Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mountain Madness, Mostly

Tony McClung, National Sales Manager for Rosenthal Wine Merchant, stopped in Philly last week to lead a whirlwind tasting tour through the mountainous wine regions of eastern France and northwestern Italy. (I stole Tony's spiffy portrait, at right, from his Facebook page. Thanks, Tony.) Wines originating from high altitude vineyards make up a sizable portion of the Rosenthal portfolio. In fact, Luigi Ferrando – whose sparkling Erbaluce Tony poured to set the stage for his seminar – was the first producer to sign on with Neal Rosenthal when he started his import business in 1978.

Erbaluce di Caluso Brut “Cuvée del Fondatore,” Luigi Ferrando NV
Luigi Ferrando’s estate consists of steeply terraced vineyards in the communes of Caluso and Carema, both located in north-central Piemonte near its border with the Valle d’Aosta. All work in the vines is done by hand, as the slopes are too steep for machine-assisted farming. “Cuvée del Fondatore” is a sparkling example of the local white specialty, Erbaluce di Caluso, made in the traditional (Champagne) method. Its waxy texture combines with flavors of slightly bitter baked apples and marzipan to deliver substantial richness on the palate; the wine’s hint of sweetness is balanced by brisk acidity. Minerality and a touch of herbaceousness both appear on the midpalate, while nuances of brazil nuts and black tea linger on the wine’s finish. Though served as an aperitif within the context of Tony’s class, I’d much rather see this on the table alongside cardoon and cheese antipasto, which is something of a Piedmontese specialty.

Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, Ermes Pavese 2007
The lighter, brighter entry in the evening’s opening pair of sit down whites was Ermes Pavese’s 2007 Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, aka Chasselas but grown in this case at 1200 meters in the Valle d’Aosta, where the vine is known as Prié Blanc. Phylloxera has yet to find its way to these upper reaches, thus enabling Ermes to work with vines planted on their original rootstock (franc de pied), which he propagates by pushing shoots from his existing vines into pots until they take root, later to be clipped and moved to a new home in the vineyard. The wine’s strikingly mineral nose also shows a still-lingering yeast influence, along with intense scents of lemon pith. Delicately grapey in flavor, it’s crisp, clean and easy wine that shows a kick of bitter melon fruit on the finish.

L’Étoile, Domaine de Montbourgeau 2005
L’Étoile is a tiny AOC in the Jura, named for the Jurassic period fossilized worms shaped like starfish (“étoile” means “star” in French) that are found in large quantities in the area’s subsoil. Montbourgeau is one of only six producers in L’Étoile and, as far as I (and Tony) can tell, is the only winery to export any of its produce to the US market. A blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay, the wine is produced in an intentionally oxidative style, as the broader textures delivered under oxygen’s influence help to balance the wine’s naturally enamel stripping acid levels. When first poured, it delivered distinct aromas of decaying leaves, morphing after 20 minutes into a much more Sherry-like nose. It reminded me very much, in fact, of Manzanilla Pasada, with its salty minerality and intensely gripping acid and extract levels. This one threw the class for a loop. I dug it.

Canavese Rosso “La Torrazza,” Luigi Ferrando 2007
Shifting to red, Tony took us full circle, right back to Luigi Ferrando. “La Torrazza” is a blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera, grown on the glacial soils in Canavese, an area that surrounds Caluso in north-central Piedmont. Even after the distinctive aromatic profile of Montbourgeau’s L’Étoile, this was unquestionably the most pungent wine of the night. Scents of sweaty armpits, pine needles, sheep pasture and as one student insisted, male cat’s pee, were all in evidence. Tony suggested that the wine’s unusual aromas are a side-effect of working with slightly under-ripe Nebbiolo, a characteristic of the cool, difficult 2007 vintage in the area. Funky, definitely, but it still delivered drinking pleasure via a core of dark red berry and wild plum fruit. Though perhaps not the most technically correct wine of the lineup, at under $20 it’s certainly worth exploring.

Tony's slideshow for the class at Tria Fermentation School gave a glimpse or two into his sense of humor. The photo isn't the greatest but check out the size of Puffeney's mitt wrapped around that dainty little tasting glass.

Arbois “Poulsard M,” Jacques Puffeney 2005
“M” is one of two cuvées of Poulsard produced by Puffeney from all of 1.2 acres planted to the vine on his property. It’s named for Jacques’ daughter Marie, who favors a fruity-style expression of Poulsard. Pale ruby and rose rimmed in hue, with enticing aromas of freshly fallen leaves and wild, tart cherries, followed up by flavors of rose hips, pine sap and red delicious apple skin. A classic example of the fact that lightness of body and color certainly do not preclude intensity and depth of flavor, it delivered savor and tactile complexity galore. I’d love to pair it with roasted pheasant or other small game birds. WOTN in my book.

Grosjean's vineyards, high in the hills of the Valle d'Aosta.

Vallée d’Aoste Torrette Supèrieur “Vigne Rovetta,” Grosjean Frères 2005
The brothers Grosjean are among the newest producers in Rosenthal’s camp, joining just three years ago. Their Torrette Superieur is a blend of 85% Petit Rouge, 5% Cornalin and 10% Fumin, from vineyards situated between 1000-1600 meters in altitude in the Valle d’Aosta. Though steep enough to render tractors and other machinery superfluous, the slopes on the Grosjeans’ property are just gentle enough to permit planting without cutting terraces into the hillside. This is quite elegant wine, with a nose of tar, clove, smoke and black fruits echoed along with an extra lacing of baking spices in the mouth. High acid with a gentle but persistent tannic structure. I’m thinking rabbit stew….

Saint-Joseph “Les Pierres Sèches,” Yves Cuilleron 2006
Here’s where the “mostly” in my title comes in, as Tony’s inclusion of Saint-Joseph pushes the “mountain wine” envelope. It’s not all that far from the Alps, though, and between the steeply sloped vineyards tumbling down to the Rhône below and a relatively cool climate, I’m willing to let him slide. The two wines from Yves Cuilleron certainly provided contrast to the evening’s other entries. Rosenthal’s relationship with the Cuilleron family goes back 27 years, to a time when the estate was overseen by Yves’ uncle. The 2006 “Les Pierres Sèches” (the dry rocks) rouge showed classic Northern Rhône aromatics of mixed red berries, nutmeg, hothouse flowers and white pepper. Its vibrant, blood red color was matched by its rich, sanguine mouthfeel. One of four vineyard designated Saint-Josephs in Cuilleron’s arsenal, it comes from a granitic soil base and ages for 18 months in barriques. Roast pork or duck breast with a red wine sauce au poivre would work really well, methinks.

Vin de Table “Roussillière” (MMVII), Yves Cuilleron NV
Cuillerons sees fit to produce a liquoreux wine from his vines in and around Saint-Joseph. The AOC authorities don’t see fit to allow for sweet wine under the local appellations, so “Roussillière,” hits the market as a Vin de Table, a designation that allows neither vintage dating nor mention of the grape varieties involved. Yves gets around the vintage rule, as do so many other individualistic producers, by using code – simple roman numberals in this case. As for the blend, per Cuilleron’s website this is an “assemblage de trios cépages blanc” – the translation, given the area, being Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. The wine achieves its sweetness through a triple threat of late harvest, botrytis and stopped fermentation. The result is quite delicious, buoyed with just enough acidity to keep its unctuous texture from weighing down the palate. Aromas of marmalade and aluminum signal the botrytized aspect of the wine, while lush scents of peach and apricot nectar, along with hints of mint and basis, anchor it to its place.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stephane Wrembel and the Genesis of Gypsy Jazz

Last night I had the chance to check out Stephane Wrembel playing with one of several iterations of his band, The Django Experiment, at the Philadelphia Society for Arts, Literature and Music. During the first half of the show, Stephane spoke about the genesis of gypsy jazz and played some classic riffs and tunes to demonstrate the stylistic development and influences of the genre across various periods and continents. The second half of the performance consisted of his more contemporary, original compositions. Very cool show. You can get a little taste of it by checking out this mini-documentary:

Sometimes I think I have more readers in the New York area than in Philly, so for those of you in and around the five boroughs, Stephane and his band play just about every Sunday night at Barbès in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Wrembel’s music alone should make it worth your visit; if an extra incentive is needed it looks as though Barbès offers a pretty serious Scotch and beer selection. Be sure to report back here if you check it out.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dogliani DOCG

Check out Alfonso Cevola’s recent posting on the relative scarcity and fractional availability of information about the Italian DOCG system. His write-up got me thinking not just about how difficult it can be to track down a central source of information about the DOCG system but also of how I often times don’t learn of the institution of a new DOCG until a bottle bearing the new designation lands in my hands.

The creation of a DOCG for Dolcetto di Dogliani Superiore and/or Dogliani is not a brand new bag. Status was granted on July 6, 2005. It’s theoretically possible that the DOCG status could be applied to wines beginning immediately with the 2005 vintage. In any case, the first example I encountered was the 2006 Dogliani “Maioli” from Anna Maria Abbona. Given the minimum aging requirement of 12 months under the new discipline and the likelihood that some producers are likely to go beyond that, Abbona’s 2006 didn’t hit the market until sometime in 2008, so it still seems new to me. Newer yet is her 2007, which just came ashore a few weeks ago.

You’ll find more information on the Dogliani DOCG disiplinare here and here.

Dogliani "Maioli," Anna Maria Abbona 2007
$24. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Richer in fruit and softer in tannins than in the last few years, Abbona’s 2007 “Maioli,” produced from 70+ year-old vines in a vineyard of the same name, is inky, leggy and richly aromatic Dolcetto. A brooding aromatic character suggestive of elevation in old barrel backs up dark plum and ripe black cherry fruit; however, the wine is actually fermented and aged solely in steel. Blueberry skins and black pepper come out with air, along with a little more of Dolcetto’s typically inky aromatic scent. Still intensely primary, and showing an ever so slight touch of heat, this is definitely in need of a few more months before everything integrates. It’s already quite tasty though, and it well exhibits Dolcetto’s versatility at the table. I could see this pairing just as easily with a roasted bird or rich mushroom risotto as with grilled lamb chops.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What to do when Muscadet Calls and Cauliflower Awaits

To this day, I have a fairly vivid childhood memory of gagging (exaggeratedly, no doubt) the first time my mother convinced me to try raw cauliflower. I’ve since grown to tolerate it in both cooked and raw forms but it rarely if ever calls my name. My wife loves it, though, and she makes a pretty mean curried cauliflower soup on a reasonably regular basis. Every once in a while a head will call her name from its bin in the produce aisle. She’ll pick it up and bring it home only to find that her soup muse has fled. So it was, on a recent weekend, that I opened the fridge in search of something to cook for dinner to find just such a neglected bunch of cauliflower awaiting my attention.

A quick Googling of “cauliflower and pasta” later and I was at work, boiling water, breaking down said head of cauliflower and thinking of what to open to accompany the meal. Here’s the recipe, as adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables via SmittenKitchen (thanks to SK, too, for the cauliphoto).

Gemelli with Cauliflower, Walnuts and Feta

2 heads cauliflower (I used one large head, which seemed like plenty)
1 medium onion
4 small cloves garlic
1 pound pasta (SK used whole wheat penne, I went with regular gemelli)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 pinch red pepper flakes
White wine vinegar (skipped it)
1/2 lemon
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 ounces ricotta salata or feta cheese (fresh goat cheese would also do quite nicely)

Serves two hungry cyclists, four out of shape wine bloggers or six “normal people.”

Boil water for pasta. Lightly toast the walnut pieces. Break the cauliflower down into smallish florets then sauté in olive oil until slightly tender. Add very thinly sliced onion and red pepper flakes and continue to sauté while cooking the pasta. When done, the cauliflower should taste “cooked” but still have some crunch. Add minced garlic, remove from heat and squeeze on a little lemon juice (I skipped the vinegar, figuring the lemon and cheese would provide enough acid; plus, I’m really not a big vinegar fan). Toss together pasta, walnuts and cauliflower, drizzle with olive oil, test for seasoning and then top with crumbled cheese. I went with feta – it was what I had on hand – but fresh goat cheese would have been a great choice with the wine I selected.

* * *

What was that wine? If I’d chosen the recipe first, then the wine (as I kind of suggested above), I might have gone with a Soave like one of those I wrote up a few weeks back, or with something tasty from Campania, perhaps a good Falanghina or Fiano di Avellino, maybe even something Assyrtiko-based from Greece. But no, my head may have told me those things but my heart was already hankering for Muscadet. And when Muscadet calls, McDuff likes to answer.

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie “Sélection Vieilles Vignes 1er Cru du Château,” Château de la Ragotière (Les Frères Couillaud) 2007
$14. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL.
This turned out to be quite an easy drinking Muscadet, bursting with lime juice driven flavors. Its soft, medium-acidity, forward fruit and delicate whisper of minerality make it a forgiving choice at the table, less strict than a steelier Muscadet. Indeed, I quite enjoyed it, popped and poured, with our pasta and cauliflower dish. Those same open-knit structural components, though, suggest that this is a Muscadet that needs to be drunk young, a notion supported by the wine’s relative collapse on day two, when its fruit faded, leaving behind a skeleton without enough balance to stand up to food or stand on its own.

So drink up and enjoy while the getting is good. You’ll just need to open a fresh bottle (or try that Soave or Falanghina) with your leftovers.

More food for thought:
What’s with Muscadet producers and their multiple designations? Granted, this isn’t quite as over-the-top/confusing as some of Luneau-Papin’s cuvée names. But wouldn’t “Vieilles Vignes” have sufficed? I suppose I could just choose to call it "VV" but I’m a bit of a stickler for referring to wines by their full names. (I won’t even go into the bottle numbering….)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More Highlights from the Skurnik Grand Portfolio Tasting

Though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you caught the first part of my coverage of the recent Michael Skurnik Wines grand portfolio tasting, there were wines on hand from regions other than Burgundy. Actually, without doing a thorough statistical analysis of the event’s tasting notebook, I’d hazard a guess that there were more wineries represented from the US than from any other single nation. Before we get to the small handful of American wines I sampled, though, let’s finish up with France and dabble in Italy.

Outside of Burgundy (though not by much), the lineup that most impressed me was that of Stephane Robert, from Domaine de Tunnel in the Northern Rhône. His wines showed enough richness to appeal to voyeuristic imbibers but maintained a sense of purity that clearly expressed each wine’s terroir and typicity. Robert makes two varietal cuvées of Saint-Péray rather than the Marsanne/Roussanne blend that’s more typical to the AOC. His 2007 “Cuvée Marsanne” was round, clean and pure, while the “Cuvée Roussanne” from the same vintage showed a grippier, higher acid profile with a touch of vegetal savor to its fruit. In the Syrah department, a 2007 Saint-Joseph was aromatically closed but displayed fantastic length on the palate, while his 2006 Cornas, produced from 50 year-old vines, was redolent of sour black olives. Produced from 100 year-old vines, the Cornas “Vin Noir” is the top wine at Domaine du Tunnel; the 2006 delivered substantial richness bolstered by a firm backbone of oak-driven spiciness. A sample of Stephane’s 2007 Cornas, which I tasted when stopping by for a re-visit toward the end of the day (something I did only here, at Domaine de l’Arlot and, of course, the Theise Champagne table), was full of lively red berry fruit laced with aromas of pumpernickel rye. Very tasty stuff.

After a Burgundy-intensive spell on the ground floor, I headed downstairs for a quick glimpse at some of the Italian producers who’d flown over for the event. As I’d tasted through many of the wines at a Marc DeGrazia event last year, I picked and chose my way around the room, eventually spending a good chunk of time chatting with Sara Palma, Sales Manager for Azienda Agricola Matteo Correggia. Sara, who is pictured above, walked me through Correggia’s current lineup, including a tank sample of their 2008 Roero Arneis, a wine for which I’ve always had a soft spot, and an herbal, refreshing Brachetto called “Anthos,” which tasted of marzipan and wild cherries. Sara taught me that as much as 75% of all Barbera d’Alba is produced in the Roero and also spoke of the struggles the Correggia estate has been faced with overcoming since Matteo Correggia's untimely death in a 2001 tractor accident.

I was also pleased to discover the wines of Romagna-based producer, Fattoria Zerbina. Winemaker Cristina Giminiani (sorry, no pic) was on hand, pouring her direct, juicy, good-value 2007 Sangiovese di Romagna “Ceregio” as well as a delicious and finely balanced botrytis-affected 2006 Passito di Romagna called “Scacco Matto,” produced from 100% Albana.

Back upstairs, I made an even stricter selection when pruning my way through the huge array of American wines. I stopped for a quick visit with Peter and Willinda McCrea, both of whom I’d missed during a trip to Stony Hill Vineyard a couple of years back. Their 2005 Napa Valley Chardonnay was the star of their lineup, a classic example of the old school, age worthy style that continues to earn the estate its reputation. A half step away, I also tasted through the Chardonnays from David Ramey. Though much more modern in style, they’re well done, showing good differentiation from site to site and always retaining bright acidity that helps to balance their sometimes intense weight. My favorite was their “basic” 2006 Sonoma Coast bottling, crisp and full of tropical fruit flavors.

Last up, I wandered over to the Dashe Cellars table to check in with Michael Dashe. After eight years on the winemaking team at Ridge Vineyards, Michael and his wife Anne are now on their own, turning out wines produced from fruit sourced in various parts of Northern California. The wines don’t show the strong oak stamp I associate with Ridge but do, as at Ridge, clearly reflect their places of origin. They’re not shy but are also not over-the-top. Michael is avoiding manipulation in the winery and is not afraid to let the naturally tannic structure of some of his wines show. His 2006 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon displayed good fruit clarity and structure, while a 2006 Zinfandel from Louveau Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley was crunchily tannic, its texture providing startling counterpoint to its raisiny fruit. I’d hoped for a taste of his Potter Valley Zin called “L’Enfant Terrible.” It wasn’t listed in the book but when I asked about it Michael uncovered a sample bottle of his 2008, which he’d drawn from tank just after a recent racking. It’s an intentionally cool climate Zinfandel, finished at less than 13% alcohol and treated with minimal intervention and very low doses of sulfur. Mike’s goal with his “wild child” is to make a Zin that drinks more like a Morgon. I was pretty convinced. Now if only I can get my hands on a few of the very few bottles from Dashe’s 280 case production that make it to the New York market, I’ll be a happy camper.

I’ve Been Podcasted

On a more or less quarterly basis over the past two years, a group of Philly-area food bloggers have been getting together for potluck parties. The basic idea is to meet people you otherwise might “know” only via the blogosphere and to do a little networking, all while enjoying a couple of beers, maybe sipping a glass of wine and definitely munching on a little (or lots of) food. Taylor and E seem to be the main instigators, while last week’s Spring 2009 edition was generously hosted by Audrey and Mark of Illadates fame.

Bill Rowland, one of the guys behind PhillyFoodGuys and a regular potluck participant, took the opportunity to corner (his word, not mine…) a few of the attendees and interview them for his podcast. I spoke to Bill about Zahav, one of my favorite restaurants to have opened in Philly over the last year. Check out the podcast, hear the voice behind the voice here at MFWT and be sure to let Bill know you stopped by.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Burgundy Highlights from the Michael Skurnik 2009 Grand Portfolio Tasting

What’s one to do when faced with too little time and too many choices? Everybody has their own personal answer to that, I’m sure. As for me, especially when the predicament comes in the form of far too many wines from which to choose, focus is the key (not that a little randomization can’t be fun, too).

Michael Skurnik Wines’ annual portfolio tasting, held on March 11 in New York, posed just such a problem. With over 100 tables spread across two floors of The Altman Building, and with a typical range of six to twelve wines at each stop, attempting to taste the entire range would have been foolhardy if not well nigh impossible.

After a quick perusal of the event tasting book – a rather hefty tome at 173 pages – I opted to center my efforts on Skurnik’s Burgundy portfolio, largely made up of wines from Daniel Johnnes Selections.

If there was one thing that stood out at the end of the day, it was the overall quality of the 2006 red Burgundies I tasted. Though 2005 may be a “better” vintage from a textbook perspective, the 2006s are giving much more pleasure today and, in many cases, are showing their terroir and character much more transparently than the bigger, more concentrated and often tighter wines from ’05.

I had a lovely chat with Olivier Leriche, winemaker at Domaine de l’Arlot in Premeaux-Prissey, located at the southern extreme of the commune of Nuits-Saint-Georges. Both of his Nuits-Saint-Georges Blancs include 3-4% Pinot Gris. His 2006 “La Gerbotte” Blanc, produced from young vines in the Clos de l’Arlot, was soft and generous, a good choice for drinking while waiting for the much more intensely structured N-S-G 1er Cru Blanc “Clos de l’Arlot” to come around in a few years. His reds, though, are clearly the stars of the Domaine. The beautifully aromatic and tense 2006 “Clos de l’Arlot” Rouge gets my hard-won nod as my favorite wine of the entire event. No less impressive, though much more in need of time to reveal all its charms, was his 2006 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru “Clos des Forets Saint Georges,” displaying a spicier, more brooding style.

This was my first exposure to the wines of David Duband, a grower whose home base is in Chévannes, west of Nuits-Saint-Georges in the Hautes Côtes de Nuits. David took the reins at his 14-hectare estate when his father retired in 1995, immediately beginning to estate bottle is own wines and now farming completely organically. I liked his 2006s across the board, from a ripe, forward Hautes Côtes de Nuits Blanc, to a very fine Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Clos Sorbe,” to his extremely aromatic, loamy Échezeaux. Two wines, though, really stood out: a sweet red cherry fruited Clos de la Roche and a sauvage, intensely structured Charmes-Chambertin, produced from the very small-berried fruit borne by 88-year-old vines.

The work of brothers Cyprien and Romain Arlaud (pictured at left and right, respectively) at Domaine Arlaud stood in contrast to the relatively muscular style of Duband’s wines. The Arlauds are turning out soft, supple and very forward wines from their slice of the Côtes de Nuits. Practicing organic farming since 2004, with biodynamic conversion begun this year, Cyprien and Romain are working together to produce natural Burgundies, using no enzymes, selected yeasts, additive tannins or filtration. Sulfur use is minimized as much as possible, as are extractive techniques such as punching down of the cap. Their sister lends a hand on the farm as well, plowing 4.5 of the estate’s 15 hectares with her horse. Standouts in their lineup included classic examples of village level wines from both Gevrey-Chambertin and Morey-Saint-Denis, topped off by a lovely, earthy 2006 produced from their .42-hectare parcel of vines in the Clos de la Roche.

Domaine Marc Roy’s Alexandrine Roy and I have been “friends” on Facebook for a while, and have exchanged messages on a few occasions, so it was fun to actually meet her in person. Her Marsannay Blanc “Les Champs Perdrix,” which does not go through malolactic fermentation but does see some bâtonage to bring out the wine’s flesh, displayed clean, vibrant fruit. Of her reds, the Gevrey-Chambertin “Cuvée Alexandrine,” a special vineyard selection of the smallest berries on the property, was clearly her favorite, as it was mine.

Lest you think I gave short shrift to the white Burgundies in the room, there were two estates whose wines I found particularly compelling.

Pierre-Yves Colin, formerly the winemaker at his family’s estate Domaine Marc Colin, started his own line in 2001 under the Colin-Morey marque. Pierre-Yves worked solely with purchased fruit in the first few years. Coming into his land inheritance in 2005 has allowed him to expand his production to about 5,000 cases per year, one-third from purchased fruit and two-thirds from estate grown vines. All of the wines in his range are aged in 350 liter barrels, 30% of them new. I found the wines – 2007s from Saint-Aubin and 2006s from Chassagne, Puligny and Meursault – somewhat difficult to assess but unmistakably promising in terms of their structure and balance. Produced in a highly reductive style, each cuvée showed a core of fresh fruit, firm acidity, supporting oak and clear minerality. These are wines that demand (and should reward) time in the cellar.

Two generations of the Barraud family – that’s Julien Barraud standing between his parents Daniel and Martine, above – traveled from their home in the Mâconnais to pour their wines at the Skurnik event. This was yet another table where I enjoyed the full line-up, from the Barraud’s simple but finely balanced Mâcon-Chaintré “Les Pierres Polies” to the spiciest and darkest of their many cuvees of Pouilly-Fuissé, “En Bulands.” In response to my question as to whether they encounter any difficulties presenting six different examples of Pouilly-Fuissé on the US market, Mme. Barraud’s reply was simple: “No.” There’s not much to go around and the quality of the wines speaks for itself.

* * *

Just as choosing which wines to taste in a room of over 1,000 can be tricky, it’s also tough to winnow the highlights down to just one posting. In other words, I think that’s enough for now. There’ll be more to come from the Rhône, Italy and the US, so please stay tuned.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Quick Notes on Menand and Coudert

Yesterday morning, I finally found the time to download the photos I took at last week’s Michael Skurnik portfolio tasting in New York. Problem is, I’ve run up against a case of writers’ block when it comes to summing up my thoughts about the event. So just a couple of quick tasting notes today, on two solid but very different Burgundian reds I’ve recently enjoyed.

Mercurey Premier Cru “Vielle Vigne des Combins Cuvée Prestige,” Domaine Menand Père et Fils 2005
Price unknown. 13% alcohol. Cork. A Murray-Sykes Selection, Exclusive Wine Imports, Richmond, VA.
Medium-dark ruby in the glass, with a dark nose of blackberry and black cherry. The sweet-fruited front palate is followed by a clamp of firm tannins on the finish. Very ripe and fruit forward, in a relatively modern style, accented by a well-integrated touch of oak. Still very primary, though there’s also an attractive mineral/loam combo happening on the mid-palate. Overall, the wine’s approach is on the simple side but there’s enough stuffing here that it could develop into something interesting over the next five years. In any event, it’s delivering easy, straightforward pleasure today.

There’s next to no information, by the way, available on Menand Père et Fils. Nothing on Wine Searcher, mostly dead links (including a defunct website) on Able Grape…. Anybody out there have any details?

Fleurie “Clos de la Roilette,” Coudert Père et Fils 2007
$22. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
A little tighter than when last I tasted it, Coudert’s Fleurie nonetheless delivers a nose suggestive of wound-up energy, full of brambly red fruit and pencil lead. Slightly rustic, really, really good… and maybe my shortest tasting note yet. I’d be very happy to drink this on a regular basis.

Highlights from the Skurnik gig to come when I break through the wall….

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Southern Exposure

Rémy Charest, author of The Wine Case, is today’s host for Wine Blogging Wednesday #55. He’s asked participants to consider the question of North vs. South in writing about two wines made from the same grape but hailing from different locations, one more northerly than the other. You get the idea…. I decided to take a slightly different approach.

* * *

Have you ever found yourself enticed by the idea of a “bargain” Barolo? (Yes, I’m writing about Piedmont again, just like for last month's WBW.) Ever wondered what the difference is between those two theoretically regal Piedmontese reds sitting next to each other on the shelf, one priced around $30 and the other over $50? If you have, then you know there is a wealth of possible answers. One of the most meaningful, though, happens to be one that I’m guessing might not come immediately to mind: exposure. Not brand exposure, mind you, but vineyard exposure – the position of a site on a hillside and its correlating exposure to the sun’s rays.

You see, Nebbiolo, the noble grape from which Barolo must be produced, is notoriously difficult to grow. Nebbiolo is a very geologically demanding vine, performing best in soils of calcareous marl like that found in Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s also a late ripening variety, requiring a long growing season and plenty of sunlight to achieve full, natural ripeness. In a region as northerly and cool as Piemonte, that means exposure is key to success. Without a south or southwest facing vineyard, it’s all but impossible in typical vintages for Nebbiolo to attain the ripeness necessary for the production of natural, expressive Barolo. It’s no coincidence that the most privileged vineyard sites throughout the communes of Barolo are highly sought after, the land highly expensive.

Sergio Germano, standing atop the hill above his portion of the Cerretta cru in Serralunga d'Alba. It's mid-February and there's nary a trace of snow below, while the vines opposite his hillside are still blanketed with white.

Stand atop any of those south facing, vineyard dominated slopes and look across the valley to the opposite facing hillsides. You’ll almost always see more vineyards. And in many cases, those sites also fall within the geographical boundaries that allow them to produce wines called Barolo. The land on those northerly facing slopes will be less expensive, and all too often owned by less than completely conscientious growers. The fruit on those vines, if they are Nebbiolo targeted for the production of Barolo, is unlikely to ever achieve the levels of ripeness necessary for the natural production of Barolo.

That doesn’t preclude the wines made from those sites from being called Barolo. But it does greatly increase the likelihood that those wines are being made in the winery more than grown in the vineyard, achieving their expected impressive stature more through manipulation than natural fruit maturation.

Just something to think about the next time you find yourself pondering that 91 point, $27 Barolo. How do you feel about risk exposure?

A similar view, pictured on the same day, this time in Monforte d'Alba. In the foreground is Elio Grasso's plot of Ginestra "Casa Maté," fully melted; across the valley, snow covered vineyards owned by other Barolo growers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Three, Two, None for Maia

I don’t have much in the way of specific details but I have it on good authority that Maia, the monstrous market/café/restaurant combo opened in Villanova in mid-2008, has officially closed its upstairs fine dining room.

Apparently, a three-bell review from the Philadelphia Inquirer – usually a near guarantee of success – wasn’t enough to smooth the way between a troubled economy and the ever fickle Main Line. Maia's subsequent demotion to two bells in Laban’s year-end review can’t have helped.

The downstairs café and bistro areas at Maia remain open, at least for now.

Various rumors of Maia’s demise have been rampant for months now; with some saying the market portion of the business would go first; others, that the upstairs fine dining room would indeed close; and others still that the whole joint doesn’t have much life left. The writing has certainly been on the wall given the recent departure of Chef Terence Feury, who is now heading up the kitchen at Old City’s Fork.

Given the incredible scale of the venture, one could easily go so far as to say the writing has been on the wall from day one. Whatever your feelings about Maia, though, there’s no debating the closing of its flagship dining room deals a significant blow to the Main Line’s constantly struggling dining scene.

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Past reviews of Maia:

Addendum (18 March):

Michael Klein reports at The Insider that the closing may just be for a few months, while the owners "reconceptualize" the upstairs space. Time will tell....

Vanberg and DeWulf

Don Feinberg seems accustomed to working ahead of the curve. When he started Vanberg & DeWulf Imports in 1982, there were only five Belgian beers available on the US market. Today there are over a thousand and Don has been responsible, over the last 25-plus years, for bringing in some of the best. He took a notable detour along the way as well, founding Ommegang, producer of Belgian-style ales based in Cooperstown, NY, in 1997 before eventually selling the brewery to Duvel in 2003. Since then he’s redoubled his efforts at Vanberg & DeWulf, where he continues to represent a small but high quality portfolio of Belgian beers.

Answering the Philly Beer Week call, Don came to the town he acknowledges as “the best Belgian beer city in the country” last Friday, pouring the stalwarts of his book along with some new releases from the same breweries in the context of a seminar at Tria Fermentation School.

Appropriately, the first pour of the evening was what I imagine must be the best selling beer in Don’s lineup, Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont. It’s the gold standard of the Belgian saison style for a reason. And it served as a good point of departure for one of the main discussion threads that wound through Don’s seminar: the question of alcohol levels, often high and rising, in Belgian beers. Though Dupont Saison is hardly high zoot – it’s pretty typical to style at 6.5% – it still stood in contrast to the next beer, Dupont’s bière de table called “Avril” that clocks in at only 3.5%. Very fresh and ever so slightly funky, with a not unattractive whiff of matchstick that Don feels is a typical aromatic profile of the extremely pale malts used in its brewing process, I really dug it. So did Don, though he seemed hardly surprised that, when hands were raised, it was one of the least popular beers of the evening.

The contrast between the duo from Dupont seemed subtle in comparison to the leap from Avril to the next pairing: two beers from Brasserie Dubuisson, both of which struck the 12% mark. Don did a good job of explaining what he sees as the problem with many high alcohol beers. Lack of versatility and drinkability aside (sound familiar, wine crew?), it’s not so much the question of alcohol itself as the side effect of sweetness of flavor that comes from high alcohol itself and from the heavy malt components necessary to achieve such levels. When choosing rich styles for the Vanberg & DeWulf portfolio, Don looks for full attenuation, beers that have achieved both their weight and balance with as little as possible reliance on residual sugar. Putting proof to his criteria, neither beer – in fact, none of those tasted over the course of the evening – came across as over-the-top or imbalanced.

Enough technical stuff for now. What about the beers?

Brasserie Dubuisson’s Scaldis (it’s called “Bush” on the Belgian market; the reasons for the name change should be obvious…) gave a nose full of caramel and peach preserve aromas and showed fine balance for its richness. The Scaldis “Refermentée,” though, was considerably more compelling, with its less sweet, earthier nose and fine, creamy texture, the result of a slow, natural refermentation in the bottle. It’s a brand new entry from Dubuisson, available in the US for only the last month or two.

Tria staffers Erin McLean and Edward Strojan did a little impromptu modeling on behalf of Brasserie Dubuisson.

Next up were two brown ales, the classic Moinette Brune from Brasserie Dupont and Brouwerij Slaghmuylder’s Witkap-Pater Abbey Dubbele, another new release on the US market. Moinette may deserve its classic status but Witkap stole the show, its rich nose contrasting with an entirely integrated, lingering caramel element on the palate.

The two most impressive beers of the night – intentionally so but no lesser for it – were two high-end bottlings from Brasserie Dubuisson: Scaldis Prestige and Scaldis Prestige de Nuits. Both hit the shelves at a suggested retail price in the $45-50 range, putting them soundly into the realm of rarefied specialties. Both were excellent. The “Prestige,” aged in new French oak, had a sweetly vanilla driven nose along with a flavor profile that made me think of a Meunier-driven Champagne crossed with an exotic style of Kentucky Bourbon. “Prestige de Nuits,” on the other hand, is aged in old foudres previously used for red wines in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. Here, a wild, lambic-like nose and distinct flavors of griotte were offset by a surprisingly low-acid profile. It’s not yet available in the US.

The formal tasting wrapped up with a comparison between two beers from Brouwerij Boon, a producer no longer in the Vanberg & DeWulf fold. If Don mentioned what led them to sever ties, I missed it, though it may have something to do with Boon pushing the alcohol level of their lambics by experimenting with higher than traditional malt content. Regardless, Mr. Feinberg was clear in his admiration of Boon’s beers, mentioning they own the “biggest and best” barrels in Belgium, the size of said casks inherently reducing the variability of their lambics from batch-to-batch. Boon’s Geuze “Mariage Parfait” struck me as less intensely aromatic as many other geuze, while the Lambic (un-refermented and entirely still) “Mariage Parfait” was much more clearly influenced by brettanomyces, giving up a snoot full of earthy, tangy aromas of the barnyard. Tasty.

Don snuck in a little homebrew for a final flourish, asking the group to taste and guess its alcohol level. Far from finished, his “Frankenbeer” was in a highly acetic state but very refreshing. I guessed high at 5%, off by a full degree-and-a-half. With that, Mr. Feinberg left everyone with a final question. Why do people gladly ante-up their hard-earned dollars for richer Belgian ales but balk at the prices requested for lower-alcohol bières de garde and bières de table? After all, the brewer at Brasserie Dupont considers “Avril” to be the most labor intensive, delicate and environmentally sensitive beer he makes.

It’s a question with implications that reach far beyond the confines of the Belgian beer world.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Momofuku Noodle Bar

While I was busy sending cohorts on field trips last week, I also managed to squeeze in a trip of my own, to New York for the Michael Skurnik national portfolio tasting. That was a doozy – seven hours and over 90 tables – so my report may not surface for a few more days. As you might imagine, food was a dire necessity by the end of the tasting.

Since I had a few hours to kill before catching my train, I called a friend who lives in the East Village and we decided to grab a bite to eat at Momofuku Noodle Bar. The little bit of cash I’d saved by taking the late train went right back into the local economy. Always trying to do my part…. From the looks of it, Momofuku’s not feeling the pinch. It was Wednesday night and the joint was packed. No sooner did we walk in the door than about a dozen people lined up behind us. We were in luck, though, as two seats had just opened at the kitchen bar. The fact that Famke Janssen was tucking into a bowl of ramen two seats to my right was just an added little voyeuristic treat.

After tasting 100+ wines, it's beer (and water) that was called for, no matter how tempted I was by the '06 Schäfer-Fröhlich Riesling halbtrocken on Momofuku's tiny wine list.

Given that Momofuku Noodle Bar has been on the scene for the better part of five years, it’s plain to say that I’m a little behind the curve in only now getting there for the first time. Though the wave of attention garnered by Momofuku (it means “lucky peach”) seems to have passed its peak, the restaurant shows no signs of falling into comfortable neglect. The menu changes daily, at least in part, and continues to reflect local, seasonal ingredients along with a flair for fun. It also continues to attract serious culinary adventurers and curious tourists alike, while doubling (from what I could tell, at least) as a regular neighborhood spot, a dichotomy that’s reflected in the narrow room’s constant buzz of energy tempered by a sense of comfort and ease at the table.

Though there’s a clear core of East Asian influence to the overall menu at Momofuku Noodle Bar, there’s also little if any gesture made toward maintaining traditional recipes. And that’s the intention. In the owners’ own words, “We try and serve delicious American food.” Beyond the Asian basis, influences are drawn from far and wide. An appetizer of raw bay scallops, served on the half-shell and dressed with a low-acid, room temp broth (did I detect green tea?) would have been equally at home in a sushi bar or as at the raw bar in an adventurous chop house. A Middle Eastern slant was incorporated into our appetizer of roasted red and golden beets served with a dollop of sesame infused yogurt.

If there’s an intentional central theme at Momofuku, it’s clearly pork. Whether in subtle form, as with the small bits of Benton’s ham in the beet salad, or playing a starring roll, as in the pork steamed buns that flowed constantly from the open kitchen, there’s a porcine influence of one kind or another to more than half the dishes on the menu.

The house signature dish is a case in point. Momofuku Ramen looks reasonably traditional, right down to a slice of fish cake and sheet of nori. The noodles are toothsome and flavorful. A perfectly poached egg adds a nice touch, too. But the dish is so intensely pork driven that it’s far from classic ramen. The deeply colored, richly flavored broth is only the beginning. Add to that a generous, fatty slab of pork belly and a fistful of pulled pork and you’ve got a bowl of noodles that’s unquestionably over-the-top. I have a high tolerance for rich food yet was still unable to finish the bowl. Brooklynguy called it “unbalanced” in his excellent roundup of Manhattan ramen bars and I’m inclined to agree. But while traditional it’s not – and imbalanced it may be – I can hardly say I didn’t enjoy it. It’s heady enough to satisfy a tremendous hunger and to warm the coldest soul. And it lends credence to the line that still forms at Momofuku's door.

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 First Avenue
(between 10th & 11th)
New York, NY 10003
Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 13, 2009

François Chidaine's Montlouis "Les Bournais"

During a visit with François Chidaine in February 2004, we passed by what was then the newest part of his property in Montlouis, a site called “Les Bournais” located on the hilltop/plateau overlooking the Loire. The soil in the vineyard has a higher percentage of clay than in most of Montlouis, along with a particular type of limestone called “Les Bournais” that lends its name to both the vineyard and the wine that is now being produced from the site.

At that time, the vines in “Les Bournais,” planted between 1997-99 if my notes are correct, were in only their first few years of production. When we tasted barrel samples with François later that day, we did not get a look at the ’03 base wine from the site, which eventually found its way into one or more of François’ other wines. By coincidence, that year, 2004, though the vines were still completely dormant during our stay, would turn out to be the first vintage in which François would deem the vines mature enough to merit their own vineyard designated bottling.

When the 2004 “Les Bournais” was first released, I managed to get my hands on just a few bottles. Based on my most recent tasting, I wish I’d bought more.

Montlouis-sur-Loire “Les Bournais,” François Chidaine 2004
$30 on release. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: (then) Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ; (now) Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
This has taken on substantial color since I last opened a bottle the better part of two years ago; it’s now approaching the hue of fresh apricot flesh in the glass. A lovely nose of lavender and wildflower honey is accompanied by fantastic persistence on the palate, where a brief suggestion of sweetness is quickly wiped away by the wine’s mouthwatering acidity. Very pure, this bottle was really singing. Flavors of both bosc pears and freshly pressed apple cider developed after 30 minutes or so, followed not much later with richer flavors of fig compote. I could have kept drinking it all night. The only thing that could have made me happier – well, maybe not the only thing – would have been a log of good Saint-Maure de Touraine to pair with the wine.

My last bottle is getting stashed for a rainy day a few years down the road.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

PBW Round Two: Bell's Brewery at Jose Pistola's (Complete Edition)

The following text is at least somewhere along the wines of what I’d originally hoped to have time to write before posting yesterday’s little slideshow from the Bell’s Brewery dinner at Jose Pistola’s on Sunday, part of Philly Beer Week (PBW). Let’s do it again and see if things don’t make at least a little more sense this time ‘round.

* * *

I’ve been nursing – and quite enjoying – a variety case from Bell’s Brewery for the last couple of months. So last Sunday, when I finally rolled into a motivated enough frame of mind to peruse the Philly Beer Week schedule for the day, the beer pairing dinner with brewer Larry Bell leapt off the page. And I leapt into town.

My adventures at Nodding Head and Tria behind me, I headed over to Jose Pistola’s shortly before six to scope things out and snag a decent seat. Going into it, I knew I liked what I’d tasted from Bell’s but I had no idea just how many different brews they, well, brew, nor quite how large the business had become. With the help of his 100 employees, Larry Bell now turns out 111,000 barrels of beer annually, with seven beers in year-round production and another 10-12 in seasonal rotation. The above stats add up to make Bell’s the 21st largest brewery in the United States, though they’re still very much considered a craft brewery.

"It's wonderful. It's terrifying. It's fun." Larry Bell's words about Philly Beer Week, which he feels is already a tremendous event that, within the next five years, will become an unstoppable force. Larry regaled the small dinner audience with tales of starting his business with a birthday present of $200 from his mom, and topped off the evening by reciting Baudelaire in his toast to the crowd.

Currently distributed in 15 states, Bell’s, like some of the other most successful craft brewers in the US, finds its beers in the enviable if difficult situation of being in greater demand than their current production levels can satisfy. I ran into two distributors who’d come to the tasting ostensibly to court Larry into markets where his brews are not currently available, and I wouldn’t doubt that others made similar advances at any number of the other events Larry hosted around town on the first weekend of PBW.

Mike Burmil, Key Account Manager for S.K.I. Beer Corp. in Brooklyn, NY, was among the distributors hoping to lure Larry (and his beers) into their fold.

On this night, though, Mr. Bell was clearly in the house just to share his beers and have fun while doing it. Larry’s seasonal and specialty brews were the focus for the evening. Light they were not, with only offering slipping in below the 7% ABV threshold. Flavorful they were. A firkin of Hopslam was tapped for our first round. It turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening, along with Lager of the Lakes (the aforementioned lower alcohol offering) and Consecrator Doppelbock.

Nima Hadian, proprietor of the famous Emmaus beer distributor Shangy's, is Bell's distributor for the eastern Pennsylvania market. He considers Bell's, in solid company with the likes of Dogfish Head and Stone, to be among the four or five strongest brands in American craft brewing.

During his introduction, Larry mentioned that Bell’s owns and farms 140 acres of land planted to various types of barley. I’d really like to have had more time to discuss that with him, as I’ve often wondered how many breweries out there do much if any farming of their own raw materials. Maybe that’s just a wine guy kind of a question, as I’m so accustomed to looking at the close connection between land, vine and wine.

Casey Parker, with more than a little help from the rest of the crew at Jose Pistola’s, did an admirable job of keeping things flowing, both from the taps and the kitchen.

Larry also spoke energetically of “playing with” various yeast strains, not just in terms of driving fermentation but also of delivering flavors and aromas to his various beers. While I didn’t love every beer poured, I respected the quality and care that clearly went into crafting each one. It left me pondering the roles of winemakers versus brewers, and pondering why the types of manipulative techniques that so often repulse me in the wine world don’t bother me nearly so much when it comes to beer.

That’s a quandary I may have to investigate in more depth at a later date. But I’d welcome your thoughts on it now.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bell's Brewery at Jose Pistola's

Had a great time at the Bell's Brewery dinner at Jose Pistola's on Sunday. I'm on the road right now, so details will have to wait until Thursday. In the meanwhile, feel free to hit the comments with your IDs and/or captions for any of the following photos.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Philly Beer Week: Round One

The second annual Philly Beer Week is in full swing right now. And in typically gluttonous Philly fashion, that “week” lasts ten days. I missed all of the inaugural festivities on Friday and Saturday. Hell, I’ve barely even found the time yet to wade through the hundreds of events on offer. After a quick flurry of advance planning on Sunday afternoon, commencing somewhere around the time I recovered from the fact that it was 1PM and I felt like I’d just had breakfast and ending when I jumped into the shower ten minutes later, I decided to head into town for a little PBW action.

My first stop wasn’t on the official event calendar. I was just walking across town, got a little thirsty and figured since it was Philly Beer Week it would only be just to hit a Philly brewery. So Nodding Head it was, for a mightily refreshing pint of their BPA (Bill Payer Ale). A little too strong to qualify technically as a session beer, it would still work that way for many, bitter enough for the hopheads out there and mild enough for lager and English ale aficionados. Catching the last few tunes from the jazz piano/sax duo playing the Sunday brunch was an added bonus.

Next up was a stop at Tria, where the day’s Sunday School session was built around the work of Boulder, Coloraro’s Avery Brewing Company. With four completely different Avery brews on tap at each of Tria’s two cafés, it was tough picking just one location. As much as I wanted to try the Brabant Barrel-Aged Wild Ale (intentionally Brett-infected and aged for eight months in old Zinfandel barrels), there was nary a spot to squeeze into at Tria Rittenhouse. So on to Tria East (or Washington Square West, as they like to call it) I went. It was actually the logical choice, as brewer Adam Avery was scheduled for an appearance there from 5:00 to 7:00. Why not take the chance to meet the guy whose beers you’re drinking?

The crowd at Tria (12th and Spruce) was a relaxed mix of neighborhood regulars, stragglers from the Philadelphia Flower Show and, of course, beer geeks waiting for the taste-and-grip-and-grin session with Adam Avery.

I settled in with a tasting pour of Avery’s India Pale Ale, judiciously hopped and low-medium alcohol (6.3%) by today’s IPA standards. As it turned out, this may just have been my beer of the day – very aromatic, with a floral, wine-y nose and typical citrus overtones, finished off with just a hint of sour tang (was that a touch of wild yeast influence I detected?). I’ll be looking into a case of that one next time I hit The Beeryard.

To accompany an order of the day’s cheese selection, “Cowtipper” from Calkins Creamery in Honesdale, PA, bartendress Kim recommended Avery’s Salvation Belgian Golden Ale. Good stuff… rich, creamy and well-balanced (the cheese was tasty too). Its refreshing feel and warmly spiced flavor profile belied the 9% wallop lurking beneath.

The main stop on my Sunday tour, and the main reason I had to get out of Tria before Adam Avery made his appearance, was the Bell’s Brewing dinner at Jose Pistolas. But, just as Adam was running late on Sunday, I’m running late now, so details on Bell’s will have to wait until later.

Monday, March 9, 2009

LA Area Tasting Alert

I thought I’d share a quick news flash today, for any followers of the Trail based in the greater Los Angeles area. My friend Giuseppe Vajra will be pouring a selection of the Piedmontese wines from his family’s estate, G.D. Vajra, this Thursday, March 12, 2009, at Elvino Wines in Venice, CA. The Vajras’ California importer, Justin Gallen of Rinascimento Wine Company, is coordinating the event. Full details of the tasting can be found at the Rinascimento blog.

My photo of Giuseppe, taken during his visit to the east coast last fall, has been following the young Mr. Vajra on his current trip around the States.

Giuseppe and his father Aldo produce beautifully expressive, traditionally made wines throughout their range, from a humble, everyday Langhe Rosso blend to their benchmark Langhe Freisa called “Kyé” and right through to their top Barolo from the cru of Bricco delle Viole. You’ll find details of my last tasting with Giuseppe here.

If you can make it to Thursday’s event, you’ll have the opportunity to taste some great wines and to give moral support to Giuseppe, who’s bravely continuing with his US tour in spite of having blown out his knee in a skiing accident during the Colorado leg of his trip.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A-Sides: TV OD, The Normal

Unmotivated this weekend, so here's an old track from the vaults. Philly Beer Week action and B-sides coming soon.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Three Days with Les Clos Sacrés

As much as I love Loire wine and Chenin in particular, it’s alarming (at least to me) how little firsthand experience I actually have with the Savennières of Nicolas Joly. I somehow suspect I’m not alone in that camp, as Joly’s wines seem to be talked and written about more often than they’re actually drunk. Or is it his farming and winemaking practices more so than the wines themselves that get all the attention? Whatever the case, I was happy to help shift the balance recently, spending time over the course of three days with a bottle of his 2006 “Les Clos Sacrés.”

Savennières “Les Clos Sacrés,” Chateau de la Roche-aux-Moines (Nicolas Joly) 2006. $45. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Vintus, Pleasantville, NY.

Called “Les Vieux Clos” (and formerly “Becherelle”) on the French market, Joly’s entry-level Savennières is rechristened “Les Clos Sacrés” for the US market. At upwards of $40/bottle, about twice the price of other producers’ basic bottlings, “entry-level” may not be quite the right term. Be that as it may, this is Joly’s front-line offering, produced from relatively young vines spread across 12 hectares of vineyards planted in schist-dominated soils, along with some parcels of quartzite and sandy soils. As with all three of Nicolas’ Savennières, fermentation occurs on the natural yeasts with no temperature control, followed by aging in old oak casks. Sulfur is used in both the vineyard and the cellar, though at very minimal levels.

Notes on Joly’s wines are rife with accounts of bottle variation, so let me begin by saying that this was much more than just perfectly sound.

On day one, “Les Clos Sacrés” was driven by energetic, near savage acidity and bracingly herbal aromas of quinine and menthol. Its acid and extract levels resulted in stick-to-your-teeth texture and length. Very, very persistent. Butterscotch came through on the mid-palate, along with a mineral sensation that I often find with good Savennières, as if I’m drinking wine that’s been leeched through rocks and dripped directly into my glass. With air and a gentle rise in temperature, the wine took on greater aromatic depth, revealing scents of chamomile and sweet herbal tea. A sense of sweetness – though the wine is nearly bone dry – continued to build in the flavor department, the marmalade-like flavor influence of partially botrytized fruit becoming more apparent.

Twenty-four hours later, the waxy and wooly side of Loire Chenin made its appearance, along with a discreet and quite pleasant hint of oxidative aromatic character. The wine was also even more potently aromatic, with flowers, dried herbs and tea leading the way. It was richer, too, in the mouth than on day one. I couldn’t help thinking of a cross between Ricola, nougat and marzipan. More so than a day earlier, I sensed the influence of what I expect is just a couple of grams of residual sugar. Very grippy and very lengthy, the wine, as Joly suggests, is also very good at or near room temperature. By the end of the night, the aromatic profile had shifted again, this time toward scents of oil soap (as in Murphy’s) and peaty single malt Scotch.

That peaty character carried through to the third day. There was also a shift in color, but rather than getting darker golden I’d swear the wine began to take on a pink hue. Intense aromas of apple cider at one end contrasted with the lightness of rose petals at the other, while in the mouth the wine delivered an impression of a freshly baked apple tart kissed subtly by the nuttiness and brininess of fino sherry.

Word is that these wines sometimes hold up well for an entire week after opening. There’s no way this bottle was going to last that long.

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As I suggested earlier, there’s plenty to read about Joly's wines. If you’re hungry for more, you’ll find an excellent profile of the Coulée de Serrant, along with some recently updated tasting notes, at The Wine Doctor.
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