Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Load of Santorini Assyrtiko Wines

The other night a few friends helped me to taste through a load of Santorini wines. I've discovered these wines only recently and am still just beginning to understand them. Here are the basics, as I understand them:

--Assyrtiko is the most important grape grown on Santorini. It is yellowish and fleshy, and it retains its vigorous acidity even when very ripe. The other grapes that commonly appear in Santorini wines are Aidani and Athiri.

--Santorini sees a lot of sun and a lot of heat. Vines are trained in coiled baskets in order to shield the grapes from the sun. Even still, alcohol levels tend to be high.

--Soils are primarily volcanic rock and pumice. The pictures I've seen make it seem as though there is little soil, as I understand soil to be, in the vineyards of Santorini.

--Vines are very old - supposedly the average age on the island is about 80 years old. And the vines are un-grafted, as Phylloxera seems not to have taken root, so to speak, on Santorini.

--The wines really do need a few years to settle, to show their graceful side, as they are intense and assertive early on.

I tasted some of these wines before and found them to be rather compelling. On this night I wanted to drink them with dinner. And that didn't happen. I had friends over, I made dinner and didn't get to focus as I would have liked. But there was wine left in all but two of the bottles and I sat down with them thoughtfully on day 3. I'll share some notes, but first a few thoughts.

There are some sulfur issues with these wines. It can be confusing - are those smokey volcanic rock aromas, or sulfur aromas? With some bottles it was clearly sulfur, with others I felt confused. Another thing - the alcohol can be a bit jerky, particularly with the barrel fermented wines. That said, the best wines show a truly unique character - there are elements of sea spray, legumes like lentils or peas, and the minerals really smell like pumice, like the rough stone your mom might have had in the shower. Lastly, the 2007 vintage seems to be my favorite, although it is not one that the wine makers said was particularly good. Here's what we drank, in order of drinking (all notes are based on day 3 drinking):

2009 Sigalas Santorini, $20, Diamond Importers. I've had this wine several times now (most recently with lunch on the day before this dinner) and it shows a little differently each time. This one was smokey and savory with vibrant citrus fruit. The acidity is strong and the wine feels energetic. The bottle we had on the previous day with lunch showed more fruit, this one was more savory. In the end, I think this will do well with a few years in bottle.

2009 Gaia Santorini Assyrtiko Wild Ferment, $24, Athenee Imports (This wine was received as a sample). As the name implies, this is fermented with naturally occurring yeasts. There is a strong floral element to the nose that I like. This is a powerful wine, very rich and heavy, intense on the finish. Although I recognize that there is quality here, it's just too weighty for me in the end.

2008 Gaia Thalassitis, $22, Athenee Imports. Even on day 3, the sulfur just obscures the wine for me. Actually, I thought it more difficult on day 3 than when we had it with dinner. I hear that this needs time in the bottle, but I'm just not convinced about this wine.

2007 Sigalas Santorini, price unknown, Diamond Importers (This wine was received as a sample). On day 3 this is without any question the best of all of the wines. It is perfectly integrated, graceful in its assertive power, pure, and clean. There is a top layer to the nose of white fruit, if that makes any sense. Under that there are stones, creamy lees, and sea spray. This is just a lovely wine, and if the 2009 is going to turn into this, then I'm in.

2007 Estate Argyros Santorini, $21, Athenee Imports. The nose was either very smokey or full of sulfur, and there was discussion about which was which at dinner. On day 3 there was no sulfur that I could detect. The nose was quite lovely with green peas or some sort of raw legume, and that smokey pumice sea spray thing that I get at the end of many of these wines. The palate, however, was not easy. The acids are so bright that it is literally like inhaling the spritz of a lemon, and it didn't feel balanced to me. Food helped, but not enough to make me go buy this again.

2007 Hatzidakis Santorini, $20, No import label (used to be Trireme Imports). This wine is 90% Assyrtiko, and then 5% Aidani and Athiri. I've had this wine several times now with different results each time. This bottle, sadly, was not the best one. There might be some botrytis, there is a lot of honey, some alcohol juts out. It shows on the palate too, the alcohol warmth, but it is basically a balanced wine. Other bottles have shown more of the sea foam and lentil thing that I find compelling.

2008 Sigalas Santorini Barrel Ferment, price unknown, Diamond Importers (This wine was received as a sample). At the big Santorini tasting in May I was bowled over by the barrel fermented wines. This time, I think I preferred the stainless wines. The alcohol here is 14% and the oak is still dominant. There is a kernel of something floral, but it's all about the oak right now. The palate shows intensity and something salty, but as much as I might like to, I just don't have the experience seeing these wines age and I can't tell you what's going on here.

2007 Sigalas Santorini Barrel Ferment, $33, Diamond Importers. Is it the vintage? The extra year of aging? Who knows, but on day 3 this shows much better than the 2008. There is oak still, but also smokey pumice and preserved lemon on the nose. It is balanced and energetic on the palate with a gentle touch of sea spray on the finish. The oak flirts in and out though. Will the oak integrate over time, allowing the other components to show themselves? If so, this could be really good wine.

2008 Hatzidakis Nykteri, price unknown, Trireme Imports (This wine was received as a sample). The back label says that this wine is made from grapes of perfect ripeness harvested at night. I like Hatzidakis, but none of the wines showed particularly well on day 3, and this one was the most difficult. The alcohol is 15% according to the label and honestly I wouldn't be surprised if it were higher. The aromas are floral and very heady, but also hot, and there is something soapy in there. The palate is ripe and rich and to my taste, a bit overdone.

2004 Hatzidakis Nykteri, price unknown, Trireme Imports (This wine was received as a sample). Also 15% on the label, and still a huge wine, although a bit easier than the 2004. Based on the way these Nykteri wines showed, I'm more interested in the stainless wines from Hatzidakis.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Favorite Rosé of the Summer?

I think I might have decided on my favorite rosé of the summer, so far. I'm not considering things like Tempier, Pradeaux, or the other Bandols. I think of those more as Bandol wines than as rosé anyway. But among the summer flood of generally inexpensive rosés - I think I've found a favorite.

I've always enjoyed white wines from Schloss Gobelsburg, but I'd never had the rosé until this summer. I'm not sure, but I think that 'Gobelsburger' is the second wine of Schloss Gobelsburg. This wine's name recalls the monks who managed the winery until 1995, and it is made from Zweigelt and St. Laurent grapes. It should cost about $15 and honestly it's great rosé, case-worthy, in my opinion.

2009 Gobelsburger Rosé Cistercien, $14, Terry Theise Selections / Michael Skurnik Imports. This is not a fruity rosé, so let's just get that out of the way first. There is fruit in this wine, but it shows up on the finish in a controlled little burst of red. The main body of the wine is more about the steely and sleek tone, the acidity and focus, and the aromas and flavors are more mineral than fruit. This wine reminds me very much of the 2008 Bernard Baudry Chinon Rosé in that it drinks more like a white wine than like a rosé. It is bottled under screw cap and a bit reductive at first, so open it 15 minutes before you want to drink it or just give it a vigorous swirl in the glass.

I love how versatile this wine is with food. Unlike rosés that are on the fruitier side (which I also love), this wine can elevate foods that are complex and to me anyway, not always easy to pair. For example, I never know what to drink with pesto.

Although in some ways they are polar opposites, the wine was great with this classic dish. Intensely herbal anise-tinged notes from the basil, umami from Parmesan cheese, savory walnuts...would that work with rosé? Yes, when it is a steely high acid and very pure wine. I'm telling you, when you deal with your summer basil, think of this wine.

On another evening, I knew that I wanted to drink this wine before deciding what to eat. Drinking this rosé, I can detect traces of that sour cream, white pepper thing that I often get from the Gruner Veltliners, and so I decided to try to eat something that would go well with Gruner.

I thinly sliced a smoked duck breast and roasted some small white turnips and pink radishes. There is nothing Austrian about Fregola, the Sardinian pasta balls made from coarse semolina that are toasted after being dried. But I like the way the nutty tasting Fregola absorb simple flavors like butter and white pepper, and so that was it. This pairing was more about synergy - the flavors of the wine seemed to recognize the smoked duck and the radishes, to understand that white pepper is friendly.

I hate the idea that $15 wines, particularly rosés, are not serious wines. This is a serious wine, and unless you clean the racks I will be drinking a lot of it this summer.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hot Day + Grill = Smoked Pork Shoulder

It's been very hot lately in NYC. I don't mind it so much, actually. I prefer very hot to very cold. On a super hot day recently I decided to light the grill and attempt to smoke a hunk of pork shoulder. I know that sounds kind of odd - hot day, several hours of hot grill. But there is something about cooking on a super hot day that I find to be especially satisfying.

This was impromptu pork, and so instead of seasoning with salt and pepper at least 24 hours in advance, this shoulder hunk got only a few hours of salt time. In fact, this might be a good time for the BBQ purists out there to simply turn off the TV and come back tomorrow - you might be shocked and offended by what you're about to see. Or, take a deep breath, and try to find the good in it. Not everyone can be from Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, or the Carolinas, you know.

Hardwood coals lit, burned down for a while, pork in a pan next to the coals, mesquite soaked in water on the coals, smoke for a while, more mesquite, smoke some more, more mesquite, perhaps a fresh piece of coal, more smoking.

End result above. I managed only about 3 and a half hours on the grill, which is just the beginning in real BBQ country, but the afternoon was drawing to a close and I needed to do things like get dinner ready for the kids.

To my surprise and delight, the meat shred easily and became something like "pulled pork." It was smokey and just a bit moist, and pretty darn tasty. And there was even a half centimeter of red where the smoke penetrated.

So we all had pulled pork sandwiches. I topped them with a simple cole slaw and opened a can of baked beans. The kids loved it - the cole slaw took a little convincing, but they ate that too in the end. I threw a handful of dried crushed chili flakes into a jar of plain white vinegar (dare I say Carolina style?) and the adults got a little bowl of that for sandwich dousing purposes.

What to drink with this porky feast? Beer is great, and there are certainly plenty of wines that I think would go well. Iced tea is nice too.

But on this evening I drank Rye whiskey, Michter's, one of my favorites at any price point, and at about $35, much cheaper than most straight Rye whiskeys. This was a good end to a summer day.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Immutable Greatness of Richebourg

The other night, and for the first time in my life, I drank a bottle of Richebourg. I've tasted Richebourg before, but never opened a bottle and drank it, watched the story unfold in the glass. I have a rather entrepreneurial friend who is investigating the viability of buying and selling luxury wines. He decided that he wanted to drink one of his acquisitions, and I was fortunate enough to be in the room at the time. He walked over with this bottle, as if he was going to open it.

But even my friend is not that crazy, to open a 2005 La Tâche just like that, on a random Thursday night, and without a proper dinner. I didn't even want to hold this bottle in my hands. I mean, what if I sneezed and dropped it? That's $2,500, thank you very much.

But he did open a bottle of 2000 Domaine Gros Frère et Soeur Richebourg. I'm not going to lie to you - I was excited to the point of being jittery. Just in case you're not familiar with it, Richebourg is one of the most exalted of all of the Grand Crus in Vosne-Romanée and therefore in all Burgundy. These are wines that in recent vintages begin at something like $250, and more, depending on the producer. Richebourg is a wine that is mostly consumed by the wealthiest of wine collectors, and also by people in the wine trade who have access to bottles at prices that us retail shoppers will never see.

The crazy thing is, while drinking it, my friend and I agreed that it was not a great wine. And that in no way diminished the experience of drinking it. I savored every sniff and sip. It was fascinating to drink this wine and to talk about it, to try and understand what was happening there. In the end, I think it was a below average version of a great wine, and both of those things showed clearly - the problems with the wine were evident, and so was the greatness of Richebourg.

2000 was not as hot as 2003 but it was a very warm year. Apparently there also were problems with rot. Many 2000's are drinking well now, perhaps even the Grand Crus are drinking well earlier than they do in more typical vintages. This particular wine was essentially ready to drink, in my estimation. It took 10 minutes or so to get used to being on the outside, but it was quite accessible, the tannins were not at all fully resolved but they were mature. The wine didn't really evolve much in the glass over the next 90 minutes.

Regarding the producer, there are many different wines made by someone whose family name is Gros. My understanding is that Gros Frère et Soeur has a good reputation, but is not the best of the Gros family growers, nor are they the worst.

Problems first - the alcohol felt strong and it unbalanced the wine. We checked the label and it was in fact 14%. Probably due to the warmth of the vintage and the high degree of ripeness, but I also wouldn't be surprised if this wine was chaptalized. Sometimes the sweetness felt like it came from something other than fruit, but that also might simply be the oak treatment. The acidity was not strong enough to anchor the fruit and the overall effect was a bit heavy. And the finish fell off rather quickly, which is not what you might expect from a wine of this nobility.

Now, the good stuff - in spite of everything I just said, there were great things about this wine. There was a knot of power and grace in there that was clearly recognizable, and very intriguing. Spices and orange peel and clean soil aromas, assertive aromas that made themselves felt through the alcohol and other problems, and somehow managed to convey a sense of grace. Same thing on the palate - there was a immutable beauty, although finding it did sometimes require close attention. And I have no problem with that. I hope I never drink a wine like Richebourg without paying very close attention.

Perhaps there are some places that are so great, Richebourg among them, that in any reasonable hands, it is not possible to hide its greatness. Bad vintage, overly aggressive oak program, too much extraction, whatever the specific problems way be, perhaps there is no way to mute something like Richebourg. I don't know this personally, but I hope I get to drink another example one day.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

René Geoffroy's Empriente - One of the Best Values in Pinot-Heavy Champagne

I want to tell you about what I think is one of the best wine values in Champagne, a wine made by René Geoffroy. All of René Geoffroy's wines are compelling, from the wildly energetic Rosé de Saignée to the refined Volupté to the truly fine "entry level" wine, a non-vintage wine called Expression. It is primarily Meunier and it is a delicious wine that offers more complexity and finesse than one might expect from a non vintage wine.

There is another wine in the portfolio, a wine that has quietly amazed me since the first time I tasted it. I'm talking about Empriente, the Pinot Noir based wine made from a single vintage, although it is not a vintage wine. This is a brilliant wine every year, easily equal in quality to most vintage wines I've drunk, and it is priced like a high quality non-vintage wine at about $55 in NYC. The problem is, hardly anyone sells the wine. I've looked for this wine for years without success. I did find some recently, however, and the other night I enjoyed sharing a bottle with friends after dinner.

Here is what Peter Liem of has to say about Empriente:

Empreinte is pure Cumières, made predominantly from pinot noir and always made from a single year, which is stated on the back label rather than on the front. While all three of Champagne’s major grape varieties are grown in Cumières, the village is known primarily for its pinot noir, and Geoffroy believes that Empreinte, which means “footprint”, is the cuvée that best expresses the Cumières terroir. For simplicity’s sake, Geoffroy usually says that the Empreinte is a blend of 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay, all fermented in large oak foudres, but in fact this changes considerably from one year to the next.
NV René Geoffroy Champagne Empriente, $55, Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Imports. We drank the 2004, and this wine is still in the early part of its life. It took a solid half hour to fully reveal itself, but the reward was worth waiting for. This wine is in perfect balance - it has everything and nothing juts out even a little bit. The expression of fruit here is so delicate - tiny thick skinned red berries, pure and intense. And oddly, considering that this wine is mostly Pinot, there was a unmistakable lemon note to the nose and palate once the wine opened up - the Chardonnay in the blend (12%) showed more of its character than might be expected. Underneath this red lemony fruit is the layer that for me really defines this wine - there is a bass note of chalk here that everything rests upon, and it is graceful, and the overall effect is one of subtlety and finesse.

There is no flash here and it is so perfectly balanced that it might be possible to miss how deep and great this wine is. If you open one soon, let it unfold, pay attention - it's hard for me to think of many Champagnes that offer the same quality at this price.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What's in an Old Bottle?

As I was saying in the last post, there was discussion at the table about the contents of the old Vallana Spanna wines we drank. Were these wines made purely of Nebbiolo? Were they reconditioned - re-bottled and perhaps topped up with some newer wine?

It's tempting to say that the answers don't matter - these are old wines that were made before there were controls that dictated what was allowed and what wasn't. There will never be a way to know for sure what's in these bottles. Why not simply drink them and enjoy them?

Well, that's what we did. But I'm not entirely satisfied with that idea because it would cost about $100 to buy one of the bottles we drank, others would be more expensive. I like to know the grapes used to make my $14 rosé - I want to know what was used here too. Maybe I feel entitled because it's expected now with food to be able to ask the provenance of the tiniest grain of salt on the plate. Should that extend to wine? I have this idea that with wine, particularly with expensive wine, I should be able to find out what's in the bottle. Of course it isn't always possible, and with the Vallana Spanna wines, there are questions and few definitive answers.

Since I know so little about this sort of thing, I'll share with you what a few knowledgeable people had to say.

Before going to the dinner I told Peter about it and showed him the list of wines we would drink, hoping that he would help me to build some context for what I would experience. Peter made sure to explain that he is an agnostic on this issue, that for him it is purely a sensory experience that forms his opinion. One of the things he said was this:

That's a fantastic Vallana lineup. Back in Portland we did a number of dinners like that, when the wines were first unearthed by the Rare Wine Company about ten years ago. They were very affordable back then (comparatively speaking), but unfortunately now they've been "discovered". The '58s are incredibly youthful, as is '61 Campi Raudii. Anyway, they're all great. Hope you enjoy them. Just between you and me (sorry Peter - ed.), you should open a Taurasi or other aglianico tonight, and then tell me if you don't find those same aromas in the Vallanas! I've long thought that those old Vallanas aren't 100% nebbiolo (or spanna), although it doesn't bother me one bit. I like to think that they were bulking it up with aglianico, and 50 years later we're discovering how noble aglianico can really be.
Levi agreed that the wines are likely not to be pure Nebbiolo, and as Peter said, this doesn't bother him a bit.
If these wines were represented the way Burgundy wines are represented, as pure Pinot from one specific vineyard, that would be problematic. But they're not represented that way. The techniques used to make these wines are not those used to make traditional Barolo and Nebbiolo wines - I think these Spanna were made using dried grapes for example. so should we dismiss them? No, they're intensely expressive wines and I think they taste very much of Piedmonte, they have a cut that I recognize as Piedmontese.
I asked Levi if he thinks that Aglianico was added to the Vallana Spanna wines we drank. He said it is possible, but that he doubts it.
That's pretty far to go, from Campania to Piedmonte. The roads were unpaved, there is no river to use for sending the grapes. Why use Aglianico if they had local grapes that would work the same way, like Vespolina, Bornarda, and Uva Rara? The grapes are similar - Nebbiolo and Aglianico, and people don't have the reference point to say "wow, that tastes like Uva Rara" when it might well be Uva Rara, not Aglianico. Also, Vallana was using chestnut to age the wines and that has a taste that people might identify as Aglianico - chestnut is cheaper than oak and it was used to age wine back then in Campania too. Look - we drink this and say "this doesn't really taste like Nebbiolo, it tastes like Aglianico. But there are other questions too. To what extent is this stuff made from dried grapes? Also there is the old wine sweetness, the still intact sugar that you can taste from the chaptalization. There's a lot going on here.
I talked with Jeremy Parzen, who wrote a fun and informative post in 2007 that provides lots of context for Vallana Spanna. Jeremy has had several opportunities to drink Vallana Spanna and I asked him what he thinks might be in these bottles.
Remember that in the 1950's and 60's it was rare to have a very good vintage. Two great vintages in a row - forget it. It was so cold, they had trouble getting enough alcohol in the wines because the grapes rarely developed enough sugar. Now it's easy - it's much warmer, there are many more good vintages today than in the past. A wine maker recently told me that global warming has made him rich. Anyway, that was a time when you needed to be able to sell a lot of wine to people who were going to put it on the table and open it. If the vintage was bad, you better get creative and figure out how to sell wine or else you might lose your clients. Aglianico from the south was riper and could help raise alcohol levels. I have no doubt that Aglianico regularly made it into Nebbiolo wines during those times.
I asked Jeremy how this would have actually worked. What about the bad roads, the costs of transporting grapes if other grapes were available locally that might have helped - Bornarda, Vespolina, Uva Rara.
It's true, the roads were bad, but Italy had a very well developed canal system, the vestiges of which can still be seen today. Almost all of Italy was navigable by canal in those days. It would have been possible to get the grapes to Piedmonte that way. And if the vintage was bad, Bornarda, Vespolina, and Uva Rara wouldn't have been much help if they also came from a thin vintage. I don't taste Aglianico in those wines, I taste Nebbiolo. but 1955 and 1958 were very good vintages and maybe they didn't need to bulk up the wines. I agree, though, that the wines clearly have been reconditioned. They are just so fresh - more so than Giacomo Conterno wines that I've had from those same years, for example.
I asked Jeremy if he feels that Vallana Spanna are wines that express terroir, or are they wines of blending and conditioning.
My concept of terroir includes people and tradition - it's not just place. These are distinct wines that taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte - a little lighter and not quite as tannic as Langhe wines. In the 1950's and 60's, east Piedmont and Lombardy were where fine Nebbiolo came from. It wasn't until the early 70's that Barolo and Barbaresco emerged as the place for the finest Nebbiolo and the single vineyard as terroir idea only began there at that same time. Personally, I think that the greatest Barolo and Barbaresco are not single vineyard wines, but that's another story. In the 50's and 60's, people making Spanna traditionally blended their wines - they had to in order to make a living. They weren't making wines so that some one could age them for decades. They needed to sell wine, good wine, to their clients. Some say that Syrah might have made it into Spanna at times. I wouldn't doubt it. Part of the terroir concept regarding Spanna involves blending and perhaps grapes from far away. Still, though, these wines to me taste like Nebbiolo from east Piedmonte.
I've heard similar stories about Burgundy too, by the way. That Syrah was used to fortify the wines at times. It goes to show that the sensibility that real wines should be purely of one place and that demands an exactitude with regard to blending - this is a purely modern phenomenon. In the good old days, it was far less clear than now what was in the bottle.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dinner at Alto and Old Vallana Spanna

Even if like me, you are an ignoramus when it comes to Italian wine, if some one asked you to name the places where the finest wines made of Nebbiolo come from, you would say Barolo and Barbaresco. But it wasn't always this way. As Jeremy Parzen, a scholar of many things, including Italian wine, can tell you, Barolo and Barbaresco emerged in the 1970's as the places where the finest Nebbiolo wines were grown. Many great wines were and continue to be made in other parts of Piedmonte.

Antonio Vallana is one of the producers who made fine Nebbiolo wines in the '50s and '60s. His family's wines were brought to the US about a decade ago and have since been discovered by the Italian wine loving community. I drank one of them two years ago at a dinner in Portland the first time I met Peter Liem. Re-reading what I wrote about the wine, it seems as though I liked it.

Not too long ago my pal Levi Dalton invited me to a dinner hosted by Chris Cannon, one of the owners of the restaurant Alto. Levi is the head Sommelier at Alto and he organizes truly ridiculous wine dinners from time to time. To be invited at all is a rare treat, and in an absurdly generous gesture, I was the guest of Chris Cannon and the restaurant. It began like this - Levi asked me if I knew Vallana Spanna.

I said that I drank one once, but that I didn't know the wines. Levi found this to be amusing and perhaps a little hard to believe.

But then he said "No really, you're okay Brooklynguy. Want to come to a Vallana Spanna dinner?"

Yes, yes I do. This wasn't some ordinary dinner - there were some heavy hitters at the table. I'm talking about Eric Asimov, Jaime Wolff, Chris Cannon, John Slover, and Michael Wheeler, to name a few. What an opportunity - to sit down with these and a few others who know so much about wine, and to drink a load of old Vallana Spanna together. Here are the wines the Levi poured:

Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Spanna del Piemonte 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Campi Raudii, Catuli Ara 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Campi Raudii, Gattinariae 1958
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Campi Raudii et Catuli Ara, Riserva Catulus 1961
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Castello di Montalbano, Camino 1964
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Castello di Montalbano 1968
Antonio Vallana e Figlio, Cantina Cinque Castelli 1967

We drank other things too, but these old Nebbiolos (Spanna is another name for Nebbiolo) were the point of the dinner. Levi wanted to understand these wines better, and he figured this would be a good way to do it.

I took a few notes and I'll share some thoughts on the wines, but honestly I was more interested in focusing on the wines and talking with my neighbors than on keeping tasting notes.

We drank the wines in several flights and the flight that I liked the best was the one with the wines from 1964, 1967, and 1968. These wines truly fascinated me - I could have spent the whole dinner with only them and walked away happy, if still a little confused. Levi opened the wines hours before hand, by the way. And still, poured from the bottle, the wines changed a lot in the glass. The 1964 (supposedly a great vintage) and the 1967 (a good vintage) both showed this amazing bouillon cube savory character on the nose. At first this dominated the nose, but the wines grew a bit in the glass, became more detailed. The '64 was an amazing wine - vibrant and fresh on the palate, fruit and spice, savory and herbal, mature and regal, gentle and perfectly balanced. The '67 was excellent too, and I thought it was of the same cut as the '64, although not as perfect of a wine. The '68 was more overtly brawny, and although it was delicious, I didn't find it to be as compelling as the other two.

The 1961 Riserva Catulus was also excellent, but very different from the wines that preceded it. It felt as though some of the grapes had been dried before pressing, perhaps in the style of an Amarone. The trio of wines from 1958 were all interesting and it felt like history in a glass. But I must say, these wines felt remarkably young and fresh considering that they are over 50 years old. There was talk at the table about whether or not these wines had been reconditioned, and the consensus was yes, they had.

There were other interesting questions about the wines - were they in fact made of pure Nebbiolo? If not, what else was in these wines? This has gone on long enough already, so I'll save that discussion for the next post. And I will leave you with this, two of the best things I have eaten in a while, both from this dinner:

Terrine di Coda di Bue e Fegato Grasso, or country-style oxtail and foie gras terrine, pear mostarda, and pickled chanterelles. Utterly ridiculous with old Nebbiolo.

Sformato di Mandorle con Lumache, or robiola and almond sformato (like a flan), braised snail ragu, topped with shredded almonds and black truffles. Again, with old Nebbiolo, this was a sort of hedonism that one isn't often able to indulge in.

Thank you again Levi and Alto for this fantastic evening!

A discussion of the specific contents of the bottles up next...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Perils of a "Natural Wine" Label

This post is my contribution to Cory Cartwright's 32 Days of Natural Wine, on his blog Saignée:

The other day I went to a small wine shop because they had a particular Champagne that I wanted to bring to a wine dinner. I saw it on the shelf and let it sit there as I browsed the rest of the selection. The woman behind the counter came out to talk with me as I looked around. She was very pleasant and also very proud, rightfully so, of the wines she chose for her store. She was talking about her favorite summer wines and she pointed to Dominique Derain's Allez Goutons, a distinctive Aligoté imported by Jenny & François, and said "This wine drinks like beer. I bring it when I'm hanging out with beer drinkers - they always like it."

I'm familiar with Allez Goutons and I like the wine very much. I think I see the connection with beer, as the wine is cloudy, low in alcohol, and sometimes a tiny bit spritzy. I imagined serving the wine the next time I cook something Vietnamese or Thai, something spicy. Then I imagined those beer drinkers she was talking about, tried to picture them. Would they be more or less interested in Allez Goutons if they knew it is a natural wine? The word "organic" on food is appealing to consumers - would the word "natural" on a bottle of wine make it more appealing to customers?

A simple means of identifying natural wine would probably help the average consumer. Imagine something like the Demeter certification, but not only for biodynamic wines, for all natural wines. When shopping for wine, discerning between natural wines and other wines would become as simple as discerning the reds from the whites. There are many people who eat consciously and carefully, yet unknowingly accept the destructive farming practices and the frightening chemicals used to make the wines they drink. Proper labeling could help these folks to spend their money on wines that jibe with their ethics regarding food.

And you know what - in spite of all of that, I sincerely hope that this kind of labeling never happens. Natural wine is a legitimate movement, and as such, it is at risk of being co-opted by the marketing folk. The "natural" label, as I see it, might do more harm than good.

Remember when the word "organic" really meant something? It wasn't all that long ago when the most common way to buy organic food was at your local farmer's market - organic produce was scarce in supermarkets. Now organic food is everywhere, and anything can be organic. Dole sells organic bananas and there are Organic Cheetos. Soon we might see organic Dick Cheney and organic BP, and the sad part is that people will feel better about them once they're organic.

"Organic" has become a marketing term as much or more than it is an indication of the healthful qualities of a food product. What does it even mean to say that food is organic? From the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service:

Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (PDF) and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards.
Sounds good. But think about the way this actually works: food ingredients are scrutinized by a governing body and either approved or disapproved for use in organic food production. If a food producer can show that they only use ingredients and techniques that are approved by the governing body, their product can be labeled as organic.

I poked around the website and looked at three petitions for approval of chemicals in the production or handling of organic food products, selected because their names sound vaguely frightening, but otherwise chosen randomly.

Octadecylamine is a synthetic material that "forms a molecularly thin film on the interior of steam lines." This chemical is a boiler water additive that prevents the corrosion of boiler water and boiler water distribution equipment. The petition points out that no toxic effects were found when Octadecylamine was fed to rats or dogs. In spite of this, the petition for use in handling organic food products was apparently denied.

2,4,7,9-Tetramethyl-5-decyne-4, 7-diol "is used as a wetting agent, de-foamer, rinse aid, viscosity reducer, penetrating agent, and lubricity additive in industrial applications as well as consumer products." From what I can tell, it is an inert ingredient in pesticides. The FDA didn't approve it for use as a food additive, but the Environmental Protection Agency has apparently granted it three exemptions so far, and it was not approved for use in organic products.

Sucrose Octonoate Esters "act as biopesticides by dissolving the waxy protective coating (cuticle) of target pests (e.g., mites), causing them to dry out and die." Hmmm, it dissolves waxy protective coatings, but I'd like it be sprayed on the wheat that goes into the cereal that my daughters eat. This substance was approved for use in organic food production.

Actually, one out of three is really not that bad. What were you expecting?

In my real life I work with people in city and state governments, and I've intimately seen and occasionally been part of the amazingly bureaucratic mechanisms that create and implement public policy. People say things like "They should have rigorous standards for deciding whether or not something is organic or can be used to make organic products," and I agree with them. But it's easy to forget that there is a concrete set of operations that must occur on order for that to become a reality. And I'm talking about after legislation passes. I'm talking about the actual mechanics of the process of implementing standards. A group of human beings is responsible for reviewing these petitions, and they have bosses who can override their recommendations. Who knows how these decisions are really made - do you, or does anyone you know actually follow these petitions as they work their way through the machine?

Yet most of us are content to accept the healthful and environmentally friendly implications of "certified organic" on our food. We are probably putting too much trust in our governmental organizations here - there are lobbyists and lawyers and various interested parties involved in the production and labeling of food, just like there are in the oil industry. If there were an entity charged with deciding the wines that receive the "NATURAL WINE" label, why would that process be any less problematic? In the end, I imagine that natural wine as a label would mean as little as organic means now means in a couple of years. Then again, we might be able to buy things like Yellow Tail Natural Shiraz, and that would be great.

We have wine labeling problems already. Wine makers sometimes have to lie a little bit to the government bodies that regulate the labeling of their products. They might say that only Nebbiolo or Pinot is used, but do other grapes ever make it into the final blend? Historically, the answer has been yes. The label says 13% alcohol, but could it really be higher? Yes. The labels don't tell us other important things too - whether or not the wine was chaptalized, whether or not industrial yeasts were added for fermentation, and so on. I've heard stories proudly told by wine insiders about various bottling chicanery, like the one about the same exact wine being bottled as two different wines at different prices. The only way you will ever truly know what's in the bottle is if you come with a chemistry set.

I hope that as natural wines become more and more popular with consumers, that we do not give in to the temptation to ask a government body to do our thinking for us. Those of us in the wine business, and folks like me who simply drink a load of wine - we can continue to make our purchasing decisions on our own. But somewhere down the line, a group of marketing types are going to argue that there should be some agency with a method for reviewing wines and deciding which are NATURAL. I hope we are wise enough to resist.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

You be the Sommelier

Spanish mackerel are in season and the Blue Moon fish people are bringing them to market. Spanish mackerel are not as pungently "fishy" as other mackerel, but they are certainly of that type. Their flesh is more of a cream color than the oily gray of Boston mackerel, for example, and they have beautiful silvery skin that is flecked with distinctive yellow dots.

This is a fish that children will eat, assuming it is very fresh and simply prepared. Last weekend at the market I saw Spanish mackerel for the first time this summer. Bill Maxwell, the farmer whose produce is far and away the best at the market (he has no website so this will have to do), had corn for the first time too. A simple summer meal came into focus, things that we love to eat, and that we hoped our little daughters would enjoy too.

Broiled Spanish mackerel - nothing but a slight brushing with good quality soy sauce, a sprinkle of salt after it comes out of the oven. You can blend mirin with the soy too, perhaps some grated ginger, and so on.

Boiled corn - I read somewhere that the best way to boil corn is to drop the corn in the boiling water and turn off the heat immediately, cover, and let the corn sit for a couple minutes, that's it. Based on these results, I'm a fan.

Kirby cucumbers with a bit of vinegar - thin slices, toss with a little salt, a small glug of white or rice vinegar, a little thinly sliced red onion. Toss again and let sit for at least a half hour.

That's the dish - an early summer dinner of broiled Spanish mackerel with corn and vinegary cucumbers. You be the sommelier - what wine would you serve with this meal? I'll let you know what we drank and how it worked out at the end of the comments.

Oh, by the way - the little daughters devoured their fish, and the vegetables too. And I hadn't even starved them for two days prior, or anything like that.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Understanding Cornas, via St. Joseph

Recently I attended a small dinner organized by Michael Wheeler and Joe Salamone and Stephen Bitterolf of Crush. This dinner happened because those guys were able to find certain northern Rhône wines that are beloved to them, and they decided that they wanted to drink them together.

What are the northern Rhône wines that drive these guys to drink? Hermitage? Nope. Côte Rôtie? Nope. Well not on this night, anyway. It was Cornas, mostly, and one particular St. Joseph. We convened at Apiary, where Monday night's no corkage policy and the generally excellent food turn the dining room into a who's who in the NYC wine trade.

After drinking six top Cornas wines, after thinking and talking about them, I was very happy. But it was when the next wines hit the table that I had a little Cornas breakthrough. And the wines that hit the table were from St. Joseph. I'll explain that in a minute. Here are the wines we drank, first:

2006 Auguste Clape Cornas.
2001 Auguste Clape Renaissance.

2001 Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillot.
2001 Thierry Allemand Cornas Reynard.

2000 Noël Verset Cornas.
1993 Noël Verset Cornas (magnum).

1992 Raymond Trollat St. Joseph (2 different bottles).
1985 Raymond Trollat St. Joseph.

These wines provoked lively discussion and the views that will appear here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views held by the network or any of its corporate sponsors. And I should mention that Verset and even more so Trollat's wines are impossible to find, and this was an incredibly generous thing to do, to share these rare wines.

The first thing I learned is that the 2006 Clape Cornas is not a wine that appeals to me, and I found little that identified it as Cornas. To me it felt more like a highly polished and very modern Syrah, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with that, and while in that context it was perfectly good wine, it isn't something that I would buy for myself. The 2001 Renaissance, though, was an interesting wine. It was well balanced and expressive, and there was an pleasing animale character underneath the black olives and dark fruit.

I had never before sat with Thierry Allemand's Chaillot and Reynard, and I relished the opportunity. It's funny - in drinking and comparing these 2001's, the Reynard was probably the better wine, but I took more pleasure in Chaillot. Reynard showed as a more complete wine. There was a pronounced menthol character on the nose that colored the fruit and soil, the wine had grit and substance, it was well extracted and also well balanced. The alcohol in the Chaillot stuck out a little and it felt a little herky-jerky at times, but there were things about this wine that excited me more than anything about Reynard excited me. I liked its comparatively elegant expression and sheer texture, the energetic brightness of the fruit, the almost delicate finish.

It's always a treat to drink the wines of Noël Verset. The 2000 was very good, although I must say that I have had better bottles of it. The magnum of 1993, however, was great. Balance, grace, depth, character - this wine seemed to have everything. Verset's wines do something for me that I've not found in any other wine. There are two distinct layers, if that's the right word. There is a top layer of fruit, perhaps some floral tones, and this is the pretty layer. Even with 17 years of age, when the fruit is not as fruity anymore, there is a prettiness to this aspect of the wine. Under that is a baked soil, earthy, far more rustic layer, and it doesn't act to compliment the top layer. It is almost at complete odds with the top layer, and this conflict is engrossing and weird, and somehow harmonious and lovely.

And then came Raymond Trollat's wines from St. Joseph, and all of the sudden I understood what Cornas is supposed to be. The Trollat wines were so very different from the Cornas wines that preceded them. They had none of the rustic edge, they came off as seamless, without edges. The 1992 was my favorite, with its beautiful floral aromatics and its gentle elegance.

It might sound like a very simple and basic thing, but for me it was a profound moment, drinking the Trollat wines after all that Cornas. I'm not saying that I think Cornas is better than St. Joseph or vice-versa. It was just one of those moments in which something that you hear as wine common knowledge is illuminated in a personal way. I've heard and read that Cornas is rustic. There is something rustic about Cornas wines, and when they're well made, it doesn't detract at all from the experience of drinking the wines. And maybe trying to compare a Cornas to St. Joseph is kind of silly - they are apples and oranges. But I had to drink great examples of each wine, together, at the same dinner, in order to understand this.

Friday, July 02, 2010

A 2008 Houillon/Overnoy Poulsard Check In

Some good news to share on the 2008 Houillon/Overnoy Poulsard, $36, Louis/Dressner Selections. The first time I had this wine it didn't show as well as I might have hoped, and after that I read mixed reviews from fans of the estate. My issue with the first bottle was a persistent effervescence that did not work its way out of the wine even with several hours in a decanter.

But if the bottle I recently had is any indication, this can be excellent wine in 2008. I gave it plenty of time in the decanter again, but I drank a little while cooking and it was immediately better than the last bottle. There is variation here, perhaps more so than with other wines, but that's just part of the experience. There is essentially nothing done to this wine to preserve it, just some naturally occurring carbon dioxide, and that's part of why the taste is so enveloping, why the wine functions as such a clear window to the hillside soils in Arbois.

I love this wine. A good bottle is a special experience, perhaps the finest existing version of wine made from the Poulsard grape. For me, it is the seamless mingling of bright red fruit and woodsy underbrush. The sheer elegance supported by the firm structure. The incredible purity that highlights the lovely rustic elements of the wine. The energetic tingle. A true pleasure to drink.

It is a flexible wine too. I have not done so myself, but I could imagine drinking this with oysters - something about the brine and the mineral element of the wine. It is fantastic with sautéed mushrooms or mushroom soup. And it works with red meat too, although I've not tried fancy sauces or anything. This time we had it with simply prepared grass fed sirloin - salt and pepper, that's it. Also some fresh fava beans with mint, a touch of green garlic, and a little olive oil. And some roasted Japanese turnips. When drinking very complex wines, it's nice to cook simple food.

As good as it is now, I must exercise some self-control and put a bottle away, as reliable sources assure me that this wine is beautiful with age. I meant to do that with the 2007's, but it just didn't happen. Wish me luck this time.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Good Things to Eat in Chilmark

To eat steak in Chilmark is sort of like going to Peter Luger and ordering the fish. It is possible to do such a thing, but why would you? Most of the seafood that we ate while on vacation came from boats like these:

The guys on these boats go to work in the middle of the night. They're catching flounder, sea bass, sole, tuna, clams and lobster. We walked on the docks right next to these boats and to me they seemed like very old men - wrinkled and worn, sleepy, a bit creaky and crabby, but with plenty of practical knowledge, the kind that only lots of time working and living can produce.

Some of them made me think of the junky space ships from the original Star Wars movie.

At what point does the boat cease to be seaworthy?

This looks alarming to me, but it's probably normal, like a worn in pair of sneakers. What do I know from boats?

Anyway, one fun way to eat seafood in Chilmark is go to Larsen's Fish Market to buy lobstah, clam chowdah, and crab cakes, and eat them while sitting on the dock out back.

Those plastic rocks glasses contained Marc Ollivier's Clos des Briords and Granite de Clisson, by the way.

One day, in a stroke of good luck, we saw a sign outside of the Chilmark United Methodist Church.

The ladies in the back kitchen were not playing games. They might look sweet and kind, but these are hardened lobstah roll pros and they will stuff lobstah to the point of overflow into a hot dog bun.

There's no hidden layer of iceberg lettuce on the bottom to make the lobstah look more plentiful. This is all lobstah. A squirt of lemon, the daughters dancing around and taking tiny inquisitive bites...vacation.