Friday, January 29, 2010

Two Kinds of Sour: Cuvée De Ranke

Much like my friend Joe at Old World Old School, who included drinking more beer and paying more attention to it among his resolutions for the New Year, I've been meaning to write about beer here at MFWT at least a little more often for some time now. It's the paying attention part that really clicked with me, as beer already slots in pretty regularly to my eating and drinking routines. There was a major focus on beer during the course of my posse's pub crawling activities last weekend. One of our stops, in particular, provided plenty to contemplate, though we of course never lost sight of pursuing the pleasure principle.

In a city increasingly populated with great beer-centric bars and restaurants (if only wine would catch up...), we still couldn't pass up a visit to that holy grail of all brews Belgian: Monk's Cafe. Having set the stage with a thirst quenching bottle of Cantillon Gueuze and a follow-up with Lost Abbey's Red Barn Ale, our server, Jill, didn't hesitate one second when I asked her what I should try next. "Cuvée De Ranke." Cantillon, I do love you; and Lost Abbey, I like you well enough, though I'm still getting to know you. But Jill nailed it, for on this day it was the Cuvée De Ranke that most captured my attention and most delivered on the principles of pleasure. With an ever so slightly sweet, more so sour center akin to better known Flemish Sour Ales, followed up by a funky, tart sneak-attack à la spontaneously fermented Gueuze, and finished off with a refreshing hint of hoppy bitterness, the De Ranke was a very complete, primordially satisfying brew.

Ex post-facto research reveals that my gut reactions to the beer were more accurate than I could have expected. "Cuvée," it turns out, actually is a blend of two styles of Belgian sour beer. About 70% of the blend is a red/brown sour ale brewed by De Ranke in the tradition of the Roeselare/Kortrijk/Oudenaarde regions, top-fermented using Rodenbach (perhaps the most famous Flemish sour producer) yeast strains. The other 30% of the blend is actually lambic, which De Ranke purchases from Brouwerij Girardin. After blending, the beer is bottle-matured before release. According to De Ranke, it is capable of mid-term aging. It didn't stand much of a chance of that on our table, though.

De Ranke is brought into the US by one of my favorite beer importers, Shelton Brothers; you'll find more information about their beers at the Sheltons' site as well as at De Ranke's homepage.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Name That Wine

Yessiree folks, it's time for another episode of "Name That Wine." Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what I enjoyed with dinner over the last couple of nights?

And by the way, did I already mention that the DIAM is my preferred alternative in-neck closure? Why yes, yes I did.

A Burger and a Beer at Swift Half Pub

It's really only by way of happy accident that our core BP-weekend group ended up at Swift Half Pub for lunch and to commence our adventures in pub crawling. At the request of my three Philly loving comrades, we'd actually headed out to Northern Liberties with lunch at Standard Tap in mind; problem was, I'd forgotten that Standard does lunch only on Saturday and Sunday.... So, a quick walk up 2nd Street it was. We momentarily contemplated Cantina Dos Segundos, but the Denverite amongst our group shot down that idea as he gets his regular fill of Mexican food back home on the Front Range. Continuing on then, we soon found ourselves at the Piazza at Schmidt's.

The Piazza itself is actually worth a visit if you find yourself in the neighborhood, both for its public courtyard design and its conceptual approach to community-focused living. I'm not sure I like the idea of having my living room or bedroom overlook a twenty-foot wide television screen and a courtyard designed for late night communal reveling. But I can see the appeal for those that are more socially minded than I. And I can certainly see the appeal of having a decent place or two to eat and drink within rolling distance of your front door; of the several options at the Piazza, we pointed ourselves straight for the Swift Half.

I'd expected Swift Half to have a hipster dive bar feel along the lines of Center City's Good Dog Bar, as both pubs are under the same ownership. Instead, we found a wide open space with large booths, airy lighting, ample seating and elbow room, finished brick walls, ESPN on the TV.... Kind of MOR one could say, definitely family friendly and, actually, very much in keeping with the open, contemporary, something-for-everyone design of the Piazza at Schmidt's.

Given that I'd worked up a ferocious hunger with that long hike up 2nd Street and that I hadn't filed A Burger and A Beer report since my trip to California back in the fall, it didn't take me long to figure out what to order.

Swift Half's "Traditional Burger" is aptly named as, unlike at Good Dog, where its counterpart is stuffed with molten blue cheese and topped with a mass of caramelized onions, here there are no bells and whistles. Just a half-pound, hand-formed patty of tender sirloin, a leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato, all sandwiched between a just-barely-substantial-enough-to-hold-it-all-together brioche bun. I opted for a slice of Keen's aged cheddar, worth the $1.50 up-charge for the sharp, nutty, salty goodness it added to the burger, which I might add was copiously juicy and cooked just to the bloody side of medium-rare. Just how I like it. The shoestring fries were satisfying enough but, really, it's the burger that's worth the trip. That and the admirable tap list. A pint of Bell's Amber Ale, which seems to be making a resurgence around town at the moment, was just the thing with which to wash it all down.

Swift Half Pub
1001 North 2nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
(215) 923-1600
Swift Half on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

DiNic's Roast Pork

Things have been quiet around here the last few days but that's only because I've been busy eating and drinking my way around town with a group of friends who'd gathered in Philly for an extended bachelor's party weekend. Not to worry, there's no extended blow-by-blow on the horizon but at least a few of the details are ready for prime time play.

* * *
A must stop on my short list of places to take friends visiting from out of town, the Reading Terminal Market has been a Philadelphia institution since it first opened its doors in 1893, One of the country's oldest public markets, there really is something there for everyone: excellent butchers and produce purveyors, cookbooks and kitchen supplies, one of the city's best cheese mongers, crack cookies.... There's also a fabulous array of what are essentially indoor street food vendors from which to choose, making the RTM a great spot to go for lunch when everyone in your crew wants something different.

Even with all the great choices, there's one that always seems to call my name: Tommy DiNic's Roast Pork and Beef. DiNic's for short. The rest is a given.

Visiting the RTM for the first time at mid-day on a Saturday is akin to baptism by fire. You get to see the market in full swing, experience the energy and bustle of peak traffic. But if you're claustrophobic or crowd averse, it can be a bit overwhelming. Suffice it to say that every aisle is a constant traffic jam and every seat is snapped up within seconds of being vacated. You'll get only a slight sense of it from the above picture of DiNic's, where the line actually wrapped around all three sides of their "end of block" space at the market's center before doubling back to the order and pick-up area. We were lucky on this day, as four guys handed over their seats at the counter just as we had made it to that point in the line.

The Philly cheesesteak might steal all the thunder when it comes to our fine town's sandwich traditions but I'll go for roast pork four times out of five. And I think there's little question that DiNic's is one of its foremost practitioners.

DiNic's offers hand-carved roast beef, brisket, pulled pork and grilled sausages, all of which are quite admirable. Just as DiNic's always calls my name, though, it's only one of their sandwiches that does the same: their roast pork. It's one of those things that is so good I just have to order it every time, no matter what else is on tap. My preferred version is exactly what you see above: roast pork with provolone and greens. On any given day, the greens option may include broccoli rabe and/or spinach. While both are excellent, I favor the spinach, which adds to the overall flavor of the sandwich without dominating the succulence of the pork. The provolone is very sharp, accent on very, so much so that it actually adds a piquant aspect to the experience. The pork, though, flavorful and tender, awash in its own pan juices, along with the soft roll that willingly soaks up all those delicious drippings, is what really makes it special.

I'm not sure there's a better post-pub-crawl recovery meal or, for that matter, a finer pre-pub-crawl prep. On this weekend, it served more than admirably in both capacities.

Tommy DiNic's Roast Pork and Beef
1136 Arch Street
(in the Reading Terminal Market)
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 923-6175
Tommy DiNic's Roast Pork and Beef on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thierry Puzelat's Romorantin

Another stop on the unending trail of trying to puzzle out just what Thierry Puzelat is up to (yeah, yeah, I know...). The more I drink his wines, the more I find that there's a recurring signature, especially in terms of aroma, that carries across his entire line of work, through both whites and reds. I'm not sure I can put into words exactly what that signature is, but it definitely has something to do with a certain wild, savory thread of scents that conjure up everything from the meadow to the rockpile to the cellar. Most obviously, it might be attributed to terroir, to working exclusively with organically and/or biodynamically farmed vines, to the ambient yeasts native to Puzelat's fruit, to his low S02 regime....

I'd say it's all of the above, along with the man's own influence on his end products. And I should add: the more I drink his wines, the more I like them.

Vin de Table Français Romorantin, Thierry Puzelat 2006
$22. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
Puzelat produces tiny quantities of his Vin de Table Romorantin from fruit grown in a flint-rich vineyard near the path of the Loire in the environs of Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny. Dating back to 1905, the vineyard includes vines that were planted on their native rootstock in 1973. The century-old vines and the francs de pied both give naturally low yields (25-30 hl/ha) that no doubt contribute to the wine's structural intensity. Vinified in cask, Thierry bottles the wine 12-18 months following the harvest.

Though I can't say for sure, everything about the wine — its look, smell, feel and taste — suggests that it sees an above average period of skin contact. It's not quite full-on orange wine to look at, but it's definitely richly golden, hinting at peachy in hue. That suggestion of peach (and peach blossoms) carries through on the nose and palate, too, along with intense mineral concentration and a slightly oxidative (not oxidized) character. Sticking my nose in the glass, I'm reminded of Lipton tea, of light orange marmalade, even of Tang. Above all, it makes me think of sucking on rocks — rocks that have been dipped in a bowl of melted orange creamsicles. In spite of all those sweet suggestions, the wine is completely dry. Its medium-bodied, medium-acidity structure carries through Puzelat's signature sweet funk, ending on a chalky, bracing finishing note.

When I met Thierry a few months back at The Ten Bells (where I snapped the photo at top right), he explained to me that some of his wines have indeed been declassified to Vin de Table status by the INAO for their supposed lack of "typicity." In most cases, though, they are labeled as Vin de Table simply because the wines are produced (vinified, cellared and bottled) outside of the area where they were grown and thus are not eligible for AOC designation. With this Romorantin, I believe the latter case is true. Either way, he's not worried about it, as he's built a strong enough reputation that his wines sell at full asking price, with or without an AOC on the label.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Shut Up 'N Drink Yer Nouveau

Just when I thought I'd made it through an entire season without a drop of Beaujolais Nouveau passing my lips, last night I was forced – forced, I say! – to drink some. Know what? I'm glad.

Beaujolais Nouveau "Cuvée Première," Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) 2009
$12. 12% alcohol. Nomacorc. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.

Showing nary a trace of the Banana Bubble Yum yeast (aka, 71B) that makes most Beaujolais Nouveau deplorably undrinkable, Jean-Paul Brun's example is just what an en primeur wine should be: a gluggable deliverer of simple pleasure. A snap of red delicious apple leads to pure, clean strawberry and just-barely-ripe red-cherry fruit. Chalky, fruity, crisp and thirst quenching... everything that Bo-jo-Noo-vo should be but all too rarely is.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Benefit for Haiti Earthquake Relief Efforts at Chambers Street Wines Today

From the much better late than never department...

The fine folks at Chambers Street Wines and Louis/Dressner Selections are holding a charitable tasting today, January 16, 2010, from 4:00 to 7:00 PM at CSW in NYC. All funds will go to Partners in Health to aid in relief efforts in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. In their own words:

"Join the staff of CSW and Louis/Dressner Selections for a benefit tasting of some of the most interesting wines in our inventory. Suggested donations of $10 (or more) will go directly to, Partners in Health. They're organizing volunteer medical personnel and sending needed supplies. Chambers Street Wines, Louis/Dressner Selections and Douglas Polaner Selections will match your donations up to a total of $1,000 each. Other companies sponsoring the event and making generous contributions include Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, David Bowler Wines and Michael Skurnik Wines. Taste a great selection of wines (not for sale) and help respond to this crisis. If you can't come, please go to to make your donation. Their website has updates on the situation and information about their work. We will have forms from Partners in Health enabling your donation by credit card to be tax-deductible."

This is an easy way to do your part to support those suffering from the natural disaster in Haiti. And if you can make it to the tasting in person, your efforts will be rewarded with what I'm sure will be some pretty tasty vino.

Chambers Street Wines
148 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Phone: 212-227-1434

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Checking in with Chidaine

Maybe I was wrong....

When I first started to drink the Montlouis wines of François Chidaine with regularity, beginning with the vintages of the late 90s, I was taken with their precision and focus, their expression of terroir, and with their downright forward deliciousness. I also expected them to age well, especially the demi-sec "Clos Habert" and the top sec cuvée "Les Choisilles." Everything seemed to be in place: balance and richness in the one, brilliant acidity and the physiological extract to back it up in the other. I drank plenty but also made sure to sock away a few bottles of each, plus a smattering of François' other cuvées, across several vintages.

After a co-worker of mine mentioned that a bottle of 2004 "Les Tuffeaux," usually a sec-tendre expression of Montlouis, that he'd opened over New Year's weekend was much more evolved than he'd expected, I figured it was about time to check in with a Chidaine myself. Thing is, I've actually had the same reaction to several of François' wines over the last few years. Darker color, more oxidative character and less primary fruit than I'd expected relative to their age.

Montlouis-sur-Loire "Les Choisilles," François Chidaine 2002
$18.50 on release. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: (was) Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Sure enough, the '02 "Les Choisilles" turned out to be little darker than I'd expect from a 7-8 year-old (Chidaine recommends keeping it from 10-15 years). Think of the color of clover honey but with an amber edge to it and you'll be on the right track. An initially oxidative, slightly briny nose quickly led to big aromas of waxy apples, bosc pear and quince, all flavors which were echoed on the palate. Its round, stony up-front mouthfeel was in stark contrast to a nervy, tongue-twistingly acidic finish, all of which lead to pretty damn good length on a finish full of tangy, limestone minerality. If it sounds to you that I liked it, you're right, though I will say it was definitely on the complicated side. It also evolved and changed quickly in the glass, showing the return, after an hour, of oxidative notes reminiscent of Oloroso Seco Sherry. By the next day, what was left in the bottle (nearly half) had lost almost all of its nerve and liveliness, going over to the round, ripe but flat flavors of baked apples.

Granted, the wine above from the 2002 vintage is theoretically not all that old in the context of Loire Chenin Blanc, and I'm not so "worried" (or scientifically intrigued) that I'm going to rush to open my remaining bottles, but my evolving experiences with Chidaine's wines make me wonder if they'll reward being kept for much longer than their ten-year mark.

Is it a question of a simple terroir difference between Montlouis and nearby Vouvray or slightly more distant Savennières, both regions known for producing long-lived Chenins? Certainly, the difference between sec and moelleux cuvées figures in there, as a well balanced moelleux (or demi-sec) has an ace in the hole in the form of residual sugar when it comes to some guarantee of longevity. Or perhaps it's a question of sulfur dioxide, with the extremely low levels used by Chidaine having an impact on the longevity of his wines in bottle.

I'm going to go way out on a limb and say that it's most likely some combination of all of the above. And that's not even getting into the question of vintage character.... In any case, I'd love to hear from anyone out there regarding your thoughts on the age worthiness of Chidaine's Montlouis, or regarding your first hand experiences with older bottles of "Les Choisilles" or any of François' other cuvées.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Sneak Peak at Marc Vetri's Amis

Amis, the new Roman-styled trattoria of Chef Marc Vetri, takes its name from the Bergamascan dialect for "amici" (friends). Located in the Washington Square West neighborhood of Center City, the much anticipated third spot from Vetri and partners Jeff Benjamin and Jeff Michaud will open this Thursday, January 14, 2010.

Courtesy of an invite from friends, I was able to sneak in on Monday night for the first night of a two-night soft opening run. The soft opening is a required rite of passage for any new restaurant, allowing the staff to "practice" on friends and family, to iron out a few wrinkles before opening the doors for regular business. Given the restaurant's modest size and inviting energy, something tells me it's going to be yet another tough reservation. I'd never write one of my full-on restaurant reports based on a first look like this, but I thought I'd at least share some photos to whet your appetites and give a sense of the place.

The bar spans much of the length of the room's main wall, which runs parallel to 13th Street.

Every table is subtly different, custom built for the new space.

An elevated dining area in the room's southwest corner.

Vetri on patrol in Amis' open kitchen, a few of the first round of diners enjoying their view from the chef's bar.

A few antipasti to start (clockwise, from top left): mixed salumi plate; marinated seppia with fennel and grapefruit; marinated sardines; and fried lambs tongue with salsa rossa.

Housemade pastas: tonnarelli "cacio e pepe" with pecorino and black pepper; gnocchi alla romana with oxtail ragu.

Carne e pesce: pork and fennel pollen sausage with peperonata; mixed seafood grill.

Sommelier and co-owner Jeff Benjamin has put together a diverse, compact list of about a dozen whites and reds each, plus a rosato, a bubbly, a couple of stickies, and house white and red by the carafe. Bottles top out at around $65, with all available by the glass and all save two hailing from Italy.

Late night, Bryan Sikora of Kennett Square's Talula's Table jumped in for a photo opp with Chefs Vetri and Michaud.

Local singer-songwriter Phil Roy, a frequent performer at wine dinners at Osteria, was in the house.

Amis Trattoria
412 S. 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Amis on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 11, 2010

On The (Yellow) Star

On a recent evening, shared with a few good friends over a few good bottles and some food, of course, one wine in particular raised not only my eyebrows but also an excellent question. "What is L'Étoile?" We were drinking a bottle of L'Étoile Savagnin from Domaine de Montbourgeau at the time, and it was my friend Bill who asked the question(s). He wasn't asking what it means — "L'Étoile" is French for "the star" — but rather, "Is that the AOC? Is it a place?" I answered in the affirmative to part one but realized that I couldn't quite explain, off the top of my head, the origins of or reasoning behind its name.

A quick Google Maps search points to a town in France called L'Étoile that's located about 150 kilometers due north of Paris, very much not in the Jura, which is the region where AOC L'Étoile is located. As it turns out, though, there's another small town called L'Étoile in the heart of the Jura. While the AOC takes its name from this commune, "L'Étoile" also refers to two of the area's distinct regional characteristics: a series of five hills surrounding the village that, with the help of a little imagination, form the five arms of a star, and from the fossilized remains of invertebrate starfish ("crinoïdes" or "pentacrines") that are common to the soil in the vineyards of L'Étoile, situated on what were seabeds many millennia ago.

The AOC boundaries encompass roughly 75-80 hectares, about 50 hectares of which are under vine. Split that between 30 farmers and 26 different wineries (21 estates, 2 co-ops and 3 négociants) and you'll start to get a sense of at least one of the reasons that so little wine from L'Étoile reaches the US market. The AOC allows for the production of white wines only, primarily from Chardonnay and Savagnin, which respectively account for 90% and 10% of overall plantations, though small amounts of Ploussard (vinified as white wine) are also tolerated.

Now that we've done at least some justice to the questions, let's move on to the wine that raised them... and raised my eyebrows....

L'Étoile Savagnin, Domaine de Montbourgeau (Nicole Dériaux) 2002
$37. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York, NY.

There's surprisingly little information available about this cuvée of Savagnin from Domaine de Montbourgeau, not even a mention on the producer's own website. Though Nicole Dériaux apparently carries on the oxidative winemaking practices used by her father, Jean Gros, and traditional to the Jura, this is not obviously oxidative wine. Its color is a waxy yellow in the glass and it does eventually reveal background flavors of hazelnuts and walnuts, but those are typical characteristics of Savagnin and strike me, in this case, as more primary than oxidation-induced flavor elements.

In any event, I'm splitting hairs. The wine is deliciously captivating. One eyebrow arched when I put nose to glass, finding subtle yet piercing aromas of turmeric and coriander, coupled with powerful minerality. The other eyebrow went up at the first sip, where those same curry spices blossomed in the wine's mouth aromas, magnified and amplified by very energetic, muscular mouthfeel and nervy acidity. Both eyebrows stayed up when the wine conjured an unmistakable aroma and flavor memory: Singapore Chow Mei Fun. I kid you not, the association was fixed, stamped indelibly in my mind.

I'm not sure whether Bill planned it or whether the stars (no pun intended) had simply aligned, but the wine proved a compelling match to just about all of the food he'd lined up for the evening. A great contrast to the salty, fatty savor of thinly sliced Jambon de Bayonne, which brought out the spice and minerality in the wine. It worked equally well with a hunk of Morbier, which just happens to come from nearby Franche-Comté and to be an only slightly less classic match than Comté itself. Here it was the pleasantly funky nuttiness of the cheese playing with the similarly wild, outdoorsy characteristics of the wine. And damn if it didn't prove a fine match with roast chicken, too.

Aside from mentions of "Singapore Chow Mei Fun" and "yellow," my notes are dominated by one other key phrase. "Buy." Priced in the high $30s, this is by no means inexpensive but it's money well spent for a wine that should develop extremely well in the cellar and that already delivers compelling pleasure. In one of those odd synchronicities in the wine blogging world, my cohort DoBi just wrote up Montbourgeau's regular bottling of L'Étoile, paired it with Chex Mix in homage to Dr. Vino's impossible food and wine pairings, and even took a picture that's very similar to my own. As Jeremy says, "Not everyone will like this wine." But that's okay, I do, so there'll be more for me.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Happy 20th, Homer

After 20 years and 450 espisodes, I'd be hard pressed to pick just one favorite instgallment of "The Simpsons." My favorite rendition of the Simpsons theme song? That's easy.

PS: Am I the only one who didn't know until tonight that Springfield was modeled after Portland, Oregon?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Questions on Brettanomyces and Aging

Read about wine long enough, whether on blogs, in print publications, on bulletin boards (or on the throne), and you'll start to recognize some pervasive, recurring, seemingly endless threads. Discussions of certain aspects of wine — tannin, oak, acidity, sweetness, reduction, high alcohol level — that tend to spur differing opinions or even intense divisiveness. There's the crew that despises any whiff of oak influence, the other extreme that's drawn to the scents and flavors of new oak treatment like Morris to a can of 9-Lives, and then there's the middle ground that accepts oak influence as long as it's balanced by and makes sense within the structural context and organoleptic characteristics of the wine in question.

Image courtesy of the Vincent E. Petrucci Library at California State University, Fresno.

In the big picture, most if not all of the elements mentioned above are generally believed to be acceptable as long as they are balanced. All of them, too, are generally viewed as faults when they are too extreme or pronounced. It's when introducing the variable of aging that these lines begin to blur. Can a wine that's too mucous membrane-jarringly tannic or too enamel-strippingly acidic in its youth really find harmony with age? Do alcoholic heat and/or overzealous oak treatment ever stand a chance of being integrated in the bottle? Or is it once imbalanced, always imbalanced, once touched by a flaw, always faulty?

I'm asking big, broadly sweeping questions here, questions that to the scientifically minded or UC Davis-trained might seem easy to answer yet that to others will always instill an emotional response, no matter how strong their scientific understanding. What I'm looking to do is not so much to find answers as it is to explore the questions, to taste and learn and evolve in my understanding along the way.

Today, the wine-world bugger that's pricked my attention is brettanomyces; it's an old topic but one that was brought to mind by a wine I drank a few nights ago.

Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne "La Jean de Verde," Domaine Daniel et Denis Alary 1999
$24 on release. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
The Alarys' Cairanne "La Jean de Verde" is varietal Grenache, produced from low-yielding, 70+ year-old vines growing on a 1.5-hectare plot of land that the Alary family purchased in 1860 from a certain Jean de Verde. Denis and Daniel began producing this cuvée in 1998, making this only their second vintage of the wine.

Laced with wood spice and game aromas, the usual kirsch inflected fruit richness of Alary's Cairanne has subdued and mellowed with age. Wearing all of its 14.5% alcohol with ease, an up-front dash of brett brings mineral and animal savor to offset the wine's briary richness, yet it also imparts a definite angular, metallic aspect on the finish. As the wine opens with air, the brett becomes more problematic, rendering increasingly sour aromas and flavors, in stark contrast to its rich texture and relatively low acid profile. That said, it never completely lost its initial appeal on the palate.

By way of very simple explanation, I'll look to wine writer/scientist Jamie Goode, from his by no means simplified article on Brettanomyces at
"Brettanomyces [aka, brett] is... a yeast – that is a unicellular type of fungus, not a bacterium – that is a common spoilage organism in winemaking."
As I described earlier using oak as an example, brett is viewed by some as a fault at any detectable level, while considered to be acceptable, even desirable at certain levels, by others.

Brett is present at least to some degree in virtually every winery, in both the Old World and the New. If there's a region with which brett has been most strongly associated — though that may now be changing — I'd say it's the Rhône, and the Southern Rhône in particular, where it's often considered as an element of terroir and/or typicity.

I can't speak strongly to the Alarys' recent releases, as I don't drink their wines with the frequency that I once did, but they had a regular place on my table from the mid-90s through the early-00s. In those years, I can comfortably say that brett played a regular role in Alary's wines, adding a streak of meaty savor that helped make their reds so tasty and interesting when in their youth. As this particular cuvée has aged, though, that same brett influence has done it no favors, its character now divided in stark relief, with mature, subtle fruit standing to one side and metallic, sour, brett-driven notes to the other.

So, my questions remain. Today they were about the pros and cons of brettanomyces; tomorrow it may be something else. I hope, as always, that you've found the exploration compelling (or at least tolerable) and that you'll feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on the matter, whether scientific, pseudo-scientific or downright irrational.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Year, A Full Moon and Movia "Lunar"

There's much in common between the symbolism of the full moon and the New Year. Both have been known to inspire wild and unpredictable behavior. Both drive transformation. And both are turning points. On the philosophical and spiritual levels, the New Year marks the end and spurs remembrance of one year while at the same time signifying the beginnings of and inspiring hopes for the next. On a more scientific level, the full moon marks the apex between the waxing and waning paths of the lunar cycle.


The full moon holds special significance on the Biodynamic calendar, as it does to those who farm and make wine with a belief that the soil is the meeting place between the earth and the cosmos, that that same soil is a living, breathing entity. According to the principles of biodynamic agriculture, the full moon marks a major turning point in the lunar influence on farming practices and plant growth. As the moon waxes, the gravitational pull of the moon increases and the flow of energy moves upwards, from the soil toward the sky, from the roots toward the leaves. As the moon wanes its gravitational influence lessens, the soil focuses its forces inwards and plant energies move down toward their roots.

Biodynamic winemaking principles, too, look at the influence of moon and star cycles to guide the timing of certain activities in the vineyard and in the cellar. Movia winemaker Aleš Kristančič, for one, considers the full moon to be the ideal time to bottle his aptly named Ribolla Gialla, "Lunar." It's the time during the synodic month when the wine's mineral content and energy — what Aleš calls "floating islands" as you'll see/hear in the video below — are active and upwardly mobile while the lees and grape solids in the same wine are moving downward toward a restful state.

Given that the full moon occurred on New Year's Eve just past, I couldn't imagine a more appropriate wine to enjoy with our last meal of one year and our first taste of the next.

Goriška Brda Ribolla Gialla "Lunar," Movia (Aleš Kristančič) 2005
$45. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Domaine Select, New York, NY.

As Aleš recommends, I decanted "Lunar" in order to leave behind most of the considerable sediment that makes its way into the bottle. A cloudy, coppery orange, it's a near match for the hue of peach nectar, just not quite so rich and dense to the eye. Likewise, the wine is loaded with peach and apple skin aromas and cidery nuances, which lead to a long, mineral stained finish. With air, more tertiary aromas of sandalwood, saffron and floral tea emerge, along with an intense leesiness that reminds me of the sweetness of fresh-baked whole wheat bread. Though not as tannic as some other extended skin contact wines, Paolo Bea's "Rusticum" for instance, the wine still has a definite textural component that gently grips and undulates across the palate.

Said my wife, "Why is it orange? And cloudy? I think there might be something wrong with it... it tastes kind of oxidized." For a moment, her words had me contemplating whether she might be a more honest taster than I. Certainly, "Lunar" and other "orange" or extended skin contact white wines like it are more than tough to understand without some context. And certainly, I did carry some context and correlated expectations to the table.

Why is the wine orange? Well, as Eric Asimov described it a couple of years back, "Movia’s 2005 Lunar is an experimental ribolla gialla wine, in which Ales Kristancic, an owner and the winemaker, tried to produce a wine basically without the touch of humans except at harvest. He put the grapes in specially designed barrels and then allowed them to ferment and age on their own for seven months, without pressing the grapes or adding any chemicals." Seven months of skin contact give ample time for the wine to absorb all of the pigmentation from the Ribolla Gialla skins — a distinct orange, even though "gialla" means "yellow."

Why is it cloudy? After those seven months on the skins and another extended period on the lees in small casks of Slavonian oak, "Lunar" is bottled without any fining or filtration. Only the energy of the full moon, in Aleš' view, keeps it from being even cloudier... that and perhaps more careful decanting than I exercised.

In the video above, Aleš explains his thoughts behind producing and bottling "Lunar" according to the cycles of the moon.

Why is it oxidized? Well, actually it's not, though it does have a definite oxidative character. You'll want to see Jeremy Parzen's excellent post about "Lunar" for a full explanation of the wine's production methods. In short, "Lunar" is whole-cluster fermented in special casks designed by Kristančič to mimic the shape of a grape, complete with a valve modeled after the stem of the grape that is meant to allow the carbon dioxide created during fermentation out of the cask without letting oxygen enter. After all that time on the skins plus added time on the lees, the oxygen native to the juice itself along with the oxygen that slowly permeates the casks, has an inescapable influence on the wine. But that influence is not detrimental or a flaw. Rather, you can taste how oxygen has sculpted the wine without blurring its edges or eroding its freshness.

Perhaps it's not surprising in that context that "Lunar" reminded me a bit of some of the Arbois whites from Puffeney and Overnoy/Houillon in the way it balanced oxidative character with brilliant, buoyant freshness.

"Lunar" is not inexpensive but, at half the price of similar wines from the likes of Radikon and Gravner, it constitutes a good value and makes for a quite accessible introduction to this genre of Slovenian/Friulano winemaking.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Blogging Year In Review: A Look Back at 2009 on MFWT

Yes, it's the ubiquitous year-end "best of" list. I started and stopped with this post several times over the last few days, thinking it perhaps too self-indulgent. But finally I've decided to forge ahead. For what is blogging, at root, if not an act of self-indulgence? When I write here, even though I hope that others will find some enjoyment or benefit from it, I do so first and foremost for myself. So, without much further ado, here are a few self-selected highlights from the past year at MFWT. Just a couple per month, I promise. Hopefully you too will enjoy the look back.
  • January 2009 saw the launch of my B-Sides report. What I'd planned as a regular installment turned out to be a one-time deal. I still like the idea, and have a pile of empty bottles and tasting notes to prove it, so who knows what 2010 will bring.

  • In February, I hosted Wine Blogging Wednesday for the first time with A Passion for Piedmont as my topic of choice. My own contribution was an overview of a February 2006 visit with Giovanni Pasquero-Elia at his eponymous Neive-based estate, Paitin di Pasquro Elia. Even though it's been nearly four years since that trip, there are still a wealth of notes and photos on my desktop from other winery visits that will hopefully make it to blogland in the new year.

    Inside the rotofermenter at Paitin.

  • One of my favorite fellow bloggers, Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi, missed participating in February's WBW but more than made up for it in March, writing about one of his favorite Piemontese wineries as the first ever guest blogger here at MFWT.

  • The stronger my emotional and physiological responses to tasting a wine, whether positive or negative, the more inclined I am to wax poetic (or at least on and on) about it. Two of the most inspiring wines I drank all year passed my way in April: Anselme Selosse's Substance and one of the many great red Burgundies from Jacky Truchot.

  • My May adventures in ramp foraging were not only fun and eventually tasty but also received attention from outside the usual wine-centered corners of the blogosphere. And in stark contrast to my usually verbosity, I had a little fun with wordplay in the form of minimalistic tasting notes.

  • Sometimes I can't help but wonder if what makes sense to me makes sense to anyone else, my June post on Laurent Tribut and Pablo Picasso being a case in point. On a more obvious note, were this a post about my top-ten wines of the year there'd be another Champagne on the list, the 1996 "Fleur de Passion" from Diebolt-Vallois.

    Mike Dashe, pictured here with his wife and partner in wine Anne, makes the list not once but twice.

  • One of the neatest phenomena to occur last year in the usual wine corners of the blogosphere was July's 31 Days of Natural Wine, realized and hosted by Cory Cartwright at Saignée, my contribution being an interview with California Zinfandel specialist and L'Enfant Terrible, Michael Dashe. That same month, I looked back not one but twenty-five years, revisiting and republishing a 1985 interview I did with the seminal San Pedro punk band, Minutemen, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their benchmark album, Double Nickels on the Dime.

  • I've never been much for New Year's resolutions but if I get around to making some for 2010, one will certainly be to make it to New York on a more regular basis. I made it up far too infrequently in 2009, but one August day trip definitely makes my highlight reel, as it was my first time participating in a Wine & Spirits Magazine tasting panel and prompted my first visit to The Ten Bells.

  • Next, it was off to California to visit friends in Monterey and San Francisco, a trip that fueled posts for the next couple of months. In September, it was visits to the food and wine grails of Berkeley as well as a somewhat atypical celebration of the Jewish High Holidays.

  • In October, a write-up of a boisterous and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon spent at that San Franciso bastion of natural wine, Terroir.

    One of my favorite photos of the year, snapped at the bar at Terroir.

  • And in November, I finally rounded things up with a report on my trip to Dashe Cellars in Oakland and a recounting of the ultimate San Fran burger and beer experience. Managed to squeeze in another fun-filled trip to New York, too.

  • The year finished out in quieter fashion, allowing me to spend some quality time with, among other things, a few wines I'd become acquainted with during the last couple of New York trips. I'll look forward to further exploration of the Arbois wines of Philippe Bornard and Noëlla Morantin's evolving work in the Cher Valley in the year ahead.

That's it for now. Thanks as always for reading, commenting and following along with my travels on the Trail. Here's wishing a happy and healthy New Year to all!
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