Saturday, September 29, 2007

PASA Farmers Market Survey

This one’s for my fellow citizens of the Keystone State. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) has put together a brief survey intended to help them collect ideas as to how to build closer ties between food consumers and their local farming communities. If you currently shop at a local farmers market or if you don’t but would like to, please take a few moments to complete their survey. It should be time well spent and will hopefully serve to help strengthen the roles that farmers markets play in our communities.

Take the PASA farmers market and local food survey.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Remembering Michael Jackson: Raise a Glass for Charity

In tribute to The Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson, who lost his battle with Parkinson’s Disease on August 30 this year, Belgian bars, brew pubs and draft houses all over the world will be hosting toasts to his memory this Sunday, September 30. 9:00 PM marks the official start of the toast, with ensuing celebrations running the course of the evening. Many establishments are taking this as an opportunity not just to celebrate Michael’s life but also to raise funds for the National Parkinson Foundation. Participating venues in the Philadelphia area include:

  • Tria (both at 18th & Sansom and 12th & Sansom)
  • Monk’s Café (16th and Spruce)
  • Grace Tavern (2229 Grays Ferry Avenue)
  • The Belgian Café (2047 Green Street)
  • Nodding Head (1516 Sansom Street)

If you’re unable to make any of these or the many other events around the globe, why not raise a glass at home. And consider making a donation directly to the NPF in memory of Michael Jackson.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Teresa's Next Door Revisited

As I promised a revisit not long ago, I ventured back to Teresa’s Next Door for a look at the evening shift this past weekend. As with my initial visit, which was by chance on Teresa’s very first day offering brunch, our timing was less than ideal. This time around, the timing issues were twofold. First, it was Saturday night – the busiest, most popular night of the week to dine out. But hey, we were hungry and thirsty. Second and more importantly, the home delivery edition of the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer, at least the part of it that includes the weekly restaurant review, had hit porches and driveways throughout the Philly burbs that morning. Craig LaBan threw two bells Teresa’s way, a pretty good review by his standards. Knowing that it might get frenetic – and did I mention that we were hungry and thirsty? – we showed up early to beat the crowds. As we entered and were led to a booth, I could smell fear in the air, the hostess, manager and servers all anticipating an onslaught of new, curious customers.

My point in constructing the above dissertation on awkward timing is to explain why I still feel compelled to extend the benefit of the doubt to Teresa’s Next Door after finding mostly hit or miss food on both visits. Hit or miss. That’s one bell on the LaBan scale. But I hate to be overly critical of a place when I know I’ve stopped in during moments of weakness. So, on to the details of the evening….

There’s certainly one huge saving grace at TND: they have a stupendous beer list. With two dozen brews on tap, two more on hand pumps and a bottle list that runs into the hundreds, there’s both depth and diversity. The focus is clearly on Belgian and Belgian-style beers, though there’s also a pretty good representation of the American microbrew scene. Three dollar pints of Brooklyn Blanche were on offer as the day’s draft special. A round, refreshing Belgian-style white ale, it clocked in at 7.5%, offered attractive flavors of lemon oil and white pepper, and gave me something easy to sip while perusing the menu. I finally settled on choices from the “Starters” portion of the menu and, a true test of any aspiring Belgian brasserie, one of the six preparations of mussels.

Carnitas, smoked pork, chopped onion, salsa verde and queso fresco atop grilled corn tortillas
In my initial review of TND, I’d mentioned that the menu “loses its focus…, perhaps in answer to anticipated requests from the local crowd, with the inclusion of a smattering of Mexican-American dishes.” In the Inquirer review, we’re told that the Mexican dishes are inspired by or intended as homage to the restaurant’s kitchen staff. I suspect it’s most likely a bit of both. In either case, the evening’s rendition of Carnitas was not terribly inspired. The pork, relatively tender if a bit dry, was infused with an overwhelming smokiness which masked any remnant of flavor from the meat itself. The salsa verde was a bit bland, the onions nowhere to be found. Three medium sized tortillas, piled generously with toppings, made for an ample serving but I would have preferred a smaller portion with more attention given to freshness of the condiments and slow, gentle smoking of the pork.

Beer pairing: Pliny the Elder, Russian River Brewing Company (8%).
This is considered a benchmark for the new American genre of hop-head ales. It’s brewed with 40% more malt and over twice the amount of hops compared to Russian River’s regular IPA. And it delivers a big, bitter, intensely floral mouthful of hoppy goodness. Pliny’s aromas might be a bit much for some, as the first thing that came to mind was a well-worked armpit, followed by a little peach nectar. It’s not casual quaffing ale but rather a choice that will stand up to rich, boldly flavored food. Be sure to allow some time for palate recovery.

Drunken Mussels – dark beer, chorizo sausage, red pepper, shallot, garlic, chervil; served with pomme frites and bread
The kitchen staff quickly redeemed themselves with their mussels, delivered to the table in a cloud of steam, accompanied by a basket of crispy fries and mild remoulade. Subtle at first, the flavor of the sauce, boosted by the spiciness lent by the chorizo, built as enjoyment of the dish progressed. Crumbling the chorizo was a good call by the chef, as it allowed little morsels of sausage to nestle in the scoops of the mussel shells, the better to infuse the entire dish with its flavor. That said, some at the table suggested that the addition of solid slices of chorizo would have added zest and a more substantial feel to the dish. Aside from a few mollusks that never opened to give up their flesh, the Drunken Mussels, perfectly fresh and tender, were clearly the best choice of the night.

Beer pairing: Saison Dupont, Brasserie Dupont (6.5%).
Here, I put myself in the hands of our server, who recommended with little hesitation pairing Saison Dupont farmhouse ale with the Drunken Mussels. While many aspects of service at TND could use a touch of polish, the wait staff has obviously been well schooled in their beer offerings. The pairing was spot on. Soulful, easy drinking yet moderately rich, and just a little musky, the Saison kept in stride with the developing flavors of the mussels, neither clashing with their spice nor overwhelming their inherently delicate protein.

Dessert will have to wait for the next visit, as will a potential installment of A Burger and a Beer. Perhaps a modestly busy mid-week night will do, after the hubbub resulting from the Inquirer review has had a chance to die down.

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

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dolcetto d'Alba "Dei Grassi," Elio Grasso 2006

Dolcetto seems to be one of those varieties, much like Cabernet Franc, that gives wines that people either love or hate. I’ve yet to find many if any folks who are simply lukewarm about either. In both cases, I think the negative end of the response scale stems from the challenging aspects of the wines. Intense, occasionally weedy aromatic nature along with a sometimes prickly or lean texture can make the wines so “different” that some just can’t embrace them. For me, the love comes from the fact that both, when produced without a lot of fiddling around, give very characterful, food-friendly wines.

The typicities of Dolcetto, exemplified by soft tannins, low acid and aromas of cherry and tobacco, can make it easy to spot in blind tastings. I’m not sure I’d have easily picked the new vintage of Elio Grasso’s Dolcetto d’Alba “Dei Grassi,” though. It’s particularly dark garnet, almost purple, in the glass. While cherry is present on the nose and palate, it’s a much blacker, sweeter tone than I usually expect, reminding me a bit of Häagen-Dazs’ classic cherry vanilla ice cream. Same, too, of the tobacco: less dried smoking tobacco, more sweet cherry chewing or pipe tobacco. Suffice it to say this is ripe wine.

I opened it on day one to go with simple pasta with tomatoes and basil – a combo I often like with Dolcetto d’Alba for the interplay between the sauce’s high acidity and the wine’s low acidity. Explosive fruit and large mouthfeel made “Dei Grassi” a bit domineering though, while the brightness of the sauce brought out a tinge of heat in the wine. Two days later, the Dolcetto had rounded to a creamier texture with softer tannins. Sweet, black cherry fruit persisted, with hints of ripe blackberry and slightly raisined notes showing through. It paired much more happily with buffalo burgers and roasted sweet potato fries; the protein and richer flavors of the dish helped to balance the wine’s vigor and dissipate its heat.

This is absolutely tasty if somewhat atypical Dolcetto. There are more tannic examples out there but few with this level of richness. It would be a good choice for those with tastes for boisterous flavors looking to explore a wine usually known for a more delicate, medium-bodied delivery. In addition to burgers, it should pair well with carne cruda, sausages, grilled white meats and rich mushroom dishes.

$17. 14.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Imported by Petit Pois, Martin Scott and others.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Philadelphian Invasion Continues

Philadelphia’s current invasion of the New York food, wine and street culture scene started in March 2006, when restaurateur and “dinner as theater” mogul Stephen Starr opened not one but two trendy spots – Buddakan NYC and Morimoto NYC – in Chelsea. One of the Philadelphia area’s few independent fine wine shops followed suit shortly thereafter, dropping anchor near Union Square in June 2006. The most recent wave – call it Manayunk Attacks – occurred this month, as La Colombe Torrefaction and Cadence Performance Cycling Center, both of which lend substance to Manayunk’s Main Street scene in Philly, opened shops in TriBeCa.

Scenes from the originals (clockwise from top left): Cadence's Manayunk storefront; La Colombe's placard as seen from their Main Street sidewalk café; José Maldonado rules the roost at Cadence; a very fine Macchiato at La Colombe.

I’m happy to report that this does not appear to be simply an effort by a few of Philly’s most successful stars (no pun intended) to justify their reps by moving up to the big city. Rather, I think it represents a national awakening to Philly’s coming of age as a breeding ground for great food and cultural direction. It’s not that these businesses reached puberty in the city of brotherly love and had to move to the big apple to grow up; rather, they’ve matured in Philly and are answering a hunger for their goods and skills in New York. Sure, there’s plenty of ego and ambition involved. But, whatever your thoughts about the concerned parties, there’s also some indisputable talent, success and quality product.

What will the third wave bring? Vetri and Capogiro get my votes. Any other predictions or requests out there?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Corks and Caps

Recently noted during my travels through the blogosphere, both Wannabewino and Wino Sapien – I’m sure there are others – have taken to calling attention to closure selection when writing up wines. I’ve posted about corks and screwcaps here before so it’s obviously a topic of some importance to me. Nonetheless, I’d never thought to mention the closure in the context of my tasting notes. While that may have something to do with the fact that I don’t actually post all that many tasting notes, unless in the context of a winery visit or larger scale event, it still seems like the right thing to do. So, henceforth and forthwith, look for the closure of choice, along with the usual price, alcohol level, and importer/distributor information, at the end of each of my WTNs.

The current ratio, minus plastic.

Autumn at the Oakmont Farmers Market

With the vernal equinox looming large, I think a seasonal market update is in order.

Greens, both lettuces and crucifers, are back. Fall squash, even pumpkins, are ready. And root vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes and red beets – are becoming staples.

Now certainly reaching the end of their long run this year, I was surprised to find a fairly broad selection of tomatoes still at this week’s market. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised though, after the intensity of flavor in the batch of heirlooms I picked up a week earlier. Regrettably, I didn’t manage to snap a picture of the lovely composed salad they were destined for at my friend’s wedding but I did save a decent shot of a smaller, slightly less diverse batch I picked up back in August.

The fruit selection has been one of the surest meters of seasonality throughout the year. The last couple of weeks have seen the departure of peaches and all but the last plums with the corresponding arrival of a growing variety of apples and pears. And Asian pears are rolling in as well. Regrettably, North Star Orchard’s decadent, vanilla and butterscotch laced Ichibans (which I wrote about on the Oakmont Market blog), came and went in only one week. But their crisp, sweet Hosui are still in full swing.

Tasting Thunder:
Speaking of North Star Orchard, co-proprietor Ike Kerschner is apparently beginning to pursue his dream of becoming not just an artisanal orchardist but also a fruit breeder. One of his first ventures in fruit genetics, a grape variety dubbed “Thunder,” appeared at the market for the first time Wednesday just past. It’s a perfect sign of the autumn harvest season. Blue-black berries, thick skinned and bearing seeds, give a blast of robust flavor sparked by peak ripeness, good acidity and just a hint of bitterness. If you’ve been looking for a table grape that actually tastes like something more than diluted Welch’s grape juice, you might want to catch some Thunder.

Tasting Childhood:
Some of my clearest recollections of childhood revolve around the simple pleasures of food. Distinct among those memories is the taste and smell of fresh pressed apple cider, purchased at roadside farm stands on the trip home, up Route 29 in central Virginia, after late summer visits with my grandmother. That memory resurfaced recently, kindled by the arrival at the Oakmont market of honest, fresh pressed cider from Fruitwood Orchards Honey Farm. Available in pint, half-gallon and gallon jugs, it’s the real deal: sweet, rich, cloudy, a little chunky – wholesome goodness.

A bit of the autumn harvest from Fruitwood Orchards

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Weingut Keller: Shining Star in the Rheinhessen

February 2004. Day two of a group trek through a corner of Germany and a crescent of France. Our first of two appointments of the day was with one of the brightest new stars of German winemaking circles, Klaus Peter Keller. Accolades have come aplenty to Weingut Keller over the last several years, perhaps topped by the bestowal of the VinItaly International Award in 2002. Or perhaps they would favor father Klaus being named Best Winemaker of the Year in the 2000 edition of Gault-Millau’s Weinguide Deutschland. No matter. Suffice it to say that the Keller’s have made a big name for their estate in an area of the Rheinhessen known more for mass production and mediocrity than for top quality, small grower wines.

Flying the flag at Weingut Keller

Klaus Peter had anticipated our arrival, hanging out an American flag at the winery’s main entrance and greeting us shortly after we passed through the gates. Weingut Keller’s property consisted at that time of 12.5 hectares, spread through the villages of Dalsheim and Florsheim. As none of their better quality sites are proximal to the winery, it was right back into our vehicles for a tour through the local byways, destination vineyards. As we pulled off the main village roads onto the dirt paths that bisect the area’s fields, I was struck by the extreme contrast to the vineyards we’d clawed our way through a day earlier in the Mittelrhein. Here, steep, rocky slopes were replaced by gently undulating, topsoil laden, sun soaked hillocks. The scenery reminded me very much of the trench warfare landscapes from any number of WWI or WWII war films, just healed and grown over with rows of vines.

And those vines. Keller’s at least. I’ve never seen such precisely, uniformly pruned and trained vines. The photos I have don’t do them justice. They really did look like specimen plants, each trained low to the ground to capture the maximum of reflected sunlight and heat from the earth below. Klaus Peter feels this approach gives his wines both concentration and elegance. The terrain at the estate is dominated by rocky, limestone rich subsoil with lightly colored, slightly loamy topsoil. The limestone begins only ½ meter below the topsoil, making hard work for young vines as they try to develop their root systems. Keller helps along new plantings by providing light irrigation, a practice which is ceased across the board as soon as the vines are established and producing fruit.

Klaus-Peter (at right) giving us the lay of the land

All of the labor in the vineyards is managed by the Keller family and three apprentices. Their farming methods are as natural as the climate allows. No fertilizers are used. Vegetation is encouraged between every other row of vines to promote nitrogenation of the soil. Copper and sulfur are sprayed to prevent downy mildew. And pheromone capsules, hung strategically throughout the fields, are the only form of pest control.

A clear view of Keller's slice of the Rheinhessen

The Keller’s count four Großes Gewächs sites amongst their property: Dalsheimer Hubacker, Dalsheimer Bürgel, Westhofener Kirchspiel and Westhofener Morstein. In an area best known for the mass production of forgettable Liebfrauenmilch, this surprising density of Grand Cru ratings bestowed upon his property by the VdP is something of which Klaus Peter is keenly aware – and proud. He makes sure to capitalize upon the new vision of his terroir by maximizing his efforts in the vineyards, pruning and farming meticulously to coax the greatest potential from the fruit of his vines. And in the cellar, he polishes the wines like fine gems. Oddly though, we saw neither hide nor hair of the cellars and wine making facilities during our visit. After spending most of our time in the field, we finished with a quick whirl through the tasting room:

2003 Riesling QbA trocken
The first of the 2003 Rieslings to be finished, this was due to be bottled a week after our visit. This sample was tasted from a bottle pulled from vat earlier in the day. Very soft mouthfeel and extremely yeasty, showing simple tropical fruit on the palate. The QbA wines are produced with a combination of fruit from non-cru vineyard sites and of declassified fruit from the crus. No chaptalization was used.

2002 Riesling “Von der Fels”
Fruit from 15-30 year-old vines in several of Keller’s crus – still too young for the Großes Gewächs bottlings – has gone into “Von der Fels” since its first release in 2000. Though labeled simply as a QbA, this is essentially a non-vineyard designated Spätlese trocken, meant to be representative of the estate’s limestone rich terroir as expressed in a dry style. Lean aromatics gave way to concentrated limestone minerality with a fuller, firmer mouthfeel than in the basic QbA wines.

2002 Hubacker Riesling Großes Gewächs
The rather gothic looking rust orange labels of Keller’s grand cru bottlings are facsimiles of the old family labels which were used up to 1953. The ’02 Hubacker was muscular, spicy, and even a bit earthy, with tremendous mineral extract. Very closed at time of tasting, with loads of acidity keeping the 13% alcohol in check.

2000 Hubacker Riesling “G-Max” Großes Gewächs
Named to commemorate the birth of Klaus-Peter’s son, the 2000 was more aromatically forthcoming. Though still tasting very young, its mouthfeel had begun to round, showing orange oil and spicy earth on the palate. A very difficult vintage, with rain at harvest time. Keller explained that the purely spontaneous fermentation methods used for his Großes Gewächs can lead to extremely long fermentation times – think in terms of years – and can leave primary yeast characteristics in the flavor profile of the wines for their first 3-5 years in bottle.

2002 Dalsheimer Hubacker Riesling Spätlese
Rich fruit, candied citrus peels. Extremely well balanced. Short notes….

2003 Dalsheimer Hubacker Riesling Spätlese
Tasted from a sample bottle pulled from vat. K-P found 2003 a perfect vintage for the production of Spätlese. Big time tropical fruit, very exotic and, not surprisingly, very yeasty. Far richer and rounder than the ’02, but nonetheless showing good acid (6.5g) for a hot vintage. Elegant.

1997 Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Auslese
This is a bit of a rarity in the Keller portfolio as it comes from a vineyard site in the Rheingau that was leased by the Keller’s only from 1996-1998, while Klaus-Peter was still in oenology school. The wine was sold only at auction. Beautiful, golden color. A nose loaded with scents of botrytis. Honeyed on the front palate with lovely minerality on the mid-palate. Flavors of fruitcake, along with some petrol hints, typical to the more slate and quartzite soils of the Rheingau.

1997 Dalsheimer Hubacker Riesling Spätlese
Very young in appearance and taste, with lively fruit accented by a hint of botrytis character (about 10% botrytis affected fruit). Minerally but not at all petrol in character, with very fine peach and lemon peel tones.

2003 Grüner Silvaner QbA trocken
Something forward and refreshing to finish the tasting. Silvaner is apparently quite the thing among German consumers. All of Keller’s Silvaner vines are at least 25 years old; they even produce a varietal Silvaner from 45 year-old grand cru vines. The 2003 showed a typically herbal nose but with riper fruit on the palate than in the previous few years. The grassiness was even more prevalent on the palate. Very fresh. Clocking in at 12.5%, higher in alcohol than the norm but still considered low for the vintage.

Klaus-Peter Keller stands at the forefront of today’s new generation of German winemakers. Though all three of the producer’s we visited during our short prelude in Germany are members of the Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP), Keller was by far the most forthcoming and enthusiastic in speaking of the qualifications for membership and the qualities of his estate’s Großes Gewächs wines. His mission is clearly to express vineyard sites and an overall sense of terroir in favor of the hierarchical ripeness-based system established by the 1971 German wine laws. Concurrently, one gets the sense, both through the fruit-forward nature of the wines and the presentation of the estate, that Keller keeps just as keen an eye on the development and positioning of the winery’s global brand as a new standard for the Rheinhessen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Few Seats Left at Brandywine Prime's Autumn Wine Dinner

Looking for something to do this Thursday night? Interested in checking out a new restaurant or in taking a drive out of the city? There are a few seats remaining for the Autumn Wine Dinner I'll be hosting on September 20 at Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, PA. The event will focus on local ingredients and dishes which represent the transition from summer into autumn.

The wines alone are worth the ridiculously reasonable price for the event: $75 per person, all inclusive. The evening will kick off with a reception beginning at 6:30 PM. I hope to see you there.

Brandywine Prime | Routes 1 & 100, Chadds Ford, PA | 610-388-8088

WBW #37 Roundup and #38 Theme Announced

Tyler Colman, aka Dr. Vino, has posted the roundup from WBW #37: Go Native. You’ll find write-ups, including mine on the Marcillacs of Domaine du Cros, from over 50 authors (the highest ever participation rate) regarding wines made from indigenous vines.

Next month’s edition, scheduled for October 10 and being hosted by the folks at Catavino, will focus on the table wines of Portugal. Ryan and Gabriella are encouraging participants not only to skip the fortified wines of Porto and Madeira but also to sidestep the most common table wines of Portugal: Vinho Verde and the reds of the Douro. This will make shopping, at least in my part of the States, one of the most challenging parts of the event. But hey, I'm always open to a good excuse to visit a few wine shops.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Notes on a Wedding

Sorry folks, no tasting notes, just some reflections on a beautiful day. Two of my dearest friends, Bill and Kelly, tied the knot Saturday. The ceremony was beautiful and I don’t think the bride and groom could have asked for a more perfect evening for their reception, set outdoors in the garden and patio areas of the Delaware Center for Horticulture.

Even at their own nuptials, a most important occasion, Bill and Kelly went out of their way to ensure a fantastic wine selection for their guests. On top of a good bubbly, white and red to satisfy all of their guests at the bar, each dinner table had its own regional wine theme. Fourteen guest tables, fourteen regions, a different white and red at each table, plus a few random bottles for the head table…. It’s always reassuring – if for nothing but a good reality check – to know other people who are fanatical enough about good food and wine to think of them always.

The head table had a global theme

It was a day I’ll remember warmly for many years to come. Congratulations, my friends!

New Classes Announced at Tria Fermentation School

Philly’s own Tria Fermentation School has just announced its October schedule of classes. As usual, many of the wine courses have filled-up fast. There are still plenty of seats remaining, though, for some of the beer and cheese sessions as well as for what should be a very interesting class featuring the wines of one of New York’s finest importers, Rosenthal Wine Merchants. Check out the schedule. And be sure to keep an eye out for future listings. I’ll be back on the slate in November with a class featuring the wines of Northeastern Italy.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Bourgogne Aligoté

Bourgogne Aligoté is best known in two respects.

First, it’s “the other white grape” of Burgundy. It’s not unfair to think of Burgundy as Chardonnay country (along with Pinot Noir, of course). Arguably the finest Chardonnay based whites in the world emanate from the famed enclaves of the Côte de Beaune: Meursault Perrieres, Le Montrachet, Corton…. The list goes on and on. Less obviously, there’s also the occasional row or plot of Pinot Blanc, which can be anonymously blended into some of Burgundy’s regional whites, particularly in the Côte de Nuits. But if it’s Aligoté, the label is required to tell you so. The AOC authorities don’t want it to be confused with Burgundy’s pride and joy. This reasoning is not unjustified, as Aligoté is certainly a vine of less noble heritage and potential than the Chardonnay.

Second, Aligoté is most frequently consumed as the base for kir. Take a glass of crisp, lean, dry, neutrally flavored white, add a teaspoon or so of cassis (or framboise, pêche, etc.) and, voilà, you’ve got one of France’s most popular aperitifs. Aligoté, naturally a high acid variety, is also a vine which happily gives high yields. This combination is all too often a recipe for thin, tart, austere wine. What better way to make it drinkable than by adding some fruity, sweet deliciousness? Because Aligoté is not a terribly profitable proposition in any producer’s portfolio, its vines are most often relegated to vineyard sites on the fringe: the high and low slopes or spots with less than perfect exposure. However, combine a good site, an agreeable growing season and the skills of a conscientious farmer and producer and Aligoté has the potential to give wines of moderate complexity, with more acidity than Chardonnay, and with the ability to stand alone.

As an AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté is one of the easier to understand of Burgundy’s many and diverse appellations. Just take the overall region and add the name of the vine, c’est tout! There’s a kink though, just as with basic Bourgogne Rouges and Blancs. Without knowledge of the wine’s producer there is no way to know the specifics of its place of origin. The potential exists for Bourgogne Aligoté to be blended from fruit sourced from the Mâconnais in the south all the way through and to the Yonne Department in the north. There’s nothing inherently wrong or inferior about regional blends, most typically produced under the auspices of the négociant houses. However, I do believe that a more clearly defined – and frequently more characterful – sense of place emerges from the sub-regional or site specific cuvées, often the produce of Burgundy’s smaller growers. Combine this question of origin with the issues of farming and yields described above and you’ve got the conundrum of Burgundy in a nutshell. I’ve said it before. In Burgundy, even more so than elsewhere, know your producer.

Bourgogne Aligoté, Domaine Michèle & Patrice Rion 2005
When Patrice Rion originally purchased a little plot of Aligoté, located in the commune of Chambolle-Musigny, it was with every intention of grubbing up the vines and replanting the field to Pinot Noir. Given that it was mid-season and the vines were already under fruit, Patrice and his wife Michèle decided to ride out the year. It turns out that their very old Aligoté vines were not only healthy but also gave forth naturally low yields of high quality fruit. The resulting wine turned out to be surprisingly rich – medium bodied by White Burgundy standards but far more concentrated than the “typical” Aligoté. Several years on, the Rion’s are still happily growing and producing Bourgogne Aligoté in Chambolle-Musigny.

When first twisted open, poured, swirled and sniffed, the 2005 Aligoté gave an immediate impression of oak inflected richness. On the palate, that richness was followed by hints of lime zest, juniper berry, sappy minerality and very nervy acidity. Paired with food – I enjoyed a plate of scallops, chanterelles with parsnips, and potato bacon hash that night – the oak receded to the background and a creamy, lemon custard nuance emerged. Two days later, the second half of the bottle was still going strong. That lemon custard note had moved up front, along with suggestions of pear, vanilla and mace. Its texture was firm, compact and even, finishing with a blade of acidity. This is a hidden gem with the potential for some serious enjoyment over the next couple of years.

$20 on release. 12% alcohol. Imported by Petit Pois/Sussex Wine Merchants, Moorestown, NJ.

For a more complete accounting of Domaine Michèle & Patrice Rion, including their full range of reds produced in 2005-2006, check out Bill Nanson’s posting in the summer edition of Burgundy Report.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

WBW #37: Drink Indigenous

Known as Pinenc in Madiran and Béarn, Braucol in Gaillac, and Fer or Fer Servadou in most wine texts, the vignerons in the Aveyron department call their local vine Mansois. By whatever name it’s known, Fer is decidedly obscure and certainly indigenous to the greater Southwest of France, most particularly and importantly to the tiny AOC of Marcillac. For it is only in Marcillac, along with the even more esoteric Vins d’Estaing and Vins d’Entraygues et du Fel, that Fer Servadou plays a solo role.

The linguists among you may recognize the etymon Fer as the Latin root of ferrous: of or relating to iron. In the case of Fer Servadou, this is a direct reference to the wood of the vine which is “hard as steel” and hence quite demanding for vineyard hands during picking and pruning seasons. Whether it is by nature of the iron rich soils, known as rougier, of the Aveyron or simply the imagination at work with words, the wines from this region often do possess an iron-like, sanguine aroma, along with a telltale whiff of rhubarb.

Marcillac, situated just to the northwest of the region’s principal town of Rodez, has been among the slowest appellations of Southwest France to recover from the devastation wreaked by phylloxera in the late 19th Century. Today, only 300 acres are farmed by a tiny handful of growers, most of who send their produce to the local coop for vinification and bottling. Only a few independent estates have clawed their way back to sustenance.

The largest – and arguably the finest – of these private estates is Domaine du Cros. For four generations, from grafting after the phylloxera epidemic to the early 1980’s, Domaine du Cros consisted of only one hectare, with an annual production of a mere 4,000 bottles. Since 1982, under the direction of current winemaker and family head Philippe Teulier, the estate has slowly grown to its present 25 hectares. 21 of those hectares are planted solely to Fer for the production of AOC Marcillac wines, of which they produce four: three red cuvées and a single rosé.

Domaine du Cros

Dr. Vino, the organizer of this month’s installment of Wine Blogging Wednesday, threw down a couple of bonus point challenge options: drink the wine of indigenous vine in its place of origin or try two different wines, one from the historical home of the vine and one from an area to which the vine has migrated in more recent times. Well, I wasn’t able to make it to Marcillac in the last few weeks. And Fer really hasn’t been planted outside of its historical homes in SW France. So, I adopted my own twist to the challenge: try two different Marcillacs. Luckily, I just happened to have a couple of M. Teulier’s wines hibernating in my little cellar.

Marcillac “Lo Sang del Païs,” Domaine du Cros 2004
In the Occitan dialect, “Lo Sang del Païs” means “the blood of the country.” There’s no better way to describe Philippe’s basic red – suitable for drinking over its first 3-4 years in bottle – which so perfectly captures the rustic charm of the region as well as the typicity of its wines. Medium bodied and distinctly aromatic of rhubarb, white pepper, cassis and raspberries, this cuvée has just enough grip to stand up to the traditionally hearty foods of the SW but is also versatile enough to have qualified as one of my regular go-to wines for the everyday table. The most obvious points of comparison might be the medium bodied reds of Chinon or Bourgueil, or perhaps a sturdy rendition of Dolcetto d’Alba. But it has a personality uniquely its own. This bottle threw a considerable amount of sediment (take a close look at the picture) but was still drinking with plenty of nerve and freshness after three years. I can’t think of a better wine to accompany grilled sausages. Even yummier would be beef or lamb burgers, particularly when topped off or stuffed with Bleu d’Auvergne.

The 2004 set me back US $11.50 at time of release. 12% alcohol. Imported by Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Marcillac “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine du Cros 2000
Teulier’s old vine bottling is sourced from vines between 50-90 years of age. After a 25 day vinification regime in temperature controlled steel, it spends about 18 months in 2500 liter foudres. Though most of these casks are of French oak, Philippe still utilizes a few chestnut barrels which are as old as, if not older than, his vieilles vignes. With a more intense structure, a result of both vine maturity and the approach in the cellar, this cuvée typically begins drinking well at around three years of age and can last up to ten.

When first poured, the aromas of this 2000 were not unlike those of a mid-life Médoc: red and black cassis with a hint of graphite and strong minerality. True to Marcillac, those traits were accompanied by a distinct pepperiness and iron-like earthiness. The wine was firm and more finely textured on the palate than its little brother. It gave me a distinct impression of winter plum pudding. It also struck me as drinking perfectly at its peak. Maturity had been reached but the inevitable downturn had yet to begin. After about 30 minutes in the glass, the "Cuvée Vieilles Vignes" took on a more Rhône-like aroma, showing some of the spice and rich raspberry, black cherry fruit typical to good Gigondas or Vacqueyras. Ripe, zesty tannins persisted to the end, making it a great choice for the herb-rubbed leg of lamb which I grilled to accompany it.

Approximately US $16 on release. 12.5% alcohol. Imported by Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Wine Dinner at Brandywine Prime

On Thursday, September 20, 2007, I'll be hosting a wine dinner at Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, PA. The event will focus on local ingredients and dishes which represent the transition from summer into autumn. As always, I've chosen the wines with an eye to regional affinity, a progression of style and intensity, and an instinct for flavor, texture and structure in the context of each wine's marriage with each dish. Cost for the dinner will be $75 per person, all inclusive. The evening will kick off with a reception beginning at 6:30 PM. Please join me.

Brandywine Prime | Routes 1 & 100, Chadds Ford, PA | 610-388-8088

Monday, September 10, 2007

Festa di Fungi in Kennett Square

In a lot of ways, the annual Kennett Square Mushroom Festival, held this past weekend, was just like any other small town’s summer street fair. 60,000 people descended on the village over the course of the weekend. Vendors, hawking funnel cakes, stuffed animals, lemonade and jewelry, lined the main street. A small carnival set up at one end of town, offering rides, face painting and sticky snacks for the kids in the crowd.

But given the fungal theme of Kennett’s festival, mushrooms of various ilks – deep fried, stuffed and sautéed – also shared the food vendors’ stage. Local snack food magnates Herr’s were there handing out samples of their new mushroom flavored potato chips. Mushroom cultivation demonstrations and farm tours were setup and organized around town. And ‘shroom themed crafts, clothes, even garden furniture, were featured among the goods for sale.

What really made this year’s festival worth the trip for me was the presence of real, local food available from, so to speak, two sides of Kennett’s tracks.

Some of the offerings at Rico's Tacos

The mushroom capital of the US, Kennett boasts a large resident population of Mexican-Americans, most of who were originally drawn to the area based on the labor force requirements of the local farms. In recent years, more and more members of this community have taken to entrepreneurial efforts in the food and restaurant industry. A number of local taquerias were peppered along the main drag, offering mushroom enchiladas, tripe tacos and an assortment of other specialties. And throughout the year, some of the best ice cream in the region is produced at the storefront operation La Michoacana, which was bustling throughout the festival, turning out rice pudding, avocado, chile and, you guessed it, mushroom flavored ice creams, along with a representative selection of more mainstream flavors. Their peanut butter ice cream tasted intensely of fresh ground peanuts, a refreshing change from the usual candied peanut butter offerings. And the corn flavor… deliciously creamy with just the right savory hint of corn, accented by a generous sprinkling of freshly ground cinnamon.

Will and Olivia enjoying their choices from La Michoacana

On the other side of the coin, local restaurateurs and gourmet food specialists were among the many vendors, meeting and greeting new friends and turning out some far finer than average street food. The Whip Tavern, located in nearby Coatesville, PA, was on hand serving fish and chips, scotch eggs, and “beef on weck.” Setup caddy-corner across the main intersection in town was the staff of Talula’s Table, who had the shop’s kitchen hopping to keep up with the crowd’s demand for fresh lobster rolls, house-made kielbasa, and a variety of dishes featuring the local mushroom harvest. Picking up some dinner and pastries to go from Talula’s was just an added bonus to the day’s festivities.

Seared dayboat scallops, potato bacon hash, and roasted parsnips and chanterelles from Talula's Table

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards Sold to New Owner

I was originally introduced to the wonderful Finger Lakes Rieslings of Hermann J. Wiemer by fellow food addict philadining. I’ve also written about Wiemer’s wines here in the past, citing the estate as producing one of the finest Rieslings of North America. Wiemer studied his art in Germany and brought the sensibilities he learned there to play in crafting all of the wines at his New York estate. So it was with trepidation that I learned recently, through a post at LennDevours, that Wiemer has recently sold his estate to a new owner. Transfers of ownership like this tend to take one of three inevitable directions: good intentions eventually leading to decline, homogenization or brand dilution through insertion into the new owner’s larger portfolio, or – all too rarely – a slow, steady improvement in the hands of a talented and inspired new leader. Here’s hoping for the lattermost scenario.

Best wishes to Hermann, who will stay on in an advisory role. And best of luck to Frederick T. Merwarth, the new owner of Wiemer Vineyards.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Weingut Ratzenberger, Pearl of the Mittelrhein

February 2004. Philly – Paris – Frankfurt. After filing a claim for lost baggage – thanks, Air France – our group piled into three rental cars and headed straight to the riverside village of Bacharach. Following a quick stop at the hotel and a bite to eat – bratwurst and Jever Pils at Restaurant der Zupferkanne – it was straight to Weingut Ratzenberger, our only appointment of the day and the first destination of a nine day wine trip to Germany and France. Finding our way up the valley road to Steeg, Jochen Ratzenberger greeted us at his winery’s street-front door, paused for a moment to grab some stemware and led us right back out to our vehicles. Typical to the pattern at almost every winery in Europe, weather allowing, our tour would begin in the fields. Not surprisingly given the view we’d appreciated from the Bacharach village square, our route took us straight up hill and onto the single lane, switchback access roads to the vineyards.

The view from Bacharach

Standing on a precipitous, narrow footpath between two sections of the St. Jost vineyard, we were able to take in the view of nearly the entire estate. We were also exposed to the full force of the damp, cold, February wind blowing up the valley off the river, gaining a clear sense of just how peripheral this area is to viticulture. On the steep slopes above Bacharach and Steeg, Jochen’s vines are perfectly poised to receive every last ray of the sun, without which they would fail to ripen sufficiently for the production of quality wine. In cool climates, southern exposure can make the difference between a good site and a great one. In the Mittelrhein, southern exposure is an absolute must. And site is everything.

Looking down on Steeg and the Rhein from the St. Jost vineyard

The tiny village of Steeg, home to the Ratzenberger family and winery, sits in the crook of a valley, due west from Bacharach at a point where the Rhein flows almost perfectly north to south. The Ratzenbergers’ property is based primarily on three einzellagen (single vineyards) perched on the northern face of the valley slopes:

  • Bacharacher Posten, nearest to the river at an average elevation of 150 meters,
  • Bacharacher Wolfshöhle, a Großes Gewächs site, next up the valley at an elevation of 300 meters, and
  • Steeger St. Jost, also Großes Gewächs, the westernmost site perched between 400-500 meters directly above the tiny hamlet of Steeg.

A fourth vineyard site, Kloster Fürstental, lays one valley to the south of Steeg. Due to the special climate and exposure of Fürstental, which is kept dry by breezes from the river and by wider than average row spacing, its Riesling now goes to the production of just two styles: Sekt and Eiswein.

A larger perspective of St. Jost

Moving down the valley to a gentler slope nearer the river, Jochen uncorked a bottle of his Sekt, poured us each a glass and took a few moments to tell us more about his land. His vineyards are dominated by blue and black slate from the Devonian era. On the upper slopes, little if any topsoil is in evidence. Labor is almost entirely manual and in many spots necessitates a system of guide wires which he utilizes while working to prevent tumbles down the perilous inclines. Jochen makes the most of his land by farming to low yields and working the soil and plants as naturally as possible. Fertilization is completely organic. Pheromones are used, both to attract beneficial insects and put-off malevolent ones, in place of insecticides. Fungicides are used in small quantities to prevent vine diseases which can thrive in this cool, damp arena.

Making our way back to the weingut, we headed straight for the tasting room, opting to save the usual cellar visit until after we’d warmed up a bit. It was time do a little sampling.

  • 2003 Bacharacher Rivaner QbA trocken
    Jochen’s work with Rivaner – a name which he prefers to its synonymous Müller-Thurgau – should be enough to make Jancis Robinson eat her rather dismissive words on the vine. His 2003, bottled only 10 days earlier, showed fresh, peachy fruit and good acidity along with richer texture and riper flavors than the previous year’s version. Finished at 4.5g RS and 5.5g of acidity, fermentation lasted 3.5 months.

    Rivaner is planted on the flatter lands where Riesling would not ripen.

  • 2002 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Spätlese trocken
    Beautiful length. Peach, apricot, lemon, yeast and slate flavors abound on a ripe frame, also larger in scale than the wine of the previous vintage. 4.5g RS. From this site, Jochen produces only Spätlese trocken, Kabinett halbtrocken and, in very good vintages, a Großes Gewächs.

  • 2002 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken
    Hints of grapefruit, peach and white truffles, along with a spritzy mouthfeel that, Jochen explains, comes not from added carbon dioxide but rather from a combination of inherently high acidity and the natural carbon present in the slate rich soil of the St. Jost.

  • 2002 Bacharacher Posten Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken
    More muscle than present in the previous two wines, also a more intense slatiness. Tightly wound yet showing great length on the palate. Posten is a site with a high percentage of gray slate along with quartz and some clay, giving wines with fuller, creamier textures.

  • 1986 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken
    Bottled at 9.2%, this “little” ’86 was just barely showing its age, which was apparent only on the nose. Petrol, slate and truffle tones sparred with extremely lively peach-driven fruit. Steely acidity was still very much in evidence and the wine was light straw in color.

  • 2001 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle*** Riesling QbA Großes Gewächs
    Fruit harvested at Auslese levels of ripeness, fermented to dryness and chaptalized ¼º with cane sugar to a final 12.5%. Jochen explained that the small degree of chaptalization allows for a long, slow fermentation, a desired trait for a wine destined to spend 36 months on its lees. Not surprisingly, this GG showed much fuller, richer textures, very firm acidity and correspondingly less delicacy than the previous wines. Flavors were much more autolytic than in the more typical Rieslings.

  • 2001 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Spätlese
    Beautifully rich peach and young petrol character. To ensure balance and the potential for longevity, Jochen selects fruit for his Spätlese based not just on ripeness but also on high acidity. Fermentation was stopped at around 50g RS, not by addition of sulfur dioxide but rather by racking the wine off its yeasts. Harvest occurred around November 8, 2001, approximately one month later than for his Bacharacher Kabinett trocken.

  • 1966 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Spätlese feinherb
    This was as close as Jochen could come to a wine from my birth year (I’ll leave it to your guesses), which was uniformly horrible for wine throughout the world. Grace, minerality and acidity were still prevalent, lending the wine a surprisingly fresh feel in the mouth. Fruit had receded, leaving the wine totally tertiary in its flavor profile.

  • 1976 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Beerenauslese
    Luckily, we had a young pup along for the trip and he was able to beg this bottle out of the Ratzenberger cellars. Incredibly rich texture, with intense aromas of botrytis and flavors of orange oil, honey and figs. The finish lasted for minutes.

Bacharach and the Rhein from Ratzenberger's vineyards

Having warmed our bones and tasted some wonderful juice, it was finally time for a trip downstairs for a tour of the cellar. The buildings that house Weingut Ratzenberger were built from 1850-1880. The cellars showed their era more apparently than the living and tasting quarters, from the style of raw stone cutting to the arches and nooks convenient for naturally cool bottle storage. Catching our eyes in the middle of the room was a set of pupitres where Jochen riddles his bottles of Sekt, a process which he still conducts completely by hand. It quickly became apparent that Jochen does utilize wood for fermentation and aging of some of his wines. A selection of 500 liter pièces, ranging from 2-50 years of age, were lined up, along with steel cuves of varying sizes, in the winemaking chambers of the cellar. While downstairs, we took the opportunity to taste from barrel a few more examples of the potential style just produced from the hot, dry growing season of 2003.

  • 2003 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Auslese
    Though still very yeasty, this boasted tons of tropical fruit character. Most likely to be finished and bottled as Spätlese halbtrocken.

  • 2003 Steeger St. Jost Auslese
    More aromatic with brighter, citrusier fruit than the previous wine. Soft acidity. To be finished as a Spätlese trocken.

  • 2003 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Eiswein
    Jochen managed to make a tiny quantity of Eiswein in 2003. This sample, tasted from a 310 liter cuve, showed intense textural richness with lower than typical acidity.

  • 2003 Spätburgunder
    The only red we tasted all day, this 2003 barrel draw of Pinot Noir showed concentrated, dark ruby colors along with a gamey nose followed by ample raspberry fruit and smoke on the palate.

Completing our barrel tasting, Jochen grabbed a few bottles from nearby racks before leading us back upstairs for one more pass through his tasting room. Hey, we weren’t about to complain.

  • 2003 Bacharacher Wolfshöhle Riesling Auslese
    Bottled only four days earlier, this was very ripe and soft, showing off aromas and flavors of white peaches, oranges, fresh herbs, anise and lavender.

  • 2002 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Eiswein
    Not surprisingly, given the weather and vintage differences, this was not as rich as the ’03 we’d tasted from vat. That said, it showed a more balanced structure, supported by intense acidity (15-16 grams). The fruit for this wine was nearly harvested as a very ripe Spatlese until a cold spell set in, allowing for a botrytis-free harvest which ran from December 5-8, 2002.

  • 1998 Kloster Fürstental Riesling Eiswein
    5% botrytis along with a few years of bottle age had the ’98 Eiswein drinking like mango nectar electrified by brilliant acidity. Unctuous, oily and visceral on the palate.

I’m not sure we could have asked for a more propitious first visit. Between the casual warmth of the Ratzenberger’s welcome and the beautiful lineup of wines, our entire group – even after the long journey from the states – left energized and looking forward to the rest of the journey.

Tales from the Crypt

Taking inspiration from the prolific archival blogging of Lyle Fass at Rockss and Fruit, I’ve decided to reopen the pages of past travel journals in order to portray some of the people, places and tastings that have made explorations in the wine world so special to me. My hope is that you’ll enjoy the visits through my words and that we’ll all [re]discover something along the way. Keep on the lookout for these posts, which will appear as time permits under the label of Tales from the Crypt.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Michael Jackson's Last Grand Cru

Scanning through the recent listings on Foobooz, I was struck with the sad news that Michael Jackson passed away, immediate causes unknown, on Thursday, August 30. Though a renowned authority on whiskey, Mr. Jackson was and will always be know as one of the world’s leading authorities on beer. Many of his books should be included at the core of any serious beer geek’s library.

In his heyday, Michael was one of the most colorful and enjoyable champions of beer I’d ever encountered. His annual visit to Philadelphia for the Book and the Cook festival, during which he conducted thematic tastings in the rotunda at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, held a regular spot on my calendar for many years. Perhaps most memorable was his “duel” between Belgian beers and American knockoffs. His presentation that day really sparked the fires that have kept me interested in the beers of Belgium ever since.

I last had the pleasure of meeting Michael at the 8th Annual Michael Jackson Beer Dinner at Monk’s Café on March 19, 2006. There ostensibly to celebrate the recent release of the fifth edition of Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium, Michael held forth in his ubiquitous rambling style on the merits of Flemish Sour Ales, paired with various dishes from the Monk’s kitchen. Though he was clearly showing the signs of Parkinson’s Disease at the time, he wasn’t deterred from bantering about the relative merits of each beer nor from signing copies of his book for the fans and attendees that queued up to his podium.

Michael’s authoritative writings will continue to live. His natural talent for sharing the simple pleasures of good beer will be missed. Cheers!
Blog Widget by LinkWithin