Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ansill Food & Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main room at Ansill (image courtesy of

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving Playback

I couldn’t help but notice the panoply of “here’s what I’ll be drinking (and here’s what you should be drinking) at Thanksgiving” postings from various and sundry of my fellow wine bloggers this year. In spite of the inherent American nature of the holiday, I fall squarely in the Franco-Prussian camp when it comes to pairing wines with the meal. Nonetheless, I didn’t post my choices ahead of time because I didn’t decide what I’d be drinking until the moment. Well, maybe I had a couple of ideas, but nothing totally concrete. Spending the day with my wife and a few of my more wine-devoted friends, suffice it to say I knew there would be no shortage of corks popping. So, without further ado, here’s the retrospective from Thursday’s festivities.

Le Cidre du Pays d’Auge NV, Christian Drouin
If there’s a holiday that calls out for Normandy cider, it’s Thanksgiving. Whether pomme or poire, a brut cidre makes for a lovely fall aperitif, particularly given the mid-afternoon start time for most folks’ Thanksgiving get-togethers. I’ve enjoyed Drouin’s cidre, as well as his fantastic Calvados, many a time in the past but I think something was amiss with this bottle, most likely heat damage. There were still plenty of apple skin aromas along with the pithy texture typical of Drouin’s brut; however, there was a sour, funky cheesiness dominating the nose and front palate, making this bottle a little less pleasurable than anticipated.

If there’s another beverage that sometimes seems inexorably tied to Thanksgiving, given its release date one week prior to the holiday, it’s Beaujolais Nouveau. I’ve given Nouveau the pass the last few years as I rarely find it worth the time to go as far out of the way as is necessary, living in PA and not selling any where I work, to find an example that’s even remotely interesting. However, one of my fellow diners had picked up a couple of potentially worthwhile bottles on a recent trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line. We opted to sample them both.

Beaujolais Primeur, Pierre-Marie Chermette 2007
Lean for a nouveau, this was slightly tangy and faintly suggestive of sweet cherry fruit. Though in possession of a tad more character than the usual mass market suspects, this was still, as fond as I am of Chermette’s real Beaujolais, essentially forgettable if quaffable juice.
$14. 12% alcohol. Synthetic closure (Nomacork). Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.

Beaujolais Nouveau, Domaine Dupeuble Père et Fils 2007
In hindsight, this made the Chermette seem pretty tasty. Slightly green fruit along with a chalky mouthfeel and an unmistakable flavor of aspartame combined to make for a less than pleasurable experience and also suggested rather heavy-handed chaptalization.
$17. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.

On to more invigorating subjects, I’ve found over the past several years that I’m drawn again and again to pouring dry German Rieslings at TG time. Few whites seem to possess as much grace, range and flexibility with the hodge-podge of dishes on the table.

Mittelrhein Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken, Weingut Ratzenberger 2003
If you’re among the camp that thinks no good white wines were produced in the hot, dry 2003 season in the European theater, think again. Ratzenberger’s 2003 is just beginning to come into stride, rounding out in texture yet remaining delicate and precise on the palate with a wonderful balance between acidity, ripeness, fruit and minerality. All slate and white fruits on the nose and in the mouth, with hints of gooseberry, white peach and rainier cherry. It was quite steely and plenty lengthy on the finish. Wonderful with an appetizer of Maryland style Old Bay steamed shrimp.
$15. 11% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Nahe Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen Riesling Spätlese trocken, Emrich-Schönleber 2001
Wow! Intensely vinous, fleshy and in possession of a powerful spine of acidity, this 2001 proves indeed that Werner Schönleber is turning out some absolutely great dry Rieslings. Baking spice, melon, grapefruit oil, peach and slate all come through, after some time for development and assessment. And I somehow smell the color blue. At a warmer temp, the wine turns lush and develops a big, tongue twisting texture. This has a long, long way to go. It was a bit too powerful for a place on the main table but man was it a treat to taste.
$28 on release. 12% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

In spite of my general avoidance, mentioned above, of Beaujolais Nouveau, I’ve happily turned in many a year to the wonders of good Cru Beaujolais for the Thanksgiving meal. This year though turned out to be a Pinot fest, as we sampled several young red Burgundies plus a curious ’03 from the Loire. The only problem is that, by this time in the day, kitchen and table duties were at their peak and my note taking essentially ended – completely. So please excuse the rather vague notes and missing data. It’s tough trying to taste, cook, talk, snap photos, and have fun all at the same time.

Bourgogne “Pinot Noir,” Domaine Henri Germain et Fils 2005
I’ve enjoyed many a white from Germain over the last few years, plus the occasional rouge from Beaune-Bressandes or Chassagne-Montrachet, but this was my first exposure to his basic Bourgogne rouge. It was a pleasure. Soft, feminine, sweet black cherry fruit with a silky, round mouthfeel and gentle acid/tannin balance. With time in the glass – this was already day two for the bottle – it became sappy and showed just a faint, pleasant hint of forest floor aromas. $25 seems to be the new median price point for Bourgogne rouge; it’s a shame, as if this were in the teens it would make for a great case buy.
$25. 13% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, Domaine A-F Gros 2005
This would have been better placed, in terms of tasting progression, before the Germain rouge. Light, bright and simple, with the griotte flavors and slightly smoky, herbal aromas typical to the Hautes-Côtes. A decent sip but, overall, the least remarkable wine of the Pinot flite.
$35 to 45. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: New Castle Imports, Myrtle Beach, SC.

Nuits-Saint-Georges “Les Damodes,” Domaine Philippe et Vincent Lécheneaut 2004
Classic dark red Nuits fruit, with good concentration and structure, lovely color and plenty of finesse. Good stuff – certainly the best wine of the group. My first experience with a wine from this estate.
Price unknown. Missed the alcohol level. Natural cork closure. Importer: unknown.

Sancerre Rouge, Edmond Vatan 2003
Vatan’s Sancerres, both red and white, tend to be wild and this was no exception. Oddly for a Pinot from the northern reaches, it reminded me of the flavors I’d experienced when tasting 2003 Bordeaux from barrel in February 2004. Torrefaction notes of nuts, coffee and cocoa. Similar flavors, along with a vein of stoniness, came through in the mouth. Yet the wine was lean, sinewy and firm, quite in contrast to the ripe, roasted flavors of the hot vintage. It seemed to be a sound bottle. But it was definitely a little wacky. Would anyone else out there like to share a tasting note?
Price unknown. Missed the alcohol level. Natural cork closure. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.

Finally, it was time for something sticky to close out the evening. I’m usually not much for pairing Sauternes with sweets but, when rooting through my cellar for a good candidate, this just seemed to jump out at me.

Sauternes Premier Cru Classé, Château Suduiraut 1997
When last tasted, around three years ago, this was showing hot, fat and a bit one dimensional. It’s now somehow come back around, unctuous yet lively, with plenty of honey, sweet marmalade, warm spice and tree blossom notes. And it actually did pair pretty nicely with some of the desserts, particularly the delicious apple dumplings which the daughter of our host made from a colonial-era recipe.
Price unknown. 14% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Unknown.

It was a Happy Thanksgiving indeed, shared with great friends!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Fair Food Farmstand

Albert recently left a comment that I thought deserved top-level discussion. I was remiss, when bemoaning the winding down of the Philadelphia area's farmers market season, in omitting mention of one of Philadelphia’s special resources, open year round at one of Philadelphia’s greatest institutions. The Fair Food Farmstand leverages the central and constant location of the Reading Terminal Market to present a year-round venue for produce, meat and dairy products from farms throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. Think of it as your own quaint little farmers market that just happens to be situated in one of the country’s largest public markets.

Fair Food Farmstand
12th and Arch Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Tuesday-Saturday: 8am - 6pm
Sunday: 9am – 4pm

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'll Miss My Market

The harvest holiday is upon us. While Thanksgiving makes for a great opportunity to enjoy good food and good wine(s) with friends and family, it also marks the end, at least in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states, of growing season. Sadly, that means that today was the last day for my local farmers market. On this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Oakmont Farmers Market celebrated the finale of a successful first year. I made sure to take advantage of one last opportunity to pick up some fresh fruit and veggies, as well as to stock the freezer with a few cuts of naturally raised buffalo meat from Backyard Bison.

As I sit here, writing and munching on a Bosc pear from Fruitwood Orchards Honey Farm, I can’t help but think of how sorely I’ll miss all the fresh, locally grown produce, as well as the connection with the farmers and friends, over the cold, dreary months to come. I missed the market only twice all season: once while entrenched in re-pointing the masonry on the south facing side of my house, the other while recovering from an emergency appendectomy. It became a weekly habit that will be hard to break.

I'll miss Jay and Lisa at North Star Orchard almost as much as I'll miss their great tree fruits, root vegetables, and heirloom tomatoes.

For those of you in the Philadelphia area who have developed a similar craving throughout the warmer months, all is not yet lost. The Headhouse Farmers Market, the largest and arguably most diverse of our local markets, will continue through December 23. Obviously, fresh produce will dwindle in diversity and availability as the weeks pass. But some of our region’s best meats, cheeses and other locally produced specialty products will continue to be available straight from the arms of their producers. I only managed to make it there once during the summer. Something tells me, though, that I’ll be heading back a couple of times between now and Xmas.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Keep Up the Good Work, Gentlemen and Ladies

Props go out to a couple of my favorite wine bloggers – Lyle Fass at Rockss and Fruit and Neil at Brooklynguy Loves Wine – for getting name-dropped by New York Times columnist Eric Asimov in the context of his interview on Tom Wark's Fermentation. For that matter, props also go to Mr. Wark for helping to build the community with the strength of his blog via his recent Bloggerviews.

Heck, as long as we’re spreading the good word, I’d recommend heading on over to Neil’s site to check out his summary of the submissions for Wine Blogging Wednesday 39: Silver Burgundy. The theme for WBW 40, to be hosted by Sonadora at Wannabewino on Wednesday, December 12, has also been announced. It’s about the last thing I’d normally reach for, Petite Sirah, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Nice work, all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Last Vouvrays of Philippe Poniatowski

Approaching the Vouvray estate of Prince Philippe Poniatowski by car – as our entourage did in February 2004 – it would be easy to pass it by unnoticed. Set in a quiet, semi-residential and semi-industrial street not far from the sleepy center of town, nothing about its initial appearance screams of wine greatness. Even passing by the crowning glory of the estate, the single vineyard Clos Baudoin, one could be forgiven for not noticing anything particularly special.

The Clos Baudoin vineyard and its original walls date back to 1707.

But standing in the caves of the winery, excavated into the hillside directly below the Clos and behind the estate house, the heart of one of the hidden jewels of Vouvray is fully exposed. The cave’s ceiling, high overhead, lies below 15 meters of the rock, clay and limestone which make up the soil base of the Clos Baudoin. The vines have dug so deep in search of nourishment that the tips of their probing roots can be seen dangling in mid-air. The caves serve not only as the final hunting ground for the vines above but also as the winery and bottle storage facilities for the estate. If ever a case could be made for extending the definition of “terroir” to include a winery, here’s the evidence. Every bottle stored in these caves bears a trace, on the air-end of the cork, of the cellar shmuts that coats the dark, moist walls. And every wine from 2001 back bears an aromatic suggestion that is hauntingly evocative of this subterranean home.

The estate house: cellars lurk through the door to the left, the Clos Baudoin lies above.

Philippe is the third – and would be the last – generation of the Poniatowski clan, descendents of the last Polish royal family, to run the estate. The original six acres of the property were acquired by Philippe’s grandfather in 1918. The story of that acquisition has been recounted many times yet always bears repetition. Having discovered the wines of the Clos Baudoin at his favorite lunch spot, Au Petit Riche in Paris, Philippe’s grandfather, a successful industrialist, decided to buy the property when he learned it was in danger of being uprooted, somewhat ironically, to make way for industrial expansion. As is typical in the small-farm wine business, the Poniatowski family fortune has been shrinking ever since. Philippe assumed ownership of the entire property in 1970, buying out his brothers’ shares to become the sole proprietor.

Since taking the helm, Philippe produced two flagship wines each year. The cuvée called “Aigle Blanc,” named for the white eagle which is part of the Polish royal family’s insignia, represents a blend of fruit from multiple vineyard sites, including Poniatowski’s portions of Le Mont and Le Haut Lieu. The flagship of the estate was always the “Clos Baudoin,” a single vineyard, monopole bottling from arguably one of the best sites in Vouvray. In the best vintages for sweet wines, it was not unusual for multiple cuvées or selections of each to find their way to market with slightly different labels and at different times and price points. He first began exporting wines to the US in 1982. Later, Poniatowski purchased two adjacent vineyards in 1988, christening the wine produced from them “Clos de l’Avenir” (vineyard of the future) when the wall separating the two plots collapsed, creating a larger “new” site, shortly after his assumption of ownership. Finally, limited quantities were produced of another single vineyard bottling from the one-acre “Clos des Patys,” sold exclusively to Restaurant Jean Bardet in Tours.

Prince Philippe, a true gentleman estate owner, was never a farmer or a winemaker. Instead, he chose to hire oenologists and viticulturalists while running the business aspects of the property himself. Through the 1996 vintage, M. Poniatowski had managed his hiring decisions well, bringing in talented staff who turned out some of the most memorable wines ever to have passed my lips: a searingly bone dry, mineral laden 1984 “Aigle Blanc;” delicate, nuanced demi-sec cuvées such as the 1996 “Aigle Blanc” and the stonier 1995 “Clos de l’Avenir;” and stunning, potentially ageless, constantly evolving moelleux wines from the great back-to-back years of 1989 and 1990, whether the single vineyard “Clos Baudoin” cuvée or the theoretically less illustrious “Aigle Blanc” bottlings.

A new estate manager brought in as of the 1997 season, though, turned out to be a bad hire. The wines produced between 1997 and 2001 would turn out to be inconsistent in quality, not living up to the potential of the property. Realizing his errors and with an eye to selling the estate, Monsieur Poniatowski hired the young, talented François Chidaine – vigneron at his own estate on “the other side of the river” in Montlouis – to take over all wine making and farming responsibilities. Chidaine would be charged with the challenge of bringing the vineyards and, of course, the wines back to their potential.

Testament to the special qualities of the Clos Baudoin's situation, flowers bloom in early February.

Complicating matters, it turned out that while farming and wine making had slacked during the late 1990s, the Prince had also not been keeping up with his sales and marketing duties. His efforts to sell the estate were being stymied by the inclusion in the overall package of a huge library of back-vintage wines. Our tasting with Philippe would turn out to be almost as depressing as it was educational, as he introduced each wine not with information about the vintage or stylistic characteristics but rather with the number of bottles remaining in his caves. He clearly approached our time at the tasting table, much more so than during our more typical visits, as a nitty-gritty opportunity to sell us on some of those wines.

Essentially retired, and at least in his eighties, the Prince, though still stoically attached to the property and its wines, was clearly looking for a viable exit strategy.

Tasting Desperation:

  • Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1995 (Lot 1)
    6900 bottles still available in Poniatowski’s cellars. 9 grams residual sugar; 6 grams acidity. Aromas of honey and spring flowers followed by very mineral, flinty palate. A tad oxidative.

  • Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1995 (Lot 2)
    3200 bottles. Less rich than Lot 1, with a more limestone driven nose. Much fresher fruit and livelier on the palate.

  • Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1995 (Lot 5)
    6000 bottles. Quite similar to Lot 1 but slightly earthier. The driest of the three.

  • Vouvray “Clos des Patys” 1995 (Lot 1)
    3000 bottles; could be commercialized as “Aigle Blanc.” Ripe, fresh and elegant fruit. Creamy texture and tooth tingling acidity. The best of the ‘95s.

  • Vouvray “Clos de l’Avenir” 1998 (Lot 1)
    The 1998 shows woodiness more than any other Poniatowski wine I’ve ever tasted. Funky, with heady citrus oil tones on the palate.

  • Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 2001 (Lot 1)
    4000 bottles. Soft, very forward fruit, with lemon oil and acacia blossoms on the finish. Very friendly; would make a good aperitif.

  • Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 2001 (Lot 1)
    5000 bottles. Dry. Round texture with loads of acidity. More mineral and less fruit driven than the 2001 Aigle Blanc. Short finish. Sadly, not up to the standards of the vineyard.

  • Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1997 (Lot 1)
    48 grams residual sugar. Rich, low-acid and pretty tasty, with a hint of mintiness on the finish.

  • Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1997 (Lot 2)
    8000 bottles. 42 grams residual sugar. More intensely aromatic than Lot 1, with earthy tones and oily fruit though not as mineral as Poniatowski’s wines can be. The better by a hair of the two 1997 lots.

Tasting History:

  • Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1989
    68 grams residual sugar; 6 grams acidity. An effusive nose of honey and wildflowers, with the presence of pure, clean botrytis (which affected 30-50% of the fruit). Intense citrus oil, fat texture, great length.

  • Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1990
    79 grams residual sugar; 5.5 grams acidity. Sweet nose of mango and peach nectar. Opulent but not as nervy as the 1989.

    A broader view of the Clos Baudoin (February 2004).

  • Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1964
    This bottle pre-dated Philippe’s stewardship of the family estate. A rich golden hue, still bright and glowing, showed in the glass. Mushrooms and leaves on the nose followed by astounding freshness on the palate. Great acidity. Complex and even a bit closed, with rich apple fruit lingering on the finish.

  • Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1945
    When we saw Philippe reach for the 1945 bin in the cellar, we tried not to let our excitement show. When we realized he’d selected a Sec cuvée, we also did our best to mask our disappointment. 1945 was a great vintage for dry Vouvray but also produced some top sweet wines, which would be much more likely to have successfully weathered the last sixty years. Amber, almost Cognac-like appearance in the glass. Madeirized, with apple cider vinegar and nougat tones on the nose. Showing more like an Amontillado Sherry on the palate. Not even a suggestion of fruit remained, yet the wine was still interesting from an academic perspective.

Tasting completed and goodbyes said, I couldn’t help feeling that a wonderful history and the potential for continuing greatness, accompanied by a contrasting sense of despair and decay, had seemed to imbue nearly every aspect of our appointment. That bottle of 1945 Clos Baudoin, still clinging to a thread of its former glory although almost entirely faded, was strangely symbolic of the aura of our visit on that cold February morning.


The Prince finally reached an agreement of sale for the property in 2007, handing over ownership to François Chidaine. The wines have already undergone a facelift and made a drastic turnaround since Chidaine’s first year as winemaker in 2002. It will be interesting to track the future of the wines and the estate under his stewardship. In the meanwhile, another look, presumably the last, can now be had at some of the greater of those wines we’d seen aging in the Prince’s cellars. Bottlings of Aigle Blanc and Clos Baudoin from both 1989 and 1990 have recently reappeared on the US market, giving us all one more chance to taste a little of the past.

Related posts:

Friday, November 16, 2007

Back by Popular Demand: Demystifying Bordeaux

When last I mentioned one of my classes at Tria Fermentation School, announced here to coincide with Tria’s email blast, the course was sold out before most of my readers even had a chance. Based on the popular demand for that course (which is scheduled for the Tuesday following Thanksgiving), the folks at Tria have asked me to repeat the session in December. This time around, I’ve asked them to let me promote the course here before they send out invitations to their email subscribers. So, act fast and you may just be able to score a seat or two. Here are the details:

Interested in learning about Bordeaux? In moving beyond thinking of the region’s wines simply as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot? I’ll be repeating my November Bordeaux class, the fourth in a series of regional wine courses, on Tuesday, December 18, 2007, from 6:30 to 8:00 PM, at Tria Fermentation School in Center City Philadelphia. We’ll be covering both whites and reds from a wide array of Bordeaux’s many sub-regions. It’s a big topic to knock off in one course, so think of it as a broad introduction. 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!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Viré-Clessé

My thanks go out to Neil, aka Brooklynguy, who’s serving as the generous host for this month’s edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW #39), which is focusing on what he’s called Silver Burgundy: the wines of the Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise. He’s also given me the perfect impetus to create a new installment in my continuing series on Exploring Burgundy. So, without further ado….

The villages of Viré and Clessé are situated at about the mid-point between Mâcon – the capital of the Mâconnais district of Burgundy – to the south and the town of Chardonnay to the north. Though wine villages such as Lugny do lie further north, Viré-Clessé is the northernmost of the top-level AOCs within the Mâconnais. Its soils are marly, with high limestone content and a granite-rich base.

Viré-Clessé is a relatively new appellation to Burgundy, created in November 1997 and applying to wines as of the 1998 vintage. This new AOC serves as both a combination and elevation of the Mâcon-Villages level AOCs of Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé in recognition of the superior quality potential emanating from the zone.

As should be expected within the hierarchy of the French appellation system, the newly established requirements for Viré-Clessé are more stringent than for the previous zones and for the other “lesser” areas of the Mâcon. Yields are limited to a maximum of 55 hl/ha, whereas Mâcon-Villages guidelines allow up to 70 hl/ha. Residual sugar levels are capped at three grams per liter, thus eliminating the possibility of off-dry or late harvest versions of Chardonnay – the only vine allowed in this white wine-only appellation – being accorded AOC status.

Any short list of the best producers in Viré-Clessé must perforce include Domaine André Bonhomme. Though today considered an iconoclast (in the most positive sense), Monsieur Bonhomme was initially considered mad when, in 1957, he decided to step away from contract relationships with the négociants who dominated the Mâconnais wine scene to begin estate bottling his own wines. It was largely upon his work, which included low yields, intensively hands-on farming and fastidious wine making, that the guidelines for the AOC Viré-Clessé were based.

Today, as it was 50 years ago, André farms 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of vineyards and produces small quantities of some of the most elegant wines of the region. In most vintages he produces four wines, including a Mâcon-Villages plus three different cuvées of Viré-Clessé: a Viré-Clessé “normale,” Cuvée Spéciale, and Cuvée Vieilles Vignes.

I’ve been drinking Bonhomme’s wines without missing a year since the early 1990’s, back when they were still labeled as Mâcon-Viré. So, even though WBW often presents the opportunity to try something new, I thought I’d play to my strength for this episode. To keep things interesting, I also decided to tap my cellar rather than the current retail offerings, choosing two cuvées from the 2002 vintage.

Viré-Clessé, Domaine André Bonhomme 2002
The base Viré-Clessé of Domaine Bonhomme is vinified and aged primarily in steel, with about one-third of the wine seeing time in older barrel. At five years of age, the 2002 is eye-openingly good. It shows a bright, penetrating yellow in the glass and is still quite young in both appearance and aroma. Palate sensations are of peach skin, pear butter, clover honey, bitter orange marmalade and green figs. The wine overcomes some issues shown in other white Burgundies of the same vintage, exhibiting not the slightest hint of oxidation. The oak, barely discernible, is perfectly integrated, lending just a subtle tannic bite. Generous fruit and texture, along with vinous extract and gripping acidity, point to a long future.

On day two, the wine gives an immediate sensation of mint and beeswax. Golden apple tones have developed, persisting on the finish along with a hint of marzipan. It still shows brilliantly, with elegantly integrated acidity and good length. If I’d tasted this blind, I might have been fooled for a Chenin from Côteaux du Layon, albeit dry.

$18 on release. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Viré-Clessé “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine André Bonhomme 2002
Bonhomme’s cuvée VV comes from the oldest vines – 40 years plus – of the estate and is fully barrel aged, including a small percentage of new barriques. The only way for a shopper to differentiate the two bottlings, occasional gold medal aside, is via the "Vieilles Vignes" designation printed, along with the vintage, only on the neck label of the bottle. Tasting the wine non-blind and after the regular cuvée, it’s difficult not to think of it in relative terms. It displays a richer tone of gold in the glass, though still with the bright hues of youth. The aromas are less forthcoming yet darker and more brooding than with the normale. Peach driven fruit remains the letter of the day, yet there’s a darker core of apricot nectar here, along with a richer, rounder mouthfeel. Attractive vegetal hints play against a dark honeyed tone. The oak, though a touch less transparent, is just as well integrated as in the regular cuvée.

On day two, this morphed into a softer, rounder texture that might have fooled many a taster for a commune level Meursault. The vegetal tones dissipated, showing richer pear fruit and a silky, lightly buttery feel. Though also escaping any oxidative hints, this does seem to be more advanced than the regular Viré-Clessé, a surprise given the vine age but perhaps just a reflection of its less reductive, more barrel intensive wine making regime. I’d love to taste both wines again in five more years. But regrettably, this was my last bottle of the Vieilles Vignes. C’est tout! But it was a worthy cause.

$26 on release. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Other "Silver Burgundy" posts:

Monday, November 12, 2007

Morgon, Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) 2005

When’s the last time you picked up a bottle of wine that told you right on the front label that it should be decanted? Not exactly an everyday occurrence, I suspect. But that’s exactly what Jean-Paul Brun tells us to do with his 2005 Morgon. France is the last country from which I would expect to see that kind of direction, as French wineries tend to be about as hands-off as they come in terms of “label talk.” And for many people, I suspect that Beaujolais might be one of the last regions from which such instruction might seem likely, much less prudent. But Brun, in any number of ways, doesn’t seem afraid to be different. Not only does he flaunt his name on the front label of the bottle – it appears three times in various forms along with that note to decant – but he also provides quite a little narrative about his winemaking techniques on the rear étiquette.

Whatever you might think of this rather interventionist presentation of a wine made in a fastidiously non-interventionist manner, the quality of the wine speaks for itself. Brun adamantly refuses to use the cultured yeasts so prevalent in Beaujolais production, instead preferring to rely on the yeasts indigenous to his vineyards. The resulting wine reflects that choice, showing none of the tell-tale “Gamay Beaujolais” aromas that make many a Bojo jump out as dead obvious in blind tastings. Nonetheless, typicity still shines through. This is textbook Morgon, in the best possible sense.

When first opened and poured straight from the bottle, the wine is reticent, tight, firm and a bit narrow on the palate. Aromas emerge of cinnamon bark, cocoa and wild raspberries. After decanting, per J-P’s instructions, the wine expands to show sweeter raspberry fruit and a suggestion of framboise liqueur. Black raspberry and confectionery notes emerge as evolution continues in the glass and the decanter. There’s also persistent grip coming from very finely grained tannins, along with a refreshingly crunchy acid balance. After an hour of air, the wine continues to develop into caressing notes of french vanilla-laced black cherry ice cream. And finally, it’s all topped off with a sudden emergence of pipe tobacco and menthol aromas.

The alcohol level of record is 12%, seemingly in keeping with the Brun literature that makes much ado about his preference for lower alcohol Beaujolais which is only lightly, if at all, chaptalized. My palate tells me, however, that this bottle comes in closer to 13.5%. Legs galore, though not always meaningful, would seem to second that suggestion. The 1.5% flex in alcohol labeling requirements for French wine would certainly make this variance within the realm of possibility. If you’re lurking out there, Mr. Dressner, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this….

As beneficial as decanting turned out to be, it’s also worthwhile to heed Monsieur Brun’s advice to drink rapidly after opening (…consommer rapidement après débouchage). While development over the course of a couple of hours was compelling, the bit I saved until the next day – I just had to ignore the instructions for the sake of thorough reporting – did indeed fall apart. No worries, though. There’s no reason not to finish the bottle in one session.

$18. 12% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections.

Relevant reading:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bachelor of Wine?

In my ominipresent efforts to ensure that the letter of the law is upheld, I've been acutely yet silently sure, since the inception of this blog, to write at a high enough level of prose so as to dissuade the not-yet-of-age crowd from reading the very content your eyes are currently beholding. Heaven forbid, after all, that anyone under the age of 21 -- by more than a couple of years, at least -- should enjoy good food or an occasional taste of wine. It would simply destroy one's future....

Thanks to Professor Bainbridge, who apparently wants the younger set to sample the nectar of the vine and the treasures of the table, for the inspiration.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Cellar Door

Lenn and Neil, among others, have decided to put their racks on public display. I’m usually a little on the shy side but in this context I figured I’d jump right into the mix.

I keep the majority of my wine stash in a Vinotheque wine cabinet with double-deep racking, along with temp and humidity control, which holds just shy of 300 bottles when stuffed to the gills – which it perpetually is. More often than not, the only way to make space for something new is to drink something old. Not a bad situation, I suppose, though I’d love to have more space, dangerous as that would be.

Why the Vinotheque? At the time of purchase, I lived in an old apartment. The space had lots of character but quite narrow doorways. I knew I wanted something that would hold at least 250 bottles, a smaller unit wouldn’t have done me any good, and this was the only one on the market with a narrow enough profile to fit in the front door of the building. Not the ideal decision making parameter but hey, I just wanted to keep my wine happy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Domaine Barmès Buecher Current Releases

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you may have noticed that the blogging vehicle has provided me with the inspiration I needed, finally, to chronicle the details of a ten day whirlwind wine tour through Germany and France that I took back in February 2004. A visit at Domaine Barmès-Buecher, stop four of the trip, was the inspiration for the most recent installment. By a chance of timing, it was due up hot on the heels of a recent trip to the east coast by François and Genevieve Barmès. During their visit, I was able to spend a couple of hours catching up with the couple. Neither of them appeared to have aged a bit in the last several years. And as always, once we got him talking, François’ energy level was unbelievable. We managed to squeeze in enough time, just barely, to taste through the lineup of their wines now on the market. So, just in case you didn’t get your fill when reading through my notes on the 28 wines we tasted at the estate a few years back, here are a few thoughts on their current releases.

  1. Crémant d’Alsace 2005
    This vintage is a blend, which can differ from year-to-year, of Chardonnay (grown solely for this wine), Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. François considers it a finer vintage than the 2006 which is ready and waiting to ship. Very fine mousse, appley fruit, bright and biscuity. Ideal as an aperitif and as an accompaniment to smoked fish or game-based salads and appetizers.

    A little background: Crémant d’Alsace was established as an AOC in 1976. Barmès began producing his in the 1986 vintage. Though it is bottle fermented, Barmès’ production method differs slightly from the Méthode Traditionelle. François picks at 13° potential alcohol. Initial fermentation in tank is stopped at 11°. Natural grape yeasts are then added to the base wine, which is then bottled; no liqueur d’expedition is used. The hope – this process does accept a certain level of risk – is that secondary fermentation will then occur in bottle. There is no guarantee that the natural yeasts will get things going again. By nature of this process, Barmès’ Crémant d’Alsace is always a vintage wine and naturally differs from year to year.

  2. Pinot d’Alsace 2004
    100% Pinot Auxerrois. Low acid and spicy, with hints of apricot nectar. Seems less sweet than when last tasted, though a touch of RS still shows through. A bit fat. Intended simply as “un vin de plaisir.”

  3. Pinot Blanc Rosenberg 2005
    Medium bodied. Structured. Very mineral, with hints of dried honey. Far less rich than the 2002 currently on the market. Interestingly, these notes seem quite similar to those for the 2002 when it was tasted at the winery in 2004. It would seem that the Pinot Blanc sheds its minerality and acidity with age, in favor of rich pear fruit and honeyed texture.

  4. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Silicis” 2004
    The terrain of the “Silicis” portion of Rosenberg is dominated by limestone with a good deal of silex stones above and below ground, plus a dash of volcanic soil. Gun flint, graphite, peach pits and quince all spread across the palate. Solid acidity, something I don’t always associate with this wine. A good pairing for duck confit and salt-cured meats.

  5. Edelzwicker “Sept Grains” 2004
    This is an atypical Edelzwicker, produced from free run juice captured at the beginning of the wine making practice rather than from leftover or lower quality fruit as is more usual. For a full description of the production process, see the note from the 2004 visit.

    The 2004 is mostly Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. It shows the spice and slightly unctuous texture typical to Gewurztraminer with a good bolster of acidity from the Pinot Gris. A good choice for highly seasoned pan-Asian cuisine as well as a solid option for the Thanksgiving meal. As with the Crémant d’Alsace, the blend and resultant style differ from year to year; the 2005 version is dominated by Pinot Auxerrois.

  6. Riesling “Tradition” 2006
    Stony mouthfeel, with bitter lemon, citrus rind and dried apricot fruit tones. This vintage is an assemblage of fruit from Rosenberg, Herrenweg and Clos Sand, meant to express the typicity of Alsace Riesling rather than a particular site or terroir.

  7. Riesling Herrenweg 2004
    Tasting this immediately after the “Tradition” was very educational. Though the wine can sometimes seem fat, in this context I noticed more flesh (without fatness) and physiological intensity. Muscular on the palate and long on the finish. Riper citrus tones than found in the former wine. Pair with simple preparations, without sauces, of full-flavored fish like salmon or rouget.

  8. Riesling Rosenberg 2005
    François feels that the personality of the Rosenberg cru is so intense that the aromas of its wines tend to be masked until some bottle maturation occurs. Livelier acidity and spicier flavors than the Herrenweg. Good cellar potential.

  9. Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2005
    Pink grapefruit and floral spiciness. Citrus rind. Sappy, almost resiny, with an unmistakable hint of mint on the finish. Here’s the wine to stand up to richly sauced seafood dishes. Hengst has a perfect southern exposure. The vines are almost grilled by the sun, inducing intense photosynthesis and garnering a constant, high-energy ripening process. It shows, though without being over-the-top in any way. This has serious presence.

  10. Gewurztraminer Herrenweg 2004
    Classic spice, rose petal and lychee profile. Dry but with lower acid and fatter texture than the Riesling from the same cru. A good foil to curry dishes.

  11. Pinot Noir “Réserve” 2005
    Black cherry vanilla fruit. Creamy, with a hint of sweet oak on the nose. Firm and medium bodied. Classic pairings within Alsace would be main courses of game or leg of lamb.

  12. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Vendange Tardive” 1999
    Partial botrytis. Very musky. Orange oil and pear nectar. Good acid.

  13. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Sélection Grains Nobles” 1999
    100% botrytis. Intense. As with the VT, good acidity, which is needed here to support the oiliness and high RS.

  14. Muscat Ottonel “Sélection Grains Nobles” 2000
    Sultanas and guava. Just enough acid to keep the super round texture afloat.

  15. Riesling Herrenweg “Sélection Grains Nobles” 2000
    There’s no mistaking this wine’s aroma. It’s not just a little raisiny. Nope, it’s like sticking your nose in a freshly opened box of raisins. Much darker flavor and more unctuous texture than in the above VT’s and SGN’s. Intense RS balanced by a beam of acidity. Yikes!

If you still haven’t had enough, or if you’re just sick of reading my shorthand notes, you may enjoy the nice write-up of a few of these same wines, tasted in a different scenario, by Rajiv at Students of Wine.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

November in Philly: Some Choice Food, Wine and Beer Events

Apparently the folks at Philadelphia’s SnackBar don’t believe in answering the phone, accepting on-line reservations or even utilizing an answering machine. After three days of calling – several weeks ago – in an effort to attain a reservation for this past Monday’s dinner with guest chef Shola Olunloyo, I finally gave up. When one of my fellow Philly food bloggers, HungryChic at Lavender Sky, wrote the other day to see if I’d be going, I thought I’d give it one last try – again, no answer, no messaging capability. Finally, after about 20 attempts, someone answered the phone. No surprise, the event was booked. If you missed it too, you can read about it after the fact on eGullet or at my chum PhilaDining’s blog.

If you’re planning ahead rather than ruing missed opportunities, there are a couple of other savory events in the pipeline. If there’s a theme involved, it would seem to be Monday, a notoriously off night for Philly restaurants, many of which simply close the doors for the evening.

  • Monday, November 19
    The Wines and Foods of Piedmont
    Osteria – 215-763-0920
    6:30 PM reception, 7:00 PM dinner. $150 per person, all inclusive.
    I hate to say it, but the wine line-up for the evening, with the exception of the Barbaresco “Sori Paitin” from Paitin di Pasquero-Elia (vintage unknown), looks to be rather pedestrian – a shame given the wealth of great wines from Piemonte. That said, the menu looks good, the food at Osteria is top notch, and the style of cooking pairs quite naturally with northern Italian wines. Reservations are limited to 30 seats.

  • Monday, November 26
    Bière à la Française
    Chick’s Café & Wine Bar – 215-625-3700
    7:00 PM. $30 in advance ($40 after November 21) plus tax and tip.
    Importer and all-around beer dude Dan Shelton will be on hand at Chick’s to present a guided tasting of French bière de garde. If your experience with French brews starts and stops with Kronenbourg 1664, which would be understandable, this sounds like a great opportunity to discover some of the secrets of the best northern French brasseries. Think French terroir – the Ardennes is too far north to grow wine – with a Belgian sensibility.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Domaine Barmès-Buecher, February 2004

Crossing the border into Alsace after a brief two days on the German side of the Rheinland, our first stop in France during a February 2004 wine trek was at Domaine Barmès-Buecher. Situated on the Route des Vins in Wettolsheim, just SW of Colmar in the Haut-Rhin, the estate was founded in 1985, joining the work of the Barmès and Buecher families which had each been involved in some aspect of viticulture since the 17th Century. François Barmès and his wife Genevieve (née Buecher) along with eight full-time employees, farm a total of 16 hectares of vineyard, spanning six different communes in the environ of Wettolsheim, from the Grand Cru sites of Pfersigberg in the south to Hengst in the north. The estate is made up of 96 separate vineyard plots, ranging in size from as large as two contiguous hectares to as small as five or six rows in a particular climat. Our visit there would prove to be one of the most intense of the entire trip.

In the Field:

François Barmès completed conversion of his entire property to Biodynamics in 1998, reflecting a change in philosophy that had begun for him in the early 1990s. I’ve met few vignerons with energy levels as intense as that of François and I’ve yet to meet anyone with as passionate an attachment to his land. That passion was reflected in our time spent at the estate. Arriving shortly after a quick lunch at a little café in Wettolsheim, we met François at his winery and headed straight out to his vineyards. The sun was setting by the time we returned to the winery, at least four hours having elapsed. During those hours, M. Barmès led us from vineyard to vineyard, expounding on his farming practices, the special characteristics and energy of each plot, the negative effects of conventional farming on the land around his, and on the viticultural trends and climatic tendencies of Alsace in general.

The Vosges, at 1300-1400 meters elevation, lie just to the west of Alsace, creating a natural rain block for the viticultural landscape. Combined with the reflective power of the sun beaming off those hills onto the vineyards below, the climate in Alsace is naturally much warmer and drier than in the German portions of the Rheinland. In spite of that warmth, Alsace, as one of the northernmost wine regions of France (only Champagne is more northerly), sees a low number of sunlight hours throughout the growing season.

To work that limited sunlight to its fullest advantage, Barmès utilizes Double Guyot vine training, with wires placed at 1.8 meters to maximize the sunlight captured by his vines. He seeks naturally low yields in the vineyard, training his vine shoots in a downward arc meant to slow the flow of chlorophyll to the grapes and to promote full foliage development. He does not practice green harvesting, fruit reduction or leaf removal, operating in a belief that vines possess long-term memory and that removing pieces of their whole only redirects energy in confused directions. And it seems to work. His yields average 35-50 hl/ha, low by any reasonable standards and quite low given the Alsace AOC standard of 80 hl/ha.

François Barmès expounding among his vines in the Herrenweg cru

To cope with the dry conditions – he has holdings in the Herrenweg cru, one of the driest vineyard sites in all of France – the estate is farmed completely by hand and, according to Biodynamic principles, with no chemical or synthetic fertilizers. Hand culture, François told us, keeps the soil soft and friable, promoting deep, vertical root growth that allows the vines to reach low water tables, creating natural drought resistance. Standing between his rows in Herrenweg, we could see the beneficial results of his work. Where his neighbors’ soil was gray and compacted, his was brown and soft under foot. It looked alive. Yellow ribbons, used to mark a dead plant, were tied around every third or fourth vine in a neighboring plot. We saw only one or two in Barmès’ entire parcel.

Given the timing of our visit, François spoke in particular of the rigors of the 2003 vintage. Only 200 millimeters of rain fell in Wettolsheim during the entire year, with nary a drop from the end of February through mid-October. Those deep root systems were put to the test and passed, with no damage occurring directly from the drought. That said, his plants did suffer from the intense heat, which averaged 28°C with little night cooling. Sugar levels accelerated so quickly at the end of summer that many producers picked their fruit only 80 days after flowering; 100 days is generally considered the minimum duration for achievement of physiological maturity. Those like Barmès who waited lost some of their fruit to the heat but achieved greater complexity, according to François, in their finished wines.

Looking down from Clos Sand.

We finished the tour of Barmès’ vineyards with a hike up the slope of his most recent acquisition, a parcel called “Clos Sand” located on a steep hillside in a forested corner of Wettolsheim, followed by a drive through the rolling, wall-enclosed cru of Rosenberg. On the way through, François pointed out a parcel where, in 2001, wild boars destroyed 60% of his crop while he was away on a week long vacation. Apparently the pigs favor naturally farmed fruit, as they ignored the neighboring vines owned by conventional growers.

At the Winery:

Back at the winery, François drove home the points he’d been making all afternoon. 95% of the work at the Domaine, he said, is done in the vineyard, only 5% in the cellar. The vineyard is everything to him; the cellar is only for tasting and making sure all goes well. In keeping with that philosophy, Barmès puts only juice into his tanks and barrels. All wines are wild yeast fermented; nothing is ever added other than sulfur, and that only for anti-oxidative purposes after completion of fermentation.

Believing that their fruit and wines should be handled just as gently as the soil in their vineyards, François and Genevieve have constructed a three-level winery. All fruit, after harvest, is brought quickly into the top level, where a vibrating sorting table is used to remove any imperfect clusters before the fruit goes to the pressoir. After pressing is complete, the juice is moved by gravity to the cuves in the level below. Only following a long, slow fermentation and the appropriate aging regimen are the wines moved, again by gravity, to the lowest level where they go through a gentle filtration prior to bottling.

In the Cellar:

By the time François led us to his underground cellars for a tasting, we were all feeling the effects of a long, cold day in the vineyards on top of the day-three creep of jet lag from our recent journey across the Atlantic. We knew that the estate produces a huge array of wines – approximately 30 different cuvées are vinified each year – but we were nonetheless astounded when we saw the array of bottles he’d lined up for us to sample. The dégustation proceeded at a blur, resulting in some rather brief tasting notes.

Our group in Barmès' cellar.

  1. Pinot Noir “Réserve” 2002
    Pinot Noir was planted on the property in the 1950s, at the suggestion of the Marquis d’Angerville following his visit to the vineyards of Wettolsheim. 2002 was a difficult vintage, with a bout of frost in September and rain at harvest. Aged in barrels previously used for the “Vieilles Vignes,” this exhibited pale color, lean texture and smoky, wild red-berry fruit.

  2. Pinot Noir “Vieilles Vignes” 2000
    All fruit for the “VV” comes from the Hengst vineyard, from which Pinot Noir is now entitled to Grand Cru status (as of 2006). In any given vintage, it spends between 18-22 months in new barrel. Darker, richer color, with smoky fruit and delicate oak carrying ripe, red and black cherry fruit. Only four barrels made.

  3. Pinot Noir “Réserve” 2003 (from barrel)
    Reductive. Apparently, François stated, this is normal at this point in the wine’s evolution. If the reductivity shows only on the nose, it will dissipate with more time in the barrel. Darker, richer and softer fruit relative to the 2002, with lower acidity but good tannin development.

  4. Pinot Noir “Vieilles Vignes” 2003 (from barrel)
    Just finished malolactic fermentation (all of the estate’s wines, red and white, go through malo). Big fruit, grapey nose, with high alcohol showing on a sweet finish.

Before moving on to the white line-up, our host described what he sees as three distinct families of white fruit types in the Alsace vignoble: mineral (Riesling, Silvaner), oxidative (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris), and aromatic (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Auxerrois, Muscat).

  1. Pinot Blanc Rosenberg 2001
    Limestone, sandstone and flint dominate the soil in Rosenberg. Rich yellow color. Ripe, melon and orchard fruit on palate, balanced by better acidity than I remembered from the 2000 bottling.

    Wettolsheim as seen from the Rosenberg vineyard.

  2. Pinot Blanc Rosenberg 2002
    Drier, leaner and more mineral than the 2001.

  3. Riesling Rosenberg 2002
    Lean, dry, mineral and apple driven fruit. Bold, spicy aromatics. Very bright acidity.

  4. Riesling Herrenweg 2002
    Herrenweg is a very flat, extremely dry and warm site on the southern end of Turckheim. Richer, more woodsy and piney aromatics (typical of Herrenweg, according to FB) relative to the Rosenberg, along with a broader, rounder mouthfeel.

  5. Riesling Pfleck 2002
    Situated in Wettolsheim. Oilier, richer fruit with a dense structure.

  6. Riesling Leimenthal 2001
    Huge lemon-lime aromatics followed by citrus, fennel and licorice on the palate. Leimenthal, in Wettolsheim, is an extremely terroir driven site with multiple strata of calcareous soils.

  7. Riesling Grand Cru Steingrubler 2002
    Also in Wettolsheim. Round, spicy apricot fruit. Very rich. Ripe for the vintage.

  8. Riesling Grand Cru Hengst 2002
    Hengst, located in Wintzenheim at the northern reaches of Barmès’ holdings, is arguably one of the best known of Alsace Grand Cru sites. Of its 60 hectares, Domaine Barmès-Buecher owns one. François had bottled this only one week prior to our visit, based on a specific point of the lunar cycle: “As the moon influences the tides, so the wines….” Very closed and a bit awkward but rich and promising.

  9. Edelzwicker “Sept Grains” 2002
    Backing up from tasting notes for a moment, this wine bears some explanation. In a simple sense, it falls under the catch-all term of Edelzwicker, used in Alsace to identify blends that are often made of a little bit of everything a producer grows, nearly always with the unspoken suggestion of leftovers. “Sept Grains,” though, is a wine made not from leftover juice but rather from the free-run fluids which are released by his grapes as they pass along the sorting table on their way into the winery. It’s not uncommon for the skins of fully ripe fruit to be near bursting point at harvest time, so Barmès devised a method, using his sorting table, to capture the fluids that are inevitably released and funnel them to a cuve where fermentation begins naturally. As each picking, of various varieties and from various plots, comes into the winery, this free-run juice is added to the vat. By the end of the process, there is a blend which naturally reflects the conditions of the vintage. Based on the vintage-specific physiological qualities of each variety, one year the wine may be dominated by aromatic varieties, in another the oxidative or mineral grapes may dominate. In any case, FB views this as a non-terroir wine, as there is essentially no pressing or skin contact involved in the winemaking practice.

    The 2002 suggested peaches, red berries, white pepper and sappy green wood, along with passion fruit and a hint of sweatiness. In most vintages, the wine is a touch off-dry and makes an easy pairing with aromatic Asian dishes. It’s also not a bad choice for the Thanksgiving table.

  10. Pinot Gris Herrenweg 2002
    Spicy and lush, with delicious cinnamon-apple fruit.

  11. Pinot Gris Pfleck 2002
    This was Barmès’ first vintage of Pinot Gris from the Pfleck cru. Deep golden in hue with more wood showing on the nose than with the Herrenweg. Honey and sweet orange marmalade in the mouth.

  12. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Silicis” 2002
    So named for the soil base in a particular plot of Rosenberg. Cola nut on the nose, followed by spices and sea air. Rich and slightly off-dry, with a long, long finish.

  13. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Calcarius” 2001
    This cuvee comes from a parcel of calcareous soil within Rosenberg. Botrytis on the nose. Honey, white peaches, flowers and green figs. Fat in texture yet bright in flavor. Seriously tasty.

  14. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Calcarius” 2002
    Less honeyed, spicier than the 2001. Less botrytis showing on the otherwise lovely nose. Hints of vanilla on the palate.

  15. Muscat Ottonel 2002
    All lilacs and citrus oil. FB considers Ottonel a much more distinctive vine and wine than Muscat d’Alsace. He also finds it very risky to farm; if the temperature drops below 12°C at flowering, the entire crop is lost.

  16. Gewurztraminer Herrenweg 2002
    Heavily herbal and musky. Fuzzy green herbs, thyme and cannabis on the nose. Slightly bitter finish. Not an easy wine yet very interesting in the context of possible food pairings.

  17. Gewurztraminer Rosenberg 2002
    Herbal again – oregano and dried herbs. This was the first vintage produced from a plot of young, nine-year-old vines.

  18. Gewurztraminer Wintzenheim 2002
    Herbs no more. Quince and white flowers on the nose. A small percentage of botrytis. Fat, ripe orchard fruit flavors led to a long, rich finish.

  19. Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Steingrübler 2002
    Lean aromatic and flavor profiles, with a distillate-like nose that reminds me of Pineau des Charentes. Orange confit and caramelized sugar hints. This was previously FB’s least favorite cru though he was, as of 2002, starting to come into a better understanding of this Grand Cru slope in Wettolsheim.

  20. Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Pfersigberg 2002
    Pfersigberg is a grand cru of limestone, clay and marl soil situated in the commune of Eguisheim. Powerful and incredibly aromatic, with bright and lively acidity heralding a long finish.

  21. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Vendange Tardive” 1999
    Rich amber color. Intense aromas of butterscotch, crème brulée and a raisined grapiness. On the palate, ripe melon fruit, exotic tea, caraway and rye. 180 grams of residual sugar. M. Barmès felt the bottle was a bit advanced, perhaps due to a slightly faulty cork.

  22. Muscat Ottonel “Sélection Grains Nobles” 2000
    99% botrytis. Pure decadence on the nose. Super viscous, drink it with a spoon texture. Dark wildflower honey and citrus confit.

  23. Pinot Gris Rosenberg “Calcarius” Sélection Grains Nobles 2000
    Bottled, after a full three years of fermentation, at 6.7% alcohol and a whopping 550 grams of residual sugar. Pure fig conserves. Rich, brooding and earthy with low acid and immense texture.

  24. Riesling “Tradition” 2002 (from vat)
    Back upstairs on the winery level, we tasted one last wine, something light and crisp to revive our palates. The Riesling “Tradition” is produced from fruit grown outside any of the crus and is meant to show the general typicity of the region. The 2002 had not yet finished its fermentation. Shutdown by the winter cold, fermentation would start anew with the coming of spring.

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Addendum, August 2009: Video clips of biodynamic preparation and field work at Domaine Barmès-Buecher.

Mixing and dynamizing biodynamic preparation 500 (horn manure), to be sprayed in the vineyards.

Adding compost preparations such as yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian to the estate’s biodynamic compost heap on the slopes of the Grand Ballon.

Spring work in the vineyard – turning the soil, cutting the superficial vine roots to encourage deep, vertical root growth, and pruning foliage to encourage airflow and balance.

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Recommended reading:

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Exploring Burgundy: Bourgogne Chitry Rouge

Located in the Auxerrois district of the Yonne Départment, sandwiched about midway between Auxerre and Chablis, Chitry is undeniably one of the more obscure appellations of Burgundy. The AOC guidelines, established in 1993, stipulate that the commune name must be appended immediately below the overall regional moniker, so you’ll see “Bourgogne Chitry” on any bottle of appellation controlled wine from Chitry. The entire commune consists of only 64 hectares of vineyard. The AOC also allows for wines in all three colors – red, white and rosé – with overall production weighted to roughly 60% white, 40% red and rosé. I’ve only come across red versions, and then only rarely, here in the States.

Situated approximately 100 miles NNW of Dijon, Chitry, along with Chablis and the other wine areas of the Yonne Départment, lies near the northern fringes of viticulture. In France, only Champagne and Alsace are further to the north. Chitry, in fact, is just as close to Sancerre as it is to Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. And its soils – rich in chalk and limestone – share more in common with the Upper Loire than with the Golden Slope. Given its northerly location, relative lack of sunlight intensity and removal from the moderating climatic influences of a major river or sea, Chitry is an extreme example of a cool climate wine region.

As per Burgundian norms, Chitry reds are produced solely from Pinot Noir and whites from Chardonnay. While Chardonnay, along with Aligoté, can thrive in this northern clime, Pinot Noir has a harder path to follow. Pinot Noir is a naturally thin skinned grape prone to light pigmentation even when cultivated in sunny spots and rich soil bases. In Chitry, these tendencies are greatly magnified, resulting in Pinot Noir based wines of extremely pale hue, very delicate tannins and fairly high acidity. Chitry rosés, presumably saignées made during the production of Chitry reds, seem almost stylistically unwarranted in this context. Their existence does make sense, though, as production of a saignée method rosé would lend extra concentration of pigments and tannins to the reds. Suffice it to say that few red wines from anywhere in the world will pale in color comparison to the ethereal transparency of a glass of Chitry Rouge.

Bourgogne Chitry “Cépage Pinot Noir,” Domaine Marcel Giraudon 2004
Marcel Giraudon, a small grower located in the town of Chitry, annually produces around 7,000 cases, split between Chitry Rouge and a crisp, lively Bourgogne Aligoté. Of the whopping eight or nine estates (plus the ubiquitous cooperative) making Bourgogne Chitry, M. Giraudon is the only grower whose holdings and production are based solely in Chitry. Most others also produce wine in Chablis, Irancy, Sauvignon-St.-Bris or any number of the other local Auxerrois appellations.

When last I had tasted Giraudon’s Chitry, nearly a year ago, it was a bottle from his 2001 vintage that was just barely holding on to its stuffing at five years of age. Though still pleasurable, it had shed most of its fruit, exhibiting a tea like flavor, seemingly mirrored in the rose petal, slightly orange and supremely pale tinge of the wine in the glass.

In contrast, at three years of age, his 2004 is now in full stride. Though pristinely transparent, it shone a slightly darker shade, relative to the ’01 even its youth, of pale ruby. My immediate aromatic impressions were of early season raspberries, griotte cherry and a crack of white pepper. Sprightly raspberry fruit carried through on the palate, along with clean, refreshing yet gentle acidity, very delicate tannins and supple, slightly stony mouthfeel. Not only did the wine develop positively in the glass over the course of the evening, it also continued to show well into a second day. While the flavor delineation seemed to blur, a rounder, riper sensation of darker cherry fruit had developed in the mouth. This is not to say that the 2004 will be a candidate for much longer cellaring than the 2001. But at under $15 per bottle, I rather wish I had another bottle or three to explore over the course of the next couple of years.

$14 on release. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork closure. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.
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