Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Chinons of Charles Joguet

From the MFWT archives – July 3, 2007.

One of the fringe benefits of teaching classes at Tria Fermentation School is the occasional invitation to sit in as an observer at one of their other sessions. This past Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending a seminar featuring the Chinons of Domaine Charles Joguet. The course was presented by François-Xavier (FX) Barc, winemaker and estate manager at Joguet. Leading up to M. Barc’s program were introductions from Michael McCaulley, Tria partner and Fermentation School Manager, and Matt Cain, regional sales representative for Kermit Lynch, the importer responsible for bringing Joguet’s Chinons into the US market.

FX opened with a cursory overview of the wine traditions of the Loire, beginning from the river’s mouth in Muscadet, running through Anjou and Saumur, leading to the Touraine and ending, from his perspective, in the area around Sancerre. Returning, of course, to the Touraine village of Chinon, he covered a brief description of the major terroirs of Chinon, from the riverside vineyards to the plateau and hillside plantings. Domaine Joguet itself is located in Sazilly, on the South banks of the Vienne, essentially across the river from Chinon’s largest commune of Cravant-les-Coteaux and ESE of the fortress of Chinon itself. With forty hectares under vine – thirty-seven hectares planted to Cabernet Franc, three to Chenin – the estate annually produces seven or eight different cuvées, each representative of a particular style, terroir or single vineyard site.

Francois-Xavier’s first experience at Joguet was as vineyard manager and assistant winemaker from 1998-2000. After a brief stint at other wineries, he returned in 2003, at the request of current owner Jacques Genet, to become the estate’s head winemaker and viticulturist. His rise was capped earlier this year when his role was expanded, upon the retirement of Alain Delaunay, to include managing the commercial aspects of the business. Since his return, FX has carried on with the already established project of moving the property’s vineyards to organic farming practices. Currently, about 50% of the estate is farmed organically with incremental portions being converted to organics each year. He is adamant about carrying the organic practices into the winery as well, seeing little value in natural farming followed by chemical adjustments in the cellar. The young Monsieur Barc is judicious in the use of oak and with stylistic flourishes in general, preferring to let the nuances of each cuvée in each vintage guide his hand with decisions in the cellar.

Winding down with his technical discussions, and as he could see people in the audience beginning to salivate, FX finally moved onto the tasting portion of the seminar.

Chinon “Les Petites Roches,” Charles Joguet 2004
From a typical, elegant vintage, the 2004 Petites Roches showed a bright, transparent ruby tone in the glass, followed by a gentle, medium-bodied approach on the palate. Red currant, raspberry and herbaceous tones followed through on a modest 12.5% alcohol framework. From 30-40 year old vines, culled to 40 hl/ha yields, from six hectares of vineyards planted on gravel and limestone dominated soils near the banks of the Vienne. Made from free-run juice only, this is the most delicate wine produced at Joguet; it is suitable for near-term drinking with charcuterie, chevre and salmon.

Chinon “Les Petites Roches,” Charles Joguet 2005
Much darker in the glass than the 2004, semi-opaque and dark cherry red in color, the 2005 visually showed the effects of a warmer, drier vintage. The generous climate in 2005, combined with a long growing season, yielded more physiologically mature tannins, riper flavor, higher alcohol (13.8%) and a finished wine that will continue to develop over the next 4-5 years. Again, pair with charcuterie or classic Touraine pork rillettes but also consider herb roasted chicken or small game birds.

Chinon “Cuvée Terroir,” Charles Joguet 2005
Terroir is the basic cuvée of the estate, a young vine wine that blends 70% first run juice from fruit grown mostly on sandy soils spread over 10 hectares of the estate with 30% of vin de presse, juice pressed from the grapes from both the Cuvée Terroir and Les Petites Roches. Clocking in at 14.3 degrees, it is more robust than Petites Roches yet less nuanced, showing bolder, forward fruit and more aggressive tannins and herbaceous flavors – natural side-effects of the utilization of pressed juice.

Chinon “Cuvée de la Cure,” Charles Joguet 2005
Bottled in August 2006 following vinification and aging purely in steel, the 2005 Cuvée de la Cure is the first fully organic wine produced at Joguet. It is also a classic example of older-vine, terroir driven Chinon, coming from two single vineyards planted on a soil base of clay and gravel. Displaying a dense, firm structure built on a medium-bodied frame with very linear, pure focus, the wine’s persistent, dusty tannins lend accent to its mineral and red cassis driven flavors. This should keep well for at least 5-7 years, maybe even ten. FX considers it the finest La Cure of the last three decades.

Chinon “Les Varennes du Grand Clos,” Charles Joguet 2005
The big wine of the night, Les Varennes du Grand Clos sees a longer, hotter alcoholic fermentation than the previous cuvées and is the only wine of the evening to see malolactic fermentation and aging, at least partially, in barrels. Pigeage during fermentation added extra density to the wine’s color and structure. The finished product, bottled in March of this year, shows plush texture combined with muscular grip and sweet-fruited flavors of raspberry, blackberry and licorice. This is Chinon to pair with beef or robust stews… or to forget about in a cool cellar for the next 10-15 years.

Chinon “Clos de la Dioterie,” Charles Joguet 1989
If you’ve ever had any doubts about the longevity of Chinon, lay them to rest. At 18 years of age, the ’89 Dioterie is still singing. In the glass, there was no bricking at all, just a pale, limpid ring around the rim of an otherwise translucent ruby bowl. Aromas of clay, red earth and rhubarb were followed by flavors of tobacco, smoke, violets and lilies. These elements combined with silky mouthfeel and still lively acidity to make this the most enthralling wine of the night. No offense to FX of course – he wasn’t involved in the production of this wine – it’s just that every once in a while the beauty and wisdom of age really do outshine the exuberance of youth. Apparently, FX thought so too, as he pronounced it “da bomb.” We were, I might add, privileged that he had brought the ’89 along for the event, as there are only about 20 bottles remaining in the private storage caves at the estate.

FX Barc represents the new generation of vignerons in France. Not born to farming, he is more student, technician, and consultant. Yet he possesses a strong sensibility for the land and expresses it carefully through natural winemaking. Luck has been on his side since taking the helm at Joguet. A string of good vintages, culminating in the exceptional 2005, have brought Mother Nature to his side. The results are promising. I found the wines we tasted together at Tria Fermentation School to be bright, varietally correct and truly expressive of the spirit of Chinon as an AOC and of the potential of Cabernet Franc as a vine. FX seems to be bringing Joguet’s wines out of their slump of the mid-90’s and back to their place among the top tier in Chinon. I’ll look forward to keeping an eye on his progress in the seasons to come.

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Recommended reading:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Grower Champagne: Diebolt-Vallois

From the MFWT archives – June 6, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recommended reading:

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Napa: A Day of Contrasts, Part Two

From the MFWT archives – May 17, 2007.

Afternoon session – Stony Hill Vineyard:
Following our morning visit at Oakville’s Harlan Estate and a reasonably tasty yet uncharacterful lunch at St. Helena fossil Tra Vigne, we headed up the valley for our afternoon appointment. Character abounds, we would find, at Stony Hill Vineyard. Heading north out of St. Helena, turning left up the access road for Bale Grist Mill State Park and then left again onto the private road which leads to the winery, we quickly found ourselves in an atmosphere that would have provided fodder for the tales of Poe or Tolkien. A forest of small, gnarled trees – dark red bark mottled by lichen, limbs intermittently draped with a local moss – lends an eerie aura to the narrow dirt road that winds its way up the mountainside.

Making the last sharp turn up the incline and crunching to a stop in the gravel parking area at Stony Hill, we were greeted first by an enthusiastic little wire-haired terrier and then, our presence announced, by office and site manager, Mary Burklow. After a round of introductions, Mary led us on a path along the ridge of the hill, straight through the vineyards and directly into the estate’s tiny winery building. As soon as she thrust the door open, a blast of cold, damp air rushed out to meet us. Welcome to Stony Hill’s barrel room…. With little ado, Mary pulled a barrel sample, poured us each a splash from the pipette and asked us to guess. Knowing that they produce one of Napa’s few Tocai Friulano (from old-vine fruit grown at neighboring Larkmead Vineyards), and sensing a faint floral, peachy hint lurking behind the yeasty aromas of fermentation, I guessed – and was wrong. It was their 2006 Gewurztraminer, light, bone dry and misleadingly crisp and un-spicy.

Five or six barrel samples later, we’d learned a bit about Stony Hill’s winemaking practices. The barrels themselves first jumped to attention. In stark contrast to the uniform ranks of gleaming new cooperage at Harlan, many of the casks here, bowing and graying though still obviously airtight, showed signs of serious age. Mary explained that the barrels, mostly barriques with some larger casks and tonneaux, are anywhere from 14-50 years old. That’s right, 50, almost as old as the winery itself. Kept sanitary from year-to-year, these relics go right on doing their work, providing a neutral environment for Stony Hill’s backward wines to come to life. New barrels are introduced only when a member of the older generation finally gives up the ghost.

Fruit is bladder pressed, the juice settled and then inoculated. Primary fermentations are carried out in wood in most cases, followed by a racking off the lees. Their Riesling is fermented and aged half in steel, half in barrel and then blended prior to bottling. The Gewurztraminer and Tocai are barrel aged until April following the harvest; Chardonnay and Semillon stay in wood until June. Malolactic fermentation is avoided for all wines, a practice necessitating a wee bit of sulfur but kept relatively natural by the incredibly cool cellar conditions. In their own words, “Malolactic fermentation both destroys the acid structure of the wine and introduces extraneous flavors not borne from the grape itself.” Given this admirably stoic approach, I was a bit surprised that primary fermentations are not left up to the wild yeasts; Mary explained that native yeasts do play a role but are often not strong enough to ensure a complete, steady fermentation.

Since 1973, Stony Hill’s wines have been made by Mike Chelini, who originally joined as vineyard foreman and was quickly promoted to winemaker. Mike’s approach is as old-school as I’ve come across just about anywhere, much less in the heartland of ultra-modern California wine country. The wines are grown naturally in the vineyard and brought to life in the cellar. They speak of both. The concept of terroir at Stony Hill clearly reflects not just the hillside environment but also the feel, taste and smell of their old, stone barrel room, a trait that reminds me very much of a past visit to the caves of Prince Philippe Poniatowski in Vouvray. Like there, the wines are meant to taste of the place and they’re built to last.

If it hasn’t already become obvious, Stony Hill is one of the few estates in the Napa Valley that rests its reputation solely on the production of white wine. They’ve been at it since 1947, when original owners Fred and Eleanor McCrea planted Chardonnay in homage to the great whites of Burgundy. At the time, only 200 acres of Chardonnay were planted in the entire state of California but the McCrea’s sensed that their little kingdom, perched on the hillside 400-800 feet above the valley floor, was a special place. Their commitment to the potential of Napa Chardonnay remains today, as it represents over 75% of their overall vineyard area of 39 acres. The balance of their land is planted to Riesling (10 acres) with Gewurztraminer and Semillon rounding things out at three and one acre, respectively.

The only wines of color produced come from a small plot of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – planted as a pest control device along a property line bordering on a stream – and from a ¼ acre plot of Syrah planted only five years ago as part of the family garden. At present, all 100 or so cases – two reds and one rosé – are destined for staff consumption and entertainment only; not a bottle of any is sold. Current owner Peter McCrea, son of Fred and Eleanor, described the rosé – a saignée of the Cab/Merlot blend – as “swimming pool wine.” Mary more colorfully called it a classic PD wine. If you’re scratching your head like I was, “PD” is code for panty dropper…. Peter confirms that the estate does not plan to market anything other than whites in the future.

Coincidentally, as at Harlan, annual production at Stony Hill runs around 3,000 cases. And nearly all of the wine is sold directly to mailing list customers, with just a small percentage going to local restaurants and to a few detail-minded distributors in key urban markets. With a 60-year history though, Stony Hill Vineyard is one of Napa Valley’s pioneering estates. And their wines top out at $35 per bottle.

Stony Hill Chardonnays and Rieslings have earned a reputation as being among the most age-worthy dry whites produced in the Napa Valley. Thinking back to those barrel samples pulled for us by Mary, even the 2006 Gewurztraminer and Tocai, wines meant for early enjoyment, showed uncommon structure. Still in steel, the Riesling was too impenetrable to assess. The 2006 Chardonnay, however, held serious promise. It smelled a little of cellar must on the nose but, loaded with stony minerality and vibrant acidity, hinted at a long future.

Back in the McCrea’s dining room toward the end of our visit, tasting the current releases of Stony Hill Chardonnay from bottle reinforced our earlier impressions and spoke volumes about good work in the vineyard. The 2003 Chardonnay, product of a drought year in this part of St. Helena, was atypically rich and fleshy for Stony Hill yet still tasted young, fresh and clean. The 2004, though, really spoke to the potential for these wines. Tight on the nose, very Chablis-like in its aromas, bright, racy and steely on the palate, it’s a wine I’d love to drink in another ten or even twenty years.

That was just about it for our visit. We followed Mary down the grade to the bottle storage barn to pick up the handful of ’03 and ’04 Chardonnay we’d purchased. As I packaged the bottles for a safe ride back East in the airline baggage compartment, Mary disappeared for a moment. Upon her return, she handed us a bottle of their White Riesling, vintage 1992, and made us promise to have it with dinner when we got back to Monterey that night. Paired with a simple plate of sautéed snapper and roasted Jerusalem artichokes, it was a delicious reminder of our visit – hinting at the mellowed edges and mineral tones that come with age, tasting very much alive and finishing with a touch of sweetness.

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Recommended reading:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Off to the Beach

I'll be on holiday for the next week or so - a long overdue respite and, hopefully, a week of sunshine and relaxation. Rather than broadcasting dead air, I thought I'd bring out a few nuggets from the archives to keep things rolling over the next few days. (Thanks for the idea, Ace.) Looking back at the postings I've chosen, I found it tempting to edit things, add photos, make little improvements... but I decided to leave them untouched. It's interesting to me to see how my own work has evolved over the last year-and-a-half.

Anyway, I hope you find something to enjoy, something you may have missed the first time around. The archive postings will "go live" starting tomorrow. I'll be back in regular blogging mode around the 5th of October. See you then.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Two Philly Chefs Hit the Shelves (and Other Goings On Around Town)

I'm guessing I'm not the only Philadelphian out there who's proud of his own town yet feels like Philly tends to get snubbed when it comes to national recognition as a great dining city. A small handful of the area's most ambitious chefs have been out to change that for the last several years. Two of the most widely noted of that set have recently taken a big leap, one step further into the national consciousness, both releasing their first cookbooks over the last couple of weeks.

Marc Vetri, owner of the eponymous Vetri and of Osteria co-wrote Il Viaggio Di Vetri: A Culinary Journey with David Joachim. It's been ages since I've been to Vetri (heavy hint to anyone who's planning to take me out to dinner...) but you can read reviews of some of my meals at Osteria here. Marc, his partners and their staff are turning out what I think is some of the best Northern Italian fare this side of the Atlantic.

Latin Evolution, by Jose Garces, charts the chef's voyage through the cuisines of Spain and South and Central America, work that's put his Philadelphia restaurants - Amada, Tinto and, most recently, Distrito - on the map.

I've enjoyed some great food at the restaurants of both Marc and Jose, so I'm looking forward to reading their books.

In other goings on about town:

Tria Fermentation School has just announced its October schedule of classes. As usual, many sold out in a flash but there are still seats available for some pretty groovy sessions. It's a great classroom environment, both intimate and fun, so check it out.

The class with Sam Calagione, wild and woolly master brewer at Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery, is already sold-out. Don't entirely despair, though. Sam will be on-hand at Tria's 12th & Spruce location before class, pouring his new ancient recipe brew, Theobroma, along with other Dogfish Head classics. The "Dogfish hour" runs from 5:00 to 6:00 PM next Tuesday, September 30. No reservations necessary. Just show up and enjoy.

Also next Tuesday, Blackbird Dining Establishment in Collingswood, NJ, is kicking off their seasonal dinner series with a four-course menu based around one of nature's greatest wonders: bacon. Tough to go wrong there.... Seatings are available at 6:30 and 8:30 PM. Just follow the link above for contact information.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Two from Jenny, François and Neil

Regular readers may remember postings from my July jaunt up to New York. One of the highlights of that trip was a very relaxed dinner at the home of one of my favorite wine bloggers, Brooklynguy (aka, Neil). As if inviting a stranger (that would be me) into his home, introducing him to his family and cooking him dinner weren’t enough, Neil all but forced two bottles of wine into my hands not long before we bid adieu for the evening. They were two of his favorite day-to-day pours that, obviously, he really wanted me to try. On the ball as Brooklynguy is I think he also knew that I would have to jump through hoops to find either wine in the Philadelphia area. Both wines come into the Eastern US thanks to Jenny & François Selections.

Coteaux du Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup “Les Tonillières,” Mas Foulaquier (Blandine Chauchat) 2005
$17. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Millesimes Fine Wine Traders, Boston, MA (Jenny & Francois Selections, World Wide Wine, Ltd., New York, NY).
This reminded me in a lot of ways of the Minervois from Château d’Oupia that I wrote up a while back, but extra-chunky style. Snappy aromas of macerated wild berries, dark ground spices and tree bark. Very alive in the mouth, its vigorous texture delivered a sense of energy to all nooks of the palate. Hardly high acid but much brighter and fresher than far too many other wines from the Languedoc. It somehow managed to be rustic, charming, boisterous and refreshing all at once. Perfectly suited to robust comfort foods like ribs, pot pies or burgers. Though a solid value in the mid-to-high teens, it would be fantastic if under $15.

Cahors, Clos Siguier 2005
$12. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: USA Wine Imports, New York, NY (Jenny & Francois Selections, World Wide Wine, Ltd., New York, NY).
I heeded Brooklynguy’s advice and decanted this. I’m glad I did. When first poured, this gave off the most highly floral nose – all crushed blue flowers – I’ve ever come across in Cahors – or any Malbec based wine, for that matter. Add to that just the lightest note of the wet paint scent common to SW reds and things seemed to be off to a good start. It was lighter in weight than I’d normally expect but firm tannins and fairly high acidity provided firm sinew. Shortly thereafter the wine shutdown, becoming lean, even a little sour on the palate, like slightly unripe purple plums. The tannins softened up while the acidity heightened.

After a good thirty to sixty minutes in the decanter, though, things really turned around. The wine took on weight. Balanced structure returned. And the aromas blossomed again (no pun intended). A suggestion of bittersweet cocoa powder showed up on the palate, played off against ripe plums and damp earth. The wine remained light – it’s really not a powerhouse style of Cahors – but turned out to be full of invigorating flavors and just a beauty to smell. I found myself softly exclaiming just about every time I raised the glass to my nose. $12 for a wine with this much character is nothing to sneeze at, just as its 12% alcohol – and my palate tells me that’s an accurate level – is more than welcome in today’s climate. I found it pretty dead-on with grilled lamb chops. Neil likes it with duck. Either way, I’m indebted to him for the experience.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Catching Up with Giuseppe Vajra

Giuseppe Vajra first walked through the doors at the shop where I spend my days about four or five years ago. He couldn’t have been much more than nineteen at the time, making his way around the US on his first trip as emissary of his family’s estate. It must have been an awkward baptism, as he wasn’t old enough, legally here in the US, to taste his own wines even though it was his responsibility to show and discuss them with clients. Logistics aside, like so many other young men and women of his generation who happened to have been born into wine growing families, Giuseppe, on that first trip, was still undecided as to whether he saw his future in wine.

As a guy roughly twice Giuseppe’s age, come relatively late to the wine business, it’s all too easy for me to look on his situation with awe, even with a touch of envy. How great would it be to inherit beautiful vineyards and a winery in Barolo – or almost anywhere for that matter? Going back through time and putting myself in nineteen year-old shoes, though, and imagining (theoretically) my own father talking of passing along “the family business” to me, Giuseppe’s trepidation was clearly justified. The call of the new and different, of the city, of exploring things away from home – even of rebellion – must certainly have been great.

When I saw Giuseppe again two or three years ago, he had taken a couple of steps toward a decision but was still somewhat unsure. Meeting him for a third time, just last week, it’s now clear where Giuseppe’s future and, yes, his heart, lay. When he speaks about the family winery, still headed by his father Aldo Vajra, it’s clear that Giuseppe is speaking in we terms, is thinking of how he’ll carry on – or even change – the work that Aldo does today. In speaking of Aldo, Giuseppe said, “The more my father ages, the less he wants to do to the wines.” It’s a lovely expression of the constantly evolving, increasingly natural approach to winemaking at the Vajra estate. And as Giuseppe spoke of their continuing adoption of biodynamic techniques, of their positive approach to minimizing the use of sulfur in the wine making regime and of the terroirs that make up the estate, it was again clear that he was thinking in terms of “we,” not just “he.” Giuseppe’s become more than a spokesperson, that’s for sure. Given that he’s named after his grandfather, Giuseppe Domenico Vajra, whose name still appears on the family’s wines, he couldn’t have chosen a more fitting path.

* * *

As on his first visit some five years ago, Giuseppe was passing through to show the current releases of the estate. Here’s a look at what he poured for us.

Langhe Rosso, G. D. Vajra 2006 (13% alcohol)
To some, the idea of a blended wine being produced in the Langhe district of Piedmont automatically equates to modernism. Vajra’s Langhe Rosso, though, is far from a “Super Piemontese” red. Instead, plain and simple, it’s the most basic, casual wine produced at the estate. A young vine cuvée destined for youthful drinking (although it does age surprisingly well), its blend varies from year-to-year based on the natural production cycle of any given vintage. The 2006 Langhe Rosso is a blend of Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera, plus very small amounts – about 5% each – of Pinot Noir, Freisa and Albarossa. The latter vine, Albarossa, was originally created by Professor Giovanni Dalmasso when, in 1938, he crossed Barbera with a local mutation of Nebbiolo called Chatus. Albarossa turned out to give less elegant wines than hoped for on its own but serves as a useful blending agent, providing violet color and crispy texture. The wine? Full of bright red, punchy fruit. Lively mouthfeel and a slightly sweet/tart/tropical nose. Delicate tannins, refreshing acidity and easygoing light-to-medium body make it a versatile pour.

Dolcetto d’Alba, G. D. Vajra 2007 (13.5% alcohol)
Radiantly violet/purple in the glass. Giuseppe thinks of it as blue. Lovely, crunchy tannins follow a mouthful of dark red cherries, plums and inky minerality. One of the most fruit-forward expressions of Dolcetto I’ve had from Vajra, although it almost always does start out fruity in its youth and then develops subtlety with age. In the winery, it is put through a very quick cold stabilization to fix its vibrant colors and to partially forestall Dolcetto’s tendency to throw high quantities of sediment. If you’re a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc fan, you owe it to yourself to try this.

Barbera d’Alba Superiore, G. D. Vajra 2006 (14% alcohol)
Bottled just a week before Giuseppe’s trip, this is a brooding, muscular style of Barbera, with tannic extract playing against Barbera’s natural acidity and showing off the vine’s balancing act between rusticity and refinement. Tautly wrapped blueberry and blackberry fruit, touched by a bit of wood spice. Aged in old tonneau and 2500-liter casks. Giuseppe described it as less juicy than the 2007 and less classic than the 2004 but perfectly balanced. At seven to ten years of age, he thinks this will become more mineral, floral and herbal in character. For now, it’s a mouthful of intensity that would pair well with braised meat dishes or perhaps a dish of beef cheek ravioli.

Langhe Nebbiolo, G. D. Vajra 2006 (13.5% alcohol)
This was Giuseppe’s go-to “college wine” during the past year, what he poured for his roommates at University to help compensate for his lack of cooking abilities. A great food wine it is. Although in my experience this wine can age better than most “basic” Langhe Nebbiolo, G. recommends drinking it in its first three-to-four years for maximum enjoyment. This is Nebbiolo fermented and aged only in steel, produced primarily from fruit grown in a southwest-facing parcel called “Gesso” located at the foot of Bricco delle Viole and from the young vines in the Vajra’s recently acquired property in Sinio, just outside of the Barolo zone on the outskirts of Serralunga d’Alba. The wine is in a great spot right now, full of violet, rose petal and red licorice aromas. Finely detailed and long on the palate. No lack of nuance. Every bit a fine example of a “poor man’s Barolo.”

Barolo “Albe,” G. D. Vajra 2004 (14% alcohol)
“Albe” is Vajra’s young vine Barolo, produced from 20 year-old vines in the vineyards La Volta, Coste and Fossati, all on the hillsides in Vergne, perched above the town of Barolo itself. After a 20-day fermentation and maceration, the wine is aged in traditional botte of Slovanian oak along with a small amount of tonneau and 50-hectoliter barrels. Bottled only two months ago, it’s very tight, with a firm tannic structure and a nose full of tar and black earth. It needs about a year before it starts to show its real stuff. This and their Freisa called “Kyè” are the two wines, Giuseppe feels, that change the most from year to year.

Barolo “Bricco delle Viole,” G. D. Vajra 2004 (14% alcohol)
The Bricco delle Viole vineyard was planted by Aldo’s grandfather (Giuseppe’s great-grandfather) in 1949. 1978 was Aldo’s first vintage. His 2004 is already beautiful wine, showing more forward, elegant aromas than “Albe” but with much greater structural intensity, balance and finesse on the palate. Really beautiful wine. Drink it now for contemplative study if you will, but better to save it for a rainy day some year in the future. The ’04 Bricco delle Viole went through a 30-day fermentation and maceration, followed by aging primarily in 2500-liter casks. 8700 bottles produced.

Moscato d’Asti, G. D. Vajra 2007 (5.5% alcohol)
What better way to refresh after tasting a bunch of tannic, high-acid reds? Beer maybe? I’m not so sure. Vajra’s Moscato is a benchmark – joyously fruity and damn delicious year in and year out. In 2007, it was Giuseppe’s baby to tend to in the winery. It’s the quickest job start to finish but the most labor intensive in terms of the amount of attention required. Giuseppe spent at least one night in the winery after staying so late that he was inadvertently locked out of the house. I’m betting he drank some for breakfast the next morning, maybe with a little zabaglione.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Natural Food & Wine Pairing

My one and only trip to the medieval village of Jesi, back in February of 2006, was scheduled with a single purpose in mind: to visit the winery of Mario and Giorgio Brunori. Jesi is situated just inland from Ancona, about 20 kilometers from the Adriatic Sea in Italy’s Le Marche. Mario and his father Giorgio’s property sits astride the hillsides just outside of town. We visited their vineyards, toured their facilities and tasted their lineup of tank samples and wines (plus a stunningly good Grappa) that were current at the time. It was a typical winery visit – informative, straightforward, pretty in its own way. What followed a short while later is what really sticks out in my mind.

We picked up Mario’s sister, Christina, at the enoteca the Brunori family owns back in the center of Jesi and headed to one of their favorite local trattorias for lunch. It was clear that the Brunori’s were regulars as, after just a few quick exchanges between Christina and one of the owners, platters of food began to arrive at our table. Seafood. Nothing but. An incredibly diverse array of goodies. Tiny cockles stewed in tomato sauce. Equally tiny sea snails served in their shells and studded with garlic. Fried calamari and grilled sepia. Several varieties of fish cooked with herbs and local olive oil. And linguine con le vongole. Seafood is a staple of the diet in this part of coastal Le Marche. In speaking with the Brunoris, it became clear that, aside from the hillside vineyards, the nearby sea is considered the major “farm” of the area.

We drank just one wine with the entire meal – the Brunori’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore “San Nicolò.” A single vineyard, San Nicolò includes the Brunori’s oldest vines that produce a naturally concentrated, zesty, brisk and soulful example of Verdicchio. The wine we drank that day, it was probably the 2004, worked – and worked really well – with everything we ate, from the lightest shellfish to the most richly flavored finfish.

It’s been a go-to wine for me at home, before and since, whenever I think of something to go with one of my favorite comfort food dishes – spaghetti with white clam sauce. Linguine con le vongole, if you prefer. It’s a heartwarming pairing. “What grows together goes together,” the saying goes. It’s now overused, perhaps, but it became an adage in food and drink circles for good reason.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Boutique Wine Collection Portfolio Tasting, Part Three

This shall be the third and final installment of my tasting reports from Boutique Wine Collection’s portfolio tasting held earlier this week along the parkway in Philadelphia. How to handle a big, broad tasting like this is always a challenge. Nine tables, in this case, with an average of fifteen wines at each. Four hours from start to finish. I suppose it would be possible to taste everything, but not for me. I’m not a power taster. I prefer to spend at least a little time with and give at least a little thought to each wine, even if it is with just an ounce or two in my tasting glass, a spit bucket always close at hand.

I suppose if I were an egalitarian, blank slate kind of taster, I’d try to focus on the areas where I’ve a lot to learn – Argentina or South Africa, for instance. But I’m not out to build an intentionally multinational wine list or to stock a price-point driven, one-stop liquor mart. So, after years of tasting like this, my approach is usually to focus on my areas of strength, always looking for new discoveries, and then to dabble a little in the realm of the lesser known. When it comes to wine, I really don’t believe there’s such a thing as an expert, certainly not in the widest sense. For my own purposes, I’d much rather know a lot about a little than a little about a lot.

This is all, in my typically long-winded fashion, to explain that, when it came to working my way through the core of Boutique’s direct imports at the tasting, I focused on their offerings from France, Austria and Germany and just dabbled a little in the New World and Spain.

Sandrine DuPouy, the French Portfolio Manager for Boutique Wine Collection, is originally from Toulouse but is now based in South Africa – an unusual commuting arrangement, to be sure.

From my perspective, Sandrine was pouring the strongest line-up, from start to finish, of the event. Maybe not the most impressive – that title would have to go to the grower Champagne part of the array at the Terry Theise table – but certainly the most consistent. There really weren’t any lowlights at her table, so I’ll just run through what was on offer.
  • Huber Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Hugo” 2007: Very clean, crisp GV. Simple but with all the right stuff in all the right places. A really good value in entry-level Austrian wine. For more info on the estate, check out my notes from a tasting with Markus Huber earlier this year.

  • Huber Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Obere Steigen” 2007: Broad, prickly texture. Very typical, in the good sense, expression, with white grape, pepper and five spice aromas.

  • Huber Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Alte Setzen” 2007: Riper texture, more powerful and dark fruited. Redolent of fresh peach preserves.

  • Huber Traisental Zweigelt 2006: Plummy, supple and food friendly. Easy-going Zweigelt.

  • Rolly-Gassmann Rorschwihr Moenchreben Auxerrois 2001: Rolly-Gassmann farms and makes wines in the old way. Their methods are largely biodynamic and the wines are not released for sale until deemed ready to drink. 2001 is the current release for their Auxerrois, which is relatively low acid, deeply perfumed, a bit earthy and touched by a little botrytis. Tasty even if a tad awkward.

  • Rolly-Gassmann Alsace Pinot Gris 2004: Excellent acidity, pure fruit and a dab of RS. The star of the line-up.

  • Rolly-Gassmann Alsace Riesling 2006: Concentrated, slightly rustic and quite vinous. Not a finesse Riesling, but quite savory.

  • Rolly-Gassmann Alsace Gewürztraminer 2004: Classic profile of exotic fruits, lychee and yellow flowers. Full-flavored but not at all over-the-top. I don’t drink much Gewürztraminer but I’d be happy to find a place in the fold for this one.

  • Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2007: Direct and fruity, with classic Mosel delicacy. Cleansing acids.

  • Dr. Hermann Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2007: Denser than Treppchen, red fruits and spiced, baked apples. Good nerve.

  • Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese 2006: Consistent expression of terroir, even across the two very different vintages. Darker peach fruit, with the expected extra degree of richness relative to the Kabinett.

  • Dr. Hermann Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 2006: Much showier than Treppchen. Decadently spicy – the vineyard site is appropriately named (Würzgarten means spice garden) – and quite well balanced.

  • Le Signal Côtes de Roussillon Villages “Vieilles Vignes” 2005: From an estate based in St. Paul de Fenouillet, not far from Maury. The odd man out in the lineup but it rounded out Boutique’s entire European portfolio. Soft up front but with more interesting sensations on the finish. Garrigue-driven aromas and mineral-laced fruit. A Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend from 80-100 year-old vines. Not the greatest value but a very solid effort.

John Toler, pictured at right, is Wholesale Sales Manager for Boutique Wine Collection. John was pouring wines from a Friulian producer, Scarbolo, brought in by Dark Star Imports. To my chagrin, I never managed to taste them. Next time, I hope. John was setup next to Boutique’s National Sales Manager, Jeff Morgenthal (pictured at left).

A couple I liked from Boutique’s Spanish and South African portfolio:
  • Ken Forrester Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc 2008: Commercial style, squeaky clean but a good quaffer. I won’t rush out to buy it but I wouldn’t shun it as a by-the-glass pour.

  • Gratavinum Priorat “2πr” 2005: That's "Two-Pi-R." Modern style blend of the “traditional” Priorat varieties: Cariñena and Garnatxa. Super ripe cassis fruit. Minty nose. Solid tannin/fruit balance.

And a couple on the dark side:
  • De Trafford Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc 2006: Over the top nose of tropical fruit, followed-up hard by overwhelmingly green, aggressive oakiness. 100% barrel fermented. 15% alcohol, plus residual sugar. There’s a suggestion of good fruit but the winemaking is way too heavy-handed for the Chenin to stand a chance.

  • Ardevol Priorat “Coma d’en Romeu” 2005: Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Savagely tannic, oak dominated and just plain unpleasant.

That's all, folks. Unless, that is, you missed the first two installments:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Boutique Wine Collection Portfolio Tasting, Part Two

Yes, I actually did make it past the first table at Boutique Wine Collection’s recent portfolio tasting. It was only a few steps to the next, which featured a hodgepodge of wines from various segments of Michael Skurnik’s book, including a few Daniel Johnnes Selections.

Jonathan Schwartz, Terry Theise Portfolio Manger, was down from New York for the day to pour wines for the Skurnik team. Sorry about catching you with your eyes closed, Jonathan.

Some of the highlights:
  • Raventos I Blanc Cava “L’Hereu” Brut NV: This was the highlight of the table for me, not only because it was so good but also because I’ve always had a really hard time finding a Cava that moves me. Very dry attack and highly floral aromas, with a chalky, banana pith character on the palate. Neat wine. Raventos I Blanc, I was told, is apparently the only estate bottler of Cava.

  • Domaine Mardon Quincy “Tres Vieilles Vignes” 2007: Savagely dry Sauvignon, driven by honeydew melon and chalky, limey minerality.

  • Domaine des Hautes Noelles Cotes de Grandlieu Muscadet sur Lie 2007: There’s a creamy aspect here, on the nose and in the mouth, but it’s offset by loads of green extract and a pretty savage mouthfeel. Needs food.

  • Domaine des Hautes Noelles Vin de Pays de Val de Loire Gamay 2007: One of the most simply enjoyable reds at the entire tasting. Light and lean wild cherry fruit with an ample sprinkling of cracked white pepper. Chill it.

A few wines that were neither here nor there:
  • Domaine Barraud Mâcon-Villages “Les Pierres Dorrées Vieilles Vignes” 2006: Barrel fermented white Burgundy. Mute on the nose and fairly mute on the palate. Though not terribly oaky, the wood still dominates the fruit.

  • Domaine de Moulines Vin de Pays de l’Herault Merlot 2004: Solid, drinkable but boring.

  • Huarpe Mendoza (Argentina) “Lancatay” Bonarda 2005: Taking a big geographical leap, I tasted this one mainly out of curiosity. Fairly pleasing, sweet-fruited chocolate and black cherries, but with a glossy texture that sings over-manipulation.

A few that I didn’t care for:
  • Les Garrigues Côtes du Rhône 2007: Decent fruit but alcoholic and aggressive.

  • Mud House Marlborough (NZ) Riesling 2006: A ghost costume, made of threadbare sheets that Riesling once slept on.

  • Mud House Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2007: Jalapeno juice.

  • Mud House Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc “Swan Reserve” 2007: A bit more refined than its little brother but why bother – at its price point, you could drink very fine Sancerre. I didn’t move on to their reds. Sorry, Mud House.

And one that I managed to leave out of yesterday’s write-up:
  • Sattler Burgenland Saint Laurent 2006: My favorite red of the entire tasting. Crunchy, juicy blueberry fruit, a little spice and lots of character. Sattler produces reds only. (From the Terry Theise Selections table.)

On the opposite side of the room, manning the last table, Nicola Biscardo was pouring selections from his own Italian portfolio, part of The Country Vintner’s line-up.

Some highlights from Nicola’s table:
  • Piane di Maggio Trebbiano d’Abruzzo “Agriverde” 2007: Typical, apple-y Trebbiano. Good acidity and clean fruit.

  • Vallerosa Bonci Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico “Carpaneto” 2007: Medium bodied, fleshy and zesty. A little low acid as Verdicchio goes but quite pleasing.

  • Vallerosa Bonci Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore“San Michele” 2007: Ripe, honeyed, creamy and concentrated. A touch sweet-fruited but about as hedonistic as Verdicchio gets, in a good way.

  • Feudo di San Nicola IGT Salento Primitivo 2005: From one of Nicola’s own properties. In his words, “Southern wine with a northern touch.” Clean, aromatic and very juicy. Ripe but restrained. Aged in Slovanian botte. Surprisingly good Primitivo.

  • Ortaglia Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva 2003: More than a solid effort for the vintage. Classic expression of both place and variety. Firm and tannic, with a mouthful of expressive, tarred red fruits. Good length. Best of the bunch.

A few on the fence:
  • Terre di Sole IGT Sicilia Sangiovese 2007: Another of Nicola’s properties. Juicy fruit. Simple and refreshing. A nice quaffer that would have made it to the first list if it actually showed any varietal character beyond its cherry-driven fruit. Lower yields might do the trick but then the wine would become too pricey to make any sense.

  • Terre di Sole IGT Sicilia Nero d’Avola “Apalos” 2005: Surprisingly pale for Nero d’Avola. Jammy blackberry fruit. Very soft.

  • Borgo Pretale Chianti Classico “Le Crete” 2006: From Castellina. Real Chianti, with lean, high acid Sangiovese character but a bit hollow and lacking in depth.

  • Marchesi Biscardo Amarone della Valpolicella 2001: From Nicola’s family property. Very traditional blend, dried for between 4-5 months. Medium color, lightly raisined flavors and medium-bodies. Food friendly but a touch dilute.

And a couple I’d avoid:
  • Piane di Maggio Montepulciano d’Abruzzo “Agriverde” 2007: Bright mulberry colors. Some tannin. No character. I’m not a big Montepulciano fan, so take this as you will. Typical in all the wrong ways.

  • Ortaglia Rosso di Montepulciano 2006: As much as I liked their Vino Nobile Riserva, I disliked this. Decent structure but lacking substance and way overpriced.

The third and final installment, to come soon, will touch on miscellaneous and sundry from the core of Boutique Wine Collection's own portfolio.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Boutique Wine Collection Portfolio Tasting, Part One

Boutique Wine Collection held their annual trade portfolio tasting in a sunny atrium at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art on Monday. Thanks to an invite from Boutique’s Wholesale Sales Manager, John Toler, I had the pleasure of attending. Boutique’s own import book focuses in Spain and South Africa, augmented by small presences in Austria, France, Germany and New Zealand.

Like many other importers in the mid-Atlantic region, they’re also distributors, not only brokering their own portfolio but also clearing wines for other importers. In Pennsylvania, their book includes the entire Michael Skurnik Wines portfolio as well as the wines of The Country Vintner. In Delaware, they manage all of Skurnik’s range with the exception of the Terry Theise Selections (which are brought into DE by Bacchus). Convoluted enough for you? That’s the wine biz.

To keep things readable – and to keep my time manageable – I’ll be breaking my report on the overall event into two or three posts, each one focusing on a particular piece of the puzzle. There were a lot of wines to taste, so I’ll be touching mainly on the highlights along with a few lowlights. Notes will be much breezier than usual, so hang on.

Highlights from the Terry Theise Selections lineup:

Skurnik reps were manning the first two tables in the room, an enviable position that captured much of the early (and my) attention. Table 1 featured a strong lineup of grower Champagnes, as well as some odds and ends from Theise’s German and Austrian portfolio. Not a bad way to get things rolling.

Kevin Pike, Director of National Sales & Marketing for Michael Skurnik Wines, seems to be the go-to guy where Theise's Champagne portfolio is concerned. This is his second appearance at MFWT and bubbly brought him here both times.

  • Aubry Brut NV: In spite of sitting in leadoff position, where just about anything is likely to be sipped then overlooked, this came through with plenty of character. Creamy, with fresh red fruit, breadiness and a little floral funkiness. 60% Pinot Meunier and 20% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

  • Marc Hebrart Brut “Cuvée de Réserve” NV: Bottle one was a bit mute and tasted more evolved than its disgorgement date would suggest. Bottle two was better, showing generously textured, ripe red fruits on a very effusive frame of bubbles. 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay.

  • Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs NV: An unusual wine in that it’s the only Blanc de Blancs from Aÿ imported into the US, not to mention one of the very few BdBs made there at all. Broader, darker and less racy than the usual entry from the Côte des Blancs but still quite delicious. Lemon oil and almonds. Very expressive.

  • Gaston Chiquet Brut Tradition NV: A blend of 45% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir. Apple-y, firm and chalky on the finish.

  • Vilmart & Cie “Grand Cellier d’Or” 2001: This was the showstopper among the Champagnes, even though Skurnik’s Kevin Pike later suggested that he thought it might not be a perfect bottle. It showed its ten grams of dosage with a sweeter flavor profile than the preceding Champs but handled the extra richness with grace. Pineapple, exotic fruits and baking spices on the nose. Striking on the palate. Great phenolic structure. One of the very few vintage Champagnes declared in the difficult 2001 vintage.

  • Geoffroy “Rosé de Saignée” NV: A blend of 60% Chardonnay, rounded out with a rosé of Pinot Noir bled off its skins and just a touch of Meunier. Lots of peach pit and strawberry fruit with a savory edge of bitterness on the finish. Solid if not entirely elegant.

  • Schloss Gobelsburg Caruntum Grüner Veltliner “Steinsetz” 2007: Totally wound-up aromatically but finely balanced and solidly built on the palate. Very persistent.

  • Gysler Rheinhessen Silvaner halbtrocken 2007 (liter bottle): A bit pricey in PA but I liked it enough for it to make the “good” list. Soft, with very typical pear fruit and direct floral aromas. At the sweeter end of the halbtrocken scale.

  • Leitz Rheingau Riesling “Dragonstone” 2007: The purist in me wanted not to like this, as I’m not too crazy about the trend for labeling wines for the export market. Frankly, though, this is pretty decent stuff. Good nerve, fruit and balance. Declassified Spätlese from Rudesheimer Drachenstein (thus, Dragonstone).

  • Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2007: Excellent wine. Really pretty acid balance with a fine vein of apricot driven fruit.

  • Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese 2007: Another delicious ’07. Classic Spätlese. Much showier in the fruit department, with lots of spiced apple character. Crystalline acidity.

And a few (only a few in this grouping) I wasn’t too crazy about:
  • A. Margaine Demi-Sec NV: 92% Chardonnay and 8% Pinot Noir with 32 grams dosage. Banana driven (yeast?) fruit and confected character point to solid pastry pairing possibilities. But not my cup of tea.

  • Berger Kremstal Grüner Veltliner 2007 (liter bottle): In states where this is still $12ish, this isn’t a bad choice as a house wine to keep in the fridge and serve ice cold and with aplomb. But in PA, in the high teens, it’s not a value. Soft, slightly clumsy but very easy drinking.

  • Glatzer Carnuntum Grüner Veltliner 2007: There’s more going on here than in the Berger, some of the peach, melon and white pepper typical of the variety. But it’s coarsely textured and a bit short.

I’d planned to write about some of the other Skurnik selections in this edition but I think that's more than enough for now. More to come from Skurnik, along with some Italians from The Country Vintner, in round two.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sad News in the Wine World

I've just learned that Didier Dagueneau, the man behind some of the most intense, controversial and respected Sauvignon's in the Loire -- really, in the world -- died earlier today in a small aircraft crash. Joe Dressner has written a fitting memorial that well captures the man's spirit. Rest in peace, Didier. (Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce.)

Update (Sept. 18): Eric Asimov has posted his own heartfelt memorial at The Pour.

Update (Sept. 19): A more in-depth eulogy of Dagueneau from Joe Dressner.

WBW 49: Sending Bush out with a Bash

Yep, it’s time for yet another entry in the annals of Wine Blogging Wednesday. Today’s host is D. Honig – political cartoonist, wine blogger behind Two Days Per Bottle and organizer extraordinaire. He’s asked participants to raise a toast to the end of the Bush era. The spirit in which that toast was meant he diplomatically left up to those partaking.

The wine I’m writing up for today’s episode was bottled in June 2001, just a few months after George W. Bush assumed office. I drank it about a week ago, just a few months before he will have no choice but to leave office. The bottle spent most of the time in between resting peacefully in my cellar. The wine came through its near 8-year term in good shape; only its label was a little worse for wear. I wish I could say I’ve taken as much enjoyment from W’s two terms as President.

California Red Table Wine “Pleiades X Old Vines,” Sean Thackrey NV
About $16 on release. 13.9% alcohol. Cork.
Forget about McCain, Bush’s wannabe successor. Sean Thackrey is a maverick. Like his wines or not, there’s no denying that he’s an iconoclast. Though he doesn’t own a single parcel of vineyard, Thackrey has established a reputation over the last twenty-plus years, in spite of his disbelief in the importance of place, as one of the wild and wise men of the CA wine scene. He ferments at the natural end of the spectrum, using techniques that hearken back hundreds of years and relying very little on modern technology, much more on gut feeling. It’s a risky approach but one that seems to have worked for him. Just read this excerpt from a piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle a few years back.
"If [Thackrey] succeeds, he gets a wine of unique character. When he fails, he usually puts the wine into his nonvintage blend Pleiades, which he calls a 'disobedient wine.'

'It pays no attention to winemaking rules,' [Thackrey] says of Pleiades. 'I use fruit that's incomplete. Some has good flavor and not much mouthfeel. Some has good mouthfeel and not much flavor.'"

Pleiades is a non-vintage blend of just about everything under the sun, all leftovers apparently. To quote Thackrey again, "People sometimes ask me to tell them the varietal percentages, and I say, 'Give me a break.'" That’s an outlook I generally applaud, though I can’t get on board with the dismissal of the concept of terroir often attributed to him.

Anyhow, back to the wine. When last I opened a bottle of this, about three or four years ago – in keeping with today’s theme, let’s call it the end of its first term – I was none too enamored with it. Gobs of in-your-face fruit, squishy tannins and somewhat heavy handed oakiness. As it nears the end of its second four years, however, Thackrey’s tenth Pleiades has reached full maturity and done some interesting things along the way. It’s still not perfect. The alcohol, even though low at 13.9% by today’s CA standards, stands out. Fruit and oak, on the flipside, have become much more harmonious. A generous deposit of tartrate crystals on the cork and sediment in the bottle speak to Thackrey's relatively non-interventionist approach in the winery.

On day one, a distinct eucalyptus element dominated the wine's aromas, backed up on the nose and in the mouth by developed flavors of red berries, spiced plums and kirsch. Day two brought major changes. The fruit became lighter in tone, driven more by dried cherries. But what really stood out was tobacco. The wine practically reeked of tobacco – think Red Man chewing tobacco. Sweet, spicy but still definitely tobacco. Not the most food friendly wine out there – its tannins and acidity are both a little too soft relative to its body – but an easy pleasure, simply to drink and enjoy, after two terms in bottle.

History, I expect, shall not be so kind to Mr. Bush.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Real Sangiovese that’s Not from Tuscany

In the wake of all the attention paid to the Montalcino scandals of late – Dr. Parzen wrote a good piece on the matter just the other day – it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that there are plenty of wineries out there still making honest wine from good vineyard sites using the traditional, local clone(s) of Sangiovese. Most of it, not surprisingly (at least not to me), comes from relatively modest, hands-on estates, from people who Alice Feiring might refer to as “emotionally connected vignerons,” from wine growers with a true passion for their land.

In the wake of all the attention paid to Tuscany here in the States, it’s also easy to forget that not all Italian Sangiovese comes from Tuscany. Sangiovese, by most accounts, is the most widely planted red grape variety in all of Italy. It’s particularly focused in central Italy. But I’ve tasted examples from as far removed as Lake Garda in the Veneto and enjoyed, just yesterday at the Boutique Wine Collection tasting here in Philly (more on that in the days to come), a simple but eminently quaffable example from Sicily. One of my current favorites when it comes to everyday examples of Sangiovese – of real, expressive Sangiovese – comes from Umbria. It just happens to come from a larger estate, one that might not fit Alice’s description to a tee but one, nonetheless, which has chosen to play not just by the traditional rules but also according to their natural passions for their land.

Montefalco Rosso, Antonelli San Marco 2004
$17. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Laird & Company, Scobeyville, NJ.
Antonelli’s Montefalco Rosso is typically a blend of 65% Sangiovese with 15% Sagrantino and 10% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Though Sagrantino must be considered the signature grape of Montefalco, this wine gives proof to the existence of characterful Sangiovese in the region, as Sangiovese certainly dominates the wines profile. Decry it for the inclusion of Cabernet and Merlot if you must, but they’re actually fairly traditional here as opposed to in, say, Montalcino.

In spite of their inclusion, the wine shows a transparent, ruby hue in the glass. Aromas are high-toned, of wild cherries, dried Mediterranean herbs and an attractively subtle touch of freshly tanned cowhide. In the mouth, acidity plays the leading role, focusing a beam of clean, silky red fruit across the middle of the palate. Tannins are fairly gentle and supple. There’s enough innate structure here to stand up to roasted meat dishes but enough versatility to work with a wider range of foods, from hearty pastas to simple, country fare, to sheep’s milk cheeses. On day two, things broadened out a bit with respect to acidity, giving the wine a softer, riper yet no less nuanced feel.

If you’re looking for a Tuscan powerhouse, this ain’t it. Then again, most real Tuscan Sangiovese, most honest Tuscan Sangiovese, isn’t about power. If you’re looking for a lovely example of what Sangiovese can do in Umbria, and what it can do without breaking the $20 threshold, this would be a good place to start.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Slightly Incomprehensible Riesling from Beate Knebel

Riesling feinherb – “feinherb” means something along the lines of “delicately dry” – is a stylistic term that’s started to appear with greater frequency on German wines over the last few years. For many producers, it’s nothing more than a preferred synonym for halbtrocken, a style (or at least a term) that’s started to fall out of favor on the contemporary German market. For others, though, feinherb provides a subtle distinction, crossing over between the richer end of the halbtrocken spectrum (up to 18 grams of RS) yet stopping short of the amount of RS usually found in a fully fruity-style Kabinett, Spätlese or Auslese. A handful of the wineries in this latter group have even been known to produce halbtrocken and feinherb wines from the same vineyard and at the same pradikat level in a single vintage.

Mosel Winninger Hamm Riesling Kabinett feinherb, Weingut Reinhard und Beate Knebel 2005
$19. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Mosel Wine Merchant, Manhasset, NY.
In the simple context of residual sugar, Beate Knebel’s 2005 Winninger Hamm Kabinett feinherb seems to slot right into the feinherb category, most likely at the drier end of its possible spectrum. There’s nothing delicate about it, though. The sprightly minerality, light, fresh fruit and lithe acidity I’ve come to associate with most other Kabinett level wines from the Terrassenmosel aren’t in evidence. Instead, the wine expands across the palate with earthy, pungent flavors of slate, displaying a breadth and darkness of flavor along with the muscular expression of acidity I’d expect more from a Spätlese trocken from the same area. Flavors are less of crisp apples and white peaches than of apricots and baked apples. At 12.5% alcohol – even though Winningen is considered a warm spot – it’s also way up the scale relative to what I’d expect from a Kabinett feinherb (something more along the lines of 10-11% perhaps).

In case the notes above left you wondering, I liked it but it definitely caught me off guard, made me scratch my head a little. My translation: I’d hazard a guess that this is declassified Spätlese, fairly ripe Spätlese at that, fermented long and slow. This is speculation on my part, not backed up by technical specs from the winery or importer, so I’d be more than happy to hear from anyone with more experience with Knebel’s wines.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pif Night Wines

As promised, here are a few thoughts on the wines we opened at "Pif night" on a recent trip to Ansill. The great thing about BYOs (or BYO nights at normally non-BYO restaurants) is the opportunity they afford to open and enjoy several wines at dinner without running up an astronomical tab. Given the $15 corkage policy on regular evenings at Ansill, I'd be inclined to carry my own juice on any night of the week, not just Tuesday or Sunday.

Vouvray “Cuvée de Silex,” Domaine des Aubuisières (Bernard Fouquet) 2007
$16. 13% alcohol. Stelvin. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
Where has this been all my life? Really delicious young Vouvray, just about all you could ask for from a wine at this price point. In terms of both aroma and palate, it displayed a classic up-front profile of d’Anjou pear, honeysuckle, honey-laced apples and a touch of succulent stoniness. Its sec-tendre style (just slightly off-dry), along with visceral, shimmering acidity, makes this an ideal aperitif and a solid choice for shellfish dishes (think scallops) or a cheese course. It should also be quite suitable for mid-term aging.

By odd coincidence, given that I had carried this from home and bemoaned the absence of anything interesting on the wine list at Ansill, it turned out that one of my coworkers was sitting in another restaurant about eight blocks to the north, at the very same time, and ordered this exact wine from the restaurant’s list. If their wine list is any indication of what they’re up to, I’ll need to give Fork a revisit sometime soon. It’s a spot I frequented when they first opened but have neglected for many a year now.

Bourgogne Rouge “Cuvée Prestige,” Domaine Philippe Charlopin-Parizot 2005
$32. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Elite Wines, Washington, DC.
I’m not sure how to explain the fact that, to the eye, this looked transparent and pale in the bottle but inexplicably dark in the glass. My other sensory abilities, though, told me that this was probably a little heat whacked. Soft, even a little spongy in texture, with sweet red fruit and an almost Port-like nose. The alcohol stood to one side, the wine to the other, with a gap in between. Hardly the epitome of Burgundian grace. When all was said and done, it was short and simple. Almost certainly a compromised bottle.

Marsannay “Langeroies,” Domaine René Bouvier 2005
$38. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Elite Wines, Lorton, VA.
Sniff. Ahh, that’s more like it. There were some definite modern evocations at play but plenty of interest as well. Oak was evident but well knit, allowing the bright, gamy and wild red-fruited character of the wine to leap up and strut its stuff. Cherry stones, blackberries and thyme all came to mind. Excellent balance and quite food friendly, there was a very attractive sappiness – a sense of green energy – at the wine’s core. Definitely worth seeking out, this is offering plenty of drinking pleasure already but should only get more interesting in a few years. A pretty solid value given the economics of the vintage.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pif Night at Ansill

In spite of it often being considered an off night in the restaurant industry, I love going out to eat on Sunday. On the downside, one runs the chance of encountering less than pristinely fresh ingredients or kitchens running without the star chef. On the flipside, though, it’s far more relaxed than dealing with the Friday/Saturday dining frenzy and can be a great way to wrap-up the weekend and kick start the week to come. Choose carefully and the freshness issue should be a moot point. Choose even more carefully and you may find one of an increasing number of spots that are running Sunday night specials.

Ansill Food & Wine (Ansill, for short) is one such spot. Ever since owner David Ansill’s first spot, the widely beloved Pif, faded into the sunset in the summer of 2007, Sunday has been Pif night at Ansill. The regular Ansill menu remains available, while a second menu – a $40, three-course prix fixe option – is added, based on some of the more straightforward French bistro classics that originally put Pif on the Philly dining map. The “Pif night” menu is quite simple really. It offers a choice between four starters, four principal plates and four desserts. Dining with two friends recently afforded the opportunity to sample just about the entire menu, leaving off only the simplest option (salad, steak and ice cream) at each course.

The signature dish from the days of Pif – escargots plump and redolent of butter and Pernod, served alongside a head of sweet, nutty roasted garlic – practically disappeared before it even hit the table, certainly long before I could train the camera and snap a picture. The salad of red beets, first roasted and then marinated, delivered a nice sweet and sour contrast that paired well with its topping of fresh goat cheese. The only slightly ill conceived dish of the starters was the mussel soup. It’s not that it lacked flavor, just that it lacked depth. A spike of red pepper was the predominant flavor in the broth and soggy croutons did little to help, though freshly sliced scallions livened up the dish a bit.

To spice things up a bit, and for added insurance against leaving without full bellies, we supplemented our orders with a couple of small plates from the regular Ansill menu. Roasted mussels turned out to be an interesting preparation take on a bistro classic. When the little mollusks were just right, they were tender, savory and intensely infused with the aromas of the fresh rosemary sprig included in the roasting pan. The technique, though, did seem to result in less even flavor distribution relative to steaming or sautéing, and a few of the mussels were a little on the fishy side. I had no compunctions, however, about the deliciousness of our roasted bone marrow crostini, full of rich, zesty flavor and topped off perfectly with a sprinkle of smoked sea salt and a tousle of fresh greens.

Our main courses delivered the most uniformly successful round of dishes. The sweetbreads – ample, tender and meaty – may have been the showstopper, their perfectly cooked accompaniment of sliced shiitakes providing icing on the cake. Not lagging far behind were two petit filets of branzino, pan-seared to a perfect level of exterior crispiness and interior moistness and set atop sautéed greens, all surrounded by an intensely citrus yet light-footed beurre blanc. A duo of richly meaty lamb chops, seared just barely to the medium side of rare, matched nicely with crispy potato gaufrettes and roasted artichokes. Those artichokes, I’d swear, tasted like they’d been infused with lemon and pekoe tea.

An otherwise perfectly nice if somewhat perfunctory cheese plate was marred by the inclusion of Époisses that had gone to ammonia. I know it’s supposed to be pungent. And I know it’s expensive. But come on, sniff it – better yet, taste it – before you serve it. Our desserts, on the other hand, showed that the folks at Ansill don’t treat the final course as an afterthought. Both the pot au crème and bread pudding were delicious enough that I could envision stopping by late-night and ordering either of them just to top off the evening.

One more thing: wine. It’s tough to put together an interesting wine list in Pennsylvania – tough but not impossible. The list at Ansill includes a couple of dependables at the lower price points but otherwise falls short. I'd have a hard time finding anything I'd really want to order. On the bright side, Ansill smartly offers corkage ($15/bottle) at all times, a nod no doubt to the power of Philly’s BYO culture. Additionally, Tuesday night is their official BYO night, with all corkage fees waived. Finally, on Pif night, assuming everyone at the table orders the Pif prix fixe menu, then Sunday too becomes BYO night. It's an added Sunday bonus. Details on what we opened in the next installment....

Read more: A previous visit to Ansill.

Ansill Food & Wine (closed, July 2009)
627 S. 3rd Street
(3rd & Bainbridge)
Philadelphia, PA 19147 [map]
Ansill on Urbanspoon
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