Sunday, May 30, 2010

Veni, Vidi... Giri?

The 2010 edition of the Giro d'Italia came to its end today, with Liquigas rider Ivan Basso riding to overall victory through the streets of Verona.

Ivan Basso grabs the final maglia rosa.
(Image courtesy of
La Gazzetta dello Sport.)

This year's edition of the Giro ran from May 8-30, its 21 daily stages taking it on its annual tour around the Italian boot. My recent trip to Piedmont ran from May 13-22, putting me in Italy right in the middle of the Giro's three-week course. Those that know me well, who know how long cycling has been an important part of my life, have been surprised to hear that I didn't make it to a single stage of the race while in Italy. Didn't even manage to catch any of it on the tube, not even in my hotel room, much less in a local bar.

Aside from passing the Rabobank team cars on the highway en route from the Torino airport to Alba on the morning of my arrival, the closest I came to the Giro during my nine-day stay was an occasional perusal of the results in the Italian sporting daily, "La Gazzetta dello Sport." In this case, it was over a glass of Pelaverga, just after grabbing a quick lunch at Enoclub, located on Alba's Piazza Savona.

Maybe things would have been different had I arrived a day earlier, in time to catch the team time trial stage in Cuneo, a scant half-hour from my starting base in Serralunga. Perhaps if there had been some spare time in my schedule, I could have found a cycling-crazy bar — there must be one somewhere in Alba, it can't be all about football — in which to catch a stage or two. Or if American television didn't completely ignore the race, I could have at least caught the early and late stages of the race from the comfort of home.

The fact is, though, my passion for the sport of cycling, as an observer that is, seems to have waned over the last couple of years. I still love the sport, don't get me wrong. I just can't summon the enthusiasm or find the time it takes to follow its results, its rising and falling stars, the way I once did. Part of that is no doubt a simple change in my life, an ebb and flow in the cycle of what it is that occupies me.

But I can't help but chalk part of it up to a growing disillusionment with the sport. With at least two of the riders finishing in the Giro's overall top ten (winner Basso and sixth place Alexandre Vinokourov) just having returned to the sport after recent multi-year suspensions for doping violations, one can't help but wonder. Are they really clean and really that strong? Or have they just found newer, better doctors and sports physiologists who know how to keep them a few steps ahead of the current drug testing parameters?

Come Tour de France time in July, I'm going to try to put these concerns aside. Just enjoy the sport for what it is, not for what its participants may or may not be doing behind the scenes. I love cycling, like I said, and I really love the Tour. For three years now, ever since I started this blog, I've been wanting to do a daily feature that follows the path of Le Tour via the wine and food culture of the various towns and regions through which it passes. This is the year in which I'm finally going to do my best to make it happen.

I missed the Giro. I don't want to miss the Tour.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Master of the Dark Arts Dies, Darkly

Dennis Hopper died today, just a few weeks past his 74th birthday, losing his battle with prostate cancer. From early roles in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, to his breakthrough role acting in and directing Easy Rider and on through what became typical roles such as that he played in Apocalypse Now, Hopper was one of the great dark-part actors of our time. And unarguably one of the most memorable.

For me, the Dennis Hopper role that will always come first to mind is one of his darkest, playing the savagely creepy psychopath Frank in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. I can't imagine there are too many regular readers here who haven't seen Blue Velvet, most likely on multiple occasions. For all of you, and for those few who may not have experienced it, here's a clip.

Fair warning: you'll hear more f-bombs uttered in every 30 seconds of this short than have ever appeared, or are are ever likely to appear again, here at MFWT. But that's exactly the word that first passed my lips when I heard the news earlier today. Grab a PBR, raise a toast to the man, and watch it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's in the Details

Words have been escaping me today — as is time tonight, all too rapidly. So I thought I'd share one more of the 700+ photos (trust me, they're not all good) I took during my travels in Piemonte last week. Coming soon will be highlights and observations from the four days of Nebbiolo Prima, followed by a slew of winery reports from my visits with producers in Barolo, Dogliani and Roero throughout the trip. So please stay tuned, and thank you for your patience. (And no, we only looked....)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Switchback Moment

I kept offering my Punto in trade but for some reason they weren't going for it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Vinoteca Centro Storico

There's something afoot in Serralunga. In this tranquil hilltop town of only 300 or so inhabitants, there's a sudden surge in renovations, perhaps the result of in influx of new money or maybe just of a revived thirst for renewal. Adjacent to the town's main square and its scenic overlook, major construction is underway at Azienda Agricola Vigna Rionda, where owners/winemakers Franco and Roberto Massolino are adding a floor and a rooftop terrace to create updated, separate accommodations for their winery's trade and public visitors. And not more than three or four hundred meters from there, a short walk down the winding cobbled streets through the town center to the base of Serralunga's old tower, there's something else afoot.

Just past the dog – he actually lives a couple of kilometers away, I'm told, but he's always there – and just through that door lies one of the most lively, inviting café/wine bar combos one could imagine, whether in Serralunga or elsewhere.

That place is Vinoteca Centro Storico. The name couldn't be much more straightforward: a wine bar in the center of the old historic town. Nor could the mission be much simpler.

Owners Alessio Cighetti and his wife/partner Stefania turn out what is an essential Piemontese experience, combining the simple pleasures of food and wine and making the pairing accessible to any and all who walk through their doors.

Stefania's food is the essence of simplicity. Think of it as home cooking — consistently good, hearty, classic Northern Italian home cooking — and you're on the right track.

Aside from a couple of hapless grissini, carne cruda pretty much had to be the first dish to meet my gullet on arrival in the Langhe on my recent trip, and Stefania and Alessio were only too happy to oblige. Ravioli in a sage-butter sauce — another Piedmont classic — rounded out my entry lunch.

Balancing the simple soulfulness emanating from Stefania's cucina, Alessio has put together a pretty damn satisfying wine list. The local offerings aren't anything to snub a nose at, with verticals of Monfortino and other top Baroli offered alongside more humble options in Langhe Nebbiolo, Langhe Bianco and, yes, even French wine. Actually, it's French wine, and a very particular sort of French wine, upon which Centro Storico has really built its equally particular reputation.

In this town of less than 300 residents, Alessio sells over 1500 bottles of Champagne a year. He's put together a list that rivals if not betters any I've seen here in the US, with big names such as Salon and Krug resting alongside gravitas-laden options from the likes of Philipponat (a vertical of Clos des Goisses, anyone?) and Diebolt-Vallois, all peppered with hipster-chic offerings from producers such as Cédric Bouchard, Ulysse Colin and Jérôme Prévost. And it's all priced more than fairly, about the same if not a tad less than what you'd pay at retail here in the States. Poured by the glass during my visit(s) was Champagne Doyard's "Cuvée Vendémiaire" Extra Brut, a sumptuously rich Blanc de Blancs from Vertus that displayed the breadth of aroma and body brought on by extended lees-aging. Lovely stuff and, ironically, more or less the first wine to whet my whistle in Nebbiolo-land.

There are a mere four or five tables on the ground floor and about the same upstairs, a few more outside when weather permits. Just enough space to accommodate the mix of wine loving locals, travelers and regional producers who frequent the place. Don't miss it if you're ever (or when you're next) in the area. I came pretty damn close to calling it home base during my stay... and I'm already missing that carne cruda and Champagne combo.

Vinoteca Centro Storico
Via Roma, 6
Serralunga d'Alba (CN)
+39 0173.613203

Beer Dinner at Midatlantic Restaurant Tomorrow Night

It's only ten days now until the start of the 10-day long Philly Beer Week. (Where else but Philly does a "week" built around beer last ten days?) For those who can't wait, or for those who can but are nevertheless always thirsty and hungry, there's an event in town tomorrow night that offers everyone a chance to get their warm-up on.

The crew in the kitchen at Midatlantic Restaurant will be teaming up with the fermenting squad from Dock Street Brewing Company to deliver a three-course menu, with each dish paired to a Dock Street brew. The event runs from 7:00 - 9:30 PM tomorrow, May 26, 2010. The cost: a mid-week savvy $30/person. The place: Midatlantic Restaurant, 3711 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA. Click on the flier below to see the full details.
Personally, I'm particularly jazzed to check out Dock Street's Rye IPA poured from a freshly tapped firkin, and to see what new energy and touches Chef Bryan Sikora (full disclosure: Bryan is an old friend) has brought to the table since recently joining Daniel Stern's team at Midatlantic.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Few Seats Still Available for this Friday's Chocolate and Bubbly Tasting at Éclat

As a reminder, this Friday, May 28, 2010, I'll be teaming up with Master Chocolatier Christopher Curtin of Éclat Chocolate to espouse the possibilities and pleasures of pairing fine chocolates with wines that sparkle.

Honestly, I've long been a firm believer that chocolate and wine are not a match made in heaven. But Sir Curtin's chocolates are uncommonly savory. And I'm always up for a challenge, especially when it comes to difficult food and wine pairings.

Here's a sneak peak at what I'll most likely be pouring:
  • Prosecco Montello e Colli Asolani, Bele Casel NV (always a great way to start)

  • "Cravantine," Domaine Fabrice Gasnier NV (a rosé sparkler produced from Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley town of Chinon)

  • Champagne Brut Réserve, Béreche et Fils NV (yes, only one actual Champagne, but it's wicked good)

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro "Rive dei Ciliegi," Francesco Vezzelli 2009 (dry, fizzy red from Emilia-Romagna)

  • Moscato d'Asti, GD Vajra 2009 (I've just returned from Piemonte and a visit with the Vajra family, so I'm all set to regale you with tales of the trip)
Our chocolate and bubbly mash-up will be set in Chris' shop, Éclat Chocolate, in West Chester, PA, where the storefront by day becomes a tasting room by night. Cost for the event is $50 per/person, all inclusive. The first seating has already sold out but there are still a few spots left for session two, from 8:30 to 10:00 PM.

Please call Éclat at 610-692-5206 for reservations or further information. Come on out, dang it! Deliciousness promises.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Suds: Birra Baladin "Solera"

No, I didn't take a side trip to Champagne while visiting Piedmont over the last ten days. So no, that's not a sample of wine drawn from the solera of Anselme Selosse you see in the picture at right. What it is (or was...), though, is something equally obscure and fascinating.

What it is was just one of many highlights of a side visit I did take while in Piedmont, in the company of a couple of friends, to visit Birra Baladin in Piozzo. Yes, it was beer, a beer unlike any I'd tried before.

Baladin founder and brewmaster Teo Musso started his solera "experiment" (his word, not just mine) in 1996, when he intentionally left a batch of his then fledgling flagship brew, Super Baladin, in a loosely closed cask. Three years later, he bottled that beer after it had undergone a transformation usually associated with brown spirits rather than beer, mellowing in flavor and losing a good deal of its original alcohol via evaporation. That slow, slight oxidation took the beer's original 8.5% alcohol down to a whopping two percent.

Eleven years later, Teo opened a bottle to share with us. Was it mindblowingly complex? No. But it was amazingly fresh, delicate and, though oxidative in style, not at all oxidized in taste. It showed a kind of freshness akin to old Madeira, along with aromas of sandalwood and subtle dried fruits and spices.

I hope/plan to share more complete details of our visit with Teo at Baladin in the weeks to come. This was just too geeky not to break out now.

The Big Blind is Over

Ah, the pleasures and pains of blind tasting. I can still feel them.

I've actually returned to home turf now, but I originally started this posting three days ago, mid-way through the fourth and final day of Nebbiolo Prima. The last of the morning blind tasting sessions had just ended and I got a good start on putting the following thoughts in place; however, a lack of spare time and even greater lack of consistent Internet access made it impossible for me to finish until now. In any event, there's no mistaking it: the practice of tasting 75-85 Nebbiolo-based wines per/day, whether from Roero, Barbaresco or Barolo, is painful. Literally painful. I think I lost about half of my gums over the course of the four days of Nebbiolo Prima. Probably a meaningful percentage of my tooth enamel, too.

Blind tasting in such a large, intense scope is entirely different from sitting down with a few friends and a few wines and really getting to know them. It's possible to get a big picture take on a vintage and on the differences and consistencies (or lack thereof) from village to village. Trying to really understand any one, much less each, wine, though, really is impossible. It astounds me that some people actually were assigning points on a 100-point scale to these wines. Impossible. Points aside, the best I could do was try to give an honest and personally meaningful reaction to each wine I tasted, to jot down a few notes on each, and to keep a short list of the handful of wines that most interested or inspired me on each day.

One of the positive outcomes of an important albeit mostly complicated, painful and unpredictable format like this is the possibility of discovering new wines. Wines that you or I may have otherwise not considered or even come across. Such was the case on days three and four of the event, when the wines I'd selected as most complete and personally compelling both came from producers with which I had previously been unfamiliar. The 2006 Barolo "Rocche" from Monchiero and 2006 Barolo "Serralunga" from Palladino were both fantastic wines — balanced and elegant, drinkable yet ageworthy, and expressive of both place and character. Does this mean that I can now wholeheartedly endorse the wines of these two producers? No, but it certainly means that I'll be on the lookout for these and any other wines they both produce, for further investigation and with the hope of similar results.

One of the true pleasures of such a format is that it can also provide an occasional reassurance that you're not fooling yourself into thinking you like something (as opposed to actually liking it). Though I can't say that I identified the 2006 Barolo "Cerretta" of Sergio Germano blind, I can say that it was on my short list of favorite wines from our final day of tasting (which was devoted entirely to the Baroli of Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba). It's a wine I've enjoyed year in and out for the last decade, and my reaction to it on the day was a pleasing reassurance that a true wine lover never tastes entirely in the blind.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Revisiting the Men of Monforte

When last I visited the cellars of Elio and Gianluca Grasso in Monforte, they had just begun an immense, elaborate engineering and architectural project. Their plan: to excavate a tunnel deep below their estate on the Gavarini hillside to provide ample space for barrel storage and, thereby, to open up space in their winery for freer, easier movement in the vinification stages of their wine producing regimen.

Four years later, the barrel chais — pehaps chasm would be a better word — is complete. And it's magnificent. It's more than just eye candy, though. When there's more time to write (meaning, when I get back to the US), I'll fill you in on all the details and share some more photos of my visit with the Grasso family.

That's all for now.... I'm off to the third day of Nebbiolo Prima. A blind tasting of 75 Baroli from the communes of La Morra, Castiglione Falletto and Verduno. And that's just the morning session.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Unplugged in Serralunga

A Room With a View.

I've been in Piemonte since Thursday afternoon, staying in a fantastic little family run agriturismo on the Cerretta hill in Serralunga d'Alba (more on that later). No Internet access, no TV... totally unplugged. It's been beautiful in spite of a good deal of rain (and some hail in Serralunga and La Morra on Saturday), a perfect way to get away from the Interwebs and really focus on visiting some wineries and friends.

I'm now in Alba -- quite the change, with horns and car stereos blasting in the background -- for Nebbiolo Prima. I'll do my best to file quick highlights from each day's tastings, but the full reports will have to wait for my return. After all, I didn't come to Italy to sit in front of my laptop.

A più tardi....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Champers and Choco at Éclat

Yes indeed, we're at it again. On Friday, May 28, 2010, I'll be teaming up with Master Chocolatier Christopher Curtin of Éclat Chocolate to espouse the possibilities and pleasures of pairing fine chocolates with wines that sparkle.

Honestly, I've long been a firm believer that chocolate and wine are not a match made in heaven. But Sir Curtin's chocolates are uncommonly savory. And I'm always up for a challenge, especially when it comes to difficult food and wine pairings.

Here's a sneak peak at what I'll most likely be pouring:
  • Prosecco Montello e Colli Asolani, Bele Casel NV (always a great way to start)

  • "Cravantine," Domaine Fabrice Gasnier NV (a rosé sparkler produced from Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley town of Chinon)

  • Champagne Brut Réserve, Béreche et Fils NV (yes, only one actual Champagne, but it's wicked good)

  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro "Rive dei Ciliegi," Francesco Vezzelli 2009 (dry, fizzy red from Emilia-Romagna)

  • Moscato d'Asti, GD Vajra 2009 (I'll have just returned from Piemonte, all set to regale you with tales of the trip)
Our chocolate and bubbly mash-up will be set in Chris' shop, Éclat Chocolate, in West Chester, PA, where the storefront by day becomes a tasting room by night. Cost for the event is $50 per/person, all inclusive, and there will be two seatings: from 6:30 to 8:00 PM and from 8:30 to 10:00 PM.

Please call Éclat at 610-692-5206 for reservations or further information. Cheers!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reliably Odd, Oddly Reliable

Those of you, fair readers, who are based in the Philadelphia area are very likely growing tired of my bemoaning the lack of exciting wine lists in our fraternal city. Believe me when I say that if more restaurants would pour something enticing, I'd go and drink it. When Tria was featuring Jacques Puffeney's Poulsard "M" on their list last winter, I probably helped them through the better part of half their inventory. The fact is, though, I continue to struggle to find a restaurant that consistently offers a list with any depth of options I really want to drink, as opposed to selections for which I'll settle in a pinch. It's one of the reasons that I'm so glad – so, so glad – that Philly has developed such a vibrant BYOB dining scene.

BYOBs don't always fit the bill, though. Even I don't always like to hoof it around town with a gunny sack full of bottles of wine slung over my shoulder. And I hate to pass up the possibility of discovering great food just because I can't bring my own bottle. Add to that the spontaneity of simply being able to walk into a place without any advance preparations. You get the picture. So, once in a while I do end up settling.

Cirò Rosso Classico, Librandi 2007
$40 on the wine list at Amis. ?% alcohol (didn't pay attention). Cork. Importer: Leonardo Locascio Selections, Winebow, New York, NY.
Luckily, Gaglioppo is one of those vines that's so intrinsically characterful that it manages to maintain its voice even in relatively innoccuous versions. (Is it the Pineau d'Aunis of Southern Italy?) And Librandi is one of those commercial-leaning wineries that manages to turn out wines that are still consistently characterful enough to provide real interest in the glass.

Librandi's expression of Cirò Classico may not hold the same geek appeal of the more artisanal version from the confoundingly similarly named winery, Linardi (brown wine, anyone?), but it still captures the personality of its autochthonously Calabrian main ingredient. When first opened, actually, it was alarmingly sweaty. But that nervous smell blew off once the wine had a chance to relax, revealing Cirò's typically zesty, black olive and spicy earth scented fruit. Combined with its lively texture, medium acidity, light-to-medium body and fine, raspy tannins, it turned out to be a pretty versatile match with everything my friend Joseph and I ordered at Amis, from a simple plate of bucatini alla “matriciana” to some bolder explorations through the fifth quarter.

The food was good. The company, too. The wine was perfectly satisfactory. As for shelling out $40 for a bottle that retails for about $12, that's just another all too common condition we suffer through here in the Commonopoly of Pennsylvania.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday Suds: New Glarus Berliner Weiss

No wonder this struck me as so wine-y when I stuck my nose in my glass.... I didn't know it at the time but I'm now reading on the New Glarus Brewing Company website that their "Unplugged" Berliner Weiss, based on a mash of Wisconsin White Wheat, was indeed fermented with both Riesling and Pinot Gris grapes included in the barrel. The damn beer reminded me of something I'd had in my wine glass before. Actually, a cross between a couple of things. Namely, Thierry Puzelat Romorantin and Movia Lunar, with all the citrusy, zesty, floral and herbal intensity of the two, but minus the mineral depth of the former and the slightly oxidative character of them both. This was all about freshness and savor. I'm not sure it's exactly a typical example of the berliner weisse style but in this case I really didn't care. I was so tasty that, man, I could have kept on drinking it all night.

I asked my friend Jeff, who'd wheeled it along to dinner in response to my recent plaint about the absence of acidity in most beers, to bring me back a case on his next trip to Wisconsin. It seems, he told me, that little if any of New Glarus' production leaves Wisconsin. Exacerbating those logistical issues, it turns out that the "Unplugged" series of beers produced by New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey are essentially one-offs, brews made on a whim and with wild abandon, with little or no promise of repetition.

Brewed with top-fermenting yeasts (five different strains in this case) along with the addition of lactobacillus culture, the berliner weisse style usually has a refreshingly tart, citric character. In Germany as well as here in the States, berliner weisse is often served with the addition of raspberry syrup (red) or woodruff syrup (green) to cut the beer's tartness. But please, no sweet'n'sticky stuff when it comes to the New Glarus version. This beer is way too good in its unadulterated and, dare I say, unplugged form.

Friday, May 7, 2010

No More Vin de Table, and Other Idiosyncrasies of French Wine Labeling: A Case Study

It's more than fair to say that I take a far greater interest in what's in the bottle — and what it takes to get it there — than what's on the bottle. Nonetheless, I have been known to take more than a passing interest in the finer points of labeling, especially as those details apply to the subtleties (and vagaries) of the French and Italian wine bureaucracies, not to mention the semantic choices made at wineries.

Subtle labeling changes with any particular wine from vintage to vintage, sometimes even mid-vintage, are so common that one could devote a blog entirely to their chronicling and easily find fodder for 365+ posts per year. I'm not about to build that house, as I wouldn't want to live in it. But I will visit from time to time when the opportunity grabs me.

Not even touching on the fact that I love the wine (at least not for now), there's an awful lot going on with Hélène Thibon's "Vin de Pétanque," which has undergone fairly major changes in labeling semantics in the last three consecutive vintages.
When the differences in labeling between the 2007, 2008 and 2009 editions of "Vin de Pétanque" from Mas de Libian caught my eye — I had enjoyed a bottle of the 2008 only days before the 2009 came ashore (and came home for dinner) — I fought my natural inclination to try to interpret all of the changes on my own. Instead, I reached out to Hélène Thibon, who grows the wines at Mas de Libian, with a veritable avalanche of questions. I suspect the detail of my questions may have taken her by surprise, but she responded with grace — and lots of great information. Here's what she had to say, peppered, of course, with my own interpretations. I couldn't leave them out entirely now, could I?

Vin de Pays, Vin de Table, Vin de France

The biggest shift, in that it is indicative of the farthest-reaching changes, is in the official designation of the three vintages: Vin de Pays for the '07, Vin de Table for the '08, and Vin de France (I believe the "Bon" is purely Hélène's modification) in '09.

There was a time that I might have jumped to the conclusion that a move from AOC or Vin de Pays status to "Vin de Table" was a forced declassification, a punishment of sorts as legislated by the bureaucrats of the INAO. But over the last few years, an increasing number of producers have been voluntarily opting to use the supposedly inferior VdT category. Hélène confirmed that the latter was indeed the case. She had originally chosen Vin de Pays status for Pétanque, even though the fruit comes entirely from her young vines in the Côtes-du-Rhône and Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages areas, as her own personal declassification, a statement that said "this is my simpler, more casual wine." She chose the move to Vin de Table status with the 2008 vintage because it allowed her greater freedom when it came to decisions such as harvest date and blending.

As for the move from Vin de Table to Vin de France in '09, Hélène is simply getting a head start. At the end of 2010, the Vin de Table designation will no longer be allowed in France, replaced by the seemingly catch-all designation of Vin de France. This is part of a broad spectrum of changes to the entire French AOC system, as well as to geographic labeling conventions throughout the EU, that are due to be implemented by the end of this year. You can read a little more about it here.

2007, 8002, 2009

After the big changes detailed above, the rest are at least somewhat simpler and largely interrelated. Vin de Pays status has historically allowed for, indeed required, the vintage dating of wines. The Vin de Table category, conversely, did not allow the use of a vintage date on the label, whether or not the wine was produced from the fruit of a single harvest. A kind of legislative punishment for utilizing the VdT category, one (along with the VdT status itself) likely to result in more difficult sales for the bulk of wineries. Producers came up with all kind of creative ways to convey the year of origin of their wines, from lot numbers to embedded codes in their label art. Hélène's solution for her 2008 VdT was simple: print the date in reverse and make it look ambiguously artsy — in this case, like an etching on a pétanque ball. With the new "Vin de France" category, vintage dates are permitted.

Hélène Thibon and her horse Nestor, conducting déchaussage (plowing soil back from the foots of the vines) in the vineyard at spring. I've taken the liberty of borrowing the above picture from the new Mas de Libian website, which is more than worth a visit (even if you don't like Flash) for its extensive photo gallery.

Mas de Libian "Vin de Pétanque," Vin de Pétanque de Libian
(Mise en bouteille au mas, Mise en bouteille par Mas de Libian)

The stricture against vintage dating having been lifted, the INAO apparently felt it necessary to put another ambiguity (and potential economic hardship) in place. The shift here is subtle and requires an understanding of the language used on French wine labels to differentiate between estate bottled and non-estate bottled wines.

Any time a winery name as presented on a wine label opens with the words Domaine, Château or, less frequently, Mas (southern French dialect for "farmhouse"), you're being told that the wine is estate bottled. It's been produced by a winery that owns and farms its own land; harvests and crushes its own fruit; vinifies, ages and bottles its own wines; and markets those wines under its own label.

Likewise, there are any number of phrases that are part and parcel of French wine labels that can also convey this kind of information. "Mise en bouteille au domaine... au château... à la proprieté... au mas" all indicate that a wine was "placed in bottle at the estate," estate bottled if you prefer.

So, one arbitrary rule having been lifted, another has been put in place. The regulations for the Vin de France category do not allow wines to be labeled as estate bottled, even if they are — and Hélène Thibon's "Vin de Pétanque" is. It's the shifts in the naming and provenance conventions in use on the label that reflects this change, as "mise en bouteille par Mas de Libian" means "bottled by Mas de Libian," not bottled "at the estate." Someone out of the know with the background of this wine but in the know with French labeling conventions would pick up this bottle, read the label, and rightly assume (but wrongly conclude) that it is some form of négociant or more commercial bottling.

That's it for the technical stuff. As with so many other independent vigneron(ne)s, Hélène is accepting the somewhat pejorative nature of the Vin de Table/Vin de France rules rather than being subject to the more restrictive nature of the rules governing the higher categories of VDP and AOC, which will soon be replaced by Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) and Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) — more on those at a future date, when I've had a chance to more fully understand and digest the legalese of their meanings. To quote Hélène via my rough translation capabilities, "We do not want to be slaves of the new European and French directives that we deem aberrant!"

Produce of France, Product of France

This is an old favorite of mine, something I've long wanted to post about. To my knowledge, this language, in the large sense, must appear on all French wine labels. The exact syntax, though, is up to the winery (or label designer). While "Product of France" (and the corresponding "Produit de France") is by far the more common, I have a soft spot for "Produce...". Though I suspect it's more an accident of translation than an intentional play on the subtleties of English, I like the way that "produce," used as a noun, denotes the wine as a food product, an agricultural product. I hope I'm not the only one that thinks like this.

Vin issu de raisin de l'agriculture biologique certifié par...

I'm still waiting for an answer from Hélène on this. Her entire estate has been farmed organically since the 1960s, and she began biodynamic conversion in 2005. As far as I know, the entire property is certified organic. Yet the only one of her wines where I've ever seen the certification (by ULASE) mentioned is "Pétanque" and it's been dropped from the label with her 2009 release. Is it a marketing issue? Another imposed limitation? Or simply personal choice? Your thoughts are welcome, and I'll share Mme. Thibon's response as soon as possible.

What about the wine, you say?

Oh yeah, if you've made it this far I suppose you might want to know at least a little bit about what's in the bottle. As I said in opening, that's what really counts.

"Vin de Pétanque" is a blend of Grenache and Syrah (about 75/25) from the young vines (4-20 years-old) of the estate, fermented in tank with native yeasts, a short maceration of about five days, and no added sulfur dioxide. As the name implies ("pétanque" is the local name for boules), Hélène views it as a casual wine for everyday enjoyment, one that can be served chilled throughout the summer.

The 2009 is delicious; richer (13%) than the previous two vintages and an early indicator of the success of the vintage both in the Ardèche and at the Mas de Libian. It's dark purple in the glass, a color reflected in the wine's juicy spirit and vital energy, vibrantly fruity and enticingly peppery. Summer indeed. I'm thinking burgers — or just about anything else you might consider throwing on the grill and pairing with a fresh, young red.

Enjoy it (you really should), and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

One Week 'til Piedmont

Exactly one week from today, I'll be headed to Piedmont. I've been hankering to return there ever since my first and last visit, back in 2006, so I'm super jazzed about the trip. The impetus was an invitation to attend Nebbiolo Prima (formerly known as the Alba Wine Exposition, if I'm not mistaken) from Albeisa, the producers' consortium for the wine regions in the immediate environs of Alba (Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero) and the organizers of the event.

Roughly half of my time in the region will be spent attending Nebbiolo Prima (yes, that part of the trip is a sponsored press junket). The other half will be on my own time and dime, visiting producers (some of whom I've met before, others who I've long wanted to), tucking in to the famously rich Piemontese cuisine and exploring the area. Piedmont only. I'm finally fighting the temptation to go "all over."

My schedule is already filling up fast, but I'd love to hear from any of you with suggestions for must-sees, must-dos, must-eats and must-drinks. Can't promise I'll be able to fit them all in but I'll certainly give it the old college try.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Surfing the Geezer Post-Punk Bargain Bin

Ever spot one of those wines, whether in a random retail shopping stop or on the list at a restaurant of dubious distinction, that seems like it might be just a little too good to be true? Old enough that you wonder whether it will still be good, but not so old that you're not awfully tempted? Not too pricey but not so cheap as to raise alarms? And you go for it: part against your better judgment, and part because you're hoping against hope for the off chance of something special?

Happened to me a short while back with a little British number known as Echo & the Bunnymen. A heads-up flickered across my screen, the price wasn't prohibitive, the mood was right. I went for it.

Turned out to be an alright move. Things were a little smoke-addled up front, not quite as primal as in its earlier years, but the voice was still unmistakable. The mid-stretch was strong, bolstered by an influx of new blood via an updated, hard-driving rhythm section. It wasn't until the last sips that things kind of fell apart, with a big finale followed by an excruciatingly long pause, eventually trailing off into an unfocused, rambling, somewhat apologetic finish.

I took about twenty pictures of Ian McCullough, who seemed to spend most of the night thinking he was fronting The Jesus and Mary Chain rather than the Bunnymen — motionless, sunglasses after dark, hands and mic obscuring any clear glimpse of his visage, occasionally pausing to insult someone in the crowd (not that they didn't deserve it)....

The two guitar wielding Bunnymen were at opposite corners of the stage from one another, out of width-of-field range vis-a-vis the above shot of the rest of the band. Gordy Goudie, stage right from the crowd's perspective, provided rhythmic attack and a little glam/rocker ethos. Gordy also sat in with the evening's opening act, Kelley Stoltz (who put out a very good set of honest, slightly edgy geek-pop).

At far left, Will Sergeant, the only other original member of the band aside from McCullough, delivered the delay-driven atmospherics and melodies essential to the Bunnymen sound.

One of the most clearly updated songs of the night was "Bring on the Dancing Horses," less New Order-ish in its techno/dance-beat backing than the original, with some new phrasing and vocal intonations from Ian M. The video below is from three years ago or thereabouts but has a very similar feel to that experienced at last Sunday night's show at the Keswick, right down to the fan and fog machine.

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