Thursday, June 28, 2007

Do Men Care?

I spent the better part of two hours on the phone yesterday with a consultant who’s been retained by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to research methods for increasing the organization’s consumer reach and membership. A PASA committee member asked me to call the consultant, not because of my interests in wine and food or because of my involvement with local farmers markets but rather for one overridingly simple reason: I am male. Apparently, research indicates that men don’t tend to care or think much about the food they put down their gullets. In the consultant’s own words:

"The list of PASA consumer members that I have is very female dominant, and all of the names that I have been provided by others have been female. In addition, men are simply harder-to-reach in research than are women. While I recognize that women are the biggest drivers in this area (75% of food buying decisions and more apt to be like-minded with PASA, from the research), I still want to try to balance things a bit with the male perspective."

As much as I want to refute these statistics, I have to admit that they tend to ring true. A look around at yesterday’s session of the Oakmont Farmers Market registered a male to female ratio of around 1:10. It may be tempting to chalk this up to the old stereotypes of work/life schedules, stay-at-home moms and caretaking roles but I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond those narrow confines.

So guys, what’s the deal? Do you care about where your food comes from? Please, comment below. Make me a believer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Eleven Samurai

Continuing on my fortuitous path of Tuesday evening explorations in culinaria, eleven friends, new and old, gathered this week. We met with a twelfth, the one Ronin, who had agreed to share with us his ways of the knife and the flame. In turn, our troupe provided a panoply of wines from around the world and came ready to eat, drink and explore.

While mustering, we whet our appetites with a small pour of the non-vintage Champagne Blanc de Blancs from Pierre Peters, a medium-sized Récoltant-Manipulant producer based in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. His wine showed the typical fresh hazelnut and hay tones and fine acid balance of Côtes des Blancs Champagne, along with a darker nuttiness and funky nose that suggested some bottle evolution. With that and the typical introductory social rituals behind us, we took our seats, prepared to do battle.

Scallop Carpaccio
carrot sorbet, cardamon and lime air
Our meal began with a dish least touched by heat, most influenced by a purity of fresh core ingredients and the nuances of quality produce and subtle seasonings. Thinly sliced, perfectly smooth and tender medallions of sea scallop were arranged around a quenelle of carrot sorbet, infused with just a hint of toasted cardamon seeds. The cardamon returned as an aromatizing element in the lime foam that billowed above the scallops. All about delicacy of flavor, this was an ideal way to set the stage for the more intense progression to follow.

Wine pairing: Finger Lakes Riesling “Dry,” Hermann J. Wiemer 2005
I’d come prepared for this course with a couple of choices in German Riesling but I’m always open to exploring other options and kudos are due to he who brought this bottle. Kudos to the producer as well, as I can’t say I’ve had a finer domestic Riesling, not just from NY but from the US in general. Finished dry, its minerality along with bright peach and apple tones could pass for a good Mosel or Saar Kabinett halbtrocken. Wiemer’s estate is located on the west side of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York.

Chinese Celery Veloute
corned beef, flavors of steak tartare, smoked salt - almond condiment
If not for the velouté in the menu description, one could not have been faulted for expecting some sort of modern twist on a classic deli sandwich. Soup it was though, at least in part. As delicious as the creamy, celery infused sauce was, the real magic of this dish was in the interplay between the round of subtle tartare-style corned beef and the penetrating flavors of the toasted almond and smoked salt sprinkled on the edge of the plate. As for the “flavors of steak tartare,” I leave it to your willful imaginations….

Wine pairings: Jerez Manzanilla Pasada, Bodega San Vidal (La Cosecha) NV; Brouilly, Georges DuBoeuf 2005
With the heaps of wine in the room, debate abounded as to appropriate matches with this course. Early calls for big reds waned when everyone came to understand the lightness of the course. Two choices resulted: Sherry and Cru Beaujolais. I had brought the Manzanilla along with this course in mind, thinking of both the herbaceous “soup” and the salty almonds. The Beaujolais was offered up as a favorite match with steak tartare. Both worked reasonably well. The chilled Brouilly was direct and easygoing though of an uninspiring quality. The Sherry was harder to understand but delivered much more call-and-response into the mix, echoing flavors from the dish just as the dish amplified some of the aromatic elements of the wine.

Golden Miso Cavatelli
rock shrimp, lovage, fennel cream
As interesting as the miso infused pasta sounded, the real stars on this plate were the pristinely fresh and perfectly cooked rock shrimp, still tasting of briny sea and uplifted by the bright, aromatizing flavor of lovage and the subtle licorice tang of fennel. Though perhaps the least exciting dish of the evening, it was also the most comforting, the course of which I easily could have eaten a heaping bowlful.

Wine pairings: Soave Classico “Castello,” Cantina del Castello 2005; Pouilly-Vinzelles “En Paradis,” Louis Latour 2004; Côtes de Provence Rosé, Commanderie de Peyrassol 2006
Again, lots of people, lots of wine, lots of ideas…. Why not open several bottles? My original thought when presented with the menu was the Soave; it paired admirably against the shrimp and seasonings of the dish. Many of the eleven tend to lean hard toward pouring white Burgundy at the Ronin’s table. The match here was less successful, though texturally it nicely echoed the creaminess of the dish. The winner was the wine from Provence, a pairing conceived only when the aromas of the course wafted into the room. Something in the air just screamed out good pink wine and, luckily, one had come prepared. The bright red fruit and typical aromas of garrigue in Peyrassol’s rosé made it just the ticket.

Berkshire Pork Belly
cipollini tarte tatin, wild asparagus, onion caramel
Careful cooking via multiple methods brought out a clear stratification of the layers – fat, flesh and crispy top – of pork belly. Charred just shy of burnt, the snap of the uppermost layer combined with the unctuous fat beneath and the tender, sweet flesh at the base to make for a nuanced, harmonious taste experience. The full scope of flavor became even clearer (and tastier) as the dish cooled toward room temperature. Played against the sweetness of caramelized onions, the richness of pork fat made this a plate of pure decadence.

Wine pairings: Gigondas, Domaine du Cayron 1997; McLaren Vale Shiraz “Krystina,” De Lisio 2004; Hopland Cabernet Sauvignon “Dempel Vineyard,” Mercurius 2005
Grenache and Syrah based wines, which can often exhibit scents and flavors of cured meats, even bacon fat, seemed natural matches for the Berkshire pork. Decanted upon arrival, the De Lisio Shiraz is a well-crafted example of the big, dark side of the Aussie wine market. At more than 15% alcohol though, flavorful as it was, it dominated the food, reinforcing my admitted bias against high-alcohol wines as being difficult if not impossible to carry off at the table. Perhaps a spice rubbed steak might do the trick. The Gigondas from Cayron, mellowed and sweetened in its fruit over the last ten years, came closest to mirroring the flavors of the dish but was almost too subtle, taking a back seat in mouthfeel to the richness of the pork. The wine that really made sparks fly turned out to be the least intuitive of the matches, the Hopland Cabernet Sauvignon from Mercurius Cellar. Never heard of it? You shouldn’t have. It’s homemade wine, a product of the hobbyist pursuits of one of the eleven – electronic soundscape artist and food writer Robert Rich of Mountain View, California. At 13% alcohol, exhibiting fine balance, clarity of red cassis fruit and briary sensations, this is the kind of California Cab that hearkens back to the pre-Laube and Parker influenced era of over-extracted fruit bombs. Its clean profile and firm grip wrapped themselves around the pork, perfectly complementing the dish’s elements, being neither too shy nor too boisterous.

Chocolate-Coffee "Panna Cotta"
fruitti di bosco, gingerbread
Deconstructed to its simplest stylistic elements, this was essentially a fruit parfait crossed with a decadently rich chocolate mousse, topped off with cookie morsels. It was like an artful version of Steve’s Ice Cream juiced up on crack. The fruitti di bosco, forest fruit gelato made from an Italian base, lent a tangy acidity to the dish, balancing the creaminess of the chocolate; however, combined with the high sugar content of the panna cotta, it also resulted in a slightly sour, burning finish. A crumbled gingerbread topping lent welcome accents of crunch and spice.

Wine pairings: Maury “Dix Ans d’Age,” Mas Amiel N.V.; Moscato d’Asti, G. D. Vajra 2006
The contrasting elements of the dessert course presented challenges from a wine pairing perspective. Maury, a classic and usually successful match for chocolate, fought with the sharpness of the berries. The Moscato d’Asti, equally classic with both fruit-based desserts and lighter chocolate dishes, lost some of its trademark fruitiness in the face of the intense concentration in the chocolate-coffee elements of the course. The Moscato’s frothy bubbles, though, did provide an enjoyably crackly contrast – described by some at the table as akin to Pop Rocks – to the creamy dish. In the end, neither match was perfect but both were enjoyable.

A reconvening of the entire group will be unlikely given our geographically disparate challenges. Parts of the band will no doubt reunite for further adventures in eating. On this Tuesday though, eleven, guided by the skills of one, came together for what turned out to be a night of brotherhood and sisterhood shared around the pleasures of a well laden table.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Wine Course: Roaming the Rhône

Class is back in session. I’ll be teaching my second in a series of regional wine courses on Tuesday, July 17, at Tria’s Fermentation School. This time around, we’ll be sampling and discussing the wines of France’s Rhône Valley. I have yet to finalize the list of wines for the evening but we’ll certainly cover all of the major bases, from the basic Côtes du Rhône appellation through the more illustrious wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the South and Crozes-Hermitages and Saint-Joseph in the North. Online registration is now open at Tria’s website. See you there!

Update: Sorry folks, class is booked! If you'd like to give the waiting list a try, please contact the Fermentation School by phone at 215-972-7076.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Shola's Guest Chef Series: M

Wednesday, June 13 marked the second junket of Shola Olunloyo’s recent flirtation with life and work in the traditional brick and mortar restaurant business. The setting was M Restaurant, an intimate and relatively formal little dining room in Philadelphia’s boutique Morris House Hotel (231 S. 8th Street). With a full sized kitchen and a professional team in support, the meal promised to give a glimpse into the full spectrum of culinary nuances in Shola’s StudioKitchen arsenal, a change in pace from the more rustic approach taken at Apamate. [See the archives for Shola's Guest Chef Series: Apamate.]

Situated across the courtyard gardens from the colonial era Morris House, M benefits greatly from its association with the hotel. The courtyard garden seating area may just be the loveliest, most pacific dining spot in the entire city. On a practical scale, the hotel also provides a much needed foundation for the restaurant, as M would probably struggle to survive on its own. Its bar and dining room, when the patio is not in season, border on being too small for self-sufficiency.

Egress to M is made via a side entrance, just through the gates separating the courtyard from the traffic on 8th Street. The door opens into the cozy bar area, dominated by a an imposing hardwood bar, which seats about eight, and accented by a row of cocktail tables along the window lined front wall. Overseeing the bar is local mix-mistress Katie Loeb, who is doing a grand job of reviving some worthy retro cocktails. While waiting for my dining companions to arrive, I enjoyed her drink of the night, a Floradora Cooler – gin, Chambord, lime juice and ginger ale, shaken and served on the rocks with a lime wedge garnish. Its flavors fit the season without dulling the palate prior to the main event.

The barroom leads straight past the hostess stand and restrooms into M’s petite, softly lit dining room. Arranged along two walls, most tables are setup as two- and four-tops, with a couple of round tables providing seating for slightly larger parties. Both long walls are decorated with neutral artwork and accented by antiqued mirrors; a large floral arrangement stands watch at the end of the room nearest to the kitchen. The whole feel of the room is one of comfortable elegance. Once seated, we were given a few moments to peruse the wine list and to consider the possibility of opting for the selected wine pairings (which we chose). Thereafter, the precision and style of Shola’s menu design and approach in the kitchen quickly manifested themselves.

Spring Garlic Soup
roasted parsley-garlic purée, chicken wings, toasted almonds
Garlic, sweet garlic…. This dish was finished tableside by Shola, who poured the liquid component around the composed elements of the plate. A nutty depth of flavor from slow roasted garlic was complemented by the lighter vanillin nuttiness of toasted almonds then brightened by a stroke of pureed parsley. Top it off with Shola’s signature boneless chicken wings and, in spite of the few skeletal shards I found in mine, you’ve got a bowl of goodness. In my experience, Shola has few peers when it comes to masterfully coaxing the maximum of flavor into his soups without making them at all cumbersome. I can still savor the tastes and aromas of the corn chowder he served at my first meal at StudioKitchen many moons ago.

Wine pairing: Vouvray “Les Argiles,” Prince Poniatowski/Francois Chidaine 2004
The most thoughtful match of the night. I’ve long felt there’s an almost supernatural affinity between Loire Chenin Blancs, Vouvray in particular, and creamy, garlic influenced dishes. Vouvray is also a wine – thanks to its vibrant acidity and frequent touch of residual sugar – that can handle the difficult task of pairing with hot soups. The 2004 “Les Argiles” is a fully dry style but had enough ripeness and flesh to take the soup in stride.

Sweet Corn - Parmesan Custard
black truffle caramel, toasted brioche
I have to admit I didn’t understand this dish. The components, separately, were all quite delicious and the conceptualization is one of the more edgy things I’ve experienced even from the StudioKitchen cadre. I’m just not sure everything came together in harmony. Perhaps it’s just me being persnickety but, in spite of the custard description/component, it also struck me very much as a second soup course. Of course, I did happily clean my plate….

Wine pairing: Bourgogne Aligoté, Patrice Rion 2004
I liked the wine, I found the dish interesting, they did not clash yet they did each other no favors. It was not a bad pairing, just not one that found anything extra in the marriage. From a service perspective, it became clear that there is a need for some additional wine training among the staff at M. Our waiter described the wine as Chardonnay. Though it is permissible to include a small amount of Chardonnay in wines labeled as Bourgogne Aligoté, it is not a typical practice. As for Patrice’s wine, it is an uncommonly rich selection of 100% Aligoté from a plot of very old vines in the commune of Nuits-St.-Georges. Was the staff member’s error the end of the world? No, but diners who might otherwise be unfamiliar with the wine would be likely to take the (mis)information as fact.

Roasted Suzuki
caramelized eggplant-pistachio caponata, sultanas, lovage, yuzu brown butter
It’s hard not to enjoy perfectly cooked striped bass, its crispy skin accenting tender, flavorful flesh. Set atop the most multi-culturally diverse mixture of ingredients of the evening, it came alive. The earthy and spicy eggplant-pistachio caponata (Mediterranean) combined with the sweetness of sultanas (North African) and the zip of yuzu (Japanese) to provide a dizzying array of flavors. I think the dish may have been more discretely delicious without the sour tang of the yuzu but the range of flavors still worked.

Wine pairing: Tocai Friulano, Roncús 2003
This was the clear poor pairing of the night. Tocai’s usual floral and spicy aromatics, medium body and crispness were cooked away by the hot, dry growing season of 2003, resulting in an out of balance wine showing fat textures, high alcohol and flavors more of diesel fuel than of fruit. It’s hard enough to enjoy an awkward wine on its own; it’s even more difficult to match it with food, especially something as wildly flavorful as Shola’s Suzuki dish. A medium bodied Provençal rosé, particularly given the summer season, would have been a better call.

Boneless Rack of Australian Lamb
chick pea purée, braised lamb croquette, fennel marmalade
Sous-vide roasting resulted in perfectly medium-rare lamb with a rich, melt in your mouth texture. The lamb croquette, though a touch dry, brought a more intensely animal and hearty accent to the plate. Finally, pureed chick peas and fennel marmalade delivered earth and lift to balance the meatiness and density of the dish. An overly enthusiastic hand with finishing sea salt – and lamb can handle fairly aggressive seasoning – was the only thing that kept this dish from reaching the sublime.

Wine pairing: Sonoma County “Three Valleys,” Ridge Vineyards 2005
This was the first of two consecutive no-brainer pairings and, oddly, the first of two consecutive Zinfandel-based wines. The regional purist in me would have preferred to see a Chianti Classico, perhaps even a Riserva, paired with this dish. That said, the lush, forward fruit, simple approach and ripe textures of the wine worked comfortably with the lamb. This is the basic, entry-level red in the Ridge Vineyards portfolio, their only wine sourced, as the name implies, from multiple sites around Sonoma County. I’m splitting hairs to point out that it was inappropriately identified on the menu as Zinfandel; at 74% Zin, the wine falls just short of the 75% requirement for varietal labeling in California. Inexplicably, the pour was about half the amount established as the earlier pattern, making it difficult to stretch the wine through the course.

Chocolate Cherry Ganache
smoked chocolate soil, coffee fluid gel, pistachio ice cream
The sublime realized. Upon tasting Shola’s dessert course, my first thought – one that I heard echoed around the room – was “mmmmm, bacon.” Intensely smoked cocoa, in the form of “chocolate soil,” gave this otherwise classic combination of ingredients a kick up to the level of crazy good. Lovely presentation and some damn good pistachio gelato – creamy and flavorful but not heavy handed – didn’t hurt a bit.

Wine pairing: Russian River Valley Late Harvest Zinfandel, Rosenblum Cellars 2003
Rosenblum’s Late Harvest Zin made for a simple, sweet and easy complement to dessert, presenting nothing complicated or expansive, just a pleasing match. More wine service gripes…. It was served at far too low a temperature. While a slight chill may have helped mask the wine’s high alcohol and give it a refreshing edge, serving it stone cold only muted its flavors. Presenting the wine in a tall, skinny glass with a minute aperture only doubled the muffling of the wine’s character, particularly from an aromatic perspective. Form follows function, y’all.

All in all, it was a lovely evening, showcasing flavors and culinary techniques that were true to the StudioKitchen experience. As this was my first visit to M, I’m unable to comment on the regular menu or the typical workings of Chef David Katz and his kitchen staff. It was clear though, from what emerged from the kitchen, that they understood Shola’s thought processes and recipes and were able to deliver at a high level. What I missed more than the extra bit of deliciousness that Shola produces when cooking solo was the personal experience and relaxed pace of dinners at SK. With Shola’s fastidious preparation and organization backed up by a full cook and wait staff, the courses flew out of the kitchen at a dizzying pace. The time from our seating to paying the bill was barely over an hour, not so much the fault of intentionally rushed service as the result of too much precision. I left sated from an eating perspective but feeling like the evening had been cut short in the context of dining. If the talented Mr. Olunloyo does indeed take the plunge back into the regular restaurant world, it will be interesting to see how he translates the intimacy of his art form for the larger stage. His ability to reproduce the quality is already clear.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fuel for the Jaded

Just when I start to feel a bit disenchanted with something I’m passionate about – whether it’s food, wine, cycling, music, literature, film… you get the idea – it seems that something comes along to rekindle the fire. That something came today in the form of a bottle of red Burgundy: 2001 Nuits St. Georges “Les Grandes Vingnes” from Domaine Daniel Rion et Fils, to be exact. From its perfectly transparent ruby robe to the beguiling aromas that leapt upwards as soon as the wine hit the glass, it was a real eye-opener, the kind of wine that changes the rhythm of your breath and focuses your attention inward. Flavors of wild raspberries, blackberries, smoked meat and violets made me think of Burgundy’s frequent comparison to the Nebbiolo based wines of Italy’s Piedmont. The elegance of this wine, though, was pure Burgundian Pinot Noir. Gentle yet firm tannins combine with perfectly balanced acidity and focused fruit to make this one of the most memorable wines I’ve tasted this year.

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Recommended reading:

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Burger and a Beer

Installment One: Summer Has Arrived

Yesterday marked the climax of Philly bike week or, more formally, the Commerce Bank Triple Crown. For regional and international pro cycling teams and for American cycling fans, Sunday's Philadelphia International Championship is arguably the biggest one-day race on the domestic calendar. For a goodly portion of Philadelphia’s cycling community though, the day is more important in that it presents one of the few opportunities in the year for friends – who might otherwise see each other only in the saddle – to get together, catch up and share some suds and grub. While the largest crowds congregate on the fiercely steep Manayunk Wall and at the start/finish area along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the grassy knoll of Lemon Hill is arguably the best place to really enjoy the day. It’s also the best place to set up a full size grill… but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

For me, the weekend of the big race marks the arrival of summer. It’s a weekend of casual fun and of simple, hot weather fare, the perfect time for a burger and a beer. As usual, I kicked things off this year at the traditional Friday night pre-race party at Bicycle Therapy. The shop’s spread of pasta from Villa di Roma and the cooler full of Victory’s Hop Devil and Storm King Stout whetted my appetite. So when the party wound down, I headed around the corner to Grace Tavern for the first burger of the weekend. I opted for their Kennett Square burger, a well-charred patty topped with sharp cheddar and Kennett mushrooms. Ensconced in a toasted brioche bun and cooked to a perfect medium-rare, it was all beefy goodness, helped along by a couple of glasses of Monk’s Flemish Sour Ale.

The beer board at Grace Tavern

Saturday night brought a break in the action, with a relaxing dinner at home following a long day at work. It didn’t give any reason to stop the burger themed weekend though. Rather, it provided an ideal opportunity to try out the ground buffalo I’d picked up a couple of weeks earlier at the Oakmont Farmers Market. I kept the preparation simple – salt, pepper and a quick sear on the grill – resulting in rare, juicy and tender burgers best served with a simple salad of market-fresh greens. In place of beer but sticking with the “B” theme of the weekend, we opted for a bottle of Bourgueil. More specifically, it was Joël Taluau’s 2003 St. Nicolas de Bourgueil “Vieilles Vignes,” a lush, chocolaty and typically aromatic version of Breton (Cabernet Franc) from the central Loire. Good stuff.

Finally, burger weekend, a.k.a. Philly cycling week, wrapped up on a lovely afternoon spent on Lemon Hill. In spite of the weekend’s concentration of ground meat, I usually treat burgers as an infrequent treat and aim for quality over quantity, for fresh, quality ingredients over short-order ease. If there’s a time and a place, though, for simple, pre-packaged frozen patties, it’s at an outdoor picnic where you’re serving hundreds of burgers to as many friends. No rich juices to run down your arm and onto your clothes, just a simple disc of meat, a grocery store roll and a squirt of mustard, maybe with a slice of American cheese. Wash it down with a crisp, cold brew (Anchor Summer Beer in this case) and the living is easy.

Lee Rogers of Bicycle Therapy mans the grill on Lemon Hill

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Grower Champagne: Diebolt-Vallois

When people ask me for a Champagne recommendation, unless I know there’s a food pairing in the works I usually start by asking what they like. 75% of the time – conservatively – I know the answer before a lip’s been parted: Veuve Clicquot. The ubiquity of the yellow label is mind blowing. What accounts for this pervasive popularity? Huge annual production allows the wine to be placed on nearly every liquor store shelf and restaurant wine list in the world. Big budget advertising and marketing dollars place the brand in lifestyle magazines, food and wine publications, blockbuster movies, and in the hands of celebrity chefs on the Food Network. The point of all this is not to debate the historical significance of the Maison Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin. Rather, it is to put into context the fact that Veuve’s “Carte Jaune” NV tells us as much about Champagne as Kendall Jackson “Vintner’s Reserve” Chardonnay tells us about California wine. Both brands are successful, both appeal to a broad audience, both are made from juice and fruit purchased from vineyards spread over all corners of their respective regions and both offer a touch of sweetness in the guise of sophisticated, dry wines. Both also lack any real sense of individuality, of character, of place.

To get a meaningful sense of Champagne, it is necessary to understand it as a place, not just a beverage. For Champagne, like California albeit on a much smaller scale, is a region of diverse geography, climate, soil, history and culture. A strong common thread exists but it is the differences that make the place and its products truly significant. To get a real sense of Champagne, it is necessary to explore the wines of the small growers.

One of my long time favorite Récoltant-Manipulant (grower-producer, RM for short) Champagne houses is Diebolt-Vallois. Based in the village of Cramant, just south of Epernay, Jacques Diebolt’s family has been producing expressive, elegant, small farm Champagnes for generations. I visited Diebolt-Vallois on a cold, rainy day in February 2004. It’s a shame when the weather prevents a walk through the vineyards; sometimes, though, one can learn more about the true heart and soul of a wine by traveling underground. Upon descending into the bottle storage cellars, excavated in 1880 in the earth below Diebolt’s pressing facility, we discovered not only some beautiful old bottles of Champagne – more on them later – but also what made those wines so expressive. We were able, literally, to see, feel, smell and taste the chalky soil of Cramant.

Two generations of the Diebolt-Vallois family in the bottle storage caves below part of the winery. Standing in foreground, left to right: Jacques and Nadia's son, Arnaud; Jacques' wife, Nadia Vallois; Jacques Diebolt. Kneeling in foreground: daughter of Jacques and Nadia, Isabelle Diebolt.

Most of Diebolt-Vallois’ ten hectares of vineyards are located in Cuis and Cramant, respectively premier and grand cru rated vineyard areas situated on a chalk dominated geographical outcropping called the Côtes des Blancs. If you own land on the Côtes des Blancs, you grow only one thing: Chardonnay. To plant anything else there would be folly. The chalk-rich soil is perfect for Chardonnay and, by natural extension, for the production of Blanc de Blancs – Champagnes made purely from white fruit, the specialty of the house at Diebolt-Vallois.

Like at the big Champagne houses, the non-vintage cuvées at Diebolt are made according to a house style. Consistency of flavor is sought from year to year, from bottling to bottling, making the job of the master blender – Jacques himself in this case – of utmost importance. Unlike at the big houses though, small grower wines also taste of their place. The green label Blanc de Blancs of Diebolt-Vallois, produced primarily from fruit grown in Cuis, is redolent of the Côtes des Blancs, full of fine, green apple fruit, chalky minerality and elegant focus.

The depth of character and texture that the Méthode Champenoise can add to this sense of place is made evident when tasting the estate’s special non-vintage bottling. Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Blancs is an assemblage of three consecutive vintages, the quality of each year allowing. The base wines, from old vine fruit grown entirely in Cramant, spend two years in foudres (4000 liter, 50 year-old oak casks), vessels favored by Jacques for the subtleness and complexity they impart relative to the more modern tendency toward aging in steel tanks. After blending and secondary fermentation, the Prestige spends three years on its lees before disgorgement. This period, about twice as long as for the regular non-vintage cuvée, lends the Prestige a greater degree of richness, power, toastiness and nuttiness.

Jacques Diebolt pouring Fleur de Passion at the farmhouse table in the estate's press house and private bottle aging caves.

The real pride of the maison is their tête de cuvée, the vintage Fleur de Passion. Made only in the best years, Fleur de Passion is a selection of the oldest vine fruit from the estate’s vineyards in Cramant. Currently, it sees five years of sur-lie aging before disgorgement. Jacques’ goal is to increase this time to seven or eight years as the estate matures. Over lunch with three generations of the Diebolt and Vallois families, we had the pleasure of experiencing what one of the best wines of the Côtes des Blancs can offer.
  • 1999 Fleur de Passion
    Displaying an easy, soft, broad character, this vintage was already drinking well. It showed glorious fruit, with ripe flavors of melon, pear and apple.

  • 1998 Fleur de Passion (from magnum)
    Leaner, more tightly wound and less opulent than the 1999. At the same time, it was more exotic in its tones of fruits and spice, was slightly yeastier, finer and brighter in its acidity.

  • 1985
    Jacques considers 1985 one of his finest vintages. The wine showed a nose of brioche, fresh hazelnuts and flowers. A bouquet suggesting the early stages of maturity was evident but freshness was still abundant on the palate. Perhaps imagination takes too many liberties but I could clearly smell the chalky soil, just like in the caves, among the wine’s aromas.

  • 1976
    This hailed from the era of Jacques’ father. Though not possessing as much breed as the 1985, the 1976 was still very fresh, deeply nutty on the nose, dancing on the palate with complexity and lively acidity.

After our repast, as if we needed further convincing as to the beauty and longevity of his wines, Jacques led us back down to his family’s bottle storage caves. There he opened for us not one, not two, but three bottles of his grandfather’s production of 1953 vintage Champagne. Earlier in the day, M. Diebolt had expressed that, in his experience, the benefits of sur-lie aging tend to end at around eight years, after which disgorgement is usually best. These chalk-dust covered bottles of 1953 Champagne, though, were still on their lees, resting in cork-and-clamp finished (not crown sealed) bottles. He opened and disgorged these bottles – living wines – on the spot. Like 50 year-old identical triplets who no longer look or sound exactly alike, no two bottles were the same.

Jacques Diebolt in the process of performing dégorgement à la volée with one of the three bottles of 1953 Blanc de Blancs he opened for us.

The first bottle Jacques deemed not bad, not great. It was redolent of earth, leaves, mushrooms and toasted hazelnuts. He readily admitted that he’ll sometimes open several bottles before finding a really good one. He hit with bottle two. Fresher and lighter in color, it smelled of forest in the spring, tasted of stones, showed vibrant acidity and finished forever. 1953, he tells us, was a good but not great year, not like 1955, 1959 or 1961…. Still on the hunt for that elusive something special, Jacques disgorged the third bottle. Very similar to but not better than the others, this was less petillant, more oily and nutty on the palate and slightly more evolved. Just as with the other aspects of our visit that day, we learned something from all three. And all three were a true pleasure.

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When selecting a grower Champagne – or any wine – it’s always best to know the producer. In the absence of foreknowledge or a helpful wine salesperson, there’s an easy if somewhat arcane way of determining the difference between grower and merchant Champagnes. A small set of letters and numbers on the label of every bottle of Champagne holds the key to the origins of what’s in the bottle. Ignoring the numbers and focusing on the letters, look for “RM.” It’s a sure sign that the wine has been made by the person who grows the fruit and owns the vineyards. Wines produced by large merchant houses will typically be labeled “NM” (Négociant-Manipulant).

As of 2004, Diebolt-Vallois has dipped a toe into the NM end of the business and their wines are now labeled accordingly. Good vineyard land in Cramant, on today’s market, is difficult to come by and prohibitively expensive, effectively keeping the Diebolt’s from adding to their ten hectare estate. Following the hot, low production 2003 growing season, and in the face of ever increasing demand from their loyal customers, M. Diebolt applied for a négociant license which now allows him, if he so chooses, to buy in up to ten percent of his overall fruit. Here’s where knowing your producer, or trusting in someone who does, becomes key. Jacques assured us that if he does purchase fruit, it will be only from talented growers with whom he has a strong relationship and whose vineyards are situated in Cramant. The goal is not to make more Champagne just to satisfy the market. It is to maintain the current and historical expression and quality of the wines of his estate while allowing his family to eke out a comfortable yet modest living from the production of their tiny property. The goal is to grow great Champagne, backed up by an economically rational insurance plan.

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