Thursday, January 31, 2008

I've Been Bloggerviewed on Fermentation !

How cool is this? Tom Wark at Fermentation included me in his Bloggerview series. Check it out - I thought I would never show a photo of myself,and definitely not of the baby. But It's been over a year now of the blog, and it felt right. The wife, sadly, said no to a picture, and it's your loss because honestly, BrooklynLady is a real looker.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Was Wrong About These Wines

You drink a wine with dinner and you form an opinion about it, and when the opinion is a negative one, it can be pretty hard to shake. But wine really does evolve. There is an aphorism about wine that I have previously placed too much stock in: "if you don't like a wine young, you won't like it with age." Maybe that refers only to the wines that are truly distasteful. In other words, if you hate it now, 8 years in a humid, cool, and dark cellar will not bring redemption.

But what if you were merely indifferent, or mildly disappointed at first taste? Well, even as little as a year of cellaring can bring about positive developments in a wine. It can recover from bottle shock, let's say, or from the vibrations of travel during shipping, or maybe the tannins can integrate just enough so that there is better balance and texture. Maybe the young fruit was shy at first. It's a complicated thing, this wine thing of ours, so doesn't it deserve a second chance?

The problem is that I don't have the space or the dollars to keep stock of every wine that I'm interested in, so those that don't show promise at first taste usually get left behind. This means that I will sometimes pass on the new vintage of a wine that I usually love, based on that one indifferent first experience. And unless I have the opportunity to re-taste this wine at a friend's house or at a restaurant, I don't even know what I'm missing! Ignorance can, in fact, be bliss.

Sometimes, though, I go deep-ish on a wine without even tasting, just based on past experiences with the producer and the quality of the vintage. So even if I don't like the first taste, I can be utterly wrong and live to tell the tale. Here are two lucky examples of this, both from the Loire Valley.

I bought six bottles of 2005 Domaine du Closel Savennieres Clos du Papillon without so much as a drop passing my lips. These babies were $33 apiece (a solid 15% price increase beginning with this vintage), why such confidence? Because I've tasted every vintage since 1999 and a few others before that, and found each of them to be fascinating and delicious. So when the perfect 2005 vintage hit the shelves, I didn't mess around. This should be one of those wines that brings tears of pleasure to your eyes in like, 15 years. Just buy the half case and move on to more pressing matters.

But the bottle I opened in July was just uninspiring. I found nothing of Papillon in there, or of Closel. It was full bodied and tightly knit wine, but nondescript, even after 3 days open And that really made me sad. So guess how happy I was the other night when the next bottle rang out with butterfly vineyard waxy mineral pure concentrated nutty honeyed structured goodness? Granted, it took 36 hours open to really show itself, but it's in there. I was dead wrong about this wine. Should have known better too, with all of the raw material provided in 2005, and I apologize to you Madame de Jessey for doubting your wine, even for a minute.

And what of the 2005 Bernard Baudry Chinon Cuvee Domaine? I gave this wine insufficient attention also, finding the first bottle to be rather dense and nondescript. So confident was I in my assessment that I held my remaining bottle for too long without another taste, and now I fear that I may be out of luck finding more. I cannot imagine a higher quality $17 red wine of this type. The bottle I opened last week was soooo good, and I only opened it because I wanted a glass of red, and I didn't want to open something pricier. There were clean aromas of dark flowers and tobacco on the nose, really mingling nicely and enjoying each other's company. Ripe fruit and some iron minerality to go with that on the palate. Very satisfying indeed, and very well defined flavors. It's true what Lyle at Rockss and Fruit said - this wine will not blow you away. But good luck finding a classier wine at this price.

So now I have to go write on the blackboard 100 times: "Trust the producers you love, and be more patient with their new releases."

Monday, January 28, 2008

By the Glass - Restaurant and Wine Bar Edition

I went back to Black Mountain Wine House, this time with an old buddy, and we grabbed prime seats at the bar for the evening. Among the various goodies we sampled that evening was a confit of duck leg. I threw myself at the mercy of Shane, the manager and wine buyer, and he recommended an Italian wine from Alto Adige made from the Schiava grape. Turned out to be a real winner. I read in my Third Edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine that wines made from this grape are "out of fashion," and that they have "no real character or concentration."

Okay, but I loved this wine, the 2006 Cantina Santa Maddalena St. Magdalener Classico ($8/glass). It felt like the Beaujolais of Italian wine. Nicely perfumed, light bodied, with good acidity and pretty red fruit. Utterly drinkable and delicious. It was a good counterpoint to the richness of the duck. So I'm going to be one of those unfashionable people who will order a Santa Maddalena (the name of the DOC), and you're going to have to just deal with it. I bet a bottle would cost $15 or less, too.

BrooklynLady and I escaped for a rare night out recently, didn't much care for the wine bar where we began the evening, so we went to a newish bistro nearby called Canaille (no website). We enjoyed two delicious wines there, both recommended by the gregarious French guy who owns the place. The first was a Corbieres, an appellation in the western part of the Languedoc made by a producer called 2 Anes, or Two Donkeys. It was excellent with the rich onion soup au gratin that I ordered. Mostly Carignan, with some Grenache and Syrah thrown in, the 2005 Domaine des 2 Anes Corbieres Fontanilles was smooth and supple, ripe and complex. And it drank so easily, my glass was drained before I knew it.

We then enjoyed the 2004 Le Raisin et L'Ange Fable with BrooklynLady's hangar steak and my cassoulet. This is honestly just beautiful wine. 100% Syrah, it is a Vins de Pays de L'Ardeche, a country wine from the hilly region in the middle of the Rhone Valley, sort of bisecting it into Northern and Southern Rhone. Oh, how I love discovering a humble country wine that blows away so many wines of "higher" nomenclature. Honestly, if you were to slip this bottle into a blind tasting of young Syrah it would surprise everyone.

Then a week or so later, the memory of these wines still fresh, I'm looking through the sidebar items on Alice Feiring's (pronounced Firing, as in clay in a kiln, for goodness sake - I always thought it was "fairing") site and I see her notes on the Jenny & Francois tasting. And there it is - the Corbieres we had. So what is this Jenny & Francois? Turns out they're a small company working in Paris and New York that imports natural wines. Quite a lovely thing that they're doing, definitely worth poking around their site. They don't list their other wines, so all I know are the those mentioned by Alice Feiring in her review.

Then last week I'm browsing the Williamsburg wine shop called Uva and lo and behold, right there on the shelf is a glistening bottle of 2004 Le Raisin et L'Ange, for $16 (and that qualifies as a $15 Beauty right now cause the dollar is so weak). Well, not glistening, the bottle is pretty grubby. But it's country wine - shouldn't it be sort of dusty? And the cork is protruding a little too - okay, maybe I'll buy a different bottle. They're all like that. Okay fine, I'm sure it's good wine. So I turn the bottle around to see the importer and there they are again, Jenny & Francois.

I emailed Jenny & Francois to ask them to ask a few questions and Jenny alerted me to the 2 Anes website, which really is a great site so check it out. The story of the domaine is very sweet and the commitment of the husband and wife team to their philosophy of natural wine making is explained without any sort of preachiness. Jenny also said this about the Raisin et L'Ange Syrah:

The "Raisin et L'Ange" that you tasted is the cuvée called "Fable." It is 100% Syrah, and 100% pure (nothing added at all -- no sulfitues, nothing..). It is all tank. Le Raisin et L'Ange is isolated in the beautiful Ardeche mountains. Gilles Azzoni's philosophy is to accompany the grapes and the wine, not to impose a specific transformation on them. He works totally, 100% naturally from the vines to the bottle (no added SO2). 9.35 ha, southern exposure, cool temperatures at night because of the altitude develop delicate floral aromas. Clay & limestone soil, with little depth, part of the vineyard on slopes. Gilles grew up in Paris, went back to school for wine making, and took over his vineyard in 1983. He planted some more vines with a large density per hectare (5500 vines/ha). In the cellar, Gilles treats the grapes and then the fermenting juice, as delicately as possible. Certified ORGANIC, NATURAL, NO SULFITES.
Sounds good, eh? And I can tell you that grubby or no, protruding cork or no, that was the freshest and most floral, most utterly delicious and satisfying bottle of Syrah I've had in a really long time. It is impossible not to enjoy this wine. I'd like to take a bath in it.

So do Jenny & Francois belong with Dressner and the other stars of the natural wine movement? Are the other wines any good? I don't know, but I'm intrigued enough at this point to try any wine they import at $20 or under. Anyone else have experience with Jenny & Francois selections?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Washington State Wine Tasting

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the Washington Wine Commission's tasting called Expressive Terroir of Washington Country. Primehouse New York hosted the event. Primehouse is the steak joint with the Himalayan Salt Room as their particular gimmick (every steak house has a special gimmick now). Actually, the more compelling gimmick might be the fact that there is a bull named Prime on a ranch somewhere who supposedly sires all of the beef that you eat at the restaurant. That is one busy bull. And if only he knew the end results of his efforts. Would he go on strike? Have a Brokeback Mountain style change of heart?

Sorry, back to reality. Washington wines have not made any kind of inroads in my cellar for two reasons: 1) they are mostly Bordeaux blends (there is plenty of Syrah and all sorts of other stuff too - I said "mostly"), not wines that I drink very often, and 2) prices are pretty high, even for the entry level wines. So this tasting was a great opportunity for me to get a sense of the wines.

There are some big name producers in Washington, among them Quicelda Creek, Betz, Chateau St Michelle (where Bob Betz worked for almost 30 years), L'Ecole, Andrew Will, and Abeja, to name a few. All of the above except for Quicelda Creek, were scheduled to have at least one wine at the tasting. But the Betz wine was a no show, which was a real shame, as I have never tasted a Betz and I hear they are superb. Something to look forward to.
Washington State should be great for growing wine grapes. There is certainly plenty of exposure and sunlight - even more per day on average than in the Napa Valley. The question in my mind when I walked into the tasting was this - are they making real wines or are they making boring enormous overripe wines with little character other than gobs of fruit? Are they an extension of the bad aspects of Napa, or are they making wines that reflect something about their own place? Of course the answer would vary from producer to producer, but I hoped also to learn something of the region as a whole.

In the end I did not find a whole lot to love. There are exceptions, but there were a lot of huge Bordeaux blends that just exploded with fruit, but did not offer much in the way of complexity or balance. Wines that I couldn't imagine drinking at home with a meal. Alcohol levels were routinely at 14% or higher. And the wines didn't work all that well with the lovely appetizers they passed around - even steak and things like that just couldn't stand up to some of these monsters.

That said, I imagine that people who love big California reds would love these wines too, and they'd spend a lot less money buying from Washington. So please don't take this as some sort of panning of the region. Most of what I tasted just isn't the style of wine I prefer, that's all. I could be wrong - please tell me if you think there is a Washington wine I should taste.

Here are the wines that I really liked:

2005 Chinook Cabernet Franc - Nice young cab franc nose of raspberries and rose petals, a bit of spicy pepper too. Light in texture, bright red fruits on the palate, light and pleasing tannic presence. Any surprise that this was 13% alcohol and done in neutral barrels? The website doesn't say much about wine making practices, but it does mention minimal processing, whatever that means. I imagine this would retail at about $20, a pretty good value for a delicious and young drinking Cabernet Franc. This is the wine I wanted to take home with me.

2005 Soos Creek Horse Heaven Hills Red Wine - this is 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cab Franc, all from Champoux Vineyard, a tiny and highly esteemed spot in the Horse Heaven Hills. Along with Ciel du Cheval (Horse Heaven) Vineyard, Champoux is thought to be the best place for Bordeaux grapes in Washington State. This wine had a complex nose, with hints of menthol that wafted over the red fruits and the cocoa. The palate was ripe but restrained with red fruits and cassis and very fine tannins and a nice lingering finish. Alcohol is 14.1%. I think this wine would retail for about $35, a steal if you're into high end Cabernet.

2004 Pepper Bridge Colombia Valley Merlot - at last, some brett - a breath of fresh air, so to speak. The first funky nose I happened upon and it made me take notice. Leather belt all the way, and some nice dark fruit. Interesting that the website says they used almost 60% new oak on this wine, because I didn't find it intrusive at all. The palate was a bit muddy, but there was again nice dark fruit and some cocoa. Alcohol is 13.9%, and the wine sells for $45.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

So Far, I Stink at the Wine Splurge

Just like you, I have my limits on what I'll spend on a bottle of wine. When I'm buying a case of wine for everyday drinking purposes, the average cost per bottle is about $15. And I've gotten really good at buying wine at this price point - BrooklynLady and I drink really good wine on an everyday basis.

My mistakes have been at the splurge price point, which for me is wine over $50. Why $50? Remember, I'm not in the wine business and I get no discounts anywhere other than the typical 10% mixed case discount. My spending money essentially all goes towards wine, and I'm not P Diddy, so I try to think very carefully before spending $50 on a bottle. Try, is the active word here, because as you'll see, my splurges really don't make sense half the time, given my drinking preferences.

I have 225 bottles in my "cellar," which is comprised of my wine fridge and some space in Deetrane's basement cellar, and 30 of them cost at least $50. That's about 13% of my cellar that I would classify as a splurge. I wish I could tell you that these and the other splurges that have since passed through my body and back into the earth, have all been wise purchases. As you might guess, I'm writing this because when I look through the list I feel like a complete idiot. How could I have spent that kind of bread on some of these wines?!?

Following is a list of Brooklynguy's splurge wines from the past two years or so, some in the cellar, some just a memory, in order of price:

2002 Dominique Gallois Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Cazetiers, $50, 2 bottles.
2005 Domaine Lignier-Michelot Morey St Denis 1er Cru Les Faconnieres, $50, 3 bottles. These should have been closer to $70 each, but this was one of Deetrane's gray market schemes.
2002 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeux, $51, 2 bottles. Good buy.
2005 Château LaGrange, $52, 2 bottles. Do I even drink Bordeaux?
2005 Château Monbousquet, $53, 2 bottles. Oiy vey.
NV Lallement Reserve Champagne, $53, 2 bottles. Nice!
2005 Simon Bize Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Aux Forneaux, $55, 3 bottles. I'd do it all over again!
2001 Confuron-Contetidot Nuits St George 1er Cru, $62. Way too much money, dumb.
2000 Paul Pernot Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles, $64. Eh...
2004 Roumier Chambolle-Musigny, $65. For God's sake Jim, this is just a country wine! (apologies to Star Trek fans everywhere)
2004 Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny, $65. I sense a pattern developing.
2005 Château Rieussec, $65 (750 ml). Do I even like Sauternes?
2005 Château Smith Haut Lafite, $66, 2 bottles. Thank goodness I got 2 bottles. Thank goodness.
2004 Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos St Jacques, $72. I feel great about this one. Sylvie Esmonin rocks and this should be awesome in 6 years.
2002 Archery Summit Pinot Noir Red Hills Estate, Oregon. $75. I feel like a real putz about this one, actually.
2005 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, $75, 2 bottles. Hard to argue, I guess.
Château Sociando-Mallet, $78. I bought this home for our first anniversary.
NV Billiot Champagne Cuv
ée Laeticia, $81. New years wine 07-08.
Château Calon-Segur, $82. Could this one actually be worth the money? Maybe so.
Château Pontet-Canet, $87, 2 bottles. Does anyone have a polo mallet?
1997 Robert Groffier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses, $105. It was beautiful. Worth every penny.
2004 Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses, $200. I had a REALLY good month playing poker, that's all I can tell you about this one. Will it be worth the $$$? Let you know in 8-12 years. But honestly, I'll be shocked if it is.

That's like $750 worth of 2005 Bordeaux that I would love credited to my account. And a few ill-advised Burgundy purchases - why spend so much on village wine, even if the producer is Roumier or Mugnier? I guess I wanted to taste their wine and this was the chance - off vintage village wine. Please feel free to weigh in with your reactions to this absurdity.

So play this game with me: imagine that I have $400 to spend on luxury wine. I'm not willing to come home with fewer than 4 bottles. What should I splurge on now? Great Burgs or other things that I drink and love right now, or maybe something kind of new to me, like a Cornas, as Steve L. suggests.

What is your wine splurge?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pineau des Charentes

Imagine a night out on the town, walking into a hip club, a couple of lovely gents or ladies at the bar, whatever your preference. It's not too loud and everyone can hear as you, in your super-cool voice tell the bartender "I'll have an apricot schnapps on the rocks." What on earth are you thinking, pal?!?

Apparently if you were to commit the above atrocity, but in Paris, you would ask for a Pineau des Charentes. When I was thinking about writing this post I asked Bert of Wine Terroirs for his thoughts about Pineau des Charentes, and this is what he said:

I'm not speaking for the whole of France but I think it's quite objective to say that Pineau des Charentes is quite out of fashion. It is associated with the image of an older person's drink living in the countryside or rural areas. It is hard to know but I think that this type of drink was selling better in the 1950s' or 1960s'. But I am not in the best position to have an opinion because I haven't had one for years and I generally don't like too much these sweet, high-in-alcohol drinks.
Bert was careful to say that he doesn't speak for the French people, just for himself. But I think Bert speaks for the French people as a whole, so there you have it - Pineau is not terribly popular among the younger set in France nowadays. I remember sitting outdoors at a cafe in the 11th in Paris with BrooklynLady a few years ago and chit-chatting with the guy next to us. The waiter came around to take orders and I asked for Pineau (BrooklynLady and I were about to go have dinner) and this guy just started laughing, like I was some sort of an ape impersonating a man ordering a drink. But I'm here to tell you that Pineau is good stuff, and that anyone who appreciates a nice aperitif should check it out. Pineau wouldn't have lasted for four centuries if it didn't taste good. And here in the US, you don't have to deal with the social connotations of ordering Pineau, as you would in France. Maybe they order apricot schnapps over there...

Pineau des Charentes is made by combining 3 parts freshly pressed grape must (juice, skins, stem fragments - must is what you get when you press grapes) with one part Cognac of at least one year of age. Legend has it that this first happened in 1589, by mistake. A grower didn't realize that the oak barrel already contained Cognac when pouring in the grape must. Five years later a huge harvest required him to empty some barrels to begin aging new wine, and he discovered this lovely new beverage, fresh, sweet, and fruity, somewhat viscous in texture, and with the deep layers of flavor that come with Cognac. Those who got to taste the drink must have liked it, because the recipe has been perfected and Pineau des Charentes, as it is called, has been produced and consumed in huge quantities in France ever since.

Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine, like Port or Lillet. The alcohol in the Cognac stops fermentation in the grape must, and the natural sugars in are left in the drink. Pineau can be red when it is made from Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and/or Cabernet Franc, but in the USA it is far more common to see white Pineau, made from a host of grapes including Colombard, Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, and Semillion.

The first time I tasted Pineau des Charentes was in France in October of 2006 at a restaurant in Chinon. The house aperitif that night was something built around white Pineau. It was served in a rocks glass with a single square ice cube, and it was just delicious - sweet, perky with acidity, with a really nice perfume. I asked what it was, and all I understood was Pineau. So I decided to buy some when I got home.

Pineau is sweet - no doubt about it, but it can be beautifully balanced if the acidity is there and the depth and body of the Cognac is there too. And here is something that should make you feel pretty good about Pineau: adding sugar to create the sweetness is strictly forbidden. It is only the sugar from the freshly pressed grapes that brings sweetness. In other words, growers must take care with their grapes and work carefully with nature in order to make Pineau. No shortcuts involving booze and bags of Domino.

That said, there are huge Cognac houses that make Pineau, and there are smaller producers whose focus is actually on Pineau, not on using Cognac rejects to make Pineau. These are the ones to taste, if you are curious. Try, for example, Birius, or Normandin-Mercier, Jacques Leteux, or Chevalier de Flourac if you can find them. But there are plenty more - ask and ye shall receive, if you're at a good wine or liquor shop, anyway.

I know that this post is a departure from the usual stuff that I write about, but the other night, a really chilly night, dinner was in the oven, the daughter was in bed, BrooklynLady was puttering around the house, and I felt like an aperitif. Nothing too strong because we would have wine with dinner, but just a little something. And then I remembered the bottle of Pineau I had stowed away. Chilled in the fridge for a half hour...what bright and completely enjoyable nip before dinner. So good that I felt like sharing with you, pal. I'm convinced that this is an under-appreciated drink. Try and see what you think.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Non-Dosage Champagne

If you're anything like me then you've been thinking recently about non-dosage Champagne. I mean, who wouldn't be - it's such an interesting issue. Non-dosage Champagne has no sweetener added to the wine used to top up the bottle after disgorgement. Stop right there - I've heard words like "disgorge" many times without knowing exactly what they mean. Maybe before I tell you why I think non-dosage Champs is so interesting, a brief bit about the methode Champenoise is in order.

Still wine is made from one of or some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and possibly but very rarely Pinot Blanc and the obscure Arbane and Petit Meslier. A producer can blend wines from older vintages with the new wines before bottling, if they like. The blended still wine, or the assemblage, is bottled with yeast and sugar and a second fermentation occurs inside the bottle. The carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of fermentation is trapped by the thick glass bottle and is absorbed into the wine. The dead yeast cells, or lees, are not absorbed - they are still there in the bottle and must be removed. How to gather and remove them without losing the wine?

Through the art of Remuage, the French term for the process of gradual (daily) adjusting the bottle, moving it over time from an upright to an upside down position so that the lees settle in the neck of the bottle. This must happen for every bottle of Champagne, and there are houses that produce 50,000 bottles in a year. Most big producers use machines to do this nowadays, but there are still some who keep staff to do nothing but Remuage, as it once was in every Champagne house.

Anyway, now the lees are ready to come out of the bottle. This process, called disgorgement, can be done by hand simply by opening the bottle and allowing the pressure to force out the yeast plug. Most big producers use machines that submerge the neck of the bottle in freezing salt water so that the yeast plug freezes. Whether this is done by hand or by machine, some wine also escapes with the yeast plug. There is a short video that shows this process on the official website for Champagne wines. Check out the narrator's tone - it's as if he is revealing to you directions to Atlantis or the secrets surrounding JFK's assassination - it is that weighty of a subject he's discussing. Oiy, the nonsense that is the marketing of Champagne, but that's another story...

The bottle must be topped off before corking and cellaring. A mixture of wine and a sweetener, usually sugar but it can be concentrated grape must, is added to each bottle. The cork goes in and the bottle rests in the cellar for at least 15 months (3 years for vintage Champagne) and depending on the producer and the type of wine, for much longer.

Some producers do not add the sweetener to the dosage. No sugar? What's the big deal? It is a really big deal, as it turns out. Big houses add lots of sugar as part of their effort to make wine that tastes the same year after year, and people like sweet, so the more the merrier. Some folks say, though, that adding sugar masks the true flavors of the wine. Even a moderate amount of sugar in dosage can make a big difference in the flavor profile of the finished wine.

I am not interested in this issue as a debating point about what is the "real" Champagne, or anything like that. I'm interested in learning about my own tastes: what does non-dosage Champagne taste like?

So I've tasted a few non-dosage bubblies recently and I've tried in general to pay attention to the level of dosage in Champagne. It's easy to pick out non-dosage Champagne because it is usually named Brut Zero or Brut Natural, and the words "Non-dosage" might appear on the label somewhere. That doesn't mean that it's easy to find, though. It is not all that popular, although there is definitely a niche for it. And some producers use very little sugar in the dosage, so tasting those wines gives a pretty good idea of the character of non-dosage Champagne.

Some producers include information on the back of the bottle including the disgorgement date and the dosage level, something I wish they would all do. Look at the label from the back of the NV Tarlant Brut Zero - if only all Champagne bottles provided this much information!

Here are a couple of non-dosage bubblies I've tasted, along with some notes:

NV Tarlant Brut Zero, $41 at Chambers Street Wines.
Grower Champagne. Bright, fresh, and clean - such a pure feeling. The red fruits are sweet and delicious, but the wine is slender and elegant in the mouth. Nice biscuits to go with the fruit. Just delicious wine, and incredibly clean and well delineated flavors. I must say, I wouldn't have guessed this is non-dosage Champs because there was plenty of sweetness. Probably because the fruit is mostly 2003, a hot year that produced super-ripe grapes. Tarlant has a great website too - check it out.

1999 Pierre Gimonnet Oenophile Maxi Brut, at a tasting. Grower Champagne. This was quite obviously non-dosage wine. Very saline, like beach air, and full of chalky minerals. There is some fruit in there, but this wine is more about the interaction of minerals and nuts. Not my favorite as an aperitif, but what about with shellfish, or dare I say...caviar? An intense and wonderful Champagne experience.

2000 Chateau Tour Grise Saumur Brut Non Dose, $16 at Slope Cellars.
There are sparklers made outside of Champagne, I hesitatingly admit, and some of them are made without sugar in the dosage. This one comes from biodynamically farmed vineyards in the Loire Valley. And it's got some age on it too. Not much mousse left in this one, with weakish bubbles. And the wine is deep gold with plenty of orange hints. It is quite funky at first, but after 10 minutes the nose was all about clementine oranges and honey cake, and the palate echoed this exactly with some minerals too on the finish. An interesting mature wine with no real sweetness to it at all. I think this would be great with a charcuterie plate or with cheese.

Here are some other esteemed Champagne producers making non-dosage or low dosage wines:

Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus - I hear this is top of the tops. Their other wines are low dosage, this is non-dosage. Pierre Moncuit, Drappier, and Boulard are next to taste on my list. What about you - any non-dosage wines to recommend or opinions / stories to relate?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Friuli Whites - WBW # 41

The first Wine Blogging Wednesday of 2008 is here and it's hosted by Jack and Joanne at Fork and Bottle, the great website that spreads information about food, wine, cooking with kids, restaurant reviews, gardening, and all things related to good and healthy living.

They chose Friuli Whites as the theme, and an interesting theme it is. I like it when WBW gets "esoteric" on us like this. Not esoteric at all, actually. Although the typical wine emporium might not offer a large selection of these wines outside of generic drippy Pinot Grigio, a good wine store probably keeps at least a few bottles in stock. And I think it's fair to say that wine geeks know about Friuli whites.

I am a wine geek who does not know about Friuli whites. I know they exist, and that Jack really likes 'em, and that a few of my favorite wine writers love Gravner or Radikon or Movia, but I have extremely limited experience with these wines. As in almost no experience. I'm talking about a few bottles of 1999 Clivi Tocai Friulano, and probably a few bottles of banal Pinot Grigio along the way. So this is an opportunity for me to get to know a little something about these wines, and that's exactly what I did. I couldn't decide on one wine, or even one grape, so I tasted a few wines and three grapes. A little mini-canvas of the region, if you will.

My overall reaction: intrigued. I did not fall in love with any of the wines I tasted, but I was fascinated by them. Each was an interesting wine with real character, and in each the flavors were quite clean and pure. There was something that they each shared, and I have to assume it is terroir specific: there was a distinct apple and cider spice thing happening on the nose of each of the wines, and to some degree in the flavor profile too. Not necessarily as the dominant aroma or flavor, but it was there in each wine. Not the green apple thing that I get in some wines I am more familiar with, but a red apple, cobbler/dessert kind of thing.

The quality is evident, alcohol levels were reasonable at either 13% or 13.5%, and the prices on the wines I tasted certainly will not break the bank. I also respect the trend towards natural wine making in the region. That said, I found myself wondering what to eat with the wines. Semolina bread with golden raisins and fennel seeds, and a selection of cheeses? Roast pork loin? Fresh fruit and almonds? I really couldn't settle on anything. The flavor profile of these wines is so new to me, and to be honest, I'm not sure if it is a flavor profile that I like as much as that of Loire or Burgundy whites. I probably need a guided tasting of Friuli whites.

Here are the wines I tasted and some notes:

2001 i Clivi Galea Corno di Rosazzo
, $14 at Chambers Street Wines.
i Clivi makes natural wine using organic methods and naturally occurring yeast, and the aromas and flavors are not surprisingly very pure and fresh.This is predominantly Tocai Friulano (about 80%) and the rest Verduzzo. Right out of the bottle the nose is ridiculous - just amazing. I get fennel seeds, honey, mushy red apples, cinnamon or other cider spices, and minerals. On day two the honeyed roundness was more dominant on the nose but swirling brought out the spices, fresh spring water, and something herbal - tarragon? The palate is apple cobbler with honey and herbs and it's very tasty, but I found myself wishing that there were more acidity to cut through the fat. There is a pleasant lingering cider spice finish. This is compelling wine. By the way, this price is a big discount. The 1999 cost about $25. A sales guy at Chambers Street told me that this is a closeout on the vintage, explaining the deep discount.

2005 Movia Pinot Grigio, $27 at Slope Cellars.
My first Movia (the name of a future film?). With vineyards on both sides of the Italian/Slovenian border, this estate farms biodynamically and doesn't filter the wines. Eric Asimov wrote about Movia here, and the comments on his post are informative too. I went to Italian Wine Merchants, the famous temple of Italian wine here in New York City, hoping to find something by Movia. They had at least five wines to choose from but I actually left empty-handed, not yet knowing how I wanted to structure my Friuli tasting. I decided that I wanted to try their Sauvignon Blanc, but never made it back to Manhattan, and Slope Cellars had the Pinot Grigio.

The color is lovely, a golden yellow with a peach or salmon hue. There are a few floaties in there, a clear (pardon the pun) sign of the lack of filtration. The nose is almost impossibly fleshy, so peachy and clean, it feels like I'm eating the aromas. BrooklynLady said "it smells like walking near a freshwater stream in the woods." There are cider spices and an herbal character in the background. Pure and juicy on the palate with orchard fruits, cider spices, and tarragon. On day one it felt a bit thin on the midpalate, but on day two the wine had put on some weight and gained complexity and balance, and there was a lingering herbal and cider spice finish to go with the memory of peaches after swallowing. This is also compelling wine.

2006 Sirch Ribolla Gialla, $16 at Chamber Street Wines.
Light yellow color with a nose of lemon, apple, and spicy vanilla. On day two the nose was much more interesting, with clean lemon grass and balsa wood aromas. This wine was bright and fresh on the palate, more lively and young than the other wines, also more simple. Easy to enjoy, with flavors of citrus, herbs, hints of cider spice, and bright acidity. Tasty, but not memorable.

Thanks to Jack and Joanne for hosting, and to Lenn for starting this whole Wine Blogging Wednesday thing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Five Nights of Oregon Pinot - Part V

We return to Shea Vineyard on this, the fifth and final night of our Oregon Pinot festival. A festival that took place right here in the confines of our own apartment. But a festival nonetheless. Anyway, no Brooklynguy-sponsored Oregon Pinot Noir festival is complete without an entry from St Innocent. My Oregon wine epiphany occurred with a bottle of 2001 St Innocent Pinot Noir Brickhouse Vineyard, a vineyard whose wines are no longer in St Innocent's stable. Let me tell you something right now, before we go any further - if you know of anyone who has a bottle of that wine, beg them to share it with you.

Wine maker Mark Vlossak has been in the business since he was 7 years old, with a brief break for distractions like college and graduate school. He started St Innocent in 1988 and has been making some of the more highly sought-after wines from the Willamette Valley ever since. It is interesting to note that St Innocent has no estate vineyard. All of the wines are made from purchased grapes. Mark buys from the best growers out there - this is not a statement about grape quality. I would think that someone with Mark's passion for the art of wine would ruin his pants in the mud of his own vineyard. But that is about to change. He recently bought a piece of what used to be called O'Connor Vineyard and will grow his own grapes. I am one Brooklynguy who is excited about this development.

So, what wines does St Innocent make? Among the whites there are a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Blanc, and a Chardonnay every year. There used to be a sparkling wine that was considered one of the better ones coming out of Oregon, but Mark has focused on other things in recent years. I tasted the 2000 Brut 3 years ago and I really liked it, by the way.

Then there are the amazing Pinots. Small production, amazing aromatics, mouth coating lushness yet balanced and light-footed, sensible use of oak, no filtering, sometimes no fining, delicious in youth but with the ability to improve with age for more than a decade. These are incredibly serious and incredibly delicious wines, and I think there's something for everyone here. And Mark Vlossak continues to charge incredibly reasonable prices. There is only one wine that costs over $40 (White Rose), and most are in the mid to low 30s.

There is an entry level Pinot called Villages Cuveé, which always comes in under $25. There are several single vineyard wines, and they have changed over the years as vineyards change hands. The current lineup includes Shea, Justice (young vines and released by St Innocent for the first time with the 2005 vintage), Temperance Hill, White Rose (a gorgeously fruity younger drinking wine that I always think of as the Hugh Hefner of Pinot), and the dense and structured Anden and Seven Springs. In a sad turn of events, The formerly married couple who own Seven Springs and Anden (they are contiguous vines on a big hill) decided to sell the vineyard, and the new owner will not renew Mark's lease. So no more Pinot from those vineyards after the 2006 vintage. But there is a new wine in 2006 called Momtazi. Something lost, something gained...

Alright, so how about the 2004 St Innocent Pinot Noir Shea, ($32 from the winery)? Amazing. Just delicious and interesting and satisfying wine. A great value too. It starts out with dense and dark aromas of violets and lots of blue and black fruit. And it tastes that way too at first, quite big and powerful, although there is obvious acidity and a mineral streak too. With a couple of hours of airtime the wine became almost perfectly balanced, with beautiful ripe blue fruit and floral smells and flavors, a pleasant fine grained tannic structure, and nice acidic and mineral frame. The 13.8% alcohol was not intrusive. And it was just delicious too. At four hours open it was like drinking liquid violets and blueberries. And although the wine felt nice and light on the palate, it was absolutely mouth coating and sappy, and I had dried roses in my mouth after I swallowed. I don't even remember what we ate for dinner with this wine, and it honestly didn't even matter. The wine was dinner.

So I guess BrooklynLady and I batted an impressive .400 during our Five Nights of Oregon Pinot. If I were a ballplayer, that would be hall of fame type numbers. Probably not so great when spending over $30 per bottle though. But consider that two of the five wines were outstanding, one (the Adelsheim) wine was quite good too, and now we're at a respectable .500. Still not great in wine buying, I know, but remember that this was an exercise in checking in with wine that we have moved away from in recent years.

I learned that I actually want to drink more Oregon wine. It's just a select few producers whose wine I want to drink. There are a few other Oregon Pinot producers I love, like Brick House, and one other one that is such small production that I just can't name them here because I don't want to have to have a physical fight with you over the few bottles that make it to shelves in Portland. Maybe if you're nice to me I'll tell you.

Thanks for participating in Five Nights of Oregon Pinot.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Five Nights of Oregon Pinot Noir - Part IV

The fourth night of our 2004 Oregon Pinot Noir festival brings BrooklynLady and I back to a sentimental favorite. Adelsheim was born in 1978, although the work began in or before 1971. David and Ginny Adelsheim are true Oregon wine pioneers. Not the very first to grow wine grapes, but among the first.

I honestly do not remember how I knew to visit Adelsheim when BrooklynLady and I toured Willamette wine country in the unusually sunny and warm first week of January, 2005. Yup, basically 2 years ago on the button. But we did visit, and what a visit it was! Not easy to find on the back roads outside of Newberg, but lots of fun driving around. Inside an unassuming building was this completely modern and impressive wine making facility with enormous stainless steel tanks and wooden barrels and old vintages of wines past lingering along the walls. And a cavernous and quiet cellar where the oak barrels rested with their bounty, waiting for their chance at the big time.

After our tour of the facility we tasted through some "wacky whites," as the like to call their Pinot Blanc and other white offerings, but the real prize for us was the Pinot. Don't get me wrong - Adelsheim makes good wine period, white, red, or déglace Pinot Noir dessert wine. In fact, it was an Adelsheim wine that recently won Eric Asimov's NY Times Tasting panel sampling of Oregon Pinot Gris.

But back to Pinot. We tasted the "entry level" Oregon Pinot Noir, produced every year, Elizabeth's Reserve, a blend of the best barrels from all of the vineyards, and one single vineyard wine, Quarter Mile Lane. We were dizzy with pleasure by the time we tasted the Quarter Mile Lane - these wines were just so characterful and memorable. I still have one bottle of 2001 Adelsheim Quarter Mile Lane Vineyard that I'm saving for something special with BrooklynLady.

There are five single vineyard wines made by Adelsheim: Quarter Mile Lane, Calkins Lane, Bryan Creek, Ribbon Springs, and Goldschmidt (named after a former Governor who used to own the vineyard). They are made most years, but if conditions make it impossible, the wine is not produced. There was no 2004 Quarter Mile Lane, for example.

We've enjoyed many a fine Adelsheim bottle since that trip in 2005. One that I particularly remember is the 1994 Elizabeth's Reserve that we drank while packing the night before our Loire Valley trip. We've tasted most vintages since 2001 of both the Oregon Pinot and Elizabeth's Reserve, and single vineyard wines here and there too. The Oregon wine is good, but it is not as good in its price point as the Elizabeth's Reserve or the single vineyard wines are in theirs.

I like what I think of as the Adelsheim style - ripe and fruity, fresh and clean, and true to the terroir of the Willamette Valley, with blue fruits and pine. Not overpowering, but firm and present in the mouth, great with lamb or other gamy meat. That said, I've not been as crazy about the wines from the 2004 as I was in previous vintages. Hard to tell if it's my palate that has changed, or if it is the wines. We decided to re-taste an Adelsheim wine for the fourth night of our Pinot festival, and we approached it with excitement, as we always do with Adelsheim.

2004 Adelsheim Pinot Noir Elizabeth's Reserve ($43 from the winery). Rich purple hue but completely translucent. Aromas of black cherry, spice, and cough syrup, a bit of pine also. A very nice nose, especially after a 90 minute decant. Very smooth texture with fine grained tannins, and a ripe dark fruited palate. This is sweet and sappy, but also a bit out of focus. It might need some more time to come together, although I think that the acidity is just not there to balance out and bring focus to the wine. Certainly very good stuff, but not the finest Elizabeth's Reserve I've tasted.

Maybe my palate has changed. Maybe Adelsheim was not entirely successful at handling the challenges of the 2004 growing season. Maybe I'm a total idiot. Who really knows. But I've had too much good wine from Adelsheim to stop now. Let's see what the 05 vintage brings.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Five Nights of Oregon Pinot - Part III

On this, the third night of our little Oregon wine festival, we drank a wine we've had several times in the past, the 2004 Chehalem Pinot Noir Corral Creek. Chehalem makes three single vineyard Pinot Noirs, a Reserve wine, and several blends. Single Vineyard wines include Stoller, Ridgecrest, and Corral Creek. I have never tasted Stoller or the Reserve wine, and I hear that they are quite good. There is also a wide range of whites, and Chehalem is considered to be among the absolute top tier of Oregon dry Riesling producers. If the one bottle I had means anything, I can see why.

Of the Pinots I've sampled, Corral Creek is the wine I've enjoyed best from their lineup, as I always find it to have nice balance and fresh red fruit. Harry Peterson-Nedry describes the vineyard and its fruit better than I can so read this if you're interested. We remembered the 04 wine as being pretty spicy and juicy, so we decided to cook up a little something spicy to accompany the wine. Yup, I think of it in that order.

We made a pot of red lentil stew mildly spiced with roasted fenugreek, cumin, and coriander seeds, and threw in some lamb shoulder chunks that I hacked up from chops. I Just brought fenugreek back into the spice inventory in our house, and let me tell you - such an interesting and delicious flavor. The house smelled great for the next 48 hours (but then a week later, as our windows are taped up against the cold, it began to smell like the back seat of a shoddy car service, but what are you gonna do?). At the bottom of this post I'm sharing the recipe with you.

2004 Chehalem Pinot Noir Corral Creek Vineyard, $39 from the winery. The wine was light rose colored and translucent and highly perfumed out of the bottle. Nose was pretty red fruits and vanilla with a spicy frame. The nose faded a bit after about 15 minutes though, leaving more vanilla that I might like. The palate was pleasantly fruity with nice spice and even some herbal notes. But this wine is almost 15% alcohol, and it was all too apparent, as the flavors were rarely allowed to shine in a pure way. There were fleeting hints of ripe cherries and fleeting hints of a pine and herbal finish. But they were fleeting, and the strength of the alcohol was a bit dominant. Maybe a longer decant would have helped to soften and balance the wine. But I know that this one drinks young, so the hour we gave it should have sufficed. We wanted to like this wine, and BrooklynLady enjoyed it more than I did. I still suspect that I have not tasted the best that Chehalem has to offer. I read that the 2005 Chehalem wines have alcohol levels in the 13s. I'd like to try them.

Here is the recipe for red lentil stew with lamb and fenugreek:

In a large pot, put maybe a pound of rinsed red lentils under about two inches of water. Bring to a boil, let boil rapidly for two minutes or so, spooning off any nitrogen-white-scum that rises to the surface, and then lower the heat to a simmer and partially cover the pot. These will be cooked in under a half hour, but I like to book them a bit longer until they completely fall apart.

Wash and dry about one pound of lamb shoulder chops (don't use loin or rib for this), cut into small pieces keeping the bones and the meat, salt liberally, and set aside. Take about one teaspoon and a bit more fenugreek seeds, one teaspoon of cumin seeds, and one teaspoon of coriander seeds (use fresh spices - old ones taste old) and roast them in a hot thick-bottomed pan on the stove top over medium heat until you can smell the aromas wafting up. Shake the seeds around in the pan as you go. When they smell nice and toasty, put them into a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle and grind them. Try not to swoon.

In another pot on medium-high heat cook one large thinly sliced onion in vegetable oil, stirring a lot to prevent sticking. Add one large clove of finely chopped garlic and if you like (and I like), some freshly crushed dried red chilies. I would stop at two if you want to taste the other spices. Continue to stir a lot - garlic browns easily at high heat. When the onion and garlic mixture is well cooked - at least 10 minutes, probably more - it should be translucent and aromatic, but not brown, add the ground spices and continue to stir for another 5 minutes or so.

Add the lamb chunks and keep stirring. When they are browned on all sides, lower the heat to low-medium, and pour the red lentils into the lamb pot. Oooh yeah. Let this simmer for a while. It will be delicious after a half hour but the lamb will become more tender if you can wait at least 45 minutes, especially if you are using good local organic lamb - it cooks faster. Before you serve this, add a fair amount of good coarse salt. I like this with flat bread - you can use it to pick up the stew. But rice is fine -whatever you like. We actually ate it out of soup bowls with no starch, along with a green salad with tangy dressing - have something acidic to cut the stew's rich lambyness. You might even squirt a little lemon juice right into each portion of stew. With a spicy and fresh Pinot, this is right on.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Five Nights of Oregon Pinot Noir - Part II

Our second wine more than made up for the disappointment of the first night. We drank a wine by Belle Pente, a producer whose wines I've tasted on only a few occasions, but I have been really impressed each time. Most recently back in March at a wine bar in Portland.

Brian and Jill O'Donnell, owners of Belle Pente, practice biodynamic and organic farming in their estate vineyard, and they buy grapes from Murto Vineyard that are also grown according to those standards. Their reds are fermented using only natural yeasts.

Belle Pente bottles a range of whites, including a Pinot Gris, a Riesling, a Gewurztraminer, and of course a Chardonnay. There are "entry level" Pinots are called Carlton District and Dundee Hills, wines typically made from younger wines from an assortment of vineyards. Single Vineyards wines include Murto, their own Belle Pente Vineyard, and a then the Estate Reserve, a selection of the best barrels from the best blocks of the Belle Pente Vineyard. Prices really are quite reasonable. Entry level wines cost less than $30, and Murto and the Estate Reserve cost in the mid $30s from the winery, about $40 at a store. If you can find them, that is. This is very small production and the wines sell out basically immediately.

We've had Belle Pente wines a couple of times now, mostly red, and a white or two thrown in for good measure. Our experience with this bottle cemented for me that this is absolutely one of my favorite Oregon producers. We enjoyed this wine, the 2004 Belle Pente Pinot Noir Estate Reserve with pan roasted lamb shoulder chops, purple top turnip purée, and green salad with this yummy tarragon white wine vinegar dressing I've been working on.

The wine was exceptional, just fantastic. So hauntingly delicious and complex. I think that there is a definite sense of place in this wine, as that Oregon blue fruit and piney earth is easily recognizable on the palate. But where some Oregon Pinots can be heavy, this one is light and graceful, like a tai chi master. This is fresh tasting, elegant, balanced, and compelling wine, worth sitting around and talking about. BrooklynLady said "this smells old world and tastes new world," and I think I know what she meant, as I might easily mistake it for Burgundy on the nose, but not on the palate. Here are my notes on the wine:

2004 Belle Pente Pinot Noir Estate Reserve ($38 at Great Wine Buys in Portland).
Gorgeous rose petal color and absolutely translucent. This might give the impression of lightness, and the wine is elegant and light-medium bodied, but don't be fooled - this is very powerful stuff. The nose is perfumed and heady, with clean and pure sour cherry and dried rose petal aromas, and prominent clove scents amidst the other spicy dried orange peel hints. Such a complex and beautiful nose. After two hours, when the wine was nearly gone, there was some alcohol (13.8%) heat on the nose which was odd - why now, after so long open? The palate is juicy and fresh, and piercing with acidity at the same time. There are cool dark lush layers of fruit framed by gentle tannins, and kept in check by vibrant acidity. This is honestly one of the best bottles of Oregon wine I've ever had.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Five Nights of Oregon Pinot Noir - Part I

I've been a bit neglectful of my Oregon wines lately. I've become such an old world wine nut that I seem to reach for a Burgundy every time I want Pinot. But I went to Portland recently, I will have to go several times again this year, I have a load of Oregon wines in my cellar, and I need to refresh my Oregon wine palate. You know, time to re-visit some old favorites and see how I feel about them nowadays.

In that spirit, BrooklynLady and I dug into the ol' wine fridge and sampled five Oregon Pinots from the Willamette Valley. We drank these wines with dinner, not all together in the typical tasting format. Why? Because I evaluate and enjoy wine better when I enjoy it with a meal. We were looking for some sort of continuity in the wines, though, so we decided to taste wines from the 2004 vintage.

2004 was a tough year in the Willamette Valley because a cold spell and then later on a rainy spell threatened the crop. Yields were lower and in some vineyards acids were also a bit low. Low yields can be a good thing, but low acids generally do not make for long aging wine. Many producers made very fruit forward wines in 2004 that need not be aged for too long in order to fully develop. There are exceptions, of course, but we figured that the wines we selected for our Five Nights would be ready to drink now.

We began our Five Nights of Oregon Pinot Noir festival by looking to Shea Vineyard, what must surely be considered one of the "Grand Cru" vineyards of Oregon, if there were such a classification. Dick and Dierdre Shea have been growing and selling Pinot grapes since 1989 in the Willamette Valley. Many of the region's big name producers source their grapes from Shea. I'm talking about Mark Vlossak at St. Innocent and Panther Creek, Josh Bergstrom, Craig and Claudia Broadley, Lynn Penner-Ash, Scott Paul, and Beaux Freres (the label partly owned by Robert Parker). Until recently Sine Quo Non, the cult California-based producer made Pinot from Shea grapes (and charged a whole heck of a lot more than anyone else did).

The Sheas began bottling their own wine under the label Shea Wine Cellars in 1996 and shared the Adelsheim facility for wine making. I have tasted Shea Wine Cellars wines from several vintages in the past and enjoyed them very much, notably the 2000 and 2003 Estate wines (a blend of grapes from many of the vineyard blocks). I remember being impressed the the light and elegant, yet powerful feeling of the wine, and the complex aromatics.

So is Shea vineyard a stamp of quality for any wine? Or is it more like Clos Vougeot, the village that gives its name to the enormous Grand Cru vineyard near Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy, in that the wines of each vintage emerge with huge differences in quality depending on the producer working with the grapes? Not that our little festival will in any way answer that question, but for me it's a start...

We included two wines made from Shea grapes in our Five Days festival, and we started with the namesake - Shea Wine Cellars. The Shea 04's got a lot of attention from Wine Spectator last year, their Estate Pinot coming in 15th on their top 100 list. The other wines did well also with lots of 90+ point ratings. This is interesting in that they used a new wine maker for the 2004 vintage, Chris Mazepink. Also beginning with the 2004 vintage Shea reclaimed the plot Sine Quo Non was leasing and used the grapes to make their own wine, called Wädenswil Clone. I tasted this wine a year ago and re-reading those notes, I was clearly impressed, although the wine was not my favorite style of Pinot. Why not begin our little festival by re-tasting this powerhouse wine?

We drank the 2004 Shea Wine Cellars Wädenswil Clone (about $48 from the winery) with chicken thighs pounded flat and rolled with a grated Parmesan and flour mixture (hello umami), then fried until crisp, and a green salad full of sunflower and green pea sprouts. It was a Friday night and we were feeling pretty loose.

To be really blunt and honest, as is my main resolution for this blog in 2008, even if it means being negative, I just didn't care for the wine at all this time around. BrooklynLady was seriously underwhelmed too. Why? Well for one, it bore little resemblance to the liquid that comes from pressing grapes and then fermenting the juice. It seemed totally mechanized and manipulated, so artificial. The main flavors were wood and some dark fruit, but in a candied and artificial way, and a fleeting way too, as the wood kept banging me in the mouth. It seemed to me that there was little that was natural about this wine, and that bothered me. BrooklynLady just didn't like the taste.

Okay, so far so good. No, really - it's a good thing to understand if you no longer like a certain wine, and why you no longer like it. Everyone's palate changes over time, and accepting that and learning from it is part of what makes this fun...isn't it?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Clos Rougeard...if I Ever Go Back

BrooklynLady and I went to France together for the first time in October of 2005. We went to the Loire Valley and our plan was to see the various villages, and Tours, of course, but also to feast on the wonderful food and wines of the region. And I am happy to report that we were successful on all fronts.

That said, if I could do it all over I would go about visiting wine estates differently. And since another trip doesn't seem so likely in the near future, as our daughter is too little and so is our currency, I make do with imagining places I would visit if I ever go back to the Loire Valley.

One such estate, without any question, no matter what mood I am in, whether I can choose three estates to visit or 20, is Clos Rougeard in Saumur-Champigny. Sadly, I learned about Clos Rougeard after our trip, while bored at work one day and surreptitiously reading Jack and Joanne's piece on Fork and Bottle. And I learned a bit more from reading the Dressner Selections tidbits.

Here are the basics: Clos Rougeard is two brothers, Nadi and Charles Foucault. The Saumur-Champigny estate has been in their family for a few generations. They farm organically (but not biodynamically), keep yields quite low, allow long and slow ferments in oak barrels, and do not fine (use an agent such as egg whites to attract and remove small particles from the wine, thereby clarifying it) or filter (further straining of wine to remove particles) the wines. I am totally guessing here, but I am willing to wager that naturally occurring yeasts on the grapes initiate fermentation. In other words, these guys tend their vineyards with great skill and love, and vinify their grapes using a minimal interventionist, natural wine making philosophy.

There are four Clos Rougeard wines, three reds and a white. The white is called Breze and is 100% Chenin Blanc. I have never tasted this wine - it retails at over $70 and I just haven't gone there yet on a Chenin. If I were ever to spend that kind of dough on a Chenin, it would be either this wine or a Joly Coulée de Serrant. The "entry level" red is called simply Saumur-Champigny, and is raised in neutral barrels. This retails for approximately $35. Then there is Les Poyeux which is raised in a small percentage of new barrels and the rest in once used barrels. This goes for about $55. The top wine is called Le Bourg, and sees all new barrels, and will run you at least $75. This is assuming you can find the wine - it is quite rare. From what I understand, though, it is actually easier to buy these wines here in America than in France, where they have achieved cult status and are virtually impossible to find. You can buy the 2003 Le Bourg right this second, if you wish, from Chambers Street Wines.

Here's another thing about Clos Rougeard wines - although they are enjoyable when young, the esteemed David Lillie, one of the owners of Chambers Street, says that they improve tremendously with age. As he put it, "they really get interesting after about 10 years." So this is an investment, not just in the Burgundy type of cash, but also in cellar space. Well worth it, in my book. Clos Rougeard represents an opportunity to own probably the finest example of a certain type of wine, in this case Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. If you spend $55 on a Burgundy, are you definitely getting the finest example? Bordeaux? Don't be ridiculous. Of course not.

Had I used this kind of thinking a few years ago I would have purchased and cellared some of the 2002 Le Bourg. 2003 is out now but I hear it might not be worth the $ - just too tough of a vintage with th intense heat and all. I'll wait for 04. But I do have a little vertical of Les Poyeux going, which I am really psyched about.

One thing I have noticed about the wines is that they all seem pretty reductive upon opening - they smell like sulfur or other such things as a result of being kept airtight and not exposed to oxygen at all, allowing bad smelling compounds like hydrogen sulfide to form. These smells blow off with exposure to oxygen, but it can be disconcerting when opening the bottle, if you're not expecting it. Weather the storm, folks, because the purity of the fruit, the clean, freshness of it, the voluptuousness...I've not found its equal in Cabernet Franc.

I know I'm supposed to wait, but in 2007 I sampled two of the wines and one of them was pretty mind blowing, the other just plain old excellent. Here are notes I've saved from each of the four Clos Rougeard wines I have had, all over dinner:

2000 Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeux (tasted in August, 2007). Lots of smoke on the nose when first open, then some animal fur. After a little while open the aromas are beautiful and complex with animal fur, dried roses, and fresh berries. The palate is nowhere near as complex, but it is pure and clean with fresh red fruit. A delicious wine.

2001 Saumur-Champigny (tasted in September, 2007). Seriously funky barnyard upon opening. After 20 minutes this blew off to reveal pretty floral and berry aromas, and some smoky minerals too. Great purity of flavors, very fresh and clean. Sweet berry fruit mixed with fresh herbs and just a bit of meatiness. Light to medium body, but very powerful. Had this with braised short ribs and celeriac purée, and it stayed with me for days.

2001 Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeux (tasted in September, 2006). A revelation! This wine is perfectly clear ruby right to the rims. 20-30 minutes after opening the pretty strong funky smell blew off to reveal light and pretty aromas of berries and herbs, with a little bit of vanilla. Well delineated and incredibly pure flavors, starting with fresh cherries and raspberries with great acidity, then a mid palate of earthy forest floor, and then a long finish bringing back the fruit, some spice, and some pleasant vegetal flavors. Just beautiful, and I can sense the beginnings of some cassis and tobacco Bordeaux-like aromas.

2001 Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeux (enjoyed on new year's eve 2007). Decanted for 90 minutes, and still the wine evolved tremendously in the glass. Reductive when I first opened it. Lots of earthy animal stuff in the background, but the outstanding thing about this wine is the incredibly pure and perfumed fresh ripe fruit. It became a beautiful thing after 2 hours plus of air time. Absolutely mind blowing purity!

I have not had the cohones to open one of my two bottles of 2002 Les Poyeux, which is a good thing, as this should be an incredible wine. I will practice patience with them and my remaining bottle of 2001, I swear to you. And if I ever go back to the Loire Valley...

Friday, January 04, 2008

Brooklyn Wine Bars: Black Mountain Wine House

Black Mountain Wine House is located in a townhouse on the corner of Hoyt and Union Streets, right across from a large purple brick school building and on a still rather lonely stretch of Union. This is an area that was mostly Gowanus Canal industrial until recently, and although the home values have risen and lots of people have moved in, bars and restaurants have been a bit slow to follow. Which is fine, since it's about a 5 minute walk to bustling Smith or Court Streets. And in fact, this place is owned by a guy who also owns a whole load of restaurants, including Patois on Smith Street. But don't let that turn you off - this is a really nice place.

I love the location, and I hope that nothing else opens up right nearby. It feels tucked away and private. There is no sign or awning, nothing on the outside, except for a stack of firewood, to indicate the great little world going on inside. You might easily miss Black Mountain walking by, as I did several times, until I became curious enough about what was going on to knock on the door one rainy afternoon.

BrooklynLady and I got to go out on a date the other night, courtesy of my parents the babysitters, and it was absolutely pouring outside. Walking into Black Mountain was like coming into a warm cottage in the countryside. There was a fire roaring in the back, flattering low lighting and candles flickering about, exposed wood beams, cozy looking wooden furniture, a big open kitchen, and many wine bottles tucked away on various shelves. And at this early hour on a rainy Wednesday night, we were among the only people there. We got a table right next to the lovely fireplace.

This is a sit-across-from-your-wife-let-go-of-the-troubles-of-the-day kind of atmosphere, completely warm and inviting. A great place for a date, but we also saw a table of four old friends, guys in their mid to late 40's seeing each other for the first time in a while, hanging out over a bottle of wine and some dinner. We saw younger and older couples on dates, we saw Williamsburg orange tinted glasses and carefully mussed hair types, and at least one person hanging out solo at the bar. A nicely diverse scene, in other words.

Service was excellent in general. Our server was knowledgeable, very friendly, and there when we needed her. She was almost overeager with recommendations, which was sort of endearing anyway because I take it to mean that she really likes the wine and the food she is representing. Our only complaint - the only complaint period - about Black Mountain, is that management should train the staff not to try to clear plates from the table too quickly. Don't you hate it when they come by and take your friend's empty plate while you're still eating? Makes everyone uncomfortable, and it shouldn't be done. But this is surely quite easy to fix.

Really, that's the only complaint from a curmudgeon like me? That's right - the wine list was so good, and the food so nice. Just look at this wine list. This one is actually from the summer, but you get the idea. The Manager Shane loves natural wines and the list is full of them. Really interesting ones too, something for everyone, no matter what style of wine you enjoy. Wines from Greece to Uruguay to Walla Walla to Willamette to Marche to Puglia to Rioja to Switzerland, and more. And thoughtfully selected wines too.

We started with glasses of sparkling wine. BrooklynLady went with the NV Chateau Bethanie Cremant du Jura, $9, a slightly gamy and very earthy blanc de blancs, with nice citrus and lots of chalkiness. Really a nice aperitif. I had the NV Bereche Brut, $14, grower Champagne made of about 60% Pinot Noir and the rest Chardonnay, and a special pour that evening. This was also just lovely, with a rich sappy red fruited ripeness to go along with the minerals and yeast. Can you imagine how happy we were at this point - warmed by the fire, sipping our bubblies, remembering how we used to go out on dates all the time before BrooklynBaby came along...

Then our first course arrived. We ordered white bean crostini, $10, which came with a think layer of pesto, tiny chunks of red onion, and a dreamy warm ricotta and almond gratinée that will reduce even the most polite among you to cleaning off the ramekin with your index finger and licking it clean. The white beans were fresh and perfectly cooked, the flavors nicely balanced, and the whole thing was just yummy. A bit messy, as the beans tended to topple off the crostini, but BrooklynLady figured out that you spread the gratinée on top of the crostini and it holds everything in place.

We also ordered the house cold cut plate, $10, (we chose this at the last moment over the special black-eyed pea chowder with collard greens and bacon), which arrived with a few slices of procuitto, what I think was Genoa salami, and two triangles of some very tasty and pleasantly livery country paté. A nice little crock of good grainy mustard, a pile of bread and crackers, some good olives in herbs and oil, and voila - off to the races.

We decided to share the special beef stew, $15, and have a cheese plate afterwards. So many nice reds to choose from that would go well with beef stew. I asked if I could taste the 2005 Vinedo de los Vientos Tannat from Uruguay, $8, kind of in homage to Joe who likes Tannat, and they brought me a nice little pour. I liked it, much less bulky than I thought it would be, but I just didn't feel like a whole glass. This is lame of me, but instead of trying one of the interesting wines that were new to me, I went with an old favorite, a 2006 Domaine Cheveau Beaujolais Villages, $10. So sue me. It was juicy and light bodied and nicely perfumed and it turned out to be a great counterpoint to the rich beef dish. BrooklynLady chose the 2005 Georges Côte du Rousillon Villages, $8, and it was fresh and ripe with a pleasantly rustic kind of earthiness to it, also a good match with the stew.

The stew was served with creamy polenta, mushrooms, and cippolini onions. It was perfectly fine, but not special, as the texture was sort of Dinty Moore-ish - a bit gloopy, and the flavors were not very clear. Fine, so that's my other little complaint, but honestly, it just didn't matter because it was good enough and everything else was so nice. In the end we didn't even want the cheese plate - we were sated. We might have ordered dessert, but there were none listed on the menu, so we got our check and headed out. By that time the space had pretty much filled up, but somehow it was not loud at all and we could easily hear each other. On the way out we noticed a blackboard where the desserts of the day were listed, and they sounded quite nice.

And that, to me, sums up the charms of Black Mountain. You want something - ask for it because you can probably have it. And use all of your senses because they are all catered to in this most comfortable of places. Including your sense of romance, because that's exactly what this charming little unsigned spot on a quiet street with firewood stacked outside embodies.