the pros and cons of various closure types; even I’ve lent my voice to the discussion, as featured in an article by Rob Kalesse in this year’s annual bar issue of Delaware’s Spark Magazine. The question – What’s up with corks and screw caps? – comes up at just about every tasting event or class I conduct and has become a near daily query in the course of working a wine shop floor. The answer is simple: screwcaps are the wave of the future.

As simple as the solution seems, a comment or article crops up once in a while that is either so egregious or so insidious that it grabs my attention, practically forcing a response. The egregious examples are obviously the easy targets, so let’s start there. While skimming the letters to the editor in the June 15, 2007 edition of Wine Spectator, my jaw dropped in disbelief when I read a submission from a reader in Florida:

“I’ve never detected TCA, although… I’m sure I’ve had tainted wine. It would be interesting to know how many consumers, even serious wine snobs, can detect TCA. I find the whole TCA scare a bit alarmist.”

This is tantamount to a reversal of Descartes’ “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am). If I haven’t experienced it, it must not exist! Sorry, but that’s not how it works. TCA, the taint which can result from the cleaning processes inherent in the production of natural cork closures, is inescapable, certainly affecting 5% at minimum of all bottles sealed with cork. A taster’s lack of experience with how to detect it does not make its “scare” any less real.

It’s the insidious takes on the cork issue, by nature harder to spot, that tend to stick with me the longest and really get under my skin. They’re often written by major wine personalities or published in widely circulated magazines. What makes them insidious is that misinformation or plain wrong-headedness is often couched in the context of a well-written or otherwise smart piece. The most recent article which really made me itch was “Searching for Closure” by Anthony Dias Blue in his “From the Editor” column in Patterson’s The Tasting Panel Magazine (August 2007). Patterson’s is not exactly a household name or a major wine journal; it’s essentially an industry insider vehicle for trade advertising and small tidbits of news and editorial content. It shows up in the mail at work and I’ll leaf through it during the occasional quiet moment. Anthony Dias Blue, however, is unquestionably one of the most prominent personalities in today’s wine world.

ADB’s piece, like any good editorial, is meant to inspire thought and rebuttal. It starts out brightly, as he observes some improvements over the last year or two in the quality of natural cork on the general market. Complaints by consumers and winemakers seem to have gotten back to the cork industry which in turn has raised the bar on quality control. Perhaps this does account for my rather modest approximation of a 5% rate of cork taint, as that statistic seemed much closer to 10% not long ago. He also rightly recognizes that cork taint will never be eradicated as long as natural cork continues to be used.

Mr. Blue gets a bit more daring when turning his attention to synthetic corks. Whether produced from cellulose or foam bases, he decries their use as cheapening the perception of the wines they seal, pointing out along the way some of their faults and the quality problems inherent to their use. I was right along with him up to and including this point. I can see only two real reasons to use synthetic corks, neither of them good.

  • First, some wineries wish to avoid the inherent problems with natural cork yet balk at the investment necessary to convert bottling line equipment and supplies to a screwcap system; it’s economically short sighted but at least understandable.
  • Second, and more bothersome, is a common fear that conversion to screwcaps will hurt sales. Wineries of all sizes seem to be holding their breath, waiting for more famous, more “important” wineries to take the plunge first. As Mr. Blue concludes his piece, “It’s time to be a leader not a follower.”

It’s in the editorial space between the discussion of synthetic corks and his finale that Anthony’s path goes astray. In his own words,

“The screwcap or twist-off is the best of all closures. It is virtually impervious to TCA, it is hygienic, it is streamlined and easy to use and it re-closes effortlessly…. Nevertheless, anyone who thinks the whole wine industry is going to embrace the screwcap needs a reality check. Can you see Château Margaux in screwcap? Not likely. The natural cork is still a superb wine stopper. If there was no such thing as TCA we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I have a solution…. I would like to see a third to a half of all wines under screwcap…. All wines that are destined to be consumed within a year or two should be in twist-offs. If you are making Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc… or any number of other wines that should be consumed young, you should be ashamed of yourself if you are using natural corks.”

On the surface, his argument seems on point (aside from the inclusion of Riesling in his list of short-lived wines). He’s right about TCA and natural corks; without the issue of taint, there would be little reason to change. And he’s right not to expect the entire industry to change, at least not rapidly. But he falls prey to the all too common opinion that screwcaps are not viable for age worthy wines. Mr. Blue also succumbs to the same cultural perception he’s trying to dispel – that screwcaps aren’t suitable for expensive wines – even though he does later champion Michel LaRoche for using them on his Grand Cru Chablis. Why shouldn’t Château Margaux use screwcaps? Sure, there are still century old bottles of Château Margaux which have been sleeping in collectors’ cellars for far longer than the history of the modern Stelvin enclosure. But who’s to say that those bottles aren’t corked? Cork taint does not go away as wine ages. It only becomes more heartbreaking when the wine is finally opened. Furthermore, is the risk of TCA somehow more acceptable when you’ve spent $500 and upwards on that special bottle? Why ask for insurance only when buying your everyday wines?

It’s been a long time since the ivory towers of Bordeaux’s top classified growths have led the field in any area other than outrageous price escalation. To echo Mr. Blue’s conclusion, why shouldn’t they be the leaders when it comes to a clear and simple choice?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Auxey-Duresses Blanc

Undeniably, Auxey-Duresses must be counted among the lesser known appellations in Burgundy. Its wines can be something that’s far too uncommon in the rather rarefied market for Burgundy: good values. Premier Cru bottlings from some of the best producers in the commune can still be had for prices that don’t exceed by much the price for the basic Bourgogne Rouges and Blancs from some estates in more illustrious areas. Auxey’s whites lack the richness of the wines from neighboring Meursault. Its reds may give something away in breed to the wines of Volnay, just to the North. However, the lean structure and lacy texture of Auxey-Duresses – I’m speaking of both red and white here – can give wines of immense character.

Auxey-Duresses Blanc “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine Jean-Pierre Diconne 2002
Jean-Pierre Diconne is at once among the most respected and most old-fashioned of producers in Auxey-Duresses. His cellars are rustic, his wine making techniques straightforward and natural, and his personality undeniably affable. And his wines are pure expressions of place. He produces lovely examples of commune level Auxey-Duresses Rouge and a very fine Premier Cru “Les Duresses.” Nonetheless, from a village where three of every four bottles produced are of red wine, it’s with true pleasure that I look forward to the arrival, once every few years, of a tiny quantity of the Jean-Pierre’s Vieilles Vignes Blanc. In good vintages, it can be an astounding wine. When I first tasted the 2002 version, it was brimming with granny smith and greengage fruit, allied with golden flesh and tensile nerve on a medium-bodied frame. It struck me as a wine that might last for quite some time in a well kept cellar; accordingly, I hoarded away a half-case or so.

Recently revisiting the 2002, five years after the vintage, my initial reaction upon pulling the cork was one of trepidation. Sherry-like aromas, a telltale sign of oxidation, were the first scents that rose from the glass. There was still fruit – ripe pears and honeysuckle along with some toasted hazelnut notes – but that oxidative note held it at bay. For those of you who are fans of white Burg, this may come as little surprise. There have been huge discussions for the last couple of years about early, unexpected oxidation in these wines. For a good overview of the issue from various quarters of the wine world, check out:

While most of the research and comments in these articles and discussions have focused on the vintages from 1996-2000, there have been continuing worries about wines from subsequent years. Suffice it to say that I was worried, based upon my first impressions, about the fate of my remaining stash of J-P’s 2002.

Here’s the good news. As the evening continued, as the wine warmed up from its cold spell in the fridge and as the contents of our glasses met with some aeration, the oxidative notes seemed, at the very least, to dissipate. Though never as nervy as when originally tasted, elegance and fruit unfolded as the nutty, tired hints receded. In the end, the wine not only opened up beautifully but also paired surprisingly well with a salad of fresh beets, arugula and goat cheese inspired by a recent recipe in Gourmet.

All things considered, I’ll be cutting my losses and remapping the original drinking schedule for my remaining bottles. Hopefully, they’ll continue to bring pleasure over the next year or two. In the meanwhile, undaunted, I’ll be waiting for the next small shipment from M. Diconne’s cellars to grace our shores.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Wine in the Grocery Store?

Taylor, blogger extraordinaire behind Mac & Cheese, left a comment in passing recently:
“....I did wine… in Wilmington! Yay! If only they (DE) could get wine in the grocery store.”

Her comment got me thinking. Would it really be a good thing if wine were available in grocery stores in Delaware? Or more precisely, is it a good thing for wine to be available in grocery stores in general? I’m not thinking of the small, gourmet oriented shops that like to play things down by putting “grocery” in their name. I’m talking about the big guys: Acme, Giant, Safeway, Piggly Wiggly, Food Lion and their equivalents throughout the rest of the country and the world. And yes, I’m also thinking of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, two big players that market themselves as small guys that care.

My real point is this: to what extent are people willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of convenience? I’m all for being able to walk into the super market, grab a cart and slalom the aisles for a quart of motor oil, some laundry detergent, a couple of pounds of dried pasta and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. When it comes to meat, fruit, vegetables and cheese however, I’ve become increasingly unwilling, over the years, to settle for what’s available at the grocery store. Produce is worth going the extra mile: to the local farmers markets for seasonal veggies and fruit, to a quality butcher or fishmonger for meat and seafood, to great shops like Downtown Cheese, Murray’s or Talula’s Table to satisfy a cheese craving.

I look at wine in the same way. At its best, wine is a natural, living thing. It’s an agricultural product. It’s produce. And I don’t want to buy my produce from a shop that treats it like just another SKU on the shelf. I want it to come from a purveyor who knows and cares about what they’re selling. That’s just not going to happen at the local Safeway. Nor is it going to happen at the grocers and discounters like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Costco that have developed some reputation for their wine selections. Even if there’s a certified “wine expert” in the home office somewhere, their purchasing decisions will still be driven by cost-per-unit, brand recognition or “Can I put a 92-point shelf talker on it?” decisions. And even in a world where a new wine blog pops up every day, where wine courses are offered at every community center and where Robert Parker has become a household name, it’ll be a long time before we can expect to see a sommelier working the floor at every grocery store.

So, support your local, independent wine shop. Better yet, find a few shops that have good selections, care about what they sell and how they choose it, and employ knowledgeable and helpful staff. Then go out of your way to support them. It’ll be worth the inconvenience.

WBW #36 Roundup and #37 Theme Announced

Finally on the road to recovery after a bout of back spasms, Lenn Thompson of LennDevours has posted the roundup from WBW #36: Get Naked. You’ll find write-ups, including mine on the Saint-Véran “Tirage Précoce” of Domaine Corsin, from over 30 authors regarding unoaked Chardonnays from around the globe.

Next month’s edition, scheduled for September 12 and being hosted by Dr. Vino, will focus on wines based on obscure, indigenous grape varieties. It’ll be a perfect opportunity to skip the big boys and reach for something new or unusual. Bonus points are on offer for write-ups that feature the same vine from two different areas: one ancestral and one transplanted. I’m already considering the options…. This one should be fun.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Hautes Côtes de Nuits

Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Domaine Olivier & Anne-Marie Rion 2004 (Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ)
The divided story of the Rion family is becoming an increasingly typical one as the generations roll on in Burgundy. The middle of three sons of Daniel Rion, Olivier Rion has been at the helm of his family’s estate, Domaine Daniel Rion et Fils, since 2000. At that time, his elder brother Patrice, who had carried the torch since Daniel’s retirement, left the family business to solidify his own company which he started ten years earlier. Patrice sold his share of Domaine Rion – one-third according to the Napoleonic code – to Olivier. In the midst of all this, Olivier started his own Domaine based on property inherited by his wife, Anne-Marie, and on some small plots they’d purchased together. The resulting estate, Domaine Olivier & Anne-Marie Rion, currently makes tiny quantities of just three wines, all of them estate bottled: a Bourgogne Rouge, Hautes Côtes de Nuits and a Côte de Nuits Villages from the lieu-dit "La Prètière."

The Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits comes, as the name literally suggests, from the “high” western slopes and hilltops looking down on the communes of Comblanchien and Premeaux, just south of the heart of Nuits St. Georges. This wine tends to be a bit of a sleeper, sometimes being slightly weedy or tangy in its youth. The 2004, however, is now coming into its stride. Showing a lovely clarity of translucent dark red tones in the glass, its aromas are now of primary fruit and the beginnings of bottle development. Gone are any herbal tones; moving in are aromas of smoky black cherry fruit, wild strawberry compote and rhubarb. Its finely grained grip sneaks up, pairing with bright, frontal acidity. Flavors on the palate are in keeping with the aromas and are quite persistent. I enjoyed it thoroughly with thyme roasted chicken thighs, beets and potatoes but I’d love to have another look at it with a simple, grilled filet of wild salmon.

Olivier is a slight, quiet yet clearly passionate man who opts to let his farming and wine making speak in his stead. The wines from the main family Domaine have steadily improved under his supervision and his own estate is quickly becoming one to watch. Based on the progress of this 2004 Hautes Côtes de Nuits, I think it might be wise to stow away a few bottles of the 2005, now on the market, for future enjoyment.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Burger and a Beer: Royal Tavern

By now a senior member of the recent explosion of gastropubs in Philadelphia, Royal Tavern has been garnering praise from a wide sector of Philly foodies ever since it opened its doors. After far too long a period of good intentions, I finally paid it a visit recently. I couldn’t think of a better place to enjoy a burger and a beer before a show at the TLA (recently and ridiculously renamed “Fillmore at the TLA,” but that’s another story…). So, we headed over to Bella Vista early in the evening, avoiding the crowds and crap on South Street in favor of an easy walk down Passyunk Avenue.

Straight off, I knew it was my kind of bar. Basic setup, dark but not so dark you can’t see, a little funk in the air but not so much as to scare your new friends away, and a bar at which it’s comfortable enough to eat. If you’re self-conscious about your lack of ink – I’m not – The Royal might not become your new daily hang. But if you’re looking for a bar with a friendly vibe and good tunes, you’re there… Neil Young and Mission of Burma in the same set. Not bad.

The beer list is not overly ambitious but is thoughtful and has enough of a variety for just about anyone, from $2 PBR’s to regional small batch brews to big Belgian bottles. I settled in with a freshly pulled pint of Brooklyn Brewery Pilsner while perusing the menu. Actually, honestly, I barely looked at the menu other than to see how they prepare their house burger. That’s what I’d come for. My dining buddy, though, wasn’t exactly quick on the decision so I had plenty of time to enjoy my beer and relax. Brooklyn’s brew master, Garrett Oliver, produces some of the most reliable, characterful and well-balanced beers made in the Northeast US. I’ve always enjoyed Brooklyn Pilsner from bottle but on tap it seemed to lack just a little in the way of refreshing bitterness. It might have made a decent session beer but I knew it wouldn’t be up to the task of the burger to come so I perused the taps for a likely next pour. Settling on Stone IPA, I sat back in wait for food.

The Royal Tavern Angus Burger: a medium sized patty of good quality, properly fatty ground beef on a slightly oversized brioche bun; caramelized onions, bacon, smoked Gouda and long hots. Fries, served with a malt vinegar mayo, come with as the standard side but can be subbed out for any number of other options. I take my burger medium-rare. For me, it’s the ideal degree of doneness but it seems to be the temp that kitchens struggle with the most. This one may have come out a little closer to medium but was still satisfyingly juicy. The bacon was crisped just enough to retain its fleshiness without being rubbery, the onions were well browned but not done to the point of intense sweetness and the cheese lent a solid, smoky accent to the whole package. The long hots? Well, that’s another story. Somewhere along the way I seem to have lost my tolerance for extremes of capsaicin. Through the first half of the burger, I barely noticed the peppers’ presence. I think they had somehow managed to coil up in a corner of the roll. When I hit them, it was not pleasant. Not enough to make me choke but enough to get the sweat rolling profusely down my brow. Needless to say, I performed a bit of pepper pruning. I wasn’t about to forego the rest of the burger, after all.

Royal Tavern
937 E. Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA
Royal Tavern in Philadelphia

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Petit Chablis

Petit Chablis, Domaine d'Elise 2005 (Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA)
By Burgundian standards, Domaine d’Elise, established in 1970, is an estate in its infancy. Current proprietor and winemaker Frédéric Prain acquired the property in 1982. As well known, perhaps, for his collection of sports cars as for his wines, M. Prain came to wine late in life after a career as a civil engineer. His 13-hectare property consists of a single parcel that abuts the Premier Cru Côte de Lechet and spans into Petit Chablis. Two things distinguish Frédéric's wines from the norm in Chablis: late picking and late bottling. The former provides, obviously, very ripe fruit and the potential for roundness in the finished wines; the latter is more complicated, as it entails not only lees aging but also results in wines that show an autolytic character in the bottle. All of the estate’s wines are fermented and aged in vat; oak does not play a role.

My relationship with the wines of Domaine d’Elise could be characterized as one of benign neglect. I sold the wines for years yet rarely took them home or drank them. I’d been meaning to try the ’05 Petit Chablis, though, for a while. When we took a spur of the moment trip to a local Japanese BYOB a few nights ago, the opportunity presented itself as I found it the only remotely appropriate wine in my little staging fridge. When planning allows for a preparatory shopping trip, I’ll often take a sushi session as an opportunity to enjoy good Sake. Otherwise, German or Austrian Rieslings are my usual go-to options. Chablis has also worked out in the past. Crisp texture, nervy acidity, citric tones and clean minerality – classic elements of Chablis – are all complementary to the palette of flavors and textures in a typical sushi/sashimi assortment. In this case, however, the match was not fortuitous. The wine was certainly interesting though it seemed to be going through a bit of a funky stage. It was intensely stony, quite fleshy and showed persistent acidity. What made it unusual was its relative lack of fruit, the expected lemony and herbal hints being usurped by a somewhat bitter earthiness reminiscent of the aromas and flavors of washed rind cheese. Armed with some technical knowledge of the producer’s cellar practices, I might chalk the funk up as an expression of autolysis, replacing the primary flavors of fruit with a more secondary aspect of yeastiness. In retrospect, the wine would have paired better with, well, a washed rind cheese, or perhaps a small, roasted game bird. Sushi wine it was not.

If I had another bottle in the larder, I’d love to revisit d’Elise’s 2005 Petit Chablis in another couple of years. As this was a lone ranger, I’ll just have to chalk it up as a good wine opened on the wrong occasion. Not the first… and I’m sure not the last.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Bourgogne Rouge

If there’s a great love of which I’ve spoken over the years but one with which I’ve spent far too little time, it’s Burgundy. Its wines, both white and red, are hard to beat for their possibilities of finesse, character, depth and charm. Exploring them can be a daunting task. Given the geographical intricacy of the region’s AOC system, the bewildering number of producers, the ever present conundrum of style and the flat out question of quality, choosing a good Burgundy is one of the more complicated events faced by those interested in exploring its potential. Starting me on the road where I currently find myself taking one of those long overdue visits was a chain of relatively unrelated events: eye-opening inspiration in the form of a workday tasting of Nuits-St.-George “Grandes Vignes” from Domaine Daniel Rion, a trip to New York which included a shopping stop at one of my favorite wine stores and, most recently, participation in Wine Blogging Wednesday #36.

It was WBW that really got the ball rolling. Given the theme of Unoaked Chardonnay, I selected the latest vintage of a wine with which I’ve been familiar for years, the Saint-Véran “Tirage Précoce” 2006 from Gilles Corsin. Browsing around, I found that one of my favorite wine bloggers, Brooklynguy, also tackled Burgundy, writing up wines from both the Maconnais and Chablis. Taking inspiration from this chain of events, I’ve found myself leaning hard toward the Burgundy section of my cellar when making decisions about what to open with dinner over the last few days. The first selection in the chain came from among the wines I’d picked up in New York. It would prove to showcase some of the risks inherent with buying any wine, risks that tend to be magnified with red Burgundy.

Bourgogne Rouge, Domaine René Leclerc 2005 (Fruit of the Vines, New York, NY)
René Leclerc is a well respected grower-producer based in Gevrey-Chambertin, the largest commune of Burgundy’s red wine heartland, the Côte-de-Nuits. This bottle came with the recommendation of a knowledgeable sales person in a top-notch wine shop. And it’s from the much heralded 2005 vintage, the latest “be-all, end-all” vintage in Burgundy. As soon as I pulled the cork though, warning signs started to flash. The sides of the cork were stained pink in bands of varying width and height, a telltale sign of the possibility of heat damage. All wine is susceptible to the bruising, dulling effects of heat exposure but few wines show it as quickly and clearly as the delicate, Pinot Noir based reds of Burgundy. It’s not that the wine was undrinkable; it hadn’t been cooked to that extent. Rather, it was rendered rather dull and one-dimensional. Aromas, not particularly forthcoming, were mainly of sour red fruit and a clay-like earthiness. On the palate, the wine sang only one note. It was soft, texturally quite silky and showed good acidity but the fruit was hard to find. There were hints of the griotte notes often associated with the more delicate expressions of wine from the Gevrey district but those hints were far more muted than I would have expected and liked.

Aside from the wine falling short of expectation on the palate, I was a bit surprised, even puzzled, by its appearance in the glass. Its color was quite pale. This is no surprise for Bourgogne Rouge in general; Pinot Noir grown in a cool climate with minimal sunlight intensity has naturally thin skins. It does not tend to give dark, opaque wines. However, in a warm vintage like 2005 and in the Côte-de-Nuits in general, I would have expected a darker red or violet robe. This was surprisingly pale; it could easily have passed for a wine from a cool vintage in the Côte-de-Beaune or even from a typical vintage in Chitry, in the northern reaches of the Yonne Department. The puzzlement came not so much from the wine’s color but rather from its clarity – or lack thereof. Cloudy is more like it. I’d be interested to hear from others as to whether that is a typical characteristic of Leclerc’s wines or, perhaps, if it could be a less prevalent side effect of heat damage.

In any event, I was disappointed but undaunted. Quality control is a known peril of Burgundy exploration. While it does tend to scare me away from dropping big dollars on the big names and top bottlings, I can’t let it keep me from exploring the region’s many more reasonable treasures. I’ll be writing up a few of the others I’ve recently tried in the coming days.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

WBW #36: Unoaked Chardonnay

It’s Wine Blogging Wednesday again. This month’s consortium, celebrating the third anniversary of WBW, is being hosted by Lenn Thompson at LennDevours. The theme for the month is Chardonnay, straight up, no chaser – Naked Chardonnay, if you prefer (I don’t, but that’s another story…). Perhaps uNoAKED Chardonnay would be a happy medium. In any event, the idea is to go out and select a Chardonnay based wine that saw no oak during its wine making and elevation regimes. Price and place of origin for this episode were both without restriction.

Though I had originally thought it might be fun to write-up two wines, comparing and contrasting new world and old world examples, time constraints forced me to settle for one. When it comes to Chardonnay – just as with Pinot Noir – I reach for Burgundy nine times out of ten. Whether it’s from Chablis or the Chalonnaise, Beaune or the Maconnais, it’s more likely to grace my glass than Chardonnay from any other part of the world. Oak, along with acidity, balance and a sense of place, is one of the many factors that tend to drive that decision. Don’t get me wrong, oak barrels play an important role in Burgundian wine making. Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne would not be the wines they are today without the use of barrels during fermentation and aging. When utilised correctly, oak plays a supporting role to the underlying structure of the wine. A rich or powerful wine can often take oak or even benefit from its influence. Lighter, crisper and more aromatic styles can easily be overshadowed. In either scenario, oak, particularly in the form of small, new barrels, does not tend to be used as a human signature in Burgundy with anywhere near the frequency and intensity shown in California, Australia, Chile, and New World production areas in general.

If you’re reading between the lines, you may be starting to understand why I’m not a fan of the term “Naked Chardonnay.” Sure, it’s cute and can appeal to a consumer base hungry for something different. It suggests, though, that Chardonnay is somehow incomplete, sophisticated as it is, without its oak clothing. It suggests that undressing it is something new and daring, somehow risqué. It’s not. It’s been done for ages in Burgundy and other parts of Europe. It’s just that winemakers have rarely seen any reason to call attention to it – or to barrel aging for that matter. That’s why, just to be a contrarian, I selected an Old World wine, a white Burgundy, where the producer chooses to point out his wine’s “nudity.”

The Winemaker: Gilles Corsin
Gilles Corsin is a fanatic in the cellar. He works as a Courtier, a business he took over from his father 15 years ago; as such, he sources fruit on behalf of some of the largest and most influential négociant producers in the Maconnais: Verget, Jadot, DuBoeuf. In his rounds working for these merchants, he tastes and assesses thousands of Macon-Villages, Saint-Vérans, Pouilly-Fuissés and other regional wines every year. Needless to say, he’s developed a good palate and a tyrannically critical technique. At his family estate, working along with his vineyard man and brother Jean-Jaques, Gilles takes a methodical, critical and fastidious approach to making his own wines. He may rarely be happy with them himself but they’re unquestionably among the highest quality, most expressive yet simultaneously subtle wines of the region.

M. Corsin could be thought of as a modernist in at least one sense: he micro-vinifies. The fruit from every vineyard parcel, no matter how small, is vinified separately with the idea of being able to isolate the unique qualities of terroir of every inch of the domaine. The idea, though, is not to produce scores of micro-bottlings and limited edition cuvées; in most vintages, he produces only four wines, only in extraordinary years adding a special version or two of Pouilly-Fuissé. Rather, it is to be able to identify qualities, both good and bad, of each lot with an eye toward then creating a blend that marries those good qualities into the best possible representation of the typicity of the appropriate AOC. His Saint-Vérans, as such – like them or not – can be viewed as benchmark wines. He makes only two. The fruit for both comes from the same collection of sites, undergoes primary fermentation together and is blended in the same manner. In effect, they begin their lives as the same wine. Prior to undergoing malolactic, the wine is split in two. One half is destined to be moved to barrels for secondary fermentation and a modest aging cycle. The other half goes naked, eventually becoming the bottling called “Tirage Précoce,” which literally translates to “early pulling.” Both wines are perfectly viable expressions of the traditions of Saint-Véran. For the oak aged cuvée, which is simply labeled with the AOC name, he prefers barrels of one-year which support the wine without obscuring the qualities of his fruit. The unoaked wine is finished in steel cuves.

The Wine: Saint-Véran “Tirage Précoce,” Domaine Corsin 2006
Pale, straw and green apple colors show in the glass. Aromas at this early stage of development are subtle but hint again at apples and a definite stoniness. A slight hint of the primary flavors of fermentation remains on the palate, no banana at all but a light, floral yeastiness. Not to sound redundant, but the apple fruit continues in the mouth, along with hints of pear and other orchard fruits. Acidity is bright yet easily born by the gentle, medium-bodied textures of the wine; its alcohol level is 13.5%. The stoniness mentioned earlier persists on the palate, not intensely mineral in the way of Chablis, rather hinting at the polish of cold, rushing mountain stream water. Though quite pleasurable now, I think the wine wants for another three to six months in the bottle before it will fully begin to shine. It should pair wonderfully with simply prepared white fleshed fish and, not surprisingly, with butter and herb roasted chicken.

A Cheesy Shout-Out

In the wake of The American Cheese Society’s annual conference, held in Burlington, Vermont this past weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to give a shout-out to some of my cheesiest pals.

Carleton Yoder:
After flirtations with wine making and a stint producing Vermont cider for Cider Jack, Carleton moved on to cheese making, founding Champlain Valley Creamery several years ago. His organic cream cheese is wonderful stuff. He’s been recognized lately in an article which appeared in the Burlington Free Press, "Visiting the Vermont Cheese Trail,” and is also included in the new publication by Ellen Ecker Ogden, The Vermont Cheese Book.

Anne Saxelby:
Anne happens to run one of the finest – and tiniest – cheese shops in Manhattan, Saxelby Cheesemongers, specializing in American farmstead cheese and helping to put the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market on the map. After spending the weekend at the ACS Conference, I’m sure she’ll have some new treasures in the pipeline. She’s also been coordinating and hosting a series of group visits – she calls the trips “A Day A Whey” – to various farmstead cheese makers throughout the Northeast Corridor. Check out the Saxelby Cheesemongers Blog for details.

Aimee Olexy:
Aimee continues to ply her passion for cheese on a daily basis behind the counter at Talula’s Table in the village of Kennett Square, PA. Her Monday Cheese “Happy Hours,” featured recently in The News Journal, at WC Dish and right here on McDuff’s Food & Wine Trail, continue to sell-out fast and are a great way to be exposed to an array of quality selections. The theme changes each session, with classes usually scheduled for the first Monday of each month.

Keep up the good work my friends!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Le Tour de Cognac, Stage Two

This is the second installment of an entry detailing a visit to the Domaine de la Pouyade, the Cognac house of Pascal Fillioux. If you haven't yet caught it, you may want to begin with Stage One; otherwise, please read on....

The Proof is in the Tasting

Returning to the family residence, which was built in 1868, we gathered in M. Fillioux’s formal tasting room, ready to get down to the business of exploring what we’d been learning about.

Before proceeding too far, Pascal discoursed briefly on the proper tasting techniques for Cognac and other spirits. This part of our visit actually inspired one of my earlier posts, To Swirl or Not to Swirl. The preferred stemware for nosing and tasting Cognac is not, contrary to popular thought, the classic, large bowled brandy snifter but rather a small bowled, chimney-like glass. A small bowl combined with a narrow aperture allows the positive aromas of the spirit to concentrate while helping to suppress the volatile, alcoholic aromas which are more freely released in a large bowl. Taking that principle a step further, we learned that the positive aromas tend to be released at the lower lip of the glass, the alcoholic aromas from the upper lip. To test this at home, using a small stem with your spirit of choice, bring the glass down to your nose, inhaling gently as the lower lip comes into reach. Continue to lower the glass until the upper lip is in line and sniff again. The first whiff should give positive aromas; the second is likely to deliver heat. If you sniff too vigorously, the heat will actually burn, dulling your ability to experience subtler aromas. For similar reasons, we learned that it is important not to swirl Cognac too vigorously in the glass – something that’s tough to unlearn for a practiced wine taster – as overly enthusiastic swirling also releases alcoholic aromas which will overpower the beverage’s more delicate scents. Lastly, swishing and aeration in the mouth are to be avoided. Simply hold the spirit for a few moments, perhaps moving it gently across the tongue, before either spitting or swallowing. The same reasoning applies.

We were now fully prepped and ready to taste.

La Pouyade
A young, 8-year old Cognac named after the Fillioux estate, La Pouyade is aged in recently used casks and diluted to a final 42%. Though not vintage dated, it is always made from the fruit of a single harvest. Very ripe on the palate, it gave fruit forward flavors with hints of almond and praline on the nose. Pascal obviously considers it the casual Cognac in the line, as he prefers it served chilled with a splash of Pellegrino or Perrier. Though Fillioux produces an intermediate Cognac called Cep d’Or, aged in old cask for an average of 13 years, we skipped straight to…

Tres Vieux
Fillioux’s Tres Vieux bottling represents one of the greatest values in the world of Cognac. It spends approximately two years in new oak before being racked to older barrels for the remainder of its aging cycle. Averaging 25 years of age, the example we tasted that day was a blend of four vintages: 1974, 1976, 1978 and 1979. A beautiful amber orange color preceded a creamy texture, followed by vanilla, butterscotch and orange oil on the palate. Very good length. Pascal mentioned at this juncture that he believes that Cognac is driven by four basic, primary aromas – almond, clove, vanilla and coconut – all of them derived from wood. All other aromas, apparently, are more subtle, more subjective and hint at greater complexity.

XO Reserve
Until recently, the XO Reserve had been a style produced only for family consumption. Finished at a more powerful 44% and showing intense wood and vanillin aromas combined with a hint of bitterness from wood tannins, it represents a blend of vintages averaging 27 years, all spent in the original new barrels. Pascal considers it a cigar smoker’s cuvée. He should know as he enjoys it as such. Apparently, he was convinced to commercialize it at the behest of some fellow cigar aficionados in the Japanese and US markets; these remain the only countries where the XO is available.

Réserve Familiale
This is the tête de cuvée of the estate, a blend which averages 50 or more years of age. The bottling we sampled represented a blend of five casks: three from 1948, one from 1945 and one from 1937. Interestingly, Pascal commented that he does not enjoy the ’37 on its own but he feels that it adds tremendous complexity to the final blend. A silky, rich mouthfeel delivered peach, mango, baking spices, orange confit and vanilla but showed none of the heat or edginess of the XO Reserve. Again, purely new oak was chosen to fit the long aging regime. Pascal reiterated that he rarely produces vintage Cognacs, preferring to blend in order to marry the best aspects of multiple casks and multiple years. That said, we would finish the day’s dégustation with a trio of single year Cognacs.

“V” 1975
A non-commercialized single cask at 46.5% which, at the time, Pascal expected to eventually become a component of Tres Vieux. Its textures were thinner and leaner with more aggressive aromatics than in the finished Cognacs we’d tasted thus far. Loads of vanillin drove home its intense flavors.

“F” 1975
Another non-commercialized single cask, this one at 48%, selected from the same lot, year and row in the chais as the “V.” This spirit showed lighter color in the glass and was even leaner on the palate, yet its aromas were more high-toned and elegant. Very smoky, less vanillin, it was more complex but less powerful than its brother. The differences derived completely from the singular evolution in each barrel.

1924 Vintage Cognac
Having been moved from barrel to glass demijohns in 1973, this single year Cognac represented approximately a 50-year barrel aging process. Once a Cognac is moved to demijohn, evolution and development are halted. Very dark amber in color, the nose gave rancio aromas of vanilla and nut oils. In the mouth, it was far less fruity than the younger and blended Cognacs, more smoky, earthy, woody and nutty. Its length, though, was incredible. At the time, this was one of only two vintage Cognacs ever commercialized by the estate, the other being a 1948.

As you may have gathered from the length and detail of this post, I’m not sure I’ve ever come away from a winery visit with so much new experience and gained knowledge. The tasting required serious patience, practice and endurance but also delivered some intense pleasures. Since our visit, Pascal has released a 1983 Vintage Cognac, representing his first complete year, from vineyard management to vinification and distillation, at the head of the firm. Like the 1924, it is not as balanced as the Tres Vieux or as nuanced as the Réserve Familiale but it is nonetheless a fantastic expression of nature combined with one man’s vision and skill. I expect Pascal’s son will soon be ready to take the helm. He’ll have some big shoes to fill.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Le Tour de Cognac, Stage One

The 94th edition of the Tour de France came to an end last weekend, its loop finishing, as always, with a grand procession into Paris for a final few laps round the Champs d’Elysées. This year’s race marked both the emergence of some bright new talent and the near submergence of the race in the face of yet more news of doping and scandal at the sport’s highest levels. Whether or not you care for the competitive aspects of the race, one can’t help but appreciate the beauty of the ritual and the beauty of the landscape through which it passes. As any circuit of France which does not limit itself to the extreme North must, Le Tour inexorably passes through – or at least by – many parts of French wine country. As this year’s penultimate stage, the final deciding time trial, began in the town of Cognac, I found myself inspired to go back to the archives and write up an afternoon I spent in Juillac-le-Coq, a town located in the heart of the Grande Champagne district of Cognac, in February 2004.

Pulling into the courtyard of Domaine de la Pouyade late in the afternoon, the winter sun already in decline after unexpected delays at the lunch table and on the autoroute, we were a bit afraid we’d missed our appointment. The imposing chateau and outbuildings were eerily quiet. Finally, a pair of shaggy dogs bound toward us, followed shortly thereafter by the son of the estate’s current patriarch, Pascal Fillioux. Pascal himself was not far behind. I would be remiss in not mentioning that this was a wine biz trip; our stop in Cognac was not only an added little bonus, it also put us all on a very steep learning curve.


Our education commenced posthaste, as M. Fillioux led us through a quick tour of the estate’s distillation facilities. We learned that the onion-like shapes sprouting from the copper pot stills in the distillery are distinct to the better areas of Cognac – Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne – and are designed to extract a greater sense of terroir than are the olive shaped heads used in the outlying Fins and Bons Bois. Cognac always goes through two distillations. The first produces an end liquid of around 28-30% alcohol called the brouillis. During the second fermentation, a typical batch of 10 hectoliters is typically divided into three parts. The first hectoliter or so is the head, the last hectoliter the tail, in between is the coeur, the heart of the Cognac which will go on to the barrel aging caves. At la Pouyade, the head and tail are reused; one part is mixed with the wine for the primary distillation of the next batch, the other part is mixed with the brouillis prior to the secondary distillation. At the end of the second distillation – this must be completed by the end of March in the year following the harvest – the new Cognac averages 70% alcohol.

The Vineyards

The Fillioux family farms 25 hectares of estate based vineyards, located completely within the Premier Cru of Grande Champagne (there is no Grand Cru classification in the region). The fields are planted overwhelmingly to Ugni Blanc, which makes up 100% of the base wines used for distillation, supplemented by a small quantity of red Bordeaux varieties for the production of their Pineau des Charentes Rosé. Vineyard management in Grande Champagne runs contrary, in many ways, to the techniques and measures typical in quality wine growing areas. The primary objective is to grow healthy fruit that will produce a wine of high acidity and complex aromas. Alcohol and body are not sought. Fruit is typically harvested at a ripeness level of only 9% potential alcohol. To help accomplish these goals, yields are kept high – at around 70 hl/ha – by quality wine growing standards. As Cognac regulations allow for yields of up to 120 hl/ha, Fillioux’s yields are actually low relative to the region’s standards. The yields are thus high enough to avoid surpassing the desired degree of ripeness but low enough to allow the terroir of the estate’s dry, rocky and chalky soils to be present in the base wines and in the finished Cognacs.

The Chais

As we moved on to Pascal’s chais, the barrel aging rooms of the estate, I was struck with the same feeling I’d experienced earlier in the distillery. There was no ostentation, nothing overly shiny, nothing done to impress. But in all elements, I sensed cleanliness, importance of function and a tight organization. It is in the chais where the organizational control of Fillioux becomes most important, for all of his estate Cognacs start from the same base wine and the same base coeur. It is only through aging and blending that the differences are crafted from one cuvée to the next. Initial decisions regarding the type and age of barrel to be used will push each lot in the direction of a particular end point. M. Fillioux feels that the use of new oak, while giving dark, rapid coloration, is appropriate only for styles meant for long-term aging, as it takes at lest 15 years for the flavors imparted by the new barrels to move beyond, as he put it, “bad wood tastes.” He favors Limousin barrels but also includes about 10% of Troncais barrels in the overall mix as they can provide complexity in the final blend. To facilitate the overall needs of the estate, he purchases a mix each year of new barrels and once passed barrels and operates in five separate chais, each geared to a particular stylistic niche or likely aging regime. It is not uncommon for a barrel to be moved up or down the line as Pascal assesses its qualitative development over the years.

That daunting 15 year oak integration period started to sound like nothing when Pascal informed us that in a medium humidity cellar it takes 50-60 years in barrel for a Cognac to naturally reach the typical finished alcohol level of 40%. The evaporation rate of Cognac stored in barrels runs at approximately 5% per year, with 6% being the maximum allowed. To compensate for this evaporation, sometimes called the “angel’s share,” distilled water is added on an annual basis to top up the barrels. It is a delicate, time sensitive process, as adding too much liquid at a time can raise the temperature and speed of the chemical reactions caused by dilution and rob the end product of aromatic complexity. When the time for bottling arrives, reverse osmosis separated (as opposed to distilled) water is added to the spirit to bring the alcohol to the desired end level. What does this all mean? Among other things, older Cognacs will tend to have darker colors, richer textures and more evolved flavor components than their younger siblings, side effects both of longer periods spent in barrel and a lower proportion of dilution necessary during the final blending or bottling. Pascal was adamant, though, that older does not automatically mean better.

It is during the barrel aging period that the natural magic which results in the slow transformation of harsh young distillate to mellow old Cognac takes place. The real artistry, though, comes later. Pascal took the head position at the family estate upon the retirement of his father Jean (whose name still graces their bottles) not just because he was the next male in line but also because he had “the nose.” The ability literally to nose Cognac, to detect the subtle shades of its aromatic spectrum as well as any apparent flaws, is all important to the management of the aging process in the chais and ultimately to the final blending process. As interesting as vintage dated spirits Cognacs can be, it is in the blending of multiple barrels and multiple years that the best overall balance and qualities can emerge. Pascal was and remains the man for the job.

[Note to readers: This is a long one, folks. Stay tuned for Stage Two.]
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