Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Around the Web on New Year’s Eve

I’m honored to have been invited to guest blog at Jeremy Parzen’s Do Bianchi today. Head on over, check out my short-take on holiday bubbles and drop Jeremy a comment to let him know you visited. Peruse awhile and you’ll find I’m in particularly good company, as Brooklynguy was guest author yesterday, with a new installment of his indispensable weekly series, Friday Night Bubbles.

As long as we’re on the topic of sparklers, and speaking of indispensability, Peter Liem has recently posted a richly informative piece on the current state of Rosé Champagne at Besotted Ramblings and Other Drivel. His blog is one of my daily reads – in good company with Do Bianchi and Brooklynguy – and should be on your list as well if you’re interested in expanding your knowledge of all things Champenoise.

You’ll find a very even-handed take on the pros and cons of various wine closures at Jamie Goode’s Wine Blog. As a Master of Wine and author of The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass, it’s pretty safe to consider him an authority on such matters.

Stay tuned for a “year in review” type post here at MFWT. The creative/reflective spark for that one hasn’t hit me yet but I hope the inspiration will find me in the next week or so.

In the meanwhile, here’s wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year! Cheers!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jazz Great Freddie Hubbard Dead at 70

As I'm a better blog reader than I am a news reader of late, I learned of Freddie Hubbard's passing -- on Monday, after a long fight to recover from a heart attack suffered at Thanksgiving time -- via Brother Lyle's post. Sad news indeed. Hubbard's playing style, from tone to attack, made him one of the most influential trumpeters of the second half of the 20th Century. This is a great video of a reunion of Herbie Hancock's Blue Note band from the Maiden Voyage era, playing the classic Cantaloop Island. That's Joe Henderson, not Freddie, in the freeze-frame view of the clip but the video's just too good not to share with you. Even if you don't know Freddie's (and Herbie's) music, you'll recognize the main riff, which was made (even more) popular by the jazz-hop group Us3 in the early '90s. The video ends rather abruptly, as has Mr. Hubbard's life, but features his playing heavily, which is as it should be.

Jam on, Freddie. You'll be missed.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Xmas Eve Loire-apalooza

The big holiday feast this year was on Christmas Eve, thanks to the hospitality of our dear friends Bill and Kelly. Is there a better way to come together with loved ones than by sharing in some great food and wine?

Montlouis-sur-Loire Brut, François Chidaine NV. $23. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed some pretty distinct bottle variation with Chidaine’s Montlouis Brut. I’m not sure what to chalk it up to, though my gut is that it’s mainly a function of disgorgement date vs. consumption date. As the bottle is not marked, at least not obviously, with any lot or disgorgement information, I can base this only on my non-scientific observations of cork behavior. I tend to have preferred the bottles with some spring left in their stoppers – suggesting a younger wine with less time on the cork. Whatever the case may be, this was a particularly good bottle. Signature Chenin aromas of clover honey and green fig were in force, accentuated by scents of freshly toasted white bread. Bone dry but with an enchantingly soft, lingering mouthfeel.

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, Domaine des Trois Toits (Hubert Rousseau) 2007. $16. 12% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchants, New York, NY.
This was my first encounter with the Muscadet of Hubert Rousseau, a relatively new addition to importer Neal Rosenthal’s portfolio. The Domaine des Trois Toits (“house of the three roofs”) is located in La Nicollière, just south of the city of Nantes. This is flinty yet fleshy, yeast enriched Muscadet that finishes with a mouthwatering twist of bitter lemon oil. Young and tasty, with exceptional length. It not only paired beautifully with oysters but also revealed an extra layer of salinity and savor when matched with a simple appetizer of oil-poached Spanish tuna belly.

Sancerre “Clos la Néore,” Edmond Vatan 2007. $55. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Cellars Ltd., Briarcliff Manor, NY.
The answer to Saturday's bonus point question. Pungently mineral and painfully young Sancerre, brimming with lime pith and chalky aromas. Maybe the most complete bottle of Vatan’s “Clos la Néore” I’ve yet to drink, displaying really fine flavor and structural delineation with less funk and greater purity than in the past few vintages. I’d love to revisit it in five and ten years (and two, seven, three, eight…). Wines that provide this clear an expression of place, of terroir, are all too few and far between.

A little East Coast/West Coast Oyster Mash-Up. Which wine worked best…? Sometimes there’s merit to a cliché. All of the first four wines worked in their own way but the Muscadet stole the day. A phenomenal pairing.

Champagne Brut “Réserve,” Bérèche et Fils NV. $45. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
We now interrupt this broadcast for a brief Champagne interlude. I’ve really been digging the Champagnes of Bérèche et Fils of late. The 10-hectare estate is based near Ludes, on the Montagne de Reims. Young Raphael Bérèche, who worked his first harvest at his family’s estate in 2000 and took responsibility for winemaking in 2004, appears to have great things in store. He’s converting the property to biodynamic farming and fermenting his wines on their native yeasts, with all cuvées seeing at least partial oak elevation. The Brut Réserve is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier (I don’t know the percentages), which includes about 25% reserve wine. It opens with a lush frontal assault, contrasted in fine balance by an incredibly dry attack on the finish. Rich notes of brioche and fresh hazelnuts dominate the nose, while notes of ripe melon and citrus confit emerge from the wine’s sweet, generous mid-palate.

Savennières, Domaine des Baumard 1996. $25. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Ex-Cellars, Solvang, CA.
A bit of a shock after a flight of young wines and not a little weird. Funk covered rocks come to mind – what “eau de toad” might taste like if someone were to bottle such a thing. All of that said, this is still enticing wine, sour and rich at once. Savennières may just be capable of producing the broadest aromatic range in the wine world, or at least the most unusual range. In this bottle I found baked gooseberries, almond paste and lavender, along with something – that sour/rich component – that I can only describe as caramelized yuzu. This is starting to show some oxidative development but still suggests further potential to come. I’m dying to put together a horizontal tasting of ’96 Loire Chenins….

Time to dig into Bill’s delicious pulled smoked pork shoulder also meant it was time to switch into red gear.

Vin de Table Mousseux “Le Vinsans Ricard,” Domaine Ricard NV. $22. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Though perhaps not as exuberant as when I last wrote this up (tasted with the same group of friends and family, by the way), this is still damn tasty stuff. Varietal Gamay – at least in this rendition of Vincent Ricard's “Le Vinsans Ricard” – made in the méthode l'ancienne. Juicy, crackling and refreshing, loaded with lively cranberry and raspberry fruit; it seemed tailor made to our pulled pork and slaw sandwiches.

Côtes du Forez “La Volcanique,” Verdier-Logel (Odile Verdier & Jacky Logel) 2007. $13. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.
More Loire Gamay and another very cool wine, even if a little less friendly to the sweetness of the pork than Ricard’s bubbly. This is explosively mineral, black fruited Gamay – crunchy, rustic, viscerally fresh and laced with the scent of black pepper. Produced, as the name of this cuvée suggests, on volcanic soils in the Côtes du Forez, an area in the foothills of the Massif Central in the far reaches of the Upper Loire, where Verdier-Logel is considered the leading estate.

For the cheese course, a return to white was in order. And I’m in full agreement with The VLM as to the suitability of Loire Chenin, and Vouvray in particular, in such a situation.

Vouvray “Clos du Bourg” Sec, Domaine Huet 2005. $40. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Robert Chadderdon Selections, NY, NY.
By far the tightest wine of the night. This showed earthy mineral character in spades, with a muted core of beeswax and pear-driven fruit. Already subtly delicious, but barely hinting at what’s to come. If you’re holding any, stash it away for a rainy day a few (or many) years down the road.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Name That Wine

Just for fun, here's a photo of a bit of detritus from the Christmas Eve feast. Bonus points to anyone who can name the wine* (click the photo for an enlarged view). Details to follow shortly, so don't delay.

* Immediate family of publisher and other participants in said feast excluded.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Know Your Product

Here's a little post-consumerism blues for your listening enjoyment on this Friday after Xmas, from those seminal Aussie punks, The Saints. Regular programming returning soon....

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

Just back from enjoying an Xmas Eve feast with friends and family. Santa's apparently in flight over Charlotte, North Carolina at the moment and I just wanted to take a moment to wish everyone a fantastic holiday and a happy, healthy new year. Cheers!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Drinking Unseasonably: Tasty Alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc

As much as I believe in the practice of eating seasonally, I find the idea of drinking in the same manner far less appealing. Sure, I tend to steer away from heavy hitting reds on sweltering summer nights, but I never lose the hankering for light and lively whites, not even in the icy depths of winter. Following are notes on just such a pair, whites that many might find to be summer sippers rather than winter warmers but that I found to be just what the doctor ordered – brisk, invigorating and matched to what was on my dinner table. They’re also both great alternatives for those that are hooked on Sauvignon Blanc but are looking for a new rose.

Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne “Reserve Selection – Cuvée Gros Manseng,” Domaine des Cassagnoles (Janine & Gilles Baumann) 2007
$11. 13% alcohol. Screwcap. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA
Domaine des Cassagnoles consistently produces some of the best values in white wine from Southwest France. Their “normal” Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne, a blend of Colombard, Sauvignon and Ugni Blanc, can still be found for around nine bucks a bottle. For about two dollars more, though, you can have this, their “Reserve Selection,” a varietal expression of Gros Manseng.

Though it lacks the sauvage character and underlying complexity of the best whites made at least in part from Gros Manseng in AOCs such as Irouléguy and Jurançon, this is still juice to take seriously. Snappy and visceral, it delivers flavors of golden raisins and orange oil with a cardamom tinged finish. Minerality and medium-high acidity add both balance and structure enough to marry well with anything from sheep’s milk cheeses to roasted fish to herb-crusted white meat dishes.

Mittelrhein Bacharacher Rivaner trocken, Ratzenberger 2007
$14.50. 13% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
The great British wine writer Jancis Robinson is at her smarmy and pointed best when writing about Müller-Thurgau, which she describes as a “decidedly mediocre but gruesomely popular German crossing developed in 1882 for entirely expedient reasons by a Dr. Hermann Müller, born in the Swiss canton of Thurgau…”. Robinson cites Müller-Thurgau as a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner, or perhaps Riesling and another clone of Riesling. More recent research suggests it’s actually the result of a crossing between Riesling and Chasselas. In any event, one goal among many was to produce a vine that would grow and ripen in spots where Riesling would not. That, at least, is Jochen Ratzenberger’s raison d’être for growing Müller-Thurgau. He prefers to call it Rivaner, one of several synonyms for M-T, believing the name to carry fewer negative connotations. It may be a moot point here, as neither Müller-Thurgau nor Rivaner are household varieties on the US wine market.

Planting Rivaner on the lower slopes and flatter portions of his property, Ratzenberger is able to utilize land that might otherwise lay fallow. Farming those vines to low, healthy yields enables him to produce a wine that, though simple, bucks the stereotype of flabby, industrial Müller-Thurgau and might even appeal to Ms. Robinson. Soft on the front-palate and explosively floral on the nose, this brims with yellow peach and white apple fruit. Its acid profile is much softer than the Riesling grown further up the hill, and there’s much less of a terroir imprint – none of the distinctly pungent minerality that’s found in Ratzenberger’s Rieslings. But served cold, when its herbal finish is refreshing rather than vegetal (which it can become if served too warm), it’s a pleasure to drink, whether alone or alongside light fish, vegetable and poultry dishes.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Menu for Hope V: ‘Tis the Season to Make a Difference

A few people have asked me why I didn’t participate in this year’s edition of A Menu for Hope. Truth is, as lame an excuse as it is, the event snuck up on me during the thick of the seasonal crunch and I just didn’t have the wherewithal to put everything together in time. Add to that the fact that I’ve been a holiday season slacker this year – I’m only now doing my shopping, all of it on-line – and you’ve got the perfect recipe for non-participation.

My absence aside, I’m confident that A Menu for Hope, now in its fifth year, will continue to build on the success of years past. Toward that end, I’d like to encourage each and every one of you who visit here to visit the official Menu for Hope host sites and to consider making a difference in this year’s program. For every ten bucks you donate, you’ll get a chance to win one of the many great prizes that have been donated by restaurants, wineries and some of my fellow food and wine bloggers from around the world.

As always, A Menu for Hope’s creator Pim Techamuanvivit is leading the drive. You’ll find a full listing of all of the raffle prizes up for grabs at her blog, Chez Pim. If you’d prefer to narrow things right down to the wine-specific options, you can visit Vinography, where Alder Yarrow is once again coordinating the vinous contributions to A Menu for Hope.

Photo courtesy of Chez Pim.

All proceeds from this year’s A Menu for Hope will once again be managed through the United Nations World Food Programme and will be targeted directly toward helping schoolchildren and the agricultural economy in rural Lesotho, Africa. In Pim’s own words, the contributions from last year’s program,
“Bought 388,000 meals in Lesotho schools, which fed over 19,000 poor hungry children with school meals for a whole month. The children received food in primary schools across the remote mountainous areas of Lesotho, which are the poorest and hungriest parts of the country.

Some of the money was used to buy food from local small scale farmers practicing sustainable farming methods in remote areas, providing them with guaranteed market for their products.”

My recommendations? Give generously this year. And give often. Or just give what you can. Pick a prize that’s not super high profile (but that appeals to you, of course) and you’ll exponentially increase your odds of winning something cool in the course of doing a good deed. This year’s program ends on Wednesday, December 24, so get moving. Every $10 makes a difference.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar

A combination of hunger and curiosity lured me into Manayunk earlier this week to venture a first look at one of Main Street’s newest dining scene entries, Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar. Visiting a new place immediately after it’s been written up in the major local newspaper does not generally fall under my definition of a grand idea. However, the usual buzzing effects of a relatively positive review – two bells from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Laban, in this case – were negated by the combination of foul weather and the Tuesday night doldrums. Not the greatest night for the restaurant, I’m sure, but good for us, as my pal Phil A. Dining and I had no problem snagging choice spots at the bar and lingering over a casual meal.

Chef Bruce Cooper, long-time owner of Manayunk institution Jake’s Restaurant, launched his new, partly eponymous endeavor just last month in the storefront immediately adjacent to Jake’s. Cooper’s is an inviting spot, mixing contemporary and rustic elements in its décor, with warm lighting, a cool stone bar, amply sized booths and a colorful wall of wine setting the tone for the space. There’s an immediate sense of potential, too, in the new restaurant’s offerings.

Cooper’s eclectic and much better than average beer list includes local standouts like Sly Fox Pikeland Pils and Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Walt Wit on top, along with solid choices like Stone IPA, Brooklyn Brown Ale, Saison Dupont and La Chouffe in bottle.

Our first plates were both well executed. Maple brussels sprouts (from the kitchen at Jake’s) were fresh and flavorful, a light glazing of maple syrup accentuating their own inherent sweetness. If only they’d been kicked up a notch by the presence of a little bacon (or other tasty treat – read on…), they could have been stellar. Crispy skin duck confit was the star dish of the night, featuring moist, perfectly salty, fat-preserved duck leg along with tender roasted potatoes, scented by floral herbs and a spike of vinegar. The brussels sprouts included with this dish found what those in the separate plate were missing, deeper caramelization and an infusion of duck fat. The kitchen could use a little work on its pacing, as all four of our dishes were delivered in rapid succession, but that’s a kink that should easily work itself out with a bit more expediting experience.

The brick oven and the wine bar, the supposed stars of the show, on the other hand, didn’t do enough for me to demonstrate they’d earned their spots on the restaurant’s marquee.

Cooper’s wood fired pizzas are built on a relatively thin, cracker-like crust, a style I enjoy when it’s done right. As my dining partner rightly pointed out though, our crusts weren’t just undercooked, they also lacked flavor. Topping combinations are interesting, including several vegetarian options, but show the conceptual influence of a chef with a sweet tooth.

Our pizzas: Fiorella’s Fennel Sausage, with tomato and banana pepper; and Short Rib, with parmesan, onion, horseradish cream and port sauce.

With twenty-seven wines poured by the glass – twenty-nine if you include the “Cheap White” and “Cheap Red” offered in carafe – there’s theoretically something for everyone at the wine bar. The list makes a sweeping gesture toward diversity, offering up choices from ten countries on five continents and representing varieties from Grüner Veltliner to Alvarinho to Verdeho in the white department, from Sangiovese to Tempranillo to Primitivo among the reds.

The selections are universally commercial in style, though. Those that we sampled were not quite manipulated or manufactured to the point of “wine-like beverage” status but were lacking in any real character. Pricing is tough, too. Glass pours range from $6.50 for a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc to $18.50 for a single-serving bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. Based on a listed six-ounce pour, there’s no break given for full bottle purchases; standard markup looks to be about four times retail. Pricing issues aside, a good wine bar needs to offer more than a list that covers a bunch of grape varieties. The simple steps of offering half-pours and putting a little more effort into choosing wines with some soul would go a long way toward making Cooper’s a viable wine bar rather than a bar that just happens to serve a bunch of wines.

In spite of my gripes with the wine program and some shortcomings in the brick oven department, Cooper’s does show some real potential. “The Jake Burger” sounds more than tempting enough to draw me back, maybe for a new installment of A Burger and a Beer. Our starter courses were good enough to suggest there’s talent at work in the kitchen. And the overall concept, from bar to vibe to drinks list, adds an element of wining and dining style that had previously been missing from Manayunk.

My biggest question is not whether Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar will succeed. Rather, I wonder what its effect will be on the future of its parent restaurant, Jake’s. The two spots are joined by an open archway and share a common hostess, while Jake’s has eliminated its original bar to make way for additional seating. The end result is a spot that feels, sitting at the bar in Cooper’s, much more like one restaurant that has an upscale, quiet room than two restaurants that just happen to share a bar. Is it the beginning of the end for a Manayunk institution? Only time will tell.

Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar
4367 Main Street (Manayunk)
Philadelphia, PA 19127 [map]
Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

January at Tria Fermentation School

Registration has just opened for the January 2009 schedule of courses at Philadelphia's Tria Fermentation School. In addition to recurring classes such as Tria partner Michael McCaulley's seminars on fortified wines and wine/cheese pairing, there are plenty of cool ferment-focused topics on the slate.

Ed Addiss, owner of Falls Church, VA based importer Wine Traditions, will be on hand to lead a tasting of immensely characterful wines from Southwest France. And Kevin Pike of Michael Skurnik Imports and Terry Theise Selections returns, this time to show off a selection of wines from Theise's Austrian portfolio. As always, seats in Tria's intimate classroom space sell-out quickly, so act fast if you're interested in any of next month's offerings.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Drinking In the Ears of Italy

Much has been made of the storied cultural and political rifts between southern and northern Italy. However, even within northern Italy alone, there’s a marked divide to be found. With influences trickling into the corners of the country from France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia, it can be difficult to recognize the local differences in language or in some cases even to know which side of the border you’re on at any given time. So it is in that context (with wine as a subtext) that I present the following.

You're not sure it's from Italy when...
  • there’s an umlaut in the wine region’s name.
  • the wine is produced by guys with names like Grosjean or Widmann.
  • much of the text on the label is in German.
  • much of the text on the label is in French.
  • a relatively obscure Italian variety is called by its even more obscure Germanic name.

And by way of demonstration, I present a pair of wines I’ve checked out in recent days, both of them unique to the northern corners of Italy.

Vallée d’Aoste Fumin, Grosjean Frères 2004
$34. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant, NY, NY.
The Valle d’Aosta – that’s the Italian spelling, mind you – is Italy’s smallest wine region. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, it’s an area where you’re just as likely to hear French or Piemontese dialect as you are to encounter textbook Italian. That’s reflected in the bottling of Fumin from Grosjean Frères, both in its use of French for the regional and winery names as well as for the clearly Gallic roots of the Grosjean nom de famille. The wine, though, screams northern Italy to me. Actually, what this most reminded me of is Lagrein – one of the signature varieties from the opposite corner of northern Italy – but with less punch and power. Mulberry and plum fruit commingled with cocoa and a hint of spice on the nose, following through on the palate with fairly plush texture and well-balanced acidity. On day two, the wine’s primary tendencies completely morphed into flavors suggesting maturity, while a sour minerality reminiscent of upper slope Burgundy crept up on the finish. Pretty cool wine, one I’d enjoy drinking more often if it were ten or fifteen bucks less expensive.

Südtiroler Vernatsch, Andreas Baron Widmann 2007
$20. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
In Alto Adige, aka the Südtirol, Italy’s northernmost wine region, you’re more likely to hear German than Italian, a trend obviously reflected on the labels of many of the wines hailing from the zone. Indeed, Vernatsch is the Germanic name for Schiava, the workaday red variety of the Südtirol. Andreas Baron Widmann (yes, he is a Baron) makes a version reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais crossed with the herbal, peppery streak present in many a Loire Valley Pineau d’Aunis. Snappy acidity and wild raspberry scented fruit make for a refreshing red, light of hue and body, perfectly suited to speck infused cream sauces or the light game dishes of the region. Reductive and smoky when first opened, it took some coaxing for the wine’s charms to become apparent, but appear they did.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the blogosphere…

Alfonso Cevola, scribe and general philosopher behind the pages of On the Wine Trail in Italy, recently issued an open call for submissions in response to the simple phrase, “You know it’s Italian when…”. It was one of those invitations I received, thought about, neglected to respond to right away and then proceeded to more or less forget about until too late. The opening portions of this post, intentionally presented in somewhat opposite form, are inspired by his theme, the diverse and often humorous responses to which he recently posted.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Bakery House

I've recently written at some length about baked goods in the context of heat damaged wine. But today I'm here to tell you about baked goods in the more conventional context. Cakes, pies, muffins, cookies, scones... you get the picture. Wine guys do eat dessert... at least this one does. And while the high pastry arts have their place, it's more down to earth, homey, fresh from the hearth goodies that I'd more poignantly miss were I stranded on the proverbial desert (no pun intended) island.

It’s the better part of fifteen years now, not long after moving to the Philadelphia area, that I first walked through the doors of The Bakery House. I can’t remember now whether someone had recommended it or whether I was just drawn by the cozy, no-nonsense appearance of the place. No matter… it’s been a favorite destination of mine ever since.

Situated on an otherwise generic commercial strip of Lancaster Avenue on the eastern edge of Bryn Mawr, PA, The Bakery House specializes in homegrown desserts made the way your grandmother might have made them if she had way more time and way more practice. Ingredients tend to be simple – eggs, flour, lots of butter, the occasional dash of spice and other things wholesome. So do appearances – special occasion cakes are well decorated but nothing is ever lavish or shiny. Most importantly, everything seems to be made with lots of love. Walk in anytime of day and you’ll just about always find staff members hard at work in the partially open kitchen, rolling out dough, mixing batter or pulling something fresh from the oven.

The Bakery House doesn’t do bread. They don’t make croissants, pain au chocolat or any other form of French influenced pastry. Nothing Italian either. Their specialty is just good old American breakfast and dessert oriented baked goods. Not everything is perfect, of course. I prefer my wife’s scones to theirs (when I can convince her to make a batch), and their scrumptious double-chocolate cookies tend to fall apart on their way from bag to mouth. But those are barely blips on the gripe radar. Their cookies in general are delicious, molasses spice being a personal favorite. Coconut layer cake, German chocolate cake and simple butter-cream birthday cakes are all hard to beat – rich, moist, eminently satisfying but never over-the-top. The Jewish apple cake and cinnamon coffee cake were both staples back in my days of corporate breakfast meetings. And their deep dish, full crust apple pie ranks among the best I’ve ever tasted. You can even pick up a decent cup of coffee there, Corsica from Philadelphia-based La Colombe Torrefaction being their house brew.

My point, really, is short and sweet. If you find yourself in or around the eastern Main Line, you’ll do well to pay The Bakery House a visit. Thereafter, I’m guessing you’ll hear it calling your name anytime you pass nearby.

The Bakery House
604 W. Lancaster Avenue
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010 [map]
Bakery House on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bad Brains on the Beach

Why this song popped into my head this morning, I couldn't begin to tell you. But a quick YouTube search yielded a pretty cool clip from a 1988 gig on Daytona Beach. Spring break (?), complete with sand and waves in the background, is not the usual scene conjured by memories of old Bad Brains gigs. I usually think of them shredding up the little stage at the old 9:30 Club in DC, or bouncing off the rafters at CBGB. Nonetheless, here ya go -- a pretty tight version of House of Suffering for your Friday enjoyment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ampelidae: Growing Ambition in Marigny-Brizay

I first met Frédéric Brochet, majority owner of and winemaker at Ampelidae, sometime in late-2002 or mid-2003. He was on a quick business oriented tour of the Mid-Atlantic States and his schedule allowed for little more than time to exchange pleasantries and for me to ask him a question or two about his winemaking and viticultural practices. My main question – something to the effect of whether he farmed organically or biodynamically – must have stuck in his head, as when I visited his property in February of 2004 he not only recognized me right away (always a nice thing) but quickly brought up the topic of our original discussion….

A view of the estate from the main driveway, February 2004.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, though, so let’s back up a bit. Ampelidae is a modestly scaled winery located in Marigny-Brizay, a commune of the Vienne Department located thirty-odd kilometers NNE of Poitiers in the southwestern sector of the greater Loire Valley. It sits in the crossroads between the Massif Central and the Massif Breton, in an area with ancient viticultural history but without a well-known modern viticultural presence to back it up, reflected in the fact that the area’s wines are not recognized with AOC status. The region includes about 800 hectares of vines, three-fourths of which are Co-Op operated. Independent, forward-thinking producers are in the distinct minority.

Frédéric (pictured at right) was born on the property in 1972 and his father, Christian Brochet, first gave him the opportunity to make his own wine in 1990. Perhaps not surprisingly, Frédéric went on to study oenology at university. After a working a stage in Australia in 1992, he returned to pursue a PhD in oenology at the University of Bordeaux, focusing on the cognitive aspects of wine tasting. He immediately made an impression there, conducting a series of rather mischievous tastings targeted at proving just how subjective wine tasting can be.

The estate itself is relatively young, established by Frédéric in 1995 and since expanded around the heart of the property that was originally owned by his father. As with so many other vignerons of the current generation, Frédéric is the first to estate bottle wines from his family’s farm, which includes about 35 hectares of vineyards. Those vineyards – situated on or near battleground sites from 5th, 8th and 14th Century conflicts – span a wide swath across a gently sloping hillside, providing all vines with southern exposure. Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are planted on the chalky soils near the base of the slope; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir take root in the clay, sandstone and flint base of the mid-slope; and Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon can be found in the acid, sandy soils at the top of the slope.

The Brochets purchase vine stock from reputable estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux and also propagate vines via their own massal selection. Farming is organic; certification has not been sought. In the vineyards, the soil is turned annually between every row, allowing natural mulch and moisture to aerate the topsoil, keeping it loose and healthy. During the growing season, grass, mâche, wild asparagus and other plant life are allowed to grow amongst the vines, helping to prevent erosion and also attracting an array of insects that are competitive to malignant vine pests, thus eliminating any need for insecticides.

Another view of the property, in a warmer time of year.

In addition to farming his own land, Monsieur Brochet also buys in fruit – mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay – from a number of locally contracted growers with whom he has the ability to guide and dictate farming practices. Wines are made on two basic levels. The so-called “Premium” line is branded as “Marigny-Neuf,” a name meant to capture the essence of the winery’s locale in Marigny-Brizay along with Brochet’s drive to breathe new life into the area’s old and largely forgotten viticultural traditions. These are varietal, négociant bottlings, combining estate-grown and purchased fruit; all vinification is done in steel, with an eye toward a direct expression of local varietal character. The estate bottled Ampelidae wines, what Frédéric considers his “Super Premium” collection, are all barrel aged, richer in extract and more modern in their flavor and textural profiles. At the time of our visit, all the wines fell within the appellation of VDQS Haut-Poitou, a designation which Brochet has recently dropped in favor of Vin de Pays de Val de Loire.

Getting back to where we started, remembering my old question regarding organics and biodynamics, Frédéric made it clear that he prefers technology to what he referred to as “the new age.” His position is reflected not only by the adoption of such modern tools as computer modeling – used to predict the risks of mildew relative to the area’s rainfall – but also by his sense of ambition. He clearly wants his wines to be taken seriously and works accordingly in his cellars, striving to craft wines that may eventually fetch prices far above and beyond the current standards of his neighborhood.

While visiting one of the several small wine making and barrel aging facilities scattered around his property, he extracted barrel samples of a wine that encapsulates that ambition. It was a Pinot Noir he called “L’Étoile” from the 2003 vintage, a wine I believe he’s still yet to market. His goal: to produce what he called a “thick-style” Pinot Noir that might sell to the high-end restaurant market for upwards of 100 Euros per bottle. Based on what we tasted, I couldn’t see it. But we could certainly see the hope in his eyes.

At the time of our visit, the estate seemed to be at a crossroads not unlike the one represented by their location halfway between the pacific culture of the Loire and the mercantile nature of Bordeaux, not far to the south. The best wines were the simplest wines, the “Marigny-Neuf” line, pure, fresh, clean, eminently drinkable and very affordable. The identity of the more serious wines was still punctuated by a question mark. That question is one I think will be answered only with time, as M. Brochet’s sense of purpose falls back into step with his connection to his land. I’ve had very little exposure to the “Ampelidae” line since the time of our visit, but the promise that continues to show via the Marigny-Neuf wines suggests that Ampelidae remains a winery worth watching.

If you’re hankering for more detail, here are the tasting notes from our visit.
  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Gamay
    Smoky, peppery, ripe red berry fruit. Slightly aggressive but bottled only three weeks earlier. In need of a little time to settle down.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Pinot Noir
    Bottled only two-weeks earlier but already more centered than the Gamay. Crisp, bright griotte fruit, with delicate tannins and a sweetly herbal nose.

  • 2002 Marigny-Neuf Cabernet
    A blend of 80% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Meaty and peppery, with plenty of bell pepper going on. Round mouthfeel contrasted by toothy tannins.

  • 2001 Ampelidae “Le K”
    Opposite to the above, this was a blend of 20% Cabernet Franc and 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in barrel. Rich. Aiming at opulence without arriving at sur-maturity. Dark black cherry fruit and a slightly bitter finish.

  • 2002 Ampelidae “P.N. 1328”
    The signature wine of the estate, this is a Pinot Noir named for the address of the old family house. Spicy black fruit and mature aromatic characteristics.

  • 2001 Ampelidae “Le G”
    Barrel aged Gamay. Reductive and aggressively animal on the nose, like sulfured manure.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Rosé
    70% Gamay, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Pinot Noir and 4% Groillot. Very nice wine, with clean fruit and decent backing acidity.

  • 2002 Ampelidae “Le X”
    Unusual wine. Varietal Pinot Noir, barrel aged and finished with 38 grams of residual sugar (RS). Like drinking light strawberry preserves.

  • 2002 Marigny-Neuf Chardonnay
    Smoky, apple-y fruit, with a hint of melon and red berries. Crisp and easy drinking.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Sauvignon Blanc
    Riper and rounder than the 2002 (which I was selling at the time). Clean citrus fruit, with a bit of grass and flintiness on the nose. Good mouthfeel.

  • 2003 Ampelidae “Blanc d’Hiver”
    Sauvignon Blanc aged in old oak casks, made for the first time in 2003. Creamy and sweet-fruited, with peach and melon nuances. Finished at 13% alcohol with 13 grams RS.

  • 2002 Ampelidae “Le C”
    Barrel aged Chardonnay, with lots of smoky oak on the nose. The wood was better integrated on the palate. Flowers on the nose and rich texture in the mouth, finishing ever so slightly off-dry.

  • 2001 Ampelidae “Le S”
    This is the barrel aged Sauvignon Blanc. Quite nice on the palate, showing some oak (which was more neutral on the nose). Well balanced.

We also had the opportunity, if just barely, to sit down with a few of Frédéric’s wines over a very fine lunch at Le Pavillon Bleu in Bonneuil Matours.

  • “Armance B” Brut NV
    This is a Vin Mousseux de Qualité, made in the traditional method and named after Frédéric’s grandmother, whose maiden name was Armance. Based primarily on Folle Blanche, rounded out with small proportions of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, it spends 14-15 months on the lees before disgorgement. Best when young. Fresh, creamy and lively.

  • 2003 Marigny-Neuf Gamay “Rouge d’Automne”
    One-third of the fruit for this cuvée sees carbonic maceration; the other two-thirds goes through traditional vinification. Softer and juicier than the “regular” Gamay. Maybe the most enjoyable wine of the day, and pretty tasty with the chef’s “Terrine de Pot au Feu en Ravigote.”

  • 2001 Ampelidae “P.N 1328”
    This improved in the presence of “Filets de Porc Rôti” but was nonetheless marred by alcoholic heat and an oak influence that punched over the wine’s fruit.

(First photograph courtesy of Eric Tuverson. All other images courtesy of

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Digging Through the Crypt

After a long hiatus and in spite of the time demands of the holiday crunch, I'm feeling it's high time to dig back into my travel journals from the past few years and start writing up some more winery profiles. My only hesitation is that some of these visits go back nearly five years. The details don't worry me, as my notes are pretty good and even my memory still functions fairly soundly. However, I'd welcome feedback from any and all passersby on a few questions:
  • Do you find old tasting notes relevant?
  • Does anyone care about Bordeaux any more?
  • Is five years (France, February 2004) too long?
  • Or should I skip ahead to Italy, February 2006?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Riesling on Repeal Day

In stark contrast to last year, when Repeal Day elapsed without a taste of wine passing my lips, I spent yesterday, the 75th Anniversary of the abolition of prohibition, pouring some great German wines. As it happens, I was happy to be serving them alongside the men who grew them, some of the finest producers from their respective regions. While there was nary a lowlight on the evening, certain wines in each grower’s lineup inevitably showed their mettle.

Young Frank Schönleber (pictured above), in his second year holding the winemaking reins at Emrich-Schönleber, is already demonstrating that he has a great grasp of the terroir in his slice of the Nahe. His 2007 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling trocken is just beginning to show its stuff. Beautiful fruit, intense minerality and fine filigree are all balanced by depth and muscle that hint at a fine future to come.

Jochen Ratzenberger and Andreas Laible, both a bit tired after their long and interrupted trans-Atlantic flight, were nonetheless happily sharing their wines in great spirits.

It was a true pleasure to sip the 2007 Bacharacher Riesling Kabinett trocken of Jochen Ratzenberger. However, it was his 2005 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Großes Gewächs that stole the show, demonstrating that the best German wines from top quality sites can possess every bit as much richness and profundity as the top whites of the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, while also showing a level of bundled nerve and fruit expression that similarly priced white Burgundies rarely achieve.

I also really enjoyed meeting Andreas Laible for the first time. Though the focus at his estate is on Riesling, he was kind enough to diversify the evening’s slate by opting to pour examples of his other varietal wines. Though I’d find greater day-to-day flexibility in his lovely Weißer Burgunder Kabinett trocken, it was his 2007 Baden Ortenau Durbacher Plauelrain Traminer Spätlese trocken that begged for attention, its decadent nose of flowers, herbs and citrus oil balanced by fine acidity and rich, prickly texture.

Spending a little bit of time with the three of them yesterday – along with thinking about the wines as I write about them now – made me pine for a return trip to Germany. There’s so much more to explore….

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not Your Average Wine Box

Notice I didn’t say “boxed wine.” This has nothing to do with what’s in the box – though the wines of Bérèche et Fils are excellent – but everything to do with what’s on the box. Bérèche packs their wines, for convenient carrying given the weight of Champagne bottles, in six-pack boxes. On the top of each carton is a map of the environs of Craon-de-Ludes, the estate’s home base on the Montagne de Reims. The map details the distribution of vines owned by the estate, right down to the single pied, or foot, the word the French use to denote a planted vine.

I’ve uploaded a larger image than usual, just in case you’d like to click through for a closer look. If your display or your eyes are not up to the task, here’s the lay of the land: 8,678 Pinot Meunier vines just north of Chambrecy; 5,050 Chardonnay vines, 10,549 Pinot Noir vines and 13,600 Meunier vines to the south of Ormes; 9,236 vines of Chardonnay, 11,839 of Pinot Noir and 8,839 of Meunier to the north and west of Ludes; 1,036 vines of Pinot Noir to the west of Chigny-les-Roses; 11,511 Chardonnay vines, 4,000 vines of Pinot Noir and 12,666 Pinot Meunier vines south of Mareuil-le-Port; 4,353 vines of Pinot Meunier to the northeast of Festigny; and 1,400 Chardonnay plants just southwest of Trepail. Get the picture?

Some of my fellow wine bloggers (Neil and Peter, for instance) have called out for the provision of detailed information (vintage mix, grape blend, disgorgement date, etc.) when it comes to Champagne labeling. They’re requests for information that I heartily second. But who could realistically ask for the type and detail of information provided on the Bérèche box? Does it even serve a purpose? And who counted all those vines, anyway? I don’t know, but I dig it.

Aside from its top flaps, Bérèche's six-pack offers up the usual branding.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Heat Miser Strikes Again

Last night, I cooked an easy Tuesday dinner and uncorked a bottle of wine, thinking in the back of my mind that I might find something to write about the pleasures of simple food and simple wine, or about pairing red sauced pasta with white wine. Instead, I find myself writing about that pervasive old culprit, heat damage.

This is not a rant against the wine in question, the 2006 Falanghina “Sannio” from the large Campanian producer Feudi di San Gregorio. I’ve enjoyed this wine and others from Feudi di San Gregorio in the past. When it’s in good shape, it’s a lively, well-balanced white, brimming with peach, lime and fresh herbal flavors, backed by medium acidity, medium body and a faint hint of minerality. It’s refreshing, a versatile food wine and, at around $12-13, a pretty solid value. But this bottle was dead in the water. Though not totally undrinkable, it was all but devoid of fruit, its alcohol was much more prevalent than it should be in a wine clocking in at 13%, and that savory herbaceousness was no longer savory. Think instead of herbs that have sat unused for too long, wilting and tasting more of decomposition than of freshness, of death rather than life, and you’ll have a sense of what I found.

This is not a rant, either, against the store where I bought the bottle, against its importer, the distributor or the winery. In one way or another, they’re all responsible for the fate of this bottle. So am I, for buying it in full knowledge that it might be flawed. It would be way too idealistic and optimistic on my part to think that every spoke in the wheel of the global wine distribution system will ever take the steps necessary to prevent heat damage from happening. But until they do – and I’ll try to hold out a glimmer of hope, in spite of my natural skepticism – nearly every bottle of wine you and I buy will carry with it the distinct possibility of not being what it was meant to be.

How do I know this bottle was heat damaged? Well, part of it can be chalked up to plain old experience. As I mentioned above, I’ve had good bottles of this wine in the past. I know it’s good in its youth – it’s a wine I’d usually look to buy as young as possible – yet I also know that it has the stuffing to last for a couple of years with no problem.

This case was actually tougher to detect than some others, though, as the effects of its heat damage were subtle rather than profound. The bottle passed all of my usual point-of-purchase inspections. Its capsule spun, there were no signs of seepage or leakage and no sweet or sour aromas emanating from below the capsule. Its fill level was good and there was no schmutz on the bottle. So, obviously, I bought it. When I opened it, though, I found that all my inspections had not been enough.

Corks, in spite of their own inherent problems, can provide great evidence in sussing out questions of poor handling. Just take a look at the picture above. The bottom of the cork was perfectly moist and seemed to have kept a good seal. However, the sides of the cork told a different story. Stains, now dried out, appeared at varying heights, like the graph of a very erratic heartbeat. This is not the signature of wine that’s begun to soak up through the cork over time. Rather, it’s the sign of wine having been forced up between the cork and the neck of the bottle by the increase in pressure caused by heating of the bottle’s contents. In this case, the heat exposure wasn't extreme enough to piston the cork or to cause leakage, but it was definitely enough to bruise and dull the wine. There’s no telling when or where this might have happened. It could have been in the hold of a ship, in the back of a delivery truck, on the shelves of a warm wine shop or in a warm distributor’s warehouse, or even on the driveway at the winery, where the wine could have been left out on a sunny day waiting to be picked up.

The problem with this kind of heat damage lies in its very subtlety. As mentioned above, the wine was not totally undrinkable. It just wasn’t what it could or should have been. And I can guarantee that you, I and everyone who has ever bought more than a couple of wines in their lifetime has had many a wine like it.

For obvious reasons, many importers, distributors and retailers tend to downplay the prevalence of heat damage. Even professional wine writers and avid connoisseurs have been known to deny its effects, sometimes because they may have vested interests in protecting the agents of wine’s global supply chain but also, I think, because they may not want to admit – to themselves or others – that many of the wines they may have drunk, written about or stashed away in their cellars may have been damaged in much the same way as was this poor Falanghina.

So no, this isn’t a rant against the handlers, sellers and other enablers in the wine business. It’s also not a shill based on the fact that I work in a totally temperature controlled wine shop, from point of origin to point of sale. I buy wine for my own enjoyment from many, many outlets, as I’m not willing to limit my sphere of experience to the few sources that do what’s necessary to prevent heat damage from occurring. It’s just a call to awareness, backed up by a little pseudo-scientific detective work, that I hope will help us all to recognize some of the many signs of heat damage.

* * *

For those unfortunate enough not to grasp the “Heat Miser” reference or to recognize this posting’s lead-off image, here’s a clip from the original source, just in time for the holidays.

By the way, Mr. Snow Miser’s influence on wine is much less insidious than the Heat Miser’s, although the Ice Man will rear his head from time to time when you do this.

PPS: You can also read about a slightly different experience with heat damage as reported in one of the first experiments conducted at the Rational Denial lab. I'd like to see that lab test recreated, this time using a wine the Director already knows and enjoys.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Food, Wine and Friends at the Thanksgiving Table

In spite of my sentimental ruminations of yesterday, Thanksgiving is more to me than a time for melancholy reflection. It’s also a holiday that holds an important place in my heart for bringing together friends or family to share in the pleasures of good wine, good food and good company. This year’s feast was shared with dear friends and paired with delicious food and a little more than our fair share of good wine.

We wasted no time in getting to the highlights of the day, sitting outdoors on a bright, chilly November afternoon, shucking oysters, sautéeing mussels and warming our hands by the fire. Both wines we kicked-off with worked wonders with the shellfish.

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie “Le L d’Or de Pierre Luneau, Cuvée Médaillée,” Domaine de la Grange (Pierre Luneau-Papin) 1995. $25. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
How’s that for an overwrought wine name? No matter, this was fantastically fresh. Drinking it gave me the sense of cool rain water leaching through the limestone and schist soils in Le Landreau. Marrowy and broad, intensely mineral, slightly saline and hinting at its age only via its dark aromatic profile, it was naturally stellar with the oysters.

Vouvray “Clos Baudoin,” SARL Vallée de Nouy (Poniatowski/Chidaine) 2004. Around $20 on release. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
I also really dug the 2004 Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” of François Chidaine, produced during the period when he was farming and making the wines at Prince Philippe Poniatowski’s estate. (The “Clos Baudoin” now belongs to Chidaine). Fully sec in style and medium golden in color, its richer flavors were not as automatic a pairing with the oysters, but the match created some finishing flavor combinations that were really magnifying and haunting. And its pear nectar and sunshine-laced fruit worked handsomely with sweet, juicy mussels picked straight from the fire.

Palette, Château Simone 2006. $70. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Neal Rosenthal, New York, NY.
As hard as the first two wines were to follow, the most exciting white of the night was the 2006 Palette from Château Simone. It was my first experience with wine of any color from this tiny AOC located just southeast of Aix-en-Provence. I’d never thought Provençal white wine could be this good – sweetly herbal, dry but generous in its texture and braced by clean, refreshing acidity and apple tinged fruit. Poured alongside a Vietnamese preparation of pan seared scallops and a slaw of napa cabbage and mirin-spiked shiitakes, the wine did far more than stand its own. Its price, though, forces the wine even further into the realm of curiosity than does its obscure AOC.

Alsace Grand Cru Wiebelsberg Riesling “La Dame (Partager Avec Toi),” Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss 2004. $20. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wilson-Daniels, Saint Helena, CA.
This was the only dim bulb in a lineup of otherwise luminescent whites. The wine was perfectly sound and palatable but more or less bereft of any liveliness or depth, not living up to its Grand Cru status or to my hopes based on a positive write-up of the Domaine in Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wines (Classic Wine Library). I suppose there’s a reason why it was on closeout for $20….

Meursault “Clos des Mouches,” Domaine Henri Germain 2002. $46. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Not to be confused with Beaune “Clos des Mouches,” the Clos des Mouches in Meursault is a monopole vineyard owned, farmed and planted to Pinot Noir by Domaine Henri Germain. This took the honors for red of the night, at least in my book. Its nose of macerated cherries and white truffles was followed up by silky, lithe red fruit, with flavors of buttery lucques olives, vanilla-laced cherries and sweet English thyme all dancing across the palate. Firm of texture and fresh in acidity but delicate, delicate, delicate, through and through. Really lovely red Burg.

At this point, my note taking and wine geekery took a back seat to the spirit and timing of the meal. The size of our party didn’t merit a whole turkey, besides which I don’t think anyone wanted to spend the afternoon at the oven door. Instead, our hosts prepared duck two ways, with braised duck leg served atop walnut oil-dressed mashed potatoes and seared duck breast set alongside my wife’s dish of curried lentils and sweet potatoes. After thoroughly enjoying Germain’s Meursault Rouge with all of this, we popped and tasted a couple of other reds of potential interest. Thierry and Pascale Matrot’s 2006 Blagny “La Pièce sous le Bois” is already drinking nicely, with dark, crunchy fruit and good structure, but will definitely benefit from further slumber in the cellar. After the two Burgundies, Smith Haut Lafiitte’s 1998 Pessac-Léognan seemed dull in comparison.

When it comes to pairing wines with traditional Thanksgiving desserts – pies of pumpkin, apple, pecan and mince meat – it’s the stickies of Southwest France that often come first to mind. I don’t think the delicious 2004 Jurançon from Camin Larredya made it past the cheese course, though. Our dessert compartments weren’t cooperating that night. A brisk walk and, for me at least, a wee nap were in order before pie could even be considered.

When it comes to traditional Thanksgiving meals, this evening’s menu may have been something of a departure. But it was a welcome one, offering more than plenty for which to give thanks.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin