Sunday, March 30, 2008


With the 17th annual Philadelphia Film Festival looming large (April 3-15), I thought a little music from one of my favorite cinematic explorations of the early '80s would be an appropriate wrap for the weekend.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Blogs of Note: West Coast Edition

Not surprisingly, America’s left coast is a veritable hotbed for wine bloggers, home to some of the most widely read sites in the vinous corner of the blogosphere. This edition of Blogs of Note is hardly meant to be comprehensive as I could barely begin to do justice to all the worthy sites in California alone, not to mention the Pacific Northwest. Instead, it’s just my shout-out for a few of the bloggers who keep me inspired and coming back for more.

Representing the old guard (in the best possible sense), Craig Camp has been at it since the first wave of wine blogging. The taglines for his site, Wine Camp, say it all: “a points-free zone” with “a terroir-ist twist.” Though a winemaker by day, at Anne Amie Vineyards in the Willamette Valley, Craig rarely uses Wine Camp as a vehicle for discussing or promoting his wines. Rather, he focuses on many of the same topics we all do, from tasting notes to the hot topics of the day, standing out not with brashness but with a sense of calm, wisdom and smartness that should be an inspiration to us all. His recent post on the long in the tooth sport of Parker-bashing is a perfect example.

At it since September 2007, Joe Manekin brings what I interpret as a more east coast sensibility to the diversity of his content at Old World Old School. Given that he’s a native Baltimorean, I suppose that makes sense, though he’s now soundly ensconced in the San Francisco scene. I’ll admit to a shared bond which may sway my opinions; we both post about music from time to time, including some shared tastes, and both lean toward, well, the old world when it comes to wine. He’s been on a Greek wine kick of late, a category in which I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

The newest kid on the block is Wolgang Weber, who launched his blog Spume in December of ’07. Wolfgang hit the ground running, backed up by his experience as Senior Editor and Italian wine critic-at-large for Wine & Spirits magazine. He writes thoughtfully about all of his topics, yet offers, through Spume, a personal touch that’s not possible in the more formalized world of mainstream print publishing. The personal affinity this time is cycling. I’m also a sucker for posts that reference Gang of Four while taking on the current fascination with natural wines and writing up what sounds like a great new San Fran shop and wine bar, Terroir.

If these three blogs aren’t already on your radar or in your reader, you owe it to yourself to give them a look. I hope you’ll find them as meaningful as I do.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Phood Phloggers Meetup and Pheed #3

Those crazy Philly food (and wine) bloggers are at it again. The third "Phloggers" potluck and meetup is scheduled for the evening of Friday, April 18, 2008, graciously hosted at e's crib in Fairmount. You'll find all the details at the host's site, Foodaphilia, or at the blog of the organizer behind it all, Mac & Cheese. If you're a Philly-based food, wine or beverage blogger, check it out and come on down.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Getting Reacquainted with Château Calissanne

I first visited Château Calissanne in the fall of 2000, far too long ago to merit as much detail as my usual winery profiles. Besides, I wasn’t taking notes. It was my honeymoon. Aside from the romance of the occasion and of being in Provence in general, the visit stands out in my memory. It’s not so much the winery tour and tasting that I fondly recall; they were nice enough but pretty typical. What made the visit special was a tour around, and I do mean around, the property in winemaker Jean Bonnet’s farm vehicle, an Isuzu Trooper if memory serves. Driving up the single-track dirt path that climbs the cliffs to the north of Calissanne’s vineyards, we passed first through the farm, vineyards to one side and olive groves to the other. Continuing the climb, we saw a group of partridges scurry across the trail. A short distance further, we traversed the mud puddle, formed in the wheel ruts left by the occasional 4x4, where the local wild boars come to wallow.

We disembarked at the end of the road, atop the bluffs – starkly white limestone outcroppings streaked with red veins – that form the backdrop of the landscape surrounding Calissanne’s property. From the 360º vista those bluffs provide, one can see the entire estate spread out below. Mont St. Victoire looms to the near northeast. Immediately to the south is the inland sea, Étang de Berre, just to the west of which spread the fingers of the Rhône delta. The proximal influence of the saline sea air becomes apparent, as do the effects of the Mistral. Most of all, it becomes clear just how hot, dry and arid is this viticultural area at the southern reaches of the sprawling Coteaux d’Aix en Provence AOC. Immediately to either side of the property, we witnessed the ravages to the landscape caused by wildfires that swept through the area the year before, taking the lives of two local firemen (pompiers) and narrowly missing Calissanne’s vineyards. I think I learned more about the wines of Aix en Provence during that short journey than in all my years of tasting them, before and since.

Learning, though, never stops. I have not yet had the opportunity to return to Château Calissanne. However, I’ve been graced, through the draw of my workplace, with two visits over the last few years from Monsieur Denis Langue, Commercial Director for Calissanne. His most recent visit, just a couple of weeks ago, afforded the opportunity to reacquaint myself with many of the estate’s wines as well as to taste a few new entries in their lineup.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé, Château Calissanne 2007
A classic Provencal rosé de saignée, this is a blend of approximately 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Somewhere in there is a smidgen of Mourvedre, a relatively new entry to the estate’s rosé blend. Brilliantly silver-toned salmon pink in the glass. Explosively aromatic. Denis mentions that it’s considered “too dark” according to the current fashion for faintingly pale rosés in the south of France; nonetheless, it’s several shades paler than the 2005 and 2006 versions of the same cuvée. Totally dry, with refreshing acidity, snappy red berry fruit and a whiff of rosemary. 13% alcohol.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rouge, Château Calissanne 2005
Identical in makeup to the 2007 rosé, save the absence of any Mourvedre. Bright fruit with fine tannin delineation. Smoke, garrigue and blackberry, along with cinnamon bark. Juicy and at the same time briary texture. Temperature controlled pipes were installed in the winery in 2004, allowing fruit to be chilled to around 12ºC/52ºF before entry into the fermentation vats. The slower, gentler start to fermentation this enables has led to a wine that shows more boisterous, fresh fruit than in the pre-2004 years, when roasted fruit (not unpleasantly so) and more herbal flavors were not uncommon. In some respects, I preferred the earlier versions for their food-friendliness. (I even poured the 1996 vintage at my wedding just prior to our visit to the estate.) But the 2005 is hard not to enjoy, especially as it’s showing well now that it’s had some time in the bottle. 13% alcohol.

Retired industrialist Philippe Kessler acquired Château Calissanne in 2001. He is largely responsible for introducing temperature control and other technological improvements to the Calissanne winery. Apparently intent on expanding his reach, he purchased an estate in Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine des Relagnes, in December 2006. Along with the 7.5-hectare property, to which Kessler has already added another 2.5 hectares with plans for five more, wines at varying stages of completion were included from the 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages. Jean Bonnet, longtime winemaker at Calissanne, will also be head winemaker and oversee the farming and production at Relagnes.

Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine des Relagnes 2005
With all wines from the 2005 vintage (as well as 2004) already finished and aging mostly in cement vats and about 20% old foudres, Bonnet was responsible only for the final assemblage and bottling of this vintage. 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. Detailed black raspberry fruit with firm, well developed tannins. Surprisingly restrained, at least in the context of an AOC not particularly know for restraint, especially from a fairly blockbuster vintage. Old school in its vinification as well as its style and balance. 14.5% alcohol.

Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine des Relagnes 2004
Same story here as with the 2005, same blend and same vinification. A touch more delicate in its fruit than the 2005, it’s also a touch more firmly tannic, with spicy, red berry fruit on the palate. Equally well balanced and drinkable now or later. Bonnet plans to add some new oak and smaller barrels starting in 2006, which will be the estate’s first full vintage under the new ownership and management. The introduction of more oak is a shame, I think. One can only hope the wines will remain as fine. 14.5% alcohol.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence “Clos Victoire” Rouge, Château Calissanne 2003
Switching gears back to Calissanne, “Clos Victoire” is the estate’s best vineyard site and has historically been their top wine. It’s also unabashedly modern in style. 70% Syrah, done in 100% new barriques, plus 30% Cabernet Sauvignon that is aged in barriques of one-to-two wines. The regulations for the Coteaux d’Aix AOC require a relatively even spread between Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet in the vineyard, and allow for small amounts of Mourvedre and Cinsault. In the cellar, however, those same regulations allow what essentially amounts to total freedom in terms of blending ratio. Even varietal wines are permitted. Chocolate and blackberry scented, darkly spicy. The oak, which is obvious on the nose, is better integrated on the palate. Tight and muscular. This was the last vintage produced before the upgrade to the winery’s temperature control systems. Labeled as 13% alcohol.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence “Rocher Rouge,” Château Calissanne 2003
Totally new to me, this is varietal Mourvedre from a 1.8-hectare plot near the red rock (rocher rouge) cliffs behind the estate. 2003 is the first commercialized vintage, with 2000 the first year it was produced on an exploratory basis. Big, deep impact, without being driven by big, rich fruit. Sauvage aromas, wild red berry fruit, bacon and ripe, savory herbs. Full, wide-grained tannins, good acidity and very long on the finish. This packs more finesse and delicacy on a less rich frame than the Clos Victoire. In Denis’ estimation, it’s like Burgundy crossed with Bandol. It’s not terribly like either, though obviously closer to its Provencal cousin, just with greater fruit freshness than in the average Bandol. Downright delicious wine. The question will be one of QPR, given the estimated $75 price point. 13.5% alcohol.

A man after my own heart apparently, Denis chose to end rather than begin our tasting with whites. I don’t often do this at home or when pairing with meals but when I open and taste in preparation for an event or class, I almost always start with reds and finish with whites. This serves double duty, both refreshing and literally cleansing the palate. The whites act as a tooth and tongue scrubber, clearing away at least a little of the purple stain left by the reds without destroying your palate as tooth brushing might.

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Blanc, Château Calissanne 2007
Denis described the 2007 vintage as beautiful in the south. It shows in this wine, which I’ve found flabby and bland in many past vintages. 60% Rolle (Vermentino), 30% Semillon and 10% Clairette, with vinification and aging in steel and cement. Just bottled in mid-February. A little tropical but not overly yeasty, with peach nectar and white grapiness balanced by medium acidity and a hint of chalkiness. Not a bad choice for summer glugging and pairing with simple fish dishes. 13.5% alcohol.

Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc, Domaine des Relagnes 2006
An equal part blend of Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc, co-fermented and aged entirely in cement vats. No barrel at all. Bonnet was responsible for bottling only. Rich nose of peach and apple skins, with pear and pineapple on the palate. White stone minerality and wild honey cascade on the finish. Produced from 80-100 year-old vines, cropped at low yields of 30 hl/ha with each vine producing four-to-six clusters. Lovely wine, with good structure and backbone to spare. Built to cellar though plenty tasty now. 14.5% alcohol.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Beautiful Ugly, aka Friday in Philly

Beautiful: A Friday off, just to enjoy one's own town. Lunch at Osteria and an afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Beautiful: The sun streaming in through the windows at Osteria. And the elevation of the least interesting sounding dish on a menu, in this case "marinated vegetable antipasto," to an art form, a symphony of complementary and contrasting flavors. The porchetta tonnato was subtle in comparison yet equally lovely.

Beautiful ugly: I took it, so perhaps I'm biased, but I'm pretty happy with the composition in this photo of our lunch wine. On the down side, Tomasso Bussola's 2005 Valpolicella Classico did nothing to change my general displeasure with Valpo of late. Adequate as a pizza wine, I suppose, but otherwise flat, short and uninteresting, maybe even a tad heat-wacked.

Beautiful ugly: A joy to look at? Perhaps not, but then beauty, as the cliché goes, is in the eye of the beholder. The beauty couldn't be denied in the gullet, however. Osteria is well deserving of their rep for turning out some of the best pizza in town, from the simple perfection of the margherita to the robust, rustic decadence of the Lombarda (which is apparently their most popular pie).

Beautiful: A good restaurant that doesn't give up the ghost when it comes to dessert. Everything at Osteria is done in house, including their cannoli with torrone semifreddo and their "piccolo pasticceria," a delightful assortment of Italianate petit-fours. I'd happily take a box of that pistachio brittle to go.

Beautiful ugly: I'm still undecided on the "wine wall" at Osteria. It looks decent. The feel is rustic, in keeping with the spirit of the menu (rustic in content if not in price). And it complements the bar it abuts. However, the celebration of mostly high-end, luxury wines is a touch out of step with the relaxed intent of the restaurant. Perhaps it's just a visual manifestation of the casual vs. costly conundrum that Osteria presents. Don't let the prices scare you away from the experience.

Ugly: The current facade (this shot is of the rear entrance) of the PMA. I'm not sure the huge banner is any less of an eyesore than the scaffolding it's designed to hide. On the up-side, it does provide plenty of space for self-promotion.

Beautiful: Turn around, take a short walk down the hill and past the museum's construction zone. You'll find sure signs of the arrival of Spring.

Ugly: The crowds at the Kahlo exhibit (sorry, no photos allowed in the museum). Even with ticketed entrance, the attendees were packed in like sardines. All but a few of Kahlo's paintings are modest in scale. The photos, included in the exhibit to provide historical and biographical context to her works, even smaller. Patience is a must, and even then it was tough to get close enough for a good view of many of the pieces. It made me pine for the exhibition entitled "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art" held at New York's El Museu del Barrio in 2002. More paintings, less people.

Beautiful: The paintings themselves. In spite of the crowds, I found myself drawn into Kahlo's mixture of surrealism and naive realism. The autobiographical, symbolic and cultural elements of her major works are intensely compelling.

Beautiful ugly: The inspiration for this posting, Frida Kahlo's self-titled self-portrait, "Very Ugly." The eye of the beholder speaks, through her brush and through her works. There's undeniable beauty in Kahlo's face, in her spirit and in her art. And undeniable ugliness in the pain, misfortune and tempestuous relationships that followed her throughout her short life. Don't let the crowds keep you away from the experience.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Just a Teaser

I haven't been able to post anything in a couple of days, as I've been focusing on preparing and developing the presentation for my seminar on organic and biodynamic wines at Tria Fermentation School this evening. I did manage to sneak out for some fun over the weekend though, so this is just a teaser, a photo I snapped near Boathouse Row on Philly's Kelly Drive on Friday. Spring is in the air, my friends. I feel it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Di Great Insohreckshan

I owe a lot of my reggae experience to a guy I worked with, back in high school, at a used record shop. He started carting me along to tons of great shows, mostly at DC’s Kilimanjaro, as soon as I showed an inkling of interest. A couple of the most unusual – and most memorable – sessions occurred down the hill from Kilimanjaro’s roost in Adams Morgan, at a tiny and now long defunct joint called Saba Club. Both Augustus Pablo and Linton Kwesi Johnson made rare stateside appearances there in the early-mid 80’s, playing to dismayingly tiny audiences. This is a classic old-school video, showcasing LKJ’s dee-jay poet stylings, of Di Great Insohreckshan, inspired by the Brixton riots of 1981.

Finalists Announced for 2008 American Wine Blog Awards

The finalists have, yes, finally been announced for the second annual American Wine Blog Awards. Voting is open through Saturday, March 29, 2008. Please be sure to cast your votes at Tom Wark’s Fermentation.

The AWBAs are a great way to bring wider recognition to some of the brightest stars in the wine blogging world, exactly what Tom had in mind when he initiated the awards last year. While casting your votes, please take a little time to investigate all of the blogs that are up for consideration. It’s amazing how much great stuff is out there.

Though MFWT didn’t make the cut for the finals, I was honored to be nominated in the category of Best Wine Blog Writing by a few of my fellow wine bloggers from around the world. So, here’s a big shout out of gratitude to Joe of Joe’s Wine (Canada), Dr. Debs at Good Wine Under $20 (California) and Edward of Wino Sapien (Australia) for casting their nominations my way.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wines at Salento

Yep, that’s wines at Salento, not wines from Salento.

When eating at home most nights, casually that is, I always try to select a wine that will match well with the meal but don’t usually quibble over the cultural origins of the dish vis-à-vis the denomination of the wine. When going out to eat at a spot with a specific culinary focus, French or Italian for example, I tend to be a stickler for selecting wines from the same country, even right down to a specific region, to match. When dining at Philadelphia restaurant Salento recently, the choice should have been easy – wines from Salento itself, the heel of the Italian boot. In hindsight, wines from Tuscany and Le Marche down, especially reds from Salento and reds and whites from Campania, would have been perfectly suitable given Salento’s culinary scope.

The problem was, there was nary a thing from the southern extremes of Italy to be found in my cellar and I wasn’t up for a wine shopping excursion as prelude to a casual meal out. Red wasn’t too big an issue as there were a decent number of Tuscan bottles from which to choose. White options, on the other hand, were rather more limited. By that understatement, I mean two, just two measly vini bianci from which to pick. As one was a 500ml bottle of Josko Gravner’s Ribolla Gialla, which I wasn’t about to jostle around town, the decision was made.

Langhe Chardonnay, Ettore Germano 2005
From the opposite corner of Italy relative to Salento, this would normally have been an odd choice for pairing with southern Italian food. No matter, it worked. Sergio Germano could be considered a modernist for growing Chardonnay, not to mention Riesling, in the Langhe and for barrique aging some of his whites and reds. For his Langhe Chardonnay, however, he all but eschews wood – only about 5-10% of the wine sees any barrel time – in favor of a fresh, crisp, food-friendly style. When first released, it can be soft and fruity. With just a little bottle age though, it becomes more Burgundian. His 2005 – the current release is 2006 – smelled funky and wound-up when first opened. I was thrown off as it reminded me more of the tangy green character of a Chablis from Laurent Tribut than the usual Langhe Chardonnay. With a bit of air and warmth, it retained its Chablis-like crispness and raciness but rounded out into an easier drinking wine that paired pretty easily with my garlic-inflected bowl of linguine ai frutti di mare. $16. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Imported by Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Indicazione Geografica Tipica Toscana “Fianesco,” Fattoria di Fiano 1999
Given that I was culling from Tuscany, a traditional style of Chianti could have made for a nice partner to my secondo of pork loin, potatoes, pancetta and Brussels sprouts. As the IGT designation suggests though, traditional this was not. A sample bottle received years ago, this had been chilling in the cellar ever since. As I knew little about its specific origins, a bit of research was in order. Fattoria di Fiano is located in the southern portion of the Chianti Colli Fiorentini zone, just north of Classico. According to the notes on Fiano’s website, Fianesco is not entirely untraditional in its blend: 80% Sangiovese rounded out with varying amounts of Colorino, Canaiolo, Merlot and perhaps some Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Its darkness of color, especially for a wine approaching ten years of age (when Sangiovese should be showing some elegant fade), suggested far more than 20% of the non-native varieties. The wine was overtly modern, with big, bold fruit, polished tannins and fairly voluptuous vanillin oak notes. To its credit, it was reasonably balanced, had enough fruit brightness to stand up to the wood and showed slight traces of Tuscany’s expected dusty, spicy tannins. As hinted at above, it was over-matched to my dish and to all but the most red meat intensive of Salento’s dishes. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Sample bottle: price and importer unknown.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Walking down the 2200 block of Walnut Street on a recent, raw March evening, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was in no man’s land. I imagine that when Kathryn and David Faenza chose this spot for Salento, their second venture, they were hoping to trade not only on the success of their original South Philly bastion, L’Angolo, but also on the block’s association with nearby, ritzy Rittenhouse Square. It’s not that the block felt at all unsafe, just that it seemed stuck in an awkward limbo between the upscale residential and shopping district of Rittenhouse, the hustle and bustle of Center City office buildings a few blocks due east and the more laid back residential neighborhoods to the northwest and southwest.

Salento's interior (photo courtesy of Ryan Charles and foobooz).

Upon entrance, Salento feels open and inviting. Appointments are pleasant, with white paper overlaying white linens atop spacious, square-legged tables. Artsy-craftsy chandeliers lend some warmth while a large, gilded mirror serves as centerpiece on the rear wall. Not long after being seated though, that vaguely unwelcoming sense of limbo returns, as if following one in from the street. The combination of neutral tile flooring, whitewashed, raw-stone walls decorated with pastel blue acoustic panels, and a drop ceiling make the room look like a partially finished basement. With my back to the door and the street-front window, the space indeed felt somewhat subterranean. Affable, attentive service, however, helped to warm up the room’s stark feel.

The restaurant takes its name from chef Faenza’s family origins in Salento, a sub-region of Puglia situated in the heel of the Italian peninsula. Salentine specialties are marked with asterisks throughout Faenza’s menu, which is divided into three sections: insalate e antipasti, pasta and secondi. As the choice of terminology suggests – pasta rather than primi – the pasta courses are sized and priced, according to American habits, as full courses. The pasta selections can all be ordered in half-portions, which is exactly where I decided to start.

Linguini ai frutti di mare… Mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp, white or light red
With a little vino bianco in mind, I opted for the white version of the mixed seafood pasta. Snappy, al dente pasta was lightly sauced in white wine broth and tossed with a shellfish mélange. I found it a bit odd that the clams were served in the shell while the mussels were not; I’d have preferred shells for both as a surer sign of freshness. A bit more olive-oil richness and depth of flavor could have easily brought the dish up a level. Those are arguably minor quibbles though, as the dish was light, clean and easy – not a bad starter.

Gnocchi… Pan crisped ricotta gnocchi, wild mushrooms, olive oil, garlic
This was my wife’s choice as main course but I couldn’t resist stealing a few forkfuls. Very firmly textured gnocchi held up easily to the kitchen’s pan-frying regimen, which brought out a light caramelization of flavor that married well with the woodsy mix of sautéed funghi. She yearned for red sauce; I liked them just the way they were.

Maiale… Pork tenderloin, pancetta, white wine and thyme; rosemary, ham and mozzarella potato cake; Brussels sprouts
In contrast to Philly’s ubiquitous Italian red-sauce joints, it was a pleasure to read Salento’s menu and find secondi other than veal, veal, veal and chicken, chicken, chicken. Regrettably, the Maiale as served didn’t quite meet up with my hopeful expectations. The pork was overcooked to the point of dryness. The potato cake might have made for a more interesting pedestal if the potatoes were shredded rather than mashed. Though tasty, its texture was gummy, bordering on leaden. Luckily, decadently salty pancetta and perfectly cooked Brussels sprouts came to the rescue, saving the dish from failure. Actually, the presentation and conceptualization of the dish were right on. It would only take a little more attention to detail and a few subtle tweaks to bring it right up to the plane of deliciousness.

Amaretto bread pudding, whipped cream, caramel sauce
Aside from the gelato brought in from Dol Cicé, the desserts at Salento are made in-house by pastry chef and co-owner Kathryn Faenza. We shared only one dish, her amaretto bread pudding. Deliciousness was not a problem. I’m a sucker for good bread pudding and this was a solid rendition. The amaretto element was a tad too bold for me, but that’s splitting hairs. Satisfying flavor, fresh texture and richness were all delivered without falling into the doughy, soggy mess or dried-out mass that all too many puddings become.

Among the sea of Italian BYOBs throughout Philadelphia, most that are successful have established themselves primarily as reliable neighborhood nooks. If set in a locale similar to, say, L’Angolo, Salento could easily fit right into that groove and even stand out with the help of its diverse menu. Given its odd spot on Walnut Street, however, Salento seems to have set itself up as a destination restaurant. The question is begged, therefore, as to whether the food is at a level that will bring people in from further afield and, more importantly, keep people coming. After close to a year in business, the Faenza’s new place seems to be clipping right along. The promise is certainly there. A little extra effort in the kitchen should be all it takes to secure Salento’s spot as a worthy destination.

Related post: Wines at Salento.

2216 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19103
(215) 568-1314
Salento in Philadelphia

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Marc de Grazia Grand Tour 2008 Tasting

I’ve been struggling for several days now as to whether or not to post this. As you’re now reading it, my decision should be obvious. However, it wasn’t reached easily. It took encouragement and inspiration from a few friends. Really, it wasn’t until I saw Jeremy Parzen’s video of his recent visit to the Gambero Rosso tasting in San Diego and, subsequently, Brooklynguy’s reluctant report on the Gambero Rosso event in New York that I made up my mind. Even then, coming to a decision took a little more self-inflicted torture. The reasons are many. First and foremost, the tasting occurred in the middle of a busy workday. I tasted fairly but did not have the time to sample all of the wines present or to take notes in as much detail as I’d usually like. Second, I found little to like among what I did manage to taste. Even after years in the trade and a year-plus of blogging, I still feel a tug of self-conflict when griping about something for which I didn’t pay.

It’s time to get over it, McDuff.

The whites:
The only producer whose wines I enjoyed across the board, white or red, was Gini, an estate located in Monforte d’Alpone at the heart of the Soave Classico zone. Their 2006 Soave Classico “normale,” done all in stainless and unusual in its claim of being 100% Garganega, was pure and well-balanced, with golden pear fruit and mouth watering acidity. The 2004 Recioto di Soave Classico “Col Foscarin” was simple but lovely for its honeyed fruit and, again, good acidity. More compelling was their botrytis affected cuvée, Recioto di Soave Classico “Renobilis” 2003. The extra concentration provided by the noble rot lent the wine more aromatic depth and a longer, spice-tinged finish.

Overall, the whites in the de Grazia portfolio fared better than the reds, though mainly by dubious virtue of falling in the neutral zone, that undistinguished, middle of the road, neither bad nor characterful part of spectrum. This, of course, is an issue that many critics have pointed out with all too many Italian white wines in general. One such pundit, Terry Hughes at Mondosapore, has been digging for the exceptions to that rule lately (see here and here). Along with him, I’ve been looking to Campania in search of some of those exceptions. The wines I tasted today, though, didn’t quite raise the bar.

The 2006 Falanghina from Cantina del Taburno was corked, so I’ll withhold judgment (aside from the fact that they were pouring it). Their Greco from the same vintage was perfectly acceptable for its fruitiness yet was boring. But then, I’ve yet to find a Greco I have liked much… any recommendations out there? On the flipside of the simple yet fruity coin was the 2006 Fiano di Avellino from Collio di Lapio; it showed intense structure, with both acidity and apparent extract on the palate, yet it was nearly bereft of fruit.

Moving up the boot to Umbria, the Orvieto-based estate Palazzone was showing three of their whites. Their 2006 Orvieto Classico Superiore “Terre Vineate” fell very much into the same camp as the Greco from Cantina del Taburno, perfectly nice yet ultimately uninspiring. More interesting and soundly up there in the “wines I liked” category was their vineyard designated 2004 Orvieto Classico Superiore “Campo del Guardiano.” Fourteen months of bottle aging prior to release, along with what would appear to be better quality fruit, had give it firmer texture and a savory, herbaceous and nutty character. Falling totally flat, however, was Palazzone’s 2005 Umbria Bianco IGT “L’Ultima Spiaggia,” a barrel fermented, varietal Viognier. De Grazia’s signature barrique stamp had robbed the wine of any varietal character, with wood dominating the fruit profile, aroma and texture of the wine. The idea of a “de Grazia signature” moves me right along to…

The reds:
As mentioned earlier, I was a touch pressed for time. So rather than letting my brain lead me to the southern Italian reds with which I’m slightly less familiar, I let my heart lead me right to the region of Italy to which I feel the strongest affinity – Piemonte.

I so wanted to like the wines from Cavallotto Fratelli. I’ve enjoyed their Freisa on occasion and have particularly fond memories of drinking a bottle of their 1996 Barolo “Bricco Boschis” Riserva more or less in situ, over lunch at the fantastic restaurant Le Torri in the town center of Castiglione Falletto. Relatively speaking, I did find at least a little to like. A 2004 Barbera d’Alba “Bricco Boschis Vigna del Cuculo” was still tightly wound and loaded with plump yet structured Barbera fruit. The 2003 version of their Barolo “Bricco Boschis” showed some character, especially for the vintage, on both the nose and palate. Both wines, however, were marred by an overzealous use of oak and were lacking, respectively, in juiciness and nerve.

It was with the line-up from Domenico Clerico that I really hit the wall. Across the board, the wines were over-extracted, over-oaked, inky black and lacking in a clear expression of place. Their 2005 Dolcetto d’Alba “Visadi” was missing both the aromatic nuance and fruity charm of which Dolcetto is capable, instead clamping down on the palate with aggressive tannins and closed, over-saturated fruit. One de Grazia rep called it “not your father’s Dolcetto” (I doubt my father ever drank Dolcetto but that’s beside the point). Another boasted that the wine had somehow gained nuance by being aged in barriques formerly inhabited by the estate’s Barolo…. Ahem. Next. A similar fate befell the Barbera d’Alba “Trevigne” from 2004 that was just plain overblown. Worst of all was the estate’s 2004 Langhe Rosso “Arte,” a blend of 90% Nebbiolo and 10% Barbera done in 100% new barriques. I look to Nebbiolo for nuance, for structure, for delicacy intertwined with sinew; this was loaded with oak and tannins but had nothing else to say.

Clerico’s 2002 Barolo smelled great, with lots of spice, tar and wild red fruits. Yet it turned out to be unpalatable, marred by an apparently dogmatic insistence on using all new barrels in spite of the difficult, slightly dilute nature of the 2002 vintage. Only in the 2003 Barolo “Ginestra Ciabot Mentin” was there enough natural substance for the resulting wine to stand up to the oak and vinification techniques that were thrown at it. Even then, this is Barolo designed for lovers of the overtly modernist style – big fruit, dark color and lavish oak.

A couple of my coworkers who ventured over to the tasting later in the day assured me that I hadn’t missed much with the Tuscan and southern Italian reds. Their essential summation: “Everything tasted the same.”

It may seem unfair to judge de Grazia’s portfolio after going through only a subset of his producers. But my experience at the tasting is backed up by similar past experiences with wines from other estates in his Piemonte cadre alone, such as Paolo Scavino and, in particular, La Spinetta. Like them or not, it’s hard to argue that they don’t fall into a very narrow extreme of the stylistic spectrum.

This brings me full circle to the main message and inspiration of the posts from my fellow bloggers. The Gambero Rosso awards, as with most of the points-based systems used by major print critics, have come to favor high alcohol, high extract, in your face, drink me now wines. That’s just too many extremes to balance, even if a real, honest and truly good wine does occasionally sneak into the fray.

It also brings me to my final discomfit. The dominant trend over the last 15-odd years to reward high alcohol, overtly modern wines that end up lacking a sense of place – fueled by the Gambero Rosso and similar systems – is irksome enough. A portfolio of wines from an importer that, from what I’m given to understand, pushes its producers to make wines to appeal directly to those systems – via the promotion of roto-fermenters and required new barrel aging regimes, for instance – is even harder for me to swallow.

* * *

Related links, aka, flame off:

For a very thoughtful essay on the topic of modernist vs. traditionalist Barolo, see Craig Camp’s 2003 article on the Barolo wars.

A fair-handed piece on the pros and cons of roto-fermenters:
Fast and furious: rotary fermenters have fans and skeptics
from Wines & Vines, April, 2005, by Tim Teichgraeber

April Classes at Tria Fermentation School

Even though I’m still in the thick of preparations for my seminar on organic and biodynamic wines at Tria next week, it’s not too early to start planning for next month. Tria’s full schedule of April classes will be announced shortly. In the meanwhile, here’s a sneak preview – and early chance to nab some seats – at the two classes I’ll be leading in April.

On Tuesday, April 8, I’ll be focusing on the wines of Piedmont in a course that should offer interest to both newbies and dyed in the wool Piemonte freaks. We’ll start with a somewhat untraditional white. Then quickly, in time with the typical progression on the Piemontese table, shift gears to reds, with a focus on the major wines of the Albese: Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolo. In the middle of things, we’ll take a quick detour to the fringes of the Alto Piemonte with a Coste della Sesia Rosso. To refresh the palate and enliven the senses, we’ll swing back to white, finishing things off with one of my favorite examples of Moscato d’Asti.

Back by apparent popular demand, I’ll be repeating my course on the wines of Bordeaux on Tuesday, April 22. This class is geared primarily toward the Bordelaise beginner. We won’t be delving deep into the “mysteries” of the heralded estates or trying any three- (much less four-) figure bottles. Instead, we’ll taste textbook examples of both whites and reds from the major sub-regions of Bordeaux, touching on the geological and historical background that informs the wines’ taste, structure and meaning. For those of you thinking of a do-over, some wines will be repeats from the last session and some will be new discoveries.

Update: The rest of the April schedule is now up and running.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Three Odd Whites

Neuchâtel, Caves du Château d’Auvernier 2005
Caves du Château D’Auvernier seems to dominate the export market for Swiss wines, simply by observation of what few other wines from Switzerland appear with any regularity on the shelves in shops throughout the Mid-Atlantic States. Oddly enough, though I’ve eyed this bottling many, many times over the years, I’d never actually tried it until recently. Perhaps it’s natural that I’d always given the wine a pass based on its relatively high price point, an issue it seems with just about all Swiss wine that finds its way to the US market. As it turns out, I hadn’t been missing much. This is a typically neutral expression of Chasselas, or Chasselas Fendant Roux as the locals call it in the Valais. A slightly lactic, yogurty nose leads to a somewhat dilute, nutty, mineral and lime tinged flavor profile. Though theoretically viable as an aperitif and a decent choice for sharp cheese, fresh water fish or fondue, its practical application is severely hampered by poor QPR. At a little over $20 per bottle, there’s just way too much better, cheaper wine out there to make this anything more than a passing curiosity or a comfort wine for homesick Swiss expatriates. $21. 11.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Imported by Dreyfus Ashby, New York, NY.

Arbois Chardonnay “En Chante-Merle,” Régine and Jean Rijckaert 2005
If we’d tasted blind, I’d never have guessed varietal Chardonnay. Cool climate, yes. Perhaps Cour-Cheverny or maybe even regular Cheverny Blanc, but definitely not varietal Chardonnay. The first note hit on the palate was of slight oxidation. Then came hay along with racy lemon, lime and papaya fruit. Nervy acidity blew away the oxidative tone of the wine, keeping it fresh in spite of the up-front suggestion of evolution. Add to all that a limestone streaked nose and solid persistence and you’ve got a pretty cool little wine that’s loaded with character. I’d happily enjoy it with the same range of foods suggested above for the Neuchâtel, though it’s definitely more demanding of being served with food. $16. 13% alcohol. Synthetic cork. Imported by Dionysus Imports, Lorton, VA.

Montlouis Sec “Les Petits Boulay,” Domaine Deletang 1999
Finding an older vintage on the shelves of a shop that’s not particularly renowned for buying library releases straight from producers’ caves can always be a risky gamble. When an older vintage is selling for closeout prices, the odds get stacked even more heavily against the buyer. Chances are that the wine has been lost and forgotten in the nether reaches of a distributor’s warehouse or, worse yet, returned to a distributor after collecting dust and more serious forms of abuse at a corner liquor store somewhere in Podunkville. But at $6 for a 1999 Montlouis, the risks are more than worth the potential rewards. The odds landed in our favor on this occasion, delivering not a profound example of Montlouis at its best but a wine that was fairly compelling and a sound example of mid-life, mid-range Chenin Blanc. The oxidative theme continued into this last wine of our tasting. Dry Loire Chenins often show oxidation at mid-life, even at early stages, yet can continue to live on and develop into things of beauty for many, many years. Boiled wool, almond butter, asparagus water and beeswax all turned up on the nose, with good purity of structure following on the tongue. Not a terribly giving wine, but intriguing for its stony, crackly finish. It could easily have passed for a Savennières from the same era if not for its richer touch of dried honey more typical to Chenin from the Touraine. $6. 11.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Imported by Vignobles LVDH, Woodstock, MD.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pat Metheny Trio

Pat Metheny, guitar; Antonio Sanchez, drums; Christian McBride, bass.

These guys put on a great show last night at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA. I’ve seen Metheny about a dozen times over the last 25 years, mostly touring with the full Pat Metheny Group (PMG) and occasionally in a duo format. This was my first taste of his music performed in trio and one of the flat out best concerts I’ve seen him put on. The three-man format combined elements of the high-wire energy typical to PMG shows with the more up-close vibe of a smaller band in a relatively intimate venue. They played pieces culled primarily from the Trio's new album, Day Trip,interspersed with a good deal of emotionally charged improvisation.

This clip is from a recent European performance, broadcast on Switzerland's Italian language TV station TSI-2. Last night might be the first time I’d ever seen Pat not wear the signature faded black jeans and striped t-shirt combo which he’s sporting in this video. And though bassist Christian McBride was dressed a tad more formally at last night’s gig, it’s cool to see the Philly native showing some home team love on stage in Europe.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Beer and Cheese Pairing with Garrett Oliver

One of the marquee events included at the 4th Annual Brewer’s Plate, held last Sunday as one of the kick-off events of Philly Beer Week, was a beer and cheese tasting with Garrett Oliver. Author of The Brewmaster’s Table and, as the book’s title suggests, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett made the trip down to Philly to extol the merits and flexibility of beer’s place in the gourmand’s arsenal.

As seems almost inevitable, at least based on the context of the last few beer tasting events I’ve attended, Mr. Oliver promoted beer’s strengths in the food-pairing arena in contrast to –and to the detriment of – wine. To paraphrase his words in a nutshell, he prefers beer to wine as he feels it works in harmony with rather than in contrast to food. Feel about that as you (and I) may, he does present rather uncanny statistics. In twenty beer-versus-wine challenges in which he’s participated across five countries, he claims a 20-0 record in beer’s favor.

There would be no competition on this night, as the venue’s very nature dictated a beer-only showing. Here’s what Garrett presented:

  1. Southampton Double White Ale (7%) w/ Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog (goat)
  2. Brooklyn Local 1 (9%) w/ Brillat-Savarin (cow)
  3. Victory St. Victorious (7.6%) w/ Ossau Iraty (sheep)
  4. Southampton Bière de Garde (6.6%) w/ St. Marcellin (cow) and Époisses (cow)
  5. Victory Twelve (12%) w/ Pleasant Ridge Reserve (cow)
  6. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (10.1%) w/ Colston-Bassett Stilton (cow)

The first four matches worked well, all following Garrett’s approach of matching flavor to flavor. The citrus and wheat driven ale from Southampton worked in much the same role, minus acidity, as would Sauvignon blanc, perhaps the most ubiquitous wine pairing for goat’s milk cheeses.

I quite liked the creamy on creamy layering provided by the match between Brillat-Savarin and Garrett’s own brew, Brooklyn Local 1. There’s a minor parallel here, too, with classic wine pairings – Brillat-Savarin and Champagne – as Brooklyn Local 1 is a bottle re-fermented, Belgian inspired ale that is made in a way that approximates the méthode traditionelle. Brooklyn Brewery installed a new bottling line and warm room solely to facilitate its production.

The Bière de Garde from Southampton was an inspired choice, as it worked equally well with both the sour tang of St. Marcellin and the pungency of Époisses.

It was really only in match five that Mr. Oliver’s previous successes with the same-on-same approach came tumbling down. Beer’s relative lack of acidity and total lack of tannin rob it of two of wine’s most important attributes in playing well with food. The over-the-top nature of Victory Twelve, tasty enough on its own, was too closely matched to the big, caramelized flavors of Pleasant Ridge Reserve. The match ended up being overblown, with the beer dominating the cheese on the front palate and the cheese overpowering the beer on the finish.

I liked the idea of Chocolate Stout with Stilton. As this was a particularly fudgey example from Colston-Bassett, the potential for chocolate and cheese goodness was certainly evident. Garrett shared an anecdote of how he came up with the pairing at a previous event. He’d planned on serving Stilton with Brooklyn’s barleywine, Monster Ale, but the beer never arrived. Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout was handy though. He went with it, liked it and now continues to show the duo. It may be facile to say I’d have preferred the barleywine… but I would have preferred the barleywine, or a sweeter chocolate stout such as Young’s. The dry, bitter style of Brooklyn’s version, which is compelling on its own, created an acrid reaction on the palate – not to this man’s taste – when matched with the Stilton.

Garrett’s incredibly in-depth knowledge of beer and its place in the culinary spectrum, along with a charismatic presentation style, made his event an absolute highlight of the evening. Four for six is not a shabby batting average in the cheese pairing game. However, I’d like to think I might have scored better with wines of my choosing paired to the same cheeses. Care to go for a twenty-first round, Garrett?

Related post:
Highlights from the 4th Annual Brewer's Plate

Related reading:

Friday, March 14, 2008

WBW #43 Roundup Posted

Joel at Wine Life Today has posted a thoughtful and playful summary of the submissions for the latest episode of Wine Blogging Wednesday. His topic, one that meant different things to different people, was comfort wines. He singled out my writeup of the 1997 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Fattoria Palazzo Vecchio as one of the oddballs of the bunch. Head on over and checkout Joel's roundup.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Duo of the Trio Infernal

It’s the busy season ‘round these parts. Though I’ve already hit on some of the highlights from the Brewer’s Plate on Sunday, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the earlier part of the day’s doubleheader. Two winegrowers – Peter Fischer (pictured, at left) from Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and Laurent Combier (at right) from Crozes-Hermitage – stopped by the shop for a meet, greet and taste with our customers. I spent the entire business portion of the day pouring, discussing their wines with the attendees and offering the occasional half-assed attempt at translation for Laurent (whose English is as good as my French, which is to say awkwardly serviceable) when Peter wasn’t near enough to save me.

I’ve written about one of Domaine Combier’s wines here before. They’re old favorites of mine – beautifully detailed and freshly fruit driven examples of Northern Rhône Syrah. We tasted his 2006, which was fresh off the boat. His name for it is “Cuvée Classique,” though it’s simply labeled as Crozes-Hermitage. The 2006 is a bit leaner and snappier than the more robust 2005 and certainly not as soft, rich and developed as the 2003. Nonetheless, the Asian spice, citrus zest and fresh crushed red berries that form the signature aromatic profile of Combier’s reds are present as always.

The day’s tasting progression actually started with the basic Coteaux d’Aix en Provence rouge from Peter Fischer’s estate, Château Revelette. In the past I’ve often found myself on the fence about Peter’s wines, not really understanding the whites, the rosé or the more heavily elaborated red, “Grand Rouge.” It’s amazing what a difference actually meeting a vigneron and getting to learn more about the peculiarities of an estate and its terroir can make. In other words, I really enjoyed his basic rouge. Peter selected it for the day because he wanted to highlight the typicity of his region, which is at the northern extreme and highest altitude of the sprawling Coteaux d’Aix appellation. The cool nights in the hills of the region help to keep the fruit healthy and fresh on the vine, retaining more acidity than typical in the more arid, southern parts of the region. The wine is a blend, in roughly equal parts, of Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and aged in tank only. Medium bodied and with a lively acid profile, its combination of brambly black fruits and freshness recommends itself to a wide range of culinary matches.

Though both Fischer and Combier make a fairly broad portfolio of wines at their own estates, their primary purpose for the voyage was to present the wines from their new venture: Trio Infernal. The two men, along with Jean-Michel Gerin of Côte-Rôtie, bought a property in Spain’s Priorat in 2002. The three growers take turns, always two at a time, making the seven-hour road trip to Priorat once every week or two, staying for non-stop stints of 24-36 hours at a time. Of course, a full-time worker is on-hand at all times to ensure the health of the vines. As at both of their home estates, farming at the Infernal is organic and done purely by hand. A modestly natural approach is taken in the winery, with no fining, only light filtration and minimal application of sulfur.

The first two vintages at the estate were trying: 2002 for its heavy rains and 2003 for its high heat and drought conditions. In 2004, Peter explained that the trio got their arms fully around the nuances of the land, turning out wines that, by Priorat standards, were quite elegant. 2005 gave wines of more puissance – stronger of flavor, slightly fuller and a touch more tannic. For now, the trio produces only a duo of wines. Befitting their understandable obsession with the number three, they are simply called No. 1/3 and No. 2/3 (number one of three, number two of three, not one/third, two/third). They plan eventually to produce a third wine but don’t yet know what it will be.

No. 1/3 is a blend of 40% Carignan and 60% Grenache from vines spanning an age range from 15-35 years. It’s fermented in tank then aged in barrels of one, two, three and four wines. Though it’s firm of grip, there’s a bright red-fruit driven palate and young flavor profile that makes it approachable now. Laurent deems it worthy of up to eight years in the cellar; Peter ups the ante to ten.

No. 2/3 is 100% varietal Carignan, produced from extremely low yielding vines that were planted in 1906. Here, Carignan – usually relegated as a blending-only variety – shows that it can have something to say in its own right when produced from healthy, ancient vines. There’s an unmistakable aroma of dark cocoa powder and cinnamon along with crushed mulberries, all of which echo on the palate. This cuvee sees some new oak, which shows in the mouth but with good integration and in balance with the wine’s tannic structure. Both men find the wine tight at the moment and suggest it may go for twenty years. On day two, both wines were fully together, showing more openly ripe, slightly pruned dark berry and plummy fruit.

Typical Frechmen? It's a source of befuddlement for me that so many winemakers smoke. It doesn't seem to stop these guys from turning out good wines.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t drink much Priorat. Heck, I don’t drink much Spanish wine period. However, these two do show greater finesse and, not to overuse a good word, freshness than I’ve experienced in many other wines of the region. If there’s a problem, it’s that the wines fall hard in the context of QPR. At $50-60 and $100-110 respectively, they may be reasonably normal in the Priorat price range. I even understand the prices to a point; land costs are high, labor conditions are extreme and the journey alone is arduous. But I plain can’t afford to drink them. Thus is admitted one of the most commonly shared guilty pleasures of the public and private tasting experience.

If anyone out there has tried these wines or has other Priorats to recommend (or avoid), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Highlights from the Brewer’s Plate

The 4th Annual Brewer’s Plate, held Sunday just past at the Independence Visitor Center, was, as expected, a veritable frenzy of food and beer pairing madness. Though navigation of the grand hall could be claustrophobic once all attendees had gained entrance, there were rarely any lines that defied patience. There was enough food, though, to defy even the most wide-eyed and deep-gulleted of appetites. As you all know by now, I can eat. But I’d just about had my fill after the first hour. No worries though. That was perfect timing in that it allowed me, with a free conscience, to head upstairs to check out the event’s feature seminars. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, conducted a beer and cheese pairing workshop, followed by a presentation on the physiology of taste by local sommeliere Marnie Old. Even without heading upstairs to the "VIP" tasting or the presentation room, there were plenty of highlights for all to see, drink and eat in the main hall.

Chef David Ansill of Ansill Food & Wine served up the funkiest plate of the night, with one of his signature dishes, pig's head terrine. Though it wasn’t paired with Ansill’s terrine, the most unusual brew in the hall was certainly St. Alban’s Old Ale from Dock Street. Based on an 18th Century recipe, it’s brewed with 16 different herbs and tastes like strong brown ale crossed with Amaro.

The prize for simple decadence, at least from what I managed to sample, has to go to London Grill's delicious pan-fried duck wings, which paired quite nicely with Stoudt's Blonde Double Mai Bock.

Yards, the brewery that arguably started Philadelphia's brewing renaissance, was in the house, pouring their flagship Extra Special Ale (ESA).

The most addictive dish of the night just may have been the braised and glazed chicken wings served up by Snackbar chef, Jonathan McDonald. Washing them down with Yards ESA made for one of the best pairings of the evening as well.

The guys from Climax Brewing Company and Choptank Oyster Company were looking a bit shell-shocked (yes, pun intended) as the evening began to wind down.

For many event goers, I'm sure things were a bit fuzzy by the end of the night.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Pouring for a Good Cause

When a good friend asked a couple of months back if I'd like to help out with a wine dinner at which he'd be cooking I just shrugged and said, "Sure." I figured it would be a good opportunity to hang out and pitch in with a little help. As it turned out, I was able to help more than just him. In discussing details prior to the event this weekend, I learned that I'd signed on to donate my services as sommelier for a private wine dinner benefiting Meals On Wheels Delaware. Why not? Meals On Wheels is a great cause. I've been involved with their Evening With The Masters event in the past via my day job, but that's a large, grand tasting gala and wine auction. This was an intimate dinner for 20, held at the home of the event's hosts and featuring wines donated from their private cellar.

My duties for the evening - extracting old corks, decanting, pouring, tending to guests’ needs, etc. - prevented me from taking notes. However, I did manage, discretely I hope, to snap a few photos at the end of the evening. And I tried my best to retain some rudimentary impressions of the wines.

Champagne "Dom Perignon," Moët et Chandon 1990
All bottles were consistently fresh and in fine shape, with excellent mousse retention. Cremini mushroom, lightly toasted croissant and a whiff of sulfur on the nose. Sweet front palate attack, followed by lime flesh, melon and honeysuckle notes. Drinking well. 12.5% alcohol.

Napa Valley Chardonnay "Library Selection," Trefethen Vineyards 1985
Trefethen often holds back some of their estate wines for later release, allowing the wines to develop some bottle age before reaching their customers. The 1985 Chardonnay was re-released as a “Library Selection” in 1992. The five bottles I opened had been resting in our hosts’ cellar ever since. One was corked, one was madeirized but the other three were in great shape – still fresh and alive, reflecting the relatively minimalist approach in the Trefethen cellars. It’s not that the wine was terribly complex, more that it was eye opening for so many of the guests to taste a 22 year-old California white that was still in great shape. Slightly coppery robe. Quarzite minerality, crisp Bartlett pear fruit and still crunchy acidity. 13% alcohol.

Latricières-Chambertin Grand Cru, Domaine Rossignol-Trapet 1990 and Chambertin Grand Cru "Cuvée Vieilles Vignes," Domaine Rossignol-Trapet 1990
In a stacked field, these were the wines of the night. The Latricières was the planned pour. As I opened the wines, I was focused more on gentle handling and dealing with the uniformly crumbly corks. So it wasn’t until I taste tested each bottle that I noticed that one was significantly different. The Latricières was lacy and perfumed with dried wild red berry fruit and feminine sous-bois aromas. Lightly silky tannins and well-balanced acidity carried the same flavors through to the mouth. When I got to bottle three, suddenly there was black fruit, darker, richer earth and much more substantial tannic structure – not tight but muscular – along with a much more noticeable oak influence. I looked down and realized there was a stray bottle of Chambertin “Vieilles Vignes” in the mix. I wasn’t complaining about the little complication it added to service, as both wines were rare treats to taste and, in spite of the tired corks, in solid condition. Both 13% alcohol.

Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé, Château Cheval Blanc 1983 (from Imperial)
The Crown Royal cradle (in the picture, at left) came in handy for getting this six-liter baby started into decanters. Lovely, developed Cabernet Franc driven nose, with sweet red currant fruit dancing with loamy, decaying leaves. Very supple, with elegant, restrained tannins. Lots of bottle bouquet and drinking perfectly, helped along no doubt by the super-sized format. Classic old school labeling: 11-14% alcohol. I’d put it at 12.5-13 based on tasting.

Pessac-Léognan, Château La Mission Haut Brion 1989
As tightly wound and ungiving as 18 year-old wine gets. Muted aromatics are clearly of Left Bank cab, with a gravelly, sinewy black cassis and graphite profile. But this is still as clamped down as a closed bear trap. A decent foil to the beef course with which it was paired but, compared to the rest of the wines of the evening, nowhere near ready to drink. Maybe it will be interesting in another 18 years but its total reticence now makes me wonder. 13% alcohol.

Sauternes Premier Cru Classé, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 1990
Still very young but drinking quite nicely, with typical metallic, apricot and bittersweet orange marmalade notes allied to solid concentration and steely acidity. Hides its alcohol well. A lovely showing and fitting end to the evening. 14.5% alcohol.
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