Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Beer on the Wild Side

I stopped into Monk’s last night to grab a quick bite after teaching a course on classic French wine and cheese pairings. The mussels and fries were reliable as always, if not at their best, but the beer…. The beer was absolutely wild; wild as in natural and wild in its flavors.

Cantillon Brouwerij may be best known – to those who know it at all – for its beers in the style called Gueze, which are spontaneously fermented, blended lambics. Cantillon Iris, however, is neither gueze nor lambic. It’s a vintage dated beer, first brewed in 1998 in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Brussels Museum of the Gueze. I could try to tell you all about its production method but you’d do better reading all about it courtesy of Cantillon’s website. I drank the 2004 vintage of Iris, which is currently available at Monk’s.

For me, Cantillon produces more than just gueze, lambic and unusual brews like Iris. They produce what I’ll call bières de terroir, beers that speak clearly of their origins. Something tells me it’s not just the raw materials they use, the wheat, barley and hops (which are all grown locally and organically, by the way), but also the brewery itself, including its place in the city of Brussels, that speaks through their beers. Given that Iris is fermented spontaneously, using only the wild yeast and bacteria native to the brewery’s environment, I suppose that makes perfect sense.

Cantillon’s own description of Iris as possessing “vinous taste” is apt. It reminds me of old, rustic and dry Vouvray, like the 1984 “Aigle Blanc” from Philippe Poniatowski, which sticks in my memory for its tooth-aching acidity and pungent, sour, subterranean flavors. In all of Poniatowski’s wines, there was a taste of the cave in which they were aged. Call it a flaw if you will, but it was a clear part of the wines’ terroir and of their character, which sometimes varies from bottle to bottle, particularly with age – just like the beers of Cantillon. That wine was not for the timid. Neither is Iris.

It also brings to mind a good, artisan example of the Loire goat’s milk cheese, St. Maure de Touraine. It’s a cheese where I always imagine tasting the flavors imparted by the goats, by the grasses and flowers they were raised on and also by the cave in which the cheese was aged (received its affinage, if you prefer). Perhaps the comparison came to mind because I’d paired St. Maure with a Sauvignon Blanc from the Touraine only an hour or two earlier. But I don’t think so. The parallel seems real to me. In fact, it might be interesting to pair the St. Maure with Iris, just to explore the relationship mind you.

I can’t think of a brewery I’d be more excited to visit. The trip to Brussels the visit with Cantillon would necessitate wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

* * *
Related reading:

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Taste and Learn about Some of Germany’s Finest

Alright, listen up. I’m confused.

I announced my upcoming courses at Tria Fermentation School about ten days ago. The class on wines of the Loire was sold out within a couple of days. Another week later, the course on Germany, scheduled for Tuesday, May 6, has received only a few nibbles. What's up with that? Not sure what to expect? Or maybe you just missed it the first time around.

Don’t miss it this time. This class, I say with all due modesty, should be great. Even if I somehow manage to lose my voice and can only stand in front of the room and point at the maps and pretty pictures, the wines I’ll be pouring will be enough, I expect, to keep you totally captivated.

This class is for you if:

  • You think you don't like white wine. You just haven't tasted the right stuff.
  • You’re convinced all German wines are sweet. They’re not.
  • You’re convinced that all sweet wine is bad and/or to be avoided. Patently untrue, my friends, although widely accepted as truth in America’s current wine culture.
  • Your eyes go blurry and crossed as soon as you see a German wine label. We’ll try to crack the code.
  • You think Germany only produces Riesling (we’ll taste plenty) and Gewürztraminer (we won’t taste any). I’ll also be pouring Scheurebe, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) – yes, a red wine.
  • You’ve never explored the wines of Germany. This will be a great starting point.
  • You’re a German wine fanatic. We’ll be tasting goodies from some of Germany’s top producers.

If you need to be convinced about the fantastic qualities of German wines by someone other than just me, check out Eric Asimov’s recent piece on dry German Rieslings in The New York Times. By coincidence, we’ll taste one of the wines Eric specifically mentioned – Von der Fels from Klaus-Peter Keller – and a couple from another producer – Ratzenberger – on his short list of favorites.

If you’re already convinced, sign up for class now. Again, it's next Tuesday, May 6, 2008. Class runs from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM (or maybe a little later...). I’ll see you there.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Traveling the Loire with a White Steed from Lessona

A spur of the moment invite a few nights ago triggered this latest installment of “Notes from a Sunday" (aka "Wine with Bill"). While my always gracious host cooked up a salubrious repast of pan-seared loin of pork, rigatoni Bolognese and, yes, even some vegetables, I got to work on opening a few bottles for the evening’s tasting. The focus, once again, was on the Loire but I’d brought along an interesting tie-in, an interloper from Italy. Before we get to that though, a little bubbly as an aperitif….

Saumur Brut Rosé, Domaine du Vieux Pressoir NV
This was pure, simple pleasure in a glass. Boisterously pink at the core and paler at the edges. Coarse mousse and a nose like red berry zinger tea. Juicy strawberry and raspberry fruit led off, followed by a nuance of fresh herbs and a fuzzy raspberry finish. Refreshingly dry yet round and generous in feel. 100% Cabernet Franc, produced from a single year’s fruit (though not vintage dated) using the Méthode Traditionnelle. Malolactic fermentation is inhibited in the base wine to retain crispness and freshness. $18. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: VOS Selections, New York, NY.

Cheverny Rouge, Clos du Tue-Boeuf 2007
Clos du Tue-Boeuf is the family estate of Thierry Puzelat and his older brother Jean-Marie. Their Cheverny rouge, as the young AOC rules of Cheverny dictate, is a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir. Beautiful color: bright, translucent and ever so slightly cloudy. Chalky on the palate, there’s an immediate impression of raspberry bubble gum, but then there’s texture and surprising length given the wine’s initial appearances of simplicity.

The Gamay seems to assert its personality much more strongly than does the Pinot Noir. This lacks the wildness that many of Puzelat’s wines are known for but it’s no less tasty. Raspberry parfait gives way to a savory, porky nuance and a noticeably saline quality. Crisp and fresh. A lean acid profile provides a ridge right down the middle of the palate and then that texture kicks in with a scrubbing, rugged vitality. If anyone knows the story behind the psychedelic flying cow that adorns the label, I’d love to hear it. $17. 11% alcohol. Synthetic stopper (Nomacorc). Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.

Vino da Tavola “’L Franc Bandit,” Proprietà Sperino 2004
This was the oddball of the evening in more ways than one. Like the bubbly with which we started, this is varietal Cabernet Franc. It’s also not vintage dated. Yet in this case that’s a requirement of the governing bodies of the Italian wine world in this part of Piedmont, not a decision made by the producer. The wine comes from Paolo de Marchi’s new property in Lessona, a small viticultural zone in the northeastern corner of Piedmont known for its Nebbiolo based wines. Cabernet Franc is allowed in small percentages in the broader neighboring Coste della Sesia DOC but the local regulations do not allow for wines made purely from Cabernet Franc. So de Marchi’s labeling includes a clever workaround, “Lotto CF04,” which is shorthand for Lot Cabernet Franc 2004.

The rest of the cleverness on the label, I can only assume, would seem to be de Marchi’s tongue in cheek expression of frustration with the authorities who essentially have forced him to declassify the wine to the lowly Vino da Tavola category. The graffiti on the label translates something like this:

“…cross the Alps, elegant white steed, to and fro, etc. ... noble roots, silently, solitary thief, and a bunch of other things, if only they came to mind. All right then, maybe even enough, nay rather, no: he took a liking he did to these ancient sands, what noble nature, and them, him, bla bla bla ... only to arrive at a label. Vigorous, intense, sanguine, o free bandit! There you have it."

We have at least a double entendre: franco means both free (in the sense of speaking freely or frankly) and Franc/k in Italian but is clearly a reference to the vine involved and its country of origin. That reference is brought more clearly into the wine world with the image of a white steed (Cheval Blanc…) crossing the Alps, of Cabernet Franc, an unwanted bandit, leaving its home in France and infiltrating the Piedmont vineyards. Also wrapped up in there somewhere appears to be a clear statement from de Marchi that he saw the potential for Cabernet Franc to thrive in the terroir of Lessona and chose to explore it, wine bureaucrats be damned.

But what about the wine? True to just about all of Paolo’s wines, both at his Tuscan estate Isole e Olena and here at Proprietà Sperino in Lessona, this has a transparent richness and truly elegant feel and balance. Chocolate, cool earth, cassis, tobacco and stewed plums interlace on the palate. It’s medium-bodied and soft, with extremely supple tannins. There’s also a forward yet perfectly integrated oak influence, sweet and clean, that elevates the wine’s fruit without burying it in costume dress and pancake makeup. There’s just barely a touch of alcoholic heat; otherwise, this is seamless. I can’t say it screams of Lessona typicity. But then, what is the local typicity for Cabernet Franc? ‘L Franc Bandit would seem to be de Marchi’s first answer – 2004 is the first vintage – to that question. The downside? It’s an expensive answer. $60. 13.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Coteaux du Layon, Château Soucherie (Pierre-Yves Tijou & Fils) 2005
This, the basic Coteaux du Layon from Pierre-Yves Tijou, is consistently one of the best values in sweet Angevin Chenin Blanc, year in and year out. Still under $20, it’s a bottle that can be enjoyed today or socked away in a cool wine cellar for another 20 years. Medium-sweet, it veers only modestly into Layon’s sometime tropical fruit character. Instead, there’s lemon oil, orange creamsicle, persimmon, peach blossom and peach butter. Underneath it all is a core of stoniness that, along with medium acidity, lends balance. In spite of only medium sweetness, there’s an intense confectionery element to the wine’s palate attack. A great pairing with local Loire goat’s cheese, this would also be lovely with just about any type of pâté or rillette. $19. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchants, New York, NY.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Weingut Huber in Austria's Traisental

Getting up to New York for the Real Wine Attack wasn’t in the cards last weekend. So I pointed myself instead toward a tasting right here in Philly with Markus Huber, the young owner and winemaker at Weingut Huber in Austria’s Traisental region.

The Traisental lies in the shadows of its three slightly more famous neighbors, south and east of Wachau and due south of Kremstal and Kamptal. The heart of the region – as well as its name – is formed by the Traisen River, which flows from the Alps in the south to its eventual confluence with the Danube at its northern border. The area’s geographical position between the 47th and 48th Parallels puts it at a northerly position similar to that of Chablis and Champagne; the climate, though, is temperate. In total, there are 800 hectares under vine in the Traisental, nearly all of them based on limestone conglomerate and loess based soil.

Markus Huber and his family own 20 of those hectares in the village of Reichersdorf, in the northern portion of Traisental. They buy fruit under contract from farmers on another 20 hectares of land. Markus represents the tenth generation of his family in the business, which started in 1548 as a cooperage and evolved over the years to include an increasing focus on viticulture. His father was the first to focus solely on wine. Markus himself took over the reins as of the 2000 vintage, following two years spent working at wineries in South Africa.

Markus Huber displaying samples of the limestone conglomerate that forms the base of his vineyards.

Typical of the Traisental, Weingut Huber produces primarily Grüner Veltliner (70%), along with about 10% Riesling, 10% Zweigelt – their only red fruited vine – and small quantities of Sauvignon Blanc, Müller Thurgau and Muscat. They practice sustainable farming, utilizing no herbicides or pesticides, and are not afraid of working hard in the vineyards to ensure the quality of their wines. The estate’s 20 hectares are split among 55 different plots. Strict selection is practiced at harvest, with four or five tris being the norm. For the last few years, all wines have been bottled under screw cap.

Following an introduction by John Toler, Sales Manager for Huber’s US importer, Boutique Wine Collection, the young Mr. Huber took to the podium. Here’s what he poured for us:

Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Hugo,” Weingut Huber 2007
This is Huber’s entry-level Grüner Veltliner, made from fruit purchased under regular contract. It’s picked two weeks early, to capture GV’s young, citric characteristics. Vinification is all in stainless steel. Very crisp and clean if somewhat neutral in the fruit department. White pepper, lemon zest and brisk minerality, with a touch of white floral character. Very refreshing. Also quite attractive as an everyday pour given its modest price point. Apparently that’s a common viewpoint, as “Hugo” is the top selling Austrian wine on the US market. 2 grams residual sugar (RS), 11.5-12% alcohol.

Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Alte Setzen,” Weingut Huber 2006
“Alte Setzen” is a single vineyard that includes some of Huber’s oldest vines, approaching 50 years of age in some cases. Its soil is rich, with 25 meters of loess above a limestone base. In direct opposition to “Hugo,” this is picked intentionally overripe, with about 5-10% botrytis, in order to showcase the exotic side of Grüner Veltliner. And exotic it is, with rich, round texture and a spicy flavor profile. Minerality is less racy here, more round and stony, like a river rock. Half of this cuvée is fermented and aged in untoasted acacia casks, which are entirely neutral and very tight grained. The other half is done in steel. Both see some battonage, used along with wood to soften the wine’s acidity. This is well done, as it would seem an accurate representation of the “Alte Setzen” terroir. However, it’s not really to my taste, as the lower acidity leads to both fatness and a greater perception of sweetness on the palate than the wine’s modest residual sugar would normally suggest. 3.5 grams RS, 13-13.5% alcohol.

Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Berg,” Weingut Huber 2006
This offered seeming proof that Huber’s wines reflect their terroir. For all “California Chardonnay is dry” folks out there, it also demonstrated clearly that the perception of sweetness is not just about residual sugar; acid balance has an awful lot to do with it as well. “Berg” is Huber’s highest elevation vineyard site, planted on a terraced hillside that reaches a 45% grade at its steepest points. Only 10-15 centimeters of humus lies above an otherwise rocky base of pure limestone conglomerate. Fruit is harvested in mid-late November, again with 5-10% botrytis. Vinification is in 100% old acacia barrels, some of which date back to the 1960s. There are exotic and stone fruit characteristics – mango and marmalade, apple and honey – along with GV’s typical streak of white pepper and minerality. The mineral character and texture goes back to the racy, limestone-driven end of the spectrum, carrying off 14% alcohol levels without losing balance. It’s all just carried on a more muscular framework. RS levels are similar to “Alte Setzen” but the “Berg” feels and tastes much drier.

Traisental Riesling “Terrassen,” Weingut Huber 2006
Switching gears to Riesling, “Terrassen” fills the same basic slot in the lineup as “Hugo” does relative to the Grüner Veltliners. Fruit comes from multiple terraced vineyards (thus the name) and is fermented and aged completely in steel cuves. Fruit is picked at full ripeness with no noble rot and fermented out to complete dryness. Again like the Hugo, this is crisp, racy and very drinkable but has greater depth and more finesse. For Markus, this was the wine that showed best on the evening. 12.5% alcohol.

Traisental Riesling “Berg,” Weingut Huber 2006
For me, this was the wine of the night. Picked at full ripeness, with no botrytis, this is fermented in steel then aged in old acacia casks. Beautiful wine. More aromatic than the “Terrassen,” with intense limestone character, apricot and clover honey on the palate. Reminds me of “Von der Fels” from Klaus-Peter Keller. Intensely sapid, minerally texture. The finish lasts for minutes. And the wine’s balance and structure totally hide its 6 grams RS, helped along no doubt by 8 grams of acidity.

Traisental Zweigelt, Weingut Huber 2006
Switching gears again, this time to red. Huber grows only a small amount of red fruit and it’s all Zweigelt, the eponymous crossing of Saint Laurent and Blaufrankisch developed by Dr. Zweigelt in 1922. In most years, this is the only red produced. Harvested in mid-October and aged in 2,000-liter casks of Austrian oak. Juicy plum and black cherry fruit. A touch of stem, spice and thyme lend aromatic interest. There’s easy drinking charm up front but also a touch of what strikes me as rot on the mid-palate.

Traisental Zweigelt “Reserve,” Weingut Huber 2003
Huber produces a “Reserve” Zweigelt only in what they consider exceptional vintages, thus far being only 2003 and 2006. The fruit is very clean, surprisingly lighter in color than the regular bottling, though Markus attributes some of that to the wine’s age. Very sweet plum is dressed up with oak-driven vanillin. 50% of the wine sees 2nd year French oak, the other half ages in Austrian oak. Soft and pretty but I prefer Zweigelt’s character when unadorned by the taste of wood. This would make for a good ringer in a new world Pinot Noir tasting. In 2003, Huber was still using cork for their reds.

Traisental Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese, Weingut Huber 1995
This TBA was made during papa Huber’s era; Markus no longer grows Scheurebe at all. 80-100% botrytis affected fruit was crushed and then soaked in its own “mash” for 24-36 hours until an enzyme reaction started to release actual liquid from the dessicated fruit. As one might expect, this was intensely concentrated and fat, loaded with fig, lavender and exotic fruit. Volatile and prickly on the nose. The color of buckwheat honey, a flavor echoed in the wine. Viscous and in your face, yet hard not to enjoy. Not another TBA was produced at Weingut Huber until a Riesling in 2005. 240 grams RS, 10.5% alcohol.

Weingut Markus Huber
Weinriedenweg 13
A-3134 Reichersdorf

Map of the Traisental courtesy of

* * *
Related reading:

Friday, April 25, 2008

Dining Out For Life

Like many other bloggers I presume, press releases and event announcements roll into my in-box on a pretty regular basis. I could hardly post about all of them without turning MFWT into a public PR shill machine. However, once in a while, an announcement comes through the wire that not only ties in to the core topics here – wine and food – but also represents a great cause.

Dining Out For Life is one such event. Next Thursday, May 1, 2008, over 200 dining establishments in the greater Philadelphia area will be participating in this annual, one-night charitable dining extravaganza. Each participating restaurant will donate 33% of your total bill to Action Aids, an organization that leads the local fight against HIV and AIDS.

Check out the list of participating restaurants. Many are offering both lunch and dinner as part of the event. It can be a busy night out but it’s well worth joining the crowds, as you can enjoy a great meal and make a difference in people’s lives at the same time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Talula's in the News and a Survey from Wark

Alex Chadwick, host of National Public Radio’s daily news magazine Day to Day, stopped by Talula’s Table during a recent election trail stop in the greater Philadelphia area. Why he chose to plug an article in some Condé Nast rag called Portfolio and quote some guy named John Turturro rather than citing one of my wonderful reports on Talula’s is beyond me. Nonetheless, if you missed the show when it aired yesterday, it’s more than worth checking out in the NPR archives. The audio clip of his charming on-air piece is accompanied on-line by a story, some of Alex’s own photos and a recipe, courtesy of Chef Sikora, for Talula's Smoky Spoonbread with Sautéed Shrimp, Chanterelles and Creamed Greens. (Photo courtesy of Alex Chadwick. Thank you, Alex. Lack of a wink and a smile courtesy of my refusal to include emoticons in my posts.)

Even if you’re not a regular reader of Tom Wark’s wine biz and PR-related blog Fermentation, I’m sure he’d be pleased to have you participate in a survey he’s running at the moment. The goal? To get a sense of how and why people seek out wine information on the Web. There are also a couple of questions about Internet wine shopping trends. The survey only takes a minute or two to complete, all data is confidential and the results just might prove interesting. Why not head on over and take the survey?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ruwer Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spätlese, Karthäuserhof 2004

I was shocked to see something from Karthäuserhof during a recent foray into one of the Philadelphia area’s better PLCB specialty stores. I picked up a bottle based on three strong recommending factors:

  • multiple props from Lyle.
  • a solid rear label. Rudi Wiest should be on everyone’s short list of most reliable importers of German wine.
  • The VDP. Karthäuserhof is a member of the Verband Deutscher Prädikats, a peer-based group consisting of many of Germany’s top producers.

I kept my fingers crossed, particularly given the $30 price tag and the non-current vintage, that it had survived Pennsylvania’s notoriously poor handling practices.

It hadn’t just survived. It rocked. Brilliant hues in the glass, more silver than gold, led to a concentrated nose of lime blossoms and slate. Penetrating elements of lime zest and lime oil followed on the palate, along with slight tropical nuances of papaya and passion fruit. It was the combination of crystalline minerality and impeccable balance that made the wine so compelling in its overall impact. Minerality was crystalline not just in flavor but in feel; it was as if I could feel the facets, the jagged edges, of each mineral element in the wine’s texture. Persistent and just beautiful. At once delicate and concentrated, its sweetness was in perfect balance with acidity and fruit as well. It made for a great pairing with the sushi and sashimi at Zento, even though I’d selected it for the evening in anticipation of some of the sweeter, richer and more modern dishes on the menu.

I’ll be headed back for the remaining bottles, as I’d love to drink another soon and sock a couple away for future exploration. $30. 8.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Rudi Wiest, Cellars International, San Marcos, CA.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Clubbing it is not my thing. Neither is facing off with the see and be seen set. So it takes a lot to get me into Old City – one of Philly’s centers for such things – on a Friday or Saturday night. A good band at The Khyber or performance at the Painted Bride Art Center might do it. Or perhaps a short run film at the Ritz. Once there, dinner, whether before or after, is a must on such nights. The problem is, short notice reservations at Jose Garces’ Amada are pretty much out of the question. And I prefer to avoid the dinner as theater and tourist trap spots that otherwise dominate the neighborhood.

Luckily, there are a small but slowly growing number of spots in Old City that buck the area’s clubby tendencies and offer straightforward, worthwhile dining experiences. For years my go-to spot was La Locanda del Ghiottone but it somehow lost its allure following the death of its original, ever colorful owner Giuseppe Rosselli. If time permits, there’s good food to be had at Bistro 7. The burgers at Eulogy leave something to be desired but the fries are some of the best in town and the Belgian beer list is second only to Monk’s.

Though it’s already been part of the neighborhood since August 2006, my latest sweet spot in Old City is Zento Contemporary Japanese Cuisine. Chef/owner Gunawan Wibisono, formerly head chef at Kisso (also in Old City), spent time honing his skills on the sushi line at Morimoto. He’s now turning out some of the most, yes, contemporary Japanese food in town, with a clear emphasis on modern and creative sushi rolls. While I’ve enjoyed those more creative efforts in the past, I opted to go with the simple, more traditional side of the menu on my latest visit.

Zento may just serve the largest bowl of miso soup in town. I’d love to see a bit more tofu and perhaps some seaweed in the mix but the miso/dashi balance is just right, not too salty or pungent but far from washed out, bland or muddied by overheating.

If there was a disappointment, it came in the form of edamame that had been steamed for too long. They weren’t past the point of no return, just a little less bright and snappy than ideal. We still managed to empty our bowl, as it’s hard to pass up their combination of saltiness and freshness as a starter.

My wife’s veggie rolls were well executed, with a sweet potato tempura roll just hinting at the creative capacities of the kitchen. The addictively tasty melding of firm rice, nori and sweet batter-fried potatoes made me wonder why more Japanese restaurants don’t leverage this typical tempura ingredient into their sushi roll offerings.

That was the extent of our flirtations with modernity on this evening, as my opting for the chef’s daily selection of sushi and sashimi brought the focus right back to old school, traditional simplicity. It’s good to see that a kitchen that has built its reputation on the creative can also deliver the fundamentals in a quality, focused manner. It was also good to see that the chef’s assortment did not include any of the filler portions – California rolls, omelets or steamed shrimp –common to sushi platters at far too many establishments. Salmon, hamachi and tuna sashimi were cut large and boldly, focusing the eye on the beautiful flesh of the fish. The sushi rice could have benefited from a bit more of the tang of rice wine vinegar yet was well cooked and well proportioned to the generous slices of raw fish. One of my favorite basic rolls – hamachi and scallion – completed the picture, along with a handsomely executed, tobiko-topped flower of fluke.

Zento has the added benefit, at least in my book, of being a BYOB. If in doubt as to what to carry along, all but the most dyed in the wool white wine haters shouldn’t even bother with red. The menu here screams out for high acid white wine with good fruit and clean, un-oaked flavors. Slightly off-dry sake would also be a good choice. My choice was clear though: Riesling. Based on the rich flavors and sweet sauces adorning many of the sushi rolls I’d enjoyed on past visits, I opted on this occasion for Spâtlese Riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (more on that soon). It turned out to work wonderfully. If you know you’re going for straight sushi and sashimi, you could do just as well with a dry Riesling from the Rhein or Austria, or perhaps Blanc de Blancs Champagne from a good grower. Just be sure to give your glasses a sniff before pouring; mine needed a quick seasoning to eliminate some kitchen-related odors.

If you’re looking for rich atmosphere with your sushi experience, you won’t find it here. Zento is little more than a box-shaped, white-walled storefront, with a tiny sushi counter – only three or four seats – and about fifteen two- and four-top tables. Reservations are taken, honored and recommended. Service is fast paced and pleasant. And there’s not much else to it.

I’m not sure Zento will become a draw strong enough to pull me in just for dinner on a weekend (though certainly on a Tuesday). But on those Fridays or Saturdays when I’m drawn by force into the neighborhood, it’s earned a strong spot on my short list of places worth visiting.

Zento Contemporary Japanese Cuisine
138 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Zento in Philadelphia

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Some Sips from Southwest France

To allay any fears that I somehow made it through an eight course tasting menu without a drop of wine, here are a few tasting notes from a recent dinner at Talula’s Table. When picking out bottles to cart along for the evening, I quickly saw a mini pattern developing with the whites, both of which were from the greater southwest of France. So I decided to continue that theme straight through the evening.

Blanquette de Limoux “Le Berceau,” Maison Vergnes (Domaine de Martinolles) NV
Although technically located in the Languedoc-Roussillon, Limoux’s situation in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenées often leads its wines to be considered in the context of the greater southwest of France. Maison Vergnes produces some of the best quality and best value wines of the AOC, with this, their flagship non-vintage Méthode Traditionnelle bottling, slotting into the always sweet under-$15 price range. It’s a typical blend to the area, constituted mostly of the local specialty Mauzac, salted and peppered with small quantities of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.

I was particularly keen to see how this bottle would show, as it had been hiding in my cellar for a good three or four years since purchase. The verdict was good. Hay-toned colors suggested continuing youth. The characteristic yellow apple fruit of Mauzac, along with brioche and lanolin, were still in plentiful evidence right up front. Medium mousse, generous texture and medium-bodied impact. With a bit of air, elements of bottle development began to appear, with a touch of oiliness in the rear palate and a finish redolent of roasted brazil nuts and hazelnuts. $12 on release. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Jurançon Sec, Domaine Castera 2006
Moving deeper in to the Pyrenées, Jurançon is an appellation noted first and foremost for its sweet, passérillage influenced wines; thus, the dry whites from the region always carry the “sec” designation for clarification. A blend of Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu, this is seriously big wine, not from oak – there is none – or rich, fat textures but rather from a combination of high acidity, intensely vinous texture and naturally high alcohol. It wears that alcohol well. Grippy texture. Loads of lime oil, wildflowers and white stone minerality. Not for casual sipping but great with food where something with cut and power is demanded. It was a brilliant match with the falafel-crusted halibut served at Talula’s and would pair extremely well with Basque sheep’s milk cheeses such as Ossau Iraty or Pyrenées Brebis. $16. 14% alcohol. Synthetic cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Côtes de Bergerac, Château Haut-Bernasse 1999
Like the Blanquette de Limoux, this had been resting in my cellar for quite a few years. Unlike the Blanquette, I hadn’t planned to keep it for so long, it had just gotten away from me. I was curious to check in on its development, wondering if it would still be holding up. The color was good, a deep garnet red, semi-opaque and showing only moderate hints of maturity. Alas, a quick sniff was all it took to end the show, as the bottle was profoundly corked. Regardless of price, it’s a much bigger drag to run into a cork tainted wine when it’s been cared for so well and for so long as opposed to when it’s just come home from the wine shop. This bottle was stoppered with one of those hideously cheap composite corks that seem to be even more prone to TCA infection than “whole” corks. $14 on release. 12% alcohol. Natural cork composite. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Cahors, Clos la Coutale (V. Bernede & Fils) 2004
A more than adequate stand-in for the spoiled Bergerac. When first opened, this showed classic Cahors rusticity, with wooly, stewed black fruits and earthy, iron-like aromas. Tannins were not as intense as in some of the more powerful wines of Cahors but were still typically dusty and chunky. As it opened, purer blackberry and plum emerged. Texture became more refined. Then, as the night wore on, country wine character returned, with aromas of tar and sun-baked rocks leading to a finish laced with hints of clay, leather and sour black cherries. An excellent value, this would be great to keep around for summer grilling. $17. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Germany and Loire Wine Classes at Tria Fermentation School

It’s that time of the month again. The gang at Tria Fermentation School have just announced their May schedule of courses. In addition to plenty of other wine, beer and cheese related seminars, I’ll be in the house on two separate occasions, leading courses on the wines of Germany and the Loire.

White wine haters beware! In the wines of Germany, scheduled for Tuesday, May 6, 2008, we’ll cover the basic keys to building a greater understanding of German wines. Along the way, we might just taste a red but the class will overwhelmingly focus on the great whites of Germany. Selections will include wines from some of the top producers of their respective regions: Jochen Ratzenberger in the Mittelrhein, Werner Schönleber in the Nahe, Klaus-Peter Keller in the Rheinhessen and Andreas Laible in Baden, among others.

The view from Bacharach, near Weingut Ratzenberger, in the Mittelrhein.

Later in the month, on Wednesday, May 21, 2008 to be exact, I’ll be leading a trip down the Loire, one of France’s most diverse wine growing regions. The line-up of wines has yet to be finalized for this session but rest assured that it will include some of the classics, like Sancerre, Chinon and Vouvray, along with some lesser known hidden gems.

The town of Chinon, as seen from the banks of the Vienne River.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spring 2008 at Talula's Table

It will be another few weeks before the ready availability of local produce really kicks into gear. Area farmers markets are prepping to open even as we speak. But if you have a really well thought out garden or perhaps are up for the adventure of doing a little searching in field, stream and forest, there’s plenty of tasty stuff rearing up from the ground here in the Mid-Atlantic, even this early in April.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you have the best local farmers and just about every professional forager in the region knocking at your door, hoping to find a place for their goods (and their name) on your table. Under the ownership of Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy, Talula’s Table has become just such a beacon for the farmers in the Brandywine and Delaware Valleys, much as at Philadelphia’s Django when it was still their purview. With the help of those local purveyors, the latest farmhouse table menu at Talula’s is brimming with the new flavors of spring. I stopped by on a recent evening, nabbed a seat at the kitchen table and checked out what was cooking.

Warm Smoked Scallop and Lobster Terrine, Foamy Fish Broth and Russian Osetra Caviar

If expectations of terrines run from the rich and creamy to the light and mousse-like, this delivered on another level of texture and weight, with the firmness picked up by the scallops during the smoking process echoing the substantially fleshy feel of the lobster. Counterpoint to that density came from both light, airy fish broth foam and from a sprinkling of snappy, saline caviar. Hearts of celery braised in wine and fish stock, along with a drizzle of refreshingly herbaceous tarragon and chive oil provided light opening touches, setting one’s appetite up for more.

Brandywine Watercress Bisque, Clam and Sweet Pea Parmesan Risotto, Black Pepper Crackers

A creative, seasonal take on New England clam chowder? The intense green hues of Bryan’s bisque say no, yet the parallels are all there. A lightly smoked clam, served in the shell, sits anchored atop a dollop of creamy, parmigiano rich risotto, all a swim in a vibrantly pea green pool of watercress bisque. The base for that bisque is essentially vichyssoise, thinned with just a bit of clam juice infused stock. Locally foraged watercress provides the greenery as well as an ever-so-slightly bitter and peppery hint that offsets the richness of both the risotto and the soup. The pepperiness of the cress is echoed playfully by the black pepper “oyster crackers” that adorn the plate. If the creamy potato base and the oyster crackers aren’t enough to convince you of the tie-in to clam chowder, the soup was also studded with additional morsels of clam, while the clam centerpiece has a smidgen of unadulterated vichyssoise spooned into its shell. The fact that I was trying to figure out a delicate way to get every last drop of that creamy goodness out of the clam shell once my plate was cleaned is a testament to the chef’s understanding of the importance of placing quality foundations beneath more impressive details.

Hand Cut Pasta Carbonara with Asparagus and Foie Gras, Sunnyside Quail Egg and Black Truffle Bird Jus

There’s always something on the menu at Talula’s that I could easily imagine eating by the heaping bowlful. It’s rarely the most complicated dish; rather, it’s generally that with the greatest comfort quotient. This is one of two such hits in the April lineup. In this case, it may have something to do with the pasta – fresh, tender and egg-rich yet snappy to the tooth, perfectly al dente – and my past days as a carbo-loading bike racer. In spite of its homey elements, it may be unfair to call this dish uncomplicated. Foie gras makes an appearance, lending an obvious decadence factor. Even without it, there’s plenty else going on. A single sun-up quail’s egg gives credence to the term “carbonara” in the dish’s name. Spring asparagus is shaved, blanched and commingled with the ribbons of pasta. The single green asparagus tip adorning the plate may be the best I’ve ever tasted. All that said, it’s the chicken jus, black truffle and thyme infused broth that really elevates this to the plane of deliciousness.

Chickpea Crusted Alaskan Halibut, Sautéed Ramps, Glazed Baby Carrots and Turnips

Alaska meets the Middle East meets the specialty vegetable grower in this multi-influenced dish. “Chickpea” is an understatement, as it was really falafel – homemade – forming the crust atop a seriously meaty, wild caught halibut filet. A yogurt and chickpea purée completes the Persian influence on one side of the plate. On the other, baby turnips and carrots, fresh from a specialty purveyor, are braised and glazed in an intense combination of honey and chicken stock. Fresh, peppery sautéed ramps, dressed with the brightness of mustard oil, complete the picture. I’d like to try this with a slightly oilier, more voluptuous cut of fish such as sea bass. Still, the sweet/earthy interplay across the two sides of the plate works.

“Spring Chicken” with Toasted Lancaster Cornmeal Spoonbread, Homemade Berkshire Ham in Potato Velouté with Green Garlic Shoots and Radish Salad

I’ll do my best to keep words to a minimum with this course. Local produce takes center stage, all built around the poussin from Griggstown Farm. The spoonbread, from cornmeal ground at a nearby Lancaster mill, puts this right alongside the carbonara course in the comfort camp. Fresh, flavorful veggies just help make the whole experience feel good. For me, this is simply the most delicious and soulful course on the April menu.

Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, Grilled Marinated Flank Steak, Petite French Onion and Morel Soup

This is essentially a de/reconstructed take on the bistro classic, French Onion Soup. Assertively peppery and richly earthy onion and morel soup is adorned with a crisped round of toast topped with melted Gruyère. The vertical exercise continues with layers of perfectly crisped sweetbreads – a staple in Sikora’s arsenal and one that he seems to have mastered – and medium-rare medallions of veal flank steak. As solid as all the component parts are, there’s a flaw in the dish’s execution. I think the idea is for the toast to crack and crumble at the flick of a fork and for the proteins and bread to meld with the soup, all forming a cohesive bowl of yumminess. However, the toast, between the melted fat from the cheese and the steam from the soup below, takes on a chewy texture that refuses to comply with the mission. The result: difficult and messy work for the diner, albeit with a rewarding payoff.

“The Masters” – Quintet of Artisan Cheeses from the World’s Most Renowned Producers and Affineurs

The menu description says it all here. The lineup, from left to right: St. Maure de Touraine, an ash-covered Loire Valley goat’s milk cheese; Lamb Chopper, a goat’s milk Gouda from Cypress Grove; Délice de Bourgogne, the epitome of triple crème creaminess; Santa Rita Parmiggiano Reggiano, from an organic, artisanal producer; and Shropshire, an annatto colored, cow’s milk blue from the UK.

Poached Rhubarb, Apple/Fennel Crisp and Lemon Verbena Gelato

For dessert, my picture will have to be worth its weight in words. As my last minute arrival hadn’t provided enough time for pastry chef Claire Shears to adjust her production quantities for the day, I had to appreciate this course from afar. Somehow, I managed to survive….

* * *

If you’re still with me, perhaps wondering how I just happened to have “nabbed a seat at the kitchen table,” there’s the possibility of good news in store.

For those doubters out there, it really is true that the farmhouse table – remember, it’s just one table, limited to one seating of 8-12 per night – is booked a full year out. You can call tomorrow to try to secure a reservation exactly one year later for you and seven to eleven of your most steadfast friends. Of course, you can also add your name to the mile long waiting list in hopes that your name will rise to the top the next time a party cancels.

Or, and here’s the glimmer of hope for a shot at a seat, you can call and inquire about a reservation at Talula’s kitchen table. Seating availability is limited to parties of two to four on nights with full staff in the kitchen and smaller groups of diners in the front of the house. Due to the intimacy of the scene, reservations are essentially by invitation only. Translation? Regular customers of the market at Talula’s Table stand a pretty good chance. Cold callers – not so much. Of course you can always try plying the owners with gifts, as suggested by local writer Franz Lidz when he spilled the beans on the kitchen table reservations in his recent piece for Condé Nast Portfolio. And who knows, it may even help to say you read about it here.

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

Additional visits:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

From Her to Eternity

In anticipation of the approach of the Philadelphia Film Festival, I posted a clip a few weeks back of Wilhelmina Fernandez's aria from the stylish French noir film "Diva." I only made it to three flicks this year, about 10 less than usual in years past. But I still relished the three. I'm always amazed at how few people in Philly even realize their own town has an annual international film festival.

Now that the Festival's wound down, I figured I'd pay tribute with a little more music from film. This time, the clip's from one of my truly favorite movies, Wim Wenders' "Der Himmel Über Berlin" (Wings of Desire). It doesn't hurt that the music's also from a seminal band. As I try to get into Nick Cave's latest release, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!," this takes us back to the early days of the Bad Seeds.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Few Under $20 Gems from the Loire

The occasional Riesling or Burgundy aside, I’ve been on a huge Loire kick of late. Starting just prior to the last episode of WBW that focused on French Cabernet Franc, running straight through my rather prolix three part story of a visit to Chinon, and continuing right into dinner last night, the wines of the Loire have been keeping me coming back for more. I’m sure the beauty of the region and the experiences recalled from my last trip there have something to do with it. It also doesn’t hurt that the Loire seems to be the hottest bed of innovative and natural wine growers in France. Many Loire wines tend toward naturally low alcohol levels. And it remains one of the few regions where some seriously high quality, age worthy wines can still be found for under $20 a bottle. Above and beyond all of that, I think it’s the incredible diversity and the vibrant, food friendly nature of the Loire’s best wines that really keep me captivated.

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie "Le Fief du Breil," Domaine de la Louvetrie (Jo Landron) 2004
Jo Landron is one of the champs of the natural wine movement in the Pays Nantais, the region at the mouth of the Loire, near the Atlantic seaboard and synonymous with the wines of Muscadet. His 2004 “Le Fief du Breil” is showing just great right now. Its intense, almost saline mineral extract, combined with a marrowy, leesy influence in the mouth made me think of a soft pretzel taken straight from the oven and thrown onto a platter of oyster shells. This is classically crisp and fresh, yet it’s no lightweight. Bracing acidity combines with the wine’s physiological density to provide some serious palate impact. This has a long life ahead of it.

Here’s a side note of potential interest. If you’re keen to find wines made from organic fruit and feel more secure with produce that is certified organic (as opposed to being farmed organically but without certification), then take a look at the small print in the photo of Landron’s label. “Vin Issu de Raisins de l'Agriculture Biologique, Certifié par ECOCERT” means literally “wine issued from organically grown grapes, certified by ECOCERT.” ECOCERT is one of France’s primary organic certification bodies. $14. 12% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, NY.

Chinon, Domaine Bernard Baudry 2005
Speaking of modestly priced wines worthy of a spot in your wine closet, the basic 2005 Chinon from Bernard Baudry is a great candidate for mid-term cellaring; that said, it’s hard to pass up enjoying it now. It reminds me an awful lot of the Chinon “Les Graves” of Fabrice Gasnier. That’s a good thing, not just because Gasnier’s basic cuvée is among my long-standing everyday favorites, but also because the similarity speaks to the clear, true expression of terroir in both producers’ wines. Baudry and Gasnier are both located in Cravant Les Coteaux, one of Chinon’s sub-regions located just to the east of the city and just north of the banks of the Vienne. Here again, it’s worth studying the information on Baudry’s label:

Cabernet Franc
Graviers 80% et Argiles de Coteaux 20%
Sols travaillés sans utilisation de désherbants et d'engrais chimiques.
Vendange manuelle

The geological makeup, 80% gravel and 20% argile/clay soils, is pretty much identical to that of the vineyards from which Gasnier’s “Les Graves” is produced. Baudry’s wine is a touch more muscular but both share leafy aromas, hints of red cassis and cherry fruit, crackly acidity and lots of texture. Not big, bold tannins. Just lots of fine grain that gives a really invigorating mouth feel. These wines demand food with their texture. And they blossom in the presence of food, ranging anywhere from salmon to pork and poultry, and from sausages to a local goat’s milk cheese like St. Maure de Touraine. $17. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, NY.

Touraine "Cuvée Côt," Clos Roche Blanche 2005
My first encounter with the “Cuvée Côt” from Clos Roche Blanche was at François and Manuela Chidaine’s wine shop, La Cave Insolite, during a visit there in early 2004. I brought a bottle home with me, the 2002 I think, and ended up not opening it for quite a while. When I finally did, it made my top-ten list for the year. Just delicious, characterful wine. I’m not sure the 2005 is quite as captivating, though it may get there with time. Either way, it’s tasty as can be right now. Classic Loire Côt (Malbec) aromas of hickory smoked bacon, huckleberries and fresh horse poop. Like with the Chinons above, there’s a nice spine of zesty acidity. The mouth feel is rounder, with broader, rustic tannic impact. This is the bottle I enjoyed with dinner last night, a simple plate of pasta with a tomato and mushroom sauce. Not culturally synchronized, I know, but actually not a bad match. It would be even better with those same mushrooms along with some caramelized onions served over a roast loin of pork. $17. 12% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, NY.

Monday, April 14, 2008

WBW #45 Announcement & WBC #2 Reminder

The title for this posting could just as easily have been “Winecast! Winecast! Winecast!” Tim Elliott, author and editor-at-large at Winecast will be our host for both the next edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday and the upcoming meeting of the Wine Book Club.

Entries are due for the 45th rendition of Wine Blogging Wednesday on, yep, Wednesday, May 7, 2008. Tim’s topic of choice is his self-proclaimed favorite white variety: Riesling. We’re not to write about just any old Riesling, though. Selections should be limited to the traditional, old world seats of Riesling in Germany, Austria and Alsace (France), with northern Italy thrown in for good measure and, I suspect, as a challenge for those who choose to seek out the intentionally obscure. In all fairness, Lyle Fass of Rockss and Fruit should really be hosting this topic as, to my knowledge, there’s not another blogger who writes more about Riesling – mostly of German origin – than does he. But c’est la vie, I suppose it was Tim’s turn. In honor of the topic, I figured it would be only appropriate to taste the concentrated and deliciously slate, orange peel and apricot laced 2006 Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken from Weingut Ratzenberger while writing up this little announcement.

Tim will have plenty of warm-up for his WBW event, as he’s also hosting the second meeting of the Wine Book Club. Your write-ups regarding Noble Rot, by William Echikson, are due just over two weeks from today, on Tuesday, April 29. I can’t complain here, as I played host for the Club’s inaugural meeting back in January, when we all read and reviewed Vino Italiano by David Lynch and Joe Bastianich. This month’s read is a little less daunting; however, I can say from plenty of experience that the deadline will sneak up fast. So get reading. It would be great to see as many participants (25) as we had for the first go ‘round.

* * *
Related reading:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A First Look at Some 2005 Red Burgundies

Our casual little tasting was meant to take a first look at a few red Burgundies, most of which were previously unknown to me, from the much hyped 2005 vintage. However, it’s always nice to start things off with a wake-up wine, something bright and refreshing to call the old taste buds into action.

Vouvray Brut, Domaine François Pinon NV
Given that there was no Crémant de Bourgogne around to fit the evening’s theme, what better starting point than a sparkling Vouvray? Pinon is an excellent producer whose wines I get to drink far less often than I’d like. While his best wines can approach the profound end of the Vouvray experience spectrum, this bubbly, like his basic vin tendre “Cuvée Tradition, slot into the category of simply delightful. Pale, golden color and a medium bead lead into a dry but generously round palate attack. Baked golden delicious apples, cinnamon and honeysuckle aromas are followed by intensified flavors of apple and peach butters. $21. 12% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, NY.

Moulin-à-Vent “Clos de Rochegrès,” Château des Jacques / Louis Jadot 2005
Extending Burgundy to include the Beaujolais, we kicked into red gear with what turned out to be the biggest, brawniest wine of the lineup. I have a strong tendency – one I think I share with many of my fellow old world-centric bloggers – to write-off the wines from major négociants like Maison Jadot. At their base levels, I think the wines justify that treatment; however, there’s the occasional exception as evidenced by this seriously structured, single vineyard Moulin-à-Vent. Dark red robe, with a deep nose hinting at pine forest, raspberry confit and a subtle barrel influence. Closed and brooding. Dark loamy fruit with black pepper and clove are finished up with substantial grip. This needs time. Definitely a candidate for cellaring. $30ish (prices vary widely). 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Kobrand.

Savigny-les-Beaune “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine Philippe Girard 2005
Sweet-tart cherry fruit hit right up front and quickly trailed off into a sour, green olive twinge. With air, this developed a rubbery, stinkfoot meets bologna aroma, which matched right up to the taste of hot dog water that dominated its mid-palate and finish. Sound like reduction? It wasn’t; it’s just not well made wine. Don’t bother. $30. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Cellar Door Selections, Columbia, MD.

Chorey-les-Beaune “Château de Chorey,” Domaine du Château Chorey 2005
This was more like it. Rose petals and wild cherry aromas wafted from the glass. Medium color and medium bodied, with lean, taut texture. Red apple skins and tangy, prickly fruit on the palate. Good wine and a solid value for village level Burgundy, particularly given 2005 pricing trends. Benoit Germain converted his estate to organic farming practices in 2001. $28. 12.5% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Simon ‘n’ Cellars, Charlottesville, VA.

Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Hudelot-Baillet 2005
The sexiest wine of the night. Surprisingly pale for Chambolle, again surprising given the vintage characteristics. The color was deceptive though, in stark contrast to the wine’s much richer aromas of creamy, cherry vanilla. Richness and structure followed on the palate, with well-rounded grip. A gravelly, cherry pit character kicked in on the persistent finish, along with a well-integrated wood influence. Already awfully tasty, this should provide rewarding results given a few years in the cellar. $50. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Cellar Door Selections, Columbia, MD.

Monthelie, Thierry & Pascale Matrot 2005
As tasty as the Chambolle was, the wine I’d most like to drink on a regular basis (if only I could afford to) was this, the Monthelie from Thierry and Pascale Matrot. Monthelie, one of the lesser-known communes of the Côte de Beaune, is one of the villages with which I’d really like to get better acquainted. The wines I’ve enjoyed thus far, including this one, have shared a jagged edge of wild fruit and minerality running right through the middle of the wine that I find extremely compelling. Tasted in its second day open, this was showing just great, with a core of dark wild cherry fruit and light twigginess. Right on for a crispy skinned roast chicken stuffed with fresh herbs. $35. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

To Season or Not to Season?

After posting a report last week about a recent meal at Marc Vetri’s Osteria, comments came rolling in – not about the restaurant or its food but about wine. Most of them came in response to a brief observation I’d made in the context of a discussion about the state of wine service at Osteria: “All stemware is seasoned.” Feedback quickly went from simply inquisitive to positively contentious. Rather than continuing the discussion there and leaving all the fun buried in the comments section of a restaurant profile, I promised to elevate the thread to its own post.

For those that may not already be familiar with the practice of seasoning wine glasses, here is a snippet from my own response to one of the earlier comments:

In a nutshell, seasoning is the practice of pouring a small amount of wine into a glass. The wine is swirled and the glass tipped, with the idea being to entirely coat the inside of the glass. The wine is then poured into the next glass and the process repeated until all necessary glasses have been "seasoned."

The intention is to maximize one's olfactory experience of the wine and to totally remove any remaining traces of residual odor or detergent from the glasses themselves. The biggest bone of contention for those not in favor of the practice seems to be that the ounce or so of wine used for seasoning is usually sacrificed.

Though seasoning has been practiced in restaurants in the New York and San Francisco markets for years now, it’s still a relatively new – and rare – phenomenon on the Philly dining scene.

Rather than delving at length into my own thoughts on the topic, I’d love to open up the floor to you, my readers. To get you started, here’s the comment from local restaurateur Tom Hudson, of Wilmington’s Domaine Hudson, which got this ball rolling.

"Seasoning" glasses is totally irrelevant if you do what we do, 1) invest in a brand new, high temp commercial dishwasher, 2) provide a fresh glass for each bottle (irregardless if it is a second bottle of the same wine) and 3) serve the wine at the proper temperature as well as [in] appropriate sized stemware.

Now it’s your turn. How many, if any, restaurants in your neck of the woods include stemware seasoning as part of their wine service? What are your thoughts on the practice? Let us know, whether good, bad or indifferent.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Ronde Van Vlaanderen 2008

I don't often post about cycling, in fact this is only my second time in over a year. But this past weekend's edition of the Tour of Flanders was just great. It got my cycling juices flowing again after a long, dark winter. This little video clip will give you an idea of just how hard the Belgian spring classics can be. Past winner Tom Boonen powers up in the lead, followed two wheels behind by teammate and eventual winner Stijn Devolder. The rest of the field is strung out behind, many of them -- these are the world's top pros, mind you -- forced to walk their bikes up the Koppenberg, one of the most famous of Flanders' cobbled climbs.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Celebrating the Chevaliers de Chezelet

This is the final installment of a three-part story of a visit at Chinon's Vignoble Gasnier in February 2004. Links to parts one and two can be found at the end of this posting.

When we’d passed through the dining hall at Domaine Gasnier earlier in the day, in search of some clean stemware, I couldn’t help but notice the hot plates placed at regular intervals along the long, wooden banquet table. I took pause for a moment to ponder their specific purpose; however, we quickly moved on to the more pressing matter of tasting.

When we returned later that night for dinner at Fabrice’s invitation, the first thing we realized was that our group of nine wine travelers had been joined by two dozen or so graduate students from the University in Tours. They’d come for the day to learn about the particulars of the agricultural and culinary history of Cravant Les Coteaux. Not long after, the purpose of those hot plates became clear. Fondue. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

The cultural connection between Rabelais and Chinon (that's Fabrice Gasnier on the right) would become clear as the night wore on.

The next time you think of staging a horizontal/vertical tasting of Chinon for you and thirty or forty friends, consider something along the lines of that evening’s event.

As an aperitif, we were all offered a glass of sparkling rosé, poured from clear glass, unlabeled bottles. It turned out, unbeknownst to me at that time, that Fabrice produced small quantities of sparkling “Chinon” every year, for the sole purpose of enjoying it with family and friends. Since then, perhaps encouraged by our enthusiasm for it, he’s decided to commercialize the wine as a non-AOC bubbly (Chinon regulations do not allow for sparkling wine) called “La Cravantine,” which you can read more about here. Dry, soft, fruity and deliciously quaffable, we enjoyed our first glasses and were offered refills while it lasted.

Dinner started with a simple salad of fresh greens with smoked salmon and local chevre, accompanied by Fabrice’s 2003 Chinon Rosé. Next up was the aforementioned fondue.

This was not your everyday fondue. No oil, cheese or chocolate was to be found. Instead, each fondue pot was filled with basic Chinon rouge, cut with a little water and stock and seasoned with a handful of fresh herbs. Placed in front of every few guests was a plate of glistening, ruby-red cubes of local beef, a mound of potatoes that had been roasted in the hall’s open hearth and a bundle of fondue forks – nothing more, nothing less. With a minute or so in the bubbling pot of Chinon, each morsel of beef emerged perfectly medium-rare, infused with the flavors of the place we’d spent so much time discovering earlier in the day. The only problem was remembering to heed that minute timing, as both wine and conviviality flowed around the communal table.

Fabrice started everyone off with the current release, 2002, of his “Cuvée Les Graves.” I’m not sure what was opened around the rest of the table, but Fabrice raided the cellar for our little corner of the room. Bottles of 1997 and 1996 “Cuvée Prestige” were followed by “Cuvée Fabrice” from 1999, 2000 and 2001. A bottle of “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes” from 1989, a great vintage (which Fabrice made us guess after tasting), was still bright and youthful, rounded at its edges and evocative of dried plums enjoyed around a campfire at the end of a long, autumn walk in the forest.

As the fondue furor subsided, Jacky Gasnier, Fabrice’s father, made his presence know at the front of the hall. Following his retirement from winemaking a few years earlier, Jacky had assumed the duties as head of the local Rabelais appreciation society, the Chevaliers de Chezelet. Apparently, one of my co-workers and fellow travelers, Eric Tuverson, had made a lasting impression during his previous visit with the Gasniers. I think it may have had something to do with a certain drinking technique he displayed at a local rugby match. In any event, Jacky had gathered a couple of members of the Chevaliers to make Eric part of their brotherhood. In keeping with François Rabelais’ famous quote, “Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais” (Drink always and never die), Eric’s induction ceremony involved a bottle of Chinon and the largest wine glass I’d ever seen. I’ll say no more, other than that it provided a truly Rabelaisian ending to a long day of learning and fun.

* * *
Related posts:

Part One: On the Farm in Chinon with Fabrice Gasnier
Part Two: Tasting Chinon with Fabrice Gasnier

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tasting Chinon with Fabrice Gasnier

This is installment two of a February 2004 visit at Vignoble Gasnier in Chinon. If you missed part one, please see On the Farm in Chinon with Fabrice Gasnier.

Our walk through the vineyards and tour of the Cravant Les Coteaux hillsides complete, we headed to Fabrice’s cellar and winery to learn what happens indoors and to sample what he had wrought from the last couple of vintages. Gasnier’s winery is dominated by cement vats, which Fabrice prefers to steel for their slight oxygen permeability. All vats are temperature controlled, with all primary and most malolactic fermentation conducted in cement. The couple of stainless steel tanks in evidence are used only for assemblage and short-term holding. All fruit is de-stemmed and sorted prior to being crushed in a small vertical press. Following natural malolactic fermentation, the wines are left alone, saving for some occasional batonage if deemed necessary.

Fabrice Gasnier pulling a sample from the younger of the two foudres in which he ages his "Cuvée Vieilles Vignes."

Vignoble Gasnier bottles six different wines: four reds – cuvées called Les Graves, Vieilles Vignes, Prestige (since renamed Cuvée à l’Ancienne) and Fabrice – one rosé and a sparkling wine. As no white fruit is planted, Chenin Blanc being the only permitted variety in AOC Chinon whites, no white wine is made. Box wine is produced and available for local sale only.

“Cuvée Les Graves” is Gasnier’s “young vine” red, made from an assemblage of various parcels from throughout the property but dominated by those planted in the gravelly (thus the name) soil nearest the river. It is varietal Cabernet Franc. Less conscientious producers in some parts of the world might be tempted to call this an old vines bottling, as it comes from 20-25 year-old vines. Fruit from any vines younger than 20 is either sold off or used to produce the aforementioned box wines. “Les Graves” represents about 50% of the estate’s total annual production of roughly 10,000 cases. Fermentation is conducted in two separate batches at different temperatures: one at about 22 degrees Celsius to highlight aromatics and one at around 28 degrees to provide extraction and body. Malolactic follows, also in cement, at a cooler temperature of 20 degrees. Maceration lasts 16-17 days. Assemblage of the two batches is performed after completion of primary and secondary fermentation. Typically bottled in May following the vintage, it is the only one of the reds that sees no wood whatsoever. Because the six month aging regime does not allow enough time for all solids to settle in the large-volume cement vats, a light filtration is conducted before bottling.

Gasnier’s “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes,” also 100% Cabernet Franc, comes from vines of 45-50 years, planted in soils of both argilo-siliceous and gravelly character. Primary and malolactic fermentations are conducted in cement, with a maceration period of 22 days. The wine is then moved into two large, 3700 liter oak foudres, one older than the other, for aging. The contents of the two casks are remarried in steel cuves, after which, again because of volume, a light filtration is performed prior to bottling in the September following the vintage. In all cases, Fabrice prefers to bottle on the early side in order to preserve fruit freshness. The Vieilles Vignes represents about 25% of the estate’s annual production.

The “Cuvée Prestige” comes from two specific plots of even older vines – 50-55 years – grown entirely in argilo-siliceous soil. A touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, a small amount of which is planted in one of Fabrice’s oldest plots, makes it into the Prestige. The Cabernet Sauvignon, which is vinified separately, never represents more than 10% of the final blend. Initial vinification practices, in terms of fermentation vessel and maceration period, are identical to the Vieilles Vignes. Aging, though, occurs in barriques used previously for two to six years. Here, the settling rate in smaller casks allows for bottling, also in September following the vintage, with no filtration. Beginning with the 2004 release, “Cuvée Prestige” was rechristened as “Cuvée à l’Ancienne.” This bottling makes up 15% of Gasnier’s annual production. For reasons unbeknownst to me, though perhaps because it tends to have the sternest character of the four reds, this is the cuvée least frequently available on the US market.

Gasnier’s top red is also his most modern. Though I’ve referred to it for years as “Cuvée Fabrice,” it was only in 2005 that Fabrice actually made it official with a subtle change to the wine’s label, replacing the signature “Fabrice Gasnier” with the name “Cuvée Fabrice.” It seems somewhat common for young vignerons, taking over chief winemaking responsibilities from the previous generation, to add a new or signature wine to the lineup. I’m not sure, though, how many decide to name it in self-homage. Somehow it does seem to fit Fabrice’s big, garrulous personality. Anyway, back to the wine….

“Fabrice” comes from a single plot of the oldest vines (60+ years) on the property. As with “Cuvée Prestige,” it includes 5-10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Primary fermentation, as with all of Gasnier’s wines, occurs in cement. At 25 days, maceration is longer than with the other wines. The modern approach begins after maceration and fermentation, as the wine is moved to barriques – 50% new and 50% one-year-old – for malolactic fermentation and aging. As this regime suggests, it is the only wine in Fabrice’s portfolio that shows an obvious oak influence, at least in terms of aroma and primary flavors. It is bottled without filtration after 14 months, in December of the year following its vintage, and represents only 5% of total production.

The remaining five percent of the Gasniers’ crop goes to the production of Rosé. It is produced by taking a bleeding (saignée) of juice from the production of various lots of Cabernet Franc after 24-48 hours of maceration, depending on the vintage characteristics and the desired level of color extraction. Fermentation is then conducted entirely in cement, with bottling in the spring following harvest.

At the time of our visit in 2004, Fabrice also produced tiny quantities of an unlabeled, unnamed sparkling wine, solely for consumption by family and friends. It is varietal Cabernet Franc, solely from the gravelly terroir of the estate. Lacking the facilities and equipment necessary to craft méthode traditionelle wines, he takes his fruit to the local cooperative, where it is produced, aged sur-latte for one year and bottled without dosage. Since then, perhaps based on our vociferous prodding at dinner later that night, he’s started to commercialize small quantities. He calls it “La Cravantine,” a diminutive term for a creation of the Cravant Les Coteaux commune. Originally produced as rosé, he now strives for a clear Blanc de Noir; a barely discernible salmon hue can still be detected by a knowing eye.

Fabrice feels that Chinon rouge, in general, shows its best between three-to-six years of age. Drinking earlier is ok, of course, while wines from the best vintages can be candidates for 10-15 years or more. He opted to begin our tasting session with finished wines, primarily from the bottled but not yet shipped 2002 vintage, which he considers one of the best growing years since 1996.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Les Graves,” 2002
    Beautifully aromatic, with lots of red currant fruit, leaves and spice. Gentle but lively tannic structure. Fabrice always regards this as his “cuvée gourmande,” intended for every day, easy drinking. A pure expression of Cabernet Franc.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Vieilles Vignes,” 2002
    Aromatically closed but already showing richness of body. Less peppery than in some years but still showed fresh, herbaceous suggestions of dill and basil. Darker red tree fruits than in “Les Graves.” Excellent grip.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Prestige,” 2002
    Continuing the climb upwards in terms of grip and structure. Some influence from wood tannins, along with gorgeous fruit concentration. Wild raspberries, cassis and rainier cherries.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Fabrice,” 2002
    The richest texture, with dark plum and black currant fruit. The oak is forward but adds well integrated vanillin and chocolate overtones. A hint of earth on the nose.

  • Chinon “Cuvée Prestige,” 2001
    Here we found the bell pepper that was less in evidence in the 2002 wines. Fresh, damp, loamy earth on the nose. Starting to show some bottle bouquet. Definitely a food wine (but then all Chinon is…).

The landscape surrounding Gasnier's vineyards in Chezelet provides a natural environment for bottle aging caves, excavated directly into the tufa hillsides.

Notes from barrel tastings may not make for the most exciting reading. However, tasting from barrel and vat – particularly after tasting from bottle and spending so much time learning about the viticultural and oenological peculiarities of a producer’s various wines – can be extremely illuminating. It can help to give one a greater sense of how any given wine comes together, from its component parts and through the vinification regimen, to form a whole.

  • A sample of “Les Graves” 2003, from a vat fermented at warmer temperature, had a deep purple color, was firmly tannic and still held a trace of unresolved CO2. The warmer fermentation, combined with a preceding three-day cold soak, is intended to give structure to the final blend. I could almost sense the vines’ plant matter on the palate.

  • From another tank of “Les Graves” 2003, fermented cooler for attainment of aromatic freshness, the scents were more peppery and wine-like. Tannins were softer and suppler. It tasted more finished, with no traces of carbon dioxide.

  • 2003 “Vieilles Vignes,” from the older of two large foudres, had a very peppery nose and showed signs of reduction. In Fabrice’s words, it was “going through a bizarre stage.” Yet it showed promising concentration and structure.

  • From the younger cask of 2003 “VV,” aromas were more shut down but the wine was softer and already pleasing in the mouth, with no signs of reductivity. All wine coming from the same sites and same fermentation tanks, the only difference between the two samples was the age of the foudres, with the younger cask allowing more oxygen interchange between wood and wine than in its older neighbor.

  • 2003 “Prestige” tasted from barrel was lush and velvety in texture. Rich cherry kirsch, with nary a hint of pepperiness in the mouth. Substantial grip. At 13.6% potential alcohol and lower apparent acidity than in the Graves and VV, this was showing signs of what to expect from the freakish 2003 vintage.

  • That trend continued with a sample of “Cuvée Fabrice” 2003, pulled from barrel. Dense and dark but ungenerous on the nose. Very rich palate. Plenty of oak influence on the nose. Already, the lower than usual acidity along with the opulent nature of its fruit pointed toward a wine that would be a hit with the “big red crowd,” not the usual Chinon audience. At 13.8% potential alcohol, this was harvested at about a degree higher than in a typical vintage.

To bring us back from the raw experience of tasting samples of the big 2003s and to finish off our tasting session, Fabrice extracted the cork from a bottle of his 1998 signature cuvée. As it turned out, he’d also chosen to finish on a high note. In 1998, Fabrice did not use any new oak for this wine, instead aging it in all first passage barrels that he’d purchased from Château Margaux. The same barrels, he told us, were now (in 2004 that is) being used for his “Cuvée Prestige.” Beautiful aromatic development had occurred in the bottle, with a nose of dried red fruits, fresh tanned leather, curing tobacco and prunes which followed to a supple, silky and well balanced palate. Red currants and intensely concentrated strawberry preserves blossomed on the follow through. Lovely stuff.

* * *

Our work day was done but there was still more to come. Fabrice and his wife Sandrine invited us to return for dinner. It would turn out to be quite the Rabelaisian evening…. So please stay tuned for part three, coming soon.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin