Monday, March 17, 2008

Three Odd Whites

Neuchâtel, Caves du Château d’Auvernier 2005
Caves du Château D’Auvernier seems to dominate the export market for Swiss wines, simply by observation of what few other wines from Switzerland appear with any regularity on the shelves in shops throughout the Mid-Atlantic States. Oddly enough, though I’ve eyed this bottling many, many times over the years, I’d never actually tried it until recently. Perhaps it’s natural that I’d always given the wine a pass based on its relatively high price point, an issue it seems with just about all Swiss wine that finds its way to the US market. As it turns out, I hadn’t been missing much. This is a typically neutral expression of Chasselas, or Chasselas Fendant Roux as the locals call it in the Valais. A slightly lactic, yogurty nose leads to a somewhat dilute, nutty, mineral and lime tinged flavor profile. Though theoretically viable as an aperitif and a decent choice for sharp cheese, fresh water fish or fondue, its practical application is severely hampered by poor QPR. At a little over $20 per bottle, there’s just way too much better, cheaper wine out there to make this anything more than a passing curiosity or a comfort wine for homesick Swiss expatriates. $21. 11.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Imported by Dreyfus Ashby, New York, NY.

Arbois Chardonnay “En Chante-Merle,” Régine and Jean Rijckaert 2005
If we’d tasted blind, I’d never have guessed varietal Chardonnay. Cool climate, yes. Perhaps Cour-Cheverny or maybe even regular Cheverny Blanc, but definitely not varietal Chardonnay. The first note hit on the palate was of slight oxidation. Then came hay along with racy lemon, lime and papaya fruit. Nervy acidity blew away the oxidative tone of the wine, keeping it fresh in spite of the up-front suggestion of evolution. Add to all that a limestone streaked nose and solid persistence and you’ve got a pretty cool little wine that’s loaded with character. I’d happily enjoy it with the same range of foods suggested above for the Neuchâtel, though it’s definitely more demanding of being served with food. $16. 13% alcohol. Synthetic cork. Imported by Dionysus Imports, Lorton, VA.

Montlouis Sec “Les Petits Boulay,” Domaine Deletang 1999
Finding an older vintage on the shelves of a shop that’s not particularly renowned for buying library releases straight from producers’ caves can always be a risky gamble. When an older vintage is selling for closeout prices, the odds get stacked even more heavily against the buyer. Chances are that the wine has been lost and forgotten in the nether reaches of a distributor’s warehouse or, worse yet, returned to a distributor after collecting dust and more serious forms of abuse at a corner liquor store somewhere in Podunkville. But at $6 for a 1999 Montlouis, the risks are more than worth the potential rewards. The odds landed in our favor on this occasion, delivering not a profound example of Montlouis at its best but a wine that was fairly compelling and a sound example of mid-life, mid-range Chenin Blanc. The oxidative theme continued into this last wine of our tasting. Dry Loire Chenins often show oxidation at mid-life, even at early stages, yet can continue to live on and develop into things of beauty for many, many years. Boiled wool, almond butter, asparagus water and beeswax all turned up on the nose, with good purity of structure following on the tongue. Not a terribly giving wine, but intriguing for its stony, crackly finish. It could easily have passed for a Savennières from the same era if not for its richer touch of dried honey more typical to Chenin from the Touraine. $6. 11.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Imported by Vignobles LVDH, Woodstock, MD.


Joe said...

Hi David - I always find Swiss wines poor QPR, and I have not yet found someone who thought otherwise. My first Arbois was a Tissot, and it was a mind blowing experience. Never had a Montlouis...thanks for diving into the nether worlds of wine!

Brooklynguy said...

We visited Deletang during our Loire trip in 2006 and I was really impressed, particularly with their sweet wines. We brought back a few bottles of the 95 Moelleux, which sadly did not last all that long around our house. I remember seeing 2002 dry Vouvray from DEletang on closeout too a ytear ago and i bought a half case after tasting one delicious bottle. something about Deletang and closeout sales go hand in hand.

David McDuff said...

As mentioned in the original post, I'm in full agreement with you as to the QPR of Swiss wines, Joe. We sold Tissot's wines at the shop where I work years ago. I miss them.

Deletang's just barely been on my radar, Brooklyn. Based on your recommendation and my experience with the $6 '99, I'll be on the lookout for more.

Ogar said...

Have you seen this?--

The Toughest Table in America
The country's hardest-to-get reservation isn't in New York or Los Angeles. Call Talula's Table, in Pennsylvania horse country, to dine in 2009.

By Franz Lidz, Conde Nast Portfolio

It's 6 a.m. on a February morning in the flyspeck town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and the wind swoops down State Street like a bird of prey, carrying the snow along with it. Outside Talula's Table, Daniel Kirkpatrick waits, hoping to beat the 7 a.m. opening of the restaurant's phone reservation line.

“My parents paid me $30 to stand out here and reserve a table,” says Kirkpatrick, a Colorado teenager on vacation with his family. “Sounds crazy, but they told me to come back every morning until there was an opening.”

By day, Talula's [], 35 miles from Philadelphia, is a prepared-food shop that sells everything from artisan cheeses and duck rillettes to grilled quail and lobster pot pies. At night, it turns into a B.Y.O.B. restaurant serving eight-course feasts assembled as meticulously as a cabinetmaker constructs a fine piece of furniture.

Regulars joke that it's easier to score dinner at Per Se in Manhattan or the French Laundry in Napa Valley than it is to snag “the table”-Talula's seats eight to 12 people at its longleaf pine table each night. And they're right: Per Se and the French Laundry accept reservations two months out. As of September 1, 2007, Talula's was booked through July 31, 2008, and had stopped taking inquiries. At 7 a.m. on January 2, the restaurant began accepting reservations for the rest of the year. By 9 a.m., every night was full. Talula's now has a rolling system, taking reservations a year ahead to the numerical date. Which is why hopefuls from as far off as the Rockies stand vigil at dawn.

Plenty of restaurants are hard to get into -a handful of websites now sell reservations at hot New York spots- but small, out-of-the-way places rarely see this much demand. Talula's single table has caused a feeding frenzy among foodies, who are thrilled to pay $90 a head for the tasting menu and cheese board. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: Per Se's tasting menu is priced at $250.]

Talula's is an unpretentious storefront in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania's horse country, sausaged between Picone Beauty & Wellness and the Half-Moon Saloon, where a Yuengling draught is $3.25 during happy hour.

Yet diners have included chefs, writers, tycoons, musicians, mushroom farmers, plastic surgeons, and actors. John Turturro traveled down from Brooklyn with his wife, Kathie Borowitz, on Valentine's Day; a friend had praised Talula's food so lavishly that Turturro had to see for himself.

“I was a little dubious at first, but the dinner surpassed my highest expectations,” Turturro said after a banquet of egg custard with Jonah crab, exotic mushroom risotto, snails in rigatoni farci, roast pompano, osso buco and house-smoked bacon, lamb and wildflower honey, and an array of winter blue cheeses in their creamy prime. “Each dish was a separate love affair,” Turturro said. “It was the kind of a meal you'd request before your execution.”

Talula's cuisine is prepared by Bryan Sikora, a 38-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate who apprenticed under Nora Pouillon at Nora's, the eminent all-organic bistro in Washington. A kind of John Coltrane of the kitchen, he improvises with textures and flavors, making unexpected combinations work with disconcerting justesse.

Most chefs vary their menus as infrequently as Congress amends the Constitution. Sikora changes his fare every six weeks to reflect the seasons and his expanding cadre of local growers and producers.

He grew up in Pennsylvania coal country, where Rolling Rock flowed freely, but fresh food was scarce. “I got interested in cooking because I was always hungry,” Sikora says. He became a CIA operative after dropping out of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. (His sketch of a headstrong child overturning a table has become Talula's logo).

Sikora met Aimee Olexy, his wife and business partner, in 1992 at a hotel in Boulder, Colorado. He was the head chef; she ran the operation. A restaurant worker since age 13, Olexy skipped much of 10th grade to sell bagels with sprouts and scrambled eggs at Grateful Dead concerts. She dropped out of high school at 16, got her GED, enrolled at St. Joseph's University at 17 and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in classical literature.

Together, the pair worked at inns and cafes in Denver; Eugene, Oregon; and Cape Cod before settling in Philadelphia and signing on with Stephen Starr, the city's high-concept restaurateur. While Olexy managed Starr's empire, Sikora presided over the galley at Starr's Moroccan outpost, Tangerine.

In 2001, they quit the Starr system. With a government loan of $45,000 and little more than mountain bikes for collateral, they opened Django, a boutique restaurant in Society Hill, pioneering Philly's renaissance in chef-run, B.Y.O.B. establishments.

Casual and affordable, Django offered European-based fare, with the menu driven by the season: in the summer, asparagus carbonara; over the winter, venison with foie gras-date parfait. The bistro reaped national acclaim from the New York Times (“may be the hottest ticket in town”) and the Los Angeles Times (“consistently great, right down to the desserts”).

Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan called it “one of the region's best restaurants, period, dollar for dollar or by any other important measure.” Django was the only BYOB ever awarded LaBan's highest rating of four bells. The rest of his pantheon were well-hyped heavy hitters: Vetri, the Fountain, Le Bec-Fin.

Alas, Django had only 38 seats and no liquor license, so profits were slim. In 2005, Sikora and Olexy sold the restaurant. Seeking a more rustic setting in which to raise their infant daughter, Annalee Talula Rae, they moved to Olexy's hometown in the Brandywine Valley.

They bought and gutted a vacant shoe store in Kennett Square, which bills itself as the mushroom capital of the world. (The town produces more than 40 percent of the nation's mushrooms.) Sikora and Olexy enlisted another CIA grad, Claire Shears, as pastry chef and cut her in on the business. Shears is the mind behind Talula's buttermilk-lemon tarts and chocolate-covered creampuffs.

Talula's opened last spring and was an immediate and unexpected sensation. The table filled up with Django groupies and epicures who had read about the place on foodie blogs.

When LaBan wrote that dinner at Talula's had been his most memorable meal of the year, the reservation line jammed. A harried Olexy came up with the current scheme. “Otherwise,” she says, “people would have booked Fridays and Saturdays 10 years into the future.” The names on Talula's waiting list take up an entire office wall.

Aside from staking out the joint, Olexy says the surest way to secure a table in 2009 is to call Talula's the moment it opens. There is a little-known second option. Twice a week, Olexy seats parties of two to four in the kitchen at Talula's invitation-only chef's table. Crafty out-of-towners might consider overnighting a set of bootleg Dead CDs - along with a subtle reservation request.

David McDuff said...

I hadn't, Ogar, so thanks. Nice write-up.

RougeAndBlanc said...

Did you get the Deletang from State Line @ MD? By the way, what does 'boiled wool' smell like? Do I get it by boiling a wool yarn? I have never smell that before so I have no idea what it is.

David McDuff said...

Hey R&B,
Boiled wool is essentially regular wool that's intentionally shrunk to form a tighter, more compact form. It may just be my imagination, but boiled wool garments seem to give off a slightly different aroma when they get moist than do more loosely knit woolens. In any case, it's really just a knit-picky (wink, wink) way of saying that the wine smelled of lanolin, a typical aroma signature of Loire Chenin.

The Deletang did come from State Line. Educated guess or detective work on your part? Either way, you may not want to go out of your way to snatch up any remaining bottles. Subsequent investigation has indicated some fairly significant bottle variation, with the bottle included in this tasting falling on the good/lucky end of the spectrum.

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