Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Domaine Ricard: Growing in the Touraine

Vincent Ricard farms seventeen hectares of vineyards in the Touraine, located outside the village of Thésée la Romaine, near the banks of the river Cher and not far from Chenonceau, in the heart of central Loire Valley château country.

Vincent Ricard, circa 2005 (photo: B. Celce)

When first I met Vincent in February of 2004, he was a young man of 27 years, just beginning to get his feet wet yet already taking a strong stance in the Touraine wine scene. Actually, given his relative youth, his experience was fairly extensive. He returned to his family's property in 1998 after a two-year internship with Philippe Alliet in Chinon and a short stage with François Chidaine in Montlouis. It took him only a year from that point, with help from his father, to declare and incorporate Domaine Ricard. Like so many other young vignerons before him, Vincent was the first in his family to make the move to winemaking following many generations of family farming. Prior to 1999, the fruit grown by his family had always been sold to the local cooperative. It’s only in the last dozen years, he told us, that a small handful of producers in the Touraine, mostly young guns like Vincent, have moved to estate bottling and export market sales.

The large, hodgepodge Touraine AOC is still dominated by négociant houses and production of commercial vin ordinaire. That dominance has created a market – supported by self-fulfilling INAO guidelines – that expects very simple, fruity, quaffable and eminently uninteresting wines. Ricard, in contrast, aims for structure on the palate, the possibility of bottle aging and the development of secondary characteristics. His philosophy does not stem from his time in oenology school where he tells us, “Average methods are taught.” Rather, he’s taken influences from the people he’s worked with like Alliet and Chidaine and placed himself along with them, as he sees it, among the avant-garde. He’s not shy about considering his wines atypical to the region or about occasionally butting heads with the INAO. Along with a few of his peers, he is pushing for the establishment of a new appellation for his immediate area. If granted, this new AOC – Chenonceau – would allow for reds based on Malbec (Côt), Cabernet Franc and Gamay as well as whites from Sauvignon Blanc.

The entrance to Ricard's winery (photo: B. Celce)

In spite of all his ambition and a flair for the modern with his labeling, when it comes down to nuts and bolts, Vincent is essentially a farmer. He’s interested in making wines that speak of their place. He’s not looking to expand his property or production, only to increase quality. With that in mind, his ideal would actually be to shrink his estate to a more focused and compact twelve or thirteen hectares.

For the time being, he makes do with all seventeen. At only 20 meters above sea level and gently rolling at best, his property is essentially flatland wine growing country. Here, although exposure still plays a role, it’s not the hillside which is most important as much as are the simple raw materials of soil and vine. Ricard’s terroir consists primarily of sand and silex-based topsoil above clay and chalk based subsoil. His vines average 60 years of age, with some parcels as old as 80. Cultivating primarily Sauvignon Blanc, Vincent also grows Côt (Malbec), Gamay and small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the latter a trickle-over influence, perhaps, from nearby Cheverny. Overall production is approximately 75% white and 25% red, with nearly 75% of the wine sold on the export market.

Vincent Ricard in the vineyard (February 2004).

Vincent believes strongly in the merits of natural farming. Exposed to biodynamic principles through his work with Chidaine and well versed in organic techniques, he picks and chooses the farming practices which make the most sense for his vines and his wines. Herbicides are never used. He allows grass to grow between every row, though he may eventually cut back to every other row to reduce the nitrogen richness the grasses impart to the soil. Vines are cut and trained later in the spring than typical to delay bud break, to protect the young shoots and buds from frost damage, and to forestall Sauvignon’s precocious ripening tendencies.

Even taking those precautions is not always enough to avoid loss in as northerly a situation as the Loire. In 2003, the season just preceding our visit, frost occurred on April 27, very late into the season, causing the loss of about 30% of all buds and, hence, a tremendous reduction in yields for the year. We’d heard a very similar tale of frost damage and reduced yields just the day before when visiting François Chidaine in Montlouis. 2003 would also turn out to be a shorter than usual growing season. Following a summer and early autumn of high heat and little rainfall, harvest began at Domaine Ricard on August 28 – nearly three weeks ahead of the typical schedule.

In the cellar:

As is common in the Loire, Ricard’s winery is built directly into a hillside on the property. It’s little more than a purpose-excavated garage cum cave, shaped like a small airplane hangar and suited perfectly, given its natural temperature control, to the utilitarian rows of cement vats and small-to-medium sized barrels. Despite the simple subterranean surroundings, the cleanliness of the space was immediately apparent. That cleanliness – a good sign at any winery – is particularly important here, as Ricard entirely eschews the use of sulfur within his crush, fermentation and aging regimens. Developing wines are casked tightly to prevent oxidation or spoilage. A light filtration, if necessary, and very low dose of sulfur are applied only at bottling time. Malolactic fermentation is not encouraged and rarely occurs for the whites, though it's not forcibly prevented.

Evolution can be seen in Ricard's cave between 2004 (photo at left: E. Tuverson)
and 2005 (at right: B. Celce)

Touraine Sauvignon “Pierre à Feu” 2002 (from bottle)
Varietal Sauvignon Blanc, from a plot of flint and silex rich soil, farmed to average yields of 40-45 hl/ha. The vineyard is visibly strewn with egg to fist sized pieces of pinkish white flint, a geology that continues into the subsoil. Rubbing two of the stones together gives a faintly smoky, gunflint aroma. Temperature controlled fermentation and aging in cement vat. Following a damp summer, warm temperatures in September and into October allowed for late ripening and resulted in a later than typical harvest. Light bodied, with bright acidity, lemony fruit and good persistence. The flintiness of the vineyard site shows through in the wine’s bracing minerality.

Touraine “Les Trois Chênes” 2002 (from bottle)
Also varietal Sauvignon, though not indicated on the wine’s label. The name of this bottling comes from a stand of three old oak trees that once grew on the site. 40-60 year-old vines give naturally yields of 30 hl/ha. The vines are on native rootstock, as the phylloxera louse does not take well to the extremely sandy soil of the vineyard. The richness of the fruit from this site lends itself to barrel fermentation, with battonage performed twice weekly during fermentation and continuing post-fermentation depending on the clarity of the wine. Time in barrel varies depending upon vintage conditions. A distinct undercurrent of minerality is provided courtesy of the presence of silex in the sandy top-soil as well as by the calcaire sub-soil in the vineyard. Citrus elements are supplemented by riper, pear-toned fruit and rounder mouthfeel. Ricard prefers a relatively warm serving temperature – 15 to 16 degrees Celsius – as cold will mask the richness and texture of this cuvée. Let’s just say that serving conditions in his cave on a brisk February morning were far below that ideal.

Touraine “?” 2002 (from bottle)
Here, the young Ricard’s willingness to bend rules, design modern labels (a large question mark cut-out adorns the bottle) and push the envelope of “Touraine typicity” came into more obvious relief. Primarily Sauvignon, this cuvée comes from vineyards farmed to yields of less than 20 hl/ha. What else is in the wine? “?” Maturity is pushed to the max. Fruit harvested at 14.7% potential was finished to 14% with 6 grams of residual sugar. Fermentation is done in new barriques with 20% malolactic. Oak, sweetness and fruit forward characteristics are held in check by acidity and physiological concentration, with an intense core of stony minerality again showing through.

Touraine “Cuvée Armand” 2002 (from bottle)
This is a small production bottling from a second tri from the “Les Trois Chênes” vineyards. It is named after Vincent’s great-grandfather, who sold some of the family’s wines in Paris from 1880-1900. It’s also Vincent’s statement/experiment as to Sauvignon’s potential to create a full range of wines from sec to richly demi-sec in style, just as with Chenin in Vouvray and Montlouis. He feels that, “Sauvignon is being made generic and terroir-less all over the Loire.” This is one of his efforts – interpret it as you might – to fight against that trend. Harvested at 16% potential, the 2002 was finished intentionally demi-sec to 13% alcohol with 35 grams of residual sugar. Loads of ripe, exotic fruit, with minerality still managing to find a foothold.

Touraine Sauvignon “Pierre à Feu” 2003 (assembled from barrel)
Very smoky and mineral on the nose, with lower acidity and richer texture compared to the 2002. Overripe grapefruit, along with a hint of cantaloupe, on the palate. To be bottled in about a month.

Touraine “Les Trois Chênes” 2003 (assembled from barrel)
Very fat and creamy, with low acidity but a concentration of physiological matter that keeps the wine from flabbiness. Showing peachy and smoky fruit but not yet integrated.

Touraine “?” 2003 (from barrel)
Oak is more obvious, at least at this early stage, than in the 2002. Also showing some heat and over-the-top fruit. Still fermenting, the wine as tasted was at 14% and 8 grams RS.

Touraine “Cuvée Armand” 2003 (from barrel)
Ripe and honeyed, with flavors of pear nectar and candied licorice. 2003 was a natural year, given low yields and high heat, in which to produce demi-sec wines; this was 13.5% with 40 grams RS when tasted.

Vincent pulls a sample from cement vat. If you inspect the photos above, you'll see that the vats were relocated to a new portion of the cellar following our visit to make room for more barrels. (photo: B. Celce)

Before shifting our palates to red wines, Ricard primed us with a bit of viticultural background. As recently as 40 years ago, Côt – the local name for Malbec – was virtually the only red variety grown in this part of the Touraine. However, much of it has since been replanted due to Côt’s tendency toward extreme variability from vintage to vintage. Vincent believes in Côt for his terroir – it’s less of a risk now due to very careful rootstock selection – but also cultivates Cabernet Franc and a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon to allow flexibility in blending and making a wine that best represents the characteristics of any given growing season. He is against the practice of specific clonal selection in the vineyard, preferring natural selection as he wishes to avoid the risk of homogeneity.

Touraine “Le Vilain P’tit Rouge” 2002 (from bottle)
When Vincent first produced this Touraine rouge, the INAO inspectors, upon tasting a sample, denied him the Touraine AOC, proclaiming the wine atypical because of its structure and concentration. He was forced to label it as Vin de Pays, which, at least in theory, lowers the sale price and increases the difficulty of marketing the wine. After Ricard sold out his entire production, the INAO inspectors granted AOC status in the following vintage. The name, which can be translated in many different ways, i.e., “The Nasty Little Red,” is meant as a thumb of the nose to the authorities.

In 2002, “Le Vilain” was a field blend of equal parts Côt and Cabernet Franc. Previously the selected varieties had been fermented separately and assembled prior to bottling. With the 2002 vintage, he moved to co-fermentation (in cement tank) to allow the varieties to marry their attributes at an earlier stage. The resulting wine had substantial grip, medium acidity, bell pepper and smoky aromas, and wild black cherry and cassis fruit.

“Le Vilain P’tit Rouge” 2003 (from barrel)
Again a co-fermented field blend, in 2003 the blend for “Le Vilain” shifted to roughly equal thirds of Côt, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasting from barrel, the wine still on its lees, our sample was naturally reductive yet showed rich, juicy fruit, very dark color, creamy textures with a firmly tannic backbone, and lower acidity relative to the 2002. Hints of bay leaf and bell pepper showed on the finish. Vincent, as of February, planned to leave the wine in barrel until June or July. Due to its concentrated nature, he suspected the wine might again be denied AOC status when the inspectors arrived to sample. Though I’m not certain, it very well may have been denied AOC; the 2003 never appeared on the US market.

Touraine “L’Effrontée” 2002 (from bottle)
Our final taste would take us back to Sauvignon, a very atypical Sauvignon. “L’Effrontée” – literally “the challenge” or “the confrontation” – is a late harvest, 100% botrytis affected, varietal Sauvignon Blanc from a site near the river purposely selected for the possibility of making a botrytized wine. Only four or five other producers in the Touraine produce a Sauvignon in this style, which is more typically reserved for the Chenin-based wines of the region. Logically, Ricard went to his friend François Chidaine for help and advice on making the wine. The fruit is harvested in a single tri with 30 people picking to bring in yields of less than ten hectoliters per hectare. In 2002, fruit was harvested on November 7-8. The finished wine was beautifully clean, with grapefruit, lavender, honey and minerality lingering on a very long finish. Its 110 grams of RS were kept afloat by edgy, chalky acidity.

The wines of Domaine Ricard might easily be viewed as modernist. In a good sense, they are. Vincent pushes the envelope of style and fights against the average. Yet he does so through the application of natural farming techniques, not through heavily interventionist manipulation in the winery. His wines may not be for everyone; he’s not shy of subtle sweetness in some of his Sauvignons or of intense textures and aromas in his reds. Yet the minerality that shines through in even the richest whites and the varietal and local typicity in his reds speak to his belief in the terroir of his little slice of the Touraine. This is a Domaine and a young wine grower worth watching.

Addendum: Much to my chagrin today, though perhaps to the benefit of my note taking capabilities in 2004, I went without a camera through the duration of this trip. One of my traveling companions has provided photos from some of the other stops but shots from a few of our visits, including this one, are conspicuously short in supply. I am indebted, therefore, to Bert Celce, author of the fantastic blog Wine Terroirs, who agreed to share some photos from his 2005 visit at Domaine Ricard. Thanks Bert! Label images were borrowed from Domaine Ricard’s website.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Recent Tastes: Loire Chenin and Bourgogne Rouge

Vouvray "La Cuvée des Fondreaux," Champalou 2005
Toeing the line between sec-tendre and demi-sec, I would enjoy drinking this casually and regularly, particularly if it were $15 rather than $19-20. However, I can easily see, through this wine and others like it, why so many people seem perplexed by Vouvray, as its charms can be overshadowed by the perception and popular misconception of sweetness. Clover honey and pear nectar dominate, followed by relatively low acidity and soft, round texture. Reasonable length is delivered, helped along by the unctuous nature of the wine’s residual sugar, but this lacks the minerality and layered depth of more interesting Vouvray.
$19. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.

Savennières "Clos des Perrieres," Château Soucherie (Pierre-Yves Tijou) 2000
Immediately oxidative notes give way to beeswax intensity as this opens in the glass. Pear and quince follow, along with aromas of preserved lemons and verbena. It’s intensely stony in the mouth, a sensation that is magnified by the wine’s tooth-aching acidity. Hints of madeirization persist but more aromas – clover blossoms and crystallized ginger – continue to emerge. Texturally, it’s generous up front, firm and steely on the finish. If you’re holding several bottles of this vintage, it might be worth keeping a couple to track development; otherwise, drink up.
$25. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Rosenthal, New York, NY.

Bourgogne "Pinot Noir," Domaine Heresztyn 2005
Lovely, fresh red fruits and tangy acidity. A slightly stewed nose also shows hints of sweet red cherries and vanilla, yet there’s no suggestion of heat damage or of woodiness. This is a pretty solid value in the increasingly untouchable world of Burgundy.
$20. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Kysela Père et Fils, Winchester, VA.

Maranges Premier Cru "Clos de la Fussière," Xavier Monnot 2005
Translucent yet a good deal darker in the glass than Heresztyn’s Bourgogne, this is showing firm, slightly astringent tannins… at least at first. It actually fluctuates, over the course of an hour, between generous and sinewy textures. Portobello mushrooms, espresso, black cherry skins, cinnamon bark and brambly herbaceous qualities all show up as the wine opens. This is interesting now and should develop well over the next few years. Another pretty good buy, from an importer whose wines I’ve tended to overlook for the past several years.
$25. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Robert Kacher, Washington, DC.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Blogs of Note: New York Edition

There are many, many fine wine and food blogs that I read fairly regularly, but there are a few that keep me coming back for more. They’re blogs that compel me to check in on practically a daily basis. It’s amazing how many of them are based out of New York. Actually, given the intense concentration of great restaurants, cultural diversity and higher than average number of good wine shops in and around Manhattan, maybe it’s not really surprising.

Brooklynguy has a beautifully human approach to wine. He’s a good taster and writes thoughtful notes. Though he never dumbs down his topics, he always maintains a sense of humility and freshness that seems to appeal successfully to a wide range of readers. It works for me. His recent piece on the dangers of splurging on wine brought more than a few smiles to my face.

I love Riesling. I drink it regularly, mostly from Germany but also Austria and occasionally even from right here in the US. I recommend it vigorously and constantly at work. But somehow I don’t think I can hold a candle to fellow wine retailer Lyle Fass at Rockss and Fruit. He’s seemingly more Riesling-centric than humanly possible and he always comes back for more. Add to that his no-holds-barred approach to knocking down wine icons and you have one of the most compelling – and most frequently updated – wine blogs around. Not only did he make it to the Keller tasting in New York last Friday (which I sadly missed), he even had dinner with Klaus Peter afterwards, the bum.

Terry Hughes of Mondosapore and Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi write two of the most purely entertaining food, wine and cultural blogs out there. Both focus on Italy but swirl into other arenas as their authors see fit. Terry’s blog occasionally blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, as in his piece on a tasting in Tuscany. Jeremy’s recent rundown on the best pizzas in New York made me jealous – Philly borders on being a pizza wasteland – and seriously hungry.

If you’re not already reading these blogs too, you should be.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Turkey for Keller

Just a quick post at the end of a crazy day. Klaus Peter Keller stopped by the shop this afternoon. It was lovely to see him but that’s about all there was to it. I bought him a turkey sandwich for lunch, chatted for about 30 seconds, turned around to help a customer and, c’est tout, he was gone – no doubt off to the next stop on his whirlwind tour of the northeast corridor. I would love to have made it up to his tasting in New York tonight, not only for the chance to squeeze in another few words and taste through some of his current releases but also to catch up with a few old friends and connect with some new ones. If any of you made it to the event, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Klaus-Peter (at right) during a visit to the Rheinhessen in 2004.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

WBW 41 Roundup Posted and WBW 42 Announced

Jack and Joanne have posted the round-up of notes from WBW #41, which focused on the white wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. I batted one for three for the day but those who aimed high, as J&J suggested, seemed to fare better. Check out their well done summation, along with their own list of recommended producers, at Fork & Bottle.

The 42nd edition of WBW, scheduled for Wednesday, February 13, is being hosted by Andrew Barrow at Spittoon. What’s his assignment? Review an Italian red using seven words. How’s that for practice? I’m not sure the episode will result in as much wine education as usual but it will certainly test everyone’s capacities as a wordsmith.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Margaret Kuo's Dragon's Lair

My original title for this posting was “Selosse and Szechuan.” It may sound like a tantalizing if odd fantasy match-up. It very nearly came true during a recent visit to Margaret Kuo’s Dragon’s Lair in Wayne. Jacques Selosse Blanc de Blancs was listed on the “holiday selections” drink list placed on our table. How Selosse Champagne came to be on a wine list in a suburban Chinese restaurant in the archaic wine state of Pennsylvania I don’t know. How it might have paired with Ms. Kuo's food I can only try to imagine. The fact that I took a pass on it still irks me. But as my dining companions were sticking with tea, I settled for a Tsingtao as thoughts of the Selosse that could have been nagged at my inner wine guy throughout lunch.

The availability of the Selosse turned out to be a fitting presage of the overall dining experience at Margaret Kuo’s. A typical, casual Chinese-American joint it’s not. The carryout menu gives a practically minded nod or two to some of the popular standards of American-Chinese fare. When dining in, however, Kuo’s menu is a touch more elevated, specialized and unafraid of eschewing many clichéd dishes. It’s also a touch more expensive, with most entrées priced in the $20s. Based largely on the cuisine of China’s Sichuan province, with a particular specialization in Chengdu regional fare, there are options for the adventurous of palate as well as for tamer tastes.

In keeping with the menu and pricing, the atmosphere is also more rarified than the norm. White tablecloths, highly attentive service, ornate decorative flair and serene background music combine to make the Dragon’s Lair one of the more formal – if slightly sterile – destinations for Chinese cuisine in the Philadelphia area. This might be just your thing if you’re looking for a quiet, intimate spot for Sunday lunch. We shared the dining room with only a few other guests during our visit. The pace, I’m sure, gets a bit more hopping during evening hours, yet ample elbow room and table spacing should still make for a relaxed experience.

We started with one of the best hot and sour soups I’ve ever had, a vegetarian version that focuses on fresh ingredients and bright flavors while avoiding the gelatinous, murky nature of many lesser renditions. Amply spiked with freshly ground black pepper, it was chock full of fresh, snappy, woodsy tasting shiitake mushrooms. Sold as soup for two, we found it ample for sharing among three. Pan-fried fish and chive dumplings were zesty if not ethereal; I preferred them without their overly salty side of dipping sauce.

An order of Imperial Shrimp delivered an ample plate of jumbo shrimp dressed with a sweet and sour mandarin glaze. The relative absence of vegetarian main courses was circumvented by the veggie among us by ordering two vegetable sides in place of a main. Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce was a well executed, vibrantly purple version of a Chinatown staple. Stir-fried Lotus Root and Lily Bulbs were mildly sweet, crunchy and attractively aromatic. A well cooked but basic filet of pan-sautéed sea bass was brought to life by its crumbled topping of hauntingly tangy, smoky cured pork.

And that wine list. Aside from the Selosse anomaly, there is a well-chosen if small core of complementary wines available, including Savennières from Domaine des Baumard, a modest selection of German and Alsace Rieslings, and a fair range of lighter, aromatic reds from Beaujolais and Oregon among other regions. Then there’s the intentionally impressive side of the list: Châteaux Margaux and Latour, dozens of trophy California Cabernets, and fairly big hitter White Burgundies. Two-thirds of the list would be more at home – and more appropriately matched – with the food in an expense account steak house. Of course, given the numerous preparations of beef filet – another slight anomaly on the menu – that may just be the target audience Ms. Kuo is seeking.

I’ll be back nonetheless. If the food we enjoyed on our visit was any indication, the Dragon’s Lair is too good not to demand a return visit. Next time, it’ll be for the Peking duck. And, keeping my fingers crossed, a bottle of Selosse Blanc de Blancs.

Margaret Kuo's Dragon’s Lair
175 E. Lancaster Avenue
Wayne, PA 19087
(610) 688-7200
Margaret Kuo's in Wayne

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Some Recent Tastes

Just a few bottles I've enjoyed with meals and/or with friends over the last couple of weeks that didn't make their way to full posts but were more than worthy of mention. I really do need to get back to Exploring Burgundy. And I can never get enough Riesling.

Mosel Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese #19, Alfred Merkelbach 2005
Far from profound but nonetheless well balanced and brimming with green apple, white peach and transparent slatiness. A confectionery hint on the rear palate picks up on the wine’s residual aspects more so than up front. A food friendly style, this would make a lovely companion to seared scallops or lightly cured ham.
$20. 9% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Michael Skurnik (a Terry Theise Selection), Syosset, NY.

Petit Chablis, Domaine Vincent Dauvissat 2004
Oyster shells and a bit of fishing pier funk on the nose. Very mineral, medium in scale, and just starting to develop a not unattractive oxidative note, followed by plenty of bitter lemon fruit. Drinking very well at the moment, it should continue to deliver immense pleasure (in spite of the pier funk) in the short term.
$20. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL.

Chablis, Domaine Laurent Tribut 2006
Hitting lots of high notes. Steely, bright and very tight, this should begin to get interesting in another year. Good length, with plentiful limestone-driven mineral character.
$25. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL.

Chablis Premier Cru “La Forest,” Domaine Vincent Dauvissat 2005
There’s breed showing through here, on a stony, gunflint driven frame, with green pear and lemon oil accents. However, it’s disjointed and a tad hot. Needs time to come around to a better place.
$40. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL.

Dolcetto d’Alba “Coste & Fossati,” G.D. Vajra 2005
Burton Anderson singled out Vajra’s “Coste & Fossati” as the only Albese Dolcetto worthy of inclusion in his wine guide, Burton Anderson's Best Italian Wines. While I enjoy plenty of other Dolcetti d’Alba, I’m inclined to agree with his summation. This is a pleasure to drink in its youth but possesses an aromatic depth and a certain elegance that is less evident in most other Dolcetto. Dark cherry fruit, crushed flowers and freshly turned, loamy earth are at once plentiful yet subtly expressed on both the nose and palate. Very delicate, finely grained tannins. Worthy of your best Burgundy glass, where the aromas of most other Dolcetti might be prone to fall apart. Not as intense as the 2004 but still lovely, it’s just starting to come out of its shell and should hold and develop well for another five years.
$29. 14% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ; Martin Scott, New York, NY.

Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena 2004
Translucent ruby in the glass and lovely right out of the gates, with pure cherry fruit, laced with rosemary accents. After 30-45 minutes of air, it becomes more clearly delineated, with the cherry taking on a sweet yet graceful vanillin tone thanks to a well-executed aging regimen in large, old oak casks. Bright acidity provides lift, lively tannins give texture and, with more air, spice notes drive home the fruit. On day two, the wine is darker, rounder and feels richer in the mouth if a bit more diffuse than on day one. Yummy stuff, built for food.
$21. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ; Martin Scott, New York, NY.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Vino Italiano: Wine Book Club Tickler #1

Allowing for the inevitable procrastination but bearing in mind that we're tackling 500 pages in just a handful of weeks, I thought I'd give y'all a nudge. Many of you who've expressed an interest in the Wine Book Club may have also participated in this week's installment of Wine Blogging Wednesday, which focused on the white wines of Friuli. So I feel inclined to suggest that, by now, we should all have at the very least read through both the "Basics" section and the first regional chapter (conveniently, on Friuli-Venezia Giulia) of Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Any thoughts on the text thus far?

Desolation Boulevard

The Sweet. This is some killer glam -- lip synching, alien transvestite costumes and all.

February at Tria Fermentation School

The February schedule of classes at Tria Fermentation School has just been announced. Act fast if you’re interested, as the classes tend to sell out in no time flat. There’s a particular focus on wine basics next month. However, there are also a couple of more specialized sessions, including a visit from David Ramey and a course on Grower Champagnes. If you're not familiar with the charm and character of Champagnes from small farmers as opposed to the big houses, you might enjoy my synopsis of a visit at Diebolt-Vallois a few years back.

Is there an oversight on the new schedule? Yes, they somehow managed to leave me off the itinerary.... Not to worry, I should be back on the schedule in March, pouring and orating about some real vino from off the beaten track.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

My Dogs are Fruitarians

Well, not really, but they do love most fruit. Lately, you can’t peel a banana or clementine anywhere in the house without them coming running. Which calls into question: what travels faster, sound waves or aroma waves (aka, esters)? If we were blessed with olfactory senses as keen as a dog’s, would the answer be so clear?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

WBW #41: White Wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia

When Jack and Joanne at Fork & Bottle announced the topic for this month’s edition of WBW, they put forth a strong recommendation: spend at least $20 per bottle. Go for the best. My initial reaction was, “Ok, I’m on board with that.” It would give me the perfect opportunity to get into some of the wines from currently hot producers like Josko Gravner, Radikon or Edi Kante. I soon realized though that the task of acquiring those wines would not only entail the outlay of some serious greenback but would also force me either to make a trip up to New York or to resort to ordering via the Internet.

So I switched gears, opting instead to shop in my own neck of the woods. I picked up a total of three wines: the only two Friuli wines available at one of the better local Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) specialty stores and one Slovenian wine from my own workplace, where we don’t currently carry any wine from Friuli. They all ranged between $10-20. It’s not the first time I’ve intentionally opted to break the WBW ground rules; only time will tell if it’s the last. Along the way, I also broke a few of my own rules (more on that as we move along).

It’s fair to say that Tocai Friulano is the signature grape of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. I rounded up two examples, both from Collio, a small province in southeastern Friuli that, along with neighboring Colli Orientali del Friuli, turns out most of the consistently higher quality wines of the overall region. Its historical origins may indeed be intertwined with the famous Hungarian Tokaji in more than just name, as some viticultural historians believe that Tocai Friulano was once identical to the Hungarian vine Furmint. However, most ampelographers (though not all Italians) agree that the vine called Tocai Friulano, since approximately the 1930s, is actually one and the same as Sauvignon Vert, aka Sauvignonasse.

Whatever the case may be, a good example of Tocai Friulano typically gives peach and blossom aromas with a distinctly crisp, mineral texture. Relatively versatile, Tocai is at home both in straight-forward, tank fermented wines and in more elaborate, oak-endowed selezioni. It also makes a reasonable blending partner.

In 1993, Hungary won its petition with the EU to gain sole rights to the terms Tocai and Tokay in an effort to protect the name of its famous dessert wine, Tokaji Aszu. Most producers in Alsace have already dropped the term Tokay from their Pinot Gris. Many Italian producers are now in the process of following suit. Any wines bottled after March 31, 2007 should theoretically no longer bear the work Tocai; most will simply be called Friulano. Andrea Felluga has written a concise explanation, along with some colorful insights into the matter.

Collio Tocai Friulano, Conti Attems 2004
This was the big rule breaker. First, most Tocai is best drunk young. Picking up a wine from 2004 in early 2008 was, I knew, already pushing the envelope. Buying it in a shop that doesn’t care for its wines or exert discretion in its selection processes, though, was the real no-no. But I was prepared to take some risks for the sake of the WBW exercise. I took more.

I never buy a wine strictly because of its label; however, I often avoid wines because of their labels. Cute animals, catchy names and absurdly oversized bottles are all red flags. Attems’ Tocai didn’t offend on any of those counts yet it still threw up some warning signs. It’s purely subjective and instinctive on my part, but something about the artwork and color choices on both the front and rear labels screamed “commercial” to me and would normally have made me steer clear. I would have doubly steered clear from the partnership with Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi – a large Tuscan wine concern that has held similar partnerships with Robert Mondavi among others – as such relationships are typically constructed to leverage brand awareness and distribution channels rather than to make a good wine better. The fact that the wine is estate bottled was about the only potentially saving grace that kept me from rejecting the bottle in spite of my willingness to suffer for the greater good of WBW.

I should have stuck with my instincts. This was the first wine I’ve purchased (as opposed to tasted in passing) in years that was just plain undrinkable. Its color was promising, suggesting no signs of advancing age. The nose, however, was lacking in the fruit and charm I expect from Tocai. Instead, it smelled of artichokes, lanolin and feed corn. The wine’s medium acidity was still in tact but its texture was coarse and hinted at the beginning stages of oxidation. Fruit was also absent on the palate, which was dominated by acrid, bitter sensations and a flavor of canned creamed corn. It became less and less appealing with air and as it warmed in the glass. Was it just over the hill? The deterioration of age may have played a role but I saw no signs that there was ever any good initial raw material.
$11. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Folio Wines, Napa, CA.

Collio Tocai Friulano, Colle Duga di Damian Princic 2005
Colle Duga is a small estate of seven hectares that nearly abuts the border with Slovenia in the eastern extreme of the Collio. Their Tocai, much like Attems’ above, shone a pale greenish-yellow in the glass. Lime blossom and honeydew melon met my nose, followed by a fleshy, neutrally oaked, medium-acid attack on the palate. The wine got crazy in the presence of food, totally transforming to an intense, slightly candied lemon-lime character. It recalled a distinct flavor memory from my childhood. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but it was somewhere between the original Gatorade formula and a lemon-lime ice pop, plus a touch of Snapple peach iced tea. Though these flavors may sound strangely appealing, their unnatural character was driven home on day two, when Princic’s wine, in spite of showing a hint of its peachy typicity, smelled clearly of paint thinner and modeling cement. It was significantly better than the Tocai from Conti Attems. But at $20, marked down from $30 via the PLCB’s “Chairman’s Selection” program, it was neither a good value nor a wine I look forward to revisiting. If you do feel compelled to give it a try, I’d recommend making it a one-night bottle.
$20. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Bartolomeo Pio, Fort Washington, PA.

Brda Ribolla Gialla, Ferdinand 2006
Given that I sell this wine at my day job, Ferdinand’s Ribolla Gialla was my failsafe for this tasting. One of my coworkers is fond of saying, “This wine is technically from Slovenia but it’s really Italian.” Apparently Jack and Joanne agree, as their definition of Friuli for this WBW episode was extended to include the hills (colle) on the Slovenian side of the border in Goriska Brda. It’s a position which is reinforced by winemaker Matiasz Četrtič’s decision as of the 2006 vintage to relabel his wine, formerly called Rebula in keeping with Slovenian culture, to the Italian Ribolla Gialla.

As Tocai is the signature of Friuli, so Ribolla, also planted in Friuli, is the traditional variety of Brda. Ferdinand’s Ribolla is simple, clean and easy, brimming with peach on both the nose and the palate. There’s a refreshing, tingly character in the mouth, accented by delicate minerality. As the wine warms, it becomes fleshier but holds onto its purity of fruit. It paired well with a semi-firm cow and sheep’s milk cheese, providing a worthy foil to both the fattiness and saltiness. Still a hint yeasty, I’ll look forward to revisiting this from time to time over the next six months.
$14. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

If you’ve read this far and would like to read more, why not join me and participate in the first edition of the Wine Book Club. We’re reading Vino Italiano, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch. Given that Friuli leads off the geographical chapters of the book and that Bastianich owns a wine estate in Friuli, it’s a clear tie-in to and jumping off point from this month’s WBW theme.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Crozes-Hermitage and Venison

A good buddy of mine returned from a trip to western Virginia recently with an entire deer hindquarter, courtesy of his hunting cousin. I wasn’t about to pass up the section he offered me. It was essentially a small "filet," cut from the upper part of the animal’s leg. As good as was the slow-cooked daube that he and his significant other had prepared from the bulk of the leg meat, this portion called out for a quicker, dry cooking technique. After slicing the steak on the bias into four little medallions, I simply hit each piece with salt, pepper and a tiny sprinkle of ground nutmeg. A quick pan sear over medium heat with a bit of olive oil was all it took to reach rare to medium-rare temperature.

When thinking of a wine pairing for game, it’s all too natural to jump automatically into the realm of big, burly reds. But with extremely lean meat like venison, soft tannins, supple texture and generous fruit are the order of the day.

Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine Combier 2003
Laurent Combier grew up in the organic orchard business started by his grandparents. In 1990 he founded Domaine Combier, building on the small vineyard property owned by his parents. He’s since expanded the estate to about 20 hectares, all farmed organically and planted largely to Syrah along with small parcels of Marsanne and Roussanne. His wines, particularly this flagship Crozes-Hermitage rouge, reflect Laurent’s heritage as an orchard man. They do not represent the dark, brooding side of Northern Rhone Syrah. Nor should they ever be associated with the underwhelming, over-cropped or carbonic maceration side of Crozes-Hermitage. Laurent’s wines simply brim with clean, pure fruit.

When first opened, Combier’s 2003 Crozes belied its hot growing season with aromas of fresh crushed raspberry and boysenberry fruit, citrus confit and a light-handed touch of wood. Medium-bodied and lively on the palate, red berry fruit was highlighted by Asian spice notes and well-integrated, finely grained tannins. With the baking spice tones of the wine in mind, I’d intentionally chosen nutmeg as a seasoning for the venison. Not only is it fairly traditional as a spice for deer but I also hoped it would find a natural groove with the wine. I wasn’t disappointed, as it turned out to be a pairing that brought forth an extra depth of savor in both the wine and the meal.

The Syrah held up well into its second day, developing darker, more evolved flavors. Both acidity and tannins had become gentler, letting the riper, darker side of the fruit show through. Though not a candidate for long-term aging, I do think it will continue to develop along a pleasantly mellowing course for another three or four years before its charms begin to fade.

$27. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ, and Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Clandestin and Riesling

As part and parcel of teaching a private class on the fundamentals of wine and cheese at Tria Fermentation School a few nights back, I had the opportunity to taste a few goodies. One cheese in particular struck me for its individuality and funk: Clandestin, a dual milk cheese, blended from equal parts of cow’s and sheep’s milk, made by Fromagerie Le Detour in Québec. It’s a washed rind, pasteurized cheese, which comes in small discs about the size of a hockey puck. Every wheel that night was a little different, some firm and pliable of pate, others oozing and odoriferous, showing a darker orange tinge to their rind. I enjoyed a slice from one of the latter sort. My first impression was of a bacon-like smokiness, along with a slightly sour lactic tang that reminded me of Saint-Marcellin. There was some grassiness, but in a damp, slightly briny fashion that evoked comparisons from various class members to the aromas and flavors of caviar, mushrooms and shrimp. Curious stuff, I wouldn’t choose it as a staple in my cheese arsenal but it’s definitely worthy of consideration as something striking for your next cheese plate.

Two stages of Clandestin

We paired the Clandestin with a 2003 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Spätlese from Willi Haag. A member of the VDP, the Haag estate comprises about five hectares of vineyards in the Mosel. On its own, the Riesling was disappointingly one-dimensional. It showed round, peachy fruit but was lacking in both acidity and minerality, no doubt an unwanted side-effect of the hot, dry growing conditions, at least relative to the norm, in the Mosel in 2003. Lurking behind the wine’s generous sweetness and fruitiness was a touch of sweaty cellar funk.

At first taste – on the front palate, if you prefer – the pairing worked reasonably well together. The fruit forward nature of the wine played well with the smokiness and grassiness of the cheese; the sweetness level of the wine was just a bit higher than ideal. On the finish, however, the sourness of the cheese combined with the sweaty hint in the Spätlese to form an amplified funkiness. I rather liked it for its peculiar savor but I could see more than a handful of twisted expressions around the room. Next time around, I’d choose a drier Riesling, Grüner Veltliner or Sancerre, one with nervier acid, greater minerality and a more citrus character. And the terroirist in me would like the opportunity to test it for local affinities with a québécois Riesling or apple cider.

Friday, January 11, 2008

And the Winner is…

After technical glitches delayed the prize drawing by a couple of days, the winners of the items auctioned on behalf of Menu For Hope have now been announced. I know we’ve all been holding our collective breath in anticipation. So without further ado, the winner of my donation – Private Sommelier Services and Wine for a Night – is Lisa Phillips of Wilmington, DE.

Congratulations, Lisa! You can reach me via the e-mail address on my profile page with any questions or to begin making arrangements for your wine and food fest. I'm looking forward to it.

Thanks to everyone who participated for your support of such a great cause. The entire list of winners is now available for your perusing pleasure at Chez Pim.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

BYOB: Wines at Marigold Kitchen

Lest ye despair, faithful readers, that I have foregone the pleasures of wine at repast, fear not. I have just been focusing of late on catching up with things on the Philly front. And along the way, I’ve decided that when writing up BYOB restaurants, it would be best not to intertwine wine notes into the restaurant report. After all, wine at BYOs, though hardly an afterthought on my part, is not selected nor purveyed by the establishment.

One of the beautiful benefits of the BYOB culture so prevalent in Philadelphia is the opportunity it affords to sample several bottles over the course of a meal. Leftovers can always be carried home or, more magnanimously, shared with the service and kitchen staff or even with neighboring diners. At a licensed restaurant, one might be more likely to scrimp or hoard, as high mark-ups can quickly and quietly change an evening’s outing from comfortable to extravagant. When dining in spots with liquor licenses, I’ll continue to include wine and beverage commentary in the central report, as I consider the wine list an integral element of the overall full-service restaurant experience.

So, consider this episode one of a new thread: the BYO wine list. During a recent meal at Marigold Kitchen, my dining partners and I enjoyed...

Champagne Grand Cru “Cuvée Rosé,” Delavenne Père et Fils NV
Delavenne is a small grower producer (RM) Champagne house located in Bouzy, with vineyards there, in Ambonnay and in Cramant. Their “Cuvée Rosé” is not a rosé de saignée but rather a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 38% Pinot Noir (white juice only) made pink by the addition of 12% Bouzy Rouge, a still wine made from 100% Pinot Noir. Fresh and fruit forward, bursting with delicate aromas and flavors of raspberries, strawberries and orange peel, hinting only ever so slightly at an underlying yeastiness, it made for an excellent aperitif. By sheer stroke of luck, it turned out to be pretty tasty with our beet and almond amuse bouche.
$48. 12% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Kremstal Grüner Veltliner “Holzgasse” Qualitatswein trocken, Weingut Buchegger 2006
Austrian wine seems to have achieved a renaissance in the popular mind over the last few years, with the unfortunate side effect of sky-rocketing prices. A Federspiel from a good producer now often costs what a Smaragd from the same grower did only two or three years ago. That inflation has put an awful lot of tempting wines up in the $30+ starting price range. So when I found a Qualitatswein Grüner Veltliner priced in the mid-teens during a recent trip down to State Line Liquors, it caught my eye. The producer, Weingut Buchegger, was an unknown quantity to me; its importer, though, is on my short list of most trusted back labels. I snatched it up posthaste. Was it worth the money? Yes. Was it worth the enthusiasm? No. , Buchegger’s GV “Holzgasse” paired well enough in a neutral sense with appetizers ranging from sweetbreads to tuna carpaccio to celery root and hazelnut soup, yet it added little in the way of spark or nuance, serving mainly as clean, proper refreshment. Simple and slightly fat in texture, it was reasonably well balanced but lacked the nerve and peppery, citrus and floral characteristics I crave in a better example of Grüner Veltliner.
$17. 12.5% Alcohol. Stelvin closure. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler Importing, Unionville, PA.

Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Domaine Olivier & Anne-Marie Rion 2004
This turned out to be one of those wines that justified my practice of toting a half dozen bottles with me when I go to a BYOB. One reason for the heavy baggage is to allow for a range of choices to match the dishes that I and my dining partners select. The other primary reason is insurance. It’s extremely frustrating to arrive with only one bottle in hand, open it and find that it’s corked or otherwise flawed. It’s happened to me in the past and I won’t let it happen again.

This bottle wasn’t corked but it had clearly leaked. I immediately suspect heat damage in this scenario. However, this bottle was purchased at a temperature controlled wine shop which procures its goods through a climate controlled supply chain. It then slept for a year or two in my temp controlled cellar. Nonetheless, the cork was stained up and down its sides and oozing wine had formed a sticky mess under the capsule. Most likely, then, this was simply a faulty cork or a bottle that had been laid down in its box on the bottling line before its cork had time to expand and form a perfect seal. The end result, though the juice was still quite drinkable, was a wine that had been robbed by slight oxidation of both freshness and clarity of color. When last tasted, it was lively, bright and just coming into its own. This bottle was round, generous in texture yet dull in its acidity and features, like bland cherry compote. It was just alive enough to make an adequate mate to my pork loin and the olive oil poached salmon selected by one of my pals; it just wasn’t all it could have been.
$19. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Estate Grown on Mount Veeder,” The Hess Collection 1997
Opened vaguely to accompany our cheese course but primarily as something to taste as we relaxed after dinner, this was also the sentimental selection of the evening. Our dining partners, visiting from California, had brought this bottle to me as a gift several years ago. It’s a shame that California Cabs built along this scale are all but a thing of the past. Though not as brooding and briary as wines more redolent of their Howell Mountain origins, this was well balanced, eminently drinkable and food friendly Cabernet. Its 13% alcohol is all but a thing of the past. Still showing potential for several more years in the cellar, there was plenty of freshness, with tannins full and plush. Black currant and blackberry fruit dominated with a touch of black cherry, cedar and spice rounding out the package.
Release price unknown. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

44 minutes

Miles, circa 1970.
If you've got the time, it's serious juice.

Miles Davis: trumpet
Gary Bartz: saxophone
Dave Holland: bass
Keith Jarrett: electric piano
Chick Corea: keyboards
Jack DeJohnette: drums
Airto Moreira: percussion

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Solomonov's Last Stand at Marigold Kitchen

Is it taking advantage, in the negative sense, to repeatedly take advantage of a good thing when it’s generously and openly offered? I’m sure an argument can be made for either side. Either way, it’s hard for me to pass up the Sunday prix fixe special – three courses for $30 – at Marigold Kitchen. I’ve done it before and I’ll probably do it again.

On this occasion, it was the combination of old friends and a parting chef that drew me there. It was the eve of New Year’s Eve as well as of our friends S&S’s return to Monterey and I was pretty sure they’d dig the place. Additionally, it was the eve of Chef Michael Solomonov’s last night at the head of Marigold’s Kitchen and I was craving an ultimate sampling from his uniquely Israeli inflected menu.

Art adorns the wall in the main dining room.

Our decision-making was made pleasurable by the arrival of a simple, spoonful-sized amuse bouche of beets, almonds and dill. The interplay between the earthy, slightly sweet beets, toasty ground almonds and subtly herbaceous dill got our taste buds into gear. A basket of warm, crusty rolls accompanied by a dish of green olives and fruity oil took the edge off our hunger while we waited for first courses to arrive.

Sweetbreads with Crispy Chicken Skin and Tehina
I’ve enjoyed sweetbreads – Solomonov’s signature dish – at Marigold in the past and couldn’t pass them up, as they’d soon be ending their long tenure at the head of the menu. I wasn’t disappointed, as they were à point this evening. Wrappers of crispy, golden chicken skin, fried to a perfect snap and crackle, enveloped their moist, succulent sweetbread stuffing, delivered with a lively burst of hot fat when bitten. Creamy tehina, not at all plodding as overly thick or carelessly made tehina can be, lent a soothing, texture, balancing the decadence of the sweetbreads not with acidic contrast but rather with a cooling, complementary richness.

Pork Loin with Glazed Carrots and Crispy Lentils
In spite of somewhat ill conceived presentation – carrot matchsticks criss-crossed and perched atop the dish like a little orange tic-tac-toe board – the quality of ingredients here was undeniable. Three generous, tender, perfectly medium filets of pork loin astride a bed of wilted greens showed the clear comfort side of Solomonov’s style. A spark of creativity was provided in the form of crispy, caviar-sized lentils, sprinkled atop the dish in place, perhaps, of a more typical accent such as crumbled bacon.

Selection of Five Artisanal Cheeses
A treat courtesy of the kitchen, this was an example of the cheese plate as it should be presented in a finer restaurant – carefully selected by the staff rather than chosen by the diner from a list of options. A culinary touch was added by the pairing of a specific condiment chosen to harmonize with each cheese.

Tasting of Granny Smith Apples
After opting for what was arguably the most straightforward of main plates on the evening’s menu, I flipped to the dessert option that was most minimally described and most likely to push the envelope. Duets, trios, and occasionally even larger ensembles have become a nearly ubiquitous way for chefs to show off their talents by creating different riffs on the same key ingredient. The edgiest of the evening’s trio in apples was certainly the granny smith shooter, a shot glass full of apple nectar topped with apple foam, the pithy signature of au courant gastronomy. It was a refreshing juxtaposition to the more classic presentations: a deconstructed apple pie (sans crust) and a finessed take on bureka, a traditional Middle-Eastern stuffed pastry. None of the three stood out with wow-factor but together they made for a whole superior to its individual parts.

When next I visit Marigold Kitchen, its stoves will be firing along under the auspices of new chef Erin O’Shea, who took over the helm following New Year’s after spending two years as sous chef to Solomonov. Given that Michael was obviously enjoying his penultimate night, spending time visiting the regulars who were populating most of the tables, I’m certain that Ms. O’Shea was responsible for the production of much of our meal. This bodes well, without question, for the future quality of the restaurant under her direction. Her menu will depart from Solomonov’s Israeli influences in favor of a contemporary spin on southern American cookery.

Chef Solomonov, meanwhile, is now officially off to get things started at his latest restaurant-to-be, Zahav, where he plans, completely and more traditionally, to unfurl the Israeli culinary flag. You can follow the tribulations of Zahav’s construction and design on Michael Klein’s micro-blog, The Making of Zahav. Here’s wishing all the best of luck to both Michael and Erin in their new ventures.

Marigold Kitchen
501 S. 45th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Marigold Kitchen in Philadelphia

Related posts:
BYOB: Wines at Marigold Kitchen

Monday, January 7, 2008

Philly Food Blogger Meet-Up

Frankly, I’m not sure how many if any Philly food bloggers are regular readers here at McDuff’s Food & Wine Trail. But when Taylor at Mac & Cheese asked that I help spread the word about this event, I could hardly say no. She found it in her good graces to help promote my donation to Menu For Hope and one good turn deserves another, right?

So, this Friday evening, Taylor will be hosting the second Philly Food Blogger potluck and meet-up. It’s an opportunity for lots of theoretically diverse yet like-minded, blogosphere dwelling Philadelphians to get together, share some grub and grog, and trade a few war stories. Sound like fun? Check out the full details. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Burger and a Beer: Monk's Cafe

I can think of hundreds of good reasons to fight the crowds at Monk’s Café. But as the majority of those reasons are the same, the big three will do: burgers, mussels and, no surprise, beer – lots and lots of beer. Is there other food on the menu at Monk’s? Of course, and some of it does rise above the normally insipid yet filling standard of pub grub. There’s good, rustic country pâté and a pretty respectable braised rabbit dish (Lapin à la Gueuze). When all is said and done though, the strengths at Monk’s are undeniably the standard bearers for Belgian style cafés across America: moules frites, offered with a variety of sauces and ingredients, and burgers, also with choices of an atypical and savory range of toppings.

What sets the burgers apart at Monk’s is not their decadence. There’s no foie gras stuffing, they’re not as rich in fat or as extravagantly portioned as at Rouge for instance; in fact, they’re unlikely ever to take the honors for the “best” in Philly. I love them, rather, for their consistency – not in texture but in quality. If there’s anything the hard working line chefs at Monk’s have mastered, it’s cooking burgers – I’m talking beef here, not about the veggie and white meat options also offered on the menu – to the proper temperature every time. They’re served on chewy, firm stirato rolls, slightly oversized to make for relatively grease free fingers.

My fallback selection when opting for a burger at Monk’s is the Ardennes, topped with Ardennes ham and Belgian cheese. The ham lends smoky, salty and slightly sweet cured goodness to the juicy burger beneath. On my most recent visit, with friends and old Monk’s fans who were visiting from CA, I opted for something with a little more bite: the Ghent burger, topped with broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and finished with a melt of cheddar. The Ghent’s toppings provide contrast to the richness of the burger with sharp zestiness from the cheddar and an acidic, slightly bitter tang courtesy of the broccoli. Washed down with a little Brasserie Thiriez Extra and a bottle of classically funky, spontaneously fermented Girardin Gueuze, it made for a warmly satisfying finale to a relaxed day spent wandering about town.

Monk’s Café
16th & Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia
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