Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Favorite Baltimore Haunt

Happy Halloween! In celebration of today’s ghoul fest – and my 100th blog post – I thought I’d write up one of my favorite old neighborhood haunts.

I grew up in the Baltimore/Washington corridor and still have strong sentimental and family attachments to Baltimore (aka, Charm City, Mobtown). Baseball has never seemed the same since going to see the Birds play in Memorial Stadium, with Boog Powell on first, Brooks on third and Paul Blair out in center field. Those were good days to go to a game, carry along the glove (just in case!) and eat some peanuts or a frank while dad took advantage of the Schaeffer or Natty Boh (depending on the season) being hawked by the roving vendors. I also kick started my education in food by going as a young lad to many of the ethnic heritage festivals peppered around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor area.

Well, the Orioles have never rediscovered the glory of the 1970s and I haven’t made it to the Polish festival in many a moon. However, I do still make the trip to Baltimore on a semi-regular basis to visit family and take in the feel of a different city. Baltimore is an easy two-hour drive south from Philly and, while it shares a touch of the “small town in a big city” vibe that can be found in Philadelphia, Mobtown otherwise has a completely different look and feel. And as Memorial Stadium, not to mention my interest in baseball, is no more, I’ve had to find a new haunt.

Peter’s Inn is just the place. Founded in its current iteration by Bud and Karin Tiffany in the early 1990s, Peter’s Inn is a former biker bar reborn as Baltimore’s strongest bastion of gastro-pub cuisine. At its heart, Peter’s is still a neighborhood tavern. If you can find a seat at the bar, there’s no problem with making it your shot and a beer haunt for the evening. Over the years though, the space has morphed slowly into more and more of a destination restaurant, in spite of never having shed its barroom feel. Diners now migrate in from the ‘burbs, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, to enjoy the Fells Point scene along with plates of good value and seriously tasty food.

While tables are now set with white linens and the couches and arm chairs once found in the back room have been replaced with more practical seating, you’ll still find plenty of the original ambience of the old Peter’s as well as evidence of the big personalities of the Tiffany’s. There’s a pile of atomic fire balls on offer on the ledge under the chalkboard menu. A CD collection and space for a DJ to set-up on the occasional Friday night can be found behind the bar. Fetishist photos by local artist Sam Holden adorn the bathroom walls. And in those bathrooms, at least in the men’s room, you’ll still find holdovers from the biker bar era: an old condom dispenser, industrial hand scrub, and a jar of Listerine along with a stack of Dixie cups for that pre-departure breathalyzer sanitization.

It’s not just the comfortably gritty atmosphere and local feel but also the great food that makes Peter’s such a worthwhile stop. From a tiny kitchen, Bud, Karin and their small staff turn out a small menu – usually just six or seven choices – of hearty yet creative dishes. Any single plate is enough to make a meal of, particularly when paired with the house’s signature salad and huge hunk of potent garlic bread. A hungry solo diner or small group could just as easily sample or share a couple of dishes to get a greater feel for the range of the menu. Steak, along with the aforementioned sides of salad and garlic bread, has a permanent spot, anchored at the end of the menu. The rest of the selections change regularly, according to season and availability of interesting ingredients from the kitchen’s favorite purveyors. On my most recent visit, I enjoyed a plate of pristinely fresh, Hawaiian tuna served two ways: blackened, rare medallions of loin set atop rich, creamy wasabi aioli on tortilla wedges; and a generously heaped martini glass full of highly seasoned tuna tartare.

I don’t know too many other bars that sell as much if not more wine as they do beer and cocktails. There’s a short yet eclectic and fairly well chosen list of vino on hand, nearly all of it available by the glass or bottle. A few of the more surprising gems on the current list include Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône, Cheverny from François Cazin, and the Nussberg “Alte Reben” from Vienna’s Weingut Wieninger. Of course, there’s also some good whisky on hand, a decent selection of bottled beers along with a small set of craft beers on tap, and of course the ubiquitous – at least in Baltimore – cans of, you guessed it, Natty Boh.

Peter’s Inn
504 S. Ann Street
Baltimore, MD 21231
Peter's Inn on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 29, 2007

Helping to Free the Wine Trade

One of the great conundrums – at least in the context of wine and food – in a country which prides itself on personal freedom is our relative lack of choice when it comes to buying wine. Wineries want to reach more customers, retailers want to reach more customers, customers want access to more wines, but most of the greater 50 states are afraid of losing control of taxation and revenues. Each and every state has its own quirky liquor laws. And most states still refuse to play nicely with each other. Most of all, they seem to be afraid of the cash-flexed muscle and lobbying power of the largely invisible middlemen in this whole mess: wholesalers. They're the middle link in America’s three-tier wine and liquor distribution system and the group which has the most to lose in the fight for a free wine trade.

As a member of the retail wine trade, I’d love the ability to reach a wider audience. As a wine blogger, I'd also love to reach a wider audience. Shipping practices, state laws and Supreme Court decisions, though, are really not my personal bailiwick. If you’d like to keep abreast of all the latest political action related to wine shipping and shopping laws, you may want to tune in to big blogger Tom Wark’s newest endeavor: Wine Without Borders. Tom also happens to be Executive Director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association. He’s started Wine Without Borders in hopes that his latest blog, through reader response and community impact, can help to make a difference in freeing commerce for all of us wine lovers. He’s got his work cut out for him, but here’s to every little effort making a difference.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wine With Bill, VolumeTwo

It helps to keep a wine blog fed with good material when you have some good pals who share your interests and who don’t shy away from opening two (or four or five) bottles at a session. One of my most steadfast tasting partners in that context is my comrade Bill. When first I chronicled one of our tastings, my write-up of the evening spawned some rather prickly feedback, much of it off-line, from several quarters. This time around, I’ll see if I can stay out of trouble. In any event, here are some quick tasting notes from our most recent dinner and tasting venture.

Viré-Clessé “Quintaine,” Domaine Emilian Gillet (Jean Thevenet) 2002
Old school juice. Firm, tightly wired, green and giving a little wood tannin grip. Thevenet’s Viré-Clessé shows loads of acidity and wears its oak well, more in the context of its texture than its flavor and aroma. Though Thevenet apparently pushes for extreme ripeness levels and picks very late in the season, this ’02 hints at the expected outcome of such an approach only in its intense vinosity. It’s still showing young and fresh, with minerality, lemon rind, green apple and a savory vegetal tone on the palate. This is drinking well now but should continue to develop interest in the bottle for at least another five years. I’ve drunk way more than my share of Viré-Clessé over the years. Nearly all of it, though, has been from Domaine André Bonhomme, whose wines are an elegant and pure expression of peaches and cream. The Gillet is in stark but welcome contrast. Terry Hughes at Mondosapore makes some interesting comments about the intrinsic worth and comparative value of Thevenet’s Macon Blancs.

$Mid 20’s. 13.5%. Natural cork closure. Importer: Martine’s Wines, Novato, CA.

Savennières “Cuvée Spéciale,” Château d’Epiré 2005
I’ve enjoyed many a Savennières from d’Epiré in the past and have always thought of them as falling soundly in the strong second tier of Angevin Chenin Blanc producers. Their 2005 came as a bit of a disappointment for me, I regret to say. The problem, I think, was one of runaway ripeness. The wine’s been finished to complete dryness and clocks in at 14% (not atypical). But it finishes with more than a little heat. There are some whiffs of typicity – quince, green gage and lavender. But both fruit and minerality seem a bit lacking. The wine may just need some time to integrate but, based on its awkwardness now, I’d proceed with caution before buying long.

$20. 14%. Natural cork closure. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.

Pauillac, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1990
It’s not everyday that I get to taste a first growth Bordeaux. Lord knows I can’t afford to buy any. So it was with a little hiccup of excitement that I spied the bottle of ’90 Mouton among Bill’s possibilities for the evening. As it would turn out, the excitement was unwarranted. Though I suspect the bottle may not have been handled with kid gloves at every step of its journey, it was, no matter how you slice it, a dog – a dirty dog. Apparently the big critics agree to disagree, pointing out, if nothing else, a strong tendency toward bottle variation and questionable winemaking hygiene at Mouton in 1990. Though the wine showed some interesting traits in an academic sense and retained some hints of red currant typicity, my overwhelming sense was of a faulty, tired wine. Aromas of smoked meat, iron and clay dominated, followed up by a faint suggestion of clove. On the palate, the fruit seemed surprisingly dried out for a first growth from a theoretically great vintage. Fully mature, bordering on over it. While I’d love to taste an example with pristine provenance, I’m not sure how much of the disappointment with this bottle I’d chalk up to bad handling over the years versus bad handling at point of origin. The wine’s most redeeming factor? The 1990 Mouton label featured a painting by the abstract/figurative artist Francis Bacon, serving as an homage both to his art and to his memory: “En homage à Francis Bacon qui offrit à Mouton l’une de ses dernières oeuvres.” Bacon died in 1992, after the wine’s vintage but prior to its release.

$250 plus on current retail and auction market. 12.5%. Natural cork closure.

Valtellina Superiore Sassella, La Castellina Fondazione Fojanini 1998
Though I hate to give short shrift to the Gillet Viré-Clessé, this was hands down the wine of the evening. The high altitude, alpine slopes of the Valteline area of Lombardy can turn out some of the most haunting and surprisingly layered examples of Nebbiolo out there. Don’t think power or richness. Instead, imagine delicate color and seemingly, at least at first, sinewy texture. As this wine opened up though, layers of sweet fruit cascaded over the palate. Soft tannins and scintillating acidity gave framework to aromas and flavors of red licorice, violets, and warm spices. As the wine opened up, it reminded me of raspberry pastries – in the best possible sense. At nearly ten years old, it continued to evolve and improve over the entire course of the evening. It also proved an enjoyable match with a supper of roast venison loin, potato purée and sautéed greens.

$16 on release. 13%. Natural cork closure. Importer: currently unknown.

Vosne-Romanée, Domaine Forey Père et Fils 2004
Bill pulled this one out of the cellar as a vino da meditazione. By this point in the evening, relaxed and sated after a good meal, I must admit my note taking dropped off a bit. What I did note and do remember was a bright, high acid wine redolent of young red cherry fruit. A firm, lean mouthfeel delivered good balance but somewhat simple, straight forward fruit. Perhaps it’s just going through a dumb stage but I can’t help but wonder if this Vosne-Romanée will develop any more interest over time.

$45. 13%. Natural cork closure. Importer: Rosenthal Imports, New York, NY.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Backstage at Talula’s Table

During a recent evening at Talula’s Table, I enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time in the kitchen and experience first hand the mechanics and energy that go into the preparation and presentation of the market's private dinners. For several years, I’d watched Bryan Sikora and his crew toil in absurdly tiny kitchen quarters at Django, yet still manage to turn out some of the best food served in Philadelphia. It’s now a pleasure to see him at work in a space that’s easily twenty times as large, and in the more relaxed environment made possible by serving a tasting menu to only one group of 8-12 each night. It’s a near ideal setting: less stress, more control over pacing, and more room for creativity, experimentation and à la minute preparations. It’s a venue that has encouraged the soulful depth of flavor he and Aimee Olexy had expressed at Django to continue yet also to mature into a more complete and refined personal expression. Best of all, it’s a space that allows for that all too rare marriage of work, passion and fun.

* * * * *

Along the way, I managed to snap a few pictures and was even drafted into doing a little prep work.

Bryan and line cook Luke Boland set the stage for course one: Venison Carpaccio.

Spot the broken yolk? That was my handiwork and, rightfully, my portion.

A chef enjoys the spoils. Sweetbreads anyone?

When plating for ten, eight hands are better than four. Front of the house staff Rosali Middleman and Beth Erisman join Bryan and Luke on the line.

The evening's menu (design by Rosali).

* * * * *

Is there a downside to all this? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. Word has spread so rapidly about the quality of food and the intimate experience at Talula’s farmhouse table that the pace of business is bringing a level of stress back into the picture. The room is booked solid through the end of 2007; only a few weeknights remain in April, May and June 2008; and the reservation book for dates in the second half of 2008 has been sealed until the New Year. Will we see a return to the one-month-out reservation policy the couple maintained while at Django? That remains to be seen. But it may be the only way for Aimee and Bryan to have some control over the pacing of their future.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Harvest Tasting Menu at Talula's Table

In the wake of the recent glowing write up by Craig LaBan in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the pace at Talula’s Table, already high, quickly accelerated from sixty to ninety. Private dinners at their farmhouse table are booked just about solid all the way into early Spring 2008. And they’re suddenly turning out huge batches of lobster pot pies to fulfill a growing mail order demand. It seems that the combination of decadence and comfort food is quite contagious. In the midst of this controlled chaos, Bryan Sikora, Aimee Olexy, Claire Shears and their dedicated staff are keeping their heads, maintaining a sense of fun, and continuing to produce one of the best all around dining and gourmet market experiences available in the Philadelphia and greater Delaware/Brandywine Valley areas.

Witness the focused, subtle yet soulful flavors of their October 2007 tasting menu, a cornucopia of dishes built around the flavors of the fall harvest season in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Venison Carpaccio, Roasted Beet, Black Trumpet Mushroom and Cranberry Vinaigrette
One could easily expect this dish, given the inclusion of game meat, to be a hearty, high-volume starting point. Quite the contrary, the flavors on the plate are all about the bright, fresh interplay between acidity, earthiness and sweetness provided by the beet salad, beet micro-greens and cranberry vinaigrette, while ribbon thin slices of lean, pepper spiked venison tenderloin provide a warming protein balance along with a fiery finishing snap.

Trout Salad Lyonnaise, Poached Egg, Caramelized Bacon and Potato with Boiled Cider Dressing
Fresh trout can provide one of the simplest yet most satisfying examples of the range of fin fish flavors. Bryan sources farm raised trout from a sustainable fishery in South Carolina. The fish is quickly seared to give a golden crisp to its skin and then finished with a quick roast in the oven. Served over a bed of delicately bitter frisée interspersed with tender nuggets of potato, the Lyonnaise elements are finished with a couple of shards of house-cured bacon and a single poached quail egg (yolk broken by yours truly – rest assured, the other diner’s dishes were more pristine in presentation). The fresh perfume provided by a sprinkling of tarragon, chervil and thyme subtly heightened the dish’s overall impact.

Canella Scented Squash Broth, Foie Gras Raviolini, Smoked Duck, Dried Cherry, Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil
This was by far the most complicated dish of the evening, both in terms of the labor intensity of its preparation and the layering of distinct yet harmonious flavors. An intense aroma of cinnamon arose from the kitchen, the canella deeply infusing the duck, rabbit, chicken and roasted Cinderella pumpkin stock that formed the core of this course. Foie gras and duck confit stuffed raviolini, macerated cherries, tender slices of hickory smoked duck breast, and succulent little cubes of roasted squash were suspended in that richly aromatic liquid. A drizzling of toasted pumpkin seed oil – this reminded me of some of the best dishes I encountered during a trip last year to Vienna, where pumpkin seed oil reigns supreme – delivered a colorful, nutty finishing touch.

Autumn Vegetable Risotto with Walnut Pesto and Crisp Sweetbreads
This is the dish that’s received the most tweaking since Bryan rolled out Talula’s harvest menu in early October. Starting with the double decadence of lobster and sweetbreads, it then morphed into a richer, earthier preparation driven by a red wine and black truffle sauce. The final evolution of the recipe takes the dish back to a lighter, fresher expression of autumn, highlighting the last green flavors of fall and keeping the palate alive and ready for the rest of the meal. A small scoop of firm, cauliflower studded risotto was offset by the cool crunch of shredded lettuce and a dusting of freshly grated parmiggiano. Little nuggets of flash-fried, panko-crusted sweetbreads were light and sweet enough to be enjoyed by even the most offal averse of diners, while an herbaceous splash of late-season pesto provided contrast and palate refreshment.

Roasted Bass, Celeriac Puree, Prosciutto Fish Jus, Frothy Mustard and Black Olive Oil
Chef Sikora’s knack for keeping rich flavors afloat was demonstrated in textbook fashion with this course. A thick, perfectly crisped yet moist filet of roasted bass perched atop a bed of celeriac purée, amplified in flavor by celery sprouts and a slash of mustard oil. Black olive infused olive oil brought a pungent richness, doubling up the salty/smoky influence of the prosciutto scented fish jus. The subtle flavor of his mustard “froth” when tasted alone was intensified when combined with tender morsels of fresh broccoli. The final layer, a sprinkling of caviar harvested from the trout served earlier in the evening, delivered a briny contrast to the rich, buttery texture of the bass.

Wild Boar Cassoulet
I’ve never encountered a tradition for wild boar in Cassoulet, whether it hails from Toulouse, Carcassonne or anywhere in between. But hey, Talula’s Table is in Kennett Square. And wild boar not only looks good on a menu, it’s also pretty damn tasty. True to the traditions of Cassoulet, this was the heartiest, most soulful yet least clearly defined dish of the evening. Bryan handles that by letting the name of the dish speak for itself on the menu – no flourish, no sub-ingredient listings, just “Wild Boar Cassoulet.” It’s a more than appropriate name, as the traditional pork and duck fat/meat components of the dish are completely replaced by boar. Braised boar shoulder is broken down and added, along with boar bacon, to Corona beans which are then cooked down to a near purée consistency in the boar stock and braising liquids from the shoulder. Wild boar sausage is added during the slow cooking process before the dish is oven-finished in individual earthenware crocks topped with a crust of herbed breadcrumbs. Medallions of roasted boar tenderloin – one atop the crock, the other on the plate – add the finishing touches.

Nut Coated Goat Cheese Truffle, Poached Orchard Pear and Basque Blue, Creamy Camembert and Our Apple Butter
This one somehow managed to evade my camera so I’ll have to attempt justice with words alone. A departure from the plated progression of farmstead cheeses for which Aimee was justly famous during the Django era, tonight’s cheese course consisted of a trio of classic, composed pairings. The plate opened with a truffle of fresh, mildly grassy Pipe Dreams goat cheese – produced in nearby Gap, PA – rolled in caramelized nuts that would make for an ideal mid-morning snack. Oozing, perfectly ripe Camembert was well matched to a dollop of Talula’s own apple butter, a classic pairing given Camembert’s origins in orchard-rich Normandy. Finally, crumbly, creamy, sheepy Basque Blue was matched to crisp orchard pears, poached – rather insanely, I might add – in Château d’Yquem which had been left behind by a recent diner.

Apple Pumpkin Poffertjes, Spiced Ice Cream and Cardamom Scented Caramel Sauce
Poffertjes are traditional Dutch treats, not unlike little yeast-raised pancakes that have been slightly crisped outside, leaving a soft, airy interior. In keeping with the harvest menu theme, the version at Talula’s is produced with apple and pumpkin batter. Accompanied by a scoop of spiced ice cream sprinkled with Hawaiian pink sea salt and served atop a bed of ginger cookie “soil,” the little pastry puffs made for a light and lovely sweet ending to the evening’s adventure in dining.

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

Additional visits:

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Marketing Gone Awry, or Wine as Crass Commodity

Vrac [vrak] nm en – in bulk, loose, wholesale, pell-mell.
– from Putnam’s Contemporary French Dictionary
Image at right courtesy of Bertrand Celce.

Travel through any corner of French wine country and you’re sure to see signs along the byways hawking wine en vrac – literally, “in bulk.” Locals drive up to the local cave cooperative or to their favorite private Domaine, haul their five liter plastic jugs out of the trunk and fill them up from a gas station style pump which taps directly into a concrete tank, steel cuve or old wooden cask. For a Euro or two per liter, sometimes less, they’re set for the week with a cistern full of their tipple of choice.

There’s a clear distinction at these wineries, regardless of size and intrinsic merit, between wine en vrac and wine in bottle. Bottled wines, even at the lowest levels, are representative of a producer’s “fine wine.” Wine en vrac, on the other hand, is bulk wine made up of leftovers, afterthoughts, the lowest quality fruit from the youngest, highest yielding vines, the poorest fringes of the property or the least ambitious members of the co-op. It is wine to be consumed without thought and without much if any expectation of quality beyond, hopefully, rudimentary drinkability.

So I responded with disbelief, which quickly transitioned into a wickedly satirical sense of glee, when an e-mail hawking a Côtes du Rhône and a Mâcon-Villages from a “winery” called VRAC landed in my in-box a few days ago. The wines have apparently been on the market for a couple of years but this was the first I’d heard of them. The message was from Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, a North Jersey shop which, following in the footsteps of neighborhood rival Wine Library, has become more and more aggressive in their Internet marketing efforts over the last couple of years.

I’m not sure what the marketing executives at the French company that manufactures these wines were thinking when they decided to call their wares “VRAC.” It seems the French equivalent of the self-righteously stupid American wine product called “Cheap Red Wine.” Did they think no one would get it? Or were they just hoping that people would line up to buy the wines to congratulate them for their brutal honesty? In either case, at $10-12 per bottle, they’re certainly not being sold at en vrac price levels.

What I really don’t get is why a “fine wine” merchant that wants to be taken seriously would carry these wines, much less trumpet their availability to thousands of e-mail subscribers, complete with ratings assigned by a shop employee. Just because someone out there will buy just about anything doesn’t mean you should sell it. Does it?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Napa Valley “Vino de Casa,” Ceja Vineyards 2002

Knowing I’d be in the mood for a simple meal at the end of a long, slow day at work on Tuesday, I took some ground lamb out of the freezer to thaw in time for dinner. In between other foci throughout the day, I gave some thought to what I’d pull from the cellar to accompany the lamb burgers I planned to make. I kept returning to two wines: one a Napa Valley red blend from Ceja Vineyards, the other a Saint-Joseph Rouge from Yves Cuilleron. During the course of the day, I stumbled upon a recent posting on Tom Wark’s Fermentation.

Tom’s piece, "Pointing Us Where We Should Be Looking,” discusses the political significance and importance of migrant, often illegal, laborers in the California wine industry. In the context of the post, Tom happened to mention Amelia Ceja, owner of Ceja Vineyards, who, unbeknownst to me until that point, was the first Mexican-American woman to head a US-based winery. This chance discovery and random chain of occurrences made clear my final choice. It would be the 2002 “Vino de Casa” from Ceja.

Napa Valley “Vino de Casa,” Ceja Vineyards 2002
I don’t often write about new world wines. Frankly, that’s because even though I cut my teeth on them I no longer drink them with much frequency. Too many of the wines, famous or not, have been pushed to levels of ripeness, alcohol and “polish” that have made them unfriendly to food and uninteresting to the delicate sensibilities of this old man’s jaded palate. Fully aware that this is a huge generalization, I try to keep a slightly open mind and, from time to time, will pick up a bottle or three to explore what’s out there and to stay at least a little in touch with a huge part of today’s wine industry.

Frankly number two: I never would have selected this wine on my own. A California blend of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah (foul ball, strike one) from a producer unknown to me (caught me looking, strike two) would generally have about as much appeal as the thought of getting my finger caught in a mouse trap. Blend Pinot Noir with Gamay in Cheverny or in a Bourgogne Passetoutgrains and you might have a good chance at a characterful everyday quaff. Blend it with César in Irancy, one of the more esoteric corners of Burgundy, and things can get interesting. But blend Pinot Noir with Merlot and Syrah? It seems sure to have its voice drowned out by its louder partners.

So how did this bottle end up chilling in my little cellar for the last two years? I put myself in the hands of a staff member at a good wine shop, Teller Wines, during a week at the Delaware shore a couple of summers ago. And, after talking with the salesperson for a while, I asked him specifically to recommend a couple of things that he liked that were outside my usual stomping grounds. It’s a good way to get to try new things, especially if you have a sense that the person doing the recommending actually cares about wine. I ended up with just two bottles: a New Zealand Gewurztraminer and the 2002 “Vino de Casa” from Ceja.

When I finally uncorked the Ceja this past Tuesday, it turned out to be surprisingly good. Its color was a bright ruby/cherry red. It was not opaque; rather, I could actually see my hand, albeit slightly distorted, through the wine in my glass. And it smelled and tasted like, well, Pinot Noir, California style, with lots of forward black cherry and spice on the nose along with clean fruit and uplifting acidity on the palate. The wine didn’t have a particularly strong sense of place beyond that “Californianess” – I could have placed it in Santa Barbara or the Russian River just as easily as in the Napa side of Carneros – but it did taste like pretty honest wine. It wasn’t terribly over-adjusted. Most happily of all, it wasn’t high alcohol nor was it hot on the finish. And it was actually pretty food friendly. I could have asked for a more perfect match for the lamb burgers – the Ceja was almost devoid of tannins and a little on the jammy, straightforward side. But it definitely didn’t suck. And sometimes that’s actually pretty high praise.

$23. Produced and bottled by Ceja Vineyards. Under 14% alcohol (exact content unlisted). Natural cork closure.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Wine Course: Demystifying Bordeaux

Do you think you’ll be hungry for something to do during the brief lull following Thanksgiving? Interested in learning about Bordeaux? In moving beyond thinking of the region’s wines simply as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot? I’ll be teaching the fourth in a series of regional wine courses on Tuesday, November 27, 2007, from 6:30 to 8:00 PM, at Tria Fermentation School in Center City Philadelphia. This time around, we’ll be discussing wines from Bordeaux. It’s a big topic to knock off in one course, so think of it as a broad introduction. We’ll be covering both whites and reds from a wide array of Bordeaux’s many sub-regions. Tria’s lovely classroom space is limited to 24 students and seats sell out quickly so register online today. I hope to see you there!

If you’d like to take a class but can’t make it on the 27th, be sure to check out the rest of the schedule at Tria Fermentation School. They’ve just released their new course schedule which runs through the end of November.

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

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Burger and a Beer: The Belgian Café

Beer. Burgers. Mussels. Why mess with a good thing? Fergus Carey and Tom Peters have been at the forefront of Philadelphia’s gastro-pub movement since 1985, when Carey founded Fergie’s Pub at 12th & Sansom. The duo’s latest endeavor is The Belgian Café, recently opened in the old digs of Tavern on Green at 21st and Green Streets in Fairmount.

One couldn’t be faulted for thinking of their new spot as “Monk’s West.” Both the menu and the beer list read like abridged versions of the tomes at Center City’s Monk’s Café. There’s a strong focus on burgers and moules frites, with a prodigious selection of vegetarian/vegan options but an otherwise pared down selection of bar snacks, sandwiches and main plates. As at Monk’s, and as the restaurant’s moniker suggests, there’s a strong Belgian bent to the beer list, which is clearly dominated by a broad, careful selection of Belgian ales, rounded out by some local brews and a smattering of options from Germany, Holland, Canada and Italy. There’s already plenty to choose from, backed up by a promise of an expanded selection once additional refrigerated storage is installed.

Like the beer list, the environs at The Belgian Café are very much a work in progress. In a way, the slightly incomplete feel of the space – an unmarked main entrance, unfinished window treatments and a few other missing touches – lends an element of charm. The free flowing space in the bar and dining room, along with sidewalk seating, give it a neighborhood vibe appropriate to its location in residential Fairmount. Wide, capacious rooms afforded designer John Dorety the opportunity to create a space which is relaxed and maneuverable, with a clear demarcation between bar and dining room. The barroom looks and feels very much like a larger, brighter version of the back room at Monk’s, with richly toned, gothic wood paneling units decking the walls and echoing the presence of the bar itself, which is lined with large wooden stools and backed by beer coolers, taps and a full complement of spirits and cocktail ingredients. In contrast, the dining room is brightly lit, painted with art nouveau stenciling in sunny tones. Windows line two sides of the room, giving views of passersby on both 21st and Green, while the inner wall is hung with a quintet of paintings by Andrew Wrigley portraying sylvan visions of the female form.

After enjoying a couple of beers at the bar, I was more than ready to order up some grub once a table became available. The cyclist in me couldn’t resist starting with a small order of the Eddy Merckx mussels, petite PEI’s steamed in a broth of rice, peas, peppers, tomato, saffron and Sly Fox Pale Ale. I’m not sure what the rice was meant to accomplish; the spoonful of kernels at the bottom of the bowl wasn’t enough to satisfy The Cannibal’s post-race carbohydrate craving, nor did it seem to add any richness to the broth. The peas, though, did lend a sweet, earthy tang of contrast to the briny flesh of the mussels. The refreshing texture and citrus, slightly funky flavor of Dupont Saison farmhouse ale made for a nice pairing.

Going to the core of the menu, I opted for a burger and a beer – La Chouffe, at the recommendation of our waitress – as a main course. The Bruegel is a classic beef burger, topped with bacon and melted sharp cheddar. Though cooked a tad past the requested medium-rare, the fat content in the beef was sufficient to maintain plenty of juiciness; however, especially when combined with the cheese and bacon, the burger also teetered on the edge of greasiness.

At the moment, the kitchen at The Belgian Café seems to be running a step behind the standard set at the original Monk’s Café. With a bit of fine tuning – the mussels need just a bit more flavor concentration to their broth while the burgers would benefit from a sturdier roll, such as the stirato served at Monk’s, and a surer hand at the stove – I hope the food will rise in quality as the design of the restaurant takes its final shape. The well thought out structure, ample space and relaxed atmosphere are already enough to make The Belgian Café a worthy destination for pilgrims in search of fine ale and chow as well as a regular watering hole for the denizens of Fairmount.

The Belgian Café
21st & Green Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Belgian Cafe in Philadelphia

Sunday, October 14, 2007

WBW #38 Roundup Due Soon and WBW #39 Theme Announced

My opportunity to participate in the most recent round of Wine Blogging Wednesday, and to taste, learn and write about Portuguese wine, was foiled by the nasty side effects of the cocktail of pharmaceutical products I’ve finally finished in the aftermath of a collision with acute appendicitis. Ryan and Gabriella at Catavino were gracious hosts and should be posting their summary of all of the submissions from October’s edition shortly.

In the meanwhile, my esteemed fellow blogger Brooklynguy will be hosting WBW #39. As the theme, he’s chosen what he’s calling “Silver Burgundy:” Red or White Burgs from the less esteemed southern reaches of the region, the Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise. I could take the easy way out and re-submit the piece on the Saint-Véran “Tirage Précoce” of Domaine Corsin which I wrote for WBW #36: “Naked Chardonnay.” Instead, I think I’ll look forward to a good reason to hunt down something new and interesting to try and to continue on my path of Exploring Burgundy. Wednesday, November 14 is the due date, so mark your calendars and start shopping.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chadds Ford Wine Dinner at Brandywine Prime

I’m hardly out to become what Lenn Thompson at LennDevours is to New York state wines, or what Sonadora at WannabeWino is to Virginia wine country. Once in a while though, I figure I can do my part to spread the word about potentially interesting events at some of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s wineries, particularly when they are combined with happenings at some of the better restaurants in the area.

So, on that note, next Thursday, October 18, Chester County’s own Chadds Ford Winery is teaming up with neighboring chophouse Brandywine Prime for a dual location wine tasting and dinner. The event begins at 6:30 PM with a reception and barrel tasting hosted by winemaker Eric Miller at Chadds Ford Winery. Tasting completed, the event will move two miles down the road for dinner, prepared by Chef Keith Rudolph at Brandywine Prime, where Keith’s menu will be paired with Chadds Ford wines. Cost for the entire event is $85. Check out the menu – or make a reservation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cour Cheverny "Domaine de la Désoucherie," Christian Tessier & Fils 2004

Domaine de la Désoucherie, the estate of Christian Tessier and his son Fabien, sits at one of the highest points in the terrain overlooking the commune of Cour-Cheverny, just west of Blois, in one of the coolest reaches of France’s Loire Valley. In the heart of château country, the estate sits within easy reach of the castles at Chambord, Cheverny, Blois and Beauregard. Though instituted as an AOC only in 1993, Cour-Cheverny can trace its roots back to the early 16th Century, when Francois I brought vine clippings from Burgundy to be planted on the grounds of his castle, Romorantin, designed for him by Leonardo da Vinci. Over the centuries, this vine’s identity became essentially one with the land surrounding Francois’ château; today, the vine is known as Romorantin, its origins in Burgundy all but forgotten.

Decidedly one of the more obscure of France’s wine regions, and produced from one of its least known grape varieties, Cour-Cheverny comprises just under 400 hectares of vineyard area confined to four communes surrounding the eponymous town. Tessier père et fils farm 25 of those hectares, planted on a soil base of silica, clay and flint. They produce wines within all three of the regional AOC’s: Cour-Cheverny, white wine made purely from Romorantin; Cheverny Blanc, blended white from Chardonnay and Sauvignon; and Cheverny Rouge, a red blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir. Typical to this cool climate viticultural zone, they also produce sparkling wine under the broad, regional AOC of Crémant de Loire.

Romorantin is a difficult vine to cultivate and a challenging wine to produce. It does not make for a happy blending partner. And its fruit, slow to ripen, must remain on the vine for up to a month after its local counterparts, making it highly susceptible to damage by rot and fall rainstorms. Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that Cour-Cheverny is essentially the only region in the world where Romorantin is cultivated in any meaningful quantity. Wine doesn’t get much more locally specific than this.

Cour-Cheverny “Domaine de la Désoucherie,” Christian Tessier & Fils 2004
A limpid golden green in the glass, Tessier’s Cour-Cheverny is evocative of fresh hay and acacia blossoms on the nose. Those aromas carry through to a palate of bitter lemon and delicate minerality, medium acidity and broad, fresh texture. With time in the glass, a hint of honey and toasted hazelnuts emerges, finishing with a subtle suggestion of orange marmalade. The wine screams Loire Valley in its cool, crisp, mineral tones. No one could be faulted for mistaking the wine for a less honeyed version of Chenin or even for a less citrus example of Sauvignon. Its personality, though, asserts itself in a way that is simply and proudly different.

The wine paired admirably with roast chicken with pan roasted golden beets and yukon gold potatoes; it threw sparks in particular when sipped after the beets. Shellfish and medium-aged goat cheese should also make for lovely culinary partners.

$16. 12% alcohol. Natural cork closure. US importer currently unknown.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Blackbird Dining Establishment

Chef Alex Capasso has unfurled his knife roll and signed the lease for a new space in Collingswood, New Jersey. The opening of Blackbird Dining Establishment is his first appearance as both chef and owner and marks his return to the kitchen after an almost two-year hiatus preceded by stints at nearby – and now defunct – Misto and Max’s. In addition to carrying on the French, Mediterranean, Italian and Asian influences of the cuisine at both of those venues, his menu at Blackbird is still showing the roots of his early days on the line at Brasserie Perrier. And his cooking is still nothing to sneeze at. Capasso’s seasonal menu is divided smartly into five simple sections – appetizers, salads, pasta, fish and meat – with a manageable three to five options in each category. Dish descriptions are informative yet succinct and the plates capture the spirit of the restaurant’s casual, eclectic mission without falling into hodgepodge or suffering from over or under-ambition.

The remaining elements of the Blackbird experience have some serious catching up to do before they’ll be in synch with the ambition of the kitchen. Problems start immediately upon entering the door. It’s the classic BYO vestibule crush: nowhere to stand, nowhere to sit and no room to move. In warmer weather, the issue could be alleviated with the addition of benches, though the narrow parking lot out front might not be a friendly environment for them. It will be an issue of greater concern as the temperature begins to drop. Reservations do seem to be honored promptly, as we were led to our seats immediately after successfully circumnavigating the waiting crowd.

The dining room, finished in cocoa and mustard earth tones, is split effectively into three parts, with seating areas to the left and right of the central entranceway and a small three-step-up split level area in the rear behind the hostess stand. Banquettes line the side walls, with tables and chairs packed into the central space to maximize the potential for covers. To the designer’s credit, the combination of two, four and six-top tables are arranged so as to avoid the sensation of crowding once seated. However, the narrow labyrinth of walking space that remains makes for some awkward, hip twisting work for the wait staff, who more than once executed overhead handoffs to get food from one part of the room to another.

The biggest environmental issue at Blackbird though, and a clear shortcoming on the designer’s part, is the noise level. Hardwood floors, untextured and unadorned walls, relatively low ceilings, and bare glass windows make for an absolutely cacophonous space. Radicchio had long held the title, at least in my experience, as the loudest restaurant in the Philadelphia area. It’s lost the belt to Blackbird. There were several points during the evening when I had to cup a hand to my ear in order to hear my dining companions from the other side of the table.

Thankfully, they do serve a side of food with the decibels at Blackbird. It’s the quality of that food which helps to make up for some of the establishment’s other shortcomings. This was day one for Blackbird's new Autumn menu; it presented us with some difficult decision making.

Crispy Veal Sweet Breads, olive fregola sarda, natural veal jus
Four tender, well-seasoned medallions of sweetbreads, pan sautéed and set atop a bed of fregola sarda spiked with briny little slivers of olives. Veal jus, rich and silky, made for a fine finishing touch while a spray of raw baby beet greens brought a bitter, earthy accent to play. A little extra outer crispiness to offset the marrowy richness of the sweetbreads would have been welcome but this appetizer course was nonetheless quite satisfying.
Arborio Rice & Coriander Crusted Gulf Shrimp, avocado salad, cilantro oil
This seemed a bit misplaced in the Salads section of the menu, as three meaty, grilled shrimp clearly took center stage. Interplay between the coriander dusting on the shrimp and the cilantro oil on the plate gave a spicy little kick, balanced by the creamy, cooling textures provided by a bed of avocado salad which in turn had enough acid balance to keep it from weighing down the plate.

As promising as our starter courses were, it would prove to be a while before we’d see if the main courses would keep up the standard. Maybe it’s just the Saturday night phenomena or perhaps the inevitable side-effect of a good review in the paper. Or maybe the restaurant is still just working out some opening kinks. Whatever the reason, Blackbird’s service staff seemed unable to keep pace with the needs of their customers, while the kitchen struggled mightily with pacing and expediting. Forty-five minutes elapsed between the clearing of our appetizers and the arrival of mains. During that time, no bread was offered. We had to ask for our wine, which had been swept away after an initial pour, to be returned to the table. That luxury of lag time, though, didn’t stop our server from clearing a companion’s first course before others had finished and then lurking over the table waiting for last bites to be consumed. Think I’m being too tough? Or too detailed? I’m actually skipping over a number of other issues for the sake of brevity and fairness. Let’s just say a little service staff training and better communication with the kitchen could go a long way to improving the overall experience.

Once again, food, the one clear saving grace at Blackbird, came to the rescue.

Butter Poached Maine Lobster, house made fettuccini, tomato compote
This may have been the course of the night for its combination of simplicity, focus and well executed technique. Ordered as a half-portion, the dish consisted of a tender, toothsome split lobster tail fanned over a nest of handmade fettuccine finished generously with a bright, ever so slightly sweet, low-acid summer tomato compote. I could have made a meal of a full portion of this and left a happy camper.
Pepper Crusted Saddle of Venison, butternut squash ravioli, Grand Veneur sauce
I’m a sucker for game as the fall season starts to set in, so choosing Venison as my main course was a no-brainer. Seared and roasted to a perfect medium rare, the sliced saddle was perfectly tender and satisfying without any hint of the metallic edge that often mars venison. In lieu of a typical northern Italian fruit sauce, Chef Capasso opted for classic French influence in the form of a deeply flavorful Sauce Grand Veneur. Though the pepper crust had been applied to the venison with a bit too much zeal, its heating influence was smartly tamed by the sweet, lacey interior of two pillow-sized butternut squash ravioli.

The dessert menu, though hardly as far behind the overall ambitions of the kitchen as the service and pacing components at Blackbird, does have some catching up to do. Executive Pastry Chef Jill VanDuyne has put together an attractive but mostly predictable collection of homey, straightforward confections. I couldn’t pass up the one dish that stood out for its apparent whimsy and lack of convention.

American Eclectic: whoopie pie, root beer float, cracker jacks
In a culinary world peppered with molecular gastronomy and clever wordplay on menus, I half expected something edgy, or at least tongue in cheek, when I ordered American Eclectic. Nope. It’s a trio of little confections which delivers exactly what it promises: a reminiscence of bygone days spent indulging in treats at the local soda fountain. The star performance of the group was clearly provided by the chocolaty goodness and precious appearance of the whoopie; the other elements brought eye appeal to the plate but were otherwise less than memorable.
Lemon Ying Yang Tart: lemon curd, whipped cream, passion fruit sorbet, raspberry sorbet, pistachio brittle
If not for Ms. VanDuyne’s name at the bottom of the pastry menu, I would have assumed based on a dish like this that the desserts at Blackbird were ordered in from a stock bakery service. Her lemon tart was perfectly tasty but presented little if anything that showed the creativity that an in-house pastry chef should bring to play. One exception: the pistachio brittle, more firm and snappy than hard and shattery, was good enough to be packaged to go.

In the end, the quality of food emanating from the kitchen at Blackbird Dining Establishment certainly merits a return visit. I would just give the Friday/Saturday crush a pass and wait awhile for the frenzy to die down from the positive review in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Chef Capasso has done a good job of marshalling his skills, creating a menu that is inspired without being aggressively creative or falling back on the mundane. It should be a good room, with a few renovations in place, in which to grow and evolve as the seasons change.

Blackbird Dining Establishment
619 Collings Avenue
Collingswood, NJ 08107
Blackbird Dining Establishment in Collingswood

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Given the need to lay low brought on by some recent unfortunate circumstances, I’ve found enough time in the last few days to do a bit of tidying up at McDuff’s Food & Wine Trail.

In an effort to make what I hope are viewed as some of the more “concrete” pieces of the site more readily available, I’ve created index pages that put all posts in a couple of key categories under one roof. The pages are intentionally buried in the archives so as not to interfere with current content. I’ll be adding sidebar permalinks to them shortly so that they’ll be easily accessible for your perusing pleasure. In the meanwhile:

Going through some old photographs from a trip to Europe in 2004, I came across a lovely snapshot of Jacques Diebolt and his family. I’ve added it to my winery profile on the small grower Champagne house, Diebolt-Vallois.

And finally, I’m always happy to receive reader comments. Intrepid importer Joe Dressner stopped by recently and had a couple of quibbles with some of my tasting notes in an old post about wine and food with my buddy Bill. He later stopped by again to correct himself. Fact checking can be one of the aspects of wine writing most fraught with difficulty and dead-ends, so constructive criticism, even corrections, are always welcome.


Friday, October 5, 2007

Weingut Emrich Schönleber: Putting Monzingen on the Map

Weingut Emrich-Schönleber’s viticultural history is fairly recent. It’s under the aegis of the current patriarch, Werner Schönleber, who completed his viticultural studies in 1967, that the estate has slowly but surely risen over the last few decades to the top tier of Nahe wine estates. The early vinicultural history of the estate, however, goes back 250 years on Werner’s mother’s side – the Emrich side – of the family. At the time of my visit at the estate in February 2004, young Frank Schönleber, Werner’s son, was still enrolled in viticulture and oenology programs at the College of Geisenheim. “Junior” has since joined the estate’s farming and wine growing team in a full-fledged capacity, making Emrich-Schönleber a truly multi-generational, family winery.

Not familiar with the Nahe? Aside from the fame of the wines of Dönnhoff and, more recently, of Schönleber, that’s not too surprising. The Nahe is a small river relative to the majestic Rhein and lacks something in luster when compared to the storied history and famous estates of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer valleys. To oversimplify the path of the river, the Nahe flows “between” the Mosel and the Rhein. It finds its source in the highlands not far to the west-southwest of Monzingen and then follows a serpentine path eastward, turning to the north-northeast near Bad Kreuznach before eventually finding its confluence with the Rhein near the town of Bingen. This puts Monzingen, the home of the Emrich-Schönleber estate, squarely in the upper, outer reaches of the Nahe.

It was the first journey to the Nahe for all of the members of our trip so it was with a mild sense of adventure that we left our morning appointment with Weingut Keller in the Rheinhessen, found Monzingen on the map and pointed our trio of cars in the right direction. An hour or so later, we found ourselves circling the quiet, fairly modern, somewhat suburban looking village of Monzingen, conducting a ritual which would be repeated many times over the course of our trek: looking for the little brown sign which would point us down the correct street to the winery. Finally making our way into the winery’s courtyard, we were greeted by Werner, a tall, athletic and reserved yet friendly man, his silver wave of hair the only clue to his years. After introductions and basic amenities, he led us back to our cars and out to the family’s vineyards.

Vines in Frühlingsplätzchen

The Schönleber property comprises roughly 14 hectares (around 33 acres) of vines, all within the village boundaries of Monzingen. More than ten of those hectares – roughly 75% of the overall property – are planted on the steep slopes of the hillsides overlooking the Nahe. That 75% figure is mirrored by the ratio to which the fields are planted to Riesling. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and tiny amounts of Scheurebe and other vines are planted as well, primarily on the flatter ground or in the richer soil bases, as they are considered to give less clear expressions of terroir than Riesling and are therefore deemed less worthy of the best sites. The slopes of the Monzingen hillsides range from 20% to 60% grades. While not as foreboding at first glance as the precipice-like pitches we’d seen at Weingut Ratzenberger the prior day, we were clearly in an arena where only the hard farming, strong and committed wine grower would choose to stake a claim. In fact, my overall impression upon entering the vineyards was that they seemed an amalgam, in the best sense, between the stark, stony slopes of the Mittelrhein and the gentler, sunnier, more fertile hillocks we’d seen that morning in the Rheinhessen.

Prime plots of the Frühlingsplätzchen and Halenberg vineyards, both Großes Gewächs (grand cru) sites, comprise the heart of the Schönleber’s property. Given the quality and clarity we already knew Schönleber’s wines to possess, we were stunned to find fields lying fallow all around their own well maintained parcels. Werner explained that many people, having come into their property through inheritance, have a sentimental attachment to the land which holds them back from selling. Yet they are not willing to undertake the work necessary to form them, to farm them, into the quality vineyards they could be. Understandable I suppose, but a crying shame. To the good though, it has given Werner and his family the slow but sure opportunity to add to their property over the years as some of those sentimental hold-outs have chosen to capitalize on their deeds. Werner speaks of Riesling with deep respect. He calls it a “hunger artist.” And at each step, the estate has focused its growth toward the best overall capacity for expression of that artistry by focusing their growth only on the choicest sites and steepest slopes.

A slice of Frühlingsplätzchen

The westernmost of the two great Monzingen vineyards is Frühlingsplätzchen, which means “a nice little place in Spring,” thus coined by the Romans who first planted vines there when they found the snow to disappear from its spot on the hill earlier than in the surrounding area. The earth here is decidedly red, a hue emanating both from a streak of red slate and from a substantial quantity of red loam overlying an otherwise rocky, quartzite soil base. It produces wines of fairly full, rounded body, marked by intense citrus fruit hints and a suggestion of mineral spiciness.

To the east of town, the smaller Halenberg rests on steep, rounded hills of very gravelly, sandy soil with a prominent vein of blue Devonian slate and very low loam content. The earth drains quickly here and the sun shines brightly, especially on the upper slopes, resulting in dry growing conditions that produce small berried clusters of Riesling. The wines tend to be more intensely aromatic and steely than those from Frühlingsplätzchen, at once more delicate yet also more brooding.

As we walked through the vineyards with Werner that afternoon, we’d intermittently seen a young woman out for a walk with her Rottweiler. I couldn’t imagine many prettier, more pacific spots to take the pup out for some exercise. Much to everyone’s chagrin, as we headed back to the cars for our return to the winery I somehow managed to find a way to take a little of that dog back with me. It took a hose in the courtyard garden to get the last of the fuchsia colored Rottweiler poop off my shoe. What the heck do they feed dogs in the Nahe?

Halenberg and the Dog

Back at the winery, clean-up duties completed, Werner led us to his cellars for the start of what would be one of the most intense tasting sessions of the trip. Luckily, Riesling results in palate fatigue much less quickly than most other wines.

Situated underground, Schönleber’s winemaking caves are modern, clean, simple and totally no-nonsense. Just a couple of naturally cold, humid, stone-cut rooms with tanks and casks of varying sizes, in-floor drainage to allow for regular cleanings, some simple fining and filtration equipment and the basic paraphernalia required for the job; nothing more.

Tasting from vat and cask in the cellar:
  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling
    Produced from fruit grown on the lower slopes of the Halenberg vineyard, picked at Spätlese ripeness but will be finished and marketed as a Kabinett. Delicate palate, with steely minerality and tingly grapefruit accents. Acidity was about 1g lower than usual, a side effect of the warm year, but still seemed sufficient to give balance and typicity.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken
    Pulled from oak cask. Finished two days prior to our visit. This showed ripe fruit, very deep mineral tones and a creamy texture.

  • 2003 Monzinger Riesling QbA halbtrocken
    Grassy on the nose, fuller bodied than in more typical years, slightly tart acidity. Fermentation and aging in steel only. Werner felt that the grassy character was unique to this single cask, most likely a characteristic given by the native yeasts specific to this tank. About 60-70% of his fermentations are run with native yeasts only.

  • 2003 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken
    Vibrant and lively fruit on the palate, with good body, even a bit of muscle, accompanied by greater elegance than present in the QbA halbtrocken.

  • 2003 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Kabinett
    Already very integrated; due for bottling in March. At 11.5 – 12%, it is quite high in alcohol for a Kabinett yet the purity of its fruit, along with lower than typical but still sufficient acidity, kept it balanced.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese
    Werner combined separate samples from two vats, destined to be blended before finishing. In Werner’s own words, one was “too sweet,” the other half-dry. Peaches and cream from beginning to end, with a correspondingly creamy texture.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese
    Atypically, this vat came from a parcel harvested on November 13 on the lower slopes of Halenberg; the estate’s Auslesen usually come from the mid and upper slopes. Most likely to be combined with a vat of greater richness from the upper slopes. Tasted of celery, sweet green grapes and grapefruit pith.

  • 2003 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Beerenauslese
    Eventually to be bottled as Auslese Goldkapsel. Ultra-ripe, no botrytis. Very elegant and creamy with pure, intensely concentrated fruit.

  • 2003 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Beerenauslese
    Pulled from vat, still on the yeast. More muscular than the Frühlingsplätzchen BA. Raisin, honey and super ripe grapefruit tones, accompanied by a delicate trace of botrytis. Brooding. Very closed.

Back upstairs, we settled in for another tasting session in the winery’s visitor room and learned just a bit more about the current practices at the property. For those that still insist most German wine is sweet, think again. 50-55% of the estate’s production is of trocken wine; 15-20% halbtrocken; with only 25-35% in any given year being finished in “fruity” or nobly sweet styles spanning the entire range from Kabinett through TBA and Eiswein.

Tasting from bottle:
  • 2002 Monzinger Riesling QbA halbtrocken
    Showing drier than when last tasted, with well integrated fruit and forward minerality. A trace of spritziness shows on the palate. Werner explained that this sometimes occurs naturally as a product of a very slow, cool fermentation, particularly given that he used only one pumping to remove the wine from its natural yeasts. Some carbon dioxide remains in the wine, whereas it would all have dissipated as gas in a warmer cellar.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken
    Fermentation and aging in old wooden casks, the notes of which show only in the wine’s youth. Broadly textured and intensely persistent. Werner recommends holding for 3-5 years and then drinking over the course of the next two to three decades.

  • 2002 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Spätlese
    Vibrant acidity, lively, pure yellow grapefruit scents. Excellent food wine.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese
    From a plot of light, slatey soil. Very high-toned aromatics. Raisined fruit and a very clean hint of botrytis. Some of the fruit was harvested at Auslese ripeness levels.

  • 2002 Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Spätlese “Rutsch”
    Rutsch is a family name for the steepest parcel of the Frühlingsplätzchen vineyard; the slope’s motto is, “Three steps up, two steps back.” Very high acidity, wonderful structure. The finish lingered for minutes.

    After pouring the above three Auslesen, Werner informed us that they’d been opened the previous Saturday, six days prior to our tasting. They were still singing, showing no signs of oxidation or open bottle fatigue.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese
    Late harvest qualities showing through with a little hint of botrytis. Mango, exotic fruit and loads of peach and very ripe grapefruit. Decadent.

  • 1992 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese
    Deep golden yet simultaneously bright in the glass. Petrol character emerging on the nose. Produced from what, at the time, were only four year old vines, bringing a lightness of body to the wine. At 11% alcohol, this was produced in a style that Werner called “classic,” a style which he preferred at the time though he’s since moved to a 9-10% range for most of the estate’s Auslesen. The truly “new style,” he stated, is for wines at an even lower 7-8% range.

  • 2000 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel
    Menthol, lavender, quince and wildflowers on the nose. Evidence of good but, in Werner’s words, “not perfectly fine” botrytis. At once rich, delicate and finessed. Proof of great work in the vineyards and the cellar in a rainy, difficult vintage. Only 300 liters produced. From my own notes, “Awesome,” not a word I use with any frequency. One of the most memorable wines of the entire trip.

  • 1998 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Eiswein
    Harvested from the lower slopes of Halenberg, the coldest spot of the slope due to diminished sun exposure. Intensely confectionery, rich fruit, confit, preserves. No botrytis. Grapey and cleansing acidity (15g). Like liquid candy. Decadent.

  • 2002 Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Eiswein
    50% raisined fruit, pegged at BA ripeness levels one day before harvest, followed by a frost which concentrated both the acidity and richness of the wine. Much more unctuous in texture than the ’98, with a musky, floral nose and scintillating acidity.

It was only as we moved through his wines in the tasting room that I sensed that Werner fully began to relax and let down his guard as he saw our expressions unfold after each subsequent pour. Seemingly at peace with the accolades he has received – Gault Millau called his 2004 wines the collection of the year and awarded Werner their Vintner of the Year award in 2006 – Werner is also clearly resolved not to rest on his laurels. He considers wine growing to be an ongoing education and is clearly happy to now have Frank joining him in the work to come. I look very much forward to their continuing success.

Werner and Frank Schönleber

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Life Interrupted

It’s been a few days since I’ve been able to post, longer than I usually like to go, but it’s been a rough stretch. Plans for my wife and I to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary over dinner at Marigold Kitchen on Sunday went awry when I came down, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, with what I thought was a nasty bout of food poisoning. After checking in to the ER at 11:00 PM Sunday night, I was finally diagnosed with acute appendicitis at around 6:00 AM on Monday. Six hours later, I was being wheeled into the OR for surgery – a laparoscopic appendectomy. Luckily, things went relatively smoothly and recovery progressed quickly enough that I was discharged from the hospital late yesterday afternoon.

The appendix is a little bugger and nobody really knows what it's for but when it goes bad it'll make you feel like death warmed over....

Suffice it to say that only now have I mustered enough energy to write a quick note to bring you all up to speed. It’ll be a few days before I get back to my usual tasting duties but, if energy enables, perhaps I’ll find the time to dig a few gems from the archives. In the meanwhile, thanks for staying in touch.
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