Friday, January 30, 2009

Bandol Longue Garde

If you Google “longue garde,” you’ll come up with a long list of wines from Bandol that use the term as a cuvée name. If you translate it with your basic French pocket dictionary, you won’t come up with much of a surprise; it means “long guard.” Think of it, though, in the same context as you might “avant garde” – ground breaking, before its time – and you’ll have a better sense of what longue garde means in the wine lexicon of Bandol. Quite simply, it suggests a wine shat should be kept. It’s indicative of the time it can take to tame the structure of traditionally produced Bandol, to mellow the inherently sauvage character of Bandol’s native vine, Mourvèdre.

Bandol “Longue Garde,” Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles 1998
~$20 on release. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles can be counted among the old guard in Bandol. An original member of the Syndicat des Anciens Vins de Bandol, an organization created in 1939 with the goal of raising the quality and cementing the reputation of Bandol, the estate still produces wines in what can be considered the traditional fashion. Their cuvée “Longue Garde” is very nearly pure Mourvèdre, about 95%, blended with only a small percentage of Grenache Noir. Following fermentation in temperature controlled tanks, it spends just shy of two years aging in old oak foudres.

A quick look at Lafran-Veyrolles’ website tells us they recommend keeping their “Longue Garde” (which they now call “Cuvée Spéciale”) for eight to twelve years.

I can still remember tasting the ‘98 when it first hit American shores somewhere around 2002. Tighter than a drum... it was all hard edges, lean and taut, tasting of not much more than dried leather and wild herbs. Friendly it was not. Potential, though, it did seem to have.

Six or seven years on, at a touch over ten years from the vintage, it’s now right in the sweet spot of the drinking window suggested by Lafran-Veyrolles. As is often the case with such recommendations though, the date range seems to have been low-balled. Yes, it’s drinking in a pretty sweet spot but it will easily go another 8-12 years and should continue to develop further interest along the way.

For now, it’s still plenty youthful but more open knit than when I last tasted it, with suppler tannins and a solid spine of acidity driving home dark, sinewy, spicy fruit. The nose is loaded with aromas of ink, garrigue, wild black fruit and a touch of blood and iron. Drinking and smelling it, I can somehow close my eyes and picture a horse running through the dry, windswept Provençal outback. Just about perfect for a pot of beef daube or braised lamb shanks, and a good thing to have kept for the long guard.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Upcoming Wine Events in Philly, New York and San Francisco

To my hale, hardy (and hearty) readers in the greater Philadelphia area…. I’ll be hosting a wine dinner at Bistro on the Brandywine out in bucolic Chadds Ford, PA on Tuesday, February 3, 2009. The menu will put a few twists on otherwise ostensibly classic French bistro dishes, while I’ll be pouring some great value wines from French regions such as Beaujolais, Madiran and, you guessed it, the Loire. At $75 all inclusive, it stands to be a great way to fight the recession blues without depriving your soul of the righteous pleasures of food and wine. Sound good? Then check out the menu or jump on in and make a reservation online.

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For my no less hale and hardy readers in the remote hamlets of San Francisco and New York, there are also a couple of neat events coming to your towns in February. Robert Camuto, whose book Corkscrewed I reviewed recently, will be passing through both San Fran and NYC on his whirlwind US book tour.

  • On the evening of Thursday, February 19, 2009, Robert will give a book talk and signing, accompanied by a tasting of some of the wines featured in Corkscrewed, at 18 Reasons in San Francisco’s Mission District.

  • And on Saturday, February 21, 2009, he’ll perform double duty in New York. First up, from 4 to 7 PM, is a book release and wine tasting event – along with Savennières’ own Nicolas Joly – at Chambers Street Wines in Tribeca. Later that evening, Camuto and Joly will both hop the bridge to Brooklyn to co-host a wine dinner at iCi in Fort Greene.

Further information about these events and other stops on Robert’s book tour can be found at

In response to an observation I made in my review of Corskcrewed, Mr. Camuto offered up a “special” wine tasting to anyone arriving at any of his events by bicycle and mentioning my article. Though I expect he made the offer at least half in jest, I’m encouraging everyone to take him at his word. So I’m putting the call out to my fellow vino and velo inclined bloggers – Joe and Wolfgang in San Francisco and Karen and Alice in New York – and asking them to organize group rides to their local events. Keep the rubber side down, y'all. Lycra optional.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Announcing WBW 54: A Passion for Piedmont

Tuscany may get all the attention when it comes to dreaming of idyllic vacations in the Italian countryside, while Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan usually top the list of destinations for the city traveler. Of all the spots in Italy I’ve visited, though, the region that most strongly beckons my return is Piedmont.

With that in mind, it’s my pleasure to announce that I’ll be hosting the next edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday. Our theme for the February session will be “A Passion for Piedmont” (a title I’ve borrowed with all due respect from wine writer Matt Kramer’s Piedmontese cookbook).

For any who don’t know it, Piedmont is situated in the northwestern corner of Italy. Nestled in the shadow of the Alps, Piedmont is close enough to the French border that there’s a hint (a scant hint) of French/Italian cultural interchange. While it’s close enough to the Mediterranean that on a clear day you can catch a faint view of the sea from atop the region’s highest hillsides, Piedmont is entirely landlocked. Many in Piedmont still speak the local Piedmontese dialect, quite different from classic Italian. And while the cultural tone of the region is sometimes thought of as cool and reserved in comparison to the warm, garrulous nature of southern Italy, I’ve found the Piedmontese people to be incredibly welcoming and forthcoming. You just have to take a little time to get to know them.

The same thing can be said of the region’s wines. They don’t tend to be as forward and immediately open as the wines of southern Italy. But there’s incredible depth and diversity to the region’s viticultural range, a range that’s well worth the time it takes to explore and understand.

While there are some fine white wines made in the region – from Gavi di Gavi to Roero Arneis to Moscato d’Asti – there’s no denying that Piedmont is red wine country. The Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco may steal the thunder. But it’s the wines made from Piedmont’s other two primary varieties – Barbera and Dolcetto – that appear most often on the Piedmontese table. Less common regional specialties like Freisa, Grignolino and Brachetto add local color and help to make Piedmont one of Italy’s most diverse wine zones.

There’s geographical diversity to spare as well. Barolo and Barbaresco again may take center stage, as the show pieces of the Langhe, the wine zone focused around the city of Alba. But there are lovely expressions of Barbera to be found around Asti and in the Monferrato hills. Dolcetto is the lifeblood in Dogliani, just to the south of Barolo. And a good stretch further to the northeast, in the Alto Piemonte, Nebbiolo again exerts its nobility in zones such as Gattinara, Ghemme and Lessona.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is simple. Pick a wine, any wine, from Piedmont, taste it, consider it, jot down a few notes and then write up your impressions of the wine. Your piece can be as simple or as detailed as you see fit – in either case, I encourage you to explore and enjoy.

If you don’t have your own blog, you’re still more than welcome to participate. Just leave your write-up as a comment to this posting. Or you can e-mail your review to me – davidmcduff (at) verizon dot net – and I’ll post it for you. Most of the bloggers out there should already know the routine; just post a piece on your own blog and send a link to your posting to me, either via e-mail or using the comment field below.

Wine Blogging Wednesday, by the way, is a monthly event, started over four years ago by Lenn Thompson at LennDevours. Participants select a wine based on a chosen theme and then write about their experiences.

Reports for this 54th edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday are due on Wednesday, February 18, 2009. I’ll post a summary of everyone’s contributions the following weekend. In the meanwhile, get shopping. And stay tuned here, as I’ll post reminders – and maybe even a bonus point challenge or two – over the next few weeks.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Corkscrewed Reviewed

“A good wine is a wine you find to be good. A great wine is a wine that you remember. As for all the rest… all the rest is literature.”

Though the words above were uttered by Côte-Rôtie producer Gilles Barge, their inclusion in Robert Camuto’s new book, Corkscrewed, serves a solid turn as metaphor for the spirit encapsulated in Camuto’s work.

Part memoir, part travelogue, Corkscrewed leads us not through tales of the good or great wines the author has drunk nor, for the most part, through trips to storied estates. Instead, Mr. Camuto takes us on a journey of the paths less traveled in French wine country. Along the way he spends time with struggling independent vignerons and contemplates the future of obscure vines, while the contemporary culture clash in the world of French wine takes center stage. What we read about are the moments and people, not just the wines, that struck a chord deep enough to take root in his memory. And the book’s style, literary as it is, puts a positive spin on the closing of Monsieur Barge’s quote.

Mr. Camuto paints a picture of French wine culture not dissimilar from that depicted in the film Mondovino, contrasting the spirit of the independent vigneron with the machinations of the “big” wine industry. His journey begins in the sleek, competitive wine scene of Bordeaux, but quickly follows the first of his many subjects, François des Ligneris, from his estate in Saint-Émilion to what’s clearly the winemaker’s greater passion, a property in the Corbières. From that point on, Camuto doesn’t look back. He spends the remainder of the book traversing the rural wine villages of the South and Southwest of France, with brief sojourns to Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire, focusing along the way on the challenges inherent to the rustic lifestyle associated with growing wine in the French countryside. Though Camuto’s overall conclusions are fairly similar to those drawn in Mondovino, his overall tone is thankfully far less cruel. His villains are less caricatured, less demonized, and his heroes are painted with warm strokes, yet broadly enough to let their character show through, warts and all.

Corkscrewed is not without its own warts. Camuto sometimes plays coy as to his own experiences and opinions, opting instead to let his characters do the damning where damning seems due. In one passage from the chapter “Drinking with Uncle Jacques,” Camuto utters a simple, hedonistic “mmmmm” in response to a vintage Maury poured at Mas Amiel in the Côtes du Roussillon. It’s Uncle Jacques, one of the author’s more colorful protagonists, who quickly lays down the dirt on the wines at Mas Amiel: “They are too much, too fruity, too caramel, too sugary…. It was like you took a prune, put a piece of caramel on it and ate it…. I tell you, it was something else, syrup maybe. But it was not wine!”

After spending the bulk of the book championing the unsung heroes of the French wine countryside, the chapter dedicated to Nicolas Joly – owner of the famous Coulée de Serrant in Savennières and great campaigner for the biodynamie movement – comes across as surprisingly requisite. On a more personal level, I’m irked by the demonization of a cyclist, dressed in lycra and pedaling furiously through the Ardèche countryside. I’d like to be cycling through the Ardèche myself, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing it on an old single speed bike with a baguette in the basket. But Camuto puts the image to apt use, contrasting the old school, slow and steady lifestyle of the struggling vigneron with the invasion of the modern, the incursion of the fast and an unwillingness to stop and experience the native pleasures of place.

Whatever quibbles I may have found with Corkscrewed, they are clearly outweighed by its merits. Mr. Camuto’s writing is precise, entertaining and compelling enough that it should appeal to audiences beyond the normally narrow scope reached by wine books. It reads very much like a collection of short stories that come together to form what is essentially a non-fiction novel. It travels a road that I’d very much like to follow. The individual stories alone are very much worth the price of admission. The fact that they come together to form a much greater whole makes Corkscrewed a rare gem in the field of wine literature and a highly recommended read.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

For No Particular Reason

Ever have one of those nights when you just feel like getting together with friends and opening up a few interesting bottles?

Rheinhessen Riesling trocken “Von der Fels,” Keller 2002
$20 on release. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
I’m pretty sure 2002 was the first release of Keller’s “Von der Fels” (“From the Rocks”). Even though I have only a couple of bottles, I felt it was about time to check in on one. I’m glad I did as it’s in a really good place right now, just starting to bridge into the development of some tertiary characteristics. Very fresh and prickly, still showing some residual carbon dioxide when first opened. It quickly rounded out and took on depth and richness with aeration. White peaches laced with lime zest, orange oil and honeysuckle hit the front palate, while a touch of oiliness and salinity follow. This is bone dry but completely physiologically ripe Riesling, loaded with palate staining fruit that shoots sparks across your tongue. With yet more air, rainier cherry fruit and intensely concentrated, almost sour minerality develop. Tremendous length. Lovely wine.

Arbois Pupillin Chardonnay, Emmanuel Houillon (Pierre Overnoy) 2006
$28. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
This showed big time sulfur/struck match aromas when first opened. After a quick and vigorous decant, it became clear that the wine was in a pretty severely reduced state. It showed much better on the palate, though, where I initially found flavors of apple cider and an element that reminded me of Junmai Daiginjo sake. Coming back to it fifteen minutes later, the nose was still full of totally reductive funk. But the wine had gotten even tastier, showing ripe red apple fruit and notes of cinnamon dusted pastry dough. I still had a hard time getting past its nose. Maybe it’s just too young yet, or needs a few hours (or days?) in the decanter.

In the context of my recent posting on wine naming conventions, how does one handle Houillon’s wines? All the bottles name Monsieur Houillon, while one bottle makes no mention of Overnoy, one names Pierre Overnoy and another is labeled as Maison Pierre Overnoy. Meanwhile, there is no visible differentiation in appellation or wine name from bottling to bottling; technically they are all just called Arbois Pupillin. Only different colors of sealing wax (not pictured), used in place of capsules, seem to differentiate one cuvée from the next: pale yellow for the Chardonnay, marigold for the Savagnin and red for the Poulsard.

The de rigueur shot of orange wine, sharing the counter with a Baltimore icon.

We never quite got around to opening Houillon’s Poulsard. But his 2004 Savagnin (the orange wine in the above photo), which had already been open for at least three or four days, was still quite interesting, offering up a nose full of Manzanilla and candy corn aromatics, finished off with tongue-twisting, gripping acidity.

Nahe Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Kabinett trocken, Emrich-Schönleber 2001
$15 on release. 11.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Our brief detour into the Arbois didn’t prevent us from taking pleasure in trying this alongside the Keller. The eye alone, given its deeper golden appearance, was enough to show that this has traveled further along its path of development. But it still has plenty of stuffing and potential. Can there be such a thing as hedonistic Kabinett trocken? This would seem to suggest so, as it offered up voluptuous scents and flavors of clove-poached pears, fresh baked apple pie a la mode and peach cobbler. Did I mention that this is completely dry? And that it paired seamlessly with saba (mackerel sushi)?

This bottling doesn’t exist in the Schönlebers’ lineup any longer, replaced along with their other dry Kabinetts by the non-Pradikat “Mineral.” And wines at the quality level of this and “Von der Fels” no longer exist at these price points ($15 and $20, respectively). Can you hear that? It’s the sound of my teardrops hitting the floor.

Barolo “Cerretta,” Germano Ettore (Sergio Germano) 2000
$50. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Though showing just the slightest hint of its alcohol on the nose, this is nonetheless in a fine place right now. It’s still quite youthful in the fruit department but is soft, round, exotically spicy and sweetly scented. Enjoyably pondering a glass, I was struck with the thought that I’m not sure there’s any vine that takes to oak quite so well as does Nebbiolo. I find the aromatic fireworks that result when it’s done right really hard to beat. Here, it results in classic oak-derived spiciness and warm red floral aromas and scents of rooibos tea intertwined with red licorice and sassafras. The 2000 may lack the acid/tannin profile of a more classic Piedmontese vintage but firm, well-balanced grip still presents itself on the finish.

Ever think of pairing Barolo with chocolate? Don't. On the other hand, this worked surprisingly well with Peking duck, perhaps helped along by the rich fruit and soft texture typical to the 2000 vintage.

Gevrey-Chambertin, Sylvie Esmonin 2005
$60. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
A bit clumsy right out of the gate, the sweet red fruit immediacy of Sylvie Esmonin’s Gevrey was marred at first by slightly disjointed alcohol. It didn’t take long for its grace to emerge, though. Definitely lots of red fruit, both fresh and caramelized. A campfire set in a forest clearing on a nippy fall day comes to mind, not through any overtly reductive characteristics, just through the wine’s overall expression of brambly fruit and energy. Esmonin gets her knocks from some quarters for the concentrated, forward nature of her wines but I dig them. This has a wonderfully barky, sinewy character that helps to back up its boisterous, spicy red fruit. It’s slightly lean yet sappy and generous all at once, topped off with a beguiling nose of sandalwood. I would have guessed, as did Bill Nanson at Burgundy Report, this sees some stems in the vat but Dressner’s page on Esmonin says not.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Moment in Your Time

Monday, January 19, 2009

My Approach to Wine Naming Conventions

While reading Alder Yarrow’s recent post on Croatian wines at Vinography the other day, I had a bit of an “ah-hah!” moment. It had nothing to do with the part about Croatian wine. Rather, it was in response to his (re)iteration of the standardized format he uses when writing wine names. Though his logic doesn’t match mine, his post made me realize that I’d never explained my own standardization protocol and told you why I do it the way I do.

Here’s my format:

Place of origin (including cuvée and/or vineyard name and/or grape variety, as applicable) – Estate/ProducerVintage

It’s a style that lends itself most readily to the widespread practice in Europe of naming a wine after its place of origin. For instance, here’s an example of a wine that I wrote up recently: Vouvray “Cuvée de Silex,” Domaine des Aubisières (Bernard Fouquet) 2007.

Things can get a bit awkward when applying the same structure to wines from the New World, as a wine that many people might refer to simply as “1999 Caymus Special Selection,” for instance, would become: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Special Selection,” Caymus Vineyards 1999. I admit it doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite as easy a fashion. But it works for me.

My profile picture is a shot of a vineyard called "Runcot," a subset of the the Gavarini cru in Monforte d'Alba, one of the districts where Barolo is produced. It's owned and farmed by Elio Grasso and his son, Gianluca. I've yet to write up the details of my visit there in February 2006. And their Barolo "Runcot" from '06 has yet to be released. (Photo appears courtesy of its photographer, Tino Gerbaldo, and the Elio Grasso estate.)

Wine names written in this manner, even though they may appear to include an awful lot of information, really present only three basic elements: place, person and time. This construct is meant to convey, in all cases, three points that I feel very strongly about.
  1. Place of origin is – or at least should be, in my view – the single most important factor in determining the overall character of wine.

  2. It’s the person or people making the wine that nurture the wine – from vineyard to cellar – and allow it to express its place of origin as they interpret it. I like to think of the winemaker as a servant to his or her vineyards, as less important than the place but more important than the vintage in determining the overall quality of any given wine.

  3. Vintage is very important in the context of any single wine. All things in parts one and two being consistent, it’s the qualities of a given growing year, and the human decisions based around the vagaries of that year, that make that wine different from year to year. Vintage becomes important to understanding wine, however, only after an understanding of the wine’s place and people have already been formed.

This is obviously a big topic, one that’s open to a wide range of viewpoints. While I could go into much greater detail, I’d rather stop here, encourage questions, feedback, commentary, criticism – even outright bashing – and see where the discussion leads.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Housekeeping

When I traveled to Germany and France in 2004, I did so without a camera. Luckily, one of my trip mates brought his camera along and was able to capture at least a few images at many of the wineries we visited. Nearly five years on, I’ve finally gotten around to borrowing his photo album (Thanks, Eric!), scanning some of his shots and adding them to the winery profile pages here at MFWT. If you’d like to check them out, you’ll find that new photos have been added to the pages for:

On a more technical bent, I’ve just updated my subscription feeds in keeping with Feedburner’s recent merge with and migration to Google. If any of you following MFWT via RSS feed or email subscription encounter any interruptions or problems with service, please drop me a line or leave a comment to let me know.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tria, Ars Nova and Menetou-Salon

Update: Classes at Tria are now open for registration. Check out the entire February schedule or jump directly to my courses on sparkling wine or Italy on a budget. Both classes are now sold out.

The February 2009 schedule of classes at Tria Fermentation School is due to be announced later today. I’ll do my best to update this once the roster goes live but you can also keep an eye on it yourself. I’ll be leading two seminars in February. The first will be the ubiquitous seasonal sparkling wine class, just in time for Valentine’s Day, on Friday, February 13. I’ll return in quick fashion on Wednesday, February 18, with an overview of some exciting options in everyday wines from Italy. Think $18 and under – $15 doesn’t get you quite as far in Italy as it does in France – and you’ll be on the right track.

Another promoter of great cultural events available to all of my Philly-based readers is the Ars Nova Workshop. For those not already familiar, Ars Nova's driving force Mark Christman puts on a really adventurous series of musical performances at small venues all over the city. To over simplify, the focus is on jazz but his bookings encompass an incredibly wide range of musical talent, occasionally straight ahead but more often exploring the cutting edge of improvisational and experimental music.

Last Friday’s performance, the first in a three-part series paying tribute to the great, late saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, featured Baikida Carroll, trumpeter on Hemphill’s landmark 1972 recording, Dogon A.D., in what turned out to be a really eclectic, energized evening. Perhaps I’ll see some of you at the Thurston Moore/Mats Gustafsson performance on the 31st of this month. I trust it won’t be for the faint of heart…. Here’s a short clip, loaded on the aural assault front, of Mats and Thurston performing with Original Silence at an August 2008 performance in Oslo.

Finally, getting back to wine, I mentioned in yesterday’s post how a food pairing brought out something extra, something that wasn’t already in evidence, in an otherwise relatively unremarkable Chinon. Well, I finished off the same disc of Selles-sur-Cher last night, washed down with a couple of glasses of Jean-Max Roger’s 2005 Menetou-Salon “Cuvée Le Charnay.” The wine was showing very well on its own, having moved past the lactic tendencies it can show in youth to a more highly-charged expression of fruit, flowers and minerality. The combination, though, focused and magnified the experience of both the wine and the cheese, putting paid to the classic pairing of Loire Sauvignon with goat’s milk cheese from the same locale, adding layers and hitting new notes along the way. Good stuff all around.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Breakfast Wine for WBW 53

It’s been a while since I’ve jumped into the Wine Blogging Wednesday pool. But given that this month’s host, El Jefe at El Bloggo Torcido has, in his own typically twisted way, made things both fun and challenging, I figured it was high time rejoin the fray. El Jefe (or Jeff Stai, if you prefer – he’s the owner of Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County, California) has asked participants to write up their favorite breakfast wine. No problem, right?

When I show Moscato d’Asti at wine tastings, I often describe it as the perfect breakfast wine. It’s always good for a laugh and it’s also true. A good example of Moscato represents some of the best fruit juice you’re ever likely to drink. It’s low in alcohol and has enough residual sugar to pair with a wide variety of breakfast sweets, from pastries to pancakes to French toast.

I’d actually rather drink Champagne, but that’s harder to explain to that percentage of the population that for some reason believes there’s something wrong with having wine before 5PM. There’s nothing, though, quite like a good glass of Champers with an omelette aux fines herbes or with a simple plate of bacon and eggs for that matter.

The challenge is that El Jefe has forbidden us from drinking anything with bubbles or anything that’s at all sweet. And wine cocktails such as the ubiquitous Mimosa? Forget about it. Dry red or dry white wine is the rule of the day. So, with that in mind, I think back to my last couple of wine junkets to Europe and, in particular, to the wine villages of the middle Loire.

Chinon, Domaine des Rouet 2005
$14. 12.5% alcohol. Diam. Kysela Père et Fils, Winchester, VA.
I’m cheating a bit here, as I drank this Chinon over the course of the last two days with dinner rather than breakfast. I doubt whether the main component of those dinners – pumpkin lentil soup with sautéed mushrooms – would fit into many people’s definition of breakfast food. However, on both nights, I also enjoyed a couple of slices of crusty bread and a generous portion of Loire Valley goat cheese – Selles sur Cher, to be exact.

If you’re in a budget hotel, like the one in Montlouis where our group stayed a few years back, breakfast may be nothing more than a stale baguette, butter, jam and a cup of weak coffee. If you have an early morning appointment at a nearby winery, on the other hand, you’re much more likely to be greeted with a plate of dried sausages or cured meats, a little bread and a wedge of the local goat’s milk cheese. It’ll sate your belly and stand you in good stead for a day spent in cold cellars and – if you’re there in February as I was – frosty vineyards. If you happen to be in the town of Chinon, the cheese on your plate would probably be St. Maure de Touraine but that’s splitting hairs….

The Chinon from Domaine des Rouet is simple and unassuming. In fact it’s actually not perfectly balanced nor all that memorable. Lean and a little ungiving on its own, it does perk up in the presence of food, its slightly herbaceous and tart red fruit opening up to reveal a riper core of redcurrants when matched with the Selles sur Cher. It’s what some might call a bistro wine – straightforward and direct, with little personality of its own but quite flexible at the table. At 12.5% alcohol, it’s relatively low alcohol so not too, too strong for early going. Besides, I don’t want anything deep, dark, profound or powerful first thing in the morning. Just something to kick my taste buds and palate into gear for the rest of the day.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

B-Sides: Some Recent Hits, Misses and Outtakes

B-Sides. Sometimes neglected, almost always overshadowed by their siblings on the up-side of the disc; sometimes plain bad, but just as often every bit as interesting, if not more so, than the tracks that get more airplay. Here at MFWT, “B-Sides” will be a new series of posts that I’ll run periodically (as long as the content moves me in any way). The B-Sides are quick notes about wines that didn’t get the full attention, by way of individual or more detailed posts, they may have deserved.

The hits – wines that made my palate stand up and take notice….

Pfalz Pinot Noir, Becker Estate (Friedrich Becker) 2006
$20. 12.5% alcohol. Screwcap. Importer: A Rudi Wiest Selection, Cellars International, San Marcos, CA.
I’ve read good things about Friedrich Becker’s Spätburgunders at both Barry’s Wine and Rockss and Fruit. So I didn’t hesitate to pick up a bottle of Becker’s Estate Pinot Noir when I found it on the shelves at, of all places, a local outlet of the PLCB. Very nice wine, with fresh acidity, minimal tannins and clear fruit expression. A classic unoaked Spätburgunder nose of black cherries, smoke, a little pepper and clove, and a twinge of green herbaceousness. Reductive when first opened – perhaps a side-effect of its screwcap closure – but that blew off quickly.

Chénas, Domaine des Pierres (Jean-François Trichard) 2007
$17. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
A solid example of fruity-style Beaujolais, showing much better than when last tasted a couple of months ago. It’s shed its earlier baby fat and is starting to lean-out and take on more herbal interest in its bright, raspberry driven flavor profile. Jean-François has taken over charge of the estate from his father Georges. They're apparently still working through their batch of old labels, so you may see this version of this wine labeled with Georges' name as well as with that of Jean-François.

Vouvray “Cuvée de Silex,” Domaine des Aubisières (Bernard Fouquet) 2007
$15. 13% alcohol. Screwcap. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
I don’t have much more to say about this than last time other than that it’s showing drier than it was just three months ago. At an average retail price of $16 – and I’ve seen it lower in some spots – this is a great value in Vouvray that’s both serious and quaffable.

The misses – wines that left me wanting a little (or a lot) more….

Jasnières “Clos des Longues Vignes,” Domaine le Briseau (Nathalie & Christian Chaussard) 2004
$28. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
The Chaussards’ wines continue to leave me scratching my head. This is a fully dry Jasnières that showed some Chenin typicity, with pear fruit, good acidity and aromas of flowering herbs. But it was bitter on the finish, hollow on the mid-palate and short on the end. Though fresh on day one, it darkened in color and oxidized more quickly than normal by day two. Too low-sulfur for its own good? I’m not ready to give up yet but it will take some convincing showings to change my impression of this estate’s wines.

Barbera d’Asti “Tre Vigne,” Vietti 2006
$26. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Remy Cointreau USA, New York, NY.
I have a love/hate relationship with Barbera. This one fell in the grey area, with not enough depth in the fruit and textural departments to balance its tangy, borderline sour acidity. I have no problem with high acidity – it’s one of Barbera’s hallmarks – but it has to be in balance to work. Vietti is a consistently reliable producer but this vintage of “Tre Vigne” didn’t do it for me.

Marlborough Pinot Noir, Churton 2005
$10. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Allied Beverage Group, Carlstadt, NJ.
Every once in a while, I get the urge to explore a thing or two from Down Under and, for whatever reason, New Zealand Pinot Noir has recently piqued my curiosity. I had an off chance to pick this up for $10 on an importer’s close-out deal; it usually retails for $20-25. I wouldn’t buy it again even at $10. Like sweet and sour tomato paste. I forced myself to stick with it for not one but two nights – for educational purposes, mind you. I had a hard time squelching it past my tongue on both evenings.

The outtakes – wines that might have been hits if consumed at the right time or if handled with better care….

Bourgogne Aligoté, Domaine Diconne (Jean-Pierre Diconne) 2002
$13. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
As I enjoyed this wine when it was released back in 2004, I know it to have been a solid example of textbook Aligoté from a producer whose wines I generally enjoy. This one just got away from me in the cellar. Once I realized that, sometime in ’07 I believe, I decided to make an experiment of it, intentionally keeping it past its expected prime. The results of said experiment turned out as anticipated. Not entirely uninteresting but it was more volatile than anything else, smelling and tasting not unlike the vapor of Lemon Pledge.

Bekaa Valley White, Château Musar (Gaston Hochar) 2000
$30. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Broadbent Selections, San Francisco, CA.
I’ve yet to have a bottle – white or red – from Musar that justifies the reverent things I’ve heard and read about the estate. I don’t doubt that such a bottle is out there. It’s just that those with which I’ve crossed paths have all been either lackluster or abused. This one fell into the latter camp, the result of heat damage I suspect. What little fruit was left was caramelized; otherwise, this mostly just showed volatile acidity.

Saint-Véran, Domaine des Valanges (Michel Paquet) 2005
$15. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Another grey area wine, this is still holding some drinkability but hasn’t developed enough in the way of bottle bouquet to offset its trip down the slippery slope. Paquet produces direct, early drinking Mâcon-Davayé and Saint-Véran that are pretty decent values. But this, after only two-plus years in the bottle, is fading faster than I would have expected. If you’re holding any, drink up while the drinking’s still satisfactory.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Turducken Considered

When the folks at sent me a turducken a few months back, I’m sure they hoped I’d try it and write it up before the holidays. I have to imagine that 75% or so of annual turducken sales are concentrated around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Be that as it may, the right opportunity – namely, a house full of people – didn’t present itself until just after New Year’s.

Until that day, I’d been a turducken virgin. The idea of the dish – as CajunGrocer describes, “a semi-boneless turkey stuffed with a deboned chicken and deboned duck breast [with] creole pork sausage & cornbread stuffing between each bird” – had always struck me as odd. Why the heck would someone go to all that trouble and who the hell thought it up in the first place? Is it really a Louisiana specialty or just a marketing gimmick? On the rare occasion – maybe once or twice a year – that someone would walk into the wine shop and ask for a suggested pairing for the turducken they were planning to cook, it always made me kind of laugh. Silently, of course. Or maybe it was out loud…. When chortle came to shove, though, I was more than happy to give the turducken a wing.

Before and after roasting.

Given that the turducken ships frozen, the only time or labor intensive part of its preparation is thawing, which took about three days in my refrigerator. As it arrives fully prepared, cooking is as simple as preheating the oven, putting the bird(s) in a roasting pan, tenting it with foil, putting it in the oven and shutting the door. CajunGrocer’s instructions suggest about five hours cooking time. Mine took closer to six but that extra time is a typical side effect, in my experience, of the heavyweight All Clad roasting pan I use. There are actually a couple of sets of cooking directions on the CG site: one that recommends water in the roasting pan combined with occasional basting, another that goes for straight-up dry roasting. I went with the latter, preferring to keep the heat in the oven and the process as rudimentary as possible. You could, of course, get creative with basting methods or pan sauces but I wanted to keep it simple, to see how the turducken would turn out with as little doctoring as possible.

I removed the foil at around the four-hour point to allow the turkey’s skin to crisp and ran periodic temperature checks after another half-hour. When my not-so-insta-read thermometer hit160°F when inserted in the center of the roast (CG’s directions suggest 165, no doubt for litigation’s sake), I removed the turducken from the oven, tented it and allowed it to rest while cooking our side dishes. Not much to it, really.

The end result? In the simplest sense, the turducken turned out quite nicely. Its skin was perfectly golden, the meat tender, flavorful and moist.

Our turducken at two different stages of the carving process.

Slicing and dicing a little more deeply, the best came first. Carving from the neck end of the turkey we quickly hit the duck/chicken mother lode, both smaller birds delivering greater richness and depth of flavor than the white meat of the turkey alone. By the halfway point of the roast, the duck was long gone, leaving a crosshatched pattern of turkey and chicken, still moist and well flavored by the meat’s rub of creole seasonings. As the butt end of the bird approached things turned less favorable, as the chicken went the way of the duck and the stuffing took over. That stuffing, an unattractively brown mixture of cornmeal and seasoned pork, was the weakest point of the turducken, bland and dense, acting more as filler than flavor enhancer.

On the table and leftovers.... We served our turducken with cornbread, roasted yams with coriander-citrus butter and sauteed brussels sprouts with a balsamic glaze. The leftovers, at the butt-end of the roast, illustrate one of my main issues with the construction of the dish: uneven distribution of the creole stuffing.

At about $85, the average price after shipping, CajunGrocer’s turducken might seem like a rather hefty investment for what many might consider a novelty act. Take into account the amount of work – not to mention trial and error – that would go into making one from scratch though, along with the fact that it’s easily enough food to feed twenty people, and you might just consider it an investment worth risking.

Finally, yes, I do recommend wine pairings for turducken when asked. I suppose beers such as Blackened Voodoo or Abita Amber would have been more appropriate to turducken's Louisiana roots. For my own purposes, though, I opted for a couple of Loire Valley Cabernet Francs. Catherine & Pierre Breton's 2005 Bourgueil "Clos Sénéchal" stole the show. It's painfully young but still delicious, brimming with black and blue fruits and a brooding, sauvage aromatic profile. The 2003 St. Nicolas de Bourgueil "Vieilles Vignes" from Joël Taluau, which was pleasantly plump and quite tasty on release, has now shut down and gone into a completely dumb phase. We still managed to drink it... but forget about it for a while if you're holding any.

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The roasting pan:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exploring Long Island, Long Distance

As a lifelong resident of the Mid-Atlantic States and a frequent visitor to New York City, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve never once set foot on Long Island in Nassau or Suffolk Counties, the seats of Long Island wine country. It’s only slightly more often that I’ve taken the opportunity to investigate Long Island’s wines. I’ve been making some inroads with the latter of late, and I suppose I’ll have to make an effort to remedy the former situation before long. Here are some quick impressions of a couple of Long Island wines I’ve recently poured.

Long Island Merlot “Estate Selection,” Wölffer Estate 2004. $35. 13.3% alcohol. Cork.
Once its veil of oak lifts, Wölffer’s “Estate Selection” Merlot reveals a finely balanced core of sweet cherry fruit supported by mature, nuanced acidity and supple, delicate tannins. Its pure, red-fruited character, allied to nuances of sweet herbs, tobacco and leather, bring a young Pomerol to mind. It’s definitely more closely aligned with its neighbors across the Atlantic than with its country mates from the West Coast. Indeed, the only things standing in the way of this being a completely charming and very French-inflected wine are its oak treatment (19 months in French barriques, 50% new and 50% one year old – just a bit too much for the wine’s body and structure) and extremely gentle tannic profile. For my own tastes, I’d like to see a little less polish and more viscera. Nonetheless, this is real wine, made well. It held up admirably into its second day, showing good fruit development and a leaner, cedarier wood tone. A blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, estate bottled in Sagaponack, Long Island, New York. At $35, I can’t call it a great value but it’s a wine I’d be happy to buy, particularly if I were out to spread the word about the existence of serious wine from Long Island. I really do need to try their Cabernet Franc, a wine about which I’ve heard equally promising things.

A deposit of tartrate crystals, as seen here on the cork drawn from Wölffer's Merlot, is always a good visual indicator of a wine that hasn't been heavily manipulated.

Long Island White Table Wine, Bouké 2007. $18. 12.5% alcohol. Cork.
Bouké (yes, it’s pronounced like "bouquet") is a brand new “boutique winery” on Long Island’s North Fork. This is the first release of their white table wine, an unoaked blend of 40% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Gris, 18% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Gewurztraminer. Between its cutesy name and colorful label (which bears a striking resemblance to Weingut Huber’s Grüner Veltliner “Hugo”), the wine conjures images of ladies who lunch, out for a poolside brunch – perhaps on the very island from which the wine originates. And the wine’s style would be perfectly suited to just such an occasion. Crisp, clean and simple, it delivers fruit in the candied apple, peach and watermelon vein, presaged by pretty aromas of rose petals and apple blossoms. Not just in its blend but also in its flavor profile, it reminds me of Caymus’ popular brand “Conundrum,” though in a drier, food-friendlier style. At its recommended $18 price point it’s also a slightly better value, though I think it would be a better performer at under $15. Would I buy it? You can probably guess the answer to that. But I wouldn’t scoff at a well-chilled glass were it handed to me poolside.

Disclosure: Both of these wines were received as winery-direct samples.

Postscript: Wölffer Estate’s owner and founder, Christian Wölffer, passed away on New Year’s Eve, the result of a boating accident while vacationing in Brazil. You’ll find a personal dedication as well as links to press coverage of Mr. Wölffer’s death at Lenn Thompson’s blog focusing on the wines of New York State, LennDevours.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Champagne for a Week

After dropping not one but two brief mentions of it at Do Bianchi last week, I’d more or less decided not to devote a full write up to Bereche’s Extra Brut Réserve Champagne. Besides, I know little in the way of exacting detail about the wine. But then I did something I don’t often do and that, with most wines, one can’t usually do, at least not with good results. I left the unfinished portion of the bottle – not much more than a glass – stoppered in the fridge not for one day, not for two, but for six days before getting back for a revisit.

Champagne Extra Brut Reserve, Bérèche et Fils NV.
$56. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
The wine was lovely enough on day one – lithe yet muscular, aromas of toast and a hint of fino sherry, a color in the glass that could define “onion skin” and a surprisingly great match with butternut squash soup (Xmas dinner takeout from Talula’s Table). But on day six it was somehow even more beautiful. Even though a hiss escaped when I unclamped the wings of the bottle stopper, the wine had achieved total visual tranquility. Yet in spite of that loss of bubbles there was no loss of fruit. If anything, it had taken on greater clarity of fruit expression. If anyone ever doubted the descriptors “vinosity” or “red-fruited” in the context of Champagne, they need only to have tasted this to have achieved their “Ah hah!” moment. That last glass – which I shared with a buddy on New Year’s Eve – was a real pleasure to contemplate.

Here’s what I do know about the wine. It’s a red-fruit dominated blend of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay from various Premier Cru vineyard sites spread around the hamlet of Ludes on the Montagne de Reims (see my earlier posting about the estate’s unusual packaging for more detail). Raphael Bereche farms naturally, ferments his wines on their native yeasts and ages at least some of the base wines for all of his cuvées in wood. The Extra Brut Réserve is similar in blend to the regular Brut Réserve (see my note from Xmas Eve) but it spends at least an additional year on the lees prior to disgorgement and is then bottled with no dosage, finding its balance through careful work and full ripening in the vineyard and through the transformation wrought by the oxidative aspects of that additional period of sur-lie bottle aging.

What is it, though, that enabled it not just to hold up but also to show so well after almost a full week of being open? I’m sure a good stopper didn’t hurt but on other factors I can only speculate. Of course, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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The stopper:

Friday, January 2, 2009

Going Through the Change, or Hitting Riesling in Its Sweet Spot

I made an unspoken – at least I think it was unspoken – resolution around this time last year to taste more Riesling in 2008, to explore wines from producers new to me. I’m not sure how good a job I did of it but, hey, slow progress is better than no progress. One thing the goal didn’t stop me from doing was continuing to explore and enjoy wines from the German producers who have been near and dear for many a year. And I happen to have alit upon a particular high point just as ‘08 was coming to its close….

Saar Wiltinger Schlangengraben Riesling Kabinett, Johann Peter Reinert 2004
$14. 8.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
I consider myself lucky when I catch Riesling in its sweet spot, as it’s going through the change – the change from its fruit-forward, frank youth to its dark, truffled, rounded maturity. When you catch a good bottle in transition, it can display the best elements of both ends of the spectrum.

I also love the Saar wines of Johann Peter Reinert. They don’t seem to get a lot of play; they’re kind of off the radar. But they’re pure and expressive, whether trocken, feinherb or fully fruchtig (the German term for delicately sweet wines), whether Spätlese, Auslese or Eiswein. It’s his Kabinett Rieslings, though, that I really dig. They’re real Kabinetts – light, graceful and crystalline – that are perfect as aperitifs and also eminently food friendly.

Reinert’s 2004 Kabinett from the Wiltinger vineyard Schlangengraben (yeah, it’s a name that inspires sophomoric jokes – it means “serpent’s den” in German) is in that ideal ‘tweener spot right now. Its color has taken on a pale yellow hue, darker than its original white light. The nose delivers an immediate wallop of petrol-rich minerality while second and third inhalations uncover rich scents of apricots and golden peaches. Eyeing the glass again, with a backdrop of light, there’s a slight appearance of effervescence. That trace of residual carbon dioxide is still apparent on the tongue, combining with the wine’s scintillating acidity to balance and, really, wipe away any impression of sweetness stemming from natural residual sugar.

And that youthful, crystalline acidity delivers the first notes on the palate – clementine, blood orange and clove. It then finishes with rounder, more mature acids that bring back the flavors of stone fruit hinted at earlier by the wine’s aromatic profile. It’s delicious stuff and, at only 8.5% alcohol, superbly drinkable. On day two it showed even better, if that’s possible. Nothing different really, just a magnification and refinement, an additional layering of all the good stuff that showed up right out of the gates. I have one bottle left and I’ll look forward to its demise in another few years. If only I’d stashed away a case….

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year, By Georges!

Philadelphia Restaurant Row stalwart Brasserie Perrier out. Le Bec Fin, Dubai in? What a way to say goodbye. A harbinger of the eventual demise of Chef Perrier's empire or just a sign of our economically downtrodden times?
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