Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

There can't be many more obvious choices for a tune befitting the day. And while the argument could be made -- as it just was by one of my coworkers -- that Siouxsie's live performances rarely ever lived up to her impact in the studio, I still dig this song, originally released on the 1981 disc "Juju." The combination of John McGeoch on guitar and Budgie's percussion work give it a drive that's hard to resist. Trick or treat, all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Two Cents on Brunellogate

I don’t love Brunello.

I’ve never been able to drink it often enough to form that kind of bond with it.

But I do respect Brunello – Brunello di Montalcino, to be more exacting. I respect its tradition, even if it is a relatively new one.

So I’m very glad to report, no matter how late, that the producers who make up the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino have voted overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the apellation rules requiring Brunello to be produced from 100% Sangiovese. That’s what Brunello is after all, the local name for the clone of Sangiovese unique to the hills surrounding the town of Montalcino.

Making only a passing reference to what my fellow wine writers have alternately called Brunellogate and Brunellopoli, I’ve remained all but totally quiet on the recent scandals in Montalcino up to now. I’ve left it to those fellows who do love Brunello – guys like Jeremy Parzen at Do Bianchi and Alessandro Bindocci, scribe of Montalcino Report and member of the wine family at Tenuta Il Poggione – to give much more connected and impassioned day-to-day coverage than I possibly could have.

The scandal basically boils down to the disclosure that a number of producers have knowingly been adulterating their Brunelli with grapes other than Sangiovese, a practice strictly forbidden by the DOCG discipline for Brunello di Montalcino. This is hardly a revelation, as there’s a long history of adulterating wine in some of the most famous viticultural regions of Europe. Whether tankerloads of Southern Italian juice were added under cover of night to fermentation vats in Tuscany and Northern Italy or whether Rhône and Languedoc wines were used to darken and enrich the more exalted wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, winemakers have been playing loose with tradition for centuries, even longer.

Estates such as as Il Poggione (pictured at left) and Castello Banfi found themselves on very different sides of the debate.

In this case, though, the issue was less surreptitious. Brunellogate received global attention on a scope that few wine scandals had drawn before. In answer to the scrutiny drawn by the scandal, some major wine figures – among them Barbaresco ultra-star Angelo Gaja, winemaker and consultant Ezio Rivello, and American Cristina Mariani, owner of Montalcino-based Banfi Vintners – came forward to argue that the rules governing the production of Brunello should be changed to allow for the inclusion of so-called international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Rivello’s own words, “You don’t win 100 points from the Wine Spectator using just sangiovese.” And you know what? He’s right. But the point of creating the discipline for Brunello di Montalcino was not to create a vehicle for winemakers to produce inky, rich blockbusters. Rather, the discipline was meant to give voice to the hills of the area as expressed through wines made from Sangiovese, Montalcino’s own, unique vine. That’s what Brunello is. Allowing for blending in other varieties may have made economic sense to some producers, but it wouldn’t be progress. It would simply be another step toward global wine homogenization.

Though I expect there were many forms of motivation driving the 662 votes against (versus the 30 for) changes being made to Brunello’s existing guidelines, I applaud – even love – the final decision. Upholding tradition does not always equate to halting progress.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Louis/Dressner 20th Anniversary Portfolio Tasting

It’s been a week now since I made the trek up to New York for the grand tasting events of both Terry Theise and Louis/Dressner (LDM) Imports. There was a moment en route, trying to remain positive while stuck in a New Jersey Transit NE Corridor commuter train that was stopped dead on the tracks just south of Secaucus, that I thought I was going to end up missing one if not both of the events. Even though I’d hardly say that luck was with me that day, after a few hesitant lurches forward the train finally did make its way into Manhattan. Once I’d made the jump from Penn Station to Tribeca for my first stop, the challenge quickly switched from simply making it to the events to how to manage time and energy in such a way as to do either of them justice.

In contrast to the dressed for success crowd and well organized flow at the Theise portfolio show, the vibe at Louis/Dressner’s tasting was more one of casual chaos. The event space was a refreshing change – a sunny, airy, whitewashed room in LDM’s offices perched on the sixth floor of an office building near Astor Place. With 21 tables (few of them manned by this point in the afternoon), a less obvious traffic flow and an even less obvious rationale to the arrangement of wines, it was really up to the attendee to form a plan or make sense of it all. And with over 270 wines in the room, I can’t imagine there were more than a handful of endurance tasters that actually ran the gamut. Maybe Alice Feiring, who I had the pleasure of meeting as I was arriving and she was leaving, bicycle helmet tucked under her arm. If so, she was hiding the effects awfully well. Me? Looking back on Dressner’s tasting guide and my notes, I managed to spend some time with about one-third of the wines on offer. A bit of a disappointment from my self-critical perspective but, I suppose, not really that bad considering the time constraints and logistics of the day.

With nothing more than a quick sandwich and a quicker walk in the break after leaving the Theise tasting, jumping right back into bubbly seemed the most obvious way to resume.

Starters – A Few Bubblies from the LDM Portfolio:

Skipping the familiar (and wonderful) sparkling Vouvray and Montlouis of François Pinon and François Chidaine respectively, and intending to come back to the cidres of Julien Frémont (which I never managed to do), I started off with one of the few wines I’d yet to try from Thierry Puzelat. His 2006 “Pétillant Naturel,” I have to say, is an encapsulation of the fact that natural wine does not always equal good wine. This bottle was just in a weird place, all yeast and reductivity with little else to offer.

A non-vintage pétillant Saint-Péray from Les Champs Libres, a joint effort between Hervé Souhaut and René-Jean Dard (of Dard et Ribo) was pleasant in comparison. Albeit a bit aromatically neutral and coarsely textured, its forward fruit would make it an enjoyable quaff.

The Champagnes of Larmandier-Bernier were delicious across the board, from the fine and richly textured Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru NV to the steelier, more finely chiseled “Terre de Vertus” Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Non-Dosé. I somehow missed L-B’s rosé but the “Vieille Vigne de Cramant” Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2004 more than made up for that. Tightly wound but lovely, lovely wine that’s just in need of some tender care in a cool cellar until it’s ready to really unfurl.

An extremely briny, mineral Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut from Ulysse Collin topped things off. As my description implies, I’d love to sit down with this and a platter of shellfish. Though not vintage dated, the fruit is all from the 2004 growing season.

On to the Beaujolais:

As much as it pained me, I leapfrogged past the wines of Jean-Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées and headed straight for Roilette, Tête and Descombes. In a tough crowd, the wines of Clos de la Roilette stood out. Their 2007 Fleurie was a thing of sheer beauty, extremely sappy at its core and built on a lean, tannic frame while the ’07 “Cuvée Tardive” showed similar sap with much more brooding, intense structure. These will both reward cellaring, especially the “Tardive.”

One of the great pleasures of the day was getting to taste, at least here and there, alongside my pal and blogging cohort, Neil, aka Brooklynguy (or is it Brooklyn Guy?). Sometimes you can learn more about someone’s tastes from what they don’t like than what they do. In that context, I think I’m beginning to get my arms around Neil’s preferences in Beaujolais, as he liked Michel Tête’s wines less than did I. In contrast to Roilette and Descombes, they’re softer and fruitier yet also more herbal in style, though the 2006 Juliénas “Cuvée Prestige” does take on a nice firm spine from the structure provided by 100-year-old vines.

Georges Descombes2007 Regnié was a delicious contrast, at once funky and brambly, with really juicy, exuberant fruit. Befitting of the cru, his wines from Morgon brought another level of intensity, apparent in the basic 2006 Morgon and framed even more clearly in the 2005 and 2006 “Vieilles Vignes” bottlings. Both were tightly wound, especially the darker ’05, but both showed real potential.

You Are So… Variable – The Wines of Nana, Vins et Cie (Domaine le Briseau) and Domaine de la Sansonnière:

Nana, Vins & Cie is the négociant business started in 2005 by Christian and Natalie Chaussard of Domaine le Briseau. Their wines, very natural and edgy, fall squarely into what many would call the hipster camp. Their labels vary between cute, minimal or simply indecipherable. And, at least on this day, the wines showed their quality to be quite variable.

In spite of the name, I really dug “You Are So Nice,” a blend of two-thirds Côt and one-third Gamay. The nose and palate both reeked of middle-Loire Côt, like a corned beef/pastrami sandwich finished off with a little wild raspberry jam. Relatively soft, it would make for a tasty picnic wine. “La Dérobée,” a Coteaux du Loir blend of Pineau d’Aunis and Côt, was not dissimilar from “Nice,” though with firmer backbone and a more guttural expression of earthiness.

I was less enamored with the whites. “You Are So Fine,” a Vouvray elevated in old barrels, showed intense wood influence with what little fruit there was being dominated by fermentation-derived aromas. And their Touraine Sauvignon called “You Are So Cool,” intensely minty and confectionery, was marred by a rubbery blast on the finish.

As much as I liked the 2005 Anjou Blanc “La Lune” from Mark Angéli’s Domaine de la Sansonnière when last I tasted it – coincidentally, it was also with Brooklynguy – it’s now gone into a very bad place, tasting of pomace and paint thinner. Just a phase, I hope. From the same vintage, his Anjou Rouge “Jeunes Vignes Les Gélinettes” was tannic – severely tannic – and weedy, in need of a hunk of roast beef to stand even a chance of being palatable.

Some More Wines I Did Like:

Lest you think I’m being a nasty cuss or naysayer, there were plenty of wines I did like. The whole lineup from Château d’Oupia was delicious, from the great value VdP “Les Hérétiques,” lean and full of barky fruit, to their top wine, Minervois “Cuvée les Barons” 2006, which drank like a magnified version of the “Tradition,” with greater richness but similarly wild, chunky fruit.

There was a delicious 2006 Mondeuse du Bugey from Franck Peillot, bright and juicy, and a very attractive if somewhat atypical 2006 Saint-Joseph Blanc from Dard et Ribo that might have fooled me for Chenin Blanc in a blind tasting.

I did take the opportunity to revisit a couple of old friends in new vintages. The couple of ‘06s I tasted from François Chidaine’s estate in Montlouis were showing great. “Clos du Breuil” was surprisingly rich, with really pure honeysuckle character. “Les Tuffeaux,” Chidaine’s multi-vineyard demi-sec cuvée, displayed the earthier, more mineral side of Montlouis and was showing a bit more structure than “Breuil.”

The Chinons of Bernard Baudry also showed well – big, boisterous and delicious across the board. The 2007 “Les Granges” displayed Baudry’s wild side in its fruity, animal nose. His top wine, the 2006 “La Croix Boissée,” was a monster on the palate, with a beautiful nose of red earth, sycamore and brambly fruit. Olga Raffault’s 2005 “Les Picasses” represented the more old-school side of Chinon, more feminine and delicate than Baudry’s expressions, with higher-toned aromas and a much more assertive acid profile.

It may come as no surprise – at their prices, it shouldn’t – but the showstoppers when it comes to Cabernet Franc were the 2004 Saumur-Champigny bottlings from Clos Rougeard. The “Clos” cuvée was lush and cuddly, full of cassis and eucalyptus, while “Les Poyeux” showed a more modern oak profile with fantastic structure. “Le Bourg” was simply rocking, coming across as more classic than “Poyeux,” with fantastic delineation of flavor and structure, fine balance and truly lovely fruit.

The 20th Anniversary Table:

By the time I found my way over to the table of wines from the 1988 vintage, being poured in celebration of Louis/Dressner’s twentieth year in the biz, I was too late to catch the ’88 versions of Clos Rougeard “Le Bourg” and Breton’s Bourgueil “Perrières,” as well as the ’88 Muscadet “Clos des Briords” from Domaine de la Pépière.

A trio of fantastic Loire Chenin Blancs helped to ease the disappointment.Back to Chidaine again, his 1988 Montlouis was redolent of tuffeaux terroir, with an intensely mineral nose. Showing aromas of fennel and pickling spices, François Pinon’s 1988 Vouvray Moelleux “Cuvée de Novembre” was complicated and lovely. Rounding out the threesome, Domaine du Closel’s Savennières “Clos du Papillon” may just have been my wine of the day. At the very least, it had the most beautiful nose of the day, rich with scents of aged goat cheese and limestone. Like Sainte-Maure in a glass.

As the close of business ineluctably approached, I wanted to believe that I’d overcome the challenges posed by the day’s doubled-up agenda. Deep down, though, I knew that the Dressner tasting had gotten short shrift. By around 3:30, I’d hit the wall, pure and simple. I found myself wandering the room. I’d gone from any sort of methodical tasting approach to looking around rather randomly for things that struck my fancy or cried out to be sampled. Serendipitously, though, just as I thought I’d have to throw in the towel, I wound up at a table of wines that helped bring things back into focus.

Happy Endings – the Whites of Stanislao Radikon:

Given the scarcity and relatively high prices of Radikon’s wines, it was a real treat to finish the day with a serious look at his whites. Stanko Radikon is an extreme naturalist, both on the farm and in the winery. I won't go into a ton of detail regarding their approach here but you'll find plenty of good information, albeit in Italian, at Radikon's website.

His 2003 “Jakot” (Tokaj spelled backwards), a varietal expression of Friulano, shows most clearly the funky side of Radikon’s natural winemaking, with a nose full of wild yeast, cider and damp minerality.

His other whites more clearly display his approach in the cellar. 30 days or more of maceration on the skins endowed his 2003 Ribolla Gialla with an energetic spiciness and tannic finish. 2003 “Oslavje,” a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Grigion and 30% Sauvignon, shone a beautiful tone of orange, like a California sunset in a glass. Its flavor profile, with a hint of spearmint on the finish, was sweet and ripe.

2001 Ribolla Gialla was in a much more mature state, with a nose full of dried herbs, apricot and citrus confit and less primary fruit on the palate; the ’01 Oslavje was fresher on the nose and still a bit more direct.

With the 1997 library releases, though, the tables were turned. The 1997 “Oslavje Riserva Ivana” was a bit of a paradox, lighter in color than the younger versions and very oxidative in style – interesting but not delivering much pleasure. Radikon’s 1997 Ribolla Gialla “Riserva Ivana,” on the other hand, was just singing. The wine of the bunch for me, with a great nose and rich, vinous texture, laced with cidre, thyme and candied orange.

These are not wines for every day pleasures. Rather, they’re profound wines, at once incredibly idiosyncratic yet also pure. While I can’t say Radikon’s line-up brought me back to spring daisy state, it certainly opened my eyes and provided a much-needed centering before saying my goodbyes and hitting the streets.

Feliz, Ruiz and Phillies Fever

I grew up around baseball, spending hours at a time tossing the ball with friends, playing just about every position in Little League and going to games at Memorial Stadium in the 1970s heyday of the Baltimore Orioles. Ever since the Orioles managed to give up their three-one lead over the Pirates in the 1979 World Series, though, I've drifted away from the game. Not because they lost, mind you. I'd just hit a point where life took me in other directions.

The better part of thirty years later, I now feel comfortable in considering Philadelphia as my second home town. And, though I hate admitting to being an October fan, the Phillies have finally brought me back into the game. Watching their successful run through the late season and into the pennant has been a blast. In addition to truly clutch performances from the Phils' bullpen, I've been really impressed with the consistently high-level play of both catcher Carlos Ruiz and third baseman Pedro Feliz.

On the brink of possibly cinching the World Series victory at home tonight, I have nothing more to say than this: Go Phils!

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Very Special Offer

With all due respects to Bill Nanson at Burgundy Report, who often lists “similar” opportunities, here is today’s offering from renowned Burgundy specialists, Italian Wine Merchants. In IWM partner Sergio Esposito’s own words (mostly):
It’s no secret that the economy both here in the United States and abroad in Europe is, well, really bad, to put it mildly. It’s kind of inescapable — everywhere I turn I’m reading, hearing or seeing evidence of financial woes, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it hasn’t gotten to me. In response, [here’s the latest value offering from Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti, brought to you courtesy of IWM].

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Parcel
(includes the bottles listed below in non-OWC)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Romanée-Conti (1 Bottle)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Montrachet (1 Bottle)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 La Tâche (3 Bottles)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Richebourg (2 Bottles)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Romanée-St-Vivant (3 Bottles)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Echézeaux (2 Bottles)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Grands-Echézeaux (2 Bottles)
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 Parcel…$59,500

Look at it this way: that’s only $29,749.94 each for one bottle of Romanée-Conti and one bottle of Montrachet. In addition, you’ll receive twelve more bottles — an assortment of La Tâche, Richebourg, Romanée-St.-Vivant, Echézeaux and Grands-Echézeaux — for the unbelievable sum of one penny per bottle. That’s a total of not just two but fourteen entire bottles of wine for a mere $59,500 (shipping and handling charges may apply).

What do you think? Should I re-mortgage my house tomorrow? Seems like as good a time as any.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Highlights from the Terry Theise Champagne Tasting

The horror.

When Kevin Pike of Michael Skurnik Wines told me the date that had been selected for the Terry Theise Champagne portfolio tasting, that was essentially the first thing that crossed my mind. The horror. It was the same date that had already been announced for the Louis/Dressner tasting. Not just the same date; it was also at exactly the same time. The only saving grace was an invite from Kevin to Theise’s VIP Champagne session, which started one hour earlier than the main Theise and Dressner events. Thanks, Kevin! I figured that one extra hour might just buy enough time to make it to both.

In retrospect, the sensible thing would have been to forego one in favor of the other. Which one, though? In the moment, there was no way I was going to miss either. In the end, that meant each received slightly short shrift in terms of the amount (and focus) of attention I was able to provide. But I’m not sorry. It was a blast, even if I was worn out by the end of the day. And I tasted some great (and not so great) wines at both events.

The biggest issue at the Theise event was time management, which by nature included figuring out what to taste and what to skip. In a room full of grower Champagnes, not to mention a couple of tables of other sparkling wines and even some Burgundy, that was tough work. Here are some highlights, in slightly random order.

A great start – Pierre Gimmonet et Fils:

Overall, the order of producer placement in the room was very well done. The extremely delicate, finessed wines of Pierre Gimmonet et Fils made for a great starting point. Didier Gimmonet was on hand pouring his collection of Blanc de Blancs from the Côtes des Blancs. From a very fine, floral Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs to the creamy, marzipan-laced “Cuvée Gastronome” done in low-pressure Crémant style, and on to the 2002 “Fleuron” that showed notes of fino sherry on a sweet-fruited front end, the entire range was very appealing, showcasing a broad spectrum of what’s possible on the Côtes des Blancs. The real stand-out was their 2000 “Spécial Club” bottling from a selection of old vines in Cramant – dense and loaded with aromas of brioche. The 1999 version, poured from magnum, was higher-toned but suffered in comparison due to its sulfurous nose.

The showstopper – René Geoffroy:

The affable Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy was stationed at Table 6, just shy of mid-point in the room. His collection was the most hedonistic and perhaps the most memorable of the event. And it had the breed and substance to back up the show. None of Geoffroy’s wines undergo malolactic fermentation, thus retaining the requisite spine of acidity for barrel fermentation, which is applied at least in part to most if not all of the wines made at the estate. Their “Expression” Brut NV was the most complete basic cuvée I tasted that day. The “Rosé de Saignée,” 100% Pinot Noir macerated on the skins for about eight hours, showed even better than when I last tasted it – bright and fruity. Jean-Baptiste explained that he wants it to be recognizable even when tasted blind. “Cuvée Volupté,” a Blanc de Blancs purely from the 2004 vintage though not vintage dated, was dense and muscular yet cut across the palate with tensile, laser beam focus. The 2000 “Millésime” Brut, a blend of 30% Pinot Noir and 70% Chardonnay, had a huge nose of spiced apple cake, crème brulée and concentrated minerality. The top bottling, “Cuvée de René Geoffroy,” was just decadent, with a nose of cocoa and chalk followed by rich, creamy textures.

Bring the funk – Aubry:

Aubry is an estate with a long history. Their approach always keeps an eye toward the old school but they’re not afraid to push the envelope. They’ve become best known for championing all but forgotten rarities, once indigenous to Champagne, like Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris (sometimes called Fromenteau) and Pinot Blanc. Their classic wines tend toward broad, rich textures, as evidenced by the basic Brut NV and their 2002 “Aubry de Humbert.” I found “Ivoire et Ebène,” a cuvée of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir aged for nine months in small barrels, to be more curious than compelling, completely dominated by wood. It’s in their “Nombre d’Or” series that the funk comes out to play. “La Nombre d’Or Sablé Blanc des Blancs” in particular smells and tastes akin to a Belgian Lambic ale – wild, sour and full of mineral funk – while “La Nombre d’Or Campanae Veteres Vites” is earthy and stony. Both include Petit Meslier and Arbanne while the “Veteres Vites” also includes Pinot Gris along with all three classic Champagne varieties.

Other houses that showed well:

I was very pleased with the Blanc des Blancs of Varnier-Fannière, all very feminine and cleanly fruit-driven in style. At the same table, the Champagnes of Marc Hébrart also showed well, particularly the “Sélection” Brut NV that displayed cascading layers of fallen leaves and baking spices on its finish.

The Gaston Chiquet table was situated just after Geoffroy in the lineup. Nicolas Chiquet’s wines may have been overshadowed a bit by his neighbor’s but they weren’t far off in their overall consistency and impact. I really liked their “Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ” NV with its precise nose, linear texture and lovely nose of apples and white flowers. Even though Nicolas was clearly very proud of the 1999 vintage version of the same wine, being poured from magnum, I found it to be in an odd spot, very tight and slightly musty. Very subtly corked, perhaps. His “Cuvée de Réserve” more than made up for it though, with a wonderful nose of potpourri followed by hazelnut torte on the palate and an extremely sapid, gripping texture.

Tasting through the offerings from Jean Lallement et Fils, I was reminded how delicious and complete they are. Their “Réserve” Brut, built on the same blend as their base Brut cuvée but based on a single vintage in most years, is intensely red fruited and sappy. And their rosé, an assemblage of 100% Pinot Noir with 9% still red wine, was truly lovely.

The offerings from Chartogne-Taillet, too, were solid across the board, particularly their generous, creamy Blanc de Blancs Brut and their “Cuvée Fiacre” 2002, which exuded the natural warmth and sensuality of a beautiful woman just waking up after a good night’s sleep.

A few that didn’t impress:

As pleasurable as it was to taste and chat with the lovely Caroline Milan, the wines of her Côtes de Blancs based house, Jean Milan, left me flat. Too many of the wines seemed driven more by commercial positioning than by natural expression.

Moving on to Verzenay, the wines of Pehu-Simonet came across as coarse and rather two-dimensional, especially in comparison to those of their neighbors at Jean Lallement.

And as much as I liked Vilmart & Cie’s 2001 “Grand Cellier d’Or” when last I tasted it, I just couldn’t get my arms around their wines on this day. They came across as confectionery in nature, a sweetness I was assured originated from phenolic ripeness but which my gut told me was just as much the result of high levels of dosage. Certainly well crafted wines, particularly the Burgundian, concentrated 1997 “Coeur de Cuvée,” but in an overall style that had me scratching my head.

A few that got lost in the shuffle:

I was left with generally good impressions of the wines of Henri Goutorbe and A. Margaine but their wines were just a little too subtle to make themselves known in the context of such a grand tasting. Both are at least worthy of further investigation.

Worst of all, a few that I missed entirely:

With all due apologies and regrets, I never managed to visit a few of the tables. I passed by Rudolphe Peters of Pierre Peters, as I’ve tasted their wines often enough that I wanted to focus on lesser known entries. Likewise, I missed Laetitia Billiot at the Henri Billiot table, as the crowd was just too deep on first pass and, much to my chagrin, I never made it back around. And as for Paul Laurent and Egly-Ouriet, all I can say is that the clock was ticking and the Dressner tasting was calling. Details on that should be forthcoming in the near future.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

France Under $15 and the Rest of Tria's November Course Schedule

Not one to dabble in economic advice with any regularity, I've been pretty quiet about the current horrid state of the economy here in the US. When it comes to vino, though, Dionysus only knows we could all use some help honing in on the dwindling number of really great values in the world of wine. With that in mind, I'll be holding court at Tria Fermentation School on Tuesday, November 18, leading a wine tasting tour of France that focuses on some of the real gems that can still be had for $15 or less per bottle. Class fills up fast, so register now if you'd like to join me.

In addition to my class, there's some really great stuff lined up throughout Tria's November schedule, including presentations from beer author Lew Bryson, a Beaujolais tasting with Matt Cain of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants and Tria Fermentation School's Second Anniversary celebration emceed by Tria's own Michael McCaulley.

Update (Oct. 23): Sorry for the short notice, all, (and thanks for the loyalty and high demand) but my class is already sold out. There are still plenty of seats available for Lew's Session Beer Project and Matt's Journey Through Beaujolais, though, so check them out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Totally Wired

Back from a very long day's journey to New York, attending not just one but two grand tastings. If I can muddle anything coherent together from my notes, the day's events may just be worthy of a post or two. At the moment though, Mark E. Smith's words pretty well sum up the way I feel. Totally wired.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Great 2006 from Schäfer-Fröhlich

I’ve been keen to explore the wines of Schäfer-Fröhlich for a while now, particularly since reading Brother Lyle’s trip report from last year and his subsequent tasting notes over the course of said year. When I spotted Schäfer-Fröhlich's 2006 Halenberg Spätlese trocken while browsing the recent relocation sale offerings from Chambers Street Wines, I jumped at it. I’ve been drinking Halenberg Spätlesen trocken from Emrich-Schönleber for years now and thought it would be educational (and fun) to explore the work of another top grower from the same site.

Monzinger Halenberg Riesling Spätlese trocken, Schäfer-Fröhlich 2006
$39. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Rudi Wiest, San Marcos, CA.
This offers up an immediate, explosive nose of key lime pie and briny, oyster shell minerality. Comparing it to memories of Schönleber’s efforts turns out to be tough. It's wilder in its scents and feel. Less suavely textured and less dark fruited perhaps, but no lesser a wine – just a very different expression. Intense lemon, lime and grapefruit zest, along with loads of mineral extract, drive across the palate with electric nerve. The wine finishes with sensationally grippy acids. The mouthfeel is just stunning, changing and evolving, taking minutes to fade away after each taste. Bound up in all that tactile energy is some lovely fruit, citrus and peach in particular, that’s just waiting to emerge, which it does with time and patience in the glass. We only had so much patience though. I’d love to have tasted it on day two, even day three, but that wasn’t to be on this occasion. A great choice for the cellar if any remains available.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Blood and Iron in San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo County Syrah “Bassetti Vineyard,” Edmunds St. John 2003 $27. 13.3% alcohol. Cork.
Steve Edmunds calls his basic red “Shell and Rock,” a reference to the soil beneath the vines from which he sources the fruit and to the flavors that soil imparts to his wine. Following the same paradigm, an apt name for his Bassetti Vineyard Syrah might be “Blood and Iron.” They’re the two flavors that resonate most clearly through this wine. While I can’t say whether or not they’re typical elements of San Luis Obispo Syrah, I definitely get the feeling, tasting this, that the blood and iron elements are the earth’s way of speaking through the vehicle of Edmunds’ work. For once, a California bottle blurb actually seems on point.

Brambly and sanguine, driven by intensely stony, iron toned structure. There’s a little savage character at work, carrying an animal aspect across the palate, braced by angular tannins and high acidity. Spicy, wild, red berry fruit leads a sharp attack on the palate. Complicated, a bit of a soft-spoken bully on its own, this is wine built for food, a more than happy partner to the lamb burgers I threw on the grill a couple of nights ago. In fact, this seems tailor-made for lamb, as the sweet, gamy flavor of the burgers, brushed with just a little olive oil, helped bring the wine’s hard edges into harmony. The blood, iron and spice matched the savor of the lamb.

Pouring this alongside another producer’s Bassetti Vineyard Syrah might make for an interesting Lab Report. For now, I’ll throw an herb rubbed leg of lamb on the grill and settle for the wine’s immediate pleasures at the table.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Eating Israeli, Drinking Italian at Zahav

I enjoyed a fantastic meal at Zahav over the weekend. For the second time, the occasion and spirit of our meal wasn’t suited to photography, note taking or intense scrutiny, so a full-blown write-up will have to wait until a third visit. Suffice it to say that Chef Michael Solomonov and crew are turning out some really exciting food. The traditional Israeli menu at Zahav is divided into three basic sections: flatbreads and hummus, cold and hot mezze (think tapas with a Middle Eastern bent), and grilled skewers. If sharing the vegetarian salad assortment and an order of flatbread and hummus and then picking at least one dish per person from the cold mezze, hot mezze and skewer sections as suggested, you should expect to leave stuffed to the gills and immensely satisfied. Flatbreads, fresh from the brick oven and sprinkled with zatar; salty, zesty fried haloumi; wonderfully moist chicken skewers; and the rather decadent foie gras special were all standouts among a table full of food, with nary a disappointing dish in the mix. One senses that the food is made with love, from first course to last.

If you go and are interested in ordering wine, be sure to ask for “The Quarter” list. It includes everything from the rather brief regular list plus a handful of wines of additional interest that are recommended as pairings with the chef’s tasting menu, which is available only on Thursday evenings. Since ordering vino for the table fell to me, I was at least astute enough to remember what we drank.

Falanghina Irpinia, Terredora di Paolo 2007
Leading off with succulent orchard fruit aromas and ripe, sweet-fruited flavors, this was very satisfying as an aperitif. Its medium acidity and creamy yet fresh texture provided a decent range of versatility with our first courses, though a few of the pairings accentuated the bitter almond sensations that sparred with the Falanghina’s mineral characteristics. I’ve yet to explore any of this producer’s reds but I’ve enjoyed – when they’ve been in good shape – the whites from Terredora di Paolo on several occasions now. The winery was founded only fourteen years ago, when Walter Mastroberardino split from his family’s original business, Mastroberardino. Paolo is his son. The estate is very large but all indications suggest that the wines are worth watching.

Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, Sella e Mosca 2004
I passed up on a couple of tempting known entities – Moulin à Vent from Gerard Charvet and Alliet Chinon “Vieilles Vignes” – in favor of something a bit less comfortable. The Bekaa Valley red we ordered was out of stock, though, so I headed back to Italy. Since reading about it at Wicker Parker a few months back, I’d checked out Selle e Mosca’s Cannonau by the glass at a few places around town and found it, much as did WP, bright, juicy and surprisingly natural in its flavor profile, especially for what is a fairly mass-produced wine. This bottle was a disappointing departure from those tasting experiences. In a way, it delivered more of what I would have expected from hot climate, “reserve” Grenache. Leather, sur-mature red fruit and earth dominated the nose, while dusty tannins drove the texture. The more it aired, the more it began to smell and taste of Port and spiced wood. Serviceable with the food but lacking in general character and finesse. Not my cuppa on this occasion. Thankfully, it was the only dim bulb in an otherwise shining evening.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Burger and a Beer: Standard Tap

Though the Electric Factory awkwardly straddles the no-man’s land between Chinatown, the Loft District and Northern Liberties, it lies within easy if less than picturesque walking distance to any of those neighborhoods. So when I decided to check out Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds last week, I struck out for a bite to eat first in Northern Liberties. Standard Tap beckoned. It’s a bastion of Philly’s gastropub scene for a reason, turning out solid dishes from all corners of its chalkboard menu. This night, though, I was hankering for a burger and a beer.

The Standard Burger may just be one of the most solid burgers in town. A standard setter, if you will. (Go ahead. Roll your eyes.) It may not win awards for ingenuity, in the vein of the bleu cheese infused burger at Good Dog, or reach out and grab your attention, like the topping of long hot peppers at Royal Tavern. But it's really, really sound, anchored by what’s most important – high quality beef that’s tender from not being over-handled, juicy and flavorful from adept cooking. In the comparisons above, I hardly meant to write-off the Standard’s toppings: sautéed mushrooms and onions, an ample lettuce leaf, a thick slice of beefsteak tomato (that was actually ripe and fresh unlike the pallid, wannabe tomatoes at most burger joints) and just the right amount of melted Monterey jack. The burger even shows off the talent of the chefs in the kitchen – and reflects the Tap’s vegetarian friendly menu – as the toppings are tasty in and of themselves and would work just as well on a veggie burger as on the omnivore option. Even the fries merit a mention, fried to a golden crisp, well-seasoned and cut medium so there’s a nice crunch to the exterior balanced by a wee bit of meatiness at center.

When I spotted Sly Fox IPA slotted into one of Standard’s two hand pumps, I looked no further. The more I drink from Sly Fox the more I’m impressed by the fine balance of their beers. This is really complete IPA, with a perfect hop/malt balance, fresh, floral aromas, no cattiness and a really sunny feel with just the right bitter edge on the finish. The beer’s creaminess when issued from the beer engine just adds to its appeal. And it’s also a righteous pairing with the burger. Get in there and grab a pint while the getting’s still good.

Standard Tap
901 N. 2nd Street (at Poplar)
Philadelphia, PA 19123 [map]
(215) 238-0630
Standard Tap on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Untitled #1

Friday, October 10, 2008

North and South of Lyon

From the political perspective, the wines of both Beaujolais and the Northern Rhône come from the same zone: the Rhône Department. Viticulturally, they’re all but connected by the Coteaux du Lyonnais. Yet they’re universally considered as separate, distinct entities – Beaujolais inextricably attached to Burgundy to its north and the Northern Rhône all too often considered in the same context if not the same breath as the much larger span of the Southern Rhône. And the wines, at least at first approach, seem worlds apart.

To the casual observer, Beaujolais is a wine of immediate charm. To the blind taster, its trademark aromas make it one of the easiest wines to pick out of an unknown line-up. That said, the best wines of Beaujolais offer much more than apparent at first taste.

While the wines of the Northern Rhône, based the on dark fruited vine Syrah, also have their signature traits, the wines tend to be far less approachable. Whether because of the high prices associated with the exalted wines of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage or due to the tannic structure and animal aromas of wines from Saint-Joseph and Cornas, Northern Rhône reds take a little more work to build a fundamental understanding.

The wines from both zones are very much worth the effort. And every once in a while, you’ll stumble upon a pair with enough in common that they seem to bridge the geographical gap between their respective points of growth.

Côte de Brouilly, Château Thivin (Claude Geoffray) 2005
$18. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.
One whiff and there’s no mistaking it. This isn’t just Gamay, it’s Gamay Beaujolais. The dark strawberry fruit with a lashing of chalkiness are unmistakable. But here’s an example of Beaujolais where there’s much more than simple fruit lurking beneath the wine’s frontal charms. As it spends time in the glass, aromas of blackberries, white pepper and red licorice emerge and revolve. While a quick judge might write it off as light and simple, there’s actually substantial tensile strength to this Côte de Brouilly, thanks to both snappy acidity and firm tannic grip. When first uncorked on day two, it seemed immediately darker and more lush yet simpler than on day one, with scents of brandied cherries followed by a shorter, less nuanced touch on the palate. There was more to come, though, as with further exposure to air all of the nuances of the previous day returned along with spicy/earthy scents of cinnamon and licorice root mulch. This is drinking really nicely now and should continue to develop for another five to ten years.

Côtes du Rhône “Brézème,” Eric Texier 2005
$22. 12.5% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
Even though Brézème is situated at the southern extreme of the Northern Rhône, Eric Texier’s 2005, which is varietal Syrah, blurs the stylistic boundaries between its zone and greater Burgundy. If I’d tasted blind, I think I’d have been more inclined, at least on day one, to pick this as red Burgundy from the Hautes Côtes de Nuits. It’s an elegant, bright and leaner than typical example of Rhône Syrah, very pretty on the nose, surprisingly delicate on the palate. In this vintage at least, it’s less obvious in its sense of specific place than is Thivin’s Beaujolais but it’s just as interesting, even if a little less rewarding, to explore. High-toned cherry and plum fruit strikes first, along with some of the same spice notes. On day two, a suggestion of olives comes forth from the background, pinning this wine more obviously as Rhône Syrah but without the burliness of wines from Cornas, just to the north of Brézème. Its tannins, in fact, are surprisingly soft. Though its charms are less obvious, I think the wine is likely to develop along a trajectory similar to the Côte de Brouilly. I’d love to revisit them both five years down the road.

Beaujolais map courtesy of The Wine Doctor.
Northern Rhône map courtesy of Eric Texier.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Highs and Lows at the Delaware Shore

The early post-season is a great time to visit the shore here in the Mid-Atlantic. The crowds are modest yet most businesses – at least those in the town centers – are still open. The water’s still warm enough for a swim, even if the weather can be unpredictable. Besides, the occasional drab day makes for extra time to sample the goods at some of the local watering holes and dining establishments.

The tides in Rehoboth Beach:

High: Really scrumptious breakfast and lunch at Green Man Juice Bar & Bistro (12 Wilmington Avenue, Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971, (302) 227-4909). The sausage and grits “soufflé” and crème brulée French toast were both particularly tasty. Our pups rather liked the pet-friendly front porch.

High and Low: A really crummy picture of a really great bottle of grower Champagne, which we enjoyed immensely with dinner at Nage (separate write-up coming soon).

Low: Go Fish looks like a tourist trap; a notion supported by its location just a few doors up from the boardwalk. Nonetheless, the beacon of fish and chips summoned. On our previous trip, lunch at Go Fish (24 Rehoboth Avenue, Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971, (302) 226-1044) proved they could do it right. This time, the fish was again deliciously golden, crisp and moist. But the mushy peas were bland. And the chips were a disaster. Cold, greasy, limp, even pasty. Inexcusable in a place where the entire menu is based on deep frying. If you go, go at lunch when the same food sells for lower prices and the fries may stand a better chance of being fresh.

On the Bay Shore in Lewes:

Low: We’d enjoyed a simple lunch at Café Azafran on our previous trip so we planned a dinner this go 'round without hesitation. Thursday paella night, when the chef cooks a huge batch of paella based on the number of reservations, sounded too fun to miss. It wasn’t. The whole kit and caboodle, from rice to shellfish, was overcooked. Chorizo and chicken, advertised as prime ingredients, were barely in evidence. A letdown in any scenario, a serious bummer at $30 a head.

High: Hanging out on the porch at Half Full, a charming little wine, beer and pizza bar located in the quaintest heart of exceedingly quaint Lewes. I’ve heard reasonably good things about their pizzas and the beer list looked decent but we just stopped by for a late afternoon glass of wine and a little relaxation on the front stoop, which I can only imagine is a bustling spot in peak season. That’s one of the owners in the picture, chatting with a fellow we dubbed the Mayor of Lewes. Definitely a good spot to strike up conversation if you’re feeling so inclined.

Low: The wine list at Half Full. There was nothing of immediate interest so, after eyeballing every bottle on offer, I settled on an Argentinean Malbec and a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. They’re both things I rarely drink but both were estate bottled so I figured what the heck. The Malbec was drinkable but that’s all; the Cab was downright awful.

I don’t mean to pick on Half Full specifically, as this wine scenario was repeated at every single place we visited in both Lewes and Rehoboth. The seasonal aspects of the area’s business seems to have led to lists populated by nothing but commercial brands, some of them acceptable in a pinch but far too many of them plonk. For the sales reps and distributors out there willing to make the drive for four or five months of business each year, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

* * *

In order of appearance:

Green Man Juice Bar & Bistro
12 Wilmington Avenue
Dewey Beach, DE 19971
(302) 227-4909
Green Man Juice Bar and Bistro on Urbanspoon

Go Fish
24 Rehoboth Avenue
Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971
(302) 226-1044
Go Fish on Urbanspoon

Half Full
113 W Market Street
Lewes, DE 19958
(302) 645-8877
Half Full on Urbanspoon

Cafe Azafran
109 W Market Street
Lewes, DE 19958
(302) 644-4446
Cafe Azafran on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Prolix. Prolix.

Nothing a pair of earplugs wouldn't have fixed.

I intend no insult via my twist on Nick Cave's lyrics. It's just that the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds show at the Electric Factory last night was insanely, achingly loud. So much so that some of the finer points of the music were lost. So much so that my ears are still ringing, leaving me feeling oddly disoriented even now, the following day.

Aside from the aggressive aural assault, the show was pretty good if not great. I missed the sparer, jagged edges of the band's sonic approach when led by Blixa Bargeld in years past. Last night, it was more of a wall of sound, more straightforward. And I've never seen Nick play it up for the crowds so much.

This post's title and subsequent misquote are taken from "We Call Upon the Author," one of the tunes from the band's latest (and really solid) release, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!. It was one of the highlights of last night's show and clearly one of the songs the band most enjoyed playing. The video above is from a performance recorded and aired by BBC-4 earlier this year. And no, multi-instrumentalist and composer Warren Ellis (the guy with the beard and the arsenal of effect pedals) was not just hamming it up for the camera.

(Subscribers may need to click through to the blog to view the video.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wines at the Beach

It should come as little surprise that my recent week off from work and a week away from the blogosphere hardly meant a week off from wine. However, in keeping with Brooklynguy’s recession busting advice – brew your own coffee, pack your own lunch – it did mean carting along some wines from the home cellar rather than exploring the downstate wine shops in search of new finds. It also meant a week of much more casual note taking than usual (which is to say none…) so the following quick write-ups are based mainly on raw impressions.

Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Hugo,” Weingut Huber 2007
$10. 12% alcohol. Stelvin. Importer: Boutique Wine Collection, Philadelphia, PA.
Certainly the beachiest of the bunch. Relatively generous yields show through in Hugo’s relative lack of concentration but I challenge you to find another $10 Grüner Veltliner that shows as much quality as this. Crisp, fresh and light, it bursts with flavors on the citrus and grassy side of the GV spectrum. Not at all vinous or serious, just a good, refreshing quaff and a worthwhile alternative for anyone tired of drinking inexpensive Sauvignon.

Longuicher Maximiner Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese, Carl Schmitt-Wagner 2005
$17. 9% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Terry Theise Selection, Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY.
It was hard to pass up at the price but this is the second ’05 from Schmitt-Wagner that I’ve been a little under whelmed with in recent months. A soaked through cork hinted at the possibility of poor provenance, which may explain the dulled flavors of the wine. It wasn’t without appeal, showing pleasant, baked apple fruit. But its length was shorter, its acidity softer and its minerality less pronounced than I would have hoped. More than drinkable but less than memorable.

Touraine “Cuvée Gamay,” Clos Roche Blanche 2007
$16.50. 12% alcohol. Neocork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
After reading rave reviews about this from both Neil and Mike recently, I expected to be wowed. Instead, I was a little let down, a particularly coincidental experience as I’d just defended Clos Roche Blanche in response to Neil’s posting. High expectations are always hard to meet, so I should say that this was far from bad wine. It was just a touch flat, showing hints of the aspartame character I sometimes find in direct, simple Gamay as well as a touch of the plastic flavor I’ve found in some wines – is it just my imagination? – sealed with Neocork/Nomacorc. An off bottle? I’m not sure, but I’d love to see CRB (and other producers) switch to screw caps instead of synthetic stoppers.

Champagne Verzenay Grand Cru Brut, Jean Lallement & Fils NV
$40. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: A Terry Theise Selection, Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY.
Without question, this was the wine of the week. Even though the price has crept up closer to $50 in some markets since I purchased this, it’s still a damn good value in grower Champagne. Creamy, succulent and showing lovely phenolic concentration up front, it finished with a grippy, pithy twist of the tongue, showing fantastic acid backbone, even a suggestion of a little tannin. Flavors of yellow peaches led into fresh raspberries and cream. The finish brought a return to peaches along with red apples – the skins rather than the flesh. Really compelling bubbly.

Chinon “Les Picasses,” Olga Raffault 2002
$20. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
We took this and the Lallement to dinner at a Rehoboth restaurant called Nage. My wife summed it up something like this: “That Champagne was delicious. This is… hmmm… hmmm… this is good wine.” The young sommelier, who had never tried Chinon before, found it sour. You know what? They were both right. Leaner and quieter than I expected and, yes, even a little sour on the finish but an excellent food wine. Red currant, black tea, thyme and olive characteristics were carried on a narrow frame. Delicate tannins, high acidity and a little on the austere side, albeit quite supple in feel. This one requires some devotion but is worth the effort.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Burger and a Beer: Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats

Even though I live closer to the Jersey shore than to Delaware’s beaches, over the last few years I’ve taken a keener liking to the first state’s shore points. Maybe it’s a throwback to childhood summer vacations, when my folks packed up the family car and took us to varying beaches on the DelMar peninsula for a week. Or maybe it’s the fact that dogs are welcome on some of Delaware’s beaches starting not long after the season finale of Labor Day. In any event, when it comes to Delaware's fairly short stretch of shoreline, there’s little doubt that Rehoboth Beach is the area’s economic epicenter as well as its focal point when it comes to options for good grub.

Since opening in 1995, Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats has been one of the anchors of Rehoboth’s casual dining scene. Maybe “dining” is not the right word, as DFHB&E is first and foremost a brewpub. The food is hearty, straightforward and honest, served in more than ample quantities in an environment that more or less matches the tone of the food. Given the relatively low bar set by the food at all too many brewpubs, I almost always choose a burger when eating at any brewpub for the first time, figuring that if they can’t get it right with a burger (and a beer, of course) then there’s little reason to explore further.

Even though I’d visited Dogfish’s brewpub a couple of times in the past, I could hardly pass up starting over as if from a blank slate. Their headliner, the “Indulgence Burger,” a hefty patty of locally bred beef topped with an onion ring, cheddar and bacon sounded hard to beat. Though there are other burger options available at Dogfish Head, I figured “why bother?” A choice well made, as it turned out. The “Indulgence” is not without room for improvement – the Kaiser roll was a touch meager for the scale of the sandwich and full strips of bacon would have delivered greater depth of flavor than the dried bacon crumbles. Those are minor quibbles, however, as the sandwich was more than satisfying – beefy without being greasy and cooked to a dead-on medium rare, just as ordered. It’s the onion ring, though, that really provides the burger’s signature. Sliced thick (it’s as large as the burger itself) and fried in beer batter made with Dogfish Head’s Shelter Pale Ale, the ring adds a sweet, earthy richness to the meatiness of the burger, pushing the whole combo right over the top.

What to drink with an over-the-top burger? How about an over-the-top beer? Dogfish Head has made a name for themselves producing some of the biggest, boldest and hoppiest beers on the craft brewing market. Their 90-Minute IPA – intensely hopped, rich with malty goodness and exhaling aromas of apricot and caramelized grapefruit – may just be the finest all-around beer in the Dogfish Head lineup. Tipping the scales at 9% ABV, it’s hardly a session beer but it’s well balanced and made a very fine match to the burger.

They got it right – the rudiments, that is – enough so that I was compelled to return again later in the week to explore the beers on tap menu a little further. But that’s another story for another day. This is just about a burger and a beer.

Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats
320 Rehoboth Avenue
Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971
(302) 226-2739
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats on Urbanspoon
Exterior photo of restaurant courtesy of

* * *
Related reading:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

We're Back...

The dogs are sleeping the day away, recharging their batteries after a week of romping in the surf. Me? I'm just enjoying my last day of vacation. Regular programming to resume tomorrow. (Sorry to keep you waiting, Joe.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Domaine Barmès-Buecher, February 2004

From the MFWT archives – November 5, 2007.

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

In the Field:

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

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

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

François Barmès expounding among his vines in the Herrenweg cru

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

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

Looking down from Clos Sand.

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

At the Winery:

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

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

In the Cellar:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Wettolsheim as seen from the Rosenberg vineyard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin