Monday, December 31, 2007

Here's to a Happy and Healthy 2008

I'd hoped to post a run-down of some of my most memorable moments from the ending year but, as time doesn't permit, I'll let a few photos do the talking for now.

Thanks to all of my readers, new and "old," for the support and comments over the course of the year. Here's to a safe evening and to a happy and healthy 2008 for you all. Cheers!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Éclat Chocolate

It can be tough to get motivated, much less find the time, to do holiday shopping when you work in the retail industry. This year was particularly tough as I also needed to squeeze time for blogging into an already packed schedule. The only outing I managed, aside from some on-line shopping, was to Éclat Chocolates. I’d had the itch to visit Éclat ever since reading Rick Nichols’ feature on the shop in the October 21, 2007, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer (the article seems to have been removed from the Inky’s archives). Seeing their single origin mendiants for sale at Talula’s Table further piqued my interest. But it was a strong nudge from my wife which finally put me behind the wheel for the trip out to West Chester.

There’s really not much to the shop, a smallish, rather sterile storefront operation in West Chester’s village center. The service counter, a single display case, a couple of shelving units for the plastic tubes full of mendiants and a bit of artwork are about the only things to see. I guess I’d hoped for something a little more interactive, perhaps along the lines of the exceptional chocolatier Joël Durand in Saint-Rémy de Provence, or at least for an open kitchen scenario. However, the engagement of one’s aromatic senses at Éclat is undeniable. The air is thickly laden with the intensely rich scent of chocolate, which one can only imagine being melted, seasoned, tempered, molded and sculpted in the back room.

However compelling the expression of chocolate terroir in Éclat’s mendiants, more deeply satisfying experiences are to be found in Master Chocolatier Christopher Curtin’s caramels and truffles. Size, texture, sweetness level and execution are all spot-on and handled with aesthetic care. Infusions of bergamot, lavender and star anise along with caramel that’s, well, caramelized to the perfect tone of smoky darkness, make for memorable executions of the chocolatier’s art. It’s more than worth a trip out to West Chester.

If you’re curious about the marriage of chocolate and the fruit of the vine, Mr. Curtin will be teaming up with Chadds Ford Winery staff member Mark Cochard on Thursday, January 31, 2008, to present a seminar on chocolate and wine pairing. Featuring the chocolates of Éclat and PA wines from Chadds Ford, the event will run from 7:30 to 9:00 PM at Chadds Ford Winery. Cost is $50 per person; reservations can be secured by calling 610-388-6221.

Éclat Chocolate
24 South High Street
West Chester, PA 19382

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Late Fall Tasting Menu at Talula’s Table

One recent night, a tad burned out from a long holiday retail season, I felt the need to commiserate with some friends who would understand. And after a long day on my feet selling wine, I was also hungry. It made perfect sense then, at least to me, to head out to Kennett Square to check in on the holiday rush at Talula’s Table. It gave me the perfect opportunity to catch up with the team there, to pick up some tasty provisions for the home front and, as luck would have it, to taste what was coming out of the kitchen for the large party at the farmhouse table, one of the last reservations for Talula’s November/December tasting menu.

Grapefruit Margarita and Nantucket Bay Scallop Ceviche
This first course, scallop ceviche, seemed on paper to be decidedly un-wintry. However, the bitterness provided by a bath in tequila and the accompanying matchsticks of kohlrabi, along with a spike of winter grapefruit, brought the dish into seasonal line. I would like to have seen the scallops play more of a starring role. Nonetheless, it provided a serious wake-up call for my weary taste buds.

Roasted Chanterelles, Our Smoked Country Ham, Creamed Greens and Spoon Bread
This brought the comfort level I expect from Chef Sikora’s cooking back into play. It also highlighted his talent for combining creativity and the occasional rarefied ingredient with an anchoring sense of hominess. An early slam dunk, the butter roasted fungi were lip-smackingly good. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night.

Buttery Leek and Wine Poached Chatham Cod, Petite Pommes Frites and American Caviar
All about simple preparation and good sourcing of ingredients, gentle poaching showcased the perfectly fresh and tender flesh of Chatham Cod. Salty little fries and briny trout roe, which Bryan’s been making good use of throughout the year, provided dueling contrast to the mild, buttery richness of the leeks and fish.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Artisan Ricotta and Maple Glazed Winter Vegetables
Expectations were foiled again, as with the first dish of the night. Served in a scalloped ramekin, this was more of a topless pot pie, starring savory, fall vegetables, than the pasta course I had anticipated. A few soft pillows of gnocchi, made from roughly equal parts sweet potato, flour and ricotta, played the starch role in place of the missing pastry crust. The embers of cinnamon bark adorning the plate were meant to provide aromatic nuance, an effect mainly lost through torching and quick burnout in the kitchen.

Cinnamon Smoked Pheasant Bastilla, Medjool Date Glazed Pheasant Breast, Crispy Phyllo and Toasty Almonds
Bastilla is a traditional Moroccan dish, usually made with pigeon, which, awkwardly put, is a little like a poultry, egg and nut baklava. It was an element on this plate, particularly given the tasteful substitution of pheasant, which I’d be happy to see scaled-up as a hearty, stand-alone main course. That it was serving here as a side to the leading medallion of delicately smoked and perfectly roasted pheasant breast is testament to the intricacy and layers of preparation allowed in the context of a kitchen serving only one menu to one table per evening. A little morsel of seared foie gras, set atop the pheasant breast, provided a perfectly acceptable touch of excess.

Grilled Veal Steak, Porcini and Taleggio Ravioli and Braised Veal Shank
A medium-rare veal steak and an intensely dense and creamy raviolo, both served atop a mound of braised veal shank and then bathed by veal demi-glace made this course nearly over-the-top in texture and richness. For a touch more balance than a toss of quick-pickled cauliflower provided on its own, I might have liked a streak of winter chard to cut the fat and weight of the taleggio in the stuffed pasta. For sheer, groaning belly indulgence though, I’d have happily downed a second helping.

Scent of a Cheese: A Quintet of the Unusual
Though there was a loose theme at play here – aromatic distinction – the evening’s cheese course reminded me more of Aimee Olexy’s beautiful cheese plates at Django than did the cheese plates served at my earlier outings to Talula’s. Tonight it was not so much about presentation or preparation as it was a simple expression of the shop’s selection of well made, well chosen and well cared for artisanal cheeses.

Gianduja and Dark Chocolate Caramel Tart, Nutmeg Anglaise, Port Poached Cranberries
I must admit that by this point in the meal, my attention to detail was on the wane. Nonetheless, this tart stood out for its uncontrived tastiness. I’d be happy to find a place for it on my Thanksgiving table in place of one of the more traditional desserts, as its ingredients certainly fit the season. It avoided the pitfall of extreme density which plagues many chocolate tarts via a well-packed but tender crumbliness that reminded me of the texture, albeit moister, of a good graham cracker pie crust. The nutmeg spiked crème anglaise was just icing on the cake.

The tasting menu as designed by Rosali Middleman

* * *

As I reported after my last visit, the private dinners at Talula’s Table were quickly booked solid all the way through June 2008 in the aftermath of Craig Laban’s rather glowing review in the Philadelphia Inquirer. If you’ve read this far, then you deserve to know that the calendar at Talula’s Table will soon re-open. At the start of business – that’s 7:00 AM – on January 2, 2008, the reservation books will open for the second half of 2008. Not that I want the staff at TT to be any more swamped but I might suggest calling early – and availing yourself of the redial function on your phone.

Finally, in the interest of journalistic integrity and full disclosure, I'd like you to know that this meal was comped by the owners of Talula's Table.

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

Additional visits:

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Irouléguy, Domaine Brana 1999

Time may have softened the tannins of Domaine Brana’s 1999 Irouléguy but it’s done little else to calm the wine’s inherently sauvage nature. Initial aromas of dry-aged meat, dried herbs and stewed green peppers meet the nose, followed on the palate by slightly angular wood tannins and firm, somewhat narrow texture. As the wine opens in the glass, herbaceous aromas give way to wild plums and sour cherries. The dry woodiness also blows off, letting the ferrous quality and wild fruit of this typically Basque wine show through. Finally, again with air time, riper, rounder grape tannins take over from the subsiding wood tannins, giving the wine richness in the mouth that belies its medium-bodied scale and old-school alcohol level.

This is arguably the most typical of Domaine Brana’s reds – more solid, fine and age worthy than the rustic Ohitza and less rich and modern than Axeria. All three are blends dominated by Cabernet Franc, supported by Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat. There’s structure here to allow further cellaring but I’m not convinced that patience will reap further rewards as this seems to be riding its plateau now, retaining solid fruit yet showing the tertiary aromas of bottle development.
Approximately $25 on release. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Opening this bottle was unplanned. It just seemed to call to me when I opened the cellar door in search of something to pair with Christmas dinner. Though I was hardly preparing a traditional Basque meal, the Irouléguy nonetheless seemed an appropriate match to roast duck magret served with a woodsy Portobello mushroom risotto and, just to get some green on the plate, steamed broccoli. The risotto was a fine match but it was really the duck that made the wine sing.

I like to keep a couple of D’Artagnan's duck breasts on hand at all times. They hold up extremely well in the freezer. Once thawed, they require nothing other than a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper followed by a good pan sear over medium heat to render and crisp the fat layer, followed by roasting in the oven, fat side up. Pouring off and saving the rendered fat is just an added bonus, one that will add a wonderful depth of flavor to eggs, beans or potatoes at a future meal.

* * *
Relevant goodies:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays

It's sunny and 45F on Christmas day here in Philadelphia. Somehow, the vines hibernating under a freshly fallen coat of snow in Valdobbiadene make for a more fitting holiday image. Cheers, everyone! (Image courtesy of

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Choucroute Challenge

For the past few years, one of my dear coworkers has started a tradition that I hope she doesn’t retire. She’s made a big batch of absolutely delicious choucroute garnie and brought it into the shop to feed us hungry wine warriors on the last retail Saturday before Christmas. It’s one of the busiest days of the year, so the warm belly glow and slow-burn energy that results – I had a hard time not going back to the pot for a third helping this year – is more than welcome.

Each year, we’ve taken the opportunity to taste a few wines that, at least in theory, should be natural matches to the flavors, ingredients and richness of the dish. As the tradition for choucroute is most strongly tied to Alsace, we’ve perforce included at least one or two Alsace wines in the line-up. For two years running, though, a German wine has come out on top as the best pairing. Last year’s winner was Andreas Laible’s 2005 Baden Ortenau Durbacher Plauelrain Scheurebe Spätlese trocken; the wine’s big, spicy, grapefruit driven persona stood right up to the porcine goodness of all those mixed meats and kraut. This year’s prize was taken more by mineral, nerve and an underlying spine of intensity, all fronted by a beautiful combination of white peach, green apple and quince. It was the 2005 Saar Wiltinger Schlangengraben Riesling Auslese halbtrocken from Johann Peter Reinert, just scintillatingly good, especially with the veal sausages.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Looking At You

1970. Without meaning to, Wayne Kramer -- in spite of Rob Tyner's crazy fro, gap tooth, bad t-shirt and white pants -- led the MC5 down the path toward becoming one of the most influential punk precursor bands of his generation. The video quality is not particularly good but that's more than made up for by Fred "Sonic" Smith's action on stage. Just watch the legs. Anne Murray, eat your heart out.

January at Tria Fermentation School

The January schedule of classes at Tria Fermentation School has just been announced. Act fast if you’re interested in any, as they often sell out in the blink of an eye. There’s a particular focus on the wines of Spain next month, including presentations by several visiting winemakers. As usual, there are also some great nuggets from some of our wisest locals, including a session on the hoppy beers of Belgium by Tom Peters of Monk’s Café and a presentation on Italian cheese by my go-to guy at the 9th Street location of DiBruno’s, Seth Kalkstein. I’ll be back on the schedule in February, pouring something tasty I expect.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Last Call for Support of Menu For Hope

Will you have a few friends over for dinner sometime in the New Year? Or perhaps you’ll go out to a favorite BYO restaurant with a small group of like-minded food and wine lovers? I certainly hope the answer you’ve all silently delivered to one or both of these questions is “Well, duh, of course.” How cool might it be not to have to worry about what wines to select, to buy and to pour for the evening, but rather to have a wine guy serve and entertain you and your group? For as little as $10, you can win the chance to do just that.

In the process, you can also help to build a sustainable way for small farmers in Lesotho, Africa to feed their children and community without having to rely on outside financial assistance or on surplus grain shipments from the other side of the globe.

Today is the next to last day of the 4th annual Menu For Hope and this is my last – and last minute – call to action. Last year, Menu For Hope III raised over $60,000 in support of the United Nations World Food Programme. This year’s edition builds on that mission, with a more targeted delivery of your donations. And the goal, of course, is to at least equal the total donations raised in last year’s campaign. As of 10:00 AM this morning, our total sits right at $51K, so there’s still a way to go in the last two days.

Please help make it happen. For those of you who have considered it but not yet acted, or for those that are learning about MFH for the first time, you can visit my original post for the full details of my prize and for instructions on how to participate. And if you’re interested in other options, the entire list of prizes from around the world can be viewed at Chez Pim.

My thanks go out to those of you who have already made a contribution. Good luck! I’d also like to thank a couple of my fellow Philadelphia-area bloggers: Taylor at Mac & Cheese and Jennie at Straight from the Farm for helping to spread the word, and David at PhilaFoodie for also contributing a worthy prize to the program.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pale at Heart

What is Coeur Blanc? Why is Coeur Blanc Special? How is Coeur Blanc Made? Why is Coeur Blanc Made?

These are the questions posed in the context of a full page ad which appeared in the December 15, 2007 edition of Wine Spectator. They’re repeated in similar terms on the branding page for Coeur Blanc, the latest stroke of genius from Oregon’s Domaine Serene. The last question is actually my snidely paraphrased version of another question posed on the product’s website, “Why do we make Coeur Blanc?” Why indeed?

“Coeur Blanc (White Heart) is a one-of-a-kind, barrel-fermented white wine made exclusively from mature Pinot Noir grapes. Gently pressing whole clusters limits contact with the red grape skins so that only the purest essence, or “white heart” juice, is expressed. This delicate approach creates an unprecedented dry wine from red grapes. Coeur Blanc is aged for 15 months in French oak barrels and a further 12 months in bottle prior to release. Enjoy!”
– Tony Rynders, Winemaker

Domaine Serene has already glommed plenty of attention for marketing the most expensive Oregon Pinot in history, the 2002 “Monogram,” released and sold-out at $200 per bottle. With the introduction, and subsequent sell-out, of their latest "new idea," I can’t help but believe that Serene is pulling the wool over its customers’ eyes. In the estate’s own cleverly spun words, “Less than half of the available juice is taken from each grape for Coeur Blanc, making it a rare and delicate style of Pinot Noir.” Hmmm, why didn't Roumier think of that? Or Domaine Romanée-Conti? The whole concept strikes me as suspiciously similar to one of the most typical ways of producing rosé wines, the saignée method, which has the inherent bonus of further concentrating the red wine from which it is bled via an increased ratio of skins to juice. Coeur Blanc is intentionally bereft of pinkness, through a total avoidance of skin contact. But do you really think they’re tossing more than half of the “available juice,” along with all those Pinot Noir skins and pips? I seriously doubt it. What better way for Domaine Serene to beef up a batch of red and build upon its reputation for producing a big, opulent style of Pinot Noir?

If Coeur Blanc was indeed Coeur Rose, and sold for – given US pricing standards – around $25 per bottle, I’d be absolutely fine with it. Willamette Valley Pinot Noir rosé? Why not? But a “barrel fermented white wine from Pinot Noir grapes” that is “extremely limited” and sells for sixty bucks? With that I take issue.

Lest I be accused of going on an unjustified slamming spree, let’s do a little research. According to the Spectator’s Harvey Steiman, writing on Domaine Serene’s own website, “The idea [for Coeur Blanc] came from a northern Italian vintner who makes a dry white wine from Pinot Noir by pressing the grapes, barrel fermenting them like a white wine, and letting them age on the lees like a Chardonnay.” The north, especially the northeast, of Italy happens to be one of the globe’s hotbeds of vinicultural experimentation. A cadre of wine makers there seems intent on trying out new and unusual things, or upon returning to the traditions of long ago. It’s also an area, particularly in the far north, where in a difficult year Pinot Noir might not darken sufficiently to make a satisfactorily colored red wine. So why not give white a try? It’s been done in Champagne for ages, after all.

Oregon, though, is hardly known for its place on the cutting edge of the wine frontier. Its producers are not, as in northern Italy, growing a dizzying array of autochthonous vines – they don’t have any – and experimenting with vinification techniques in an effort to produce wines of either regional character or international appeal. Oregon is known, however, for a growing group of small to medium-sized producers who are attempting to push the esteem level of their wines by styling increasingly rich, heady (and expensive) red wines from a grape, Pinot Noir, which is more naturally inclined toward high acid, moderate alcohol and delicacy of color and aroma. It’s also known for its white wines, usually slightly more moderately priced, from varieties like Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay.

But white wine, barrel fermented, from Pinot Noir, marketed as a great, new, stand-alone concept? Perhaps it’s just Tony Rynders’ way of saying that Chardonnay does not have great potential in the Willamette Valley. However, it strikes me more as an extravagant demonstration of wine making ego, as the epitome of human interventionism, done simply for the sake of being able to market a new, luxury product. Some might think it’s the wine making equivalent of being the first person to step on the moon. But it’s hardly a giant step for mankind. And I’m not buying it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

WBW #40 Roundup Posted and WBW #41 Theme Announced

I'm a bit late in announcing this but our host from WBW #40, Sonadora at WannabeWino has posted her extremely thorough summary of the results. There were a startling number of people who picked out the aroma of blueberries in their Petite Sirah's, a trait that both I and Derrick at An Obsession with Food and Wine feel is a typicity of the variety. An awful lot of participants also found -- no suprise here -- their Petite Sirahs to be rather clumsy in the company of food.

For the first installment of WBW in the new year, Jack and Joanne at Fork and Bottle will be our hosts. On Wednesday, January 16, they'll be hosting WBW #41: White Wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Their topic of choice should give participants a greater range of styles from which to select, as Friuli is home to some of Italy's most modern as well as most esoteric and traditional whites. Finally, a good excuse to hunt down some Vitovska.

Monday, December 17, 2007

François Chidaine: Vigneron à Montlouis et Vouvray, Part Two

Capping off a day that started with a visit with Philippe Poniatowski at the Clos Baudoin, proceeded to the Montlouis estate of François Chidaine and continued with a stop at the Chidaine family’s wine shop, my group of weary travelers and I came full circle. With François and his cousin Nicolas Martin, we headed back across the river, back to Poniatowski’s property, to taste Chidaine's 2003 Vouvrays from barrel.

The Clos Baudoin vineyard.

François had been hired by Poniatowski, as of the 2002 vintage, under a five year contract to handle both the farming and wine making practices at the estate. It had turned out to be a great decision as, after only two vintages, Chidaine, with the help of Nicolas, was already clearly bringing the wines to a new level of style, cleanliness, vibrancy and expression.

During those five years, François and Poniatowski would take a 50/50 share of the wines, each with the right to market them under their own respective marques but according to Chidaine’s newly implemented array of cuvée names. Chidaine’s contract included an option to buy the estate at the end of his five-year term. However, there was nothing to preclude Poniatowski, who was clearly in some measure of economic distress after weathering a difficult stretch of poor management in his vineyards and cellar, from entertaining other buyers in the interim. Chidaine’s no-nonsense stoicism and ambition combined with the Prince’s pride and urgency had made for an awkward marriage of businesses and personalities.

During our morning visit, Poniatowski had taken us for a walk through the Clos Baudoin vineyard and a tour of his bottle caves before settling down to the tasting table in the parlor of his old estate home. We’d passed the “winery” part of the cave with barely a glance. Little discussion of winemaking practices occurred. And our tentative questions about his partnership with Chidaine were essentially shrugged off or circumvented.

Later that day, Chidaine too was reticent to discuss any aspect of his relationship with Poniatowski (who did not join us for the tasting). Otherwise though, it would turn out to be a very different experience from our morning visit in the same space. François made it clear that his reasons for interloping in Vouvray – he is the first native Montlouis producer to also make estate bottled wines on the other side of the river – were motivated not solely by commercial desires but also by his farming and wine making passions. He does believe that the Clos Baudoin is indeed a very special terroir. He also confirmed our impressions that the Clos had been allowed to fall into a rather sad state after several years of less than fastidious farming. Already in the process of converting the vineyards to biodynamic principles, he felt strongly that the soil and vines would slowly but surely begin to return to their full potential.

A detail of a 1946 map of the Vouvray vineyards, courtesy of Don Rice, from: LARMAT, Louis, "Atlas de la France vinicole. Les vins des coteaux de la Loire. Touraine et centre [Tome 5]." Paris: Louis Larmat, 1946, 450x325, 38pp.

With François, we skipped the estate’s bottle caves and headed straight into the barrel room where we proceeded, much as we had at his estate in Montlouis, with a discussion of the notoriously hot and dry growing conditions during 2003. Chidaine’s second vintage in Vouvray had been challenging. Yields at the estate were approximately 30% lower than normal, averaging 23 hectoliters per hectare as compared to 30 in 2002. On the upside though, yields were not nearly as drastically reduced as in Montlouis, where early-season frost had been a problem. As at his own Domaine in Montlouis, François elected to vinify every plot separately, so as to assess each lot’s special characteristics before blending into the final cuvée, a particularly prudent practice in a difficult year.

Barrel tasting:

As we’d experienced earlier, tasting from barrel with François is a practice in precision, bordering on the clinical. My notes are regrettably sparse as a result.

  • 2003 Haut Lieu
    Harvested at 13.8% potential alcohol and still fermenting, this barrel was destined to become part of “Les Argiles.”

  • 2003 Chatrie and Cabane
    Chatrie and Cabane are both lieu-dits located on the plateau above the Clos Baudoin. Also destined for “Les Argiles,” these plots would often have been added to the “Clos de l’Avenir” cuvée in the Poniatowski years. Lively, redolent of peach nectar.

  • 2003 Chatrie (Lot 2)
    Drier, more mineral and higher acid than the Chatrie/Cabane blended barrel. Also destined for “Les Argiles” and likely to be finished with four to five grams of residual sugar.

  • 2003 Plante Clos Baudoin
    From two-thirds old vines (45 years) and one-third young vines (20 years), François’ estimation is that this is destined to be a good but not great wine, most likely to be almost completely dry when finished.

  • 2003 Clos Baudoin Vieilles Vignes
    From old vines only, this was still fermenting but already finer and more concentrated than the mixed-age barrel.

  • 2003 Pichot
    This was targeted for “Le Bouchet.” This normally demi-sec cuvée would most likely be fully moelleux in 2003 as evidenced by this plot, harvested at 16.5% potential and finished to 40-45 grams RS.

  • 2003 Le Bouchet
    From 70-80 year old vines in the lieu-dit of Le Bouchet itself, located across the road and down the hill from the estate. Richer and more complex than the Pichot, this showed fresh herbs, flowers and intense physiological concentration.

  • 2003 L’Homme and Chatrie Vieilles Vignes
    Also for “Le Bouchet.” Muscular and surprisingly well balanced.

  • 2003 Tri du 13 Octobre
    A late harvest for the hot season of 2003, this barrel would become part of the year’s Vouvray Moelleux. Low acid and intensely concentrated.


In 2007, his five-year contract finished and several business hurdles overcome, François finalized the purchase of Poniatowski’s property. Chidaine’s 2005 Vouvrays, now on the market, show intense concentration and potential longevity. As in Montlouis, his wines must already be considered among the top tier.

Related posts:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mid-Term at Menu for Hope

Menu for hope 4
Ten bucks. That's about two espresso drinks and a pastry at your chosen local coffee shop. Or it could be an easy, meaningful way to help those in need. And to get a chance to win my sommelier services -- and some tasty wine, to boot -- for an evening.

Check out my original Menu For Hope posting for full details and participation instructions. There's only a week remaining until the campaign ends. So what's to think about? Make a difference now!check out the prizes and donate
Meet the people you help
Why the WFP?
What is MfH?

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Ok, I usually leave this stuff up to Lyle and Joe. But this morning, sitting at the computer, writing up some wine notes, I noticed Goo out of the corner of my eye and decided to pop it into the CD drive. Man, had I forgotten how good this album – yes, album – is. Pure Sonic power drive, plenty of hooks interspersed with nervy discord. I can picture Kim jumping on the stage at CBGB or the 9:30 Club as my head rushes.

Notes from a Sunday

Sunday’s seem to be ideal for getting together with friends to relax, cook a good meal and sit back and taste. Our host for the most recent edition of Sunday Evening Tasting was eager to prepare various cuts of the half a lamb he’d procured from a local farm (already “processed,” mind you) and equally ready and willing to sample some bottles he’d recently ordered from Chambers Street Wines. I countered with a few things from my cellar, just to make sure it wouldn’t be a one-importer night. The proceedings:

Champagne “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut, Egly-Ouriet NV
“Issu de Vignes de Pinot Meunier situées sur le Terroir de Vrigny”
This one was calling my name from its place on the shelf during my last visit to Chambers Street. I’ve long dug the Champagnes of Egly-Ouriet but I’d never come across a bottle of this, a cuvée made from 100% Pinot Meunier – the decided underdog in the Champagne triptych. Aromas of peach and brioche were carried by a brisk, fine mousse. Fresh apricot, clover blossoms, hay and a hint of orange oil unfurled in the mouth. ‘Twas fruit forward and round, with perfect balance and a long finish. Though not the most elegant Champagne out there, this was damn tasty and represents a solid QPR.

Egly-Ouriet is to be saluted for noting the lees-time and disgorgement date (respectively 36 months and July 2006 for our bottle) on the back of every one of their wines. If only every house would follow suit, especially with their basic NV bottlings. But then everyone would know how much stale bubbly is floating around the market….
$42. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Michael Skurnik Imports.

Cour-Cheverny “Cuvée Renaissance,” Le Petit Chambord (François Cazin) 2004
I had just read about the 2002 vintage of this wine on Brooklynguy’s blog, so I was pleasantly surprised when the 2004 showed up in our line-up for the evening. “Cuvée Renaissance” is Cazin’s demi-sec bottling, produced only in vintages which give adequate ripeness, helped along by either botrytis or passerillage. The wine’s sweetness is both forward and graceful, delivering guava, limestone and lemon curd, all cut through by bright acidity. A little whiff of lavender emerged as the wine’s aromas curled up through the sinuses. This is not terribly complex at the moment but is still showing very youthful structure. It should be interesting to revisit in another three to five years.
$18. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections.

Cour-Cheverny, Le Petit Chambord (François Cazin) 2006
I’ll be more than happy to make due with Cazin’s regular Cour-Cheverny while waiting for the “Renaissance” to come into its own. The sec cuvée is nervier in feel and more subtly perfumed than its semi-sticky brother. Bananas, golden delicious apples, honeysuckle and acacia all emerged on the nose, supplemented by distinct and racy minerality on the palate.
$15. 14% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections.

Coteaux du Loir “Rouge Gorge,” Domaine de Bellivière 2005
Pinot what? That’s Pineau d’Aunis, baby! This is idiosyncratic juice; varietal Pinot d’Aunis from the northern Touraine AOC of Coteaux du Loir, where Eric Nicolas’ Domaine de Bellivière occupies nine hectares of the tiny CdL and Jasnières vignobles. Black pepper – unmistakably – jumps from the glass, along with what strikes me as the scent of fresh haricots verts. One of my companions also noted a certain air of the auto shop; I couldn’t argue. Rustic, oddball and absolutely delicious. I’m usually pretty tuned in to alcoholic strength, but the 15% this was packing snuck right by, a virtue perhaps of its slightly cool serving temperature.
$23. 15% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections.

Coteaux du Loir “Hommage à Louis Derré,” Domaine de Bellivière 2005
“Hommage à Louis Derré” is Bellivière’s more ambitious bottling of Coteaux du Loir, again a varietal expression of Pineau d’Aunis. It has a more tannic structure, bolstered by a bit of oak that lends aromas of baking spices. The black pepper and string beans still come out to play, joined by thyme and black cherries. There’s a bit more nuance, along with deeper concentration, but the alcohol, even though labeled as lower than the “Rouge Gorge,” displays some heat on the finish. Wide-knit tannins provide a seriously mouth wakening charge.
$33. 14.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections.

Graves, Château du Grand Bos 1997
I’ve noticed bottle variation with the ’97 Graves from Grand Bos in the past; this bottle fell on the down side of the curve, I’m afraid. I kept thinking there was a background whiff of cork taint but nope, it just wasn’t showing well. Red cassis and a leathery, herbaceous character were all wrapped up in a damp, clay-like sense. I’d hoped this would be a great match with our final course of pan-grilled lamb chops, as a bottle on the up side of the curve should have been. No such luck. But hey, it led us on to a good red Burg which might otherwise have gone unopened.
$23. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Wine Traditions.

Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru “Les Macherelles” (Rouge), Jean-Marc Pillot 2000
I picked this up during a visit to Rosenthal Wine Merchants back in the spring. I was taken by surprise by this bottle, not because it didn’t show Chassagne typicity but because it wasn’t nearly as rich and forward in style as earlier vintages of the same wine from Pillot. The 2000 was lively and tight, with dried sour cherry and pronounced sous-bois aromas. Still very solid, even a bit shut down at the moment.
$40. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

WBW #40: Petite Sirah

This month’s edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, number 40 to be exact, is being hosted by Sonadora at Wannabewino. WBW was started in the summer of 2004 by Lenn Thompson of LennDevours. Each month, the event gives its participants reason to pop a cork or three and perhaps to drink and think about a wine that wouldn’t normally cross their path. That’s certainly the case for me this time around, as Sonadora’s topic of choice is Petite Sirah, the wine equivalent of the monster truck and a variety that I more or less gave up on many moons ago. She’s extended the scope of the tasting to include Durif, a vine native to, yet now rarely grown in, France. Long believed to be one and the same as Petite Sirah, recent DNA fingerprinting of Durif at UC Davis has cast significant doubt on the relationship. So, I played the straight and narrow, sticking with a California Petite Sirah. Regrettably, my choice for today’s event didn’t go too far toward rekindling my interest in Petite Sirah as a varietal wine.

Lodi Petite Sirah “Old Vine,” Trinitas Cellars 2004
Trinitas Cellars (Matthew A. Cline, Winemaker) Petite Sirah “Old Vine,” Lodi 2004

This is inky black, totally opaque juice, with a veil of deep purple air bubbles breaking the surface when first poured. Immediate aromas are of blueberry pie filling, blackberry jam and confectionery black cherries, all topped off with a dash of smoky oak. This theme carries through on the palate, where jammy, flamboyant fruit and sweet oak predominate. Relative to earlier vintages, this was surprisingly soft, its tannins – as much from wood as grapes – hiding in the background. I can certainly see how the big flavors of this wine could be instantly appealing; I just found them overwhelming, particularly when moving beyond the first glass. With air, aromatic intensity subsided and the flavors flattened and became a bit muddied. Low in alcohol by Petite Sirah standards though high relative to my usual preferences, the wine handles its 14.5% well, showing it in textural richness but avoiding any heat or alcoholic imbalance on the finish.

To its credit, particularly after the dulled flavors toward the end of the first evening, the wine held up into day two, shedding a bit of its showiness and revealing a tad more structure. The tannins I expect from Petite Sirah came out to play, resulting in a slightly aggressive, wide-grained feel in the mouth, a feel which persisted long beyond the wine’s otherwise short finish. The dark berry fruit tones continued from day one and were joined by raisined aromas and a whiff of latex paint crossed with mentholated tobacco.

This is wine to be consumed on its own rather than with food. It did no favors to either fairly rich meat lasagna or to grilled buffalo burgers. Neither bad nor good with each dish, it just kind of sat there and did its own thing – not what I hope for in a good pairing.
$22. 14.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Win Me For a Night!

Yes, that's WIN, not wine. I’ve donated my services to Menu For Hope, a worldwide food and wine bloggers’ fundraising effort. Now, in its fourth year, Menu For Hope was founded by Pim at Chez Pim. This year’s proceeds will be directed through the UN World Food Programme to benefit hungry farmers in Lesotho, Africa. Every ten dollars you donate gets you a “raffle ticket.” Each ticket can then be designated toward the prize of your choice – mine, natch! – and a computer program takes care of picking the winners. Specific instructions for entering can be found at the bottom of this post. So, on to the prize in question!

Private Sommelier Services Provided by David McDuff (Prize Code WB23)
My donation consists of private sommelier services, provided by yours truly, for a party of up to six wine and food loving adults. I will bring an eclectic array of small farm wines – some from my own cellar – matched to the menu or theme for your event. I will pour for you and discuss the selected wines throughout the course of the evening. I am willing to do this anywhere in the greater Philadelphia area and am open to travel, if expenses are covered, throughout the Washington, DC to New York, NY corridor. The event can be held in your home or in a restaurant (if you’re willing to pick up the bill for my dinner and any corkage fees). My contribution of wine and sommelier services is valued at over $500 but you can have a chance to “win me for a night” for as little as $10. Of course, the more tickets you buy, the greater your chances of winning and the more you help to support a fantastic cause. Prize code: WB23.

No procrastinating now – just donate! And be sure to check out the rest of the donations from throughout wine blogdom at Alder Yarrow’s Vinography.

To make a donation:

  1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from our Menu for Hope.

  2. Go to the donation site at and make a donation.

  3. Please specify which prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize code.

    Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02. Please write 2xEU01, 3xEU02.

  4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we can claim the corporate match.

  5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we can contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

Check back on Chez Pim on Wednesday Jaunary 9 for the results of the raffle.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Wine Shopping: La Cave Insolite

At first glance, La Cave Insolite seems just another of the quiet, slightly drab storefronts that face the river on the Quai Albert Baillet in Montlouis-sur-Loire. The cavistes at this unassuming shop, though, just happen to be Francois and Manuela Chidaine. When Francois and his cousin, Nicolas Martin, suggested that our group stop at the shop en route from Chidaine’s winery in Montlouis to the Clos Baudoin in Vouvray (back in February 2004), we could hardly refuse. Once inside, as Manuela poured us a glass of the Chidaine’s 2001 Montlouis Brut Non-Dosé, my first thought was, “This is my kind of wine store.” It wasn’t just the bubbly, which was lean, bone dry, loaded with delicate fruit and floral aromas, and perfectly palate cleansing. It was also the selection, the feel of the shop and its overall presentation.

La Cave Insolite offers a small, focused array of wines, all from the Loire Valley and all carefully selected and sincerely backed by the Chidaine family. In addition to wines from recognized stars like Didier Dagueneau, quietly established estates such as Clos Roche Blanche, and up-and-comers such as the young Vincent Ricard, the shop features the Normandy Cidres and Calvados of Eric Bordelet (an exception to the all-Loire rule). Add on a variety of locally produced pâtés and rillettes, a small section of stemware and accessories, and the expert advice of the family staff and you have a shop which could be easily absorbed in one visit yet would be rewarding as a regular destination. Much to my chagrin, La Cave Insolite is about 3,650 miles too far from home to be included among my regular wine shopping destinations. If you’re planning a trip through the Touraine though, it’s more than worth the detour into the sleepy hamlet of Montlouis.

La Cave Insolite
30 quai Albert Baillet
37270 Montlouis-sur-Loire
Tél: 02 47 45 19 14
All images courtesy of

Related posts:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Repeal Day

As Joe and Dr. Debs were kind enough to remind me, today is Repeal Day – the anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which ended Prohibition, on December 5, 1933. Seventy-four years later, I’ve quite inadvertently celebrated the occasion by not tasting a thing all day. I suppose stranger things have happened. Cheers to all who remembered to honor the day!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

François Chidaine: Vigneron à Montlouis et Vouvray, Part One

Monday, February 23, 2004. After an unusual morning spent in the caves and tasting rooms of Philippe Poniatowski in Vouvray, followed by a modest lunch at a bistro on the edge of town, it was off to the other side of the river. Our afternoon appointment was at the Montlouis domaine of François Chidaine, a serious, stoic and talented wine grower – and the ascending star of both Montlouis-sur-Loire and Vouvray.

From the driveway where we initially met Chidaine, on a tiny road leading up and away from the river, his winery looked like little more than a garage excavated into the hillside. Before venturing in, we took to the cars for a drive up the hill to the plateau above.

François Chidaine’s property consists of approximately 20 hectares of vines, spread along a two kilometer periphery around the village of Montlouis, all set on the hillside and plateau which dominate the valley. He farms his land with a close eye to nature. At the time of our visit, all but two hectares of his vines were being farmed biodynamically. Chidaine, however, insists on making no mention of organics or biodynamics on his bottles. In fact, he’s loath to talk much about biodynamie at all. He farms naturally because he feels it results in a purer expression of the vine and of his terroir. Attracting the organically inclined shopper is not a concern. Customers and importers line up, via a waiting list, to buy his wines, about 50% of which are broadly exported with the other 50% going to the French market.

Given that it was snowing intermittently during our visit and that there was a surprising amount of standing water in the vineyards, François opted not to take us through each and every one of his eight distinct plots. Instead, most of our outdoor time was spent in Le Clos Volgets, an essentially flat climat of argilo-silex soil situated atop the plateau. His vines are trained in the double Guyot method and kept low to the ground to capture reflective heat from the soil below. During the winter months, he keeps a soil cover of vegetation between the rows to protect against run-off, a natural tendency of the erosive soils in Montlouis and one of the primary farming differences relative to neighboring Vouvray. Two weeks after our visit, the soils would be turned to allow the earth to breathe in anticipation of the onset of spring. The fruit from the 45 year-old vines in Volgets goes mostly to his demi-sec, multi-vineyard cuvée Les Tuffeaux.

On the way back to our vehicles, François pointed out both Clos Habert and Clos de Breuil, from which he produces vineyard-designated bottlings, respectively demi-sec and sec in style. Taking a circuitous route across the plateau en route to the winery, he also indicated a new vineyard of four hectares that he had recently purchased and replanted. Atypically rich in clay and dense of soil, this hard-to-farm site was Les Bournais, the source of the eponymous wine first produced by Chidaine from the fruit grown in 2004.

Back at the winery, where we were joined by François’ cousin Nicolas, we found the scene behind the aforementioned garage doors perfectly befitting of Chidaine’s personality – plain stone walls, no nonsense, nothing extra, just barrels and the most basic tools of the trade. All wines are vinified in cask, primarily of 600 liters, with 10% of production fermented and aged in 300 liter barrels. Reflective of his approach to his terroir, fruit from every distinct parcel is vinified separately; blends are assembled in preparation for bottling. Fermentations are very slow, running completely under the steam of natural yeasts. Filtration is used minimally yet rigorously, only between barrel and bottle and only when necessary.

As the barrel segment of our tasting would consist solely of wines from 2003, François prepped us with a bit of info on the local effects of the notoriously hot, dry vintage. Due to the difficult growing conditions, production for the year was only about 40% of the estate’s normal average yields of 35 hl/ha. Harvest, which normally begins in mid-October and continues into November, began in late September and was completed on October 14. The combination of low acidity and high ripeness led to wines that are very concentrated but lacking in maturity of structure. At this point, his plan was to finish all of the wines in the 12 to 12.5% alcohol range, so even the usually dry wines would have some pretty measurable residual sugar. The ripeness levels of the vintage allowed for the production of Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) for the first time since 1997 and 1999. His advice for the vintage: drink the 2003s while the 2002s rest in your cellar.

Tasting wines from barrel like this – still fermenting and unassembled – is always an exercise more technical than satisfying. Nonetheless, it can be enlightening as to a producer’s thought processes, vinification techniques and overall approach. It’s also a wonder, down the road, to see how the parts become a more complete whole. The precision of Chidaine’s technique and presentation was matched, more entertainingly, by Nicolas’ spitting abilities. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone produce a thinner, more precise stream, always on target even when he was standing five feet away from the small spittoon we all shared.

Tasting from barrel:

  • 2003 Clos du Breuil
    The Clos du Breuil – the name refers to the underground water supply beneath the vineyard – is one of the plots from which Chidaine makes a vineyard specific cru each year. From fruit with 14.2% potential alcohol, this would not finish fermentation for another month. Typical of a wine at this stage, aromas were of yeast, bananas and tropical fruit. Low acid, particularly for this normally pretty brisk cuvée. 4 grams residual sugar.

  • 2003 Clos Habert
    Another of the single vineyard designates, Clos Habert is a plot of 60 year-old vines which gave fruit with 15.5% potential alcohol in 2003. Yields from the three hectare vineyard were only 24 hectoliters (8 hl/ha). The vineyard saw an early bud set, followed by frost then long, dry heat. Rich, sweet, opulent fruit. 30 grams residual sugar, 3 grams acidity.

  • 2003 Clos Volgets
    From the 45 year-old vines in the vineyard we’d visited a short while earlier. It’s fair to say that this hovered stylistically between the Breuil and Habert, with brighter acidity but less RS than in the Habert.

  • 2003 Les Epirées
    Unlinke in Habert, there was no early season frost damage in Epirées, with yields therefore coming in somewhat closer to normal at 24 hl/ha. The fruit from this site normally goes into the cuvées Les Choisilles and Les Tuffeaux. However, as this year’s wine – currently stopped yet not complete in its fermentation – would finish at around 100 grams residual sugar, it was destined for Chidaine’s Montlouis Moelleux.

  • 2003 Le Lys
    This is Chidaine’s special SGN cuvée, produced only in exceptional (or unusual) years. He usually seeks potential alcohol in the 18-20% range for this wine; the 2003 reached 22% and will finish at around 150 grams of residual sugar, the product of 100% botrytis affected fruit. Rich, tropical fruit with intense concentration and length.

The view from outside Chidaine's barrel storage garage, looking down the road toward the Loire (February 2004).

Tasting from bottle:

  • 2001 Montlouis “Les Choisilles”
    2001 was an average vintage with normal yields, giving a wine of slightly lower acidity than in 2002. Nonetheless, there was no shortage of acidity or of balance. Very dry and mineral, with good clarity of fruit and a long finish.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Les Argiles”
    As I’d mentioned in my earlier post about our morning visit with Prince Poniatowski, Chidaine had been farming the land and making the wines at Poniatowski’s estate in Vouvray since 2002. This was his first vintage, therefore, of “Les Argiles,” a cuvée produced primarily from vineyards across the road from Poniatowski’s winery that formerly had gone to Poniatowski’s Vouvray “Clos de l’Avenir.” This showed riper fruit yet was more closed than the 2001 “Les Choisilles,” prompting François to mention that he feels Vouvray gives more masculine wines relative to the more feminine traits of Montlouis.

  • 2002 Montlouis “Les Choisilles”
    Floral, very mineral and extremely tight, with mouth-watering acidity.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Clos Baudoin”
    This needed some oxygen to open up and show its stuff. Chidaine, in fact, recommended decanting the wine and felt that it would develop very nicely in bottle. In spite of finding Poniatowski’s vineyards in a near state of disaster when he arrived in 2002, the breed of the wine showed, with sweet earth and firm, tight structure.

  • 2002 Montlouis “Clos Habert”
    To give a comparative sense of the differences between 2002 and 2003, François told us that the 2002 Habert, usually Chidaine’s richest normal cuvée, was 4 grams drier than the 2003 “Les Tuffeaux,” which is normally the less rich wine. Solid structure and fine acid balance.

  • 2003 Montlouis “Les Tuffeaux”
    Though this actually had higher acidity than the Clos Habert, it felt fatter on the palate due to less integrated sugars. Though less complex than the Habert, it was very ripe and pleasing with pronounced flavors of Asian pear.

  • 1998 Montlouis “Les Tuffeaux”
    François’ first vintage at the head of his estate was 1989. He pronounced the wine of ten years later, the 1998 Tuffeaux, to be classic in his style and to be just opening up. Regrettably, both bottles he opened were corked, the first profoundly.

  • 1997 Montlouis “Les Tuffeaux”
    Rich color. Heady aromas of marmalade and honeycomb, along with some botrytis notes. Spicy on the palate, with fairly low acidity.

  • 2000 Montlouis “Clos Habert”
    Unusual shellfish-like aromas. 2000 was a hard vintage, with lots of rain just before harvest. A faint hint of rot on the palate.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Le Bouchet”
    From a plot with NW exposure, located across the hilltop from the Clos Baudoin. Forward, floral and ever so slightly honeyed, with a hint of wood making itself known.

  • 2002 Vouvray “Moelleux”
    This is the only cuvée produced in 100% new barrel. 50 grams residual sugar. Both the wood and the sugar were showing through; closed and slightly disjointed. Much richer than I remembered from previous bottles tasted in the US.

  • 2002 Montlouis “Moelleux”
    This showed much more exotic fruit than did the Vouvray, with Asian pear, mango, bananas and citrus confit all leaping from the glass. 60 grams residual sugar.

  • 1996 Montlouis “Moelleux”
    Like in 2002, this had great richness along with fine acid balance. This is wine to hold. Tea leaves, savory herbs and lanolin. This is a great expression of Montlouis terroir, with intense silex minerality, even a hint of petrol. Chidaine feels 1996 may have been an even better vintage than 1989.

  • 1990 Montlouis “Sélection de Grains Nobles”
    A low acid year, with good yields and high physiological maturity. Again, seashells on the nose. Still very young, somewhat closed and surprisingly delicate given its richness (100 grams residual sugar).

Tasting complete, it was time to move on. The cousins Chidaine had further plans for us though. Part two of this posting will take us into Montlouis proper for a visit at the Chidaine’s wine shop then back across the river to Vouvray to taste the ‘03s from barrel at the Clos Baudoin. Stay tuned.

Related posts:

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bière à la Française

Monday last, I snuck down to Chick’s Café & Wine Bar to check out a seminar on French farmhouse beers presented by importer at large Dan Shelton.

This was my first visit to Chick’s and, though it’s hard to judge its normal feel based on a Monday night and a special event, it seemed like a place any neighbor should be happy to include on their list of favorite local hangs. Arriving early, I took a seat at the bar and, knowing I’d be sticking with beer thereafter, checked out one of the house signature cocktails, Corpse Reviver #2, a mix of Beefeater gin, Lillet and Cointreau, with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a “whisper of Pernod.” Not bad, though I think the bartender for the evening was a little less comfortable with its preparation than its author, roving barkeep Katie Loeb, who was off for the night. After enjoying a brief spell at the bar, I climbed the stairs to Chick’s upstairs room, an elegant contrast to the cozy pub vibe downstairs.

Following a brief introduction by Chick’s Jon Medlinsky, our host took to the podium – actually, a mini-grand piano – and after a few jokes launched into a brief history of his business as well as of brewing in France’s northern hinterlands, from Normandy to the Ardennes and centered in the Nord-Pas de Calais. Dan’s company, Shelton Brothers, run with brothers Joel and Will, is one of the US’s preeminent importers of small production beers. Though they do have a moderately global book, their strength is clearly in Belgium and, proportionately, France. Dan wasted little time in making clear what in the beer world is meaningful to him. Many of his tenets bear striking similarity to those held by some fellow importers in the wine world. And, as is typical of just about every small importer I’ve met along the way, Dan is highly opinionated, very proud of his own work and not afraid to besmirch other products in favor of those in his own portfolio.

Dan Shelton takes to the head of the class.
(All photos courtesy of David Cohen. Thanks!)

  • Brasserie La Choulette, Framboise (6.2% abv)
    One of Mr. Shelton’s first targets was the prevailing use of additives – artificial fruit flavorings, spices and sweeteners for instance – in the current brewing community. In the case of our first beer of the evening, it was raspberry flavoring in particular which came under fire. In contrast to the many raspberry beers on the market which feature flavors akin to synthesized “essence of raspberry,” La Choulette’s Framboise is fermented with real raspberries. The result, though certainly redolent of raspberry, is more wine-like, less one-dimensional or candied than its artificially endowed cousins. Slightly cloudy and amber, bordering on purple, in appearance, its off-dry palate attack was balanced by an attractive earthiness and a hint of winter plum. Dan mentioned that this evening’s bottles seemed to come from a batch that was a tad less dry than typical. The brewery produces only 4,000 hectoliters per year.

  • Brasserie Thiriez, Extra (4.5% abv)
    Thiriez Extra is atypically hoppy relative to most French beers, though nowhere near in intensity to the average American IPA or Double IPA, categories which Dan more or less railed against for their tendency to be high-alcohol hop bombs. Hazy and lightly golden straw in color, the beer is a touch smoky and pleasantly bitter on the palate, with suggestions of clove and nutmeg. Though very light in texture, its flavors are on the dark side, with a lingering suggestion of molasses. I wonder if the smokiness wasn’t coming from a bit of reductivity, as citrus and other lighter aromas emerged with some airtime in the glass. This would make for a great session beer given its balance, depth of flavor and low alcoholic strength.

  • Brasserie Duyck, St. Druon Abbey Ale (6% abv)
    Brasserie Duyck first began brewing bières de garde (literally, beers for keeping) in the late 60’s in response to a growing audience in and around the town of Lille. The color of a new penny, St. Druon Abbey Ale – not technically a member of the bière de garde category – was round, creamy and a touch off-dry, with a distinct aroma of peach butter. After a few tastes, Dan pronounced the night’s batch to be slightly oxidized and missing, as a result, its normally bright hoppiness. When asked (yes, by me) what an importer could do to prevent damaged beer like this from ending up in a consumer’s hands, Shelton’s answer was essentially a shrug of the shoulders. He did make it clear, though, that bières de garde shouldn’t be interpreted as age worthy but rather as a style which can last for three or four months in the bottle. No matter what steps the importer might take, it’s really up to quick turnaround (and proper handling) in the distribution and retail steps of the chain to ensure a fresher product.

  • Brasserie Theillier, La Bavaisienne Blonde (7% abv)
    True farmhouse ale, one of only two beers produced by Theillier in a farmhouse dating back to the 17th Century, La Bavaisienne poured with a choppier, clumpier head than the previous brews, shone a slightly deeper copper hue than Duyck’s St. Druon, and threw a decent sludge of yeasty sediment, evidence of its bottle conditioning. Citrus, grass and yeast notes were backed by a solid, slightly creamy texture. In the late 19th Century heyday of beer making in northern France, there were apparently as many as 2000 different farmhouse breweries located in the Nord-Pas de Calais, more than in the entire US today.

  • Brasserie Theillier, La Bavaisienne Amber (7% abv)
    This was an off-menu surprise courtesy of the staff at Chick’s. Maltier and lower in acidity than the blonde, it was extremely cloudy, with an appearance not unlike fresh-pressed apple cider. Aromas and flavors were of maple syrup, caramelized hazelnuts and subtle baking spices. Medium bodied.

  • Brasserie Thiriez, Amber (5.8% abv)
    The second beer of the evening from Thiriez was darker amber than the preceding brews; think of a well-used three year old penny. It was also the second oxidized beer of the night. Nonetheless, it had managed to hold onto fairly explosive carbonation and showed fruity and malted flavors with accents of tangerine confit and apricot nectar. Crisp and refreshing, with a good malt to hop balance. I’d love to taste a fresher bottle.

  • Brasserie St. Sylvestre, Gavroche (8.5% abv)
    This was the big hitter of the night, at least in terms of alcoholic punch. Named for the street urchin in Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Gavroche is bottle-conditioned, malty ale. Expansive bubbles carried a whiff of funk to the nose, along with aromas of toast and orange oil. A good cold weather sipper. St. Sylvestre is perhaps better known for its “Trois Monts,” which is the most widely distributed French brasserie ale in the greater Philadelphia market.

  • Brasserie La Choulette, Noël (7% abv)
    Another surprise pour, La Choulette’s Noël, as the name suggests, is a seasonal beer, brewed with local barley and specially selected hops. Round and fruity, it was less dry than the previous beers and showed flavors of spiced gingerbread. The Shelton’s apparently having quite the Christmas beer portfolio. This was a fitting addition and conclusion to the tasting.

Along the way, Dan drove home some of the core principles of his approach to beer and the related direction he and his brothers take in seeking and selecting the brewers with whom they work. Chief among those guiding principles:

  • Small producers stand a better chance of brewing a product with real character.
  • High alcohol may make a big impression but is not a desirable quality in a beer that is actually meant to be drunk and enjoyed.
  • Similarly, dry beers are inherently superior to their sweeter brethren.
  • Traditional, natural brewing methods, including slow fermentations, selected local yeasts, and minimal (if any) use of additives, are desirable.
  • Hops, more so than barley and other ingredients, are what give beer its sense of terroir, a sense made stronger in the bière de garde category by a connection to the season and to the farmhouse itself.

Surprisingly, he’s not a practitioner of paring beer with food. Nor does he think much of wine, repeating a tendency I’ve seen before in the beer community to have an “us against them” view of vino. Most controversially, Dan finished up his post-tasting Q&A session by revealing that he thinks there are only three good breweries in the US. Strong words from a man who clearly feels strongly about his beers.

* * *

Related stories and events:
  • Philly's own Joe Sixpack was also in the audience on Monday. Check out his take on the event -- Unmitigated Gaul.
  • The next beer event at Chick's: Noël Beers From Around the World
    Tuesday, December 18, 7:00 PM. $35 before 12/14; $45 thereafter
    RSVP to 215-625-3700 or chickscafe at gmail dot com

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Canine Partners for Life

My apologies for the dead air over the last few days. It’s been a busy week, with events of one kind or another just about every evening, culminating in tonight’s big event. For the second year running, I’ll be pouring wine and then serving as emcee and co-auctioneer at the 10th annual wine auction and dinner benefiting Canine Partners for Life. CPL is a Delaware Valley-based non-profit organization working to better the lives of others. In their own words:

Canine Partners For Life (CPL) trains and places assistance dogs with individuals with mobility impairments to help increase their independence and quality of life. CPL has several types of assistance dogs in its program including service dogs, seizure alert dogs, home companions and residential (community) companions.

Our recipients come from all walks of life and have a wide variety of physical disabilities including muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, seizure disorders and more. The one thing they all have in common is a drive to become more independent and a commitment to do what is necessary to have an assistance dog in their life.

As a dog owner, I found it pretty much impossible to turn down their request. Actually, I’m proud to work with an organization that makes such a direct impact on the quality of life of their recipients. A donation would make for a great gift for that person on your list for whom you never know what to do.

For those of you who’ve been patiently waiting for more of my usual content, I’ll be back at it as soon as possible. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ansill Food & Wine

I finally dragged my ass over to Third and Bainbridge this past weekend to check out Ansill Food & Wine. Since its opening in February 2006 – and the subsequent death of David Ansill’s original digs, Pif, in July 2007 – I figured it was high time. Actually, the credit for making it happen goes to my wife, who planned the dinner as a birthday celebration for little old me. Thanks, sweetness!

Ansill seems to have built much of its reputation on Chef David’s willingness to source, prepare and serve offal and other less than typical animal parts. In practice, these dishes – bone marrow, pig’s trotters, sweetbreads and lamb’s tongue – occupy only a small part of a menu which is otherwise fairly straight ahead. Stylistic inflections from France, Italy and Spain abound. Thematically, Ansill Food & Wine places itself midstream in Philadelphia’s growing trend – started many moons ago at Dmitri’s and continuing with José Garces’ growing empire and places such as Snack Bar – for menus driven by small plates.

Every meal begins with a complimentary dish of flatbreads with white bean purée topped with hot oil. It’s a welcome change from the ubiquitous bread and butter or olive oil and a perfect something to snack on while perusing the food and drink options. Once decisions are made and orders placed, food quickly begins to arrive. Cold starters precede the cooked to order small dishes, followed by larger plates, with all items arriving randomly in order of readiness.

Clockwise, from top left: flatbread, steak tartare, trotters, roasted beets

Our “starter” plates included a marinated olive mixture, roasted beets, pigs’ trotters and steak tartare (missing the final “e” on the menu). The olives and beets succeeded by virtue of quality ingredients. The lightly pickled, just slightly snappy beets were accompanied by a few sections of orange, lending a bright, citrus accent to the beets’ sweet, earthy and briny core. Perched atop a generous portion of steak tartare, in a play on the traditional hen’s egg, was a raw quail’s egg. A bold hand with use of purple mustard along with the more usual seasonings made for a high level of zestiness, nearly overwhelming the simple pleasures of the beef itself. The steak’s freshness, though, was unquestionable. Pigs’ trotters were roasted, the meat shredded from the hooves and then rolled with parsley and seasonings before being compressed, sliced and finally pan fried. Served with a toss of pickled red cabbage, they were juicy little medallions of goodness, far removed from any visual association with their original place in the food chain.

My wife, currently a vegan with occasional vegetarian lapses, put the kitchen to the test. Ansill’s website states that, “We will accom[m]odate vegetarian and vegan requests.” She took them at their word, not mentioning anything when making the reservation, instead asking for something special when we placed our orders. Frankly, that’s a tough thing to do to any kitchen, particularly a busy one. Ansill passed with flying colors, at least to my spouse’s inclination. She was presented with a composed plate of five small bites: roasted Brussels sprouts; sautéed porcini and enoki mushrooms; endive and orange salad; tomato and tapenade bruschetta; and shoestrings of butternut squash with wilted greens. The kitchen could hardly be faulted for the lack of a vegan protein source; they delivered a creative array which played to the strengths of the ingredients on hand from the regular menu without seeming at all an afterthought. Bravo!

Clockwise, from top left: the vegan special, an underwhelming Barbaresco, autumnal sprouts, venison pappardelle

If there was a weak point with regards to the food, it came in the form of my “larger plate” selection: pappardelle with venison, pancetta and truffle butter. That truffle butter was not in evidence; the pancetta made nary an impact. Larger issues were at hand though. The pasta was overcooked. So was the venison – tender yet braised for so long as to rob the meat of its very venison-ness. Celery, as it turned out, was the dominating flavor of the dish. Oh well…. In order to have a vegetable somewhere in the trotter, tartare and venison mix, I’d ordered a plate of (non-vegan) Brussels sprouts as well. Roasted to a nice exterior char and infused with a touch of bacon, the sprouts helped to make up for the main course disappointment. So did dessert, which brought the food-related quality of the experience right back to where it had been. A light, creamy cup of chestnut mousse, dressed up with a ginger snap garnish, was a simple delight.

Service at Ansill is solidly executed. Working only his third shift, our server nonetheless showed an admirable grasp of the menu. His delivery, and that of the other front of the house staff, was personable, casual, precise and unobtrusive. I wasn’t familiar with the setup of Judy’s Café, the former denizen of the space, but the Ansill’s appear to have done a lovely job with designing their restaurant. An attractive bar anchors the main room, with comfortably spaced tables looking out on Bainbridge Street and affording an easy view of the goings on. Dark wood tones, gentle, artful lighting and rich colors make for a cozy atmosphere. The smaller back room which overlooks the open kitchen is, in contrast, more brightly lit – and cacophonously loud. The split makes for two entirely different dining environments, something which bears consideration, based on your group and mood, when making a reservation.

The main room at Ansill (image courtesy of

Beer and, in particular, wine share top billing with the food at Ansill. The beer list is solid if somewhat unexciting, filled largely with the usual suspects but peppered with occasional points of interest such as Jever Pils and Kostritzer Black Lager, both from Germany. The wine selection, though, is in need of some serious work. Manciat’s Mâcon-Charnay is one of the few hidden gems on a list that’s otherwise populated primarily by generic and underperforming producers. Both the Grüner-Veltliner by the glass and the 2004 Barbaresco from Produttori del Barbaresco (by the bottle) were underwhelming. A thorough reworking, with perhaps only a slight increase in average bottle price, could go a long way to bringing the wine part of Ansill Food & Wine more seriously into the mix. In the meanwhile, Tuesday is BYO-night and there’s a reasonable $15 corkage fee throughout the rest of the week.

The overarching concept at Ansill seems to be part wine bar, part snack bar (our waiter described the menu and execution as tapas-like) and part fine dining establishment. That’s a concept that’s hard to pull off, no matter how good the food. Of course, it’s a concept that’s impossible to pull off if the food’s not good. Ansill, for the most part at least, has the food part of the equation working in its favor.

Related reading: Pif Night at Ansill (September 2008).

Ansill Food & Wine (closed, July 2009)
627 S. 3rd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Ansill in Philadelphia
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