Friday, February 26, 2010

Victory Meets DiBruno's at Avalon Restaurant

It was dark and raw, the skies dumping torrents of rain on the streets of Philadelphia, slowly washing away the piles of snow, the promise of more white stuff to come looming large on the horizon. It was a Tuesday night in the middle of February, and I had to ask myself why I was getting into the car and heading out for an hour's drive at the peak of the evening commute. The answer, dear readers, was simple. Sustenance. The promise of good cooking, beer and cheese, to be more precise.

I'd been invited by restaurateur John Brandt-Lee, chef/owner of Avalon Restaurant in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to attend his first ever guided beer and cheese pairing dinner. (Full disclosure: dinner was John's treat.) For the last few months, John has been offering a complimentary beer and cheese pairing to diners on Friday nights; this event was a chance to take things to the next step, more fully exploring the interaction between beer, cheese and a multi-course meal built around the rustic yet modern Italian cuisine that forms the basis of the menu at Avalon.

The evening's presenters were Emilio Mignucci, owner of the Philadelphia-based cheese and specialty gourmet shop, DiBruno Brothers, and Bill Covaleski, brewmaster and co-founder of Victory Brewing Company, located in nearby Downingtown, PA. Brandt-Lee had reached out to Mignucci, from whom John sources the cheeses served at his restaurant. Emilio, in turn, suggested teaming up with Covaleski, with whom the folks at DiBruno's often conduct beer and cheese oriented events. And thus the triumvirate was formed.

Three men and a beer... but no wine? From left to right: Emilio Mignucci, owner of DiBruno Brothers; John Brandt-Lee, chef/owner of Avalon; and Bill Covaleski, brewmaster and founding partner at Victory Brewing Company. I had a great time talking shop with Emilio and Bill during their breaks from presenting and suggested that we reconvene at some point in the future for a wine-versus-beer cheese pairing event. They seemed more than game, so stay tuned for a time, date and venue to be determined.

To make it all work, John conceptualized a menu for the night and then worked with Mignucci to select the appropriate cheese(s) for use in each dish. Once their work was done, Covaleski, drawing from his own knowledge, instinct and experiences with food (much as do I when selecting wines to match a menu), chose one of Victory's brews to pair with each course. Here's what they all came up with:

"Cravero" 24-month Parmigiano-Reggiano Gelato with Truffle Honey
paired with Victory Lager
Apparently a staple at Avalon, our first course is often served as a complimentary amuse-bouche. To make the "gelato," Brandt-Lee blends cream and finely grated parmigiano in a double-boiler; the liquid mixture sets to a custard-like texture when cooled. The musky intensity of the truffle honey was a touch distracting but the dish was otherwise delicious, the creaminess of the cheese offset by the crunch of candied nuts, and contrasted by the subtle spice and sweetness of poached pears.

John Brandt-Lee, at left, putting the finishing touches on the amuse course alongside Avalon sous-chef Barry Salop.

Mignucci made a point of letting the crowd know that he prefers his Parmigiano young to middle-aged, when it's not as piquant and sharp as an ultra-aged example and still shows the complexity of its seasonal milk sources. For this dish, he chose a 24 month-old example selected and matured by Giorgio and Giacomo Cravero in their curing facilities in the town of Bra, located in the Roero district of Piemonte. While Covaleski could easily have chosen his benchmark Prima Pils for our first pour, the rounder, slightly richer yet still brisk and refreshing feel of the lager proved a harmonious match.

Baked "Montchevré" Goat Cheese with Oven Roasted Tomatoes and Black Olive Crisps
paired with Victory Helios Ale
Along with the later meat course, this course seemed most clearly to epitomize Brandt-Lee's approach to cooking simple, rustic dishes that combine a lack of fussiness with a focus on rich flavors and quality ingredients. Francophile that I am, at least when it comes to wine and cheese, I was a bit surprised that Mignucci selected an American goat cheese, from Wisconsin producer Montchevré. No matter, though, it worked just fine.

Here, Covaleski eschewed the typical pairing of wheat beer with goat's milk cheese in favor of the wilder, grassier flavors of his Saison-style Helios Ale. Helios undergoes both its primary and in-bottle fermentations using a select strain of Brettanomyces yeast, one that brings on subtle earthiness rather than imparting intense funk or sourness. A great match, particularly given the zestiness the black olive tapenade brought to the dish.

Escargot with Caramelized Onion and "Sur Choix" Cheese Agnolotti
paired with Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock
Is it just me or are snails one of those things you just don't think of cooking at home? Assuming you're not going out to forage for them, they're actually simple enough to prepare, yet I only seem to eat them in restaurants. Of course, the same habit tends to apply to hand-rolled and hand-stuffed pasta.... So there you have it, the dish I'd most like to eat on a regular basis but am least likely to prepare for myself.

For the cheesy component of this course, Emilio and John chose another US-produced take on a European classic. "Sur Choix" is a Wisconsin-made Gruyere-type cow's milk cheese that provided a nutty, fondue-like, belly warming touch that worked quite nicely with the snails. Escargots don't exactly scream out for cheese, so Mignucci treaded carefully, being sure to choose a cheese that was cave-aged for its inherently musty, earthy flavor profile.

St. Victorious Doppelbock is a limited production, seasonal dark lager, brewed in the tradition of German monastic brewers who made similarly hearty styles of beer to drink during their periods of fasting. It's produced using a labor-intensive technique called decoction mashing, in which the malt is boiled to the point that the barley kernels explode, giving a robust breadiness to the finished beer.

Brandt-Lee is very excited about the new addition of a chef's table immediately in front of the partially open kitchen at Avalon. The table, which seats up to six, was custom built for the space by the craftspeople at Philadelphia Block and Board, who also produce the cheese boards used at the restaurant.

"Baltic Thunder" Braised Beef Short Ribs, Blu di Pecora Polenta
paired with Victory Baltic Thunder
Given the event's theme, it could be argued that this was the most complete course of the night, both beer and cheese playing integral roles to the overall execution of the dish. It was also just right for a cold, rainy night -- very soul-satisfying.

I'm not a huge fan of the all too ubiquitous pairing of beef and blue cheese, as particularly pungent blue can easily steal the thunder from the meat, which really should provide a dish with its main focus, whether grilled or braised. I get the sense that John and Emilio may feel the same way. They intentionally selected a particularly mild example of Blu di Pecora, a sheep's milk blue from a Gorgonzola producer in Lombardy, for subtle blending with the creamy polenta that served as backdrop to Brandt-Lee's succulent beer-braised ribs.

Baltic Thunder is a rich, British-inspired porter, very sweet and malty with a loamy richness to its palate attack. Its dry, slightly bitter finish, provided by malt tannins rather than hops according to Covaleski, helped to balance the beer's richness and, in turn, provided the backbone necessary to stand up to the richness of braised short ribs.

Intermezzo: Rooibos Tea "Sphere"
The chef's quick nod to molecular gastronomy in the form of a palate cleanser: refreshingly herbal rooibos tea, bound into spherical gel form using agar-agar and brightened up with a few shavings of lemon zest. If this is destined for regular appearances at Avalon, flat-bottomed Japanese-style soup spoons would make for a worthwhile investment.

Cheese Board: Délice de Bourgogne and Pecorino Toscano
paired with Victory Golden Monkey
If simplicity was the overriding theme on the evening, Emilio captured it with his cheese course. Two cheeses with minimal adornments, each with plenty of personality. Most of the Delice de Bourgogne I've found on the local market has been young, milky, decadently creamy but extremely mild. This example had obviously been aged a bit longer, yielding a salty, intense flavor at the rind and a runny, unctuous pate; not advanced to the point of ammonia development but really full-flavored. The Pecorino, on the other hand, was deep, nutty and eminently satisfying, the kind of cheese you could sit back and eat way too much of. Chef John's housemade mostarda provided a welcome kick without packing overpowering mustard heat.

The starring libations, in order of appearance.

The final beer? Victory Golden Monkey, a Belgian-style strong golden ale. Golden Monkey's balance between an herbaceous, floral front-palate (coriander is used in the brew) and lingering, subtle sweetness made for a very cheese-friendly libation. It worked in much the same way as a demi-sec Vouvray, one of my preferred wine choices for the end-of-meal cheese course, with the role of Vouvray's natural high acidity replaced by the beer's gentle edge of bitterness.

The final verdict? A very enjoyable evening. I'll need to check out Avalon on a "normal" night sooner rather than later. And I'm already looking forward to round two of the Victory/DiBruno's mash-up, hopefully with wine adding a third element on the next occasion.

312 S. High Street
West Chester, PA 19382
(610) 436-4100
Avalon on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Wine Closures: Guala Seal

It appears there's another new alternative closure solution on the market, at least one that's new to me: the AS Elite, produced by a company called Guala Seal (also known as Ardea Seal). According to its manufacturers, the AS Elite is "probably the best stopper in the world." While that remains to be seen, I will say that it does seem to present some potential advances over other plastic/polymer type closures.

Shorter than a good quality traditional cork, the Guala Seal is tapered at its business end and is smooth enough to allow for fairly intricate print/logo detailing. An injection molded "shield" made of an inert polypropylene compound fits over the tapered end of the cork. Frankly, it looks like someone's put a little condom over the tip of the cork. Though not the most aesthetically pleasing device, in practice it's meant to keep the wine free from direct contact with the main plastic/elastomer component of the stopper and thus keep the wine free from plastic tainted flavors.

The other advance claimed by the Guala Seal's manufacturer is the use of a rigid polypropylene "chassis" that serves as a frame around which the thermoplastic elastomer bulk of the stopper can be formed. In addition to serving as a guide for the corkscrew, this frame prevents the stopper from elongating or stretching, both over time and when compressed for insertion into the bottle. Again in theory, this should help to provide a better contact seal with the neck of the bottle and to prevent oxidation, something that's been a frequent problem with earlier generations of synthetic stoppers.

I was recently surprised to find a Guala Seal stopping up a bottle of Burgundy, not a Passetoutgrain, mind you, but a $30ish sub-regional red Burg from a reputable estate-based producer in the Côtes de Nuits. I've never known this producer to utilize any type of non-cork closure in the past and was a bit perplexed that they chose a mid-level rather than entry-level wine for its introduction.

In summary, I'm less than thrilled with the look and feel of the AS Elite. I've never particularly liked the aesthetics (or performance, for that matter) of any of the plastic/elastomer family of stoppers, but this somehow manages to look even more artificial. From a performance perspective, though, I'll try to keep an open mind and will be curious to see how the Guala Seal stands the test of time.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Obscure Vines: Elbling

Story has it that Johann Peter Reinert, most of whose estate is situated in the town of Kanzem along Germany's Saar river, travels by tractor along the main road from Kanzem to the Upper Mosel in order to work a small plot of vines he owns on the hillsides above the town of Igel. It's his only plot of vines not situated in the Saar. Traffic backs up for miles, all in the name of keeping an old, increasingly rare tradition alive.

The chalk based soils in Igel are inhospitable to Riesling, which won't properly ripen. Reinert instead makes the long, slow drive to tend his tiny plot of Elbling, a vine that has been planted there since Roman times yet today wallows in relative obscurity — as Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes, "a [vine] to appeal to viticultural archivists." Outside of the Upper Mosel, Elbling's only other major plantations are to be found in Luxembourg, where it is known as Räifrench.

Most of the approximately 1,100 hectares of Elbling planted in the Saar is destined for inclusion in sparkling wine, where its natural tendencies toward high yields and high acidity serve both economically and structurally useful purposes. It takes dedicated farming to turn out still wines of any character from Elbling and the effort yields little in the way of financial return. As a result, very few producers make the effort. Reinert is one of a tiny handful doing so; only six are listed on CellarTracker and I doubt there are very many more. For Reinert, though, working his plot of Elbling is something of a labor of passion. The vines came to him through marriage from his wife's side of the family and he perseveres with production of his Elbling trocken to produce a "summer wine" evocative of his wife's childhood memories.

Mosel Igeler Dullgärten Elbling trocken, Weingut Johann Peter Reinert 2008
$14. 12% alcohol. Diam. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Light as mineral water in the glass, with just a bare suggestion of green-gold hue. The nose is at first a little grapey, then give up scents of white peaches, followed by a dash of szechuan peppercorn and fresh-ground ginger. First and foremost, this is refreshing wine, driven by a raspy, mineral-faceted texture and a very dry, slightly tart finish. With any but the simplest, mild flavored food — I think this would be at its best with filets of trout sauteed in butter, nothing else — the subtlety of its fruit is more or less washed away, leaving behind a vigorous, entirely refreshing mineral wash.

In its second day, the wine took on a little more flesh, showing some green pear fruit, but at the expense of diminished vigor and minerality. A background whiff of egg-y sulfur that I hadn't noticed on day one emerged and it also became clearer, perhaps too due to a slightly warmer serving temperature, that 12% alcohol was a bit heavy for the wine's wiry frame. In both cases, though, these quibbles were not so strong or obvious as to render the wine unpleasurable. Indeed, though much simpler and more direct than Reinert's Saar Rieslings, his Elbling is quite the satisfying thirst quencher. Just right for ice-cold summer quaffing. Of course, I chose to drink it on a couple of ice cold nights in February....

* * *
On a related note, I couldn't help but notice that Reinert's Elbling was sealed with a Diam.

Reinert also alternates between using natural corks and the Vinolok for his various Rieslings. I couldn't think of many if any other producers that — various qualities of cork aside, and not including sparkling wine stoppers — are using three entirely different closure systems. The fact that he's working with so many closure types while farming a total of only 4.2 hectares of vines makes me wonder if he'll eventually choose to stop with natural corks entirely or, conversely, to move exclusively to either the Diam or the Vinolok for his alternative closure of choice.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hit the Mall

Even if "Hit the North" is about the poppiest song ever performed and recorded by The Fall, it was still a freakish (if welcome) experience to hear it playing in a retail clothing store while out for a Sunday afternoon of outlet shopping. As if a Sunday afternoon of outlet shopping wasn't freakish enough on its own....

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Color of Corked

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that the business end of a TCA-infected or otherwise corky stopper sometimes not only smells off but also looks off?

The above picture might not do it clear justice, but when I pulled that little plug of tree bark from a bottle of 2004 Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru En Caradeux "Clos de la Croix de Pierre" from Domaine des Héritiers Louis Jadot last night, I was greeted not just by an unmistakable stench but also by a very muddy looking scene, as if the biz end of the cork had been dipped in a slurry of wine and gray modeling clay.

I've no hard science to back up my observation, just many years of first-hand experience. While there have been plenty of corked wines where the stopper looked normal, I don't think I can remember an instance where the cork had this particular muddy appearance and wasn't also tainted.

Your thoughts on the matter would be most welcome.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Art for Wine's Sake

Car art, to be specific....

It's not often that I post in response to any of the gazillion press releases I receive on a weekly basis, but then it's not often that one hits so many of my sweet spots.

Photo courtesy of Harrod Blank.

The good folks at Triage Wines, distributors of some of the finest natural, small-farm wines available in the Pacific Northwest, are putting out the call for wine savvy (and wine hungry) artists in the Seattle and Portland areas to spruce up Triage's fleet of delivery vehicles. In Triage Marketing Director David Baer's own words,

"[Triage] is looking for artists to help the company express the portfolio's specific focus in an artistic and memorable way. While our logo is lovely and all, we want people to know that our business is about promoting natural wines, often farmed by organic or biodynamic methods, which are hand made and express the heritage and specificity of the place from which they come. The logo simply doesn't say all of that - but we think there are some wine-loving masterful artists out there who can!

Interested artists can apply to design and paint one of five vans, transforming it into mobile art. In addition to having their work selected, each artist will win $350 worth of wine from the Triage portfolio and will receive a $100 stipend toward materials. Interested artists can submit sketches via email to baer [at] triagewines dot com. All applicants must include their name and phone number as well. Only applicants in the Seattle and Portland metro areas will be considered. Entries must be received no later than March 15, 2010, and work will take place between April and September 2010.

Full contest details... can be found at"

I'm not sure it's what Baer has in mind, but I'm picturing something along the lines of the vehicle shown above, the rooftop insect replaced, perhaps, by a plow horse and a huge bottle of Pet-Nat; the van walls emblazoned with murals of dry-farmed vineyards and old foudres; and a grill/hood ornament based on the label design used by the Club Trésors de Champagne. Seeing as I don't live in the PacNW corridor though, feel free to borrow liberally from my vision.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jolly Pumpkin's Oro de Calabaza: More (Slightly Less) Sour Ale and the Question of Natural Beer

It's not often that I send text messages. I'm definitely a late adopter when it comes to alternatives to actually looking someone in the eye and having a real conversation. Heck, I barely even knew what a blog was until I started writing this one.... It's even rarer that I stop midway through a meal or a glass of wine or beer to text someone about it, but that's exactly what I did a couple of nights ago.

My wife and I were hanging out with friends at Teresa's Next Door in Wayne, PA, one of the great bastions of beer in the Philly burbs. (Actually, their wine list is pretty respectable, too, but that's perhaps a story for another day.) Started out with Cantillon's Lou Pepe Kriek on draft then moved from tart to bitter with a pint of Racer 5 IPA, pulled from the beer engine. As tasty as they both were, it was the next beer that really fired on all cylinders: Oro de Calabaza from Dexter, Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. I've really enjoyed everything I've tried from Jolly Pumpkin but this bottle took it to another level. Hazy, pale gold in the glass; slightly funky, slightly sour, just enough richness, redolent of honeysuckles (my friend Pete nailed it) and showing a subtle oak influence. Really well balanced. A complete, beautiful, killer beer.

Oro de Calabaza is a strong golden ale made in the bière de garde tradition. At 8% alcohol, it's not a session beer (JP makes their Bam Bière for that), more a beer to sit and contemplate AND to unabashedly enjoy. Like all of Jolly Pumpkin's brews, it's fermented in open vats, availing itself at least partially of naturally occurring wild yeasts, aged in old oak casks and then bottle conditioned before release. This bottle was from "Batch 409."

Drinking it, I was reminded of a question my friend Cory Cartwright had casually asked in a recent post at his blog, Saignée: "What are some good natural beers? Any non-Belgian stuff you’re digging (because everyone will say Belgian)?" I was inclined to answer right away with, "Jolly Pumpkin. Try anything they brew." Instead, I ended up texting him, mid-meal and mid-beer, about a week later. He probably thought I was nuts but, hey, I was inspired.

Aside from a less immediate sense of inspiration, the reason I hadn't responded to Cory's question sooner is that it raised, for me, much larger questions. Questions that I've been pondering ever since.

What is natural beer? And is there even such a thing?

I don't think the exact same parameters used to describe natural wine can be applied, because beer making is perforce a more manipulative endeavor than wine making. Are we simply talking about spontaneous, wild yeast fermentation or should the answer go beyond that to include farming and overall production techniques?

I'm not sure I have a clear answer to these questions. But I'd be happy to hear yours.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Domaine de la Tournelle's Ploussard de Monteiller

Here's a wine I've been wanting to try ever since reading of its vanquishing a small but stellar field in Brooklynguy's roundup of a blind tasting of Arbois Ploussards. I finally did, just the other night. Popped the cork and poured it to go with one of my favorite Poulsard pairings: poultry pot pie (and no, it's not just about the alliteration). Truth is, I didn't love it, at least not right away.

Arbois Ploussard de Monteiller, Domaine de la Tournelle (Evelyne et Pascal Clairet) 2004
$24. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Jenny & François Selections, World Wide Wine, New York, NY.
First, a little techno-background info. Monteiller is a lieu-dit vineyard with gray marl soils and southwest exposure, farmed to yields of about 40 hl/ha. The Ploussard is hand-harvested from the Clairets' naturally farmed vines and is completely destemmed before being lightly crushed. The wine ferments on its natural yeasts in open-top vats for 10-20 days depending on vintage character. It's then put in cuves for the malolactic fermentation, followed by aging in old oak foudres for anywhere from 8-18 months, again depending on the traits of the growing season. The finished wine is bottled without filtration and with no added sulfur dioxide (a small amount of sulfites do occur naturally via the wine's fermentation process).

The resulting wine is extraordinarily pale, pale even by Poulsard standards, like an orange-tinged tea of rose petals. It's so pale you can read through it. The burnished, slightly reductive aromas when first opened blew off after about fifteen minutes, letting the wine's more delicate purity emerge. There's at best a whisper of tannin; instead, the naturally uplifting acidity of Arbois Ploussard is all that's really needed to give balance to the wine's ethereal structure. The fruit, too, is very delicate and restrained. Think of wild cherries and baked orange but more of the sense of taste you get from smelling them, not from eating them. Again, think in whispers and you'll get a sense of the wine.

Twenty-four hours later, not surprisingly, the wine showed even subtler intensity. I noticed a lean wood influence, or at least a woodsy flavor, that I hadn't registered a day earlier. There was even a sneaky little suggestion of sweetness near the rear palate, just beofre the wine finished with a cascade of sour minerals. There was something vaguely metallic, too, though I don't believe it was Brett. What I do believe is that this is really puzzling, really provocative wine. It's not the type of wine that scores hedonism points or that screams out for attention, more the type that you overlook at first sip but are then drawn back to, full of mystery, raiser of questions. In the end, I still didn't love it. But I am looking forward to the next bottle.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere:

You'll find a beautiful set of pictures from a day spent at Domaine de la Tournelle at the increasingly photo-centric site of The Wine Digger.

The Wine Digger has gone into hiding and eviscerated his blog since this was originally posted; his photos are no longer publicly available.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Teaser Alert: Wine and Chocolate with Éclat

This Friday night, gods of weather and authorities of the road permitting, I'll be teaming up with chocolatier Christopher Curtin to deliver a pre-Valentine's Day double-header wine and chocolate "social" at Curtin's shop, Éclat Chocolate, in West Chester, PA.

Chris and I have been threatening to team up for a little chocolate and wine pairing fun ever since our path's first crossed at a wine tasting event I conducted last year, and I'm jazzed to see our plans finally put into fruition.

Friday's event — two ninety-minute sessions, each for 16 guests, held in the intimate retail space at Éclat — is already sold-out, so today's post is a bit of a tease. Assuming all goes well, though, we'll be repeating and building upon our efforts at additional sessions in the months to come. To be notified of our future events, please drop Chris a line at info at eclatchocolate dot com and ask to be added to the Éclat e-mail list.

I don't want to give away too much of what we have in store for our guests but I can tell you that one of Curtin's newest creations will almost certainly figure into Friday's tastings. In the video below, you'll see Chris demonstrating the production techniques of that new chocolate, a rose-infused white chocolate heart, and catch him improvising his way through power-less and scissor-less moments, all aired live last week on Philadelphia's NBC-10.

Hope to see some of you on Friday.

Éclat Chocolate
24 South High Street
West Chester, PA 19382

Monday, February 8, 2010

Standing on the Ridge

98 Lytton Springs Vineyard, bottled 12/99
El Niño delayed the 1998 growing season by an entire month; late August brought an unseasonably early rain and some water damage in the clusters. We opened the vines to light and air, and thinned repeatedly over the next forty days as soon as any damaged fruit appeared. Aided by fine weather, we had clean, very ripe grapes at harvest. Intense fruit, a rich structure, and firm tannins characterize this lovely vintage, which will be at its best over the next five to six years. Alas, the severe thinning has resulted in significantly smaller quantities than usual.
— PD [Paul Draper] (11/99)

Now there's 750ml less....

I've always liked Ridge's packaging, from the short silver capsule that lets the winery and vintage info stamped on the cork show through the bottle neck, to the crisp, minimalistic styling of their label's typography and layout. I also like Paul Draper's liner notes, driven by marketing as are all such label talkers but, much more than most, also informative and inclusive of some meaningful information.

There was a time when I also might have said that I've always liked Ridge wines. But as my preferences have changed over the last ten or twelve years, my relationship with Ridge has become one based more on respect than on unabashed admiration. The wines are absolutely well made and expressive — I think it's fair to say they're standard bearers — but they just don't deliver the pleasure they once did, at least not to me.

A side effect of this shift in my tastes is that I still have a decent little cache of Ridge wines, mostly from the mid- to late-90s, resting in my wine fridge. So, when friends from the neighborhood trudged over for a post-blizzard dinner this weekend, bearing gifts of bacon-wrapped filets mignon, I figured it was due time to make a cellar sacrifice.

California Dry Creek Valley "Lytton Springs," Ridge Vineyards 1998
~$25 on release. 14.3% alcohol. Cork.
One of the things I have always respected about Ridge is the ability of their wines to age. Five years beyond the drinking window originally recommended by Ridge proprietor Paul Draper, the 1998 Lytton Springs is still chugging right along, with another five or ten years to go, easy. What's happened over the last ten years in bottle? Well, the wine still does show some of its characteristically raisin-rich Zin notes but on a frame that's grown narrower with age. In a way, that's let a certain elegance show through that, if my memory of long ago consumed bottles is at all accurate, was somewhat less evident earlier on. Now, spicy yet subtle red berry fruit intertwines with cedar and tobacco leaf aromas; a firm yet supple tannic quality and still bright, medium-acidity help the wine achieve its sense of balance. It paired just fine with the richness and smokiness of the beef and bacon, not at all too high in alcohol to work with food.

So what's not to like? For me, and I've said it here before in similar but slightly less kind terms, it's the indelible oak signature born by nearly all of Ridge's red wines. American oak, in particular. In spite of the elegance that's emerged from the good raw materials of the Lytton Springs Vineyard, and in spite of the life that continues in the bottle, there's a wood-driven, cedar-y character that dominates the wine. It doesn't totally obscure the fruit; it just makes it much harder for the fruit's voice and, one could argue, the vineyard's voice, to be heard. It's part and parcel of the Ridge winemaking signature. I just have a harder time swallowing it than I once did.

* * *
Elsewhere in the blogosphere....

Wolfgang Weber recently wrote a piece, which I think deserves your attention, on the apparent prevalence of cork taint in Italian wines. If there's one thing that the Italians, and most European wineries for that matter, could learn from their US counterparts, it's the value of shelling out the dough for high quality corks.

Though I'm sure there's a TCA-tainted bottle out there somewhere, I've never once had a corked wine from Ridge. The high quality of their corks has to play a role in that track record. A trace quantity of tartrate crystals was in evidence on the stopper pulled from the '98 Lytton Springs, but there was nothing to suggest that the cork had been in the bottle for more than ten weeks, much less for ten-plus years.

Also, the frequency with which my wine blogging peers and I seem to find ourselves on similar topics at similar times is a never ending source of amazement. Point in case, I stumbled upon Lyle Fass's recent post about Opus One and, you guessed it, changing tastes regarding oak influence, while taking a break from writing this piece. It's worth a read too, especially for Lyle's take on cowboy boots and suits.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Franco Ballerini, RIP

Fans and competitors of professional cycling alike mourn the loss of one of cycling's great stars of the last two decades, as Italian Franco Ballerini died today as a result of injuries sustained when the rally-car in which he was acting as race navigator crashed this morning.

Ballerini will be best remembered by riders and fans of his own generation as a key member of the fiercely dominant Mapei-GB team, for which he rode from 1994-98. His impact on riders of the following generation was just important as, after his own retirement from the pro ranks in 2001, Ballerini managed the Italian National Cycling Team from 2002 on, leading the squadra azzura to four World Championship titles as well as to an Olympic gold medal.

Franco's career included several victories and many, many more hard-fought days in the saddle riding in support of his own teammates. Like many, I'll always remember him most clearly for his two firsts and a second in the most infamous of spring classics, Paris-Roubaix: getting nosed out on the line by Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle in 1993 and then going on to win in both 1995 and 1998.

Rest in peace, Franco. Franco Ballerini (December 11, 1964 – February 7, 2010).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Exploring Guímaro and Ribeira Sacra

The inhabitants of the tiny village of Sober — all nine of them if the latest census reports are correct — must count themselves as lucky souls. That is assuming that young wine grower Pedro Rodríguez Pérez shares some of his tiny production of Ribeira Sacra with his neighbors.

Sober is located in the Amandi sub-zone of Ribeira Sacra, a D.O. area of modest proportion located in Galicia, not far from the northern border of Portugal in the northwest corner of Spain. Here, the 35-year-old Rodríguez has no choice but to farm his seven hectares of vineyards completely by hand, as those vines are perched on precipitous slopes above the River Sil.

Pedro Rodríguez Pérez overlooks his vines in Ribeira Sacra (photo courtesy of Triage Wines, Guimaro's distributor in the Pacific Northwest).

Pedro works fifteen separate vineyard plots, planted primarily to Mencia, along with small quantities of Caino tinto and other native black grape varieties, plus small parcels of Godello and Treixadura, from which he produces a single white wine. His vines average 40-years in age. There are three reds in his cadre, all of which, along with the one white, are bottled under his label Guímaro (which means "nonconformist").

Aside from Pedro's inclusion in Eric Asimov's excellent New York Times profile of Ribeira Sacra and other random tidbits around the Web, there's surprisingly little information available about the wines of Señor Rodriguez. So, ever in search of knowledge, I contacted Guímaro's importer, Jose Pastor, who shared with me the following details. (I've edited Jose's words for context and style but will still attribute them as a quote, as I would not have had access to such information without his help.) Says Jose,

"As far as I know Pedro makes four diferent cuvées:
  • A barrel fermented white, mainly from Godello, naturally fermented with some batonage, bottled on the early side with no filtration. He makes 2 barrels every year.
  • Then he does a basic red cuvée, fermented/aged in tank and also bottled on the early side, which goes by the name of Guimaro Joven (which means "young"). Since '08, this comes in a Burgundy bottle. (The '07 and some early bottles of the '08 were shipped in a Bordeaux bottle with a blue label, which may have caused some confusion out there; this is the same cuvée.) Starting in 2009, the Joven is going to be raised half in foudre and the other half in tank. Also, a small part of the cuvée will be whole-cluster fermented.
Lastly he produces two old vine cuvées:
  • 'B1P' is made from old vine Mencia grown in Pedro's highest elevation vineyard; this one is fermented in open-top foudres with whole clusters.
  • 'B2M' is also old vine Mencia but from a lower elevation plot. It is 100% de-stemmed, fermented in tank and then raised in used barrels.
Pedro told me that in 2009 both of these cuvées will be whole-cluster fermented as he likes how the B1P is developing. Current releases for the old vine cuvées are '07 and, as far as I know, are only available in California."
Given that only only 25 cases of "B1P" make it into the US, I was lucky to have started out my experiences with Guímaro right at the top of the range while in San Francisco last fall. More recently, I've had the chance to go back to step one.

Ribeira Sacra Summum, Guímaro (Pedro M. Rodríguez Pérez) 2008
$15. 13.5% alcohol. Diam. Importer: Jose Pastor Selections (Vinos & Gourmet), Richmond, CA.

This is the "Joven" bottling referred to by Jose in the technical notes above. The word "Amandi," which appeared on the front label of the old Bordeaux-shaped bottles but now appears only on the bottle's rear label, is a reference to the wine's place of origin. "Summum," in turn, is the highest designation for Ribeira Sacra; red wines thus labeled contain a minimum of 85 per cent preferred red varieties, 60 per cent of which must be Mencía. Summum wines can be labeled varietally (which Guimaro's is, as Mencia, again solely on the rear label) only if the wine contains 85% or more of that variety.

Enough with the regulatory stuff... The wine leads off with a fresh, very lively nose of blueberry, black cherry and wild plum fruit, spiced up with whiffs of bay leaves and tobacco. Very coolly textured, round and smooth in the mouth, with a fine acid/tannin balance and a distinctly mineral finish. It's both firm and taut yet not at all hard. And it cries out for food. I paired it with a pasta dressed with a sauce of crushed tomatoes, a pinch of coarsely chopped garlic and a small tin of anchovies, all of which I sauteed in a little olive oil. I don't think that's an even remotely Galician dish but it was a pretty freakin' delicious combo, nonetheless. Riding solidly into day two, there was still plenty of bright red fruit, a slight leaning-out in the textural department, and the emergence of enticing aromas of cured meat and salami spices.

On the surface, this is juicy, pleasurable, hard-not-to-drink-the-whole-bottle vino, but there's the kind of meaningful substance to it — structure, length and penetrating flavors, a real sense of individuality — that delivers far beyond the overwhelming majority of wines at its $15 price point.

Addendum: Caught up in the rigor of writing, I nearly forgot to add that today's post also provides the answer-in-full to last weekend's episode of Name That Wine.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Winter at Talula's Table

This, the fourth and final installment of "What We Did During the Big Bachelor Party Weekend," takes us almost all the way back to the beginning, back to the lowest key, highest toned night of the three-day fest. The big splash. Dinner for four in the kitchen at Talula's Table.

Four guys (including me behind the lens), representing three time zones and four regions of the country, formed the core group of the weekend's revelers. You may recognize the man of honor, Steve Litvin (at right), from my fall adventures in Northern California. Steve came all the way from Monterey, where he is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, to celebrate his impending nuptials. Joining us were his old college water polo pals Carleton Yoder (at left), who's now based in Vermont, and Todd Dolan, who flew in the day before from Denver, Colorado. Carleton and Steve had both eaten with me at Django when it was under the purview of Talula's owners, Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, but Todd was a virgin diner.

While the rest of the weekend may have revolved primarily around some of Philly's best spots for beer, tonight it was all about good food and wine. Though late in January 2010, the Winter 2009 menu at Talula's was (and still is, as of this writing) in full swing.

Hors d'oeuvre
Vouvray Brut, Foreau (Clos Naudin) NV
Since my last visit, the kitchen has changed things up just a bit, sending out a series of small bites to the diners lingering in the market area rather than plating a single amuse bouche at the dinner table. I'd left my camera back in the kitchen, so you'll have to do without pics, or any real details for that matter, of the three nibbles we were served. Suffice it to say they were as tasty, artful and soulful as is most everything done at Talula's. With them, we toasted a fine start to the evening with Foreau's Vouvray Brut, which, though not on the same plane as Huet's vintage Vouvray Pétillant, was still pretty darn good.

Short Stack, House-Smoked Smoked Trout, Shaved Pickled Carrots, and Pennsylvania Maple Syrup
Mittelrhein Bacharacher Riesling Kabinett trocken, Ratzenberger 2006
There seems to be a mini-movement of late to pair fish eggs with something sweet. It may sound odd but it works on the same principle of "sweet and salty" that makes chocolate covered pretzels so good. And, when done right, it works. Here, the sweetness was delivered ever-so-subtly by the essence of maple syrup that permeated the "short stack" of tiny little pancakes. Along with excellent quality smoked trout, this was a standout first course — even if the Vermonter among us was perturbed that it included maple syrup from PA — that paired quite nicely with Ratzenberger's dry Riesling.

Winter Kale Soup, Burgundy Snail Tortellini, Toasted Garlic, Rich Tomato Fondue
Touraine "Les Trois Chênes," Domaine Ricard 2008
The snails may have hailed from Burgundy but the combination of hearty greens, garlic and tomato made me think of Sauvignon. So, with no St. Bris in hand, to the Touraine we went. The wine was delicous, tropical at first whiff then quickly morphing toward citrus oil-laced, sappy fruit and an intensely mineral finish; a real head-turner for Carleton and Todd who are primarily red drinkers. The soup was in turn delicious, the kale preparation itself taking center stage, cooked, as Steve put it, in such a way as to retain all of the kale's flavor while subduing its bitter, tough tendencies.

Winter Squash Crème Brulée, Cranberry Influence, Chocolate Dipped Chester County Bacon
Coste della Sesia Rosato "Rosa del Rosa," Proprietà Sperino 2007
Reactions to this course were mixed, a couple of the guys listing it among their faves while I wasn't so sure. The squash soufflé was delicious in and of itself, but I wasn't entirely sold on the chocolate covered bacon. I know it's another iteration of the sweet and salty principle but, for me, it can be too much of a good thing. There's no question that it was done well, though.

As for the wine, I've been thinking, since it was first produced a few years back, that Proprietà Sperino's rosato should hold up to a little cellaring. While this was hardly old, at two-years plus of age it was indeed showing very well, still full of the watermelon rind essence of its youth but also having developed a rich core of cured meat and vanilla cream flavors, along with a classically Nebbiolo-driven nose of rose petals. Very vinous, too.

Saffron Marinated Monkfish, Lemon Scented White Beans, Chorizo and Fried Herb Panada
Touraine "Le Clos de Vauriou," Domaine Ricard 2008
Yes, it's that wine. Again. Blame it on Chef Sikora, who brought it out and insisted on sharing it with us when he saw we'd brought another wine from Vincent Ricard. It was hardly a natural match with the food (the rosato might have been the way to go) but it's a versatile enough wine that things still worked out just fine. The fish dish was another of my favorite courses of the night, not just for the deliciousness of the monkfish itself but even more so for the interplay between the white and black beans, the chorizo, the fish, the saffron overtones and the way that the dish's seasoning, handled incredibly adeptly, tied everything together.

Confit of Canadian Goose, Cider Glaze, Cheddar Polenta, Smoked Onions, and Goose Juice
Chinon "Les Picasses," Catherine et Pierre Breton 2004
Though not the evening's last savory course, this was without doubt the heavy hitter of the evening, full of rich, heady, meaty flavors. The polenta is from Anson Mills, the cheese crisp topping made with Cantalet.

I got a kick out of Brooklynguy's recent potluck post and thought he was dead-on when associating good Chinon with the rich, fatty, salty flavors of confit (duck, in his case). The Bretons' 2004 "Les Picasses" was, for me, the most natural, satisfying pairing of the night, its own richness offset by the naturally vibrant acidity and tongue-cleansing texture of well-structured, well-balanced Chinon. I'd planned to save this, my last bottle, for several more years but the bachelor of honor has been on a C&P Breton groove ever since I turned him on to both versions of "La Dilettante" at Terroir back in the fall and I wanted him to try one of their more intensely structured wines. Hey, why save when you can share?

Venison Tenderloin, Potato-Turnip Purée, Caramelized Brussel Sprouts, Raisin-Red Wine Sauce
Alexander Valley Marlstone Vineyard, Clos du Bois 1995
Another killer course. I've probably said it here before, in fact I'm sure I have so I'm not even going to go back and look... Bryan has a gift when it comes to cooking game. The venison was meltingly tender and incredibly flavor intensive, infused with the exotic influence of pâté spices and balanced by the subtle sweetness of the wine reduction sauce. Those brussel sprouts didn't suck, either.

The wine? This one might surprise some of my regular readers. Yes, it was highly polished and not loaded with clear sense of place, but at 15 years, Clos du Bois' Marlstone Vineyard cuvée, a Bordeaux blend, was still fresh and vibrant. Plenty of life left to go, in fact. I don't have much experience with more recent bottlings, so I can't say where the wine has headed since, but this was made back in that turning point era between 1994-97, when California Cabs were just starting the leap into their high alcohol, high extract, not-so-food-friendly era. At 14.2%, this was balanced and played just fine with the deer.

Got Goat? A Goat Cheese Collection with Roasted Chestnut Jam
Coteaux du Layon "Cuvée S," Château Soucherie (Pierre-Yves Tijou) 2001
In the last few months, the cheese course at Talula's has moved away from the traditional tri-milk mixture toward a single-milk theme, still with a classic progression from mild to more pungent flavors. Soucherie's "Cuvée S" was still a baby. Very fat and honeyed. Even though delicious with the cheese, it turned out to be a better match with the dessert course.

Organic Champlain Triple from Champlain Valley Creamery
On top of being an all-around great guy and huge beer and wine lover, our friend and fellow diner Carleton Yoder is the owner and head cheese(maker) at Champlain Valley Creamery. Though he started his business with a focus on producing fresh cream cheese, which is still one of his primary products, his triple cream cow's milk cheese has quickly become his best seller over the past couple of years. We brought along a few discs of it for the crew at Talula's to try and Kate Stroh, Talula's resident sous-cheese monger, plated one up for us as a surprise course.

Clementine Chibouste, Lemon Curd, Citrus-Champagne Sauce
La Colombe espresso
After such a hearty, wintry meal, it was a smart choice to serve a dessert course that was only lightly sweet, its focus more on tangy, refreshing seasonal flavors. That light hand with the sugar helped it to pair so well, as mentioned above, with the sticky Loire Chenin from Soucherie. The coffee was just a digestive. Decaf for me, as I can't handle caffeine much past noon any more, that is unless I want to be staring at the ceiling at 4:00 AM.... As the espresso cup indicates, Philly-roasted La Colombe is now the coffee of choice at TT.

C'est tout! Thanks, Steve, Carleton and Todd, for providing the impetus for such a great meal. See you again in March, my friends.

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

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