Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reflections on Thanksgiving

November has been a quieter than normal month here at MFWT. Even if Black Friday is essentially a non-event in small, independent wine shop circles, the cold weather and holiday inspired shopping season has kicked things into a higher gear at work. Combine that with the social demands of the season and I’ve had a hard time of late squeezing the time for blogging into my day-to-day routine.

It’s those “social demands,” though, that can make the Thanksgiving season so meaningful. It can be a time of stress, I know, and a time where losses and absences are more strongly felt. Why, I don’t know, but this year I’ve been thinking a lot about old times.

I’ve been thinking about places that hold a special place in my memories but have sadly been swept away by the times, like DC Space, where I spent many a great night during my teens and twenties.

And I’ve been thinking about old friends, taken away by nature far before their time should have come, like Eva, who was a good friend in high school. She was one of those incredibly and naturally gifted artists that always seem to live and function on a slightly different plane from everyone else around them. She introduced me to the pleasures of a good gin and tonic and taught me to appreciate the depth of soul in the voice of Aretha Franklin. But it’s the haunting beauty of Eva’s own voice that embodies my feelings around the holiday this year.

The Thanksgiving season is a perfect time to appreciate everything that is important to us. Even though it’s obviously been a reflective time for me this year, Thanksgiving is also a holiday I enjoy for the pure joy of sharing good food and wine along with good company. It’s really that coming together with loved ones – to share everything, happy or sad, past and present – that makes it a special time. Some of those happier notes are soon to come. I promise. So thanks for listening.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Grower Champagne Dinner at Domaine Hudson

As often as I extol the virtues of sparkling wine’s place at the table, it’s far from often that I have the opportunity to sit down to a five course dinner paired exclusively with Champagne. That’s just what I did last night, though, courtesy of an invite from Tom Hudson, owner of Wilmington, Delaware’s Domaine Hudson (and a semi-frequent commenter on this blog).

The evening's lineup.

In addition to overseeing the day-to-day activities at Wilmington’s only wine bar, Tom coordinates an occasional series of focused tasting and wine dinner events. This latest shindig paired the food of executive chefs Jason Barrowcliff and Mark Doto with selections from the Champagne portfolio of Terry Theise. Unable to attend himself, Mr. Theise, I’m told, personally selected the Champagnes on offer after contemplating the menu the chefs had designed for the affair. In the absence of Terry or one of his usual representatives, Tom invited Linda Collier, proprietor of Collier’s Wines in Centreville, Delaware, to provide color commentary for the evening’s proceedings. The real stars of the show, though, were the Champagnes that not only spoke for themselves but also spoke, more often than not, in harmony with the food on offer.

Green Eggs and Ham – warm poached egg, herb emulsion, spinach, crispy pancetta and warm shallot compote on brioche
Champagne Brut “Tradition,” Gaston Chiquet NV (Dizy)
The first duo set a tough standard, one of those pairings where everything harmonized really well. The initially reductive characteristics of the Champagne clicked, right off the bat, with the salty, smoky flavors of the pancetta crisp. As the wine warmed, its Meunier dominated flavors became more apparent, showing touches of nut bread, pear and red flowers, all of which flavors were heightened by the richness of the egg protein and sweetness of the caramelized shallots on the plate.

Prosciutto and Arugula with toasted walnuts, fig, shaved parmiggiano and orange-vanilla vinaigrette
Champagne Grand Cru Sec “Cuvée Tendresse,” Jean Milan NV (Oger)
I’m still not a big fan of Milan’s “Tendresse.” I just can’t get my arms around its highly perfumed, slightly confected being. On this night, it was tasting, straight up, like the “liqueur” from a jar of maraschino cherries and that, my friend, wasn’t helping me come to terms with it. All of that said, this was one of those pairings where food helped the wine to make more sense. The Champagne worked with what was essentially a salad course in much the same way as can a Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel or Saar, its combination of delicate sweetness and high acidity playing nice-nice with the notoriously difficult combination of greens and vinegar. The sweetness of Prosciutto certainly didn’t hurt, even if the dish would have been even better minus the insidious influence of a few drops of truffle oil.

Pan Seared Day Boat Scallop with exotic mushroom-goat cheese strudel and herbed truffle-carrot broth
Champagne Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs “Fleuron” Brut, Pierre Gimonnet et Fils 2002 (Cuis)
Truffle oil again… but this time it worked, courtesy of the vinosity and well developed mineral flavors of Gimonnet’s vintage “Fleuron.” At once rich and delicate, the wine showed elements of sandalwood and white chocolate, marrying naturally with the sweetness of the scallops, carrots and mushrooms. As with the Chiquet, “Fleuron” really developed with air, its grippy texture and phenolic concentration becoming more apparent via its upward shift in temperature. Lilacs and baking spices emerged on the nose and the wine displayed excellent length. This time, the Champagne may just have stolen the show, even though this was my favorite dish of the night.

Roasted Barrel Cut Rib Eye with sage-pepper coulis and parmiggiano polenta
Champagne Premier Cru “Sélection” Brut, Marc Hébrart NV (Mareuil-sur-Ay)
Tom admitted to being skeptical as to whether Champagne could hold up to a beef course, a doubt I’m sure he wasn’t alone in holding. I wasn’t among the doubters, though, as I’ve had many a black fruit driven Champagne with more than enough structure to stand up to red meat. As it turned out, Hébrart’s “Sélection” was indeed up to the task. Even if nothing was added via its combination with the steak, it held its own, tasting pretty darn decadent along the way. It was actually the streak of tomato coulis painted down the middle of the plate that threw the wine for a loop, with a zesty tang that was too assertive for the wine to match.

Warm Berry Crisp with vanilla ice cream
Champagne Premier Cru “Le Demi-Sec,” A. Margaine NV (Villers-Marmery)
Well, four out of five ain’t bad. I don’t think even a fully doux Champagne could have withstood the berry crisp’s triumvirate of acidic fruit, high sweetness and tongue numbing, mouth coating frozen dairy product. Margaine’s demi-sec was blasted out of the water. The dessert was actually quite tasty, just not the pairing. Even after finishing the crisp it was tough to discern any detail in the wine. Theise had apparently warned Tom that this might be the case.... I’m generally a proponent of wine following food but here’s a case where it might have been best to tailor a dessert specifically for the wine. Milk chocolate beignets, perhaps? Or a lightly sweet apple tart?

No harm done, though. Just as we can sometimes learn more about someone based on what they don’t like versus what they do enjoy, the occasional awkward pairing is an integral element in learning the ins and outs of the greater food and wine experience.

Gimonnet's 2002 "Fleuron" was the wine of the night.

Domaine Hudson
1314 N. Washington Street
Wilmington, DE 19801
(302) 655-WINE
Domaine Hudson Winebar & Etry on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bark and Bite in the Touraine, or Clos Roche Blanche is The Schist

I was reading around my usual circuits of the blogosphere yesterday in search of a little inspiration and found it in the form of a rave from Mike Drapkin at The Schist. [Link now defunct, as is The Schist, I'm sorry to report.] The quest for what to open with dinner – grilled New York strip, a birthday treat from my wife – was complete. And while I could have opted for a special bottle of Barolo, Brunello or that old chophouse classic California Cab, what I opted for instead was Cabernet of a different ilk.

Touraine Cabernet, Clos Roche Blanche 2006. $16. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
The label image above is borrowed from the 2005 vintage and Mike wrote-up the 2007. I went with the 2006, which just happened to be hanging out at home, waiting its turn in line. This is cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon, full of bark and bite. It’s a little darker and more brooding than the typically lean, light Cabernets of the Anjou yet is much brighter and snappier than the Cabernets we all know from warmer climes. More like a scrappy terrier or whip smart border collie than the muscular, sometimes plodding rottweilers and mastiffs of Bordeaux and Napa. Its nose is typical of Clos Roche Blanche in general, outdoorsy, animal and very forthcoming, pretty much brimming with fresh crushed blackberries and currants spiked with a sprig of bay laurel. The wine’s jagged texture requires food, its cool tannins standing out in stark relief to its bright, medium-bodied fruit. A match made in heaven for a rich cut of steak done black and blue, no. It worked well enough, though, that a second pour effortlessly found its way into my glass. And it’s a wine so loaded with life and character that I’d be happy to drink it on a regular basis, which seems to be a recurring theme with me when it comes to CRB.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Due Nebbioli I Didn't Like

Regular readers will have deduced by now that I feel a particular affinity toward the wines of Piedmont, in particular to the many regional iterations of Nebbiolo. I like Nebbiolo, too, when grown in the precarious, high altitude area of Valtellina, nestled near the Swiss Alps in northern Lombardy. Yet sometimes I do drink wines from both regions that I don’t like. I just don’t write about them as often as the wines I do enjoy. Sometimes, though, you can learn just as much if not more about someone’s tastes by what they don’t like as compared to what they do.

Sometimes, there’s the wine I’ll buy in hopes of liking it….

Rosso di Valtellina, Sandro Fay 2005. $13.50. 12% alcohol. Synthetic. Importer: Omniwines, Linden Hill, NY.
Nebbiolo is an incredibly finicky vine. It requires perfectly selected vineyard sites if it’s to ripen adequately and provide wine of any real character. Piedmont and Lombardy seem to be the only two regions on the globe where that happens with any consistency. It’s also temperamental, both in the vineyard and the cellar; a vine and wine that requires much care and attention from the farmer and winemaker. In all of these respects, it shares much in common with Pinot Noir, particularly as cultivated in Burgundy. And much like red Burgundy, especially in today’s marketplace, the idea of a varietal Nebbiolo selling for under $15 seems too good to be true. Yet my hope that such a wine might surprise just had to be explored.

I don’t think my expectations were too high. This is meant to be a simple wine, a relatively everyday expression of Nebbiolo (actually, it’s about 90% Nebbiolo blended with other local vines and a smidgen of Merlot). And I found it simple – simple to a fault that is. There was nothing technically flawed about it. It’s just that it left me completely flat, flat being a word that pretty well sums up its qualities in the glass – muted fruit and aromas with little in the way of liveliness. It’s quaffable enough; heck, it even held up pretty well over the course of three days. I won’t rule out trying it again. In fact, I probably will, in hopes that my first impressions might be proven wrong. It’s just that this bottle didn’t move me. And I want to be moved, at least a little, by any wine I drink, no matter the price point.

Then sometimes, there’s the wine I’ll buy in spite of expecting not to like it….

Call it a reality check, if you will. Or call it the antithesis of open minded or blind tasting. I suppose it’s both.

Langhe Nebbiolo “Vigneto Starderi,” La Spinetta 2004. $27.50. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Marc de Grazia Selection, Vin DiVino, Chicago, IL.
I think it’s fair to place La Spinetta at the extreme modernist end of the spectrum when it comes to Piemontese producers. The estate is represented in the US by Marc de Grazia, an importer who heavily influences the stylistic approaches used by the winemakers in his portfolio. While I don’t discount the possibility of perfectly lovely wines being made in the modern style (Elio and Gianluca Grasso’s Barolo “Runcot” comes immediately to mind), I do tend to prefer Nebbiolo – and wines in general – when the vineyard has more to say than does the winemaking.

Tasting La Spinetta’s Langhe Nebbiolo, I’m left with the distinct impression that I’m drinking made wine. Its richly hued garnet color is darker than I’d expect from Nebbiolo, especially from a young vine wine like this, even if from a good vintage. And while some of the classic Nebbiolo aromas – licorice, tar and raspberries – were present, there was also an aggressive element to the wine’s scents. Alcohol and paint both came to mind. In the mouth, the wine wasn’t just disjointed. It also felt over inflated, as if someone had started out with what might have been Grace Kelly but ended up producing something more like Pamela Anderson. Too much oak and too much extraction, with little in the way of finesse to balance out those top-heavy attributes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wines at the Autumn Table

After spending 40 hours a week in a wine shop making food and wine pairing recommendations for customers, sometimes picking wines for my own purposes becomes a less precise, more gut, heart and whim based process. Such was the case when picking bottles from the cellar to carry along to a recent meal at Talula’s Table.

Sydre Brut Tendre, Eric Bordelet 2001
$12. 4% alcohol. Cork. (ex)Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
I could say that I chose this as a perfectly seasonal aperitif. In actuality, it went something more like this: “Holy crap! I can’t believe this one got away from me.” That meant time to drink up, so no better occasion than prior to an autumnal feast. I’d had Bordelet’s Poire “Granit” with some time under its belt before, but I really didn’t know what to expect from his regular Sydre bottling with nearly seven years under cork. Once opened, any question marks quickly dissipated. It was still amazingly alive, smelling of pithy red apple skins and displaying kombucha-like characteristics, both in its funky, slightly acetic nose and in its appearance, slightly cloudy and full of little swimmers. The nose became purer with airtime. Any hint of residual sweetness that was present on release had completely integrated into an incredibly dry cider, full of apple skin tannins that made for fuzzily astringent texture. Even though it cried out for a hunk of Pont l’Évêque, we happily settled for sipping it solo.

Champagne Premier Cru Rosé Brut, Aubry NV
$45. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Terry Theise Selection, Michael Skurnik Imports, Syosset, NY.
On the orange side of salmon to the eye, Aubry’s rosé gave a toasty, nutty nose of rose petals, dried herbs and early season strawberries. Disgorged in February 2007, this had already lost much of its fruit. Even though it was still enjoyable – in fact, it paired extremely well with saffron sauced oysters – I think I’d have preferred this nearer to its disgorgement date when its red-fruited flavors should have been more vibrant. On a related tack, Peter Liem had some interesting things to say about rosé Champagne just a few days back. Be sure to read through the comments, where he builds upon the quick point made about aged rosé in the body of his post.

Napa Valley Gewurztraminer, Stony Hill Vineyard 2006
$21. 12% alcohol. Cork.
I suggested a visit at Stony Hill Vineyard to my friends Scott and Marisa during their recent trip to Napa. They took me up on the suggestion and brought me back a bottle of SHV’s Gewurztraminer as a generous gesture of thanks. Stony Hill is a champion of the old school in Napa. From their tiny planting of Gewurztraminer vines they produce a fully dry wine, replete with smoke, spice and mineral extract carried on a lean (for Traminer), food-friendly (for Traminer) frame. Orange oil, muskmelon and peach preserves unfolded across the palate, with an ever so slightly unctuous feel on the finish, lifted by fresh acidity.

Südtiroler Lagrein Gries “Berger Gei,” Ignaz Niedrist 2005
$35. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Niedrist is something of a cult producer, farming a small estate in the hills of the Südtirol. Tiny quantities of his wines come into the country each year. While I often get to taste them immediately upon arrival, it’s rare that I get to drink them with any kind of time under their belts. I remember this being a bruiser upon release. In just a bit over a year, it’s really come into stride, so much so that my notes from the evening actually read, “Holy shit! That’s delicious.” Mulberry, damson plums and blackberry jam – all pretty typical characteristics of Lagrein – jumped out of the glass, backed up by really energetic mouthfeel and a lively acid profile. Bracingly clean and bursting with aromas of sweet red earth and crushed hothouse flowers. Absolutely tailor made for our final savory course of cocoa rubbed venison and cocoa roasted beets.

Saumur Blanc, Château du Hureau (Philippe and Georges Vatan) 2005
$12. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Fruit of the Vines, New York, NY.
Tremendous value and character in a $12 Loire Chenin Blanc. Slightly off-dry in style; also slightly hot but not so much as to mar its drinkability. It delivered vibrant fruit, with generously floral and grapey aromas. Typical quince and pear nectar on the palate. I really dig off-dry Chenin with the cheese course. This had an acid-to-fruit profile that made it work with just about everything in this night’s assortment. Though it wasn’t quite rich enough to balance the spice and strength of the blue cheese fondue, the cheese did bring out the funky, mineral side of the wine, providing hints of what the wine’s likely to taste like a few years down the road.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Autumn 2008 at Talula's Table

Thank you, Martha Stewart.
Your busy schedule opened the way.
Thank you, Martha Stewart.
Your cancellation brightened our day.
Thank you, Madam Stewart.
We’d have missed this fall menu.
Thank you, Martha Stewart….
C’est tout.

In all seriousness, it’s only through the combination of a little luck and the good graces of Ms. Stewart’s last minute cancellation for a kitchen seating at Talula’s Table that our recent meal (and hence this post) became possible. So happily, just a couple of days before the airing of Chef Bryan Sikora’s prerecorded appearance on The Martha Stewart show, my dining companions and I were able to make it out to mushroom country and into Talula’s for a late taste of their autumn menu.

Pemaquid Oysters with Preserved Lemon, Belgian Endive, and Saffron
The Damariscotta River Pemaquid on the half-shell, topped with saffron and lemon-laced sabayon, was downright delicious. But it was the little endive scoop canapé – filled with a smaller oyster and topped with micro-green sprigs and a Prosciutto chip – that made the plate. If they’d been served as butlered hors d’oeuvre, I’d have found a way to place myself in the butler’s path throughout the night.

Smoked lardo, particularly good schmeared on Talula's pretzel twists, is a new addition to the bread plate.

Cinderella Pumpkin and Duck Consommé, Duck Confit, Foie Gras, and Housemade Duck Sausage
Bryan’s consommés do not command attention so much as they quietly require it. There are no big, bold flavors, no immediate oohs and aahs. But there’s purity, delicacy and depth of flavor at play that make the consommé work as a transparent vehicle for the delivery of other elements. And, in the end, the consommé adds its own haunting memory to the complete dish. A panoply of fall flavors were provided by wild rice toasted in pumpkinseed oil, duck sausage made with pâté seasonings, foie gras and diced Cinderella pumpkin, with each spoonful providing a different textural and flavor experience. In retrospect, it may just have been the most thought provoking and memorable dish of the night.

Aimee Olexy and her front-of-the-house crew keep things rolling smoothly at the main farmhouse table as well as back in the kitchen.

Handkerchief Pasta with Wild Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Brussel Sprouts and Farmstead Parmesan
Once again, I somehow managed to miss snapping a picture of a course. It was another perfectly seasonal dish though, featuring a tender square – thus “handkerchief” – of pasta nestled atop supremely fresh shredded maitake (aka, hen of the woods) mushrooms. The chiffonnade of brussel sprouts, lemon zest and shaved parmesan set atop the pasta brought the earthier flavors below into high focus. I dug Bryan’s description of the dish, “Like the first snow of the season, falling while the grass is still green.”

Wild Alaskan Halibut, Piquillo Pepper Essence, Braised Smokey Bacon Pomme de Terre, and Our Late Crop Chard
This was one of the evening’s dishes that immediately hit home as simply off-the-hook. Since his days at Django, I’ve always felt that Chef Sikora has a gift with fish, always able to put together a range of ingredients that enhance but never obliterate the essence of the fish itself. His dishes are almost always anchored and harmonized. In this case, whipped potatoes provided the grounding base, a nest of frizzled frites offered textural accent while the combination of bacon-y richness and piquillo piquancy played the full range in between. Even if the halibut was ever so slightly overcooked, this was still pretty damn scrumptious.

Lady Talula herself stopped by for a quick visit to see papa Chef before bedtime.

Beef Short Rib "Chili," Tomato Fondue, Roasted Pearl Onions, Cranberry Beans, Cheddar Cornbread Crumbs
Chili deconstructed. This may have been the edgiest dish of the night – complete with agar-gelled tomato “fondue” – but it all came together via a deft hand with the seasoning palette. The application of chili spices throughout and a dash of pâté seasoning in the fondue provided subtly building heat and pervasive but unobtrusive smokiness that tied together the dish’s red-earth driven flavors. Definitely a case of the sum surpassing its parts.

Venison Tenderloin, Cocoa Roasted Beets, Honey Cap Mushrooms, Tawny Port Sauce
Off the hook, part two. Cocoa rubbed game, venison in particular, has leapt from the northeastern Italian and Austrian tradition to become a new classic. Cocoa roasting beets, on the other hand, was a stroke of inspiration. Putting the two together rocked. The fact that the venison was incredibly tender and perfectly cooked – slow smoked to rare then pan-basted in butter – was just icing on the cake.

Funky Fall Cheese Collection, Roasted Nuts, Dried Berries, and Warm Fondue
From top left: Trillium, a goat’s and cow’s milk blend from Lazy Lady Farms, layered with apricot and sour cherry preserves; Green Hill, a Camembert-style bloomy rind cow’s milk cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy; Dante, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative; and Beehive Creamery’s Barely Buzzed, a cow’s milk cheese rubbed with coffee and lavender. Front and center is the fondue, a mixture of Valdeón and basic chèvre (from Vermont Butter & Cheese), which was pretty tasty even if it did turn out looking grey and a little sad.

Bryan and new sous-chef Matt Moon, recently moved from Alba in Malvern and a former member of Bryan's kitchen staff at Django, relax after a long night in the kitchen.

Apple Parfait of Creamy Tapioca, Crunchy Oats, Apple Butter and Crispy Chips
The essence of Apple Jacks (as in Kellogg’s), minus the harsh crunch and the sugar-fueled burn to the roof of the mouth. The pop of tapioca made for a nice bridge between the apple crisps and the creaminess of the apple parfait. A light, bright, autumnal ending to a lovely meal.

Wine notes to follow now posted.

Talula's Table
102 W. State Street
Kennett Square, PA 19348 [map]

Previous visits:

Monday, November 17, 2008

Drinking French for $15 or Less

For my two cents – or three fins, as the case may be – there’s no country in the wine world today that offers as much as France does in the under $15 per bottle category. With the holidays looming large and the economy pretty much in the toilet, trying to get the most bang for the least buck is nothing at which to sneeze. Such incentives, along with my passion for les vins de France, were the inspiration for the seminar I’ll be leading – French Under $15 – at Tria Fermentation School tomorrow night.

Not surprisingly, there will be an emphasis on whites and reds from the Loire Valley and the Southern Rhône along with reds from the greater Southwest. And I even managed to sneak in a Burgundy. Class has been sold out for ages but here’s what I’ll be pouring, just in case you’d like to follow along in mind, spirit or body.

  • Vin Mousseux de Qualité “Armance B” Brut, Ampelidae NV
    A traditional method sparkling wine from just outside of Poitiers in the southwestern Loire.

  • Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie “Vieilles Vignes,” Château les Fromenteaux 2006
    Classic Muscadet, crisp, minerally and mouthwatering, produced by Pierre Luneau-Papin on behalf of his daughter who owns Fromenteaux, which is situated in Le Landreau.

  • Côtes du Luberon “Le Châtaignier” Blanc, Domaine de la Citadelle 2007
    A typical white Rhône blend from a lovely little estate situated at the base of the hill below the citadel-crowned village of Ménerbes.

  • Bourgogne Passetoutgrain, Domaine Diconne 2005
    Yep, 2005 red Burgundy for less than $15 does exist, with the help of Gamay of course. And it’s good.

  • Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l’Ardèche “Vin de Pétanque,” Mas de Libian 2007
    Funky, juicy Grenache, farmed biodynamically by young vigneronne Hélène Thibon, with a little help from her horse Nestor.

  • Fronton “Le Classique,” Domaine Le Roc 2006
    A medium-bodied, surprisingly elegant expression of Négrette, the local specialty in Fronton (formerly the Côtes du Frontonnais), located just north of Toulouse.

  • Madiran “Tradition,” Château Viella 2006
    An excellent value from the heart of the Southwest. A blend of Tannat and Cabernet Franc, loaded with texture and brambly aromas.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sunday in the Parc, Part Two – Parc Brasserie

Lest you think, based on part one of this piece, that Rittenhouse Square is entirely bucolic, just compare today’s lead photo to its more pacific precedent. It’s an all-too-typical Philly scene. The funny thing is I was just testing out the telephoto capabilities of my camera (apparently not its strong point) in hopes of a decent panoramic shot of the southeastern corner of the park. It wasn’t until I downloaded the photos at home that I realized that someone took exception to my shutterbugging and decided to exercise his attitude in my general direction. I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t notice at the time, as I’d hate for anything to have marred the good vibe of the day.

This is what I was really shooting for – a first look at Parc, the Parisian-styled brasserie that is the newest entry in Stephen Starr’s ever growing Restaurant Empire. It’s an empire that, much like the neighborhood around Rittenhouse Square, I more often than not try to avoid. Starr’s establishments tend toward dinner as theatre, a high-concept approach not always matched by the energies of the kitchens. And besides, I have a natural tendency to fight against the big guys. That said it’s only fair to check one or the other of them out from time to time so I know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent….

Actually, I’ll admit that I was a little jazzed when I heard Parc would be opening, for two primary reasons. One, the only Starr outpost that I ever really felt comfortable in was L’Ange Bleu (The Blue Angel), the now long defunct French bistro on Chestnut Street near Philly’s Jewelers’ Row. Two, Starr had selected Chef Dominique Filoni – whose cooking I have fond memories of from his years at Savona in Gulph Mills – to head up the kitchen at Parc.

We’d really just planned to grab a quick drink. But as we nuzzled into a cozy spot near the center of Parc’s 18th Street sidewalk café (there’s sidewalk seating on Locust Street as well), warmed by the overhead heaters and the sunlight of an early fall day, staying for at least a snack or two quickly became a foregone conclusion. And a bottle of bubbly soon followed.

The appetizer of grilled sardines reflected Chef Filoni’s roots, as a Saint-Tropez native, in Mediterranean cooking. Simple, wholesome and well executed. If I had a do-over, I’d skip the charcuterie platter in favor of either the coarse, zesty country pâté or decadently creamy and rich chicken liver mousse, as the small portions of each included with the charcuterie far outshone the basic selection of cured meats.

Parc’s wine list is definitely better than average by Philadelphia standards. While it’s dominated by commercial brands, it’s also peppered with more than a few gems. Bugey Cerdon from Patrick Bottex, Vouvray from Domaine des Aubuisières, and Morgon “Côte du Py” from Domaine Foillard stand out as just a few of the many wines I’d be happy to order. Mark-ups are characteristically high, averaging three-to-four times retail, but there are still a decent number of solid wines on offer for less than $50 per bottle. We settled on – and settled in with – a bottle of the Crémant de Loire “Carte Turquoise” Brut from Domaine des Baumard.

My wife had never felt closer to Paris without leaving our own city. Aside from the constant stream of Phillies fans roving the sidewalk and the line of cars at the valet parking stand, I can’t say I disagree.

Parc Brasserie
227 S. 18th Street (at Locust)
Philadelphia, PA 19103 [map]
Parc on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sunday in the Parc, Part One – Sunday School Edition

A recent Sunday afternoon gave me a chance to spend some time in a neighborhood I generally tend to circumvent. Home to the wealthy and fabulous (and haunt of those aspiring to be), Rittenhouse Square’s energy, for me, tends to be driven more by style than by substance. The park itself, nonetheless, is the most popular and bustling of our fine city’s many public squares. On a pretty day, it can be a great place, in spite of – or for some, because of – the crowds, to take in a dose of Philadelphia’s natural beauty. And like any of Philly’s neighborhoods, it’s not without its gems, both subtle and shiny.

On this particular late October day, strolling somewhat aimlessly through the east side streets of Rittenhouse, I was pleasantly surprised to find the doors swung wide at Tria. They’d opened earlier than usual at their 18th & Sansom outpost in hopes of recouping some of the cash flow lost as their usual crowds emigrated elsewhere over the previous nights in search of screens on which to catch the Phillies’ post-season run. I teach wine classes on a regular basis at Tria’s Fermentation School and stop into both of their wine bar locations as often as I can, whether for a late night nibble (their truffled egg toast makes my short list of best bar snacks in town) or an early evening taste. This was the first time, though, that I’d made it in for Sunday School, their special offering of one wine, one cheese and one beer at half-price, with a new line-up every Sunday. Call this a shill if you’re feeling cynical, but I was digging the opportunity to taste a few new things without breaking the bank.

(Image courtesy of Tria.)

As good as was the locally produced pairing of Otterbein Acres Cheddar and Victory Brewing Company’s wet hopped “Harvest Ale,” it was the wine that stood out from the trio. Friulian producer Valter Scarbolo makes an expression of Pinot Grigio he calls “Ramato,” where half of the fruit macerates on its skins for four days followed by completion of fermentation in a mixture of oak tonneaux and steel. After fermentation, the 2006 spent nine months resting on its lees followed by a further six months of bottle aging prior to release. The resulting wine is a true “gris de gris,” more rosé than white but not entirely either. While it lacks the wild character and orange, oxidative style of the more intensive skin contact whites from Scarbolo neighbors such as Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, like them it benefits from being served at cellar temperature. Starting out cold, it offered up ripe, sweet-fruited raspberry and kiwi sensations – pleasant but simple. With time to open and, more importantly, warm up a bit, its aromas became more compelling – wild strawberries and dried herbs came to mind. And the tannins extracted during that four-day maceration became more apparent, lending the wine a textural component and refreshingly bitter flavor stamp that helped it to rise above typical Pinot Grigio expectations.

The mid-day sun streaming in through Tria’s Sansom Street windows lent an air of relaxed conviviality that’s all too rare in Rittenhouse haunts. The peace it offered made for a perfect prelude to further exploration of the neighborhood. More on that to come soon….

Rittenhouse Square location
123 S. 18th Street (at Sansom)
Philadelphia, PA 19103 [map]
Tria on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Soap, Bug Spray and Cracked Pepper

Some who don’t like it have found its flavors soapy. Some who do have likened its aromas to bug spray. One could easily go through life as a wine connoisseur and never encounter it. Yet after centuries of declining in favor it seems to be on the comeback trail, at least within a smallish circle of artisanal wine growers in France’s Loire Valley. It’s Pineau d’Aunis, also known as Chenin Noir.

Pineau d'Aunis on the vine.
(Photo by Danièle & Remi Loisel - Studio Amarante, courtesy of Domaine de Bellivière.)

It’s a vine the wines from which I’ve come to know only in the last couple of years. And it’s one for which I’ve developed a particular fondness, even if it’s not always easy to come to terms with the wines. As a variety, it’s grown in smatterings throughout the Anjou and Touraine and is sanctioned, primarily as a blending agent, in many of the region’s more flexible AOCs. If Pineau d’Aunis has found a particular niche, though, it’s in the relatively obscure AOC of Coteaux du Loir, situated alongside Jasnières on the banks of Le Loir (a tributary of La Loire) a few klicks north of Tours.

There’s something about Pineau d’Aunis that just screams out, “I’m from the Loire and I’m proud of it!” Lively, fresh and full of flavor though rarely heavy on its feet, it’s food-friendly, idiosyncratic and definitely not for everyone. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it reminds me in many ways of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Gamay, two of the Loire’s more widespread varieties. Some of the peppery and herbal characteristics of Cabernet Franc are almost always in evidence, along with the bright colors and lively, red-fruited personality so typical of Gamay. Yet it’s all its own. When I think of wines made from Pineau d’Aunis, I think immediately of the scents of roasted strawberries and of freshly ground pepper. I think, too, of an aroma that some describe as pine forest yet that always reminds me somehow of fresh string beans – one of those strong, scent-driven memories the actual origin of which I’ve long forgotten. Even its texture seems unique, with a raspy delivery across the tongue that seems to stem not from tannins so much as from some latent energy captured and harnessed by the vine, delivered by the wine.

Following are notes on a pair of Pineau d’Aunis based wines I’ve recently explored (and here are thoughts from a few in the past). Let me know if you have any other favorites (or even less-than-favorites).

Coteaux du Loir "You Are So Beautiful," Nana, Vins et Cie (Nathalie & Christian Chaussard – Domaine Briseau) 2006 $15. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
After a somewhat hit-or-miss experience with the Nana, Vins et Cie lineup at the recent Louis/Dressner 20th Anniversary tasting, I wanted to take a more comfortable sit-down with one of their wines. Goofy label aside, this was compelling wine. Medium-garnet color, even a little murky, in appearance. Strawberry and black raspberry preserves on the nose, with a definite streak of pepper and a smoky edge that faded with aeration. It's a touch animal in character, no doubt the influence of Malbec (Côt) in the blend. That raspy trademark of Pineau d’Aunis I mentioned above was out in force, making the wine bristle throughout my mouth. A revisit on day-two yielded a more soft spoken wine, with rounder, gentler fruit and slightly softer texture, but with correspondingly less vigorous aromas. Not my favorite, if only for a slight clumsiness, yet still a wine I’d happily revisit, especially given its $15 price point.

Touraine "L'Arpent Rouge," Clos Roche Blanche (Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet) 2007 $17. 12.5% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
This one… this one I loved. I’ve heard tell of bottle variation, always a risk with minimally sulfured wines such as those from Clos Roche Blanche, but this bottle was definitely singing. Much lighter in color than “Beautiful” but no less flavorful for its paler hue, this was just redolent of wild strawberries and black pepper. Very energetic in feel, this too had the rasp but was more graceful in its attack. Like a barber, proud of his trade, scraping your tongue clean with a freshly honed straight razor. My taste buds couldn’t help but stand up and take notice. Invigorating, refreshing and a joy at the table, it really came alive when paired with the Lindenhof Farm turkey pot pie I’d picked up earlier in the day at my local farmers market.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I never thought I'd go there but...

My buddy Bryan Sikora, chef/owner at Talula's Table, will be on Monday's episode of The Martha Stewart Show. You can check out the trailer for the episode on Ms. Stewart's website.

Update: As I expected, the episode trailer has gone missing. You can catch Bryan on today's airing of TMSS at 2:00 PM on NBC-10 Philadelphia. If you miss(ed) that too, hopefully Bryan's recipes -- for Herb Crepes with Wild Mushrooms and Pan-Grilled Flatbread with Mushrooms and Autumn Vegetables -- will be longer lived than the video clip.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Blogs of Note: Loire Valley Edition... and Some Other Items of Interest

In recent weeks, I stumbled upon a fantastic new wine blog, Jim’s Loire. Its subject matter should be obvious given its title. The “Jim” in question is Jim Budd, a freelance beverage writer who contributes to Decanter as well as to Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide series. Splitting his time between London and the Touraine, Jim’s postings offer on-the-ground insight into the day-to-day workings of some of the best wine farms in the Loire and often include direct commentary from the vignerons themselves.

Reading through his very first post will provide insight into what got him started down this road. At it for just over three months, Jim has already passed the 100-post milestone, so he’s obviously approaching his work with gusto. His blog is one that all of my kindred Loire-nuts should be following with equal gusto.

Jim’s Loire is also peppered with some very fine photographs, like this one of François Chidaine from Jim's recent visit at the Chidaine’s shop, La Cave Insolite.

In other news:

Relative to my recent comments on Brunellogate, Franco Ziliani offers up a much more cynical, hard-line opinion of “the hypocritical Brunello vote” at VinoWire.

Derrick Schneider – the man behind An Obsession with Food & Wine – and I share a problem in common when it comes to California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Finally, Alder Yarrow, author of the world’s most popular wine blog Vinography, takes some well aimed shots at the journalists and researchers responsible for recent headlines regarding wines tainted by heavy metals.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Champaigning on Election Night

“[On] Election Day… [there were] far more important things to think about than [wine blogs] – like what to eat… while watching the returns, what to drink while celebrating or drowning your sorrows…. As far as the drinking goes, my suggestion is Champagne. If your candidate wins, you’re celebrating, right? If not, well, things could be worse. At least you’re drinking Champagne.”

Those are Eric Asimov’s words, not mine, from yesterday's entry at The Pour. What can I say? He beat me to the punch in suggesting none other than Champagne as the ideal wine to sip while following the general election returns.

While I wasn’t drinking anything quite as rarified as the wines of Anselme Selosse, which he went on to discuss, I did decide to spend some time with a reassuring old friend. Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs Brut NV is a long time favorite of mine when it comes to grower Champagne. It may just be the sparkling wine I’ve consumed more of, over the years, than any other. I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate to match my mood of hopeful optimism going into last night’s returns. Even if the results hadn’t been to my liking, Diebolt’s wine would have provided solace.

I generally opt to take my own photos but I don't think I'd manage to improve on this one, borrowed from Diebolt-Vallois' fine new website.

Though the heart of Jacques Diebolt’s estate is located near his winery in Cramant, this, the estate's base Blanc de Blancs, is a selection of Chardonnay from the family’s holdings in Cuis, Chouilly and Épernay along with fruit from their young vines in Cramant. Though there’s no disgorgement data on the label, I know from this bottle’s provenance as well as from its tasting profile that it was from a pretty recent corking.

Last night, it was somehow lush and creamy, fine and racy, all at once. Its aromatic profile could have been a dead ringer for the scents wafting from a fine French patisserie – buttery croissants, marzipan, lemon chiffon and the subtlest suggestion of light cocoa. Forward in style, it’s also layered – part obvious, part subtle. It works great as an aperitif but is more than versatile at the table, whether with oysters, sushi, Dover sole sautéed in butter, roasted breast of pheasant…. On election night, it worked handily with carry-out Chinese.

Today – yes, I managed to save a glass or two – its aromas had darkened, showing more vinosity. And on the palate, it had become leaner and more focused, displaying the lemony minerality and mouthwatering acidity that’s the hallmark of young Cramant Chardonnay.

Toasting in a new wave and a momentous point in history with an old friend… it was a good night. And a good morning after.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Notes from Fright Night

As much as I loved Halloween as a wee lad, the idea of sitting home alone on Friday night, handing out candy to scores of costumed kids, my dogs barking frantically in the background, just wasn’t calling my name this year. The idea of hanging out with friends, preparing a casual meal and tasting through a few wines, though, sounded like just the thing. What better way to pass the time between the few stray trick-or-treaters wandering their neighborhood?

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine “Amphibolite Nature,” Domaine de la Louvetrie (Joseph Landron) 2007. $14. 11.2% alcohol. Importer: Martin Scott, Lake Success, NY.
Jo Landron’s “Amphibolite Nature” spends minimal time on the lees, thus delivering a purely fruit-driven expression of Muscadet that’s perfect, particularly given its low alcohol, as an aperitif. That’s exactly how we treated it. The bottle had actually been opened the prior day. What was left was showing quite nicely, with pretty lime pith and mineral scents followed by melon, crisp peach and a dash of white pepper on the palate. Very refreshing.

Bourgogne Aligoté, François Mikulski 2006. $20. 12% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Elite Wines Imports, Lorton, VA.
Right up front, this delivers a nose of sour rocks and pear skins, aromas that eventually become riper and rounder. Nice front palate flesh is contrasted by bracing acids and grippy texture on the finish. In the big picture, it’s a simple wine. But it’s a pretty serious Aligoté, one that delivers admirable concentration, balance and ripe lemon-lime fruit.

Bourgogne Rouge, Domaine Chevillon-Chezeaux 2006. $22. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
A touch tighter and tangier than the handful of other basic ’06 Bourgogne from the Côtes de Nuits I’ve tasted thus far but delicious nonetheless. Griotte and lightly brined green olive scents follow through in the mouth, carried along on a light-bodied, brightly acidic frame with silky texture and measurable persistence. This was my first encounter – and a promising one – with the wines of Philippe Chezeaux.

Fleurie “Les Garants,” Domaine du Vissoux (Pierre-Marie Chermette) 2007. $25. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
I sold Vissoux’s wines years ago and now terribly miss having convenient access to them. Pierre-Marie Chermette makes some of the most fruit-rich, concentrated Beaujolais out there. They tend to show tons of primary fruit on release, sometimes tight, sometimes forward, but take time to really blossom. This is on the forward side of the curve right now, explosively fruity – crushed raspberries, violets and blueberries – on the nose, round, vibrant and juicy in the mouth. But it’s painfully young, both grapey and chalky. The pieces are all there – excellent balance and fine bones. It just needs to be forgotten about for a few years.

Fleurie “Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive,” Coudert Père et Fils 2007. $26. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
The differences between the Fleuries of Coudert and Vissoux in ’07 (as in most years, I expect) are like night and day. It was a treat to taste them back-to-back. “Cuvée Tardive” is already showing much more serious, vinous character than Chermette’s wine. Earthy, pale ruby red in color, its nose, which is really lovely, hints of wild red berries, fresh thyme and black pepper. It’s even lovelier in its impact on the palate, tense and serious. Absolutely spot-on with flank steak sandwiches topped with caramelized onions and red peppers, served on onion rolls. This too is built to last, but it’s going to require serious willpower not to drink it now.

Carema “Etichetta Bianco,” Luigi Ferrando 2004. $37. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchants, New York, NY.
This was the rollercoaster of the night. Tight, closed, even a little musty when first opened, after about an hour it blossomed into a fantastic expression of high altitude Nebbiolo. Leather, herbal red fruit, vanilla and rose petals, none of which were apparent at first, came out of hiding. Aromas of drying cigarette tobacco followed, even a touch of sweet seaweed flavor. Another thirty minutes, though, and it clamped shut again, tight, tangy and wacky. Whether drunk now or later, coming to grips with this will take a patient temperament and an open mind.
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