Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sulfur in San Fran

Wolfgang Weber, my fellow blogger behind Spume, recently wrote an excellent piece for the San Francisco Chronicle on the role of sulfur in the winemaking practice. Though he doesn't break new ground, his piece does an excellent job of covering all the bases and includes insights from an interesting group of California winemakers. I'm a little late in reporting this but no matter, meaningful content shouldn't have an expiration date.

Read it. And check out the predictably vociferous comments. But do yourself a favor. If you decide to comment or ask a question, skip the fray at the Chronicle and head back to Spume with your questions. If for any reason you prefer to leave questions here, by all means do so. I'll do my best to tackle them.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Bubbly Bubbly Notes

Tuesday's class on the sparkling wines of Europe was a success, at least so I'm told. I've never had such a quiet, studious group before. A good thing, I hope. In any event, the wines showed well, including a surprise or two, so I thought a few quick notes would be in order. You know, just in case you didn't manage to follow along on short notice. Here's what I poured:

Bugey Cerdon VDQS, Raphaël Bartucci NV (L07)
Very direct Bugey, both in its fruitiness and unabashed sweetness. Pure macerated strawberries with just a whiff of spicy earth. Perfect picnic wine and a fun way to lead off class.

Prosecco Montello e Colli Asolani, Bele Casel NV
Crisper, brighter and not as creamy as the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene from the same producer. A nice mineral tingle on the finish, too. Very peachy up front. Extra Dry in style but drinks no sweeter than an awful lot of Brut wines. Very tough after the Bugey, though, as the sweet red fruits left on the palate tended to wash out the Prosecco, which isn't shy on fruit in its own right.

Bacharacher Kloster Furstental Riesling Sekt Brut, Weingut Ratzenberger 2003
2003 remains the fruitiest rendition of Ratzenberger's Sekt that I've ever tried. Some time in bottle since last I drank it, though, has allowed the fruit to settle a bit. In turn, that's letting its hallmark mineral and floral notes emerge more clearly and it's tasting more like the Traditionelle Flaschengärung (traditional method) wine that it is. The intensity of its fruit nonetheless had a few attendees thinking it was sweeter than the Prosecco (which it's not).

Vouvray Pétillant Brut, Domaine Huet 2002
Amazingly different than when last tasted, so much so that I at first thought I was dealing with a bad batch. The corks had no spring-back and initial aromas were intensely mushroomy and otherwise mute. It turned out that patience was all that was needed. After about an hour of open air, this turned into a beauty, though still surprisingly more developed than only two months earlier. Loads more Chenin character. Rich, wildflower honey and quince with just a touch of dried biscuit. Plenty dry but plenty generous and truly pétillant, showing just a subtle trace of bubbles when poured in a white wine glass.

Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, Diebolt-Vallois NV
This is an old friend, warm and welcoming. Like any old friend, it's sometimes neglected but it's always good to get reacquainted. When this wine is young, like the bottles opened this night, it just brims with creamy lemon curd flavors and aromas, carried on a light, nervy frame. Delicious Blanc de Blancs that might have unduly suffered from being sandwiched between two more intense wines.

Champagne Extra Brut Réserve, Bereche et Fils NV
This was the showstopper, kind of as expected. Muscular, grippy Champs, loaded with dark red fruits and displaying plenty of depth. Really finely balanced. This is a serious food wine, one I'd love to drink with a meal starting with a platter of oysters and moving on to chicken breasts with a thyme infused cream sauce and fresh morels. Real vinous extract. Even a little tannic on the finish. I expect this should age quite nicely.

Moscato d'Asti, G.D. Vajra 2007
If the Bugey makes for a perfect lunchtime quaff, this makes an ideal breakfast wine. A vibrant expression of Moscato Bianco. Fresh, grapey and intensely perfumed, it's totally refreshing and a real joy to drink. Vajra makes one of the most concentrated examples out there. A good way to finish class on a light, happy note.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lambic Blending 101

I missed the big event. On Wednesday, August 20, Don Feinberg, co-founder of New York State’s Brewery Ommegang and co-owner of Vanberg & DeWulf imports, presided over an informal seminar on lambic blending at Tria’s 12th & Spruce Street location, here in downtown Philly. Don had procured two rare kegs of unblended lambic ales from Brouwerij Boon and was visiting Tria to share their goodness with all comers as well as to discuss the ins and outs of lambic production and blending techniques.

If you missed the event too, it’s not too late, at least not yet, to partake of the beers. I did just that earlier this week, as I headed over to Tria – they call it their Washington Square West location – after wrapping up the course on sparkling wines I’d taught at Tria Fermentation School on Tuesday night.

One of the cask aging rooms at Brouwerij Boon.

As long as the kegs hold out, they'll be serving five-ounce pours of two different unblended, aged Boon lambics. The pair will set you back $12. Each is served in Belgian ale tulips and you’ll also be provided with an empty wine glass. While both ales are intriguing on their own, the real fun comes in playing around with crafting your own blended lambic.

The beer from Cask 17B is the paler of the two – the color of old cider – and iridescently cloudy in the glass. It’s tangy, showing plenty of the characteristically sour notes of unsweetened lambics, mildly lactic and loaded with citrus oil and light spice flavors. There’s also plenty of funk on the nose. It’s definitely the wilder, higher-toned and winier of the two beers. I couldn’t help but be reminded, as I have been in the past with a beer from one of Boon’s peers, of old-school Loire Chenin Blanc.

The pour from Cask 52 – the glasses are labeled to avoid mix-ups – is noticeably darker and more tranquil than that from 17B. As its color suggests, it’s richer on the palate and also rounder, mellower and far less sour. The wood influence seems more pronounced, both in a slight oxidative character and in the brew’s nutty, malty and somewhat caramelized flavor profile. Kind of like an Amontillado Sherry with a funky streak. My table mates gave this the nod as their stand-alone preference, though I leaned a little more toward the brighter flavors of Cask 17B.

Master blender Frank Boon, tasting a sample from Cask 17B.

Having tasted and considered both lambics, it was blending time. With only five ounces of each beer and no measuring equipment, you can only get so crazy with experimenting. I opted, more or less automatically, to go with just three basic recipes: half-and-half, one-third/two-thirds and two-thirds/one-third. It seemed to make sense. Besides, I was there to have fun and relax, not to play scientist or brewmaster. Still, the results were illuminating.

A fifty-fifty blend of the two ales kind of fell flat. It wasn’t entirely bad, just unexciting. The flavors became sort of muddy, the individual highlights were lost but the melding didn’t bring anything extra to the table.

Mixing one third Cask 52 with two-thirds Cask 17B didn’t fare much better. It seemed like the two beers were too busy fighting each other instead of working together. The end result was disjointed and kind of cheesy tasting – washed rind, that is.

I had actually started out with two-thirds Cask 52 and one-third 17B. As luck or intuition would have it, this turned out to be my favorite blend of the night, an opinion shared this time by my drinking buddies. 17B seemed to deliver the high notes that 52 lacked on its own while the greater depth and richness of 52 rounded everything out. It seemed complete. A blended lambic I’d be happy to drink again as a finished, marketed product. And a fun tasting, even without Mr. Feinberg there as a tour guide.

You can read Mr. Boon's technical notes on the two lambics after the jump.
Boon Lambic Cask 17B (Belgium · 7.9% at time of kegging)
Cask 17B was made of winter oak in the 1930’s and was polished inside before filling. It was filled with two brews #O71 and #O72 from February 17 and 18, 2004. The Lambic has notes of cloves, vanilla and whisky from the wood cask. The abundant lactic acid from the young beer was converted into esters (aromas) to create a typical citrus-muscat bouquet. Tannins from the oak and bitterness from the aged hops complete this wonderful Lambic.

Boon Lambic Cask 52 (Belgium · 8.6% at time of kegging)
Cask 52 is an oval cask, made of winter oak in 1961 and was half polished inside before filling. It was filled with two brews, #O27 and #O28 from November 5 and 6, 2003. The Lambic of this cask has balanced acidity and is more complex than 17B. Lactic acid from the young beer was converted into esters (aromas) but the citrus-muscat is enhanced by the volatile acid. The Lambic has slight bitterness from aged hops and light tannins from the oak. Whisky and vanilla notes linger on the finish.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sparkling Wine Class Tonight

Between struggling with a summer head and chest cold and prepping for the class I'm teaching on European sparkling wines at Tria Fermentation School tonight, there's been no wine and little writing 'round these parts for the last few days.

Class was booked ages ago but, for those of you interested in following along in spirit, whether in part or in whole, here's a list of what I'll be pouring tonight.
  • Bugey Cerdon VDQS, Raphaël Bartucci NV (L07)
  • Prosecco Montello e Colli Asolani, Bele Casel NV
  • Bacharacher Kloster Furstental Riesling Sekt Brut, Weingut Ratzenberger 2003
  • Vouvray Pétillant Brut, Domaine Huet 2002
  • Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, Diebolt-Vallois NV
  • Champagne Extra Brut Réserve, Bereche et Fils NV
  • Moscato d'Asti, G.D. Vajra 2007

A few different countries, several different production methods, plenty of stylistic variations and, I hope, seven really good wines. Should be a fun class. Here's hoping my voice makes it through.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Omnivore's Hundred

I stumbled upon the omnivore's hundred while killing time (and nursing a summer cold) this weekend. Even though I don't usually go in for viral memes, this one just seemed too fun to pass up. Started a little over a week ago by Andrew of the UK food blog Very Good Taste, hundreds of food and drink bloggers have already participated. So, here's to piling on for a little trivial grooviness.

If you'd like to participate as well, here are the ground rules:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment at Very Good Taste linking to your results.

5) Optional MFWT-extra: If you read about it here first (perhaps unlikely at this point) and you decide to participate, post a comment linking to your results here as well. And, whether or not you participate, please feel free to respond with expressions of surprise, delight or disgust.

Without further ado, the MFWT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp*
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

* * *

That's 79 80 out of 100. Not bad, I suppose. It seems only fit to make a few notes and clarifications.

* Updated from 79 to 80 based on a comment from a helpful reader. Don't know why I didn't realize gefilte fish is typically made using carp.

The only item I scratched off my list:

26. Raw scotch bonnet pepper: I'm assuming this means straight-up, not in a salsa or other condiment of any kind. I like spicy food but I have no interest in burning my mouth raw just for the sake of bravado.

Things I haven't eaten:

30. Bagna cauda: I've been to Piedmont, where this is a traditional dish, but never had the chance to try it.

42. Whole insects: Unless you count little flying bugs inadvertently sucked down while out for a road ride, I've never chosen to eat a whole insect. Wouldn't rule it out, though.

43, 63, 74, 76, 80 & 90. I don't even know what these are and I decided it would be cheating to use Google or Wikipedia to find out.

75. Road kill: Part of me wants to scratch it out. Another part thinks, "Ok, you're in the middle of nowhere and you just hit a deer. Why just leave it on the side of the road?" Of course, I hope never to find myself in that scenario.

Things I have eaten:

36. Cognac and a fat cigar: Even though I've written about my dislike for smoking here before, I have to admit to having succumbed to the temptation of a little XO Reserve and a cigar on one or two occasions.

37. Clotted cream tea: I dated an anglophile.

55. McDonald's Big Mac meal: Not in about 30 years.

68. Haggis: Um, my last name is McDuff. For real.

89. Horse: I told you I've been to Piedmont.

100. Snake: Rattlesnake, to be exact.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hail to the Farmer

Floods in the South of France in 2002. Drought and extreme heat throughout Western Europe in 2003. Mudslides in the Napa Valley in 2006. Hail in Chester County in 2008?

Real wine should be little more than an expression of nature. However, as important as nature is in contributing to the creation of great wine, it can also present some of the greatest risks faced by any winegrower, any farmer. This year’s most widespread natural “act of god” seems to be hail. I won’t even try to explain the meteorology behind it (for that, we have subject matter experts). In the last two weeks alone, I’ve read reports of hailstorms wreaking havoc in vineyards as far and wide as Montalcino, Beaujolais and the Mâconnais, and Long Island.

The largest hailstone on record fell in 1970 at Coffeyville, Kansas.
(Image courtesy of UCAR.)

The equally wide spread of those storm reports on other wine blogs – from Italy to San Diego, Switzerland to Manhattan – tells me that wine lovers are at least a little keener than the average consumer in their awareness of the natural risks associated with farming.

I encountered those risks first hand when visiting Château Turcaud in the Sauve-Majeure district of Bordeaux back in February 2004. It may have been the heat that got all the attention in the 2003 growing season. That wasn’t the problem at Turcaud, though. Good farming practices brought their wines through with clean, fresh flavors. Their problem that year was hail. In just one fell swoop, they lost over half their year's production to an April hailstorm, which occurred just after budset. During our visit, the ‘03s were still in tank and barrel. But half of those barrels, which would have been full in a normal year, languished without wine to fill them. When hail hits a wine grower’s vineyards, their annual production can be slashed dramatically, even eliminated altogether. If their wines are good, customers take notice.

Hail on Long Island.
(Photo courtesy of Lenn.)

I wonder, though, how many people think about the natural risks inherent in farming when it comes to the food on their daily table. It seems like there’s a much greater disconnect. Nobody talks about it being a great vintage for asparagus like they do for wine grapes. And it's no wonder. Just take a trip to your local supermarket. Come rain or shine, hail or hurricane, there’s always a shiny, perfectly round tomato on the shelf, always a fluffy, unblemished head of lettuce in the bin. I guess those tomatoes are not unlike the bottles of Yellowtail Shiraz perched on the shelf in every corner liquor store around the world. They’re the products of industrial agriculture. It’s not that storm damage never occurs at the agri-business level; it’s just that you’re not likely to think about it unless you work for the company concerned. If fruit gets bruised, it’s thrown out. If a crop is destroyed, crop insurance covers it. Business as usual. There will still be tomatoes in the supermarket. They’ll just come from some other purveyor, location unimportant.

With the increasing interest in the local food movement and increased availability of true farmers’ markets, I’d like to think that disconnect is slowly starting to dissolve. When you walk up to a farm stand and buy a tomato, peach or bean from the person who grew it, your food suddenly becomes more real. It has a face and a name, not just a PLU (product lookup code) sticker. At the same time, the risks those farmers encounter in their daily work become more real, more tangible.

Not long from when those hailstorms were hitting vineyards in Montalcino, Beaujolais and the North Fork, it turns out that a pretty nasty pocket of hailstorms swept through the greater Philadelphia area. On Sunday, August 10, to be exact. I was completely unaware of them – heavy rains at my abode but no hail – until the next day, when one of my coworkers related the details of her weekend. Those details included shoveling hail off her porch. Freaky. But I didn’t give it a second thought until two days later, when I hit my local farmers market for my weekly haul of produce.

Of the four fruit and vegetable farms that represent at the Oakmont Farmers Market each week, one was missing completely. The other three were there to work but with a little less to sell than usual and with visages more drawn than typical.

The most obvious signs of the hail damage were at North Star Orchards. Peaches, apples and the first Asian pears of the season all had little dings and nicks. They hadn’t been hit super hard, as it turned out. Besides, ever since a really devastating hail storm hit their farm several years back, the Kerschner’s seem to take storms like this one in stride. Fruit that would have been disposed of in the typical industrial supply chain instead took on a story of its own, one that Lisa Kerschner (pictured above) could relate to her customers, who seemed more than accepting of the slightly blemished goods. Like little badges of honor.

Blueberry Hill Farm was hit harder. Owner Peg Dearolf (above) was at market that Wednesday but wasn’t sure they’d have enough of a crop left to return the following week. They did sustain fairly extensive damage but not enough to keep them away this week. Upon further inspection, she realized that the cover provided by weeds they hadn’t had the time to extricate took the brunt of the hail impact, saving a decent amount of their crop. Yet another happy argument against aggressive use of herbicides.

As it turns out, the absence of Wimer Organics that Wednesday had nothing to do with the storm. They just ran into a labor shortage that left them without enough hands to make it to market. Bud Wimer’s farm is just a couple of miles from Blueberry Hill but the hailstorm totally bypassed his fields.

Hardest hit by far was Fruitwood Orchards Honey Farm. Fruitwood is one of the largest producers at the market, with a total of 400 acres under production. That’s enough to sell to a fairly substantial list of wholesale clients, though owner Mike Nelson also makes a full circuit of the Philly area’s farm markets. They lost 80% of their crop, very little of it renewable for this season. A near total loss. They could have thrown in the towel for the season. Instead, Mike canceled his wholesale contracts for the remainder of the year, leaving him with enough healthy crops to continue to meet his farmers market commitments. His response when asked about the situation? “That’s farming.”

This is not a call for help. Not even a call for pity. These people all farm for a living. Though there’s little resemblance between them and the agri-business giants I mentioned earlier, they do share at least one thing in common: crop insurance. Even knowing that they’re taken care of, I can’t help but feel for them. One can detect a sense of loss in their expressions, along with a sense of grim yet positive determination.

Their feelings I’m sure are similar to those being experienced by their fellow farmers – the winegrowers with damaged vines and lost grapes in Fleurie, Saint-Vérand, Montalcino and, yes, even Long Island.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ed Blackwell

A little something different for your Friday night listening pleasure. I saw this same iteration of the David Murray Band, probably on the same tour, when I was in high school. It was at DC Space, a great little club, now long defunct, in downtown Washington. I'd be lying if I said I could remember it like it was yesterday. But I do remember being blown away by this man's playing in particular, the wonderfully talented and under appreciated drummer, Mr. Ed Blackwell. And I remember leaving hungry for more.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

September Session at Tria Fermentation School

This one goes out to my Philly area readers. Tria Fermentation School has just announced their September schedule of classes. I'll be on hiatus for the month but there are plenty of other goodies on offer: cheese seminars, presentations on Italian, Spanish and Greek wine, and loads of cool beer courses. Looks like there should be something there for just about anyone in search of a fermented good time.

I hope to see some of you on Tuesday at my seminar on the sparkling wines of Europe, the last hurrah for the August lineup.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Scheurebe Moment

I’ve been focusing on the Loire an awful lot of late. A shift of gears, at least a quick one, seems in order. Ever since reading a little wine poetry at James Wright’s Wine-Wein-Vino-Vin recently, I’ve had Scheurebe on my mind. A vaguely Germanic meal last night seemed like the perfect opportunity, so I reached into the cellar and found…

Baden Ortenau Durbacher Plauelrain Scheurebe Spätlese trocken, Andreas Laible 2005
$28. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
I added a couplet to James’ poem. To read it, you’ll need to follow the link above and dig into the comments. For now, suffice it to say it was something about grapefruit, a very typical aromatic characteristic of Scheurebe. Laible’s Spätlese troken, though, has changed considerably since I last wrote about it and even since I last poured it at a class on German wines at Tria Fermentation School. It’s no longer so redolent of grapefruit. Part of that, I think, is just the wine’s natural concentration. Grapefruit, citrus and even catty aspects seem common to lighter styles of Scheurebe. But at a richer level, as with this Spätlese, riper aromas often kick in. Add to that a little more bottle age and the wines can start to show fleshier, less tangy characteristics. That’s exactly where Laible’s 2005 Scheurebe is at the moment.

The first glass was poured right out of the cellar, a bit too warm. The fact that it showed well at that temperature is a testament to the wine’s quality. The higher than ideal temp brought out a honeyed, round, not at all unappealing aspect. There was an undeniable blast of grapefruit right up front, but super ripe, sweet grapefruit, followed by lots of floral and sweet herbal scents. Lavender comes to mind. After a little chill down, more interesting things started to happen. Orange oil, peach nectar – definite peach nectar – and a light streak of white pepper emerged. With air, the wine became creamier in texture, developing a little vanilla edge. On the downside, its alcohol also became more apparent.

This is a monster of a wine. Not as unctuous as a similarly ripe Gewürztraminer but every bit as heady and concentrated. Spice, yellow flowers – goldenrod and marigolds – and peach nectar dominate. There’s an electrical spark of energy in its prickly texture, just enough to keep the wine from being plodding or domineering. But it still comes close to being over the top. The wine’s physiological concentration reminds me of marmalade, minus the jellied texture but complete with all the citrus peel bitterness. This needs food richer than what I paired it with (no, I’m not telling). I’d go right back to choucroute as we did two years ago. Maybe even roast goose. Roast pork at the very least, perhaps with an apricot or peach glaze. If you happen to have a bottle in your cellar, don’t hesitate to hold it for a couple more years. It’s still a wee one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

More on Typicity: Thierry Puzelat's "Le Telquel"

When the bureaucrats from the INAO come a-knocking at a vigneron’s door to taste through their goods for the year, typicity is one of the main elements subject to their judgment. The problem is, the INAO tasters have often been accused of being in the pocket of the large négociants houses and industrial concerns, whose interests all too often put quantity before quality. Typicity, in that context, can become more about maintaining the status quo, looking at the lowest common denominator, than about focusing on the best traits inherent to the subject in question. Producers who push the envelope, whether through natural farming and winemaking, extremely low yields or highly characterful wines, are those most often are hurt by the INAO’s power to withhold AOC designation. I’ve written about this before, regarding the wines of Vincent Ricard in the Touraine and Jean-Paul Brun in Beaujolais. But the producer who seems to knock heads with the authorities more regularly than his peers is Thierry Puzelat.

Vin de Table Français “Le Telquel,” Thierry Puzelat NV (2007)
$14. 12% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.

Look as hard as you’d like on the label of Thierry Puzelat’s “Le Telquel” and you won’t find a vintage date, at least not an obvious one. That, along with its lowly Vin de Table designation, is a sure sign, especially in a still wine, that the producer has run afoul of the expectations of France’s (in)famous INAO tasting panel. As do most producers, Thierry gets around the regulation that doesn’t allow vintage dating for Vins de Table by including a vintage reference in the bottle’s lot number. “Lvtr07” appears in tiny print on the label’s sidebar; while I won’t hazard a guess at the meaning of “vtr,” “L…07” certainly represents Lot 2007. As for weathering the demotion from AOC to VdT status, Puzelat has built a strong enough following that his wines will still sell, usually at the same price as if they held AOC status. Not all other producers are so lucky.

“Le Telquel” is varietal Gamay, sourced by Puzelat from high quality farms and fermented according to his inimitably natural standards. The funny thing is, there’s no mistaking it for anything other than Gamay. It’s bursting with the pure red cherry and raspberry fruit that’s typical to the variety. What it isn’t – and here’s where that lowest common denominator standard seems to have been applied – is grapey and one-dimensional, as are far too many basic Loire Gamay. The wine should qualify as AOC Touraine but has been declassified to Vin de Table, presumably because of its intensity of flavor and aroma.

A sauvage aromatic character, somewhat akin to the sweet scents of a well-trodden pasture, replaces simple grapiness. There’s a depth that extends beyond bright red fruit into a more brooding backbone of black fruits and spice. Clove and five spice both come to mind. Up front, the chalkiness I often associate with young Beaujolais is there; however, on the finish, there’s a hint of tingly minerality that roots the wine in the Loire. Best served slightly chilled, this is soft enough to be enjoyed alone for its wonderful fruit and aroma but textured enough to sit well at the table. And at less than $15/bottle, it’s an excellent value, AOC or no AOC.

Image of Thierry Puzelat courtesy of Louis/Dressner Selections.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On Savennières Typicity

After writing recently about a couple of Loire Valley Chenin Blancs, a reader (who also happened to be a participant in the tasting) raised a question: just what are the typical characteristics of Savennières? If you look back through the comments to that posting, you’ll find my response as well as one from fellow Loire wine lover, Brooklynguy. I’d like to think that we both did a fine job; in fact, I think an amalgam of our two responses really nails it. That said, I thought it would be even more revealing to turn the floor over to Ms. Jacqueline Friedrich, author of the benchmark text “A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire.” In her opening to the section about Savennières, Ms. Friedrich writes about as good an encapsulation of the wine’s typicity as I can imagine:

“Savennières makes the ultimate dry Chenin Blanc…. It is, I think, the most cerebral wine in the world. When fully mature, it is breathtaking. All about majesty, the wine spreads across the palate like cream, revealing glimpses of flavor like an ever-changing landscape, a bale of hay, a whiff of chamomile, a basket of dried flowers, honey blended with quince and apricot or peach, the sting of citrus zests, a sonorous wave of minerals. Simultaneously taut and lyrical, bone-dry yet marrowy, it is a stroll along steep slate hillsides with Chenin. A wine of discovery, of reflection, Savennières is not for the uninitiated.”

Though that concept of “initiation” into a wine’s secrets may seem snobbish, I don’t debate it. Savennières, to me, is one of those wines, like the best Rieslings from Germany or fine red Burgundy, which can be very difficult to understand. Those that do understand often love them with a violent passion; those that don’t often write them off as overrated, just not for them or, worse yet, bad. Friedrich’s passion for Savennières, if it wasn’t already obvious from her opening definition, is made achingly clear in her description of a wine from Domaine des Baumard. I was reminded of her words when subjected to a serious ribbing the other day from some of my friends and coworkers regarding the sometimes tortured syntax of my own notes. Something about “titular subjugation,” I seem to recall.... Anyway, her description is one of the most poetic yet over-the-top wine tasting notes I’ve yet to encounter. Here it is, for your very own reading pleasure:

“A ’75 Clos du Papillon [was] so glorious it brought tears to my eyes. It is one of the six most memorable wines I’ve ever tasted. A fine weave of fleeting aromas and flavors, a whiff of menthol, then ginger, the mellow toast of the best oak (though it never saw a barrel), quinine, cranberries, and chamomile, and a long, sapid citrus zest and mineral finish. It was fully evolved yet fresh as dew. It was Balanchine, Petipa. Nothing could better express the combination of lyricism and tensile strength, the sensuality underlying sheer intellect, the ethereal floating above a solid base. Les Sylphides in a glass. It was like nothing else in the world.”

* * *

For those of you with an interest in the wines of the Loire Valley, I wholeheartedly recommend Ms. Friedrich’s book. First published in 1996, it does have the automatic shortcoming of any wine book that includes vintage and tasting notes: most of the specific wines she describes are no longer readily available. However, the depth of knowledge, both objective and personal, she applies to her subject matter makes it a book that I feel is without peer when it comes to coverage of Loire Valley wines. She’s not afraid to tell you what she likes and what she doesn’t, nor does she shirk from turning a stern eye on some of the Loire’s most noted producers. Again in the context of Savennières, her summation of the wines from the famed estate of Nicolas Joly, Coulée de Serrant, should be enough to set anyone thinking. I’ll leave that quote, though, to your own exploration.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Loire Valley Wines… Let Me Count the Ways

Diversity. Character. Expression.

Sounds like it could be a commercial slogan for just about any high market product, no? Add food friendliness to the list and you have four of the many reasons that I love Loire Valley wines. Those factors are all captured in a delicious wine from the Touraine that I enjoyed with dinner this week. It may be my favorite rosé of the year (at least so far).

Touraine Pineau d’Aunis Rosé, Clos Roche Blanche 2007
$15. 12% alcohol. Neocork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
Diversity? Where else are Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Côt, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc grown right alongside local oddities like Pineau d’Aunis and Menu Pineau? Character? This is seriously distinctive wine that couldn’t come from anyplace else. Expression? The varietal character of Pineau d’Aunis shows through, even in a rosé, where grape variety can often be innocuous. Loire terroir is also expressed; even with the assertive personality of Pineau d’Aunis, there’s still an aspect of delicacy at play, largely thanks to light, refreshing acidity. Food friendliness? I’d be happy to drink a glass of this on its own but, for many, this might demand food. I enjoyed it with a very simple dinner – turkey burgers and a salad – but I could envision this pairing well with anything from poultry to sausages to grilled seafood.

There’s a remarkable match between the wine’s color and one of its dominant flavor elements: watermelon rind. Think of the pale pink watermelon pith left just above the pale green/white of the rind itself. Add to that a generous dash of cracked black pepper and slightly raspy texture and you’ve got a good sense of the wine. It’s rustic and a little awkward but extremely charming, all the same. Air contact and the concomitant slow rise in temperature bring out aromas of fallen leaves and potpourri. If forced to draw a parallel, I’d think of it as a cross between Cabernet Franc and Syrah, though what it really reminds me of is the Fer Servadou, aka Mansois, native to Marcillac in Southwest France. At $15, this is also a welcome example of the fact that many Loire wines continue to provide not just great character but also great value.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Notes from a Sunday

Just a few notes today, from a casual get together with the usual suspects. In this edition, we started off with a couple of beauties from 2005 in the Loire before moving on to a Bourgogne Passetoutgarin, which I already wrote up under separate cover earlier this week. With dinner, an older Bordeaux seemed in order. Finally, my buddy Bill begrudgingly admitted to a Syrah epiphany.

Jasnières “Les Rosiers,” Domaine de Bellivière (Eric Nicolas) 2005
“Les Rosiers” is Eric Nicolas’ young vine cuvée of Jasnières, 100% Chenin Blanc fermented and aged primarily in barrels of 1-3 years with a small percentage of new oak. Though usually sec-tendre in style, this seems closer to demi-sec richness, no doubt due to the concentration provided by the 2005 vintage. It also happens to be showing as well if not better than any whites I’ve had from Bellivière in the past. Its richness is well bridled, thanks to the good acidity bound up in the wine’s creamy texture. There’s an unmistakable essence of pear nectar right up front, followed by classic notes of clover flowers and honey-glazed minerals. After aeration, some botrytis driven and vegetal funk sneaks through on the mid-palate but there’s still excellent upper and rear palate feel. Pears galore on the finish. $25. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.

Savennières “Cuvée Spéciale,” Château d’Epiré 2005
The “Cuvée Spéciale” from Château d’Epiré represents a selection of the best fruit from the property, mostly from a plot located adjacent to Nicolas Joly’s “Coullée de Serrant.” The version handled by d’Epiré’s US importer, Kermit Lynch, differs from that sold in France, as Kermit gives strict instruction that the wine be bottled without filtration. As opposed to the Jasnières above, this is a bone-dry expression of Chenin. Vintage derived concentration plays a role here as well, resulting in a slightly aggressive frontal attack, the result of intense physiological extract and slightly high alcohol. The wine bristles with mineral density. Flavors of gooseberry and white grapes are followed by dried floral and herbal elements, subtle on the nose, magnified on the palate. After a couple hours of airtime, a scent of spearmint emerges, something I think of as a signature element of dry Savennières. Very good wine that could definitely benefit from cellaring to allow integration and development. $23. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.

Haut-Médoc, Château Guittot-Fellonneau 1997
Guy Constantin produces real, old-fashioned Bordeaux from a whopping four hectares of property on the outskirts of the town of Macau. His estate is just a stone throw – on the wrong side of the road, essentially – from falling within the borders of Margaux. Lucky for us, as the wines could still be had for under $20 only a few years ago; unlucky for him as a more privileged address might have made him a slightly wealthier man by now. 1997 was universally panned by the big critics – proof “embottled” that points don’t mean a thing, as I’ve enjoyed several delicious ‘97s from a number of small-to-medium Châteaux over the last year or two. This has a long way to go but is starting to show some lovely bottle development. The nose is loaded with graphite/lead pencil aromas along with black and red currant fruit, a touch of bay leaf and really savory earthiness. Medium-bodied, taut and well delineated, it’s a damn good example of Bordeaux that’s not only inexpensive but can also be enjoyed with more than just steak and lamb. In this case, we paired it with braised chicken breasts and mushrooms, a dish Bill adapted from a recipe in Pierre Franey’s “Cuisine Rapide.” $17 on release. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Saint-Joseph Rouge, Domaine Georges Vernay 2006
Bill is a self-avowed Syrah hater. He loves red wine, mind you, as long as it’s from Burgundy, the Loire, Beaujolais or Piedmont. He’s even been know to drink Grenache based wines from time to time. But Syrah? Nope. I’ve been out to prove him misguided for a while now and the opportunity finally presented itself a few weeks back when I hosted one of these Sunday gigs at my place; most are at his. I’d given strict instructions that he not bring anything. Translation: he was at my mercy. I poured a bottle half-blind, meaning I knew what it was but the rest of my guests had no idea. It was a bit unfair, I suppose, not just because of the trap but also because it was an older bottle. A damn good one, at that, the 1997 Cornas “Vieilles Vignes” from Alain Voge, a really top-notch if somewhat underappreciated producer.

Bill liked it. After I told him what it was, he still liked it. So much so that he went shopping a little while later and came home with an armful of another Northern Rhône Syrah, the Saint-Joseph Rouge from Domaine Georges Vernay. Bill liked this one as well. I did too. It’s a really fine example of young Saint-Joseph, redolent of dark red berries, cinnamon and black pepper, with a streak of black olive and bacon, a hint of beefiness and supple but really visceral texture. Medium-bodied, no discernible oak and a totally transparent winemaking style. Sandwiched between Christine Vernay’s basic VdP Syrah, which is only about $10 less, and her Côte-Rôtie, which run three-to-four times the price, this is a really solid value, suitable for drinking now or stashing away for the next ten years. $30. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

WBW 48 and MFWT 300: A Blast from My Past

Well, it’s that time of the month again – Wine Blogging Wednesday time. Today marks the 48th installment of the venerable institution, making it the 4th anniversary of the event started way back in 2004 by Lenn Thompson of LennDevours. By way of celebration, Lenn is also hosting today’s edition. It’s a milestone of sorts for me as well – my 300th post. So, a special thank you goes out to Lenn, not only for hosting but also for his serendipitous good timing.

Mr. Thompson’s theme for the day is getting back to your roots. Your wine drinking roots, that is. In his words, “I just want you to pick one of the wines from the beginning of your journey, taste it again for the first time in a while, and tell us about it.”

I’ve decided to tell you about three different wines, representing three different phases of my formative wine years. In a rare example of MFWT restraint, though, I’m only going to revisit one. However, so as not to disappoint anyone, I promise to spice things up a bit in another fashion. It’s a long journey, so sit back and relax.

While wine has been an important part, parcel and passion of my adult years, it took a distant back seat, from my childhood all the way through young adulthood, to music. I wrote about music long before I ever dreamed of writing about wine. Though I’m nowhere near as actively involved in the music scene as I was at one time, music – like wine – remains a strong driving force in my life. So, without further ado, here’s an entry from McDuff’s Wine & Music Trail: the formative years.

Part One: Early History

It’s not that wine was never around my house or on the table when I was a kid. For my folks, though, wine was not a serious matter of interest. The bottles that did make it onto the table were generally the usual suspects of the 1970s: Mateus and Lancers, Black Tower and, only around the holidays, Andre Cold Duck. It’s the latter of the bunch, the purple, fizzy juice called Cold Duck, which stands out most clearly in memory. Whether there’s any truth to it I’ll never know but my parents were convinced that Cold Duck was my grandmother’s favorite tipple. So almost without fail, it made an appearance on the table at every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal throughout my childhood years. No offense to Andre, whoever he is, but I’m not about to plunk down any of my hard earned cash on a bottle of Cold Duck, even if it is for WBW. So, you’ll have to settle for a picture (courtesy of WineChef) and a taste of what I might have been listening to before sitting down to one of those holiday meals.

My first teensy taste ever might have coincided with something like this:

By the time I was allowed a real sip or two, it was probably more like this:

And during the heart of my skateboarding years of teen rebellion, it just might have been:

Cold Duck was there all the way.

Part Two: The Awakening

What was the first wine that really opened my eyes? I hate to tell you I can’t remember exactly what it was. I do remember, though, where and when I drank it, at a long defunct restaurant in Baltimore. I think the name was Auberge or Aubergine… it’s been a long time. I was in college and was also a pretty strict vegetarian at the time. Our waitress suggested a wine for our meal, a Mosel Riesling, most likely a Kabinett from the late 70’s or early 80’s. I remember that much, just not the producer or any more specific information. What I definitely remember is an incredibly refreshing, flavorful blast of apple and peach fruit, and the distinct minerality of the wine. It was also great with whatever was on my plate. I was sold. Not to the point of becoming an instant wine geek, mind you, but I was henceforth very interested in the possibilities. It would just be another few years before I really dove in and started to explore them.

Riesling remains, to this day, one of my true wine passions. Because I write about it here with some regularity, I opted not to pick one as the wine to taste for this episode. If that bums you out, there’s plenty to read here. At around the time of that eye-opening bottle, by the way, I was almost certainly into something like this:

The sound/video quality's not great but it was a fun show.

Part Three: The Trail

By the late 1980s, wine had become a much more regular exploration for me. It was during my first trip to the Napa Valley in the early 90s, though, that the big bug really bit. I was accompanied by the woman who would eventually become my wife. And I was hooked. California Cabernet (and Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Riesling, etc.) would become my primary focus for the next few years. I was already exploring European wines at the time but the best wines we tasted on that trip took me in their grip.

We visited several wineries on that first journey, as well as taking in the sites of the valley. The winery that really stood out for me was V. Sattui. Their tasting room is a pretty little spot on Highway 29 between Rutherford and St. Helena, right in the heart of the valley. It’s still a fun place to stop for a picnic lunch and a glass of wine. We tasted everything they offered us that day, from Muscat and Gamay Rosé to estate bottled Cabs. I joined their wine club on the spot, my first and, to this day, only wine club. I’ve long since canceled my membership and long since consumed most of the wines. I also don’t drink California wines nearly as often as back then. However, there are still a few bottles of V. Sattui Cabernet Sauvignon, just a few, lingering in my cellar from the latter days of that monthly subscription. Lenn’s choice of topics has given me a perfect excuse to dispatch with one of them.

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Suzanne’s Vineyard,” V. Sattui Winery 1995
I’m consistently amazed at how differently good California wines and good European wines evolve. At thirteen years from its vintage, this is still extremely solid in color, a dark ruby red just barely going pale around the edge of the glass. It’s also still surprisingly sturdy, with resolved but firm tannins and an edge of acidity that still merits a good grilled steak. 1995 sits right between the two benchmark vintages of ’94 and ’97 in Napa, a period when things started to change from the leaner, food friendly styles of the past into today’s prevalent big-point, fruit-bomb style. This bottle still shows a sweet fruited element that’s typical to wines from the period but it also possesses a real sense of Napa Valley terroir that’s all too hard to find in many of today’s wines.

The first thing I notice when I stuck my nose in the glass was a pure blast of eucalyptus, immediate and unmistakable. Following that minty nose were hints of thyme and cedar riding on a crest of medium-rich red currant fruit. The oak influence is still present but drying and well balanced by the wine’s other traits. After an hour or two of air, the alcohol – even at a modest, fairly old school 13% level – makes itself more known than I’d like. I’d hardly chalk it up as a classic of the ages, but it’s still a pretty solid wine, one that hasn’t lost touch with its roots. I’d be happy to drink it again.

Oh yeah, the tunes….

These guys were there for me through Parts 2 and 3, and they're still turning me on today.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Exploring Burgundy: Bourgogne Passetoutgrain

In one sense, Bourgogne Passetoutgrain is one of the easiest to understand of Burgundy’s multitude of appellations. Just follow the typical blending recipe of around 1/3 Pinot Noir and 2/3 Gamay – the fruit can be grown anywhere in Burgundy – and you’ve got the basics covered.

Of course, there’s at least a little more to it than that. Passetoutgrain (sometimes written as Passe-Tout-Grains) is a regional appellation spanning over 1200 hectares of potential vineyard area from the Yonne Department in the north to the Mâconnais in the south. Unlike Bourgogne Rouge, which is nearly always varietal Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Passetoutgrain must always be a blended red wine. The AOC discipline requires at least 1/3 Pinot Noir and allows for up to but not more than 2/3 Gamay. Additionally, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris may be included up to a cumulative maximum of 15%. All varieties are typically co-fermented. The wines are generally designed for early, casual drinking.

As with the misleadingly apparent simplicity of understanding Bourgogne Rouge, there can actually be much more to Passetoutgrain than the above definitions suggest. Stylistic expressions of Passetoutgrain don’t tend to be as diverse as with Bourgogne Rouge. However, as with Bourgogne, a Passetoutgrain from a large négociant house may include fruit sourced from throughout all of Burgundy, truly a broadly regional expression. The wine from a small grower, on the other hand, may come solely from one village or even one vineyard. While I’d never hold up a Passetoutgrain as an exemplar of the typicity of, say, Gevrey or Chambolle, a PTG sourced purely from one of those villages is likely to have different character than one from the Mâcon or from one that represents a hodgepodge of sources. Add to that the available blending options, not to mention the question of quality, and there’s actually quite a range of possibilities. If such things matter to you – hence much of the conundrum with understanding Burgundy – the only real way to begin to know the wine is to get to know the producer.

Bourgogne Passetoutgrain “L’Exception,” Domaine Michel Lafarge 2004
Domaine Lafarge, a twelve-hectare property situated in Volnay, traces its history back to the early 19th Century. Frédéric Lafarge, working alongside his father Michel, converted the estate to completely biodynamic practices as of 2000. Lafarge’s “L’Exception” is a special cuvée, produced from very old vines, which has built a reputation for being more cellar-worthy than most other Passetoutgrains, including the estate’s regular bottling. This 2004 would seem to speak to that, as it’s still carrying plenty of vitality and should live at least a few more years before beginning its decline. It’s medium-bodied, lean and edgy in texture, with granitic minerality and a spicy, smoky personality. Clove, corned beef and pipe resin dominate the nose, while a stemmy, red berry character buzzes through on the palate. A classic Passetoutgrain sparring match between high-toned background notes and a rustic exterior. It’s also very food friendly. $25. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Cellars Ltd., Briarcliff, NY.

Vineyard image courtesy of Domaine Michel Lafarge.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Philly Food Bloggers Prepare to Invade Fairmount Park

Thanks to the intrepid organizational efforts of Ms. Taylor High, aka Lady Mac & Cheese, this coming Sunday, August 17, will mark the fourth installment of the Philly Food Bloggers Meetup and Potluck. If you're involved in some way in food, wine or beverage blogging in the greater Philadelphia area, haven't already received your invitation and would like to attend, just drop a line to (at) gmail (dot) com. Include a link to your blog, podcast, website or what have you and she'll send an invitation your way. We'll be picnicking all afternoon, going al fresco for meetup number four, so come on out.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Don't Touch That Stereo

Trouble Funk in all their glory. All I can remember is dancing, if you want to call it that, until drenched and totally satisfied. Go-Go was one of the great by-products of the early-to-mid-80's DC scene. Crank it up. And have a great weekend.

Friday, August 8, 2008

R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rosado

I’ll be right up front in disclosing that I don’t know all that much about the history or technical specifications of the wines of R. Lopez de Heredia. For more detailed background information than I can provide, a good starting point might be this post at Sniff and Quaff, a blog that’s new to me. Of course, the Lopez de Heredia website might provide some insight, too.

Image courtesy of

One thing I can say is that R. Lopez de Heredia’s Rioja have a reputation for extremely long life. Even their Rosado bucks the general rule that most rosés are best consumed in their first year in the bottle. And then some. I can also tell you that the wines, regardless of color, spend an extraordinary length of time resting in old wood casks, an oxidative process that eventually becomes – at least, if all things go right – antioxidative. Think of it, if it helps, in the terms of calluses on one’s palms, developed through hard work, or on one’s feet, the side effect of shoeless summers. In one sense, those calluses are scar tissue, a transformation caused by exposure and abrasion; however, they also offer a certain level of protection from further harm.

Rioja Gran Reserva "Viña Tondonia" Rosado, R. Lopez de Heredia 1997
There’s nothing bruised or callused about this wine, though. A blend of 20% Tempranillo, 60% Garnacha and 20% Viura, it’s come through its ten-plus year sleep with shining colors, all delicacy and distinction. Its hue, more pale apricot and new copper than pink, hints somewhat at its age. So do its aromas, at least some of them. Dried rose petals and persimmons were the first things to greet my nose, followed by a whiff of orange pekoe tea. Freshness still abounds as well, with peach skins, apricot pits and a touch of bitter orange marmalade – minus any and all suggestions of sweetness – vibrating with nervy acidity on the palate. Top that all off with a slightly saline, iodine mineral character and plenty of finesse. At this point, it’s likely that each and every bottle may result in a slightly different experience. This one was singing.

On a day when I answered one of Dr. Vino’s impossible wine pairing challenges with the suggestion of rosé (albeit of a different style than this), I’d like to pose the reverse challenge. What would you pair, or have you paired, with this wine?

I served it last night with a simple salad of fresh greens, heirloom tomatoes and decent oil-packed tuna, dressed with nothing other than a little good quality olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper. It’s a meal for which I’d almost automatically look to rosé. But it dominated Heredia’s Rosado. Nothing unpleasant resulted, mind you. The food just wiped away the delicacy and nuance of the vino.

As big a champion as I am of enjoying wine at the table rather than as a cocktail, every once in a while a wine comes along that may just be best with nothing at all. But please, prove me wrong. Let me know your thoughts.

$23. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Polaner Selections, Mt. Kisco, NY.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Getting Back to New York

This post is a couple of weeks overdue now. In fact, if not for the “Coming Soon” roster in this blog’s left sidebar, it may have been lost (if not forgotten) in the land of posts that never saw the light of day. So, depending on your outlook – not to mention my constant reminder – that roster may be a blessing or a curse. In any event, I thought it would be fun to hit on some of my favorite places to visit in Manhattan, some of them bordering on ritual, along with one or two new spots. Whatever highlights and lowlights appear, they’re meant to connect the dots between the star-attractions already covered here over the last few weeks: dinner at Del Posto with the sparkling wines of Venturini-Baldini; an invitation to dine chez Brooklynguy; terrific ramen at Rai Rai Ken; and a stop at one of my favorite NY cheese mongers.

It may seem odd to the average New York tourist but to all you die-hard wine and food blog readers out there, it should come as no surprise that my jaunts to the city are largely built around, you guessed it, wine and food. It’s not that I never see a show (though it’s usually something off-off-Broadway), or hit any of the city’s world class museums and galleries. Nor that I don’t take advantage of New York’s great music scene with a stop at Jazz Standard, Tonic (currently on hiatus) or Knitting Factory, to name but a few faves. But a simple visit with friends combined with a little eating, drinking and shopping is often just what the doctor ordered. It can make for a great battery recharge.

The spot that borders most closely on ritual – I almost never miss a visit unless I’m stuck uptown for the duration of my stay – must be the Union Square Green Market (pictured above). It’s not that I usually stock up on the various and sundry goodies there, as walking around town for a couple of days with bags full of meat and veg doesn’t really work. I just love to check out what’s available. Besides, it’s a great place to experience humanity and to soak up some good vibes. On this visit, I did stop at Rick’s Picks for some GT-1000s, curried green tomato pickles that are fantastic on burgers and sandwiches.

Aside from the wine dinner at Del Posto, there were no high-art restaurant meals on this trip. I did stop in at an old school standby, though. In its entire scope, Balthazar may just be the closest thing to a real Parisian bistro on this side of the Atlantic. Though dinner there is plenty good – and the wine list has only improved over the years – my preferred times of day at Balthazar are morning and mid-afternoon. Breakfast it was, on this trip. I opted for the omelette with herbs. Done to a tee. Even the homefries were good. My pal Peter went whole hog. His standby, the full English breakfast, is enough to keep one’s motor running clear through to dinner time.

Lunch at Bouley Market & Bakery, on the other hand, was one of the lowlights of the trip. The place certainly has potential but it seems to suffer from a mixture of smug success and malign neglect. I might have liked the lobster salad sandwich if it hadn’t been pre-made. The raw materials were certainly good enough. Instead, it was strangely balanced between soggy and stale. It’s tough when the lighting fixtures are the most interesting thing a place has going for it.

No trip to New York is complete, at least for me, without at least a little wine shopping. Chambers Street Wines stands out for their fantastic selection of natural wines from the Loire Valley and Beaujolais, as well as for pretty solid selections in Burgundy, the Rhône, Champagne and Piedmont. There are plenty of wine geek oddballs to be found there as well, among the wines that is. Through August 9, most of what’s left in the shop is on sale for 20% off as they prepare for a move to a new location.

I’m still on the fence about Italian Wine Merchants. I stop by whenever I’m in the neighborhood as it’s hard to pass up the hedonistically voyeuristic aspects of browsing through their selection of wines from the likes of Giuseppe Quintarelli and Giacomo Conterno. It's also one of the prettiest, most peaceful wine stores I know. The problem is, I’m often left feeling like the shop exists mainly as a trophy case, as an outlet for the well heeled collector rather than the every day connoisseur. The fact that the shop is arranged by price point – wines get more expensive the deeper you get into the store – only seems to support that feeling. I guess I shouldn’t harp too stridently, though. On my most recent visit, I was helped by a very pleasant sales consultant who finagled their last bottle of Movia’s Ribolla Gialla “Lunar” for me even though it was earmarked for another customer. (Lest you’re thinking that was actually a disservice, there was more on order).

Lastly, I also had the pleasure of visiting a shop that was new to me, De Vino, owned by the ebullient Gabrio Tosti who writes occasionally on his shop-oriented blog, Vite Vinifera. Located just up the block from WD-50 and a short walk south from the Essex Street Market, De Vino sits in a thriving neighborhood and seems loaded with potential. Offerings are primarily from Italy, rounded out by small selections from the rest of Europe. Regrettably, I didn’t snap any pictures of my own so I’ll have to rely on one borrowed from De Vino’s website. No worries, though. I’m ready to go back.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Exploring Burgundy: Irancy

Irancy is a small hamlet, with little over 300 inhabitants, situated roughly equidistant from Auxerre and Chablis, within the viticultural heart of the Auxerrois district of the Yonne Department. As in the neighboring wine villages of Chitry and Saint-Bris, the wines of Irancy make relatively rare appearances on the export market but can be extremely characterful when at their best. Formerly labeled as Bourgogne Irancy, the village was granted full communal AOC status, only for red wines, in 1998, its titular subjugation to Bourgogne thenceforth becoming unnecessary.

At latitude 47° 43' North – similar in position to Seattle, Washington or St. Johns, Newfoundland – Irancy is situated at such a northerly location that the wines can vary significantly from one year to the next, reflecting changes in vintage character even more obviously than the reds of the Côte d’Or. What really sets Irancy apart, though, is the autochthonous vine César, originally planted by the Romans.

The amphitheater-like lay of the Irancy landscape helps protect the vines from frost and ensures enough sunlight for fruit to ripen in this otherwise peripheral location.

Jancis Robinson, in her typically phlegmatic fashion, dismisses César with a quick wave of a hand in her tome, Vines, Grapes & Wines. Nonetheless, I am indebted to her for a thorough cataloging of César’s synonyms, which include Céear, Célar, Romain, Ronçain, Picargneau, Gros Monsieur and Gros Noir. And here’s a little more Césarian trivia for you. To my knowledge, Irancy is the only site specific AOC in Burgundy where the inclusion of a variety aside from Pinot Noir is considered traditional (though it’s still not required). It’s allowed – essentially as a seasoning variety – only up to 10% but, when used, offers enough of a peppering to make its personality known.

Irancy “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine Anita, Jean-Pierre & Stéphanie Colinot 2004
Jean-Pierre Colinot should appear on just about every short list of the top producers in Irancy, not that there are many such lists given the relative obscurity of the AOC. He, his wife Anita and their daughter Stéphanie tend 12.5 hectares of vines, producing roughly 5,000 cases of wine per year. There’s a lovely profile of his estate in the Fodor’s Rivages volume, Wines and Vineyards of Character and Charm in France. The authors describe Jean-Pierre as “A magnificent raconteur who tells you about his village… and champions the César, ‘the archaeological grape variety of Irancy’…. Like the man, the red wines here have character and they talk back.” As I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting M. Colinot, I can’t speak to his garrulousness; however, having drunk his wines over the years, I can vouch for the character of his wines and his championing of César.

Colinot’s Irancy are always more deeply colored than most other reds of the Yonne, no doubt due to the inclusion of the dark fleshed César in most if not all of his cuvées. The César also tends to lend a rustic, spicy character to the more delicate inclinations of Auxerrois Pinot Noir. It shows in the estate’s 2004 Irancy “Vieilles Vignes” via immediate aromas of black pepper, burnt rubber and rhubarb. This is not your silky, sexy rendition of red Burgundy but it does deliver plenty of character, as promised. After about 15 minutes of aeration, its reductive tendencies subside and a sweet and sour, glazed red fruit element emerges which, with further air, develops into more clearly focused aromas and flavors of sweet red raspberries. Firm grip and tensile acidity, along with relatively lean fruit and those initially wild aromas, add a foreboding character to the wine as a stand-alone sipper but help it to really come alive in the presence of food. It is still showing plenty of freshness and should develop positively for another three-to-five years and continue to hold its own for up to ten. $18 on release. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

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For those whose French is passable, or for those like me who are in dire need of practice, the Syndicat des Viticulteurs d’Irancy maintains a well designed and informative website, including a neat profile of Domaine Colinot. I’m indebted to the Syndicat for most of the photos used here, save that of the bottle with le chien qui s’appelle Luc, which is my own.

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